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Chapter 26

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 Six

Petra was proved right about the snow. Xena woke before dawn to a world that was hushed and still; she knew without looking that the ground was blanketed. This was not the icy veneer of the last storm, but a thick driving snow, piled in high drifts by the faithful wind which came from the East. The back of Cramma, perched on her donkey the night before, would be the last they'd see of company for days. She felt Gabrielle's breath soft against her skin, a welcome touch of warmth in the cold darkness. She resisted the urge to stroke her cheek. This would be a morning to sleep late; there would be little to do all day. The timing of the storm was fortunate: a few days with Nara and Gabrielle would have found it all that much harder to give her up.


A few more days with her and we'd have grown so close Cramma wouldn't have had the heart to take her away, Gabrielle mused. She set the porridge bowls on the table and moved to Xena's side. "You'd better get it while it's hot. There seems to be no keeping out the cold today." A crown of dark hair was all that was visible of the warrior in the early darkness. "Come on, Xena. Can't sleep all day." She ripped the blankets from her.

"Hey!" she protested, and yanked them back, holding them tight against her. "Give me a few minutes. What's the hurry? There's too much snow to go anyplace."

Gabrielle frowned, disappointed. "You know that without looking? Can't I tell you ever anything?"

"Sure. You can tell me how much you love me." She blinked once, rubbed her eyes, and watched as Gabrielle's surprise turned to something else.

"I get to tell you that? Again? Okay," she screwed her eyes as if deep in thought, and said at last: "I love you more than I loved Timpani."

Xena nodded solemnly. "Hmmm. Your pony."

"Xena," Gabrielle went on hastily, "don't be hurt, I really loved Timpani."

"Calm down," Xena said, stifling a yawn. "You could learn a lot about love from kids and their pets."

"Good, then you do understand," Gabrielle's face relaxed in a smile, and she lowered herself to the floor, settling into the space Xena made with her arms. "Did you have a favorite pet, Xena?"

"Pet? I don't know if we had pets. There were always sheepherding dogs around Amphipolis, since it's - "

"I know, sheep country," Gabrielle supplied.

"Yes, it is," Xena confirmed proudly. "The dogs were all working dogs. Even the ones around our place. They were all the same type, small, feisty, never back down. Kind of like you."

"I guess I'll take that as a compliment," Gabrielle said after a moment.

"You'd better," Xena told her. "They kept the inn clear of vermin better than any cats. Ratters, that's what my mother called them."

"You didn't have pets, you had ratters. Charming. That might explain a lot. So did you have a favorite ratter?"

"I did," was the immediate answer. "Spots."

"Original," Gabrielle remarked.

"Toris named her," Xena said defensively. "He was the oldest, and got his way. Back then, anyway. But the name fit. She had dark brown spots all over. She was very good at her job, but when it was slow, she'd sit by the hearth, and if you turned your back from the spit for a moment, she'd leap up, right over the flames, and tear off a piece of whatever was roasting. My Mother would grab the broom and chase her. I can still hear her: 'Out damned Spots' she'd say. Spots would leave for a while and sneak back in when Mother was busy. I liked her. I would have called her 'Dash', I think."

"What happened to her?"

"She lived to a ripe old age, and died in her bed of straw in the barn, leaving behind several litters of pups. I'd like to say that. Truth is, she was crushed by the wheel of a cart." Following me.

"I'm sorry."

"It was a long time ago. I just wish she'd had a better end. She didn't die right away. My mother finally did something to end her suffering." She shook her head. "Little Spots. I haven't thought of her in a long time."

"Maybe sometime we could have a pet? Dog or cat, it wouldn't matter. I haven't seen many in these parts, but they must be around."

"I would bet Ikar could find something." Her hand traced lazy circles on Gabrielle's back.

"You're in a good mood today." Or maybe it's just kids you don't want around?

"About the same as usual," Xena decided.

"How is your hip feeling? And the ribs?"

"Fine. Well, much better. So good, I think I'll do some serious sewing."

"Serious sewing? Embroidery?"

"No," she said with a frown. "Something practical. You'll like it."


Gabrielle watched Xena work with bemused fascination. In some ways, it was like watching the accomplished warrior do most things: little wasted movement, no hesitation, just a plan to be put into action. So she laid out a pliant length of doeskin on the long table and cut, with no pattern, no markings on the skin, but a clear direction in mind. She stitched quickly, precisely, fingers flying though she scarcely looked at the work. All the while she held up her end of a conversation. Gabrielle drifted closer to the table in stages, finally asking the question: "Xena? Are you making yourself something new to wear, finally?" she asked, hope dawning in her eyes.

