Inside : How about something like that Gabrielle distracted her pointing at….

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Horse Shoe Key Chain - Gifts Horses-store.comInside : How about something like that Gabrielle distracted her pointing at….

“Xena.” “I mean, c’mon, squirt.

If I sent a present to every damn person who popped a kid out, I’d be living in the stable with Tiger here and you’d be busking for a living.” “But he’s your heir.” Gabrielle gently protested. “And after all, you saved his lady and all that.” Xena rolled her eyes. “Well, you did.” “What do you think we should send them?” Xena humored her, as they approached the gates and the huge portals swung open as the guards noted her approach. “Dead pig?” “Xena.” “Look, I’m not good at presents.” Gabrielle peered up at her. “You always give me lots of nice presents.” Xena took a breath, then released it, narrowing her eyes. “How about something like that?” Gabrielle distracted her, pointing at a nearby stall just inside the gates.

Here, the more prosperous merchants had been given stalls, and those who made the stronghold their home. “That cradle there.” Xena drew Tiger to an abrupt halt, and slid off his back, catching sight of one of her grooms bolting towards her to take the stallion’s reins. “G’wan and clean him up and give him a feed.” She told the groom. “And the runt.” Gabrielle had gotten off Patches back in a somewhat more decorous, though less agile manner. “Good boy, Patches.” She gave him a hug. “I knew you could beat Tiger if you put your mind to it.” The pony shook his head, and Tiger arched his neck and nibbled a bit of Gabrielle’s hair as the groom took possession of his reins.

Gabrielle checked to see if Xena was watching, then she gave the big black horse a kiss on the nose. “You’re a good boy too.” “Gggaaabriellle.” The queen was standing nearby, her hands perched on her hips. “This was your idea, remember?” “C… heading right over.” Gabrielle ducked under Tigers neck and trotted over to the queen, slinging her bag of apples over her shoulder. They approached the merchant stall, as the owner nervously washed his hands together. “Your majesty, your grace.” He bobbed his head in anxious obeisance. “What is your pleasure?” “She is.” Xena strolled around the stand, observing the wooden cradles, painstakingly carved. “You really think he wants one of these?” She asked Gabrielle in a skeptical tone. “Y’know, I’m pretty sure he’s got one already.” She rocked one of the items with a finger. “Wouldn’t he?” “Hm.” Gabrielle studied the cradle.

Would the Duke? “You’re right.” She finally admitted. “He probably thought of that, huh?” “Can I help your majesties?” The merchant asked, timidly. “Perhaps I can suggest?” He looked from one to the other. “You seek something for an infant? Or for yours.…” His voice trailed off as Xena pinned him with her ice blue eyes. Gabrielle gently intervened. “The royal heir, Duke Lastay’s wife just had a baby.” She explained. “So Xena and I were looking for a present for her.” Xena snorted and wandered off. “I’ll be over at that armor maker’s tent.” She pointed. “A dagger’ll do him better.” The merchant anxiously watched her leave. “I did not mean to anger her Majesty.” He whispered. Gabrielle patted his arm. “Don’t worry.

She’s not mad.” She reviewed the cradles. “She just has no idea about this stuff and to be honest, neither do I.” Her nose wrinkled up into a frank grin. “So what do you think? What would be good for a present for a new mother?” The merchant relaxed a little, though he kept an eye on Xena’s tall form nearby. “Well, m’lady.” He said. “Surely a cradle would do, but as her majesty said, I would think the duke had gotten him one before now.

What about.. “ He peered down the row. “Ah, perhaps a blanket for the babe.” He turned. “Brachus, stay here and mind the stall.” He ordered a young boy hovering behind him. “While I assist her grace here.” — “I’m sure they know how to use the one they have, Gabrielle.

Where do you think the kid came from?” “Well.” Gabrielle scratched her nose. “They didn’t have to use the bed.” She said. “After all..” Xena covered her mouth with her free hand as they passed through the double line of guards into the palace. “Okay.” She said. “A bed.

Why the Hades not.” She called over her shoulder. “Meridus? Get me the furniture maker up to my audience chamber before I get there or else!!” “Majesty!” Footsteps went running off. “Happy?” Xena removed her hand. Gabrielle hugged her again. “You’re so wonderful.” She exhaled. “I can’t wait to tell that new story about you at the banquet.” Xena grunted like a kicked pig. “I promise I’ll leave the part about the flowers out.” ** Xena let her sword rest on her shoulder, taking a few deep breaths as she felt the sweat trickle down her back. Despite the cool breeze coming in the windows, she’d worked herself up into a lather as the sun dipped below the horizon and the light inside her practice chamber changed from gold to twilight purple as she wove her way in and out of it, going over the intricate moves that honed her skills. The room was empty this time, missing her usual practice mate.

It was just her, and her sword, and the stone floor, nothing to obstruct her from the precision drills and now she paused in them to carefully extend her arms, hands clasped on her hilt as she stretched out her body. She was pleased to feel not even a twinge from her back.

That had taken a lot of work when she’d gotten back from the war, long weeks when she’d been scared to go full out, afraid of putting herself flat in bed again. Not to mention the pain. But for once she’d taken it slow, and the result was that her strained spine knit itself back together and responded well to the regimen of cautious strengthening she’d applied to herself. Definitely a relief.

She released one hand and swept her arms outward, turning her sword as she did so it caught the torchlight that slid over the flex of muscle in her shoulders.

She could see herself in the mirror against one wall, her eyes critically studying her form as she moved. “Old goat.” She pointed her sword at her reflection.

Then she twirled the sword, and launched herself upward into the air, flipping over backwards and landing, then bouncing back into a forward flip as she maneuvered the blade around in a pattern around her. Scary, and occasionally painful when she smacked herself in the leg.

But this time she didn’t, and she extended the drill out to the side, moving in a lazy circle in long steps that countered the rapid, much tighter circles of the sword work. She liked that contrast, the gliding sensation and the frenetic twisting of her wrists, at once graceful and deadly as she traveled from one side of the practice chamber to the other, passing the mirror and catching sight of herself in motion. The torches outlined her in red.

The sky outside had darkened to black, and her sword was catching the flames in a weird, creepy outline. And then Xena heard a sound behind her and she went from playful fascination to deadly serious in a breath, turning in a heartbeat and sweeping the blade in front of her as her eyes and other senses sought out whatever it was that made the noise. She paused, going still, only her eyes flickering from one corner to the other.

The room was empty.

After a moment, she moved forward, searching the rock walls, and every corner, looking for what had made what had seemed to her ears to be a shifting body. A boot, against stone, cloth against the wooden shutter.

It echoed in her mind as she let her nostrils flare, catching the breeze and searching for a scent to match the sound. But the wind only brought woodsmoke and the crisp smell of the stone itself to her, with no living tinge on it. Had she imagined it? Xena relaxed, but walked the edge of the room, from the single door that led to the circular stair around the long side of the room, past the two thickly silled windows, past the short far end where her various training aids were laying, and along the front side, with it’s mirror and two more wide windows. Empty.

Xena paused and let her sword rest on her shoulder again, as she stood in the center of the room and turned in a slow circle. — “Your majesty.” The guards put their fists to the their chests in a casual salute. Xena gave them a casual wave, and continued through the antechamber, passing the doors to what had been, for a long time, her personal quarters.

She ambled down the longer flight of steps that led into the central hall, then crossed the large, open space that was the formal grand entry. It was much livelier these days, the queen noted.

The forbidding, dark hangings had gone, replaced with bright, newly woven scenes that showed the lands around the stronghold, prosperous and well kept. Gabrielle’s propaganda.

Xena smiled to herself.

Not that it wasn’t true, at least this year, but the hangings were meant to hammer home to the nobles entering that they were better off with her than without. And that was pretty much true too.

Xena glanced towards the entrance to the big banqueting hall, behind the closed doors of which she could hear the bang and clatter of the servants setting up, and her ears also caught the murmur of voices in the lower Hall, no doubt her well dressed spongers waiting for their feedbag. “Hmph.” Xena veered to the left and walked up the short flight of steps to her current abode, the guards sweeping over to open the big doors for her as she approached. “Thanks boys.” “Your Majesty.” They answered together. Xena strode through the doors and crossed her outer chamber, unbuckling the belt around her waist as she headed for the bathing room. A knock made her pause. “Yeah?” She turned and addressed the now closed door. It opened, and Stanislaus peered in. “Your majesty.” He said. “Do you have perhaps a moment for me?” Xena made him wait for it. “A moment.” She eventually conceded, waving him inside. “But make it a fast one.

There’s a bath calling my name.” Stanislaus entered and approached her. “Thank you, your majesty.

I just wanted to inform you of the festival plans, and get your approval on one small item.” Xena removed her sword from it’s clips on her back and went over to the weapons chest with it.

She put it down on top of the wooden surface. “Have you run the plans by the muskrat?” Without turning to look, she had no problem imagining the sour look on her seneschal’s face. “Well?” “They were just finalized, your majesty.” Xena looked over her shoulder. “Get her okay on them, then we’ll talk.” She said. “Besides, she knows what I like better than I do.” “But..” Xena’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sweaty, sore and I’ve got a blade in my hands.

You don’t really want to piss me off right now do you?” Stanislaus sighed. “No, your majesty I don’t’ want to upset you at any time.

I will go find your consort and consult with her.” He turned and headed for the door. “If she might spare me a moment from all her lessons.” He added in an undertone. “Especially from those Persians.” Snark snark.

Xena watched the door close and smiled, turning to replace her sword on the bench and start to unbuckle her tunic.

Stanislaus never had gotten over Gabrielle and her scrappy, slave, peasant origins. He of course refused to acknowledge that Xena’s origins were pretty much the same.

The queen left her tunic half unbuckled and grabbed a wineskin, carrying it over to one of the comfortable swing chairs her consort had found and sitting down to relax for a half candlemark while waiting for Gabrielle to come back from… Wait. The queen cocked her head to one side. “Lessons from Persians?” She asked the empty room. “What in Hades is she learning from them?” ** Gabrielle carefully put the small lap harp she was holding back into it’s carry bag, and flexed her hand, her fingers a little sore from a candlemark of plucking. “Y’know, if I keep practicing this I might be able to play a song.” She glanced up at Jellaus. “By next summer.” The minstrel chuckled at her. “Ah, Gabrielle.

You’re not that bad, truly.” — “I fell in love with her.” Gabrielle agreed. “It kinda changes your outlook, you know? It’s really hard to think bad things about someone when all you want to do is hug them.” Jellaus laughed softly. “In any case, it should be a very fine Harvest festival.

I am looking forward to it.

There are many minstrels coming, you know.

Some have arrived already and are outside the gates.

I myself will be heading out there after supper to meet with them, and have a jam.” “A jam?” Gabrielle’s brows contracted. “Isn’t that what you put on bread?” “It is.” Jellaus said, with a grin. “But it is also what we call it when we get together and just play music for the fun of it, all of us.” “Oh wow.

That sounds like fun.” Gabrielle said, in a wistful tone. “I hope you have a great time.” “Listen in the night.” The minstrel cupped his ear. “From your walk up at the top of the tower you should hear us.” “I will.” Gabrielle started for the door. “See you later, Jellaus… we can catch up again at dinner.” She ducked out the door and let it close behind her, leaving the minstrel there, a smile still on his face. ** Xena slid into the warm water with a sigh, extending her long legs across the marble surface and stretching her arms out along the edges of the tub.

The heat of the water had just penetrated her skin and started to ease her muscles when she heard the door open in the outside hall and close again. No one in her kingdom would have dared to enter without her permission except her consort so Xena was completely unsurprised to hear her name being called in that cute voice. “In here, muskrat.” She tipped her head back as the bathing room entrance was breached, and Gabrielle bounded inside, her face pink from the wind and her hair blown into disarray from it. “Where have you been?” The queen asked. “Did you go back out riding?” “No, just crossing the courtyard.

It’s windy out there!” Gabrielle leaned on the edge of the tub. “But it’s great.

You can smell all the smoke from the fire, and the trees and everything!” “And the horse manure.” The queen agreed. “Did Stanislaus find you?” Gabrielle made a face. Xena chuckled wickedly. “I hope to Hades you gave him a hard time on every single boring idiot ass detail.” “He doesn’t like me.” Gabrielle dipped her hand in the water. “Hey, it’s warm!” “Course it is.” Xena said. “Think I’d drag your scruffy ass into a cold tub?” Gabrielle grinned.

She took a step back and unbuckled her belt. “I stopped by the kitchen.” She pulled her tunic over her head and draped it across the clothes stand nearby . “And ate everything? Didn’t bring me something back, you little punk?” Xena flicked a bit of water at her. “Being the queen doesn’t count for much around here huh?” Gabrielle dropped her boots and came over to the huge tub, leaning her bare arms on the edge. “You count for everything to me.” She said. “Do you want me to go get you something?” “Like that?” Xena leaned her head over to the side to observe her companion’s naked body. “I’d rather starve.” The blond haired woman’s face broke into an embarrassed smile. “I wanted to make sure they had all the stuff I wanted for our dinner tonight.” She explained. “I see all the stuff I want for dinner right here.” Xena put a drop of water on her nose. “Get in.” Gabrielle made her way over to the steps up to the tub and climbed them, easing herself into the water and letting it’s warmth creep up her skin.

