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Water, trees, discretion. Essential, here, Xena said, and thatís what they looked for, day after weary day, even as they moved into the broad foothills which grounded the mountains. Now they passed occasional lakes, and swift running currents. Patches of green were more plentiful, and they rode alongside cultivated fields.
Gabrielle suggested a prominent bluff as a site for a home. "Too exposed," the warrior replied.
A hollow sheltered by a copse of trees, with a stream behind. "Too near the road."
"Xena, look. Roses." Gabrielle knew the warrior had fond childhood memories of roses. Although they grew in profusion here, the site was: "All wrong."
"Xena: water, trees, and itís hidden in a hollow," the bard pointed out, hating to leave the spot. "What can be wrong with this one?"
"What happens when it rains, Gabrielle?" Xena asked. "All the water will run down into the hollow and flood the place. Weíll wake up underwater." Xena knew she was right, and bit her tongue as Gabrielle stormed back to Argo and let herself be hoisted aboard.
"I give up, "the bard said, "For days, Iíve tried to follow your criteria, Xena: water, trees, discretion. Obviously, thereís some secret warlord trick to choosing a site that I havenít mastered."
"Itís no trick," Xena said patiently. Why is everything I do a warlord trick? Think I was a bloody sorcerer. "Youíve done well, in spotting what weíre looking for, we just havenít found the right place yet. We will," she added, working to sound cheerful enough for both of them.
"Iíve Ďdone wellí?" she mimicked. "Thanks so much. Now Iíll let you get on with choosing the spot." Which is what youíve wanted to do all along. "Sometime soon, preferably in this lifetime, Iíd like to stay in one place for more than a night," she ended flatly.
Xena closed her eyes, trying to picture staying in one place forever. "Gabrielle, it isnít my fault that we havenít found the right place to settle."
"Iím not finding fault, Xena. But maybe weíre looking in the wrong places. Maybe when we see smoke from a chimney, we should actually head toward it, instead of turning in the other direction." That had happened several times in the past few days. "Maybe thereís some reason that chimneys, and homes are in a certain area, while we comb the back of beyond looking for your dream location."
Dream location? In Tartarus? "Gabrielle, do you want to live on top of everybody?" the warrior asked.
"No, but I donít want to feel like an exile among exiles, either," she responded. "At the first sign of dust a mile up the road, you turn off to avoid other travelers. What is that all about?"
"Gabrielle, weíve talked about this. We donít know who our neighbors are yet," Xena pointed out. "Why go advertising our presence to people we might not want to know?"
"Weíll never find out if we donít go near them," Gabrielle shot back, then more gently: "This isnít like you, Xena. What are you afraid of?"
"Afraid? Why do you ask that?" the husky voice demanded.
"I didnít mean afraid, Xena," she backed off, quickly. "I didnít mean fear. I mean...reluctance. Why do you want to avoid everyone?"
"Isnít it obvious, Gabrielle? Who are the only people weíve met here? A gang of would-be-cutthroats?" she asked, not hiding her exasperation.
"Do we just avoid them forever?"
"No, Gabrielle." As much as Iíd like to do that, I know that isnít an option. "Iím just not in a hurry, okay? We have other things to do."
"Like find that mythical perfect site for our home? Are you sure you want to settle down, Xena? Maybe you just want to ride around forever, catching rabbits and spreading out on a bedroll at night. Is that it?"
"Yeah, Gabrielle, I want to ride around Tartarus in circles, the rest of my life, listening to you try to figure me out. Think youíre up to it?" There was no humor in her voice.
"Figure you out?" the younger woman snorted. "Do I get a few more clues than your usual grunts and nods?"
Damn. I havenít stopped talking since we got here, Xena thought in disbelief. She touched her heels to Argo and the horse quickened her gait; Gabrielle tightened her grip around Xenaís waist. "Whatís the hurry?" she asked plaintively.
"Figure it out," Xena threw over her shoulder. Want me to find a place to settle? Okay, little girl, here we go.
