A Queen for All Seasons
Gabrielle spread the old map out on the top of the desk, examining it closely. She'd never seen a treasure map before, though she'd heard of them in stories. The markings on it fascinated her, and she had plenty of time now to pour over it.
Plenty of time, because Xena had ordered their quarters closed and guarded, and she herself was over by the fire in quiet consultation with Brent. She'd changed out of her fancy gown into her house armor, but she still had her soft indoor boots on to combat the chill of the rock floor.
She had ordered Brendan to leak out the news that she'd found an ancient map. Gabrielle wasn't sure if that would stop people from trying to get in or make them want to get in more, and she wasn't really sure which of those was what Xena was after, but she was content to ponder the piece of parchment before her, and imagine what stories were behind it.
Gabrielle looked up to find both her lover and Brent looking at her. “Yes?”
“Can you make a copy of that thing?” The queen asked. “Just in case.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle trotted through the door to their inner chamber, and into her little room behind it, picking up her parchment and quill case and slinging it over her shoulder. She paused, as she heard music coming in the window and detoured over to the sill to peer out.
The sun drenching the courtyard was so welcome. She smiled into it, grateful for it's warmth and light after the terror of the storm, and if she stood on her toes she could see the circus players out in the yard, practicing.
Maybe it was going to be all right. She turned from the window and trotted back into the outer chamber, seeing Xena half standing as though she was about to come after her.
Was she? “Got it.” She held up her case. “I was just looking outside. It's so pretty.”
“Hmph.” Xena sat back down.
Gabrielle went to the desk and pulled out some parchment and quills, setting up her workspace with studious care. She sharpened the edge of the quill on the stone fastened to the case's edge, and opened her wax sealed pot of ink to draw with. After a moment, she sensed eyes on her and looked up, to find Xena watching her with a look of gentle affection.
It made her want to melt. She really hoped everything would all work out now and she and Xena could get back to their lives that she was just really starting to enjoy. She had so many things she wanted to do in the winter months, and she crossed her fingers that the bad things would stop happening so she could get to doing them.
She was sure Xena had a plan, sure that the queen would know what to say to the God of War, and that after today they'd be able to relax and get on with their lives.
Really. She was sure of it. She smiled at Xena and was rewarded with a smile in return, then she settled down to her work and started to carefully trace the outline of the map. Xena always had a plan, and even when she didn't, she could make one up so fast it didn't matter.
“So Xena.” Brent was examining the box. “This is definitely from my grandfather's reign.” He rubbed a thumb over the joining. “But I don't really understand – you said the map indicated something brought from a ship and hidden in the hills?”
The queen nodded. “I think that more of what we found in that village is tucked away up there, and that's why there was such an uproar when I gave out the land grants. Can you imagine Bresius digging for mushrooms in his new patch and finding enough gold to buy this whole damn stronghold?”
“Huh.” Brent shook his head. “Would have been a tangle, for sure, but.. you know, majesty, I don't remember ever hearing anything about this. I would have expected my grandfather to have gone out and recovered this, if he'd known of it.”
'Well, I sure as Hades would have.” The queen remarked. “Is it possible this came before his time? She got up and motioned Brent over. “See, look at this stronghold. It's missing a lot.”
They bent over the parchment, keeping out of Gabrielle's way as she patiently copied it.
“See, the whole forecourt isn't there, or the outer town.” Xena touched it with her finger. “So how long ago did that happen?”
Brent shook his head. “I don't know. It's been there as long as I've known it.”
“Damn.” Xena knocked her knuckles against the desk. “So we need to find some oldsters around who might remember and might be willing to tell me about it.”
“Hey Gabrielle?” The queen cocked her head and regarded her consort.
“When I came here there were all those hangings on the wall.” Gabrielle was busy with a sketch of the stronghold. “I thought one of them might have had something like ths on them. You remember?”
The silence went on long enough for her to look up. Both Brent and Xena were staring at her, jaws slightly dropped. “Well, it did.” She repeated, slightly hesitantly. “I mean, maybe someone saw it after we took it down?”
“When we took it down.” Xena repeated slowly. “When we took it down.”
She thought about that, trying to remember... ah. Yes. She could hear the echo of Gabrielle's voice, overseeing the removal of the old rags and the raising of the new ones. She could smell the scent of the fresh dye in the back of her mind.
“Before I went out on campaign, when everything started to go crazy.” She turned to Brent. “Go see where that ended up. I'd ask someone who knew but that someone's dead.”
“Stanislaus.” Xena agreed. “Find out where those old hangings went to.” She perched on the desk and folded her arms over her chest. “ I've been trying to figure out why the Hades the Persians came here.”
“For you, mistress?” Brent said, in a mild tone. “I remember in her camp, yah?”
Xena wrinkled up her nose. “I remember.” She said. “However. That would be gratifying to my ego, but I don't think the guy in charge out there would risk his kid and all those soldiers just for me.” She added. “But maybe he would if Bregos told him about treasure.”
Brent grunted. “Or maybe the princess used that to entice her father into funding this. It seems to me that her interest, no offense, was in yourself.” .
“I think so too.” Gabrielle spoke up.
“You were jealous of her.” Xena pointed out, dryly. “So of course you though that.”
Gabrielle blushed a little “That's true, but I still think she was more interested in you than in some old gold coins.” She responded, tapping the edge of the quill against her chin. “I don't think she cared about treasure at all.”
“I”ll go find out about the hangings.” Brent got up and dusted his hands off
“Bring Lakmas back when you do.” Xena said. “Let's see what he knows about why he was here.”
“Will do, Mistress.” Brent headed out, stepping back to let Brendan come in his place.
The old soldier came in and took up a seat on one of the small stools next to the desk. “Word's spread, Mistress.” He rested his elbows on his knees. “Now's to see what comes of it.”
“Indeed.” Xena stood up and walked around, swinging her arms. “It's going to go two ways. Either someone will shed blood to get in here to get at it, or no one will because they're scared pissless I'm going to kill them.”
The room went silent save the faint scratching of Gabrielle's quill. Then that stopped. “Wouldn't they be scared of that either way?” Her consort asked. “I mean, about you killing them?”
Xena turned and faced her, planting her hands on her hips. “You'd think.” She said. “But now that they all know I know what it is, maybe they'll give up trying to get it and go away.” She walked over to the desk and studied the map. “And yet, this really doesn't tell anyone exactly where it is. Just marks in the hills.”
Brendan joined her in looking. “Well it does a bit.” He said. “See, it's drawn like you'd see if you were standing in the pass, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Xena mused.
“So it's counting, four hills, and two, with a space between em.” Brendan put his finger on the map. “Remember that, Xena? We passed it by. Them hills with that big gap what the river came down from.”
“Do I remember that?” The queen wondered. “Or have I gone completely senile?”
“I think you were busy beating the Persians when we went by there.” Gabrielle suggested. “You were pretty busy.” She went back to copying the parchment. “I dont' remember the hills, but I think I was pretty busy too.” She touched the map with her quill. “I think that's where the Persian army was camping, when we stayed with them.”
“Aye, yes.” Brendan agreed. “We had to cross the river there to get to the city, s'why I remember it.” He traced a path up the river. “Ford here, then cross over into them little hills there.”
Gabrielle nodded. “If you go up to the head of that river, and fork to the right, that's the path to where I'm from. So the cave's up on the slopes there, above the river.”
Xena drummed her fingers. “We could go there.” She suggested.
“Tomorrow?” Gabrielle was watching her face.
Xena smiled. “Tomorrow.” She said. “Brendan, we'll put together a force to go out there and see what this cave really has in it.”
Brendan nodded. “Aye.” He said. “Weather's better now, it'l lbe a good ride.” He rubbed his hands together. “If'n that was the cause of all this kick up, Mistress, taking it in and getting it under guard's a fine thing.”
“Yes, it will.” Xena went back to her audience chair, draped in a thick fur, and dropped into it slinging one leg over the arm of it and leaning back. “So we have the banquets planned? Let's get some grub on for everyone who was trapped in this damn place the last couple days and do it right.”
“Kitchens are working on it.” Brendan said. “I've got the men cleaning up t'mess from the storm. Good to be out in the fresh air.”
Xena rolled her head around to look at her consort. “Want to go out in the fresh air?” She inquired. “Take the runt and Tiger out for a ride?”
Gabrielle perked up visibly. “I”m almost done with this.” She indicated the parchment. “Can we take a picnic?”
“Sure.” The queen agreed. “I'd love to do that.”
“Great!” Her consort settled back to work, not without a happy wriggle.
Xena's smile turned pensive, then she let her head rest on the chair back and watched the low flames in the fireplace.
It was a beautiful day outside. Gabrielle had her cloak tossed over her shoulders, it's ends draping down over Patches sides as he trotted amiably along the path next to Tiger. The sun had come out and dried off most of the mud and the brisk, cold breeze was more fun than freezing.
