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Chapter 25

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 Five


Gabrielle was dreaming about fire, a huge unquenchable fire that filled the landscape. The faster she ran, the faster the fire raced behind. The staff she held grew hot in her hand. And she was alone. "Xena," she called, but her voice was drowned by the roar of the flames. "Xena ... "

"Gabrielle, honey I'm right here." Xena's voice was in her ear; her hand clutched tightly in Gabrielle's own. "That must have been some dream."

"Gods, yes. There was a fire ... " She stopped, suddenly aware that the smell of the fire persisted outside her dream.

"There is a fire, somewhere," Xena told her. The wind is from the east."

Which would mean Hermia's place, or maybe Archon and Sepra's farm.

"Could this mean the Tribes?"

"It could, I suppose, but burning is not their usual way. Could be a stray ember from a hearth." Gabrielle's eyes stole to the hearth a few feet away, acutely aware of how easily existence could be in jeopardy in this place. She was happy to see the room striped by the first rays of dawn which stole through the shutters boards. The Tribes preferred to attack at night, she knew that much. "It's time to get up anyway," she said.


Drax made his report with the precision of a well-trained soldier. "They were busy last night," he began. "Maybe a dozen all, told, from the tracks they left. Archon lost four goats."

"You're sure it was the Tribes, not wolves?" Gabrielle asked.

"They want us to know it was them Gabrielle. The tails of the poor things were tossed on Archon's porch. Archon and Sepra got off easy. A family that just settled in down the way was burned out. Archon reckons he and Sepra are too valuable to destroy: they provide fresh meat. These other poor souls were expendable." He flicked an eyebrow at Xena. "They were burned inside the hovel. Hope they were merciful and killed them first."

Gabrielle watched Xena's impassive face, looking in vain for any clue to the warrior's thoughts.

"They had a child," Drax began.

"Drax, no." Gabrielle's voice was strained.

"We can't find the child, she wasn't in the fire." He wiped a grimy hand across the soot marks on his face. "It seems likely they took her for themselves."

"Took her? For what," Gabrielle asked cautiously.

"I don't know; Archon doesn't know. They take people, kids mostly."

"It could be for sacrifice," Gabrielle mused aloud, "or slavery. Are they cannibals?" she asked abruptly.

"No," Xena said firmly. "It's probably slavery." It seemed the least final of the available options.

Gabrielle focused on the obvious question: "What can be done?"

Drax stared at her. "Done? Like what?"

"To rescue her," Gabrielle said, a little annoyed that it wasn't obvious.

"Gabrielle, I can't rescue her. I'm one man."

"Isn't there anyone else? The Overlord. Isn't that his job? If a troop of soldiers ... "

"The Tribes are long gone, Gabrielle. Even if the Overlord wanted to give chase, which he won't want to do, he'd never find them."

"Xena?" Her eyes turned to the dark warrior half-seated on the bench, silent all this time. She was wearing her battle dress, sans armor, walking stick held loosely in one hand.

"There's nothing to be done Gabrielle," she said without emotion.

"Not with this overlord," Drax put in.

The room fell quiet. They all three knew how different the answer would have been if Xena were sound. Or if Xena were overlord.

"I'm headed to see how Natrakia and Ikar made out. I'm not sure why; gathering the bad news is not the same as doing something about it." He looked at Gabrielle. "Can I do anything before I go?"

"No, thanks. I'll see you out. I could use the air."


The smell of smoke still hung in the air. Drax tightened the cinch on his saddle. It was unnecessary, but he needed time to frame his thoughts. "Gabrielle," he said at last, "why won't she do it? The Sweetwater would fall into her lap. There'd be no end of support, and then - "

"She won't Drax. That's all."

"No reason?"

"You knew her before Drax, when she had an army."

"Yes, I did." His weathered face was sectioned by a thousand wrinkles when he was puzzled.

"You didn't like her much."

"No," he admitted readily, "but she's different now."

"I think so; but she can still be. . . excessively aggressive. The idea of power. . . " She shook her head. "She doesn't want it. Doesn't trust herself with it."

"What? She's afraid to have the power?" He smacked his thigh with frustration. "Zeus bugger a duck! The one person who can help us, and she's afraid to do it."

"I didn't say 'afraid'," Gabrielle responded defensively. "It's not fear," she said, feeling that she was not being entirely truthful. "It's caution."

