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Gabrielle knew that Xena woke before dawn. She was uncharacteristically awake herself, and felt the sleeperís breath change, but neither stirred. Xena had snuggled close to the bard all night, holding her in an embrace that bordered sometimes on the uncomfortable. Gabrielle was strangely reminded of her clinging when Xena had returned from the dead.
Then Xena had slept again. When she next awoke, it was well past the usual time for her rising.
"Gabrielle, are you awake?" she asked quietly.
"Just about," she lied. And desperate to pee, she thought. Still, Xena held her, not stirring, but she said: "Itís time we started moving."
"Uh huh," Gabrielle agreed. "If you can build a small fire Iíll make an infusion, to have with breakfast." Supper the night before had been cheese and dried figs Gabrielle had brought along.
Breakfast would be the last of the cheese.
Xena was quiet a moment. "I donít think we can spare the wood just to heat water for an infusion. Itís pretty scarce right about here." The fire the night before had been very small. "I thought Iíd bring that little bit of wood along, in case we donít find much later."
"Oh. Okay," Gabrielle said. She turned her head to give Xena a smile and a soft kiss. At that, Xena released her hold at last.
"I donít know how you can touch me, Gabrielle. Iím filthy; I stink," she said with disgust. "I havenít bathed in weeks."
"I didnít notice, Xena." It was the truth. "They were some of the longest weeks of my life; I ached to touch you. Do you think a little dirt means anything? It didnít last night."
She saw clearly, now, for the first time, the bruises on Xenaís dirt-streaked face. She looked as if sheíd been sick. "Youíve lost weight."
"So have you." A grimy hand reached to Gabrielleís face, and traced the line of her jaw.
"I guess weíll both look better cleaned up," Xena admitted. "I feel better just to be out of that smelly rag." She was covered only by the blanket they shared. Gabrielle was dressed, but Xena couldnít remember when that had happened. She had last seen the younger blonde by dim moonlight, naked, firm flesh quivering slightly at her touch, open and willing; in the end, passion spent, she had held Xena until she slept. And Iím so determined to care for her, Xena thought with chagrin. Damn, it had been stupid to let my guard down so far in this place. Have to be more careful; she scolded herself. But last night had been essential, for both of them.
She looked at the brown tunic lying discarded a few feet away. "Hate to put it back on." She wouldnít put her own things on while she was so filthy.
"Then I guess weíd better find water fast. Any idea how we do that?" Gabrielle knew what the answer would be, but loved to hear Xena explain some things.
"Shouldnít be too hard to find whatís available." She sat up and looked around. When the blanket fell away, she felt more keenly the wind that had stirred around them all night. There was little on the flat plain to impede itís progress. Xena couldnít see the mountains to the south, but knew they were there. The summits of the northern range were just apparent, peaking through their misty shrouds. The whole effect was to create a funnel, directing the eastern winds onto this little world. Xena guessed those winds could bring some nasty surprises. She lay back down, seeking the bardís warmth.
"Everything that can move will have made its way to some source of water. We look for tracks, or for areas where the vegetation seems more lush, or where there are real trees, not these scrubby excuses." She shook her head at the nearby dwarf-trees which rose out of the brown, stubby grasses. She hoped there were better trees somewhere in this land, hated to think it was all one flat, arid wasteland. So unlike Thrace. The grasses were lush there, sweet water springs abounded; there was plenty of game and fruits. With a little skill and knowledge one could thrive in the wild. Here, it was all so different. Still, you always liked a challenge, Xena, she admonished herself. Stop whining.
They rode for sometime without seeing any of the signs Xena had mentioned, or other people, or animals, or signs of animals, Xena thought with disgust. There has to be something or someone else alive here, even off the beaten path. Gabrielleís mind moved along the same lines.
"I wonder what became of the others," she asked quietly. "It seems odd that we havenít seen a sign of them."
It wasnít odd, Xena knew, it was by design. "We will," she said with assurance. "There will be only so many places to settle in this Ė " she hesitated " Ė place."
"How do you think theyíll manage? There was that woman who was with you..."
"Arthea," Xena supplied.
"How will she get along? Was there anyone there for her?"
"No." Arthea had made it clear she was alone. "She wonít be alone for long." She would find someone to be with, or someone would take her.
"I hope not, she has only what she wore on her back, and Ė well, itís not like trying to get by in Potadeia. Or even in Thrace."
Even in Thrace. Xenaís eyebrows raised a little at that. "Taking on added responsibilities here isnít the same as taking them on in Thrace, either. Or even in Potadeia," she finished pointedly.
"I wasnít suggesting that, Xena." The bardís voice was gentle.
"Good, because I have no doubt weíll see her again." Last person I need in my life, Xena thought.
Little distinguished one mile from another, except they turned one bend and a corpse lay across the path before them. They were upon him before Xena could warn Gabrielle to look away. The bard had seen plenty of death, but this was gruesome: the man still wore the brown tunic of the convicts. Worn sandals hung in tatters from his feet. His own blood was a dry pool beneath him. Xena saw that his earring had been ripped from his ear.
"Was he in your group, Xena?"
"No. Heís been in Tartarus a while." His body bore welt marks from whippings, some long ago, others more recent. The poor bastard had been used hard. Little flesh remained on his bones. She had a small entrenching tool in Argoís bag. "Iíll bury him, Gabrielle," she said, feeling an unexpected kinship with this wretch.
"Xena, should we report this to someone?"
"Whoíd you have in mind, Gabrielle? Itís a killing. We can guess at the motive, all of Tartarus would be likely suspects, and no one much cares."
"Someone should know heís dead," she persisted. "His loved ones outside might wonder how he is for years, not knowing." Xena made no reply.
At last the vegetation changed. From a distance, Xena heard the change. "Listen," she told Gabrielle, and reined Argo to a halt. Gabrielle was puzzled. "I only hear the wind, Xena," she said.
"But itís different. Itís been blowing across this scrubby stuff; now itís rustling through reeds. Listen," she insisted, certain Gabrielle could hear it if she but tried. "When it blows off the short grasses and smacks into the reeds it all changes."
"The tricks you warlords learn," Gabrielle said, impressed, but more amused.
"Thatís not a warriorís trick," Xena told her, aggrieved. "Amphipolis is Ė "
"I know: sheep country," Gabrielle put in.
"Told you that, eh?" Xena grinned.
