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Tartarus

Chapters 12 - 13

by M. Parnell
xedi1@hotmail.com
Copyright 1997

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

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

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

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


Chapter Twelve

"Xena, if we make it a little taller, a foot maybe, weíll at least be able to kneel upright. Well, I will anyway."

Xena looked up from her work. She was weaving springy twigs into a section of wall. "Gabrielle, if we add a foot in height, weíll need to collect a quarter again as much to weave into walls, and we wonít be finished by nightfall."

"But weíll be more comfortable."

"Gabrielle, the additional work isnít justified for a temporary dwelling." Xena shook her head gently, but wondered why Gabrielle wouldnít let it go. "The sooner we finish this, the sooner we can start work on the real dwelling." She forced a smile, and nodded, hoping Gabrielle would find that reason enough to settle for the shorter dwelling. Gods, theyíd been at this since dawn, and had barely made a start. Xena squinted at the sun overhead. To the east, the horizon wore a dark mantle of clouds. She would like to have shelter from whatever was coming. Gabrielle would have to practice the basics of wattle construction another day.

"Gabrielle. Letís take a break." Lunch, then maybe the bard could be persuaded to take a nap.

Gabrielle threw down the branch she was trimming, happy for the break. "Itís looking pretty good, Xena." Xena shrugged. Sheíd built these things before, many times, with little effort. Now she might as well be building the Parthenon. It was already two feet longer than it needed to be, and one section of wall had a decided list.

"Yeah, Gabrielle, itís coming along. In fact," she ventured, "I think we can spare you to fix a meal, while I finish this section. I'm famished. This afternoon, maybe we can top it off." She bent to work again with renewed vigor.

Gabrielle smiled. She was happy to have helped, but glad for a change of task. Xena, warrior builder, certainly was determined to have her way with this little hut. Hut! It barely qualified as a shelter for pigs.

Their food supply hung from a tree in a sack. It currently consisted of bread from Hermia, and some early apples theyíd found on the way. They were mealy, and wormy. Fix a meal; the bard shook her head with dismay. "Xena. I think we should catch some fish."

Xena looked up in disbelief. "Gabrielle, I donít have time for that."

"But we only have bread and apples," she complained. "Whatís the point of being near a stream if we donít take advantage of it?"

"The fish will still be there tonight."

But Iím hungry now, Gabrielle thought. "Never mind. Iíll do it." Xena neednít do everything.

"Fine." Xena gauged her hunger, and decided she could wait. It would keep Gabrielle busy for a while, anyway. "Donít wander away, Gabrielle."

Donít wander away? "Iíll stay close by," she promised.

"Xena?" The warrior left off finishing the framework for the roof, crawled halfway out of the small construction, and craned her neck up at the bard. "That was fast. Trout?"

"Not yet," she admitted, "I canít get this thing to work." She held out a willow branch with a length of string attached.

"Work? What do you want it to do?"

"Catch fish. What else would you do with a fishing rod?" she asked.

"You might bait the line, and tie the hook so that itís not fouled by the line, and Ė "

"Xena," she said, holding up a hand to ward off the condescension, I know enough to use bait. But it falls off in the water, or else the fish nibble it away." Xena sighed and crawled into the open, bringing a laugh from Gabrielle.

"You look so funny crawling out of there," she snickered.

"Do I?" Xena asked, arching an eyebrow above a severe expression. It wasn't easy to extricate oneself from the squat structure with dignity. Wait until it's your turn.

"Let me have it," she told her, and examined the mess with a neutral expression.

"I never taught you how to make a fishing rod?" It was plain that Gabrielle had no clue.

"Nope. On those few occasions when we actually fished the conventional way, you always prepared the poles while I gathered a sampling of herbs, roots; the usual." She shrugged.

"You didn't fish as a kid?" Xena asked.

"I've told you I didn't. My dad did the fishing; I stayed home and learned to cook the fish. You should be glad I did. I've tasted your idea of fried fish."

Xena replied with a tight smile, and a quick kiss on the bard's cheek.

