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Chapter 28

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 Eight


There was more art than strength employed in shooting an arrow, Gabrielle had come to realize. Somehow, that made the lessons easier to take. She could put an arrow within three feet of her target, most times, and hardly ever lost one. Anymore. But it had taken a long time. They'd begun at sunrise; The sun was nearly at it's zenith, and they had yet to break for a meal.

"Not really," Xena disagreed as they trudged back to the house. "Most of the winter you spent insisting that one, you'd never learn, and two, you didn't want to learn. What made you change your mind, anyway?"

"Your gentle encouragement, Xena."

"Yeah, right. Couldn't be that the stranger from the far side of the seas was a master with a bow?"

Gabrielle ducked her head, trying to hide her sheepish grin. "It does seem a bit more exotic now," she admitted.

"Once you put your mind to it, it was like rolling off a log."

"Hmmpf. Easy for you to say. Look at this hand!" She showed Xena her new blisters, that would soon be calluses.

"On top of the ones from your staff, they won't look so bad, Gabrielle. If you use your body, it will show some wear. But now you can feed yourself."

"Yeah, provided my prey is larger than three feet in diameter, and stationary for long periods of time. Anyway, this winter I didn't do badly, bartering my services for food," she observed smugly.

"No, you didn't," Xena agreed, glad for the earrings which had been available to really pay for food.

"With spring just around the corner, I'll be paying off the debt. That will be exciting. When I was a kid I found school so confining, I never dreamed I'd be a teacher, but I guess that's what I'll be."

"Gabrielle," Xena began slowly, I hope you aren't disappointed if people are too busy to spend time learning to read and write."

"Xena, as you've pointed out, goods are scarce here; people won't just walk away from something they've bartered for."

"I guess not," Xena conceded, "but they have a lot of other things to do this time of year."

"I know Arthea will be here, anyway," Gabrielle said. "Yesterday she was pretty eager about making plans to come over. Said she'd try to come by today. You know, I never know how to feel about her. Sometimes, when she looks at you, I want to scratch her eyes out; then I see how she plays with Lilla, or Nara, and she's so much like a kid, I can't stay angry about anything."

"Like a kid," Xena said doubtfully. "Haven't seen that side of her."

"Trust me, it's there. yesterday, with Nara, she was playing the part of a dragon, a comical dragon. Very successfully. Nara was giggling out of control." She grew quiet. "Our place seems so quiet after Hermia's."

Xena expelled a breath of air. "Yeah, it's real quiet, Gabrielle. I'm sorry, but in the long run, it's better this way. We don't need any passengers." Gabrielle's head shot around.

"Passengers? Where are we going? An escape?" she asked hesitantly.

"Maybe. I've been thinking about how. Maybe it's not so impossible. Having a kid along wouldn't make it easier."

"Is that what was on your mind yesterday? Why you were so strange?"

"Gabrielle, there was nothing going on yesterday. Nothing! Will you drop it?" she flared.

The look on the bard's face reminded her how frightening she could be. "I have some ideas," she said in a softer tone. "Nothing concrete, but if the peddlers come back, maybe I can get Argo out that way. Someone would be willing to cooperate, for a price. If the peddlers come back." She'd spent the night considering plans. None were perfect, all had a high element of risk, but sitting still, staying in the box, might be the most dangerous thing of all, despite what she'd told Ares. If he wanted her here, it was probably best that she leave.

"You'd trust Argo to a peddler?"

"She's too valuable to hurt," she reasoned. "When we get out, I go get her."

"Why the urgency, Xena?"

"Urgency?" She pushed Ares from her mind. "Gabrielle, I've never stopped thinking about it. That's why Nara was never a good idea."

"Why didn't you just say so?"

"Because I can't promise we'll get out. Sometimes it seems like an impossible dream, I can't ask you to build your life around that."

"It would be better than an unreasoned 'no'. I think I deserved a real answer."

"Well now you have it." A shadow touched the bard's eyes. "Now what's wrong?" Xena asked, biting back her impatience.

"It seems funny to think of leaving here. We've made so many friends."

