Queen of Hearts
Gabrielle pushed the gates shut behind her and stood for a moment, appreciating the beauty of the garden before she continued inside. One hand was clasped firmly around the handle of a large basket, and she began a leisurely stroll around the richly fragrant space.
The castle garden was a special place for her. She’d spent many a wonderful moment in it with the queen, of course, but more than that, it represented to her a place where she was in charge.
“Oo.” Gabrielle smelled the heady scent of peaches, and she circled the tree, gazing up into the branches.
Really in charge. She was the one who told the gardeners what to plant, and decided where to put the rich and savory herbs and the fragrant fruit trees she knew she could delight Xena with. “Ah.” She found a just ripe specimen, and carefully detaching it, she placed it in her basket.
Xena had told her, a dozen times if any, that she’d take her meals from the barracks mess and not care a bit – but Gabrielle knew better. She wasn’t sure which one of them enjoyed her cooking their meals more, but it gave her a definite sense of purpose and she wasn’t about to give that up.
Freed slave, she was. Xena’s consort, she was called. But Gabrielle knew that at the root of it all she was a shepherd’s kid with few skills and aside from Xena, few prospects. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.. any berries?”
She ducked under a thick, green bush and hunted among the leaves, spotting a thick cluster of blue black fruits dangling there. “Ahah.. gotcha.” She plucked the berries, then wandered over to where the herbs were planted in their wooden racks, exuding a mixture of scents into the air.
It had taken a while, naturally, until she’d learned what Xena liked. There had been a number of failed experiments, but overall, she hadn’t done badly at it and it hadn’t been long before the queen had dispensed with even the hollowest of protests and instead simply accepted the offerings, apparently delighting at being surprised when Gabrielle could manage it.
And oh, she loved delighting the queen in any way she could. Gabrielle smiled, as she added two fragrant blossoms to the basket. Today she planned on a nice cold fish for lunch, with some fruit and fresh walnuts. The sun had warmed the castle and taken a bit of the chill out of it, so she thought Xena might like that especially if she set a piece of the honeycake she’d left by the hearth along side it.
Anything sweet was an easy bet. Gabrielle browsed through the bushes, picking up a few more berries, and then turned to the section where she’d had tubers and roots planted. She knelt beside the first row and plunged knowledgable fingers into the soil, feeling a mixture of dampness and warmth that made her nod to herself approvingly.
Then she paused, and studied the row. “I wonder if I’ll even get to taste these.” She murmured, remembering the queen’s words. “How long does a war take, anyhow?”
The blond woman turned and rose in one motion, leaving the basket where it was as she readied herself for trouble at the unfamiliar voice. “Yes?” She searched the area warily. “Who is it?”
Very slowly, a figure emerged from between two bushes, staying well away from her. It was a woman, hardly more than a girl, really, with the worn but sturdy clothing of a kitchen slave and bare feet. She had dark hair, and freckles, and she looked intently at Gabrielle as they stood watching each other. “You don’t’ remember me, do you?”
Gabrielle relaxed a little. The face was in fact familiar, but her life had been so focused in the last few months she had to shake the memories around a little to figure out who the girl was. “That’s not true.” She said, as recognition flared. “I do remember you. I just didn’t expect to see you here.”
The girl looked at her. “What’s my name?” She challenged Gabrielle, in a soft voice.
One of the things Gabrielle had found to occupy the idle moments was a newfound ability to picture things in her mind, as she thought about stories to tell Xena. Now the names in the old scrolls had faces for her, and now she found the ability matching the face to a name she’d last spoken long before the frosts. “Celeste.”
Celeste pulled a leaf from the bush she was standing near and rolled it between her fingers. “That’s funny. I figured you completely forgot us.” She paused. “What’s left of us, anyway.” Her eyes flicked to Gabrielle’s face. “Did you know half the people down in the kitchens died in the cold?”
Gabrielle nodded. “I knew.” She said. “The sickness.”
Celeste paused, then nodded back. “Did you think about all of us, down there?” She asked. “Do you, ever? You were one of us, once.”
Had she ever been part of them? Gabrielle looked back on her arrival in the realm and had to wonder. She thought about those first terrifying days, and her reception in the lower kitchens.
Kindness? Her lips twitched. The only kindness she’d found was from Toris, who had turned out to be an evil she’d never expected.
“Sure.” The blond woman let her hands rest on her thighs. “I think about people down there almost killing me.” She said. “I think about them betraying Xena, and letting Brego’s men in.”
The other woman glanced around nervously. “That’s not what I meant.”
Gabrielle half shrugged. “It’s the truth. I had no friends there.” She said. “Even after I got Xena to save you, down in the barracks.. everyone hated me.”
“That’s not true.”
“I have scars to prove it.’ Gabrielle lifted her hand to her head, touching her hairline at her temple.
Celeste flushed. “You don’t understand… it was.. we had no choice.” She protested. “They said we’d die if we didn’t go along.”
“You always have a choice.” Gabrielle picked up her basket. “I had a choice and I chose her.” She gestured towards the gates. “I have to go now.” She walked forward purposefully. “Excuse me.”
The slave took a step back, watching her warily as she closed in on her, then brushed past, heading for the entrance to the garden. “Gabrielle.. wait.”
Halfway there, Gabrielle stopped, and looked back over her shoulder.
“Is it true?” Celeste asked. “Is she going to war?”
Now, why, Gabrielle wondered, was she asking? She’d learned enough of court intrigue to become wary over the months of odd and innocent questions. But Xena had been very public in her intentions, so she saw little harm in answering. “That’s what I hear.” She said.
“Are you going too?”
Even stranger question. “Yes.” Gabrielle said. “Of course I am.”
Celeste slowly backed away from her, keeping her in view before she ducked between two thick bushes and disappearing. The branches wavered a little in her passing, then went still, and the air filled again with the soft buzz of insects and a single bird song.
Gabrielle stared at the empty spot briefly, before she shook her head and continued out, closing the gates behind her and taking a breath of spring air as she tried to put Celeste out of her mind and her troubling questions aside.
Once on the path to the stronghold, she paused again as she heard the sound of rhythmic hoofprints coming towards her, and she hurried ahead as she recognized the cadence and began to smile. .
“But Mistress.” Stanislaus wrung his hands. “It’s barely spring.. the landholders haven’t recovered from the cold season yet. If I call for all their provisions.. why.. what will they make provision for their people on?”
“Damned if I care.” Xena sorted through some scrolls, paying scant attention to her senechal. “No one cared when Bregos asked last year.”
“It was a far kinder season last year, Mistress.”
Xena looked up at him. “Are you suggesting that’s my fault?” She asked, in a silky tone.
Stanislaus’ eyes widened sharply. “Oh, no! Mistress!” He held both hands out in a warding gesture. “By the gods, no. I was just saying what all know.”
The queen leaned on her elbows, studying him from narrowed eyes. It had been a hard winter, no discounting it, but she had no intention of waiting till the first crops were in to start off. “Send the call out.” She said, with a note of finality in her voice. “Tell them to send what they have, and if it’s not enough, then I’ll come get what I need.” She added. “Personally.”
The seneschal blinked, and nervously fingered his beard. “As you wish, Mistress.” He finally said. “I will send the messengers out immediately.” He waited, watching her face. “Is that all you wish of me now?”
Xena eyed him. “I wish your head would fall off and roll across the floor.” She said. “How’s that?”
Rapid blinking. “Mmmmistress?”
