A Queen for All Seasons
Brendan braced his elbows against his armored knees and blinked a few times. “Be damned.” He finally said, after Gabrielle had stopped speaking. “Lived a long time and I ain't never heard nothing like that before.”
“Wow.” Brent murmured.
Brent's partner, Gerard was pinching the bridge of his nose and grimacing. Lastay was simply sitting in his seat, shaking his head.
They were all in the sitting area in Xena's inner chamber, around the freshened fire with a pot of mulled and well spiced wine heating and a tray of crusty new baked bread and meats nearby. The torches were newly lit in the wall sconces, and the room had taken on a warmth as they listened to Gabrielle relate her tale of earlier that night.
Ghools and gods and all.
Xena was sprawled in one of the big chairs nearest the fire, swirling some of the wine in her cup. “So.” She said, as the story ended. “Surprised? I was pretty damn surprised.”
“Mistress, I cannot even begin to imagine what to say to that.” Lastay said, mournfully. “Of all the things I have pondered you perhaps sharing with me, this was not one of them.”
“Wait, I got another one for you.” The queen said. “Brent's the old king's son.”
Lastay turned and stared at Xena's man at arms. So did Brendan, and Gerard, whose jaw dropped.
“And Gabrielle can fly.” Xena added, in the same tone.
They all turned to look at her consort, who was sitting in a particularily non flying way on the carpet. “Not really.” Gabrielle said, after a brief pause. “But everything else is true.”
“You!” Gerard looked at his partner. “Been keeping that under all these years?”
Brent sighed. “Been so many years I'd forgotten it, really.” He admitted. “Reminded me, when Philtop showed, but I just laughed about it.” He glanced at Xena. “Glad to see that one die. Deserved it.”
“He did.” The queen agreed. “But since we're being all cozy an sharing, I should tell you all I didn't do it.”
“Truly, Xena?” Lastay's voice rose in surprise.
“Truly.” Xena answered. “Stupid bastard was crawling around in there, no doubt about it, but he was dead when I came hauling out of my bed to chase him down.” She sipped her wine. “That whole story bothered me. Why the Hades was he in there, dressed in black, snooping? Did he really think he was there trying to protect me? Me?” Xena lifted her hand. “I smacked him around outside the day before. I didn't need a protector and he knew it.”
They all pondered that. “If not to be here, then what?” Lastay asked. “Was he acting the thief, then?”
'Thief?” Xena murmured.
Brendan sat back. “Was bad in need of coin, Xena. Maybe his Grace has a point there.”
“Thief.” The queen repeated, rubbing her temple with her fingers. “Was it that simple?”
Gerard got up and roamed around the room. “But a thief of what? Mistress, do you keep anything there of such easy value?”
Xena noticed they were all much more willing to talk about Philtop than about ghools and the God of War. That made sense to her, and she was content to let that question slide for a while. She thought about the big room downstairs and considered, trying to see it from a thief's viewpoint.
It was a big room, and there were hangings on the walls that were nicely made and prettily colored, picked by Gabrielle along with the furniture and the thick rugs on the floors It was lighter in color than the room they were in now, and with all the windows, far better lit.
Nothing of true value. The decorations were nice, and niches also held trinkets and things her nobles had given her, but there was nothing there that was easily portable or salable and worth stealing. “Nothing.” She said. “The most valuable thing in the whole suite besides Gabrielle here is in my weapons chest.”
“The round thing?” Gabrielle guessed.
Xena nodded “Those stones are sapphires and real.” She shifted in her chair. “Jewel chest in the dressing room has some pretty good stuff, but he'd have to have come into the inner chamber for that and it would have been suicide.” She pondered. “The crown and regalia's in the treasury. Locked up.”
Brendan sat up. “Xena, that chest in there, isn't that where you kept the land grants?”
They all fell quiet, then everyone looked at the queen, who had stopped swirling her cup. “Land grants.” Xena mused. “Damned if that isn't where they are. Gerard.” She eyed her assassin. “Go get Jellaus, and that chest.”
“Mistress.” Gerard got up and scooted out the door, closing it carefully behind him.
Lastay got up and got the pot of wine, making a circuit and pouring out everyone's cups. “Surely they can't be after that.” He said. “What's so interesting with the grants? They cannot sell them.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle got up and went over to the queen's chair, perching on the arm. “Everything really started getting really weird when you told everyone you were going to have that guy get the stuff near the city.” She said. “Remember?”
Had it? Xena closed her eyes and thought back, to that court when she'd on a lark, almost, handed over the lands to her care worn holder out there on the fringe. “Son of a bitch.” She opened her eyes and looked at her consort. “Bresius His men were the first ones killed.”
“That's right! And just after, that Westlands bastard showed up!” Lastay said. “Though, hardly could have been connected, he'd been traveling long days to get here.”
“Bresius.” Xena mused. “I cede him lands, and right after, that, it goes to Hades.” She hiked one knee up. “Wasn't even something I thought about in advance. I just liked the daggers the damn man gave me.”
Lastay sat back down. “But... why would it matter?” He asked. “Was some good farming lands there, Xena but hardly something to start a war over.” His eyes watched her. “For that is what it seems to me, that this is a war.”
“Sure it is.” The queen agreed. She leaned her head against Gabrielle's side. “Could this be it? I had a whole room full of toadies yammering at me after I did it warning me off this guy.”
“Aye, yah, you did.” Brendan agreed. He got up and went to the tray, collecting a husk of bread and setting slices of meat into it. “Remember that. They were saying not to trust him.”
“Irony.” Xena said. “I was pretty sure half of them were Brego's toadies. Then I wasn't.”
Duke Lastay frowned. “I know those men. That area never did lean Brego's way, Mistress. Truly. Especially Bresius. Very dark horse, that one was.”
“Yeah?” Xena eyed him.
“Word is, the reason he had to resort to raiding was those landholders refused to give in to him.” Lastay related. “Shut the gates and fired on his envoy.”
“Really?” Xena sat up, with an interested expression. “How come I'm just hearing about this?”
“Men came with them, were talking in the hall.” Brendan said. “We just heard it today.”
Lastay nodded. “Aye, and I heard it from others as well, not so pleased with them either.”
Xena chuckled softly. 'Then it must be true.” She rested her elbows on the chair arms. “Maybe I did wrong them.. like they said.” She admitted. 'So hard to know who to trust.”
“Aye.” Brendan sighed.
Gabrielle leaned over and gave the queen a kiss on the top of her head. “Wasn't hard for me for some reason.”
Xena smiled, glancing up at her. “No. Wasn't hard for me in your case either.”
The door abruptly opened.
Xena didn't stop to think. She was up out of her seat, with her sword in her hand, and past her men in a breath before the body coming in cleared the door and she recognized him. “Gerard, knock.” She relaxed, and let the blade drop. “What is it?”
Her assassin was breathing hard, and also, empty handed. “Xena, that room's been ripped apart. The chest is gone.” He said. “There's dead men there. You should come see.”
“You'er damn well right I should.” Xena shoved her sword back in it's sheath. “Let me put some boots on. This is insanity. What do they think that chest is worth? The grants are held here.” She extended her hand and closed it into a fist. “Not on parchment.” She said. “Someone go find Bresius. Bring him downstairs.”
The room burst into activity. Xena went back into her bedroom to get some clothes on and Gabrielle followed her. Brent went out to find Brenius. Gerard went near the fireplace to catch his breath, and spill the details to Brendan and Lastay.
“Nuts.” Xena pulled her house armor on and fastened it. “Nuts, nuts, nuts.”
Gabrielle was getting into her own armor and tabard, glad her head had stopped aching, and her stomach had returned to normal. She sat down to pull her boots on and tightened the laces, feeling her heart start to race. “What do you think it means, Xena?”
“It means I won't get
to go to bed with you yet.” Xena sighed. “This really isn't my
Gabrielle grinned briefly. “Besides that.”
“I don't know.” The queen offered her a hand up. “Let's go find out.” She handed Gabrielle her staff and headed for the door, twitching her shoulders to settle the armor over them. “Cant really be that much of a surprise after everything else that's happened today.”
Well, that was probably true. Gabrielle gripped her stick and followed. The men were waiting in the doorway and they all emerged into the big round hall and headed for the stairs in a group, thundering down them and sending echoes against the thick stone walls.
Soldiers started pouring out from all directions, weapons drawn until the lit torches revealed the identity of the group and then the guards became escorts as Xena led the way to the doors of their chambers. As she reached them, she put her hands out and shoved them open.
Gabrielle was right behind her, and she got a look past the queen's shoulder as they went through the audience chamber and entered the outer room to their living space.
Both of them stopped, and she almost crashed right into Xena's back. “Whoa!”
The chamber was truly in shambles. Xena slowly turned in place, looking from one side to the other, her pale eyes widened in surprise. “Looks like someone let my horse loose in here with a couple of randy mares.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle agreed, peeking out from behind her arm.
“How did this happen and no one heard it?” Xena turned and looked at the guard. “I heard a rat up stairs in my drilling chamber and chased it down. No one heard THIS?”
It seemed hard to believe. Gabrielle tried to reconcile her memory of the room with what she saw now. Every bit of furniture was in splinters, and the hangings had been blasted off the walls. The walls themselves had chunks missing and the floor was covered in rubble and scattered in the rubble were three bodies.
