Shadows of the Soul
By Melissa Good
Gabrielle found herself in a stone antechamber, having been shoved there by the noble that had taken her from the kitchen and told to stay put. Disoriented and confused, she decided to obey, finding a small stool near one wall that she sat down on.
Her eyes searched the small chamber, it’s walls hung with tapestries that tickled her nose with the scent of wool. They were sedately colored, in blues and reds and bore dignified patterns and she found herself studying them since she had little else to do.
Except worry, of course. Gabrielle rested her hands on her knees and exhaled. Just when she’d been getting a tiny sense that she could learn to cope with her new life, it was jerked out from under her and she was thrust into something else even more strange, and by the reaction of the other slaves, more dangerous.
Well. She leaned her head back against the wall and tried to calm her churning guts. It really couldn’t get any worse, could it?
The noble returned. He had several swaths of fabric laid over his shoulder, and he paused to regard her with weary, wry eyes. “What is your name?”
The man nodded. “Gabrielle. Well, at least we don’t have to change that. It’s suitable.” He put the fabric down. “I am Stanislaus, her majesty’s seneschal.”
Gabrielle guessed that she was supposed to be impressed by the title. She had no idea what the correct reaction was, so she simply looked at him in question.
“You have no idea what you’re here for, do you?”
She shook her head no.
The seneschal shook his head in obvious disgust. “Stand up.”
Gabrielle did so, easing slowly off the stood and straightening as he closed in on her. She flinched slightly as he reached up and gripped her chin, her body tensing for the blow she imagined so vividly in her mind.
“Be still.” Stanislaus commanded. “I won’t hurt you.”
She watched him as he examined her, jerking only a little when he pushed her lips back and checked her teeth as one would have a mule. Finally he released her and stepped back, looking her up and down. “Come with me.” He led her down a narrow corridor and up a flight of stairs. The walls were close, they could only have walked single file, but they were well kept and clean. “This is the servants stairs. You must always use these stairs. Do you understand?”
“All right.” Gabrielle answered, in a low voice, deeply at a loss. “What am I going to be doing that I need to walk up and down them?”
The seneschal glanced over his shoulder at her. “Her majesty’s chamber maid had a mishap this morning. You will replace her.” He continued up the stairs.
Gabrielle stared at his back in shock. “But…”
He turned and looked at her again. “What?”
“I don’t know how to do that.”
The seneschal sighed and shook his head again. “I know. But you will, child. You will.”
Her Majesty. Gabrielle remembered, with a cold chill, that dark, remote figure standing on the walkway, high over head. Dealing life or death at a whim.
She remembered Lila’s scream. Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered closed for an instant, the scream melding into the high whistle that had callously kept the arrow from her own throat.
And now she would serve this creature? The muscles in Gabrielle’s jaw tensed and she forced her eyes open. The Fates surely were laughing.
They remained silent for the rest of their climb, until they emerged into a round chamber with three doors, and an open stone entryway just to he right hand side. Inside the stone entry, the back of a man could be seen, and as they crossed the chamber he straightened and turned.
“M’lord.” The man picked up a crate. “I’ve got all the old woman’s things out.”
The seneschal examined the crate, then flicked his fingers. “Take them to the middens.” He put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and pushed her towards the stone entry. “That’s your space. It must be kept well, and cleaned always.” He dropped the fabric over her shoulder. “Wash your face, and change into this. Hurry. I will wait here, but if you dawdle, I’ll scrub you raw myself and take you to her majesty naked.”
Gabrielle found herself in a small, narrow room with a high ceiling. Against one wall was a cot, now just a bag of straw set on a wooden frame with a folded set of linens on one end. Next to it was a wooden table with a basin of water, a pitcher, and wooden trunk an arms-breadth long and wide. On the table was a crude brush, and a small piece of looking glass. Near the pitcher was a round piece of soapstone and a threadbare, folded cloth.
Heeding the seneschals warning, she didn’t spend time exploring. She set the fabric down and stripped off the rags she’d been wearing, going to the basin and quickly washing her face and arms. “Just don’t think about it, Gabrielle. Just don’t .” She whispered to herself, forcing her body through the motions. She pulled on the garments he’d given her, quickly discovering a well made skirt, blouse, and an apron. It felt exceedingly strange to dress in warm, whole clothing, fabric that smelled of sun and washing and reminded her poignantly of home.
Her hands shook as she tied the apron. She rested them on the table for a moment, then picked up the brush and attempted to comb her hair for the first time in weeks. There were knots of knots of tangles, but she worked hastily through them, until she put herself into come kind of order. She heard boots at the door and she turned, seeing the impatient seneschal enter the space. “I’m…”
He studied her curiously, his head cocking to one side. “Presentable. Amazing.” He held a hand out. “Come.”
Gabrielle put the brush down and obeyed, knowing she had no real other choice. She let him take hold of her hand and lead her outside, towards the largest door in the chamber, the one flanked by two well armed guards who watched her from cold, suspicious eyes.
“But, Mistress, surely you can see our point.” The dukes faced her. “Of course we welcome the new land, who wouldn’t? But we fear the day when those who owned it before us come to take it back. We’re on the border, as you know, and it’s a concern.”
Xena sat in her large chair of state, raised up on the small dais in her audience chamber. She steepled her fingers and regarded the men. “You don’t want the land? I can find someone who does.”
“No!” The nearest of them protested. “Mistress, you miscount us. We take your generosity gladly, all of us do.”
The rest of them nodded.
“We just have concern of the future, that’s all.” The man continued. “Our neighbors to the north will be outraged, surely. It would be well if they were discouraged from attempting to reclaim their lands.”
Xena lost what little patience she had. “What is it you’re suggesting?” Her voice sharpened. “We go to war against them?”
“You want me to go get a dozen of their dukes and string em up on poles near the boarder? What?” She got up and paced towards them, and they scrambled back out of her way. “Spit out what you mean, or take your whining elsewhere.”
Duke Lashay hastily lifted his hands in a pacifying gesture. “Mistress… all we are concerned about is how to prevent any future bloodshed. We felt maybe if… that is to say, good General Bregos has a very good reputation in the field, perhaps…”
Xena put her hands on her hips. “Perhaps I should marry him, take him to bed and make him my consort, so we can use that good reputation to keep our borders clean, is that it?”
The duke had the grace to look discomfited. “Your majesty.”
Xena spread her hands out to either side. “Is that it?” She pinned each of them with a stare. None of them met it. “IS it?” Her voice deepened and amplified.
Duke Lashay girded his loins and approached her, bending a knee before her in humility. “My queen.” He looked bravely up at her. “We are thinking of you as well.”
