Chapters 4 - 5
Gabrielle emerged from the small room, a vision of finely worked leather, holding a large, feather-festooned mask in one hand, and a ceremonial staff in the other. Drax stood open-mouthed. "Gabrielle?" he asked, at last. "That is you?"
"Quite a transformation, huh?" she replied sheepishly. "Did I mention I'm an Amazon Queen? Not at the moment, actually, I'm seldom there, so Queen Ephiny rules in my place. Today I'm pulling out all the stops. I think I won the audience with Tarkian only because I said Queen Gabrielle of the Amazons wished to call on him. Think he'll be disappointed?"
Drax recalled what he had heard of Tarkian's taste in women. "I can guarantee he won't be disappointed." He let out a soft whistle of surprise. "So the Warrior Princess travels with an Amazon Queen. Will wonders never cease?"
"We won't be doing much of anything together if I don't manage to persuade Tarkian she deserves another chance."
Drax opened his mouth to speak, and decided to hold his peace. He thought he knew what Xena had in mind, was certain of it, yet his natural inclination was to let things be. Xena could handle this in her own way. "Your Majesty, I would like the honor of escorting you to the palace," he said solemnly with a deep bow, holding out one long arm for her to take. He wondered if Mus had ever seen an Amazon Queen.
"I have a lot to do today, so I'll see you at the prison," Drax had said, hours before, when he left her at the entrance to the palace. Wise choice, she concluded, as she tried to be patient, afraid that it would take so long seeing the king, that she'd be too late to see Xena today. But no matter, she told herself, Tarkian will grant the pardon, Xena will be free this time tomorrow. She caressed the wine skin she was bringing her, as if that token of caring established some link between them. The Amazon mask had begun to grow heavy, and it was warm in this room she waited in. Across the way, the two very obvious men that had dogged her trail since she'd arrived in Mus, sat nodding, pretending she wasn't the sole focus of their attentions. She breathed deeply, to allay her anxieties, as well as to keep from passing out.
At that moment she was summoned at last. She screwed up her courage, offered a prayer to Artemis, and entered the throne room of King Tarkian of Mustrakis, and all the attendant titles his page announced. At his side was his wife, Queen Esme. As a couple, they complemented each other quite well, she decided, he was round faced and wore a jolly smile, even before a word was said. Esme was almost dangerously thin, and she. too, wore a smile, but it was the bored smile of one who has seen it all. I wonder if they're smiling because they're amused at my costume, Gabrielle decided. The thought infused her body with a new dignity. She appeared not only for Xena, but for the whole Amazon nation. The page carried her name and title inscribed on a scroll, along with her petition. He introduced her, then handed the scroll to the king, who shared it with the queen. Tarkian greeted Gabrielle graciously.
"Queen Gabrielle. We've never had an Amazon Queen appear at the court of Mustrakis before. I welcome you," he said. "I trust you find our capital city hospitable?"
"Quite," she replied, not mentioning that she'd ridden in behind a triumphal procession that brought her beloved past the jeering populace.
"Where are you residing?"
"With a friend," she said evasively, not mentioning the noisy tavern over which she'd slept.
"And you have a favor to ask me?" He waved the scroll, which told him all he needed to know.
"I do. I ask you, I beg you, grant Xena a pardon." She hadn't planned on betraying so much emotion in her first request.
Tarkian reached to take the hand of his wife. "I'm touched," he said. "This request comes from the heart."
"Yes," she told them. "From the heart, from the soul. I love Xena, and my heart must be involved in this."
He looked at his wife. "I was told Xena was captured because of her love for a young woman. Tame as a lamb, now." He turned his attention to Gabrielle. "You'd be the woman. I understand you don't want to be separated from your lover. Apart from your personal interests, for what reason should I pardon Xena? She's a murderess."
"She was," Gabrielle said. "She's done many terrible things in her past, but she's changed."
