A Queen for All Seasons
Xena had no idea what time of the day it was. The curtains were pulled and she’d lost track of everything except the unconscious figure resting in her arms.
Had it been a candlemark? Two? Xena wasn’t sure. She kept her eyes fixed on the slight motion of Gabrielle’s chest, saying a soundless prayer between each one of them as she kept one hand touching her neck to feel the flutter of her heartbeat.
She had never felt a fear so intense as this one. It clenched her guts and kept her on the edge of tears and her stomach was so upset she couldn’t even drink the water in the mug left at her elbow.
The lump on Gabrielle’s head was hot and swollen and horrifically frustrating to Xena since there wasn’t’ anything she could do about it. The damage was on the inside, and she had no way of easing it, or using her healing skills to help her stricken lover.
All she could do was sit here, and wait, holding Gabrielle gently against her, giving her nothing but her body warmth and the focus of her thoughts.
It was very quiet in the room. Her men, Jellaus, and the Persian sat a silent vigil with her, the soldiers seated against the door with their legs crossed under them, their elbows resting on their knees.
Their understated devotion touched her. No one moved, save to occasionally lift their heads and look at the two of them on the bed, then return their gaze to the floor.
But every minute she sat there, every minute they watched in silence, every minute Gabrielle’s chest kept moving was a minute in the right direction.
Xena gently rubbed her hand over Gabrielle’s arm, shifting her carefully a little closer into her embrace and against her body. A motion caught her eye and she looked up, to find Jellaus nearing her side, a soft woven blanket in his hands.
She gave him a grateful look as he settled it over them. “Thanks.” She murmured.
“Xena.” The minstrel adjusted the edge of the blanket. “You do us all honor by admitting us here, to be with you. “
“Doesn’t feel like that.” Xena said.
“I know, my queen.” Jellaus responded in a gentle tone. “They have brought my harp outside, may I bring in and play some music for you both?”
Music. Xena nodded. “She loves music.” She had to stop talking, as her chest clenched, and an echo of Gabrielle’s mournful complaint of not being able to play any herself sounded in her ears and she wondered bleakly if she’d ever hear a repeat of it.
Jellaus touched her shoulder, then eased over to the door into the outer chamber and slipped through it.
“Hear that muskrat?” Xena whispered into the ear near her chin. “He’s going to serenade ya.” She slid back just a little, and curled her arms around Gabrielle more securely. “C’mon, You know you want to hear it.”
She took Gabrielle’s hand in hers and twined their fingers together as Jellaus came back in with his harp, and settled himself on a small stool near the bed, his fingers brushing the strings and bringing a comforting sound into the air.
The minstrel launched into a pretty melody, without any words but light and gentle, stirring the stillness of the air and drawing the eyes of the rest of the men.
It lightened Xena’s heart, a little, and she felt the muscles in the back of her neck loosen just slightly. She rubbed her thumb against Gabrielle’s and glanced at the pale face, whose cheek was resting against her chest.
After a moment of stillness, she felt just the faintest pressure against her fingers, almost so slight she thought she might have imagined it. Then she decided she didn’t. “C’mon, muskrat.” She whispered. “You can hear that, cantcha?”
Please hear it. She silently wished. Please don’t be like the others I’ve known who’ve gotten knocked on the head and never woke up again.
The faint, phantom pressure returned and she looked down at their clasped hands to see the twitching muscles across the back of Gabrielle’s wrist.
Then she saw her lover’s thumb move, just a tiny bit.
“Keep that up, sweetheart.” Xena bent her head lower and whispered, as the music got a little louder. “I know you’re in there.” She rocked her lover gently. “Hear that music? You like that, don’cha?”
There was no answer, but Xena’s sensitive fingertips could feel the flutter getting stronger under them, and a hint of color seemed to be back in Gabrielle’s cheeks. “I love you.” She murmured. “Believe it, muskrat. Wake up and talk to me.”
The door opened again, and Xena looked up to find Brendan entering. Her captain was visibly damp, his armor faintly askew and a new, fresh cut seeping along his neck. ‘What happened to you?” She asked.
Brendan sat down on a stool and looked at her, his face twitching a little. “Man asked me the wrong question.” He said, in a low mutter. “Won’t ask again.”
A fight then, a big one, and Brendan had washed the blood off before coming back into her presence. Xena exhaled and glanced at Jellaus. The minstrel scrunched his face a bit then continued to play, moving from one song to the next as he shifted on the stool.
Well, She’d hear about it eventually. Xena let her chin rest again against Gabrielle’s head, and let her eyes close, allowing the music to seep in again and relax her. What was happening outside didn’t matter, anyway.
Only what was happening here, in the circle of her arms mattered.
At least she was away from the voice, and the light. Gabrielle felt that she was sort of floating, in a hazy gray nothing with her eyes closed, and in a state of half paralysis. There was no real urge to move, it was far easier just to stay still.
It was strange, and she was a little afraid. She wasn’t sure really where she was, or what was happening to her, and as she continued to float there, she became aware that she was missing something.
Missing someone. She was alone, and she wasn’t used to that anymore and as she thought that, an image formed in her mind that was Xena’s face, surrounded by a disarray of dark hair.
Yes, that’s what she was missing. Her tempestuous lover, who filled her life with wonder and excitement She vaguely remembered something trying to pull her away from Xena, and she even more vaguely recalled arguing about that.
She missed Xena’s voice. She could almost hear it, at the edge of all the fuzzy mist, it’s low, sexy rumble winding and weeding it’s way through the clouds around her and tickling her ears.
Muskrat. Was that Xena calling her? It had to be, didn’t it? Xena didn’t call anyone else muskrat, now did she? Only Gabrielle.
She thought she could hear it again, soft yet distinct, the word full of the warm affection Xena always put into it.
Xena didn’t talk to anyone else like that. Only Gabrielle. Even people she liked didn’t get that look, or get to feel Xena’s touch on them, ruffling their hair, or resting the weight of her arm on them.
Only Gabrielle. She was sure she mattered to Xena, even though the other people laughed at her, and called her a peasant. Xena cherished and loved her.
Gabrielle felt afraid again. It felt terrible to think that someday Xena would get tired of her, and Xena had gotten mad at her when she thought Gabrielle had thought that. She wanted to believe what Xena had said but in her mind it was hard to push away that fear.
Did Xena know where she was? Gabrielle thought she heard her name being called again, and in back of that, the faint tinkle of music.
Her fear lifted a little, as she listened to the sound, and heard her name again, in a loving and insistent voice. And then, deep and rich and sweet, she heard “I love you.” And in that gray nowhere mist, drifting in and out of reality she took those words as an anchor and wrapped herself around them in a new, and unexpected way.
It was true. Xena did love her. Gabrielle imagined she could feel her lover’s presence around her and with a lot of effort she tried to close her fingers around the hand she believed with all her heart was wrapped around hers.
Xena loved her. She’d proven it in a thousand ways, and Gabrielle now could see them, little moments of her life drifting in and out of her thoughts.
With all her brash and demanding ways. Gabrielle had gotten used to Xena’s quirky and sometimes mean sense of humor, her intolerance of anything going against her will, her often mercurial changes of mood.
She’d gotten used to them because she also got to experience the gentle tenderness her lover could display, the quiet consideration, and the honest and true care she took over Gabrielle’s person.
She remembered long winter nights, her practicing her stories with Xena wrapped around her like a living blanket, content to just listen as they both sat before the fire eyes half closed in somnolent pleasure.
She remembered bringing Xena fresh peaches and cool fruit ade in the heat of the summer as the queen sat in her chambers working through her nobles petitions and seeing the look of simple happiness on her face as she sat back in her chair and watched her approach.
That was real. Their games of hide and seek, high up in the castle towers at night were real. The riding side by side across the grass was. Xena’s laughter was. The fierceness of her hugs and the passion of her kisses were.
Gabrielle felt a sense of lightness gently push back the feeling of pressure on her chest. She let the happiness of those memories bring a smile to her face and joy to her heart. Another whisper seemed to reach her, echoing softly in all the grayness.
“I will never leave you, Gabrielle. So don’t you go leaving me.”
In all the swirling uncertainty, that was a constant. Gabrielle took it in, and let herself believe it was true even though she knew, at some deep level, that she was losing a part of herself in doing that. Her father had always warned her against trusting people.
Never trust them, he’d said. They all want something from you and don’t want to pay for it.
She felt the heaviness settle on her again as she remembered how hard that lesson had been when she’d learned it meant, especially, not trusting him. She remembered the night Lila had crawled back into their room, biting her lip through to keep from crying after he’d taken her the first time.
She remembered her fear when he’d come and stripped her naked, to shove her in front of strange men time and again, and the beatings after none of them had been interested, or wanted to pay his coin.
She remembered how much it had hurt, the first time he’d kicked her in the stomach, and how sick she’d been after that for such a long time.
Xena’s voice. She wanted to respond to it. She could hear how upset she sounded.
“C’mon muskrat. Stay with me.”
She could feel Xena’s pain. Truly. It was like a fist clenching on her own heart and she didn’t want that. She wanted Xena to be happy.
She fought against the mist, feeling a little angry that it was getting between her and Xena. She wanted to be past it, and feel the wonderful warmth of her queen’s embrace and see the affection in those beautiful eyes of hers.
Xena had told her, she remembered, that she was sorry her father had died in the raid because it meant Xena didn’t have the chance to kill him herself. Gabrielle remembered how safe she’d felt knowing Xena would never let anyone do anything to her like that again.
