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Chapter 24

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 24

"Eggs, cheese, butter, bread, and a jug of mead in the cart." Hermia unpacked a basket as she spoke. "Drax is bringing that in." She pulled off her shawl with one hand, then moved to the fire, casting an appraising eye at Xena as she passed.

Gabrielle picked up an egg, coated in beeswax for freshness. "A hen's egg?" she asked in wonder. "I haven't seen one of these since. . . I can't remember."

It had been another long night. She'd slept, somehow, through the screaming wind, for a time, but Xena had been restless. She denied any great pain, but had shifted positions throughout the night, as if seeking an elusive comfort. Or riding hard. She had heard Hermia's greeting though the door with pleasure.

"Ikar had a remarkable few days," Hermia was saying. "Brought home a box of chickens, with a rooster," she exclaimed. She put the goat cheese and butter, both wrapped in waxed cloth, on the shelf where she knew they were always put. "I would have been by yesterday, but I wanted to make the trip worthwhile. Now then, what else do you need?" She looked from Gabrielle to Xena, and back again.

"What did all this cost?" was Xena's question.

"Ikar owes me," she shrugged.

"So do we."

"We'll talk when you're back on your feet." She raised a questioning eyebrow at Gabrielle. "She doesn't look as bad as Archon let on."

Gabrielle blew out a huff of air. "I'm glad he told you," she conceded, "but I wonder who else he's told?"

"Only Sepra, if I know anything about people," Hermia responded. "He's no fool. Fools don't survive in Tartarus." Her eyes turned again to Xena. "How bad is it?"

"I'll be fine. Give me a couple of weeks." Hermia looked at Gabrielle for confirmation

"That's what she says," Gabrielle replied. "She usually knows."

"I'm glad to hear that, Xena. Not much good comes this way. I lay awake half the night worrying that things were about to get worse," she admitted. "Damn, that sounds selfish," she shook her head in apology.

"I appreciate your honesty." We worried about the same thing. "I think we've got things under control. Gabrielle's taking good care of ... " she hesitated " - things." Care of me. Why can't I say that?

"I want to help out," Hermia hastened to say, "I haven't tied any strings on these parcels. I don't mean to put you under any obligation, or pay you tribute, just helping out, friend to friend. If you want to pay me down the road, fine; if you never do, that's fine. I won't pretend I don't have an interest is seeing you well again. The Sweetwater's quieter since you came. Mostly it's those bastard's of the Overlord staying away. But there's more. . . I like having you for neighbors, friends. I like you, both." she said with a firm nod. She wiped her hands on the frayed dress, as a finish to her speech.

The warrior and the bard exchanged a silent glance. Gabrielle spoke for them both: "Hermia, we like you, too, and we're happy to have you for a friend." A smile lit her face, and she raised a questioning eyebrow at Xena. Someone had to be the first to know their plans, but Drax spoke first:

"Glad that's settled," he said, as he came through the door stooped under a jug of mead. "Do you all like me, too?" He didn't wait for an answer, deposited a small sack on the table and looked at Xena: "Shall I leave this in easy reach?" His eyes twinkled above cold-reddened cheeks. "Seems like a good season to lay about indoors drinking mead." He looked at her closely. "I like your dress. Nice change from brown."

"It's lovely," Hermia chimed in. "Brings out your eyes."

Gabrielle fought to keep an amused smile from her lips, but knelt to tuck a blanket around Xena, whose discomfiture was evident. "Be gracious Xena," she admonished in a low murmur, "and be thankful I made you dress; they could be commenting on your other qualities." Then, in a louder voice: "I had an idea last night." Xena felt a frisson of unease. "I'd like to toss it out there and see what you all think."

'All', Xena thought. That means she knows I won't like it.

"I was trying to think what I have to offer of value to the people of The Sweetwater. I won't go through the list of what I can't do, but I'm learning," she acknowledged. "I do know this: I can read, I can write, and I have a certain way of putting words together. Outside, I could pass a hat in a tavern when I told stories, and earn a few dinars to keep us in bread; here, people can't afford to pay for frivolity. But for something really useful, like reading and writing, they might be willing to part with their hard earned goods. So I thought, maybe," she paused, careful to avoid Xena's eyes, "maybe I could offer lessons, for adults, children, whoever wants to learn." There was a silence in the room. "When the weather makes it possible, of course." She waited, watching Drax and Hermia turn the idea over. Xena's eyes were cast at the floor. "Bad idea?" she asked after a time.

