Shadows of the Soul
Xena was aware of two things immediately the moment she woke up. Firstly, she was alone, and that made her very unhappy. Second, it smelled like mint somewhere nearby. Cautiously, she opened one eye and identified the mint, present in steam that was gently curling up from a stoneware cup set on the table next to her pillow.
“Hm.” Xena rolled over and stretched her body out, feeling the silken sheets slide over her naked body with a delicious tickle. She pulled herself upright to sit with her back against her stack of pillows and retrieved the cup. Sipping from it, she discovered there was not only mint, but honey and a touch of orange, and she decided she liked the combination. Beside the cup, there was a small plate of sliced fruit, and she nibbled on it while she allowed herself the luxury of a leisurely wake up.
It was definitely a luxury. Her habit was to get out of bed at the crack of dawn, bathe, dress, and review what issues faced her for that coming day. Sitting here propped up against her fluffy pillows, with her cup of tea and her fruit plate, she damned well almost felt like a queen.
She had no doubt where the morning goodies came from. The gesture had Gabrielle written all over it, though she found herself once again shocked by the idea that the slave had come in and out without her waking.
What was up with that? Xena had to wonder. Was she really losing her edge, caught in this whole being in love thing, or was Gabrielle just that quiet?
She wiggled her toes under the covers, making the fabric ripple. Maybe it wasn’t so much that Gabrielle was stealthy. Maybe she was just very, very distracted.
“Hey, Xena!” Gabrielle bounded into the room, her green eyes alight with sparkling interest. “What a beautiful day!” She came over to the bed and dropped to her knees, laying her hands on the sheets next to the queen’s thigh.
I absolutely did not hear her coming. Xena realized with a sense of utter shock. She wasn’t trying to sneak anywhere. “Hi.”
“All the nobles just left.” Gabrielle told her. “Stanislaus said they were all rushing home to welcome you on your tour.”
“Uh.. good.” Xena gathered her composure, drinking some of her tea as she watched her slave’s face. “That means we can go pick out our new pleasure den, eh?”
Gabrielle grinned, with a touch of bashfulness. “Did you like your tea?” She asked, softly. “I wasn’t… I mean, I knew you’d wake up pretty fast so I thought you might like something hot all ready.”
“Been up long?” Xena asked casually.
The slave shook her head. “No, I just put this here, and then I walked out onto the wall – I saw all the wagons leaving so I watched them for a little while.”
“Left the outer door open?”
Gabrielle nodded. “I didn’t want it to slam and wake you up.”
Ah. Okay. Xena felt a lot better, since a glance down showed her that Gabrielle was barefoot and therefore not hearing her crossing carpet through two open doors didn’t necessarily mean she was all that decrepit. “You’re sweet, y’know that?”
The green eyes twinkled shyly.
“And you make a good cup of tea.” The queen added, toasting her with it. “Listen. I’ve been thinking about what the Hades to call you.”
Gabrielle glanced around and then back at her. “Gabrielle?” She inquired. “It’s not that bad, is it?”
Xena reached over and tweaked her nose. “I said listen, not talk.” She said. “Adorable, yet saucy love slave ain’t really the title I want to hear the guards announcing you as, much as I personally agree with it.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle considered that. “Yeah, that’s kind of.. um…”
“Mm. So we have to find something else for you to be.” Xena said. “Tell you what. I’ll think about it while we’re on our royally majestic rape of the countryside, and we’ll get you settled when we get back here.” She decided. “Now, you’re not going to run off on me while we’re out there, are you?”
Gabrielle gazed at her with a poignantly hurt expression.
It disturbed Xena more than she would ever have imagined. “Just kidding.”
“You weren’t, were you?” The slave spoke quietly. “You really do expect me to just run off as soon as I can, don’t you?” She got up and walked slowly away, ending up near the window. “Do you think you need to buy me off with some title? That I need some reason to stay here?”
Xena took a breath, finding herself unprepared to deal with the situation. “Yes, I do.” She fell back on honesty. “I want to give you ever reason there is to stay here and if that includes buying you off, I will.”
Gabrielle turned and just looked at her for a very long moment, her face a mixture of sadness and understanding. “You don’t think you’re reason enough?”
Honesty won out again, somehow. “No, I don’t.” Xena replied quietly. “But that’s all right.”
The blond woman crossed back over to her and sat down on the edge of the bed. “It’s not all right for me.” She said, and then she fell silent for a few breaths. “You think I’m lying.”
“I didn’t say that.” Xena felt slightly overwhelmed by this sudden emotional development.
“Yes, you did.” Gabrielle whispered. “Because I told you you’re the only reason I need, and if you don’t believe that then you don’t believe me.”
Xena put her cup down and scrubbed her fingers through her hair. “Gabrielle.”
“I don’t know how to love someone for personal gain, Xena.” The girl interrupted her. “I haven’t learned that yet, and I’m not sure if I want to…mpfh.” Gabrielle’s eyes widened slightly as her mouth was covered by one of Xena’s powerful hands.
Xena leaned close to her. “I believe you.” She enunciated carefully.
Gabrielle’s eyes watched her over the edge of Xena’s thumb.
“You gotta be patient with me, Gabrielle.” The queen told her. “You’re a damn new experience in my life, and it’s gonna take some getting used to. Got me?”
The eyes softened.
“And I know I’m a new experience in your life, so just take it easy.” Xena added.
Xena removed her hand, then used it to ruffle the soft, blond hair. “I don’t want to think you’ll run off, okay? It’s just all I’ve ever known. Everyone’s got a dagger, pointed at my ass.”
“I know.” The slave exhaled softly. “Why should I be any different, huh?”
Exactly. Xena almost nodded. Why should she? The queen lifted her eyes to Gabrielle’s, and found them captured by the tears welling unspilled she found there. “Gabrielle…”
“Darn it, I am different.” The blond woman uttered. “Don’t tell me I’m not.” She blinked, and the tears trickled down her face. “I could have run off twice now, and I didn’t. How many times does it take, Xena? Before you admit I’m telling the truth?”
The queen felt suddenly very exposed, as though her heart were beating on the outside of her chest inside of the inside of it. “I think you.. are.” She found the words very difficult. “I.. think you… I think you’re telling the truth.” She finished awkwardly. Annoyed with herself. “I just…”
Xena wanted to get up and walk off. Unfortunately, Gabrielle was pinning the covers in place and she’d have to chuck the girl off to do it, and somehow, though she wasn’t the most social of people, she didn’t think that would help the situation.
“Gabrielle, I said I believe you.” Xena stated firmly.
“You really do?”
“Yeah, I really do.” The queen repeated.
Gabrielle studied her face intently. “You mean.. you believe that I love you with all my heart, and I would never leave you?”
In the sunlight, the blush was impossible to hide. Xena felt it warm her face and she saw it reflected in the change of Gabrielle’s expression as she saw it. She took a breath, and then another.
Never? There had never been a never before. It had always been her choice, frivolous interests to be tossed aside at her whim, impermanent and fleeting. Gabrielle was very young, but Xena had an odd, sneaking suspicion that this never thing wasn’t just careless words from a young mouth.
So many people had pledged to her. Only a very few had meant it.
Did Gabrielle mean it? Xena looked cautiously into the gentle green eyes watching her. She wanted to put a caution into this, to deny commitment, to step back and away from the intensity of what she could see in that look.
