Shadows of the Soul
The moon slowly rose, peeking over the walls of the stronghold and spilling quiet silver light across shadowy figures and restlessly stamping animals. Overhead, pennants flapped in the night breeze, the rustle of fabric sounding out over the low clink of an ironsmith working and the rumble of cattle in their pens.
In the courtyard, men stood waiting, their hands tucked into bridles as they made a last check of weapons draped over their armored bodies. Their leathers were dark, and the horses tack blackened with soot from the fire.
The door to the stable opened, and a horse moved into the open space, it’s shoulders a good foot above the rest’s and it’s coat a silky, dark coal that reflected none of the torchlight that seemed to sink into it’s inky depths.
"All right, let's get moving." Xena settled her knees, feeling a sense of pleasure at finding herself on horseback again. It had been a while, she suspected she'd be paying for that with a little soreness at the end of the night, but she was looking forward to the exercise nonetheless. She was a natural rider, and her mastery showed in the subtle body shifts that moved her big stallion around in a circle with effortless ease. “I want to get out there, get the wench, and get back before anyone knows what’s going on.”
“Mistress.” Brendan saluted, and gave a signal. The men mounted, forming up around the queen as she sat easily in their midst.
“Keep together. I want to be back here well before sunrise.” Xena said. “I’ve got a little surprise for everyone at morning court, and I don’t want to be late.” A pressure on her shoulder made her glance around. "Are you ready?" She growled at the wide green eyes peeking back at her.
Gabrielle was seated behind her on her horse, her arms wrapped securely around Xena's middle. She was looking at everything with a sense of awed wonder, but noticeably kept her eyes off the ground. "I think so."
"You think so?"
Gabrielle wriggled a little. "I've never been on a horse before." She said, a little surprised at how big they were once you were on top of them.
"Figures. Another virginity issue." The queen remarked. "I can't believe I let you talk me into taking you. My brains must be leaking out somewhere." Shaking her head, she took the supple reins into one hand and surveyed her small force, seeing the glints as the low light reflected off the eyes watching her. She suspected they were wondering about the little blond kid on her tail as much as she was, but a spirit of recklessness seemed to have taken her over and it prompted nothing more than a very dry chuckle.
The armor felt good against her skin. The cool air felt even better, and somehow, that little pocket of living warmth pressed against her back just seemed to fit somehow. It hadn’t really been Gabrielle’s doing to convince her either. “You’re gonna regret this, you know.”
Xena turned, grinning wickedly through the dark bangs that half obscured her eyes. “You won’t be able to put your knees together for a week.”
Gabrielle blinked at her. “Oh.”
“Mm.” The queen flicked her cloak around her knees. “On second thought, maybe you won’t regret it. Depends on how creative I get.”
The blond head cocked to one side, and Gabrielle’s brow furrowed. “How creative you get?”
Xena gave her a look. “On a count of three, blush.” She instructed her slave. “My shoulderblades are chilly.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle did, indeed, blush. She rested her cheek against the queen’s back, feeling a sense of fear and excitement over the adventure to come as well as a sensual tickle in her guts as the meaning of Xena’s words became clear to her. She hadn’t really expected Xena to change her mind on the way down from the tower, but as she’d buckled the queen’s armor onto her, Xena had suddenly turned and held her face, studying her intently.
Then, she was going. That was all. Confusing, but Gabrielle was sure Xena had a good reason for it. “I’m sure it’ll be worth it.”
The queen chuckled, and guided her horse over to where the other members of the raiding party were waiting. “Evening, boys.” She greeted the group.
“Majesty.” Brendan eased his horse over to her, and bowed in the saddle, equally at ease as she was. “You do us a great honor.”
“By letting you come along for the ride? Yes, I do. You’re welcome.” Xena replied, with a wicked chuckle. “You get to ride on my royal coattails, and maybe if you’re lucky my little Gabrielle here will put you in her story about the whole thing.” She slapped the slave on the leg.
“Story, m’liege?” Brendan asked. “Have we got us a storyteller then?”
“We do.” Xena motioned for one of the grooms to open a small, inconspicuous door half hidden by a curve in the wall. It was just large enough to admit them mounted, if they ducked. Xena had to duck more than most, because of her height and the stallions, but she did it gracefully, leaning her body to one side then straightening as they moved along a narrow stone corridor that ended in yet another set of thick, barred doors.
They all were silent, only the horses footfalls sounding as they filed out, the doors opened by the grooms trotting ahead of them. The night spread out before them, a softly beaten path leading down from the doors they’d just left down to the road. Sounds were muted, the rustle and clank of habitation mixed with the restless motion of livestock as they ambled past the town and headed off into the dark countryside.
Xena waited until they’d past the market, and the outlying hamlets and the trees had swallowed them on either side. “Now you listen to me, my little muskrat.” She turned her head and murmured to Gabrielle.
“I’m not a muskrat.” Gabrielle objected mildly, tipping her head back to look up at the stars. “Oh… look!”
“What?” Xena swiftly checked the area.
“No, up there!” Gabrielle whispered. “It’s moving!” She pointed at a streak of light.
Xena stared at it.
“Make a wish!” The slave urged her. “If you make a wish when you see one of those, it’ll come true!”
“Gabrielle.” The queen drawled in amusement.
Xena shook her head and chuckled. “Ten thousand slaves, and I had to pick this one.” She mock sighed.
The road was empty before them, as she’d expected. It was lined with forest as it headed down to the river valley, where it would open up a little as it crossed the ford and entered the fertile lands on the other side. Evgast’s stronghold was nestled in a fold of the next valley, the approach easily visible from it’s stone walls. She’d have to find a way in less conspicuously, but until then she settled down and decided to just enjoy the ride. “So.”
“Hm?” Gabrielle leaned closer.
One of the girl’s thumbs was rubbing her absently just above her navel, and Xena found it delightfully distracting. “What’d you wish for?” She asked, letting her free hand drop down to rest on the slave’s thigh.
“I can’t tell you.”
Xena turned her head. “Can’t?” She growled.
“It won’t come true, then.” Gabrielle explained. “You can’t tell anyone.” She rested her cheek against the queen’s shoulder as she peered out past her. “It’s a pretty night out.”
Pretty? Xena observed the landscape. It was lit in faint starlight, the new moon barely a sliver on the horizon. “If you say so.” She said. “Now listen. When we get where we’re going, I’m gonna stick you up a tree, and you will keep your mouth shut and just wait for us to get back. Understand?”
“Hm…” Xena traced the side of her knee through her leggings. “I love it when someone obeys me without question.” She drawled softly. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to rule everything.”
Gabrielle watched the horses’ ears flick back and forth, as though he were listening to Xena too. “What are you going to do?”
Xena kept an eye on the forest to either side, the caution of a lifetime stirring instincts that she had to admit were rusty at best. It had been a very long time, she was suddenly conscious, since she’d left the security of her troops and her stronghold to walk the land virtually alone.
Was this really a good idea?
She frowned, disturbed at the thought. Her plan had been relatively simple, in abstract. She’d lead her small group up into the hills, and sneak into Evgast’s castle. He lived in the heartland of the kingdom and there hadn’t been so much as a renegade road bandit in the area for years. She felt sure they could get inside, then find the girl and get out again.
