A Queen for all Seasons

Part 1

Late afternoon sunlight poured down on the golden stubble of newly reaped fields as the stalks wiggled and parted at the passage of some large beast.

Well.  Not really a large beast.   Patches the Pony  thundered through the field, his shaggy coat ruffling in the wind as his rider urged him to go faster.

“C’mon, Patches!”   Gabrielle squinted into the wind, leaning down over the pony’s neck and tightening her knees.   “I know you can do it!”

Patches snorted, but amiably picked up speed, his small hooves kicking up wisps of forgotten grain as they bolted across the field.

“C’mon, c’mon.” Gabrielle glanced behind her as she heard the sounds of hoofbeats behind them. “Oh my gosh, Patches, hurry!”   She put her hands on either side of Patches neck and urged him forward, hearing a wicked laugh behind her. “Hurry!!!”

Patches ears flicked backward, then forward as he stretched out and really began to run, covering the ground in a surprisingly short amount of time as the horse chasing them closed in.   

This one was a really large beast, and his strides covered twice as much ground as the pony’s. In seconds he was catching up and his rider let out another wicked laugh as she wiggled the fingers on the hand closest to her quarry. “Gonna getcha!!!”

“Gerrrrr!” Gabrielle ducked, Patches swerved, and the chasing stallion hauled up with startling abruptness so as not to crash into him. 

“Hey!”  Xena let out a yell as she was almost unhorsed.  “Cut that out you damn bastard!” She got the stallion straightened out and bolted after the charging pony.  “Get back here!”

“Never count your fish before you’re eating them!” Gabrielle called back, as they gained the road and passed the outer gate a pony whisker ahead of  Tiger’s frothing nose. “Ha!!! We won!”

“You little stinker! Wait till I get my hands on you!”  Xena laughed. “Stop teaching that damn runt tricks!”

The two animals slowed to a canter, as they rode up the long approach to the city walls, now lined with market stalls and merchants, all of whom were goggling at them.

As well they might.  The tall black warhorse and the short, sturdy pony were striking together all by themselves, but their riders drew the attention, since everyone watching surely recognized the queen of the realm, Xena the Merciless, and her consort on the animal’s backs.

Distinctively tall, dressed in well broken in leathers and with her dark hair caught back in a tail, Xena sat in her saddle with the complete comfort of a lifelong rider. Behind her right shoulder, the hilt of a longsword was visible and peeking over the tops of both riding boots were daggers whose handles were worn smooth with use.

Gabrielle, in comparison, was wearing a blue overshirt with a hood pushed back from her pale hair and darker blue leather leggings with nothing to defend herself with except for a big sack full of apples and a sling looped casually through her belt.

Merchants along the road hastily bowed to them, relieved at the relaxed wave of Xena’s hand as she passed.

“What a great day.”  Gabrielle sighed happily.  “I can’t believe we found so many of those apples still hanging, can you?”  She straightened a little in the saddle, letting one hand rest on her thigh, one thumb lightly tapping the leather surface of her riding breeches.

“What? Oh. Right.”  Xena glanced at her companion, giving up her examination of the gathering merchants.   “You are, of course, going to make those honey and nut things of yours right?”

Gabrielle looked over at her. “Maybe.” Her green eyes twinkled.

“Maybe?” The queen affected an outraged tone.   She dusted a bit of grain chaff off the sleek black leather armor she was wearing.  “Maybe????”

Gabrielle produced a sweetly endearing grin.   “Of course I am.” She said. “I know you like them. That’s why I was glad we found the apples.”

“Hah.”

“This is going to be a great Harvest festival, isn’t it?” Gabrielle reviewed the rows and rows of merchants now setting up just outside the stronghold’s gates.  “Wow.. you see those carved wooden birds?”

“I can do better.” Xena observed. “How about I carve a miniature you complete with my bite marks on your..”

“Xena.”  Gabrielle reached over and patted her calf. “How about you do one of Patches? That would be a lot cuter.”

Xena chuckled.  She noted the heavy traffic of attendees at the festival with a sense of satisfaction, however.   “Better than last year.” She commented.  Word of her defeat of the Persians earlier in the year had spread far and wide, and she saw merchants in the lines from equally far and wide.

New stuff.  Xena wasn’t a fan of shopping at any time, but there were strange scents rising in the air, hints of things from far away and places she hadn’t been to.    The stretch of road in front of the gates was packed with wagons, and rows had started spreading out to either side, with campsites on the outside full of travelers.

They all turned, warned by the men closer to the road, to stare at her as she passed and she slowed Tiger to an amble to give them all a good look.

It had been a quiet summer.  Her nobles had meekly retired to their lands to plant and harvest,  peace had settled over her stronghold and from all the reports she’d gotten, it had turned out to be a productive year.

An envoy had gone off to deliver a message to the king of Persia, to see if he wanted his soldiers back.  Those men had accepted their imprisonment – treated well enough for enemy soldiers and put to work by her own men in rebuilding some parts of the stronghold that had fallen into disrepair over the years.

They were fed as well as her slaves here, and they had a warm place to sleep and over the months much of their Persian pride had softened as they adjusted to their new condition.   Xena’s men showed them the respect due honored enemies, and they were, to the extent they could be, content for now.

Would the Persian monarch send money or men to kill her?  Xena pondered the question, not entirely sure which she would prefer.  The money would be nice, but the challenge might be nicer, and she was, she knew, a bit twisted that way.

“I heard Duke Lastay’s wife had her baby.” Gabrielle said. “Are we sending them a present?”

“A present?”  Xena turned her attention to her consort.  “Why in Hades should I send them a present for successful screwing?”

“Xena.”

“I mean, c’mon, squirt.  If I sent a present to every damn person who popped a kid out, I’d be living in the stable with Tiger here and you’d be busking for a living.”

“But he’s your heir.”  Gabrielle gently protested. “And after all, you saved his lady and all that.”

Xena rolled her eyes. 

“Well, you did.”

“What do you think we should send them?” Xena humored her, as they approached the gates and the huge portals swung open as the guards noted her approach.  “Dead pig?”

“Xena.”

“Look, I’m not good at presents.”

Gabrielle peered up at her. “You always give me lots of nice presents.”

Xena took a breath, then released it, narrowing her eyes.

“How about something like that?” Gabrielle distracted her, pointing at a nearby stall just inside the gates. Here, the more prosperous merchants had been given stalls, and those who made the stronghold their home.   “That cradle there.”

Xena drew Tiger to an abrupt halt, and slid off his back, catching sight of one of her grooms bolting towards her to take the stallion’s reins.  “G’wan and clean him up and give him a feed.” She told the groom. “And the runt.” 

Gabrielle had gotten off Patches back in a somewhat more decorous, though less agile manner.   “Good boy, Patches.” She gave him a hug. “I knew you could beat Tiger if you put your mind to it.”

The pony shook his head, and Tiger arched his neck and nibbled a bit of Gabrielle’s hair as the groom took possession of his reins.  Gabrielle checked to see if Xena was watching, then she gave the big black horse a kiss on the nose. “You’re a good boy too.”

“Gggaaabriellle.”  The queen was standing nearby, her hands perched on her hips. “This was your idea, remember?”