Patches had a double saddlebag on that had their lunch on it, and aside from the damage from the storm, it had been a great ride so far.
Xena had on her armor and her thick cloak which was draped over her sword on her back. She had her warm gauntlets on and she seemed to be enjoying the day, smiling a little to herself.
They were headed to the small grove of trees just outside the stronghold walls, up on a rise a little, that had a tiny spring and fallen trunks perfect for sitting down on.
“Hey Gabrielle?” The queen glanced back at her. “Is that runt bouncing you around too much?”
“Not at all.” Gabrielle stroked Patches neck. “I'm really glad they didn't get hurt in the stable. That crushed in part looked really scary.”
“Me too.” Xena readily agreed. “I'd hate to have had something happen to this big bastard after everything he's been through lately with me.” She tugged fondly at her stallion's mane. “He's a good boy.”
“They really have been through a lot, huh?” Gabrielle said. “I think we've been through a lot too.”
“No kidding. I've had more crap happen to me in the last year than in the previous ten.” Xena remarked. “I think it's your fault.”
“Mm. You think I'm amazing so I have to go prove it and there you go. Instant crap.” The queen sighed mournfully. “Before you showed up I was a boring old wine head that never had anything happen to them.”
They rode along in silence for a moment. Then Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I'd rather have you be amazing and have things happen than be a boring anything.”
Xena laughed gently, a touch of chagrin in the sound. “Yeah, me too.” She admitted. “You should live life, Gabrielle. Otherwise it's just existence. I was going nowhere until you showed up. Now I'm usually on a road down to the Styx but it's more fun.”
The glade was soggy, and there were pockets of snow in the hollows between the trees. Two of the taller ones had also been blown down, and the center of the area was full of branches and leaves and debris. Xena dismounted and tossed her cloak over her back, striding forward to deal with this impediment to their comfort.
Gabrielle got down a little more slowly, patting Patches on his shaggy shoulder and giving him a hug. The pony turned and peered at her, giving an uncanny impression that he was winking.
She gave him a kiss on the nose. “I'm glad you didn't get hurt, Patches.” She whispered into his ear. “But I'm really, really sure if anything ever does happen to you, that you're going to end up in Elysia.” She took hold of his reins and followed Xena into the glade, watching in bemusement as the queen hauled limbs out of their way.
That was one of the things she loved the most about Xena. Even though she was the queen, and she could have had any number of soldiers and servants with them to move things out of her way and spread out a nice place for her to sit, she didn't.
“All right.” Xena surveyed her results, removing her cloak and spreading it out over one of the thick fallen trunks. Then she sat herself down and crooked her finger at Gabrielle. “Bring the lunch, my love.”
My love. Gabrielle smiled and came over, laying the thick saddlebags with their burden of goodies down over the trunk before she took a seat on it next to Xena. The thought occurred to her that their love was a pretty cool and amazing thing. “Okay let's see what we've got.”
“Don't you know what we've got??” Xena eyed her. “You didn't let some kitchen scrunge pack that did you?”
“Just asking.” Xena extended her long legs and crossed them at the ankles, leaning back on her hands. She took a deep breath of the cold air and relaxed a little, enjoying the silence around her.
Or well, not really silence. She could hear the leaves and branches whispering and the soft crunch of snow falling off them as they swayed in the breeze. She could also hear the quiet movements of Gabrielle removing treats from her sacks and her consorts steady, even breathing.
But there were no other people around, and she felt a sense of peace in the knowledge that at this moment, she didn't need to watch over her shoulder or suspect the motives of everyone around her. “Glad it stopped storming.” She commented quietly. “Damn weather.”
“Here, I made this from the first roast.” Gabrielle handed her over a half loaf stuffed with slices of meat. “It's still warm.”
It was. Xena took a big bite out of it, chewing contentedly as she watched Tiger and Patches nose around the snow covered ground, finding some grass that hadn't been killed yet by the cold and cropping it. “So.”
“So.” Gabrielle was nibbling on her own sandwich.
“What do you think about that map?”
Gabrielle chewed for a while as she thought about that. “I think it's sort of cool. Like a pirate treasure map.” She said. 'Do you think it's real? That there's really stuff out there?”
“We know there is.” Xena took a swig from her wineskin, which currently was actually a ciderskin. “We saw it in that cave. I just wish I'd remembered that when we got back. Damn it. Brendan couldn't find any of those kids to ask them where it came from.”
“Well, we had a lot of stuff happen to us after that.” Gabrielle said. “I mean, with the army, and the other army, and the port city, and you beating everyone up and all that. I didn't even remember seeing that cave until you reminded me of it.” She said. “What are you going to do with all of it?”
Xena took another bite. “I thought I was going to see if I could offer it to Lakmas's gods to get them off my back.” She said. “I'm just not sure I'm going to get the chance.”
A little silence fell. “What does that mean?”
“Ares is going to be back tonight.” The queen said. “I don't know what's going to happen after that.”
“But whatever happens, I want you with me.” Xena added, unexpectedly. “I want you to stick with me when I go up there and meet him, Gabrielle.” She studied the woman sitting next to her. “You'll do that for me right?”
Her consort stopped chewing and stared at her. Then she hastily swallowed. “Sure!” She said. “Of course I will, Xena!”
The queen smiled briefly, and went back to her sandwich. “I want you there.” She repeated, in a quieter tone. “It'll probably be scary like it was last night.”
Gabrielle nodded. She thought she probably should be afraid about that, but she wasn't. “If we end up fighting I'll do the best I can.” She promised. “But it's kind of like those guys that went with us to Sholeh's army, Xena.”
“The guys who went with us.” Her consort repeated. “They knew bad things were going to happen but they didn't care. So I don't care. They just wanted to be with you and whatever happened to you it was okay if it happened to them too. That's how I feel.”
Xena thought about that for a while as they worked their way through their lunch, there in their slightly desolate clearing, with snow on the ground and down trees all around them. She wondered, briefly, if she deserved that kind of idiotic devotion. “I don't know why people do that.”
“Because you'd do the same for us.”
And that, actually, was true. “Hm.”
Gabrielle took her hand, lifting it and kissing the back and then the palm. “Let's really enjoy today, Xena. I can't wait to see the circus again.”
Xena leaned over and returned the kiss, on her lips. “All right.” She said. “Let's have the best day ever. Then whatever happens, happens.” She eyed Gabrielle. “Got any nutbread in there?”
The courtyard was full of excitement and color and people by the time they got back. The big space had been cleared of snow and debris, and the merchants were setting up their wagons, looking relieved and happy as they rubbed their hands in the cold air.
Xena and Gabrielle rode together through the open gates at a placid walk, turning their heads to regard the scene as they made their way through the market now being re-established in front of them.
“Your majesty!” One of them called, waving a hand. “Many thanks for your protection from the weather!”
A chorus rose up, as they spotted the tall, dark haired rider in their midst. Xena lifted a gauntleted hand in response, slowing Tiger so she could see all the preparations in progress. “There are your buddies.” She indicated the circus performers, who were out near the wall, bouncing like balls, apparently very glad to be out in the sun. “Gwan and see how they're doing.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle turned Patches head and tightened her knees. The pony amiably broke into an amble and they crossed the inner yard, arriving next to the circus performers as they started tossing around a ball. “Hey there.”
“Oh!” Zev spotted her. “Hey there m'lady.” He came to Patches side, and the rest of the players followed him. “Are you feeling better now?”
“I am.” Gabrielle said. “I”m really sorry your show got interrupted last night.”
“We aren't!” Zev said. “You guys caught the bad guy! That was amazing! They told me the queen herself threw the knife is that true?”
“It's true.” Gabrielle nodded. “She saw the guy and boy... she moved so fast you coudln't even see her.”
“It was great.” Zev's brother patted Patches shoulder. “And we were so glad we were inside during that storm I don't really know what we'd have done if we were outside.”
“Frozen.” Zev said, succinctly. “But we were snug inside, and we've been working on making it like home in there. Want to see?” He grinned at Gabrielle, and she smiled back at him. “The queen hasn't changed her mind has she? The tucker here is awesome!”
“No, not at all.” Gabrielle said. “Let me see.. “ She half turned, and spotted Xena talking to some of the merchants. She waved, and the queen looked quickly over, focusing on her as she pointed at the door to the dancing hall.”
Xena nodded, and waved her hand.
“Let's go.” Gabrielle aimed Patches towards the door as the circus players gathered around her and trooped along at her side. They wound their way through the building market and entered the long sloping ramp that led up to the dancing hall.
It didn't much look like anyone wa going to dance in it now. Gabrielle felt right at home riding Patches inside because the floor had been covered in thick straw and there was more than a hint of manure in the air. The circus people had settled in, and behind the performance area the wagons had been unpacked and set up.
“Whoa.” Gabrielle got off Patches back and turned, only to find a groom hovering at her heels. “Oh, hello Josha.”
