Shadows of the Soul
It was very dark. Gabrielle pried her eyes open, woken by the pain in her head, to find it almost as lightless as it had been with her eyes closed. There was a tiny amount of grayish silver glow coming from the window, and an equally tiny amount of reddish glow from the fireplace. She reckoned it was long after midnight, and as she listened, she could almost hear the silence of the stronghold settle around her.
The sheets around her and the clothes she was wearing had dried, and aside from the pain in her head, and chest – she was relatively comfortable. Not surprising, Gabrielle. She reminded herself wryly. You’re in the queen’s bed.
Which brought another scary thought to mind. Where was the queen, whose bed it was? Gabrielle listened again, hearing the faint pop of the log in the fireplace, and a soft rattle of the leaded panes of glass in the window and…
And someone else breathing. Uh oh. Gabrielle sucked in a nervous breath. The breathing was fairly close by. Slowly, she turned her head to the left, squinting in the darkness to make out the vague profile of someone else sleeping in the bed next to her.
Well. Gabrielle swallowed. It wasn’t really unreasonable that Xena would be sleeping in her own bed, now would it? After all, it was a very big bed, and the queen was all the way on the other side of it, with plenty of space between them. She studied the shadowy figure. Xena was sleeping on her stomach, one arm curled around a pillow, and the other resting on the bed’s surface. Gabrielle could see the curve of her cheekbone, and the slow rise and fall of the covers draped over her body.
The same covers Gabrielle was under. For some reason, just the thought made her warm, and a little, odd chill at the same time went down her back. She squirmed a bit, very cautiously, trying not to move or make a sound as she attempted to stretch her body out. Her legs felt stiff, and the bruises on her knees ached, along with the ones on her elbows. Her ribs were very tender, but all that paled before the pain in her scalp.
She slid her hand out from under the covers and touched the spot, feeling the bandage over it stiff with what she assumed was dried blood. The wound ached, but it was more a sharp, stabbing pain now instead of the tense throbbing it had been earlier. Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried to relax, reasoning that she had plenty of time before dawn before she had to be up and….
And? Would Xena expect her to do her normal duties, even when she was injured? Xena had, Gabrielle noted. She’d gone to her courts, and done her tours, even though her back had been hurting her terribly. Surely, she would expect the same of Gabrielle, right? She considered the idea. Well, she’d prove to Xena that she was worthy of that. She’d get up and do what she had to do, no matter how she felt.
Gabrielle exhaled, and wiggled her toes. Then she paused and wiggled them again, realizing they were bare. Hadn’t she worn her boots the day before? Curiously, she slid a hand down and touched her calf to be sure. No, the boots weren’t on her feet, that was for sure. She let her hand travel back up, settling it on her stomach with it’s partner. If her boots were gone, where did they go? More importantly, who had taken them off?
Her head turned slightly, just enough for Xena’s sleeping profile to enter her peripheral vision. Had the queen? Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her stomach. Somehow, the thought of Xena taking off her boots was very…um.. well, on the other hand, Xena had carried her up to this room, and… She thought she remembered, vaguely, talking to Xena after that, but she wasn’t sure.
Be honest, Gabrielle. You’re not sure of a whole lot of things right now. Her conscience spoke quietly into the night. Get some rest. You’re probably going to need it.
Firmly, she closed her eyes and snuggled down a little bit more into the heavenly soft mattress. The goose down and silk comforter was light as a feather over her, and she resolved to make the most of this once in a lifetime chance. Tomorrow, she’d be back in her cot.
Sleep crept back up on her and she relaxed again into it.
For a change, Xena wasn’t really that thrilled to see the dawn. The faint, pale gray light hit her eyelids and she opened them reluctantly, easing her stiffened body into a slightly more comfortable position. Just moving her arm sent a jolt through her, and she exhaled in serious annoyance.
Then her eyes dropped to examine the profile of the person sharing the bed with her. Even in the dim light, the girl’s injuries were obvious, and Xena allowed that to take her mind of her own problems. Bastard. She paused to revel in the memory of gutting the slave who’d hit the kid. He’d more than deserved it, and if she hadn’t been bothered by her injury she’d have taken her time and tortured him properly.
Cut the other hand off, maybe. Then his testicles. Maybe his tongue.. an ear.. Xena mused pleasantly. Hm. Maybe I can do that to Bregos. Her spirits rose at the idea, and she stretched her body out again, this time pulling against the tight, painful spot on her back. She felt something pop, then grimaced as a warm wetness made it’s presence known at the place where the arrow had entered.
Well, that was one way to get the pus out. With a sigh, Xena slid out from under the covers and stood, observing her young bedmate for a moment before she turned and padded silently into the bathing chamber. It was time to prepare anyway, and she could use the extra time the early start had given her.
She opened the stopper on the water trough, and watched the clear liquid fill the marble tub. She let the water run over her hand, glad of it’s comfortable temperature. She didn’t like her bath water heated, but she’d also grown out of enjoying ice cold streams much anymore. Xena waited until the bath filled, then she stoppered the water and shucked her shift, stepping into the tub and kneeling.
Most in her position, she acknowledged, would have servants to wash them. She knew most of her nobles did. But Xena had spent too many years fighting in the field to be comfortable with that many people so close to her in such a vulnerable position. And this bath, the bath before the battle, was an old superstition of hers and one she always did alone. She picked up the soap resting in the carved soap dish and started scrubbing herself.
First her hands, and arms. She rinsed the suds off her wrists, and continued up over her forearms to her shoulders, still thick with muscle though lacking the tan she’d always had as a soldier. Another rinse, then she scrubbed her torso, glancing down between her breasts to rub the soap over a belly she’d taken pains to keep flat, despite the cook’s indulgences and the distractions of her court. Her night sessions in the room upstairs had provided her with more than stress relief and she was fiercely proud of the fact that every piece of her armor still fit the way it had when she’d retired from the field, to rule the land.
She ran the soap down over her thighs, which were so heavy with muscle that if she’d been a little shorter, they’d have seemed ungainly. But they gave her power, a strength to balance the speed of her upper body and she scrubbed them with a sense of wry affection, tracing over a few of the scars that tracked over the skin. Now that she’d finished there, she sat down in the tub and slowly lowered her back and shoulders into the water, feeling the sharp sting as the liquid entered the hole in her back.
She washed her hair first, scrubbing its dark length then ducking under the water to rinse all the soap out of it. As she came up she twisted, and a jolt of pain made her hiss.
Damn. Xena attempted to reach around, but the wound was just in a place she couldn’t touch. She cursed silently, then sighed and kept her shoulders underwater, hoping at least it would do the damn cut some good.
Her ears cocked, as she heard movement in the other room. Covers rustling, yes, and the sound of someone getting out from under them. She could hear the faint scuff of bare feet against the floor, then a soft hiss of pain. “Gabrielle.” She called out.
