Shadows of the Soul
It was still snowing the next morning. They filed out of the cave anyway, prodded by Xena determination that no storm was going to block their passage one candlemark longer.
Gabrielle glance to her right as they came out, immediately sorry she had done so. The man Xena had ordered put out the night before had died, and his frozen body was hanging from a couple of strips of rawhide wedged in the rocks.
As they passed, he swung stiffly against the stone, and she forced her eyes down and away from his glassy eyed face.
Xena didn’t give him so much as a second glance. She led her big stallion down the path and paused at it’s intersection with the main track, now covered in a layer of snow. As she stood watching, snowflakes peppered her dark hair, making her toss her head to rid herself of them. She waited for a cluster of bodies to form up behind her before she crossed onto the track and turned up slope, her boots crunching the fresh snow with an audible rasp.
No one else moved. Gabrielle glanced around, puzzled, until she realized they were waiting for her to go first. “Sorry.” She eased forward. “C’mon, Patches, let’s go.” She led her pony after Xena, watching him pick his route carefully on the slippery rocks. Her boots found solid purchase though, and she went a little more confidently as they started to move uphill.
She tried not to think about the man they’d left behind, but it was hard. He hadn’t been nice, and he’d almost gotten someone killed, but still… Gabrielle exhaled, her breath appearing in a soft cloud before her. Still, he’d just been mean and stupid, after all. Was that really any reason to die?
Was there really any reason at all to die, unless you had to?
With a slight shake of her head, Gabrielle leaned forward and moved a little faster, just about catching up with Xena as they came to a slight bend in the path. She walked in the queen’s shadow, keeping her head down as the snow peppered her with a frosty coating.
They climbed for candlemarks in relative silence, the sound of the horses feet and the wagon’s wheels rumbling up all around her as they walked into a world slowing into a white, cold sleep.
Gabrielle lifted her hand and rubbed her nose, the tip of it beginning to go a bit numb from the cold. Her hands were starting to ache as well, and she tucked them under her cloak once she’d warmed her face up. Ahead of her, Xena was striding along as though she were out for a stroll in the garden and Gabrielle decided to distract herself by studying the queen instead.
She had a really nice walk, the slave decided. It was powerful and very rhythmic, her boots lifting clear of the snow before plowing back into it in an almost march.
Xena was, she was surprised also to note, just a touch bowlegged, and it gave her a hint of a sexy swagger when she walked. She must have spent a lot of the time with her army riding, Gabrielle realized. She also held her upper body differently, shifted just a bit to one side.
She had nice shoulders. Gabrielle could see them moving under her cloak, and they were broad enough to hold the garment neatly in place without it’s sliding back.
As she walked, her head was constantly in motion, a steady scanning back and forth as she broke the trail and led them upward. That was amazing, really – she had expected soldiers to surround the queen out here in the wilderness and instead it seemed the other way around. Xena was the one who everyone looked to for protection.
She was, in all senses, a leader.
Gabrielle exhaled. And leaders sometimes had to do what they had to do, isn’t that what she’d tell you?
With a greater effort, she got closer to the queen, close enough for Xena to sense her presence and glance back at her, lips curving into a smile and revealing white teeth as their eyes met. “You frozen yet?”
Gabrielle reached up and rubbed her nose again. “Sort of.” Her eyes were watering from the cold, damp wind blowing down the mountainside.
“That’s the price you pay for being my consort.” The queen told her cheerfully, pointing behind them. “Back there, it’s nice and warm behind all those damn animals.”
The slave looked behind her, then she looked back and Xena. “I’ll take the cold.” She stated, giving the queen a stolid grin. “Besides, I like to see where I’m going.” She paused. “Where are we going, anyway?”
Xena slowed a trifle and pointed ahead of them. “See that pass up there? That break in the rocks?”
Gabrielle squinted, shading her eyes against the snow. “Um… sort of.”
“Trust me, it’s there.” The queen assured her. “Once we’re through it, we go down hill into the next valley. Weather’ll clear up, and we can get something accomplished.”
“Is that the only way to go there?”
Xena pointed downward. “The road, but that takes a day longer, and you still end up having to go through that damn pass. If we let the snow fill it, we could get trapped.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle didn’t like the sound of that. “Will we get there in time?”
The queen chuckled. “Yeah. It’s only been snowing since last night. Take days of it to fill the pass.” She flexed her hands, taking a deep breath of the cold air and seeming to revel in the damp discomfort. “Ah, this beats that damn stronghold.”
The slave looked up. “It does?”
Xena kept on walking, her face suddenly thoughtful.
The path got steadily steeper, and Gabrielle found herself breathing hard and conscious of a sweat forming under her clothes despite the chill. She glanced behind her to see the front row of soldiers stolidly following, the cold betraying their equally strained breaths in streams of fog before them.
That made her feel a little better, especially since Xena didn’t appear to even be exerting herself.
Her legs were shaking badly by the time they reached the pass, and she found herself very grateful for her walking stick as she leaned on it. The snow had gotten heavier and now not only her nose, but a good part of her face felt numb along with her hands.
