A Queen for All Seasons
They were back in Xena's old chambers, now conspicuously very clean, and swarming with Xena's soldiers tucked in every nook and cranny.
It was strange, and Gabrielle could feel the uneasy energy in the men as they walked quietly up the steps and two of the soldiers opened the doors for them.
Inside, in the outer chamber, Brendan was waiting along with Duke Lastay, a bunch of the other nobles, and a dozen or so of Xena's senior officers. Everyone looked serious. Xena waved them all towards the doors at the far end of the room, and the soldiers hurried over there to open them up.
Beyond that was the big council chamber the queen had once used for audiences and she followed the crowd inside, her arm tucked securely around Gabrielle's body. “You doing okay?” She asked, just as they reached the doors.
“I'm okay.” Gabrielle was really tired, and achy, but she also really didn't want to miss anything. “My head hurts.” She admitted, after a pause. “But I want to stay with you.”
“Hope you'd say that.” Xena saw her settled into one of the two seats at the head of the table. “This wont' take long. Then I can tuck you into bed.”
It sounded a little odd to hear Xena talking like that, in that quiet, private tone usually reserved for when they were alone together. But then, Xena seemed to be very somber, taking a seat in the big chair next to hers and folding her powerful hands on the table. “Sit down.”
“Okay people.” Xena said. “We finally put a hurt on my enemy here, thanks to Gabrielle.” She said. “My question to you is, are they your enemies too?” She slowly scanned the room. “No time for lies here. I know there's a faction trying to usurp me. Probably with a bastard of the old line. “
Everyone looked at each other then back at her. “Mistress.” Lastay said. “Your enemies are my enemies. Did they not try to kill me and my wife?” He asked, in a somewhat plaintive voice. “Who are these people? I have not heard of any plots.”
Xena studied him, then smiled faintly. “I'll take that as a compliment. Or maybe you should” She said. “Because it means whoever this is knows where you stand. They'd have tried to suck you in otherwise, like they did before.”
Lastay consider that, then nodded. “That is true. The whispers no longer reach me.” Now he smiled briefly. “I like it that way.”
“Xena.” Brendan leaned forward “What makes ye so sure it's someone from the old line? Been many a year you've been on the throne here.”
“I wasn't sure until I splatted the bastard in there. Then it all tied together. Philtop's coming here, the old tunnels we never knew about, stories about the former king here who fought dragons and lost a leg doing it.” Xena ticked off the items on her fingers. “Same question occurred to me too. Why now? Well, why now? Why not now? I took this place from marginal badlands to prosperity. Then I beat the crap out of an old enemy of not only this realm but everyone else's around here and given them a good reason to come back and get me. What better time to boot me out, so when the Persians do finally show up all they need to do is show them my head and offer them tribute.”
“You think they're behind the usurper?” Lastay mused. “Aye, it could be. Heard from Philtop's people about them trying to buy alliances rather than fight us direct.”
'Yeah.” Xena agreed. “So back to my original question.” She scanned the room again. “You want me to let them?”
Everyone stared at her in silence.
“What?” Lastay finally said. “Do you mean?”
Xena looked down at her hands. “I've had a good run here. I've got enough put away to last me and Gabrielle a while. We' could just take off and go places together. I don't need to be queen. Not anymore.” She glanced to her left, where Gabrielle was seated. “It's just not important to me.”
One of the nobles stood up. “Your majesty.” He said. “Are you saying you'll abdicate?” His voice was almost squeaking with disbelief. “Just so?”
“Yes, Edgar.” Xena replied. “If that's what you all want, I'll do it.” She tapped her thumbs together. “Sorry to make it all seem so easy, after all those years of plotting and planning and trying to kill me, but there you have it.” She leaned back and propped her knee against the table, reaching over and clasping Gabrielle's hand in hers. “Rather not have anyone else croak. So let me know.”
Gabrielle thought everyone in the room except for her and Xena was freaking out. And even she was freaking out a little, because Xena seemed very serious about it, and she realized there was a good chance she and Xena would end up walking out of the castle with maybe a few bags, and Patches and Tiger with them.
What did she really think about that? Gabrielle watched the faces around the table, and saw a mixture of shock and .. was it disappointment? There wasn't any sense of triumph, or expressions of happiness at Xena's words. Part of her was excited about the prospect of seeing the world – she didn't deny that – and it was very true that wherever Xena was, that was her home. But she was also human enough to know she appreciated the privileged life she'd come to lead and this new one would be much harder.
Well, maybe they could take that nice wagon with the bed with them. It would be all right for Xena to sleep in so long as they weren't moving. And they could have that beautiful tent, with the little brazier in the center and the furs.
“What do you think, Gabrielle?” Xena asked, squeezing her fingers.
“Where you go, I go.” Gabrielle answered as naturally as breathing, not really even having to think it through. “Even if that wherever is the ends of the earth, or Tartarus.” She felt the faint tremor in Xena's fingers. “All I need in the world is you.”
Xena smiled. “And sweetcakes.” She demurred, blushing just a little. After a long silence, she looked up again. “So.” She said. “It's in your hands.” She got up. “You've got till morning to let me know.”
“Xena.” Brendan stood up. “You know where I stand. Have no need to wait for morning.”
“I know, old friend. I know.” The queen responded quietly. “Before I give up the crown I'll take care of all of you. I promise it.” She said. “Settle the lot of you on land near the port city. Make sure you've got what you need.”
Gabrielle thought maybe Brendan was going to start crying. He had that look, and she felt herself like bursting into tears just from the gentle tone of Xena's voice. She reached over and held on to the queen's arm, glad when she side stepped over closer.
“C'mon, my love.” Xena gently assisted her to her feet. “In to bed with you.”
There was a shuffle of noise and Xena quickly looked up, only to find everyone else in the room quietly standing. She guided Gabrielle out, as Lastay slipped over to open the door for them. “Thanks.”
“Mistress.” Lastay said, easily. “I too will recuse myself, as my sword, and my heart, are likewise given.”
Xena gave him a slap on the shoulder as she went through the door, leaving the silent crowd behind her. She wasn't surprised, though, when she heard footsteps following her and then the door close, and found Lastay and Brendan at her side. “So how much of an idiot am I?” She asked after a few steps.
“Not at all.” Lastay said, crisply. “Were it me who discovered, after all that has happened, after everything that has gone on, that there are those here conspiring to murder me and my loved ones so they can take advantage of my excellent stewardship of the land I do believe I'd have run verily amok.”
Xena eyed him. “Feel free.” She offered. “I'd love to watch.”
Brendan chuckled shortly. Then he fell silent as he fell in alongside Gabrielle. “Comes to a point you just get tired.” He said, as they crossed the outer chambers and entered the inner one, where four soldiers were waiting. “Too much. Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. She nudged her consort over to the bed and helped her to sit down in it. “I've got a cup of herbs I think you can take now.” She settled Gabrielle against the pillows. “You up for it?” She watched Gabrielle watch her as she pushed the pale hair back off her consort's head, laying her palm against it. “No fever. That's good.”
“Know what I really want?” The gentle green orbs studied her.
Xena peered back, then she looked around at the soldiers, and Brendan and Lastay. “Gabbbbrrriellle.” She rolled the name on her tongue. “Not in front of the men they'll grow hair on their hands and go blind.” She drawled. “C'mon now.”
Gabrielle grinned suddenly, very very glad to hear the black humor return, even if it was at her expense. “Besides that.” She said. “I'd really like some warm milk and honey if there is any.”
The queen nodded, with a pleased expression. “We'll get ya some if I have to go milk the cow myself.” She said, standing up. She hardly managed to turn, before two of the soldiers were bolting for the back stairwell, powering through the door and clattering down the steps together. “Or maybe I won't have to.” She remarked. “Hey! Don't bring the damn cow up here!”
She went over to one of the big chairs next to the fire and stood there a moment, then picked up her herbal kit and opened it up. “Yknow, it's true.” She said, after a brief pause.
“Mistress?” Lastay cocked his head at her.
“I did the best I could for this place.” Xena mixed a couple of herbs with expert fingers. “I made it prosperous, I protected it, I defended it at the risk of my own hoary old ass.” She slowly poured a little sweet fig wine over the herbs, and stirred them before she brought the cup back to the bed. “Nothing's good enough for these bastards I guess.”
Lastay seated himself on a low stool near the bed. “I think it's a bit of willful blindness. I heard some of the stories they were telling yesterday, about the old days.” He clasped his big hands together. “Well, Mistress, I'm no child. I remember those old days, only I remember them a bit different than they do.”
Xena chuckled softly. She sat down on the edge of the bed and offered her concoction up to her consort.
“I remember the last big sickness before you came.” Lastay said. “They turned everyone out of the stronghold. Men. Women. Children. Into the snow. You saw the bodies sticking up out of it, a hand. Maybe a foot.” He exhaled. “And the king sent soldiers out, to gather in all the supplies of herbs we all had, to make sure he was safe. Never mind the rest of us.”
