Shadows of the Soul

Part 16


Xena stood just inside the entrance to her tent, looking out. Despite the fact that it was, by her internal clock, dawn, there was barely enough light for her to see across the campsite. Dark gray clouds had gathered during the night and a cold wind blew across her face.

Her nose wrinkled a little, at the strong scent of rain and the dampness that made all the smells around her more vibrant than usual.

“Morning, Mistress.” Brendan had a thick, waxed cloak on. “Been a turn, eh?”

“Certainly has.” Xena agreed. “Traveling's gonna be a bitch today.” She added, mentally reviewing the route. “We’ll be up in the hills by midday... hope it doesn’t turn into snow.”

Brendan grunted. “Ah well, can’t master the weather. Least it was a quiet night.”

Xena’s lips quirked. “Not where I was.”

Her senior captain cleared his throat and looked away. “Aher… cooks’ are workin on getting some breakfast up, but they’ve had a bit of trouble with the fire in t’weather.” He said. “Men are packing up.”

The queen stretched, and then let her hands rest on her hips. “Good.” She nodded. “Sooner we get started, sooner we get through the mountains.”

Brendan nodded. “Send em past here soon’s breakfast done, Mistress. I was going to set things right for you last night, but the little one as chased me out.” The indignation was clear in his voice. “Shame if things weren’t as you liked em.”

Xena gave him a look. “Matter of fact, I thought you had.” She remarked. “Everything was perfect.”

His grizzled eyebrows lifted.

“And she’s a lot cuter than you are.” Xena grinned wickedly. “Just tell everyone when it comes to my gear or my kit – leave it to Gabrielle. She knows what I like.”

Brendan exhaled. “Aye, Mistress.” He gave her a slightly bemused look. “No offense to the little one meant… it’s just…”

“It’s just that the rest were mule fodder I tossed out with the morning bathwater.” Xena cut him off. “Well, this one’s different. Get used to it.”

The older man nodded. “I knew that, Mistress. Just wasn’t thinking.” He said. “I’ll be on m’way – good morning to you, and to the little one.”  He turned and ducked past the side of her tent, disappearing into the gray mist.

Xena grunted, then she turned her back on the weather and regarded the interior of her temporary abode, which was warmer, cozier, and definitely a lot fuller of cute blond slaves than the rest of the campsite.

Gabrielle got up from where she’d been kneeling next to the brazier and came over to her, carrying a steaming cup that smelled of berries and ginger. “Thanks for telling him that.” The slave said, handing her the tea.

The queen half shrugged. “It’s just the truth.” She sipped the beverage, and inhaled the steam as her eyes traveled over the slight blond form before her.

Gabrielle had dressed in her sturdy wool tunic, her leggings, and her boots, and with her pale hair brushed back still damp from their mutual morning bath she looked more like a young soldier than a delicious bedmate.

That was all right. Xena wasn’t much into frills at any time and she thought the plain, but well cut clothing flattered her young lover. With an indulgent look, she gave the shoulder of the tunic a slight tug, and then dusted it. “You ready for a long, cold, wet ride?”

Gabrielle grinned slightly. “Can anyone ever be ready for that?” She asked. “I guess the best way to look at it is think... ‘Okay, this is really awful, but it’s going to make a warm dry bed feel really, really good when it’s over.”

The queen chuckled softly.

“I remember one night in winter, when a storm blew the barn door open.” Gabrielle went on, stepping around Xena and starting the process of packing their things up. “All the sheep got out and ran away in the storm. My… father sent me to go find them.”

“You?” Xena had decided standing in the middle of her tent drinking tea while Gabrielle worked wasn’t to her liking. She placed her cup on the table and started to gather her gear.

“Well…” Gabrielle folded up the top layer of furs. “Yeah, I guess because I was the oldest.”

“You were older than your father?” Xena snorted. “Why the Hades didn’t he go??”
 The slave was silent for a moment. “I don’t know.” She finally answered. “Anyway, there I was out in the middle of the night, in a storm, looking for sheep. You’d figure that everything being dark, white animals would be pretty obvious, huh??”

Xena studied the shift she was holding, which bore the mingled scents of both of them to her sensitive nose. “Yeah.” She replied briefly. “Easy.”

“Well, it’s not.” Gabrielle said. “It took me hours to find them. When I finally did, where do you think they were?”

Xena looked over her shoulder. “I don’t know. Where?”

“In the barn.” The slave’s eyes twinkled gravely. “They’re not stupid.” She said. “But I was so cold, and so miserable… you know, I just closed the door and stayed in there with them.”

A dark brow twitched. “And let your father stew till morning?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Then I brought them out for everyone to see.”

The queen grinned at her. “You’re not stupid either.” She put her bag down and walked over to Gabrielle, putting her hands on the slave’s shoulders and turning her round. Xena took a breath to speak, then found herself caught in the depths of those green eyes and absorbing the echoes of sadness in them.

Don’t.  Xena was almost convinced Gabrielle had actually spoken the word. Don’t ask me.


Xena hadn’t gotten to be who and what she was by listening to anyone but herself. What was the big deal anyway?  She’d seen so much worse. “Your father sounds like a jackass. Was he?”

The slave half shrugged, her shoulder moving under the queen’s touch. “Sometimes, I guess.”

“The times when he kicked you around?” Xena held her gaze steadily.

Gabrielle’s face flushed, and her eyes dropped to one side.

“Don’t tell me you still have some half-assed family loyalty going, Gabrielle. Any louse that would beat his kid and value sheep over them isn’t worth the tug on the heartstrings.” Xena told her in a firm tone. “It’s a damn good thing he’s dead, because if he wasn’t, I’d go find him and make him that way.”

“Why?” Gabrielle lifted her head, her voice husky.

Why? Xena frowned.

“Why would you want to do that? He didn’t do anything to you.” The slave continued. “He… wasn’t bad; he just... lost his temper, that’s all.”  She finished softly. “Or he was drunk… didn’t know what he was doing.”

Xena gazed at her with shrewd, cool eyes. “You really believe that?”

Gabrielle stared straight ahead, her lashes blinking slowly. “Yes.” She whispered.

The queen sighed soundlessly. She lifted her hand up and tilted Gabrielle chin, so the green eyes met hers. They looked at each other in silence for several heartbeats. “Well, if you’re dumb enough to believe that, then I guess you’ll believe I’d go knock the bastard off just because he hurt you.”

The slave exhaled.

