A Queen for All Seasons
How to explain Philtop? Xena lay flat on her back on the big bed, arms outstretched as she listened to Gabrielle puttering around near the fireplace. How to explain this massive screw up of her younger years that almost… almost had cost her this realm she’d conquered. "Damn it."
The scent of hot cider neared, and she turned her head just as Gabrielle sat down on the bed and offered her a cup. "Don't have a past, muskrat. It catches up with you and bites you in the ass when you least expect it to." She turned onto her side and hiked herself up on one elbow, taking the mug and feeling it warm her hand. “Thanks.”
The pale green eyes studied her gravely. Then her consort lifted a hand and touched her cheek, stroking the skin there with a gentle thumb as Xena’s eyes fluttered briefly closed. "He sounds like he was in your army. Was he?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"No." Xena said, after a pause. "He was an obstacle. Westlands were the first territory I attacked when I got here." She swirled the liquid in the cup and took a sip. “I caught them by surprise. Came down out of the hills at night, and had the city walls half down before they knew what hit them.”
“So then.” Xena felt itchy, and embarrassed, to be admitting this. “I saw them raise a white flag over the tower. Gates opened, he came out.”
Came out, on his gorgeous chestnut horse, in all his finery. Xena remembered reacting to the sight. To the raw, knowing sexiness of him before she really understood what was going on.
Hades. She was young. He was gorgeous. He’d played the noble self sacrificing card and she’d fallen for it, and him in a wash of sexual desire that caught her completely by surprise.
What a feckless moron she’d been. Xena sighed and took a sip of her cider. “Anyway.”
“He surrendered?” Gabrielle ventured softly.
"Not exactly. He made me an offer. He'd surrender, if I let him keep his lands after I finished raping and pillaging so I could go on to greener pastures. He’d just stay out of my way."
"Oh." Gabrielle's tone changed completely.
"Mm. Yeah. His outside's prettier than his inside." The queen remarked. "Only thing I respected was that he was willing to do anything to protect those poor bastards who're stuck trying to farm that scrub."
"Sounds like he still is."
Xena laughed shortly. "So after I went the distance and fought everyone around here into the ground... after my army was tired to the point of dropping and we'd just won.. he comes through the valley with his army and makes that offer I mentioned before."
"That you could be queen if you gave him an heir?"
"Mm." Xena nodded. "He was looking to take it all. Figured he had me over a barrel – we were ragged. I don’t’ think I could have put twenty men against him.” Her eyes narrowed. “He thought he had me.”
Gabrielle watched her, seeing the deep, burning anger still in those pretty blue eyes. She took Xena’s hand and chafed it, as the muscles in the queen’s face twitched, memories obviously flickering through her mind.
She could still picture it. Her standing in her leathers, covered in dirt and blood, and him in his sparkling, clean armor, smiling at her, reaching out to touch her face all ignorant of the building storm standing in front of him.
His words had washed past her, as he patted her cheek, touched her shoulder, then put his hand on her belly and told her he couldn’t wait to fill that with what he knew would be big, beautiful boys.
Xena took a breath, and released it, looking up into Gabrielle’s concerned face.” Doublecrossing jackass bastard. I should have killed him."
"Why didn't you?" Gabrielle asked.
One of the queen's dark eyebrows lifted sharply. "Aren't you supposed to be a sheep loving pacifist?"
Gabrielle blushed. "That's not what I meant.. I was just wondering."
"You were just wondering." Xena took a sip, then handed her the cup. "You were wondering maybe I didn't because I liked him?"
Gabrielle's blush deepened.
“Liked him, the way I like you?” Xena studied her intently, seeing the flutter at her pulse point.
Her consort took a breath, then raised her eyes. “I know there were other people.” She said. “It’s okay.”
The queen chuckled very softly. 'Well, you come by those green eyes honestly, don'cha?" She reached over and put her hand on Gabrielle's thigh, a little surprised to feel a faint tremor there. "So yeah, I was a young and stupid, and I wanted him in bed." She watched Gabrielle's eyes flicker, then lift to her own. "He screwed up by trying to screw me over. If the moron had just offered to join his army to mine, he'd probably be the king of this place right now."
Gabrielle studied her gravely.
"But he didn’t. Instead." Xena looked away, down at the soft fabric covering the bed. "He ended up cracked in half, and I risked the first great bluff of my career and told his army I'd cut them all to pieces myself if they didn’t take him and get out of my sight." She looked back up. "If any of them had any guts they'd have called me on it, but they didn't."
“Maybe they were bluffing too.”
“Maybe they got the shit scared out of them by the fact their prince could only make squeaking noises and his face looked like the hind end of a warthog.” Xena said. “But the bluffing… yeah, could be. They expected me to roll over same as he did.”
“He really expected you to just… “ Gabrielle made a face. “Just give up?”
“He really did.” Xena said. “Moron.”
Gabrielle took a sip and handed the cup back. "Do you think he's telling the truth?"
"Do you?" Xena took a swallow of the cider, and watched her consort over the rim of the cup.
"I think he wants to help his people." Gabrielle finally said, reluctantly. "But I don't trust him."
Xena smiled faintly. "My guess is, soon as the Persians were hammering at my gates, he'd be sneaking up and shooting us in back from the other direction."
"Do you think he was with Bregos?"
Xena shook her head. "He'd n ever treat with that bastard. But he knows when to take advantage of someone else's weakness." She looked down again, and felt Gabrielle's touch on her shoulder, the gentle clasp warming her skin.
She really didn't need the sympathy though. She'd wondered how she would feel facing him again and when she had, she' found him to be just an annoyance – to her relief. None of the attraction she'd felt way back when sparked up at all even though he was still, undeniably attractive.
Just not to her.
She wondered how it had been for him. "Glad I was old enough to know what the Hades I was doing before I met you." She looked up at her consort with wry honesty. “I thought I knew what love was. I had no clue.”
"Me either." Gabrielle admitted. “But then I really didn’t know anything, you know? I never really had anyone in my life who cared about me, except maybe Lila.” She drew in an released a breath. “Until I met you.”
“Ah yes.” Xena smiled faintly. “Your friendly neighborhood homicidal maniac. You sure know how to pick em, muskrat.”
Gabrielle smiled back. “Why did you say that?” She asked, after a pause. “That I picked you? I don’t think I did.” She said. “I thought you picked me.” Her eyes shifted and met the blue ones steadily. “Didn’t you?”
A brief shake of Xena’s head. “Let’s stop talking.” She leaned over and nibbled Gabrielle’s arm. “We’ve got time to scare the chickens before we have to get dressed.”
Xena sat quietly on the long, low couch at the back of her dressing room, her body encased in it's new finery, but her feet still bare. She was leaning against the wall, turning the horses head Gabrielle had given her over and over in her fingers.
She would wear it on the fur lined cloak she was going to put on over her gown, she decided. It would look good against the silver trim and it just made her happy to look at it in any case.
A soft sound made her look up, to see Gabrielle enter, looking shyly uncertain. "Xena?"
"Over here." The queen called out from her somewhat dim and cozy corner. "C'mere."
Also barefoot, her consort walked over, coming to stand next to the queen.
"Hm." Xena studied her. "Sexy." She admired the colorful, rich fabric wrapped around the smaller woman, showing off her compact curves and exposing her shoulders. “I like that.”
That got a brief, embarrassed grin from Gabrielle. "You think so??"
"I think so." Xena "And since I"m in charge, what i think is all that matters, isn't it?"
Gabrielle chuckled a little. She looked up to find those very blue eyes watching her. "I like it."
"Do you?" Xena's brows lifted.
"Yeah." Her consort nodded. "I like the color and I think it looks good on me."
