Shadows of the Soul
Xena strolled along the walkway, enjoying the sun on her face and the cool wind at her back. She glanced sideways at her companion, smiling a little at the interested expression on Gabrielle’s face. “How’s the legs?”
The misty green eyes glanced down, then over at her. “Oh, they’re okay.” Gabrielle said. “Um.. where are we going?”
“Down the walk.” Xena told her. “Gotta get to court, and I figured this was easier than jumping out of the window.”
“Um… okay, I’ve just never gone this way before so I was wondering…” Gabrielle ran her fingers over the mossy walls.
“Ahhh….. ever curious.” The queen steered her down a new path, where the walls on either side of them rose up, and a wrought iron arch appeared midway between the two ends. Xena stopped before the gate and worked the latch, shoving it open with a screech of protest and gesturing inside. “G’wan.”
Gabrielle peered up at her, then she ducked through the gates. She paused in mid step, looking around in stunned delight as she found herself in a rich, beautiful garden. “Oh!” She breathed, her eyes going wide. There were flowers in every color imaginable, and sweet smelling herbs, and trees heavy with fruit draped over the wide beds. “Oh, my gosh!”
Xena leaned against the wall, watching her with a faint smile. They were due in morning court, just slightly past due in fact, but she’d remembered this spot as they were walking and decided to take her charming little bedmate to see it.
The garden was, she supposed, a nice place. It was where the cooks grew all the herbs they used, and fruit and vegetables for the royal kitchen. Walls surrounded it, and water from the well supplied it’s rich, dark earth with moisture and even when the surrounding lands grew barren in winter this little patch of earth stayed fertile. The air was full of the scent of growing things, and it was peaceful in a way that few places in her kingdom were.
Gabrielle captured a handful of blossoms and brought her face close to them, drinking in the scent and cooing. Then she selected one, and carefully plucked it, walking back over to Xena and offering it to her shyly.
The queen accepted the bloom, sniffing it, then twirling it in her fingers. “What’s this for?”
“Just because.” Gabrielle turned and took a deep breath of the fragrant air. “This place is gorgeous.” She wandered over to a tree dripping with apricots and touched one, then turned and looked at Xena.
“Go on.” Xena twirled her flower as she watched the fruit get picked, knowing a portion of that juicy looking item would be shortly finding it’s way to her. That was just how Gabrielle was, she’d discovered. The slave loved to share. Convenient, since Xena most assuredly didn’t. “C’mon. Let’s get to court. We can come back here later if you want to.”
“If I want to?” Gabrielle laughed. “I’d love to live here. It’s incredible.” She split the apricot into two halves and offered one to Xena. “Do you spend a lot of time here?”
The queen snorted, holding the gate open. “No. It bores me to death, but I knew you’d like it.” She nibbled on the fragrant fruit as she followed Gabrielle back into the hallway, resting her forearm on the slave’s shoulder as they walked along. “Tell you what… after we settle my heir presumptive, we’ll go on a tour of the rest of this place. It’s about time I did an inspection.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle bit into the apricot, which was juicy and very sweet. “I’d like to see all the nooks and crannies.. I bet there’s some stories around this place.” She added. “Could we have a picnic lunch in the garden?”
“Sure.” Xena replied without really thinking first. Then she realized what she’d said, and scowled. Her, do a picnic in the garden?
“Wow… that would be great.” Gabrielle said. “Do you think the nobles will be upset about Lastay? A lot of them seemed to like him, from what I could hear their servants saying the other night.”
Picnic. Xena exhaled. “I don’t think they’re expecting it.” She said. “It takes the wind out of the sails of the bastards who want me out the worst, too. One of their biggest agitating points is that I don’t have an heir.” She explained, as they entered the main part of the castle. “So I’ll give em one… and it ain’t what they expect.”
Gabrielle thought about the queen’s words as she followed her towards the big staircase that lead to her formal audience chamber. Instead of her black tunic, today she was wearing a warm, woolen overshirt of Xena’s, with a tooled leather belt fastened around her waist to make the shirt more of a neatly draped knee length dress. It felt good, and it smelled like Xena, and she found herself touching the knit and grinning as she walked.
Things were really looking up. When she’d walked through the upper hallway while Xena dressed in her beautiful gown, she’d heard two of the servants talking, in excited whispers about Lastay’s wife’s rescue. She heard Xena’s named mentioned, and for the first time since she’d been in the stronghold, it wasn’t spoken as though it were a curse. She’d told Xena that, and though the queen had merely snorted in amusement, she thought that Xena thought it was pretty cool anyway.
And now, she’d seen the prettiest garden imaginable. She finished her apricot and licked a bit of the juice off her fingers, already looking forward to the picnic and spending a few quiet moments with the queen under the shade of those trees.
The room was already buzzing when they entered. Xena swept across the floor and the crowd parted as usual, but she could detect just a touch of extra reverence in the bows, and her ego smirked with pleasure. She glided up the steps to her throne and turned, allowing the folds of her gown to swirl around her as she seated herself precisely in the center of the chair.
Slowly, she turned her head to regard the crowd, letting her eyes rest at last on Gabrielle’s slight figure with the rest of the servants near the back wall. Xena put two fingers into her mouth and let out a piercing whistle, grinning when her slave’s head jerked around and the mist green eyes focused on her. The queen lifted a hand and curled her index finger in a come hither gesture.
Gabrielle came, easing her way diffidently through the crowd of nobles, oblivious of the eyes on her. She trotted up the steps to Xena’s side and rested a hand on her chair arm, tilting her head in inquiry. “You wanted me?”
Xena grinned at her. “Constantly.” She purred. “Get your lily pad and siddown, muskrat.”
Gabrielle smothered an embarrassed smile of her own, and retrieved her low stool, setting it down next to the queen’s throne and easing her self down onto it. Her legs definitely ached, but Xena’s massage had done wonders and if she stretched her boots out a little and crossed her ankles, she was pretty much okay.
Xena’s fingers played with her slaves’ hair as the queen studied her audience, signaling the steward to open court. The touch relaxed Gabrielle, and she watched with deep interest as the steward pounded the floor with his long staff.
“Here ye, listen all.” The man intoned. “Her majesty, Xena the Merciless, has called you all here for a momentous announcement.” He half turned and glanced at Xena, who flicked the fingers of her free hand at him. “Her majesty will speak.”
All eyes shifted to Xena. An expectant silence grew as she straightened in her chair, and let her gaze linger on all of them. “I have decided.” She intoned, “After much deliberation…”
Gabrielle watched the different cliques of nobles stand together. She spotted Lastay near one side of the room, waiting quietly. On the other side of the room stood some of the men she knew had backed Bregos, and they were eyeing the queen with wary alertness.
“To name an heir.” Xena concluded slowly, drawing out the words.
Definite shock went across the room. Gabrielle could see it was the last thing they had expected to hear her say, and she could also see that it didn’t make all of them happy.
“An heir, majesty?” The oldest of her dukes questioned, hesitantly. “Surely you have no need to name one, as lovely as you are?”
Xena gave him a tolerant, yet severe look. “Ah, Jeran, the fact is I’m so incredibly beautiful, no man could ever measure up to me. So.. what can I do?”
A low murmur spread through out the room. Xena waited to see if anyone else had anything intelligent to say, then figured she’d have gray hair before then and went on. “I would like you all to attend a high court tonight, where I intend on officially naming my heir and successor. You can bring presents.”
The dukes all started looking at each other. “Tis one of us, Majesty?” Jeren asked, in a querulous voice.