“Go away.” The queen waved a hand at him. “Before I instantly gratify myself.”
The seneschal pattered quickly to the door and went through it, leaving Xena to her solitude. She chuckled under her breath and went back to her scrolls, opening one and studying it. “Let’s see.” Her brow creased as she read the words in it.
Lists, mostly. Notes to herself from long ago reminding her of what she needed on your average rape and pillage. “Salt.” She snapped her fingers. “Forgot to tell him to get that.” She clucked her tongue and scribbled a note on a fresh sheet of parchment.
Then she paused and glanced around the room, allowing herself an uncertainty she’d never display to anyone else. “Damn, I hope I didn’t forget how to do this.” She murmured. “Feel like my head’s been asleep for a few years.”
She sorted through the scrolls again and peered at one. This held a set of diagrams, x’s and squiggles and she studied it, nodding once or twice to herself. Troop formations, penned by her younger hand after the conquest of the realm and left to gather dust at the bottom of her campaign chest.
“I think I’ve been gathering dust.” Xena said, with a sigh. She shook her head and made a few more notes, glancing up again as a knock came at the door. “Next time I hang a ripped off arm on the damn thing. Yeah?” Her voice rose on the last word. “What?”
After a moment, the door slowly opened, and the guard peeked inside. “Mistress?”
“Not here.” Xena told him. “Sorry.”
The man looked uncertainly at her.
Xena sighed again. “Yes?”
The guard looked around. “Mistress, there is a man here, said he’s an armorer and you sent for him.” He addressed a hanging wall sconce. “Should I send him in?”
Ah. “Yeah.” Xena replied, briefly. “But only if he’s brighter than the last one. Otherwise I’m gonna hang him out the window by his man’s parts.”
The guard disappeared, and for a long moment there was silence. Xena leaned on her elbows again, wondering what was going on outside the door. Was her guard giving the man a quiz? Telling him to run for his life? Running with him for his life? Having lunch?
The door creaked open and a tall, thin man in workman’s leathers entered. He had a closely trimmed beard and moustache and the thick, powerful arms and wrists of a worker in metal. “Your Majesty.” He came forward, and dropped to his knees before her table. “You honor me beyond my station.”
Ahh! Xena came around the table and put her hands on her hips. Now that was more like it. “That remains to be seen.” She told him. “I need you to make some armor.”
The man’s head tipped up and he looked at her with smokey gray eyes. “Your majesty’s armor needs no work from these hands.” He lifted his. “It is fine work.”
The queen smiled at him in frank, open enjoyment. “I may let you meet my horse. You have a mind.” She commented. “The armor’s for my adorable, if martially deficient bedmate.” She said. “So it has to be better than mine.”
Xena nodded. “It has to keep her alive.” She said, in a suddenly deadly serious voice. “Because she does stupid things like get in the way of arrows coming my way, and damned if she’s going to get hurt on my behalf. Understand?”
The armorer half smiled, his head ducking again. “Yes, Majesty.” He said. “I do understand.”
A little silence fell. “What’s your name?” Xena finally asked.
“Welcome to Hades handbasket, Jonas.”
“Thank you, Majesty.”
Gabrielle knelt by the fire, humming softly under her breath as she worked, one ear cocked to listen to the sounds in the outer room. Xena was in there talking to some men, and she could hear the queen’s voice floating over to where she was kneeling, the words inaudible but the music of it clear as a bell.
She loved to hear Xena talk. Even when she was cursing, she still liked it, and the few times Xena had sung to her were cherished moments above all others.
She gave the soup a stir, then straightened as she heard Xena’s footsteps approaching. She turned and a smile crossed her face as the queen appeared in the entrance to their private chambers, leaning against the doorway and crooking a finger at her. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Xena said. “Busy?”
Gabrielle wiped her hands as she got to her feet. “Just getting us some lunch ready.” She answered. “Did you need me for something?”
“Hedonistic pleasure.” The queen replied promptly. “But for right now, I just want you to come get fitted for something sexy.”
Gabrielle sighed inwardly, but set her hearth cloth down and headed for the door, running her fingers through her hair to settle it. “I didn’t think the tailor would be ready yet.. I just talked to him yesterday. Guess he wants to keep you happy, huh?”
Xena caught her arm and pulled her gently to a halt. “Keep me happy?” The dark haired woman looked sharply at her. “You got something against looking nice?”
“No.. no, I..” Gabrielle hesitated. “I didn’t mean that, of course I like it, in fact I..” She fell silent as Xena’s finger touched her lips.
“No.” The queen tapped her finger against her consort’s mouth. “No lies, remember? Don’t start that with me, Gabrielle. I don’t need you mouthing off like the rest of these losers telling me only what I want to hear.”
Gabrielle felt her heart beating double time.
Xena watched the blond woman’s face, seeing the fear and uncertainty, barely hidden, lurking there. “What’s wrong with you?”
Gabrielle swallowed, but kept her eyes fastened on Xena’s. “I just want you to be happy.” She uttered. “So if dressing me up makes you happy, then I’m glad to do it. It’s not a lie.”
“But you don’t like it.” The queen pressed her. “Do you?”
After a moment the blond woman tilted her head slightly. “Not really, no.” She admitted. “I mean..it’s okay, but I’d rather be in your colors, or just this.” She indicated the cotton tunic. “I’m sorry.”
Now, Gabrielle looked down. “I don’t want to disappoint you.” She said. “I don’t think I’m really cut out for this consort stuff.”
Xena patted her cheek. “Bullshit.” She leaned over and kissed her on the lips. “You’re the best consort I’ve ever had. So pull your sheepskin socks up, herder, and c’mon in here. I want you wrapped in pink lace for dinner tonight.”
Without moving a muscle, Gabrielle grimaced. “Okay.” She wasn’t fond of pink, and she hadn’t thought Xena was either, but with the queen, you just never knew. “Can it be dark pink at least?”
“Wuss. You don’t like pink lace?”
“How about we curl your hair?” Xena teased. “You’d look cute.”
Gabrielle relaxed a little, realizing her tail was being pulled. “Okay, if you get yours curled too.” She said, as they walked together into Xena’s public audience space.
Xena growled a little.
“And you let me braid it.”
“Oh, you’re pushing it.” The queen warned her, as they slipped past the heavy, hanging curtains to where Xena’s worktable was set up, and two men waited. “I’m gonna spank your wooly tail for that later.”
Gabrielle smiled, as they closed in on the two strangers, and she straightened a little as the nearer one, a tall, bearded man, studied her intently. “Hello.” She murmured warily.
Both men bowed. “M’lady.”
Xena snickered. “Boy she’s got you both fooled.” She ruffled Gabrielle’s hair, and smiled, taking the sting off the comment. “This is Gabrielle.” She eyed the two men. “She’s never been to war before, so I want you to kit her out with everything she’s gonna need.”
The men bowed again. “Twill be an honor, Majesty.” The shorter of the two said, in a deep bass voice.
Gabrielle’s ears perked up. That sounded way more interesting than pink lace. “You mean, like you have?” She asked the queen. “When you went on that trip?” She thought about the leather chests and the folding cups and her eyes brightened. “Wow.”
The queen put her hands on her hips. “Well.” She drawled. “You’re gonna have to share my bed and my tent, but yeah. Everything else.” She found herself somewhat bemused by the ill hidden excitement in her consort’s face. With a faint shake of her head, she turned to the men. “No stinting.” She pointed at them. “She gets the best.”