"Oo. Are you finally getting some fashion sense?" Xena laughed. "About damn time." She twitched a bit of the fabric straight. "Bet you were glad to have your little helper around putting this on, huh?"
Xena held up the horses head. "I really like this." She said, in a quiet tone.
Gabrielle sat down next to her, pressing her head against the queen's shoulder and looking at the pin. "I saw it, and it just... it jumped out at me. It looked so much like Tiger."
"It does." Xena gazed fondly at it. “The big bastard.”
"So I asked the maker there if he did that on purpose, and you know what, Xena? It was Tiger, but he didn't know he was your horse."
Xena looked skeptical.
"Yeah, I thought that too." Gabrielle nodded. "But you know, why would he lie about that? He wasn't from around here, he said. He just got here a seven day ago, and the first thing he saw was Tiger in the outside field so he made this to look like him because he was so pretty.”
“He is.” Xena agreed. “Damn good breeding. I stole him from a farm way north of here.” The queen turned the piece over in her fingers. “They were using him as a plow horse.”
“Really?” Gabrielle’s eyes widened.
“Really.” Xena nodded. “He was barely a two year old. Wasn’t grown yet. Wild as a weed.” She sighed. “ Just like I was.”
Gabrielle studied her, and the pensive expression on her face. “Um.” She cleared her throat. “Are you not wild now?” She asked. “Because I think your horse still is.”
Xena blinked at her, then she started laughing. “Muskrat.” She reached over and tickled Gabrielle’s nose. “What would I do without you?” She straightened up. “Let’s go enjoy our banquet. Tell a kickass story about me, and I’ll make sure they bring three desserts for ya.”
The queen hoisted herself up off the couch and held her hand out, hauling Gabrielle up next to her when her consort took it. She gave the smaller woman a pat on the butt, then went to the stand where her cloak was waiting, fastening the clasp to it.
Gabrielle watched her for a moment, idly admiring the shape of the queen’s back, and it’s elegant tapering to her hips. She could barely see the faint white scars that had brought them together and it was hard to resist the urge to go over and ..
Well, why should she resist? Gabrielle went over to where Xena was standing and ran her hands over the visible bare skin, leaning forward to give her a kiss in the center of her shoulder blades.
Xena peered back at her, one eye brow edging upwards.
Gabrielle put her arms around the queen and gave her a hug. Then she trotted back to her own room to put her sandals on, pausing to reflect on what she’d just heard, and consider what story she wanted to tell.
A bold and heroic one, for sure.
The huge banquet hall was stuffed pretty much full. Xena leaned back in her big chair and regarded her guests, all packed into tables squeezed into every available inch as the servers sidled among them with their huge platters of food.
At her long table, besides herself and Gabrielle, were a dozen of her nobles that she disliked the least, including her heir, and his wife. The general rule was, the further away you were from her, the more Xena disliked you and those who were clustered against the back wall were correspondingly worried looking as a consequence.
Philtop and his group were off to one side. Not at the back, but not at the front either – Stanislaus had squeezed a table in for them in pretty much the most neutral place he could find.
She knew he was watching her. She could see him from the corner of her eye.
Casually, she reached over and captured Gabrielle’s hand, bringing it up to her lips and kissing the back of it.
Gabrielle gave her a mutely delighted look. She picked up a carafe and refilled Xena’s glass with it, the golden liquid sparkling in the candlelight. “Here comes the lamb.”
Xena eyed the four men struggling to carry the platter heading their way. On top of it was a whole roasted lamb, mounded around with grains and roots. “So.” She observed. “What’s everyone else eating?”
Gabrielle looked at the lamb, then looked at her, eyed widening a trifle.
“Hey, I’m hungry.” The queen spread her hands out.
“Can I have the tail?” Gabrielle asked, straight faced. “I’m hungry too.”
Xena chuckled as they arrived, placing the huge platter down on sturdy wooden stands in front of her table. The smell was rich and almost intoxicating, and she could see the rest of the room shifting a little, peering up at them. Fancies had already been delivered to the tables, finger nibblements of the year’s first hard cheese, and smoked venison sausages with loaves of bread, but everyone was waiting for this part of the feast – the best of the stock sent to the stronghold slaughtered for good luck in the coming season.
Xena stood up and circled the table, drawing her belt knife as she approached the platter and the servants who carried it shuffled back away from her. She studied the carcass and then lifted her eyes to regard the crowd.
For the first time, in her years of ruling them, she sensed a willingness out there to accept her leadership. The nobles would always all show up to feed, but now, she could see in the expressions and the body language and the way they were looking at her that she had, in fact, crossed some line with them.
Oh a lot of them still hated her. She wasn’t a fool. She knew there were people in the room that if given the chance, might slip a knife into her ribs or put an arrow in her back… but for the first time, most of them were ready to accept her and figured maybe it could be worse.
Xena let the point of her dagger rest on the platter’s surface. “Ordinarily I’d hack a chunk of this and toss it over my shoulder, then kick the rest of it into your faces.” She said. “But y’know” She paused. “It’s been a Hades of a year.”
The room was utterly silent, waiting for her to continue. That was new too. Usually one or another of the older nobles would have stood up by now and been spouting off something at her. “So maybe we can stop kicking each other’s ass so much.” She touched the point of the knife to the platter. “Let’s figure out how to get rich together, instead of you looking for ways to knock me off and me looking for ways to cut you to pieces in return.”
She looked up to find that intent attention still focused on her. “Deal?”
Slowly, a few of them nodded, looking around at their seatmates – sometimes glaring – until they nodded too until the entire room looked like leaves fluttering in the fall breeze.
“Okay.” Xena lifted the knife and cut into the carcass, releasing a gust of steam as she efficiently carved up the animal.
Her own tradition. She cut off some pretty chops and set them on one of the smaller platters, then she turned and extended her arm, placing the dish in front of Gabrielle. “Here ya go , muskrat. “
Her consort smiled at her, but kept her hands folded and didn’t touch the plate. Xena went down the table and served random portions to everyone seated at it, then she cut herself a pile of slices and retired to her seat. She lifted her cup, and looked both ways down the table. “Good Harvest.”
“Good harvest!” Her table mates all answered in unison.
Xena extended her cup towards the room, and gestured to the servers. “Good harvest.”
To her surprise, everyone stood and lifted their own cups and returned the greeting. Even Philtop, over in his corner, and the skeeves in the back of the room. She felt her eyes widen a little, and felt the gentle nudge as Gabrielle poked her, a big smile on her consorts face.
She lifted a hand and acknowledged the toast, then she sat down, and everyone else did too, as the servers started bringing overflowing silver platters to every table, and, slowly the sound of voices rose in a low buzz as glasses clinked and people dug in.
“That was cool.” Gabrielle clasped her hand. “Wasn’t it?”
Xena studied her plate, with a somewhat puzzled expression on her face. “Yeah.” She finally said. “It was.” She turned as Brendan stepped up behind her, and bowed. “Did you see that?”
“Aye, Mistress.” Brendan’s tone was affectionate. “Been a long time coming.”
“Uh huh.” Xena sat back and took a deep swallow of her wine. “Wonder how long it’ll last?”
Gabrielle curled up on her side on the bed, her parchment in front of her and a quill in one hand. She was stuffed full from dinner, and she was glad to be lying down quietly waiting for everything to start to digest. We just had the most amazing banquet. I didn’t think there were that many good tasting things in the world much less on our table at one time.
I told the story about how Xena defeated the Persians. It took a long time, but Xena saved me some of all the stuff I missed while I was telling it so afterward I got all caught up.
Everyone really liked it! Even old Pussface clapped afterward and Jellaus came over to tell me how much he liked not just the story but how I told it.
I’m glad. I think Xena liked it too.
