Queen of Hearts
“Please, hold still your Grace.”
Gabrielle tried to stifle her fidgets, having only marginal success as the chain mail draped over her shoulders. It felt strange, flexible yet constricting, the rings chill against her skin, but in a way warm as well.
Or maybe the fact that the armorer was having to poke and prod her was making her feel a little warmer than necessary. She barely knew Jonas, after all. “Sorry.”
Jonas glanced up, with a brief smile. “It pinches a bit, I know. You’ll have a leather undergarment for it, to gentle your skin but that’s not yet ready.”
Leather and metal. Gabrielle briefly wondered how that was going to feel, once they were out in the world and she had to walk around in it. “Is it going to be really heavy?”
“No, your Grace.” Jonas straightened up a little and twitched the rings over the points of her shoulders, evening the garment out and studying it critically. “How does that feel?
Gabrielle lifted her arms and moved a little, turning around in her new armor. She brought her hands up and felt the unfamiliar binding of the links around her upper arms. “It’s a little..um.. tight.. “ She hesitated, touching the spot. “Here.”
Jonas scrabbled around on his knees and took hold of her arm, extending it and studying the sleeve. “Ah.” He set to work unlinking a row of rings. “My apologies, your Grace. Give me but a moment.” He worked at the links with a small tool, careful not to pinch her skin. “I misjudged your span there. My apologies.”
“Just a moment, I beg you.”
“Okay.” She was content to stand there as he worked, glancing at her reflection in the mirror. The rings showed a rippling dark silver over her shoulders and down her sides, but over her chest and back, they were covered by small pieces of beautifully shaped overlapping leather scales in a deep forest green.
There was a leather collar, too, that protected her neck from the links, and belt with a darkly glittering hawkshead buckle to clasp the thing around her body.
“There. Is that better?”
Gabrielle lifted her hands again, closing her fingers on her non existent stick and miming it’s motion. “Yes.” She nodded, now feeling no constriction at all. “Much.”
“Good.” Jonas stood and circled her. “Does it suit you, your Grace?”
She didn’t feel particularly graceful, matter of fact. Gabrielle walked towards the mirror, feeling a little strange moving in her new gear. She touched the rings with one hand, tracing their intricate twining. “Was this hard to make?’ Her eyes met his in the mirror’s reflection.
“Eh.” Jonas lifted one shoulder. “It is close work, truth.” He said. “But not as great as some, as your Grace is delicate of stature.”
Gabrielle turned and looked at him. “I’m short, you mean.” She said, with a grin.
“Not just so.” The man smiled back at her. “My commissions are mostly soldiers, footmen, big hulks of fellows, as it is.” He replied. “As each ring is formed alone, twas easier to complete a set for your Grace than if it had been for one such.”
“Ah.” The blond woman looked down at herself. “It’s beautiful.” She touched one of the pieces of leather scale. “I really like it.”
The armor’s bearded face broke in a broader smile. “It was difficult.” He admitted. “To make it of a quality that suited me in a fortnight, but if it pleases you, it satisfies me.” He expertly adjusted her belt. “The leggings fasten so, here at the knee, and the boots – do they feel good to you?”
Obligingly, Gabrielle stamped her feet, feeling the supple leather flex around her ankles. The boots did, in fact, feel very good, though she suspected she would need to wear them a little so she could escape a few blisters. They came up to her knees, and from the boot top to her seat a wide strip of soft leather protected the insides of her legs. “Feels good.”
“Good.” The armorer nodded. “Can you sit on that stool there, and see if it doesn’t pull, when you are mounted?”
Gabrielle walked over to the padded bench and readily straddled it, tucking her boots about where her stirrups would hold them. She straightened a little and sat back in what would be her saddle, trying to imagine what it would be like to ride all day in the new gear.
It was hard, because she could hardly imagine what it would be to ride all day dressed in anything at all, so she guessed she’d just have to live with whatever it turned out to be. “Feels okay.” She turned and looked at Jonas, catching him grinning at her. “What’s wrong?
“Nothing, your Grace.” The man cleared his throat.
“Lady Gabrielle?” The door opened, and the outfitter Eddars came in, his arms full of things. “Ah, Jonas. I am glad you are here. Her Majesty is looking for you.”
Jonas looked up in surprise. “For me?” He glanced at Gabrielle in some mild apprehension. “Has something displeased you, your Grace?”
Gabrielle was as surprised as he was. “No.” She shook her head. “Maybe she wants you to make something else.. maybe for her?” She suggested. “She was working on her stuff in there before you came in.” She pointed at the side room, where Xena had moved her armor chest.
Jonas looked at the doorway in question, then at the other man. “I am sure the queen needs none of my humble touch on her armor.”
Eddars shrugged. “I know not. Her majesty was outside in the great hall, you best attend her and find for yourself what she wishes.”
With an apprehensive expression, the tall armorer went to the door and through it, closing it after him and leaving Gabrielle to Eddar’s tender mercies. She got up off her stool and trotted over to where he was sorting his various burdens out and peered at them. “Oo.”
He held up a leather cloak, trimmed with some kind of fur. “This first, I think, your Grace.” He shook the cloak out. “May I fasten it about you?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle took a fold of the cloak as the outfitter laid it over her shoulders, and carefully fastened the clasp across the front. “Wow.” The cloak was a well softened hide, with a waxy outer surface and it draped neatly to her boot tops. “This is gorgeous.”
“Thank you, your Grace.” Eddars beamed at her. “The craftsman who made it was so pleased it was for you. He slit the sides here, see?” He indicated the side. “So that it might drape well as you ride.”
“Oh, yeah.” Gabrielle gently touched the fur to her cheek. “It’s so soft.”
“Squirrel, your Grace.”
“Oh.” The blond woman made a face. “Wish you hadn’t told me that. I like them. I think they’re cute.” She glanced at her reflection again, secretly delighted at the surprisingly dashing figure looking back at her. She raked her fingers through her hair and freed it from the cloak’s collar. “This is great, thank you.”
“And now, your traveling clothes?’
With a grin, Gabrielle turned to the pile, noting not a frill was to be seen in anything.
Jonas edged out of the doorway, and spotted the queen standing under the big arch, arguing with a tall courtier.
Or, truly, she wasn’t arguing, she was yelling, and the silk bedecked noble was nodding and bowing as fast as he could. Even despite the cringing, the queen overtopped the man by a good handspan, and standing there in the hall dressed in riding breeches and a gaudy crimson overtunic she seemed literally twice his size.
Beautiful. Jonas exhaled.
“Now, get the Hades out!” Xena finished in a loud bark. “If you can’t deliver what you promised, I’ll find someone else to hold your lands. Got me?”
“Majesty!” The man dropped to his knees. “You are beggaring me! My family will starve!”
“GOT ME?” The queen repeated. “I’ll give it over to my armor master there… he’s got more talent in his kneecap than your entire family!!!”
“Mistress! You ask too much!”
“Listen to me.” Xena grabbed the man by the throat. “You financed Bregos last year. Don’t think I don’t know it. You were his bankroll.”
The noble turned red, then white as Xena’s fingers tightened. “M…augh.”
“So you better cough up what I asked for, or you’re going to pay for that with more than horses and hides, understand?” Xena said, coldly.
Xena released him, wiping her hand on her leggings with an expression of disgust.
Armor master? Jonas’ ears perked up, and he glanced quickly around to see if Xena could possibly be referring to someone else in the big hall. Seeing no other man present, he stood a little more boldly out in the hall as the noble scurried off, followed by Xena’s blue eyed disdain.
After a moment, the queen snorted and shook her head, before she turned to face Jonas. “There you are.” Xena’s expression was stormy, and she glowered at him. “Where the Hades have you been?”