Xena entered the pass, all her senses alert. The newly fallen snow hid any footprints, but she tilted her head up to catch the wind, searching out any sounds or smells out of the ordinary.
There were none. The queen continued on, secretly glad to be on relatively level ground. Fit though she was, the walk had strained her energy more than she’d expected and that annoyed her more than she’d readily admit to anyone other than herself.
Not that anyone would dare to ask her, of course.
“You doing okay?” Gabrielle materialized on her right hand side, now that the path was wide enough for them to walk side by side.
Oh well. Almost anyone. “Me? I’m fine. You look like you’re about to keel over.” Xena remarked. “Sheep don’t walk much, do they?”
“Not unless they have to.” Gabrielle admitted. “Mostly they just hang out and eat grass. They leave all that mountain climbing stuff to the goats.” She looked ahead of them, studying the pass. It was long and narrow, and the exit sloped up again before it disappeared over the edge of the mountain. She could readily see that, filled with snow high enough, it could become deadly indeed.
She was glad they’d be through it soon. The high, echoing walls made her faintly apprehensive. Operating on instinct she moved closer to Xena, only just catching herself from taking hold of the queen’s hand. Up here in the pass, the wind had lessened, broken by the tall cliff walls and sent into odd swirls that caught their capes, wrapping them around their legs.
Gratefully, she flexed her hands, raising one to rub at her face as it started to tingle with renewed feeling. “Brr.”
“Cold?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle peeked up at her, unsure if it was a serious question. How could she not be?
Without missing a step, Xena leaned over and caught her jaw, kissing her with frank, full out passion. After an endless moment, she released her slave and straightened, licking her lips and making a pleased noise.
Gabrielle stumbled, then caught herself as a thundering flush of blood warmed every inch of her. The sudden passion was stark, and very unexpected, and her guts ignited in a desire to continue the contact regardless of the circumstances.
“Warmer now?” Xena asked, with a smirk.
The slave swallowed, holding down her surprisingly aggressive libido. “Um.. yes, thanks.”
The queen chuckled, then slowly, her laughter faded as something… tickled her senses, bringing a faint warning from a source she hadn’t quite located yet. She slowed, and lifted her hand, clenching her fist tightly over her head.
The men behind her stopped short and went still. Only the wagons creaked for a moment more as the drivers pulled the cart horses to a halt, and then it went quiet.
Xena felt a sudden knot in her guts. Even as the first yell went up she knew she’d just walked into a trap and her hand was going for her sword as she let out a bellow of warning.
All at once, the pass was full of chaos. Above them on the walls, heads appeared and a rain of stones and debris headed down onto them.
Xena grabbed Gabrielle by the front of her cloak and pushed her against the wall behind her, yelling out orders as she did so. The soldiers responded rapidly, throwing themselves against the stone and jumping to take cover under the wagons.
“Guard the rear!” The queen bellowed.
“No! Mistress! There!” Brendan let off a crossbow bolt at the ledge overhead, and pointed ahead of them. “Look!”
Xena looked. Coming down the pass from the other side was a legion of armored men. The only thing between them, and her soldiers – between them and Gabrielle, was her.
And it got very quiet for Xena, as things seemed to slow around her, giving her time to understand what as about to happen, a feeling of disappointment swamping over her as she realized there was no one to blame for the place she found herself in but her.
It was almost peaceful, knowing that. She had lived by her own rules, after all.
“All right!” Xena broke out of the knowledge. “Everybody turn, and RUN!”
“They’ll cut us down!” One of the men nearest her shouted, as the legion began to come in range, and crossbow bolts started to fly.
“NO they won’t. “ Xena gave him a shove, as the men started to move. “MOVE IT! NOW!!!!”
A handful of her soldiers knelt by the wagons and fired up at the walls, desperately trying to keep it clear as the servants near the back started to stumble back towards the inner pass walls.
Xena whirled, judged the oncoming men, then she half turned and grabbed Gabrielle, shoving her after the last of the soldiers. “Go on!”
Gabrielle was scared half to death. She felt arrows whizzing by her, and almost screamed when Xena plucked one out of mid air right before her eyes. She held on to the queen’s cloak, desperate not to be separated from her. “You should go first! You’re the queen!”
Xena backed, holding her in the circle of one arm, her eyes darting back and forth, judging distance and angles. “I want you to go with Brendan.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena yelled at the top of her voice. “GO!” She shoved back against the moving men, knocking arrows out of the air with her sword.
“I’m staying with you.”
Xena slashed expertly, saving both their lives in a blink of an eye. “I’m not going.” She told Gabrielle harshly. “I’m going to hold the pass so the rest of you can GET THE HADES OUT OF HERE.” She pushed Gabrielle away. “SO GO!”
Gabrielle slammed against the backs of two men, hearing the screams, smelling the blood, feeling the carnage. “No.”
“I SAID GO!” Xena was at the end of her patience. The men were almost within range, and they were near the pass. She grabbed Gabrielle and lifted her, tossing her towards the opening. “Brendan, take her out!”
She put her back to the pass and dug her boots in, weaving a net of steel around herself as the arrows now focused on her. The men saw her, and a bloody yell went up.
A yell for her blood.
