It wasn’t often she got caught that offguard. Xena blinked, feeling her breath catch in her throat. What have I just gotten into? She found herself unable to break her gaze from Gabrielle’s and as she sat there, she seemed to go deeper and deeper into that wide open regard. Then the crowd noise broke in, and she regained control of what she was doing. She managed to ease her face into a wry grin, and gave Gabrielle’s nose a tweak, before she sat back in her throne and pretended to watch the fighting.
After a moment, though, she glanced back at Gabrielle. The girl had leaned her head against the throne again, and her hand was curled around the support, it’s thumb rubbing gently against the wood. Her eyes were open, but even Xena could see they were unfocused, and the barest hint of a smile was tensing the skin on either side of her mouth.
Xena took a deep breath and tried to steady her heartbeat. Her body’s very unexpected reaction to what she’d considered nothing more than an offhand gesture started and worried her. After all, Gabrielle was just a slave, just a… Xena’s fingers twitched, half curling. Damn, she wanted to do it again. Slave or no slave, she couldn’t brush off her attraction to the blond girl seated at her side much longer. Her entire body was tingling with it, and of all the damned inconvenient times…
Damn it, Xena. Get your head on straight. She mental savaged herself. You’re in the middle of a fight for your damn throne! Forget about the damn kid!
Gabrielle chose that moment to lifted her head and rest her chin on the chair arm, her eyes shyly studying Xena’s face. Xena looked back at her. “What?” She asked, wryly feeling the surrender that cascaded over her. “You’re not going to ask me why I did that, are you?”
Gabrielle shook her head.
“Will wonders never cease.” Xena said.
“I.. um.” There was a distinctly husky note in Gabrielle’s voice that made Xena’s ears prick. “I thought it was all part of the act.” She paused. “Right?”
Xena rolled the thought over. Easy out. Good choice. Besides, she really wasn’t interested in a poor little peasant girl was she? From some backwater mud and wattle village on the back end of nowhere? Her eyes narrowed slightly, and she half smiled. “Did you like it?” She asked.
Gabrielle blinked. “What?”
Xena grasped one of her ears and examined it. “Did you like being kissed?” She asked. “Yes? No? Do I have to explain what that is? You only had experience with sheep before? What?”
The misty green eyes dropped for a few seconds, then lifted again. “Yes.” She uttered. “I did like it.”
“Good.” Xena leaned back and forced her attention to the field. She got up and paced to the front of the platform, shading her eyes as she watched the new fighting. Bregos had taken charge of his men, and they were fiercely defending the second structure. She calculated that he would retain it, and drive her men back, and she tipped her head back and regarded the sun with a slight frown.
She wanted it over, she realized. She wanted her men to do as they’d been told and battle him to a standstill, so she could go out there and settle the score between them, and get it all over with. Her back hurt, and the mechanations of everyone around her grated on nerves that felt raw and very sensitive at the moment.
On the other hand, she watched two of Bregos men leap over the structure, and land on several of hers in a bold and daring maneuver. On the other hand, going back to her quarters with cute little Gabrielle right at the moment probably wasn’t a good thing either. No matter how big a bastard she, Xena, was, she’d told the kid she didn’t rape slaves, and damn it, Gabrielle wasn’t going to be the first.
Ah. There. Xena watched her men start to retreat, as Brego’s troops howled in triumph. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” She suddenly felt a presence at her back, and turned to find Gabrielle standing next to her, looking at the field. The wind blew her pale hair back, exposing the bandage on her head. Dressed in her familiar colors, she seemed far less a child, and more the complex and damnably interesting person Xena had slowly been discovering.
“Oh!” Gabrielle inhaled. “Look!”
Xena did, seeing two soldiers, one of hers, and one of Bregos facing off in a furious battle near the front of the field. The crowd cheered, and surged closer, excitement rising in the air. This was no mock fight, the two were in deadly earnest and were going after each other with finely honed and drawn longswords. “Mm.”
“I thought you said it was all just a game?”
Xena found her lips twisting into a grim smile. “It’s never just a game, Gabrielle.” She said. “You put enough boys with enough sharp things in a small space with egos flaring, and you’re gonna get blood.”
As though she’d known it would happen, her man let out a wild, brutal yell and hacked the arm off his opponent, sending a spurt of blood outward in a spray. “Take it.. take it.. “ Xena muttered under her breath, ending in a soft hiss as the soldier took advantage of his reeling opponent and buried his blade into the man’s chest.
Bregos man fell heavily to the ground. Her man stepped on him, and pulled his weapon free, holding it up covered in a red slick.
Bregos army screamed in outrage. Xena’s man turned and pointed his sword at them. “That’s what a coward gets! He ran!”
“Good boy.” Xena said softly.
“You knew… he’d do that?” Gabrielle spoke in a raw whisper.
“I told him to do it.” The queen replied.
Bregos rode towards the man. His face was set with anger. But as he came closer Xena’s men closed ranks around the killer, and several of her horsemen rode to cut Bregos off. “Get to business, general!” Xena yelled. “You’ve got a war on!”
Bregos whirled his mount to face her. “He spilled blood, Majesty!”
Xena held both hands out away from her in an elaborate shrug. “If a man ran in battle in my army, I’d hope his fellows would gut him, not wait for the enemy to do it.” She yelled back. A soft tittering of laughter drifted over the field, and Bregos turned brick red. The man wrenched his horses head around and spurred him back towards the far structure, which Xena’s men had taken and now were preparing to hold against attack.
Gabrielle exhaled heavily and turned, looking back over the platform at the mountains behind them. “Is killing people really the answer?”
Xena looked at her. “The answer to what?”
“To everything?” The mist green eyes searched her face. “There has to be a better way.”
Xena cocked her head to one side and considered the concept. “Well if there is, I haven’t found it. Good luck.” She moved back and retrieved her wineskin from the back of her throne, leaning against the wooden chair while she sipped from it. “What do you think you can do to someone, short of killing them? Cut a few things off?” She asked. “I tried that. Just made em pissed off, and ended up I had to kill em anyway when they tried to jump me.”
Gabrielle sat back down on the carpet, clasping her arms around her upraised knees. “Can’t you…” She thought. “You could lock them up.”
“And that’s better? Ever seen the inside of a dungeon?” Xena chuckled.
Gabrielle looked up. “Have you?”
“Yes.” Xena nodded, no longer amused. “I spent time in one. I’d have rather died.”
“Mm.” The girl murmured.
“Mercy only gets you assassination attempts, Gabrielle.” Xena resumed her seat on the throne. “Mercy gets you scorn. Mercy gets you nowhere, because most of the people you kill don’t have anything else you can take from them that means anything.”
“Just their life.” Gabrielle said.
“Like me.” The girl whispered. “That’s all I have, so I guess maybe you’re right. What else could you take from me?”
Xena found a damned inconvenient and surprising lump in her throat. She hastily swallowed a mouthful of wine to rid herself of it. “You don’t count.” She answered brusquely. “No one’s gonna kill you, at least not as long as I’m around.”
Gabrielle got up, walked over to the throne, and sat down next to it. She studied her laced fingers for a bit, then looked up at Xena. “I hope you’re around for a really long time.”
“I bet you do.” Xena found herself smiling at her. She handed over the skin. “Thirsty?”
“A little.” Gabrielle took the skin and sipped from it. “Thanks.” She swallowed. “Xena?”
“Yeess?” The queen rumbled.
“What would happen… if you didn’t do something, like…”
“Like kill that guy who hit you?” Xena easily guessed the question. “You’d continue to be a target, and in danger of having the same thing happen every time you left the tower, for you. For me – it would mean I backed down.. that I didn’t protect someone I took into my household. It would mean I’d gotten weak, and that means someone would come after me, to see if it meant they could kill me easily.”
“There’s no way around it, Gabrielle.” Xena’s voice gentled slightly. “ You kill people to keep them from killing you, or killing people you…people that you’re responsible for. That’s all there is to it. It’s how nature works.”
“It’s not really fair.” Gabrielle said.
“Nature isn’t. Life isn’t.” The queen stated with utter certainty. “The strong live and breed, the weak lose and die.” She said. “I’m strong, and on top, and I intend to keep it that way, and if it takes killing anyone trying to take what’s mine, then I will. No regrets.”
Gabrielle took a final sip from the wineskin and handed it back. She looked directly at Xena, lifting her chin slightly as the queen’s eyebrows rose. “I guess I’m lucky then.” She admitted. “That I’m yours, I mean.”