And yet, she wanted this. Gods, she wanted this. Xena knew the risk of opening up that space inside her, but she also knew if she unlocked that long locked door and peeked inside, she’d find Gabrielle already in there looking back at her. “Yeah.” She finally answered.
Gabrielle wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffled. “I’m really sorry.” She said. “I didn’t meant to get all.. um..”
“Yeah.” Xena threw an arm over her shoulders and pulled her over until they were laying together in the middle of the bed. “You’re all wet. Good thing I like em that way.” She was feeling more than a little unsettled by the events of the last few minutes and figured a little hugging might go a long way towards fixing that.
Gabrielle snuggled right up to her and obliged, putting her arms around Xena and giving her a healthy squeeze. “I know I must sound… I mean, I know you must have heard all this before all those people promising you everything and all that but..”
But you’re the only one it hurts too much not to believe it from. “Yeah, well – let’s drop the subject, and just get moving.” Xena said. “We’ve got rooms to pick, places to go, people to terrorize.. no time to be wasting here.”
She didn’t release Gabrielle for a long moment, though. Maybe it was just that feel good hug thing. Finally she gave the rising sun outside an evil look and released her hold, swatting the blond woman lightly on the butt to get her moving. “Let’s go make trouble.”
Gabrielle scrambled out of the bed and stood, retrieving Xena’s robe from where it was draped over the chair and returning to her with it. She held it out as the queen emerged from under her covers, peeking over the top when it wasn’t taken.
Xena was standing there, with her hands on her hips, both eyebrows arched as high as they could get. “Something wrong with the view, you need to cover it up?”
With an abashed look, Gabrielle folded the robe over her arm contritely. “Um.. no.” She said. “It’s just that the windows are open and I thought you might be cold.”
“I.” Xena sauntered over and kissed her. “Am never cold.” She winked at the smaller woman, then circled her and strolled towards the bathing room, pausing to glance back over her shoulder and smirk before she disappeared.
Gabrielle blinked a few times, then exhaled.
Somehow, she decided, she’d show Xena just how much she’d meant what she said.
“This one?” Xena put her hands on her hips, now adorned with a brilliant scarlet knee length surcoat and thick black leggings tucked into her riding boots. She was standing in the middle of a huge room, with an arching, soaring ceiling that extended to a ring of leaded glass windows.
It was full of light, the sun’s brilliance poured in and reflected off the marble tile floor and the teak paneled walls. “Gabrielle, I could ride a horse in here.”
The blond woman turned from where she was peering out the windows, which opened up on a large grassy lawn in front of the stronghold. “You sure could.” She opened her arms and turned around. “Look at this place, Xena! It’s great! Can you imagine the sun setting through those windows, and the stars! You could see the stars!”
Xena sighed. “It’s oversized, over decorated, and obnoxiously ostentatious.”
Gabrielle cocked her head. “Is that good or bad?”
The queen produced a rueful grin. “You’re ruining my fun, muskrat. I wanted to toss some fat assed stuffed horse head out of his favored quarters. This place hasn’t been used since before my time.”
“But.. it’s beautiful.” Gabrielle protested. “And it’s going to be great – we could dance over there, near the window!”
“We could do something else over there by the window.” Xena suggested with a smirk. “That’d spook the gardeners.”
Gabrielle put her own hands on her hips, and sighed. She was wearing a thick blue overtunic, belted around her waist with plain tan leather, and dark leggings.
The queen made a show of stalking around the room and inspecting every corner, grudgingly admitting the open space did good things to her sense of personal comfort. It was also quiet, and the front set of rooms featured a guardable forecourt so her sense of security was also mollified.
She could, in fact, even ride a horse in here.
“Xena!” Gabrielle’s voice echoed from the next room. “C’mere and look at this!”
The queen strolled over to the doorway and eased her head around the corner. Her eyes widened, as she spotted the huge, sunken marble bath with it’s ornate golden piping. It was grotesquely outrageous, and she immediately loved it. “All right. This’ll work.”
“Wow… I think it’s deeper than I am tall!” Gabrielle was hanging over the side.
“Ah. Knee level, eh?” Xena chuckled.
“Xena, I’m not that short.” The slave turned and gave her a look. She walked over and stood next to the queen, touching the top of her own head and extending her hand over to Xena’s neck. “See?”
Xena rested her forearms comfortably on her slave’s shoulders. “All right. You picked a good room, even if I don’t’ get to throw anyone out. I’ll tell Stanislaus to get this place ready while we’re on tour.”
Gabrielle’s face broke into a sunny grin.
Xena smiled back at her. Then she straightened and turned, sliding her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Let’s get moving. I want to be halfway to the mountains by dark before we make camp.”
“Does that mean we’re sleeping outside?” Gabrielle asked, curiously.
Xena gave her a rakish grin. “That’s right, but only you and I know it right now.”
She guided the way back into the larger chamber and crossed it, pausing in the very center and stopping.
“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked.
“Nothing.” Xena regarded the tall ceiling.
She looked around, then she dropped her arm to her side and sucked a deep breath into to her belly. Opening her mouth, she let her eyes close as she sang a pure, clear note – no words, just a round, beautiful sound that filled the room and reverberated off almost every surface.
Xena let the sound fade as she ran out of breath and closed her mouth, licking her lips once or twice and listening to the echoes dissipate. “Hm.” She glanced to one side, almost breaking into a laugh at Gabrielle’s slack jawed expression. “Not bad.”
Whistling, she strolled out of the room, leaving Gabrielle standing dumbfounded behind her.
It was cold enough to see her breath in the air. Gabrielle pulled the edge of the plain, but thick cloak Xena had slung over her shoulders closer around her. She was on a horse by herself, just behind the big black horse Xena was riding.
The touring party was larger than she’d imagined, scores of Xena’s soldiers surrounding them along with an additional two score servants, horse tenders, and other workers. Gabrielle found it hectic and confusing, but in it all Xena sat completely at ease on her mount with her own, beautifully lined cloak draped over her tall body.
They had gathered at the front of the stronghold, and now they were just waiting for the queen to give the word to start out. The soldiers were all in their black and gold livery, and Gabrielle almost regretted not wearing hers, but her blue outfit was warmer and she figured she could change into it when they were visiting the nobles strongholds.
In the meantime, she had this horse to deal with. She hadn’t figured on having one of her own, and since she had exactly one night’s experience in riding, she wasn’t really sure what to do with him. He was, at least, thankfully smaller than the one Xena was riding so her legs didn’t have quite so far to reach and she felt more comfortable on his slighter frame.
He also was sort of cute. He had a longer coat of hair, and it was a mixture of white and reddish patches. There was a thick, bristly bit of hair that stood up on his neck and he seemed very friendly. Gabrielle decided she liked him. “Xena??”
“Eh?” The queen half turned in her saddle and looked down.
“What’s his name??” Gabrielle indicated the horse.
Gods, the woman just loved to tease her. “Xena.”
The queen chuckled. “I don’t know. I just asked them to find me a pony as cute as you were.” She studied the animal. “They almost got it. Name him whatever you want.” She turned to resume her discussion with Brendan.
