Queen of Hearts
Gabrielle slowly stretched her legs out, watching her heels scrape light tracks in the rich earth as her body relaxed on a sun warmed boulder.
Around her, the army, Xena’s army, swarmed around, the plain before the city walls full of men and horses, and curious other folk wandering out across the grass to inspect the battlefield. No one really seemed to know what was going on, but spirits were high, and the weather was gorgeous.
It felt good to just sit down. She let her hands rest on her thighs, blinking a little as the sunlight spilled over the skin of her knuckles, stained red and brown and rubbed raw across the tops of her index fingers.
Xena was not far off, talking to a bunch of the soldiers. Gabrielle was sure the queen would come over to her next, and she was content to wait, finally letting her mind ramble over everything that had happened to her in the last hours.
It was hard to think about it all. She remembered bits and pieces, the fighting all around her, the yelling, the smell of the poison hide.
She remembered looking between Brendan and Jens and seeing Xena fall.
She remembered running.
Gabrielle gazed at her hands, turning them over to look at the palms. She remembered running towards Xena, and being so mad because she’d seen the queen leading them with such courage, and such boldness and it was horrible that those damned Persians were all ganging up on her.
Not fair. There were so many of them, and only one of her.
Gabrielle curled her fingers slightly, feeling the stiffness in them.
She hadn’t really intended on.. Her thumb moved, rubbing against her fingertips. All she’d wanted to do was get Xena loose, get the Persian soldier off her. Away from her. She hadn’t even thought about what she was going to do when she got close.
Had she? Could she have forgotten she had the sharp tip on the top of her spear, when she rammed it at the soldier?
Maybe. Gabrielle sighed, unable to really remember for sure. She had just felt relief when the soldier was gone, and she saw Xena twisting free and she knew they were okay again, for a few minutes.
She sighed again, then she looked up as she sensed motion and spotted Xena heading her way, the queen’s walk powerful and confident as she approached. “Hi.”
Xena seated herself on the rock next to her lover and likewise extended her legs out, her armor so covered in dirt, mud, and battle ragged she seemed more like a walking scrap wagon than a person. “Hi.”
Gabrielle licked her lips. “Are we okay now?”
The queen lifted up one ankle and placed it on her knee, folding her hands over it. “Well.” She exhaled. “Given the alternative, yeah. We’re fine.” She said. “We beat them, Gabrielle.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle agreed mildly. “That was kinda unexpected, huh?”
Xena chortled under her breath. “As unexpected as meeting you was for me.” She admitted. “And almost as pleasant a result.” She studied the ground around them.
To one side, debris from the siege engines was burning in a pyre, consuming the bodies being dragged over to it. On the other side, city folk were combing the leavings of the Persian army, reclaiming boxes and stores that had been taken from them, and scavenging for other goodies left lying in the grass.
Lennat and his buddies were romping all over, happy as dogs with a dead deer. Xena’s original men were exhausted, but bemusedly pleased, sitting in a bunch not far from where their queen was, tending to many and various injuries from the fight.
Sholeh and her army had retreated down the road, back towards the pass. It wasn’t what Xena wanted to have happen, but since she’d just driven a far superior force away with a dozen men, a muskrat, and a bunch of townies she really wasn’t one to complain.
Besides. She turned and looked at Gabrielle’s profile. “How ya feeling?’
Gabrielle returned her gaze. “I don’t know.” She answered honestly. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel.” She added. “So I guess I’m just tired, and hungry and sort of glad it’s over for now.”
Xena pondered this, then slowly nodded. “Me too.” She put her boot down, and rested her elbows on her knees. “Me too.” After a little silence she laced her fingers together and propped her chin on them. “Damn, I’m wiped.”
Easing a little closer, Gabrielle rested her head against Xena’s shoulder, resisting the urge to simply close her eyes and surrender to the exhaustion herself. “What are we going to do now?” She asked instead. “Do we wait for them to come back here?”
“No.” Xena sighed. “We’ve gotta go chase them down and kill them all, unfortunately. They went the wrong way, the stupid bastards.” She shifted to one hand and flexed the other, covered with cuts and scrapes. “You know, I almost miss that damned castle.”
“Me too.” Gabrielle murmured. “Are we going to chase them now?”
Xena thought in silence for a while. “No.” She said. “No, we’re not.” She added. “I’ve got to convince these nitwits to follow me, for one thing, and for another, we need supplies.”
The queen blinked slowly. “And I need to get some sleep.” She admitted softly. “I can’t even see straight.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and peered at her companion. “Can we go now?” She put her hand on Xena’s shoulder. “You really don’t look so good.”
“Yeah.” Xena pushed herself to her feet before her body got any more funny ideas and waited for Gabrielle to join her. She whistled a short, sharp whistle and waited, as Tiger heard and broke away from the small herd of horses that had come out from the city and moved towards her. “Let’s go get cleaned up and take a break. I think we earned it.”
“I think so too.” Gabrielle held out a hand as Tiger trotted up, and stroked his nose as he snuffled her fingers. “Do you think they have any ale left? I could use a big cup.”
Xena pulled herself up onto Tiger’s back then offered Gabrielle a hand up. It took all her remaining energy to haul her companion aboard, and she was very glad to turn her stallion’s head towards the wide open city gates and move away, past the half giddy city folks.
“Xena.” Brendan rose up as she went past. “Want an escort?”
The queen gave him a look. “You think there’s anyone in the city more dangerous than the army we just beat?”
Brendan half shrugged, managing a sheepish look. “Nah.” He said. “Just wondering, is all. We’ll take care of things out here, get ready for what’s next.”
Xena sidestepped Tiger over to him. “No you won’t, you goofy old man. Take these poor bastards and go in there, and get some rest. We’re not chasing that bitches tail now.”
“That mean you do want an escort?” Her captain asked, ingeniously.
The queen sighed. “Come on.” She started Tiger forward, and her soldiers filed in behind her. She played idly with the horse’s mane as she felt Gabrielle lean against her, the arms slipping around her waist and gently hugging her providing a warm and comforting touch.
Strategically, going after Sholeh while she was offbalance, and the army was running was a much better idea. Xena knew that. However, she also knew that her force truly consisted of perhaps a score of men plus her and Gabrielle, and she was on the verge of falling off her horse.
So strategically, she was throwing away a golden opportunity in favor of probably living, and keeping her men alive, and giving her muskrat a rest she obviously needed as much as Xena did.
Shame, really. Xena sighed. “You know something, muskrat? I’m an idiot.”
“I don’t think so.” Gabrielle murmured. “I think you’re amazing and brilliant.” She was glad to turn her mind to this more pleasant subject. “You knew exactly what to do, and you did it.”
Xena snorted under her breath. “I so have you snowed.” She sighed. “Lucky for me, I’ve got everyone else snowed too. But you know what? I shoulda taken that damn army with me.”