For the next few hours, Xena pushed to cover twice the miles they had on previous days, taking frequent stops to rest Argo, even making the stops count, choosing prominences from which she could survey the surrounding territory, and determine the next move. Gabrielle displayed a marked disinterest in events, responding, when she bothered, in monosyllables. The sun grew hot as the day wore on. "Gabrielle," Xena called softly over her shoulder, as she passed her the water skin. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, Xena. Iím tired, thatís all." She drank deeply from the water skin, resumed her tight hold around Xenaís waist, leaned her head against the warriorís back. Xena knew she would doze now, and moved more slowly, alert to the balance of the bardís weight. She sought shelter from the sun, skirting the edges of the forests, catching the cooling air which came off the mountains in gusts. Through the trees she caught a glimpse of sun glinting off water, and rode to find it. She followed the broad stream for a considerable distance, in a criss-crossing pattern, enjoying the smell of moist earth, refreshed by the shade. She stopped, and the only sounds were Argo lapping at the crystal water, and bees droning about their business. "Gabrielle, wake up," she urged, but the bard merely muttered a protest in her sleep. A little further on, the profusion of thickets overhanging the banks was so great that there was no place to exit the stream, so she rode down itís center, so clear she could see to the bottom. Gods, to find this in Tartarus, she marveled, content to enjoy the little oasis, not at all troubled that the stream seemed to lead her on its meandering way. It seemed so right. The air was clear, and sweet. Foliage overhung the bank, and late summer flowers perfumed the air. The stream made a tight bend, then revealed a treasure: near where the current split to flow around a small island, a grassy knoll, sheltered by a stand of walnut tress, was bathed in sunlight. The warriorís eyes narrowed, sweeping the vista, certain there was some flaw, some problem she couldnít see. It was too perfect.
"Gabrielle," she said quietly. "This is it." She felt the warm figure behind her stir, and she turned in the saddle to watch her. For a moment, the bardís green eyes widened, or Xena thought they did, as the blonde hair swung around with her survey of the land.
With little enthusiasm she came to rest against Xena once more. "If you say so." It was the most sheíd said in hours.
Xena jumped from the saddle and began a slow walk around the area. The grass was lush, almost like home. She drank from the stream with a cupped hand. Sweet. She was amazed that no homestead already was planted here. "Gabrielle, did you really look at this place?" she asked, hoping to get a stronger reaction. "There are berries, flowers; I smell verbena. We could fish Ė "
"Xena. Itís obvious that the decisionís been made. You neednít convince me." The bard gave her a wan smile, and shrugged.
"You donít like it?" Xena asked, crestfallen. "Whatís wrong with it? Itís got a stream Ė "
"Trees, and discretion," Gabrielle finished. "I know. I just have a bad feeling about this place. Iím sorry."
"A bad feeling? Can you be more specific?" Xena asked, hands on hips. She recognized a certain anger rising in her, and made an effort to contain it.
"Itís a feeling, Xena. I just know I could never be happy here." The bard shivered slightly; at this time of day the winds kicked up.
"Is it too isolated?" Xena prodded. If they were moving on she wanted to know why.
"Yes. I donít know, I didnít see which way you came. Every place weíve been seems isolated. I keep wondering if anyone else is really here."
"Weíll keep looking," Xena said, after a long moment, tearing her eyes away from where she already pictured the small dwelling. The late afternoon sun would shine on the front door. If the shutters were open, the interior would be lit through early evening. If.
She picked up the reins and began to walk away, leading Argo, looking for an alternate route from the site, to any place else.
They made camp early that night, Gabrielle thought, then realized that what would once have been early, was now the norm. Xena knelt a stoneís throw away, plucking the pheasant sheíd brought down with the bow. It would make a change from rabbit anyway. Gabrielle poked absently at the dirt at her feet, her stick sending little bugs scurrying. How easy to disrupt their lives, she mused; and they have no idea why things are suddenly different. Xena looked up to wipe a feather from her nose, and caught the bardís eye. She smiled, and returned to her work. "Need some help?" Gabrielle asked.
"No thanks; almost done. Fire ready?"
You know it is, she thought, a little irritated. "Nice and hot. You know, I bet some of those homes we passed would have had bread to barter. You remember bread: that other food, the one thatís not game or wild roots."
Xena gutted the bird with a violent, twisting motion, and tossed the viscera to the ground.
Should have done this by the stream, she realized, and stood to walk the few yards to the water which ran at their backs. "Be right back," she muttered.
The bird was plunged into the water, once, twice, a third time, until Xena was satisfied the cavity was clean. Then she cleaned her own hands, splashed water onto her face, and sat watching the late afternoon flies flit near the water. So much for taking care of Gabrielle. No place to settle, no decent food, sheís aching for company other than me; and itís all just begun. Whatís so different? She groped toward an answer, looking for some shape in the confusion of feelings. Weíre the same people, living the same type of life, on the road. Only outside it had been an adventure, there was life to it, even the grim parts had some purpose. Here the travel was just going someplace to do nothing in particular. No place would be acceptable for that fate. This was a problem Xena hadnít foreseen, and she frowned at the discovery. What do we do besides work for survival? What do I do? Iím a warrior. I expect theyíll be plenty of fighting to do for me to do, still; yet for the first time in my life Iím making detours around trouble. She shook her head remembering the decision she had made to take a direct route through the Thessalian-Mitoan war zone, to save a few days. They had nearly paid with Gabrielleís life. Iím not the same person, she admitted, at least Iím not acting like the same person. And what of Gabrielle? A bard without an audience? Where would her new stories come from? What would she do here? Gods, weíre both blundering around pretending nothing much has changed, and really everything has changed.
