Shadows of the Soul
Gabrielle followed the shadowed form across the inner chamber, closing the door behind her. She could see there was something wrong, and as Xena went towards the window and half turned, her eyes caught a thin, protruding line that marred the back of her gown. “Wh..”
Xena leaned against the wall. “Come over here.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle quickly complied, pausing as she smelled the strong copper scent of blood. “Are you..” This close, she could see the muscles tense across Xena’s jawline, and hear her slightly labored breathing. “Hurt.. I.. w..”
“Gabrielle, shut up.” Xena snapped.
With a click of her teeth, Gabrielle did so.
Xena drew in a breath. She had so very few options. “I’ve got an arrow in my back.” Xena went on, through clenched teeth. “I need you to cut it out.”
“C..” Unbidden, Gabrielle moved closer, and now she could see that the thin line was, in fact, an arrow shaft. “By the gods…”
“Only in their dreams.” Xena replied. “This was done by a more mortal agency. Take this.” Her hand slowly emerged from her gown, and extended itself towards Gabrielle. In it was a level of trust she hadn’t allowed in more years than she cared to remember.
“Shouldn’t I go get a healer?” Gabrielle reached out to take whatever it was anyway, and was shocked to feel her fingers closing around the cold hilt of a knife. She almost dropped it, the weight was surprising, and it glittered in the candlelight as she brought it closer.
“No.” Xena rested her shoulder against the wall, feeling the stone cold on her cheek. “Just do as I say. Cut the fabric around the shaft.” She was chilled by more than the wall, very aware of the sharp blade at her back.
Hesitantly, Gabrielle complied, moving closer to see better what she was doing. She carefully lifted the gown off the skin underneath and used the knife to cut through it. The sound of the blade slicing the thread seemed unnaturally loud to her, until she realized it was because both she and Xena were holding their breaths. Letting hers out, Gabrielle sliced through more of the dress, and exposed the skin around the arrow shaft.
It was horrible. The head of the arrow was buried inside Xena’s flesh, and the skin around it was raw and bloody, bruised deep with a lurid, mottled blue. “It’s…”
“Ugly.” Xena finished for her. “What color is the shaft?”
Tearing her eyes away from the hole, Gabrielle studied it. “Yellow.”
It was hard to tell in the candelight. Gabrielle leaned closer. “Blue, I think.”
Xena cursed softly. “Not my lucky day.” She closed her hand around a piece of iron sunk into the wall and readied herself. “It’s got a two barbed head. Take that knife, and cut around the shaft until you get around both of them.”
Gabrielle almost bit her tongue. “Cut… around…in you?” She barely got the words out.
The faintest of pained smiles touched Xena’s lips. “That’s where the damn thing is.”
Gabrielle stared at the spot. “I don’t know if I can do this.” She whispered.
“Sure you can.” Xena held her temper with a fine thread. “You’ve got an imagination, or so you claim. Pretend I’m a lamb shank you’re butchering.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena gentled her tone. “I’d rather not die standing here debating with you.” She felt silence at her back, then the light touch of a hand on her shoulder. A healer would, of course, have been far the smarter course, but right now Xena wasn’t sure she had one in the entire city she was sure hadn’t been compromised.
Was she even sure about this kid? She almost laughed. She’d given Gabrielle more than reason to take the opportunity she was giving her and…Xena inhaled, feeling the searing pain get worse. “Find the feather with the black stripe.” She said. “The barbs will go the other direction.” But she was out of options. Either Gabrielle would save her, or kill her.
Gabrielle brought the candle closer.
“Let the point of the knife in the flame for a little bit.”
Her hand was shaking, Gabrielle noticed, as she complied. The flame’s reflection on the blade bounced all over the room from it. Finally she removed it, and watched the metal cool to a slightly blackened stain. She marked where the black striped arrow was and put the tip of the blade against the skin of Xena’s back. She felt the surface move as Xena took a deep breath and in that moment she realized the power she held in her hand.
She could kill Xena. Right now. All it would take was for her to lean forward hard, and Lila would be avenged. Did Xena know that? Gabrielle looked up. Xena had her head resting against the wall, and she could see the white knuckles as her hand squeezed the metal spike. Her eyes were looking right out the window, and in that window’s reflection Gabrielle’s gaze met hers.
Gabrielle attempted a reassuring smile. She didn’t think she was that successful, so she tore her eyes from the pale blue glints and focused on the task at hand. “I.. I’m going to do it.” She said. “Now.”
Xena leaned more heavily against the wall and closed her eyes. “Go on.”
She paused as the point touched Xena’s skin. “Why are you trusting me to do this?”
For a moment, Xena merely stood there, breathing. “Because there is no one else.” She finally said. “Do it.”
Gabrielle fastened her eyes on the arrow shaft, and forced her hand forward, forced the blade into the bruised flesh. A line of blood appeared, and she felt her stomach knot, but the surface under her hands didn’t move even a twitch and she continued to slide the knife forward. The tip felt some resistance, and as it did she felt the faintest flinch from Xena. “Sorry.” She angled the tip a little and cut around the barb, freeing it and causing another spurt of blood.
It obscured her view, and she had to wait a moment for it to slow. Then she dug the point in again, deeper , digging for the second barb. Xena was still as stone under her, but Gabrielle could hear how strained her breathing was and she knew she must be hurting her horribly. Her hand started shaking a little, but she pushed forward, finally feeling the edge of the blade slip around the second barb.
With a soft hiss, she went to work on the other side, stealing a glance at the face reflected in the window, to see lines of agony written across the clenched jaw. “Halfway done.” She spoke softy. Xena nodded very briefly, but didn’t speak. Gabrielle cut into the other side, relieved to find the barb closer to the surface on this side. She eased the flesh past it, and went for the last one, feeling her way as the sluggishly flowing blood blocked any view.
Her hand slipped, and she felt the knife go in deeper than she’d expected, and Xena’s whole body jerked under her. “It.. it’s okay.” She eased the point back and it grated against the barb, then slid free.
The arrow shaft moved in her other hand as she gently pulled it back, and the blood covered head came clear of Xena’s body. “It’s out.” She quickly put the arrow down on the windowsill, as Xena shifted and her eyes opened. “Now what do I do?” She put the knife down next to the arrow.
Xena gazed tiredly at the weapons, her mind on overload from dealing with the pain. Breathing hurt. Thinking hurt worse, and it took her longer than she thought it should have to absorb the sight of that arrow lying next to that knife on the ledge.
“Is it bleeding much?” She finally asked.
“Yes.” Gabrielle’s quiet voice answered.
“Take that basin.. there’s a cloth in it. Run water over the hole.”
That was easier, at least. Gabrielle grabbed the water and did as she was asked, squeezing the linen over the wound again and again as the blood slowly stopped gushing.
“Now, in that first drawer, there’s a bag.” Xena had her eyes closed. “There’s a bag of powder and some cloths. Put the powder where it looks the worst, and put the cloths over it.”
Gabrielle put the basin down, trying not to see it’s red stained contents. She pulled the drawer open and found the bag Xena had mentioned, her fingers rubbing across a well used, hand imprinted leather cover. She opened the case, and an odd scent, herbal and potent, rose to her and almost made her sneeze. She removed the bag, and the clothes. In the bottom of the case there was a set of small knives, and slim, bone needles, softly clinking together as the bag moved.
She carried the items over and removed a handful of the powder, gingerly sprinkling it over the still bleeding wound. It mixed with the blood, and she heard Xena inhale sharply. “Does that sting?”
