A Queen for All Seasons
And so there it was. Xena felt the sweat dripping down her neck as she blinked into the darkness and set herself for the nth time, her body so numb with pain it was a miracle it was responding to her demands at all, much less with enough energy to hold off the undead horde.
Hold them off she had. She was standing in front of a small alcove she usually kept her spare weapons in, with enough space behind her for Gabrielle to crouch and be as protected as she could be.
That was exactly where her consort was, having lost her stick and been knocked back against the stone with stunning force. She was breathing hard, and fast, and Xena could sense the near panic in her, unable to feel anything but sympathy for it. “Hang in there, my love.”
A deeper breath. “I”m here.” Gabrielle said. “Boy I'm scared though.”
“Me too.” Xena admitted. “Don't think I can hold em off much longer.”
Her enemy was milling around, and she could sense them moving in on them again, and she drew in a breath and lifted her sword, letting the blade rest briefly against her forehead before she came up on the balls of her feet and waited for the attack.
She could hear, suddenly, the sound of clashing swords on the other side of the room and it confused her. She felt Gabrielle's hand touch her back, and for a long moment, the darkness seemed to hold it's breath.
“Xena!” Sholeh's voice came out of the blackest part of the dark, right in front of her. “Give up.”
Xena licked her lips and felt like laughing. “Idiot.” She said. “I have no damn idea on earth how to give up.” She said, tasting the honest truth of the words as they came out of her mouth. “Give up for what? Give up for you to gut me? Give up for you to dance on my grave? What does giving up get me? I get to die faster? Slower? What?”
Gabrielle pressed against her from behind, wrapping her arms around Xena's body and hugging her.
No words, no sounds. Just that pressure and the emotion behind it that unexpectedly brought tears to Xena's eyes.
Sholeh's ghostly figure emerged from the dark, with another just behind her. More behind that, but shape of the second one was familiar to her eyes, and to Gabrielle's as well, apparently.
“Xena.” Gabrielle whispered.
“I know.” Xena gathered the moments she had left to her to restore whatever strength she could, and between one breath and the next, came to terms with the understanding that she was likely at the end of the line. That Gabrielle was. “Got that knife?”
A breath. “I have it.”
“Give up, and your slut and the rest of your mangy hangers on back there will go free.” Sholeh said. “They will live. You will die. I think that's fair, don't you?”
“Give up and what?” Xena asked.
“Give yourself to us.”Sholeh said. “To your enemies. We'll take our vengeance on you, Xena.. me and your brother, and your young lover, and all the rest. You'll burn with us. But this place will stay untouched. Your peasant will live. Your.. what did you call them? Your army?” Sholeh laughed. “They will live. Only you will suffer. Isn't that fair? Don't you wish to save all your pitiful minions?”
Xena straightened and turned her back on Sholeh, facing Gabrielle instead. Despite the darkness, and the overwhelming fog of fear, she could see Gabrielle's eyes, and the shape of her face and the tears that matched her own.
“No that's not fair.” Gabrielle whispered. “I”m not going to live without you, Xena.”
Any other person, and the statement would be simply foolish sentiment. Xena tucked her sword under her arm and raised her hands, cupping her lover's face with them, seeing in those eyes the absolute truth of what she'd said.
“Please don't leave me.” Gabrielle whispered, her eyes filling with tears, that spilled over and down her cheeks. “I don't care what happens to us Xena I just want to be with you.”
“Yeah I know.” Xena replied. “I don't want to leave you. And those guys back there.. “ She now recognized the fighting and the noise for what it was. “They've been looking for an excuse.”
“Xena!” Sholeh yelled. “I'm waiting!”
“This is gonna hurt.” Xena said, gently, ignoring the Persian shade at her back. “A lot. And it might go on hurting for a very long time.”
“Okay.” Xena leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “I don't know what'll happen on the other side, Gabrielle, but stick with me like a tick, okay? Keep me honest.”
“I will.” Gabrielle almost gasped in relief. “I swear it.”
“Xena!” Sholeh barked. “Now!”
Xena turned back, putting an arm around Gabrielle and shifting her sword in her other hand as they faced the horde. Then with a almost casual motion, she tossed the blade down, hearing it hit the floor with an odd, echoing clang. “C'mon.” She said. “Do your worst.”
She put her other arm around Gabrielle and hugged her close, feeling a sense of melancholy joy that quietly overwhelmed her.
“Release her, and I will take you, Xena.” Sholeh said. “I will take your soul, and we will do to you what you have done to so many. All your enemies are here beside me, waiting.”
Likely they were, starting with her brother. Xena just stayed still, looking down into Gabrielle's eyes. “No way.” She said, after a pause. “That soul's not mine to give, or yours to take, scum whore of Persia.”
She felt the jerk of a sob go through Gabrielle's body.
“So you can destroy this body. “ Xena went on, her voice deep, and sure and inevitible. “But all I really am belongs to her.” She tilted her head and kissed Gabrielle on the lips, feeling the tremor in them, and tasting the salt of her tears. “Nothing can change that.” She whispered, focusing on her partner and ignoring everything else. “Nothing will change that.”
“You would take her to Tartarus?” Now it was Toris' voice, dripping with loathing. “Isn't that so like you, Xena.”
“I go willingly.” Gabrielle spoke up for the first time, turning her head a little to look at him. “If you want to torture her there you'll have to go through me to do it.”
Xena let her cheek rest against the top of Gabrielle's head, surrendering herself to the moment. It made her smile, despite everything and finally and at last, she felt a sense of peace in her heart.
“You're a fool.” Toris said, directly to Gabrielle. “Ten thousand want to torture her. You think you can stop them all?”
Gabrielle put her head down on Xena's chest and exhaled. “I sure can try.” She said. “So Xena's right. Come on and do your worst, you stinky sheephead.”
For a moment, everything was still. Then with a scream, Sholeh lifted her sword and drove towards them, with the rest of the horde at their back.
Xena just hugged Gabrielle closer, and closed her eyes, concentrating on the feel of the arms around her, and the love. An unearned grace. “Damn, I love you.”
Gabrielle tightened her grip, and let the fear go.
And the darkness hit them. It flowed over them and hammered against them, bringing a wash of intense pain and a sense of burning that brought them both to their knees immediately, as a roar of hatred spilled out of the horde as it hit them.
“Sorry” Xena managed to get out, wrapping as much of herself around Gabrielle as she possibly could.
“It's okay.” Gabrielle gasped back.
Then the undead cloud rolled over them and they were blown against the wall and then it was dark.
And then it was quiet.
Xena was chiefly aware of having one killer of a headache. She opened her eyes, unsure of where she was or what was going on. She was aware of a cold surface under her back, and the warmth of another body laying over her, and around her an unearthly silence.
It was dark, and it took a while for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, the space over her very slowly resolving from nothing into the startling outline of her own tower roof.
She felt around with one hand, and found a stone floor, which explained the cold and as she tipped her head back she saw the lead paned window only to find the first gray hint of dawn reflected there. “Ugh.” She groaned softly, feeling motion against her as Gabrielle stirred in her arms.
Rolling over was excruciating. She felt like every bone in her body was broken, and her skin flayed off, and she lifted a hand to look at it with some trepidation that she'd find tendons exposed on it.
“Oh.” Gabrielle uttered. “Ow.”
“You said it.” Xena responded. She pushed herself painfully to a seated position, half turning to examine her companion anxiously. “Hey. You okay?”
Gabrielle was half sprawled in her lap, and now she opened her eyes and blinked up at the queen, grimacing as she lifted a hand to rub her face. “Ow.” She repeated. “I feel like I was stung by bees all over.” She gasped. “Everything hurts.”
“Yeah me too.” Xena slowly turned her head and looked around. The chamber was empty, save the dozen or so still figures near the door. She felt her heart clench a little, seeing them. “What happened?”
Gabrielle peered up at her. “I sure hope you're not asking me that.” She said. “Last thing I remember was hurting a lot, hanging on to you and then something hitting me.” She touched Xena's leg. “And it was loud.”
Xena digested this. “Well, we're not in Hades.” She eventually said. “So I guess we're not dead.”
“No.” Gabrielle rolled over and leaned on her elbow, looking over to see what Xena was watching. She saw the figures on the ground and drew in a breath. “Oh.” She put a hand on Xena's. “Are those our guys?”
“I think so.” The queen said, in a small voice. “I'm really glad you're still around here with me.”
They both fell silent. “They were supposed to kill us.” Gabrielle said. “I think they really wanted to.” She added. “I don't get why they didn't.”
Xena nodded. “Yeah me either.” She studied her hand, not wanting to look over at the bodies. “After all that spectral boasting you'd think they'd have croaked us, huh?”
Gabrielle reached out and took hold of the queen's hand, bringing it over and very gently kissing it. “I'm just glad we're together.” She closed her eyes and pressed her her cheek against Xena's knuckles. “Is it over now Xena?”
“I don't know.” Her companion admitted. “I guess we should go find out.”
They both got up. Xena groaned as she straightened, sending bolts of pain through her legs. “Augh!” She leaned against the wall and eased her shoulders back, reaching out to grab Gabrielle as she did the same. “Haven't hurt this bad since that damn ambush.”