Xena didn’t ignore the prickle that went up her spine at the words. “Ahhh…. Decided that, huh?”
She nodded slightly. “Yes.”
“I said you were smart.” Xena brushed her fingers over Gabrielle’s cheek, not surprised to see the fair lashes flutter closed at the touch.
But a second later, they opened again, and Gabrielle met her gaze. “And..um… Xena?”
“Nobody kisses sheep.”
Xena felt a chuckle erupt in pure reflex.
“I mean, I know you’ve probably heard stories, and sometimes the boys kinda get carried away… but there’s no kissing involved.” Gabrielle explained, a smile crinkling the skin around her eyes. “Really.”
“Uh huh.” She was delighted to find her little slave showing signs of a nascent sense of humor, something she’d seriously been wondering about. “Are you telling me you know about the birds and the bees, Gabrielle?” Her voice dropped again, softened with curiosity.
Blushing, Gabrielle shrugged a little, and grinned. “Something like that, yes.” She admitted. “Do you know how sheep mate?”
Xena cast an eye on the field, where Bregos troops were making an assault on his captured structure. “No.. how?” She asked, returning her gaze to the woman at her side.
“Baaadly.” Gabrielle stuttered, with an absolutely straight face.
Xena covered her eyes, shaking her head and chuckling. “I asked for that.” She peeked at Gabrielle. “New royal decree. No sheep jokes.” She found her hand suddenly reaching out to touch the slave’s face again and paused, realizing with a sense of shock just how natural it was becoming for her to do that.
How much she wanted to do it. Strange, because she’d never been much for touching people, even those she slept with beyond what was needed. Slowly, she let her hand return to the chair arm, feeling the unusual ache in her chest.
What was this? Seriously, Xena studied Gabrielle’s face, noting it’s innocence as the slave looked up at her. The ache grew, and she decided she didn’t much care what it was. Her hand lifted again and she ruffled Gabrielle’s hair with it, absorbing the sudden warmth the touch brought to her eyes. It was a nice feeling, and Xena decided she liked it.
A roar came up from the battlefield, and she looked over, to see Bregos banner now rising over his captured structure. Xena watched her lines reform, and a quiet tension started to coil in her guts knowing that soon it would be her turn to be out there, smelling grass, and dirt, and blood. And Bregos.
Her fingers sorted through silky hair.
She wished it was already over.
There was all kinds of things going on out on the field, and all around her. But Gabrielle was content to sit quietly, unmoving, absorbing the rhythmic touch on the back of her head.
There was so much emotion rolling around inside her, it was really hard to do anything but just sit there. She suspected if she tried to stand up, she’d fall over like a limp carrot top and end up right back where she started.
It was all just too much. A thousand questions were spinning in her head, and it was just too exhausting to try and figure out what was going on. It was easier to just lean against the throne, and breathe in Xena’s scent, and revel in the memories of a kiss and the comfort of a casual touch.
Oh, she knew it didn’t mean anything. Gabrielle exhaled softly. She was a slave, after all. She was just playing a part that Xena was enjoying fooling around with, and it all didn’t mean a thing to her.
But she’d never felt like this before. Even when she’d walked out with boys at home, it hadn’t been like this. Perdicus had kissed her the first time years back, and it hadn’t been like this. This was like standing inside a bright flame.. this was like being surrounded by rushing water.. this was like…
A sigh. Oh, Gabrielle, you idiot. Cut it out. She gazed out over the field, watching the men run back and forth, attacking. Retreating. Mama always said… ‘Gabrielle, one day you’re going to fall in love, and that will be something, for sure.’ She edged a tiny bit closer to the wooden chair supports. Well, Mama.. you were right. I’m sorta glad you’re not here to see it, though.
Papa would be so ashamed of me.
But… this is real. Gabrielle acknowledged sadly. I didn’t ask for this to happen. I didn’t want it. Or maybe I did, but not… not like this. Not…when it doesn’t mean anything.
Surely, the Fates were laughing. Mocking her.
Gabrielle lifted her head and rested her chin on the chair arm again, gazing up at the queen’s face. The blue eyes twinkled as she looked back, sending Gabrielle’s heart racing yet again.
“You and I.” Xena put a fingertip on her nose. “Need to talk later.”
Gabrielle blinked. “We do?”
“Yes, we do.” The queen said. “After we get done with this pedantic charade and I spend some time kicking ass.” She added. “We’ll talk about the birds and the bees.” A grin. “And sheep.” An eyebrow spiked. “And us.” She ruffled Gabrielle’s hair, then she stood up and twitched her robe straight. “Let’s go.”
Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and followed the queen as she stalked to the edge of the platform. On the field, she could see the two sides faced off across the central trench again, it’s edges now widened and ragged with muddy gouges. She paused behind Xena, as the queen braced herself and stood up to her full height, the wind brushing her long dark hair back and baring her angular profile.
Us? Gabrielle almost came close to simply walking off the platform. Did she really mean…
“Bregos!!!” Xena’s voice easily cut through the crowd. She spread her arms to either side, brushing Gabrielle’s chest with her right hand. “I didn’t come here to see a standoff!”
Gabrielle glanced around nervously. “You know..someone could shoot at you up here.”
“I know.” Xena replied quietly. “Don’t worry. I’ll catch the arrows if they do.”
“Majesty! I need time for my strategy to work!” Bregos shouted back, standing in his stirrups. ‘It is but midday!”
“You’re not going anywhere!” Xena bellowed back. Then she lowered her voice. “Really.”
“But.. how did they..” Gabrielle glanced in reflex at the queens’ back.
“Three men, three crossbows, three arrows.. “ Xena held up her hands and wiggled her fingers. “Two of these.”
“Ahh.” Gabrielle exhaled in wonder. “Wow.”
“My men are toying with you!” Xena lifted her voice again. Her troops yelled back, shaking their swords at her. Xena strolled towards the ladder. “C’mon, Gabrielle. It’s time to get down and dirty with the boys.”
“Um.. okay.” She followed Xena to the ladder, and kept close to her as she eased her way down and majestically made her way through the crowd.
Nobles bowed before her, and she swept past them without a glance, until she reached the front of the watchers, near the edge of the field. Here, the platform was only a few feet from the ground. Guards cleared out a spot for Xena, roughly tossing finely dressed men and women out of the way as the queen claimed a good sized area.
Here, Gabrielle could really smell the field, rich and pungent. She could see some of the soldiers, covered in mud and some in blood, dug in on either side of the trench. Men were lying on the ground near the edge of the field, some were moving, and some were not.
“Your problem is, Bregos.” Xena settled herself comfortably. “Your men are out of shape, out of luck, and out of position. You can’t take the trench from this side, because the angles against you, and we have the high ground.” She pointed.
Bregos’ whole face twitched. “Majesty, I do not see your forces doing any better.”
The crowd murmured. Some looked quickly at Xena. Some of the looks were not complimentary.
Xena noticed. Her hands flexed. She lifted an arm, and signaled.
With a wild yell, her troops exploded from the trench, and attacked. Bregos only barely scrambled back out of the way, and raced around the back of his lines, exhorting his men in a loud voice. They gave ground back a few feet, digging in against the attackers whom they still outnumbered.
One side of the line crumbled. Bregos spurred to the spot, hacking and slashing with his sword at the mass of struggling soldiers. One of Xena’s men slammed into his horse, and he whacked at the man, hitting him on the head and sending him to the ground in a splash of blood.
Gabrielle turned her head, and tried not to see or hear.
Bregos tried, but the a section of his men stumbled, and collapsed under the attack. They retreated back again.
Xena could hear the low grumble starting around her. She watched the carnage with a calm, disinterested eye. Until she glanced down at her smaller companion, who was white as a sheet and shaking.
“Can’t you stop this?” Gabrielle whispered.
“No. But he can.” The queen put an arm around her shoulders. She lifted her other hand and signaled, and a reserve force poured through the hole in Bregos lines, forcing them back step by step.
He knew. Bregos broke away from the line he could no longer hold and rode over to face her. “Mistress!”
Xena let him wonder for a moment, then she put two fingers between her teeth and released a loud whistle. The battle paused, her men standing ready, weapons raised, but holding their ground. “Yeeess?”
“I am enjoying this immensely!” Bregos said.
“Me, too.” Xena agreed.
“But… we have lost good men today!” The general puffed himself up. “You are right. This stalemate must end!”
