Queen of Hearts
The river burbled gently in the sunlight, moving amiably past a patch of moss covered rocks under a spreading maple tree. Sprawled over the rocks, toes just dabbling in the water, basking in the sun was a scruffy blond figure in a simple blue tunic that came just over her knees.
A butterfly landed on a stalk nearby, and the figure turned its head and watched it flex its wings, a gentle smile appearing. “Hello.” Gabrielle greeted the insect. “Isn’t it a great day? Bet you’re glad it’s finally warm enough to come out and fly, huh?”
Finally a warm day, after a long, hard winter. Gabrielle was glad beyond words she could go outside without her thick fur cloak and heavy leggings and finally feel fresh air on most of her skin.
The butterfly lifted off the stalk and fluttered over her head, as Gabrielle folded her hands over her stomach and merely watched it, grateful for the peace and quiet and the warm sun drenching her body.
A thump. A scuff.
Gabrielle barely had time to cover her head before a wall of cold river water swamped her, bringing a strong scent of fish, and green, and the sound of a low, mischievous laughter. “Yahhhh!!!” She let out a yell, as the crisp chill shocked her skin.
“Ah heh heh!” A long, powerful body pressed itself up and onto the rocks and over her, dripping icy droplets onto her face as it gazed down at her with pale eyes and a rakish smirk. “What the Hades are ya doin laying here like a log, ya half pint excuse for a muskrat!!” She bellowed.
Gabrielle blew the damp hair from her eyes. She reached up and stroked Xena’s cheek, capturing a handful of sparkling drops. “Waiting for you.”
The tense, muscular figure over her went still, before leaning closer, as a smile formed on Xena’s angular face. “You.” She touched noses with Gabrielle. “Are a little cheat.”
“You.” Xena slid down onto the rock next to her, long legs extending off the edge. “Here I am, doing my damndest to give my kickass a little workout, and what do you do?” She flicked a handful of water at the younger woman, waiting with an arched eyebrow.
Gabrielle blinked as the droplets hit her. “What?”
“What do I do?” Gabrielle reached over and carefully moved the wet, dark hair out of Xena’s eyes, tracing her eyebrows with a gentle finger. “I’m sure I didn’t do it on purpose.”
Xena’s grin became sardonic. “Sure you do.” She glanced around at the pretty day. “You turn me unmercifully into a sopping goop wad. It’s a plot. I know it.”
Gabrielle frowned, after a moment. “Sopping goop wad?” She cocked her head to one side. “You’re not goopy.”
“Ah. So I see you don’t deny the sopping.” Xena snickered. “So, what were you doing, anyway?”
The blond woman drew her legs up under her crossed and picked up a small sack near the rock she was sitting on. “I was out looking for berries.” She explained. “And then I saw this nice spot here, so I sat down and thought about a story I was going to tell later on and I.. mpfh.”
“Shut up.” Xena pounced over her, flattening her down on the rock and kissing her.
Gabrielle drew in an unsteady breath as Xena lifted her head a moment. She licked her lips. “Okay. So I was really lying here daydreaming about you.” She admitted, with a sheepish grin. “But isn’t it a great day out? Feel that sun!”
“Cheat.” Xena leaned forward and kissed her again. “Yeah, it’s a great day. Finally got to ride my damn horse and not have to wrap up like a grandmother.” She tumbled off the other side of the rock and stood, stretching in the sun with a soft popping of joints. “About time!”
She shook herself, and the crimson linen tunic draped over her body reluctantly released from her skin to drip onto the ground around her. “That was one long winter.”
“It was.” Gabrielle hopped off the rock and followed her through the thick river grass, it’s stalks brushing over her legs and leaving behind a scent of warm, green richness. “But there were good parts, too. Like your birthday.”
Xena stopped, and looked over her shoulder with a stern expression. “Did we not talk about this whole ‘you are not to mention my birthday’ thing, Gabrielle?”
Xena spread both arms out and lifted both of her eyebrows.
“But we had a party.”
Gabrielle caught up with her taller companion and took hold of her hand. “Xena, we can’t pretend we didn’t have a party. Didn’t you have fun?”
“That’s not the point!” Xena said. “Damn it, I’m the queen and I said no birthdays!” She announced loudly, scaring a pair of bluebirds in a nearby tree. “Don’cha poop on my you little..”
“If it’s so nice today, how come you’re so grumpy?” Gabrielle asked, altering the subject a little. “Didn’t you like what I made you for breakfast?” She asked the queen. “I thought you did.”
“I did.” Xena allowed. “Beats me why I’m grumpy.” She glanced around. “Nice day, cute muskrat, finally got some sun, got to ride my horse… ah. I know what it is.”
Xena exhaled in satisfaction. “I haven’t beaten the crap out of anyone yet today.” She turned her head and looked at Gabrielle. “That’s what the problem is.” She flexed her hands, squeezing one of Gabrielle’s in the process. “I think I want a nice melee. What do you think me against the tower guards? Me against the outside watch?”
“I think you beat them up yesterday.” Gabrielle replied. “Can’t we just walk in the garden? I think some flowers were just blooming in there.”
“I’m going to spank you.”
“I think there’s those little sour oranges you like, too, in the corner.” The blond woman went on, undeterred. “And I could get my stick out, if you wanted to teach me some more.” She offered. “I wasn’t too bad last seven day, was I?”
“Gabrielle.” The queen released her hand and dropped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders instead. “You’re a very lucky muskrat, you know that? You’re very lucky I love you like a maniac.”
Gabrielle paused and put both arms around the queen, hugging her. “I know.” She said. “That’s what I was daydreaming about before you got me all wet.”
“And then splashed you?” But Xena was smiling, her eyes on her companion.
The queen laughed softly. “Sour oranges and your damn stick, huh?” She sighed. “All right. Let’s go. But no picking flowers for me, okay?”
“Okay.” Gabrielle released her. “Will you teach me that behind the back thing?”
They walked together through the trees, towards the lofty stone wall that marked the edge of the fortress they called home. A small gate stood open, flaked by four armed men bearing tunics with yellow hawk’s heads prominent on the breast.
They kept their eyes forward as the two dripping wet women approached, bracing their arms in salute as Xena drew even with them. “Majesty.”
“No. Scruffy goatherd.” Xena indicated her damp form. “Get your eyes checked.” She walked past the man without a further word, as his eyes widened and followed her. “You should have your head taken off for letting something like that in the palace.”
“Hi.” Gabrielle greeted him, as she slipped past in Xena’s wake. “Spring fever. It’ll be okay.”
“What would you know about spring fever, you little lambs tail?” Xena’s voice called back. “C’mon. Might as well dry you off before I get you all wet again.”
Gabrielle jogged after the queen, her bare feet scuffing lightly on the stone floor. The stone works of the fortress wall surrounded them for several steps, until they passed through and into the inner courtyard full of activity.
Soldiers, carts, drovers, plowmen, everyone seemed to be moving in the mellow sunlight as the fortress came back to life after the long, dark cold season. Everywhere women were shaking out linens and mucking out corners, voices lifted cheerfully.
It felt nice. Gabrielle smiled, despite how wet she was, and how chilly the still brisk wind was as it blew against her. Winter had held it’s own magics, but she was glad the days were lengthening again at last and the bad weather was fading away into a beautiful spring.