“Your grace, may I take him?” The groom asked. “Glad I was to see you riding again.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle handed the reins over, giving him a smile. The military grooms were some of Xena's favorites in the army, and hers as well. “Thanks. Not that we rode very far, but it was nice to get out.”
“Too right!” Zev said. “Look what we did back here.” He led the way across the straw and past the poles, ducking between two of the wagons. Behind the big open space they'd put the wagons in a square, and in the middle of the square they'd set up housekeeping. There was a nice firepit set up, set on stones they'd apparently collected, carefully put in an open space with the layer of straw well cleared back.
In front of each wagon a little sitting area had been created, with half barrels and stools and low slung camp chairs serving as seats and tables with bits of daily living scattered about.
It looked cute, and comfortable, and there were two small children racing around with a stuffed rag ball. It all made Gabrielle smile, and think a brief, wistful thoughts about memories of her very early years, when she and Lila had done such chasing in the front of their small house.
“Isn't it great?” Zev was walking alongside her. “It's so nice to just be able to stay in one place for a while.”
All of the strange activities hadn't seemed to faze the circus players. They seemed relaxed and cheerful, Zev pointing out the water buckets and hammocks hung between the wagons which provided places for them to sleep. “I'm looking forward to the show tonight.” She said. “How are all your animals doing?”
They walked past the camping area into the back, where the performing animals were comfortably confined. Gabrielle spotted the big cat sprawled near the back of the big room, it's eyes closed in sleep.
“They're doing real good.” Her companion chattered on. “The kitchens have been super nice giving us stuff to feed them. Bones and stuff too.” He patted one of the riding horses on the rump. “I was really scared they were going to get hurt with all the bad guys around, specially after Durgo got stabbed, but they've been fine.”
One of the acrobats was climbing up and down a rope connected to the wall, and Gabrielle stopped to watch him. “Wow.” She said, after a minute. “I had to do that a few days ago and boy, it's a heck of a lot harder than it looks.”
“It is.” Zev agreed. “Why were you climbing a rope?” He asked after a pause, turning to look at her.
Why had she been? Gabrielle thought about that, the memories she had of just before she got hurt more than a little fuzzy. “There was a hole in the wall. Xena wanted to know what was in it.”
Zev blinked. “So she made you climb up there?” He asked, in a dubious tone.
“It wasn't exactly like that. There were some shoes she wanted to test out and I was the only one they fit.” Gabrielle went over to where the big cat was and studied it, admiring the shiny, soft looking pelt. She remembered Xena patting it, but she, herself, had no desire to get any closer. “He's so pretty.”
“He is.” Cellius had been leaning against one of the wagons and now she came over to them. “And doesn't he know it, the arrogant bastard.” She laughed as the cat lifted his head and peered at them, yawning to show his enormous curved teeth before he closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
“I've never even heard about anything like him.” Gabrielle admitted. “Though I guess I havent' been many place to hear either.”
“So you told us you were a storyteller.” Cellius smiled. “You didn't mention the rest of it.” She pointed at the wagon. “We've got tea, want some?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle joined them near the tiny brazier, not too different than the one Xena had used when they were out with the army at war. “No, I didn't mention the rest because I think I'm still a little weirded out by it.” She sat down. “I come from a sheep farm.”
Cellius chuckled and sat down, while Zev poured some tea. “I think it's really cool” She confided. “It means.. well, you know you always hear about how the nabobs are always in charge?”
“Nabob?” Gabrielle cocked her head. “Do you mean the nobles?”
“Well, yeah. I know. My family worked the land for one of them.”
“And now you rule them.” Zev grinned, taking a seat on a low stool. “”That's a kicking story itself, you know?”
It was, really. Gabrielle smiled. “So are you going to change your show tonight?” She changed the subject. “I know Xena really likes the horse stuff.” She said. “Did you see the horse she was riding? That's Tiger, her war horse.”
“Nice beast.” Zev said. “Looks chancy.”
“He bites.” Gabrielle agreed. “But I give him apples and I think he likes me.” She paused to take a sip of tea. “Want to hear a story about him?”
“Sure.” Cellius relaxed on the camp chair. “Why not?”
Gabrielle smiled and settled herself, thinking about Tiger, and the story she'd made up in her head about how he and Patches had found their way home again. “Well, it was in the time before the war..”
“Were you in the war?” Cellius interjected.
“Yes I was. I was with Xena when we ambushed the Persians, and when we set their boats on fire, and when we chased them out of the port city and then chased them right into our army out in the pass.” Gabrielle said. “So anyway, it was in the war.”
Zev studied her. “You've done a heck of a lot for a sheep herder.”
Gabrielle managed a modest shrug. “We were escaping from the bad guys running up and down a mountain and Tiger got lost.” She began the story. “But he's a very smart horse, so instead of running away, he hid from the bad guys and started a big adventure to find his way back with his friend Patches the Pony.”
“Is that your horse?” Cellius's eyes twinkled
“It is.” Gabrielle said. “And he's pretty smart too. So they had to find a way across the mountains and..”
Where was Gabrielle. Xena jumped off Tiger's back and entered the dancing hall, barely noticing the groom that raced up to take her stallion's reins. There were quite a few people in the hall, but most of them were strolling around looking at the circus rigging, or gathering at the small booth just inside the door where an enterprising merchant had set up a makeshift bar.
Something drew her across the straw, and she spotted the wagons and motion behind them. A bit of sound traveled to her and she cocked her head, her ears twitching as she caught the distinctive sound of her consort's voice. Her shoulders relaxed, and she headed in that direction, ignoring the swift and awkward bows in her direction as she passed.
Gabrielle's voice got louder as she ducked around the wagon and she emerged into an open square space that looked quite homey. Spotting her consort, she paused to watch, a smile appearing on her face as she studied the blond woman seated on a half barrel, legs swinging a little as she gestured with her hands in telling her story.
The circus people were seated in front of her, listening intently.
So far, Gabrielle hadn't spotted her. Xena leaned against the wagon, her smile widening as she listened to this to her new story about her favorite horse.
It was all nonsense, of course. Though the queen was easily able to imagine her warhorse and her consorts scrappy little pony rambling around the countryside biting Brego's men in the ass she knew of course that nothing like that actually had happened.
Xena's head tilted a little. She was sure about that, wasn't she?
“But Tiger knew we needed him and Patches to save the day so he found all the other horses.. “
Well, who knew? The queen circled around and found a seat, dropping down into it as Gabrielle caught the motion and spotted her. She was unable to help herself from grinning as her consorts face broke into a big smile and she lifted her hand and waved a little as she extended her legs out across the straw.
Crazy, really. She could be in her comfortable audience chamber, or even her own bedroom and here she was, sitting in the straw with the scent of manure and some kind of vegetable stew flowing over her. And yet, she felt good to be here, surrounded by these traveling buskers who held no allegiance at all to her.
A rumbling growl echoed from behind the wagons, and she made a note to pay a visit to her furry friend before they left. For now, she folded her hands over her stomach and crossed her ankles, letting herself get drawn into to Gabrielle's goofy tale.
“And then, just when everyone was wondering what we could do, Xena waved her arms, and like magic, Tiger led the rest of the horses into our camp right at the moment we needed them.”
Xena inhaled to protest, then she just sighed, as the rest of the players turned and looked at her in awe. She managed a modest little shrug in response, then waved her consort to continue on with her outrageous fabrication.
“And then we got all of us together, and we rode down the path and charged at the rebels who were trying to hurt the castle. Xena got into a fight with all the bad guys, while Patches raced around to the castle gates to get them open so our friends inside could come help us.”
Xena let out a whistle. “Hey.” She said. “Are you forgetting you had something to do with all that?”
Gabrielle smiled at her. “But Patches did all the hard work, Xena. He had to pull the wagon.”
“From what I remember, you were pulling him.”
The players all chuckled, keeping a wary eye on the tall figure sprawled nearby.
“Anyway.” Gabrielle concluded. “Patches pulled the gates open and all the soldiers came out, and everyone started fighting. The bad guys go so mad at us for that they came over and tried to hurt us, but when it was almost too late, Xena jumped into the fight and saved us.” She paused, her eyes meeting the queen's. “Saved me, and put herself in the way of the bad guys and made them attack her instead.”
The players looked back at Xena.
“I never did get that whole royal thing down worth anything.” Xena commented, with a smile. “Gets me in trouble all the time.”
“We heard that.” Zev said, timidly. “Someone was telling us that.. they said you beat the Persian army by yourself.”
Xena's nostrils flared. “She helped.” She pointed at Gabrielle. “Ask her about biting the Persian leader in the face and ripping her cheek off.”
Eyes swiveled back to Gabrielle, who blushed vividly.
“Anyway.” Xena got to her feet, and extended a hand towards her consort. “We've got a court to administer. See you all tonight.”
They strolled out across the performance space, back over to the door where sunlight was spilling in. “How come you always tell people about that?” Gabrielle asked, after a period of silence.