“C… heading right over.”  Gabrielle ducked under Tigers neck and trotted over to the queen, slinging her bag of apples over her shoulder.

They approached the merchant stall, as the owner nervously washed his hands together.   “Your majesty, your grace.” He bobbed his head in anxious obeisance.  “What is your pleasure?”

“She is.” Xena strolled around the stand, observing the wooden cradles, painstakingly carved.  “You really think he wants one of these?” She asked Gabrielle in a skeptical tone. “Y’know, I’m pretty sure he’s got one already.”   She rocked one of the items with a finger.  “Wouldn’t he?”

“Hm.” Gabrielle studied the cradle.  Would the Duke?  “You’re right.”  She finally admitted. “He probably thought of that, huh?”

“Can I help your majesties?” The merchant asked, timidly. “Perhaps I can suggest?” He looked from one to the other. “You seek something for an infant? Or for yours.…”  His voice trailed off as Xena pinned him with her ice blue eyes.

Gabrielle gently intervened. “The royal heir, Duke Lastay’s wife just had a baby.” She explained. “So Xena and I were looking for a present for her.”

Xena snorted and wandered off. “I’ll be over at that armor maker’s tent.” She pointed. “A dagger’ll do him better.”

The merchant anxiously watched her leave. “I did not mean to anger her Majesty.” He whispered.

Gabrielle patted his arm. “Don’t worry. She’s not mad.”  She reviewed the cradles. “She just has no idea about this stuff and to be honest, neither do I.”    Her nose wrinkled up into a frank grin.  “So what do you think? What would be good for a present for a new mother?”

The merchant relaxed a little, though he kept an eye on Xena’s tall form nearby.  “Well, m’lady.” He said.  “Surely a cradle would do, but as her majesty said, I would think the duke had gotten him one before now. What about.. “ He peered down the row. “Ah, perhaps a blanket for the babe.”

He turned. “Brachus, stay here and mind the stall.” He ordered a young boy hovering behind him. “While I assist her grace here.”

“Yes Da.”  The boy gave Gabrielle a shy smile.

Gabrielle followed the merchant towards the weaver’s stall, taking a deep breath of the cool air filled with woodsmoke on it’s fringes.  In the stronghold, she knew the big kitchen fires would be going, and the slaves would be busy getting ready to serve dinner.

The inner courtyard had taken on the appearance of a fair, as it was filled with both hometown vendors and visitors from all around the countryside.  She could see exotic things tugging her attention already,  a flash of silver jewelry here, the hint of sun on beautifully worked copper plate there.

She had dinars in her belt pouch.   She also knew she really didn’t have to use them, as anyone in the stronghold would hand over whatever it was she wished because of who she was.

Or more accurately, what she was.    

They stopped at the weavers and the cradle merchant eagerly engaged the old, stoop backed craftsman as he indicated a beautiful woven blanket draped over the support of the stall.

Gabrielle touched it, finding it incredibly soft. It was a pretty color, a mix between red and blue and tightly woven. “This is really nice.”

“Thank you, y’grace.” The weaver said, gruffly.  “Would be nice for a babe.  Cold weather comin on.”  He glanced up at the ceiling. “Going to be a rough winter season.”

Gabrielle felt the fabric between her thumb and fingers. “Sheep bearing heavy coats this year?”  She met his eyes. 

His eyebrows arched up in surprise. “Ay, y’grace.” He said.  “Y’heard then?”

“I remember.”  Gabrielle shook her head a little, but smiled. “How much?” She turned her attention to the bargaining at hand.   “Let’s not take too long though, I think Xena’s getting impatient.”

Xena examined a strip of leather, keeping one blue eyeball on her companion as she moved from one stall to the other and started dickering. 

“May I gift that to you, your majesty?” The tanner bowed.  “We had a fine year this year. Good hides.”

The queen flipped the leather over and ran knowledgable fingers over it.  It was supple and there were no marks on it, and it was stained a rich, golden color.     “Seems like everyone’ s had a good season.” She glanced around.

The tanner nodded immediately. “Was a good year. Been hearing that a lot.”  He cleared his throat.  “Plenty of outsiders showed up down t’road.”

“Mm.” Xena glanced furtively over to where her consort was concluding her bargain. “Can you carve my crest in this, make a belt of it?” She asked.  “All around, like this.” She traced a design on the leather.

“Surely.” The tanner took the end of it. “In black, your majesty?  So’s it your colors?”

Xena nodded, edging over to block Gabrielle’s view. “Yeah.  Here.” She handed over a gold coin. “just keep quiet about it, okay?”

“Your majesty?”  The tanner’s eyes bulged out at the coin resting in his hand. “But .. this is far too..” He clamped his jaws shut as a dagger tickled his nose.

“Just shut up and do it.” Xena whispered. “Have someone bring it in to me.  Right?”

He nodded cautiously.

“Right.” Xena straightened and turned,  strolling off to meet Gabrielle as she came over. “Finished?”

“Yeees.” Gabrielle tried to peer past her. “What was that all about?”

“Never mind. I’ve got an idea for a present for my jackass heir.”  Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder and steered her towards the wide, newly laid grand roadway that ended at the entrance to the palace.   “How about I send him the whole winter’s worth of manure from the stables?”

Gabrielle made a face. “Xena.”

“You know how much that’s worth, sheep hugger?” 

“I know, but gross!”  Gabrielle slipped her arm around Xena’s waist and hugged her. “Why don’t you give them something pretty, like a coach.”

Xena rolled her eyes.

“Or maybe a nice bed. Im sure they could use that.”

“I’m sure they know how to use the one they have, Gabrielle. Where do you think the kid came from?”

“Well.” Gabrielle scratched her nose.  “They didn’t have to use the bed.” She said. “After all..”

Xena covered her mouth with her free hand as they passed through the double line of guards into the palace.  “Okay.” She said. “A bed.  Why the Hades not.” She called over her shoulder. “Meridus? Get me the furniture maker up to my audience chamber before I get there or  else!!”

“Majesty!”  Footsteps went running off.

“Happy?”  Xena removed her hand.

Gabrielle hugged her again. “You’re so wonderful.”  She exhaled. “I can’t wait to tell that new story about you at the banquet.”

Xena grunted like a kicked pig.

“I promise I’ll leave the part about the flowers out.”

**

Xena let her sword rest on her shoulder, taking a few deep breaths as she felt the sweat trickle down her back.

Despite the cool breeze coming in the windows, she’d worked herself up into a lather as the sun dipped below the horizon and the light inside her practice chamber changed from gold to twilight purple as she wove her way in and out of it, going over the intricate moves that honed her skills.

The room was empty this time, missing her usual practice mate.  It was just her, and her sword, and the stone floor, nothing to obstruct her from the precision drills and now she paused in them to carefully extend her arms, hands clasped on her hilt as she stretched out her body.

She was pleased to feel not even a twinge from her back.  That had taken a lot of work when she’d gotten back from the war,  long weeks when she’d been scared to go full out, afraid of putting herself flat in bed again.

Not to mention the pain.  

But for once she’d taken it slow, and the result was that her strained spine knit itself back together and responded well to the regimen of cautious strengthening she’d applied to herself.