A pony. “Is that what you are?” She asked the animal. He flicked his ears back in her direction, and shook his head. “How about if I call you Patches? Is that okay?” Her fingers sorted through his mane and stroked the thick coat on his shoulders. “Patches the Pony?”
Patches snorted. Gabrielle took that as a yes, and now that she’d taken care of that important piece of business, she took hold of the reins and tried to imitate how Xena used them. The queen held hers between the fingers of her right hand, and she sat in her saddle as thought she were perched on the most comfortable of seats, her body totally relaxed.
Gabrielle only wished she were half that at ease. She pulled Patches head a little to the right, and nudged him with her knees, gratified when the animal considered her request and then complied with it. Right. She had her bag strapped behind her, she had her cloak tucked as much around her body as she could, and she more or less thought she knew how to make the pony go.
She was ready.
“Majesty, we’re all set.” Brendan had turned his horse aside to talk to one of the wagon drivers, and now he turned back to them. “Which way shall I tell them to go?”
Xena neatly guided her stallion forward, the men parting before her as she made the big animal dance. She got to the front of the royal ensemble and touched the horse on the side with her heels, making him spin in place so that she faced them.
Her cape swirled with her, settling over her body like a living thing as she half stood in her stirrups.
Spontaneously, the men all let out a roar. Then like a rising tide, they started chanting her name.
Xena let it go on for a few minutes, grinning as she reveled in the adulation. Then she lifted her hands, stilling the shouts as everyone leaned forward to listen to her. “We need to get moving.” The queen said. “Brendan, start the troops forward. We go north!”
“Sheeps hooves, it figures.” Brendan sighed wryly under his breath. “Never takes the easy road, does our Mistress.” He tugged his cloak a bit closer and let out a whistle. “Y’heard her Majesty! Get!”
The soldiers sorted themselves into two columns and started down the road, passing by Xena on either side and bowing to her. Behind them, the wagons would move, and behind them, the servants and a contingent of castle guards to keep an eye on everyone.
Xena waited for the last of the soldiers to pass her, then she turned her horse and motioned to Gabrielle to come forward to join her.
“Okay, Patches. Let’s go.” Gabrielle nudged her mount, glad when he got the idea and ambled forward towards the queen. “Let’s go have a grand adventure, and bring back lots of great stories.”
“What was that?” Xena asked, as the blond woman came even with her and she started her own horse moving.
“I was just telling Patches here…”
“Patches?” Xena snickered.
Gabrielle maintained a dignified look. “See? Aren’t those white and brown patches?” She pointed at the horse’s side. “Anyway, I was just telling him how much fun we’re going to have.”
Xena absorbed this. “He’s not sleeping in bed with us.” She stated. “I don’t care how cute he is.”
The slave burst into laughter.
Xena chuckled as well, after a moment. She tossed her hair out of her eyes and settled down into her saddle, watching the neatly aligned rows of soldiers with a contented eye. It felt good to be out on the road, out of that damn stronghold, feeling the wind blow hard against her body again.
This time she went forth as the master of all she surveyed, and damned if she wasn’t going to remind all of them exactly that. The fact that all her nobles had rushed off to prepare for her made her grin inside, and she was already planning on just how she’d torture the worst of them.
Bregos toads. They’d regret siding with him before she was through, she decided. She’d pile her wagons up to the top with everything they’d try to bribe her good graces with and make them pay for all the months she’d kept them in food and wine at her side while they plotted.
They would bow and scrape to her, and feed her men… Xena glanced to her left, where Gabrielle was quietly riding, her eyes peering around her with infinitely delighted interest. And they would bow to her consort, too.
Xena smiled. It wasn’t a particularly nice expression.
“Hey, Xena?” Gabrielle turned her head and looked up. “Your singing was amazing.”
“I wasn’t singing.”
“Yes, you were. I heard you.”
“That wasn’t singing.” The queen stretched her legs out in the stirrups, flexing her thighs and cocking an ear to catch the low murmur of conversation all around her. “If you’re really good, I’ll show ya what singing is later on.”
Gabrielle wriggled happily. “When we’re camping out? Wow..that’ll be great. All those stars, and you singing.”
Xena reached over and poked her in the shoulder. “You got a thing for stars or something?” She asked.
“They’re so pretty.” Gabrielle said. “And you can make pictures with them, sometimes whole stories.”
“Yeah, sort of like a game.”
Xena glanced around her, nodding in approval as the pace picked up a little. “Game? I like games.” She said. “You’ll have to show me.”
Gabrielle grinned. “Don’t worry. I will.”
The queen grunted in satisfaction. It was starting out to be a very interesting trip.
They rode down through the flourishing villages that clustered at the foot of the stronghold’s mount. On either side of the road, newly harvested fields stretched, the scent of scythed hay fresh on the wind. The sun was up past it’s zenith, and as they reached the first village, the roadside filled with curious townsfolk who gathered to watch them.
Gabrielle felt very strange, watching them. They were dressed not unlike she was, in good stout cloth and well cared for leather and she could feel their eyes on her as she rode past. What were they thinking? Were they jealous? Or pitying? A pair of hazel eyes caught her attention and she turned her head, seeing a tall, dark haired young woman who bore a striking resemblance to Lila looking back at her.
It sent a chill down her back, and when the girl turned deliberately and walked away, Gabrielle felt the chill come around her and settle right in her guts.
The soldiers on either side of them kept their eyes forward, most of them riding with one hand resting on their swords, or on a crossbow hilt in a studied, casual manner. It wasn’t threatening, exactly, but Gabrielle saw the eyes of the crowd go to the men, then move away in some discomfort.
Near the edge of the town, a group of elders stepped out into the middle of the road, directly in their path. Gabrielle took a quick look at Xena, noting the expression of wary alertness that had come over the queen’s face.
Brendan, riding point, slowed to a halt and lifted his hand to the men behind him as he reached the impromptu road block, his horse sidestepping slightly towards the elders.
Xena held her own hand out at waist level. “Stay here.” She instructed Gabrielle, as she sent her horse into a trot towards the impending storm.
“She’s the queen.” Gabrielle informed Patches. “She likes to be obeyed.”
Patches flicked his ears at her.
“Yeah, I’m not really good at obeying either.” Gabrielle sighed, as she squeezed her knees into the horse’s sides and went after Xena. “That’s why I was always in trouble at home, Patches.”
“What’s this then?” Brendan asked, meeting the leader of the elder’s eyes. They were of an age, but from completely different worlds. “Her Majesty takes this road.”
The older man glanced over his shoulder and paled. “Aye… aye… we just wanted a word with her, if she pleases.”
“And if I don’t?” Xena asked, as she pulled her horse to a halt. “You looking to be road kill?”
There was an uneasy rustle in the crowd around the road, but Xena was used to that. “Well?” She asked, pinning the elder with a pair of icy eyes.
“M…m…m ajesty… “ The man stammered.
“What?” Xena barked.
“That’s a really pretty box.” Gabrielle poked her head from around the tall black stallion’s hindquarters.
The queen turned with slow deliberation and gave the blond woman a stern glare.
“Th.. thank you, m’lady.” The elder looked gratefully at Gabrielle.
“Is it a present for her Majesty?” Gabrielle asked, trying not to look up.