"A few times," Gabrielle said. And you werenít even the first, she realized, recalling the wagon driver whoíd reluctantly carried her to Amphipolis when sheíd first set out to follow the warrior. Gods bless him, she murmured, now, wondering what might have been had she arrived too late to help smooth the course of the homecoming. The thought made her tighten her grip on the warriorís waist.
"What was that for?" Xena asked, pleasure in her voice. Gods, Iíve missed those moments.
"I love it when you tell me a story," she said with another squeeze.
"This isnít really a story, Gabrielle," Xena admitted, wishing she could find a way to make it a story. "Just telling you that I spent a lot of time in the fields with the sheep my uncles kept. The only sounds were from the sheep bleating, bees buzzing in the clover, small animals in the grass, and the grass itself when the wind moved in it. You begin to notice things when there are no distractions."
"I think you could be a poet, Xena," Gabrielle observed.
"A poet?" Gabrielle couldnít see her expression, but knew that both eyebrows were approaching the bangs that fringed her face.
"Yes, a poet, because you notice things. Thatís the first step."
"And the last step," she laughed. "Iíll leave poetry to you." She started Argo forward, and guessed from her eagerness that water, indeed, was ahead.
The grasses became thicker, greener, longer as they moved, giving way at last to tall brown reeds which crunched beneath Argoís hooves. Then the ground became soft, and when she stood in the stirrups, Xena could spy a body of water. It didnít have the sweet scent she had hoped for. She rode to the edge of the tiny lake and jumped down, holding Argo away until she had held a cupped hand to her own mouth. She made a face at the unpleasant taste. "Strong mineral flavor, but itís okay." Then Argo drank. Xena moved to a spot a little further away, where a large, flat boulder sloped into the water. "Itíll be cold, but hereís our chance to get clean," she said over her shoulder to Gabrielle. Already she had her brown tunic over her head. Even from a distance, Gabrielle could see the fading bruises and red stripes on her back before she entered the water, holding a handful of reeds. She ducked under the surface, and disappeared for a few moments, to surface several yards away, blowing water from her mouth, shaking sopping hair from her face. The dangling earring hit harmlessly against the side of her neck. Abruptly, she made her head still. "Come on, Iíll do your back," she called, and Gabrielle complied, shedding her own clothing, grabbing her own handful of reeds.
Her teeth began to chatter before she had reached Xena, and was happy to notice that even Xena was shivering slightly. "Letís not make this long," she asked. Xena grinned and began to massage the grimy back with the reeds, broken and matted now to make a rough sponge. "Let me know if I hurt you," she said. It didnít hurt, Gabrielle realized, a little surprised. Maybe Iím numb with cold, she thought. Then Xenaís bare hand took her shoulder; so much for the numb theory, she reacted with a gasp.
"Was that pain or cold?" Xena asked, concerned.
"Itís me, in the middle of a frigid lake, being touched by the most exquisite fingers on earth," she replied. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle from behind. "Lucky for me you feel that way. I donít want to touch anyone else," she whispered. "But that shivering isnít all from passion," she decided. "Scrub my back, and weíll get out of here."
While Gabrielle dried off, Xena beat the brown tunic against a rock, dipping it frequently in the water. "Xena, why are you bothering with that thing?" Gabrielle asked. "Iíd never want to see you in it again, even if it was wearable."
Xena regarded her soberly. "Some day, Gabrielle, we will be very glad to have a rag of any sort, for something." And most days, we wonít have one. Even this miserable cloth had value here.
At last she dressed, and donned her weapons once again, feeling the familiar comfort settle on her. She saw the feeling mirrored in Gabrielleís frank stare, and let her see a broad smile. So much, at least, could be normal. "Get your staff, Gabrielle. We have hunting to do."
"Hunting?" Xena had never taken her hunting. "Iíll build a fire, that will save time Ė "
"You have someplace important to be?" Xena asked.
"Well, Iím sort of hungry," she ventured. Xenaís look said sheíd tolerate no excuses. "We could fish?" she suggested. Somehow, killing fish was different.
"Gabrielle, you donít mind eating what I kill. You might as well watch me do it." The warrior turned on her heel and began moving quietly through the reeds. Gabrielle grabbed her staff, and hurried after Xena, hoping silence wasnít key to this hunt, because she felt that she was crashing through the reeds like a wild boar. "What are you Ė we- hunting?"
"There are ducks on the lake." Gabrielle stared hard at the surface as she moved, seeing a series of dark dots floating on the surface. Ducks. She liked duck As they got closer, she noticed colors emerging from the dots, brown on the backs, and red crested heads at the end of long necks. Finally they stood at the shore again, close to a small flock of birds.
"Pochards," Xena said flatly, as she examined the scene. It would be nice to have a bow. "Gabrielle, stay here. When I signal, chase them into the air." She nodded, and the warrior took off at a light run, barely rustling the reeds. A few minutes later, from the far side of the lake, Xena waved her arms in a wide arc; Gabrielle began to holler and beat the water with her staff, and the birds took to the air. A blur followed after them, and in seconds a duck fell heavily back to earth. Xena snatched her chakram from the air, then retrieved the bird, and held it high as she returned to Gabrielle. "Good one," she said with satisfaction. "I hope youíre hungry. Letís get that fire going."
The duck sizzled as it roasted, and the fire flared as the dripping grease touched it. All the while, Xena talked. The feathers had been wrapped in a cloth. Gabrielle wanted to know why; Xena had never done that before.
"We might want a pillow some day. Or a soft place to sleep."
"How many ducks will that take?" The blonde head shook as she laughed.
"How many ducks do you think weíll eat over the years?" was Xenaís serious reply.
The years. For Xena it was an endless stretch of trial, and a wish theyíd survive that long. Survive together. Gabrielle said nothing, but turned the duck on the spit once more, wondering at something new she saw in Xenaís face.
"Gabrielle, when you decided to come here Ė "
"Not much of a decision, once I knew it was possible."
Xena heard the undertone, saw the flash of anger in her eyes. "We have to talk about that; this isnít the time." Xena stuffed the feather-parcel in a saddle bag. "I just wondered what you brought with you," she said as casually as she could manage.