Definitely a relief.   She released one hand and swept her arms outward, turning her sword as she did so it caught the torchlight that slid over the flex of muscle in her shoulders.   She could see herself in the mirror against one wall, her eyes critically studying her form as she moved.

“Old goat.”  She pointed her sword at her reflection.   Then she twirled the sword, and launched herself upward into the air, flipping over backwards and landing, then bouncing back into a forward flip as she maneuvered the blade around in a pattern around her.

Scary, and occasionally painful when she smacked herself in the leg.  But this time she didn’t, and she extended the drill out to the side, moving in a lazy circle in long steps that countered the rapid, much tighter circles of the sword work.

She liked that contrast, the gliding sensation and the frenetic twisting of her wrists, at once graceful and deadly as she traveled from one side of the practice chamber to the other, passing the mirror and catching sight of herself in motion.

The torches outlined her in red.  The sky outside had darkened to black, and her sword was catching the flames in a weird, creepy outline.

And then Xena heard a sound behind her and she went from playful fascination to deadly serious in a breath, turning in a heartbeat and sweeping the blade in front of her as her eyes and other senses sought out whatever it was that made the noise.

She paused, going still, only her eyes flickering from one corner to the other.   The room was empty.  After a moment, she moved forward, searching the rock walls, and every corner, looking for what had made what had seemed to her ears to be a shifting body.

A boot, against stone, cloth against the wooden shutter.  It echoed in her mind as she let her nostrils flare, catching the breeze and searching for a scent to match the sound. 

But the wind only brought woodsmoke and the crisp smell of the stone itself to her, with no living tinge on it. 

Had she imagined it? Xena relaxed, but walked the edge of the room, from the single door that led to the circular stair around the long side of the room, past the two thickly silled windows,  past the short far end where her various training aids were laying, and along the front side, with it’s mirror and two more wide windows.

Empty.   Xena paused and let her sword rest on her shoulder again, as she stood in the center of the room and turned in a slow circle.

The mirror reflected her back to herself, a tall figure dressed in a sleeveless dark gray tunic and knee high boots, with summer tanned skin and a lithe, spare body.   Intimidating, except for the distinct, perplexed expression on her face as she made one more circuit of the room.

“I can’t have imagined that.” Xena finally said aloud. “I don’t have an imagination.”  She tapped her sword on her shoulder.   She carefully stepped around the perimiter again, sucking in air deeply and cupping her ears.

A bit of dust made her nose wrinkle.  She could hear the faint rasp of her own boots against the stone, and a soft rattle as some stones settled on the rooftops outside.  The air had no taint of humanity, no telltale musk of skin or hide, there was no metallic tang of armor or even the scent of the rats that ran through the back ways or the cats that chased them.

Hm.

She went over to the window and peered cautiously out, looking up and down the wall to see if there were someone clinging outside.

Then she crossed over to the other set of windows and looked there.  Unsurprisingly, since her practice chamber was at the very top of one of the guard towards, with nothing but hard rock and beaten eartlh to fall to there were no clinging assasins or anything else on the walls.

Unsatisfied,  Xena circled the room again, this time bringing a torch with her and searching the floor.

Nothing.

Far off, a bell clanged.  

After one more circuit, Xena gave up and went over to the shelf in one wall, picking up a heavy cloth and cleaning the sweat off her sword hilt and rubbing the blade down, keeping her eyes on her task and her other senses on razor’s edge, waiting.

But the only thing she heard was her own soft heartbeat and breathing, and the sounds of her stronghold getting ready for dinner far below.

Finally, with a sigh, she slid the blade home in the sheath on her back, wiping her hands with the cloth before she folded it and put it back in the niche.   One last glance around the room, and she opened the door, pulling the heavy portal open and slipping through it to the empty tower stair landing.

Here only the torches guttered softly, put in sconces by her guard while she worked within the room.  She made her way down the steps quickly, though with enough sound that the guard heard her and swung the lower door open as she reached the bottom of them. 

“Your majesty.” The guards put their fists to the their chests in a casual salute.

Xena gave them a casual wave, and continued through the antechamber, passing the doors to what had been, for a long time, her personal quarters.   She ambled down the longer flight of steps that led into the central hall, then crossed the large, open space that was the formal grand entry.

It was much livelier these days, the queen noted.  The forbidding, dark hangings had gone, replaced with bright, newly woven scenes that showed the lands around the stronghold, prosperous and well kept.

Gabrielle’s propaganda.  Xena smiled to herself.  Not that it wasn’t true, at least this year, but the hangings were meant to hammer home to the nobles entering that they were better off with her than without.

And that was pretty much true too.  Xena glanced towards the entrance to the big banqueting hall, behind the closed doors of which she could hear  the bang and clatter of the servants setting up, and her ears also caught the murmur of voices in the lower Hall, no doubt her well dressed spongers waiting for their feedbag.

“Hmph.”  Xena veered to the left and walked up the short flight of steps to her current abode, the guards sweeping over to open the big doors for her as she approached. “Thanks boys.”

“Your Majesty.” They answered together.

Xena strode through the doors and crossed her outer chamber, unbuckling the belt around her waist as she headed for the bathing room. 

A knock made her pause. “Yeah?” She turned and addressed the now closed door.

It opened, and Stanislaus peered in. “Your majesty.” He said. “Do you have perhaps a moment for me?”

Xena made him wait for it. “A moment.” She eventually conceded, waving him inside. “But make it a fast one. There’s a bath calling my name.”

Stanislaus entered and approached her. “Thank you, your majesty. I just wanted to inform you of the festival plans, and get your approval on one small item.”

Xena removed her sword from it’s clips on her back and went over to the weapons chest with it. She put it down on top of the wooden surface. “Have you run the plans by the muskrat?”

Without turning to look, she had no problem imagining the sour look on her seneschal’s face.  “Well?”

“They were just finalized, your majesty.”

Xena looked over her shoulder. “Get her okay on them, then we’ll talk.” She said. “Besides, she knows what I like better than I do.”

“But..”

Xena’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sweaty, sore and I’ve got a blade in my hands. You don’t really want to piss me off right now do you?”

Stanislaus sighed. “No, your majesty I don’t’ want to upset you at any time. I will go find your consort and consult with her.”  He turned and headed for the door.  “If she might spare me a moment from all her lessons.” He added in an undertone. “Especially from those Persians.”

Snark snark.  Xena watched the door close and smiled, turning to replace her sword on the bench and start to unbuckle her tunic.  Stanislaus never had gotten over Gabrielle and her scrappy, slave, peasant origins.

He of course refused to acknowledge that Xena’s origins were pretty much the same.  The queen left her tunic half unbuckled and grabbed a wineskin, carrying it over to one of the comfortable swing chairs her consort had found and sitting down to relax for a half candlemark while waiting for Gabrielle to come back from…

Wait.

The queen cocked her head to one side. “Lessons from Persians?”  She asked the empty room. “What in Hades is she learning from them?”

**

Gabrielle carefully put the small lap harp she was holding back into it's carry bag, and flexed her hand, her fingers a little sore from a candlemark of plucking. “Y'know, if I keep practicing this I might be able to play a song.” She glanced up at Jellaus. “By next summer.”

The minstrel chuckled at her. “Ah, Gabrielle. You're not that bad, truly.”