Gabrielle glanced over towards the fireplace, where the queen was sprawled in a chair, her eyes half closed and her hand resting on her stomach. “That was some banquet huh?”
Xena’s head turned slightly and one blue eye opened all the way and peered at her. “Way too much.” She said. “I shouldn’t have had that last half a sheep.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I think it was really that last nutcake with honey.”
“Mm.” Xena waggled an eyebrow. “Good thing I shared that with you. I think I would have hurled and lost it all if I’d tried to finish it myself.”
Gabrielle got up and went over to where her queen was sprawled, perching on the arm of the chair she was sitting in. “I thought it was a really nice banquet. Everyone was happy.”
“Mmhm.” Xena nodded. “Weird. First time that ever happened.”
“You got a lot of really nice presents.” Gabrielle smoothed Xena’s hair back.
“You too.” Xena looked very pleased. “Those little bastards actually showed some taste for a change. Wonder who told em what you liked?”
Her consort continued playing with her hair, and scratching her gently behind the ears causing little contented grunts to emerge from the queen. “Well, I sort of thought that was probably you.” Gabrielle said. “Since I think you’re the only one who knows what I like.”
Xena chuckled under her breath. “Ain’t that the truth.” She settled her arm around Gabrielle and rested her head against her consort’s hip. “Yeah it was me.” She exhaled, her eyes on the flames, a look of quiet contentment coming over her face.
“Thank you.” Gabrielle leaned down and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “I had a great time, and it was so wonderful to get all those things.” She whispered. “But the best part was seeing your face when I told your story.” She felt the motion as Xena smiled and she tipped her head forward a little to see it, the softly glinting blue eyes meeting hers. “You really liked it.”
The queen nodded.
“It’s a long story though.” Gabrielle cleared her throat, her voice sounding tired. “I’m going to have some tea. You want some?”
Xena nodded again.
Gabrielle kissed her on the top of her head again then she stood and walked over to the fire, moving the water pot over the gentle flames. She set up two ceramic cups, removing some dried tea leaves from a wooden box on the mantel and mixing them with fresh mint and a bit of rose petal.
The scent of the crushed herbs was intoxicating. Gabrielle pulled over the small pot of honey and waited for the water to heat fully, savoring the warmth of the fire against the front of her legs. It was raining outside, the patter of drops audible through the windows , and it felt very good to be inside, under a strong roof, with a good fire, and a friend to share a cup of tea with.
She poured the boiling water over the leaves and waited for them to steep, drizzling the honey in and smelling the steam change as it dissolved.
She’d learned to love honey living with Xena. At home, the rare treat had been reserved for her parents, and only very very occasionally were the children given a bit on their tongues to taste. It was hard to obtain, and expensive, unless you were willing to brave the stings and go find a hive on your own.
Gabrielle never had. It wasn’t until she’d come to the stronghold that she’d seen in any large quantity and experienced the surprise that the slaves were allowed to take as much as they wanted during their well cooked meals.
Xena liked it. In her tea, and also on biscuits, and especially in the roasted apples Gabrielle often made for her after dinner.
Also. Gabrielle picked up the mugs and carried them over, setting them down on the small table between the two big chairs in front of the fire. She took a seat next to Xena and leaned on the chair arm with a sigh of satisfaction. She picked up her cup and took a sip, and watched quietly as the queen did the same. “So. What happens tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow.” Xena studied her cup. “All of the nobles tender their rolls to the bookkeepers.” She half shrugged. “Formality really. I do my end of year court.” She cradled the mug between her hands, her long fingers curling around it. “I’ll tell everyone what I’m going to do to help the Westlands.”
“What are you going to do?” Gabirelle asked.
Xena gazed at the fire. “Send someone to take a census, then send supplies for the winter.” She said. “Legion of troops, and a captain who’ll be in charge there through the cold.”
“Oo.” Gabrielle made a face. “I don’t think Philtop’s going to like that.”
Xena smiled. “I don’t think he is either.” She agreed. “But if he thinks I’m just going to send wagonloads of food over there and let him do what he wants with it, he’s nuts. That’s the price he pays. He wants rescue? Okay.” The queen lifted one hand off the mug and waved it. “But my men make sure the food goes to the people, and not to any Persians he’s courting.”
Gabrielle was nodding, since the thought made sense to her. “You don’t’ trust him.”
“No reason for me TO trust him.” Xena said. “I’d go myself to see the damn place but the last couple times I dragged my ass out of this castle I nearly got it spanked.” She took a swallow of the tea. “Besides, I’m not sure the Persians aren’t out there just waiting for their chance.”
“You think they’ll try something now?” Gabrielle frowned in concern. “Come here, I mean?
Xena shook her head. “I don’t’ know.” She gave Gabrielle a wry smile. “I didn’t expect what they did the last time, showing up and taking the port city, now did I?”
Xena swirled the tea in her cup. Then she shrugged. “I got lucky.” She said. “I got lucky, and I had you with me. You did more to save my skin than I did, my friend.”
Gabrielle looked at her in more than a little surprise. “I don’t think so.”
Xena rolled her head to one side and regarded her consort. “Let’s go to bed.” She said. “I’ve had too much to drink and I’m getting to be an asshole.” She put the cup down and pushed herself to her feet. “C’mon muskrat.”
“Right here.” Gabrielle had gotten up and circled the chairs, coming up on Xena’s other side and snuggling up to her as they walked across the room to the big bed in the center of it. Xena casually doused the candles as she passed them, then they both shucked their robes and climbed into bed together.
“Ungh.” Xena stretched and rolled over onto her back. “Hey you know what’s happening tomorrow?”
Gabrielle settled onto her side, reaching over to curl her arm around Xena’s and relax into the soft surface. “What?”
‘Stanislaus told me one of the traveling circuses showed up.” Xena said. “With tumblers and all that. Haven’t seen one of those in .. .damn.” She felt Gabrielle’s fingers gently stroke her skin, and start a little massage down her side. “Years.”
“I’ve never seen a circus.” Gabrielle said.
“You’ll love it.” The queen promised her. “We’ll go down and watch them set up in the morning.”
Gabrielle smiled just hearing the eagerness in her queen’s voice. “Is that something you wanted to do too?” She asked. “Like the horse acrobats?”
Xena snorted faintly.
“After all, you really can juggle.”
Xena let her eyes close. At once, the sounds of the castle flooded in and she settled her shoulders into the soft mattress, listening to the soft evidence of ongoing cleanup in the hall and the setting of the guard in the grand entrance.
She could hear, further, the sounds of the many vendors camped out near the gates, her sharp ears picking up music, and laughter, and the sound of livestock moving.
The smell of woodsmoke entered the window, and she could feel the wind growing cooler, but before she could get under the covers Gabrielle forestalled her and settled the filled down layer over both of them.
She was happy. Even with Philtop’s presence, and the possibility of Persians, still she was looking forward to the morning and what it would bring, even if it wasn’t all good.
Gabrielle snuggled up against her, and they were both drifting off when Xena’s ears caught the sound of boots on the steps leading to her chambers, moving at an urgent pace. She sighed.
“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked.
“You’ll know in a minute.”
A soft but insistent knock sounded at the door pretty much a minute later.
“How do you do that?”
“Sorcerous magic.” Xena hauled herself up out of bed and grabbed her robe. “Stay here. Chances are they need to talk to me.”
Gabrielle debated for a minute, then she put her head back down on the pillow, and folded her hands over the covers and relaxed, listening to Xena crossing the outer living chamber on her way to the outside door.
Then she heard the faint, but distinct sound of metal scraping against leather and she scrambled out of bed, galloping over to throw her tunic over her head before she ran out after the queen. She got through the door into the outer chamber just as Xena opened the front door, the queen looking sexily intimidating in her silk robe and bare feet with her longsword clutched in her right hand.
