A Queen for All Seasons

Part 7

“Look at the evidence of your own eyes, you moron.”  Xena was seated behind the big desk, her booties planted on it, ankles crossed.    “You tell me what you think the stupid bastard was doing in my chambers, dressed like a thief, carrying steel, in the dark, Morden?”

Philtop’s senior noble stared at the body.   “Majesty, it’s not credible!” He said, again, for the nth time. “His Grace had no reason, no inclination to do you harm!”

Xena leaned over to look at the body, then raised both her eyebrows in exaggerated question, lifting both hands and spreading them palms up.

The noble mopped his sweating brow.  “I have no answer for you, Majesty.” He mumbled, turning in question to the six men behind him. “Balderos? Tregel?”

Tregel, the younger man stepped forward.  He looked carefully at the body, then looked over at Xena. “There was word he and your Majesty had a disagreement.” He said, in a low, husky voice.

“The stupid idiot was trying to raise in insurrection in my dining hall.”  Xena replied. “I should, by rights, have just gutted him right there and then, but I had other things to do.”

Balderos and Tregel exchanged looks.  Then the younger man cleared his throat. “Majesty, you can believe this or no – but I .. “ He paused. “His highness was concerned that you might be in danger. Perhaps he was here to prevent harm from coming to you.”

Xena rolled her head to one side and gave him an extremely droll look. “Really?”

“Truly, Majesty.”  Tregel said, in an earnest tone. 

“Did it not occur to him that sneaking into my bedroom armed and hooded might be more dangerous for him than for me?” Xena asked.

“Majesty, the word was spread that you were retiring and in a… “ Morden paused. “His Highness felt perhaps you needed some extra guarding, as you might be distracted.”

Xena regarded him with a look of impatient intolerance. “Anyone guess that maybe I spread that word?”

“Majesty?”

“Never occur to him that I was setting a trap? One that he blundered into?” Xena persisted. “Always did think he knew more than anyone else.  Actually had the brain of a housecat.”

“Majesty!”

“He did!”  Xena put her boots down with a thump. 

“Majesty he thought you were indisposed.”  Tregel said.

“He thought I was drunk off my ass and screwing Gabrielle.”  Xena restated the idea.  “Which is exactly what I wanted everyone to think.”

The men all looked at her,  faces reddening. 

“She wasn’t.”  Gabrielle spoke up quiet. “Xena was putting herself on the line, hoping that the bad guy, whoever he is, would make a try at her. “ She put a hand on the queen’s shoulder. “It was a crazy brave thing to do and he ruined it.”

“He meant well!”  Morden insisted, stubbornly. 

“Well, but now he’s dead.” Gabrielle said. “And the bad guy didn’t get caught and maybe more people will get hurt now.  It’s not a good idea to try and second guess the queen.”

Xena looked up at her consort, and smiled.  “You sweet talker you.”

Gabrielle smiled back at her.

“Yes.” Morden sighed. “He is gone. Our leader, our prince. He has been taken from us.” He gave Xena an oblique resentful look. “We came here in good faith.”

“Spare me the horsecrap.”   Xena said, tersely.  “I didn’t ask him here, or you for that matter. I didn’t ask him to come sneaking into my quarters. I didn’t ask him to stir up trouble for the last few days.  But the bastard showed up here and went crosswise of me and I don’t regret that. “

The men looked at their boots. 

“And despite your crying and whining about what a great guy he was,  I think I might have caught my castle killer anyway.”

“Majesty!” Morden protested.  “He would never have!”

“No?”  The queen eyed him. “As my lovely muskrat here said last night, the attacks started when you got her.” She ticked off a finger. “They’re aimed at the stability of my realm.”  She ticked off another finger. “And he made it very plain he wanted my crown.”

“Majesty! Who said so!” Tregel protested.

“He told me himself.”  Xena said. “No tale carrying.” She spread her hands out.  “Didn’t you hear him ?” Her eyes widened in mock astonishment.  “Didn’t get that whole ‘give me your crown Xena since you can’t hold on to it?”

Morden turned away, a silent curse on his lips very visible.

“Get out.” The queen’s voice rose. “Get back to your rooms and hope I don’t install my horse as your new overlord.” She gestured to Brandon. “Out.”

Three of her soldiers came forward and herded the Westlanders out. 

Xena waited for the door to close behind them.  “Let them start to talk.” She said to Brandon.   “Now. What shall I do with this decomposing lump?” She indicated the body. “What do you think?  Toss him out in the snow, or bury him, or burn him?”

Gabrielle made a face.

“Can’t leave him in here.” Xena caught it.   “If I knew for sure what he was up to, I’d just give him a traitor’s treatment and put bits of him on all the gates.” She eyed the body. “But I don’t.”  She said. “I don’t know why he was here.”

Brandon studied the body.  “Think you should give em a pyre, Mistress.  Fool he was, but his lot are useful, sometimes, out on the edge.” He concluded. “Do ye no good to give him to the wolves.”

Xena pondered that for a minute.  Then she sighed. “All right.” She gave the guards a nod. “Give him honors, and burn him.”   She decided. “Muskrat, let’s get your little servant out of bed and get some breakfast up here.  Killing people always makes me hungry.”

Brendan chuckled. He motioned the rest of the guard forward. “Let’s go boys. Take out the rubbish so her Majesty can eat in peace.”

“And have breakfast.”  Xena purred, now slumped sideways with her head resting on her fist.

Then the body was gone, and the room was quiet.  Xena sat up and rested her forearms on the desk, her face serious.  “So. Let’s see what this lure brings in.” She said. “And I’ve got to go see that cache they found.”

Gabrielle came over and put her hands on Xena’s shoulders.  “What do you think’s going to happen?”

Xena gazed quietly across the room, now being lit by a wan dawn outside filtering through the storm.  “I don’t know.” She admitted.  “We’re adrift on the winds right now, Gabrielle. “ 

“You made them think you killed Philtop.” 

The queen nodded.  “I sure did.”

“And you made them think you thought Philtop was the bad guy.”  Gabrielle said. “Do you really think he was?”

Xena turned her head and regarded her consort.  “In my gut? No.” She said. “He was a rat, and I think he was glad to take the opportunity to advance his goals, and I have no doubt he would have taken a shot at you if he could have but there’s a subtlety to this he wasn’t capable of.”

Gabrielle leaned against the queen’s back.  She was glad the body was gone, and uncomfortably aware of how glad she was that it had been Philtop.  There had been a kind of sleezy danger about him that had really worried her and even though she knew there was still probably a bad guy out there, still, she felt better that he was dead.

And, that made her feel bad.

She pressed her cheek against Xena’s shoulder.

“Hades of a way to start the day, huh?” Xena mused.  “Damn I feel like going back to bed.” She rubbed her eyes with the fingers ofn one hand. “I’m getting too old for this staying up all night crap.”

Gabrielle gave her a kiss on the back of her neck.  “We stayed up that other night.”