“A little.” Xena muttered.
Gabrielle folded the clothes and pressed them over the wound. “Okay.”
“Take that cloth. Wrap it around me to hold it in place.”
Gabrielle complied readily, holding the end over the bandage and hesitating as she realized she’d have to pass the other end around Xena’s bare body.
“Go on. I’m not ticklish.” Xena murmured.
Gabrielle leaned forward, brushing her body against the queens as she reached around her, grabbing the end quickly and getting it tied into place.
“I think so.” Gabrielle examined her work, then stepped back.
“Good.” Slowly, Xena pulled herself upright, hanging on desperately as the blood drained from her face. The pain was incredible, but she could breathe now and not feel the sickening jolt of the arrow inside her. Something else felt different, too, something tied in to the knife resting by her right hand.
She turned, leaning against the wall as she studied Gabrielle’s pale, strained face. A bit of humor surfaced from somewhere. “Chamberpot’s in the corner.” She drawled softly. “Don’t be long. I might bleed to death.”
Gabrielle visibly clamped her jaws shut and swallowed. “I’m okay.”
Xena’s eyes traveled up and down her body. She noticed the clothing Gabrielle was wearing, but at the moment she was just too tired to question it. Summoning her flagging strength, she eased away from the wall and slowly crossed to the bed, pausing as she reached it then letting herself down onto it’s soft surface.
She sprawled out onto her stomach, and motioned Gabrielle over. “Come here.”
Gabrielle walked over and crouched down next to the bed.
“Sit.” Xena pointed at the floor. “If anyone knocks, if anything moves out there, wake me up.”
Xena put her head down on the pillow, her eyes watching Gabrielle’s profile. There was a smear of blood on the girl’s cheek – her blood. “Gabrielle?”
Pale green eyes, almost ochre in the candlelight turned her way.
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
The eyes widened, the pupils dilating as Gabrielle stared at her.
“You asked me why I trusted you, so…” Xena felt the pain start to subside a little, as a soothing lethargy inched over her. “Why didn’t you take your chance? Get back for your sister. Probably get a reward from the lot of them in this place?”
Gabrielle rubbed the side of her face with her hand. She drew in a breath and met Xena’s curious eyes. “Because you trusted me.” She admitted softly. “And because killing is wrong, no matter who it is.”
Xena watched her with half closed, sad eyes. Then the pain forced the all the way closed, and she surrendered to it, hoping the trust was still placed in the right hands.
Gabrielle let her body stop shaking and relax before she lifted her head off her forearm and leaned back. So much had happened in so short a time it felt like her world had shifted yet again and she was in nothing but strangeness.
Her eyes drifted to one side, and she examined the sleeping face of the queen, so close to her. Even now, she could see the tension across the woman’s forehead, and she suspected the pain wasn’t allowing her to fully rest.
Gabrielle could hardly even imagine standing that kind of pain. She’d seen men, in her home village with minor injuries from the stock, or from tools, screaming their fool heads off at injuries not a patch on the one Xena had.
It had taken a lot of courage for her to stand there, while Gabrielle dug into her flesh with that knife, and no matter how she felt about Xena, there was no way for Gabrielle to deny that.
She played with the drawstring on her shirt sleeve, stained crimson with Xena’s blood. It had also taken courage for Xena to trust her with that knife, and there was something about that trust that touched her down in a place so deep she could still feel the echoes of it.
She could get up and go find Stanislaus, she knew. Probably he was wondering where she was, his plans sent tumbling when she wasn’t there waiting for him. Would he come in here to look? What would she tell him?
Well. Gabrielle got up and studied her surroundings. First thing to do is clean the place up. Anyone coming in would smell the stench of blood, and she’d gotten the impression that Xena did not want anyone to know what had happened to her.
First, the blood on the floor. She went to the door and peeked out, finding the hall quiet and empty. Quickly, she slipped out and over to the main door, opening it carefully and peering out into the circular foyer. It too, was empty. She exhaled in relief and bolted for her cubby, grabbing her cleaning tools and another tunic, and racing back to the queen’s chamber.
Xena was still asleep, the ripped gown exposing the bandage, and a good portion of her back.
Gabrielle studied her for a moment, then she set her things down and lifted the silk covers, gently pulling them over the injured queen up to her waist. Leaving the pressure off her back, she gathered, was the wisest course.
She watched Xena’s quiet breathing, and then she turned and got to work cleaning the bloodstains off the floor. It took a while, because the blood had seeped into the stone, but she kept at it and eventually she had the flagstones clean again.
Gabrielle looked at the pile of bloody rags. Now what? Her eyes fell on the arrow, and the knife. She got up and studied them. The arrow she carefully put inside the drawer, next to the herb kit. The knife she cleaned off and wrapped in a piece of linen, placing it next to the arrow before she closed the drawer firmly.
She went to the basin and took it to the garderobe, dumping it down the shaft. Then she poured more water in from the water jug and swished it around, sending that down the shaft as well. She collected all the blood stained linen and folded it into a packet, then she walked over and gently tossed it into the fire.
The flames ate the cloth greedily. Sparks popped as the blood was consumed, until the packet was nothing but ash. Gabrielle turned, satisfied by the clean up. She picked up the fresh tunic she’d grabbed and quickly changed into it, folding her stained one up into a neat ball. She ran her fingers through her hair and set the folded tunic aside, near the ash cleaner.
Now what? Gabrielle nibbled the inside of her lip, then she stuck her head into the outer chamber and spotted some fruit left over she guessed from lunch. She gratefully gathered the pieces, and took them back with her into the bedroom, settling down again next to the bed with the apples and pears nestled in her lap.
She drew in a deep breath, and released it, selecting a pear and turning it in her fingers to find a good place to bite in. Some instinct made her look to her right before she did, though, and she blinked in surprise when she found Xena gazing back at her, from half lidded eyes. “Oh.”
“Y’say that a lot.” Xena observed.
“I guess I do.” Gabrielle put the pear back down. “Is there something I can get you? That must hurt a lot.”
“Ever held a burning firebrand to your skin for a candlemark?”
“Mm.” Xena exhaled. “There’s a.. “ She stopped talking for a moment, and her eyes closed.
Obeying an instinct written deep inside her, Gabrielle reached up and touched the hand now clenched around the bed linens, feeling a quiet compassion for a fellow creature in pain.
Xena’s blue eyes popped open and fastened on her. Gabrielle quickly removed her hand, and put it back in her lap. Compassion was one thing. Getting one’s fingers bitten off was another.
“You have a hot date tonight?” The queen asked suddenly.
“What?” Gabrielle’s eyebrows scrunched together.
“You’re dressed for outside. Where were you going?” The blue eyes were pain filled, but very sharp. They watched Gabrielle’s face intently, and this close there was no way to hide anything from them.
Gabrielle looked down at her booted feet.
Will this be the first lie? Xena wondered. Did they get to you so soon, kid?
“People say… my being here is dangerous to you.” Gabrielle said. “So they were going to take me away, and let me go free.” She waited until she finished speaking to look up, and over at Xena.
“Who said that?” Xena asked. “Stanislaus?”
A low, hissing breath sounded. “Bastard.”
“But..” Gabrielle was confused. “He said… I mean, what he said made sense.” She stammered. “And he said he was…”
“Mine?” Xena’s voice oozed deadly sarcasm. “Body, heart and soul?” Her eyes closed, and she shook her head. “Gabrielle, no one’s mine. I have no friends, and I have no one I trust. At most, I have occasional allies and people who tell me they love me so I won’t kill them.”