Gabrielle exhaled against the skin peeking through Xena’s armor. “Which army, the Persians?”
“Oh. You mean our army.” The blond woman murmured. “That we left back on the other side of the mountains.”
Gabrielle scratched her nose. “They’d be kinda handy right now, that’s true.”
The queen chuckled wryly. “They sure would.” She agreed. “If they were here, I’d split them into two forces, and take one directly after that crazy bitch and send the other against her flank on the far side. Get em between two pinchers, and crush em.” She lifted a hand and curled her fingers into a fist.
“Maybe I can steal Sholeh’s army.” Xena mused. “I think I got some of em turned around there.. doncha?” She glanced back at her passenger. “At the end there? Some of em stayed.”
Gabrielle thought about the end of the fight. “Yes.” She said. “Some of them did, and I think if you’d been at the back still more of them would have stayed too. I think the ones at the back, where we came in, they were running away more than anything.”
“I thought Heydar was going to be less of a jerk.”
“Me too.” Xena grimaced. “Damn it. I should have killed him when I had the chance. What the Hades is wrong with me?” Her shoulders slumped a little, and she shook her head. “I don’t understand how I keep screwing this up so badly and still we kicked their asses. I don’t get it.”
Gabrielle patted her on the side, unsure of what to say to comfort her friend. “Maybe you’ll feel better after we get some rest?” She suggested. “It’s been a kind of long day.”
Xena pondered that. “I’ll feel better once I get washed and we have sex.” She informed Gabrielle. “And maybe have some peaches. Think you can find me some?”
Gabrielle blinked a few times, amazed at the odd combination of reactions her body was producing. “Uh.. yeah. Sure.”
Xena chuckled softly, then sighed.
They approached the gates, and Xena could see inside where most of the city seemed to be gathered. The square that had held her tiny force was now filled with people and makeshift tables where the merchants had gathered all that they had left, and were offering it for sale.
Abruptly, everyone started yelling. Tiger shied, and Xena nearly got dumped on her butt as she grabbed for the horses mane, hearing Gabrielle squeak behind her. “What in the…” She looked quickly around for the threat, then she realized the sound wasn’t as much yelling as it was..
Cheering her name.
“Xena! Xena! Xena!!!” The crowd surged towards her, smiling faces upraised and hands waving. “Xena!!’
“Wow.” Gabrielle straightened up and peered past her companion’s shoulder, feeling a smile appear on her face as she saw the happy greeting. “That’s pretty cool. Xena, look – look at those children! I didn’t even know there were that many children here.. “
The cheers rose again, along with whistles and the sound of drumming on the wood crates scattered around the square. Xena’s back straightened and she sidestepped Tiger a few lengths, raising a hand to acknowledge the accolades.
A huge flock of kids were pouring through the square, their small feet making a soft rattle against the stone ground as they headed for the battered soldiers in their midst. As they reached where Xena was, tiny bodies squirmed through the crowd only to pull to a halt just short of Tiger’s tall form, to stare up at Xena in utter awe.
“Wow!” The closest one said. “Mama! Look!”
A woman hurried up and put her hands on his shoulders, holding him still. “I see, Kiva. Hush.” She looked shyly up at the watching queen. “Your majesty, forgive him.”
“For what?” Xena seemed more bemused than anything. “He didn’t call me an ugly old wart, so what’s the problem?”
The crowd laughed, and Xena chuckled along with them, her mood vastly improved. She relaxed on Tiger’s back and let her hands rest on her thighs, as several of the city elders came bustling through the crowd to face her.
“Your Majesty.” One bowed at her. “Forgive us for not formally welcoming you to our city before now.”
Xena looked at him, looked at the wreck of the square, then she turned and looked back through the gates and the controlled chaos beyond. She turned back around. “Nope. Off with your head.” She drew her sword. “Next!”
“Xena!” Gabrielle grabbed her arm, as the man’s eyes almost came out of his head.
“Just kidding.” The queen put her blade back in it’s covering. “I’ll forgive ya if you can dig up a bathtub big enough for both of us and a keg of ale to wash the taste of Persian cat out of my muskrat’s mouth here. Deal?”
“Bh…” The man moved his mouth as though searching for his tongue inside it. “Ah..”
“We.. we surely can.” The man next to him bravely took over. “Of course, of course – please, come with us.” He said. “Everyone, three cheers for Queen Xena!”
The crowd burst into wild applause and yells.
“Shoulda killed him.” Xena uttered under her breath as she smiled and waved. “Always go with your first instincts, Gabrielle. Otherwise, you just get kicked in the….” She stopped speaking as she was pulled gently backwards and found her lips being nibbled. “Ass.” She finished, as Gabrielle resumed her seat and the crowd continued to cheer.
“Good advice.” Gabrielle said. “Can we go take a bath now?”
Gabrielle would have been happy for a bucket of water and a corner of the stables, to be honest – but she was glad enough to be sitting on the verge of a big marble tub, leaning back against the wall as she ruffled her hair dry with a piece of sturdy, clean linen.
It felt amazing to be clean. She rubbed the edge of one ear as she listened to the soft crackle of the fire in the nearby fireplace, hearing Xena’s voice low and soft just past it. It felt amazing to be clean, and to be sitting still with no immediate impending bad things about to happen.
She got the impression the city was expecting Xena to stick around for a while. The city elders had brought them to a tall, two story townhouse on the far side of the square that had rich tapestries on the wall, thick rugs, and the marble tub she’d just gotten out of.
Not the home of the city mayor, as she’d expected they’d go to, but the former home of a very rich merchant who had fled when the Persians came along with the rest of the aristocrats.
Gabrielle dried her arms and legs off, then she reluctantly got up and went over to where a simple silk robe was waiting, running the tips of her fingers over the fabric before she set down her towel and put the other garment on instead, it’s folds cool against her body as she fastened it.
Her whole body was aching, from her fingertips right up to her head, right down to her toes. She felt like she’d been out in the fields gathering in the harvest for days, the memory of the noise and the chaos of the battle blunting and blending into a fading nightmare.
She walked over to the narrow stone window and looked out, seeing the big impromptu market had spread, and now there seemed to be people preparing for a celebration as well. Did the city think this whole thing was over?
Gabrielle perched on the edge of the window. Was it over for them? Maybe it was. She tried to imagine it from their side, thinking about having the Persians in control for as long as they had been, and then having Xena come and roust them out in a matter of days.
No matter how tired she was, it made her smile.
So if they were going to continue the fight, and go after Sholeh, it would be closer to their own home area and maybe it was over for this river port city, who would now have stories and tales to tell for years and years to come about it.
It felt so strange to know she’d be a part of those stories. Gabrielle turned her hand over in the sunlight coming in the window, the warmth easing the stiffness in her fingers a little. Slowly, she closed her hand and remembered the feel of the spear in it, and the jolt that had almost stopped her in her tracks as the point hit the soldier’s back.