“One of you? Of course not. It’s my little Gabrielle here.” Xena replied. “She likes fruit, and pretty clothes. Make sure you bring lots.”
Dead silence, along with a goggling of Gabrielle’s eyes in her direction.
“Morons. Yes, one of you.” The queen snorted. “You think I’d subject her to you lot? Not in this lifetime or any other.” She laid a hand over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “So you’ve got the day to get used to the idea. You’ve wanted me to give you a future, well, careful what you ask for.”
Her news had definitely caused a stir. Xena leaned back, pleased with herself. Bregos’ toadies were definitely caught off balance.
“Majesty.” Evgast approached ponderously. “I would bring a horrible happenstance to your notice, not to belittle your excellent, and most welcome announcement.”
“Really?” Xena crossed her ankles. “Do tell?”
“Majesty, my castle was attacked last night.” Evgast stated. “By a legion.”
Xena glanced down her long length, then she turned and regarded Gabrielle. A chuckle escaped her. “A what?”
“A legion of men, Majesty. They invaded my home, and killed my men. I demand justice.”
The queen rested her chin on her fist, eyeing him in silence. She let the silence grow and take over the room, aware of the intense interest, especially from Evgast’s supporters. “You demand justice?” She kept her voice quizzical. “Evgast, are you a nitwit, or did just tighten your cummerbund too tight this morning?”
“Majesty!” The noble was visibly affronted.
“That wasn’t a legion, you moron.” Xena got up and prowled over to him. “It was me.” She indicated her chest with her thumb. Then she paused, and glanced back over her shoulder. “And my little friend, there.”
Evgast just stared at her.
“You want justice? I’ll give you justice.” Xena unsheathed her dagger and grabbed him by the throat. “You stinking little traitor.”
“No! Majesty!” The duke grabbed her hand and held it desperately. “You wrong me! It was I who was attacked, remember?”
Xena flicked a glance at the rest of the nobles. Evgasts supporters were pissed. She grinned at them. “You kidnapped a duchess.” She said quietly. “And held her to ransom the support of her duke. I took exception to that.”
Evgast stared at her, then turned his head and glared at Lastay.
Lastay smiled pleasantly at him.
“Didn’t realize she was gone?” Xena inquired. “I made sure to lock the door after myself.”
The duke’s eyes narrowed. “She wasn’t a prisoner. She was under my protection, majesty. Voluntarily. Running from him!” Evgast pointed at Lastay. “He used her infamously!”
“Really?” Xena’s tone was light. “How do you use someone infamously, Evgast?” Her hand moved in a flickering motion, cutting through his ornate tunic to rip into his flesh. “Like that?”
“AuuuggghHH!!!!” The man screamed.
“Wimp.” Xena reversed the hilt in her hand and slugged him. “It was only flesh wound.” She released him, and watched him slump to the ground. “Guards, take him to the cells.” She ordered. “I’ll sentence him tonight.” Her eyes lifted and regarded the stunned crowd. “It’ll be fun all round, eh?”
She twirled the dagger, and reseated it into it’s hidden sheath, then turned and went back to her throne, seating herself and looking over them all. She felt a sense of restless energy she’d been missing for a while, and she itched to take back the control her dukes had been nibbling away at and restore her kingdom to the way she’d originally fashioned it.
Gabrielle shifted a little, and looked up at her.
Well, with a slight difference. “Yeeess?”
“Did anyone ever tell you you’re really funny?” The slave asked.
“No.” Xena replied with a dignified sniff. “I killed the last person who even suggested it.”
They looked at each other. “You’re really funny.” Gabrielle said, with a slightly impish quirk of her lips.
“Mm. A saucy slave. My favorite kind.” Xena returned the grin, then addressed the still stirring, waiting crowd. “That is all. Court’s over.” She turned to the steward, who was still standing quietly by. “Tell the staff I’m going on inspection. Anyone wants to run screaming, now’s the time.” She stood. “C’mon, Gabrielle. Let’s go find trouble.”
“Find it?” The slave murmured, as she trotted after the tall queen. “I think we are it.”
Xena just laughed.
“Mistress, we’ve had a few men round asking.” Brendan rumbled softly as he followed her around the barracks. “Seeing as how Bregos men all took off, we could use a few new recruits.”
“Mm.” Xena observed the now spotless quarters, giving them a regally satisfied nod. “If they’re asking for the right reason and not because they’re damned spies.”
“Too dumb for spies, Majesty.” The soldier replied. “Might be good for pikemen, though.”
“All right.” Xena nodded. “Tell you what, let’s plan on a training melee tomorrow just to drive the point home that I don’t want any more divided loyalties.”
Xena came to the edge of the courtyard and paused, gazing over the neatly lined up supply carts and the practice pells tucked against the walls. She put a hand on the stone and felt it’s warmth , jealously garnered from the sun and held through the coolness of the night.
She could remember, long ago, curling up next to the stones of a small village well to still her chattering teeth and hoping some villager had dropped a bit of bread she could chew on.
Now she looked back on the stronghold before her, solid in the bright light, and richly prosperous and she nodded seriously to herself.
“Any word on Bregos?” She turned her head and regarded Brendan.
The soldier looked thoughtful. “No, but a merchant came in this morning, and was telling some wild tale about men as forced him off the road and took his goods. Not sure if he wasn’t just having us on though.”
Xena considered the news. “Find him.” She decided. “Bring him in to me.”
“Mistress.” Brendan touched his chest, and backed off, turning and heading for the gates that lead down to the town.
That left the queen alone. She leaned against the wall and simply enjoyed the view for a few minutes, going over the results of her inspection. It hadn’t been nearly as bad as she’d feared. Her visit to the kitchens had shaken everyone up, and she’d guessed that a lot of scrubbing had been done in the intervening days.
She’d found a lot of things, little stuff, that had slipped though and now as she stood quietly by herself in one corner of her domain, she had to consider just how much of that was her fault. Had she retreated up to her quarters just a little too much?
“It’s good to see your Majesty out and about.”
Jellaus’ voice surprised her, and she turned to see the minstrel standing nearby, his harp in it’s leather case slung over his shoulder.
Xena regarded him from half lidded eyes, before she nodded slightly. “Thought I’d prowl around and give everyone fits. Haven’t done that in a while.”
The musician smiled and leaned against the wall next to her. “The castle air has cleared itself these last days, Majesty. It is a good thing.” He said. “And I hear all kinds of wild tales today about the raid on Evgast’s homestead last night.”
The queen grinned. “Jackass.” She chuckled. “Haven’t had such a good time in a while, I’ll say that. It was a good run.” She eyed the musician. “I’m gonna have Gabrielle tell everyone about it tonight.”
“Ah.” Jellaus smiled. “Your little golden flower.” He said. “She is gentle and charming… a truly sweet soul, one such as I’ve seldom seen.”
Xena smiled back at him. “She’s a good one.” The queen admitted quietly. “Sometimes the Fates toss you a bone and you don’t even realize it until you’ve chewed on it a little.” She gazed off into the distance, a gentle twinkle in her eyes.
Jellaus watched her in silence for a moment, then he shifted off the wall. “Ah. So the hawk is well and truly captivated by the little mouse, eh?” He teased her just a little.
Xena paused, then merely nodded slightly. She gave the musician a slap on the back and moved off, heading across the stockyards at a relaxed stroll, sucking in a breath of the earthy scents with a soft, reflective chuckle.
Jellaus watched her go, then turned as Brendan appeared at the gate next to him. “Ah, old friend. Things are changing again, eh?”
