Shadows of the Soul
The sun was setting, bathing the field in blues and grays by the time the contests were finished. The air had grown cool, and Gabrielle rubbed her bare arms as she watched the final race end, a horse with purple and yellow colors coming in ahead of all of the others. The horse was apparently Duke Lastay’s, if his sudden exultant yell was any indication. Gabrielle watched the rider pull up, his fist lifting in the air as he rode in front of them.
It was a pretty horse, too. It was gold, with a pale mane and tail, and it held it’s head up high. Gabrielle turned and looked up at Xena. The queen was watching the horse too, with a pensive, almost sad look. “I guess you can’t win all the time.” The blond woman murmured.
Xena exhaled slowly. “He deserved the win. That’s a good animal.” She leaned on the arm of her chair, closer to Gabrielle. “Comes from good stock.”
Gabrielle studied the horse. “It’s so pretty.”
Gabrielle turned and looked at the queen’s profile. “Do you know that horse?”
“I knew her mother.”
In all the short time she’d known Xena, it was the most emotion Gabrielle had ever heard in her voice. More even than when she’d spoken of her brother. But she didn’t get a chance to find out about it because at that moment horns started to blow. She winced. Xena winced even more strongly, as one of the horns went far out of tune. “Ow.”
“Yeah.” The queen pushed herself to her feet. “Time to take the party inside.” She loosened her belt, tucking her flower under it and tightening it again. The nobles rose around her and bowed hastily as her guard formed up around her. “Come on, Gabrielle.” She extended a hand out.
After a moments hesitation, the blond woman stepped forward and joined her, shyly taking hold of the long fingered hand that curled around hers. It was so unexpected, and warmer than she’d anticipated, but Gabrielle didn’t stop to ponder it for more than a second. She was pulled into the circle of guards to Xena’s side and was happy to remain there as they started down the steps.
“Majesty!” Lastay hurried over. “Majesty, did you see my mare?”
Xena stopped and regarded him over the heads of the guards. “I saw. Nice race.” She stated. “I’ll present prizes at dinner court. Make sure all the winners show up.” She put a hand on Gabrielle’s back and started walking again, leaving the nobles behind. As they reached the lower platform, Stanislaus caught up with them.
Gabrielle was a little surprised. She hadn’t seen the seneschal for a long time, and she’d half expected to find that Xena had banished him somewhere for his plot to get rid of her. He was wary in approaching the queen, she noticed, but Xena didn’t seem surprised to find him there.
“Yes?” Xena replied. “The banquet’s prepared?”
“Yes, Mistress, it is.” The seneschal told her. “As you requested.”
“Good.” Xena said. “I’m going to change and get this damn dust off me.” She eyed Stanislaus. “I want everything I need by my throne by the time I get there, or I’ll start rolling heads.”
“Mistress.” The man bowed.
“And make sure everyone shows up.” Xena growled.
Stanislaus bowed even more deeply, and turned, disappearing down another set of steps faster than you could think his name.
Gabrielle wondered if the queens’ back was bothering her a lot. Experimentally, she eased closer. Xena draped an arm over her shoulders and pulled her over, leaning subtly against her as they walked along. Pleased she’d guessed right, Gabrielle carefully supported her around her waist, blissfully grateful for the warmth as the evening wind blew against them. Seeing the glances of the guards, and the nobles trailing after them she knew what their thoughts were.
For some reason, it didn’t bother her now. Gabrielle wondered if she didn’t even want what they were thinking to be true.
“Mistress, a moment with you.” Alaran appeared from nowhere.
“What?” Xena’s short temper was very evident in her voice. Even Gabrielle, who’d only known the woman a short time, heard it clearly.
The security chief entered the ring of guards and took up a position on Xena’s other side. “I have just come from the healer’s.” He kept his voice very low. “Mistress, it’s Bregos.”
Xena looked at him. “Dead?”
“Bummer.” The queen sighed.
“Mistress, he’s gone.” Alaran told her softly. “He has been taken from the infirmary. No one…” He paused, looking significantly at her. “Saw him taken out.” His dark face was grim. “And his men are keeping to their barracks.”
Xena considered the news thoughtfully. “Can we get someone in there?”
“It would be difficult.” Alaran admitted. “Most of my men are known to them.” He pinched his lower lip. “But perhaps. I can try.” He looked at her. “His men feel he was tricked into challenging you.”
“He was.” The queen said in a mild tone. “It’s not my fault he was stupid enough to fall for it.”
“Mistress, I want to put guards in the tower.” Alaran said. “I don’t trust any of this. My nape hairs are up.” His voice was very serious. “No one questions your abilities. I never have, and after today, none should. But it does not pay to take such chances.”
Xena was quiet for a few steps. “Okay.” She answered. “It’s not a bad idea. Just make sure it’s men you trust, Alaran.” A pause. “Or those you really don’t like, and don’t mind seeing dead if they twitch the wrong way around me.”
The security chief grunted, and the faintest of smiles appeared on his face. “Mistress, your humor is, as ever, appreciated.”
“My humor, as ever, is twisted like a grapevine.” Xena replied. “Keep an eye on the frillies as well, Alaran. I let it be known I wasn’t pleased with the betting this morning.” She told him. “I figured you were bored.”
Alaran sighed. “Yes, Mistress.” He glanced at her, then his eyes met Gabrielle’s. “Little one, I will make sure the guards know to give you every courtesy.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle murmured.
“Or I’ll cut their tongues out.” Xena added helpfully. “Put a few extra people on the banquet tonight. I want to hear what’s being thrown around.”
Curiously, Alaran seemed to cheer up at her words. “Excellent, Mistress. I will take care of it.” He bowed gracefully at her, and ducked his head in Gabrielle’s direction, then he slipped out between two of the guards and moved off on an opposite track.
Xena was quiet for the rest of the walk up the long ramp to the stronghold. She seemed deep in thought, and Gabrielle figured it was wiser not to disturb her. She simply walked alongside the queen, giving her what support she could. Her height really worked out for that, as it turned out. Her shoulders were just at the right level for Xena to lean on, and she was glad of the excuse to be close to her.