"I know that. I have heard of the changes in the woman. I like to believe them. She must have changed if a young woman such as you chooses her company. But shall I tell you of the changes she effected in the lives of the people of Nala?" he asked rhetorically. "I'm told her army didn't even know the name of the village. I understand she's learned that at least. It wasn't much of a village. A tavern, smithy, baker; the usual assortment of craftspeople necessary to make the lives of the neighboring farmers possible, even tolerable. None of them are there anymore. Some of the widows found new husbands, some orphans found places with farm families who needed extra hands. Some fell back on the charity of kinsfolk. I know all this because this morning I received a delegation of survivors, who asked me for one evening with the woman." He paused and moistened his lips. "You ask for mercy. I have done it in denying them." He narrowed his tiny round eyes; Gabrielle wondered how he could still see. "Consider this, as well: in most kingdoms you would be considering how large a purse to give the headsman to assure a quick separation of the head from the body. Mustrakis is giving your beloved Xena the opportunity to do what she so loves: live a wild, unfettered life. She'll be a warlord again. How great a punishment is that?"
Gabrielle swallowed hard, but didn't try to explain how great a punishment it would be for one who had tried so hard to leave it behind. She looked at Tarkian and wondered if he was Ares in disguise, then bowed her head and murmured a thank you, but she had one more argument.
"Xena does a great deal of good. If not for her sake, think of the lives she affects now, in a positive way. She was only taken by your men because she chose to help the earthquake victims in Priblis. She was engaged in saving the life of an infant when they surrounded her. In Prestia, she restored the security of a kingdom - "
"I have heard of the affair. Prestian royalty, a hero to the people. Young woman, she should have stayed in Prestia, where she has done good. Here she has done villainy, and will receive the punishment it merits."
Esme looked up from her needlework. "Royalty? I didn't know Xena was royalty. I thought 'princess' was an affectation."
"Xena doesn't like that title," Gabrielle told them. "It's what others called her. She's a warrior," she said with pride. "She's also a member of the royal House of Pres, although she doesn't mention it."
"Doesn't she? I met with Xena late yesterday. She made it quite clear that she has royal blood. Suggested that the traditional branding of exiles was unsuitable treatment for royalty." He nodded his appreciation of the point. "Even though Pres is a haven for a despised race of warlords, royal blood must be respected. I have ordered that she not be branded."
Esme seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. "Surely that exemption will attach to this one as well, " she said, indicating Gabrielle. "She's so adorable."
'Adorable', a protest sprang to Gabrielle's lips, but her mind caught up with the larger import of the statement. "Why would I need an exemption from branding?" she asked. "I haven't been accused of any crimes."
"No, of course not. I assumed you'd be following Xena into exile," Esme replied.
"I understood that you and she - Have I gotten it wrong?"
"I'd be allowed to go with her?" Gabrielle asked, incredulous.
"If you choose. Well, not with her, convicts have their own transport, but you could certainly follow with the others who choose to share the exile. No one told you this?"
"No one," she said, a sudden anger toward Xena touching her. "How do I do this?" she asked, a new urgency in her mind.
"I'm sure I don't know the details," Esme said, appalled that someone might even suspect it of her. "Ask at the prison."
Tarkian spoke now: "Remember, exile, even chosen exile, is forever."
Gabrielle nodded. "Forever doesn't sound nearly so long now."
When she was gone Esme observed the smug expression on her husband's round face.
"Why so pleased, my sweet?"
"I have just ensured that Xena will never escape Tartarus," he told her, as he let the smugness bloom to a full smile.
Xena's attention shifted anxiously from the top of the stairway, to the spot not far away where Drax and Ileander carried on an urgent conversation through the bars. When Drax arrived he'd told her that Gabrielle was seeking a pardon at the palace, and would be along later. It was now much later, and Gabrielle had not appeared. The light told her it was well past mid-afternoon. Damn. She had so much to say and it was so hard trying to put it in veiled messages. Besides: she wanted to see Gabrielle again, it was important that she at least see her one more time. Drax moved to the empty spot in the bars before her. She rose to meet him.
"Xena. You don't want Gabrielle with you?"
"No. You know why?" The guard had followed her movement to the bars, and stood close by.
"I think I do," he nodded. "So far she hasn't a clue about going along."
"Good. If she knew, she'd insist on coming, and I don't have the time or opportunity to persuade her otherwise." She glanced at the guard.
"I could do that for you. I think she'd listen to reason. Better than her finding out after I'm gone. She deserves someone to speak plainly to her."