But would it be that easy? Was she kidding herself? Was she a nutcase for coming out here and risking herself in a crazy attempt at…
No. She dismissed the thought. She was doing this because she knew she’d do it right, and….
Xena frowned again. “Why in Hades am I doing this?” She asked aloud.
Gabrielle assumed she was being addressed, and considered the question carefully. “Because you want to help out the duke, and get him on your side?” She ventured. “And it’s a really amazing thing to do.”
Hm. Xena signaled the men forward, and pressed her knees into her stallion’s sides. The horse’s pace increased from a walk to a canter, and she felt Gabrielle grab hold of her in a sudden death grip. “I’ll go with that.” She said. “Better make sure you remember all the heroic details, hm?”
“Uhhhh…” Gabrielle was now moving faster than she’d ever gone before in her life. The wind blew her hair back, and she blinked as the cold air stung her eyeballs. “Thhh.at wwould be easier if you didn’t put mmme in a ttree.”
Xena peered at her. “You’re stuttering.”
“T…the horrrse is bbbbouncing.”
“Ahh… I can make him stop bouncing. Would you like that?”
Gabrielle nodded vigorously.
Xena chuckled, and clamped her knees down, leaning forward and letting out a soft yell. The horse bolted into an all out gallop, his pace lengthening as the trees whipped by. “Better?” She called back to her passenger.
“Yyyeeewooooooooo!” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena’s body and hung on for dear life. She could feel the queen laughing, and felt the muscular flexing as her body moved with the horses motion. It was scary, and very uncomfortable and she felt like she was about to fall off.
And then, she figured out if she stuck to Xena like a snail and moved when she moved, it got a little better.
Just a little.
They thundered through the night, sweeping down the road towards the river. It was dark, and the sky overhead seemed full of shooting stars.
Gabrielle decided it would either be the best adventure she’d ever had, or the worst nightmare she could ever imagine. But if the gods listened to her, and granted her wish – then she and Xena would be okay.
And… Her body melded a little more tightly to the queen’s. Xena was right about one thing.
It would make a really, really good story.
Xena crawled up onto the ridge, perversely exulting in the feel of the cold, hard ground against her knees and elbows. She slowly pulled herself up over a root at the top, peeking over and gazing down in the valley below.
The small castle was well lit by torches, and the gates were manned by no less than six stalwart looking fellows, bearing long spears with barbed points on them. Xena noticed also the narrow slits in the stone walls, where she could just make out the faintest of glints on the crossbows mounted inside.
Slowly, her head turned and she surveyed the lands around the building, nodding a little at the strictly cleared space that allowed for no intruders to creep up unexpectedly. Good planning, unfortunately for her. Her eyes tracked across the ripple of starlight on the small stream that ran alongside the walls, offering more protection and taking the castle’s refuse away in a nose cringing flow.
Hm. Xena eyed the water. She cocked her head and listened intently, hearing very far off a rich burbling sound somewhere up the slope behind the castle. She considered the force she had with her, then backed off from the ridge and returned to where the men and Gabrielle were waiting.
“Looks to be pretty sharp on the door, Mistress.” Brendan remarked, in a low voice. “Almost like they was specting trouble.”
Yeah. “Evgast knows he’s got a prize in there.” Xena said. “It’s not out of the question that Lastay would try to get in.” She indicated the slope. “We need to leave the horses here. Put them into that patch of trees over there.”
Brendan looked. “Aye, Mistress? Then?”
“Then we climb.” Xena smiled at him with cheerful wickedness. “Hope you’re up to it, old man.” She patted him on the head and started towards the copse of trees with Gabrielle trailing quietly behind her.
“Xena?” The slave murmured, as they reached the trees. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Could I stop you?” The queen led her big mount inside the protected space and tied his bridle off. She edged out of the way as the rest of the men followed her lead. “Hm?” Her fingers found Gabrielle’s chin and tipped it upward.
“What?” Xena asked.
“Couldn’t you just go to the front door and ask them to give her up?”
Xena gazed down at her. One eyebrow hiked up.
“I mean, you’re the queen. They’d have to listen to you, wouldn’t they?” The slave went on.
“Hm.” Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and started up the ridge as the men clustered around them. “I could do that.” She admitted. “But I don’t want to.”
They moved quietly through the trees, Xena leading them on a slanting path up the hill. Gabrielle was quiet for a few steps, then looked up again. “Why not?”
“Two reasons.” The queen answered. “First, because Evgast’s gone so far at this point, he may have told his people to kill her if anyone approaches the castle.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle murmured. “Wow. That would be bad.”
“Mm.” Xena nodded. “And two, because all the fun for me in this is outsmarting the little bastard and stealing his prize away under his bulbous nose.”
“And I intend to have the most fun possible tonight.” Xena concluded. “Especially since they think I’m busy in my quarters indulging in hedonistic rituals their feeble imaginations could not even begin to picture.” She ducked her head as she walked, gracefully capturing Gabrielle’s lips and exploring them without missing a step or bumping into the slightest twig. “Understand?”
Gabrielle nodded. “I think I do, yes.”
“Good.” Xena reached the end of the easy slope and released her slave, examining the rocky outcropping ahead of her. “Okay.” She flexed her fingers. “Here’s where it gets tough. I’ll go first, everybody follow me. If you fall, keep your mouth shut. No screaming.”
Gabrielle watched as the queen unhooked her cloak and draped it neatly over a tree limb. She was dressed in her armor, but to that she’d added knitted leggings tucked into her boots and a coal colored shirt of mail that covered her arms and rendered her almost invisible in the darkness.
Xena started the climb up the rocks, picking her handholds carefully and moving with steady, cautious deliberation. After a moment’s pause, Gabrielle realized the men were waiting for her to go next, and she scrambled forward, taking hold of the stones and pulling herself after the queen as fast as she could.
It wasn’t easy at all. Gabrielle realized very quickly. Xena made it look almost effortless, but the stone edges cut into her hands and the energy it took to pull her body up was almost more than she could handle. She heard the men start to climb up after her, though, muffling soft oaths and she felt just a little bit better about it. It was tough for her, but at least she was light. They weren’t.
The path got steeper, and she struggled to grab a handhold Xena had used. The stone was a little slick from the night air and her grip slipped, making her fall back against the rocks with a painful thump. “Ow.” She mouthed silently, remembering Xena’s warning.
“You all right, little one?” Brendan murmured, just beneath her.
“Yes.” Gabrielle whispered, catching her breath and taking a firmer hold on the stone. She tugged her body upward, glancing up only to find a pair of icy blue eyes looking back at her. “Sorry.”
“Yes, you are.” The queen said tartly.
Gabrielle blinked at her, wincing at the sting of the words. It wasn’t as if she’d spent her life crawling around mountains after all.
“At this, anyway.” Xena reached down and grabbed the back of her tunic, hauling her up onto the next little ridge as easily as if she’d been a sack of corn. “Glad you’ve got other good points. C’mon.”
With Xena’s grip on her, climbing became a whole lot easier. Gabrielle pulled herself up past the last bit of rock and settled down on her belly next to the queen. After a few minutes, the others joined them, and they edged up to peek over the top of the ridge.