A pause. “Yes?” The timid response was half whispered, half spoken. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to.. um.. bother you. I’m just going to get cleaned up and..um..”
“Gabrielle, shut up and come in here.” Xena ordered.
Hesitant footsteps approached, then the doorway was filled with a short, scruffy blond woman with a battered face, and gentle green eyes. For some reason, the sight made Xena smile. “I need your help a minute. I thought I could do this, but I can’t reach that damn arrow wound.”
Gabrielle’s eyes went to the tub, then to her face, then to the tub again. A soft blush colored her fair skin. “Um.. okay.” She walked across the floor, quickly circling Xena’s submerged form and keeping her gaze averted.
“How’s your head feel?” Xena asked her.
“Um.. “ Gabrielle took the soap Xena held out to her and very carefully started to wash around her wound. “It hurts.”
Xena put a wet hand up and touched the girl’s forehead, startling her. “Least you’re not raving out of your head anymore.”
The touch on her back stopped. “Was.. was I?” Gabrielle asked.
“Oh yeah. You were singing bawdy songs, making grabs at me.. you’re quite the wild thing in a fever, y’know.”
Gabrielle gasped. "B.. I.... "
"Heh." Xena chuckled. "Never thought you had that side in ya, Gabrielle "She turned her head casually and glanced up at the girl, who was brick red and very obviously mortified. "Hey.. I didn't say I minded!"
If anything, that made Gabrielle blush even darker, and at least it took Xena's attention off her back. "Better cut that out, or your head'll start bleeding."
"Sorry." Gabrielle whispered. "I.. um. I don't remember any of that." She put her head down and concentrated on her task. "I didn't..." She let the words trail off lamely.
"Tch tch.." Xena relented. "Musta been some fever. How's my back look?"
The girl's hands stopped again. "Oh." She exhaled. "Wow."
"Is that good or bad?" Xena eyed her, glad the kid was turning a more normal shade of color. "Hey, you're not going to keel over, are you?"
Gabrielle wasn't entirely sure. She rested her hands on the edge of the tub and tried to recover her breath. Jus thinking about what she’d done…what she’d said… great gods. How could she have? And more importantly, why had Xena put up with it? She could have been killed! Or worse!!!
The voice made her jump and gasp. She blinked, bringing the queen back into focus. Xena was leaning an elbow on the tub, just watching her with those incredibly blue eyes. “Yes!”
“Relax, would ya?” Xena laughed.
Gabrielle sucked in a breath, immediately regretting it when her ribs protested vigorously. “Oh.” She held onto the tub, momentarily forgetting her embarrassing episode. “Ow.”
“Okay.” Xena told her. “Just relax. Stop losing your mind on me.”
After a minute, the pain faded, and she could stand upright again. Gabrielle dipped the cloth in the water, and resumed cleaning the wound on Xena’s back. It didn’t look very good. It was red around the edges, and it seemed swollen again. There was yellow pus seeping from the center, and she carefully rinsed that out. “It’s kind of nasty.” She told Xena.
“Feels like it.” Xena agreed. “Hopefully your head doesn’t look like that.” She rested her head against her forearm. “Put pressure on it.”
“Was that in Mycean dialect or something?” The queen asked, testily. “That nasty stuff’s gotta come out. Put pressure on either side.”
“Oh… that’s going to hurt.” Gabrielle protested.
“No, really?” Xena drawled. “Just do it.”
Gabrielle put the cloth down, pausing before she hesitantly put her fingers down on the angry red skin on either side of the opening. She could feel heat beneath touch, and as she put a slight pressure on it, she saw the flicker of motion as the muscles of Xena’s back flinched.
Her face didn’t twitch, though. Gabrielle noted. She watched Xena’s hand curl around the edge of the tub and tense as she waited. “You know something?” She said, as she carefully put pressure against the wound, watching the center erupt with nastiness.
“What?” Xena spoke in an even tone.
“You’re a really brave person.” Gabrielle finished her task, noting that the swelling had now noticeably gone down.
Xena tilted her head and looked around at the girl. “You know something?”
Gabrielle paused, and looked shyly at her. “What?”
“You didn’t really act like a whore in heat last night.” The queen said.
“I didn’t?” Gabrielle blurted. “Really?”
Oh, it was so tempting. Xena observed those big green eyes gazing so openly at her. “No. I was joking.”
Gabrielle’s whole body slumped in reaction, relief written all across her. “Ah.” She sighed. “I’m glad. I didn’t want you think I was…um… anyway.” She concentrated on the wound.
Xena watched her profile, seeing the tensing on either side of her lips of an unconscious smile.
Gabrielle rinsed the area again and again, until every speck of yellow was gone. “I think that’s it.”
“Good.” Xena put a hand on either side of the tub and stood, easing her body over the edge. She shook herself vigorously, sending a spray of water over the room and its other hapless occupant.
Gabrielle backed away, averting her eyes and looking around for something useful like… ah. “Here.” She handed Xena a neatly folded, pristine towel. The queen accepted it and draped it over her body. Then she put a hand on Gabrielle’s chin and tilted her head to one side, easing the bandage off her head and examining it.
“I think you got off lucky, my little friend.” Xena ran a finger over the spot, which was closed, and seemed to be healing. “Wish I could say the same. Musta been something on that arrowhead.” She turned and walked into the bedroom, pulling Gabrielle with her. “C’mon. We’ve got a long day ahead of us and I’m gonna need help getting into my gear.”
Gabrielle followed obediently, not that she really had much of a choice.
Or wanted much of a choice, she suddenly realized. Confused at that, she found herself smiling for no real apparent reason.
She sighed. Maybe she just needed some breakfast.
They sat at the table in the outer chamber, sharing the contents of a tray delivered personally by Alaran stocked with sturdy plates full of hearty fare. Outside, the sun was peeking over the edge of the window, sending a stripe of golden color splashing over them.
Gabrielle was sitting cross legged on one of the large, armed chairs, it’s surface somewhat dwarfing her. She had a new bandage on her head, and Xena had a new bandage on her back, and they were both listening to the security chief’s status report.
“So.” Alaran concluded. “The men are ready, my liege. The battlefield has been readied, and to all eyes, a grand day of games is afoot. Even the weather has brightened for it – it’s cold enough outside to make my armor comfortable.”
“Good.” Xena piled strips of meat and eggs on a fold of bread and took a bite of it. “Get them together in the barracks. After I dress, I want to talk to them.”
“Mistress.” Alaran nodded. “They would welcome that.” His eyes shifted slightly, and took in Gabrielle’s interestedly watching eyes. “How are you faring, little one?”
Caught in mid mouthful, Gabrielle hastily swallowed.
“She’s fine.” Xena answered for her. “I’m going to take her with me today. She’ll be my squire.”
Me? Gabrielle was surprised, and almost forgot to wonder what, exactly, a squire was.