“Yes I am.” Gabrielle sat down on the bench, a wooden plank worn down into hollows by all the students who'd sat there before her. “But thank you for putting up with my trying”

Jellaus sat down next to her.  “I have had far worse to teach here.” He said. “Though you think I just say that to flatter you.” He smiled at her.  “And no other student returns the lessons to me like you do.”

Gabrielle produced a brief grin in return.  “Do you  have some new songs for the harvest festival?” She changed the subject. “I'm looking forward to it. So many people are here. Did you see all the merchants?”

The minstrel hiked up one booted foot and circled his knee with both hands. “I do have a few new ditties, yes.” He said. “Two ballads, you know, and some shorter ones a bit funny. But I feel...” He glanced sideways at her. “In my bones I feel this will be at tough winter. I'm not sure why.”

“I heard that today from the vendors.” Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair and pushed it back off her forehead. “Boy I have to get this trimmed.” She muttered. “I'm glad we had a good harvest.”

“Her Majesty was pleased.”  Jellaus nodded. “Her nobles didn't stint this time, maybe they remembered the beginning of the warm season, when so many did.”

That was true. Gabrielle had seen the trains coming in, wagons stocked with produce and the fruits of the land's harvest being sent in tribute tot he queen. Did the nobles have a guilty conscience?  She studied Jellaus' angular profile.   Or had they realized, in a very graphic way that their queen was in fact the one major thing standing between the land and it's  enemies?

Xena had defeated a larger, better armed, Persian army. Gabrielle knew that, after all, she'd been there right along with the queen during the war.   Xena had lived up to her reputation, and now, she'd gotten the feeling that the nobles and the rest of the people living around them had realized that maybe they had something in her that really was special and worth bowing their knees to.

Other parts of the land, beyond their borders had sent envoys all summer, asking for trade, for advice.. and for protection. In return,  they'd sent tributes, these new and strange wagons traveling through the lands closer to the stronghold marching proudly along, happy to be a part of Xena's realm.

Changed some attitudes, she reasoned.  “I saw those barrels and barrels of salted fish from the port city.” She said. “Xena said if we didn't end up eating them she knew a way to turn it into fertilizer.”

Jellaus laughed.  “It's good to see her majesty in fine humor.” He said. “I was hoping I could perhaps coax her into joining me for one of my little songs at the banquet two days hence.”

“Oh. I dont' know.”  Gabrielle made a face. “She really doesn't like singing in front of people. I can hardly get her to do it for me.”

The minstrel sighed.

“I'll ask her.”  Gabrielle offered. “I think she thinks if she does stuff like that, people think she's .. I don't know.  She gets embarrased.”

“She rules with a clenched fist.” Jellaus said, in a quiet tone. “To sing, that shows an open hand and perhaps she is afraid she'll be thought weak because of it.” He sighed again. “And it is a pity she has such a fine voice.”

“She does.”  Gabrielle confirmed. “But you know, after all that I've seen here I get why she thinks that. People usually take what they can,  Jellaus.  They only hold back because they're scared of her. I get that.”

“But you are not.”

“Of her?” Gabrielle got up and slung her harp bag over her shoulder. “No. But I do get scared for her sometimes.” Her face tensed a little. “She's so brave, and so honest... I wish all the people she rules would give as much of themselves to her and she does to them.”

Jellaus studied her.  “They dont' see that side of her, Gabrielle.  Even most of those of us who have served her these many years haven't.”

“I know.”

“Will you be telling a few tales?” Jellaus asked. “Maybe you can give them a little glimpse of what you see, though I know her majesty prefers you to speak of others.”

Gabrielle sighed.  Though Xena had furtively enjoyed her telling tales of the queen's bravery at first, of late she hadn't been that enthusiastic about it. “She thinks I make her sound like some fantasy character but I don't, Jellaus! I just tell the truth!”

“Well..”

“She says she thinks she has to live up to my crazy stories.” Gabrielle said. “But they're not crazy. She really does do all that amazing stuff.”

‘Well you know, Gabrielle, she’s spent many years honing her reputation as a very hard, very violent person.” Jellaus said. “To now have you telling people of her saving this person and giving something to that person, it’s hard. It’s hard for her to let herself be seen that way, and it’ s hard for those who have experienced her fist to accept it.”

Gabrielle sighed.

“It will just take some time.” The minstrel patted her knee.  “Be patient, little one.   You had the advantage of them.”

“I fell in love with her.”  Gabrielle agreed. “It kinda changes your outlook, you know?  It’s really hard to think bad things about someone when all you want to do is hug them.”

Jellaus laughed softly.  “In any case, it should be a very fine Harvest festival.  I am looking forward to it. There are many minstrels coming, you know.  Some have arrived already and are outside the gates. I myself will be heading out there after supper to meet with them, and have a jam.”

“A jam?” Gabrielle’s brows contracted. “Isn’t that what you put on bread?”

“It is.” Jellaus said, with a grin.  “But it is also what we call it when we get together and just play music for the fun of it, all of us.”

“Oh wow. That sounds like fun.”  Gabrielle said, in a wistful tone. “I hope you have a great time.”

“Listen in the night.” The minstrel cupped his ear. “From your walk up at the top of the tower you should hear us.”

“I will.” Gabrielle started for the door. “See you later, Jellaus…  we can catch up again at dinner.”  She ducked out the door and let it close behind her, leaving the minstrel there, a smile still on his face.

**

Xena slid into the warm water with a sigh, extending her long legs across the marble surface and stretching her arms out along the edges of the tub.   The heat of the water had just penetrated her skin and started to ease her muscles when she heard the door open in the outside hall and close again.

No one in her kingdom would have dared to enter without her permission except her consort so Xena was completely unsurprised to hear her name being called in that cute voice. “In here, muskrat.”

She tipped her head back as the bathing room entrance was breached, and Gabrielle bounded inside, her face pink from the wind and her hair blown into disarray from it.  “Where have you been?” The queen asked. “Did you go back out riding?”

“No, just crossing the courtyard. It’s windy out there!”  Gabrielle leaned on the edge of the tub.  “But it’s great. You can smell all the smoke from the fire, and the trees and everything!”

“And the horse manure.” The queen agreed. “Did Stanislaus find you?”

Gabrielle made a face.

Xena chuckled wickedly.  “I hope to Hades you gave him a hard time on every single boring idiot ass detail.”

“He doesn’t like me.”  Gabrielle dipped her hand in the water. “Hey, it’s warm!”

“Course it is.”  Xena said. “Think I’d drag your scruffy ass into a cold tub?”

Gabrielle grinned. She took a step back and unbuckled her belt.  “I stopped by the kitchen.” She pulled her tunic over her head and draped it across the clothes stand nearby .

“And ate everything? Didn’t bring me something back, you little punk?”  Xena flicked a bit of water at her.  “Being the queen doesn’t count for much around here huh?”

Gabrielle dropped her boots and came over to the huge tub, leaning her bare arms on the edge. “You count for everything to me.” She said. “Do you want me to go get you something?”

“Like that?” Xena leaned her head over to the side to observe her companion’s naked body.  “I’d rather starve.”