“Mistress.” Jonas bowed, and touched his chest. “I was fitting your beautiful consort with her new armor.”
“Were you?” The queen cheered up immediately. “Did she like it?”
“I think so, your Majesty.”
Xena put her hands on her hips. “Where’d you put the scale?”
“Here.” Jonas touched his shoulders and chest, then his belly and thighs. “I left the sides open, and cut the sides high for riding.” He touched the side of his leg.
The queen nodded. “Good. She’ll have to get used to wearing it.”
“So she said.” The armorer nodded. “I think she will do well with it, if I may say so, your Majesty. She has strength, she does.”
“Sure she does.” The queen appeared pleased, however. “She’s gotta deal with me. She’d have broken something before now if she wasn’t.” She gave Jonas a shrewd glance. “Given her the pigsticker yet?”
“No, your Majesty.”
The queen nodded quietly to herself. “All right.” She paused. “I’d um..” Her gaze broke from his, and went across the hallway. “Give it to me. I’ll give it to her.”
Jonas was watching her. “Very well, Majesty.” He responded in a quiet tone. “Was there something you wished of me? Ellas indicated so.”
Xena appeared lost in thought for a moment, but she gave herself a shake and focused on him again. “I did.” She said. “But let’s get this taken care of first.” She added. “So she liked it huh?”
“I believe so, Majesty.”
Xena started for the royal chambers. “Well, she’s clueless about the stuff so I’d better go check it out. C’mon.” She indicated that Jonas was to follow her, and then stiffarmed the doors open, sending them flying back to slam into the wall with a loud bang. “I smell sheep!”
Gabrielle looked up from inspecting a basket and grinned. She stepped away from the table and spread her arms out, lifting the edges of the cloak so Xena could see her new armor. “Look what Jonas brought, Xena! It’s great!”
“Let me be the judge of that.” Xena strolled over. She unclasped the cloak and removed it from around Gabrielle’s neck, then circled her, looking intently at the armor covering her slim form. “Hm.”
Given the short amount of time, she’d honestly not expected a real quality job, no matter what she’d said, or what Jonas had promised.
However, as she smoothed her hand over the links covering Gabrielle’s shoulder, she found herself impressed by the work, and admiring the fit of the scales layered neatly over the blond woman’s chest and back.
Difficult, on a woman, as she should know better than most. “Nice.” She glanced over at Jonas, giving him an approving look. She came around to face Gabrielle and made a small adjustment at her collarbone, giving her a wink and chucking her under the chin as she finished. “I like it.”
The green eyes were watching her intently. Gabrielle’s lips twitched into a hesitant smile. “Better than pink frills?”
Xena let her gaze deliberately move from Gabrielle’s head to her leather covered toes and then back up again. “Much better.” She said, with a grin. “You look damn sexy in it, matter of fact.”
A predictable blush. Xena looked up at the two men. “You both agree?”
Jonas looked at Ellas who looked right back at him, both sets of eyes widening.
The queen grinned. “You’re screwed either way. Pick one.”
“Yes, Majesty.” The two men said, in unison. “Very sexy.” Jonas added. “Begging your pardon, your Grace.”
Gabrielle didn’t think she really looked sexy, but she wasn’t going to stop anyone from saying it. She could see by Xena’s expression though, that the queen really did approve of the armor, and that made her happy in any case. “Want to see all the other stuff they brought?”
“Later.” Xena crooked her finger at Jonas. “C’mon with me.” She walked towards her erstwhile armor room. “Now you get your reward for being a craftsman and doing an impossible job in a fortnight.”
“You get more work.”
Jonas paused in the doorway, his eyes widening a little as he took in the small workroom. In the center, a wooden table was set covered in armor pieces and scattered among them were tools very familiar to him. Had the queen another armorer? Perhaps she was displeased with him.
His eyes brightened a little. “Something is amiss, Majesty?”
Xena went behind the table and sat down on a stool there, leaning her forearms on the table. “Yeah.” She pulled over the plates that covered the front of her chest and shoulders. “See these?”
Thus encouraged, Jonas approached and peered at the armor. “Wonderful workmanship, your Majesty.” He murmured.
“Thanks.” Xena said. “This bit here, goes down my spine. I want a mail link between it and the shoulder plates.”
Jonas cautiously eased closer, up against the table. He studied the pieces. “To hold this part in place, is that what you intend, Majesty?” He asked, touching the back protector, which was visibly newer than the rest of the armor.
“Yeah.” The queen picked up the armor. “I’m getting to be an ancient old bitch, so this’ll keep my sword from smacking my ass and any disaffected pigbrains from stabbing me in the back.” She sighed, her eyes narrowing a little. “Peh.”
Jonas looked from one side of the room to the other. “Surely, your Majesty, you are making a jest with me.” He said, mildly. “But in any case, I would be greatly honored to make the mail you require. Greatly honored.”
Xena gave him a wry look. “Took me longer than I thought to make this thing. Ran out of time for the rest of it. Get it done before sunset day after tomorrow. Got me?”
Jonas stared at her, goggle eyed.
“Majesty.” Jonas looked at the armor. “Forgive me, but that is your work? You made this?” He indicated the newly pounded metal piece.
Xena looked around. “Yeah.” She replied, with a half shrug. “Got a problem with that?” She watched the man’s eyes grow round and wondering, and almost revised her opinion of him. “If you’re going to turn into an idiot, get out of here before I break your arm.”
“Forgive me, Majesty.” Jonas murmured. “May I take the pieces, to measure them?”
“Measure them here.” Xena told him. “I’ll be right back.” She got up and stalked outside the workroom, letting out a sharp whistle as she cleared the door.
Jonas blew out a breath, and paused for a long moment before he picked up one of the pieces of armor carefully and turned it over in his fingers, admiring the precise hammering and the carefully sculpted leather underlay. “By the gods. “
With a shake of his head, he drew out a scrap of parchment and started measuring the piece against his handspan, making marks on the parchment with a bit of charcoal.
Gabrielle found the queen out on the battlements and she walked quietly up to stand next to her as they both gazed out at the setting sun. “That’s so pretty.” She put her chin down on the top of the wall.
“What is?” Xena seemed to be in a pensive mood, her usual edgy energy muted.
“The way the light looks on those buildings. See?” Gabrielle pointed to an orange lit surface.
The queen studied the rooftop. “No.” She replied briefly. “But I’m glad you like it.”
Gabrielle edged a little closer. “Did you know they even made a coat for Patches?” She said. “It’s really cute.”
Xena turned around and leaned against the wall, then after a moment she slid down it and sat on the stone, patting the surface next to her with one hand. “Siddown.”
Obligingly, Gabrielle did so.
They sat side by side in comfortable silence for a bit, then the queen let her head rest against the wall and turned her eyes to her companion. “Y’know this isn’t going to be a walk in the garden.”
The blond woman glanced at her. “Um.. I kind of figured that.” She said.
Gabrielle thought about the question. “Should I be?”
Xena drew up one knee and rested her elbow against it. “That’s a damnable question, Gabrielle.” She replied, in a thoughtful tone. “Y’know. I’m something.” She scratched her eyebrow. “Damned if I know what. You’d think I’d never done this before.”
Gabrielle studied her boots. “Are you sure it’s the right thing to do?” She aksed. “Maybe that’s what you’re thinking about.”
“Nah.” The queen made a face. “I couldn’t give a rats ass about that. I want to go kill people and get booty.” She picked up a small stone off the ground and tossed it across the battlement, bouncing it off the far wall and watching it skitter around. “I think I’m just.. “ She let her hand fall to her knee. “I hope I remember how to do it right.”
Xena nodded. “You ever do something really good, and then come back to it again and you weren’t so good at it?”
