A Queen for All Seasons
Gabrielle was surprised to find herself comforted by the surroundings of the tower. She’d come to much prefer their bigger, lighter quarters in the lower level, but as she was settled in the big, slightly worn chair in front of the fire in Xena’s old bedroom, she felt her heart lift.
There were so many memories here. Gabrielle smiled a little as she thought about all those past winter nights she had spent in front of this fireplace, writing her stories and practicing some of them while Xena sprawled in the chair next to her, eyes half closed and her gaze lost in the flames.
Just being together. The thoughts made her happy, but it was cold, and she shivered. “Brr.”
“Bring that blanket over here.” Xena ordered, from her place kneeling next to the chair. “It’s colder than a fish’s ass in this damn place.”
“Thanks for carrying me up here.” Gabrielle laced her fingers with the queen’s. “That was really nice of you.”
“It was pointlessly cranky and selfish of me.” Xena disagreed. “I could have given any one of these hoary loyal bastards the thrill of their lives, and what do I do? Keep it all to myself. Typical me.”
“Yes, Gabrielle?” Xena seemed to have regained her sense of humor on the long walk up the steps. “I carried your ass up the steps outside in the rain with a hole the size of a spit dog in my back. That should have been enough for me for a lifetime.”
“I remember that.” Gabrielle smiled. “I was so glad to see you.”
“Likewise.” The queen smiled back. She took the blanket Brendan held out and tucked it around her consort, while two of the soldiers worked to start the fire going in the big fireplace. “I remember you cleaning out that damn fireplace and thinking ‘what kind of nut did I bring in here?”
“Well, I was supposed to clean.” Gabrielle said. “I wanted to do a good job so you’d keep me around.”
“It worked.” Xena remarked dryly. “Probably a little better than you intended.”
“Yeah.” Her consort admitted. “I was just hoping to get scraps from your dinner.”
That got a chuckle out of the queen. “Instead you got me for dinner. Lucky you.”
“Xena, I’m going to bring up y’things and her Graces.” Brendan said. “We’ve got the lower tower stairs blocked off.”
“Good.” Xena said. “I heard the comments when we went through the hall. Nice.” Her humor dissolved at once. “They’re lucky I had my hands full or I’d have cut some tongues out.” She exhaled. “Thought that would have ruined my plan I guess.”
“ So go down there. Act like you’re worried about me being afraid.” The queen instructed him. “Do a good job, Brendan. If we coax this bastard up here sooner than later, we can go back to watching the acrobats and drinking ourselves into a stupor.” She said. “I want him to think I’m up here shaking.”
“Tis a hard thing.” Brendan said. “Does me ill to speak anything but well of you, Xena.”
Xena smiled unexpectedly, a warm, kind smile not at all like her usual one. “Don’t worry.” She put her hand on her captains shoulder. “I’ll let you tell them how much of a smart ass I was once I gut those damn assassins.”
“Get Jellaus to help you, Brendan.” Gabrielle suggested. “He knows how to do that. How to make a story work for him.” She watched Brendan’s expression brighten. “I’d help you too but I think Xena wants me to stay here.”
“Hah. Yes.” Xena returned her attention to her consort. “Warm enough?”
Gabrielle moved the edge of the blanket over her knees, as the fire started to catch in the grate and added it’s heat as well. “It’s okay now.” She felt the shivers ease and her muscles relaxed. She looked into the flames, and memories started to surface of her first few days in the castle.
It was hard to make a connection back to the person she’d been in those days. So afraid, and confused, hurting from losing her family, from watching Lila die before her eyes. Wanting so much to be angry at Xena for that and so very bewildered when she couldn’t be.
How disloyal she’d felt, when she finally figured out what she was feeling.
She remembered waking up and hurting, finding herself in Xena’s bed with Xena sleeping next to her. Her head had felt a lot like it did now, matter of fact. All achy, and as though if she moved it too fast, it would really hurt. So she let it gently rest against Xena’s shoulder.
Despite sleeping as long as she had, she still felt tired. But she blinked a few times, and picked up the cup of tea she’d brought up stairs with her. She sipped at it, the taste reviving her even though it was already cold.
“Don’t go anywhere.” Xena got to her feet, and dusted her hands off. “I’m gonna change into something more comfortable and figure out where I want to lay my traps up here.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle squirmed into a more comfortable position, leaning on the chair arm so she could watch Xena roam around the room. There were a lot of other people there too, soldiers mostly, but three servants and the Persian back against the back wall.
Xena avoided all of them as she prowled, going over every inch of the space. “Someone make sure that damn cat isn’t under the bed. I don’t want to be cutting it in half if it moves out to piss tonight.” She circled the tall dresser near the back wall and then opened it, sticking her head inside.
One of the soldiers obediently got on the ground and crawled over to the side of the bed, lifting up the linen skirting and peering underneath. For a moment he froze, then he let out a yell, throwing the entire room into chaos.
Chaos, because Xena backed out of the cabinet with an explosive bound, launching herself sideways and bowling over two other soldiers who were scrambling to get out of her way. She landed between the bed and Gabrielle and spread her long arms out, bellowing at the top of her voice.
The rest of the soldiers pounced on the bed, one grabbing the man on the floor by the waist and hauling him backwards the rest of them lifting the bed up and moving it in a show of sheer manly strength as the Persian and two other soldiers pulled weapons out and leaped forward to pounce on whatever was under it.
Only Gabrielle remained still, and quiet. She figured, rightly, that moving or getting in the way in any sense would not only be pointless, it also would probably get her hurt or worse, get Xena hurt if the queen tried to protect her from whatever it was.
The Persian dove under the bed and then a scream emerged, long and loud and high. When it ended, everyone shut up, and the Persian backed out rapidly, shaking one hand and hauling something out with the other. “Aha! A demon!”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened, as she remembered what the voice in the darkness had told her. Was this the thing trying to hurt Xena?
The men clustered around as a ratty, bedraggled figure emerged, struggling against his hold, blinking against the candlelight.
Xena straightened to her full height, peering over the heads of the soldiers and then, with a disgusted little sigh, settled back down. “Hold it!” She yelled. “Stop dragging the damn woman all over the ground!”
“Oh, Xena.” Gabrielle had poked her head around the back of the chair. “It’s one of the circus people.” She said, recognizing one of the random ones in the background of the show, moving the pieces of rigging around. There had been five or six of them, short and alike looking, with brownish curly hair and slightly flattened noses.
And here was one of them, hiding in Xena’s old bedroom.
Xena put her hands on her hips. “So I see.” She said, observing the striped costume, and the frightened, glaring eyes. “So I guess we need to find out why they were under our bed, huh?” She turned her head. “Thanos, go out to the dancing hall and get that old man in charge. Bring him up here. Don’t tell him why.”
“Mistress.” The man saluted, and headed out of the room.
The Persian had the woman now by both arms, his big, muscular hands dwarfing the woman’s limbs as he held her still. “Would have rather found the cat.” He commented. “We like cats. Not so with snakes in strange clothing hiding in corners.”
“Or under beds.” Xena said. “Can you talk?” She addressed the woman.
The woman’s dark eyes just remained glaring at her.
Gabrielle started to get up, then halted when Xena slowly swung around and pinned her with a pair of intent, blue eyes. She settled back in her chair and gave the queen a sheepish smile. After a moment, Xena returned the smile, holding that for a minute before she turned back around.
The woman looked scared. Gabrielle leaned on the chair arm so she could see her better, noting the bruises on her face, and the air of desperation that clung to her. “Hey, Xena?”
The queen turned and leaned on the back of her chair. “Yes?”
Gabrielle lowered her voice, turning so she was under Xena’s looming from. “Maybe she ran away from them.” She whispered. “She looks kinda hungry.”
“Maybe.” Xena whispered back. “But the coincidence of her running away and ending up in our old bedroom makes me want to stab her just to make sure.”
Gabrielle made a face.
