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Chapter 20

by M. Parnell
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 Twenty

They had never come this far west in The Sweetwater, and Gabrielle was not quite certain why they were here now. Xena had explained, briefly, but it was one of those ideas of Xena’s that were appreciated better in action than design. Xena would be a poor recorder of her own exploits: she seemed to expect that people could intuit her reasoning, with the barest of hints. She’d objected to that notion when Gabrielle suggested it. "Gabrielle, I made it perfectly clear: since so many people are coming, Nerad has to be invited. It only stands to reason." The party had, indeed grown to a gathering. Invitations seemed to be transferable here, capable of being passed to several parties, who were each free to pass it along to several others. Only a major weather catastrophe would limit the size of the gathering now, Xena feared, and it was then that she’d decided Nerad would have to be invited. Personally.

"Xena, I don’t think you’ve thought this through. You didn’t even want a small party, because Nerad might feel threatened; now that it’s likely to be," she swallowed, "enormous, you want him there as a guest. What am I missing?"

"He’s less likely to feel threatened if he’s included Gabrielle. He won’t see it as a plot, hatching behind his back."

"At the same time, " the bard pointed out, "he’ll probably notice that to the people around these parts you’re a much more attractive alternative to him." Xena chuckled, a low, earthy sound that caused Argo, to prick up her ears.

"Would that be a personal opinion?" she asked. Gabrielle smacked her hard.


"I’m trying to be serious. We’re riding into the camp of the enemy – "

"Not quite that," Xena pointed out.

"He’s not quite a friend," was Gabrielle’s retort.

"So I just want to make sure this is a good idea."

"I think it’s a good idea." She paused. "It’s the only way I know to tell him that I’m not a threat, even while I’m demonstrating that I could be, if he pushes me that way."

"The Stronghold of Nerad, Overlord of The Sweetwater." Gabrielle read the sign with disbelief. "I'd take this more seriously if it even vaguely resembled a stronghold." She was sitting next to Xena on a bluff which gave a good view of Nerad's encampment. "Not quite an enemy, but old habits die hard," she'd admitted. She listened now with a touch of admiration as Gabrielle listed the glaring failures of the place as a stronghold of any sort.

"Well, someone chose a good site for it, anyway, so I'll assume it predates Nerad," she snorted with contempt.

"Why is the site so good," Xena asked off handedly.

"It's the highest place in the area," Gabrielle replied. "But that doesn't make up for the way it's fallen into disrepair. Even from this distance you can almost see through it in places." Xena nodded, pretending to inspect the lacing of a bracer. "And the shrubbery and brush grows right up around the place. How hard would it to be to take shelter there while you burned the place down around them?"

"A piece of cake," Xena agreed. "If you don't watch out, Gabrielle, you'll wake up one day and find yourself a warrior."

The bard smiled at the compliment, then considered again, noting Xena's grim tone.

"Let's go." Xena clicked softly to Argo, and they moved on.

Things were no better inside the fort. The gate was wide open, unattended, and the cross bar which would have secured it was nowhere to be seen. There were men apparently stationed on the walls, but their presence was made apparent only through the raucous laughter which came from above. From her seat behind the warrior, Gabrielle felt Xena's body tense, and smiled. "You want to bust heads, don't you," she suggested quietly.

"More than a few need busting," came the reply though tight lips.

In many respects it was a walled town. Within it dwelt the troops, dependents of the troops, and the workers who supported Nerad's whole army, such as it was. The rambling wall had grown as the population had grown, with little rhyme or reason, spreading out over the wide, high plain like an uncertain serpent. Curious heads turned their way as they rode through the fort. They were recognized by most. Everyone knew about the events at the peddlers' gathering. Xena rode straight to what she knew would be Nerad's residence. It was large, it was surmounted by a staff bearing his crest, and it was heavily guarded.

"Tell Nerad, he's got company," she told them.

Gabrielle suppressed the smirk she felt at their evident anxiety. "It's a social call," she told them, mercifully. She could only guess how that was translated to Nerad, because the response was disproportionate. She would have felt a sense of anxiety herself, under other circumstances, if Xena was not at her side. She was inches from Xena as they stood waiting for Nerad. She could smell the warrior's warm scent, leather, sweat, and a hint of the apples they'd shared on the road. A crowd had gathered, keeping a safe distance, and a squad of soldiers had clustered, hands on sword hilts, hoping they wouldn't need to be drawn. Xena's eyes roamed the surroundings, revealing carefully measured contempt. Xena might have been relaxing in a bath, for all the tension she displayed, yet Gabrielle knew what response a hostile movement would bring. Gods, it was easy to be brave when you stood next to Xena. And hard to resist the power that emanated from her. A wave of hot desire swept her, and she wanted, at that moment, to be inside the source of all that power. She yearned to look at the warrior, yet feared, if she did, that she would have to touch her, then - Stop it, now, she chided herself. Not the time. Later. She became anxious for Nerad to make an appearance.