"Gabrielle, you make friends wherever you go. There are a lot waiting for you outside: your family, the Amazons. . . "

"I know. I'll still miss Hermia, Nara, Lilla. I wonder if they'll ever learn to read."

"Gabrielle, we're far from gone. Don't start missing them yet," she warned. "It might never happen."

"Oh, it will happen. When you set your mind to something Xena, it's like rolling off a log," she echoed. "I just wonder what took you so long?" That stopped Xena in her tracks. Gabrielle looked back, saw her question mirrored in the blue eyes, and walked on.


Arthea's arrival was the signal fro Xena to depart. She was a little surprised that Arthea would come so soon after the announcement. Then again, nothing about Arthea was really surprising. Her needs were, few, her motives easy to figure. Whatever her motives, she couldn't prevent Xena leaving as soon as she arrived.

"You haven't eaten, Xena." Gabrielle had prepared soup, a thick mushroom soup, a favorite of the warrior's.

She grabbed a chunk of bread. "This'll do. If I don't see you when I return, Arthea, take care." And I'll be very happy, she added as she closed the door behind her. She had no direction in mind, just out. Anyplace would do, except the glade. With great deliberation she headed toward the known, visited Cramma, as a checkpoint, and dropped in on Ikar and Natrakia. "We'll be seeing you soon, when we come to collect our lessons with Gabrielle," they called after her. She smiled, pleased that the bard would have some students. She thought of visiting Archon and Sepra, but saw what looked liked Hekatore, with his team of horses across a field in that direction. She was in no mood to speak to the man, and gave him a wide berth.


When she returned, Arthea, was as expected, long gone. "I waited to eat with you," Gabrielle told her. That was nice. Xena was hungry, but as she washed up, Gabrielle spied new company from the window. "Archon never stays long when he's alone, and I don't see Sepra with him," she said.


"A gift." Archon stepped forward, and lifted the second of a pair of goats from the ox cart to the ground. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged puzzled glances.

"Why?" Xena asked.

"Friendship," he boomed. "Neighborliness." He shrugged. "Maybe because you'll be bringing my babe into the world in a few weeks, and I can't think of better payment."

"I don't need payment for that," she replied.

"But you always want us to take something, no favors allowed. Turnabout is fair play. This little pair of goats should be the seed for a nice herd of your own. Next best thing to sheep," he winked, acknowledging her preference.

Gabrielle already had her arms around one, stroking its ears with affection. "Archon, this is very generous. Thank you both. Where's Sepra? I made mushroom soup."

"Her feet were a little puffy, back aching. Being with child isn't a lot of fun, I guess. I'll be happy to carry some soup back to her. She does like her mushrooms."

"I'll be right back." When she had gone inside, Archon spoke to Xena: "It's lucky for all of us, you having Petra as a protector. We haven't seen a sign of the tribes since her visit her. She seems to pay special attention to The Sweetwater. That alone makes it worthwhile thanking you."

For Petra's protection. She swallowed the bitter bile that rose in her throat.

"What did you ever do to earn her protection?"

"I'd love to know," she said earnestly, "but I think you're overstating things. She isn't my protector."

"Whatever. In the absence of a real overlord, she'll do."

Xena was grateful to see Gabrielle return with the soup, the entire pot. "You'd better get this back to Sepra. She's eating for two." At least. Gabrielle wondered at the tension between them.

"I'm sorry if I offended, Xena," Archon said, but the warrior was already leading the goats to the shed, wondering where was best to pasture them.

"Maybe I'll drop by to see her tomorrow," she said over her shoulder.


Gabrielle saw Archon off and caught up with her in the yellowed field behind the house.

She couldn't guess what had passed between them, and didn't want to know, just then.

"Xena, I hope you don't mind a cold supper. I gave all the soup to Archon. Sepra - "

"I know. Craves mushrooms." She shrugged. "Doesn't matter."

"Is this a bad mood that will last the rest of the day, or should I stick around, hoping for a break in the clouds?"

With an effort, Xena arranged a smile on her face. "How was Arthea?" she asked, for something to say.