Gabrielle caressed the cheek, even as Xena busied herself with the fishing pole. "What was that for?"

" 'Cause I've tasted my fried fish." She had more to say, but she saw movement on the tree fringed hill which flanked them. Her eyes focused on the two figures which approached:

Hermia and Lilla, each bearing a sack. Hermia sagged under the weight of hers; Lilla's scraped the ground lightly. Gabrielle threw a smile of delight at Xena, and scooted off to meet them. Xena turned away, scowling a little at the peaks which bounded Tartarus. Hermia's little farm was within walking distance; she'd known that. She hadn't expected the woman to visit so soon.

"Xena! Look, Hermia's solved our problem."

"Which problem was that?" the warrior asked, turning to the threesome, working a smile into place.

"Lunch." The bard held up a sack before her. "Soft cheese, and olives."

Xena shot a glance at Hermia. "Where did you get it?"

Hermia's tanned face creased in a small grin. "Just know where to drop in, Xena. Natrakia keeps a herd of goats; she makes cheese. Her husband Ikar roams far afield to scavenge for goods. He came up with olives. I brought them bread this morning, and a sack of my onions. They gave me cheese and olives."

"Xena's crazy about olives. Especially green olives," Gabrielle enthused. "Right, Xena?"

But Xena was already far ahead, thinking that it would be nice to keep goats, wondering what she would need to barter for enough to start her own herd. Maybe she could capture some mountain goats, and breed them -

"Xena? Come back to us." Gabrielle took her hand and pulled her back to the moment.

"Right," Xena said a little abruptly. "Hermia, we can't just take this - "

"Nonsense. It's a gift, Xena. A welcome present."

"Still, when we've settled, we'll repay the debt."

Gabrielle stole a furtive glance at the warrior's solemn face from the corner of her eye.

"Let's eat," she suggested, and was not surprised when Xena said: "I need to finish this section." She gestured at the little shelter. "I'm not very hungry."

"Xena. It can wait. We've spent plenty of nights in the open," Gabrielle reminded her.

"No. She's right to want it finished," Hermia put in. "Weather turns quickly here. You don't want to be without shelter. Of course, you're more than welcome to stay with me, if it's too bad. Not in the shed, in the house, with the fire-warmth."

"Thanks." Xena's voice was dismissive, and she turned back to her work.

Gabrielle and Hermia ate together; their laughter carried to Xena's ears, but after a time she thrust it aside, and was conscious only of the flex of twig and branch as she wove a tight wall for survival. She became aware of Lilla standing close by, munching on a piece of coarse brown bread, spread thick with creamy cheese. When Xena looked at her, a small hand darted out, offering a cluster of green olives. Xena eyed them for a moment, then nodded and tossed them all at once into her mouth, juggling them with a nimble tongue, expelling pits as they were stripped of flesh. "Delicious," she declared at last. "Thank you." Lilla smiled and ran back to her mother. Hermia was propped on one elbow, watching. Gabrielle was still, apparently, asleep. Xena lay her work aside, and strode off to the stream. When she returned, feet muddy, boots dangling from the laces around her neck, she was carrying three good size perch in a bucket of water. She left them next to Hermia. "Take the fish with you. A little something for your trouble," she smiled. Hermia returned a grudging smile. "I meant this as a gift, Xena," she said.

"So you said."

 

"What was that all about Xena?" Gabrielle demanded. "Hermia's been very good to us, and you repaid her with rudeness." Fire touched Gabrielle's voice, and her feet were spread just a touch wider than usual: her slightly aggressive pose.

Xena continued working. She was almost finished, grateful for the distraction that had kept Gabrielle occupied for much of the afternoon. Hermia and Lilla had gone now, and it was time to face Gabrielle. She didn't look up as she spoke. "I wasn't rude. I was busy."

"Before she arrived you were ready to break for lunch. 'Famished'; isn't that what you said?"

"I changed my mind. You didn't need my company, and this seemed more important."

"You could have taken a few minutes to eat. It's as if you didn't want her company or her food. Then to make it worse, you paid her for it. She brought us a gift, and you paid her with fish."