Xena pointed a thumb at her own chest. “Me?” She released a dry chuckle. “Don’t tell me you’re concerned over the affairs of MY heart, Lastay. I don’t have one, remember?”
The duke looked both ways, then dropped his voice. “No, my liege.” His tone was serious. “But the General, talented as he is, should always remember where his authority comes from.”
Xena looked at him, then at the other men. They studied the marble floor intently. “What are you saying, Lastay? Are you questioning the general’s fealty?” She stepped closer and with a flickering motion, a dagger appeared in her hand. She put the blade of it against Lastay’s chin and lifted it, seeing the motion below the sharp steel of him swallowing. “Are you?”
“I.. am saying, my liege, that it is wise to be cautious.” The duke answered in a strained voice. “Where there is power, there is temptation to use it.”
Xena put pressure on the blade, forcing him to stand up or else risk slitting his throat. She studied his face intently, watching the twitch form along his right eye. Then she smiled, and ducked her head gracefully, kissing him on the lips before she withdrew the dagger and gave him a small shove on the chin with it’s hilt. “Thank you, Lastay. Warning taken.”
His eyes almost rolled to the back of his head before he caught his breath and balance. His face blushed a deep tone of scarlet, making his dark beard stand out vividly as she chuckled. “Mistress.”
Xena patted his cheek with her hand. “Leave Bregos to me.” She advised them. “Just keep your hands clean, and don’t get in my way.”
“Mistress.” Lastay bowed his head. The rest did as well. After a few furtive looks at each other, they backed towards the door and left.
Xena walked to her table and picked up the goblet sitting on it. She took a swallow of the contents and rinsed it around in her mouth before she swallowed, licking her lips with a tiny grimace of distaste. “Men.” She muttered.
A knock at the door. Xena swiveled and let a scowl slip onto her face. “Yes?” She barked, expecting a return of her loyal subjects.
Instead, however, the door opened to reveal Stanislaus. “Mistress? A moment, I beg?”
Xena swirled the wine in her cup. “For?”
“The domestic adjustment you requested, Mistress.”
Ah. Her new slave. Xena sipped her wine. “All right.” She allowed. “Come on in.”
Stanislaus entered, holding the door open and motioning someone to follow him. A slight figure stepped inside and he shut the door after her. He walked forward, taking the newcomer by the arm and leading her forward. “As you requested, Mistress.”
They came into the light from the window, and Xena found herself face to face with a young, fair-haired girl just approaching womanhood. She had a slightly rounded, open face and deep, intense green eyes that caught Xena’s in an unexpected moment of intimacy. She got a quick impression of wary fear, then the look broke as Stanislaus crossed between them.
“Mistress, this is Gabrielle. She shall be taking up Erisia’s duties.” The seneschal said. “She is, I am afraid, completely untrained.” He spread his hands out. “But it is as you wished.”
“Yes, it is.” Xena put her cup down and approached her new servant, circling her curiously. She watched Gabrielle’s shoulders twitch as she walked behind her, and caught the alarmed look in the girl’s eyes as she came round to the front of her again. “I see.” She took in the slim form, whose head came barely to her shoulder. “Well, at least we don’t have to beat any prior lessons out of her then, do we?”
The green eyes slid around and met hers. Xena found both fear and an unlooked for courage there, an odd combination that only heightened her interest. “Do we?” She asked again, directly.
Gabrielle’s lips moved a few times before any sound emerged. “I hope not.” Her voice was soft, but had a low, vibrant undercurrent.
Stanislaus took a breath to reprimand her, but Xena waved him off with a curt gesture. She returned to her table, and leaned against it. “She’ll do, Stanislaus. Thank you.”
“Mistress.” The seneschal ducked his head gracefully. “I will take her and instruct her in the ways of your service.” He reached for Gabrielle’s arm.
“No.” Xena stopped him. “Leave us.” She added casually. She watched her new servant swallow hard and flex her hands slightly. “I’ll give her the first lesson.”
The seneschal hesitated, then nodded. “As you wish, Mistress. Call me when you wish me to take her to quarters.” Stanisalus bowed, and slipped out of the room, leaving the two of them together.
Gabrielle could feel her heart thumping against her ribcage so hard she was surprised it wasn’t visible. She was hyper aware of the tall, dark haired woman watching her from across the room and try as she might, she could hardly keep herself from staring at her.
With the sun behind her, it was hard to see details. Gabrielle could only really see the silk clad outline of a body that moved with a power and grace she’d never seen before.
And the eyes. Pale as ice, only barely tinted with blue, they cut right through you like a knife. Gabrielle felt her resolve melting away, leaving behind a flutter of fear and the apprehension of the unknown. This woman, she realized, could do anything to her and there was nothing she could do about it.
“So.” Xena’s voice made her start. “How scared are you?”
Gabrielle forced her eyes up to meet the cool, almost mocking ones facing her. There was something hawklike in the woman’s expression and Gabrielle felt very much like a small mouse waiting to be pounced on. “I’m… pretty scared.” She admitted softly.
Xena’s lips twitched. “You get a point for being honest.” She said. “Where are you from?”
Gabrielle blinked. “Potedaia.”
“I’ve been there.” Xena said. “It’s a rathole.”
It stung. Gabrielle looked away, out the window into the sunlight. “Not anymore it isn’t. They burned it.”
Xena could see the glint of unshed tears in the girl’s eyes. “Take care of the fleas, I guess.” She remarked casually, watching those eyes close in silent pain. “Don’t tell me you miss it.”
Gabrielle felt like running. She knew she couldn’t though, she had to stand her and face this cold, taunting witch who seemed to take delight in jabbing her most sensitive places for the amusement of it. She took a deep breath and returned Xena’s gaze. ‘It was home.” She answered. “When it’s all you have, and it gets taken from you… yes. I guess you miss it. I do.”
Xena leaned forward and rested her elbows on her table. She pressed her knuckles against her lower lip and studied Gabrielle. “All right.” She said. “The best thing you can do is forget all about it. You won’t starve here. You work hard, you get fed, you get clothed, you get a roof over your head, one that doesn’t leak. That’s better than you could have hoped for there, isn’t it?”
Gabrielle fingered the cloth of her apron, but didn’t answer. It had been all right at home. Sure, they’d gone hungry sometimes, but farming put you at the mercy of the weather, after all. And their homestead had only leaked a little.
“Rule one.” Xena circled her table and approached her. “When you’re asked something, answer.”
“I’m sorry.” Gabrielle said. “I was just thinking about it.”
“Thinking slaves are dangerous. Don’t make it a habit.”
Gabrielle looked up at her, now that she was close and the light was blocked and she could see details. “Why would you want someone around you who never thought about anything? Isn’t that more dangerous?” She blurted out the question before she really thought about it, finding her eyes caught on the sloping planes and high cheekbones on Xena’s face.