Gabrielle grimaced and flexed her hands. “I don't think I've ever hurt this bad.” She admitted. “Even when they beat me up that time.”
It was very quiet. Xena wondered bleakly if she would find a lot more bodies if she walked out of the tower, shivering a little at the thought of encountering nothing but death in the rest of her realm. Her stomach twisted, thinking of that.
Was that her bargain? They left her and Gabrielle alive but took everything else?
Then why didn't they kill Gabrielle too? Xena watched her consort collect her staff and lean against it, her face pale, and her motions stiff and painful. “I'm sorry.” She muttered. “Didn't want you to get hurt because of my damn enemies.”
Gabrielle managed a brief grin. “They're mine too now I guess.” She commented. “We really pissed them off, huh?”
“Yeah.” Xena went over and picked up her sword. She lifted it up and examined it, but the blade was unremarkable and unmarked, the same condition she'd remembered it in. Painfully, she managed to put it into its's scabbard, then she held her hand out and waited for Gabrielle to take it.
Her consort did, and they walked together across the chamber, towards the still, silent forms lying on the ground between them and the door.
Halfway there Xena felt her knees start to shake and she knew a moment of private, intense fear, that despite her bold words, and her bravado that she would face the knowledge that her personal decision had caused soldiers loyal to her to die in some horrible painful way.
These soldiers who had stood by her side, as she held Gabrielle's dying body in her arms. “Why didn't they kill me?” She exhaled. “Why them?”
Gabrielle shifted closer and put an arm around her waist.
They came to the first of the bodies and paused, looking down at it.
“Oh.” Gabrielle drew a little closer. “It's just...”
“Bones.” Xena said, quietly. “Just bones.” She studied the artifacts. “But those are my men. My colors.”
Tunics, with her hawks head boldly on them. Xena closed her eyes against the pain of it. “Why the hell weren't they down in the hall getting drunk?” She sighed. “Why did they come up here?”
“Because they loved you.” Her consort said, softly. “Xena, they all do. We all do.”
Xena walked slowly through the bodies with her, careful not to step on even a ripped sleeve. “I”ll be back for you.” She said, as she reached the door. “Put your bones in the ground myself, I swear it.”
Gabrielle caught up and took her arm, gently squeezing it as the queen leaned against the door, her shoulders slumping. “Something must have worked out okay since we're still here, right?”
“Yeah.” Xena studied the floor. “I wonder if they left us like this just to watch me deal with everyone else being dead.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle inhaled softly. “That can't be true.”
The queen lifted a hand and rubbed her eyes. “I should be used to it huh?” She answered softly. “I thought I was. I've been killing people since I was seven years old.” She sighed. “Ah well.”
With a shake of her head, the queen worked the latch and opened the door, stepping out into the stairwell and stopping, as her sudden appearance caused a wholly unexpected swirl of motion, the rasp of leather and cloth against stone loud and startling in the hall.
“Xena!” Brendan was on his feet, staring at her. “Bigods it's good to see you.” He let his hand drop from his sword as the rest of the soldiers clustered at the doorway got to their feet. “Trying all night to get that damned door open to get to ye... heard the gods only know what going on.”
“We thought....” Brent paused, and exhaled. “Glad you're both all right.”
Xena was standing, stunned, watching them. She turned and looked behind her in the room. “W..” She blinked at what she saw and felt her heart skip.
Gabrielle turned too, shocked to find the floor empty. She looked up at Xena, seeing a ferocious mixture of emotion on her face. “Was that all fake?” She ventured.
The queen closed her jaw, and the door as well. “Good question. Let's save that for later.” She turned and leaned against the closed door, and studied them all for a long moment, not missing the grubby faces, and swollen eyes and seeing them in a way that made her feel surreally humble.
Was she worthy of this, really? Of this steadfast adoration from these men, and the willing soul sacrifice of Gabrielle? Really? Xena took in a breath, and released it, lifting her head as a rooster crowed outside, and as if that was a signal, the normal sounds of the stronghold started to filter in, echoing softly off the stone walls.
Was it an answer, of sorts?
She walked down the two steps to the landing and faced Brendan, . “Glad to see ya, you old goat.” She hesitated, then in an uncharacteristically awkward motion, stepped forward and embraced him.
“Uh. B..” Brendan froze, unsure of what to do. Then he hesitantly returned the pressure. “Ah, glad to see you too, your majesty.” His eyes found Gabrielle's past the queen's shoulder, and whatever he saw there made him smile. “Xena, I'm glad ye're all right.” He added softly. “Ye had me true worried.”
“Back at ya.” Xena released him and stepped back. “Thanks for trying to come save me from half the contents of Hades.”
Slowly the dawn light was starting to flood into the windows at the top of the tower. It lit them up with color, and as it touched Gabrielle she felt herself relax just a little. They'd survived the night. The sun made her think maybe they'd survive the day as well.
Xena solemnly greeted the rest of the soldiers, even Lakmas, with the same hug, making them close to crazy. “Some badass things went on in there last night.” The queen said, leaning against the wall. “Glad it's morning.”
“Us too.” Brent said. “When we couldn't get in the door... “ He paused, and then shook his head. “We really feared for you, your majesty.”
Xena sighed. “Yeah.” She thought longingly of her tub, and of the hot water she imagined in it. “I feared for me, too. I”ve got no real idea why Im still around.” She admitted, letting her body slump against the stone. “If I didn't feel like every horse in the stable stampeded over me. I'd think I'd hallucinated it all.”
“Well, I saw it too.” Gabrielle leaned on her staff. “So if you were so was I.”
Xena regarded all of them. There were twelve soldiers in the hall, eleven of her most senior men and Lakmas. Safe, and sound here in the hall, and now she really had to wonder what the bodies in the hall had been all about. “No one went in there, right?”
“If only we could have.” Lakmas said. “We threw ourselves at the door, great one, and tried our axes on it, but not a splinter would budge.”
The bodies were gone from the floor – were they left there just to taunt her? Give her that moment of pain, before she escaped and found the truth outside? “What'd you think you heard in there?”
“Screaming.” Brendan said, promptly. “Sounded like ye, Majesty. “ His body was battered, and there was a cut above one eyebrow. “As he said, we went for the door half the hight. Drove me mad.” He sounded and looked as tired as Xena felt. “Drove us all mad.” He added, in a low mutter.
“Aye.” Brent said, softly. “Heard screeching, and the wind... like nothing I ever seen.”
Xena sighed. “I think I need a drink.” She indicated the stairs. “Wanna join me?” She extended a hand to Gabrielle and waited for her consort to take hold of it then she led the way down the steps
They went down to the lower level, bypassing their quarters. “I want to know the worst.” Xena said, as they crossed to the main doors into the stronghold and passed through them.
A steward was crossing the hall, and he paused and bowed low to them. “Good morning, your majesties.” He greeted them, in the most normal of ways. “You are early this morn. Shall I have the kitchen make your breakfast ready?”
Xena stopped and studied him. “What's your name?” The man was vaguely familiar to her, one of Stanislaus's many right hands she'd seen around the place for years.
“Garon, your majesty.” The man replied.
“Congratulations.” She clapped him on the shoulder. “You're now the seneschal. G'wan and get breakfast started I've got some very hungry friends with me here.”
The man blinked in true startlement. “Majesty! You honor me greatly!”
“I do.” Xena agreed. “Don't make me look like a jerk. Do a good job.”
He smiled and bowed again, this time with a bit of a flourish. “Majesty, I will.” He headed off towards the kitchens at a purposeful trot, and they continued on into the big hall.
The early dawn light was coming in the eastern windows, and it spilled across the trestle tables that lined the room. Xena wound her way through them and went to the royal dais, taking a seat in her throne like chair in the center and waving the rest to sit down as well.
Xena folded her hands and let them rest on the table, unused to being in this room as early as this. Generally she had her breakfast in her chamber, usually and recently served to her with love and adorableness by her consort. “So.”
Brendan was sitting on her left hand side, since Gabrielle was perched on her right. He looked tired, and beaten up, his hands knicked and bruised as they rested on the table.
So. Xena pondered in silence. Maybe that's why this damn thing is happening. Teaching me to be a human being. “Sorry I caused you a night of Hades, Brendan.” She said. 'Didn't mean to.”
He smiled briefly. “No, ye didn't.” He agreed. “Was worth it, though, seeing that door open this mornin.” He regarded her. “Look a bit warshed out yerself.”
“I am.” Xena admitted, with a sigh. “Havent' been this tired since the last time I got my ass kicked in the war.” She looked up as kitchen slaves came pouring in, bearing trays of morning ale and food. She saw Gabrielle's attitude perk up seeing them and smiled. “Hurry up before Gabrielle starts chewing on the table here.”
Gabrielle had her legs pulled up crossed under her and she was leaning her elbows on her knees. “Keep me from falling asleep anyway.” She took a mug of ale and a big piece of brown bread with sliced eggs and venison on it. “Boy that looks good.”