“Not the same thing.”  Xena managed a grin, as she half turned to look at her consort. “Hungry?” She watched Gabrielle shake her head, and that made Xena turn right around in her seat and study her closely.  “What’s wrong with you?”

Gabrielle shrugged faintly. 

“You upset about him getting whacked in here? We can pick new rooms.”  The queen ventured.

“No, it’s not that.” 

“No?”  Xena reached up and smoothed the pale hair back off Gabrielle’s forehead, then rested her palm on the skin there.  “You don’t feel like you have a fever.”

“I don’t think so either.” Gabrielle said. “I just feel bad because I don’t feel bad because he’s dead.”

Xena sorted through the statement. “You didn’t like him.”

“I didn’t.”

“So.. why would you feel bad if he died?”  Xena’s voice rose in puzzled question. “You lost me there, muskrat.”

Gabrielle shrugged again. “You shouldn’t feel happy about people dying, should you Xena?”

Xena’s dark head tilted every so slightly to one side.

“Are you glad he’s dead?”  Her consort asked.

‘Sure. Saved me the trouble of killing him myself.”

Gabrielle sighed. “I think I’m just being silly.” She admitted. “I didn’t like him and he made me really mad.  So I probably should be glad he’s dead but you know Xena… it makes me sad to think I would be glad about it.”

Xena rapidly shook her head from side to side, then reached up and tapped her ear. “Can we please start kissing or something? Let’s go back into bed.  I can’t handle so much deep thought so early in the damn morning.”

That, finally, made Gabrielle smile.   “Sorry about that.” She leaned forward and kissed Xena on the lips.  “Let me go see about breakfast. “

Xena caught her before she could back away, and pulled her closer.  She looked steadily into those pale green eyes and smiled back.  “It’s okay for you to be glad, Gabrielle.” The queen said. “He did things that should make you feel that way.”

“Are you glad?”

Oooh.  Xena had to think about that.  “Well.” She finally said. “It had been a lot of fun for me to frustrate the Hades out of him and watch him chew himself into a froth.”

“Really?”

“Sure.” The queen agreed cheerfully.  “Gabrielle, it may not have occurred to you but it makes me feel really good to be in love with you, and to let people, especially people like him, see it.”

Gabrielle blinked at her.

“It drives everyone out of their minds. I like that.”  Xena chucked her under the chin.  “But yeah, I am glad he’s gone, the stupid bastard. I only wish I’d done it myself.” She sighed, her lips twisting into a regretful smile.  “Ah well.”

Her smile grew broader, as Gabrielle squeezed her with all her surprising strength, almost making the queen cough as the breath was taken out of her.   “Let’s go get dressed, muskrat.  I have a feeling it’s gonna be a bitch of a day.” 

Gabrielle released her. “I’m glad too.” She admitted.  “I just hope it doesn’t cause you even more trouble with all those guys.”

Hm.  Xena got up and they went into the bedroom, which was now lit by the dull gray from outside as the curtains had been pulled back from the leaded bay windows and a servant was kneeling by the fire, building it up.

Gabrielle went past the bed and through the door into her own room beyond it, glancing around to see that the curtains had been pulled back there as well.   She went past the wardrobe that held her clothes and into the small bathing room behind it, seeing a basin of gently steaming water ready for her.

It felt wonderful to dip her hands into that.  The warmth went up her arms and made her shoulders relax, and she dipped a handful of it up to wash her face.   She turned as she heard footsteps behind her to find her servant there. “Good morning.”

“My lady.”  Mali bowed slightly. “Is it all to your liking?  I was about to bring up a tray from the kitchens.”

“That would be great.” Gabrielle agreed. “I know Xena’s hungry too.”

The girl looked nervous.  “Your grace, there is something I heard below.  Is it true the prince of the Westlands was killed here, last night?”

“Yes.” Gabrielle answered straightforwardly. 

“Why?”  Mali asked. “We heard the prince’s servants crying out.  They said his only wish was to protect her majesty.”

“Well.” Gabrielle sorted out the facts at her command, which weren’t really that factual once she thought about it.  What, really would serve Xena’s purpose to be known?  “You know, that might have been what the prince told everyone, but then he got dressed up in all black clothing, and a hood, and snuck into our chambers in the dark. “

“Oh.” Mali murmured.  “That wasn’t really wise of him!”

“No.”  Gabrielle agreed. “So I don’t really know for sure what his ideas were, you know? Because doing that could mean a lot of things, and no matter what he meant to do, it was a stupid and dangerous thing.”

“Oh yes, your grace, it was.”  Mali nodded positively.  “I don’t think his servants knew that. They were saying he had been called to the queen’s audience, and then…”

She paused.

“And then Xena just killed him?”  Gabrielle said.  “No.  That’s not what happened.  Xena didn’t call anyone into our quarters last night, and anyway,  why would someone dress up like a sneak if he was called?”

Mali nodded again.  “That doesn’t make sense. They didn’t say anything about the clothing. They were just saying… “ She paused again, and blushed.  “I beg my lady’s pardon.”

Gabrielle could imagine what they’d been saying.  “You might want to tell them it wouldn’t be a good idea to let Xena hear them say that. I think it would make her pretty mad.”

“My lady.”

“Matter of fact, it makes me pretty mad.” Gabrielle said. 

“I’m so sorry, m’lady.” Mali gasped.

“In fact, lets go down to the kitchen together.” Gabrielle steered her out towards the door that led to the narrow back steps.  “So I can make sure that message gets around.”

**

Xena poked her head around the doorframe, searching the small solar intently. “Hey!” 

There was no answer. 

The queen’s body followed her head, and she moved across Gabrielle’s room, aware that her consort wasn’t in it.  “Damn it.”   Since she hadn’t come out through the bedroom, the only conclusion Xena could come to was that she’d gone down the steps to the lower levels.

Not really unusual,  Gabrielle did tend to go up and down to the kitchens using those, rather than the main staircase outside.   But with things happening like they were… she didn’t like it.

Purposefully, she opened the door and started down the steps herself, taking them two at a time as she dropped quickly towards the lower door.

The thought of Gabrielle down there, even in the kitchens she reasonably expected were friendly chilled her to the very core.  The intruder had gotten into the damned banqueting hall so she was sure he could get into the lower rooms just as easily.

Damn it. Damn it.  

Xena got to the bottom of the steps and stiffarmed the door into the lower levels, passing through the set of storerooms that were between the steps and the kitchen entrance.   Her ears cocked, listening for her consorts voice, but she could only hear the rattle and clatter of the staff getting ready to serve the morning meal to the rest of the stronghold.

She clamped her jaw shut to keep herself from yelling Gabrielle’s name.

The kitchen was busy but it threw itself into a stutter when the queen’s tall, distinctive figure cleared the door and bodies started to turn to face her.   Xena drew in a deep breath to let out a bellow, but just as she was about to start, she spotted Gabrielle in the back, near the cook pots.

“Mmph.”  She let the breath out with a slight grunt.  Giving the staff a dour look she angled towards the fire, watching her consort’s body language as she stood surrounded by strange servants.   Gabrielle didn’t look scared, but she had her fists planted very cutely on her hips and it was obvious she was ticked off about something.