Xena was watching him, listening quietly.
“This is my second wife, did you know?” Lastay looked over at her. “He took my first wife. Liked her looks. Bedded her for a while, then she died in childbirth not long after.” He sighed a little. “Pretty woman she was. Made what you did, rescueing my lady wife now all the more precious to me.”
“Dont' make me out a vestial virgin, Lastay. We both know I'm not.” Xena said, after a short silence. “I'm glad I saved your wife but I've done a lot worse.”
“Aye.” He nodded, a mild expression on his face. “But no matter what it was, there was reason behind it, Xena. It wasn't random cruelty. If you caught the edge of your sword, it was for cause.”
“Aye, tis true.” Brendan said. “S'why we all follow her, not needing to question. Always a good reason.”
Xena snorted softly. “Boy do I have you two fooled.” She leaned against the back of the bed, observing her patient. “You drink all that yet?”
“Almost.” Gabrielle was still sipping the tisane. “Is it supposed to make me feel better?”
Gabrielle let her head rest against Xena's shoulder.
“Are you really going to let them decide, Xena?” Lastay asked. “You know, this is something many have prayed to the gods for these years.”
Everyone waited for Xena to speak. As she considered, the inner door opened carefully and the soldiers returned, bearing a tray and cups. A small kettle was centered on it, and that was issuing a tiny curl of steam. “Your majesty.” Brent said. “I milked the cow myself.”
“Did you really?” Gabrielle smiled at him.
“I did.” Brent said. “Taking no chances.” He carried the tray over. “Milked the cow, and the honey's from our barrack's stash.” He glanced at Brendan. “Got me skinned for that almost before I said who it was for I'll tell you.”
“Pour a cup for everyone.” Xena said. “And we'll settle down to wait to see whether or not I'll be packing our bags tomorrow.” She added. “I did mean it. If those bastards want to put some son of a son of a donkey on the throne here, they can have at it.”
Brent was filling the cups, and now he looked up. “Is it true, Mistress? They seek to bring back one of the old line?” He brough the tray around and waited for everyone to take one. “They say they have legitimate heir?”
“We think so.” Brendan said. “From what the signs are, it looks it. Spreading some stories around, whole thing with the Westlanders, the tunnels, so on.” He took one of the cups and cradled it in his hands. “Something the cook said too, Xena.”
“Eh?” Xena had taken a cup and was applying it to Gabrielle's lips with a solicitous look.
“You said.. the old man, the old king, had a bastard son.” Brendan said, slowly. “He got a funny look, yeah?”
“He did.” Gabrielle said. “He looked like he was getting mad, and then Xena said something like, 'well, he was because I had to be really mean to him.”
Xena started laughing.
“Well I said something like that.' Gabrielle admitted.
“But then the cook said, 'oh, that one.'' Brendan finished. “Like there was more'n one.”
Xena took a sip from Gabrielle's cup, then offered her another one. “He did react a little funny.” She allowed. “I thought it was just the usual reaction of someone who thinks I'm going to cut their heads off.”
Brent took a seat on the floor and sipped at his hot milk. “The people below, they've always held a grudge.” He said. “NO matter how you treated them, always seemed their hearts were elsewhere. Heard them talking just now, about the old times.”
“Old times.” Lastay grunted. “Blithering idiots forget entirely what those old times were like.”
“I think a lot of them were mad about us going off last spring, and taking all the stuff with us.” Gabrielle said suddenly. “I remember I was in the garden and one of them found me there, and she sounded really upset with all the people who'd died in the sickness and all that, too.”
Xena considered this quietly. “Or they're mad about me shoving half of them out in the snow last winter.”
“They deserved it.” Gabrielle said. “They tried to get you hurt.” She protested, her brows creasing.
Xena looked affectionately at her. “You''re so sexy when you're mad.” She leaned over and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “Love ya.”
Gabrielle felt herself blush and she leaned back. “Well, they did. They wanted to lock the doors and watch us die, Xena.”
“They did.” The queen agreed. “That's why I sentenced them to banishment. But I'm sure they didn't look at it that way. Not sure why they tied up with Bregos though. He wasn't part of the old regime.”
“Maybe he promised them he'd bring em back.” Brendan suggested.
“Maybe.” Xena conceded.
Lastay rested his elbows on his knees. “Mistress, I would beg you a favor. Allow us to stay here, in the outer room for this night. There's something not setting right in my bones and I would feel the safer for it.”
“Aye.” Brendan said, at once.
Xena didn't look offended. In fact, she smiled at them, with an unusual quiet affection. “Sure.” She said. “Gwan and camp out there, or in the conference chamber, or... “ She chuckled. “There's a little alcove in the outside hallway that used to be where my body slave bunked out.”
Gabrielle smiled. “I remember the first night I spent in there.” She said. “You left me a note.”
“I said I'd keep ya.”
For a moment, she just quietly remembered that moment, when she'd opened the note and read those words. “And you did.” Gabrielle tucked her hands around the queen's arm. “If they do decide they want to have someone else be in charge, boy am I going to tell mean stories about them everywhere we go, that's for sure.”
Everyone chuckled, and then Brendan stood up. “Let's get ourselves settled lads.” He indicated the soldiers. “You two, on the other side of the door. Nothing passes.”
Two of the soldiers dissapeared through the door to the kitchen stairs, and it closed behind them. The rest followed Brendan out, and Lastay bowed as he trailed after them. The door to the inner chamber closed, and they were alone.
Gabrielle exhaled. “What a crazy day.”
“Yeah.” Xena wrapped her arms around her consort and rested her cheek against Gabrielle's head. “Didn't much enjoy it.” She watched as Gabrielle's hand closed on hers, and it was gently tugged up to her lips. “But this part ain't bad.”
Gabrielle could feel the herbs now, and her entire body relaxed, the aches fading into the mists. “I feel really sad.”
She nodded. “Just a couple days ago it was so great, you know Xena? The harvest festival, and everyone coming and being happy and bringing presents to you. Now it's all sad and mean. It's not fair.”
Xena chuckled wryly “Life isn't fair.” She said. “I've never been fair. Why should things go right for me? I”ve spent most of my life killing people and destroying lives.”
“But yeah, it sucks.” The queen concluded. “I was really looking forward to a nice, plush, hedonistic winter with you, my love. Now we may end up living in a cave somewhere.”
“Or on a boat.”
“Or on a boat.” Xena agreed. “Or maybe I'll just go conquer Persia. They seemed like they'd have nice beds, right?” She mused. “I bet I could get our friends in the dungeon to come with me.” She regretfully eased away from Gabrielle's embrace and stood up. “Let me get out of the metal and get my pigsticker set. Then we can snuggle.”
All those soldiers all around them, and still. Gabrielle watched Xena get out of her armor, putting it down on the garment press with careful, almost reverent hands. In the candlelight of the chamber she could see the glow against Xena's skin and hear the rasp as she tugged the bracers off her arms and unclipped her knee armor. Then she drew her sword and came back to the bed, easing under the covers as she set the sword into its place wedged in the bedframe. “Want to do me a favor?”
“Anything.” Gabrielle drew in a breath of clean linen and leather.
“Tell me a story.” Xena stretched out and welcomed her consort as she curled herself around her body. “Tell me something cute and funny and maybe has me doing something worthwhile.”
“Make me feel something besides disappointed.”
“I really, really love you.” Gabrielle gave her as much of a hug as she was capable of.
“That's a pretty good start.”
Xena watched the bedside candle flutter softly in the faint motion of air. It was very quiet in the chamber, though she could hear faint sounds outside as soldiers shifted at their posts, and the thump and spatter of the now freezing rain against the windows.
Gabrielle was draped over her, warming her right side and sending gentle breaths against the skin of her neck. Her eyes were closed and there was a faint smile on her face, and Xena considered this as close to Elysia as she was probably likely to get.
The words of Gabrielle's story were still tickling her ears. Not so much the content of them but the voice behind them, so full of gentle love it was like having a fire warmed blanket put around you coming in from the cold.
She didn't even feel bad about thinking that. Xena carefully curled her arm around Gabrielle's body and savored the wonder of it, half closing her own eyes as she felt her consort stir in her sleep and nestle closer.
What would tomorrow bring? Xena examined the question, intrigued to find herself not honestly caring one way or the other what decision her nobles would make. She coudln't even find it in herself to be upset at the thought they would ask her to leave.
Sort of shocked her. She wondered why after all this time, it didn't feel worse.
Would she miss being the queen? Xena watched the faint shadows move across the ceiling from the candle guttering at her bedside. Would she miss being in charge of all these people and her army? Would she be able to handle just being by herself, with Gabrielle just out there wandering around?
No one to give orders to? No one to make her bed? Clean? Take care of her things and her clothes? No servants? No minions?