The blond haired woman’s face broke into  an embarrassed smile.  “I wanted to make sure they had all the stuff I wanted for our dinner tonight.”  She explained.

“I see all the stuff I want for dinner right here.” Xena put a drop of water on her nose. “Get in.”

Gabrielle made her way over to the steps up to the tub and climbed them, easing herself into the water and letting it’s warmth creep up her skin.    The basin was large enough for a half dozen people to bathe, and it was made of marble in a free form state that had different little sections to sit in.

The one Xena was sitting in was just big enough for two people, and she waded over to take her place next to the queen.  She leaned back against the sloping wall and exhaled, breathing in the faint steam with it’s hint of spice. 

XEna studied her out of the corner of her eye.  “So.”  She traced the subtly lengthening profile curiously.  “How’d your classes go?”

Gabrielle scrunched her face up.  “Xena, I’m never going to be able to make music.” She sighed. “Like, maybe in years I might be able to play a really simple tune. I’m just not good at it.”

“Why are you trying to be?” The queen asked,  sliding one arm around her and pulling her close.  “I hate music.”

“No you don’t.”

“Sure I do.”  Xena disagreed. “You don’t catch me trying to play any stupid instrument, do you?” She raised both eyebrows.  “Just because you tell stories, doesn’t mean you can play that damn harp. “

Gabrielle sighed. “I know.” She said. “But I really want to.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to play you a pretty song.” Gabrielle glanced up, to find the expected droll expression on her queen’s face, one dark brow hiked, one slightly lowered, nostrils just a bit flared.  The candles around the tub lit her skin with dusky highlights, and the faintest hint of a smile twitched those beautifully shaped lips.  “Everything around you should be as pretty as you are.”

Even in the candlelight, she could see the blush darken Xena’s skin, and feel the warmth against her fingertips as she gently stroked the queen’s cheek.

“Shut up.”  Xena pulled her off her seat and over the queen’s body, making it impossible for her to talk as she wrapped her hand around the back of Gabrielle’s neck and kissed her.  “I don’t need any damn songs.”  

Gabrielle wasn’t arguing.   She settled her body against Xena’s and gently explored her queen’s body with knowing hands.  Her skin was warmer than the water and as she brushed against her, and her knee slipped between the taller woman’s, it grew warmer still.

It never paid to argue with Xena when she was kissing you.   Gabrielle felt her frustration over her harp playing ease,  as Xena’s fingers tweaked her playfully.    Or, really, any other time.    She ducked her head and returned the kiss, savoring the breath catching jolt.

“They tell me.” Xena eased her lips over and nipped Gabirelle’s ear. “That you’ve been visiting the dungeons.”

Gabrielle paused, and took a quick breath. She lifted her head a little and watched Xena’s face, half hidden in shadows.

“True?” That dark brow lifted again, as the queen watched her back, eyes quietly thoughtful. 

“Yes.”

Xena rested her hands on Gabrielle’s hips, her thumbs idly moving along the skin there.   She didn’t appear angry, but there was a certain tension around her eyes that made Gabrielle’s throat go a little dry. 

“What’s so interesting down there?” Xena finally asked, “I’m not sure I like you down in those cells.”

Gabrielle eased to one side and settled her head on the queen’s shoulder. “I was taking lessons.” She said, after a pause. “From some of the Persian guys.”

Xena’s eyebrow, the one closest to Gabrielle, immediately elevated.  “What?”

Her companion nodded slightly.  “I heard from the guards they were really good at certain things.. so I went down there and traded them for lessons.”

The queen reached over and clasped Gabrielle’s jaw, tilting her head up so their eyes met.  “Lessons?”

Gabrielle nodded again. “You want me to show you what they taught me?”

Both of Xena’s eyebrows were now at her hairline and her blue eyes were rather wider and rounder than usual.  “What did they teach you?”  She asked, in a growl.

“Turn over.”  Gabrielle eased up to her knees and moved away slightly. “I’ll show you.”

Xena’s nostrils flared in earnest.  “Turn over?” Her eyes narrowed. “What are you going to do to me?” She shifted, her muscular form rippling the water in the bath as she visibly struggled against reacting.

Gabrielle kept her sultry pose for a moment more, then she grinned. “C’mon, Xena. What do you think I’m going to do to you? Spank you? “

The queen eyed her narrowly for a moment, then she abruptly reversed her position, and presented her back to her companion. “G’wan.” She sniffed. “Do your worst. I’ll enjoy it.”  She rested her folded arms on the edge of the tub and waited, watching the breeze flutter the candle flames. 

Gabrielle smiled affectionately at the beautiful back, reddish gold tinted in the firelight.  She drifted over and settled behind the queen, slowly reaching out and touching her. 

She felt the instant tension under her fingers, the coil and shift of the powerful form that, though apparently relaxed, was never really completely so. 

Even asleep, Xena wasn’t.  Gabrielle eased her hands lower, at the base on her companion’s spine and then, raising her self up a little out of the water, she gently pressed down, moving her fingers as the Persians had taught her.

Xena grunted softly.

Closing her eyes, Gabrielle could feel the bone under her hands, the tension in the muscles around it as she worked to ease, and loosen and realign, working her way very slowly up Xena’s spine.  

There were knots – she worked them carefully, remembering the pain the queen had been in not so very long ago.   Though she knew Xena had taken up her drills again, she also knew they left their own aches behind and now, as she kneaded and probed, she could feel the stiffness in Xena’s long torso relax.

When she reached Xena’s shoulders, she could see the queen’s eyes closed, a faint smile on her face and she smiled herself, glad she’d taken the time to persuade the Persians to teach her the intricate massage, after she’d seen one of them doing it to another through the rough hewn grate in the dungeon walls.  “See? This isn’t so bad, right?”

She felt the bones at the top of Xena’s spine, where it met her neck click into place, and she heard the faint sound as the queen exhaled.

“Not bad at all.”  The queen muttered. “Damn, that feels good.”

Gabrielle grinned, unseen, as she kept working. “I thought you’d like it.   Who told you I was down there? Stanlislaus, right?”

Xena grunted.

“He saw me coming up the steps the other day and got all crazy.”  Gabrielle got her thumbs above the points of Xena’s shoulder blades and pressed gently,. 

Xena grunted again, a slightly lower sound with a different inflection.

“I mean, after all, I had two guards with me. And they were all behind those bars and stuff and it took me forever to get them to show me how they did this.”  She  moved her hands up and kneaded her queen’s neck. “All the grips and stuff.”

Then one blue eye opened and peered at her.  “They taught you to do this?”

Gabrielle nodded. “I traded them stories.” She said. “And some cookies.”

“Cookies?”

“Not the ones you like.”

Another grunt. “You picked it up pretty quick.”

“Well, yeah.”  Gabrielle rubbed her thumbs in gentle circles on either side of the queen’s spine. “I got in some pretty good practice.”

“You practiced this on some sweaty Persian hostage?”  The blue eye watched her sharply.   “Glad I sharpened my sword before I finished my drills.”

“Well… not exactly.” Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed her on the back of her neck.  

“Not exactly?”  Xena drummed the fingers of one hand on the edge of the tub.