“Bout time.” The old soldier grunted. “Took a half revolution to get her Maj’s attention, but she’s not forgotten how to kick some ass, I’ll tell you.” He chuckled. “Felt good, it did. She’s back to herself again.”
The minstrel gazed at the retreating figure. “Perhaps, Brennie, perhaps, but I’m thinking she’s not so much back to herself, as finding new interests in living these days.” He chuckled wryly. “Luck of the Fates, it was for sure.”
“Ah.” Brendan grunted. “The little one, you mean?”
“Got spunk that one.” The soldier said. “Never figured a bit of a lass like that would catch her Maj’s eye.”
“More than caught it, my friend.” Jellaus strolled after the queen. “More than caught.”
“Picnic.” Xena said to herself, as she finished her inspection of the armory and rounded the corner to the hallway that lead to the garden. “Xena the Merciless, slaughterer of thousands, is gonna do a picnic.” She reached the wrought iron gates and paused, putting her hands around the thick bars and gazing through them.
The sun was high overhead now, and it was pouring down inside the garden, sending golden rays through the trees and bringing out the colors in the flowers and fruit. Xena took a deep breath, noting the presence of something roasted and spicy inside that she suspected hadn’t grown on the bushes.
She also could hear, just faintly, someone humming.
“What the heck do you do at a picnic?” The queen asked herself, as she pushed the gates open and strode inside as though she owned the place.
Which, of course, she did. She prowled around the rich beds, slowly stalking her prey, which was rustling in the very center of the garden just ahead of her. Sneaking up to the bushes, she carefully parted a few of the fragrant branches and peered through them.
Gabrielle was in the center, kneeling on a square of rich fabric spread out on the soft grass. Laid out on the fabric were plates, and a tray filled with goodies.
Xena licked her lips, appreciating the selection, and even more so appreciating the sunlight pouring through the thin fabric Gabrielle was wearing and outlining her slim body.
The slave was apparently unaware of her presence, and she hummed softly to herself as she arranged freshly picked fruit on the platter in front of her. She looked up when she was done, gazing around her and releasing a frank, joyous grin that lit up her face and eyes.
Xena exhaled, and let the branches close, stepping around the bush and peeking at Gabrielle with a grin of her own. “Well, well, well… what do we have here?”
Gabrielle grinned all the more broadly on seeing her. “A picnic.” She said. “You like picnics, right?”
The queen strolled over and let herself down onto the fabric, stretching out on her side and propping her head up on one hand. “I haven’t the slightest idea.” She told her slave frankly. “Never been to one before.”
“Really.” Xena said. “I’ve eaten on the ground, on my horse, on the tops of mountains, in the water, and up a tree, though.”
“Really?” Gabrielle’s nose wrinkled. “That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.”
“It wasn’t.” Xena reached out and captured a berry, liberating it from it’s stem and popping it into her mouth. “This is much nicer.” She admitted. “What’s that?”
Gabrielle was bringing out a fluffy, silken pillow. She put it down and patted it’s surface. “Well, it’s for you.”
Xena examined it. “Damn well should be.. it’s my pillow.” She squirmed over to it and rolled onto her back, putting her head down and stretching her body out luxuriously. Above her, apple trees arched, shading them from the sun and bathing her in the sweet scent of their fruit. “Mm…nice.”
Gabrielle settled down next to her. “I thought so.”
A dark eyebrow cocked at her. “Now what?”
“Well.” Gabrielle picked up a bunch of grapes and selected one, inspecting it before she offered it to her queen. “I’m your body servant, so… I’m going to serve you.”
“Oh, really?” Xena’s blue eyes twinkled.
Her days were just being filled with new experiences, weren’t they? Xena considered the situation, feeling herself in a very vulnerable position lying there basically at Gabrielle’s mercy. However, she’d given the slave true advantage over her in a very uncertain time and she’d proven herself over and over again, so…
“All right.” Xena folded her hands over her stomach and crossed her legs at the ankle. “Serve me.” She closed her eyes and waited, confident that Gabrielle would not try something sneaky like putting a carrot in her mouth.
A blue eye opened and regarded the slave. Would she?
Gabrielle surveyed the platter, and selected a piece of cold duck, dipping it into a dark, spicy sauce before she held it near the queen’s lips. They parted, and her very white teeth closed over the offering, as Xena watched her lazily from one eye.
It was sort of like feeding a wildcat. Gabrielle waited as Xena chewed her duck, hoping it met with the queen’s approval.
A pink tongue appeared, and a grin. “More.”
Gabrielle smiled in relief, and returned to the platter.
“Ah ah.” Xena captured her hand. “No fingers.”
The slave blinked at her, slightly confused. “No fingers?”
“Noooo.” The queen purred, baring her teeth and snapping them.
Gabrielle looked at her, then at the tray. She licked her lips. “You want me to…”
“This is going to be really messy.”
“No problem.” Xena grinned sexily. “That’s what your tongue is for.” She paused. “Well, that’s what *else* your tongue is for.” She studied the resultant extreme coloration. “Oh, that reminds me.. got any cherries?”
Gabrielle sighed, and rubbed her face. “Yes.” She reached across to a pile of the red fruits.
“No you don’t.”
The slave paused with a handful of them. “Um.. yes I do.”
“Not anymore.” Xena snickered quietly. “C’mere… gimme one of those, and I’ll teach you a trick.”
Gabrielle, puzzled but willing put one of the cherries between her teeth and leaned over, biting down lightly on it as Xena’s lips met hers and the queen nipped off her half of the fruit. Then the touch turned into a kiss and she had no urge to move back as Xena’s hand cupped the back of her neck and their tongues explored each other.
“Mm.” Gabrielle whispered. “That’s a great trick.”
“Ain’t it.” Xena nibbled her lip. “I think I could get used to picnics, at this rate.” She turned her head slightly and expelled the cherry pit, cleaned of all flesh, into the bushes. Then she returned to Gabrielle. “Next?”
Gabrielle produced a slice of peach. “This could take a while.”
The queen grinned, as she shared the fruit. “Good.”
Picnics. Her free hand slid up Gabrielle’s thigh. She’d changed her mind about picnics. A grape found it’s way into her mouth, Gabrielle’s lips nipping hers as they shared.
Gabrielle gazed quietly at a honeybee, busy selecting just the right flower to land on and totally oblivious to it’s intent watcher. The cool air ruffled the grass, and as she sat there, she reflected that she’d seldom if ever experienced a more peaceful moment than she was now.
Xena had propped her pillow up on Gabrielle’s leg and was relaxing in the dappled sunlight, her eyes closed, and one hand laid over the slave’s arm lying across her stomach.
It felt very nice. Xena’s thumb was rubbing lazily over the skin of her forearm and she was in just the right position to look down on the queen’s face and admire it.
Boy, there was a lot to admire. Gabrielle dreamily watched a leafy shadow drift over the bridge of the queen’s pretty nose and leave dappled splashes over her closed eyelids. The symmetry of her face was very apparent from this angle, and she found herself marveling and how beautiful her queen was.
Her queen. A bit of a crease appeared in Gabrielle’s brow. She’d blithely told Xena that she was ‘hers’ – true – but in her heart she knew she’d just admitted to herself just how true that was in reverse.
“Gggggaaabbbrrielleee.” Xena purred. One of her eyes opened and peeked up at the slave.
“Yes?” Gabrielle smiled at her. “What are my queen’s wishes?”