The basin was large enough for a half dozen people to bathe, and it was made of marble in a free form state that had different little sections to sit in. The one Xena was sitting in was just big enough for two people, and she waded over to take her place next to the queen.

She leaned back against the sloping wall and exhaled, breathing in the faint steam with it’s hint of spice. XEna studied her out of the corner of her eye. “So.” She traced the subtly lengthening profile curiously. “How’d your classes go?” — Gabrielle wrapped the towel around both of them bringing their bodies into warm contact. “Maybe.” Her eyes twinkled. “Didja get me presents?” Xena gave up on the towels and slid her hands over Gabrielle’s skin instead, feeling her guts ignite. “Maybe.” Xena draped her arms over Gabrielle’s shoulders and bent her head as they kissed, savoring the contrast of the fall cool air and the sensual heat as Gabrielle pressed against her.

She removed the cloth Gabrielle was holding and tossed it over the edge of the tub. They left the bathing room trading the cold marble for the warm, thick rugs that lined the floor in the sleeping chamber.

The fire had been built up in the fireplace, and candles were lit at the four corners and on the headboard of the big bed, outlining everything in rich golds and reds. Very inviting and homey.

Xena wryly acknowledged.

The once bare, almost cold space had been turned into kind of a nice place to spend time in, with the sheepskin rugs on the floor, and the colorful bedding Gabrielle had found somewhere in her rummaging around the castle. The windows that had once been sterile and stark were covered in drapes, so they could block out the sun if they wanted to – not that there was sleeping in allowed in her quarters. Much. Tucked in one corner was the small writing desk Gabrielle used, with it’s stack of parchments and quills, her latest project writing down the history of Xena’s realm.

At first, Xena had not been very sure at all she wanted that written down, but as details were coaxed out of her, she found herself warming to the subject. Gabirelle took her hand and drew her down onto the bed, and they sprawled together over the soft surface.

Xena stretched out as she felt familiar hands touch her, savoring the knowing familiarity.

Her body reacted at once, her shoulders sinking into the feather down stuffed bedding as she abandoned herself to the attention. A good way to end the afternoon.

She tangled her fingers in her consort’s hair and indulged in a kiss, feeling her breathing go irregular as Gabrielle slid a casual hand up the inside of her thigh.

Or a good way to begin an evening full of hedonism. A gentle nip at her breast, and she stopped thinking about it.

She curled her hand around the edge of Gabirelle’s ribcage, and let herself get lost in the pleasure. An evening of hedonism indeed. ** Gabrielle went to the edge of the sentry wall and looked over into the big courtyard, where everything was bustling despite the relatively early hour.

The big gates to the stronghold were thrown open, and the space inside the walls was already filling with people. It was a beautiful day.

The sun had come up into a clear blue sky, and the air was rich with the smell of canvas and people and animals.

She could hear musicians tuning up in the distance, and she wondered if Jellaus had gotten his jam in. She could almost sense joy in the air.

That was new for Xena’s stronghold, at least in her admittedly short experience.

People were happy.

Harvest had been good, the realm was at peace, they had a good husbandry season..

So different from the spring. She heard footsteps behind her and she turned, to find Brendan approaching.

He was dressed in his usual tunic with Xena’s sigil on it, and he was smiling. “Good harvest!!” “Aye lass, and it is surely a good start to the harvest.” Brendan greeted her. “All the better for me as I’ve gotten word today, my daughter gave birth to her first, a wee boy, and I’m a grandfather.” “Oh Brendan!” Gabrielle leaped forward and gave him a hug. “Congratulations!” She had known, in a vague sort of way, that Brendan had a daughter, but she’d thought she’d heard him say before they didn’t have much contact. “Aye.” The old soldier looked pleased. “Been wanting a child a long time, she has.

Feller she’s joined with now seems a more likely father.” The door to the tower pushed open, and Xena appeared, wrapped in a deep blue dressing gown.

She paused when she saw them, and put her hands on her hips. “What’s going on out here?” She demanded. “Xena!” Gabrielle half ran, half danced over to her. “Brendan’s a grandpa!” The queen suppressed a grin at her dancing muskrat. “Kid of yours finally popped one, huh?” She eyed her guard commander. “She finally forgive you enough to name it for ya?” Brendan shrugged. “No knowing yet.

They won’t name the lad till he’s seen a moon or so.

Think its bad luck.” He said. “Surprised me, that they sent someone to let me know.” He turned to face Xena. “Men were wanting to know if it was all right to set up a sparring, to give a bit of show like.” Xena leaned back against the wall, spreading her arms out along it. “Remind everyone who the ass kickers are?” She produced a wry smile. “Sure, why not? Always pays to remind these bastards not to screw around with us.” “Been pretty good this season.” Brendan allowed. “Not as sour as the past.” He went on. “Course, winnin that fight and takin down the Persians din’t hurt any.” “Me rooting out the last of Brego’s supporters and having them drawn and quartered didn’t hurt any either.” Xena remarked dryly. “I think we’re finally rid of that bastard’s stench.” “Reputation got kilt but h’grace here.” The guard commander bowed his head in Gabrielle’s direction. “Once all of em heard of them people in the cookpot that did it.” Gabrielle made a face. “That was gross.” — There was a lot of that, coming in. “C’mere.” Xena motioned her over.

She waited for Gabrielle to approach, holding up a stunning bit of fabric against her body. “Now, I like that color.” Gabrielle looked down at herself, and the soft, clinging dress.

It was deep reds and almost purple, and it was cut to expose most of her shoulders. “Oo.” She managed a surprised sound. “I like it too.” That got her a smile from Xena. “Atta girl.” She draped the dress over Gabrielle’s head. “Here, take this stuff, and go put something on.

We’ve got people to terrorize and presents to accept.” Gabrielle accepted her burden, and pushing aside a bit of fabric so she could see, she wound her way through the wardrobe cases through the inner chamber and into the spacious, well lit space she called her own. It was the previous ruler’s solar, and so, was full of sunlight and leaded glass that arched overhead.

Gabrielle shrugged her pile of clothing off her head onto the garment press and sorted through it.

Halfway through a noise interrupted her and she turned to see a slight, scruffy figure slipping through the rear, servants door “Hey Mali.” A new development.

Stanislaus had talked Xena into letting him assign her a body servant, saying it was unthinkable that the queen’s royal consort to be cleaning out her own rooms and bathing area.

Gabrielle wasn’t sure Xena really cared about that, but she seemed to get a kick out of the idea of someone waiting on Gabrielle hand and foot so she’d agreed. Mali was the result.

She was younger than Gabrielle by a year or so, short and thin with curly red hair that was in constant disarray and she was very happy about her new assignment. “Oh your grace.” The young servant pattered over. “Let me do that for you.” With a smile, Gabrielle did, retreating over to the big work desk in one corner.

Having a servant was weird, and a little discomfiting, but, as Xena none too patiently had explained she was the royal consort, and servants were part of the deal so she better just learn to deal with it just like Xena had. After all, she’d been Xena’s body servant, hadn’t she? Though that hadn’t lasted long.

Gabrielle pulled out the small box she kept her few pieces of jewelery in and opened it.

They sparkled inside, resting on their folded bit of velvet. All gifts, all from Xena.

Gabrielle studied them, selecting the neatly made pearl earrings and setting them to one side.

That was the latest of them, from the pearls Xena had given her made into cunningly wrought settings of silver that cupped the gems without holding them in place. “Oh, this is so pretty.” Mali said, lifting up the gown. Gabrielle glanced up. “That’s for tonight.” She said. “For the big banquet.

I think I’ll wear the green one for brunch.” She watched Mali carefully hang the garments up in the tall press, amidst a collection of clothes ranging from a few gowns to the more numerous tunics and leggings she usually wore. Her hawk’s head tabard was there, next to a well cared for set of armor, and resting in the back corner a broken ended spear, pock marked and splintered.

She’d really rather have worn that to the festival, but she knew Xena had taken an unusual amount of time in picking their new clothes and she didn’t want to disappoint her. Gabrielle sat down at her worktable, picking up a quill and twirling it in her fingers as she glanced around, considering what story she’ d tell at the banquet.

Was there any she knew that were harvest related? Maybe Jack the Giant Killer.

That had beans in it anyway.

Or maybe the tale she’d reworked about the farm horse who saved his village from the flood? Xena liked that one.

Maybe because it had the horse pooping everywhere.

Gabrielle chuckled softly to herself.

She’d steer away from stories about the queen during the luncheon, and save the one story she knew Xena would let her get away with for dinner. She braced her hand on her head and scribed in a few words on the nearly finished parchment. She liked writing here.

It was quiet, and generally free of queenly distractions, the walls hung with silken tapestries full of bright colors and flowers, and the high ceiling giving a sense of space and air.

To one side was a daybed, where she’d occasionally nap, and in the corner a fireplace complete with an iron hook she often had a small pot of mulled cider warming hanging on. “There are so many people here for the festival.” Mali said. “My brother said you can hardly move in the courtyard.” “It’s true.

I saw some huge wagons coming in just now. “ Gabrielle said. “Why don’t you go with your brother to the market? Get the early bargains.” Mali looked at her, a little wide eyed. “Oh but who will help you dress?” Gabrielle leaned her elbows on the worktable, wondering briefly if she sounded as goofy to Xena as this girl sounded to her. “I’ll be okay.” She said. “Remember, having someone to help me is a really new thing. “ “I know.” Mali looked abashed. “I just want to do a good job.

It’s a real honor for me to do this.” Her speech, Gabrielle mused, wasn’t that of a low born peasant – a fact she knew well since she was one.

But Stanislaus had assured Xena that the girl came from two loyal servants who had spent their lives serving the crown and had explained an irregularities away by saying the girl had a hunger for learning and spent much time around the scribes. — “M’lady?” Gabrielle turned her head to find one of the servers there, with a tray containing little late harvest fruit tarts.

She scanned them and then selected two of the apple and two of the peach. A loud throat clearing caught her attention. “Two are yours.” Gabrielle smiled at the servant, and then she turned to hand over the loot to her now alertly watching seatmate. “Two?” Xena’s brows arched. “Xena.” The queen chuckled as she lifted one of the peach tarts from Gabrielle’s hand and popped it into her mouth. “Next!” She motioned the next noble forward. “C’mon Bresius.

Get your ass up here.” Gabrielle nibbled an apple tart, holding the other two remaining in her hand as she watched one of Xena’s border nobles approach.

He was an older man, with a thick salt and pepper beard and moustache. “Your majesty.” He bowed gracefully. “We have seen a good harvest this year.

Many fine hides we have sent, and cords of hardwood for your artisans.” He had a small chest in his hands, and now he advanced, dropping to his knees before Xena’s throne and extending it. “And this, a personal gift from my household.” Brendan deftly stepped forward from his place at Xena’s side and took the chest, after the queen didn’t stir a hair to take it.

He opened the chest and studied the contents, and then he turned and brought it over to Xena for her to see. “Oh.” Gabrielle felt her eyes widen a little. “Xena that’s so pretty!” Inside the chest was a set of matched daggers, the hilts carved out of deer horn, and the blades patterned with a delicately engraved scene of battle. “Since we were the closest to the fight, I had my metal craftsmen make a memento of it for you, your Majesty.

We will never forget it.” Xena took one of the blades out and held it, nodding a little at the fine balance as she looked at the engraving.

A faint smile appeared as she recognized a reasonable facsimile of herself on a horse, sword raised, with Gabrielle on Patches right behind her. “Look, muskrat.” She indicated the figures. Gabrielle’s eyes lit with surprise and delight. “Craftsman’s got a good hand.” Xena addressed the noble. “He did a fine job.” Bresius smiled, clasping his now empty hands in front of him. “My lands are tough and spare, but their bounties are yours, my liege.” He said. “Bregos thought me so poor he didn’t even bother to offer me protection.” He indicated the box. “But we have value more than wheat fields.” Xena studied him quietly. “What did you think about Bregos being out there?” She asked, running a thumb against the blade. Bresius looked a trifle embarrassed. “The truth, your majesty… we didn’t know.” He said. “Was a hard winter, as you know, and the passes were snowed most of the season.

Had a merchant run up asking for shelter beginning of spring who brought the news to us, but my man who went heading up the road here said he saw the army coming the other way and so.” He shrugged faintly. “We figured … “ He paused. “I figured you already knew.” Reasonable.

Xena mused.

Reasonable or was he lying, and was really one of Bregos supporters.

