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Tartarus

Chapters 18 - 19

by M. Parnell
xedi1@hotmail.com
Copyright 1997

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and any others from Xena, Warrior Princess, along with the back story, are the property of their creators and producers. Their use in my story does not constitute any attempt on my part to infringe on their rights. The rest of the story is mine. The story is a strictly non-profit endeavor. Any reproduction or other use of this story without my consent is strictly prohibited.

The story contains violence. It also assumes that Xena and Gabrielle are in love with each other. If any of that offends you, please choose another story.

Tartarus takes place after ORIGINS. It is not necessary to read ORIGINS first, but some references will be puzzling to you.

I began this story before season three. Given all that has happened, I find it hard to continue without allowing season three to intrude in some places. If that doesn't fit with the first fifteen chapters, well, (picture me shrugging my shoulders here), it can't be helped. Maybe some day I'll go back and make it all consistent.


Chapter Eighteen

The fighting was over, but a long night lay ahead. There were wounded to be cared for, though not many, and the wounds were not serious. Serious wounds had all proven fatal, or had attracted ghouls eager to give death a hand. As a consequence, there were more dead than wounded. The primary need was for gravediggers. Gabrielle was left the task of dispensing medical care, while Xena rounded up 'volunteers' for burial detail. Placar had disappeared; Petra and her troops had withdrawn to the nearby hills, pitched camp, and watched the clean-up from their own cookfires. The wind howled throughout the night, its keening a grim witness to the proceedings.

It was near dawn when the last grave was closed, and the foul-tempered warrior released the last of the gravediggers from service. Whatever threat she had used must have been good, Hermia considered as Xena strode into the camp, half-supporting a sleepy bard. Hermia had returned sometime before, kindled a fire, and heated a pot of water. She'd salvaged the fish Xena had caught the night before, and they sizzled on a flat rock, browned, crisp-skinned, rubbed with simple herbs. "You'll be hungry," she told them both. "Put something in your bellies before you sleep."

Xena lowered herself to the ground by the fire, cradling Gabrielle against her. "What first, Gabrielle? Food, sleep, or a bath?"

"There isn't enough hot water for bathing," Hermia warned.

"Cold will do nicely," Xena assured her, then waited for Gabrielle to decide.

"A bath, I think. I'd like to feel clean again." Her eyes looked startlingly bright against her soot-blackened face. She reached up and traced a line through Xena's own grime. "Do I look as bad as you?" she asked.

"Hideous," Xena nodded stone-faced. Then she quirked a smile. "Good thing I'm not fussy." She planted a small kiss on the brad's cheek and stood, bearing her entire weight.

"Xena, this isn't necessary," came the unconvincing protest. "You're as tired as I am."

"Humor me," Xena replied. "You're the lightest burden I've carried all night."

The stream was not thirty yards away, secluded by overhanging branches. There was little fear anyone would come by, anyway. It seemed that the immediate world was asleep. Clothes needed to be scrubbed as well as bodies. She had cleaned herself, and sponged off her leathers; now Xena stood knee deep in water, scrubbing Gabrielle's clothes with powerful forearms, soaping and rinsing, then repeating the process until the garments were clean. Gabrielle watched, blanket-wrapped, from a rock which caught the early rays of the sun. At last Xena had the clothes hanging from tree limbs, and invited the bard to join her.

"C'mon, Gabrielle," she cajoled. "It's only cold for the first few minutes."

"You say that every morning."

"Have I ever been wrong?" she challenged, as she waded over to provide more encouragement. "Let's go. Those fish are waiting." She half lifted her and deposited her in the stream, thigh high, holding her close until the early shivers had ceased. Without a word she turned her around, and began to lather her back. "Uh-uh," she warned when Gabrielle moved. "Just relax."

Even in that frigid water Xena's fingers coaxed her to relaxation, kneading sore muscles, easing the strain from her neck. She worked silently, front and back, smiling when she caught sight of the green eyes staring at her. "What?" she asked, "Is my face still dirty?" Then "Oh, you've got a deep scratch here."

"It won't kill me," Gabrielle intoned, in her best imitation of Xena's own minimizing comment. "I'm lucky that's all I got. If Petra hadn't been there..." She shuddered as she recalled the incident. "I think she saved my life."

"Saved you from one of her own men," Xena pointed out, voice was a bit strained.

"They got a little carried away," Gabrielle shrugged. "It was no easy task, restoring order in that chaos. So many were killed."

So many by Petra and her troops. She realized that Gabrielle had been on the perimeter of the action, and hadn't witnessed the carnage. "They got more than a 'little carried away', Gabrielle. They did most of the killing." She sponged soap from Gabrielle's hair, and rinsed her back.

"I didn't know you were there to see it, Xena. Hermia said you rode straight through the trouble without stopping, to look for me."

There was something in Gabrielleís voice...reproach? Xena's hands stilled. "Was there something wrong with that?" she asked carefully.

"No," Gabrielle replied slowly. "Just surprising. There were so many innocent people in danger. It's not like you to ignore them." There was a long pause, when the only sound came from the water Xena worked through the sponge. Gabrielle replayed her words in the silence, and heard them as Xena had.

"Ignore them? Is that what I did?" Xena demanded quietly.

"No," the bard replied urgently. "No, Xena, I'm sorry, that's not fair. You didn't ignore them - "

"No; I think you're right. That's exactly what I did," she flared briefly. "I didn't give two damns about them, because I wanted to see you, know that you were all right." She squeezed the sponge dry. "I won't apologize for that." She headed to the bank. Gabrielle followed. "You have every right to be angry."

"I'm not angry," she countered, "Just tired."

"I think you're a little angry. I would be." she insisted.

"You know me better than I know myself?"

"I know you very well, Xena. Don't let that make you nervous, you still have more mysteries than Dionysis, more riddles than the Sphinx, more paradoxes than Zeno-"

"Okay, Gabrielle, I get the point," she showed her teeth in a grudging smile.

"I know you Xena," she began again, soberly. "Enough to know you wouldn't ignore people in need. You do so much good, time and time again for people you don't even know." Like those in Priblis, she thought bleakly. "The greater good. You saved us all tonight. Drax told us how you thwarted the attack." She stopped two paces from Xena, a silent acknowledgement that it was for Xena to be forgiving or not, as she chose. "I can't believe I said something so stupid," she ended.

"It wasn't stupid," Xena said quickly. "You expected me to look out for the 'greater good'. I was tired of doing that. I just wanted to look out for you."

"Xena, you don't have to look out for me every minute; I'm a big girl, remember?"

"I don't forget that Gabrielle," she said earnestly. "I also remember how close I've come to losing you."