“Oh it’s you.” Xena let the sword rest on her shoulder as she stepped back to let Brendan enter. “Damn. I was hoping it was someone I could beat the crap out of. Work off some of that dinner.”
“Mistress.” Brendan looked a little harried. “Two more men have been killed. Down in the stables. This time ours.” He glanced at Gabrielle as she arrived at Xena’s side. “Same as t’others. Not a mark on em.”
“Oh my gosh.” Gabrielle said. “That’s terrible.”
“Aye.” Brendan agreed. “Two young lads. Joined up since the war.”
“Two.” Xena mused. “Why two at a time?” She exhaled. “Put your boots on muskrat. Let’s go see what the Hades is going on here.” She said. “Get everyone who was around in the stables, Brendan. I want to talk to them.” She closed the door after her captain and headed back into the bedroom, shoving her sword back into it’s sheath and untying the tie on her robe.
Impatiently, she tossed the thin fabric over the door and pulled on a pair of leggings, then paused. After a moment’s silent debate, she pulled out her house armor and quickly slipped into it, tightening the straps to fit it around her body.
She heard Gabrielle coming back and she grabbed her boots, sitting down to put them on as her consort arrived in a thick woolen overdress, belted at her waist. “Ready?”
“Almost.” Gabrielle sat down and pulled her own boots on. “That’s really terrible, isn’t it Xena?”
“That youe’ almost ready? Yes.” The queen stood up. “Tie faster.”
“No, I mean the guys.” Gabrielle finished her laces then she stood up. “Okay.”
“C’mon.” Xena picked up her sword and settled the belt around her shoulders and waist. “Let’s go see and then I’ll tell ya if it’s terrible or not.” She ran her fingers through her hair to get it out of her eyes. “Remind me to have you cut my damn hair when we get back wilya?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle followed her out of the room and down the steps. “But don’t you think you’d like it better of someone who knew what they were doing did it?”
“No.” Xena turned her head right and left as she walked, scanning the hallway. “I’ve always done it myself.”
The doors to the stronghold were propped open, and torches were planted in their sconces all the way down the steps to the courtyard. Xena could see walking figures in the semi light, most in worker’s clothing, most carrying things. She didn’t sense any panic, which meant the word likely hadn’t gotten out yet.
No one liked dead bodies popping up. Xena herself didn’t, unless she causd them. “I just hope it’s not some kind of sickness.” She muttered. “With all these damn visitors it could be.”
“A sickness?” Gabrielle was trotting to keep up with her queen’s long strides. “Oh. We had that in our village one winter. It was terrible. Everyone got sick and some people died.”
“Exactly.” Xena headed for the doors to the stables. She could see their outline in the dusk, and the shadows of two soldiers guarding them. Then she slowed. “Maybe I don’t want you around those bodies.”
Gabirelle hauled up so she didn’t crash into Xena’s butt. “Are you going to see them?”
The queen eyed her. “Yes.”
“So is it dangerous for you?”
“Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like the way this conversation comes out?” Xena surged into motion again. “C’mon.”
They approached the stables and as they came into the torchlight, the soldiers recognized them and hurried to open the big door. Inside, it was well lit with hanging lamps and there were several groups of people standing around, all of whom jerked to attention as Xena’s tall figure entered.
Gabrielle’s attention was drawn to the two still forms on the ground, though, covered in horse blankets. They seemed rather small, and she could see one boot sticking out bearing the stamp of Xena’s household on it.
Xena went over to the figures and knelt beside them, pulling the blanket off the first one and setting it to one side. She studied the pale, young face with dispassionate eyes, reaching out to touch the chin and turn the head first from one side, then the other. “Who found them?”
“I did, mistress.” One of the grooms spoke quietly. “They were in the hayloft.”
“In the hayloft.” Xena mused. She picked up one of the man’s hands and examined it. “What were they doing in the hayloft?”
There was a conspicuous silence after she stopped speaking. Xena turned the man’s hand over and examined the palm. “Well?” She looked around, seeing the reddened faces. “C’mon boys. I know what sex is. Just ask Gabrielle.”
“Mistress, we don’t really know.” Brendan spoke up. “But aye, we think they were making free with each other.” He walked over to where Xena was kneeling. “T’other lad’s got his britches undone.”
“I see.” Xena rested her elbow on her knee. “Were you going to tell me that before or after I whipped the other blanket off and freaked out Gabrielle?”
“That wouldn’t freak me out.” Gabrielle spoke up in her own defense. “I grew up on a sheep farm.”
A few of the men cleared their throats.
“I thought you told me you never kissed a sheep?” Xena undid the catch on the top of the first dead man’s uniform and peeled it back, examining his throat closely.
“I never did.” Gabrielle stressed the pronoun. “But I guess you probably don’t know that there’s not a whole lot of difference between women and sheep in some areas.”
Xena stopped, and turned her head to stare at her consort.
“Well, you asked.”
The queen shook her head rapidly, then she went back to her examination, stripping the man’s uniform completely off and baring his pale lifeless chest. “Ah.” She rolled the man’s body over onto it’s side. “Brendan. I thought you said there wasn’t a mark on them.”
Brendan knelt next to her and looked where she was pointing. “I don’t’ see anything mistress.” He motioned one of the grooms forward with a lamp. “Where?”
“There.” Xena touched the skin just under a tiny red pinpoint. “See that?”
Several of the grooms clustered around as the lamp was brought closer. “Tis nothing?” One said. “Just a bit of a spot.”
“Maybe a bedbug bite.” Another suggested.
“What is it, Xena?” Brendan asked. “Seems a bug bite to me as well.”
Xena tapped the skin with her forefinger. “That’s the mark a poison dart makes” She said. “See that small red ring around it? That’s how far the blood got before whatever was on it killed this guy.” She pointed at the other figure. “Search that one for a spot just like this.”
She released the body and let it roll back, while Brendan and two of the other soldiers uncovered the second man, who was in fact only half clad. “Check him everywhere.” She said, watching with dry amusement as the men flinched a little, and gave her sideways looks. “C’mon ya little kittens.”
“Tis not natural, mistress.” The nearer soldier protested. “Two men lying together.”
Xena looked at him. Then she looked at Gabrielle. Her eyes slowly shifted back and almost impaled him with their sharpness. “Are you calling me unnatural?”
Everyone went very still. The soldier was frozen, his eyes wide as he realized what he’d said. Even Brendan was stunned into silence, one hand on the second solder’s arm, the other lifted towards the queen.
Xena rose to her full height. “I asked you a question.” She pointed at the man.
The soldier rocked back onto his heels, raising his hands. “Your majesty… I didn’t mean you.” He said. “Please forgive me.”
“Didin’t you?” Xena ignored the two bodies and moved forward, grabbing the man by his surcoat and lifting him to his feet. She slammed him against the barn wall and held him there, her other hand drawing a dagger from her belt. “Listen, horsecrap for brains. I don’t know who fed you that idea but whoever it was didn’t know what they were talking about.”
The man was sweating profusely, shaking so hard his boot heels were thumping against the wall.
“Your life might depend on some guy who has a boyfriend.” Xena said. “Hades. Your life depended on me.”
The man nodded his head rapidly.
“Mistress.” Brendan spoke up softly. “He’s from the backwoods.”
“So was Gabrielle.” The queen retorted. “She showed up with an open mind.” She turned her attention back to the man. “Am I going to have to cut your head open to let crap like that out?”
“N…no, your majesty.” The man whispered. “Im’ sorry.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” Xena dropped him and stepped back. “Brendan, make sure he cleans the middens for the next moon. Maybe next time he’ll think before he opens his mouth.”