Both workmen smiled. “Of course, Majesty.” Jonas half bowed again. “Does her grace bear weapons?”
“Well..” Gabrielle hesitated.
“A staff.” Xena replied for her. “And she’s pretty good with a sling.” She walked Gabrielle over to the two. “Make sure what you put her in let’s her move.” Now the queen’s voice became serious. “She’s got good reflexes.”
“Scale and chain, then, Majesty?” Jonas said, his voice brisk. “It would suit her, I think. She has the shoulders for it.”
Gabrielle looked at each shoulder. “I do?”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “That’d work. So go on, and get started. We don’t have much time.” She bumped Gabrielle with her hip. “Eddars, she needs waxed cloaks, and boots that keep her feet dry. Do it right.”
“Majesty.” The shorter man held an arm out. “your grace, do me the honor? We will surely take good care of you.”
Wow. Gabrielle trotted forward willingly, her heart soaring at the queen’s words. It felt so good to really be a part of what was going on, she hardly knew what to think, and she quickened her pace as they left the queen’s chambers and headed out into the hall.
Xena watched them go, a smile on her face that turned a bit wry as she walked back over to her worktable and put her hands on it. “I could have promised her gems and golden underwraps, and not make her as happy as offering her chain mail did. What a nutcase.”
“Majesty?” Stanislaus had entered, and he hesitated. “Were you speaking to me?” He asked. “I have sent messengers out, and Mistress, a rider is approaching, the guard sent word.”
“From the west?” Xena asked, sharply.
“I know not, Mistress.” The seneschal answered. “Just up the main road.”
“Have him brought to me.” Xena said, rolling up some of the scrolls, and tying them with efficient movements. “Now things are starting to happen. I can feel it, can’t you, Stanislaus? The whole world’s waking up around us.”
The seneshal gazed at her in momentary puzzlement. “Yes, Mistress.” He said. “I’m sure its as you say.” He draped a light cloak over the high chair near the door. “As you asked, Mistress. I will go attend again to the many details of prepardness.”
Xena rolled her eyes, then she went to the windows and looked out, putting her hands on the jamb to either side. The sun was pouring in the room and it spilled over her, raising her spirits even further. She watched the breeze ruffle the flowers in the garden and found herself enjoying the colors of them.
Far off, she caught a sound that made her smile even wider. The soft clank and thud of fighters practicing in the yard, accompanied by the hoarse yells of men.
Suddenly the stronghold felt small around her, and she felt a wild urge to be outside it’s walls, under the wide, blue sky and away from the court and all it’s finery.
She wanted to be free. She wanted to be on the edge of danger, where every day, every moment would bring new things and she could see the sun rise over unknown land at every morning.
Xena rested her head against the sun warmed glass, understanding in a deep way the excitement she’d felt from Gabrielle as her consort went off with the armorers. She didn’t know how horrible it would be to be out on campaign, but it didn’t matter just like it didn’t matter to Xena, who most certainly did know.
She’d asked Gabrielle what she remembered about the journey they’d taken before the frost, and her answers had told Xena everything she needed to hear.
She remembered the crystal clear skies, and the stars, and the peace of the evening fire. Not the cold, and the misery of the weather, and the fear, and the anguish they’d both been through.
The queen exhaled. “Yes, Jellaus?”
“Must the little one go with you?” The court musician asked, in a gentle voice.
Xena stared at the flowers. “Yes.” She answered, in an equally soft tone. “Oh yes.”
“Would it not be better to leave her safe here?” Jellaus persisted. “She is such a gentle soul.”
Xena turned and leaned back against the glass. “She’s mine.” The queen said, flatly. “She doesn’t want me to leave her here.” She watched the musician’s face. “Go on. Ask her.”
He sighed. “No need, Mistress. I know it for the truth.” Jellaus said. “I just fear for her, is all.”
“Fear is pointless.” The queen remarked. “You can die right in your bed if one of those spider’s gets ya, Jellaus. If we go out there and croak, at least we’ll croak doing something and with any luck, it’ll be quick.”
The minstrel sighed again.
Xena eyed him. “Wanna go too?” She guessed. “Tired of making songs about flowers and stupid birds?”
His lips twitched. “And little mice.” He murmured. “Ah, Mistress.”
The queen merely chuckled wickedly, and turned back to the sun.
Wow. Gabrielle paused for a moment, leaning against the wall and feeling a bit overwhelmed. “I had no idea you needed that much stuff to be a warrior.” She shook her head, then straightened her tunic, a bit disarranged from her session with the outfitters. “But boy, it’s going to be great to have all that stuff when we’re walking around out there.”
Exciting. But a bit sobering too, as the armoror carefully measured her for all the things she’d need to protect her while they were out on campaign, and looked at her hands for what seemed an eon to fit a small hilt to them.
However, lunch had passed, and the sun was starting to arch towards the west and it was time for some exercise. She pushed off from the stone and walked down the path away from the main tower, past the blacksmith busy at his anvil, and two men busy building crates.
There was an air of anticipation even she could feel, almost a humming energy present as she threaded her way through the work areas and it reminded her of the look she’d seen in Xena’s eyes as she talked about the preparations for battle.
War was terrible, Jellaus had told her, and yet… She remembered the battle at the gates, and her heart racing, even through the horror of the bloodshed.
Gabrielle slipped inside the stable door and ducked past the hanging posts of bridles and tack, carefully skirting the big box stall that held Xena’s black stallion as she went to the smaller enclosure next to it.
Inside the enclosure was a pony, his back just even with Gabrielle’s eyes, his off white coat and large, irregular reddish patches making him somewhat out of place along side his fancier neighbors. “Hi, Patches!”
The pony’s head lifted from where he was chewing hay in the corner, and he wheeled and came over to her, shoving his shaggy head into her chest in an evident warm greeting. “How are you? She scratched him behind his ears and smiled, feeling a deep affection for the animal. “Want to go for a ride?”
Patches bobbed his head, and Gabrielle slipped his bridle on, then opened the door to his enclosure and led him towards the door. As they passed Tiger’s stall, the big stallion whickered and poked his head over the edge, whuffling at them.
Gabrielle paused and patted his nose. “Sorry, big boy, you’re out of my league. Your mom’ll be down here in a little while, okay?” She grinned wryly at the grumpy head toss, and continued on, pushing the door open and emerging into the sunlight with her agreeably ambling steed.
Outside, the busy workers hardly gave her a second look, now used to her presence near the queen’s favorite animals. Two of the guards, however, hurried forward. “Hold it, guys.” Gabrielle called out. “I’m just going into the grassy spot over there.”
One of the guards looked over at the field. “Tis well, m’lady.” He said. “Does her majesty come soon, then?”
“Yep, she’s just finishing up a meeting.” Gabrielle paused. “You ready for me to jump on, Patches?”
The pony eyed her with what could only be amusement, but he stood steady as a rock as she crouched a little, then hopped and pulled herself up, swinging one leg over his back and getting onboard . “Good boy.” Gabrielle patted his neck, as she settled her legs around his shaggy, warm sides and straightened, relaxing her torso as Xena had taught her.
It felt good, now that she’d gotten used to it. “Let’s go.” She squeezed her legs against him and took the reins in one hand, letting the other drop to her thigh as they proceeded across the stable yard towards the inner pasture.
The small square was just an exercise yard, really, but she knew it was safe there for her to practice her riding and Xena wouldn’t mind that she went ahead of her there. It was squarely in the middle of the stronghold walls, surrounded by the stable buildings stretching away on two sides and as they entered the space, two grooms leading a chestnut mare waved at her.