She wished the walk would last a lot longer. But it ended at the tower, and she reluctantly released her hold around the queen as the guards swept the door open for them. Xena strode inside the inner chamber, pausing halfway through the door and stopping.
She turned, and regarded Gabrielle seriously. Then she pointed at one of the guards. “Take everything in there.” She indicated Gabrielle’s little cubby. “And bring it inside here.” She jerked her chin towards the inside of the hall.
The guard and Gabrielle exchanged looks, as the queen then disappeared into her inner chambers.
Xena walked across public chamber and went to the window. She rested a hand on either side of it and looked out, taking a deep breath against the turmoil going on inside her. After a moment she sat down on the sill and carefully leaned against the wall with the uninjured part of her back.
Her head came to rest against the stone with a soft thump. She lifted one hand and rubbed the side of her face as she removed the flower from her belt and stared at it.
It was just a flower. Her fingers twirled it. She could throw it away, and yet she held it – its slight, spicy fragrance and rich color capturing her attention.
She found herself asking why. Why had Gabrielle given it to her? Xena’s brow furrowed as she watched the sky darken. It wasn’t as though she’d never gotten gifts. Subjects gave them to her any excuse they got, to buy favor from her or to attract her eye to them.
But Gabrielle already had her attention, and the girl was smart enough to know that. So why a flower? The queen pondered the possibility that it was just in the slave’s nature, since she seemed to have an open, generous way about her.
You know, Xena, you could just ask her if you weren’t so afraid of the answer. She mocked herself. What is it that you want the damn thing to mean? She looked down at the flower, remembering the look in Gabrielle’s eyes when she’d offered it to her.
A gift from an honest heart. When was the last time she’d been offered that?
A knowledge settled over her, close and inescapable. When was the last time you wanted to give something back in return?
Xena closed her eyes, a wry smile finding its way onto her face. Nice. The entire kingdom wanted you to marry Bregos, so to piss them off you make him a eunuch and fall in love with your chambermaid. Gotta hand it to you, Xena. You’re an original.
Ah well. The queen watched the first twinkling stars appear. Had to happen sometime, didn’t it? But what was she going to do now? Good sense told her she needed to put a stop to it. Her own sense of honor, such as it was, frowned on the fact that the kid had no choice, had no option but to do what Xena commanded.
She looked down at the flower. But Gabrielle hadn’t had to do that, had she? Nothing forced her to choose the bloom, nothing commanded her to give it.
Nothing was forcing the emotion packed look in her eyes when she’d offered it up.
Or was it just a good act? Xena exhaled, turning her head and pausing as she unexpectedly found Gabrielle in the doorway to the inner chambers, just quietly watching her. When their eyes met, the queen could feel the undeniable pull between them and she knew, she just knew that whatever the reasons around it…
This, at least, was real.
There was a truth between them that transcended the roles they played.
So. “All set?” Xena asked. “With all the skulking going on, I’m not having you hang out in the corridor waiting for a half wit with no sense and less brains to have a go at you.”
Gabrielle smiled and nodded. She walked over and stood by the window, leaning a shoulder against the stone. “Want me to put that in water?” She asked, glancing at the flower. “It’ll last longer.”
Xena’s eyes twinkled. Life did, she’d learned, what it did, and if you were smart you took what it gave you.
She was smart. With a snap of her teeth, she bit off the bloom and chewed it, the petals tasting sweet and a little tangy in her mouth. “Nah.” She swallowed it, and watched Gabrielle’s eyes blink in startled surprise. “I’m an instant gratification kinda gal. We can get more of them at dinner.”
She got up and put an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders for no reason at all, leading her back into the bedroom.
“I think it looks better.” Gabrielle examined Xena’s bare back. “It’s not so red anymore, and it’s not swollen up.”
“Uh huh.” Xena murmured, her eyes closed. “After what you did to me before, I sure as Hades hope not.”
Gabrielle cleaned carefully around the stitches, watching the gentle rise and fall of Xena’s breathing. “I know that hurt a lot, but at least it helped.” She said, her fingertips lightly touching the dark bruise from Brego’s hit that now crossed the queen’s shoulderblade.
Even with the damage, Gabrielle could see the beauty underneath. Xena’s skin was smooth and soft, and it was neatly fit over the bones and significant amount of muscle underneath it. Her spine curved under Gabrielle’s hand, nestled between two thick lines of sinew on either side of it.
Xena had her gown draped loosely over her body from the hips down, and an arm curled around her pillow as she waited for Gabrielle to finish.
The rest of her was bare, and Gabrielle was finding it harder and harder to concentrate on her task as she became more and more aware of the body lying before her. Aware of it’s symmetry, and the gorgeous sculpture of it’s proportions.
“I think you’ve just got talented hands.”
Gabrielle looked up, the hands in question going still. “Really?”
“Yes.” Xena kept her eyes closed, but a half smile appeared. “You’ve got a light touch. Most don’t.”
“Well, I’m trying not to hurt you.” Gabrielle said. “I know how sore you must be.” She worked a few moments more. “Do you…have you gotten hurt like this before?” It felt a little strange to be asking, but she wasn’t really sure what other kind of small talk she could manage with the queen.
“Hmm.” Xena mulled the question over. “A few times, sure.” She answered. “There’s a scar, lower down on my back, across my spine. See it?”
“No.. oh, yes.” Gabrielle had to move the robe a little. “Wow.”
“I was riding with my men, on a raid through a city out west of here.” Xena said. “We ran into a band of Spartans.”
“Tough fight.” Xena admitted. “Damn, they were good. They got one of my captains and cut him in half, and came after me. I got the bastards who got my man, but two of them got behind me and tried to cut me out of my saddle.”
“That’s… from a sword?” Without thinking, Gabrielle reached down and ran a finger across the scar.
Xena’s eyes popped wide open. She turned her head slightly, the muscles along her side and belly contracting at the unexpected touch. “Ah.. yeah.” She cleared her throat. “Broadsword. I dripped blood for ten miles back to our camp. Lucky I didn’t bring wolves down on us.”
