Shadows of the Soul
So, Xena. When was the last time you woke up with someone sleeping on your floor, that you hadn't thrown there? Xena amused herself with the thought, as the early light of dawn entered her windows. And left alive?
Gabrielle was curled up asleep on the rug, her pale head resting on the silk pillow Xena had given her, and a robe of Xena's covered her against the chill.
Xena studied the girl for several minutes, trying to figure out what it was that so fascinated her about the kid. She was cute. She was spunky, and she had the appeal of a newborn puppy. All right One of the floppy eared ones, too.
"But I don't like puppies." Xena muttered. "Except for lunch." With a sigh, she put her head back down and continued her studying. Gabrielle was small, and slight, but to Xena's warrior's eyes there was a potential for strength there, and her body was well formed for its size.
Xena looked again. Her body was well formed regardless of the size. She had straight, even shoulders and a tapered torso, a slim waist and narrow, but well shaped hips. Her limbs were, of course, shorter than Xena’s were, but in proportion to her body and had enough muscle on them to be more than functional.
Hmph. So she was cute.
Okay. Xena nodded slightly. You want to take her to bed. So why don't you? Because you told her you don't rape slaves?
Xena studied the slightly rounded jawline. Because she trusts you?
A wry chuckle. No, because she's a clueless little virgin who would be about as much fun as rolling in the hay with a fencing dummy. Ah, Gabrielle. Xena cautiously rolled over and grimaced as her injury protested. Anger at that, and at herself surfaced, and she growled a little.
Enough to wake the kid up, apparently. Xena glanced over her shoulder to see a tousled blond head pop up in mild alarm. "Relax."
Gabrielle rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. "Sorry, I.. um...thought I heard something." Her voice was husky, and she cleared her throat a little. “A noise.”
"You did." Xena slowly sat up and leaned her weight on elbows braced on her knees. "You heard an old fighter bitching." She forced herself to stand up, and walk over to the window. The sky overcast, and as she looked out towards the horizon, she could see black clouds bearing down on them.
By the gods. Xena exhaled, shaking her head. It was just what she'd needed - a day's postponement of the challenge. A day more to let her heal, let her be in some condition to face Brego's plot. It was as though the gods themselves were watching over her. "Zeus. I owe you one."
Gabrielle came to stand beside her. "Owe him for what?" She let her hands rest on the window sill next to Xena’s.
"That." Xena pointed to the sky. "We'll have to put off the war games." She told the girl. ""Give me a little more time."
"I don't understand." Gabrielle leaned her weight on her hands and looked out. "I thought the men were fighting each other?"
"They are... but don't you see, Gabrielle? It's not between them...it's between me and Bregos. If he loses, he loses face big time and I can get rid of him without any problems."
"Okay." Gabrielle was still confused. "But..."
Xena’s eyes narrowed, and she chuckled softly. "He can't let his men lose. He'll have to jump in on their side...and then I'll have to jump in on ours, and it'll be me and him." She said. “And then I can take him.”
Gabrielle considered that. "I still don't get it." She confessed. "Why not just have it be you and him to start with?"
Xena sighed. "Because he won't accept a direct challenge from me, Gabrielle. He's supposed to be my vassel. But if it's all part of the games, he can go along with the spirit of it ." She explained. “It’s all in the timing.”
"Oh." Gabrielle nibbled her lower lip. “Okay.”
Xena eyed her. "Sounds stupid, right?"
"Ah ah.." Xena chucked her under the chin. "No lies, Gabrielle. I have an entire court of liars, and one of you. Don't go changing.”
That got her a shy smile. "It sounds dangerous." Gabrielle said. "For you, with your back and all."
"It is." Xena looked back over the land. "Life's dangerous. You should know that by now." As she watched, rain began to fall, damp and cold and she felt the moisture against the skin of her face. It was raw, and cold, and she welcomed it.
"I guess I do." The girl answered quietly. "But if the rain makes it less dangerous for you, then I'm glad."
The sentiment shocked her, in an odd way. Xena closed her hand on the iron spike next to the window and watched a hawk circle in the sky, ignoring the oncoming rain. "Why is that, Gabrielle?" She turned. "If I die, it might make life a lot better for you." She said. "Why would you care if something happened to me?"
Instead of answering, Gabrielle walked over and picked up the pillow, smoothing it's surface before she set it down on the bed. She folded the robe neatly, and put that down as well, all in a charged silence broken only by thunder. Finally she turned around and faced Xena, a troubled look on her face. "I don't know why." She said. "I just know I do.”
"Oh, you do?"
"A slave who cares if I live or die. Will wonders never cease." Xena leaned against the sill. She watched the kid's eyes drop, and an embarrassed flush color her cheeks. "I don't know if I like that idea."
Now confusion and hurt crossed Gabrielle's face. "I'm sorry." She muttered. "I didn't know it was bad to care about someo.. about that."
"Or do you figure I'm your meal ticket?" Xena probed her relentlessly. "That's it. If I kick off, it's back to sleeping on bricks for you."
Gabrielle simply remained silent, a pained expression on her face.
Xena waited, but there was no response forthcoming. "Or maybe I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, and I'm being a bitch." She warily tried a bit of humor, sensing her questions weren’t having the effect she’d intended.
Still no response.
Xena frowned, and slowly eased herself upright, crossing over to where the girl was standing. She put a hand on Gabrielle's cheek and tilted her head up, so their eyes met. She was faced with so much confusion and unhappiness she almost slapped the kid. "What's wrong with you?"
Gabrielle took a step backwards, away from her. "I guess I better start working." She turned and circled the bed, picking up the basin and going for the water cistern. She kept her back turned to Xena as she cleaned it out and rinsed the clothes she used to tend Xena's wound.
Frowning, Xena limped up behind her and put a hand on one shoulder. "Gabrielle."
"Yes, your majesty?"
Both of the queen's dark eyebrows shot up. "Hey." She put her other hand on the kid's other shoulder and turned her around forcibly. "I thought I told you not to do that."
Green eyes gazed at her. "That's how a slave is supposed to address you, your majesty." She replied quietly. "I don't want to do anything else inappropriate."
It was ridiculous. Xena stared back at her. The damn kid was mad...mad at HER! Gabrielle was mad that she'd...Xena drew in a breath. That she'd treated her like dirt. Hm. Slaves were dirt, weren't they? So Gabrielle's point was, she guessed, that if that's how she was viewed, that's how she'd act
But that wasn't how Xena viewed her.
"Excuse me, your majesty." Gabrielle slipped out of her grasp and picked up her cleaning bucket, walking across the room and leaving it. Xena was left standing in the center of her own bedroom, dumbfounded.
"Wait a minute." Xena held up her hands. "When did this all go to Hades in a handbasket?" She complained aloud. "Everything was fine last night, wasn't it?"
And then she remembered that moment, when Gabrielle had laughed, and they'd played their word game, and realized she'd made a very bad mistake. She'd allowed Gabrielle to think she'd achieved something she hadn't. Xena inhaled, remembering those warm, green eyes watching her, and the smile their game had brought.