Gabrielle waved back, then she clucked her tongue at Patches and squeezed his sides a little, rewarded by the pony amiably breaking into a rambling trot.
The trick, Gabrielle had learned, was to relax. The tenser you were, the more you bounced, and bouncing was just no fun. She enjoyed the cool breeze blowing against her, and the sense of freedom she got when she rode.
Totally different than when she rode behind Xena, sometimes, on Tiger’s broad back. Then she was just a passenger, mostly hanging on for dear life as the big stallion raced across the grass, her face buried into the cloth over the queen’s back hoping she didn’t lose her grip.
Riding Patches was totally different. She was in control, well, sort of, and a lot closer to the ground to boot, and she could ride him bareback where Xena always rode Tiger with a saddle.
Of all the things the queen had taught her over the winter, she liked this the best. Gabrielle leaned forward and tightened her grip, laughing a little as Patches immediately sped up into a canter, and then a gallop, her hair whipping back as she exulted in the feeling of near flying. “Whoo hoo!”
Patches whickered and shook his head, bolting lightly over the ground, his small hooves sending up only tiny pockets of earth as he swerved agilely around the churned up dips from the larger horses passing, responding as Gabrielle urged him faster.
At the end of the pasture she slowed the pony, taking him around in a circle a few times as he pranced over the rich, churned earth. With a pressure of one knee, she sent him in the other direction, arching her back as she watched the grooms lead one of the new mares into the square with them. “Oh, look at her, Patches! Isn’t she pretty?”
The mare had a finely boned face and kind brown eyes, and she whickered at them as the man set her free to run. Gabrielle turned Patches to keep her in view, and she exhaled in wonder as the horse seemed to gather the light into her golden coat and reflect it off her silvery white mane and tail. “Wow.”
Patches bobbed his head as if in agreement, whickering to the mare and trotting towards her as she galloped around them. The mare slowed as they approached and shook her head, rearing up a little and watching them warily.
“No, it’s okay.” Gabrielle held one hand out to her. “We just want to say hello, you pretty, pretty girl.” She could see the horse was young, and there was a touch of wildness about her. “We won’t hurt you.”
After a suspicious moment, the mare sniffed her hand and then nibbled her fingertips as Patches extended his head and his nostrils flared. “This is Patches.” Gabrielle introduced the pony. “He’s my friend, and he’s a hero, did you know that?”
The mare regarded the pony momentarily, then she tossed her head in the air and dodged around them, breaking into a gallop as she headed for the end of the enclosure. “Hey! Be careful!” She urged Patches after the mare. “Don’t go so fast!”
The pony responded, bolting after the mare and rapidly picking up speed as he chased after her, both animals moving at a dangerous speed towards the high fence at the far end of the exercise yard, that separated the stable area from the rest of the workspace. “Hey!”
Gabrielle clamped her legs around Patches’ sides, her worry for the mare overtaking her self interest. She guided the pony towards the fast running mare, taking the shorter route to the fence in hopes they could head her off. “Hey!” She yelled at the top of her voice, aware of equally loud, male yells behind her. “Stop!”
The mare ignored all of them, racing towards the fence as though she expected to go right through it. Gabrielle urged Patches on, but she could tell they weren’t going to make it in time. She kept going anyway, refusing to give up on the chase. “Hey! Hey!”
Hoofbeats behind her, but they were far in the distance. Gabrielle looked frantically around her as the fence closed in and suddenly she was aware of a motion in her peripheral vision, a streak of color, of restless, animal energy that wasn’t there,
Then was there, then the fence was coming at her and she felt Patches starting to skid and she was leaning the other way and they were showered by dirt and the mare was screaming and pulling up and the motion came at them and then..
“What in the Hades do you all think you’re doing!” Xena’s voice shattered the confusion, as the queen grabbed onto the mare’s neck in midmotion, pulling herself onto the horses back as it bucked and screamed in protest. “Cut that out ya she whore!”
Oh boy. Gabrielle managed to get Patches to stop just in time, her knee scraping against the fence as the pony scrabbled out of the mare’s way. “Xena!” She called. “I was just..l”
“Busy now!” The queen had her hands seriously full, as the mare tried her best to scrape her unwelcome rider off against the fence. “Apologize later!’
Right. Gabrielle concentrated on getting clear of the plunging mare and she got Patches turned in a circle, spotting the grooms racing across the grounds towards them with ropes.
Xena had gotten her legs clamped around the mare’s sides, and she had one hand wrapped firmly in the silken silver mane, her other hand fending off the fence that threatened to batter her senseless. “C’mon, you little bitch.” She growled, leaning forward to catch the mare’s eye. “Cut that out!”
The brown eye rolled back in her direction, and the mare bared her teeth, arching her neck around and snapping at Xena’s leg. The queen reached over and grabbed the horse’s nose, pinching it hard as the muscular body twisted under her. “I said.. “ She lowered her voice and injected a good dose of homicidal maniac into it. “Stop that.”
The mare’s teeth worked, and she tried to wrench her head out of the queen’s grip, but Xena held fast, and after a moment of stalemate, the horse stopped trying to bash her rider against the fence and sidestepped away.
“That’s better.” Xena released her, and readied herself for the corkscrew buck she felt building between her legs. “Oh, c’mon.” She felt the animal explode under her, turning half round in mid air and coming perilously close to tossing the queen head over ass into the dirt.
The strength of the mare was surprising. Xena concentrated on the contact she felt down the length of her legs, closing her eyes as she went with the motion and then quickly leaned back as the horse went into a series of savage hops.
Ow. The queen opened her eyes and started looking for an exit strategy. She had a fondness for her insides and at this rate, they were heading towards coming out her nose. “All right.. all right.. take it easy. I’m getting off!”
The mare whirled and started to run, then halted as the circle of grooms closed in. She screamed and stood up on her hind legs, pawing at the air with her forlegs and snorting in anger. Xena grabbed on with both hands and started to unwind her legs, afraid the animal was going to fall over sideways. “Yahhh!”
Gabrielle broke out of her paralysis and urged Patches forward, putting the pony between the grooms and the mare. “Stop!” She called urgently. “You’re scaring her!”
“NO they’re not!” Xena yelled, outraged.
“Not you!” Gabrielle shouted. “The horse!”
“Majesty!” The lead groom yelled. “Let her go! We’ll catch her!”
Xena sighed and took a firmer grip on the horses mane. “Oh sure.” She muttered. “Let you all see a horse get the better of me, yeah, right. What’s next, I start knitting?’ She lifted her voice. “Just stay the Hades back!”
The mare screamed, and landed, her ears back hard against her head, and her teeth bared. Then with a wrench, she whirled and headed back towards the fence, seemingly intent on destruction.
Gabrielle clutched Patches mane, caught between wanting to do something to help Xena and not knowing what that something was. She watched in growing horror as the horse raced towards the fence, apparently deciding to try and run right through it. “Oh.. she’s got to stop!”
Without further thought, she squeezed Patches sides and released his head, urging him after the running mare. The pony responded eagerly, moving from a canter to a gallop in short order. She leaned over his neck and wiped her free hand on her leg, clenching her fingers as she kept Xena’s struggling form in her vision. “Xena!”
The name was ripped from her throat. She saw the queen half turn on the horses neck, and briefly a flash of ice blue appeared as Xena looked back at her.