“That sounds horrible.” Gabrielle frowned.
“Made for a great campfire story.” Xena disagreed. “Took forever to heal, though. I..” The queen exhaled wryly. “We had an old man, a healer we’d picked up somewhere. He told me to stay off my horse and damned if I listened to him.”
Gabrielle took her time at cleaning, not really wanting the moment to end too soon. “I think the most significant injury I ever had was when our pig bit me.” She told Xena. “In the knee.”
“That bled a lot too, but it doesn’t make nearly as interesting a story.” The slave said. “I picked up one of her piglets, to play with it and she wasn’t very happy.”
“I bet she wasn’t.” The queen said. “I hate pigs. I was gored by a boar outside Thrace one year. Damn thing put a tusk right here.” Xena touched her leg, drawing the covering back to expose a knotted scar.
“Yeah.” Xena studied the old wound. “Pissed me off. I dropped my weapons and grabbed it and we wrestled in the mud until I broke it’s stinking neck.” She recalled. “We roasted it for dinner. Best meal we’d had in half a moon.”
“Did you spend a long time out with your army?” Gabrielle asked curiously. “It sounds like you had a lot of adventures.”
Xena glanced back at her. “Long enough to conquer from the northern mountains here to the sea.” Her eyes took on a hint of a sparkle. “Took a long road to get to this pile of hedonistic pillows from where I came from.”
Gabrielle finished up, studying her handiwork with a sense of satisfaction. “Okay.” She said. “I think that’s about as good as I can do.”
“You sure?” The queen queried.
The blond slave nodded.
“C’mon over here and sit down, then.” Xena patted the bed’s surface.
Gabrielle got up and put her basin in the bathing room. Then she returned and circled the bed, settling gingerly on it’s surface facing Xena. She was barefoot, and in one of her work tunics, and she decided to sit cross legged.
“Dinner’ll be long, boring, and possibly dangerous.” The queen said. “What I want you to do is just sit and watch everyone. Listen to what people say.”
“All right.” Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees. “I though the trouble was over, though.”
Xena snorted. “Ah, my adorable little friend.. trouble is never over as long as I’m around. Don’t forget that.”
Adorable? Gabrielle’s ears perked up. “I’ll try to remember.”
The queen grunted, and half closed her eyes. Long, dark lashes fluttered, then she slowly reached out and touched Gabrielle’s leg. “Where’s that one from?”
Huh? After a moment’s dumb staring, the slave looked down at her own leg as electric tingles surrounded the spot Xena’s hand was resting on. “Oh.” Memories flooded back, injecting bleakness into her mood. “Nothing interesting.”
Xena studied the jagged white line, on the inside of her slave’s thigh. She looked up to see the echo of an old grief on Gabrielle’s face, a quiet emptiness in her eyes that frankly surprised her.
Gabrielle pushed the thoughts aside, rooting around for something to distract the curiosity she could see in those pale blue eyes. “You know, your story about the Spartans reminded me of something I heard back home at the inn, once.”
She has a secret. Xena watched the emotions flicker on and off Gabrielle’s very expressive face. Should I let her keep it? It wasn’t anything that involved her, Xena felt. Something in the girl’s past, though. And given how young she was, how much of a past could she have to hide secrets in? “Yeah? What’s that?” She decided to wait, and see if Gabrielle revealed herself.
“It was about a warrior, a Spartan who had gotten separated from his army and ended up wandering across the land searching for a way home…”
As Xena listened, she saw Gabrielle’s face shift subtly, and her voice, always soft and somewhat melodic deepened in tone as she spoke.
“One day he was captured by a tribe of fierce warriors and…”
Xena forgot about the secret, and let the story roll over her.
“But he was so brave, no matter what they did to him, that he earned the respect of the warriors. He earned their respect, but he also caught the imagination of the daughter of the tribe’s leader…”
The pain in her back faded out, and she simply concentrated on enjoying the tale, watching as Gabrielle straightened up and used her hands to shape a figure in mid air, describing a shield. She could hear the admiration in Gabrielle’s tone as she talked about the warrior, telling of his courage and the honor that won him the girl’s regard yet sentenced him to the tribe’s enmity.
She wondered if the warrior in the story knew how lucky he was, to have his memory remembered and told by countless youngsters, impressed by the romance of the tale.
What stories would they tell of you, Xena? She mocked herself silently. How many men you butchered?
“And the soldier decided to accept the challenge, but he said if he did win, the tribe would have to let him go. They agreed, knowing they would defeat him, and then the battle started….”
Xena sighed inwardly.
“It lasted all day, because the soldier was a Spartan, and of all the peoples of the land, the Spartans know war better than any.”
“And he lost.” Gabrielle said. “Because in the end, he was only one, and the tribe was many, and what he learned was without friends, even the greatest warrior can be beaten.” She touched her fingers together and gazed at them. “But even in defeat, his courage so impressed the tribe that they undertook a great journey of their own, to bring his body back to Sparta.”
Xena felt a sudden constriction in her throat.
“They brought him home.” Gabrielle finished, in a quiet tone.
They were both silent for a bit. Finally Xena shifted and exhaled. “Nice job, storyteller.”
Gabrielle had been looking down at her folded hands, seemingly deep in thought. Now her head came up and she looked at Xena, an expression of surprise on her face. She took a breath to answer, then just let it out, her teeth clicking shut at the end of it.
Xena patted the slave’s leg.
“You know I…” Gabrielle paused. “I didn’t think I had that in me anymore.” Her brow puckered. “I remember the last time I…” She stopped. “Well, anyway, I’m glad you liked it.”
“I knew if I waited long enough you’d tell me a story worth listening to.” The queen told her, with a faint quirk of her lips. “We’ll have to find you some more to tell.”
A pleased smile appeared on Gabrielle’s face. “Well, I’m sure if I stay here, I’ll find lots of them.” She told the queen. “A lot more interesting than angry pigs, that’s for sure.”