Or had she achieved it? She was forced to realize she had, willing or not, given Gabrielle a small entry into the inner personality she stringently kept hidden from all others. "Hades, Xena. You gave her your own pillow and robe, and now you're telling her she's just a common slut? What's wrong with you? Forget how to lead so soon, since you don't do it anymore?
With a muttered curse, she went to the door and opened it, starting slightly to find Gabrielle there, her arms full of the bucket and water. "Get in here." She gestured inside.
"Yes, ma'am." Gabrielle entered, going to the bathing chamber and setting her tools down.
limped over and got hold of her. "Cut that out." She held the girl
still. "Look at me."
Slowly, the mist green eyes lifted, and waited, shadowed with a hurt Xena really didn’t comprehend.
"No one cares about me, Gabrielle. I don't know what to do with someone who says they do." Xena told her. "Except wonder why or what they're getting out of it."
A small nod. "I know." Gabrielle admitted. "But I can't help it, I do, and I don't really know why.. maybe you're right. Maybe I'm just in it for me." Her shoulders relaxed, not quite a slump, but almost. "I didn't know how wrong it was to feel like that."
Wrong? Xena sighed. "It's not wrong." She said. "Or at least, it's not wrong for you." She amended. "So cheer up, woudja? You're not just any slave. I don't give just any slave my pillow."
Gabrielle straightened a little.
"And I certainly don't let just any slave hold my life in their hands." Xena went on, in a more serious tone. "So why don't you go grab a tray for breakfast, and then we can get these damn bandages changed. It'll be a long court today."
Looking a touch more cheerful, Gabrielle nodded. "Okay." She said. "I'll be right back."
Xena watched her leave, frowning at the gnawing in the pit of her stomach. The door closed behind the girl with a solid finality that didn't do anything to ease it.
What in Hades was going on with her? She had an army half in revolt, a general fixing to toss her off her throne, and here she was worrying over the hurt feelings of some little slave kid she barely knew.
“I must be losing my mind.” She sighed plaintively, shaking her head. “Maybe I should start playing card games again.” The idea appealed to her, and a companion one popped up to join it. I could teach the kid how to play. She’s smarter than the last two dukes I tried it with.
Her humor much improved, she headed for her bathing chamber.
It was hard to know what to feel. Gabrielle took the steps down to the kitchen two at a time. On one hand, she still felt bad about what Xena had said to her, but on the other hand, knowing why she said it was interesting and in a way, sort of sad.
No one cares about me. Gabrielle felt a pang in her chest as she recalled the words. Xena hadn’t seemed bothered by that, but what a horrible thing to think - that not one person in the whole world cared about you, and to think that someone saying they did just wanted something from you.
Was it true? She looked inside herself intently. Did she just want something from Xena… was she just kissing up to her like the apprentices in Potadeia did to their masters? Just to keep a comfortable spot for herself?
Well, maybe she was. Gabrielle felt herself frowning. Maybe she was just doing it out of self interest.
She thought hard about that as she maneuvered down the last set of steps. Somehow, it really didn’t feel like she was. Despite all the reasons she knew there were for her to be weaseling up to Xena, at the very root of her heart, she knew she’d said what she’d said because it was what she truly believed.
She did care. Right or wrong, smart or incredibly dumb, there was a part of her that didn’t want to see Xena get hurt just because… well, she wasn’t really sure why not, but maybe it had to do with her not wanting to see anyone get hurt.
But that wasn’t all. Gabrielle adjusted her shirt with nervous hands, knowing there was another truth under all that. There was something else stirring inside her that was strange and very new. Something that put butterflies in the pit of her stomach at the merest sound of Xena’s voice. Something that made her heart beat faster when she was close to Xena.
Something that hurt inside her when Xena brushed off her words.
With a sigh, Gabrielle put the thought aside as she reached the bottom of the stairs. She would have time later to think about it. First things first, and breakfast was waiting. Her stomach growled at the very thought.
As she entered the kitchen, though, she didn't have any time to think of anything as rough hands grabbed her and yanked her down. "Hey!" Gabrielle yelled in pure reflex.
"Shut up, you little traitor bitch!" An angry voice answered, before she was lifted bodily and carried off.
Xena leaned on the dresser, her fingers idly playing with one of the cloths. Her insides were still in turmoil, however, and she started tying little knots in the fabric.
A knock came at her inner door and she frowned. "This better either be Gabrielle or something equally good." Painfully, she made her way to the door and opened it, to find Alaran there. “What?”
“Mistress.” Alaran appeared worried. “May I speak with you, please?”
Reluctantly, Xena stepped back and opened the door. “It’s early and I’m not in a good mood. Make it quick.”
Her security chief entered and put his hands on his hips. “Your majesty, my pardon. But what the Hades are you doing?”
Xena’s eyebrow lifted sharply. “What?”
“I’ve been spending the last day listening to my spies tell me of stories running rampant through the stronghold of you. Of you killing a soldier, and then taking a slave to do what you killed him for. Is this true?”
Alaran was, of all her subjects, the only one who would dare, and who Xena would tolerate speaking to her in that way. His responsibility was her security, and she’d given him permission long ago to challenge anything he thought impacted that.
However. With a smooth motion, Xena caught him round the throat with her hand and shoved him against the wall, catching him by surprise and pinning him. There was questioning, and there was questioning. “And if I am?” Xena growled, tightening her grip.
Alaran gasped, truly startled.
Xena released him. “What I do in my private chambers is not the business of the populace, the army, or you.”
He straightened and twitched his tunic back into order. “My deepest pardon, Mistress. I meant no disrespect.” He spoke softly. “It’s just that it has caused great resentment in the lines, and I am worried. very worried that Brego’s inroads into their confidence will be aided by it.” He explained. “It’s a hard thing to counter.”
Yeah. Xena sighed, and walked over to the window again, staring obsessively out it’s paned confines. She hated this place sometimes. There were moments she wished she were a wild living feral warlord again, taking her troops from one bivouac to another, free to change her plans at a moment’s whim.
This was definitely one of those moments. Damned if she wasn’t sick and tired of court intrigue today.
“They say you’ve turned against the men.” Alaran lowered his voice.
“I haven’t turned against anyone.” Xena said sharply.
“Mistress, I know of your rule, but if you…”
Xena turned and faced him. “I haven’t broken any of my own rules, Alaran.” She told him. “I needed a reason to have Gabrielle attend me closely, and if that fell out as it did, then so be it. Can’t be helped.”
Alaran looked confused. “Mistress, I don’t understand.”
And he should, Xena conceded. He should have been told when it happened. He was her chief of security, and one of the extremely few people she knew she could halfway trust. He’d earned it. “I know you don’t.” She sighed.
“Mistress, if you wish to take a bedmate, as you say it’s none of my affair, but..”
Xena turned. “I didn’t.” She cut him off.
It was, in a rather twisted way, deliciously ironic. Xena had in her younger, wilder years maintained a very carefully cultivated reputation for bedsports that was still whispered about even to this very day. The assumption about Gabrielle was, of course, the proof of that. “I haven’t taken her to bed.”