Xena narrowed her eyes and held the nearly finished garment before her. "I like what I wear, Gabrielle. Does this look like a fit for me?"

Gabrielle saw it clearly now, a pair of pants. Too short by a good deal for Xena. "They're for me?"

"Yeah," Xena nodded, setting to work stitching again. "Warmer than what you wear."

"But you never measured me. . . how - "

"Gabrielle, do you think I don't know your dimensions?" she snorted softly.

"Xena," that's so sweet." She sat beside her, pulled her head close and kissed her cheek. "You didn't have to do this."

"I wanted to," Xena responded, eyes on her work at last. "That cloak doesn't begin to keep out the weather. These will help." She bit the end of the stout thread and tied it off.

She gave the pants a critical inspection, then satisfied, handed them to the bard. "Done.

Put them on while I start on the shirt."

"They're awfully soft," she said.

"Doeskin will get like that, if it's treated properly. Now hurry up; I'd like to see them."

Gabrielle kicked her boots off, let the short skirt fall to the floor and stepped in to the pants. It was as Xena said: she knew her dimensions very well.

Xena nodded her approval, unable to keep the pleasure from her face. They were as she had envisioned them, hugging the bard's form while not being constricting.

"You look terrific." And if it weren't for this damned hip I'd have you on my lap right now.

"I've never worn pants like these before, just those furry leggings. These feel, " she considered, "like a body glove." She ran a hand down the outside of a thigh, enjoying the buttery softness. "I'm warmer already."

So am I, my bard, Xena thought, but merely said: "That's the point. Now, if you get the other piece of hide from the shed, I'll start on the shirt." She could already see the finished garment in her mind's eye, draped smoothly over the firm breasts. "This drafty place won't trouble you again."

"I've never seen clothing fashioned this way. Where did you get the idea?"

"I spent some time with the people of the North. Way north, beyond Britannia. The people I stayed with roam the seas, venture to places that appear on our maps. A native of one of those places returned with them. She dressed just like this."

"Returned? You mean as a prisoner?"

"No. Seems that she liked to travel, too. And she liked to tell stories. I think she was a bard among her people."

"Really? And her home isn't on our maps?" A certain sparkle came to Gabrielle's eyes when her interest was well and truly piqued; the sparkle was there now. "How do you get there? To her home, I mean."

Sail west, always west, beyond any known lands, until you run short of supplies, and the crew is on the verge of mutiny."

"You sound as if you've been."

"Not yet." She grimaced. "When my ambitions lay in conquering the world, it was part of my long term plans. I'd still like to see it some day." Fat chance, she mused. The woman either had a vivid imagination, or the land is truly full of wonders. Flocks of birds so thick they blot out the sun for hours when they take flight. Herds of bison that thunder past for hours, with no break. What I'd really like to see is a waterfall."

"We have those here," Gabrielle pointed out.

"Not like this one. It sounds as if a sea the size of the Mediterranean must be pouring itself out. Or else she's a terrible liar." She shrugged. "Who knows. I'd like to see for myself, someday." Her lips twisted sardonically. "And they've never heard of Ares. Or Zeus."

"Sounds like quite a place." They were silent for a while; Xena took a few quick stitches to secure a seam.

"Xena, what about new clothes for you?"

"Next winter."

"Xena, if this is about yesterday, it really isn't necessary. I'm over that."

"Over what?" Xena asked, clearly puzzled for a moment, then she understood. "Nara? Why would this be about Nara?"

"A peace offering?" Gabrielle suggested.

Xena's eyes clouded briefly. "Hate to disappoint you, but I've had this in mind for weeks. As for a peace offering, I didn't know you were expecting one."

"I'm not - "

"Of course you are, otherwise you wouldn't assume I'm handing you one." She began to gather the pieces of scrap which littered the table. "How did this become such a big deal?" she wondered aloud. "Would you get me the other doeskin, please. I'd like this to be finished."