Many things had changed. Gabrielle straightened a little as they walked past the stable hands, and the men all ducked their heads for her. A flu had taken many of the slaves lives, and there were new faces almost everywhere she looked. Fire had destroyed two of the noble’s castles, and they were now living on Xena’s mercy in the fortress, and wolves had rampaged through some of the far holdings, bringing unexpected losses.
Many things were the same, as well. Palace intrigues, the gossips, the odd danger, but the realm had settled down over the long winter and seemed to accept Xena again as its master. The known evil, one of the nobles had muttered, when he’d thought Xena couldn’t hear him.
Lucky for him, Xena had taken it as a compliment. Gabrielle followed the queen through the inner doors and up the grand staircase, to the first level rooms she’d picked all those months ago. “Hey, wait.”
“Hey, no.” Xena held the door open for her anyway, then followed her inside, her hands already unfastening her tunic and pulling it off over her head. The warm sunlight pouring in the windows outlined her lean, sinewy body for a brief moment, before she passed through into the shadows near the large bed.
She’d questioned the choice of the place, at first, but over the months of winter she’d come to truly like it, especially since the leaded glass panes allowed the chill weather to permeate the room and brought on a true appreciation of warm baths and snuggling by the fire.
Disgracefully decadent. But she’d found it impossible to say no to Gabrielle’s pampering and by the end of the winter she’d decided being treated like a queen wasn’t really that bad for her.
Not that she’d admitted that to anyone, of course.
She draped the damp fabric over a dress stand in the corner and headed for the bathing room, only to be met by Gabrielle coming in the other direction already carrying a soft, fluffy towel. “Ahhh.” She held up a hand. “Get naked first.”
Gabrielle handed her the towel, then obediently removed her own clothing, pausing in surprise when the queen promptly started drying her off beginning with the top of her ruffled head. “Hey. I’m supposed to do that to you.”
“Shut up. I’m the queen and I make the rules.” Xena told her. “Besides, which one of us gets sick?”
Gabrielle gazed sheepishly up from under pale brows.
“You cheat.” The queen gave her an indulgent look. “Besides, it was my fault, remember? I got you wet.” She dried the blond woman’s ears. “Last thing I need is to have to run around after your sniffles again.” She studied Gabrielle, smiling a little at the clear, honest gaze looking back up at her. “Tell you what.”
“What?” Gabrielle’s hands took hold of the bottom of the towel, and she started rubbing Xena’s skin with it. “
“Let’s forget about flowers and kicking ass.” Xena rested her forearms on Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Let’s get into that bathtub, and scare the servants.” She stroked her thumb along the side of Gabrielle’s neck, as the smaller woman moved closer, and their bare skin pressed together. “We can beat people up later.”
Gabrielle slid her arms around Xena and nuzzled her skin. “We could practice those wrestling things in the bath.”
“Last time we did that, I had bruises on my ass for a week.” Xena reached around her and picked Gabrielle up, feeling her laugh. “You and your bunny hops.”
They made their way to the bathing room, amidst chuckles and kisses and the scattered reflection of friendly sunlight that echoed the laughter in bright twinkles and flashes of spring.
Gabrielle trotted down the steps and into the library, feeling well scrubbed and sated, a twitching grin present on her face as she walked confidently down the rows of scrolls that rose on either side of her. She could smell the musky scent of the skins and the wooden shelves, and the sharpness of ink nearby. “Jellaus?”
“Ah.” A middling height gangly figure appeared from around a corner. “Though the sun is bright outside indeed, you make the room all the brighter.” He ducked his head in a bow. “And a good afternoon to you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle accepted the compliment with a grin. “Isn’t it a great day?” She asked. “I love spring.”
“As do we all.” Jellaus, the court musician and queen’s bard replied. “It was good to feel warmth on these old bones at last, that’s for sure. Did I see you walking out with her Majesty, earlier?”
“Sort of.” Gabrielle agreed. “I was walking, she was bouncing all over the place. You know how it is.”
The musician laughed easily. “I do indeed! You bring the child out in her, Gabrielle, no shame in that.” He stepped back and gestured her forward. “Do you need more parchment? Ink? I know you were working hard over these last long days.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “No, I’ve got some left, thanks. What I really need is.. I wrote something, and I was wondering if you could make a song out of it.”
Jellaus positively beamed at her. “Nothing.” He stated sincerely. “Nothing at all would give me a greater pleasure.”
“Well.” The blond woman blushed a little, and produced a sheepish look. “You’d probably wait to see it first.” She folded her arms over her chest. “I wrote it for Xena.”
“Really?” Jellaus cocked his head. “Imagine that. Never would have figured.”
It was hard to tell if he was kidding her, but Gabrielle thought he was. “Anyway, I’ll bring it down later, I just wanted to ask you before I did.”
The court musician put a hand on her shoulder. “You do know you could command it of me, my lady?”
Eruf. Gabrielle did, in fact, know that in a far off, in the brain sort of way. She never really acknowledged it in a heart sort of way though. “I’m really not a lady.” She stated, frankly. “It feels a lot better just to ask people nicely, you know?”
Jellaus laughed. “Ah, Gabrielle.” He gazed fondly at her. “Blessings on the gods themselves for gifting her Majesty with you.” He said. “Shall I have it for you by the planting festival, it’s three sevendays hence.” He added. “Tis the first grand ball of the new year, and it would be fitting, to have a new song for such an occasion.”
Silently, Gabrielle nodded. The first ball of the new year, and her true debut as Xena’s consort. She was more than a little nervous about it. There had been public dinners over the winter, but they’d had a dour, somber air and little of festivity about them. Between the sickness and the wolves, people hadn’t been in the mood to party, and Xena..
Xena had reserved her partying for their private quarters.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, and released it. The cold season had been long, true, but in many ways it had also been very educational and at least now she could actually walk in a dress without tripping over it. “That would be great, Jellaus. It’s going to be a big event.”
The musician nodded. “Tis true. I saw the wagons coming in earlier, some of the outlying regions. Was a long cold season for them, as well.” He walked towards the entrance to the library, gently guiding Gabrielle by the arm. “I think her majesty will have much work to do, now that the sun has returned to us.”
They exited the library and walked into the main hall, where a dozen servants were busy beating out the tapestries hanging on the wall and sweeping the floors. The big wooden doors at the front were flung wide open, and a cool spring breeze was blowing through, airing out the stale scent of wood smoke and old straw.
“Lady Gabrielle.” One of the court dressers spotted her, and hurried over. “A moment of your time, I beg?”
“I will leave you to it, then.” Jellaus continued on as she reluctantly slowed.
“Jellaus.. will you come by later?” The blond woman said. “I think Xena wanted to ask you about something also.”
The minstrel turned as he kept walking, bowed, and reversed himself again without missing a step, before he crossed between two of the chamberwomen hard at work sweeping, and disappeared around a corner of the hall.
Gabrielle watched him vanish before she turned reluctantly back to the dresser. “Yes?” She eyed the man with some mild apprehension. He was small, with a somewhat pinched face and blinking eyes, and he constantly twiddled his fingers against each other in a fidgety twist.
“Her majesty has commissioned me to create a dress for you for the spring ball, m’lady.” The man said. “May I be so bold as to ask what color you wish for it?”
Color. Gabrielle frowned a little, and glanced aside, still unsure of most of the court’s complicated protocol. “Um.. “ She paused. “Did her Majesty suggest a color to you?”
“Spring green, m’lady.” The man provided promptly.