“Um.” Gabrielle sniffed. “No. I’m not really good at much, remember?”
“Stop that.” The queen said sharply. “I’m trying to be insecure here. You’re not helping.”
Gabrielle wondered what was going on with her tall companion. “Sorry.” She apologized. Instead of saying anything else, she reached over and took the queen’s hand and clasped it, stroking the powerful fingers with her thumb.
“If I do something stupid, you won’t tell anyone about it, right?” Xena said, suddenly. “You wont put that in a story, will you?” She turned and faced Gabrielle, her expression serious.
Gabrielle was dumbstruck. She looked back at the queen, her eyes wide. Of all the things she’d thought Xena was worried about, that hadn’t even occurred to her. “Uh..” She spluttered. “Buh.. me?” her voice rose on the last word almost to a squeak.
“You.” Xena cupped her cheek. “Storyteller.”
Gabrielle exhaled softly. “I would never do anything to hurt you, Xena.” She whispered. “I’ll stop telling stories.” She felt the fingers on her cheek twitch a little at her words. “P… please don’t say I can’t go with you.”
Xena’s expression shifted, and her head tilted to one side a little.
“I just want to be with you.” Gabrielle felt afraid, suddenly. “I won’t tell anyone anything. I promise Xena. I promise, please, just d.. don’t make me stay here alone.”
Slowly, the queen leaned forward until their heads were touching. “If I do this right.” She uttered. “You’re going to end up hating me.”
Gabrielle remembered, suddenly, a moment in a castle at night, when she’d let the horror of what the queen was doing overcome her. Now, the risk Xena had taken to reassure her started to make a little bit of sense. “Nothing could do that.” She lifted her hand, and stroked Xena’s cheek.
“I don’t want you to hate me.” Xena said, with an odd quietness. “I want it all, Gabrielle. I want to lead my army, kick everyone’s ass, not screw up and not have you think I’m a…”
“I just want to be with you.” Gabrielle interrupted her, with unusual boldness. “Whatever that takes, I’ll do it.”
Xena looked her in the eye. “Whatever?”
The blond woman nodded.
Xena reached down and pulled something out of the top of her boot. She brought it closer, then turned it so it caught the last rays of the dying sun, which glittered against a small sword hilt. “You’re going to be the closest person to my back.”
Gabrielle felt short of breath suddenly, the fear of being left behind being chased out by fear of another kind. She looked at the hilt, focusing on the hawk’s head on the pommel.
She lifted her hand and slowly closed it around the leather wrapped metal. It fit her hand, but she almost started when Xena pulled the sheath back and exposed the length of the blade. “Oh.”
“Can I depend on you, Gabrielle?” Xena asked, softly. “If someone comes at me, can you stop them?’
Gabrielle stared past her, at the twilight tinted wall. She could smell the wood smoke from the kitchens and far off, hear the sounds of the castle settling in for the night. She heard a soft cracking sound, and wondered if it was her soul breaking, before she looked back at Xena, knowing the queen was waiting for her to speak.
“I already know you’ll die for me.” Xena said. “That’s not what I want. I want you to live for me, and keep me alive. Can you do that, shepherd?”
Gabrielle drew the sword all the way out of it’s sheath and examined it, lifting it up before her eyes. It was short, not half the length of Xena’s, and it didn’t feel anywhere near as heavy. After a moment, she turned her eyes back to her companions. “I will.”
Xena could see her own reflection in that blade. She was pretty sure she’d more likely get it stuck in her ass than Gabrielle would do anything useful with it, but it was the thought that counted, wasn’t it? “Don’t die on me, Gabrielle.” She said, seriously. “I’ve done a lot of rotten things in my life, but getting you killed is what I’ll send myself to Tartarus for. I mean that.”
Gabrielle’s head came up a little. Her expression altered a trifle, from grim to something gentler. “I understand.” She slid the sword back into it’s covering. “I’ll do my best to make sure we both are okay.”
Xena suspected she would fail. However, she’d rolled the dice long before and it was time to stop being so gods be damned maudlin and just get it done. “Okay.” She leaned back against the wall and draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders, leaving the sword in her hands.
She was still worried about looking like an idiot. But now she was confident it wouldn’t be at Gabrielle’s hands, since she knew the adorable mophead tended to leave out the goriest details and her occasional lapses into insanity from them anyway.
She didn’t want her to stop telling stories. She just wanted to look good in them. “Gabrielle?”
“Don’t use that thing for cooking.”
“I won’t.” Finally, Gabrielle smiled, laying the sword on the walk next to her leg. “Are we ready now?”
“As we’ll ever be.” Xena reviewed her preparations. “Guess we’ll end up staying here for that damn festival anyway.” She’d intended on leaving before it, but the supplies just weren’t coming in fast enough and she knew starting off by raping her own people of what they had wasn’t smart.
The queen looked at her. “Changed your mind about silk frills?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I wanted you to hear my poem.” She said. “The one Jellaus made into a song.”
“It’s worth wearing a dress for that.”
Gabrielle laid her head against Xena’s shoulder, and smiled, casting her future into the same uncertain waters her queen seemed to be predicting. Whatever happened, did.
Xena climbed the steps into the main hall, leaving the star scattered darkness behind her. A glance to her right and left showed an empty, echoing space, most of the castle having gone to bed already and she could hear only the occasional soft clank from somewhere else breaking the silence.
She paused before the doors to her chambers, admitting to herself how much she felt the long day, now that she was at the end of it. “Not a good sign.” She clucked her tongue, shaking her head as she pushed the door open and walked inside.
The outer chamber was empty, as she’d expected. But the door to the inner was partly open, and she could see the faint reflection of the fireplace on it’s surface, and smell clean linen and burning wax drifting through the gap.
It made her stop and ponder, just for a second, whether deciding to leave the castle and go pillaging was worth leaving behind this new, cozy life she’d developed over the last few months.
Aggravating question. Xena dismissed it and went to the door, peeking through it with a slight grin of anticipation. The inner chamber was lit with candles, and on the low table near the fire there was a tray with a decanter and two glasses, and two bowls of neatly cut fruit.
“Oh, you’re back!” Gabrielle emerged from the bathing room, her body draped in a light, sheer shift that clung to her body and made the grin on Xena’s face widen. “How are all the soldiers doing?”
“Damned if I care. C’mere.” Xena entered the chamber and held her hands out. She waited for Gabrielle to cross the carpeted floor, then she closed her arms around her as their bodies met. “What have you been up to?”
“Just writing in my diary, nothing really.” Gabrielle said. “Would you like a bath?”
“Do I smell like I need one?” The queen inquired. “I wasn’t having sex with the horses.”
Gabrielle laughed softly, nuzzling Xena’s collarbone. “You’re so funny.” She said. “You don’t smell like horses at all. I just found some new soap and I thought you’d like it.” She backed up a step, clasping Xena’s hands and tugging her gently towards the bathing room. “Come see?”
The queen allowed herself to be drawn into the bathing chamber, where a steaming, opulent tub was indeed waiting, the scent rising from it half spicy, and half something else. “Ah.” Xena considered the fact that her swanky tub opportunities were now limited and decided she was overdressed for the occasion. “I do like it.”
Gabrielle’s hands dropped to the belt holding her tunic shut and unlatched it. “I thought you might.” She untied one of the five ties that closed the shirt. “I packed a bunch of it.”
Xena allowed herself to be undressed, as she ran her fingers through Gabrielle’s pale hair. “You packing that tub too? The horses are gonna bite your ass.”
“Um.. no.” Gabrielle untied the last fastening. “I figured we’d just have to improvise.” She peeled Xena’s tunic off, ducking behind her and coming back around, draping the garment over one of the basins before she turned her attention to the laces on the queen’s leggings leaving the taller woman naked to the waist.
