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by M. Parnell 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.
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.
Gabrielle blinked against the sun and admitted warily that she liked Tartarus. They'd slept late, breakfasted on venison and berries Xena had found before the bard awoke. Xena was busy now, twenty yards away, a length of cord in one hand and a bunch of stakes in the other.
She whistled as she worked, threw occasional questions to the bard, and muttered to herself as she laid the outline for the house she prepared to build. This structure would be on the lower of two crests on the site, mostly sheltered from the wind and prying eyes by the taller hill, which sloped gently east to west. The bard loved watching her work, waited for the quick frowns of concentration as she puzzled through a problem, and the sudden smiles which appeared when the problem was resolved. Xena in Tartarus. Gabrielle wondered why this place, which held so many terrors, should produce a Xena who, despite her worries, was at once more relaxed, more playful and more open. It was a mystery, which Gabrielle looked forward to solving. If only Xena would slow down...
"Come over here, Gabrielle," Xena called now, and the bard sat up to rest on her elbows.
"Come on," she urged, and waited impatiently while the blonde made her way to the grid work of cord. At last she spread her arms. "Welcome to our new home. Still have a little work to do, of course. Ah, watch your head." She guided the bard through a doorway which had not yet been built, to stand in the center of a room which would be the only room for some time. "How does it feel?" the warrior asked, looking around as if she could see the whole structure. "The window will go here. Glass will be a problem of course, but we'll work somethin' out." She took the smaller woman by the shoulders and guided her to face the stream which curved softly around the foot of the hill. The window would face the stream, and the setting sun and the peaks. "Didn't want the sun in your eyes too early," Xena told her. "The door, over there." She turned the bard to face the opposite wall. "We'll spread out this way," she pointed to the south. "I'll put the chimney on that wall, so, one day, the fire will warm two rooms."
This place was real to Xena, Gabrielle knew, and she joined in the game. "Here," she stood in the center of the room, "we'll have our table. We'll eat here; at night you'll sharpen your sword, and mend your stuff. Like always. Don't you ever take a break?"
Xena froze for a moment, saw the weary look on the bard's face and fixed a smile on her own. "And you'll write your stories," she managed. Scrolls would be a problem, Xena realized, not for the first time, but if they got that herd of goats...
Something had changed in the warrior's mood, and Gabrielle sought to fix it. "It feels good, Xena. Like home." She was rewarded with pure sunshine.
"Good; and that's it for the day. I'm declaring a holiday."
"What?" Gabrielle asked, astonished at this Xena.
"A holiday. I've earned it. Today I play, and rest, and enjoy myself. What are your plans?" she asked deadpan, and it took Gabrielle a moment to realize she was joking.
Gods, I think I do love Tartarus, she admitted a second time. "I think I'll join you."
"Even better." Xena's eyes lit above a feral grin, and she pulled the bard to a far corner of the ground. "The bed goes right here." She knelt before the bard, buried her face in the short skirt that covered her thighs and wrapped her arms around her hips. Gabrielle clenched her fists in the silky dark hair, and let the warrior pull her down to the lush grass. "Xena, this is so public."
"At this moment, I don't care, Gabrielle," she breathed, between deep kisses that took left the bard not caring either.
"Humph. Some holiday." Xena ignored the complaint, and walked back to Gabrielle, clutching a handful of arrows.
"Try again. Remember, you can't do anything if you aren't breathing."
"Amazing how I breathed all my life without thinking about it."
"Yeah. Kind of like suddenly becoming aware of your tongue." The bard stopped, concentrated on the object which had grown to mammoth proportions inside her mouth. She looked crossly at Xena. "At least you won't think about breathing for a while," Xena explained with a sly grin. "C'mon. Try again."
"Xena, I'll never be any good at this."
"Not with that attitude," the warrior agreed. "Once you decide to learn the weapon, you will."
"Xena - "
"I saw how you learned the staff.," she was reminded. "I know you can do it."
The bard tossed the bow to Xena. "I'll let you know when I decide to learn. Now, I think I'll resume my holiday." Xena looked after her in frustration. The bard settled down to sleep, face pillowed on her forearms.
Xena took the axe from its resting place in the trunk of a fallen log, and attacked a tree at the foot of the hill. The strokes were sure, biting into the hard wood, in rapid succession. Xena paused only once, taking the measure of the tree, knowing its life was over, knowing it would exist still, dead wood. She grunted mightily with the final blow, and stood back. Gabrielle woke to see the tableau, nearly frozen, as the tree teetered between earth and sky. It fell softly, she noted, making little sound for all its size. Xena fell on it like a wolf on its prey.
"I thought you were resting today?" Gabrielle stood at Xena's shoulder. The axe moved in small, precise strokes, squaring off the log.
Xena glanced over her shoulder. "I thought I'd get a little work done while you napped."
"What's that supposed to mean?" the bard asked defensively.
"It means, I thought I'd get a little work done while you napped."
"You're angry aren't you," she accused.
"Don't be ridiculous. Why would I be angry?"
"Because I didn't want to learn to shoot the arrows; and you're taking out your aggression on that poor tree."
"This 'poor tree' was destined for this from the minute we decided to settle here." Xena turned back to the log.
"Just a coincidence that you had to chop it down right now?"
"Why not now?" The warrior's brow wrinkled quizzically. "I wasn't doing anything else."
"Ah! But you planned on doing nothing. Suddenly, you're doing something."
"Yeah. Well, 'nothing' seemed like so little to do. I'm not used to that," she acknowledged. With a grunt she turned the log to work on another side.
"You're mad at me because I wouldn't practice with the bow," the bard said with certainty.
"I'm not mad, Gabrielle. Disappointed," she conceded. "Because it's important. Still, as long as you put in some serious time before the bad weather sets in, it might be all right. I'd just hate to see you spend months convincing yourself you can't do it."
"You don't think I'm going to stand out here all winter freezing my butt off showing you how to shoot?" she asked amiably. "I'd like to be relaxing by the hearth, which is why I'd like to get the house underway, so..." She gestured toward the log. "I thought I'd get started." She raised an eyebrow. "Was there anything else?" There was, but Gabrielle couldn't argue with someone who had conceded every point. "No," she mumbled, and backed away.
The noises were unmistakable; Xena made no reaction.
"Xena, I know you can hear me," Gabrielle shouted across the field. "You probably could hear me in Potadeia." Her words were accompanied by the soft sound of an arrow being notched in a bow string. Xena was careful to keep her face turned from the bard. A smug smile would not be productive now.
"I'm planting my feet the way you showed me. My hand is gripping the bow, uh, sorry, 'knowing' the bow, and the arrow is directed at the target. If all goes well, you should hear the satisfying thunk of an arrow into a tree trunk any moment now. Are you listening? I know you are," she went on, without waiting for an answer. "Here it goes."
The air was pierced with a 'phhhhhht', ending in a soft, brief, rustles of leaves. The low bush next to the tree. Xena could picture it, and nodded approvingly, her back still to the scene. "That's the closest you've come all day. Try turning your left foot like I showed ya, and make sure you don't drop the bow when you release the string."
She hadn't even turned to look, and was diagnosing the problem. It was beyond frustrating, and the bard's lips twisted in a sneer, ready to scorch the warrior's all-too-clever ears, then Xena called out a final reminder: "Don't forget to breathe," and the bard's anger was lost. She notched another arrow, ran through her checklist one last time, and let the arrow fly. Thunk. Xena smiled at the sound, and turned around at last. The arrow had barely hit its mark, but it would do for a start. "Thought you couldn't do it?" she commented.
"Lucky shot," Gabrielle said indifferently.
"Funny how luck seems to find the people who work hardest. Try again." Xena urged.
"I think I'll quit while I'm ahead of the game. I might shoot fifty more arrows before I hit the target again."
"Or, you might - "
"Xena," she cut her off. "How long did it take you to master the bow?"
A pause. A shrug. "Years; I learned it as a game when I was a kid."
"So cut me some slack; I mean I wasn't born with a natural tendency to excel at the deadlier skills." She laughed, and moved to the tree to collect the two arrows. Behind her Xena's mouth tightened a little; the axe started moving again, an inexorable whacking that continued through the bard's idle chatter.
Xena paused at the crest of the hill, wiped the back of her hand across her brow, and bent to loosen the hitch knot which bound the log. Two trees felled and trimmed in a day. Not a record, but she wasn't going for records; just survival. The day was warmer than the day before. Winter seemed less imminent. There was time to rouse Gabrielle and explore the surrounding area, maybe lay some snares. She arched her back, then rubbed Argo's broad back, appreciative of her strength. There were still some apples, she knew, and Argo was not fussy about the occasional worm.
"Gabrielle," she called, nudging the bard's foot with her own as she went by. "You'll sleep your life away." Then: why not, she asked herself? Tartarus isn't anyone's first choice for a life. But the compact figure stirred, yawned and stretched, her back against the oak which had sheltered her from the sun. "Where's the fire, Xena? I don't think much of your idea of a holiday."