Was that a smile? Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she watched Xena suddenly grab the mare around the neck and unlatch her legs, flinging herself off the animal just as they reached the fence.
The queen’s body launched sideways, and the animal reared at the same time, and the result was that Xena’s grip pulled the horse’s head around to one side and her body followed, and they both crashed to the ground in a tangle of black and gold and thick, brown dust.
“Xena!” Gabrielle yelled again, flinging herself off Patches as the pony came to a skidding halt. She hit the ground running and scrambled over the rutted ground to where the horse was struggling, it’s neck caught in Xena’s powerful grip. “Xena!”
There was no answer. Xena’s body was half trapped under the horses, and her head was pressed against the animal’s mane as she fought to keep it from rolling completely over onto her. Gabrielle dodged the mare’s flailing legs as she reached for Xena’s shoulder, tense and dust covered. “Xena!”
“Hey!” The queen yelled suddenly. “I know my damn name!”
“Yahh!” Gabrielle nearly jumped back. “Are you okay?”
Xena clamped her fingers around the horse’s neck, as the animal tried to bite her. “Peachy.” She grunted. “Get the Hades back, you nitwit! The damn thing’s gonna roll over and crush us both!”
Instead of moving away, Gabrielle dropped to her knees at the horse’s head, perilously close to the snapping teeth. “Hey, easy there, girl.”
“Gabrielle!” Xena hissed.
“Shh… Xena.. you’re scaring her!” Gabrielle reached out and touched the mare’s moving head. “C’mon, just stop yelling at her, and she’ll calm down.”
There was a dangerous silence, and after a moment, Gabrielle looked up to find Xena glaring back at her with a look that could easily curdle milk. Then she had to look away as the mare started moving again. “Easy, girl. Easy.” She eased one arm under the horses neck, aware of the teeth close to her shoulder. “Okay, I’ve got her, Xena.. can you get out?”
“You know something, Gabrielle?” The queen said, in a quiet tone. “You’re damn lucky I love you more than good sense cause otherwise I’d just have to kill you.”
Gabrielle felt a lot of motion happen, then. She was grabbed by the scruff of the neck and the horse yanked it head out of her arms and then the ground was moving and she was moving and she heard the horse’s hooves hit the fenceposts as she was pulled head over heels to land in the dirt near Patches as Xena joined her a moment later, landing with consummate grace on her behind as the mare scrambled to her feet and bolted off.
The grooms ran after her, leaving the two women on the ground behind. After a brief pause, Xena lifted one hand and wiped a bit of dirt off her cheek, then she rolled her head around and ended up gazing at a prudently silent Gabrielle. “Does it pay for me to ask you what the Hades you thought you were doing?”
Gabrielle pulled her legs up crossed under her in the dirt. “Well” She picked up a bit of stone, and played with it. “I was just doing what I thought would help.” She peeked at the queen. “I didn’t want the horse to hurt you.”
Xena sighed. “Well.” She mimicked her consorts tone. “She put a few dents in me so you’re going to have to pamper me unmercifully later.” The queen slowly got to her feet, grimacing a little as she put weight on the leg she’d trapped under the horse. “C’mere.”
Gabrielle got up quickly and went to her side, sliding an arm around her waist. “That was amazing.” She said, as they started to walk slowly across the field, Patches ambling behind them. “The way you just jumped on her.. wow.”
“Yeah.” Xena felt like every bone in her body was cracked. “Ain’t I something?”
The queen glanced across the field, relieved to see the horse under rope and surrounded by the grooms. The animal was fighting them tooth and nail, and despite what she’d just been through Xena couldn’t help feeling a certain admiration for the mare. “Kickass.” She commented. “Nice blood.”
“Even if she just hurt you?” Gabrielle also glanced at the mare. “She is really pretty.”
“Yeah.” Xena sighed. “Not her fault. That temper comes with the line.” She paused, and studied the mare. “Didn’t realize Lastan was bringing his stock up.”
Gabrielle heard the change in her tone. “You know that horse?” She asked. “Oh, I remember.. at the race. The Duke had a horse like this one, you liked it.”
Xena altered their course and started towards where the grooms were. “Her granddam was mine.” She said, after a moment. “When I retired, I figured she was due it too and sent her out to Lastan’s place.” She watched as the horse kicked out viciously, nailing one of the grooms in the knee with a audible crack. “She bred true, that’s for sure.”
“She’s really feisty.” Gabrielle noted. “Was your horse like that too??”
Xena remained silent for a few steps, then she half shook her head. “Yeah.” She stopped and turned, looking at Gabrielle. “What made you do what you did, with her?” She asked, with a sudden intentness. “It’s just a horse. Why chase after her?”
The blond woman blinked, and shifted her gaze aside. “I don’t know.” She stammered, after a pause. “We were out here riding and she came out with us.. she let me pet her, and then..” Gabrielle looked up at the queen. “It was like she was just so desperate to be free. She didn’t care. She just went for that fence like it was more important to her than living.”
“Eh huh.” Xena eyed her. “And you were going to… pick her up and toss her over the fence?”
Gabrielle frowned. “I wasn’t going to do that, Xena.” She said. “I was just trying to stop her from getting hurt I guess.. maybe.. I don’t’ know.” She paused. “She shouldn’t throw her life away like that.”
Xena appeared thoughtful, then she shrugged. “Okay, whatever.” She continued on towards the mare. “Damn good thing you didn’t catch up to her again. You’d probably have lost an arm and that would have ruined my hedonistic nights for a while.”
Her body still ached, and she stopped just short of the group of hard working grooms, who now had three ropes on the mare and a hobble on her hind legs. The big golden horse was obviously hating every moment of it, her eyes rolling and white rimmed, and froth coming freely from her mouth.
Xena looked at the mare, and as her eyes met the animal’s, the memories surged up and took her by surprise with their poignant strength. She stopped moving, and exhaled, remembering that last goodbye. “Damn.”
“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle whispered. “Are you really hurt? Should I get some help?”
“Nah.” Xena scrubbed her face with one hand. Then she let it drop and disentangled herself from Gabrielle’s hold, walking forward to where the grooms were working. “Hold it, boys.”
The grooms all stopped, and turned. “Mistress.” One of them came forward, wiping his hands nervously. “Mistress, we didn’t think she’d bolt as so, I swear it. If you’ve come to harm from her, say the word and we’ll put her down.”
Xena merely waved him aside as she circled the horse, the rest of the grooms drawing back to give her space. They watching her uncertainly, and she could only imagine what she looked like after wrestling the damn beast to the ground and nearly getting squashed by it.
So much for the queen’s dignity. She could see long scrapes down the parts of her arms not covered by her leather shirt and the scent of the rich earth clung strongly to her.
Ah well. The queen came round to the mare’s head, now tied firmly to the work post. “All right, kiddo.” She consciously pitched her voice lower, calmer, taking the edge out of it. “You don’t want me to have to do something drastic, now do ya?”
The horse glared at her, and half reared, even tied as she was. Her forelegs struck out, trying to hit Xena, but the queen just stood there, sure of her safety. “Now, c’mon. Where’s that gonna get ya, huh?” She edged a little closer and held a hand out.
For a moment, the mare paused and seemed to study her. Encouraged, Xena lowered her hand and turned it to one side, easing it towards the animal’s muzzle. “Be nice, and I’ll have those ropes off ya. You’d like that, huh?”
The mare jerked back away from her, as far as the ropes would allow. Xena paused, and nibbled the inside of her lip. She’d started off all wrong with the animal, but it wasn’t the first time she’d made that mistake, now was it?