"No, Gabrielle, it's a great idea," Xena replied slowly. "I just can't imagine everyone here shares your reverence for literacy."

"I'd have to question that too, Gabrielle," Hermia agreed. "But I know how I feel: I'd pay a good deal for Lilla to be able to read and write. I never thought it would be possible here. My Farnis could read, couldn't write much, beyond his name, but he was proud of that. What sort of fees are you thinking of?"

"Fees?" Gabrielle's face creased in an uncertain smile. This was hardly a universal endorsement. Yet if Hermia was interested. . . "I haven't thought of fees, just whatever anyone could spare."

"I can read," Drax was quick to point out, "so can Ileander, but a few weeks back, Archon spoke of wanting their offspring to have the skill. That would be a few years down the road," he observed, "but in the meantime, I'd bet Archon and Sepra would be willing to pay to learn it for themselves."

"There, a few customers already," she beamed, and gave Xena's arm an affectionate squeeze.

"That's great." Xena managed a small smile.

Right, Gabrielle thought. "Drax," she asked suddenly, "would you give me a hand outside? There's one big, stubborn, length of wood I can't budge."

"Xena, she might be on to something," Hermia pointed out when the door closed.

"I hope she is."

"It's a little hard to tell; you look like you've got a fishbone caught in your throat." Xena's attempt at a glare faded in the face of Hermia's grin. "Save it for your enemies, Xena," she advised her.

"Hermia, I don't want to be the skeptic here, but given the nature of this place, what are the odds people will give the means of survival away for the privilege of learning to read? Even if they're willing, what can they spare?"

"That's up to them. Archon would likely spend an afternoon chopping wood for you. Of course he'd do that for no return if you'd allow it. They'd like to be your friends too, you know. Friends don't always have a hand out."

"Yeah, well that's beside the point," she insisted. "The point is this: Gabrielle thinks her lessons will pay our way. I don't mind if she thinks so, but I'm afraid it won't happen. People will give to us, and expect something back, someday."

"You see it as tribute?"

"So will they."

"I think you're wrong, Xena," she said steadily.

The warrior shrugged. "Maybe. But I need you to do something for me. You know everyone, see everyone. I have a sack full of earrings." Hermia began to shake her head. "Use it to pay them," Xena told her.

"No, Xena, that wouldn't be right."

"Why not?" she asked. "We'd have what we need, Gabrielle's little idea will be a success, and they'll all be richer by an earring or two." Gabrielle will never be happy with my using them, she thought sourly.

"Xena, what about the folk who really want the lessons? Who are happy to pay in kind?"

"Let them pay if they like. Just use the earrings to pay those who really don't want lessons. It will make Gabrielle feel better to think she can contribute this way," she reasoned.

"It will make her feel like dirt to think you have so little faith in her, Xena. I confess I'm surprised to hear you speak this way."

Xena looked at her bemused. "Hermia, I have every faith in Gabrielle, but I'm trying to be practical. For everyone." I really hate looking up at everyone, went through her mind. "The earrings are in the root cellar." She described the place under the store of dried mushrooms where the sack was tucked away from prying eyes; tucked away from Gabrielle. "She'll never even know they're gone. Will you get them? Please."

"I'll do as you ask, Xena, but I don't like it," Hermia said after a moment, with a heavy shake of the head. "I don't like secrets between friends. It's a bad business."

"Just do it." She shifted uncomfortably. "When I'm up and around I'll take care of it myself. Of course, then it won't matter. I'll provide for us."


The front door opened as Hermia emerged from the root cellar; she gave a little start. One hand was full of mushrooms; the other concealed the leather pouch between the folds of her skirt. She felt she had to say something. "Thanks for the mushrooms, once again. I never could feel safe eating the ones I picked myself." Gabrielle looked across to Xena; there was a new look there; Hermia had been aware of it since her arrival, she realized.

"Xena's tried to show me, many times. I haven't passed the test yet."