“Yes! Yes!” The man nodded. “Your Majesty, we only wanted to show our appreciation for you with this small gift!” He edged timidly forward with the square item, a well tooled leather surface visible with some type of carved decoration on it.
With a barely audible sigh, the queen kicked her boots free of her stirrups and swung her right leg over her horses’ neck, sliding down off his back to land lightly on the road. Brendan pulled back to let her pass and she walked up to the elder, her head topping his by several inches.
He was shaking. Xena let him wonder what she was going to do until she figured his knees were about to give out, then she held her hand out and lifted her eyebrows at him.
Trembling, he handed her the box.
Xena studied it, turning it over in her hands. It had been painstakingly done, the leather pressed with carved images of interlocking leaves and fruit, surrounding a rather nicely done rendition of her royal crest. She ran a fingertip over the surface, then glanced at the elder. “Nice.”
He looked like he was about to collapse. Xena smiled at him.
He collapsed, sending up a puff of dust as his body hit the dirt. Xena’s eyebrows lifted sharply.
The other elders edged forward hesitantly. “Ase?” The oldest woman quavered. “Are ye dead?”
The humor of the situation got to Xena. She chuckled, shaking her head as she turned around and walked back over to where her horse stood patiently, lengthening her stride the last two steps and leaping into the air.
She caught hold of her saddle horn with one hand and swung aboard, settling her legs as the horse snorted and half reared. “Get him out of the road before he gets run over.” She told the elders. “Thanks for the box.”
The village residents finally stirred from their utter stillness and started murmuring to each other. Two of the larger men went and lifted the old man up between them, carrying him off the road and out of the way of the royal party.
Xena tucked the box under her arm and whistled under her breath. Brendan got the signal and started the column up again with a clicking sound of his tongue. “All bow to ‘er Majesty!” He let out a yell, as the soldiers drew their swords and let out a shout.
The villagers wisely cheered along, some of the dropping to a knee as Xena rode past.
Gabrielle followed quietly along, watching the people watch the queen, glad Xena hadn’t turned down their humble gift. Not that she thought Xena would – she’d noticed that she tended to like stuff like that, but she thought these people had really wanted her to have it as a symbol of their feelings towards her.
Ah. The slave urged her horse up a little, so that she was riding next to Xena. “Yes?”
“What part of stay and here wasn’t I clear about?” Xena asked. Her voice was cool, and Gabrielle realized her public disobedience hadn’t been welcome.
“Well.” She shifted a bit. “You didn’t say how long I had to stay there for.”
Xena turned her head and looked at her.
Gabrielle blinked innocently back. “I didn’t mean to get in your way.. I just wanted to see that box. It’s so pretty.” She eased a bit closer. “I’m sorry.”
Xena drummed her fingers on her saddle. “I hate loopholes.” She shook her head. “Don’t do that in front of the men, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle peeked at the soldiers around them. One of them peeked back at her, and winked. “Okay.” She agreed softly. “I know you don’t want anyone to get the idea that you might be nice.”
“Damn straight.” Xena said. “Especially not people who could be bought by the first half dinar carrying jackass who wants to cause me trouble.” She tucked her reins back into one hand and half turned, searching for a place to put her new box.
“Want me to put that in one of the wagons?” Gabrielle asked.
“Yeah.” Xena handed it over. “Do that.”
Gabrielle took the gift and slowed her horse, waiting for the wagons to catch up as Xena went on ahead of her. Part of her knew the queen was right, but there was a larger part of her that was rubbed raw by the rebuke and she wanted a few minutes to settle herself before she rejoined the queen.
“She’s the queen, Gabrielle.” She sighed, as the wagon rumbled up to her. Two of the older servants were riding in the back and she handed over the box to them. “Could you put this with the queen’s kit, please?”
“Yes, m’lady.” The older of the two, a wizened woman uttered. “Tis a lovely thing.”
“It is, isnt’ it?” Gabrielle let her horse amble along side the wagon as she admired it along with the other servants. “Look at the way it’s stained…. Just beautiful.” She smiled. “It’ll be the second prettiest box the queen has… she’s got a wooden one that she made herself that’s just amazing.”
“Herself?” The woman glanced a the tall, regal figure riding ahead of them. “Eh! That’s a wonder.”
Gabrielle followed her eyes and tried to put aside the hurt. “Yes, she is.” She squared her shoulders and gave the woman a smile. “Thanks.”
The woman ducked her head slightly, and Gabrielle left the side of the wagon and headed back to the front of the column. She pulled Patches up a step or two behind Xena’s horse and leaned on her saddlebow a little, already feeling the unusual strain of riding on her legs and back.
The road was starting to incline up a little, and she amused herself by examining the scenery. Next to her Xena was silent, her eyes hooded and brooding as they rode along.
Gabrielle found herself watching Xena more than the passing terrain, after a little while, though.
They didn’t speak, and soon the road wound it’s way through another large village, this one bustling and full of activity. Banners were flapping over part of the inner square, and a snatch of music drifted to them as they rode towards it, exposing what appeared to be a festival.
“Ah, they threw a party and didn’t invite me.” Xena commented. “Bad manners.”
Gabrielle edged a little closer. “Um… I don’t’ think they knew you were coming.”
“Probably not.” The queen agreed.
Xena fell silent for a few lengths, then she turned her head and looked at Gabrielle. “How’s your legs?”
“Fine.” Gabrielle replied quietly, watching the approaching village. “Thank you for asking.”
The blue eyes studied her with a frown, and Xena sidestepped her horse over, about to reply. Then a sound made them both look up, and sent a rippled down the column of soldiers.
“That didn’t sound like party games.” Xena muttered.
Another scream, and the thunder of hooves. Xena drew her sword and called out to Brendan. “Trouble!” She turned and pointed her blade at Gabrielle. “Stay here until I get back”
Gabrielle exhaled, and nodded.
“Good girl.” Xena settled her boots and rode through the men, taking the lead. “Let’s go!” She urged her horse into a gallop, heading towards the now very audible furor. “Yeahhhh!!!!”
The rest of the party gathered in the road, clustering together as the soldiers rode off, murmuring among themselves. Gabrielle alone sat in silence, her eyes on the rapidly disappearing horsemen.
Her hands flexed on the reins. The horse shifted under her, picking up her restlessness.
Staying here was wrong. She could feel it in her bones.
She could feel it in her soul.
The screams suddenly meshed with the sound of fighting. A horse squealed, the sound grating across Gabrielle’s nerves and causing her muscles to clench.
Patches bolted, obeying an unconscious will that overpowered a conscious one, galloping towards the sounds of carnage as Gabrielle held on for dear life.
But even so, her heart smiled in fierce triumph.
Xena felt the pleasurable rush of blood lust as she lead her troops over the small hill and down towards the village. She could see people running, stumbling, screaming… she could see fire ahead, a torched hut that sent a spiral of thick black smoke into the air.
It brought back memories just as dark to her, and she felt a yell erupt as her body remembered what it was like to set those fires, and send bodies tumbling from her screaming in fear.
As they thundered through the plain, sturdy entrance to the village she saw men on horseback, doing what she remembered doing so clearly in her dreams.
She picked out the biggest one and drove towards him, lifting her sword and leading her men into a battle on the other side of that dark coin.