Gabrielle had been slightly anxious about this moment. She hadnít been sure what to buy, and there had been no one reliable from whom to seek advice. Still, although she felt sheíd done her best, she would feel bad if Xenaís face betrayed even the slightest disappointment at her choices. "I bought what I thought weíd need, Xena, what was essential. Of course, your Ďessentialí and mine are two different things sometimes." A lot of the time, she acknowledged to herself. "And there werenít many dinars..."
"I understand that, Gabrielle. Iíd just like to know what we have to start out with," Xena said mildly, feeling as anxious as the bard.
"I bought salt." Xena nodded. Good start, they both agreed. "I bought food, salt pork, cheese, beans, meal, some dried fruit. Of course most of that, I ate on the way here," she said apologetically.
"I hoped you had enough to eat," Xena said with warm approval. "Sounds like short rations, as it is."
"I was okay. Drax got meat sometimes, and he brought quite a lot of food with him. He had plenty of money to spend, I guess." She regretted those last words when she saw Xenaís quiet reaction.
"So. Consumables aside, what else? Any tools?" Xena asked hopefully.
"Axe, maybe? Saw? Awl? Hammer?" Seeing Gabrielleís countenance fall with every word, Xena broke it off.
"I did get a sharpening stone, and oil for your leathers," Gabrielle offered. Xena nodded and smiled, but thought of the ease with which she could make do with what sheíd find in Tartarus for those items. "I bought two drinking cups. Some medicines Iíve seen you buy. Needles." And a few other items Iíd better not mention now.
"Good," Xena said, happy some things on her wish list had made it.
"Xena, there was hardly any money Ė "
"Gabrielle, donít explain yourself. Iím not finding fault. You did well." Xena spoke sincerely. Gabrielle had been in an impossible situation. "You did buy scrolls and ink?" Xena asked.
"Of course not," Gabrielle said happy to give that answer.
"You should have, Gabrielle. Those might be pretty hard to come by here." Xena prodded the duck with her dagger, decided it was finished and lay it on a large flat rock sheíd scrubbed clean. Efficiently, she split it into portions, which she put on two wooden plates, and settled next to Gabrielle on the ground.
Xena hid her disappointment well, but it was there. Gabrielle rose and fetched the two cups. She poured water from the skins into each, tossed in a big pinch of dried leaves, and with a cloth protecting her hand, picked up two smooth stones that had been heating near the fire, and dropped one into each cup. A strong lemon scent filled the air.
"I hope we find verbena someplace here," Gabrielle wished aloud.
Xena was savoring the crispy skin of the duck. Gabrielle realized that Xena had had no meat in weeks, and was surprised at the restraint she showed in eating. She had ripped into her own, tearing the flesh off in great chunks as Xena took tiny bites, keeping up a conversation as she ate.
"Did you send word to anyone? Your mother? Ephiny?"
"No. I didnít want to spend the money to pay a messenger. And I didnít know what to say," she admitted.
The dark head nodded in understanding.
"Maybe I should have sent word to Cyrene?" Gabrielle suggested.
"My mother will hear," Xena observed, with a sad smile. Sheíll be unhappy, but she wonít be surprised. "Your family Ė "
"Maybe itís best if they donít know for sure," Gabrielle put in, having played out the family thought patterns for two weeks in her own head. "When, or if, word reaches them of your capture they can assume anything, pretend I didnít follow you, picture me anywhere that makes them comfortable."
"Wish again that Iíd never met you," Xena said.
"No, Xena. To wish that would be to wish me a slave." Me, and Lila and my mother. My father would be dead, Perdicus dead long before our wedding.
Xena knew where Gabrielleís mind went; they hate me just the same, she mused, but it didnít matter anymore. They were from another lifetime. Only Gabrielle remained from that existence. And Gabrielle would be as happy as possible in this place.
"I figure weíll keep moving along this line, in the general direction of your star," Xena thought aloud. "It will take us to the foot of the mountains. I expect weíll find more water there, more game, and some shelter from the wind." More people too, she thought ruefully, afraid of who those people might be. "Iíve never built a dwelling of any kind," she went on, as if picturing a mental list of things-to-do, "but I should be able to manage. Small at first. We have to be secure before it turns cold." She already felt an ominous nip in the wind, and it was still late summer. "Iíll make it larger as time goes on," she promised. "The foothills will likely be forested; Iíll be able to put aside firewood, and maybe Iíll be able to gather nuts, depending on the trees."
"You will?" Gabrielle said after a moment. Xena registered surprise at her tone, but the warriorís eyes were looking beyond Gabrielle; her mouth moved imperceptibly, but the words were clear: "Company. Iíve been expecting them. Four men, I think. One horse." Gabrielle turned to look, but saw nothing. Expecting them? "Any moment now," Xena added quietly. She hadnít moved, her sword was still sheathed, chakram on her hip, and the wooden dish which held her meat still rested on her lap. Then four strangers came into view, one on horseback. The leader. Xena glanced in their direction and looked down at her food again, dismissively. Her peripheral vision caught the nuances of movement which told her that they were exchanging eager glances.
"Itís my duty to tell you, began the one on horseback, "that you are guilty of trespass and poaching." Xena had not yet looked at him. "Lord Brachius prizes his water fowl highly." He rode closer as he spoke, as if trying to get Xenaís attention. "Thatíll have to be paid for." As if tired of speaking to himself, he turned to his comrades. "I think the horse might do, for a start."
A stout man on foot was looking at Gabrielle; he grinned suddenly "And maybe a little companionship," he leered.
Xena spoke now for the first time. " Lord Brashhhusss?" she said with contempt. "Is that what the little shit calls himself now?" She gave a harsh laugh. "You tell him Iíll help myself to his game whenever I want. As it happens, Iím partial to duck." She held her plate, as if prepared to finish the meal. The man on horseback frowned with surprise, and went for his sword. With a quick motion of her wrist Xena launched the plate to catch him full in the throat, and he fell sideways off the horse, gasping for air. The other three charged, swords in hand. Xena didnít touch her weapons. One man had a knee broken by the force of her kick as she leaped to evade the charge. Another received an elbow in the side of the head. The third, the one with the leer, she caught under the chin with both hands, and turned his head, until his neck was nearly broken. She stopped because she heard a word at her back. Gabrielle had said something. She dropped him with a scowl. The unseated rider had struggled to his feet, and groped for his sword. She stuck a boot in his face, and he was down again.