At last the doors opened. More armed men filed out, preceding Nerad. Xena wondered at the absence of Placar; he could have been on duty somewhere. More likely he was still asleep. They'd left home in the early precincts of dawn. Morning visits can be very effective, Xena had said. Gabrielle understood now. Nerad had come to the door to greet them. His hair was still damp, from a hasty attempt at cleanliness, she guessed.

"Xena. Gabrielle." He sketched a bow: the courtly lord of the manor.

"Nerad," Xena said simply. "We were in the area, thought we'd repay the visit."

His skin crept at the memory of that visit. Placar had nagged incessantly about the need to deal with the woman. In principle, he agreed, in reality, he doubted Placar could do more than anger her; regardless, he knew that Placar made him uneasy; Xena chilled his marrow.

"You are welcome, more than welcome," he enthused.

"We haven't eaten," she continued.

Oh, Xena was enjoying this, Gabrielle realized.

Nerad gestured to the coterie around him, and several men scurried away. The Overlord stepped aside, and waved the two women inside. They were escorted through a serpentine corridor, to the inner chambers. The building appeared to have grown in the same way as the town, as need and materials dictated. The most remarkable thing about it was the stench. At the end of winter, it might be more expected, but they were just ending the time when light and air should have done their work in freshening the place. She wondered if it was ever clean. Beside her, Gabrielle made a gagging sound.

"Have you any perfumed oils?" Xena asked pointedly. "I seem to have left home without them." Nerad stood before them, in what seemed to be a large, all purpose room. Men bearing his crest filed in and formed a loose circle around them. Low benches, deep with cushions, were set around the walls. Tables were set before them, piled high with platters of cheese, fruit and bread. It looked better than the wheat gruel they'd had for breakfast, Gabrielle admitted to herself, but given the stench, she wished Xena hadn't lied about not eating. Undaunted, Xena had already snared a couple of figs, and handed one to the bard. 'What can they do to figs?' her shrug asked.

Nerad waited respectfully until she had finished chewing. She seemed to have decided not to take a seat, and Nerad was reluctant to push it. From the moment he'd heard of her presence, he'd felt a sort of shame about his stronghold. Damn Placar! He'd always insisted Xena would never dare show her face in the stronghold. Now her she was, and where was he? Worthless shit. He kept those thoughts from his face as he waited for Xena to reveal the purpose of her visit. It was not long in coming. The woman seemed to be in a hurry.

"I’ll come to the point, Nerad," she began, with a disarming smile. "We’re both busy people. Gabrielle and I are having a few friends in the day of the full moon. I know you have many things that require your attention, but if you can find the time, we’d be happy to see you."

Because he had never received a purely social invitation, Nerad could only think she was laying a clever trap. "Feel free to bring your friends," she said, as if reading his thoughts.

No answer was forthcoming; he would consider this invitation as a maiden considers a marriage proposal. In the end, he wouldn’t come, Xena was certain. One more thing:

"Your men made a right cock-up of things at the peddlers’ gathering. But I suppose you’ve heard that."

Nerad had heard many things: The Tribes had attacked, Petra had attacked, Xena had opened the food stores to the people. Only a new soldier, Drax, had countered the self-serving account of Placar, and he had tossed his crest at Nerad’s feet before he finished the tale. The Overlord had lost face badly.

"The odds were overwhelming," he replied.

She smiled, and wasn’t surprised to hear Gabrielle answer him: "Overwhelming odds? Xena and Drax had no trouble routing the Tribes."

"Maybe that’s because we weren’t drunk," Xena suggested, arching an eyebrow.

"Or maybe because you’re warriors," Gabrielle added.

"Your men ran for cover like rats," Xena said simply. "They aren’t warriors, Nerad. If they were I’d recommend they be hung for desertion." There was a muttering from the circle of men around them. "As it is, you might do better trying to turn them into warriors, then, just hang the ones who don’t catch on. There must be someone in this place who knows about soldiering."