“Excellent, Majesty.” Alaran said. “It eases my mind to know you will have someone you trust close by.” He stood up. “I will go assemble the men. My spies tell me it was quiet on Bregos’ side last night, but his men seem very… confident.”
“Uh huh.” Xena popped a grape into her mouth. “Losers.”
Alaran smiled, saluted, and left.
Xena turned her head and regarded her tablemate. “Enough here for you?” She rested her elbows on the table, leaning her chin on her fists.
Gabrielle licked her lips in reflex, and swallowed. “Um.. yes, thanks.” She said. “It’s really good.”
Xena exhaled, lifting her head and rubbing her temples. “I’d normally agree with you.” She admitted. “But that arrow hole’s getting on my nerves and putting me off my feed.” She played with another grape. The wound was giving her a fever as well, she knew, from the slight chills going up and down her skin.
She picked up her cup of morning ale and took a large swallow, then put it down and determinedly took another bite of her eggs.
She looked up. “Yeah?”
“Um.. why not just tell them to wait for another couple of days?” Gabrielle asked. “You’re the queen, and all that.”
Ah. The queen and all that chewed on her makeshift sandwich, gazing out the window as she considered the question. “I could.” She said. “But there’s a huge storm brewing out there, Gabrielle. I can feel it. If I wait… the storm might break at a time of it’s own choosing. I can’t have that. It has to be tamed to a time of my own choosing.. even if that’s personally uncomfortable to me at the moment.”
Gabrielle nibbled her egg covered muffin. “Oh.”
“So.” Xena finished her sandwich. “Today I cut Bregos ambitions off at the knees.” She drained her cup. “And tonight, we’ll celebrate.” She got up and stretched, walking up and down the public chamber to limber up.
Celebrate meant Xena and her court, Gabrielle knew. Not people like her. But she agreed she’d be very happy if the queen got what she wanted, because it seemed safer that way for everyone. She didn’t trust Bregos at all – so far all of the people who were acting in his interests that she’d met had either insulted her or hit her. Not that Xena’s people had been much better, but after all, here she was sitting at table with the queen, eating biscuits and very good blackberry jam, and eggs with her. “What does a squire do?” She asked.
“You done?” Xena asked her.
Gabrielle examined her empty plate, then looked up wryly to meet Xena’s eyes. “Yes.”
“C’mon. I’ll show you what a squire does.” Xena motioned to her, waiting for her to get up and join her at the door to the inner chamber before she continued on inside.
Xena walked to the chest against the wall and opened it. That same scent of oil and leather rose out and she paused, letting a tiny smile cross her face before she lifted the furs covering it’s contents and tossed them on the floor nearby.
Gabrielle knelt next to the chest and peered into it. A sense of intrigue tickled her skin as she watched Xena lift out various things and look at them.
First, a set of leather somethings. Gabrielle knew they were leather, but there were flaps and bits and pieces of them that escaped her understanding. Xena laid the leather something over the chair back and continued. Next, she removed her sword, in it’s sheath, and handed it to Gabrielle. “Put that on the table over there.”
Gabrielle took it, startled at it’s weight. She peered curiously at the brass hilt, and the leather wrapping before she set the weapon down on the table. She turned to find Xena holding the worn leather pouch she’d seen in there before, but the queen had an odd expression on her face. She crossed back over to Xena’s side. “What’s that?”
Xena untied the flap and opened it, revealing a glistening metal circle. She took hold of it and pulled it out, gazing at it with quiet reverence. It had a sharp edge, Gabrielle could see, and a pattern stamped in it on both sides. One side was also set with brilliant stones.
It was beautiful. “Wow.” She said. “That’s amazing. “
“Yes, it is.” Xena agreed softly.
“What is it?”
The queen’s eyes half closed. “It’s a chakram.” She replied. “It’s.. very special.” After a moment, she put it back in the pouch and tied it closed, then handed it to Gabrielle. “Put that with the sword.”
Gabrielle did, aware of the weight resting in her hands as she set it down. She turned and hurried back, to find Xena lifting out metal somethings. Brass, she thought, plates with buckles and metal bits on them. Xena draped those over the chair too, along with more plates, and some other things.
She came back and stood by the chest, resting her hands on the edge of it. Breakfast had helped the feeling of queasiness and the headache she had, and now a subtle excitement was nudging her mind away from her own injuries. She watched Xena lift a neatly folded linen garment up, then she backed a step as the queen closed the trunk lid and dropped the fabric on top of it.
“Right.” Xena put her hands on her hips and considered briefly. “First things first. Get me a new bandage, and a long strip of cloth.”
Gabrielle had that routine down already. She retrieved the requested items readily. As she brought them back, Xena pulled the robe down off her shoulders and dropped gracefully to one knee in front of her.
“Put the extra bandage over the cut, and wrap that long piece around me as many times as it’ll go, real tight.”
“Not change it?” Gabrielle asked. “The bandage, I mean?”
“No. I want it for padding.”
Gabrielle frowned, then her expression cleared as she realized what Xena was getting at. She folded the large square into a smaller one, and positioned it above the worst part of the injury. Then she set the end of the strip of linen on it, and hesitated.
Xena chuckled dryly, taking the end of the linen and passing it around her body before she handed it back over around the other side.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle accepted it and laid it carefully over the bandage. She wrapped the linen across Xena’s back and paused again.
“G’wan.” Xena looked over her shoulder at her. “I won’t bite you.”
With a tiny prickle of embarrassment, Gabrielle took a step closer and reached around Xena. “I know.. it’s just that I don’t really have long arms.” She explained. “So it’s kind of…”
Xena felt the warmth across her shoulders as the girl pressed up against them. She smirked. “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” She remarked, as the linen drew taut around her chest. She heard Gabrielle exhaled, a touch of unexpected heat as the girls’ breath brushed across the skin of her neck. Okay. Her conscience booted her. Stop playing with the kid already, you old battle whore.
“There.” Gabrielle completed her task, and stepped back. “I think that will hold it.”
Xena stood and flexed her shoulders inside their new binding. “For a while.” She grunted. “Yeah.” Blowing a bit of hair from her eyes, she studied her surroundings. Then she picked up the folded garment from the top of the chest and shucked her robe, exchanging it for the underlayer of her armor. “Okay, get me that.” She pointed.
Gabrielle went to the chair and got the leather something, and brought it over. It was supple, and though it had been in storage for an unknown time, the surface was well cared for and pliable. She handed it carefully to Xena. “What is that?”
Xena stepped into it and pulled it up. It slid over her body and settled into place, covering most of her torso. She adjusted the shoulder straps carefully. “Armor. Check the back, make sure it’s covering that spot.”
Gabrielle walked around and did so, tucking the edge of the linen bandage under the leather surface. “The top part just comes over where it is.”
Ouch. Xena felt the pressure, which was far less than comfortable. “So I feel.” She took a deep breath, holding it as the pain increased, then leveled off. Annoying, but she could handle it, she decided. She made a last few adjustments to the straps, then pointed. “Now that.”