The room was starting to fill with other guests and residents of the castle. Gabirelle sat back with her bread and enjoyed the full flavors, glad the pain in every inch of her was fading.
It was hard, really, to think about what had happened to them. The memories of the fury and the shades was fading, only the aches making her realize she had gone through that trial. A quick look at Xena told her that the queen was as exhausted as she'd ever seen her, and she figured maybe after breakfast they'd get a chance to go to their quarters and get some rest.
And a bath.
“Gabrielle.” Brent had ended up next to her. “Was it the dark ones again, in the chamber?”
Gabrielle was aware that Xena was listening in, her dark head tilted slightly to one side. “Well, it was scary and dark, that's for sure.” She replied. “I'm not really sure what was going on, to be honest. It was loud, and we were fighting something, and then it all stopped.”
Xena's shoulder lightly touched hers, just a faint nudge really but she took that as a sign of approval, something in her resisting being completely honest with Brent about what had happened though she wasn't entirely sure why.
“Sounds terrifying.” Brent shook his head.
“It was.” Gabrielle didn't mind admitting that. “If Xena hadn't been there, wow.” She rested her head against the queen briefly. “She was amazing. She went up against those guys.. and there were hundreds of them!”
“Gabrielle.” Xena demurred.
“There were!” Gabrielle protested. “It was so scary.” Her voice dropped to almost a whisper. “They were so awful.”
The men were all looking at Xena with wide eyes. The queen opened her mouth to reject the half assed heroics and then she had to stop, and think, and she closed her jaw with a snick because she realized what Gabrielle had said was not only true, but understated.
They were awful. They were scary as Hades, and there were so many she couldn't even have counted them all if she'd been able to see them.
She'd done it. “Yeah, and damned if I don't feel it.” Xena said. “That hurt.”
“It did.” Gabrielle rubbed her fingertips together.
“You hit them too.” The queen rested her head against her hand. “I saw you whack Sholeh.”
“Sholeh?” Lakmas jerked upright. “She came back from the dead?”
“Not really. She came back as the dead.” Xena said. “Figured to get me, I guess.”
Now everyone was staring at Xena in some discomfort with the exception of Gabrielle. The queen briefly wondered why, if she really hadn't wanted her consort to tell everyone what happened that she herself was well on the way to doing so. “Anyway.” She half shrugged. “It's over.”
She felt Gabrielle's hand touch hers, and her fingers fold over Xena's. The queen glanced sideways at her, but Gabrielle seemed to be lost in thought and the motion automatic. “But Gabrielle was in there swinging.” She found herself saying. “Knocked that stupid bitch on her ass, matter of fact.”
Her consort grinned a little, and her face creased into a bashful expression.
For a moment there was silence, then Brendan cleared his throat. “So now what is it, Xena?” He asked. “Have they gone? Tis a scary thing, yah?” He half turned to study the queen. “Dead things coming to fight with ye.”
Xena wasn't really sure how to answer that. She knew what she would like to be the truth, but given everything that had happened, she had no confidence that she knew for sure what was going on. So she considered the question carefully. What had really happened there, at the end?
She remembered the darkness, and feeling like her skin was on fire from the pain of it all. She remembered Gabrielle standing at her side, breathing hard, her body shaking. She remembered sensing the rush of the darkness as it came at them, and then the pain as it hit them and bowled them both over, and her back hitting the wall...
Why hadn't they died? Why hadn't the undead taken her? Taken them as they stood, arms around each other, locked in an embra.... Slowly Xena turned her head and looked at Gabrielle's profile. A faint, soft echo of words sounded inside her head.
I go willingly.
After a minute, Gabirelle realized she was being watched and she turned to meet Xena's eyes, her head cocking slightly to one side in question.
Hm. Xena smiled at her, and watched a return smile appear on her face. She'd never paid much.. okay, any.. attention to the traditions of the gods, her early life never had any and after she started fighting there had never been any want or need for it. “Someone get Jellaus in here.” She said, abruptly. “I want some information before I start talking crap.”
“Mistress.” Brent got up and trotted off.
Xena leaned back in her chair and picked up her mug, sipping the ale thoughtfully. “Brendan, damned if I know if they're gone or not but I figure they had their chance, last night to take what they thought they could take and they didn't.” She said. “Maybe they found out it was tougher than they thought.”
“Be right seeing as it was you.” Brendan managed a smile. “Aint' none tougher.”
No, that was probably true. Xena acknowledged. She wasn't always the brightest coal in the fire – something she'd only ever really say to herself – but tough and stubborn she was and no one knew that better than she did.
“I liked when you told Sholeh your soul wasn't yours to give.” Gabrielle spoke up suddenly, a tired grin on her face. “Or anything else for that matter.”
Xena felt her skin heat with a blush.
“We knew that too.” Brendan blithely agreed. “Twas all yours, by the gods, and their grace it was.” He studied Xena's profile. “Mistress, their blessing is on ye.”
Remembering the God of War's disdain, Xena wasn't really sure about that but after all, here she was. She looked around the room, now filled with her subjects, and buzzing with life and conversation and thought about that one moment in the tower when she'd wondered.
Got her mind off her red face, anyway. She looked down and studied her hands, one of which was neatly enclosed in Gabrielle's and sighed. Then she cleared her throat. “Why do you all go get some rest.” She said. “And.. ah.. I guess we should start planning that expedition out ot the hills.”
Brendan stood up, with a grateful look in the queen's direction. “Aye, sounds a good thing.” He motioned for the rest of the soldiers who'd stood with him. “Let's go you lot. Need to get ourselfs ready for a march.”
Gabrielle very gently cleared her throat.
“Maybe we should too?” The queen's eyes twinkled just a little. “Tired, my love?”
“Sorta.” Gabrielle admitted. “Kinda achy too.”
“Hm.” The queen inhaled, and seemed about to stand up, when the doors to the banquet hall opened and two of her guard came in, moving towards her in a purposeful way. “Somehow, I think we're gonna have to postpone the nap for a while.” She sighed, resting her chin on her fist as the guards reached her. “What's up?”
“Majesty.” The first one bowed his head. “Word just came in from the outpost at the pass.”
Xena waited. “And?” She prompted him.
“They say soldiers are coming towards us. Not an army.” The man peered at a scrap of parchment. “They look strange.”
Xena held her hand out. “Give me that.” She took the parchment and looked at it, aware of Gabrielle standing and leaning on her shoulder so she could see too. “If I was a betting woman, I'd bet we've got Persians coming to visit.” She remarked. “Aint' that special.”
“What makes you think it's them?” Gabrielle whispered into her ear.
“Say that again.” Xena instructed, feeling a wash of recklessness come over her. She waited for her consort to obey, then chuckled. “I love when you whisper in my ear.”
“And when you say my name.” The queen chuckled again. “I think it's Persians because they're carrying curved scimitars, and they've got a royal transport with em.” She pointed at the words. “See this? Color box in red and geld between a ox?”
Gabrielle blinked. “Is that what that means?”
“Be glad they didn't decide to try and draw a picture of it.” Xena advised her. “Yeah.” She put the parchment down and tapped her fingers on the tabletop. “So my guess is, this is an envoy of war from the old man.” Her eyes flicked to Lakmas. “Am I right?”
The Persian soldier came to her side and peered at the report. “His royal magnificence does travel in such a way.” He agreed. “But... “ He frowned. “Not with so few men.”
Xena thought about that. “Would the rest of them be in ships offshore waiting to land?”
Lakmas shook his head. “In the past, in campaigns I have been in they would have put the men ashore already somewhere. Then perhaps, the envoy would come to make a deal, but it would be a lie.” He didn't seem embarrassed about that. “The force would be coming in for attack, while the speech is going on.”
“Really.” Xena mused. “Well, Philtop told me they were around.” She said. “Someone go get me Philtop's lackeys. Time to get all the liars in one room and see what we've got here.”
“Mistress.” One of the guard headed for the door.
Gabrielle was still pressed against her. “We're not going to get that nap, huh?”
The queen smiled. “Not just yet.” She said. “You can go sack out if you want to.” She half turned her head and regarded her consort, seeing the look of stubborn disagreement clearly in those eyes. “Or not. You're a big girl and you can make your own choices.”
“I choose you.” Gabrielle whispered again in her ear. “And I want to know what's going on too.”
That all sounded so nice and high and mighty. Xena appreciated the sentiment. However, it occurred to her that sometime between now, and when the envoy got to the stronghold, she'd better take them both off and get some rest because if it was the worst, and she had some reason to expect the worst, it would be a long time before she could rest again.
Xena sighed. Damn it, she really didn't want another war. “I'm getting too old for this crap.” She muttered. “Time for the Fates to leave my ass alone.”
Gabrielle pressed against her and gently kissed the side of her neck. “Maybe we could go do that pirate thing?” She murmured into her lover's ear. “Would there be less Fates around if we did?”
“With my luck? No.” The queen groused. “Lakmas, what would the old man ask for if it really is him?” She indicated Brent's abandoned chair and the Persian sat down in it. “What would he be more pissed at, me beating his army, or his daughter getting offed here?”