Xena crossed her arms. “It could be.” She admitted. “But in an army, if you stop and think too much, it can get you killed.”
Gabrielle somehow kept her gaze steady. “My sister, and my friends from home.. they didn’t think about anything and they got killed anyway.” She said. “Maybe if we’d gotten together and thought about it, she’d still be alive, and I wouldn’t be here.”
The silk clad figure circled her again. “You don’t like being here, Gabrielle?”
Xena stopped just behind her. She watched the tiny, blond hairs on the back of the slaves neck lift, and a curious smile crossed her face. “You’re cursed with a useful brain. That could be very dangerous. Maybe I should send you back to the stables and let them bury you in horse manure.”
Gabrielle’s shoulders shifted, but she remained silent.
“That what you want? Instead of being up here in decent clothes with a bed more than a pile of sticks?”
Xena ducked around to the side, watching the girl’s profile. Slowly, the eyes turned to meet hers. “Well?”
The blond girl inhaled. “No.” She said, in a low voice.
The blue eyes twinkled wickedly. “Forget about the past. You can’t go back there.” She continued on back to her table and turned. “The sooner you learn that, the better.”
Gabrielle thought about that. It was true, she knew, but saying it and making it happen, inside the rawness of her memories, was another thing entirely. She jerked her head in a nod, clamping her jaw shut on any answer.
Xena chuckled. Then she walked in front of Gabrielle and leaned against the table. They looked at each other briefly. Xena pointed round the room. “This is the public room. That’s the private one. I don’t like things out of place, and I don’t like mess.”
Gabrielle’s eyes flicked around the room. Despite it ornate underpinnings, the room was indeed precisely neat. “Okay.”
“I have audiences in here in the morning. You can take care of the private room then, and this one after lunch.”
It dawned on Gabrielle that this wasn’t as bad as she’d expected it to be. “Okay.”
Xena stepped closer, using her height to good advantage. “Two things.” She put a finger on Gabrielle’s chin and lifted it. “Talk about anything you see in here, and I’ll kill you.”
Gabrielle’s breath caught. The expression on Xena’s face was ice cold and uncompromisingly deadly. She found herself believing, deep down, the utter truth of that statement.
“And two, Stanislaus will instruct you on the proper way to address me.” The low voice went on. “He’ll tell you to either use Majesty, or Mistress, or my liege.”
Gabrielle could smell her, a scent that was a curious mixture of spice and silk. She nodded briefly in understanding, knowing it would take her some getting used to where Stanislaus had made it a natural part of his speech. “All right.”
Xena leaned closer, until they were almost nose to nose. “Don’t.” She enunciated the word precisely.
Gabrielle blinked, unable to tear her eyes from the icy blue ones inches from her. “D..don’t?”
“No.” Xena returned to her chair and sat gracefully down in it, putting her hands on the arms and tucking her slippered feet under her. “That will annoy him to no end. You have to choose if you want to annoy him, and get cuffed, or annoy me.” She cocked her head at the girl. “Which’ll it be, Gabrielle?”
Her name sounded so strange on those lips. There was a faint hint of a burring roll on it, and she found herself sounding it out in her head. “I.. um..” She considered. “I’ll do what you want”
A smile spread itself across the angular face. “Right choice.”
Gabrielle found her way back to the small, plain area she’d been given and sat down on the bed, clasping her hands between her knees. Her heart was still hammering in her chest, and the pounding was giving her a headache, something that didn’t help the whirling thoughts trying to get her attention.
What had she gotten herself into? Being a slave was bad enough, but in the kitchens with the rest of them she’d been anonymous. Now she found herself under the eye of someone who would likely just kill her for very little reason and she was stuck in a place where she knew so little and mistakes would be horribly easy to make.
“Okay.” She whispered. “You can do this. It’s just a little cleaning, and keeping stuff up. Just like at home.”
But it wasn’t, and she knew it. Just the thought of going back in there under those watchful, cold eyes made her sick.
Gabrielle rested her chin on her hands, gazing at the plain stone wall across from her bed. For all the terror, there was also something… interesting.. about that scary, regal figure.
There was an intelligence there she hadn’t expected. A shifting, powerful focus that had left her tongue tied, but curious. Something about Xena intrigued her right up until the point she remembered that this was also the voice who had ordered her sister slaughtered.
Then Xena stopped being interesting, and started being hateful. Gabrielle remembered her taunting words about Potadeia and her jaw clenched.
Bitch. Her mind spat.
The scuff of boots on the stone made her look up. Stanislaus put a hand on the entrance to her hideout and peered in, spotting her. “Ah. Good.” He snapped his fingers. “Come. I’ll show you where things are kept, and how the queen likes everything done. Hopefully you’ll catch on fast before she has you shot from frustration.”
Gabrielle exhaled, and got to her feet. She twitched her apron straight and followed him, resigning herself to a long, difficult day.
The basin scraped against the floor as she nudged it a little further, rinsing out the cloth and continuing to scrub. Gabrielle was glad, at least, that Stanislaus had finally left her, convinced apparently that she could do little damage in scrubbing the stone floor. She rinsed the cloth again, then peered into the basin. Despite the fact that she’d been cleaning for over a candlemark, the water wasn’t that muddy and it was obvious that the floor wasn’t that dirty to begin with.
In fact, she turned and sat for a moment, resting her aching knees. The entire room wasn’t that dirty. She was in the private chamber now, it’s high ceiling and lofty windows standing over her in censorious silence. The first impression she’d gotten of the place was of it’s neatness, though regal and ornate the room had a clean simplicity in it’s spare furniture and open floor space.
She glanced behind her, satisified that she’d gotten all the nooks and crannies of the stone. She got to her feet and stretched out her bruised and weary body. The door creaked open, and she froze, then exhaled as she recognized Toris’ dark head. “Hi.”
He slipped in and closed the door, hurrying over to her. “Wow! I found you. They told me what happened. Are you okay?”
Gabrielle mutely indicated the room, then herself, then shrugged.
“Least you got clothes.” Toris tugged her sleeve. “That’s not so bad.”
“True.” She nodded. “And a halfway decent place to sleep, but I feel like if I make even one mistake, they’ll just toss me out the window into the middens.”
His face twisted into wry understanding. “I can’t stay long, they’ll miss me.” Toris lowered his voice. “I wish I’d have been there – maybe they would have picked me instead.”
“Just my luck.” Gabrielle sighed. “This place is creepy, and that woman is creepier. What a bitch.”
Toris nodded solemnly. “I know.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “Everyone here knows. They all what that other guy to take over.”
“What other guy?”