Gabrielle nodded, recalling the time she'd wandered in the shadow of Hades. "I came back to you Xena," she reminded her.

"I was just coming back for you, Gabrielle. That's all." Xena picked up the blanket and wrapped it around the water-beaded shoulders of the smaller woman. "You'll get sick; let's get back to the fire."

"Not yet, there's still unfinished business from last night." Xena raised an eyebrow, prepared for anything. "We never had our dance. You disappeared while I was telling stories."

"I got tied up." For the first time she wondered what had become of Arthea. She hadn't seen her since the attack began.

"I though maybe you were angry then."

"No." She shook her head. There had been something...a mattress? Does Gabrielle often assume I'm angry? She wanted to ask, but Gabrielle waited expectantly, head turned a little so that her hair fell to one side, just brushing the top of a firm breast where the blanket ended. Xena fell into her embrace, never taking her eyes from the green ones which met hers so eagerly. Xena hummed softly, felt the bard's warmth through the damp blanket, and moved slowly against her, loving the feel of her cheek against her chest, marveling at the thrill of holding this soft creature. The dance was simple, slow steps in harmony; no one led. Xena's hands moved lower, cradled soft round cheeks, and stopped. It made her breath come a little faster. "Gabrielle..."

"Hermia will be looking for us, Xena..." she warned.

"She's got better sense than to find us; not now. Don't talk." She loosed the blanket and spread it quickly on the ground, never taking her eyes from the woman.

 

The fish were cold when they returned to camp, Gabrielle, clad in her shift, in Xena's arms. Hermia thought a smile was on the bard's face even in sleep. "I was afraid a water nymph got you," she deadpanned. One nymph in particular.

Xena raised an eyebrow, then relaxed, allowing the woman a small smile. She'd shown her worth during the long night, kept her head, made neither too little nor too much of it, and looked after Gabrielle. She chided herself briefly, as she settled her on the ground, careful not to awaken her. Gabrielle was a grown woman, she reminded herself, more than that, a formidable woman in her own right, who just chose to keep company with one whose life moved in strange, often vicious circles; Gabrielle didn't need looking after. And yet, she realized with a pang, she did, all too often. Especially here. "So do I Gabrielle," she admitted in a whisper, tucking the end of the blanket around her.

The fish were good, for all that they were cold, and Xena made short work of them.

"Delicious," Xena told Hermia as she licked the last bits of them from her fingers. Not quite how Gabrielle would have done them, but delicious nonetheless. "You did a good job to save them, what with everything that went on last night."

"I saved everything, Xena," she said bitterly. "We'll have less chance than ever to get things, now," she said, resigned to even further deprivation.

Xena understood her meaning. It seemed unlikely the peddlers would return to The Sweetwater anytime soon. In one evening they had been the targets of both the Eastern Tribes and the convicts. Xena wondered if they had suffered at the hands of Petra's troops as well. She had seen one buried.

"I like to think of myself as being safe, because I'm useful. I farm, I bake, I provide for them." Hermia snorted with self-derision. "If they'd attack the peddlers, no one's safe. What were, they thinking, the crazy fools?" she complained.

"Thinking? Not much of anything," Xena observed. "Most had been drinking. Even sober, they might have acted the same. If they made good choices they wouldn't be in a convict settlement," she observed. "No reason to change now. They'll continue to make bad choices." And make this place a misery beyond the gods' designing. They were both silent for a long few minutes.

"I managed some winks last night, Xena, whilst you two were busy. If you want to sleep for a bit, I'll wake you when the camp starts to stir," Hermia volunteered.

"There's too much to be done, Hermia," she replied. "I missed my chance to sleep," she admitted happily, but I put the hour to good use, was her private admission.

"What's to be done? I thought we'd be on the road to home before the sun was high."

"I'm still aiming for that," Xena nodded, squinting at the sun, which still hugged the far horizon. "Just some loose ends to tie up. Shouldn't take long. See that Gabrielle eats when she wakes up. And for Gaia's sake, find a way to make her stay put," she pleaded.

 

The camp might have been under a spell, so soundly did it sleep. Birds of prey poked through the heaps of rubble, shrieking protests at having missed a good meal. Xena was doubly glad she'd forced the timely burial. The mass graves bore silent testimony to the loss of life; a harsh oath escaped her as she passed them. Stupid damn fools, so many dead; two dozen men, she reckoned. She'd seen the bodies of three women, and least one child. One wagon crammed with people seeking shelter had gone up in flames; no one had escaped. Word was that children were inside.

The peddlers had made an early exit, with their personal escorts. Little good they'd been, she mused. They'd left a scattering of ruined goods behind, where their stalls had been.

She passed a heap of ash that had been a mattress without knowing it.

Placar, with at least some of his men, had fled in the night, whether from the riot or Petra Xena couldn't be sure, and didn't much care. It was more important that there'd been no time to pack up the supplies his troops carried with them. A half-dozen troops had stayed behind, or had drifted back. Now they lay camped around the circled wagons, asleep. Not even one sloppy sentry, Xena realized with contempt. There was no sign of Drax. The site was at the top of a steep, short hill. That had made it easy to defend against the drunken rioters. The wagons were heavy with food and wine; the camp below was hungry. The solution was simple.

She picked up two pots which lay near the fire, and clanged them sharply together, while she strode around the perimeter, landing solid kicks on the men on the ground. "Wake up!" They rolled slowly to attention, blinking against the unexpectedly early morning. "Not morning people, huh?" she sneered. "Then you're in for a rough few hours. Time you did some work."

"We take orders from Placar," one protested, to general grunts of affirmation.

"Yeah? Well he's not here; must be halfway back to his hidey-hole. Which means," she paused for effect, and bit her lip, considering, "that right now, you're taking orders from me. Here's the first one: empty these carts of food, and stand ready to distribute it to whoever comes asking. I expect that might be the entire camp."

They shifted weight from one foot to another, cast sideways glances at each other, avoided Xena's look altogether.

So predictable, Xena mused. "My second order will be directed at the last man to begin carrying out the first order. He's not gonna like it," she promised, "but he won't live long enough to regret his choice."

On a hilltop not far away, Petra Tartras wondered what she had said to make the men fall over themselves in haste.

Xena!" Gabrielle heard the voice, imagined danger, and rolled to her knees, snatching her staff as she did so. "Xena!" the voice was closer now, and it clearly was no threat. Arthea. Gabrielle relaxed, heard Hermia's scolding: "Quiet! They can hear you in Mus."

Arthea apologized with a smirk. "Sorry. Just looking for Xena."

"Arthea," Gabrielle called, and crossed over to see her. "Hello." Arthea looked at her with interest; Gabrielle felt naked under her stare.