She looked him in the eye and he didn’t flinch, his heartbeat, clearly visible to her at his throat remained steady. Honest, or a damned, damned good actor.

Xena knew where his castle was though, and given the weather, it was possible it was true. She glanced at the knife and brought it a little closer. “They did Tiger really well.” Gabrielle observed. “And look at Patches! They even got how one of his ears always goes down like that.” Xena studied her own likeness. “Bresius.” She looked back at him. “Emissary from the port city came in yesterday.

They’ve ceded all the land between the pass and the start of the road to me.” Bresius cocked his head a little. “Yes, your majesty?” He seemed a touch puzzled. “That is a fine thing and clever of them.” “Mm.” Xena nodded. “Yeah, they figured out they don’t have anyone with the guts to defend them so they figured if they’re in my backyard I’ll do it.” She said. “But I’m not going to leave it all out there untilled so I’d like you to take possession of the lands on your side of the pass through the valley and hold them for me.” She could hear the stifled gasps from behind him, and she looked quickly up to see his retinue’s eyes widening in shock. — “Keep settin up.” Brendan called over his shoulder. “What is it, Gabrielle?” He asked his companion. “Bad stuff? Any of those useless gits get her mad?” “It’s kinda hard to say.. “Gabrielle paused, as they neared the road up to the stronghold and saw an ornate party, complete with soldiers and out riders making their way to the gates. “Wow.

Who’s that?” Brendan shaded his eyes, keeping a quick pace towards the stairs.

Then he stopped abruptly. “Cow’s balls.” Gabrielle nearly crashed into him.

She hauled up short and put a hand on his back. “What’s wrong?” “That un is.” He pointed at the column of horses. “Name’s Philtop.

Calls himself Prince of the Westlands.” At this distance, most of the group was just a cluster of bodies and horses.

One horse was a fine bay stallion, though, and his rider was tall and dressed in a fur lined silk cape. “Ah.” “Land’s t’other side of the mountains.” Brendan took a last look, then started towards the castle. “Better give her some warning.

He brought his army cross the hills and laid into us after we took this place.” “I guess he lost.” Gabrielle trotted to keep up with him. Brendan snorted a little. “He surely did, aye.

Then he tried his wiles on her Maj and gave us a scare, I’ll tell ya.” Gabrielle frowned. “She liked him?” “We thought she did.” Brendan crossed the outer courtyard and headed for the steps. “Turns out we didn’t know her well as we thought..

She turned him inside out and sent him back to the Westlands short a few pieces.” Gabrielle decided she probably didn’t want to know what pieces.

She followed Brendan as they cleared the doors to the stronghold and headed for Xena’s chambers. “Why is he here?” She finally asked, just as t hey were about to reach the doors. “Good question, little one.” Brendan motioned for the doors to be opened as they neared. “Maybe he’s looking for a parley.

Heard they didn’t do so well out there this season.” Hm.

Gabrielle followed him inside, where Xena and Bresius were waiting, and the border lord now seated on a padded stool near the queen’s big chair.

There was, she reckoned, such a thing as too much success. “Thanks muskrat.” Xena greeted her with a brief grin. “C’mere and finish with my tail.” Gabrielle blushed, a little, but then, so did Bresius.

Brendan merely saluted the queen. “Mistress.” Brendan said. “Philtop’s here.” Xena tipped her head back and rolled her eyes. “And today was starting out to be so good.” She sighed. “Muskrat roll the sun back.

Let’s go back to bed.” She covered her eyes with the fingers of one hand. “What did I do to deserve that, I wonder?” “Heard about the Persians, maybe.” Brendan grunted. Bresius shifted a little. “Many heard.” He said. “Every merchant train coming through from the harbor talked about it.” Xena sighed. “Brendan, go with him.

He found two of his men dead.

See what the deal is.” She said. “And tell Stanislaus to find some place to put the Westlands jackass as far away from me as possible.” Gabrielle bit back a cheer.

She sorted out the rest of Xena’s hair, waiting for the door to close behind Brendan and Bresius before she leaned over and gave the queen a kiss on the back of her now bared neck. Xena leaned her head against her consorts. “Know something, Gabrielle?” “Not a whole lot, no.” Gabrielle admitted. “I’m trying to learn stuff though.” The queen smiled, an unexpectedly warm expression on her face as she turned and looked at her bedmate. “One bright spot in Philtop showing up.

I’m glad he’ll get to meet you.” “Me?” “Mm.” “Why?” Xena smiled again. “I just am.” She said. “What story were you going to tell at the banquet tonight?” She changed the subject. “The Persians?” — The army had thought so, apparently.

It was easy to imagine their alarm, after their long struggle to conquer the stronghold only to find their leader falling under the charms of what must have seemed to them like just another one of the same type they’d just fought against. But she’d known Xena long enough now to read her most subtle body language and her reaction to the news of Philtop’s’ visit had been straightforwardly unwelcome.

She hadn’t sensed any embarrassment there, or any sign of anticipation.

Just a typical eye rolling exasperation that might have been focused on Stanislaus for all the emotional charge of it. So. “Ah, your grace.” Gabrielle had finally gotten used to being addressed by that title, and she turned to find the royal vintner behind her. “Oh, hello.” “I’m so glad to find you here.” The man said. “I have something new, something I just created and I’m hoping the queen will approve of it.” Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. “I know her Majesty loves your wines.” She said. “So unless you made one out of carrots, it’ll probably be okay.” From the corner of her eye, she watched Stanislaus and two other of the castle managers approach the Prince, greeting him with a brief bow. “Oh no your grace.

I would never use vegetables.

Far too little sugar to make wines pleasing to her Majesty.” The vintner looked scandalized. “She has very particular tastes, as your grace surely knows.” Her grace surely did.

Possibly far better than the vintner.

Gabrielle was aware of grooms from the royal stables coming to take the visitor’s horses, and one of Brendan’s lieutenants eased among the prince’s guard and pointed towards the nearby barracks. “Okay, so then it should be fine, whatever it is.” “Could you possibly do me the great honor of tasting it?” The man asked. “It’s really very different..

I don’t want to upset her Majesty.” He held a small tasting cup up hopefully. “Sure.” Gabrielle watched past his shoulder as Stanlslaus led the Westland’s servants inside, all heavily laden with trunks and parcels.

The prince and his group were looking around, and for a moment, she saw the prince’s eyes fall on her. She ignored the attention, taking the tasting cup from the vintner and sipping from it, the bowl filled with a pale liquid that smelled of fruit. “Oh!” She looked up at him in delighted surprise. “That’s great!” The vintner’s face split into a huge smile. “Do you really think so?” “Oh yeah!” Gabrielle nodded. “Xena’s gonna love this.” She held her hand out. “Give me that skin.

I’ll bring it over to her.

I’m heading there now.” The vintner bowed, and handed over the wineskin he’d had slung over one shoulder. “I’m so glad you like it.

I was hoping to serve it at the banquet tonight.” Gabrielle cradled the skin in one elbow. “After Xena tastes this, I bet she makes you keep it all for her.” She assured him. “Good job!” The vintner bowed again, then stepped away and headed back into the castle.

Gabrielle turned, half expecting to find Philtop and his gang still staring, but the forecourt was empty, and she spotted the group crossing through the gates heading for the viewing stands. Relieved, she angled her steps towards the merchant’s booths, deciding she’d better pick up something to snack on if she was going to bring up the whole wineskin to Xena.

Wouldn’t end up good for anyone if the queen drank it all on an empty stomach then joined in the sparring. The vendor stalls were already doing a brisk business.

The best evidence of the good harvest was in the coin being spent, and there were many there spending, landholders and the townspeople mingling as they took in the wares – some from quite far away. Gabrielle strolled along, her eyes flicking over the different booths.

She pause to pick up a net full of late harvest fruits, and added a small wheel of cheese to that, along with a sack of nuts before she realized she’d picked up an escort. The two soldiers, dressed in Xena’s colors and with her hawks head on their over tunics didn’t bother or obstruct her, they merely trailed along after her, one of them stepping up briefly and asking her if he could carry her packages. “No thanks, Gerard.” Gabrielle smiled at him. “I’m almost done.” Had Xena sent them? She eyed the soldiers speculatively.

Or had they just decided to shadow her, since the stronghold was full of strangers? The soldiers she’d spent two campaigns with now might do that, of their own volition. “Pretty day.” Gerard said. “Grand day for the festival, eh?” “Sure is.” Gabrielle felt the cool wind ruffle her hair. “Are you going to be in the show fights?” “Not us, your grace.” Gerard smiled at her, and put a hand on his chest. “We’ve been assigned the great honor of escorting you.” Ah. “Do I need an escort?” “There are many in the stronghold unknown to us.” Gerard’s companion spoke up. “Merchants and visitors from afar.

It pays to be safe, rather than sorry.” Gabrielle smiled at them. “Thanks.” She continued her stroll, followed by her two shadows.

Gerard and his partner Brent, dressed now as soldiers, were two of Xena’s most trusted men.

They were both around the queen’s age, solid and muscular, long time veterans of her army. They were also, Xena had casually informed her, two of the best assassins the queen knew.

She had sent them behind enemy lines to cut the throats of important commanders – they were utterly hers, and Gabrielle knew both had been in the group trapped in the tunnel with them and again, in the small party that had stuck with Xena when they walked into the hands of the Persian army. “Lot of stock coming in.” Brent commented, as two big wagons were pulled past by well fed oxen. “Going to be good cold season.

Have time to gear up.” Gabrielle nodded in agreement.

She was glad of the winter months coming up.

She had a lot of writing to catch up on and she was hoping Xena would take the time to start showing her how to use a sword. Or – at least – something other than a half cut off spear or a big stick. ** The sun was drenching the big open spaces inside the walls as Xena settled herself into her ruggedly built throne, under a green silk canopy on a platform built up against the inner wall. She had a gold chased gown wrapped around her, but anyone with sharp eyes could spot the tough leather boots and leg armor on her long legs sticking out from the bottom of it, and she’d slung her sword in it’s sheath on one of the high, turned finials of the chair. Despite her chivvying of Gabrielle, it felt damn good to be in her fighting gear and she took a deep breath, the constriction of the leather closing around her briefly before she released it.

It felt good to have the weight of armor on her shoulders and the faint pressure of daggers at the tops of her boots. Lately, she’d gotten more used to being in leather than silk, and the touch of the well cured hide against her own was oddly comforting, all the more so because the past candlemark or so had proved uncomforting to say the least. Brendan was busy investigating.

Gabrielle had ducked off to find some parchment to bring with her, and, Xena suspected, to sneak over to the vendor stalls to do a little shopping.

That left her alone up on her platform, watching the first set of entertainers get ready to start their show. Horse trick riders.

Xena adored them.

These lot were from the eastern lands far past her borders, and it made her happy to see them, after an absence of several years.

She studied the near dozen animals, sturdy and well cared for, that were trotting around in a circle while their riders tumbled and jumped around and over them, fearless of the big hooves. For a moment, she imagined what it might be like to be one of them, traveling from city to city in a nomadic and sparse existence. Would she like that? Xena watched as the group gathered in the center of the horses, most of them listening to the tall, auburn haired man who was apparently their leader. What was their day like? She mused.

Playing for the crowd, then what? Go back to their caravan; a tarp set over it to shelter them and seat themselves on worn cushions, to share whatever was in their common pot to eat. They had themselves, and their horses.

It reminded Xena, just a little, of traveling with her army in the field when a long day of traveling or fighting might end with a campsite at twilight, some fresh caught fish, and if they were lucky some music around the fire. She remembered one such night.

They had been under a crystal clear sky full of stars, and she’d had her back against a tall tree, her knees propped up over her fur covered saddle, a mug of rum in her fist and the satisfaction of victory warm in her gut. Lyceus playing his sitar near the fire.

Everyone in a good mood, even those nursing wounds from the day’s fighting. Raising their mugs to her. “Xena?” The queen jumped, and nearly lifted herself out of her chair, her hand going for her sword hilt before her brain kicked in and she thumped back into place with a grunt. “Don’t do that.” “Sorry, mistress.” Jellaus bowed, and stifled a smile. “You seemed a thousand leagues away.” Xena shifted and leaned an elbow on her chair arm, resting her chin on her fist. “Just remembering the old days.” She admitted. “Hearing anything interesting?” Jellaus plucked the strings on his instrument. “Grudging or no, all agree your majesty is in very fine form.” He bowed again. “Even our old friends from the Westlands.

I saw them arrive.” “Jackass.” Xena muttered. “Ah, mistress.” Jellaus strummed a low, wordless tune. “A prince of such beauty, he felt surely you couldn’t resist him.” He said. “And he was, indeed, beautiful.” “He was.” Xena allowed. “But a bastard on the inside.

Probably still is.” She glanced at Jellaus. “Go see if you can find out what his game is, Jellaus.” “Mistress.” The musician bowed, then he turned and strolled off, strumming his sitar softly as he moved through the gathering crowd. Philtop.