Xena lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, those’ll be stories to scare the kids with.” She snorted again. “Gabrielle’s Horror Tales, get em while they’re hot, two dinars a piece!”
The young slave laughed. “They won’t be horror tales.” She protested, her hand dropping casually to clasp Xena’s. “They’ll be about you.”
It caught them both by surprise, and for a long string of heartbeats, they just sat there in silence.
Broken by the queen’s low grunt. “Gabrielle.” Xena gave her a wry look, but didn’t remove her hand. “I am not story material.” She said. “At least, I’m not story material unless you’re making tales to scare little kids into behaving.”
Gabrielle tilted her head to one side, her mist green eyes picking up the flickering candlelight as she examined Xena’s face. “Well.” She finally said, in a soft voice. “I guess I’ll just have to take what comes, then.”
Interesting choice of terms. Xena reflected again on how nice it was to have someone to just sit and talk to. Even if they really didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Almost as nice as having someone sit and hold your hand.
“I’ll take that.” Gabrielle smiled, and removed the flagon of white wine from the startled server’s hands. Dressed again in her nifty black livery, she had spent her time so far attentively at Xena’s side, or roaming through the hall with her ears wide open.
Xena had wanted to dress her up and just sit her down next to her at the table, but Gabrielle had pointed out if it was information she was after, it’d be hard to get it that way.
Xena had frowned. Gabrielle had gotten the feeling that the queen was really struggling between what she wanted to do, and what she knew was the right thing to do and it had taken her longer than she’d expected for Xena to decide to accept her suggestion.
The hawk’s livery was comfortable, and she liked wearing it. She’d taken a sneak peek at herself in the mirror, and decided the outfit flattered her coloring and the belted tunic looked good on her. It made her feel like she was part of something, and every time she passed one of Xena’s men standing guard there was a sense of kindred spiritry going that tickled her no end.
She carried the wine flagon, selected at random from the servers circulating the hall, back to Xena’s high table, a long walk across the huge banqueting hall.
This was the first time she’d seen this room, which Xena had described to her as the ‘biggest whore cavern on earth.’ Xena had, she’d realized, a very peculiar sense of humor, but watching the scores and scores of nobles coming up to bow before Xena’s feet, giving her little presents and courtseys Gabrielle got an inkling of what it was the queen was talking about.
The chamber was roughly three times the size of the usual banquet hall she’d already seen, and it’s ceiling was so high, she couldn’t see the carved decorations clearly that circled it. Hanging oil lamps lit the inside with warm, golden light, and the stone floor was covered with thick, woven rugs that dampened what surely would have been a horrible echoing without them.
The walls were draped with colorful tapestries, and the tables were set up in a huge semi circle, leaving a wide open space in front of Xena’s high seat, the marble steps leading down to it also draped in rugs scattered with flower petals.
It was loud, and the scents from the various dinner courses floated in the air. To one side, a group of court musicians were playing, much to Gabrielle’s delight. She loved music, and since she was completely unable to produce any herself, it had been rare that she’d gotten to hear it.
The two guards at the rear of the room, who blocked access to the steps in the rear leading up to Xena’s table eased aside at her approach and let her past. One was the older man, Brendan who also winked at her. Gabrielle smiled back at him, and trotted up the steps.
Xena’s ornate throne had it’s back to her, but she could see the curve of the queens’ shoulder and her arm as she rested it on the chair’s. The shoulder shifted and Xena’s profile appeared as she came close, her approach being apparently heard.
“Ah. Gabrielle.” Xena remarked. “What treat are you bringing me now?” She half turned, diverting her attention from the cluster of richly dressed men gathered in front of her. “Is that wine?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle knelt at her side and showed her the flagon. “It’s the white, sweet one.”
“Oo.. you learn fast.” Xena complimented her. “Gimme.” She held out her silver and crystal goblet, recently emptied, and watched as Gabrielle neatly filled it. Then she settled back and studied the nobles, friends of Lastay’s who had just returned from a journey to the south. “Tell me of the province, gentlemen.” She let her free hand rest lightly on the still kneeling Gabrielle’s back, her fingers moving in a light pattern.
Gabrielle kept both hands on the flagon, relishing the touch on her back as she listened to the nearest man, a tall, silver haired duke dressed in natty maroon and gray speak. He related a story of meeting some travelers from the far east, who were interested in beginning trade with them.
“How far east?” Xena asked quietly. “I have heard much of the mysteries from those parts.”
“They were very different, Majesty.” The duke agreed. “They spoke with a music, and their eyes were lidless and dark.” He walked carefully up the steps and knelt before her, holding out a small box. “They had things of great beauty to trade.”
Xena set her cup down on the table at her side. She took the box and examined it. It was a surprisingly heavy, creamy white substance with incredibly intricate carving on it. “Interesting.” She eased the top open with her thumb, her eyebrows rising when she found it full of many colored pearls.
“A gift for you, my liege.” The duke murmured. “The travelers told us they had heard of our realm, and that they too were from a place of mighty queens, that maybe we could find other likenesses and trade with each other.”
“Hm.” Xena was actually sort of impressed by the gift. It wasn’t ostentatious, but it gave a hint of what resources lay behind it. “What are they looking to trade for? If they have these kids of riches?” She asked, giving the duke an appraising look.
“Majesty, they did not say.” The duke seemed chagrined. “Though we did try to question them, albeit gently.”
“Well well.” Xena leaned on her chair arm and showed the box to Gabrielle. “What do you think?”
Gabrielle studied the box, wiping the condensation from the flagon off her hand before she touched the carving with a wondering finger. “It’s beautiful.” She murmured. “Are those animals on it? I’ve never seen anything like them.”
“Me either.” Xena murmured back. “Jelas, you’ve done very well. Thanks.” She addressed the duke, who produced a satisfied smile under his trimmed gray moustache. “We’ll have to investigate this trading opportunity further. I will send a delegation out to find more of these travelers, and see where they lead us.” She gave Jelas an approving look. “Let me know if you know anyone interested in leading such a delegation, all right?”
