A Queen for All Seasons

Part 5

“What happened?”  Xena snapped, as she got back up onto the platform. “What did that bastard do?”  She swept her eyes over the area, then refocused them on Gabrielle.  “Well?” She looked at Brendan. “Go see what they found in that stall. I want to know who stabbed that horse.”

“Mistress.” Brendan touched his chest and headed off down the steps.

Xena turned to her consort. “What happened?” She repeated. “I saw him up here making trouble.”

Gabrielle took her arm and patted it. “It’s okay, Xena.” She said. “He was just going to run down there when he saw you wrestling with the horse, and I stopped him.”

‘Yeah?”  Xena carefully examined both seats, before she plopped down in hers, and glared out at the hall.  After a second, she turned her head and looked at her consort. “You did what?”

Gabrielle sat down next to her. “I stopped him from running down to where you were. When you were wrestling with the horse.”

“I wasn’t wrestling with the damn horse.”  Xena said. “I was trying to control him and keep him from killing himself or hurting someone out there.”

“I know. That was so cool and brave of you.”

Xena eyed her. “It was idiotic and stupid of me. That thing could have crushed me to death.” She informed her consort.  “You should have hauled me back on my ass when I took off.  Don’t let me do things like that, muskrat.  It would be embarrassing as Hades to croak under a pile of horsecrap, you know?”

“But it was so cool and brave.” Gabrielle disagreed.  “Everyone thought so, Xena. They were all saying that in the next row. Anyway.” She put a hand on the queen’s arm, feeling the tension under the skin.  “Philtop was going to run down there and I grabbed him by the cloak and stopped him.”

Xena shifted in her seat, giving the impression of a large, discontented cat.  “Why’d you do that, muskrat?”

“Stopped him? I figured he was going to just get in the way. Or get hurt.”

A faint twinkle appeared in the queen’s eye.  “Why’d you stop him?” She repeated. “That might have been as entertaining as those damn jugglers.”

“Xena.”

“Gabrielle.”  Xena accepted the towel on of the servers hurried over with, and wiped her hands with it.   “You did the right thing.” She said, after a moment.  “Stupid bastard probably would have distracted me and scared the damn horse and we’d both have ended up hurt.”

Her consort looked pleased at the words. “He didn’t like it.”

“Screw him.”  The queen tossed the towel at the servant. “Mindless jackass.”

“So then he said something mean and Brendan hit him.”

The queen’s motions stopped, and she turned to look at her consort. “Something mean about you?” Her voice changed, all the banter leaving it, and the tone altering to soft, almost breathless seriousness. “What did he say?”

Gabrielle felt herself captured in that suddenly intense look.  “Yes.  Just some silly  stuff, like the other servants used to say when I first got here.” She answered, unable to do anything but be honest.  “But it’ okay, Xena. I think he’s just really jealous of me or something.

“I don’t really give a crap what the reason is.  I’m gonna kill him for it.”  The queen answered, still in that soft, dangerous tone. “He has no right to come in here and live off my good will and spout out bullshit about you.”

“Xena.”  Gabrielle’s voice dropped to a gentle murmur, seeing the clean, hard rage in those pale blue eyes. She realized that Xena was truly angry, not just blowing off steam like she sometimes did, and talking loud.

The queens’ body had tensed, and her fingers were slowly closing and unclosing.

Really, truly angry, like she’d been the night she’d killed Toris.  Gabrielle remembered seeing that same, cold look on her face, and she felt a shiver go down her own spine.  She closed her fingers around the queen’s arm, squeezing it gently.

“Maybe he’s behind the poisoner.” Xena said.  “Maybe this is a power play.  Undermining me, undermining you…”

“Is he smart enough for that?” Gabrielle wondered. “He seems kind of dumb to me.”

Xena’s lashes fluttered closed, then back open, and the rage faded a little.  “He’s not stupid.”  She answered briefly. ‘What he does, he does for his own reasons.”

“Well, really, Xena.”  Gabrielle watched the tall body shift a little, and relax, and she followed suit. “Then he’s sort of just a jerk, you know?  Its like he thinks I’m a joke or something.’

Xena grimaced at the truth in the statement.  “I think he thinks I just named you my consort while I waited for a real man to come along.”  She answered honestly.  “Me not wanting a man is outside his mental reach.”

Gabrielle fell uncomfortably silent. 

Xena’s eyes took on a slightly faraway look.  “My picking a consort for love rather than political expediency wasn’t something anyone expected either.”  She mused.  “They never really did get me.”

Gabrielle just quietly watched her, unsure of what to say to that.

The queen leaned to the side and unexpectedly bit Gabrielle’s knuckle, where it was tensed around her arm.   “Yeah.” She traded the nibble for a lick, then looked up from between her disordered bangs. “He is a jerk.” She acknowledged. “And knowing I fell for him embarrasses the Hades out of me so I really just want to kill him on general principals, yknow?”

“Oh.”  Gabrielle turned her hand over, and cupped the queen’s chin with it, unable to look away from those compelling eyes. “Well he’ll be gone soon, right?” She could feel the muscles in Xena’s throat moving, and it belatedly occurred to her that everyone in the room was probably staring at them.

“I sure hope so.” Xena responded mildly, winking at her and then straightening up and turning back to the show.  “For his sake.” She gave a signal to the guard standing next to the show floor. “Let’s get this moving!”

Gabrielle leaned on the arm of her chair, savoring the little tingles still running up and down her spine.  Her chair, and Xenas were right up next to each other, and she could, if she wanted to, reach over and tuck her hand inside the queen’s elbow.

She wanted to.  The feel of Xena’s warm skin under it’s covering of silk settled her, and she was able to focus on the performers, who were now somewhat timidly coming out into the room and starting to get ready.

For all her bravado,  Philtop bothered her.  It bothered her that he felt he could say mean things about her, and his obvious disdain made her uncomfortable. 

It bothered her that Xena admitted to liking him, in a way Gabrielle felt there hadn’t been many the queen had felt like that about.   That she’d wanted him. That he was still very good looking.

It bothered her that the thought of Xena killing Philtop just because he annoyed her wasn’t nearly as troublesome to her as it should have been.    Gabrielle studied the end of the chair arm a moment, tracing a whorl on it with one fingertip.

She felt silly, thinking of stuff like that.  Xena had been pretty clear about how she felt, both about Philtop and about Gabrielle herself.

Pretty clear. She looked up to watch Xena’s profile, only to find those blue eyes watching her, a look of surprisingly gentle affection in them.  She smiled a little in reflex. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m thinking about you hauling that jackass down by his cloak. “ Xena said.  “Damn I’m sorry I missed that.”

“Mistress.” Brendan arrived back on the platform.

“Didja find him?”  The queen looked sharply at him.

For an answer,  Brendan extended his arm, which had a dagger lined up on the inside of it., the hilts cupped in his hand.  “Found this.” He said. “And this.” He offered his other hand which had a ripped piece of cloth in it.

Xena took the weapon first and studied it closely. She glanced to one side as Lastay came over to see what was going on.  “This crest familiar to you?”  She asked the Duke.

Lastay knelt beside the throne and looked at it, his head cocked slightly to one side. “Ah huh.” He frowned. “To be sure, your Majesty, I would have to look back in the scrolls. It does remind me a bit of the old seal of the Westlanders.”