“Oh, did you?” Xena leaned over and put a light kiss on her companion’s neck. She saw the quick grin form on Gabrielle’s face, a typical reaction that mixed innocence and desire and tickled the queen to her toenails. “You’re so damn cute.”
Gabrielle looked up, her eyes lighting from within at the words, growing brighter as Xena cupped her face in both hands and stroked her jawline with her thumbs. It was a total focus on her that the queen appreciated in a deep way she sometimes didn’t quite understand. “Let’s get wet.”
The blond woman’s grin took on a touch of mischief. “Right now?”
Xena turned them both and sat down on the edge of the bath. “I’ll have plenty of time to get my boots wet.” She started to unlace them, then paused as Gabrielle took over the task, leaving her free to rest her elbows on the marble and enjoy the light steam bathing her back.
“I heard the nobles talking today, in the hall.” Gabrielle spoke as she worked, her brow creasing as she undid a knot in the boot’s laces. “I couldn’t tell if they were happy about what we’re doing or not.”
The queen gazed down the length of her bare torso, watching her ribs move as she took a breath and released it. “It’s greed versus greed, Gabrielle.” She remarked. “They want to keep what they have, and they want to get what conquest will bring back.”
Gabrielle drew one boot off, darting a mischevious look at her companion as she ran her fingertips across the sole of her bare foot.
“Gggabrieelle.” Xena rumbled warningly.
“Sorry.” The blond woman pretended contriteness, as she started working on the other boot. “But, how can they expect to get more, if they don’t help the army?” She asked. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“No. It’s human nature. By definition that doesn’t make sense.” The queen sighed. “Stupid bastards.”
Gabrielle pulled Xena’s other boot off, then she stood and took hold of her leggings, giving them a tug. “I think the water’s cooling off.” She said. “It’s really better hot.. don’t you think?”
“Know what I think?.” The queen remarked. “The bath’s just a smoke screen.” She folded her arms across her chest, one eyebrow hiking up as she watched a blush start right about neck level on her companion. “I think you just like undressing me.”
“You’re right. I do.” Gabrielle responded readily, aware of the heat and the knowing blue eyes on her. “You’re so pretty, I love looking at you.” She admitted. “And I guess a bath’s a pretty good excuse, isn’t it?”
Xena chuckled softly, standing and letting Gabrielle strip off her leggings as she reached over to pull the blond woman’s shift over her head. “C’mon muskrat. In ya go.” She circled the smaller woman with one arm and swung her legs over the edge of the tub, pulling Gabrielle with her as they both slid into the marble basin with a significant splash.
Gabrielle was laughing as she surfaced, shaking her head and sending bubbles flying, the light, joyous sound echoing off the marble. “Oh boy.” She spluttered. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Ah, now you know why I was such a successful despot.” Xena extended her long legs and leaned back against the wall of the tub. “I never did what anyone expected.” She sighed. “Hope I haven’t lost that touch.. damn I feel old today.”
“Why?” Gabrielle scooted over and took a seat next to her, lathering some of the soap on a bit of sponge and scrubbing her bathmate’s shoulders. “You don’t look old.” She reassured her. “I mean, you never do, but especially not today when you had that really cute outfit on.”
“Cute outfit?” Xena willingly allowed herself to be distracted. “That wasn’t supposed to be cute.”
“Well, you looked great in it.” Gabrielle told her. “I think it’s sexy.”
“Hmph.” The queen slid down in the water a little, letting it creep up almost to her chin. “Yeah, well… all I know is I’m tired. I don’t remember that happening before.” She took a breath of the warm, scented air, and relaxed, as Gabrielle’s sponge worked it’s industrious way along her skin. “And we haven’t even left yet.” She closed her eyes, giving her head a shake.
The blond woman reclined on her side next to Xena, watching her profile as she gently soaped her. “I got tired just watching you.” She said. “I mean, you beat up all those guys. Can you imagine how they feel?” She remembered seeing the soldiers trudging from the field, covered in blood, mud, and sweat. “They were all talking about you.”
One blue eye opened, and studied her. “They were, huh?”
“What were they saying?”
“Well.” The water tinkled softly as she rinsed out the sponge and added more soap, then went back to her scrubbing. “They think you’re amazing with your sword.”
“I am.” Xena said. “What else?”
“That you’re so fast when you move. They can’t catch you.”
The queen smirked. “Nice to hear that.” She allowed. “Anything else?”
“They can’t figure out how you do that jumping around thing you do.”
“Ah.” Xena lifted her arms out of the water and spread them out to either side along the wall of the tub. “Now that’s a question with a long hard answer.” She stretched her body out, feeling the stiffness receding as the warmth penetrated deep into her bones. “Let em keep guessing.”
Gabrielle eased herself up and settled over Xena’s legs, straddling them as she worked. She knew how Xena did her jumping around thing, and it was something she knew she’d never duplicate so she’d laughed to herself listening to the soldiers talk about it.
She hadn’t known what to make of the long, heavy stuffed burlap roll laying along the wall in the tower, until she’d watched Xena lift it up onto her shoulders and start working with it.
Crouching, and leaping. Crouching and leaping, and pushing herself and the thing up off the ground amazing enough until Gabrielle had tried lifting one corner of it and realized it probably weighed twice what she did.
Unbelievable. Incredible the strength it took to do what Xena did, and the constant, neverending practice she did with it almost every time she went up to her chill, empty training chamber. “I don’t think they’ll ever guess that.” She said.
“Nah.” The queen sighed. “It’s easier to think it’s a trick.” She mused. “Ah, I’ll get used to it again once we’re out there. I’ve just been living too soft all these years.” She let her eyes drift shut again, surrendering to Gabrielle’s slowly crossing from utilitarian to erotic touch with the sponge.
Yeah, she was spoiled. Xena felt her breathing shorten as the slightly rough surface slid down from her collarbone and circled her breasts. Her body had gotten to very much liking Gabrielle’s attentions and while her blond bedmate certainly wasn’t the most experienced wench around, she was..
The warmth erupted into heat, as Gabrielle’s body gently molded itself to hers, and her thigh eased between the queen’s, a lightly insistent pressure that almost made her gasp. She gave into it though, welcoming the burn as the blond woman leaned forward and their lips met, the faintest hint of mint entering her mouth as their tongues explored.
It felt a little out of control, but that made it all the more enticing, and Xena could feel her body surrendering to the craving, wanting the release she knew Gabrielle would give to her.
Hedonist? She’d never denied that, but she’d always been able to discipline herself in her excesses and somehow this little shepherd’s kid had gotten past that and had her wrapped around her little finger, having her way with Xena to an almost frightening degree.
The sponge roamed downward, and she stopped worrying about it, the pleasure overcoming any reservations as the exhaustion of the day fell away replaced by a surge of sexual energy.
Gabrielle was very focused on her and she’d learned well what Xena liked. Her attentions were sure and persistent, teasing touches that had her body twitching in short order and her mind taken right off her concerns and into a sensual space that set her own hands roaming.
Maybe they could find a way to take the damn tub.
Never knew till you tried, right?
Far off, Xena heard the soft clarion tones of the evening horn, sounding the watch for the first time in a very long time, and she smiled. It’ll all work out, she thought, before thought lost it’s coherence. It’ll all work out just fine.
Gabrielle paused as she entered the kitchens, cocking her head to listen to the chaos. She moved inside the door and put her back to the wall, just absorbing the voices around her.
The center of the big room had been cleared, and now it was full of boxes and wrapped parcels, with more parcels, baskets, bushels and loose items scattered around them. Three men were standing among the boxes waving their arms and yelling, and two women were on the periphery of it all, yelling back.