“Hmmmm….” A soft chuckle emerged from the queen’s throat. “I wish you were naked and covered in honey.” The blue eyes widened in mock hopeful innocence. “Do I get my wish?”
“Um.” Gabrielle glanced down at herself. “Boy, that would take a lot of honey.”
Xena laughed. “Yeah, it sure would… and you’d end up with sticks and pebbles all over you. But it’s a fun idea.” She looked up at Gabrielle. “Maybe some other time.”
Very gently, Gabrielle laid her hand across Xena’s cheek. “Okay.”
One of Xena’s eyebrows crept upwards. “Can I ask what you’re thinking about right now?”
Gabrielle nodded. “I’m thinking about how incredibly beautiful you are.” She said. “And what pretty eyebrows you have, and how amazing your eyes look and..”
Xena grinned. “Keep going.” She encouraged her. “I’m loving every minute of this.”
The slave’s nose crinkled up in a truly amazing grin.
“Ah, Gabrielle.” Xena closed her hand around the slave’s and held it. “You know something?” She searched her slave’s face intently, seeing the lingering traces of the smile around her eyes. “I really like you.”
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side in gentle question. “Like me?”
The queen nodded slowly. “I like you.” She said. “I like having you around me besides the fact that you’re cute and you’re not bad in bed.”
The slave seemed very thoughtful for a long moment. “That’s not the same as loving, is it?”
“Nu uh.” Xena shook her head. “Not the same thing at all.” She examined Gabrielle’s hand, rubbing her thumb over the girl’s knuckles. “Do you know how long it’s been since I had someone I liked around me?”
Gabrielle shook her head, then hesitated. “Was it your brother?”
“And you’re smart, too.” Xena chuckled softly. “Yeah.” Her face took on a pensive cast. “He was the only one I could really talk too.” A pause. “Gods, I miss him.”
After a slight hesitation, Gabrielle touched Xena’s face again, wordlessly giving her sympathy. “I think…” She reflected in silence for a bit. “I think you were a lot closer to your brother than I was to Lila.” The slave admitted in a low voice. “I grew out of being able to talk to her.”
Xena watched her intently. “Did you two fight a lot?” She asked. “Ly and I did.. scrapping and all that.”
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head once. “Lila was bigger than I was.. even though she was younger.” She answered. “Besides, we got in trouble when we fought.”
“Ah.” The queen murmured. “Points for not having parents, I guess.”
The green eyes warmed briefly as Gabrielle looked up at her. “Yeah. I guess.”
Xena could almost taste the secret now, it was shining dimly through the reflected sadness in Gabrielle’s eyes. “Did you get on with yours?” She asked. “I think I probably drove my mother crazy… I was just that kinda kid.”
Gabrielle eased back, then she unexpectedly got up and fussed with the picnic supplies, her back to Xena. “Well..” Her voice sounded hesitant. “They were okay, I guess. My mother was pretty strict. You know.”
“Not really.” Xena put her hands behind her head and proceeded carefully, testing the air like she was fencing with a very skilled opponent. “What I remember of my mother… isn’t much.” She admitted. “Smells, mostly. Cooking. The ash from the fire. Spices.” The queen said. “She had a.. kind of musical voice. A little like yours, only lower.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle murmured. “Well, mine wasn’t musical at all. But she was okay. She just wanted us to do our chores, keep the house straight, make sure things were in place, that kind of thing. It wasn’t so bad.”
Xena digested this. “What about you father?”
The queen’s blue eyes opened a trifle wider, and she shifted a little onto her side, tipping her head back and looking at her slave’s still form. “I never knew mine.” She added. “I think he died.”
Gabrielle’s shoulders shifted, and moved, as though she were taking a deep breath. Then she turned her head and met Xena’s eyes.
There was the secret. Xena could read it in the set, pained look around Gabrielle’s eyes, and the thinning of her lips. There was a sullen storminess that was it’s own warning, and she decided to ease her approach. “Didn’t get along with him, huh? It happens.” She put a slightly offhand tone in her voice. “Ask Brendan sometime… had a family the likes of which would scare Zeus.”
Gabrielle’s eyes dropped, and she fingered an apple, her shoulders slumping a little. “No, we didn’t get along.” She whispered.
Xena rolled all the way over and got up, sliding across the grass to Gabrielle’s side and leaning an arm on her shoulder. “There are bastards out there, Gabrielle. Just being related to someone doesn’t help.” She said. “You gotta throw that aside sometimes. I know.”
“Do you?” The slave looked up at her.
The queen nodded. “Yeah. Place I came from…” She inhaled. “Figured they’d make some easy money, selling me and my army out.” A lock of dark hair dropped over the pale blue eyes, half hiding them. “I burned that place to the ground for it.”
“For your men?” Gabrielle murmured.
“Listen.” Xena gentled her voice. “There are two kinds of families, Gabrielle. The one you’re born into.. you ain’t got much choice in that, and more often than not, the only thing that binds you together is blood.”
“The other kind is the kind you choose… when you come across people you want to make part of your life.” Xena added. “You’re that kind of family, for me.” She touched her knuckles to Gabrielle’s cheek. “You’re that to me.”
Gabrielle blinked a few times, then she reached up and took Xena’s hand, bringing it to her lips and kissing it. She leaned closer, then put her arms around the queen and hugged her, burying her face into the cloth over Xena’s shoulder.
A trifle startled, the queen hesitated, then she got hold of Gabrielle and pulled her awkwardly into her lap. Something relatively traumatic was going on, she recognized, feeling the tremors in the girl’s body but damned if she knew what it was, or what she was supposed to do about it.
That’s what I get for trying to be nice, she mused wryly. Next time, Xena, just talk about the weather.
After a few minutes, Gabrielle’s tense shoulders relaxed and she exhaled, warming Xena’s skin through the fabric of her gown. “What you did… for your men? Did it bother you to do that.. because of who it was?”
Xena thought back, surprised at the question. “You mean, because it was my hometown?”
“Bother me?” Xena chewed her lower lip. “I was so pissed off, I don’t think I thought about it, matter of fact.” She said. “I didn’t really remember anyone there… well, maybe a couple of people. The one person who’d meant anything to me, she’d been chopped to pieces years before.”
“But…” The queen frowned. “I remember, that night when I went to bed, I thought about it, then.”
“Did you?” Gabrielle murmured. “That’s when things bother me, too.”
“Hmph. Then I have to try harder.” Xena remarked. “I think I’m insulted or something.”
“Not when I’m with you.” The slave corrected herself hastily. “When I’m by myself.”
“Ah.” The queen glanced down, charmed at the trusting, relaxed look on Gabrielle’s face. “Anyway, when I thought about it that night, it bothered me.” She admitted.
“Yeah, pissed me off, too.” Xena shook her head. “But it was like I’d killed a little part of myself, doing that, even though those bastards deserved it.”
Gabrielle slowly nodded, just a little. “It’s really hard for me sometimes.” She spoke in a soft voice. “I want to grieve for my family… but there are parts of that I don’t…” A pained pause. “T.. that I don’t miss.”
She stopped speaking, and huddled against Xena.
Now, did she really want to know this secret? Xena felt very tired, and a little sad. “Gabrielle?” She hugged her a little closer. “I can’t guarantee you and I won’t get hurt in this… I think you know I’m not the safest person to be around.”
A distinct pause, and then Gabrielle inhaled. “I know that.”
“But I promise you this..” The queen spoke quietly and clearly. “That as long as you’re with me, and as long as I’m able, no one else will ever hurt you if I can prevent it.” She cupped Gabrielle’s cheek, and gazed down into her eyes. “You’re mine.”
