Gabrielle found herself shaking as the walls closed in on them. She tightened her jaw, to keep her teeth from chattering and held on to the edge of Xena’s pallet with a death grip. She had determined that she would go wherever Xena went, do whatever Xena needed her to do, but determining that and then facing the reality of the darkness was two very different things.
A nightmare screamed through her head, laughing. Gabrielle almost stumbled, then she caught her balance and continued on.
Xena’s voice coming out of the shadows made her jump. “Y…yes?” Gabrielle stuttered. She leaned over and peered at the queen. “W…wh..”
Xena’s fingers curled around her wrist, feeling incredibly warm. “Where’s my story?”
Story? Gabrielle was seriously wondering if she could even talk at this point, and this woman wanted her to tell a story? “Uh…”
“C’mon, c’mon…I haven’t got all night.” Xena said. “Well, actually, we do have all night, but I’m not just gonna lie here and wait for spiders to hit me in the kisser. So get moving with the story.”
Gabrielle found that focusing her attention on the queen helped her take her mind off the rock walls. She half turned and put her other hand on the pallet edge, composing herself as best she could. “Um… “
A smile found it’s way onto the girl’s face from somewhere. “Not even one about a funny sheep?” She asked. “I.. kinda thought maybe something sorta light would…”
“Hjmmmmmm….. “ Xena rumbled, low in her throat. “How funny can a sheep be?”
The men carrying her pallet chuckled softly.
“Better be damned funny, cause these guys deserve a laugh for having to carry my carcass around.” Xena exhaled.
“Tis an honor, Mistress.” The man in back answered. “If I were taking my last breath doing it, would be an honor.”
Xena looked up at him in pensive silence. Then she turned her head and fastened her eyes on Gabrielle. “Well, lambchop?”
“Okay.” Gabrielle stole a glance ahead of them. The column was moving very slowly through the narrow corridor, and the gloom seemed to stifle most conversation. Certainly the men and women nearest them had fallen silent, and she felt just the smallest bit self conscious as she cleared her throat and prepared to start her story. “When I was a little girl..”
“Whoa.” Xena spoke up.
Gabrielle managed a wry, faint chuckle. “Okay, okay. When I was younger… a LOT younger..”
The men chuckled softly.
“One day I went out to bring the sheep in..”
“To your house? That explains a lot.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle found herself laughing. “No, not to my house. Into the barn. It was night. It was cold.”
“Thought they had..”
“They were sheared.” Gabrielle got ahead of her.
Xena subsided, a weak smirk on her face. “Okay.” She drawled softly. “So you and the naked sheep did….?”
“Aye yi hi.” The girl shook her head, almost losing track of the story. “Xena, no – they weren’t naked. They were just shorn. A short haircut. Like his.” Gabrielle pointed at the man carrying the back of Xena’s pallet. “See?”
“Okay.” Gabrielle shifted her hands a little, then paused as Xena’s grip moved from her wrist to her hand, and their fingers clasped together. She looked down at the queen, and for a moment she saw past the mocking humor to the weary agony behind it.
The humanity of it stunned her. Instinctively, Gabrielle clasped her other hand over their joined fingers, her body moving mechanically along with the pallet.
Then Xena blinked, and it was gone, replaced by a raised eyebrow and a mildly quirked lip. “So we’re up to the naked, ugly sheep, and you. Next?”
Gabrielle smiled at her for a brief moment, before she went back to her tale. Only now she knew why she was telling it. “One day, I brought the herd in to shelter, to get them out of the cold and give them hay that was left over from the fields.”
And as she told it, she realized many of those around her, who were listening, were nodding a little as the scenes she was describing touched off echoes of memories about their own lives.
Soldiers, yes, but Gabrielle realized these men of war had once been people of the land, just like she was. Her eyes went to Xena’s face. The queen’s eyes were half closed, and her expression was thoughtful. “And I counted them again, and what do you know? There was still one extra lamb.” She said. “Now, lambs don’t grow on bushes, so I had to figure out where this lamb came from, and get him back, before someone accused us of stealing him!”
“Ah.. ain’t it the truth.” The man in the front of the pallet chortled softly.
“The problem is, how do you tell which dirty white lamb is the strange dirty white lamb in a herd full of really dirty white lambs?”
“Kill em all, and when you get to one where no mama bleats, that’s him?” Xena uttered.
“Ah..never mind. Waste of wool. I forgot.” The queen smiled. “How did you tell?”
“Well…” Gabrielle felt the path under her boots slanting downward, and she tried not to think about the fact that she was going deeper and deeper into the earth. “I figured if I fed the mamas, the babies would come to get a drink too, and there’d be one left over.”
“Ah. Clever.” Xena said. “Same idea, less waste. I like it.”
“So I did.” The girl went on. “I put up a lot of nice hay for the mamas, and they all came to eat it in a row. Then all the lambs came over to get their dinner. But you know what? There wasn’t any left over.”
“Hm.” Xena’s eyebrow lifted.
“But then I realized there was one mama who had two babies under her, and we hadn’t had any twins that year. So I found my lamb.” She ducked her head as the ceiling came down close, and the rock brushed against her back. “But then he got lost again when I tried to catch him.”
The queen chuckled very softly.
“So I figured… “ Gabrielle pressed closer to the pallet, and swallowed. “So I figured I should mark him with something so I could find him again.”
“Getting tight in here.” The man in back commented. “Careful, storyteller.”
“Yeah.” The girl exhaled, leaning in.
“Ah.. the mountain executes my plan.” Xena whispered, lifting her hand to rub Gabrielle’s belly as it pressed close to her. “I am the master of all I survey, even the rocks.”
They eased past a sharp corner, then the way opened up a little again, and Gabrielle was able to stand upright again. “Phew.”
“Bummer.” Xena said. “Here I was hoping you’d end up on top of me, and we’d really give these guys something to groan over.”
Gabrielle managed a smile at that. Her fingers tightened around Xena’s, and she took a moment to steady her breathing before she craned her head and looked towards the front of the line. It was dark ahead of them, and she could just barely see the reflection of the torches carried by the six men who had taken the point.
Behind them, the rest of the queen’s retinue stretched, struggling through the uneven corridor as they carried supplies on bent backs.
Squaring her shoulders, Gabrielle shifted into a more comfortable walking position, but kept her hand firmly closed around Xena’s. “So.” She cleared her throat. “I had to find a way to mark the lamb.”