"Gabrielle. I was just looking for Xena."

"She's not here," Hermia supplied.

Arthea saw the question that showed briefly on Gabrielle's face. "Xena doesn't stay still long does she?"

"Can I do anything, Arthea?" Gabrielle asked.

"No, Gabrielle, thanks. Just wanted to let Xena know I survived. No thanks to her." She rolled her eyes, pursed her lips in a show of annoyance. "Can you imagine? She left me lying behind that big oak tree at the far end. Anything could have happened to me."

"Well, like you said, you survived," Hermia pointed out quickly. "We'll tell her you came by."

"Xena left you.?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly curious. "When was this?"

"Just as the attack began," Arthea said, warming to her tale. "We were anxious to get to the dancing." She twirled a quick demonstration. "Xena noticed the flaming arrows. Eyes like an eagle. Hard to see anything through that smoke from the opium pipes. Anyway, she saw the arrows, and told me to stay put. Then she went to put things right. She's quite a woman," she ended, never moving her eyes from Gabrielle's face."

"No one here will argue with that, Arthea," Hermia said quickly. "Now, why not give me a hand loading the cart?"

"Hermia, believe me, I've got plenty of work to do."

"Then you'd best get to it. I imagine everyone will want to be in their homes by nightfall."

"Yeah. I expect you're right," she conceded. "Just give Xena my message, then. Or maybe I'll run into her myself," she said brightly.

"I saved you breakfast," Hermia, said as they watched Arthea disappear through the woods. "Gabrielle," she began again, after a long pause, "I said - "

"I'm sorry Hermia, I heard you. I guess I'm not hungry. Thanks." A pause. Where did you say Xena went?"

"I didn't say; she didn't say." She brought a plate of fish to Gabrielle. "Get that look out of your eye," she advised. "Xena was clear: she wants you to stay here, and she wants you to eat. Go ahead." She thrust the fish at the bard. "And don't think about Arthea."

"Arthea?" Gabrielle echoed. "Why should I think about her?" Her shaky laugh betrayed her.

"No reason at all. So why are you doing it?" She sat next to Gabrielle by the dying morning fire.

She shrugged. "I wondered where Xena went last night, before the attack. Now I know."

"And? What of it?" Hermia asked quietly. "You don't think she - "

"With Arthea? No," Gabrielle guffawed. Then: "We had a difference of opinion about something. I don't like to think she'd go off and find Arthea's company, instead of talking it out with me."

Hermia nodded. "I don't know her like you do, but I know love when I see it. Just remember this: Arthea's goes home to Lutus; you have Xena. I wouldn't put it past that one to try and stir up trouble."

"I trust Xena," the bard said simply. "Don't worry about Arthea."

Xena rubbed her eyes, and blew out a long breath. This new day seemed to have begun without the day before ending. That's what happen when you don't sleep, she told herself. No pity. Time for sleep tomorrow. The carts had been unloaded, grudgingly, but the job was done. Some order in the distribution of food would be necessary; providing it was a job she didn't want. She was loping down the long hill which led to the encampment, and knew without looking that she was being watched; Petra seemed very interested in her movements. She'd be happy to leave her behind with the rest of this place. For the moment Petra had little meaning; she'd be happier to see Drax or Archon; even Cramma could be useful. She knew they were all here, or had been. She hadn't seen them in the burial pits. Camp was beginning to stir, exhaustion would be overcome by the need to be home, wherever that was, before dark. An occasional sob came from those who woke from a nightmare, only to learn that the real nightmare was reality. More purposeful sounds came from the lucky ones who'd made it through with families and possessions intact. They were preparing to leave. "Morning," Xena ventured, approaching one couple. They had a hand cart, piled high with goods, some scorched-by fire. They eyed her suspiciously. "Getting on the road early?"

"I can't see how that's your business," the man growled. His gnarled fingers curled around a thick club. She recognized him as the man Arthea had wrestled with the evening before.

"Come to think of it, neither can I," she growled in return. I would have told you where to get some breakfast, she thought, as she walked away, shaking her head. Try to be nice...

"Xena, your morning salutation has a touch too much..." Ileander, emerging from a small lean-to, not ten feet away, reached for the right word. "...warrior."

She smiled ruefully. "That's about the best I can manage right now, Ileander."

"I understand," he sympathized. "At least you've found time to bathe." His own fair hair was still smeared with soot. "I could use a hot tub, a full stomach, and a soft bed right now, and I think all three will have to wait until we get home."

She showed her teeth, and nodded toward the hill. "I can help you out with one of them," she told him. "Placar's left a generous 'donation' behind: enough food for the entire camp to have a good meal, and take a little on the road. I tried to tell him," she jerked her head toward the man with the club, who cursed his own possessions now, as he tried to balance the cart.

"Sweetheart, you left off that dazzling smile. No one of reason would be - could be- snarly if you'd only show those dazzling teeth. Want to try again?"

"No," she snapped, and the smile vanished. "What I want to do is get out of here. You can tell him. Tell everyone," she thought, suddenly seeing Ileander as the right man for the job. "Tell, them quietly, and slowly; maybe they'll collect their shares without a new riot," she ended soberly.

"I don't think they're anxious to repeat that, Xena," he observed. I think they even scared themselves." He brightened. "I'll be happy to spread the good word. When Drax comes back from wherever he's gone, I'll put him to work, too. And Archon. We'll manage," he assured her.

"Archon's all right? And Sepra?"

"Right as rain. Sepraís huge." He drew a large circle around his belly. "Due in about a month. Archon's worried, but Sepra's fine." He broke into a grin. "Their herd of sheep produces a fine grade of wool. I can make some nice cloth if Drax ever finishes the loom."

"Good," she nodded, resisting the urge to ask about Cramma. And Arthea. For the second time she wondered if Arthea had survived. "Ileander, thank you. I just remembered something I've got to do."

Arthea wasn't been behind the tree where Xena had left her; the area showed no sign of disturbance. Xena took that as a good sign, but would have been happy to know what had become of the woman. She eyed the sun, calculating that they'd need to be on the road soon to be home by dark. With that in mind, she doubled her gait and headed toward their own small camp.

"Xena!"

Her head whipped around. "Yes," she inquired. She didn't know these people who stood before her. There were five of them. The older of two men was holding something, wrapped in a well-worn cloth.

"We wanted to thank you." He stepped forward, extending the package to her.

"I don't want any thanks," she told him. He didn't move. They stood, two men, two women, and a small child, a formidable wall, waiting for a different response.

"Look, whatever this is, I can't take it," she explained with as much patience as she could muster. Tribute, she thought with disgust.