Gabrielle walked to the metal somethings, and picked up the largest of them. She returned with it, studying the tall form in front of her as she did so. Already, Xena looked very different. The leather armor was dark and close fitting and it outlined her body very unlike the robes she commonly wore.
Xena settled the metal something over her head and let it drape over her chest. It was, Gabrielle realized, designed to protect her shoulders and chest in a fight.
“C’mere.” The queen glanced at her. “Buckle those straps under my arm.”
Gabrielle came closer, ducking her head sideways to study the catches. She took hold of them and ran the tongue through the buckle, pausing as she realized there were several holes. “How tight?”
“Second hole.” Xena muttered, working on a metal bit.
Second hole it was. It seemed a bit loose, but she wasn’t about to argue with Xena about it. Gabrielle went around to the other side and repeated the process, aware of the sharp tang of brass, and the rich, musky smell of the leather.
Her nose twitched. It was sort of like being around a saddled horse, except Xena herself smelled better. “Okay.” She stepped back.
Xena shifted her shoulders and exhaled, as she pulled on a set of leather arm bands that fit over her biceps. As she settled them, Gabrielle noticed that the queen, in fact, had a pretty impressive set of biceps. It was an interesting observation, but short lived because the queen then added leather coverings for her lower arms which were laced. She held one out to Gabrielle. “Tie.”
Gabrielle did. She carefully tightened the leather laces, drawing the ends of the leather thing closed. “What are these?”
Xena glanced at her. “Bracers.” She replied, flexing her hands. The leather tensed around her, a once familiar sensation now feeling a little strange. She sat down on the bed and pulled her boots on, buckling the heavy catches. “You try to protect the important parts of your body, or the parts that tend to get cut a lot.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle watched as Xena pulled a set of metal somethings over her knees, and fastened them, then fastened another set of straps around her calves. Then she stood back up and raised herself up on her toes, letting her body drop down in a soft, subtle rattling of metal and leather.
She lifted the sword, and let it drop behind her back, slipping it into catches designed to hold it. Then, last, she picked up the chakram and gazed at it, before she let it fall into an almost hidden hook at her hip. She turned to face Gabrielle and indicated her body. “What d’you think?”
It was… Gabrielle found the sight of the woman filling her senses, the casing of armor suddenly making an already larger than life figure immense. She felt tiny beside Xena, a little awed by the aura of power now shifting around her.
“Different than silk, huh?” Xena folded her arms.
“Um… wow. Yes.” Gabrielle inhaled. “You look really… um.. “
Xena spread her hands out, and raised both eyebrows.
“Heroic.” The girl finished, in a quiet voice.
“No.. really.” Gabrielle insisted. “I… well, one of the stories I used to tell back home was about this great warrior, who fought off all the giants, and defended all the helpless little people, and you look just like I thought that warrior would look.”
The queen gazed at her for a moment, then she reached out and grasped Gabrielle’s jaw firmly, tipping it up. “You listen to me.” She said, in a very serious voice. “I am no hero, little slave.”
Gabrielle’s fair lashes fluttered in startlement.
“I am a butcher.” Xena said, staring her right in the eye. “I have killed men for no better reason than that they annoyed me. I’ve torched villages. I’ve slaughtered women, and children, and I don’t lose any sleep at night over that. I would no more save some little person than I’d jump over the moon.”
The girl drew in a breath.
“I’m a killer, and a brutal person, and don’t you make the mistake of thinking otherwise.” Xena concluded. “Do you understand me, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle’s shoulders shifted, and straightened. “I think I do.” She replied very softly. “And you may be all that.”
“May?” Xena barked.
“But my heart sees more than that in you.” The girl said. “You can tell me I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.”
Slowly, Xena let her hand drop. Her instincts were demanding she back hand the kid across the room for the impertinence. She could, she knew. Gods knew, she’d done it to enough others. Her fingers flexed, in fact, and the muscles in her shoulder tensed, awaiting the explosion of violence.
Maybe even Gabrielle expected it.
Like a snake striking, she moved, pulling back her arm and swinging it right at the kid’s head. The green eyes never faltered, never flinched, and when her motion stopped, and slowed, and went from a blow to a gentle caress, Xena was loathe to figure out which one of them was more surprised. “You.” She let a fingertip rest on Gabrielle’s nose. “Are trouble.”
A very tiny smile appeared on the girl’s face.
“C’mon, Gabrielle. Let’s go watch men die, and give me a chance to get my sword bloody.” Xena went to her closet, and removed a stiffly brocaded silk gown from it. She slid the garment on over her armor, and fastened the catch. Then she studied the girl. “You can’t go in that.”
Xena went to the chest and raised it, leaning over and removing something from the inside. She glanced at the folded cloth for a moment, then turned and tossed it at Gabrielle. “Put that on.” She turned and went into her bathing chamber, disappearing from view.
It only took a moment. Gabrielle slipped on the heavy black leggings, and the pale, creamy golden shirt, tucking it in before she tugged the heavy overtunic over her head. It felt… very strange. The scent clinging to it was that same brass, that same leather that she’d smelled on Xena, but this was…
She twitched the overtunic straight and looked down at it. On the chest was a golden hawk’s head, with a baleful black eye.
Xena came back in and regarded her. “That’ll do.” She walked over and fastened the belt on the overtunic, drawing it close to Gabrielle’s body.
The girl ran her fingers over the hawk. “The men in the barracks had this… what does it mean?”
The queen ran a finger over her cheekbone, sending a not entirely unpleasant tingle down Gabrielle’s spine. “It means you’re mine.” She told her. “Are you, Gabrielle?”
Her heart was doing some very strange things in her chest. Gabrielle found she had to swallow a few times, before she could answer. She looked up into those blue eyes again. “I don’t know.” She answered, with as much honesty as she could. “I don’t know what that means.”
And, surprisingly, that made Xena smile. “Good answer.” She complimented the girl, giving her nose a tweak. “Let’s go.”
It was confusing. Gabrielle felt like she was back on one of the steep mountain paths back home, sliding down over a surface of moving pebbles only just keeping her balance as she rode the edge of disaster.
But curiously thrilling.
Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair, and followed Xena out the door, wondering what the day would bring to both of them.
They paused at the entrance to the stronghold. Gabrielle looked up, to see colorful banners strung over the long, stone promenade that lead down to the battlefield and realized for the first time just how huge the place was.
Hard to judge, when she’d seen such tiny bits of it. The stone walls spread for leagues and leagues to either side, and on this side of the stronghold the main road lead down past the rolling fields they were going to use for the games towards clusters of townships in the distance.
Potadeia would have, she acknowledged sadly, fit into a tiny corner of the road.
They’d picked up a bodyguard of soldiers, spaced carefully on either side of Xena, and all of them proudly wearing the same tabard that she was wearing herself. Gabrielle glanced to her left and right, eyeing the tall, burly men and.. she peered more closely. One of the soldiers was a woman, almost as tall as Xena was with a body so muscular she was almost indistinguishable from the men.