“Ironic, huh?” Xena produced a faint smile. “Coming from your friendly royal homicidal maniac?” She waggled her eyebrows.

“He raped Lila.” Gabrielle spoke up, unexpectedly.

Xena blinked.

“He said I wasn’t pretty enough.” The slave went on, in a softly reflective voice that was tired, and somehow relieved at the same time. “She was pregnant from it. We just f…found out before we got here.”

Xena blinked again, leaning forward and staring at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle’s lips twisted slightly. “Life just sucks sometimes, huh?”

There were very few times when Xena found herself speechless. This was one of them.

“You know, I still can’t hate him.” The slave admitted. “He was my da.”

And that at last gave Xena the clue she needed, the tiny puzzle piece she’d felt she was missing that let her understand how Gabrielle could so readily love her.

It’s just what the kid did. Loving was in her nature, and the gods only knew what it would take to change that. Xena shook her head a few times. “Y’know, you’re just the damndest little thing.”

Gabrielle glanced towards the tent opening as a roll of thunder rumbled overhead. “Thanks.” She said. “I think.” Her shoulders straightened. “I guess I’d better get moving… huh?”

Xena studied her thoughtfully. Her eyes were evasive, and a tiny pucker had formed on her brow, just above her nose.  What could that mean? The queen puzzled over the question. Tentatively, she put her hand against Gabrielle’s cheek, watching closely as her bedmate leaned against the touch unconsciously.  Xena rubbed her thumb against the soft skin, and very slowly, the tension around Gabrielle’s mouth eased and her lips twitched upward.

Okay. So far so good. But the pucker was still there. The queen plotted out a tactical assault, and slid her other arm around the slave’s shoulders, pulling her close and giving her a hug. After a brief moment, she felt Gabrielle relax against her and return the hug, her breath warming the skin on Xena’s neck.

Now what?

Xena pondered. Ah. Words. Yeah, she could try a few of those. “You’re right.” She told her slave. “Life does suck sometimes.”

“Mm.”  Gabrielle nodded.

More words? “But… ah… “The queen fished gently. “Life sucks a lot less when you’ve got someone you can tell nasty crap to, and get a hug for it.”

She could feel Gabrielle smiling. The muscles of her face moved against Xena’s bare skin, and the slave’s arms tightened around her with something close to enthusiasm.

Hm. Xena tilted her head and peered at Gabrielle’s face. The pucker was gone. There were tears on her cheeks, but she was smiling.  The queen added it all up and decided she’d done all right.

Gabrielle sniffled and cleared her throat. “You’re so sweet.” She murmured.

Xena’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. “Here I am trying to be nice, and that’s what I get for it???” She spluttered. “You little muskrat!”

Thunder rolled overhead again, and the tent swayed as the wind surged against it. Xena cocked her head to one side and listened, not liking what she heard. “Tell you what.” She spoke in a crisp tone. “Hold that thought.” She gave Gabrielle a quick kiss on the head then slapped her on her butt. “That wind’s trouble.”

A horn sounded outside, and they heard horses whickering.

Xena grabbed her cloak. “Keep packing. I’ll be right back.”  She ordered, as another surge of wind made the tent flap rattle furiously. “Hopefully.” The queen ducked out the front of the tent and disappeared.

Gabrielle looked at the empty spot she’d been in for a moment, and then she buckled down and got to work.

It was all rote, however. Her thoughts had already left the tent, and trotted after Xena, a smile of wonder chasing after them.


The horses were too skittish to ride in the storm. Xena tugged her hood more closely around her head and leaned forward, her left hand tangled in her big mount’s bridle as she slogged her way through the thick, cold mud.

Wasn’t this fun? She found herself grinning as she heard the curses behind her of the men, and behind them, the servants. They really had little choice – there were no places to shelter in and staying in the lowlands with this volume of rain was asking to be caught in a flash flood from the hills.

Besides, a little mud never hurt anyone. She glanced behind her briefly, to where Gabrielle was gamely keeping up with her, the slave’s fingers wrapped firmly around the stirrup flapping empty at the horse’s side. 

She was wearing one of Xena’s cloaks, hiked up around her waist to keep the length of it from dragging in the mud and bringing her to a sodden halt. Her hair was damp from the rain, and her face glistened with it but a slight grin was tugging at her lips as well and she appeared to be talking to herself.

 Didn’t that just figure? Xena tugged a boot loose from a sucking gop of mud and shook it, then continued on. “Hey.”

Gabrielle looked up at her, the green of her eyes seeming oddly vibrant in the gray landscape.

“Got any interesting stories that aren’t about pigs, sheep, or me?” The queen asked.

“Um...” Gabrielle struggled to keep her balance in the water churned earth. “Well, I guess I can… augh.”

Xena studied her. Then she stopped, making the horse stop, and forgetting to warn Gabrielle who plowed right into her. She draped an arm over the slave’s shoulder and held her hand up. “Hold it!”

Everyone plodded to a halt, so covered in wet and mud she was hard pressed to tell the soldiers from the servants from the horses.

From the mules.

What a mess. “Take a break. Quarter candlemark.” The queen yelled.  Then she turned and dropped the big stallion’s reins and slogged off towards a nearby thicket. Halfway to it, she turned and pointed at Gabrielle.” Stay!”

The slave glanced down at her boots, then up at the queen. “Okay, but I think I’m sinking.” She observed, as the mud crept up past her leather covered ankles and advanced on her calves. “Hope you can swim.”

“Can you?” The queen laughed, walking backwards with consummate grace.

Gabrielle raised a hand, and waggled it.

“Typical muskrat.” Xena reached her objective and turned, studying the branches she had available. She spotted the one she wanted and removed her sword from its sheath. “Never thought I’d be using this to do that.” She chopped expertly at the branch until she’d cut it loose from the tree, and then casually stripped the twigs from it as she walked back to the road.

Gabrielle had prudently yanked her boots from the ever encroaching mud and hopped onto a patch of higher ground.  She watched Xena as she came closer, using the back of her hand to wipe the rain from her eyes. “Oh.” She said. “Walking stick. What a great idea.”

“Glad you like it.” Xena tossed it to her, not surprised when it bounced off Gabrielle’s hastily raised forearms before the slave managed to snatch it out of mid air. “Since it’s for you.”

“Me?” Gabrielle blinked at the long, slim item.

Xena went to her horse’s side and took out her waterskin, which was in reality a cider skin. She uncapped it and sucked down a mouthful before she answered. “You. Remember I said I’d teach you how to use a stick?”