“Now that you’re losing? C’mere, shit for brains.” Xena muttered under her breath. “I should just shoot you.” She added, turning to one side as Alaran made his way hastily to her side. “Ah. There you are. Just in time for the show.”
“Majesty.. he knows.” Alaran whispered. “He knows of your injury!”
Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed as she regarded him, forgotten at Xena’s other hand.
“He’ll try.” Xena shoved him aside. “Well, Bregos?” She raised her voice. “Did you have a suggestion? My men are waiting.”
“Majesty!” Alaran hissed.
“There is no need to risk any more of my.. our precious soldiers!” Bregos shouted. “I will settle this myself! I offer, Majesty! I offer to stand for the honor of my men, in single combat, against a champion of your choosing!”
The crowd roared, responding to the noble gesture. Bregos men chanted his name, visibly relieved.
“Majesty, let me fight him.” Alaran rasped. “Don’t fall into his trap!”
Xena held up her hand, and waited for silence. It wasn’t long in coming. She folded her hands at her waist. “All right.” She agreed. “Bregos, I accept your brave, generous, and noble offer to settle this question with your own… body.”
Visibly a little surprised at her words, Bregos, bowed nobly and gracefully in his saddle. “Majesty, you honor me beyond my worth.”
“Oh, you said it.” Xena uttered.
“I await your pleasure, Mistress. Name your champion, and we shall put our lives and our honors before yourself, and our noble populace.”
“Mistress!” Alaran actually tugged on her sleeve. “Please!”
Xena turned and faced him, her expression cold as ice. “Go.” She ordered. “This is my place.”
Alaran visibly bit off a response, jerking his body into a bow then backing off to stand near the guard, silently seething.
“Xena.” Gabrielle whispered.
“You want to fight Bregos too?” The queen turned to her, both eyebrows hiking up.
“Um.. “ The girl glanced past Xena. “Uh. .no, but.. only me and Alaran knew about your back. If Bregos knows…”
Xena gave her a resigned, almost sad look. “I said you were the only exception to the rule, didn’t I?” She squeezed Gabrielle’s shoulder and turned to face Bregos. “ You’re on, Bregos.”
He bowed. “Call out your champion, Mistress.”
Xena quietly unlatched the clasp on her silken robe and pulled it off. A wave of shocked rippled through the crowd as her armor and weapons were revealed and she straightened up to her full height. “I told you.” She spoke into the silence. “I have no need of a personal champion.”
She let the echo of her words fade, then she turned and handed her robe to Gabrielle. “Hang onto this for me, would you?”
Gabrielle took it as though it were precious. “Be careful.” She said. “He’s creepy.”
Xena felt the eyes of the populace on her. She let her gaze travel lightly around the crowd, then she turned her eyes on Gabrielle. With studied deliberation, she inclined her head and gave into an impulse again, feeling Gabrielle lean forward to meet her as their lips touched. She made it last more than an instant this time, then she pulled back and winked at the slave. “There is no way I am not walking off that field first.” She patted Gabrielle cheek, then she turned and stepped off the platform, landing on the ground without so much as a jar to her motion.
The soldiers eased back out of the lines as Xena approached, her long strides moving her smoothly over the rutted ground. She paused a few lengths from Bregos horse and faced him, letting her hands rest lightly on her thighs. “You going to come down here, or do I have to pull you off that damn nag?” She felt her royal verneer slough away, and the pit fighter she’d grown up as started to surface.
He saw the difference. He slowly dismounted, slapping his horse on the rear and sending him off at a trot. The troops formed up around them, in a circle, one half hers, one half his, and a spectre entered the battlefield, it’s low laugh rattling the flags and standards that lined the grass.
Xena took a moment to look around. The entire field was surrounded by the populace, and the stands were packed to overflowing by more nobles than she’d realized she had in the kingdom. Eyes watched her. Hungry eyes, and she realized there were many in the crowd who didn’t want her to leave the field in one piece. She was hated. She knew it. The only security she had was the ring of men behind her.
And the only love to be found was standing on the sidelines, with a silk gown over her shoulders.
“Xena.” Bregos was close enough to speak low. “If I defeat you, I will have your hand and share that throne.”
Xena merely smiled. “If you defeat me, it’ll be vacant. It’s all yours.”
His face hardened. “So be it.” He drew his sword and swept it towards her in an exaggerated bow. “I humbly bow to my mistress’s wishes.” He spoke loudly. “And seek only to do her bidding.”
Xena centered herself. She took the pain racking her body and put it away, clearing her mind for the coming battle. She brought her body over it’s balance point, and drew her sword from it’s sheath, flipping it lazily over her hand to point backwards cradled in her arm. She crooked both index fingers. “C’mon.” She purred, ending the word on a chuckle. “Come and get me, you pompous excuse for a half rate butcher.”
And he did.
At first he thought to simply overpower her, using his height and weight to roll right over her and get the duel over in short order. Xena had barely time to set herself before he attacked, his swift, competent strokes making it plain to her that he wasn’t going to pull any punches. But that was all right, since she wasn’t either, and she deflected his initial strike and slipped neatly under his arm, booting him in the rear as she turned in one smooth motion.
Her men chuckled.
Xena wished she could chuckle. As much as she wanted dearly to enjoy this little tussle, her injury was ruining her fun and she knew she could only draw it out for so long before it started handicapping her in a dangerous way. She waited for Bregos to turn and follow her, and then she had to duck as he swiped viciously at her head. “Naughty boy.” She met his blade and turned it, throwing him back in the other direction and continuing her move into a graceful turn that put her weapon right in position to slash the front of his armor, cutting deeply into the metal links that covered his chest.
That cooled his temper. He took another tack, switching from brute force to finesse. He was a fine swordsman, and now he engaged her with skill and swift, cutting motions. Xena smiled. Much more to her liking. She entered into the dance with a sense of true enjoyment, meeting his attack and turning it, anticipating his motions and evading them, blocking his strokes and countering his every parry with one of her own.
She could sense the magic they were weaving. Even in young Gabrielle’s eyes, watching in fascination from the low platform. Xena grinned fiercely, and went on the attack, mindful of that rapt attention. Battle fever was now erasing the pain, and she wrapped both hands around her sword hilt and whipped the blade in a tight matrix, sending sunlight rippling over the field as it caught the sword’s edge.
Bregos moved to block her and she took a step forward, then she crouched slightly and as he swept a roundhouse stroke at her, she uncoiled and exploded away from the ground, leaping almost her own height in the air and flipping into a forward roll as she slammed her own blade backwards, knocking his out of alignment and almost burying it’s point in the grass.
She twisted in mid air and landed, never even slowing as she just went with her momentum and lashed out with a perfectly placed kick, nailing him in the jaw.
He stumbled backwards, not quite off balance, but stunned.
Xena laughed, and twirled her sword in her hand. She stepped lightly forward and lashed out, almost taking the sword form his hands. He had to grab fast to keep hold of it, and now his face reddened with anger and shame. “You.” Xena cut in towards the field, a move he countered. “Are.” She reversed, and he countered, but she stopped almost in mid motion and chopped down and to the left, evading his blade and cutting him deeply in the thigh. “Out of your league.”
“You only think so.” Bregos gathered himself and came at her. He regained his grip on his sword and attacked furiously. “I am through playing.”
Gabrielle felt like her heart had taken up permanent residence in her throat. She clutched Xena’s gown, wrapped around her neck, as she watched the two fighters circle each other. It was hard to believe what she was seeing – this Xena was so different than the one she’d been getting sort of used to the past few days. She used her sword with such power, and such grace it was almost like watching a dance, only this dance was deadly.
When Xena jumped over Bregos’ and flipped in mid air, Gabrielle had almost squawked out loud. It had been amazing! She’d forgotten for a minute how serious the moment was as her eyes followed the lithe, muscular body in it’s agile flight.
Now, though, she was worried. Bregos was really going after Xena, smashing his bigger sword against her while he issued grunts that sounded very much like a big fat pig. He was trying to push her backwards, Gabrielle could see, but Xena was holding her ground, her legs braced against the uneven ground with muscles standing out under the skin in distinct relief as she met stroke after stroke.
Bregos aimed a blow at her right side, and Xena met it, her blade angled down as she stepped past Bregos and swiveled, keeping him in front of her as he also turned. He flipped his sword to his other hand and aimed – right at her injured shoulder.