“Sounds great to me.” The blond woman answered just as fast. “I like green. A lot.” She nodded. “Anything else?”
“Yes, m’lady. I need your measures.” The man said. “It will take but a moment. Will you let me come to you in your rooms?”
With a sigh, Gabrielle nodded. “Okay.” She gestured for him to lead on. “But let’s do it in your workroom. If it’s only going to be a minute.. I have to get something for her Majesty and you know she doesn’t like waiting.”
“Oh! No. It will be very fast. I promise.” The dresser said hurriedly. “Certainly. Very fast. Just a moment.. really.” He almost ran ahead of her to the inner door and opened it, watching her anxiously as she caught up and they went through.
The inner halls were a small labyrinth in themselves, but they were familiar to Gabrielle from her brief time as a servant herself. She knew the turns past the big one for the kitchens and she strode confidently along the rush strewn floor aware of the carefully shielded eyes watching her.
There was wariness there, and fear, and not a little envy, and she knew it. She, who had been one of them, in fact, the very least of them now stood at the right elbow of the queen in a life of ease and privilege all of them could only dream of.
How unfair it must seem to them. Gabrielle glanced into an open doorway as she passed, seeing a circle of kitchen workers crouched in a circle, peeling tubers. It had taken her a while to stop feeling guilty all the time, in fact, and even now there were moments when she found it hard to believe how changed her life was in so relatively short a time.
A life never dreamed of. Never looked for. And yet, here she was.
“In here, m’lady” The dresser scurried ahead of Gabrielle and pushed open the door to his little chamber, a room full of fabrics and leathers, scraps of fur and hand wound spools of carefully spun thread. “Please, please.. it will just be a bare moment.”
Gabrielle went over to a roughly strapped stool and sat down on it. Looking around, she suspected most of the dresser’s subjects were measured in the lofty confines of their stately apartments, but she didn’t really mind.
Xena tended to make people’s hands shake, and the dresser often had pins in his. She’d learned to her bemusement that her queen and lover’s often wicked sense of humor usually resulted in either embarrassment or mild pain and so she was more than content to let the fussy man get what he needed from her here in private.
The dresser bustled over and she stood, catching sight of her own reflection in a nearby mirror. Though her hair was cut neatly to frame her face, and her body was draped in silk, she still saw a scruffy peasant looking back at her and she wondered again if Xena’s choice had been the wisest.
Not her choice to love Gabrielle. That, she cherished every moment of every day. Her choice of making Gabrielle her consort and forcing her to play a part she truly didn’t feel in her heart was anything of what she was inside.
“You have a lovely figure, m’lady.” The dresser chattered at her. “Simply lovely. So symmetrical.”
Gabrielle found her attention dragged hastily back to the man. “Um.. thanks.” She studied herself in the mirror. “If you say so.” She added in an undertone.
The winter season had given her a chance to fill out a little and under the silk her bones no longer stood out against her skin, but taking after the queen’s example she’d worked hard to keep that peasant muscle and while Xena gleefully beat up on people, she simply used her body in various hard ways, moving grain sacks in the stable or armor blocks up in the queen’s practice hall.
So her shoulders had become a little wider, enough to balance her profile out in any case and though she was pretty much useless with that stick Xena had given her at least she didn’t get knocked over quite as often as she had before.
“I will create some pleats here, yes?” The dresser said. “And pull this in here, don’t you think?” He gathered the fabric of the robe she was wearing with gingerly fingers, pulling it taut around her waist. “Does this please you?”
Gabrielle glanced at the result. “Sure.” She half shrugged, unsure of what effect he was looking for. “Looks fine to me.”
Truthfully, she hated being dressed up. Xena said she didn’t like it either, but Gabrielle suspected the queen just said that because she felt it fit her image. She had seen Xena preening in her stately gowns enough to know they suited her ego regardless of what she said about it.
Xena was funny that way. It wasn’t unusual for her to come in from a long, sweaty session with her sword and want her hair braided after her bath, and her silk robe settled around her. Gabrielle often found herself charmed by the dual nature of her lover and never quite positive what reaction she’d get from the unpredictable woman.
Which was fine with Gabrielle. She didn’t mind looking at Xena in her beautiful clothes, or in her armor, or with nothing at all on, for that matter. The queen was simply gorgeous and after all, the sometimes overly complicated gowns were fun to untangle her from at the end of a long day. “Is that all?”
“Just one more thing, m’lady.” The dresser ran a measure from her hip to her toes. “There, all finished, and thank you.”
Gabrielle escaped in some relief and ducked out the door, heading back up the hallway. She had pastries to find, and a flagon of honey mead to recover and she could already see Xena’s raised eyebrows waiting for her as she got back to the room so they could conclude their afternoon break.
Standing on your hands, Xena had discovered, was just difficult enough for her to be a challenge, and easy enough not to cause her skin to break out in a sweat. She started out near one wall, launching herself head over tail to land on her hands and balance as her feet brushed the stone surface.
It took a minute, as her reflexes struggled to cope with the unfamiliar posture. She could feel the strain in her middle until her body adjusted and she flexed her shoulders a little to work the stiffness out of the joints.
She had a strong body, and she knew it. But her arms were far more used to handling weapons than lifting her weight and that was one reason she was doing what she was doing, since you never really knew when you’d need an edge somewhere.
It had been a peaceful winter. Too peaceful, to her mind. Aside from a few inconsequential squabbles, everyone had gotten along and she hadn’t uncovered even one milquetoast plot to kill her the entire of the long cold season.
She wasn’t stupid enough to think it was a sudden change of heart around her. The only change of heart that she trusted was her own, and now she was aware that she had more at stake to lose than she’d had in a very long time.
So it was just a matter of that – of time.
She shook her head to clear her hair from her eyes, then slowly turned in a half circle and surveyed the room.
Different perspective. You could see underneath furniture in a way you never did right side up. Were there dust bunnies?
No. Xena smiled, suspecting no bunny escaped Gabrielle’s jealous eye and the spiders wisely stayed out of the corners. However. She was surprised to find, among other things, a cat under the bed. “Hey!”
The animal peered at her suspiciously, blinking it’s almond eyes. It was gray, with fluffy fur and a visbly bad attitude.
“Scat!” Xena took a few rocking steps forward, and the cat hissed. Accepting the challenge, the queen hopped forward, flexing her arms and jerking her body forward with admirable balance. “Hiss at me will ya? I’ve had scarier things than you for tea biscuits!” She yelled, baring her own teeth. “Yahh!”
The cat’s eyes almost bulged out of their sockets and it turned tail and scurried from under the bed, away from the noisy apparition coming at it as it bolted for the door with an indignant yowl.
“Yahhh!” Gabrielle let out a startled yell. “Yah! What! Hey! Help!” She threw her hands up instinctively and found them full of fur and sharp claws. “YOW!”
Xena reacted without thinking, flipping herself upright and launching herself over the bed with her arms outstretched. The cat had jumped into Gabrielle’s grasp, and was scratching her, and Xena grabbed it’s tail and yanked it backwards as she crashed full into her consort and they both bowled across the carpeted floor in a tangle of limbs and fur and silk covered bodies.
The cat yowled angrily, digging it’s claws into the carpet and starting to run, only to be jerked backwards when it reached the end of it’s tail still held in Xena’s strong fingers.