Gabrielle’s fair lashes blinked, scattering crystalline droplets in the dappled sunlight. “I’m yours.” She whispered. “And I believe you.”
“Good.” Xena ducked her head and they kissed.
Gabrielle carried a basin of water into her little cubby and set it down. She was alone in the queen’s chambers – Xena had gone off somewhere to talk to someone and left her to wash and dress for the evening’s high court.
She looked at the pretty dress Xena had given her to wear, it’s rich, green fabric draped neatly over the end of her bed, then she slowly walked over and sat down next to it, letting her hand rest on it’s softness as she leaned back to think.
Xena’s words had touched her far more deeply than she thought the queen had intended. They had shaken something loose inside her and brought back memories that were churning inside her guts and making her legs shake as she sat there.
Looking up into Xena’s eyes, there in that garden, under those wonderful trees, she’d found it in herself to trust, and as though she’d stepped over a line in the walk, she had.
She was scared. She drew up her bare feet onto her little cot and rested her elbows on her thighs, cradling her head in her hands. It felt so strange, so wrong to give up all the ties she’d felt for her family, and replace them with this new, dangerous bond to a woman she sometimes felt she barely knew.
And yet. Gabrielle rested her chin against her laced thumbs, her eyes gazing at the neat alcoves in her little space. And yet there was something about Xena that commanded her trust. The question she had to ask herself was, did she want to give all she was to the queen because the woman deserved that, or because she was in truth, a frightened kid who didn’t know any better?
Did anyone really deserve that kind of trust?
Gabrielle thought about Lila, and how she would feel if she saw her sister giving herself to the woman who saw her slaughtered. What would Lila think of her?
Do what you have to do to survive, Bree. She could almost hear the ghostly echo of her sister’s voice. Nobody will do it for you.
With a sigh, Gabrielle got up off the cot and walked to the water basin, picking up a square of linen and a small bar of soap Xena had tossed her earlier than day. She sniffed the soap, and held back a faint smile as it brought the queen’s scent to mind.
She could lie to herself and say she was following Lila’s advice. It might make her feel better if she thought she was acting strictly in her own self interests, and maybe it would reduce the guilt. Gabrielle scrubbed the linen on the soap, then started washing her face with it.
But the truth was she was totally lost in her love for Xena and she was honest enough to admit that to herself. She wanted to be with her just because she wanted to be with her, wanted to feel her touch, and be in her presence, and she was even starting to appreciate the queen’s very quirky sense of humor.
Was it a betrayal?
“Well.” Gabrielle rinsed her face off and started on her hands and arms. “You know what? Maybe it is,” She spoke aloud. “But I can’t help that. If it is, then someday I’ll have to stand in Tartarus and answer for it I guess.”
She finished washing, and glanced out the doorway, judging the time by the light remaining in the window. She figured she had a little while before she needed to get dressed, so she wandered over to the dresser and poured herself a small bit of mead which she took back to her cot with her.
She sat down and stretched her legs out, wiggling her toes as she sipped her drink. The heady mead filled her mouth, it’s rich taste elicting a soft sound of appreciation as she swallowed. Then a though occurred to her and she set her cup down, getting up and going to the small chest and opening it. She removed a ragged sheaf of parchment and an old quill and returned to her seat.
“Okay.” Gabrielle pulled her legs up under her and wriggled into a more comfortable position, then she balanced the tiny ink jar on the edge of the cot and dipped her quill into it. Leaning over her work, she nibbled the end of the quill a moment, the started to write in slow, careful glyphs.
Xena strolled back across the courtyard of the castle, enjoying the last rays of sunlight as they disappeared beyond the castle walls. The twilight was a dim, purple wash over the gray stone, and the cold breeze rising brought her the scent of pine and spruce from beyond the road.
She found her steps, impossibly, drawing her back to the garden and before she knew it, she was pushing open the gates and striding inside. “What the Hades am I doing here?” She turned in a circle, lifting her arms and letting them drop.
It was dim and quiet inside the garden now, but the scents had gotten even stronger and it was almost overwhelming to her sensitive nose.
A large bush near the entrance was particularly strong, and Xena wandered over to it, examining the thick, white flowers that were clustered everywhere over it’s surface. They were many petaled and had a silky texture Xena found quite pleasant when she felt one.
They also smelled pretty good.
Xena cocked her head, then snapped her fingers. “Bet I know who’d like a bunch of this stuff.” She set aside the fact that she, Xena the Merciless, was about to pick flowers for her girlfriend, and got down to business.
First off, she had to pick the best ones. Xena circled the bush as though it were a catapult, sorting among the blossoms for the largest and most perfectly formed. She collected a dozen, tucking them into her hand so that they formed a neat, circular cluster.
Xena fluffed a petal or two, then she gingerly lifted her hand and sniffed the bouquet. “Mm.” She nodded in approval, turning and heading back for the gate. Halfway there, she paused, looked down at her hand, tipped her head back and looked up at the sky, then sighed, and shook her head so hard her dark hair flew out in all directions for a long moment. “I am losing my mind.”
With that cheerful thought, she marched through the gates and proceeded down the stone path towards the stronghold’s thick, wooden doors. They opened as she approached, and she gave the two guards on either side a dignified nod as she swept past them with her fistful of foliage.
“Ah, Majesty.” Stanislaus hurried towards her, stopping a few lengths away and gazing at the flowers with a puzzled look. “Is there a problem? Shall I have the gardener brought to you?”
Xena looked down at her hand, then up at him. “No.” She stated gruffly. “What do you want?”
“All is as you asked for in the great hall, Mistress.” The seneschal rubbed his hands together. “We shall have great roasts, and the new kegs the ale master has tapped are excellent.”
“Good.” Xena started walking again. “Make sure we’ve got wine on every table, and there’s plenty of food for them to stuff themselves with. I don’t want them to forget this little party.”
“Very good, Mistress.” Stanislaus nodded. “Shall I double the guard?”
Xena stopped and turned. “If I wanted that, I’d ask for it.” She snarled. “This isn’t a trap, you moron. They’re supposed to leave happy. No one’s going to be gutted, no one’s getting their head… either head… taken off, and hopefully I won’t have to break anyone’s neck.” She spat out. “Happy, got me? Happy?”
The seneschal blinked. “I… your pardon, Mistress. Of course!” He said. “It’s just that…” A pause. “I thought you would judge his Grace Evgast this evening.”
Xena’s eyes narrowed. “I changed my mind. Let him stew in the dungeon.”
“Very well, my liege.” Stanislaus appeared confused. “I am sure your vassals will be pleased to enjoy the night with you, it’s just that…”
“Just that usually dinner with me is like eating with asps?” Xena remarked acidly.
“Make sure everyone knows… no one’s gonna get hurt. I’m not out for blood tonight. Understand?” The queen said. “Even Bregos’ bastards. They’re safe.”
“Understood, Mistress.” Stanislaus backed away slightly. “I will make sure the word is passed through the servants.”
“Good.” Xena growled. She lifted her hand and sniffed her flowers, then turned and stalked off down the hall, her gown whisking behind her.
“And, as the darkness closed over them, the wind blew back to the evil Duke the sound of their laughter – but all his men could not bring back the prize they stole away into freedom on thundering hooves.”
Gabrielle chewed on her quill again, studying the words. “The brave queen rode at their head, bringing home a lost love, out of the cold, into the light and warmth of her husband’s arms.” She continued, sounding the words out and liking the way they filled the small cubby she was in. “Does that sound right?”