The joy she felt in the project was gone. She worked as before, but few words were exchanged; when she handed the shirt to Gabrielle the bard accepted it with a muffled word of thanks. There was enough of the skin left to make slippers, Xena noted, but sitting so long in one place had made her hip sore. She rose to stretch. Outside, the storm seemed to have intensified, if that was possible. She wondered if the drifts would make it impossible to leave the house. She hadn't really counted on anything like this when she built it. Still, there'd be plenty of time to adapt the house to the realities of Tartarus. Gabrielle had slipped the shirt on, and sat as before, hunched over a scroll. One thing about bad weather: it limited the time spent on chores. Xena wondered vaguely if the scroll was about Nara. Or Petra. The shirt suited Gabrielle, it's soft folds changing even as she moved the quill across the scroll. Xena wanted to say so, wanted to say something, but she couldn't judge the bard's mood. Another quarrel, another wasted day in Tartarus. Her head moved to follow a particularly vicious blast of wind, which ended in a scream, like someone howling through the storm. Gabrielle heard it, too, and looked at Xena, a question in her eyes. Then it was heard a second time, and Xena began a slow move to the shuttered window. Together, the two women peered through the curtain of white. It was mid afternoon; the light of the day was diffused through the landscape. The nearby stand of trees was visible as a dark mass of no particular composition. The house would look just the same to anyone unfortunate enough to be outside its walls; yet in a world of swirling whiteness, a dark mass, might be anything, might be salvation, couldn't be worse than the certain death of the storm. So, a figure cloaked in white staggered toward the house, not realizing until he stumbled against a wall that it was, indeed, a house.

The muffled sound brought their heads around to the side wall, across from the hearth. Gabrielle grabbed her cloak from a peg. "There's someone there, right outside. I'll go help," she said. Xena cursed her inability to move well enough to help, but she stood beside the open door, watching as the bard worked her way around the corner of the house, careful not to lose contact with the rough walls. It was with relief that she saw her return at last, followed by a slow moving, stooped figure. It was a man, sporting a beard stiff with matted snow beneath a nose botched red and white with cold. He seemed to lose his ability to move, to stand, to speak when he entered the warmth of the house, and toppled forward to the floor. Xena fetched blankets as Gabrielle worked the stiff cloak from him, and pulled off his ice-crusted boots. A few warm stones were dropped into a cup, and mead was poured over them, while Gabrielle shook his beard roughly to dislodge the snow and ice.

"He couldn't have gone on much further like this," she said.

"Lucky bastard," Xena nodded.

"I wonder who he is, and why he's out on a night like this."

"We'll soon know," Xena guessed, as he stirred, trying to rise on shaky arms. "Just lie still for a few moments," the warrior told him softly. "You're in no danger here." He buried his face against an arm, and sobbed.

"Now that's relief," Gabrielle said. She hurried to fetch the cup of mead.

"Yeah." Xena stood a little to the side, watching the man writhe on the floor, a puddle forming where the ice melted. With his tattered cloak now hanging by the fire to dry she could see his features: the chapped cheeks, the nose threatened by frostbite, his red beard curling close to his face. Red beard. There was something familiar in that; she moved closer. He stole a glance at her, then quickly turned away; too late.

"Gaederus," she breathed, and if he ever heard the voice of Hades, he knew it could only be warmer. "You bastard, is that you?" The tip of her stick touched him; he squirmed away, squealing.

Gabrielle returned, mead in hand. "What is it?"

"We don't need that, Gabrielle. He's not staying."

"Xena, what are you talking about?"

The warrior drove a booted foot into his side. "He can't stay. Isn't that right, Gaederus."

"Gaederus." Gabrielle stared for a long moment; images from that endless night in Priblis flashed through her head. The red beard moved with his face as he smiled and stammered, seeking a reprieve from the bard.

"I did see you in Priblis," he began, and worked to collect his thought.

"Oh yes," Xena confirmed. "We saw you too. Right before the troops of Mustrakis grabbed us."

"I - I - I, uh, heard you'd been taken. I don't know how - "

"Forget it, Gaederus," Xena told him harshly. "We all know how they found Gabrielle: you led them to her, and kept her there with a phony message from me."

"That's not how it was," he tried again, knowing he spoke in vain, watching transfixed as the warrior reached to grab his beard. She pulled his face to eye level.

"You betrayed us," she hissed, as she brought hard knuckles against his nose. Blood spurted onto his chest, then splattered the floor as she whipped his head around with a second blow.

"Xena. Stop it." Gabrielle was at her elbow.

"I'll do just that," she said, never taking her eyes from Gaederus. "Get out."

The man mopped frantically at the blood which poured from his nose and mouth, considering his limited options: the elements or the fury which seemed to radiate from the warrior beside him. One chance. His eyes turned to Gabrielle. "I'll die if I leave" he whimpered.

"Probably," Xena agreed, "but then again, you'll die if you stay. And that was an order, not a choice. Get your putrid hide out of my house." Her words were charged with all the energy that under different circumstances would have fueled physical violence. Even so he shrank from her now, inching toward the door, and the storm which seemed less threatening all the time.