Xena suspected it would not make her happy to be a vagrant. She'd spent a lot of time being the queen. She liked having people around to give orders to, and she liked being the one in charge.
Now, she knew if it was just the two of them she'd still be in charge. But it wasn't the same thing. So she figured wherever they went she'd proabably need to conquer something so she could be in charge again. That made sense, didn't it? Maybe the boat was a good idea.
They were pretty small, and easily conquered, and Gabrielle seemed to have an attraction to them.
So she'd go take over a galleon, and find her a crew, or more likely, use the men she knew would follow them out of the stronghold and they'd be pirates. She'd take the boat, and the crew, and sail down the coast and they'd find some nice port town and invade it.
Xena smiled, as she thought of it. Maybe she'd find some people who appreciated her more than this bunch apparently did. Maybe they'd find better weather doing it. She thought Gabrielle would like some of the places further south, where the sun shone longer and warmer all year.
She could have her garden. Maybe a few animals to take care of. Xena could imagine Patches ambling along behind her, a warm late afternoon sun splashing over both of them, with baskets of fresh things on the pony's back bound for wherever it is they picked to live together.
It was truly shocking to think about how happy that made her. She could imagine sitting on deck at sunset on the boat too, sharing a cup of sea grape wine with Gabrielle sprawled next to her, telling her a story.
For a moment, an image formed in her mind of them walking down a road, outlined in the setting sun heading to someplace new. She could even in her mind hear her own laughter floating back on the wind.
A faint real sound, though, caught her attention. She flexed her ears and felt them cup the air, her eyes closing shut as she focused her other senses. Though it was late, she knew there was activity still going on in the castle, though up here in her tower she could hear far less of it than she could down in the main hall.
But this hadn't come from below. She replayed the sound in her head, and nodded faintly as her memory came to the same conclusion that she had in thinking the noise had come from above her. And yet, there wasn't much above her save a stair case, and the hall she used to practice the arts of war in.
Xena studied the shadows and remembered when she though this thing had all started. Up there, in the practice hall, on a fall afternoon that now seemed years ago past.
So. Xena listened intently and after a silent moment, she heard the sound again. Just a faint noise, flesh against stone, a soft rasping that almost no one would have heard but her.
Now, why would anyone go up there? More hiding circus kids, trying to get away from working the ropes? Like the kid they'd found before, a poor half wit who'd had a fight with her sister and decided to try and hide out and go for something different.
Xena thought about that for a minute. Wasn't that what she was doing?
Back to the practice hall. Why would someone go up there? There was nothing there, no scrap of furs, no chairs, nothing but bare rock wall, hard floors, and the few tools she used – the wrapped logs and weights she'd built her strength with.
She heard the sound again, teasing, seemingly taunting her.
Maybe it was someone, taunting her. Teasing her, and trying to draw her out, draw her up there for a confrontation, to bring to a close this crazed and deadly attack. Was that what they wanted? They wanted her up there, alone in an ambush? Maybe they'd circle her, and taunt her and reveal their motives.
Gabrielle exhaled, and tightened her grip. Xena gazed down at her lover's pale head, tucked so comfortably into her shoulder, still with that smile on her face.
That might be what they wanted, but she wasn't going to give it to them. She was content to stay where she was, waiting to see if the guard outside also heard the sounds and went to investigate. After all the traps and all the stealthly killing, she wasn't going to walk her ass in some place alone and maybe end up getting skewered by more sharp objects than she had hands to block them with.
Probably exactly what they wanted her to do. Expected her to do, since her penchant for brazen risk of her own skin was well known, and had blatantly been on display the past year or so, starting with the arrow in her back that had started it all and not ending with the horrific wrenching she'd given her back during her last mixup.
Everyone had seen and talked about her facing off against the Persian army by herself. Everyone had seen her lead the charge through the pass.
Everyone knew what a freaking mindless idiot she was about her own ego.
Why coudln't the stupid bastards come down here? Stalk her in her own lair like she'd intended them to? Come into her trap with all her soldiers carefully stationed everywhere to catch them?
Xena sighed. She flexed her free hand and felt the callus along her fingers, the roughness on the pads at the base of them built up over years and years of handling a blade.
She would let them stew up there, and then maybe tomorrow morning it would all be a moot point, when the nobles asked her to get the Hades out and all their machinations would have been for nothing.
She nodded to herself.
That's right. That's what she'd do.
The noise caught her ears again and she opened her eyes, peering up at the ceiling for a long moment, absolutley sure she could see spiders up there. Then she sighed again. Who in the Hades did she think she was fooling?
With a long, exhale, she very gently disengaged herself from Gabrielle's embrace, sliding out from under her and carefully tucking the covers back in around her sleeping body.
Then she knelt at the bedside, and put her hands on it, the faint candlelight outlining the scattering of scars on her skin. Scars that marked every fight, every struggle, every inch she'd taken for herself in this life and had no regret for.
She looked at Gabrielle's face, quiet and peaceful and beautiful in a way that touched her deep inside. Her love a grace granted her by the same capricious Fates who were even now pulling her away, and drawing her to the confrontation waiting for her up the stairs.
Well if it was anything she'd learned in life, it was that everything worth having was worth fighting for and that was what it seemed whoever it was who was against her was wanting her to do.
Xena got to her feet and went to the garment press, lifting it silently and removing a folded garment from it. She took off her shift and put the garment on, tightening the straps of it and twitching it straight. It was well worn cloth, a layer of padding that felt soft and comfortable against her skin.
She turned and sat on the press, drawing on her boots and lacing them up. Deliberately she left aside her leathers and armor, standing up and crossing to the bed to retrieve her blade and clipping it to the holders on the back of the practice tunic.
Deliberately, she went over to a waterskin clipped to the bedpost, and uncapped it, lifting it to her lips and draining it dry. Then she went tot he basin, and washed her hands, drying them on the small piece of linen next to the bowl.
She listened for the sound, but instead, heard the light rasp of skin against linen, and heard Gabrielle's breathing quicken. She turned, to find her consort sitting up and looking around. “Over here.” She said quietly.
“Oh. Xena.” Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and peered at her. “Where are you going?”
The queen came back over and sat down on the bed. “Got restless.” She said. “I coudln't sleep so I figured I'd go upstairs and work a few kinks out.”
Gabrielle reached out and touched her arm. “Don't go.”
Xena felt her heartbeat skip. “I think I have to, sweetheart.” She covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. “Remember I said I thought it started up there? I think there may be a clue up there waiting for me.” She could see the quiet seriousness in the pale eyes watching her, and a prickle went up and down her spine. “You know I never let trouble come to me.”
“I'm coming with you.” Gabriele said. “Let me just put something on.”
Xena drew in a breath to protest, then just let it trickle out of her lips. It hadn't been a question, she wasn't being asked to give permission.
“Don't say no.” Gabrielle interpreted her expression. “Please, Xena.”
“I wasn't going to.” Her lover responded. “We belong together.” She cupped Gabrielle's cheek. “So, c'mon. Let's go see where my hunch takes us.”
Gabrielle gave her a heartfelt smile, her eyes lighting up with a true and simple joy. Xena reflected, not for the first time, that both them were truly matched in complete and utter insanity because what she was doing was nuts, and Gabrielle was nuts to want to join her.
So in that case, life, she supposed, was good. She helped Gabrielle out of bed and got her shift exchanged for her favorite hawkshead tabard, sleeveless and belted in a fashion not unlike what she herself was wearing. They both kept silent, and when she'd put Gabrielle's boots on for her and stood, they kissed in the same utter quiet in a building passion that left them both a little short of breath.
It made her feel very alive. Xena put her arm around Gabrielle and guided her to the door to the outer chamber. She opened it and they slipped into the room, finding soldiers curled up asleep all over it. Xena almost, almost let out a yell to wake them, but then she stifled the urge and they moved thorugh the space, getting to the outside door without disturbing anyone.
Outside was another story. Brent was in the hall, very awake and very alert and he came to meet them as they emerged. “Some alarm, majesty?”
“No.” Xena told him calmly. “Just restless.” She said. “Going to take walk upstairs and smack myself in the head a few times.”
Brent smiled. “I'm sure you will do no such thing.” His eyes shifted to Gabrielle. “Are you feeling better, your grace?”
Gabrielle stopped and thought about that “I am, matter of fact.” She said, sounding a little surprised. “I thought I'd watch Xena and maybe write some poems about her.”
Brent smiled wider. “Now that I do believe.”
“Excuse us.” Xena guided Gabrielle slowly over to the narrow steps that led up to the top of the tower and her practice hall. At the base of them, she turned and looked back at her faithful soldier. He was standing in the center of the hall, his hands at his sides, watching them. “Don't let anyone but the two of us come down the stairs, okay, Brent?”
Unsurprised, Brent nodded. “I won't, Xena.”
Xena nodded, then she turned and started up the steps to the tower, her right arm tucked tightly around Gabrielle's body. She felt the cold dampness of the walls close around her as she and Gabrielle walked slowly upward, the soft scrape of their boots against the stone the only sound.