“Oh really?” Both Xena and Gabrielle spoke at the same time.

“Aye.”  The duke sniffed reflectively. “Not the current Prince.” He looked past them to where Philtop’s group was seated.  “One before him.  Was in power when my father had the title and lands.  Used to come and make a fuss about the border.”

“I see.” Xena slipped the dagger into her belt. “Thanks.”  She took the cloth next, but it wasn’t nearly as interesting. Just a piece of sacking, coarse and unremarkable.    She turned over the bit of cloth in her fingers and paused, leaning her head a bit closer to examine it. “Merchant mark.”

“Aye.” Brendan agreed. “Didn’t know it.”  He added. “Asked the boys, no one’s seen it before.”

Lastay took the cloth when Xena offered it. After a moment, he shook his head. “Strange to my eyes, but then, mistress, it’s not my habit to examine the baskets and casks brought into my castle.”

No, Xena supposed not.  It wasn’t her habit either, really.  “Take it and have one of the men bring it around in the merchant hall. See if anyone knows it.”   She leaned back as Brendan took the cloth back, and headed off.  “Damn it.”

“Mistress, why would someone go and harm that horse.”  Lastay took a seat on one of the padded benches next to her throne, extending his legs out and crossing them at the ankles. “It seems senseless to me.”

Xena had been thinking about that too.  It had seemed senseless.  Why stab a circus horse?  She could almost have understood it, fitted it in as a piece of the puzzle if it had been Tiger, or a horse she knew – but she’d never seen this animal before, nor the circus performers who owned him.

No reason for her to care.  So it wasn’t the horse, itself.  Then what?  “Maybe someone wanted to set that beast off and hurt people.  Cause a panic.”   She mused.  “Would have. Thing would have crashed right into that whole front row there.”

Lastay slowly nodded. “Would have.”  He said. “Those are favored seats, your majesty.  Some of the youngsters of the royal council as well.  Could have done some bad mischief.”

A bunch of kids splatted under those big hooves, there under her eyes, in her hall while their parents watched?

Mischief? Yeah.  Xena felt a chill run down her spine.   She’d just gotten the majority turned in her favor, finally.  What would that have done?

Was that what this was all about?

“Maybe whoever it is knew you’d jump right down there, Xena.  Maybe they were trying to hurt you.”  Gabrielle spoke up. “That sure was a big horse.”

“Now that’s a thought, m’lady.” Lastay said.  “Drawing her majesty into danger, as it were?”

“Yeah. Maybe they did it hoping the horse would run over her.” Gabrielle nodded. “You know? Like that ox did one of the grooms the other day. He got really banged up.”

“C’mon, people.” Xena gave them both a droll look. “Don’t’ tell me some whacko expected me to risk my hoary old ass saving a bunch of noble brats.”

Both her duke and her bedmate looked back at her.  “Xena.”  Gabrielle gave her bicep a squeeze.  “That’s exactly what you did.”

“I know that.” The queen looked a trifle exasperated. “But given my reputation, who in Hades would expect it.”  She paused, looking from one to the other. “Besides maybe you.” She put her fingertip on Gabrielle’s nose. “My crazy little storytelling love muskrat?”

Gabrielle blushed appealingly.

“Ah.” Lastay scrunched his face up. “Well, now, your majesty.   That’s a point, certainly. Though in these past few seasons it seems to me word has gotten about a bit about differently.”

Xena shook her head. “I don’t buy it. More likely they were trying to cause a bloodbath and ruin my party.” She decided.  “Ah, here we go.” She indicated the show floor, where the circus performers were getting ready to start.  “Let’s watch and see what happens.”

“Do you think they’ll try something again?” Gabrielle asked.  “To hurt people?”

Xena steepled her fingers. “I think they’ll try something else.” She said. “They’ve struck out the last two rounds.  I just wish I knew what angle they’ll take.. I think after this we’re gonna start pushing their hand. I can’t risk giving them all the time in the world for them to plot with.”

“Go try and hunt them down?” Lastay hazarded a guess.  “It’s a big stronghold, your majesty. Lots of places to hide.”

“Yeah, but.” Xena pointed at the door. “With that weather outside, fewer places they can run.” She settled back in her chair as the acrobats came out.  “Ah there’s your little friends, muskrat.” She watched them climb up the wooden structure with spiderlike agility. 

They were engaging kids, the queen admitted to herself. Very well built and cute as buttons the pair of them, alike in size with beautifully defined muscles and obvious pride in their skills.

She’d seen them looking at Gabrielle, that morning, finding her consort apparently very attractive.  She gave them a point for good taste, but had also made sure it was quite clear who Gabrielle belonged to.

No sense in giving anyone any ideas.

One hopped on a swinging bar and hung upside down, letting his hands dangle as he swung back and forth. The other grabbed a second bar and launched himself into the hair, swinging back and forth in a timed pattern as he hung from his arms.

She could hear the creak of the ropes, as a quiet fell over the crowd, unsure of what they were going to see.

The first man held his hands out, and the second released his hold and flew through the air, catching the outstretched hands and being held by them, then on the back swing, he released his hold, and turned in mid air to catch his original swing and land back on the wooden structure, throwing his arm out in a theatrical gesture.

The crowd clapped appreciatively.  Xena turned her head and looked at Gabrielle with a steady, intent stare.  “Gabrielle?”

“Wasn’t’ that great?” Gabrielle looked at her, eyes alight.

“If you tell anyone I can do that I will spank you until your butt falls off.”  The queen told her, in an undertone. “Got me?”

“Can you?” Her consort whispered back.

“Not going to find out.”

“It sort of looks..”

“No.”

“But..”

“NO.”

**

The circus was a fantastic success.    Gabrielle’s hands felt raw from clapping, and the buzz of conversation around her was happy and excited, as the crowd started to filter out and head towards the banquet hall.

They’d seen so much.  The horses, of course, doing some amazing things in the relatively small interior space, and then acrobats, and the jugglers… and then they had brought out some strange animals that did tricks, she hadn’t known what any of them were.

Xena had, of course.   But even she had leaned forward when they’d brought out a huge striped cat and one of the circus performers had commenced to wrestle with it.   The animal was huge, as long as a horse with a head the size of a barrel top.

It had big, visible teeth that the man pried open it’s jaws to show them, and huge paws with raking claws at the end of them that dug into the floor as the performer struggled with him and scraped up huge chunks of the straw and sand padding.

It roared.  Gabrielle had never in her life heard a sound like that, and she sat enthralled as it raced around in a tight circle around the man, both of them surrounded by other circus workers holding horsewhips.

Xena, however, had frowned. “Poor damned animal.” She said, once they had taken the animal away, herding him down a tunnel made from bodies holding half shields, through a door into a half hidden cage.

Gabrielle had been a little surprised at that, at first, but then she thought about how Xena loved her horse, Tiger, and was always so concerned about the stronghold’s creatures, even the castle cat who loved to hide under their bed.

So maybe it wasn’t that surprising.  Xena had once told her she trusted animals over humans because they never lied to you and Gabrielle supposed that was true, since they didn’t talk at all, after all.

“Xena, can we go see that big cat?” Gabrielle asked, as the queen returned from talking to two of her higher ranking nobles, both of whom looked very pleased with themselves.  “Do you think they’d let us get a closer look? It was so pretty.”