As she approached,  Gabrielle turned her head and spotted her, almost as though she felt her presence.  Xena slowed her pace, seeing a smile appear on her consort’s face, and she reached out to take the now extended hand thrust in her direction. “Muskrat.”

The servants all looked properly  terrified.  Xena was pleased. 

“Hi.  I was going to bring your breakfast right back up.” Gabrielle told her. “I was just straightening out a few people… I mean things.. down here.”

“Now were you?”  Xena eyed the servants.  “You all belong to that halfwit cockbrain I offed in my salon this morning?”

“Xena.”   Gabrielle squeezed her fingers.

“Do you?”  The queen asked, glaring at the men.

“Your majesty, we do have that honor.” One of the men said, in a soft voice. “We loved our prince very much.”

“How charming” Xena said. “So why does my consort need to be here dealing with you?” She eyed Gabrielle.  “What did they do, piss in the morning ale?”

“Xena.” Gabrielle came closer and tangled their fingers together. “They just didn’t know what really happened so I told them.”

Really?  Xena flicked a glance at the servants. Which real story had Gabrielle told them, she wondered The real, real story, or the real story she’d told Brendan, or the real fabrication she wanted everyone else to know?  “I see.”

“Your majesty, I’m sure the prince meant you no harm.”

“I’m sure too.”  Xena said.  “He wasn’t suicidal just stupid.”  She circled the servants, making them even more nervous. Her own people crept back, disappearing from the area and withdrawing to the other part of the kitchen.  “So tell me.  Any of you see him leave last night?”

Gabrielle released her, and edged to one side, picking up a tray and getting busy getting them some grub., leaving Xena to her questioning.

That alone, drew her offcourse.  She watched Gabrielle move, studying her posture and trying to decide if she was upset at her badgering the staff or just hungry.

“We all did, your majesty.” The man who had spoken before spoke again.  “That’s how we know the prince meant you  no harm. He told everyone he was going to guard your quarters against the assassin.”

“What?”  Xena half turned, dragging her attention back. 

“Yes.” The man nodded eagerly.  “That’s what he told us. He was going to catch the assassin, and he was sure that would bring him your favor.” He said. “Especially since he told us you called for him.”

“I called for him?” Xena pointed at her own chest. “I didn’t call for him.”

“That’s what your… ah, the lady Gabrielle told us.” The man admitted.  “But the prince assured us you had sent for him and we were all glad.”

‘I didn’t send for him.”  Xena repeated.

“He had your note, majesty.” The man said, in a meek tone. “We saw it.” He turned towards Gabrielle. “We showed her. She has it..”

Xena digested that silently.  “Gabrielle.” She said quietly. “Hand it here.”

Her consort did, leaving the tray for a minute and crossing back over to her, pulling a bit of parchment from her belt and extending it.  Xena took it, and opened it, meeting Gabrielle’s eyes before she looked down.

She could see a look of faint uncertainty there, and it enraged her.   She looked down at the parchment, her own eyes opening wide as she recognized what was, without a doubt, her own handwriting on it.

Come find me.  We need to talk.  X

The shock sent chills down her spine, until she blinked, and recalled the words she’d written, and when. “Clever.” She said. “I wrote this all right.” She saw the twitch work through Gabrielle’s lips. “Just not to him.” She handed the note back to Gabrielle “That’s the note I sent to Lastay to have him come find me.”

Gabrielle exhaled a little, obviously trying not to look obviously relieved.

“Mm. Saved the bastard’s life. Probably that’s why they used it to fool Philtop.”   Xena shook her head briefly.  “Picked it up in Lastay’s rooms.” She looked up at the servants. “I didn’t summon him.  If I’d wanted to off him, I’d have just done it.  No need to trick him into coming to my rooms for it.”

“Majesty.”  The servant bowed his head, but Xena could hear the doubt in his voice and it made her angry. 

“Get out of here.” She pointed at the door. “All of you.”

The servants hastily left, and she turned to her quietly watching companion.  “What are you doing down here?”

Gabrielle turned and went back to assembling their tray. “Well, Mali told me that those guys were down here saying you told Philtop to come to your bed and then killed him so I wanted to set them straight.”

Xena studied the slim figure. “Note freak you out?”

Gabrielle silently nodded.

“Me too, before I remembered when I wrote it.” The queen said, coming over to put her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Muskrat, I’m running out of ways to tell you I’m not the unfaithful whore you apparently think I am.”

Gabrielle turned abruptly and stared up at her. “What?” She said. “I don’t think that!”

The horror rang true.  Xena gazed quietly into the stormy green eyes facing her.  “They do.” She glanced around the kitchen. ‘Half the damn stronghold probably does.  Hades, I’m capable of that, y’know?”

“I don’t want to think that.”  Gabrielle whispered. “It’s not you I doubt, Xena, It’s me.”

Xena sighed, resting her forearms on her consort’s shoulders, wanting very much to pick up her sword and run through the stronghold butchering everything in her path.   Better that, than having a sensitive chat, anyway.

Gabrielle looked away, and her skin turned a dull pink.  “Everyone says I’m just an embarrassment to you.  That everyone laughs at me.”

“Who?”  Xena gently asked.  “Who says that? Give me a name, sweetheart, so I can find them and kill them.” She added, in a warmly affectionate though bloodthirsty tone.  “Before we have breakfast.”

That made Gabrielle look up at her again.  “I love you so much I think it makes me a little nutty.”  She said. “I’m so scared I’ll lose you.”

The simple admission touched Xena’s heart unexpectedly, the rawness in it bringing a very surprising sting of tears to her eyes. 

Right there, in the kitchen.   And damn it, Gabrielle saw them.   The queen exhaled. She looked quickly to either side, finding them isolated in the kitchen, with no sign of anyone else around.   “Gabrielle.” She paused. “Having you think I’d throw you away for some pretty boy or anyone else really hurts me.”  She studied the now grave eyes looking up at her. “Please don’t do that.  Life’s painful enough without you adding that to mine.”

Now there were tears in Gabrielle’s eyes.

“Don’t be afraid.”  The queen’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I will never leave you.”  She watched Gabrielle’s expression closely, seeing the faint narrowing of her eyes and the equally faint tilt to her head before she lifted their joined hands up and kissed Xena’s fingers.

That seemed a good sign.  Xena tilted her own head, and waited, as Gabrielle took a breath and her expression cleared, becoming open and loving, as a faint smile worked its way onto her lips.  “So.” She said. “You so hungry it’s made you mute?”

The smile intensified. Gabrielle just nodded.

“I’ll have to remember that.”  Xena leaned forward and kissed her on the head. “Don’t go south on me, love.  I need you.” She whispered.  “No matter what else that bastard does here if he screws us up he’s won.”

“Never.” Gabrielle stated, finally finding her tongue.  “Xena, even if you would toss me out for some other person I’d spend the rest of my life outside your door because there’s no where else for my heart to go.”