"There's no trick involved," Xena pointed out. "Your eyes and your nose will tell you everything."

"Maybe we can add that to the reading lessons," Gabrielle suggested.

"Arthea's fond of mushrooms: the wrong kind," Hermia put in hastily. "I found her nibbling on the tiny, scarlet caps that grow in the fall, amid the leaves. She started talking odd; to people who weren't there. I guess my ale's not enough for her."

"Sounds like henbane," Gabrielle observed with a wry smile.

"That's dangerous, Hermia," Xena said slowly.

She agreed with a vigorous nod of the head. "I don't want them around Lilla; she'll taste anything. I found the lot of them. I threw them in the fire from Arthea wasn't around."

"I hope she's brought you more than trouble."

Hermia waved a dismissive hand. "Don't listen to me, Xena. She causes a lot of aggravation, but underneath, she's not all bad. She'll work, if I keep after her. She plays well with Lilla; like a big kid she is, sometimes. It's just other times, I'd gladly wring her neck."

Gabrielle stirred the fire. "I'm surprised she hasn't come by."

"She will," Hermia predicted, remembering the gleam in her eye when she heard that Xena was injured. "She'd be here now except for my steely gaze. I told her if she left the bread, or Lilla, I'd take a strap to her and chase her into the cold. And I will."


"What else needs to be sharpened?"

"Let's see? You've done your weapons, twice, all my cooking knives. . . I guess that's it. Unless you want to sharpen your fish hooks?" she chuckled.

"Done them," Xena replied, shortly, tapping the leather carryall beside her.

"Oh. Well then. . . " In three days Xena had gone through every sedentary activity she or Gabrielle could devise. The remaining healing time would stretch on forever. For both of them. "You could make some more of those things you use for fishing," she suggested "The make believe bugs."

"Flies, mostly, Gabrielle. That's what fish like, all sorts of flies. And after I sharpened the hooks, I tied a fly on each one." She set aside the large chunk of fungus she had used as a sharpener. "Ran out of hooks."

"Want to read a scroll?" she asked next, knowing what the answer would be.

"I'd rather listen to you read it."

"I know. Okay, later, after I check the fish trap. I'm glad Drax showed me how to build that. It's a handy thing to know. I'm surprised you never showed me that?"

Xena snorted her disgust. "Fish traps. I can't think of a less creative way to fish."

"We can't all pluck our dinner from the stream on demand."

"How hard is it to catch fish with a rod?" Xena asked.

"The trap saves a lot of time, Xena."

"The Babylonians believed the gods don't deduct from your life the time you spend fishing," the warrior observed with approval.

Gabrielle looked at her doubtfully, wondering if Xena had just coined a Babylonian belief. Never mind; she wouldn't be fishing for a few weeks, anyway. Back to the matter at hand. "Would you like to write a scroll? Maybe a story, a poem, a reminiscence. . . " her voice trailed off under the withering look directed her way.

"What would you like to do?" she asked patiently.

"I don't know." She thunked a small dagger into the center of the door.

"Xena, I hope that's not becoming a habit." She wrestled with the knife until it came free.

"It didn't make a new mark did it?" She asked with pride. "It struck the same place as the last one."

"Last two," Gabrielle corrected. "All three it the same mark. Maybe I should haul in a piece of wood and let you toss knives at it all day."

"It would be something to do," Xena agreed.

"And on second thought, it would probably drive me crazy watching you do it." There was one more thing. . . She hadn't expected to suggest it just yet, but she was getting desperate. "She dug in the bag which held her scrolls, and produced a bundled roll of heavy linen. "Just the thing to cure boredom." She held it out at arm's length, and smiled.

Xena opened the bundle warily, and smiled at the profusion of colors which lay wound in tight skeins. Gabrielle, what am I supposed to do with this stuff?" Her voice was gentle, but strained, as if fighting to hold back what she really wanted to say.

"Xena, its embroidery thread, needles - "

"I know what it is."

The bard laughed nervously. "Of course you do. The linen would be beautiful if it had a nice design, of some sort. . . "

"You want me to embroider?" Xena asked.

"Why not?"

"I don't do that," she stated flatly.

"You used to do that. I have the evidence."

