Shadows of the Soul
By Melissa Good
The man holding the scroll looked up, hastily averting his eyes as they fell on the cold, remote face of the woman sitting on the throne high above him. “Your majesty?” He murmured. “Did you say…”
“Kill them.” The woman repeated, in a flat tone. “What part of that didn’t you understand? We don’t have extra to feed useless mouths.”
“But.. they can be trained, surely.”
The woman rolled her immaculately coiffed head to one side, meeting the eyes of a tall soldier standing ramrod straight nearby. “Kill him.” She motioned towards the man with her cleanly sculpted jaw.
“Mistress.” The soldier drew his sword and strode towards the scribe. He ignored the look of stunned horror, and swept his arm back, whipping it forward and burying the blade to the hilt into the man’s chest.
With a single gurgle, the scribe fell to the ground.
The scroll rolled from his hand, tinkling across the stone floor. The soldier wiped his blade on the man’s gown and turned, picking up the scroll and returning to the podium. He mounted the steps with smooth, muscular strides and knelt at the feet of the woman on the throne. “Mistress.” He offered her the scroll.
The woman pushed her embroidered sleeve back and extended a hand, closing long fingers around the wooden item. She unrolled it and studied the writing, then rerolled it and handed it back. “Take them outside the stables and kill them. Give the slavers back old Octos’ body and tell them if they bring me useless merchandise like that again they’ll all end up like he did.”
“Yes, mistress.” The soldier took the scroll and rose, stepping backwards and ducking his head until he reached the foot of the dias. Then he turned and pointed to two other soldiers standing at attention nearby, giving them low, crisp orders.
They braced, then followed him, lifting the merchant’s body between them and dragging him out. His body left a smear of blood along the stone.
It wasn’t the first.
The woman leaned back in her seat and rested her forearms along the carved, wooden arms of the throne. She gazed thoughtfully at the stains on the floor, then dismissed them with a flick of her fingers. “Stanislaus?”
“Mistress?” The castle’s seneschal approached, kneeling at her feet with sturdy grace completely unlike the soldier’s. He tipped his grizzled gray head back and gazed confidently at her, secure in his skills and value to his ruler.
“Any word from the north?”
“A runner, Mistress.” Stanislaus replied immediately. “But he has no news. Merely that the Bregos approaches, and all is well.”
Blue eyes so pale they were merely tinted ice narrowed. “When?”
Long fingers drummed lightly on the chair’s wood.
“By your pardon, Mistress, I’ve asked the garrison to be cleared, and Brego’s quarters prepared for him.”
A thin, not amused smile appeared on the woman’s well shaped lips. “Yes, I’m sure he wants a clean pillow to put his head on.” She replied. “Fine. Tell the staff we’ll dine in the public chamber tonight.” She got up, her surprising height towering over the kneeling seneschal. “Send the usual requests out. I’m sure everyone will want to hear what our… fortunate.. general has to report.”
“Mistress.” Stanislaus bowed his head in assent.
The icy eyes regarded him a moment, then the woman swept past his kneeling figure and continued down the steps. Already braced soldiers stiffened as she passed, chins jerking in the air.
She ignored them, but recognized the motion and approved of it. The soldier nearest the entrance leaned forward and pulled the big wooden door open. She strode through, emerging into the grand hallway with it’s towering, rounded ceiling and marble floors.
Her steps were soundless. The hem of her gown brushed lightly against the floor as she crossed the silent chamber and mounted the stairs curving up the far side. Halfway up, a thin, faroff scream echoed through the shuttered window. She paused and cocked her head to listen.
Another scream, abruptly cut off. The woman listened to the silence for a few heartbeats, then turned and eased through a small, almost hidden door and disappeared.
It was a stark, lonely yard full of exhausted and frightened figures. Most were just barely old enough not to be called children, but all had the look of hopeless despair as they stared around at the armored soldiers around them.
The stable doors opened and two soldiers came out dragging a blood spattered body. They dumped it on the ground and walked to the trough nearby, plunging their hands in and washing them.
Another soldier emerged and closed the door. He walked briskly over to where the slaves were huddled and reviewed them. Then he turned. “Bring me a crossbow.” He ordered. “Her majesty wishes them killed and the merchant who brought them posted as an example of what not to do in the future.”
The slaves gasped and clutched at each other. Two near the front held each other tightly, a tall, brown haired girl and a shorter blonde.
The guard captain waited as a bow was brought to him. Then he scanned the faces, and noted the girls. A thin smile crossed his face, and he pointed at the brown haired one. “Bring that one. Here.”
“No!’ The blond girl grabbed at the brown haired one’s arm.
Two soldiers advanced on them, taking hold of the brown haired girl. A third shoved the blond girl back with the butt of his spear. “Get back.” The soldier yelled. “You’re turn’ll come soon enough!”
The soldiers dragged the girl forward and put her against a wooden pole, chipped and deeply scarred set in the center of the space. They held her in place, gazing at the captain with confidence as he took aim. The girl froze, her eyes going huge and wide as she stared at the captain.
“NO!” The blond girl screamed again. The third soldier slammed the butt of his spear against her, knocking her down. “No! No! Lilaaaa!!!!”
The crossbow fired. The girl slumped as the soldiers released her, sliding to the ground and crumpling over the arrow sticking out of her chest. The captain regarded her, then nodded and started to reload his bow. “Next.”
The soldiers went and grabbed a lanky boy, who struggled uselessly between them.
“No.” The blond girl whispered. “Oh no.”
“Hush.” A brown haired boy knelt next to her, watching the guards anxiously. ‘Shh… you can’t do anything now.”
“She was all that was left of my family.” The girl whispered. “Oh gods…”
“Well.” The boy gathered bravery from someplace. “You’ll be with her too, soon. And the rest of your family.” He told her. “We all will.”
The crossbow twanged.
Long fingered hands rested on the stone parapet overlooking the slaughteryard. The woman watched as another body dropped, joining a pile of drab, slight figures already dragged to one side by the soldiers.
Intelligent blue eyes scanned the remainder. The woman walked along the parapet until she was over where the captain stood. She rested her weight against the stone, evaluating the scene.
The soldiers grabbed a small, blond girl. Her face was tear streaked, but she walked between the men with her head high, breaking only when she passed the pile of bodies as her hand reached out to a thin, lifeless arm poking out at the very bottom.
The men put her against the pole already slick with blood and her head fell back against it, her eyes lifting up to look at the sky, plaintive and searching.
Nothing but useless kids. The dark haired woman sighed, shaking her head. What a waste.
The guard captain raised his crossbow. The watching woman flicked her eyes over the remaining slaves, then she lifted her hand. She paused a moment, then placed her fingers between her teeth and let off a sharp whistle.
The captain jumped as though he’d been shot himself. He lowered the bow and turned, seeing her. “Your majesty.” He headed quickly towards her, stopping before the wall and bowing his head. “Was it not done as you wished?”
“No.” Her low, musical voice echoed slightly. “Brego’s on his way. They need the help in the kitchens.” She indicated the remaining slaves. “Give them over, and clean the rest of this up.”
“Mistress.” The captain touched his temple in respect, and turned back. “All right. You heard her majesty.” His voice rose. “To the kitchen with this lot, and get that offal out of here.”