“That big guy, the general. He won some battles and stuff. They want him to take over, or marry her and make her act right.”
Gabrielle recalled the fire in those ice blue eyes. “I don’t think that’s gonna work.”
Toris lowered his voice. “Just keep your eyes open. If they do something, maybe we can help. I talked to a couple guys today.”
An uneasy chill traveled up Gabrielle’s back. “Help what?” She whispered. “Toris, we’re slaves. Even if that other guy takes over, we’ll still be slaves. What’s the difference?”
“Will we? I hear that other guy doesn’t think there should be slaves here.” The boy whispered back. “Don’t you want to go free?”
Gabrielle stared at him. “Is that true?” The idea of freedom shot through her, totally unlooked for. They both heard footsteps approaching, and held their breaths.
He nodded. “Just be careful. Keep your head down. Watch.” And with that, he ducked out quickly.
Gabrielle waited for the door to open again, but the footsteps went past the door on the outside and faded off. She looked around the room again, staring at it in consternation, finding herself contemplating a way out of the pit she’d fallen in for the first time.
Could it really be true? She leaned against the wall, thoughts rushing through her head. A sobering consideration countered them. If she was free, then what? Gabrielle folded her arms over the ache in her chest.
She had nothing left to go back to.
“Damn it.” Xena closed the door behind her, striding across the darkened room lit only by a triplet of candles Dinner had lasted far too long, and she’d spent the time watching her general play his political games. She walked to the window and put her hands on either side of the sill, leaning against it. Bregos had spent his day courting the courtiers, gathering in his support from the many who felt far more comfortable dealing with his masculine good nature than with her and his night in paying her the closest of attentions.
She crossed the outerchamber and shoved open the door to the inner. Her sleeping chamber was also lit by only a few candles, providing a soothing calm that stroked against her ragged nerves as she pulled off her jewelry.
A sudden sense of something being different stopped her in midmotion, and she stayed where she was near the large mirror, just her eyes looking around the room. Everything was in place, at first glance, but… Xena cocked her head, listening intently, but all was silent. She picked up the candelabra and turned in a slow circle, examining the space around her with wary care.
Ah. She approached the canopied bed, draped in semi transparent lacing. The linens were fresh – she could smell the sunlight in them. But the corners, the pleats, were turned in a way she knew this palace had never seen. Her hand dropped to touch the fabric, it’s surface slightly nubbled under her fingertips. She continued her search, noting tiny differences in the way a vase was put down, or a basin was turned, after so many year Eridia had developed a pattern as solid as death and now that pattern was gone, leaving in it’s place something new.
It wasn’t unpleasant. Xena ran an approving eye over the room. The kid had done an acceptable job. She was sure Stanislaus had practically ridden the girl to the ground inspecting the work – after all it was his responsibility in the end. But she was pleased.
Gabrielle. Xena put the candelabra down and walked to her dressing table. She picked up the silver comb there and examined it, then set it down. She’d found herself thinking about her new servant on and off throughout the day, and now that the long day had ended she acknowledged herself curious about the kid.
She unlaced the gown she was wearing and slipped it off, tossing it over the thin hide screen next to the mirror, exchanging it for a silk robe.
A thought occurred to her, and she let a faint grin appear. She went to the small table near the balcony windows and picked up a scrap of parchment and a quill, quickly scribbling something down. Then, barefoot, she padded across the rugs to the door. Slipping out into the outer chamber, she walked to the outside door and opened it.
Here, in her suite of quarters, there were no guards. Everyone inside the massive portals was considered trusted. Xena knew there was risk in that, but stumbling over armed guards every time she decided to pace in the corridor wasn’t something she was willing to live with.
It was quiet, this late at night. She could hear the guards on the stair landings below, their boots shifting as they stood watch. Opening the door into the round upper hall, she paused to listen. The hall was empty – the tiny stairs that lead down to the kitchens dark and silent. The door at it’s bottom end would be locked tight and guarded, as was the formal staircase that ended to her right.
She listened again, catching now the soft sound of breathing. Silently, she walked to the simple, open entryway and looked inside. Barely visible in the hall torchlight she could make out Gabrielle’s sleeping form, sprawled on the cot in an attitude of exhaustion.
Her sometimes quirky sense of humor surfaced, and she contemplated letting out a yell that would wake the girl, bring the guards, and throw the halls into chaos.
Nah. Let the kid get a night’s peace, at least. She decided, her eyes tracing the youthful, innocent profile. There’d been enough time to terrorize her in the morning. With a last look, Xena dropped the bit of parchment on the rough wooden table and left.
Her task done, she returned to her chambers and got into bed, sliding under the light covers and laying her head on the pillow.
Tomorrow, she decided, she would have to do something about Bregos. His little plan had to be cut off at the knees, or else she might seriously have to contemplate cutting the good general off at the knees. It was too dangerous to let him build the kind of sympathetic power base he was going for.
Ambition was fine. She understood that. But there were people like Bregos who were never satisfied with what they had, instead, they were constantly driven to take more, and more and more. Xena acknowledged she was like that too, somewhat, but she also knew there could only be one person at the top, one person who had it all.
That was her.
And she had no intention of sharing.
With a light sigh, she closed her eyes. A faint, new scent came to her and her nose twitched. Her lips curved into a brief grin before she allowed sleep to claim her.
Gabrielle woke before dawn, her eyes taking in the unfamiliar surroundings in fuzzy confusion. After a minute, though, she remembered where she was and exhaled, listening to the silence of the hall broken only by the soft flutter of torches.
She rolled over and stretched her body out a little, guiltily grateful for the straw stuffed mattress that cushioned her throughout the night. The plain, woolen blanket that covered her was also welcome and for the first time since her life had been destroyed by the slavers she woke with a sense that some bit of balance was restored to her.
Stanislaus had been meticulous in providing her with a schedule. She knew she had to go down to the kitchens for breakfast early. Then she would clean the queen’s inner chambers while the outer ones were in use. Once the queen had left for her main council hall, she would clean the outer chamber, then back down to the workroom to get any small things that had to be done.
She’d realized when she went down for dinner the day before that her elevation had caused resentment among her fellow servants. Of course they knew she hadn’t chosen the spot, but there were many in service for long periods of time who felt they should have gotten the chance at what she realized was considered a prize position.
Gabrielle snuggled into her covers and yawned. She still had a little time before she had to get up and get going and it felt luxurious beyond all measure to be able to lie here in relative comfort.
It was hard, though, because the sheer normality of the feeling made her remember home. She wondered how long it would be until this reality overshadowed that one, and her memories of her family faded away and stopped hurting so much.
Would it ever?