Now, they were on one side of the castle. Gabrielle could see the walls in the rear, equally as imposing as those in the front, their gray surfaces broken only by two guarded doors and a wooden stockade like thing which covered a pile of rocks near the very back.
Xena motioned Brendan forward. She pointed at the guards by the door nearest them. The old soldier nodded, then crept down the line, tapping one of the men on the shoulder and indicating he should follow.
Gabrielle watched them go, their armor blending quickly into the dark foliage as they inched their way down the slope. It was amazing to her how silently they moved and she observed in fascination the barest hint of a shadow as they crawled along. She leaned over very close to Xena’s ear. “What are they going to do?”
Xena turned her head and regarded her. “Take the guards out.” She uttered.
“Oh.” Gabrielle watched a moment more, before the meaning of the words penetrated and a cold chill went down her back. She looked at Xena. “D…”
“Yes.” The queen enunciated the word precisely. “Close your damn eyes.”
Gabrielle held hers for a long moment. Then she turned and let her chin rest on her forearm, fastening her gaze on the guards standing unaware in the torchlight. They were no more than stick figures at this distance, faint motions as they shifted barely visible and it was impossible to distinguish what they looked like.
Did that make watching easier? Gabrielle swallowed. They could be just regular guys, like the men Xena had brought with her. They could be someone’s brother. Or husband. She pictured Brendan’s face. Or father.
But soon they would just be bodies. Gabrielle didn’t know any of them, but it made her sad and she wondered if this is what life just had in store for her from now on. Should she just get used to it?
Could she? She shifted and looked at Xena’s profile. The queen was resting her weight on her elbows, watching the stronghold with quiet, alert eyes. The beauty of her strong, sculpted features was evident even in the low starlight and Gabrielle wondered again at how so much blood and death could live so easily inside the woman next to her.
Just something else she’d have to get used to, wasn’t it? Gabrielle exhaled, briefly wishing she’d never asked to come along. “Can I leave out this heroic detail when I tell the story?” She murmured to herself with a little shake of her head.
Xena pretended not to hear her. She gazed confidently ahead, watching the flicker of motion she knew were her men heading down to take care of business. Once the guards were dead, she could get in that back way and this time of night be pretty much guaranteed a period of time to find her quarry. She’d leave two of her men outside in case anyone gave the door a casual look, and it should go nice and easy for everyone.
Echoes nibbled annoyingly at her ears. Except for Evgast’s guards, that is. She shot a glance at Gabrielle, and watched the girl’s fair lashes flicker, her profile a study in pensive dismay.
Damn it. Feeling like she had to justify her decisions really pissed her off. Xena frowned and dismissed the slave, concentrating on thinking through her plan.
Moments later though, she found herself watching Gabrielle again. The girl had turned her attention from the guards to a small beetle in front of her nose, and she put a careful finger in front of it and watched it crawl up and over to continue on it’s way.
Now, why in Hades would anyone do something like that? Xena wondered. “Hey.”
There was a brief but perceptible hesitation before Gabrielle looked up at her. The slave’s lips pressed into a very faint smile, then relaxed as she waited to see what Xena wanted from her.
What do I want from her? Xena mused, as she studied the gentle, innocent face. “Listen.” She put the tip of her index finger on Gabrielle’s nose. “We live in a nasty world. You can’t be nice to everyone.”
“I know.” Gabrielle said. “But…” She glanced out at the castle. “Couldn’t you just have tied them up?”
Xena sighed. “No.” She returned her attention to the guards, seeing a shadow slide towards the right of them and taking in a breath of anticipation. “For one thing, we don’t have any rope.” She observed. “And for another…” The queen paused, a wrinkle appearing in her brow. “Anyway, it’s too late now.” She turned and rested her chin against her fists. “Everyone get ready to move.”
Gabrielle wrestled with herself for a few minutes, forcing her eyes finally to fasten on the guards. She closed her hands on the ground in front of her, catching two bunches of leaves and twigs and feeling them bite into her palms.
One of the guards looked at his partner across the doorway, making a faintly seen motion with his spear. The other waved a tiny hand in response.
She could almost imagine them sharing a joke together, just the two of them there alone in the night.
Then as she watched, unable to look away, two shadows detached themselves from the ground and swept down on the doorway. The guard nearest her started to react, then his spear dropped and he followed it, clutching his throat as he fell.
The other guard didn’t even have time to let out a yell. One moment he was standing, the next he was just a huddle of fabric on the hard, cold ground. Death had come to them in silence, and in silence the dark shadows picked up the bodies and pulled them back into the rough brush they’d come from.
“Nice.” Xena complimented them quietly.
Gabrielle looked down at her hands. Slowly, she uncurled them and let the leaves fall, feeling sick and more than a little sad. She folded her fingers together and rested her forehead on them, breathing in the smell of the earth as she said a little prayer to Hades for the two men’s journey to his lands.
“Let’s go.” Xena got a grip on the back of Gabrielle’s tunic and lifted her to her feet, surging over the ridge and starting down the slope towards the castle. “You don’t want to miss the fun, do you?”
Gabrielle found herself trotting down the hill after the queen, towards the torchlit doorway. She almost pulled up on seeing the two guards in place on either side of it, then she realized it was Xena’s men in the guard’s tabards.
There was no sign of the original guards as they approached.
Brendan worked the latch as they arrived, pushing the door gently open and ducking his head as Xena slipped past him into the castle.
“Good job.” The queen patted his cheek.
“Aye. Not bad for an old man, eh?” Brendan chuckled.
The door closed behind them, and Gabrielle found herself in a small, closed courtyard that was empty of anything save a set of old barrels.
“All right.” Xena murmured. “That was the easy part. Split up. You two..” She indicated two of the four remaining me. “Go to the tower stair. Make sure no one comes up this way and blocks our exit.”
“Aye, Mistress.” The two men slipped away.
“You two, find the barracks and stables.” Xena instructed. “Gabrielle and I will find the girl. When I whistle, get your selves back here and get ready to move like Hades.”
“Mistress.” The taller of the two touched his forehead, and they melted into the darkness.
Gabrielle was left with Xena, alone in the courtyard. She felt her heart start to pound, as she suddenly realized she was going to be involved in whatever plan it was Xena had come up with.
There would be no safety of an anonymous tree to sit in. She would be going where Xena went, and risking whatever it was the queen had in mind.
It was profoundly terrifying.
What if she screwed something up? What if they got caught? What if….
“Hey.” Xena patted her on the cheek. “Stop losing your mind. We’ll be fine. There’s no one in this place that can put a touch on me. You’re safe as a baby.”
Gabrielle blinked at her, and tried to project a confidence she didn’t feel. “Okay.”
“Let’s go.” The queen put a hand on her shoulder and started to walk, placing her boots carefully as they moved down the hall. “No squeaking.”
Yeah. Gabrielle clamped her jaws together. Easy for the cat to say.
“Where is everyone?” Gabrielle whispered, as softly as she could. She and Xena were standing at the bottom of a long, spiral stone staircase inside the tower nearest to the back door. “It’s so quiet.”