"Stay put, and maybe I wonít kill anybody. Shut up," she threw without looking, at the man who moaned over his broken knee; he bit the edge of his cuff to keep silent.
"Let me see if I have this straight: the price of a duck is my war-horse? So, the price of my exertion," she smiled coyly, as she spoke into his ear, "in putting you in your place, should be a bit higher, donít you agree?" She waited for objections, and heard none. "Good. I like your knife." She took the short dagger sheathed at his waist. "Guess Iíll need a sheath," she decided, and ripped it from his belt. "Oh. Never know when Iíll feel the need for another horse." His head followed her every movement as she examined the horse. "Doesnít quite cover the cost of my trouble, but Iím in a good mood today," she growled.
She turned to the man with the broken knee. A bow was slung across his shoulders, along with a quiver of arrows. She tossed them both at Gabrielleís feet. "Hereís that bow we were wishing we had. I guess this is how Artemis answers prayers." Gabrielle tried to
remember when they had wished for a bow.
One man was unconscious. Xena turned him over and found an axe hanging at his belt. Not just what she wanted, but she had to take something, and it would be useful. She twirled it over her head and buried it in the ground bedside the campfire. No one else was moving as she approached the fourth man, the one who was lucky to be alive.
"Now, what can you do for us? Companionship? Isnít that what you wanted? I donít think so." She saw fear in his eyes and was glad. His sword was on the ground next to his body. "This should about cover things. Of course, itís not very long," she said with a smirk.
"Youíll regret this," he said, even as his cheeks burned with humiliation.
"Ya think so?" Xena asked. "Whoís gonna make me regret it? You?" she asked, one eyebrow arched in disbelief. "I know Brachius wonít mind a bit. Just tell him to stay out of my way."
"Who are you?"
"Heíll know." She turned her back, proving to them both that he lacked the nerve to strike.
She turned again to the leader. "I donít have any place to stable a horse, yet. You keep him until I want him. Take good care of him," she warned. "Oh. If Brachius doesnít remember me, remind him of Heraklion." She resumed her seat by the fire as if she were alone. "Now get out of here." For a few moments they didnít move. Then the leader directed that the one with the broken knee be hoisted over his saddle. He took a last look at Xena, his eyes passed over Gabrielle, and he walked away leading the others. Xenaís new horse he held by the reins.
"What was that all about?" Gabrielle asked when theyíd gone.
"Meeting the neighbors." Xena tore at the last of her meat now, retrieved from the grass where it had fallen.
"I mean that business where you took their stuff. Youíve never done that before."
"Just observing the social niceties of Tartarus, Gabrielle. Everything here has a price."
"So why did you let him keep his horse?"
"I didnít. Itís mine now. I donít have any place to stable one horse, let alone two. He can worry about feeding the horse. If and when I want it, Iíll take it. In the meantime, heís in my debt. He wonít bother us again, even if Brachius gives him the order, which I canít imagine."
"I take it you and Brachius have crossed paths?"
"Crossed swords," she said simply. "He wonít be anxious to repeat the experience." Xena collected the knife and axe, chewing as she moved.
"Not after he sees what you did to his men."
Xena glanced at her. "I had to send a message. They got off easy."
Gabrielle knew she spoke the truth. She wondered if the last man knew how lucky he was to have lost only his sword.
"I hope your tossing the bow and quiver at my feet was entirely symbolic of something." Gabrielle picked up the quiver, and regarded it as if it were full of deadly vipers.
"Itís time you learned to use another weapon, Gabrielle."
"Xena," she began, in protest.
"Itís a useful weapon, Gabrielle. It can help you stay alive."
"Itís deadly," Gabrielle objected, and she threw the quiver on the ground beside the bow.
"Deadly to animals as well as men," Xena pointed out.
"Is that why you brought me hunting? Because you want me to be a hunter."
"Someday your ability to kill an animal in the wild might make the difference between your living and dying." She spoke as if stating an axiom.
"Iím no good with a bow; Eponin has tried more than once to teach me."
Xena kicked over the last sparks of the fire, then picked up two halves of the wooden plate sheíd used to bring a man down. "Sorry. Iíll replace it when I get a chance."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Did you hear me, Xena?"
"I heard you," she assured her, and stooped to pick up the bow and arrows. Just donít think thatís the end of it. "Ready to go?" The bard considered carrying the discussion further, chose instead to enter the arm Xena held out to encircle her.
They had ridden for sometime when the question that had been playing at the back of Gabrielleís mind caught up with her. "Xena, why were you expecting that attack?"
"Thatís how things are done here." They were still moving northwest, still following overgrown tracks, still had seen no other life.
"Doesnít seem much different from the rest of the world; at least the world we live in." Lived in, she amended silently.
"Oh, itís different." Gabrielleís arms were wrapped around Xena, her head lay against the warriorís back. Gabrielle felt the timbre of her voice change as Xena considered the warlords.
"You heard what they called Brachius: Lord Brachius. Heís made himself the law. Here, the warlords run things and no one cares. Then too, the supply of goods is rather limited. I imagine the same axe I took from that thug was stolen from someone else not long before, and who knows how far back weíd have to go to find itís legitimate owner."
"So? How does that answer the question?"
"A few times a year, new exiles arrive, bearing new goods. It has to be a busy time for the locals. Itís like a of caravan of goods coming through, except you donít pay for anything, just stop people on the road and take what you want, who you want, if you can. Take everything you can carry. What you canít carry is grabbed by the next group. By the time the convicts are ready to settle someplace, some have nothing."
"Thatís awful," she said, appalled.
"Yeah, it is," Xena agreed, eyes already tired of the flat wasteland. This place is bad enough without the dregs of humanity added to it.
"So Arthea would be easy prey?" She pictured the motley band which had traveled to Tartarus behind the prisoners. Most of them would be easy prey. "Thatís why we havenít seen the others? Youíve looked for a way around the bandits."
"Iím avoiding trouble," she conceded. "Weíre still moving in the general direction we wanted to go, towards the mountains. I just havenít followed the most-traveled paths. I figured weíd run into at least one band of thieves, and Iím sure weíre past the worst of it. Brachius and the other warlords will have other groups closer to the border. This pathetic bunch was back-up, to grab what slipped through their fingers."