They were definitely going downhill now. Gabrielle felt like the walls were pressing on her, as though for every step she took downward, the air weighed more. “So I grabbed a bucket of hoof tar…”
Xena made a noise that was a cross between a laugh and a groan.
“Oh, boy.” The man in back started laughing.
Gabrielle grinned slightly. “And me and my brush of tar went to go catch that lamb.” She continued, catching sight out of the corner of her eye the men and women walking behind them, ears cocked, listening for her next words.
It occurred to her that it wasn’t only fighting that marked someone’s usefulness. Swords were no use here, but her words were.
Xena had known that. The girl realized, as she gave the queen’s hand a squeeze. Blood shot blue eyes peered up at her, with a warmth all the cavern’s darkness could not dampen.
She didn’t need to prove herself to Xena. Not anymore. Xena knew.
Gabrielle sighed. Now all they had to do was get out and get home.
Home. It was a shock, really, to realize that she actually considered the queen’s stronghold that way. Home had always been the small, three room homestead her father had built in Potadeia. The main room, with it’s neatly swept floor, and her mother’s carefully hoarded crockery near the fire, and the two bedrooms, her parents, and the smallest of all, hers and Lila’s.
It had been all she’d known.
Funny, how life was. Gabrielle shook her head. So very funny.
“What is it?” Xena felt the pallet slow to a halt, and she lifted her head to see. She immediately regretted the motion and it was only by sheer force of will that she kept herself from retching violently. She let her head drop back, as Gabrielle left her side and walked forward to find out what was going on.
“Got some problem ahead, Mistress.” The man carrying the rear of her pallet said.
Xena bit back a sarcastic comment, mostly because it would have taken energy she needed not to throw up. Forcing herself to be patient, she waited until Gabrielle came back, sensing the girl’s presence next to her as she knelt. Slowly, she rolled her head to one side and opened her eyes.
Uh oh. Xena didn’t even need to hear the words. She knew just by looking at the kid. “Blocked?”
A nod. “It… I think some rocks fell down and part of the roof collapsed.”
Figures. “Bring me up there. I wanna see.” Xena directed her bearers. She folded her hands over her stomach as they maneuvered the pallet ahead, the point men pressing back against the walls to let her pass.
The torches revealed a huge mass of granite trouble. Xena studied the slide, mentally ticking off how long they’d been traveling.
Her lip twitched into a wry snarl. “All right. We’ve gotta do this the hard way.” Her eyes studied the line of the rock, and with a mental toss, she threw the dice and hoped she’d guessed right. “Start pitching rocks. Put me down over there, and get moving.”
Without a word, the two pallet bearers did as she asked, setting her down so gently and carefully, she barely felt the contact on her back. With a grunt, Brendan moved up the line, getting read to direct traffic. “Right, lads. Form up now. We’ll pass em down to the bend, and build us a block behind er.”
Gabrielle moved to get in line, but found her foot held in place. She turned to see Xena watching her, and stepped back. “Shouldn’t I help?”
“No.” Xena said. “Your job is me. C’mere and get to work.”
The girl settled next to her as the men began to move the heavy rocks. “What if…”
“Sh.” The queen warned her. “No time for what if’s, Gabrielle. We’ll get through that. Count on it.” She tried to get a little more comfortable. “Now, you were about to put tar in some place real embarrassing. Spill it.”
Gabrielle drew her legs up under her and rested her elbows on her knees, as she took a deep, deep breath.
Count on it.
Brendan wiped his forehead, his sleeve leaving a grimy streak behind it. He looked ahead of him, peering into the dark hole they were toiling to remove rocks from. They’d made a good dent in it, but there was no sign of the slide ending, and he was starting to wonder if they’d have to tunnel half through the mountain to get out.
His eyes went to the side of the tunnel, where Xena’s battered form lay, Gabrielle sitting quietly next to her holding her hand. If they had to dig through the mountain, then they damn well would. Brendan watched Gabrielle reach over and smooth Xena’s hair back, a gentle, loving touch that made his throat tight.
Never had anyone touched his mistress so. Not any who’d kept all their bodyparts, that is. The old soldier sighed, and turned to continue his work. But then, Gabrielle wasn’t like any of the others, was she? The mistress had always gone for big, raunchy types before, ones who were as lusty in life as she was.
This little child? Brendan glanced back at Gabrielle. Ah. Life surely did surprise one, it did, when least expected. “C’mon, lads, keep er going.” He directed the line. “We’re gett’n where we need t’be.”
The men in front grunted, and kept passing the rocks back. Fate’s fortune had split the curiously fragile rock into chunks of a size they could move – almost as though they’d been piled there by purpose. Brendan picked up one of the bits and examined it, then he leaned closer to the torch and squinted. “Ah.”
“What?” Xena’s voice was low and strained, but it penetrated the noise of the work.
Brendan walked over and knelt beside her, offering up the rock. “See the side there, mistress?”
Xena lifted a hand and touched the rock, running sensitive fingertips over the edge. “Hammer.”
The queen nodded. “Thought it looked too planned.” She commented. “Wonder what’s behind it?” Her weary eyes twinkled darkly. “Guess we’re gonna find out.”
Brendan stood up and gave her a brisk nod. “That we will, Majesty.” He turned and went back to the front of the line, helping to move the rocks a little faster. “C’mon there. Maybe there’ll be more’n a way out to find, eh?”
A tired chuckle answered his words.
Gabrielle looked at the opening with interest. “What does that mean?”
Xena had her eyes closed. Now, she opened one of them and regarded Gabrielle. “Only idiots and people with things to hide put ten meters of rock inside a tunnel.” She said. “Which do you think it was?”
“Hm.” Gabrielle rested her chin on her upraised knees. “What if it’s something you don’t want to find?”
The girl shrugged. She picked up a waterskin. “Would you like some water?”
“I’d like someone to take my head off with a suitably sharpened pike, but that’d disappoint you, so I guess water’ll do.” Xena answered. “C’mere.”
Gabrielle carefully lifted the queen’s head up and supported her with one arm, holding the skin to her lips with her other hand. “Does your head hurt?”
For a moment, Xena didn’t answer, then she nodded very briefly. She sucked on the waterskin, keeping a calm, almost disinterested look on her face.
