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Chapters 6 - 8
The morning was a nightmare of odor and moaning. Gods, half the chain had been sick the night before, Xena realized, one way or another. Vestiges of illness were still present as they were moved in groups of six to the wooded area beyond to relieve themselves. They were all returned to their positions by the wagon shaft for the morning meal, such as it was. The coarse bread was accompanied by a chunk of dry sausage. Xena sniffed hers warily, and decided to risk it. The water she refused.
"Not thirsty," laughed the guard. "You will be." He held the dipper out to Ileander.
"Don't drink it," she warned.
Ileander hesitated, dipper in hand; he was thirsty, but there was something in her manner... He handed it back to the guard, untasted. Lutus held out his hands eagerly. "Leave it, Lutus," she said. He drank the dipper full. "Too good to drink the water, Majesty," he mocked.
Arthea shook her head at the guard. When he was gone, she asked: "What was that about, Xena?"
"You were sick last night. Half the group was."
"It didn't have to be the water."
"My nose and my gut tell me it was; that water's not healthy."
"Then we're in trouble," Lutus laughed. "That's the only water we've got."
Xena regarded him soberly. What he said was true. The water in the cistern was to suffice for the journey. She didn't know if there would be any other source of water along the way. It wouldn't seem urgent to the guards, because they had their own supply, as well as amphorae of wine. She did know she wouldn't drink that water.
Little progress was made that morning. People were sick at their posts, littering the trail they followed until the trailing group began to walk on the side of the road. At the morning break, half the group collapsed on the ground. Still, the guards offered the water. To thirsty mouths, to bodies that had poured liquid on the ground, water seemed like the most desirable thing on earth. Lutus had been sicker than most. The big body, mostly flab, quivered as it moved, and he had been a drag on the shaft more than a propeller. He reached for the dipper, and Xena knocked it from his hand. Lutus and the guard looked at her as if she'd gone mad. "The water's poison." She spoke through dry lips. For over twenty-four hours she'd had little to drink, and had perspired heavily. "That's what's making them all sick," she told the guard. "Just mind yourself," he told her, and handed a new dipper to Lutus.
"I want to see your captain." Her gaze told him, told all around her, that she wasn't kidding.
"I want to see you naked on my bedroll," he told her. "I think my chances are better." He laughed, and moved on.
Damn, she thought.
Ileander and Arthea refused the water. The rest of the convicts drank as deeply as they were permitted.
They had barely resumed the journey when they turned off the road. This was the track to Tartarus, narrow, wild. It ran for many miles through pasturage, before it entered the wasteland. Gabrielle greeted the track with relief. It seemed less likely to her that she would be turned back once they had left the road that connected them to civilization. She was well and truly on her way to Tartarus now, and she rejoiced. It didn't matter anymore if Drax discovered her. The thousand questions she had to ask could be satisfied around the campfires. She had not seen Xena from any distance since they'd set out. She rode to take a place near the head of the procession now, eagerly weaving though the rag-tag assemblage.
Drax had a growing sense of disease in his belly. All evidence pointed to some malady afflicting the convicts just ahead. He couldn't get near enough to learn what it was, but he had heard tales from guards that the mortality rate on this journey was high, and he was afraid. He was considering how best to learn more, when he caught sight of a golden horse he hadn't noticed before, and swung around in the saddle to see the rider. His hands tightened on the reins in frustration as he cantered to catch up with her. "Gabrielle," he called, and she turned to him with the final traces of anger in her face, triumph in her voice. "Drax. Surprised to see me?"
"Astonished more like. How did you manage to - "
"To get past you?" She held up her hand. "Xena was exempted from branding. So was I."
She continued riding; Drax rode beside her. "Don't be angry," he said quietly, "not at Xena; she was doing what she thought was best."
"And that's all I'm doing."
He swore under his breath.
"What's wrong, Drax? It's all right for you to follow Ileander, but I'm not allowed to make a choice to follow Xena? I wasn't even to know the choice was possible?" This was the first time she'd put her thoughts into words, and the pain and rage she'd felt contorted her face as one sentence tumbled out after another. "That's demeaning, Drax. It makes what Xena and I have less an equal relationship than a dictatorship, with Xena holding all the power. Who is she - "
"Gabrielle, save those words for Xena, if you think she deserves to hear them." He was embarrassed to hear one side of a lover's quarrel. Gabrielle caught up with her most recent words and swallowed the rest. "You're right, Drax, those words are for Xena, and she'll hear them, I promise you." Drax shifted uncomfortably. He was glad to know Gabrielle was all right, but his heart went out to Xena, who would face a reality in Tartarus that she had not yet considered.
Phyrris rode upwind of the band of convicts in his charge, finding them to be more foul than most. A sickly lot, slow and clumsy. Half of them were bent over as if dying. They'd be a week late to Tartarus at this rate. Filthy duty, he thought with a scowl, one he was stuck with twice a year. It earned him extra pay, and he had the occasional interesting moment in bed, but otherwise he'd prefer they reinstate execution; he'd take his chances against the eastern tribes. Fat lot of good this pathetic scum would be in a real fight, anyway. The afternoon meal approached. He wondered what treat his cook would try to choke him with this time.