Xena pulled four apples from the sack of food which hung suspended from a branch, out of the reach of most predators. "Apple?" she called, and tossed one after the other in the air, juggling them as she walked. One flew out of the tumbling circle to land in the bard's lap.
"Now there's something really useful you could teach me, Xena," she said. Xena's lips curled in a mischievous grin. "The winter is long, my bard."
"I jest, Xena," she said desperately, but a faint jiggle of metal, as on a harness, had captured the attention of both. Xena's weapons were in easy reach, and she discarded the apples to toss herself in the air to fetch them. She waited, and watched, ready for whatever Tartarus had in store, and Gabrielle watched her, ready to follow any command.
Gabrielle was sure the sweat-begrimed face betrayed the shock of recognition when the man and his team of oxen came into view. He walked behind, directing them with tugs on the reins, and soft clicking noises with his tongue. A load of trimmed wood was dragged in the wake of the oxen, secured by a stout chain. Without a word, or a glance toward the warrior or the bard, the man released the lumber from the chain and left it lying next to Xena's product. He straightened and looked her in the eye. A bushy beard grew to meet his long, matted hair, together, they obscured his face, but for the eyes. Those twinkled as he took in the site. His gaze lingered for a long time on Gabrielle, as if committing her to memory. No one moved for a long moment, then he advanced on the little hovel and poked his head inside. After a second, he disappeared. Gabrielle half rose, but a motion from Xena urged her to stillness. He emerged with a sheepskin in hand, and held it before him, speculatively. Xena nodded.
Gabrielle watched the silent exchange, bewildered. Xena could have equaled the load of lumber with a full days work, and the sheepskin had a significance. As the oxen move away without their load she crossed quietly to Xena, who watched his departure. "What was that all about? Why did you let him just take the sheepskin? We didn't need his wood. Do you know him from before?"
"It wasn't just the wood, Gabrielle," although one, large, misshapen piece had caught her eye. She tore her look away from the man. "And, yes, I know him. Hekatore. He was with my army. A valuable member."
"He doesn't seem much like a warrior."
"He wasn't. He's a blood-stopper."
"Blood stopper? I don't know what that is? A healer?"
"No," Xena paused, eyes narrowed in concentration as she sought the right words. "He just stops bleeding. I don't know how he does it, he doesn't use stitching; he doesn't cauterize. Just looks at you. Or touches you, and the bleeding stops. He doesn't even have to be in your presence. Very strange. But it works. I'm living proof."
Gabrielle's eyes asked the question.
"My army looted a village." Gods, how many times have I started a tale from my past that way? "There was no real resistance, but one of the villagers got bold with a pitchfork. He threw the damn thing, and one prong pierced me here. Freaky thing. Lucky." She pointed to a place mid-chest. Her eyes lost their focus for a moment. Guess he wasn't really lucky. He had been gutted on the spot. "Anyway, it wasn't a large wound, but it was deep; nicked my liver. I was bleeding inside. It wasn't apparent to everyone, but it wouldn't stop. I knew I was dying." A chill touched Gabrielle, and she put a hand on Xena's arm, late comfort for a hard moment. Xena smiled, wondering at the gift she'd received, undeserving. "When will you ever get tired of these stories?"
"When you don't need to tell them anymore."
She took a breath, and continued. "I could feel the life-force leaving me, faster every hour. You'd think I'd lighten up at a moment like that, find a bit of mercy in my soul. Instead I determined to make the village pay. How dare they defend themselves?" she asked, self-mockingly. "I ordered every third man to be rounded up and held in a small shed; if I died, they'd die with me: my pyre." Gabrielle's gaze was unflinching, seeing the worst, and beyond. She found her voice. "Then Hekatore saved you?" she asked wanting the dreadful story to end.
"Hekatore was from that village. He wasn't slated to die. He stepped forward and offered his services to save me if I let the others live." She pictured him still, standing solemnly over her, passing his hand lightly over her bare torso, and stepping back. Her lieutenant had cuffed him, certain he'd been mocking the Warrior Princess with his offer. Xena knew he had already done his work. She had risen with an effort to defend him, and thank him.
"He did his work," she said simply.
"So just now, you were paying a favor?"
"No," Xena shook her head. "He was well paid for that. The others were released. When we left, the next day, he begged to come with us."
"He was an outcast in his own village, Gabrielle," she explained. "His power made him different. He wanted to get away, and my army was his vehicle." Not the first person to follow me out of town, she mused, or the last.
"I guess he'd be handy after a battle," the bard concluded.
"He could be."
"So, is he a mystic? A holy man? Does he get his power from some god?"
"I doubt if he knows. He's certainly no holy man. He doesn't use his powers for everyone. He picks and chooses. He stopped the blood of my soldiers because it was his job. He'd turn his back on everyone else if it suited him." She moistened her lips. "He stopped the blood of one of my lieutenants, who'd been sliced with a battle axe. The man scoffed; said Hekatore hadn't done anything.
Hekatore was on the other side of the camp when he heard of the comment. He said 'All right. I've done nothing'. The bleeding started again at that moment. The doubter was dead in minutes. After that the men turned against him. He soon left camp. I don't think he's got anything against me," she said searching her memory. Today's visit had been reassuring on that point. "His good will is worth far more than a sheepskin."
Gabrielle pulled a face. "Xena, your mother gave you that sheepskin the last time you were home."
"I know that."
The bard gestured, as if unwilling to state the obvious. "I forget you aren't a sentimentalist, Xena. I'm just thinking that it's not as if she'll ever give you - "
"Gabrielle." Xena stopped her firmly. "No one can carry away the important things my mother gave me; I can't give that treasure away. At times, I've turned my back on those things, but..." Her voice trailed off, as she realized the impossibility of putting it all in words. "Let's just say, I don't accumulate a lot of stuff anymore. I've seen - I've caused, too much destruction to put a lot of store in things."
"I guess I know that, Xena. The truth is, I hate to see it go. One more thing of the outside, gone."
The outside. More precious, more distant everyday to the bard. She'll regret this choice soon, Xena decided. Too soon. Silently, she put an arm around her shoulders. Gabrielle wrapped an arm around her waist, and they stood in companionable silence for a while.
"I wonder why he's here?" Gabrielle asked at last.
"Who knows. I get the feeling if I stood in one spot long enough here, everyone one I've ever known would drop by for a visit."
"It's your magnetic personality, Xena. I doubt if I'll meet any of my friends here," she mused, with a hint of regret.
"I didn't say they'd all be friends, Gabrielle. Still, I'm sure you're right. Your friends wouldn't be conversant in the deadlier skills that land people here." There was an edge in Xena's voice she didn't intend, and Gabrielle looked at her askance, wondering where it came from. Maybe it was Hekatore.
"I'm going to set snares. Get your staff," she commanded. "you may as well begin to learn this." Gabrielle knew that Xena set snares, knew she'd eaten countless rabbits from those snares. She also knew she didn't want to set snares. Or check them for game. But the warrior was waiting, cord in hand, and there was no easy way out of this. Turnabout, however, was fair play. "Coming, Xena."
"The gods must love rabbit, Gabrielle, they made them so plentiful." Xena had mellowed over the course of a few hours. Gabrielle took much of the credit. She'd been a willing and apt student, setting snares with skill, after a few disasters and lengths of cord ruinously tangled. And why not? She had been planning her own course of study while they trudged through the forest. The unsuspecting warrior smiled; the bard smiled in return. The plump hare was skinned and gutted.
"How do you want him, Gabrielle? Quartered? Or is he to be spitted whole?" The sharp knife Xena used for such chores was poised for action.
"Whatever you like, Xena. Do you want to roast, or stew?"
"Hmmm? Do I? What are you talking about?" she asked, suddenly uneasy.
"Didn't I tell you? You're cooking tonight."
Xena laughed heartily. "Good one, Gabrielle. Now get serious, I'm hungry."
"Oh, I'm serious, Warrior Princess. You are cooking tonight."
"Gabrielle, I don't cook."
"Well, Xena, it's time you learned. Don't worry. I'll be there to guide your first, pathetic efforts."
The knife was lowered, slowly, to the tree stump that served as her cutting board. "No. I don't cook, Gabrielle, so let's make sense here. We are hungry, we have the good fortune to have food available." She held up the rabbit by a leg. "We have two choices: We play games and go hungry, or you cook and we eat."
"There is another choice, Xena. You drop the attitude and learn to cook."
"Attitude?" she hissed. Without letting go of the rabbit her hands moved to her hips and rested there, while she eyed the bard dangerously.
"You heard me: attitude. 'I can't cook'. Whining is so unattractive in a warrior."
Whining? The bard was pushing all the right buttons, and they both knew it. "You've tasted my results, Gabrielle. I don't recall many compliments for my efforts."
"Efforts? That word suggests some reasonable attempt to achieve a satisfactory outcome.