Almost stopped her. She remembered digging her feet into the ground and surging ahead, feeling no fear, no anguish at what she was doing, only a sense of fierce determination driving her along with a surprising amount of…
Anger? Gabrielle frowned. She had been upset, desperately wanting to get the soldiers away from her lover and protect her from them hurting her even though she knew very well that Xena needed no protection. Had she been angry?
She put her head back against the wall. Yes, she had been. Angry at the Persians, and even more angry at Sholeh, who had grabbed her like a sack of wheat and thought she could do what she willed with her.
Reflexively, Gabrielle licked her lips, her jaws still aching a bit from the savage clenching as she’d used this most primitive of weapons against the Persian princess. Now that, she had to admit if even just to herself, had felt good.
Gabrielle turned her head and spotted Xena in the doorway, the queen’s long frame draped in it’s own silk covering. It wasn’t quite as long as Gabrielle’s, and it was a little small on her, but it was good to see her in something other than armor in a place other than a battlefield. “Hello.”
“What are you doing?” Xena left the entrance and crossed over to where she was sitting. “You like this bathing room so much you want to sleep in here or something? Get in the bedroom.”
Gabrielle was almost too tired to stand up. But she made the effort, getting to her feet and wincing at the soreness in her body as she straightened up and met Xena in the center of the room. “I was just watching the stuff out the window.” She explained. “Are you finished with the men?”
“I’ve been finished with men for about twenty years now Gabrielle.” Xena took a step past her and peeked out the window. “But thanks for asking. What the Hades are they doing out there – getting a circus together?”
Gabrielle put her hands around Xena’s wrist, rubbing her thumbs against the skin on the inside of it. She could see so many bruises and scrapes everywhere on her body and the set of the queen’s shoulders indicated how tired she was. “A party I think.” She tugged gently. “Want to go lay down?”
Xena shook her head. “A party.” She turned and faced Gabrielle, gazing down at her. “I want to make my own party. Wanna come?”
Gabrielle managed a half grin. “Yeah, but I don’t think I can stay awake long enough.” She admitted.
Xena put a hand on the back of Gabrielle’s neck and scratched it. “C’mon.” She bumped her companion through the doorway and into the bedroom, where a big, comfortable looking bed was waiting.
Outside the door were soldiers, guarding them. Xena had found herself too damn tired to argue about it, and now that she’d gotten herself cleaned off she had another problem on her mind. “I need you to do something for me before we both keel over.”
Xena went over to the dusty saddlebags that she’d had brought to them. “My side’s bleeding. Bandage isnt’ enough, it needs stitching.” She removed her healers kit, and brought it back over to the bed. “Hurts like Hades.”
Gabrielle took the kit and knelt by the bed as Xena lay down on it, glancing up as she heard the faint sound, almost a grunt that came from the queen. “Is that the only thing wrong?”
Xena had her eyes closed, and now she opened one and peered in Gabrielle’s directly. “The only one likely to ruin the sheets.” She untied the robe she had on and opened it, exposing a bloody bandage just under her ribs.
“Oh.” Gabrielle took a cloth and went to the water basin, wetting it and bringing it back over so she could gently clean the skin. “Xena, this is awful.”
“Feels awful.” The queen had her eyes closed again. “But then, everything else does too.” Here, away from the men she didn’t have to pretend and put on that good front. Here with Gabrielle, she could just feel how she felt, and say how much it hurt and she knew she wouldn’t be thought worse of.
“Okay, I’m starting.”
Xena felt the shift as Gabrielle leaned forward, and she reached over to put a hand on her partner’s back as the needle pricked her side. “Guess they’ve got a right to party, huh?” She asked, to distract both of them.
“It’s been tough here, yeah.” Gabrielle focused hard on what she was doing, her tired eyes blurring a little as she painstakingly worked on the stitches.
The cut was just under Xena’s ribcage, and it looked like the end of a sword had gone right into her, puncturing a deep slice the span of Gabrielle’s hand that was slowly pulsing dark red blood out. Around it, the skin was dark with bruises, and she could see the queen was breathing more shallowly than she usually did.
“Thanks for saving my ass.”
Gabrielle carefully put in another stitch. “I was glad I could do it.” She answered, after a long silence.
“Were you?” Xena asked. “Even if it meant you killed that guy?”
It was quiet again for a while. “Yes.” Gabrielle finally said. “I didn’t really think about that. I just wanted to help you.”
“Mm.” Xena rubbed Gabrielle’s back with gentle fingers. “I said you were a fighter.” She said. “I remember the night you got to the castle, you were out in the courtyard beating the crap out of a post and I said then, uh oh. Watch out for that one.”
“You did?” Gabrielle put in a last stitch, and wiped the cut carefully, glad she was done. “It’s hard for me to remember that.” She paused, and bit the gut she’d been using close to Xena’s side, then rested her hands on the bed. “I remember how horrible it seemed to me to see people die.”
Xena watched her face, seeing the sadness in it’s lines. “It is horrible.” She said. “But it’s part of our lives, and there ain’t much you can do about it, little one.” She held steady as tired green eyes shifted to meet hers. “Do you know what the biggest difference between you and I is?”
Gabrielle hesitated, then shook her head slightly.
“I’m a killer.” The queen told her. “You’re not.”
“That’s not true anymore.” The blond woman replied huskily.
“Yes it is.” Xena shifted her hand to Gabrielle’s face. “Protecting people you love who are about to get their heads cut off doesn’t count.”
Gabrielle remained thoughtfully silent.
“You do love me, right?” Xena traced her companions cheekbone with the edge of her thumb. “I don’t want you to feel bad about doing what your heart told you to do, Gabrielle.”
It made uncommon sense. Gabrielle set the kit aside and leaned forward, kissing Xena’s side just under where the now closed cut was. “I said I’d do whatever it took, didn’t I?” She said. “And I did.”
Xena smiled at her, eyes half closed. “Bet you didn’t feel bad at all for tearing a chunk out of Sholeh.”
Gabrielle couldn’t help grinning, just a bit. “I didn’t.”
“Killer.” Xena pointed at herself. “Fighter.” She pointed at Gabrielle, then she cupped her cheek. “Partners”
“Partners.” Gabrielle got up and crawled into bed next to Xena. “We kept those guys from hurting everyone in the city, didn’t we?”
“And we chased them off, right?”
“So I guess it was a good day, really. Wasn’t it?”
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle and gently drew her closer, nuzzling her hair as she felt her lover relax, and their bodies pressed against each other. She wasn’t sure if Gabrielle was trying to convince herself or just make Xena think she was convinced, but she was too tired right at the moment to worry about it. “It sure was.”
A cool breeze puffed in the window, bringing the scent of roasting meat and the sound of children’s laughter, and that was enough to carry her away into sleep knowing that in fact, it had been a pretty damn good day since they both were here to argue about it.