The warrior that lived inside Xena woke. It was almost a relief as she felt the feral energy rise, and she came to grips with the knowledge that no matter how good she was, she would not survive this fight.
But that was all right. Her men would.
Maybe Gabrielle would tell everyone about it. Maybe she’d end up a hero after all.
Xena almost laughed. She heard the last of the wagons roll back through the pass and she slid backwards, putting herself squarely in the middle of the opening. Legs braced, she let out a wild battle roar and pointed her sword towards the oncoming me. “Come and get me, boys. It’s a great day to die.”
Just like the oracle had told her. Xena spared her fate a smile. Let anyone into your heart, and it will destroy you, Xena. It will be your end.
He’d been right. Xena readied herself, moving her hands so fast her sword was only a blur to keep the arrows off her.
Stupid bastard just hadn’t bothered to mention it would be worth dying for.
The first line reached her.
“Goodbye, muskrat.” Xena whispered, then gave herself over to the killing.
“No!” Gabrielle struggled in Brendan’s arms as they bolted through the pass. “Let me go!”
“Easy, girl!” The soldier panted. “She’ll be after us in a bit, just giving us some running room, that’s all.”
Gabrielle arched her head, keeping Xena’s figure in sight. She saw the queen set herself, digging the heels of her boots in as she prepared for the onslaught heading right for her. There were at least fifty men bearing down on her, not speaking of the ones on the wall and something inside Gabrielle told her no matter how incredible a fighter Xena was, there were just too many of them.
She started struggling again, throwing her body weight to one side and knocking Brendan off balance. “LET ME GO!” She yelled right in his ear. With a wrench that took all her strength, she pulled free of the soldier and started back towards the pass.
“GIRL!” Brendan caught her arm. “C’mon!”
The slave whirled on him. “She needs help! How can you just run away!”
Brendan looked past her. “Gabrielle, it’s all her plan! She’ll be fine!”
“There’s hundreds of them!” Gabrielle pulled free again. “If you want to run, go on. I’m going back to fight with her.”
“Gods.” The soldier grabbed hold of her cloak. “That’s the last t… girl! Use your head! It’s the queens orders! She wants you safe!”
Desperate, Gabrielle untied the cloak and stripped out of it, freeing herself. She bolted up the path, barely aware of Brendan clambering after her. She got to the top, half afraid to look when he caught up to her. He reached out to grab her again but she slipped past him and searched anxiously for the queen, finally finding her tall form almost obscured in a sea of lethal steel.
The men on the walls were climbing down, yelling in triumph.
“Damn.” Brendan whispered. “They don’t care about all of us.”
“No.” Gabrielle’s heart sank. “They just want to kill her.” She started forward. “Go on. Run and save yourself.”
“Gabrielle!” For the last time, he grabbed her arm.
She turned and looked him in the eye. “I know where my place is.” Her finger pointed to the melee. Then she pushed off from the rocks and started to run.
It would be an interesting death. Xena lifted a boot and kicked one man back, ducking another’s sword while she slammed her body against the spear butt of a third. Already the ground was dark with blood around her.
So far, she’d held her own, and it was really pissing them off. Xena laughed and ducked another swing, whipping her dagger out and plunging it into the man’s gut, yanking it back out accompanied by a shower of hot blood.
None of them had gotten past her.
Xena killed another man, and took a vicious kick to the side before she realized none of them were even trying. It almost made her stumble as the knowledge settled over her, the understanding that she’d walked, almost ran into a trap specifically set for her.
It made her so mad she cut off the head of the attacker closest to her, a yell of pure rage escaping from her throat. A surge behind him pushed against her, and she felt a moment of self disgust. Her sword faltered just for an instant, and she nearly lost her life for it.
She recovered her footing and grimly returned to business, deciding if she was going to die here, caught in a trap she should have seen coming than at least she was going to take a lot of them with her.
She raised both arms and slashed down ward, splitting a man’s head open and wrenching her arms to one side to free her blade from the bone. She ducked to one side, then lashed out to push the nearest two men back, aware of two more coming at her from the back.
Xena dropped to a crouch, and they lunged over her, then another man leaped on her from the side and she got knocked off her feet.
She felt hands grabbing at her, and a painful impact against her hip as she rolled under the weight of the men, her leaner, more flexible body giving her an unexpected advantage as she squirmed and kicked anything within reach.
By the skin of her teeth she got free, and pulled herself up next to the rocks just in time to meet a fresh wave of assault.
She put her back to the rock and wrapped her hands around her sword hilt, using it as both weapon and shield as she held her ground against the sea of men attacking her.
The hate was almost palpable. Xena grimly shoved aside a man trying to gut her and pulled her arm free from a ax that left a long, red line on her skin. The men sensed their growing advantage and shoved forward, pinning her in place as their weapons rose and fell, deflected only by Xena’s skill and a core of strength she’d spent a lifetime building.
But there were limits, even to that.
She saw two men raise crossbows and release them, and in between deflecting a sword and ducking a mace she somehow found time to knock the bolts aside. But it brought her sword out of position and she knew she wouldn’t catch the second set of bolts as the closer one raised his weapon and aimed it at her.