“Aye, mistress.” Brendan said. “Xena, here’s the spot I think.” He drew the queen’s attention to the second man. “Here, on his hip?”
Xena knelt again and examined the spot. The man, hardly more than a boy in truth, in fact had an identical mark just on the edge of his pelvis. “Yeah, that’s it.” She said. “Damn it.” She rolled the man over and brought the lamp close to his still face, pulling his lip up with one finger to expose his teeth.
“Least we know what it is now.” Brendan said.
“Mm.” Xena straightened and propped her elbow on her knee. “Yeah, better to know you’ve got some idiot killing people rather than the plague around, huh?” She glanced at Gabrielle, who was watching her with a serious expression. “Except I don’t like competition in the homicidal maniac department.”
Brendan sighed. “What shall we do with them, mistress?” He indicated the bodies.
Xena stood up, dusting her hands off. “Give them a pyre, with honors.” She said. “They served in my army. Make sure their families are taken care of.” She turned and regarded the small crowd still there, watching her with wide eyes. “Now let’s see what information we can get out of you lot.”
She crackled her knuckles. “C’mon muskrat.” She motioned Gabrielle forward. “Someone had to see something. Last resort we can threaten them with you and your sheep.”
Xena perched on a full barrel of millet, her ankles crossed as she waited for her next subject to interrogate. Behind her, Gabrielle was seated at a makeshift table, a stack of parchment and a set of quills in front of her as she took notes.
It was very late. All the sounds of activities outside had faded to nothing, and now, all Xena could hear when she stopped talking was the occasional owl, or the faint thunk of a horse hoof further back in the stables. “All right. Next.” She pointed at one of the men. “C’mere.”
One of her own guards came forward, rubbing his eyes. He sat down on the stool in front of the queen and gazed up at her. “Mistress?”
“Zuke.” Xena responded. “Where were you all night?”
“Third arch inside courtyard, Mistress.” Zuke said. “From sundown, until the dinner ended.” He shifted a little. “Got a meal bucket from the mess, an then I sat near the well there, eating it.”
Xena nodded, considering her questions carefully. “When you were eating, who did you see?”
Zuke pondered that. “T’grooms.” He said. “Bring out some of the horses like, for the dukes and so on.” He blinked a few times. “Some of the lot from the Westlands. Them was near the wall.”
“Uh huh. Anyone go in the stables?”
“Not past me, Mistress.” Zuke seemed disappointed. “Doors were shut after t’grooms came out. Then I went back to the archway, and stayed there till all the yelling started.”
Pretty much the same answer as everyone else. Xena felt a level of frustration building. It seemed impossible that two men could have been killed in her barn without anyone at all seeing something.
But no one had. The two soldiers had been in the loft together alone, and had been attacked and killed alone, dying so quickly they hadn’t had time to react, and therefore, had died not only fast, but in silence.
Only the fact that they’d missed evening call had alerted anyone, and then, apparently as they were known to frequent the loft for some privacy someone had gone looking for them there.
Xena got up and went to the loft, stepping up onto the crossbeams and pulling herself up into the strawfilled space. They’d taken the bodies out, and now she carefully examined the depression that had held them without touching or disturbing the straw.
They hadn’t struggled. Xena looked at the edge of the loft, running her eyes along the wooden wall for the nth time, over the cracked and splintered edge, over the neatly fitted pegs that held the loft together, over the braced corners.
Nothing, nothing, nothing… wait. Xena stared intently at a crack in the wood not a handspan from where her arms were resting. “Hand me a candle.”
Several people scrambled, then halted. Xena heard a faint scrape, and a bemused sigh, and the next thing she knew Gabrielle’s pale head was at her elbow, handing the candle up. “Thanks muskrat.” She took it. “No one else have the guts to come up here?”
Gabrielle kept her voice low. “No one else wanted to get caught looking up your breeches. There’s a hole in them.”
Xena turned her head and looked at her consort. “Well then.” She edged aside and pointed at the bit of wood. “You get to see what I found.” She held the candle close. “See that?”’
Gabrielle craned her neck and peered at the plank. “Where? Oh.. you mean that split piece there?”
Xena reached over and closed her fingertips around something, wiggling it loose and bringing it close to her nose. It was a bit of cloth, and she showed it to Gabrielle. “See?”
Gabrielle studied it. “Is it supposed to be special?” She whispered. “Because it looks like a piece of somoene’s shirt to me.”
“It is someone’s piece of shirt.” Xena whispered back. “But it’s silk. From a long way away from here.” She ran her fingertips over it. “My grooms don’t wear silk.”
“Most of my nobles don’t wear silk.” Xena continued. “Now, I wear silk, but I wasn’t in this barn peeping at two guys getting each other off today.”
“You don’t wear black silk.” Gabrielle noted. “Not like that. It’s really dull. The stuff you have that’s black silk is all shiny.”
“Oo.” Xena looked at her. “You’re starting to show some brains, muskrat.” She winked, then she got down off the loft supports, landing lightly on the ground and strolling back over to her barrel. The men in the barn all had their eyes fastened thoughtfully on the ground and she let the silence lengthen for a bit as she took her seat again.
“So.” She finally said. “Either my butt’s that ugly, or you all are craven cowards. Which is it?”
“Xena.” Gabrielle clucked her tongue as she got back behind the table, sitting down and scribbling a few words on the parchment. “They were just being polite.”
Xena rolled her head to one side and regarded her consort with a very droll expression. “You don’t know much about men, do you?” She sighed, then turned her attention back to the room. “All right. Everyone take off. Go get some sleep.”
The men wearily got up, not even reacting to her butt comment, and started filing out.
“Brendan.” Xena half turned to her captain, who was stolidly standing guard nearby. “Make sure everyone stays in groups till we find the bastard who did this. No one goes out alone.”
“Aye’ Brendan nodded agreement. “Put a double guard on your quarters mistress. Don’t want anyone getting no ideas.”
Xena folded her arms. “Maybe the fastest way to catch him is put no guard on my quarters.” She suggested. “See if whoever this guy is can get past my hoary old reflexes.”
Brendan hesitated, his face twisting into a scowl.
“You’re screwed either way.” Xena smiled. “Agree with me, or disagree with me you lose.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle tapped the queen on the leg with her quill. “Be nice.”
“Why?” Xena gave her a mock hurt look. “Can’t I have fun too?”
“Ah, Xena.” The army captain chuckled. “Let me rest my own head tonight and know you guarded whether you need it or no.” He said. “Be a long day tomorrow.” He stretched his body out and flexed his hands. “Find something up there?”
Xena handed over the silk scrap without comment. “All right.” She said. “Put a guard in the hall, Brendan, but keep them in the rotunda. Last thing I want to do is give anyone the idea I’m scared of whoever this is.”
“Aye.” Brendan was peering at the scrap in the candlelight. “Isn’t local.” He looked briefly up at Xena, who nodded just as briefly. “Persian?”
“I don’t know.” Xena folded her arms. “That’s what bothers me.” She looked over at Gabrielle. “Gather your notes, muskrat. Let’s go back to bed.” She got up and strolled again around the barn while her consort got her things together.
Towards the back of the structure Xena stopped, her head dropping to one side a little as she went still and closed her eyes. She opened her mouth slightly and sucked air in through both it and her nose, detecting at the fringe of what she could smell something out of place.
Straw and wood and animals prevailed. She could also smell the faint crisp scent of the brazier with it’s coals, the brassy smell of water in the buckets and troughs and leather from the harness.
And yet there was something else. Xena slowly turned, breathing in. Something that wasn’t Brendan, or the wool of his tunic, or Gabrielle’s soft skin, wasn’t the ink in the bottle she was stopping or the creamy smell of the parchment.