Xena would have enjoyed killing him, she knew. She would have gotten satisfaction in making him suffer, as he’d made Gabrielle suffer. It was how Xena was.
Intractable, mean, bold, ferocious, full of fury, craving vengeance.
And yet brave.
Loving. Gabrielle tried hard to close her hand again, sensing an odd warmth surrounding her. She could feel Xena’s presence all at once, like the queen was holding her close, the touch of skin against skin, smell her scent – sensations imprinted so deeply in her they brought their own level of solace and comfort.
No. She snuggled closer in her mind. I won’t leave you, Xena.
Finally, the terror faded. Xena exhaled slowly, as the breath against her skin once again came with regular motion and the heartbeat under her touch steadied and strengthened.
If she looked down, she would see Gabrielle’s fingers wrapped around her hand, the tension in them now visible as her grip had tightened.
She felt utterly exhausted. The strain of sitting on the balance between hope and despair was wearing on her like no battle ever had and she kept her eyes closed, blocking out the room around her and even the gentle music.
It would have been easier on her maybe to have been alone. Xena felt bare, stripped naked before the eyes of her men but she didn’t have the strength to deny them their presence and the silent, unspoken support.
And, on some level, maybe, there was something in her that didn’t want to be alone.
She cradled Gabrielle’s head against her chest, her fingers feeling the heat of the lump and the swollen, tense skin over it. She didn’t know what that was doing to the inside of Gabrielle’s head but she knew it wasn’t good.
And there was nothing she could do to… Xena paused in mid thought and let her eyes open. Jellaus was still at her side, gently strumming, his head leaning against the bedside table and his cheeks wet with renewed tears.
What was she remembering? There had been something that triggered her thoughts but what had it been? Another head wound she’d fixed? Xena’s eyes flicked back and forth in the room, trying to push back the emotions and think.
No, no other head wound. She’d seen enough people die under her hands with them. Xena slowly exhaled. Was it a battle? Some insight she’d gotten?
Some person she’d talked to? Some scroll she’d read?
And then it came to her. No, no battle, and no scroll, and no person. Just a damnfool moment of hers and a bad move and her hand cracking against the stone wall upstairs sending every star she’d ever seen into her suddenly red shot vision.
Gabrielle, and a basin of cold well water, and her gentle fingers easing the knot on the back of Xena’s hand in blessedly icy relief. “Brendan.”
“Xena.” Brendan was at her side, kneeling. “What can I do?”
“Get me a big bucket of snow from outside.”
Brendan looked at her for a long instant, then he got up and headed for the door, as always unquestioning of her every demand. “Hang in there muskrat.” She whispered. “Hang in there.”
It was hard to let Gabrielle go. To remove her arms from her lover so that she could shift around and scoop up a handful of the snow and press it gently against the lump on her head. To feel her heart sink as she saw not a flicker of reaction, only that faint, irregular motion of her chest.
Xena gently arranged her body on the bed and looked around. “Get me some cloth.”
Jellaus handed her forward some, and she folded it around more of the snow and pressed it over the same spot.
Was it dark outside? Xena had no idea. She smoothed the pale hair back off Gabrielle’s head, the melting snow dampening it along with the satin cover on the pillow. She heard a shudder against the window though, and glanced up. “Storm’s getting worse?”
“Aye.” Brendan said, in a quiet tone. “Told the men to bring the horses into the dance hall, Xena. Didn’t want em to come to harm.”
Xena nodded. “Thanks.” She moved the compress a little. “Tell those circus people to put on a show. Keep everyone distracted.”
“Aye.” Brendan got up and went to the door, speaking to another soldier in a low tone. The man left quickly and shut the door behind him.
Xena watched Gabrielle’s face intently. “Jellaus.”
“I’m here, Xena.” The minstrel put a hand on her shoulder.
“Go get Lastay.”
The fingers on her shoulder tightened, then relaxed. Jellaus circled the bed and went to the door, handing his instrument to one of the patiently waiting soldiers.
It was hard to fathom, really, just how desperately attached she’d become to Gabrielle. Xena gently wiped the water off her consort’s head and got more snow into the fabric, putting it back over the lump. It was hard to sort through all the crushing emotion going through her mind to think, and plan and make decisions.
She wanted to break down and cry, and scream.
She wanted to beg and carry on and behave like all the grieving people she’d ever despised all her life had, understanding finally at this stage in her life the pain she’d caused so many.
It was infuriating and heartbreaking. All those people whose loved ones she’d decapitated or gutted, sending them to Hades with no more thought than brushing a fly off that she’d never understood and now, kneeling at the side of her own bed she finally did.
Oh, she did. Now it was, perhaps, time for her to lose her loved one. Xena felt her chest contract, and her vision went blurry with tears. She kept her hands still and breathed silently, until she could blink her eyes open and focus again. Lyceus had once told her he figured if she ever gave her heart, it would be all the way and now she found herself cursing him for being right.
Cursing herself. Cursing everyone but Gabrielle because she held no blame in any of it. All Gabrielle had done was hand over her heart and soul and never looked back, loving Xena with an open innocence that made her hurt inside to think of it.
“I never deserved that.” Xena sighed. “I’m such a bastard. Where did I come off having her fall in love with me.”
“Xena.” Brendan had, apparently heard her. “Twas a case of two great hearts meetin.”
Xena let out a soft, pained snort .”One maybe.”
“Ah, no.” Brendan touched her arm. “Xena I’ve followed you boy and man all these years, all of us have, not for the dinars and you know it.”
No. She knew it. Even if she denied it to them, and brushed it off Xena knew the truth and pretending otherwise did Brendan and the rest no service. Did her no service, really, because it was the reason her troops were so loyal to her, the ones that were.
She loved them. She’d die for them. They knew it. She knew it. She tried to pretend it was all ruthlessness but Brendan was right. She had too damn big a heart and Gabrielle had gently enfolded it in her arms and given Xena an experience she never had thought she’d have in this life.
She never really expected to be happy. To love someone like she loved Gabrielle. To have someone love her back with an utter completeness that she knew in her heart was a great gift, one she didn’t think she was entitled to.
No, not entitled to, but she’d gotten it anyway and now, faced with losing it, she knew deserved or not she wasn’t willing to live without it. What excruciating cowardice. Xena looked down at Gabrielle’s face. Wasn’t she the one who told Gabrielle to go off and have kids and name one after her when she croaked?
Wasn’t she? Wasn’t she the one who hadn’t really understood when Gabrielle had sobbed over her, and told her she didn’t want to live without her? Thought Gabrielle was maybe a bit loopy? Xena put more snow over the lump. “Someone get me some more of this.” She nudged the bowl.
Gabrielle hadn’t been loopy. She had just understood in her guts what this was a lot faster than Xena had.
The door opened, and as Brendan went out with the bowl, Jellaus came back in with Lastay at his heels. “Xena, he’s here.” Jellaus reclaimed his instrument and settled back down on the stool, his fingers tuning it a bit automatically.
“Mistress.” Lastay said, softly. “I”m so sorry.’
Not even a hint of a jibe occurred to her. “Yeah, me too.” Xena said. “Listen, Lastay. If things go really bad here, you need to get yourself ready to take over this place.”
Xena understood what she was saying. She knew the soldiers did. Even the Persian, kneeling at her left hand, his big fingers squeezing out the linen for her knew. His big, liquid dark eyes held a surprising compassion as he handed it back to her.
Would Lastay understand?
“Xena.” Lastay said. “I’ll do whatever you want me to do, whenever you want me to do it” He spoke without his usual affectation. “I”m yours.”
Lastay understood. Xena felt a little humble, hearing the sincerity in his voice. She’d been so crude to him, always.
He knelt at her side, resting his big hands on the bed’s coverlet. “May I pursue this creature, in the meantime?” He asked. “I would truly like to put my hold on him.”
“See what you can find out.” The queen said, after a brief silence. “Be careful.”
‘I will.” Lastay said. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you, Xena. My wife as well.”
Xena nodded. “Thanks.” She turned her head briefly and looked him in the eye. “Bring your wife in here if you want. It’s probably the safest place in the palace. No sense both of us going through this.”
The duke’s eyes filled, but he merely nodded in response. He got up and went to the door, which one of the soldiers opened for him respectfully. He passed through and then silence settled back down, save for Jellaus’ soft thrumming.
“He’s all right.” Xena said, as she gently brushed the wet linen over Gabrielle’s pale face, her hands shaking a little.
“You have created him a better man than he was, Xena.” Jellaus said, simply. “As you have so many others. You draw us all to greatness of heart and spirit.”
Xena turned around and looked at him, but he merely gazed back at her, his fingers moving over the strings. After a moment, the queen turned back to her charge.
Brendan came back in with his bowl, the soldier’s shoulders covered in snow and a dusting of it in his hair. He set the bowl down at Xena’s elbow and withdrew near to the fire, brushing himself off over the stone.
Xena reapplied fresh snow to the lump, studying Gabrielle intently Was her breathing a little easier? She put her free hand against her lover’s cheek and brushed her lips with the edge of her thumb, feeling what surely was a phantom pressure against her palm in return.
She left her thumb against Gabrielle’s lips, and felt the soft warmth of her breath against the skin there, as sweet a sensation as she’d ever known. Encouraged a little, she shifted the snow pack, convincing herself that the lump looked a tiny bit smaller.
“C”mon, muskrat.” Xena crooned softly. “Don’t give up on me, huh? I know you’d be damn mad to see me getting the bed all wet here. Open your eyes so you can see me dumping snow on your head. I want to hear you squeal.”