“The army.” Lakmas answered immediately. “He was fond of Sholeh, make no mistake, oh great one. But she was a girl child. He hated the fact that his woman never gave him a son.” He rubbed his hands together. “We believed... in the army.. that the woman did so deliberately. She was from the east, and some called her a witch.”
“She was a war captive, Sholeh said.” Gabrielle spoke up. “Her mother was, I mean. Was that true?”
Lakmas nodded. “It was true. The king took her when he invaded Chin, and won great lands there. Lao Ma, she was called. He brought her back and forced her to bed with him, but she bore only Sholeh, and then she died.”
“Hm.” Xena rested her elbows on the table. “They thought she was a sorceress? A woman of magic?”
“They did so.” The Persian said. “She was killed when he thought she would teach Sholeh foreign ways, but it was always my mind that she tried too hard to prove she was his daughter and not hers.”
Xena leaned back. “Maybe she didn't kill her soon enough.” She mused. “Or maybe she was born a natural bitch who ended up carrying a grudge right into being dead.”
“Was it truly her shade?” Lakmas asked, seemingly more interested than afraid of that.
“Sure sounded like her.” Gabrielle confirmed. “But she was really ugly to look at. She wanted to take Xena.”
Lakmas nodded. “To bring back such a mighty warrior to her father was her goal to come here. First, to prove herself in battle, and again, to prove to him a woman could also be a formidable enemy.” He looked thoughtfully at his hands. “We would have fought to prove the first, she was her father's heir and we were given to her, but the second...” He shook his head. “None would have thought it true had we not been here, and seen it.”
Xena's eyebrow lifted.
“We had heard of you.” Lakmas continued, in a soft voice. “But it wasn't until I saw you that my heart changed. Sholeh then seemed like a wayward child to me, and her father, wise and ancient as he was, seemed to me a small and boastful man.”
A faint, sexy grin appeared on the queen's face. “I doubt his Poohbah the small and boastful is going to appreciate hearing that sentiment when he gets here. So g'wan and get some rest before our lives all go to Hades in a handbasket again.”
“My liege.” Lakmas smiled back, touching his forehead before he got up and circled the table, heading for the doors to the banquet hall. He was dressed in one of her hawk's head tunics and he twitched it straight as he walked through the crowd of castle inhabitants with obvious pride.
“Wow.” Gabrielle was still leaning against her. “That explains a lot.”
“That Sholeh wanted me as a prize of war to take back to daddy?” Xena eyed her.
“No. I knew she wanted you.” Her consort responded. “I said so, didn't I? But that she wanted to prove to her father that a woman could be a great fighter.” She paused. “My father woudln't have believed that either.”
“Your father was a jackass who deserved to be flayed and given to the dogs.” The queen responded bluntly. “If he'd been alive after I found out how he treated you I'd have done it and enjoyed it.”
Gabrielle paused, and then nodded. “I know. But he still wouldn't have believed how amazing you were unless he saw it.” She said. “He thought women were useless except for making babies and cooking his dinner.”
Xena got up, then sighed and sat back down again as the guard entered with the contingent from the Westlands. “Hold that thought.” She folded her hands on the table as the nobles approached, and Brent returned with Jellaus following close behind him.
The crowd milled around with interest, and she looked back at them. “Actually.” She stood up and put her hands on her hips. “Bring these guys back to my audience chamber. “ She told Brent. “No sense in spilling all the beans in one place right?”
“Mistress.” Brent bowed.
Xena held her hand out to Gabrielle and waited for her to take it. Then she led the way through the crowd towards the door. “Besides.” She added in an undertone to Gabrielle. “I”ve got herbs in my kit there that'll make us both feel better.” She winced a little, now that she was out of sight of the soldiers. “Damn my ass hurts.”
Gabrielle carefully put her arm around her companion, circling her waist. “Just being with you makes me feel better.” She admitted. “Are the Persians coming to attack us?”
“Probably.” Xena sighed.
The queen started laughing. “Yeah, I feel the same way.” She draped her arm over Gabrielle's shoulders. “I feel like just packing everyone up and riding for the hills. That old goat wants this place? Let 'm take it.”
“Maybe we could talk them out of it?”
Xena exhaled as she reached the door to her audience chamber in the tower, and shoved it open. “Maybe you could talk the old bastard out of it. I'll probably just slug him.”
“You really think that would work?”
“It sure would work for me.”
Gabrielle sat quietly at her little desk in the corner, her hands wrapped around the cup of tea and herbs Xena had mixed up for her. It had honey in it, and the taste of the herbs was only a little weird, not bitter or rank like they sometimes were and she was enjoying sipping it as she listened.
The sun had come out, and was shining through the window at her back, warming her skin and that, plus the herbs, plus being able to just sit quietly was making her feel better. Not as good as climbing into bed with Xena would have made her feel, but still.
She tried to pay attention to Xena's questioning of the Westlanders, but her mind kept wandering back to the terrors they'd been through, and the fight in the tower the night before.
They'd done okay, her and Xena. After she'd turned down the God of War and all that. She remembered how much it had hurt when she'd hit the scary creepy things and she flexed her hands, glad only a residual ache was there to remind her of it. She'd held her ground, and Xena had done more than that and she coudln't get past the fact that she'd fought against creepy things and lived to tell about it.
She had. She remembered hearing stories about ghosts, when they'd been inside during the long winters and how scary that had been when people had told of finding long lost loved ones coming back to haunt them.
Now she had a ghost tale of her own. Gabrielle gazed thoughtfully across the room, to where Xena was slouched in her big chair, elbow propped on the arm, head resting against her fist. Xena hadn't been scared at all, just angry, and brave, and standing there after she'd thrown her sword down – courageous and true.
True to her. Just like the voice in the grayness had told her she was. And, as the voice had also told her, she had been true to Xena and stood by her, and had been willing to die and go wherever Xena was going to go even if that was Tartarus, and an eternity of pain.
She tried to imagine what that would have been like. She was sure it would have been nasty. But she also was sure that no matter how bad it would be, just being there with Xena and holding her hand would have made it all right.
So now the Persians, maybe, were coming here to ask for something. Or demand something. Or yell at Xena or... Gabrielle pondered a moment. What if the Persian was really there to offer up the ransom the queen had asked for? Maybe he valued his men like Xena did, after all.
She looked over at Lakmas, who was standing like a statue beside the door, fully armed and wondered what he would do if that were to happen. Would he go back to his people?
Or stay with Xena?
Gabrielle exhaled and moved her body gingerly, the ache in every bone still present. She hoped he would pick Xena, if it did.
looked up to find the queen crooking a finger at her. Uh oh. Still
carrying her cup, Gabrielle got up and limped over to where Xena was
sitting, hoping like crazy that she wasn't going to be asked an
opinion on all the stuff she hadn't really been listening to.
Xena studied her. “When you had those rags taken off the walls.” She indicated the outer hall with a jerk of her head. “Who did it?”
Gabrielle cocked her head slightly to one side. “You mean, who got up on the ladder and took them down?”
Her consort let her wrists rest on the arm of her chair and thought about that a minute. Then she looked up with a faintly surprised expression. “Well, it was Stanislaus.” She said. “And two of his stewards, I think.”
“Stanislaus.” Xena repeated softly. “Who got knifed in my banqueting hall.” She picked up Gabrielle's cup out of her hands and took a sip of the herbal tea. “What in Hades is in that treasure? What's in there that's worth a Persian's heir, a dozen men's lives and enough royal intrigue to keep you busy writing scrolls about it the whole damn winter long?”
Gabrielle scratched her nose. “You think we should find out?”
“Before we end up croaking again for it? Maybe a good idea.”
“He knew something.” Xena repeated patiently to Philtop's chief lackey. “Do not toss that same old line about him pining for me back at me or I”ll cut your tongue off.” She'd gotten up and now she was pacing back and forth. “I don't buy it.”
The man shook his head. “Majesty, with all due respect to you, his mission was honest. Our crops did fail, our people face starvation. None of that is a lie.”
“Why?” Gabrielle spoke up suddenly.
He paused, and stared at her. “Pardon?”
“Why?” Gabrielle was content to stay parked back at her worktable, her elbows braced on it keeping her body as still as she could. The aching was starting to really bother her, and she felt her temper perking a little in response. “I mean, no one else's did. Not that we heard of. It's been a great harvest year for everyone else. So what happened to yours?”
He remained silent. Xena paused in her pacing and turned to regard her consort with interest.
“When I was small.” Gabrielle said. “My family were tenant farmers raising sheep. If we were the only ones whose sheep all died, I think the landholder would have asked my father the same question. What happened?”
He continued to stare at her.
“As in, what did we do wrong?” Gabrielle clarified. “Because sheep are pretty sturdy and they don't just keel over unless you screw up and let wolves get to them or didn't keep their layout clean and they all got sick. So what went wrong?”
Xena swiveled her eyes towards the lackey, her brows lifting. She folded her arms. “Well, Melchus?”
“We just had bad luck.” He refused to meet her eyes. “Weather... locusts.. I don't know.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. “You don't know why your crops failed?” The queen repeated. “Philtop didn't ask? He just accepted empty wagons? Really?”