Xena felt her face twisting into a grimace. “I shoudla made the damn party invite only.” Dismissing the thought, she turned in her chair as she spotted the horse dancers moving into position to start their show.

From the corner of her eye, she spotted Philtop and his retinue taking seats on a pavilion across from hers, amidst a throng of her own nobles. She knew she was being watched.

She could see Philtop standing there, and knew he was waiting for her to look over at him. Xena crossed her ankles and kept her eyes on the horses, only shifting when she caught sight of Gabrielle approaching through the crowd and heading towards her.

She settled back, watching the horses start up but also watching her consort. Gabrielle had a wine sack slung over one shoulder, and a small bag next to it that looked like it had fruit in it.

In her snug leggings and shirt, she looked cute and sexy, the sunlight glinting off her blond hair as she moved quickly through a crowd that parted before her with equal haste. She had her head held high, and as her gaze crossed Xena’s, her face moved into a grin that lit her face right up. Xena felt herself grinning back. Damn they were a couple of nitwits sometimes.

The queen gestured to the chair next to her as her consort arrived, focusing on her and leaving the horse troop to dance unseen for a few minutes. “Whatcha got?” “Taste this Xena.” Gabrielle handed over the winesack. “It’s amazing.” Obligingly, Xena uncapped it and took a swig, trusting that Gabrielle’s version of amazing wasn’t too far from her own to make her want to spit out whatever it was. “Mm.” Her brows went up in surprise. “Fizzy.” “Bubbles.” Gabrielle set down her other sack on the small wooden table between their chairs. “And I got some really nice looking fruit from the garden.” She sat down. “The vintner just finished that bubbling stuff.

It’s white wine but he did something to it.

I really like it.” “Me too.” Xena took another swig of the wine, the bubbles tickling her tongue.

It was moderately sweet, and very refreshing. “Tell Fergus he better save some of this for me.” Gabrielle smiled. “I did.” She confessed. “And I got you this!” She leaned over and offered Xena something in her hand. “It was so pretty.

I thought you’d like it.” Xena looked down to find a beautifully wrought metal horse head, hammered delicately into smoke black metal with the eyes of amber inset – an uncanny image of her favorite stallion.

She felt her jaw drop a little and blinked. — Sure enough, standing squarely between her and Philtop, shoulders braced and legs spread a little was Gabrielle, providing an adorably bristling guard complete with a rolled up scroll in one hand you could maybe consider a weapon. Cute as Hades. Xena stepped forward and leaned an elbow on one of those shoulders. “What do you want?” She asked Philtop. “I don’t recall an invitation going out in your direction.” She met his eyes coolly. He looked more or less the same.

His hair was getting a touch grizzled, but he still had that Olympian god like face and a well kept body to go with it.

He also still had that arrogant stance, though he hadn’t been stupid enough to wear a sword at his belt where he customarily kept his hand, cocked in the manner of a natural swordsman. Which he was, as much as she was. “I thought it was just an oversight.” He responded mildly. “As the rest of the surrounding lands were, and I see old Charstian over there, and all his get.” He indicated a far section of the seating full of visitors. “So I came to pay my respects.” He touched his chest briefly. “And to ask if we could let the past go.

It’s another day.” Gracious speech.

Xena didn’t much buy it, but she appreciated the dance.

She studied his face, which he was trying hard to keep a humble expression on. “I hear you had a tough year.” He lifted a hand, and let it fall. “Sometimes the Fates are more capricious than other times.

He admitted. “I felt it might be time for our lands to have friendlier relations.” Xena regarded him drolly. “You did, huh?” He smiled slightly. “Perhaps your majesty will do me the great honor and favor of discussing it later, after the festivities.” He bowed. Must be killing him.

Xena could see the discomfort in the motion, and the anxious looks from his attendants. “Maybe.” She relented. “See my seneschal inside.

I might have a few minutes before the banquet.” She saw the faint look of triumph, quickly masked, and wondered what exactly he was up to. “Many thanks.” He said. “Until later, your Majesty.” He glanced at Gabrielle, who had been merely standing quietly and watching while they spoke. Xena smiled. “My consort, Gabrielle.” She supplied, watching his face react before he could stop it and getting a twitch of satisfaction from the twist in his shapely lips. “So you finally picked someone.” Philtop said, after a pause.

Gabrielle’s head lifted a little, and her back straightened as she glanced at Xena. “She picked me.” Xena, surprisingly, responded. “Damnable lack of judgment.” He nodded briefly, and then he turned and led his group away down the steps, past the guard who took up a position again blocking the way up. “Hm.” Gabrielle made a noise deep in her throat. Xena laughed shortly, and pulled her around to face the field again. “Jackass.’ She draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders, glad when she felt her consort snuggle close, and put her own arm around Xena’s waist. “Hasn’t changed.” “Wonder what he wants?” “Besides me?” The queen answered wryly. “He showed up here right after I won the crown.

Thought he was a gift of the gods, and that I’d be grateful to have him in my bed and add these lands to his.

Offered to let me keep my title if I gave him an heir.” Gabrielle made another noise, something like a cross between a cat hiss and a cough. “Still waiting for an heir.

I kicked him so hard in his man parts I think I broke them.” Xena mused. “They had to carry him home on an oxcart.

Couldn’t sit his horse.” She pointed at the juggler. “Now that I can do.

Wanna see?” Gabrielle could well imagine Xena kicking someone there.

She’d seen her do it on more than one occasion, but usually the queen picked that spot because it was a weak point not for more personal reasons. Philtop had been personal.

The thought of him assuming Xena would come meekly to his bed was something she found sort of funny, but funny in a gut grinding, uncomfortable way. She looked up at Xena’s face, at this person who she loved in such a crazy and overwhelming completeness and wondered after such a previous rejection what Philtop was going to ask of her now. — Xena patted her cheek affectionately. “Ats my girl.” Then she pointed at the juggling. “C’mon.

Let’s go show them how to do that.” “Uh..

Xena I can’t juggle.” “Have you tried?” “No.” “Then how do you know?” Xena started guiding her down the slope towards the stage. “You gotta take chances in life, muskrat.

We’ll start with little fireballs.” ** Gabrielle sunk into the warm water up to her nose, letting out a sigh of relief as the heat leeched the soreness out of her bones.

Juggling had turned to horse riding, which had turned to sparring which had ended with an impromptu musical bedlam – all a bit wild, and a little out of control. She was tired.

Running around after Xena, ducking juggling clubs, grabbing a spear and defending the queen’s behind in the sparring…

And then there had been the mud battle. She rubbed the back of her ear, the image of Xena shucking her robe and diving in gleefully flashing into her mind’s eye. The army had been utterly delighted.

Gabrielle herself had had fun, but now she was glad she was soaking here in their huge marble tub.

She extended her arms out and flexed her hands, a little stiff from several candlemarks of mock battle. The sun was slanting to the western horizon outside, and already inside, she could hear the quiet sounds as candles were being lit and the soft snap of the newly laid fire.

She could smell the wood, and the creamy scent of the wax, and at the edges of her hearing, Xena’s voice in the outer room. They had a few candle marks now to relax, before the big banquet tonight.

Xena’s official opening of the harvest season, and a time for the stronghold to reflect the richness of the year by stuffing everyone silly and giving them more to drink that was possibly a good idea. Downstairs, the kitchens were all at full tilt, roasting and grilling a selection of the best beef, mutton, and fish from the offerings, with every type of vegetable and root being worked over in pots and skillets on every cook place. A literal madhouse. There would be fruits, and honey cakes for dessert and it was both strange and really like a festival for her since she hadn’t had to have a hand in any of it.

Gabrielle wiggled her toes in the water and felt a faint rumbling in her guts thinking of it all. Usually she had some part to play in all of their joint meals.

Either selecting things and bringing them, or cooking, or arranging, she felt this was part of her role as Xena’s consort. Not that she really knew what a consort was supposed to do – since neither Xena nor anyone else had told her, but Xena didn’t tell her not to do it so she kept on with it as she had from the days when she’d been the queen’s body slave. Also, it was one of her few skills, and certainly one that Xena enjoyed as she’d found the queen appreciated her meals and was always looking for something to nibble on even between them. So they had that in common too.

Xena had once admitted she’d spent so much time at war with the army she’d never gotten over the irregular supply of food, drink or rest and she tended to indulge in all of them every chance she got – old habits apparently died very hard. For very different reasons, Gabrielle understood that. She often on most days, threw some of this and that into a pot for a soup or a stew and let it burble from the morning on, usually coming back to their quarters in the evening to find most of it gone, though enough would be left for her to get a bowl before dark fell. Of course, now thinking that she’d wished she’d done the same this morning.

Oh well.

Gabrielle exhaled.

Maybe there was some fruit left in her bag. The door opened, and Xena entered, tossing her mud spattered robe over a wooden stand and starting to unbuckle her leathers. “Damn it.” “What’s wrong?” Gabrielle asked. The queen stripped out of her armor and laid it carefully across the stand, on top of the robe.

The hide was stained a dark brown, almost black from the mud, and Xena’s skin was similarly stained, along with long scrapes across her left bicep. “That was Brendan reporting.

He can’t figure out a damn thing with those guys who croaked.” She untucked her under wraps and removed them, regarding the mud stained fabric with a bemused look.

Then she shrugged and tossed them in the corner, before she entered the tub, sending water sloshing over the sides a little as she dropped to a seat. — Which reminded her of something unfortunate. “Crap.” She sighed. “I told Stanislaus to bring that jackass up here at dusk.” “Philtop?” Gabrielle kept her scrubbing up, since there was quite a bit of Xena to wash.

Her legs, for instance, which seemed to take forever they were so long. “Yeah.” Gabrielle kept her head down. “I’ll go get us something from the kitchen.

I think they had some new cheeses come in today, and some dark bread.” Xena studied the damp head in front of her, and the fine tension in the bare shoulders above the surface of the water. “We can send your little cat for that.” She said. “I’d rather you be here.

You make me remember why I shouldn’t just randomly kill people when they annoy me.” Gabrielle looked up at that. “I do?” “Mm.” Xena reached over and tweaked her nose. “I want you here when he gets here.” “Okay.” Gabrielle appeared puzzled, but pleased. “I thought maybe he wanted to talk to you alone.” “He does.” The queen smiled. “But I didn’t get where I am by giving people what they wanted.

I got there by making people take me on my terms, Remember?” Gabrielle took her hand and kissed it. “I remember.” Xena’s face twisted into an expression of wry amusement, knowing inside just how much of a farce the exchange they’d just had was. “Good.” She said. “Let’s get outta here before we get wrinkled like winter plums.” They got out and quickly dried off, since the breeze now coming in the windows had more than a touch of fall in it.

Xena toweled her hair dry and went to her wardrobe, studying its contents as she listened to Gabrielle in the next room. She threw on a deep scarlet casual robe, belting it around her waist before she went to the mirror and ran a comb through her wet hair, watching her own face twitch a little as she made sense of the thick, dark mass that was already staring to dry. She put on a pair of indoor boots and went into her outer chamber, where a servant was just setting down a tray with cups of mulled wine on it. “Your Majesty.” The servant bowed deeply. “Lord Stanislaus asked me to bring this here.” Xena flicked her fingers at the man. “Beat it.” She said, waiting for the man to hastily leave before she went over and poured herself a cup of the wine, it’s rich and spicy scent filling the room. She took the cup and settled down on her elevated chair, taking a sip of the wine and feeling the burn as it traveled down to her stomach. She suspected she knew what Philtop was going to ask, and she wasn’t’ really sure why it was making her feel … “I’m not nervous.” She spoke aloud. “He can kiss my ass.” The inner door opened, and Gabrielle appeared, dressed appealingly in a simple woolen over tunic, belted at the waist.

She was carrying a tray and she set it down next to the mulled wine. “Did you say something?” “Nothing intelligent.” Xena muttered. Gabrielle came over and handed her a piece of dark, nutty bread spread with cheese, and what looked like a slight drizzle of honey on it. “It really smells good downstairs.” She commented, as the queen took it and nibbled an edge. “Everyone’s in a really good mood too.

Even the cooks were singing.” “Singing? I don’t hire them to sing.

I hire them to cook.” “Xena.” A soft knock at the door caused Xena to straighten a little in her chair, and Gabrielle to move towards the sound, She opened the door and exposed Stanislaus’ form. “Hello.” “Your grace.” Stanlslaus bowed. “Her majesty requested I bring Prince Philtop for an audience at this time.” — The pale green eyes studied her gravely.  Then her consort lifted a hand and touched her cheek, stroking the skin there with a gentle thumb as Xena’s eyes fluttered briefly closed. “He sounds like he was in your army.