The weather was truly gorgeous. It was cool, and sunny, and as she looked ahead of her to the fields, she could see many people already gathered by the fields. On one side, wooden scaffolds had been built, and seating for the important people. There were already well dressed bodies mingling on top of them, the perch giving them an excellent view of the fields.
On the road down, merchants were doing a brisk business in cider and road foods, and as Gabrielle took a deep breath, she caught a scent of nuts and cinnamon from the closest of them. It was all bright, and happy, and yet….
And yet. Gabrielle wondered if it was because she knew about the struggles going on behind the scenes that she sensed a darkness in back of the gayity Not from the merchants she passed, or the wandering commoners, but from the soldiers around her.
“Looks like a grand old party, doesn’t it?” Xena commented, in a low voice. She was nodding graciously at the bowing bodies on either side of them.
“It does.” Gabrielle murmured.
“People love a good bloodletting.” The queen said. “Give em enough of a show, and they forget their own frustrations for a while.”
Gabrielle paced along behind Xena, trying to keep up with her long strides. She was about to question the queen on her last statement, then she remembered winters in Potadeia. The long times, when they were stuck in their cots, trying their best not to freeze to death. Times had been very tense, and…
Tempers flared. The girl nodded quietly to herself. Maybe that was when her father’s control had gotten… but anyway, it had always been worse in winter. And, in the worst of times, the village headmen would get together and they’d organize the boys, and the men, into boxing or brawling and crown a village champion. The women would pool their talents, and resources and knit perhaps a cap, maybe a shirt if they had enough extra, to give to whoever won.
Everyone had been happy, watching the men scrap. Gabrielle remembered that clearly, remembered her pride when it had been her gift, her giving of a bone handled knife to the winner that last winter. She had found the old blade, painstakingly cleaned it, sharpened it, and fitted the handle taken from a thick thigh bone of a slaughtered sheep to it after her father had carved it to a man’s hand.
The man’s face had lit up, and he’d kissed her, just in pure happiness.
She’d felt so good. Gabrielle let her eyes run over the huge crowds, more coming up the roads from the townships, and nodded again. Xena was right, she realized, only on a much grander scale than Gabrielle had ever contemplated, these being armies competing, instead of farmhands with bare fists.
But people were people.
“Hey.” Xena’s voice made her jump a bit. “What the Hades are you mumbling about?”
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. I was just thinking.”
“Here we go again.” The queen rolled her eyes.
Was it only a few days ago, when that tone would have sent her reeling? Gabrielle exhaled, wondering at how far and fast it had all happened. Now a part of her understood that the teasing was just Xena’s way, poking and prodding at you to see what kind of reaction she could get.
It was a long walk down to the fields. Gabrielle’s head was aching, and she wondered how Xena felt, with all that jarring on her back. She snuck a look up at the queen’s face, and found it completely relaxed, with no apparent distress showing. Xena was strolling along, apparently enjoying the accolades of the crowd without a care in the world.
They came even with the vendors, however, and Xena slowed, looking them over.
The baker looked back at her nervously. Xena stopped and regarded him with cool eyes. “Your majesty.. does the booth displease you?” The man asked timidly.
“Mm.” Xena shook her head. “I hate yellow and black. Bad choices.”
Gabrielle, in pure reflex, looked down at herself, then at the soldiers around them. She glanced up at Xena.
“Tell you what. You can keep your head if you give my little Gabrielle here the biggest nut pastry you’ve got.” Xena went in blithely. “And make it fast. I’ve got a battle to launch.”
The merchant shuffled through his wares and scurried over to them, bowing and cringing as he held out a wrapped bit of pastry. “My honor, your majesty! My honor!!!”
Xena examined the offering. “That’s the *best* you have?” She asked skeptically.
The man fell to his knees. “Majesty.”
“What do you think, Gabrielle?” The queen turned to her erstwhile silent shadow. She casually rested her forearm on the girl’s shoulder.
Gabrielle was aware of all the eyes on her. She looked at the pastry, then at Xena. “Looks great to me.” She said, with a tiny shrug, aware also of Xena’s closeness and the relaxed hand near her chin.
“Ah.” Xena stroked her cheek lightly. “You’re too easy. All right. Get up.” She ordered the merchant.
The man scrambled up and handed the pastry to Gabrielle, evidently very relieved. “Thank you, Majesty.. thank you!” He backed away to his booth and retreated behind it, reassured a little by it’s meager protection.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle smiled at him, accepting the nice smelling treat. She glanced at Xena. “Thanks.” She repeated, in a softer voice.
Did those blue eyes really twinkle?
“I get the first piece.” Xena responded. “So hurry up and break it off.”
Fair enough. Gabrielle complied, tearing off a nice sized chunk of the flaky pastry, covered in a drizzle of honey, nuts, and cinnamon. She held it out to Xena, then almost swallowed her own tongue when instead of taking it in her hand, the queen ducked her head forward and took it from her fingers, giving the tips of them a tiny lick as she removed the pastry.
“Mm.” The queen made an approving noise. “Not bad.” She straightened up and put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Can you eat and walk at the same time?”
Somewhere in the swirl of emotions running through her, Gabrielle found the self possession to nod.
“Good.” Xena started walking, and the escort snapped to attention and kept pace with her.
All Gabrielle could feel was the warmth of the arm over her shoulders, and the body pressed against her on the left, and the tiny bolts of sensation that were still tingling down her fingers and through her arm. She walked along mechanically, listening to the unexpected thunder of her own heartbeat and wondered what on earth was going on inside her.
“You gonna eat that?” Xena inquired. “Or just wave it at the crowd?”
Gabrielle pulled off a piece and put it in her mouth.
“Listen.” Xena lowered her voice. “You are supposed to be my saucy little new love slave, so try not to blush every time I get near you, okay?”
Predictably, Gabrielle blushed. Xena chuckled, then her voice trailed off into a sigh. Gabrielle felt a slight bit more weight shift onto her shoulders, and a quick look up caught a swiftly hidden wince twitching across Xena’s face.
Ah. It all started to make sense now. With a sense of relief, Gabrielle carefully juggled the pastry to her right hand, and casually put her left arm around Xena’s waist to provide her as much support as she could. She got a tweaking tug on her hair in response as Xena felt the pressure, and she exhaled, glad she’d figured it all out and picked the right thing to do.
She nibbled on the pastry as they walked along, catching the appraising glances of the people as their eyes went past Xena and settled on her. There was a mixture of pity and envy in them, an odd mixture, and occasionally outright disgust. This from the older ones, the more prosperous ones, and Gabrielle reasoned that they probably didn’t like the idea of a slave consorting with their queen.
Oh well. That wasn’t her problem, and it wasn’t her choice.