The slave examined her new acquisition. It was taller than she was, but her hand fit comfortably around it. “I... um... thought you meant a stick stick. Not a fence post.”

The queen leaned closer and spit a mouthful of cider at her. At the last startled moment, Gabrielle stuck her tongue out and caught some, blinking as the rest hit her more or less in the face. “Bah!”

Xena chuckled, putting the cap back on her cider and resting her hands on her saddle. The rain continued an ever-present, cold annoyance that thrummed against her shoulders, but despite all that she found herself to be in a very good mood.

She rested her chin on the covered leather, gazing thoughtfully at her miserable cadre of followers. Then she shifted her eyes to where Gabrielle was examining her big stick. The slave was running her hands over the roughly barked surface, and lifting it, then thumping its end down on the ground.

Of course, the kid had no clue what to do with it. Xena smiled to herself. But she would, before Xena was done with her. “Just hang on to it.” She advised Gabrielle. “Use it to walk with. We’ll figure out the rest later.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle agreed readily. “I like it. I once heard a story about a wizard, who had a stick just like this. Only he called it a staff.”

“A wizard?” Xena gave her a look.

The slave nodded. “Want to hear about it?”

Xena tucked the knowledge that she had a pithy little story in the offing neatly under her heart as she surveyed the rest of the travelers. “Yeah, but save it till we start off again.” She handed the reins to her. “Hang on to him. I’m gonna go check the lines.”

Gabrielle gazed at the strips of wet leather in her hand. “Hang onto you?” She looked quizzically at the big animal. “If you start running, does she really think I’m going to stop you?”

The horse arched his neck around and pushed his muzzle into her belly.

“I’d bounce down the road like a nutty rabbit.” She scratched his ears, tucking her new staff into the crook of her arm. “You’re pretty, you know that?”

The stallion nibbled her belt. Gabrielle leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, then stroked his big, flat cheek. “I always liked horses.” She confided to him. “Way better than sheep.”

The horse snorted.

“Yeah.” Gabrielle agreed. “They made me sneeze like crazy, so I’d escape from them and hide in the horse barn in the afternoon. We had the cleanest horses for a hundred leagues.”

The animal shook his head, and then decided to try lipping the edge of her cloak hood. The slave admired his big, liquid dark eyes as she tickled him on the hollows behind them. She decided his coat was just about the same color as Xena’s hair and imagined how he’d look with her blue eyes.

“Bah.” Gabrielle gave her head a little shake. “That would be just too weird.” She decided, shifting her boots once again out of the mud. The water was running down the road past her, and she could tell there would be little left of the track if the rain kept up except for a small stream.  They would be hard pressed to make it up the hill at this rate, and she wondered if Xena had thought about alternatives.

“She probably has.” Gabrielle told the horse. “At least it’s still just rain.”

A cold wind blasted against her, and she yelped as the rain sharpened into a spate of sleet. The horse glared at her, letting out another snort and shifting his hooves.

“Okay... okay... I get the message. Shut up.” The slave whispered into one ear. “Tell you what; I know a great story about a pony. Want to hear it?”


Gabrielle dodged around the side of the horse, as she was unable to see over him and shaded her eyes from the rain. She spotted Xena’s unmistakable figure not that far off, standing next to a big wagon. “I’m here!” she called back.

“Bring him this way!”

Obligingly, she started back towards the queen, gently tugging the big horse along with her. “C’mon, pretty boy. Let’s go see your mom.”

The horse made a sound that almost caused Gabrielle to trip. She used her new staff to catch her balance, and kept going, smothering a smile as she got closer to Xena’s tall form. “Here he is.” She said, as she came even with the queen. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Xena pointed to a small track almost obscured by the trees. “I found a better route.” She turned. “Mount up! We’re changing course!”

Gabrielle peered past the wagon at the path, which disappeared between heavy foliage. It would cut the wind and rain, she realized, and give them a little shelter. “Ah.” She murmured. “Is it a shortcut?”

“No.” Xena slid around her and took over the reins. “We’ll probably get lost in a bog and end up eating frogs for dinner. Wanna go back?”

“Nope.” Gabrielle followed her. “I like frogs.”  She found herself in unexpectedly high spirits. The day before she’d been somewhat unsure of herself, intimidated by the army, and by the travel she just wasn’t used to.  But today, on foot, and despite the rain, she felt a lot better.

She had a chance out here, she’d realized, to prove to Xena not only how willing she was to share the queen’s hardships, but how resourceful she could be when faced with the unexpected.  After all, she wasn’t stupid, Xena had said so herself, and she welcomed the opportunity to show what she could do other than cook and…




Cook.  Gabrielle felt herself blush, invisibly as it happened, and she tightened her grip on her staff. The stick felt good to hold and as she moved over the very uneven ground, the mud churned up by the wagons to a sticky sludge she used it to keep her balance and feel her way along.

She caught up to Xena as the queen led her horse off the road and onto slight slope, improving the footing immensely already.  The idea was sounding better and better every moment, and as the rest of the troops and servants followed them she could hear voices articulating that very thought.

They headed towards the opening in the trees, and passed under the thick branches into a cool, dim path where the rain almost didn’t exist.  Gabrielle straightened in relief and pushed her hood down, glad she now could look around her with out impediment.

The sound of the horses and wagons changed from splooching to the soft, regular beat of hooves on dirt and they quickened their pace, glad of dry footing at last. “Wow. Good choice.” Gabrielle said, as she edged up behind Xena’s striding form. “This is great.”

Xena smiled. “Now.” She moved aside a bit, to give Gabrielle room to walk next to her. “About that wizard?”

“Once up on a time…” Gabrielle began.

Her voice lifted and carried back, the rain now softened by the thick leaves. The rowdy cursing faded and ears perked up to listen, and even the thunder grumbled more softly.


“Brr.” Gabrielle clutched the edges of her damp cloak together with one hand, using her staff to help her move up the steadily increasing slope before her.  The rain had slowed, but it had also gotten much colder and now felt like bits of ice idly striking her skin.

Probably because it was. Gabrielle released her cloak and caught one; examining the hard item and watching it melt between her fingers.

It was well past midday. The path Xena had found had probably saved most of them from collapsing or even half drowning, and they’d made their way along the sheltered track in reasonably good time. At least Gabrielle thought it was reasonably good time, since Xena wasn’t acting too impatient.