Gabrielle rested her chin on her forearm, feeling somewhat stupid.
Xena studied the young profile. “That explains the horses outside.” She realized.
The blond head lifted and turned. “Horses?”
“Mm.” A nod. “Damned ironic.” Xena murmured. “I think I took your arrow. The bastards were outside waiting for whoever was going to take off on those horses.”
Green eyes widened.
“You didn’t really think they were just going to let you out the gates, didja?” Wry cynicism colored the queen’s tone. “Another escaping slave, shot in the back. Wouldn’t have even made the watch report.”
Gabrielle put her head back down, now feeling really stupid. She gazed glumly at the fire, hating most of all the disdain in Xena’s tone. “I didn’t know.” She whispered. Stanislaus would have led her out there, and then…
And then she would have died, probably. She peered over at Xena, whose eyes had closed in visible pain again. Instead, for some reason Xena had chosen to walk outside, and was now suffering what she, Gabrielle might have been if things had been just a moment’s worth of different.
She reached up and covered Xena’s hand with her own again, but this time when the blue eyes opened and focused on her, she didn’t budge. “I’m sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing.”
Xena released a breath. Stanislaus, you don’t know how lucky you were tonight. “I warned you about thinking, didn’t I?”
Unaccountably, Gabrielle smiled at her. For the first time, a real smile, one that lit her face up, and put a twinkle in her green eyes.
Xena wondered when the last time someone had actually smiled at her and meant it had been. It was hard to remember. She felt the pain wearing on her again, and she wanted to close her eyes, but if she did, she’d lose sight of that interesting smile.
And now, with the hole in her back, her problems had just gotten far, far worse. Her plans would have to change and it looked like young Gabrielle had just made herself an important part of them.
Faintly, Xena returned the smile. Arrow or not, she was glad she’d broken up Stanislaus’ little scheme.
Now it only remained for her to decide what to do to him for it.
Gabrielle finished her second apple, nibbling around the core until there was nothing left but the hard seed shell, and the seeds themselves. It was nearing midnight, and Xena had fallen back asleep, her body finally relaxing fully and her breathing slowing and deepening.
It was quiet, and very peaceful. Gabrielle got up and took her fruit remains to the tray, then washed her hands off and dried them. She stifled a yawn, and looked around her, trying to figure out the best way to arrange herself to stay on guard all night.
Though.. Gabrielle smiled wryly. The idea of her being a guard was pretty funny. She knew she wasn’t really guarding Xena, more like providing a fast warning for her in case anything happened. Xena could take care of herself, if what she’d seen in the barracks was an indication, though now that she was hurt…
Gabrielle studied the still figure on the bed and sighed. She felt really confused – her emotions were jumping back and forth like a spring lamb and it was giving her a headache.
Would anything happen? Gabrielle walked around the room a little, getting the kinks out of her legs from sitting at Xena’s bedside for so long.
A soft knock on the door ended her speculations. Gabrielle twitched her tunic straight and walked over, opening the door slightly and peering out.
Stanislaus looked back at her. “Ah. So there you are.” His eyes narrowed. “I can tell the guard to stop looking. I found your cell empty, and assumed you got impatient waiting.”
Oh boy. Gabrielle forced down the panic. “The queen asked me to do something.” She answered quietly.
“Really? And what was that?” The seneschal demanded.
Gabrielle stared at him. “A task.” She finally answered.
“Perhaps I should ask her.” He put his hand on the door and pushed, but Gabrielle’s body was against the inner side, and slight as she was, it didn’t move.
Letting him in and having him see Xena’s injuries abruptly seemed like a very bad idea. “It’s.. um.. late. I don’t think she wants to be bothered.” Gabrielle warned him softly.
“Shall we let her decide that?” He pushed harder. “Remove yourself, or I will.”
Gabrielle held her ground. “You really don’t want to do that.” She told him, urgently. “She won’t like it.”
“Who are you to say what she will, or will not like?” Stanislaus answered, in an angry tone. “You little slut slave.. remove yourself!”
“No.” Gabrielle could feel the sharp pain where the door was digging into her leg, but she leaned against it with all her weight. “I won’t. She said she didn’t want to be disturbed. Don’t you have to respect her wishes, or was that whole ‘body, heart and soul’ speech just lies?”
The pushing stopped. He backed off and studied her. “If those are her wishes.” He said. “You could be lying.”
“I’d pick a better lie.” Gabrielle shot back.
“Would you, now?” The seneschal mused. “Perhaps you would.”
Gabrielle relaxed a little, but kept her eye on him and her thigh blocking the door.
“So.” Stanislaus speculated in a cool tone. “Your task for the queen… it must have been… very engaging.”
“It was.” Gabrielle replied warily.
“And now?” His demeanor seemed to have changed completely. “She is?”
“And now she’s sleeping.” Gabrielle answered.
A knowing grimace crossed Stanislaus face. He lifted his hand and made a brief gesture, as though tossing a used towel from him. “So be it.” He brushed a speck of dust off his shoulder and stepped closer. “However, I instructed you to wait for me.” He stated. “You did not.”
“She instructed me otherwise.” Gabrielle kept her gaze steady. “I’m not stupid enough not to know which one of you to listen to.” She wondered, suddenly, if he was really part of the plot that had ended up with an arrow in Xena’s back. Or was he also a victim? Why was he acting so strangely?
He folded his arms. “I had thought to spare you her attentions, Gabrielle. It is unfortunate that fate decided otherwise.” The seneschal said, with a sigh. “Too little, too late, it seems.”
Huh? Gabrielle pondered the unexpected words. Hadn’t she already been subject to Xena’s attention? “I’m sorry your plan didn’t work out. But maybe it turned out for the best.”
Surprisingly, he laughed, with a nasty edge. “For you? Perhaps. Perhaps not.” And then he turned and left, shutting the outside door behind him with a decided click.
Gabrielle did the same with the inner door, leaning on it and taking a very shaky breath. She shook her head and looked up, starting a little to find Xena watching her from the bed with intent blue eyes. She managed to strangle the exclamation this time, though. “Mprf.”
“Good work.” Xena said. “C’mere.”
With a deep breath, and a twitch of her shoulders, Gabrielle obeyed. She circled the bed and settled cross legged next to it.
Xena stiffly changed position, resting her head on her curled forearm to face her. “You got a question answered for me, and now I don’t have to break his arm to get the answer myself. Nice.”
Xena nodded slightly. “You tricked him into thinking I took advantage of you, and he showed his hand. Well done.”
Blond eyebrows contracted over Gabrielle’s green eyes. “I did?”
Xena chuckled. “Yes, you did.”
Gabrielle frowned, her face a study in thought. Finally she just shook her head again and looked up. “I really didn’t know what he was talking about.” She admitted. “I still don’t.”
A look somewhere between wry amusement and mild chagrin found its way onto Xena’s face. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen.” Gabrielle said.
“Virgin, right?” The blue eyes twinkled wearily.
Gabrielle felt a blush rise, warming her skin at the unexpected question. “I…um…” She cleared her throat. “I had a… well, we just never, ah…” She glanced at Xena. “Yes.”
Xena lifted one hand and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Just my luck.” She commented. “ten thousand potential peasant slaves out there, and I end up with this one.” Her gaze lifted to Gabrielle’s face. “Remember what your little friend down in the barracks was having done to her?”
Taken aback at the change of subject, Gabrielle stiffened. “Yes.”