In those terms, I don’t recall any 'efforts'. I do recall some moments you spent before a fire incinerating what might have been succulent meat under other circumstances. Burnt or raw. Rubbed with pepper until your mouth blisters, or so bland I think I'm munching on a scroll."
"You proved my point beautifully," Xena retorted. "I can't cook."
"You don’t want to cook, because it’s not a warrior skill. It belongs to the realm of the rest of us, the non-warriors. Isn't that right?"
Xena snorted softly, and shook her head, a sarcastic smile not quite bold enough to appear on her face. "That's ridiculous."
"No; I think it's dead-on. You divide the world into two groups, warriors, and everybody else. There are the skills of a warrior, and the skills of the rest of the human population. I think you don't have much respect for cooking," the bard continued, "it's beneath you."
Xena rebelled at the notion. "You think I have no respect for your skills?"
"Not quite. You respect my skills as things I can do, talents I have. You don't value them as highly as you do the warrior arts."
"The deadly arts," Xena suggested.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said, wondering why that sounded familiar.
"And you respect the warrior arts?" Xena challenged.
"As you practice them, now? Yes, I do. You are an extraordinary warrior, creative, graceful; fluid energy." She risked a small smile. "Do you remember how I aspired to be like you?" Xena nodded slowly, and smiled at the still-fresh image of the young, very young girl who'd tagged along, playing at warrior. "I don't have those skills, Xena. I could never develop them to be a real warrior, let alone rival you. You're in a class of your own. And I don't want that any more. But yes, I do respect your skills; you must know that. You, though, would never aspire to mine."
"Gabrielle, I could never be a bard, any more than you could be a warrior," Xena said flatly. "It doesn’t mean I don't respect your skills."
"You have never respected cooking," she accused. "Much as you like good food. When you were a kid your mother couldn't keep you in the kitchen. She told me." Her tone was deadly earnest.
"That's right," Xena said defiantly. "I didn't like kitchen work then, I don't like cooking, and I'm not about to waste my time learning to cook."
"If I have to learn to hunt, you have to learn to cook." The bard was adamant. The warrior was logical: "Gabrielle, cooking isn't a matter of survival."
"Xena, if I wasn't here, what kind of food would you eat?"
Xena scowled. "Don't talk like that."
Oh?" Gabrielle asked, lips twisted in a sardonic smile. "I can contemplate how I'd survive without you, but it doesn't work the other way?"
Xena released the rabbit, letting it fall on the stump. One leg was almost twisted off. She sat heavily on a log. "I'd eat."
"So, I'm pretty dispensable, as far as survival goes. You'd still eat."
Survive without you? Xena scuffed the ground with the toe of her boot. "I didn't say I'd enjoy it."
"So, my skills matter?"
"Of course they do." Gabrielle looked for the muscles in her jaw to clench; they did, and the characteristic twitch of the right jaw muscles was visible even at this distance. The warrior was on the point of something, explosion, surrender, or retreat.
"You heard me. Why?" She shrugged. "What purpose do my talents serve?" This was a hard one, and Gabrielle waited, giving the warrior plenty of time to frame an answer, wondering what it might be.
After a long time, she had an answer; she relaxed her throat with an effort, so she could say the words. Surrender: "Sometimes it's only been you that's made life bearable. You have a...gentling effect, Gabrielle. I don't frighten myself nearly as much as I used to." Her words were quiet, heartfelt, yet her eyes were gem-like in their hardness, defying Gabrielle to look deeper. A very difficult surrender, Gabrielle realized with appreciation.
Shetook six purposeful steps, held out a hand to the warrior, and coaxed her to her feet. "I want you to enjoy life, Xena. I don't want to think of you eating that stuff you cook." She encircled the warrior's waist with a fierce hug. "I know what foods you like, and how you like them cooked. You get enjoyment from food, Xena. If I wasn't here," she moved a hand to Xena's face, and cupped her cheek, " I'd like to know you could have that much, some gift I'd leave you."
"If you weren't here, it would make no difference what I ate, Gabrielle."
"Then humor me, warrior, because it might not make a difference to you, but it's important to me."
"My learning to cook is that important?"
A nice start, the bard thought, but only said: "Every bit as important as my learning to use a bow, or set snares - "
"All right. I'll try."
"Really try, not just pretend?"
"I said I'll try," she said peevishly.
"And be gracious about it?" Gabrielle stepped back to watch Xena's face.
"Don't push it, Gabrielle," she warned. "And don't expect great results."
"We'll see." She turned her head quickly to hide her satisfaction. "Let's get started."
"Pay attention!" Xena's head snapped up at the bard's command. She was kneeling at the tree stump; Gabrielle stood to one side, hands folded across her chest.
"Gabrielle, I've seen plenty of rabbits, I've killed and butchered most of the rabbits we've eaten." Her lips curled in condescension.
"If you feel the need to remind me of your role in putting food in our pot, Xena, consider it noted. Now, be quiet and remember who's in charge of this lesson." She pointed at the rabbit on the stump in front of Xena. "This is a rabbit. Potential food. Notice that it is not enormous, and doesn't need to cook forever. Tonight, we'll have it stewed." Xena sighed; stewing was more work than spit-roasting.
"I thought I was deciding this? I'm the cook, right?"
"I've reconsidered;" Gabrielle told her sharply. "As you pointed out, you're not a cook. You're barely competent to boil water. Cooks-in-training don't make decisions. They do as they're told." Her eyes challenged Xena to argue. The warrior was sorely tempted, but it would only mean more talk; better to get it over with. She bit back her retort and returned Gabrielle's stare, lips pursed. "Arrogance doesn't become a cook-in-training." If I ever looked at my mother that way all of Potadeia would have heard the wooden spoon land on my backside, she mused. "I think you have some role confusion going on." She moved behind her and unclasped her breastplate before Xena could frame an objection. "Student cooks don't need breastplates." Her breath on Xena's neck sent a shiver down the warrior's spine. Gabrielle tossed the bracer aside. "Or these." She lifted the warrior's arms overhead, one at a time, and stripped off the bracers, tossing them onto the breastplate. "Now," she placed her hands on Xena's shoulders, and kneaded them firmly; "try to remember this: I'm in charge here, this is my territory, and you are the novice. Try cultivating humility and obedience for a change." Xena cast a sideways glance at the bard, wondering at this new air of command.
"Understood?" Her hands stilled; Xena's head nodded. "Understood," she echoed.
"Good. Let's start again. First, look at the rabbit."
The poor rodent had been examined through a cook's eyes, expertly hacked into serving portions by the novice, rubbed with herbs, and consigned to an iron pot. Now it was time for the vegetables. Gabrielle produced a bag of the bounty she'd harvested while setting snares. To be honest, she hadn't gathered the goods unaided; Xena had a singular knack for spotting, or smelling, edibles. The wild parsnips had been her find, as were the boletus mushrooms. And the celeriac. The carrots were from Hermia. "Flavor and color," she said tersely, "they make any dish more interesting, but you have to be careful. Leave the pieces too large, and they cook too slowly to flavor the broth; too small and they disintegrate before the meat is cooked."
Xena nodded her understanding. She'd learned it was much better to show interest and acceptance than to debate, or, gods forbid, suggest the teacher was telling her something anyone who'd ever eaten a meal already knew. As for questions, they were the trickiest part of all. She recalled the first one: "Gabrielle, why am I trimming so much fat? It gives - "
"Oh, really? You know better than I do, novice?" she'd snapped. "When I want your advice, I'll ask for it; don't hold your breath."
But later, when she wanted questions: 'No questions? You obviously aren't taking this seriously.'
Damn, this cooking stuff was hard. Xena had a headache, she was hungry, and supper was still a long ways away. Apart from that she hadn't yet figured out this new game of Gabrielle's. She wondered if she appeared to be this bossy to the bard; decided that couldn't be the case. The comely blonde certainly liked giving orders; more puzzling to the warrior was why she was so willing to obey them. Had anyone else spoken to her this way, she would have committed mayhem. The situation was certainly intriguing, and a little exciting, particularly when Gabrielle looked over her shoulder to supervise, head so close to the warrior Xena could hear her exhale, feel her breath in her ear. At those moments she would have gladly obeyed any command. She felt her lips twist in a self-mocking smile, and froze as she knew Gabrielle had caught the look.
"Something funny, Xena?" she asked pointedly. Xena was silent, suddenly curious as to how far the bard might carry this.
"I was just thinking..."
"I'll tell you when you've earned the right to think." The familiar voice had a new timbre, Xena closed her eyes and heard the words again, echoing in a quiet place. "Humility is hard for you."
Humility. Xena's mind reeled, pulling up a memory...humility was hard. Is hard.
"Cut the vegetables, wash them, and don't take all night." Strong fingers gripped Xena's chin, and craned her neck up to see the teacher's face as she said: "Do well; I'll be watching."