Rather than take the blow, Xena dropped to one knee, then unexpectedly surged upward, wrapping her hands around her sword hilt and smashing it into his chest, shoving him backwards in a sheer display of brute strength. He staggered and, as she caught her balance, he got his opening and jumped past her, turning and whacking her across the back as hard as he could.
Gabrielle could almost feel the dire pain herself. She saw Xena freeze in place, just for an instant, and she was even close enough to see those pale eyes flutter shut so quickly you almost thought you imagined it. But she knew she hadn’t, and her guts clenched, a low sound tearing from her throat in unconscious reaction.
And then Xena turned. Her body arched, and her head dropped forward slightly, and all amusement vanished from her. She fastened her eyes on Brego and stalked towards him, making no attempt to guard against his sword. Her own was clasped in her hand, and she twirled it as she moved, her momentum increasing as she zeroed in on him.
“Have you a problem, Majesty?” Bregos taunted her. “Not feeling well, perhaps?” He lifted his sword and came at her, but didn’t barely have a chance to get the weapon even before she was on him, her attack so fast, and so hard it was almost too fast for the eye to follow. She slammed her blade against his as a low growl emerged from her throat, her weapon cutting through the steel he carried and twisting it in his hands. She yanked hard, and the sword flew from him.
He backed a step and tried to pull his dagger. Xena swiveled and swung at waist level, catching him across the forearm and shattering bone as she cut all the way through his arm.
He screamed in shock. Xena pulled the dagger from his half drawn scabbard and just kept moving as he backed away, underhanding the knife and striking, burying the blade deep into his groin.
He dropped to his knees, then crumpled at her feet. Without even pausing Xena kicked him onto his back and lifted her sword, flipping it and catching the hilt in her hands as she dropped the dagger and braced herself to spit him like a pig.
She took a breath, and that raised her head just enough for her eyes to focus beyond the shocked and staring soldiers to a pair of mist green eyes widened in horror that were fastened on her.
Xena looked down at the now helpless man at her feet. Blood was gushing from his groin, from his arm, and from the cut on his leg. He was writhing in agony. Cries of pain jerked from his throat almost like a child’s. The scent of blood rose to her senses, filling them. The kill was here, and she knew she should take it. This life was hers.
She looked at her sword, already stained with that same life.
Xena let her eyes sweep the crowd – most standing, many horrified, all waiting for her to kill him. They all knew she would, she could see it in their faces. In the faces of Brego’s men. In the faces of her own men. All of them knew.
Except for Gabrielle. Xena felt a strange sense of odd peace come over her, as she stepped back, and reversed her sword in her hand, letting it’s blade fall to rest on her shoulder. She looked down at Bregos with a dispassionate expression. “Loser.” She uttered, before she turned and faced the circle of men. First, she looked at Bregos captains. “Take him.” She pointed at the fallen general with her sword. “I’d start with a tornequet around the arm.” She watched them stare at her. “MOVE IT!” She bellowed.
Two of them moved forward, very hesitantly. Xena ignored them, turning to her own men. They drew their weapons and raised them, and a chant started. Music to her ears. Her name. She lifted her own sword and acknowledged them, accepting the accolade.
Then she turned to the populace. There was no joy there. She knew most of them had bet with Bregos, banked on Bregos, and now… she could see the anger in the nobles faces.
Well, to Hades with all of them. She hadn’t told them to pick the wrong side. Her plan had worked, but not really gotten the result she’d expected. And her back was now shooting bolts of pain through her, where he’d struck her during the fight.
But her army clustered behind her, chanting her name, and faced with that armed force the populace joined in, until the field was shaking with the sound of her victory, buffeting her as she walked in stately dignity off the field towards the platform.
She stopped just before it, and raised her sword hand, with her weapon in it. “Our land is strong.” She called out. “Let our enemies… “ She paused deliberately, letting her eyes sweep over the nobles. “Take note.”
The tide turned, and the populace cheered her. Xena felt her spirits rising, as she walked back to the platform, to the blond haired girl waiting for her there. Savagely holding back the pain, she walked up the steps and stopped at the top, raising her sword again and turning, collecting the adulation.
Gabrielle looked up at her as she turned. “Are you okay?” The girl asked, in a low voice.
No. Xena exhaled, sheathing her sword and waving at the still shouting and cheering crowd, and her chanting fighters. “Oh, I feel like a pike’s been driven through my right shoulderblade, I’ve got a headache that would drop a stallion in rut, and I actually had to touch that man’s codpiece.” She got all that out through gritted teeth. “Never been better, Gabrielle. You?”
“I’m glad it’s over.”
“Over?” Xena smiled grimly. “For now. “ She waved a hand, acknowledging the crowd. “Begin the single combat!” She instructed loudly. “I have dinars to award!”
The soldiers cheered, hers wildly, Bregos very grudgingly, and the list masters now started to sort out the field.
“Do.. you want to go sit down?” Gabrielle whispered.
“No.” Xena recognized the lightheadedness. “I want to go lay down. Thank the gods I’m the queen, and I can do whatever the Hades I want.” She laid a casual arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “C’mon.” She raised her voice slightly for the crowd. “Let me teach you what battle lust’s all about, baby.”
Gabrielle saw the looks, and didn’t care. She carefully wrapped her arm around Xena’s waist, and walked with her off the field towards the tower, leaving the carnage behind. “I’m glad you didn’t kill him.”
“I’m not.” Xena sighed aggrievedly.
“The crowd really wanted him to win.”
“I know.” The queen said.
“I think if you killed him, they’d have made him out as a hero.”
Xena looked down at her young companion, realizing she had a point. “He’s no hero.”
“No. But maybe they know that now.” Gabrielle said. “You’re the hero.”
“Don’t’ you start that.”
“Somebody has to be the hero.”
They made it up to the queen’s quarters, where the cheers from the field only drifted in through the open windows. It was cool, and quiet in the chambers and Xena leaned gratefully against the wall as she undid the buckles on her armor.
She felt a touch on her other side, and looked down to see Gabrielle undoing the ones there, her brow creased in concentration. “So, what’dja think?”
“Think?” Gabrielle got the catch undone and looked up. “About what?”
“Figures.” The queen half grinned. “One time I want you to think, you don’t.” She remarked. “About the fight.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle frowned. “The big one with all the guys, or yours?”
“Mine.” Xena eased her armor off over her head, using her good arm. She laid it carefully on the top of the trunk. “I told you it’s always about me.”
“It was scary.” Gabrielle admitted.
“Scary.” Xena sat down on the trunk, extending her legs in front o her. “I didn’t think I was that rusty.”
Gabrielle knelt next to her and fumbled with the straps that held her leg armor on, working the unfamiliar buckles. “No.. I thought you were amazing. I was just afraid he was going t hurt you.”
“He did.” Xena admitted quietly. “Bastard knew exactly where, too.”
“I don’t think anyone realized.” The girl took off the armor plate and studied it curiously, then set it down next to the chest armor. “I think they thought you just got mad.”
The pain got to her. Xena eased forward and rested her elbows on her knees, burying her face in her hands for a long moment. The long days of fighting the agony were wearing on her – she realized she wasn’t used to living with the need to do that anymore and for a second it almost made her angry again.
Then a hand touched her arm, fingers curling around it as Gabrielle’s thumb rubbed against the inside of her forearm in wordless comfort.
She wasn’t used to that either. When she’d been in the field with her army, healers didn’t waste time on bedside manner. Sometimes, they didn’t even waste time on talking. If you were lucky, they warned you before they started sewing your flesh. Xena lifted her head and rested her chin against her fists. “How bad does it look?” She jerked her chin to indicate her back, not missing the intensity in the girl’s eyes as she watched her.
Gabrielle shifted her hand from Xena’s forearm to her shoulder and leaned past her to look. She sucked in a breath at the sight. “Oh, Xena.”
The queen’s brow puckered, and she grimaced. “Let me guess. That means you’re not complimenting my evenly spaced shoulderblades.”
“It..” Gabrielle winced herself. “I think when he hit you, the back part of that metal bit..”
“My armor.” Xena supplied.
“Cut into where you’re hurt.” Gabrielle leaned further. “It’s.. bleeding pretty badly.” The edge of where Xena’s sword attached had been driven right into the already tortured hole in her back, splitting it open and adding a new gash just under it. Her leathers were covered in blood and it hurt Gabrielle just to look at it.
“Ah.” Xena let her head drop back into her hands, scrubbing her face. “That explains why it feels like it does.” With a deep sigh, she got her feet under her and pushed herself up onto them. “Gods, I’m so damn tired of this.” She trudged towards the bathing room. “If it’s bleeding that bad, you’re going to have to stitch it.”