“Okay, well… let me..” Gabrielle slid her legs under Xena’s upper body and eased her down into her lap, cradling her head in gentle hands. “I wish I could do more.”
Xena considered what the men watching them must be thinking. Here she was, allowing herself to be coddled like a baby, when they were busy working their tails off.
She regarded the ceiling, and smiled. It was damn good to be the queen, sometimes. Especially when you had beautiful young women to take care of you. She closed her eyes and shifted a little, feeling a bit of relief from the growing throbbing inside her skull from the new incline of her body.
Or maybe it was just from the nice cushion she was resting against. Xena could feel the curve of Gabrielle’s breast against her cheek, and if she listened carefully, almost hear the thumping of the heart underneath it.
My heart. Xena allowed herself a tiny smile.
It vanished a moment later, as two of the men near the back of the line came running forward, pushing the men out of the way. “Brendan!” One of them gasped. “I can hear em coming in!”
“Peachy.” Xena opened her eyes, reluctantly. “Better get moving faster, boys. Only one way to go.”
The pace picked up appreciably, and the rocks started flying.
“Did ja block the way back there?” Brendan yelled.
“Mostly is not good enough!” Xena lifted her voice, making sure it carried. “You’re only gonna be mostly alive if you don’t do it right!”
Gabrielle felt her throat go dry. The rising agitation of the men was something she could feel even from where she was, and Xena’s body tensed as well. She noticed that the queen’s hands were now clenching and flexing, and it suddenly occurred to her that if the attackers did break through, it would be a carnage of bloody chaos inside the tunnel.
Her body urged her to flee. She wanted to just pick Xena up and carry her away, through the rocks, past the damned, annoying blockade, out into the free air just as fast as she could.
Of course, none of that was possible. All she could do is sit there and worry, and hope with all she was that everything would work out and they’d be okay.
Tough work. Gabrielle exhaled. “Xena, is there…”
“Just sit there.” Xena said, sharply. “You’ll get in their way.”
Though she knew the queen was right, it still stung. “Okay. I was just..”
Xena took hold of her hand and looked into her eyes. “Nobody wants to be outta this place more than I do. It’s killing me having to just lie here. So humor me, huh?” She muttered the words, in a very low tone.
Gabrielle bit her lip, and nodded. “I understand.”
The blue eyes twinkled faintly. “Do you?”
“I think so.” The girl said. “Nobody can do things as well as you can, so having to let them gets you a little crazy.”
“Oo.” The queen managed a smile. “Good answer.”
Gabrielle gave her a hug, and watched as three men pushed forward, snatching rocks out of the line and rushing off with them. Xena was right about one thing – having to just sit here and watch was almost unbearable. She wanted to be up and helping, and yet…
And yet, she knew her place was right here. With a sigh, she started gently rubbing Xena’s shoulders, her fingers working on the tense muscles on either side of the queen’s neck.
Off down the way they’d came, she could hear sounds now. Sounds of the men moving rocks, and more ominously, the sound of far off yells, and scrapes.
Was she scared? Gabrielle thought about that. If the bad guys caught them, she’d most certainly be killed, just as Xena would.
A truth surfaced and she was almost shocked by it.
“Hey.” Xena’s voice interrupted her self revelation.
Gabrielle looked down, into the queen’s eyes. “Yes?”
“Listen.” Xena whispered. “If this goes bad…” She paused, and her jaw worked a moment before she continued. “Thanks.”
“For what?” The girl answered, her brow creasing. “I didn’t do anything…well, other than tell a silly story and hold your head.”
Xena lifted their still joined hands and pressed her lips against Gabrielle’s knuckles. “Thanks for showing me what… being a part of humanity would have been like.”
Tears sprang to Gabrielle’s eyes and spilled over, running down her cheeks.
“Don’t.” The queen said. “It’s a good thing.”
Her throat was so tight, she simply couldn’t speak. Gabrielle gathered Xena into her arms instead, and hugged her. The sounds were getting louder, and the men were getting more frantic, but she pushed all of that out of her mind and focused on just this moment.
Just this woman.
Just this feeling.
Knowing this made death a gentle irrelevance. Her fear left her, and the sense of frantic impatience and she was left in a pool of caring that had Xena in its center. She buried her face into the queen’s hair and felt it flow over her, over them, shutting out the chaos.
“Thanks.” She whispered into Xena’s ear.
Gabrielle exhaled shakily. “Everything.”
Xena gazed past her shoulder, experiencing a sense of peace despite the frantic working of the men. She knew the future was out of her hands now, and for the first time in her life she was content to let the Fates cast their capricious dice at her feet, to come up whatever side they willed.
She took a breath, and softly began to sing, just a little song, one she remembered from long ago. It had simple, nonsense words and a rolling tune.
And yet, somehow it fit the moment.
But damned if it didn’t make Gabrielle cry again.
“Got through!” Brendan hollered. “Push! Push em in!! Move it!!”
Gabrielle let out the breath she’d been holding for what seemed minutes, since she’d heard the sounds of fighting behind them. She and Xena had both been silent for a little while, the queen simply resting in her arms as they watched the men work.
Now, Xena inhaled and nodded slightly, giving Gabrielle’s arm a tiny rub and a pat. “Okay, muskrat.” She said. “Looks like we’re getting ready to move.”
“Yeah!” Brendan’s shout was echoed by the men next to him. “Git the Mistress! Go! Go!”
Moving quickly, Gabrielle slid out from under Xena and settled her back onto the pallet. She scrambled out of the way as the two pallet bearers raced over, their faces covered in torch soot and bits of rock. They lifted the queen carefully, and started forward.
Gabrielle fell a step behind, biting her lip as she saw the tiny space they had to squeeze through. The men in front were making it larger, but the urgency was forcing the soldiers to just shove their way forward as the sounds behind them grew grimmer.
She slipped through behind the pallet bearers, feeling the scrape of granite against her skin as they passed through a very tight area, then suddenly a gust of cooler air hit her.
Air that smelled of earth, and water, and growing things. Surprised, Gabrielle sucked in a lungful of it, peering around the shoulders of the man before her to see what lay ahead.
She didn’t have time to look though, as a cluster of bodies shoved up against her back, and she was almost sent sprawling. She grabbed hold of the back of the bearer’s armor and held on as men and women rushed past her, pushing and jostling.
“Hey!” Xena barked hoarsely. “Easy!”