"Phyrris." He started at the husky voice. "Phyrris," it repeated, as he looked for the speaker. It came from the convict chain, he realized with amusement. Maybe he'd have some fun today. The closest wagon moved steadily forward, but from the middle of the chain came the voice again, more insistent this time. The woman, Xena. He moved closer. "You said something to me?" he asked with contempt.
"Yes," she said, eyes forward, not breaking stride with the steady rhythm of the others.
"The water is poisoning everyone who drinks it." She spoke to him, not as an equal, but as his superior.
"Is that a fact?"
"It is." She knew he wasn't really listening, yet, and her words were for the convicts as well as the captain. "They'll all be dead long before you reach Tartarus."
"Assuming you're right, Xena,' he said with slow familiarity, "do you imagine anyone cares?"
"If you return to Mustrakis with a sack full of earrings, and word that not one new prisoner was delivered to defend the border, someone might care just enough to put you on the next convict chain." Phyrris motioned to a guard. A whip cracked; Xena felt the tip of the lash rip the flimsy tunic. She ignored the sting. "That doesn't change the truth," she said evenly.
"Truth? I'm to be lectured about the truth by a murdering harlot? How did you become expert on toxic waters, Xena?"
"Drink some of it and give me your opinion, in about three hours," she replied, bracing herself for another taste of the whip; more of it found her shoulders this time. "When's the last time that cistern was cleaned out?" she persisted. "A watery graveyard for dead rats; that would do it." This time Phyrris himself sought to shut her up, grabbing a truncheon from a guard, coming close enough to rap her on the shoulders, twice. She stopped, and those behind her ran up each other's backs as the whole procession ground to an awkward halt.
That got his attention. "You have to find new water, or everyone here is going to die."
Her voice carried to the extent of her own chain, and the near ends of the other chains.
And I have too much to live for, she whispered to herself.
In this open country, it was an easy thing for the followers to move parallel with the convicts. From the slightly higher ground they occupied, they watched puzzled now, as the prisoners made an unscheduled stop. Gabrielle knew, from the first moment that Xena was at the center of the problem. Drax was not surprised to see guards converge on the area of the chain where he knew Xena was, and his Ileander. Maybe she was just as crazy as before, he thought, afraid she would put Ileander in harm's way, thinking of consequences dire enough if she did so. Then the march resumed, as abruptly as it had halted. He breathed a sigh of relief, and Gabrielle was afraid, certain she could detect, even at this distance, a subtle change in Xena.
Ileander stole a glance at her, wondering if it was safe to speak. He wasn't worried about himself, but didn't want anymore blows directed at her. She looked ahead, stony faced, through blackened eyes. "Xena. Are you all right?"
"Thanks for what you tried to do, but I think it will take a few dead before he listens."
"Maybe." The old and the young would die first, she knew. Or the out of shape. Lutus came to mind. Could be it's what they expected, maybe planned. Sounded like a policy Tarkian would approve: if they couldn't be of use in Tartarus, they may as well die now. Not if I could help it, she decided grimly.
At the afternoon break the guard gave Xena no option to refuse water. She wasn't offered any, nor was she given any food. "Nobody shares with her,' he barked at those nearest here. They regarded her as if she already wore a shroud. Ileander and Arthea ate in awkward silence, Lutus gobbled his ration with gusto, as if the food was palatable. He was one of only a few to accept water. In two hours he was leaning on the shaft, clutching his gut with one hand, cursing Phyrris between groans.
"A little louder, Lutus," Xena said sincerely. "Maybe Phyrris needs to hear more than one voice down here."
"So everything that happens now is for a purpose?" Gabrielle and Drax had called an uneasy truce.
"Yes," he replied, "a twisted purpose, but nonetheless, it serves the purpose of Mustrakis. These prisoners are supposed to learn in two weeks that they've been punished for their crimes, and they aren't as clever as they think. I guess that would do it."
"How does that help them defend the three kingdoms from the eastern tribes?"
"It doesn't. Leaves them demoralized, never a good condition for a warrior, but it lets the three kingdoms get one last clout in before it loses track of them."
She considered. "Drax, they aren't all warriors; why do they bother to send the others. the prostitutes, and craftsmen?"
"Because there's a market for their services." Most of my information comes from guards, ex-guards, peddlers who are licensed to visit Tartarus. Any woman sent there is a prized commodity, either to be wooed, or stolen. It's one way of filling up the territory. Even criminals have children."
"So Tartarus is like any other community, really," she said hopefully.
He looked at her in disbelief. "If you think you're settling down in just another sleepy province, get over it. You are going to live in the midst of warlords, thieves and murderers."
"And people who so motivated by love that they follow them there. It can't be all bad."
"Some people follow out of love, some because they have no other means of support. Shouldn't take you long to figure out everyone's motives." He wiped a hand across his face. "I'm more concerned about what's going on in that camp. They're moving slowly - too slowly. And they halted awfully early tonight."