For a moment, she felt a deep pang of regret that she’d left Gabrielle behind. She wanted the slave to see this, to see her defending this tatty little village so she could tell everyone how awesome Xena was. Why had she left her?
Pure spite. Xena scowled, as she dismissed the thoughts, needing the time to concentrate on killing people. There would be time later to go back, and take Gabrielle to some quiet, private place, and talk about obedience.
The raider, in the act of splitting a man’s skull looked up and met her eyes.
The demon in her erupted, and as Xena lifted her sword and swung it at him the darkest part of her reconsidered, and was glad Gabrielle wasn’t there. “Die, you bastard!” The blade slashed through his hastily raised defense and cut into his neck, sending his head careening off to one side as she used her momentum and her strength to cut through his backbone.
Her men rushed past her, descending on the raiders with yells of exultation. Caught by surprise, the raiders barely had time to gather their defenses before Xena’s troops started gutting them.
Brendan took a man right off his horse with a pike thrust, then slammed the weapon backhanded into another raider rushing by holding a woman over the neck of his horse. The man yelled and ducked, but stayed on his mount and kept going.
Xena whirled her horse on his haunches and bolted after him. The big black animal she rode picked up speed very quickly, and she angled her course across the village to intercept the raider. She laughed as she jumped her horse over an overturned wagon and her sword caught the bastard right above the ears.
The top of his head went flying one direction, his body in a second, and what little brains he had splattered over the side of the village stable his horse now frantically tried to avoid running into. Xena took pity on the beast and, leaning over, caught the reins flying in the wind and pulled hard, yanking the horse almost bodily into a new course.
They slowed, and the girl on the animal’s back slid off onto the churned earth. She crawled under the horse and behind a trough as Xena released the other reins and turned rapidly to head back into the battle. She slapped the animal on the butt with her sword to get it out of her way and glanced down at the trough before she picked her next victim.
The girl’s eyes met hers for just an instant, wide and terrified, and in that one instant also profoundly grateful.
Xena felt a strange tickle down her back. Then she dismissed it and headed for a huge, bear like man who was engaged with two of her soldiers and besting them. She could smell a good kill ahead, and she let out a battle yell that brought the big raider’s head around to see what was coming and making all that damn noise.
He wrenched his horse’s head around and batted her men aside as though they were children, then let out a bellow of his own and spurred his animal hard towards her.
The challenge implicit in the motion stirred a wildness in her and she forgot about being a queen as the warrior inside her soul woke and breathed the cold, blood tinted air.
She clamped her knees down and leaned her body forward, reading herself as the raider bore down on her brandishing a huge ax he wielded in place of a sword. It was already covered in blood and he handled it easily as he swept it towards her.
Xena remembered almost too late that she wasn’t wearing her armor. The raider was, thick plates of leather and brass that protected his upper body. She released her reins and relied on the strength of her legs alone as she wrapped her other hand around her sword hilt and met his attack.
It was like trying to deflect a falling tree. Xena felt the strain immediately in her shoulders and she twisted her hands savagely as her blade caught on the hilt of his axe. The motion was just enough to slide the huge weapon just past her shoulder.
She let it go by and released one hand off her sword, raising it quickly and clenching her fist as she whipped her arm back and smashed it forward, catching him in the side of the head.
“Gah!” The raider bellowed in anger, taking wild backhanded swing at her.
Xena ducked gracefully and released one boot from a stirrup, lashing out and kicking him in the ribs as he thundered by. He yelled again in outrage, and she laughed, whirling her stallion on his haunches as he pulled up and turned to attack her again.
He drew a dagger and threw it. Xena ducked and twirled her sword, twisting her body and meeting his axe again as they closed. His greater weight lunged against her and she found herself briefly trapped, her strength against his as their weapons locked.
“Bitch!” He spat in her face.
Xena locked her arm around his and evaded a slice from the axe by the skin of her teeth. She slugged him with an overhand punch, rocking his head to one side, and suffered a clout on the neck in return.
They separated and she wiped her hand on her leggings, shifting her horse sideways to get a better angle on him just as he surprised her by jumping out of his saddle and crashing into her, wrapping his arm around her as he tried to hack at her body with his axe.
Xena surprised him right back by not falling out of her own saddle. She got an arm between his legs and trapped her sword under one knee as she grabbed his neck with her other hand and hauled him up and over her body to fall to the ground on the other side.
Damn, he stank. Xena released her sword and grabbed it, then she kicked him in the head as he struggled to his feet. He absorbed it, then swung viciously at her with the axe, aiming for her leg. Xena leaned over and blocked the axe with her sword, twisting her body to help leverage the disadvantage she had on angle.
She got past him, but he came at her again, and she realized the weapon he had was too difficult for her to guard against from horseback. Accordingly, she jumped off and met him on the ground, intent on finishing this sloppy, annoying fight.
He roared with triumph and lifted the axe, bringing it down in an overhand chop that took good advantage of his height and would have split her skull if she’d been standing there to intercept it.
Unfortunately for the raider, she wasn’t. Xena sidestepped him gracefully and spun, getting her sword past his guard and catching him across the chest with it. Her weight put power behind the stroke and it cut through hide and plate and sunk deep into his breastbone with a crunch.
She wrenched her hands savagely, and the blade shattered bone as it came free. She whirled in the other direction and locked her arms as he started to topple, this time bringing the blade down on the back of his skull and fairly cutting his head nearly off his body.
He dropped. Xena started to straighten and recover from her own momentum when she heard her name and her senses jangled a warning nearly at the same time.
The warning held more information than her instincts. Xena dropped to the ground as she felt something big pass over her, a startling heat singing the hairs on the back of her arms as it passed. She tucked and rolled and found some clear space, getting to her feet in a crouch and regaining her bearings as a thundering crash resounded through the beleagured village.
Her eyes widened slightly as she saw the barn go up in flames as a wagon full of raiders, their bodies fully engulfed in fire screamed and died as the wooden building almost exploded and caught.
The sound of running as the remaining raiders, those few left alive, escaped through the smoke on panicked horses or their own feet.
Xena put her back to the wall she’d ended up against and caught her breath, her eyes flicking everywhere and accounting for all her men.
Then she turned her head and located the source of her very timely warning, a clear, potent voice that had cut through the fog of war and captured her attention as few other things would have.
Gabrielle looked back at her, pale and frightened, a smudge of blood across one cheek.
She disobeyed me again. Xena felt a prickle of something catch her in the gut as she realized the source of Gabrielle’s fear.
Her. Well, Xena… you always said the only way to survive disobedience was to be right, didn’cha?
With all the chaos around her, Xena felt a sense of peace settle on her shoulders. She exhaled as her men jumped off their horses and held her hand out to Gabrielle, palm up.
The villagers started to appear from hiding as Gabrielle broke into a run towards her. The cheers began to sound as the slave reached her, and Xena felt the double odd sensation of seeing grateful eyes turned on her and getting a fierce hug as her entire world dumped itself upside down.
What the Hades? Xena looked back at the villagers, her eyes widening as one of them knelt at her feet.
“You saved us. The gods sent you.” The woman kissed her boot.
I was just having a good fight! Xena’s outraged thoughts almost erupted in speech.
“That was awesome.” Gabrielle gave her another hug. “You were amazing.”
Wait a gods be damned minute!