Gabrielle was awfully quiet. Xena guessed why. "Gabrielle. What you saw on this journey were the families of the convicts. Try picturing the convicts. Warriors. Thugs. Most of their people brought weapons for them. I guarantee, they didnít stand still to be picked clean. Iím sure some sent Brachius the same message I did. Do you suppose Drax handed over his possessions? Of course, knowing Drax, he might have signed on."
"No," Gabrielle said defensively. "Drax wouldnít do that. His main concern is Ileanderís safety."
"Oh?" Xenaís blue eyes flashed. "Good for Drax. What if the best way to guarantee Ileanderís safety was to swear fealty to a warlord?"
Gabrielle thought about that. "Because Brachius wonít attack his own people? But then Drax would have to prey on others..."
"Right," Xena confirmed.
She sighed, a little disheartened. "Is that the only way to avoid problems, Xena, to be one of the predators?"
She shrugged. "In a land where everyone is either the predator or the prey? I donít know if itís the only way for the others. I know this: we wonít be prey." It was an assurance Gabrielle didnít need.
"Do you think your message will be enough?"
"With Brachius, and some others, along with my reputation to back it up, yes. Unless they think Iíve slipped."
Because you were captured, Gabrielle realized, with a pang of guilt.
"Never mind; if I need to send the message a few more times, I will." Send it everyday for the rest of my life, if need be, Gabrielle. I have my priorities, too.
"Does Brachius run this part of Tartarus?" the bard wanted to know.
"I donít know. He operates here; whether he has any rivals, I canít say." She shook her head slowly, eyes on the horizon. "This place is a mystery to me, Gabrielle. Warlords, however, I know." She hesitated, knowing Gabrielle wouldnít like to hear this bit, but it was the best way to explain things. "Theyíll be interested to know Iím here. Any warlord with a stake in this place will want to know my angle. Am I a rival? A threat? Should they try to ally with me, buy me off, or kill me? I hope some of them are smart enough to wait and see. When they realize I just want to settle peacefully in some corner and be left alone, maybe theyíll be happy to let us be." And maybe Argo will sprout wings and fly us out of here.
"And if they donít? Drax said you could wield a lot of power here."
"Did he?" Xenaís brow furrowed; Gabrielle saw only the twitch of muscle at the side of her jaw. "Drax is right. Does that frighten you?"
"Should it?" she asked after a moment.
"Yes." She paused to gather her thoughts. "Gabrielle, I donít want to wield power. If Iím pushed, Iíll push back."
Gabrielle remembered the scene in the convictís camp when she had first revealed herself to Xena. The warrior Ďpushing backí could be terrifying. Xena pushed the same thought from her own mind.
"I should have taken a second duck at the lake." They had resorted to porridge. The thin gruel made from the grain ration and the strong mineral water of the lake was disgusting.
Xena set her bowl down while it was still half-full.
Gabrielle didnít argue with her. Duck would be nice right now. "Yeah, and weíd have a few more feathers for our mattress," she joked, even as she lifted the bowl to her mouth to drink some more of the porridge.
Who would guess thereíd be no other game to be found all day? Or water. This place was cursed by the gods, Xena was certain. "I canít leave things to chance," she said for her own benefit, and shook her head.
"Thatís true," Gabrielle said solemnly. "Next time you should kill several; the whole flock, maybe. We can cook them all at once, and eat cold duck for a week." She nodded in self-affirmation, and picked up Xenaís bowl. "Here" She held it out to her. "Iíve seen you eat worse. If youíve suddenly become a picky eater, you have really bad timing."
Xena accepted the bowl and returned the bardís smile, despite herself. The little campfire sent shadows flickering across the still plain. Gabrielle cast a huge shadow, as if her spirit rose out of the compact body, a trick of light. Her element, light, Xena mused, and a wistful longing to know that light was revealed in her face. Even here, having followed me to the wilderness, she carries that light within her. Damn, Xena, you have to do better.
Gabrielle was a little disturbed by her sudden quiet, and searched the warriorís face, trying to determine what new expression was there. "Xena," she said at last, "you couldnít know that weíd find no other game."
Xena came back to the moment. "I also couldnít know that we would. We hadnít seen any until those ducks. I shouldnít have assumed weíd find more. Stupid."
"No, Xena, youíre a lot of things. Stupid is not one of them."
Xena looked away, pretending to study the contents of her bowl. She drained it in one noisy gulp, and wiped her mouth with the back of a hand. "If you lie awake tonight wishing your belly was full, feel free to change your mind." She spoke in a bantering tone, but meant every word.
"Stay awake and keep me company," the bard said with the merest hint of seduction in her voice. "Then I wonít have time to think about my belly. Besides, weíve both recently bathed," she threw in as an extra inducement. As if it were needed. If we could live on love weíd be alright, Xena thought. She opened her mouth. "If we could Ė " Argo whinnied nearby. Someone was approaching. Gabrielleís staff was suddenly in her hand, and she watched Xena for instructions. Xena wasted no movement preparing for the threat, merely listened, head cocked a little to one side. Gabrielle watched, puzzled, yet relieved, as the warriorís face relaxed. So maddening that Xena could hear everything first. "More company," Xena said; clearly this was not like their visitors at the noon day meal. "Must be something about lighting a fire." In this blackness the rare fire was a beacon.
"And you know theyíre friends, because...?" Gabrielle asked.
"I know Ileanderís voice."
"Hello. Xena?" The voice came from beyond the small range of visibility.
"Come ahead," she called back, and Ileander stepped into the firelight, followed by Drax, who led a well-laden horse. Obvious theyíd avoided the plunderers. Ileander looked well, clad in a blue tunic and black trousers Drax had brought along. Xena was happy again to have had a bath. She nodded to them both, and Ileander reached out a warm hand to her.
"By the gods, Xena, its good to see you again."
"Itís only been one day, Ileander."
"Days are long here, donít you think?" He looked past her to Gabrielle. "Thank you for taking such good care of Drax for me, Gabrielle. Heíd poison himself with his own cooking."
"Must be a warrior thing," Gabrielle observed, rising to meet them, watching Drax extend an arm to Xena. She took it, and held his eyes with a query. He shrugged almost imperceptibly, apologetically. Gabrielle guessed what the exchange meant, but said nothing. For now.
"Will you share our campfire?" Gabrielle asked, the classic gesture of hospitality. Drax hesitated; Ileander accepted before he could phrase a polite refusal. Xena turned to stir the fire. The last of the fuel sheíd managed to gather would be used now. Gabrielle saw the tiny scowl, and wondered at the warriorís reaction.