“Well, Xena, really.  I did have to practice.”  Gabrielle admitted.   She kneaded the strong, arching muscles at the top of the queen’s shoulders, pressing her thumbs in and twisting just a little as she’d been taught.  “I mean you sort of have to.”

“Yeeesss?”  Xena said. “So who’d you practice on? C’mon, Gabrielle. Spill it.  I’m in the mood to kick some ass today.”

“Xena, that’s mean.” 

“And your point is.. what exactly?”

“How do you think I’d feel if I knew someone was getting hurt because they taught me something?” Gabrielle protested,  working her way down Xena’s long arms.  “You don’t hit Jellaus because he shows me how to play the harp.”

“Playing the harp doesn’t require your fingers on someone elses body.”  Xena said, bluntly.  “So cough up the details, muskrat. “

“Xena.”

“Muskrat.”  Xena’s voice rose, taking on a hint of her steely will as the tone deepened, and she started to  shift restlessly as her consort’s body pressed unexpectedly against hers.  “I’m warning you…”

Her blond companion moved closer still, and got her lips up next to Xena’s ear. “They made me practice on a pig.”

The drumming stopped. Xena very slowly turned her head , coming almost nose to nose with Gabrielle and making both of them cross their eyes.  “A pig?”

“A pig.”

“A pig, as in… “ The queen paused.

“Oink oink.” Gabrielle made a snuffling noise. “Oink oink oink.”

Xena started laughing, her shoulders shaking in silence.

Gabrielle kissed her on the cheek. “None of them wanted to lose their hands. “ She gave Xena a hug, wrapping her arms around her from behind and squeezing.  “Actually they were sorta scared to even  talk to me.”

“A pig.” The queen was now laughing so hard she was making waves across the tub. “Bwahahahahahahahhahaahah”

“A big white and black pig.”  Gabrielle said. “With a  pink nose.”

“A pig.” Xena chuckled, her laughter becoming a rare audible rumble.   “You were sitting in my dungeon massaging a PIG?”

“Kneeling.” Gabrielle flexed her hands. “You get a better grip that way.”  She kissed Xena’s neck, and bit gently on her earlobe.

“So, how did I compare?”

“Compare?” Gabrielle looked up from her random nibbling.  “Compare to what?”

“To the pig.”   The queen rolled around in the water, taking hold of Gabrielle and sending them both plunging into the water, causing a wall of it to splash over the edge and cascade to the floor.  “Oink!”

Gabrielle surfaced, spluttering. “Xena!”  She ducked as the queen stuck her arm in the water and sent a wave of it her way.   “You’re’ not at ALL like a pig!!!”  She backpeddaled  away from Xena’s uncoiling form but had a limited space to work with and found herself wrapped up in long, wet arms.

“I’m not?”  Xena stood up, pulling her up alongside as they emerged into the cool breeze coming in the window. 

“No.”  Gabrielle gently licked a few droplets off her breast.  “You’re beautiful.”

Ah.  Xena felt her body relax, the sudden and disturbing anger washed out of her.  She was possessive and she knew it – though she trusted Gabrielle more completely than anyone else in her life, still, she was who she was, and it was a good thing everyone apparently realized it.

Even her prisoners.   Who apparently had some skills she hadn’t realized.  “C’mon.”  Xena sloshed her way out of the tub and stepped over the edge, leading the way down the marble steps and across the bathing room to where a pair of white, clean towels were waiting.

She took one and started to dry herself off, only to pause when Gabrielle wrapped her own towel around her neck and started to use both ends to do it for her. “What are you doing?”

“Drying you.”  Gabrielle gently removed the water droplets, seeing a faint ripple of goosebumps go across Xena’s skin. 

Xena amiably reciprocated, ruffling Gabrielle’s pale hair dry.  Her back felt good, and the lingering stiffness from her drills was gone, and now that the question of someone else being the recipient of her bedmate’s attention was resolved, she was starting to look forward to the evening.

An evening of peace, before the Harvest festival started, when she’d have to don her royal gowns and preside over banquets in her big hall, and in general be bored senseless for a few days.

But tonight she only had the big, soft bed,  Gabrielle’s attentions, and those roasted apples ahead of her.  “So did you do any more shopping?”

Gabrielle wrapped the towel around both of them bringing their bodies into warm contact. “Maybe.” Her eyes twinkled.

“Didja get me presents?”  Xena gave up on the towels and slid her hands over Gabrielle’s skin instead, feeling  her guts ignite. 

“Maybe.” 

Xena draped her arms over Gabrielle’s shoulders and bent her head as they kissed, savoring the contrast of the fall cool air and the sensual heat as Gabrielle pressed against her.   She removed the cloth Gabrielle was holding and tossed it over the edge of the tub.

They left the bathing room trading the cold marble for the warm, thick rugs that lined the floor in the sleeping chamber.  The fire had been built up in the fireplace, and candles were lit at the four corners and on the headboard of the big bed, outlining everything in rich golds and reds.

Very inviting and homey.   Xena wryly acknowledged.  The once bare, almost cold space had been turned into kind of a nice place to spend time in, with the sheepskin rugs on the floor, and the colorful bedding Gabrielle had found somewhere in her rummaging around the castle.

The windows that had once been sterile and stark were covered in drapes, so they could block out the sun if they wanted to – not that there was sleeping in allowed in her quarters.

Much.

Tucked in one corner was the small writing desk Gabrielle used, with it’s stack of parchments and quills, her latest project writing down the history of Xena’s realm.  At first, Xena had not been very sure at all she wanted that written down, but as details were coaxed out of her, she  found herself warming to the subject.

Gabirelle took her hand and drew her down onto the bed, and they sprawled together over the soft surface. Xena stretched out as she felt familiar hands touch her,  savoring the knowing familiarity.  Her body reacted at once, her shoulders sinking into the feather down stuffed bedding as she abandoned herself to the attention.

A good way to end the afternoon.  She tangled her fingers in her consort’s hair and indulged in a kiss, feeling her breathing go irregular as Gabrielle slid a casual hand up the inside of her thigh. Or a good way to begin an evening full of hedonism.

A gentle nip at her breast, and she stopped thinking about it.  She curled her hand around the edge of  Gabirelle’s ribcage, and let herself get lost in the pleasure. 

An evening of hedonism indeed.

**

Gabrielle went to the edge of the sentry wall and looked over into the big courtyard, where everything was bustling despite the relatively early hour.  The big gates to the stronghold were thrown open, and the space inside the walls was already filling with people.

It was a beautiful day. The sun had come up into a clear blue sky, and the air was rich with the smell of canvas and people and animals.   She could hear musicians tuning up in the distance, and she wondered if Jellaus had gotten his jam in.

She could almost sense joy in the air.  That was new for Xena’s stronghold, at least in her admittedly short experience. People were happy. Harvest had been good,  the realm was at peace, they had a good husbandry season..  so different from the spring.

She heard footsteps behind her and she turned, to find Brendan approaching.   He was dressed in his usual tunic with Xena’s sigil on it, and he was smiling. “Good harvest!!”

“Aye lass, and it is surely a good start to the harvest.”  Brendan greeted her.  “All the better for me as I’ve gotten word today, my daughter gave birth to her first, a wee boy, and I’m a grandfather.”