One of the women grabbed the package, tore the wrappings from it, and showed it to Xena. "I know it isn't much," she began, and stopped, as the utter truth of her words struck home. Xena looked at it, working to keep her face neutral. A grubby half loaf of bread, not fresh from the looks of it, lay in the square of cloth. In other circumstances it would be an insult to offer it; here, it would be an insult for her to refuse. "Thank you," she mumbled, then hesitated. They didn't know about the food available from Placar's store. Would it further lessen the value of their gift for her to mention it? She still debated as a request was made: "Xena. We had expected to marry at the dance last night." The younger man, holding the hand of a young woman, looked at her with respect. Her puzzled look brought an explanation. "That's how it's done here, when people bother. You make a declaration before witnesses. We thought the dance would make it more special." He shrugged at the futility of plans. "We'd be honored if you'd hear us pledge to each other right now."

"Me? I don't even know you," she pointed out.

"I'm Granius, a convict, this is Selvia, who followed me here. Came on the same transport as you. I reckon I owe you my life twice over," he said quietly. "Selvia and I will spend our lives together, and we want all Tartarus to know it's by choice." That said, he waited for Xena to agree.

"I really don't have time," she protested further.

"Right here, right now," he told her, and folded his meaty arms over those of Selvia. The others arranged themselves behind, and waited for Xena.

"I just listen?" she asked.

"And give us good wishes," Granius added, "I think the gods must smile on you."

Xena blanched at that, would have objected, but Granius had turned to Selvia: "I bless the day you came into my unworthy life, thank you for choosing life here with me, over a better life elsewhere, and pledge myself to you, a wiser man than when I earned my place here. I love you." The words were startling in their simplicity. Xena looked for the man behind the convict earring, wondering what such a man could have done to earn Tartarus.

Selvia's words were a fine match for his own: "I chose you by choice, out of love, and could have no better life, anywhere than the one I'll share with you. For better or worse. I pledge myself to you, with love."

That was all. Vows exchanged, they looked to Xena. "I'm honored to be present," she began solemnly. "I wish you both joy in each other, and long, happy lives together."

Hands were grasped all around, kisses were exchanged. Xena's cheeks were wet when she finally broke away, clutching her little bundle. "I almost forgot," she called over her shoulder as she walked away. "Placar's men have food for the asking. Go get your share."

"Why me?" she muttered as she walked away, already knowing the answer to her own question. She had stepped over a line the night before, not that she'd had any choice. No one else would have stopped the attack. Now, some would see her as their champion. The bread-offering was proof of that. Placar would feel threatened, Nerad would be nervous... gods knew how far it would go.

Gabrielle's eyes followed her approach through the trees. Maybe she alone knew the warrior well enough to recognize the slight slump in her shoulders that spoke of weariness, and something else..."Xena," she called out, and moved to meet her, encircling her waist, pulling the warrior's dark head down for a kiss. They ambled, toward the dead fire, arms around each other in a loose embrace.

"Did you get any sleep?" Xena asked.

"Yes, I did. I suppose you plan on dozing in the saddle," she said in mild reproach. "What was so urgent this morning?"

"I thought it was only fair that the Overlord's supplies be put to good use. I had to persuade his men to share."

Gabrielle smiled. It pleased her sense of justice. "Where's our share?"

"I figured we didn't need any. You and Hermia managed to save everything."

"What's this?" She took the loaf from under Xena's arm, unwrapped it and began a wary inspection.

"A gift."

"From an old enemy?" she snickered. "You aren't going to eat this?"

"I thought I would," Xena replied, remembering the little group. "I've had worst gifts."

"Oh." Gabrielle was puzzled, but let it go. As far as Xena went, that was a very minor mystery. "Arthea came by before," she said casually, looking for you."

"She's all right then? Good."

"She seemed a little miffed. Said you left her when the attack began."

"Yeah," Xena nodded. "I couldn't carry her, and her ankle was too badly injured for her to keep up."

"Oh. She hurt her ankle?" Gabrielle murmured.

"Just a bad sprain, I think. Couldn't see much in the dark, but Arthea's tough that way. She wouldn't have complained unless it was bad." Another mystery, Gabrielle mused, how Artheaís ankle had healed so quickly.

"Now, if we get this stuff packed up, we can leave this place." Not a moment too soon, Xena told herself.

The little cart was barely up to the task of holding all they had for the return trip.

"Good thing you didnít get the mattress," Gabrielle observed, to Xenaís stony glare. The sack of earrings was in Argoís saddlebag, unseen, but waiting.

Hermia adjusted the donkeyís harness. "Climb onboard," she told Lilla.

"I want to ride with Xena," she objected.

"Not today, Lilla," Xena told her. The possibility of trouble on the road home was remote, but it was there.

""Iíll walk beside the cart and tell you a story, if you like, Lilla," Gabrielle offered. Hermia smiled at that. Gabrielle told a good story. She looked up from the harness, and saw riders through the trees. "Xena," she said under her breath.

Xena merely nodded. Sheíd heard them coming a long way off, guessed at who it was, and glanced now to confirm her guess. Petra, a few comrades, and some riderless horses. A social call.

"I finally get to see Petra," Hermia breathed as they approached.

She knows how to make an entrance, Xena thought, with grudging admiration. This woman would Ė apparently, did- command the respect of many. Certainly the men and women who rode with her deferred to her as they would a queen. They stayed at a respectful distance from her when she reined to a stop. She moved her head to take in the camp, the cart, the meager pile of possessions they had acquired. Her hair was like spun gold by daylight.

"Xena," she said. The warrior turned her head slightly, dimly aware that she did not turn enough to make her earring visible to Petra. "The evening seems to have worn you convicts out," she went on. "And the others." She inclined her head to take in Gabrielle and Hermia.

"And?" Xena asked.

"And in the quiet, I thought Iíd bring your horses before you scurry off to wherever it is you live." She snapped her fingers and a man advanced with a string of four horses. "As you didnít come to collect them I made a choice. You can choose one of these, and take another for your comrade, the pisser. Thereís a fine stallion," she pointed out.

"Thanks. I donít need my mare in foal," Xena said and moved to examine the horses.

Petra turned from her to Gabrielle. "You were very brave last night."

"Thank you," Gabrielle said, sincerely. "I wanted to thank you for saving my life."

Petra nodded her acceptance. "A life worth saving. Youíre very beautiful."

Xena looked up to see Gabrielle blush. "Iíve decided." She pointed to a spotted mare, and the stallion, which was a fine horse, for Drax.

"Good choices. Would you like an escort on the road," she volunteered.

"I can handle things."

"If ever you're in The Sweetwater, our home is open to you," Gabrielle said. Her words

astonished Xena, but she made no sign.