"Restless. Couldn't sit still. We were going to eat some soup, but I no sooner dished it out than she changed her mind and left. I dumped it back in the pot to wait for you. Guess I wasn't meant to eat mushroom soup today."

"If there was an inn nearby we could go out for supper. I'd like that," Xena said with a nod.

"That's what this place needs," Gabrielle said with sudden animation. "An inn. You know all about that Xena, maybe we could - "

"What? Open our home to travelers?" Xena asked aghast. "You're right. I do know about inns. I grew up in one. It sucked. I won't spend my life handing bowls of stew to a bunch of convicts and drunks."

"Okay. You needn't take my head off."

"Sorry." She scratched her dark head. "I'm in a rotten mood," she acknowledged contritely.

"Belligerent. Not rotten, belligerent. You sound as if you need to stick a sword in someone."

"I don't need to stick a sword in anyone. Can't I just have a bad mood once in a while?"

"Sure. Just indulge your rotten mood someplace else. Go chop wood, or kill some furry creatures. Tartarus is a big place, Xena, there must be somewhere you can go until you're ready to be civil. Don't take it out on me!" She turned away, vaguely hoping she could turn around and start the exchange from the beginning. Xena spoke first.

"Gabrielle, I just wanted to - " she stopped, looked around for a moment, and slapped a hand against her thigh, not knowing what she wanted. "I'll do as you say," she said at last.

Gabrielle turned quickly, but the warrior was already striding away through the field.


This time, no place was off limits. She didn't really know how to find the glade, but knew when she found its approach. The languorous movement was like foreplay, in the intensity of sensual feeling. Every fragrance was heightened, the warm air caressed her body, and her blood seemed to quicken. It had never been so inviting. She almost spurred Argo to hurry, but the pleasure of the moment was too great. She didn't have to wait for Ares to appear, he stood on a knoll, arms crossed against his broad chest, waiting. He knew I'd be here, Xena acknowledged, noting that the thought didn't trouble her.

"Xena. Rough day?" His voice was soft; she heard only the mocking undertone, and scowled.

"I came for a little peace, Ares. I don't need your company."

"No? Suppose I promise not to nag, pick, find fault. . . Can I stay?"

"Never mind. I don't know why I came," she said, yet she made no move to go.

"Don't let me keep you from the love of your life. You won't want to miss your evening pussy-whipping."

"Eaaaah!" she screamed, as she spurred Argo forward, drawing her sword on the fly. Ares made no move as she bore down on him, but his lips turned up in a satisfied smile. She was driven by salt-fury as she drove toward him, and plunged the sword into his chest, to the hilt. He stepped out of the sword, and laughed. She looked at her naked blade, flung it aside, and leaped off Argo to land on the startled god. Her fingers found his throat as he landed on his back; one hand working free to land a hard punch on his jaw. He smarted at that, and swung at her. Her head snapped back at impact, and jerked forward again to land on the bridge of his nose. He grabbed her by the hair, arching her neck back in a brutal twist, and rose to his knees. She attempted to break free; the back of his free hand landed across her mouth, but she caught at it with her teeth, causing him to yelp in pain. Without loosing his hold on her hair, he rose to his feet dragging her after, and drove a knee into her midsection. The air huffed out of her; as she struggled to regain her breath he spoke into her ear: "I'll give you whatever you need, Xena. Peace, you got it; a good fight; you got it." A second time he smacked her hard across the face, sending her across the clearing, to land in a heap at the base of a tree. "Had enough?" he demanded. As he stood over her.