“Thank you.” Another villager knelt at her feet. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
I was just having some fun! This wasn’t for any of you! It was just for me! Xena opened her mouth to tell them all to get lost, and get the notion she’d done this for any reason other than idle bloodshed out of their minds.
But as the words formed, her eyes dropped to Gabrielle’s face and stuck there, and the breath merely trickled from her lips instead.
What in Hades had she gotten herself into? Trapped in a pit of half assed heroism. The queen let out an aggrieved groan. Damn it.
The Fates must be up there somewhere laughing their asses off at her.
Gabrielle dusted her hands off and leaned against an overturned wagon, watching Xena watching everyone else. The queen was sitting on the back of her horse, on a small rise a little ways off. Very distinctly a little ways off, as Xena purposefully put some distance between herself and the activity of cleaning up from the attack.
She looked so quiet and remote sitting out there. Gabrielle leaned her chin on her forearm and wished Xena would come back over and let the villagers make a fuss over her again. She knew the queen didn’t like fusses, but she also knew that what Xena had done had been a tremendous thing for this small place, and it’s residents were overwhelmed by the fact that their queen had rescued them from certain disaster.
The soldiers and Xena’s servants were helping the villagers put things right now, before they started off again and the queen had escaped to her small hill to simply sit and watch, and maybe to reflect on what she’d done.
So cool. Gabrielle closed her eyes and let the pictures run inside her mind again, what she’d seen as Patches had carried her to the outskirts of the town and she’d almost run into the battle itself before she managed to get the horse stopped.
It had taken her a while to find what she was looking for – with the smoke and the screaming men and the running villagers she’d fairly been almost bowled right over. But she’d kept moving, tying Patches to a broken bit of wood and scrambling off him to continue on foot.
She’d been terrified. All around here had been fighting and death, and in it’s center she’d spotted Xena in a fight for her life against a man so huge Gabrielle wondered if he wasn’t truly a giant of legend. The queen had seemed so slight against his bulk and yet she’d met his attacks with apparent ease.
Gabrielle’s heart had been in her throat the entire time. She’d flinched with every hit, and bit the side of her tongue when Xena had jumped off to fight the man on the ground.
There had been so much going on around her, she’d only seen the terrified horses bolt with the burning wagon strapped to them at the very last moment, and she’d just barely had the chance to call out Xena’s name and a warning.
In her mind’s eye, she could still see the rippling reaction of Xena’s body on hearing her voice, and the total lack of hesitation in obeying her warning.
Xena’s calling her over? Even more awesome.
Gabrielle smiled to herself, knowing she’d done good, and that the queen knew it. It was even enough, she suspected, to cause Xena to forgive her for not listening.
Gabrielle turned her head, to see a young man approaching her hesitantly. He was a head taller than she was, but he had the same pale hair and his eyes were a softly twinkling gray. “Hello.” She returned the greeting.
“You’re with the queen, right?”
“That’s right.” Gabrielle agreed, with a smile.
The blond man held up a skin that gurgled softly. “Do you think she would like a bit of a drink? It’s not fancy, just cider, but we’ve got some of the best apples in the kingdom.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle started off towards Xena’s hill. “C’mon.”
“Oh, ah!” The man stammered. “No, I aum… you… surely you could give it to her, right?”
The slave stopped and turned, gazing at him. “Don’t you want to?”
“You’re not scared, are you?”
The man looked at Gabrielle, then his eyes went over her shoulder to the queen. He managed a wry grimace as he returned his gaze to her. “Yes.” He answered, as though it should have been obvious.
Gabrielle followed his look, to see Xena glaring at them dourly. Or at least, it must have looked to the man like it was dourly. To Gabrielle it just looked like the queen wanted something. “It’s okay, I promise. Just come with me.”
The man sighed, but followed her timidly as she walked across the shattered ground. They circled the well, its cover lying in pieces and then started the slight climb up to the rise Xena’s horse was standing on.
Gabrielle tipped her head up and met Xena’s eyes as she approached, watching the queen’s lips twitch as she tried to muffle a smile. She supposed it could look like a scowl, if you didn’t know her, and she patted her reluctant companion on the shoulder as they got closer.
“Yeeees?” Xena growled, as they arrived to stand next to her tall stallion.
Gabrielle stepped closer, and put her hand on Xena’s boot. “My new friend here has some cider, and he was wondering if you’d like some.”
The queen made a show of studying the man from head to foot with a steely glare. “Cider?”
“Y…yes… m..mm..mmm majesty.” The man’s teeth chattered as he spoke.
Xena licked her lips, and hiked an eyebrow. She lifted one hand and crooked a finger at the man. “C’mere.”
He seemed rooted to the spot, his eyes going round and wide and Gabrielle might have found it funny if she hadn’t remembered, belatedly, her own not in the distant past terror. “It’s okay.” She released Xena’s leg and walked over to him, holding her hand out. “She won’t hurt you.”
Xena made a noise that sounded like a snort.
The man blinked at Gabrielle, but having little choice took her hand and allowed himself to be led over to the towering threat standing over them. Gabrielle stopped when she reached her former spot and looked up again, gazing confidently up at Xena’s face.
Another twitch of the queen’s lips appeared, and Xena extended her hand again. “If you’re going to hand that over, do it now or I’ll kick you back to where you came from.”
Hastily, the man thrust the skin at her, with a visibly shaking grip. “H….here…. your Majesty.”
Xena accepted it and examined the sack, finding it well worn, though meticulously kept. “Yours?” She asked the man.
He nodded several more times than was necessary.
The queen unstopped the skin and sniffed it, watching him closely with cool, blue eyes. “Open your mouth.” She ordered suddenly.
His jaw dropped, achieving her purpose with unintended speed.
Xena squirted a mouthful of the cider into it with unerring aim. “Swallow.”
Almost choking, he did, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth and staring at her in bewilderment.
She waited, watching him lick his lips, and studying the look of confused concern on his face. After a moment she gave a satisfied grunt, and took a sip herself. The cider was cool and rich, and surprised her with it’s pleasant taste.
She rolled the mouthful around and swallowed it. “Not bad.” She complimented the man.
Still puzzled, he relaxed a bit. “Th.. thank you, Majesty.” He replied in a timid voice. “Twas a good harvest this year.” He added. “The trees were rich with fruit and the weather fine.”
“And you were at peace to harvest it.” Gabrielle said.
The man nodded. “Until this last moon, aye, we were.” He said.
“This happen before?” Xena asked, waving the skin at the destruction. “Why haven’t we heard?”
“It was just the last sevenday, Majesty.” The man seemed to be gaining confidence, apparently reassured he wasn’t about to be gutted by the intimidating figure on horseback. “They came down from nowhere, and attacked a merchant train down the road. We thought it was just a few bad sorts looking for supplies for the winter.”
“Ah.” Xena sipped on her cider. “Well, this band’s not going to bother you again.” She reviewed the stack of bodies nearby. None of the raiders had escaped, much to her satisfaction. “You got some horses out of it, too.”
“Thanks to your majesty, yes.” The man said.
“Yeah.” Xena gave him a look. “Remember that.” She cocked an eyebrow at him.
Xena flicked her fingers at him in dismissal. “Tell my wagon master I said to get a few barrels of this for the trip.” She indicated the skin. “Don’t overcharge him, or I’ll make those half baked cow heads who attacked you look like kittens.”