Drax was not impressed by the semantics. "If I was her I'd be a whole lot more 'cautious' about having the roof burned around my head."

"Drax, if she could sit on a horse she'd be after the band of raiders right now, overlord or lot."

Drax had seen anger in her eyes before; he'd gone too far. "I have no right to judge. It's just hard to accept." He touched his fingers to the long fair locks which tumbled around his forehead, in farewell.


Gabrielle shivered as she crossed the threshold. Xena was not in the room. Her eyes traveled to the door which gave access to the horse shed. 'If she could sit a horse. . . '

"Xena!" she called urgently as she ran through to the shed.

Xena stood beside Argo, leaning one arm on her neck for support, speaking quietly. "Yeah?" she asked the bard without breaking contact with the mare.

"What are you doing?" she asked quietly.

"Visiting my horse. What did you think I was doing?" She got no reply, but knew the answer. "I'm not stupid, Gabrielle. If I thought I could ride, I would try it. I know better."

"I know," was the response, "but there are times you seem to think you can do anything."

"The bigger problem is when other people think I can do anything."

"Drax didn't expect you to go after the raiders."

"No, he didn't expect it. It didn't stop him being disappointed that I had no answers." She was looking intently at Argo's intelligent face. "Even Argo is disappointed."

"Argo?" Gabrielle was puzzled.

"It's in the air, Gabrielle, can't you feel it?" She looked around, inhaled deeply. "It's there. Argo wants in on the action."

So do you, Gabrielle realized with a sinking feeling. How long had it been since the peddler's market? Long, boring weeks, punctuated only by the accident that had further reduced her mobility. Now trouble was at her doorstep, and she couldn't respond.

"Come back inside. We haven't had breakfast yet."

"I'll be right there," Xena said, then she cocked her head. "Get inside, quick." Gabrielle hastened through the breezeway, and made her way inside, careful to listen for Xena's hobbling footsteps close behind. She had learned to hear the world outside, and knew from the faint clops in the earth that a band of riders was moving through the soft dirt on the slope which led from the road. She watched through the shutters, looking for the raiders of the night before, and gaped in surprise at their visitors. Petra Tartras rode at their head, Drax beside her.

"Xena. It's Petra," she said in wonder as Xena reached the window. "Drax is with her."

"That's just great." Xena moved to the door, threw it open, and stepped through to stand outside, leaning on her bent stick. Gabrielle took her place at her side. Gabrielle's eyes were on Petra, Xena's on Drax as they drew near. Drax was not bound, yet his sword was not in its sheath. He was in some sense a prisoner. He jumped off his horse and ran the last few steps across the frozen earth. "Xena, they've got the child; and the ponies of the raiders." He waited for a reaction. There was none from Xena. Gabrielle's face creased in a broad smile. "Welcome to our home, Petra," she said.

"Gabrielle. I remember." The hard lines of her face softened marginally. "This man was good enough to show us the way." She looked at Xena for the first time. "From the pony he's riding, I surmise he's your pissing comrade."

Xena's blue eyes narrowed. "You've got some business here?"

Petra regarded the house, nodded in approval. "I like to keep abreast of what happens in my domain. I see you are relying on a crutch once again. Otherwise I have no doubt you would have defeated the raiding tribesmen, and saved me the trouble. As it is, I had plenty of business last night." She snapped her fingers, and a young man rode up, a small girl, her dirty face framed in golden ringlets, balanced on the saddle before him, nestled in his thick woolen cloak. She was intent on a crust of bread. "Here is our prize."

Gabrielle half gasped at the sight, said "Thasnk you," and took an eager step toward the child. Petra regarded her with a wry smile; the rider turned his mount sideways, blocking Gabrielle's access to the small girl.

"Gabrielle. We rescued her; she's ours," Petra explained mildly. She made a small movement of her head and the long plume of her which crested her head swirled languidly, caressing the embossed leather which settled around her shoulders. The effect was magnificent, Xena thought with grudging admiration, but it changed nothing.

"She's not a war horse, Petra. What do you want with her?" she demanded.

"Maybe nothing," Petra replied. "The scrawny offspring of convicts have little value, save as slaves. Or to breed more slaves."

"You can't mean that," Gabrielle protested.

"Shall I feed her for nothing? Allow her tainted blood to mix with that of my people? Would you prefer I kill her now?"