"Xena. What are you doing?" Gabrielle demanded, a hand on Xena's arm. "You can't throw him out there to die?"

"I can't" the warrior spat incredulous. "Can't?" she echoed even louder. "I'm doing it, Gabrielle, so stay out of the way."

"Xena, you'll be sending him to his death!"

"We've established that, Gabrielle. I figure he's already lived three minutes longer than he has any right to expect." She turned her attention back to the groveling man on the floor. "Isn't that so, Gaederus? You thought we'd never cross paths again, right? You must have pissed your pants when they sent you to Tartarus, to me! And then the gods sent you stumbling at my feet. I owe someone a big thank you. Now get out before I cut off your frost bitten ears."

"Xena. I don't care what he's done. He's not leaving this house tonight." Gabrielle's

voice held a rare whiplash of command.

"Have you forgotten what he's done?" Xena growled. "He's the reason were in this gods forsaken place!"

"I haven't forgotten, but I don't care what he's done. We're not denying him our hospitality today."

"Fine; you're out of it. I won't have him under my roof."

"Our roof."


"It's our roof, Xena. I have a voice in who is permitted under this roof, too. And I say he's welcome. Today, anyway."

"Sheltering the reason we're here." Xena smacked her forehead in wonder. "Gabrielle, sometimes you're just too good to be true." It wasn't a compliment.

"I've that said a lot, Xena. Mostly from people wondering how I put up with you. As for why we're here, I know this leaves a lot out, but isn't a least part of the reason the fact that for years you led an unprecedented life of crime?"

Xena stood very still, then she worked air back into her lungs for a reply. "I often wonder how you put up with me, too."

"Xena, I didn't mean that," Gabrielle said hastily aware she'd gone too far.

Xena turned away; Gaederus wouldn't see the fury that swept through her. In a barely controlled voice she spoke to the bard: "So we have a difference of opinion. "I could throw him out of here; what could you do to stop me?"

Gabrielle swallowed, met the challenge in the suddenly midnight eyes, and replied: "If you throw him out, I won't stay here." She stopped abruptly, scarcely believing that she'd said the words. Xena heard them, shook her head as if that would change what had been said.

"Won't stay?"

Gabrielle scrambled to make sense of what she had said. It seemed awfully drastic; probably impossible, but equally impossible to retract, so she merely repeated the words.

"I won't stay. I won't stand by and watch you send a man to certain death."

Him or me, that's what it came down to, and Gabrielle had a made a choice. First Nara, now Gaederus. It was suddenly hard for the warrior to swallow. Without a word she took the few painful steps to where a length of rope hung from a peg. She bound Gaederus hand and foot, then looked steadily at the bard. "Tell me when he's gone," she said, grabbed her cloak, and exited through the sheltered breezeway which connected to the shed.

She had not settled down when Gabrielle appeared at the entrance. "What are you doing?" Xena was barely visible in the cold gray light which found it's way through the shutters.

"Don't worry, I'm not going far; I'm afraid you're stuck with me. But I won't stay under the same roof with that bastard. Didn't I make that clear?" she asked in a harsh voice.

"Then Gaederus can stay out here," she replied after a moment.

"With my horse?" she shook her head. "Not on your life."

"You'd rather he stay inside with me?"

"No, Gabrielle, that's your choice. I'd prefer he froze his ass off outside. I know I made that clear."

"Xena, come on, this makes no sense."

"This makes no sense? Does it make sense to shelter the man who betrayed us? Sent us here? Where's the sense in that?"

"It won't change anything to send him out to his death," Gabrielle reasoned, " and it doesn't make us better people to act out of vengeance."

"Well, that's the problem," Xena exclaimed, "I haven't gotten the finer points of being a better person. Vengeance would suit me just fine."

"That's your last word?"

"No; there's this: You're just putting off the inevitable. That bastard will die by my hand."

"I don't like you like this, Xena."

"Obviously. You prefer the company of that traitor."

"I don't prefer - "

"Just don't turn your back on him." The bard left quietly, shivering a little, from the cold, or Xena's words, she couldn't say.

"You me, and a bedroll Argo. Again." Xena settled down long before dark, for what was to be a long, sleepless night.