“Xena.” Jellaus left off his strumming, and offered her a mug. “Some tea?”
“Later.” Xena watched her lover’s face intently. “C’mon, Gabrielle. Come back to me.”
Was that a flicker under that eyelid? She reached over and touched a fingertip to it, feeling the unmistakable motion of reaction to the faint pressure. It brought a spark of hope and Xena only barely resisted the urge to shake the still figure in the bed.
Gabrielle became aware, in a hazy way, that there was someone else present in her gray mist. It wasn’t Xena, she could still feel her lover around her, this new presence was different. “Hello?” She called out. “Is someone there”
At first, there was no answer. Then she heard a gentle sigh somewhere nearby. “Hi there.”
The voice was so strange. It sounded very much like her own did, when she heard it in her head. “Who are you?”
“Hm.” The voice said, as it came closer and gave the impression of settling down next to her. “Let’s leave that open for a while.”
The voice didn’t sound threatening. In fact, Gabrielle felt her anxiety fading a little with it’s presence. “Do you know where this is?”
“Yes.” The voice answered readily. “But you don’t, do you?”
“No.” Gabrielle paused. “I’m kinda scared.”
The voice gave the impression of smiling, at least, the sound of it changed the way Xena’s did when she smiled. “I bet you are and I don’t blame you. The first time I went through this, I was pretty scared too.”
Gabrielle felt more afraid hearing that. “Am I dead?” She guessed, deciding to cut to the chase and find out the worst.
“Not exactly.” The voice said. “You got hurt, and your body wants to die, but there’s something keeping you tied to it.”
Oh. Gabrielle was a little overwhelmed by the statement, even though it was, actually better than she’d started to fear it was. “What something?” She asked.
“Love.” The voice answered, with gentle matter of factness. “You don’t want to leave her, and she can’t live without you.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle felt a surge of emotion, a powerful jolt in her guts. “You sound like you know what that’s like.”
The voice smiled again. “I do.” It agreed. “And your beloved one is doing her best to fix your body, so.. I guess what I wanted to tell you is to hang in there, and keep sticking around.”
“I don’t want to die.” Gabrielle said. “I don’t want to leave her.”
“I know.” The voice seemed to move closer. “She needs you. I know you maybe don’t always think so, but she does. “
Gabrielle listened to the words. “Who are you?”
The voice remained silent for a moment. “I’m someone who’s a lot like you.” It finally answered. “My life was different than yours, but we share a lot, including knowing what love like this is.” It continued. “There’s someone who went beyond, who’s trying to hurt you. Let’s just say, I’m here to even the balance.”
That was a huge amount of information to take in. Gabrielle felt confused, and unsure. “Someone’s trying to hurt me?”
“Your soulmate.” The voice answered. “But they’re doing it through you. It’s an old trick.” Now the tone was a little wry.
“They’re trying to hurt Xena?” Gabrielle clarified. “By hurting me?”
“That’s really wrong.”
The voice definitely smiled now. “It is. And the fact that it is, is what’s letting me be here to kind of try and talk you through it. If they were playing by the rules, I wouldn’t be.”
Gabrielle thought about that. “Are you a ghost?”
The voice chuckled wryly. “No.”
That was even more confusing. Gabrielle refocused on something else. “How can I get out of here? I want to go back. I want to be with her.”
The voice settled a little closer. “You have to want to bad enough.” It said. “You have to feel that love, and hold onto it with all your might. Think about being in your body, and .. you sort of have to force yourself back.”
“It hurts.” The voice said. “But when you open your eyes, it’ll be worth it. I promise you.”
Gabrielle tried to peer through the mist, squinting and imagining she could make out a vague form next to her, a seated form with arms wrapped around it’s knees. She got the impression of shaggy hair and bare skin and then the mist seemed to clear just a tiny bit, enough for her to make out eyes the same color as her own watching her.
“Don’t let them win.” The voice said, deepening and taking on a faintly echoing strength. “Fight them. I know you can. I know you have the strength. There is nothing on earth stronger than the love you know. Trust me on that.”
Gabrielle studied those eyes, feeling suddenly a sense of kinship so strong, it made her shiver. There was such absolute knowledge there, she knew what this voice, this person was saying was the truth. That this person knew as much and more about her than she knew about herself and also - that this person had been in the same place she was now and come through it.
So she figured, if they could, then she could, and if the voice was right about that, then the voice was also right about Xena needing her. “I will.” She said. “I promise.”
She had the impression of a strong hand enfolding hers, and squeezing it. “Be good. Be true. She is.” The figure suddenly loomed over her and she felt a gentle kiss on her forehead, and then...
And then the voice, and the vague figure was gone.
Gabrielle felt a mixture of awe and disappointment, but she tried to keep all the advice the voice had given her in her mind as she felt the mist swirl around her, and then she concentrated, sure she could hear sounds through it that weren’t there before.
Tinkling. The sound of water.
The sound of a heartbeat.
She could hear a growing sound, almost subliminal, a deep roaring that seemed to tug at her from all directions, and the next thing she knew she was caught in a maelstrom of sensation, and sounds were getting louder, and she had the feeling of something trying to pull her away again.
The words of her visitor rang in her mind though and she yelled out Xena’s name, reaching out blindly in the grayness as she felt a white hot spear gut her, and heard an angry yowl very close by.
She understood the stakes now. She sensed a darkness rushing at her, blowing past the gray mist and enveloping her with icy suddenness, as chaos surrounded her and something very tactile grabbed her by the back of her shoulders and tried to yank her backwards.
But she could feel something just a strong pulling her forward, a calling that filled her ears as she felt hands grasping hers and Xena’s voice calling her.
Calling her home. And though the way back to that was into darkness, she plunged forward into it and pulled herself free from the grip behind her and she tumbled forwards into a growing pit of pain and anguish, so intense it was hard for her to breathe and it got worse the closer she came to Xena’s voice.
Incredible pain. She felt the gray mist calling her back, pulling her away from the agony and back to self preservation.
“Gabrielle!” Xena’s voice cut through the confusion, and the note of pleading in it caught Gabrielle’s attention with shocking completeness and she remembered what her visitor had told her.
That Xena needed her.
A whisper. “Please don’t leave me.”
And now, this close to the darkness, the voice was real, the pain was real, and she could hear the thunder of Xena’s heart and there was no question of responding. She yanked herself forward into the storm ahead of her, and dove into it, reaching for that need, and that pain and for the truth she finally knew as she left behind the mist and fell forward into a blinding burst of real pain and ice cold and a roll over overwhelming thunder.
“Gabrielle!” Xena yelled for what seemed like the nth time, as the spasming body in her grip went still. “Please don’t leave me.” She whispered, seeing that chest stop, and the flutter at her neck stop and her world stop in all the same moment.
And then, with a rough hiccup, Gabrielle twitched and her chest heaved again, and a flush of pink flooded her face and her eyes popped open, two dazed, bloodshot green orbs tracking at once to the face of the woman holding her.
Xena had no time to dissemble. “Oh.” She let out a soft, awed sound. “you listened.” She shifted her grip from Gabrielle’s arms to enfold her, pulling her close and burying her face in her consorts damp hair. “Ohh.”
Gabrielle drew in another strained breath, unable to reconcile the pain and cold discomfort with the deep and wonderful rush of happiness that washed through her, feeling the shaking in Xena’s arms and hearing the soft, almost helpless gasping cries coming from her.
She had never imagined being able to affect someone like this. “S... okay.” She managed to rasp out, lifting a hand with incredible effort and putting it on her lover’s hip. Xena’s breathing was jerky and uneven, and finally she exhaled, and pulled back a little so they could look at each other.
Oh. Gabrielle let the emotion flood through her, as she saw the raw relief and the tear swollen eyes watching her. The voice had been right. This was more than she’d ever expected. She had no words to offer, she just managed to get hold of Xena’s hand and savored the warmth of it.
Xena had no words either. She let her head rest against Gabrielles again, her breaths finally slowing and becoming more regular as she felt the motion in her consort’s body, and that soft, gentle touch on her skin. She let out a low, shuddering groan, all the energy seeping out of her.
Honesty in every bit of it. Gabrielle now felt a touch foolish, remembering all her nights wondering if Xena really cared for her. Now she didn’t have to wonder anymore. Now she knew. “Xena.” She whispered.
She felt Xena smile. “Ow.”
“Yeah.” The low, strained voice rumbled near her ear. “Bet your head hurts.”
“Yeah.” Everything really hurt. Gabrielle could feel her whole body aching, aside from the throbbing pounding in her head. “Ow.” She mournfully repeated, realizing the voice had been right about that, too. She was cold, and she could feel dampness all around her. “Wet.”
“Yeah.” Xena said. “I’d pick you up and move you over to the dry side of the bed but by the gods I can’t.” She uttered. “Sorry.”
Gabrielle managed to get her hand higher, it’s shaking fingers touching the side of Xena’s face. “S’okay.” Warm replaced cold as Xena gently enveloped her with both arms, pulling her close against her body. She could feel the queen’s hands slowly rubbing her back as she let out a long, slow exhale. “Love you.”
Xena simply nodded in response.
It felt a lot better to be sitting half up, and in Xena’s arms. Gabrielle felt her head throbbing less, and even though the queen was still in her house armor it was more comfortable than wet sheets. She could feel Xena’s cheek resting against her head and she managed to stroke the soft surface with the edge of her thumb.
Xena made a low noise, deep in her throat.
Gabrielle felt herself smiling, so very glad she’d left that gray peace for this painful chaos. Any amount of discomfort was worth this moment, and she used what little strength she had to press her hand against Xena’s face and move them closer together.