"What do you think it means?" she asked.
"Maybe nothing," he shrugged. "And maybe that malady is more than a trifle."
They had stopped for the day. Small wonder, Xena thought, looking at the field around her, littered with prostrate convicts, some too tired to move away from their shafts, except that they were dragged by the others on the chain. She walked between Ileander and Arthea, one of six on the chain, as they returned from the woods. She was very thirsty now, and had chosen a handful of lush greens to chew. They would provide no real fluid, but moistened her mouth, and worked to counteract the lingering effects of whatever was in the water. At her instruction, the others on the short chain had gathered and chewed the same greens. Even Lutus had surreptitiously loaded his mouth and chewed warily, unwilling to be seen taking her advice. From the corner of her eye she saw Phyrris, engaged in a heated discussion with two guards. Maybe he was starting to think, she hoped. Ileander gazed across a gulch which separated them from the followers. "I think I see Drax," he said, as he waved his arm in a wide arc. "He's easy to spot, on that big horse, and he wears that red arm band so I'll find it easier to spot him."
Sweet, Xena thought with envy. If Gabrielle was there, she'd need no help spotting her, that mane of burnished gold would light up the hillside. She'd dreamt the night before that Gabrielle was nearby, could almost feel her now. A pang touched her heart and she welcomed it, remembering another time when she had so turned off her emotions that she couldn't even feel pain when separated from the bard. My bard. I'll get back to you soon enough, Gabrielle, somehow, if Phyrris doesn't kill us all first. An awful choice of deaths, she mused, dehydration or dysentery on a wild plain in the back of beyond. From the beginning she'd looked for possible avenues of escape from this chain, if it became necessary. Escape from Tartarus was still her first choice, but if only death awaited her here, she wouldn't wait for Tartarus. The problem was carrying passengers. Ileander had been entrusted to her by Drax; as a matter of honor she couldn't abandon him. Arthea was no responsibility of hers, but - Ileander was talking, in that animated way of his. "...golden horse." That was all she heard, but it brought her head around, and she peered through swollen eyelids to the place which had Ileander's attention. Argo's not the only golden horse in the world, she thought. Her eyes focused, and a cold hand gripped her. That was Argo, riderless. Did it mean that Drax had brought Argo? Why would he? Why would Gabrielle not use Argo for her own journey? She was standing stock still, and a guard gave her a shove in the back, which sent them all moving forward. Then they were out of sight of the other group, and Xena was left with the terrifying puzzle.
Throughout the evening meal she sat considering possibilities, while the others ate. Less water was consumed by the group as a whole, and less illness was in evidence.
"Xena, I'll save you some of my ration until the guard isn't looking," Arthea told her.
She shook her dark head. "No. I'm not hungry - yet," she forced a smile, mind still on the Gabrielle-mystery.
"I'd like some potable water, please." Ileander's voice behind her caused her to swear softly. This wasn't the time, she didn't want him as a distraction now. But a guard had heard, and was looking at Ileander as a cat looks at a mouse. "One of Xena's 'troops' eh? Here's what you'll get, same as she got." His club came down, and was grabbed by Xena mid-arc. "He asked you nicely. A simple 'no' would do," she growled, wishing Ileander had let it be.
It was Arthea's turn to be feisty. "If 'potable' means I can drink it without being sick, I'd like some, too," she said, giving the words a seductive turn.
"About time, and all," Lutus grunted, thirst at last getting the better of him.
"See if you all don't get a taste of what Xena's had," the guard promised, but as he looked around for his comrades, he heard new voices join the chorus. "Water, not that poison," was heard all around the area. A few clouts for example, would do, he decided, but he'd need help for this. "Plestor," he called to the nearest guard, "got some fresh mouths here." Plestor started over with an expectant grin, summoning two others as he came toward them. Xena had little time to consider as they advanced. She was severely limited by the five prisoners who were shackled to her, but she couldn't watch while their heads were broken. No retreat she noticed, as the others stood to form an impromptu half-circle of defense. Behind them were the wagons, the one bearing the cistern in the center. The thread of an idea began to form, even as the first guard delivered a blow to Arthea, the smallest one on the chain. "Bastard," Xena yelled as she lifted one foot as high as the chains would permit, to land a kick in his groin, grabbing his truncheon as he fell. She twirled it before her until the next guard began forward then launched it into his face, finishing his day. The others were more wary now, but from all over the camp guards came running to join them. Now or never, Xena knew, and she uttered her cry, meaning it to be heard by everyone in both camps. Then she called: "The cistern," and with no further words, those she was chained to executed a tidy maneuver to bring them face to face with the source of all misery. They rushed at it, and that movement communicated a world of meaning to the others in the camp, who summoned their last energy to join them in a furious race to the wagon. The somehow understood that their lives depended on reaching the wagon before the guards did. Xena's group reached it first, and moved awkwardly to dislodge the blocks which prevented the wagon from rolling, but the ground was level, some ten yards from a slope, and it went nowhere. They strained against it in vain, as the guards bore down on them, clubs raised, some swords drawn now. This could be ugly Xena knew, nearly all the camp was converging on this spot, and still the thing wouldn't budge. Then a second group of convicts arrived, and slammed their bodies against the wagon, followed by a third and yet another, until every chain was present, all warding off blows from the guards with one hand, while bending backs to the task of making the damned thing move. And then it began to happen: it lurched, and stopped, then someone yelled 'heave', and it moved again. Xena's muscles ached, her face contorted with the effort, and once more they all heaved, and the wagon rolled a few yards, to where it was no longer level. One final push and it started down the slope. There was no stopping it then. It careened down the slope with a loud rumbling noise. When the slope grew steep enough, the tall cistern toppled forward, falling in the path of the wagon itself.