Nerad couldn’t avoid a reply. "Xena," he began in a strained voice, "I don’t have the cream of the Athenian Guard. We do our best."

"Bullshit." She shrugged. "Still, it’s your neck. I won’t always be there to meet the Tribes. But you’d better not send your men to collect tribute in my neck of the woods anytime soon. Ya’ got that," she ended.

He made no reply.

"If you come to the party, don’t feel you need to bring anything."

In the event, Nerad didn’t come to the party. He did send a cart load of food.

Xena left Hermia to direct the unloading. She chuckled over the quantity supplied.

"About time we had some benefit from the tribute we pay. My Farnis wouldn’t half have enjoyed this." Hermia had dressed for the occasion, Xena noted with appreciation. The brown hair had an uncommon sheen, and lay in intricate braids across her head, the rest falling around her shoulders. The dress she wore was not new, but Xena had not seen it before. Maybe this party was a good idea. Sometimes Gabrielle’s ideas needed to be experienced to be appreciated. Hermia had arrived early, just after dawn, rolled up her sleeves, and begun a massive effort in the kitchen. Gabrielle had chosen a good day. The air was crisp, but the sun was bright. If it was dry, things would work, for it was to be an out-of-doors affair, mostly. Xena had constructed makeshift tables from boards and rocks, blocks of wood, whatever would allow a level surface on which to set the food. She’d found the boar Gabrielle had ordered, two large ones; they were dressed and waiting for the fire to grow hot enough. She lounged against the side of the house, listening to the bustle inside, feeling as if she’d done it all before. Of course you have, she told herself. The sounds were the same as those inside the inn. At any moment her mother might call her to come and help. Then she’d call a second time. Finally, she’d come around the side of the house as Xena escaped around the corner. What’s really changed? she asked herself. All these years later and I’m waiting to be called to give a hand in the kitchen. Of course, Gabrielle isn’t my mother; and I won’t escape. Can’t escape. They’d come so close to the mountains when they journeyed to Nerad’s fortress that the air had smelled different. If freedom had a scent, that was it. Gabrielle had asked: "Xena, is that the way out? Is it so impossible?"

Nothing’s impossible, Gabrielle, she’d wanted to say. I’ve learned that over the course of my life. But it’s not likely. I might get you over, but I can't imagine how I'd manage with Argo, and I won’t leave her behind. We all go, or we all stay. Instead, she merely said: "I hear that it is. Sorry."

Tartarus now, Tartarus in the hereafter.

People were starting to arrive. She recognized none of them. They waved to her from afar, and set themselves down on the expanse of land around the house. Some were content to lie back in the grass and wait for things to start. She wondered vaguely what they expected.

"Xena, you're frowning," Gabrielle said as she walked toward her.

"No," she replied, "just thinking. What do they plan on doing here?" Besides eating things that we could probably use this winter.

"Eat, drink, pass out drunk, wake up, and stagger home. Unless you want to provide some entertainment? A few songs, a demonstration of the chakram, a fire-breathing extravaganza..." She squatted in front of her. "Now you are frowning. Don't worry, it was just a wild thought. All you need to do is relax and have a good time. Unless things get rowdy, then - "

"I'll be ready," she promised. "Nothing will go wrong."

Gabrielle knelt forward, until her lips reached the warrior's cheek. "Thank you, Xena. You've been very good about everything."

"What did you expect?" she asked, feigning indignation.

"You know what I mean. This did create a lot of extra work, and you never once complained, about the bother, the - "

Xena let her go on, though her focus was less on the soft words, than on the fresh young face. Gabrielle's eyes sometimes shone so clear, she couldn't believe they had ever been clouded by trouble, or worry, or grief. Yet she had caused her all those things.

"You're never a bother, Gabrielle," she said aloud, "even when I bitch about things, it's not real. My life meant so little..."

Gabrielle had stopped, puzzled by the interruption. "Xena, I was just asking if the fire was hot enough for the boar? Are you all right?"

Xena came back to the moment with a start. "Yeah, I'm fine. I'll just go check the fire."

She rose, then turned back to her. "I haven't been to a party in a long time. Thanks for going to all this trouble."

Gabrielle's eyes registered surprise now, and delight. It wasn't that Xena never said hello, but she hadn't expected it over this. "You're welcome," she managed, showing a warm smile that Xena carried with her through the long day.