The men carrying her bolted forward, clearing space behind them and rushing through the darkness with fine disregard for their own safety. Ahead, a torch fluttered, marking the way, and as they ran the tunnel filled behind them with frightened, anxious bodies.
Gabrielle’s heart clenched.
A woman screamed, just behind her. She could feel heat, coming from that way. She could feel the panic rising there too. It threatened to overwhelm her.
They would be killed. She could sense it. They all could.
Another scream, this one deeper, and the sound of cloth ripping as a man lost control and started clawing his neighbors.
Gabrielle’s heart raced out of control.
A voice thundered through them, ringing off the rocks and bringing the very air to a standstill. Gabrielle obeyed it without question, her eyes widening as the flickering light grew and outlined a tall figure now standing in their midst.
Wavering, but solid. Commanding their attention by a sheer force of will.
Xena drew in another breath. “EVERYBODY LINE UP. SINGLE FILE. AGAINST THE WALL.” She pointed. “NOW!!!!!”
And every one did. Even Gabrielle.
“All right.” Xena looked at all of them. The pallor of her skin was almost invisible in the dim light, all they could see was the glints off her pale eyes as she stood there, legs braced. “Move out, that way. You six, throw everything you got back into that hole.” Her voice dropped and she looked at Gabrielle. “And you, come here.”
Gabrielle came to stand next to her, shivering a little as the queens’ arm dropped over her shoulders.
“Move.” Xena directed, calmly. “When I tell you to run, RUN.”
The line started to move out. Brendan counted them off, giving each one a shove as they got to the next opening and disappeared through it. “Mistress?” He uttered. “Go.” He hesitated. “If ye can.”
Xena turned and stalked towards the opening, keeping her hold around Gabrielle. “Idiots.” She muttered.
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle whispered. She could feel the shaking in the body pressed against her, and she wondered for a moment if she was going to have to really give carrying Xena a try.
“No.” Came the answer. “But someone has to be the queen.”
“Want me to get the…”
“No.” Xena glanced behind them, and almost stumbled. “Just keep moving.” She saw a growing light the way they’d come and exhaled. “Idiots.”
Gabrielle also looked. “For trying to burn us out?”
“They put so much damn flame down they can’t get through to us.” Xena coughed a short laugh. “If they’d just come after us, we’d be dead by now.”
Oh. Gabrielle struggled on, bearing as much of the queen’s weight on her shoulders as she could. “I can smell grass.” She said, her nose wrinkling as the scent of the outside world came to her again. It was tantalizing, almost taunting her here in the close darkness.
“You can smell freedom.” Xena uttered. “Me too. Gods, I want it. With any luck, we can collapse this damn tunnel back on them and turn them into dead meat.”
Gabrielle blinked the sweat out of her eyes. It was hot inside the mountain now, and she could smell wood burning. The sound of the fire started to get to her, a low, ominous rumble mixed with pops and cracks of the overheated rock.
She wanted to scream. But she just bit the inside of her lip and kept going, striving to ignore the burning in all her muscles.
“Bastards!” One of the men behind them screamed. “Augghh!!!”
She started to turn, but Xena’s arm tightened around her shoulders and prevented it. “Don’t.” The queen said. “You can’t help him.”
“Roll! Roll!” Brendan’s voice rang out. “On the ground, y’damn ox!”
Gabrielle swallowed hard, as a stench swept past them, one of burning flesh and burning hair that was so heavy she tasted it on the back of her tongue. Her stomach twisted, and she clenched her jaw shut as firmly as she could.
She couldn’t help him.
Xena had to pause for a moment, resting her hand against the rock with her eyes closed.
“Xena?” Gabrielle felt a blast of heat hit her in the back.
“I know.” The queen straightened and pushed off, her steely will evident in the fire’s reflection that threw shadows across her firm, determined jaw. “Move, move move. Stupid bastards aren’t going to catch us.”
Gabrielle nodded and struggled on, smoke beginning to fill her lungs. She coughed violently, then almost fell as rocks slid under her boots. She caught her balance just before Xena could try and help her, and continued on. “Move, move move.” She repeated softly. “Home, home, home.”
The queen snorted, very faintly.
A yell. This one of triumph. Xena drew in a breath as she sensed the opening ahead. “RUN!” She let out a yell of her own. “RUN! We’re OUT!”
Ragged, breathless, voices answered.
A cold blast of air, sweeping the drenched hair back off her face, tasting of rain as she inhaled it. Gabrielle felt bodies on either side of them, stumbling and jostling as they erupted from the stone into a driving wall of water that threatened to sweep them from their feet.
“Psha.” Xena spat, hauling her to one side as they crashed against the wall of a steep canyon. The floor of it was already racing with runoff, and it swirled around their boots as more and more of her men came pouring out. “Keep moving!” She pointed down the valley.
Gabrielle tipped her head back, feeling the clean rain wash over her. It was cold, and it stung, but if she squinted hard enough through it she could see racing clouds, and.. yes, there was a star, flickering quickly and disappearing from sight behind a foggy wisp.
The last of the servants went past them, and Xena pushed away from the rock, having caught her breath. Her entire body was trembling, and her head hurt so badly she was seeing stars of a completely different kind than Gabrielle’s.
But they were out.
“Are they going to come after us?” Gabrielle asked, panting.
Xena cocked her head, and listened. A low, muted rumbling came to her, and she smiled with a peculiar, cold bitterness. “No.”
Gabrielle looked back, seeing a last, few figures dash from the opening, then, almost invisible against the darkness, what appeared to be almost a fog puffed out after them. She recognized, in a flash of lightning, that the man that came out last was Brendan.
Then she faced forward and concentrated on keeping her feet in the swirling water, the strain almost unbearable as she fought to support both of them. There wasn’t time, and she didn’t have the strength to wonder about the men chasing them.
She would think about it later. After they were safe somewhere.
“Better get out of this damn gully.” Xena grunted. “I’m not in the mood for swimming.”
Swimming. Gabrielle tried to catch her breath. “Ah, Xena?”
The queen shook her drenched hair out of her eyes. “Tell me you can’t.”
Gabrielle didn’t answer for a moment. “I sink.”
Xena held on to the rock walls, hoping she wouldn’t just collapse. She felt so dizzy, the world seemed to just be shifting without pattern around her. “G…get me outta here..” She managed to say. “I’ll teach ya to swim. Promise.”