“Oh Brendan!” Gabrielle leaped forward and gave him a hug. “Congratulations!”   She had known, in a vague sort of way, that Brendan had a daughter, but she’d thought she’d heard him say before they didn’t have much contact.

“Aye.” The old soldier looked pleased. “Been wanting a child a long time, she has. Feller she’s joined with now seems a more likely father.”

The door to the tower pushed open, and Xena appeared, wrapped in a deep blue dressing gown.   She paused when she saw them, and put her hands on her hips. “What’s going on out here?”  She demanded. 

“Xena!”   Gabrielle half ran, half danced over to her. “Brendan’s a grandpa!”

The queen suppressed a grin at her dancing muskrat.   “Kid of yours finally popped one, huh?” She eyed her guard commander. “She finally forgive you enough to name it for ya?”

Brendan shrugged. “No knowing yet.  They won’t name the lad till he’s seen a moon or so.  Think its bad luck.”  He said. “Surprised me, that they sent someone to let me know.”  He turned to face Xena. “Men were wanting to know if it was all right to set up a sparring, to give a bit of show like.”

Xena leaned back against the wall, spreading her arms out along it.  “Remind everyone who the ass kickers are?” She produced a wry smile. “Sure, why not?  Always pays to remind these bastards not to screw around with us.”

“Been pretty good this season.”  Brendan allowed. “Not as sour as the past.” He went on. “Course, winnin that fight and takin down the Persians din’t hurt any.”

“Me rooting out the last of Brego’s supporters and having them drawn and quartered didn’t hurt any either.”  Xena remarked dryly. “I think we’re finally rid of that bastard’s stench.”

“Reputation got kilt but h’grace here.”  The guard commander bowed his head in Gabrielle’s direction. “Once all of em heard of them people in the cookpot that did it.”

Gabrielle made a face.  “That was gross.”

“Even my part?” Xena opened her eyes in mock hurt.

“Xena.”

The queen chuckled good humoredly.  “You should tell that story at brunch.” She said. “We’d save on food.”  She winked at Brendan. “Gwan and get the men ready.  Maybe I’ll come out and spar with em and catch a break from the froofroo.”

Brendan nodded, and casually saluted, then headed for the door to north stairs, where Xena had appeared.  

That left Xena and Gabrielle alone up on the walkway, and the queen sauntered over to the other side of the walk and peered over the wall.   “Ooo.” She observed the busy courtyard. “Everyone’s coming to our party, muskrat.”

“They sure are.” Gabrielle nestled up next to her, leaning on the wall next to the queen. “Hey, Xena?”

“Hey muskrat?”

“Why is Brendan’s daughter mad at him?”

Xena studied the gates, which were now admitting two huge wagons with gaily painted sides.  “Why?” She exhaled. “Me.”

“You?”

“Me.  Xena leaned on the top of the wall.  “He loves me more than he did her mother.”  She glanced at Gabrielle.  “I didn’t let my army bring their sluts along with them back in the day.  Brendan left her in the village outside, she ended up working as a scut in the inn to make ends meet.”

“Oh.”  Gabrielle murmured.

“So they kid has reason to be pissed.”  The queen admitted.  “I figured out a couple years later it was easier to keep men when they were getting service regularly and anyway.. “ She paused and shrugged. “I guess it was too late for them. Brendan’s had his others.”

Gabrielle thought about that.   She watched Xena’s profile, the queen’s face relaxed and a touch remote, untroubled by this bit of her past.     It was very much part of who Xena was – or – was it? “Wow.”

One dark eyebrow cocked.  “I told you it was all about me. Remember? I didn’t have time for whining women and brats hanging around.”

Gabrielle watched her quietly.

“I still don’t.”  The queen said.

“But?”

Xena turned. “But what?”

Gabrielle blinked. “It just sounded like there was a but there.” She said.  “I can’t imagine people having to fight all the time keeping their families with them though.  It would have been really scary if that’s what had happened when we were fighting the Persians.”

Xena studied her hands, resting on the top of the wall.   “Scary.  Yeah.” She pushed away from the wall.  “Okay, enough of this stuff. Let’s go get dressed and get ready to party.” She held a hand out to Gabrielle. “Brunch with the sniveling bastards. You and I are invited.”

“Do they all snivel?” Gabrielle took the queen’s hand and joined her as they went to the south stairwell, that would lead down into their part of the stronghold.  “I think the Duke’s okay, anyhow.”

Xena didn’t answer.  She led the way down the steps and they entered the outer chamber of their rooms – where the royal clotheier was waiting for them.

“Your majesty, your grace.” The little man bowed respectfully. “I have beautiful garments for the festival as you asked.”

Xena strolled over to the ornate wooden rolling case he was standing next to. “Let me be the judge of that.”  She flipped open the doors and took a step back, studying the contents with a very critical eye.  

Gabrielle perched on a bench nearby, waiting.  Unlike her queen, she had no real interest in the pretty fabrics, but had resigned herself to putting on whatever Xena had selected for her trusting far more in the queen’s taste than her own.

She knew it would look nice. Xena had a great eye for that kind of thing – despite her rowdy attitude  and she herself loved dressing up though she’d never admit it.

Gabrielle smiled a little, watching the queen hold up a silk sleeve, in a pretty shade of blue, eyeing it speculatively.   “That’s nice.”

“Think so?”  Xena mused.

“I like that color.”  Her consort said. “It reminds me of  the ocean.”

The brunch Xena spoke of was the opening of the harvest festival. All of the nobles would meet in the big ballroom, and Xena would rule on several matters, as well as accept the tokens of the season from her subjects that represented the volume of materials they tendered to her that they owed.  

There was a lot of that, coming in.  

“C’mere.”  Xena motioned her over.    She waited for Gabrielle to approach, holding up a stunning bit of fabric against her body.  “Now, I like that color.”

Gabrielle looked down at herself, and the soft, clinging dress.  It was deep reds and almost purple, and it was cut to expose most of her shoulders.  “Oo.” She managed a surprised sound. “I like it too.”

That got her a smile from Xena.  “Atta girl.” She draped the dress over Gabrielle’s head. “Here, take this stuff, and go put something on.  We’ve got people to terrorize and presents to accept.”

Gabrielle accepted her burden, and pushing aside a bit of fabric so she could see, she wound her way through the wardrobe cases through the inner chamber and into the spacious, well lit space she called her own.

It was the previous ruler’s solar, and so, was full of sunlight and leaded glass that arched overhead.   Gabrielle shrugged her pile of clothing off her head onto the garment press and sorted through it.  Halfway through a noise interrupted her and she turned to see a slight, scruffy figure slipping through the rear, servants door “Hey Mali.”

A new development.  Stanislaus had talked Xena into letting him assign her a body servant, saying it was unthinkable that the queen’s royal consort to be cleaning out her own rooms and bathing area.   Gabrielle wasn’t sure Xena really cared about that, but she seemed to get a kick out of the idea of someone waiting on Gabrielle hand and foot  so she’d agreed.

Mali was the result.  She was younger than Gabrielle by a year or so,  short and thin with curly red hair that was in constant disarray and she was very happy about her new assignment.

“Oh your grace.” The young servant pattered over. “Let me do that for you.”