Maybe the beast needed a little time to cool off. “Take her inside the stables.” She told the grooms. “Put her in the big box, where we kept Tiger last year. That should hold her.”
“Mistress. As you will.”
“Give her a feed, and let her be. No one’s to mess with her. Got me?” Xena turned to look at them. “Have the farrier check her.”
Xena snorted softly and dusted her hands off. “She just had a screaming manic hanging off her head and throwing her to the ground. Make sure she didn’t get hurt.” Her eyes caught a motion, and she turned to find Gabrielle behind her, looking up at the horse and offering her something in her palm. “What’s that?” She caught the blond woman’s hand.
“Just an apple.” Gabrielle answered. “I thought she might like it. She looks thirsty, and they’re really juicy.”
“Later.” Xena turned her around and started walking back towards the stables. “Or give it to your rag doll there. He likes em too.”
“He’s not a rag doll. He’s a great horse.” Gabrielle could sense the turmoil in the woman next to her, and she knew asking a direct question would make Xena mad.
Well, madder than she was, at any rate. “I’m sorry if I did something silly out there. “She decided to apologize instead. “I was really just trying to help.”
Xena put her arm around her again. “I know.” She said. “Thanks.”
Gabrielle looked up at her. “You’re not mad?”
“No.” The queen sighed a little. “It would have kicked me in the ass to have something happen to that horse. You did the right thing.” Her head turned and she looked at Gabrielle. “Even if you had no clue what you were doing.”
“Good.” Xena pushed the door to the stables open. “Let’s see what other trouble we can get into, shall we?”’
The fire crackled softly, it’s golden depths reflected in the pale eyes watching it over the rim of a silver cup with steam gently rising from it’s surface.
Xena took a sip of the mulled wine, then lowered the cup again, feeling the gentle tug of the comb as Gabrielle ran the tines through her hair. The touch felt good against her scalp, and she tilted her head back as her consort riffled her fingers through her bangs. “So.”
Gabrielle looked down at her. “Do you feel better now?”
“What makes you think I felt bad before?” Xena let the back of her head rest against the blond woman’s stomach. “I’m tougher than that damn filly is.”
Gabrielle ran her fingers through the queen’s hair again, rubbing gently around her temples and watching her eyes flutter closed. “You were just being quiet. I thought maybe you felt bad.” She stroked Xena’s cheek. “Or mad.”
“Nah.” Xena was thoroughly enjoying the attention. “That messenger pissed me off, but I got over it.”
“About the ruined farms?”
The queen nodded. “Bastards. I’d bet my left nipple it’s Brego’s dregs.”
Gabrielle started a slow massage of her neck and shoulders. “I sure hope you win that bet.” She murmured. “I like that one.”
Xena’s eyes opened right up and she peered at her consort, one dark, finely arched eyebrow hiking up sharply, to find her consort smiling impishly back at her. “You raunchy little thing, you.” She found herself smiling back. “But you know, I figured it’s on my way to the pass, so I’ll knock off two buzzards with one gut shot.”
“Those poor people.” Gabrielle’s expression sobered. “Especially those children.. Xena, that’s terrible how they were left out in the weather. Why didn’t they bring them here? You would have let them in, wouldn’t you?”
Xena studied the firelit face above her, it’s rounded planes faintly gilded. “Did you forget who you’re talking to?” She asked, after a brief, bemused pause. “Why would I take in a bunch of starving kids?”
Gabrielle’s hands stilled. “Would you let them die outside the gate?” She asked, gazing intently down at the strong profile. “Really?”
The queen pondered the question.
“I don’t think you would.” The blond woman said, after a long silence. “You wouldn’t just leave them there.”
Would she? Xena was disturbed to realize she honestly didn’t know the answer to that question anymore. “Given how we met, I’m surprised you think that.” She remarked, watching the expression on her consort’s face shift, as she turned away a little. “But you know something, I just don’t gods be damned know what the Hades I’d do now.”
Gabrielle looked back at her. Xena’s expression was quiet and thoughtful, not angry, and though the moment of their meeting still caused pain in her heart, she took this moment and set it aside to somberly cherish. “I think you’d take them in.” She leaned over and kissed Xena’s head with gentle reverence.
Xena smiled wryly. “I think you’d chew my ankles until I did.” She said. “But there’s no point in talking about it, cause their own parents left em to croak in the snow anyway.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Horrible as my father was.. I don’t think he’d have done that.”
Privately, Xena had her doubts. Gabrielle’s unlamented crumb of a father had beaten her, raped her sister, and left them out in the cold…
The queen stopped, as the last few words echoed softly into her conscience.
“You know something?” The queen murmured. “I think I should go find those bastards who left those kids in the snow and kill them.” She paused, then looked up. “Think that’s a good idea?”
The stunned look on Gabrielle’s face almost made her smile. Xena knew her sudden change of heart had more to do with her affection for her cute bedmate than any softening of her views but it was fun to see the widened eyes anyway.
“Would you do that?”
“Makes a better story than me leaving kids outside the gates, huh?” Xena studied her consort’s face. “That’s the problem with having a storyteller around… you always gotta be sure your good side’s showing, you know?”
Gabrielle encircled Xena’s neck with her arms and gently hugged her, exhaling into the back of her head. She could feel the softness of the queen’s hair against her cheek, and after a moment of silence, Xena’s fingers curled around her arm and lightly squeezed and they simply existed there together.
“So.” The queen said, after it had gone on long enough to make her a bit uncomfortable. “Got any good stories about sexy maidens in distress?”
Gabrielle straightened up and wiped the back of her hand across her eyes, then she started combing Xena’s hair out again. “I know one where a maiden in distress gets saved by a sexy queen. Does that count?”
“Heh.” Xena chuckled softly. “I love that story.”
So did Gabrielle, but for many different reasons than her lover. “Want me to tell that one? I remembered a few more things the other day I wanted to put in it.” She finished her combing, then braided the dark strands into a loose knot.
“Mm. Sure.” Xena seemed lost in the touch again, her head resting lightly against Gabrielle’s body, her eyes a little unfocused.
Gabrielle watched her for a minute, then she laid one hand on the queen’s shoulder. “Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”
The blue eyes looked sharply up at her. “Do I look sick?”
The blond woman shook her head. “Just sad.” She answered. “Are you thinking about that horse?”
Xena got up unexpectedly and moved away from the fire, turning her back to Gabrielle and crossing to the windows to look out of them. She put her hands on the sill and leaned towards the leaded glass, her breath fogging the surface faintly.
Gabrielle remained where she was, having learned the hard way that when the queen needed space, she needed it. Instead of following, she collected the small tray of dishes from their evening snack and took it into the alcove, where one of the chambermaids would pick it up in the morning.
She returned to the fire, swinging the wine a little closer to heat again and giving the cushions on the queen’s favorite chair a shaking out, lifting the thick quilt that was draped over the back, and that Xena would sometimes put over her knees in the cold and straightening it.
It was crimson, and roughly woven, and there was an even pattern of blue and green strips through it. Gabrielle liked the cloth, and she often ran her fingers over the worn surface that brought back vague memories of home to her.
A plain, shepherds cloth.
“What made you say that?” Xena asked, from the corner. “About the horse?”
Gabrielle took the invitation and crossed the room to stand next to the queen, looking out at the dark, moonless sky and the faint shadows in the night. “You’ve just been really quiet since then. I thought maybe you were thinking about that.”