Gabrielle had been following obediently. Now she stopped. “Stitch it? You mean you?”
Xena looked over her shoulder. One of her eyebrows lifted up to her hairline.
“Never mind. That was pretty stupid.” The girl shook her head. “It’s just that I’m not very good at sewing.”
Xena unlaced her leathers and pulled them loose gingerly, flinching as a bit of the cut hide pulled free from the gash in her back. “Get some water on that.”
Gabrielle went to the basin, and dunked a good size chunk of linen in it. Xena walked over and stood next to her, leaning on the marble topped counter. “So.”
“So?” Gabrielle carefully rinsed the newly ragged wound off.
“Tell me how amazing I was.” The queen said. “Take my mind off this, and the fact that I’ve got to go back out there later and celebrate with all those bastards.”
Gabrielle concentrated on her task for a moment. The damage to Xena’s back was now evident to her, once she’d washed the blood off, and she could see that aside from the new cut, the blow had also gone deeply into the old wound, breaking it open. Inside, there was some ugly stuff, and she washed it carefully. “I think it broke something open inside that first cut.”
“Yeah?” Xena didn’t sound upset, in fact, the queen turned her head and glanced at Gabrielle with interest. “Stuff coming out of there?”
“Huh.” The queen snorted. “Stupid bastard may have done me a favor.” She said. “I thought there was something in there not healing. Usually doesn’t take as long as this.”
“You mean… that’s a good thing?”
Now it was Xena’s turn to nod. She leaned against the counter again, letting her mind run over the fight, remembering her moves, and reliving the high points and the low ones. She thought the first part had gone pretty well. Bregos’ swordsmanship was decent, though it was no match for hers. They’d gotten some decent sparring in and then….
Why had Bregos gone for her back? Xena focused on the question, trying to shunt aside the increasing agony. Winning without exposing her weakness would have put him in a better light.. so was it just frustration? Or was it that he knew he was going to lose?
She thought she’d been so clever in setting up the general. What if… Xena half closed her eyes, reliving the strange, tense atmosphere around the field of battle. Maybe he had planned on the same thing, only never expecting her to step out against him?
“Okay.” Gabrielle said, at last. “I think that’s it.”
With a frown, Xena straightened, then grabbed at the cabinet as a wave of lightheadedness almost sent her crashing to the floor. Uh oh, not good. “Okay.” She regained control with a serious effort. “Time to get seriously herbal.”
Carefully, she released the marble top and gestured Gabrielle to walk before her, following the girl into the bedroom. “Okay.” Xena glanced down at her mud covered boots, then at the silk sheets. A brief smirk crossed her face, then she eased her body down on the bed, sliding her hands forward and exhaling. “Bring that damn box over here.”
Gabrielle took the box from the desk and brought it over. “Got it.”
“Okay.” Xena said again. “That packet of white stuff. Pour it all in everything that’s open.” She steadied her breathing, knowing what she was asking for.
“I thought it stung.”
“I thought I was the queen and gave the orders.”
Gabrielle laid a hand on the back of her neck. It felt nice, that touch. Xena closed her eyes and waited, hearing the rustling of the parchment. It’s good for you, Xena. It’s good for you. It’s good for you.. it’s.. son of a bacchae!!!! She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and bit down, tasting blood inside her mouth as she cut into her lower lip. It was like someone had set fire to her flesh. Her hands tightened on the covers, balling into fists that clenched the fabric so hard the silk squeaked. She held her breath, the muscles in her thighs twitching as her body reacted to the pain.
Gabrielle folded her hand around Xena’s clenched one, and watched, helpless, as the queen lay suffering. On her back, the white powder bubbled and hissed, seeming almost alive as it mixed with the seeping blood coming out of the wound.
At last, she felt Xena’s body relax. She looked down at the angular profile, and in the dusty sunlight saw just the traces of moisture on her lashes as her pale eyes opened.
“O..okay.” Xena’s voice was husky, and she cleared her throat. “Bottom of the bag, there are some… bone needles. Thread.”
“Are you sure you want me to do this now?” Gabrielle put her hand in the bag and drew out the slim bits of bone, which tinkled softly in her palm.
“Gabrielle.. let me tell you something I learned the hard way.” Xena said. “If you’ve got to do something ugly, do it fast, and all at once. Don’t drag it out.” She took a deep breath. “Try and make small stitches. I hate uneven scars.”
Gabrielle put some of the gut thread through one of the needle eyes, and paused, studying Xena’s back. “This is kind of an awkward angle.” She murmured. “I can’t really… I should get it from the top side, and I..”
Xena painfully eased herself up onto her elbows. “Sit.” She indicated the bed, waiting for the slave to do so, rocking just slightly as the bed took the girl’s weight. “Face me.” Gabrielle half turned. “Okay. How’s this?” Xena eased forward and put her head down on her thigh, laying her arm over Gabrielle’s knees. “Better?”
“Perfect.” Gabrielle’s voice broke.
Despite the pain, it made Xena smile. “All right then, go ahead.” She felt the first, tentative prick of the needle and sighed.
“You have a lot of scars back here.”
Memories flooded through her. “I know.” Xena said. “I learned all those fancy tricks the hard way.” She concentrated on keeping her breathing even. “I came from a village not that far from yours, y’know.”
“Really.” The queen murmured. “My mother was an innkeeper. Not a big inn, but it was all right to grow up in.” She said. “Then one day a warlord rode through… didn’t like the looks of it, I guess. So he and his men tore the place down.”
“Mother tried to stop them. Senseless.” Xena shook her head. “They cut her to pieces and threw her out into the road. My brothers and I ran off into the forest.”
Gabrielle fell silent. Even Xena’s voice had changed, growing deeper, and a little softer, and she wondered if the queen realized it. She tried to be as gentle as she could, putting aside the rush of emotions that were making her head whirl.
“We got separated. Me and Ly.. we scraped by for a while but he was so young… finally we got cross of a mean bastard named Cortese and he took both of us and threw us into a pit as bait for his fighting men.” Xena exhaled. “You either learned to fight or you died. I learned.”
It was horrific. Gabrielle couldn’t imagine going through that, and being just a child. “Did you escape?”
The queen laughed softly. “No.” She said. “I grew up and survived until I was good enough to get to Cortese. He was my first kill.” Her eyes blinked slowly. “I took over his army and the rest…”
“What about your brother? What happened to him?”
“My brother.” Xena murmured. “My only friend.” She fell silent for a bit. “He lived long enough to see me take the throne here.” Her thumb moved slowly over the dark fabric of the leggings Gabrielle was wearing. “Then they figured out he was my weak point.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes and let her hands rest for a moment.
“They slit his throat, and left his body in the courtyard for me to find, that one, fine summer morning.” Xena’s voice was calm, almost thoughtful. “I killed thirty two of them for it. Disembowled them and left them to die on stakes all up and down the main promenade.”
Helpless to even speak, Gabrielle bit her lower lip and watched as a tear rolled off her cheek to land on Xena’s shoulder.
“Poor Ly.” Xena whispered. “All he wanted was to be a soldier and wear my colors.” Her fingers plucked the dark fabric. “These are his. You’re about his size.” She heard an odd sound and turned her head to look up. Gabrielle’s eyes were closed, and tears were running down her face. “Hey. Why are you crying?”
Gabrielle opened her eyes and took a shaky breath. “Because you won’t.”
Xena gazed at her for a long moment, then she put her head back down and exhaled in somber wonder. “Oh.”
Gabrielle put the needle down. She set the packet and the box aside, and then she very carefully put her arms around Xena’s shoulders and pulled her closer.
Xena felt the pressure and blinked, a little startled. “What are you doing?”
“Um..” Gabrielle sniffled. “Hugging you.”
It was… Xena could feel the warmth surrounding her in more than a physical way. It was soothing, and she found she liked it. “Ah. Learn something new every day around you, don’t I?” She felt the motion as Gabrielle took a deep breath, her belly pressing against the back of her head. “Done back there?”
“Yes, I think so.” Gabrielle answered, with another sniffle. “It’s all closed.”
“Good.” Xena had, however, no inclination whatsoever to move. “I’ll just give it a minute to go from excruciatingly painful to just regular painful then we’ve got to get going back out there.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle whispered, sitting quietly and letting her hands rest on Xena’s upper arms. They both listened to the sounds coming in the window for a few minutes. Then she drew in a breath. “Xena?”