"Xena?" She turned at the soft voice so near her ear. "Did I manage to sneak up on you?"
"No. I heard you stumble on that root," Xena replied, as if offering proof. She had registered Gabrielleís presence and made no reaction. "Youíll have to do better in the morning."
"The morning? Are you planning an ambush?" a touch of unease was in Gabrielleís voice.
"Yeah. On whatever game we can find." The bard began to shake her head. "If we want a change of diet, we need to pay for it," Xena pointed out quietly. Green eyes bore in on her for a moment, and she knew the bardís thoughts. I could do this easily, get more than enough to trade. She thinks Iím making a point. "Gabrielle, weíve talked about this. Its something you need to know."
"Even if I choose never to hunt, once I know how?" she challenged.
"Yes." Xena found this logic confounding, but left her answer at that. The bard settled down next to Xena, staring at the water with something of a pout. "You donít know how to use the bow, yet, so you wonít kill anything tomorrow," Xena observed, hoping to make it softer for Gabrielle, "just learn stalking skills. See how itís done. Then weíll find someone to barter with." She was pleased to see the green eyes crinkle at the corners. Finally, something to look forward to. Gabrielle understood Xenaís purpose.
"Xena, if youíd rather not Ė "
"Gabrielle. You were right. Itís time we met the others, whoever they are. Iíll be happy to eat bread again. Maybe weíll get lucky and find a local brewer." She raised her eyebrows in happy anticipation.
It had already been a long day, and the sun was nowhere near its zenith. A fat sack hung from Argoí saddle, and Xena was moving toward signs of habitation, following more worn paths, scanning the horizon for curls of chimney smoke. It was a windy day, and smoke would dissipate quickly, she realized. They might not spy the smoke until they were on top of its source. Gabrielle was more animated than sheíd been in sometime. The prospect of meeting someone, anyone, excited her. Xena tried not to imagine who they would meet first, wished for the bardís sake it would be someone tolerable.
They passed a small clearing, and Gabrielle pointed, "Xena, look. What is that thing?"
"Itís a hovel, Gabrielle. Someone, or more, people lived there, once." It wasnít likely it was occupied now, it was riddled with large holes. Gabrielle stared. It was not as tall as she was, and not much longer than Xena. "People lived there?" she echoed in disbelief. "How?" It was made of interwoven boughs of pine and other trees, and was packed with thick mud in places.
"I didnít say they were comfortable, Gabrielle. Probably only crawled inside at night, or when the weather was bad. It would keep out the wet, if not the damp. Better than nothing," she shrugged. "We might have to live in one of those ourselves until we can build something better."
"Xena," she began in protest.
"It might come to that, Gabrielle. Think of it as a small, woodsy tent. Youíre an Amazon. You should feel right at home." She turned to share her smile with the Amazon. Gabrielleís face showed a real distaste for the idea of living in such a place, even briefly. "Xena, Iíd rather sleep in the open." Xena turned her face forward, and moved on a little faster.
Xena smelled the smoke before she saw it. She said nothing, but was pleased a few minutes later when Gabrielle said: "Xena. I smell a fire."
"Hmmm, "the warrior nodded, "and baked bread." And something else.
They headed toward the column of smoke when it appeared, passing through weed-choked fields. Xena surveyed the strangled crops with dismay; wondering if this was the handiwork of a warrior turned farmer, wondering how he survived. If he had survived.
"Xena, this place is a mess," Gabrielle commented, "It looks as if no one tends the fields at all."
"Maybe thatís the case, Gabrielle," she replied. Someone had once enclosed the dwelling in a rail fence; it barely hung together now. It well-matched the house itself, a poorly constructed affair, not much better than a larger version of the hovel theyíd just passed. A scruffy mongrel wriggled out of a hole in the front wall, and charged as near to them as he dared, raising a gruff alarm. "Easy, boy, weíre not gonna hurt you," Gabrielle said.
A face appeared briefly in the doorway. Xena dismounted, sent the dog packing with a withering glare, and called out to the inhabitants: "Hello. Any bread to spare?" Regardless of the state of the fields, the aroma of baked bread attested to some skilled person on the premises.
"Be right with you." It was not a friendly voice. A woman stepped from the doorway, a
loaf of crusty bread in hand. She was not much older than Gabrielle, Xena guessed, but had the look of someone whoíd known hard times. Her eyes were a soft brown, and told of a spirit that was not yet defeated. One side of her face was mottled with fading bruises. Light brown hair was ties back in a scrap of faded ribbon. Xena stole a quick glance at Gabrielle. A child shuffled into the yard behind the woman, and clung to her patched skirt. The woman looked at Xena frankly for a moment. Her eye found the earring, and looked in vain for the brand on her hand, then studied Gabrielle, as if she was the last part of a puzzle. It still made no sense to her.