"I know," Xena said desolation etched on her face. She considered for a long time, guessing what Gabrielle's reaction might be. "Maybe that would be best, Drax. It will be easier if she understands, just make certain she doesn't follow me," she implored him.
"I don't want to see her hurt, Xena. I've grown rather fond of her."
"That can happen easily," Xena smiled, and Drax had the sensation that this woman and the warlord he'd known inhabited the same body only by chance.
"And you'll look after Ileander?" he asked.
"Of course," she pledged. "You'll find him in one piece on the other side. Now, get back to him; time is short," she ended with a sigh, wondering if Gabrielle would arrive in time.
It was late when Gabrielle left the palace, but there was still plenty of sunlight, and she made a mental list of things to do as she ran through the streets, followed by her puzzled minders. Tears were in her eyes again, born of apprehension and anger. Her face burned as she thought that Xena had not told her it was possible for loved ones to share the exile, to journey to Tartarus. Gods, she still treats me like a child, she railed silently. Doesn't she know that without her, the whole world would be my Tartarus? Drax had shared in the deception. She smirked at her own foolishness in questioning Drax's feelings about Ileander, so lightly had he approached the coming separation. Drax had no separation in mind; he would join Ileander in Tartarus. Just as I'll join Xena in Tartarus, she mumbled to herself, earning questioning glances as she rushed through the street.
She visited the prison first, but went as only as far as the main gate. There, she asked, and had answered, a dozen questions about exile to Tartarus, and how one shared the exile. Satisfied, she picked up the few things she'd left in Drax's room. Then she stopped at Argo's stable, collected the things she'd left there, and found a new home for the big mare, one closer to the prison. This would do for the night for both of them, she decided. She counted her remaining dinars and pushed in to the bustle of the capital city once again, seeking stalls that might have a bargain, using her considerable haggling skills to find bargains everywhere. She could only guess at what they'd really need in Tartarus. She dithered over one impulsive purchase for a long time, in the end deciding it was worth the few dinars. She hoped Xena would agree. When, at last, every dinar was gone, she stowed the items with the rest of their gear at the stable, then turned her footsteps towards the Portal of Tartarus once again, her anger somewhat lessened, largely overshadowed by her anxiety about getting Xena's wine to her. I should have sent it with Drax, she told herself, but she had so wanted to give Xena something.
She was surprised to find Drax waiting for her in front of the prison, wondered why he wasn't with Ileander. He stepped forward with an odd look, relief at seeing her she guessed, and something else that alarmed her. "Gabrielle where have you been?"
She hid her anger. "I was held up at the palace." It was partially true. Without asking, Drax knew the answer the king had given her.
"Why aren't you with Ileander," she asked, brushing past him in her haste. He grabbed an arm.
"Gabrielle. You're too late. The prisoners had to be readied. They tossed us all out early."
Her eyes moved from his face to the building behind him as if he was making a monstrous joke. "No." She moved past him, to the prison gate, running until she arrived at the stairway to the upper level. It was barred. "NO!" came from her throat now and eyes turned briefly to see who had cried out. She gripped the bars and pulled at them as if she could tear them loose. "Aargh!" Her frustration boiled over as a guard came near.
"I need to see my friend," she demanded.
"Not on this side," he sneered, and shoved her away from the gate. Drax grabbed her now and pulled her away. "Gabrielle, it's too late," he said softly.
"It can't be too late," she yelled at him. "I had to tell her, something..." she managed. "Look," she held up the wineskin. "I have to give her this." I won't see her for weeks now, she realized, anything could happen, and I didn't get to say goodbye.
Drax held her firmly and said, "We have to talk, away from here. Let's go to my room."
Gabrielle looked at him with distrust. One of Xena's co-conspirators. He wouldn't keep her from Tartarus. "I have nothing to say to you," she snarled, and wrenched her arm away, to disappear into the throng that filled the courtyard. Drax followed, but the bard eluded him, ducking beneath a stall. He gave up at last, too many things to attend to still, and certain she'd return to his room to sleep. If not, he'd find her at Argo's stable. He carried a large bundle containing Ileander's things, Xena's boots, and her battledress, rolled around her arm bands, bracers and greaves. He would get the rest of her things from Gabrielle, and carry them to Tartarus for her. She'd certainly need them.