Xena leaned a little further, and kissed her on the top of her head. Then she straightened and turned back around. “Well?? She walked towards where the Persian had her held tight. “Don’t make me have Lakmas find your tongue for you.”
Lakmas smiled, his teeth large and very white against his desert dark skin.
But the woman remained silent, staying still in the Persian’s grip, but dropping her eyes to the ground and refusing to look at the queen’s face.
“Take her to the outside chamber.” Xena orderered, making sure she was very obviously between the woman and Gabrielle’s chair as the Persian got up, and he and one of the soldiers walked the woman out. “Let me know when the circus owner gets here.”
She waited for the door to close. “Search under that bed.” She told the other two soldiers. “I want to know if there’s so much as a dust bunny under there.” She turned and studied Gabrielle for a minute, then she went over and knelt next to the nearer soldier, putting her hand on his back as she peered cautiously under the space beneath the platform of the bed.
The soldier let out a squeak, then hastily glanced behind him. “Sorry Majesty.”
“No problem.” Xena said. “Just be glad I didn’t have my sword out.”
“Yes, majesty.” The man got down on his knees and elbows and crawled under the bed, as two of his comrades lifted it up. “There’s a bag under here!”
Aha. “Careful.” Xena said. “Remember all the traps we almost walked into.”
THe man took out his dagger and gently probed at the dark mass, drawing his hand back and dragging it with him as he eased cautiously out from under the platform. The bag was crude and rough, a dirty gray fabric with a bit of rope to tie the top shut.
The soldier rolled over and sat up, splaying his legs out with the bag in between them. He looked at it, and then up at Xena. “Should I open it, Majesty?”
Unable to resist, Gabrielle got up as quietly as she could, holding on to the chair and leaning against it as she peered over the back to see what was going on. Xena was kneeling next to the bed, and the soldiers were all watching her like hawks as she took the dagger the man had been holding and with an expert flick of her wrist, untied the knot.
The rope dropped limply from the bag and landed on the floor, and they all looked at it for a minute. Then Xena got up from her kneel into a crouch and stuck the knife in the bottom of the bag fabric, pulling it up and dumping the contents on the floor.
The torch light in the room mixed with the wan gray from the narrow windows showed a scatter of sad little items, a lump of candle end, a small rag, a tinder flint and striker, and what looked like a bundle of twigs tied with a piece of string.
Gabrielle edged a little to her left so she could see better. “Wow.”
Xena turned her head and glared. “Weren’t you supposed to be sitting down?” She asked.
“Wondering what was going on was making me feel worried. My head hurt.” Gabrielle responded in a mild, serious tone. “I thought it would be better if I could see you.” She watched Xena’s face, seeing the twitching along her cheeks that meant she was trying hard not to smile.
After a moment the queen turned back around, and resumed her kneeling posture, poking amongst the meagre possessions with the tip of the dagger. “Somehow, I don’t think this is who we were looking for.” She said. “At least, not based on this.”
“What is it?”
“Just what you’d expect to find in the bag of some kid running from home.” Xena said, leaning her elbow on her knee.
“Mistress.” One of the soldiers came to her side. “Found this.” He held out his cupped hands, which were full of fruit pits and old, gnarled rinds. “In the little room in there.” He indicated a doorway.
“Ah.” Xena selected one and inspected it. “Too fresh for Gabrielle to have left them, back in the bad old days when she slept in there.” She glanced at her consort, who was gently smiling at her. “Didn’t last long anyway. She ended up in my bed faster than a puppy.”
Everyone blushed, except for the queen. Gabrielle felt so lightheaded, she turned around and sat down again, glad, at least, that her... She paused the thought. Her soulmate? Her brow knit. It didn’t really seem to fit Xena, somehow.
Anyway. Glad at least that her queen had seemed to have recovered her spirits. Uncomfortable as it was for her, sometimes. She picked up her tea and sipped it, wishing she had a hot cup to replace it. As though someone had read her mind, the door opened and Jellaus appeared with a tray.
He came over and set it down on the table, glancing around the room. “What is it that goes on in here?” He looked quizzically at Xena and the soldiers, who were diligently searching under the bed. “And the lass outside?”
“She was under the bed.” Gabrielle explained, as she swapped her cold cup for a hot one he had poured out. “Thanks for the tea.” She pulled the blanket around her again as she glanced at the window. “Wow, it’s really still storming outside.”
“It is.” Jellaus agreed. “Storming outside, and inside, I think.” He poured a cup and handed it over to Xena, who had wandered over. “Xena, Brendan spoke to me. Are you sure this is the best course for you to take? Those criminals seem almost un natural in their motives.”
Xena sat down in the chair and wrapped her powerful hands around the cup to warm them. “Yes.” She said, after a brief pause. “I’m what they want.” She stared past them into the fire. “The longer we let this drag out, the less chance we have of coming out ahead in it. I’ve waited too long already.”
“I want it over now.” Xena continued. “So if the only way I can end it is to sacrifice my reputation then so be it.” She looked up and over at Gabrielle. “I know what matters to me now. This. “ She circled her finger around her indicating the stronghold. “Isn’t it.”
Jellaus smiled briefly. “But Xena, what if there is some way, some hidden tunnel up here?”
Xena looked at him, and her lips twitched into a wry smile. “I”m hoping like Hades there is. But you have to make sure all of them know I think there isn’t any, you got me?”
“They already think I’m losing it.” Xena said. “They know I took myself and Gabrielle to bed drunk the other night, they know about the pig. They know about the westlanders. Now they just have to know I’m up here, scared, convinced I’m safe with my men guarding the place that I used to live in.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle cleared her throat. “These guys have been here for days. They know about the whole thing with Philtop. Won’t they figure out you’re trying to trap them anyway?”
“They might.” The queen said. “But it doesn’t matter, Gabrielle. Even if they think it’s a trap, they’ll still come after me because I’ve told the men to spread the word we’re going to burn the lower stronghold out tomorrow morning and if it kills everyone in it, I’m all right with that.”
Gabrielle blinked at her. “But you’re not going to do that.” She blurted out, in a tone of shocked certainty. “Xena, you can’t.”
Xena eased one of her legs over the chair arm, and leaned back. “Actually.” She said, in a very normal tone. “I could.” She took a sip of tea. “I’m capable of it. I care about what I care about. You. Him. Them.” Xena pointed at Gabrielle, then Jellaus, then at the soldiers. “To rid myself of those bastards yes I would burn out the lower quarters.”
Gabrielle took a breath, then just released it to trickle through her lips.
“I just don’t think it would do anything useful. They passed muster in the dining hall they’d just hide somewhere else.” The queen remarked. “I’m bloodthirsty, not stupid.” She swirled the tea in the cup. “ What I want is to draw them here, and make it personal. I don’t want anyone else getting hurt or getting killed because they want to taunt me.”
A little silence fell. Then Gabrielle looked over at Xena. “You know something?”
“What?” Xena tilted her head a little, her ears catching the sounds of Brendan arriving in the other room.
“I would rather you burn out the stronghold than risk something happening to you if those guys come up here.” Gabrielle said the words slowly, and clearly, meeting the queen’s eyes squarely.
Xena regarded her in silence for a moment. “Wow.” She finally said.
“Maybe, Xena, that’s exactly what these intruders want.” Jellaus said in a gentle tone. “Don’t walk into their hands thinking the trap your own.”
Xena exhaled. “I know it’s what they want.” She admitted. “I just don’t think I have a choice.” She got up. “Let me go see what this kid was doing under my bed. Let’s get that herring out of the way at least.”
Gabrielle was glad to be tucked back into bed, resting against several pillows in the bed she’d first known Xena in. Jellaus was perched next to her, playing a soft tune on his harp, and she had a nice big cup of freshly made hot tea on the bedside table waiting for her.
“Strange for you to be back here, Gabrielle?” Jellaus asked. “Here in what we used to call Xena’s Aerie?”
“Not really.” Gabrielle relaxed, lacing her fingers lightly on her stomach. “I like the big room downstairs but I have a lot of good memories from this one.” She admitted. “My whole life changed here, right near that fireplace.”