All activity had stopped as convicts and guards alike followed the wagon's path. From the other side of the gulch, the followers watched dumbfounded as the convicts conducted this small riot. The overwhelming emotion was fear, This wouldn't go unpunished. They didn't all know that Xena had been the center of it, but some had seen it clearly, and her name was on everyone's lips. It was quickly made known that the young girl without the brand was Xena's friend. Trouble makers. Ugly looks were directed towards her by all but Drax, and now he cursed the day Xena had been captured by Mustrakis, to be sent into exile with Ileander. Crazy bitch! Some things just don't change.
When the wagon stopped Xena had sat where she stood, pulling her five chain mates to seats beside her, then she clasped hands on top of her head; they followed suit. There would be consequences, she knew, but passive submission might contain the reaction of the guards. Phyrris arrived to find every convict seated quietly, guards circling uncertainly. He looked down the slope to the smashed cistern, holding his breath against the foul odor that rose from the spot. A near mutiny. To punish everyone would mean further delays. His eyes settled on Xena.
Gabrielle watched the scene unfold as if from a distant planet. The shackles binding Xena's wrists were tied to the back of a wagon, and her tunic ripped to expose her back.
The captain swished a birch experimentally.
Xena listened to the sound with relief. She had been expecting the whip. She remembered that Phyrris had grabbed a club to use on her earlier in the day, and it occurred to her that the captain had never learned to crack a whip. It's all in the wrist, she smiled; her lips cracked painfully. Then she felt the sting of the branch across her back. At least she'd escape the scarring, she consoled herself.
"He can't do that," Gabrielle said to no one in particular. Drax stood a little to the side, his anger at Xena barely contained. He was confident she was getting what she deserved, although he had no real understanding of what had just happened. Gabrielle moved to mount Argo. "Where do you think you're going," he asked, although he knew the answer.
One rough hand held Argo's reins.
"Don't interfere Drax," she scowled. "I'm not letting him do that to Xena."
"How do you plan on stopping him? You might make it worse for her." She stopped, fearing he was right. "I have to do something." Mentally she was counting every rhythmic stroke of the branch.
"Then go in with something he needs, distract him." He picked up a large waterskin. "He'll give his eyeteeth for water, right now," he suggested. Her eyes widened; she grabbed the skin from him and started toward the gulch.
He mounted his own horse. "What are you all waiting for," he yelled to the others. "Those prisoners are thirsty!"
This was supposed to be a lesson for them all, so the prisoners sat arrayed around the scene, each happy the blame had fallen someplace else. It was her fault, anyway, they had decided, except for a few, who admitted the truth of the thing: she had likely saved their lives. Ileander had turned away, certain his mouth had precipitated the event, which she had directed to best advantage for them all. Now she was paying.
Xena wasn't counting lashes; he would stop when his anger, or his arm had been exhausted. She busied her mind with a more important matter: Argo, here, just across the gulch. Gabrielle, where? Her mind rebelled at the possibility that Gabrielle had followed. Drax would have prevented that. Should have prevented that, but Gabrielle was very persistent...There had to be another explanation, it was bad enough that Argo was here, how would she get her out? Damn, if Drax agreed to bring Argo for her to use in the escape, she'd wring his neck, he should know better.
Phyrris seemed to have tired. His anger wasn't spent, she heard him swearing still, but the assault had stopped. There was a clinking of chains behind her, as if the prisoners were moving all at once, and a rustling through the tall grass. She turned her head a fraction to see what she was hearing. The far end of the field was flooded with a moving mass of colors amid the brown convict garb. She had expected Phyrris to ask the followers for water eventually; she hadn't expected them to take the initiative.
Phyrris had not yet caught up with the immediate need for water. He watched the followers find familiar faces, and hold skins of water or wine to parched lips. Damn! His impulse was to clear the field, but it was only too clear that these people could supply what he could not. A lone rider approached. "Captain," he began with a tone of respect. "We witnessed the unfortunate accident. We have come to offer our help, if you will permit it." Drax knew Phyrris had no choice. He caught a glimpse of Xena over the captain's shoulder, and knew she listened to every word. The brief journey across the gulch had brought them close to the remnants of the cistern, and the pool of water it had left behind. He had gagged at the smell, glimpsed the rotting corpses of some rodents caught in the matted grass, and understood, now.