Xena cut carefully, no longer than her thumb, and half as wide, for the carrots and parsnips; she sliced the mushrooms, as instructed. The eyes of the bard were on her every move. She put the lot in a bowl of spring water, waiting for that purpose, and swished them gently in the water, before pouring off the debris. Idly, she popped a strip of carrot in her mouth; before the first crunch she felt the sting of the wooden spoon on the back of her hand. "No snitching - " Gabrielle began, but her words were cut short as Xena's hand twisted to seize the bard's wrist in a painful grip. As the spoon fell from her powerless finger's Gabrielle's eyes widened in terror. She had gone too far.
"Don't - ever - do - that," Xena rasped, even as she saw fear in the green eyes and knew she was the cause. Her hand opened, and Gabrielle pulled her own hand from the warrior's reach; she started to edge away, but she saw something in Xena's face, before her head dropped in remorse. "I'm sorry," came from the warrior's lips; she looked around, as if her gaze was unable to settle anywhere; then it found rest on the bowl of vegetables, and she returned to her task. "Almost finished," she said, dry mouthed, "but you should know better, Gabrielle."
"I do, Xena. I'm sorry."
"No," Xena decided, and shook her head. "We were playing by different rules; I knew that, I let you think it would be okay. And it was," she admitted. Gabrielle listened for a moment, unsure of what Xena was saying. It was okay? She wanted the game to continue? She seemed to indicate that, by her actions alone. She was focused on the vegetables, as if awaiting further instructions. Gabrielle swallowed the remnants of her fear. There could be nothing tentative about this. As if nothing had happened, she said: "The rabbit won't wait forever; get those into the pot." Xena rose without a word, did as instructed, then waited again, wondering if the game was over. It wasn't; not quite. "Come here, novice," Gabrielle ordered; Xena obeyed, watching the bard carefully for any hint of her intentions. "You're a poor student, Xena," she began harshly. "Proud, vain, arrogant." Her voice took on a different tone. "But I think you're worth the trouble." She took Xena's hand and examined the red spot just below the knuckles. I forgot how hard a wooden spoon can be, she acknowledged. She brought the hand to her mouth and kissed it tenderly. Xena responded, working her free hand into the bard's golden hair, drawing her mouth close for a lingering kiss. Then Gabrielle pulled away. "This is still my domain, Xena," she said firmly, and grasped Xena's wrists, pulling them down, pinning them behind her back. "And I'm still the teacher. You just do as you're told."
The stew had been tasty, not up to Gabrielle's standard, and that puzzled the bard: she'd supervised every step, yet it still carried the unmistakable trademark chewiness of the warrior-cook. Must have been an old, well-muscled rabbit, she concluded, and looked across the fire to the dark haired woman. Xena had eaten little; said barely two words, and her gaze now was so cold it threatened to extinguish the fire. Yet the passion they'd shared that afternoon had been so consuming Gabrielle had been certain everything was all right between them. A shudder of concern wracked her body.
Xena looked up, attuned to the well-being of her bard. "Are you cold?" she asked, and Gabrielle was startled that she'd noticed. "No; not yet. The wind hasn't quite picked-up." A pause. "I could use some company," she invited, patting the log beside her.
Xena lifted her long frame and joined Gabrielle, sitting close enough for the bard to take her arm, and rest a soft cheek on the warrior's shoulder. "About this afternoon, Xena..." she began, and paused, uncertain how to proceed. Xena was no help. "I don't know why I did that," she admitted.
"I do," the warrior said. "This wasn't about cooking. You think I need to learn humility."
"But I wouldn't presume to give you that lesson," Gabrielle objected. Xena noted that she didn't deny it.
"Ah, but you did presume, Gabrielle," Xena said quietly. "You aren't the first," she confided. "You are the first to have any success." Gabrielle felt the hard swallow before Xena continued. "I have been a student all my life, Gabrielle, of one thing or another. I never turned down the chance to learn anything useful. A new way to kill, a new way to stay alive. Those skills of mine? I learned them all somewhere. Always on my own terms, of course," she emphasized. "The lesson I've managed to avoid is the one in humility. Maybe it's the one I need most of all." Silence. "And maybe you're the only one I trust enough to teach me."
"Trust? Still? Xena, I've hurt you so - " She was not thinking of the spoon.
"I didn't say you can't hurt me. We give each other that power." She went no further. "I trust you to love me."
Gabrielle's heart swelled; Gods. She would go to bed loving Tartarus.
The stars were in full array. They'll be looking at the same sky in Amazonia, Amphipolis, Potadeia, Xena marveled. The bard stirred in that familiar way she settled before sleep. "Hey. Time to go inside, Gabrielle," she said softly. "And uh, just so you know: I'm not cooking tomorrow."
Gabrielle woke, heart pounding, listening to wolves outside the wattle hut. It was still dark, and she wondered why Xena was not yet moved to action. She spoke into her ear: "Xena?" then sat up. The warrior didn’t stir, but growled a sleepy "Hmmm?" in reply.
"Xena, something’s outside. Wolves."
Xena sat up, eyes still closed, her head inches from the low ceiling. Gabrielle couldn't make out her features in the dark. She listened for a moment, yawned mightily, and lay back on the layer of skins. "Only the wind. Go back to sleep."
Wind? Gabrielle was certain she was wrong, but Xena was never wrong about such things. What had she said about listening? She remained still and heard the sharp howling, remembered the winter night a pack of wolves had ventured near Potadeia. Her father had joined the men of the village on a foray to light bonfires to keep the wolves at bay. Still, she had been frightened, huddled up with Lilla in the room they shared, listening for wolves until near dawn. They had never returned, but lived on in the edges of Gabrielle's imagination. If there were wolves outside, they would be hard to see in the dark. She wondered if they could - or would rip through the little dwelling, which suddenly seemed flimsy. But Xena would not leave Argo to contend with wolves, and she would have known - A furious crash slammed the wall at her back, and her fingers clenched in Xena's hair. "Ow!"
"Xena, that can't be wind," she insisted.
"Gabrielle, let go of my hair," she seethed, and the bard loosened her fingers, bringing a few dark strands away with her. "Yeah. You know, I think you may be right. Wolves," she said grimly. "We'd better go to sleep before they hear us." She grinned in the dark, at the long silence, waiting for the bard's next question. It didn't come. Instead there was a small shuddering sound, shaky exhalations. She felt a warm thigh against her, and didn't imagine the shiver she felt there. "Gabrielle," she said, her quiet voice a jarring sound in the silence that filled the hut. "I'm joking." Outside the wind continued to wail. Like banshees. She sat up again. There was no need to grope in the dark for the other woman, there was no place she was not within reach. Her touch shocked the tense flesh, and an involuntary tremor passed through Gabrielle. Gods, Xena thought with remorse. Some joke.
"Gabrielle," she said firmly, anxious to be heard, "There are no wolves; the noise is just the wind." Gabrielle seemed so small sometimes, so young. Xena wrapped her in the wooly blanket, still warm from their body heat, and held her across her lap, stroking her hair with long fingers, until she was still.
"Sorry," came the soft murmur, I don't know why - "
"It's all right, Gabrielle," she soothed. "I shouldn't have joked about it. I had no idea you were so afraid of wolves. We've come against them more than once." And a lot worse she thought. She put a smile in her voice, hoping to hear it echoed by the bard.
"I'm not afraid of them; not like this," Gabrielle protested.
"You're afraid of something," Xena said with certainty. "I know this place shakes when a good blast hits it, but we're in no danger here." Not from the wind. "The other hill serves as a wind break, and this thing is so low to the ground it doesn't catch the worst of it. I won't let you blow away." She tightened her grip to demonstrate her holding ability. She felt Gabrielle relax a little, but the same misery was in her voice as she ordered her thoughts and spoke again.
"The wind never stops for long, Xena. Now always howling, but always blowing. Just gets on my nerves." She breathed something between a sigh and a yawn. "I guess I'll get used to it. Not much choice really, we can't make it stop, and we can't leave," she said with finality.
You don't get used to things like that, Xena knew. You dealt with it, maybe, or it took up residence in your soul until it drove you mad, or chafed at your nerves until it evoked some howl in response. "You know any stories about the winds?" Xena asked. That would take her mind off things, anyway.
"None I could bear to tell now," she replied, then hesitated. "I'd rather hear a song."
Xena smiled to herself, surprisingly pleased to have been asked. Gabrielle was clearly expecting a refusal; she wouldn't get it. Instead, Xena settled her bard comfortably, took a breath and drowned the terrors of the night.
"Xena. About last night, I wanted to say that - "
"You needn't say anything," the warrior said above her bowl of warmed over stew. They ate inside the little hovel, in deference to a nip in the air which refused to leave even in the presence of the sun. A smoky oil lamp cast deep shadows around them. "I've had my share of night terrors," she reminded her friend. "And you, more often then not, helped morning come a lot faster.