Everyone was looking around in equal disbelief.
Brendan took the lead, and moved past Xena into the room with Brent right behind him. They crouched next to the nearest body, rolling it over onto it's back. It was dressed in dark clothing, but with nothing to hide it's face. “Be damned.”
Xena took a step to one side to see what he was looking at. “Bresius.”
Gerard was rolling over rhe second body. “One of his men, Mistress.”
Lastay walked over and touched the wall. “Looks like a ram hit it, my liege.” He glanced at Xena. “Some hard thing, at any rate.”
Thus appealed to, Xena went over and joined him, running knowledgeable hands over the destruction. “Something sure did.” She mused. “And the land grants are missing, or were they taken out somewhere? No need to leave them in my quarters was there?”
Brendan stood and put his hands on his hips. “Might have been.” He said. “But it would have been Stanislaus have done it, eh?”
'Sure.” Gabrielle spoke up. “No one else would have messed with them.”
'Stanislaus.” Xena repeated, in a thoughtful tone. “Yeah, the old meddler might have put them away.” She said. “Maybe someone was trying to get a look at them and he turned them down.”
“Maybe that's why he got shived.” Brendan said.
“Maybe.” The queen agreed. “Is it possible this whole damn mess is a simple as greed?”
Gabrielle snorted under her breath.
Xena sat down on an overturned chest, that had once held folded hangings and linens. “Something's not adding up.” She gazed around. “I thought I was getting a handle on what was going on here but now I've got no damn clue.” She glanced at the third body on the floor, nearby her boots. She studied the face. “Anyone know who this is?”
Brendan came over and looked down, and Gerard joined him. Lastay wandered over to where Xena was seated and leaned against the wall, and after a moment, Gabrielle joined them, resting her hand on Xena's shoulder.
The body was small, and slight, the head covered in blood but fair haired and almost square in shape. “Don't know him.” Lastay finally said.
“Me either.” Brent crouched down to examine the body. “Got hit in the head. Maybe by whatever did that.” He indicated the crack in the stone behind Xena. He leaned closer, and then he turned back the thick tunic the man was wearing exposing his shoulder.
There was a mark there, and after an instant Gerard joined him with a candle and they stripped the arm free, turning it ot the light so everyone could see it. “He's marked.”
Xena looked at the dark stained tattoo on the man's arm. “Brendan. Go get Lakmas.”
Without a word, her captain left, breaking into a trot as he cleared the door.
“Is it a Persian mark, Mistress?” Brent asked. “The man himself doesn't look like one.” He tilted the head, which had a huge gash on one side, as though a sword blade had bisected it. It was hard to discern his features, but the fair hair and pale skin attested to Brent's words.
“Gerard.” Xena seemed to be absorbed in thought. “Go to Stanislaus's chambers. See what you find there.”
“Aye, mistress.” He stood. “I'll take a few of the men with me. No telling what might be there ahead of us after this.” He motioned to two of the guard who were standing hesitantly just inside the doorway, and they followed him with every evidence of relief.
Xena looked behind her at the wall, reaching out to touch the destruction. She could feel the harsh, rough edge of the rock against her fingertips and she paused, only her eyes moving as she tried to put the pieces together. “What's so damn special about those lands?” She mused.
“Didn't seem so.” Brent said. “Flatlands, to the river after the pass we fought in.”
Flatlands, yes. Xena shifted her gaze and called up images of them in her memory. She'd barely paid attention to them on the way to the city, her focus on the end result itself rather than what she'd been passing through but she remembered rolling lands that were open and wild, save for the stands of forest spotted along the ridge that overlooked the sea.
Cleared and broken, they would be good for planting, especially since the river they'd ridden along had long overflowed it's banks and enriched the soil around it. But that was nothing that special, it was just better and more fertile than the valley past the pass that they'd found Bregos in.
Good lands, certainly she got why the other landholders had been ticked off she'd given them to Bresius but nothing worth doing what had been done here, which would result in them having their heads cut off by her.
Peaches were good, but if the mouth you hoped to eat them with was filled with worms, what was the point, really? Were they really worth the raising of her fist against you?
That made no sense. “What do ya think?” She asked Gabrielle.
The pale green eyes went from the body to her. “About what?”
“This?” Xena indicated the room.
Gabrielle sat down next to her, pressing along her left side in a warm and very pleasant way. “I think it's weirder than singing sheep.” She finally said. “I don't even know what to say Xena. What's going on here? Is that a bad guy?” She pointed at the marked man.
Xena folded her hands. “Well, none of us know him, he's wearing an Eastern tattoo, and no one gave him permission to be in here so it looks like he's a bad guy but at this point, my love, I'm not ready to assume anything.” She leaned back against the wall and exhaled. “I'll go with that singing sheep of yours.”
Lastay folded his arms. “I didn't spend much time in the area, but was there something to be had in these lands, Mistress? Some gold, or gems or suchlike? Nothing else seems to make any sense to me that would drive men to insanity seeking them. “
“Didn't spend much time there either.” Xena said. “I didn't see anything like that while we were in the area. Aside from the port city itself being valuable, wasn't much there.” She got up and went to the unidentified man, going down on one knee to examine him.
He had a wiry frame, and under his thick, dark clothing his body was very sinewy, the surface covered in a tracework of thin scars that rang a faint bell of familiarity in her.
Then she realized where she'd seen them before. “Gabrielle, c'mere a minute.”
Her consort came over and knelt next to her, resting her hand on Xena's thigh. “What is it?”
Xena pointed to the scars. “You know what caused those?”
Gabrielle studied them. “No.” She said. “What?”
The queen turned her
head and looked at her. “You really don't know?” She studied her
consort's face intently, finding nothing but open puzzlement there.
“Should I?” Gabrielle asked, after a minute. “Why?”
Xena hesitated briefly. “You have them all over your back.”
Her consort jerked upright in surprise. “I do?” She asked, in an astonished tone, one hand reaching around to touch her spine. “No I don't, do I?”
The queen nodded mutely.
Gabrielle's gaze turned inward, and she stared at nothing for a long moment. Then her expression cleared and she looked up at Xena. “I think I do remember when I must have gotten them. I never thought about it.” She said.
“Yeah? I thought maybe your crumb of a father did it. Maybe you didn't want to talk about it.” Xena watched her consort's face again closely. “Don't blame you.”
But Gabrielle shook her head. “No, not that time. I had to chase four of the sheep up into the ridge above our holding and climbing around up there I slipped and fell into a crack in the rocks.” She explained. “It was all.. I guess the rock was all rough? Kind of sharp? When I slid through it cut my back all up and hurt a lot.”
“Then I had to climb up out of the cavern I fell into, and I had to pull myself out.” Gabrielle lifted her hands and mimed hauling herself upward. “My shirt was already ripped mostly off, and the rocks raked me. Lila helped me clean it all up and it hurt a lot for a while but... “ She paused. “I guess mostly I forgot about that. I never told them. He would have beaten me.”
“For getting cut up?” Xena's voice dropped in disbelief.
“For ruining my shirt.” Gabrielle answered her quietly. “It was in shreds.”
“By the gods.” Lastay had been listening. “What animal could this have been?”
Xena sighed and gently patted her consorts back. “You remember what kind of rock it was? Those are sharp, thin lines.” She pointed at the man's chest. “Wasn't the granite we were climbing over out there.”
Gabrielle reached out to touch the cold skin. “They were crystals” She said. “I remember because the sun was going down and the light on them was so pretty and I remember thinking such a pretty thing shouldn't have hurt me like that.”
“Crystals.” Xena looked over at Lastay. “I wonder what kind.”
“By the gods.”
Lakmas rested his big forearms on his knees and gazed down at the dead body, a pensive expression on his face. “No doubt, magnificence. The marking is in the fashion of my people, but this one.” He indicated the body. “Is no Persian.”
“No.” Xena was sitting in one of her big chairs, having been dragged in by some of the soldiers. The other bodies had been removed, and three servants were scurrying around cleaning up the chamber. “He's no Persian unless his mother looked like Gabrielle.”
Lakmas frowned, then both big shoulders lifted in a half shrug. “That has been known to happen.” He admitted. “But those such have not an easy life.”
“Is any life really easy?” Xena mused. “Mine wasn't and neither was Gabrielle's.” She picked up the man's hand and examined it. The stiffened fingers were callused, and the palm was very thick with muscle. She turned over her own hand and compared it. “He was a fighter.”
“Only a dagger on em, though.” Brendan commented, extending it to her.
Xena dropped the hand, ignoring the muffled thump of the dead flesh against the stone. She took the dagger and removed it from it's sheath, sighting along the blade. It was a finely made weapon, dead straight and well sharpened and the hilt showed evidence of long use of it.
She handed it over to Lakmas. “What do you think of that?”
The Persian studied the knife. “It's not in our tradition.” He said. “This is one which I'd think to find here in the north of this land, rather than my own.”
Xena nodded. “Agreed.” She stood up and dusted her hands off. So far, the examination of the room had only served to add more questions to her basket rather than answer any of them. She looked around at the wall, and tried again to imagine what could have made the holes in it. “Sure didn't do that.”
“No.” Lakmas went over and touched the hole. “Seems like only a war hammer driven by a god's arms could do this damage, without having a battering ram to do it.”