It wasn’t silk, or a cat.
She moistened her tongue and sucked in, and then, just at the very back, she found it. She opened her eyes and regarded the two others in the room, who were watching her in fascination. “Huh.”
“Something wrong, Mistress?” Brendan looked around with a worried expression.
“Funny thing.” Xena scooped up the pile of parchment and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle. “Smell something once, and you always remember it, if that once kicks your ass hard enough. C’mon.” She started for the barn door. “We need to find this guy, Brendan.”
“Aye.” Brendan agreed.
“We really do.” Xena said, quietly. “Make sure everyone’s on their toes.”
Gabrielle leaned back on her pillow, her eyes roaming around the inside of their bedroom as she listened to Xena sharpening her sword over in the corner. The queen was back in her dressing gown, sprawled in the chair with her bare feet extended across the rug.
She had her sharpening stone clasped in one hand, and she was carefully scraping it over the length of her longsword, a look of quiet introspection on her face.
Gabrielle didn’t really want to bother her. She knew sometimes Xena just needed time to think, and usually then she’d go out on the sentry walk or down to the stables, and expect Gabrielle to understand she wanted to be left alone.
This time though, she had made a point of sticking almost at Gabrielle’s heels, and had brought her sword into the bedroom to attend to it. Gabrielle squirmed around and settled onto her elbows, watching the queen’s hands move in that quiet, rhythmic way. “Xena.”
“Muskrat.” Xena glanced up over the sword.
“Why would someone want to hurt people here?”
The queen half shrugged. “Piss me off?” She ventured. “Could just be someone who holds a grudge. Still people in here who sided with Bregos, remember.”
“Could also be a nutcase.” Xena said. “Happens sometimes. I remember I had a guy in my army… picked him up just west of Thrace. Seemed fine, good fighter, then one morning we woke up and six men were lying dead around the campfire, their man’s part cut off and their throats slit.”
“Turned out the guy was a known fruitcake.” The queen shook her head. “I had to break his neck before he killed anyone else.”
Gabrielle frowned. “But did you catch him doing it?”
Xena’s lips twitched faintly. “No. I figured out who did it, and confronted him. He snapped and tried to attack me with his teeth.”
“Said I was a demon from Hades and an oracle told him to kill me and destroy my army.” The queen said. “That almost made me think I was wrong since I was a demon from Hades and I could think of a dozen men who’d want my army destroyed but then one of the archers found his kit bag with the dead men’s parts in it and he started trying to eat them and then.. everyone was glad as hell I killed him.”
Gabrielle’s face rapidly went thorugh a series of expressions ranging from puzzlement to weirded out disgust. “That’s crazy.”
“Exactly.” Xena said. “So maybe this guy is too, but if he is, he’ll slip up and we’ll catch him.” She put the finishing touch with the stone and stood, seating the sword into it’s sheath, and hanging the sheath on the post of the bed so the hilt was within easy reach of her hand. “But I’m not taking any chances.”
“You think who ever this is will come after you?” Gabrielle’s eyes widened.
Xena sat down on the bed and sprawled on her side, coming nose to nose with Gabrielle . “I’m not worried about anyone coming after me.” She said. “I’m more interested in making sure no one gets anywhere near you.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle leaned forward a little and kissed Xena on the lips. “Thanks.” She murmured. “But I always feel really safe when we’re together.”
“Silly muskrat.” But Xena smiled, and returned the kiss. “I guess the nutball you know is always better than the one you only suspect is skulking in the hallways. Eh?”
“You’re not crazy.” Gabrielle said, in an utterly positive tone.
“No, not now.” The queen swiveled around and put her head down on the pillow. She pinched the candle out and exhaled, as Gabrielle joined her, pulling the soft cover over both of them. “But I was.”
“I don’t believe that.” Gabrielle slid next to her and put an arm around Xena’s middle. “You’re the smartest person I know.”
Xena smiled into the darkness, and put a return arm around her, savoring the warmth as Gabrielle pressed up against her and gave her a hug. She tried to remember what she’d been like back then in what she referred to herself as her crazy days, certain she really had been off the wall.
She’d felt crazy, in the sense that she hadn’t really cared where her actions had taken her, and she’d almost prided herself on constantly doing the unexpected, keeping her men, her enemies and what few friends she’d managed to have as offbalanced as possible.
She was still that crazy woman, wasn’t she? Xena certainly didn’t feel like a boring old stuck in the mud predictable despot. She still did the unexpected, right?
She resisted the urge to get up and check the perimeter of the room again, having already examined every inch of not only the bedroom, but the inside living room, and her outside audience chamber twice. She’d checked all the closets, checked under the bed and the furniture, made sure the windows were all fastened, and even cautiously poked her head up the chimney just to be sure.
Yes, as she’d told Gabrielle, she wasn’t worried about someone coming after her. But she was terrified that through some inattention or mistake that Gabrielle would come to some harm, since she knew that everyone else probably knew exactly how weak a spot of hers the little shepherd’s kid was.
The Persian bitch had known. Xena drew a breath and released it. But then, the Persian bitch had gotten her face bitten half off by her little shepherd’s kid so there was that.
“Xena.” Gabrielle murmured. “What are you thinking about? You’re twitching all over.”
The queen forced herself to relax. “Nothing really.” She said. “Just remembering the bad old days.” She rested her cheek against Gabrielle’s hair. “Tomorrow we’ll look around a few places. I think I might have gotten a whiff of something maybe we could find, you and me.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle murmured, rather indistinctly. “Whereever you go, I go.”
Xena smiled, hearing that. “Well, except for Tartarus.” She remarked. “You can’t follow me there.”
“I will.” The blond haired woman said. “I don’t care if it’s worse than Tartarus I’m going with you.”
Xena gave her a hug. “You have no idea what you’re saying, but I love ya for saying it anyway, muskrat.” She scratched Gabrielle on the back of her neck, feeling a deep sense of affection for her bedmate that she wasn’t really sure what to do with.
“I love you too.” Gabrielle said, gently nibbling the queen’s collarbone. “And you know what? If some old crazy guy tries to come in here and mess with you I’ll jump all over them and squash them flat.”
Xena chuckled softly.
“Go to sleep.” Xena gathered her close and rocked her gently. “No one’s going to mess with me, and no one’s going to mess with you.” She closed her eyes and let her body relax, still keyed up, but determined to get some rest in what was left of the night.
Then she felt a gentle touch cupping her breast and that determination faded. Ah well. Xena grinned. She’d gone more than one night without sleep for far worse reasons.
Gabrielle tucked a shawl around her body as she puttered around in front of the fire in the living room, arranging things on the platter that had been delivered from the kitchens. Xena was still sprawled in their big bed, and the room was dark since clouds were covering the recently risen sun.
So she had the candles lit, and she perked up the fire, setting a pot for hot water on and reviewing the options for breakfast.
The tray held about a half dozen dishes and plates, mostly covered with late season sliced fruits, and some new harvest cheese, along with a small loaf of dark grain bread and a flagon of spiced cider. Gabrielle was pleased with the selection, and she set two dishes on the table, picking and choosing from the platter.
A gust of wind ratttled the window, and she looked up, hearing an unexpected patter against the leaded glass. “Hail?” She got up and went over to look out, seeing sure enough tiny white pellets bouncing on the outside patio stone floor . “Wow.”
The sky was slate gray, and ominious. She could see trees bending under the force of the wind outside the gates and as she peered out, a colorful piece of fabric flew by and plastered itself on the outer wall. “Ooo.”
“Looks like I'll bringing the clowns inside.” A voice sounded behind her, almost making Gabrielle jump before a pair of hands settled on her shoulders and she recognized Xena's low tones. “Brendan thought he felt a storm coming.”