“I’ve been quiet?” Xena looked down at her.
“Yeah, well.” The queen turned and leaned against the glass. “I wasn’t thinking about that horse. So forget about it.”
“Okay.” The blond woman pressed her nose against the window. “Those armor guys were amazing, Xena. I never knew you had to have so much stuff out there.” She exhaled on the glass, then pressed her fingertips in the resulting fog, making eyes and a nose. “They’re making me a folding up cooking kit, and really fantastic boots, too.”
“I told them to take care of you.” Xena said. “But this ain’t going to be a walk in the garden, muskrat.”
“I know. I remember when we were going up the mountain. It was hard.” Gabrielle said. “But I liked it. Until we got attacked, I mean.”
“Until I walked us into a trap, you mean.” The queen sighed. “Yeah, that was fun. Loved every minute of that, for damn sure.” She shoved away from the glass. “C’mon. Let’s go to bed. I’m tired of thinking.” She stalked across the room and went to the silver basin, plunging her hands into it and splashing her face with the room cooled water.
Gabrielle obediently went over to the big, plush bed they shared and sat down on it, slipping out of her soft booties and blowing out the candle on her side table. It had been a long day, and she felt a little tired, and more than a little unsettled by Xena’s moodiness.
It gave her a stomach ache. Gabrielle wiggled her toes and then pulled her legs up onto the bed, stretching them out along the thick cover, the cool surface warming quickly to her skin. She leaned back against the pillows and folded her hands over her stomach, watching from the corner of her eye as Xena patted her face dry with a piece of linen before she turned, and started towards the bed to join her.
Even in a plain shift, she filled Gabrielle’s imagination. She waited for the queen to sit on the bed and then stretch out next to her, before she rolled over onto her side, and simply took Xena’s hand in her own and clasped it.
Xena studied the bed’s canopy briefly. “We’re not going to wait for the festival.” She said. “We’re leaving as soon as the supplies are ready.”
Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat. “Why?”
“Because I want to.” Xena said “Something’s bugging me to get out there.”
“Okay.” The news was scary, and a little overwhelming. “I’ll try to be ready.” She murmured. “Stanislaus said there’s so much to be done, though.”
Xena kept her eyes focused upward. “Yeah, I know.” Her voice was a little rough. She cleared her throat. “Scared?”
Gabrielle had to think about that. “No.. um..” She paused. “Worried, I guess. About all the stuff I don’t know about.” She watched Xena’s profile, seeing an expression there that was strange to her. She wriggled a little closer, seeing the queen’s eyes blink a few times. “About you.”
Xena’s head turned, and she met Gabrielle’s gaze. “Know what I was thinking about before?” She asked. “That horses granddam.” Her voice dropped, gentling. “I loved her like crazy.”
“I figured that.”
The queen turned on her side, so they were facing each other. “I gave her to Lastay because I was afraid the same thing would happen to her that happened to Lyceus.” She exhaled slowly. “Damn, that hurt. She was the last of my family.”
Tears stung Gabrielle’s eyes, and she slid her hand up the queen’s arm, knowing a moment of synergy with her as she remembered that first, horrific night she’d spent in the stronghold after seeing Lila die. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too.” Xena’s body relaxed, almost into a slump. “Wolves got her. Couple years after. I never got a chance to say goodbye.” She fingered the silken sheets, the candles providing just enough light for them to see each other. “Seeing that filly today.. brought that all back, I guess.. reminded me I’m going out there and risking everything again and..”
The queen stopped speaking, her eyes wandering past Gabrielle’s face.
Gabrielle wasn’t really sure what to say. She gently turned Xena’s hand over and kissed the palm, then folded her fingers around it again. She could almost feel the sadness and the turmoil inside the dark haired woman, and it surprised her. “You were just trying to keep her safe.”
“Yeah.” Xena shifted, and pulled Gabrielle closer, wrapping her arms around her as they snuggled together in the middle of the bed. “Or maybe I was just fooling myself.” She tucked Gabrielle’s head against her shoulder and sighed. “Wouldn’t have been the first time. Maybe it’s not the last.”
And what, Gabrielle wondered, did that mean?
Xena bit her ear, and the question became irrelevant. At least, for now.
Dawn found Xena standing on the battlements, watching the early morning stirring of the stronghold unfold before her. From where she was, she could see the barracks, and around them there was evidence of the upcoming campaign, from the wagons being constructed to the temporary anvils set up to one side for the armorors already busy beating out plates and weapons.
The bustle was familiar and orderly, and she nodded a few times as she watched the door to the barracks open and men file out, carrying practice swords and bows, with an air of stolid purpose.
She was dressed in her worn practice gear, and soon she’d go down to the barracks practice yard, and join the sparring, crossing that line as she did so and committing herself to the battles to come in a way that just talking about it, and ordering preparations didn’t.
She would leave being the queen behind, and take up the mantle of conqueror again, and she found herself feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension about that.
After a moment, she slapped the top of the wall and then turned and headed for the stairs down, the buckles on her gambeson jingling softly as she took the steps two at a time, the worn, heavy boots she was wearing scuffing against the stone.
The weight of her sword, clipped to holders on her back, felt familiar, and yet strange. Though she often used it in her nightly workouts, she seldom wore it anymore, preferring to simply carry it up to the tower chamber and back again.
She reached the bottom of the steps and started across the foreyard, her sudden presence causing a mild commotion as workers stifling yawns as they walked realized who was crossing their paths and scrambled to bow and curtsey.
Xena walked past them, whistling softly under her breath. She approached the open wall gates that separated the barracks area from the domestic one, and passed through the metal strapped wooden portal with a sense that she was entering a different space.
As she cleared the gate, several of the soldiers spotted her and straightened, bracing and bringing a fist up to their chests in salute. Xena lifted her hand in acknowledgement, then paused as Brendan emerged from the nearest of the barracks, apparently summoned by a call, and approached her.
“Mistress.” The old soldier greeted her with the same raised fist, but his motion was unstudied and natural, and as such, seemed far more sincere. “Welcome.”
“Hope you say that after drill.” Xena remarked, in a pleasant tone, as she slowly turned in a half circle, surveying the work in progress.
“Xena.” Brendan lowered his voice as he used the queen’s given name. “Were ye to beat the lot of us senseless, you’d still be welcome and ye know it.”
Xena swung her head around to study him with a raised eyebrow, which she held momentarily before she broke into a very rakish grin. “The lot of you are kinky bastards.” She told him, her voice then becoming brisk. “Show me what’s been done so far.”
Brendan nodded, as if he’d expected the request, and then he turned and they started walking together. “Got almost three full legions.” He said, as they walked past the first set of anvils. “Had a score of fellers come in yesterday and today, after they heard we were on the move.”
Xena paused, as she spotted Jonas working over his anvil, his focus so intense he hadn’t noticed the stir and sudden silence around him. She walked over and watched him work for a few moments, as he carefully shaped another tiny ring and set it in place. “Nice.”
He jerked, and turned. “Majesty!”
Xena strolled closer and lifted a corner of the square of chain mail, examining it’s quality. The rings were small and tightly knit, in a double layer thick, and yet flexible. She let it drap over her hand, nodding as she could barely see her skin through it. “Good work.”
Jonas ducked his head a trifle. “I will layer leather scale across here..” He touched his own chest. “And down to here.” He indicated his upper thigh.
Xena nodded. “She rides.” She advised him. “Put a leather strip down the inside of the legs. Save the damn horse some grief.”