Alaran blinked at her, caught as he rarely was, flatfooted. “No? Majesty?” He looked around, clearly at a loss. “But…”
Xena had found, lately, that in times of great stress her sense of humor tended to emerge in very unexpected ways. “I’ve decided to take a strong interest in literacy for the peasants. I was teaching her to read.” Xena told him, with a straight face. “She’s a little slow, but learning.” It was fun, she decided, watching Alaran’s eyes go all over the place in the room, anywhere but back to meet her own. “She has trouble with b’s.”
Her security chief cleared his throat. “Ah..er… well, Mistress, that’s.. um..”
Bad girl. Xena leaned against the sill, taking the pressure of her painfully aching back. “Apparently our friend Stanislaus shared your concerns.” She told him, dropping her amused expression. “He tried to smuggle my little blond playmate out of the stronghold the other night.”
“Ah.” Alaran’s expression indicated regret the plan had failed.
“Apparently someone thought we’d be better off without him.” Xena’s tone now went icy. “Fortunately for him, but not for me, I found his horses before he could use them and his ambushers found me.”
Alaran’s jaw dropped in total shock. “Mistress!”
“So.” Xena blew a lock of hair out f her eyes. “It was either ruin Gabrielle’s reputation or risk having it known I took an arrow in the back.” She lifted a brow sardonically. “Not one of my tougher decisions. Bad luck for Gabrielle, but I suspect she’s survive it.”
“By the gods.” Alaran blurted. “But what about the battle? Are you badly injured? Mistress, you can’t…”
“I can.” Xena brushed him off. “I’ll be fine. It wasn’t that bad a shot. The kid did a good job with bandaging it. As long as Bregos doesn’t know he’s got an edge, we’ll be all right.” She half turned, as a roll of thunder shook the walls. “See? The gods are on our side, Alaran. They even gave me an extra day.”
Alaran joined her at the window. “Mistress, you take a great chance.” He murmured, obviously dismayed. “If this gets out, Bregos will be the least of our worries. There is more behind this.”
Xena regarded the storm. “Someone trying desperately to get to me, yes.” She agreed. “Someone desperate enough to try to remove those they think closest to me, and open another opportunity.”
Pale blue eyes turned and studied him. “Old women slip, Alaran, but seldom on a perfect schedule.”
A gust of wind puffed the draperies back, bringing an icy chill to the room.
"Stop it!" Gabrielle struggled against the grip of her captor. "Let me down!"
"Shut up!" The man ducked into an alcove and threw her against the wall. "Here - now we've got her"
Gabrielle fell to he floor, stunned, and rolled over only to have hands clutch at her and booted feet slam against her ribs. Instinctively, she curled up into a ball and ducked her head. Old memories became shockingly, vividly present and she shivered in reflex.
"You got her? Good." A new voice broke in, and Gabrielle felt hands pull roughly at her. She tried to get free, but she was slammed against the wall again and hard fingers grabbed her chin and forced her head up.
She blinked as a man's face came into focus, a scruffy, bearded visage that writhed into a snarl
"Wh... what do you want?" Gabrielle blurted. "I didn't do anything!"
The man tightened his grip. "You're the queen's new slut, aren't ye?"
Gabrielle swallowed hard, caught between the truth and what Xena wanted known.
"Aren't ye?" The man repeated, more loudly.
"I'm her chambermaid." Gabrielle finally answered, in a hoarse voice. "Yes."
"Chambermaid." The man laughed "Aye, that's a word for it." He took a tighter hold on her. "You listen to me, little slut. You've got information I want, and you're going to give it to me, right now!"
"I don't know what you mean..."
"Shut up!" The man suddenly slapped her across the face. "I talk, you answer. Got me?"
She was in trouble. Gabrielle felt her heart rate treble. She was in big trouble, and there was no one here to get her out of it except herself. "What do you want?"
"That's better." The man crouched closer to her. "What do you know?”
Gabrielle swallowed, raising a hand to shield herself from the threatening figure standing over her. “Nothing….”
“Wrong answer!!” The man backhanded her violently. Gabrielle’s head slammed against the wall and she saw stars. She felt her shirt tighten around her throat, and suddenly she was being hauled up and half choked.
“All right.” The man was face to face with her, blasting her with breath reeking of something foul. “Now you listen, slut. You’re going to talk, and talk fast, or I’ll break you in half.”
Gabrielle struggled to draw in breath, her hands clutching at his. “B…”
“Something’s going on up that Bacchae’s chamber you’ve been taken into, and I want to know what it is. What’s she hiding?” The man pulled her closer, his eyes boring into hers. “Tell me!”
The grip on her neck loosened slightly. “B.. I don’t…” Gabrielle felt a panic rising.
“You do!” The man shook her hard. “You know, and you know that you know, slut!”
“Hey!!” A new voice interrupted. “What are you doing? Stop it!”
Toris. Gabrielle tried to look over the man’s shoulder. “Toris!”
“Get out of here, you idiot!” The big man yelled. “I didn’t tell you to come here!” He turned and kicked out, catching Toris in the knee and sending him sprawling. Then he turned and smacked Gabrielle against the wall again. “Talk, bitch! You’ve been in there for days, and you know what’s she’s up to!”
“No!” Gabrielle felt blood running down her chin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Liar!” The man hit her again, and again.
The pain was incredible. It felt like her head was on fire. “NO!”
“What is she thinking? What is she doing?” The man screamed at her, spittle hitting her in the face. “You know, you must have listened to her talking! She had meetings with her people! Now tell me!! Tell ME!!!”
“NO!” Gabrielle screamed back at him. “I don’t know! She doesn’t talk to me!”
The blow this time rattled every bone in her body. Gabrielle felt the breath come out of her and she sagged against his hold. “No.” She whispered this time, tasting blood.
“Tell me!” The voice slammed against her more powerful than any blow.
‘Stop it!” Toris interrupted again. “She doesn’t know anything!”
The man dropped Gabrielle and turned on Toris. He grabbed him by the shirt and shoved him against the wall. “You little idiot. Of course she knows!”
Gabrielle knew she had only a moment. Only a moment while the man was distracted. She turned over and crawled along the wall, hearing the angry voices growing louder and louder behind her. Her entire body hurt, and her head felt like it weighed far too much. She felt her way along, sound starting to echo unpleasantly. Her fingers felt cold stone, and then the warmth of wood.
“I said, leave her! She’s just a poor wretch! Xena’s taken her and made her a bedmate, not a confidant!” Toris bellowed. “Me, an idiot? You’re the idiot! We could have used her to get us into Xena’s chambers!”
The sound of struggling bodies impacted her almost physically. Gabrielle pulled herself up inch by inch, until she felt the door latch under her fingers. She fell back, tugging the door with her and after a long, frightening moment where it refused to budge, it swung inward with a blast of cold rain.
She crawled through it, into the weather. The icy stones under her fingers were slick, and she slipped over them, her knees going out from under her and sending her belly down the steps in a series of hard, painful tumbles to the yard below.