The woman rested her weight on her forearms again. The two soldiers released the blond girl, who let her arms drop to her sides as though they weighed twice what she did. The guard gave her a shove back towards the remaining slaves and she stumbled, catching her balance at the last moment. The guard shoved her again, pushing her past where the slaughterhouse men were dragging out the bodies.
The girl looked at the bodies, then her head turned and she looked right up at the parapet, at the tall woman, dressed in elegant silks standing there watching.
For a moment, their eyes met.
Then the soldier shoved the slave again, and she was herded away with the rest of them.
The dark haired woman watched a moment more, until they disappeared. Then she turned and headed back towards the door inset into the thick castle wall.
The kitchen was huge. The tall ceiling was darkened from years of smoke from the fires, and large wooden block tables stood everywhere surrounded by hard working slaves, mostly women. The slavemaster shoved four of the new slaves inside the room and grasped the arm of a passing woman. “Hilda.”
The woman stopped, and wiped her hands on her apron. “Aye sir?”
“New ones. Mistress handed em over, expecting Bregos and his men back tonight.”
“Ach.” The woman touched her forehead, glancing at the four newcomers. “B’gods, they’re children!”
The slavemaster shrugged. “They’ve got hands and eyes. Use em.” He turned and left.
The woman turned and looked at the travel stained, filthy figures huddled against the wall staring back at her. “Just what I didn’t need.” Her face hardened. “Look at you pieces of trash. Get inside that room over there, and wash before you contaminate the place.” She pushed them towards a door way, shoving them roughly along and through into a stark, cold chamber filled with stone sinks. “Alberot, give a hand here.”
A burly, cruel looking man joined her, wiping his hands on a blood stained apron. “New uns?”
Hilda nodded. “All right.” She looked at the newcomers in disgust. “Get me some rags to put on them. You lot get those clothes off, and wash down by the time I get back or you’ll feel the worse for it.” She turned and left, closing the door behind her with a hollow crash.
The four of them regarded each other warily. After a moment, the brown haired boy cleared his throat, and touched the side of a sink. “I guess we’d better do what they said.” He looked at the blond girl standing a little off to one side, her face a silent mask. “C’mon. You don’t want to start off bad with them.”
“Leave me alone.” The girl pulled her sleeve free from his grasp and went to the far wall, sliding down it and circling her knees with both hands. “Maybe if I’m bad enough they’ll just kill me.”
“Hey, that’s no way to talk.” The boy went over and crouched next to her. “Listen, there could be worse places to end up. At least they’ll probably feed us here, not like on the road.”
“I don’t care.” The girl whispered.
“C’mon.” The boy put a gentle hand on her arm. “They’ll be back soon.”
The girl edged away from him. “Go away.”
“We should stick together.” He insisted. “In a place like this, you need friends.” He looked around at the others. “They took me when I was six. I know.” He looked back at the girl. “You think they’ll just leave you alone? You think they’ll kill you? Oh no.” He shook her. “They’ll only make you wish you were dead for a long, long time.”
The girl looked at him. Her pale green eyes were bloodshot and exhausted.
“I know.” He repeated. “You think it can’t get worse? Trust me, it gets worse than this.” Slowly, he rolled up his dirty, brown sleeve and showed them the inside of his biceps. Burned deep into his flesh was mark, surrounded by twisted, scarred skin. “Those ones outside? That got arrows? They were lucky.”
The blond girl blinked, and a tear tracked down on either side of her face, carving a furrow in the dirt. She put her head down in her hands and swallowed, clenching her fists so tightly her bones showed through her skin with stark whiteness.
The brown haired boy looked around. “Dump water in that basin, quick. Before the old woman comes back. Hurry!”
After a frozen moment, the other two obeyed, taking up buckets and starting to fill the basin with water. The boy watched them, then turned back to the figure huddled against the wall. “Hey. What’s your name?” He touched her arm again. “My name’s Toris.”
The girl drew in a shaky breath and wiped her knuckles across her face. She looked wearily at him over her forearm. “Gabrielle.”
“Where are you from?”
The girl sighed. “Potadeia.”
“I know where that is.” Toris told her. “It’s not far from where I’m from.”
“Was.” Gabrielle whispered. “It doesn’t exist anymore. They burned it.” Her eyes filled with tears again. “They burned my parents in the barn. I heard them screaming.” She inhaled. “I don’t know why they had to kill them.”
Toris looked around. “Because they couldn’t use them. They only take ones they can use, that’s all the one who runs this place will pay for.” He told her. “That’s why they were killing us. She thought we were too young.” He extended his hand. “C’mon. Do what they say. Once you’re okay here, you can figure out what you’re going to do next.”
Gabrielle stared at him. She really wanted to just close her eyes and have it all end. Fall asleep and just never wake up. The world was evil and cold, and she had no real desire to continue existing in it, in this dark, damp castle full of people who despised and hated her.
She’d been so close. She could still feel the wood of the post against her neck, and smell the stench of blood all around her. If she closed her eyes, she could see the cool, confident face of the guard captain, and hear again that damned whistle that had denied her peace.
Her eyes opened. “The woman you were talking about, who runs this place.. was it that woman on the ledge? The one who stopped the man with the bow?”
Toris nodded. “She’s the ruler of this place, and all the land around it.”
There was a loud bang from outside, and approaching footsteps. “C’mon.” Toris whispered urgently. “You don’t want to get hit.” He pulled her arm, and this time, exhausted, she let him pull her up and over to the basin.
The other two were already stripped and washing, their faces sullen. Toris pulled his shirt off, exposing flesh half covered in old welts and scars along with the one on his arm. He dropped the shirt to the floor and plunged his body into the basin, straightening and rubbing his arms to clean the dirt off.
With a sigh, Gabrielle swallowed, then removed her ragged shift, feeling the cold damp of the room sting her skin. She cupped some water and started washing, ignoring the curious eyes of the others. She lowered her head into the water and scrubbed her hair, then stood up and winced as the cold liquid coursed down her back.
The door slammed open, and the old woman returned, obviously angry. She had a younger, bitter faced woman in tow, and she thrust an armful of fabric into her hands as she surveyed the four half dressed, half washed figures. “Not finished yet? I should have figured.” Without warning, she snatched a broomstick with an end of well used twigs and whipped it towards them, catching the closest girl across the side of her face with it. “Now move, you useless pig scum!”
The girl crawled away from her, blood seeping from her cheek.
“Get them dressed, and bring them to the spits. We can at least use them to turn the roasts.” The larger woman gave the younger one who’d come with her a shove towards the basins, then she turned and stomped out.
“You heard her.” The younger woman told them gruffly. “Hurry up.” Despite the words, she at least seemed a bit less harsh. “You don’t want to make Hilda mad. She’s a bitch.”
The four of them looked at each other, and made an effort to speed up, getting as much of the filth off their skins as possible with the cold water, and lack of soap. Donning the patched, but dry rags they were given, they followed their new leader out the door, and back into chaos.
The royal quarters were on the northern side of the stronghold, high up in a tower that had only two stone walkways connecting it to the rest of the castle. An arched door, thick wood bound in iron strapping, blocked the path inside, but the guards braced outside it quickly opened it and stood aside as the quarter’s occupant approached.
She walked past them and into the inner hall without a word, cocking an ear until she heard the door close behind her. It was quiet inside, the walls hung with tapestries and the floors covered in fresh rushes that rustled slightly as she walked over them.