Be honest, Gabrielle. She spoke silently to herself. You always wanted to get out of Potadeia. How many times did you try to run away from home? A quiet sense of shame covered her. She missed her sister horribly, but not enough to whitewash her former life into sunny perfection. Well, you got what you asked for, didn’t you?
Now live with it.
She wondered about the answers she’d given the queen the day before. Would it have been better to return to downstairs, where at least if not friends, she had people she knew? It was lonely up here. Now that she’d been moved, the other servants seemed to keep shy of her as well even when she went down to the kitchens and helped them.
Gabrielle felt the edge of the pillow with her thumb. She thought about her frightening encounter with the queen. Xena was scary, and from the talk she’d heard below icily ruthless. But she was also the most real, most alive person Gabrielle had ever met in her life.
What did the queen think of her?
“Hm.” Gabrielle decided to stop thinking. She pulled the covers back and sat up, putting her bare feet down on the cold stone floor. “Yow.” The word emerged in a soft gutteral. She stood up and rubbed her arms to warm them as she walked over to the basin. She’d filled it with water the night before and covered it with a cloth, and as she moved the cloth aside, she spotted a bit of parchment lying there.
Puzzled, she picked it up, not remembering it being there the previous night. There was writing on it, but in the dim light it was hard to see. Gabrielle took the parchment near the doorway where the torches burned a little brighter and bent her head closer.
“Good Job. I’ll keep you. X.”
Her entire body jerked in shock, making her drop the parchment. Frantically she snatched at it, grabbing it in mid air around her kneecaps and pulling it back up again. She looked around, but only the tapestry covered walls looked back at her, unable to share her astonishment.
Was it a joke?
She rubbed her fingertip on a letter, but it remained firmly in place. The ink looked thick and rich and the letters were firmly formed with a distinctive slant to them. “This is insane.” Gabrielle whispered, backing up and sitting down on her cot. “She can’t have written this, can she? For a slave? Why would she bother?”
She studied the parchment again. “Good job.” She repeated softly. “When was the last time you heard that, Gabrielle?”
She stared at the parchment a moment more, then she got up and went to the square wooden chest, kneeling down and opening it. Inside were the two shifts and two sets of clothes she’d been given. She folded the parchment up carefully and tucked it under the fabric, smoothing the layers of linen over it with careful fingers. Then she stood and went to the basin.
It was hard to know what to feel, she acknowledged her own confusion. Part of her hated Xena. Part of her remembered what Toris had told her the day before, and felt the tickling enticement of being set free. But another part of her, an insatiably curious part of her, wasn’t so sure. It made her head hurt. “Okay.” She finally said aloud. “Let’s just get through another day first.”
She dipped a fingertip in the basin and winced at the chill, then steeled herself and started washing her face.
“All right.” Xena studied the rolls. “Brendan, what’s the word from the barracks.”
A one eyed, grizzled man in half armor cleared his throat. “It’s tense, chief.” He admitted. “Place is full to burstin, and Bregos’ men are so full of theyselves they gots buttocks hanging out the winders.”
Xena’s eyebrows twitched at the visual. “Causing trouble?” She asked.
The man half shrugged. “Not so they can be blamed for it. Just talk.” He said. “Bring themselves up, talking us down, y’know.”
The dark haired woman nodded. “Yes. I can imagine.” She sat back in her chair. In her outer chamber were two men she’d fought side by side with, whom she trusted as much as she did anyone alive on the earth. “What are they spreading?”
“Manure.” Alaran, her chief of security stated shortly. “We had several fistfights and close to a duel last night.”
“Who won the duel?” Xena asked, with a smile.
Alaran ducked his head modestly.
“We figure even with his recruits, we’re bout even.” Brendan said. “Alar thought maybe we should bunk em separate, but we figgered a rat you can hear is easier to kick.”
“Good choice.” Xena said. “He’s got the support of most of the court, not that I give a damn, but politically he’s put himself in a good place.” She got up and paced, long, powerful strides at total odds with the flowing dress that clung to her body. “I’d rather not kill him, but I need a way to force a confrontation that will knock him down.” She paused, and considered. “If he’s out of favor and I make him disappear, no one’ll care. Do it now, and it could get messy.”
The men nodded. “Aye.” Brendan grunted.
“So, what’s the plan?” Alaran asked. “He’s got the advantage. Blood sells.”
A not very nice smile crossed Xena’s face. “Oh, I know that.” She paused with her back to them, leaning against the window and gazing out briefly. Then she turned. “So we give them blood. Bregos says he can’t resist a challenge so I’ll maneuver him into one. His troops against mine.”
Alaran almost didn’t hide a feral grin. “Purely for sport, surely, m’laidy?” He drawled softly.
“Purely.” Xena smiled back.
“Men’ll like that.” Brendan nodded approvingly. “Been a while. Heard some of em grousing bout losing their edge.”
“So, we defeat them, all in good fun.” Alaran said. “What about Bregos?”
“What about Bregos.” Xena repeated. “Dear, sweet general Bregos.” Her lips quirked. “His pride won’t let him stand on the sidelines if his men are losing. He’ll fight.” She said. “And in the heat of battle, anything can happen.”
Alaran scratched his jaw. “Make a nice state funeral.” He commented mildly. “Bet he looks good in a shroud.”
Xena eyed him. “Bet he looks like a lamb sausage in a shroud.”
“Put me right off lamb.” Alaran returned the jest. “That would.”
“Mm.” She bit off a smile.
“What if he doesn’t bite, chief?” Brendan asked. “He’s a canny sort.”
Xena seated herself and crossed her ankles, one hand playing with the slim, deadly dagger she used to open scrolls. “Then I’ll have to resort to more direct action.”
Both men nodded. “I’ll get the men up’n ready, chief.” Brendan rasped. “Y’know we won’t let ye down.”
“I know.” Xena gave him a direct look. “Tell them I want a big win, Brendan. If some of Bregos’ pups get killed, good.”
The grizzled old man dropped to a knee and placed a fist over his chest, then rose and turned at the same time, heading for the door. Alaran remained, waiting for the outer door to close before he folded his arms and cleared his throat.
“Yes?” Xena drawled.
“He’s ambitious, my liege.” Alaran’s switch to formal address indicated the seriousness. “Ambitious enough to try something stupid like direct action himself.”
Ice blue eyes regarded him. “You’re my security chief, Alaran. Isn’t that your problem?”
He ducked his head in acknowledgement. ‘Just so, Mistress. If there’s a plan, I’ll find it. I… “ He paused. “Would wish that you would take extra care.”
“He sees a way to his goal through you.” The security chief went on. “If you block him, he will seek to find another way, and unlike your royal self his methods do not include honor as a priority.”
“Meaning he’s gonna try to put an asp in my bed.” Xena remarked dryly. “Maybe I better make friends with my new chambermaid, hm?”