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged looks. “Interesting idea.” The queen muttered. “But I doubt any damn god was in here beating up my walls looking for land grants.”
Gerard slipped in the door at that moment and looked around, spotting Xena. “Mistress.” He had a thick bound set of scrolls under one arm. “I found this. Not sure if it 's what's needed or looked for but..” He brought the packet over to where Xena was standing and handed it to her. “Wasn't much else in his quarters. Didn't look like anything was touched in there either.”
Xena took the packet over to one of the credenzas against the wall that had survived the chaos and set it down. “Well, he's dead.” She said. “I guess they figured there was nothing else to gain there.” She examined the packet, which was tied with a leather strap and laces. “Know what, Gabrielle?”
“We're moving back up to the tower for real?” Gabrielle had come to stand next to the credenza, and leaned against it.
Xena smiled briefly. “Well, until I get this place remodeled.” She glanced around. “But what I was going to say was this looks like something you'd do.” She indicated the parchment, then she gently untied the laces and undid the strap, opening up the bundle and laying the sides down flat. “Bring that candle over here.”
Gabrielle did, setting it close enough for them to read the contents, but not close enough to set the thing on fire. “What is it?”
Xena touched the top of the first page, squinting a little to read the faded letters. It bore a legend, and she realized it was a dating from before her arrival and conquest of the stronghold. She read the first few lines then flipped a page, and read a bit more. “It's a journal.” She said.
Gabrielle leaned next to her. “He wrote it?” She looked at the page. “Is it.. oh, it's the day to day stuff. I remember him taking notes for that when you had court. Did he record all of it? Really? I thought the scriviner did that.”
“He did.. I mean, he does.” The queen said. “I think Stanislaus just did this on his own.” She turned to the back of the parchment bundle and found sheets with more vivid ink, current notes that ended just... Xena touched the entry on the last page. Just before he'd been attacked. “I can only imagine all the names he called me in here.”
She turned and went back to the raider's body, leaving Gabrielle to thoughtfully turn the pages and examine the writing. “Okay. Someone wake up Jellaus, and get the archivist in here. I need to recreate those grants before the place goes insane.”
“They come from your hand, Xena.” Brendan said. “No harm then, is there?”
“They do come from my hand, but the last thing we need is word to get out we don't have record of who has what and they all start beating each other over the heads here in the stronghold.” Xena said. “Schedule a big court at dawn. Let's get this all out in the open.”
Gabrielle rested her elbows on the credenza and studied the page in front of her, covered in thin and uneven script. She, too, suspected Stanislaus hadn't written fondly of her, but this section he'd left for last had been about Xena, and there was no anger in it.
Today, at last, her Majesty looked at me, not past me. It was a fine and terrible thing, to be seen as a person and not as a servant, or a thing, or something to be made fun of. Strange, it was the revealing of my maiming to her that got me this attention, this unlooked for compassion that took me so by surprise I could hardly answer her.
I realized today why my knee still stayed bent to her, all these years. Through all the death and the ridicule and shame there is a truth to her that cannot be ignored. No matter what her words were to me, I know that if great evil comes to us, she will stand between it and those who follow her.
She does not hide. She does not stand back and let others die in her place. She has a hard hand, all in truth, but also an open heart I never suspected and I am glad I can say on this day, today, I felt it.
Gabrielle sighed and closed the book, mostly ignoring the motion in the room behind her. “Poor Stanislaus.” She murmured. “I'm sorry we never were friends.”
She turned and surveyed the room. The soldiers were taking out the body of the unknown man, and Xena and Lakmas were standing talking to Brendan and Duke Lastay about him.
She felt a little adrift. So much had happened, she wasn't sure where she stood, or where they stood for that matter or what was going to happen tomorrow. It was disconcerting. She almost wished she and Xena had just stayed in their tower and snuggled under the covers with each other.
Jellaus arrived, looking half asleep and worried, with Davos the archivist tagging along behind him. Behind them she spotted Mali, who was very wide eyed and had a terrified look on her face. Gabrielle started forward on seeing her, and got to the door just as they entered. “Mali.”
“Oh! Your grace!!!” Her servant gasped. “I was afraid something terrible happened to you again!”
“No, we're fine.” Gabrielle drew her into the room. “We weren't here when this happened.” She looked at the chamber. “Where were you?”
Mali was looking around the chamber in horror. “Oh no!” She put a hand up to her mouth. “Who did this?”
“We don't know.” Gabrielle said. “We came down here to look for something and we found this.” She edged into a corner of the room with her body servant. “Did you hear anything? Did anyone?”
Mali looked around slowly, then back up at her. “We were all in the servants quarters.” She said. “We were sleeping.. at least, I was sleeping. We were all tired from all the excitement going on. Josha.. that's my brother.. he'd just gotten back from bringing bread and stew to the performers when we heard all the soldiers running. It woke me up.”
“I think you can go back to sleep now.” Gabrielle said, as she caught sight of Xena dismissing everyone. “We'll all talk about everything in the morning.”
Mali gave her a scared look. “Yes, your grace.” She murmured.
Gabrielle remembered what she'd just read of Stanislaus. “You don't want to go back downstairs?” She asked, gently. “There's a place you can sleep up in the tower if you want to.” She offered. “Would you like that?”
The girl looked wide eyed at her. “Oh yes.” She answered, in a faint tone. “Yes, your grace I would like that a lot. It's just so.. it's.. “ She drew in a breath. “Everythings so scary down there. Every noise.. we think someone's going to attack us.” She whispered. “We all think we hear footsteps.”
Ugh. Creepy. Gabrielle patted her shoulder. Creepy, and not necessarily untrue. “Come on up with us, and I'll get you settled in there. It's not a big place, but the soldiers are guarding that area.”
“What's going on here?” Xena swooped up next to them and peered down at Mali. “Ah. Your little cat.”
“I'm going to take her back up with us, Xena. She can sleep in that alcove.” Gabrielle said.
The queen studied them briefly, then nodded. “Sure.” She gestured to the door. “Let's get a move on. Nothing else to see in this old dump.” She looked around at the people in the room.
“Oh great one.” Lakmas said. “Honor me by allowing me to join your guard this night.”
Xena studied him. “Sure.” She said, after a moment. “C''mon.”
They trooped back up the stone steps to the tower, Xena and Gabrielle in the lead. Brendan and Lakmas trailed behind them, Brendan talking in a low tone to the Persian who was nodding.
Gabrielle was conscious of being very tired. She had Stanislaus's parchment under her arm, and her head was aching a little, whether from her injury or just the stress she wasn't sure. She sighed, and a second later, Xena's arm was around her, the queen moving close.
“You doing okay?” Xena asked, as though she could read her mind.
“I'm kinda tired.” Gabrielle admitted. “And scared.”
pulled her closer and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “Me
too.” She said. “Hang in there. We'll get through this.”
Be true. Gabrielle suddenly heard the words sounding in her head. She is. She looked up at Xena's profile, seeing it outlined in ruddy gold as they passed one of the torches in the hall. She could see the furrow in her lover's brow and the lines of worry and tension in her face, and she realized that Xena knew, better than any of them, just how much everyone was depending on her to make things right.
What was right? What really was going on? Was Xena going to have to submit to Ares, just to get everything back to normal?
What would that mean for them? Gabrielle felt Xena's arm tighten around her, and she exhaled, pushing the grim thoughts aside as they reached the tower rotunda and passed the guard on the landing.
She got Mali settled in the alcove, watching the young girl flitter around the space, looking both relieved and excited as she touched the stuffed straw mattress, and the chest next to it. “Is this okay?”
“Oh, your grace.” Mali sat down on the bed. “It's so nice.”
Gabrielle smiled. “I thought so too.” She said. “It was my first place here, and more space and privacy than I'd ever had in my whole life up until then.”
Mali stared at her, the girl's mouth a perfect O of astonishment.
It made her want to laugh. “Kinda strange, huh?”
Mali looked around the snug space, tucked into a corner of the rotunda right across from the doors to what were now Gabrielle and Xena's quarters. “You stayed here?”
Now, Gabrielle did chuckle. “Yes I did.” She said. “Not for long.” She acknowledged. “I think maybe... a sevenday or so. Then I moved into a little room inside there.” She indicated the sturdy and ornate door across from the alcove. “It was a strange, and scary time of my life but it turned out okay.”
“Did you ever think you would become so?” Mali asked, in a shy voice, reaching out to touch the edge of Gabrielle's tabard.
“No.” Gabrielle answered after a brief pause. “I come from a small village. My father worked the land and the best my sister and I had to hope for was getting married to one of our neighbors and a lot of hard work.” She studied her servants face, outlined in the candlelight. “But I guess you never know with life, huh?”
Mali smiled. “Thank you for letting me stay here.”
Motion stirred behind Gabrielle and she turned her head as Xena leaned in to the alcove, bringing that ever present air of energy with her. “What's going on here?”
“Just getting Mali settled.” Gabrielle said. “I was telling her about the time I spent here.”
“All about that time?” Xena asked, her brows hiking. “Why Gabbbbrrrielllleee.” She hooked her fingers into the belt around her consorts waist. “Didn't know you liked telling those kind of stories.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle covered her face with one hand, trading an embarassed look with her body servant. “Anyway.”