“Good grief.” Gabrielle muttered to herself. “This is no way to get things organized. Xena’s going to have a fit!”
That was the last thing she wanted to have happen. Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself away from the wall and walked into the center of the chaos. “Excuse me.”
“Damn it woman, I told ye it just won’t do!” The man closest to the boxes hollered, unheeding. “It can’t be packed like that!” He grabbed one of the boxes and dumped it on the ground, scattering the contents. “See?”
“Now you stop that, Machus!” One of the women scolded him. “Leave that be! You’ll clean that up with your tongue at your rate!” She gestured at the mess. “It’s not for us to know how to feed an army. That’s your job!”
“My job? It’s your neck on the line if there ain’t food for them to eat!” Machus yelled back. “Want her Majesty to show you how to pack a box?”
“Don’t you be wagging that one at me, you dirty rug!”
“Dirty rug, is it? Wasn’t what you said at the inn, now was it?” The man put his hands on his hips. “Turn your nose up at the army now, will you? Hades to you, Hina.”
“Hades right back to you, Machus.. you beggarly hanger on! Going to steal the droppings, don’t think we all don’t’ know it!” The woman snapped right back, a low mutter rising behind her. “The army? You’re no more the army than that little..”
Gabrielle took a deep breath, and opened her mouth. “HEY!” She bellowed.
When the echoes faded, she was standing on one side of the pile of supplies in a pool of silence, as everyone’s eyes turned on her and they realized who it was in their midst.
The relaxed, if chaotic atmosphere vanished, replaced by uneasy fear, and Gabrielle absorbed that for a moment before she squared her shoulders back and forced herself to take a step forward. “Okay, now look.” She said. “We really don’t have time to fight about this. We’re going to leave soon, and this has to be ready.”
The woman glanced at her, then looked away. “As you say, your grace.” She muttered.
“Aye.” The man agreed, staring at his feet.
Gabrielle studied them. “You’re just saying that.” She said, in an almost conversational tone. “You’re not really listening to me, are you?”
No one answered, they merely stood in sullen silence, now attracting attention from the rest of the kitchen.
“You know people are going to depend on this stuff, when we’re all out there, so it has to be right.” Gabrielle felt a curious flashback to hearing her mother’s voice, ordering the larder echoing somewhere in her fading memories. “So I think the first thing to do is fix it up so that it’s not going to fall apart if it gets knocked around. Like he was saying.” The blond woman stepped over the scattered packets and dropped ot one knee, sorting among them. “If we take this here..”
“Here, what’s going o..” The ring of silent watchers edged aside to allow Stanislaus past them. “Why… uh..”
Gabrielle looked up. “Gabrielle.” She enunciated her name politely. “Xena’s put me in charge of making sure her back’s covered. I think that means making sure she’s got all the stuff she needs, don’t you?”
Stanislaus appeared at a loss. “My lady, can I escort you to the royal chambers.. I think it’s time for tea.” He glanced at the kitchen staff. “These good people have work to do.”
Gabrielle stared at him. Then she turned and looked at the boxes.
Should she let this go? Let ‘these good people’ go on with their scatterlot packaging of things that they just might need out there? “No, thank you.” She responded politely. “I’d really rather stay here and get this sorted out.” She paused. “Want to help me?”
Now the tables were turned. Stanislaus’s nostrils flared, and he glanced around again, this time more furtively. “Your grace?” He lowered his voice. “Help you?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle started stacking the boxes. “Look, all this stuff is different. It doesn’t make sense to put the grain next to the skewers, does it? You never use those with grain.” She looked up when there was no answer, to find Stanislaus gone, and the ring of kitchen workers staring at her a little gape jawed. “Well, do you?”
Machus, to give him credit, recovered first. “Ah.. well, yes, m’lady.” He cleared his throat. “I mean.. no, m’lady, no.. we wouldn’t and that’s what I was saying, you see?”
Gabrielle smiled at him. “I think we need to fix this.” She got up, holding a packet of folded straw mats. “So I tell you what.. why don’t you and I work together to get things straightened out, okay?” She turned and regarded the rest of the workers. “Do we have more stuff?”
The uneasy distrust was almost a scent in the room. She could also sense an underlying anger, and wondered for a moment if she really wasn’t making a big mistake.
Then again. She lifted her chin and surveyed them, wondering which of them had been on Bregos side, and which had been on… A faint smile tugged at her lips. Which had been on their side. Hers and Xena’s. “Okay.” She let the package rest against her hip. “We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way, and I’ll go get Xena.”
It was like throwing ice cubes at them. She could see the jerk in their bodies as she spoke the queen’s name, hearing in her own tone a casual familiarity she knew jarred them. “I’d rather not do that. She’s busy right now.” She added. “So let’s just get started here, so when she comes check on what I’m up to, she’ll see how much progress we made. Okay?”
From ice cubes to hot pokers. There was more fear of Xena here than malice against her, and Gabrielle knew for the moment that she was safe. Two of the women at last stirred into motion, edging gingerly over to join her and kneeling in the scattering of boxes, keeping their eyes averted as they started sorting them.
“What’s that over there?” Gabrielle pointed to a storage area, half hidden behind stacks of crates. She half turned, but stopped when she caught the furtive glances being exchanged. “Behind those boxes?”
“Tis nothing.” One of the smaller women muttered.
Gabrielle put her hands against the wooden stack and braced her feet, shoving against the heavy boxes with sudden, sure strength.
“M’lady!” The drover hustled over. “Please, let me!”
The crates moved just enough for her to stick her head in the hidden area, which was full to bursting with packets, jugs, boxes, and provisions, obviously tucked out of sight. She pulled back and looked at the workers, all of whom stared at the floor and refused to look back at her.
The drover let his hands drop, then he met Gabrielle’s eye and faintly, almost fatalistically, shrugged.
Holding back, huh? Gabrielle knew Xena would be furious if she knew, but she’d been a little, hungry kid standing in her parents small hut watching them give up everything to rough, bawdy raiders and she felt a brief understanding fill her.
Only a brief one. “Well, guess we’ve got lots to pack, huh?” She remarked cheerfully. “Xena’s going to really like this.” She dusted her hands off and regarded her unwilling audience. “How about we get started?”
Machus rubbed the side of his nose, then he gave a small shrug in the direction of the rest of them. “Best do as the lady says, friends.” He said, briefly, as he started to rearrange the boxes.
The women watched in sullen silence, then shook their heads and gathered around him, pushing things here and there with angry gestures.
Deliberately, Gabrielle stepped over the stack of wrapped baskets and walked further into the larders, doing her best to ignore the stares at her back as she studied the provisions lining the walls.
What did you take out to war? She reached out and touched a twine wrapped jug, and tried to imagine being around one of those campfires. “How much of this do we have?” She turned and looked at the nearest woman in question.
“That be oil, m’lady.” The woman answered stiffly. “Not her Majesty’s wine.”
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. “I know that.” She replied. “How much do we have?”
The woman hesitated, pressing her lips together. She finally gave Gabrielle a brief nod of her head. “Twelve more like that’un.”
Twelve? Gabrielle studied the jug of olive oil with a frown. “Okay, take those boxes over there.” She directed, pointing to a set of crates. “And fill them with straw.”
“M’lady?” The woman sounded incredulous. “We don’t be sending good oil with the likes of..”
Gabrielle turned and stared at her. “What?”
The woman predictably fell silent, realizing what she’d almost said.
Machus somewhat clumsily got up and moved between her and the now visibly bristling Gabrielle. “Now, your Grace, pay her no mind. She’s a mindless slut, never left the kitchen once.” He said, loudly. “You wanting the oil, eh? Word is you’re a right wonder for cooking. Be a good lesson, eh?”