Melchus remained silent.
“That doesn't seem right, does it, Gabrielle?” Xena turned to her consort, who was solemnly shaking her head no. “He knew I'd ask.. Hades he knew I”d send someone to check. So what's the deal, Melchus?” She walked over to where he was standing. “Maybe he didn't question what happened but no one in their right mind would think I wouldn't get around to that.”
She eyed Gabrielle. “Eventually.” She conceded, seeing the ghost of a grin flit across her lover's face. Then she focused on her more fully, seeing the tense, painful posture. “Tell you what, Melchus. You think about that for a couple minutes while I have a private conference with my one and only here.”
“Mistress.” He muttered.
“Brent, make sure he doesn't wander off.” Xena went to where Gabrielle was sitting, and extended her hand. “C'mon.” She gently lifted her to her feet and escorted her through the ornate doorway to the private chambers beyond. “Been looking for an excuse to get you to myself all alone.”
“Were you?” Gabrielle felt the cool calm of the bedchamber descend over her and it made her muscles relax a little as Xena kicked the door shut behind them and then circled around to face her. She looked up into the queen's face, finding a look of intense concern there. “I sure wanted to be with you alone.”
“Hurting?” Xena asked, gently.
Gabrielle nodded, glad not to need to dissemble. “Tea wore off I guess.” She said. “It got better for a while.”
The queen very nudged her carefully over towards the fire, which was snapping placidly in the hearth. “Know what?”
“I know I love you.” Gabrielle answered, as she watched, bemused, Xena's long fingers as they unlaced the tunic she was wearing over her armor. “I know I wish all this stuff was done so we could go have another picnic.”
“Or just go to bed.” Her consort sounded mournful. “Or have a bath.”
“I think I can arrange for all of that.” The queen got her tunic off, and then unclasped the the straps that held on the scaled armor, lifting it up off her and setting it aside.
“Ungh.” Gabrielle had to close her eyes as the warmth of the fire, and the cool breeze in the room warred in penetrating her linen undershirt. “That feels better already.” When she had the armor on it hadn't seemed at all heavy but now that it was off, and the pressure of it was no longer against her skin she felt almost lighter than air.
“I bet.” Xena gently riffled her fingers through Gabrielle's disheveled hair. “Thanks, by the way. You nailed the little bastard outside.” She untied the laces on her undershirt and loosened it, then pulled it over her head, leaving Gabrielle in her leggings and wraps.
She took a step back and looked down, then stopped, a thrum of shock going over her skin as she sharply inhaled. “Son of a bitch.”
Gabrielle looked around, then down at herself when it was obvious the sentiment was directed at her. “Oh.” She regarded the marks on her skin. “Ow.”
Xena felt like the air had been sucked out of her, seeing the spiderweb of lurid, red stripes, as though Gabrielle had been whipped over ever inch of her body. “Oh.” She echoed her lover. “I”m sorry, sweetheart.” She sighed. “Stay there. Let me get my kit.”
Gabrielle was glad enough to comply. She could now see herself in the mirror, and the marks were almost scary, red and raw looking. She touched one with her fingers and the sting made her pull her hand down at once. She remembered, once, being hit in the barn, after.. what had it been? Dropping the dinner platter? Or had it been letting the lambs out accidently?
Hadn't really mattered. She remembered the searing pain and now that she thought about it, the pain of these marks didn't seem that different. Except that instead of being beaten for displeasing her father, she'd gotten thrashed for defending her beloved Xena against a bunch of nasty ghosts.
Gabrielle studied her reflection, and didn't regret the marring.
“Damn, damn damn.” Xena, however, seemed to have a different view. She laid her supplies out and pressed Gabrielle down onto the small stool near the fire, dropping to one knee next to her. “If you look like this I don't wanna know what I look like.” She took out the cleansing paste and carefully cleaned off the scores, pausing only a moment as her consort lifted her hands up and let her wrists rest on her shoulders.
Xena understood that everyone expected her to be running things outside. She also understood, with almost refreshing clarity, that she didn't care. “Hang on one more minute.” She got up and went to the rotunda door, opening it and sticking her head out. “Someone get me hot water for the tub in here.”
“Mistress.” One of the guards ducked out the door.
“Brent.” Xena addressed her familiar. “Take this bastard, and put him in a cell. I'll get back to him later. I got things to take care of right now.”
“Mistress.” Brent grabbed Metrus by the arm and dragged him out.
That left the outer chamber in peace. Xena waited a moment to see if anything was going to change, and then she pulled her head back inside and shut the door. “There.” She walked back over and continued her care. “You and I are going to take a nice warm bath, my love. Then you're going to curl up in that bed with me and get some rest.”
“Aren't the Persians coming?”
“Sure.” Xena moved around in back of her and exhaled unhappily as she saw the welts across her consorts back. “They'll wait.” She leaned forward and found a clear spot, planting a kiss on it. “Squadron of the bastards aren't getting through my gates, Gabrielle.”
“You'd let them sit out there while we take a nap?” Gabrielle felt the intense pain starting to fade, now that her clothing was mostly off, and Xena was caring for her. “Really? Won' that get them mad?”
“I”m sure it will but I don't care. I finally learned something the past couple of days.” The queen rested her elbow on her knee as she came around the side of the stool, and met Gabrielle's eyes. “I figured out what's important and that's you and me. Not this place, not this realm, not even my army.”
Gabrielle felt a little short of breath. “Oh.” She uttered softly.
“Surprised?” Xena very gently moved her hair back off her face, and stroked her cheekbones. “I sure am. I never even thought for a minute I'd ever feel like this about anyone.”
Her consort let out a breath. “I always felt like that about you.” She said. “You've always been everything to me.”
“I had nothing else.” Gabrielle added, after a moment.
Xena studied her with an intent, quiet ferocity for a long moment. “I”m sorry I left you in the town, that time.” She said, finally. “I didn't deserve for you to wait for me, or want me back.”
Gabrielle shifted a little, and her eyes dropped, growing bright with tears.
“I talked myself into believing if I took the men and made them chase me, you'd get free and.. “ Xena paused. “And it was the biggest lie I ever told.” She took a breath. “Biggest moment of cowardice in my life.”
“You're not a coward.” Gabrielle said, in a soft, raspy tone. “Xena there's no one braver than you are.”
“Ahh.” Xena let her arms rest on Gabrielle's shoulders, and touched her forehead to her consorts. “You're wrong. I was a coward then, Gabrielle. I was afraid to admit how much I needed you in my life, and how it would hurt to lose you and I hid that by telling myself I was running away because it would be the best thing for you.”
“It really wasn't.”
“No.” The queen sighed. “I knew that. It wasn't even the right thing for me, not with my.. “ She winced, and rubbed a spot on her chest just above her heart. “I think if I had stayed on that boat and left that harbor I'd have run into the first spear headed my way after that.”
Gabrielle nodded, a little. “Me too.” She said. “I wanted to help Brendan get loose but I didn't really care if they killed me while I was doing it.” She paused, and looked up into Xena's eyes. “All I could think of was how empty my life would be without you in it.”
And Xena knew surely in her heart it was true. If she closed her eyes she could call up the memory of that moment, when she'd driven the Persians out of the gates and turned, finding Gabrielle's slight form still and waiting at the door to the stable, just watching her.
Just needing her, the tension of that so visible to Xena's eyes as she lifted her hand and gestured her over and felt so damned ashamed of herself. She'd felt so small seeing the utter relief on Gabrielle's face, and the aching joy as her arms wrapped around Xena.
“But Xena.” Gabrielle spoke up into the somewhat maudlin silence between them. “You did come back.”
“I did.” Xena admitted.
Gabrielle eased nearer and put her arms around the queen, resting her head against Xena's chest. She felt Xena return the hug very gently in deference to the scores on her back and though it stung a bit, it didn't matter. “Think the bath is ready?”
Xena chuckled softly “Let's go find out.” She took Gabrielle's hand and they headed for the bathing chamber, where sounds of splashing water were issuing and the smell of steam was faintly escaping from.
A half candlemark later, Gabrielle was washed, and tended, had a cup of herbs to kill the pain already in her stomach, and was curled up in bed as Xena was finally taking her own armor and leathers off near the fire. She picked up a goblet of honey mead on the bedside table and sipped it as the queen unlatched the shoulder straps on her leathers and turned as she loosened them. “Oh.”
Xena stopped in midmotion at the sound, and looked enquiringly at her. “What?”
Gabrielle scooted out of bed and went over to her, touching the edge of her leathers with a wide eyed expression. “Oh Xena.. that must really hurt.”
The queen looked down and blinked. “Ah.” She felt her own eyes widening a little. “Yeah.. so that's why it feels like that.” She studied the dark, cruel slashes across her chest, deep gouges puffy and red at the edges right above her heart. It was like an animal had clawed her and now that she saw it, she felt a little faint.
“Sit down.” Gabrielle correctly interpreted the sudden paleness of her face. “What can I do? Can I put some stuff on it for you?”