“Mm.” The queen laid her hand against the stone and leaned towards it as though she were listening to it’s silent secrets. “Supper, probably.” She straightened, apparently satisfied. “Keep quiet. Don’t scuff your feet or I’ll….”
“Cut them off?” Gabrielle suggested, in a low murmur. “Boy, that would be messy.”
Xena patted her cheek. “That’s my girl. Keep working on that sense of humor.” She started up the steps, placing her feet with caution as she slowly lifted her body up. She cocked her head and listened, straining her ears for the least sound above her as she lead Gabrielle along.
The tower was empty, almost too empty. The queen felt a prickle of nerves as she continued upward, mindful of the short, blond responsibility hanging just off her hip.
Was she nuts, to have brought Gabrielle? Xena scowled, pausing in the middle of the staircase to crane her head up, and examine what she could see of the top landing. A single torch burned up there, and she could hear the light licking of the flame against the stone of the wall.
No breathing, no motion that might indicate a guard. “Hm.” Xena continued her stealthy upward motion, one hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder as she stepped around the last curve of the stairs and ended up at the upper doorway.
“Hold up.” Xena knelt and examined the ground, her fingers brushing over a dark stain before the door. She sniffed carefully, then she stood and pressed her ear against the doorway. From the other side, she could just barely detect a murmur of low voices and her heart rate picked up in response. “Stay behind me.”
Gabrielle had no intention of staying anywhere but. She tucked herself behind the queen’s reassuringly solid form as Xena put her hand on the latch and worked it silently. Her heart was racing so quickly it was making her dizzy, and she concentrated on taking deep breaths as the wooden door eased slightly open.
A puff of air trickled out, full of reeds and oil smoke, and the tickly scent of wool. After a moment of utter stillness, Xena inched the door further, slipping her body inside and tugging Gabrielle in after her.
You wanted adventure. Gabrielle reminded herself, as she felt the door close, sealing them into a hallway with a tall, arched roof and a number of inset doors. You got it, so now shut up and do what she says.
There was a slim, woolen carpet on the floor, and hangings on the walls that warmed the interior. Torches were tucked neatly in sconces spaced along the length of the hall, but other than that it was empty. Gabrielle could just barely hear voices, off in the distance, and as she craned her head around Xena’s elbow she also spotted something else.
At the end of the corridor was another doorway, but this one was different. It bore iron bars, and a large, heavy lock secured the entrance that looked stout enough to withstand even a giant’s blow.
How had, Gabrielle suddenly wondered, the queen known exactly where to go? She wanted to ask, but one look at Xena’s serious face convinced her to keep her tongue inside her mouth and her thoughts to herself. She could see, though, why there weren’t any guards. No one could get inside that room.
The iron bars didn’t seem to dismay the queen, however. Somehow, Gabrielle didn’t feel a lot of surprise over that.
Xena turned, and put her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders, her eyes quiet, and very intent. She pressed backwards, pushing her against the wall and into a slight alcove. Then she released her, and put a fingertip on Gabrielle’s nose. “Don’t move.” She mouthed silently.
Without a sound, Xena turned and walked down the hallway. As she approached the first doorway she paused, easing her head around the corner and examining the space before she moved on. Her motions were smooth and graceful, and she seemed to radiate an alertness that Gabrielle could feel all the way back at her end of the corridor.
It had an eerie beauty to it.
She held her breath as Xena came to the next entrance, her entire body going absolutely still. With horrified eyes, Gabrielle watched as the door opened, spilling candlelight out into the hall and a man emerged, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
He walked right past the tall, dark haired woman standing against the wall, and didn’t even see the arm that snaked around his neck and broke it.
The soft crunching sound hit Gabrielle right in the pit of her stomach. She watched the man slump into Xena’s arms, and saw the dispassionate look in the queen’s eyes as she tucked the body into a dark corner on the other side of the door.
It was no longer beautiful. Gabrielle closed her eyes on the image of the man’s staring eyes, looking right at her before his head was turned and his life extinguished between one of her breaths and the next.
Cautiously, Xena peered inside the room. Then she turned and picked the unlucky man up, hauling his body up over her shoulder as though he were a sack of grain and dumping him inside the room. She closed the door behind him, and dusted her hands off.
Her eyes met Gabrielle’s. Then Xena turned and continued down the hall towards the locked chamber.
It was like being caught in a nightmare. Gabrielle pressed her shoulders back against the stone, willing her body not to just turn and run as it so desperately wanted to. She didn’t want to be here. She didn’t want to see anyone else die, or watch Xena practice those dark skills she seemed so very proud of.
She tried not to think of those same hands touching her. Patting her cheek.
Gabrielle felt sick, and more than a little ashamed. She dropped her eyes to the ground and hoped it would all just end quickly, before anyone else found them.
Xena padded up to the iron gates and examined the lock. She was quite satisfied with herself so far, having guessed right about Evgast’s architecture and remembered the interior of his castle that she’d only seen once. Her sense of hearing told her there was no one else in the tower yet, and she flicked her eyes around the hall before she concentrated on the iron clasp in her hands.
Was Gabrielle watching how clever she was? Xena glanced down to where she’d left the slave. She frowned when she took in Gabrielle’s posture, and wondered what the Hades the problem was with the kid now.
As though sensing Xena’s eyes, Gabrielle looked up, met her gaze, then looked away, unable to hold it.
But that brief moment was enough, almost more than enough, to make Xena drop the lock, turn her back on the door and return down the hall.
Forgetting her task, forgetting the captive. Intent only on the slight, pale haired figure huddled in a dark corner at the far end of the stone walls. She reached the girl and put a hand out, touching her face in question.
Gabrielle pulled back in almost a cringe.
Xena felt… She stared at the slave, shocked at the rush of hurt that overtook her at that slight motion. She reached out again, and watched as Gabrielle pressed back against the wall, moving away from her fingers.
Neither of them spoke. Xena looked down at her hands, then she turned and looked at the second door as she recalled her actions. She looked back at Gabrielle, who was gazing unhappily at the floor.
The queen felt her own shoulders slump. The emotions inside her was almost too much, and the danger around them increasing proportionately. She found herself not caring about the captive, or the castle, or Evgast, though – the pain focused right on the slave before her.
She should just go get her job done. Xena wrestled with herself. She was insane to be standing here. Insane!
So she knelt, dropping to one knee in the hall, accepting her insanity as she let this need of hers take precedence over everything despite how incredibly stupid she knew it was. There, at last, she met soft, green eyes full of startlement.
Xena lifted her hand, and pointed at her chest, then she pointed at Gabrielle. She touched the side of her mouth, and made a gesture, opening and closing her fingers in a talking motion.
Gabrielle looked nervously down the hall, then back at her. Voices were getting louder, and she heard a soft clank of something hitting something else down the stairs near the end of the hall.
Xena didn’t budge, ignoring the danger. She held her hand out, palm up, her eyes never leaving the slave’s face.
Gabrielle hesitated. She wasn’t sure what Xena was asking her, but looking down into those blue eyes, she knew she had to either answer, or run. With a pensive exhale, she put her palm down on top of Xena’s outstretched hand.
There was so much looking up at her. So many stormy emotions.
Was she being stupid? They were in such a dangerous place, how could she question anything Xena was doing to get them out of it?