“Mm?” The queen had her eyes closed.
“I’d like to be your friend.”
One blue orb appeared and fixed itself on her face. “You’re not that stupid.” Xena told her. “You don’t have a death wish, do you?”
“Yes, I am.” Gabrielle smiled faintly. “And maybe I do.” She gazed steadily at the queen. “Will you let me?”
Xena focused on the sky beyond the window, knowing in the depths of her heart the decision had been taken from her already. There was no turning back from this. The risk was taken, the dice was thrown, and it only remained to be discovered what price she had to pay for it. What price Gabrielle would pay. She gave Gabrielle’s leg a gentle pat. “Already have. I don’t spend much time in my enemies’ laps.” She told the girl. “Though why you’d want a homicidal megalomaniac for a friend is beyond me.”
Gabrielle looked down at her with gentle green eyes. “Clueless virgin shepherds have to move up in the world somehow.”
Xena found a grin somewhere. “You know what, Gabrielle?” She closed her eyes and relaxed. “You’re growing on me.”
Silence fell again, as Gabrielle watched the queens’ breathing even out and slow. She felt as if her entire world was, once again, changing before her eyes.
This time, though, it was for the better. “Likewise.” She whispered, finding her own smile, down deep, lighting up a part of her that was all brand new. “Likewise.”
Xena slept for a while. Gabrielle had leaned back against the bed’s richly carved headboard and thought she might have dozed off as well, since the sun had changed it’s slant visibly when she looked over at the window.
She felt better for it. Her head had stopped aching, and the discomfort she’d been feeling around her ribs had also eased. Gabrielle stifled a yawn and idly looked down at her hand, which had somehow tangled it’s fingers into Xena’s hair. She rubbed a tiny bit of it between her thumb and index finger, finding that it had a thick, strong texture.
That made sense. Gabrielle reasoned. Everything else about Xena was strong, so why should her hair be any different? It was a deep, glossy black, and she decided that it was pretty and she liked it. Not that her opinion really mattered, she smiled ruefully. She didn’t think Xena much paid attention to anyone’s opinion other than her own, and if she woke up one morning and decided she wanted green hair, well then she’d just color it green as grass and have done with it.
She tried to imagine Xena with green hair, but it just made her giggle. The darkness suited her, and made the paleness of her eyes just that much more striking. She’d left it loose during the fight, and when she was moving, it swirled around her head and seemed to float in the air.
The fight. Gabrielle studied the queen’s profile, relaxed in sleep. She had been nervous during the fight, but in a way it had been sort of exciting too. Xena moved with such power and grace, it was just so amazing to watch you almost forgot it was a deadly contest. She had clearly outclassed Bregos – even Gabrielle, who had never seen a sword fight before could tell that.
Or maybe she was just biased. Gabrielle took a moment to acknowledge the powerful attraction she felt for Xena and admitted to herself that she probably was under the influence of a pretty significant crush. It was a little embarrassing, but it also felt good to be filled with something other than fear and despair.
Part of her tried to keep reminding her that she was a slave, and of little consequence. But it was very hard for the rest of her to accept that idea with Xena’s head pillowed in her lap and the woman’s arm draped over her. Did she really matter to Xena? Gabrielle thought she did, though she wasn’t really sure to what degree.
Xena mattered to her. Not only because she controlled Gabrielle’s existence at the moment either. Against all odds she found herself really liking the queen, even though she usually swung from scaring the life out of her, to embarrassing her beyond speech, to…
Gabrielle pursed her lips wryly, remembering how those kisses had felt. But she felt that had been part of their act for the crowd, just pretending to make her seem like what the entire stronghold apparently assumed she was.
Just then, she very nearly levitated off the bed as a slow, teasing touch on the inside of her thigh set every nerve in her body jangling. “Yike!” She bit off the yelp of surprise.
“Ticklish?” Xena inquired, with a soft chuckle.
Gabrielle found her tongue, which had wandered off somewhere as her senses woke rapidly very up. “Um…a little, yes.”
Slowly, the queen stretched her body out, muscles rippling visibly under the soft skin as she moved. She lifted her head and half rolled onto her side, flexing her hands as she glanced towards the window. Her eyebrow lifted at the angle of the sun. “Looks like we missed some of the party.” She commented. “Good thing I’m the queen, so I won’t have to have us whipped for it, huh?”
Gabrielle muffled a laugh. “How’s your back?”
Xena considered the question, flexing her arm slightly. It hurt. Ares on Olympus it hurt, but for the first time since she’d been shot that feeling of deep, inner unease was gone, the unhealthy throbbing with it to be replaced by just ordinary agony. “Not bad.” She reported, as she sat up in bed and regarded her long legs, sprawled out across the sheets. She should go out and take center stage at the festival, she knew.
Trouble was, she really didn’t want to. There were a number of things, in fact, that she would have chosen to do instead, most of them involving food, wine, and naked bodies.
With a nearly silent sigh, Xena pushed herself off the bed and stood up, feeling much the better for her little nap. She walked to her wardrobe and studied it. Beautiful garments hung mutely before her, thick with embroidery and in some cases dripping with golden threads and lace.
Gabrielle quietly joined her, standing by as she watched the queen decide what to wear. “This is really pretty.” She murmured, lifting a hand to touch the sleeve of a shimmering gown of soft, draping fabric.
“Think so?” Xena eyed her.
The girl nodded. “What else happens for today? Is it just the fights?”
Xena studied the gown critically. Then she unhooked it and tossed it casually at Gabrielle, landing it on top of her head and watching in some amusement as she untangled herself from it. “It’s not just the fighting.” She picked out a different garment for herself. “There’ll be acts, and singing, all that artistic frivolity.”
Gabrielle frowned, looking at the dress in her hands then up at Xena. “Did you want to do something with this?” She asked, in a hesitant voice.
“Yes.” Xena draped her own choice over a nearby chair. “I wanted to see you in it.” She rested her hand on the doorsill into the bathing room. “I’m finally going to be able to sit down at one of these stupid things and have someone with more than a thimbleful of brains to talk to. Get a move on.”
Gabrielle simply stood there briefly, feeling the weight of the incredibly soft fabric draped over her arms. “Oh.” She finally said to the thin air. “Thank you.” With a slight shake of her head she walked over to the old chest and set the dress down, then slipped out of her black and gold livery and laid it on the chest with gentle reverence.
Adjusting her underwraps a trifle, she took a breath, then eased the slinky dress around her body and tied it into place. She sneaked a look in the mirror, biting her lip as she surveyed the result. “Hm.” She blinked at herself, surprised at the unexpectedly sleek look. “You know what, Gabrielle? You’ve got more dinars on your back right now than the whole of Potadeia ever had in an entire season.”
She fiddled with the knot at her shoulder, which held the gown up while baring a good portion of her back and shoulders. She thought about how much Lila would have loved to wear something like this. After a moment, she reluctantly met the green eyes in the mirror gazing steadily at her, feeling a moment of quiet grief.
I should miss them more. I should think about them more. Her conscience chided her. They’re gone, and I’m here laughing and enjoying myself. That’s so wrong.
She studied her reflection. Isn’t it?
There was absolutely no sound of warning, but her eyes tipped up slightly and suddenly found Xena’s piercing blue ones looking back at her in the mirror. “Oh. Um.. “
The queen took hold of her shoulders and turned her around so they were face to face. “You know.” Xena remarked. “This thing doesn’t look nearly as bad as you apparently think it does by that expression.”
Gabrielle managed a brief smile. “Um.. no, it wasn’t that. I was just…” She paused.
“Let me guess. Thinking.” Xena said. “What was it this time?”
The queen was dressed in a beautiful gown, with fanciful dragons embroidered down the length of it. The dragon’s tails twined, and formed into a belt that tied neatly around her waist. Gabrielle took a moment to appreciate it before she decided on her answer. “Nothing really. I’m just going through so many changes so fast lately…it’s hard to keep up with what I’m supposed to be feeling.”
Xena twitched a bit of the shimmering fabric draped over her. “Don’t try.” She advised. “Just live with the moment you’re in.” A nod. “I like it. Damn thing comes up to here on me and scandalizes the nobles.” She patted her upper thigh. “Besides, exposing my back’s a damn bad idea right now.”
Gabrielle looked down to her knees, which the dress almost covered. She thought about what Xena said, and realized that in the situation she was in nothing else really made sense. “I guess being short has it’s points sometimes.” She looked up. “But won’t my wearing this scandalize them anyway?”