She had thought she would have the rest of her life to tell people what had happened; now she had no time. She would have sent word to her mother, to Xena's mother, to Ephiny. And told them what? That Xena had been sentenced to a life term in a harsh exile, and she had chosen to share that fate? She shuddered at her mother's likely reaction. Ephiny, she thought, would understand, maybe mobilize Amazon diplomacy to try and find a way out of the mess. No; that was wishful thinking; she'd better not fall into that trap. Cyrene would be devastated. She was just beginning to know her daughter after a long estrangement. The living death. Gabrielle was beginning to understand the term. Still, some word, however unpleasant, would be better than no word, wondering what had become of them. Eventually, she knew, word of Xena's capture and punishment would filter out from Mustrakis. People would assume Gabrielle was with her; they might never know for sure. She wondered idly whether Callisto would follow them to Tartarus.
It was near dawn. The open plain outside the city was very busy. From her vantage point
Gabrielle watched a bevy of uniformed men move with no obvious purpose, their activity centered around a large ungainly wagon, which seemed to be a cistern on wheels, and two other vehicles, laden with crates. They had long shafts protruding from the front, and sturdy posts sticking out from the sides, but there were few draft animals in sight. Six oxen would not be enough for the three vehicles. Two fires burned hot at either end of the site, and ragged lines had begun to form at each fire.
Men and women, laden like beasts of burden, some lucky ones leading a horse, donkey or ox approached the fire with trepidation and resolve. Gabrielle saw Drax on line. He looked around as if seeking someone. Me, she realized. Wants to find me and prevent my coming. She didn't know how he might manage that, but she didn't plan on any more surprises. Its not going to happen, she smiled, and settled behind a clump of trees with Argo. If she timed things right, Drax wouldn't discover her presence until it was too late. The king had exempted her from the branding; she had hurried back to the palace the night before and had that put in writing. She could stay hidden until the march had begun. Then there was no turning back.
Drax was one of the lucky ones, with a horse, generous provisions, and a warrior's tolerance for pain. The brand meant less to him than to many others in the line, and yet it still hurt like Tartarus. He wondered if they used the expression there, even as he watched the others, old and young, men, women, some with children in their arms, step up to be branded, then dunk the seared hand into the bucket of cool water waiting for them. It was a barbarous custom, and he regarded his own 'T' curiously, knowing that it changed his life forever. He cast anxious glances for Gabrielle, knowing she would need to pass this way in order to join the march into exile. He hadn't seen her yet, which meant she wouldn't be coming. It also meant they'd set off without her knowing what Xena had in mind. Couldn't be helped. Xena would sort it out later. He had his own worries now. The sight of Ileander in prison was bad enough. To see him set off on this march would be torture. He was glad Gabrielle would be spared that sight of Xena.
It was an odd creature which slithered it's way out of Mus: multi-legged, brown clad, slow and awkward, as dozens of strangers learned to walk in unison with the people to whom they were shackled. They were mostly silent, because they had been forbidden to speak; the occasional personal invective thrown at a stumbling neighbor was answered by a clout from a truncheon.
Even in the gray light of early dawn Gabrielle found Xena. Her heart caught at the sight of the proud warrior, joined to this convict chain. Men and women alike wore brown tunics, which ended halfway between knee and crotch. Xena moved with her customary grace. Gabrielle couldn't see her expression, but knew from the tilt of the head that she was practicing patience; her lips would be slightly parted, jaw tight, as she blew quiet sighs of exasperation from her mouth. The sun glinted off a piece of metal at the side of her head. An earring? Gabrielle noticed that all the prisoners sported the same earring. Some identifying tag, she supposed, with a sick feeling.
The animal stopped moving and lowered itself to the ground. While she sat, Xena's dark head moved slowly, scanning the horizon. For a moment the blue eyes turned to where Gabrielle lay. The bard was certain she would be seen, and cringed at the thought of being found out. Not that Xena could take any action. Xena, who had directed mighty armies, dictated the fortune of nations, was under the control of guards who would direct her every step. It would be like this for weeks. Priblis. Why had she insisted they go there? Forgive me, Xena. At this moment she would have given every soul in Priblis to Hades, in return for Xena's freedom. Then the animal rose again, and the bard understood why six oxen would do for the three vehicles.