“Majesty!” The man backed off hastily, almost stumbling as he hit the ruts churned up in the ground from the horses. He scurried away, disappearing behind the shambles of the barn as they watched him go.
Gabrielle exhaled, and started to follow him.
“Hey.” Xena rumbled. “Where do you think you’re going?”
The slave stopped and looked back. “Um… to help?” She queried. “They’re trying to lift that part of the barn up. I thought I could…”
“Cheer them on?” Xena half turned in her saddle, throwing her leg over her saddlehorn and relaxing. “Let the boys flex their muscles. It makes them feel good.” She offered Gabrielle the cider. “Here.”
Not at all displeased, Gabrielle returned to the queen’s side and took the skin, taking a sip of the contents. “Wow.. that’s great.” She studied the spout, then looked up at Xena. “Should I have tasted it first, before I had him give it to you?”
Xena’s face stilled for a long instant. Then her shoulders relaxed just a trifle and she exhaled. “No.”
The queen touched her cheek, after a quick glance around to see who was watching. “Last thing on this damn earth I want is for you to get killed by someone after me.” She said, a slight, husky note in her voice. “I told you, I can take care of myself, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle looked at her, then she turned her head and looked at the burning barn, the remnants of the wagon that had almost ran over Xena embedded in the flames. Then she turned and looked back up at Xena’s face. “Okay.” She replied.
Xena glanced up at the barn. Her lips pulled reluctantly into a smile. “Right. Now that we got that settled. Let’s talk about how you don’t listen to a damn thing I say.” Her eyes studied the blond woman.
Gabrielle took a breath. “That’s not true.” She replied. “I listen to everything you say. You’re the most important person in my world.”
“It’s just that…” The slave continued. “Sometimes my heart takes over from my head and I.. um..…” A tiny shake of her head. “I guess I just do what comes naturally.”
The queen leaned on her thigh. “Saving my ass comes naturally to you?”
It was Gabrielle’s turn to blink, and she did. Did it? She tried to remember how she had decided to crash into the guard in Evgast’s tower, and she realized she hadn’t decided anything. One moment she’d just been hiding, the next moment she’d found herself bolting across the hall, arms outstretched, heedless.
So maybe it did come naturally. Certainly, loving Xena had. “Yeah.” Gabrielle finally said, softly reflective.
The queen unexpectedly tousled her hair and pulled her closer, leaning over and kissing her on the head.
Spectators be damned.
They didn’t quite make it to the mountains that night, even though Xena kept them moving until well after sunset. The stop at the village had taken too much time, and now they found themselves forced to make camp in a relatively isolated, exposed area.
Xena wasn’t happy. She circled her horse around the small grove they’d finally settled in, checking out the thick forest that spread behind it down the hill. It afforded any amount of hiding for any amount of road scum and she wasn’t pleased about having to put that many guards on watch all night.
That meant they’d be useless the next day, when she anticipated traveling through one of the few truly wild spots in the kingdom, the high mountain passes that separated the capitol from the strongholds of the men most closely associated with Bregos.
It meant possible danger. Xena was no fool, however, and she’d selected this route deliberately to give the schemers the minimum of time for plotting before she descended on them. If she’d gone south first, to Lastay’s pleasant lands, the gods only knew what these bastards would have been up to before she’d headed north.
So making camp in the relative open didn’t make her happy. She had good men with her, but she also had servants and slaves, and most importantly Gabrielle with her as well.
The men, the servants, and the slaves were expendable.
Xena marked another spot for a guard outpost and turned her horses head towards the sounds of the camp. “C’mon, Tiger.” She patted his lathered shoulder. “I know I kicked your ass today. Let’s go get you rubbed down.”
The horse nickered at her. Xena chuckled dryly, stretching her back out from its mild stiffness after the all day ride. She could only imagine how Gabrielle felt.
The thought made her pause. She tried to remember if she’d ever even considered how someone else felt on campaign before. Certainly, she’d expected her men to keep up with her, and anyone who couldn’t didn’t stay with her army very long.
No whining. Xena’s rule number one. She’d run her kingdom the same way, and everyone traveling with her here knew it. She didn’t care about aches and pains. Everyone sucked it up and just did their jobs.
Xena nodded. Right. Then she frowned, as her thoughts wandered again. So why was she imagining how Gabrielle was feeling, after the long day? Could she even begin to imagine how Gabrielle felt, given how different they were?
Was bringing Gabrielle with her even a good idea? Xena felt the unusual mixed emotions coursing through her. Was there really any place for her here with the army, even with the mess of servants in the train? She’d never had a body servant on campaign, would never even have considered having someone around her back then.
Gabrielle didn’t know what to do, or how to act… she was likely to just be in the way. The queen exhaled, her fingers playing with a bit of Tiger’s mane. Why the Hades did I bring her?
Ah well. Too late now. Xena guided her mount into the camp and slid down off his back, giving the alert groom who ran up to her an approving nod. “Give him a bath, and a bucket of grain. He earned it.”
“Mistress.” The man ducked his head, as he took the horse’s reins. “He will be spotless.”
“He is spotless. If you wash him enough to give him spots, I’ll scalp you.” Xena replied. “Move it.”
The groom hastily led the big horse away. Xena stood for a moment in the firelight, then she headed towards the pavilion raised on the high ground that was hers. Surrounded by thick oaks, the tent was pitched with it’s flap faced to the fire, and already two of her men stood guard on either side of the doorway, spears resting in the crooks of their arms.
It felt good. The camp was laid out exactly how she liked it, Brendan’s memory apparently undimmed over the past seasons. She approved of the order, the troops area laid out just so, and the servants in an inner, protected area.
Dinner was being made, and she could hear rough songs lifting from where the soldiers were bedded down. With a smile, Xena turned toward her tent. She walked up to the entrance and the guards saluted her. One drew the flap aside for her and she grunted at him as she ducked her head to enter.
Inside, the scents of both camp and home assailed her. A small brazier was lit in the center of the tent, it’s wood chips lending a light, smoky touch to the air. On one side her bed was set, a structure of sturdy wood posts and hide slings, covered in thick furs. The other side of the room held her personal chest, with her armor and weapons.
Just how she liked it. “Hm.” Xena put her hands on her hips. “Nice.”
The roof of the tent was scarcely high enough to accommodate her inches, but it brought back memories of being with her army in the field, and those memories, though bloody and hard, were mostly good ones. Xena sighed, and glanced down, noting the reed mats that had been put down on the ground. It was neat, and well ordered, and she was exceedingly gratified to discover that her men had not forgotten how she liked things set up.
Not that she really thought they would. Xena smiled to herself.
Soft footsteps behind her made her straighten and turn, watching the flap as it opened and Gabrielle entered with her arms full. “Ah. There you are.” The queen said, briskly.
Gabrielle managed a smile, blowing a bit of hair out of her eyes as she eased around Xena’s tall form and set her burden down near the brazier. She was limping noticeably, and she winced as she knelt on the mats. “Is everything all right? They said you were worried about where the camp was.”
Right at the moment, Xena found herself worried about something completely different. She crossed to where Gabrielle was and dropped to one knee beside her, putting a hand on her back and giving it a little rub. “We’ll cope.” She answered. “If I get enough bodies out there guarding.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle glanced at her, and gave her a tired smile. “Well, that’s really good to hear. I tried.. .” She looked around. “To get all your stuff ready.”