Jellaus smiled at her. “And her Majesty’s as well.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle’s nose wrinkled up into a halfway embarrassed grin. “I think I didn’t realize how much until now.”
The minstrel strummed a light tune on the harp, running his fingers up the scale and plucking a gentle melody. “Nor she, I believe.” He said. “Was something that came unlooked for to her. I know she’d long past stopped expecting it.”
“Are you two talking about me?” Xena came in from the outer chamber, ending up with her knees bumping the edge of the bed and her hands coming to plant firmly on her hips.
“Yes.” Gabrielle admitted. “You’re my very favorite subject.”
“And mine as well, mistress.” Jellaus made a little bow in Xena’s direction.
The queen visibly blushed a little. “Cranks, the both of you.” She said. “Got enough pillows?” She diverted the conversation. “Now that I’m sure that little ragamuffin didn’t plant a spider bomb under the bed?”
“Runaway, eh.” Jellaus grunted. “Didn’t think that man was tough on his folk. Pity she wouldn’t speak up and say why she ran.” He swiveled to face Xena. “Strange.”
“She was scared.” Gabrielle spoke up.
“Scared.” Xena repeated the word slowly. “Scared of me? Scared of this place? Scared of being caught?”
“Scared of someone.” Gabrielle replied, in a quiet voice, as her eyes met the queen’s. “I remember what that felt like.” She could see the shifting emotions in Xena’s face. “Maybe she was running away from the same thing I wanted to get away from.”
Xena’s face shifted again, and her body posture relaxed. “Your father.”
Jellaus was watching them both, his eyes going from one to the other. “He didn’t seem a man to harm his own.” He said, after a moment. “Shall I go play with them, and see if it’s so, Xena?”
“My father didn’t seem like that to anyone else either.” Gabrielle said. “The whole village liked him. He was everyone’s friend.” She paused. “Except me and Lila. I think he hated us because we weren’t sons, so..” She caught Xena’s intent, interested look. “So he was embarrassed. He said good things about us in public because he wanted to get us married but at home...”
“Ah lass.” Jellaus put a hand on hers.
“But at home, he beat us and raped Lila.” Gabrielle said, with a sense of relief that surprised her. “He beat our mother.” She added. “I hated him.”
Xena studied her somberly. “You have no idea what a disappointment it was for me to find out he was already dead.” She said. “Yeah, go see what the deal is, Jellaus. The guy didn’t strike me as a bastard either, but you never know. I find out he is, he’s going out the gate naked.”
“I will, mistress.” The minstrel got to his feet, turning and putting the harp down next to the bed. “Maybe you’d like to practice?” He offered. “Seems a nice quiet thing for you to do while you mend.”
“Quiet?” Gabrielle grimaced wryly. “I don’t want to hurt Xena’s ears. They’re really sensitive.”
Jellaus chuckled, and lifted his hand, heading for the door as Xena slid around the side of the bed and took his place on the stool. She picked up the harp and lifted it onto the bed next to Gabrielle, holding it there and scooting a little closer.
“You don’t really want to hear me play that.” Gabrielle said, with a wry expression. “I”m really awful.”
“I do.” Xena leaned on her elbows. “I don’t give a damn what it sounds like. It’s better than I could do, no matter what it is.” She said. “Only musician in the family was Ly.”
“That’s not true. You can sing.” Gabrielle objected immediately. “Xena you have the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard.”
Xena smiled, her lashes fluttering over her eyes a little. “Thank you.” She said, in a quietly sincere voice. “Ly and I used to sing together, when we were kids. It was one way to forget how damn scared we were.” She exhaled audibly. “Crazy what happens to kids, huh?”
There was that vulnerability again. Gabrielle reached around the harp and put her hand on Xena’s arm, waiting for her to look up and gently searching the eyes that met hers, absorbing the new and open honesty there. “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” She said. “I think that’s why I knew things were wrong, when I was so sick. They were trying to get me to go to where they said my family was... but you’re my family, Xena.”
Xena’s smile eased into a more relaxed expression. “Back at you.”
Gabrielle released her hand, and lifted hers up to the harp strings, running the tips of them over the metal strands and surprising herself with a reasonably audible chord.
She kept watching Xena’s face, and as though of their own accord, her fingers plucked out a simple tune, at first with hesitation, but then, more surely as the queen’s eyes brightened and she nodded her head a little.
Where had the tune come from? Gabrielle didn’t know and it really didn’t matter. Maybe all those lessons had finally kicked in. With a bit more confidence, she played another verse of the tune, and after a moment, Xena took a breath and sung along with it, putting words to the notes in harmony.
It was like magic. Gabrielle grinned in delight as she brought the tune to it’s conclusion, and both the harp notes and the human ones faded out into quiet. “Wow.”
“That wasn’t bad.” Xena touched the harp. “You’ve been holding back on me, my love.”
Gabrielle shook her head a little. “I never did that before.” She said. “I mean.. I practiced it, but I...” She gently strummed the harp again, surprised at how comfortable and familiar it all felt. “I never played it straight through like that.”
“I liked it.”
“I liked your singing.” Gabrielle said. “It’s so pretty. Just like you.”
Xena was leaning on the bed with her elbows, and now she smiled, the candlelight gilding her skin. Then the smile faded a little. “You know what I figured out?”
“What?” Gabrielle gently strummed the strings, watching her lover through them.
“I figured out that the people around here didn’t respect you because I didn’t.” Xena said, in a quiet voice. “That hurt both of us.”
Gabrielle tilted her head. “What do you mean?”
“The names I called you. The way I talked to you.” Xena said. “You might as well have been the castle dog.”
Her consort remained silent for a while, considering. “You mean that muskrat thing?”
“That.” Xena said. “Other stuff.”
“I a..” Gabrielle paused. “I thought that meant you liked me.” She added, quietly. “You didn’t call anyone else anything like that.”
The queen stared at the linen on the bed. “Well.” She said. “I mean, it did.” She admitted. “To me it did.” She clarified. “It was... you’re my family, Gabrielle.” She looked up, watching her consort slowly nod. “That’s something you only do with family.”
“But I shoudn’t have done that in front of anyone.” Xena said. “It made them not respect you.”
Gabrielle lifted her hand off the harp and gently laid it against the queen’s cheek. “Oh, Xe.” She said. “I don’t care what anyone but you thinks.” She said. “Not really.”
The queen remained still for a moment, then she looked up. “Yeah, I know. But I was an idiot to treat you in a way that made anyone think less of you.
Xena seemed so serious. Gabrielle let the harp lean against her to give her a better view of her lover’s face. Her expression was a little sad, and she didn’t like that. “I don’t care.” She rubbed her thumb over Xena’s cheekbone. “I really don’t.”
The queen leaned forward and rested her head against Gabrielle’s shoulder. “It’ll be different.” She said. “Just let me clean up this damn mess and I’ll make it different. I promise.”
Gabrielle touched her head to her lover’s and smiled, feeling Xena’s breath warm the skin on her shoulder in a moment of unexpected but perfect contentment. She decided not to tell Xena that it didn’t really matter to her if she changed a thing, since this was, it seemed, something she felt strongly about.
If it made Xena happy to tell her things like that, Gabrielle was happy to hear it. “I love you.” She murmured. “You’ve made my life so amazing.”
Xena turned her head a little. “And often scary and crazy making.” She seemed to regain some of her usual humor. “But never boring, right?”
Xena took a breath to speak again, when a loud, thundering crash rumbled through the castle, bringing the queen to her feet so fast she actually hopped into the air making Gabrielle grab hastily for the harp before it tumbled off the bed “What the Hades!” She barked. “Brendan!”
Loud boots running were heard through the door, and shouts, and then another crash.
Xena took a breath, her hands clenching into loose fists near her thighs. She stared at the door, then she relaxed, walking over to where her sword was sheathed and drawing it. She brought it back over to the bed and sat back down on the stool, extending her booted legs and crossing them at the ankles and resting the point of the sword right where they crossed.
