Shadows of the Soul
Xena paused as she got to the entrance of her audience chamber and straightened her sleeve before she continued into the room. It was fairly full, but her sensitive ears heard conversations cut off in mid word as her presence became known. She watched the faces turn to her, watched the depth of the bows, and a tingle of warning ignited in her guts. Giving the crowd a graceful nod, she proceeded into the smaller, private chamber behind it to get her security briefing she knew would be waiting for her.
Sure enough, Alaran was there already, gazing out the window with a frown on his face. He turned as Xena entered and bowed, then straightened as the queen approached. “Mistress.”
Xena gave him a nod, and then took her seat, lacing her fingers together and lifting her eyebrows. “Well?”
Alaran pursed his lips. “Mistress, I hardly know how to tell you this.”
“Well.” The queen tapped her thumbs. “You can either open your mouth and start talking, or I can skin you and make you scream the news. Pick.” She decided to smile, indicating that she wasn’t really serious.
Her security chief didn’t seem reassured. “Mistress, there has been… many of the soldiers have gone.”
Last thing on earth she’d expected to hear. “What?” Xena leaned forward slightly.
“Brego’s men, my liege.” Alaran said. “Yesterday… during the storm. They snuck out of the city.”
Xena stood up suddenly, startling a flinch from her security chief. She paced over to him, resisting the urge to grab him by the front of his tunic. “Are you telling me half the army defected?” She spoke softly, but even she could hear the edge in her tone. Alaran surely could, and his skin paled visibly. “Half of *my* army?”
Alaran swallowed. “They... did not view themselves as your men, Mistress.” He told her, lifting his head bravely. “They looked to Bregos as their leader, and… “
“And?” Xena said.
“Did not wish to serve under you.” Alaran finished quietly. “They escaped out through the kitchens.”
Xena turned and walked to the window, putting her hands on either side of it in what she considered a very admirable show of restraint. “So they had help.” She remarked. “Everyone was in on it, eh?”
“Not everyone, Mistress.” Alaran said. “It was discovered by one of your men, before dawn, and he came for me.”
Xena’s pale blue eyes regarded the sunlight. “And you waited to tell me.”
Alaran remained silent. Xena turned and looked at him. “Mistress, you did say…” He started to speak.
Xena crossed the distance between them in the blink of an eye. She grabbed him and lifted him up, letting her temper loose at last. “You stupid bastard.” She snarled, whirling and slamming him against the wall. “You’re not worth the cloth on your back.”
His nostrils flared. “Mistress.”
“How much did they pay you off, Alaran? Offer you a homestead?” Xena held him in place with little effort. “What’d they buy you with? Cow shit? That’s what you’re worth.” She half turned and threw him to the ground.
“No! Mistress!” Alaran held a hand over his head, protecting it as she pounced. “You wrong me!”
Xena kicked him with all her strength, hearing the crunch as he hit the wall. She caught him as he rebounded and lifted him up again, catching him around the throat with both hands. “Wrong you?” She squeezed. “You’re responsible for my security. You let half the army defect, and allowed insurrection in the slaves’ quarters. Wrong you?”
He gagged, and tried to breathe.
“I’ve gotten more good information from my chambermaid in the last half moon than I have from you. Why is that?” Xena asked acidly.
Blood was pouring from his nose. “You let me almost get assassinated, twice in that period. And you say I wrong you?” Xena’s voice dropped to a harsh whisper.
Alaran closed his eyes, and bowed his head, accepting what he knew was coming.
Xena released him, and let him drop to the floor. She knelt next to him and grabbed him by the hair, forcing his head back. She gazed dispassionately into his eyes, bloodshot and frightened, hopelessness shining from them. “Now.” She said. “Tell me the truth.”
Gabrielle crossed the huge lower hallway, pausing for just a moment to appreciate its grandeur again as she headed for the stronghold’s archives. Xena had told her to go there, to begin her listening.
Xena. Gabrielle found herself smiling at the name, as she turned down the first corridor, counting the doors to the fifth one. It had been so amazing waking up in the morning with her, and feeling the gentleness in her touch.
Amazing. Gabrielle pushed the door open and peered inside. The smell of parchment hit her, and she suppressed a sneeze as she entered the room and looked around. Near the windows were a row of wooden copy desks, and their occupants looked up as she came in, watching her curiously. “Hello.”
The one nearest the door got up and came over. He had on a sturdy work tunic, stained with ink, and he carried one quill with another tucked behind an ear. “G’day m’lady.” He greeted her. “Something I can do for you, or for her Majesty?”
Gabrielle straightened a little inside her black and gold livery. “Matter of fact, yes. Her majesty would like the tax records for the last harvest season, please.” She said. “Thank you.”
The man smiled and gave her a half bow, then turned and started rummaging through the shelving. Each shelf held rolls of parchment, and he took one, and then another, examining its contents carefully. Gabrielle left him to search, as she walked through the room.
Some of the shelves had hand lettered labels, scraps of parchment stuck to the edges, or bits of wood with more permanent markings nailed to them with half spikes. Records of the surrounding lands, mostly, she saw listings of properties, and marriage rolls… Curiously, Gabrielle took hold of one of them and opened it, scanning the names in many hands written inside.
She had been one of the very few in her village who could read and write. The only reason her father had allowed her to learn from the old reeve was because he’d hoped to push her into being the village teacher, once the old woman who’d served as that for many years finally passed on. It was a relatively good position, and her father had figured it would make her worth more in marriage.
Learning to read had been like opening the door to the world to her, after she’d scraped together quarter dinars for almost a year and purchased a tattered old scroll at market which held a precious thing inside.
A story. A story of a place far away, and of people who didn’t live in her village, or think like her, or act like the people all around her acted.
Gabrielle remembered how she’d daydreamed about that story, and how it had ignited her imagination into thinking of different ways for the story to end, or different things for the people in it to do, or… It had triggered her first halting attempts at making her own tales up and given her a small golden bright spot in an otherwise pretty bland life.
She put the scroll back and wandered on, towards the back of the room where the shelves were dustier and the parchment older. Near the last of the cubbies she found a stack of very tattered scraps, and she picked one up, examining it curiously.
A sketch looked back at her, of a small village seen from a hillside above it. It was done in some kind of ink, the lines faded into almost obscurity in places. The rolling land it nestled in seemed vaguely familiar to her, but she knew the outline of the huts and of the streets was of some place she’d never been.
She turned it over, and saw a few letters on the back, and she leaned closer, turning the parchment towards the window to see better. ‘Amph’. She mouthed the word softly, wondering if it could possibly be short for Amphipolis, where Xena had said she was from.
“Wonder if she even knows this is here?” Gabrielle murmured to herself, tucking parchment under her arm as she leafed through a few of the others. She stopped when she came to one, blinking in true startlement as she recognized a crude sketching of Xena herself, a wilder, younger visage than the one she’d woken up to, under lettering offering a thousand dinars for her capture.
Wanted. Gabrielle stared at the words in fascination. Murdering Warlord.
Soberly, she tucked that parchment under her arm too, marveling at the incredible paradox the queen was. She turned and wandered back over to the desks, where her friend the scribe was assembling a neat stack of sheets, binding them together with a bit of gut. He turned and presented them to her, with another little bow.
“M’lady, as you requested.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle took them. “What’s your name?”
The scribe looked a little surprised at the question. “Dirk, m’lady.”