"Thank you...?" She waited for a name to be supplied.

"Gabrielle."

"Thank you, Gabrielle, I'll remember that, though I seldom visit convict settlements," she replied with some truth. Then in an aside to her men she spoke in her own tongue: "I wonder if she'll be open to me?"

The men guffawed, while Petra continued her gracious smile to the bard. Xena's lips tightened, almost imperceptibly. Not the time, she told herself.

"Well, she hasn't fangs," Hermia observed, or a tail. I guess I can put those rumors to rest." She laughed. "Cramma will want to know what weapons she carried; Sepra will be more interested in her dress. Or lack of. I wouldn't think that flimsy cloth would be much protection," she puzzled aloud.

For some time Petra had been the topic of conversation. She was something of an invisible legend in The Sweetwater, and Hermia seemed delighted by her

first glimpse of the woman.

"That's not what she had on last night, Hermia. She wore..."

Gabrielle was describing her stiff leather breastplate in some detail, as if she'd store up the memory for a future story. Xena had begun to recognize her working style.

Xena had recognized the motif of the body armor, a sketchy telling of the wearer's deeds embossed and gilded in gold. Maybe not as protective as metal, but very impressive. Julius Caesar had worn one like that...

"I'm gonna ride on ahead," she said suddenly. "Argo needs to stretch her legs. I won't be far."

Chapter Nineteen

"Still there," Gabrielle said with some relief as they crested the hill and saw their house - home, lit by the low rays of the rays. Xena slid off Argo, helped Gabrielle down, and approached the house with an appraising eye. The walls were dry, she noted with approval. The stacked cord of wood she'd laid beside the house was ready for the fire. Water needed to be fetched from the stream, a fire built, the horses seen to; Gabrielle would lay out supper, bread and cheese. It would be enough. And wine. Hermia had surprised them with that.

Then sleep. She felt as if she hadn't slept in a week.

"Still here," Gabrielle said again.

"What? "Xena, asked.

"Everything. Nothing's been touched."

Xena shrugged mentally. There was nothing much to be touched. She was more surprised they hadn't found smoke curling out of the chimney, and squatters living inside.

"My scrolls are just as I left them."

"I don't think our neighbors are the literary type, Gabrielle."

"People find other uses for scrolls, Xena. Some people," she added with an accusing air.

"Gabrielle, I used one corner, of one scroll, once. In a moment of dire necessity<" she said, as if for the fortieth time. "Will you ever forgive me for that?"

"I forgave you a long time ago," she laughed. "I just haven't forgotten yet."

"Come on then, let's get stuff inside."

Inside. It was real at last. Xena looked at the four walls as if knowing a wall for the first time. Gabrielle had surrendered to the nesting instinct. There was precious little to arrange, but she had found a reason to rearrange it all twice.

"How does this work?"

"Looks great," Xena said with little enthusiasm.

"You said that last time."

"Well, it looked great last time, too," she explained. The warrior sat cross-legged before the hearth, wineskin cradled in her lap, and yawned. She considered pointing out that Gabrielle had the bedding laid out in such a way that the sun would wake them long before the bard would be ready for it. No, she decided; why prolong things?

"Gabrielle, I'm going to sleep now. Snuff out the candles when you're through."

"Xena, you could show a little interest in our home," Gabrielle complained.

"Tomorrow," Xena told her mildly. She closed her eyes and listened to quiet shuffling as Gabrielle draped a cloth over the shuttered window. The shelf on the far wall was her target now; a clatter of dishes spoke of that. Amazing how much work a house required, even before there was furniture, she thought sleepily.

"Xena? Are you asleep?"

"No." Not anymore. "What is it?"

"We really need furniture."

"I know that Gabrielle." We could use a bed.

"Could you make a table?"

"I never have, but I never built a house before, either. Why not?"

"Soon?"

"Sure; soon."

"Tomorrow?"

"What?" She raised herself on one elbow, and looked down at the open face waiting for an answer. "Why the urgency?"

"Xena, I need a table to prepare the food. Not to mention for dining," she rolled her eyes at having to state the obvious.

"Gabrielle, weíve done fine without a table all this time."

"Eating Ė living Ė on the ground is fine when youíre on the ground. Itís different living on the floor. In Potadeia we had tables."

"We had tables in Amphipolis," Xena countered, picturing the long table in the kitchen, her motherís strong arms working a piece of dough against its fine grained surface.

"And chairs. Weíll need those next," Gabrielle continued.

"Gabrielle, Iím not a joiner." She lay down again. "If you want a house full of furniture weíll have to strike a deal with Parmenter. There must be something I can do for him. But it wonít happen overnight. If I make the table, we wonít be able to sit at it right away."

Gabrielle lay down at last, content. She pillowed her head against Xenaís shoulder, draped one arm across her body, and sighed. "I know youíll find a way, Xena," she said softly into her ear, and she was asleep.

The house had been built in a different Tartarus. It had been rough and wild, but the convict population had been smaller, and the threat of the Tribes not as great. It had been built by a freeman. Sepra and Archon had added to the house, but the land had been cleared before either had been born. The goats, which gamboled in the yard, finding the last of the sweet grass before a harsh winter, had given milk for cheese and hair for rough weaves through all the changes. Gabrielle looked at them now, as she always did, with affection.

"Xena, did you ever see anything so cute?"

The warrior, as she always did, grunted a non-comment. She preferred sheep. As for cute...Still, she admitted, this breed had a sweet face, although the coat was long and looked rough, suited to a Tartarus winter. Ileander said they produced useful hair. Sheíd trust a weaver to make that judgement; she was more interested in the cheese, and wouldnít mind an occasional kid to roast. They'd make nice parchment for scrolls, too, but she wouldn't mention that to Gabrielle. She would very much like a flock of their own. Natrakia had \bartered the foundation of a flock to Archon and Sepra. Today she would settle for the cheese. And the loan of a good saw.

Archon was in the yard before their house, scraping mud from his boots when they arrived "Glad to see you," he called out, then raised his voice a bit to bring Sepra out of the house, pulling shawl close around her shoulders. There had been light frost on the ground at dawn. Ileander had been right, she was huge with child, with months still to go. They had bartered for cheese once or twice before. Fish was a welcome item. The stream which ran past this place had become silted over in some places, and too shallow in others, over time. Few fish were to be had there now. Xena had two fat trout, enough for a good crock of soft cheese.

"You brought me fish, Xena?" Sepra asked with a smile. The strife of two days before seemed to have done her no harm.

"My sons will be born with scales," Archon laughed.

"Our daughter will be a great angler," Sepra corrected him. "Women make the best anglers. Look at Xena."