Gabrielle watched her curiously. “Aren’t you going to go see what happened?”
“No.” Xena leaned back against the table. “My crazy, paranoid brain is wondering if someone did that just to draw me out and leave you here. So I’m not going.” She shifted her grip on the sword and leaned her elbow on the bed next to Gabrielle’s. “Maybe I’ll get lucky and some shifty bastard will sneak in here thinking I’d leave you unprotected in my manic frenzy.”
The queen didn’t look particularly manic, Gabrielle reflected. And she wasn’t in a frenzy. She was just sitting there with her sword in her hands, and that made her consort feel very, very safe. “Do you really think they’d try that? I mean, even if you did go look, there are soldiers outside.”
“You think I trust soldiers to guard you?” Xena turned her head and regarded her mildly. “Much as I love my army, and I do, I can beat the crap out of any of them and you know it.”
“You can.” Gabrielle agreed. “I watched you do it all last winter.” She pointed at the ceiling. “Up there in your big room.”
“You sure did.” Xena said, then she fell silent her brow wrinkling. She shifted her eyes off to the right, and they went out of focus. “Huh.”
Gabrielle let her think, turning her attention to the harp. She moved it to a more comfortable spot and gently plucked it’s strings, trying out a few chords. It was thrilling and fun for her to hear them correctly sound for once, this surprising and new skill making her heart lift.
Why this? Why now? She struck another chord, then hesitantly started plucking the notes for another one of her practice tunes.
“You know something?” Xena said, suddenly. “I know when this started. It wasn’t when Philtop got here.”
Gabrielle stopped playing and looked at her. “It wasn’t?”
The queen shook her head. “No.” She said. “The last time I was up in the practice hall... there was something.” She uncrossed her ankles, drawing her knees up and putting her sword point between her feet, her hands wrapped around it’s hilt. “I thought I saw something... or heard something... thought someone was playing a prank or something on me.”
“There was someone there.” Xena said, positively. “I’m sure of it. I went around that place three times and searched every damn inch but....”
“You didn’t find anyone?”
Xena shook her head. “But there was someone there. I..” She paused. “I sensed it.” She leaned back again. “Like I can sense you.”
“Me?” Gabrielle felt her sleepiness fade, intrigued at these unexpected confidences. “What do you mean?”
The queen booted the bottom of her sword a little with one food. “I dont’ know. It’s stupid.” She muttered. “I”m starting to sound crazy.”
Gabrielle reached over and put her hand on Xena’s leg. “Is it like... whenever you’re coming towards me, even if I’m not looking in that direction, I know you’re there?”
Xena eyed her, one brow hiking up. “You do?”
“I used to think it was - I guess I thought I was seeing people around me react to you coming, so I looked up, but then one time I was alone in the courtyard, no one else was around, and I just knew you were coming up behind me and I turned around and there you were.”
“You heard my boots.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “No, the wind was blowing into my face, I couldn’t hear anything behind me. I remember that, because they were harvesting herbs in the kitchen garden and I could smell them.” She disagreed. “I just felt you.”
Xena studied the hands she had clasped around her sword. “Yeah, it’s like that.” She said, after a long pause. “It’s like you’re a part of me.”
“Yeah, you know, that’s true.” Gabrielle replied. “It’s a sort of funny feeling, I can’t really describe what it’s like but...” She put her hand on Xena’s, rubbing her thumb over the queen’s knuckle. “I like it.”
She watched the queen’s profile, seeing a tension there that made her hitch herself up a little .”Xena?”
For a moment, Xena’s expression was stark, and lost, and then she reached up with her other hand and pinched the bridge of her nose, shaking her head a little. “Yeah? Sorry.” She said, taking a breath and releasing it.
“You okay?” Gabrielle asked, softly.
The outer door opened and Xena hastily drew herself up, clasping her hands on her sword hilt as boots crossed the outer hall. “Brendan?”
“Aye, mistress.” Brendan’s stocky form filled the doorway. “Thank the gods you and her grace came up to here. Whole glass in your rooms downstairs collapsed”
Xena blinked a few times. “Snow?”
“Ice more like.” Brendan said. “Snow went to rain a bit, turned it all to ice on the top there.” He turned to Gabrielle. “Woulda come down on both of ye.”
Xena nodded. “Sometimes my instincts are true.” She commented. “Place wasn’t safe. Should have known that when that first pane cracked. Rain means it’s warming a little.”
“Aye.” Brendan agreed. “Circus man said they’d do another show tonight take minds off it.”
“Wish I could see that.” Gabrielle said, wistfully. “That was so much fun, Xena.”
The queen’s eyes had been scanning the room, her expression thoughtful and intent. “Yeah, it was.” She replied. “Brendan, refresh my memory. Didn’t that piss ass dance hall have a royal booth up on the second level, behind those dusty brown curtains?”
Brendan frowned, and his gaze dropped to the floor. “Did it now?” He muttered. “Have to say, didn’t spend much time in there.”
“Me either.” Xena agreed. “But I remember Stanislaus mentioning it one time. He wanted to clean it up for me.” She glanced up at Brendan, going still when she saw the expression on his face. “He check out?”
“Aye.” Brendan answered after a pause. “Twas yesterday night, Xena. One of the boys went to check on him, and..” He sighed. “Just gone. Already cold. Every one of us was so..” He stopped.
“Yeah.” Xena sighed, herself. “Damn.”
“Oh Xena.” Gabrielle felt tears stinging her eyes, even though the fussy, often disdainful Stanislaus had never been a favorite person of hers, or she of his. “I’m sorry.” She squeezed her lover’s hand in hers.
The queen returned the squeeze. “I’m sorry too.” She said. “Sorry that poor bastard got his ass caught in my business, and sorry he went like that.” Her voice faltered a little. “All alone.”
All alone, because everyone who might have cared had been completely focused on her and the terror she was going through with Gabrielle’s life in the balance. It was all about her, hadn’t she said that? Hadn’t she told Gabrielle that over and over again?
Stanislaus had known that. But if she’d taken the time to check up on him, maybe he’d still be here. Xena faced that fact with an inner pang. “Damn it. I”m too damn old to be developing a blasted conscience.” She muttered under her breath.
Xena sighed. “He gets all honors, Brendan.” She said. “If he had a family, I’d be glad to pension him, but I don’t think he did, did he?”
Brendan shook his head. “Had a brother, once, but he died in the change.”
In the change. Xena had to admit her heart, at this moment, felt leaden. She, herself, hadn’t particularily cared for the man - but he’d been very good at what he did, and she’d respected him for that and treated him as fairly as she’d been capable of.
Not a pretty epitaph. She didn’t even have the comfort of succoring a family he’d left behind. Sucked to be her at the moment, didn’t it?
A gentle squeeze on her hand made her look to her right, where Gabrielle was watching her, with an expression of heartfelt sympathy.
No, it didn’t suck to be her at the moment. Xena felt like stabbing herself in the leg, disgusted at her self centered self pity. She was the luckiest bitch in the realm and she didn’t deserve any of it. “Let’s see if we can find that alcove and get it cleaned up.” She finally said. “I want Gabrielle to enjoy her circus.”
“Xena, you don’t have to do that.” Gabrielle hitched herself up again. “We can just stay here. I’ll tell you a story.”
“Humor me.” Xena lifted their joined hands and kissed the back of Gabrielle’s. “Come watch with me. Please?” She asked, with a look of gentle entreaty.
Gabrielle really had no idea what to say to that. Xena saying please to her was really unexpected. So she just nodded, and exchanged looks with Brendan.
“I’ll take care of it, Xena.” Brendan murmured. “Let you know when it’s ready.” He turned and left, and the room grew somber and quiet again.
“Xena?” Gabrielle finally said.
“Can I give you a hug?”
Xena straightened up and looked at her. “Do I look like I need one?” Her brow arched up.