“Sounds great to me.”
Gabrielle yelped, and sat up, then relaxed as she recognized Xena’s deep tones. “Oh.” She turned and looked at the doorway now filled with the queens’ tall form. She had a slightly windblown look, and was holding one hand behind her back. “Hi. Sorry. I got.. I know I was supposed to be ready but I.. um..”
“S’allright.” Xena interrupted her. “I got a little sidetracked myself.” She jerked her chin at the parchment. “I like that.”
Gabrielle looked at the letters, then up at her queen shyly. “You do? You didn’t hear it all, just a little bit.”
Xena smiled. “I already know I’m gonna love it.” She said. “Listen… tonight’s going to be sort of a special night and…” She paused. “Tell that story.”
The slave blinked, a mildly started look appearing. “Tonight? Me?” She stammered. “To… everyone?”
The queen nodded.
Gabrielle felt panic threatening to take her over. Tell her story? In front of the nobles? Everyone? She felt her jaw drop and the quill fell out of her hands, and she started to breathe more quickly feeling short of air. “Uh… uh…”
Xena crossed the small space in a single stride and dropped down to sit next to her adorable, if somewhat freaked out little lover. “Hey!”
“Buh..” Gabrielle managed to squeak out.
“Here.” Xena thrust her fist at her, wanting a distraction desperately.
“Look.” Xena tipped her head downward.
The slave looked at the unexpected cluster of white blooms. She inhaled, then leaned forward and sniffed at them. “Oh.” Her voice softened. “Wow..those are pretty.” She almost whispered. “What are they for?” Her eyes lifted up and met Xena’s in innocent question.
Now it was Xena’s turn feel slightly short of breath. She experience an extremely odd sensation, as though her tongue were stuck to the roof of her mouth and she had to clear her throat before she could speak. “They’re for you.” She finally said.
The green eyes lowered again. “Me?”
Gabrielle reached out and folded her hands around the stems, tangling her fingers with Xena’s. She bent over and sniffed them again, then looked shyly up at the queen. “I don’t have to eat them, do I?”
That surprised a laugh out of Xena. “No.” She slid her free hand along Gabrielle’s neck, tilting her face up slightly. “And I really do want you to tell that story.” She added. “I want these people to hear it.”
“I don’t … know if I can.” Gabrielle uttered.
“You can.” The queen told her, with utter surety. “I’m the queen, and I said so. Remember I told you it’s all about me?”
Gabrielle nodded. “I remember.” She agreed. “All right. I’ll do my best.”
“Good girl.” Xena kissed her.
Mm. Gabrielle put a temporary lid on the butterflies, and enjoyed the kiss. She’d do her best, that was all she could do.
The scent of flowers drifted up around them.
Yet another pause, on yet another night, before yet another entrance into her grand ballroom. Xena stood in the shadows of the doorway’s arch, taking her usual time in observing the inside of the room before she allowed the guards to announce her presence.
She’d stood here many times, for many reasons.
This was the first time, though, that she wasn’t alone. Even when she’d taken lovers before, they’d always been sent ahead, to take their place as pretty ornaments near her throne.
This time, however, was different. Xena glanced to one side, where a quiet figure stood next to her watching the goings-on with curious eyes. Gabrielle was wearing the green dress Xena had picked out for her, it’s gently dipping neckline flattering her nicely. Around her neck, the girl was wearing a fragrant necklace made from the flower Xena had given her, strung neatly together by Gabrielle’s inventive hands.
She looked really pretty. Xena was happy. “Ready?” She asked, extending a hand out.
Gabrielle’s eyes widened a little, but she took it, and clasped her fingers around the queen’s. “No, but I don’t think that’s going to stop you, is it?”
“Heh… clever little muskrat.” Xena chuckled. “C’mon.” She stepped up to the entrance, and slapped the guard on the butt, nearly making him stab himself with his spear. “No sleeping.”
“Majesty.” The man squeaked. “I wasn’t!” He peered past his queen, spotting Gabrielle and blinking.
Gabrielle gave him a tentative, but hopeful smile. “Hi.”
Xena slapped him on the butt again. “Nope. Mine.” She jerked her jaw towards the room. “Get the screaming over with so I can go sit down preferably with my friend here on my lap.”
The guard seemed to realize his queen was in a good mood, because the admonition got more of a grin than a grimace, and he smiled as he turned towards the room again and banged the butt of his spear on the ground.
“M’lords and Ladies!” The guard boomed out. “All stand in awe for the entrance of her Majesty, Xena the Merciless!”
“In awe. I like that.” Xena complimented him, as she swept past with Gabrielle in amiable tow. She kept hold of the girl’s hand as they strutted past the bowing and scraping nobles. A glance behind her indicated she was probably giving her love slave an experience she wasn’t really craving, but Xena figured she’d better get used to it.
She clasped Gabrielle’s hand a little more firmly and slowed her pace, watching the girls’ shoulders straighten out of the corner of her eye as she found the bobbing heads focusing on both of them. After a moment, Gabrielle’s head turned slightly and she looked at the queen with mild apprehension.
Xena winked at her, and Gabrielle smiled. They walked up the marble steps together and Xena glanced approvingly at the meticulously set high table, it’s crystal and china gleaming in the candlelight. She circled the table and gracefully ducked her head in a nod as two of the liveried men moved her chair aside and bowed to her.
She then ignored them, guiding Gabrielle to the seat next to her, the favored seat – the one Bregos had coveted. “Siddown.” She uttered, as Gabrielle gave her a surprised look.
“I don’t have a lap yet. I’m standing. So yes.” The queen drawled. She waited for Gabrielle to nervously sit down, then, and only then did she slid into her place and settled onto her throne. A precedent, and she knew it. No one sat down before the queen.
After a brief, almost shocked silence, the crowd started to stir, taking their places in their appointed seats at the tables placed in a horseshoe shape with Xena at the very apex. Duke Lastay and his wife appeared, pacing slowly up the steps and bowing low to the queen before they took their place at Xena’s other side.
“Mistress.” Lastay rumbled, his eyes somberly twinkling. “Tis a beautiful night.”
“For you? I bet.” Xena grinned at him, glancing past him to give his wife a look. “Cat got your tongue?”
“We have no animals, Majesty.” The woman assured her in an earnest voice.
Gabrielle laughed softly, but not softly enough for Xena to miss it. The queen turned and met her slave’s eyes, her own rolling slightly. “It’s amazing she can think enough to breed.” She murmured under her breath.
The slave leaned on the chair arm closest to Xena and gazed up at her. “I don’t remember thinking a whole lot.” She advised the queen with a charmingly innocent smile.
Xena had been taking a sip from her wine glass, newly filled by the solicitous wine steward. She paused in mid swallow and turned her eyes on her companion. “Was that a sex joke?” She asked.
“I’ll be damned.” Xena laughed. “You little Bacchae.”
“Problem, Majesty?” Lastay inquired, lifting his own glass and toasting her. “Daresay your little lady looks nothing like a Bacchae, Mistress. Horrible things, they are. My father had a tapestry commissioned that has two of them in it.”
“Really?” Xena touched her glass to his, peripherally aware of the eyes avidly watching them. She took another sip of her wine. “Didn’t know that was how he felt about your mother and her sister. I didn’t think they were that bad looking.”
Lastay gave her a surprised look, then he burst out laughing. “Good one, Mistress.” He admitted. “Asked for that, I did.”