“Can we fit everything inside?” Gabrielle asked. “I wanted to see those horses again.”
“Sure.” The queen was in her dressing gown, and she leaned against Gabrielle's back in a very nice, warm way. “I'll put em all in the dancing hall. Get Stanislaus all pissed off.”
That certainly would. Gabrielle herself had only been in the hall once, it's huge, vaulted ceilings and crystal candle holders hinting at a grand past Xena seemed to be uninterested in repeating.. It was the largest open room in the castle, though, and if the circus was going to fit anywhere, it would fit there. “Cool.”
Xena smiled. “Call the guard in so I can give him the note for that pompous ass.” She squeezed Gabrielle's shoulders then released them. “What do we have here?” She wandered over to the tray. “Light stuff. Good.”
“Yeah I'm still pretty full from yesterday.” Gabrielle said. “I told them to just send up a little.”
“Uh huh.” Xena poured herself a mug of cider, and picked up a slice of pear, walking back over to the window and perching on the sill to watch the weather as she nibbled it. “Good idea. I don’t think I could look at an egg or those griddle cakes of yours right now.”
The pear was acceptable, however. She nibbled it more for the taste than anything else, enjoying the sweetness as she reviewed the ugly situation outside her window.
And it was, indeed, ugly. She could see the hail, and the hear the ping of sleet against the stone, a little surprised at the sudden onslaught of winter after their very mild fall. Though Brendan had forecasted the storm, he hadn’t said it would be this kind of severe weather.
She was glad the harvest was in. However, she realized now that she would probably have to host all her nobles until the storm ended and put up with their pompous nonsense more days than she’d anticipated.
Ah well. Xena sipped her cider as she watched the rain fall.
Gabrielle went through the outer chamber and opened the door, startling the two soldiers standing guard there. “Good morning.”
“Your grace.” The nearer one recovered and bowed. “Tis foul weather outside.” The man warned, as if he had never noticed the windows that surrounded half of their quarters.
“Yes, it is.” Gabrielle agreed. “Would you come inside? Xena has a note she needs taken.” She stepped back and allowed the guard to enter. She spotted Brendan trotting up thte steps and paused to wait for him.
“Morning, y'grace.” Brendan greeted her. “Mistress up yet?
“Sure is.” Gabrielle closed the door after he entered and followed both men towards their living quarters. “Everything okay?”
“Aside the weather, so far aye.” Brendan said. “Good morning, Mistress.” He greeted Xena, who had turned at their entrance and was leaning casually against the window casement.
Gabrielle went over to the tray and got herself a mug of cider, sipping it and enjoying the cold, crisp apple taste. She took a piece of bread and cheese and went to the desk in the room, setting down her breakfast and removing her quill from it's case. “What do you want to tell him, Xena?”
“Can't have you write that muskrat. You'll bleed from those cute innocent ears.” The queen said. “So just tell him to let all the people here for the festival to bunk inside the walls, and to put all the performers in the dance hall.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle dipped the end of the quill in the ink and started scribing.
“Quiet rest of the night, Mistress.” Brendan was saying. “We got the pyre done for it started in raining. Jas took news to th'families, and we set em up on rations.”
“Thanks.” Xena had her legs up on the wide sill, her bare feet crossed at the ankles. “Get three different squads, four men each, and search this place. Top to bottom. I want to know about anything strange they find.” She considered. “I would have had them start last night, but most of those places are too damn dark at night.”
“They're looking for any evidence at all of someone hiding or living in the corners or closets.” Xena went on. “Straw on the floor, scraps of food, dung, whatever.”
“Understood.” Brendan said. “Start up at t'top and work down to the dungeons.”
“You were right about the weather.” The queen commented. “Damn you.”
Brendan flexed his hands. “These old bones know it.” He admitted ruefully. “Felt it comin on.” He glanced outside, where another patter of hail was bouncing. “Glad we had a nice day yesterday at least.”
“Yeah.” Xena said. “I should have known better than to think my luck would hold longer than that.” She remarked dryly. “Now we have to feed this whole crowd until the damn storm stops. Even I can’t kick them all out in it.” She added in a regretful tone.
“Got plenty of stock in.” Brendan said. “Merchants’ll be happy t’get more coin.”
“True.” Xena said. “I should tax them on it.” She said. “Anyone bitches about anything, toss that idea at em.”
Gabrielle finished her note. She blew the letters dry, then she opened the pretty wooden box on one side of the table and removed Xena's signet ring. She picked up a candle and dripped a bit of wax on the parchment, then pressed the signet into it.
A measure of Xena's complete trust. The power of that impression could pretty much do anything she desired in the realm. Gabrielle put the ring back into it's box and waved the parchment around waiting for the wax to cool.
Xena had told her she enjoyed having someone around to write all her stuff for her. Gabrielle wasn't sure if that was really true, or just something the queen wanted her to do just to give her something to do. It wasn't as if Xena had any problems writing – her handwriting was better and more legible than Gabrielle's was in fact.
Nevertheless, the queen insisted she do it, and so, Gabrielle was glad to humor her and did her best to make the notes she scribed understandable and neat. She rolled up the parchment and gave it to the guard. “Here you go.”
“Take that to Stanislaus.” Xena ordered. “Tell him don’t bother whining about it. I want to see that circus.”
“Majesty.” The guard took the scroll and left, closing the outer door firmly behind him.
“Xena.” Brendan cleared his throat. “The Westlanders be making a bit of trouble.”
Xena's eyes narrowed. “What kind of trouble?
“Quarters they were given for the guard not to their liking. The captain came found me this morning, they want to move into the stronghold next to where the prince is.”
“Said they heard as was a killer around, they needed to protect his nibs.” Brendan concluded. “Heard all the hubbub last night I guess.”
“Gag.” The queen grunted.
“Well, were four people killed, Mistress.” Brendan sounded almost apologetic. “Know I'd be tetched ifn it was you in his castle and that was so.”
The queen glowered at him. “Tell them I said beggars can't be bitchers.” She said. “If Philtop wants to sleep with his guards he can move him and his buttlickers to the barracks.
“Aye mistress.” Brendan ducked his head. “I'll tell em.”
“Beat it.” Xena said. “So I can go outside and take my morning bath out on the porch.” She got up and strolled to the doors that opened out into the storm. “Gabrielle, get my soap.”
Brendan ducked his head ahead, then scooted over to the door and ducked through it, leaving them alone. Gabrielle looked at the closed door, then at her queen. “Um.”
“You aren't actually going to take a bath out there, right?”
“Why not?” Xena turned and leaned her back against the window. “It's water, ain't it?” She cocked her head at Gabrielle. “Same as what's in our bathtub.”
“Our bathtub isn't icy cold and it doesn't have hard pieces of ice falling in it.” Gabrielle went over and peered out the glass. “I'd get sick to death if I tried it.” She sensed Xena moving, then she was surrounded by the queen's long arms. “I remember when we were out with the army and it was so cold. Brr.”
“And I wanted you to take a bath in the stream. Remember that?”
“It was a heated stream.” Gabrielle had to smile. “But I didn't know that.”
“Let me clue ya, muskrat.” Xena pointed outside at the rain. “If you go outside in that, you know how good it'll feel when you come back inside?”
Gabrielle frowned. “But why get all cold for no reason?”
Xena rested her chin on Gabrielle's head. “Cause you don't understand what warm is until you've been cold.”
Gabrielle thought about those words for a long moment as the silence lenghtened. Then she turned in the circle of Xena's arms and let her hands rest on the queens hips. “Okay. Do you really want to do this?”
“No.” Xena grinned at her.