She’d started to notice interesting things about Xena. Like the fact that she fidgeted a lot. She didn’t seem to have a lot of patience when things got fouled up and her usual course of action was to just start hacking away at whatever was holding her up until it stopped.

That could be a tree, the weather, a stream… Gabrielle exhaled softly. So far this trip it hasn’t been any people.


She wondered how much further they were going to go. There had been no stop for lunch, and she was uncomfortably aware of her stomach grumbling about that. Yesterday, Xena had kept them going until well after dark, and as she looked ahead, Gabrielle didn’t see any end to the long, winding, and ever tougher to climb path.

Her legs hurt. It was a different hurting than from riding – this was a dull ache in the tops of her thighs and in her groin and back. She wasn’t used to climbing up mountains, that’s for sure.

Ahead of them, the path seemed to top out at least for a short while though, and she was looking forward to a bit of a break from the upward slant. So she bore down and leaned forward a little, working to catch up with Xena’s effortlessly striding form.

Xena blinked the ice out of her eyes for the nth time, remembering all over again just how much she hated that feeling. She regarded the upward slant of the path with an evil eye, knowing there wasn’t any place to even pull over to stop within view.

Ah well. The queen tipped her head back a bit and looked up at the gray sky, only patchily seen through the overhanging trees. At least they were somewhat sheltered, unlike what remaining on the road would have been like, and they were making progress.

After a few more minutes, she reached a flatter part of the path and slowed, peering ahead of her curiously. The forest ground spread out here, the path continuing on up an even steeper grade past the far side of a large oak tree. But another track led off at right angles to it, cutting into the hillside and bearing the marks of long, repeated usage.

Xena turned, pulling her horse out of the way of the oncoming troops. “Hold up.” She let out a yell. “Rest here a minute.” Her words were welcomed, not unexpectedly, but she ignored the mutters of relief as she ducked past the first of the men and explored the side track.

A soft crackle behind her made her pause after she got a few steps down it. She felt no impending danger, however, and when she glanced back she wasn’t surprised to see Gabrielle at her heels. Ah. Was that it? The little muskrat could sneak up on her because she realized she was safe? “Where do you think you’re going?” She asked, with a smile.

“Wherever you are.” Gabrielle answered promptly, peeking past her shoulder. “Wow... it’s pretty up here.”

Xena looked at her. “No, it isn’t.” She replied. “It’s wet, it’s cold, half the leaves are dead, and there’s a slug on your shoulder.”

Gabrielle jumped and brushed at her arm, then relaxed and looked at the queen. “That was mean.”

“Oo... you sweet talker you.” Xena chortled, leaning to one side and giving her a kiss. “You say the nicest things to me.”

The queen turned and continued her investigation, moving wet leaves aside as she edged sideways up the overgrown path. She spotted a mossy rock wall ahead and grunted, then pushed a branch out of the way and found what she was looking for.

Damn it.

With an aggrieved sigh, Xena looked up at the gray sky. She felt a few bits of sleet hit her, and then a few more, the increasing volume timed with a pick up of the wind. 

They hadn’t gone nearly far enough. She’d wanted to be on the other side of the mountain already, but the weather and the long climb had prevented them from making the kind of forced march she really wanted to push for.

If she kept going, they might or might not find a resting spot for the night in the few hours of daylight left to them.

However. Xena put her hands on her hips. Here, she had a cave ready to hand, with an opening big enough for the horses, and the damn wagons to enter. It promised shelter from the storm, and a good, solid, defensible position she didn’t have to worry about being attacked in.

Damn it.

“What’s in there?” Gabrielle was slipping around her and peering into the dark opening. “Is that a cave?”

“Tell me you’re a cave virgin.” Xena drawled. “G’wan.”

“Well...” Gabrielle explored further. “This is my first big one.”

“Not surprising. You got a habit starting at the top.” The queen turned and walked back down the path. “Don’t get lost. We’re going to stop here for the night.”  She didn’t wait for an answer, instead, she continued back to where her men were waiting. “All right.” She snarled. “Listen up!”

All the soldiers turned and faced her. Behind them, the servants huddled near the wagons, plainly exhausted. They watched her with weary, wary eyes.

“From here on, we run.” Xena barked.

Then she waited. Her men managed to all groan without making a sound or moving a muscle. The servants at the back merely stared in shock.

“Just kidding.” The queen smiled at them. “You got lucky. I found shelter. Up there.” She pointed towards the path. “We’re going to let this storm pass over, and whenever it does, we move on. I don’t care if it’s moon highest.”

Brendan blew a lock of gray hair out of his eyes.

“Get moving.”  Xena turned her back and walked back to the path, taking hold of her horse’s reins and leading him towards the cave.   She still wasn’t happy about stopping so soon, but Xena also wasn’t stupid and she realized continuing to travel in these conditions was a bad idea.

All it would take is one tired drover making a mistake, and sending a wagon backwards to lose supplies, valuable animals, and probably a few extra servants as well. Xena hated wasting time, but she hated waste even more.

So, they would stop. “Brendan, put someone outside the cave. I want to know when this damn weather stops.” She ordered, as her captain came even with her. “We’re sitting ducks up here, and every candlemark gives those bastards time to plot against me.”

“Aye, Mistress.” Brendan agreed briskly. “We’ll do that.” He glanced up. “Should turn cold when she passes. Better start up some fires to get the cloth dry.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Xena instinctively ducked to enter the cave, even though the opening was more than sufficient to clear her height. Inside, she blinked and slowed, to let her eyes accustom themselves to the darkness, then she strode forward as she spotted Gabrielle standing in the center of the large space.

“Wow.” Her slave said, simply, as she stood looking up. “It’s so pretty.”

“Here you go again.” Xena looked up, seeing nothing but stalagmites hanging from the ceiling. “Gabrielle, it’s just a cave.”

Behind her, the space was filling with her army and the rest of the travelers. Xena took Gabrielle’s arm and gave her a tiny shove towards the back of the cavern. “C’mon. Let’s go see if we can find someplace that’s not going to smell like mules.”

Gabrielle peered in the direction she was being guided, and saw little other than shadows and more darkness. “Um…”  She squinted. “It’s dark.”

“Sissy.” Xena merely tugged her along, her boots crunching slightly over the rock and sand strewn floor. The cave traveled on towards the rear, its walls narrowing. She turned a corner and found what she was looking for, a nook more than large enough for the two of them, cozy and very, very dark. “Ah.”