"Yes, of course." Phyrris had lost control of his command, however briefly. These people would be buried in Tartarus, and mattered not at all. The guards, however would carry the tale of the convict riot back to Mus; the disorder could go no further. The proper touch of brutality, the proper stroke of kindness, would be needed to prevent that happening. The one had been addressed. The other could begin now. He threw down the branch and sought his lieutenant, having already lost the attention of the convicts.
Gabrielle left Argo near the stand of trees, and moved quietly to the wagon where Xena, forgotten for the moment, leaned her body weight against the wagon. Her shoulders were slightly slumped, and she half turned, straining to see as much of the crowd as possible. Gabrielle came up behind her, and there was no mistaking the soft touch of those fingers on her arm. Her breath stopped.
"Gabrielle. What are you doing here?" she managed, without turning.
"Xena." Gabrielle moved to face her. "I let you out of my sight for a few days, and look what you get up to," she smiled, blinking back tears. Xena stared in reply, as the bard touched her cheek gently, turning it to examine the bruised face. "I'm sorry, Xena," she muttered as she began to untie the rope which fastened Xena's shackles to the wagon. For a moment Xena had a wild thought. If Argo was closer, they could be away before the guards knew - she caught herself. "Gabrielle, leave it." The whisper was a command. Gabrielle stopped, uncertainly. "Xena. They can't leave you tied up here all night."
"They can do what ever they want to do," she rasped. The voice was a reminder, and Gabrielle unstoppered the full skin she held. "You need to drink, Xena." She held the skin to Xena's lips; she almost gagged as the sweet wine hit the back of her parched throat. She had been expecting water. She swallowed, and sucked greedily for more.
"Be careful," Gabrielle warned. "You'll be drunk."
"Then give me water," Xena said simply, but Gabrielle had given the waterskin to a begging convict on the way over. She had just the skin of wine she'd wanted to give Xena in prison. She held the skin to her mouth again.
"Have they been feeding you?" Gabrielle asked, as reached to wipe the wine which dribbled down her chin.
"I have bread."
"Gabrielle. Get out of here," she said abruptly.
"Get on Argo, and ride as if your life depended on it." Because it does.
"Oh, no, Xena. I'm not being left behind." She ducked under the chains and rose to stand encircled in them, leaning lightly on the warrior, who shook her head helplessly. "It's too late now, anyway. Two guards ride with us. They have a record of who's with the group.
I'm official," she said, almost proudly.
"Gabrielle..." The bard stopped her words with a kiss. "I should have brought some ointment," she said as she brushed the cracked lips with a finger.
"You should have done what I told you to do," Xena said harshly. Gabrielle didn't know what she had expected; certainly not hostility.
"Xena, why are you so angry," she asked. "I thought you'd be a little glad to see me."
The swollen eyelids squeezed shut for a moment. "I'm not angry, Gabrielle." Gods, how could I be angry with you for loving me too much? "I had reasons..." she began. What difference did it make now? The future seemed to close around her like an oppressive wave of heat, sucking the air from her lungs. No escape possible now. Tartarus, forever. Gabrielle in that horror, forever.
"Xena? Are you all right?" She received no reply. Concerned, she moved to Xena's back, and examined the welts raised by the branch. The skin was broken in a few places, but it didn't look too bad. "This will sting," she warned and poured wine over them, to stop them festering. Xena made no reaction, didn't feel it. Gabrielle touched the dangling earring; Xena shook her head, almost violently. "Leave it."
"Xena, I've spoken to Drax, I know what my choice means."
"No, you don't." The blue eyes had a steely-chill.
She wavered at the icy tone, but continued. "This isn't an execution, Xena; they're not throwing me on your funeral pyre. We'll still have a life together. It will be different, but we'll be together, Xena, and that's enough." She was tying the back of the tunic together with the ragged ends. The powerful muscles of Xena's back tensed as she pulled at the chain linking her manacles. The bard ran a hand over the muscles, afraid to speak, guessing that Xena needed time to absorb her presence.
"None of this," said a gruff voice nearby. Gabrielle's ministrations to Xena had finally been noticed. A rough hand grabbed Gabrielle's arm. "Hey," she protested, trying to pull away.
"Do all Xena's friends have an attitude?"
Something in his tone caught the warrior's attention. Without turning, she gauged his position and planted a boot in his groin. He was sent out of her reach. Lucky bastard, she seethed. If my hands were free I'd kill him. She pulled at the chains again. "Xena, calm down," Gabrielle soothed. Xena was only vaguely aware of her voice; she was acutely aware of her fetters. The concentrated rage of days past focused in her arms, and with a chilling cry she yanked them over her head, tearing one link apart. She was free, hobbled at the ankles, but that made little difference. She swung the chain above her head, daring any guard to come near. The one on the ground scrambled away. Gabrielle stayed near her, just out of reach of the swinging chain. She was afraid; this was pointless. "Xena, stop, please, you can't escape."