Xena sat down on one of the chairs near the fire and a flood of pain washed over her. She leaned back in the chair, and closed her eyes, as Gabrielle loosened her leathers the rest of the way and eased them down. “Think I need a cup of what I gave you.” She admitted. “Didn't hurt so bad before I saw it.”
Gabrielle perched on the chair arm and leaned over, giving her a kiss on the head. “Let me see if I can figure out which herbs you used.” She said. “What did that?”
“What do you think?” Xena opened one eye and studied her wryly. “I remember feeling something clawing at me right before it all got dark and I figured we'd..” She took a careful breath. “Well, I figured I'd see you at the gates of Tartarus.” She felt a warm and feather light touch above the gashes and then Gabrielle straightened up and eased past her, heading for the healer's supplies she'd left on the credenza.
That left her alone to study her injury, and she did, not denying the sense of horror at the ugly rending of her flesh. It was as though a huge, hot hand, with sharp nails had grabbed her, sinking into her chest on the way to... Xena touched one of the gouges with her finger, which was shaking slightly. On the way to ripping her heart out.
Ripping her heart out. Xena felt cold. She shifted closer to the fire and curled up a little, drawing her knees up and resting her forearm on them. Except, what had she told them? That her heart wasn't hers to give?
She remembered, or she thought she did, that last moment before the darkness had rolled over them when Gabrielle had thrown her arms around her neck and put her head down on Xena's chest.
She looked down at herself. Had put her head down right where the marks stopped.
Gabrielle came back in the room and brought over a small tray of herbs. “You'll have to tell me which ones, Xena. I”m sorry. I don't remember.” She sat down and looked up at Xena in question, pausing and blinking at the expression on her lover's face. “Are you okay?”
Xena rested her chin on her fist. “Uh huh.” She said. “Just having a life changing moment of personal revelation. Don't mind me.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle studied her. “Wow.”
The queen uncoiled from her scrunched position and focused her attention on the tray. “Take these two and mix them, them put them in the cream stuff in the blue jar and slap it on me.” She pronounced. “If this hasn't killed me yet it probably wont.”
Her consort looked disturbed at that, but she took the tray back with her to the credenza and started mixing the herb. Xena leaned back in her chair and regarded her injury again, this time with less horror as she marked end of the claw gouges short of their target due to her unusual living armor.
Gabrielle had saved her soul. Xena found herself more than surprised at that. She looked up as the blond woman came back over, dipping her fingers into a small bowl and gently daubing the spicy smelling mix onto her skin. Though her own scores were still red and painful looking, she seemed to have forgotten about them in her focus on the queen. “Gabrielle.”
Pale green eyes lifted to hers, as her consort paused.
Puzzled, Gabrielle tilted her head a little, then started spreading the herbal rub on the ugly gashes again. “For this? Heck, Xena... you don't have to thank me for that.” She smiled. “I sure wish I didn't have to though. Boy those look painful.” She winced a bit in reflex.
Standing there in her plain shift, the light from the window painting her in gold, there was a depth to her that felt new to Xena's eyes. The words were normal though, and she put a hand on her thigh, watching the faint smile appear on Gabrielle's face as she felt the touch. “Yeah, they hurt.” She responded. “But I think they'd have hurt a lot more if you hadn't been there with me.”
Gabrielle's smile grew wider, and she looked up at Xena again, with a happy expression. “I'm glad I could help.” She leaned closer, using the side of her thumb to spread the ointment along the gash. “Sure is lucky they stopped where they did.” She shook her head as the claw marks shallowed out.
Xena studied her. Gabrielle seemed to have no idea that she might have been the reason. “That stuff scare ya last night?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle wiped a bit of excess ointment off the queens's skin, and then set the bowl down. “Want to stand up? I can get the leather stuff off.” She undid the laces as Xena hauled herself to her feet, easing it off the queens' body and exhaling as the sun splashed over her now bare skin. “Oh Xena.” She murmured.
The queens' body was a mottled purple from just under her breasts to her knees, with livid red whip marks much like Gabrielle's but not as visible due to the bruising that covered them. The only break in her skin was the claw marks, though.
Xena regarded her bruised form with a mournful look. “Yeah. Ow.” She agreed. “I think I better go lay down.” She trudged over to the bed and carefully stretched out on it. “Wanna join me?”
Gabrielle immediately did so. She crawled into the bed from the other side and squirmed over to where Xena was lying, settling on her side and curling her fingers around Xena's upper arm. She put her head down on the pillow and exhaled, glad to be able to relax at last.
She was tired, and everything hurt. Looking at Xena even hurt because she could see all the damage on the queen's body and she could see by the expression on her lover's face she was hurting too. Xena looked as tired as she felt, and she moved a little closer, kissing her shoulder.
Xena looked very thoughtful, as she felt the touch. She turned her head and regarded her consort. “Can we talk about this pirate thing after we take a nap?”
“After we get rid of the Persian, and find out about that treasure thing or before?”
The queen smiled, a wry, loving expression as she regarded her bedmate. “Gabrielle.” She burred gently. “Would you lose your mind if I threw you over my shoulder and just rode out of here in the dark of night?”
Gabrielle returned her gaze thoughtfully. Finally she sighed. “I think I'd really really rather just ride Patches, Xena. It would be really bumpy up on your shoulder and it probably would hurt.”
Xena laughed, despite that hurting too. “So you wouldn't mind?”
Her consort shook her head. “No. It's been weird and scary here. I figure if we were out there by ourselves, maybe I'd end up having more fun.”
Xena kissed the top fo her head. “You have a true heart, my friend. A far greater treasure than anything I could hope to find off any damned map.”
Gabrielle snuggled closer and gave Xena's arm a little squeeze. “Yeah I didn't do to bad for a shepherd's kid from the sticks.”
They both exhaled, then paused, as the sound of footsteps coming up the back stairs from the kitchen caught their attention. Immediately, Xena's ears pricked and she stiffened. “That's not your little cat.”
The steps were heavier, and sounded booted. “No.” Gabrielle murmured. “Not Mestre for sure.” She eased away from the queen as she felt Xena start to move, and pushed herself upright.
There was no attempt at stealth. Xena got out of bed and went to the press, throwing a tunic on over her head and removing her sword from it's sheath. The blade was still dinged and scored with black streaks from the previous night, but she figured with her hand behind it that wouldn't matter.
Barefoot, she went over to the inner door to the passageway, and waited, just to one side, so that when it opened whoever it was wouldn't immediate be able to see her. Then she went still, and seemed like a tall, disheveled looking statue, the point of her sword tucked along her thigh.
Gabrielle listened to the footsteps getting louder, then she scrambled out of bed and squiggled into her own tunic, grabbing her staff and moving soundlessly across the carpeted floor, she joined the queen, flattening her back against the wall on the other side of her.
The bed, a bit mussed and pillows askew, stood mutely bathed in sunlight across from them.
Outside the door, the footsteps stopped. Xena put her hand out in front of her, ready to stop the portal from slamming back into them and listened, hearing steady breathing and the shift of a body inside leather clearly. She saw the latch start to move and took a breath of her own, shoving all the pain and discomfort past her as her blood surged and her body got ready to fight.
What idiot was trying to make their way into her chambers though? Anyone who'd come from the kitchens knew better.
Abruptly, the latch stopped and returned to it's original position. Then, after a moment, there was a gentle scrape and the sound of cloth against stone, and the footsteps started again, this time heading away from them.
Xena turned and looked at Gabrielle, who shrugged.
“Hmph.” The queen waited for the steps to get to the turn below, and then she slipped to the otherside of the door and eased it open, hoping like Hades the joints wouldn't creak any louder than her own were. After another moment of silence she started down the steps herself.
Gabrielle followed, making sure to keep her staff away from the walls so as not to make a clatter with it. Since she and Xena were both barefoot their advance was far more silent than their visitors and in a moment they were both at the turn and starrting down to the lower levels.
They could see a dark shadow in front of them, the steps echoing up past their ears.
The torches were out in the stairwell. Xena felt her spine prickle at the oddness of that, and the fact she could not smell any pitch which meant they'd been out for a while. She could feel how cold it was too, and suddenly she wondered if sneaking down a dark stair in a shift with no boots on was entirely a good idea.
She felt Gabrielle's hand touch her back and only barely stifled herself from jumping.
Slowly, her steps went still and she merely watched as the dark figure reached the bottom of the steps and the passageway into the kitchens. She waited for the outline of the door to appear, and the sounds and smells from the lower level to waft upward, but the dark remained, and after a moment, the shadow was gone.
Xena understood that she was a brave woman. There was no doubt of that in hers, or anyone elses mind. But she turned and nudged Gabrielle back up the steps, and felt that cold tickle up her spine right up until her consort pushed the door to their quarters open and they were back in the light.
The queen closed the door behind them, and after a pause, leaned against it.
Gabrielle stood quietly across from her, hands clasped around her staff. “That was creepy.”
Slowly, Xena nodded. “That was creepy.” She confirmed. “Pirate ship is sounding better and better every damn minute.” She sighed and walked over to the garment press, setting the blade down and flexing her hands. “Tell you one thing. You're not leaving my sight.”