“About you biting her?”
Xena chuckled. “Because I think it's the best thing I ever saw.” She said. “That bitch holding you up there and then you chomping down on her like that.. it was gutsy and fierce and I loved it.” She draped her arm over Gabirelle's shoulders. “You feeling okay?”
Gabrielle was just fully engaged in thinking about being the most awesome thing Xena had ever seen and that nearly made her trip and fall flat on her butt. “Uh.. yeah, I am.” She caught herself and responded. “So what are we going to do now?”
The queen hugged her. “Let's go find people, and surprise the Hades out of them.” She said. “Today I really want to party.”
The mood in the stronghold was lighthearted and enthusiastic. Gabrielle ducked into the kitchens and found it so even there, the workers giving her a look that was far more welcoming than she'd ever experienced before even from the first day she'd worked down there. “Hello.”
“Hello, your grace.” The cook greeted her. “Are you feeling better then? You look very well.”
“I am, thanks.” Gabrielle said. “Her Majesty is calling everyone into court. Can I get a tray of snacks for her? And some wine?”
“Of course.” One of the stewards wiped his hands on a towel and came over. “Your grace, is it possible for you to maybe remind her Majesty the seneschal's position remains to be named? We all miss lord Stanislaus, but it's hard to keep things organized..”
“Without someone in charge.” Gabrielle said, softly. “I think Xena understands that pretty well. I'll see what I can do.”
The man bowed. “Many thanks.” He said. “I will bring the tray up shortly for you.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle turned and headed out of the kitchen, going out the main door and through the lower hall rather than up the inner stairwell. Xena was waiting in her big throne room, and the smell of the banquet they were going to have along with the circus performance permuted the hall.
“Ah, y'Grace.” Brendan caught up with her as she trotted up the big formal stairs. “Market's full outside. Men came back from the lower town, got some damage there, but they brought back a lot of folks in wagons and we'll find em space until we can build it back.”
“Everyone's happy.” Gabrielle commented.
“Relief, yah.” Xena's captain agreed. “Majesty took care of business, as she always does.”
They entered the big chamber together, where Xena was already seated in her big throne, dressed in her royal robes with her crown set neatly on her head. The room was filling with her subjects and soldiers, everyone with at least a partial smile on their faces, even the Persian captives who were all over against one wall with a group of Xena's men standing idly by.
Lastay was standing next to Xena talking to her, and Jellaus was tuning his sitar a few steps over.
Gabrielle got to the top step and sat down in the seat next to the queen, smoothing her hawkshead tabard down and tucking her booted feet under her. She felt comfortable and she ran her fingers through her hair, pulling it free from her collar and leaning back as she surveyed the room.
She turned, to find Mali there with a pillow, bearing her circlet. “Oh. Thank you. “
“May I put it on you, your grace?” The girl asked, waiting for her nod before she removed the circlet and gently placed it on Gabrielle's pale hair. “It's very pretty.”
The circlet felt a little funny, but then, as Gabirelle looked out over the crowd, getting fuller by the minute, she felt suddenly that it was right for her to wear it.
She was Xena's consort. “It is, huh?” She gave her servant a smile. “Xena had it made for me.”
“What?” Xena leaned against her throne arm. “Ah, got your hat on?” She reached up and tilted it a little. “Looks good on ya.” She glanced past Gabrielle to where a parade of kitchen workers were coming in, carrying trays. “I hope one of those is for us.”
“I think all of them are.” Her consort mused. “I was hungry.”
Xena eyed her.
“I'll share with you.”
The queen started laughing.
Lastay took a seat on the other side of her, and his wife joined them, and now the room was almost packed with nobles, and servants, and soldiers, the bodies warming the still chilly air. The trays were emitting the scents of roasts and spices, and sure enough the first set of them arrived promptly at the throne level as the rest waited behind.
Xena eyed them. “Did really ask for all of them?” She whispered, giving her consort a bemused look.
Gabrielle just grinned back at her.
The queen shook her head and waved the tray bearers forward. “Let's get this going.” She watched them fasten three of the trays to holders and set them in front of the thrones. Three of the servants produced plates and started loading them and the rest of the room relaxed and turned their attention to the queen.
“Don't worry” Xena remarked. “You'll all get yours later.” She stood up and stretched, leaving her sword behind her draped over the back of her throne as she took a step forward.
That made everyone relax more, Gabrielle realized as she accepted a plate of nibblements from Mali. Everyone knew when Xena had that weapon in her hands, the odds were she'd use it on someone and not in a good way. Except for her naming of Lastay as her heir, the blade usually ended up just making a mess.
Not today. Gabrielle set her plate down and picked up a bit of bread with a slice of meat on it and some sauce. She stood up and went over to where Xena was, taking a small bite of it and then offering it to her.
Xena paused and regarded her. Then she smile faintly and took the bread, popping it into her mouth and chewing it. Then she turned and faced the crowd. “Okay people.” She said. “A lot of crap has happened in the last few days, but now it's over. We found the creeps who were trying to kill people, and we found out why they wanted to.”
Gabrielle kept her eyes on the queen, listening to the lie but not reacting to it. She wasn't entirely sure what Xena's plan was, but that was normal. But she could see by how relaxed Xena's body was that she was comfortable with what she was doing so it would probably turn out okay.
“So I'm in a good mood.” Xena concluded. “I”m in such a good mood, that I'm going to spend the next candlemark or two giving everyone presents. We've had a good harvest and I think everyone deserves a little extra.”
The delighted surprise was unmistakable.
“And I want to thank everyone for standing by me when Gabrielle got her head whacked.” Xena said. “I really appreciated that.”
The wondering shock was also unmistakable. Gabrielle darted a look up at her lover and saw a very unusual quiet introspection there. That, she felt, was not a lie, and she felt a sense of humbleness about it, knowing the pain it had caused Xena.
“So let's start from the bottom.” Xena cleared her throat. “As a result of the last war, we took some prisoners.” She looked at the Persians, who were all watching her alertly. “And they have proved themselves honorable captives throughout the summer and fall. I don't think their king's gonna ransom them and I'd rather have them be useful so to Lakmas and his cohort I offer amenesty, and a place in my army if you want one.”
Lakmas broke into the biggest grin imaginable, his white teeth showing vividly against his dark and bearded face.
“If not, then I'll guarantee you safe passage out to the port city, and then you're on your own to get home.” The queen concluded. “So get together and let me know what your decision is.”
Lakmas moved forward immediately, arriving at the steps leading up to the thrones and dropping to his knees, then falling flat on his face and extending his hands forward towards her.
Xena paused and regarded him with some bemusement. “Huh.” She grunted. “Hope that's a yes.”
Brendan chuckled behind her, shaking his head.
Gabrielle rested her head against the back of her chair, too full to even want to move. She was comfortably ensconced in a nice padded seat on a well built platform in the dancing hall, waiting for the circus to start.
The hall was as full as she was, seemingly packed with every person around anxious to see the show and enjoy the products of the cookpits that were working overtime outside and the circulating wine merchants who walked with skins slung over their shoulders.
She put a hand on her stomach, licking her lips a little and remembering the fruit glazed stuffed goose that had been the last meat course of dinner. It was one of her, and Xena's favorite things and the cooks had smiled when they brought it in, knowing that.
Boy that had been good.
She exhaled and relaxed, musing on how far she'd come since she'd arrived at the stronghold, a half starved, terrified newly captured slave who'd lost everything who was now sitting on a throne, with a new princess hat on her head, and a throng of servants to do whatever she asked them to do.
And puffy honeycakes for dessert. Crazy, really. Like a story she might tell about someone else, in some far off place. Not here, not her, and yet, here she was.
She felt content and happy, even though the happy was sort of melancholy at the same time because she knew they would be in trouble later, trouble that even Xena might not be able to get them out of.
Gabrielle considered how she felt about that. She thought she probably should be scared, and worried, but for some reason, she wasn't. She just was looking forward to the show, and to sharing it with Xena, who was standing out on the performance floor talking to the circus owner.
What would be, would be, she guessed. She'd been so close to death so many times in the last year it was getting hard to be afraid of that – though that felt funny to even make it sound in her head that way.
Gabrielle almost didn't react, since being called that was very new for her. A candlemark, in fact. “Oh.. ah. Yes?” She eyed the liveried servant. “Is there something wrong?”
The man bowed. “Would you like a footstool?” He held one up. “The chair is a bit tall.”
“And I'm a bit short.” Gabrielle mustered a grin “Sure.” She watched him put the padded bench down and she parked her soft indoor boots on it. “Thank you.”
The man bowed, and smiled. “May I say too, your majesty, that it does my heart good to see you well again.” He said. “And that it seems our fortunes have turned.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle replied softly. She watched him leave, and studied the bench, thinking about the new, heavier golden circlet on her head, and Xena's elevation of her to some other weird title that made people bow even deeper to her and which had even less meaning really in her life.