“That’s what my old, dear, sweet, loyal friend Stanislaus thinks I’m doing to you.”
Gabrielle felt a sick chill take her at the words. She stared at Xena uncertainly, trying to read the cool expression on her face. “W..” She tasted something bad on her tongue. “Why would he think that?” She asked. “Do you..”
Xena listened to the words trail off into silence. Her momentary amusement was gone, chased away by the earnest green eyes staring at her. She was struck by the knowledge that not only did her answer really matter to this kid, it mattered to her that it mattered.
“Rape people?” She finally finished Gabrielle’s question. “No.” She watched a shudder of motion shift the cloth over the kid’s body as she relaxed. “I’ve never had to.” Xena added, with a very wry smile. “They generally come willingly. I’m not ugly, and sleeping with the queen’s never bad for either your career or your reputation.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I can see that.” She replied gravely. “That’s what Bregos wants, isn’t it?”
“Mmhmm.” Xena made an approving sound. “But the rumors go around anyway.” She said. “Especially when I take an interest to cute little blond slave girls and they can’t figure out what I’m up to.”
Surprisingly, Gabrielle blushed again, to the roots of her pale hair.
Xena’s eyebrow rose slightly. “Let em talk. Makes it easier for me to keep you around to change these damn bandages.” She said. “I think Stanislaus was the real target last night, and they figured to take you out for good measure.”
“Bregos wants to lead a coup.” Xena’s voice lowered. “He’s got the army on his side, and he’s working on the nobility. Unless I can squash him flat, he’s got a chance at it. You’re going to help me stop him.”
“Why don’t I just kill him?” Xena’s eyes tracked restlessly around the room. “Make him a martyr? No. I have to cut him off at the knees.. destroy his mystique.. his reputation, first.” She said. “Then I’ll kill him.”
Gabrielle could feel the danger circling around her, and knew she was in a very bad spot. She exhaled softly, also knowing she had very few options open to her. If she turned against Xena, she was dead. If she didn’t, and Xena’s plan failed, she was dead. If Xena’s plan succeeded… well, she was probably dead anyway because what worth would she be to Xena after that?
The only thing she knew, after what she’d seen in the barracks, was that for her, at least, she was on the right side even despite what had happened to Lila. And who knew? Maybe she’d die, and end up back with her family sooner than she’d thought in the worst case.
Would it be so bad? Gabrielle studied her hands, noticing the smudge of blood left on her thumb.
The sound lifted her nape hairs, just a little. Gabrielle looked up at the queen.
Xena’s face was very serious. “I don’t regret the choice I made.” She stated, in a clear tone. “And I don’t apologize for it.” Her expression altered slightly, a tiny pucker appearing in her brow as she held Gabrielle’s gaze. “But I’m sorry you lost your sister because of it.”
Caught in those eyes, with those words, Gabrielle felt something shift inside her, altering her vision of the woman in front of her in a strange way.
It didn’t change Lila’s dying. It didn’t make Xena any less responsible – in fact, the queen seemed to be taking that responsibility and putting it squarely on her own shoulders, without any attempt to excuse it.
She thought about that. Maybe that was the difference. There were no excuses. Maybe that made Xena’s regret over it causing Gabrielle pain all the more profound.
It meant she meant something to Xena. Her. Gabrielle. Now the only thing it was left for Gabrielle to decide was – whether that was a good or a very, very bad thing.
She let out the breath she’d been holding. “Thanks.” She whispered. “I’m sorry, too.”
They were both silent for a while. “I’ll do whatever I can to help you.” Gabrielle suddenly spoke up. “The reason Stanislaus tried to get me out.. tonight… is because they started after me downstairs.” She looked at Xena, seeing the watchfulness in her eyes. “I think they wanted me to help them hurt you.”
Xena blinked. “So soon.” She muttered. “Damn.”
“I told them they were stupid.”
Xena looked at her. “I bet they didn’t like that.”
“No, not really.” Gabrielle said. “I think they wanted to kill me.” She frowned. “Seems like a popular idea today.”
“Mm. Well, I’m glad they didn’t.” Xena felt the ache in her back growing again, and remembered how much she hated being injured. “I would have had to kill them if they had and I’m not up to it at the moment.”
Gabrielle looked up at that. She could see the grimace of pain Xena couldn’t quite hide and she put a hand out in reflex, then let it fall.
Xena pursed her lips wryly. “There’s a bottle of wine over on the chest. Get it.”
Gabrielle got to her feet and collected the bottle, and a cup she found next to it, and brought it back over. She poured some of the wine, a rich, red liquid uncomfortably similar to the blood she’d spent candlemarks cleaning into the cup.
Then she looked at Xena. “Um.”
“Yeah.” Slowly, the queen pushed herself up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. She paused momentarily with her eyes closed, her face a study in stoic concentration. Then she straightened and opened her eyes. “Put that down. Get the other glass.”
Gabrielle did as she was ordered, and returned with the second glass. Xena picked up the bottle with her left hand and poured some wine into it. The bottle trembled in her grip, and she bit off a curse as she put it back down. She lifted the glass Gabrielle had poured and looked at the girl. “Welcome to Hades, Gabrielle.” She leaned forward and touched her cup to the one Gabrielle was holding. “Stick with me, and I’ll try to keep you from being fed to Cerebus too quickly.” She took a sip of the wine, and raised her eyebrows, waiting.
Slowly, Gabrielle brought the cup to her lips and sipped it, flinching at little at the strange taste. After a moment, she swallowed, finding it not as bad as she at first thought. It was heady and potent, and caused a definite jolt in her guts. She licked her lips thoughtfully.
A little like Xena herself, as a matter of fact.
Gabrielle studied her cup, and wondered if she really knew what she’d just gotten herself into.
Xena seated herself carefully in her chair in the outer, public chamber. She had on a loose, flowing gown, of a light fabric but even the weight of it on her back was almost intolerable. The wine had allowed her sleep the night before, but waking in the morning had been painful, and though Gabrielle had done the best she’d been capable of, the bandage changing had almost broken even Xena’s stoic resolve.
Poor kid. Xena spared a glance towards the inner door, where Gabrielle was going about her usual cleaning tasks.
One change, though – Xena had ordered her to stay out of the kitchens. She’d given direction to the servant who brought in her morning tray to double the contents, and told Gabrielle it would stay that way until she figured out what the Hades was going on and who exactly she could… well, not trust.
Somehow, Xena didn’t think Gabrielle minded too much. In fact, the girl had seemed damned relieved about it and she made a mental note to find out what had really happened down stairs.
Now. On to other, less enjoyable matters. Like sitting. Xena took a deep breath, and closed her eyes, focusing her will inward and forcing the pain out of her conscious mind. After a moment, she lifted her head and let her eyes open.
Then she picked up a small bell and rang it.
Almost at once, the door opened, and Stanislaus entered. “Mistress.” He ducked his head, but she saw the quick study of her in his eyes as he did it.
“Stanislaus.” Xena rested her hands on the arms of her chair. “I want an explanation from you.”
“I want to know why you attempted to take my chamber slave away from me.” Xena went on. “Especially since you know how pleased I am with her.”
“Talk, or die.” Xena lifted a hand to her chin, a dagger materializing in her fingers as she gently stroked her chin with its hilt. She saw the utter shock in his eyes, watched the solid knowledge of his place with her crumble into ash. Dispassionately, she held his gaze. “I’m waiting.”