“Ah.” Gabrielle whispered softly.

“Perfect.” Xena pronounced. “All it needs is a pile of nice, soft furs and a bottle of wine.”

The slave exhaled, moving a little closer to the queen. “Um…”

“Okay, a bottle of wine and a couple of venison steaks.” Xena teased. “I hear you grumbling.”

Gabrielle tried not to lose control of her breathing. “Ah... no, it’s not… “She felt the walls closing in on her and she tried very hard to ignore the sensation. “I just... um… “

Xena’s hand touched her cheek, feeling very warm. “Gabrielle.” The queen’s voice came right out of the darkness. “You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?”

There was a very long silence, there in that corner of the cave, where the sounds of the army making the best camp they could echoed around them.

“Yes.” Gabrielle finally answered. “I am.” She added, in a shaky voice. “Little, dark places... I just… I’m sorry.”

Xena could hardly imagine it. What was it like to be afraid of something? She wondered. “Brendan!” Her voice lifted. “Get me a damn torch!”


Xena draped an arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “You know what I’m afraid of?”

Gabrielle took a few breaths before she answered. “No.” She said. “I can’t imagine you being afraid of anything.”

“Spiders.” The queen admitted, in a whisper. “Hate em.”

“Really?” Gabrielle whispered back.

“Yeah.” Xena turned as Brendan appeared, along with a guttering, orange torch that sent weird shadows everywhere. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure, Mistress.” The captain told her. “Had to use the pitch to light’ er – most the rest are soaked through, Going to be Hades own problem to dry em.”

“Do what you have to. Get everything as dry as you can.” Xena ordered. “I don’t want anyone taking down with the coughing sickness. Anyone starts that; I’ll cut their throats out. Got me?”

“Mistress.” Brendan ducked his head and disappeared, leaving them in an orange glow.

“Now.” Xena held the torch up, examining the small pocket. “What do you think?”

Gabrielle slowly opened her eyes, and then exhaled in relief. The small, close space she’d been imagining turned out to be a reasonably sized, though low roofed chamber, with a soft, sandy floor and walls that held a hint of sparkling glitter in them. It even had a little rock shelf on one side you could put things on. “Oh.” The slave relaxed. “It’s nice.” She said. “Well, as nice as a rock cave could be, I mean.”

Xena found a place in the rock for her to stick the torch, and she did so. Her eyes followed the smoke critically, watching it waft along the ceiling and then escape into the bigger chamber. “Could be worse.” She acknowledged. “Least I don’t have to worry about some jackass coming down in the middle of the night on top of me.”

Gabrielle had walked to the wall and touched it, admiring the soft glitter. At Xena’s words she turned. “I’d never let that happen.” She said firmly.

Xena just looked at her.

“I’d scream really loud, at least.” The slave added, keeping a straight face.

“Was that a joke?”

Gabrielle lifted her hand and waggled it. Then she walked over and gave the queen a hug. “Thanks for understanding.” She said. “About me being scared.”

The queen wrinkled her nose. “I don’t.” She admitted. “But a torch is a cheap solution. C’mon. Let’s get comfortable.” She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle and started back into the main cavern. “And hope this damn rain stops.”


But it didn’t stop.  Gabrielle found herself a spot near the entrance and curled up against the rocks to watch as the hard, flinty sleet slowly changed to snowflakes. The pattering slowed as the flakes began to fall, drifting across the entrance to the cave.

The air blowing in with it was cold, and she tucked her hands under her arms. The gray light outside was dimming, and she knew night would be upon them soon. Though the wait was aggravating Xena, she was glad the snow was coming down just like everyone else in the cave was.

She was tired. Gabrielle rested her head against the rock, licking her lips a little. Her belly was full of stew, at least, and she’d gotten the queen’s things settled in the nook she’d picked out but now she barely had energy enough to hold her head upright.

Adventures, she decided, had their downsides.

She watched the snowflakes drop, allowing the almost rhythm of them to lull her into a sense of peace. Watching them, she could almost believe she was back home, on a winter day in the barn after all her chores were done.

Then there had been a small bit of time she’d had for her own, before dinner, when she could sit and just let her imagination run where it would. When the stories came to her, like old friends sneaking in for a visit just to cheer her up.

“Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess.” Gabrielle murmured the words with a wry smile. “Remember that story you used to tell Lila? About the princess who went out in the world in search of her perfect prince?”

How they’d argued over what was perfect.


Gabrielle turned and looked up, to find Xena behind her, leaning against the wall.  The queen’s tall figure was backlit by the fire burning smokily in the center of the cavern and it threw her face into half shadow.  Her eyes, though, stood out as they always did. “Hi.”

“Some reason you’re sitting over here?” Xena asked. “Didn’t think you were the loner type.”

The slave circled her knees with both arms. “No, I’m not. It’s just really crowded over there, and the fire was making my eyes tear.” She said. “So I thought I’d just rest here for a while.”

Xena turned and pressed her back against the wall, studying the falling snow with a sour expression. “We are not amused.” She remarked.

“We aren’t?” Gabrielle eased over slightly, just enough to allow her shoulder to touch Xena’s knee. The warmth felt good, and the intangible tingle she felt being in the queen’s presence felt even better. “I think snow’s a lot prettier than freezing rain, don’t you?”

“No.” Xena shook her head. “It’s keeping me from what I want. Nothing is pretty that keeps me from what I want.  Are we fairly clear on that?”

Gabrielle leaned her head against the queen’s thigh, watching the snow come down harder. “I used to catch snowflakes on my tongue.” She said. “Did you know each one of them is completely different? There aren’t any duplicates.”

Xena scratched her nose. Then she looked down at Gabrielle. “You would know that.”

The slave exhaled. “Was there something you wanted me to do?” She asked. “I think I got all your stuff done.”

“No.” The queen replied. “I just finished badgering my men and scaring all the servants. I was bored. I missed you.”

Gabrielle laid her cheek against Xena’s knee and gazed up at her, a smile finding its way onto her face. “Did you really?”

Now it was the queens’ turn to study the snowflakes for a while. “You know.” Xena finally answered. “That’s a damn good question.”  She extended a hand down. “C’mon. Let’s go figure out the answer.”

Gabrielle took her hand, and found herself lifted to her feet with almost no effort on her part. She paused to stretch out her sore legs, and then she followed Xena as they walked across the cavern. 