"I thought you were asleep," Xena said, a touch of reproach in her quiet voice.

"I wasn't. I find that when you think I'm not listening, you behave just a little differently than when I am listening. Two Xenas."

"That's just to deal with the two Gabrielle's: the paragon of virtue, and the other one, who suggests with her actions, that which isn't strictly true." Gabrielle was ready to be angry at that charge, but Xena turned her head to challenge her, lips twisted in an accusatory smirk that dared the bard to deny it. "Besides," she continued, "I would have given Hermia the fish anyway. I don't want to be in her debt."

"Debt? Xena, it was a gift."

The warrior snickered. "It was no gift; there are no gifts here. She was offering me tribute."

"Gods, Xena. I'm glad I'm not as suspicious as you are. It must be awful to go through life expecting people to take advantage of you, questioning every motive."

I'm glad you're not like this, too, Xena thought. "Gabrielle, I'm not finding fault with Hermia; in her place I'd do much the same. Find a protector in a bitch of a world. If I could buy her with goat cheese and olives, I'd think it a bargain." She pointed to a length of leather cord on the ground. "Hand me that."

"Protector?" Gabrielle echoed as she slapped the cord into Xena's hand.

"Hermia has no power. She thinks I'll be the one to take care of her here."

"If she needed it, Xena, you would," Gabrielle said confidently. "That's just how you are."

"Yeah," Xena agreed. She wrapped the cord around two thick pieces of twig. The little structure was almost closed at the top. "That's how I've been." She straightened and held Gabrielle's gaze with intensely blue eyes. "I can't take care of everyone in Tartarus, Gabrielle. I can't take care of everyone within fifty miles. If I start being the protector, Nerad will see me as his rival. Then we fight; then I lose, or I become overlord. Which one do you choose for me?" she challenged. "Be careful. There are no good choices there, for a favorite of Ares."

Gabrielle took a moment to tuck some loose ends into the weave. "I didn't think of it that way, Xena. I'm sorry."

"I'm not looking for an apology. This is a mess of my own making, one way or another. You'll react to this place one way, I'll react, well, the way I react. Don't hate me 'cause I'm difficult." She ventured a crooked smile.

"Never," she promised, her voice a little husky. Xena moved behind her and held her in a warm embrace, her cheek resting on the blonde head. "The only person in all of Tartarus that matters a fig to me, is right here," she said fiercely. "I'll fight Nerad, Brachius, and any other overlord who messes with you, or our home. Otherwise they can live by their own rules." Gabrielle's brow furrowed as she tried to reconcile Xena's words with her defense of Hermia the day before. Xena went on: "We'll pay for what we get, from Hermia, and anyone else." Gabrielle nodded, dimly aware that Xena was proposing the impossible. She nodded her agreement, and wove her fingers into the warrior's sticky with the juice of the trees. "Okay, Xena."

"Now, help me finish this, and we might be pretty cozy tonight."

"You've done most of it without me," the bard protested. "How will I learn if you do it yourself?"

"You'll get plenty of practice on the real thing," Xena assured her, making a mental note to make that so. I also owe you a lesson in fishing pole construction, and we have to get that bow in your hands. "I think we'll be pretty busy," she ended.

"Oh," Gabrielle said, ducking her head coyly. "I suppose that means it will be hard to help Hermia get her crop in."

"What?"

"I told her we'd come and give her a hand."

Xena's eyes rolled to the top of her head, and her long arms rose to slice the air before slapping down against her leather.

"Xena, if you don't want to come, I'll tell her you couldn't make it."

"You'll tell her? You mean you're going anyway?"

"I promised."

"When is this happening?"

"Tomorrow. She wants to get the crop in before the weather turns."

"No."

"Excuse me?" she asked, not believing what she heard.

"I said 'No'; you're not going."

"You don't have the right to forbid me."

Xena glared at her, hands on hips, knowing the bard spoke the truth, knowing just as clearly that the bard had made an unwise decision. "I don't," she agreed, after a moment. "And you don't have the right to commit my time."

"I told you, you can stay here."