About to pull the trigger, he suddenly jerked and the crossbow went sideways. He lifted his hand to his face and looked around in angry bewilderment.
Xena ducked another blow, sliding to one side and letting the club hit the rock instead. The man pulled his arm back, then he, too, stumbled back and lifted a hand to his head.
She was too busy to really wonder about it. The crowd surged over and against her, and she was fighting for her life in an instant, swamped beneath a wave of stench, and fists, and weapons that thumped against her body .
On the edges of her awareness, she could hear a voice yelling, it’s tones striking a chord inside her that made her frantically kick and shove back against the men, clearing some fighting room around her as her eyes swept around her.
Gabrielle rounded the edge of the rocks and skidded to a stop, facing the sea of angry men in a moment of consternation. Her frantic desire to be at Xena’s side drove her on, but now that she’d gotten this close, what was she supposed to do to help? She didn’t even have her stick, not that she’d really know what to do with it.
Desperate, she looked around and then darted forward, to gather an armful of rocks as she raced forward. Getting closer, she started pelting the men with the stones, aiming and letting go with a skill she’d never thought she’d ever have to use for anything more than amusement.
Fear gave her strength. She grabbed every rock she could get her hands on and kept throwing them at the crowd, despairing of having any effect at all.
One of the men she hit turned and spotted her. He lifted his sword and came at her with an angry yell, and she found herself facing an ugly death in an instant. With a yelp, she threw a last rock at him and ducked out of the way just in time to avoid being sliced in half.
“Bitch!” The man whirled and hacked at her again. Gabrielle scrambled up onto a rock and jumped over it, landing in nearly a sprawl as her boots slipped out from under her.
It saved her life. The man’s sword smashed into the rock over her head so hard he dropped it, the heavy metal weapon thumping over Gabrielle’s shoulders and landing on the ground. Instinctively, she grabbed hold of it and half crawled, half ran out of his grasp, running smack into the back of a man who had just swung around and slammed his mace into something.
With a yell of triumph he lifted his hands with the weapon clasped in them and arched his back, ready to deliver a second blow, this one with far more power than the last.
Gabrielle staggered back, realizing the man hadn’t even felt her, he was so huge. She drew a breath, then her vision cleared and she saw what he was about to hit.
Xena was pinned to the rock by at least six men, her sword arm held by sheer weight as she lifted her free hand in a doomed attempt to protect her head from the mace.
“XENA!!!” Gabrielle felt the name ripped from her throat.
As if in slow motion, the queen’s eyes flashed to her face in shock, as Gabrielle did the first thing that came to her mind and she threw what she had in her hands towards the man.
A laugh. Bitter.
Xena’s hand caught the hilt of the sword and in just that breath she drove it into the mace wielder’s body, her arm swinging in an underhand motion that still had enough power to bury the weapon to it’s hilt in his chest.
The man toppled forward, dropping his mace but slamming his body against Xena and taking her down under the cursing, struggling men. She battled to free herself, shoving against the rock almost oblivious to the blows raining down on her.
She got an arm free again and clawed at the air, hitting armor and blood and gore as she was borne to the ground by the sheer weight of numbers, touching at last a hand that clasped hers back with desperate strength.
She heard her name, heard the fear and the pain in Gabrielle’s voice and knew in that moment that she’d finally found that one, rare instance of true loyalty that proved her lifelong rule.
Irony, thy name is Xena.
A crushing blow hit her in the back of the head, and it went dark, so fast she didn’t even have time to hurt.
“NO!” Gabrielle gripped the hand that had gone slack in hers, slipping and falling on the bloody stone as the men started to wrestle and cheer so loudly they didn’t hear the sound of the crossbows and neither did she.
All she cared about was that the bodies were shifting, moving away and letting her get to the limp, bloodied figure lying still and battered on the ground in a pool of rich, spreading red.
She gathered Xena in her arms, not even hearing the renewed sound of battle, or the chaos around her. All she could do was hold her, cradling the queen’s head against her chest and whispering her name over and over and over again.
Almost choking in shock, Gabrielle looked down incredulously, to see just the tiniest sliver of blue eye looking back at her from the mass of dirt and blood.
Trembling, it winked ever so faintly.
The battle moved past them, as Xena’s men shoved the raiders back with a desperate charge, just enough to surround the pair near the rocks and pull them both to fragile safety before falling again into a frantic retreat.
It was dark, and it was cold, and she was very, very scared. Gabrielle sat with her back to the rocks, Xena’s body cradled in her arm as she heard the soldiers making a desperate attempt to protect their position.
They had fallen back to the cave, but the attacking men had found them and it seemed only a matter of time before their far greater numbers overran the hastily thrown up blockade across the cave entrance.
She had no torch. Only a bit of a tallow candle sat on the ledge nearby, giving her just enough light to see the battered face she was trying to wash off with a bit of cloth moistened from her waterskin. They had carried Xena in here, three men whose attitude despite the chaos was heartbreakingly reverent to the limp form they gently put down within the circle of her arms.
They knew she was dying.
Gabrielle knew it. She could hear the queen’s breathing growing more labored, and the sense of desolation growing inside her was only matched by the helplessness she felt as all she could do is comfort the woman with meager skill.