Gabrielle felt other bodies around her, and she looked up to find Brendan at her heels, and two other men next to her and Xena.
“Forgive me, mistress.” Brendan hesitated, then took hold of the queen’s other arm. “Joss, get t’little one’s hand there.”
“S’sallright.” Xena managed a low chuckle. “I’ll kill ya later.”
The sky lit up, and Gabrielle looked down the valley, seeing the roiling water at the bottom of it full of struggling people. But she could also see the entrance ahead, where the steep walls ended and something else began.
Something that looked far more open.
It probably wasn’t safety, but just the sight of it made Gabrielle’s heart soar. They had escaped Hades, and if it meant diving into the realm of Posdeidon, well….
Then she’d just have to learn to swim. Gabrielle hugged the sodden body pressed against hers. At least she’d have a good teacher.
Lightning flared, and thunder rolled, sounding almost like laughter as it rattled through the rocks.
The only shelter they could find was a scant overhang. It was long, however, and most of them fit under it, pressing their backs against the rock as the rain fell down in cold sheets. Gabrielle pulled her wet cloak around her and looked anxiously at Xena, who was leaning against the stone with her eyes closed.
They had lost most of their supplies, and all of their wagons and animals. All they had left was the soldier’s personal arms, and a few sacks some of the servants had kept on their backs.
Gabrielle felt an almost unreasonable sense of loss, knowing she’d probably never see Patches again. She’d only known him for a few days, and yet in that short time he’d grown on her with his sweet nature and cute ways.
Oh well. She exhaled. At least they were okay. At least, she hoped they were okay. “Xena?” She took the queens’ hand in her own, feeling the chill against her skin. “Why don’t you sit down?”
The queen turned her head and opened one eye, colorless in the faint light. “Then I’ll get my feet wet.”
Gabrielle looked down at both of their legs, completely drenched and mud covered. “Um…”
Xena leaned over and rested her cheek against the top of Gabrielle’s head. “I’m all right. Feels better standing up. Less pressure on my thick skull.”
“You have a very pretty skull.” The girl responded quietly, almost without thought. The rain was pouring down before them, and despite the overhanging ledge it’s mist coated every inch of her. She licked her lips, tasting the sweetness of it, and wondered what would happen to them next.
“Oo… what an amazing discovery I’ve made.” Xena murmured. “I can show you off at court.. make a mint.” She ruffled her thumb through the girl’s wet hair. “Rare, yellow coated sweet talking muskrat.”
Gabrielle smiled, despite all the discomfort. She snuggled closer and felt a little relief as their combined body heat battled the chill. “Where are we?”
“I’m in Elysia. Don’t know where you are.” Xena answered, pulling her closer and giving her a small, surprising nip on the back of her neck.
“Elysia?” Gabrielle whispered, as the surge of blood warmed her from head to foot.
“I’m alive. You’re alive, most of the rest of us are alive, most of them are dead. My version of Elysia.” The queen replied. “I’ve got simple tastes.”
A crack of thunder rattled the rocks around them.
“We came through the damn pass the hard way.” Xena answered her original question. “We’re on the other side of the mountain.”
“Which means… “ The queen sighed. “We gotta go back the way we came, because going forward on this side’s bad news.” She looked past Gabrielle’s head, to the string of men and women, most of whom were looking furtively back at her. Injured or no, she realized it was her responsibility to get them back home, and she also realized everyone here knew it.
Someone, as she had said, had to be the queen. Xena closed her eyes as a wave of nauseating vertigo made her knees shake. And sometimes, being the queen sucked. She let out a small breath, as Gabrielle snuck a hand through an opening in her cloak and wrapped her arm around Xena’s stomach.
She was a grown meglomaniacal tyrant, and she certainly didn’t need adorable blond women wrapped all over her to make her feel better even in lousy, cold, rainy circumstances like this.
“Hm.” Gabrielle hugged her gently. “You’ll make it okay. We’ll get there.”
On the other hand, if you were a meglomaniacal tyrant, and you *had* an adorable blond woman wrapped around you, why complain? “Yeah, we will.” She turned her head, glancing over at Brendan who was huddled next to her. “Ain’t this like the old days?”
The old soldier’s face twisted into a wry grin. “Ah, Mistress, that it is.” He admitted. “Cepting I’m a Hades of a lot older, and you’re keeping better company.”
Xena’s eyebrow twitched, then her face relaxed a little, into an almost smile. “Isn’t that the truth.” She uttered, glancing down at the blond head now tucked against her shoulder. “Okay.” She let her head rest against the cold, wet rock. “First thing’s first. We need to find some real shelter, and tally up what we’ve got.”
“Does it have to be a cave?’ Gabrielle murmured.
“What?” Xena looked at her.
“I hate caves.”
The queen blinked. “Now.”
“Not much choice.” Xena squinted, as a puff of rain blew across her face. Then a thought occurred to her. “Unless…” Long, dusty memories surfaced. “Brendan, wasn’t there a cothold near the foot of the range, for summer grazing?”
Brendan considered, holding his hand over his head to shield his face from the rain. “Aye, Mistress, but it’s just a bit of a hut or two. Abandoned, this time of year.”
Xena could feel her knees starting to give way. “Well.” She managed to keep a normal tone in her voice. “It’s better than where we are, and I…” Her vision started to tunnel. “I think I…”
“Xena?” Gabrielle’s voice cut through the fuzziness. “Are you okay?”
“No.” The queen replied faintly, just as the tunnel collapsed and so did she, slumping against the rock and almost falling to the ground if Gabrielle hadn’t had a good hold on her.
Brendan grabbed the queen’s shoulders, as Gabrielle held on for dear life. “I think we better get to that hut place.” The girl said. “Really fast.” She looked at Xena, seeing the paleness to her skin even in the shaky light. “Oh gods.”
“We can go that way, Bren.” One of the men standing next to him pointed. “Down the hill there, and once we’re in that shadow, it’ll be better.”
“Aye. Got a cloak here, let’s get her Majesty covered.” One of the servants said. “If we walk close, we c’n keep the rain off ‘er.”
Bodies clustered around, ignoring the rain, focusing on Xena. Gabrielle found a moment to wish the queen had been awake, to see the effort, and the concern in eyes usually turned on her in fear or wariness.