Xena heard her heart beat suddenly in her ears, as the words rang in them. She kissed Gabrielle’s head again, and gave her a hug. “All right. So now that we’ve dripped mushy goo all over the floor and left a mess the damn skullerys will need to clean up let’s get a biscuit before we both start crying like teething babes.”

“Okay.”  Gabrielle returned the hug. “I’m sorry, Xena.  That’s an awful way to start the day out.”

“Yeah, it sure was.”  The queen sighed. “You better get me something really good for that.  I’m starving.”  She draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulder as they turned back towards the hearth. “Then we’ll go see what Brendan found last night, and visit the Persians.”

“Can we get dressed first?”

Xena chuckled wryly. “Spoilsport.”

**

Gabrielle was more than glad to be fastening the buckles on her  boots once they’d eaten their fill from the tray and gotten cleaned up from breakfast.   She stood up and tugged her tabard straight, adjusting the belt on it and relived to feel the leather around her.

She stuck her little knife in it’s sheath in her boot top, and picked up her parchment case, heading back into the bedroom where Xena was just fastening the catches on her house armor.  The black leather was one of her favorite outfits to see the queen in and she gently patted her hip as she went by and sat down on the bench to wait.

Gabrielle had taken a minute to write down what they’d said to each other, and stuck it away in her case to look at later.   She still felt a little giddy from it.  “Those were pretty good eggs, huh?”

“Pretty good everything.”  Xena was attaching her sword in it’s sheath to her back.  “Okay, let’s go.” She picked up her long dagger and slid it into it’s catch just above the base of her spine and checked the layer of leather and brass armor over her shoulders.

A knock at the door made her look around. “Come.”

The door opened, and Brendan entered. “Ready,  Xena?” 

“Let’s go.” The queen answered, motioning Gabrielle to join her. “What’s the word?” She asked, as they headed out the door and went down the steps into the grand entrance hall.

“Well.” Brendan led the way down towards the lower corridors. “Thems what came with him are tearing their clothes up over it.” He said. “Sure he’s wronged, and all.”

“Uh huh”

“Others I heard say twas a wonder you waited so long.” Brendan smiled grimly. “Didn’t care for his games yesterday.”

“Huh.” Xena handed him the folded parchment. “If you believe it, the bastard was tricked to death.” She said. “His people said he got that, thought it was me asking for him.”

Brendan studied the note, then looked at Xena.

“It is my handwriting.” The queen said. “That’s the note I sent to Lastay when I wanted to talk to him, the day we had the show in the dancing hall.”

“Huh!”

“Yeah.”  Xena said. “Must have picked it up when he tried to off my good Duke.”

Brendan sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Feel like an ass, Xena.” He said. “Man goes about killing people at will and not one of us can find him.”

“Imagine how I feel?”  Xena trotted down the steps, her sword bouncing a little on her back. “So where is this.. ah.” She spotted a brace of guards at the very end of the corridor and headed towards them.  “Morning, boys.”

“Majesty.” The two guards touched their chest.  “Heard we’re one less pointy this morning.” The one of the left added, one of her older men, a veteran who had earned the right to ask her things.

“We are.” Xena knelt beside the pile they’d found.  There was  a leather bag, very worn and on one end, tattered. She slipped her gauntlets from under her belt and put them on, then picked up the bag and examined it.

Gabrielle circled around and took a seat on the small bench against the wall, watching her.  “What’s in there?”

Xena fished out the contents.  “Looks like our man’s a man.” She put down a shaving kit, a long, thin blade and knob of soap with a scattering of thick, short hairs in it. “Or a kinky woman.”

Gabrielle frowned, studying the item, then she looked at Xena with a puzzled expression.

Next, the queen drew out a handful of darts. “Ah.” 

The soldiers were watching her and they nodded. “Stickers.”  The older one said.  “Likely what they hit them two boys with.”

“Yep.”  Xena brought the handful up to her face and sniffed the tips, jerking her head back a little at the acrid scent.  It was more pungent than she’d expected, and she could almost taste the bitterness on the back of her tongue.

She put them back down and then turned the bag over, shaking it to remove any further contents since even leather gauntlets could be punctured by a sharp enough point.   A bundled rag fell out, and a folded piece of linen, and then, in a rapid tumble, two black shirts and a pair of slippers.

Xena paused, studying the ground.

Slippers?  She reached out and picked one up. It was thin and soft, made to conform snugly to the foot.  The sole was thin and flexible, and seemed a bit tacky when she pressed it with her gloved fingertip.

“What’s that there, mistress?” Brendan came to look over her shoulder. 

“I’m not sure.”  Xena admitted. “Shoes, but.. “

Brendan reached over and touched the sole “Sticky.”

“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “But why?”

Gabrielle cleared her throat. “In my village.” She said. “The boys who had to collect walnuts used shoes with honey smeared on the bottom to climb with. They got better grip with them.”

Xena and Brendan looked at her, then looked at each other.

“Wow.” Xena murmured. “Who knew?”

She gave the bag one more shake, but it was empty.  She sorted through the debris, but aside from confirming the sex of the intruder, it really didn’t tell her much at all.  The shirts and the rest of the items were common, and local. 

The shoes though. She picked up one of the slippers and studied it again.   Then she looked up at Gabrielle. “Take your boots off, muskrat. Let’s see what this gets us.”

Amiably, her consort put her parchment case down and started to unbuckle one of her boots.  “I don’t think I can climb trees no matter how sticky those are.”

“I don’t think he was climbing trees.” Xena said, tapping the toe of the shoe against her knee.  “Maybe this is why we havent’ been able to catch him.” She tipped her head back and studied the ceiling. “And I think now we know how big he is. “ She held up the shoe. “Because this sure isn’t going to fit any of the rest of us.”

**

Gabrielle carefully placed her feet on the wall,  her hands wrapped firmly around a bell pull attached to a hook high over her head. “Um.”

“Your’e doing great, muskrat.”  Xena called up. “Don’t worry. If you fall, I’ll let ya fall on top of me.”

Somehow, Gabrielle wasn’t entirely comforted.  Her arms ached, and she felt like she might have to let the rope go at any minute. But she was halfway up the wall, and the shoes seemed to stick to the surface like a bee’s.

It was amazing, if scary.  “Isn’t this high enough?” Gabrielle asked, glancing down and then wishing she hadn’t. “My feet stick, see?”

“They sure do.” Xena agreed. “How does that feel? You think you could make it up to the ceiling?”

Gabrielle looked up. “I think someone else could.” She admitted. “I think I’d fall down before I got much further.”

“See anything up there?”

See anything? Gabrielle felt her arms start to shake.  She took a breath, and managed to haul herself up another step, wrapping her hands around the rope and squeezing it as hard as she could.  All she could see is the wall, and some cobwebs.  “Nothing much, just a lot of dust.” She called down.

“Dust.”

“Yeah.” She leaned forward a little. “Just that and some places where the… “ She paused.  “Just these little holes, sort of.”