Gabrielle poked the warrior in the ribs. "Bet theyíd love to see your favorite techniques," she whispered.

"Men hunt; women fish," Archon observed. "The way of the world."

"Well, Xenaís adept at both," Gabrielle said with evident pride. It occurred to her that Archonís words would come in handy the next time Xena pressed the bow into her hands.

"Xena has many skills," he agreed. "We owe you thanks for what you did back there," he said solemnly. "You saved us all."

Xena nodded, an acceptance of his thanks, acknowledgement that he spoke the truth.

His face creased in a sudden smile, and Xena followed his eyes to the road, where Drax and Ileander had just ridden into view. "Ileander's keen to get the hair," he explained.

Xena nodded. Ileander had spoken of that, though she had no idea what use a weaver would make of it. She gave a mental shrug, admitting to her own preference for sheep. She was more anxious to hear what Drax would have to report about Nerad's camp in the aftermath of the debacle. She could guess half of it. He was just as eager to share, waiting until greetings had been exchanged, and Ileander was chasing goats around the pasture.

"Very nasty return," he observed with a shake of the head. They were none too pleased about the food giveaway."

"Fools," she hissed her contempt.

"They want your head on a plate, Xena."

She raised an eyebrow and curled her lips in a tight smile. "That's to be expected."

"Why?" Gabrielle's eyes held more curiosity than alarm. Threats against Xena were as numerous as the stars, it seemed.

"She's more dangerous than the Tribes, to Nerad's power. He collects tribute till his barns burst, yet does damn all about protection."

"There didn't seem to be much defense against the attack," Gabrielle agreed.

"Because they aren't soldiers, Gabrielle; just thugs with the license to be thugs." Xena looked at Drax and spoke frankly. "You don't belong with them."

"Agreed." He moved his cloak to show the empty spot on his tunic where Nerad's crest had been. "Now we're both in his bad books; but I'm no threat to be Overlord."

Gabrielle watched Xena's eyes for a moment, saw her answer there. She didn't want to be Overlord. She said as much, again, with an emphatic shake of her head. "I don't want that, Drax."

"How long can you say no, Xena?"

"I'd cast my lot for you, if it was done that way," Archon put in, from the edge of the circle. "I'd even fight for you," he ended.

"No," she turned on him with fierce insistence. "You don't fight for the overlord, any overlord; you fight for yourself, and your family. You fight for your neighbors, the people you care about."

"And you fight a lot better with the right leader," Drax added. "Xena, you are the alternative to incompetence and corruption. Great Zeus, the whole of The Sweetwater knows what you did out there. It will be all over Tartarus in days, and in Mus, once the peddlers make their way back." He held her eyes with his own. "It makes no matter if you want it. Nerad, and Placar can't let the possibility continue."

"Then they'd better improve their act. How hard would it be to whip those troops into line? Set signal fires around the countryside for early warning? Hang one soldier who gets drunk on duty and it soon stops." She spoke from experience, and averted her eyes from Gabrielle's look at those words. "They can do better."

"Can and will are two different things, Xena," he spat. "You can't believe - "

"Believe this, Drax: I won't be Overlord. If they want me dead, they'll have to find a way to make that happen." She shrugged. "I'll take my chances. At any rate, I'm sure they don't think fast enough to have a strike ready for today, so let's relax. I think Archon's got some fresh cider." She found Gabrielle's hand in her own, the smaller fingers squeezing hers hard, pulling her away from the group.

"I know this isn't something new, Xena," Gabrielle began, both hands on Xena's arms now. "You've spoken of this problem since the beginning. I just want to know if I have anything to worry about? I mean, anything more than usual."

"You think I can't handle Nerad? Or Placar?. Give me a break," she exclaimed.

"I know that's your way of assuring me Xena, and I appreciate it. Of course I know you

can handle them. Can you handle them without becoming Overlord? That's the real question." She waited for a moment as Xena formed an answer. No time to be glib.

"I think so, Gabrielle. I'm gonna try. I have more important things to do, like providing a table for us," she said sincerely. "This might be a good time to get the wood. Drax can look after things while I'm gone."

"Can't I come, Xena?"

The dark head shook. "Sorry; if I have any luck, Argo will have quite a burden on the way back. Could be a long walk."

"I don't mind."

"I know," Xena nodded. "I also think Sepra could use the company. You might ask her if there are twins in the family. From the looks of things I'd say she's carrying two."

"Really?" The bard's face brightened.

"I'll be back soon," Xena promised.

There seemed to be no good wood left in Tartarus. I had all been harvested or burnt out.

Hekatore could be useful here, she decided, and was about to turn back, when the terrain seemed to change. She was no longer wandering in scrubby growth, but amid greener, taller trees. She decided to press on.

She hadnít gone far enough, couldnít recall the route at all, but somehow she had arrived: this was the stream, the lazy, bright stream that meandered aimlessly through the best part of The Sweetwater, the best part of Tartarus. She sighed with unexpected pleasure. This might be the most wonderful spot on earth. Argo seemed to move of her own accord now, treading smartly on the stream bank, making occasional forays into the bed of the stream, scattering the fish that swam there. The perfumed air carried a sultry warmth that made Xena forget the frost that marked the morning air. She began to recall the banks of the broad stream as if she'd known it all her life, looking for berry-laden bushes, not surprised that they were laden with berries still, despite the late-date. Time might have stood still in this spot. She slipped off Argo, landed softly in lush grass, and lay on her back in the sun, idly chewing a sweet blade. She might have stayed for a few minutes; it may have been hours. It made little difference. In that time Tartarus slipped away from her. Nerad, Placar, Petra, the Tribes: all were forgotten. Her gaze fell on the hillside where she had wanted to build the house. She frowned. "Why, did you hate it so, Gabrielle?" she said aloud. "So perfect here."

Gabrielle. She was someplace, waiting. For me, she remembered, and the wood for the table. Shouldn't be hard to find the right tree here, she thought, but it would be a shame to take an axe to the area.

"Let's go Argo," she called, and the mare joined her, walking just behind. "You like this grass, don't you girl. We'll come back more often, with Gabrielle. I wish she was here now." They hadn't gone far, when Xena found what she needed, lying in her path. The walnut was still laden with its fruit, so recently had it fallen. Seemed healthy, Xena noted, yet it lay here, across her path. "A gift from the gods, eh, Argo?"

A while later she stepped back from the trunk, trimmed, reduced in size to what Argo could manage at the end of a tow rope. "We'll come back for the rest, sometime, unless someone else finds it first," she confided to the horse. "So let's keep this to ourselves, okay?" She took a final look around the area, storing images till next time. She threw a huge sack of walnuts over her shoulder, and made a soft sound in her cheek to send the horse forward, while she walked alongside, whistling.