Xena could have happily remained sleeping. It was dark, there was a cool breeze coming in the window, it was comfortable in the bed, and she had Gabrielle snuggled up next to her, keeping her side all nice and warm.
However, the noise outside had shook her out of a dream, and now that she was awake the discomfort of her body was keeping her from going back to sleep combined with the fact that she was hungry and the smell of roasting meat was driving her nuts.
Knowing there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it was driving her more nuts. “Damn it.” She shifted just a little, and nearly bit her lip through.
The queen scowled. “Why are you awake?” She asked. “Did I say all you could take was a catnap or something?”
Gabrielle shifted and half rolled onto her side, stretching her legs out with a small grunt. “You were talking. It woke me up.” She said. “Wow. How long were we asleep?
“Not long enough.” Xena cautiously straightened her limbs out, folding her hands over her stomach. She was definitely still tired, but not desperately as she had been before, and the pounding headache that had been blurring her vision was at least gone.
However. Now she had another problem. A lot more dangerous problem.
“Mm.” Gabrielle pushed herself up, leaning on one hand as she gazed towards the window. “Whatever they’re cooking outside smells great, doesn’t it?”
Gabrielle pulled the covers back and scooted out of the bed, finding her body less sore than she expected as she walked across the thick carpets and went to the window to look out. “Oh. Wow.”
“Use that imagination of yours and be more descriptive.” Xena requested. “What’s going on outside there? Trouble? Chaos?”
“They’re having a big party down there.” Her lover supplied obediently. “They have three.. no, four fires going and tables set up. There’s lots of people.”
“I see ale kegs.”
“Even nicer.” Xena exhaled. “Wanna go grab us one of everything?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle turned and went back over to the bed, then she paused, seeing Xena’s face in the dim light coming in the window. “Are you all right?” She reached out to touch the queen’s arm. “You look really pale.”
“Not really, no. Matter of fact, I suck.” The queen said. “Looks like I threw my back out. I can’t really move. Chances are, I can’t get out of this bed.” She informed Gabrielle. “So while you’re at it, bring me my kit over there and cup with water in it so I can breathe without screaming.”
“Oh wow.” Gabrielle’s eyes widened in alarm. “Xena, that’s horrible!”
“Damn good thing I didn’t ride out last night.” Xena moved slightly, and closed her eyes as a jolt of pain went right up her spine. “Knew I did something to it the other day. Guess it finally caught up to me.” She lifted her arm and rested it on her forehead.
Gabrielle stroked her shoulder comfortingly. “Let me go get your stuff.” She circled the bed and went to the sideboard, picking up a taper and leaning close to light it from the banked fire. The candle flared, and she lit two others, bathing the room in golden light.
All thoughts of sleep were now gone. She could feel nervous energy filling her, and she carefully set the last candle down and retrieved Xena’s herbal kit from her saddlebag. “Would a cup of wine be better than water?”
“Sure. Some left over there?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle checked the pitcher, sniffing it cautiously. It smelled unsurprisingly like wine, and she lifted it to her lips and took a swallow, keeping her back turned so Xena wouldn’t see her do it. She licked her lips, setting the flask down and waited a few beats, but nothing horrible seemed about to happen so she released her held breath and went on with her work.
“What are you doing?”
“Just getting your stuff.” Gabrielle put the kit on the small tray that held the wine flask and it’s cups and brought the whole thing back over to the bed. Now that it was lighter, she could see the tension on Xena’s face and the furrows in her brow. “At least you have a bed here, huh?”
Xena produced a sound that was not quite a groan. She put both hands on the surface of the bed and very carefully pushed herself upright and back so she was half reclined on the pillows instead of flat on her back.
She held her breath, but the muscles in her lower back didn’t seize again, so she relaxed and took the cup of red wine Gabrielle had just poured for her and sipped it, then swallowed it in a long series of gulps. It was rich and a touch fruity, and on her empty stomach it made her blink a little.
Gabrielle put the kit on the bed and opened it, kneeling at the bedside. “Which one do you need?”
Xena licked her lips. “Powdered muskrat. Got any there?”
“Xena.” Gabrielle looked up from under her sleep disordered bangs and managed a smile.
“Sorry.” The queen examined the kit. “I figure at least I can joke and get laugh out of the fact that I can’t move. Told you we should have had sex last night.” She sighed, and selected two of the herb packets she’d taken pains to pack.
Gabrielle covered her eyes with one hand and her shoulders shook.
“Here.” Xena handed her the packets. “Put that in this cup, put more of that wine in it, and give it a stir with your fingers.”
Gabrielle did as she was told, and handed the cup back, curiously putting her finger into her mouth to taste the results. “Oh. Gross.” She removed it immediately. “Xena, that’s awful.”
“Thanks.” Her lover steadfastly drained the cup. The taste was awful, but she knew the herbs would kick in fast and the pain, this kind of pain, wasn’t something she could work around. “Damn, my timing sucks.” She set the cup down and leaned back. “Last time this happened I was in bed for three damned days.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle made a thoughtful noise. “Okay, well, let me go get you some dinner.. I’m pretty hungry too.” She got up and went back over to the side board, pulling out her livery tunic and a pair of leggings. She pulled them on and got the fastenings done, then she looked around. “Oh, darn.”
“They took our boots.” Gabrielle sighed. “Well, I used to herd sheep barefoot.” She headed for the door, running her fingers through her hair to order it a little. “Be right back.”
Xena watched her go, then she folded her hands over her stomach again, waiting for the herbs to work. The odd tension in her back before she’d passed out should have warned her, but she thought the rest would resolve the issue rather than make it worse.
She could ride with a lot of things. Broken arm. Broken leg. Broken ribs. Her guts split open. Her head split open. This particular injury though she knew full well would keep even her from walking or riding no matter how inured to pain she was or how big her ego.
She had gotten damn lucky. Xena studied the ceiling. There were bones in her backbone that just got out of place down near the bottom of it and made everything seize up. Her one, true, physical weakness that now a total of three human beings alive knew about.
The real reason she’d retired, figuring she’d just get out when she could, in a decent place that didn’t involve her having to be on campaign in the wild risking this very thing happening at the very worst time. “Funny.” She addressed the ceiling. “You’d have thought I’d have remembered that stupid detail before I started this insanity.”
Having that happen while she was fighting would have put her on the ground and at the mercy of whoever she was up against and the fact that she’d gotten through what they had yesterday in one piece was a gift from the gods.
No question. She’d been halfway expecting this since she’d been trapped under that damn horse, but lasting as long as she had, well.. “Figured I got lucky.” She murmured. “Eh. Maybe I did. Or maybe the Persian bitch did. Hard to say.”
This threw her plans right in the middens. Sholeh would have time to regroup, and come back at her, or worse, plow through the pass and go the other way, right through the heart of her realm with nothing left to defend it aside from a leaderless army and the gates of her stronghold.