In the center, the fire pit held a pot still steaming with the remnants of the stew that had fed everyone.  The servants were still circled around it, finishing what was left in wooden trenchers and scraping the last drop out with bits of road bread. 

Around the fire the troops were camped, except for half a dozen of them who were station right next to the cavern opening.  Behind them, near the walls, the servants had set up their meager bedrolls next to where the animals were bedded down.

It really didn’t smell as bad as that sounded, Gabrielle acknowledged. After all, the animals had been washed by rainwater all day long, and she was used to the scent of manure. It was a weird mixture with venison stew, though, and her nose twitched at the oddly conflicting scents that assailed her the further she went into the cavern.

What she did notice, though, was that no one seemed to be standing on ceremony here in the cave. Though Xena walked right through their midst, there was no scraping and bowing that preceded or followed the queen’s progress.

Not that everyone wasn’t watching Xena, of course. Gabrielle caught the furtive glances as she walked behind the queen. It was more like the ceremonies of the court were suspended while they were on their journey. She wondered if that was a rule that Xena had set down, or something else.

She hoped it was a rule.  It seemed like something pretty common sense, and she liked to think that for all her talk, Xena had a lot of really solid common sense to her.  Even when she did horrible things, she seemed to have some kind of internal reason for them, and though often Gabrielle had trouble coping with the things she did the fact that she did them for at least her own causes seemed comforting.

They passed between two rows of neatly parked wagons, which formed a sort of barrier that separated the main cavern from where Xena had chosen to rest. In front of the wagons were a row of guard, and as they went through the line of them, Gabrielle realized the guards were there to protect them.

From the rest of the army and the servants? She looked up at Xena as they rounded the crack in the rocks and entered their area. “Xena?”

“Yeeesss?” The queen adjusted one of the torches, and nodded in satisfaction.  “That should be all right.”

Gabrielle changed her mind, and decided to ask another question instead. “It’s pretty safe back here, huh?”

Xena put her hands on her hips and turned in a circle, then shrugged. “Depends on what you mean by safe.” She answered. “It gives Brandon warm and fuzzies because he can have some slugs lie down out there and pretend to protect me.”

“You’re into slugs today, huh?”

The queen chuckled. “I found two on my saddle on the way up here. Weather.”  She shook her head. “Hate those things.”  She added. “So from that perspective, it’s safe. If we have an avalanche on the other hand, we’re probably royally screwed.”


Xena chuckled again. “Don’t worry. If you have to die under a pile of rocks with me, I’ll at least make it worth your while.”

Gabrielle digested this. “So…” She cleared her throat. “Is that where they royally screwed comes in?”

The queen had been removing something from her saddlebag, and now she stopped in mid motion, and turned her head to peer at her slave. “That.” She pointed. “Was a joke, and not only a joke, but a sex joke. I’m getting to you.”

The slave felt herself blush, but she smiled, wondering if Xena knew just how basely true that statement was. “So... those soldiers are for show out there?” She pointed behind her.

Xena leaned back against the rock shelf and crossed her legs at the ankle. “Yeah… I don’t really expect anyone here to come after me in the middle of the night with a bone knife.” She said. “But ya never know, Gabrielle. Plenty of people in those kitchens were on Bregos side, and if they got the opportunity? Why not?”


“Anyway.” Xena picked up Gabrielle’s staff, which she’d tucked away near her small pile of belongings. “Here. Take this.” She tossed it to the slave.

“Now?” Gabrielle managed to grab it and not let it drop.

“Yes, now.” Xena removed a spear, denuded of its sharp end from a crook in the wall and walked towards her. “You wanted to learn how to fight, well put up your stick, muskrat. I’m gonna teach you.”

Oh boy.  Gabrielle tried to muster up some energy. It was tough, but she took a few breaths and clenched her hands a couple of times and lifted the stick up, facing Xena warily. “Okay.” She said. “But I don’t think I’m going to be much good.”

“No?”  Xena studied her. “Why not?”  She leaned on her spear. “Sticks the right size, and you’re not that much of a weakling, are you?”

Gabrielle put the end of her staff down. “Not usually… but, I... um... “She exhaled and braced her shoulders back, lifting her stick up again. “I’m ready.”

Xena took the staff out of her hands with a motion so fast, she didn’t even see it. “No, you’re not.” The queen commented mildly. “Let me tell you something.” She booted the fallen staff up to one hand, and then tossed it back to the slave. “Fights don’t wait for you to be ready for them. If you can handle this when you’re worn out, it makes doing it when you’re rested a Hades of a lot easier.”

Oh. Gabrielle shook her hands, which stung uncomfortably, and lifted the staff again. “That sort of makes sense.”

“Sort of??” Xena walked over, tucking her spear away. “Okay, first lesson.” She took hold of the staff, and adjusted its level, bringing the right end up slightly higher than the left. “Spread your legs.”

Gabrielle looked down, then up. Her eyebrows lifted.

“For balance.” Xena laughed. “Not everything I say has to do with sex, you little muskrat.”  She booted Gabrielle’s feet apart to shoulder width, and pulled her forward a little. “You have to balance your body two ways. Right and left, and forward and back. So you can move any way if you need to.”

Gabrielle frowned. “I don’t…”

“Think about a big rock.” Xena interrupted her impatiently. “The rock sits in your gut.” She said. “That’s your center of balance. Once you figure that out, that’s where you move from.”

A rock? The slave swayed a little, trying to figure out what Xena was getting at. It was so alien to anything she’d ever done; she hardly knew where to start.

“Bend your knees a little.” Xena tapped the side of her knee with the spear. “Lean forward.”

Obediently, she did so, and as she rocked forward, something…it was so strange. Her weight came forward onto her thigh muscles and her back straightened and it just felt…

Right. She had no words for it. It was almost an echo of memory of something she knew she’d never done.

“Good!” Xena praised her. “I think you got it!”

Yeah. Gabrielle managed a smile. The question was, though... now what was she going to do with it? Looking at the grin on Xena’s face, she suspected she’d find out in very, very short order.


Oh, Xena, what the Hades have you gotten yourself into?  The queen washed her hands from the silver basin placed neatly on the rock ledge, drying her long fingers with the linen set next to it.  Teaching Gabrielle to fight was going to be like teaching a pig to sing, and she hated bad singing.

The girl just had no clue.  Xena had realized almost immediately that her young pupil was lacking in the one thing a fighter had to have in order to fight – aggression.  So she’d changed her tactics, and instead had just taught Gabrielle how to hold the staff so that she could defend herself from someone attacking her.