Gabrielle took his hand in hers. “Hi, Dirk. I’m Gabrielle.” She said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
If an asp had started dancing on her shoulder, she doubted he could have looked more surprised. He gingerly clasped her hand, and ducked his head. “My honor, m’lady. We have heard your name.”
I just bet. Gabrielle found herself wryly grinning. “Thanks.” She freed herself from his grip and gave his brother scribes a smile, and then she turned and left the records room, resolving to return at her soonest free time to do a more thorough exploration of its secrets.
The hallway was busier now, and she found herself the covert center of attention as she walked across the open space, heading for the queen’s audience chamber with her records. One of the dukes, one she recognized as more or less friendly to Xena, approached her.
It was amazing; she marveled silently, how accurately Xena knew these people. She paused as the man came up to her and looked inquisitively at him. “Sir?”
“Good morning to you, young mistress.” The Duke gave her a fairly courtly bow. “I am Duke Lastay, and have the honor to be in the queen’s service.”
“Yes, sir, I remember you from the festival.” Gabrielle responded. “Can I do something for you?”
“Not at all... it is I who wish to do something for you. May I carry your burden? I take it you go to the queen’s side?” Lastay offered. “She has heard the terrible news, and must be in a dark temper.”
Gabrielle’s ears perked up. She almost asked him what he was talking about, but paused, thinking better of it, and handed him over the records instead. “Thank you, sir, yes I was headed there.” She told him gravely, joining him as he started to walk towards the audience chamber. “Have you heard further details?”
Lastay shook his head, pursing his lip in concern. “Only what we all know, young mistress. I fear that more evil is afoot for our queen, for why else should half the army choose to leave us? For no good reason, of that I’m sure.”
Half the army????? Gabrielle felt her eyes widen. Surely it wasn’t…. No, she’d seen Brendan from afar as she’d walked from the tower. So, not Xena’s favorites... not the one’s she’d rewarded so well just two days prior. The only other possibility stared her in the face. “Sore losers, maybe?” She suggested softly.
Lastay sighed, and shook his head. “More than that, I fear. Our queen has made many uneasy. Her reign… ah well.”
“Well, I thought she showed how strong that was the other day.” Gabrielle said.
“Ah, but in doing so, she showed again how solitary her crown is, with no heir. What if the worst had happened?” Lastay asked cannily. “Our culture is built on continuity. With her gracious majesty, that is difficult to ascertain.”
Gabrielle pondered that. “Well.” She shrugged a little. “I mean, Xena’s the queen because she’s the strongest. Even if she had a baby, that baby wouldn’t be strongest, and how long would it last with everyone trying to kill everyone else?” She looked up at Lastay, whose mouth had dropped open slightly. “Someone would just take over, because they were the strongest. So maybe the queen feels like, what’s the point?”
They approached the doors to the outer chamber, and the guards on either side moved to open them so they could pass inside. Lastay was silent as they entered, drawing the eyes of all those standing around waiting in various poses of alarm. “What’s going on?” The Duke asked sharply.
A loud crash answered him, from the inner chambers.
Everyone looked at him, then at Gabrielle. With a queasy feeling, Gabrielle took the records from Lastay’s hands and walked towards the door.
The day was not looking up.
Xena looked up as the door opened. She held Alaran’s broken body in her hands, and as her eyes took in Gabrielle’s expression, she released him and let him fall lifelessly to the floor.
The pool of blood from her dagger spread sluggishly at her feet and for a long moment, she simply stood there and stared at the frozen in place Gabrielle. Then Xena went back to her seat and sat in it, letting her crimson stained hands rest on her knees.
Gabrielle slowly pushed the door closed and leaned against it, feeling a sense of utter horror at the dead body. She hadn’t liked Alaran, but seeing his open, glazed eyes made her want to sit down and just throw up. She tore her gaze from him and looked at Xena instead, seeing a look of weary pain there that drew her across the room to the queen’s side.
Xena didn’t lift her head or look at her. She stared at the security chief’s body and exhaled. “Like I said.” She finally muttered. “Whenever I trust anyone, I lose.”
Hesitantly, Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder. “Xena.”
“Everyone has a price, Gabrielle.” Xena said, in a remote voice. “His was a hold of his own, to be master of.” She paused. “He never asked me. Never said anything.” Her tone now took on a hint of exhausted plaint. “He just sold me out.”
Gabrielle felt the shoulder under her fingers slump. “Oh. Wow.” She murmured. “I didn’t think he…” But it wasn’t true, and so she stopped speaking rather than continue the lie. She hadn’t liked Alaran from the start, and she’d always felt he wasn’t as loyal to Xena as he’d acted. “How long have you known…” Her glance fell to the body, and she swallowed. “Did you know him?”
Xena studied the slumped form, and then she unexpectedly kicked it. “Too long.”
Gabrielle shivered in reflex, and drew away a little.
“Bastard.” The queen uttered. “They bought you with a couple of cows and a hut. Scum.”
Gabrielle sighed unhappily. “Maybe he just wanted a place that he could call his.”
Xena’s pale eyes narrowed. “Why didn’t he just ask?” She growled. “The gods knew he dared in every other respect.” She kicked the body again, making its hand flap against the stone with a sodden, ugly sound.
She couldn’t look anymore. Gabrielle turned and rested her head against the chair’s wood. “Maybe he was afraid to.” She said, in a quiet voice.
There was a period of silence, where the only sound was their breathing.
“Yeah.” Xena finally uttered, with a curious, restless motion. The queen turned her head and peered at Gabrielle. “So, what’s your price, Gabrielle? When do I lose with you?”
Gabrielle found herself captured in those eyes, seeing the stark pain in them. “I don’t have a price.” She blurted, in reflex. “I wouldn’t…”
“Sure you do.” Xena got up abruptly and moved away from her, over to the stately, tall windows. “Everyone does, my friend, everyone does.”
Do they? The blond woman leaned against the chair arm, and thought about it. What would make her turn against Xena? What was her price? What could they give her that would make her want to leave the queen? Or hurt her? Gabrielle looked over at the window, watching Xena lean her head against the sill in an attitude of silent dejection that tugged at her heartstrings until they fairly hummed.
Unable to resist the pull, Gabrielle got up and walked over to where Xena was standing, pressing her body against the wall so she could see Xena’s face. “I’m sorry.”
The blue eyes moved to her, sad and remote. “Are you?” The queen asked. “Why?”
Gabrielle rubbed her thumb over the stone. “Because…” She cleared her throat of a sudden huskiness. “Um… because there’s nothing I can say… no promise I can make to you that really means anything. It’s just words.”
Xena exhaled softly.
“My words.” Gabrielle went on. “And what are the words of a slave worth? Or a peasant shepherd?” She sat down on the window sill, her back to the panes. “I should be easy to buy off. I don’t have anything.”
Xena was looking at her, Gabrielle could feel it. She kept her eyes on the ground; however, not daring to see what was in the queen’s expression. “So… I don’t know what my price is, Xena.” She finished in a whisper. “But I know I would rather die than betray you.”
Now, at last, she lifted her head and met Xena’s eyes. “So… if you know what my price is, then please don’t ever let me find out.”
The queen stared at her for brief moment, then she turned and sat down next to Gabrielle on the sill. They sat there together in silence, then Xena leaned her elbows on her knees and flexed her blood covered hands. She uttered a tiny snort of laughter. “Who in Hades am I to judge that?”