"And let you traipse around Tartarus by yourself?"

"Hermia seems to have no problem 'traipsing around' by herself."

"Hermia knows this place. People know her. You can't just take off here by yourself."

"Do you plan on being with me twenty-four hours a day?"

"Yes." It was true. Xena hadn't thought about it, just knew at once that she would never be far from the young woman.

"That's crazy."

"Okay, I'm crazy. You're not going to Hermia's by yourself. If you insist," she blew a huff of exasperation, "I'll have to go with you."

"Suit yourself," Gabrielle shot back, understanding that somehow, Xena had bent to her will, without a struggle, even while she acknowledged that she should have discussed it with Xena first.

"Get the skins." Xena disappeared inside the rough hovel, and set to work patching the places where light streamed in. Where light came in, so could cold and rain and wind. Damn Hermia, she thought as she worked. The woman had a genius for getting what she needed, and she seemed to need everything. What else would she want, she wondered darkly.

 

"In the moonlight, it looks like a dwelling for the nymphs," Gabrielle decided.

Xena chuckled. "We'll see, my bard. As long as it keeps the wind from our backs I'll be happy." They sat in front of a warm fire, happy to have each other's arms to nestle in, for the wind was from the east, and it spoke of the bare plains they'd left behind. What had passed between them of Hermia's crops had been set aside by unspoken agreement. Xena had gone fishing, and Gabrielle had collected herbs enough to season the sweet perch. So they had shared a quiet dinner, and rested from the hard work of the day.

In truth, the humble hut looked inviting. Xena wondered why they stayed outside. There was the light and warmth of the fire, but she knew Gabrielle was ready to sleep. She felt her head slump against her chest only to be jerked up again, as the young woman fought to stay awake. "Gabrielle, let's go inside," she whispered. The green eyes had golden flecks by moonlight, and Xena looked for them as they fluttered open. "Xena, I hate to leave the fire," she complained.

"We won't have it all night, Gabrielle. Once we're inside our body heat will warm that space fast enough." Thick skins had been hung from the walls, and the little shelter would be quite warm, Xena knew.

"Okay," Gabrielle agreed reluctantly. "In a minute."

"Gabrielle?" Xena asked, concerned. "Is there something wrong? I know it's not much, it's not what I want for you," she said, apology in her voice, "but - "

"No, Xena, that's not it. It's fine. I just...I don't know." She hesitated, and Xena waited, until she found her thought. "It's our first home. I never really expected this, and I'm not sure how to feel about it." She took a breath as if to explain. "When I was a kid, on Solstice morning, or on my birthday, I'd wake as early as possible, and lie still just feeling the moment, knowing that it was special, and trying to possess it, all of it. Does that make sense?"

"Yes," Xena admitted, reaching far into her memories for those special moments. Solon came to mind. She'd held him like that for a few days, committing his tiny features to memory, capturing how it felt to be a mother, before giving him away. She hoped Kaliopes would hear of her sentence, and not assume she'd just lost interest in her son.

"This is like that, Xena. I want to hold this moment, and own it forever. I donít know if I'm ready for that."

"Gabrielle, this not quite our home. That's a little ways off. This is just a shelter."

"No." The blonde head shook emphatically. "This is where we will wake up tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. We'll look at these same trees, and see the mountains in the same position. This is permanent, Xena. This makes us permanent."

"Because we've stopped in one place?" Xena was puzzled. "Gabrielle, wherever we've been, as long as you've been there, it's been my home."

The bard smiled. "Did I tell you that Tartarus is bringing out the romantic in you?" She took a long moment to find Xena's lips in the flickering firelight. "You're my home too, Xena," she assured her. "But now the world knows that this is our home. Somehow, that makes it different. Not better, just different." Xena's nod against her shoulder was uncertain. "Never mind. I just want to hang on to this evening. Once I fall asleep it will end."