The little drama brought a murmur of attention from the prisoners. They were involved with their own concerns: the unexpected comfort from the following camp. Ileander noticed, and got to his feet. "Leave it," Drax said. "It will take a two-by-four to bring her down now."
"Xena, there's no place to go," Gabrielle persisted. "Stop before they hurt you. Please."
Xena regarded the circling guards with contempt. They were afraid of her. You should be afraid, she thought, I don't care if you all die, and I can make it happen. And they can kill you, a voice whispered, enticingly, in her own mind.
Phyrris stood at the edge of the trouble, watching intently. This was not the reasonable woman who'd challenged him over water, or even the driving force behind the small insurrection. This woman was out of control. He would be within his rights to have her killed on the spot. "Archers," he called, and the word was passed along.
Terror-stricken, Gabrielle spoke with new urgency. "Xena. Stop, now," she commanded her, "I don't want to be alone in Tartarus." That got some reaction, at least she was listening, but still not ready to give it up. Three archers took position; Xena gave them an evil grin. This will be interesting, she thought, erasing Gabrielle's words from her thoughts.
"Xena." Gods, why can't she stay out of this, Xena fumed, I don't need distractions now. But the bard's voice came nearer as she advanced, arms in front of her face, ducking beneath the chain. "Get out of here," Xena hissed, and shoved her away with an arm, but Gabrielle caught the arm, and pulled Xena off-balance. As she moved to right herself, the smaller woman wrapped her arms around her waist. "Xena, stop it, now. Or they'll have to shoot me to get to you." The archers paused, looking to Phyrris for direction. He observed the little scene with amusement, and waved the archers to lower their weapons.
Xena stood still, lips parted, eyes blank. Except for the bard supporting her weight she might have fallen to the ground. "Why, Gabrielle?" she mumbled.
There was little to be said. Drax reveled quietly in his joy at seeing Ileander. Gabrielle wondered quietly at Xena's reaction to her appearance. She would have allowed herself to feel hurt if she wasn't so worried. Everything had gotten so much worse for Xena...
"Xena will bounce back," Drax was saying. He had pitched a small lean-too as shelter against a steady drizzle. Across the way, he knew the prisoners would be enjoying the moisture on their skin, so long as it didn't continue through the night.
"She shouldn't be alone, Drax," she thought out loud. Although maybe seeing me isn't such a good idea right now, she decided.
"Does she get like this often?" he ventured. "I mean, so - berserk?"
"I've seen it before," she recalled, and her face clouded over. "It doesn't last," she said quickly, anxious to protect Xena's reputation.
"Maybe it just hit here that this is forever," he said with more truth than she knew. For both of you, he added silently.
Nearby, a kaval sounded a slow melody.
Xena huddled next to the wagon, cooled by the rain, though she was barely aware of it. A flute could be heard from the camp just across the gulch. It did nothing to improve her mood. Things had gone badly wrong today, gotten way out of hand. That frightened her, and she still couldn't figure it out. It had been right to destroy the cistern; on the spur of the moment the others had agreed. She had expected the punishment, been able even to smile at...something. Then it all changed; she just wanted to kill. Her mind stopped, not wanting to remember.
They hadn't been too brutal, in the end; it was getting dark and they had been anxious to settle the camp for the night. Anxious to tie me down, she thought bitterly. Why didn't I kill them all and escape, let everyone here escape? she asked herself darkly. I could have. I wanted to, she admitted. Then...I just gave up. Submitted to them. She gnawed at a broken fingernail. New blood started from a split lip. Familiar. My blood. She spat it from her mouth. Why did I do that? She knew the answer, yet pushed it away once more.
I wouldn't have done that, once. Damn, I wouldn't ever have been taken like this, trussed up like a game-hen. No, you wouldn't, echoed from some recess of her mind. What's happened, Xena? As powerful as ever; you broke those chains with barely a thought. Yet here you are. Utterly defeated, alone...She suddenly felt lonely, acknowledged the empty spot, that only one person could fill. And she was so close, so damnably close...That wasn't right, if she had just stayed away...I would have made my way back to her. Instead, she'll bear the burden for my depravity. Gladly. With an effort, she stilled her thoughts, let feelings wash over her instead. Pain, self-loathing, remorse crashed against her. In their wake one last tide remained: love. Gods, that innocent girl loves me enough to share even Tartarus. What did I say to her? No word of love in reply, only unjustified anger. Did I expect her to know my thoughts? Sometimes I don't know them myself.
A small flicker of light showed from a campfire in the follower's camp. She hadn't noticed when the music stopped. Xena rose to a sitting position, back against a sturdy wheel. She took a breath, wet her lips with the soft rain, and raised her hoarse voice in a song of love.