"The little pillow, I know, Gabrielle. I used to do a lot of things."

"Does that mean you can never do it again?"

"The thing is, Gabrielle, I don't want to do it again."


"Never. Why did you think I might? Did you buy this stuff?"

"Yeah, Xena I did." She took the linen, with all it contained from the warrior's lap, and rolled it up again. "Waste of dinars."

"Not entirely. The needles will always come in handy. Maybe I could use some of the thread ... "

"Yeah, sure, stitching up some wound, or other." Gabrielle didn't look up as she spoke.

"That's more your thing. Why should I think for a moment that you might want to make something for me?"

"You mean other than the table? And the benches?"

"That's not fair. Those things are practical, and for both of us. I was just the first to recognize we needed them."


"Regardless. It wouldn't hurt you to do something with no practical value at all. Make something you can't use, just enjoy. Something pretty."

"Like an embroidered cushion?"


"I can't think why you'd buy something like that for me," Xena said. "What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that maybe in a spare moment - "

"A spare moment? Apart from injury time, when would that be, Gabrielle? Before I hunt? After I dress the animals? Set the snares? Gather fuel? Patch this bloody sieve of a roof over our heads? When, Exactly, do I find a spare moment to do needlework?"

"Maybe in the middle of the night when you sit by the fire, brooding," Gabrielle returned, suddenly on the offensive. "Or when you finish stacking the wood and stare at the horizon, as if wishing could take you beyond it; or when you sharpen your sword for the tenth time in a day, when you haven't used it all week. Maybe you could make me a present, just something to add a little color here, make it seem more like - "

"Like home?" Xena asked shamefaced.

"No Xena, wherever you are is my home. I just want our home to proclaim to the world that the people who make this home didn't come to Tartarus to die, but to live."

Xena wavered; Gabrielle had long ago come to recognize when Xena was deeply moved. Apart from the eyes, which seemed almost to shimmer, her body let down its guard, every muscle relaxed, ready to let the world in. That had begun, and just as suddenly stopped. She thrust the bundle back at Gabrielle. "I really don't think so."

It's not as if you have something more important to do right now." The bard was taken aback by the turnaround.

"Okay, I'm pretty useless right now; but not that useless."

"Xena, I never said that."

"That doesn't make it less true. Tell you what: next to the woodpile there's a selection of wood that's not for burning. There's a piece of walnut there, about four feet long; it crooks at the top. Would you get it for me? Please."


"Just get it."


Arthea might have been waiting for Gabrielle to leave the house so hard upon her heels did she follow. She slipped through the door with the merest rustle of her dress, yet Xena had heard her approach. She didn't look up from her task. The length of wood would need few changes to serve as a walking stick. A crutch. She knew the device all too well. Her distaste was evident in her face as she greeted her visitor.

"Arthea." She nodded curtly.

"Hello, Xena. Gabrielle's not around?" She peered around the room with feigned interest, before her eyes lit on Xena.

"She's never really gone, Arthea," was Xena's comment. "Anything I can do for you?"

She smirked before answering. "Just need to talk to Gabrielle; something I need to tell her." Her cloak was tossed off in a moment. Xena couldn't believe the dress she wore was chosen for warmth. "Do you like this?" the woman asked. "A soldier gave it to me; things weren't all bad at Nerad's camp. "You look nice in that," she observed when it was clear that Xena would make no response. "Must have brought it with you."

"What did you want to tell Gabrielle? I'll give her the message."

"That's all right, I don't mind warming up a bit. And don't worry," she volunteered guessing at the reason for Xena's coldness. "It's nothing about you. I'm sorry I told her why you couldn't try to escape; hope it caused no trouble between you."

"None at all." After all we've survived together that was a firefly next to a thunderbolt. "Do you think you'd be standing inside the door if you had?" she asked mildly. Arthea nodded, a tight smile on her face, recognizing the threat implicit in the words. She watched as Xena held the piece of wood at arm's length, appraising.

"Make yourself useful, Arthea. Give me a hand," she said at last, reaching a hand to the startled woman.

"Xena, what - "

"C'mon, I need to get up," she insisted. Arthea complied, pulling Xena's left hand while the warrior used the newly fashioned walking stick to lift herself from the floor.