"You could leave her with us."

"In exchange for what?"

"My horse. The one Xena chose to take from the peddlers' village." She took a step toward the shed."

"A nice mare," Petra agreed, "but just one of many. The other mare, the golden mare, is more to my taste."

"Argo?" Gabrielle asked incredulous.

"Argo," Petra nodded. "Is this child worth the life of a war horse?"

"The kid means nothing to me, Petra." Xena growled. Her words stunned Gabrielle who dared not look at her, afraid the blue eyes would hold the same message.

"Then I have my answer," Petra replied, and pulled her reins, preparing to leave.

"But I won't let you make her your slave," Xena continued. "I'll fight you for her."

Gabrielle froze, her eyes fixed on the face of Petra who couldn't suppress a momentary surprise. She looked the warrior up and down. "I wouldn't fight you this way; I'd have too great an advantage."

Xena remained silent. She had been counting on this response. She felt Gabrielle relax beside her; but it was only beginning.

"Zayko found her. Fight him," Petra said with a nod of her head toward the rider who held the girl. Gabrielle looked at him closely now. He was very young, fair and well-muscled. He smiled at the prospect of a fight, but waved a dismissive hand in Xena's direction and unloosed a torrent of words that Gabrielle didn't understand.

Petra turned to Xena. "He's insulted to be fighting an injured woman convict." She lingered on the final word. "Beneath his abilities."

Xena's lips curled in a smile of contempt. "It will give me no satisfaction to whip an insolent puppy, but if it makes him feel better, tell him to give up his horse," she suggested.

Petra relayed the message. Zayko handed the child to the nearest rider and jumped to the ground. He pointed to the chakram and spoke to Petra again.

"He wants you not to use the disc."

Xena nodded and flung the chakram toward the house without looking. As it embedded itself in the door post, Drax's hopes sank. The chakram was a great equalizer.

"Choose the weapons," Petra told Xena, a final concession to her injured state.


Petra paused, then spoke a single word to Zayko. His face contorted in anger for a moment, then he called to his comrades. After a moment a whip was passed to him. Gabrielle realized that Zayko had no whip on his saddle; it would not be his favored weapon. Xena would have noted that right away.

"Gabrielle." Xena spoke without looking. The bard entered the house and returned with Xena's whip. As she handed it to Xena she spoke softly to her. "Can you do this?"

"I can do anything, Gabrielle, remember?" She wished she had laced on her bracers.

Drax stepped up beside them. "Xena, you're in no shape for this. Let me fight him."

"Thanks, Drax, but Petra would never allow it." She wants me. Still clutching the stick in her right hand, she cracked the whip with her left, eyes on Zayko. He unfurled his own whip, in a less than satisfying demonstration.

"Enough," Petra said in disgust. "Begin. Oh, Xena. If you lose, Argo is mine."


Xena might not have heard. Her attention was on Zayko. She smiled and waited for the man to make the first move. Patience wouldn't be his game. He fumbled with the whip, trying to get a feel for the thing. She knew what his target would be, if he had any warrior sense at all, and she was prepared to let him have it. He began a wary approach, to bring himself within whip's reach. Xena waited as if bored, yet so in tune with his movements she could have tracked him with her eyes shut. When at last he moved to strike, her own hand moved first; the tip of her whip bit his hand mid-throw, and the handle fell to the ground. Face burning, he retrieved the whip, stretched a length between his arms for no good reason, and approached once more. His advantage was that he could move, and he sought to use that advantage, running suddenly, arm raised, out of reach. His path took him diagonally across her field of vision; she puzzled at his tactic. He seemed not to know how easy it would be for her to adjust, turning so that his primary target was impossible to access. When he did realize, it was too late. Caught between indecision and the need to do something, he made a feeble attempt to land a blow; while his long, arching cast was still in the air, she sent her whip on a direct, accurate line to his groin. The snap there halted all movement, despite the leather codpiece he wore, then he pitched forward to land on his knees. He heard sympathetic murmurs from the ranks behind him, interspersed with a few guffaws as he rose.

Pain and humiliation were powerful motivators, Xena knew. His next onslaught would be different. It would also be his last. Across the short space which separated them, Zayko took her measure one last time. He had not envisioned defeat as a possibility. With an effort, he refused to consider it now. This time, he would prevail by cunning.