“I was going to suggest replacing her with one of my people.” Alaran said. “Having one so close to you and so unknown is disturbing.”
Xena picked up a grape and popped it into her mouth, chewing it thoughtfully. She paused, then with a quick burst of air, spat a seed out and struck the candlestick with it, making it clang very softly. “Leave her.” She said.
“I said, leave her.” Xena gave him a direct look. “That makes it my problem.”
Reluctantly, he ducked his head. “As you wish.” He saluted and left, his frustration indicated only by the exaggerated click of his boot heels on the floor.
Silence dropped over the room. Xena soaked in it, ordering her thoughts before she left to attend to her public audiences. A soft rasp made her turn her head, and she watched as her inner door opened, revealing Gabrielle’s somewhat disheveled form.
The girl froze when she realized the room wasn’t empty, apologies already forming on her lips.
Xena smiled, and crooked a finger at her. “Just who I wanted to see.”
Gabrielle swallowed. “I’m sorry. I thought you’d left.” She set her basin down and wiped her hands on her apron, slowly approaching the chair Xena was sitting in.
Xena studied her as she came closer. There were smudges of dirt along the bridge of her nose and along both arms and a scrape across one of the girl’s wrists. “What were you doing in there?”
Gabrielle blinked, a little confused. “Cleaning.” She answered softly.
The queen’s dark head tilted. “Cleaning what?”
“Under the bed.”
Interesting. Xena laced her fingers together. “No one looks under the bed.” She remarked.
The blond woman shrugged slightly. “Doesn’t mean it’s not dirty.”
Hm. Xena rested her chin against her thumbs. “Were you listening to what we were saying in here?”
Hesitantly, Gabrielle shook her head.
“Why not?” The low voice deepened slightly.
Gabrielle felt a little foolish, but she answered anyway. “I had my head underneath the bed.” She explained. “I couldn’t hear anything.”
Xena got up and circled her. “My security people are worried about you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle looked down at her scraped hands and dirty clothes, then back up at Xena with questioning eyes. “Why?”
Xena paced over to the window. The breeze blew her dark hair back. “Because they know my enemies are looking for a weak spot in my defenses, and they think that weak spot is you.” She looked over her shoulder at Gabrielle. “They think you can be used against me. Can you?”
Gabrielle had no idea of what to answer. She took a breath, then before she could release it, she found herself caught and held in an iron grip. Xena’s eyes bored into hers with fierce intensity. She was struck utterly speechless.
“Can you?” Xena asked again.
“I…” Gabrielle found herself unable to look away from those eyes. “I hope not.. I don’t want to hurt anyone.” It felt outstandingly stupid to be saying that when she was pretty much helpless and at the mercy of those powerful hands.
“Whatever they offer you, Gabrielle.. .it’s not worth it.” Xena told her softly. “They’re only using you, and all you’ll end up with is a ticket to a grave.”
She wasn’t really sure when she made the decision, or even if there was a decision at all. Gabrielle just found herself speaking suddenly. “They said the other guy would set the slaves free. Is that true?”
Xena was caught by surprise, and it showed. Her eyes widened and her neck arched as she reacted. “So they came to you already.” She breathed.
“N.. no.” Gabrielle shook her head. “It was just… they said if something happened, to be ready to help.”
Abruptly Xena released her.
“Is it true?” Gabrielle asked. “That he’d let us all go?”
Xena turned and went to the window. This angle of attack wasn’t one she’d expected at all. There were hundreds of slaves in the stronghold, most of them anonymous, quiet…
“I… thought about it, and um.. I don’t really think I believe he’d do that.” Gabrielle’s quiet voice spoke up.
“Well, no, because after all, someone’s got to do these jobs, don’t they?”
Xena glanced over her shoulder.
“And they’re not nice jobs. Nobody really wants to spend their days cleaning muck up.” Gabrielle went on. “Or being hit, or sleeping on sticks.” Her shoulders shifted a little. “So I don’t think he’d get rid of the only people he could force to do it.”
The dark haired woman studied the slight, fair figure in the center of the room. Then she straightened her robe and picked the dagger up off her table and walked to the door. She paused with her hand on the sill and looked back. “You’re right.”
And then she was gone, leaving Gabrielle alone in the outer chamber.
She was rattled.
Xena hated being rattled. It had been a long time since something had caught her by surprise like that. She ducked through the inner doorway and out onto the walk, empty of anyone or anything other than a raven sitting on the wall pecking at a bug.
Xena rested her arms on the wall and stared out across the yards. The wind was cold at her back, but she braced against it, letting her thoughts simmer down after her unexpected encounter.
If Bregos was already wooing the slaves, his plan was more advanced than she’d thought. The words had been general.. almost suspiciously so. Was Gabrielle telling her the truth? Or had they gotten to her and was the girl just biding her time?
Xena frowned, at the odd feeling of disappointment. She replayed Gabrielle’s words in her mind and studied them, listening in her memories for the girl’s tone and attitude. Those green eyes had met hers unflinchingly and in them Xena had read what she thought was honesty.
“All right.” Xena addressed the raven, who eyed her with one black, beady orb. “Assuming she’s telling the truth, someone’s been talking to the slaves. It’s not Bregos, he’d get lost finding the kitchens and end up in the stable. So who is it?”
“Awk.” The raven hopped towards her curiously.
Xena’s hand snaked out and captured the creature, holding it still as it struggled. After a moment it settled, panting from it’s open beak as it stared at her. “That’s it.” She stroked it’s head with her thumb. “Are you like those slaves in there? Obeying because you’re under my hand?”
She could feel it’s heart under her touch, beating rapidly. As rapidly as Gabrielle’s had been, she realized. And yet, the feeling that the girl had answered her honestly hung with her, an instinct that had more than once saved Xena’s life.
What should she do? Xena briefly closed her eyes, then let them slide open, coldly glittering in the wan sunlight.
“You’re a lucky boy.” She opened her hands and released the raven. It hopped unevenly away, then spread it’s wings and took off.
Xena’s eyes followed it. Then she turned and walked confidently to the door.
The chaos of the kitchen banged against Gabrielle’s ears as she reached the bottom of the stairs and slipped into the slave’s common room. Her heart was still a little fast, and she could feel tremors occasionally making their way across her hands. She crossed her arms to hide them, and looked around.
Toris spotted her and held a hand up, gesturing her eagerly over.
Gabrielle felt strange. She could see the other two she’d spent her first night here with next to him, and their familiar faces should have given her a warm feeling. Instead, Toris’ words rang in her ears, and she found herself thinking of them as not quite friends.
Not quite safe.