"Who said anything about sleep?" Xena growled into her ear, then nipped at the lobe, letting her tongue trace the outer circles. "I think we built in enough room for our needs, my sweet bard." She moved a hand to Gabrielle's bodice, and snaked a hand inside the scant covering. "Unless you'd like to sit here enjoying the moment all night?" she suggested, smiling as a low moan escaped the woman. "Thought not," she declared, and rose with one motion, the bard cradled in strong arms.

Chapter Thirteen

Gabrielle sighed. In that sigh Xena heard a world of contentment. They had been happy, here, in this tiny space for one night, the rest of the world shut out, the droning wind turned away, the darkness no match for the world they'd built together. It was pleasantly warm under the blanket they shared, although the morning air held a chill. In the dim light, the warrior could make out their few possessions crammed at the edges of the furry skin that was their bed: her weapons, the bag which held the scrolls, and other bags, bulging, with what, Xena couldn't quite recall. She shifted her weight carefully, so that the smaller woman who lay sprawled across her would not be disturbed. She almost sighed with contentment herself, but one part of her mind was already arranging the day's tasks, chiefly, helping Hermia bring in her crop. She couldn't imagine it would be a one day job, unless others were coming to help, and Gabrielle hadn't mentioned that possibility. Could be they'd do nothing today except harvest. Then back to bed. That wouldn't be so bad, she decided, except there was so much else to - A noise outside brought her to her knees, and her sword appeared in her hand before she poked her head through the doorway. Gabrielle woke at the sudden movement and followed Xena outside, rubbing her eyes, asking what was wrong.

Xena stood looking at the nearest tree, a good thirty yards away. A large sack was suspended from a branch, out of the reach of wild animals. She had scanned the area, and detected no one. Sword in hand she approached the tree, pulled at the release knot which held the sack and let it fall into her arms.

"What is it, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, as she caught up to the warrior.

"Tribute," Xena said with disgust. Inside the sack was a haunch of venison, roasted. The sack bore crude markings, rather like initials.

Gabrielle watched the tan face darken, and remembered the warrior's words of the day before.

"Damn," the warrior mouthed.

"Xena, can't you just leave it here?"

"No," the dark head shook slowly. "Wasting food here would be a sin by any standard."

"Give it back? There is a name attached." No point leaving tribute if no one knew who left it.

"That would be an insult."

"Give it away? To Hermia?"

"That would be seen as me spreading my wealth to my favorites. Still means I accepted it."

"So..." Xena watched the bard think, wondering if she'd come up with the answer. The blonde head nodded in understanding. "You pay for it."

"Exactly," Xena said, pleased at the bard's acumen. "I pay for it." She thrust the sack at the bard. "Here's breakfast," and fetched the bow and quiver of arrows.

 

An hour later they were at the approach to Hermia's farm, already in sight of the further reaches of the scraggly crops. The threatening clouds of the day before had been swept away; Hermia's luck seemed to be holding. Gabrielle was settled comfortably in the roomy saddle, but a worried frown played on her lips. "Xena are you sure it was safe to leave our things there? I mean, anyone could ransack the place."

"Gabrielle?" She answered the question with one of her own: "Do you think I love you less than you love your scrolls?"

"What?"

"You're worried about leaving your scrolls unattended for a few hours. Yet you think I'm silly to worry about you roaming around here by yourself." The bard was silent. "I don't know if it's safe Gabrielle. I do know we can't take all our belongings with us every time we leave there. Leave home," she amended.

"I suppose not," the bard conceded.

"But I sure as Hades don't plan on leaving you alone," she swore. "So get use to it."

The sack which had contained the venison hung from Argo's saddle. It was still full, but now it contained a brace of game birds. Xena didn't know if it would be considered an even exchange, but it would make her point.

"I'm sorry we didnít get to sleep in, today," Gabrielle was saying. Surprised at how comfortable she'd felt in the little shelter. "I'd like to have enjoyed our place a while."

"Savor the moment?" Shouldn't have arranged to work in someone else's fields.

"Yes. It was cozy. You were there. I think I can be happy with just that."

I hope so, Gabrielle, the warrior thought, because that's about all you'll ever have.