She didn't need any titles or hats, she'd told Xena. Not when she had Xena's love for her, and the queen had blushed, truly, at hearing that, her eyes turning a little shy and overwhelmed for just an instant.
But it had made Xena happy to give her the stuff, and since she was handing out titles and lands, and presents to everyone it would, Gabrielle acknowledged, have looked strange if she'd been left out.
She wasn't really sure what that was all about, since Xena had always seemed to want to be on the receiving side of presents before – though she'd never been stingy with the stuff she'd given Gabrielle. Even from the start she'd gotten clothes and parchments from the queen.
So she had piles of stuff back in their chambers, a shopping spree so totally out of character for her impatient lover she'd received them in wide eyed amazement, ending up with her chair in the audience chamber completely covered in stuff and her body draped in cloth and furs, jewelery and trinkets.
The boots on her feet were new, beautifully crafted leather lined in fur that was currently warming her toes, and her body was draped in a silk robe in Xena's colors.
The only person who hadn't gotten anything was the queen herself.
“Ah.” Xena arrived at her side unexpectedly. “Got one more thing for ya.” The queen had one hand behind her back and a half grin on her face. “Ready?”
“Xena.” Gabrielle gazed at her. “C”mon.. I haven't even had a chance to get anything for you yet.”
Xena's expression gentled and sobered. She laid her palm on Gabrielle's cheek and leaned closer. “Gabrielle, you've given me everything I've ever truly desired.”
“So here.” The queen removed her other hand from behind her back and brought it around, offering what she held out. “It's not romantic, but you might have a use for it sometime.”
Gabrielle reached out to take the finely made dagger, holding it in her hands as she studied it. “It's beautiful.”
Xena sat down and leaned one elbow on the arm of her throne closest to her companion. “Thank you.” She said, simply. “I made it.”
Gabrielle almost dropped the thing as she jerked upright in surprise. “You did?” She looked back down, studying the leather sheath. It had a hammered filigree of metal around it, and the hilt of the dagger was carefully shaped with a solid wide tang to protect the wielder's hand. “Wow.”
Xena smiled and leaned back in her throne, exhaling softly. “Took me a long time to find it.” She said. “I made it for Ly Ws going to be his birthday present.” She tilted her head and watched Gabrielle turn the dagger over in her hands. “I almost gutted myself with it after I found him.”
Gabrielle looked quickly up at her. “Do you really want me to have this?” She asked, in a soft voice.
The queen nodded. “I do.” She said. “Because now I'm glad I didn't. I would have missed out on knowing you.” She reached over and tickled the back of her companions neck, as she watched a few silent tears appear. “So you take that, my love. That belt should fit ya.”
Gabrielle closed her hand around the hilt and drew the dagger out, exposing the blade to the light. To her surprise, it was a burnished dark color unlike Xena's sword, and there seemed to be a slight, wavy pattern in it. “It's amazing.” She finally said, putting the dagger back in it's sheath.
She then stood, and put the dagger down on her seat, moving over to fit herself between Xena's knees and take her hands, raising them up and touching her lips to the queen's knuckles. “Thanks.”
Xena pulled her over and hugged her. Then she released her and picked the dagger and it's belt up, unrolling the leather and passing it around Gabrielle's waist. She fastened the clasp and shifted the blade to one side a bit, giving her a wink, and a pat on the side. “There.”
Gabrielle sat back down and put her boots up, letting her wrist rest lightly on the hilt of her new adornment. The pommel of it had a hawkshead hammered into it, and she felt it completed her outfit even though she was pretty sure the best she'd do with the weapon would be cutting slices of apple for Xena with it.
“Here we go.” Xena noted, as the circus performers started to enter the ring. “Want some grapes?”
“Uh uh.” Her companion shook her head. “I think I'll pop if I eat anything else right now.”
“Anything?” Xena's tone turned teasingly sultry.
Gabrielle felt a blush heat her face. “Xena.”
The queen chuckled. She settled back in her throne to watch, her peripheral vision watching soldiers take up guard positions around her, vigilant even though she'd spent the previous two candlemarks showering everyone with gifts.
Gifts of land and grazing rights, coin and honors. The entire realm was confused as Hades with it all but no one was complaining.
Brendan was standing just to the right of the platform, and Lakmas, now wearing a hawkshead tabard over his big frame on the left.
The Persian was standing so tall with pride it made Xena smile, and she could see the rest of the Persians scattered amongst her men, already accepted comrades. She nodded a little and picked up her goblet, taking a sip of the rich, sweet wine her vintner had just poured for her.
She was going to savor this night. Savor the smiles and the laughter of her subjects, and the solicitious attention of her servants.
Savor the presence of Gabrielle at her side, and the confident presence of her army around her.
Tonight she was going to indulge herself in being the queen, indulge herself in the pleasures of the table and her cup, enjoy the show, and then take Gabrielle back to their quarters and made wild, intense love with her before they had to go up to the tower, and face whatever it was they would end up facing.
She didn't want to have any regrets when she walked up those stairs.
“Xena, look. There's the horses!”
Xena took another swallow of wine, and plucked a grape. “Let's see if they make em do somersaults.” She said. “That's what I asked em for.”
Gabrielle turned and stared at her. “The horses???? Won't they get hurt???” She asked, shocked. “Xena!”
The queen chuckled. “Just kidding.” She said. “I told em I might do a somersault on one if I don't drink too much of this?” She held up the cup. “Give everyone a real show.”
“Can you do that?”
Xena studied the horses. Could she? “Yeah.” She said, after a moment. “I can fight standing on Tiger's back if I have to. Probably could do a tumble.” Her voice sounded slightly surprised. “If I don't fall on my ass doing it.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle imagined the tumble, if not the falling. She could picture it, Xena's tall body, relaxed and balanced as the circus riders's were, and then her jumping in the air and whirling around like she'd often seen her do in the tower during her practice. “Hey Xena?”
“Why do you practice the somersalt stuff? Isi'nt it dangerous to do when you're fighting for real?”
Xena smiled. “It is.” She admitted. “I do it because it's cool.” She cleared her throat. “And occasionally it freaks the guys I”m fighting out long enough for them to drop their guard and let me kill them.”
“You up for telling them a story?”
“Gonna be a Hades of a night.”
Gabrielle was very glad to have Xena's arm around her shoulders as they walked down the steps from the dancing hall and crossed the courtyard over to the main. It was cold, and her boots were wandering as she managed to keep her eyes half open to watch them.
“You're a really cute drunk.” Xena observed.
“I am?” Her companion asked. “I don't think I've ever been drunk before.” She bumped her head against Xena's side, savoring the warmth of the queen's body. “Have I? It feels funny.”
Xena chuckled softly. “We're both a little drunk.” She admitted, feeling the faint sense of dislocation that put a bit of fuzziness between her and reality. “Great show, huh?”
“Yeaah.” Gabrielle agreed. “I loved those arobcast... abroca... those cute guys on the bar.” She laughed faintly under her breath. “And you were so amazing with the cat.”
“I was.” The queen nodded. “Freaked those guys out.”
“Oh yeah you sure did. I thought that one guy was going to go crazy when you sat down next to it.”
“Cat likes me.” Xena said. “It was purring.”
Gabrielle pondered that. “I guess we have something in common?” She said. “I feel like purring when I'm near you too.”
Xena snickered. “You are drunk.”
“No I feel like that even when I'm not drinking anything.” Her consort protested, making a muffled cat sound as she walked. “See?”
They climbed up the steps into the stronghold and passed the guards, who saluted. Xena waved casually back at them, then turned right and headed down the hall to the tower stairs.
It was quieting down. The well fed and well wined nobles were all straggling off to their suites, and the merchants and musicians were bedding down in the courtyard, the gates once again closed against wolves and weather.
The circus had been fun. Xena smiled, thinking of the prancing horses and the jugglers, and the flyers high overhead whose tumbling antics had so enthralled her consort. There had been no hint of trouble, no whisper of thugs with darts, just a long night of carousing and entertainment.
Fitting. Xena guided her meandering companion up the steps and they climbed past the wall sconces that held fluttering torches and the alcoves that had a soldier in each one of them, all in her tabards, all touching their chest in respect as they passed.
They reached the landing where their old quarters were, and Xena bumped her hip against the door, sending it inward to the chamber. Inside, the fires were lit and the candles were positioned, lighting up the space in a warm golden glow. She untied the throat catch on her cloak and pulled it off as Gabrielle did likewise, the door behind them pulling to as the guard discretely closed it.
It smelled good in the chamber. Xena detoured over to one of the tables, spotting a painfully clean tray with a flask of honey mead on it, and a selection of sweet treets.
Could she manage one? Xena eyed them as she poured a measure of mead into one of the cups. Gabrielle had no such hesitation and she sat down on the chair next to the table, curling her legs up and selecting one of the treats. “Don't tell me you're' still hungry.”
Gabrielle bit into the cake and grinned. “Only a little.” She said. “I think I worked off some of that dinner with all those stories.”