She leaned over and kissed Xena’s forehead. “I love you.” She whispered. “Please don’t leave me.”
The dark lashes quivered, ever so lightly. After a breathless moment, Xena opened her eyes and looked up at her.
It was like nothing Gabrielle had ever felt. All the dark cynicism was gone, and now all there was in those eyes was a fellow human being, in great pain, whom she loved utterly. “Xena.”
“Tol..ja to run.” Xena whispered.
“And I told you I’d stay by you, no matter what.” Gabrielle felt a tear roll down her face.
A faint smile appeared on Xena’s bloodied face. “Y’did.”
Gabrielle pulled her closer, carefully, but with an intensity of emotion so profound it felt like drowning. She rocked gently back and forth, just loving her.
“Here I was…” Xena uttered “Trying to give ya a decent story…”
Gabrielle started crying, audible sobs shaking her body. “D… don’t want a story.” She stuttered. “J.. just want you.”
Despite the pain, Xena felt a sense of peace she’d never experienced before. She knew herself to be in a state of grace that was as undeserved as it was unexpected, but that didn’t stop her from reveling in it as she lay there in Gabrielle’s arms and understood what it was to be truly loved.
This kid really did. No matter what Xena did, Gabrielle looked past it and delivered to her a very real, and very honest devotion.
The oracle had told her it would never happen. Xena mentally made a rude gesture, since physically she wasn’t capable of it. Well, now she could let Charon take her off to Tartarus, now that she had this memory to take with her.
A hiccupping sob made her look up again. Through the faint candlelight, she could see Gabrielle’s face, wet with tears, tensed with an anguish that clutched at her heart unexpectedly. “Hey.”
Gabrielle just hugged her more tightly.
“C’mon.” Xena managed to get out. “You c’n go be a famous bard now.”
“No.” The slave gasped. “No..no..no….”
It made Xena feel sad. She knew she was dying. She knew Gabrielle knew it. She was ready for it, Hades, with the pain she was feeling, she would welcome it. Happened to everyone, didn’t it? She’d lasted longer than she’d though she would, and gone higher than anyone had ever expected.
She’d done it all.
So why be sad? There were worse ways to die than fighting like Ares chosen one, holding off a whole damn army, wasn’t there?
Gabrielle stroked her cheek gently with trembling fingers. “Don’t leave me.”
Don’t leave her? Xena gazed up into the bloodshot green eyes above her. Oh. Right. She’s a slave. She’ll have a problem, won’t she? “D’on worry.” The queen whispered. “I’ll free ya. They won make ya do dishes.”
Gabrielle just started crying harder.
The pain was becoming overwhelming. Xena rested her cheek against Gabrielle’s breast, and just wished it was over. It was getting difficult to breathe, and she thought it would be better if she just…
Damn kid. “Yeah?’
“I love you.” Gabrielle said, in a broken voice. “I don’t want to live without you.”
Through the pain, Xena examined the words. “Oh.” She managed to get out. ‘S’gonna be a problem.”
Gabrielle cleaned the blood off her face again, and they both fell silent as the sound of fighting drifted in from the outer chamber. Grunts, and the clash of steel sounded suddenly loud, and ominous.
“Then ag’in.. maybe not.” Xena mumbled.
Gabrielle lifted her head, turning it to watch the shadows against the wall. It occurred to her suddenly what Xena meant – that they both might die here, as the men were overrun by their attackers.
She should be afraid, she knew that. But rather than fear, a sense of almost relief came over her, and her panic calmed at the very thought.
“Y’e’ll never take us!” Brendan’s voice was suddenly loud, filling the cavern. “For our mistress! Yeahhhhhhaaaa!!!!!!!!”
Xena exhaled, her fingers twitching lightly.
“They love you too.” Gabrielle said. “They came back for us.”
Idiots. Xena felt her eyes closing against her will, and the noise faded into a soft echo as the sound of Gabrielle’s heartbeat overcame it.
Brendan leaned against the rock, wiping blood off his face. The front of his armor was slashed, and he was limping. “Sent em off, for now.” He told Gabrielle.
The slave looked up, a damp cloth in her hand as she finished cleaning off Xena’s wounds for the nth time. “Are you all right?”
The old soldier limped over and lowered himself to one knee next to her. “I’ll live.” He peered at the queen. “How is she?”
Xena’s eyes were closed, and her skin was pale. She lay in Gabrielle’s lap, her chest moving so slightly he had to nearly put his hand on her to detect it. “Ah, lass.”
“She’ll be okay.” Gabrielle smoothed the dark hair back with a loving gesture. “She just needs some rest.”
Brendan looked at her with gentle pity. “Gabrielle.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m glad she knew ye.”
A tear rolled down the slave’s face. “Don’t say that. Don’t give up on her.”
The soldier touched her cheek, taking the tear away with his fingers. “They’re out there, figgering how to come back at us, little one. Men’r getting some food and water.. I’ll bring some in here for ye.”
“Bring some for her, too.” Gabrielle insisted, stubbornly. “Can’t we call for help? We’re not that far form home.”