Luckiest bitch in the realm. Xena leaned over and let herself be enveloped by Gabrielle’s arms, feeling a warmth surround her that was part real, and part emotion, surrendering herself to the need for it. She could have gone like Stanislaus had a hundred times over and instead, she was graced with this.
Despite her protests, Gabrielle was really glad to be tucked into a comfortable armchair high above the dance hall with a great view of the show area.
Brendan had found the little booth, and he and four soldiers had cleaned it out and brought in the comfortable chairs in, along with a plush carpet to warm the stone floor.
So here she was, with a blanket around her and the faint murmur of the other spectators far below her, seated on the platforms that had been built for that purpose. Xena was standing behind her, talking to Brendan and Jellaus, and she could see the circus people starting to practice before their show.
She let her head rest against the high back of the chair and smiled. Though staying in the tower with Xena would have been great, being here and being able to see the circus was even better and here in the stone balcony, guarded by a whole bunch of Xena’s most loyal soldiers she also felt safe.
Of course, Xena was there too, in her armor, with her sword on, along with her big round knife, and daggers pretty much everywhere. Even though she had a pretty satin robe over all of it when she walked and kicked the edges up you could see her worn leather boots and the draped, lined hood over her back only partly hid the sheathed blade.
It was sort of scruffily adorable. Gabrielle, who had been described as just that on more than one occasion, smiled as she watched her lover look around, her dark head outlined against the torchlight.
Her little servant Mali was there too, tucked in a corner, her eyes bright with excitement. She was dressed in one of Gabrielle’s cloaks and every once in a while she looked around her with an expression of mild amazement. “Oh, your grace!” She said, peeking over the balcony. “What are they doing there?”
Gabrielle looked out at the stage. “They’re setting up to swing on those ropes there, see?” She pointed. “They swing on them, and then they jump from one to the other.”
“Really?” Mali edged a little closer. “Isn’t that dangerous?” She leaned her elbows on the balcony and watched the players. “Oh, look at them!”
Gabrielle tucked her blanket a little more snugly around her and leaned on the chair arm. “They juggle too and there’s animals. There’s a big cat, really big, and it’s orange and black. Xena let it lick her hand.”
Mali looked over at her, eyes wide.
“What story are you telling about me now?” Xena had heard her name, and sidled over, leaning her weight on the back of Gabrielle’s chair. “Got a nice view up here?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle tipped her head back a little so she could see the queen. “I was telling Mali here about that big cat”
“Ahhh.” Xena peered at the action outside. “To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten all about that.”
“Really.” The queen responded. “I got sidetracked by something a lot more important.”
Ah. Gabrielle realized what that something was, and it wasn’t the bad guy. “Sorry about that.” She watched Xena’s face. “Can we go see the cat again?”
“Sorry for what?” Xena ignored the presence of Mali. “Sorry that you’re the focus of my life? Don’t be.” She half smiled. “Maybe we can go see the big pussy later. We’ll see.” She pushed herself upright and went to the balcony, leaning her hands on it and looking out.
Gabrielle turned her head to keep her in sight. She was warm, and mostly comfortable, and though her head still ached and her stomach was unsettled, she was glad to be where she was. “Hey Xena?”
“Hey Gabrielle?” Xena glanced back over her shoulder.
“What was this place?”
The queen turned and leaned against the balcony. “This room?” She indicated the small alcove. “I think I remember someone telling me that some old bastard that used to run the place lost a leg and was too embarrassed to show up in the hall but liked to watch the dancing.”
“Your Majesty?” Mali spoke up timidly. “Is it the old king’s father you speak of?” She said. “Radulph the Bold?”
Xena’s pale eyes turned to her, and she studied her consort’s body slave for a long moment. “You know something about him?”
“Only what we.. what I would hear down in the slaves quarters.” Mali said. “They were talking before, about how this place we’re in was someplace he would go to.”
“Uh huh.” Xena folded her arms. “And”
Mali looked apprehensive. “That he was missing a leg, that is true, but also that he.. “ She glanced at Gabrielle. “He lost it in fighting a dragon!”
“Really?” Gabrielle said. “A dragon?” She brightened. “I’ve heard stories of those.”
Xena’s eyebrow hiked up.
“A dragon, your grace!” Mali said earnestly. “And I heard.. he would stay up here because the dragon bit him in the face and it looked so horrible he didn’t want anyone to see him.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle immediately felt herself attracted to the story, her mind splurting up thoughts and images and questions about what that would have been like. “That’s so sad, isn’t it Xena?”
Xena had meandered back over to lean on the back of Gabrielle’s chair again. She tried to remember what she’d heard about the old man of the bastard she’d killed and she realized there wasn’t much. They’d talked about the son, the guy she’d offed, but not so much about his predecessor. “If it happened.” She responded.
“Everyone knows the story, your Majesty.” Mali said.
“They do, huh?” The queen studied her. “Funny I never heard it before.”
“I don’t know, your Majesty.” Mali responded. “I remember hearing it since I was small.”
Now that was interesting. Xena looked at the kid for probably the first time, at least since she’d scoured her background before she’d let her spend time in Gabrielle’s presence. She was open and apparently honest, not the brightest of girls but not an idiot either.
“Is there someone who knows the whole story?” Gabrielle asked. “Can they come here and tell it to us? I’d love to hear it. I can’t hardly imagine a dragon. Have you see them, Xena?” She looked up at her lover. “I bet you could beat one up.”
“Nope.” Xena said. “But y’know something? I’d like to hear that story.” She focused on Mali. “So why don’t you go downstairs, and find some old geezer who can tell it to me, mkay?”
Mali looked nervous. “Everyone’s really busy.”
“Too busy to come up and talk to the queen?” Xena’s eyes widened in mock astonishment. “Unbelievable!”
The girl got up. “No, I’m... I’m sure they’ll be glad to come tell you.” She said. “Your grace, can I bring you something back?” She said. “Some tea?”
“Tea sounds good.” Gabrielle admitted. “I feel kinda yucky.”
Xena came around the side of the chair and knelt at her side. “Want to go back to the tower?” She asked putting a hand on Gabrielle’s cheek, then touching her forehead. “No fever at least.”
“I want to see the circus.” Gabrielle said. “I”m okay.” She tucked the blanket around her a little more. “Some berries, or sweetcake would be great.” And mild enough for her unhappy stomach, she reasoned, though even if that wasn’t true, she knew they wouldn’t go to waste if Xena was around.
“Bring the tea and the taleteller.” Xena ordered Mali. “I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Majesty.” Mali made her a neat curtsy then she pattered out the door, turning right and heading for the back staircase down to the center of the stronghold.
Xena waited a moment, then she went to the door herself and stuck her head out. “C’mere.” She beckoned one of her guard over.
“Mistress.” It was Brent. “What can I do to serve you?”
“Go down to the merchant hall.” Xena said. “Get me a bunch of whatever goodies they have down there. Cakes or whatever.”
“Of course.” Brent smiled tentatively. “It’s good to see the little one about.”
Xena gave him a long look, then, she smiled back. “Yeah.”
He turned and went for the stairs, trotting down them out of her sight before she could say any more.
Good man, Brent. Xena pulled her head back inside and went over to Gabrielle’s chair, taking a seat herself on a padded stool next to it. She extended her legs out and crossed them at the ankles, resting her elbow on the chair arm.
Immediately, she felt her arm enveloped by warmth, and she glanced to the side to see Gabrielle’s hands wrapped around it as her consort shifted a little and rested her cheek against her shoulder. “You okay?” She asked, feeling more than a little anxious.
“Now I”m perfect” Gabrielle said, snuggling closer. “I”m okay. I just feel kind of ratty all over. Things hurt.” She said. “My backs sore, and my head.”
Xena sighed. “I can’t give you pain herbs.” She said. “I’m afraid you’re head’s still rattled.”
“Sorry, honey.” Xena paused, and made a face. “Where in Hades is all this damn gush coming from?” She inquired in an aggrieved tone. “I”m starting to sound like an old grandmother.”