“Uh huh.” Xena handed her a cup and sat down opposite her, extending her feet out towards the fireplace. “I still think you've got worms.” She studied her consort's slim form, shaking her head. “Where in Hades do you put it all?”
“I don't know.” Gabrielle answered seriously. “I can't see down my throat.” She stuck her tongue out and peered at it. “You really think there's a worm down there? Wouldn't I feel it wiggling?”
Xena chuckled, and held her cup out, waiting for Gabrielle to touch it with her own. “Heres to your worm, my love.” She said. “Keep it happy with all the treats you want.” She gazed fondly at her consort, watching the pale green eyes light up with simple happiness.
Xena drained her cup and set it down, then she stood and held her hand out, palm up. “Let's go enjoy each other. I've been wanting to take that silk off you all night.”
Gabrielle stood and took her hand, clasping it in both of her own and squeezing it. “I love you.”
Xena glanced at the floor then back up at her, a wry smile appearing on her face. “I know. I still can't figure out how I ever deserved that.”
“Xena, c'mon.” Her consort gently rubbed her fingers over Xena's knuckles. “You're the best.”
“I”m the best.” The queen mused, as they wandered through the outer room and into the sleeping chamber. “Well, I”m glad you think so.” She glanced around the room, a smile returning to her face. “Your mouse has been in here cleaning.”
The chamber was visibly freshened, she could smell the scent of pine where the stones were brushed and the fire was snapping and neatly laid in the fireplace. The bed had been prepared, the pillows appeared invitingly plump and a thick, plush fur cover had been added to the silks.
A bowl of steaming water was on the dresser, with neatly folded pieces of linen laid ready next to it. Gabrielle went over and touched them, looking around with a charmed smile. “She made it so nice.”
Xena sat down on the bed and reflected on that. It was nice. There was true care evident, something she hadn't seen since Gabrielle herself had been her body slave and taken care of the place. Then she'd found it like this, all in perfect order, with the little touches right like the warm water.
And, in Gabrielle's case, a rose on her pillow. Xena smiled at the memory. “Remember you putting that flower on my bed?”
Her consort grinned. “I do.” She admitted, as she washed her hands off. “I felt like I was going crazy, all I wanted to do was follow you around and kiss you.” She brought a damp towel over and gently washed the queen's face, cleaning off a bit of soot as those beautiful eyes watched her. “Hearing you say you loved me back was so amazing.” She paused. “No one had ever said that to me before.”
“No one?” Xena unlatched the belt holding the dagger and removed it, tossing it onto the nearby chair. “Not even wahtshisname?”
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “Not Perdy or my family, or anyone else.” She laid the damp linen down on the chair arm and cupped Xena's face in her hands. “Only you.” She gazed down into Xena's eyes. “Which I guess is right because you're the only one I've ever said that to or felt like that about.”
Xena's lips twitched into a return smile, as she undid the belt holding Gabrielle's silk robe closed. “Glad to hear that.” She let the robe fall open, as Gabrielle untied her laces in return. Easing to her feet she shucked the fabric off her and stepped forward, letting her body brush against Gabrielle's as her consort's robe drifted to the floor. “Because I don't want you to ever have been anyone else's but mine.”
She watched Gabrielle's eyes close as she folded her arms around her, delaying the urge to pick her up and toss her on the bed long enough to savor the hug and the return squeeze. “You taught me to do this, y'know.”
Gabrielle went still. “Do what?” She asked, her voice slightly muffled.
“This.” Xena squeezed her. “You don't get much of this when you grow up as a pit fighter.”
“Oh that.” Her consort sounded a bit relieved. “Well you taught me to do everything else so I guess that's fair, huh?”
Xena chuckled, rocking them both back and forth a little. “Yeah, I guess that's is fair.” She singled out the sensation, concentrating on it as her body shifted and relaxed, absorbing the affection contentedly. She remembered the first time Gabrielle hugged her, after she'd told her... told her what? Some hard luck story?
Oh, no. She'd told her about Ly. The queen exhaled. Yeah, that probably rated a hug. She still felt sad about that, even after all those years. Sad for Ly, and for herself, since he'd died for her. Died because of her. Xena went still for a moment. Like Gabrielle almost had.
Not by malice, not because she was a target. Just because she loved Xena enough to want her out of danger despite being in danger herself.
Just exactly what Xena herself would have done if she'd been facing in the direction of the collapse in the same moment. “Know what?”
“We're a pair of sopping idiots.”
“Is that good or bad?”
Xena laughed gently, and squeezed Gabrielle to her, lifting her up and hearing the slight cough as her lungs emptied. “It's the best.”
They tumbled back onto the bed in a tangle of limbs and rolled into the center of it, faint puffs of warm air brushing over their bare bodies from the fireplace.
It felt good. Xena stretched out and rolled half on her side as Gabrielle nuzzled her throat, nibbling gently along her skin as her consorts hand came to rest on her hip. A moment later they were pressed together belly to belly and Gabrielle's thigh was sliding between hers.
That felt even better. Xena let her mind slip, pushing aside the knowledge of what the night would bring and concentrating on the knowing touches and gentle pressure that sent a jolt of aching tension into her guts. She returned the touch, tracing the shape of Gabrielle's nipples and meeting her lips.
She could taste the faint residual of honey, but sweeter still was the love she could feel in every motion and she let it seep into her, a heady sensation that was a little scary but she didn't care.
She wanted to savor this feeling, breathe it in and hold it inside her and remember how incredible it was to have someone love her like Gabrielle did, because..
Gabrielle's lips were right near her ear. “No matter what happens, I'm glad my life had you in it.”
Because nothing else mattered. Xena understood that, finally. All the castles and soldiers in the world didn't mean a damn thing if you didn't have something like this. “Likewise.” She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle, pulling her closer, feeling the need ignite.
Let the future happen. Xena felt Gabrielle start to work her way down her body, taking possession of her in a way only Gabrielle had ever been allowed to do. Gods and ghouls could go to Hades for now. She didn't care.
She inhaled Gabrielle's scent and let it all go.
Now the castle was very quiet around them. Xena had one foot braced up against her old weapons chest as she adjusted her knee armor, tightening the plates and snugging them more firmly around her leg. She had her leathers and the rest of her gear on, her sword was in it's sheath between her shoulderblades and the chakram was seated on it's hook at her hip.
Gabrielle was seated nearby, in the chair near the fire, already dressed in her chain and scale armor, with her new dagger strapped around her and her big stick nearby.
“Don't we look scary.” Xena straightened and put her boot down, bouncing a little to settle everything. “Ready?”
“Well.” Gabrielle drained the cup of tea at her side and set it down. “I guess I am, as much as I can be.” She stood up and picked up her stick, wrapping her hand around it and exhaling. “But boy, I sure wish we were still in bed.”
“Yeah, me too.” Xena extended her hand. “C'mon. Let's get this over with.”
Gabrielle took her hand, and they walked out the side door into the little hallway, and then through the outer door into the big round hall. Across from that door was the tiny alcove she'd once slept in, and then to the right were the stairs that led up to Xena's tower practice room.
It was dark, and very quiet. There were torches in sconces, but up here there were no soldiers – they were at the base of the stairs below and the bottom of the small servants stairs that went down to the kitchens. It was cold out here, and Gabrielle was glad she had her armor on, and her new lined boots too.
They walked across the stone floor and arrived at the steps. Xena turned and looked at her, putting her free hand on her shoulder. “Thanks for sticking with me.”
Gabrielle smiled, glancing down at the floor then back up at her. “Are you scared?”
The pale blue eyes regarded her quietly. “Yes I am.”
The queen shook her head. “No. I've never been afraid of that. You can't be...” She paused. “You can't live like I do and be afraid of that.” She gently shifted her hand to cup Gabrielle's face. “It's my soul I”m afraid of losing. That's why I want you there. You have a hold on that.”
Gabrielle nodded soberly.
“Fight for me, Gabrielle. Don't let me do something stupid, okay?”
“I won't.” Gabrielle said, in a firm tone. “But Xena, I don't think you would. Someone told me... “ She cleared her throat gently. “When I was hurt. When I was in that other place. Someone told me I should be true, because you were. You are.”
Xena cocked her head to one side. Then she patted Gabrielle on the shoulder. “Let's go.” She said turning to start up the stairs. “I'm not sure what you're talking about but I hope to Hades we can talk about it later.”
Gabrielle shifted her grip on her stick and started up with her, matching her steps to Xena's steps as they climbed up the curving stones, leaving the landing behind them.
For a moment there was silence, then the softest of scuffs echoed as a number of armored bodies entered the lower landing from the lower stairs, brightly burnished helms and swords reflecting the torchlight. The man in the lead stopped the upper stairs, and held his hand up, cocking his head to listen.