Phyrris had heard the plaintive serenade the night before, and watched fascinated now as the young woman with the hair of burnished gold made clear her acceptance of it. She wasn't allowed within twenty yards of the dark warrior; no one was, except for a guard who brought her food and water. It was too great a distance for words, yet from her vantage point seated on a bluff, she kept her lover company. Xena ate in small bites; Gabrielle followed each piece into her mouth, as if she were placing it there; Xena imagined it was so. With her first sight of Gabrielle she knew that the woman, once again, had forgiven her. A smile, a slow hand caressing her own hair, and the bard eased the last pain that Xena felt. Gabrielle watched the tension drop from the big shoulders, the cloud of remorse drift from the bruised face, and breathed with relief. Xena was all right now, whatever storm had touched her last night was gone. Since she felt it was somehow connected with her, it eased her own guilt.
In some vague way, Phyrris was privy to all this, not understanding everything, but certain that this young woman held Xena's heart. The stories he'd discounted in Mus were true. Amazing. He had meant his isolation of the warrior less as punishment, than to prevent anymore subversion on her part. He realized now that the key to Xena's good behavior was a small blonde. He had heard that, in Mus, as well. He hadn't realized until yesterday that the blonde woman had accompanied them. This might make the whole trip easier. He had admitted to himself that Xena had been right about the cistern. Under other circumstances, he'd have thanked her. The followers were only in camp now because he had no other water supply available. His maps told him of a stream some miles away, which ran a good distance in the general direction of Tartarus. It would be a reliable source of water. By mid-day, he hoped to be on that track, although the detour would bring him to Tartarus far behind schedule. That required some punishment, apparent to the others. Xena had taken her beating well; he'd expected no less. He believed she'd appreciate the isolation; maybe that would serve as a thank you.
There was one less wagon, so the convicts alternated now in hauling them along. The idle ones walked on one chain. Xena walked alone, tethered to the rear of a wagon. She was well content, and suspected that Phyrris knew that. She needed time to think. Until the night before, she had viewed Tartarus as the starting point for an escape; all her thoughts had been directed to that effort. Now it was to be the final destination, and she had to think about how to live there. How to live there with Gabrielle.
Food and shelter would be difficult, it was said there was little game, and the climate was harsh. Still, they'd manage, she had no doubt. The rest was a problem. She had to keep Gabrielle safe, in a land where little safety was possible, for anyone. She wondered how many of her old adversaries were in Tartarus, warlords, or soldiers she wouldn't know, but who would remember her with bitter feelings.
There was another question: Who would Gabrielle talk to besides me? The garrulous bard liked people, showed an interest in everyone. Xena often recognized a chance acquaintance from the road woven into a story, with unfailing accuracy.
Gabrielle's stories. Who would hear them now? Me? Not much of an audience. As much as I like them, she admitted, I seldom know what to say, to show that. Instead I make some cynical, hard-hearted comment.
"I'll have to improve," she mumbled. In a lot of ways. Gabrielle would now be everything for her, to her, and that would be enough. But she would have to be everything to Gabrielle, there would be no one else; she feared she wouldn't be enough. Now we'll find out just how much of me she can stomach. My moods, my temper. Gods, I can't have a repeat of yesterday. That was disturbing to her, still. Can't happen. Won't happen, she pledged. I have to keep the darkness hidden. Gabrielle didn't deserve any of this, I can't make it worse for her. Yet she didn't know what survival might demand, and that made her uneasy.
She stumbled on a stone in the road, and her mind came back for a moment. It was late afternoon, and she was tired. She would have liked to bathe in the stream at mid-day, with the other prisoners, she couldn't remember when she had been so filthy, but she had long ago learned not to wish for what she couldn't have. She followed the stream to where it met the horizon, certain it was a branch of the Ekina River, knowing that she wouldn't be facing that tumultuous current after all.
She hoped that someone had told Gabrielle that dinars were worthless in Tartarus. She wondered what the bard might have bought to bring along. She had composed a mental list of what she'd like to have, wouldn't know what they did have for some time. She didn't imagine she'd speak with Gabrielle again until they arrived in Tartarus, even if the others were permitted visits.
She was right. On two occasions the track diverged from the stream and the followers were needed to provide water to the camp. The guards looked the other way when food, including fresh game, was supplied; they were amply rewarded with a share. Phyrris also looked the other way; he pulled this duty twice a year, and had never known a camp so free of tension. The catalyst for the change received the smallest benefit, but made the most of the silent visits.
If Ileander or Arthea caught her eye from a distance they'd wave, or nod. Xena stopped worrying about Ileander, he seemed cautious enough, and she couldn't help him if he did get in trouble. Drax had stopped worrying as well. His visits to the camp had assured him that Ileander would survive. He worried more about Gabrielle. She ate little, and stayed awake half the night.
"Eat," he urged. "Xena won't be happy to see you enter Tartarus looking half starved. She'll have enough to worry about." It was good advice, but Gabrielle only half listened.
So they proceeded, day-to-day, inexorably to Tartarus.