“Anyway, it's time to go get some rest.” Xena started moving backwards, pulling Gabrielle with her. “Enjoy your digs, kid.” She winked at Mali, as she steered her consort across the hallway and through the huge doors into their chambers, shutting them behind her.
Inside there was something of a bustle, as Brendan and the soldiers, including Lakmas were settling down again, finishing the meat and bread they'd all left behind when they'd gone barrelling downstairs.
Xena was glad enough to escape into their bedroom, feeling her shoulders relax as they were once again alone together in the quiet of the night. She shut the door and went over to the hearth, dropping down into one of the chairs in front of it with a sigh.
“Would you like some tea?” Gabrielle moved the waterpot near the hearth, picking up the poker and adjusting the logs in the fire. “Boy it's been a long day huh?”
“Yes, and sure has.” Xena let her head rest against the chair back. “Tomorrow's going to be longer.” She added, in a soft voice after a moment. “But at least this whole thing about people getting croaked is starting to maybe make a little sense.”
Gabrielle retrieved several splits of wood and arranged them on the hearth. “Because of the grants?”
“Yeah.” Xena said. “People killing other people for money... I get that.” She propped her elbow on the chair arm and her chin on her fist. “I get that a lot more than some crazy spooks invading my castle, or even, some fake usurper trying to take over my throne. If there was some thing kick ass valuable in those hills then this whole thing takes on a lot more familiar stink.”
“Do you think that's whats going on?” Gabrielle pulled two mugs over and opened her herb jars, drumming her fingers on the heart edge as she decided what combination to make. “You think it was those crystals everyone's after? They were sort of pretty but I didn't think they were valuable.”
“Depends what they were.” The queen said. “Someone thinks something's valuable out there and I'd wager a couple stones from my crown that maybe those lands were behind what Philtop was after.”
“You think that's what he was looking for that night.” Gabrielle turned and looked at her. “In the other room?”
“But... “ Gabrielle poured the hot water over the herbs. “Xena, that makes no sense Those grants are just papers. I wrote some of them. Just having them doesn't give someone the land, does it?”
“No.” The queen said. “But destroying them could take it away from someone, if they were also intending on getting rid of me.” She glanced at her consort, who had stopped in mid motion, and was staring at her. “So just think of it? I croak. Someone else takes charge, and the first thing they do is review the grants to see who has what. That grant's missing, so whoever's in charge can give it where they want. Bresius is dead now, no one to contest it since I”m pretty sure his heir isn't around anywhere to have seen what went on.”
Gabrielle broke out of her stillness and brought the cups over. “Wow.” She set them down and sat herself down in the chair next to her lover. “That actually makes sense.”
“Gee thanks.” Xena gave her a droll look.
“No I mean..” Gabrielle paused. “This whole thing hasn't made any sense to me, Xena, not at all ever since it started. What you just said... I mean, okay. “
“I understand about people being greedy.” Her consort said. “If that part is what it's all about then I get it.” She added. “But I don't like it.” Gabrielle frowned. “Especially if part of it means they caused all this trouble for us ”
“No kidding.” The queen agreed. “I don't much like that either, my love.” She added quietly. “I don't like that, or the fact that you got hurt and I almost..” She stopped talking, and shook her head. “By the gods that hurt.” She murmured.
Gabrielle got up and knelt down next to Xena's chair, putting her hands on her lover's knee. “Xena.”
Xena shifted and reached out to cup Gabrielle's cheek with both hands, bringing her closer and kissing her. “I don't have time to find out what those crystals are.” She rested her forehead against her consorts. “And that doesn't change those guys in black or the fact that Ares is going to be back tomorrow night to find out what my answer is to him.”
Gabrielle eased between her knees and rested her elbows on the queen's thighs. “You think someone here might know what they are? What about those guys who came with Philtop? If he was really into it they might know something.”
“So what if you found it out, and told everyone?” Gabrielle asked. “We had everyone on our side before the festival.. would it help if we got that again?”
Xena studied her with a very serious expression.
“I think those spooky guys really like it when everyone's scared.” Her consort said.
“I think you're right.” Xena said. “I just don't know if, after all this time, I can leverage what little goodwill I have here against them. I think it's too late.”
“It's never too late.” Gabrielle disagreed. “Xena, remember at that feast? Everyone was on your side.”
“No. Everyone was refraining from trying to kill or usurp me.” The queen objected. “That's not the same thing.” She watched Gabrielle's face tense into a frown. “Nobody here but you... “ And here, she paused, and thought, remembering the long hours when she'd held Gabrielle's stricken body in her arms.
“Xena, people love you.” Gabrielle said, in a gentle tone, almost as though she was reading her mind. “Not just me.”
The queen remained silent.
“We need you, Xena.” Gabrielle whispered. “I saw everyone watching you when I woke up. They care. They love you. Don't say I'm the only one.”
“No I know.” Xena finally said. “I'm just scared.”
“Of the scary guys?”
The queen's dark lashes flickered. “Of myself.” She uttered in a bare whisper. “I'm scared to say no to him because I don't think I can beat those guys, and I'm even more scared to say yes to him because I think I'll end up losing everything.” She stared into Gabrielle's eyes. “I think he'll make me into something even you won't love.”
Those eyes filled with tears in an instant. “Nothing can do that.”
“Don't be too sure. I know what I'm capable of, Gabrielle. I'm not sure you are.” Xena pressed her forehead against her consorts again. “And I'd rather die than lose you.”
Gabrielle felt herself stop breathing for a moment, as those words echoed softly in her ears.
She understood what that meant. She felt the truth of it in her own soul. “Xena I'll stand by you no matter what you do.” She said. “I'll face the scary guys with you, or I'll follow you to Olympus if that's where he takes you but my heart will always be yours even if all you do is break it.”
Xena bit her lip, her brow tensing. Then she exhaled and blinked, and tears dropped to lightly splash against the backs of Gabrielle's hands. “I wish I deserved that.”
“It doesn't really matter if you do or not.” Gabrielle said. “It's just true.” She covered Xena's hands with her own and gently squeezed them. “I can't change that and I don't want to.”
Xena sniffled a bit. “I don't want to change that either.” She said. “So we have to find a way to get through this together because I'm not ready do anything else.” She took a deep breath. “Sorry I got nuts.”
Gabrielle lifted up her hands and kissed them.
“It's been a long damn day.”
“It has.” Gabrielle said.
Xena drew in another breath. “Let's you and me get some rest, and let tomorrow just come. We'll see what happens.” She said. “Maybe there are people who'll support me. Maybe I'll figure out what to do with the land grants Maybe someone will cough up why those damn crystals matter.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle kissed her hands again.
“Maybe I'll end up getting my ass whipped by a bunch of Persian ghosts.” Xena, finally, smiled.
“I”ll be right there with you.” Gabrielle stood up as the queen did, and put her arms around her. “They'll have to get to your ass through me.”
Xena hugged her, then they walked over to the bed and climbed in, still dressed in armor, pulling the covers over them and leaving all the candles lit.
Outside, the winds finally died down, and the snow stopped falling. For the first time in days, at least, there was peace.
Against all odds, she slept. Xena was aware, vaguely, of the wisps of some dream fading as she opened one eye and saw daylight past the curtains, faint and purple.
It was quiet. She could hear the snores of her guards in the outer room, and Gabrielle's gentle breathing where her lover was curled up next to her, one hand tucked around Xena's upper arm.
She wasn't entirely comfortable, since she was in her armor and there just wasn't any good way to sleep when you were partially encased in leather and metal. That was mostly why Gabrielle wasn't sprawled half across her, since if there was anything less comfortable than sleeping in armor it was sleeping on armor.
But it was morning. They'd both survived the night, and now she had a brief time to collect her wits and think.
Except she really didn't want to think. Pretty much everything she had to think about was depressing with the single exception of Gabrielle. She studied the sleeping face of her consort, relaxed and open, a slight smile on her lips. The bruise had faded completely from her head, which seemed like a miracle, but with all the other strangeness going on Xena was perfectly content to take good where she found it.
First off, she'd hold court. Now that she knew the royal ringer she'd suspected was her royal ringer, she was more curious than wary of what her nobles might have come up with in terms of demands. Maybe they would surprise her. Maybe they wouldn't.
So then after she had them all there, she'd start beating them up to find out what they knew about those riverside lands. Maybe then, she'd find out what was going on with all the killings.
The spooks and Ares? That would wait for later.
One pain in the ass situation at a time.
Content with her plan, Xena stretched out a little, crossing her booted feet under the covers and shifting her shoulders a little to nudge the plates into a different position pressing into her back. It was cold, the fire had burned down to mere embers, but under the covers their combined body heat had things nice and toasty and the lack of the sound of wind and ice hitting the windows seemed to promise some better weather in any case.
She felt a gentle squeeze on her bicep, and she peeked down to see Gabrielle gazing sleepily up at her. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Gabrielle amiably responded. “You know something?”
“Falling asleep in all this stuff really makes you feel bad in the morning.”
Xena chuckled softly. “Yeah it does.” She admitted. “I remember the days when I used to sleep in my gear because I didn't want to have to take the time to put it on if we were attacked.”
“I feel like every hair on both of my arms is pinched in those links.” Gabrielle said. “I”m sort of afraid to move.”