 

They were not to be alone that day. Workers were already in the fields; they stopped to watch as they glimpsed the unfamiliar golden mare. The age-old work was the same all over, men and woman swinging sickles in the familiar left to right motion, catching the stalks of grain as they fell to the left. The bundle was tied with a deft movement, with long tough grasses watered by oxen. Bundles of wheat were left behind to be neatly stacked in the cart which would come by later. Xena watched in appreciation, remembering the diligent workers of Amphipolis.

"They work fast, Xena. Maybe they'll finish before we get started," the bard said hopefully.

"That'd be nice," Xena agreed, "but don't count on it, they have a long ways to go." The scruffy mongrel skirted their path, remembering Xena's first visit.

 

Hermia walked in from the field, sickle by her side, hair covered in a loosely tied scarf.

"Good to see you," she said, beaming. "It got so late, I thought - "

"Something came up," Xena cut in. "Do you recognize these initials?" She held out the sack.

"Archon." She pointed to the nearest field. A tall, bare-chested man had stopped working and watched them with interest.

"Thanks," Xena said over her shoulder as she strode out to him. Hermia looked a query at Gabrielle; the young woman shrugged.

"Archon," Xena said loudly, as if to alert anyone in earshot to hear her words. "I'd like to return your sack." She thrust it at him. He hefted it, and grinned uncomfortably as he peered inside. "I meant that as a gift, Xena," he told her. He was still young, well-muscled, his face ruggedly handsome; Xena wondered why he wasn't a warrior for some overlord here in Tartarus.

"I know. Gifts make me uncomfortable," she replied. "Hope you don't feel the same, 'cause there's one for you. Besides, there's only the two of us. I'm giving most of the meat to Hermia, rather than see it spoil. Thanks for the thought." She turned and walked back to the waiting Gabrielle and Hermia. "Let's get to work," she declared. Hermia gave her a sickle. To Gabrielle she said: "Lots of things need to be done in the kitchen. I'll get you started there." Xena rolled her eyes in mock indignation.

"Hermia, really, I'd rather work alongside everyone else," Gabrielle protested.

"Nonsense, Gabrielle," Xena smiled. "Someone's got to feed us field hands." She pulled the bard close for a wet kiss, then trooped out to the field.

 

The morning was long, the sun hot. Xena worked in her leather battle dress, breastplate and weapons nearby. She done this of necessity as a child, when the whole village was pressed into harvest service. The young girls mostly had other chores, like Gabrielle now, in the kitchens, or following behind gleaning what would have been lost. Xena had been big for her age, and quick to learn. She'd also begged to be let out of the kitchen in her mother's inn, and found her place alongside the men and boys, yielding a sickle with the best of them.

They laid their tools aside now, at the clang of Hermia's pot-lifter against a pot-lid, and headed to the trough to wash up before a hearty mid-day meal. This had always been when she'd been set aside, she recalled with distaste, when the men sat down to eat, and she was sent to the kitchen with the women. Xena plunged her arms in the trough past her elbows, and splashed cool water over her head and neck, remembering how her face had burned with humiliation then.

Gabrielle watched from where she ladled helpings of vegetable stew, into rough wooden bowls. The warrior was tanner, if anything. She put the pot down and sidled up to her, a rough towel in hand, and began to mop the rivulets of water that ran down her back. Xena straightened at her touch. "You swing a mean sickle, lady," the smaller woman growled, rubbing the towel over the broad shoulders. "You'll make a heck of a farmer."

Xena turned to let her see the distaste evident on her face. "Farmer? No. I'm no farmer."

Gabrielle was puzzled. "You aren't going to farm? What else is there to do?"

""I'll hunt; trap; fish. I'll provide for us. If you want to pull things out of the ground, you'll have to become a farmer," she said flatly.

"Oh."

 

The reapers were seated, wielding wooden spoons with one hand and chunks of bread with the other, mouths stuffed, juices trickling from the corners. Xena sat at an empty place, and pulled Gabrielle down beside her.

"None of that," said a beefy woman who had been in the field beside Xena. "Kitchen workers eat after us," she piped up. A chorus of grunts supported her. "Into the kitchen with the wives."