"Itís a lucky coincidence you found us out here," Gabrielle said, as the two men unburdened the horse.
"No coincidence, Gabrielle. They tracked us here." Xena looked at Drax for confirmation.
He nodded. "Itís as Xena says."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked.
"Drax wanted to avoid the looters. He figured Xena would be doing the same thing," Ileander supplied.
"And if there were any looters, weíd run into them first, right?" The blue eyes held certain knowledge of his motives.
"I didnít plan that, Xena," Drax said defensively. "You just moved faster than we did. I saw you had a little scuffle by the lake. I would have been happy to be at your side to help."
"I didnít need your help, Drax. Thanks anyway," she ended dryly.
"Since weíre sharing your fire, I hope youíll share our supper." He held up a bulging parcel. Gabrielle knew it contained dried sausage, hard cheese, dates, and figs.
"Weíve eaten, thanks," Xena said. She caught a fleeting glimpse of Gabrielle. "But weíd be happy for something besides gruel." The words were as distasteful as the gruel. The light in Gabrielleís face took the bitterness away.
Xena ate sparingly, but if anyone noticed, they said nothing. Gabrielle ate enough for them both, and Drax was happy to press the food on her.
"Where do you aim to settle, Xena?" Drax asked at last, as the small fire reduced itself to smoldering ash.
"Where thereís water, game, and fuel, Drax, like everyone else," she replied.
"Youíre headed toward the northern mountains." That was pretty obvious; she nodded shortly by way of reply. "The foot of the mountains should be a safe bet for that," Drax went on. "Pretty crowded there, I guess. If Tartarus can be called crowded."
"Good," Gabrielle commented, seizing on a pleasant thought. "I like to be around people."
"Gabrielle, Ďcrowdedí, here, doesnít mean a town or village. It means neighbors an hourís ride away," Xena told her.
"Oh. Thatís all right too, Xena. It will be nice to have time alone with you." She spoke sincerely, and reached out to touch Xenaís face briefly.
"Alone? Think theyíll leave you alone, Xena?" Drax asked, incredulous.
She suppressed an oath. "I donít know, Drax," she said through tight lips.
"With the right people behind you, you could run this place," he suggested.
"I donít want to run this place," she said coolly.
Weíll see, he thought, as he lifted a wineskin. He offered it to Xena, who refused, and Gabrielle who accepted.
"Just know this, Xena," Ileander said. "Any of us who came with you would be behind you. You saved us all from a terrible death." Xena knew he wasnít exaggerating, yet his fervent tone made it sound like an exaggeration. "Even Lutus admitted in the end that you were right. Last time I saw him he was going off with Arthea," he confided happily. "They became rather close, after you were, well, removed from the chain. Doubt if they had any trouble with looters; between them they had only the rags they were wearing."
""Iím glad they have each other, anyway," Gabrielle said. "It would be awful to be alone here."
They bedded down for the night, two-by-two, around a cold campfire. Xenaís faint hope that their guests would find their own site for sleeping was dashed when Ileander asked Gabrielle to tell a story. "Drax says youíre marvelous," he enthused. "I havenít heard a good bard in ages." The tales had gone on far into the night; none of them concerned Xena. The warriorís dark brow had made it clear to Gabrielle that she was not to go there. Then it had been too late to expect them to leave. She lay next to Gabrielle, wishing they were alone. Gabrielle understood. "Iím sorry," she whispered.
"Just donít ask them to join us on the road tomorrow. Please," she breathed back.
"Xena. I want to thank you for what you did about the cistern." Drax spoke quietly, as Xena tightened the cinch on Argoís saddle. It was just after dawn; Drax guessed by the early departure Xena planned that she was anxious to part from them.
"No thanks are necessary. I did it for myself as much as anyone." She smoothed the saddle blanket, and began to load assorted bags on the big horse.
He let that pass unchallenged. "Regardless, I feel in your debt. And Iím sorry I wasnít able to keep Gabrielle away." He looked her squarely in the eye, ready to accept any rebuke.
That was more to the point, Xena thought, but waved him off. "It wasnít your responsibility. Weíre here now. We have to make the best of it."
"Yet youíre angry," he pointed out.
Xena knew he was right; couldnít explain why it was so. Just generally angry, she thought, but said nothing, and Drax drifted back to the campfire, where Gabrielle finished tying the bedrolls. "Xenaís just about ready to leave, Gabrielle," he reported. He was glad Ileander was in no hurry to move. The dark head barely looked up from his infusion when Drax spoke. Better to let Xena and Gabrielle put some distance between the two parties, he acknowledged.
"What do you have against Drax?" They were barely out of the hearing of Drax and Ileander when Gabrielle asked the question. Xena adjusted the reins in her hands, and brushed a lock of hair from her eyes. "Why would I have anything against him? I hardly know him."
"Thatís my point, Xena. You hardly know him, yet you were barely civil to him." The warrior was not about to explain anything, Gabrielle knew, so she supplied her own reason. "Donít blame him for my being here, Xena. He did everything according to plan. Tarkian is the one I have to thank."
Thank. Xena shook her head bitterly. "What did Tarkian have to do with it?" she asked, eyes narrowed.
"I went to Tarkian to beg a pardon for you. He let me know what you and Drax wouldnít. You should have told me, Xena," she finished, her voice hot with anger.
"I know." But not for the reason you think.
"Thatís all you have to say?" The bard felt cheated by this response.
"Is that why you werenít branded? Because youíd spoken to Tarkian? He exempted you, because he had exempted me?" What a cool head Tarkian has, Xena acknowledged. He certainly knew how to pin me down.
"Yes, he exempted me; I donít know why, I didnít pay much attention to that bit. I was still trying to comprehend the news that I could go with you. And you didnít want me."
Damn. Thatís how she saw it. "Thatís not how it was, Gabrielle."
"No? How was it, Xena?" she persisted. "You were telling me weíd met again in Elysia, while Drax was planning on spending the rest of his life with Ileander, here, in Tartarus."
Xena didnít want to talk about this now; never wanted to talk about it. How could she tell Gabrielle the truth, that she had never planned on staying in Tartarus? This trek to a new home would have been the first leg of an escape route, except that Gabrielle had come along. Damn. "I wanted to be with you Gabrielle. I just didnít want it to be here." Her voice was so quiet Gabrielle had trouble hearing. "What?" she prompted.