Gabrielle blinked in surprise.
“Not for a minute.”
The sun was turning a rich gold and slanting across the floor, a spear of it painting Gabrielle's thigh as she added a dusting of herbs to her stew pot and stirred it.
The smell of the bubbling concoction filled the room, a thick golden brown mixture full of beef and harvest vegetables, giving Gabrielle a focus that wasn't creepy shadows or Persians kings.
In a chair nearby, Xena was sprawled, studying some scrolls Jellaus had brought her. She was dressed in a thick, soft robe and had her indoor boots on, her freshly washed hair loose around her face.
Gabrielle turned her attention to a small pan of apples, already cored and filled with nuts and spices. She added a little water tot he pan and set it into the fireplace, near enough to the flames to roast nicely.
She was sorry she hadn't gotten a nap, but the creepy visitor had knocked the sleep right out of her, and out of Xena too, and relaxing like this was about the best they could hope for until word came from the pass on their visitors.
At least the herbs Xena had given her, and taken herself, had eased the pain and now it was just a dull throb she could almost ignore.
The castle seemed very quiet. The nobles seemed to be resting after the previous day's party and around them Gabrielle could sense the normal activity of their home, the sounds of carters and merchants drifting up through the windows and below them, the brush of leather armor against stone as soldiers kept watch.
A soft knock came at the outer door, and Gabrielle looked up, glancing at Xena in question.
“Brent. Who's knocking?” Xena called out.
They heard the door open and Xena's ears cocked slightly as she lifted one hand off the parchment and let it rest on her newly burnished sword's hilt.
“Tis Brendan, Mistress.” Brent came to the door and bumped it all the way open. “News from the outpost.”
Brendan entered and touched his chest with his fist. “Persians, for sure.” He said. “Made camp just this side of the pass, looks like they'll stay put through the night, yeah?” He pulled off his mail coif and ran a hand through his grizzled hair. “Go to meet em?”
Xena rested her elbow on her chair arm. “Twenty horse, twenty foot. Block the road before dawn, and escort them here.” She ordered. “No one gets hurt.”
“Aw.” Brendan frowned.
“Let's hear what they have to say before we kill them.” Xena said. “Ya never know. We could get surprised.”
“Never liked surprises.” Brendan grumbled.
“Persian ones never seemed really nice.” Gabrielle turned around from her task, and eyed the queen. “Especially all that poison and stuff.”
Xena shrugged in acknowledgement. “Tell them they're an escort of honor.” She said. “I don't want trouble before they get here. Maybe we can try diplomacy for a change. That should shock the codpieces off everyone.”
“Aye, Mistress.” Brendan nodded in comfirmation, and then turned to leave. “Get them on the road.” He disappeared into the outer chamber and Brent closed the door behind them both, returning their private chamber to peaceful quiet.
“What do you think those guys are coming here for?” Gabrielle stirred the stew, poking a chunk of meat with her knife and grunting in satisfaction at it's softness. “I mean really?”
“I don't really know.” Xena lifted a mug full of cider and sipped it. “If it's the old coot himself, it can either be really good or really bad news. If it's good news, I'm buying you a whole stable of new ponies. If it's bad news... well, that's why I sent a dozen men down the road to Philtop's digs to see if they're full of soldiers waiting to attack us.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle mused. “Xena, I'm not sure what I'd do with a stable full of ponies. I think I only need one.” She gave the stew another stir. “What are we going to do if there really is a Persian army out there?”
“Fight them.” Xena had gone back to her scrolls. “Again.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Yuck.”
“Not up for another war, hon?” Xena asked. “We had so much fun in the last one.”
Her consort ladled out two bowls full of stew and brought them over to the table between the two chairs facing the fireplace. She set them down then went back and got a loaf of freshly baked bread and brought that over too along with her cup of cider. 'You're making a joke, right?”'
Xena gave her a droll look. She set the scroll down and turned her attention to the gently steaming bowl at her elbow, picking up the spoon dunked in it and sticking the resulting portion into her mouth. It was rich and delicous, and she chewed it slowly in order to savor it.
Same ingredients as they used downstairs, but Xena was convinced she could taste Gabrielle's love in every single bite of it because the taste was completely different than anything her cooks produced.
Really truly. She picked up a piece of the bread and dunked it in the dish, chewing it with quiet absorption. “Yes, I”m making a joke.”
“If we already beat them.” Gabrielle had her legs pulled up crossed as she sat in the chair next to Xena. “Why do they want to get into more trouble with us?”
“Because we beat them.” Xena responded promptly. “No one likes being beat – especially by a smaller force, with less gear and fewer men.”
“Ah hah.” Gabrielle poked her bread into the stew. “But.. wouldn't they figure out that they'd just get beaten again?”
The queen chuckled softly under her breath. “Nah. The old goat probably figures I tricked his spawn into something or took advantage of her. He'll never assume his men – his big ass army – just lost to me.”
Gabrielle considered that as she ate her snack. She remembered the war, and how really the whole thing had revolved around Xena's cleverness and her seeming to know exactly what Sholeh was planning and also what to do to stop her. It was amazing, really.
Even when Xena had been hurt, and hurting, and even when they thought they were going to be in big trouble in the city and even...
Gabrielle exhaled. Even when Xena left her there. Even then she'd turned it around and made everything work out.
“Hey.” Xena reached out and poked her knee.
“Something wrong with that bowl? Mine's great.” The queen studied her face.
“No.. I was just thinking of that war.” Gabrielle explained, plunging her spoon back into work. “And how you just fixed everything up so it all came out right.” She looked at her companion. “It was really amazing, Xena. You're so smart.”
An almost adolescently rakish grin appeared on Xena's face. She was used to Gabrielle blowing her actions out of proportion, but in the war with the Persians? She hadn't had to. Though in some moments of it she'd wanted to gut herself, it had all turned out in the end and there wasn't much she had to protest over.
That's why she enjoyed listening to Gabrielle tell stories about it – because she'd really pulled off something special in beating those bastards. Of course, she sighed inwardly, that had led directly to her being in this situation but... “Thanks.” She leaned on the chair arm. “I sincerely hope I dont screw it up so bad this time that you forget how it was then.”
“Hey, every day's a new chance to do something stupid.” Xena swirled her cider in her cup and took a swallow. “So we've got a nice long night ahead of us. Got any ideas for entertainment?”
Gabrielle produced her own rakish grin.
The queen chuckled. “First, I gotta do a tour, and set the watch. I got a gut feeling we've got trouble on the way and not just Daddy Persian”
“Can I go with you?”
“Didn't I tell you you're not going to leave my sight?” Xena scraped her bowl empty. “Wasn't kidding.” She licked the spoon. “Let's get the leather and iron on, and go be kickass.” She watched her consort look up at her through slightly shaggy but adorable bangs and grinned. “Long as I have you around, it's gonna work out, Gabrielle. Count on it.”
In the end, she convinced Xena that her sword was enough to protect her since her skin was just too sensitive to put all that scale armor on. So she had a light tunic that fell to her thighs on, and a woven belt around her waist that at least let her walk and move without grimacing.
She had her staff though, and hanging from her belt was the knife Xena had given her. She was tucked behind the queen's tall form, as they crossed from their tower to the main hall where there was a lot of bustle going on.
Xena of course had put her armor on. She had her sword on her back and her chakram at her hip and a beautifully lined cloak over her shoulders that swept the floor as she crowd parted for her.
Gabrielle stuck tight to the queen's heels as they went past the banqueting hall and further into the stronghold. The torches were up on the walls, and the light was fading outside. As they went into the lower hall two soldiers removed torches from sconces and followed them.
Xena didn't seem to notice. She turned at one corner and went down the steps, going to a locked wooden door that the soldiers hurried to open for her. “Thanks boys.” She continued into the long hallway past that, which went under the courtyard and ended up in the army barracks.
Gabrielle had been in this tunnel once. She had followed Xena in much this same way on her first days in the stronghold, when a fellow slave had been taken and used and the queen had taken severe exception to that.
Had killed because of it – in Gabrielle's very first experience of someone standing up for those weaker when there was no apparent reason for it.
Standing up for a slave, who ended up being part of a plot to overthrow her. Celeste her name had been. Even after what Xena had done in her behalf, she'd ended up part of the rebels, and she'd been thrown out of the gates in that cold winter storm.
Life did stink sometimes. Gabrielle kept at the queen's back as they passed through the big iron gates on the far end, then up the steps into the long buildings her soldiers lived in.
There was a lot of bustle in there too. Soldiers were working on gear and weapons, and several were in a corner fashioning arrows by the fire. They all looked up as the door opened, and scrambled to come to attention, their eyes lighting up as they recognized their visitors. “Majesty!” One of them bawled. “Majesties!” He corrected himself a second later, as Xena held up a hand.
“Evening, boys.” Xena went to the worktable at the front of the barracks, where a long burned in outline of the stronghold was laid out. “Gather round.”