“Holes?”

Gabrielle peered at them.  They were, really, just holes.  The only thing that was a little funny about them was how many there were. “Yeah, sort of.. “ She looked up. “Kinda going up the roof there.. like little black.. whoa!”

The rope she was holding onto jerked taut abruptly, and the next thing she new she was swinging back away from the wall and she yelped in shock and terror, her legs dropping and the rope burning her hands just long enough to make her cry out before a strong arm grabbed her and she was being held in place. “Sheeps!”

“No, just me.”  Xena had her legs wrapped around the rope and was holding them both up. “Show me those holes.”

Gabrielle pointed.

“Ahhh.”  The queen swung them both closer to the wall. “Grab that sconce, muskrat. Haul us over there.”

Gabrielle, her arms now free, complied. She pulled them both close to the rock surface, and Xena inclined her head forward, peering at them.  “Huh.”

“I thought they were just cracks but see? They’re almost square.” Gabrielle commented. “Sort of like.. I could make a picture in my head of pegs or something going in there.”

“Hah.”  Without any warning, Xena released the rope and they were plummeting to the ground a second later.  She bent her knees and took the shock of the double weight, then straightened and let Gabrielle down.  “Good job, cute stuff.”

Gabrielle cautiously opened her eyes, and then she looked down, slightly surprised to find the ground under her feet.  “Thanks.”

Xena tilted her head back, and put her fists on her hips.  “What’s that up there, Brendan?” She pointed. “Up near the edge of the ceiling. See it?”

Brendan shaded his eyes, and then gave his queen a wry look. “Nothing but shadows, Xena.” He admitted. “Not to these old eyes, anyway.  Kebbin?” He motioned one of the younger soldiers forward. “See anything up there, son?”

Kebbin, a man of middling height and thick, curly brown hair stepped forward and peered up.  “Tis a grate, sir.” He said.  “Isn’t it”

“It is.” The queen confirmed. “It’s an iron grate, with some kind of imprint in it.”  She started looking around the floor.  “And I want to see it better.  Brendan, open those windows.” She ordered, crisply. “One of you go get a shield, and it better be clean.”

Brendan scrambled to do her bidding., and one of the other soldiers left at a run. 

“Y’majesty.” Kebbin stepped forward. “Would ya like me to climb up to the top there, and look better?” He pointed at the rope.  “I kin make it up there. My da was a sailor and I grew up climbing the lines.”

Xena studied him for a long moment, then she gestured to the rope. “Have it it, kid.”

Kebbin spat on his hands and then he jumped up and grabbed the rope, swarming up it much as Xena just had.  He moved past where Gabrielle had stopped before, and pulled himself up close to the ceiling. 

“Here you are, your majesty.”  A soldier came in with a shield, offering it to Xena.

“Thanks.” Xena took it, and moved around, positioning herself behind the rope facing the window that now let in some filtered, gray light. 

“Can’t see too much, your majesty.” Kebbin grunted.  “Just a grate.”

Xena tilted the shield, reflecting the light from the window in a skittering flash of gray that travelled up the wall and focused at last on the grate. “How’s that?”

Kebbin blinked. “Zeus!”  He blurted.   “There’s a …  your majesty! Was something there!  Eyes lookin at me!” He swung back and forth on the rope. “It’s gone!”

Gabrielle had come up behind Xena, and now she touched the queen’s back, drawing in a breath.

“Hmmm.”  Xena rumbled softly, deep in her throat.   “Brendan, get ropes and poles. I want a scaffolding in here in less than a candlemark.  Move it!”

Soldiers bolted in all directions. 

“What else do you see up there, kid?”  Xena asked. “Tell me about the grate. What’s it look like?”

Kebbin wrapped his legs around the rope and peered at the grate, as the light flickered over it.  “Gots a thing of arms here.” He said. “Round thing, I think.”

“One half dark, one half light, with a cat’s head on top?” Xena asked.

Kebbin looked down at her. “Bigods, Majesty, can you see it from there?”

“No.” Xena shook her head. “It’s my predecessor’s coat of arms.”  She said. “All right, c’mon down.  We’ll get a better look when we build a bunch of ladders to go up there.”

“What was that up there?” Gabrielle whispered. 

Kibbin slid down and dusted his hands off. “Whop.” He glanced at Xena. “Give me a turn, that did.  Dind’t like them eyes peeking out at me.” He said. “Took off when that light came up, majesty.”

“What kind of eyes were they?” Xena asked  “Was it a cat? A rat?  A person?”

“Didn’t get much look at it.” Kibbin looked “Didn’t look like no cat though.  Big round eyes, they were.”  He glanced up at the grate. “Didn’t spect the light, ran then.”

“Stick around.”  Xena said. “In fact,  someone get me all the men your size or smaller.” She studied the grate. “Because my shoulders aren’t going to fit in there, that’s for sure, and the muskrat’s not crawling in there either.”

“Phew.”  Gabrielle let out a breath.

Xena glanced at her.  “Tell me you didn’t really think I was gonna shove your adorable ass in that hole.”

“Well.”  Her consort edged a bit closer to her. “I’m sorta the right size.”

“Gabrielle.” Xena planted her hands on her hips.  “Gimme a break.”   She glowered until Gabrielle pressed herself against her body, giving her an apologetic hug.  She draped her arm over the shorter woman’s shoulders and savored the warmth, her eyes lifting again to the grate.

At last, she felt like she was going somewhere with this.  Searching the dungeons had got her nothing but some scraps and attempts at pincushioning.  She knew she could be chasing the bastard around in the lower halls all winter and not really have a chance to catch him, there were so many passages, and so many places to hide.

But that grate, now.  Xena smiled, as she heard the soldiers start to return, with the construction materials she’d ordered. That grate went somewhere, and it went somewhere she had no personal knowledge of.

“Y’know something, muskrat.” She gently rubbed the edge of her thumb against Gabrielle’s arm.  “I got real lazy real fast in this place.”

Gabrielle looked up at her. “Huh?”

“Why didn’t I know that grate was there?” Xena asked. “Why didn’t I scope out all the tunnels, and do something with em?”

“I’m sure you were busy.  With all the soldiers and stuff.” Gabrielle said.

“I’m sure I was a complacent post adolescent jackass who was too busy wiping my ass with velvet robes to really get a handle on this place.”  Xena sighed. “Damn it, why do I have to learn everything the hard way?”

The soldiers were assembling the ladders, and Brendan was pointing up at the grate, and ordering a hook to yank it out of the wall.   Xena was content to step back and keep Gabrielle safe from any flying debris as they watched.

“How could you learn everything the hard way, Xena? You know everything.” Gabrielle objected. “WOuldn’t it have taken you a whole lot longer if you learned it the hard way?”

Xena looked down and found those open, honest eyes watching her. “I don’t know everything.” She whispered. “But don’t you tell anyone that. “

Gabrielle hugged her seemingly content to stay nestled against Xena’s side as they watched the men work.  She lifted one hand up and examined it, grimacing a little as she flexed her fingers. 