Damn it. Xena slowly reached her arm out, biting her lip as a spasm hit, her other hand clenching on the covers as the pain built and built before it started to subside. “Ow.” She muttered, once it was over. “Next time I’m just gonna tell her to let them cut my head off.”
She carefully poured another cup of wine and brought it over to her lips, the two previous cups and the herbs not doing all that much yet. Three days? Three days if she was really lucky, and if she stayed put and didn’t try to push things like she had the last time.
That had ended up with her losing sensation in her legs for a week, terrified she’d never be able to walk again.
Sucky. Just sucky. Xena sipped the wine, feeling the beginnings of a mild disassociation as the herbs started to kick in.
She thought about Gabrielle, and briefly, she wondered how smart it really was to send her out into the chaos to grab food for them, and just as briefly she dismissed the wondering figuring if Gabrielle could chew a hunk out of the leader of an enemy army she probably could handle getting a couple of lamb kabobs and some cheese out of their hosts.
At least, she hoped she was.
Gabrielle paused outside the door to the townhouse, looking around to choose her best path. She gave the soldiers on guard a little nod, and they saluted her, one of them edging closer as she hesitated.
“Is there something you wish? Something her majesty needs?” The man asked, in a gentle voice. “May we serve you?”
Something definitely was different. Gabrielle could hear a note in his voice directed at her that hadn’t been present before. She turned to face him, his battle stained overtunic bearing the same hawks head as hers, and as she did, she realized she felt differently about the men too. “I’d like to get the queen some dinner.” She said, in a soft voice. “Do you think you could help me with that?”
“Of course.” The man signaled his mate. “M’lady, would you like to just tell me what it is you wish? I can go get it.”
“Let’s go get it together.” Gabrielle said. “I don’t’ know what they have, so it’s hard to say – but I know what she likes.”
“After you then, your Grace.” The man bowed to her. “It would please me greatly to be of service to you.”
You. Gabrielle straightened. “Okay, let’s go.” She started off down the slope towards the square, with her soldier in tow, part of her mind already back in the townhouse with her suffering friend, while she chose her path with the other.
What would Xena do now? Did it really mean she had to stay still for three days? Gabrielle could hardly imagine her lover staying still for three candlemarks. But she knew that the queen had been hurting more and more the past few days, and maybe this was the gods’ way of forcing the issue.
Three days. So much could happen, so much had happened already in a time span like that. Gabrielle thought though, that maybe it would give Xena a little time to recover from what they’d been through, the battered, skin and bone condition she’d seen last night while sewing her friend up not escaping her.
Maybe war could wait a few days. Gabrielle eased between two lines of people, towards where the tables were set up, piled with platters of food and drink. “Excuse me, sorry.” She apologized, as she was caught between two revelers.
The one nearest turned, attracted by her voice. “Why, there, ma’a… bithegods!” He backpeddled rapidly. “Your majesty!”
That made Gabrielle stop, and blink.
The crowd heard him, and they turned and spotted her, and a path formed as if by magic, a buzz of excitement rising.
Having little else to do, Gabrielle made her way through the open space, blushingly aware of her bare feet and only just keeping herself from hiding behind her escort. “Hello.” She gave the crowd a little wave. “Looks like a great party, huh?”
One of the elders hurried forward. “M’lady!” He bowed. “You grace us with your presence! We didn’t wish to disturb the queen’s rest. Will you join us in our celebration?”
Gabrielle emerged into the open space in the middle of the square as he met her. “Oh. Ah, thanks.” She looked around, realizing she was becoming the center of attention. “Actually, Xena asked me to bring her back some dinner.” She said. “We’ve had a pretty rough day.”
“Oh! Of course.” The elder held up his hands. “Of course! We offered to do that earlier but the men said.. ah.. they said…ah..”
“They said the queen was occupied.” Gabrielle’s escort supplied amiably. “And her majesty was.”
The elder turned to look at Gabrielle. “What is her majesty’s desires?”
Gabrielle had to blink a few times, before she realized he meant food. “Ah.” She looked around. “Well, if you have some meat, and bread and cheese.. she’s not picky, really.”
The elder took her elbow and led her over to the table, another man rushing over with a platter. “Of course. Let’s see, there’s some left here, yes.” He indicated three carcasses, roughly half consumed. “Resar, get some bread and cheese, if you will, and a flagon of wine for our honored guests.”
“White, and sweet if you have it.” Gabrielle politely suggested. “That would be great.”
Her soldier took the platter from the man and stood while it was heaped with slices of roast. He glanced at Gabrielle as she walked alongside him. “Some sauce for her maj?”
Gabrielle blinked a few times again, but then she went to where the bowls of sauce were, and dipped her pinkie into one, tasting it. “No.” She liked the taste of vinegar, but she knew the queen wasn’t fond of it. “Let’s see what this one is.” She moved on to the next.
Ugh. Gabrielle turned from her tasting to find Perdicus there, his face haggard and bandages across his heck. “Hello.” She said.
“We need to talk.” Perdicus said, without preamble.
“Well.” Gabrielle added the next bowl of sauce, a sweet plum-my one to the tray. “We can, later. I’m in the middle of something right now.”
Gabrielle caught her soldier giving Perdicus a dour look. “I’m getting something for Xena. Excuse me.” She edged past him and grabbed a few apples that were left on a platter, plunking them down next to the meat.
“You’re her slave.” The disdain in Perdicus’ voice was unmistakable.
“No, I’m not.” Gabrielle replied. She smiled and took a loaf of bread from one of the city men and added it, then she clutched the flagon of wine to her the man also held out. “Thanks.”
“Are we ready then, your grace?” Her soldier escort said, in a slightly louder voice than necessary.
“Your what?” Perdicus got in the way of them leaving. “What did you call her?”
The soldier glowered at him. “T’s the Queen’s consort. Get out of the way, you pitiful excuse of a man. Where you were you when we was out fighting? Saw you run from the gates before we left.”
Perdicus stared at him, then at Gabrielle. “Consort. Is that what they call you?”
“No.” The blond woman said. “Gabrielle is what they call me.” She cradled the wine and stepped around him, as her escort eased between her and Perdicus. “Excuse us.”
“Wait.” Perdicus put his hand on her arm. “Just talk to me for a minute, Gabrielle. Is that too much to ask?” He glanced at the soldier, then back at her. “Just for a minute?”
Gabrielle hesitated, then she looked up at her escort. “I’ll be right back.” She took a few steps towards the center of the square, nearer the cookfires, to give them a bit of privacy. “Yes?” She watched him warily, feeling an impatient tug to her conscience to head back to her suffering friend. “I’ve got to get going.”
“To where?” He asked. “Back to that insane woman?”
“She’s not insane.”
“Listen, Gabrielle.” Perdicus took hold of her arm firmly. “Now that the army’s gone, you need to come with me.”
“No I don’t.” She said, with a frown. “Let go of me.”