She was aware of voices around them suddenly, low male voices that seemed familiar, and the soft sounds of music that somehow seemed triumphant. She felt Xena’s body shift, and the brief, exhausted motion that might possibly have been a laugh shake through her.
Then there were other hands on her, and she felt people around them and she was lifted up and cradled in Xena’s arms but also in others, and after a brief bit of motion, she was being let down into the bed again, this time into dry, warm sheets.
Xena was with her, and she let her head rest against the queen’s shoulder, aware of being weak, thirsty, and in pain, but also of very much being alive. She licked her lips, and as though Xena had read her mind, she felt the edge of a cup being gently eased against them, and the smell of mint rising to her nose. She sucked at the pleasantly warm stuff, hearing encouraging noises slightly over her head.
Xena was gently massaging her neck, and as she finished the tea, she felt the pain ease a trifle. She opened her eyes, and blinked, looking around the room and feeling surprised at how many people were there in it. She spotted Jellaus, resuming his seat on the other side of the bed and picking up his harp and Brendan was there, but she also saw more soldiers, and even one of the Persians up against the wall.
All of them looked relieved. All of them were watching Xena, with gentle, glad eyes.
Gabrielle shifted her head a little and looked up at her lover’s profile, finding the queen gazing back at her, the faintest of smiles on her face, and an expression of exhausted relief. She had a sense that something pretty momentous had gone on but she was too tired herself to really think much about it.
Where in the gray mist, she’d had plenty of time and energy to think, here, all she wanted to do was lay there in Xena’s embrace, and look at her. It felt so good to have the mist gone, and the reality of the world around her, and nothing separating her from those eyes, or the feel of Xena’s touch on her skin.
She could smell the leather of Xena’s armor, and the wood burning in the fire. She could hear Xena’s heartbeat. It was all so beautiful she felt like crying.
Then something occurred to her. “Xena?” She rasped softly. “The horses..okay?”
Xena paused, then looked up at Brendan, one eyebrow lifting slightly.
“They’re fine, little one.” Brendan said. “We went up and moved em into the hall. None the worse for it.”
Gabrielle managed a nod.
“You remember that?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle nodded again.
The queen’s face eased into a incrementally wider smile. “Nothing after that, I bet.”
Gabrielle thought about that. Then she hesitantly shook her head, reserving her experience in the mist to tell Xena about later. She had a feeling she need to talk to her about that in private, when it was just the two of them and anyway, she was far too tired and fuzzy to say much of anything in any case.
It was much nicer to just savor the moment in silence.
A motion caught her eye, and she peered through the firelight, more than a little surprised to see Duke Lastay’s wife in the corner, sitting quietly, her hands clasped together.
Why were all these people in the room? She looked back up at Xena. who had her head resting against the pillows stacked behind her back. Were they here to... Gabrielle remembered the strangeness of the gray place, and what the voice had told her. Were they here to watch her die?
She watched them watch Xena.
No. Gabrielle felt a flood of compassion overcome her. She curled her fingers around the slack hand resting on her thigh, seeing Xena’s lips move back into a smile as she returned the pressure, her face gentle and open, no sign of her brash air of bravada so common to her in front of others apparent.
Just a very tired, and very human look. Gabrielle gathered her strength and slowly pulled their joined hands up, pressing her lips against Xena’s knuckle, then moving them to a spot just over her heart as her lover’s smile increased, lighting up her eyes.
It was such a strange feeling. Gabrielle felt like she was looking at Xena for the very first time, seeing her through a new understanding of what they were to each other. She smiled back, and exhaled in contentment, feeling in her the oddest sensation of, in a sense, coming home.
Xena really at this point didn’t know what to do with herself, She was sprawled in the bed, now finally in a nice dry spot, with Gabrielle cradled in her arms miraculously restored to her. Part of her wanted to hop around the room yelping with excitement, but the other half of her was completely content to stay motionless, savoring the motion of Gabrielle’s thumb against the palm of her hand.
She could see her lover’s pale lashes moving slightly as she blinked, and she cherished every flicker and the feel of the steady, regular breathing pushing against her own ribs.
She wasn’t entirely comfortable. She suspected since Gabrielle was lying on top of her armor that her beloved wasn’t entirely comfortable either, but right at the moment it was good to just sit still and spend some time just being grateful.
She was. She was grateful that last, desperate convulsion turned out to be Gabrielle returning to a shocked consciousness instead of checking out on her. She was grateful for the support of her men and subjects. She was grateful the lump on the side of Gabrielle’s head had gone down, not entirely away, but enough to allow her lover to remain awake.
She was grateful she wasn’t alone.
It was so completely humbling for her to feel this grateful, and not resent it. She had bared herself raw in front of all these people and for some reason she wasn’t even embarrassed, even now when everyone was just sitting there and watching her because part of that baring also let her see past the obligations these people had to her to the humans behind the roles they played in her life.
It was a shared rawness. Those tears in Jellaus’ eyes weren’t fake, and the gentle caring on Brendan’s face showed a truth she had no choice but accept. That was okay with her. Xena found herself too emotionally exhausted to even feel uncomfortable with this new level of intimacy.
It could be she might change her mind later, but for now, it was good. So she let her gaze travel the room, meeting the eyes watching her and absorbing the emotions she found there. “Thanks.” She said, after a long pause. “Thanks all of you for being here.”
She felt Gabrielle squeeze her hand.
“Needs no thanks, Xena.” Brendan was the one who spoke up, fitting, as he was the one who had known her the longest.
No, that was true also. Xena exhaled, getting a sense that her world, which had been halted in stasis, with no impression at all of time passing until Gabrielle’s eyes had opened, with a shudder was slowly starting forward again.
Gabrielle’s fingers touched her sleeve, her fingers bringing a very welcome warmth and she looked down at her again, ducking her head and kissing her gently on the lips, feeling an ethereal surge of joy as they traded breath and a joint, very faint laugh.
Regardless of anything else, life, at this moment, was impossibly good. The ache of impending grief lifted off her at least for the moment, and she was able to rest, the frantic churn in her mind easing to nothing as the Fates eased away, leaving her briefly at peace.
Xena wasn’t really sure how long they sat like that, as the fire popped erratically in the hearth and the wind howled outside impotently. She might have drifted off for a little while, but she wasn’t sure about that either, as she focused on the steady heartbeat under her fingertips and the now regular breathing warming her chest.
Gabrielle wasn’t asleep, but she seemed very content just to remain cuddled up next to her, occasionally looking around at the ring of quiet faces.
At last, Xena felt secure enough to carefully slide out from under Gabrielle’s body and get her arranged on the bed, tucking the covers around her as she knelt on still shaky knees by her side. “I’m gonna get this off.” She indicated the armor. “Before it rusts.”
Gabrielle nodded at her. “Don’t want you to catch cold.” She murmured, catching Xena’s fingers and rubbing them. “Not really in any shape to wipe your sniffles.”
With a tired smile, Xena pushed herself to her feet and stood there a moment, gathering energy. Then she slowly circled the bed, moving through the watchers to where her wardrobe was and coming to stand in front of it, hoping she had the strength to take her armor off.
In a moment, Brendan was at her side. “Want me to get the catches, Xena?”
“Sure.” Xena surrendered gracefully. She started unlacing her bracers as Brendan unclasped her armor, a draft from the far corner of the room hitting her between the shoulder blades as her captain lifted the hardened plates off her and pulled them clear.
She glanced back towards the bed, where Lady Lastay was kneeling beside Gabrielle, talking in low tones to her, She could see the smile on her consorts face and almost lost track of what she was doing as another flood of relief came over her.
Gabrielle was back. At least for the moment, she wasn’t going to lose her and from the slowly growing alertness in her lover’s eyes, it seemed the worst was over.
“Fighter she is.” Brendan commented softly, as he folded the armor and carefully placed it down on Xena’s arming chest. “Gods be blessed.”
“Sure is.” Xena pulled her unlaced bracers off and tossed them on the chest, then braced her boot on the edge and started untying her knee guards as Brendan knelt and unlaced the other one. “Damn I’m tired.” She felt the gentle pat on her calf and exhaled.
Turning, she sat down on the press and set both pairs of knee guards down, resting her elbows on her thighs. After a moment she straightened up and unbuckled the sword harness and lifted it up over her head, setting it down next to her.
Now she was in her breeches and shirt, and long boots. Part of it all was damp, and she felt chilled from all the snow she’d absorbed in her haste to apply it to her lover’s head. She glanced at the nearby fire, and held her hand out to it, appreciating the warmth as it penetrated her skin.
“Warm some wine up, how about it?” Brendan asked. “Chillin to the bone outside.”
“Sounds good.” Xena unlatched her boots and kicked them off, then she got up and went to the wardrobe, swinging the door open and peering inside. “Ah.” She spotted a simple, softly woven blue robe and shucked her shirt off, reaching for the robe just as a loud crack echoed through the room.
In an instant, a heavy, powerful surge of adrenaline shoved all her exhaustion aside and she yanked a practice sword out of it’s sheath in the wardrobe and came around the corner, dressed only in her breeches with the sword sweeping out ahead of her as she looked for a target.
Two of the soldiers turned from the window, where they were examining shattered leaded glass that had tumbled out from under the drapes. They froze on spotting their half naked queen, and after a second, everyone else turned to see what they were staring at.
For a moment, there was absolute silence. Then Xena realized where the sound had come from, and she lowered her sword, her eyes finding Gabrielle’s across the room.