As they got closer to the fields, the crowds increased, and Xena’s passing caused ever more chaos as nobles and commoners fought to catch her eye with deep bows, and extravagant obesciences. At the start of the ramp up to the scaffolding, six soldiers stood guard, there to let through only the worthy.
They all dropped to a knee as Xena approached. Her honor guard split off and moved to either side of the ramp, turning and coming to attention. Xena waved a hand casually at them as they started up the ramp, where Alaran was standing and waiting for them at the top of.
Gabrielle about finished her pastry on the way up, saving the last bit and offering it to Xena as they reached where the security chief was standing. The queen chuckled, and accepted it, again removing it neatly from Gabrielle’s fingers.
“Mistress.” Alaran gave them an indulgent look. “The men await, as you requested.”
“Good.” Xena swallowed her mouthful, and licked a pastry flake off her lips. “Let’s go.” She removed her arm from around Gabrielle’s shoulders and twitched her gown straight, waiting for Alaran to walk before her and following him to a small platform off the main scaffolding.
Gabrielle followed, her shoulders feeling much lighter, and colder. The pastry had been very good, though, and the entire interlude seemed to have helped her headache. She walked along the wooden planking after Xena, easing between two sets of posts and down two crude steps to a small square area just above where the troops were assembling.
There were a great many men standing near the platform, hundreds of them all dressed in dark colored furs and armor, with weapons clutched in hands or strapped across backs. They wore helms, most battered from long use, and carried shields likewise marked.
Like her, all of them also wore tabards in black, with the gold hawk’s head on them. She saw the front rank of soldiers glance up at her, then look at Xena, apparently accepting her presence without question. It was a very odd feeling.
“Hello, boys.” Xena leaned against the wooden support holding the platform up.
A yell went up, at first formless, then recognizable as Xena’s name. Gabrielle almost covered her ears in reflex it was so loud. She glanced past the gathered soldiers, to the other side of the platform where Bregos was meeting with his men. More than one had their head turned around watching.
“Beautiful day for fighting, isn’t it? Not like some of the times we had in the field.” Xena said, to a response of wry chuckles, and a few yells. “Just wanted you to know I’ve got quite a few dinars riding on you lot today. You know I hate losing.”
“No chance, Gen’rl!” One of the men in the front row yelled.
They were all watching Xena. Gabrielle took the time to watch all of them, seeing mostly rugged, mostly older faces, some with visible scars. These were seasoned warriors, and the look she saw in their eyes when they looked at the queen was, in her youthful and humble opinion, the real thing. These men admired Xena. The thought made Gabrielle feel a lot better, since she’d started almost to believe that no one in the place was on Xena’s side.
These guys were.
“Tell you what.” Xena called out to them. “Whoever wins the field in single combat… you’ll get a year’s ransom for it.”
“And when you do win today.. you’ll all get something special for me.” Xena added. “So go out there and kick their asses!”
The men thrust their weapons into the air, and shouted. “Xena! Xena! Xena!!!” So loudly, the wooden platform actually shook . Xena lifted a hand in acknowledgement, then she turned and headed for the steps up to her seats.
Gabrielle joined her. “What are you going to give them if they win?” She asked curiously.
“You.” Xena replied. Then she looked down at her. “Just kidding.”
Got her again. Gabrielle exhaled. She saw Bregos leaving his men, and walking up to join them on the very top platform which bore Xena’s throne, and was covered in thick carpet. The stands and the fields were filling, and there was humanity as far as her eye could see. As she climbed up after Xena, she could now also see the battlefield before them.
It was a rolling field, with hillocks scattered over it. There were wooden structures on either side, and fresh pits dug into the earth.
She could smell the dark soil, and the grass. The wind was cool in her face, and the sun splashed over her shoulders to spill out over the field. Gabrielle shifted, and looked at Xena, who was standing next to her in front of the throne.
The queen’s eyes were on the battlefield. Her hands flexed into fists. For an unguarded moment, as the troops started moving out into the grass, a look of pained loss crossed her face.
It made Gabrielle wonder.
Xena settled into her throne, stifling a wince as the sword under her robe pressed against her arrow wound. The pain annoyed her far more than it’s physical discomfort, however, because it meant she couldn’t properly enjoy the day’s fighting and that frankly really pissed her off.
“Lovely day for it, eh, Majesty?” Brego was seated on a smaller chair next to her, his boots resting on the rich, thick carpet that had been laid over the wood surface. “Thought we’d have to slog it through mud, but the rains just stopped in good time.”
“I was looking forward to sitting here in the freezing rain.” Xena remarked. “Sunshine is so damn boring.” She crossed her ankles and laced her fingers together, reviewing the battleground idly. Bregos men outnumbered hers, she knew, and she watched their well ordered maneuvering as they placed themselves across the field for the start of the battle.
Bregos looked over to where the ranks of the nobles were sitting, on comfortable padded benches with servants attending them. “Lot of dinars being passed.”
“I certainly hope so.”
He looked at her, not expecting the comment. “Some will surely end up being disappointed, Majesty.”
“Only if they bet wrong.” Xena chuckled, deep and low in her throat.
“Just so.” Bregos agreed softly, leaning back in his chair. His eyes fell on the quietly watching Gabrielle who was seated cross-legged at Xena’s feet. “A new member of your household, Majesty?”
Xena idly stroked Gabrielle’s fair hair, which was soft and somewhat silky in texture. “Something like that.” She agreed. “Gabrielle has proven herself a very charming and talented addition to my quarters.” Her attention shifted to Bregos, catching the cool, speculative look on his face.
“Unusual eyes.” The general commented. “Has she come to… misfortune? I see she is bruised, Majesty.”
The veiled accusation almost earned him an elbow that very well might have broken his jaw. Instead, Xena merely chuckled again. “Stop by the gate.. “ She checked the sun overhead. “After lunch, perhaps.”
Gabrielle leaned her head against the queen’s chair, blinking a little in the bright sunlight. Her ribs were tender and very sore, and her head still ached a little. The pressure of Xena’s fingers against her scalp was, however, curiously comforting.
Seeing Bregos at close quarters only confirmed her opinion about him. Gabrielle remembered a man, a merchant in Potadeia who had been a lot like him. Outwardly steadfast and jolly, a pillar of the community who was really stealing dinars from everyone and making tryst with other’s wives behind their backs.
She hoped Xena was very careful. She wished she could get to Toris, and tell him how wrong he was… how foolish the slaves were for putting their fragile hopes on this man.
A horn sounded.
“Here we go.” Xena remarked. She observed one of the battle squires trotting up towards her platform, holding a large, red square of fabric. She stood up as he reached her, and accepted the flag, tapping him on the top of the head with it before she lifted her arms and the banner high.
The men on the field shouted.
Xena stood for a moment, aware of all the eyes on her, and also, aware of exactly how exposed she appeared to be. Any decent crossbowman near the edge of the field, or a longbowman a little further out could hit her.