“Let us?”  Xena rested her wrist against the top of her throne.  “Did you forget who’s the queen around here?”

“Never.”

“C’mon.” Xena motioned towards the steps.  “I want to see all those critters they dragged in here before they start charging a dinar to all these nitwits to look.”  She lifted her sword in it’s sheath off the back of the throne and tucked it into the crook of her arm.

“I don’t ‘think they’d charge you, Xena.” Gabrielle hurried to follow her long strides down the wooden platform. “After all, you saved their horse.”

Xena gave her an amused look.

“And you are the queen.”

“Oh yeah, that too.”  Xena drawled, as they reached the floor and walked across the scattered hay to where the circus performers were gathered, accepting coins from the crowd and chatting with them.

“That was great.” Gabrielle greeted them with a smile.  

The performers all peeked past her to where Xena was hovering. “Thanks.” Zev bravely spoke up. “I’m glad you liked it.” He eyed the queen. “ You did like it right?”

“I did.” Xena responded candidly.  “Want to give me and the muskrat here the half dinar tour of your creatures?  Gabrielle wants to see your kitty cat.”

“Sure!” Zev looked pleased to be asked.  He half bowed and indicated they should preceed him as he herded them gently to the back of the hall, where a makeshift canvas wall had been erected to give them a backstage of sorts.

Behind that, Xena could already hear the animals.  The stomp of horses hooves, and the rattle of chains assailed her senses, along with a mixture of manure and musk that made her nose twitch.  

She kept near Gabrielle’s shoulder as they were ushered past the canvas and were suddenly in a different world.    The wagons and carts of the circus were parked neatly in a square,  with seats and a small brazier set in the center of them.  Beyond the wagons were roped off areas for the horses and oxen, and then another section was blocked off by canvas walls was behind that.

“This is a great place to do our show.” Zev was chatting, as he lead them through the cozy campsite and back to the other canvas wall. “It’s perfect, really.”

“Yeah?” Xena pushed the canvas aside and entered the animal enclosure.   ‘Glad you like it.” She spotted the big cat and made sure she was within grabbing distance of Gabrielle as her consort was immediately attracted to it.  “Want to stick around for the winter?”

“It really was a great plac,e so nice and dry and… what?”  Zev turned and faced her. “Excuse me, your majesty, but what did you just say?”

Xena moved past him to examine the cat.  It was a massive beast, a burnished orange color with black stripes, with a head as big as an ale barrel.                                 

It was lying in the open, with a chain and collar around it’s neck, which was securely coupled to the largest wagon’s axle.  As it watched Xena’s approach, it opened it’s mouth exposing huge white teeth, and licked it’s lips.

Wow.  Even Xena’s jaded sensibilities were jolted by the animal on seeing it up close.  It’s fur was think and vivid and looked healthy and as she watched the animal stretched it’s feet out, displaying tufted white toes that had claws unexpectedly revealed in them.

“Your majesty?” Zev repeated, making a frantic come hither gesture with his hand, apparently to his lagging colleagues.  “Did you say something?”

“I did.” Xena circled the big cat, fascinated by it.  “I said, you want to stay here and do your show all winter? “ She glanced at him, and at the older man and woman who were rapidly approaching.  “Stick around, keep me entertained?”

Gabrielle almost held her breath, watching the circus performer’s faces.  She’d come to quickly like them, finding more in common with the younger ones than she did with most anyone else in the stronghold.  The thought of having them around to talk to and trade stories with over the cold months made her very happy.

“That okay with you, muskrat?”  Xena nudged her, having circled back around to where she was standing.

“Sure.” Gabrielle answered immediately.  “That would be great!”

Cellius looked at the older man. “Father, this is..”

“I know well who it is, my girl.” The older man bowed from the waist in Xena’s direction. “Your most magnificent majesty.”

Gabrielle held her breath for another reason, but Xena merely chuckled low and deep in her throat, a sexy sound that tickled the eardrums.    She relaxed, a smile appearing on her face.

“Good start.”  Xena told the man. 

“May I suppose I heard correctly, and that your Majesty wishes us to remain here through the cold, and perform for your subjects?”

“For me and Gabrielle. But the rest of them can watch too.” Xena agreed. “You can do a deal with the merchants I figure will be hanging around for a while. People show up, they make money, cut you in al little.”

The man had been staring at the queen, and now he exhaled and clasped his hands together.

“You can eat from my kitchens.”  Xena added. “What do you think?”

Gabrielle was watching them all. She caught surprise and relief in their eyes, and Cellius had a suspicious hint of tears.   She patted the girl on the shoulder.

“Your majesty – it has been long years for us, out on the road.” The older man said. “We have not stopped travelling since we left our home village, three cold seasons and more ago. Though we found ways to suffer through the weather and keep ourselves whole… the thought of being still and protected for a time nearly brings me to tears.”

“Gods.” Cellius breathed. “To sleep in a bed for a week.”

Gabrielle remembered the weeks out on campaign and how much she’d loved getting back to the castle. She could only imagine what it had been like for these people, who had been traveling much longer. 

“So is that yes?” Xena had been waiting with commendable patience, which had just come to it’s limits.  “You have no idea how much fun I’m gonna get out of having you lot in here instead of the overstuffed pomps and their dancing.”

The older man bowed again, this time with true, deep reverence. “Your majesty, it would be my great honor.” He straightened. “I am Stevanus, and I am at your service.  We would love to stay and entertain your beautiful self, and your subjects through the winter.”

“Oh, yay!”  Cellius whispered. “Oh Zev! Can you believe it?”

The young acrobat was almost bouncing in place, he was so excited. 

“Great.” Xena seemed oblivious to the drama at her elbow.  ‘Where’d you get the cat?” Having settled the matter to her own satisfaction, she returned to her original interest.  “I”ve seen one like it, but far off south from here.”

“Oh. Ah. Well.” Stevanus visibly wrenched his own focus to the animal.  “You know, we were in a portside town on the coast almost.. let’s see.. yes, a year gone now. And there was a man there who had a commission to deliver this big boy and some other animals but his purchaser never showed up.”

“Ah.” Xena cautiously approached the cat, and knelt, to get a better look at it.

“Ah your Majesty.. please have caution.”  Zev squeaked. “He bites.”

Xena chuckled, shifting the sword in her arm. “So do I.” She studied the cat, who was just as intently studying her.  “Beautiful.”

The cat yawned, exposing it’s teeth again and a tongue Gabrielle swore was the size of a man’s shoe.   She was just behind Xena, but had no urge to get any closer.  “Wow. “ She murmured. “Is it hard to travel with him? If he bites and all, I mean?”

“Oh, we feed him.”  Stevanus said. “And three of our handlers have become quite fond of him. He lets them put the chain on and walk him about, and they have trained him to do the things you saw him to do tonight.   I was given to understand from the boatsman he was raised from youth by men so he’s not as wild as he might be.”

“Ah.” Xena nodded. “That makes sense.”  She extended her hand towards the animal, watching it cock it’s head and observe her with tawny, glistening eyes.  She heard a sound behind her, and amused herself mentally imagineing her beloved bedmate going quietly nuts trying to keep from jerking her backwards away from the cat.

“Majesty, please be careful.” Stevanus said, unhappily. “We have only just begun a wonderful relationship I wouldn’t like it damaged by my creature’s teeth.”