Tired and pale as she was, Gabrielle’s face creased into a grin. “I think I feel better all of sudden.” She remarked, in a low, serious tone. “Thanks, Xena.”
The words forced a laugh from Xena’s lips, and she lifted both hands and let them drop. “Sorry.” She muttered. “Been a long day.”
One of the soldiers held up a piece of glass. “One of the panes broke, mistress.” He said, conspicuously keeping his eyes everywhere but her.
Xena merely shook her head and went back to the wardrobe, studiously ignoring the red faces behind her. She put the sword back in it’s sheath and pulled the robe down, shrugging into it and tying the belt off around her waist. She gave there rest of them a chance to get their composure back and then stepped back into view, just as Brendan approached her with a mug issuing steam.
Her captain didn’t bother hiding his smile. “I’ll send someone outside to check that window.” He remarked, as she took the mug. “Make sure it was just t’weather.”
“Thanks.” Xena smiled in acknowledgement “Get some grub sent up here for all of you.” She said. “Maybe some soup or something.” She glanced down at Gabrielle. “No point in anyone else keeling over.”
Two of the soldiers got up, touching their chests before the went to the door and slipped out. Xena went over to the bed and sat down at the foot of it, reaching over lay her free hand over Gabrielle’s knees. She saw the pale eyes watching her, and the impish grin that hadn’t quite faded turned back up. “Glad you appreciate my healing skills.”
“I sure do.” Gabrielle responded. “That was great.”
“Was it?” Xena eased over a little more, until their bodies were touching. “I didn’t look like an idiot?”
“No.” Her lover gazed at her. “You’re beautiful.”
The sounds of the room around them slowly faded. Xena sensed the people wandering out from the bedroom into the outer chamber and after a moment, they were alone in the room.
She looked around. “Subtle.”
Gabrielle reached out and took her hand, easing over onto her side and tucking her knees up against Xena’s back. “That was really scary.”
Xena looked quietly at her for a moment. “Yes it was.” She said. “I”ve never been so afraid in my entire life.” She continued in a raw, honest tone. “I really didn’t want to lose you.” She turned her eyes to the linen, unable to meet that loving look. “I guess I understand now, what you were telling me in that tunnel.”
Gabrielle drew in a little breath. “Oh.” She murmured. “I remember that. I felt like my life was ending.”
Xena merely nodded.
“I just wanted to scream.”
The dark head nodded again.
“I’m sorry, Xena.” Gabrielle said, gently. “I didn’t want to put you through that.”
Xena’s eyes swept up and met hers, bloodshot and exhausted, and yet, at peace. “I needed you to.” She replied. “I didn’t get it. Now I get it.” She squirmed closer and put her arms around Gabrielle. “But sweetheart, don’t ever do that again. It’ll kill me.”
Gabrielle returned the hug as best she could. “I love you.” She said. “I never want to leave you.”
The noise returned behind them, and Xena could hear the clink of dishes and pitchers. “I’m glad to hear that, because I never want to leave you either.” She whispered. “Ever.”
And now, Gabrielle believed that with all her heart. She smiled as she felt Xena straighten, running gentle fingers over the lump on the side of her head as some of the soldiers and others eased back into the room, bringing the scent of hot wine and soup with them.
Everything still hurt, but she was almost in a place where she didn’t care.
“Can’t give you anything for the pain, my love.” Xena said, smoothing the hair down over the lump. “Not until that goes down.” She looked around. “But I bet Jellaus’ll be glad to play you something to keep your mind off it.”
“My deepest honor.” Jellaus bowed.
The soldiers came in with a small table that they set up next to the bed. A bowl of soup appeared on it, and some bread and cheese. Xena was surprised to find that the scent actually interested her now
“What happened, your majesty?” Lastay’s wife spoke up. “All we heard was a collapse somewhere.”
“Ah.” Xena pondered the question. “The hatch door into the stables collapsed under all the damn snow.” She said. “Gabrielle shoved me out of the way and got clobbered.”
“That was very brave.” The duchess said.
“Yes, it was.” Xena agreed. “Crazy, but brave.”
Gabrielle smiled warmly “It wasn’t crazy.” She objected. “I didn’t want to see you get hurt.”
“See?” Xena gently stroked the mussed hair back off Gabrielle’s forehead. “I told everyone you were my bodyguard. No one believed me.”
“I don’t remember any of that.” Gabrielle confessed. “Last thing was... “ She pondered, then shook her head. “Just the hall, I guess.” She glanced to her right. “Is that tea there?”
“How about some soup?”
Gabrielle exhaled, grimacing a little. “Not sure I can chew.”
Xena picked up the bowl and examined it. Then she set it down, and swiveled around, getting behind Gabrielle and settling her against her chest. “I’ll eat the chunks, you drink the broth. How’s that?”
Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena’s chest, and managed a smile. “Sounds great.”
Xena applied the spoon to the soup, and the rest of the people in the room joined in, as Jellaus alternated biting off chunks of bread as his other hand strummed his harp.
At least for now, things were good.
It was night. Gabrielle was laying in bed, wrapped now in a warm and very cozy robe replacing her armor, and her head cradled between two very soft pillows. She’d managed a cupful or so of soup broth and aside from all the aches and pains she felt like she was doing a lot better.
There was no longer a sense of fuzziness about her vision, for one thing. Her eyes hurt, and she thought they might be bloodshot but when she looked around it wasn’t as if there was a layer of smoke in the room anymore.
Hearing was like that too. The echoes were gone, and the sound in the room was no longer going in and out on her. Gabrielle felt like she was no longer hesitating on the edge and if she closed her eyes she was pretty sure she’d open them again.
After all, she had to. She owed Xena that.
Her lover was standing near the door, arms folded, talking with one of the soldiers. She’d tied her hair back and washed her face and she no longer looked like she was going to fall over. That had really sort of scared Gabrielle, she’d felt how Xena was shaking when she’d first woken up and the unexpected fragility of her so very strong lover had been unnerving.
Now, she was sort of wishing all the really nice people who had been there to support Xena would maybe go out into the outer room, and give them a little peace and quiet together. She wanted to talk to Xena, and tell her about the mist, and the voices.
She had a feeling maybe there was something important in all that, and she figured Xena would know what that was.
But until then, she knew she would just have to patiently wait. Some of the soldiers had gone out into the outer room, leaving Lady Lastay, Jellaus and Brendan behind along with the Persian patiently and artistically tending the fire.
He looked up and met her eyes, his lips curving into a smile.
Ah, her massage teacher. Gabrielle smiled back at him.
He took that as an invitation and stood, making his way over to the bed with a cautious look in Xena’s direction before he settled down on his knees at her side. “Gracious princess.”
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. “I don’t feel really gracious today.” She admitted. “It’s been kind of crummy.”
“Your gods surely looked after you this day, though.” Lakmas answered. “I am truly glad to see you so much the better.”
“That’s true.” She agreed. “Thanks for helping.”
The Persian produced a tiny smile. “I did nothing.”
“You were here for her.” Gabrielle responded, in a quiet tone. “That’s something.”
Lakmas studied his hands, then he looked at up at her. “My people are warriors, you know that. But we are also poets after our own fashion and there is no poetry like that which celebrates the heart.”
Gabrielle was aware of Xena’s attention in her peripheral vision. The queen was still standing near the door, still with her arms crossed over her chest, but she’d angled herself just a little so she could keep an eye on Lakmas and the bed. “Our poetry is like that too.” She confided. “I can’t really write any good poems, but I love reading them.”
“I find that impossible to believe.” Lakmas said. “You, who knows more of the heart then a thousand generations of my people?”
Gabrielle felt herself blush a little, and after a moment, Xena made her way over to the bedside from where she’d been standing.
“What’s going on here?” The queen asked, sitting down on a low settee that had been put by the bed. She reached over to gently touch Gabrielle’s head. “How are you feeling, my love?”
“Sorta crummy.” Gabrielle admitted, savoring the touch against her skin. “My shoulder hurts.”
“Hm.” Xena slid her hand around the back of her lover’s neck, and probed gently. “Did you tell Lakmas here how much I liked your new skills?” She saw Gabrielle flinch as her fingertips caught broken skin. “Ah.”
Gabrielle watched Lakmas grin with embarrassment. “No, we hadn’t got to that yet.” She said. “Oof.” She felt Xena lifting her up a little and she leaned forward, closing her eyes as a wave of vertigo hit her. “Oh boy.”
“Hang in there.” Xena murmured. “You got cut back here... damn it I didn’t see it.”
“Do you wish your healing bag, Majesty?” Lakmas asked.
“Yeah.” Xena leaned over and slid her hands under the covers. “Gonna put you over on your side so I can get to this.” She gently lifted Gabrielle onto her side, and tucked the pillow under her head. “How’s that?”
Lying down definitely felt better. “Okay.” Gabrielle said. “But to be honest you touching me is making me forget about my back.”
Lakmas sneezed, stifling the sound as Xena got up off her knees and leaned over her consort so she could make eye contact with her. “Oh really?”
Xena chuckled and settled back down to examine the long, ugly cut that went across Gabrielle’s shoulder blade. It had mostly closed, but she cleaned it carefully and covered it with a bandage anyway, then examined her lover’s attractive back for any other injuries she might have missed.
Then she eased her over and checked the rest of her, stifling a smile at the knowing eyes watching her as her hands slid over Gabrielle’s hips and up along her sides.
Aside from a few scratches on her thigh and a bruise along one hip, though, Gabrielle seemed relatively uninjured. She tickled her bellybutton with a light motion and tucked the robe back around her and the covers over her.