Her skin felt a touch chilled, since her practice gear ended midway between her knee caps and her hips and her arms were bare exposing them to the gusts of cold breeze coming down from the upper level.
That put her hackles on edge. “Someone left a window open up there, Gabrielle.” She commented. “Maybe it was me.”
“I feel it.” Gabrielle responded softly. “It smells wet.”
“It does.” Xena took a deep breath of the air, testing it for the unknown. She reached out and touched the wall, finding it damp with condensation and she knew her hunch, at least, was going to end up more than just one.
There was a fight ahead, she could sense it. Her skin was tightening and the muscles in her back were shifting and settling her sword sheath a little more comfortably along her spine. Rather than fearing it, she realized she was truly welcoming whatever the challenge was, since regardless of what the decision was tomorrow morning she wanted this threat well and done over with.
It was time. “So you'er going to write poems about me huh?” She remarked, as they turned the last corner of steps before the inset door to the practice chamber, and she saw the sliver of outdoor light coming through the crack between the edge of the door and the frame.
Without hesitation, she walked towards the opening and as they reached it she lifted one leg and kicked the door open, shoving it back into the room almost back against the inside wall but not quite. A stronger puff of cold air hit them and she ducked inside, gracefully half turning so that her body was between Gabrielle and anything that might be waiting for them.
There wasn't, though. She scanned the room and knew it for empty. “Hm.” She walked in further and circled the walls, stopping by the far window which was, as she'd expected, cracked open. Her ears pricked, and she focused her senses on the room around her as she slowly closed the window and latched the iron bar across it. “Not nice to leave the window open, huh?”
“No.” Gabrielle agreed. “I have a striker. Do you want me to light the torches?”
“Gimme.” Xena held out her hand and closed her fingers over the object Gabrielle put in them. She walked over to the first torch and struck a spark to it, and as the torch caught, she felt a motion in the room. Ignoring it, she went to the next one, and the next, with Gabrielle pacing quietly next to her, and ended up almost where she started with the room bathed in an orange glow.
Now it smelled of the torches, of the pitch and resin they were doused in and the acrid hint of smoke that curled up from them and trickled up through the square, rough cut chimney in the center of the roof. The hall was at the very top of the tower, so there were only rafters above them and the above that, the stormy sky.
Xena could hear the ice crackling overhead. She walked Gabrielle over to one of the big, stuffed bales she used to strengthen her back. “Siddown.” She said. “Just keep your eyes and ears open, love. Anything could happen.”
Gabrielle looked around, then she walked over to the corner and retrieved one of her practice sticks, a tall hardened pole she brought back to the bale with her and sat down with. “Ready.”
Xena looked at her with deep affection. “Lets see what we get.” She walked to the center of the room and drew her sword out, feeling the familiar weight of the blade against the muscles of her arms as she held the hilts up in front of her eyes and stayed briefly in that position before she released one hand and let the sword come down.
She started into a set of warm up drills. Slow rotations of the blade first in one hand and then the other, loosening up her arms. She extended the blade, now making patterns in the air with the tip of it, moving with slow rhythem at first and then going faster.
The blade cut the air with an audible whistle. She glanced at Gabrielle, finding her consort watching her with intent fascination, her hands curled around her staff... Xena paused that thought and paused her practice, coming to a standstill with her hands clasped on her hilt as she thought about what she'd just said in her mind. “Gabrielle?”
“Something wrong?” Gabrielle stood up carefully, leaning on the big stick.
'What do you call that?” Xena pointed her blade at the item
Her consort regarded her in some confusion, then she looked at the stick. “This?” She indicated it. “Did you ask me what I call it? Do you want me to give it a name, like Patches?”
“Never mind.” Xena chuckled a little. “Siddown.”
Gabirelle did, but her brow was creased, and she was now watching Xena with a perplexed expression. “Its my stick, isn't it?” She asked. “Though Jellaus called it a staff the other day. I”m not sure what that is.”
Ah. Xena nodded, and started her practice up again. That must be where she'd heard it. Jellaus had maybe made a poem or song about the thing and he'd probably been practicing it days ago.
Must be. “It's .. that's what they call something like that when you use it for a lot f things.” Xena moved into a figure eight pattern. “To walk with, or to hang a flag on, or fight with.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle studied her stick with more interest. It was one of the older ones, the wood was a dark mottled brown and it felt very hard and unyielding in her grip. In two places Xena had wrapped strips of leather to give her a hand hold, and she rubbed the edge of her thumb over one and felt the slightly rough softness. “Cool.”
“What?” Xena shook the hair out of her eyes and started a more complicated routine. “How's your head?”
Gabrielle considered that. “Okay.” She said. “It doesn't hurt anymore.” She added. “Just still a little sick to my stomach but you know, Xena, it feels better to be sitting up for that.”
“Good.” Xena consciously flushed the errant thoughts out of her mind and got to business, switching from her warmup routine to a more serious workout, feeling her body wake completely up and a faint bit of sweat start to gather under her padded workout gear.
She was no longer cold. She started around the chamber with short, digging steps, turning in one direction and twisting her sword in tight spirals in the other. She could feel the energy gathering, and the torches cast shadows upon shadows over her as she moved through them.
It felt good to be in motion. She had felt odd and disconnected laying downstairs in bed, waiting there like some kind of brood cow in line for a bull. Even though it had been her own plan, and even though the plan had made a kind of sense to her, the longer she lay there the more unsettled she'd gotten.
This felt better. She still felt like she was drawing a noose around her own neck but at least she'd be up an standing and have a sharp thing in her hands capable of doing considerable damage.
She was an excellent swordswoman. Xena didn't even feel a twinge of her own ego thinking that. It just was what it was. She could do things with this weapon most people could not, and she proved that to herself by drawing the blade in tight and booting a piece of leather up into the air, tightening the arc of her motion down to just her wrists as she sliced the leather in mid air.
Tiny bits of it went flying and she passed the sword around her back and grabbed the leather with her right hand as her left took the sword, then she flipped it over towards Gabrielle and watched it land at her feet.
“Wow.” Gabrielle reached down and picked it up, displaying the leather patch full of crosshatches and diamonds.
Xena smiled. She paused and flexed her hands, considering her next move and then just as she turned she sensed motion again. She swept around in a circle, peering into the shadows between the torches, moving quickly to get herself between where she'd sensed it and Gabrielle. “Second time.”
“Second time what?” Gabrielle said.
“Something's here.” Xena told her, her eyes sweeping quickly right and left.
Gabrielle stood up again and moved closer to Xena, turning her head to look around. She couldn't see anything but the torches, and Xena's tall form, but she could see the queen had become alert and very tense. “What is it?”
Xena could feel it. It was a brushing against that different sense she seemed to have, that knew Gabrielle's presence and was part instinct, part... something else. It was as though something was there bending the light, putting pressure against the instincts she used to catch arrows and turn sword thrusts coming at her from behind.
It was real, and not. She shifted her sword from one had to the other, sending flashes of torchlight into the dark spaces and suddenly her eyes opened wider as the shadows gathered together and she sensed a form there, facing her.
With a bound, she moved forward and focused on the shadow, seeing a hint of a blocky, powerful outline and the flash of something against what might have been eyes.
Then it was gone, and she sensed it behind her and she turned, seeing the casting shadows heading towards Gabrielle. She took one long step and launched herself into the air, turning and twisting and ending up between her lover and the motion, swiping out with her sword and feeling the faintest hint of her blade catching on something.
A brush of air, a hint of a laugh, and before she could move any further the door at the end of the hall slammed shut, and they both heard the bolt shooting home on the far side of the portal.
Gabrielle reached out and touched her. They both took a step back so the wall was behind them and they were facing the room, and as they watched the shadows came alive into an odd, discordant motion. “This is kinda creepy.” She whispered.
“What's going on?” Gabrielle took a tighter grip on her staff and looked around. The room still seemed empty, but she could feel Xena shift and start to breath a lot faster, and she thought maybe she saw something move. “Are we trapped here”
The wind blew against them, trapped between closed doors and closed windows, and carrying a cold laughter on it's edge.
“Are we?” Xena said, arching her back a little and coming over her center of balance. She twirled her sword in her hand, and dredged up every bit of bravado she'd ever had. “Let's see whose trap it really is.”
Now the shadows became distinct, and she heard Gabrielle gasp and she could see the host arrayed against her.
She was here, and it was a fight, and she wasn't alone. There was nothing more she could possibly ask from life, now was there?
“I... “ Gabrielle sounded as freaked out as she ever had. “I'll watch your back. Okay?”
Oh yeah. It was going to be a night to remember.
She wasn't afraid, though she suspected she should be. Xena took a deep breath and let it out, as the shadows formed and became more solid.
There was a hissing sound about them. It reminded her of snakes, and she felt her hackles rise in a primal sensation that blew cold air down the back of her neck.