Brendan exhaled. “Sent a boy down the road first off, lass. The gods only know if he got far. I don’t.” He stood up wearily. “Be a long night.”
Gabrielle nodded, rinsing out her cloth and continuing her patient work. “How… how about if I tell you a story, Xena. Would you like that?” She asked, her eyes searching the queen’s face for even a flicker of response. “I’ll try to think of a really good one. I know you don’t like silly stories.”
One of the soldiers came back and set down a small, rude wooden dish with some fruit and dried meat in it, and a skin of water. He put his hand over his chest, then left without speaking.
Gabrielle shifted, putting her cloth down and picking up the water skin. She uncapped it and took some, feeling an almost shiver when the cool liquid hit her empty belly. Then she put the skin down and stroked Xena’s bangs back, damp from her careful cleaning of the hideously swollen, bruised lump on the side of her head.
Otherwise, her injuries, though numerous, did not seem all that bad. There were cuts and scrapes all up and down her arms, and two places where something sharp, arrows or knives Gabrielle wasn’t sure, had penetrated her torso. It was the head injury that….
Gabrielle closed her eyes. That was killing her. The thought haunted her, then with a fierce determination, she put it out of her mind, and gently tried to wake Xena again. “Xena?”
Did her eyelid move? Or was it just wishful thinking?
“Xena? Please… “ Gabrielle eased her thigh up a trifle, raising the queens’ head. “C’mon, I’ve got some really great water here. I know you’d like some.”
There was no answer.
“Xena?” Gabrielle carefully parted the queen’s lips, and with agonizing slowness, trickled some water into her mouth. “C’mon.” As the liquid reached the back of Xena’s throat, she swallowed reflexively. “That’s it… great. How about some more?”
The still face remained blank.
Gabrielle leaned over, and kissed her, putting all the emotion she was feeling into the act. She felt the lips under hers warm slowly, and tasted the faint breaths emerging from between them. She sent her own life’s breath back, imagining all her love carried on it.
Then she lifted her head, and started trickling the water again, just a bit, just a tiny few droplets every time.
It took a long time, but that was all right. She wasn’t going anywhere. “Xena?” She called at last, willing the queen to respond, convincing herself that the pale face had moved ever so slightly.
That the jaw had clenched, just a little.
That the nostrils had flared, and cupped the air in deeper breaths.
Unexpectedly, the blue eyes opened and gazed up at her. “Still ‘ere?”
Gabrielle felt a smile spread across her face. “I was giving you a drink.” She held up the waterskin. “Would you like some more?”
Faintly, Xena nodded.
The slave shivered in barely felt hope, and lifted the skin up. She touched the spout to Xena’s lips, but the queen slowly lifted her hand and shifted it aside, then knotted her fingers in Gabrielle’s shirt and pulled with scant force instead.
For a moment, Gabrielle was puzzled, then as the pressure increased, she realized what Xena was doing and almost laughed. Then she leaned over and they resumed kissing, holding the darkness at bay at least for a little while.
“Given up for the night.” Brendan told her. “Tried pitching some fireballs in here, but we’d wetted the blockade down, and they didn’t do more than outline theyselves for us to pick em off. “ He said, crouching down next to where Xena was laying.
Gabrielle had gotten the queen’s furs, and made her as comfortable a nest as she was capable of. Xena’s head was now resting on one of her silk pillows, and she had a soft blanket tucked around her. The queen’s eyes were closed, but as Brendan leaned closer, he could tell her breathing was a touch easier than it had been.
Gabrielle had gotten up and stretched her body out, and she was now curled up next to Xena, chewing on the dried meat he’d left earlier. The girl was obviously exhausted, both physically and mentally, but she showed no signs of wanting to give up her vigil over the queen’s sleeping form.
“Will they attack in the morning?” Gabrielle asked him.
“Aye, probly.” Brendan sighed. “They know it, we know it, can’t keep em out forever.” He looked apologetically at Gabrielle. “Just stringing it along, lass.”
She nodded slightly. “I’ll take any time I can get.” She admitted in a hoarse voice. “Because you never know, Brendan. Good things could happen.”
Brendan patted her hand. Then he got up and left the little alcove, shaking his head slightly as he disappeared.
Gabrielle knew what he was thinking. But she didn’t really care. What did she have to lose by hoping, and thinking good thoughts? Would it make it any better to be gloomy?
No. She decided. Besides, she had promised Xena she would tell her a story. So now she had to think of a really good story to tell her. She thought about it as she finished off the dried meat, and swallowed several mouthfuls of water.
That made her consider something else. She got up, a little surprised at how stiff and sore she was, and picked up the water skins. Looping their cords over her shoulder, she eased around the stone wall and emerged into the main cavern.
Everyone looked at her. Gabrielle had become used to that, but though she was tired she realized this time was different. Several of the soldiers came over to her and offered to take the skins and fill them, and two of the servants brought more food, including a small pot of what looked like plain soup.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle accepted all of it. “I think I could get her Majesty to have some of this.”
The woman blushed. “Is the mistress doing some better then, m’lady?”
“Just Gabrielle.” The slave gave her a kindly smile. “It’s hard to say, but I think so. Thanks for asking.” She waited for the soldier to come back with her filled skins and returned to Xena’s side, anxious until she saw the steady rise and fall of her queen’s chest.