At the end of the hall was another door, and she paused as she reached it, laying a hand on the wood and going very still, closing her eyes and focusing her senses around her.
Nothing but the creak of the rafters overhead and a whisper of wind came to her. She pushed the door open and walked inside.
The door shut quietly behind her. Xena leaned on it and remained still, only her eyes moving as she scanned the inside of her quarters. After a moment she was satisfied that nothing had been touched in her absence. She walked across the richly carpeted floor to a plush seat behind an iron wrought table and sat down, reaching for the stoppered flask hanging from a knob on the side of it.
Her eyes flicked over the stopper from long practice before she removed it, pouring a cupful of it’s contents and leaning back in her chair to sip from it.
The room was full of rich grandeur. This outer chamber was her work room, her public room she had small audiences in of those aides closest to her interests. Finely carved furniture was artfully arranged against the walls, the ceiling curved high overhead, it’s wooden beams etched and smoke darkened. Set into the stone walls were wrought iron sconces, each holding a neatly trimmed candle waiting to be lit as evening fell.
An inner door led to her private chambers. Two leaded glass paneled shutters opened onto a balcony just behind her, letting in light that spilled over her shoulders and picked out the silken embroidery in the gown she wore.
A stray sunbeam found it’s way into her glass, sending a splash of blood red color down the fabric covering her thigh. She turned her hand slightly, watching the reflection flow and spread. A soft laugh emerged, and she drained the cup, setting it down on the table and folding her hands over her lap just as a soft knock came at the door.
She drew in a breath from her gut before she spoke, adding a resonance to her tone she knew would carry. “Come.”
The door opened slowly, revealing the gray grizzled head of one of her aides. He gave her a respectful nod, then entered and crossed the floor, coming to a halt on the other side of the table. “Mistress.” He had a soft, lightly accented voice and surprisingly innocent blue eyes.
“Yes?” She watched his face. “What is it?”
He held out two rolled parchments to her. “The season counts, your majesty. We’ve just finished them.”
Xena held out a hand and leaned forward. She took the proffered scrolls and sat back, setting one on the table and opening the other. Her eyes quickly scanned the writing, then she went back and went over it more slowly.
Her gaze lifted to his face. He swallowed, his eyes blinking rapidly.
“Thirty percent lost to thieves, eh?” Xena remarked with deceptive mildness.
“That’s what the outer townships reported, yes, majesty.” The accountant answered.
“And you believe that, Yohans?”
The man fidgeted visibly.
Xena got up and circled the table. Yohans flinched as she passed behind him, but remained still. She moved around him with a smooth, catlike stride that rustled the silk fabric draped over her tall frame. “You believe that thirty percent of the tribute they owe me, was stolen, Yohans?”
He exhaled. “Not really, no, your majesty.” Yohans whispered. “But that’s what they told us.”
Xena leaned on the table and ducked her head slightly to catch his eye. “What do you think really happened?”
He looked at the floor.
She put the edge of the scroll against his chin and tipped his head up, forcing him to look at her. He was shaking, his hands twitching, so clearly terrified he couldn’t even speak. “I think those towns lied.”
His throat moved, but no sound emerged.
“I think you knew that.”
He stared at her. His teeth audibly chattered together.
Xena studied him impassively. She handed him the scroll. “Go back to them, Yohans. Tell those towns they either find their stolen thirty percent, or I’m going to come and take it out of them in skins.” Her voice dropped into a throaty growl. “Theirs.”
His hand came up and clasped the scroll. After a moment, he nodded. “Yes, Majesty.”
She watched him leave, his steps jerky and as rapid as dignity would allow. After the door closed behind him, Xena released a sigh, circling her table and dropping back into her chair. She rested her head against her fist, lifting her flask with her free hand and pouring herself another cup of wine.
By all rights, she should send a legion down to rip the tribute from the border towns. Giving them a chance, even this small one to back down and make good was a mistake, and Xena knew that. She took a swig of the wine. But she also knew with Bregos in the city, bringing his loyal troops with him, sending a legion of her own men elsewhere would be an even bigger mistake.
On the heels of a successful campaign, the bastard could even decide to go for it all this time, and make a run at her throne.
Xena’s pale eyes narrowed. Their rivalry was well known by anyone in the realm with half a brain, and so far Bregos had walked the razors edge of paying homage to her with sweet words, while building himself a power base with his undoubted military skills and personal charisma.
She should really just kill him. Xena took another swallow. But there was little doubt his conquests had enriched the realm and she’d walked a razors edge herself in taking what she could from him while keeping his ambition at bay.
She drained the cup and set it down, watching the thin film of crimson stain the inside of the clear glass. Then with a flickering motion, she snatched the cup up and whipped it across the room, smashing it into the back of the lightly flickering fireplace. Sparks flared up as the fire cleansed the glass.
Xena stood up, pushing papers aside on her work table with restless impatience. She studied the first of them, then shoved the pile away from her and left them, stalking towards her private quarters.
The loud crack made Gabrielle jump, even though her body ached so badly she could hardly move it. She looked up from the crank she was pulling at to see one of her fellow newcomers, the boy Alras, picking himself up off the floor.
The activity in the kitchen had picked up as the day wore on, until now it was at a fever’s pitch. Liveried servers had started to arrive, and silver platters were being pulled down from hooks on the walls and set on the cleared work tables.
Gabrielle exhaled, then went back to her work. Her shoulders were almost numb from the effort. As she started pulling again a hand fell against her back and she stopped, pressing against the stone warily.
“All right.” The tall assistant cook had returned. “That’s enough… g’wan in the back room there wit everybody else, get some tuck.”
Gabrielle found herself nudged along with the rest of the kitchen slaves, filing into a chamber at the back of the kitchen that had benches along the wall and an air of long, hard use. The room was already filling with bodies, smudged and tired faces surrounding her and edging towards a long, rough table at the rear.
Alras showed up at her shoulder, exchanging a tired grimace with her. They hadn’t spoken much, but their common experience at least gave them a veneer of familiarity with each other and Gabrielle found herself glad to see him there. She’d lost touch with the other two, the girl who’d been with Alras and the tall Toris – they had been taken by the butchers and lead away much earlier in the day.
They reached the table, and Gabrielle found herself handed a trencher and mug, plain but serviceable. She moved down a little and a man in a cook’s apron piled sliced meats and roasted roots on the trencher, topped it with a slab of bread, and pointed her towards a keg behind him.
She set the trencher down and filled her mug, then picked the wooden plate up and waited for Alras to join her. They took seats on a back bench and balanced the trenchers on their knees, setting the mugs on the floor next to them.
For a moment, Gabrielle simply sat there, glad of the stone wall at her back as she leaned against it and let her body relax. The room filled with more and more workers, some taking their plates and sitting right on the floor as the benches were taken.
“S’allright.” Alras muttered, his mouth full.
Gabrielle looked down at her plate. There was a surprising amount of food on it, meats sliced off the roasts she’d spent all day turning, and two kinds of roots. The bread was soft and fresh and she touched it in tired confusion.
Food since their capture by the slavers had been stale dark crusts, and if they were lucky, water. Despite her exhaustion and the fog of emotional horror, her body sensed the difference and she felt her mouth water. She pulled a bit of the bread free and put it in her mouth, chewing it.
It was slightly sweet and very rich.