Gabrielle took a breath, unable to pull her gaze away from the queen’s. There was a connection she could feel there, with her, that defied the wrappings of her youthful morality. She couldn’t deny it.
Her heart reached out, not wanting to deny it, brushing past her sense of right and wrong to touch the restless spirit kneeling before her.
Xena stood, and briefly clasped her hand, then released it. She eyed Gabrielle for a long moment, then she deliberately lifted her arm and brushed the backs of her knuckles across the girl’s cheek.
This time, Gabrielle didn’t flinch. She gazed quietly up at the queen, still anguished, but remained still as the fingers touched her face.
Satisfied, Xena nodded, then she turned and glided back down the hallway, reaching the bound door just as four soldiers came up the stairs and rounded the wall in front of her.
They attacked without hesitation.
Xena was offbalance. She met the attack and managed to keep her skin intact for the first few moments, the critical ones where lives were often lost along with reputations. She didn’t waste time being angry with herself, though she knew she’d put herself squarely into this mess by her insane need to make nice with her slave.
She deserved to get gutted for that, the queen acknowledged, as she grabbed a spear out of one of the guards hands and set to work. Idiot. Idiot. Idiot. Xena struck with rapidfire grace, slamming the man closest to her in the head, the chest, and the groin with the spear in time with her inner chanting.
Two others jumped her. She didn’t have enough space to avoid them, without falling down the steep stairs. She felt a sharp shock on the back of her head and things went dark for a moment, sounds echoing weirdly as her conciousness briefly faded out.
Her body kept fighting, though. She twisted and rolled out from under the man, getting a foot into his ribcage and heaving him off her with the strength of her legs. He grunted, the only sound any of them had issued so far, and she bounced to her feet to meet the second man’s rising head with a roundhouse right hand punch.
Her senses warned her and she grabbed the hand reaching for her from behind, twisting and yanking and sending her new adversary to the ground. He fell, but grabbed her leg as he rolled and she felt her balance pulled out from under her.
Damn. Xena kicked out as she felt the ground coming up, and heard the cry as her blow connected. A heavy body fell across her lower body. She landed and rolled, but the man on her pinned her in place and she didn’t have the leverage to heave him off. She froze, hearing the sound of steel over her head with a shocking suddenness and knowing herself now to be in unexpectedly mortal danger.
She twisted, lifting her arm over her head instinctively to protect herself, knowing with her back against the wall she had no chance of drawing her sword. Her eyes tracked up and saw the blade descending, saw the cold, intent eyes behind it, and realized her insanity was likely going to cost her a lifetime.
Well. Xena found herself thinking, in that quiet moment before death found her, at least she’d found out how good a hug felt first.
The man’s arms swept down, the blade cutting through the air and toward her almost in slow motion. In that same slow motion, she sensed something approaching, a body moving fast and plowing into the soldier with just… enough… force…
To send the sword slamming into the man over Xena’s legs instead of her, a spray of the soldier’s blood gushing out all over both of them.
The blade stuck in a bone. Xena yanked a leg free and kicked the sword holder in the face with vicious force, hearing the crack as his jaw broke. He spun away and fell, and she got free of the man on the floor and surged to her feet.
The two remaining men lunged at her. She knew she had no time to pull her sword out, so she grabbed them both by the face, her fingers digging into their eye sockets and slammed their heads together with enough force to crack their skulls.
Xena froze, listening hard, but no other sounds were heard on the steps.
She straightened slowly, spotting a small, huddled figure crouched near the iron bars, gazing up at her in the torchlight.
The slave scrubbed her face with one hand, and pulled herself upright, to stand on unsteady legs. Blood was spattered over her skin, and she was shaking.
She saved my life. Xena realized, in mild amazement.
But there was no time to think about that. Xena turned and picked up the first man, dragging him into the room she’d put her other victim into. She repeated the process with the other three, and only then approached the iron bound door, where Gabrielle was still standing.
Time to get the Hades out of here. Xena lifted the lock again, and pulled her slim dagger from it’s sheath. She twirled it in her fingers, then inserted the point into the lock, and closed her eyes, coughing up yet another rusty skill from an increasingly distant seeming past.
The woman inside the room looked up as the door entered, her eyes going wide in fright and alarm. “Oh!” She was small, just a bit taller than Gabrielle, and had long, chestnut colored hair.
“Shh.” Xena put a finger to her lips. “C’mon.” Her eyes narrowed on seeing the visible bruises on the captive’s face, and the limp she had as she got up hesitantly and approached the door.
“My queen.” The woman quavered uncertainly, her eyes darting to Gabrielle’s face as the slave peeked out from behind her armored erstwhile savior. “You are in great danger!”
“No, I’m not.” Xena yanked her forward unceremoniously. “But people will be if we don’t get out of here.” She nudged Gabrielle out in front of her and paused, listening again before she continued on. Once outside, she stopped, turning and closing the door behind her. She picked up the lock and bent slightly to fasten it.
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle asked, softly.
The woman studied Gabrielle’s tunic, then she nodded. “As well as I might be, but if the duke’s men hear us…”
“They’ll lose their ears.” Xena finished her task and started down the hall, shoving the other two women before us. “Move it.”
“But, your majesty, does he not know you are here? I did not hear of a banquet…”
Xena paused at the far door, turning to give her a droll look. “Figures Lastay’d pick as dim a candle as he is to marry.” She laid her hand on the wood and cocked her head. “Just shut up, and follow me.”
The woman fell silent, with a hurt and puzzled look. Gabrielle watched her for a moment, then she leaned closer to her. “She came to get you out.” She whispered, watching the woman’s eyes widen in surprise. “Really.”
“Truly?” The noblewoman whispered back.
Catching Xena’s warning glower, Gabrielle merely nodded in affirmation, almost smiling when she saw the woman look at the queen with startled yet grateful eyes.
Xena eased the door open, then just as quickly shut it when she heard boots rasping against the steps. “Ah.. into every life a little blood must fall.” She pushed Gabrielle and the lady to one side and drew her sword, flipping it over one hand and waiting, her other hand resting lightly on the door. “Shut up, don’t move.”
Gabrielle sighed, biting her lower lip and grimacing.
Xena looked at her. For a brief second, their eyes met. Xena’s then narrowed. “You know something?” She growled softly. “You’re a pain in my ass, Gabrielle.”
The slave blinked, then blinked again as the queen sheathed her sword.
The door opened, and two men entered the hallway, passing the three silent women as the continued their conversation in utter oblivion. Xena waited for them to clear her body, then she twisted and lashed out with one booted foot, kicking both men in the back of the head in rapid succession.
With a crash, they fell to the floor senseless.
Xena snorted in amusement. “But on the other hand..” She grabbed the noble woman by the sleeve and shoved her towards the door. “That was a lot of fun.” She turned to get Gabrielle, but the slave was already sliding past her, and to her surprise fingers tangled with her own for just an instant and squeezed them.
Xena felt the warmth encompass her hand, sending a tingle up her arm before it was gone and she was watching Gabrielle’s shoulders retreat in front of her.
With a half grin, Xena followed them into the stairwell, quickly taking the lead again as they moved downward. They reached the bottom of the steps, then her senses warned her and she grabbed her two charges, pulling them back with her against the wall behind the curve of the stairs.