Stunned, she lay there for a moment, just trying to catch her breath. She heard voices above her, yelling out over the storm, and it put an urgency inside her. She got painfully to her hands and knees and crawled off, rolling around the corner of the stockyard and out of view of the door.
Now what? Gabrielle put a hand to her head and felt warmth, and when she looked at her palm, she could see the red stain even as the rain washed it clear. She needed help. Her eyes lifted as she looked around her, seeing nothing but stark gray walls. There was no help for her, her mind dully realized. She tilted her head back a little and looked up at the tower.
No help. She was alone here. She couldn’t trust anyone. Not even Toris. He’d helped her, yes – but only so he could use her for his own purposes.
A sharp pain lanced through her head, and she whimpered, unable to stop the sound. Then she fastened her eyes on the narrow stairs up to the tower walkway, and started to inch forward. She knew there was only one place she could hide.
One place maybe they couldn’t come after her.
The door closed behind Alaran’s tall form. The security chief had promised to track down the ambushers, and very gently, very cautiously chided Xena for not telling him earlier.
“Should I have had to tell him?” Xena asked the ceiling. “He’s supposed to know everything.”
But he hadn’t. Which, if she thought about it, wasn’t a bad thing because if he hadn’t known, then maybe no one else suspected either.
Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Xena glowered at the closed door, feeling her temper rise. With a frown, she looked over at the candle, which had burned down a full mark since Gabrielle had left. Were the kitchens that busy?
A chill went down her back. Irritated, she turned and closed the windows.
Maybe Gabrielle was getting something special for her. She seemed the type to do that kind of thing. Xena reasoned. Some melon, maybe. Or more of the mead. She snapped her fingers. That must be it.
The candle fluttered on, burning down further.
Without her even realizing it, Xena had begun to pace. Despite the pain jerking at her at every step, she felt driven to move, driven by a nameless something inside her clawing to get out. To the window, back to the door, back to the window. She leaned on the window, almost short of breath, staring out into the rain. The world outside was gray and formless, the rain making the structures almost invisible.
And then she turned, all her confusion wrapping down tight and centering in her guts around a single thought. Where was Gabrielle?. With a short sigh of frustrated disgust, she made one more trip across the room and this time didn’t stop at the door. She yanked it open and stalked through it, starting towards the steps down to the kitchen. She’d gotten down two of them when a sound stopped her.
Her head cocked to one side, and she listened intently, but it didn’t come again. Xena turned and started down but something stopped her and she turned around again, climbing back up into the rotunda. She moved to stand in the very center of it, her head dropping slightly as she concentrated.
Nothing. Xena frowned, wondering if she’d slipped her senses. She took a breath, and then her instincts gently curled around her, tugging her towards the outer door. She followed them as she always had, trusting in them when she could trust in nothing else. Her hand fell on the latch and she worked it, opening the door out onto the rain lashed walkway. The icy cold hit her in the face and she almost backed up, but that same instinct was prodding her forward and despite the agony each step cost, she emerged into the rain.
Her head bent as she turned her face from the worst of it, and her eyes fell on the inner postern door that lead down to the lower yard. She hesitated, then her ears caught again the sound that had alerted her.
A tiny whimper. As though a puppy were lost, and calling for it’s mother. Xena went to the door and opened it, peering down the stone steps. She blinked the rain out of her eyes, spotting a small, huddled form halfway down. A hot flush of blood warmed her skin, and a surge of urgency washed away the pain as Xena loped down the steps, keeping her balance more by some miracle of inborn grace than by conscious effort.
As she reached that poor, tiny huddled form, it raised it’s head, fair hair darkened by the pelting rain and looked up at her, with frightened, mist green eyes that on locking with hers lost their fear as a shaking hand reached for her in dire appeal. “Xe..”
And just like that, on those stairs, in that cold rain, Xena felt something change inside her. A wall she’d built up over years of hard trials crumbled as she dropped to her knees on the steps and took that outstretched hand, pulling Gabrielle to her as a clap of thunder shook the sky overhead. She wrapped her arms protectively around the girl, feeling Gabrielle’s hands clutch at her gown. “Easy.” She heard herself say.
“H…” The girl struggled to speak. “C…cc”
“I got you.” Xena told her. “You’re all right.”
Gabrielle shivered, huddling closer to her and burying her face into Xena’s robe.
Xena looked around her, ducking her head against the driving rain as she considered her options. Yeah. She had Gabrielle. Now the question was, what was she going to do with her? Her eyes tracked up the stairs, then she turned her head to study the silent form practically in her lap.
Xena kicked the door open, shaking the wet hair out of her eyes as she crossed the room to the bed. She gently let the drenched body she was carrying down on the sheets, then sank to her knees next to it as the pain finally got through her resolve. Her hands clenched the covers, leaving rusty stains and she knelt there gasping for a long moment. “Augh.” She finally blew out a disgusted breath and lifted her head, having mastered the agony.
First things first. She pulled herself to her feet and went to the door, closing it. Then she stripped out of the soaked gown she was wearing and threw on a shift, raking her fingers through her hair impatiently as she crossed the room again and retrieved the kit from her chest. She returned to the bed and eased herself down next to it, resting her elbows on the surface and examining her sodden little prize.
Gabrielle’s lips were blue, and she was shivering visibly. Her eyes fluttered open and found Xena’s face, fixing there and widening a little.
“What happened?” Xena asked firmly.
The lips parted to answer, but Gabrielle’s teeth were chattering too badly to make anything intelligible and after a moment her jaws clamped shut, and her eyes followed. . Impatiently, Xena yanked the covers over her, enfolding her in silk and goose down. She could see bruises across the girl’s face, and at least one cut on her skull, the blood staining her pale hair with brown rust. Her own jaw tightened at the damage. The kid looked like she’d been run over by a supply wagon.
She cupped Gabrielle’s face in her hands. She could feel the icy chill against her palms and heard a faint gasp of relief release from the girl’s chest as her hands warmed the cold skin. “Hey.” Xena pitched her voice low. The rigid muscles under her fingertips relaxed a touch. She gently rubbed Gabrielle’s cheeks with her thumbs and after a moment, her eyes opened again and an odd look of some emotion Xena couldn’t recognize filled them.
Funny, how warm it made *her* feel inside seeing it, though. “Better?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle nodded faintly.
“What happened?” Xena returned to her original goal. “What the Hades were you doing outside? Running?”
The girl nodded again.
“From what? Me?” The queen asked, wincing at the odd pang in her chest as she did spoke the words.
“N…no..” Gabrielle stuttered. “I w.. went down to th…” Her teeth chattered again. “Ss..sorry. Cold.”
Xena pulled the covers closer. “You went down to the kitchen, and they jumped you.” She guessed.
“Why?” Xena insisted. She knew the girl’s wounds had to be taken care of, but she needed the information first.
“Wanted to know your secret.” Gabrielle told her.
My secret? Xena frowned. “What were they talking about?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Dunno.” She whispered. “They just said something was going on, and I had to tell them what it was.”