Jelas positively beamed. “Majesty, that I surely will, as you know that I claim the heart of an adventurer, and would love to represent your interests in such a way.”
Good boy. Xena graciously nodded at him. “I was hoping you’d say that. See me at day court tomorrow, and let’s talk.”
“Majesty.” Jelas did more than bow. He gracefully prostrated himself at her feet, touching his forehead to her shoe before rising to join the small party kneeling behind him. He paused a moment, then met her eyes. “I deeply regret not arriving through the city gates until just prior to now, my liege. I ache to have missed the morning here.”
“I bet.” Xena remarked drolly, watching him turn and make his way back to his retainers, who rose and gathered excitedly around him. She shook her head slightly and looked down at the box again, opening it’s lid and pushing a curious finger into the pile of pearls. She selected one, a pretty silver gray in color and removed it. “Mm.”
Gabrielle exhaled. She’d never seen anything so pretty, the oil light seeming to collect inside the pearl’s luster and make it reflect in it’s depths. “Wow.”
“Mm.” Xena murmured again. “I’ve always liked pearls.” She said. “Take an ugly thing like an oyster, stick a bit of irritating sand inside it, and what do you get?” Her fingers gently turned the pearl. “One of life’s more interesting paradoxes.” Her eyes flicked sideways, to take in Gabrielle’s face. “Kind of like you. Here.” She handed her the pearl.
Hesitantly, Gabrielle took it. The pearl sat there nestling in her palm for a moment before she looked up at Xena in question.
“Don’t swallow it.” The queen advised, in a mild tone. “Or your tongue either.”
Gabrielle closed her hand over the pearl and produced an incredulous smile. “Thank you.” She whispered, peripherally aware of the curious eyes watching them. The sounds of the room faded out, though, when their eyes met and her heart started to pound seeing the unexpected gentleness in Xena’s gaze.
And then the queen blinked, and it was gone, and the chaos faded back in. “That’s for finding a good jug of wine in this place.” Xena said casually, leaning back in her throne. She picked up a duck’s wing off her plate and took a bite of it.
A smile appeared as she chewed. The queen then reached over and offered Gabrielle the wing, a touch of mischief in her eyes as she waited to see what her slave was going to do.
Caught in the act of tucking the pearl away for safe keeping, Gabrielle just stared at the item in startlement for a few heartbeats. “Oh… ah…”
“Don’t like duck?” Xena inquired innocently.
“I’ve never tried it.” Gabrielle confessed.
“Always a first time.” More mischief emerged. “Can’t have you be a duck virgin… too.”
Gabrielle colored visibly, but she took a breath and leaned forward, taking a cautious nibble from the wing. The taste was far different than she’d expected, and she licked her lips. “Mm.” She watched Xena’s face, seeing only amused indulgence, and went back for another bite this time coming daringly close to the queen’s fingers.
“Now, that’s promising.” Xena said, reclaiming her wing and sinking her teeth into it.
Promising? Gabrielle chewed her mouthful of very tasty duck and swallowed it. Promising for what? She set her wine flagon down and eased down into a semi seated position. She tried to concentrate on the voices around her, but somehow her ears seemed to be tuned into the tall, seated figure to her left. Every rustle of Xena’s gown seemed unnaturally loud to her.
Every shift of the queen’s gown made her breathing shorten.
Xena’s voice was what she craved hearing, not the inane babbling of the courtiers.
Gabrielle gazed across the room, trying to work through the passion she could feel building inside her. It felt wild and out of control and all she could do was sit on her haunches and listen to the harpist drop tinkling notes over the buzz of the hall.
Now come on, Gabrielle. You’re supposed to be doing something important. There could be people out there planning all sorts of bad things.
The scent of spiced beef suddenly made her blink, and she focused on a bit of it just before her nose. She heard Xena’s soft chuckle as she leaned forward and took it, and before she herself really knew what she was doing, shifted it to the back of her teeth and licked the bit of juice it had left behind off Xena’s fingers.
Xena’s chuckle abruptly faded and it was a moment before Gabrielle got up the courage to look over at her only to find a look of intrigued interest on her face. In that charged silence, she swallowed and licked her lips, feeling very short of breath. “Um… “ She found herself unable to tear her eyes from Xena’s. “Interesting spices.”
For the very first time, the smile Xena returned to her held nothing of restraint in it. It was a bold grin that lit up her eyes and made her seem years younger. Gabrielle felt herself captured by it and just about swallowed whole.
It was far more intoxicating even than the wine in the jug between her knees.
“Very interesting.” Xena abruptly broke the moment. “I have to find out what cook put on that, as a matter of fact.” With a lingering look at Gabrielle, she turned and rested her chin on her fist, facing yet another small party of nobles.
Gabrielle folded her hands in her lap, feeling very much on emotional overload. She forced her attention to the nearby tables, seeing expressions that ranged from affronted to angry to indulgent there. One man pointed towards her, and shook his head.
Gabrielle just barely kept herself from giving in to the urge to stick her tongue out at him. She let her heartrate settle down, then she concentrated on listening to the snatches of talk she could hear bouncing off the walls that the speakers never intended for her to listen to.
There was a lot of anger out there. Gabrielle had understood that when she’d walked through the crowd. Many of the nobles had backed Bregos, and a number of them had lost money to the nobles who had stayed loyal to Xena on top of it.
There was also fear. Fear that Xena knew who had defected, and fear of what the queen would do about it.
Gabrielle had heard a story, while she’d waited with the rest of the servants for warm towels for their masters and mistresses to wipe themselves for dinner with. One of the older men had been telling everyone about a time when a duke had decided to make a run for the throne, and had tried to assassinate Xena during a festive ball right here in the stronghold. Xena had, he told them, found out about it and when everyone had come in for the ball, the traitor had been one of the decorations, portions of his body hung up to spin like paper lanterns over their heads.
Gabrielle believed the story.
The harpist was coming closer, his voice now lifting in a jaunty tune that matched the fingers skipping over his harp strings. His eyes met hers briefly, and he smiled. She smiled back at him, enjoying his talent.