Xena saw something change in his eyes as he shuffled forward, and guessed where he might be headed. Once; twice; three times lucky? Don't think so flashed through her mind. She flicked her wrist and the frozen ground before her splintered, sending a little shower of earth and loose pebbles through the air. Zayko snorted, as if in contempt of the move, but everyone had seen him flinch. She flicked again, and he paused, unnerved by her goading. Another man might guess how anxious I am for this to end, Xena thought, and fail to oblige. Zayko had a lot to learn. His eyes moved suddenly to his target, he took two quick steps forward and hurled the contents of his left hand at her face. He didn't know she'd been expecting that, from the moment he rose from the ground, fist clenched. She merely turned her head and took the force of the debris against one cheek. She was facing him, unperturbed, as he swung the whip overhead toward the walking stick which bore her weight. He didn't see the flare in Xena's eyes as the whip snaked around the stick. To the unpracticed eye it appeared that Zayko had scored a triumph. The stick flew out of Xena's hand, and she was horizontal to the ground, where she seemed to hover in mid-air for a long moment. Zayko snatched his whip back, to ready for another throw, but it carried the stick back with it, causing him to leap out of it's path. At that moment he heard a crow of triumph, and caught a glimpse of Xena, extending the whip above her head; then it sliced through the air, and wrapped itself around Zayko's neck. She snapped it tight to her as she hit the ground, hard; Zayko's body spun 180 degrees before it came to a rest. For a long moment, all were one with the frozen landscape, then the riders began to stir, torn between attacking the convict, and loosing the whip which was strangling Zayko.

"Hold." Petra barked the command. "What is your pleasure Xena?"

"He's yours," she replied dismissively, from her vantage point on the ground. She felt the bitter cold for the first time. "Just leave the child."

Petra gave an order to the man who held the child. He carried her to Xena, but Gabrielle was there to take her. Only then did Petra turn her attention to the man on the ground, groggy, dragging scant breath into his body by instinct alone. She dismounted, strode to him, released the whip with a flourish which left rope burns on his neck. She roused him with a series of sharp smacks on his cheeks. When he had come to his senses she drew a knife from her sheath, yanked his head backward by his long braided hair, and sheared it off neatly. He didn't move as she dropped it onto his chest.

Drax had retrieved Xena's stick. She waited impassively while Petra crossed the ground to her.

"You took the puppy to school. He'll be a better warrior for it someday." Petra said, putting the best face on things.

"If he lives long enough," was Xena's clipped response. She felt a slow trickle of blood where something had struck her cheek. She wanted to wipe it, but wouldn't before Petra. She wanted to lie down, to relieve somehow the renewed pain in her hip from the fall. Instead she asked: "Would you accept out hospitality?" She glanced around the field which surrounded their home. Gabrielle sat on a tree stump, eyes riveted on the child in her lap. "Gabrielle," Xena called to her. "I've invited Petra inside. All right?"

"That's fine, Xena," Gabrielle replied, caring little, but suddenly conscious of the rest of the world. For starters, it was cold. The little girl had been outside for gods alone knew how long. And there was Xena. . . She gathered the toddler in her arms and made her way to the house.

"Petra's giving orders to her troops," Xena reported as she and Drax joined her inside. She hung the chakram at her hip once more. "She'll be here in a minute."

"Fine, Xena. It's a good thing Hermia was by yesterday. We have lots to offer. To you, too, Drax." Hermia had become a sort of middlewoman; she saw everyone, and trading through her had become a welcome convenience, especially now, Gabrielle knew, remembering with pride that her promise of lessons was helping put food in their mouths. She looked closely at Xena, reached a hand to touch her cheek. "You came down really hard."

"Yeah," Xena acknowledged, "but no harm done." She wiped her face with a damp cloth.

"You didn't have to invite her now."

"Yes, I did. She wants to see me hurting. I have to let her know she won't see that."

"I guess that's some sort of warrior logic I don't get."

Xena gave her a weary smile. "Don't try. Besides, there's something I need to find out, and she's gonna tell me." She looked at the child. "How is she?"

"Seems none the worse for wear. I think she's too disoriented to ask about. . . you know."


"I'll just get her settled down to sleep. She's wonderful, Xena. So like. . . " her words were lost as she her move into the warmth of the room near the hearth.

"Xena?" Petra opened the door, looked around the single room, and entered.