"Youíre never sure how many to expect. When the new load of convicts comes in, itís tricky for a while." Her words were not an apology, more an explanation, but they left Xena and Gabrielle puzzled.
She thrust the loaf at Xena. "Thatís all Iíve got left today. Your kind have been here earlier."
My kind, Xena thought grimly.
"And thereís another to come. If that donít suit you, do your worst." She had no doubt that would be quite a bit. "Xena, isnít it? The unmarked one. Iíve heard you came in with this lot. You must have a blood letting every day to sate your thirst," she nodded, anxious to let Xena know she knew all about her. "But killing us wonít put bread on your table. Even warlords need bakers."
"We donít want your bread," Xena said wearily.
"Iíve got nothing else for you to take," she said a little shrilly. Tears would be next. "Have a look yourself." She gestured at the hovel.
"Look, lady," Xena began, and froze as the child caught her eye. She was staring at Xena, eyes wide, afraid. Then Xena felt an arm around her waist, one strong hand on her sword arm. Gabrielle, making it clear that Xena was no threat.
"Lady, itís clear youíve heard of Xena, but donít believe everything you hear. Iíve been with Xena for over two years, and I have yet to see her take so much as a sip of blood." She laughed, and gave Xenaís arm an affectionate squeeze. "The Xena youíve heard about doesnít exist anymore. You have nothing to fear from my Xena," she ended with quiet assurance. The woman made no reply, but regarded the curious couple with new interest. "And we didnít come to demand bread; we were hoping to barter, for any you had to share. I guess youíre sick of rabbit," she said, assuming everyone would barter with the plentiful small game.
The look on the womanís face told another story. "Barter? You were going to give me rabbit for the bread?"
"Taken fresh this morning," Gabrielle assured her, wondering at her surprise.
"Thatíd be a first. Why would you do that?" she asked, newly suspicious.
"Well, it seems customary to pay, in some way..."
"Ainít the custom with the lot that comes here," she snorted. "They pay me by not killing me, or putting the torch to my home."
Xenaís cheeks burned with memories of that other custom. "Youíve got none to spare; weíll be going," she said brusquely, and pulled free of Gabrielle.
The bard watched her with a pang, then addressed the woman: "Weíll be in the area, maybe, not quite sure where weíre settling yet. If you ever have spare bread, maybe we can still barter. Would that be all right?"
"Fine," was the eager reply. "Iíll make extra, if I can count on something in return. Donít often have meat in the pot."
Gabrielle moved back to Argo. Without a word, Xena held a rabbit out to her. She gave the warrior a smile and ran back to the woman. "Here. We have more than we need today," she said warmly. "Oh, my nameís Gabrielle," she added.
"Hermia," she supplied, eyes moving back to the dark warrior who was looking anyplace but at her. "Iím sorry I gave offense to the warrior."
Gabrielle merely shrugged. ĎSheís used to ití, would be a lie. Such reactions didnít surprise Xena, but they still affected her, sometimes more than others. This was a bad time.
"Xena. Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked quietly, as the tiny homestead receded in the distance.
"Iím fine, Gabrielle. I think those moments trouble you more than me. Of course, we still donít have any bread."
"I was glad you gave her the rabbit anyway." After the things she said.
"Gabrielle, we gave her the rabbit. It was our rabbit, remember?"
"How could I forget," she snickered in reply. Xena had insisted that she would only shoot a rabbit Gabrielle had spied first. That had taken some time.
"Xena? Is that why you were so reluctant to go near people? Were you expecting that reaction?"
"It didnít surprise me," she said after a moment. "It never does; but no, thatís not the reason. I expected to find armed hostility, not itís victims. I suppose next time, you should do the bartering, eh?" she grinned, briefly.
"Iím sorry, Xena. I wish people could know you as I do?"
Xena arched an eyebrow and gave the bardís thigh a gentle pinch. "Really? You ready to share me with the world," she asked, in a husky voice.
"You know what I mean, Xena."
"I do; but I canít complain. That reputation has served me well over the years. Still comes in handy, on occasion. Canít have it both ways. I admit I was surprised to hear the story about my blood-thirst. Havenít heard that one in a while."
"Itís new to me," the bard said, not certain if she wanted to hear more, but Xena was in a rare mood to reminisce.
"We were sacking a town, no big deal, they didnít offer much resistance, and casualties were few. On the way in, there was a skirmish; I bit my tongue and it bled quite a bit." What must I have looked like, she wondered, riding into that place in the early dawn, sword overhead, blood on my lips, eager for someone to challenge me. "Blood was dripping from my mouth, trickling down the corners. One of my lieutenants told the villagers I always had a cup of blood to start the day. Any thought of opposition died there." She fell silent, remembering that the lieutenant had come to her tent that evening. "We shared a good laugh, later." How long had he been dead now? His horse lost its footing; he had fallen and broken his neck.