Their eyes met, and Xena smiled at the impish expression, feeling a moment of feather light joy that really surprised her. The room seemed to focus down to just the two of them and she studied Gabrielle’s face intently, as though for the first time.
Scuffed and bruised as it was, the beauty in it transfixed her.
“Xena?” Gabrielle poked her gently after a moment. “Are you okay?”
Xena reached over and cupped her cheek. “Yeah, I’m fine.” She said, in a quiet tone. “Want some more soup?”
Gabrielle reached up and covered Xena’s hand with her own. “Why don’t you have some more? You look kinda pale.”
Xena didn’t feel pale so much as rung out like a decade old dish rag. Threadbared and tired, hanging out on a line somewhere waving in the breeze. “I’m all right.” She said. ‘Just need a nap maybe.”
“Here in bed with me?” Gabrielle’s eyes brightened immediately, making the queen smile.
“What happened, your majesty?” Lastay’s wife spoke up. “All we heard was a collapse somewhere.”
“Ah.” Xena pondered the question. “The hatch door into the stables collapsed under all the damn snow.” She said. “Gabrielle shoved me out of the way and got clobbered.” She regarded her patient with fond affection.
“That was very brave.” The duchess said.
“Yes, it was.” Xena agreed. “Crazy, but brave.”
Gabrielle smiled warmly. “I’m not crazy.” She objected. “I didn’t want to see you get hurt.”
“See?” Xena gently stroked the mussed hair back off Gabrielle’s forehead. “I told everyone you were my bodyguard. No one believed me.”
A soft knock came at the door, then it opened and Duke Lastay entered. His eyes brightened when he saw the shifted tableau, and Gabrielle’s open eyes. “Good news in here at least!” He said. “Outside, the storm continues. I fear.”
“Strange weather.” Jellaus commented. “Too early for snow.”
Lakmas grunted. “Tis not something we know of.” He spoke up after a brief silence. “We were afraid of it, to be truthful. It seemed terrible to us, and so unrelenting.”
“There’s no snow where you are from?” Lastay asked.
“No.” The Persian shook his head. “We are a desert land, far more used to heat and dry winds than this.”
A rumble overhead made them all look up. Xena pulled the woven cover they’d draped over her a little more snugly around Gabrielle and nodded a little as one of the soldiers went over and stirred the fire up. “Sea of sand, eh?”
The Persian nodded. “It’s magnificent.” He said. “The colors, and the shades of the hills, and the feel of the hot sun on your back.” He was seated on the floor now, his legs crossed under him. “I remember when I was a boy, the first time my father took me out with him from our tribal home and I saw the immensity of the desert. I thought he was showing me the home of the gods.”
“Sounds beautiful.” Gabrielle murmured.
The man put his fingertips together and bowed his head in her direction. “It truly is.”
Lastay came over and went to his knees next to the bed, steading his balance with both hands on the edge of the mattress. “Xena, the shaft you discovered has been searched. They found many things, weapons and bags of supplies, inside.”
“Ah.” Xena only just caught herself from asking what shaft he was talking about. That whole situation had faded back out of her awareness, vastly overshadowed by her concern for her.. She studied Gabrielle’s face for a moment. Friend? Lover? Consort? “For how many people?”
“A half dozen, they think.” Lastay frowned. “Tis more than I expected, truly.”
“Me too.” The queen agreed. “Busts my ass thinking that many assassins are crawling around my castle, y’know? We need to catch em.” She made no shift to move though, content to sit quietly at Gabrielle’s side, her hand captured within her lovers.
She glanced at Lakmas. “Go with him and look at the stuff he found. See if it’s familiar.”
Lakmas folded his hands and pressed them against his forehead, giving Xena a bow before he got to his feet, waiting for Lastay to rise as well.
“Brendan, you go too.” Xena said. “Leave two men outside the front door, and two down at the kitchen entrance to this section.”
“Mistress.” Brendan ducked his head, acknowledging the change in Xena’s attitude. “Do me a favor, though?” He spoke up unexpectedly. “Allow t’men to do all the cooking for you both. I want no chances.”
Xena’s face shifted briefly into a wry grimace. “All right.” She conceded. “But I sure hope Gabrielle gets better soon or we’re both gonna starve.”
Gabrielle squirmed a little closer, until her head was against Xena’s hip. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.” She told Brendan, as Xena’s arm settled gently over her shoulders. “She just got used to my cooking.”
“That I did.” Xena agreed. “So start healing.”
Gabrielle rested her hand on Xena’s thigh, half closing her eyes with a faint sound of contentment.
Lastay stood. “We’ll find them, Xena.” He said. “I’ll keep you informed.”
Xena nodded, lifting her hand in dismissal as the three men left the room, and then two of the soldiers followed. That left only Jellaus with them, and two other soldiers, who made their way to the kitchen entrance and left through it.
Jellaus stood and bowed. “Gracious ladies, I will go make my self seemly.” He indicated his stained and blood spattered clothes. “Be at peace for now.” He ducked out of the room before they could answer, and then, finally they were alone.
The silence was, to Gabrielle’s surprise, quite refreshing. She stroked Xena’s leg, now able to hear the queen’s quiet breathing and the soft creaks of the windows blocking out the weather across the room. “I’m sure it won’t be that bad.” She said.
“The food?” Xena leaned back against the headboard and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle’s body. “Ah, I don’t care. I’m not hungry anyway.” She exhaled. “Too much... “ Her voice stopped, then she lifted one hand up and made a vague gesture at herself. “My guts hurt.”
Gabrielle listened intently. “You really sound tired.”
“I am.” Xena replied honestly. “Every bit of me is.”
Her voice sounded it. Gabrielle could hear the hoarse edge, and the throatiness, but beyond that there was a tone there she never remembered hearing before. Cautiously, she shifted so she could look up at Xena’s face. The skin around her eyes was still puffy and she looked drawn and yes, in fact, exhausted.
Terribly vulnerable. Gabrielle put her arm around her. “All the time I was... I was so sick... “ She said. “I could hear you, calling me.”
“I did.” Gabrielle said. “It was... it was really strange, you know?” She went on. “It was like I could hear things, but I couldn’t move around.”
She felt Xena shift and after a minute they were all tangled together and she felt a sense of warm security surround her as the queen slid into bed next to her and got under the covers.
“I was calling you.” Xena said. “I was screaming your name so loud I’m surprised every spider in the castle didn’t come down from the ceiling on top of us.”
“There were other people there.” Gabrielle went on, after a pause. “They were telling me to come with them, to go where my family was.”
“Hm.” Xena made a low sound in her throat.
“I told them no.” Gabrielle said. “I told them I didn’t want to go there.” She gazed off into the shadows across the room. “I didn’t want to leave you.” She felt Xena exhale against her scalp and the pressure as she leaned her head against the spot. “I got away from them.”
Xena exhaled again, and sniffled a little.
“Then.. “ Gabrielle went on, a big hesitantly since it sounded crazy, even in her own head. “Another voice was talking to me. They.... they said they were there to help.” She said. “They said someone... that someone I guess who had... they said gone before, was trying to hurt you.”
Xena remained completely silent.
“That voice. They told me I just had to want to bad enough and I could go back to you and I did.” Gabrielle said. “I could feel something trying to stop me, but I heard you calling me and... “ She paused again. “Nothing could stop me from coming back to you.”
She looked up at Xena, and found those piercing eyes watching her, filled with unshed tears, but sharp, and potent and intent. The expression of dull exhaustion was gone. “Maybe I just imagined that.” Gabrielle admitted. “It was all kind of crazy.”
“Maybe.” Xena replied.
“But it seemed real.”
“They said someone who went before, was trying to hurt me?” Xena pronounced, slowly and carefully.
Gabrielle nodded. “This other voice.” She said. “She said they were trying to hurt you through me.” She frowned. “And something... I guess something like it was a usual thing.” She felt Xena’s hold tighten just a bit. “But that voice seemed to know you.”
“Yes.” Gabrielle said. “She told me... to be true, because you were.” She looked back up at Xena, seeing her head tilt just a little bit as she thought, her lashes blinking and scattering a tiny shower of droplets down her face. “So I knew I had to go back and find you.”
Xena let out a slow breath. “That I was true.” She mused.
Gabrielle reached up and put her hand over Xena’s heart. She could feel the beats through the robe she was wearing. “I will be true, Xena.” She whispered. “She called you my soulmate.”
The word echoed just a little. Xena felt a prickle inch it’s way down her spine and she felt short of breath for a moment. She looked away, then she looked back at Gabrielle, seeing a new depth in the sea green eyes looking back at her. There was a certainty there that found an unexpected resonance in her. “I am.” She said. “I just never knew what the word for it was.”
It was Gabrielle’s turn to blink in some surprise.
“From the very minute I saw you.” The queen said. “I knew we were destined for each other. It took me a long time to figure out what, and why and how, but I knew.” She shifted a little, so they could look at each other more easily. “I’m really glad you listened to that voice, Gabrielle.”
“Yeah, me too.” Gabrielle managed a smile. “After all, you stuck around when I asked you to, right?”
Xena nodded. “I did.” She agreed. “You needed me to.”
Gabrielle looked her in the eye. “You need me.” She said, quietly.
Xena didn’t even blink. “I do.” She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle on the head. “So thank the gods you figured that out and you don’t think I’m going to dump you anymore.” She buried her face into Gabrielle’s hair, and just held her. “Sorry it took all this to do that.”