“Not really.” Xena let her wrists rest lightly on Gabrielle’s bare shoulders. “They expect me to dress my consorts in appropriate clothing. I don’t usually bring them out in kitchen rags.”
Gabrielle became acutely aware of the power of the queen’s presence, as she absorbed the meaning of her words. Consort? That was for the public view, she was sure.
“Okay.” She exhaled, feeling her hands flex a little in response to her body’s tension.
Xena cocked her head to one side. “That crowd scaring you?”
“No.” Gabrielle said.
“Being in here scaring you?”
Gabrielle frowned a little. “No… “
“So what is scaring you?” The queen asked. “Me?”
A breath. “I’m not scared.”
Xena leaned forward and kissed her, this time with a slow, relaxed intensity somehow very different from before. She cupped Gabrielle’s face with one hand, and let the other drift down across her back, pulling them closer together.
Gabrielle didn’t even have time to think about what to do. Her body reacted to the touch, and an erotic surge sent a tingling over the entire surface of her skin.
Xena paused and pulled her head back a little, gazing at her with half closed eyes. “Scared now?” She studied the darkened green orbs facing her.
Gabrielle felt out of breath. She just shook her head no.
“Ahh.” The queen smiled. “I thought you didn’t have that oppressed slave being forced to do this for show reaction out there. So you really did like it, huh?”
Still speechless, Gabrielle nodded shyly.
“Gabrielle, despite the old wive’s tales, it doesn’t put hair on your palms or make you mute.” Xena told her. “But apparently it does make you blush.”
She could feel the heat, as she finally caught her breath. “Yes.. well, I um…I didn’t think you’d do that and I… I guess when I get surprised I.. um…”
“Turn red as a winter apple.”
“Yes.” Gabrielle finally got up the guts to look into Xena’s eyes. The depths apparent in them, visible to her for the first time, surprised her. It was like a door had opened, and she could see past the dark, icy façade, just a little. They were still close together, and she could feel the warmth of Xena’s body through the thin fabric covering her.
Xena lifted her hand and ran her fingertips across Gabrielle’s jawline,
“I…” Gabrielle gathered her courage. “Thought you were just trying to dupe the crowd.”
The queen smiled. “I never do anything just for someone else’s benefit.” She uttered, her voice deepening. “If I kill someone... it’s because I want to.” Her thumb stopped and brushed against Gabrielle’s lower lip. “And if I kiss someone, it’s because I really want to.”
Gabrielle literally felt her heart stop. Certainly her breathing did, before it resumed with a soft gasp.
“So that’s why I said we have to talk.” Xena concluded, giving her nose a tweak. “And we do, after this damn thing is over with and I get Bregos’ insurrection settled.” She stepped back and regarded her young slave approvingly. “Let’s go. If I stay away too long, talk’ll start again and I don’t need any more complications.”
She walked over to the long, marble dresser and picked up the silver comb on it, then she turned and handed it to Gabrielle. “Mind doing that for me? Lifting my arm up that high is a pain in the ass and other places at the moment.”
Mind? Gabrielle almost tripped as she forced her body to move and took the comb from Xena’s hand, and carefully began to comb the long, dark locks out as Xena perched on the edge of the chest. It gave her space to think about what had just happened to her.
After a few seconds, though, Gabrielle realized that it would take her half a lifetime to think about what had just happened to her. So she put it all aside and just enjoyed the feel of Xena’s hair against her hands, and the lingering tingle over her skin and the warm, sweet knowledge that the emotions stirring inside her were not hers alone.
Xena sat quietly. The pain from her back was getting worse, to the point where it was hard for her to put it aside. Her little interaction with Gabrielle had taken her mind off it for a short while, but now it was creeping into her immediate consciousness.
She wished she could just crawl back into bed and take Gabrielle with her. The urge to leave the tension and chaos of the festival outside and explore this new, interesting and increasingly absorbing distraction who happened to be combing her hair at the moment was almost enough to overwhelm her discipline to duty.
She had asses to kick, and plots to destroy. Adorably blushing blond slaves would just have to wait until after the bloodletting. With a mildly aggrieved sigh, she got to her feet and took the comb from Gabrielle’s hand. Taking one look at the tousled blond hair, Xena produced a brief smile and then ran the silver tines through it.
It was only much later, long after they’d left the tower and descended down to the festival when the realization hit her of just what exactly she’d done.
And by then, she was beginning to understand why.
Gabrielle followed Xena and the guard they picked up the moment they left the tower back down to the festival grounds. From the top of the road, she could see riders, people on horses dashing around, and the excited yells of the crowd. She noticed that Xena’s men seemed to be everywhere, the black and yellow tunics conspicuous around the viewing platforms, but Bregos men seemed to have dissolved into the mists.
She found herself uncharitably smirking. As they approached, she also noticed that the nobles, who had given Xena polite obeisance’s earlier, now were much more fawning and heralded her approach with far more ceremony. Two of the dukes even knelt, and offered to escort her up to her high viewing spot. Would Xena let them? Gabrielle thought it might be a good idea, just to get everyone to be nicer and calmer after the morning. Even if she knew, and Xena knew, and all these people knew that they had hoped she would lose and she hadn’t and now they had to deal with her again – still, she thought maybe Xena would get more out of it if she didn’t seem to hold a grudge.
“Oh, now that I didn’t get my ass kicked, you want to be friends again?” Xena’s voice carried out over the sounds of the field.
Ah well. Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in reaction. So much for that idea.
“Mistress, how can you say such a thing? We were all counting on your victory!” The duke protested. “No one expected any different! Why, we thought it was terrible that the general even agreed to fight! Horrible! He got *just* what he deserved!”
“Yes, Mistress! Exactly!” Several of the other nobles had clustered close to him.
Xena regarded all of them with a chilly gaze.
Gabrielle edged up on her left hand side, folding her hands diffidently and catching Xena’s eye. “Your majesty… “ She watched the dark eyebrows hike. “There was a lot of… um.. consternation during the fight.” She paused. “I could.. hear it.”
“Oh, really.” Xena picked up the message without much difficulty. “Well, doesn’t that just warm the cockles of my often disputed as to it’s existence heart.”
“Yes, my liege.” Gabrielle murmured, not missing the twinkle in those very blue eyes. She also didn’t miss the sudden, rapt attention of the nobles, fastening on her with all the force of a bag full of leeches.
“All right.” Xena relented. “Let’s go. I want to see the races.” She proceeded up the steps, with Gabrielle trotting after her. The nobles followed meekly, and they all made their way up onto the top platform where Xena’s throne was. The queen stalked regally to it, turned and sat, her gown whisking around and settling around her with an audible rustle. She placed her hands neatly on the chair arms and watched them all as they approached her.
Gabrielle picked a spot and went to sit down at Xena’s feet, surprised when the queen wagged a finger at her.
Xena pointed at a guard. “Bring that. Put it here.” She indicated a plush seat, which the soldier immediately retrieved and set down next to the throne. “Sit.” She watched as Gabrielle obeyed, smoothing the soft, supple fabric draped over her knees. The sun, past it’s highest point and headed towards the horizon, splashed over her and caught in her blond hair. After a brief pause, the girl looked up at her. “Consternation?”
Gabrielle blinked innocently at her. “Well, there was.” She murmured softly.
“That I was winning.” Xena leaned on the chair arm and whispered back.
“Would rubbing their noses in it help?” Gabrielle asked.
“It would help me feel better.” The queen sighed, leaning back in her chair, but not enough to press her injured skin against the padding. “And I did tell you it’s always about me, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did.” Gabrielle agreed. She watched the nobles settle themselves in the seats around Xena, and a puff of air brought the scent of grilling meat to her nose. She noticed the noble’s servants heading off towards the source of the smell, and she got up. “Would you like some…”
“Yes.” Xena seemed amused. “And a jug of the strongest wine you can find.” She gave Gabrielle a pat on the hip. “Be careful.” She added, in a lower tone. “They may seem like toads, but they’ve got lots of nasty warts.” She watched Gabrielle as she caught up to the other servants, and joined them. They were wary of her, Xena could tell, but after a few minutes of whatever chatter the blond girl was offering, their body language relaxed.
Duke Lastay got up the guts to take what had been Bregos’ chair right next to her. Xena turned her head and regarded him, acknowledging that of all her dukes, Lastay was the least offensive to her. He wasn’t bad looking either. “I am very disappointed.” She told him.