The soldiers didn't have to be asked twice. They clustered around both Xena and Gabrielle, careful not to bump into them but clearly excited by their presence. Even a few of the Persians, now mingling with Xena's men, were edging closer to hear what the queen had to say.
It made Gabrielle wonder, again, about what they would do when the other Persians came. She watched them out of the corner of her eye, but their attitudes were just like the rest of them, and she didn't sense that they were hiding anything or were anything but happy to be with the rest of the soldiers.
They all leaned in a little as Xena started to talk, her fingers moving across the map burned into the top of the table. “Okay, so here's the deal.” She glanced up as Brendan wormed his way through the crowd with Brent at his back. “Legion go out?”
“Aye.” Brendan nodded briefly.
“Good.” Xena said. “As I was saying here's the deal. We have a small.. shall we call it envoy heading here through the pass from the port city. Watch says they're Persians.”
Lakmas nodded. “Standard they are bearing marks them as being from Cambyses, he who was the father of Sholeh, and also of the bastard they called Heydar.”
“Ah yes.” Xena mused. “The Bullshit of Persia. I remember him well.”
Lakmas muffled a laugh, covering his mouth with one large hand. “You knew him well, Majesty.” He remarked, with a faint bow. “Heydar's mother was his majesty's senior concubine, and he wished the throne for himself.”
“No, really?” Xena's blue eyes rolled. “You know he's the one who killed her, right?”
Lakmas nodded. “I would have.” He said, frankly. “And he as well, to lead us all into ruin as they did. Was their egos, alone they pandered to. Cambyses did wrong to send so many of us with them on this campaign.” He shook his dark, handsome head. “He planned to disgrace her in any condition and take control over the army.”
Xena nodded. “He tried to get me to go head to head with him. Figured he could kill me and get the Persians' reputation back.”
“He tempted your majesty's own ego.” Brendan remarked dryly. “Thinking to draw ye.”
Xena smiled. “No temptation for me that time.” She picked up a bit of chalk and marked on the table. “Okay. So here's the direction the Persies are coming from. “She sketched in the outer road and the pass. “The guard made their number as a hundred, about twenty various royalties and the rest men at arms. “
“That is usual.” Lakmas said, without prompting. “If it is truly Cambyses, they will be his elite guard with him. They give no quarter. Even warriors like myself fear them as they are to my eyes, mad.”
“Ah huh.” Xena said. “So he's coming with wagons and flags and pomp.” She studied the road. “He knows we know he's coming by now I'm guessing or will soon, so the question is, is he the focus or just the distraction.”
“Mistress?” Brendan leaned his knuckles on the table.
Xena straightened and ticked off her fingers. “Philtop shows up, men start dying. He pitches me on his bad harvest, I agree to send two legions and my best captain down there to take charge. He does his damndest to distract me, right up until he gets gutted in my chambers, and then I find out his people can't even say what about the harvest was so bad. “
The men and Gabrielle digested this briefly in silence. “That's a lot of weird.” Gabrielle finally said. “Do you think it was all about the treasure?”
“I think he made a deal with the Persians and this whole damn charade was to keep our attention from an army surrounding us and intending on wiping us off the face of the earth.”
Xena's voice was calm, and her face was calmer. “I think they're here.” She drew in the areas to the west, making marks at two big folds in the hills that rolled through that part of her land. “I think they're waiting for a signal to come down and take the valley here, and then continue on and besiege us.”
Brendan looked at her. “Bigods.”
“Gabrielle said it.” Xena indicated her lover, who blinked in surprise. “She asked the Westlanders why their harvest was so bad, if everyone else's wasn't. I think it was because it went to feed the Persians – and he was banking in getting it back when they took over this place and finally.. in his rotten mind, put him in my place.”
“He would do that.” Brent said, in a quiet tone. “His father was one of my father's bastards.”
Everyone stared at Brent, except for Xena,who chuckled dryly. “Heir to the old throne.” She pointed at Brent. 'He inherited all the brains in the family apparently.”
“So what are we going to do?” Gabrielle asked, after a long pause. “Are we going to fight all those guys again?”
“We kinda have to. They blew their chance to get rid of me when old daddy out there bribed his god to open the gates of Hades in my tower chamber and it all ended up with his little witch losing her bid to make good in front of him battering uselessly against a pair of sappy tributes to Aphrodite who didn't have the sense to stay clear.”
Gabrielle studied her “Us, you mean.”
“Us, I mean.” The queen agreed cheerfully. “Daddy got word his little plan didn't work, so he drew his last card, and decided he had to do this the hard way. Not a stupid man. If you can get what you want without killing a thousand people more props to you.”
“So he's coming here with all his soldiers to kill us?” Her consort clarified. “Because we beat his army?”
“Yes.” Xena said. “So.” She studied the map. “Now we just have to figure out what to do about it.”
“Could you appeal to your gods?” Lakmas asked. “I do not know them, but if a payment to them in blood will bring victory I am willing to make it.” His soft voice remained calm and steady, despite the shivering reaction in the room. “I have chosen my side. I will die fighting to win or in agony in loss so if it serves you to spill my life to your deity, I offer it.”
Xena juggled the chalk in her hand. “Nice.” She finally said. “If I thought it would do any good, I'd take you up on it.”
Lakmas bowed and pressed his hands together.
“Unfortunately I already turned the only useful god I know down so we have to find another way.” Xena went back to the map. “But thanks.” She glanced up at him, and smiled, winking at him when he met her gaze. “I like your style.”
Lakmas grinned back and folded his brawny arms across his chest, gathering in the only partly grudging looks of admiration from the rest of the soldiers.
“What's the weather like outside, Brent.” Xena was studying a part of the map intently.
“Cold, mistress. Bitter cold tonight, I ken.” Brent said. “Might get more snow, most dind't melt up in the highlands. Heard some of the nobles here, and here..” He touched the map with his fingertips. “Talking about sending patrols back.”
“Uh huh.” The queen grunted. “Let's do that. Send a patrol... twenty maybe... out along the western road and make sure the holdings are secure.” She traced a path. “Use the high path we used that last time, and stop right around here.” She pointed at a spot.
Brendan frowned. “Only there, Mistress? If we go up along here we can see down into Philtop's lands. Could find something interesting.”
“Just to here.” Xena said. “I don't want you finding anything interesting in the Westlands. Yet.” She looked around the room. “Sometimes, you just kick ass.” She said. “Sometimes, in order to keep your ass from being kicked, you gotta use something other than this.” She lifted her hand and made a fist. “And hope for the best.” She added with a rakish grin. “G'wan. Get moving. Don't waste the last of the daylight. The rest of you – get ready to fight.”
Brendan moved off, shouting orders and pointing at men, as Xena folded her arms over her chest, watching the shifting bodies as they dispersed to their bunks, most of which already had the marching rucksacks they commonly carried when in the field.
Gabrielle eased closer and leaned against Xena's tall form. “What are we going to do?” She asked, in a whisper.
“I don't know.” Xena whispered back. “I'm making it up as I go along.”
“Really.” Xena kissed the top of her head. “There's no school for this, my love. No one tells ya what to do when some stupid bastard wants to burn your castle to the ground.”
Gabrielle exhaled. “At least we're not the ones going out there to find the bad guys.”
“Not this time.” Xena agreed. “Tonight you and I are going to enjoy our bed with complete randy abandon because after that, who the Hades knows what's going to happen. Let's go.” She guided her consort back toward the hallway that led into the castle “But first, I want to visit your little circus friends.”
Gabrielle really truly would have rathered they went back up to the tower, and climbed into the aformentioned bed. She was tired, and she was hurting, and it seemed that the next day was going to be a return to scary and bloody just when she was hoping to get some rest from all that.
But Xena was already heading the other direction, clearly expecting her to follow and so she did. At least she might get a chance to see the cat, she reasoned and they could maybe stop by the stables and say hello to Patches and Tiger.
Cheered up, she caught up to Xena as the queen reached the inner hall and turned to the right to head down into the tunnel. “Hey Xena?”
“You know what?”
Xena glanced at her. “I”m about to.” She said. “Let me guess, you don't want to visit the dancing hall, you'd rather just go up to bed.”
Gabrielle smiled and blushed a little. “That's true.” She admitted. “But you know what else? I kinda miss you calling me that muskrat thing.”
The queen stopped, and hopped forward as Gabrielle plowed into her from behind, not expecting that. She turned and faced her consort, ignoring the crowds of nobles and servants still milling around. “Say what?”
Gabrielle hitched her thumbs into her belt and took a breath. “I didn't mind you calling me that. I liked it.”
Xena blinked. “Really?”
“You liked me calling you a small furry rodent with big teeth? Really?” Xena asked, in a somewhat astonished tone.
Gabrielle nodded. “I mean... “ She glanced around. “It made me feel special.”
Xena reached up and rubbed her eyes. Then she reached over and gently patted Gabrielle on the cheek. “Okay, muskrat.” She said. “Whatever makes you happy. Let's go line up some circus troops, and then we can take ourselves off to bed. Okay?”
Xena started off again, muffling a laugh. Despite all the crappy things in the wind, she felt good, and light and happy, and she was damned determined to stay that way.
Continued in Part 14