Xena tossed the cat from her and lay flat on her back, looking up at the ceiling and shaking her head as Gabrielle slowly collapsed on top of her, shoulders shaking with irrepressible giggling. “I’m going to have to go torture someone.” She bit the inside of her own lip, to keep from joining her companion. “Immediately.”
“W.. why?” Gabrielle managed to get out.
Xena covered her eyes with one hand. “I’m developing a sense of humor. Gotta nip that in the bud or who the Hades knows what’ll happen next?” She finally allowed the laugh to emerge, her entire body shaking with it for long moments as they lay there together in the late afternoon light.
“Boy.” Gabrielle finally wiped her eyes.
“Guess all that sex did make you go blind.” Xena commented. “You could at least get my age right.”
“Oh.. borfpf.” Gabrielle scrubbed her face and rolled over, sprawling her legs out. “Sheesh.. Where did that cat come from?” She asked. “Boy, that scared the tail off me!”
The queen reached over and pinched her. “No it didn’t.”
Xena chuckled wickedly. “It was under the bed.” She said. “I was looking for your underwraps I tossed down there before.”
Gabrielle turned her head and looked at the queen, her eyes widening. “You were??”
“No. I was standing on my head.”
The blond woman turned over onto her belly and started squirming over towards the big, plush bed. “I’ll find em.. for goodness sake, Xena.. you shouldn’t be hanging around under the bed.. you’re the queen!”
Xena folded her hands over her stomach, her long length relaxed on the floor as she enjoyed watching Gabrielle hunt around under the bed. She started chuckling softly and crossed her legs at her ankles. “So, where are my pastries?”
“Um..” Gabrielle squirmed around to look back at her. “In the other room. I heard you yelling so I.. um…” She scratched her nose with one finger, as some dust got into it. “I thought you were in trouble.”
“Gabrielle, Gabrielle, Gabrielle.” The queen twiddled her fingers. “How many times do I have to tell you I never get into trouble?”
“You are trouble. I know.”
Xena crooked a finger at her. “Get over here.”
Gabrielle peeked under the bed. Then she peered over at Xena again. “You were kidding me, huh?”
The queen chuckled. “I love watching your butt wiggle. C’mere.”
With a wry expression, Gabrielle crawled back over to where the queen was sprawled and settled next to her, the wool carpet tickling her bare middle as her tunic separated. She could see the devilment and good humor in Xena’s face, and it made her smile even though she’d been the victim of her little joke.
The good moods had gotten more frequent, she’d noticed. Xena tended to be moody in the best of times, and the moods were mercurial. She could be laughing one minute, then choking a noble in the next, but over the winter Gabrielle had seen a certain tendency in her to smile a little more, and relax a little more, especially when they were in private together.
Like now. Xena rolled onto her side and propped her head up on one hand. “So.” She said. “You abandoned my pastries to save me from a little pussy. Damn, that’s romantic Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle’s nose crinkled up as she felt a blush coming on, heating her face and bringing on another laugh from her companion. “It wasn’t supposed to be romantic.” She protested. “I was trying to protect you.”
“I know.” Xena reached over and pushed the pale hair out of her face with surprising gentleness. “Did that useless dressmaker see you?” She asked, in an abrupt change of subject. “I told him he better make something nice for you or I was going to cut his fingers off.”
Watching those blue eyes watch her, Gabrielle felt herself start to melt into the wool surface under her, the soulful regard almost stopping her from breathing for a moment. She was used to Xena’s kidding, and the sharp wit, and the sudden angers but these glimpses of something so much deeper still caught her by utter surprise.
A little intimidating.
Then the queen grinned and tweaked her nose, and things went back to normal. “Yes, I talked to him.” Gabrielle nodded. “He’s doing something green, with pleats. I think.” She reached over and played with the velvet belt tying Xena’s robe closed. “I’m sure it will be pretty.”
Xena pushed herself upright, then got to her feet. She waited for Gabrielle to scramble up next to her and then spent a moment pulling the laces closed on her linen tunic. “Know what the most fun part of that party’s gonna be?’
“Dessert?” Mild, green eyes blinked innocently at her.
“Punky muskrat.” Xena leaned over and kissed her. “Besides that. I’m going to decide who keeps their land grants that night.” She rested her arms on Gabrielle’s shoulders. “I get to do that once a year. Nothing like scaring the crap out of everyone to make a fun evening, huh?”
Gabrielle put her hands on the queen’s hips. “You mean.. you can take their houses away?”
Xena gazed fondly at the pale head resting against her chest. “You’re safe.” She said. “I only boot out nitwits who piss me off.”
The queen cleared her throat. “And incompetent jerks who can’t manage the land.” She added, with a faint shrug. “It’s not just an exercise of my big ego.”
“I didn’t think it was that.”
“Everyone else does.” Xena injected a note of dark irony.
Gabrielle thought about that. She remembered, in a vague sort of way, how every harvest she’d sensed the tension of her parents when the landholder came by to collect his share, and count the sheep.
She remembered the way the man had looked at them, his eyes judging and critical. She hadn’t known what it was all about, but she remembered being afraid because she knew her parents were.
Was this the same thing?
If someone was a bad farmer, did that mean they didn’t deserve a home, and a place, and bit of bread to keep them?
What would they have done, if Da hadn’t been as canny, and they’d lost the cot they’d lived in? Would they have had to go live in the forest, in the makeshift shelters she’d once seen there, with haunted faces looking out from them?
Gabrielle frowned, and thought back to something Xena had told her once, about slaves really being freer than freemen were. There was, she had to admit, a certain logic to that she understood better than most did. There was a peace in not having to make decisions, wasn’t there?
Gabrielle jumped, despite the fact she’d felt Xena’s ribs move as she inhaled to yell. “Yow!”
“Stop thinking.” Xena bumped her towards the doorway into the outer chamber, where the pastries and mead waited. “You will go blind.”
Gabrielle set the thoughts aside and willingly led the way into the bright, beautiful room. No matter what Xena’s decisions would be, she knew the queen had her own peculiar logic about them and in any case, in blunt honesty, she knew wherever the queen’s home was, hers was too.
If it was this richly furnished room, well, then it was. “They had those roasted nut pastries you like” She told the queen. “And I can tell you about my poem now.”
“Do you have to?”
“It’s about you.”
Xena selected a nutmeat from the top of the pastry and ate it. “Again?”
“I asked Jellaus to make it into a song.” Gabrielle told her shyly. “For the party.”
The queen stopped in mid chew. “Is it mushy?”
“I’m going to make you scream like that cat.”
The torches were fluttering low on the ramparts as Xena paced them, the fading twilight casting only faint shadows across the stone and dimly outlining her tall form.
Overhead, a partly cloudy sky revealed twinkling stars edging past wisps of thick gray cotton and as she drew in a deep breath, she found a musky hint of rain on the edges of it. “Ah.” Xena walked to the edge of the wall and put her hands on it, looking out over the long stretch of ground sloping down from her stronghold to the fast running river below.
She felt edgy. There was a prickle in the air that might be an oncoming storm, but it brushed against her skin with a sense of prescience she’d learned years ago not to ignore.
A storm was coming all right. But not the kind that got you wet. Xena wasn’t sure how she felt about that, much to her surprise. She’d expected to be bored, as she usually was at the end of winter, and anxious for spring to bring new faces, new things..
New blood. She grinned into the darkness. Spring usually meant some kind of fighting, either internal as someone tried to kill her, or external, as some nearby warlord decided to try his luck with her before the weather cleared enough for decent drilling.