“Yes, Mistress. She said.” Jonas agreed, quietly. “Tis strange for me, I will be honest, to be kitting out so gentle a soul.”
The queen remained silent for a moment then she snorted softly under her breath. “Imagine how I felt making love to her.” She gave the men a wicked smile. “Next? Got some fletchers working overtime, Brendan?”
“Yes, Mistress.” The old soldier scratched his jaw, muffing a smile. “This way. Biggest problem we had, I tell you, is getting the feathers for it.”
They walked away from the anvils, towards a smaller circle where four rough tables were set in a square, lined with men working on shaping wooden shafts and fitting them with iron barbs and trimmed feathers. “Damned merchants were holding back to sell em to the posh types, for pillas.” Brendan shook his head. “Can you see it?”
Xena, who had several of the aforementioned pillas on her bed, nodded gravely. “Terrible.” She picked up a shaft and glanced down it’s length, pleased with the straightness of it. She fingered the well cured wood, and glanced at Brendan. “This didn’t come from the forest yesterday.”
A faint, wry twinkle entered her old captain’s one remaining eye. “Been drying em since before the frost, Mistress.”
Xena smiled, and set the shaft down. “Have you now?” She waved her hand at the fletchers, who had stopped and stood to attention at her approach. “First thing we gotta do is stop that crap.” She told Brendan. “No time for people to stop working every time I cough.”
They continued on towards the practice grounds. “I’ll put the word out, Mistress.” Brendan said. “The men know it, most of em, but these workers don’t yet.”
Xena glanced up as the sun emerged from behind the walls and bathed the compound in warmth. She felt the light touch her skin, and as they walked past the rows and rows of barracks, the doors started to open and men started to pour out to follow them.
In her plain garb, and workmanlike boots, Xena was unremarkable among them, and knowing that her heart suddenly soared, as she felt herself moving from what now seemed like a dream back into what she knew was her own, personal reality.
It felt good to be covered in leather and rough cloth, and feel the heaviness of boots around her feet instead of the light silks and slippers she’d been wearing these past years. It felt good to breathe in the scent of sun warmed metal, and leather, and horse manure, and hear the grunts of honest workers around her.
She stopped just short of the practice ground and turned to face the crowd of soldiers trooping after them. They stood in silence, their eyes on her as they waited, bodies covered in scuffed leather and mail, faces bearded, weapons slung around them liberally.
“All of you ready to go out there?” Xena’s voice rang out over the sound of her banners, flapping in the wind overhead.
A wordless yell answered her.
“Good.” The queen turned and led the way into the practice yard, her hands already twitching, wanting her own weapons in them. She spread her arms to either side, gathering in the sunlight with a sense of absolute sensual pleasure. “Nice to be back in the ass kicking business.”
Beside her, Brendan smiled, but remained silent. He turned and walked backwards, placing his fingers between his teeth and whistling, with hand gestures directing the troops to their starting points on the field.
Love did, he knew, odd things to people. He’d watched Xena over the winter months as she roamed about the stronghold, Gabrielle never far from her side. He’d expected the queen to fall back into her former habits, but instead, she’d shunned the court, shunned the nobles gatherings, and turned her back on the politics of the realm as she focused on this new fascination in her life instead.
It was almost as if the throne had stopped being important to her, and while Brendan was canny enough to know the danger of that, he was soldier enough to be glad for Xena’s sake for it.
The crown sucked your soul, he was convinced. He’d felt only sadness watching his former commander retreat further and further up into her tower, without friends, without anything other than her growing fondness for wine and her solitary shadow fights up in the tower.
It was like watching a dear friend die, and not being able to do for them. Brendan now watched the tall figure at his right as she picked up a spear and laid it across her broad shoulders, twisting her body to loosen it.
Still the warrior, even after all the years at court. He nodded to himself. Even the mind numbing boredom of ruling hadn’t taken that from her, but he knew the winter had reignited more than just an interest in the world around her this time.
The gods themselves bless that little one. The old soldier exhaled. He didn’t resent Xena’s insistence on taking her consort on campaign with them, but the knowledge that Gabrielle’s life was of deadly importance to his queen weighed heavily on his shoulders.
He knew how important Gabrielle was to this newborn leader, now lazily tossing spear after spear, with a powerful overhand motion to hit straw targets set across the field.
Did Xena know it? He watched her from the corner of his eye. Did she see the new vulnerability Gabrielle represented?
Ah well. Brendan took a deep breath, and released it. The risk was worth getting their leader back, at least to his mind. “Xena?”
The queen turned towards him. “Damned good thing I carry a sword on horseback. If you counted on me to hit something with those things we’d be dead already.” She gave the targets a wry look. “Never was good at that.”
Brendan walked over to her. “Melee’s ready.” He indicated the field. “Are ye for some fun then?”
Xena drew her sword, and extended her arm, twirling the blade in her hand before she then whipped it in a circle, making the very air sing. “Oh yeah.” She finished showing off and let the blade rest against her shoulder. “Let’s do it.”
She threaded her way through the milling soldiers to the center of them, and began to call out orders, directing the field of battle as the men began to group together on either side of a central trench. “Get left there… no you idiot, your other left!”
One of the men next to Brendan hefted his shield. “Should we give her Majesty one of these, sir?”
Brendan chuckled dryly. “Son.” He clapped the man on the shoulder. “She don’t need none of that.”
“Just wait. You’ll see.”
Gabrielle found a good spot up in the tower, with a great view of the practice yard. She tucked her feet up on the bench and leaned her elbow on the window sill, putting her chin down on her arm as she fastened her eyes on the tall, rangy figure in the center, her height and long hair making her stand out from the soldiers around her.
Part of her wanted to be down there, but another part of her felt that this was something that was very personal, very private to Xena and she didn’t want to intrude on it.
She’d come to understand that there was this violence in her beloved, that far from being ashamed of, Xena exulted in.
Now, she watched as the mock battle started, and Xena jumped onto a rock in the center of the field and pointed her sword, directing the men towards each other and she could almost feel the happiness in the queen’s heart.
The men surged forward, and in the blink of an eye, Xena was off her rock and into the thick of it, her sword moving powerfully as she drove back a squad of men, whirling and ducking as two others came in from the side and then surprising them both with a roundhouse kick that sent their weapons flying.
Gabrielle could hear the laugh.
She watched the melee a moment more, then she bit the inside of her lip, struggling with the decision to stay where she was, or go down and join in the fighting. She knew she had very little time to learn even the basics, and make herself less of a liability and more of an asset when they were out there in the middle of a battle.
She turned, to find Jellaus behind her. “Hi.” She indicated the field. “Xena’s down there.”
“I know.” The minstrel chuckled, sitting down next to her. “The stories are already being told in the kitchens.” He peered out the window. “Sure you’re ready for that, little one?”
“No.” Gabrielle answered, putting her chin back down. “I know I’m not. But I’ll learn.”
Jellaus watched her, with a touch of sadness. Her gentle face shifted, as she watched the fighting below. “Yes.” He finally said. “I’m afraid you will, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle apparently didn’t hear him. She got up, patting him on the shoulder. “I’m going to go see what I can learn right now. See you later?”
The minstrel nodded, as he watched her trot off, her pale hair bouncing a little as she ran. “So.” He sighed. “What note is this song going to end on, hm?” He stood and folded his arms over his chest. “Guess I best be packing, idiot that I am.”
Shaking his head, he walked off.