"Not yet," she rasped, and launched herself with impossible velocity at his throat once again. He stumbled backwards, a stream of obscenities gushing from his mouth. She gained a hold of his thick black locks this time; he grinned, and twined his fingers in her hers. He let her take him down, let her fingers stay on his throat, and wrapped one arm around her waist. Their faces were inches apart. For a moment all he could see was the blood which poured from her nose, and the puffy split lips, her mouth a little open to gulp in air. Then he closed on her, and his full mouth was over hers. She froze for a moment, in pain or in shock he didn't know. When she relaxed it was complete, her mouth was his, her hands no longer seeking to throttle, but to hold him close in a lover's embrace. Whatever she thought she wanted when she came to the glade was forgotten in his dark embrace. "Is this what you need, Xena? I'm more than happy to give it to you." For a long while nothing intruded on her consciousness. She was all sensation, all feeling, alive with his touch, moving in abandon against his body. He whispered something to her, she couldn't make it out, but fell asleep at last, with the soft echoes reverberating through her.

She awoke sometime later, in this timeless place, her naked body tickled by soft grass. Argo stood across the clearing; she imagined she saw reproach in her eyes, but turned her attention to herself. It was an effort to stir, so complete was her relaxation. She stretched like a cat, feeling each muscle and sinew as if for the first time. Reborn. That's what this is like. Not resurrection, I know that feeling. This is all new, like coming into possession of myself for the first time. She looked around, avoiding the big mare. Ares. Gone. If he'd ever been here. She moved the back of a hand across her mouth. No damage there. Something had happened. What? The fight? Or the love making? Both or neither? Nothing was clear, except that she felt wonderful. She cupped her breasts with both hands, delighting in her own touch. Argo whinnied, and something in that sound was full of home. Gabrielle. Through the afterglow, a nagging thought pushed at the edge of consciousness. She got to her knees, began to collect her things that were scattered around the area. Those small, practical movements made her feel her nakedness for the first time. She shook her head, and rose to her feet, refusing to let it happen. "Alalalalalalaaaaa. . . " roared from her throat, a ferocious cry of defiance, against what? She didn't know.


It was only later, on the cold road to home that fear struck. Ares had said she was his, that he had come to claim her. How could she refute his claim, and give herself to him; give herself to anyone when she belonged, body and soul to Gabrielle. A wave of self-loathing swept her. Gabrielle will know, she'll see it in me, smell him on me. Gods, I smell him on me. "I'll tell her Argo, everything. Maybe she can forgive me." She let Argo find the way, while she puzzled the mystery she had become to herself.


Time had played a new game on her, this time. Far from standing still, it seemed to have sped through the day, so that she emerged into a deep twilight. No candlelight came through the oiled parchment windows, and her heart skipped, wondering at Gabrielle's whereabouts. "Gabrielle!" she called, as Argo galloped to the door. There was no reply, but a scrap of parchment was on the table, with a hastily scrawled message: I've gone to Sepra. Meet me there.

That was all; it was enough to send Xena flying over the landscape, guessing that the baby must have come early, for Gabrielle to have gone there on such short notice. There were several horses in the yard when she arrived: Glider, Drax and Ileander's mounts, Hermia's cart, and Cramma's donkey. So many people for one birth? Her stomach churned in unaccustomed anxiety as she opened the door. It was not a birth, but a wake. Archon's washed body lay on a board at the far end of the room. Xena crossed to him, looking for the wound, or injury that had killed him. None was apparent. Sepra sat beside her husband, face buried in a towel, weeping softly.

Xena turned, mouth open, to find a sea of faces staring at her. She focused on Gabrielle. "What happened?"

"He dropped dead, Xena. He ate the soup, and dropped dead."

"The soup?" She was dumbfounded.

"There must have been a poisonous mushroom in the soup." Gabrielle looked quickly at the floor. "I sent him home with a bowl full of poison," she said.

"No, Gabrielle, you didn't," she said quickly. "If it was a poison mushroom, Sepra would have - "

"She didn't eat any. She wasn't feeling well. That saved her life."

"But you - "

"I never ate any."

"You always taste when you cook," Xena argued.

"I didn't today. I was too busy, in and out all day. I put everything in the pot and let it simmer. Then I sent it home with Archon. If Sepra hadn't felt ill, they'd all be dead," she said bleakly.

"No." Xena's head shook resolutely. "It wasn't the mushrooms. I know which ones are safe."