"I didnít want you here, in Tartarus. You donít belong here." Now her voice was louder than she intended.
"How did that become your decision?" the bard asked.
"Because you werenít prepared to make a rational decision."
Gabrielle could only guess at Xenaís expression. "Iím irrational? Treating me like a kid again, Xena, is that it?" She made a sudden decision. "I donít want to discuss this without seeing your face."
"Then why did you bring it up?" Xena asked harshly. "I sure donít want to talk about it. Youíre here. All the discussion in the world wonít change that." She knew right away sheíd said something very wrong. She felt it in the hands which suddenly felt wooden where they touched her middle, in the body which rode a little slumped behind her now, and in the heavy sigh, which meant Gabrielle was trying not to cry. Damn. This was not something to discuss on horseback. She slid out of the saddle, and reached up for Gabrielle. After agonizing moments, while she peered at Xena through hooded eyes, the bard relented, and allowed the warrior to catch her weight as she followed her to the ground. Then she pulled out of the Xenaís grasp.
"Gabrielle, before you get upset Ė "
"Iím way past upset, Xena." She moved away, eyes on the far horizon.
The dark warrior stared after her. "I thought you wanted to see my face while we discussed this?"
"But you donít want to talk about it, isnít that right? Youíre stuck with me, and all the discussion in the world wonít change that. Right?" The words flew at Xena like sharp stones.
"Thatís not what I meant."
"Itís what you said."
"No. Itís what you heard. Look at me." The blonde head remained resolutely turned away. "You canít look away from me forever, Gabrielle. Thereís nowhere to go here. Youíre stuck with me."
"Thatís not how I see it Xena. Iím not Ďstuckí with you. I chose you. I chose to be here."
"Then donít put that word in my mouth," Xena retorted. "If you donít know that I love you, you havenít been paying attention. Without you my life is a pile of this worthless dirt." She kicked at the dry, lifeless soil. "The best days of my life have been spent with you. The nights Iíve spent in your embrace helped me believe in love again. I have tried to let you know all this." Her voice was strained, frustrated, pushing words through clenched teeth. "And yet, you pretend to feel unwanted? Because I donít want you in this place, that even vermin abandon? I said I donít want you here. I donít." She shook her head sharply. "I told you that from the start. I donít want either of us here, thatís the point! So why do you say Iím Ďstuckí with you? Why do you do that to me?" she ended, clearly puzzled, shaking a little from a sudden surge of anger she felt. Gods. She shoved that roughly aside.
Gabrielle stood still a moment, wondering how things had turned around so. "Xena," she began, "I know you love me. Thatís why I donít understand how you could leave me behind."
Xena swallowed hard. The one answer she could give, the truth, that would let it all make sense for Gabrielle, would pierce the girlís heart. "I have enough guilt to carry around, Gabrielle," she said instead. "To see you bear the punishment for my crimes, is a little twist of the knife."
"Xena. When Tartarus became your fate, it became mine. Inescapably. Donít you understand? If I couldnít be with you, the whole world would be my Tartarus." She reached her hands up around the back of Xenaís neck and clasped them there, her head resting just above the swell of her breasts, breathing in Xenaís heady aroma. "So much easier to share it with you."
Xena reached down to pull her lover closer, wondering what she had ever done to earn this sweet consolation.
"Besides," Gabrielle added. "We wouldnít be here at all if it wasnít for me insisting we go to Priblis." She felt the dark head above her move slowly in negation.
"No." Xena held her breath for a long moment, while she found the right words. "Gabrielle. I made that decision. If we hadnít gone there, I would had something else to feel guilty about." Gabrielle heard the crooked grin in her voice. "This has nothing to do with Priblis. It has everything to do with things I did, who I was, before we ever met." And Gaederus, that bastard. "Letís put Priblis behind us."
"You get to keep all the guilt?"
"Afraid so. Iím used to it," Xena said, sorry to hear a touch of weariness creep into her voice. "I can keep it under control. Most of the time. We canít let guilt govern our lives. If we do, it will poison the very air we breathe." Gabrielle nodded her understanding, even as she felt the guilt, less urgent now, still weighing on a corner of her heart.
"Xena. What I said last night, about how nice it will be to have time alone with you?"
"I meant that. It might sound silly, but all the way here, that thought kept me going. When Iíd wake at night I felt so alone, and I worried so about you. Some nights, I lay awake listening, imagining that every sound was connected to you, that you were hurt, or sick...Or I hoped youíd sing again." She shook her head, clearing those nights away. "Then Iíd picture us here, together. It didnít seem so awful."
"Doesnít seem silly," the warrior murmured. "I had the same picture." And I did sing to you, Gabrielle, every night, so softly no one heard, but I felt better knowing there was someone I could sing for. "Weíll be okay, Gabrielle." I promise Iíll make it all right.
As the hours passed, and miles disappeared beneath Argoís hooves, Xena she noticed a change in the terrain. Gabrielle had told stories for much of the morning, for an enthusiastic audience of one. She felt she was losing her audience, now, as Xenaís head moved slightly from side to side, and the warrior merely nodded at the tale of Joxer freeing Prometheus.
"Xena," she asked at last, "are you sniffing the air?"
"Yeah," she replied, offhand. She caught up with the import of Gabrielleís question, and turned to give the girl a grin. "I do that a lot, Gabrielle. Have you just noticed?"
"You do this a lot?" She lifted her head and inhaled deeply through her nose, several times, in rapid succession.
"I didnít do that," Xena protested, then wondered if she had sniffed more vigorously than usual. She made a mental note to watch that, conceding that this damn place even smelled different than elsewhere. "Iíve spotted burrows. I think we might have rabbit for our midday meal."
"Are you sniffing them out?" the bard asked.
"No. Iíll stop to hunt soon. Now Iím just enjoying the scent of soil. Not the best, and the grass looks tough and dry, but itís better than that relentless brown. I even heard a thrush not long ago."
"These are hopeful signs?" the bard guessed, happy to hear warm relief in the warriorís voice.
"Yeah; things live here." Maybe even herds of deer, if I read those tracks right. "It means game and water," she replied, then turned to show-off a cockeyed grin. "Unless some one shows up asking for payment. Wonder what a rabbit costs?"