Gabrielle got up and carefully skirted Alaran’s body as she went to the ornate sidebar, where a basin and pitcher rested. She picked them up, circling the bowl carefully with one arm and brought them back over. She settled at Xena’s feet, kneeling before her and pouring the pitcher’s contents into the bowl.
Then she lifted the bowl up and set it on the small stool next to the window. She picked up a cloth lying near the stool and dipped it into the water, wringing it out and taking Xena’s right hand in hers.
The long fingers twitched under her touch, but Xena didn’t pull back. Gabrielle started washing the slightly chilled skin.
“What are you doing?” Xena asked, softly.
Gabrielle looked up. “Washing the blood off your hands.”
Unexpectedly, the queen laughed, with a dry, bitter edge. She yanked her hand free and got up, stalking away from Gabrielle and taking hold of Alaran’s body with both hands. She pulled him up and threw him over her shoulder, then went to the door to the outer chamber and opened it.
“Here.” Xena tossed the body off her shoulder and onto the floor into their midst. “If you skin him, he’ll make one of you a nice rug.” She let her glare touch each of the shocked nobles. “Make it a matched set when I find his patrons.”
Turning on her heel she reentered the inner chamber and slammed the door so loudly the wall sconces rattled, and a cup jumped off the credenza and rolled across the floor. She stopped in mid step as she spotted Gabrielle crouched on the stone, washing it with the cloth in an attitude of intense concentration. “What are you doing?”
The slave looked at the reddened surface, then up at her briefly. “Cleaning this.”
“I didn’t ask you to clean that.” Xena snapped. “Get up!”
Gabrielle hesitated, then she stood up, carrying the basin with her and backing away from Xena as she approached. She put the water down on the table and stood next to it, watching the queen as she came closer.
Gabrielle felt her heart rate increase. She pressed herself against the wall, very aware of being trapped. Her waking with the queen now seemed very far off, and very long ago, and for a brief moment she wondered if it all hadn’t been a very, very, very bad mistake for both of them.
Xena stopped a bare arm’s length from her, flexing her hands and glaring. “Are you afraid of me?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle admitted.
Why? Gabrielle felt fear and anger battling each other inside her. What was this woman asking? Did she even know what she was saying... or care? “Because you kill people really easily, and you just mentioned I might be a threat to you.” She managed to get out. “Shouldn’t I be scared? What else do you think I’d be? Isn’t that what you want, people to be scared of you?”
Xena looked at her. “Yes.” She said. “That’s exactly what I want. I want everyone to be afraid of me.” She put her blood stained hands on either side of Gabrielle’s head and stared into her eyes.
Cornered, Gabrielle could only stand there. Her anger evaporated, replaced not by fear, but by a deep sadness. She felt her eyes fill with tears, but she tried to keep from blinking, and spilling them.
“What are you thinking, Gabrielle?” Xena asked, abruptly.
Gabrielle took a breath, but didn’t speak, knowing it would betray her emotions.
“Gabrielle?” The queens’ voice dropped dangerously. “I asked you a question.”
The slave swallowed, and softly cleared her throat. “I was... t...thinking that… um… falling in love isn’t always a good thing.” She replied honestly. “Right now I’m wishing I hadn’t.”
There was utter silence in the room for a long string of heartbeats. Gabrielle finally lifted her eyes to her tormentor’s, finding an unexpected sadness that rivaled her own.
“Truly?” Xena asked.
“Because I did that?” The queen pointed at the floor.
Gabrielle shook her head. “Because you want me to be afraid of you.” She whispered. “And that hurts.”
Xena’s gaze went internal for a bit. Then she pushed off the wall and went back to her chair, slumping into it and letting her head rest against her hand. “Then get out of here.” She told Gabrielle. “Because that’s just the way it has to be.”
Gabrielle looked at the door, knowing she had only to go through it and she would be free of the danger of this room. She eased away from the wall and started walking, but found herself at Xena’s side instead of across the hall heading for safety.
“I said, get out.” Xena repeated.
Now, she was close enough to see the trembling of Xena’s fingers as they rested against her forehead. “Xena?”
“What?” The queen snapped.
Gabrielle knelt at her side, leaning on the chair arm and catching sight of her eyes.
“I said, GET OUT!” Xena bellowed, her free hand swiping hastily across her face. “NOW!”
But the tears had told Gabrielle all she needed to know, and the fear flowed out of her as easily as her breathing. Carefully, she put a hand on Xena’s knee, knowing she was risking dire injury, and not really caring.
Xena shifted, and grabbed her, a hand on both shoulders.
Gabrielle fought down the panic and caught the queen around both biceps with her hands, staring her right in the eye.
They rode in the balance, at the edge of violence for just long enough.
“I’m sorry.” Gabrielle whispered, loving her in spite of everything. “I’m sorry I said that.” She released one hand and gently touched Xena’s face, removing the last trace of a tear. “Please don’t make me leave. I want to be with you.”
There was absolutely no reaction, and then Xena blinked. She released Gabrielle’s shoulders, and let her hands drop down to the slave’s waist, gazing down at her with a weary, perplexed expression. “Why?” She asked, with a tiny shake of her head.
Very good question. There were really only two honest answers to that, and admitting to insanity didn’t really seem to be a very good idea at the moment. “Because I love you.” She gave up the second. “I know you probably don’t want to hear that, though.”
Surprisingly, the words seemed to relax the queen. Her body shifted, and exhaled. Her head slowly lowered, until her forehead rested against Gabrielle’s. “What makes you say that? You think I’d rather have you tell me you hated me?”
Gabrielle relaxed a little too. “No.”
Xena sighed. “Maybe I would.” She muttered. “At least then I wouldn’t have to worry about you turning on me.”
Gabrielle slowly released her held breath. “Xena…”
“Yeah, I know.” The queen cut her off. “I know.” Slowly, she put her arms around Gabrielle and pulled her close. “You trust me not to cut your head off, least I can do is trust you not to sell me down the river.” She stared over Gabrielle’s shoulder, at her own rust stained hands. “Limited options, my friend. Limited options.”
The slave took a deep breath. “So… what comes next?”
Xena rested her chin against Gabrielle’s soft hair. “I don’t know, Gabrielle.” She admitted softly. “I just don’t know.”
Gabrielle hugged her, having nothing else to add to that.
The queen grunted softly. “Hey. Got any water?” She pulled her head back and eyed the blond woman. “I’ve got sticky fingers.”
“I think I can fix that.” Gabrielle managed a smile. “C’mon.”
They walked together to the sideboard. Xena put her hands in the water, and watched as Gabrielle washed them.
Gabrielle had removed the basin of water, and was sitting on a small stool near the edge of Xena's dais just watching the queen think. The woman sitting on the throne had been pondering in silence for quite a while, her pale blue eyes roving restlessly over the room in an otherwise still face.
Whatever she was thinking, it apparently wasn't very pleasant, if the dour glare was any indication.
Gabrielle felt sort of useless. She knew Xena was trying to figure out what to do, and she also knew she had very little experience or knowledge to help her do that. However, just sitting there wasn't doing anything either, and Xena hadn't said she couldn't try to help so...
With a tiny sigh, she stood up and climbed the steps to the top of the dais, settling cross-legged at Xena's feet.
Almost immediately, Xena shifted and reached over, tugging her ear. “Hey."
Gabrielle was glad of the acknowledgement. She looked up at the queen. "Things are really mixed up, aren't they?"