Ah. Xena cursed inwardly. She’d thought she’d been doing such a good job of hiding it, too. Tiny shifts in schedule, minor alterations in her usual way of doing things – that was all it took to start rumors, and then she’d compounded them by taking in little Gabrielle. “So you told them.” She concluded. “All right.” Her brain kicked in, shifting her plans to account for this new, very unwelcome development.
The girl gazed at her wanly. Her hand emerged from the covers and curled around Xena’s. “No.” She said. “I didn’t.”
Xena’s mental processes abruptly skidded to a halt. “What?” She peered more closely at her young charge. “What do you mean you didn’t tell them? They beat you up, didn’t they? Or did you get all that falling down the damn stairs?”
Gabrielle’s eyes blinked open and shut erratically. “I didn’t tell them.” She whispered. “I didn’t… I swear it…” Her voice rose. “I told them… I told them.. you didn’t talk to me.” She got out hoarsely. “And they… “ Her hand lifted towards her head.
Xena captured it and held it. “And they hit you.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle agreed softly. “Ow.”
Oh, kid. Xena sighed “All right.” She opened her kit. “Lemme see what they did to you.” She probed Gabrielle’s head carefully, stopping when she heard the quickly indrawn breath as her fingers touched a large lump over the girl’s right ear. She drew her hand back, and it was covered in blood. “Nice.” Her lip curled. “Stupid bastards. Wonder if I should cut them open first and then pull their intestines out, or just reach down their throats and do it from the inside for this.”
Gabrielle swallowed audibly.
Xena looked down at her. “You’re not going to tell me you feel sorry for them, are you?” She asked. “Don’t disappoint me, Gabrielle.” Her hands moved around the girls’ head, cleaning off the wound and the matted hair around it. She leaned closer to see better, and blinked herself as she felt the warm stream of Gabrielle’s breath through the light fabric of her shift. “Don’t… disappoint me.” She repeated, in a softer tone.
Gabrielle remained silent for a few heartbeats. “If they get hurt for hurting me.. who really wins?” She finally asked.
“It’s not about you.” Xena told her, grimacing as she examined a long split in the flesh over Gabrielle’s ear. “It’s about me. It’s always about me. Remember that.” She decided putting stitches there with the kid conscious wasn’t really an option she wanted to take and settled for cleaning the wound well and bandaging it. “I spread the word that you were mine. If they hurt you, and don’t get punished for it, I lose.” She gently chucked Gabrielle’s chin. “I don’t like losing.”
“Where else?” Xena asked brusquely.
Gabrielle frowned, and reached hesitantly for her head. “Um..”
Xena caught her hand again and laid it down on the bed. “Don’t touch. Where else are you hurt?” She turned the girl’s hand over and looked at her arm, then at the other one. There were bruises, and scrapes near her elbows where she’d fallen, but nothing seemed serious.
Gabrielle watched her in bemusement, but made no move to protest the treatment. “I got your sheets wet.” She murmured.
“Yeah, you did. A wet noodle whipping and bed with no supper for ya.” Xena continued her search. “Does that hurt?”
“Guess it does. Looks like you might have cracked a rib.” Xena shook her head. “Bastards.” She eased back and rested her elbows on the bed.
They looked at each other in slightly awkward silence for a bit. “Thanks for coming to help me.” Gabrielle said at last, nibbling her lower lip. “Getting up those steps was kinda tough.”
“Hmm.” Xena studied her. “You could have gotten into the store rooms.” She said. “Or through the outside door to the yard from there. Why even try the steps?” She waited for Gabrielle to answer, curious as to what the girl would say.
The blood covered fingers slowly traced a random pattern on the silk sheets, and Gabrielle’s eyes tracked it almost hypnotically before she rolled her head to one side and looked up. “I… “ She hesitated. “I knew I needed help.”
Xena’s eyebrows lifted sharply. “And you thought of coming up here? I’m not known for helping the odd slave kid in trouble, Gabrielle.” She told the girl. “Big mistake.”
This time, though, the warm green eyes didn’t flinch. They dropped to the bed’s surface, then slowly tracked up to Xena’s rain drenched hair. A faint, almost roguish smile appeared on Gabrielle’s face. “But I was right, wasn’t I?”
Xena narrowed her eyes and leaned closer. “Think so?” She asked, in a dangerous voice.
“Yes.” Gabrielle whispered, still smiling.
“Well, you’re wrong.” Xena said. “I was out for a walk, and you were just in my way. Had to move you.”
Gabrielle looked past her out the window, which was being lashed by rain.
“I like walking in the rain. Got a problem with that, little slave?”
Gabrielle returned her gaze to Xena’s face.
Xena sighed, and leaned on her elbows on the bed. She got almost nose to nose with the girl. “Now you listen to me.” She growled. “If you ever, ever tell anyone I did this, I’ll turn you into sheep fertilizer. Got me?” She glared at Gabrielle, outraged when a faint twinkle entered the eyes watching her.
“Okay.” Gabrielle agreed softly. “I’ll never tell anyone, I promise.”
They were still nose to nose. Xena noticed for the first time tiny golden flecks in the depths of Gabrielle’s eyes. “All right then.” She said. “Just so we’ve got an understanding.”
Gabrielle took a couple of breaths before she answered. “We do.”
“Good.” Xena straightened up, biting back an oath as her injury protested. She got to her feet slowly and picked up her kit, then put it down again. “Might need that later.” She told Gabrielle. “Got a headache?”
“Uh… yes.” Gabrielle said. “Most of me aches.”
“You got your head rattled.” Xena told her. “You’re gonna feel a lot worse pretty soon.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle was already feeling worse. Her stomach had tied itself into knots, and a slow burning ache was working it’s way up her side from where she’d slammed into the steps. “And I didn’t even get you breakfast.”
Surprisingly, Xena chuckled. “Put your head down and relax. I’ll take care of breakfast.” She paused, her face losing it’s humor. “And other things.” She let her hand drop to the girls’ head, and brushed her fingers lightly through the pale, almost dry hair. “Since you got my sheets wet, you get to sleep in them. Stay here. Don’t move.”
Damp or no damp, that sounded wonderful. “All right.” Gabrielle agreed.
“That was an order, not a request, Gabrielle.” Xena gently tugged on a lock of her hair. “Try to remember I’m a ruthless woman with no heart and well known homicidal tendencies, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Obediently, Gabrielle closed her eyes and allowed her body to relax against the softness of the bed.
The girl looked up at her.
“What was his name?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I don’t know.” She answered honestly. “I never saw him before.” She added. “He was just… um..”
“Big and ugly?” Xena supplied.
“Something like that, yeah.” Gabrielle said. “He… he had a beard. He smelled bad.”
Xena scowled. “Remind me to start asking for more small, pretty slaves.” She muttered. “Anything else you noticed? Anything they said?”
Gabrielle thought back. “Just that they knew you were hiding something… one of them.. came in and tried to stop the big guy. He said they could have used me to get inside here, to you.” She looked at Xena. “But I never would have let them.”
The queen gazed down at her with a rueful grin. “Oh really?” She ruffled Gabrielle’s blond locks again. “I’m sure you woulda stopped em cold, huh?”