Nothing like her mothers. Gabrielle blinked and swallowed past the lump in her throat. She put her head back against the stone and looked around her at the strangers in the room, bleakly aware of just how alone she was.
At least, on the trip here she’d had Lila. Her eyes closed, and she clamped her jaw shut on a whimper. It had all happened so fast, she hadn’t even had time to say good bye to her sister and in her mind’s eye, she saw again the look of shock on Lila’s face as the arrow…
No. Gabrielle forced the thought down. Hard as it was, she knew she couldn’t lose herself right now in the horror of it all. She opened her eyes and sniffled, wiping the stained sleeve of her tunic across her face before she straightened and refocused her attention on her surroundings.
Some glances met hers, and she was surprised to find shy curiosity mixed with indifference, and wariness in the eyes around her.
Maybe Toris had been right, she reflected, looking down and picking up a slice of the meat, setting it on a piece of the bread and taking a bite of it. Maybe this wasn’t the worst place she could have ended up, given everything.
With a shaky breath, she closed off thoughts of her family for now and concentrated on surviving, filling her stomach with the hearty meal and knowing there would be time enough, long, lonely hours in the dark to grieve.
Xena paused in the shadows of the entryway. Her eyes swept the big room, candles flickering in a myriad of holders and filling the space with warm light. A low buzz of conversation echoed faintly, the tables inside filled with the high ranking nobles that made up her court.
On a raised dais was the head table. Behind it, positioned in the very center, was her ornate chair, gilded and padded with comfortable cushions. On either side, and extending to the end of the table were the seats of honor. Xena’s custom was to select those she favored to sit there and competition for the honor was fierce.
Tonight, two of her dukes had gotten tapped, with their ladies. They stood nearby, carefully not approaching the dais without her presence, but close enough to indicate to all their favored position. Nearby also was Jellaus, her court musician, his harp tucked under his arm.
Two seats she’d left empty, anticipating the carefully orchestrated entry of her returning general. She knew Bregos wouldn’t make an appearance until after she did, until all were seated and he could come in with all the pomp and circumstance possible.
Xena sighed, wishing the damn night were over, finding Brego’s amiably antagonistic posing scraping her nerves red raw. She twitched the silk gown draped over her tall frame straight and moved forward, clearing her throat softly to warn the guards at the door of her presence.
They stiffened, eyes flicking back to her, then forward again. The guard on the left fit his hand around a felt wrapped stick and straightened, mindful of the importance of his position. He lifted his arm in a grand, ceremonial arc and struck a bronze gong on the other side of the door.
“Her Majesty, defender of the realm, conqueror of the far lands, Xena the merciless.” The guard on the right boomed out.
The guards in the room snapped to attention. The nobles bowed their heads, the exquisitely dressed women dropped into perfect curtsies.
Xena let her eyes travel over them, taking control of the moment before she moved past the guards and into to the room, walking with powerful, slow deliberation as she made her way towards her high table.
As she passed Jellaus, he dropped to his knees, bowing his head in homage as his fingers stroked the strings of his harp, letting a trickle of soft music loose. Xena lifted a hand and touched his head, ruffling his thick, russet hair a little as she walked by and mounted the three steps up to the dais.
She paused in front of her seat, letting her fingers rest on the damask cover table. “You may rise.” She waited for them to do so, collecting the intent, watching eyes now facing her. “Tonight shall see the return of our long.. absent.. general Brego.” She let her tone drop slightly. “You will all join me in welcoming him.”
A low murmur of assent answered her. Xena inclined her head, then took her seat, setting her hands precisely on the gilded finials of her ornate chair, and allowing her silken skirt settle around her knees. She nodded graciously as her dukes approached, and accepted their platitudes with just the faintest hint of a smile.
"Get some rest." The grizzle-haired man told them. "There'll be plenty of work to do tomorrah.”
Gabrielle went with the rest of them, following the crowd of slaves down a drafty hallway. At the end of it was a large doorway, which outlined a set of broad worn steps.
They filed down in silence. As she reached the bottom of the steps and looked around at the large chamber a hand grasped her arm.
"Oh!" Gabrielle started. "Toris."
“Shh. C’mon.” The brown haired boy pulled her to one side. “Over here.”
Gabrielle looked around, but realized there wasn’t anyone there she knew any better than she did Toris. “Where are we going?”
Toris lead the way around a corner, edging past stacked tubs and into a dusty, unused section of the room. Gabrielle relaxed when she saw the other two they’d arrived with already there, sitting against the wall. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Alras murmured. “It’s kinda dirty over here, but all the other spots are pretty taken.”
“I don’t think I care.” Gabrielle looked around. The floor was covered in straw, and the only furniture was pallets of lashed together boughs to sit on.
“I got these.” Toris pulled out a stack of fabric and gave them each a folded, much mended bit of sacking. “It’s not a lot.”
Gabrielle took the offered cloth and sat down on one of the pallets. “Thanks. It’s sure better than nothing.”
The brown haired boy sat down across from her, and they were all quiet for a few moments, looking at each other. They were covered in grime, and in Toris’ case, blood. Gabrielle felt ten seasons older, and she could only imagine what she looked like, if her hands were any indication.
She was tired. Not just tired in her body, but in her soul.
Around them, she could hear the rest of the servants moving around, arranging themselves to rest, washing… ah. Gabrielle sucked in a breath. She could hear the sound of water running somewhere. “I think I want to clean off.” She said.
Toris grimaced a little. “Yeah, well.. they got a pecking order for that. We’re new. We’re last.” He flexed a hand, wincing. “Found that out the hard way.”
Gabrielle sighed. “At least they fed us.” She knew she had to find something to do until their turn came at the basins. The thought of sleeping in the grime she was covered with was making her skin crawl, despite everything she’d gone through. “Want to see if we can make it a little more comfortable in here?”
No one really wanted to, least of all her. But they stirred and got up, eyes searching the tiny, drafty space. “I guess we can start with some straw.” Gabrielle said. “Looks like they have plenty of that.” Toris joined her as they started collecting handfuls, working together in silence.
The wine steward gracefully refilled her glass, and ducked his head in a bow. Xena acknowledged him with a brief smile, then returned her attention to the duke on her right hand side..
“Your Majesty, of course we support your position to the utmost." Duke Lashay assured her. "You know my views on southern expansion have always been very enthusiastic."
"Of course." Xena leaned on the arm of her chair. "Since you stand to gain the most by it." She added a brief smile, daring him to refute it. He didn't. But that was all right. Xena understood the hunger for land roiling in the man’s gut and didn’t fault him for it. “If we take and hold everything to the cliffs, you’ll be a busy man.”
Lashay leaned on the arm of his chair closer to her, and returned her smile. “Busy is, as busy does, my liege. I love it.”
Xena was about to answer, when she heard a creak, and looked up to see the big front doors opening up wide. “Ah.” She straightened, sitting up in her seat and arranging the silk folds of her gown. “Right on time.”
One of the guards struck his spear butt on the floor three times, and the sound caught the attention of the room. Xena placed her hands precisely on the chair arms, and inclined her head, watching the open door.
“B’your leave, Majesty.” The guard called out. “His Excellency, General of the armies, Bregos the magnificent wishes to enter.”