Xena nodded gravely. "Yes, they are." She stroked Gabrielle's hair idly, sorting amongst its pale locks with her fingers. "So, what would you do to straighten it out, hmm? Have a lamb chop party?"
Gabrielle leaned her elbows on her knees and rested her chin on her fists. "Um... no, I don't think so." She said. "It seems to me like everyone is really mad about something, but I can't figure out what it is."
Xena eyed her in wry bemusement. "Uh huh."
"I mean..." The slave wriggled a little closer. "It's not like stuff is awful here. Everyone seems pretty okay, I mean other than the slaves, and it's all really nice and all fruitful and all that."
"Uh huh." The queen nodded again. "You're right about that. The harvest this year doubled last year, and everyone's been able to make good money on the surplus."
Gabrielle nibbled the inside of her lip. "Well, okay... so..." Her brow creased. "Then... what's the problem?" She looked up. "Why is everyone so angry? If everything is so good?"
Xena gazed across the room at the huge, almost life-sized portrait of her, dripping in jewels and silk that graced the wall. "Why?" She mused. "Because they hate me, Gabrielle."
The queen nodded. "I came in here and deposed one of them." She remarked. "The guy I took the throne from had been king for a score of years, and his family'd been in charge since Zeus was in diapers." Xena leaned on the chair arm. "And here I was a peasant brat with a ragtag army who swept across the land and took it all away from them."
"They hate me. Even if I was Aphrodite incarnate, and rode over the land giving nut pastries to babies they'd hate me, and there's not a damn thing I can do to change that." Xena concluded. "Doesn't matter that I'm a better ruler than old what's his face ever was, and they've got more to show for me sitting on this pain in the literal ass chair."
Gabrielle absorbed all that. "That's kind of stupid." She admitted.
"Yeah." Xena rested her head on her hand.
"Can't you make a deal with them?"
The queen was silent for a bit. "Not any kind of deal I'd ever agree to. That's where Bregos came in. They were trying to force him on me as a mate."
A faint smile appeared on Xena's face. "Ah, you're developing a discriminating taste, are you?"
"I picked you, didn't I?" Gabrielle dared a small joke, despite the gravity of the moment. "Even if you had agreed to marry Bregos... that doesn't really get them what they wanted, does it? You'd still have been in charge."
"Mm." Xena half shrugged. "I think they figured if I got married and settled down... had a few kids, maybe I'd get docile enough for them to control. For Bregos to control."
Gabrielle looked at her. "Do you think that's true?"
Xena took a long time to answer. "I don't know." She tugged on Gabrielle's ear again. "What do you think?"
Her slave pondered the question. "I don't think so." She said. "I think you... once, when I was little, there was a wolf that was attacking the sheep near our village."
"Gabrielle, you just changed direction so fast your breasts are hanging over your shoulder."
"Heh heh." Gabrielle chuckled a little. "No, seriously... the men in the village banded together, with all the dogs, and they went after the wolf." She wrapped her arms around her knees. "After a long time, they cornered it, and they went in to kill it, because it had killed some of the sheep."
"Reasonable." Xena commented.
"They thought so too." Gabrielle agreed. "But when they went after it, the wolf fought them so fiercely, they had to run away."
"Did you?" The queen smothered a chuckle.
"I wanted to see if it was okay or not." Gabrielle admitted. "So I hid behind a bush, downwind of the hole the wolf had run into, and I waited, and I watched..."
"Mm?" Xena leaned forward, intrigued.
"And after a while, the wolf came out, and with her came three little babies."
"Babies?" Xena's eyebrows shot up. "I heard an old Roman tale about that."
"Wolf babies." The slave explained. "Puppies, or cubs, or whatever they call them." She looked up at Xena. "The wolf was their mother, and she wouldn't let anyone hurt them, and she was willing to risk her life stealing the sheep so they would have enough to eat and not die."
"So I think you'd be like that." Gabrielle concluded. "I think you would be fierce, and not let anyone hurt your baby or mess with you."
Xena sat back, with a thoughtful look. "I think you may be right." She said. "But we'll never find out because I'm not planning on spawning."
"Oh." The slave said. "Well, that's too bad, because I bet you'd have really cute babies."
The queen snorted eloquently. "No, you'd have really cute babies." She poked Gabrielle. "I'd have gangly terrors who'd probably tear the stronghold down. Now. Let's stop talking about breeding and figure out what we're going to do next."
"Okay." Gabrielle said. "What was Bregos offering all those guys, anyway? Besides a guy in charge?"
Ah. Good question. Xena cocked her head to one side. "Security." She finally decided. "These damned pansy assed silk britched nitwits are scared to death of change. Bregos offered them a chance for a long term plan."
"Oh. So why don't you do that?"
"Because I don't have a male piece the size of a shelled peanut to promise them an heir with." Xena's face twitched into a half snarl. "And I'll be damned if I'll take one of them to my bed just to give them warm and fuzzies."
Gabrielle reflected on the fact that she wouldn't much like that either. Though she'd only shared Xena's pillow for a very short time, she found herself resenting any suggestion that she might have to share it, especially with any of the nobles she'd met so far. "Ick."
"But couldn't you make some kind of deal, with some of them? Just to get them on your side?" Gabrielle asked. "I know you said you could... I mean, force them to, but..."
"You're not going to give me that honey and vinegar speech, are you?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle frowned. "What does that have to do with making a deal?"
Xena got up and started pacing. "I don't want to make a deal, Gabrielle. I want to bring in all of them, and just relieve my frustration by cutting their throats." She said. "They won't ever keep a bargain with me, so what's the point?"
"Did you ever try it?"
The slave got up and joined her queen in pacing. "Well, did you? Would it be so bad to give it one try?"
Xena turned and gave her an exasperated look. "Yes." She snapped. "It would hurt my image, because everyone knows I don't MAKE deals."
They both paced back and forth. "Well." Gabrielle tried another tack. "Is your image working now?"
Xena sighed. "Gabrielle, look." She stopped and faced the slave. After a moment's silence, she frowned. "Maybe I could talk to Lastay. He's not that bad."
"In fact..." Xena put her hands on her hips. "I think I've got something he might just be willing to jump off his fence for." She said. "Go out there, and send him inside. Then I want you to go down to the barracks, and find Brendan. Tell him I'm not holding him responsible for Bregos' men. I want to see him as soon as possible, all right?"
"Right." Gabrielle said. She turned and headed for the door, carefully skirting the blood stain on the floor. She turned as she started to leave, and met Xena's eyes. "I'm sure this'll work out, Xena. You'll see."
Xena watched her disappear, as a mildly sardonic smile appeared on her face. "I doubt it, my little innocent friend... but what the Hades. I'll give it a try. At least it'll postpone the bloodbath."
She returned to her seat, strolling across the blood stained stone and picking up the wine cup she'd been sipping from. She settled into the chair and took a swallow, running over what she planned to say in her head.
Lastay was, as she'd said, all right. He came from a family who had gained their lands when she'd deposed their former king. Because of that, he wasn't really part of the old boy network in the kingdom, nor was he predisposed to prefer the impotent whiner she'd butchered to her.
He was also pretty smart. Xena grudgingly found herself halfway liking him. No sense in letting him know that, though. She fixed the door with a baleful glare as it opened, and watched Lastay flinch as it hit him. "Get in here." She growled. "We need to talk."
He closed the door, and straightened his shoulders. "Yes, Mistress." He cleared his throat. "I am, as always, at your disposal."