Xena chuckled. “Don’t worry. I’m a big girl.” She watched the cat shift, and lean it’ shead forward, it’s big nostrils twitching as it sniffed her fingers.  “Big enough to not blame anyone for my getting myself into a mess.”

“Xena.” Gabrielle murmured, from right behind her.

“No problem, muskrat.” The queen was delighted with the tickling sensation from the whiskers against her fingertips.  “I’ve got two hands.” She heard her consort sigh, and felt a feather light touch against her back.

The cat opened it’s mouth. Xena kept her hand right where it was, knowing better than to make any sudden moves.  The big tongue protrouded though, and licked her fingers and she recalled handling sweet cakes not to much earlier.  “Like that, huh?”

“Gods.” Gabrielle muttered.

Xena touched the cat on the face, finding it’s fur softer than she’d expected.   She didn’t push her luck any further though, after a quick scratch under it’s jaw, she withdrew her arm and stood back up.  “Nice.”

She turned to find the handlers, and the circus people pale as new linen sheets behind her.  “Relax.” She told them.  “Smart cat. Recognizes one of his own kind.” She winked at them, and then slung her arm over Gabrielle. “Get yourselves settled. I’ll tell the servants to get you what you need.” Her voice turned businesslike.

Stevanos recovered his composure and bowed. “We are most grateful to you, majesty.”  He said. “My deepest thanks for your patronage.”

“Don’t thank me so soon.” The queen glanced around. “But you’re welcome.” She steered Gabrielle around the circle surrounded by the wagons, examining the other creatures who were in smaller cages mounted on them.

“By the gods, Stevanos.” Zev muttered. “You were right to bring us here.  To think of even a sevenday’s loose from the weather.”

One of the handlers cleared his throat a little. “By the gods is right.  She’s got the magic in her.  Did you see that cat?  Would have bit my hand off I’d tried it.”

Stevanos put his arm around his daughter.  “Sometimes my friends you just get lucky. “ He looked around, watching the queen’s tall form make her slow circle, with her friend alongside her.  “Not only safe shelter, but a chance to gather us some dinars as we’ll have board here.  It’s good. By the gods, it’s good.”

“What’s that Xena?”  Gabrielle inspected the last cage in the circle.  It held a pair of small animals, with short legs, and long bodies. They had wiggly noses and seemed as curious about them as they were about the creatures.

“Those are minks.”  Xena responded.  “Or  stoats. I’m not sure which.” She added.  “Nice fur.”

Gabrielle studied the little animals.  They had cute faces, and long whiskers, and agile paws. “Oh.” She made a little face. “I think Duke Lastay’s cloak is lined with them.”

“Mmhm.”  The queen agreed. “Don’t get too teary eyed, muskrat.  I know how much you like rabbit stew and lambchops.”

“No, I know.”

Xena looked around. “Okay.” She said, in a very quiet tone. “Let’s go out this way, and meet the troops.” She shifted and as though idly wandering, moved past the wagons towards one of the back entrances to the hall.

They slipped between two methodically chewing oxen and through a passageway into the back servants hall, now empty of people but filled with pieces of gear from the circuit.  Xena went down the hallway a couple of bodylengths and then thorugh a nondescript wooden door.

“Where does this go?” Gabrielle asked, feeling the temperature drop considerably. She rubbed her arms in reflex.

“Tunnel. We’re gonna meet the troops near the stables.” Xena went through another door and then pushed open a third, which revealed a long, dim stairway leading down.  She drew her sword from it’s sheath and handed the covering back to Gabrielle. “Hold this.”

Gabrielle tucked it under one arm and kept close to the queen’s heels as they descended.  “I’m really glad you asked them to stay, Xena. I like them.”

The queen smiled. “Yeah, I know you do.” She said. “Be good to give you people to talk to other than me who aren’t soldiers or stuck up nobles.”

“I always have you to talk to.”  Gabrielle commented. 

“Hm.”  Xena shifted her sword as they reached the bottom of the stairs, pausing to listen before she entered the chill, damp space under the hall.  Ahead of her was a big iron gate, that covered the entrance to a tunnel whose depths disappeared into the shadows.

Xena withdrew a key from the pouch at her waist, and fitted it into the lock, turning it with a bit of effort and a grinding squeak that made her ears hurt.  It took a lot more hand strength than she’d figured, but that fact itself reassured her as it meant the lock had been locked for a good long time.

She booted the gate open with her foot and passed inside, waiting for Gabrielle to follow her before she closed it, and locked it from the other side. She then pocketed the key and started down the tunnel, feeling it get colder and colder as they walked along.

“Brr.” Gabrielle exhaled, her breath just visible in the faint glow from ahead of them.   “Have you been in this one before?”

“From the other side.” Xena swept the tunnel ahead of them, her eyes easily picking out the stones that made out the walls, and the ground that had small holes and rocks in it, making it a little treacherous to walk through.   “I told you I knew where the one in the stables is. I never bothered to look at this one.”

“It’s creepy.”

Xena could hear the rock settling all around them, and soft whispers of wind, and a dank chill seeping into her bones.  “It’s a tunnel.” She said.  “It’s not supposed to be cheerful.”   She suddenly felt a prickle down her spine and she slowed, then halted, holding an arm out to stop Gabrielle.  “Psst.”

Gabrielle stopped and took a step back, just behind Xena’s left elbow. She could hardly see a thing, just the faint light from the stable end of the tunnel, but she knew something had to have made Xena react.

Something had.  Unfortunately, Xena didn’t know what the something was.  She knew her instincts were bristling and in reaction she brought her sword forward in front of her, her hand gripping the hilts as she strained to detect what disturbed her senses.

Sound? Smell?  Xena concentrated on both.  She could clearly hear the sound of her men gathering in the stables, and the soft drip of water behind her.  She could smell the mold and moss around her, the stone of the walls, the dirt of the floor, and Gabrielle.

Her eyes told her the tunnel was empty. Even with the dim shadows, she could see every inch of it.

So what, then?

Cautiously she moved forward, sweeping the air in front of her with her sword in a controlled pattern. It swept through the gloom, a flicker of metal that caught the dim torchlight from the far end as the tip wove back and forth.

She felt Gabrielle touch her back, and then fingers curled around the belt holding her robe closed.  “Stay close.”

“I will.” Gabrielle promised. “I can’t see a thing.”

Xena continued to slowly advance, sweeping the darkness in front of them. She had just started to relax, and figure her nerves were just shot when the light reflecting off her sword reflected off something else.

She stopped, bringing her sword up and angling it towards the torchlight.  Ahead of her,  at neck level, she saw the light shine back towards her off a thin string going from one side of the tunnel to the other.  “See that?”

Gabrielle tried. She screwed her eyes up, but all she could see was the outline of the exit to the tunnel far ahead. “No.”

Xena paused.  Should she trigger whatever it was?   “Brendan!” She let out a bellow.

There was a long pause, then a body appeared in the entrance, blocking the light. “Majesty?”

“Trap!” Xena called out. “Light this damn thing!”

Brendan disappeared.   Xena remained still, her sword held out in front of her. 

Then she saw the string suddenly release.

**

Instinct was funny.  Xena had always assumed her instincts were good and they were totally focused on keeping her head on her neck and her skin in one piece.    So finding herself primarily concerned with making sure Gabrielle was safe and exposing her own ass to whatever was coming at them came as something of a surprise.