"Xena? Are we going to try someplace else?"
The dark head bobbed indifferently. "Why not?" She scanned the area, looking for signs of habitation. She saw only a lone rider, cutting obliquely across the fields to where they had just been. "Her last customer," she guessed, pointing him out to the bard.
"Do you think sheíll be all right, Xena?"
"Seems to be part of the system, Gabrielle," she shrugged. "I just hope sheís tucked the rabbit out of sight. I donít want to think our rabbit will end up in some thiefís belly."
"You donít suppose heís the one who gave her those bruises, do you?" Gabrielle asked.
The bard had noticed, too. "I donít know." Xena drew Argo to a halt, and shifted in the saddle. "Want to go make sure the rabbitís safe," she asked, and got the expected nod from the blonde head. "Letís go," and Argo was turned back toward the little homestead.
They arrived just after he did, a hulking man clad in dark cowhide. They heard his bellow before they came into view, and he looked startled at who had seemed to arrive in response to his summons. Hermia came through the doorway just then, two loaves in hand. She looked first at the man, then to Xena and Gabrielle at his back. Relief and fear vied for expression on her face, then she steeled herself and held out the loaves.
"Hermia, we just wanted to say Ďhelloí, "Gabrielle said evenly, then nodded to the man as he turned to examine them.
"Xena," he grunted. "We all end up in the same stew pot, huh?" he said with contempt. "Even the great Warrior Princess."
Xena didnít know the man. "Yeah, but even here there are things a dog wouldnít touch," she said, returning his contempt. "Hermia," she said loudly. "Iíll give you a rabbit for that bread."
"The breadís mine, Xena. Find your own supply." He turned to take it from Hermia, but she backed away, uncertainly, waiting to see how the game turned out. With that simple move, she had bet her life on Xena. The warrior swung a leg over the saddle and jumped down, freezing him with a stare while she retrieved a rabbit from a sack. She passed within inches of the man, daring him to make a move. He stood stock still; the reputation, she acknowledged to herself. She held out the rabbit to Hermia, then asked a question of the man: "Did you have a better offer to make her?" He looked daggers at Xena, then communicated an unspoken promise to Hermia with a sneer. Xena had expected this.
"Take it Hermia," she said and the rabbit and bread were exchanged. She tucked the bread in a sack which hung on Argo, and threw advice over her shoulder: "Next time you come to get bread, make it worth her while. Even a cretinous blowhard should know better." He didnít know exactly what that meant, but judged rightly that it had been an insult.
"You canít stay next to Hermia every minute, Xena. Iíll get my chance," he fumed.
"Then maybe I should kill you now?" she reasoned, as she turned to mount Argo. She had given him an opening, and he took it. As his dirk descended to her back, she seized his arm and twisted the limb so that the it pointed squarely at his chest. His momentum carried him into the blade. He fell with a huff. Gabrielle watched a little stunned. Hermia looked at Xena blankly. The implications of her refusal of this man had just begun to sink in, and now he was dead. "He rides with some others. Theyíll blame me," she managed.
Xena shook her head. Already the man was lifted into his saddle. "He wonít be found near here. You might ask anyone who drops by if theyíve seen him. Mention that he didnít pick-up his bread this week." Hermia nodded mutely. "Gabrielle, Iím going to dump him someplace. Wait here."
"Xena," Hermia ventured. "The earring is worth something."
Xena shook her head again, "Not to you, or me, Hermia. Some lucky passerby can collect on it."
When she was gone, Gabrielle said, "Hermia, we really donít want the last of your bread. Please take it back."
"One loaf, is all," she agreed, smiling for the first time. "Your friend doesnít muck about."
"No, she doesnít. Hermia, what did you mean about the earring? That it was Ďworth somethingí ?"
"Convicts have to wear the earring for life. When they die, it gets yanked off and traded to a peddler." Gabrielle shuddered. "When my husband died I traded for an iron cook pot. I expect the peddler got ten times the price when he turned it in outside." She saw Gabrielleís puzzlement. "Itís how they try to track the convicts. They know youíre dead when your earring shows up. Of course you might be dead otherwise, in battle with the Eastern tribes, or trying to escape. Some earrings never do get returned, I guess."
"Why donít the convicts just remove the earrings and have someone turn them in; then they can escape, and no one will be looking for them?"