The outer door burst open, and a squad of soldiers rushed inside, clattering up the steps with an air of urgency. They drew their weapons as they ran, the metal blades scraping against the stone.
Xena kept her back pressed against the wall, an arm around the other two women. She could feel the rigid stiffness of Lastay’s wife on one side, and, far more pleasant, Gabrielle’s slim form relaxing against her on the other.
Remaining silent was the key. She watched the last soldier mount the steps and willed him not to look down.
He stumbled, his hands busy trying to pull his sword from it’s hip mounted sheath. With a curse, he paused, yanking the weapon free and glancing around in furtive embarrassment. His eyes dropped lower, into the shadows at the foot of the stairs, and he squinted in the low light.
“Hey! Moron! Move it!” A voice called from above.
With another curse, the soldier abandoned what he thought he saw, and started trotting up the steps.
Xena relaxed slightly, waiting until she heard the door open at the top of the steps, and the men’s boots hit the carpet on the other side. Then she started forward, reaching the door just as she heard the first yell of discovery from the upper floor. “Move.” She ordered, yanking the door open and herding them through it, closing it behind them and throwing the latch.
The court beyond was empty, and Xena crossed it as fast as she could, hearing faint calls and running feet off in the distance. There was no doubt in her mind that the alarm was raised, and she focused on getting out of the castle and back to the horses before the stronghold erupted into a beehive of angry activity.
At the wall, she slowed as the inner door started to open, reaching for her sword in a single smooth motion as she kicked the portal wide with the toe of one boot.
A hawk’s head appeared, and she relaxed, giving the man a nod as he jumped out of her way and cleared the entrance for them. Xena swung the door shut and sheathed her weapon, glad to see the two other guards she’d posted running towards her. “Everyone here?”
“Mistress, the alarm is raised!” The closer of the two men uttered. “I heard the guard captain running to the gates…”
“All the more reason for us to run the other way.” Xena shoved them towards the outer doors. “Move it.. move it..” She grabbed Lastay’s woman and threw her into the arms of the largest of the men. “Put her over your shoulder.”
“Majesty!” The woman gasped in protest, squealing softly as the soldier did his mistresses bidding. Xena grabbed her jaw, now upside down, and squeezed it.
“Shut up.” The queen growled. “I didn’t come here to die.”
With a quivering lip, the woman obeyed. Xena guided Gabrielle out in front of her, and they sped to the door. It swung open wide as they reached it, Brendan’s head anxiously appearing as he heard them.
“Move. Move. Move.” Xena barked very softly. “Out, and run.”
They cleared the doors and bolted, Brendan dousing the torches that lit the exterior as he slammed the doors shut. Darkness flowed over them as they ran off the stone path into the brush, the cold air blowing over them and carrying the sounds of growing activity to their ears from behind.
But Xena knew they were home free. Evgast’s guards would be all over the castle now, searching there before they attempted to look outside. And when they tried that….
Her sensitive ears cocked, catching the sound of furious banging. She chuckled, putting a hand on Gabrielle’s back as the slave ran just in front of her. The darkness cloaked them totally now, only the soft rustle of their footsteps betraying their position.
They’d done it. Xena exhaled, only aware at that moment how tense she’d been. A gentle shiver went through her body, and she felt a distinct shakiness in her knees that both annoyed and surprised her. It hadn’t been that long, had it?
“Got the hay wagons parked right up against the barn doors, Mistress.” The tall blond soldier told her. “Won’t be comin after us sooner.”
“Good work.” The queen told him shortly.
“Easy job, with you here, Mistress.” Brendan commented. “All we did was stand and look pretty.”
Xena flashed back to that moment she looked death in the eye, and Gabrielle came by and poked it for her. “Yeah.” She snorted. “Piece of baklava.” She eyed the slim, blond woman running at her side, a faint fog of breath visible from her slightly open lips. “With all sorts of unexpected nuts and honey in it, too.”
Gabrielle glanced at her, hitching up a little as her foot caught on some scrub and she almost fell. “Yipe!”
Xena latched on to the back of her tunic, giving her a droll look as she pulled her upright again.
They made their way down the rocky slope, quite a bit faster than they’d gone up it. Brendan paused at the top and looked back the way they came, before he scrambled down to where the horses were tied up. “No torches following. Mistress.”
“Good.” Xena untied her big black stallion. “C’mere.” She pulled Gabrielle forward, then unexpectedly grabbed her around the waist and hoisted her up onto the horse. “In front. I don’t want to risk cutting your pretty little head off if I have to fight.”
Gabrielle held on to the front of the saddle, leaning forward as the queen put her hands on the saddlehorn and back and vaulted up behind her. She felt the immediate warmth of Xena’s body pressing against her, and decided she sort of liked the change of position when the queen wrapped her arms around her and took the reins in her hands.
She was glad they were back on the horses. She was glad they were out of the castle. Gabrielle found her mind full of so many things to think about it was hard to concentrate on any of them. Her legs ached, both from the running and the riding, and her lips were roughened by the wind that now picked up again as the they started off.
Okay. She exhaled, wincing at the jolt against her thighs as the horse broke into a trot. Lastay’s wife was being held side saddle by one of the men, and she didn’t look like it was any more comfortable though so she supposed that riding was just something you had to get used to.
Just one more thing she had to get used to. Gabrielle slowly let out a long breath, looking down at the strong hands clasped in front of her. After a moment of stillness, she shifted her grip from the saddle to cover Xena’s fingers with her own.
“Hey.” The queens’ voice sounded, low and vibrant behind her head. “Amuse me. What are you thinking about this time?”
Gabrielle turned and peered up at her, barely able to distinguish her features in the darkness. “Am I really a pain in your ass?” She asked.
Xena rested her chin against Gabrielle’s disheveled hair. “Yeah.” She said. “But you’re cute and I’m stuck on you, so I’ll give you a break this time.”
They rode in silence for a few minutes. “I just…” Gabrielle finally spoke up. “I just don’t believe hurting people is the only way.” She admitted softly. “Violence isn’t the answer to everything.”
The queen exhaled audibly. “That’s because you’re a young, clueless shepherd kid who doesn’t know a damn thing about life.”
Gabrielle considered the truth of that statement. “Maybe.” She said. “But I knew enough not to want you to lose yours.” Her voice sounded sad, and her shoulders slumped. “For what that was worth.”
Xena craned her head around and peered at her little blond enigma. She kept hurting Gabrielle, and a part of her recognized the fact uneasily. She didn’t want to, at least she didn’t think she wanted to, but she was who she was, and Xena knew enough about herself to know that wasn’t something she was willing or able to change.
Gabrielle shifted her hands back to the saddle, and straightened up, moving away from her a little.
Xena didn’t like that. She frowned, realizing that she wanted Gabrielle to like her and wanted the girl to want to be with her. She didn’t want to drive her away, like she had everyone else.
But she was, and she knew it. The problem was that it hurt to think that a lot more than she’d ever anticipated it would. Changing it would mean changing herself, and Xena knew for sure she didn’t want to do that, either.