Xena chuckled. "Thanks. But I promised Gabrielle I'd try talking before I disposed of you, so c'mere before I get up and drag you over here by your tonsils."
Lastay issued a wan smile, and marched forward, as though to his doom.
Gabrielle trotted down the main steps, feeling pretty good about having gotten Xena to at least think about talking through her problem. She knew things were very serious, but in her heart of hearts, she also believed that just going out and killing everyone really wasn't the answer.
There had to be a better way.
She reached the ground floor and walked across the hall to the long corridor that lead into the yards, finding it hard to believe that she'd gone that way to watch Xena save a fellow slave just so few days prior. So much had changed.
She had changed. Gabrielle twitched her over tunic straight, and worked the latch on the door, pushing it open and going outside. It was cold, but sunny, and she took a breath of the clean air as she headed towards the barracks.
It was quiet in the yards today, and as she looked to the right, where the barracks she'd visited the last time with Xena was, she saw the doors and wooden shutters wide open, its deserted appearance very evident. Frowning,
Gabrielle turned to the left and headed for the other barracks, this one visibly better kept and just as evidently occupied.
The door opened as she reached it, and she stepped back as a tall, blond soldier left the building. He stopped as he spotted her and hesitated. "M'lady."
Gabrielle smiled at him. "Just Gabrielle." She said. "I'm looking for Brendan... is he inside?"
The tall man studied her for a moment, and then he opened the door and held it for her. "He is, m'lady. Do you come from the queen?"
"Yes." Gabrielle watched his face carefully.
His gentle smile reassured her. "Then you are doubly welcome. Come inside." He followed her. "Brendan? Front and Center, sir. The queen would have you."
Gabrielle stepped inside, and stopped. This barracks was very different than the other one had been.
“Siddown.” Xena indicated the low stool Gabrielle had used. She watched Lastay from under hooded eyelids as he settled next to her, his gaze lifting to hers with a wary, though surprisingly open expression. “I’m not a happy woman.”
“Mistress, I did not expect you to be.” Lastay replied quietly. “The extent of the good general’s treachery is now laid open to you.”
Xena regarded him. “Did you know?” She asked casually, as he folded his hands together in front of him. They were shaking, she noted.
He paused before he answered, and his feet shifted. “Yes, Mistress, I did.”
The queen was surprised. Not that the duke had known, but that he’d admitted it, knowing her temper. It raised him up in her estimation, though she suspected he didn’t know that. “Ah.” She murmured. “Should I kill you now?”
Lastay lifted his head. “You can do that, Mistress.” He said. “But of all those who profess to kneel to you, I am the least of your enemies.”
“Mm….yeah.” Xena had to agree. “Well, except for my little Gabrielle, of course.” She added. “So what should I do with you, Lastay? I’ve given you lands… beasts… slaves… the castle steward favors your grain when he buys… and you turn against me.”
The Duke sighed. “No, Mistress.” He shook his head. “What you say is true…you have been more than generous. I said that I knew what was afoot... not that I agreed with it. I stood to lose all, if Bregos won out.”
Xena got up, and circled him. “So you say.” She uttered softly. “But why should I believe you, Lastay?”
He was sweating, even in the chill of the chamber. “Mistress, I have never lied to you.”
She stopped directly behind him. “So you say.” Her hand appeared lazily, the bright blade of her dagger moving as she twirled it lightly between her fingers. She watched his back shift, as he started breathing heavier, and she could almost smell the fear rising up off his body.
Ick. “But I don’t really know if that’s true or not…. Now do I?” Xena said, drawing the edge of her blade across the back of his neck. The nape hairs rose after her, and she could see the beads of sweat forming at his hairline.
“No, Mistress.” He whispered.
The point of her dagger came to rest on the very center of his spine, in a small depression just at the base of his skull where one simple push would penetrate and kill him. Xena studied the small interlace of dark hair that traveled down the centerline of his neck and imagined what it would look like doused in blood.
“Lastay.” Xena said. “I am not going to run into the night like a whipped cur.”
He didn’t answer.
“I am the ruler of this land, and I intend to keep it that way, whatever I have to do and that includes slaughtering every single one of you and putting cart drovers into your places.”
“Aye, Mistress.” Lastay said. “That is known to me.”
Xena leaned on the dagger, just a little. “What is it they want, Lastay?” She asked. “Besides someone else on the throne?”
The duke swallowed audibly. He rubbed his thumbs together, his body tensing as he resisted the urge to move, or turn. “You… “He paused. “You gall them, Mistress.”
“Oo. Big surprise.” Xena chuckled.
Lastay did something unexpected. He straightened, pushing against the blade, which broke the skin before Xena could withdraw it. Then he turned his head and looked up at her. “Mistress, you despise us.”
Xena arched her neck and peered at him. “Yes, I do.”
“They why expect loyalty from us?”
Hm. Xena juggled the dagger in her hand and strolled across the room to the crystal wine decanter. She used the action of pouring herself another glass to give herself a chance to think about that. “I don’t.” She swirled the wine in her cup and sipped it. “You hate me, Lastay.”
His lashes fluttered closed, then slid up and he focused on her. “Not all of us, Mistress.”
“Ah ah... no lying.” Xena pointed the dagger at him.
“I am not.” Lastay stated. “Killing me won’t change that. But yes, Mistress, most do hate you.” He said. “You denigrate their manhood.”
Xena returned to her chair and sat down. “Ah yes. Xena the Merciless, royal neuterer of the land.” She rested the blade of her knife against her lower lip. “Lastay, I will never be the ruler they want.”
He let out a breath of relief. “No, Mistress. You won’t.”
The queen smiled at him. “But you might.” She said. “Wanna be my heir?”
Watching the duke’s face, Xena decided she could get used to a reaction other than fear. It was actually sort of pleasant.
Not that she’d admit that to Gabrielle, of course.
Not for a while, anyway.
Gabrielle let her eyes wander over the barracks. There was a… a wildness to it that was totally different than the Bregos mens’ quarters had been. On the walls were animal hides, and furs covered the cots instead of woolen blankets.
It smelled of muskiness, and steel, and leather. There was armor hung everywhere, on wooden pegs, well cared for though also well used.
On the back wall, a black banner was spread, with a golden hawk in the center. One side was tattered and burnt, but the care it was kept with was very evident.
Brendan appeared, and moved towards her. He was dressed in a pair of leather breeches and a woven green shirt, and he wiped his hands off on a cloth as he approached her. “G’day to you, m’lady.”
“Just Gabrielle.” Gabrielle corrected him, with a smile. “Her Majesty said for me to come get you.”
Rather than appearing afraid, Brendan looked pleased with the summons. “Let me just put a tunic on then, m...”
Gabrielle shook her finger at him.
Brendan smiled. “All right, Gabrielle it is.” He went to his space, in the front of the barracks, a place of obvious honor. “Jeras, let’s get out t’the yard when I gets back, and work the kinks out.” He addressed the tall blond man. “Time we took this stronghold back for ours.”
“Aye, sir.” Jeras agreed briskly. “Would you ask her Majesty to...? “
“Come watch?” Brendan peered over his shoulder.
“Join us.” Jeras completed his statement. “We miss her in the drills.”
Gabrielle listened with interest, glad beyond reason to hear words directed at the queen that were not full of envy, or dislike. “I think she misses you too.” She spoke up quietly.
The men all turned and looked at her.