"True," the blonde head, nodded in slow agreement. "You haven't had a nightmare - "
"Since Prestia," Xena supplied. Since the night I followed Jalani's instructions to see it through to the end, she recalled. Jalani. The Amazon dream-reader seemed very close at that moment. Xena wished she was with them; she had much wisdom to share. "I miss Jalani," she said aloud, not quite aware of her intention until it was out. She looked at the Amazon Queen in the half-light of the hut. She was wrapped in a blanket, and looked very small, hair disheveled, face smudged with a bit of gravy that escaped a corner of her mouth. A wave of affection washed over the warrior, catching her off-guard, and her face softened, to one of those rare expressions which Gabrielle prized. She had a horde of such memories, always unexpected, always brief. The moment had already passed, but the warrior retained a wistful smile, and spoke again of Jalani. "She helped me find my way back to you," she told the bard, although Gabrielle already knew Jalani's role in that. Helped me stop throwing happiness away with both hands.
"Yeah, us Amazons are special women," Gabrielle confided, with a pleased grin, then grew serious. "They'll be starting their harvest; I wonder if the new planting scheme worked out as well as they hoped?"
"The crops were looking good last time we were there." 'Last time': the phrase had a new significance. "They should have a more bountiful granary than ever." Lots better than Hermia's poor yield. Xena knew Hermia would be a source of bread, but she couldn't barter away what she didn't have. "We'll check the snares after breakfast, Gabrielle." She said abruptly. "Don't want any needless suffering."
"Sure," Gabrielle rejoined, puzzled by the sudden change in direction. " I wouldn't mind letting the rabbits go today; I'm ready for a change of diet," she confessed. "Not that your stew isn't delicious," she added hastily.
The blue eyes had a way of looking off in the distance to see things Gabrielle couldn't guess at. They went away now, seeing enough of the world to let her lace her boots and fish out chunks of food from her bowl, but distant enough to cause the bard to fall into silence.
"We won't have much change in diet, Gabrielle, not if we rely on what's here. Small game, fish, venison. There must be boar; that would be a nice change." She wouldn't take Gabrielle to hunt boar; wondered if she could ever leave her safely alone. "What's his name? Ikar? Forages throughout Tartarus for whatever's available? I wonder what he could provide, for reasonable return?" Gabrielle didn't respond; she felt that would be like horning in on a private conversation. "Of course, I guess rabbits and venison are pretty easy to get; surprised Hermia was so happy to have ours. Do you get the sense she did without prior to the harvest so she'd have enough to feed her workers?"
Gabrielle hadn't though about it; she did now, and recalled Xena's words: everything had a price; they wouldn't work for free.
"I guess I should dig the root cellar before I finish the house," the deep voice went on, "then we can cache away whatever we find. There are walnut trees," she nodded with approval. "And we'll begin to dry meat, and smoke it; fish, too." She looked at Gabrielle suddenly. "We won't starve, I promise, but there won't be much variety," she apologized.
She was back in the moment, and her eyes held that worry which no longer surprised Gabrielle. What can I offer here that's worth anything, she wondered. Protection? I choose not to trade on my warrior skills, so what do I have to offer? That was a confounding thought, and she scowled.
"Xena, forget about the variety; you know I'm a spoiled brat sometimes."
"Never that, Gabrielle. You've put up with more hard times...Without a murmur of complaint." The green eyes were lovely; with a pang Xena looked away. I can never make this up to her, all the time in the world and no means, no possible way...
"This isn't getting our house built." She placed her bowl aside, picked up her sheathed sword, hung the chakram from her belt and made the awkward exit the hut required. Gabrielle followed, wishing she'd never mentioned the rabbits.
Xena had let all the rabbits go, and not re-laid the snares. "We'll leave them for another day," she reasoned, and asked Gabrielle if she preferred fish or fowl. Fish settled on, they turned together to the task of home-building.
It was simple enough, with the tools she'd borrowed from Hermia, Xena said, to put up a frame, weave wattle around the frame in sections, and ultimately pack the wattle with the clay-like soil found in sections of Tartarus. Gabrielle wondered how easy constructing the frame would be; the pieces of timber Xena had trimmed seemed massive. Lifting them into position wouldn't be easy. She said as much to Xena. "We'll manage," she'd grinned.
Three days later Gabrielle conceded that Xena had so far she seemed to be right; even her use of ‘we’ was accurate. Although the broad shoulders, well-muscled, slick with perspiration, bore the weight of the beams, the nimble fingers of the bard fitted the pegs into the pre-drilled holes to join the beams together. Now Gabrielle understood Xena’s obsessive interest in whittling since they’d been in Tartarus. Xena’s back was to her, stooped under the weight of what was to be the first cross beam in place. This would be the last for the day, Xena had assured her, but she was anxious to see if her understanding of how a roof was supported made sense before the whole thing was in place. The evening wind would be a good test of the frame. She waited for Gabrielle to climb into place to insert the pegs, breathing through the pain which burned her muscles. Gabrielle climbed up the beam carefully, her feet finding the wooden slats Xena had affixed there to serve as steps.
"Xena, the peg-holes aren’t quite aligned; can you raise it another two inches?" She took the answering grunt to be a ‘yes,’ and waited, pegs poised while Xena straightened a bit, shifted the beam so that it was gripped in her large hands, and the beam was lifted into place. Gabrielle fastened one side, scrambled down the beam and up the one opposite. As the last pegs were pushed into place Xena felt the weight move off her shoulders. She sighed, and craned her neck to examine their handiwork. "Nice work, Gabrielle. Kind of hard to be a cynic when things start to come together, huh?"
"Xena, I never doubted you," she told her.
"Us, my friend, us. I couldn’t have done this without you." She waited for the bard’s answering smile, but it was accompanied by a comment: "Xena, you did most of this. The lumber, the pegs, the post-holes: all your work. I just – "
"Made it all hold together." She regarded the frame with satisfaction. This will work, she knew, astonished at the speed with which it was coming together. We did this; just the two of us. "And don't you forget it." She arched her shoulders, working the stiffness from them. "We have enough light to clean up in the stream." She lifted an eyebrow, but Gabrielle was absorbed with her finger, sucking and squeezing the tip.
"Sliver?" Xena guessed. Without another word she put the bard's finger in her own mouth, feeling with her tongue the end of a splinter. She ignored Gabrielle's whimper, sucked firmly, finally grasped it with her teeth and pulled it out. "All better."
"It is. Thanks," the bard said, examining the small hole that remained.
"Entirely selfish on my part Gabrielle. You couldn't massage the soreness from my shoulders with that in your finger. Let's move now; we'll freeze before we dry out if we wait for sundown."
Xena sat on the bank of the quiet stream, well pleased with the day, content to let the last rays of sun touch her body, while she watched Gabrielle paddle slowly in the natural pool which formed at the bend. "Let me massage you now," Gabrielle had suggested, waist deep in the water. "No." Xena had pulled the arms away. "I want warmth, and comfort and the taste of your body with it," she'd told her. "First, we'll steam the place up with hot stones placed in water. Then you'll hot-soak towels and lay them on my shoulders, and knead the muscles until the tension is gone."
"Then?" the bard inquired a curious smile on her lips.
"Then I'll do the same for you, hot moist towels wherever you like, my fingers wherever you need them," she'd breathed. That had been inducement for a quick scrub.
Her head cocked to one side, as a familiar sound touched her ear. Nightingale. It began its song at the same time each day. Odd to be in one place long enough to be familiar with the birds, yet she knew the trees he favored, knew the branch he was perched on now. She opened her mouth to alert Gabrielle to the sound, but Argo whinnied, and she grabbed her weapons instead, giving scant attention to the fact that she was still naked. "Gabrielle, we've got company," she said, certain of Argo's intention. She didn't hear the nightingale now, was attuned only to the sounds of Gabrielle exiting the water, and the soft scuffing noises she heard in the grass. Two people, approaching slowly, not caring if they made noise. She began to relax, even before she saw them, then her vigilance was replaced by annoyance. Lutus. Arthea. She grabbed her battledress and slipped into it before they spied her. She glanced at Gabrielle, happy to see that she, too had dressed. She somehow hated the idea of Arthea coming upon them while they were undressed. She had no time to think about that, they were ambling down the hill, casting angry looks at each other, eyeing the site carefully, paying special attention to the fire Xena had already built.
"Xena." Arthea's voice held genuine pleasure. She waved a hand to hurry Lutus along; he seemed to be limping. Xena made no reply, but Gabrielle was already walking past her, greeting Arthea warmly.
"It's good to see you." She thought Arthea looked more haggard than she had even a few days before. "You found our little place with no trouble?"
"Your directions were very good."
Directions? Xena's eyes flashed at the back of Gabrielle's head. Was this visit due to an invitation?
"We would have been here sooner, but Lutus has a bad sore on his foot." She jerked a thumb back at the sullen man. "Hope we haven't come at a bad time."
"Afraid so," Xena spoke for the first time. "We've had a long day." And there's no supper for you if that's what you're looking for.