He was shaking, Xena observed. He walked towards her and dropped to his knees at her feet, bowing his head. “I saw danger to you, Mistress.”
“Really.” Xena remarked.
He lifted his head slightly. “I saw her as a weakness… a way for your enemies to get to you.” He said. “The others knew how to twist her.”
Possibly true. Xena acknowledged. “They only thought they did.” She said. “Just like you only thought you knew the depths of her.”
Stanislaus looked up. “Mistress, she is a danger to you.” He stated softly, persuasively.
Xena smiled to herself, eyeing her dagger hilt. “Oh yes, Stanislaus. She is.” The queen murmured. “But not the way you’re thinking.” She finished, in a sharp voice. “Leave her alone. If you or anyone else meddles with her again, I will slit your throat and not even feel it.”
He swallowed. “Mistress.”
Xena leaned forward, pushing the jolt of pain in her back out of her mind. “Tell everyone, Stanislaus.” She rasped. “She’s mine.”
The seneschal’s shoulders dropped a little. “Yes, Mistress.” He nodded submissively.
Xena got up and walked around him, then she grabbed his hair and yanked him upright to his feet. Only her iron control kept her standing herself, as a white hot blast of pain nearly took her to her knees. She sucked in a breath. “Don’t you ever do that again.” She snarled in his ear. “Don’t you ever go behind my back even if you think you’re doing the right thing. Understand!!!!”
He nodded, once.
“You almost died last night.” Xena told him. “Did you know that?”
Stanislaus looked at her in patent fear. “M… mistress?”
“They were waiting for you outside, Stanislaus. For you, and for little Gabrielle, and for whoever else you coerced into your plan. Bowmen.”
He actually stopped breathing. His eyes widened fully and he stared at her in shock.
Xena shoved him from her, only just keeping her own balance. “Better figure out again who your friends are, hm?” Her voice turned mocking. “Cause I think you guessed wrong at least once.”
He tugged at his sleeves, a look of confusion on his face. “Mistress… I.. I swear it, I only meant to help.”
“Hm.” Xena returned to her chair and settled gratefully in it. “Yes, yourself mostly, but yes, I know that.” She let out a careful breath. “Otherwise you’d be in pieces on the gate.” She said. “Leave me.”
He bowed low. “Mistress.”
She watched him leave, sitting regally erect until the door closed. Then she leaned on one of the chair arms, taking pressure off her back as a soft oath was forced from her lips. “Damn it.” She could feel the sweat rolling down the back of her neck and for a moment, the room started to move around her.
She closed her eyes.
Heavy footsteps approached, and she heard a low, vibrant voice outside. Painfully she pulled herself erect again as a somber knock came at the door. It took a moment, but she managed to control her breathing enough to answer. “Come.”
Bregos entered. He walked with confidence, stopping before her chair and gracefully ducking his head. Today he was dressed in sober court garb, a nicely fitted tunic and tight leggings that outlined his excellent physique. “Your Majesty.” He greeted her.
“Bregos.” Xena could hear the strain in her voice.
“I would speak with you on the matter of my captain.”
“Your late captain.” Xena said.
Bregos hesitated, his eyes watching her closely. “Just so.” He pursed his lips. “An unfortunate accident.”
“No.” Xena almost felt amused. “Bregos, as my general, surely you realize it isn’t possible to accidentally slit a man’s throat.” She said. “The bastard broke my rule, and he paid for it. Anyone else wanting to try that… well.. I’ve got a lot of farmers asking for fertilizer.”
Bregos paced to the window and looked out. Xena casually leaned on the arm of her chair, as though turning to watch him.
“Mistress, it wasn’t as it seemed.”
“Bregos, cut the crap.” Xena sighed. “What part of a raped female body do you think I’m not familiar with? The bastard could have least used his own member, not whatever it was he used to carve a furrow in the woman the size of an ox’s leg.”
The general sighed. “Mistress, it was just a slave.”
“It was my slave.” Xena told him. “My property, who had tasks, who had a purpose of mine own choosing that didn’t include being a sex toy for bored soldiers.”
“His life.. “ Bregos turned, squaring his shoulders. “Was worth more than hers, Majesty. It’s a crime against the people to waste the life of one of its soldiers so.”
“It was a crime against me to break my rule.” Xena replied. “And his life wasn’t worth more than the girls to me.”
“The men don’t understand that.”
“Then explain it to them in smaller words.” Xena felt her patience, never really that generous, slipping. “What part of ‘you may not rape castle servants’ are they having difficulty with? If they’re that much in need, tell them to mount each other.”
He faced her. “Majesty, the men do not accept that.”
Xena tilted her head to one side and regarded him. “Are you saying you agree with them, Bregos?”
“I value my men.”
“Well.” Xena slowly crossed her ankles, tucking them under her seat. “Then I’ll have to remove you.”
His eyes flickered. “Majesty?” His voice sounded incredulous.
Xena folded her hands across her stomach. “My rules don’t change. Either you abide by them, and support me, or you will no longer be in my service.”
Xena laughed. “Of course I can.” Then her voice sobered. “And I will.” She leaned forward. “Bregos, is your position worth it?”
He nibbled the inside of his lip, an oddly boyish maneuver for a man his size. “Your majesty.. will you not see reason?”
“Not in this room anywhere.” Xena gazed steadily at him. “Pick your course of action wisely, general.”
With a faint shake of his head, Bregos gave her a sketchy bow , then he made his way to the door and left, without a backwards glance.
Xena let her eyelids flutter closed, and she felt the room recede a little, the outdoor sounds buzzing in her ears with an annoying echo.
A soft throat clearing almost made her jump. She opened her eyes and turned her head, to see Gabrielle standing just inside the inner door, with a jug and a cup in her hands.
“Thought maybe you’d like a drink.” Gabrielle hefted the jug. “And.. um.. “ Her eyes flicked to Xena’s back. “You’re bleeding.”
“Ah.” Xena winced. “Thought that was too warm for sweat.” She looked at the jug. “What is that?”
Xena managed a brief smile. “Gabrielle, you’re worth your weight in gold leaf.” She nodded. “Gimme. I’ll get some of that down, then you can put another layer of bandage over that hole in my back.”
Gabrielle poured her a cup and handed it over, then set the jug down. “Is what the general said true?”
“Which part?” Xena gratefully swallowed a few mouthfuls of the cold wine.
“About the men being worth more than slaves?”
Xena swirled the wine in her cup. “If you look at it a certain way, sure.” She nodded. “A fighting soldier, risking his life for the land – he’s trained, he’s skilled… he could be considered more valuable.” She watched Gabrielle’s expressive face shift as she thought, a furrow appearing on her brow. “But it had nothing to do with that for me. He broke a rule, and Bregos knows it. What he’s trying to get around is that he, and those with him, don’t like that rule.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle pondered that. She looked up at Xena. “I think he’ll break it again, just to see how far he can push things.”
A wan twinkle appeared in Xena’s eyes. “I think you’re right.”
Gabrielle’s lips moved into a slight smile, then relaxed. “You told Stanislaus I was a danger to you.” She asked softly. “What did you mean by that? Didn’t you believe what I said?”
Xena leaned her chin on her fist, with a very wry look. “I did.” She said. “But I knew he wouldn’t understand what I meant, and neither would you.”
“Don’t worry about it, Gabrielle.” Xena drained her cup and painfully eased out of her chair. “Because I’m not worried about it.” Slowly she limped towards the bedroom. “In fact, right now it’s the least of my worries.”