No one slept much that evening. Gabrielle listened for Gaederus, he listened for Xena. From her place in the shed, Xena listened for anything. Long before dawn, she heard movement at last: Gaederus, stealing about the house. She held her breath, tracking his movements through the noises he made, chinking pottery, rustling the stiff waxed cloth around the cheeses, pouring something, mead, by the sound of it. She considered interrupting, but was certain Gabrielle would object to that, would help him stuff a sack with provisions. At last she heard his footsteps crunch in the snow, a steady movement away from the house, and closed her eyes.


"Xena? He's gone." Gabrielle had a warm cup in each hand. "I brought you something warm. Was it too bad out here? It seemed like the wind didn't stop all night."

Xena sat up slowly, brushed hay from her hair, and curled a lip: "It was like old times, sleeping in a pile of hay. Except for the snow blowing in through the cracks. Except that my home is just a few feet away." And except that I was alone, she thought bitterly.

Gabrielle sat beside her, and held out a cup, uncertainly. So much had been said the night before. She was torn between an apology, and hoping they could just move past it. Xena took the cup after long consideration. Gabrielle relaxed a bit; it seemed that Xena, too, was anxious to put the ugly moments behind her. She was looking at Gabrielle appraisingly. Doeskin suited her. The honey-hair seemed made to fall on that supple surface.

Gabrielle reached to pick a wisp of straw from the warrior's hair. "Xena," she said contritely, "I hated it that you were out here, but you can be so stubborn." Her smile urged Xena to respond in kind.

The warrior was not quite ready for that, but kept her voice low as she asked: "Me? Who was ready to up and leave if I tossed Gaederus out on his ass?"

"Xena, it wasn't about Gaederus, it was a matter of principle," she explained.

"Principles. Yeah, I know the place principles take in your life," Xena replied uneasily. She considered that they had yet to share with anyone their plans to make a public commitment to each other. Gabrielle had suggested that they wait until they could specify a day. They hadn't even spoken of it in weeks. Too busy squabbling, I suppose.

"Just tell me this: would you really have left?" she asked abruptly, needing to know.

A pause, then: "Probably."

"Where would you have gone?" Xena continued, arching an eyebrow.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Hermia's."

"In that storm? You wouldn't have gone two miles."

"Maybe not."

"And how much did your 'principles' rely on me caving in?"

"Let's say I didn't really think I'd be spending the night in the storm." She lay her head against Xena's chest. Xena stiffened, then lifted the blanket, to take Gabrielle into the warm space beneath. "But I never meant for you to spend the night in the cold." She sighed and snuggled closer to Xena, rubbing a thigh clothed in soft doeskin against her. "It really is cold out here." She sipped from her cup. "Gaederus finished the mead. He was gone before I woke up. He also took some cheese and the last of the bread. Oh, he took a blanket, too."

"Yeah, I figured," Xena said quietly. "Why did you untie him?"

"He had to eat, Xena. And then I didn't want him peeing on the floor, so I let him outside. I tied him again, he let me. I guess he figured I wouldn't tie him as well as you had."

At least he's gone, Xena consoled herself. They'd cross paths again, and this time, she'd see that Gaederus was armed. She half smiled at the image of what she might do to him.

"Are you angry?" the bard asked.

"Do I ever stay mad for long?" Gods, with you so warm beside me, how would that be possible.

Gabrielle smiled. "You make me feel guilty. But yesterday, it seemed like the right thing to do."

"He ruined yesterday, let's not mention him again today." The soft hair felt warm against her cold nose. She snuggled against her, moved lower to seize an earlobe with her teeth. Her hands roamed over the woman.

The sudden change of tone caught Gabrielle by surprise. "Is this about making up?"

"Does every move I make need a reason?" Xena asked, letting her hands fall to the straw. "Can't it just be that it's been too long? So long Gabrielle," she said with sudden urgency, "since I've tasted you." She took the bard's cup, and set it down beside her own in the straw. "Let's just stop fighting," she said wearily. "Nothing is worth that distance between us, not your principles - "

"Not your vengeance?"

"Not vengeance," Xena agreed, Gabrielle's hair twined in her fingers, her mouth urging the bard to quiet. "So long. . . " she murmured.

"Xena. This isn't a magical solution to our squabbles."

"I know that, Gabrielle," Xena nodded, a little frustrated. "But it can't hurt."

"Are you sure you're up to this?" the bard wanted to know, pulling away with reluctance.

"If I could smack that - " she stopped, shook her head emphatically. She wouldn't say the name again. "Anyway," she continued, "I'm more than up to this." Gently, she turned Gabrielle by the shoulders. "Gabrielle. How long has it been since I said 'I love you'?"

Continued - Chapter 27

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