She turned to Xena now, ready to face the warrior, armed with a small sack. "We found these on the way. Food is always welcome here," she said knowingly as she offered the sack. Xena remained still. After a moment Gabrielle stepped forward to accept the sack. She peered inside at a few apples, and showed them to Xena. Surely she couldn't think of them as tribute. They were few, and from the looks of them mostly rotten, inedible. For this we owe them supper, Xena thought, rolling her eyes and swearing fervently to herself. "Shouldn't have," she drawled.
"It's very sweet of you both," Gabrielle said, avoiding Xena's gaze. "Won't you join us for supper? It's only fish, as soon as Xena catches them, but you're welcome." Xena turned back to the stream to catch the fish. She couldn't bear to hear Arthea let Gabrielle coax her into staying.
Xena was silent throughout the meal, listening to a steady recital of woes and injustices heaped on Lutus and Arthea. Nothing worked for them, alone or as a pair. She wondered why they stayed together. With the disproportionate numbers of men to women in Tartarus, Xena was certain Arthea could find a better provider than Lutus. She had lost weight, the rosy blush in her cheeks was gone, but she was still attractive, with smoky eyes and a hint of fire in her voice that caught you off guard. She didn't have a hard time remembering her initial attraction to the woman. She swallowed and focused on the chatter.
"What did you do before you came here, Lutus," she finally blurted out, hardly aware that she'd cut Arthea off in mid-sentence. All three looked at her. "I mean, maybe you can find better way of supporting yourself," than looking for handouts, she left unsaid.
"I was a butcher. Had a little shop of my own," he said with pride.
"And?" she prodded.
He ducked his head, and looked at her through pig-eyes.
"He got drunk and sliced a man who was cheating him at dies," Arthea supplied. "That could be excused, maybe. Worse part is, he carved him up and sold him over the counter." She laughed.
Gabrielle sputtered in disgust; her last mouthful of food was projected from her mouth to land on Xena's boots.
"Just wanted to know," the warrior said evenly, as she wiped her boots with a bit of grass.
"So you could go from farm to farm during slaughtering season doing the farmers a service? Or apply for a place in the household of the overlord? I here he's accumulated a fair number of livestock."
He clearly didn't like the suggestions. "I don't have my tools," he pointed out. "Besides, I'm not meant for itinerant trade." He held up a shoeless foot and began to unwrap a filthy piece of his tunic to reveal a large, dripping wound on his right heel. For a second time Gabrielle was unable to conceal her revulsion. "Excuse me," she said, and made a hasty exit.
"Not when we're eating, lout," Arthea scolded him, and smacked him with the back of her hand. She looked at Xena apologetically, laid a hand on her arm, caught the warrior's eye, and removed the hand quickly. "He was hoping maybe you'd have a look."
Xena nodded, resigned from the first moment to dealing with this wound. This one wouldn't be free. "All right. I'll need water." She lifted the large pot from its place at the edge of the fire. "Fill this, then collect more wood for the fire. We'll need to get it good and hot. Then I'll need strips of cloth, from your tunic, or the sack, doesn't matter to me." She wouldn’t waste their own precious goods on this pair. "Get busy," she snapped, and Arthea scurried away.
She dealt none-too-gently with the wound, scrubbing and squeezing until the pus was gone and the blood ran freely. "You'll live," she assured him. "It'll be painful for a few days."
"Guess I should stay off it," he said hopefully.
"Suit yourself," she shrugged. "If I was you, I'd be more concerned about finding a place to pass the winter, or food to fill my belly day-to-day."
It was not the answer he'd hoped for. Gabrielle had returned to the fire and he sought her eyes, but she looked resolutely away, understanding that Xena's words were meant for her as well.
New approach necessary, Arthea decided. "Got any work you need done?"
"Once the foot is healed, Lutus will be worth a team of oxen," she continued.
"We're doing fine, Arthea."
"You are," the woman agreed, looking with envy at the ungainly hovel, then again at the beginnings of a house. "Should be right cozy this winter."
"I expect so," Xena agreed, nodding pleasantly. "It all takes foresight and hard work."
And skill, and talent, and strength Gabrielle considered, wondering if Xena was aware of how little some people had to work with.
"We have a lot more to do tomorrow," Xena went on, "and it's pretty dark. "You'll never get settled for the night if you don't leave now."
Gabrielle looked quickly at her, then away again. She couldn’t be serious, to send them away from the fire at this late hour, with Lutus limping as he was. Lutus and Arthea shared her feelings.
"I don't know if I can travel tonight, Xena," he ventured, ready for the rebuff. "You were pretty rough cleaning the wound; it hurts like Hades."
"I'll cut you a walking stick," she offered, and began to rise.
Gabrielle took a deep breath before the plunge: "Or maybe you could just go off a little ways, and build your fire. Then leave in the morning." She looked sideways to gauge Xena's reaction. Not good.
"Good idea," Lutus jumped at the idea. "If you could maybe help Arthea start the fire; I'm pretty hopeless at these things."
"Why don't you do that Gabrielle," Xena put in. She stretched. "I'm kind of tired, think I'll turn in."
An eternity later Gabrielle pushed open the door to the hovel, trying to make out the interior in the pitch-black. She didn't call Xena's name; she doubted the warrior had been asleep, knew she'd awaken at her entrance in any event. If she was in the mood to talk she'd make the first sign. The second campfire burned fifty yards away, Lutus and Arthea were nestled together under a thin blanket. Gabrielle had considered supplying a second, but knew she'd already gone too far for the couple. Xena's face had been dark when she left them. She hated to know Xena's mood now, knew it had to be faced sometime, but the morning would be soon enough. She stumbled over Xena in the dark, longed to snuggle next to her, but chose instead to face the other wall, and so they lay, back-to-back for some time. At last Xena spoke: "Feeling unfriendly?" she asked.
"Me? No. I just didn't want to wake you," she explained.
"I'm not asleep."
"Oh. Good." She took that as an invitation, and turned to face the warrior, then lay her head on the bare shoulder, feeling better that way, even though they couldn't see each other. "Xena, I didn't know what else to do," she said softly.
"We don't have to talk about them," the warrior replied. Her voice was sleepy; she hadn't lied about being tired.
"I just don't understand why you reacted that way. It's inhospitable to send people away from your fire, especially people who can't care for themselves."
"Won't take care of themselves," she corrected.
"Wait a minute, Xena. We all aren't you. Not everyone is born knowing how best to stay alive," she objected. "Would you want someone turning me away because I was helpless?"
"You're no Arthea," Xena told her fiercely, "and I don't want you encouraging her."
"How am I different?" she inquired. "Do you hold it against Arthea that she is, or was a prostitute? She's far from being the worst criminal here, you know." She was immediately sorry, as Xena seemed to stop breathing for a long moment.
"No. That's probably my distinction," the husky voice managed at last. "Chose your own company, then." She felt her shrug. "Now let me get some sleep."
It was too quiet when Gabrielle awoke; Xena was long gone, her warmth missing, her scent only found in the soft folds of the blanket they'd shared. The smoky fumes of a damp-lit fire drifted through the wattle-weave. Gabrielle detected something else, a sweetness, in the smoke. She dressed hurriedly and examined the newly-kindled fire as she went past. A large pot of water already simmered. A mass of burned pulp adhered to one of the containing rocks. The apples.
She followed the sound of scrape and dump, scrape and dump, to a new hole in the middle of the framework for the house. Xena had been busy, for quite a while it seemed. Already she stood almost shoulder deep in the center of the hole. Gabrielle had no concern about startling her when she approached from behind.
"Thought we were finishing the frame today," she began.
"Good morning to you, " Xena replied. "I felt like a change of pace."
"Something you could work on alone?" She sat at the edge of the hole, let her feet dangle in. "I think you're carrying this a little far."
"Maybe," Xena said tersely. "Let me know when your company is gone."
"My company? You forget, Xena, I met them through you."
A massive load of earth flew out of the pit before the sweating woman spoke again. Through me? Oh yes, And a little thing like an earthquake, and a bard who doesn't know how to follow instructions. Her face was taut as she filled the shovel again.
"And who gave them 'good directions,' here?" she demanded. "Was that me? Who asked them to stay for supper? Or to spend the night?" She stopped her work and looked at the woman who seemed capable of creating every kind of emotion in her. The one she'd kindled now was new; it was a kind of anger. It scared Xena a little. She gripped the shovel and bent to work again, flinging more dirt from the hole.
"Paying a visit to Hades?" Gabrielle asked, as she surveyed the ever deepening hole.
"Might as well," Xena grunted. The bard stood to leave. The conversation seemed like a bad idea. "Gabrielle." Xena stopped her. "You'll probably be feeding Lutus and Arthea before they leave, assuming they do. I got a few grouse at dawn. Save something for me."
"You know I will, Xena," she answered, hurt at what the words implied. Then she saw the same hurt in Xena's face. This had nothing to do with breakfast leavings, everything to do with a lost evening, shoulders that missed a loving touch. She almost leaped in the pit to make up for that on the spot, then remembered how close the others were. Instead she said "Just because I'm trying to be a good neighbor it doesn't mean I'm forgetting you."