Nevertheless, she half turned, putting her back to the danger and grabbed Gabrielle around the waist, pulling her down and sideways as her senses warned her something was coming at them. 

“Oof!” Gabrielle landed with a grunt. “Xena!”

Speaking of instincts.   Xena twisted as she landed and got her sword up just in time to deflect something off into the shadows, then a second, then a third, and she felt Gabrielle grab her from behind, steadying her balance as she lunged up from the floor and snatched a fourth something out of the air.

Then light was coming down the corridor along with a thunder of bootsteps. “Be careful!” Xena let out a bellow. “Light it up first!”

She dropped the arrow she’d caught, tossing it away from her back down the corridor.  “You okay, Muskrat?”

“Um. Yes.” Gabrielle said, out of the darkness.  “Except I bumped my elbow on a rock.”

The troops reached them at that moment and the hallway erupted into bright torchlight, sending splintered shadows against the walls.

“Got them here, majesty.”  A male voice echoed from a little ways up the corridor. “Crossbows.”

“Yeah.”  Xena turned and helped Gabrielle to her feet, frowning when she saw her bedmate cradling her arm.  “Let me see that.”

Gabrielle willingly extended her arm and glanced down. “Yeah, I think I… oh.  Xena, look. It wasn’t a rock.”

“Bigods.” 

Brendan held the torch close and they all stared down at the ground, where a wooden chest was positioned, the top of it knocked askew.   Inside, a crossbow mechanism was visible.

“Clear out from in front of that.” Xena ordered.   She waited until they obeyed, then she took the tip of her sword and eased the box open, so she could get a better look at the inside.   

The box was long enough to hold four crossbows and that’s what was in there. The trigger mechanisms were all tied to each other, and the cord was running out of the box, and crossing the ground just ahead of where Xena’s boots were, just about the height of her ankles.

Xena reached out and kicked the cord, and the box snapped back as all the crossbows fired down the corridor, rattling hard against the stone walls past the group of soldiers clustered tightly to  one side of her.  “Look around carefully. Make sure there aren’t any more of these damn things.”

With a casual swipe she cut the cord, watching it drop to the ground and slither away.   Then she went back to examining Gabrielle’s elbow, which now had a knot on it the size of a hens egg. “That’s gonna ache, muskrat.”

“It already does.”  Her consort made a face.

“No more of those, Xena.” Brendan came over to them.  “Damn bastards… coulda lost a good couple men in here.”

“Could have lost your friendly homicidal maniac in here too.” Xena remarked.  “A set of those damn things came from the other direction. Looks like someone didn’t want anyone using this tunnel and getting away with it.”

Now the tunnel was brightly lit, torches shoved into sconces spaced a bodylength apart down both sides of the hall.   Xena looked around, blinking  a little at the harsh smoke from the brands, and giving her self a moment for the nerves to settle.

There hadn’t been anyone in the hallway.   Just the traps. Her senses hadn’t picked up anything living or moving in the darkness, and she knew they would have.  If not before the triggering of the arrows, then after as whoever it was would slink away and escape.

She knelt beside the long, low chest and examined it.   The wood was ordinary, and as she lifted the top and turned it over, she could see it was relatively hastily cut, chopped with a common ax in fact and roughly fitted.

She ran her thumb over an edge, finding a fine layer of dust on the surface.   Damn it. How long had whoever this was been here?  She’d taken for granted she knew where this shadowy killer was from, but now… now she wasn’t really that sure.

She set the top aside and peered into the box, careful to keep her hands clear of the sides just in case someone had left a surprise sticking out of one of them.   The crossbow mechanisms had been fastened securely to the bottom plank with horseshoe nails.

Horseshoe nails.   Xena reached in an touched one with her fingertip.  Then she pulled her dagger out and unbent the nail, getting hold of it with her thumb and forefinger and yanking it out of the wood with a cranky creaking sound.

“What is it?” Gabrielle was still cradling her arm.

Xena stood, juggling the nail in her hand. “Just something I want a better look at in better light.” She said.   “Brendan, we need to find this guy.  This is getting too dangerous.”

“Getting?”  Brendan eyed her. “Bigods, Xena. “

‘Yeah.”   The queen sighed. “I know. I should have taken this more seriously before now.  Problem is, whoever this is got two hits in, and then his luck turned. He’s gonna start taking more chances.”

‘Y’think he knew we’d be down here?” Brendan asked.

Xena half shrugged. “Stands to reason we would be.” She looked around, cocking her ears. “But this wasn’t set today.”

“No?”

“No.”  Xena put her hands on her hips.   “Everyone fan out and search this tunnel end to end. I want anything that’s in here, dropped buttons, rat bones, whatever you find.” She ordered. “We start here, and then we move on to the next tunnel.”

“Aye.”

Xena swiveled around and regarded her consort. Gabrielle was back against the wall, atypically quiet, just watching what was going on.  Her body language was tense, though, and she had a furrow over her forehead. 

Arm must be killing her.  Xena pondered her dilemma.   She could order Gabrielle go back to their quarters, but that meant she’d be there alone, and the queen wasn’t about to permit that.

But she didn’t trust anyone to watch over her except herself. 

But if she went with her, that meant she ‘d have to trust her men to search the stronghold.

But she suspected they had a very clever assassin inside the stronghold, who so far had eluded their grasp, and seemed to have every inclination to keep trying to kill people.

She didn’t trust the men to find the killer.

Ah crap.  “Okay, listen.” 

“Could we go down there, Xena?” Gabrielle spoke up, pointing to the far end of the tunnel. ‘This place is kinda creepy.”

Well, it would postpone her decision at any rate. “Okay”  Xena agreed. “Let’s set up a command area at the end where it meets the other tunnels.”  She put her hand on Gabrielle’s back.  “C’mon.”   She sheathed her sword and plucked a torch from it’s sconce,  lighting their way as they walked across the uneven floor.

Behind her, the men were spreading out to search.  Ahead Xena could hear a number of voices, and see motion across the entrance to the tunnel.  “How’s the arm?”

“Ow.” Gabrielle admitted. “It really hurts.”

“Hm.”  Xena swept the torch back and forth, her eyes focusing on the edge of the tunnel.  She paused when they reached the other crossbow box, edging around and kicking it open with a swift motion of her boot. 

Like the first one, the box was angled upward on a slant, focusing the crossbow bolts at about gut level and the bows were angled a little to provide a nice range of coverage.   Whoever had set it up, knew their business.

In fact, Xena admitted, she couldn’t have done better herself.  “Nasty.”

“Burrr.”  Gabrielle concurred. “Glad I was with you.”

Xena stared at the box. “Yeah.’ She said. “Me too.”

Her eyes fell on one of the spent bolts from the box she’d triggered and she picked it up, examining the head and sniffing delicately at it.   To her surprise, only the standard smell of worked iron came back to her, and a quick examination of it in the torchlight showed no stain on the metal. “Huh.”

“No poison?” Gabrielle guessed.  “Maybe they thought the arrows were enough?”

Xena’s shoulderblades twitched. “Could be.” The queen agreed. “Almost was for me once, right?”

Gabrielle shivered, remembering the blood, and the injury, and her shaking hands cutting the arrow out of Xena’s flesh.   In her minds eye she could smell the tang of copper, and feel the softness of Xena’s skin under her fingertips.