Was he?” Gabrielle asked quietly. “No.” Xena said, after a pause. “He was an obstacle.  Westlands were the first territory I attacked when I got here.” She swirled the liquid in the cup and took a sip. “I caught them by surprise.  Came down out of the hills at night, and had the city walls half down before they knew what hit them.” “Oh.” “So then.”  Xena felt itchy, and embarrassed, to be admitting this.  “I saw them raise a white flag over the tower.  Gates opened, he came out.” Came out, on his gorgeous chestnut horse, in all his finery.  Xena remembered reacting to the sight.

To the raw, knowing sexiness of him before she really understood what was going on.  Hades.

She was young.

He was gorgeous.  He’d played the noble self sacrificing card and she’d fallen for it, and him in a wash of sexual desire that caught her completely by surprise. What a feckless moron she’d been.   Xena sighed and took a sip of her cider.  “Anyway.” “He surrendered?” Gabrielle ventured softly. “Not exactly.

He made me an offer.

He’d surrender, if I let him keep his lands after I finished raping and pillaging so I could go on to greener pastures.

He’d just stay out of my way.” “Oh.” Gabrielle’s tone changed completely. “Mm.

Yeah.

His outside’s prettier than his inside.”  The queen remarked. “Only thing I respected was that he was willing to do anything to protect those poor bastards who’re stuck trying to farm that scrub.” “Sounds like he still is.” Xena laughed shortly.   “So after I went the distance and fought everyone around here into the ground…

After my army was tired to the point of dropping and we’d just won..

He comes through the valley with his army and makes that offer I mentioned before.” “That you could be queen if you gave him an heir?” “Mm.” Xena nodded. “He was looking to take it all.

Figured he had me over a barrel – we were ragged.

I don’t’ think I could have put twenty men against him.”  Her eyes narrowed. “He thought he had me.” Gabrielle watched her, seeing the deep, burning anger still in those pretty blue eyes.

She took Xena’s hand and chafed it, as the muscles in the queen’s face twitched, memories obviously flickering through her mind. She could still picture it.  Her standing in her leathers, covered in dirt and blood, and him in his sparkling, clean armor, smiling at her, reaching out to touch her face all ignorant of the building storm standing in front of him. His words had washed past her, as he patted her cheek, touched her shoulder, then put his hand on her belly and told her he couldn’t wait to fill that with what he knew would be big, beautiful boys. “Xena?” Xena took a breath, and released it, looking up into Gabrielle’s concerned face.” Doublecrossing jackass bastard.

I should have killed him.” “Why didn’t you?” Gabrielle asked. One of the queen’s dark eyebrows lifted sharply.  “Aren’t you supposed to be a sheep loving pacifist?” Gabrielle blushed. “That’s not what I meant..

I was just wondering.” “You were just wondering.”  Xena took a sip, then handed her the cup. “You were wondering maybe I didn’t because I liked him?” Gabrielle’s blush deepened. “Liked him, the way I like you?”  Xena studied her intently, seeing the flutter at her pulse point. — “Mmhm.” Xena nodded. “Weird.

First time that ever happened.” “You got a lot of really nice presents.”  Gabrielle smoothed Xena’s hair back.  “You too.”  Xena looked very pleased.  “Those little bastards actually showed some taste for a change.  Wonder who told em what you liked?” Her consort continued playing with her hair, and scratching her gently behind the ears causing little contented grunts to emerge from the queen. “Well, I sort of thought that was probably you.” Gabrielle said. “Since I think you’re the only one who knows what I like.” Xena chuckled under her breath. “Ain’t that the truth.” She settled her arm around Gabrielle and rested her head against her consort’s hip. “Yeah it was me.”  She exhaled, her eyes on the flames, a look of quiet contentment coming over her face. “Thank you.”  Gabrielle leaned down and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “I had a great time, and it was so wonderful to get all those things.”  She whispered.  “But the best part was seeing your face when I told your story.”  She felt the motion as Xena smiled and she tipped her head forward a little to see it, the softly glinting blue eyes meeting hers. “You really liked it.” The queen nodded. “It’s a long story though.” Gabrielle cleared her throat, her voice sounding tired. “I’m going to have some tea.

You want some?” Xena nodded again. Gabrielle kissed her on the top of her head again then she stood and walked over to the fire, moving the water pot over the gentle flames.   She set up two ceramic cups, removing some dried tea leaves from a wooden box on the mantel and mixing them with fresh mint and a bit of rose petal.   The scent of the crushed herbs was intoxicating.   Gabrielle pulled over the small pot of honey and waited for the water to heat fully, savoring the warmth of the fire against the front of her legs.  It was raining outside, the patter of drops audible through the windows , and it felt very good to be inside, under a strong roof, with a good fire, and a friend to share a cup of tea with. She poured the boiling water over the leaves and waited for them to steep, drizzling the honey in and smelling the steam change as it dissolved.   She’d learned to love honey living with Xena.  At home, the rare treat had been reserved for her parents, and only very very occasionally were the children given a bit on their tongues to taste.  It was hard to obtain, and expensive, unless you were willing to brave the stings and go find a hive on your own. Gabrielle never had.  It wasn’t until she’d come to the stronghold that she’d seen in any large quantity and experienced the surprise that the slaves were allowed to take as much as they wanted during their well cooked meals. Xena liked it.  In her tea, and also on biscuits, and especially in the roasted apples Gabrielle often made for her after dinner.   Also.

Gabrielle picked up the mugs and carried them over, setting them down on the small table between the two big chairs in front of the fire.  She took a seat next to Xena and leaned on the chair arm with a  sigh of satisfaction.  She picked up her cup and took a sip, and watched quietly as the queen did the same. “So.

What happens tomorrow?” “Tomorrow.” Xena studied her cup. “All of the nobles tender their rolls to the bookkeepers.” She half shrugged. “Formality really.  I do my end of year court.”  She cradled the mug between her hands, her long fingers curling around it. “I’ll tell everyone what I’m going to do to help the Westlands.” “What are you going to do?” Gabirelle asked. Xena gazed at the fire. “Send someone to take a census, then send supplies for the winter.” She said. “Legion of troops, and a captain who’ll be in charge there through the cold.” “Oo.”  Gabrielle made a face. “I don’t think Philtop’s going to like that.” Xena smiled. “I don’t think he is either.” She agreed. “But if he thinks I’m just going to send wagonloads of food over there and let him do what he wants with it, he’s nuts.  That’s the price he pays.

He wants rescue? Okay.” The queen lifted one hand off the mug and waved it. “But my men make sure the food goes to the people, and not to any Persians he’s courting.” Gabrielle was nodding, since the thought made sense to her. “You don’t’ trust him.” “No reason for me TO trust him.”  Xena said. “I’d go myself to see the damn place but the last couple times I dragged my ass out of this castle I nearly got it spanked.” She took a swallow of the tea.  “Besides, I’m not sure the Persians aren’t out there just waiting for their chance.” “You think they’ll try something now?” Gabrielle frowned in concern.  “Come here, I mean? Xena shook her head. “I don’t’ know.” She gave Gabrielle a wry smile. “I didn’t expect what they did the last time, showing up and taking the port city, now did I?” “Didn’t you?” — “No.”  Xena turned her head right and left as she walked, scanning the hallway.  “I’ve always done it myself.” “Oh.” The doors to the stronghold were propped open, and torches were planted in their sconces all the way down the steps to the courtyard.  Xena could see walking figures in the semi light, most in worker’s clothing, most carrying things.

She didn’t sense any panic, which meant the word likely hadn’t gotten out yet. No one liked dead bodies popping up.

Xena herself didn’t, unless she causd them.   “I just hope it’s not some kind of sickness.” She muttered.  “With all these damn visitors it could be.” “A sickness?” Gabrielle was trotting to keep up with her queen’s long strides. “Oh.

We had that in our village one winter.

It was terrible.  Everyone got sick and some people died.” “Exactly.”  Xena headed for the doors to the stables.

She could see their outline in the dusk, and the shadows of two soldiers guarding them.

Then she slowed. “Maybe I don’t want you around those bodies.” Gabirelle hauled up so she didn’t crash into Xena’s butt. “Are you going to see them?” The queen eyed her. “Yes.” “So is it dangerous for you?” “Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like the way this conversation comes out?” Xena surged into motion again. “C’mon.” They approached the stables and as they came into the torchlight, the soldiers recognized them and hurried to open the big door.     Inside, it was well lit with hanging lamps and there were several groups of people standing around, all of whom jerked to attention as Xena’s tall figure entered. Gabrielle’s attention was drawn to the two still forms on the ground, though, covered in horse blankets.  They seemed rather small, and she could see one boot sticking out bearing the stamp of Xena’s household on it. Xena went over to the figures  and knelt beside them, pulling the blanket off the first one and setting it to one side.  She studied the pale, young face with dispassionate eyes, reaching out to touch the chin and turn the head first from one side, then the other.    “Who found them?” “I did, mistress.” One of the grooms spoke quietly.  “They were in the hayloft.” “In the hayloft.” Xena mused.

She picked up one of the man’s hands and examined it. “What were they doing in the hayloft?” There was a conspicuous silence after she stopped speaking.  Xena turned the man’s hand over and examined the palm.  “Well?” She looked around, seeing the reddened faces. “C’mon boys.

I know what sex is.

Just ask Gabrielle.” “Mistress, we don’t really know.” Brendan spoke up. “But aye, we think they were making free with each other.”  He walked over to where Xena was kneeling. “T’other lad’s got his britches undone.” “I see.” Xena rested her elbow on her knee. “Were you going to tell me that before or after I whipped the other blanket off and freaked out Gabrielle?” “Mistress.” “That wouldn’t freak me out.” Gabrielle spoke up in her own defense. “I grew up on a sheep farm.” A few of the men cleared their throats. “I thought you told me you never kissed a sheep?” Xena undid the catch on the top of the first dead man’s uniform and peeled it back, examining his throat closely.  “I never did.” Gabrielle stressed the pronoun. “But I guess you probably don’t know that there’s not a whole lot of difference between women and sheep in some areas.” Xena stopped, and turned her head to stare at her consort.  “Well, you asked.” The queen shook her head rapidly, then she went back to her examination, stripping the man’s uniform completely off and baring his pale lifeless chest. “Ah.”  She rolled the man’s body over onto it’s side. “Brendan.

I thought you said there wasn’t a mark on them.”  — “Least we know what it is now.” Brendan said. “Mm.” Xena straightened and propped her elbow on her knee.  “Yeah, better to know you’ve got some idiot killing people rather than the plague around, huh?” She glanced at Gabrielle, who was watching her with a serious expression.  “Except I don’t like competition in the homicidal maniac department.” Brendan sighed.  “What shall we do with them, mistress?” He indicated the bodies. Xena stood up, dusting her hands off. “Give them a pyre, with honors.” She said. “They served in my army.  Make sure their families are taken care of.”    She turned and regarded the small crowd still there, watching her with wide eyes.  “Now let’s see what information we can get out of you lot.” She crackled her knuckles.  “C’mon muskrat.” She motioned Gabrielle forward. “Someone had to see something.

Last resort we can threaten them with you and your sheep.” ** Xena perched on a full barrel of millet, her ankles crossed as she waited for her next subject to interrogate.  Behind her, Gabrielle was seated at a makeshift table, a stack of parchment and a set of quills in front of her as she took notes. It was very late.  All the sounds of activities outside had faded to nothing, and now, all Xena could hear when she stopped talking was the occasional owl, or the faint thunk of a horse hoof further back in the stables.  “All right.

Next.” She pointed at one of the men. “C’mere.” One of her own guards came forward, rubbing his eyes.

He sat down on the stool in front of the queen and gazed up at her. “Mistress?” “Zuke.”  Xena responded. “Where were you all night?” “Third arch inside courtyard, Mistress.” Zuke said. “From sundown, until the dinner ended.” He shifted a little. “Got a meal bucket from the mess, an then I sat near the well there, eating it.” Xena nodded, considering her questions carefully.   “When you were eating, who did you see?” Zuke pondered that. “T’grooms.” He said. “Bring out some of the horses like, for the dukes and so on.” He blinked a few times. “Some of the lot from the Westlands.   Them was near the wall.” “Uh huh.

Anyone go in the stables?” “Not past me, Mistress.” Zuke seemed disappointed.  “Doors were shut after t’grooms came out.  Then I went back to the archway, and stayed there till all the yelling started.” Pretty much the same answer as everyone else.  Xena  felt a level of frustration building.   It seemed impossible that two men could have been killed in her barn without anyone at all seeing something. Anything. But no one had.