“I love you.” Gabrielle stroked the queen’s arm. “Just being here next to you makes me feel better. I don’t care if you do sound like a grandmother.”
Xena made a low, grunting noise.
“Do you think the bad guys will come up here?” Gabrielle asked, in a whisper.
“I don’t think so.” Xena whispered back. “I’ve got too many soldiers out there.”
THere were, Gabrielle knew. Probably two dozen at least, in the small hallway with guards on both ends, and at the bottom of the only steps that led up to where they were. Plus, of course, Xena herself was here with her, the queen’s sword and chakram leaning against the stool she was sitting on.
So it felt pretty safe. Gabrielle turned her attention to the hall, seeing the circus people starting to move out into position. She was glad she was here. She figured the acrobats and the animals would take her mind off her aches and maybe, if she was lucky, she’d get some honeycake to settle her stomach.
She watched the horses come out, feeling Xena shift next to her, craning her neck to watch. She shifted her hands, tucking her fingers around the queen’s arm and let herself become absorbed with the show. “Oh look, Xena. They didn’t do that the other time, did they?”
Xena felt her eyes widen, as she watched the two men standing up on the backs of their horses, swordfighting with each other. “No... I would have remembered that.” She said. “I think.”
A soft knock came at the door. Xena reached out and took hold of her chakram, then cleared her throat. “C’mon in.” She called out, half turning to watch the door open, yet leaving her arm in Gabrielle’s grip.
The big, heavy wooden door opened, and Brent poked his head in. “Mistress?” He called out cautiously. “It’s Brent.”
“Ah, how well he knows me.” Xena chuckled briefly. “You’re safe.” She released the chakram as he entered and brought a basket over. “Whatdj’a find?”
Brent crouched down next to her. “Mess of stuff.”
Gabrielle craned her head a little to see what the stuff was. She wasn’t exactly hungry, but she could smell some sweet, rich scents coming from the basket that was getting her interested. She glanced back at the show, then back at the basket, only to have something touched to her lips. “Oh.”
It smelled of honey and apple, and she closed her teeth on it and chewed. “That’s really good.” She swallowed and turned her attention fully to what her lover was sorting through. “Is there more?”
“Ahh.” Xena looked delighted. “There sure is.” She removed a slice of the confection and handed it over. “Glad you want some.”
Gabrielle did. She settled back in her chair and broke off a piece of the cake, watching the horses dance between two poles down on the floor.
“Have some late harvest cider, Mistress.” Brent said. “Good tasting.”
“Did you drink some?” Xena chuckled.
“Ate all of what’s in the basket, mistress.” Brent said, in a casual tone. “S’what took me so long.”
Xena paused and studied him. “Thanks Brent.” She said, after a bit of silence. “I appreciate that. Not so much for my sake.”
“No, mistress.” Brent smiled. “I saw you have some of that apple cake first.”
Gabrielle looked at Xena, then at Brent, and both of them smiled a particular, half embarrassed smile back at her. “Well.” She said. “I guess I’m eating the most of it then cause of something happens I want to be involved.”
Brent handed her a cup of cider. “Would be the honor of my life to share a fate of yours, Gabrielle.”
“Hey. What about me?” Xena felt a sense of giddiness that had nothing to do with the cider, or the situation, as she watched her consort take a sip of the drink and noted the alertness starting to come back into Gabrielle’s expression. Though it had been good to have her here, and watching the show, there had been a layer of glassiness to her eyes that put the queen’s guts churning.
Now that was fading. Xena had brought her up here and hoped the circus would help, but she’d take her wins however she could get them. “Ah.” She drew her hand out of the basket. “Honey balls.”
“Yeah?” Gabrielle was finishing the cake. “The messy kind?”
Xena held up a thumb covered in honey, not expecting Gabrielle to lean right over and suck on it. “Hey!”
“Mm.” Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena’s shoulder and savored the rich taste.
Xena let her own head rest against Gabrielle’s and closed her eyes briefly, unable to put aside the poignantly horrific reminder of what she’d almost lost, her breathing coming short and rough for a moment.
“Xena?” Gabrielle murmured into her ear. “What’s wrong? Did I bite you?”
The queen exhaled. “Sorry.” She let her eyes blink open. “Go ahead, bite me again.” She fished in the basket, and came up with one of the goopy treats. “Here.”
She glanced at Gabrielle, then immediately regretted it when she saw those pale eyes at very close quarters, full of worry and concern.
Xena could feel the caring and her heart clenched. What would she have done, if she’d lost this? A faint roaring started in her ears. If she’d been sitting here, all alone?
A soft knock came at the door. Brent stood up and went to answer it, drawing his sword and holding it behind his thigh as he blocked the portal with one boot while opening it.
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle asked.
Was she? Xena felt her body relax a little. “Yeah.” She said. “Haven’t gotten over you scaring the socks off me.” She reached up and rubbed her chest, which was full of a twinging pain. “Maybe I need some of that cider.”
Gabrielle brought her cup over and held it to her lover’s lips, watching her profile as she took a mouthful of it. She released the cup as Xena took hold of it, and gently smoothed the hair back from her face, tucking it behind her ear. She waited until the color came back into the queen’s face, then she broke the honey ball in half, and offered a portion to her. “Here.”
“Aren’t I supposed to be fawning over you?”
“Your grace?” Mali appeared on her other side, with a tray. “Here’s some tea for you... uh.. and her Majesty.” She put the tray down. “The cook said he would come up if your Majesty wishes, and tell the story about the old king.”
Xena straightened up. “Yeah?” She collected herself with an effort. “Great.”
“Thanks Mali.” Gabrielle leaned back against the back of her chair again, keeping her hand tucked around Xena’s arm. “That would be great if he could do that after the circus. Right Xena?”
“Shall I tell him that, your Grace?” Mali looked uneasily at the queen’s still face.
Gabrielle waited, then she nodded. “Could you please? I know we’d love to hear it.”
Mali curtsied, and left.
“Oh, Xena, look.” Gabrielle gently nudged her. “Look at the horses.” She indicated the floor, where six of the animals were trotted in a circle in unison, while the riders walked across their backs. “Isn’t that amazing?”
After a moment, Xena lifted her eyes and peered across the room. She felt Gabrielle’s fingers gently stroking her skin, and finally the gray haze lifted. The sound of the room flooded into her ears, and she could appreciate the skill of the riders. “That’s pretty damn good.”
Gabrielle relaxed. “How do they do that? Make the horses go like that?”
“Practice, like anything else.” Xena got her scattered wits collected and offered up another honey ball. “They probably train them inside a small corral.” She took a ball herself and bit into it, chewing the pastry thoughtfully. “Sorry if I freaked you out.”
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle took a little more of the cider. “I know you must have been really upset, Xena. I sort of could feel that.”
“Could you?” Xena found a pear in the basket, and took a bite of it. “Yeah, well, I was.” She bit off a chunk and handed it over. “Anyway, let’s try to forget that.” She looked out at the circus. “Here come your little buddies.”
Gabrielle took the piece of pear and nibbled it. The acrobats were scaling their tower, and she could sense the excitement of the crowd. She watched them get to the top, and one of them, Zak, she thought, got onto his ropes and started swinging.
After a moment, she looked at Xena, really unsurprised to find Xena looking at her. She remained that way, in silence, then as if by common consent they leaned towards each other and kissed.
Then, finally, when they took a break and backed off to regard each other, Xena smiled. “Thanks.”
Gabrielle smiled back. Then she let her gaze return to the acrobats, content to watch them as she felt Xena’s arm slip around her shoulders. It felt warm and good, and grounding in this odd and strange atmosphere she found herself in.
What would happen? Where were the bad guys? Were they out there, in the hall, watching them?
Were the bad guys here, really part of what she’d heard in the gray place?
She watched Zak reach his hands out, and catch his brother, who was spinning through the air, fearless of the drop to the ground, trusting the grab completely.
Everyone was amazed. The crowd roared. Gabrielle could see the wide eyes, and pointing fingers and... “Xena?”