Xena felt her heartbeat start to rise as she climbed, her attention focused on the chamber at the top of the stairs. The door was closed, unlike the other night, and she didn't hear anything, or feel any draft coming down from it. Pausing before the entrance she surruptitiously wiped her hands on her leathers before she reached over and worked the latch, shoving the door open and stepping inside.
Gabrielle was right behind her, one hand resting on Xena's back as she peered past her.
Xena wasn't sure what she'd expected, but what she found was her practice chamber, torches lit on the walls, completely empty as she'd last left it the previous day. The torchlight showed a solid stone floor, and closed windows and after a minute, she relaxed. “Hmph.”
Gabrielle walked a few steps in, coming to stand shoulder to shoulder with her. “Looks pretty normal, huh?”
“Uh huh.” Xena agreed. She started across the room, steeling herself to cross over the space where she'd seen nothing but a gaping opening the last time, and ended up in the center of the room, turning herself briefly in a circle.
Unlike the night before, she didn't sense any intruders. There was no strange feeling, or smells, or wind blowing in the iron window coverings. No prickling at the back of her neck.
Just a room. Just the training chamber she'd used for years, honing her skills and keeping herself in fighting shape ready to repel whatever challenges here realm threw at her.
Gabrielle strolled cautiously around the perimeter of the room, past the rolled up sacking weights and the practice weapons, sticks and poles Xena had taught her with. The room felt cool but not cold and she shifted her stick in her hands as she ended up across from Xena, against the far wall.
They looked at each other. Xena lifted her hands in a shrug, and crossed the space between them, ending up at Gabrielle's side. She stopped and turned, folding her hands over her chest as she regarded the empty space. “Looks like we got all dressed up and don't have any place to go, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle set her stick down on it's end and wrapped both her hands around it. “I don't think they gave up, Xena.” She said. 'They really wanted to hurt you.”
“Yeah, but I think they were chickenshits.” Xena said. “All of them against one of me? In the dark? In a storm? Cowards.”
Gabrielle felt the prickle go up her spine, and she looked quickly at the queen. She felt Xena's body tense next to her as the queen slowly took her arms down, letting her hands rest on her bare thighs, her right hand half curled.
The air compressed suddenly and there was a soundless crackle, then a blue flash erupted in the center of the room. When it faded, the torches outlined a tall, swaggering figure, who strolled forward to face them. “You've got a lot of balls for a mortal woman.” Ares said, as he stopped a length or two from them. “I like that.”
Gabrielle felt Xena stiffen next to her, and in reflex she put her hand on her back, just below her sword keeping her other hand firmly on her stick. She studied Ares intently, feeling the faintest sense of familiarity as she looked at him.
“Some people say that.” Xena answered quietly. “Other people just think I'm out of my mind. “
The god chuckled. “So what's it gonna be?” He asked. “I see you came dressed for my kind of action. I didn't expect you to bring your little lamb with you.”
He stepped closer, his eyes on a level with hers. “Ready to leave this cow pasture behind, beautiful? C'mon and learn what it's like to be a real ass kicker.” He put his hands on his leather clad hips. “There's no place for you to go here. Those Persians are gonna show up and raize this place to the ground.”
“I beat them before.” Xena said, her voice determinedly steady. “Got a couple of them downstairs guarding my bedroom.”
Ares chuckled. “They'd rather be in your bedroom.” He said. “But they won't stop the old man. Neither will you. So c'mon.” He held a hand out. “Let's blow this joint before it gets ugly.”
The air seemed to change, somehow. Gabrielle felt a little tickle on the back of her neck, and she hiccuped a little, her breathing stopping and restarting. She flexed her hands and felt just a little different, just a little stronger, her body standing a little taller, blood starting to race inside her as she got ready to...
“It's too late, Ares.” Xena's voice sounded, almost gentle, certainly quieter than her norm. “You waited too long.”
Gabrielle looked up at her, watching her profile. She could see Xena's nostrils flaring, and feel the tension in her body through the hand on her back.
“Really?” The god asked, skeptically. “You really want to stay here and get flayed to death when that army runs over you? Want to die that way? Really?” He glanced at Gabrielle. “One more chance, babe. I'll save you. I'll even throw in the runt there if you want. It's not too late. Come. “ His voice deepened and echoed. “Be mine.”
And now, with the question in hand, Xena realized there never had been any risk at all. She met his eyes as fear faded, tossing chance to the wind with no regret. “I can't.” She said. “I'm already hers.” She jerked her head in Gabrielle's direction. “You waited too long, Ares. If I die fighting as a warrior at the gates of this place I'll take it.”
It was true. She felt it. It was too late, she was too old, her morals too solidly set for her to go back to being a sycophant kneeling at the feet of the god of war.
She would never conquer the world.
She would just remain here, in a backwater, strugging to hold onto what she'd taken if she could. She was aware of the touch on her back, and felt Gabrielle shift a little closer, hearing the deep intake of breath at her side.
“Well that's a damn shame.” Ares said. “But you know what? Those shades they sent won't even let you get that far. And it'll be a lot more painful death.” He snapped his fingers, and an ice cold blast shocked the room. “So long. Too bad.”
With another snap, he was gone, and the room was changed.
Torches went out. Whispering started. They sensed motion and in a single accord, they took a step back and put the wall behind them. “I think life's about to suck, my love.” Xena said. “Sorry about that.”
Gabrielle felt tears, but not sad ones. “Don't be.” She said. “I”m with you.”
A rolling wave of stench overwhelmed them, and Xena drew her sword, a bare flash of silver in the darkness. “C'mon you scumbags. I'm... we're not afraid of you.”
A whisper. “You should be.” The darkness parted, and a single figure emerged, cloaked in shadows but with glowing eyes that pinned them. “Because I'm going to eat your heart right out of your chest.”
The voice was harshly familiar. “Sholeh.” Xena said. “Should have recognized the stench.”
The figure moved forward, faint shadows and flashes revealing ghostly armor and a long sword held in front of her. The face was hooded though, just the glaring eyes showing. Behind the figure, there were more, dozens and dozens that filled the room entirely, blocking any view of the walls or the door.
The one that went before. Gabrielle heard that voice again, the one in the gray place. “Why are you mad at us?” She spoke up suddenly. “Your own people killed you.”
A bolt headed towards her without warning and before Xena could deflect it she had her stick up and in front of her in a motion half intended and half instinctive, ducking and moving to one side as the bolt came past her and slammed into the wall.
Xena glanced at her. “Nice moves.” She complimented her companion, before she turned back to Sholeh's shade. “Better be careful not to get her pissed off. She ripped your face off last time.”
“Not this time. Now I'm something that can kill you with almost no effort. And I will.” The shade turned it's focus to Xena. “You destroyed me. Now I'll destroy you.”
Xena twirled her sword, and bounced forward, feeling her body respond to the threat and her energy surge. Before she could get any further though, Gabrielle stepped in front of her, staff held crosswise of her body, back a little arched. “Gabrielle!”
“She didn't destroy you.” Gabrielle said. “You destroyed yourself, you stinkweed.”
The bolt came right at her this time and she didn't have time to avoid it. She started to move though, then found herself lifted and tossed gently out of the way, as a flash of silver blurred past her and deflected the energy in the other direction.
Then Xena moved past her in a blur. Her sword hit the ghostly one Sholeh had and they were engaged, as the rest of the host in the room spread out and circled them.
Gabrielle gathered herself up and leaped through the closing ring, feeling the icy touch on her back as she landed behind Xena, really surprised at just how scared she wasn't. “Go Xena!” She yelled at the top of her voice. “Beat em up!”
“I will enjoy raping her and slitting her throat once you're dead.” Sholeh hissed at Xena. “You don't understand how powerful I am on this side.”
Xena dropped into a balanced stance. “Sure you want to kill me then?” She asked. “As easily as I could kick your ass when you were alive, might want to think about what I might be like on that side.” She set herself and reacted as the shade rushed her, slamming that silver light against her blade with stunning force.
Oh this was going to be either a really short or a really long night. Xena swiveled and deflected the strike, turning and twisting her wrists to send the force off to her left. She'd never fought Sholeh really when she'd been alive, but she'd always gotten the sense the bitch knew what to do with a blade.
Apparently she did. Xena got her sword up in time to meet Sholeh's next attack, and they circled each other in the darkness – the shade's form visible to her as a combination of gray and silver shadows outlined in the faintest of silver glows. She was damn glad she had her armor on, as she caught the glitter of a dagger and she caught it on her bracer, flicking her arm to one side and sending it skittering to one side.
Then she half turned, then reversed her motion, bringing her blade back across her body and slamming it against Sholeh's, feeling the stunning shock as a wash of power shivered through her arms, nearly making her drop the sword as her hands went briefly numb.
But she kept her body in motion and powered through it, keeping a grip on her hilt through sheer will alone. Sholeh's weapon was knocked out of position but she stepped forward and slammed against Xena, shoving to knock her backwards.