The crowd parted, suddenly, and a slim form pushed through. “Senna wants the flour, what’s all this… oh.” Celeste halted, spotting Gabrielle. “What are you doing here?”
Pale green eyes, in a strangely more mature face framed by shortened hair swept the room. “Representing the Queen’s interests, apparently.” Gabrielle replied. “It seems not everyone’s willing to obey her requests.”
A tense silence fell, and her words echoed softly in a space no longer quite so safe for anyone.
Xena looked up from her notes. “C”mon in.” She greeted Jonas with relative cordiality. “Got the stuff?”
Jonas crossed the room quickly, a small wrapped bundle in his hands. “I do, Mistress.” He reassured her. “I just need to attach it, if I may.”
Xena held her hand out. “Gimme.”
He laid the packet on the table and backed a step, putting his hands behind his back as she laid her quill down and unwrapped the bundle, removing two long strips of mail and laying them out.
“Hm.” The queen leaned on her elbows and studied the mail. It was another example of neat interlace, the edges lined with double rings in a heavy, dull gray metal. “Nice.” She gestured towards the small room to one side. “Get half of it in, then you can do the rest with it on me.”
Releasing his held breath, Jonas carefully took the two strips. “Very good, Majesty.” He murmured. “I’ll be quick about it.”
“Good idea.” The queen went back to her writing. “With my reputation you never know when a fit of cycling might take me and then where would you be?”
Xena looked up at him, one dark, finely arched eyebrow lifting sharply. He got the message and retreated to her workroom, disappearing behind the door as a knock came at her outer one. She put down the quill she’d just picked up and lifted her sword instead, removing it from it’s sheath with a whisper of steel on leather.
The knock came again. The queen twirled the sword and stalked to the opening, yanking the door open and preparing to plunge her blade into whatever was making the annoying sound.
Her hand got as far as her side, and she halted. “Damn it.” She exhaled in frustration. “Stanislaus, you’re almost killable.”
The senschal had shrunk back, his eyes huge. “Mistress!” He blurted in dismay. “I only come to warn you! Please! What have I done!”
Xena turned and headed back to the desk, shaking her head. “What?” She picked up a sharpening stone as she reached her stool and dropped onto it, laying her blade against the rough surface and drawing it across with a nape prickling scrape.
Hesitantly, Stanislaus entered, staying prudently near the door. “Majesty, you must do something, I beg of you. Your hard working slaves in the kitchens are trying to get things organized the way you need them, and..”
“My what?” Xena gave him an amused look. “What have you been drinking? Most of those bastards down there haven’t even pushed a broom in a moon.”
“Majesty, it’s your .. “ Stanislaus hesitated. “I am sure she means only the best, she’s such a sweet child, but really.. to be arranging the supplies! Majesty! It will be a disaster?”
Xena paused in the middle of a sharpening stroke and looked at him. “What in Hades are you babbling about?”
“Lady Gabrielle.” The man said. “Surely your Majesty knows what I speak of.. perhaps it was a small jest? Sending her there to make an amusing joke?”
The queen put her sword down. “Hold it.” She held up a hand. “Are you telling me Gabrielle’s down in the storeroom with the goats and chickens?”
Stanislaus looked relieved. “Of course.” He said. “But your Majesty did not know? Perhaps you are not pleased?”
Xena leaned back and wrapped her hands around her knee. “You’re telling me that my sexy love slave is downstairs telling everyone what I want packed?” She sounded incredulous. “My short, blond bedwarmer?” She held her hand out more or less the level of Gabrielle’s head.
“Yes, Majesty.” The seneshal folded his hands, looking pleased with himself. “I am certain you well know the consequences.. with the army leaving so soon.”
Well, well. Xena allowed that she was, in fact, surprised. She hadn’t expected the little muskrat to take the initiative and go meddle in the middens but then, it was the things Gabrielle did that she didn’t expect that were more fun than the expected ones. “Damn straight I do.” She answered, briskly.
“Means I probably won’t have to eat gods be damned oatcakes across half the realm.” Xena brushed her hands off and sheathed her sword. “Tell those idiots if they don’t do everything she tells em, I’m gonna drag the lot of them behind my horse on the way out. Got me?”
Stanislaus sighed. “Mistress.”
The queen chuckled softly, as he left. “Bet she packs lots of honey.”
Gabrielle stopped at the top of the kitchen stairs to the old tower and sat down, leaning her shoulder against the cool stone as she flexed her tired fingers and exhaled. “Boy.”
Her voice echoed softly off the corridor, and she slid her boots down one more step, grimacing a little at the discomfort from the new leather.
Over her shoulder, the high, arched window set up in the wall was admitting a late afternoon light and she felt a bone deep tiredness from a long day’s work she hadn’t experienced for many a month now. With a faint, wry look, she examined her hands, the palms of her right one scraped and reddened where she’d taken out a splinter. “Not much used to this anymore, huh?”
Only the empty upper hall returned her voice to her and she was quietly glad of a moment of peace after the day of labor, allowing herself a additional moment of satisfaction as she reviewed her progress. A smile appeared as she put her hands behind her and stretched her body out, flexing her toes and exhaling.
A good day. Gabrielle tipped her head back and looked up at the arched stone ceiling, watching the gathering shadows darken the lines of it as the sun began it’s descent behind the walls.
To her left, she heard a soft creak as the door to the outer walk opened, allowing a flood of golden light inside.
A gust of wind blew against her back, fluttering the fabric around her body and chilling her skin a trifle. She could hear the faintest scrape of leather against stone and she cocked her ears to listen as footsteps came up behind her.
Rhythmic footsteps, with a perceptible swagger. Gabrielle smiled in pure reflex and half turned, to see a tall, silk draped figure approaching her. “Imagine meeting you here!”
“What.” A low, musical voice rumbled over her. “Have you been up to, my little muskrat?” Xena reached the wall and leaned against it, casually crossing her ankles as she gazed down at her lover. “Hm?”
Gabrielle tipped her head back and looked up at the queen’s towering form, letting the sight fill her senses and feeling a squeeze of happiness around her heart. “I’ve been downstairs.” She admitted, glancing down at her dirt smudged tunic. “Did I get in trouble?”
Xena laughed suddenly, a light sound of actual amusement that had been coming more and more naturally to her of late and she sat down next to Gabrielle on the steps and rested her elbows on her knees. “You?” She eyed her companion. “My little innocent sweet bit of charm?”
Gabrielle’s face scrunched into an embarrassed grimace. “I’m not.”
“You’re not what? Innocent, sweet or charming?” The queen inquired. “Muskrat, trust me you are.” She reached over and gently smoothed the hair off Gabrielle’s face. “No, you’re not in trouble. You caused trouble. You know how much I love that.”
The blond woman’s smile returned. “They were just all so disorganized about everything. I wanted to make it right for you.” She leaned into Xena’s touch. “Besides, I want to help do stuff. Not just hang around watching.”
Xena understood that feeling, in a vague way. Slowly, she nodded, her face thoughtful. “You find their stash?”
Gabrielle looked up at her, a little startled. “What?”
“Their stash. The stuff they were holding back?” The queen watched her face intently. “Did you find it?” She knew the answer by the widening of those open, green eyes, and the faint motion in her jaw as it dropped slightly, but she waited, curious what her lover would answer.
Ah. Wasn’t what she’d expected her to say. “Sure.” Xena said. “You don’t really think a bunch of ignorant peasants are smarter than I am, do ya?” She studied Gabrielle’s dirt smudged, disheveled figure. “C’mon now.”
Gabrielle was very confused. She had expected Xena to be upset, angry over the downstairs people hiding things away from her and instead, she just seemed sort of amused by it. “You’re not mad?”
The queen gave a half shrug. “I know I’m pushing hard to get out of her.” She said. “Natural they’d try to save a few things back, I would.”