The crowd topped off around the century mark, somewhere near mid-afternoon. Then the early comers began to drift away, full of roasted meats and Hermia's best brew. The latecomers settled down for their turn at food, and the impromptu games that had sprung up. The most involved and longest running was prisoner's base, only now it was played with a reckless abandon that kept Xena alert. Grown men and older boys played, and the flailing fists which occasionally determined the winner were well within the bounds of acceptable behavior with this crowd. It was a good way for them to burn off excess energy, and the ale. She was happily surprised to see this band of mostly-convicts engaged in any activity at all which did not have some profit at the end. No earrings were at stake here, nothing wagered, yet they worked with ferocious zeal to achieve a goal. Life here had few enough of those, apart from survival.

Drax and Ileander had been among the latecomers. His departure from Nerad's camp had meant that Drax was on his own, closer to winter than was safe. He needed to provide shelter, set up a store of goods, and fodder for his horses. He'd been busy all morning.

"Seemed as good a time as any to get the horse," he told Xena. "I've got a shed ready. Thanks for seeing to him all this time. If I can ever return the favor..."

"I'll let you know."

He doubted she'd ever do that. She'd eat grass before she'd ask for help, he reckoned. Unless it was for Gabrielle. She'd done that, willingly. They settled then into the mysteries of furniture construction.

Singing was heard from quarters of the field, sporadically, and never for long. In the end, there was too much good food to be consumed. Most people had brought food along, breads, pottage, in large crocks, sausages to be warmed over the lingering heat from the boar-roast, pastries sweet with honey. They knew it was the last chance for such a feast before the long, dark days of winter set in. People stayed close to home then, venturing only far enough to find fuel, and game. Hermia had painted a bleak picture:

"Wolves become bolder; Archon has quite a job keeping them from the goats. The Tribes sometimes come looking for food." She paused, haunted by some memory or other. "But they seldom come this far west in the winter. I'll be happy to have you close by," she said, brightening. "It's not good for Lilla to be so alone for so long. There aren't many children around these parts."

Today, that was not the case. Children seemed to be all over, the younger ones close to the house, where many of the women had gathered. Gabrielle was with them. Xena looked for her often, each time the door opened, she hoped it would be Gabrielle. It seldom was. She hadn't really seen her since the boar had been declared ready for consumption. Succulent meat, with browned, crackling fat had been apportioned in fairly equal shares to whoever was on hand. It was the highlight of the day. Gabrielle's satisfaction had shown on her face, as she dug roasted apples from the ashes and handed them around on short sticks. Lady Bountiful, Xena had called her. She had made a face then, self-mocking, but she had played the role beautifully, and she acknowledged it late in the day, when only those who lived close by remained.

"They had a good time, Xena, didn't they?" she asked.

"A great time."

"And they were good," she mused. "It wasn't at all like the peddlers' gathering."

"There was no profit to be made here, Gabrielle, it was all free for the taking. Besides, I think that riot scared them all."

"Couldn't be that they knew you were watching their every move," she asked with a raised eyebrow.

Xena quirked a smile in reply. Her only crisis of the day had been a tipsy man who'd fallen in the embers of the roasting-pit. "It doesn’t matter. You gave them a nice day." She ended with a kiss on the forehead, then sat wearily on one of the long benches and pulled Gabrielle on to her lap. "Xena, I have things to do," she protested.

"What else is there to do? Clean up the mess? Hermia's got it under control, and I haven't seen you all day. Just sit for a minute."

"Xena -"

"Now don't pretend you care what these people think. If I cared what they thought, I'd guess they'd figure I'm some paragon of virtue for having put up with them all day, when I'd much rather have been sitting here, like this." She wished that everyone would take her broad hint and leave at last, but the crowd in the house now were the original invitees, were close neighbors, and were in no hurry to leave. Xena had just resigned herself to this when the door flew open, as if caught by a sudden gust of wind. All eyes turned there, and Arthea entered the room. She was well fitted out in a colorful frock, matched by a multi-striped head scarf, that covered one side of her face.

"Hello, folks," she said cheerily. "Don't look as if you've seen a ghost."

Gabrielle rose from Xena's lap. "Arthea. Welcome. I didn't think you'd be coming at this hour."

Damn, she'll want to stay the night at this hour, Xena knew.

"It was hard getting away," she replied, with supplying any details.

"Is Lutus with you?" Gabrielle asked.


"Okay. Well, then, have a seat, and let me give you some supper. Hermia, could you warm things up, please?"