"Is this a good idea?" Arthea asked, noting the exertion on the warrior's face. "Gabrielle's not going to like this," she added apprehensively.

"Don't worry about Gabrielle," Xena said between clenched teeth. She leaned all her weight on her right leg and the stick. "That's better. Nice to be vertical again."

"What's the point, Xena? You can't walk."

"I can manage a little; I think." She cast a glance around the area, determining a destination. "Would you like some mead?" she asked Arthea. "I'm sure thirsty." The table was only paces away; she planted the stick firmly a little bit ahead, and moved her right leg to join it. Two more such efforts and she was at the table, leaning against it for support. She grinned at Arthea, dipped a cup into the earthen jug which held the mead, and swallowed with satisfaction.

"I would have gotten that for you," Arthea told her.

"I'm tired of people getting things for me." She looked out the window, squinting a little against the unfamiliar light, glimpsing the outside world for the first time in days. Gray and brown, yet it looked good. The snow had all but melted, the little that remained was mottled with bits of dead vegetation, and mud. At another time she would have found it ugly. She raised her eyes to the lowering clouds. There would be wet weather, very soon.

Gabrielle would be by the natural pool that had formed in the stream at the end of the slope. She couldn't see her from this window, but knew the task wouldn't take long. There was no reason to dawdle in this weather. She turned, pivoting on her sound leg. The injured hip didn't feel too bad, but she wasn't ready to do any cartwheels yet. She considered a brief trip to the horse shed to see Argo. That'd really be pushing things, she decided. Maybe a seat on the bench would be the best choice just now, hard as it was. The addition of a thick skin for cushioning would help, and she could list ever so slightly to the right to take weight off the injury. . .


Gabrielle saw the empty spot on the floor first; her heart jumped. As the door swung wider she saw a thick sheepskin on the bench. At last she saw the warrior, one hand gripping the edge of the table, the other clutching the wood she'd left her with before. She had guessed at the purpose for the wood, had not guessed she'd use it this soon. Had never guessed she'd return to find Arthea's arms around her waist. She turned her back to the room while she closed the door, took a deep breath, and had a smile in place when she held up the rush basket of fish. "The trap was full. These guys couldn't wait to be supper. You can take some back to Hermia when you leave, Arthea."

"Thanks, Gabrielle. She'll be ever so grateful." The words tumbled out as Arthea straightened, waiting to take a cue from Xena.

"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded, smiling even more broadly, before she turned to Xena. "Good thing your knives are all sharp. You can clean them." She let the basket drop on the table with a thud. Her eyes met Xena's briefly. Words could wait.

"What brings you out on a day like this, Arthea?" she asked with exaggerated interest.

"I just wanted to say 'hello', I haven't seen Xena since the injury. And I wanted to make arrangements with you." Xena had made no move to pull away; Arthea couldn't help herself: she gave Xena's forearm an affectionate squeeze.

"Arrangements?" Gabrielle said, pretending not to notice.

"Your lessons. Reading, writing. I can do some of that, but I'm always anxious to know more."

"I'll bet," the bard replied.

"I can make it worth your while," Arthea went on.

"Really?" Gabrielle knew how little Arthea did in exchange for room and board with Hermia.

"I have some skills. I'm handy with a needle, if you'd like anything decorated. Or I could show you how to do needlework, if you like."

Xena met Gabrielle's withering glare without flinching, but she shrugged Arthea away.

"Thanks, I'm really not interested in needlework, but we'll think of something." From the edge of her vision she watched Xena's slow progress towards the table, a thin-bladed, razor sharp knife in her hand. She resisted the impulse to help, despite the strain evident in Xena's face. I can play games, too, she admitted to herself.

Damn. Cutting board, Xena thought unhappily, looking to the slab of hardwood which hung from a peg by a thick leather cord. She'd ruin the table if she cut the fish against it. And she could use the slop bucket for the discards. She was plotting how to get them both with the least motion when Arthea moved with sudden decision, placing the board before her, and the slop bucket on the floor beside her.

"Anything else?" she asked.

Xena shook her head, and set to work. Gabrielle stabbed the smoldering heap of ash in the hearth.


Gabrielle watched Arthea until she was a long way from the house before she spoke.