"It's all right, Xena," Gabrielle said quietly, and began to rise.

"No, it's not," Xena breathed for her ears only, then raised her voice: "She spent the morning working, same as we have." She snarled. Gabrielle probably made this stew we're eating, she had decided. She knew Gabrielle's touch. While she spoke, she filled a dish, tore off a chunk of bread, and placed it before Gabrielle. The bard smiled apologetically, and followed Xena's lead, lifting hearty spoonfuls of the fragrant stew to her mouth.

The table grew silent, but for the noise of eating. The men looked at Gabrielle with interest. Xena met their eyes, one by one, with a silent message to look elsewhere.

Xena took a long draught of Hermia's ale and called to the woman: "If this wheat produces this brew I'd bring it all in myself."

She looked at her fellow diners. They'd worked without introductions, and although she was sure they knew her name, she told them anyway. "My name is Xena." She gave Gabrielle a soft kick under the table "I'm Gabrielle. I'm Xena's partner." Five heads nodded uncertainly. Hermia stepped in smoothly, and began to point out the other workers. The beefy woman was Cramma. Xena eyed her carefully, letting her know she had captured the warrior's attention. "You're a strong woman, Cramma. Do you have your own farm?"

"Chickens. Pigs. Root vegetables. I have to be strong. My husband's on the other side."

"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said.

"I'm not. His temper is why I'm here. I was his target often enough." She turned back to her meal. Xena guessed the woman had given as good as she'd got.

The others were named: Parmenter, who was the joiner, Photor, the-tinker-barrel maker-smith, and Archon, the farmer. At the end of the table, Cutrous spoke for himself. "I'm Cutrous. I'm passing through." Xena regarded him evenly, then her white teeth flashed in a bitter smile. "Aren't you lucky." The others laughed at her deliberate misinterpretation. His brand was as obvious as any, the earring visible despite his long hair. The men all wore the earring.

"Xena. I never thought they'd take you. I was at Corinth," he explained. "Not a soldier,

really. I was put to work building the engines of war. Parmenter's voice rasped as he spoke. A rag wrapped around his throat didn't hide completely the jagged scar which encircled his neck. "Had to be treachery," he guessed.

"Something like that," she confirmed. The question was not unexpected. She would be known to much of the population of Tartarus. It still seemed impossible to her that she'd been captured and held, transported to a penal colony. At her side, Gabrielle showed no sign of her lingering guilt over the capture, except to Xena. A tanned hand covered the bard's, while she continued: "I would have been home free, but for the treachery of a little weasel. You'll excuse me if I'm not quick to trust." That placed it all on Gaederus. She hoped Gabrielle would come to accept that.

"How'd you escape the brand, Xena?" Cutrous asked. "You and your lady."

"I asked nicely," she answered truthfully. The table stopped to consider, sure there was more to it, but the dog began to bark.

Far along the road two figures were moving into view. Brown tunics. One tall, a lumbering bear of a man. The other smaller, sashaying behind. Xena's scowled

"Xena. Isn't that Arthea and Lutus?" Gabrielle stood and shielded her eyes from the sun.

"Yeah, Gabrielle." Bad dinars always turn up.

 

The two ambled closer, in no hurry, or unable to move faster. Tartarus had not been kind to them: they were barefoot. Lutus had lost weight, but his body had not been toned; loose flesh hung around him in folds. He eyed the table furtively as he approached, fixing a smile on his unshaven face. Arthea's sunken eyes swept the assembly around the table, lingering on Gabrielle, before fixing on Xena.

The warrior rose to greet them. "Lutus. Arthea," she said simply, hiding her surprise that they'd made it this far. Hermia watched warily. She would not feed those who hadn't worked for it. These two didn't look capable of work. She lifted the pot. "The women are waiting to eat."

Lutus stepped forward, "I'd, uh, we'd work hard for a meal,' he said, pleading in his voice.

"Got enough workers," Hermia threw at him. Gabrielle's mouth dropped. She hadn't expected this.