But she knew so few other people, she walked over to them anyway. Gabrielle noticed the veiled glances she was getting from the others, but put that aside as she greeted Toris. “Hi.”
Alras smiled at her. “Hey. How’s it upstairs?”
Gabrielle sat down on the bench next to them. “It’s okay.” She shrugged.
Celeste, the girl, wiped a soot stained hand across her forehead. “Okay? It’s got to be a lot better than this place. I’m exhausted, and it’s only lunch.”
“Yeah.” Alras agreed. “An you get decent stuff to wear.”
“She’s gotta face Medusa, too.” Toris reminded them. “Wanna trade?”
The two of them glanced around, then shook their heads.
Toris stood up. “Let’s grab some food. He said. “Then we can go over into our space and talk.”
Gabrielle felt a pang of apprehension, but she followed them over to the trestle tables and collected her bowl, this time filled with a thick, chunky stew. A piece of brown, nutty smelling bread was placed over it, and she was glad to take it and her mug and retreat to the small back area Toris had picked out for them.
They sat down on the woven branch mats and were silent for a bit, concentrating on eating the stew. Gabrielle found herself to be starving, since she’d only nibbled her breakfast before it had been time to start work. She wolfed down the thick pieces of meat, grateful that in this, at least, the slaves weren’t stinted.
“So, what’s she like?” Alras asked, after a while. “Medusa, I mean.”
Gabrielle used a mouthful of sopped bread as an excuse to think about her answer. “I.. um..” She swallowed, and as earlier, a decision somehow got made without her conscious decision. “I don’t get to see her much. Just a flash here and there. I’m in there when she’s not.”
Toris watched her, his dark eyes searching her face. Gabrielle returned the look evenly. “Guess she doesn’t talk to the likes of us.” He remarked. “We’re like the dogs in the yard.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle continued eating.
“They say she’s really a Bacchae, that she roams around at night giving nightmares.” Celeste whispered.
Gabrielle blinked, a folded piece of parchment popping into her mind’s eye. “Maybe.” She said. “I’ve been too tired to dream. I wouldn’t know.” She finished her bread, dunking it in the bit of stew she had remaining.
Toris casually broke off half his bread and tossed in Gabrielle’s bowl. He smiled at her as she looked up in surprise. “I got some extra.” He explained. “G’wan.”
Gabrielle returned the smile. “Thanks.” She said. “So, what have you guys been up to?”
Alras snorted. “Mucking the stables.” He wiggled toes stained an unappealing brown. He looked at Celeste. “What about you?”
She was quiet for a moment. “I was sent to the barracks.” She kept her eyes on her bowl. “For the soldiers.”
They all fell silent, Gabrielle looked at her in bleak understanding, seeing the now visible marks around her wrist and throat. “Oh.”
Celeste looked up at her. “You should be careful, Gabrielle. What I heard down there… you’re in a worse place than I was.” She cleared her throat a little. “At least all those guys wanted was.. um..”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle felt very unsettled. “Well, I haven’t had a problem so far.”
“Yet.” Toris whispered. “Something’s gotta stop this.” He kept his voice way down. “Stop her.”
A loud buzz from the common room got their attention. Toris put his bowl down and got up to see what was going on, sticking his head around the corner, then disappearing into the crowd.
Gabrielle finished the last bit of her bread, listening hard, trying to make out the words drifting around the wall.
But abrupt laughter released the tension, and Toris came back, to flop down on the matting with a muffled snort. “One of them got in the general’s bed.” He said.
“And?” Alras asked softly.
“Weapon wasn’t sharp.”
Gabrielle felt her ears warm as a blush rose. “Mm.”
“Guess he’s practicing for Medusa.” Alras snickered. “That’ll be a conquest.”
Not in this lifetime. The words emerged into Gabrielle’s mind without warning.
Not even in the next.
Xena stalked into the big, public throne room, ignoring the nobles bowing as she crossed the stone floor to the raised platform. She turned and swirled her flowing gown around her as she sat, the folds falling neatly about her knees as she faced the crowd.
Bregos entered and bowed to her, then took up a spot on the last step up to her throne, as though assuming a place of honor.
Xena’s fingers twitched.
Stanislaus approached her and knelt, offering her a scroll. “News from the eastern border, Mistress.”
Xena took the scroll and opened it. “Ah.” Her brows lifted, and a smile appeared. “It seems we have good news to pass along today.” She told the scattering of nobles assembled to pay court to her. “They have expanded through two more valleys to the sea.”
“Ah.” Bregos clapped his hands in approval. “Those are rich lands, my liege.”
“Yes, they are.” Xena agreed, tapping the now re-rolled scroll against her chin. “Very rich lands indeed, and right on the coast.”
“Make a fine trading port, Mistress.” The general nodded sagely. “Got a good basin, that river mouth does just to the north.”
Xena smiled. “As always, my good general, your thoughts are good ones. I shall have to consider how we can best take advantage of this.” She let her eyes slide to him. “I’ve long though of establishing a stronghold on the coast, perhaps it’s time.”
Brego’s eyes darted to hers curiously. “A stronghold, Mistress? We’ve seen no threat from that quarter.”
“Yet.” Xena drawled softly. “But with homesteads that close, it’s only a matter of time. Yes, I think a stronghold on the coast would be a very… good… idea.” She leaned on the chair arm. “Something to ponder.”
“As you say, Mistress.” Bregos stroked his chin. “We can celebrate the good news at the banquet this evening.”
“Yes, we can.” Xena allowed. “We have much to celebrate, in fact.” She smiled at the assembled nobles, who stirred, smiling and nodding back at her. “Don’t we?”
“Many things, Mistress.” Bregos agreed, with a broad smile. “Many things.”
Xena sat back, a thoughtful look on her face. After a moment she chuckled. “But first, we have some business to take care of. Constable?”
A man in royal livery trotted up, and bowed. “Your majesty.”
“Bring in your cases.”
It was one of her favorite things to do. Xena watched as the guards brought in four men and a woman, in chains. She laced her fingers together and looked at the prisoners, all of whom appeared much the worse for wear.
The constable unrolled a scroll and peered at it, then motioned for the first man to be brought forward. “This un deserted, Mistress. Guard caught him running out the forest, taking his kit with him.”
Xena examined the man dispassionately. He was, she figured, a farmer who’d got caught up in the excitement of battle and joined on a whim. Once in, he’d realized he’d made a mistake.
“Might be best to just let him go, Mistress.” Bregos spoke up. “We’ve no need of his type.”
Xena turned her head and looked at him. “No one deserts from my army, Bregos.” She told him. “Even if they didn’t belong there in the first place.” She added. “His sentence is death. Take him out.” Her eyes went back to the prisoner, who began to struggle in terror. “Gag him.” She advised the constable. “He’s the kind that screams. I hate that.”