Arthea will see to that, she thought, but nodded agreeably, and turned to the hearth.

"Xena, nothing to say to an old friend?" she asked.


"You always were a woman of few words," she said, in case anyone had not caught on that she'd known Xena before.

"Yeah," Xena agreed. "I've got to feed the horses," she apologized, and was gone.

Those remaining looked around uncertainly. They had all met Arthea; Ileander had shared the convict chain with her, yet no one knew what to say to her. Sepra stepped forward with a mug of ale, warmed and sweetened with honey.

"It's getting a bit chilly, you'll want this," she said with a warm smile. Arthea welcomed it, and drew her scarf off with a flourish. The left side of her face bore the mottled bruise left by an open hand across her face. She watched their faces, then volunteered:

"Lutus was something of a brute." She drained the ale with one quaff, than tucked into the stew. "I wanted a ride with the wagons which came here today with food, but Lutus would have seen, as he helped load the meat," she said between mouthfuls. "So I waited until no one was about. It wasn't easy to find rides for little bits of the way. I'm not going back," she finished.

"Of course, not," Gabrielle said. Hermia held her breath, dreading what she feared would be Gabrielle's next words. "I wish Xena and I had room for you." Hermia's breath whooshed out with her relief. The young one was learning.

Arthea, showed her teeth in what was nearly a smile. She munched on a chunk of brown bread, seeming to consider her options. "I expect I'll find someplace. You never know what this place will hold for you. I'm sure Xena's still surprised her plans didn't work out."

"Plans?" Gabrielle's eyes narrowed with interest.

"Yeah. About escaping."

"Escaping?" Gabrielle echoed. "What plan is that?"

"We all have little plans circling upstairs all the time, Gabrielle. Keeps us alert. You never know," Drax said hastily.

"You know what I mean Drax," Arthea said confidentially. "None of us could figure why Xena would submit to those bastards. She could have beaten them all with one hand tied. She proved that," she snorted happily. "We figured it was by choice, for some reason we didn't know. But we were certain she'd be off as soon as it suited her. Then, it all changed. She's here, and she's staying." The room was still as death. "The way we saw, it was all connected to you, somehow. She certainly went crazy when she saw you in the camp."

Gabrielle stood immobile clutching the edges of the table; it had gotten very warm. The horror of that evening in the camp, when the convicts had overturned the cistern, and Xena was beaten, all came back to her. Why had Xena been so enraged? She had never understood. Arthea's words made an awful sort of sense.

"Drax?" Her voice sounded strange, even to her. "Is this true?"

His long silence was answer enough. When he finally began to speak, she had no need to hear it. "Thanks," she cut him off. "I know what I need to know."

"Gabrielle?" Arthea's voice dripped sincere apology. "I thought you'd know, being as you and Xena - "

"I didn't know," she said dully. "I guess I was the only one."

Sepra had begun to gather things for the walk home. Hermia, wrapped a wooly shawl around Lilla's thin shoulders, then put a strong hand on Arthea's arm. "If you want a warm place to sleep tonight, you'd best come with me. Now."

"Gabrielle," Drax tried again, speaking softly, for her ears alone. "I tried to keep you from following, I would have told you that last night, if you'd shown any sign that you were coming..."

"I know Drax. Thanks." Her eyes were on the hearth-fire, burning low. She made no sign when Ileander bid farewell. At last the house was quiet.

Xena raised her head, surprised to hear Gabrielle entering the shed. "I'll be through in a minute," she told her without looking up from her brushing.

"Take your time."

She turned at the odd tone in the bard's voice. "Something wrong?"

"Do you remember the inn we stayed at when we left Prestia?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes," Xena replied warily.

"We were happy there, weren't we? I mean, after all the trouble we had, we were apart for so long, and in that place, everything was perfect for that little while." Xena had stopped brushing Argo. She stood stock still, waiting for Gabrielle to get to the point, afraid what the point might be.

"I called it Elysia. You said, it was Elysia; maybe the only Elysia you'd ever know. I don't believe that, there's too much good in you, but it was Elysia." Gabrielle pressed her lips together, and blinked hard. "That's what you meant in Mustrakis, about seeing me in Elysia, wasn't it? You weren't talking about the afterlife, you meant the here-and-now. You were arranging a rendezvous, weren't you? Telling me where to wait for you, until you escaped." She fixed a her eyes on Xena, waiting for an answer.