Gabrielle felt like she was floating again, but this time in a good way. It was as if she’d been waiting for this moment her whole life, and now it was here, and it was as though a door had opened into a completely different place.
It even made her head ache less. It made her heart soar.
“Anyway.” Xena sighed. “Glad you told me all that.”
Gabrielle took hold of her hand and gently kissed the palm of it, feeling the faint twitch in the strong muscles on the either side of where her lips were. “Do you know who it was, that was trying to hurt you?” She asked, looking up at the queen’s profile.
Xena studied her. Then her face shifted in a wry expression. “Could have been a whole lot of people.” She admitted. “I’ve sent a lot of souls down the river to Hades, y’know.” She let her head rest against the pillow. “Where do I start? From the kids I killed in the pit to nobles I gutted, to my own brother.... “ She shrugged a little. “Maybe they had something to do with that damn weather outside.”
Gabrielle glanced at the window. “How do you fight something like that?”
“I have no clue.” The queen said. “First time it’s ever come up. Usually people I kill stay dead, Hades, most of them probably end up in the Fields and thank me for it.”
Gabrielle continued kissing Xena’s hand. “Maybe someone didn’t end up there.”
Xena gazed quietly at the fire. “Maybe.”
“Is that fewer people to think about?”
At last, Xena felt secure enough to let sleep start to gather her in. It was dim in the bedroom - only the glow from the fire, and two candles broke the gloom and it was quiet too, there were a half dozen soldiers in the outer chamber and four on the stairs and Brendan himself was in Gabrielle’s solarium with two other men on guard.
Gabrielle was curled up in her arms, her head resting against Xena’s shoulder. She wasn’t yet sleeping herself, her fingertips were gently stroking the skin over her lower ribcage, just an idle bit of sensation making Xena’s lips twitch into a smile.
“How are you feeling?” She asked.
“Not too bad.” Gabrielle answered. “Stiff, a little.” She admitted. “My head hurts less though.”
Expected. Xena stroked her hair, careful to avoid the still visible lump. She had let Gabrielle coax her into having some of the supper the soldiers had brought up for her and she’d appreciated even more the mug of ale that had finally relaxed her.
Her sword was resting against the headboard, in it’s sheath. She had confidence in her guardians, but there always was that chance, wasn’t there? She wasn’t going to risk not having the old thing close by.
Her soldiers were out there, with the Persians, and Lastay, searching for the intruders. Xena felt absolutely no urge to join them. Her persistent barging around in that process had lead directly to Gabrielle’s getting hurt, and she’d finally gotten through her admittedly thick head making herself a target made them both one.
Well, no kidding, Xena. “I’m such an idiot sometimes.” She commented mournfully
“You’re never an idiot, Xena.” Gabrielle protested. “Don’t say that.”
“But I am.” Xena shifted into a more comfortable position, letting her head rest on the pillow at last, as Gabrielle squirmed a little higher and wrapped her arm around her waist. “If I was smart, and acted like a queen and gave orders to people instead of trying to do everything myself, we’d get hurt less.”
Gabrielle didn’t answer. “Hm.” She issued a soft grunt, unable to really refute the statement.
“Stupid way to have to learn that.” Xena sighed. “Anyway. You ready to see if we can get some rest?” She rubbed Gabrielle’s back gently. “You’ll be around when we wake up, right?”
The question was light. Xena’s voice held a slightly humorous note, but Gabrielle could hear her heartbeat skip and her breathing hitch. “Absolutely.” She said. “I’m not going anywhere and you better not either.” She pressed herself against Xena’s side and ran her fingertips in a light circle around the queen’s navel.
Xena let out a soft grunt. She wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and let her eyes close, the friendly sensation relaxing her. Briefly she struggled against sleeps onslaught, then surrendered to an exhaustion of body and mind she rarely experienced.
Gabrielle felt her lover’s breathing even out and the tension in the tall form she was wrapped around ease. She tipped her head back a little to look up at the queen’s face, dimly lit from the bedside candle. There was still visible strain there, and she felt a small lump rise in her throat as she thought about what they’d just been through.
A flicker of candelight on metal caught her eye, and she looked over to where Xena’s sword was resting in it’s leather sheath, it’s stern length extending down to the floor. More than her chests full of jewels, and the crown she sometimes twirled on her finger, this plain blade, it’s hilt worn smooth from her hands signified the power of her throne.
Gabrielle didn’t want to see it wielded tonight. She’d seen far too much of Xena’s vulnerability in the last few hours to want to see her defend that power. Not that she wouldn’t. That one brief moment, funny and embarrassing to all of them except her had showed that.
Exhausted or not, drained or not, she’d held that sword out in a steady hand, her half naked body thrumming with visible power. Xena would do whatever she had to do, no matter what state she was in. Gabrielle studied her bedmates’s face again, glad to now see the worry erased from it, finally relaxed in full sleep.
Oddly, she felt right now like she was the one who was doing the protecting, though. She felt the weight of the responsibility she supposed she always had, but now fully realized she had, to protect the fragility of this woman’s soul.
Xena had, in fact, once told her but she hadn’t really understood, when she’d demanded Gabrielle promise her to be able to protect herself, to keep herself alive in the dangers they often walked into. This was what she’d meant. But Gabrielle knew if she’d had it to do all over again, down there in the tunnel, under that rapidly falling ceiling, she’d do the same thing.
She’d push Xena out of the way. She’d put herself in danger to protect her. If someone was shooting an arrow at them she’d step in front of it.
Probably driving Xena crazy, because she’d have to hop over her to catch the stupid thing. Gabrielle smiled wryly, in self knowledge. But she would because that’s just who she was. She figured Xena probably knew that because really, it was one of the things they shared.
What had she called it? Crazy brave? Yeah, well, they both were.
Gabrielle allowed herself to relax, the warmth of Xena’s body seeping into her and coaxing her sore body into a state where she thought she might be able to drift off. She let out breath and closed her eyes, immediately aware of the sound of her lover’s heartbeat and the steady motion of her ribs.
Soulmate. What did that mean, really? Gabrielle could feel sleep creeping over her as she pondered the question. She wasn’t entirely sure, though she did like the term.
Oh well. She supposed they’d figure it out.
It seemed only a moment later when she opened her eyes again. But Gabrielle knew time had passed since her entire body was stiff and she could see a dim, gray light outside the heavy curtains on the far side of the chamber. She took a breath and released it, moving her head very cautiously.
The pounding ache was gone. Gabrielle reached up and touched the side of her skull, relieved to find the lump there much reduced. Then she glanced up to find Xena still deep asleep, the queen’s eyelids twitching a little betraying her lover to be dreaming.
She looked around the chamber. The candles had burned out, and there was only the barest glow from the fire, but if she concentrated, she could hear faint sounds around the castle, soft footsteps in the outer chamber, and muffled voices.
She was thirsty. Her mouth was dry and felt like there was cloth inside it, but she didn’t want to move around too much because it would wake Xena up.
Then it became a moot point, as the queen’s body suddenly tensed and her eyes popped open, her hands coming up in a defensive motion as her breathing accelerated.
“Xena.” Gabrielle froze in place, knowing better than to get in the way. “Hey!”
After a second, the coiled body under her relaxed and Xena let her hands drop to the surface of the bed with a twin thud. “Son of a bitch.” She got out hoarsely, then cleared her throat. “You okay?”
“I’m okay.” Gabrielle patted her on the stomach, feeling the surface heaving as Xena caught her breath. “Are you okay?” She peered up at her as Xena lifted a hand and put it over her eyes. “Xena?”
Xena rubbed her eyes. “Stupid dream.” She said briefly. “What the Hades time is it?” She asked. “My back’s killing me.”
“I don’t know.” Gabrielle rolled over onto her own back, immediately regretting it when the chill of the room penetrated the covers and made her shiver. “Brr.”
Xena sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed, letting out a little groan. She got up and stretched, grimacing, before she turned and tucked the covers back around Gabrielle. “You’d think someone would have the damn sense to stir the fire in here.”
She grabbed her robe off the side table and shrugged into it, tying the belt and rubbing her arms against the chill.
She made her way over to the window and stuck her head between the curtains, seeing a heavy gray sky overhead, and still falling snow. “Ugh.” Xena turned and went over to the fireplace, grabbing several chunks of the wood in the hopper and tossing them into the open space. “Brendan!”
The sound of boots approaching responded to her call, and in a moment, Brendan was sticking his head inside the door. “Mistress?” He glanced at the bed, his face relaxing when he saw Gabrielle’s head poking from the covers looking back at him.
Xena turned from her position standing in front of the fire. “Someone think I wanted to have Gabrielle waking up half frozen?” She went back to tossing wood on the fire, poking at it with an iron bar.
Brendan eased in. “Ah.” He said. “We didn’t care to wake you. Figured you both could use the rest.” He apologized. “Want some supper in?”
Xena paused in her fire building and looked at him. “What?” She said. “What the Hades time is it?”
“Near going dark.” Brendan said, with a touch of wryness. “Been holding all of em at bay the day long. Told em all to let you sleep.” He cleared his throat a little self conciously. “Not that they’ve much to tell, mind ye.”
The queen straightened, and put her hands on her hips. “Are you telling me we’ve been sleeping all damn day?”
“Wow.” Gabrielle commented, as she pushed herself a little more upright. “No wonder I feel so stiff.”
“No kidding.” Xena exhaled. “Yeah, send food in here.” She sat down in one of the two stuffed chairs with a thump. “Well, if nothing else, it let Gabrielle get some rest.” She looked over at the bed. “Right?”