The queen chuckled. “Let's go get cleaned up and dressed. I've got court to hold and jackasses to deal with.” She turned them both around and nudged Gabrielle in the direction of the bedroom. “You can tell everyone we took a hail shower. Be good for my image.”
“Xena that's kinda crazy.”
Gabrielle was glad she had her new, warm cloak on as she trotted between the main hall and the wing of the castle that held the dancing hall. She pulled her hood up and felt the pelt of the rain against her shoulders, the sound of moving livestock barely audible over the roar of the storm.
The doors to the other hall were propped open despite the rain, the water dampening the stone and puddling al ittle at the entrance. Gabrielle went around the puddle, and trotted up the steps glad to trade the harsh weather for the firelit warmth inside.
The first person she saw was Stanislaus and boy, he sure looked pissed off. She could see the stiffness in his body, and the jerkiness of his gestures, as he directed the circus performers into the hall. “Stanislaus.”
He turned and spotted her. “Your grace.” He managed, through gritted teeth.
Gabrielle almost felt sorry for him. “Xena had them move all the market vendors into the big show stable.” She said. “She wants you to have food and drink brought in there.”
The seneschal looked exasperated. “Your grace.” He said. “I am fully occupied here in this.. this...” he exhaled. “I will try to have something done as soon as I am done here.”
“Great. Thanks.” Gabrielle peered into the hall, her eyes widening when she saw the collection of people and and animals inside it. The horse performers were there, laughing with some of the jugglers and a couple of men and women who were slim but very muscular and held themselves with unconscious pride.
The hall was almost unrecognizable. The floor had been covered in straw, and the walls hung with colorful, if wet, hangings. The circus workers were putting up some seats on one side and there were two wagons parked in the middle of the floor with oxen still attached to them.
It smelled.. well, it smelled like hay, and animals, and wet sheep actually. Gabrielle edged inside to watch, fascinated by all the strange things.
There were poles being set up, a framework she coudln't imagine the use for, and as she watched, two lithe young girls started to stretch themselves out, twisting into exotic, pretzel shapes. “Wow.”
Gabrielle turned to find a woman about her age standing next to her, with short, curly black hair and a spattering of freckles . “Oh, hello.” She returned the greeting. “Are you part of the circus?”
“I am.” The newcomer agreed. “My name's Cellius. My father runs the circus.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle extended her arm. “It's great to meet you. My name's Gabrielle.”
Cellius returned the clasp. “Nice to meet you too, Gabrielle. Do you live here? In the castle?” She watched Gabrielle nod. “It was nice they let us come inside. We were so disappointed when it started to rain.”
“We were too.” Gabrielle said. “Everyone was excited to see you. Can you show me around your stuff?” She asked. “I”ve never seen anything like it.”
“Sure.” Cellius waved her forward. “This is a great space for us to perform in. I’ve never seen a room this big before.” She walked over to the posts. “This is our trapeze rig. We hang ropes from it and do flying tricks.”
“Really?” Gabrielle peered upward. “Wow.”
“Yeah, it’s scarylicious.” Her new friend said. “I’ve never done it. I just ride the horses in the ring.” She said. “My father wont’ let me do the flying… he says it’s too dangerous.”
“I bet.” Gabrielle said. “What’s that there?” She pointed.
“Oh that’s the balancing boxes.” Cellius said. “Borus, there, he and Jac can balance on them all piled up on each other. It’s crazy. Wait till you see it.”
“You mean they put the boxes on each other?” Gabrielle stared in fascination. “Oh, wait, I see.” She watched the two men as they started to practice. One put a ball down, then put a plank on top of it, jumping on the plank and keeping his balance as the ball rolled around. “Oh my gosh.”
“Wait, it gets a lot better. They get up higher than the cart there.” The woman said. “So.. what do you do here?”
“Me?” Gabrielle tore her eyes away from the performers. “Oh. I’m a storyteller.” She said, honestly.
“You are? That’s great!” Came the surprising answer. “Boy, we haven’t heard too many stories this summer at all – we were hoping we’d get to hear some new ones here at the festival.”
Well then. Gabrielle grinned. “This is going to be a lot of fun.” She said. “I really liked watching the horses yesterday.. are they friends of yours? The riders I mean?”
Cellius was already nodding. “They usually go a day or two ahead of us, since there’s a lot f them and it’s hard to fit all of us in the same place.. but this place is great.” She turned and spread her arms out. “Look at how high the ceiling is! Its like it was made for us.”
Two of the slim, muscular men came over. “Hey Celli.. who’s your friend?” One of the asked, giving Gabrielle a smile. “She’s cute.”
Gabrielle felt the tips of her ears redden. “Hi.” She stuck her hand out. “I’m Gabrielle.”
“Boots.” The man clasped her hand and released it.
“She’s a storyteller, Boots.” Cellius said.
“Yeah?” The man said. “Sweet.. Right bruddah?” He bumped the other man with his hip. “We like stories.”
“So what is it you do?” Gabrielle asked. Both men were super muscular, and they had tough, calloused hands. They were both good looking, with dark hair and brown eyes, and they weren’t too much taller than she was. “Are you the acrobats?”
“We are!” Boots said. “We fly on the ropes and bars up there.” He pointed at the frame that was inching it’s way up to the ceiling. “Boy it’s gonna be great not having to worry about getting wet tonight doing it.”
“You got that right.” The other acrobat said. “Bad enough you slipped out of my grip the last town, Boots. Coulda broke your neck.” He edged closer to Gabrielle. “Hi there, pretty girl. My name’s Zev.”
“Hi.” Gabrielle still had her eyes focused upward. “That’s really high.” She looked at the two acrobats. “I bet it’s going to be a great show.”
“Have you ever seen a circus?” Cellius said.
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I’m from a little village in the hills. I never saw anything like this. We just got some jugglers sometimes at harvest where I’m from.” She said. “Once some guy came through who could shoot apples off people’s heads with a crossbow. That was kind of exciting.”
The performers all laughed.
“I’ll show you.” Boots went over to the half assembled structure and leaped up, catching one of the wooden struts with both hands. He paused, then he pulled himself up and then flipped up side down, leaning his weight on his thighs on the bar and releasing his hands, spreading his arms out in perfect balance.
“Wow.” Gabrielle said.
Then he rolled over and started to fall, catching himself with one arm and swinging around in a circle, catching the bar with his free hand and bringing his legs up between his arms and the bar, then hooking them over the bar and releasing his grip again to dangle head downwards.
He swung back and forth a few times, then suddenly flipped himself off the bar, tumbling in a somersault and then twisting to land on his feet, spreading his arms up and over his head in a triumphant gesture.
Gabrielle clapped. “That was cool!”
Boots grinned. “Now it’s your turn. Tell us a story.” He said. “You know any good ones?”
Gabrielle felt it was a fair enough deal. She knew she had a candlemark or so before Xena expected her at court so she found a seat on a barrel and pushed her cloak back, revealing her hawks head tabard and the dark leggings that went with them. “Okay, sure.”
“Hey, is that the queen’s mark?” Zev asked. “Saw it on the guards outside.”
Gabrielle looked down at her chest, then back up. “Yes, it is.” She agreed. “So I’ll tell you a story about how the hawk came to be Xena’s mark, and how she came to be queen here.”
“Hey, local history.” Boots took a seat on a crate and extended his muscular legs out, crossing them at the ankles. “Go for it, Gabrielle.”
“Always good to know who you’er playing to.” Zev agreed. “Hey you seen her close up?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Yes.”
“Think you could get us an introduction?” Boots wiggled his feet at her.
Gabrielle scratched her nose. “How about you listen to the story first, then we talk about it?” She temporized. “So once upon a time there was a young, fearless warlord…”