Hekatore could be heard a long way off, today. He seemed to be in a hurry. Xena paused in her work to watch his progress through the fields. His team had nothing in tow, and the chains hung free, clanging like an alarm. Hekatore seemed to be alarmed about something. She looked down at the wood she had hewn; the table really, for that's what it was fast becoming. Not bad, she congratulated herself, as Hekatore covered the last yards between them. His eyes traveled from Xena, to the table, and back again.

"You have walnut," he began, and ended. Word traveled quickly.

"Yes," she acknowledged.

"Where did you get it?"

"I followed the path of the slow stream, the one to the west. Just came across it."

"Slow stream?"

"Yeah, you must know it. It winds back on itself as if it can't make up its mind which way to go." She smiled, remembering. "It's still warm there. I've been thinking: there must be hot water running under the whole region. Know of any hot springs?" she queried.

"Hot springs," he echoed. "No, I don't know any. But I do know my trees. I've combed these woods for six years. I know every tree within a day's ride. I don't know this one," he said, as if personally offended. "And I never harvest walnut. None of us do. They're too important for food."

"I know that," she said, annoyed at being thought careless. "I didn't cut it. It was fallen. Go see for yourself. Take the rest of it, if you like. It was huge."

"Tell me again where it is," he told her. "I don't know that place."

Xena told him, as bet she could recall, how she had traveled there from the goat farm. Hekatore listened, then shook his head. "I'll take you there," she offered. "No. I'll find it," he said with a note of doubt. He ambled away.

"Let me know," she called after him. "It's not far." Indeed, Gabrielle had stared in disbelief at the section of wood she'd brought back to the goat farm. "Xena? That was quick. How did you get the wood trimmed so fast? You've been gone no time." They'd all been surprised. Xena couldn't explain it, except to comment that the wood had been uncommonly easy to work. It had been easy to fashion into a table; it seemed to mold itself.

It was three days since the walnut had been found. Hermia rubbed the smooth surface with her hand, and stepped back smiling. "Good for bread," was her comment. The table, long, and rubbed to a high gloss, was in the center of the room, flanked by benches. There was no other furniture, but it was a good beginning. "It really looks like a home now," Gabrielle commented.

Hermia looked around, not bothering to hide her envy. It was only one room, connected to a shed by a short, enclosed passageway, but it was a good room, with high windows, which had heavy shutters, inside and out. They were open now, despite the hint of frost in the air. Lilla sat in a corner of sunshine which lit a corner of the room. The fire had a good draught, and the hearth was could hold several pots at one time. The corner near the hearth was piled thick with skins and blankets, an area for sleeping until there was a bed. There were shelves set in the walls, holding household goods and odd treasures: a wooden lamb, a small pillow, embroidered in an intricate design, cups and dishes, a large shell, sharpening stones and scattered quills. The wooden pegs spaced around the room were also full, hung with cloaks, a leather pouch stuffed with scrolls, and a large mask, plumed and intricately fashioned. In the corner near the door was the staff she'd seen Gabrielle carry. She'd never seen it in action but trusted that the compact woman could use it to good effect. There were few things of Xena's to be seen. She seemed to wear everything she owned.

"Xena's a good provider," she said at last. "Not many in Tartarus like her. Even if they're willing, they haven't any skill."

"Hermia, it's no different than any other place here," Xena put in from her place in the corner. She was pleased with the table, but tried to be realistic. "Same construction, same materials. I think Gabrielle's added a few touches that...dress it up?"

"Flowers on the table are all very well, Xena, but food on the table's more important. I saw the root cellar. We should all have one like it; and, its beginning to fill up." She turned her attention back to the table. "I haven't seen one quite like this. That piece is to stop drafts, you said?"

"Yeah," she nodded. The underside of the table featured a solid wall of wood running its length down the middle. "Put that between yourself and the door and you block the cold air. I saw them in the north," she added. "The land of the fjords."

"You never took me there," Gabrielle reproached her. Xena shrugged in reply. There was much more she would have liked her to see.

"Sounds like you've been all over, Xena. How can you stand to stay here? Why did you let them take you?"

It was not the first time that had been asked of Xena. She smiled, muttered something that ended "...horses," and slipped out the door.

"Something I said?" Hermia asked.

"It's still hard for Xena to accept that she's here," Gabrielle said quietly.

"That's the puzzle: why is she here?" Hermia began, her mind filled with the images she'd formed of Xena, what she knew she could do, what she guessed she could do. "I would have thought..." she began, and then it came to her. Xena was rooted to this spot by the presence of the young woman, who was not supposed to have followed. She veered away from the topic. "Never mind," she said with a wave of the hand. "Just you watch her. Half the people in Tartarus, men and women, would give an eye for Xena. Don't think they won't try for her," she warned. "Of course, I could give the same advice to Xena, about you," she went on, "but feeding bellies is a damn sight more important than hearing stories, when the winter is bad." She gasped, and slapped a hand to her mouth. "Damn, that sounded mean," she reproached herself. "I just meant - "

"I know what you meant, Hermia, and its okay. I like my belly fed just as much as the next person." And Xena gives me so much more, she thought. "Anyone comes near her, I'll break her - or his - arm," she promised, laughing.

"I wish Drax would come for his horse," Xena grumbled as she came through the door. "I can't feed him all winter." She had the feeling she'd missed something. "Take some walnuts when you leave, Hermia," she said. "And mushrooms. I never did get to trade them." She started for the root cellar.

"They'd be welcome at the table," Hermia accepted with a nod. "You haven't come to supper in a while."

"And you've never come here," Gabrielle observed, "so I think it's our turn."

"Agreed," Xena said as she started down the cellar steps.

"So let me extend an invitation to our party."

Xena's head snapped around.

"A party?" she and Hermia said at the same time.

"Mmmhmmm," Gabrielle confirmed. "We have a home, there's no reason we shouldn't offer hospitality to our friends."

"What friends?"

"Xena, we do have friends here."

"I donít mean that, I mean which friends?"

"Hermia, Lilla, Ileander and Drax, Sepra and Archon, Cramma. I know she can be a little," she considered, "gruff, but I think we should include her."

"And when are we doing this?" Xenaís sour face was all the opinion Gabrielle needed. She turned to look at Hermia as she spoke. "The day of the full moon, so if things run a little late, - Ď

"And when were you going to share your plans with me?"

"They arenít really plans, Xena. Just something that came to mind."

"Did it happen to come to mind what weíre gonna feed them?"

"I was hoping you could get a boar. Hermia says we can have a keg of her finest."

"Thatíd be a gift," Hermia put in happily.