"Welcome. Warm yourself by our fire." Xena indicated the bench nearest the hearth, and waited for Petra to settle herself, before sitting, left leg at an angle before her.

"I've never been in a convict home before," Petra announced.

"Life is all about first time experiences," Xena observed.

"Even the final event: death," Petra agreed. She wondered at the sly smirk that played on Gabrielle's face as she joined them.

"I guess that's true for most people," the bard said. Breakfast was to have been porridge. That wouldn't do for company. There was bread, cheese, and a haunch of venison hanging in the root cellar. That would do nicely. She settled the jug of mead on the table while she and Drax fetched the food.

"We have certain commonalties, Xena," Petra opened, in a serious tone. "We might use them to the benefit of all." When Xena did not respond she went on: "You are a competent warrior. It puzzles me that you have not challenged for overlordship."

"I'm not the overlord type."

"Certainly not in the fashion of Nerad," she agreed with a dismissive shake of the head, "But in you own fashion, surely, you could have the power."

"I'm not real ambitious that way," Xena told her.

"But there was a time. . . " Petra nodded her head knowingly. "One hears stories."

"It's a good trick to know which stories to believe."

"You're content here? Whittling spoons?"

Petra hadn't missed a thing, Xena noted.

"Good spoons are hard to come by." Gabrielle's voice was less than friendly as she set a platter of cheese and bread before the two warriors, then took a seat beside Xena, making a show of taking Xena's hand.

"I'm very content," Xena said, realizing it was true, much of the time. With all the problems, she had this each night: Gabrielle at her side. She couldn't think of a time in her adult life when she'd been more content. Except for those awful moments when it all lost focus...

Drax set the haunch of venison before them, on a hard wood cutting board. The sharp knife was for self service Gabrielle realized, appalled. "Warriors; every excuse to use a weapon," she objected, and rose to carve off thick slices.

"You sound like Ileander," Drax said with a broad grin, wishing Ileander had come along.

There was little conversation while they ate, the heavy meat and bread required a good deal of chewing. When they were finished, and lashings of Hermia's mead were being thrown back, Petra pointed across the room. "That's an Amazon ceremonial mask." She said of the Gabrielle's mask which hung in a prominent place.

"Gabrielle is Amazon royalty," Xena told her.

"Another Amazon in Tartarus."

"Another?" Gabrielle asked eagerly.

"There is one other here. I'm sure you'll meet sometime," Petra said, done with that topic. "I understand now you weren't marked when you came here. Tarkian would never brand one with noble blood."

Gabrielle jumped in: "I have no noble blood, Petra. I was not born an Amazon. I had the title bestowed on me by right of caste."

"She earned the right with an act of courage and humanity," Xena amended. "Gabrielle is noble by nature."

"Xena is of royal blood," Gabrielle said, noting Petra's pointed gaze at Xena's unmarked hand.

Petra looked doubtful "I had imagined "Warrior Princess" was an honorary title, of dubious honor, with emphasis on 'Warrior'," she smiled.

"The royal house of Prestia," Gabrielle began, wanting to tell the whole story of Xena's liberation of that country from usurpers, but Xena caught her eye; a slight shake of her head was enough.

"The stories told of Xena in these parts don't mention Prestia."

Xena shrugged.

"I think I'll see if the child is hungry," Gabrielle said. "Do you know her name?" she asked Petra, who didn't waste the energy to shake her head in answer.

"Nara, I think," Drax supplied. "I think I heard her called that, once, at Cramma's."

"Nara," Gabrielle repeated, as she crossed to her, happy to be able to waken the girl by name.

"Why did you bring the child here, Petra?" Xena asked in a soft voice.

"We were close by. I was surprised that raiders from the Tribes operated so close to your home, undeterred. Now I understand." She indicated Xena's injury. "You won't be out of the saddle for long." It was not a question. "And now I must take my leave. They'll be snow from the mountains before another daybreak, and I have many things to do." She rose suddenly; Xena did the same, turning a near gasp into a call to Gabrielle. "Petra's leaving."

"Yeah, I know; sorry," she apologized, occupied with the child's soiled diaper.

"Farewell, Gabrielle. I thank you both for your hospitality. Drax." She inclined her head to him. "I'm happy to know the pisser has a name." And she was gone. Drax stood for a moment looking through the window until the party had mounted and disappeared over the hill.