She could see flickers that were shadows of weapons and she shifted her stance a little, glad she'd taken time to warm her body up as she got ready to defend herself against whatever the Hades this was.
That it seemed to be from the otherworld didn't faze her.
The tallest shadow faced her and she took a careful grip on her hilt, and waited. It really didn't have a face, but she got the sense there were eyes there watching her.
“Bold mortal.” From the hissing came a hissing voice. “Do you value your life so little?”
Xena smiled. “Want my life? C'mon and try to take it.” She strained her eyes but the shadow remained that, only a shadow.
“You have many enemies beyond. Do not risk yourself so hastily as you might not like meeting them again.”
A soft chuckle forced it's way from Xena's throat. “Bet once I”m on the other side they'll like meeting me again even less.”
The shadows moved closer and their leader loomed over her, it's hands moving in front of it in a swirl of darkness clenching around a deeper bit of darkness that might have been a sword. The rest of the dense shifting crowd seemed to part then, and make as much of a circle in the round chamber as they could with Xena's position against the curve of one wall.
For a moment they both were very still.
“Be careful, Xena.” Gabrielle whispered.
“Be brave, my heart.” Xena whispered back. “All right, whatever you are. Put up or get lost.”
It attacked with no further speech and Xena knew at the first parry she was in deep trouble. This force she was facing was stronger than she was, and she could feel the chill eat into her hands as her sword shunted it's aside and an ice cold jolt went down the blade and up her arms.
Not good. She had limited space to move too, as the now solid ring of shadow caught them in one corner of the tower and she had all she could do to shift and duck as the shadow followed up the stroke with a second, that whispered past her ear as she moved just out of range of it.
She turned and moved her sword across her body as she dodged his stroke, their blades meeting and sending a clash of steel across the room. Aside from that and the soft rasp of Xena's boots against the stone, there was no sound, just a sense of oppressive dread that closed tighter around them every moment.
But having known a deeper fear so recently, Xena just concentrated on the motion she could barely detect, concentrating on the faintest hint of of the shadow's intent as they circled each other and then met again.
It was implacable . The strokes were hard and deadly, and she only avoided them by the speed of her footwork and a lifetime of experience handling her sword that kept her just ahead of it, just a little too quick for it's lunges, and with just enough angle to her blade to deflect the powerful strokes that sought to disarm her and get through her defenses.
As she turned, she caught brief glimpse of Gabrielle's form outlined in the torchlight, it's lines tense as her lover stood against the wall with her staff clasped firmly in both hands.
None of the shadows approached her.
It was all about Xena, apparently. The queen dove out of the way of a powerful sweep and hit the ground, rolling up and back onto her feet as she backswiped in response, and felt her sword impact her opponents, her momentum letting her power through the stroke and pull his weapon out of position.
Instinctively she followed that up with a kick to the area of the shadow's body that would have been a ribcage feeling a jolt of icy cold as her leg passed through her adversary coming perilously close to making her lose her balance.
She could see the swirl of darkness though, and he moved back a pace, bringing his sword back into position as she completed the turn and faced him.
There was still a chill tingling along her leg and she wondered if she looked down would there be darkness clinging to her flesh or frost. She could feel him staring at her and she twirled the sword in her hand and arched her back a little, raising her free hand an crooking her fingers at him. “C'mon. Bring it.”
He did. The next instant she was in a flurry of motion as he came at her with vicious intent, slamming his blade against hers with horrific strength. Xena just barely got her reactions in order in time, using speed and instinct to counter the attack. She twisted and angled her blade, shunting his parries to this side and that as she kept moving, refusing to give him a solid target.
If she'd paused to think about it, it would have been very unnerving – those eyes that weren't, the body that was only a darker outline in the shadows in front of her, the clustering, ever shifting crowd of shades blocking them in.
But she didn't, she let her battle training take over and let her experience drive her attack and defense as she ducked and turned, forcing him to move in a circle to follow her.
She shifted her sword from one hand to the other, then she whirled and ducked under his moving blade, going counter to the motion and getting her sword up under his and feeling her blade pass through his arm with a physical jolt that nearly made her drop it.
Xena didn't wait to see what would happen. She reversed her course and leaped right at him, letting her body crash against the shadow in front of her and feeling a blast of horrific pain and cold as she kept going and landed on the ground behind where he'd been standing.
Only instinct let her get onto her feet and only experience brought her sword around up in front of her as a landslide of darkness and shadow poured over her.
She twisted and yanked her arms back as she sensed danger over her head, and just barely got her sword up as his crashed down on top of it.
It drove her to her knees, but she went with the motion and let herself hit the floor, rolling to one side and moving as he came after her.
He kicked her and she felt the impact, ice cold and hard, and there was an explosion of stars in her vision along with the pain that came with it. She launched herself sideways to avoid a repeat of it, then got up and was bringing her arms around when she realized it wasn't going to be in time.
A yell. So loud, and so suprising in that world of darkness and hissing that had become the norm in this fight. A yell that was clean and loud and followed by her name as she heard boots against the stone coming up behind her and she quickly dropped to the ground just as something whistled over her head and she heard the sound of metal against wood.
Then she was up again and getting her breath back, turning and slashing, catching the shadow's sword as it turned back against a hard breathing and furious Gabrielle.
Xena only had a bare moment to consider that before she was fully engaged again, drawing the shadow away from her consort and matching him strike for strike as Gabrielle edged around behind her with her staff held across her body. “Thanks.” She called out.
'They were throwing things at you!” Gabrielle called back. “Jerks!”
Ah. Xena focused on her adversary. “So you being an undead spook wasn't enough, huh?” She turned her sword and angled a stroke off his lunge, stepping past it and turning unexpectedly as he tried to slash at her, crouching and leaping into the air and tunbling into a somersalt, swiping her blade in reverse and getting the jolt of ice and pain as it slid through the shade's body.
He hissed again, and turned, then moved back as she landed and faced him again, shifting the sword from her left hand back to her right. “Enough!”
“Had enough have ya?” Xena taunted him.
“Enough playing with you mortal!”
Then he produced a high keening sound and at that the rest of the shades rushed forward and flowed over her bringing a wash of terror, and cold and pain that shoved her to the ground. She felt the air rush out of her lungs and when she tried to draw it back in it felt like ice and her chest refused to move. She could hear the growing hiss and felt a pressure unlike anything she'd ever felt pressing her into the stone and immobilizing her.
She felt a pain in the back of her skull. She felt her heartbeat pulsing hard against her eyeballs, making stark red flashes as she struggled to breathe and couldn't.
She heard Gabrielle let out a bellow, and then the ice around her was cut with a block of warmth that slammed her in the back and surrounded her as she felt warm breath hit the curve of her left ear.
She felt Gabrielle inhale sharply, and gasp.
Her body responded to that in a rapid and convulsive way, as she ripped herself free of the immobility and hauled herself up and around to grab Gabrielle as the darkness closed around both of them with crushing force.
Then a loud crack sounded and the noise vanished, the hiss replaced with a lack of sound that made her head ring as the torches went out with a sense of pressure that was on the edge of agony for a breath until it was gone.
Then all she could hear was Gabrielle's rasping cough and feel the hammering of her heart against her skin as her body was slowly released from it's paralysis and she could breath again.
She did, as the gray haze faded a little. “Did it just get better or worse?” She whispered.
“Afraid to look.” Gabrielle whispered back, her eyes tightly closed as she crouched over Xena's body, the pulses of her own heartbeat hammering in her ears finally easing. “It's really dark in here.”
Xena blinked her eyes, then closed them, casting her other senses out instead. She couldn't hear anything around them inside the chamber, just the pressure of the wind against the leaded panes and nearby, a soft rattle of stones trickling downward.
She felt a presence though. “Something's here.” She said, after a pause. “Let me up.” She said. “But don't go far.”
Gabrielle eased off her back and knelt next to her, reaching around her to feel for her staff. She was far too freaked out to be scared and since she couldn't see anything at all including Xena next to her, she coudln't even imagine how much trouble they'd gotten into now.
Couldn't even start to imagine it. There were no pictures in her head, just an echo of the darkness surrounding them.
Her heart was pounding so fast it was making her shake, and she was pretty sure her knees wouldn't hold up, making her glad she was kneeling at Xena's side. She felt the queen slowly move and sit up, hearing the faints scrape of her boots as she pulled them up under her. “Are you okay?” She gasped.
“Peachy.” Xena answered, gently feeling around her, relieved when she felt the hilt of her sword and curled her fingers around it. She lifted it and guided it into the scabbard on her back then exhaled. “Touch me.” She said, reassured when there was an immediate warmth curled around her arm as Gabrielle squeezed it gently.
It was so dark even she couldn't see. She held her hand up in front of her face and strained her eyes, but there was nothing but blackness without even a hint of motion as she wiggled her fingers. “Wow.” She said. “On a scale of one to ten for kicking my ass this is twenty.”