Xena toyed with the idea of saying no. Then she got her instincts under control, and gave a single nod of her head. As if seeing the signal, two columns of military guards entered, lining a path all the way to her dais. When they were in place, a set of heavy bootsteps approached. Xena kept her expression neutral as the doorway was filled with a bear of a man, easily over six feet tall and weighing twice a normal man’s weight.
He wore polished brass armor, and carried a sword strapped across his back with an intricately wrapped leather and bronze hilt. Despite his size, he moved with consummate grace and a fluid muscularity that proved his embellishments were functional, not just pretty.
Xena waited as he walked towards her, feeling a mix of regret and admiration for this, the greatest of her warriors. Bregos was intelligent, talented, a skilled war leader, a ruthless taker of lands in her name, and in the balance, very good looking. He only had one major thing against him.
He wanted her crown. Xena studied the handsome, angular face drawing nearer. His eyes were on her, she knew, glinting behind the war helm settled on his midnight black hair. She sighed inaudibly. Okay, two things. He also wanted her.
“My liege.” Bregos stopped before the dais, and fell to one knee, touching his chest in an apparent humble salute. “I have longed for this moment for many a moon.”
Xena’s eyes flicked over the audience, judging them with searing intent. She let Bregos remain kneeling for several heartbeats, then she slowly stood up, easing around her chair and making her way down the low, stone steps. She stopped at the bottom. “My faithful Bregos. How good it is to see you.” She touched his helm with her fingertips. “Tell me of your conquests.”
He lifted his head and let his eyes travel slowly up her body until they met her own. They were dark, almost liquid black, full of mystery and difficult to read. “I bring you great news, Mistress. All the lands between here, and the river, fly your banner.”
A murmur went up, and even Xena’s eyebrows lifted a trifle. “Your ambition excites me, Bregos.” She drawled, offering her hand to him. “Come. Sit by me, and give me all the gory details.”
He took her hand in his larger one, and lifted it, brushing his lips across it before he stood. His muscular form towered over some of the guards and most of the nobles, but Xena’s glossy dark head was almost even with his, and despite his greater bulk he somehow couldn’t quite overshadow her. She turned her back on him and walked back up onto the dais, leading him to the seat next to hers.
He stood at easy attention until she seated herself, then he settled next to her. “At ease.” He gestured to his men. They braced to attention, then turned and retreated, marching past the castle guard with arrogant disdain.
Xena picked up her glass and twirled it as the wine steward filled Brego’s goblet. He lifted his as well, and offered it to her. She touched her glass to his, then they both took a sip. Bregos had been on campaign for six long moons, and she could feel the tension around him, smell the musky scent of power as he watched her over the rim his lips curved around. Six moons of being his own master, commanding his troops. Answering to no one, save paying lip service to her name as authority for what he did. She could feel the danger in that, knowing his triumphant success in the field only bolstered his support here in her capital.
The rest of the table was listening intently, pretending not to. “So.” Xena kept her attitude relaxed. “Tell me about my new lands.”
“That I will, Mistress.” Brego rumbled softly. “Then, perhaps you will tell me what I have missed here at home, and how it fares with you?” He smiled at her. “You have not been far from my thoughts, through all my victories.” He said. “I will lay my spoils out for you, and then, perchance, may you lay on me the honor of being your champion.”
Xena’s brow lifted slightly, edging towards her hairline. “As my senior general, isn’t that an assumption most would make?”
“Of the realm, surely, Mistress.” He murmured. “Of the realm.”
Xena sat back and cupped her hands around her glass. “Am I not the realm?”
He watched her in silence, with a faint, enigmatic smile. “With such a successful army, I have no need for a personal champion.” Xena stated, sipping from her cup. “Unless you’re warning me of some threat, Bregos?”
The big general held a hand up, returning the smiles of the Duke and his lady on the other side of the throne. “Never, Mistress.” He assured her. “But…”
Always a but. Xena eyed him with wry skepticism.
“Tis a big land now, Majesty.” Bregos reminded her. He opened his hand and laid it, back down on the arm of her chair. “Would it not be to your advantage to have a strong right hand to help control it?”
Xena was aware of the covert attention focused on them. The people liked Bregos. The nobles approved of him – he was of their class, and they felt comfortable with him. A lot more confortable than they were with her, as a matter of fact. He was popular with his men, and on a personal note, he was good looking, had good hygiene, and could dance with the best of them. Many in the room fully expected her to make him her consort, and she knew it.
Bregos knew it.
There were, she acknowledged, far worse choices she could make to share her throne or her bed. Only problem was, Xena had no intention of taking anyone into her life.
It was her turn at last. Gabrielle trudged into the washroom, its stone floor slick with mud and water. She’d let the other three go first, wanting the moment of peace her solitude would afford her. She faced the trough, it’s wooden sides worn smooth from countless hands. “Okay.” She unstoppered the water pipe and watched the rush of dark, cold liquid fill the trough. It was cold, and quiet inside the washroom; only a single torch guttering against the wall, releasing the scent of burning wood and tar into the air.
She replaced the stopper and leaned on the edge of the trough, catching a skewed reflection of herself on the surface just before she plunged her hands into the water. The chill stung her skin, but she took the tiny sliver of soapstone she’d found lying on the floor and scrubbed her arms, then managed a bit of lather and scooped it, and handfuls of water up to wash her face.
It smelled of tin, and earth. Gabrielle rinsed her face, blinking the stinging out of her eyes. She was shivering from the damp, but the feeling of being clean was overwhelming and she steeled herself as she ripped off the rags she was wearing and swung herself over the edge of the trough, landing on her knees. The water surged up around her torso, sending a shockwave of cold through her, but she stuck it out. The soapstone lasted long enough for her to wash herself all over, and she ducked her head under the water to rinse it before she jumped out of the trough to stand naked on the floor with her teeth chattering.
The bit of linen Toris had given her was just enough to cover her body. She wrapped it around her while she took the rags, washing them out as best she could and wringing them dry. After she’d gotten out as much water as she could, she hesitated, looking at the trough and wondering how to get the water out. Her eyes tracked two worn tracks in the floor, and she realized she’d have to drag the basin to the door and dump it outside.
“Gods.” Gabrielle whispered, wondering where she’d find the strength to do it. She rested her forearms against the trough and put her head down. For a while, she just let the shivers work their way through her, the cold amplifying the ache of her body from the long, hateful day. She closed her eyes and felt the heat of tears trickle down her face, chilling to ice as they dripped into the water.
“Da.” Her breath stirred the murky liquid. “Wake me up, please?” She pleaded softly. “Tell me it’s all just.. a bad dream. I want to wake up and smell mama’s tea, and hear the sheep outside, and listen to Li..” She had to stop, the silent sobs jerking her chest. Slowly, she dropped to her knees, then turned and sat on the ground, wrapping her arms around herself and giving in to the horror at last.
It was late by the time dinner ended. Xena stood at her place, and waited for everyone to hastily stand and bow, then gave them all a gracious nod. “Our army has brought us rich new lands.” She said. “Tomorrow , we shall lay claim to them and reward those who have been loyal to us.”
A low murmur of approval spread. You could almost smell the greed in the air.
“Perhaps, my liege, the good general will also be gifted with a reward he treasures?” Duke Whatisface’s lady asked, in a soft, gentle voice.
Another murmur rose, and Xena kept a carefully remote smile on her face as she heard the whispers. “What the general is rewarded with is between myself and the general.”