However. Xena rested her chin on her wrists. She wasn’t nearly as bored as she’d always been in the past. In fact, if winter’d gone on a little longer, it would almost have been all right with her. She’d started to perversely enjoy Gabrielle’s halting attempt at bad poetry, and it had become a fascination for her to hunt and discover the small gifts her consort would hide for her around their rooms.
A little basket of dried fruits. A wool scarf. Some new slippers. Xena never knew what it would be, and so, this little bit of mystery in her life intrigued her immensely.
“Yes?” Xena didn’t turn, recognizing the voice. “What brings a hoary old bore like you out on a pretty night like this, Lastay?”
“It is beautiful, true.” Her heir agreed, as though she’d passed him a bland pleasantry. “It is good to be able to walk out and not swaddle myself in a heavy cloak. A long, cold winter it was for sure.” He leaned against the wall next to her. “Very long indeed.”
“Wife still puking?” Xena inquired. “Guess that’s to get you ready for the rugrat, huh?”
“We are looking forward eagerly to the birth of our child, mistress.” The man’s voice was mildly rebuking. “It will be a great joy for both of us.”
“Bet it’ll be a greater joy for her.” Xena said. “She’s doing all the work.”
The queen chuckled, her attention caught as the moon came out from behind the clouds and lit the ground before the stronghold in silver. There were stolid outlines against the grass, and if she cocked her head to one side, she could catch the soft lowing of the cattle out munching the new spring greens.
“Did you find the cold months so onerous, Mistress?” Lastay laid his hands on the stone. “It seemed not so much as in the past, to me at least.”
Xena’s nostrils twitched slightly. “You mean now that I’m getting serviced in bed on a regular basis?” She regarded him from the corner of her eyes. “Clever of you to notice.”
“Mistress.” Lastay cleared his throat slightly.
The queen laughed. “So tell me, Lastay – how many toadies have you collected so far? I’ve got a bet on.”
The duke laced his squared, powerful fingers together. “It has been an interesting time for me.” He acknowledged. “As you perhaps know, I was somewhat an outcast prior to your granting me the honor of being your heir, and to find myself the object of such.. herm..”
Lastay chuckled. “Mistress, you suffer no courtly delicacy, that is certain.”
“I don’t tolerate bullshit, Lastay.” Xena said. “It’s one of the reasons they hate me so much. We both know that. They live for the dance, I stomp on their feet.”
“That is so.” The duke agreed, half turning so he faced Xena. He leaned against the wall, his rugged form draped in nubbled linen and silk. “I was not so popular a choice to them, but I think there is, in truth, relief that you have an heir, and the continuity of the realm is assured.”
Xena kept her attention on the darkness around them. “It’s a relief to me.” She finally said, briefly. “Enjoy the fawning, Lastay. By the gods I never did.” Her gazed turned inward for a moment. “I think we both won from it.”
Lastay nodded again. “It seems to me we did.” He said. “Are you content, Mistress?”
Xena remained silent for a while, then slowly, she nodded. “I think I am.” She smiled, a trifle. “For now.” With a sudden motion, she leaped upward, and pressed her body up onto the wall, letting her legs dangle over as she sat there on the edge of a very long drop.
Lastay glanced around nervously. “Mistress, have a care.”
“Don’t wanna.” The queen drew in a breath of the rich spring air. “I think we’re in for trouble this season, Lastay. There’s battle on the wind.”
“Out there.” Xena indicated the river. “It’s been too quiet, too long.”
The duke gazed dubiously at her, watching the dark hair stream back in the wind, that also ruffled Xena’s silk clothing tight about her body. “As you say.” He murmured.
“I say.” The queen nodded. “And if nothing turns up, I’ll go conquer someone.” She hopped up again, this time balancing on the wall as she walked along in relaxed balance. “Stay in one place long enough, people get comfortable, Lastay. Start thinking they can take a nibble here, nibble there… you gotta break some eggs sometimes, or else you end up with rotten ones.”
Lastay walked alongside her, safely behind the wall. “We have been at peace for a while, yes.” He agreed. “It has given the realm a chance to grow, and prosper. That is not so bad a thing, I think.” His face grew thoughtful. “But it is also true.. our safety is ensured by your majesty’s reputation.”
“Bet you ass it is.” Xena said. “And just like people here forgot that with Bregos… how many out there have also forgotten it?” She turned and looked at him, hands on her hips. “Word’s out, Brego’s is gone. Think anyone out there’ll get ideas, thinking he was the power here?”
Lastay folded his arms over his chest. “Bregos campaigned in your name.”
Xena gazed outward, as the moon peeked from behind a cloud again and outlined her in silver.
“He had successes, the past season.”
“True.” The queen said. “But how much greater could they have been?” She asked. “If I’d been leading the army?” The clouds parted, and she spread her arms to accept the accolade of the stars twinkling overhead. “Can you picture it?”
Lastay was staring at her in shock, lost on the queen who was faced away from him. “Majesty, surely you are joking with me.” He spluttered. “You do not intend to leave.. to lead the army again?”
Xena remained gazing outward for a moment, then she turned and gracefully leapt down off the wall, landing lightly next to Lastay. She leaned back against the stone, and crossed her ankles. “You don’t want to run the place for a while? Thought we had that worked out.”
The duke appeared stunned. “Truth be told, Mistress.” He finally said. “I had not put thought to it, at least in so near a time.”
Xena pushed off from the wall and patted his shoulder briskly. “Grow some balls.” She suggested. “And start getting used to the idea.” She walked past him, heading across the battlements to the far stairs, walking through bars of moonlight and quickly into the shadows.
Lastay released a held breath, and shook his head. Then he turned and walked the other way, towards the main hall.
Gabrielle dipped her quill into the small pot of ink on the desk and paused, thinking, before she carefully scribed another few words on the parchment in front of her.
A candle sat flickering nearby, lighting her task, and she mouthed the last few lines of what she’d just written as she sucked pensively on the end of the quill.
It was quiet in the royal chambers. Xena had gone out for a stroll on the wall and the windows were now dark around her. In the distance, she could hear the faint sounds of doors closing, and a tinkle of crockery, but nearby there was only the light brush of the bushes outside the glass and the soft crackle of the fire burning in the fireplace.
Spring, yes, but the stone rooms long held the chill of winter and she had her feet tucked into warm slippers that felt soft and comfortable against her skin.
Gabrielle wiggled her toes, and paused, then added the last few words and set her quill down, gently blowing on the letters as they dried from rich black to dark ochre. “Well..” She reread her poem. “I wonder if it’s too corny. “ She nibbled the inside of her lip. “Xena hates mushy stuff, but I just can’t write about blood all the time.”
A soft knock came at the door. Gabrielle hopped off her stool and trotted over to the entrance, slipping through the stately public space and reaching the tall, ornate double portal. She worked the latch and pulled the nearer one open. “Hello?”
There was a soldier there, looking nervous. He had a soft, leather bag with him, and he blinked at Gabrielle in true startlement. “Um…” He stammered. “Was told to c’mere? See the queen?”
“Okay.” Gabrielle checked quickly for the hawk’s head on the man’s chest. “She’s not here right now. Is there something I can help you with?’
The man looked around. “M’name’s Devon.” He said. “I’m the armorer. Captain said to come here, as the queen wants some work done.”
Ah. Gabrielle hesitated. “Well, you can come in and wait for her.”