"First off, about the only rule here for convicts is to wear that bloody earring. Once or twice a year soldiers come just to check. If you have a hole in your ear and no ring there, theyíll kill you on the spot." Gabrielle realized the hole for the earring was larger than for jewelry. She remembered the corpse theyíd found on the road. The earring had been missing, something neither had mentioned at the time. She remembered too, how Xena shrank away if she touched the earring. She felt sick to think that someone, someday, would snatch the earring from that soft lobe Ė
"And you forget the brand," Hermia broke into her thoughts, then Hermia recalled that these two were unmarked. "For most people the brand is a problem. I guess you could cut off the hand," she surmised. "Not that escapeís possible anyway. Thatís the problem, you know. If you had the strength of Hercules, the speed of Hermes and could fight like Ares, maybe youíd have a chance." She had come close to describing Xena, Gabrielle realized. Xena didnít even have a brand to contend with. "Of course, if youíve got all that, you donít wind up here to begin with," she finished with a flourish.
No, you donít, Gabrielle realized, yet Xena was here. She shuddered, again, and retrieved a loaf of bread for Hermia.
Come inside," the woman volunteered. "Itís not much, but itís home."
The rabbit was already in the stew pot, simmering with herbs. The little girl played near the window, and started when Gabrielle entered. "Donít take on so, Lilla," Hermia instructed.
"Lilla? Thatís my sisterís name," Gabrielle said, and suddenly she missed Lilla.
"Always had a Lilla in my family," Hermia went on. "My Farnis didnít much like the name, but we had a deal: Iíd name the girls, heíd do the boys. Of course, she was the only one. Now heís gone. Funny what people quarrel over, ainít it?"
"Yes, itís funny," Gabrielle agreed. "Iím sorry your husband is dead." That would account for the state of the fields.
"Early last year, just after the crop went in. He was felling a tree, it crushed his foot. In days his whole leg turned black, and he died. In agony." A spasm touched her face as she remembered. "Most people would have thought him worth little, a thief, a convict; but somehow, beneath it all, he was a good man. He loved me, anyway, and I loved him." She set a cup of some strongly scented infusion in front of the bard. "Donít have to ask what Xena did to get here, do I?" she said with a wink.
"No, I guess not," Gabrielle smiled in reply.
"She had no trouble putting him down just now."
"No," she said quietly. Gabrielle hadnít expected a killing to result from the confrontation.
"Youíre a good friend to follow her to this place."
"My life is with Xena," she said simply.
Hermia nodded. "I hope youíll stay to supper?"
"Iíll have to ask Xena; we still have to find a place to settle, and I think sheís in a hurry to get that done."
"You have to eat, and weíd be glad of the company."
Xena arrived in the middle of a story. She stood outside the window listening; it was Pandora. Figure Gabrielle to find a story to tell the hopeless that spoke of hope, and presented Xena as a hero. When it was finished, she waited a few moments before calling at the door. Hermia met her at the door with a grin; from the hearth, Gabrielle threw her own smile. Xena hesitated. It seemed that Gabrielle had been made welcome, but she waited until Hermia waved her inside. "Welcome, Xena. I hope you and Gabrielle will share our supper."
Gods, it was good to eat under a roof again, at a table. Gabrielle wondered if Xena was felling the same, but the warrior gave no clues. The rabbit had undergone a transformation in the pot, and Gabrielle happily sopped up the fragrant gravy with generous chunks of bread. "This is very tasty, Hermia," Gabrielle said. She gave Xena a soft nudge under the table.
"Very tasty," she echoed with sincerity. The little girl across the table ate silently, eyes never leaving the dark warrior.
"Iím happy to do it for you both," Hermia said, brushing a wisp of doe color hair from her eyes. "You are the founders of the feast, so to speak." She filled the cups with a dark, foamy brew she poured from an earthenware jug. Xena had first caught a whiff of that perfume from a long way off, when they first smelled the smoke from Hermiaís chimney. She took a cautious sip, then a generous draught. "You brew a good ale, Hermia," she said with the tone of one who knows. "Where do you get the water?"
"My well," she replied proudly. "Best water in Tartarus. Except maybe for the mountains."
"This area is much better than the parts we came through to get here," Gabrielle observed, looking to Xena for affirmation. "Maybe we can find a place to settle around here, Xena?"
"Iíd like for you to settle here," Hermia enthused. "Iíd be happy to pay tribute to Xena."
"Tribute?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena glared at the woman.
"Xena would be overlord, Iím sure," Hermia explained to Gabrielle.
"Overlord?" Gabrielle asked.
"I wouldnít be overlord." Xena spoke through clenched teeth.
"Then you wonít be settling here, she snorted, "if you arenít overlord, youíre under him. I donít expect youíd be happy paying tribute to Nerad," Hermia said, ending with slightly pursed lips. She spoke as one who knows sheís got the better argument. "Of course thatís true all over Tartarus, weíre all under someone. Except for those who live in the wastelands, or hide up in the mountains. There are tales of the Wild Ones, who disappear into the mountains, and live in freedom. Free to starve, to freeze, apart from even the likes of us for companions," she ended. She thought the blue eyes held a hint of envy at that; then it was gone.
"Itís true all over the world," Xena rejoined at last.