Xena caught the motion. She took hold of her consort’s hand and examined it, making her own face at the raw, scuffed skin.  “That from the rope?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah.”

“Sorry, muskrat.”  The queen lifted her hand higher and kissed the palm. “See? Dumbass thing for me to ask you to do.”

That was charming.   Gabrielle leaned closer and gave the queen a kiss on the shoulder.  “It’s okay.” She said. “I’ve never climbed up a rope before.  It was harder than I thought it would be, and then you made it look like it was nothing.”

The queen chuckled softly.  “Kibbin’s not the only one who hauled their ass up and down the sheets on a ship.”  She admitted. ‘I did my share of that.”

Gabrielle tried to imagine her lover climbing up the mast and found it quite easy to do. Xena had a way of making you believe she could do and be anything and suddenly,  she wished she’d been there in that earlier time in the queen’s life.

It would have been so much fun.  She could picture herself as a scruffy ragamuffin, maybe helping the ship’s cook while Xena steered them to their next adventure.  After a moment, she let out a sigh.

“Hand still hurt?”  Xena examined it more closely.   “Ah.” She turned Gabrielle’s hand toward the light, and bent her head over it. “Splinter.”

Gabrielle had a very close view of Xena’s profile, as she concentrated on extracting the tiny sliver from her palm.  As always, she was serious and intent, totally focused on what she was doing with a look of fierce attention so typical of her.

Gently, she reached up with her free hand and pushed a bit of hair obscuring the queens’ eyes back behind her ear rewarded when those beautiful eyes shifted and Xena’s lips eased into a smile.

She could get lost in those eyes, and for a moment as the world faded out and she did, almost sure she could hear both of their heartbeats thumping in the same rhythm.

It was a sweet and magical  moment.  She didn’t know why they were having it, but as it lengthened, she could see the growing amusement in Xena’s eyes and leaned forward to kiss her before she started laughing.

They parted a little, and Xena gently squeezed her hand, then released it.  “All better?” The queen asked.

Gabrielle gazed dreamily at her. “What was the question?”

“Heh.” Xena patted her lightly on the cheek.  “You’re cute.”  She ruffled Gabrielle’s hair, and turned to watch the soldiers build the scaffold, already halfway up to the grate.  She could feel the tingle of Gabrielle’s lips on hers still, and the warmth pressed against her side was leeching comfort into her in a surprisingly nice way.

Xena let the building and movement moved past her, as she examined the feeling in her gut.  Gabrielle’s head was leaning on her shoulder as her consort watched the men work too, and her hand had come to rest casually on Xena’s thigh, fingertips gently tracing a pattern there.

This was love. Xena felt a little humbled by it.   It was a very stupid place for her to be having an internal revelation, but she admitted to herself right there, in the hall, surrounded by soldiers that what she felt at that moment was something she never wanted to live without again.

Scary as crap.

For a minute, Xena let herself imagine what it would have been like if she had, when Philtop had asked, just handed over her throne and took off.  Just left, with her sword, and her horse, and her adorable muskrat just to find out what life had to offer her.

“Xena?”

“Hmm?”  Xena held the image in her head, feeling the crunch of snow under her boots and the sting of the cold air in her lungs, on a long road, with miles to go before shelter. 

“Where do you think that tunnel goes?”  Gabrielle asked, as the soldiers reached the top, and two of them gripped the metal and started yanking it back out of the wall.  “Why would they put it up near the roof?”

She could hear the slow, rhythmic thonk of horse hooves, and at the edge of her awareness, the sound of a voice at her side as she walked along. 

“Xena?”

She let the image fade, but didn’t forget it. “I don’t know, muskrat.”  Xena tilted her head back.  “Are there more of these? You think you’ve seen them?” She shook herself out of her lovestruck mooning and approached the scaffolding. “let’s go look.”

They climbed up, ending up behind the soldiers who were working the grate out of the stone.  Brendan had brought torches up onto the platform and he had one near the opening, and was peering inside.

“What’s in there old man?”  Xena asked.   She got up onto the top platform and squeezed between the men, pausing to examine the grate that was now resting sideways on the wood surface.   The metal was old, and it was almost a burned shade of black. 

She touched it, and found it very cold. “Huh.” She moved over to the opening and felt cold air against her face, full of dust and the smell of moss.   The gap was large enough for someone Gabrielle’s size to crawl into it, and someone Kebbin’s size to squeeze into it, but as she suspected there was no way she was going in there herself.

With a grunt of disappointment, she cleared space. “Okay,  let’s go hunting, boys.”

Kebbin squirmed past her without hesitation, putting his dagger between his teeth as he eased into the shaft, holding a cup mounted candle in his left hand.  He paused, then squirmed forward, his heels moving out of view after a moment as he moved forward.

Another man immediately climbed in after him, similarly equipped.

“Boys.”  Xena leaned on the wall. “If you find someone in there, kill em. Don’t wait for advice, m’kay?”

“Yes, mistress.”  Kebbin called back.  “So far, nought but cobwebs and a spider.”

Xena made a face.  “Better you than me, kid.” She stepped back and examined the grate again. “Brendan, I want everyone to scour the damn place, find me more of these things.”

“Aye.” Brendan said. “Xena, men just told me the snow’s so bad outside, it’s heavy on the roofs.” He said. “Don’t want to risk any collapsing – especially  the stables.”

“No way” Xena  scrambled for the edge of the platform. “C’mon muskrat, let’s go check.”  She was halfway down the scaffolding in a breath.  “Brendan, I want to know what those guys find.”

“Aye, mistress.” Brendan agreed.

“I”ll stop and pick up the Persians. They can move snow for me it’ll be a novel experience for them.” Xena got to the bottom, hopped down, turned, and plucked Gabrielle off the next platform up and lifted her to the ground. 

“I hope Patches is okay.”  Gabrielle said, with a worried frown.  “Boy, so many things are going weird right now.”

“What do you mean weird?” Xena asked, as they quickly moved up the steps and into the main hall.

“Well, the weather.” Gabrielle said, “All this snow? It’s just turned fall, Xena. “ She hurried to catch up to the queen. “And then the whole thing with the bad guy, and Philtop, and people getting hurt, and people getting killed, and then the circus and all that.”

“Huh.” Xena muttered.

“And now you find these little tunnels? All of a sudden?” Gabrielle went on. “It’s all just so weird!”

It was weird. Xena remained silent as they headed for the lower barracks, aware that things were starting to swirl along out of her control, as whoever her enemies were here stepped up their attacks. It had started off with a little mystery, and a man dead.

Now?

She thought she saw a shadow out of the corner of her eye. But when she turned her head to look, there was nothing.  She could hear the sound of the Persians ahead of her, and she could see them moving in her direction, excitement sharpening their voices.  “Need your help.” She told them. “Let’s get over to the stables, we could have a problem.”