Gabrielle acknowledged the unlikeliness of it all with a slight grin of her own.
“Rest.” Xena ordered firmly.
The pale eyelashes fluttered shut.
Xena watched her for a moment, her fingers still tangled in Gabrielle’s hair. Then her shoulders shifted and she drew back a step, her brow tensed in thought.
Her eyes grew cold as ice. She flexed her hands, and headed for the dressing chamber.
The slaves were all lined up in the stockyard, in the rain. They shivered, looking around anxiously at the guards near the walls, each cradling a well maintained crossbow.
Xena’s men, all of them. They bore the distinctive hawk’s head insignia on their right breast, a baleful yellow blazon that marked them as her personal guard.
The door to the kitchens swung open and Alaran appeared, stepping forward and looking around before he turned and nodded. He was still under the overhang of the ceiling, but barely, and wayward raindrops darkened his leather armor.
Outlined in torchlight, Xena appeared.
She stepped into the doorway and paused, regarding them all with a cold stare. “This will be very simple.” She said. “It can also be brief, or last all afternoon. I don’t really care. That’s up to you.”
They stared at her.
“One of you struck my chambermaid.” Xena said. “Either the one who did it steps forward, you push him forward, or I’ll start on this end of the line and kill all of you until he either is revealed, or you’re all dead.”
The sodden figures shifted and looked at each other. Several of them whimpered.
“I’m waiting.” Xena folded her hands serenely. “You have a count of ten.” She glanced at Alaran. “Got your bow ready?”
Alaran hefted the weapon, bracing the butt on his knee and cocking it.
Thunder boomed. “Maybe you’ll get lucky, and Zeus will point me in the right direction.” Xena commented. “You’ll die faster if he does it.”
No one moved.
“Right.” Xena smiled. “Start with that one.” She pointed at a stocky, bearded man.
“Mistress.” Alaran hefted the weapon and set the butt against his shoulder. He steadied his aim, then squeezed the release with a curiously gentle pull.
The shaft took the slave in the throat. He dropped with a harsh gurgle, his hands clawing at the arrow. His boots kicked out, splashing those around him with muddy water.
Xena watched, waiting for the grunting and gurgling to peter off before she returned her attention to the slaves. “Next?” She inquired, in a droll tone. They were all shivering, rendered gray from the rain and almost indistinguishable. “No? Okay.” She pointed again. “That one.” Her finger indicated an older woman.
Alaran finished cocking his bow, then he raised it and aimed, his face a cool mask. “Mistress.”
Just then a heavy body stumbled forward and sprawled at Xena’s feet, splashing her with mud. She looked down. “Ah.”
The man rolled over and glared behind him. “Bastards!” He screamed. “Bloody traitors! Damn you da..”
Xena got tired of the noise and kicked him in the head. The man sprawled back into the mud face down. She regarded him in mild bemusement. “Here I thought we’d have to go through half a dozen first. Guess you weren’t as beloved as you thought.” Her eyes went to her men. “Pick him up.”
The soldiers obeyed instantly, grabbing the man and lifting him to his feet, holding him still as they faced him around towards Xena. “You bi..”
“Ah ah.” Xena moved like the lightning flashing above them. She caught hold of him by the throat and tensed her fingers, cutting off his speech. She looked over his shoulder towards the watching slaves, and yanked him to one side, so they had a good view. “Everyone watching?”
“Mistress.” Alaran stepped closer. “Allow me.”
Xena just looked at him. Then she laughed, and let her other hand slip free of her sleeve, revealing her favorite dagger.
The slave started struggling. Xena bent her eyes on him with fierce intent. “Ah… so now you’re scared, eh?” She taunted. “So long as it’s not a pretty little girl you’re beating up on.”
He growled low in his throat.
“My pretty little girl.” Xena growled right back. “Put his hand against the wall.”
The soldiers stretched his arm out, and did so. Xena drove her dagger into the wrist, feeling the shock go through his entire body. She pushed harder, then shoved down, and up, cutting through bone and tendon. Yanking the knife out, she handed it to the soldier, then grabbed the slave’s hand and pulled it right off his body.
Negligently, she tossed it over her shoulder. “Now.” She released his throat. “Who’s your daddy?”
He screamed. Xena lifted her hand and punched him in the mouth. He stopped screaming. “Again.” She repeated. “Who bought you.”
His tongue poked out in agony.
“Want to lose that too?” Xena asked.
“B… “ The man choked. “Bregos.”
“Gee.” Xena sighed. “Here I was hoping it was the cook.” She fastened her hand on his throat again. “I’m getting real tired of her recipes.”
His eyes were half out of his head. With a hawk like strike, Xena stabbed at his face, the blade entering and exiting his eye in a flicker. Blood exploded outward, and he tried to scream. The soldiers held him still. Xena struck again, cutting out his other eye.
Blood drained down his face, flowing over the hand she still had gripping his throat. “B.. I… I told you..”
“Uh huh.” Xena chuckled. “But I never said you’d get anything for it.” She closed her hand, crushing his windpipe.
He couldn’t even scream, but his chest heaved anyway.
Xena lowered her knife, then stepped forward and drove it’s point into his gut. She turned it slowly, then pulled upward, cutting a hole in him and wrenching a tortured scream from his chest despite her hold.
Then she released him and held her knife hand out into the rain, allowing the blood to wash off it. “Hang him on the gate.” She instructed Alaran, before she turned back to the slaves. “He’ll die nice and slowly there. You all can watch, if you like.” She smiled at them. “It’s a rainy day, might as well take advantage of the free entertainment.”
The slaves huddled together in terror, refusing to meet her eyes. Two of the ones closest were sobbing hysterically.
“No?” Xena flicked the last droplets of blood off her dagger. “Well, I’m not going to have to worry about anyone bothering my little friend ever again, now am I?” She let her hawk’s gaze sweep over the crowd. They all bowed their heads. “Good.” She said. “Because if anyone does, I’ll make what happened to him look like a barrel of laughs.”
She let the words hang. Then she licked a raindrop off the point of her knife, and chuckled.
Gabrielle woke at the sound of loud thunder. Her eyes blinked open, and she stared around her in total confusion for a moment, unable to reconcile her surroundings.
Then the pain hit, and she remembered.
With a groan, she put her head back down gingerly on the pillow, drawing in a breath filled with unfamiliar scents. The wound on her scalp was killing her. She lifted a hand to it, her fingertips cautiously feeling it’s outlines under the bandage Xena had applied.
Xena. Gabrielle’s thoughts turned and took another tack completely. Her unlikely savior. She knew Xena must have carried her all the way up the steps, and Gabrielle knew it must have hurt her. If she closed her eyes, she could almost remember the journey, her body shaking with cold pressed against Xena’s as the queen surged up the steps.
How strong she was. Gabrielle remembered thinking. The arms that had cradled her hadn’t trembled, and the heartbeat she’d heard through the ear pressed against Xena had been steady.
How safe she’d felt.
How gentle Xena’s touch had been, warming her cheeks.