“You do.” He got closer. “There’s a lot of craziness and talk going on around here, and it’s better we leave and go home. Now.”
“What craziness?” She asked. “We got the other army out of the city, that’s not crazy. That’s wonderful!” Her voice sharpened. “Xena was amazing!”
“She’s crazy!” Perdicus hissed. “You have no clue, Gabrielle! I was with her by the river she was going to run!”
“Yeah, well, she’s still crazy.” He said. “So I’m not taking a risk sticking around here and neither are you. Come on. We’ve got a chance to get out while she’s inside.”
Gabrielle took a step back. “Perdicus, stop talking like that. I’m not going anywhere. You don’t own me.”
“Yes I do.” He said, softly. “I paid your price, and I’ll get what I paid for.” He grabbed her arm more tightly. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing in all this but..”
“Your grace?” The soldier handed off the tray to one of the townies and drew his sword, heading in her direction. “Need a hand there?”
“Perdicus, let go of me.” Gabrielle said, in a low, urgent tone. “I don’t belong to you. I belong to Xena.”
He stared at her. “Thought you said you weren’t a slave.”
“I’m not.” She said. “I was, but she freed me.”
“Okay, then that’s set.” He started pulling her along.
Gabrielle dug her heels in and halted them both, just as the soldier caught up to her and put his sword point in Perdicus’ face. She yanked her arm free and backed up. “Yes, thanks. I think I could use a hand.” She was glad enough to retreat behind the man. “I think we’ve had a misunderstanding.”
Perdicus backed up away from the sword. “I understand you want to cheat me.” He said. “I’m not going to stand for it, Gabrielle. I have a claim.” He glared at the soldier. “Get away from me.”
“Get yourself away.” The soldier said. “This here is our queen’s chosen one. She’s got naught to do with the likes of you.” He shifted the sword forward. “Careful she doesn’t treat you like that Persian bitch yeah? Doubt you’d taste better.”
“What?” Perdicus moved away from the point again. “Keep out of this. She’s betrothed to me, and I’ve got a right!”
“No you don’t.” The soldier laughed. “She’s joined to the queen, you githead.”
“What happened back in Potadeia doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.” Gabrielle said. “I’m not that person, and I’ve got a different life now.”
“With the likes of HER?” His voice took on a coating of disgust.
“Well, you sure weren’t worried about your claim when we were taken, were you?” Gabrielle snapped back.. “I didn’t see any sign of you heading after us, those weeks we were on the road”
His eyes narrowed. “I was… I had to go somewhere.” He said.
Gabrielle took another step backwards. “Well, so did I.” She said. “So forget about that. I’m the queen’s consort, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave me alone.”
“And that’s a fact.” Her escort sheathed his sword and folded his arms. “M’lady? Should we get you back where ye belong now? Meat’s coolin.”
“Yes, thanks.” Gabrielle was glad to see three of the men from the town approaching, one carrying her tray, the other two looking like city guardsmen, maybe even some of the men who had come riding out to join the battle.
“M’lady, is there a problem?” The city guard nearest her asked. “How can we assist you?”
Gabrielle realized, of a sudden, that if she wanted Perdicus taken away and locked up somewhere, all she had to do was ask, and these men would do it for her. It was an unexpected twitch to her conscience, and she hesitated just long enough to make him wonder what she was going to do.
“No.” She finally said. “It was just a misunderstanding, thanks.” She smiled at the tray, which seemed to have sprouted several more people’s worth of food in the meantime including a nice pile of grapes. “That looks great. I know Xena’s going to appreciate it.”
The men all smiled, save Perdicus. They turned and as she started walking back through the crowd they formed a rough circle around her, leaving her old beau behind standing there alone.
“We put some sweetcakes on the edge there, your grace.” The elder pattered next to her. “Perhaps the queen would be pleased with them?”
“I think she would.” Gabrielle focused on the path ahead of her, putting the one behind her out of her mind. “Got any more of them?”
“I’m sure we can find some.”
Gabrielle had them settle the trays down in the outer chamber, one ear cocked but hearing no sound from the inner one. “That’s great. Thanks.” She kept her voice low, and put a finger to her lips. “I think her Majesty’s still resting.”
“Resting?” The elder murmured.
“Yes.” Gabrielle folded her hands together. “Fighting’s really hard work, and um…”
“She fought magnificently!” One of the other men said. “I saw her. It was incredible! Of course she would want to rest for a bit after that.”
“Right.” The blond woman gave him a grateful look. “Wasn’t she something?”
“Of course. Of course.” The elder said. “Perhaps tomorrow she will do us the great honor of allowing us to thank her properly?” He asked. “We have so much we would like to talk to her about.”
What to answer to that? Gabrielle pondered a moment. “I’m sure she’ll be more than glad to receive you.. ah.. after she finishes her.. uh…planning. Of the next phase of the war.” She explained. “I know it’s great for your now, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
The men looked a little surprised. “Oh.” The elder said. “Oh, of course.” He tapped his head with his fingertips. “Silly of me, really. The barbarians headed off towards your homeland, of course Xena will have to deal with them. How shortsighted of us. My deepest apologies, M’lady.”
“That’s all right.” Gabrielle murmured. “So I guess we’ll talk more later.” She glanced at the inner door. “Right?”
The men smiled at her, and backed out with laborious silence, closing the door with a tiny, scuffing snick.
Gabrielle studied the tray, remembering the days when she’d taken care of Xena during their first encounters together. She picked up a cup, and the wine flagon, and juggled those as she took one of the sweetcakes before she turned and went to the inner door.
She knocked the cup against the door before she worked the latch and pushed the door open, peering around the edge of it as she entered and bumped it closed. The candles had burned down some, but the room was still filled with golden light, and as her eyes turned towards the bed, that light gilded it’s occupant.
Xena had her eyes closed, her planed face outlined by the shadows as she lay quietly, her hands at her sides.
For a moment, she was so still, Gabrielle’s heart almost crawled out of her throat and ran across the room ahead of her, but then the queen’s head turned, and her eyes opened, and one of those dark eyebrows hiked up. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Xena returned the greeting. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
Gabrielle set her burden down on the bedside table. “I am?”
“You are.” The queen confirmed. “Sore eyes, sore asses, you just make everything feel better.”
Gabrielle knelt by the bed, hearing a quiet weariness in her friend’s voice through all the kidding. She curled her fingers around Xena’s lower arm, rubbing her thumb against the soft skin on the inside of it. “How are you feeling?”
“I have some wine, and some honeycakes.” She told the queen. “And a bunch of other stuff out there but I thought maybe you’d want to start with that.”
“Good thought.” Xena gathered herself together and very slowly, eased herself up towards the headboard, so that she was half reclined. After a moment’s pause, she relaxed again. “Okay, muskrat. Bring it on.” She accepted the cup Gabrielle handed her, and watched as it was filled with a rich, fruity smelling pale liquid. “What’s going on out there?”