“Then don't yet.” Xena eased the covers back and slid out of bed, getting her boots under her and standing up as the chill of the room made what skin was exposed prickle. “Brr.” She went over to the fireplace and ducked to the side to grab several logs off the stack of firewood, kneeling down to arrange them with casually expert hands.
She stirred the embers up and after a moment was rewarded with the soft crackle of flame as the edges of the dried wood caught. She poked it a little more then stood up, satisfied with her work. Then she dipped some water into the pot and set it on the hearth to heat. “Okay.”
She turned, to see Gabrielle curled up on her other side now, watching her. “Let this old dungeon heat up then I'll get you unkinked. Okay?”
Xena grinned back, and felt her shivers abate as the fire built and started to spread it's heat into the room. Rubbing her hands together, she held them out to the hearth and flexed her fingers. Outside, she could hear the start of stirring, the soft scrape of chair legs against the stone floor, and the grunts of men waking up.
She reached up and unlatched her shoulder armor, lifting it up and setting it down on the cabinet near the hearth. She unlaced one of her bracers as she watched the water pot, rubbing the marks the armor had made on her skin idly. The air in the room brushed against her skin, cool and damp but not entirely unpleasant.
“I think I heard a bird.”
The queen cocked her head to listen. After a long moment of silence, she heard a soft piping and smiled. “I think you did.” She said. “First one I've heard in days.”
“You think Ares made the weather go away?” Gabrielle asked “Gods can do that, right?”
“I'm sure.” Xena got two cups ready, studying the stone crocks full of herbs with a faintly creased brow. Which ones was she supposed to use? Back in the day, as in, back before Gabrielle came into her life, tea was simple. Either someone made it, or she had a single jar of tea leaves to dump in her cup.
Now she had at least a half dozen of the damn things.
“Why would something be wrong?” The queen eyed her over one shoulder.
“Because you're staring at the hearthstone making weird noises.” Her consort promptly said. “You don't usually do that.”
Xena put her hands on the stone and smiled. “No, I don't.” She said. “The truth is, I have no idea how to mix this stuff so it makes that peachy berry thing you do.” She said. “And that makes me feel like an idiot.”
She had barely stopped talking when Gabrielle was at her elbow, nudging her aside and reaching for the jars herself. “Hey.” But she moved aside, bending down to put more wood on the fire as Gabrielle opened the tea holders, releasing the rich scent of the leaves into the air.
“It's easy.” Her consort was saying. “See? It's this jar, and... “ She paused, as Xena stood up and kissed her on the neck. “Xena?”
“It's the second jar, and?” Xena unlatched the scale armor covering her lover's body. “Do ya crush em?”
“With your fingers.” Gabrielle agreed. “And the fifth one here, that's the mint.” She took some, “And this is the dried blackberry you like.”
“I like you.” Xena set the armor aside and loosened the ties on the heavy undershirt protecting Gabrielle's skin. “But the tea's not bad either.” She leaned over and kissed the spot long the top of the line that crossed from her consort's neck to her shoulder.
Gabrielle smiled, crushing the leaves between her fingers in a rolling motion and lifting the water pot up to pour the now steaming liquid over them. “Thank you.” She said. “Are you hungry?”
Xena chuckled softly. “Yes.” She gently kneaded the smaller woman's neck with both hands, and felt the shift as Gabrielle exhaled. “And I'd like something to chew on too that isn't you.” She admitted. “I don't remember having much dinner last night.”
Gabrielle didn't much either. She waited for the tea to steep, picking up the bottle of honey and drizzling a good stickful into each cup. She was hungry, and it seemed to her that her body had finally returned to almost normal, since the hunger was that growling in the guts kind she hadn't had since she'd gotten hurt.
It just all seemed better today. She felt Xena's hands stripping the rest of her armor off, tickling her kneecaps as she took off the guards on her legs and then finding her breathing come short as the queen's teeth nibbled the skin on the inside of her thigh.
It felt good. It felt clean and right. It made her forget about all the weird and terrible things that had been happening and returned her focus to them, and to Xena, and to how wonderful the queen could make her body feel. She'd lost sight of that in the last few days and now she was glad it was back.
Xena stood and hugged her, then she picked up her now discarded armor and put it down next to her own, on her way over to the window to push the heavy curtains back so she could peer outside. “Hey!”
Gabrielle galloped over to see what she was looking at, delighted to see a glint of pale, dawn light off the glistening stone of the stronghold. “Oh wow!”
It wasn't sun, and the ground was covered in snow and ice, but at least no more was falling. Xena pulled the fabric all the way back and hooked it open then she stood there, elbow propped on Gabrielle's shoulder. “Things are looking up.”
A soft knock came at the inner door. Gabrielle eased out from under her lover's arm and went over to it, getting a hand on the latch and starting to work it before Xena's tall form swooped down on her, and encircled her with one arm. “Arup!”
“Ah ah ah.” Xena neatly moved her out of the way, and opened the door herself, unsheathing her dagger as she took a step back. “I'm still a little more dangerous than you are.”
“Mistress?” Brent cautiously poked his head in.
“Ah it's just you.” The queen said. “Not some Persian assassin or spook.”
“No, mistress.” He entered and ducked his head in Gabrielle's direction. “We were going to bring up a tray from the kitchens. May we bring some for you?”
Xena sheathed her dagger and waved him inside. “I was just taking Gabrielle's clothes off.” She said. “But I know she's hungry.”
Brent blushed and issued a weak smile in Gabrielle's direction.
“It's okay.” Gabrielle reassured him, as she headed back towards the tea. “I think she's just in a good mood because it stopped snowing.” She stirred the tea and brought Xena over hers.
“Tell.” Xena paused, then sighed briefly. “I”m going to have to name a new seneschal aren't I?” She said. “Damn. Never thought I”d say I'd miss the bastard but I do.” She sipped her tea. 'Tell Brendan to announce court, in one candelmark. I want everyone in there.”
“Will do.” Brent left, closing the door softly behind him.
Gabrielle thought about that. She hadn't liked Stanislaus much. He had tried to get rid of her when she'd arrived, and since Xena had joined with her he'd never missed an opportunity to snipe or needle her in a very respectable way. But was she glad he was gone? “Who are you going to let take Stanislaus place?”
Xena had dropped into a chair and propped her still booted feet up on a stool, her hair in messed disarray from sleep. She looked a little wild. “Who.” She mused. “That's a damn good question.”
The door opened again and Brendan entered. “Mistress.” He said. “Sent the word out. Weather's cleared a bit, and some of the merchants were askin to set up again outside.”
“Tell them to wait until tomorrow to go outside the gates. They can set up in the courtyard today if they want.” Xena said. “In fact, let's get all the banners hung out.” She watched the flames. “Damn storm interrupted my harvest festival and I want it back.”
“Still have some ill doers around, Im' thinking.” Brendan said. “Not the ghostly ones, mind, the killable ones.”
The queen nodded. “I want to kill them. Let's.. “ She paused. “Let's use the break in the weather to get everyone outside, Brendan. Let's see if we can flush those bastards.”
“Mistress” Brendan nodded.
“Pretending to be afraid hasn't done squat.” Xena said. “Trying to coax them to me didn't work. Trying to smoke them out didn't work, until they got careless.” She said. “So let's see what ignoring them does. Make believe we got em all.”
“Maybe we did?” Gabrielle suggested.
“No.” The queen said. “There' s a small, strange one we haven't got yet. Who can walk unseen, and laughs. Who's got feet smaller than yours, and smells like spices from places farther away than Persia. We haven't found that one yet.”
“Sent by the Persian king?” Brendan asked. “We could ask Lakmas. Decent sort for one of em”
“Not... “ Xena paused. “I don't think it's from him. Not his style, and come to think of it, sneaking around and trying to pay off losers like Philtop isn't his style either.” She turned to face them, swirling the tea in her cup. “No, there's something still missing in this mess and I'm starting to think there's both more and less to it than we think.”
Brendan and Gabrielle studied her in respectful silence. Then Brendan cleared his throat. “Right, well, I'm off to get them all stirred. I'll let the men know the little rat we're looking for.” He swung his cloak around him and ducked through the door, letting in the sound of the soldiers outside.
Gabrielle followed him out, carrying her cup, her body still encased in the fabric undergarment she'd worn under her armor. It was light brown, and came to her knees, the sides laced up to where her bare arms emerged from it. “Good morning.” She greeted the men in the outer chamber.
It was odd, to have so many people in their quarters. The soldiers all scrambled to get out of her way as she headed to the door to the corridor, returning her greetings. Lakmas was the one nearest the entrance, and he opened it for her, bowing low as she ducked past.
Outside in the rotunda she could hear the sounds of the stronghold waking up, the clanks and bangs of the big doors being opened, and voices echoing softly up the main stairs. Barefoot, she got across the stone floor and peeked inside the alcove that had once been hers, startling Mali who was just washing her face. “Morning.”
“Oh! Your grace!” Mali hastily wiped the water out of her eyes.
“Xena's men are bringing up some breakfast, so I didn't want you to run downstairs for it.” Gabrielle said. “The storm is over.”
“It is?” Mali sounded very surprised.
“It is. So Xena wants the festival to go on again.” Gabrielle said. “So you can let the kitchens know later. We're going to have court, and they've opened the doors downstairs.”