"Yes." Xena returned her gaze, unflinching, trying to read her eyes.

"And I was too dumb to get it, wasn't I? Once again, little Gabrielle didn't do what she was told. I just handed King Tarkian the last nail to bang into your coffin." She laughed shortly. "The nail? Great Zeus, I held the hammer."

"No, Gabrielle." Xena moved toward her, arms open. Gabrielle took a step back.

"Don't deny it, Xena. Arthea told me."

"Arthea? What would - "

"Drax confirmed it. Now I understand why you were so angry with him. You expected him to keep me away, but I outsmarted him," she said in self derision. "Oh, I was clever; so clever, I went to beg mercy for you, and Tarkian gave me the key, the key to lock you up here forever. So when you saw me," her voice dropped to a whisper, "when you saw me, you had to go berserk. I mean, what else could you do? You endured that brutal march...I wondered why you put up with it, why you didn't have some plan to just leave. But see you did have a plan, to get me safely away, then you'd just walk out of Tartarus, I mean, you escaped from the real Tartarus, how hard could it be. Then you would meet me in Elysia." Her voice broke on the words. "And it was a good plan; your plans always are, but I spoiled it. I had to follow you. How can you even look at me?" she ended abruptly. She turned to the wall, head buried in her hands. Xena moved behind her, wrapped her in strong arms, and waited for the spasmodic sobs to slow. Sometimes tears had to be shed. She envied Gabrielle the ability to cry, and let her body purge whatever could be carried away by tears. At last, her body stilled, and she was quiet, except for a helpless sniffle.

"Here." Xena produced a cloth from somewhere, and turned her around, overcoming a small resistance. Slowly, tenderly, she wiped the bard's face, dabbed at her eyes, and held the cloth at last before her red nose. "C'mon, blow," she urged. "I can't talk to you if stuff is dripping." Gabrielle was too distraught to laugh, but she knew Xena's intention; she surrendered gratefully, and blew.

"Better," Xena pronounced. "Now, sit down." There was an air of authority in her voice that Gabrielle found oddly comforting. She settled on the deep pile of hay, and looked up at the warrior, who seemed at that moment to be ten feet tall.

"First, and I mean this: I don't want Arthea around here."

"Xena, it wasn't only Arthea, I had the feeling everyone has known all along, except- "

"But no one said anything. Only Arthea. She wasn't talking as a friend."

"She's the only one who would tell me the truth," Gabrielle pointed out.

"What truth is that? Some truth that places this whole mess on your shoulders? That I had planned on escaping Tartarus as soon as I arrived? Yeah, that's true; but it's just a tiny corner of the scroll, Gabrielle. The truth you need to believe is a lot bigger." She spoke with slow deliberation, anxious that Gabrielle really hear her words. "The truth is, that I was sentenced here because of things I did long before we met. The truth is, that I never found a way to make my message clear. How could you have known that Elysia meant the inn? That was a long shot, at best."

"You made it clear I was to stay away; I followed anyway," she said flatly.

"Yeah, you followed." She shook her head, allowed a small smile. "Never could break you of that habit. I remember the first time you followed me; it took me a long time to understand why you did that; longer still to believe it. If you had listened to me then, I don't know where I'd be. Dead, most likely; in another Tartarus. Or wishing I was dead." She lowered herself to the hay, never taking her eyes from the anguished face. "Are you hearing me, Gabrielle? You don't know how it is to wake up day after day, to just...nothing. You changed all that. Made me change. I fought it," she admitted, "but losing never felt so good."

"Xena, that doesn't change - "

"What? That you followed me? That you said, one more time, with your actions, that we share one life? I love you for that," she said fervently. "I had stopped believing that anyone could ever love me that way."

"Xena, no. You are so easy to love."

"Only for you, Gabrielle. The gods alone know why."

"Then I know what the gods know," she said solemnly.

Xena nodded, seeing a new peace in Gabrielle's eyes. "Then you know I'm glad you're here, with me. It's where you belong." Gabrielle nodded. Xena drew her close, and lay down on the hay. It was cold; they'd be wiser to move inside, but it had been a long time since they'd been together outdoors. She missed the campfires, the dark canopy overhead, Argo stamping nearby, and the occasional borrowed corner of a barn. It was where they got to know each other, discovered how best to give and receive joy.

"For whatever your reasons, Gabrielle, thank you for following me." She stilled the bard's lips with own.

Continued - Chapters 21-22

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