"I'm finished," she announced, and handed the bowl to Arthea. Xena's head moved in silent disapproval. Hermia was not silent. "Gabrielle, you earned that."

"Then I'll do with it as I please." She smiled to avoid giving offense to Hermia. Xena's bowl was nearly empty, but she handed it to Gabrielle, who passed it in turn to Lutus.

"I'm sure they'll pitch in this afternoon, Hermia," Gabrielle told her.

"Got enough workers," she repeated, yet filled the bowls of the two newcomers before entering the house.

Lutus and Arthea were already downing the contents of the bowls, unashamed. Cramma glared at them. The others spoke quietly, ignoring their presence.

"We heard you'd come this way, Xena," Lutus was saying.

"Heard? Who were you talking with?"

"Ileander. He's settling here with Drax, a few miles away. Good to know you've got friends in a place like this," he pronounced, for the benefit of the table. "I expect you'll see a lot of your old mates," he continued. "Xena saved us all out there." His booming voice filled the tiny farmyard as he began the tale of the cistern. Xena's jaw tightened; she left the table. As she retrieved her sickle the words "Queen of Prestia" drifted over to her. Damn Ileander.

 

The moon cast shadows that made Gabrielle start when her eyes were open, so she closed them, and let her head rest against Xena's back, as she had so many times, content to let the road pass by unseen. "Xena?"

"Hmmm?"

It's funny. Today didn't seem much different than any other day, any place else. I mean, those people didn't seem threatening, or scary. They were just like us."

"Like me, maybe," Xena chuckled. "Not like you. I think they could be plenty scary if it suited them." And the worst of the lot will be about Nerad's business. Wonder when we'll meet them?

"Archon's wife was sweet. Sepra. She's pregnant. Did you know Archon's been here since he was fourteen? He met Sepra here. She was born here. Her father was sent here through a miscarriage of justice." Xena cast a look of wonder to the sky. The bard would believe almost anything.

"Tartarus has been good to Archon, by the look of him. I suppose he's innocent too?"

Gabrielle noted the skepticism in Xena's voice, but was too tired to make an issue of it.

"Archon was an orphan. He took up with a gang of thieves when he was very young."

"Guess he was young if he was here by fourteen. He learned to farm here?"

"From Sepra's father. He worked for them. Her father's dead now. They still work the farm." She was silent a moment. "Sepra said she's seen a lot of overlords. They come and go violently. Makes a mess for everyone."

"And?" It was the same sort of tale Hermia had to tell.

"And she - they'd like you to be overlord."

"Sure. Archon, and Sepra, Hermia, Lutus and Arthea. Even Drax. Only it's not gonna happen Gabrielle. They'd better all get used to it."

Gabrielle sighed. The breath was warm where it touched Xena's back, bare above her battledress. "Lutus gave you quite a buildup, Xena. You're the all-wise, all-powerful, warrior, problem solver and healer."

"He said that?" She snorted incredulously. "I was tied to a wagon away from all of them for most of the journey."

"Well, what he didn't tell them Arthea told the women, after they all went back to the fields. I tried to take attention away from her with some stories of my own, but they only wanted to hear about you." Silence greeted her. "Are you all right?"

"Yep. Just wondering why in all of Tartarus Lutus and Arthea had to settle here. And, of course, I know the answer: I'm here."

"I'm glad to know Arthea's all right anyway."

"I told you not to worry so much about her," she snapped, took a breath, then said more gently : "She's a survivor. What did she ever do to earn her meal?"

The bard considered. "Not much," she decided. "She spent the afternoon with the rest of us, yet, she never did any work. Hmmm."

"Well, Lutus worked a little harder. Us folk out in the field could be scary," she told her, dropping her voice for effect. "They would have worked a lot harder if the meal came after. That was Hermia's point."

"I should have stayed out of it?"

Xena was a long time answering. "On Hermia's home ground, yes. She works hard to feed herself and Lilla. It doesnít help to encourage leeches."

"Xena, one meal doesn't make them leeches."

Xena grunted, and shrugged. "We'll see."

Continued - Chapters 14 - 15


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