The pain was incredible. Xena got a breath into her lungs and let it wash through her as she held her ground, leaning forwards as their blades ground together and ended up crossed at the hilts, bringing Sholeh within a hand span of her and letting her see what was inside the shadowy cloak.
Her heart almost stopped, seeing that emptiness. There was only a ragged skull there, with shreds of flesh and pinpoints of glaring light in the eye sockets.
Sholeh laughed. Then she lifted her sword back and chopped it down hard against Xena's, shoving the flickering weapon towards her throat and throwing her opponent over as she lunged after her.
Xena let herself fall, twisting as she did and rolling to get herself out from under the ghoul as a shiver went through her whole body. She came back up onto her feet and ducked Sholeh's sword as it came at her head, then she gathered herself and exploded up into the air, hauling over the ghoul's head as she swept her blade downward and smacked the skull under the gray shadows.
A furious scream filled the air, as she tumbled and twisted, landing on her feet and leaping to her right as Sholeh attacked, sweeping at her with a blade moving so fast Xena could barely follow it.
But her body knew. Her hands brought her sword up to parry the blow and she felt the numbing force again, the shock going up her arms and making her shoulders ache. She ducked and turned, bringing her sword around with all her strength and blowing through Sholeh's guard, sending the ghoul flying in the opposite direction.
Tough. She got herself set, feeling sweat starting to gather under her leathers as she faintly regretted the long day of carousing. Not the smartest thing she'd ever done, but then, this fight wasn't the smartest thing either. “You haven't killed me yet.”
“I”m enjoying myself too much.” Sholeh rasped back. “Getting tired, Xena? I'm not. I never get tired. I'm going to enjoy watching you though. Start breathing hard? Feeling your mortality?”
“At least I have some.” Xena taunted her back. “I didn't lose my daddy's army to a ragtag bunch of hacks and pit fighters.”
“Bitch.” Sholeh overhanded a dagger in her direction that Xena ducked, then she followed that up with a powerful strike that nearly bowled Xena over, only her guts keeping her in place and refusing to back down. “You can't win, Xena. You've already lost.”
Xena went on the attack in a blur of motion, letting the clean anger wash through her. She braced herself and focused past the impact and the pain, hacking and slashing her way through Sholeh's defenses until she crashed into her and shoved her backwards.
By the gods, it hurt. But Xena didn't hesitate. She half turned and booted Sholeh in the chest as the ghoul rebounded, putting enough force in that to send her opponent to the ground as the circling wraiths swirled and chattered. “Mortal as I am, you'll never beat me.”
Her whole body was on fire. Breathing hurt. But Xena focused on her opponent in that tight and exclusive way she'd learned to do in battle, when her own safety and heath became irrelevant. She braced herself and brought her sword up as Sholeh flew at her, anger in the motion and in the savage power of the blow that hit her blade.
She turned and deflected the hit, ducking and avoiding the glitter of a second knife, starting to move into an attack when she heard her name yelled so loudly it echoed firmly inside her skull.
Without thought she dropped to her belly on the ground sensing something coming over her head as her peripheral vision caught the sight of ethereal arrows whipping over her and smacking against the stone wall. “Coward!” She growled, shoving off the ground and to her feet. “That's why your damn army deserted you, Sholeh. They had honor. You don't.”
“I take all my advantages!” Sholeh was circling her. “Not like you, soft hearted fool.”
Soft hearted fool? Xena almost started laughing. Who in the Hades was this creep fest talking about? She paused and reversed her motion, catching Sholeh's sword out of position and slamming her hilt against the ghouls. Despite the pain and the over whelming power of her opponents attack, she could feel that animal part of her responding with ferocious glee, starting an internal howl that made her smile.
Sholeh attacked her, but the energy was rising in her guts now and she blocked the attack and plucked the chakram off her hip, whipping her sword up to knock Sholeh's aside as she slashed backwards, feeling the chakram hit something and make her entire hand numb as she powered through the stroke and came out the other side.
No time to think about it. She ducked and whirled, bringing the chakram back around and feeling it hit again, then rip free as she brought her sword down in an overhand motion that went through Sholeh's guard and slammed into something.
There was resistance. She jumped forward to aid in her momentum and then she was falling through something that felt like ice, bringing a wave of pain over every inch of her skin. Holding her breath she kept going and rolled into somersault, turning and slashing in every direction since all she could see was darkness.
“Xena!” Gabrielle's voice yelled again.
No idea where to duck. Xena uncoiled from the ground in a leaping bound, tumbling in mid air as she tried to aim for where she'd heard the voice coming from. She heard a yell, and then the sound of wood hitting something, and then she was landed and making a filigree of silver between a flight of arrows and the two of them, whipping the blade into a blur that deflected the arrows in every direction.
Gabrielle pressed up against her, breathing hard. They were back against the wall again, with the ghouls ringed in a tight circle around them.
So this was it. Xena looked out at the force facing her, and felt the icy menace seep through her bones, making her aware of her flagging strength, and the leeching pain and yes, her mortality. She could only do this so long no matter what her will wanted her to do.
She could feel her legs shaking.
Dropping her guard a moment, she turned and ducked her head, turning her back on the ghouls and kissing Gabrielle on the lips. She pulled back just long enough to meet Gabrielle's eyes, vivid even in the shadows. “Thanks.”
Then she turned and faced the ghouls again, seeing the dark blot that was Sholeh, seemingly more irregular now, and full of swirling chaos and almost jumped when she heard a low, loud booming sound.
A moment of silence. Then the booming started again. It sounded like the drums of Hades coming at them, and Xena sensed the excitement in the ring around her, shifting and moving, shadows and flashes of godsfire mingled among them
“Get her!” Sholeh shouted. “Bring her down!”
A feeling of desolate triumph filled her. Xena understood in that moment that she'd achieved the unlikely in standing off Sholeh's shade, but in doing that, frustrated the undead bitch enough to bring the rest of them down on her.
Ah well. “Come and get me, gutless ragheads.” She bellowed at the creeps. “Since the coward that's leading you lost.”
Gabrielle felt her heart racing. She knew bad things were coming, and more frightening still, she knew Xena couldnt' stop them. Though the queen had held off Sholeh, it had been hard, and she could feel the shivers working through her lover's body where it was pressed up next to her.
These weren't people. These were something beyond them both and Gabrielle felt a rough mixture of fear and anger in watching them. “So unfair.” She muttered. “But that's what you're all about.” She let her voice raise, as she focused on Sholeh. “Sheep fart.”
A faint chuckled worked through Xena's body just as the horde came at them, and she took a deep breath and put both hands on her hilt as she got ready to die.
And really, if you were what she was, wasn't dying in a battle against overwhelming odds how you would want to die? Rather than rusting out? Or dying in bed of some fever? Xena felt the fear leak out of her as she came to terms with it, regretting only that Gabrielle had to suffer this with her and not get a chance to live.
The black cloud hit them and she closed her mind off and started fighting, deliberately shutting her mind to the agony as a wave of pain rolled over her. She got herself in front of Gabrielle and just kept swinging, focusing solely on keeping the flashing, ghostly blades from touching them.
Really, from touching Gabrielle. Here in this fight, she was able to burnish her soul a little, giving up of herself in a lost effort to protect someone she loved.
Appropriate, she thought, since Gabrielle was the one who had created her into this half assed hero image she'd become so invested in.
She would just keep going as long as she could.
Gabrielle was swinging her stick frantically, as hard as she could as the black wave came over them, stinging her skin and making her ache as the stick hit the figures and bounced off. They were already against the wall, and the ring was pressing harder and harder against them, and the booming roar was getting louder and louder.
She wans't sure she was doing any good, but it felt right to be striking out at them, and she ignored the pain in her hands as she hit the ghoul closest to Xena as hard as she could.
Was it Sholeh? She'd lost track, they were all so scary and so ugly it hardly seemed to matter. But she could hear laughter, skittering mocking laughter to her right and so she turned her attention there and saw a looming dark figure about to envelop her.
Somehow, she knew. She remembered that hateful face leering at her when she was dragged up onto the horse, and now those empty sockets held the same disdainful expression as she was face to face with Sholeh's shade and it was reaching for her.
She heard Xena roar sensing that the queen was struggling to reach her and just as in the field that day, she knew it wouldn't be in time. She managed to get her stick up and between them and just as she did, she felt a presence behind her, and a sense of rushing power that made her entire body tingle.
“Shh.” A voice sounded in her head. “Let me grab that a minute, okay?”
Was it a dream? Was she just scared? Gabrielle released the stick and watched it move without her just as Sholeh enveloped her and and the staff slammed against the ghouls body with an odd, very echoing crack.
Then it was very still for a brief moment, as those echoes played out, bouncing off the walls.
Sholeh stumbled back and went down, and then the staff was back in her hands, and she felt a phantom pat on the back as the shades descended on them again and the fight continued, as the booming sound suddenly ended in a huge cracking sound, and then they were enveloped by the dark.
Concluded in Part 13