In an instant, she was surrounded by big, bearded men, and they were all heading down the passage that would come up into the central courtyard where the stables were, and the main storehouses.   Xena could feel the cold increasing, and in reflex, she reached back to make sure her sword was in place, just as they got to the end of the hall and one of the Persians eased in front of her to unlatch the hatch leading up into the open air.

Xena heard a crack, and the sound of something very heavy thundering down on top of the wooden surface, and instinctively she half turned and went to shove Gabrielle out of the way only to find her arm grabbed, and jerked powerfully, knocking her offbalance and making her stumble to the side just as the roof crashed down with a thundering roar.

She spun and lunged, only to see Gabrielle and the Persian disappear under a cascade of debris, and snow, a half sounded cry cutting off as though by a knife.  “Gabrielle!”

Terror thundered through her as  she thought she heard a laugh to one side and a split second before she dove on the pile of ice she turned and pulled her sword, aiming for the sound in a moment of utter furious rage.

A wash of hot blood erupted, laying down with a hiss on the snow as she plunged after it, letting out a wordless howl as she dug.

**

“Get me hot water.”  Xena didn’t turn her attention from the still, pale figure on the bed.  “And heat some sheets up, by the fire.”

People scurried to do her bidding, but her focus was on that quiet face, and the just barely moving chest her hand was resting on.

Barely a mark on her, except that big, swelling lump on her head, and the trickle of dried blood standing out in stark relief below her right ear. 

Xena very gently lifted up one of her lover’s eyelids, feeling her heart sink when she saw the unresponsive glassiness to the eye beneath it, and the open, unchanging pupil in the center.  She let the lid close, and started to shake inside.

Problem with being an amoral killer was, you knew, intimately, what death looked like when it came creeping up to settle it’s feathers around your victim. 

So Xena knew, seeing that uneven movement of Gabrielle’s chest, and the dull eye that the sound she could just barely hear over the shattering of her heart were those feathers, fluttering.

She could feel her own breath coming short, as the soldiers behind her gently offered her the warmed linen, carefully helped to tuck it around Gabrielle’s still body, silent and  reverent. Only Brendan touched her, putting a hand on Xena’s shoulder and squeezing it without any permission asked or needed.

The hot water was placed on the bedside table and she took the offered piece of cloth, dipping it in and then gently cleaning the blood off Gabrielle’s face and her ear, wiping off the debris from the avalanche as she watched that uneven motion of her breathing become even more so.

Someone entered the room, and her peripheral vision caught a quick flash of Jellaus’ somber face, as he came around behind her, touched her back gently, and then settled down on his knees, not there to do anything but be present.

They all knew.  Xena felt like yelling at them, screaming that they were wrong, but she couldn’t, her heart bound up so tightly in painful constriction that she could only barely breathe herself, silently accepting the unspoken devotion surrounding her.

Strange that now, in this moment of utter disaster, that they’d choose to express it. 

No one spoke.   In the corner,  Lakmas the Persian knelt with his hands clasped, his head bowed. He had been the one who had helped Xena clear the wood and the ice off Gabrielle, and had carried her here to their rooms, since Xena’s knees had been shaking to badly for her to do it.

Xena rested her hands on the bed, feeling as helpless as she ever had in her life.   Outside she could hear the patter of sleet against the window, and the chill in the room shook her to her very core.  “Stir the fire up.” She ordered, softly.

A soldier went to do that.

Xena folded her hands around Gabrielle’s still one, feeling the chill in it, despite the warm sheets she was now wrapped up in.  She touched the inside of her consorts wrist, her heart stopping until she felt the flutter against her fingertips, the beats so unsteady they almost seemed random.

Gabrielle was dying.  

Xena felt tears sting her eyes, and she closed them, the wet droplets hitting her hands, and the hand she squeezed with no response.  Here was something all her skill at arms, and all the force of her will couldn’t stop and she opened her eyes again to look at that quiet, still face, all the pain of what this meant to her coming home.

Leaning forward she gathered Gabrielle’s body into her arms and hugged her, holding her gently as her head came to rest on Xena’s shoulder. “Don’t’ leave me.”  Xena whispered into the ear so near to her cheek.  “Please don’t leave me.”

She really didn’t care who heard her, or who was in the room, or what was going to happen next.

All she cared about was the soul slipping through her grasp, the breath growing fainter, the flutter of a heartbeat becoming indistinct.

No.

**

Pain.

Gabrielle was chiefly aware of a great deal of pain.   She didn’t really know where she was, or what had happened to her, but breathing hurt, and she felt like she was just floating in darkness.

Then it all faded and she could see a gentle glow of light.  It surrounded her and buoyed her up, and she imagined she could feel the brush of clouds against her skin.   She opened her eyes, or thought she did, and saw a brighter light approaching her, bringing a welcome warmth.

It was a relief.  She’d been so cold.  The warmth soaked through the ache in her bones and lightened in, and she found her breath coming easier, as the light surrounded her.

She could hear whispers around her now.  Voices off in the light that she could hear, but not understand.  The light seemed to concentrate and she looked at it, reaching out to touch it but finding herself unable to move.

So strange.

“Gabrielle.”  A gentle, quiet voice spoke.

“Yes.” She whispered back.

“It’s time for you to rest. Come with me.”

“What happened?” She tried to turn her head, and couldn’t.

“It’s your time.” The voice answered. “I will take you to your family, they’re waiting for you.”

Gabrielle floated there for a time, thinking.  “My family?”

“Your mother, and your father, and your sister, and a baby brother you never knew you had.” The voice said. “They all want to see you. They’re waiting. Come with me.”

Baby brother?  Gabrielle wondered. “What’s happening to me?” She asked. “Am I … did I die?”

“Yes.”

Oh no.  Gabrielle became aware of an overwhelming sorrow that hit her right in the gut, the pain so intense it made the light fade, and started a roaring in her ears.  “Oh no it’s not true” She got out. “Please tell me it’s nto true. I can’t… I don’t want to….”

“Gabrielle.”

“Noo!!!” She started to struggle against the paralysis holding her still. 

“Gabrielle, you must come with me.  Your family is waiting for you.” The voice insisted. “You can’t fight it. It’s time.”

Don’t’ leave me.  Gabrielle suddenly heard another voice.   “Xena!”

Please don’t leave me.   The voice came again, so full of aching sadness it blocked out the sound of the voice near her, and the whispers.   I don’t’ want to live without you. Please don’t go.    Every word rang like a bell in her head, the rawness, and the anguish coming through so clearly it made her start crying.

It was Xena. She knew it.  Begging her, simply and openly and Gabrielle started to fight her inability to move, wrenching at the unseen bonds with everything she had. “Let me go!”  She told the voice.  “I don’t want to go with you.”

“Your family wants you.”

“I don’t want them!”  Gabrielle growled. “I want to stay with Xena! Let me go!”  She could feel a strong pull drawing her towards the light, yanking against something she could feel holding her back, a thin, delicate line growing thinner and thinner even as she felt it, unraveling as the light pulled her faster ahead.