“Let’s go.” One of Brandon’s lieutenants brought a spear over. They draped the cloak over it, and tied the ends to four other pikes, and made as much of a shelter as they were going to be able to. Six men linked arms, and Brandon and two others gently laid Xena’s limp form on top of them and with their makeshift covering, they started off down the slope.
Gabrielle followed close behind them, in a cluster of bodies that closed in around her. Everyone linked arms together and even the force of the rain was futile to stop their progress.
“We’ll be all right.” One of the women told her. “And ‘twill make a fine tale for ye to tell, won’t it, girl?”
Gabrielle exhaled, trying to shift the weight of worry laying across her shoulders like a mantle. “It sure will.” She replied, her eyes never leaving the pale, still face under the cloak. “So long as it has a happy ending.”
Xena woke in dire confusion, staring at the unfamiliar surroundings for a long, heartstopping moment before Gabrielle stepped between her and the firepit and knelt down beside her. “Ah.” She whispered weakly, her fingers recognizing the feel of rough furs beneath her. “Wh..”
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle told her. “We’re in those huts you told us about. It’s…um..” She turned her head and regarded the crude interior. “Not much, but we patched most of the holes in the roof so it’s mostly dry.”
“Mm.” Xena looked past her, to see vaguely moving bodies beyond the firepit. “How long?” She asked, “Was I out?”
The girl looked steadily at her, brow tensed. “Too long. You scared me.”
A queenly eyebrow twitched. “Hmm.”
Gabrielle shifted, taking the cloth she had in her hand and wiping Xena’s forehead with it. “Brendan is getting of list of the things we have and all that stuff.” She said. “Is there anything you want.. anything you can take for what’s hurting you?”
Xena shook her head, just a bit. “No.” She murmured. “Got my brains rattled.” She lifted her hand and touched the side of her skull, near her ear. “Damage is all in there. Nothing you can take. Nothing you can do. Just gotta hope it all works out.”
“Lying down in a nice soft bed for a few days helps.” Xena added, with a faint, wry glance at her surroundings. “You’re not supposed to move around or do a lot.”
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip, not entirely sure if Xena was being serious, or not. “Really?”
“Really.” The queen said. “But I’ve usually had it happen in the middle of battle, so I never tested the theory.” She rolled over and looked up at the thatched roof. Her nostrils flared. “Bet there’s spiders up there.”
“No there aren’t.” Gabrielle replied unexpectedly. “I checked.”
Xena turned her head and looked at her. “You did?”
The girl nodded. “There was a mouse, but I didn’t think that counted so I left him.”
The queen’s .lips twitched, then moved into a faint smile. Then she glanced past Gabrielle at the rest of the huts inhabitants. Most of them were her men, but a few were servants from the stronghold. All were busy with some task, and as she watched them she realized there was none of the usual uneasy fear she always felt around her even from the soldiers she led.
It was an unexpectedly pleasant change, especially since she felt so sick at the moment she really wasn’t in the mood for acting properly dogmatic and queenly. Xena exhaled. She didn’t even feel like killing anyone.
“Would you like some crackers and cheese?” Gabrielle asked. “We’ve got some.”
Xena’s nose wrinkled expressively.
“It’s not that bad.”
“Just water.” The queen replied. “Anything else is just gonna end up on the floor anyway.” She watched quietly as Gabrielle stood and picked up a cup, walking to the door and opening it to extend her hand out into the rain. “Definitely won’t be poisoned, unless the gods really have it in for me.”
“Mistress?” Brendan came over. “Did you need something?”
Xena considered the question. “No.” She replied. “I’m fine. Tell everyone to rest as much as they can till this damn weather stops.”
“Then we’ll head home.”
“Aye.” Brendan repeated. “Rest easy, Mistress. We’ll take care of ye.” He told her, with a serious expression.
Xena lifted her eyebrows at him, but at that moment Gabrielle returned with her cup and she had to concentrate on sitting up to receive it’s contents. Brendan, she decided, would have to be dealt with later about this ‘taking care of’ stuff.
She was perfectly capable of taking care of herself.
Gabrielle slipped an arm around her shoulders and lifted the cup to her lips.
Well. The queen conceded. Except when it was far more pleasant to let someone else do it. But that was a totally different story. Xena’s brow creased a trifle. Wasn’t it?
The ground was uncomfortable. It was dirt, its surface lumpy from years and years of hard boots and careless kicking. The bit of straw and thin blanket Gabrielle had scrounged for herself didn’t make it much better, but she wouldn’t have traded her spot next to Xena’s pallet for anything.
Not even the plush, down stuffed bed in the queen’s chambers.
The rain was still coming down outside, but with the fire and some luck they’d gotten most of their things dried out. Everyone had pooled their supplies, and what they’d found was better than they’d expected.
Someone, Gabrielle had been surprised to find, had even grabbed her stick and brought it along. It was tucked in back of her right now, under the pallet out of the way. There had been enough in the sacks for everyone to get a rough, odd lot meal, and with the help of an old, dented pot the remainders were being simmered into a stewy soup to add to it.
Gabrielle was sitting on her little bit of a nest, her legs crossed under her and a cup of warmed water in her hands. She had her boots off, and they were drying next to Xena’s near the foot of the pallet; she’d brushed the leather of them clean of caked mud and gotten Xena’s gear as neat and tidy as the situation allowed.
She didn’t really think Xena cared about that right at the moment, but she knew the queen would care, and more to the point, *she* cared. Not just because Xena was the queen, and she was her….
Gabrielle folded her hands around her upraised knee, and gazed into the firepit. What exactly was she now, anyway? Xena had freed her… hadn’t she? Even though she’d burned the parchment up, the queen’s intent had been very clear.
So, if she wasn’t Xena’s body servant, what was she? Her consort? That’s what Xena had called her a few times, but Gabrielle wrinkled her nose up at the term. She didn’t really feel like a consort. Embarassingly enough, she actually sort of liked when Xena called her a saucy little love slave, but…
“Well poop.” Gabrielle finally had to laugh at herself. “Find something really important to worry about, okay?” She leaned back against the edge of the queen’s pallet, and turned to watch the faint twitches of Xena’s face as she slept.
There. That was something more important. Gabrielle reached over and pulled the tattered fur a little further up and tucked it’s end in over the queen’s shoulder. She’d gotten most of Xena’s clothing off, and found beneath it not only bruises but two bad cuts, the blood from them stiffening her undergarments to a lurid rust.