“Mistress, I need no reward save your favor.” Bregos rumbled, ducking his head with a courtly flourish. “I am your man.”
Gee. Almost as good as finding mice in the bedroom. Xena, however, favored him with a brief smile, aware of the scrutiny. “My faithful friend.” She murmured. “What more could I ask for than a strong right hand like yours?”
Bregos smiled at the compliment. “Permit me the honor of escorting you to your chambers, my liege? I see this evening’s revel is concluded to your satisfaction, is it not?”
There was really no polite way for her to refuse. Xena almost did anyway, but she’d learned, in the years since she’d taken the throne, to pick her battles wisely. She knew brushing Bregos off, in the moment of his obvious triumph might put her favor of him in doubt, but might also put in question the support of the dukes Bregos had just greatly enriched by his conquests.
Xena felt the tension of a long day settle over her. She gave Bregos a brief nod, then turned and walked down the stairs. Bregos joined her and they walked side by side through the room, as the crowd bowed before them.
The two guards at the door stiffened and eyed her as she passed them, and she made a small hand signal. They relaxed and remained in place, facing forward again to watch the room as it emptied.
“The iron caves you found sound lucrative.” Xena remarked, as their footsteps scuffed slightly on the rushes. “I’m sure our smiths will put the material to good use.”
“Aye.” Bregos nodded gravely. “New arms, to start. I picked up half a legion of good men eager to take up the sword.” He glanced sideways at her. “How has it been with you, my liege? Things are well here?”
“As well as they ever are.” Xena answered. “The harvest was good, and only a few rumors of raids have come in from the north.”
“I have heard of a new threat.” The general said. “Boat raiders, wild men have been taking the cities down the river. I’m afraid we might be their next target.”
Xena had heard that as well. “Their last target.” She stated mildly. “If they’re stupid enough to try it.”
They turned the corner, and started up the steps. Bregos held his tongue until they reached the top landing, then cleared his throat. “And well they might be… Mistress.” His voice lowered. “To out side eyes, how rich a prize would our lands be? They are rich, and fertile… and ruled by a woman’s hand alone?”
Xena stopped before the doors to her outer hallway, and turned. She regarded him coolly, the torchlight catching glints off her pale eyes.
“They do not know you, Mistress, as we do.” Bregos pursed his lips. “Tis a risk.”
Xena let her gaze drop to one side, then she lifted her head and pinned him with a fierce stare. “I’ll take the risk.”
“Good night, Bregos.” Xena turned and unlatched the door, pulling it open and walking through. She closed the door behind her, shutting off his protests. There would be fallout from that, she knew, but her patience was at it’s razor’s edge and at the moment, she really didn’t care.
She walked across and into her bedroom, kicking off her shoes on her way to the window. The shutters were open, and she leaned against them, letting the cool night air brush against her. The moon was rising, and she watched the shadows lengthen as it’s light poured across the stone walls, touching her as she stood in silence.
After a pensive moment, she turned and reached up to undo the catches on her gown, stripping the fabric off and letting it drop over a plush chair. Naked, she continued on to her garment press and pulled it open. Impatiently, she pushed aside the beautiful silken garments, removing a swath of dark, coarser fabric she casually slung over her shoulder.
Her ears cocked as she heard someone approaching, but she relaxed again as she identified the gentle footsteps of Iridia, her almost ancient body servant. She didn’t even look up as the door opened.
“Mistress?” Iridia’s voice quavered. “Anything you be needing?”
Xena turned as she shook out the garment she’d taken from the press and slipped into it, lacing it up the front of her body. “Nothing.” She told the woman. “Go to bed, Iridia.” Her hand wrapped itself around a thick leather strap, and she lifted it as she walked towards a small, nondescript door in the back of her quarters.
“But Mistress, it’s long past midnight!” The old woman protested. “You need your rest!”
Xena paused with a hand on the doorframe, and looked back at her. “Go to bed, Iridia.” She repeated. “I haven’t had a mother since I was six years old. I don’t need one now.”
Chastened, the woman’s eyes dropped. “M’pardon, Mistress.”
Xena continued on her way, her bare feet making not even a whisper of sound.
Gabrielle finally ran out of tears. For a little while, she simply sat on the ground, her eyes closed, resting her head against her forearms. Her head was pounding painfully, and her chest ached. She was aware of the noises of the castle around her fading, though, and she knew she’d have to get up and go back to the others before someone found her here.
She lifted her head and took a weary breath. The torch had burned low, but her eyes had adjusted, and she found the strength to pull herself to her feet and face the trough.
There were handles on the ends. Gabrielle flexed her hands and curled her fingers around them, feeling the iron bite into her palms. She leaned her weight back and pulled.
Nothing happened. She pulled harder, shoving against the ground with her thighs. The wood of the trough creaked slightly, but otherwise didn’t budge an inch. She paused to rest, studying the tub in frustration.
Maybe there was another way. Gabrielle turned and looked around, searching for a bucket. She spotted one in the corner and trudged over to it, picking it up and returning to the trough. She scooped a bucketful up and walked to the door, pushing it open with her shoulder. A gust of air hit her, rich with the scent of old blood and decay and she realized where the door lead her.
The slaughteryard. Gabrielle felt her hands clench on the bucket, a tremor running through them. It was dark in the yard, mercifully, and she steeled herself to step out into it, tossing the bucketful of water out across the dirt.
It hit with a sodden thud. Gabrielle paused and listened to the echo of the place, the soft whispers of the wind across it’s empty breadth sounding almost like voices.
Was one of them Lila’s?
Resolutely, she turned and went back inside, to repeat the process.
The room was square. The floor was stone block, bare of any rug or grass to soften its bite. Torches fluttered in sconces along the wall, sending shadows skittering everywhere.
In the center of the room a figure stood ramrod straight, hands wrapped around the hilt of a sword. After a moment of stillness, the figure slid into motion, swinging the sword in slow, gentle arcs that described a rhythmic pattern.
Half circles became full ones, then full ones became winding figure eights. The hands gripping the sword connected to corded wrists where tendons stood out starkly under the strain.
The figure moved forward, taking half steps, continuing on into a circle as the sweep of the blade whispered in the air. The strokes extended out, moving from just in front of the tall body to either side. Muscles strained, and the face behind the whirling blade took on a grimace of concentration.
Steel cut the air in an audible scream.
The strokes slowed, then paused for just an instant. Then the powerful figure shimmered back into motion, lunging forward into an attack on an adversary built solely in the imagination. The blade whipped and sang, parrying and thrusting with exquisite skill.
Arms extended and locked, legs spread for balance, the blade spun in a circle, then dipped and cut savagely through the firelit space. The pace sped up again, and then the figure bolted into motion, directing the sword one handed on the run.
Around and around the room. Sword flying from one hand to the other, steps alternating with jumps turning into full body rolls that launched upward into leaps.
Minute after minute, without pause or slacking of pace. The warrior drove through motions and skills, soft grunts of effort at last escaping lips dripping with sweat. A final drive, sweeping across the room in long, powerful cuts ending near the window in one last blaze of steel.
Circles, growing tighter and tighter, faster and faster.
Then the figure dropped to it’s knees, driving the blade downward to meet the stone. A spark flew from it’s tip as a fierce yell echoed through the chamber.
In the silence that followed, the torches fluttered loud, drowning out the lightly labored breathing.