That had been more successful. But it still was going to take a long, long time. Xena glanced behind her. Gabrielle was seated on the rock ledge nearby, holding the staff, and frowning at it – small motions indicating she was trying to work out what Xena had told her.

“Hey, Xena?” Gabrielle stood up and lifted the staff again. Her hands were spaced at shoulder width on it, and she moved it up and down in front of her. “How do you know again if the bad guys are trying to hit you from top or bottom?”

This was your idea, remember that.  Xena walked over and faced her. “You have to figure out what the bad guy is doing.” She lifted her hands as though she had a sword in them. “If I’m gonna cut your legs off, I do this.” She set her balance and swiped down and to the left.

Hesitantly, Gabrielle lowered the staff, to intercept the imaginary weapon. The end of the big stick ended up around her knees, meeting the line of Xena’s hands.

“Right.” Surprised, Xena straightened. “Now, if I was gonna split your head open, I’d do this.” She lifted her cocked hands over her head and swept downward.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened and she got the stick up and took a step back instinctively. “But…”  She jumped a little as Xena’s fists thumped against her weapon, bouncing off a little as the flexible staff rebounded from the strike.

“Hey, that’s not bad.” The queen complimented her. “You might survive an extra minute now.”  She added. “You did right to step back. That helps you take the force and stay balanced.”

“It does?” Gabrielle glanced down. “I didn’t do it on purpose.”

Xena chuckled wryly.  She tapped the staff with her hands. “If it feels right, do it.”

Gabrielle considered that. She lowered her staff and examined the surface. “Won’t the sword cut through this, though?” The slave asked. “It’s just wood.”

Ah. Not a bad question. Xena studied the staff. “We’ll have to harden it.” She said. “But the trick is you don’t let the edges get stuck in it. You have to move it faster than the slugs coming at you are.”  She took the staff from her. “Like this.”

Gabrielle stepped back and watched, wide eyed as the queen went through a series of motions, the speed of them so incredible it made the air inside the cavern sing. “Holy pig butts.” She blurted, as the edge of the staff whipped out and back, striking an invisible attacker’s head.

Xena’s blue eyes twinkled at her. “Just blocking won’t do ya much good, muskrat. You have to hit back.”  She handed Gabrielle the staff. “Otherwise, you’re just sitting there waiting for him to hack you to death.”

The slave took the stick from her, feeling the warmth of Xena’s touch on the wood as she curled her fingers around it. “I’m no sure I can do that.” She admitted. “I don’t like hurting people.”

“Yeah.” Xena ruffled her hair briskly. “I can see that. But if you want to learn this, either get over it, or whittle that into kindling. Your choice.”   Even with all that, Xena acknowledged silently that she’d enjoyed the lesson more than she’d expected to.

Maybe it was that brand new, empty slate thing. She’d always had a thing for virgins.

“Well.” Gabrielle set the staff into a nook in the corner. “Anyway, it makes a good walking stick. Thanks for showing me how to use it, Xena.”

“Anytime.” The queen smiled quietly to herself.

A sudden rash of shouts in the outer chamber caught their attention. Xena tossed the towel she’d picked up again down and headed for the opening, the angry tones making her senses bristle.

Gabrielle froze for a second, and then she picked up her big stick and followed. She could hear the escalating noise as she caught up to the queen’s fast moving form and they emerged from between the wagons in time to see two soldiers standing near the fire with one of the servants held firmly by the arms between them.

“Ya little thief! Let me burn the dinars outta ya!” One of the soldiers yelled, pulling the man closer to the fire.  The man twisted in his grasp and cried out, but the two soldiers were more than his match. “Teach you to rob us, scum!”

Xena paused and let her hand rest on the edge of the wagon, watching with interest. She felt something impact her between the shoulder blades, and the next thing she knew Gabrielle was poking her head from around her right side, grasping her staff and looking past her at the fracas. “Did you just hit me with that thing?”

“Xena, look!” Gabrielle grasped her arm. “What are they doing?”

“Applying field justice.” The queen told her, unperturbed.

The slave gasped, as they forced the man to his knees. “Aren’t you going to stop them?”

Xena looked at her. “Why would I?” She asked. “They caught the idiot stealing, he deserves what he gets.”

Gabrielle stared at the tableau. The other servants had escaped away from the fire, and only soldiers surrounded the man. “But… “She searched for a reason, an excuse… “What if he’s not guilty?”

“Gabrielle, they caught him stealing.” The queen frowned. “These guys don’t have imaginations. That’s why they like your stories, remember?”



“Can’t you just make sure?” The slave whispered.

Xena tipped her head back and regarded the now smoke stained ceiling plaintively. Then she shook her head and stepped out from the shadows, raising her fingers to her lips and letting out a whistle as she walked forward.

About to shove the servant’s head into the fire, the soldiers stopped at the sound and froze. They straightened and stepped back as Xena entered the immediate circle of the fire, their backs bracing in respect as they stood at attention. “Majesty!”

“That’d be me. What do you have here?” Xena asked shortly.

The servant, chest heaving in panic, eyes widened in terror, just kept his head down and his gaze averted from her.  He was dressed in the clothes of a drover, and his legs were the bowed arcs of a long time rider.

“Bastard snuck up and stole my kit, Majesty.” The soldier on the left stated. He held out the kit to her. “Found it by his gear.”

Xena took the kit. It was stamped with her sigil, and she could see its twin on almost every soldier’s bedroll of she looked around.  She opened it and looked inside. It held a typical scramble of flint and tinder, sharpening stones, and other minutiae of a fighter’s lifestyle.  Her eyes lifted to the drover. “Pick his head up. I hate talking to lice.”

With a grimace, the soldier wrapped his fingers in the man’s hair and pulled his head back, forcing him to face the queen.

Xena held the kit up. “Did you steal this?”  She was aware, at the very fringe of her perception, of Gabrielle creeping up and watching from behind the first circle of men.

“Never s…saw it.” The man ground out from between clenched teeth.

The queen hefted the kit. “So, it grew legs and walked to your bedroll and snuggled up because you smelled like its mama?” She tossed the kit back to its owner.

The man just looked sullenly at her.

Xena crossed over to him and struck like a snake, her hand catching him in the throat as she lifted him up onto his toes. “I...” She snarled. “Asked you a question.”  Her fingers tensed, and the veins under them jumped and pulsed. “Did. You. Steal. This.”