She remembered Xena looking back at her over her shoulder, when she’d finished, having trusted her with a bare blade at her back, more trust than anyone had ever given her in her life until that moment.

Xena had been convinced then, she’d later told Gabrielle, that anyone else would have taken the opportunity to simply grab the arrow, and shove it on through her.  

So how had she known Gabrielle wouldn’t?

She’d just known.  There had been an understanding between them even then.   Gabrielle smiled a little, following Xena into the brightly lit circular chamber that sat beneath.   “But…Xena, didn’t you think there’d been something on those.. on that one that hit you?”

Xena paused, frowning.  “Did I?”

“You said.. when you had to go through that fight with Bregos and he hurt you?”  Gabrielle lowered her voice, as the men in the chamber realized the queen had entered. “You said that broke something open, remember?”

It seemed so far in the past now. Xena pondered the memory.  She remembered the fight, and yeah, Bregos that bastard smacking her in the back, obviously knowing of her injury from that bastard Alaran, and then… “Oh yeah.” She nodded. “Might have been. Might just have gotten some dirt in it.” She dismissed the affair.  “All right, people. Listen up.”

Gabrielle went over to one of the stone benches lining the wall and sat down on it.  Her elbow was still shooting jolts of pain up her arm, and she was careful to keep from banging into anything else, holding it close to her body.

Wow that hurt.  She reached up and wiped a few cooled tears from her eyes from it.  She didn’t regret it though – for sure she’d rather have a sore elbow than an arrow in her. No question about it.    And really, it probably worked out better for her to fall on top of that box, than on the stone floor, right?

She turned her attention away from her arm and onto Xena, who was pacing back and forth,  a little like the big cat, matter of fact.   She had her sword sheath shoved under the belt holding her gown closed and it really…

Well, it looked a little ridiculous.  She had that, plus a dagger stuck in there, and the front of the gown she was wearing had mud on it from her tussle with the horse.    Her hair was in rough disarray and as she watched, Xena impatiently pushed her sleeves up and exposed her muscular forearms.

“Xena.”   She called out softly.

“Yes?” The queen whirled and paced over to her.  “Arm falling off?”

“No.”   Gabrielle gently fingered one of the queen’s drooping sleeves.  “This looks um… “ She fished for a word.

“Idiotic.” The queen acknowledged belatedly., glancing down at herself.  “I should take it off.” She started untying the belt that held the gown around her, after shrugging off her cloak and laying it down on the bench.  “Wish I had my damn boots.”

“Want me to go get them?”

“No. “ The queen said, in a positive tone.  “Stay put.”  She turned. “Aegos!”

One of the soldiers, a troop leader Gabrielle recognized from the war came trotting over. “Mistress?” He stopped short as his queen apparently was stripping in front of him and bit his tongue, making a weird face.

“Send a man to my quarters.” Xena ignored that.  “I need my pair of riding boots and Gabrielle’s, and her sling and rocks.”

“Majesthy.”  The man mouthed, nodding and turning to do her bidding.

Xena spared a chuckle, and folded her silk gown, laying it down on the bench. She straightened out her leather armor, giving her body a little shake to settle it  and reached around to clip her sword sheath to it’s holders. “That look better?”

Gabrielle nodded, appreciating the way the well fitted armor outlined her lover’s form.   She got up and started untying her own belt, then yelped as she jostled her arm.

Xena paused in the act of tying her dark hair back. “Stop that.” She eased her consorts fingers off her belt and untied it herself, laying it over her shoulder and gently easing the gown off Gabrielle’s shoulders.   “Okay, we’ll set this search in motion then we have to make an appearance in the banquet hall.”

Gabrielle nodded, glad to be free of the gown. 

“Better for us to be dressed like this anyway. Everyone knows something’s going on.” Xena remarked. “Got your pigsticker?”

Her consort drew her belt knife from it’s sheath  in the small of her back and displayed it.   It was supposed to be just a table knife, for cutting her bread or the occasional tough chop served, but a closer look revealed a razor sharp double sided blade, with an indented channel in the center. 

She occasionally used it to cut slices of apple up and really hoped she was never called on to use it for anything more martial since she knew the chances were she’d cut her own thumb off with it before she’d hurt anyone else.

“Good.”  Xena adjusted a strap on her own armor.  Then she turned and headed for the wooden workspace the soldiers had set up, which was now covered in age darkened scraped cowskin, which had inked lines running all over it.  

A rough outline of the stronghold.  Xena put her hands on the workspace and leaned over it, studying the tracings.   To either side of the table, men were armoring up, donning well worn leathers and half armor, and seating swords and maces into holders.

Everyone had leather pants on, and high collared jerkins, and they were wearing light helms that protected the back of their heads.

Xena went back to the diagram.   It wasn’t that detailed, but it showed the outline of the buildings, and thin, dark tracings that were the tunnels underneath and the dungeons she tried very hard to keep empty.

There were pits down there, and cages, all lying in dusty disuse since she’d taken control.  Even the Persian soldiers were being held not in the dungeons themselves, but in the guard barracks that had once been used to keep control from, warm and comfortable billets that befit their status as honorable hostages.

They’d asked to join her army, after the war. Xena had seriously considered it, but something in her gut had kept her from trusting them and she’d settled on a compromise.  She’d told them if their king never answered her offer, she’d eventually give them a choice.

In the meantime, they trained with the army, sparring with wooden weapons and keeping themselves fit and suddenly, Xena wondered if they had seen or heard anything unusual and if they would tell her?

Brendan came over. “All secure, Mistress.” He said, quietly. “N’more of them traps anywhere.  I had the gates locked at t’other end.”

“Brendan, go get me that Persian captain.” She said. “Bring him here.” She indicated a set of lines on the diagram. “Their quarters are here… see where all these underground passages are? Where the old dungeons are?”

Brendan nodded. “Aye.”

“Let’s see if they heard anything.” Xena glanced up at him.  “Let’s see if their mood’s changed any recently.”

Her captain nodded in understanding.  “Were disappointed, when you kept em under lock.” He commented. “Could maybe protect this brigand, whoever it is.”

“Could.” Xena agreed. “Could be I’m an idiot keeping an enemy inside my gates.”  She studied the lines as Gabrielle came up next to her.  “Maybe it’s even one of them.”

“One of what?” Gabrielle asked.

‘The Persians.” Xena glanced at her. “Though they’ve had the opportunity to put a knife in my heart for a month apparently and haven’t.”

Gabrielle  looked up at her, seeing the furrowed crease in Xena’s brow.

“Damn.” The queen sighed. “I wish I could be sure about any gods be damned thing at all.” She paused. “Other than you.”

Gabrielle felt a chill travel up her spine.

The man she’d sent for their boots came back, holding those items under one arm, but carefully carrying a box with both hands. “Mistress.” He came over and set it down. “Found this in your rooms. Looked a bit like the ones we saw in there.” He indicated the tunnel. “Didn’t look in it.”

Xena regarded the box. “Definitely wasn’t there when we left.” She said. “Wonder what little surprise it has in it.”

In their rooms.  Gabrielle felt another chill.  How had they gotten there? Wasn’t there a guard?  Was there a hidden entrance there, too?

Was there more than one bad guy?