Mali stared at her intently. “Okay I will get dressed and go downstairs.” She said. “Would your grace like anything sent to her majesty's viewing chamber?”
“Sure. Have them send a tray of goodies up.” Gabrielle smiled at her. “Xena loves that.” She lifted her tea mug in Mali's direction, then she turned and recrossed the hall, joining Jellaus as he came up the stairs. “Hello!”
“Ah, Gabrielle.” Jellaus smiled briefly at her. “Good morning.”
They went into the outer chamber together, where the men were putting things in order. Their attitude was brightening, and someone had pushed aside the chamber curtains to let the dawn light in.
There was a sense, of some trial passed, some dread left behind. Gabrielle wondered if it was just her perception, or if something real had passed them by.
“I would ask her majesty about court.” Jellaus said, as they crossed the room. “May I enter with you?”
Gabrielle pondered that. “Hang on.” She opened the inner door and poked her head in, then pushed it wider. “Sure, c'mon.” He followed her inside and they found Xena seated in the window alcove, her long legs extended across the cushion there as she regarded the brightening sky outside. “Hey.”
“You're back.” Xena observed. “And you brought company. Bad girl.”
Jellaus bowed. “I will stay but a moment, your majesty. I just wanted to ask if you had any special desires for your court. I have had all of the banners hung.”
“Nah.” Xena said. “Just make sure everyone's there.” She said. “And spread the word I want a big banquet tonight, the works.”
Jellaus nodded slightly. “You expect a celebration.”
Xena chuckled. “I expect nothing but trouble. But this time, I think I want to cause it.”
The minstrel bowed, and smiled, then he left.
Xena looked at Gabrielle. “Ready to get dressed and go hunting?”
“Can we have breakfast first?”
The queen chuckled again.
“What are we doing?” Gabrielle came over and sat down on the edge of the stone sill. “I told Mali to let the kitchen know about the festival.”
“Good.” Xena reached out and took her hand, clasping it with gentle confidence. “I'd tell you what we're gonna do if I knew what it was, my love. I've been playing a pointless chess game for days now.” She pondered that a moment. “A chess game I didn't even know the rules to.”
Slowly the queen nodded. “I”m in over my head.” She said, with surprising honesty. “So I'm just going to do what I feel like and see what happens next.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle frowned. “How is that different than what you usually do?”
Xena started chuckling soundlessly. “Good point.” She admitted.
Gabrielle was sure she looked as confused as she felt. “Okay.” She said. “So... is that like.. what is that? I don't really get it.”
Xena squeezed her hand. “Don't worry about it. I'm not entirely sure I get it either. Just go with me, huh?” She gazed affectionately at her. “Let's get our good togs on, and go play queen for a while. Maybe we'll get a surprise.”
“After breakfast, right?”
Now the queen laughed out loud. “Now I know you're feeling better.” She teased. “Glad to hear it.”
Her consort blushed mildly. “I”m really hungry.” She admitted. “I feel like I haven't eaten in a week.”
The sound of doors opening and voices added to the clatter of crockery announced the arrival of the food tray next door. They got up and went outside to join the soldiers, Xena's arm still draped over Gabrielle's shoulders.
They'd used Xena's desk as a table and it was covered in trays, the bright colors of freshly harvested things next to bowls of steaming things and pitchers. Four big loaves of bread were in the center of the desk and as she surveyed the bounty, Gabrielle felt her mouth water.
It was almost a little embarassing. She diffidently clasped her hands behind her back and waited, as two big chairs were quickly brought over so she and Xena could sit down.
It was strange, a little, this return to formality. Gabrielle went over to the desk and started assembling plates for them, picking the things she knew Xena liked while the queen took a seat in her throne and started giving orders. It all sounded very normal, and she saw the men relax as they listened.
She brought Xena's plate back and slipped it in front of her, adding a mug of morning ale to it. Then she went back and got her own, returning to take her place next to the queen and putting her plate on her lap before she selected a big slice of pear and took a bite of it.
“So what's the damage report?” Xena asked, busy with her own breakfast. “How'd the stables do?”
Gerard came forward consulting a bit of parchment. “The watch reported in just a little bit ago, Majesty. The roads are blocked with snow, but they were able to clear the front gates, and they've started a march of the walls.” He said. “There is much damage in the outer town. Many roofs are collapsed, and they have seen buzzards circling.”
Xena munched on a bit of bread and cheese. “Tell someone to hitch the biggest four horses we have up to a wagon. Let em make a path down to the river.”
“Majesty.” Brent touched his chest. “I know what you mean. I will get it done.” He trotted out of the room before she could answer and closed the door behind him.
“Brendan, tell the guard anyone who comes towards us, let em in. Soon as they get that road cleared, send a troop down it to see what they can do to help.”
“Aye.” Brendan nodded.
“Lakmas.” Xena turned her head towards the Persian. “So I was told that your king offered a sacrifice to your gods and they threw this storm at them. What do you think about that?”
Lakmas stepped forward, his solemn, bearded face moving into a frown. “Who said such?” He asked. “A sacrifice to the gods.. yes, that is usual for my people. When we go to war, when we want good luck. I am sure that yes, his Magificence of Persia would offer up a sacrifice for whatever his needs were.”
“Do your gods listen?” Xena indicated the window. “Would they bring bad weather?”
The Persian looked puzzled. “That is what I mean when I say, who said such? Sacrifices we give, yes. But sacrifices to bless our own acts, not to ask the gods to do something in our places. I could see a slave, a woman being given to the gods so that they might smile on his march against you.”
“It was so when we came across the waters to the port city.” Lakmas continued. “We came to the temple, all of us, and bowed our heads and the king offered up three sacrifices on the altar, to ensure good fortune for his daughter's virgin leading of the battle.
Xena eyed him. “Didn't work out that well.”
“No.” Lakmas didn't seem upset about it. “Men of war, as I am, and also yourself, know that no matter the gods watching over it's the hands in the fight that matter.” He held his out, big and powerful, crossed with scars. “So I find it very strange, yes, very strange that someone would have told your majesty this storm was brought by our gods. After all, what do they know of this cold?”
“And of course.” Lakmas said, almost as an afterthought. “What honor would there be in having another, even a god, win one's battle for them?” He nodded a little. “Was it not this that allowed us to be taken captive by you with our own honor intact? You ask for none to fight for you. The little princess – she thought to be that way but her heart wasn't up to the task of it.”
Ah heh. Xena glanced to her right, where she found Gabrielle looking at her with that adorable crap hitting the ox's whisking tail expression. “Interesting.” She peeled a boiled egg and bit into it, quite pleased to find the yolk soft and gooey. “Very interesting.”
Lakmas bowed. “I am, as always, glad to be of service to you, Majesty.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle leaned very close to her. “Did things just get better or worse?”
The queen popped the rest of the egg into her mouth and chewed it. “Let me get back to you on that.”
Gabrielle sighed. “I”m going to get another plate.”
The sun had risen over the walls by the time they arrived in Xena's big audience chamber and it was pouring in the windows, bringing a touch of warm grace to a room more usually known for it's dour gloom.
The chamber was full and there was a sense of excitement in the air. Xena stood quietly just inside the side entrance, taking a moment to appreciate the bright colors and the unexpected beauty of the space. It was still a bit cold, but it was a brisk cold rather than a chilling one, and against the far wall the big hearth was stoked and a pairs of her soldiers were standing guard in various places.
She twitched her robes a little straighter, her sword in it's sheath tucked neatly into the crook of her arm as she judged the mood and waited to make her entrance. Behind her, Gabrielle was also waiting, looking gravely dignified in her own crimson robe with it's silver trim. “Ready?”
“Me?” Her consort looked up. “Sure.”
The sun peeked into their hiding spot and draped over Gabrielle's body, highlighting her golden hair. Xena reached over and gently ran her fingers through it, then she leaned to one side and kissed her on the lips. “Today's gonna be a day.” She said. “So let's get it started.”
The soldier banged his spear, Jellaus announced her presence, and then Xena moved from the door way with Gabrielle at her heels and glided through the crowd, passing from the shadows of the columns into the pools of sunlight from the window.
She climbed up the marble stairs to the dias where her throne rested, and went to it, turning and waiting for Gabrielle to come up next to her. “Sit.” She indicated the smaller chair they'd put at the throne's side.
Gabrielle sat, then Xena turned and took her seat, letting her sword rest across her knees. She paused for a moment and studied her audience, scanning the faces attentively waiting for her to speak. “Good morning.”
Duke Eldaron stepped forward. “Your majesty.” He said. “Last night, you asked something of us.”
“I did.” Xena agreed.
Duke Lastay, dressed nattily in his family colors, his sword belted at his waist, walked up the steps and approached her throne, bowing to her, and then taking up a spot just behind the throne, his hand resting on one finely carved spindles on the back.
He didn't say anything, and apparently felt he didn't need to, the motion itself laying his choice out plainly enough. Xena glanced at him and smiled, then turned and re focused her attention on Eldaron. “Yeees?”
Eldaron clasped his hands together. “Majesty, many terrible events have occurred in the past few days. It grieves me deeply that we have lost friends, have taken damage to our land and have had our harvest festival so grossly interrupted.”
“Me too.” The queen nodded. “I love a good party.”