The man’s eyes widened. “No, m’lady. I’ll just wait on the steps like, over there. Thanks to you.” He backed away from the door, leaving Gabrielle standing there with a puzzled expression, shuffling hastily backwards until he struck something big, and warm. “Ah.. watch yer going there ya… ah!”
Xena cocked her head, as she watched the man collapse to the ground, dropping his bag and covering his head with his arms. “Me?” She pointed at her own chest. “Watch where I’m going?”
“Ah! Ah! I didn’t touch er! I swear it! I swear it! Gods help me!”
Xena put her hands on her hips and stared down at him. Then she looked up at Gabrielle, who was watching from the doorway. “If you’re the armorer, I’m lucky we didn’t lose half the army last season. You’ve got the brains of a damn sow.”
Xena stepped over him and shook her head. “Get the Hades out of here. Tell Brendan I said forget it.” She shooed Gabrielle inside as she approached, and closed the door behind her as she entered the royal quarters. “Idiot.”
Gabrielle stayed prudently out of the way. “He seemed kind of strange.” She offered. “Did you want something taken care of? I could take it down to the barracks for you.”
“No. Not if that’s any indication of what’d happen to it.”
The blond woman clasped her hands behind her back. “Well.. I think you just scared him, Xena. Maybe you could give him another chance… I mean, if you really need your stuff taken care of.”
Xena had gone to the trunk along one wall, it’s scarred sides seeming very out of place in the opulence of the room. She put her hands on the top of it, then glanced sideways at her consort. “He wasn’t here for me.”
Caught offguard, Gabrielle could only blink at her.
The queen turned and sat down on the trunk, her windblown hair half in her eyes. “C’mere.” She held out a hand. “Let’s talk.”
Gabrielle crossed to her and took her hand, clasping it and turning it over, then gently kissing Xena’s knuckles in a motion so automatic it made both of them stop, and just look at each other for a very long moment.
Then Xena exhaled a little. “I’m considering doing something potentially lethal and possibly very stupid.” She remarked.
“You are?” Gabrielle felt shocked, and a little unsettled. “Why?”
“Why not?” The queen replied. “Life’s short. Gotta have fun while you can. My idea of fun is going to war.”
Gabrielle studied the carpet for a bit. “So..” She glanced up at Xena. “Is that why you want me to get armor? So I can go with you?”
Xena nodded. “Something like that, yeah.” She watched the blond woman’s face, seeing a dozen expressions all blurring across it, fascinated by the complexity of it all. “What do you think about that?”
What did she think about it? “I think I’m going to look pretty silly in armor, but if I get to go with you, I don’t care.” Gabrielle said. “But.. I don’t understand.. is someone attacking us?”
Xena looked down at her leather boots, the worn buckles winking dimly in the candlelight. “Remember what you said to me, the first time you saw me in my drill gear?”
Gabrielle nodded in silence.
“You were right. That is who I am.” The queen said. “I’m a fighter. I want to fight. I want to go out and take the fight to someone, not wait for someone to bring the fight here.” She flexed her free hand. “I want you with me. But I can’t promise you won’t get hurt. Or croak, for that matter.”
Gabrielle looked around at the ornate room, and thought about all the plush comforts of it. She remembered what it had been like when they’d so briefly been on the road before the winter, and how difficult that had been.
How uncomfortable. The blond woman pondered that. On the other hand.. “We don’t have to bring any frilly dresses with us, do we?”
Xena snorted, and her shoulders started to shake.
“Wherever you go, I go, Xena.” Gabrielle smiled at her. “And I bet I end up getting some really good stories out of it. I sure did the last time.”
The queen gave her a hug. “That’s my muskrat.” She gave her a kiss on the head. “I won’t even make you wear a tin hat.”
Change. Gabrielle put her arms around Xena. Change was fine, so long as they were facing it together.
“Ow!” Gabrielle hit the ground hard, the breath whooshing out of her lungs as she lost her grip on her stick and it rattled away across the stone floor. “Pig farts!”
Across the room from her, Xena leaned on her own stick and laughed, shaking her head ruefully. “Sorry about that.”
The blond woman shook her stinging hand and examined it, wincing at the reddened skin visible in the torchlight of the practice hall. Then she let her arm drop and she looked over at her adversary, her shoulders dropping in dejection. “Xena, I think I’m pretty hopeless at this. Can I try throwing rocks or something?”
“What makes you think you’d be any better at that?” The queen walked over and crouched down next to her, then apparently thought better of that and sat instead, sliding her stick out between her legs. “You’re not that bad.”
“Yes I am.” Gabrielle looked glumly at her leather boots.
“No, you’re not.” The queen leaned back on her hands. “Stop arguing with me. I’m in charge here, in case you forgot.” She added. “You’re just completely inept against me.”
“I’d be completely inept against the cook.” Her consort sighed. “But yeah, watching you doesn’t make it any easier.”
Xena booted her stick up with one foot, then relaxed on her back, and started juggling the stick with her feet, keeping it up in the air with negligent ease. “Gabrielle, I’ve been doing this since I was old enough to piddle by myself. You don’t really want to have lived my life.”
Gabrielle thought about that for a moment. “No.” She admitted. “You’re right. But I’d really like to just be…” She frowned. “Just be good at something.” She paused. “Anything.”
Xena turned her head. “I can think of something you’re good at.” She drawled, producing a wicked grin. “And believe me, that ain’t common.” She kicked the stick ceilingward, and sat up, reaching behind her to catch the weapon and tucking it back alongside her.
“Xena.” Gabrielle gazed at her from between disheveled bangs. “That’s not something I can tell everyone about, you know?”
The blond woman’s green eyes widened.
“Cooking’s not a crime.” The queen said, her own eyes widening in mock innocence. “Wasn’t that what you were thinking about?”
“Ugh.” Gabrielle laid down on her back. “You got me.”
Xena chuckled, then she reached over to give her consort a rub on the belly. “You’re so easy.” She teased. “But as a matter of fact you’re pretty damn good at that too – so stop whining.”
Gabrielle wriggled her shoulders, as a small rock poked between them. “I’m not whining. Am I?” She asked. “I don’t mean to… I think I’m close to cycling. Maybe that’s it.”
The queen pushed herself to her feet and prodded her companion with one boot. “All the more reason to get a move on.” She said. “Neither of us will in the mood for this tomorrow.” She laid the stick across her shoulders and strolled to the other side of the practice hall, sparing a glance at the big, empty room with a sense of dour affection.
It was damply chill there, defeating the best efforts of the torches and even in summer the place had never really been comfortable.
Appropriate, because Xena had used it to hone her martial skills, focusing intently on her drills and the repetitive motions that made her a master, and any outside distraction would have been unwelcome to her. She hadn’t looked for comfort – the room had nothing on the floor and nothing on the walls save the sconces and perversely she’d often leave the windows open to let the breeze blow through and cool off her often sweat soaked skin.
It had been her one, true, inner sanctum. No one had been allowed up here. No one had been allowed to see her in all her raw self punishment that left her often on her knees in exhaustion, too weak to stand for stretches at a time.
Gabrielle had been the first person she’d allowed inside. “C’mon, muskrat.” Xena twisted her body to the right and left, loosening up a little. “Haven’t got all night. Places to go, people to terrorize, you to ravish.. you know how it is.”