"All over the world, the ruling scum isnít a pack of vicious criminals," Hermia pointed out.
"Itís true often enough," Xena observed.
"Will someone please tell me what in the name of Tartarus youíre talking about?" Gabrielle looked from one to the other, waiting for an answer. Finally, Xena spoke.
"Iíve told you how things work here, Gabrielle, so has Drax. Power is exercised by anyone able to do it. The most powerful person in a region is called overlord here, I guess. " She inclined her head toward Hermia in thanks for the new knowledge. "The overlord is paid tribute by the underlings." She looked to Hermia again. "What tribute do you pay Nerad?"
"Like you saw; when his men come by for victuals, I give what I have. That seems to satisfy. My Farnis was under obligation to fight under Nerad in a crisis. Never came to that."
"Crisis?" Xenaís eyes narrowed, curious. "Fight against the Eastern tribes?" Hermia nodded. "Do you have much trouble with them?"
"On and off. They come in and steal crops sometimes, burn homes. Slaughter livestock. Two harvests ago they raided to the south of here, killed dozens. I think they just like to make life harder. Not that it isnít hard enough. I suppose they want to chase us off, so they can have the place for themselves. They donít seem to understand we have no choice," she laughed bitterly. "Iíve heard they take people for slaves." She shuddered. "Iíd rather be a slave here, among my own kind."
Xena opened her mouth to speak, caught Gabrielleís troubled face and paused before changing direction.
"Was Nerad ever challenged?" Xena asked. Gabrielle followed the conversation with rapt attention, curious about Xenaís interest.
"Nerad hasnít been challenged; heís only just taken over from Letritius. There was a nasty business went on for two winters, Nerad pushing against Letritius. For a time they both tried to run the place. I had to give tribute to whoever came to collect first. The next lot to come by wasnít understanding." She shook her head, remembering.
"Iím sure." Xena had her own memories. "Did Nerad win, or did Letritius lose?" she asked.
"Nerad called for a truce. They met to carve up the territory. I was there; they needed cooks and servers. They laid their weapons aside, ate and drank, and when the agreement was all arranged, Neradís men fell on them with hidden blades. Letritius was killed; his men swore allegiance to Nerad, or were put to the sword. Nerad gained a lot of followers that day."
It was all too familiar to Xena. "Nice bunch you have in charge."
"Better having it settled, than living in the midst of their struggle. Doesnít matter much whoís robbing me. Letritius was no better."
"Do you know of Brachius?"
"Heard of him," Hermia remembered. "He has territory to the south, I believe."
Xena nodded, then asked, "Your husband was a warrior?"
"He was. Tried to give it up, he was tired of killing. It was hard for him to make a living at anything else. He took up with a band of thieves; they got caught, we ended up here," she shrugged. "That was four winters ago."
"It must be hard for you to be alone," Gabrielle guessed.
"Iíve got the little one; we get by. Iím of some use to Nerad, so in normal times they leave me alone." She looked at Xena. "That one you killed. He wanted to take me as his woman, I think." Her eyes held a thank you that came from her very core.
Xena nodded, and Gabrielle swallowed glumly, looking from one woman to the other.
"If Farnis was a warrior, how did he avoid service to Nerad, or Letritius?" Xena asked. "Neither side claimed him for their war. They would have come for him if they needed him, but thereís no shortage of warriors in Tartarus. If youíre content to let them push you around theyíll let you be." Of course, Farnis wasnít a legendary warrior, she thought to herself. She watched the play of muscles under the tanned skin. She had no doubt the warrior had earned her reputation. The stories the bard told spoke of a heroís deeds. That was a comfort, but it meant little if they moved on. The bard had grown quiet, and watched the warrior with a tiny furrow in her brow. Hermia didnít like to see that. She hadnít seen a face so open and cheerful in years.
Xena drained her cup. "Good ale," she repeated absently. "I thought Iíd try my hand at brewing, if we can get the grain, and good water." She looked at Gabrielle for her opinion.
The green eyes crinkled in a smile; she often wondered how Xena would fill the hours.
"Sounds good. Your mother serves delicious ale."
"Yeah, she does." Xena acknowledged wistfully. Such a little thing to remember, yet for the first time it struck her that she wouldnít taste that ale again. Wouldnít see Cyrene again.
"Your mother was an innkeeper?" Hermia asked with interest.
"Yeah," Xena said simply.
"She runs the best inn in Thrace," Gabrielle added, using Xenaís own proud words.
""If she made her own brew youíd know what youíre doing with it," she observed. "Round these parts youíd get good water, and I could supply grain." The offer was not made without motive, and Xena knew it.