Gabrielle scooted closer and leaned against her, bringing a very welcome warmth all along her right side. She felt arms go around her and her consort bury her face into the side of her neck.
In the dark, she could smell stone, and then behind it, a rank, acrid odor that seemed to be coming from something nearby. She slowly extended her boots, and kicked along the rock with her heels until she came to an unexpected edge, and felt one boot go over an open space.
She knew, in a moment of startling internal panic, that things were moving out of her control. Below the floor they were on was the chamber she'd spent most of her reign living in and she knew quite well there wasnt any holes in the ceiling of it. Cautiously she leaned over and extended her arms, reversing her position and feeling out until her fingers came to the crack in the floor and she felt the sharp, newly etched edge of it.
“Stay here.” She leaned over and inched forward, until her head was over the opening and then she looked down. For a moment she saw nothing, then very far away, as though she was looking down a chimney she saw a faint hint of red a long way below.
After a second, she felt Gabrielle's shoulder press against hers, and heard her consort's breathing close by. “Thought I told you to stay back there?”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle said as she inched closer. “What is that? What's going on, Xena? Where are we?” She asked. “It's so dark. There isn't any light even coming in the window up there.”
Xena rested on her elbows. “I don't know.” She said. “See that down there?”
Gabrielle remained silent for a moment. “That red thing?”
“Mm.” The queen grunted. “Least we're not blind.” She said. “How's that for a silver lining?”
She felt Gabrielle lean against her and then the pressure of lips against her shoulder. “Let's get away from here.” She eased backward, and then slowly squirmed back away from the opening, moving back towards where she remembered the wall to be.
She felt along the ground carefully, hoping not to find another open crack. There wasn't any, but she almost cracked her own skull open when it hit stone, and she stopped abruptly. “Uh.” She felt the surface, relieved to find it the wall she'd expected to find and she stood up next to it.
Gabrielle stood up next to her, a soft clatter of wood against stone sounding clearly as she pulled her staff up next to her. “Xena?”
“Hm?” The queen pulled her workout gear straight, and tightened the straps, flexing her arms and legs to determine what damage she'd taken in that very strange fight. “You okay?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle said. “But... I think the red's getting bright over there.”
Quickly, Xena looked up and spotted a now visible glow in the center of the room. As she watched it increased, and now she could see the outline of the crack in the floor and a faintly visible mist emerging. At the same time, she became aware that the acrid smell was getting stronger.
On one hand, it was scary. On the other, any light was better than no light, and she was relieved to be able to see something. Then the thought evaporated when she saw a figure step out of the opening, outlined in the dim red, tall and menacing. “Uh oh.”
Gabrielle moved closer and put her hand on Xena's hip. “That's the real bad guy isn't it?”
Xena slowly drew in a breath and released it. “If he made that hole, I bet he is.”
The figure moved away from the crack and towards them, with a distinctive swagger in it's walk. It stopped just short of them and lifted it's arms, and they heard a snapping sound.
The torches lit.
Xena pressed her back against the wall and felt her breathing shorten, as she knew a moment of true fear. The torchlight revealed a very tall, very muscular man in black leather, with a close trimmed beard and night dark hair. He had an angular, very handsome face and pale eyes that were focused directly on her.
Very few things frightened her. For the second time in two days, she'd found something that had.
“I assume you know who I am.” The figure said.
“Yes.” Xena only hoped her voice didn't break. “The images in your temples don't do you justice.”
Surprisingly, a smile appeared on the figures face. “Not that you spend much time in them.”
“No.” Xena admitted. Her throat felt dry, and she knew her knees were shaking. She felt Gabrielle press against her and she glanced down at her consort, who was looking up at her in apprehension. “I don't.” She looked back up. “This is the God of War, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle was staring at him, wide eyed. “Is that good or bad?” She managed to squeak out.
“We'll find out.” Her lover answered faintly.
He smiled again. Then he turned and regarded the room, glancing down at the crack and snapping his fingers at it. It closed in a flicker, leaving the floor in it's original, flat, stone condition. “Depends on how you look at it.” He turned back around. “From the perspective of having your ass kicked, probably good.” He moved towards them. “From the perspective of getting me interested in you, probably bad.”
“Wasn't on purpose.” Xena muttered. “I was just trying to have a damn Harvest festival.”
The figure laughed, his voice rich and dark, making their nape hairs lift. “Maybe you're just lucky I don't take kindly to some half ass wannabe Persian god horning in on my territory.” He concluded. “And I do like sexy chicks who can kick people's ass.”
“Persians.” Xena repeated, ignoring the second part of his statement.
He stopped in front of them and put his hands on his hips. “That was a beautiful war.” He said. “Best entertainment I've had for eons.” He said. “There I was being bored listening to all the chatter up on Olympus when what do you know? Out of the back end of nowhere comes that.”
Xena smiled hesitantly. “Glad you enjoyed it?”
“Oh, I did.” The God said. “But when the King of Persia got your note, he sacrificed a score of virgins to his lame ass god and asked him to take revenge on you for it.” He spread his hands out and turned around. “Presto, I have to deal with weather magic and even lamer ass shadow warriors all poking in my business here.” He turned to look at them. “I don't like that.”
“So those guys were from him?” Xena asked, pointing in the general direction of the room. “What were they?”
He studied her. “Shades.” He said, finally. “What's left of what you left on the battlefield.”
“Anyway. They'll be back. They wont' stop until they croak ya.” He said. “Nasty way to go.” He smiled. “Now, maybe I could be persuaded to solve that little problem for you.” He said. “For a fee.”
Xena was silent for a moment “What kind of fee? “ She asked. “What do we have that you don't already have a hundredfold”
The God moved closer, folding his arms over his broad chest and watching them intently. “I like blood.” He said. “I like killing. So do you.” He added. “You've got potential.”
Xena was finding it hard to breathe. “Thanks.” She murmured.
“Become an accolyte of mine, and I'll take care of this little problem for you.” The god continued. “Not much to ask, huh? You're most of the way there already, you just need a bit of polish.” He reached out and touched her chin, turning her head slightly. “What do you say?”
Xena didn't answer. She studied his face, noting the harsh lines and cruelty there along with the attraction. There was an ancientness to his eyes, a flat pale color she couldn't really determine in the dim light. “I have to think about it.” She finally said, in quiet tone.
“Really?” His voice dripped sarcasm. “I come here and save your ass and you need to think about it? You owe me.” He tightened the grip of his fingers. “Really?”
Xena felt the danger. This was something she had very few options in. “I have to think about it.” She repeated, even more softly. “I”m not new at this, and you've waited this long.” She felt her body shifting and her muscles responding to the implied threat, instincts unfazed by the presence of godhood.
Maybe he knew that. After a blank moment, he smiled, and released her, taking a step back. “You've got a turn of the sun, baby. Then I'll be back and you better have made up your mind by then.” He lifted his hand, and snapped his fingers, and then he was gone in a flash of blue light that made them both blink hard in response.
For a long moment, the silence went on, then Xena exhaled and slumped against the wall. “Hades.”
Gabrielle put her head down against Xena's shoulder. “I thought that was Ares.”
That forced a faint half breath, half laugh from Xena's chest. “We're in deep trouble.” She said. “Deep, deep trouble.” She half turned and put her arms around Gabrielle. “I was hoping we'd end the night with some sneaky bastard spitted on my blade and what I got was being spitted on myself.”
She could feel Gabrielle shaking a little, and became aware of how cold it was in the room. Xena looked around, and spotted the window open again, this time wide, with bits of snow dropping inside onto the floor. “Let's go back downstairs.” She said. “I dont think those black things will be back tonight.”
“Great idea.” Gabrielle said, clamping her jaw against her chattering teeth. “Sure could use some hot tea, huh?”
Xena picked up the staff and walked around the chamber towards the door, avoiding the center where the hole had appeared and then, disappeared. It looked solid enough, but after what she'd just experienced she wasn't going to take any chances. Then the thought of that nearly made her gag, as she remembered that hard grasp on her face, and those taunting eyes.
But the last thing she was going to do right now was think about Ares offer. Right now she just wanted to get back down to her bedchamber, get a heavy robe around both of them, and give herself a chance to stop freaking out.
There would be time then to think. To think about all the bad choices she now had spread in front of her. To figure out what to do to ensure survival for her, and for Gabrielle.
And here she thought an usurper was the worst of her problems.
Gabrielle wasn't about to talk. She could see the serious, intent look on Xena's face as they got to the door, and she hesitantly reached out for the latch, flinching a little as she touched it. She felt the motion as her lover relaxed then, and undid the lock, opening the door and letting them out of the chamber and into the stair tower, the torches on the walls fluttering a little in the draft from the door.
They started down. As they got around the curve Brent trotted up a few steps, his hand on his hilts. “All well, Mistress?”