"Fine," Xena replied. She still sat at the table, leaning her right side against it, left leg stretched out before her.

"Do you want to get them, or shall I?" Xena lowered the knife, and regarded her with narrowed eyes, knowing the bard had more to say. "I don't know just what it is you're trying to prove, but I know a trip to the root cellar would sure as Hades impress me."

"I'm afraid that will have to wait a while."

"Really? Well, don't worry, your secret is safe with me. Know one will ever know that five days after breaking your hip you still couldn't manage to negotiate the steps to the root cellar."

"Gabrielle, that's not what this is about."

"Yes it is," she snapped. "You have to be proving something, to me, to yourself, to whomever, I don't know who, I don't know what. It just seems damned foolish."

"Call me sensitive, Gabrielle, but I'm tired of sitting on the floor, dressed in nightclothes, while half The Sweetwater parades by. It may as well be the public square in Athens."

"I understand that, Xena," she began, then paused, remembering the day before. Hermia had arrived with fresh bread, Lilla in tow. The little girl had seldom strayed more than three feet from the warrior, sometimes playing at the edge of the blanket, other times staring silently at her, at eye level, once falling asleep with her head on Xena's lap. At the time, she'd enjoyed a quiet chuckle at Xena's discomfiture. It didn't seem humorous now. And there had been Ikar, Drax, Ileander. . .

"I do understand," she said with more conviction. "this can't be easy. I just don't know how to keep people away. They've all been friends, you know."

So far, Xena thought. "You can't keep them away, Gabrielle. I don't want you to do that. But this," she waggled the walking stick, "I can do. It helps."

"If it makes you feel better, Xena, then I'm happy. I just wish it hadn't been Arthea."

"Gabrielle, she was here," Xena said, as if that was explanation enough.

"I've been here most of the day," Gabrielle rejoined with an aggrieved air. "Don't give me that blank look, Xena, as if you don't quite follow. Arthea doesn't come by here to see me," she gave a short laugh, "and she'd much rather be taking lessons from you. It would make her happy if the earth swallowed me." She did a visual survey of Xena, from her tousled dark hair to the shift which followed the contours of her body. "I don't blame her.

I just wish you wouldn't encourage her."

"Gabrielle, I didn't - "

"Yes, you did. That's how she sees it, too. And you look so beautiful in that shift, it's everything I thought when I bought it, only I thought it would be for me alone. Now I feel as if Arthea is all over it, all over the house, in a way she never was before."

Dumb, Xena berated herself. She should have seen it, would have, except she wasn't looking from Gabrielle's point of view; nor was she looking from Arthea's. It had only mattered that she be up, as soon as possible. "You're right Gabrielle. I shouldn't have. . . I should have waited for you. I was only thinking that you wouldn't have to tend to all my needs on top of everything else you have to get done each day."

"Xena, I don't mind doing things for you," she said very quietly. "I've never complained."

And you never would, Xena acknowledged with silent affection, only hinted at by the smile that suddenly played on her lips. "Then humor me. I need to be useful, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle returned the smile, then sat beside Xena on the bench, wrapping an arm around her waist. "I should have known you were beyond restless: you slept last night as if you were riding Argo." She had muttered something, too, but Gabrielle didn't tell her that. It had sounded like 'kill'.

Xena struggled to recall the fragments of the dream which had played at the edges of her mind all day. She had been riding. . . She shuddered involuntarily.

"Are you cold? That shift looks great, but maybe it's time you headed back under the blankets."

"I think I'm ready for that," she agreed, though she wasn't cold. "Gabrielle? Tomorrow I'm wearing leather."


It had been a long day, like most in Tartarus, Xena mused. She was tired, yet not ready for sleep. Gabrielle stood by the hearth, undressing where there was the most warmth, just a few feet from Xena. For a moment she stood naked, bunching her own shift in both hands so that it would fall with no effort over her body, and Xena the sight with warm familiarity. So lovely. Beloved. To be jealous of Arthea seemed so absurd, yet the heart had its own logic.

Gabrielle stole a glance over her shoulder. "What are you grinning at?" she asked.

"Grinning? That's a smile of warm affection."

"Needs work. It looks like a grin."