“Jellaus.” Xena called out, motioning the musician over. “C’mere.”
The man finished his song and bowed to the applause, and then came quickly to Xena’s throne. He knelt before her clasping the harp to his chest, and bowed his head. “My liege, how may I serve you?” He asked, looking up at her.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle. “You like music?”
“Very much.” Gabrielle answered instantly. “Every year we used to travel to the big market festival and the best part about it was hearing the songs and watching the dancing. I love it.”
Jellaus beamed at her. “A young lady of very discriminating tastes!” He laughed. “I see her majesty has as always picked well for her service.” He plucked a chord on his harp, it’s perfect pitch ringing true. “Such a music lover.. have you asked her majesty yet to demonstrate one of the finest voices in the land to you, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle cocked her head, then turned and looked at the queen, who had a wry, almost dangerous expression on her face.
“Jellaus.” Xena rumbled softly.
“I speak only the truth, my liege.” Jellaus bowed, placing a hand over his heart.
“How about you play something to drown out all the horse crap, then.” Xena told him. “Before we get buried in it.”
The musician acknowledged the rebuke with a smile, then paused for a moment before he started playing his harp. The new melody he picked out was slower and had a gentle lilt to it. “Very well, Mistress.” He said. “As it happens, I have just finished a new song, and it would be my greatest honor to have you be the first to hear it.”
“Does it have at least one beheading?” The queen queried. “Or an army surrendering en mass?”
“Ah…” Jellaus modulated his plucking. “My liege, in this song, perhaps heads might be lost, and hearts certainly are, in a surrender of a different stripe.” And with that, he launched into the tune, easing one leg out for balance as he rested on right knee.
Gabrielle listened, entranced. The song was about a lonely hawk, who spent it’s days guarding a rocky crag it called home. The hawk went hunting one day and found a mouse, and stooped on it, but instead of killing and eating it, took it back to its nest, and courted it.
It seemed like a strange thing for a hawk to do, Gabrielle mused, but the song was very pretty.
A moment later, she looked down at her chest, and felt like an idiot as she listened to the words and realized what the song was really about.
She didn’t dare look at Xena. Then she heard the queen sigh, and she had to look at her, sneaking a peek from the corner or her eye. Xena had her chin propped up on her fist, and a pensive, distant look on her face. After a moment, though, the queen felt her gaze and looked over.
“If you start squeaking, I’ll put you over my knee and spank you right here in the ballroom.” She warned Gabrielle, uttering the words almost subvocally.
“I’d never do that.” Gabrielle whispered back.
“Good.” Xena smiled.
“I can wiggle my nose, though.” The blond girl demonstrated, adding a soft chitter to go along with it.
The queen covered her face with one hand and stifled a laugh. She looked up as Jellaus finished with a melodic flourish of his fingers. “Jellaus, that was the stupidest song I’ve ever heard you do.” She accused.
“Thank you, my liege.” The musician swept a low bow. “May I do another?”
Xena glanced at the crowd, judging the atmosphere. “Sure.” She said. “Make it less stupid this time.”
“Aye, my liege, I will do that.” Jellaus grinned. He retuned his harp and started playing again, this time a well known ballad. Xena resumed her listening pose, after she lifted a hand and made a brief signal. In the back of the room, Alaran nodded and ducked out the door.
Gabrielle found herself absorbed by the music, glad the day was over, and full of a wondering, buzzing excitement about what was yet to come.
It looked like the day had turned out all right after all.
Xena swirled the rich mead in her cup. In front of her were lines of soldiers, some bearing bandaged wounds, and the other winners of the festival. Awarding favors was one of her favorite things to do, and she found herself looking forward to the task almost as much as the one after it, when she’d mete out punishment for those she had found wanting.
Her back was even giving her a break. Or maybe the four cups of mead had just convinced her that her back was giving her a break. Either way, she wasn’t going to argue with the lessening of the pain that had plagued her for days.
Her ears detected an approach behind her, and she felt her face crease into a grin quite unexpectedly. What would her clever little Gabrielle be bringing her now? More snippets of gossip? More mead? Just her presence, which Xena was beginning to find more than appealing?
She turned to her right as her slave appeared, taking a seat on the small padded stool Xena had ordered for her. Her blond hair was slightly mussed, a bit of it straying into her eyes and she tossed her head to move it as she offered Xena the tray she was carrying. “I found these. I thought you might like them.”
Xena examined the dainty pastries. “Uh huh.” She rested her jaw on her hand. “What made you think that, my little brainy friend?”
“Well.” Gabrielle “Mostly because I know you really like sweet fruits, so…” She glanced at the tray. “I took a chance.”
“Oo.. getting brave, aren’t you?” Xena selected a pastry and popped it into her mouth, savoring it’s taste. “Your chance paid off. I love em.” She indicated the tray. “Try it.”
Gabrielle took the smallest of the pastries and nibbled at it. “Oh.” She blinked, surprised. “Wow, that’s good.”
“Uh huh.” Xena reached lazily over and combed her fingers through Gabrielle’s soft hair. “Listen.” She said. “Now comes the fun part. You can watch me give out the goodies, but I want you to go up to the tower after that.”
Gabrielle savored the touch, but not the words. “Why?”
“Because I said so, and I’m the queen.” Xena told her. “Because I’m going to do some very ugly things that I don’t want you to watch.” She said. “Let’s try to keep my being in charge in mind, okay?”
The girl blinked. “Okay.” Gabrielle answered softly.
“Good.” Xena took another pastry and consumed it.
“But I really would like to stay.”
The queen paused in mid chew, and looked at her. The misty green eyes peered back, gentle and innocent. “Do you really think I care what slaves want, Gabrielle?” She asked with a harsh note of almost anger in her voice.
“No.” Gabrielle answered honestly. “But I’m not a child, and I want to stay anyway.”
Xena looked around her. The nearest clump of nobles were standing a small distance away, and no one was close enough to have overheard them. Her instincts told her she was in danger. Her reaction to being challenged was ingrained in her as solid as the stone floor her chair was resting on.