"I didn't say you were. I just know how generous you can be."
"Where I come from, that's a good thing," she said with pride, but she kept her voice light, wanting not to challenge, but to soothe.
"This isn't where you come from," Xena reminded her, then looked up, pleading in her eyes. "Let me know when they're gone. Better yet, lure them down here, I'll dump them in and cover up the hole again." She grinned wickedly; Gabrielle laughed uncertainly, wondering why it didn't seem like a joke, but hoping for anything to break Xena's foul mood. Beneath the grin, Xena wasn't laughing. She knew she'd kill to preserve what was important to her. "Now go on, get rid of them. Let me get this finished."
They were gone as soon as breakfast was over, and Gabrielle summoned Xena to the fire. One large grouse remained, still warm, smelling of herbs and wild onion.
"You haven’t washed Xena," she objected, as the warrior approached.
"Honest dirt," was the reply, but she splashed some hot water from the pot over each hand, and shook them off to dry before she seized the bird.
Gabrielle sat next to her. "Want me to dig for a while?" she asked.
"No," was the amused reply.
"Didn’t think so," she admitted, "but I’d like to do something. Any suggestions?"
The warrior chewed thoughtfully for a few moments, and washed the bird down with water before answering. "Just one: You haven’t picked up a scroll since we’ve been here."
"I mean something practical." She poked the warrior gently. "My scrolls won’t keep us warm this winter. Winter is rough here. Hermia said it’s very different than outside." She spoke casually, just sharing information, but her voice was uneasy. Clearly she wanted consolation. Xena weighed honesty against assurance, and softened her answer with a lopsided grin. "Depends what outside you’re talking about. I’ve seen some rough winters, and I’m still here."
"Xena, you survived Tartarus, I mean the real Tartarus," she pointed out, admitting that there was reassurance in that.
"Hermia survived those winters," was her retort. "We’ll be fine." She recalled the lines which etched the woman’s face. "We’ll be fine," she repeated. "There isn’t much snow, from what I hear, except in the mountains, a lot of wet, though, and it gets cold." She looked at the bard. "It’s not just the kitchen help that talks, you know. Cramma had her own thoughts on the winter. Likes it." Less chance the tribes will visit, she had said, but Xena didn’t repeat that. The pressing tribes from the eastern borders would be heard from, of that she had no doubt. No point spoiling a lovely day by speaking of it now.
"At least we’ll have less company when the weather’s bad," she said, Lutus and Arthea still on her mind.
"Yeah, less company," the bard sighed, and began to gather the debris from breakfast. Wouldn’t mind some company now, she thought, say, Hermia bringing bread.
"Xena." A deep male voice boomed; in the hovel, Gabrielle clenched her fingers around the staff. If there was trouble she wanted to be at Xena’s side, but the instructions had been clear: "Stay out of sight unless I call for you. Please." She heard Xena’s voice now, clear, low: "Nerad."
There was an extended silence; when she strained Gabrielle could hear the rustle of cloth, and the clatter of armor and wood, as if several people were moving at once. Nerad's voice came to here in a harsh, low, string of obscenities. She poked a finger through the wattle, creating an opening to peer through. A dozen soldiers were arrayed around the site, dismounted, standing alert; one struggled with a chair that Nerad had tried to sit in. It was an odd contraption, hinged at the middle, as if made for transporting. Nerad was lifting his squat body from the ground next to it, raining blows on a young boy; setting the chair had been his job. This was not the first impression he had expected to make on the Warrior Princess. He stole a glance at her as he rose. Her face was impassive, as if she had not just watched him fall on his ass.
Overlord, she thought with amused contempt. First Brascius, now this clown? The local talent was not impressive. She recalled that he had come to power through treachery. Seemed like the only way, yet even that would have required some cunning. She didn't see it in his face, couldn't see enough, yet, of those around him. Someone needed the wit to have conceived the treachery. This lot had the surly air of outlaws, it remained to be seen how effective they were at being more than bullies. It caused her some unease to wonder if Tartarus was filled with inept thugs, the dregs, rather than the cream of the criminal class, if there was such a thing. Great company I end up, in she thought sourly. It showed in her face.
"Xena, join me." He gestured to a second folding chair which was opened beside her.
"Glad you could join me," she countered, as she sat, indicating the expanse of the site, her site.
He smiled coldly; she knew then that he was not all buffoon. "We need to speak of that Xena; you have chosen a nice piece of my property to settle on." He looked with approval at the start that had been made in making the site a home. "It needs to be paid for."
No muscles in her face moved, yet the mild expression had become something fierce, unyielding. His tone softened with his next words: "You may not be aware of the protocol in Tartarus." She wondered if he knew what the word meant. Her silence unnerved him. "This area, The Sweetwater, is under my authority. It is left to me to determine who may settle in its bounds, and under what terms." He waited in vain for a reply, then continued, too aware of the steady blue eyes boring into him. "I am honored to have you under - " he broke off, then tried again: " - in my domain. However, I would have charged a great deal for this location, say," he looked around, spied the golden warhorse grazing nearby, and shrugged, diffidently, "the horse." Still she was silent, but the eyes held a hostile glare now. "For anyone else, that is. For you," he smiled, an ingratiating, thin smile, "it is enough that you swear fealty to me." He ended, keenly aware that his men hung on her reply.
The little chair was not comfortable; the hinge had not been wisely placed. She rose lazily, and caught the movement of hands moving to hilts at the edges of her vision. Gabrielle tensed, but Xena smiled. "Your boys nervous," she asked. Then: "Walk with me. I'll show you around my place." One man moved to follow them, a sharp eyed man with a lean face. "You really need company?" she growled to Nerad.
"Stay here, Placar," he growled at his follower. Placar; he was the danger-man in this crew, she decided.
Nerad hurried along beside her, his shorter legs churning to keep pace with her longer strides.
"This land, as far as I can tell, belongs to no one, Nerad, including you. I'm here, I'm building my home here. That makes it mine, as much as anyone's." She stopped to gaze over the stream, and the mountains beyond. "I like the view; I like the water, and I love the way the sun sets right there," she pointed to the frame of the house. "I plan on being happy here." Her eyes flared dangerously. "I don't plan," she stressed, "on paying anyone for the right to be here. I certainly don't plan on - what was that? Swearing fealty to you?" She snorted her contempt. From afar it looked like a good natured laugh. "You got all that?" Her smile was broad. The men, watching at a distance did not know the threat that was in the blue eyes above those dazzling teeth. The flashing smile spoke of harmony; Nerad smiled in return, anxious to support the illusion. She treated his position with contempt, yet had concealed it from his men. He didn't understand why that was, but it suited his purpose. "Was there anything else?" she finished.
He found the courage to venture: "Xena, it's the custom to fight und - with, the Overlord in times of crisis - "
"Against the eastern tribes?"
"I'll defend my home; against the tribes, or anyone else. I'm not real good at taking orders." Her voice had dropped to a harsh whisper, and she turned to begin the walk back to the band of waiting soldiers. While she moved she continued speaking quietly to the silent Overlord at her side.
"You seem to know my reputation, Nerad." He nodded; he would be glad to follow her lead against the tribes. "That's good; saves me having to prove myself, I can just tell you how far I'll defend my home: anyone molests me, or the people I care about, is dead," she said flatly. "Not only is he dead, those who stand with him are dead. Those who stand behind him are dead." The word hammered home like nails in Nerad's coffin. "You see, Nerad," I don't want to be overlord; you can keep that title," she assured him, and his face muscles relaxed. "I don't want any trouble. You stay out of my life, I stay out of yours."
"Those, you c-c-care about?" he stammered.
"I heard you'd been followed here by - "
"A young woman," she finished for him. "Her name is Gabrielle. Anyone harms her will wish he'd died in diapers." She strode purposefully to the tent, and the eyes of every man on site followed her. Damn this hovel; she cursed the low entryway, then grabbed the cloak from a startled soldier, and held it before the doorway. She wouldn't have Gabrielle make her entrance on her hands and knees in front of this lot.
"Gabrielle," she called, and the bard, staff in hand, made an unseen entrance, on all fours. When Xena dropped the cloak she was beside her, facing the Overlord with aplomb.
"This is Gabrielle." Her eyes swept the gawking men, and the bard understood that somehow Xena had just secured her safety from them.
Xena's woman. The booted feet shuffled, eyes jumped from the tall, dark-haired beauty to the golden younger woman at her side. It was true, what they'd heard, that Xena had been followed by a spouse-of-another-sort. Regret played on their faces; Xena didn't care, as long as they understood her meaning. "A kindness to Gabrielle is a kindness to me," she intoned sweetly, keeping the outward tone of the visit pleasant. Leave it to Nerad to pass along the promise of retribution.
Nerad continued to play the role she allowed him, gestured for her to sit, then waited uneasily to determine Gabrielle's proper place in all this. There were, after all, only two chairs. Gabrielle decided the issue herself, lowering herself into the second chair with a gracious nod to Nerad. Xena's eyes casually surveyed the scene, resting only briefly on the woman seated across from her, but a twinkle of approval warmed those blue eyes. Gabrielle concealed her smile, but she was pleased to have guessed right about this.