"That was a full morning. I confess I don't know why you felt the need to fight her."

"She made a statement by showing up. I had to make a counter statement. Perception is everything , Drax. I can't think how many fights I've avoided because I managed to persuade someone I was tougher than they'd ever want to deal with."

"And that's from a person who loves nothing better than a good fight," Gabrielle said from the corner."

"If you say so," he shrugged. "I'd best be off, myself. They'll wonder where I've gotten too. Hermia won't half hate missing a meal with Petra." He shook his head. "Funny what passes for entertainment in these parts."

"Yeah," Xena breathed, happy to relax at last, to loosen the controls that masked her pain. It wasn't too bad, she acknowledged; even with the jarring impact with the ground it felt better than the day before. It hadn't even been a week, and the thing was much improved. Still, it was good to be left alone. In the corner, Gabrielle had the child seated on a sheepskin, and was making introductions.

"She's bright, Xena," she called out. "Says 'Gabrielle' pretty well. I'll have to wrap her in a blanket for sleeping, while I get this dirty thing washed. Maybe Hermia will let me have some of Lilla's old things, if she hasn't used them for rags."

"I'm sure she will," Xena said slowly.

"She can sleep here, next to me, for now. Maybe when you're healed you can make her a cradle."

"A cradle?" she asked, suddenly wary. "Gabrielle, she'll only be here a few days."

Gabrielle straightened. "A few days? What are you saying?"

"It's not as if we're keeping her," she said with a small shake of her head.

"Not? Of course we are," she said indignantly. "Don't listen to her Nara, I'll be here for you."

Xena opened her mouth to say something, but wasn't sure what it might be. She couldn't have been more plain. She watched for a few minutes as the bard coaxed Nara to hold a small cup of water. At last she spoke: "Gabrielle, I think we have to talk about this."

"What is there to talk about, Xena? Nara has been delivered to our doorstep. Why shouldn't we keep her?"

"Us? Gabrielle, c'mon," Xena expelled a short laugh. Gabrielle didn't see the humor.

"Why not us?" she demanded, staring at the warrior from across the room. "There are plenty of parents in Tartarus, in the world, for that matter, who are worse than we could ever be." She turned back to Nara. "I think I'd be a good mother, anyway; given a chance."

Xena sat very still; the room seemed to have a magical quality of shrinking in size at the most inopportune moments. This was such a moment, and the air seemed to whoosh out of the room, leaving behind the smoky, slightly musty smell of a damp, Tartarus winter. Indoors.

"You'd be a very good mother, Gabrielle. But we can't just keep her. She may have kin."

"In Tartarus? What are the chances?" Gabrielle scoffed.

"It's not impossible, Gabrielle; I've heard of large family groups settled in some areas."

"Wishful thinking," she accused. "You'd love someone to step forward and ask for her, but it's not going to happen. She's here and she's staying here."

"And I have no say in this? Isn't this the sort of thing we should decide together?"

"Why? So you can decide the answer is 'no'?"

"Gabrielle, this would be a major change in our lives; we have to give it some thought."

"Xena, if we can't make room in our lives for an innocent child, alone in the world, we're pretty sorry creatures."

"You make it sound very simple, Gabrielle."

"Most things are simple, Xena. You're the one who makes it complicated, because you have to have your way, all the time, so everything else has to change to fit. That must be a damned hard way to live."

"Let's avoid my flaws and stick to the point. This kid will change everything: we won't be able to pick up and go - "

"Go where? This isn't the road, Xena. We're settled folks now, remember?"

"How about the other night? Would you have left her alone to come looking for me?"

"No," Gabrielle acknowledged, "that would have been a problem, but we can't build our lives around what might happen next. Most of what's happened in my life, good and bad, has been far beyond the limits of my imagination." She was still then, looking past the walls of the house, over the mountains which were the bounds of Tartarus, to things Xena could only guess at. When she came back to the moment, her face held a steely resolve. "I'm not asking for your permission, Xena, and I don't want to discuss this anymore. I'm keeping this little girl. If you want to be part of our lives, you're welcome."

Part of your lives? So. Xena moved the tip of the little crutch in small circles on the floor, watching the woman as she rocked the child to sleep in the small circle of light which spread from the fire. The girl seemed finally to feel the absence of her mother; she fussed and babbled a word endlessly: "Mama." At last she gave up from exhaustion. Gabrielle looked at Xena. "I still have all the chores to do."