“There aren’t many friends in that tower.”
Brendan straightened up and walked over to her, cocking his head to one side. “I’d say about one, matter’s of fact.” He told her. “But I don’t know as her Majesty would come to spend some time in the mud with us.”
Gabrielle just grinned at him.
“Is it true about Alaran?” Jeras asked, suddenly.
It wiped the grin off her face. Gabrielle remembered the horror, and felt again the chill across the back of her neck. She was aware of the men gathering around her curiously, and she took a breath before she lifted her eyes to meet Jeras’. “Yes, it’s true.”
“Ah.” Brendan grunted. “That’s a stinger.”
Jeras snorted. “He was a two faced bastard and you know it, Bren. He finally showed his price this time.”
“Aye.” Brendan straightened his tunic, and gestured for Gabrielle to precede him. “T’wasn’t him I meant.” He followed Gabrielle to the door, and opened it, then walked with her outside into the cool, dry air. “I know her majesty must be disappointed in us.”
Gabrielle glanced over at the empty barracks. “She said to say she doesn’t hold you responsible for that.”
“No.” Brendan sighed. “But I do.” He shook his head. “Stupid bastards. Don’t’ know a leader when one fell on them. Too tied up in their damned egos to think straight.”
“Where do you think they went?” Gabrielle asked.
“Out there.” Brendan shaded his eyes, and peered off towards the mountains. “Where I wish we were, sometimes.” He said. “No matter how warm the cots, or good the food.”
“So…” Gabrielle gently probed him. “Why didn’t you go with them? If that’s what you really want?”
The old soldier gazed at her. “If she’d go, I’d follow.” He said. “So’s the lot of us.”
Gabrielle walked by his side in silence for a little while, as they approached the stone walls, and the heavy wooden door. “Why?” She asked suddenly. “Everyone else here hates her.”
Brendan gently pulled her to a halt just outside the door. He leaned against the wall, and let his weathered hands fall against his thighs. “Why?” He considered. “She bled for us.” He regarded a scar on the back of his knuckles. “She almost died for us.”
Somehow, that didn’t surprise Gabrielle at all.
“Some backwater hole… bunch of us stopped by there, not lookin for any trouble.” Brendan went on. “Just got us a meal, and some ale… paid for it, we did. But them folks recognized us from a bounty poster and figured to get them a haul so they snuck out and sold us to the guard.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle murmured.
“Thought we was dead men. Bounty didn’t care.” Brendan looked up into the sunlight. “Had us tied up and branded, half way to dying when Xena found us. She’d gone off to do some reccon, and come back to find us missing, and she got on her horse and she rode.
He took a deep breath. “As long as I live, I will remember her coming in there, just her against a legion of them.” He said. “She fought and she fought and she fought like a wild thing until they turned tail and just ran… and she then she cut us down.”
“Wasn’t a part of her wasn’t cut or broke.” Brendan slowly shook his head. “But she done got us. Went back and burned that damn backwater to the ground for it, too.”
Gabrielle remembered being carried up a long flight of stone steps in the rain.
“Didn’t find out till long time later, the damn place was her home town.”
Oh. Gabrielle felt out of breath all of a sudden, as a bit of knowledge was trying valiantly to surface into her conscious mind, something she’d heard, something she….
“Anyway, that’s just since you asked, little one. Let’s not keep her Majesty waiting.” Brendan opened the door for her. “And, Gabrielle?”
Distracted, she looked up at him. “Yes?”
Brendan put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m damn glad she finally found someone who makes her laugh. Been too long for her.”
The bit of knowledge floated off, out of her reach. “Thanks.” Gabrielle smiled at him, and then ducked inside the door, with Brendan at her back. “Sometimes things happen and you don’t understand why, but it ends up okay anyway.” She paused. “I love her.”
“And so do I.” Brendan put his hand on her back, and they walked towards the hall.
“Mistress, I am dumbfounded.” Lastay finally murmured.
“Half right.” Xena leaned against the arm of her chair and crossed her ankles.
“Never mind.” The queen chuckled softly. “Lastay, I don’t want to found a dynasty. I’m not looking to be called the queen mother, and I’ve got no intention of marrying some wealthy starched ass just to give this land the warm and fuzzies. You understand me?”
The duke’s entire attitude had shifted. He was no longer nervous, now his body language spoke of wary encouragement and definite interest. “I think I do my liege.”
The outer door opened, and Gabrielle slipped inside. She paused when she saw them, and looked at Xena in question.
“C’mon in, hot stuff.” Xena waved her forward. “Got Brendan?”
Gabrielle opened the door and stepped aside to allow the old soldier to enter. They walked together to the dais. Gabrielle was glad to see the duke apparently unharmed, and she took her spot at Xena’s side, kneeling next to the chair as the queen resumed her discussion.
Hot stuff? The errant comment suddenly surfaced in her recall.
“So, if I’m not going to lay a litter of puppies for the lot of you, it seems to me that I need to settle who’s going to be the unlucky bastard who gets this job when I get tired of it.” Xena stated.
Lastay laced his fingers together and leaned his chin against them, crouched down as he was on the low stool. “Me?”
Brendan chuckled, as he took up a position on the first step, one that had formerly been claimed by Alaran.
Lastay collected himself. “But… your majesty, we… I thought you had told the council… everyone has always imagined that you would…”
Xena turned her head and looked at Gabrielle. “What do you think, should I turn this place over to someone who can’t even finish a single sentence?”
“Mm.” Gabrielle was a little amazed herself, at Xena’s attitude. “I thought queens all did that dynasty thing.”
“Not this queen.” Xena shook her head. “I told you, no spawning.”
“But, Mistress, you had considered taking a consort!” Lastay objected. “Not that I am not honored beyond speech by your offer, but you naming an heir... had never been considered!”
“Yeah, well.” Xena continued examining Gabrielle’s face. “That was before I found someone I wanted to spend my time with.”
There was a period of awkward silence. Xena ignored it, and amused herself with tracing the line of Gabrielle’s blush up the arch of her neck to her cheek with an idle fingertip. “So there isn’t going to be any more talk about a consort, Lastay. You want the job of being my heir, or not?”
The duke inhaled audibly. “Your majesty, it would be my greatest honor.”
“It would be your biggest pain in the ass, too.” Xena said. “Everyone’s going to want a piece of you.”
“Yes.” He murmured. “I realize that.”
“I’ll increase your land decrees, and give you a royal stipend.” The queen said, finally turning her head to look at him. “You want something, you ask. If I find out you’re dealing to unseat me, I’ll gut you. Understood?”
Lastay nodded. “Majesty, if you will let me, I will use their greed to build a true base of support for your reign. I do not wish that chair.” His eyes dropped to the bloodstain on the floor, then darted back to her face. “But more than that, I don’t want others to have it.”
Xena laughed. “Lastay, you know you could die for this. I had a set of jackasses take a pot shot at me just the other day.”
His head snapped up, his eyes widening in surprise. “Majesty?”
Was he lying? Pretending he didn’t know? Xena wondered. “C’mon, you must have heard about it. Bregos was counting on that to win our little fight.”
Lastay rose and paced across the floor, disturbed. “No… they seemed eager to take our bets but…” He made a small sound somewhere between a snort and a spit. “Bastards.”
Xena propped her head up on her fist and regarded him with some amusement.
“But you were not injured, my liege, so their plan came to nothing.” Lastay concluded.