Xena looked at him briefly. “Peachy.” She said, continuing down the steps. “Tell them to stoke the fire in my room, willya?”
“Mistress.” He trotted back down and headed for the door.
“What are we going to do?” Gabrielle whispered.
Xena sighed. “Have sex.” She said. “It might be the last chance we get and I'll be damned if I”m going to waste it.”
It was quiet again. Gabrielle tucked her hand under her head and curled on her side, watching the silent figure seated crosslegged beside her.
Xena had changed into a shift and taken off her boots. Her hair was loose around her face, and she had her elbows resting on her knees, her long fingers laced together in front of her.
She was thinking, Gabrielle decided. Her eyes were looking just past Gabrielle's head, and were a little unfocused. There was a very serious expression on her face, and her thumbs were very slowly tapping against each other.
The teapot rattled, and she slid quietly out of bed, crossing the thick rug and picking up the pot with it's wrapped handle. She poured the water over two waiting cups, taking a deep breath of the richly herbal scent that wafted up to her. It was a little bit of normality in the recent chaos, and she remembered briefly her delight at finding the late season herbs hidden away in her garden.
Her garden, which was now buried under snow and ice, all it's last potential destroyed by the storm. Gabrielle frowned, finding this bit of injury more hurtful than she'd expected. She'd looked forward to gathering that last bit of fruit, left to ripen long on the trees to develop the sweetness her lover enjoyed in some late seasons jam. “Stupid bad guys.”
There was honey with the herbs, though, and she could smell that sweetness, knowing it came from flowers she'd grown and nurtured for the big, fat honeybees that buzzed placidly around and catching just a hint of spiciness from the roses she'd clipped to put on Xena's dinner plate just a half moon before.
She'd felt so good about the harvest season.
With a sigh, she stirred the cups with the glass rod, the soft tinkling sound loud in the storm's lull outside. She picked the cups and and returned tot the bed, handing Xena hers as she crawled back under the covers.
“Thanks.” The queen said, softly. She cradled the cup in both hands and gazed into it, her lashes blinking a little as the steam bathed her face. “How's your head feeling?”
“It's okay.” Gabrielle answered automatically – but found that the statement was actually true. The nagging ache had gone completely and aside from everything else she realized she felt on the whole pretty good. “It doesn't hurt at all.”
Xena smiled at that, her eyes taking on a mild twinkle. “You're not just saying that so I'll ravish ya, are you?”
“No.” Her consort assured her. “But I would.” She added after a brief pause, with a small grin of her own, which widened when Xena actually chuckled hearing it.
Then she went back to studying her tea, slipping back into a deeper thought.
Gabrielle decided that just sitting quietly and waiting was a good idea. The soldiers were back out in the hallway, and they were alone again, this time with the candles starting to burn down and show the late hour. There was change in the air, she thought. Things were moving in odd ways, and she had a sense that tomorrow's dawn could pretty much bring just about anything to them.
The fight upstairs had been really scary. Gabrielle flexed one hand, remembering the sting of wood hitting it as she wielded the big stick. She thought she'd done pretty well though, a little surprised at the emergence of this new skill at such an odd time. Could her knock on the head have maybe shaken something loose?
But it really had happened. Gabrielle remembered clearly the feeling when she'd charged at the other shades, and balanced and right it had felt when she swung the stick at them. Not at all what she'd felt like before practicing with Xena. She flexed her fingers again thoughtfully.
The shades had been terrifying, and all the more so the big one fighting Xena because it had seemed a lot bigger and a lot scarier than even the queen was.
Had Xena been scared? It hadn't seemed like it. Not until Ares had shown up. Then the queen had been scared, and scariest of all had been the fact she'd been able to see it in her tall lover's face as she put her back against the wall. So few things scared her.
Gabrielle had really gotten terrified then. Afraid not so much of sudden attack, but the possibility of a more profound and permanent loss.
“So.” Xena finally spoke up. “What a manure pile we're in, my love.”
That, at least, made Gabrielle smile. She was sort of getting used to being referred to like that, instead of as a muskrat. “Are we?”
“We are.” Xena confirmed. “Way I see it, I've got two choices. Either I blow off Ares, and have the googly spooks come an kick my ass the hard way, or I give in to him and have him own me.” She lifted her eyes and focused on Gabrielle. “I don't really like either option.”
“Me either.” Gabrielle agreed. “I guess the whole running away and being a pirate won't work either?”
Xena scratched her chin. “Probably not.” She said. “I just don't know what to do.” She sighed. “What do you think?” She peered at her consort. “Got any ideas?”
Gabrielle's pale brows lifted almost to her hairline. “Me?” She asked, on a half indrawn breath. “Ideas about what? The spooky black guys or the spookier guy in black?”
The queen smiled, just a little. Her eyes dropped then lifted again as Gabrielle reached over to put her hand on her knee. “You may end up regretting that whole you go where I go thing, y'know?”
Gabrielle thought a moment, back to the time in their last adventure when she thought Xena had abandoned her, and sailed off on her ship leaving them all behind. She remembered the utter emptiness of the moment, and felt all over again that deep ache. “No, I don't think so.” She said, quietly
Xena smiled again. “No, huh?” She let her eyes drop once more.
“Even if it does end up in a creepy place, no.” Her consort replied. “I”d rather be with you in Tartarus than be without you anywhere else.. and besides.. I think they told me I wasn't going to get another chance at the nice place so that's okay anyway.”
Xena's eyes lifted sharply. “What?”
Wasn't that what they said? “When they were trying to get me to go where my family was.” Gabrielle said. “When I said no, they said it was my last chance at it.”
The queen stared at her, tea forgotten. “Were you just dreaming that?”
Had she been? Gabrielle thought about that. It hadn't felt at all like a dream when it had been happening but she supposed it could have been, maybe. “I don't think I was sleeping.” She finally said, in a subdubded voice. “I remember looking down and seeing you holding me.”
Xena shifted uncomfortably. “Okay, well, whatever. I get it. You're coming with me lets talk about something else okay?” She said, gruffly. “Change the subject, ask me a question, do something.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle pushed the sad thoughts aside and complied with the request. “If the Persian god is really trying to hurt you, and the black spooky guys are from him, then who were the other guys in the castle? And the tunnels? It doesn't seem to really match up, you know? Are the old castle people really trying to do something sneaky at the same time the spooky guys are?”
The queen considered that seriously.
“It just seems so weird.” Gabrielle went on. “I mean, okay, having the old people here be all about the old guy king with the dragon sort of makes sense.” She said. “And.. I guess, having the King of Persia be pissed off about you beating up his army sort of makes sense.”
“Me coming to the attention of the God of War doesnt' make sense?”
Gabrielle shifted a little. “Well, I don't know much about that, but... “ She frowned. “Isn't he kinda...”
“Late to the game?” Xena asked, in a very droll tone. “As in, aint' I a little old to be catching his eye now?” She eased ot of her seated position and stretched out on her side next to Gabrielle. “Yeah. Know what? This feels like a setup.”
Her consort looked puzzled. “A what?”
“Something's not right.” The queen clarified. “I dont' think even I can collect this much bizarre crap at one time. Problem is can I figure out what it is before tomorrow night?”
“I'm sure you can.” Gabrielle said. “Maybe the Persian guys here know something about that god thing?”
“Hm. Maybe.” Xena's expression brightened a little. “Wonder if I can outbid their king for his services? Could we find two dozen virgins in this stronghold?” She watched her consort grimace a trifle. “Hey don't worry. You don't qualify anymore.” She reached out and gently touched Gabrielle's face. “And I wouldn't give you up anyway.”
“I wasn't worried about that.”
“Really.” Gabrielle squirmed closer. “That sacrificing thing made me queasy though.”
Xena folded her arms around her lover and brought them together, feeling her entire body relax as the warmth of Gabrielle's penetrated the light shift covering her. She felt exhausted, but more in her mind than her muscles, the stress of the last few days grinding against her senses and making her want to pull the covers over both of them and not take them down.
She had so much to think about. So much to decide. There were things she knew she had to investigate, to find out, to discover before it all came crashing down on her tomorrow. She should get up and question the Persians, for one thing, and think about how to beat the shades, and....
Gabrielle gave her a gentle hug. “You're making really weird noises.”
The queen sighed. “I know.” She said. “I'm scared.” Her cheek came to rest against Gabrielle's head. “I'm afraid I'm out of options, y'know? If I say no to Ares, those shades will kick my ass and I'll end up in Tartarus. I dont' want to go there. I dont' want you to go with me there.”
“What if you don't?”
Xena gazed down at her lover with wry, true affection. “Sweetheart, there's no question of that. We both know it.”
“I don't.” Gabrielle peered at her. “I really think you're a hero, Xena, and you're going to end up wherever it is heros go.” She argued. “Especially if something happens to you while you're defending people here. C'mon!”
“But I ..” Her lover paused. “I think if you say yes to Ares you will end up someplace not nice.”