The man struggled to breathe, his legs shaking. “I…”

“Faster.” Xena shook him viciously, rattling his teeth together. “Patience is a virtue. We all know how virtuous I am.”

“I... I didn’t!” The man choked out. “Twas there… when I got back from the fire! I swear it!”

His breath was offensive. Xena punched him hard with her free hand and released his throat as he dropped to the ground unconscious.  Then there was silence as the men waited, looking at each other as she wiped her hands off on her shirt and let her hands fall to her hips.

Gabrielle eased through the line of men and came to her side, wrapping her hands around her new staff and leaning on it as she looked down at the drover. “He said he didn’t take it.” She murmured.

Xena wrinkled her nose expressively. “If I was holding your throat, choking you and you knew stealing meant death, and I asked you if you stole something, what would you say?”

“You mean if I really took it?” Gabrielle asked.  “I think I would just say so.”


“I mean, how would he know if you weren’t going to kill him anyway?” Gabrielle lowered her voice to an almost whisper. “If he lied, you’d kill him, right?”

Xena shifted. “Right.”

“So... if I was going to die either way. I think I’d rather die telling the truth.”

The queen observed the circle of waiting me. “Me, too – but this guy’s got the brains of a goat, and he’s neither as smart, nor as moral as you are.”  She looked at the thief’s victim. “How’d you find it?”

“Came back from washing up, Mistress. Found it gone, and we started looking.” The soldier reported crisply. His eyes met Xena’s with calm forthrightness. “Max spotted it half tucked under this ‘un’s bedding over there.” He pointed. “Wasn’t much else to say... wasn’t going to bother your majesty with it.”

Gabrielle exhaled. “That really is pretty cut and dried isn’t it?” She admitted.

Xena’s blue eyes sharpened. “Is it?” She slowly started to walk around the circle, examining the soldiers. “You know, Gabrielle… my delicious little friend, it occurs to me that though our lumpy stock man there doesn’t have much brains, he really doesn’t seem to be the suicidal type.”

Her gaze found each man’s and held it. “In fact… you know what this reminds me of, Gabrielle?”

“Um... no.”

“It reminds me of a three day old dead fish.”

Gabrielle just leaned on her staff, and kept her mouth shut.

Face after face, eyes after eyes, she swept slowly around in a circle searching.

Finally.  A set of eyes that refused to meet hers. “Did you know a lot of people think I can read minds, Gabrielle?” Xena asked, in a conversational tone. “That if I look into someone’s eyes, I know what they’re thinking?”


“Really.” Xena reached her hand back. “Here, let me borrow your big stick. I’ll show you a neat trick with it.”

Gabrielle straightened and extended the staff to her, watching her take it and then walking up behind her to see what she was going to do with it.

Xena slid the wood up between her hands, then she pulled the top end back and slammed the bottom end forward, catching her shifty eyed quarry between the legs with a blow so hard it actually made a popping sound when it hit him.

He sagged to the floor with a croak, his hands going to his groin in helpless clutching.  Xena put the end of the staff against his throat and leaned on it, cutting off his air. “Now, see, Gabrielle? That’s two things you can do with this.” She instructed. “I don’t like thieves, but I really hate snakes a lot worse.” She turned and looked at the gaping soldier who’d lost his kit. “You and him buddies?”

“Buh… Majesty, he’s an old friend, yes. We...”

“Your bedrolls next to each other?”

The man nodded.

“Get me the wagon master.” Xena ordered. She waited until the older man came forward, watching her in nervous wariness.  “Stevan.”


“Tough road today?”

The man half shrugged. “Passable rough, Mistress. We managed.”

Xena leaned on the staff and pinned him with her eyes. “You’re supposed to tell Brendan when your men have trouble with my men, Stevan. You didn’t.”

His eyes dropped. “Was just a scuffle, Mistress. No one got hurt.”

Gabrielle watched all this in utter fascination. Xena had taken nothing but her instinct and at every turn, it seemed she knew exactly what had happened.

How did she do it? Just by knowing these people?

“Just a matter of that one wanting some apples, Mistress. Didn’t think it was hardly worth mentioning.” Stevan said, meekly.

“It almost cost him his life.” Xena pointed at the drover on the floor. “Next time, follow my rules or I’ll chuck you off the cliff, understand?”

He stared at the drover, and gave her a shaken nod. “Aye, Mistress.”

“Get him out of here.” Xena ordered the wagon master.  Then she turned and regarded the soldier on the floor. “Now, what do I do with you?” She pondered. “What do I do with a moron like you who has no discipline, and is an idiot to boot?”

After a moment, she turned and tossed Gabrielle back her staff. She studied her face for a moment. “Want to go get a drink?”

Gabrielle understood. She caught the staff and curled her hands around it, drawing in a slow breath. Then she shook her head.

Xena accepted the answer. She turned and flexed her hands, running over her options. So little time, so many possible tortures. The queen sighed. “What kind of fun am I in the mood for today?”

Then a funny thing happened. Xena slowly tilted her head to one side. She was very surprised to realize that she really had no urge to spend her time out here, punishing a man who meant nothing to her. Her real want was to go and relax on her furs with Gabrielle.


Well. Xena acknowledged. There was nothing to say that she couldn’t have it all. “Strip him and tie him up outside.”

“Mistress, it’s snowing.” Brendan had arrived, though he’d remained quiet until now. “He’ll freeze t’death fore morning.”

“Good.” Xena said. “If he doesn’t, maybe he’s worth something.” She kicked him in the butt, spinning him around as he lay groaning. “Leave his leggings and boots on.”

“Aye, Mistress.” Brendan nodded. “I’ll take care of it for ye.”

“I bet you will.” Xena gave him a look. “This crap happens again, I won’t be so nice next time.”  She turned and walked past Gabrielle, heading back to her secluded spot. 

Gabrielle paused, watching the drover be lifted to his feet. Her eyes met his. She smiled briefly. He reached a shaky hand up and touched his forehead, then limped off with Stevan towards where the rest of the servants were clustered, waiting.

“Damn.” The man who had his kit stolen murmured, running a hand through his hair. “Never figured it that way.”

“That’s why she’s the queen, and you ain’t but a mongrel dog.” Brendan shoved him back. “G’wan out of my way. You’ve caused enough trouble tonight.”

Gabrielle watched them drag the other soldier towards the cave entrance, his boots clattering on the ground. Then she turned and followed Xena’s steps, her head bowed in deep thought.


Continued in Part 17