“Look down there, behind that wooden box. See the guy there?” She pointed, herself. “See him? He’s wearing those slippers, Xena, the ones you made me p..” She stopped speaking, as a flicker of motion to her right turned into a powerful surge, as Xena picked up her chakram and released it in an impossibly fast backhanded move.
Not even the space of a heartbeat.
No thought, no planning, just the savage power of a weapon thrown by a strong hand, backed with an intense passion. The chakram slashed through the acrobat’s structure, skimming Zak’s leg by a hair and squeezing between one of the grooms and one of the horses to bury itself into a man’s skull with a hard, cracking sound.
Blood flew everywhere. Bone flew everywhere.
The fiddler stopped abruptly, and a woman screamed, then everyone panicked, the players running away from the falling body and the acrobats swarming down their ropes. The audience reacted, getting up and scrambling away from the stage, stampeding through each other heedlessly.
“Huh.” Xena brushed her hands off and stood up. “Be right back. Brent, watch her please.”
“With my life, mistress.” Brent answered quietly.
Xena put her hands on the balcony and vaulted over it, disappearing into space as Gabrielle made a grab for her leg. “Xena!” Her consort yelled. “Hey! Wait!”
She and Brent both put their hands on the wall and looked over as Xena landed on the top platform of seats, scattering people right and left as she powered her way towards the stage.
“Brent, we should go help her.” Gabrielle said. “The bad guys could hurt her in all that mess.” She watched anxiously as her lover got to the performance area.
“Be easy, your grace.” Brent said. “My partner’s down there. He’ll watch out for her.” He pointed at the entrance, where a flood of men in Xena’s black and yellow were pouring. “And some of the boys, as well.”
That didn’t make Gabrielle feel any better. She could see Xena’s tall form in a swarm of bodies now, Brendan shoving his way up next to her but she could sense the danger in the room and it almost made her ignore the sound of the door opening behind her.
Brent didn’t ignore it. He came up from his crouch, drawing his sword and circling the chairs and in the next second, the balcony was filled with struggling forms as he got between the door and Gabrielle’s chair and faced off against two black clad figures with curved blades and hooded faces.
Gabrielle felt a cold wash of fear come over her and she got up, holding onto the chair for balance to see what was going on. She spotted Brent fighting with two figures in the shadows and she let out a yell of alarm as one of them dodged his grab and came at her.
The other man engaged Brent furiously, trapping him between the chair and wall with a flurry of sword strokes and Gabrielle realized in a blink she was in some real trouble.
Without really thinking she reached for the spear Brent had left leaning against the wall and pulled it to her, getting it up and into position just as the dark figure reached her and swung his scimtar right at her, aiming for her neck.
The spear? Useless, mostly. Despite Xena’s long and patient training, she had no more real idea of how to use the big stick than she had on the very first day she’d been given it. Not really. When they trained together, she sometimes did things right with it but more often Xena would just laugh and shake her head and go off to do something a lot harder.
But here she was, here it was, here was this guy coming towards her with a knife.
No time to think. No time to plan. She felt her body react as the figure’s arm swept towards her with the glitter of a blade, and the next thing she felt was the odd shock as wood hit steel and the blade flashed past her as she turned and whacked the other end of the spear against the shrouded head of her attacker.
Much to her surprise, the figure stumbled to one side and then the butt end of her spear swept out and pulled it’s legs out from under it and her adversary was upended and sailed through the air, smacking it’s head against the wall.
In an instant, Brent was on it, another flash of steel his dagger going home into the black clad figure, letting out a bellow of triumph just as the light from the outer room was blocked out by another dark figure swarming up over the wall.
Another enemy? Gabrielle started to turn and then that feeling washed over her, that sense of presence, and familiarity that she knew so well and her body relaxed.
No bad guy. She was safe.
“Gabrielle!” Xena’s yell easily overpowered Brents, as the queen vaulted into the room and drew her sword, circling it as her head whipped back and forth, searching for her consort. “Gabrielle!”
“Here!” Gabrielle managed to blurt, her brow creasing at the figure on the floor. “I’m okay!”
“It’s all right, mistress!” Brent panted. “Two of em! Barstards! But I got one and her grace got the other.”
Xena had circled the chair and was intaking a deep breath to continue yelling when she stopped. “What?” She asked, in a more normal tone. “She what?”
Brent straightened up. “Got that one.” He pointed his blood covered dagger at the slumped figure behind him. “And her grace took out this un. I just finished the job.” He pointed at the other body. “Was out already, head cracked like.”
Xena looked at the form, then at her consort, who was leaning back against the wall, the spear clutched in both hands. “You did that?” She asked, in a quizzical tone.
Gabrielle felt little shivers going up and down her arms and legs, as her heartbeat slowed. “I think so.”
Brent went over to the door and yanked it open. “Where the Hades are the guard, you bastards!”
Xena sheathed her sword and went over to where Gabrielle was standing. “Divide and conquer.” She said, dourly. ‘They all ran down to try and save my hoary old ass when I jumped out the window like an idiot.” She put her hand on her consort’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”
Gabrielle had put the butt of the spear down on the ground and was leaning on it. “Sort of dizzy.” She admitted.
Xena got her back to her seat, after carefully extracting the spear from her hands and leaning it against the wall. She tucked the blanket back around her, ignoring everything else in the room including Brendan bustling inside and the sound of the troops arriving back at the door.
“Got that body secured, Xena.” Brendan said. “Scared the living out of them little circus boys, ye did. And this here.” He held up the chakram. “Didn’t want no one touching it.”
“Thanks.” Xena took the weapon and inspected it. “Nailed that sucker.” She said. “Thanks, Gabrielle. You spotted him right before the little son of a bitch was about to cut those ropes.”
Gabrielle inhaled sharply. “Really?”
“Really.” Xena was still kneeling next to her. Now she put a hand on Gabrielle’s knee. “You saved those kid’s lives, my love. Really.” She rubbed the skin under the blanket. “He wasn’t expecting anyone to be up here. You could only see him from this angle, and you did.”
Brendan and Brent were kneeling together by the bodies, stripping off their robes. “Here, Xena.” Brendan said. “Same as the one below. House livery.”
Xena looked past the chair. “Damn it.”
Gabrielle turned around and looked, seeing familiar colors on the body. “Who is it?”
“One of the kitchen help.” Brent answered, briefly. “I don’t understand it.”
“And the other?” Xena was still crouching down next to Gabrielle. “The one Gabrielle clobbered?”
Brent went over and pulled the hood off. He studied the man’s face for a minute, then snorted. “Westlander.” He said. “Brendan, what about the one down there?”
“That one was a stranger.” Xena replied. “At least, neither of us knew him.”
They all exhaled at roughly the same time. “Feels good to get a blade on em.” Brent said. “No more phantoms. Frontal work. I like this.”
“Aye.” Brendan agreed. “Got bold, or maybe figured they’d be flushed.”
“Hm.” Xena grunted. “In general, I just like killing people.” She remarked. “But it was damn good to kill that one.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “So.”
“So.” Gabrielle felt exhausted from the effort.
Brendan went to the opening and looked out. The crowd was milling nervously, looking up at the balcony as the circus group huddled together on the stage. He lifted his hand and moved his fist in a circle, and Xena’s soldiers still on the floor started directing people back to the seats. “All’s done.” He called out. “Garbage to the middens.”
Immediately, the sound of the crowd increased, as voices rose and the guests started reluctantly straggling back to their seats.
“So. Tell me about this fight of yours.” Xena said, resting her arms on Gabrielle’s thighs. “Did that guy come after you?”
And? Gabrielle felt her limbs stop shaking and she let her head rest back against the chair. “And... I don’t know, Xena. I just picked up that spear and I guess.... I guess all the stuff you taught me just bubbled up.”
Xena studied her. “Bubbled up?”
“I just did it.” Her consort explained, somewhat helplessly. “I don’t know.”