Gabrielle goggled at her.
“Don’t worry.” Xena patted her cheek. “You’d get a share.” She started laughing at the dumbfounded expression on the blond woman’s face. “Ah, you’re right.” She went to stand up. “Lemme go kill a few dozen of em. We’ve got time before dinner. C’mon.” She started down the steps, humming under her breath.
“Buh.. buh.. bu.. w.. Xena!” Gabrielle found her tongue trying to get outside her mouth and hastily drew it back in. “Ge..bu.. no, wait!” She scrambled to her feet and bolted after the taller woman, thumping down the steps hastily and catching up with the queen just as she got to the bottom. “Wh.. wait! No.. uh.. Xena, um.. just hang on there a minute..”
Xena paused at the door to the kitchens and peered around at her. “What?” She asked. “Wanna help?”
“No.. no, Xena, listen. I wasn’t.. I didn’t mean you should do anything to anyone I was just..” Gabrielle gently grasped her arm, having learned fast, strong motions made the queen twitch. “I thought you would be angry, and I was surprised you weren’t. Please don’t hurt anyone.”
Xena half turned and looked down at her. “You really think I was going to?” Her voice rose in surprise. “C’mon Gabrielle. I was kidding. Lighten up.” She patted her bedmate on the side and pushed the door open with one boot. “Thought you knew me better by now.”
Gabrielle followed her inside, her guts churning with a tremendous mix of emotions. It was very hard to know when Xena was kidding, as a matter of fact because the truth of it was, Xena did things horrific things, with the same offhand black humor that she made jokes with and while she wished she did know the queen’s heart as well as Xena seemed to think she should..
“Your majesty!” Machus straightened from tying a final bundle, his entire body covered in grime. He dropped to his knees, as the rest of the kitchen staff hastily joined him, ladles going flying and pots falling to floor as everyone scrambled to acknowledge Xena’s presence.
Xena paused in the center of the now cleared loading space, turning her head one way, and then the other to sweep the room with a cool, blue stare. The big doors leading to the courtyard were half open, and the scent of horses was drifting through, two stacks of boxes near the portal the last to obviously be loaded.
The shelves around her were empty. She could remember stopping by here a few days ago and seeing them laden with stores, boxes stacked against the walls and bales lining the passageways. Now, the flagstones were clean, and the larders stood bare and empty.
She would leave behind scarce provisions. Xena acknowledged that to herself, as she looked around and saw the silent, resentful accusation in the faces before her, who could not fend on their own, and depended on her for everything they had.
Oh well. They’d have to manage.
Without comment, the queen walked to the doors and pushed the huge panels open with a casual shove, walking out into the late afternoon light to find six wagons lined up before the kitchens, all packed tightly with boxes, bales and parcels.
The loads were already lashed for travel, and on the wooden sides of the wagons was writing, lines in a studied, careful script the queen well recognized.
She turned around and put her hand son her hips, regarding Gabrielle who had followed her quietly from the kitchen. “You do that?” She indicated the wagons with a thumb.
Gabrielle diffidently clasped her hands behind her back. “Well.” She cleared her throat modestly. “I told them how to put things.” She said. “And what things, and helped them but..”
Xena strolled around the wagons and peered inside them, thoroughly enjoying the send of order and logic she could sense in the laying out of the loads. How incredibly unexpected. “Where’d you learn to do that, muskrat?” She asked casually, leaning an elbow on the edge of a sturdy wheel.
Gabrielle walked forward and put her hands on the edge of the wagon buckboard, her expression surprisingly pensive. “I used to have to put in the harvest, at home.” She admitted. “Store everything for winter, you know, and take care of the sheepskins, and all that.”
The blond woman nodded. “It was just me and Lila and Mama and Da.” She said. “I was the oldest.”
Xena turned and looked at the markings. “That you too?”
Gabrielle pulled a rolled parchment from her belt and came around to where Xena was standing. “I marked down what was in which of the wagons.” She explained. “See here? So we don’t have to waste time when we stop and have to get stuff.”
“Uh huh.” The queen grunted. “Interesting.”
Gabrielle looked at her with something close to apprehension. “I know putting up one little cot’s harvest isn’t anything like running an army, but..”
Gabrielle paused and folded the parchment up. “No, what?”
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and looked her right in the eye. “Every time I scratch your surface, you come up gold. That’s a damned amazing thing.” She said. “I’ve got soldiers coming out my ass, some of them good, some bad, but you’re worth more than all of them together to me for what you did here.”
Wow! Gabrielle felt her eyes popping wide open at the very unexpected praise. “I’m..” She stammered. “I’m glad you liked it.” She felt her shoulders relax, and the weariness of the long day faded from her, replaced by a warm, happy feeling that put a smile on her face and found it’s echo on Xena’s. “I think I made the people doing it pretty mad.”
“I’m sure you did.” The queen pulled her closer and gave her a kiss on the head. “But you’re going to keep on doing it, because I’m gonna tell everyone you’re the master of the camp in this damned army.” She put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder as they headed back towards the kitchen. “And that’s really going to piss everyone off.”
“Oh. Well, I guess that’s all right then.” Gabrielle knew she probably had just gotten herself into more trouble than she’d ever intended. “I hope I do okay.”
Xena could see the kitchen staff watching them as they entered, still with that deep resentment in their eyes and she knew without a doubt taking Gabrielle with her was the best idea she’d had yet. “Better get planting.” She told them, with a dour look back. “Or it’s gonna be a long spring chewing the grass out there.”
“Your Majesty.” Machus was still on his knees, holding his cap against his body. “Tis true it’s only a sevenday’s provisions we’ve left here.”
“Tis hard, Majesty.” The man replied bravely.
“No it’s not.” Xena answered, sweeping her gaze around the room. “Going out with an army, fighting and dying and watching men’s heads split is hard. That’s all to bring land and riches back so you all can sit here and eat your fill of what I provide you.”
A quiet stillness settled over the room. Even Gabrielle was motionless, pressed against Xena’s side.
“Better hope I come back.” The queen added, widening her eyes mockingly, before she guided Gabrielle to the steps and disappeared up them, slamming the door and sending echoes all through the tower behind her.
Gabrielle curled her aching hands around her cup of tea and sipped it, glad of a few moments to gather herself before she had to get into her newly finished gown and get ready for the banquet. She was in her own little chamber, with her writing desk to one side and her clothing press behind her and it felt good just to be alone for a brief time with her thoughts and scent of mint curling around her face.
She was very tired. They had a long dinner before them before she could rest, but she wouldn’t trade Xena’s praise of her work for anything.
Thinking about it now made her smile again, and she took a long swallow of tea, pulling her robe around her a little and moving a bit closer to the fire to ward off the chill from getting out of her warm bath, savoring the moment all the more since she knew how few of them she would have soon.
Master of the camp. Gabrielle covered her eyes and couldn’t quite stifle a giggle. Xena had said it had to be master of the camp, because mistress of the camp would give everyone the absolute wrong idea but for the sake of the gods…
Ah well. She really didn’t want to be called anyone’s Mistress.
So.. why did everyone call Xena that? Her thoughts wandered as she relaxed back in her chair. Did Xena like it? Why did she let everyone call her that if she thought it was a bad thing?
Or did she like it because it was a bad thing?
That seemed like something Xena would like, to be called something that was bad, or naughty because she thought Xena liked everyone to think that’s how she really was. Gabrielle knew she had a mischevious streak, but there was something in her that understood there was something in Xena that was good and honest and true no matter what she said otherwise.
It was the part of her that would walk up behind Gabrielle and lay her hands on her shoulders and kiss the top of her head, just for no reason.