“Majesty.” Lastay leaned closer to her, a brave move considering the circumstances. “It is not all what it seems. I tried to warn you.”
Yes, Xena fairly admitted. That was true. He had, indeed.
“The man had just gotten too big for his conscience.” The duke told her. “He made many promises.”
“Mm.” Xena watched the flashing colors as four men raced on horseback across the field, now cleared of it’s trenches and obstacles. “I should have killed him.” Her voice conveyed true regret. “He was an idiot.”
“But a fine soldier.” Lastay said. “And, Majesty, I spoke with him when he first arrived her. He truly thought he would be well received by you. Your spurning him was a terrible blow.”
Xena turned her head and looked at him. “Are you saying this is all my fault because I didn’t let the bastard into my bed?” Her voice rose.
“Mistress! Please!” The duke uttered. “Your will is your own, all know that.”
Xena rolled her eyes. “Lastay, after I get through this idiotic festival, I will have heads on pikes up and down the river road when I find out who was backing Bregos in this. Spread *that* to your cohorts.” She bit off the last few words, spitting them out like nails. “Consider yourself lucky that you *did* try to warn me, and I remember it.”
Lastay’s hands clenched on the chair arms, but he nodded. “Mistress, I understand.” He murmured. “I will make sure your will is known.”
And scare the crap out of everyone dressed in silk and velvet. They’d be cleaning up the gowns for days. Xena released a contented grunt, and laced her fingers together. “So. How your wife?”
“Your wife.” Xena admired one of the horses, a tall, springy bay with a dark mane and tail. “She’s not with you, I noticed.”
Lastay relaxed a trifle. “Ah.. she’s home, Majesty. We’ve just found she’s with child.” He smiled in reflex.
“Yeah?” Xena eyed him. “Yours?”
The servers near the meat roasting pits weren’t quite ready, so Gabrielle found herself waiting with the small group of noble’s attendants some slight distance from it.
“So, you’re the queens’ new… companion.”
Gabrielle returned the brief smile of the short, muscular woman next to her. “Yes, I am.” She agreed quietly. “My name’s Gabrielle.” She held a hand out.
After a moment’s hesitation, the woman returned her grip. “Alavaria. I am Duke Lastay’s personal body servant.” She told her. “This is Banren.” Her companion nodded warily at Gabrielle. “He serves Duke Sigland.”
This was, Gabrielle realized, a whole different hierarchy of slaves than the lower kitchens. “Nice to meet you.” She replied politely. The servants with her were all dressed very well, in the livery of their masters, or in equally fine clothes. They reminded her a little of Stanislaus, in the way they held themselves aloof, as though wanting to be regarded as more than the slaves they all truly were.
“Our queen is always known for her expeditious decisions.” Banren said. His voice was thick, and pretentious. “You came in on the slave train just the last week, did you not?”
Gabrielle was aware of the listening crowd. “That’s right.” She agreed.
“Quite a first experience.” Alavaria murmured. “A difficult position, I’m sure.”
“Well.” Gabrielle had an audience, and she wasn’t going to waste it. “I thought the same thing, at first. But I was wrong. The queen has been very gracious, and more than kind to me. I think I’m very lucky.”
They all just stared at her as though she’d grown a second head and it had popped out under her arm and started to sing.
“Ladies, gentlemen, we’re ready now.” The kitchen steward joined them, clasping his hands in anxious tension. “Please, let us help you.”
For a moment, no one moved. Then they all looked at Gabrielle, evidently waiting for her to go first.
It was then that she realized exactly what Xena’s casual acknowledgement of her had done. It had put her on the top of the heap, as Xena’s body servant, she took precedence over all the other slaves in the kingdom. She’d gone from the very bottom, to the very top, and these people around her weren’t very happy about it. Gabrielle cleared her throat and edged past Alaveria, mindful of Xena’s warning about toads.
The kitchen steward bowed before her and lead her to the tables where various trays of edibles were positioned. “What is the queen’s pleasure this day, m’lady?”
“Sides from ‘er?”
Gabrielle’s ear just caught the comment. She glanced up and looked behind the tables, but no one would meet her eyes. She recognized a few of them, but there was no sign of any of her fellow slave train captives. With a slight shake of her head, she concentrated on picking out Xena’s lunch. There were whole roasts, and sliced meats. She pointed out a couple of each, and added a fresh loaf of thick bread with honey butter to the tray. “Some of the long beans, please.” She let her eyes wander over the choices. “And a bowl of fruit.”
The tables had been decorated with flowers, picked from the fields that leant a rich, pungent scent to the air. On impulse, Gabrielle selected several of the prettiest, and laid them on the tray before she picked it up. “Is there…” She paused, as a tall man dressed in court livery approached, giving her a slight bow.
“I am the castle vintner, m’lady.’ The man spoke in a soft voice. “Does the queen wish a good wine with her meal?”
“Yes, please.” Gabrielle watched as he went to a chest, and selected a bottle. “Would you like to bring that up?” She asked, seeing the bottle was sealed.
With a very pleased smile, the man nodded and bowed. He tucked the bottle under his arm and followed her as she made her way back to the steps. “May I carry that for you, m’lady” He offered. “It looks heavy.”
It was, and not easy to climb up the steep steps with. Gabrielle relinquished the tray, with a warm smile. “Thank you.” She was a little surprised at the offer, but she put it down to yet more people wanting to ingratiate themselves with Xena and followed him up to the upper level.
There, she found that metal stands had been set into the platform, spaced to receive the trays. The vintner set the tray down on the ones closest to Xena and stood, bowing first to her, then turning and kneeling before the queen. “Your majesty.”
Xena motioned him to stand and approach.
Gabrielle didn’t miss the quick glance in her direction, though, and the smirk. She returned the smile, then knelt by the tray and got busy making sense of the contents. Around her, she heard the other servants coming back doing the same thing, and a quick look found Alavaria on one side of her, and the more portly Banren on the other. They watched her, and she could sense the jealousy inherent in the stares.
It reminded her a little of the women’s circle back in Potadeia. One of the back rooms of the common inn was used for it, and in the winter months all the women would meet there and work on sewing, knitting, the little crafts that held their poor homes together. At the table, there had always been a hierarchy, where the wives of the most powerful men, the reeve, the blacksmith, the successful merchants.. had sat at the top of the table, nearest the fire. The less important you were, the colder your seat was.
Gabrielle looked up at the chairs placed on the platform, with Xena in her center throne with the best view. People were, she mused, really just people, weren’t they? She arranged a plate for Xena and picked it up, balancing it on one hand. Then she picked up something else on the tray and stood, walking over to where the queen was seated.
Xena had just finished getting a glass of wine from the vintner, and was swirling the rich, red liquid in her cup as she watched Gabrielle approach. The vintner had turned aside to speak with Lastay, and Gabrielle had a clear shot at her as she walked up and as gracefully as she was able, knelt and offered up the plate.
Xena took it, with a droll grin. She set the plate on the small wooden table perched next to her throne, and winked at her.
Then Gabrielle lifted her other hand and offered Xena the flower she had in it.
With a very startled blink, and one sharply hiked brow, Xena reached out and took it, studying the colorful blossom in bemused amazement. Gabrielle merely waited, watching subtle shifts of emotion cross the queen’s face. She figured either Xena was going to accept the thing, or chuck it at her, and she smiled when the queen chose the former and lifted to her nose to sniff it’s fragrance.
Then she reached out and tapped Gabrielle lightly on the head with the flower. “Go get your lunch.”
Gabrielle did, returning to the tray and selecting what she wanted from it. When she finished and turned to resume her seat at the queen’s side, she found Xena once against studying the blossom with curious eyes, twirling it in the fingers of one hand, as she sipped from her wine goblet.
She tucked her feet under her and was glad of the sun warming her back. The breeze had kicked up again, cool and fluttering the banners, and she nibbled a bit of meat as she watched two men charge at each other on horseback. Her eyes widened as they jumped up onto their saddles, and widened even more as they leaped on passing each other, landing on the opposite horse and somehow managing to hang on. “Wow!” She blurted, glancing up at Xena. “That was amazing!”
Xena was leaning her chin on her hand, with the blossom still in it, a faint smile tugging at her lips. “Sure was.” She agreed. “Got all sorts of amazing things going on here today, don’t we?”
“Do we?” Gabrielle asked, caught in that regard.
“Mmhm.” The queen turned her head and looked out across the fields, and the crowd, and the waving banners. “We certainly do.”