"They can wait. Would you come closer please?" she asked carefully.

"All right, but I'm not changing my mind," she said firmly as she crossed the floor.

"I won't ask you to change your mind." Only a few feet separated them; Xena could have touched her, wanted to, but Gabrielle didn't seem ready for that, standing with her arms folded across her chest. "It was never about permission, Gabrielle. You must see me as quite a tyrant." She forced a small smile. Gabrielle shook her head, opened her mouth as if to speak, then stood silent as Xena went on. "If she - Nara - is to stay here, we'll have to make some arrangement for milk. Sepra and Archon or Natrakia maybe will let us have a pair of goats, for some price we can manage. She's already sort of big for a cradle, but I can make her a small bed of some kind."

"Thank you, Xena. I hadn't thought about those things - yet," she admitted sheepishly. "I can do this without you," she insisted, "but it makes it a lot easier for you to be with me."

"With you? Where else would I be? This is for life, Gabrielle. You and me. We're ready to make that statement to the world." Aren't we? she asked herself. "Don't get me wrong, I still think this isn't the best thing for Nara, or for us; but you're not giving me a lot of choice. This is the price for staying in your life."

Gabrielle seemed puzzled. "Xena, I never said that," she said at last.

"Yes, Gabrielle, you did. And if that's how you feel, if you need Nara to make you happy, I'll try to make it work for you. For all of us."

Gabrielle's face softened; her arms reached out to Xena. "It will make me happy, Xena, but it's not that you don't. . . " she nestled as close as she could to Xena on the hard wooden bench. "And you aren't a tyrant. It just seems that you make all the important decisions. I couldn't let you make this one."

Xena returned the embrace, her mind grappling with the decision the bard had just made, the words she'd said."

"Now I'd better do those chores before Nara wakes up. Will you be okay with her? I won't be long? Just checking the traps."

"Traps? Sure. I'll manage."

Gabrielle stopped at the door, and turned to Xena, puzzled. "What's this?" she asked.

Neatly carved into the lintel was a large monogram, signifying 'Petra'. Xena swore.

"What has she done, Xena? What does it mean?"

"It means that if any harm comes to us, the perpetrators answer to Petra," she spat.

Gabrielle was puzzled. "Is that a bad thing?"

"Not if you want it," she replied, tight-lipped. Not if she isn't just keeping me for herself, she thought, banging the door against the frame.


The day passed quickly for Gabrielle, more slowly for Xena, under the strain of being enthused about the child. So like Hope. Just what we need.

It was close to sundown, a time few people chose to travel in winter, when Cramma's voice in the yard caused Gabrielle to hold the child more closely. As she opened the door her heart thumped so that she felt it in her ears. Xena watched the scene, nearly silent. Words were exchanged, thanks and promises, then Cramma was gone, with the child, and the few things Gabrielle had already settled on her.


At last Gabrielle turned to Xena. "I don't know how you manage, Xena. Once again, you got your way."

The warrior looked at her, open-mouthed.

"Did you offer a supplication to your favorite god? He sure works fast. The child's one relation in the world turns up not ten miles away. Quite a coincidence, wouldn't you say?"

"You heard Cramma, Gabrielle," Xena said patiently. "They settled here to be close to her. Just in case something like this happened. Cramma's rough, but she's a fine woman. She has a lot of love to give."

"So do I Xena," she said harshly.

"Gabrielle, you don't have to tell me how much love - "

"And I know you had nothing to do with it, not really, but you can't pretend that it makes you unhappy. So take that glum look off your face; you, at least, had a terrific day: a good knock down fight, great chance to show off for the Petra and the gang, and a little problem neatly solved before nightfall. Another day in the life of the Warrior Princess."

"Gabrielle, stop it. I did what I could to keep that little girl from a life of slavery. What happens to her now is a matter for her kin, for Cramma, to decide. I had nothing to do with bringing her here, I had nothing to do with sending her away, and it doesn't make me happy to see you miserable. Come over here." It was something more than a request: it was Gabrielle's signal to let the tears fall freely. It was all right, it was always all right to get lost in Xena's warmth. Anything was permitted there, everything was safe. So she sobbed against the leather and flesh, mourning for Nara, for Hope, and for herself.

Continued - Chapter 26

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