The two soldiers had been in the loft together alone, and had been attacked and killed alone, dying so quickly they hadn’t had time to react, and therefore, had died not only fast, but in silence. Only the fact that they’d missed evening call had alerted anyone, and then, apparently as they were known to frequent the loft for some privacy someone had gone looking for them there.  Xena got up and went to the loft, stepping up onto the crossbeams and pulling herself up into the strawfilled space.  They’d taken the bodies out, and now she carefully examined the depression that had held them without touching or disturbing the straw. They hadn’t struggled.   Xena looked at the edge of the loft, running her eyes along the wooden wall for the nth time, over the cracked and splintered edge, over the neatly fitted pegs that held the loft together, over the braced corners. Nothing, nothing, nothing… wait.  Xena stared intently at a crack in the wood not a handspan from where her arms were resting.  “Hand me a candle.”  Several people scrambled, then halted.  Xena heard a faint scrape, and a bemused sigh, and the next thing she knew Gabrielle’s pale head was at her elbow, handing the candle up.  “Thanks muskrat.” She took it.  “No one else have the guts to come up here?” Gabrielle kept her voice low. “No one else wanted to get caught looking up your breeches.

There’s a hole in them.” Xena turned her head and looked at her consort. “Well then.” She edged aside and pointed at the bit of wood. “You get to see what I found.”   She held the candle close. “See that?”’ Gabrielle craned her neck and peered at the plank. “Where? Oh..

You mean that split piece there?” — Straw and wood and animals prevailed.  She could also smell the faint crisp scent of the brazier with it’s coals, the brassy smell of water in the buckets and troughs and leather from the harness. And yet there was something else.  Xena slowly turned, breathing in.  Something that wasn’t Brendan, or the wool of his tunic, or Gabrielle’s soft skin, wasn’t the ink in the bottle she was stopping or the creamy smell of the parchment. It wasn’t silk, or a cat. She moistened her tongue and sucked in, and then, just at the very back, she found it.   She opened her eyes and regarded the two others in the room, who were watching her in fascination. “Huh.” “Something wrong, Mistress?” Brendan looked around with a worried expression.  “Funny thing.” Xena scooped up the pile of parchment and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle. “Smell something once, and you always remember it, if that once kicks your ass hard enough.

C’mon.” She started for the barn door. “We need to find this guy, Brendan.” “Aye.” Brendan agreed. “We really do.”  Xena said, quietly. “Make sure everyone’s on their toes.” “Aye.” ** Gabrielle leaned back on her pillow, her eyes roaming around the inside of their bedroom as she listened to Xena sharpening her sword over in the corner.    The queen was back in her dressing gown, sprawled in the chair with her bare feet extended across the rug. She had her sharpening stone clasped in one hand, and she was carefully scraping it over the length of her longsword, a look of quiet introspection on her face. Gabrielle didn’t really want to bother her.

She knew sometimes Xena just needed time to think, and usually then she’d go out on the sentry walk or down to the stables, and expect Gabrielle to understand she wanted to be left alone. This time though, she had made a point of sticking almost at Gabrielle’s heels, and had brought her sword into the bedroom to attend to it.    Gabrielle squirmed around and settled onto her elbows, watching the queen’s hands move in that quiet, rhythmic way.  “Xena.” “Muskrat.”  Xena glanced up over the sword. “Why would someone want to hurt people here?” The queen half shrugged.  “Piss me off?” She ventured. “Could just be someone who holds a grudge.  Still people in here who sided with Bregos, remember.” “Hm.” “Could also be a nutcase.”  Xena said. “Happens sometimes.

I remember I had a guy in my army… picked him up just west of Thrace.  Seemed fine, good fighter, then one morning we woke up and six men were lying dead around the campfire, their man’s part cut off and their throats slit.” “Oh gosh!” “Turned out the guy was a known fruitcake.” The queen shook her head. “I had to break his neck before he killed anyone else.” Gabrielle frowned. “But did you catch him doing it?” Xena’s lips twitched faintly. “No.

I figured out who did it, and confronted him.

He snapped and tried to attack me with his teeth.” “Oh.” “Said I was a demon from Hades and an oracle told him to kill me and destroy my army.”  The queen said. “That almost made me think I was wrong since I was a demon from Hades and I could think of a dozen men who’d want my army destroyed but then one of the archers found his kit bag with the dead men’s parts in it and he started trying to eat them and then..

Everyone was glad as hell I killed him.” Gabrielle’s face rapidly went thorugh a series of expressions ranging from puzzlement to weirded out disgust.  “That’s crazy.” — Xena sat down on the bed and sprawled on her side, coming nose to nose with Gabrielle .  “I’m not worried about anyone coming after me.”  She said. “I’m more interested in making sure no one gets anywhere near you.” “Oh.” Gabrielle leaned forward a little and kissed Xena on the lips.  “Thanks.”  She murmured. “But I always feel really safe when we’re together.” “Silly muskrat.”  But Xena smiled, and returned the kiss. “I guess the nutball you know is always better than the one you only suspect is skulking in the hallways.

Eh?” “You’re not crazy.”  Gabrielle said, in an utterly positive tone. “No, not now.”  The queen swiveled around and put her head down on the pillow.   She pinched the candle out and exhaled, as Gabrielle joined her, pulling the soft cover over both of them.  “But I was.” “I don’t believe that.”  Gabrielle slid next to her and put an arm around Xena’s middle. “You’re the smartest person I know.” Xena smiled into the darkness, and put a return arm around her, savoring the warmth as Gabrielle pressed up against her and gave her a hug.   She tried to remember what she’d been like back then in what she referred to herself as her crazy days, certain she really had been off the wall. Hadn’t she? She’d felt crazy, in the sense that she hadn’t really cared where her actions had taken her, and she’d almost prided herself on constantly doing the unexpected, keeping her men, her enemies and what few friends she’d managed to have as offbalanced as possible. She was still that crazy woman, wasn’t she?  Xena certainly didn’t feel like a boring old stuck in the mud predictable despot.

She still did the unexpected, right?  She resisted the urge to get up and check the perimeter of the room again, having already examined every inch of not only the bedroom, but the inside living room, and her outside audience chamber twice.   She’d checked all the closets, checked under the bed and the furniture, made sure the windows were all fastened, and even cautiously poked her head up the chimney just to be sure. Yes, as she’d told Gabrielle, she wasn’t worried about someone coming after her.  But she was terrified that through some inattention or mistake that Gabrielle would come to some harm, since she knew that everyone else probably knew exactly how weak a spot of hers the little shepherd’s kid was. The Persian bitch had known.  Xena drew a breath and released it.  But then, the Persian bitch had gotten her face bitten half off by her little shepherd’s kid so there was that. “Xena.”  Gabrielle murmured. “What are you thinking about? You’re twitching all over.” The queen forced herself to relax. “Nothing really.” She said.  “Just remembering the bad old days.” She rested her cheek against Gabrielle’s hair. “Tomorrow we’ll look around a few places.

I think I might have gotten a whiff of something maybe we could find, you and me.” “Sure.” Gabrielle murmured, rather indistinctly. “Whereever you go, I go.” Xena smiled, hearing that.  “Well, except for Tartarus.” She remarked. “You can’t follow me there.” “I will.” The blond haired woman said. “I don’t care if it’s worse than Tartarus I’m going with you.” Xena gave her a hug. “You have no idea what you’re saying, but I love ya for saying it anyway, muskrat.” She scratched Gabrielle on the back of her neck, feeling a deep sense of affection  for her bedmate that she wasn’t really sure what to do with.   “I love you too.” Gabrielle said, gently nibbling the queen’s collarbone. “And you know what? If some old crazy guy tries to come in here and mess with you I’ll jump all over them and squash them flat.” Xena chuckled softly. “I promise.” “Go to sleep.”  Xena gathered her close and rocked her gently.  “No one’s going to mess with me, and no one’s going to mess with you.”   She closed her eyes and let her body relax, still keyed up, but determined to get some rest in what was left of the night. Then she felt a gentle touch cupping her breast and that determination faded.   Ah well.

Xena grinned.

She’d gone more than one night without sleep for far worse reasons. ** Gabrielle tucked a shawl around her body as she puttered around in front of the fire in the living room, arranging things on the platter that had been delivered from the kitchens.    Xena was still sprawled in their big bed, and the room was dark since clouds were covering the recently risen sun. So she had the candles lit, and she perked up the fire, setting a pot for hot water on and reviewing the options for breakfast. The tray held about a half dozen dishes and plates, mostly covered with late season sliced fruits, and some new harvest cheese, along with a small loaf of dark grain bread and a flagon of spiced cider.   Gabrielle was pleased with the selection, and she set two dishes on the table, picking and choosing from the platter. A gust of wind ratttled the window, and she looked up, hearing an unexpected patter against the leaded glass.  “Hail?” She got up and went over to look out, seeing sure enough tiny white pellets bouncing on the outside patio stone floor . “Wow.” The sky was slate gray, and ominious.  She could see trees bending under the force of the wind outside the gates and as she peered out, a colorful piece of fabric flew by and plastered itself on the outer wall. “Ooo.” “Looks like I’ll  bringing the clowns inside.” A voice sounded behind her, almost making Gabrielle jump before a pair of hands settled on her shoulders and she recognized Xena’s low tones.  “Brendan thought he felt a storm coming.” “Can we fit everything inside?” Gabrielle asked. “I wanted to see those horses again.” “Sure.” The queen was in her dressing gown, and she leaned against Gabrielle’s back in a very nice, warm way.  “I’ll put em all in the dancing hall.  Get Stanislaus all pissed off.” That certainly would.  Gabrielle herself had only been in the hall once, it’s huge, vaulted ceilings and crystal candle holders hinting at a grand past Xena seemed to be uninterested in repeating..  It was the largest open room in the castle, though, and if the circus was going to fit anywhere, it would fit there. “Cool.” Xena smiled. “Call the guard in so I can give him  the note for that pompous ass.” She squeezed Gabrielle’s shoulders then released them.  “What do we have here?” She wandered over to the tray. “Light stuff.

Good.” “Yeah I’m still pretty full from yesterday.” Gabrielle said. “I told them to just send up a little.” “Uh huh.” Xena poured herself a mug of cider, and picked up a slice of pear, walking back over to the window and perching on the sill to watch the weather as she nibbled it. “Good idea.

I don’t think I could look at an egg or those griddle cakes of yours right now.” The pear was acceptable, however.  She nibbled it more for the taste than anything else, enjoying the sweetness as she reviewed the ugly situation outside her window. And it was, indeed, ugly.

She could see the hail, and the hear the ping of sleet against the stone, a little surprised at the sudden onslaught of winter after their very mild fall.   Though Brendan had forecasted the storm, he hadn’t said it would be this kind of severe weather. She was glad the harvest was in.  However, she realized now that she would probably have to host all her nobles until the storm ended and put up with their pompous nonsense more days than she’d anticipated. Ah well.   Xena sipped her cider as she watched the rain fall. Gabrielle went through the outer chamber and opened the door, startling the two soldiers standing guard there. “Good morning.” “Your grace.” The nearer one recovered and bowed. “Tis foul weather outside.” The man warned, as if he had never noticed the windows that surrounded half of their quarters. “Yes, it is.” Gabrielle agreed. “Would you come inside? Xena has a note she needs taken.” She stepped back and allowed the guard to enter.   She spotted Brendan trotting up thte steps and paused to wait for him. “Morning, y’grace.” Brendan greeted her. “Mistress up yet?
“Sure is.” Gabrielle closed the door after he entered and followed both men towards their living quarters. “Everything okay?” “Aside the weather, so far aye.”  Brendan said. “Good morning, Mistress.”  He greeted Xena, who had turned at their entrance and was leaning casually against the window casement. Gabrielle went over to the tray and got herself a mug of cider, sipping it and enjoying the cold, crisp apple taste.  She took a piece of bread and cheese and went to the desk in the room, setting down her breakfast and removing her quill from it’s case.  “What do you want to tell him, Xena?” “Can’t have you write that muskrat.

You’ll bleed from those cute innocent ears.”  The queen said. “So just tell him to let all the people here for the festival to bunk inside the walls, and to put all the performers in the dance hall.” “Okay.”  Gabrielle dipped the end of the quill in the ink and started scribing. “Quiet rest of the night, Mistress.” Brendan was saying. “We got the pyre done for it started in raining.

Jas took news to th’families, and we set em up on rations.” “Thanks.” Xena had her legs up on the wide sill, her bare feet crossed at the ankles. “Get three different squads, four men each, and search this place.  Top to bottom.