Xena looked at her. “You did this?” She indicated the room with her free hand.
The slave nodded. “Some of the guys tried to come in here and do it but.. um..I kind of chased them out.” She issued a light shrug. “I think they got mad at me.”
Xena found herself unable to come up with even the mildest smart remark. “They used to fight each other for the… ah… honor of setting up my tent.” She explained, with a touch of sheepishness in her voice. “I thought they’d…” She looked around. “Huh.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle also looked around. “Did I do okay?”
The queen spotted a clean set of clothes folded ready on the bed, and her soap and towel ready by a filled basin of water braced on a folding stool. “It’s perfect.” She murmured. “How did you know?”
The slave exhaled audibly. “Thanks.” She set a small pot on the brazier and carefully poured water into it, over the things already inside. “I just… put things where I would want them if I were coming home to some place like this after a really… really long day.”
Xena studied her.
“I know I’d want a nice bed, and clean clothes.” The slave went on. “A place to wash up.. you know.”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed softly. She watched the slave stir the pot’s contents. “Gabrielle, they’re making dinner outside.”
“I know.” Gabrielle put in a last handful of ingredients. “But it won’t be ready for a while.. I thought maybe you’d like some soup after you change until then.”
Xena looked into the pot, then she looked at her slave. “You like this stuff?”
Gabrielle hesitated, then nodded.
“A little.” Gabrielle admitted, with a tiny, wry smile. “Not as bad with Patches.”
“All right.” Xena stood up, her battle plan settled. “Here’s what you’re going to do next.”
Gabrielle folded her hands on her knee and waited in silence. She was, in truth, exhausted and her body ached from head to foot. But the changes around Xena, the dynamics of the men, and the army, and the strange surroundings were making her fearful and nervous and she wasn’t about to complain to the queen about anything.
Xena extended her hand. “You’re gonna c’mover here and get naked with me so we can wash.”
Hm. Gabrielle’s ears perked up. She reached up and took Xena’s hand, and stood as the queen pulled her up. “Okay.”
“Then you’re going to… “ Xena leaned closer, catching the edge of Gabrielle’s ear in her teeth and lightly biting down. “Tell me where it hurts, so I can fix it.”
Oo. Everything else perked up, chasing away the day’s fatigue and worry. Gabrielle felt herself relaxing, understanding that so far, at least, she was doing things right. However, her conscience bothered her. “Don’t you have… um.. more important stuff to do? Like with the camp?”
“Yes.” Xena told her, sliding her arms around Gabrielle’s body and pulling her close. “And I’ll do them, but I’m an instant gratification kinda gal, and right now, I want to be gratified. Instantly.” She kissed Gabrielle on the lips. “So get your clothes off, you little muskrat, or I’ll rip em off with my teeth.”
“But.. what about…”
“Shh.” Xena silenced her with another kiss. “We gotta work on that ‘I’m the queen and what I say goes’ thing.”
Gabrielle really wasn’t about to argue. After all, if Xena didn’t know what she was doing, who did? She undid the buckle on her belt as Xena guided her over to the water basin she’d so recently filled. The queen’s hands slid over her body, fingers touching and gently massaging the sore spots on her back as she felt the shirt lifted over her head.
The strange sounds outside faded. Gabrielle slid the crimson shirt off Xena’s body and stepped closer, nuzzling her breasts as their skins lightly brushed. She heard the soft tinkle of water, then the cool touch of it on her shoulders. Her eyes opened, to see Xena’s, darkened in the firelight, watching her. “I think I’m supposed to be doing that to you.” She reminded the queen.
“I think you should just do what I tell you to do.” Xena rinsed the cloth and continued her task, removing the dust of their days travel and the soot from the burned village from Gabrielle’s pale skin. The slave’s ribs expanded under her touch, but she didn’t answer.
Xena took her time exploring. She let her fingers travel over the bump on the blond woman’s ribs, and with their eyes locked, found herself curious about it once again. “What’s that from?”
Gabrielle’s expression became sad. “Someone kicked me.” She admitted in a soft voice.
“I don’t know.”
Xena washed down the centerline of Gabrielle’s belly, noting that the almost painful concavity had started to fill in a little. “Was it someone you knew?”
Xena rinsed out the towel again and carefully cleaned around Gabrielle’s neck, forcing the slave to look up at her when she scrubbed her jaw. “Tell me who it was, and I’ll go kill em for ya.”
Gabrielle’s expression was indescribable. “Would you?”
“Sure.” The queen replied.
The slave exhaled. “Well, it was a while ago, and there’s no point. He’s already gone.”
“Bummer.” Xena cradled her head, and tilted her own down to give Gabrielle a gentle kiss. “Sorry about that. Getting kicked isn’t any fun, no matter who does it.” She guided Gabrielle’s hand to a place on her own side, tracing a spot where there was a depression in the bone of one of her ribs. “Feel that?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle stroked the spot. “Did you get that fighting?”
“No.” Xena “That’s from a goat.”
The slave smothered a surprised laugh. “Really?”
“No.” The queen wiped off her face, dampening the fair hair with the water. “But I figured it’d make you laugh.” She admitted. “I got kicked in the gut by some guy in Cortese’s pits, after I first got captured by him. Hurt like Hades.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle looked up at her. “It does.” She touched the spot on Xena’s side. “But you get over it.” She leaned forward and kissed the skin there, her hair brushing the underside of Xena’s breast.
Xena inhaled, as her body reacted. They were both standing there in only their leggings and boots, and she suddenly had a mental image of what would happen if someone were stupid enough to open the tent flap.
It made her laugh, with sudden and explosive force.
Gabrielle glanced up at her, then experimentally tickled her on the side, near the spot.
Xena laughed again, this time for a totally different reason. “Hey!” She caught Gabrielle’s hand. “Save that for later.” She instructed. “Turn around.”
Obediently, Gabrielle did
The queen washed across her shoulderblades, seeing for the first time the faintest traces of thin, diagonal scars, old and very faded with time. With a slight frown, she put the towel over her shoulder and applied her hands instead, working her fingers over the tense muscles.
Gabrielle’s head dropped forward, and she exhaled in relief.
Xena finished, then stepped up behind her and circled her with both arms, pressing their bodies together as she suckled at Gabrielle’s neck, nibbling carefully around up to her jawline as she slid her hands up the slave’s torso and gently traced her breasts.
“You…” Gabrielle’s voice sounded husky. “Have really amazing hands.”
“Only my hands?” Xena purred, releasing her hold so Gabrielle could turn in her arms and face her again. “Now you get to wash me, since I stink like an old horse blanket.”
With a smile, Gabrielle removed the towel from Xena’s shoulder and rinsed it out.
“Besides, the fun part comes next.” Xena added, reaching out to slide a finger inside the waistband of Gabrielle’s leggings and tugging it. “We’ll see if the boys remembered Xena’s rule number two.”
Gabrielle set to work, using more than the towel. “What’s that?”
For a moment, the queen was speechless. Then she caught her breath. “No knocking when the tent’s rocking.” She chuckled softly, throwing caution to the winds.
Hoping like Hades they really did remember.