Gabrielle should be punished. There was no question about that at all in her mind.
Was there? Xena felt an odd sense of confusion as she tried to formulate a rebuke. Maybe it was the mead, she reasoned. She’d had a cup or two more to drink than was her usual portion and it had been a long day after all, so…
Xena. Her conscience tapped her on the top of her head. Cut the horse manure. If you let this pass, you’re opening up a trap door you’re going to end up falling right through. She leaned a little closer and stared right into Gabrielle’s eyes, preparing herself to attack.
The slave merely sat there waiting, watching her with trusting eyes, her hand resting on the arm of the throne.
Well, why not let her stay? Xena struggled internally. Do you care, if she sees you gut someone, Xena? She found the truth reflected back to her in Gabrielle’s steady gaze, and it shocked her. Yes, I do care.
I do care.
Xena lowered her eyelids and took a moment to compose herself. Then she straightened and regarded her slave again. “Why?”
Gabrielle’s head cocked to one side in question.
“Why do you want to stay and watch?” Xena asked. “You getting a taste for blood?”
“N..no.” The girl shook her head. “I just… I don’t want you to think I’m afraid of seeing things. I’m not a kid.” Her jaw firmed up. “Besides, it’s sort of a part of life here, isn’t it?”
Is it? Xena felt tired all of a sudden. She leaned back in her chair and let her eyes roam over the room. “Yeah, I guess it is.” She murmured. “All right. Stay if you want.”
Gabrielle shifted, lifting her hand and putting it on Xena’s arm, her fingers warm and comforting. “Thank you.” She whispered. “I think I’ll probably regret it, but thank you anyway.”
Xena felt things slipping out of her grasp. “I think I’ll regret it too, but you’re welcome.” She sighed. “Hand that tray over here. As long as I’m on a wagon ride to Hades, I might as well enjoy it.”
Puzzled but willing, Gabrielle complied.
Xena stood before her throne. Alaran approached, and knelt, her sword in it’s sheath in his hands. Respectfully, he offered it to her hilt first. She closed her hand around it and drew it, the metal whispering out of the leather.
The oil lanterns had been supplemented by wall torches, and the inside of the chamber was now covered in flickering shadows. The crowd had settled, mead and wine had been liberally consumed, and now an atmosphere of restless edginess had taken over.
“All right. Everyone who got a ribbon, front and center.” Xena ordered.
With some excitement, the racers and bowmen edged forward. Xena walked over to a small table set near the edge of her dias and surveyed the items on it. She neatly slipped her sword blade through the line of ribbons and lifted them up, colorful bits of fabric ending in dangling metal medallions.
The medallions had her face on them. Xena regarded the things as they hung there. She hated them. Whoever had casted the damn things had made her out to look like a gorgon, and Xena was more than vain enough to resent it.
She’d gone after the sculptor, but the bastard had fled the city before she could catch him.
Xena made a mental note to have the medals recast, then she walked over to the line of young men and women and held the sword out straight, daring them to take a medal off the blade.
The same blade that had taken Bregos down. The same blade she’d carried since she first took command of an army, and could afford to have the weapon hand cast for her. The sword had the stain of at least a thousand opponents on it, and though she knew the blade was a dully gleaming silver she often saw a red cast in it when she looked at it. “C’mon… either get moving, or I’ll start putting them on you with this thing.”
A young woman, one of the horse riders was the first to step forward. She walked up to Xena and knelt, then carefully took the first medal off the blade. “My liege.”
Xena reached over and ruffled her hair. “Good job. Leave it to a girl to be the only one with guts.”
Startled, the woman blushed and almost stumbled backwards, narrowly avoiding bumping the next winner who was creeping forward.
They were all scared, but they were also excited, and Xena used the moment to give each of them an eye to eye look.
Some of them refused to look at her. She marked them.
Others dared to meet her gaze, but were suspicious and wary. She marked those, too.
Then there were the few that took their ribbon with a mixture of awe and pleasure, whose faces etched shy smiles as she looked at them.
Those few got a wink and a smile back from their charismatic queen, and unwittingly bound themselves to her in the blink of an eye. Damned few, Xena sighed. Gotta start getting to them earlier. I’ve been slacking off lately, and that’s what I get for it.
After all the medals were given, Xena let her sword rest on her shoulder as she regarded the room. “The winners of the melee, get out here.”
From the corners of the room her men stepped out, walking confidently across the room to gather before her. Not all of them, of course, but the officers who would take the kudos back to the barracks with them. Xena waited for them to line up, then she motioned Stanislaus forward.
The castle seneschal had his arms wrapped around an ornate wooden chest, and he carried it to her, it’s weight evident in his labored steps.
“Brendan.” Xena called out.
The grizzled captain walked over from his guard post, and circled the throne dais to arrive in front of Xena. He dropped to his knees without hesitation, and put his fist up over his heart. “Majesty.”
“Brendan, I promised a special favor if your troops won the day.”
“Aye, majesty… but the favor of carrying your banner to victory was the reward we looked for.” Brendan said. “We want no other.”
“Charming, but altruism was never one of my faults, and I didn’t train you that way either.” Xena remarked dryly. “As it happens, I was able to put a few bets on the contest through the kind offices of a few of our guests.” The queen pointed her sword at the chest, then indicated Brendan. “Give it to him. Share it with the men, Brendan. They earned it.”
Brendan’s face went slack with shock as he got hastily to his feet to claim the chest. “Mistress.” He clasped the wooden bin to him. “Your generosity knows no bounds.”
Xena reached out and tapped him on the head with her sword blade. “My generosity is sporadic and eclectic at best and everybody knows it. G’wan and get that out of here before you fall with it and spill coin from here to the outer gates.” She turned and regarded the room. “I’m sure everyone’ll agree their dinars went to good home, hm?”
Sour faces looked back at her from a good portion of the room. She felt a cold humor settle on her.
Xena grinned. “It’s a shame our general can’t be here to join us, that what you’re thinking?” She asked mockingly. “Those of you who were pushing him into trying to knock me off the big red chair back there?”