Tell him? The queen wrestled with an unfamiliar strategy. “Don’t sell my reputation for being the hardest ass in the kingdom short, my little dukelet.” She said. “I had a hole in my back you could have put your fist through.”
“No!” Lastay looked at Gabrielle, for some reason. “It’s not true!”
Gabrielle nodded solemnly.
“Bregos?” The duke seemed astonished. “Insanity! They would never have let him take the crown so! He was…” Lastay paused, awkwardly.
“Yes?” Xena’s voice had dropped to a low, velvety rumble. She pinned Lastay with her eyes, all sense of humor vanished completely. “He was what, Lastay?”
Brendan shifted, sensing the change. He took an unconscious step closer to the queen’s seat.
The duke froze in place.
Gabrielle put her hand on the arm of Xena’s chair and leaned against it. “If there’s something you know, you should say what it is.” She spoke up quietly, and for the first time. Her voice sounded high, and odd in the large room, and it brought Xena’s head right around as the queen stared at her.
“You have to start trusting somewhere.” The slave continued, meeting the duke’s eyes. “And pick where you want to put your loyalty. You can’t have it both ways.”
Lastay remained silent, and then he sighed. “Aye, lass.” He returned to the low stool, and settled on it, sucking on his lower lip as he crossed his boots in front of him and rested his elbows on his thighs, a completely un-duke like posture that was almost juvenile in it’s casualness.
Xena leaned over and kissed Gabrielle on the lips. Then she returned her attention to the duke and waited, twiddling her thumbs in front of her. “Well?”
“Bregos was their paid stooge.” Lastay said. “A number of the big landowners got together and offered him the earth if he could bring you to bed, and said they’d back him.” He picked at one of the laces on his leather boots. “Twasn’t to put him into your place.” His head lifted, and he looked at Xena. “No matter how they hate, tis fear of you that keeps enemies outside our far pastures, my liege, and none of them is so stupid as to ignore that.”
“Even with Brego’s battle successes?” Xena asked, secretly quite pleased.
“Even so.” The duke said. “So to hear he put his hand against you, Mistress, shocks me.”
And Xena didn’t think he really had, so that meshed. Bregos would have gladly taken advantage of her injury, but she didn’t really think he had the guts or the ambition to go for the big prize. Though it would be convenient for her to believe otherwise – that would wrap up her little mystery neatly – she knew there were pieces to this puzzle that she still didn’t have in her hands.
“Why didn’t you just tell me about this, Lastay? Instead of hinting around it like a spinster knitting in the corner?” Xena asked. “What was in it for you?”
Lastay studied the ground for a long moment. “They were holding my wife, Mistress.” He admitted.
Now it was Xena’s turn to be shocked. “What?” She got up and walked over to him, grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and hauling him to his feet. “You idiot!!! Why in Hades didn’t you say something?” She bellowed at the top of her voice, shaking the glasses on the sideboard.
Gabrielle scrambled up and trotted over, with Brendan at her heels. She put a hand on Xena’s back and peered at the duke. “Do they still have her? That’s awful!”
“Gggaaabbbrriellle.” Xena rumbled. “This is my interrogation.” She turned back to Lastay. “Do they?” She shook him hard.
Xena stopped shaking him, substituting a glare.
“They…. It’s her cousin, my liege. They tell me she’s safe.” Lastay said. “I have no reason to believe otherwise.”
Xena drummed her fingers on his forehead. Then she stopped the motion, and cocked her head. “You want her back?” She asked.
“Mistress!” The duke protested. “She is my dearest wife!”
The queen shrugged. “Just asking.” She released him. “Brendan?”
“Majesty?” The soldier stepped briskly over to her. “Want me t’scare up where they got the little lady?”
“No. Lastay’s gonna tell me that. Just get together a handful of men who don’t mind skulking.” Xena told him. “Have them get horses ready to go out after dark.”
Brendan ducked his head. “I’ll lead em myself, Mistress.” He turned and walked quickly out, closing the door behind him.
“Betcha won’t.” Xena muttered under her breath. “All right, Lastay. Spill it.”
“Mistress… they said they wouldn’t hurt her.” The duke held both hands out. “I am in discussion with them to retrieve her... there is no need for you to risk any of the men.”
“Wrong.” Xena paced across the room, twitching her robe around her as she moved. “They know you didn’t agree with them, they know you’re in here talking to me, and I haven’t thrown your body out that door yet. They’ve got leverage on you and that….!” Xena turned and pointed at him. “I can’t allow.”
Lastay sighed, an odd expression on his face. “I understand, Mistress.”
The queen paced. “Her cousin’s Edvest, isn’t it? He’s got a townhouse here and that ugly rock pile out to the west.”
“My men have watched the townhouse, Mistress. They don’t believe she is there.” Lastay murmured.
“Of course not. That’d be easy.” Xena snorted. “All right. Listen. I’m gonna throw you out of here, and you let it be known that you’re on my shit list, understand?”
The duke nodded. “Not to give them reason to move her, or otherwise, Mistress?”
“Exactly.” The queen gripped him by the back of his tunic and started for the door. “Try to act appropriately scared, and make sure you tell everyone what a bitch I am,”
She grabbed the handle and yanked the door open. “Next time, I’ll send you out in little pieces you half assed brainless gnat!” With a shove, she sent Lastay sprawling out into the outer chamber. The assembled nobles scrambled out of the way, and she noticed that Alaran’s body had been removed. “Anyone else?” She snarled.
Frozen faces looked back at her.
“Anyone who’s got any more gripes better think about taking Brego’s way out.” The queen told them harshly. “Because I’m in a killing mood.” She turned and slammed the door in their faces, then pivoted on her heel and stalked back to her seat. She turned, fluffed her skirt out and sat down, then pointed at Gabrielle and crooked her finger. “C’mere.”
“Sit.” Xena pointed at her lap.
“Are you sure?” The slave queried.
“No, I’m Xena. Now sit.”
Gabrielle sat down, and was gathered into Xena’s arms for a delightfully surprising hug. “This is getting so complicated.” She said.
“No it isn’t.” Xena kissed her. “It’s just getting interesting.” She nipped Gabrielle’s nose. “Very interesting.” It was, she realized, as though she were waking up from a long nap.
It was sunset.
Xena stood on the upper stone walkway outside her tower and gazed out over the landscape, enjoying the cool wind that ruffled her hair into supreme disorder. She could smell the change on the breeze, the rich scent of wood smoke and the burning of peat in fireplaces as the chill settled over the land.
Somewhere off in the slight distance, she could smell meat roasting.
It angered her, in a remote way, because her leadership had given them the wealth that let the surplus animals be killed for meat, instead of kept to decrepitude for the last possible chance at milk, or offspring. She had done that.
She was a good steward of the land, and in her heart, she knew she’d done well by the people who lived off it. One only had to look at the birth rolls to know that.
The door opened behind her, and she cocked her ears, playing a little game with herself she used to keep her senses sharp.
Boots rasped against the stone. Xena focused in on the sound, noting its lightness. She caught a gently indrawn breath, and heard the wood of the door brush against a narrow shoulder as it closed. It hadn’t opened wide enough to allow a soldier through, the hinges had barely creaked once, much less the three times that would have required. Ergo, either she had a young boy at her back or something much more pleasant.
The footsteps, almost soundless, approached. The leather barely scraped against the stone, and there was a faint rustle of woolen cloth.