It amused her to stand there, presenting a target, and seeing if anyone dared to take a shot. Behind her, she heard Bregos shift in his chair. Was he signaling someone?
Was he going to take a shot himself? Xena knew she had guards behind her, but anyone could be bought.
“Be careful, sir. There’s a bump there, in front of you.”
Xena heard Gabrielle’s voice, slightly louder than it needed to be, and she smiled grimly. Almost anyone.
“Thanks, girl.” Brego’s voice came back, annoyance tinging it. “Was just stretching out me knee.”
With a flourish, Xena dropped the flag down. Then she remained facing outward, watching the first ranks of the soldiers head towards each other, swarming through the pits before she backed the few steps to her chair, and sat down on it.
She looked to her right. Gabrielle was watching Bregos with as dangerous a look as her cute face could manage. Xena reached out and brushed her knuckles against the girls’ cheek. Gabrielle looked quickly up at her, and she winked, smiling slightly.
Alaran appeared on the platform, and walked over to kneel as her side. “Mistress…”
Xena looked over Gabrielle’s head at him. Her chief of security’s eyes went to Bregos’ profile, then returned to her face. Xena smiled at him. Then she turned her head and her attention to the field. The front lines were charging towards each other in the first clash of the battle.
Without a word, Alaran rose and stepped behind her throne, resting one hand on the back of it as he settled into watchful stillness.
Gabrielle leaned her elbows on her knees, her heartbeat still rattling in her chest. When Bregos had gotten up, and looked at Xena’s unprotected back, she’d felt sure he was going to do something to her. His face had been dark, and ugly, although he had no weapons in his hands.
And the look he’d given her when she’d called out. Gabrielle shivered. She could almost feel the danger all around her. As she looked down at the chaos of the battlefield, she wondered which place was really more hazardous.
It was hard to see what was really going on. Two lines of men were clashing right then, on horses. She could hear the screams of the animals, and the yells of the men, and as she watched, she saw the bright flash of sunlight on weapons.
Were they really trying to kill each other? She suddenly wondered. Was she about to see… oh gods. Gabrielle turned her head and leaned against the chair, feeling sick to her stomach. The image of the two men, one swinging a huge round weapon on a pole and hitting the other imprinted on her mind. The second man had been thrown to one side, and collapsed, limp on the ground.
“Hey.” Xena gave her a tug on the ear.
Reluctantly, Gabrielle lifted her head and looked up at her. “Are they all going to die?” She whispered, gazing into Xena’s pale eyes. “For a game?”
“Die?” Xena’s eyebrows lifted, and she looked quickly at the field, then back at Gabrielle. “Those guys? Not unless they’re far more careless and stupid than they should be. The rule is to disable your opponent, not kill em. The men know the tricks. You get hit on the helm, you go down, stay down, that kinda thing. Why?”
Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief.
“Did you really think I’d let the entire army croak out there?” Xena seemed incredulous.
“I didn’t know what to think.” Gabrielle answered. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“Ah.” The queen put a hand on her head and rotated it, forcing her to look at the field. “Lemme give you a clue. See those buildings?” She pointed at the structures. “Six on each side. Each army’s gotta capture the ones of the other, and put their flag up on it. First side to capture the other’s points wins.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle now could see the entrenched men around each structure. The two big lines of troops in the front were struggling to gain ground, inching back and forth. “So… the people on the horses kind of make a hole, and then the other guys go through?”
“You got it.” Xena agreed. “Now watch. The front six guys over there, see how they’re forming up like that?” She said. “They’re gonna blow a gap in the line, and then those men behind them’ll go into that hole, and split to either side, coming at the enemy from behind.”
“Oh!” Gabrielle watched as the horses charged. The riders had long shields, and they smashed into the struggling men near the trenches, knocking aside some of the enemy riders and bowling over the men on foot. The breaching riders had big round things on sticks and as they went through, they bopped the enemy on the head with them, sending loud clangs over the battlefield. “But that must hurt!”
“Well, it is war.” Xena remarked. “Don’t worry. They like pain.”
“Damn you! Watch them!” Bregos yelled suddenly, clutching the arms of his chair.
Xena chuckled. “You’ve lost the line, Bregos. Sloppy. Very sloppy.” She watched as a legion of foot soldiers poured through the gap, the riders holding open enough space for them to barrel through. They sectioned off as they did, half going one way and half going the other. They ran at top speed through the mud and attacked Brego’s line from behind. “Hah!”
“Fools.” Bregos teeth were grinding. Gabrielle could actually hear them from where she was. She studied the fighting soldiers, wincing as their weapons hit, sure that at least some of them were getting hurt in the process. Sure enough, Bregos’ captains sounded a horn, and the struggling fighters started to retreat towards the first of the fortified structures.
Xena’s plan, it seemed was working. She watched the queen’s face as she grinned, her hands restlessly clenching and releasing on the arms of the chair. “Did you used to do this?” Gabrielle asked her.
Xena went still briefly, then glance at her. “Yeah.” She admitted. “A lot better than he does.” She indicated the fuming Bregos. “Bregos! Your advance scouts – are they blind? Look at that!” She lifted her hand and pointed, to where a party of men disappeared under an ambush. “What farm did you find these sheep on?” She added derisively.
“Bloody Hades.” Bregos leaped to his feet. “Your pardon, Majesty. I must speak with my captains. They go far too softly on your men!!!” He strode to the edge of the platform and thundered down the steps, whisking aside his cape as he brushed past some of the seated nobility.
“Ah.” Xena leaned back. “Now it smells better up here, don’t you agree?”
“Mistress, have a care of his anger.” Alaran murmured. “He could instruct his men to disregard the battle rules.”
Xena nodded. “Go down and pass the word.” She told the security chief. “If Bregos’ jackasses draw mortal blood, all bets are off and they have my permission to get lethal on them.”
Alaran hesitated. “Majesty, you are very exposed here.” He protested softly. “And the guards…”
“Relax.” Xena gave him a shove towards the steps. “Gabrielle’ll protect me. G’wan.”
Reluctantly, Alaran left the platform, giving all the guards a hard look before he vanished down the steps.
It was quiet for a bit after he left, as they watched the battle progress. The men had settled in behind the first of Bregos fortifications, and Xena’s men were planning an attack.
“I don’t think I would really be able to protect you much.” Gabrielle said.
Xena laughed softly. “Alaran forgets I’m more than capable of protecting myself.” She said. “In fact, a lot of people seemed to have forgotten that.” The humorous tone faded and went darker. “I’m thirsty. Go over to that second level over there and get a skin from that vendor.” She told Gabrielle.
Gabrielle got up and straightened her black tunic, then she started for the edge of the platform. Halfway there she stopped, and turned. “Um..”
Xena flipped something towards her. “There. Though if you told him it was for me, you wouldn’t pay for it. Don’t tell him.”