A low murmur went up. “Like you, Duke Edagar?” Xena pointed her sword at him. Edagar was a burly, bearded man whom she liked to call Brego’s bearded buttlicker.
Indignantly, Edagar stood up. “Majesty, I protest! I am a most loyal subject!”
Xena walked towards him, daring him to hold his ground. Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of Gabrielle perched behind her throne, watching her. “Loyal? I don’t think you can even spell loyal, Edagar.” She drawled.
Xena could feel the fear in the room rising. The sword on her shoulder was a potent threat, and they all knew it. “You think I don’t know about your little plan?” She moved closer. “Think I didn’t know about the lies you spread, the tales you told?”
Edagar’s knees were shaking. Xena could see them. Her eyes drilled into his. She would make him an example, and with any luck, only one set of body parts would have to be tossed in front of the gates. The dark fire rose inside her and the urge to kill, held at bay the day long, surfaced.
Edagar saw it in her eyes. He dropped to his knees and then flat on his face, covering his head with his hands.
Xena stood over him. “Not only are you a traitor, you’re a coward.” She turned her head towards Alaran, who was standing alertly at her shoulder. “Pick him up.”
Alaran and one of his men did so, lifting the duke up by the arms and holding him suspended between them.
“Duck.” Xena remarked casually. Both men bowed their heads and she struck, in a solid backhanded stroke that took his head off cleanly and sent it flying across the banquet table.
His wife screamed. Xena gazed dispassionately at her. She fell off her chair and continued to scream in utter terror, the sound piercing the room and making an eerie counterpoint to the fluttering of the torches.
Xena let her eyes slowly track across the room. “Everyone get my… point?” She had to grin at the macbre humor.
Other than the woman’s screams, it was dead silent.
“Good.” Xena wiped her sword off on Edagar’s linen surcoat. She turned and walked up the steps to her throne, idly twirling her sword in her hand. The woman’s voice broke off into hysterical sobbing, but Xena didn’t turn around. She sat down on her throne, and put her sword across her knees.
Only then, after a deep breath, did she look to her right to where Gabrielle was sitting.
The slave was gazing straight ahead, her lips pressed against her folded hands.
“Gonna listen to me next time?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle nodded slightly.
Xena fiddled with her sword hilt, aware of the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Usually killing made her feel good, but watching the tremor in Gabrielle’s hands it was hard for her to feel anything but a little depressed.
She watched the guards drag both Edagar’s body and Edagar’s wife out.
Her back hurt.
Xena motioned Jeallaus to start playing again, as whispers finally broke the silence. The sound of the harp was almost surreal, but it was soothing to her ears as she sat back in her throne and listened.
After a few minutes, Gabrielle straightened and braced her hands on her knees, drawing in a deep breath and releasing it. She turned to look at Xena.
Xena returned the look.
“How did you know he was the one behind it all?” Gabrielle asked, in a soft voice.
“I didn’t.” The queen told her. “I made an example of him so the rest of the bastards who joined in will think twice before they do it again.”
The slave nodded slightly. “Do you know who they are?”
Another slight nod. “Then you could have done that to all of them, couldn’t you?”
“I would have had to sharpen this a couple times, but sure.” Xena smiled grimly. “I could have. But if you kill em all, you don’t’ have any tax base left.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle rubbed her eyes.
Xena could only imagine the image she was trying to erase from them. “You know what?”
“What?” The slave looked up at her.
“I’ve had enough fun for one night. Let’s go.” Xena stood up, motioning for Alaran to approach with her sheath. “I want to get this damn gown off, and wash the stink of this place off me.” She took the leather sheath and slid the sword home. “You take care of everything?”
“Yes, Majesty.” Alaran seemed a lot more relaxed. “The men… were very pleased with your gift.” He told her. “And my spies tell me… those that supported Bregos are very, very sorry.”
“Mm.. you can say that again.” Xena grunted. “I’m going to the tower. If anyone gets drunk in here, throw them in the dungeon for a sevenday and fine them a hundred dinars.”
“Mistress.” Alaran bowed. “It has been a very profitable day.”
Xena watched Gabrielle come to stand quietly at her shoulder, the shadows painfully evident in her eyes. “Yeah.” The queen shifted her sword to her left hand and let her right rest on Gabrielle’s shoulder. She half expected the girl to flinch, and found a small glimmer of warmth when she didn’t. “I made a mint. C’mon, kid. Let’s go get comfortable.”
Gabrielle straightened and produced a gentle smile.
“Are you well, majesty?” Alaran asked suddenly, leaning closer. “Truth, I’d forgotten you were injured.”
“That thing? Just a scratch.” Xena slung her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders and started down the steps. “Now at least we can put the whole damn thing behind us, and move on.”
“You’re right, Majesty.” Alaran watched them go. “That we can.”
Gabrielle waited until they were out of the hall, and walking towards the grand staircase before she spoke. “You know something?”
Xena sighed. “I’m a cold, heartless whore bitch assassin with no morals and less conscience?”
“Um..” Gabrielle cleared her throat a little. “No.. that guy Alaran gives me the creeps.”
“He’s a spy. He is a creep.”
Xena walked along the hall, glad of the cool breeze after the heated warmth of the banquet chamber. “You don’t think I’m a cold heartless whore bitch assassin with no morals and less conscience?”
“No.” Gabrielle put an arm around her. “Just a really strong person who does what they think they have to.”
Xena looked at her. “I think you just proposed to me.” She remarked, feeling a little of the gloom lifting. “Impulsive thing, aren’t you?”
Gabrielle exhaled, her shoulders relaxing. “I’m really glad it’s all over.”
“Nice change of subject.” Even in the dark, Xena could sense the blush. She pushed the long day out of her mind, and focused on the future. Bregos was taken care of. The rebellion was squashed. She had a pretty girl in her arms, and with any luck, she could take time now to heal in peace.
And get to know Gabrielle a little better, now that it seemed the girl wasn’t screaming and running for her life after the night’s entertainment.