"As for the rest, well, people usually bring things along," Gabrielle supplied. "Hermia said thatís how itís done here."

"Thatís how itís done here," Xena repeated. "Sounds to me as if this Ďsomething that came to mindí has been in the works long enough to qualify as a Ďplaní."

"No," the bard replied indignantly. "I threw a few ideas past Hermia, thatís all."

"Thatís as far as itís gone?"

"Yes." She bit her; lower lip. Except for Ileander."

"Ileander." Tight lipped, Xena nodded. "I suppose this is why the table was so urgently needed?"

"We needed the table anyway," Gabrielle reasoned.

"Did you ever consider that maybe there are more important things that need to be done?"

"If there are, you havenít mentioned them."

"Do I have to spell out everything?"

"You? Of course not! You do just as you like, Xena, as usual. Make all the decisions, tell me what I need to know, when I need to know it, do all the important stuff; Iíll just be here, Ďdressing things up,í was that it?"

"Weíll be going now," Hermia said, even as she edged toward the door, waving Lilla to join her.

"Hermia, sorry about this; I should have gotten permission to ask you over before I spoke."

Xena took a breath. "Gabrielle you donít need permission," she said more quietly. "I just need to know things. Iíd just like to know."

"So you can find reasons why we canít do it?"

They arenít hard to find," she retorted. "One anyway."

"Which is?"

"Iíd just as soon not draw attention to my presence here, here Gabrielle."

"Oh, like nobody knows youíre here?"

"I donít have to wave a red flag under Neradís nose," she spat, "with a gathering of the locals. It's a little too soon after the last incident."

"Will it ever be different?" Gabrielle asked. "Will I ever in my life be able to invite people into my home? I mean isnít this place bad enough?"

"Yeah," Xena agreed after a long pause. "Itís awful. You want a party, go ahead." She turned again to the root cellar.

 

There was a lot of work to be done that afternoon, far more than usual. Gabrielle watched as Xena chopped enough wood to feed the furnace of Hephaestus She lifted a waterskin, and stood, one hand on the door handle, weighing her first words. She wouldnít make an abject apology, there was no reason for her to apologize. If Xena wanted to sulk...But this wasnít quite sulking. It wasnít anger, either. It was something else, and Gabrielle was not quite sure how to approach it. 'You can't avoid me forever', wouldn't work here.

"Thirsty?" the waterskin was extended, but Xena paused in her work to shake her head.

"No thanks." She indicated with a nod the waterskin which hung on a nearby branch.

"Youíve got enough wood there to last the winter," Gabrielle said with a smile.

Xena returned a faint smile. "Won't last a moon." The axe was raised again.

"Maybe it was different in Amphipolis, but in Potadeia, we had parties," Gabrielle persisted, broadening the smile.

Xena lowered the axe, fought against the returning smile which would mark surrender. "We had parties in Amphipolis," she began, in a neutral tone. "Donít forget: I was raised in my mother's inn. Every night was a party, for someone."

"So you have nothing against parties in principle? It can't be the guests," she mused aloud. "Remember the harvesting at Hermia's? You got on fine with them then. Of course, I had to drag you there against your will." She pulled a face. The axe head was on the ground, and Xena's eyes were on the bard. Almost there, she knew. "I guess that leaves you. Would you like to talk about it? This anti-social thing you've got going on?"

"Gabrielle..." The low, menacing growl, sent shivers through the bard.

"Maybe you just want to be drawn out of yourself?" she guessed. "I'm willing to try, if you are," she offered, and grasped the warrior in a fierce hug before she could respond.

"How's that?" she asked, as the axe handle thudded to the ground and Xena returned the hug.

"Much better," she confessed.

"So what's really wrong?"

"I told you. There's so much to do, I don't need more chores. Not now."

"Xena, I'll do the cooking," she pointed out.

"And I'll do the hunting. Boar, wasn't it?" At best, that would take a good part of a day, assuming she found boar. "That means digging a pit to roast it properly - "

"I can help you with that."

"Gabrielle, that's not your kind of work." Her head moved against the bard in gentle negation.

"Till now it hasnít been, but thereís no reason I canít wield a spade." She pulled away until she could read Xena's face. "Is that all of it? The chores? Nerad's paranoia?"

"Yes."

"It's got nothing to do with my mentioning the party before I'd spoken with you? Xena, I should have done that, as a matter of consideration; and practicality. I don't want this to be a big apology, because I didn't do anything wrong in getting excited about inviting people to our home."

"I don't want an apology." She shrugged. "Things were easier on the road. Wake up, bash a few heads, find something to eat, and sleep." She curled her lips in a sardonic smile. "And there, I made most of the decisions, because I was the chief head-buster. It's a long time since I haven't been the one calling all the shots."

"Find it hard to share the power?"

"Yeah," she admitted sarcastically, "the wonderful, heady power I - we, have over this patch of earth. Shouldn't be so hard to give that up."

"Xena, I don't have the same experience wielding power that you have, a few sporadic episodes with the Amazons, that's about it. Maybe it's harder for you. I do know this: when you make decisions, I don't mind, usually. I figure you know best about some things. A lot of things," she admitted with a small laugh. "If that's giving up power, then I give it up happily. To you." She waited for some response, watched as Xena found a broken finger nail, and trimmed it with her teeth.

"We're partners," she said at last, "so I should have no problem giving up power to you." She swallowed, and looked frankly at the bard. "Well, I do have a problem. Maybe I shouldn't," she went on quickly, before Gabrielle could respond, "but I do."

"That won't make this any easier," Gabrielle said slowly.

"I know."

"Any chance you'll work it out? Do you want to work it out?"

"I'd better. I hate it when we fight."

"A fight? By our standards this was no fight," she said rolling her eyes, "but I hate it too, whatever we call it. Can I help? Not by pretending there is no problem," she shook her head emphatically. "I won't leave all the choices to you, but like I said, I could have discussed my idea with you first. Would that have helped?"

"Yeah," Xena nodded, "except that I would have tried to talk you out of it."

"I'll take my chances with talking anytime, honey. So, is this over? Your sulking?"

"I wasn't - "

"Okay, you weren't sulking," she conceded putting her hands up. "But you are ready to come inside? It's pretty chilly."

She hefted the axe, ready to follow the bard, but had a sudden thought. "Would you like to go for a ride?" she asked, a gleam in her eye. She guessed the glade would be much warmer. She'd been back three times to collect more of the walnut, and found it always the same.

"Xena, this is a choice I have no trouble making. "I'm cold."

"But - " Xena started to say, then decided against it. It wasn't the time. Instead she said: "This is just the start, Gabrielle. This isn't the Mediterranean."

Continued - Chapter 20


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