The blond woman got to her feet and dusted herself off before she went over and retrieved the battered staff from the corner of the room. She took a moment to collect herself, then she lifted the stick up so it was across her body and tried to get her balance settled.
That was the hard part, with Xena. When she came at you, the first thing you had to do was conquer the intense desire to run away.
“Heh.” Xena stalked towards her, angling to one side.
Then you had to figure out how to stop her stick when she swung it without getting knocked head over bottom. “Be nice.” Gabrielle asked, as she focused her eyes on Xena’s weapon, and the midpoint of her body.
“Bwahaha.” The queen struck, tapping her stick against Gabrielle’s as she watched the kid scramble to block her.
Although she dearly loved her consort, even Xena had to admit in the area of coordination Gabrielle had gotten the short end of the stick. She just didn’t have the instinct for fighting, and so everything she did came only with intense thought, and effort.
Xena hadn’t thought about fighting in probably twenty years. Her body just knew what to do and she could depend on it to perform and defend her in almost any situation. She wasn’t sure her consort would ever develop even the beginnings of that, and so teaching her to fight was like teaching a barn cat to swim.
“Oo!” Gabrielle almost tripped, as she forgot to pick up the end of her staff, and almost sent herself pitching headlong. She recovered barely, then she took a firmer grip on the staff and faced Xena again as the queen moved forward and attacked.
Of course, here she was only playing, barely hitting the other weapon at all lest she truly hurt her adorable little bedmate. The last thing she wanted to do was that – she wanted Gabrielle to think of the drills as more fun than torture. “Good.” She complimented her, as her strike was deflected.
Gabrielle slid her legs apart a little more and tentatively moved her staff, it’s end clicking against Xena’s. “Is that right?” She flexed her fingers, the brief, linen tunic she was wearing outlining a body that had at least grown sturdier over the months and more able to take Xena’s roughhousing.
Xena gently reversed her staff and was pleasantly surprised when her blond adversary went with the motion and did the right thing, countering the direction and meeting her as their staves crossed in front of them. “Hey.. not bad!”
Just to get to this point with her had been agonizing. Xena had peservered for two reasons. One, because the challenge to her temper was significant, and she liked challenges.
“Aha.” Gabrielle hit back again, and incredibly, ducked in time to miss Xena’s return stroke across the top of her head. She skipped backwards awkwardly and without really thinking about it, impulsively swung the staff at the queen’s knees.
Absorbed in her thoughts, Xena reacted a hair too late to keep the stick from cracking against the side of her leg, with a sharp sting. “Whoa!” She yelped in surprised. “Ouch!”
Two, she wanted Gabrielle to be able to defend herself, even if it meant getting whacked.
Gabrielle stopped in her tracks, her eyebrows hiking up comically. “Oh by the gods.. are you okay?’ She dropped her stick and rushed forward, diving to her knees to examine Xena’s leg. “Xena, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do that!”
“Leave that alone!” The queen tapped her on the head. “Of course you meant to do it! That’s the whole point of this, Gabrielle! You’re supposed to knock the Hades out of the person coming after you!!!” She stifled a laugh at the look of rueful consternation on her consort’s face. “Hurt me, baby!”
Instead, Gabrielle leaned over and gave the spot a kiss.
Xena knelt, and patted her cheek. “Okay. Go sit over there and let me get the kinks out. We can have another go round when I’m tired.” She let her fingers remain, gently tracing Gabrielle’s rounded cheekbones and finding her lips moving into a smile as the blond woman looked up at her. “Smile, muskrat. You got a touch on me.”
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. “You let me.”
The queen shook her head. Then she stood up and walked to a clear space, trading the staff for her sword, laying on the floor. She drew the weapon from it’s sheath and let the blade rest momentarily against her forehead, before she gently dropped the sheath and started her warm up.
Gabrielle folded her legs up crossed under her and leaned her elbows on her knees, content to sit and watch. She didn’t believe for a minute Xena hadn’t let her get a hit in just to make her feel better, but.. in a way.. just knowing that made her feel better.
Xena was doing her slow motion things, that she always started with. She had both hands on her sword, and she was doing figures with it in the air, moving carefully through the motions with her eyes fixed on an imaginary opponent.
As she moved the sword in a circle, she moved herself in a circle in the opposite direction, her body outlined in the torchlight as the light and shadow moved across her skin.
Beautiful. Gabrielle exhaled.
In a breath, Xena changed her drill, moving from slow motion to quicksilver in the blink of an eye, releasing one hand off the sword as she slashed it into a rapid series of attacks before spinning the blade from her right hand to her left and starting all over again.
Incredible. The blond woman didn’t deny the envy she felt, no matter what Xena had gone through to attain it. She shook her head faintly as Xena swept the blade in a circle around her, then she launched herself skyward, flipping over backwards as she brought the weapon around.
Whack. “Ouch!” Xena managed to catch her balance and hopped to a halt, having smacked herself across her own ear in the middle of the maneuver. “Son of a bacchae!” She rubbed the spot, which stung a good deal more than her leg had, and snuck a glance at Gabrielle, who had an appropriately somber look on her face.
It had taken a lot of being in love to let the kid in to see her smack herself in the puss, that was for sure. “Wanna come kiss that one too?” She asked, putting one hand on her hip. “My head’s still ringing.”
Gabrielle got up and came over, standing on her tip toes to gently touch the queen’s ear. “It’s all red.” She waited for Xena to bend her head, then she kissed the ear, feeling the warmth of the injury against her lips as the queen’s breath tickled the skin on her neck. “Better?”
Xena rubbed the back of her neck, the echoes of the blow still sounding inside her ears. A strong desire to simply quit, and go back to their rooms stirred in her; it had been a long day and she’d decided to start drilling the army tomorrow.
Gabrielle put her arms around the queen and hugged her. “You’re so amazing. I love watching you do this.”
“Even when I look like an idiot?”
“You never do.” Her consort assured her. “At least.. not nearly as much as I do when I try messing with that stick.”
Oh well. Xena patted her on the back lightly. “Wanna see that again, the right way this time?” She waited for her consort to release her, then she stepped back and started the drill again, this time with the sword in her other hand.
Just in case.
Xena leaned her elbows, her eyes studying the map on the large worktable lit by the early morning sun. It was made of skins, well scraped and painstakingly stitched together, and the scrawled markings on it were, she noted, sadly in need of updating.
“Well well.” The queen drew her dagger from it’s sheath and idly scraped a spot. “About time I brought this old thing current.. surprised bugs haven’t chewed it to nothing.”
“Were you asking me something?” Gabrielle appeared at her right elbow.
“Yeah.” Xena said. “I was asking you to take my clothes off.”
Gabrielle looked around at the lofty, mostly empty throne room. “Okay.” She gave a slight shrug, reaching for a tie on Xena’s sleeve. “You’re the queen.”
“Hm.” The queen in question studied the slim fingers easing under the fabric around her wrists. “Decisions, decisions.” She sighed. “Be the queen, shock the nobles.. be the queen, shock the nobles.. damn it’s tough to be me some days.”
Privately, Gabrielle didn’t think it was hard for Xena to be Xena at any time. She folded her hand around the queen’s and peered at the map. “What’s this?”
“What happened to you undressing me?”
“Do you really want me to do that?” Gabrielle turned her head and looked up at Xena. “I thought you called for Brendan.”
“Maybe he likes to watch.” The queen chuckled. “No, you little muskrat. I don’t want you to strip me naked and ravish me.”