With a puzzled frown, Gabrielle picked up the jug and followed her. “Okay.” She sighed. “If you say so.”
“Oo.” Xena drawled. “Someone who actually does what I say. Be still my beating heart.” She lowered herself to the bed on her stomach, and exhaled, waiting for Gabrielle’s gentle touch.
An ironic smile shaped her lips.
Gabrielle dropped into her cot, stretching her legs out and relaxing with a sigh. She’d gotten the queen’s chambers cleaned, and Xena had gone off to her afternoon court.
She wondered how good an idea that really was. It was obvious to her that Xena was really hurting, and even though she’d rested after Bregos’ visit, it had been difficult for her to get up and leave.
Gabrielle plucked at her blood stained apron and admitted to being worried about the woman. She was at a loss to explain to herself why, but she felt how she felt and there was no denying it. “Self interest.” She spoke aloud. “I know if something happens to her, I’m toast.”
She drummed her fingers on the edge of the cot and regarded the ceiling. Then she sighed. “Yeah, right.”
Gabrielle’s heart almost stopped. She gripped the edge of the bed and leaned forward, only to see Toris’ head slowly emerge around the corner of her cubby. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Shh.” Toris slipped inside and padded over to her, dropping to a crouch next to her cot. “Wow. Are you okay?” His eyes were on her apron.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle studied his face.
“I heard what happened.” Toris gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry.”
A tiny crease dimpled the skin on Gabrielle’s forehead.
“See? You should have stayed downstairs. I know that guy was scary, but we’d have kept you away from her.” Toris told her. “He didn’t really mean it… he was just afraid.”
“He said he’d kill me.” Gabrielle said, slowly.
“No.. no.” Toris laid a hand on her knee. “Gabrielle, we need you.” He looked earnestly at her. “We need you to help us. Now that you see what she’s really like, you will, won’t you?”
“What she’s really like?”
“What she did to you, Gabrielle. It’s no different than what that soldier did in the barracks and she killed him for it. But it’s okay for her to do. Is that fair? Now you see why everyone’s against her!”
Gabrielle stared off into the distance for a moment, then looked at him. “What is it you want me to do?”
A smile spread across Toris’ face. “I knew you’d join us.” He exhaled in relief. “Come downstairs, tonight, and we’ll show you.” He said. “And we’ll do it fast, so you don’t have to suffer with her anymore.” He shook his head. “That bitch. How could she do that after what she did to your sister.. in front of you!!!!”
Gabrielle felt a lump rise in her throat. She dropped her eyes to the ground.
“I’m sorry.” Toris gentled his voice. “Listen, come tonight, and I promise you… it’ll be the last night you ever have to worry about her.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle kept her head down. “I’ll be there.”
He squeezed her shoulder. “Good.” He said. He lifted a hand and touched her cheek gently. “It’ll be all right, Gabrielle.” He promised her, then he stood up and slipped out of the cubby.
Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees and leaned her chin against her folded hands.
Xena walked slowly along the arbor, pausing frequently to gaze out over the wall. To all who were watching, it seemed she was just indulging in a familiar habit, inspecting the different areas of the stronghold in a casual way.
In truth every step was agony. Xena rested her hands on the stone wall and watched a sparring session in progress. Several of her men were clustered on one end of the practice field, and after a moment they spotted her standing there.
Xena held her breath, reading them. Then she relaxed, as they started sidling in her direction. Brendan came out of the barracks and spotted her as well, angling his steps towards her outright.
“Mistress.” Brendan got there first, putting his hands on the wall and leaping over it. “A word with ye.”
Xena leaned a little more on the wall, half turning to face him. “Go on.”
He hesitated, then knelt.
Maybe it was the pain. Xena felt the faintest tightness in her throat.
“Mistress, it was like this.” Brendan said. “We knew they was doing a bad thing. But..” He paused. “They hit us low, like. They told us..”
“They told you if you told me, you were a bunch of sissies?” Xena guessed.
He peeked up at her.
Xena half smiled. “And that this was how real armies worked?”
“You know better.” Xena remarked.
“Aye.” The old soldier agreed. “But Mistress.. it weren’t the men’s fault.”
He looked up. “It were my fault. I know better more than most. I should ha come to you.” Slowly he drew his dagger, and offered it to her, hilt first. “I failed ye.”
Xena took the dagger and examined it. She was aware, from her peripheral vision, that her men and some of Bregos were watching the scene. Brendan was right, of course, and she knew it. She understood the pride that had prevented him from doing what he knew she wanted, but that didn’t change the fact that his inaction had caused the situation to continue.
For that, she’d established, the penalty was death and he knew it. That was her law.
Xena reached out and tangled the fingers of her free hand in his gray hair, tightening her grip and pulling his head back. He gazed up at her in quiet acceptance, a gentle trust shining from his eyes.
She braced herself, then swiped with the dagger in her other hand, cutting through the hair with an audible hiss.
Then she lifted her hand, and examined her handiwork. “That should be enough.” She handed him the handful of hair, which left the top of his head bizarrely shorn. “Your pride got you into this, you’ll have to suffer looking like that till it grows out.” Then she reversed the dagger and handed it back.
He swallowed and took it. “Mistress.”
“Sorry. I know you were looking forward to it, but I’m just not in the mood to kill anyone today.” Xena ruffled the stubble on his head. “G’wan.” She leaned again on the wall as he stood. “We have to be ready for tomorrow, Brendan.” She said quietly. “He’s going for it.”
“Aye.” The old soldier nodded. “We will be.” He quietly met her eyes. “Thank you, Xena.”
That got a real smile from her, despite the pain. She motioned him away and continued on her walk, cocking her ears behind her to catch the low, eager whispers. Better. Xena nodded to herself, trying to decide if she should ignore the growing throbbing in her back.
Probably a stupid idea. She examined her options, and selected a path that would result in her ending up near the small door to the tower stairs.
It was time to see what Gabrielle was up to, anyway.
“It’s really red.” Gabrielle murmured.
“I bet it is.” Xena muttered back. “Feels like it.”
Gabrielle gazed unhappily at the wound, wondering if it was something she’d done wrong. The area where the arrow had gone in was swollen, and felt hot under her touch.
“Damn.” Xena rested her chin on her wrist. “All right. Get the knife you were using last night.”
Reluctantly, Gabrielle stood and walked to the chest, opening the drawer and pulling the sharp dagger out. She returned to the bed and knelt again at Xena’s side. “Okay.”
Xena wadded up a fold of the bedding and closed her hand around it. “There’s a dark line where the arrow went in, right?”
“Cut into it.”
Gabrielle hesitated. “What?” She asked. “Are you sure? That will open it all up again.”
One of Xena’s eyebrows cocked at her. “You a healer now?” She asked. “Just do what I tell you, okay?”
Abashed, Gabrielle wiped the blade carefully and poised it, then bit the inside of her lip and pressed downward on the dark line. The blade popped through Xena’s skin with an almost audible sound, and as she cut, a flow of pale red mixed with ugly yellow poured out of the wound. “Oh.”
She finished, and pulled back, then glanced at Xena. The queen was lying perfectly still, only the stark whiteness of the knuckles wrapped around the bedding indicating what she was going through. “It’s done.” Gabrielle put a hand on Xena’s arm.
Slowly, the blue eyes fluttered open. “Wash it out good.” Xena spoke in a husky, almost remote tone.
Gabrielle complied, soaking the piece of linen she’d been using to wash the wound and squeezing it out over Xena’s back. She repeated the process over and over, until the wound ran clear, and she could see it was much less swollen. “That looks better.”