Xena closed her eyes, and rested her forehead against her sword. Her entire body was vibrating, trembling on the verge between exhaustion and exhilaration. Her hands were still clenched around a hilt so heated she could feel the warmth against her face.
A cool breeze blew in, lifting the sweaty hair off her forehead. She sucked in a deep breath, silently reveling in the only peace her soul had ever known, exhausted by the only freedom she’d allowed herself for a very long time.
She blinked and looked up, resting her cheek against the sword. She could smell the brass of it, and the leather wrapped around the hilt, and the earthy scent of the stone under her knees.
Her secret. Xena had to smile, just a little. Underneath her expensive silk gowns and carefully arranged hair, underneath the façade of fragile royalty lurked the body of a warrior, honed to a fine temper from hours spent alone in this very room.
Personal champion? A soft, wry chuckle forced its way out. She needed no bodyguards, trusted no soldiers ripe for bribery to keep herself whole.
Her loyal men knew it. In her days of warlording she’d ridden the field with them and proven on countless bodies her skill at the deadly art of war.
But that was in the past. Enough time had gone by that the people she ruled had forgotten her origins, or discounted the stories. To them, she was their queen, their ruler – a high and remote figure who held her power in a tight, uncompromising fist.
She could have lived the role. Taken on guards to keep her safe, and let her skills slip away with time, and soft living. The kitchens certainly knew her tastes, and there was no voice to deny her if she’d wanted to indulge herself.
She’d chosen otherwise. She’d kept the discipline she’d learned when barely out of childhood and now she used these late night sessions to cope with the stress, and the isolation of the position she’d taken for herself.
The room she was in had only one door, that lead to her chambers. One time, for another ruler, the space had been a harem. She’d turned it into a sparse, starkly functional place for her to loose the energy and frustration of her daily life, hidden from prying eyes.
Energy returned to her, and she lifted her head, straightening her body up and settling back on her heels. After a moment more, she stood up and walked to the window, dropping down onto the cold stone and gazing out across the stone walled yards below.
It was late, and silent in the darkness. Then a crack of light caught her eye, and she leaned forward, watching as the door to the kitchens opened and a slight figure emerged. It held a bucket, and as she sat there on her perch, the figure emptied the bucket and turned, leaning against the door for a brief moment.
There was weariness in the movement. Xena studied the figure in idle curiosity, wondering why a slave was out working at this late hour. Surely they’d cleared the halls already. She rested her arm on her upraised knee and leaned her chin against it, as the figure straightened and disappeared.
Peace returned to the courtyard. Xena remained where she was, letting her body cool off and the breeze dry the sweat coating her. Another sound drew her attention, though, and she returned her gaze to the door, watching it swing open again. Dim light from inside poured out, outlining the body of the slave, this time facing away from her.
Xena watched as the figure backed into the courtyard, obviously straining at some task. The body jerked hard, and the edge of the wash basin came into view. With a final pull, the basin was out, and the slave turned to it in sudden, visible anger and pulled it over onto it’s side.
She could hear the faint splash of the water as it emptied. Her head cocked to one side as her eyes followed the slave’s slight figure as the woman – the outline definitely showed it to be a woman – left the basin and walked across to the post set in the middle of the yard.
A hand reached out and touched the scarred wood. Xena could not see the face from where she was, but the tense anger and anguish were evident and she wondered who the slave was.
The slave stepped closer, then leaned against the post. She remained still for a moment, and then she backed up and with shocking violence, swung the bucket she had in her right hand against the wood with a solid, startling crack.
Xena jumped a little in surprise. Her hand clenched on her sword hilt, though at this distance she was obviously in no danger. She watched in fascination as the slave swung the bucket again and again, until finally a bit of the post flew off.
The slave staggered slightly. She dropped the bucket and retrieved the piece of wood, studying it in the dim light from the kitchen door. She closed her hand around it, and then retreated, picking up the now battered bucket and tossing it into the trough.
Now what, Xena wondered, was the woman up to? The slave opened the door wider, shoving it back before she turned and started pulling the trough back inside. For a moment, her face was outlined in the torchlight. Xena pursed her lips thoughtfully as the young profile struck a chord of memory from earlier that day.
One of the new ones.
The rags the slave was wrapped in didn’t hide much. Xena could see the potential for strength in the just past adolescent frame, but also… Her eyes lingered. A faint smile, wry smile crossed her face and she glanced away.
When she looked back, the slave had the trough back inside. She walked to the door and gazed out briefly over the yard, then she exhaled, her shoulders slumping, and swung the door closed.
Darkness returned to the yard.
Xena remained in the window, looking thoughtfully at the closed door. Dragging that damn trough out was at best, a two person job. Why hadn’t the slave just asked for help? Why do it alone, and why the strange attack on the post? Why take the piece of wood? For a weapon?
With a soft grunt, Xena got up and sheathed her sword, allowing her mind to work on the puzzle as she wrapped the leather straps around the sheath and made her way out of the training room.
Interesting. She mused, glad of something, however trivial, to take her mind off Bregos and his machinations. Very interesting.
There was a moment of total incomprehension. She could feel the hard pattern of branches pressing against her cheek, and she wondered where she was.
“Gabirelle!” A shake on her arm became insistent.
She opened her eyes, and looked up, to see Toris crouching next to her, the room behind him still dim and quiet. “Huh?” Memory flooded back, knowledge settling in the pit of her stomach like a bad meal. “Oh.”
“Shh.” Toris sat down cross-legged next to her. “I heard the cooks start to get up. It’s almost dawn.”
Gabrielle lifted herself up from where she’d collapsed the night before into a sleep so deep she doubted she moved an inch since. “Buh.” She rubbed her face with one hand, trying to dispel the cobwebs. “Why’re you up?”
“I just couldn’t sleep.” He admitted.
“Ah.” Gabrielle slowly pushed herself up, every muscle in her body screaming in protest. “Oh, gods.” She winced, pulling her legs into a crossed position. Spending the night in a half crouched position under the spit had cramped her back and thighs and now they were forcibly reminding her of it.
“Sore, huh?” Toris held his hands out, which were red and blistered. “Me too.”
Gabrielle straightened up, feeling the unpleasant sensation of her spine popping. “Yeah.” She whispered. Her eyes lifted and took in her dark surroundings and she found herself swallowing a lump in her throat. “You know, it’s funny.” She managed to get up. “I always dreamed about leaving home and seeing different places.”
Toris coughed slightly.
“Now all I want is to be back there.” Gabrielle rested her head against her hand. “And I can never go home again because it’s all gone.” She stopped, biting the inside of her lip. “All gone.”
Toris patted her shoulder awkwardly. “I know.” He said. “It’s tough.”
Tough. Gabrielle felt like she was suspended over a chasm of hopelessness. “I hate this place.” She murmured. “I hate these people. I hate how they take everything from you and they don’t even care.”
Her companion scooted closer. “Yeah.” He said. “That’s the worst part. The one who runs this place has no heart at all. She’d just as soon kill you as look at you. See what happened to the others yesterday? To your sister? She’s an animal”
Gabrielle remembered. “Yeah.”
“She destroyed my family, too.” Toris told her, in a low voice. “If I can do something about it, I will.”
“What?” Gabrielle looked at him, startled.
“Shh.” Toris looked around. “Forget it. Listen, we can get some cereal if we go help bring in the water. Want to? I’m hungry.”