The queen studied the back of Gabrielle’s head pensively. Or did she? A cold gust of wind blew against her chest, where Gabrielle no longer warmed it and the answer to her question came to her with power she hadn’t expected.
The slave looked up at her again, waiting quietly.
“It was worth everything to me.” Xena tasted the honesty in her own words. “Thank you.” She released the reins with one hand and settled it onto Gabrielle’s shoulder. “I’m an old, old hound, my friend. I don’t’ think new tricks are easy for me anymore.”
Gabrielle gazed at her, gray shadows melting from her eyes once again. “Well…” She replied hesitantly. “I guess that makes me just a puppy who doesn’t know any tricks. Maybe we can kind of trade off?”
Xena felt a very unexpected smile appear on her face. “Yeah, maybe.” She agreed, with a touch of huskiness in her voice. “Maybe we can.” Her eyes dipped down to meet the slave’s, drinking in the warmth she now found there.
She wanted that. Xena slid her arm around Gabrielle’s waist and tightened her grip, feeling the girl nestle against her. It made her feel good. She strongly suspected it also made Gabrielle feel good, if the unconscious grin on the girl’s face was any indication.
How far would they both be willing to go to keep this? It was a question Xena knew she didn’t have an answer for.
They reached the road, and headed home, high spirits evident as Brendan started a bawdy road song, and the men all joined in, rough voices rising up to be whipped away by the wind as they rode.
Xena stared into the fireplace, watching the hypnotic flicker of the flames as they consumed a fresh stack of logs newly made inside it’s depths. She was dressed in a warm, woolen robe having bathed and taken off her armor and she was enjoying the feel of the soft dry fabric against her skin.
Lastay’s wife was seated in one of the stiffly brocaded public chairs on the other side of her audience chamber, exhausted and grubby but grateful. “Majesty…” She spoke up suddenly.
“Yeah?” Xena shifted her attention, letting her head rest propped up on one fist.
“I owe you a great debt.”
Xena gave her a brief smile. “Nice family you’ve got.” She commented.
The woman exhaled, instinctively putting a hand up to move a bit of hair from her forehead. “M’lord Evgast is a very strong minded man, as your Majesty surely knows.”
“He’s a jackass.” Xena responded mildly. “And your husband’s a bigger one for not coming forward before he did and letting me know about it.”
The woman didn’t answer, her silence speaking volumes.
Xena crossed her ankles and wished Gabrielle would hurry up and get back. As though in answer to her royal whim, a soft knock came at the outer door. “Come.” She fastened her eyes on the door and felt a smile twitch at her lips as it opened and a blond head appeared.
Gabrielle pushed the door all the way open and stood back, to allow Duke Lastay to enter. He spotted his wife and bolted for her with a glad cry as she jumped up and ran to his arms. The joy in his voice was honest and unfeigned, and she had to smile on hearing it.
She closed the door and turned, to see Xena watching her. The blue eyes drew her forward, and she trudged across the room on truly aching legs to the queen’s side. With a tired sigh, she settled onto the low stool near the regal chair and wished she could just go wash off and lie down.
Xena reached over and tugged on her ear.
Gabrielle straightened, and looked over at her.
“You look like my horse sat on you.” The queen remarked conversationally. “Go take a bath.”
“Majesty.” Lastay interrupted, drawing the queen’s attention as he crossed the room and dropped to his knees before her. “You have gifted me beyond my worth.” He touched his forehead to the ground near her feet, his voice quavering with emotion.
Xena debated booting him in the head. Then she sighed, allowing that since she’d gone through all the trouble of ingratiating him to her, kicking him in the face would waste all that effort. “Next time, trust me.” She said. “Don’t hedge your bets.”
Lastay looked up at her. “Gabrielle told me it was you, yourself, who freed her, risking all for it.” He said, his voice a curiously raw whisper. There was a new light in his eyes, too, that she’d never seen there before.
“That’s right.” Xena said. “You know what they say, you want it done right, do it yourself.” She added, lightly. “Got a problem with that?”
“No, majesty.” Lastay answered. “May I speak of it to others?”
“Sure.” The queen replied. “Now take your woman and get the Hades out of here. I’ve got things to attend to.” She paused. “And be ready for court tomorrow. No smirking.”
Lastay got to his feet and bowed deeply, then backed away from her, holding his hand out for his lady. “We will be ready, my liege. That I promise you.” He waited for her to join him, then surprisingly, he scooped her up into his arms and executed yet another bow, before he made his way to the door and slipped through it.
“Huh.” Xena felt a sense of distinct pleasure at the adulation. “Y’know, Gabrielle, I didn’t peg him for a romantic. I thought he married her for her lands and to give him reasonably good looking kids.”
Gabrielle had been leaning against the chair, and now she looked up. “He was really worried.” She told the queen. “It was such a nice feeling to be able to tell him his wife was okay. He was so excited.”
“Mm.” Xena smiled to herself.
“He really thinks you’re so amazing for doing it yourself.” The slave added, her fingers tangling with the end of the tie that held Xena’s robe closed. “He said he knew you said you’d take care of it, but he never expected you to go and..um… “
“Do it.” Xena exhaled. “Yeah… well…” She reviewed the night. “It felt good.”
“I wasn’t surprised.”
“You weren’t, huh?” Xena gave in to her impulse and began to stroke Gabrielle’s hair. “Did you tell him some wild ass story?”
“No.” Gabrielle felt the exhaustion begin to overtake her. She shifted her hand from the tie to Xena’s leg, wanting to feel the warm strength of her. “I just told him the truth.”
Xena suddenly wanted that hug. She got up, taking Gabrielle’s hand and pulling her up, too. Once the slave was standing, the queen folded her arms around her and savored the moment as Gabrielle returned the squeeze willingly. She had taken her overtunic off, and was in her shirt and leggings and Xena could feel the warmth of her body penetrate the robe she was wearing.
She rubbed Gabrielle’s back. “C’mon, ya little muskrat.”
“M’not a muskrat.” Gabrielle kept her arms around Xena.
“Gotta argue about everything, doncha?” Xena closed the door to the inner chamber behind them, then stopped in surprise. The thick fur rug in front of the fireplace was set with crystal and china, and a platter of wonderful smelling food and a bottle of wine stood off to one side waiting. Candles lit the room, lending a romantic touch to a chamber she ‘d thought she’d left barren and empty not that long ago. “Where in Hades did this all come from?”
Gabrielle cleared her throat gently, ducking her head slightly and blushing.
Xena looked at her.
“I… um..” Gabrielle said. “Thought maybe you’d like it.”
Xena blinked at the scene, reviewing her treatment of her young companion over the course of the night and realizing all she probably deserved was a lump of coal and a cup of midden water. “Woof.” She muttered under her breath, turning and lacing her fingers behind Gabrielle’s neck. “Know what?”
“What?” Gabrielle murmured.
“I do like it.” Xena tilted her head and gave Gabrielle a heartfelt kiss. “But I think it’s you who really deserves it. C’mon.” She drew the slave close, and guided her towards the bathing room. “First, let’s get you into something more comfortable.”
If she’d really been a puppy, Gabrielle mused, her tail would have really been wiggling, even as tired as she was.