Gabrielle cleared her throat, glancing at the guards near the door.
“Now, anyway.” A wicked twinkle flashed in Xena’s eyes. “And to answer your question, that’s a map.” She spread her free hand on it. “It’s my map.”
Gabrielle leaned on the table and surveyed the skins. “It’s pretty.” She commented, tracing the lines along one side. “Did you make it?”
“I did.” The queen said. “In more ways than one. This is the map I used to conquer the lands we’re in right now, and those across the mountain.” She touched a spot. “That’s where I bivouacked the army the night before we invaded.”
“Ah.” The blond woman studied the marks. “Why there?”
Why there. Xena cast her mind back. She could recall it being a cool fall day, with a touch of rain in the air as they’d moved up through the trees and cleared the pass, seeing the fertile valley spreading out before them. “There was a slide there.” She said. “Piles of rocks we could mask ourselves behind.”
“You hid?” Gabrielle gave her a quizzical look.
A faint smile crossed the queen’s face. “We didn’t want them to see us coming, Gabrielle.” She turned her head and looked at her consort. “Easier to kill people that way.”
Xena picked up her dagger again and scraped the hide. “Gotta update this so I can use it again.” She said. “See this blank area here?” She pointed to one side of the hide. “I’m gonna fill that in, Gabrielle. It’s gonna be mine.”
Solemnly, Gabrielle studied the blank spot. “Yours?”
“You can have some too.” The queen said.
“But… don’t we have enough stuff? Do we need more?”
Xena turned and looked at her, one eyebrow cocked upward. Was the girl kidding her? She examined Gabrielle’s face, turned towards her in open question, no hint of cynisism evident. “Let me ask you a question.” She said. “How many sheep were enough?”
Gabrielle set to pondering that, leaving Xena in peace to scrape off the troop positions she’d marked on the hide, the soft sound of the blade rasping against the skin loud in the room.
A soft knock came at the door. The guard looked at Xena in question, and she waved a hand at him. The man walked over to the door and unlatched it, pulling it open to reveal Brendan’s stocky form. “Sir?”
The troop captain entered. “Mistress?” He ignored the guard. “Ye wanted me?”
“Yeah.” Xena continued her work. “I wanted Gabrielle to strip me naked too, but I guess I’ll have to settle for you, huh?”
The queen looked up. “Forget it. Listen. I want you to start preparing for campaign.” She said. “I want to move out after the festival.”
Brendan slowly approached her table. He mounted the steps to the dias and looked at the hide covering it, the edges slightly ragged draped over the sides. “Ah.” He touched the flap with his fingers. “Haven’t seen this in a long while.”
“Too long.” Xena picked up a quill and scribed a few words into the map. “I want to fill in the empty spaces.” She was aware of Gabrielle coming closer, the warm touch of her consort’s upper arm against her elbow distracting her a bit. “So get your asses in gear.”
She knew Brendan was looking at her, and she guessed Gabrielle was too, for different reasons. After she let the silence go on for a bit, she looked up sharply. “Someone have a problem?”
Her troop captain chewed the inside of his lip. “Not a problem, Mistress.” He replied. “Just surprised, as all. Thought you said way back when you wasn’t going to do this no more.”
Ah. “I lied.” Xena went back to studying her map.
“So… what’s over here?” Gabrielle went over to the blank spot. “Is this where that little path goes, in back of the garden?” She traced a line past the walls of the stronghold, to the base of a green mound. “There’s that big hill, and the tower there.”
“Used to be barren ground.” Xena said. “But it’s been settled the last couple years… some dirtbag overload thinks he owns the forests past that. We’ll start there.” She leaned on the table. “I want to take from there… “ Her finger traveled over the blank portion to the end. “To there. Before the end of the season.”
Brendan scratched his head. “You always sent Bregos this way.” He pointed to the opposite side of the map. “He did all right, seems like. Got some good lands.” His voice was carefully diffident. “Least we know what’s what thereabouts.”
“Exactly why I don’t want to go that way.” Xena said. “I’ve got no intention of walking in that no talent crotch deficient pinhead’s footsteps.” She looked directly at Brendan. “So get your act together, and start planning for a campaign, the old way. My way.”
Brendan took a step back, put his fist to his chest, and bowed his head. “Will be done, Mistress.” He announced, in a firm voice. “You can count on us.”
“One, two, three…”
Xena waved her hand at him, and shook her head. She waited until the door closed behind him before she turned to Gabrielle, who was still studying the map with pensive eyes. “So.”
“So?” Her consort turned towards her.
“So what other pithy things are you going to say about my sudden desire to rape and pillage?” The queen asked. “Brendan already thinks I’m nuts.”
Gabrielle snuggled in next to her and slid her arm through the queen’s, ending up tangling her fingers with Xena’s as she put a gentle kiss on her shoulder. “I don’t think he thinks you’re nuts.”
“Sure he does.”
“I think he’s just wondering why you want to go out there where it’s dangerous and take a chance to get more stuff when you already have a lot.”
Xena gazed across the room in silence, before she turned and went nose to nose with Gabrielle. “Because life’s nothing but a big ass chance, Gabrielle.” She told her consort. “And if you stop wanting, you start dying. I’ve got no intention of dying any time soon.”
She butted heads with the blond woman, then she disentangled herself and walked around the edge of the table, spreading her arms out. Over the white silk shirt she had on, she’d tossed on her house armor, for the first time since she’d retired.
Black strips of soft leather and chain mail – it wasn’t something she’d fight in, but it would turn the odd knife point and served to remind everyone it’s wearer was no paper general. It draped over her long form to mid thigh and fastened with a double dragon’s head buckle at her waist and the constriction felt good after all those years of silken robes and tassels.
Brendan did think she was nuts. That was all right, because he had remembered correctly her saying she was done with fighting. Done with the field of battle. Now she’d have generals to go out and fight for her, die for her.
Win for her.
It was what queens did, right? Xena clenched her fists lightly, then released them. It was what queens did, and for a while, she’d lived that lie to the utmost, taking her pleasures where she wanted them, taking likely looking subjects to her bed, letting Bregos go out and earn the land, earn the laurels, and earn the glory.
Well. Xena put her hands on her hips. To Hades with that. “Gabrielle, I warned you about the real me, didn’t I?”
Arms closed around her, and Xena felt a gentle warmth cover her back. She glanced down to find Gabrielle’s head peeking up from under her arm, and despite it all it made her smile. “Didn’t I?”
The blond woman slid around in front of her and kept hold around her waist. “You told me who you thought you really were, yes.”
A dark eyebrow edged up. “Do I hear skepticism in that muskratty little voice of yours?” Xena laced her fingers behind her consort’s neck. “Don’t tell me after all you’ve seen of my ruthless and bloodthirsty nature that you doubt me, Gabrielle.”
The light spilled into the window and highlighted Gabrielle’s pale head, warming her eyes with an inner fire that seemed to burn right through Xena. “Tell me I’m bad, muskrat.” The queen whispered, touching her face with the palm of one hand.
“I love you.” Gabrielle answered, in a soft voice.
“Wasn’t what I asked.” But Xena accepted the words anyway, understanding the message behind them. “But I guess it’s a start.” She leaned over and gave the waiting lips a kiss, tasting apple on them as her body slipped out of her control and she pulled the blond woman close.
Well, there was ruthless…
Gabrielle’s hands slipped under her armor and without warning, the buckle loosened.