Xena chuckled and leaned back, surveying the room with a sense of pleasure. The crowd had settled in to their first cups of wine, and the servants were bringing round silver platters full of appetizing tidbits. There was a sense of anticipation she could detect, but the usual pall of darkling gloom her presence often caused was missing.
People were looking over at her, but there was more curiosity in their eyes than hatred.
Novel. Xena noticed that they were also watching Gabrielle. She turned her head slightly to do the same, as one of the servers offered her little love slave a platter of interesting little bits of bread covered with things she was pretty damn sure Gabrielle had no clue about.
Gabrielle took a soft bit of pastry topped with a chopped fish and nibbled at it, her pale brows jerking up in surprised pleasure at the taste. She finished it, then explored her other choices, each time taking a very cautious bite before continuing.
It was cute. Xena found herself absorbed in watching, as she slowly drained her wine cup and held it out lazily as the wine man approached.
“Tis a new vintage, Majesty.” The man said, in his deep voice. “Does it please you?”
Xena examined the color, a rich burgundy, then sniffed it before she took a swallow. After a thoughtful pause, she nodded. “Nice.” She complimented him. “Sweet. I like it.” She indicated Gabrielle’s glass, and he filled it as well.
“Thank you, Majesty.” The man said. “Since you hadn’t asked for your usual bottles these last days, I’d thought you’d grown away from my grapes.” He added. “I am graced by the knowledge you still appreciate them.”
Xena watched him turn aside to fill Lastay’s glass and thought about what he’d just said as she slowly sipped the wine.
Had she slacked off? Or, more to the point, had it become so regular for her that… The queen frowned, and set her glass down, her brow creasing as she reviewed her recent past. Surely she hadn’t drank that much, had she?
“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle leaned closer, and whispered. “Everything okay?”
Had she. A curious smile crossed Xena’s face as she realized she had, indeed, been slowly increasing her consumption over the seasons. Something to take the edge off? “Just pondering the massive and unexpected changes you’ve made in my life.” She commented casually to Gabrielle. “Nothing serious. Drink up.” She indicated the glass on the table. “Good stuff.”
“Um.. okay.” Gabrielle sounded a touch breathless. She took up the wine and sampled it cautiously. “Wow. That is good.”
Xena gazed down at her, from shadowed blue eyes. “Does it taste better than I do?”
Caught with a mouthful of liquid, Gabrielle had very few choices and fortunately she picked swallowing instead of breathing. “Buh… uh… no.”
“Ah.” The queen wiggled her shoulders, supremely satisfied. “Likewise. So that explains that.” She lifted a hand. “Jellaus!!! Get over here and start playing.” Her attention turned back to Gabrielle. “Do you know how to dance?”
Both hands clutched around the cup, Gabrielle stared wide eyed at her. “No.”
“You will when I get done with you.” Xena gave her minstrel a pleasant grin, as his talented fingers started strumming the strings of his harp.
Gabrielle just sat there for a long moment, listening to the beauty of the music, and allowing her wildly jangled nerves to resettle themselves. The wine was very good, it had a light, fruity taste that seemed to get up inside her nose as she drank it and she used the excuse of doing just that to give her some time to get her head on straight.
It was like a dream. Here she was, sitting at the queen’s side, drinking wine and eating the gods only knew what as she listened to a royal minstrel play.
And she belonged here. That was the amazing thing. This spot, this chair was her place and Xena had made that quite clear to everyone else in the room.
Whoa. Gabrielle relaxed, just a little, wondering if she might possibly be able to sort of enjoy herself tonight. Everyone was in a good mood, even Xena, and she could sense a crowd here that was far less tense than she’d ever seen inside this room in her short tenure around the queen.
She looked up at Xena, watching the stern profile crease into a smile as the queen listened. Xena glanced over at her and their eyes met and her smile broadened, lighting up her expression and making her look a lot younger all of a sudden.
The smile made Gabrielle smile back and she felt a warm, euphoric feeling erupt deep inside her, making the room’s colors brighter and deepening the sense of pleasure she could now feel coming over her. It was an odd, bubbly feeling, and it woke old memories inside her, of a time long before when she and her sister would race around in the meadow, chasing the lambs and laughing.
Wow. Gabrielle impulsively lifted her glass to Xena’s and touched it, then she let it slide past and offered it up to the queen’s lips.
With an answering grin, the queen slid her arm through Gabrielle’s and tipped her cup to the smaller woman’s mouth.
They drank looking into each other’s souls.
And this, Gabrielle marveled, was what joy felt like.
“Everyone enjoy their dinner?” Xena’s voice rose over the soft murmur of conversation, stilling it. “I did.” She didn’t wait, or frankly, really cared about an answer. “Now for the reason I threw this little party.” She observed all the eyes gluing themselves to her. “You’ve all been clamoring for me to name an heir, in case one of those little assassination plots succeeds one day and you don’t have to deal with me anymore.”
“Majesty… that is not how we feel.” One of the older dukes stood up.
“Oh, shut up and sit down.” Xena injected a chuckle just to let him know she wasn’t going to kill him. “I don’t’ give a damn about your feelings.” She waited for the low laughter to die down. “I decided to give you what you were asking for so you’d stop plotting to throw skanky dipwads into my bed.”
“Mistress.” Stanislaus had come to stand nearby, and now he fussed with his beard.
“We were only thinking of your happiness, Mistress.” The older duke spoke up again, unrepentantly.
Xena rolled her eyes. “I found my own happiness.” She remarked casually. “Thanks for trying. Don’t do it again.” She stood up and reached behind her throne, where she’d ordered her sword hung in it’s worn leather sheath. Laying her hand on it, she drew the blade out, it’s steel against hide whisper suddenly loud in the now silent room.
She walked out from behind her table and descended the steps, twirling the sword lazily. The weight of it felt good, and familiar, and the looks of widened apprehension that followed her were good and familiar too.
It wouldn’t do to let anyone get too comfortable, now would it? Xena stopped in the very center of the room and paused, letting the sword fall to rest on her shoulder. She looked around the room, assuring herself of every iota of attention before she spoke.
“You wanted an heir.” She said. “All right. You’ll get one. Lastay, get over here.”
Xena heard the indrawn breaths around her, and she smiled grimly as she kept her head straight forward and waited as Lastay twitched his natty silk cape into place and marched down to meet her. When he reached the spot she stood in he dropped to his knees almost gracefully and bowed his head.
“Majesty…. “ The elder Duke protested faintly. “May I speak?”
“Only if you want your tongue served on toast.” Xena replied pleasantly. “I hereby declare Duke Lastay my heir.” She spoke loudly, bringing her sword down and smacking him on one shoulder with it. “He gets the unlucky priveledge of being my successor, to rule this land for as long as he wants.” She smacked him on the other shoulder. “Or as long as he can, or until he runs screaming for the hills.” She laid the flat of the blade on the top of his head. “Good luck.”
Lastay lifted his head cautiously and looked up at her. “Thank you, Mistress.”
Xena removed the sword from his head and turned it, patting him on the face with the blade in an almost affectionate way. Then she settled it back on her shoulder and reached down to him, offering him a hand up.
He took it, and she pulled him to his feet. Standing he was not quite as tall as she was, but he at least had reasonably good proportions, and as she watched him, he straightened up, with a look halfway between resigned and proud.
Very appropriate, Xena thought.
Stanislaus pounded his staff against the floor. “All hail Prince Lastay!” He called out in a loud voice.
Xena sensed the hesitation in the air. “Or else.” She added, with a saucy twirl of her sword.