Gabrielle caught the coin and tucked it into her fist as she continued on her way. She scrambled down from the platform and spotted the vendor Xena had indicated, turned away from her watching the battle. There were several other people milling around, and she could feel a sense of excitement starting to build as Xena’s men launched their attack.
“He’s letten em think they’ve got im.”
“Tricky, he is. He’ll sneak right round the back next.”
“No way the general’l let his boys lose this one. No way.”
Gabrielle tapped the wine vendor on the shoulder. “Excuse me.”
The man, who had said the last words, turned. “Eh? Wh.. ah! Pardon m’lady!” He looked around nervously. “Didn’t see you coming atall! Atall… what can I get for you?”
“One of those, please.” Gabrielle pointed at the wineskins hanging from his shoulder.
He unhooked one and handed it over. “There you go, m’lady. Two dinars, if you please.”
Gabrielle handed over the coin and waited patiently as he studied it with widened eyes. After a moment, he fumbled in his belt pouch and made her change, handing it back to her with shaking hands. She took the coins. “Thanks.”
“You.. let me know ifn’ the wine’s not t’your liking, m’lady.” The vendor blinked at her.
“Okay.” Gabrielle nodded, backing away a few steps before she turned and started back to the rough hewn stairway. She’d reached it and put out a hand to start climbing when she heard her name whispered urgently.
She stopped and looked around, then looked under the platform. She could see a pair of pale eyes looking back at her. “Toris?” She whispered back. “Is that you?”
“Shh.” Toris cautiously poked his head out from under the wooden supports. “I’m not supposed to be here. I came over to see if I could catch you before…”
“Before what?” Gabrielle eased to one side, and leaned against the supports, hiding him from casual view.
He looked dirty, tired, and desperate. “I can’t tell you anything.” He warned. “You’re too close to her, and I can’t risk her finding out.. more people might die.”
“Shh. Just listen to me. I need to know something, Gabrielle. I need to know if… if I come and ask you to do something, can I count on you to do it?”
“What is it?”
“I can’t tell you.”
Gabrielle looked at him. “Is it against her?”
He didn’t answer at once. “She killed your sister in front of your eyes, Gabrielle. Remember that. Remember her screaming. Remember that. Go to the gate and see what’s left of Malcom. Ask her what it felt like to cut his eyeballs out.”
Gabrielle stared at him, feeling a queasy clenching in her guts.
Toris grabbed her arm. “If I come and ask you, can I count on you, Gabrielle??” He asked, in a fierce tone.
After a frozen moment, Gabrielle’s hand covered his, and she looked intently into his eyes. “No.”
His face twitched, and he bared his teeth. “Then you’ll die with her, Gabrielle. You’ll die, just like your sister did.”
“Then I will.” Gabrielle replied. “I’ve come so close to death so often lately it doesn’t really matter much anymore. But you listen to me, Toris.” It was her turn to grab him, and she did. “You’re on the wrong side. It might be YOU who dies.”
He pulled free, and laughed, but it didn’t sound convincing. “Goodbye, Gabrielle. I’m sorry.” He gave her one last look, and ducked under a support, disappearing into the darkness below the platforms.
Gabrielle exhaled and clenched her shaking hands. She straightened and put a hand back up on the ladder, only to gasp as it was caught and held.
Alaran was standing there. He studied her for a moment, then he smiled. “Let me give you a hand up, little one.” He said. “And you can tell me all about your friend.”
“He’s not my friend.” Gabrielle whispered.
“No, he’s not.” The security chief agreed. “From your view. But from my view, he did you a great favor.” He started to climb, and waited for her to join him. “He answered the questions I had about whether such a charming young lady such as yourself who has taken care to get so very close to my Mistress might turn into a bed asp to bite her.”
Gabrielle felt herself pulled up the ladder and onto the upper platform. She looked across the wooden surface, to where Xena was seated in her throne, watching them.
“Mistress.” Alaran greeted her, as they walked over.
Gabrielle handed Xena both the wineskin and her change, and sat down on the carpet next to her, feeling sick and confused.
“Did they approach her?” Xena asked.
“Most certainly, Mistress.” Alaran said.
Gabrielle lifted her head and looked at Xena.
Alaran sighed, but removed a belt pouch from his belt and handed it to her. “Mistress, I should know better than to wager against your judgement.”
“Yes, you should.” Xena lazily dropped the pouch on the carpet next to Gabrielle. “Satisfied now?”
Alaran ducked his head at her, then he turned as his name was called. A liveried man was at the edge of the platform, motioning at him with some urgency. “Pardon, Majesty.”
Xena flicked her fingers at him. She waited for Alaran to leave with the soldier before she turned and regarded Gabrielle. “Thanks.”
Totally out of her depth, Gabrielle could only look at her.
A loud roar went up. Xena stood and paced to the front of the platform, peering out over the field. She lifted a hand and let out her own yell, as a yellow and black banner went up over Bregos’ first structure. Then she turned and came back, taking her seat and leaning against the chair arm.
Gabrielle rubbed her temples. “That was all a trick?” She murmured. “Just to see if I…”
“No.” Xena cut her off. “Alaran was the one who needed proof. I didn’t.”
“Did you really cut someone’s eyes out?”
Xena sat back. “Yes, I did.” She said. “And I cut his hand off, and I gutted him and left him to die on the gates.” She pulled the stopper out of the wineskin and took a sip. “I enjoyed doing it.”
Chilled, Gabrielle gazed out over the battlefield, where now the men were grouping around a second structure. She spotted Bregos entering the field, riding his horse. He shouted at his men, and rode towards the besieged structure. His troops spotted him and cheered, and a resounding cheer also went up from the watchers.
“Now he’ll give em a kick in the ass, and if he’s lucky, they’ll fight to a standstill and I’ll have to fight him to break the tie.” Xena remarked. “Or if he’s not, he’ll lose and I’ll offer to fight him to save his honor.” She said. “Either way, he’s mine.”
“What if his men win?”
“They won’t.” Xena told her. “He has more men, but I kept the smart ones.”
“What if he wins if you fight?”
“He won’t.” Xena whispered.
“But you’re hurt…”
“It doesn’t matter.” The queen gazed at the battlefield. “I can feel his life in my hands.”
Slowly, Gabrielle slumped against the throne. She’d made her choice, and in her heart she hoped it was the right one, no matter what happened out on that field, or… She tipped her head back and looked up at Xena. The queen was watching her, sipping from the wineskin. “Why did you thank me?”
“I hate losing.” Xena said. “Every time I’ve trusted someone up to now, I’ve lost.” Her face twitched into a brief grin. “It was nice to win for a change.” She leaned over the throne arm and caught Gabrielle’s chin, drawing her face up and kissing her gently on the lips. “So thanks.”
And in that moment, Gabrielle found her heart and lost her soul. It happened quickly, between one breath and the next, and as Xena pulled away from her and their eyes met, all she could do was hope the gods weren’t laughing too hard at her.
Surely the Fates were.