Further rummaging had turned up some small strips of linen she could use as bandages, and she’d cleaned the cuts off as best she could before she carefully covered them. They had no needles, and nothing for her to sew them up with, so she could only hope the bandages would let them heal given enough time.
She wondered why Xena hadn’t mentioned them. It wasn’t something you could just forget about. At least Gabrielle didn’t think you could forget about something like that, but then again, she really didn’t have much experience in sword gashes so who really knew?
Who really knew? Gabrielle curled her fingers around the hand Xena had left outside the covers and felt, even in her sleep, the tightening in response to her touch.
After a moment, though. Xena’s eyes opened, and she regarded Gabrielle sleepily. “Did you take my clothes off?”
Unexpectedly, Gabrielle blushed. “Yes.”
“And you let me sleep through it? Bad girl. No baklava for you.” Xena burred softly. “How’s it going?” She shifted her body a little, looking past Gabrielle. “Still raining, eh?”
Gabrielle held her cup closer, as she saw the queen lick dry lips. “I think we’re doing okay.” She watched Xena slowly ease up onto one elbow and take a sip. “We’ve got some soup on… do you think you could drink a little?”
Xena put her head back down, and rested her chin on her wrist. “Maybe.” She answered, after a little silence. “What is it? You’re not boiling my boot in there, are ya?” Her voice cracked slightly on the last word, and she frowned. “Eh. World’s not ready for me to go through the changes again, that’s for sure.”
Gabrielle stifled a giggle. “You sound like you’re feeling better.”
The queen shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t feel worse.” She reached out and caught a bit of Gabrielle’s hair, giving it a small tug. “You tied me up.”
“I put something on those big cuts, is that what you mean?”
Xena nodded. “Lot of blood?”
The girl nodded in her turn.
“Ah.” Xena turned slightly, and reached down under the covers, exploring the bandages. Then she settled back down half on her stomach, half on her side. The fur slipped a bit, exposing one bare shoulder and she paused to examine the bruise that covered most of it. “Hm.”
Gabrielle touched the spot, brushing her fingertips over the rounded surface. “That must hurt.”
“It doesn’t.” Xena answered. “You don’t think about it when you’re fighting. Sometimes, you don’t think about it after.” She flexed her hand, watching the muscle move under her skin. “I guess it does hurt, you just don’t pay attention to it.”
Slowly, Gabrielle leaned over and kissed the spot.. Then she laid her cheek on it, and just looked at Xena, expressing with her eyes something she didn’t yet have words for.
Xena smiled back at her, as though for a moment they were the only people in the room. Then she felt the stares all around her and shifted her gaze, letting her eyes go steely as she swept them around the room.
For some damn reason, everyone smiled back at her. Xena emitted a tiny snort of outrage. She debated getting up and hitting someone, then realized doing it naked would probably make more of an impact than she was really looking for.
One of the women near the firepit stood, and walked over to her, bearing a rough wooden bowl. She knelt at the side of the pallet and offered it. “Mistress, tis not much, but it’s hot.”
Xena eyed the steam coming off it. She looked over the bowl at the woman, a middle aged servant whose name she doubted she’d ever known.
No, wait. Xena’s lashes flickered closed, then open. “Thanks, Mariah.” She said, in a quiet tone.
The woman had averted her eyes, but now she looked up and they widened, an expression of surprised pleasure spreading over her face.
“Give it over to Gabrielle… we’ll share it.” Xena continued.
“Aye, Mistress.” Mariah handed the bowl over and got to her feet, pausing to curtsey before she backed away. She was still smiling as she joined a group of servants sitting next to the firepit, and her smile increased as their heads bent towards her with eager whispers.
Gabrielle gave the bowl an investigative sniff, then picked up the spoon and stirred it’s contents. She looked over at Xena, only to find the queen looking back at her with a half smile. “I think you just made her day.” She murmured.
“Mm.” The queen grunted. “Should I sit up and make everyone else’s day?” She inquired, with a faintly mischevious glint in her eye.
“Xena.” Gabrielle smothered a laugh.
“Yeeeeessss, Gabrielle?” The queen rumbled. “You’re not spoon feeding me, so either I sit up, or you find some other way to get that soup in my mouth.”
Hm. The girl studied the soup with a serious expression for a long moment. Then she picked up the spoon and put it’s contents into her mouth. Her head lifted, and she looked at Xena, putting the bowl down before she eased up onto her knees and leaned over the queen, touching their lips together.
Too surprised to do anything else, Xena opened her mouth and received both a warm splash of liquid and shyly exploring tongue. She quickly swallowed the soup, getting rid of it so she could concentrate on the latter, one hand slipping up to curl around Gabrielle’s neck and pull her closer.
Screw the soup. Xena felt her body react, easing aside the discomfort as a surge of passion replaced it. They finally had to pause to breath, and she released Gabrielle, meeting her eyes as the girl straightened slightly. “Woulda been less shocking if I’d just showed em my chest.”
Gabrielle took a breath, and turned beet red.
“Now you’re gonna have to convince em they’re not gonna go blind.”
“I’m not.” Xena managed a weak chuckle. “Where’s my soup? I’m starving to death here.”
Gabrielle wondered what on earth had come over her. Then she caught the half-lidded, seductive look coming her way from the queen and decided getting her a shirt would probably be a really, really good idea.
Except that meant she had to turn around and face the room so she could get to their stuff. Gabrielle could almost feel the eyeballs plastered to her back, and she gave Xena a beseeching look.
The queen’s eyes twinkled.
Gabrielle girded her loins, and got up, glad the dim interior would mask her flush. She turned and headed for the bags in the corner, only half seeing the smiles that followed her.
Xena relaxed on her pallet, regarding the room benignly. It was very quiet.
Too quiet. “It’s damn good to be the queen, huh?” She remarked aloud. “You should see what she can do with fruit.”
It was hard to say, in that light, which one of the lot of them was the darkest color red. Satisfied with her troublemaking for the moment, Xena put her head back down on her arm, and closed her eyes.
At last it stopped raining. Gabrielle had gotten up to stretch the cramps out of her legs from her uncomfortable position and noticed the silence. She carefully tiptoed through the haphazardly sleeping bodies on the ground around her and poked her head out the door.
The guard outside turned to her immediately, then relaxed as he recognized her. “M’lady.”