"See how much closer the mountains are?" Gabrielle looked up from the new fire, and the two rabbits spitted there, to follow Xenaís outstretched arm to the peaks. The last rays of sunlight reflected off the mountains, and bathed the area in a rosy haze. For two days theyíd made steady progress, following faint tracks through the wilderness, to those distant peaks. The journey which had begun in Mus, had seemed to be an end in itself, so long, so relentless in its demands. Now, as the trails which cut through the forested peaks became visible, the journeyís end was in sight as well. Xena was finishing her work on the rabbit pelts. It was not lost on Gabrielle that she did it in sight of the campfire, in sight of the bard, just as she had the skinning and gutting. She had always done that work outside camp. Gabrielle could guess at the change in procedure, but chose not to.
"Weíll be in their shadow soon," Xena said, eyes still on the mountains. "I expect weíll find more water there, more game, and some shelter from the wind. Iíve never built a real dwelling of any kind, but I should be able to manage. Not too big at first. We have to be secure before it turns cold. Iíll make it larger as time goes on. Iím glad to see the forests." Gabrielle listened to this little speech, with the odd feeling sheíd heard it before, and waited for the finish she knew would come.
"Iíll be able to put aside firewood, and maybe Iíll be able to gather nuts, depending on the trees."
I have heard it before, she realized, and a sudden wave of affection washed over her as she regarded the earnest face of the tall warrior, squinting against the sun. Gods. Thatís on her mind so much sheís committed it to memory. Her to-do-list. Gabrielle searched her mind for any anxiety related to basic survival, and found none. For the first time she realized how much trust she had in Xenaís ability to care for them both. I donít have to worry about so many things; I leave them to Xena. The admission struck her like a blow to the stomach. She knew, now, what she had glimpsed in Xenaís face since their arrival: Worry. It had never occurred to her that Xena might ever worry about such things, she always just managed; but Tartarus was different.
"Wait a minute, Xena," she said, knitting her brow into a study of anger. "I donít think I like what Iím hearing." The blue eyes showed the warriorís surprise. "You will build the dwelling. You will make it larger. You will put aside firewood and gather nuts." A flush of anger touched her cheeks. "While youíre doing that, what do I do? This is to be our home. We will build it together." She stood with her hands resting on her skirt, just below the waistband. She looked so damned cute Xena almost went to take her in her arms; but her face was so grimly serious she thought better of it.
She considered for a few moments, mouth slightly open, then it moved into a quirky grin. "Youíre right Gabrielle, we will do those things together. I just have thought so much about what needs to be done..." She broke off and looked at the bard, with self-amusement in her eyes. That made them sparkle. "Do you know, I have an inventory, up here," she brought a long finger to her forehead.
"I know exactly what lengths of timber I need, at first, what sort of mortar I need to mix to fill in the cracks, what distances I have to pace off to set the walls in place...Iíve built it a thousand times in my mind."
"And you didnít see me working beside you?"
"No," she admitted sheepishly. "I didnít."
"Then imagine it all again, with me at your side," Gabrielle ordered. She strode over to Xena and wrapped herself around her long frame. "About this far away."
"We wonít get much work done, that way." Xena grinned.
"As long as you get the point, Xena. This isnít about you taking care of me."
Xenaís grin faded. "Gabrielle, in a lot of ways, it is about me taking care of you."
Xena placed a finger on the full lips before she could object. "I also have to see to it that youíre prepared to take care of yourself, if need be." She met Gabrielleís eyes with an unflinching stare. "Did you consider when you came here, that if I died, youíd be alone?"
Gabrielle swallowed, hard, and met Xenaís gaze with a steely truth of her own: "If I didnít come here, Iíd already be alone, Xena for the rest of my life."
That wasnít true, Xena told herself, I would have come back to you. I came back from the real Tartarus once for you. This would be a dawdle next to that. But she said nothing about that. "So here we are," she said instead, "and you still have to ask what happens if I die? You have to learn everything about taking care of yourself. Just in case," she insisted.
"You think I canít take care of myself?" Gabrielleís body stiffened, indignant at the condescension she heard in Xenaís message.
Xena shook her head gently, side to side. "I think in the world outside you could. Where there are people and towns, inns where you could tell your stories to earn a room and a meal; places to buy things you need; your family, or your tribe, if things were really rough. You could take care of both of us, out there, if need be." She made a small encompassing movement of her head. "Those things arenít here. Here you couldnít even find a reasonable partner to take Ė to spend your life with if..."
"If you werenít here? You mean someone to take your place? To take care of me?" She pulled away to look in Xenaís face. "Xena, no one can take your place." She lay her head on Xenaís chest, and waited for the warrior to enfold her in strong arms. "You scare me when you talk like this," she said, her voice shaky.
"It scares me more, Gabrielle," she whispered into her hair. "I donít know how youíd survive. I canít stand the thought of you being dependent on the people youíll find here, or ever being hurt by them." A sudden shiver moved down her spine.
"Then I guess youíd better not die again." Gabrielle meant it to lighten the mood; its effect was the opposite. The awareness of that impossible requirement had lain on Xena like a shroud, since the evening Gabrielle had come to her in camp. They were living in the midst of the worldís greatest concentration of free-ranging violent criminals. How do I stay alive, keep Gabrielle alive and happy, and still be someone she can live with? Can I do all that? Like walking a tightrope, with Gabrielle balanced on my shoulders.
"Xena?" The soft voice in her ear brought her back to the moment.
"Celesta will need all the legions Hades can spare to drag me away," she said defiantly. "But if it happens, Gabrielle, you have to be prepared." Her voice was adamant. "Would you do that for me? Please?" She seemed to hold her breath while she waited for the answer, for she would hold her to it.
"Iíll try," she said, and she heard Xena start to breathe normally again. "I wonít be a burden," she promised.
"Burden?" Xena echoed incredulously. "For everything I do for you, what I get back is..." Where do I start? She began again: "I just mean to say, that I need you to take care of me, in so many ways." The words were unplanned; she had never said anything more true, and it hurt a little bit to say them, to hear the admission. If there was no Gabrielle, she would never have said them.
"So weíll be taking care of each other," Gabrielle said.
"Isnít that what weíve been doing?" Xena asked simply. It was all simple; but more needed to be said. "I love you, I care about you. I want to care for you." And gods, I need you.