It was such a strange feeling. Gabrielle simply lay there, as the emotions filled her, pushing the pain back for a brief moment. She couldn’t even put a name to what she felt, except that it made her short of breath with an ache that seemed to come from her very soul.
It was like being hungry, but not sure of what for.
She wished Xena would come back, and as she sounded the words in her head, Xena did. The door opened, and she painfully rolled over, to see the queen sweeping across the floor dressed in a flowing, black silk robe.
Xena walked to the basin of water on the chest and washed her hands, using the slightly spicy smelling soap resting next to it. “So.” She addressed Gabrielle. “How are you feeling?”
Gabrielle licked her lips, which felt dry and rough. “Thirsty.”
Xena looked over her shoulder at her, a subsiding storm evident in her pale blue eyes. “Ah.” She walked over and picked up a skin full of something that gurgled and returned to the bedside. “Forgot to leave this with you.”
“How are you feeling?” Gabrielle asked shyly, taking the skin.
“Like someone who’s been shot in the back with an arrow, and had to carry around cute little blond slave girls all day. Why?” Xena’s lips twitched into a droll grin as she watched Gabrielle blush. She sat down in the chair next to the bed and slowly let the feral tension seep out of her, watching with idle fascination as her fingers twitched and curled of their own volition.
Gabrielle suckled at the spout on the skin, swallowing the water with a feeling of relief. Her eyes wandered a little, and she suddenly noticed a splash of dried rust along Xena’s arm.
She looked up at Xena’s profile, it’s edges outlined by the dim, stormy light coming in the window. “Did you….” She hesitated, not really sure what to ask, or if she wanted to know.
Xena slowly turned her head and looked down. “Did I what, Gabrielle?” She asked in a cool voice. “Did I find out who jumped you?” She watched the girl’s eyes flicker. “Oh yeah. I found out. You wanna know what happened to him?”
Gabrielle swallowed, wanting very much to retract the question. She didn’t want to know. She knew it was bad, she knew it was her fault. Heartsick, she just lifted her head and looked at Xena in silence.
Shocked to find, not mocking but a quiet, remote compassion in the queen’s eyes.
“A lot of things I do, I do because it’s what I have to do to keep power in my hands, Gabrielle.” Xena said. “I won’t lie and tell you I don’t enjoy it. I do.” She added. “But it’s all for a reason. If I have to sacrifice a few lives, to keep control, I will.”
Gabrielle took a breath, then released it.
“It wasn’t about you.” Xena insisted quietly. “You didn’t cause that man’s gutting or his death. I did that, and I did it because what he did went against my will, and that I can’t tolerate. You understand me, Gabrielle?”
The girl nodded silently.
Xena reached over and touched her hair, feeling the flinch as she did so. It surprised her just how much that hurt, and she frowned, disturbed at the churn of emotions inside her. “Gabrielle?”
The green eyes slowly lifted to hers.
Xena touched the bandage. “I didn’t want this to happen to you again.”
Gabrielle exhaled, nibbling the inside of her lip. “Everything has a price, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it does.”
The girl nodded her head. “I understand.”
Xena relaxed a trifle. “But you don’t like it.” She guessed, giving the blond hair a tweak.
“No.” Gabrielle answered honestly. “I don’t.”
“S’allright.” The queen said. “You don’t have to like it.” She let her hand rest on the girl’s head, grimacing slightly as she felt a warmth under her palm. “Your head hurt?”
Xena removed the bandage, and found an expected swelling under it. “Well, I tell you what, my friend. Since you’re still coherent, if you give me a hand with my back, I’ll see what I can do about this. Deal?”
My friend. The confusing swirl of emotions filled Gabrielle again. Was she?
Did she want to be?
She looked up at Xena, and suddenly, for the first time as she looked into those remote eyes, she saw past the ice, for a just a second, and found something else back in there looking back at her.
“Deal.” Gabrielle made her choice. “Better hurry up, though. I’m not feeling so good.”
Xena stood and slipped out of her robe, then knelt beside the bed, turning her bare back to Gabrielle’s eyes. She handed her the kit off the table and let her elbows rest on her knee, rubbing her fingers over the dried blood on her arm, and watching the tiny rust shavings fall to the floor.
Gabrielle worked in silence for a few moments, her touch gentle and soft against Xena’s skin. “Um.. Xena?”
“It’s all red again.”
Damn it. “Yeah, I thought so.”
“We’re both pretty messed up, huh?”
Xena sighed. “Yeah.” She turned and looked over her shoulder. “But we’ll get through it.”
Surprisingly, to her, Gabrielle smiled despite the discomfort she was obviously in. Likewise, Xena smiled back.
Outside, the rain poured on, washing the seeping blood from the figure spread eagled on the gate, it’s head already tipped in death.
“Mistress, there is great unrest.” Stanislaus wrung his hands together.
“And?” Xena sat in her chair, in the public chamber. She picked listlessly at a bunch of grapes. “It’s the weather. After the tournament tomorrow, it’ll all settle down.”
“Stanislaus.” Xena was at the end of her always meager supply of patience. “I know. Drop it.” She ordered. “I know what Bregos is up to. Tomorrow, I’ll take care of it, and anyone who’s restless after that better be restless far, far away from here.”
“The slaves are agitating, mistress. After this morning.” Stanislaus braved her temper, a rare thing. “I’m concerned.”
Xena looked at him. “Okay. “ She studied a grape. “Go downstairs, and tell them if I hear they’re upset one more time, I’ll come down there again and give them something to really be upset about.” She eyed him coolly. “I’m not in the mood, Stanislaus.”
He sighed. “Mistress.”
A light knock provided a welcome interruption. “Come.”
The door opened and Alaran entered, giving Stanislaus a dour look as he crossed the floor and bent a knee to Xena. “Mistress, I have news.” He was carrying a tray, which he set down on the table after he rose.
Xena lifted an eyebrow at him.
“My men have gotten word of the men who stood outside the walls.”
Xena’s shoulderblades itched. “Ah.” She steepled her fingers. “And?”
“They have escaped, Mistress. They ran from the stronghold that very night.” Alaran looked disappointed. “My spies tell me they did not know of any success or failure of their mission.”
One thing gone right. Xena relaxed in her chair. “All right. Have you sent someone after them?”
“Yes, Mistress. Two of my best men.” Her security master assured her. “They will bring them back. Alive or in pieces, as the cause warrants.”
Stanislaus winced unobtrusively.
“Good job.” Xena praised Alaran. “Let me know any news you get back.”
“Very well, Mistress.” Alaran nodded. “They were not soldiers.” He added. “They were from the outlands, who arrived here days before Bregos did.”
“Really.” Xena murmured. “From the newly conquered areas?”
“No.” Alaran shook his head. “From Thrace.”
“Thrace?” Xena drummed her fingers on her chair arm. “Who owns them, I wonder?” She mused. “No matter. We’ll find out.” She concluded. “I want two men outside the door of my private chambers, Alaran, during dinner.”
He nodded. “To protect the little one?”
Xena watched Stanislaus’ lips twist. “Yes.” She steepled her fingers again. “I know no slave will come near her, but there are enough uncertainties around to warrant caution.”