“Hi.” Gabrielle whispered. “Boy, look at those stars!” She eased outside and tipped her head back, seeing a midnight blue sky cleared of all clouds exploding with pinpoints of light. The air had cleared as well, and it was cold and sharp in her lungs as she took a breath of it.
“Aye, tis beautiful.” The guard agreed. “Glad I was to see em, too, after all that wet.”
“I bet.” Gabrielle smiled. “Oh look!” Two streaks of light zipped over their heads, disappearing in the blink of an eye. “That’s a great sign. I bet things are going to work out a lot better now.”
The guard chuckled, then cleared his throat. “How’s her Majesty doing?”
Hm. Good question. “I think…”Gabrielle considered carefully. “I think she’s going to be okay. I think she was feeling better before we all went to sleep.”
The man nodded. “She’s a tough, tough woman.” He said. “Take more’n that lot to put her down long.”
Gabrielle leaned against the wood of the door jamb, it’s rough surface pressing into the skin on her shoulder just a little. “You were with her before?”
He didn’t even have to ask her before what. “Sure.” He leaned next to her. “I joined up with her when I was sixteen. Hadn’t clue what I was doing.” He smiled a little, the motion pulling at a long, jagged scar that went from the corner of his left eye down to his jawline. “Lucky I lasted the first moon.”
“What made you leave home?”
He folded his arms, and exhaled. “Fourth son.” He looked at her, with a wry expression. “I didn’t want to spend my life dirt diggin.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle wondered, briefly, and for the first time what her future would have been if the slavers hadn’t taken her and burned the village. A life with the sheep herd? Or an arranged marriage to that pig friend of her father’s who wanted her since his first wife had died? “Yeah, I know what you mean.” She told the guard. “I always used to sit at my window at night and look out at the world, wondering what was out there, and if I’d ever get to see any of it.”
“Ever think of just leaving?”
Gabrielle nodded. “I was afraid.” She looked at the guard. “I was afraid of what would happen if I got caught.”
“Ah.” The man grunted. “Different for girls.”
“Yeah.” She agreed. “I think that makes Xena extra special.”
The guard chuckled again. “Lass, more’n that makes her special. I talked to some of them pigheads as was with Bregos, and what twisted their…ah… what made em so mad was her being a woman.”
“I thought so.” Gabrielle nodded. “I think that’s a lot of the problem. The men are used to being in charge. She sort of throws that over, because if she can be in charge, why couldn’t any of the other women?”
The man thought about that for a minute, his face mostly in shadow. He was fairly young, and had hair that was more or less the same shade as hers. “Aye, maybe.” He finally murmured. “Every time we got in a new lad, back in the old days, first thing she’d do is beat the pride out of im. Kept things orderly, like.”
Gabrielle nodded again. “I wondered, at first, why she was always so violent. Now…” She exhaled. “I think I understand why. She had to be.”
“Aye.” The man agreed with her. “But them silk types… they don’t respect ‘er. Don’t respect us. Not sure if it’s her being a woman, or us just being a bunch of dirt grubber’s what taken their land over.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Yeah.”
“An she let em set her up in that tower, way from us.” The guard continued. “All she had was herself, after t’lad got kilt.”
“Lyceus? Her brother?”
“Aye.” He said. “All alone up there, nobody to trust. Musta gotten her half mad.” Now he smiled. “You done brought her back to us.”
Gabrielle looked at him in surprise. “I did?”
“You did.” A new voice broke in. They both turned to see Brendan standing just behind Gabrielle, his weathered face creased in a gentle smile. “And we thank ye for it, little one.”
She looked up at the stars, then back at them. “I just want her to be happy.”
There was a little, awkward silence between them. Gabrielle pressed her lips together, and then she turned and slipped back inside the hut, making her way back to the queen’s bedside.
With a slight sigh, she sat back down on her thin blanket, setting her bare feet on the earthen floor and leaning her back against the edge of the pallet. She rested her elbows on her upraised knees and wondered if it was worth trying to fall back asleep.
There were still hours before dawn, she could tell by the sky, but the ground was so uncomfortable it was very hard for her to find a place for herself that would allow her to relax. With a sigh, she put her chin down on her wrists.
A fingertip touched her back, and traced a line all the way up to the nape of her neck. Gabrielle turned her head and peered over her shoulder, not surprised to find Xena’s half open eyes watching her. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Xena’s voice was soft and husky.
A faint twinkle appeared. “Great. Get everyone up. We’re leaving.”
Gabrielle blinked in dismay, looking around at the sleeping forms around them. “Ah.. w…”
“Gotcha.” The queen half grinned. “Just kidding.”
Someday, she’d learn. Gabrielle returned the grin, feeling more than a touch relieved. Even if she couldn’t sleep, she really didn’t want to jump up and start marching, either. Her body was tired, sore from the long night’s crouching at the queen’s bedside and besides, she really didn’t think everyone else would appreciate it either. “You’re so funny sometimes.”
“Am I?” Xena reached a hand out from under her furs and touched the side of Gabrielle’s face. “Cold out there?”
Gabrielle nodded. “No more rain, but it’s pretty chilly.” She rubbed her hands over her upper arms. “Glad we’ve got a fire in here.”
The pale blue eyes studied her for a moment . “Know what I think?”
“Hm?” Gabrielle half turned, so she could be closer. “What?”
“I think I need a fire in here.” Xena pulled the furs back and patted the meager surface of the pallet. “Up.”
Gabirelle’s eyes flicked to the rest of the room, and then went back to her, widening in question. “Xena, I..”
“I.” Xena pointed to herself. “Am the queen. I don’t give a rats ass what anyone else thinks. Up.” She patted the surface again.
“No buts.” Xena’s voice took on a no nonsense tone.
Gabrielle got up and eased herself down onto the pallet, hoping it wouldn’t send both of them crashing to the ground. There wasn’t much room at all, and really all she could do was press herself up against Xena as the queen replaced the furs over them.
After all those hours shivering on the floor, it was like a warm bowl of soup on a freezing night. Gabrielle felt Xena’s arm slip around her, and she nestled closer, returning the hold as their bodies twined comfortably together.
She didn’t even remember closing her eyes.
Xena glanced benignly at the now relaxed form slumped against her. “Maybe now we’ll both get some rest.” She commented to the darkness around her. “Cause I got a feeling we’re gonna need it tomorrow.”
The fire flickered back at her, a spark popping free and floating up into oblivion.