“Um. Yes.” Gabrielle sounded a little surprised. “I feel pretty okay.” She rotated her head a little and rubbed the back of her neck. “Any water over there?”
Brendan disappeared into the outer room, and now the sounds out there were more pronounced, and sharper. Xena got to her feet and went over to the mantle, picking up a cup and looking around. “How about.. “ She paused, and frowned. “There’s no damn water in here.”
For a moment she seemed stumped, standing there with the cup in her hands. Then she strode over to the window again, pulling the curtain aside and unlatching one of the leaded panes. With an impatient shove, she pushed the frame open and reached out, scooping the cup full of snow and then pulling her hand back inside.
Then she went over to the fire and held the cup close to it, watching as the snow dissolved quite quickly into liquid. Then she swirled it and took a mouthful before she brought it over to the bed and offered it to Gabrielle.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle sipped it gratefully, as Xena brought over a thick, woven shift and slipped it over her head.
A moment later, the door opened again and several soldiers entered, one carrying a tray. The others went around the room lighting the candles, and shortly the room was lit with a golden glow.
Xena went back over to the fire and sat down, extending her bare feet towards the warmth. “So what’s going on, now that you let me spend the whole damn day oblivious.”
Brendan went over and sat down next to her.
Gabrielle put the cup down and pulled the covers back, pushing herself upright and sitting up on the edge of the bed. For a moment, the room whirled around her and she almost lay back down again, then waiting until the vertigo passed.
She held on to the canopy post and stood up, relieved to let her spine stretch out.
“Hey!” Xena barked from the fire .”What are you doing?”
“Just standing” Gabrielle said. “My body’s tired of laying down.” She gave the soldier standing nearby a smile “Hello.”
“Your grace.” The soldier saluted her.
Xena got up and came over, hovering around her and glaring at the soldier until he hastily backed away. “Want to come over by the fire?”
Gabrielle nodded, not entirely surprised when Xena slid her arm around her shoulders and made a motion to pick her up. “Can you help me walk over there?” She asked. “I kinda want to work the kinks out.” She got her arm around Xena’s waist and hugged her.
“Easy.” Xena reluctantly went along with it, keeping a secure hold on her as they made their way around the bed over to the fire. She settled Gabrielle into the chair she’d been using and perched on the arm, watching as her consort held her hands out to the fire and sighed in pleasure.
“Would you like some tea, majesty?” One of the soldiers came over with a small tray and two cups. “And we have some bread and stew, made it ourselves outside there.”
Gabrielle was glad to be sitting again. The warmth of the fire was soaking into her bones and the ache was slowly easing. She took the cup Xena offered her and cradled it in her hands, breathing in steam that was scented with mint and honey.
“Go on.” Xena told Brendan. “You were telling me about a dead pig?”
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose.
“Found it in the main hall.” Brendan agreed. “Splayed open, bowels and all on the floor. Lastay came to get me.” He scrubbed his face. “Had your name writ in blood next to it.”
“Nice.” Xena grunted.
“That’s horrible.” Gabrielle said. “What a bunch of jerks these guys are.”
“Hm.” The queen grunted again. “That doesn’t make any sense though.” She took a sip of her tea. “Why a pig? They’ve focused on people up till now.” She pondered the question. “Or are they saying they think I’m a pig?” She looked more amused than insulted.
Brendan shook his head. “Like they’re playing with us.” He said. “Boys were in those tunnels all the night long. Found bags of stuff those bastards stole from us, knives and arrows and all that. I took em to the barracks. The desert boys are all over the lower levels looking.”
“So no sign of the bastards, though?” Xena asked. “Turn this place over and I bet we find something.”
Brendan shook his head again. “Problem is them tunnels down below all turn into each other it’s like chasin a pack of ground rats in a field. Chase em down one hole, they pop up another one.”
Xena leaned back a little, waving the tray with the stew on it forward. She thought about what Gabrielle had told her the previous night, about what she’d heard.. or thought she’d heard, when she’d been unconscious.
Was that real? Was there really some dead person trying to get back at her and if so, which one? She’d killed so many damn people over the years, how could she pick one? Or maybe it wasn’t real, maybe it was just some dream Gabrielle had been caught in, like she’d been herself before she’d woken up.
Crappy dream. Xena sighed. Stupid crappy dream probably a leftover from the day, her in a dark hall watching Gabrielle fade away from her, eyes sad, hand reaching.... She wrenched her thoughts away from that and took another gulp of tea instead.
She looked up, to find Brendan looking at her. “Sorry. Thinking.” She said. “How do we flush these guys out into the open so we can catch them? We’ll be chasing them until spring otherwise.”
“We could use a bit of fire.” Brendan suggested.
“And end up burning the stronghold down?” Xena gave him a wry look. “All the windows are closed for the damn snow. We’ll end up smoked like salmon.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle spoke up. “They’re after you, aren’t they?” She had dipped a piece of the bread into the stew and was slowly nibbling on the edge of it. “So the only thing that will draw them out is if you make them come here, right?”
Both Xena and Brendan looked at her. “The last place in the realm I want any of those bastards is here.” Xena said, flatly. “I don’t want them anywhere near you.”
“No way.” Brendan added. “We’ve got this area surrounded tight as a bug, your Grace. Matter of fact.. “ He glanced at Xena. “Wanted to see what you thought about going back to the old place for now.”
“No.” Xena and Brendan talked at the same time.
Gabrielle went back to nibbling her bread. The stew was okay, not nearly as good as her own would have been, but she still didn’t have much of an appetite. It felt good to be sitting up though, and the warmth of the fire eased some of the cramping in her muscles.
Xena was out of sorts, she realized. The queen hated being caught sleeping in, and she was probably feeling a little embarrassed about all the fuss she’d let them make over her yesterday. Plus, she’d woken up from a bad dream. Gabrielle could always tell when that happened and it tended to put her in a bad mood for a while.
She leaned her head against Xena’s hip. In reflex, the queen released one hand off her tea cup and let it drape over Gabrielle’s shoulder. This put her fingers invitingly near Gabrielle’s lips, and she traded off her bread for kissing them.
Xena stopped talking in mid word, and looked down at her.
“I know you don’t want any bad guys here.” Gabrielle said. “But coudn’t you trick them? What if they thought we were going to go back up to the tower, and you figured out a way to get them there and trap them?”
Xena studied her for a long moment.
“We don’t have to be there.” Gabrielle said. “They just have to think we are.”
Xena looked at Brendan, and then back at Gabrielle. “Why didn’t we think of that?” She asked her captain. “We’re getting too damn old to do this, Brendan.” She complained. “Why in Hades does it take her to tell us the obvious?”
Brendan looked a bit abashed. “Been a long couple days, Xena.”
“What’s my excuse? I’ve been sleeping for two days!” The queen retorted.
Gabrielle wasn’t really up to laughing, but she felt like doing it anyway. Instead, she very gently bumped her head against Xena’s hip and was rewarded by the sensation of her lover’s fingertips threading their way through her sleep disheveled hair and just as gently scratching her scalp.
“That’s really not a bad idea.” The queen said. “Let them think they have me on the run, Brendan. Let them think I’m going up to the tower and hiding there. It’s the most defensible place in the stronghold. Only two ways up, the kitchen stairs and the main ones, and that rotunda to put troops in.”
“Be making others think that, Mistress.” Brendan reminded her.
“LIke I care?” Xena said. “I’ve spent my whole tenure here not giving a damn what anyone thought of me, why start now?”
Brendan stared pensively at her. “People are scared.” He finally said. “Weather’s making them crazy, somewhat.”
Xena frowned. “What does that mean?” She asked. “They going to storm my chambers and strip me naked? WHip me with horse traces?” Her brows lifted a little at his noncommittal expression. “I can still use that sword back there, y’know.”
“No one doubts it.” Brendan responded immediately. “I’m just sayin there’s lots of scared people around. More than the place usually holds. Already had to break up some fights.”
“Did you.” Xena said, after a moment. “What happened yesterday?” She waited, but her captain wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Brendan?” Her voice took on a deeper pitch.
He finally looked up. “Some of the Westlanders acted out.” He said. “Saying things about... Anyway. We put em down.” He took a breath. “I take responsibility for it, Xena. I led em to it and the first blood was mine.” He touched his sword. “Lost my temper and next thing I knew they were dead.”
Xena studied him. “How many did you kill?”
“All of them.” Brendan met her eyes.
“I see.” The queen murmured. She could now imagine the chaos in the stronghold. Fear of the intruders warring with fear of her own men. “What were they saying?” She asked. “Was it about me?”
Brendan shook his head.
Ah. Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who was watching her captain with a concerned expression. “Then you just did what I would have.” She said. “No fault to you, old friend.”
Brendan looked up at her, as Gabrielle reached over and touched his arm.
“All the more reason then.” The queen went on. “Let’s take advantage of everyone thinking I’ve gone over the edge, that you’ve gone over the edge, and that my only concern is my skin and hers.” She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle ‘s head. “We’re moving to the tower. Put the word out.”
“Mistress.” Brendan gazed steadily at her. “I will.”
“Gabrielle’s right. It’s time to stop chasing and start laying our own trap. We’ve been fools.” Xena said, “But all that won’t matter when I’ve got their blood on my blade.” Her lips twitched. “And it will be.”
Brendan got up and saluted, then headed for the door.
Xena leaned her arm on the back of the chair and sighed. “This is another one of those times I’m going to kick my ass and flap my arms and fly, ain’t it?”
Gabrielle eyed her, handing her over a bowl of stew. “Guess you’ll need this then.”
Continued in Part 9