“Yes, Mistress.” The guards dragged the man out.
“Next?” Xena drawled, in a humorous tone. “Can we find something more interesting than deserting? Any thieves? Nothing like a few hands chopped off to start the day right.” Her eyes traveled over the captives. “What’d she do?”
The constable checked his records. “Killed a soldier, Mistress.”
Xena crooked her finger at the guard, who dragged the woman forward. The woman stared at her through matted hair. Her face was covered with scratches, and there were lurid bruises evident on her body. “Killed one of my men, eh?”
“The bastard deserved it. He raped me.” The woman rasped. “He was an animal!”
Ah. This one required a little thought. Xena got up and walked down the steps, approaching the woman. She studied the battered form for a moment. “You say.”
“But he can’t tell his side, now can he?” Xena said. “Maybe he raped you, or maybe you lured him into bed, then slit his throat.”
“Why would I do that?”
Xena grabbed her chin, and squeezed it. “Maybe you like killing.” She suggested. “I do.”
The woman struggled to pull her head free. “No!”
With a quick motion, Xena forced her to her knees and stood over her, fingers tensed on her throat. She squeezed slowly, listening to the woman’s breathing grow strained. The woman’s gaze facing her grew wild and terrified, and she started to choke.
Xena looked intently into the woman’s eyes. “How did he rape you?”
“He..” The woman gasped. “Caught me… near the well. D…drag.. ahh!!!”
“Which well?” The calm voice inquired.
The woman coughed and her chest heaved, but there was no relief from the pressure on her throat. “Stab..”
Xena released her, flexing her hand then wipng her fingers on her gown. “Let her go.” She turned and walked back to her chair, seating herself and twitching the folds of her skirt into place. “Give her twenty dinars, and tell the men I better not hear this again.”
“But…your majesty!” Bregos objected. “Surely a loyal man’s life..”
Xena turned a cold gaze on him. “Do you question my judgement, general?” Her voice was mild, but icy.
“Never, Mistress, but…”
“Good.” Xena turned her head and ignored him. She found the woman captive looking at her in stunned shock, one hand at her own throat. The guards lead her out, stumbling, still watching the dias over her shoulder until the door shut behind her. “Next?”
Gabrielle wiped her forearm over her sweating brow and rested against the shovel she was using briefly. She glanced into the fireplace, seeing at last the back of the long uncleaned space showing in the late afternoon light.
After lunch, she’d dutifully checked in with Stanislaus, and found he had nothing for her to attend to, so she’d been free to come upstairs and find something to occupy her time.
The fireplace had been her choice, in the private bedchamber. She’d figured this for the last place Xena would come in to before the late evening, giving her plenty of time to clean out years of soot and old, half burned wood chips.
She’d gotten a bucket and hauled out the old dust, then swept out what she couldn’t haul. The heavy stones were almost clean now, after she’d scrubbed them, and she was sitting in a soot covered heap examining her work with a sense of exhausted content.
“What in Hades are you doing?”
If Gabrielle could have leaped right up the chimney, she would have. She jumped in place, though, at the voice and turned, to find Xena leaning in the doorway to the outer chamber, watching her. “Oh!” The word almost came out a squeak. “I was… cleaning.” She said. “Cleaning the fireplace.. I didn’t expect anyone to be in here until later.”
Xena strolled inside and sat down. “Who told you to do that?”
Gabrielle rubbed her fingers together nervously. “No one.” She admitted.
“Why do you do things no one tells or expects you to do, Gabrielle?” The dark haired woman asked. “Slaves don’t go looking for more work.” She paused. “Or trouble. You do. Why?”
Very good question, Gabrielle acknowledged silently. Why was she doing it? “I don’t really know.” She answered honestly. “Maybe because I’m so lost here, I’m trying to find some kind of meaning in all this… in my life.”
Xena rested her chin on her fist. “And here I thought you were just sucking up to me to get privileges and maybe sell my secrets to the highest bidder.”
Gabrielle gazed at her for a moment. “Oh.”
“Anyone else would be.” Xena remarked. “Why should you be different?”
“Maybe I’m not.” Gabrielle looked down at her blackened hands. “And I just don’t know it yet.” She lifted her head . “I guess I don’t like being a slave. Maybe I thought if I showed you I could be useful you’d find something better for me to do.”
“Ah…. A little unaltruistic self interest. Now we’re getting somewhere.” Xena chuckled. “You’re too honest. That’s gonna kill you.”
Gabrielle looked at her unhappily. She felt trapped inside a deepening box of darkness, where no matter what her answer was, it was wrong. Honestly got her nothing but mockery, but she was very reluctant to lie to Xena. So she simply fell silent and waited.
Xena’s brow creased as she studied her little blond puzzle. The girl’s body language had changed completely, from wary yet open to a sullen discouragement. Surely she didn’t think Xena would just believe what she said, did she?
Xena expected lies. Everyone in her life wanted something from her, or was holding something against her. Truth was something she had learned to painstakingly, and sometimes painfully, ferret out bit by tough bit. Trust just wasn’t even in her vocabulary.
She looked at the soot covered figure seated on the flagstones. There was no reason to trust her.
So why, Xena wondered, did she want to? Was it the round, innocent face? The pretty green eyes with their dangerous openness? The fact that she’d told Xena about Brego’s plan? That could easily have been a ploy on her part, to gain Xena’s confidence. “Gabrielle.”
The blond woman lifted her head and looked up.
Then Xena knew why. Because there was neither fear, nor hatred in those eyes, and by all rights there should have been both. Gabrielle, it seemed, wanted to trust *her* - and that was sad and so, so dangerous.
Ah well. “Maybe there will be something better for you to do.” Xena spoke slowly. “Sometime.”
Gabrielle blinked, and took a breath.
“Don’t count on it. That wasn’t a promise.” Xena said. “But you’ve got more guts than half my army, and more brains than the other half. Damned if I shouldn’t be able to find something more useful for you to do than sweeping up fireplaces.”
Very tentatively, Gabrielle smiled.
It was an interesting smile, Xena found, because it wasn’t fake. It put a visible warmth in the girl’s eyes. “Then again, you may regret asking. I can be a dangerous person to take sides with.”
Gabrielle looked around her, then down at herself, then her eyes lifted back to Xena’s. “I.. um… I think you’re a lot more dangerous to take sides against.”
“Mm.” Xena narrowed her eyes. “Too bad more people don’t agree with you.” She got up and stretched. “Watch out, Gabrielle. You’re caught between me and those against me. Better keep your head down.” She sauntered to the door and left the room.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle murmured to the emptiness. “I’ll try to be careful.”