Xena moved to her place on the shaft with a certain detachment. She followed instructions, lifted the chain when necessary, and stood waiting with the others, but it was all happening to another person. She wouldn't acknowledge that she was to spend the next two weeks serving as a draft animal; she couldn't predict the consequences if she did. She moved her head and felt the heavy earring move with her. She had hated that moment; it was nothing, she knew, to the branding she'd escaped, yet she'd hated that moment, when the copper wire had been thrust through an existing hole, making it larger, fastening a tag to her earlobe. Earring, she thought with contempt. It was your only identity in the sight of Mustrakian justice. Beneath the surface a rage was building, contained only by her promise to herself of what lay ahead, beyond this hateful journey. She set that before her like the North Star.
She noted her place on the chain, her position on the shaft. The weaker members of the group had been strategically placed to minimize their deficiencies. So Ileander was opposite Xena, behind her was a young woman, Arthea by name, a prostitute by profession, absorbed in her private world for the moment, as were most of the others. Across from Arthea was a stout fellow. Lutus. He was large, but looked out of shape. Xena wondered if he'd survive the journey. She stretched her shoulders, carefully, so as not to disturb the chain. That was the first rule of courtesy: Don't yank the chain.
The stout fellow caught a glimpse of her right hand. "You're the one," he whispered, loudly enough for the others to hear. "Too good to wear a brand," he sneered. "Not too good to take your place with the oxen." A nervous laugh rose around her.
"I don't mind the oxen, it's the dumb jackass that bothers me," she drawled, as a fist at the end of her long arm snapped back to find his nose. He snarled in protest, but she had dropped down to find the length of chain between his shackled feet, gave it a sharp tug, and he landed on his bottom. Xena faced forward as if nothing had happened, brushing a stray wisp of hair from her forehead. Might as well establish my place in the line early, she thought, or it could be a long two weeks. The confusion in the line behind her ended quickly as a guard arrived. No one had seen anything. Lutus confessed only to stumbling; somehow injuring his nose in the process. He glared at Xena.
Drax saw the flurry of movement and smiled. Ileander would be safe with her, he knew. Yet in Tartarus he'd have to tell Xena that he hadn't seen Gabrielle before they left, hadn't managed to get the rest of her gear from the girl.
Gabrielle hadn't followed what happened, knew only that a guard approached Xena's part of the chain, and someone had been reprimanded. She was still grappling with the fact that the convicts were to haul these wagons to Tartarus. She had thought this kingdom humane. Forgive me, Xena, she thought once again.
They set out with a lurch, the wagons moving sporadically as sandaled feet sought purchase on the grass beneath them. The road provided better traction, and the large wagon wheels didn't sink in to the ground, but progress was still slow. It would take half the day, Xena estimated, before a rhythm would be established, and everyone would understand that there could be no passengers. The smallest individual effort made a difference to the whole, and one person resting against the shaft made life more miserable for everyone. So they left Mus, five dozen prisoners hauling their own food and water to their new home. Xena didn't look behind as they left, had seen no sign of Gabrielle, had expected none. Elysia, she muttered, and a smile touched her face.
Trailing behind the wagons came the second procession, carrying what they hoped would be enough to last for two weeks on the road, and provide a start in Tartarus. Drax rode somewhere in the middle, unable to see Ileander and Xena. He was unaware of the sudden presence of Gabrielle, astride Argo, the last in the procession, just ahead of the trailing guard.
When the sun had climbed halfway to it's apex, they stopped for ten minutes, seated beside the shafts, long enough for a guard to pass along each chain with a bucket and dipper, to give each prisoner enough to wet a parched throat. The water smelled, and Xena drank sparingly, alarmed at the prospect of drinking water from that cistern for two weeks. She thought of the wine skin Gabrielle had promised her, recalled her bitter disappointment at not seeing the bard once more before they left. A furrow appeared in her brow as she wondered once more if she was all right. The two guards that had been set to watch her would have protected her from any incidental trouble, she decided, and she doubted that official Mustrakis had any interest in seeing her harmed. Drax would have seen her, she supposed, but she would be in Tartarus before she met with Drax, and then she would leave Tartarus; somehow she would make her way back to Gabrielle. She closed her eyes and enjoyed a quiet vision of Gabrielle for a moment, smiling, eyes crinkled - She was brought to reality by the soft hisses of a woman breathing through her mouth in pain.