**

Xena poked her head out the wooden door that opened up into the stable yard.   She blinked, as snowflakes impacted her eyes, and she was more than surprised to see a dusting of the weather on the ground. “Snow?”

“Aye” Brendan edged up next to her. “Just started a bit ago.  Strange, this time of season eh?”

“Freak storm I guess.” The queen emerged into the stableyard, the box cradled carefully in her hands. She walked across to the center of the open space and set it down, then backed away, until she rejoined Brendan at the steps. “Gimme that crossbow.”

Brendan handed it to her, and she checked the bolt, then lifted it to her cheek and sighted along the shaft to her target.   She exhaled and went still, then squeezed the mechanism, glad of the grip she had on it when the string released and the crossbow bucked.

The bolt struck the box, knocking the top off as she’d intended.  For a moment, she and Brendan stood there looking at it, then Brendan started forward, carrying a shield. 

Xena pulled a crossbow bolt from the carrier strapped to her thigh and reset the crossbow, settling it into the crook of her arm as she covered her captain’s advance.

The stableyard was empty – not surprising given the weather, but she wasn’t taking any chances.   She lifted her head and scanned the walls, her eyes flicking momentarily to the upper walkway, where she’d once stood and ordered Gabrielle’s sister killed.

Brendan reached the box, and looked down into it. Then he turned and looked at Xena.  The queen interpreted his body language and started forward, letting the crossbow rest on her shoulder with it’s point skyward. 

“Bit of a false warning.” Brendan commented, indicating the box.

Xena glanced down into it, finding a beautiful silver pin resting inside, shaped into three intertwined roses of different shades made from glittering stones.  “Ah.”

Brendan knelt and retrieved the box, standing up with it in his hands. “Pretty thing.”

There was a small piece of parchment in the box. Xena removed it and opened it, half turning ot let the torchlight shine on it.  “Huh.”  She murmured. “Go find Stanislaus, wouldja? Bring him down to where we’re set up.”

“Aye.” Brendan handed her the box and turned to do her bidding.  “Figure he knows who put that in your place?”

“Something like that.” Xena put the pin back in the box and tucked it into her hand. She followed Brendan across the yard, and went back down the steps as he turned to the right to cross over to the upper corridor.

Gabrielle was waiting at the bottom of the steps.   “Everything okay?” She asked, as Xena reappeared. 

“Yeah.”  Xena pulled her closer to one of the torches and showed her the box. “See?”

“Oh!” Gabrielle tilted the container to the light. “Oh, Xena! That’s so pretty!” She looked up. “That was in that box? That was in our room?”

“Uh huh.” Xena handed over the parchment.  “Not the dangerous poisoned trap I’d imagined.”

“Oh.”  Gabrielle put the box down on the worktable and opened the parchment. She read the contents twice, before she looked up at the queen, who had resumed her leaning perch studying the layout of the dungeons.  “Wow.”

“Mm.”

Gabrielle looked back down at the parchment.

                           Your majesty – please take this token as a small indication of the great esteem which I hold for your royal person in my heart. Though we have at times been at odds, I have never regretted turning my back on exile when your predecessor perished and I made my decision to stay and serve you.

I appreciate your words to me earlier more than you could ever know.

Your obedient servant, Stanislaus.

“What did you say to him?” She looked up at the queen.

Xena glanced sideways at her. “More than I imagined, apparently.”  She replied. “I just told him it was a damn shame the moron I usurped cut his man’s parts off.”

“Oh.” Gabrielle made a face.

“Yeah, and I got a pretty bauble out of it.” The queen sighed. “What is it with me?  I do mean things, and people send me presents.  I have unwanted slaves killed, their relatives fall in love with me. “ She turned and spread her hands out in patent entreaty.  “I don’t get it.”

Gabrielle put the parchment down. She walked over and put her arms around Xena’s body, and gave her a hug.

Xena folded her arms around her consort and returned the hug.  She kept doing it, even when the door shoved open and Brendan came back in, a deep frown on his face. “What?”

“Majesty, I can’t find him.”  Brendan said. “Servants say he’s been gone a candlemark or more.”

The queen went very still.  “I’m not happy to hear that.” She said. “Put a squad on it. Find him.”

Brendan nodded. “Want me to send a man t’get that Persian you asked for?”

Xena shook her head. “I’ll go there myself, with the muskrat.” She said.  “You find Stanislaus.  Turn this place up side down if you have to.”

Brendan nodded and left.

“Do you think something happened to him?” Gabrielle asked, looking unhappily at the box. “Oh, Xena, I hope not. Not after he gave you such a nice present.”

‘I hope not too.” Xena said. “Bastard annoys the crap out of me but his heart’s in the right place.  Not many are.” She released Gabrielle. “C’mon. Let’s go have us a talk with your massage buddies. Maybe they can give me a few pointers.”

“Xena, I don’t think they meant any harm.” Gabrielle tucked her hand inside the queen’s elbow as they walked up the steps from the chamber into the central hall.  “And anyway, I asked them to teach me.”

“I know.”  Xena angled her steps towards the gated stairway across the hall that lead down into the dungeons.   There were no passageways that she knew of that connected the dungeon level to the tunnel she’d just been in danger in, but then, apparently she didn’t know as much about the underground parts of her realm than she thought she did.  “It’s okay. I’m not gonna stick em. I want to see if I can get them to cough up anything they might have heard down there.”

“Oh.” 

Xena unlatched the gate and opened it, and they started down.  The steps here were wide, but rough, and the ceiling rapidly lowered until it was almost brushing Xena’s head.  The queen ducked a little, and they went down the last set of steeper stairs into the lower chamber.

This was not that different from the one they’d just been in. However it was darker, and wetter, and there were fewer torches.   There were hallways leading off in three directions, but one was stoutly barred.

Xena looked at it. “Remind me to take you in there sometime, Gabrielle.” She said, quietly. 

Gabrielle looked  a the hammered crest affixed to the iron gates. “Is that where your brother is?” She guessed, in a soft voice.

“Yeah.”  Xena turned and headed down the central hallway, which was in better repair, and had obviously seen recent use. 

Then she stopped, and turned. “Matter of fact, now’s as good a time as any.” She reversed her steps and went back to the chamber, going over to the gates and resting her hands on them. She studied the latch intently, then she removed her dagger, and triggered the mechanism.

It opened without any complaint.  Xena eased the gate open all the way, and stepped inside, grabbing a torch from a wall sconce at the entrance.   She led the way down the narrow passage, going slowly enough to let her eyes scour every inch.

Gabrielle walked quietly behind her, and a silence settled around them that made her skin prickle a little.  She put a hand on Xena’s back as they turned a corner, and then were entering a larger chamber. 

She could see two crypts there, and her heartbeat rattled in her chest and she realized one was occupied, and the other was not.   

The room was plain, just chiseled rock walls, and on one side, a stone bench to sit on.  There was no other decoration.    

It smelled quiet, and dusty, and just a little damp, not nearly as wet as it did in the outer corridor.   Gabrielle bypassed the empty crypt and went to the other one, laying her hands quietly on the top of it.

Xena’s crest was carved into the stone, and she touched it with light fingertips, trying to imagine what her lover’s younger brother would have been like.  He’d been shorter than Xena, she remembered the queen saying, and fair haired as Gabrielle herself was.