“Mistress… “ Stanislaus spoke up. “Is such a one worth it?” He asked. “So much disturbance…”
Alaran cleared his throat. “Her majesty has already answered that question.” He said. “Or did you miss this morning’s entertainment?” His voice was sharp.
“I did not.” The seneschal said. “I was just telling her majesty of the slaves unrest over the sight.”
“Unrest?” Alaran laughed. “They’re lucky to be alive to tell of it. Tell them that! Fools! To listen to Bregos temptations?” He put his hands on his slim hips. “It has been too long for them, I’m thinking. They have gotten used to her majesties beneficence.”
Hm. Xena cocked her head to one side. Her Majesties’ Beneficence. Had a nice ring to it. “He’s right.” She stated flatly. “Everyone’s gotten complacent, and Bregos took advantage of that. It’s time to shake things up, and the fight tomorrow’ll just be the start of that.”
Stanislaus squared his shoulders. “Very well, Mistress. I will do what I need to spread that word.” He told her. “Perhaps it is what they all need to hear.” He bowed low, then turned and padded silently to the door, opening it and passing through quickly.
Xena exhaled. “Ares’ own jackass.” She muttered “I swear that man has the brains of an Agean sea slug.”
Alaran coughed, his lips twitching. “Mistress, how is the little one? My spies tell me she was cruelly used.”
“Yeah, poor kid.” Xena sighed. “They knocked her to Hades, but she held her tongue an didn’t spill anything to them.” She got up as a sense of restlessness took over, and paced in front of the fireplace. “She’ll be all right.”
Alaran watched her with curious eyes. “And you, my liege?”
Xena took a deep breath, feeling the stabbing ache in her back. “I’ll live.” She said. “And tomorrow, I’ll do what I have to do.” She added. “You checked the tray?”
“Personally, Mistress.” Alaran assured her.
“Good.” Xena rested her hands on either side of it, gazing down at the covered contents. “No sense in tempting fate.” She looked up. “Where’s Bregos?”
“In his quarters, Mistress. Waiting the rain out. He and his chief attendants were sparring earlier. They seem in good humor.” The security chief hesitated. “Word of the morning’s activities is spreading to the men.”
“And?” Xena kept her eyes on the tray.
“What I heard, Mistress, is a welcome for the leader we knew best.”
Xena smiled. She lifted her head and looked at Alaran.
Gabrielle was tossing and turning, her sweat drenched hair plastered to her forehead. It was obvious she was half lost in fever, softly guttural words wrenching themselves from her throat.
“Damn.” Xena nudged the door closed, and put the tray down on the dresser. She walked over and sat on the bed, putting a hand on the girls shoulder. “Gabrielle?”
"Mama?" Gabrielle whispered. "Is that you?" She clutched at Xena’s fingers. "I dreamed you were dead.. All of you..da and.." Her eyes blinked open and fastened on Xena's face. "Mama?"
"No." Xena told her. "I'm not your mother." She watched the expression in her eyes change. "You're not home."
Gabrielle's face fell, and her gaze tracked around the room. "Wasn't a dream..." Her voice broke. "Was it? They're... all gone." A look of forlorn despair appeared. “All gone.”
“Yes, they are.” The queen said. “But you’re here, and… I’m here.” She rested her free hand on Gabrielle’s fevered head. “And you’re out of your skull at the moment.”
“I.. am?” Gabrielle warbled softly. “I feel strange.” She gazed at Xena. “Are you my friend?”
Now wasn’t that a damn good question? Xena studied the kid seriously. She certainly wasn’t anyone’s friend.
However. “Yeah.” Xena told her. “I’m as much of a friend as you’ve got here right now, Gabrielle.”
It seemed to pacify the girl. She settled down, her hand still curled around Xena’s, bloodshot green eyes blinking slowly as she relaxed. “Okay.”
“I’ll take care of you.” Xena said. “So don’t worry.”
Gabrielle was breathing more heavily than she’d been earlier. “I miss mama.” She whispered. “She made cookies for us.”
The words touched her, in an unexpected way and brought back memories she’d thought long, long since buried in dust. “Yeah.” Xena stroked the sweat dampened hair. “Mine did too.” She kept her voice low. “Y’know, she was making them the day the soldiers came and killed her.”
Gabrielle gazed up at her.
“It was my birthday.” Xena added, allowing herself a brief moment to feel that horror all over again.
“Oh.” The girl seemed to understand. “That’s terrible.”
“Yeah, it was.” The queen agreed. “I don’t celebrate my birthday anymore, not since then.” She deliberately released the memories, banishing them back to the depths of her experience.
“D.. do you miss your mama?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena thought about that. Then she slowly shook her head. “I don’t really remember her.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle sniffled a little. “I wish I didn’t either.”
Xena traced a line across the girl’s forehead, smoothing the lines that creased the skin there. “Some day.” She promised. “ You’ll wake up one day, and the past will be in the past, and you just go on.”
Gabrielle clung to her hand, pulling it close and resting her cheek against Xena’s knuckles. “It hurts.” She said. “Everything hurts.”
“Yeah, I know.” Xena told her. “Let me see what I can do about that.” She gently untangled her hand from the girls and went to her kit, removing several herbal packets and taking them to the tray. She uncovered the jug on it and sniffed the contents, grunting in approval. She emptied part of three packets into one of the cups and added a full measure of wine to it, swirling it around to mix the herbs up.
Sniffing it again, she took an experimental swallow, judging its taste before she returned to the bed and sat down. “All right.” Xena slid an arm under the girl’s body and lifted her up. “C’mere. You need to drink this.” She held the cup to Gabrielle’s lips. “C’mon. You don’t want to make me mad, do ya?”
Unsteadily, Gabrielle reached for the cup, tipping it to her lips and sipping at it. “Wh.. what is it?” She asked, licking her lips.
“Blackberry wine.” Xena told her. “Like it?”
“Mm.” Gabrielle curled her hand around the cup. “Good.”
“That’s it.” Xena took the cup as it was finished, and set it on the table. She smiled slightly at the purplish stains on the girl’s lips. Her eyes were already fluttering closed from the herbs, and her body relaxed completely against Xena’s. “When you wake up, you’ll feel better. Promise.”
“Promise.” Gabrielle mumbled, resting her head against Xena’s shoulder.
For a little while, Xena sat there, absorbing the strange sensation of holding someone against her. Despite the pain in her back, it felt odd, and new to have this little scrap of a slave to care for, and Xena wanted to examine the sensation.
It was like having a pet, she finally decided. Like the small dog she’d picked up somewhere near Sparta, and kept with her an entire campaign until the damn thing got itself gored to death by a wild boar. She remembered being furious with herself for feeling bad about that.
She remembered being furious with herself for missing the stupid creature.
Xena looked down at the blond head nestled against her shoulder, and remembered her solemn vow to herself never to get attached to anything else ever again. It just wasn’t worth it, she’d told herself.
Was this worth it?
Xena’s troubled gaze drifted off across the room, watching the rain splatter against the windows.