"Oh yeah? I should warn you that such comments place your back rub in grave jeopardy."

"As if you can keep you hands off my back," Gabrielle scoffed. "Or my front." She slipped the shift off her shoulders and let it slide to her waist. She sat a little to Xena's side, and lifted her hair to give Xena access to her neck and shoulders.

"Gods, that feels great," she sighed as the large hands began to knead her flesh, probing deeply to release the tension in her muscles. "I didn't realize how tired I was until now."

"Because you haven't stopped moving long enough."

"Amazing how much there is to be done every day." She laughed softly. "I used to think it would be nice to be settled down, so I'd have more time for my stories."

Xena's fingers slowed for a moment, then resumed their work with extra vigor. "You'll have time, someday; I promise."

"Thank you, Xena. I know you mean that, but it's really my promise to make, to myself, that I will have - or make, the time to write. It's my dream, so it's my responsibility."

Xena rested her cheek against the bard's back. When did you grow up? she asked with silent wonder. Caring for me, caring for the house, nurturing your own dreams even in this place. "Some day I'll be able to tell Zeno I know Gabrielle of Potadeia."

"Do you expect Zeno to end up here?"

"Why not? It would probably justify one of his crackpot theories, somehow."

"You know, I did find time to write, that awful icy day, when you were injured."

"Hmmm. I read some of it."

"You read it? It wasn't ready for that."

"Gabrielle, you left your sack of scrolls at the edge of the blanket. That usually means you want me to read them."

"Has it been that obvious?"

"For about two years now."

"Oh. Well. I feel self conscious asking you to read them. I don't want you to feel pressured for an opinion." A pause. "So what did you think?" She turned to face Xena, who twisted her lips in amusement.

"I think you started about four stories and never finished any.

"They weren't really stories. I couldn't stay with a thought for long. It was so lonely here, just the wind for company." She stopped for a moment, listening to that same bitter whine, then roused herself to continue. "So I just did some word sketches of people, and things that have happened."

Xena's dark head moved in a slow nod, recalling the outline of the events at the peddler's market. "That dark warrior sure was busy; but she wasn't alone, you know."

"That day I was writing, the longer it went on. . . I couldn't take my mind off you."

"Okay, I like that," Xena smiled with approval, "but when you do finish it, can't you throw in something like: 'Then the recorder of these events waded into the fray, wielding her staff. . . ' You know what I mean."

"Maybe you should write that part?"

"Gabrielle, I'm serious."

"So am I. I usually throw myself in, as a sort of proof that the events are first-hand, that I was there, regardless of what role I played. But it would be so different if you wrote it. Or part of it. Have you ever read the account of Chin? No, of course you haven't; you made it clear you don't want to - "

"Gabrielle, not yet, maybe someday."

"Fine. No hurry," she said dismissively. "The point is, there are two very distinct tones there: one is my voice, telling what I witnessed, the other is my recording the things you told me, from before, about Lao Ma Anyone could see who was telling which part of the tale. You have an interesting voice, it seems to be hiding as much as it's revealing; almost all the time. Of course, you needn't read about Chin, it's also there in the scrolls about M'Lilla, Caesar, Lyceus." Of course you don't want to read those either, she realized. "Trust me, Xena, it's there. You really move a story along."

"You're the bard, Gabrielle. Let's keep it that way. I can't take too much role reversal at once." She said it as banter, but her eyes betrayed something else.

"I'll be a bard as long as I have a voice," she acknowledged. "That's my destiny. I have this fantasy," she confessed, that someday, people will care. They'll read these scrolls, and care about all that I've seen."

"That's a big responsibility. You'd better get it all in: Hermia, Archon and Sepra, Drax and Ileander. Lilla. Arthea. You'll make them live again someday. All of them. When you write about Tartarus, they all must have a place."

"That's a tall order, Xena. I don't think I have enough scrolls," she joked.

"I've spoken to Archon about the scrolls," Xena replied, in deadly earnest. "He doesn't slaughter goats except from necessity; when he does, he said he wouldn't mind if some went to parchment. Ileander thinks he can manage to fashion them for you."

"I never realized you took my scrolls so seriously."

The warrior shrugged. "I do."

Continued - Chapter 25

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