The room erupted in cheers. Xena winked at Lastay, then slapped him on the butt with her blade and pointed back to the table. “Send runners out.” She ordered Stanislaus. “I want this announcement posted in every damn town with enough wall to post it on.”
“Mistress, your wish is my will.” Stanislaus bowed low. “I will have the announcement made to all the land.”
Xena went to her seat, sheathing her sword before she resumed her place at Gabrielle’s side. Lastay lingered behind as the crowd clustered around him, offering their congratulations.
“Xena?” Gabrielle squirmed closer. “Some of those people really didn’t like your idea.”
“I know.” Xena told her, leaning on her chair arm and lowering her voice confidentially. “See, their plan was to get Bregos into my bed, get me pregnant, then after I popped out a kid and they figured me pretty much helpless, they’d kill me and hold Bregos under their thumb to run the army while they played regent for my kid.”
“Yerg.” Gabrielle made a face. “How terrible.. “
“And that poor little baby… growing up with out it’s mother.”
Xena chuckled humorlessly. “He’d be better off.” She told her slave. “I have as many maternal instincts as Bregos had brain cells.” She lifted her hand and reached out to run her fingers through Gabrielle’s soft hair. “Are you ready to get up there and make me look good?”
Gabrielle bit her lip. “Um…” She took a deep breath. “Yes, I’m ready.”
Xena watched her face. “Scared?”
The slave nodded readily.
“Relax.” The queen advised her. “Even if you completely bomb, no one in this room’ll make a sound about it.” She ducked her head and indulged in a little kiss. “I’m in a good mood, but no one wants to push it.” Her tongue explored Gabrielle’s lips, tasting the sweetness of the wine on them.
She knew she was scandalizing the room. Deliberately, she pulled Gabrielle closer, aware of the deepening of the breathing between the lips meeting hers. She felt Gabrielle shift slightly, and nearly lost control of her own breathing when the slave’s hand touched her side, stroking her ribs slowly through the fabric of her gown.
Xena lifted her head and opened her eyes, finding Gabrielle’s green eyes, darkened with desire, inches from hers. The queen managed a smirk for her. “Hold on to that thought for later.” She whispered.
“Okay.” Gabrielle whispered back. “But I wish it was later already.”
A charming grin appeared on the queen’s face. “Me too.” She admitted. “G’wan and tell my story. Then we’ll show these highbrows how to dance dirty.”
Gabrielle looked at the crowd, then back at her. “Ooh.” She murmured. “I hope I can do this.”
“Tell the story, or dance with me?” Xena teased her.
Xena laughed. She leaned back in her chair and reached out again to ruffle Gabrielle’s hair. “I told you… you’ll do just fine.” She reassured the girl. “So go on, and just do it.”
Gabrielle took another deep breath, placing her hands on the arms of her chair and pushing herself to her feet. “Here I go.” She eased out from behind her seat and pushed it back into place, then she walked behind Xena’s throne and headed out around the front of the table.
Stanislaus sidled over. “Is there a problem, Mistress?”
Xena rolled one blue eye towards him. “Did it look like there was a problem, Stanislaus?” She asked, in a seductive drawl.
To his credit, the man blushed. “No.. no, of course not, Mistress.. I just wondered if…ah.. your.. um..”
“Delicious little love slave? Yes?” Xena watched Gabrielle walk down the steps, appreciating the gentle swagger in her motion.
“Needed something, Mistress.” Stanislaus sighed. “I am sure not.”
The queen chuckled again. “Gabrielle is going to tell us all a story, Stanislaus. Announce her. I want everyone to shut up and listen.”
The seneschal nodded, turning and heading off towards the edge of the platform. He stopped after a few steps and turned around again, returning to Xena’s side. “Mistress, how shall I call her?”
Xena knew what he was asking. The trouble was, she didn’t know if she really knew the answer to that herself yet. “By her name.” She answered briefly. “It’s Gabrielle, in case you didn’t catch it.”
Stanislaus nodded and returned to his mission, marching around to the front of the high dais and rapping his staff on the ground for attention. “Hear ye, hear ye.”
Gabrielle had reached the center of the room and now she turned, startled, and looked at him. After a second, she glanced uncertainly up at Xena, as though seeking reassurance.
Aw. Xena gave her a thumbs up. The kid looked petrified, but she figured she’d be all right after she got started. At least she hoped so. She wanted to hear that damned story.
“Lords and ladies, our great Majesty, Xena the Merciless has graciously allowed you all to listen to a story of her choosing, told by her Majesties favorite, Gabrielle.”
Xena sorted through the words and decided not to kick Stanislaus for them. She settled comfortably back and folded her hands over her stomach, politely acknowledging the many flavors of stares in her direction.
After a moment, the crowd calmed down and turned their attention to Gabrielle, who, standing in the center of them appeared small, nervous, and a bit out of breath.
Come on. Xena tried to will her a bit of the excess bravado she always seemed to be carrying around with her. Do it!
She held her breath, as she watched Gabrielle’s hands clench into fists and then relax, and saw the shift of the girl’s jaw as she licked nervous lips.
A thought occurred to her – was it fair to ask her to do this? The kid was obviously out of her depth, and the last thing Xena wanted to do was to make her make a fool of herself in front of this roomful of prize jackasses.
No. Xena started to rise. She’d call it off, and get the kid off the hot seat. Was she nuts, to force her into something she wasn’t ready for just because Xena selfishly wanted it that way?
True, she was the queen, and it was her right to do that, but…. Feeling confused, and a little angry Xena straightened up and stepped away from her throne.
A sound stopped her.
“There is a story I want to tell you.” Gabrielle’s voice rose up into the air, youthful yet firm, with only a trace of a tremor in it. “It is a story of daring and danger, of a ride in the darkness to right a wrong and restore freedom to one who had lost it.”
Xena slowly sat down.
“Listen to my story.”
Xena listened, not caring if anyone else did, as for the first time in her life she saw herself through the eyes of someone who saw her as something very special. She heard the wonder in Gabrielle’s voice, and drank in the details avidly, only barely resisting the urge to stop the girl and make her retell some of them.
I did that. She felt an almost childish glee. I broke into a castle and rescued a princess.
“And then, they snuck up the stairs, stealthy and silent, like shadows of vengeance they slipped through the halls.”
Gabrielle’s tone had taken on a richness and confidence now. Xena felt a smile appearing. She glanced to one side, and found Lastay’s wife watching her. For a moment, their eyes met, and instead of fear, Xena saw a quiet gratitude there.
That was different. The queen returned her attention to her slave, whose body was relaxing slightly as she brought her hands up and started to use them in time with her speech.
Finally she tore her eyes from Gabrielle’s face and looked around, seeing a crowd as absorbed in the story as she was. They liked it. She could tell. This was something new.
It was only much later that she realized that Gabrielle had, in fact, left out some details. But she’d already forgiven her for that.
Right now, she’d promised a dancing lesson.
She got up and clapped when the girl finished, and the entire room joined her, filling the room with sound as she went down the stairs to collect the flushed, and overwhelmed Gabrielle. As she reached her, the slave looked up, searching her face intently and smiling at whatever she found there. Xena felt an overwhelming impulse take over and she opened her arms, gathering Gabrielle up in a hug.
She felt completely out of control.
Gabrielle gave her a squeeze, and wriggled against her body, and Xena realized she didn’t care if she was out of control. All that mattered to her was contained in the circle of her arms.
It was terrifying.
She loved it.