“Really.” Xena muttered. She gave Gabrielle a look.
“Sorry.” The blond girl apologized. “I just ask questions because I don’t understand and I want to.”
“Uh huh.” Xena closed her eyes. “Put a lot of that powder in there before you put the bandage on. Maybe I’ll get lucky and you won’t have to do this again.” She slowly uncurled her hand, which was cramping painfully from gripping the linens. Damn, that had hurt.
Gabrielle gently dried the area, then she took the powdered herbs and covered the wound with them, making sure she got them into the newly cut area. Then she replaced the bandage with a clean one and retied the ends of the cloth around Xena’s body.
“What’s that sound?” Xena suddenly asked, hearing a soft rumble.
Gabrielle’s hands stopped in mid motion. “Um.” She glanced down at herself in mild embarrassment. “Sorry.. I guess that’s me.” She explained. “Hungry, I guess.”
Xena glanced at the window, seeing the fading twilight. “Go outside and tell the guard I’ll be eating in my chambers tonight. No court.” She said. “With this thing, in my mood, I’m liable to use the shiskebabs to nail courtiers I’m annoyed at to their chairs anyway.”
Gabrielle remembered her promise to Toris. “I could go get the tray, if you want.”
“No.” Xena shook her head. “Just tell the guard. He knows what to do.” She said. “Tell him to send up a double tray… otherwise I’ll be up all night with all that noise.”
In the act of standing, Gabrielle paused, and looked at Xena uncertainly. Was she being teased?
A blue eye regarded her soberly.
Gabrielle picked up the basin, and headed for the door. Toris, she decided, would just have to wait for another night.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle murmured, as the guard carefully deposited the tray in the outer chamber. “Wow, that’s a lot.”
The guard, an older man with a thin scar crossing his face from eye to jawline, smiled briefly. “Her maj asked for a double, didn’t she?”
“S’what you got.” The guard dusted his hands off and slipped out of the room, leaving Gabrielle to deal with the assorted dishes.
“Mm.” She sniffed appreciatively. “I don’t I can leave any of this behind.” She took hold of the handles, and managed to lift the tray. “Boah!” A grunt forced it’s way out. “Let’s hope I don’t end up tossing it across the room.”
Carefully, she maneuvered through the outer chamber, and was glad of the fact that she’d left the inner door a little open. She nudged it with her foot, then ducked inside the inner chamber and somehow made it to the worktable without spilling anything.
“Ah.” Xena turned her head as the girl set the tray down. Gabrielle was outlined in candlelight as she stood by the window. What was that term she’d heard once? Easy on the eyes. She’d never really figured out what that meant, but now she suspected it meant that you could look at someone a lot and not get tired of it. “Is that lamb I smell?”
“Chops.” Gabrielle confirmed.
“Bother you?” Xena asked.
The blond girl looked up from her task. “Bother me what?”
“Eating lamb chops. You being brought up a shepherd.”
“Um.. no.” Gabrielle brought a plate over to her, and set it gingerly down on the bedside table. “Lambs look really cute, but they’re not.” She explained. “They bite you every chance they get. So I never minded eating them, though we usually didn’t, unless… um..”
“One croaked.” Xena eased over onto her side and examined the plate with little interest. “Yeah.” She picked up a chop by the bone and bit into it, chewing stolidly. “Are you joining me or are you just going to sit there?”
Gabrielle hesitated. “I wasn’t sure w… “ She frowned.
“Gabrielle, there is no protocol for how to eat with the queen while she’s lying in bed and you’re sitting on the floor next to her so forget it and just get some damn chops.” Xena told her testily.
The blond girl rose without a sound and walked to the tray.
Xena nibbled on her lambchop as she watched Gabrielle take dinner for herself. “I don’t have much of an appetite, so you’d better make up for it.” She told her. “Otherwise talk’ll start downstairs.”
Gabrielle paused, and peeked over her shoulder.
Xena merely lifted her eyebrows.
“Okay.” Gabrielle returned and settled back down on the floor cross legged, balancing a full plate on her lap. She fiddled with a long, blanched bean for a moment, finally picking it up and biting into it. “You have really good cooks.”
“Have to be.” Xena neatly removed the last shreds of meat from one chop, placed it back on the plate, and selected another. “First thing an army starts to bitch about is the food. Doesn’t pay to start trouble.”
“Is that why you give the slaves the same food?”
“Uh huh.” Xena watched her. “It’s a bitch of a life, and damned uncomfortable, but not by much over what it was for them before.”
“But you’re not free.” Gabrielle gazed earnestly at her.
Xena’s lips twitched wryly. “No one is.” She said. “Think about it. Is Bregos? Are those damn fawning nobles? Is the army? No one is, Gabrielle. Everybody is enslaved by something at some point.”
Gabrielle had never thought about it that way. She pondered a moment, then looked up.“Even you?”
The blue eyes widened, and sharpened a touch. “Me?”
Gabrielle nodded. “You said everybody… does that include you?” She nibbled at a bone.
Xena took the time to examine the question, glad at least that the discussion was taking her mind off the pain in her back. It had been a very long time since she’d had anyone to just sit around and talk to, who wasn’t constantly on their guard and wary of every word.
It felt insanely good, and she really had no idea why. Maybe it was just boredom.
“I’m the only one who controls me.” Xena finally said. “And I like it that way.”
Gabrielle chewed her lamb slowly, thinking in her own turn. “I think I’ve had to make more of my own choices since I’ve been here than I have in my whole life before.” She said, a soft note of surprise in her voice. “Weird.”
“So.. are you freer now, as a slave, than you were as a free peasant?”
Gabrielle put her bone down and frowned. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“No.” Xena took a breath, as a sharp stab of pain jolted her. “But it’s true, and you know it.” She pushed her plate away a little. “What’s in that jug?”
Seeing the tense lines of pain on Xena’s face, Gabrielle set her plate down and scrambled to her feet, going over to the table. She sniffed the contents. “Mead.”
“Ahh.” Xena could already taste the honey. “Bring it over.”
Gabrielle filled a big cup and brought it to her, blinking a little at the strong, spicy scent of the drink. “Wow.”
Xena took a sip, rolling it around in her mouth before she swallowed. “Nice.” She murmured. “First batch of the year.. didn’t think it was ready yet.” She glanced at Gabrielle, who had settled back down to the carpet and picked her plate back up. “Here. Try it.” She extended the cup.
Gabrielle slowly lifted her hand and took the cup, putting her lips to it and warily taking a sip. She handed the cup back and swallowed, her brow furrowing. It was sweet, and potent, and stung her mouth a little. Even after she swallowed, the taste remained, filling her nose with it’s richness. “Mm.”
Xena swirled the cup gently and took another sip. “Like it?”
She wasn’t really sure. “I think so.” Gabrielle admitted. “The only thing we had at… home… was beer.” She wrinkled her nose. “Not very good beer.”
“In that case, take some, but not a lot.” Xena warned her.
Gabrielle got up and retrieved the jug, pouring a small amount into the second cup on the tray. She brought the jug and put it on the table and sat down. Surveying her plate of grilled chops and beans, and her cup, she reflected that the meal was probably the finest she’d ever had. Thoughtfully, she sipped her mead, musing quietly about her fellow slaves down in the workroom.
“So.” Xena’s voice broke her thoughts and made her look up. “What did you do for fun, back on the farm?”