I want to know about anything strange they find.” She considered. “I would have had them start last night, but most of those places are too damn dark at night.” “Aye.”  “They’re looking for any evidence at all of someone hiding or living in the corners or closets.” Xena went on.  “Straw on the floor, scraps of food, dung, whatever.” “Understood.” Brendan said. “Start up at t’top and work down to the dungeons.”  “You were right about the weather.” The queen commented. “Damn you.” Brendan flexed his hands. “These old bones know it.” He admitted ruefully. “Felt it comin on.” He glanced outside, where another patter of hail was bouncing. “Glad we had a nice day yesterday at least.” “Yeah.” Xena said. “I should have known better than to think my luck would hold longer than that.” She remarked dryly.  “Now we have to feed this whole crowd until the damn storm stops.  Even I can’t kick them all out in it.” She added in a regretful tone. “Got plenty of stock in.” Brendan said. “Merchants’ll be happy t’get more coin.” “True.”  Xena said. “I should tax them on it.”  She said. “Anyone bitches about anything, toss that idea at em.” Brendan chuckled. Gabrielle finished her note.  She blew the letters dry, then she opened the pretty wooden box on one side of the table and removed Xena’s signet ring.   She picked up a candle and dripped a bit of wax on the parchment, then pressed the signet into it. A measure of Xena’s complete trust.  The power of that impression could pretty much do anything she desired in the realm.  Gabrielle put the ring back into it’s box and waved the parchment around waiting for the wax to cool. Xena had told her she enjoyed having someone around to write all her stuff for her.

Gabrielle wasn’t sure if that was really true, or just something the queen wanted her to do just to give her something to do.   It wasn’t as if Xena had any problems writing – her handwriting was better and more legible than Gabrielle’s was in fact. — The queen glowered at him.  “Tell them I said beggars can’t be bitchers.”  She said. “If Philtop wants to sleep with his guards he can move him and his buttlickers to the barracks. “Aye mistress.”  Brendan ducked his head. “I’ll tell em.” “Beat it.” Xena said. “So I can go outside and take my morning bath out on the porch.”  She got up and strolled to the doors that opened out into the storm.  “Gabrielle, get my soap.” Brendan ducked his head ahead, then scooted over to the door and ducked through it, leaving them alone.  Gabrielle looked at the closed door, then at her queen. “Um.” “Yeeeessss?” “You aren’t actually going to take a bath out there, right?” “Why not?” Xena turned and leaned her back against the window. “It’s water, ain’t it?” She cocked her head at Gabrielle.  “Same as what’s in our bathtub.” “Our bathtub isn’t icy cold and it doesn’t have hard pieces of ice falling in it.” Gabrielle went over and peered out the glass. “I’d get sick to death if I tried it.” She sensed Xena moving, then she was surrounded by the queen’s long arms.  “I remember when we were out with the army and it was so cold.  Brr.” “And I wanted you to take a bath in the stream.

Remember that?” “It was a heated stream.” Gabrielle had to smile. “But I didn’t know that.” “Let me clue ya, muskrat.” Xena pointed outside at the rain. “If you go outside in that, you know  how good it’ll feel when you come back inside?” Gabrielle frowned. “But why get all cold for no reason?” Xena rested her chin on Gabrielle’s head. “Cause you don’t understand what warm is until you’ve been cold.” Gabrielle thought about those words for a long moment as the silence lenghtened.  Then she turned in the circle of Xena’s arms and let her hands rest on the queens hips. “Okay.

Do you really want to do this?” “No.” Xena grinned at her. “Xena.” The queen chuckled. “Let’s go get cleaned up and dressed.  I’ve got court to hold and  jackasses to deal with.”  She turned them both around and nudged Gabrielle in the direction of the bedroom. “You can tell everyone we took a hail shower.

Be good for my image.” “Xena that’s kinda crazy.” “Exactly.” ** Gabrielle was glad she had her  new, warm cloak on as she trotted between the main hall and the wing of the castle that held the dancing hall.  She pulled her hood up and felt the pelt of the rain against her shoulders, the sound of moving livestock barely audible over the roar of the storm. The doors to the other hall were propped open despite the rain, the water dampening the stone and puddling al ittle at the entrance.

Gabrielle went around the puddle, and trotted up the steps glad to trade the harsh weather for the firelit warmth inside. The first person she saw was Stanislaus and boy, he sure looked pissed off.   She could see the stiffness in his body, and the jerkiness of his gestures, as he directed the circus performers into the hall.   “Stanislaus.” He turned and spotted her. “Your grace.” He managed, through gritted teeth. Gabrielle almost felt sorry for him. “Xena had them move all the market vendors into the big show stable.” She said. “She wants you to have food and drink brought in there.” The seneschal looked exasperated. “Your grace.” He said. “I am fully occupied here in this..

This…” he  exhaled.   “I will try to have something done as soon as I  am done here.” “Great.

Thanks.” Gabrielle peered into the hall, her eyes widening when she saw the collection of people and and animals inside it.  The horse performers were there,  laughing with some of the jugglers  and a couple of men and women who were slim but very muscular and held themselves with unconscious pride. The hall was almost unrecognizable.  The floor had been covered in straw, and the walls hung with colorful, if wet, hangings.   The circus workers were putting up some seats on one side and there were two wagons parked in the middle of the floor with oxen still attached to them. It smelled..

Well, it smelled like hay, and animals, and wet sheep actually.

Gabrielle edged inside to watch, fascinated by all the strange things. There were poles being set up, a framework she coudln’t imagine the use for, and as she watched, two lithe young girls started to stretch themselves out, twisting into exotic, pretzel shapes.  “Wow.” “Hello.” Gabrielle turned to find a woman about her age standing next to her, with short, curly black hair and a spattering of freckles . “Oh, hello.” She returned the greeting. “Are you part of the circus?” “I am.” The newcomer agreed. “My name’s Cellius.

My father runs the circus.” “Wow.” Gabrielle extended her arm.  “It’s great to meet you.

My name’s Gabrielle.” Cellius returned the clasp. “Nice to meet you  too, Gabrielle.

Do you live here? In the castle?” She watched Gabrielle nod. “It was nice they let us come inside.  We were so disappointed when it started to rain.” “We were too.” Gabrielle said. “Everyone was excited to see you.

Can you show me around your stuff?” She asked. “I”ve never seen anything like it.” “Sure.” Cellius waved her forward. “This is a great space for us to perform in.  I’ve never seen a room this big before.”  She walked over to the posts. “This is our trapeze rig.  We hang ropes from it and do flying tricks.” “Really?” Gabrielle peered upward. “Wow.” “Yeah, it’s scarylicious.” Her new friend said. “I’ve never done it.

I just ride the horses in the ring.” She said. “My father wont’ let me do the flying…  he says it’s too dangerous.” “I bet.” Gabrielle said. “What’s that there?” She pointed. “Oh that’s the balancing boxes.” Cellius said. “Borus, there, he and Jac can balance on them all piled up on each other.

It’s crazy.  Wait till you see it.” “You mean they put the boxes on each other?” Gabrielle stared in fascination.  “Oh, wait, I see.” She watched the two men as they started to practice.  One put a ball down, then put a plank on top of it, jumping on the plank and keeping his balance as the ball rolled around. “Oh my gosh.” “Wait, it gets a lot better.

They get up higher than the cart there.”  The woman said. “So..

What do you do here?” “Me?” Gabrielle tore her eyes away from the performers. “Oh.

I’m a storyteller.” She said, honestly. “You are? That’s great!” Came the surprising answer. “Boy, we haven’t heard too many stories this summer at all – we were hoping we’d get to hear some new ones here at the festival.”  Well then.  Gabrielle grinned.   “This is going to be a lot of fun.” She said. “I really liked watching the horses yesterday..

Are they friends of yours? The riders I mean?” Cellius was already nodding.  “They usually go a day or two ahead of us, since there’s a lot f them and it’s hard to fit all of us in the same place..

But this place is great.” She turned and spread her arms out. “Look at how high the ceiling is! Its like it was made for us.” Two of the slim, muscular men came over. “Hey Celli..

Who’s your friend?”  One of the asked, giving Gabrielle a smile.  “She’s cute.” Gabrielle felt the tips of her ears redden.  “Hi.” She stuck her hand out. “I’m Gabrielle.”  “Boots.” The man clasped her hand and released it. — His face twitched a little. “Her Grace is entertaining them last I just saw.” He said. “I believe they have what they require.” “Entertaining?” Xena allowed herself to be sidetracked. “They’re supposed to be entertaining her.” “She is telling them a story.”  The seneschal clarified. A story? Why would Gabrielle be telling a bunch of players a story?  “Ah huh.” Xena mused. “What kind of story?” “I didn’t stop to listen, majesty.” Stanislaus said.  “The young men were, however, quite interested so perhaps it was about you.” Xena stopped in the middle of taking a breath to answer and cocked her head, wondering if her seneschal was flattering her or trying to piss her off.   Could go either way really.  Stanislaus had always been funny about Gabrielle, ever since the beginning when she’d started treating her body slave as something more. Since he’d tried to get rid of her, risking Xena’s wrath in a misguided attempt at what he thought was protecting her, lucky that she’d come to know him well enough to know that.  His own kind of twisted, skewed bravery.  “Thanks.” Xena said. “Hope I’m naked in it in that case.” She dusted her hands off and eased past him, heading down the steps and towards the door to the stronghold. “Mistress!” Stanislaus called after her. “The Duke’s quarters are in the tower?”  Xena lifted a hand and kept going, trotting down the steps and crossing the inner courtyard.   She could hear the buzz of many voices inside the walls, and it made her twitch a little, the smells of so many people and animals drumming against her senses in a not altogether pleasant way. “Xena.” Speaking of not altogether pleasant.   Xena glanced to her left but kept walking.   Philtop  angled in and met her, matching her strides.  “Need something?” “You said you’d give me details this morning.” Philtop had on a cloth of gold tunic, and looked casually elegant in it.  “My men are waiting.” Xena stopped and turned to look at him. ‘Weather’s coming in.  They’re desperate.”  Philtop said, in brief clipped tones.  “Not to mention nervous as Hades hearing there’s some crazy killer loose in here.” “You mean another crazy killer loose.”  Xena said. “They already knew about me before they showed up here.” Philtop’s face twisted into wry grimace. “You were a known risk.” Xena pointed at a stone bench against the wall.

She went over and dropped down onto it, and he followed, sitting down next to her.    She extended one booted foot out, and rested her elbow on her thigh, the dusty leather she was wearing seeming out of place in the silk draped courtyard. “Now you look like the Xena I remember.”  Philtop said, unexpectedly.  “You wore well, Xena.

I think you’re better looking now than you were back then.”  He studied the angular profile, and the pale eyes full of glittering intelligence watching him. That’s what he’d screwed up on the last time.

He’d seen the pretty face, and the strong body and the wildness and figured he could tame all that with a good roll in the hay – after all she was a good looking woman, and he was a very good looking man, and that’s all it had taken with all the others. Hadn’t figured on that crafty razor brain that seemed to have only gotten sharper over the years, or the fact that this new queen had pretty much literally been raised by wolves and had the morals and manners of one. By the gods, he’d paid for that mistake.  At the time he’d never really believed Xena was the power behind her own throne, never really believed she was the war leader of the army that had taken over the largest kingdom in the land. Never really believed a woman could be a warrior until he was being gripped by the neck and held against a stone wall with his feet dangling, powerless against her very unexpectedly much greater strength. He still bore the scars of that encounter.  He felt like he was playing with fire now again but this time he understood what the risk was.  Looking at Xena now, he could see past the beautiful face, and the raw sensuality of her, and see the powerful, rangy body in it’s worn leathers and the thick, corded wrists that told their own story. This woman was still a finely honed weapon.  He was now attracted to her for a completely different reason.  — “Will you have to do that now?” Gabrielle asked.  “Nah.”  Xena shook her head.  “I talked to the jackass.  That’s really all that was on the agenda that was slightly important.” “Oh.”  “I gotta go find Lastay though.”  Xena admitted, with a sigh. “Find out what he needed.” She looked around. “I’m surprised he didn’t come find me. “ She changed her direction. “C’mon.

Let’s go roust him out.” Gabrielle willingly fell into stride next to her, and they went up the big half circle stairs and turned right, heading down a long, high corridor that led to the one of the six towers lived in by Xena’s most important nobles when they were at court. A left turn, and several winding corridors in the opposite direction would have taken them to the tallest tower, the guard tower that Xena had once inhabited, and where her sparring chamber still was.   The rooms she’d used were cleaned and set aside, the tower still empty since she and Gabrielle had moved to the former ruler’s palatial quarters in the center of the stronghold. Gabrielle, in truth secretly missed those upper chambers sometimes.  She loved their new digs, but there had been a solitude about the tower that she’d come to appreciate.  Watching the sun rise over the upper battlements, sipping some hot tea as the world came alive around her was something they really couldn’t do now, since the balcony of their rooms overlooked the central courtyard in full view of pretty much everyone. Not the same thing.  She’d gotten to understand the value of those quiet moments, between the crazy wars and battles they’d gotten themselves into. They approached Lastay’s rooms, and his guard drew themselves up when they recognized Xena, ducking their heads in respect as the queen arrived.  “Open up.”  Xena said, briefly. “Majesty.” The nearer guard quickly worked the latch, rapping his knuckles against the wood surface in a clumsy attempt at warning. Xena gave him a tolerant look, then shoved past him and bumped the door open with her shoulder, stalking inside the room with Gabrielle at her heels.   “Lastay!” Silence. “Majesty, his servant told us not to disturb him.” The guard had his head poked in the door and he spoke apologetically. Xena felt a prickle up her spine. “Yeah.” She said, moving slowly towards the inner doors.  “But chances are he isn’t too involved to ignore my sweet melodious voice.”  She drew a dagger almost without thought, turning it in her hand so the blade pointed backwards laying along her forearm.    “Muskrat, stay here.” Gabrielle slowed, but didn’t entirely halt, her body edging after Xenas as though bound to her with a string. Xena went to the doors and put her hand on them, then she rapped on them sharply.  “Lastay!” The guard came inside, along with his mate, standing inside the door uncertainly. Xena cocked her ears, tilting her head to listen.