It was the part of her that made sure Gabrielle had everything she needed, and more, and never stinted on giving her clothes, and parchment, and all the pretty things scattered about her little room.
It was the part of her that loved and cherished Gabrielle in a way she’d never known before in all her life, not from family, not from anyone.
Xena the Merciless. Most of the time. Gabrielle turned her head a little as she heard the queen stirring in the next chamber, the impatient motions so typical of her apparent in the drop of a cloak on the dressing table and the slight hiss of annoyance as the footsteps approached her doorway.
After a brief pause, the queen’s dark head poked itself into her chamber, faintly disheveled hair partly obscuring one pale eye. “Hey. What are you doing?”
Gabrielle swung her head around to look and see if her limbs had started to do something odd without her knowledge. Then she returned her gaze to Xena’s face. “Having some tea. Do you want some? I have water on here.”
Xena entered and came over to her small hearth, dropping into the armchair next to her with a sullen grunt. “No I don’t want any gods be damned tea.” She growled. “I want to be out of here.”
“Well.” Gabrielle got up and went to the fire, taking a cup and setting some tea leaves in it, then pouring the heated water over it. “We are leaving tomorrow, right?”
“Yes. “ Xena paused. “What are you doing?” She asked, peevishly. “Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want any damn tea?”
Gabrielle drizzled a good stickful of honey into the cup and stirred it, then she turned and came over to where Xena was sitting, handing her the cup and perching on the chair arm, reaching up to smooth the queen’s hair back out of her eyes. “You seem like you’re in a bad mood.”
“I am in a bad mood. Nice catch.” Xena sipped from the cup anyway, as she felt her body reacting to her lover’s touch. “So don’t try to suck up to me. I’m not falling for it.”
Gabrielle laid the backs of her fingers against Xena’s cheek, which was cool and the skin seemed a bit roughened. “I love you.” She said, unexpectedly. “I was just thinking about that when you came in.”
Blue eyes glowered at her. “I’m in a bad mood, and I’m trying to stay that way. Stop sabotaging me.” She watched the skin on either side of the blond woman’s mouth tense and her eyes warm and gave it all up as a stupid lost cause. “See? That’s the problem.”
“What’s the problem?”
Xena relaxed, letting her head rest against Gabrielle’s side. “I can’t be mean when you’re around.” She said. “You make me feel too good.”
“That’s bad for someone who has to be a bastard and lead an army, yeah.” The queen sighed. “Some idiot said something to me on the way up here and I’d gotten a really good piss off going and the minute I walked in here and looked at you it was forget it.”
Gabrielle wasn’t sure what was called for at this point. An apology? “I’m sorry.” She ventured. “I don’t do it on purpose.”
“Sure you do.” But Xena’s tone was more resigned than angry. “But I want you to promise not to be so damn nice to me in front of the army. Those men have to understand I’m mean and ruthless.”
Gabrielle suspected there was a lot to being part of an army she was going to learn starting tomorrow that she had no clue about today. “Um.. okay.” She said. “But.. isn’t it more like you shouldn’t be nice to me if you’re supposed to be all mean and ruthless?”
Xena didn’t answer, her eyes seemingly fixed onto the low flames in the fireplace. After a long silence, she tipped her head back and looked up at Gabrielle, with a quiet, open honesty that made the smaller woman hold her breath. “You’re right.” She said. “I should.”
Gabrielle felt a sense of deep fear inside her, the stuttering insecurity that made her guts clench. “O..okay.” She stammered, harsh images flashing in her minds eye. “Okay.” She added, in a softer tone. “If it’s what you have to do.”
The queen examined the expressive face just above hers, seeing the humor and gentle affection vanish, replaced by apprehension and a furtive terror that made her understand just how well Gabrielle understood that her future rested squarely in Xena’s hands.
Not just life, but this fragile happiness of theirs dangled over them. Xena sighed gently. “Tell me, Gabrielle. Is that why you’re doing all this extra stuff? So I don’t maybe get the idea to lock you in the closet and leave you to rot while I’m out there raping and murdering the country side?”
Gabrielle’s jaw muscles tightened, and she went very still. Xena’s sharp eyes were watching her and she felt caught in a vise of a sudden. The accusation was uncomfortably close to the truth and she felt so sick to her stomach she was afraid she’d spew uncontrollably if she so much as opened her mouth.
“Is it?” Xena prodded her, the queen’s intense gaze almost unbearable.
After a moment, Gabrielle nodded slowly, with out saying anything.
Xena pursed her lips, then she exhaled, shaking her head in silence for a very long period of time, as the fire crackled softly in the heart. Finally she glanced back up at Gabrielle, who was merely sitting there, gazing at the floor. “You’re an idiot.”
Instead of answering, Gabrielle just nodded again in numb acceptance.
“Do you know why you’re an idiot?”
Gabrielle shook her head after a brief pause.
Xena got up and paced across the floor, reaching the hearth and turning to look back. Gabrielle’s haunted eyes met hers and she could see the echo suddenly of the scrap of a slave kid she’d almost had shot in front of her instead of the warm, sunny companion she’d come to depend on.
Gabrielle hadn’t cared then. She’d stood up to Xena and talked back to her because she expected death, or worse, and she hadn’t seen anything better coming in her life.
Xena remembered that feeling, remembered drinking enough to drown it out during those long nights across the years when she’d felt her own life losing it’s meaning.
Did she understand Gabrielle’s fear? Silently, inwardly, she mockingly laughed at herself, knowing the answer far, far too well.
“You’re an idiot because you don’t apparently realize I’d cut my own heart out if I left you.” Xena turned and left the room, slamming the door between their chambers shut behind her.
Gabrielle slowly lowered herself to the ground and sat there, her face buried in her hands.
Stanislaus stood there, a stunned expression on his face. “Cancel the banquet, Majesty?” He repeated. “Is that, my pardon, what you said to me?”
“Cancel it.” Xena continued writing on a piece of parchment. “The army leaves tomorrow. I don’t have the time, the patience, or the energy to entertain a bunch of useless dogsbodies who do nothing but whine and bray like donkeys at me.”
The seneschal’s jaw snapped shut, then opened again. “Very well, Majesty.” He murmured. “As you will.” He bowed, and backed towards the door. “As you will.”
Xena waited for the door to close, and slowly her writing trailed off, leaving her staring at her parchment before she closed her eyes and lifted a hand to rest her head on it.
The closed door to the smaller room to her right beat against her in silent accusation and after an aching moment, she tossed the quill from her against the opposite wall and got up, heading with determined steps towards where Stanislaus had so expediently disappeared.
But after a few steps she found herself going to the door between her and Gabrielle instead, the pain in her chest rising almost to choke her.
She laid her hands on the door, surprised to see them shaking, then muttering a soft oath under her breath as she pushed the panel open and walked back inside, stopping at the quiet darkness within.
Now, it was her turn to be afraid, and she was. Her eyes scanned the inside, her heart pounding so hard in her chest she couldn’t hear a sound around her. The low daybed was empty, and the so were the chairs before the fire.
She opened her mouth, her throat dry, to call out Gabrielle’s name when she spotted the small, curled figure in the corner, near the far wall and she exhaled, her breath trickling out from between her lips.
Hesitantly, she walked over, hearing the soft, stifled sobs as she reached the spot and dropped to her knees, unable to stop herself from reaching out and before she knew it she was sitting on the floor gathering Gabrielle up in her arms and pulling her onto her lap.
Was she crying? Xena was startled to find that she was, and grateful that instead of resisting the touch Gabrielle simply curled up into it, burrowing into her embrace with a desperate, soft sound that should have been profoundly terrifying.
Xena didn’t care.
Whatever she’d become now, it wasn’t what she had been and she no longer knew where she was going and why she wanted to get there.
Nothing made sense.