With a smile, Gabrielle did, retreating over to the big work desk in one corner.    Having a  servant was weird, and a little discomfiting, but, as Xena none too patiently had explained she was the royal consort, and servants were part of the deal so she better just learn to deal with it just like Xena had.

After all, she’d been Xena’s body servant, hadn’t she? Though that hadn’t lasted long.   Gabrielle pulled out the small box she kept her few pieces of jewelery in and opened it.   They sparkled inside, resting on their folded bit of velvet.

All gifts, all from Xena.    Gabrielle studied them, selecting the neatly made pearl earrings and setting them to one side.   That was the latest of them,  from the pearls Xena had given her made into cunningly wrought settings of silver that cupped the gems without holding them in place.

“Oh, this is so pretty.”  Mali said, lifting up the gown.

Gabrielle glanced up. “That’s for tonight.” She said. “For the big banquet. I think I’ll wear the green one for brunch.”    She watched Mali carefully hang the garments up in the tall press, amidst a collection of clothes ranging from a few gowns to the more numerous tunics and leggings she usually wore.

Her hawk’s head tabard was there, next to a well cared for set of armor, and resting in the back corner a broken ended spear, pock marked and splintered.    She’d really rather have worn that to the festival, but she knew Xena had taken an unusual amount of time in picking their new clothes and she didn’t want to disappoint her.

Gabrielle sat down at her worktable,  picking up a quill and twirling it in her fingers as she glanced around, considering what story she’ d tell at the banquet.    Was there any she knew that were harvest related?

Maybe Jack the Giant Killer.   That had beans in it anyway.   Or maybe the tale she’d reworked about the farm horse who saved his village from the flood?

Xena liked that one.  Maybe because it had the horse pooping everywhere.  Gabrielle chuckled softly to herself.  She’d steer away from stories about the queen during the luncheon, and save the one story she knew Xena would let her get away with for dinner. 

She braced her hand on her head and scribed in a few words on the nearly finished parchment.

 She liked writing here. It was quiet, and generally free of queenly distractions, the walls hung with silken tapestries full of bright colors and flowers,  and the high ceiling giving a sense of space and air.  To one side was a daybed, where she’d occasionally nap, and in the corner a fireplace complete with an iron hook she often had a small pot of mulled cider warming  hanging on.

“There are so many people here for the festival.”  Mali said. “My brother said you can hardly move in the courtyard.”

“It’s true.  I saw some huge wagons coming in just now. “ Gabrielle said. “Why don’t you go with your brother to the market?   Get the early bargains.”

Mali looked at her, a little wide eyed. “Oh but who will help you dress?”

Gabrielle leaned her elbows on the worktable, wondering briefly if she sounded as goofy to Xena as this girl sounded to her.  “I’ll be okay.” She said. “Remember, having someone to help me is a really new thing. “

“I know.” Mali looked abashed. “I just want to do a good job. It’s a real honor for me to do this.”

Her speech, Gabrielle mused, wasn’t that of a low born peasant – a fact she knew well since she was one.    But Stanislaus had assured Xena that the girl came from two loyal servants who had spent their lives serving the crown and had explained an irregularities away by saying the girl had a hunger for learning and spent much time around the scribes.

Maybe it was true.  “Anyway. Go on and  have a good time.”  Gabrielle said. “I’m just going to slip that on and go find Xena so we can go to the hall.”

Mali glanced nervously at the door leading to the queen’s chambers, then she bobbed her head and went to the door, disappearing behind it and heading down the stairs to the kitchens.

Gabrielle finished her scroll.  She stood up and tucked the parchment away, and then she shed her robe and went over to the where her new gowns were waiting.    She and Xena had shared a bath just after dawn, and now she riffled her fingers through her now dry hair as she stood before the wardrobe.

Her reflection in the mirror caught her eye, and she turned her head,  studying her profile for a moment.

She was growing up a little, she thought.  She felt like she’d even gotten just a little taller, and the neatly trimmed hair now outlined a face that seemed bit more mature.   Gabrielle gave her reflection a tentative smile,  bunching her hands into fists as she watched the muscles move under her skin.

Xena  had told her the other day that she thought Gabrielle looked sexy.   Gabrielle’s brows contracted as she reviewed herself.   “I’m not sure I think that.” She sighed.   Then she turned and  took the first of her two new gowns down and slipped into it.

The fabric was cool, but it warmed to her skin quickly and she fastened the ties that snugged it against her body at her shoulder and hip.  

“Muskrat!!!”

“C… on the way.”  Gabrielle slipped into a pair of soft indoor shoes, and cupped the pearl earrings in her hand, as she ducked around the wardrobe and scooted over to the door just as Xena appeared in the opening.

The queen was dressed in a gilded silk gown with brassy highlights, the fabric clinging to her body and the metallic hints reflected in the golden circlet nestling in her dark hair.   

“Wow.”  Gabrielle stared frankly at her. “You look great!”

A brief grin appeared on the queen’s face, true and disarming.  Then she braced her hands in the doorway and posed. “Think so?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Good.”  The queen reached over to tweak a bit of her bangs.   “Let’s go.”

“Can you put these in for me?” Gabrielle asked, catching her hand and holding it. She held up the earrings “I can’t ever get them on right.”

Xena took the baubles and turned Gabrielle a little into the light before she inclined her head a little and fastened the first of them to the lobe of her right ear.   “Where’s your little mouse?”

Gabrielle smiled briefly. “I told her she could go down and enjoy the festival.” She admitted. “I still feel a little weird about having her around.”

“I felt weird about having you around.”  Xena fastened the other earring, then stepped back to regard her work. “But I got over it.  There.  Looks good.”

Gabrielle looked up at her and smiled happily .   Xena felt her own face relax and she lifted her hand back up to cup her consort’s cheek, savoring the warmth of the skin under her touch.  “Ah, muskrat.” She sighed. “Y’know, it’s too damn bad we have to spend the day screwing around with those nitwits when we could be screwing around with each other.”

“We’ll still be together.”  Gabrielle took Xena’s hand, then she half turned her head and kissed the palm of it.   “Besides, isn’t this where you get all those nice presents from everyone?  That can’t be so bad.”

“Mugh.”  Xena made a face. “C’mon.” She turned and led the way to the door, reaching up to tilt her coronet a little.  “Maybe I’ll get drunk enough to play ring toss with this on some of those pinheads.” 

The sun was pouring into the lower entrance chamber when they came down the stairs, as the front doors of the stronghold were propped wide open for the occasion.    There were still guards around, a line of them to either side of the doors, and another before the entrance to the grand hall. 

It never paid to be too careless, after all.  

The lower hall was full of nobles, in their best clothes, all with servants clustered nearby bearing ornately wrapped packages. 

“Ah.”  Xena smiled, surveying the crowd who was just realizing her presence.   “Looks like it’s going to be a pretty good day, muskrat.” She watched the crowd hastily bow low to her, the servants struggling to stay upright with their burdens.  “I might even like being queen for a change.”

Gabrielle grinned.

“All right.” The queen lifted her voice. “Get your asses in the damn hall and let’s get this party started!”

Gabrielle closed her eyes.

“That was regal, huh?”  Xena chuckled and chased everyone ahead of her into the room. “Let’s go have some fun.”

**

Continued in Part 2