Gabrielle eased down onto the edge of the bed, and broke a corner of one of the cakes off, waiting for Xena to take a sip of the wine before she offered her the pastry. “Everyone’s celebrating.” She said, as the queen delicately licked the flakes off her fingertips. “I think they think it’s all over.”
“Heard what you said to the nabobs out there.” Xena chewed the pastry and washed it down with another sip of wine. “Idiots.” She stared pointedly at the cake, and was offered another piece. “Good line, though. Maybe I can convince them my regular after battle action is to take my partner to bed for three days. You think?”
Gabrielle broke off another piece of cake. “Um.”
“Hey, it’s worth a shot.” The queen said. “Bring in the rest of whatever you’ve got and start having some before your guts crawl out your ears. I can hear them bitching.”
Gabrielle surrendered the rest of the cake and got up, going into the outer room and recovering the big tray. The smell of the roasted meat was making her mouth water, and she was glad enough to bring it back to where Xena was resting.
“Are those grapes?”
offered it to Xena hesitantly. “Do you want to hold this? I could keep giving you stuff.”
“No.” Xena carefully took the plate and let it rest on her stomach. She picked up a piece of meat and bit into it, the taste sweet and a little spicy.
Sort of like Gabrielle. “Mm.” The queen swallowed. “So didja hear them talking about me out there?”
Caught with her mouth full, Gabrielle merely nodded until she could get her mouth clear. “Yes. They were all saying they wished they’d been able to hear what was going on before the city guards came out to help us. They could see something was going on and all that, with the fire.”
Xena put a grape in her mouth and bit into it. “You need to tell them what went on.” She suggested. “Make it good. Give me three heads and six hands.” She looked up after a long moment of silence to find her lover gazing at her intently. “What?”
“Nothing.” Gabrielle went back to her slice of cheese. “I was just imagining you with all those fingers and lips.”
The queen burst into laughter, regretting it a moment later when her back seized up and she almost tossed the plate on her stomach up right at her companion. “Ow. Son of a bacchae!”
Gabrielle quickly ditched her own plate and grabbed Xena’s, setting in on the bedside table before reaching for the queen and getting her arm around the woman’s shoulders. “Xena.. are you okay?”
Xena clenched her jaw tightly and pressed her forehead against Gabrielle’s shoulder as the pain built and built before it finally eased off. “Gods.”
Gabrielle held her still, cupping her hand against the side of the queen’s head, until she heard the rapid, sharp breathing ease and felt Xena relax a little bit. “Wow.”
“Ugh.” Xena blinked, feeling tears wet her lashes as she was able to take deeper breaths and the spasms slowly eased off. “Well, that was about as much fun as crapping a coal would be.”
Gabrielle winced. “You say the most amazing things.” She advised her lover. “Are you okay now?” She felt Xena shift, and she cautiously helped her ease back onto the pillows. She let her hand rest on the queen’s shoulder. “Can I do something to help?”
Xena very slowly moved into a more comfortable position, extending her legs out and letting her body lay down flat. She didn’t really want to repeat the experience, and so she put her hands back folded on her stomach, and glanced sideways at her worried looking muskrat. “Make that offer again?”
“Which one?” The blond woman asked softly.
“Giving me stuff?”
Gabrielle picked up a piece of roast and dipped it in the sauce, then she offered it to her queen, absorbing the look of quiet gratitude in her eyes. “Of course.” She murmured. “I would do anything for you.”
Xena chewed and swallowed. The spasm had been a sobering reminder of the fact that she now had to come up with some actual reason to put everything, the war, the city, her future, on hold for a few days until her back healed.
Telling everyone she wanted to stay in bed with Gabrielle for that long, while giving her a personal kick, would do nothing to stabilize her standing with the soldiers, and even less to encourage the city men to follow her out on campaign.
Momentum was everything. Losing three days, assuming of course that’s all it would take her to heal this time would stop that momentum cold, and turn it back on itself. Easier for the men to stay here in the city and go on with their lives, than risk everything just for the glory of war.
And yet, there was no way for her to ignore this injury, nor bluff her way past everyone with it as she had with her arrow wound and Bregos.
With some assistance, maybe, she could walk across the room. Fighting, out of the question. Sitting on a horse, really out of the question.
Damn, damn, damn.
“Xena?” Gabrielle offered her another morsel. “What are we going to do?”
“I dunno.” The queen replied in a quiet voice. “What are we going to do?” She turned her head carefully and looked at her lover. “If we wait for me to get off my ass, it’ll be too late.”
Gabrielle blinked at her. “Are you asking me?” She hesitantly pointed at her own chest.
Xena nodded. “We need a damn good imagination here, and we both know who has a better one of those in this room, you cute little storyteller you.”
Thunderstruck, the blond woman sat there in silence, her eyes huge and round.
“C’mon, muskrat.” Xena nudged her with one hand. “Make up a story. I know you can do it. Imagine what would be the craziest, most amazing way to get our asses out of this, and tell me what it is. We’ll go from there.”
Gabrielle blinked again. “Xena, that’s not how that’s supposed to work.” She stammered. “You’re supposed to do things and I’m supposed to tell people about them. I’m not supposed to tell you what do!”
The queen shrugged, cautiously. “Life’s short.” She said. “Gotta try new things.” She nudged Gabrielle again. “Start thinking.”
Gabrielle sat quietly in bed next to Xena, her legs tucked up crossed under her, her elbows resting on her knees, and her chin propped up on her hands.
The queen had her eyes closed, and her breathing was slow and deep. Outside, the noises had finally petered out, and it was almost as quiet outside the window as it was inside their rooms.
The candles still fluttered faintly in the breeze.
Slowly, Gabrielle straightened up, sighing, and reaching over to the table on her side of the bed to pick up her cup and take a sip from it. The wine, now room temperature, slipped down her throat to burn lightly in her stomach, as she tried to focus her thoughts on coming up with a plan.
Crazy. Totally crazy. She scratched the side of her nose, shaking her head a little bit. She understood that Xena was in a very tough situation – that they all were, really, if they had any hope of getting home and having home be in one piece.
So why ask her? Gabrielle frowned at her cup. What kind of plan was Xena really expecting her to come up with anyway?
Sholeh, she was pretty sure, would maybe go through the pass and rip everything to pieces just because she could, because it was Xena’s and Xena had pretty much embarrassed the Hades out of her.
Or maybe, Sholeh would lead the army back against the city.
In either case, for sure Xena couldn’t just hang out in bed for a couple of days while everything happened. She couldn’t. Even Gabrielle, who knew very little about war, and about planning, knew that.
She turned her head and watched Xena sleep, her lover’s face at rare peace, dark hair in some disarray. So what could they do?
What, really, could they do? Was Xena really expecting her to come up with some plan when Xena herself couldn’t think of anything?