A little boy, who had suffered, and lived, and grown up with  his sister, fighting all his life to achieve this place  and then to lose it just from spite.

It was terrible, she thought.  Terrible that he’d had to die the way he had.  Terrible for Xena to have found him, and worse, known that the only reason they’d killed him was their hatred of her.

Terrible. 

Xena was prowling around the room, checking every inch of it.  She patiently examined the empty crypt, then went along the edges of the room. 

“Y’know.” The queen said, as she peered at the dust on the floor. “I’m gonna have to find another place for all this stuff.”

“Why?”  Gabrielle turned her head.  “It’s sort of nice here. It’s quiet.”

“It’s too small.”  Xena said, kneeling to examine a smudge on the stone near the door.  She glanced up. “I never figured I’d have any more family besides him.  Now I do.”

It was offhand and ordinary, and hit Gabrielle hard in an unexpected place.  She felt her throat close, and she looked away, and then down, blinking her eyes and seeing the dark droplets fall onto the stone.

“What’s the matter, muskrat?” Xena came over to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, didn’t mean to get you all upset. You don’t have to be laid next to me if you don’t want to.  We can have ya put in the stable next to Patches stall.”

That brought a faint smile to Gabrielle’s face.  “No.. I mean.. of course Xena. I want to go wherever you go, and stay with you forever.” She said.  “I just…  I remembered that night after Lila died, and how I felt like… I realized how alone I was in the world. I didn’t have anyone.”

Xena nodded somberly. “That’s exactly how I felt when Ly died.” She remarked.  “It was just us.” She put her hand on the stone. “And then it was just me.”

Gabrielle reached over and took her hand.  “I only had to wait a day though.” She said. “Because that next day.. even though I didn’t realize it then, I wasn’t alone anymore.”

Xena smiled, and tilted her head to regard her consort.

Gabrielle studied the empty crypt. “You think we could just fit in here together?”

The queen encircled her with her arms and hugged her, rocking them both together for a quiet moment.   “That’s why this whole thing’s making me crazy, Gabrielle.” She said, softly.  “It feels like someone’s trying to take everything away from me again. “

“I wont let them do that.”  Gabrielle said. “Nobody’s going to separate us, Xena. I don’t care what kind of creepy scary spook thing they are.”

It made Xena smile, that gentle, yet inflexible tone coming from this scrappy little woman wrapped around her. Whatever else Gabrielle brought to their relationship, there was no doubt of her devotion.

It had been so long since she’d known that.  “Maybe we should go get Tiger and your runt and just run off together somewhere.”

Gabrielle tilted her head up to look at her. “Just us?”

Xena nodded. “Just us.” She said. “Whoever’s here doing this – they want me. If I’m not here.. maybe everyone else will catch a break and be left alone.”

Gabrielle thought about that. “I”ll go wherever you go.” She said. “Maybe we can go find that boat!”

The queen smiled. “Maybe.” She sighed. “But you know, I’m not ready to run away yet. “ She said. “Keep that thought in your head, muskrat.  That may be my backup plan.”

Hm.  Gabrielle actually felt a sense of excitement thinking about that plan. She’d never forgotten the feeling she’d had when they were on the ship in the port city harbor, and for a little while it had looked like they were going to know it better.  “Okay I will.” She said. “But what are we doing to do now?”

Xena rested her chin against the top of Gabrielle’s head. “Well, they didn’t come in here.” She said. “I’m glad of that. I wanted to make sure.  Damned if I’m going to have some skank hiding his bamboo pipes in my own crypt.  “So now we keep hunting.”

They separated, and Xena led the way to the exit.  “Let’s go find out what the Persians have to say.” She waited for Gabrielle to exit the crypt and then she closed and locked the gates, putting the torch back in the sconce before they went up the short flight of steps leading back to the lower chamber.

They could hear voices coming down the center hallway and they walked quickly up it, towards the big wooden doors that led to the guard barracks.  

Here the floor was sanded, and as they passed through the open portal,  the activity inside went awkwardly still.

“Your majesty.” One of the senior Persians came over and knelt in front of her.  It was a surprisingly natural gesture.   “It honors us that you visit.”

Xena gestured towards the table. “Siddown.” She crossed the room and took a seat at the end of the broad wooden trestle.   

The barracks weren’t fancy, but they were secure and with the fire lit in the big fireplace whose exhaust was angled up to join the bigger one in the kitchens above.   There was a main room, where they were now, and six bunkrooms that split off from it.

The Persians had made the space their own, there were curved scimitars lying around and the round shields, and neatly painted hangings draped the walls full of the symbolism of their kind.

Xena rather liked it. It was well kept and orderly, and there was a camradery of the sword here that reminded her of her own army and past. 

The Persians approached warily and sat down, their eyes flicking in concern to Gabrielle, who had taken a seat next to the queen.  

Xena folded her hands and rested them on the table.   “Lakmas.” She glanced at their senior captain.  “Have you been provided with everything you need?”  She watched the man’s face. He had a square jaw and heavy, angular profile with a neatly trimmed dark beard.

The Persian nodded, even before she stopped speaking. “More than, your majesty.” He answered, his deep voice calm.  “Today in fact, we were brought good thick clothes, for the cold season.” He glanced to the door. “Which has come with much surprise, I think.”

“Started early.” Xena agreed.  “I haven’t heard back from your people.. As yet.”

The men watched her intently.  It was hard to say from their expressions though whether they were glad or sad to hear that.   Then Lakmas clarified the situation. “Majesty, we would as well they didn’t.”  He said.

Xena nodded thoughtfully.  “I see.”

“We understand why you keep us so, in honorable bondage.” Lakmas went on.  “We only hope a time will come, when you can accept our swords in your service.”

Xena studied them all.  There were twelve men here, representative of the two score she’d captured in the battle, all of which were scattered through the guards barracks belowground.   They had shown no evidence at all of any treachery since.

“I hope, your majesty.”  Lakmas spoke up again, a little timidly.  “You do not bear grudge against us for teaching your noble consort some of our homier skills.”

The queen smiled. “No.” She said. “In fact, your doing that might have gone in your favor” She said. “I have reason to believe there’s one or more enemy agents inside the stronghold. I’d like your help in finding them.”

The unspoken response was amazing.  The Persian soldiers were all tough looking men, with big, muscular bodies, dark skinned and dark eyed and at the words they all straightened up in their seats like children promised iced cake for dessert, their expressions lighting up.

Would have been funny, really.  Xena stifled a grin. “Firstly, I’d like to know if any of you, or any of your brothers have noticed anything at all strange, in the last sevenday.  Sounds.  Smells.” She lifted a hand. “Anything.”

Lakmas turned his head. “Gibron, go get Bitras and Alain.  Remember what they were saying this morning?  About the leaves?”

Bitras, the Persian second in command got up and hopped over the bench, heading off into the barracks, calling loudly for the men he’d mentioned.

Then he turned back to the queen. “Your majesty, with this uncertainty, it overwhelms me that you would turn to us to assist you.”

The queen smiled grimly. ‘Trust’s a relative thing.”  She said. “So let’s see if I guessed right this time.”  She leaned forward. “Let me tell you what I’ve found so far.”

One of the Persians got up and went to the fireplace. “Tea, your majesty?”

Lakmas smiled and rested his elbows on the table.  “Perhaps the weather has changed indeed.”

**

Continued in Part 6