"Xena." Sepra spoke for the first time. "He was fine. Then he took a few mouthfuls of soup. Suddenly he stood up, clutched at his throat. . . " she mimicked his actions. "It was like he couldn't breathe. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he pitched forward. He was dead before I reached him." It was clearly a tale she'd told many times today. She regarded the room with red-rimmed eyes.

"It didn't have to be the soup," Xena insisted.

"Xena, I'm not angry. I don't blame anyone," Sepra told her mildly. "It was very kind of Gabrielle to send the soup. You've both been good friends."

"Archon was a good man," Gabrielle said. She placed a hand on Xena's arm to stop her speaking again. "His child will be proud of his father, we'll see to that."

Xena was back at Archon's side, peering deeply at his face, looking for any clue that might explain his sudden death.

"It's time," Drax said. We'll want the pyre lit before it gets too late."

Sepra took a shuddering breath, and nodded. Xena stepped aside to let the grieving widow have a final moment with her husband.

"Drax," she said quietly, "I'd like a few moments alone with the body. Maybe - "

"Xena, there's no point. It's best to get him out of the house so Sepra can get some rest."

"But - "

"No." This was Arthea's voice, at her elbow, firm in denial. "Drax is right." Xena stared, but Gabrielle added her voice. "Let it go, Xena." The warrior nodded, accepting defeat. Together the two men and four women carried the corpse a distance from the house, to a waiting pyre. Sepra followed, supported by Cramma's strong arm. No words were said, no songs sung. The sad little group waited for the fire to burn out, then scattered; only Cramma stayed to spend the night with Sepra.


Few words were exchanged on the way back to the wattle house. There was so much to be said, and so little sense of where to begin. It was not until the horses were stabled, the candles lit and the door barred for the night that Gabrielle asked the question that had nagged at her for so long. "Where were you Xena?"

The warrior merely shrugged at the question. "I was out riding. No place in particular."

"It took a long time to ride to no place," Gabrielle observed acidly. "I waited for you, as long as I could. . . "

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I wish I had been there for you."

"Me too." She sat at the table, shoulders slumped. It had been a long day and a longer night. Her eyes fell on the cold hearth, an appropriate reminder of the last meal she'd cooked. Xena followed her gaze, and rose to stir the cinders to life.

"I keep thinking that if I'd tasted a little bit, I would have gotten sick, thrown it all away, and Archon would still be alive." She looked at Xena, waiting for consolation.

"Don't blame yourself, Gabrielle. If it was a poison mushroom, you'd be dead from a taste. But it wasn't the mushrooms."

"Xena, thanks for trying, but I don't see any other explanation."

"Gabrielle, I've known mushrooms since I was a kid. I've never been wrong. Those were edible. I'd stake my life on it."

"Too late," Gabrielle said with a bitter smile.

"Oh yeah?" Xena lifted the door to the root cellar. "I'll eat every one to prove it," she muttered.

"That wouldn't prove anything, Xena. If it was one mushroom, and Archon got it. . . " she shrugged. "Besides, when I heard about Archon, I threw the remainder in the fire. I don't think they're worth the risk anymore."

"You were so sure," Xena fumed. "So sure I had to be the one at fault."

"Xena, we all make mistakes. Maybe you should learn to accept that."

"I didn't make a mistake," she growled.

"You won't even admit the possibility?" Gabrielle demanded.

"Not about this. I didn't cause Archon's death."

"You're being ridiculous."

"I'm sorry you think so," she countered through lips so tight they were ringed white. "I think it's ridiculous that you all leaped to the same conclusion with no evidence."

"Xena, a healthy man ate a bowl of soup and dropped dead. It doesn't Plato to figure it out."

"And now all the evidence is gone," Xena said, as if to herself. "Wait a minute," she said suddenly. "What happened to the pot? And his bowl?"

"The pot's been scrubbed out, burned clean with hot coals. The bowl was smashed into the fire. Good thing, too. You'd kill yourself trying to prove a point."

"The right point," Xena nodded emphatically.

"Xena, why is this so important? Is it just about pride?"

"Yeah; I guess so," Xena said defiantly. And the little matter that I don't want to know that one more innocent is dead because of me.


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