Gabrielle took another sip of wine, rolling it around in her mouth before she swallowed it. The responsibility, whether real or something Xena had just said to her for her own somewhat twisted amusement, lay heavily on her shoulders.
What would Xena do?
What should Xena do?
She let the cup bump lightly against her lip. Well, the first thing she should probably do, she reasoned, is find out if Sholeh were running the other way, or coming back. That was sort of important, wasn’t it? So she should get a bunch of the guys to go and find out, and come back to tell her. That would take a little while.
Gabrielle found herself starting to think in pictures. She could picture Xena calling the men in, and telling them what to do, and she knew the men would be glad to do her bidding. So then, if they came back and it turned out the Persians were coming back too, then what?
Then she could picture Xena telling the city people what to do. How to close the gates and what preparations to make. But they all knew the Persians could take over the city again, there being so many of them, so would they listen?
Should Xena just get in one of the ships and leave? What would Sholeh do then? Gabrielle thought that Sholeh would probably destroy the city no matter what, because she knew they’d really pissed her off. So since they really pissed her off, would she come back, or…
Or. Gabrielle considered another picture. What if Sholeh decided to cut her losses, and just keep going? She might be mad, but after all, Xena had already beaten them once – what if the Persian thought it would be a bad idea to take another shot at her?
So then she was back to the problem of having to picture out what Xena should do if they had to chase after the Persians and make them stop trying to destroy their homes, and that was the tough part.
She thought Xena thought she should ride right out after them and not let them get too far. Gabrielle, inexperienced as she was, thought that too. So what could Xena do?
She pondered. “What if we took a wagon?” She asked, in a soft whisper, aloud. “That’s how the nobles ride… I’ve seen them. What if Xena could ride in a wagon so we could go after them?”
She imagined that in her head. She could see the structure, and the team of horses that would pull it. No one would think that was unusual, after all, queens were supposed to be treated like royalty – even if Xena herself shunned that most of the time.
Most of the time. But not this time. She could get the wagon from the city, they’d be glad to give it to her, Gabrielle was sure, and take all the men who were anxious now to fight and gain glory and they could follow them out as soon as tomorrow. “Yeah, a wagon.”
She turned her head, and studied her sleeping companion.
What would Xena think of that plan? Gabrielle knew that her lover hated anyone to think she was weak, in any way. How would she think of riding in a wagon? Would she reject the idea because it meant she had to actually act like a queen, or would she embrace it as a clever way to disguise her injury and still get to go out fighting?
Hard to say. Xena was a tough read sometimes. She sometimes did exactly what Gabrielle expected her to do, and sometimes did exactly the opposite and there never really was much indication either way. But she also knew her lover was very smart, and because she was very smart, she sometimes would do things she didn’t like to do just because they were the right thing.
Maybe this would be one of those things.
Gabrielle set her cup down and slowly leaned back against the pillows, stretching her legs out under the covers and allowing her body to relax, glad of the chance to lay still and get a bit more sleep herself before they had to face the coming morning.
She was still tired, even though they’d gotten a nap, but at least now she wasn’t hungry anymore, and her body wasn’t riding that fine edge of total exhaustion. She did feel sore, in spots. Her jaw still hurt a little, and her legs were stiff, the big muscles in the front of them aching when she flexed them.
She had a few cuts on her hands, and a big bruise on her arm. Even so, having lived through the battles she had in the last few days, she knew herself to be unspeakably fortunate and she was glad enough to let her body go limp against the soft surface of the bed.
It felt wonderful. Now that she’d sort of come up with an idea for Xena, she could even relax now and enjoy it, knowing that probably it would be the last time she’d get the chance for a while.
The room was relatively small, much smaller than her and Xena’s quarters in the castle, but it had a sense of decorum, and a richness that reminded her just a little bit of their home.
She wished they were back there. Adventuring was fine and all that, but she was tired of the sleepless nights and the suffering, and the constant fear. Being here, being in this nice, comfortable bed reminded her of what her life with Xena had been up until a moon or two ago, and she had to admit even if only to herself, that she missed it.
She missed the quiet, sunlit mornings, and the big, always burning fire in the well made fireplace that had rock ledges nearby to hold her cooking things.
She missed the familiarity of making tea for Xena, while the queen prepared for the day.
She missed the long nights of winter, where she’d learned about the pleasures of the body, and those equally long hours up in Xena’s practice chamber, where she’d kept her lover company while she did her sword drills.
She wanted to go back home and know that all again.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and exhaled, stretching her hand out and feeling the slightly rough texture of the sheets against her fingetips, and then pausing, as the cool feeling disappeared and her fingers were surrounded with living warmth and held.
She opened her eyes and looked at Xena, but the queen’s eyes were still closed, and her chest was still slowly rising and falling in sleeping rhythm.
Gabrielle returned the clasp on her hand and lay still for a moment, then she turned over onto her side and eased closer to the queen, not wanting to disturb her sleep, but just close enough to feel the warmth of her body under the covers.
She watched Xena’s profile, it’s distinctive angles softened in the candlelight and gentled in sleep, taking away a bit of the queen’s tense energy and leaving behind a more youthful, peaceful image she let fill her mind’s eye.
This was hers. Gabrielle remembered that moment when she’d killed the enemy soldier on the battlefield, and for a second, her eyes, and Xena’s eyes had met. She hadn’t realized it then, but now as she lay here watching over the queen she understood that she’d passed a solemn milestone in her life.
She had, in a sense, gone from being someone who things happened to, to being someone who caused things to happen.
It was silly, and yet profound. Xena was the ultimate person who made things happen, and Gabrielle wondered if she had that kind of moment herself, when she’d crossed that line, and made that choice to be what she was.
It was a good feeling, which surprised her. Having Xena ask her to come up with a plan was a good feeling too. She felt like she was growing up, and becoming someone of some significance in this wild and crazy life that she was living.
Gabrielle exhaled, then she glanced up again at Xena’s profile, very surprised to see those pale eyes half open, watching her. “Oh!”
Xena studied her. “You figure it all out yet?”
“Mm.” Gabrielle made a face. “I had a few ideas.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah. Because there’s more than one thing that could happen, isn’t there?”
The queen smiled. “There sure is.”
“So, anyway.” The blond woman exhaled. “I thought about that, and about you, and made a story in my head about it.”
“Good.” The queen pulled her hand a little. “C’mover here and keep me warm.” She said, in a low, sleepy burr. “Let’s enjoy this while we can. Save your plan for tomorrow.”
Gabrielle carefully squiggled over and pressed herself against Xena’s right side, resting her head against the queen’s shoulder and cautiously putting her arm across her waist. “Hey Xena?”
“I love you.” She gave Xena a gentle squeeze.
Xena touched her back, and rubbed it a little. “I love you too, Gabrielle.” She answered, in a quiet voice. “Thanks.”
“Just thanks.” The queen kissed the top of her head.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and soaked it all in. “You’re welcome.” She responded, with a tiny smile. “For whatever.”