The queen smiled at her. “That’s just the right answer, my friend. How much thinking do you think I did before I sent this deadly dinner plate out there?” She held up the chakram. “I wont’ keep ya in suspense. None.”
“None.” Gabrielle murmured.
“None.” Xena repeated. “My eyes saw the guy, my ears heard what you said, my hand reacted. There was no decision making involved. I trusted my instincts.” She put the chakram down and put her hand back on Gabrielle’s leg. “If you just swung that stick in the right place at the right time and have no clue how ya did it... you just made me the happiest homicidal maniac in the realm.”
“Uh.” Gabrielle covered Xena’s hands with her own. “Okay. I guess I’m glad.” She said. “So.. did we get all the bad guys? Are we okay now.. oh.” She watched Xena shake her head. “Guess it couldn’t really be that easy, huh?”
A timid knock came at the door, and Brendan crossed quickly over to answer it. He opened the door with Brent slipping in behind him, sword raised. “Ah.” Brendan took a step back, but only a step. “Mistress, tiss her Grace’s servant.”
“Does she have a cook with her?” Xena asked. “From our kitchen?”
“Aye.” Brendan sounded surprised.
“Let em in.” Xena got up and then settled herself on the chair arm, holding the chakram in one hand, still spattered and stained with blood and hair. “Let’s see what story the old man has to tell.”
Brendan and Brent stepped back and let Mali enter. Her eyes were huge and filled with fear, and she stared at the bodies on the floor before she looked up at Xena. “Your Majesty.”
“That’d be me.” Xena was in a much better humor now. She twirled the chakram on one finger, sending bits of dead skin flying in all directions.
Gabrielle grimaced. “Xena.”
“What?” The queen looked down at her.
Xena took a breath, then studied the weapon, and hastily brushed some debris off her consorts shoulder. “Sorry about that.”
Behind Mali was a heavy shouldered, thickly bearded man. He stood silently, not looking at the floor, or at the queen. His expression was a mixture of resentment and wariness that immediately drew Xena’s attention.
She got up off the chair arm and approached him. “Well well.” She studied him. “I hear you’ve got a story to tell us.”
“Not one you’s want to hear.” The man muttered, keeping his gaze on the floor.
“You’d be surprised.” Xena seated herself on one of the stools, and motioned him to take the other. “Don’t worry about the mess here.” She rested her elbows on her knees. “Start talking.”
Mali scurried around to the other side of Gabrielle’s chair and crouched next to her. “Oh, your grace! What happened!!!” She whispered. “What happened to Gilford? Why is he here?”
“Well.” Gabrielle was torn between wanting to listen to the story, and comforting her scared servant. “He came in here and started fighting with Brent. He tried to hurt us.”
Mali’s eyes grew even wider. “Gilford?”
Gabrielle nodded. “And the other guy was one of Philtop’s people.” She watched Mali’s face as her eyes went to the body on the floor. “So it seems whatever is going in, involves people we know.” She waited, as the girl’s head turned again and their eyes met. “Do you know what it’s about, Mali?” She lowered her voice. “If you do, you should say so.”
Mali stared at her.
“People can’t keep trying to hurt us.” Gabrielle said, in a gentle tone. “They’ll just keep getting hurt themselves, you know that, Mali.”
Behind them, the cook grudgingly started his story, his low, gravely voice rumbling and almost harsh. He paused, when Brent picked up the Westlander’s body and slung it over his shoulder, murmuring to Brendan as the older man opened the door for him.
“Your grace.” Mali whispered. “I can’t tell you.”
Gabrielle leaned forward. “You should.” She murmured back. “The Westlanders were from the last regime, the tunnels were, and you are too. Xena knows that.”
Mali turned pale. “I... your grace, I can’t tell because I don’t know!” She said. “They won’t tell us, not the younger ones.” She lowered her voice even further. “We’re all scared!”
“Hey.” Xena reached around the chair and touched Gabrielle’s arm. “Listen to this. This guy’s got no idea how to tell a story.” She got up and put her hands on the chair back. “Hang on.”
Gabrielle hastily grabbed the chair arms as she felt herself lifted up in the air and turned so she could see the cook. The man glowered at her and took a step back, watching warily as Xena came around and took her seat again. “G’wan.” SHe gestured at him.
Mali crept over to the corner, and sat down, edging away from the bloodstains on the stone floor. She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, avoiding looking at either the cook, or Xena.
“Told you wasn’t much to tell.” The man said. “m’father was a cook in the old king’s kitchen. Used to keep us kids shut up with crazy stories.”
“About dragons?” Gabrielle asked. “Is that what the story was about, that the old king fought a dragon?”
The man shrugged. “Lost ‘is leg somewhat.” He said. “Face was all scarred up too.”
“I could do that.” Xena had finished cleaning her chakram, and set it onto it’s hook. “Doesn’t take a made up animal. Just a sword and a knife.”
The man shrugged again. “Was as we heard it.” He said. “Word was, the old king gave up his looks and all, to save the realm from the dragon. Seemed was a good sort.”
“Had a crappy son.” The queen commented.
The man stared at her.
“He did. The coward ran from me and hid in a pile of cow manure.” Xena said. “Wasn’t worth the chintzy gold crown around his neck.”
“Huh. You’re meaning that one.” The cook muttered. “Aye, probably.”
Xena cocked her head to one side. “So that’s all you’ve got to say, huh?” She watched him nod. “Okay, Brent, take him back downstairs. I’ve heard all I want to for tonight. Sounds like a bunch of crap anyway.”
“Aye, mistress.” Brent took the man by the arm.
“You.” Xena pointed at Mali. “Go finish sorting out Gabrielle’s rooms. I don’t want a single hairball or spider in there. Got me?”
“Majesty.” Mali got up and followed Brent and the cook out, as Brendan went with them, closing the door and bracing himself against it, his sword scraping against the wood on the other side.
Xena regarded her consort. “What do you think?”
Gabrielle shifted in her chair and slowly rocked her head from side to side. “I think my head feels better.” She said. “Xena, I think Mali knows something.”
“Oh really?” The queen gave her a very droll look.
“Really. I think her family maybe was here for a long time, and they know stuff.” Gabrielle missed the sarcasm. “I mean, look, there’s that guy from the kitchens,and th...” She stopped talking, as Xena’s long fingers very gently covered her mouth.
The queen slowly leaned forward until her mouth was right near Gabrielle’s ear. “I got it.” She whispered. “I figured out why Philtop showed up here, and why scumbags could somehow hide inside corners and cracks in my castle without me finding them.”
Gabrielle looked at her in question, since her lips were still covered.
“I figured out why someone’s going around the place telling people about some old king who fought dragons to save his people.” The queen went on. “I just never expected these stinking sheep to try and usurp me. My bad.” She released her consort’s mouth.
They looked at each other.
“Not everyone.” Gabrielle said, positively.
“No.” Xena agreed. “But the question is, do they have someone to put in my place.” She studied her hands thoughtfully . “More importantly, do I want to let them?”
“Let them?” Gabrielle leaned on the chair arm nearest her.
Xena slowly nodded. “There’s a plan here. Lot of people in on it. All those bastards hiding, someone had to be helping them.” She pointed at the floor. “Cooks from downstairs, and servants from Philtop’s lands.” She gazed somberly at her consort. “Maybe I should let them get away with it. You want to go off with me, Gabrielle? Go into exile?”
Gabrielle blinked. “Can we go on that boat?” She asked. “We could take Patches and Tiger, right? Some of the guys might want to go with us too, Xena. We could..” She stopped, her mouth covered again.
“Thanks for the answer.” Xena said. “Part of me wants to get mad and kick everyone’s ass over this. But part of me..” She exhaled a little. “Part of me wants to just run. Go see what’s out there.”
Her consort lifted her hand and gently moved the fingers blocking her speech. “Wherever you go, I go.” She said. “It doesn’t matter where it is.”
Xena smiled, then let her head drop, as she studied her now clasped hands. “I’ll hold you to that, Gabrielle.” She said. “Let’s just see what happens.”
Continued in Part 10