Nerad summoned another seat from his attendants, and a small wooden chest, covered by a blanket was produced. Placar took a position next to him. He was a tall man; from his standing position he looked down on them all. Xena moved languidly; long legs stretched before her, and she grinned confidentially, winning a returning grin from the overlord. "I expect you carry a decent wine amidst all this baggage," she guessed, casting the merest hint of a glance at Placar.
"Ah," Nerad nodded, happy to show off the perquisites of his office. "Placar, wine," he snapped. The warrior moved away reluctantly, eyes already picking out the underlings who would actually fetch the wine. He was back in time to hear a conversation in progress.
"...incursions happen more frequently around the time of harvest. You know how that can be, Xena," he showed yellowed teeth in a tight grin.
Indeed she knew. Armies needed to be fed.
"I can't imagine the farmers here produce enough to feed Tartarus and the outsiders."
"They don't; it's a struggle. Some grain comes in from the peddlers, but they want to take your leg as payment if they sell you a boot." He shook his head with dismay. "So we can't afford to lose the food they take, let alone the lives they cost. Between cold-blooded butchery and abduction they take a toll." Xena saw Gabrielle shudder. "One reason so many folk crowd into little pockets like The Sweetwater. Safety in numbers."
"Now more than ever." Placar spoke with disapproval. "The latest herd of convicts seems to have clustered to The Sweetwater. Something about their attachment to a certain warrior woman who led a revolt on the journey." Loathing and resentment were mixed in his eyes. Xena stole a quick glance then turned her attention back to Nerad, a smirk on her lips.
"More workers, more tribute, more soldiers," she suggested.
"Soldiers? That fat lout Lutus? Ileander the weaver? More pathetic fools fighting for a share of what's available. No way to pay for what they take, let alone to offer tribute," Placar spat. Nerad looked a warning at him, but he forged ahead: "I'd trade the lot of them to keep the tribes at bay for the season."
Gabrielle's ears pricked up. "Trade?"
"Slave trade. They may as well be of use to someone," he said heavily, looking directly at the bard.
Xena's expression didn't change, but a sour taste caused her to take a long sip from the cup of wine. Placar was not a nice man; she wondered how it was that Nerad was still overlord.
"Surely it's more reasonable to make use of them yourself, Nerad, instead of strengthening your enemy." The effect of her blue eyes could be disconcerting; Gabrielle wondered with sympathy how long it would take for Nerad to wither and agree to her position.
"Very true, Xena," he observed, avoiding Placar's gaze; for safety he found the green eyes under the fringe of golden hair, and allowed himself a smile. He was wondering why this visit had seemed such a good idea. So far he had conceded a prime piece of property for no compensation, the woman refused fealty, he wouldn't even go near tribute, and Placar had intruded as a player in the game. Again. Gabrielle was smiling at him, and he was grateful. She mattered to Xena; it would be good to be in her favor.
Placar was not smiling. "You've agreed to fight under command of the Overlord?" he challenged, knowing the answer as he spoke.
"I'll fight," she replied, addressing him for the first time. "I prefer to fight on the winning side. Which means making the most of the available population. No one is useless. It also means coordination with your allies, whatever areas of difference there might be otherwise. I assume you work with the other overlords?" Uneasy glances passed between the two men. No coordination. She sighed inwardly; only Gabrielle knew the frustration she was feeling. "How, exactly, do you respond to their attacks?"
"With ferocity," Placar told her. "We slam them hard whenever we find them."
"Would that be before or after they do their damage?" she drawled. "Do you ever thwart an attack?" She raised an eyebrow. "Are there preventive measures? I haven't seen one signal fire since I arrived in Tartarus. I would think when you're protecting an area this size, there would be beacons lit to raise the alarm."
Placar snorted his contempt. "We have more important things to do than - "
"Like collecting tribute?" she snapped. "What are people paying tribute for? Protection from the tribes? Or from the Overlord? Who are the other overlords?" she asked Nerad.
"I only know of Brachius."
"He's the nearest. His territory isn't as extensive as The Sweetwater, and the quality isn't as high. The water - "
"Yeah, we've been there," she said dismissively. "Who else?"
His mouth hung open for a moment as he considered. "Galate; further north, at the fringe of the mountains. Fiscus."
"Holds the wasteland," Placar laughed. "His rivals are rodents and serpents; his tribute, rat droppings."
Much like yourself, Gabrielle thought.
"Then to the east, Petra." Nerad merely looked at Xena as the name escaped him. Placar had a comment: "You two would get along."
Nerad cleared his throat. "Petra Tartras. She's one of the natives here, born of free people, before they made this a place of exile. She fights the tribes; she also fights us. Sometimes I think she's worse." He shook his head.
Xena was very still. "In what way?"
"She's here; she's clever, she knows this land, and fights like a she-wolf protecting its cub."
"This is her homeland," Xena reasoned. "There are worse reasons to fight."
"It's our land, too, Xena," he said, raising his voice for the first time. "What are we supposed to do? Live here, and never have it truly for our home?"
"Isn't there room enough for everyone here to find a home?" Gabrielle spoke quietly; the two men turned, startled by her input.
"No," Placar growled; he returned his attention to Xena. "We're caught is a vise: the Three Kingdoms to the west, the tribes to the east, and Petra picking at us in between."
He hawked and spat on the ground. "Ignorant Tartarus scum. Never been past the mountains on any side. She doesn't understand that the best chance she's got is to stand with us."
"Have you ever explained that to her?" Gabrielle asked, determined to be heard.
Nerad laughed. "No one sits with Petra long enough to explain anything." He made a slashing motion across his throat. "Quick with her blade."
Gabrielle wondered at the glint in Xena's eye. "Petra Tartras aside," the warrior said, "what arrangements do you have with the others?"
"Galate, Fiscus, Brachius are all fools. Let them handle the tribes in their own way. We'll pick up the pieces."
"Meaning you hope they are defeated, and you can have their territory."
"More land; good for you," she snapped. "More to safeguard, no buffer, less warriors available to fight. Sounds like you've got it all thought out. Fools." Placar stiffened. Xena didn't move, but Gabrielle knew she was a hair's breadth from action.
Nerad shook his head. "Xena, you don't know our ways yet. You'll see; it's best that we stay out of each other's territory. Working with them..." He shook his head a second time.
"Afraid they'll turn their dinner knives on you?" she asked.
That stung; Nerad stood hastily. "There was one other matter." He risked a chill in his voice. "One of my men was found dead not far from here. Stabbed."
"With his own knife? That the one you mean?" Xena asked. "He was stupid, he was rude, he was slow. I can't imagine it was much of a loss," she chided.
"His friends aren't happy." Nerad hoped he put enough menace in his voice: Placar was listening closely.
The dark head moved to one side; she pursed her lips, mocking regret. "I'd advise them to take this as a learning experience, or there will be more unhappy faces around your fire. I don't like threats," she ended darkly. She drained the cup of wine, and handed it to Placar. "This has been fun, but I have other things to do." She looked in the direction of the house under construction.
"It could be done in a day, with some assistance," Nerad decided, and motioned to the group of men squatting on the hillside.
"No," Xena told him quickly. "I want to do it." She looked at Gabrielle. "We want to do it."
"Suit yourself," he shrugged. He nodded to Placar, who strode to the men on the hill cursing at them, waving a meaty hand in their direction. They mounted quickly. The boy rushed over to retrieve the chairs as Xena and Gabrielle stood. Gabrielle smiled at him, but he never raised his head to see it. He collapsed the two chairs, and turned to carry them to the sturdy pack mule which accompanied them. "Move, you slow witted bastard," Placar barked, as he delivered a gratuitous blow to his back. The boy sprawled on the ground. Placar's booted foot moved to follow him. In one smooth movement Xena reached to grab Placar's ankle and provided a deft twist to land him on his back. His sword was in his hand in a moment, then it was in the air, flying to land beside the stunned man.
Xena took a breath, seeking the source of the anger she felt toward Placar. His abuse of the boy had been minor; in the long run her reaction would probably make things worse for him. With an effort she reached out a hand to haul Placar to his feet. His confusion showed on his face, as his murderous impulse was confronted by a dazzling smile.
"Placar, the kid's not worth your energy. A man like you can find better ways to burn it off," she said with a confidential wink. "Earn your bread," she growled at the boy, who scrambled out of reach of them both, tripping over the chairs which were almost too large for him to carry.
"You'd do well to mind your own business, Xena."
"My sole intention," she assured him.
They were gone in a cloud of dust. Xena walked up the steep slope to watch them until they disappeared over the horizon. Gabrielle came up alongside her.
"That's our Overlord," she commented wryly.
"No. I have no Overlord Gabrielle, neither do you. They know it, now."
Continued - Chapters 16 - 17
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