She heard a cry in her mind, a gasp of grief that broke her heart and it was too much.  It was too much, and her will suddenly exploded in a flurry of clouds and darkness, and she turned against the pull and reached back to grab the fading line, clutching it in her hands that were suddenly able to move.

Gabrielle.   Her name, in a whisper so soft, and so pitieous it was like a knife cutting through her.  She tightened her grip and kicked out behind her, against the insistent pull. “NO!”

Don’t leave me. Please.

The voice came back. “Go back now, and you will never come here again, Gabrielle.”

“Let me go!”

“You will go into the darkness, stay in the darkness, and suffer with her.”

Gabrielle felt her arms giving out, as she held against the pull. “That’s what I want.”  She managed to gasp.  “If  her soul burns in Tartarus for eternity, I want mine to burn next to it.”

The pull stopped. Stopped so abruptly that she was flung in a rush from the light back into the darkness, and her body collapsed back into a wave of pain. 

“So be it. May the fires take you.”

The darkness became blackness, and there was noise, and the sound of flames and then it felt like her head was exploding and breathing hurt and…

**

Brendan walked stiffly across the inner courtyard, his face a mask.  There was no healer he could get, no magic potion he could buy, nothing he could do to bring comfort to the suffering he’d left behind him in Xena’s quarters.

It was shattering to him to see Xena reduced to helpless tears.  He’d seen her fight through pain that would kill any three other people, seen her stand tall against a hundred enemies, suffer cuts and wounds, and the devastation of her brother’s death and in all that nothing had ever brought her to her knees.

Now this had.  Brendan felt helpless.  He headed back to where the accident had happened, intent on finding some clue, getting some report, that would let him come back to Xena and give her the thing that had caused her such pain  spitted on his sword.

“Hey.”

Brendan turned his head, to see on of Philtop’s guard coming towards him. “No time for you.” He said, brushing past.

“Yah? Hear the little pig whelp got kilt. True?”

Brendan felt the rage take him.  He turned and drew his sword, jamming it two handed up into the man’s ribcage, feeling the blade grate against his backbone as it came out the other side.

“Gurk.” The man gasped, his eyes bugging out.

Brendan yanked his blade back in, then hacked the man’s face, splitting it in half and sending splinters of bone across the front of the stable.

“Wa..!”  One of the man’s fellow guards rushed out. “Hold! What are you doing!”

“Killing.” Brendan snarled, chopping the man’s head off, then hacking his hand from his wrist. “Want to be next?” He kicked the man’s body over and turned to face the newcomer, blood dripping on the ground and spattered over his armor.

Two of his own men bolted out., drawing their swords.

“Say a word about either of em.”  Brendan yelled. “And I’ll cut your hearts out!”

“You’ve got no right to..’ The man backed up rapidly as he just missed being cut. “You’re crazy!” He turned and ran, colliding with the rest of Philtops guard pouring out of the barracks.  “That bastard killed Guron!”

A horn rang out, and the sound of running bootsteps thundered closer as Xena’s men responded. “That’s the bastard’s scum!” Brendan pointed at t the guard. “Probly brought the one that’s killed our little one with em! Let’s get em!”

Swords came out, and men yelled in rage on both sides, and the barracks became a tangle of bodies and blood.

**

It was done.   Xena felt the last motion still beneath her fingers, and the spot on her neck Gabrielle’s faint breaths had been warming became, and stayed cold.

The body she was holding grew heavy and she started crying helplessly, her entire body shaking from it out of her control.   The grief was overwhelming and she surrendered to it, feeling a touch on her back and gentle hands holding her.

It didn’t’ touch the pain, a knife wound to the gut she suddenly, vividly wished was real.  Dying herself would be far less agonizing

And then Xena felt the cool, still body clasped her arms jerk and she gasped as she felt the faintest, softest breath of air against her neck again, and the uneven patter against her fingertips got over it’s terrifying stutter and settled.

By the gods.  Xena shivered with the shock of it, her mind blurring into a mixture of fear and relief that made her sick to her stomach.

She hiccupped softly, and hugged Gabrielle just a little tighter to her,  feeling the tears run down her cheeks as she felt the body in her arms take on, finally, a precious little warmth.

She cradled her lover’s head, savoring that faint, warm breath against the skin of her neck, every breath a moment’s more postponement of the death of her soul.

It was as stark a moment as she’d ever known, understanding in that moment just how far she’d gone down the path of no return with Gabrielle and finding it very surprising that she didn’t regret a step.

Not even right now.  Xena closed her eyes and lived fully in that moment.  She rubbed Gabrielle’s arm with her hand, not sure if she was imagining feeling the faintest return of tension to the slack form slumped against her.

Was she imagining it?

A stronger breath against her skin, and she knew she wasn’t.  She felt her muscles turn to water, and it was hard to keep hold of Gabrielle, afraid to either let her go, or try to move away for fear she’d simply collapse.

“Xena.”  Jellaus’ voice was soft, and gentle on her ears. “Would you like to sit on the bed and hold her?”

Xena closed her eyes. “I don’t’ think I can stand up.” She admitted, her voice so hoarse she hardly recognized it.

“We’ll help you.”  Jellaus very carefully unhooked the sword from her back and set it to one side of the bed.  “Lakmas, come.”

Xena felt hands very cautiously take hold of her, and lift her up and she was lowered onto the bed with Gabrielle still clasped to her.   She kept her eyes shut and felt her lover shift against her, and she heard a low murmur as fingers tightened against hers and they saw it.

She forced her eyelids open to find Jellaus kneeling at the bedside, with the Persian next to him, with reddened eyes and tear stained cheeks.  Jellaus reached over and touched her arm, his lips tensing into a faint, but encouraging smile.

Xena glanced down, studying Gabrielle’s face.  The ugly misshapen lump above her ear was no less evident, but her chest was moving with a touch more regularity, and her lover’s fingers were clutched around her armor with definite intent.

What had happened? Xena knew what she’d felt, knew that she’d seen the life go out of her lover’s body.  She knew that wringing grief hadn’t been false.

Was this just the false part? To raise her hopes and ease her fears, only to end again in agony?

Did it matter?

Did she care?

Xena felt completely exhausted.  “Jellaus.”

“I’m here.” Jellaus eased closer. “What do you need, Xena?”

“Someone check the horses?”

“They’re fine, Xena.”  The minstrel reassured her. “It was the front of the barn that collapsed, where the hayrick is.  Just too much snow.”

“Random?” The queen murmured, with a half shake of her head. “Should have been me. She pulled me out of the way.”

Jellaus sighed.  “She has a true, brave heart.”

“She does.”  Xena let her eyes close again, the exhaustion overcoming her.   “I hope .. I pray to the gods it keeps beating.”

“Rest, Xena.” Jellaus clasped her arm. “We’ll keep watch.”

“No creature or evil thing will enter this place.” Lakmas spoke for the first time. “I swear it.”

Xena let a breath out, finally feeling the shaking inside her ease.  “Thanks.”  She let her cheek rest against Gabrielle’s hair, holding the pain at bay at least for now.

**

Continued in Part 8