“Ah, Gabrielle.” Xena leaned on the parapet, gazing confidently out at the reddening light. “Come to watch a romantic sunset with your favorite tyrant?”
The slave came up next to her, and put her hands on the stone. “How did you know it was me?” She asked.
“I have many skills.” Xena replied. “One of them is knowing who is sneaking up from behind.”
“I wasn’t sneaking.” Gabrielle leaned against the stone, soaking up the sunlight. “That’s really pretty, isn’t it?” She marveled at the scenery. “Look at how golden that light is… and those trees! It’s like they’re glowing.”
Xena tilted her head to one side and examined instead the gilded profile next to her. She envied the wonder in those misty green eyes, something she herself had lost a long time before. Even though Gabrielle’s life so far hadn’t been a picnic, she’d held onto that.
But for how long?
Xena returned her attention to the horizon. “I’m going to take you up to a private place of mine, tonight.” She told her slave. “I want you to stay there, and not budge until I get back.”
Gabrielle turned to her, with a puzzled expression. “Where are you going?”
On a fool’s errand? The queen had to wonder, herself. “I’m going with the men I’m sending after Lastay’s chit.” She told Gabrielle. “I want to make sure it gets done right… no screw ups.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle folded her arms on the top of the wall and rested her chin on her wrists. “Can’t I go with you?”
“No.” The queen snapped, giving her a severe look. “It’s dangerous and you’ll probably get us all killed.”
Gabrielle accepted this, with a rueful nod, but remained silent, her eyes flicking across the sunset lit trees. What Xena said was probably true, and since she knew absolutely nothing about skulking around in the dark trying to spring a kidnapped woman, it made sense for her to stay here, in a safe place.
Gabrielle sighed. Yes, it did make sense, but she knew sitting somewhere wondering what was going on, and hoping nothing bad was happening was just going to be awful. What if something did happen? Her eyes slid to the queen’s profile. What if something happened to Xena?
What would she do? She knew returning to the slave quarters now would be a fate worse than death for her – she had no friends there, and none in the nobility save the woman she stood next to. Without Xena’s protection, she figured her life would be measured in days.
“Why in the Hades would you want to come with me?” Xena suddenly asked.
Gabrielle turned her back on the sun and folded her arms as she looked up at the queen. “Because I don’t want to be here if you don’t come back.”
Xena’s dark eyebrows hiked sharply up. ‘What? What makes you think I won’t?” The queen laughed. “It’s not a war, Gabrielle. We’re just going to do a little raid, that’s all.”
The slave shrugged one shoulder. “Stuff happens.” She admitted softly. “What if there’s three arrows again?”
Xena turned also, and draped an arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “C’mon. Help me put on that armor.” She started to walk towards the door. “That should keep even three or four of those damn things outside my skin.” She was touched, though, by the sincerity of the concern she could hear in Gabrielle’s voice; no matter it was probably her own skin she was worried about. “It would take a lot more than some scrungy stronghold guards to put me on the pyre, my friend.”
Gabrielle reached forward, and pulled the door open. “I know, I just...”
It happened so quickly, she didn’t even see it. There was just a blast of air that smelt like unwashed humanity, and she hit the stone floor as Xena shoved her down out of the way.
Things were moving around her, but she curled into a ball out of pure instinct, and pressed herself against the wall, trying to stay out of danger.
Xena caught the glint of steel and let out a wild yell, freezing the man in place just long enough for her to get her hands free of Gabrielle’s body and clamp her fingers down on the wrist of the hand holding the knife.
She threw her body backwards, pulling the leather armored figure after her and turned, using the momentum to her favor as she slammed him into the stone wall on the other side of the door. She felt the arm bones under her fingers crack, and the soft clank as the knife hit the ground.
Then she got her other hand around his throat and touched two pressure points.
The man started to choke, and fell to his knees, giving her a chance to examine him. A slave, she realized, from the kitchens by his dress. She stepped back and watched dispassionately as he fought to breathe, his fingers scrabbling at his neck helplessly.
Gabrielle scrambled up from the ground and clutched her arm. “Xena!”
“Hm? The queen wiped her hands off on her robe.
“What are you doing?”
Xena looked at the man, then at her slave. “Watching him die, why?”
“But... he didn’t do anything!” Gabrielle protested, her eyes widening in horror. She recognized the man as one of the stock handlers from the yard, a mild, gentle sort who’d sat across from her during one of her few meals in the kitchens and given her a smile.
“He came up here, with a knife in his hands.” Xena told her. “You die for that here, Gabrielle. Everyone knows it.”
“But... maybe he just made a mistake!” Gabrielle watched the man’s face turning blue. “Oh, gods.” She dropped to her knees next to him and tried to ease his struggles. “Gods... don’t do this.”
“No!” The slave’s hands went helplessly to the man’s face. “He didn’t do anything to you!”
Xena’s hands twitched, as she got caught in a sense of confusion alien to her. “Damn right! I got him first!”
“But he didn’t attack!”
“He would have!” Xena felt a strange sense of angry absurdity over it all. “Get away from him!”
“Gods.” Gabrielle almost sobbed. “Oh, gods, please no...” She felt the man stiffen under her hands.
Xena hesitated, and then looked to the knife on the floor, about to point to it as proof of the rightness of what she was doing.
Her eyes fastened on it. Then she cursed, a base oath that nearly made the stone crack as she stooped next to the man, tearing Gabrielle’s hands away as she fought to find the right…spot….
His eyes rolled wildly, and his body arched, then suddenly slumped and relaxed, with a shudder.
The rasping of his breath sounded loud on the parapet.
Xena stood and walked to the wall, resting her hands against it and staring out over the trees, more than shaken.
Gabrielle watched the purple in the man’s face recede, his chest heaving as life returned to him, though he was still out cold. A huge sense of relief passed over her, and she stood, walking to Xena’s side and putting her arms around her. “Thank you.” She hugged the queen.
Xena felt her arms close around Gabrielle in numb instinct. She looked over the slave’s shoulder to the slumped figure on the floor, rattled to her very core at the mistake she’d almost made. “Wasn’t for you.” She said, in a husky voice, her eyes tracing the outline of the hoof knife lying mutely on the stone. Next to it was a chunk of something that might have been rock, but she knew it wasn’t.
There was a reason for someone to be up here, with those things, and it had been so long since she’d been sought out for her animal skills she’d forgotten completely about that.
“I don’t care.” Gabrielle told her. “I’m just glad you did it.” She sniffled, and looked up at Xena. “There has to be a better way than violence.”
Xena pulled her close and rested her cheek against Gabrielle’s hair. The slave’s mistaken stab at mercy had saved Xena from a stupid mistake, that was all. There was no reason to let her think that Xena had some sort of wimpy change of heart.
And yet, she remained silent.
Gabrielle hugged her all the harder, and exhaled, warming the skin near Xena’s breastbone.
Xena returned the squeeze, as her body relaxed from its battle tension. She felt the last rays of the sun hit her on the back, warming her shoulder blades and throwing their joined shadow across the walkway to spill over the now feebly moving stockman.
He reached for his shattered wrist with his other hand, and rolled onto his side, panting hard and gazing up at her with wide, starkly terrified eyes.
Lucky boy. Xena exhaled, and put her thoughts in order. Definitely, she had to make sure the upper chamber was well guarded, and Gabrielle well hidden when she left. Despite her stated request, the queen knew there was no way she’d be taking her along with her on the raid.
Absolutely no chance of that.