"Arthea?" The woman held her hands away from her body, shaking them as if she could shake the pain away.
"Ahhhhh!" she shrieked softly, by way of reply. Xena took her hands and examined the blisters that had formed there. She doubted Arthea had done rough work with her hands since she was a child, if then. There was little to be done for her; she would be in for a bad time until calluses formed. "Sorry," she said in sympathy, then ripped a long length of cloth from the bottom of her tunic. "This might help, a bit." She ripped the cloth in two and wrapped each hand. "It won't make them feel better, but it might keep them from getting worse."
Arthea gave her an oddly familiar smile. "Thank you, Xena."
Ileander looked over. "Good idea. My hands are pretty callused, but I can't imagine two weeks of walking in these things." He indicated the sandals.
"Don't worry, they won't last that long," Xena said. "Rip a strip from your tunic and tie them around your neck when the ground isn't too rough. I think you'll need them later for the bad terrain." They looked at her uncertainly. "Don't worry about the tunic. It won't last either," she sighed. She wondered what happened to the prisoners who were unaccompanied by anyone in their exile. They would arrive in Tartarus with ragged garments, worthless footwear, and nothing to defend themselves.
The break was over.
The day lurched along in sporadic moments, like the wagon itself. The sun was almost gone before a halt was called for the evening. They were near the place where they would turn off the road, to take a seldom used track though the wilderness. There was little to do to make camp. The prisoners slept in their chains, a little apart from the wagons, in the open field. They were still linked to one of three central chains, corresponding to the wagon they pulled. One guard passed along the line, as at the afternoon break, to distribute bread and hard cheese. A second passed along the line with the dipper of water. Xena drank because she had to, but felt sick almost immediately afterwards. She was not alone. The sound and smell of sickness ruined sleep for everyone throughout the night.
When it was still for a moment, Xena woke to find a slender arm around her waist. She breathed for a moment. "Arthea? Is everything all right?" she asked softly. This would be a hard night for many of them, she knew.
"Everything's fine, Xena. I just wanted to be close to someone." Xena bit her upper lip. She sympathized with Arthea, yet couldn't let her get the wrong idea.
"Arthea," she began, but Arthea was speaking. "Do you remember our first time Xena?" she asked, clearly remembering that herself.
"Our first time," the warrior asked, startled. Arthea was a prostitute, it was possible. "I don't recall," she muttered.
"That's all right. I do, only too well. It was a long time ago, in Macedonia. I know what you like," she assured her, and began to move her hands over Xena's body, slipping one inside the rough tunic.
"Arthea, don't do this," Xena told her, pulling the shackled hands away from her.
"We'll be quiet, Xena," she promised. "Please, I've waited all day," she said in a throaty growl.
"No, Arthea. I don't want this to happen."
Arthea pulled back, considering the unexpected rebuff. "Give it up when you stopped being a warlord?" she asked, clearly peeved.
"I haven't given it up," she replied, trying to let Arthea hear friendship, if not passion. "I found someone to love, Arthea. I - "
"You save yourself for him? Or is it a woman?"
"She's following you to Tartarus?"
"Then what's the problem? You'll never see each other again." Arthea resumed her assault.
"The problem is, I don't want to be with anyone else."
"You mean it," Arthea said, surprised, hearing something in Xena's tone that left no doubt.
"Too bad; she doesn't deserve you." Arthea was disappointed, but she turned away from the warrior.
Gods, two weeks shackled to her, Xena sighed, hoping she'd made her point.
Gabrielle bedded down a little away from the others, just out of sight. Drax had no reason to look for her, and she was in no hurry to reveal herself. The distant figures of the convicts were lost to sight now, as they lay down to well earned sleep. The evening was chilly, yet Gabrielle had seen no blankets. She made Argo comfortable, then munched some bread and cheese. She left her own blanket rolled up. Forgive me Xena, she whispered as she curled in a ball, and waited for sleep to come.