Almost imperceptibly they began to climb uphill. The vegetation became sparse, the soil rocky. At night, the convicts huddled in close circles for sleeping. Xena found herself nearly burrowed in grass beneath the wagon, and felt happy for the shelter. The ragged tunics were little protection from the cold, and hers was held together in back by the merest of tied threads. This was the approach to Tartarus, they all knew. Some drank in every detail, anxious to know the worst, others refused to take any notice, as if that would delay the inevitable. Phyrris righted their course now, taking them away from the stream, toward the narrow pass that gave access to Tartarus.
For three days they were away from the stream, and followers were welcome again. For those days they had been acutely aware of troops, some on horseback, others with leashed dogs at their sides, patrolling the pass, and the reaches to it. They wondered at the absence of the cistern, were told briefly of its destruction in an accident, and watched uncertainly as the followers mixed with the convicts. They saw the convicts as the enemy, to be hunted, if they ventured near the pass, to be killed. These troops knew the route through the pass, and would provide escort for the last day of the journey.
No wagons were needed now, the food was nearly gone. Each convict was given a small supply of jerky, and a small sack of grain. If any of them had a follower with a pot, it could be boiled for porridge. If not, it could be bartered for something else.
With no small sense of relief, Phyrris saw the last of the convicts, still enchained, receive the provisions. His task was half over. He would deliver the oxen-drawn wagons to Mus, and take a leave before resuming his usual service. He would report to Mus that not one convict had died on this journey; that was probably a first. He didn't know if that would be greeted as a good, or a bad thing. He might be seen as soft. In truth, he suspected the occasional longer breaks to allow visits from the other camp, and the greater nourishment they provided had been the cause.
He had one last duty. Xena had waited, with that curious detachment she displayed, while the others were supplied, and turned over to the mounted troops. Phyrris approached her now, to unfasten the chain from the wagon. "Xena," he said as he worked, "I'm sorry things turned out as they did." He waited for a reply, received none, and went on. "I would like to have met you under other circumstances."
"Are you sure of that?" she asked, wryly amused. He smiled nervously in return. "Maybe not," he admitted. "But I would not have chosen to be your jailer." It was not an apology, but it was as close as he could come; they both knew that. "Good luck," he said and let her go herself to the wagon for her meager supplies.
It was a hazardous trail which threaded the narrow pass. Frequent rock slides had left it almost impassable in spots, and people and horses had to negotiate steep detours on the hillside to get by. Throughout the long day they didn't break for more than ten minutes at a time. The escort was anxious to see them through the pass and on their way by nightfall. They'd camp on the other side and return in the morning. It was as much of Tartarus as they wanted to see.
Xena noted every detail of the pass, still hoping to see an escape route, seeing instead randomly spaced archers peering over the cliffs above, waving their arms in broad arcs at their comrades. At one point they crossed a deep ravine, by means of a plank bridge. She admired the engineering, and the well-placed guards who monitored access at each end. At night, on foot, a lone person might get by, even if mounted soldiers were on patrol. She could have done that, she thought without vanity.
It was near dusk when the hills on either side fell back to reveal what lay beyond. They could see little in the gathering dark, and were distracted by the commands of the soldiers. Shoved to one side, they waited as the soldiers passed along the chains, unlocking cuffs, and shooing convicts, long used to standing in groups, away from each other. "You are in Tartarus, now," they were told, as if a reminder was necessary. "There is no escape, and if you find one, only death waits for you outside. By noon tomorrow, be out of our sight, or the dogs will chase you away. Or have you for lunch." As simply as that, they were free, to live or die, prosper or starve. Uncertainly, they drifted away in twos or threes, staying close to their chain mates, looking around for anyone who might have followed them into exile.
Xena stood off to the side, and waited for Gabrielle to appear, shivering a little in reaction to the chill, damp wind which whistled across the plain. Her nostrils flared slightly. This place had a wild scent to it, more the home of animals than humans.
She didn't turn at the sound behind her, worked desperately to arrange her features into something less than a mask of pain. Arms encircled her waist, and she turned to face Gabrielle, her smile shadowed by sadness. Gabrielle might have read her thoughts. She looked only briefly at her before burying her head in the warrior's chest. All else was erased. Xena enveloped the bard in arms that threatened to crush her, so great was her need. Gabrielle felt the need and responded; tonight would be about giving, and comfort.
She began to speak, her voice muffled by Xena's body. "Xena, we need to make camp, someplace, just find a little space where we can be alone." She felt Xena's head nod in agreement, then it lifted. The temptation was great to let Gabrielle take charge tonight, but that wasn't fair. It had been a shared ordeal, she wouldn't leave the burden to Gabrielle now. Argo was just behind them; she stroked her broad muzzle and took the reins with one hand, the other still around Gabrielle's waist. She looked about, suddenly anxious to be away from here. She lifted Gabrielle into the saddle, happy to be doing something so familiar, and climbed up behind her. The big mare seemed happy enough, anyway.
"Where?" she asked. It was a serious question. There were no roads, no places to go. You made your own place. Gabrielle looked to where the first star of the evening rose on the distant horizon. There she pointed. "I think that's a good omen." Xena nodded, and made a soft noise with her tongue to Argo. "Let's go find our place, Gabrielle."