The queen shifted a little and peered down at her curious. She could see the angle of Gabrielle's jaw in the candlelight and as she watched the surface shifted and bunched, as her consort clenched down on her teeth and swallowed. “What makes you say that?”
“I just feel it.” Gabrielle answered, in a very soft voice. “My heart feels it.”
Xena examined that seriously. She'd never quite heard that tone from Gabrielle before and she could see and feel the emotion in her as they huddled together.
She'd never put much stock in the gods. Ares had hit the mark when he'd said she never spent time in his temple, but the same was true of the rest of them. Xena had always relied on herself, and whatever fate threw her way, and she'd neither asked nor given much to the lords of Olympus.
She knew about them, vaguely. There were temples in the city, small ones, and the odd acolyte or two wandering around, but even her men who might be expected to provide offerings tended not to, reserving their idolizing pretty much... well, for her.
If she'd ever been one to bend a knee to them, she considered, it would likely have been Ares though. The God of War, the master of violence and blood really was right down her alley. In fact, it was probably somewhat flattering that he'd finally noticed her.
So why did she want to run the other way? Was it her ego? She'd lived this long without having to mess with gods, hadn't she?
She felt Gabrielle's slow,measured breath warm the curve of her breast. “Funny.” She said. “I feel the same way.” She admitted. “Only person I want to belong to is you.” She felt the motion as Gabrielle smiled, and looked down at her, just as her lover looked up.
Strange, how she could feel the echoes as their souls bounced off each other, there in the night. She didn't even feel slightly embarassed thinking that as she felt Gabrielle's arms wrap around her and hug her hard. Deliberately, she set aside the worry and returned the hug.
It felt warm and very good.
Here in the night she decided wasn't a good time or place to be talking about gods or shades or what her options were. Here, now, maybe was the last dark night of her life, and this was a time and a place for them to be together and savor each other no matter what tomorrow would bring.
She had joked, earlier, about it but there was a truth there. This was a time for love. Xena gently cupped Gabrielle's cheek and brushed her lips over her consorts. She felt the immediate reaction and as their bodies pressed against each other she felt the anxiety fade and drift off away.
And then someone knocked on the door. Xena turned her head and stared at the portal, as if by directing enough displeasure at it, she could cause it to burst into flame. “This better be good.” She pushed herself off the bed and grabbed her sword hilt, yanking it from it's sheath and sending the leather cover flying across the room to clatter against the wall.
She got to the door and yanked it open, glaring through it into the muted dimness of the outer chamber. A moment later she relaxed. “What is it, Brent?”
Her soldier was standing on the other side of the verge, looking both upset and a little fearful. “Majesty.” He said. “I”m sorry to disturb you.”
Xena let her sword rest on her shoulder and eyed him. “But?”
He swallowed. “There's something I need to tell you.” He said. “Something about myself that might be important given all that's happened this day.”
The queen took a step back and let the door swing all the way open. “C'mon in.” She brought the sword over to the chairs before the fire, and settled herself into one, indicating her should take the other. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Gabrielle curled up on her side, one arm tucked under her pillow as she watched what was going on.
Brent somewhat timidly sat down in the big seat across from her and let his forearms rest on his knees, his fingers twisting together nervously “Men have been talking.”
“Since the dawn of time.” Xena agreed, watching him closely.
That got a very brief smile from him. “Your majesty.” He paused. “Xena.” He went on. “I know you were thinking them belowstairs were trying to swap one of the old king's line in for you.”
“Mm.” The queen grunted softly. “You know otherwise?”
Brent took in a deep breath, and released it. “I know they don't have none that's legitimate.” He said. “And I don't... I don't think they're trying to make the change, no.”
Xena laid her sword across her knees and steepled her fingers in front of her face, her eyes sharply watching her long time minion. “They've tried worse.”
He nodded. “They have, aye, but Bregos happened because they had no right candidate. Still don't.” He said. “Know they don't, Mistress as the old line only had but one as lived through the time and that one he never wanted no crown.”
Xena slowly began to smile. “I see.”
Brent looked up at her, meeting her eyes. “Know many would talk like that.”
“If they wanted to live, sure.” The queen answered, in a soft voice. “But not many would put their sword where their mouth is all this time.” She added. “Much less get it as bloody as you have.”
Brent smiled briefly, his eyes dropping to his hands.
“Wait.” Gabrielle had reversed her position and now had her head at the foot of the bed, her weight resting on her elbows. “Are you saying you're related to the old king? The one with the dragon?” Her voice lifted in amazement. “Really?”
Xena chuckled. “Yes, he is.” She said. “Old Ranulf's youngest son, if I”m not mistaken.”
“Did you know then, Mistress?” Brent queried.
But Xena shook her head. “I knew two of his kids survived. One of them died of chest sickness the year after I took over and the other one disappeared into the woodworks. Figured that meant he was the brains of the bunch.” She studied Brent anew, seeing nothing of the long, angular features she remembered. “You don't look like em.”
Brent's smile went a bit twisted, and wry. “Most thought I was a bastard.” He acknowledged. “Could be I was, but I never did agree with much. I hid in the dungeons for a year, watching, then liked what I saw and figured a life as man at arms wasn't the worst I could come to.”
“You were just a kid.”
“Aye.” He nodded. “Never regretted it though.” He straightened up and looked at the queen. “Never wanted to own up to it, Mistress. I left that part of my life long long ago and wanted no other. But I couldn't stay quiet with all this talk going around and knowing it false or else, an impostor at work.”
Xena studied him quietly. “Most people would assume I'd behead them finding that out.” She said, in a conversational tone.
He nodded. “My life's always been yours, Xena.” He said. “No difference, really.”
The queen smiled. “But I happen to think blood relationship isn't anything but a convenient excuse. I never trusted most of mine, on one hand, and I completely trusted a total stranger who wandered into my bedroom on the other. “ She glanced over her shoulder at the avidly watching Gabrielle. “What do you think?”
Brent looked over at her. “Wasn't really a dragon, your grace.” He said. “Truth was, the old man got into his cups, and tried to ride his horse through the hall and fell off into the firepit.” He said. “Wasn't much of a ruler, truly. Used to beat his women and hated the lot of us.”
“Aw. That's too bad.” Gabrielle said. “A dragon makes a much better story.”
“But having you be loyal to Xena all this time makes a pretty good one too.” Gabrielle smiled. “And hey Xena..”
“Hey Gabrielle.” The queen responded.
“That means there's nothing for them to decide tomorrow morning right?”
Xena leaned back. “Depends.” She said. “Depends on if they have what we know now is an impostor or not.” She leaned her elbows on the chair arms. “But it changes our options, sure.” She said. “Now why don't you tell Brent what happened to us tonight up in the chamber? Since we're all sharing.”
Brent looked uncertainly at her. “Mistress?”
“Matter of fact, get Brendan and your partner.” The queen said. “And have a tray of grub brought up here. Let's make a party of it.”
He frowned, and peered at her.
Xena peered back. “I'm not going to kill you if that's what you're waiting for. If you wanted to stab me in the back you've had a decade to do it and haven't and I don't believe men are that patient.” She lifted her hand. “G'wan. The sooner I scare the codpiece off you the sooner I can ravish my consort.”
Brent stood and shook himself a little. “Sorry, Mistress. I was... I wasn't sure if you'd want my service hearing the truth. I wasn't so afraid for my skin.” He explained. “Is a chance.”
“So was trusting me.” The queen replied, her voice serious. “And now we might be into something really deep and dark because of it so let's put our heads together and see what we can do about it.”
Brent nodded, and left, touching his head as he passed Gabrielle in a gesture of respect. He closed the door behind him, and then they were once again alone together.
Xena turned in her seat, an exaggerated sigh issuing from her. “As if tonight wasn't screwy enough.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle said. “I sure didn't expect that.”
“Me either.” Xena agreed frankly. “Don't I feel like an asshole. Ten years I've got the old line's heir guarding my behind and never knew it.” Her voice was mournful. “”And here I thought those tunnels were bad.”
Gabrielle grinned wryly at her. “At least he's nice.”
“At least it didn't turn out to be Stanislaus.” The queen got up and retrieved her sword sheath, seating the blade and tossing it on the dresser before she launched herself across the bed and gathered Gabrielle up in her arms. “Maybe I should rethink that whole run off and be pirates thing.”
“I'd like that.” Gabrielle nibbled her collarbone, wriggling up against her and exhaling in satisfaction. “I want to be a pirate with you.”
Xena chuckled. “You would until you hit your first storm at sea.” She said, rolling over onto her back and bringing Gabrielle with her. She lifted her head and kissed her, savoring the earthy heat as it washed through her gut. “World's all gone crazy, Gabrielle. Should we just enjoy it?”
Gabrielle's hands slipped under her shift and her body pressed down, as her consort returned the kiss.
Xena took that for an answer, and hoped Brendan would prove a little hard to find.