Gabrielle took another bite of lamb, finally feeling her grumbling stomach subside. “Sometimes we’d play ball.. or rope jump.” She said. “Or if it was bad weather, word games.”
Word games. Xena detected a possible diversion to keep her mind off her back. “What kind of word games?” She asked.
“Um…” Gabrielle licked her fingers. “Guessing things, mostly.” She felt a little foolish. “One person would think of something, like.. an animal or a plant. Then everyone else would try to guess what it was by asking questions.”
“Mmm.” Xena set her cup on the table. “Tell you what.” She could feel the throbbing starting again and inwardly cursed herself, the archers, fate, and the bit of bad luck that had caused three men to make up the ambush instead of two. “Change this damn bandage, then we’ll play your game.”
Gabrielle was caught by surprise. Xena wanted to play her child’s game? Slightly bewildered, she got up and took Xena’s plate away, putting hers aside to finish later. She went and got the basin and rags, going to the water cisturn and filling the bowl with fresh, clean water. She brought the basin back over and put it down, kneeling next to the bed.
Xena had already eased over onto her stomach, and Gabrielle could see a stain of blood and pus on the back of her gown. She made a small sound of dismay, easing the cloth away from the wound carefully as she pulled the shoulder of the gown down and exposed Xena’s back.
Her skin, outside the area that was damaged, was smooth and soft. Gabrielle rinsed her cloth out and cleaned the area, which though swollen, didn’t appear as angrily red as before. “It looks a little better.” She told Xena, who had her chin resting on her wrist.
“Feels worse.” Xena muttered. “Damn it.” Her eyes narrowed. “If I catch the little bastard who hit me I’m going to pull his testicles off slowly before I gut him.”
Gabrielle wisely didn’t reply to that. She continued her work, resting one hand on Xena’s shoulder as she concentrated on removing the dried blood and yellow stains.
It occurred to her suddenly just how close she was to Xena.
Now that she’d cleaned off all the blood, it also occurred to her that the queen’s skin had a pleasant, faintly spicy scent to it.
She almost jumped. “Yes?”
“In the chest over there, on the bottom, there’s a box. Bring it.”
“Do you want me to finish this first?”
“No.” Xena exhaled. “Those herbs aren’t working. I want to try something else.”
Gabrielle gave the wound one last dab. “Okay.” She put the rag in the basin and got up, wiping her hands on her apron as she crossed to the heavy, brass bound chest resting inconspicuously against the wall. She undid the catch and opened the lid, and at once an odd barrage of scents invaded her lungs.
There were furs, inside, on the top. She gently drew them aside to reveal leather and brass armor, well oiled and neatly folded. Resting on top of them was a worn, thin leather bag roughly the size of her head. Gabrielle touched it as she leaned over the chest, her fingers detecting a hard, circular object inside. “Does the box have brown squares on top?”
Gabrielle carefully removed it. The box was wood, and as she looked closer, she realized it was made from different colors of wood cleverly interlaced with each other. It was stunning– a piece of craftsmanship that even her inexperienced eyes recognized. “Wow. This is amazing.” She carried it over to where Xena was lying. “It’s so beautiful.”
Xena glanced at the box held reverently in Gabrielle’s hands. A curious expression appeared on her face. “Thanks.” She murmured. “I made it.” She added. “A long time ago.”
Gabrielle carefully put it down, and undid the brass catch, then opened the box. The top rose silently on pegged hinges and revealed folded pieces of parchment, each with a faded scrawl on the top. “Which one?”
“Let me see.” Xena fingered several packets, then selected one. She brought it close to her nose and sniffed, grimacing at the sharp scent. “Yeah, that’s the one.” She handed it to Gabrielle. “Sprinkle it on, just a pinch.” She put her head back down as Gabrielle opened the parchment, which crackled with age. Memories of the time when she’d assembled those packets assailed her, and she let herself get lost in them for just a short while.
Gabrielle carefully took up a tiny amount of the crushed, dried herb, bending close as she dusted it onto the wound. To her surprise, the herb seemed to dissolve, and a whiteish foam appeared, quickly bubbling away to nothing. She looked at Xena’s face, which had an odd, dreamy expression on it. “Okay.. is that it?”
Slowly, the pale blue eyes lifted and tracked to hers. “Did it hiss?”
Gabrielle nodded, making a tiny face.
“Good.” Xena exhaled. “Damn stuff kept it’s effect. Lucky me. Okay, just leave it now.”
“Without a bandage?”
“Yes.” The queen shifted a little. “If you keep it closed, sometimes it gets worse.”
Gabrielle filed that away for future use. She put the packet back into the beautiful box and closed the lid. She walked over to the chest and put the box back, gently covering the contents with the fur again before she closed the lid. Along with the box, though, she could sense history in that chest, and the care with which the contents were put in there made her understand that these were parts of Xena that mattered very much to her.
Gabrielle went back to the bed side, stopping when she found one of the queen’s pillows on the floor where she’d previously been kneeling. She bent to pick it up, but found her wrist gripped in Xena’s hand. “Uh..”
“Leave it. Sit on it.” Xena pointed at the pillow. “Might as well make yourself comfortable.”
Gabrielle blinked at the soft, plump, richly silken item. “You want me to sit on your pillow?”
For some reason, Xena found that funny. Her shoulders shook slightly as she laughed in silence. Then she sighed. “Sit.” She ordered, pointing at the pillow. “Time for your game. You go first.”
More than a little rattled, Gabrielle obeyed, seating herself on the pillow facing the queen. Now at eye level with her, she could see the tiny glints of humor in the back of Xena’s eyes, and allowed herself to relax. “Okay.” She pursed her lips and thought for a minute. “I picked something.”
“All right.” Xena stretched her body out a little, forcing the discomfort from her conscious thoughts. “It better be something good.”
“I think it is.”
“It better not be sheep.” Xena warned her, surprising a tentative grin out of the girl.
“It’s not.” Gabrielle answered. “I knew it would have to be something really good to keep you guessing for more than a bit.”
“Oh, really?” A dark eyebrow twitched. “And why is that?”
Another grin appeared, this one more relaxed. “Because you’re really smart.”
Their eyes met, and held. The silence lengthened, until Xena broke it with a sigh. “Not nearly smart enough to avoid being shot in the back with an arrow, Gabrielle.” She said. “Animal?” She moved incautiously, and her breathing caught.
Gabrielle reached up instinctively and took hold of Xena’s hand, which was resting near the edge of the mattress. Their fingers tightened together and held, until Xena’s body finally relaxed as the pain faded. “You know… when I was listening to those men downstairs talk about how great going to war was… they don’t mention this stuff.”
Xena’s eyes opened wearily, and regarded her. “No.” She said. “If they did, no one’d want to fight, would they? If they knew they’d spend days… weeks… hurting if they didn’t die outright?”
“Mm.” Gabrielle shook her head a little. “Maybe it would be better if they did know. Less people would fight.. and die.” She looked at Xena. “That can’t be the best way.”
Xena looked at their still linked hands, then at Gabrielle. “Humans kill by their nature, Gabrielle. You can’t change that.” But her voice was gentle. “It’s a nice thought, though.” She cleared her throat a little. “Animal?”
Gabrielle realized her hand wasn’t going to be released. “Um.. no.” She said. “It’s not.”
“Gabrielle, it has to be one of them.”
“I’m sorry, it’s really not.”
A sigh. “Alive or dead.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Got a brain?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Oh, that narrows it down. Bregos?”
In another sudden reflex, Gabrielle found herself chuckling.
It felt so incredibly strange.