Gabrielle took a breath to protest, then felt a rumble in her stomach. “Okay.” She sighed. “Probably hurt less if I move around anyway.”
He held out his hand to her as he got to his feet. “C’mon.”
She took his hand and let herself be hauled up onto her feet. “I need to go splash some water on my face.” Gabrielle admitted. “I’m sure I look like a half shorn sheep.”
That got a smile out of the dark haired boy. “Nah. C’mon.” He led her off, still holding her hand.
Xena put down the bit of bread and picked up the porcelain cup to take a sip from it. She rolled the sweetened, herbal tea in her mouth, enjoying the taste before she swallowed it.
The sun was pouring in the windows behind her, coating her silk clad shoulders with warmth and she paused to stretch her body out, appreciating the sense of well being it afforded her.
She reached for the bread again, then stopped when a soft knock came at the door. Her head cocked at this unusual intrusion, knowing that she was very seldom interrupted this early unless there was trouble.
Xena’s eyes narrowed. “Starting early, Bregos?” She murmured. “Come.” She called out.
The door opened, and the grizzled head of her seneschal appeared. “Mistress.” He glanced apprehensively at her. “A moment of your time, I beg of you.”
Uh oh. “Come over here, Stanislaus. What’s the problem?” Xena asked, in a crisp tone.
The seneschal entered and crossed to her sitting area near the window. “Mistress, a terrible thing. Eridia was found this dawn at the bottom of the kitchen stairs. She must have fallen in the night.”
Xena steepled her fingers, absorbing this unexpected news. “Dead?” She asked.
The old woman had been her chamber servant since she’d taken the throne, but Xena found herself not unduly upset at her passing. Eridia had been getting more and more anxious recently, and her overly solicitious attitude had been getting on Xena’s nerves.
However, it did pose a problem for her, because the position now had to be filled. Xena knew any of the other, older servants, assigned to different parts of the stronghold or serving her court would be glad to step into the slot, but…
But. They’d all been there long enough to be compromised, and by nature, her chamber servant would have access to her in the most intimate of ways. “She have any family?”
“No, Mistress. Her children passed two seasons back, in the fever.” Stanislaus murmured. “She always said you were the only family she had left.”
A dark brow lifted. “Sad.” Xena shook her head. “Bury her.” A thought occurred to her. “Assign one of the new batch we were stuck with yesterday up here.”
“But, Mistress..” Stanislaus protested. “They’re imbeciles. Children. Completely untrained. I can’t have you suffering so.. “
Xena waved him off. “I don’t take that much care, we both know that, Stanislaus. I’ll break them in, or break them soon enough. I’d rather have a nitwit up here than someone who’s had a chance to take a bribe to put an asp in my bed.”
His lips pursed, acknowledging the point. “As you say, Mistress.”
A faint smirk crossed Xena’s lips. “Pick me someone good looking this time. If I have to put up with incompetence, at least give me something nice to see.”
Stanislaus crossed his arms, and fingered his bearded chin thoughtfully. “Not much to choose from there, I’m afraid.” He remarked, giving Xena an apologetic look. “Scrub peasants, all of them, m’lady.”
Xena sipped her tea. “Poverty doesn’t preclude handsomeness, Stanislaus.” She replied, in a dangerously soft tone. “Unless you consider me ugly. I was born in one of those peasant villages”
Aware of his faux pas, the seneschal’s face colored. “No offense, Mistress. You are the furthest thing from ugly.” His eyes fastened firmly on the floor.
A dry chuckle emerged from the watching woman. “Take a good look at the walking dirt clods. You might find a surprise in there. You know my tastes, Stanislaus. Fill them.”
“Majesty.” The seneschal ducked his head, then turned and escaped out the door, leaving Xena to finish her breakfast.
“Hm.” Xena studied the empty room. The idea of something new and different in her close environment stirred her interest, and she found herself more willing to consider her potential servant over her old problems with Bregos. “Wonder if he’ll pick the weird one?
The early kitchen was much more appealing somehow than it had been the night before. Gabrielle lifted a sturdy bucket of water and brought it over to the huge pot, tipping it in and stepping back out of the cook’s way.
“Good.” The middle aged, muscular woman approved. “That’ll do it.” She had a big stirring paddle, and now she inserted it into the pot and started mixing the bubbling contents.
Gabrielle set the bucket down and looked around for something else to do, but the breads were done, and the fruits were already cut up and on trays. The rest of the servants were filing back into the common area and she followed them, glad enough to grab a mug of cider and a wooden bowl of the thick cereal with a few ends of the fruit and a bit of bread resting on top of it.
Toris had disappeared again. Gabrielle looked around for him, then she moved to a back corner of the room and sat down on a bench, using the bread to scoop up some of the cereal and eating it.
As she ate, she listened to the conversation around her. The servants were buzzing with talk of one of the elderly slaves, who had fallen to her death that morning. “That’s terrible.” She shook her head.
“Worse than.” The man who had been speaking turned to her, wiping his mouth. “Eridia had her own spot in Hades, she did. Poor thing.”
“Mouth of the River Styx, she slept in.” Another woman agreed. “Always jumping like a scared owl, the Gods only know what she had to suffer up there.”
“What did she do?” Gabrielle asked, curiously.
The answer was abruptly cut off as two of the guards entered the common room “You lot!” The older one called out. “All of you who came in yesterday, come forward!”
The few people around Gabrielle looked at her. Feeling sick, Gabrielle set her bowl down and stood, joining the few others from the slave train as she walked hesitantly towards the guards. “Now what/” She whispered.
“Nothing good.” Alras was at her elbow. “Gods help us.”
The guards studied them. “Rats.” The elder one shook his head. “The man must be crazed.”
“Is it me you speak of?” A new voice broke in, and the guards snapped to attention, pressing back against the stone walls. Two more guards, dressed in royal livery appeared, flanking a man in silken court garb. “Do you question my royal orders?”
“M’lord.” The guard muttered, chastened.
The gray haired man ignored him, walking forward and examining the small group as the rest of the slaves watched in utter silence. He walked slowly from one to the other, looking them up and down with serious eyes.
He stopped at Alres, putting a single finger on his chin and turning his face to the light. “Stand over there.” He pointed to the door, giving Alras a shove before he continued down the row.
Gabrielle was the last in line. The man stepped in front of her, and she could smell the rich scent of his silken garment and the smell of rose soap that drifted off his body as he lifted a hand and touched her cheek.
His face was stern and creased with lines, but she didn’t see cruelty in it. He had a well shaped nose and shrew eyes that narrowed just a bit as they met hers.
After a moment, he dropped his hand and turned, walking back towards the door. Gabrielle exhaled in utter relief, finding herself shaking as she concentrated on keeping her knees locked.
The man paused as he reached the guards. He examined Alres, laying a hand on his shoulder. The boy looked up at him, obviously terrified, his jaw jerking as he tried not to let his teeth chatter.
The man’s hand dropped, and he swiveled, looking back at the line of slaves. With a vexed sigh, he shook his head and pointed at Gabrielle. “You. Come with me.”
Gabrielle stared at him in shock. Hands gently pushed her forward, along with whispers.
“Good luck.” The older man said. “You poor thing.’
As though in a dream, she stumbled forward, and the liveried guards took hold of her arms. Her eyes met Alres’ for a brief moment, then she was being pulled out and taken away.