Tired as she was, she wanted the comfort of Xena’s embrace. Blood or no blood, she wanted the touch of the queen’s hands on her, and the feel of her breath against her skin, and the closeness that was her only anchor in a very scary world.
Xena kissed the top of her head in simple affection.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, gazing sleepily across the big room to the pink tinted windows. She was curled up under the soft, fluffy comforter, snuggled up against Xena’s body with her head resting on the queen’s shoulder.
It felt… Gabrielle felt the pressure of Xena’s arm, which was draped lightly over her shoulders. It felt different than anything else she’d ever known, that’s for sure. She could, for just a moment, put out of her head the fact that Xena was who she was and simply revel in the feeling of acceptance she got waking up in the queen’s embrace.
It was worth the down side. Gabrielle rubbed the side of her thumb absently across Xena’s bare skin, just above her navel. She was convinced that the queen really did like her… in fact, she felt in her heart that Xena loved her, in her own way just as she knew she really did love Xena.
Xena cared about what she thought. Gabrielle remembered the moment in the castle the night before when the queen had turned her back on her mission just to come over and reassure her. Her own parents had never cared about what she thought. No one she’d ever known had cared about what she thought.
But Xena cared.
She mattered to Xena. That was why, even though some of the things the queen did horrified her, Gabrielle wanted to stay with her, be with her… to be able to wake up like this and know that she was an important part of someone else’s life.
It was really sort of selfish, she acknowledged. But it was also true.
The pink light in the window increased, and Gabrielle sighed, knowing her snuggling would be coming to an end shortly as the day began. She hoped the day would be a good one.
She felt Xena start to wake up, the queen’s body stirring and taking on a tension as her heartbeat picked up under Gabrielle’s ear. She found herself looking forward to Xena’s voice, despite it’s often caustic edge and seeing her pretty blue eyes as soon as they opened.
“Mm.” Xena rumbled softly. “Hey there, muskrat.”
Muskrat. Gabrielle sighed inwardly. “Xena?”
“Yeeees?” The queen scratched her back with the tips of her fingers, tracing a path down Gabrielle’s spine with her thumb.
“What is a muskrat?”
Xena chuckled softly.
“I mean – I’ve been called silly stuff before, like chipmunk, but at least I know what that is.” Gabrielle went on. “So, what is a muskrat, and why do I remind you of one?”
“Chipmunk?” Xena queried, cocking her head to study Gabrielle’s disheveled, yet adorable features.
The girl nodded, one hand lifting up to touch her own cheek. “When I was little…”
“You were littler?” Xena teased, with a smile.
“Okay, when I was younger, I had really chubby cheeks.” Gabrielle explained. “So they called me chipmunk.. squirrel…you know.” She paused. “Or do you know?”
“Ahh.” Xena stroked her face with surprisingly gentle fingers. “You don’t look like a muskrat. I just like the sound of it.” She told the slave. “But they’re sorta cute. Kind of like big rats with pretty fur.” She added. “And I was called a lot of things in my younger years, but none of them are anything you’d wanna hear about.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle replied, in a soft voice. “Guess it was worse than chipmunk, huh?”
“Uh huh.” Xena pulled her closer, taking a deep breath as their bodies pressed against each other. “Bitch, whore… beast… scum.” She recited. “I think I remember being called a neutered whorebitch once… that was pretty special.”
Xena smiled briefly, gazing out over Gabrielle’s head. “Well, I’d just drawn and quartered the guy’s father. Can’t blame him, really.” She said. “It was my thirteenth birthday, and I’d just started cycling. Lousy day all around.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and just stared, goggle eyed at her bedmate.
“I think the most exciting thing that happened to me before the slavers came…” Gabrielle said. “Was our creek flooding and dumping six sheep and the chicken coop inside our bedroom.”
“Mm.” The queen chuckled. “Breakfast in bed the hard way.”
It struck Gabrielle as funny, and she started laughing.
Xena blinked, as the light, joyful sound filled the room. She decided she liked it, and she hugged Gabrielle a little, smiling as the girl hugged her back. “All right. Enough jokes before breakfast.” She released her hold, and Gabrielle eased away from her, straightening out.
“Yow!” Gabrielle released a surprised yelp as she stretched her legs. They felt like two twisted breadsticks, and as she moved them, a jolt of pain went right up into her groin. “Great Hera!”
Xena rolled over, putting a concerned hand on her shoulder. “What is it? I didn’t bite you that hard last night, did I?”
“Buf… no.” Gabrielle grimaced, reaching for her thighs. “Ow.”
“Ah.” Xena sat up, the silk sheets falling away from her naked body as she twisted around and slid her hand on the underside of Gabrielle’s leg. “My pony virgin. That’s right.” She could feel the knots under her hands already. “Lay back down.”
Gabrielle stopped trying to sit up, and relaxed back onto her elbows as Xena’s hands slid up her thighs. The morning light poured in the window and bathed her naked form, almost making Gabrielle forget completely about the ache in her legs as she absorbed the sight.
The long, powerful fingers worked at the muscles in her legs, easing the knots and sending little jolts of a completely different sensation through her as the queen’s hands worked up from her knees. The ache eased, though whether it was what Xena was doing, or just the fact that she was doing it causing that she wasn’t at all sure.
Gabrielle was suddenly conscious of the studious concern scrawled across Xena’s features, her brow tensing as she worked, relieving what surely the queen must view as a silly complaint with the same quiet skill as she’d used in caring for Gabrielle’s injuries after her near capture.
The pale blue eyes glanced up at her.
Xena’s hands kept up their kneading as she regarded Gabrielle, her dark head cocked slightly to one side. “For what?”
The girl’s eyes dropped. “That.” She indicated the queen’s fingers. “I know you think it’s kind of…wimpy… don’t you?”
Xena looked down, her face a study in mild puzzlement. “Wimpy?” She eased Gabrielle’s right leg straight, and went to work on the left one. “Gabrielle, not being able to walk because you can’t put your knees together isn’t wimpy.” She chuckled. “I remember my first experience with riding horses… I got stuck on one riding from sunup to sundown, without a break. I couldn’t walk for two days after that.”
Gabrielle wiggled the toes on her right foot, the cramps feeling a lot better now. “Oh.”
“Didn’t have anyone to do this.” Xena went on, in a quieter tone.
Gabrielle looked at her. “You do now.”
Xena’s eyes lifted, and met hers. A grin tugged at the corners of her lips. “Hm.” She mused. “That’d almost be worth learning to ride all over again.” She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle on the inside of her thigh, listening for, and hearing the soft intake of Gabrielle’s breath. “You know something, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle took in an uneven breath. “What?”
Xena put her hands on either side of Gabrielle’s hips and leaned forward, peering down at her like a large and hungry, if appealingly naked cat. “You are the first person I’ve ever known who I’ve even had the slightest desire to do that to.” She ducked her head and kissed Gabrielle on the navel. “Must be love.”
Gabrielle looked up at her, trying to catch her breath as her body caught on fire. All she could see was someone she felt so strongly for it overshadowed all her knowledge of what Xena was. “Must be.” She whispered, reaching up to run her fingers through Xena’s hair.
Their lips met, and Gabrielle realized that, at the very least, she wasn’t going to have to worry about walking yet for a while.
Which was just fine by her.