Then she settled back down onto the small pile of furs she’d tucked next to Xena and got back to the business of caring for the queen, and thinking of a story. She had no sooner gotten comfortable when Xena shifted slightly, and woke up. “Hi.”
The blue eyes tracked to her face, full of pain. They brightened when they recognized her, though, and that made Gabrielle smile. She reached over and touched Xena’s cheek, encouraged by the lessening of it’s former clammy feeling. “Brandon says they’ve stopped coming for us until morning, he thinks.”
Xena watched her with a quiet sadness. “Won’t keep em off long.”
“You never know, Xena. After all, you were keeping them all off for a really long time.” Gabrielle objected earnestly. “Maybe they’ll get tired, or get cold…”
The queen’s lips pressed together into an almost smile.
“Why think about the worst, when you can think about the best?”
Xena exhaled, just a little. “Cause the worst usually happens.”
“I don’t care.” Gabrielle stroked her cheek gently. “I thought I had the worst thing happen to me, and it turned out to be the best.” Her jaw squared stubbornly. “So there.”
This time Xena did smile, and she shook her head, just a tiny bit. “Nutty muskrat.” She reached a hand out for the waterskin, then let it fall as Gabrielle scooped it up instead and offered the spout to her. She sucked the cool liquid, her swallows sounding loud in the quiet space.
“Are you feeling any better?” Gabrielle asked, in a soft voice.
The look in Xena’s eyes could only be described as wry. “Well.” She licked a drop of water off her lower lip. “I’m not dead.”
Gabrielle took hold of her hand and squeezed it. “I was just going to tell you a story.”
“Ahh.” Xena nodded a trifle. Good a way as any to pass the time, she reasoned. If she hadn’t died yet from her head wound, it was likely she wouldn’t, not that it would do her any good. The minute the army outside broke in, they’d kill her in a heartbeat.
Kill Gabrielle too, since the kid would probably do something stupid like try to protect her.
Xena exhaled. Least it would be fast.
Dying in battle would have made a Hades of a better tale, though. The queen mused. Rather than lying here having to think about what an idiot she’d been to fall into a trap like this and get them all killed. At least if she’d died in the pass, and they’d escaped…..
Ah well. Xena looked up at her caretaker. The candlelight’s flicker revealed Gabrielle’s dirt smudged face, a long scrape marring one cheek. The rims of her eyes were still swollen and reddened, and as the queen watched, she blinked in evident exhaustion. “Hey.”
Gabrielle looked at her in question.
“Take a nap.” The queen ordered.
“Ah ah.” Xena whispered. “Lie to the queen, and I cut your tongue off.”
Gabrielle’s eyes dropped, and she hesitantly allowed a grin to shape her lips.
Xena patted the furs over her belly. “Head down.”
Obediently, for once, the slave curled up on her side and did as she was told. They gazed at each other down the length of Xena’s torso. “If I go to sleep…” Gabrielle asked. “Will you be here when I wake up?”
That look was almost too much for Xena to handle. “I’ll be here.”
Trustingly, Gabrielle gave in and closed her eyes, her body relaxing almost immediately, except for the fingers she had clasped around Xena’s hand.
Xena lay there for a while, merely watching her sleep as she reconciled a life changing experience she hadn’t even been aware of.
She was, she realized, no longer responsible for only herself. Her wants, her desires, her choices. Hades, she couldn’t even just die if she wanted to, because all that bloody damned mattered to this little scrap of a shepherd’s kid, just barely a woman, who was sleeping on top of her.
And Gabrielle’s dying mattered very much to Xena. She didn’t want that to happen.
Xena’s eyes lifted to the cavern ceiling, lost in darkness above her. How do we get out of here?
The minutes lengthened as she thought.
Gabrielle woke, to find Xena and Brendan talking in low voices next to her. She was still lying with her head on Xena’s belly, and the queen’s hand was still clasped in hers, Xena’s thumb rubbing idly against her fingers.
Brendan nodded, and got up, bowing before he disappeared around the corner of the rock, leaving them alone again.
She had no idea how long she’d been sleeping, but she felt a lot better. Her head was no longer throbbing, and her eyes no longer felt on fire. In the ear she had resting against the furs over Xena, she could hear the queen’s heartbeat and for a long moment she merely listened to it.
She had dreamed lightly, the details already fading of a green, well lit meadow and her running through it. It wasn’t something she thought she’d ever done, but she remembered laughing, and a sense of giddiness that made her smile now in reflex.
Xena noticed. “Ah.” Her tone seemed stressed. “You’re awake.”
“Hello.” Gabrielle cleared the huskiness from her voice. She noticed that the queen looked very tired. Her eyes were drifting open and closed, and there was a crease of pain across her brow. “How are you doing?”
The queen remained silent for a few breaths. Then she frowned a trifle. “Not real good.”
Gabrielle sat up and scooted forward. “Can I help? She asked. “Is there something in your bag, or…”
Xena let her head rest against the pillow. “Nothing that’d help this.” She admitted. “Listen.” Her hand closed on Gabrielle’s a little tighter. All trace of her normal mocking humor were absent. “Some of the men found a passage, way in the back. Got no idea where it goes.”