“There was a thought, your majesty, that there were some among us that plotted in some way to find another to take your place on the throne of this land.” Eldaron said. “I spent many hours looking for the root of this thought, and in long deliberation with my fellow lords because I will say to you, Xena, it came from none of us.”
The sound of her name, so bare of adornnment, made Xena smile again.. “I see.” She cleared her throat. “As it happens, I found my usurper myself.” She sniffed reflectively. “He found me, really.”
An almost vislble jerk of surprise went around the room.
“Speaking for my peers, we wish no other leader.” Eldaron said, forging ahead. “I cannot pretend to you that what has happened here these last days hasn't frightened all of us, but we are content to stay the course.”
Xena studied him, then swept the room with her gaze. To her surprise, most of the eyes looking back at her didn't shift, or look away, or down. They stayed fixed on her, for once quiet, for once without the visible dislike she'd come to expect from them.
How real was that?
How real was anything today?
“So, as you asked us, that is what we say.” Eldaron said, after a moments silence. “Your majesty.” He added, after the quiet went on long enough to become uncomfortable.
“Thank you.” Xena said. “I know I've been a pain in your collective asses for years now, but I've tried to gut more of our collective enemies than you all when all's said and done.”
Eldaron grimaced wryly. “Majesty.” He said. “While often your style... ah... “
“I”m a homicidal maniac.” Xena encouraged him. “Gwan. We all know it's true.”
He paused. “Yes, but you're our homicidal maniac, Majesty. It makes all the difference to us, really..”
A startled, chilled silence fell after the words stopped echoing, and even Eldaron blanched, realizing what he'd said.
Then Xena started to laugh. The light, musical sound rang out against the walls with surprising clarity, and she applauded in Eldaron's direction. “Nice!”
Hesitantly, he smiled back, and gave a little bow.
Xena let her laughter wind down, then she cleared her throat. “All right people.” She let her elbows rest on her throne arms. “A lot of crazy things have happened over the past few days. I'm not really sure how much of it was planned, how much of it was coincidence, and how much of it was just the random crap that seems to happen to me.”
She got up and handed her sword to Gabrielle, who gripped it with a startled look. “One thing I think we figured out is just how much someone wants those lands between the port city and the pass. They want them enough to kill people for them, and wreck the archives which prove out all the land grants for the rest of you.”
A low murmur started. “So it is true then, that Bresius is dead?” Eldaron asked. “And your chamber... destroyed?”
“Yes.” Xena said, briefly. “The archivist is locked in my bedroom recreating the grants. So don't worry about that part of it especially since I didn't end up croaking last night and leaving you all in chaos.”
Eldaron put his hands on his hips. “But who has done this?” He looked around at the rest of the nobles, who were also looking around at each other. “None here would have any reason to do that.”
Xena crossed her ankles, debating with herself on how honest to be. Then she half shrugged. “I'm thinking that someone didn't want Bresius to get those lands. Matter of fact, a lot of you didn't, or so you said.”
She suddenly smelled the fear, and it made her briefly grin. “So I have to wonder what's so interesting about that dirt that makes someone risk what they risked in my chambers last night.” She studied them. “Bresius died. His seneschal died. And a man none of us knew died, who had some very interesting scars on his back.”
Her ears twitched, listening hard. She open her lips a trifle, sucking in the air with that stench of fear on it.
Not from Eldaron though, he spread his hands out, his body language only bewildered, not wary. “Majesty. We warned you not to trust him because we knew so little of him. Now it seems he has brought misfortune, and has died. Were we not right to be wary?”
“Depends why he died.” Xena said. “Before you ask, nope, wasn't me.” She studied the group “While I'm getting all of this off my chest, I didn't whack Philtop either.” She added casually. “So you know, maybe I'm not the only homicidal maniac around here.”
The nobles all looked at each other, and even Lastay craned his head around to gaze at Xena. “But, you let us think you had.” The duke said, after a pause.
“I did.” The queen agreed. “Because I would have killed him if I'd found him dressed as a thief in my bedroom. But someone got to him before I did.”
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I think her Majesty didn't want people freaking out more than they already were.” She suggested, in a diffident tone. “Xena.' She turned to the queen. “Do you think he was after those grants?”
Xena lifted both hands and opened them fully. “What the Hades good would they have done to him , or anyone else unless I croaked?” She asked. “Those parchments don't give the land, I do.” Her tone was exasperated. She gestured at Lastay. “Or my successor will.”
Lastay's face twitched. “Hopefully, my liege, that will be left to my son. I have no wish to do it myself.”
Xena eyed him “If you think I”m sitting on this chair until your kid's a man you've got sea sponge for brains.” She muttered. “So.” She turned her attention back to the crowd. “Who's going to cough up what the big deal is about that land between the pass and the city?”
Everyone was silent, and the nobles looked at each other uneasily.
“Someone knows. I can smell someone about crapping their breeches.” The queen said.
But the silence lengthened.
Gabrielle leaned on the arm of Xena's throne. “Could they have been looking for something else in there besides those things?” She wondered. “Maybe it's still there.”
Xena was watching the nobles from the corner of her eye, with the rest of it fastened on her consorts adorable face. She didn't see any of them flinch, and she watched carefully for that and for the inadvertent look towards her chambers.
“Maybe.” She mused. “We'll have to go look.” She returned her attention to the crowd. “In the meantime, looks like the weather's cleared up, so I want our festival to get back on track. Everyone get your party shoes on and start dancing.”
After a moment, the nobles all relaxed and some smiled.
“Tell those circus people to get ready, and make sure the merchants have space in the courtyard.” Xena went on. “And tonight, there'll be a feast in the big hall. Got it?”
Eldron bowed. “Majesty, it will be a pleasure.”
The queen lifted her hands and made a shooing gesture, as the nobles stirred and started to leave, not without forming little groups whose heads were bent close in soft chatter. Xena sat relaxed in her throne, leaning on the arm closest to Gabrielle as she watched them go.
At last they, and Lastay, and Brendan were the only ones left.
“Know what I wish?” Xena said, after the echoes of their footsteps faded.
“What?” Gabrielle asked.
“I wish I knew what the Hades was going on.” The queen lamented. “I feel like one of those damn puppets they were messing with. Someone else pulling the strings.” She turned her head and gazed at her consort “Got any clues?”
Gabrielle soberly shook her head. “Should we go look for something in that room?” She asked. “Maybe they missed something.” She leaned against Xena's shoulder. “I'm glad they all said they liked you.”
“They didn't say that.” Xena immediately objected. “They said they couldn't find anyone to take my place right now. Not the same thing.” She leaned her head over and bit Gabrielle's earlobe gently. “But yeah, I'm glad they said it too.” She uttered softly. “Wasn't going to be a good morning otherwise.”
Gabrielle remained silent for a moment. “Would you have let them do that?”
“What do you think?”
“I don't think so.”
Xena smiled. “I would have started gutting people.” She remarked conversationally. “That's what I mean, woudln't have been a good morning. Now we can go clue hunting without me having to wash the blood off my hands first.” She wiggled her fingertips.
The queen tipped her head back and regarded Lastay. “Thanks for the vote of confidence by the way.”
The duke grinned, a bit rakishly. “I do believe I have started to become quite the risk taker as my years increase. You have been an influence on me in that regard.”
“Me too.” Gabrielle agreed.
Xena looked at both of them then rolled her eyes. “You're both in a crapload of trouble if you're looking to me for inspiration.” She got up and stretched. “Let's go look at that damn chamber. Maybe Gabrielle was right and they were looking for something other than those grants.”
They left using the back door, and went down the steps to the rotunda which was now lit from the sunlight coming in the open castle doors. A fresh, cold breeze blew through, fluttering the tapestries and the soldiers on guard braced to attention as they passed.
Xena could hear a buzz of activity outside, and she cocked her ears to listen, detecting the flap of tent fabric on the breeze and the sound of livestock moving. She nodded a little in approval and led the way up the shorter steps to her quarters, where there were yet more guards standing staunchly on either side of the entrance. “Open er up.”
One of the men quickly unlatched the door and got it open in time for her to walk through and she did, going to the center of the space and pausing to look all around.
It was a big chamber, this outer one she used now for small private audiences and as living space. They had removed the bodies, and someone had cleaned the floor, and thrown the windows open to air the room out. She could smell the sharp scent of soap and water from outside and she took a breath of it, finding nothing on the wind that didn't belong there.
That, she realized, was new. She'd been aware, maybe even under her conscious awareness, that something had been off for the past few days, some scent, some half memory that had been bugging her. Now it was gone.
She started to prowl around the room. “Turn over everything and look everywhere. “She instructed. “Look for cracks in the wall, or places some rat might hide.”
Lastay removed his cape and draped it over a chair then he went to the far side of the room and started examining the wall, while Gabrielle went over to the big desk she often sat at to write Xena's missives and began searching through it.
Xena watched them briefly, then she selected a bit of wall and went to it, shoving aside the drapery that covered it to peer at the raw stone. It was clean, she was mildly surprised to note, not a hint of dust or dirt on it. She ran her hand over the stone, feeling the chisled edges bite gently at her skin.
This was the outside wall of the chamber. There could be no hidden passenges in it, right? Xena went over to the window and stepped up onto the sill, balancing on one foot on the narrow space as she regarded the wall the window was set into.