Already, Gabrielle wore a tentative smile. There could be worse neighbors, she thought, hoping Xenaís mind was moving in the same direction. It was not; it had long since moved past the benefit of having Hermia for a neighbor, to the danger of having Nerad for overlord, the danger of living under any overlord. It was all very simple: Xena couldnít live that way. She wouldnít serve under anyone on the outside; she sure as Hades wouldnít do it here. Gabrielle stole a furtive glance at the warrior, wondering at the issues that occupied her, and began to follow the likely course of Xenaís thoughts. Nerad was a problem, one of many. No overlord would ever tell Xena what to do, yet none would trust her to live in peace, for long. The alternative, both women knew, was living in the wastelands, where even a warlord had no interest in control. There was also no way to live there, in the desolate stretches through which theyíd passed. There were the mountains. The Wild Ones could live there, unfettered, beholden to no one. Gabrielle would die there, Xena knew. Her spirit would die. She looked at the bard; the green eyes met her own. The Wild Ones. Gabrielle wondered if that held an attraction for Xena. It would be a mistake, she knew, for Xena to live like that. For all her independence, Xena needed people in her life; they gave it meaning, let her grow, made her grow.
Xenaís eyes began to roam the walls of Hermiaís little home, noting the details of construction that made it hold together. Sturdy posts stood at the corners, and poles and twigs were intertwined to form the walls. Typical wattle construction. The eastern wall had been well fortified with a packing of mud made from the clay-like soil. The other three were without. "The weather blows from the east?" she asked.
"Does it ever," Hermia said with a shudder. "like nothing youíve ever heard."
"Hermia." Xenaís mellow voice sounded very loud in the little space. "When weíre ready to build, if weíre close enough, I might need to borrow some things, tools, I mean, if you have any. Would that be all right?"
"Whatever I have, Xena, youíre welcome to use," she responded, trying not to sound too eager.
Xena looked away from Hermia, looked away from Gabrielle, settled briefly on the little girl with wild hair who still was taking her measure. The room seemed to have grown smaller.
It was very cold that night. Gabrielle was glad to be inside some shelter, even if it was only the three-sided shed which stood behind Hermiaís little home. Argo stood in the corner, munching on fodder Xena had supplied from the overgrown fields.
"Nothing here seems quite finished, Xena, have you noticed?"
"Farnis was a warrior, not a farmer, or a builder. I think he did well for them in the few years he had here." Hope I can do as well. The smaller woman had nestled into her arms and sighed contentedly. This is what passed for a good day in Tartarus: eating a halfway decent meal, meeting someone who had no violent intent, and sleeping indoors, sort of, anyway. Xena had spread a thick skin out beneath them, and pulled a blanket over them.
"Donít sleep just yet Gabrielle." The bard sighed again, in anticipation. She began to turn to face the warrior, but Xena said: "We have to talk."
"Youíd like to settle near Hermia, wouldnít you?"
"Xena, I donít care where we settle, as long as weíre together."
That wasnít strictly true, Xena thought, but she let it pass. "Weíll be together, Gabrielle. Apart from that, youíd like to be near Hermia?"
"I guess," she admitted. "I mean, sheís nice. Friendly. Sheís here, but sheís not a convict. Thatís a plus."
Xena grimaced. Not a convict. She didnít think of herself as a convict, knew Gabrielle didnít see her that way, but the truth was, she had that stigma. Well deserved. A formal denunciation for what she had done in her lifetime.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called her back.
"Sorry; just thinking. We have to get this settled, Gabrielle. It narrows things down quite a bit if we just explore whatís suitable within easy range of this place. Weíll ask Hermia to show us the waterways. Weíll follow them and hope the best places arenít already occupied. Is that all right?"
The sweet solicitation in her tone caused the bard to smile. "Xena. Itís more than all right, only, donít do it just for me, if itís not the right place, if you wonít be happy there."
"I guess one place is like another, pretty much," Xena said, not entirely believing her own words.
"Except, wasnít there one place you really liked. I canít quite remember. Weíve looked at so many, but there was one Ė " She shook her head, perplexed.
"Doesnít matter, Gabrielle." Gods, she doesnít even remember that place? Was she half asleep, or did I dream it?
So it came to pass that they stood before a stream by mid-morning. Xena bent to taste the water. Not bad. Didnít match the other stream, the one which tasted like crystal looked, but it would do. Sheíd noticed freshets which emptied into the stream at several locations along the banks; they spoke of nearby springs. Sheíd find some way of hauling the water from a spring. Once she had a container large enough to make it worthwhile. Xena straightened and looked to where Gabrielle was walking a slow circle around the small hill which rose from the stream. She caught Xenaís eye and waved; the sun seemed to shine out of her face. That was enough. It would do.
Xena moved to the big warhorse, which had become a packhorse, it seemed. She patted the animalís neck, and began to strip her of her burdens. "End of the road, Argo," she said quietly, as she tossed the gear to the ground. "No more hauling the world around on your back. It all ends here."