Gabrielle exhaled, watching her face intently.
“Don’t have time to check it out. We either take it, or we stay here and wait for them to starve us out or kill us.” Xena said.
“Can’t we fight them? Xena, you held them off..”
“I can’t fight.” The admission itself seemed painful. Certainly, Xena paused after she said it. “They’ve got five men to every one of mine. We’re nearly out of arrows, and we’re low on supplies.”
“Oh.” The slave murmured. “So that’s our best choice?”
“It’s our only choice.” Xena said. “But I’m gonna give you one other. You can stay here, behind those rocks. They won’t see you.” Her eyes searched Gabrielle’s face. “Stay. Live. You don’t have to go into that hole with us.”
Gabrielle took a breath to answer, but paused when Xena held out a strip of parchment to her. Mechanically, she took it, her eyes questioning.
Xena waited, patiently.
The slave unfolded the parchment and looked at it, reading the words several times before the penetrated. She looked up at Xena.
“You’re a free person.” The queen said. “You don’t have to die here.”
Gabrielle’s face contracted, an expression of hurt bewilderment appearing on it. “You want me to leave you?”
For her own sake, Xena knew what the answer to that should be. There was no need for both of them to go into that darkness. The soldiers.. they would go with her because they had no options. Any of them going outside now would be killed, regardless of if they surrendered or not.
They were Xena’s men.
Yet, looking into Gabrielle’s eyes, seeing that hurt, stabbed her deep where she hadn’t expected it. Right or not, she found she couldn’t lie to her. “No.” Xena told her. “But I do want you to have a life, Gabrielle. That means something to me.”
She wondered if the sound of a part of her fracturing could be heard outside her own heart. It had been so seldom in her life that she’d put her own wants aside for someone else’s, and now that she felt the pain of it, she understood why.
Gabrielle seemed to understand what she was trying to say. She examined the parchment again.
“You can leave after they come in and figure out we’re gone. They’ll either come after us, or leave. Go down the valley.” Xena told her. “Back to that first town. Give them the note. They’ll take care of you.”
She spared a moment to imagine the girl back in a world she understood, away from the dangers of Xena’s court, and the thought brought a sad smile to her face. “Name one of your kids after me.”
“My kids?” Gabrielle whispered mechanically.
“Hey.. you’d never have any with me, so..” Xena attempted a faint joke. “Point for freedom, huh?”
Freedom. Gabrielle inhaled, thinking hard about what that meant to her. She compared it soberly to what Xena meant to her. She thought about all the things Xena had taught her, in so short a time, and she thought about her future.
Xena watched her in silence.
Finally, Gabrielle reached over and held the parchment up over the candle flame, blinking a little as it caught fire and burned. She let the last scrap loose as the red line reached her fingertips and it fluttered to the stone floor with only the tiniest scattering of gilded sparks.
For a long moment, she just looked at the curled, blackened remains. Then she turned and met Xena’s eyes. ‘Thank you.”
The queen’s lips twitched.
“I guess that didn’t make much sense.” Gabrielle admitted. “Maybe I’m just not… I don’t think… “ She fell silent for a minute. “I’d rather stay with you, even it if means crawling into some old black hole and never coming out.”
Xena blinked several times. “You’re right.” She sighed. “That doesn’t make much sense.” Her brows contracted together. “You sure?”
Now, Gabrielle smiled. “I’m sure.”
“You’re a nitwit.”
“I know.” Gabrielle gazed down at her folded hands. “But I’m a happy nitwit.”
The queen covered her hands with her own. “All right, my friend. Then get your stuff together. They’ll be in here to pick my useless ass up and start moving any second.”
Gabrielle leaned over and hugged her.
Xena accepted the hug, glad that the dim light and Gabrielle’s position kept her from seeing the sudden tears that stung her eyes.
Gabrielle kept her hand firmly clasped on the edge of the litter Xena had been lain on. The darkness was already closing around them – the soldiers had doused the lights in the main cavern and they were all shuffling through the narrow passageway towards the hole one of the men had found.
She was scared. She wasn’t the only one either, she could hear the soft cries of some of the servants who had chosen as she had to go into unknown rather than stay behind and suffer the mercy of the attackers.
They moved forward and now she could see the inky black hole they were heading for. Her knees started to shake, and she tried to keep her terror under control.
A hand touched hers, and she nearly leaped into the low rock ceiling before she realized it was Xena. Fingers curled around her wrist. “Still sure?” The queen’s voice softly emerged from the shadows.
Gabrielle borrowed some of Xena’s courage and took a steadying breath. She watched Brendan stoop to enter the crevice, and her heart started to pound. “Y…yes.” She whispered back. “B… but don’t let go of me, okay?”
Even in the dark, even through the terror, she could sense the smile on Xena’s face. “Never.” The queen said. “You’re really mine, now.”
It was amazing how warmly reassuring those words could sound, to the right ears. Gabrielle squared her shoulders and swallowed her fears as the walls closed around them, and they moved off into the blackness of the mountain.