Single blocks of granite, locally cut stone from the mountains around them. The blocks were heavy and very well set, the edges flush and carefully grouted with a finely ground sand mixed with wax. Someone had taken care when they built this place, and that got Xena to thinking again.
The queen, still balanced on one leg, turned to regard the speaker. “Hmm?”
Gabrielle was seated behind the big desk, one that the queen remembered having been in the castle when she took it over. She was looking closely at something on the surface, and now she looked up. “Could you come see this?”
Xena hopped off her perch and scooted over to the desk, sweeping around it and joining her consort. “Yeess?” She knelt at her side and studied the wood .”What am I looking at?”
“Well, see.” Gabrielle got down with her head near Xena's. “See how thick this top is? It's as thick as my head.”
Xena gave her a sideway glance and muffled a grin.
“But” Gabrielle touched the front of the furniture. “Why is it? There's no drawer here or anything.”
The queen rested her elbow on her knee, and regarded the desk. Then she ducked her head and looked underneath. “Maybe its... no, it isn't.” She said. “Bottom's flush here.” She leaned back again. “Huh.”
Experimentally, Gabrielle rapped on the top, but it merely sounded a hollowish thump. “Do you think something's in there?”
“Can't be that easy.” Xena shook her head. “Let's look everywhere else.” She stood up and walked around the desk though, putting her fingertips on the edge and seeing if any part of it would lift up. It seemed as solid as it looked though, and she regretfully moved on to the large wooden credenza that held the minutiae of leadership she used on a daily basis.
Gabrielle tapped her fingertips on the top of the desk and studied it for a minute, then she equally regretfully got up and started searching the long, low bench that went along the wall leading to their sleeping chamber.
The bench had a padded seat of tufted fabric and it smelled a little musty as she eased along it's length and searched for... well, whatever she was searching for. Experimentally she pulled on the cushion to see what was under it, surprised to find it fastened to the top of the bench.
With a frown, she sat down cross-legged on the stone floor and peered at the cushion. Why would someone attach it to the bench? With a soft grunt, she got up and went over to the desk, selecting the slim dagger Xena kept there to open scroll and make mild threats with and brought it back over with her, sitting back down with it and poking at the fabric.
“Whatcha doing?” Xena's voice nearly made her levitate off the floor.
“Yow!” Gabrielle turned to find her beloved peering over her shoulder, having approached in silence. “I was just wondering.” She made the cut a little bigger. “Why they stuck this soft part to the wood?”
Xena reached out and tugged on it, one dark brow hiking and the other dipping lower. Then she stood up and got a good grip on the cushion, tightening her hands and making the fabric squeak. “Stand back in case this thing's got spider's in it.”
Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and got behind her. “Okay.”
The queen took a breath and then yanked backwards with all her strength, expecting the cushion to come ripping off the surface. Instead, with a startlingly loud crack, the top of the bench lifted up and split in half, part of it coming loose in Xena's hands and nearly sending the queen flying backwards.
“Yow!” Gabrielle repeated, jumping out of the way.
“What the..” Xena yanked the wood loose and tossed it from her, stepping forward to look down into the now visible hollow of the bench. It was mostly empty, but she saw the edge of something near the end, still covered with the wood. Turning sideways, she kicked the remaining part free and it flipped over the side to clatter on the stone. “Huh.”
“Huh?” Gabrielle put her hands on Xena's hips and poked her head around the the queen's side to have a look. “It's a box.”
Lastay came over and joined them. “Ah hem.” He sniffed. “Got the old king's crest there. Want me to bring it up for a look, Mistress?”
Xena took the dagger that Gabrielle was still holding in one hand and leaned over the bench, poking the blade down and jabbing the wooden surface with it. “No sense taking chances.” She said. “Every damn wood box I've seen in the last quarter moon's had an asp in it.”
“Be only bones of one in that eh?” Lastay suggested.
The queen poked a few more times at it, then she used the blade to slide the box along the wooden inside of the bench towards her, hearing the faintest popping sound that made her lunge back, grabbing Gabrielle and Lastay and yanking them backwards violently.
She dove for the floor and took them with her, her senses prickling as something flew over her head and landed nearby.
“Mistress!” Lastay grunted. “What's the problem?”
“Stay still, both of you.” Xena ordered, lifting her head cautiously. She looked carefully around, and spotted the projectile, lifting her body over Gabrielle's to put her between the device and her consort. “Dart.” She inspected it warily, reaching out with the dagger to move it over.
“Bigods.” Lastay had crawled around to see. “How long was that in there? Is it new?”
Xena picked up the dart and brought it closer to her, sniffing it cautiously. The small barb smelt musty, but no more, and she squinted at it, seeing a thick coating of dust covering the surface. “Don't think it's recent.” She said. “I probably triggered it moving that damn box.”
Slowly she eased back towards the bench, holding the dagger out in front of her as she lifted her body up and peered inside. The box was where she'd left it, but now on the back wall of the bench she could see several small holes that it had been obscuring. “Gabrielle?”
“Right here.” Gabrielle's shoulder bumped her hip.
“Get me a boot.” Xena said. “I want to block those holes back up. I don't trust that only one dart was in there.”
Gabrielle sat down at once and tugged at the laces on her left boot, stripping it off her foot and handing it to her lover. “Here you go.”
Xena was watching her. “It didn't have to be your boot.” She commented mildly, but took the offered item and eased to one side, carefully dropping it into place in front of the holes.
No sooner had she done so, then four more soft pops were heard, and four more tiny black darts were now stuck in the leather of Gabrielle's footwear.
'Mistress.” Lastay pondered the boot. “Do you have an oracle's eye?”
Xena snorted softly and reached inside again, stabbing the box with her dagger and piercing the lid. “Back off, both of you. I”m gonna pull it out.” She waited for them to draw back, then she yanked her arm up and over, pulling the dagger and the box with it to clatter onto the stone floor by her side.
Everyone stared at it in silence for a minute, then Xena jerked the knife free, and studied the enclosure. It was a finely made box, with inlaid wood in the top forming the crest, an iron handles on the ends to carry it with. Now, of course, the top was also graced with a narrow split hole.
“It's pretty.” Gabrielle finally said.
“Aye.” Lastay agreed. “Had a fine woodworker here in the old times. I remember seeing work like that in some of the older holdings .. had a tiny bit of it in the place my family took over when you came to rights here.”
'It's not as nice as Xena's though.” Gabrielle concluded. “See that part there? Not all the way even.” She pointed at one corner. “Xenas's is perfect.” She looked up, to find mildly amused blue eyes looking back at her. “Well, it is.”
“Hm.” Xena braced the box against her foot and inserted the tip of the dagger into the lock hole, rotating it with consummate skill until the lock popped.. She tipped the hasp up, and eased the box lid open, her free hand up and ready to deal with anything flying out of it.
Nothing did. After a cautious moment, she peered inside, then let her hand drop. “Huh.”
Gabrielle's head pressed against her shoulder. “What is it?”
Xena reached inside and lifted out the contents, a much folded and dusty piece of parchment. She turned and put it on the ground for them to see, opening it up and spreading it out in the light coming in the window.
“Is that a map?” Lastay leaned closer, putting his han don one hand a flattening it. “It is.”
“It is.” Xena agreed.
“Wow.” Gabrielle squirmed over and stared at it. “Is it... isn't that here?” She pointed at the left side of the parchment. “It sort of looks like this place.”
“Without the outer guard tower, and the town. Yeah.” Xena scanned the map, catching details that immediately pricked her interests. “That's the road we took to the port city.” She indicated a wiggly line that went between what was drawn in as hills and the far edge, which had a tiny town where she knew the city now stood. “This is from a long time ago.”
“What's that, Mistress?” Lastay pointed at sigils scribbled in the area between the town and the hills.
What was that? Xena studied the grid, seeing an almost wiped out line that went in and out of the bends of the slops, stopping at regular intervals which were marked with a tiny cross, and a circle quartered in four with glyphs in each section. The line then wound it's way down out of the hills to the north of the town, past a drawn in escarpment to a squiggle she reasoned was the edge of the sea.
There was a box drawn in there, and a very crudely drawn picture of what might have been a ship. She squinted again, seeing on the faint line tiny offshoots that seemed to be arrows.
Arrows. Pointing from what looked like a ship, to places in the hills.
Bringing something from a ship, to places on land, and hiding it.
Xena's eyes went unfocused a little, as she jogged her memory. “Gabrielle. You remember that village.. the one we found the raiders burning? That first one? With the kids?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle answered in a quiet tone. “That one I never forgot.”
“Remember what was in that cave, with them?”
Her consort pondered the question. “No, not really.. I just remember those kids, and that … oh, wait.” She said. “There was a chest there. You sent it back with them.”
“A chest full of gold chains and coins.” Xena said. “That I completely forgot to follow up on when I got back here in order to find out where the Hades it came from, and why they had it.” She sat up straigh and looked at them. “Why a village in the back end of the woods had a half a king's ransom hidden in a cave behind their middens.”
Lastay stared at her. “A treasure?” He said. “Is this what... this?” He pointed at the map. “This is what they were looking for?”
“Son of a bitch.” The queen stared at the parchment. “Maybe I could use a ransom.”
“Majesty?” Lastay gave her a puzzled look.
“Maybe.” She looked at Gabrielle. “And you even know where one of these damn caves is.”
Continued in Part 12