She heard nothing behind the doors, not the merest rustle  of bedclothes, or whisper of a voice.   With a short intake of breath, she worked the latch and shoved the door open, pushing it hard against the wall with a solid crack. It was dim inside, only the pallid light from the window outlining the interior with dusty gray.

But that was more than enough for Xena’s eyes to take in everything.

The overturned chairs, the bed with a single figure in it, the second figure on the floor.   All still. A candle flared behind her and she almost knocked it out of the air before she recognized the presence at her back and Gabrielle was easing up next to her, holding the candle up high and lighting the room. “Oh Xena.” Gabrielle said, after a long pause, her voice soft and aching.  Xena released her breath, uttering a curse on it’s issuing.  She sheathed her dagger and took the candle, taking a step toward the half naked body on the floor and kneeling next to it.  “Ah.” She took the shoulder and turned it over, the light from the candle reflecting on a slack, dead face. Eyes open and staring. “What’s going on here?”  A voice sounded behind them.   Gabrielle jerked in surprise and turned, as the doorway was filled with the concerned form of Duke Lastay. “M..

Your Majesty!” He spluttered, obviously very surprised to find the queen in his bedroom. “C’mon in Lastay.” Xena examined the body. “You know this guy?” The duke circled around his kneeling liege.  “By the gods! That’s my man  Chilres.”  He turned and looked at the bed. “And my …  “ He picked up the head on the bed by the hair and lifted it. “My good wife’s ladyservant.” Gabrielle had been standing, astounded, looking from one to the other. “Gosh.

I thought..” “Yeah me too.” Xena said, her shoulders straightening as she recovered her composure. “Your people in the habit of sleeping in your bed, Lastay?” She eyed the Duke. “Kinky.”   She turned the body over again and examined the exposed bare skin along his back and shoulders. The duke drew himself up. “Certainly not!” He said. “We had only just left… my lady wife went to brunch with some of her friends, and I..

Well, I went to find you, your majesty! “ He looked at the woman on the bed. “What happened to them?” Xena rested her forearm on her knee. “What was supposed to happen to you, I guess.” She looked more than troubled. “Poison again.” Lastay abruptly sat down on the edge of the bed, enough of a soldier to ignore the dead woman lying across it. “Gabrielle, close the door. “ Xena said.  — They walked together to the door, detouring only to let Xena pick up her sword in it’s sheath.

The queen settled the blade against her shoulder, and kicked the door open, heading for the noise of the hall. ** The dancing hall was stuffed full.  Gabrielle was very glad she was with Xena, content to tag along behind the queen’s tall form as she swept through the hastily opened path in front of her towards the prominently mounted high back chairs that had been put there for them to sit in. She got her fingers tangled in the belt Xena was wearing, feeling the faint pressure against the back of her knuckles as the queen took a breath and pulled the fabric tight.  She rubbed her thumb against the surface, aware of the resistance of the leather armor under the silk. She was glad of it.

Glad of her own armor under the pretty fabric.  She knew Xena could fight like crazy, but to her mind, when you had creepy people around shooting little darts, the more stuff between that and your skin the better. “Hang on, muskrat.”  Xena continued plowing through the crowd. “Hanging.” There were benches built on the stepped platforms where all of the nobles were seated,  a veritable cornucopia of rich fall colored silk and gilt.

Below that, all the visitors and merchants were in standing stalls, and among them were servants passing trays of ale and bread around. Opposite them was the show area, with it’s wooden framework for the acrobats and the cleared space underneath filled with straw and sand for the horses and other animals that were part of the circus. The walls of the dancing hall rose around them, and the tall, vaulted ceiling echoed back voices and the sounds of the performers getting ready, soft clacks and booms, and the whisper of hands dusting themselves off. The performers themselves had retired to several of the chambers just inside the door of the hall, where in it’s other life nobles would be leaving cloaks and weapons before surrendering themselves to a night of dancing and where the formal musicians would have stayed, ready to provide the music for them. The high, narrow windows were open despite the weather, bringing in a draft of cold, wet air that stirred the straw and brushed away the worst of the smells, drawing even the rich pungent smoke of the oil lamps up and out into the courtyard. Despite the storm, spirits seemed high.

It wasn’t often this kind of entertainment came to Xena’s stronghold, and certainly even rarer that the queen would allow the taking over of the grandest hall in the realm for a performance. Ale and wine were flowing, there were buskers and musicians wandering through the crowd strumming sitars and blowing on pipes, and the result was cheerful cacophony and an air of expectation. Gabrielle almost felt like she could forget the troubles they were having, as she and Xena climbed up to the royal platform and approached their seats.  Lastay and his wife were there, seated in regular sized chairs to one side of Xena’s throne.  They were smiling, but Gabrielle noticed how they watched the crowd carefully, and that Lastay had two men at arms standing just behind them. They brightened as Xena arrived and slung her sword over the back of her chair, settling into it and leaning her elbows on the arms.   Gabrielle took the next seat over, and then Brendan arrived, coming to stand quietly behind the queen’s right shoulder. “Mistress.” Lastay greeted her. “Your majesty, your grace.” His wife stood, and curtsied, then resumed her seat. Xena eyed her, then glanced at Gabrielle. “Did we..” “Yes.”  Gabrielle smiled, correctly interpreting the question.   She got up and knelt, taking a package out from under her chair and straightening. “Here you go.” She offered it to the queen, who merely hiked a dark eyebrow at her. Gabrielle pulled the package back to her then she turned and went over to where Lastay and his wife were sitting. “Xena and I.” She looked back at the queen who was studying ceiling in apparent fascination.   “Thought we would get you a little gift for your new baby.”  She offered the neatly wrapped packet. “Oh!” The woman took the package. “Thank you your grace!”  She looked at the queen. “Thank you your Majesty!” Xena rolled her head to one side and gave her a wry grin.   Lastay’s expression relaxed, and he patted the wrapping. “Open it, my dear.

I am sure it must be wonderful.” Gabrielle knew, having been in the castle for some time now, and having not quite been born yesterday, that even if the packet had held a folded moldy goatskin that hadn’t been cured that both her lover’s heir and his wife would declaim it wonderful. — “Is he smart enough for that?” Gabrielle wondered. “He seems kind of dumb to me.” Xena’s lashes fluttered closed, then back open, and the rage faded a little. “He’s not stupid.” She answered briefly. ‘What he does, he does for his own reasons.” “Well, really, Xena.” Gabrielle watched the tall body shift a little, and relax, and she followed suit. “Then he’s sort of just a jerk, you know? Its like he thinks I’m a joke or something.’ Xena grimaced at the truth in the statement. “I think he thinks I just named you my consort while I waited for a real man to come along.” She answered honestly. “Me not wanting a man is outside his mental reach.” Gabrielle fell uncomfortably silent. Xena’s eyes took on a slightly faraway look. “My picking a consort for love rather than political expediency wasn’t something anyone expected either.” She mused. “They never really did get me.” Gabrielle just quietly watched her, unsure of what to say to that. The queen leaned to the side and unexpectedly bit Gabrielle’s knuckle, where it was tensed around her arm. “Yeah.” She traded the nibble for a lick, then looked up from between her disordered bangs. “He is a jerk.” She acknowledged. “And knowing I fell for him embarrasses the Hades out of me so I really just want to kill him on general principals, yknow?” “Oh.” Gabrielle turned her hand over, and cupped the queen’s chin with it, unable to look away from those compelling eyes. “Well he’ll be gone soon, right?” She could feel the muscles in Xena’s throat moving, and it belatedly occurred to her that everyone in the room was probably staring at them. “I sure hope so.” Xena responded mildly, winking at her and then straightening up and turning back to the show. “For his sake.” She gave a signal to the guard standing next to the show floor. “Let’s get this moving!” Gabrielle leaned on the arm of her chair, savoring the little tingles still running up and down her spine.

Her chair, and Xenas were right up next to each other, and she could, if she wanted to, reach over and tuck her hand inside the queen’s elbow. She wanted to.

The feel of Xena’s warm skin under it’s covering of silk settled her, and she was able to focus on the performers, who were now somewhat timidly coming out into the room and starting to get ready. For all her bravado, Philtop bothered her.

It bothered her that he felt he could say mean things about her, and his obvious disdain made her uncomfortable. It bothered her that Xena admitted to liking him, in a way Gabrielle felt there hadn’t been many the queen had felt like that about.

That she’d wanted him.

That he was still very good looking. It bothered her that the thought of Xena killing Philtop just because he annoyed her wasn’t nearly as troublesome to her as it should have been.

Gabrielle studied the end of the chair arm a moment, tracing a whorl on it with one fingertip. She felt silly, thinking of stuff like that.

Xena had been pretty clear about how she felt, both about Philtop and about Gabrielle herself. Pretty clear.

She looked up to watch Xena’s profile, only to find those blue eyes watching her, a look of surprisingly gentle affection in them.

She smiled a little in reflex. “What’s wrong?” “I’m thinking about you hauling that jackass down by his cloak. “ Xena said. “Damn I’m sorry I missed that.” “Mistress.” Brendan arrived back on the platform. “Didja find him?” The queen looked sharply at him. For an answer, Brendan extended his arm, which had a dagger lined up on the inside of it., the hilts cupped in his hand. “Found this.” He said. “And this.” He offered his other hand which had a ripped piece of cloth in it. Xena took the weapon first and studied it closely.

She glanced to one side as Lastay came over to see what was going on. “This crest familiar to you?” She asked the Duke. Lastay knelt beside the throne and looked at it, his head cocked slightly to one side. “Ah huh.” He frowned. “To be sure, your Majesty, I would have to look back in the scrolls.

It does remind me a bit of the old seal of the Westlanders.” “Oh really?” Both Xena and Gabrielle spoke at the same time. “Aye.” The duke sniffed reflectively. “Not the current Prince.” He looked past them to where Philtop’s group was seated. “One before him.

Was in power when my father had the title and lands.

Used to come and make a fuss about the border.” “I see.” Xena slipped the dagger into her belt. “Thanks.” She took the cloth next, but it wasn’t nearly as interesting.

Just a piece of sacking, coarse and unremarkable.

She turned over the bit of cloth in her fingers and paused, leaning her head a bit closer to examine it. “Merchant mark.” “Aye.” Brendan agreed. “Didn’t know it.” He added. “Asked the boys, no one’s seen it before.” Lastay took the cloth when Xena offered it.

After a moment, he shook his head. “Strange to my eyes, but then, mistress, it’s not my habit to examine the baskets and casks brought into my castle.” No, Xena supposed not.

It wasn’t her habit either, really. “Take it and have one of the men bring it around in the merchant hall.

See if anyone knows it.” She leaned back as Brendan took the cloth back, and headed off. “Damn it.” “Mistress, why would someone go and harm that horse.” Lastay took a seat on one of the padded benches next to her throne, extending his legs out and crossing them at the ankles. “It seems senseless to me.” Xena had been thinking about that too.

It had seemed senseless.

Why stab a circus horse? She could almost have understood it, fitted it in as a piece of the puzzle if it had been Tiger, or a horse she knew – but she’d never seen this animal before, nor the circus performers who owned him. No reason for her to care.

So it wasn’t the horse, itself.

Then what? “Maybe someone wanted to set that beast off and hurt people.

Cause a panic.” She mused. “Would have.

Thing would have crashed right into that whole front row there.” Lastay slowly nodded. “Would have.” He said. “Those are favored seats, your majesty.

Some of the youngsters of the royal council as well.

Could have done some bad mischief.” A bunch of kids splatted under those big hooves, there under her eyes, in her hall while their parents watched? Mischief? Yeah.

Xena felt a chill run down her spine.

She’d just gotten the majority turned in her favor, finally.

What would that have done? Was that what this was all about? — “No, I know.” Xena looked around. “Okay.” She said, in a very quiet tone. “Let’s go out this way, and meet the troops.” She shifted and as though idly wandering, moved past the wagons towards one of the back entrances to the hall. They slipped between two methodically chewing oxen and through a passageway into the back servants hall, now empty of people but filled with pieces of gear from the circuit.

Xena went down the hallway a couple of bodylengths and then thorugh a nondescript wooden door. “Where does this go?” Gabrielle asked, feeling the temperature drop considerably.

She rubbed her arms in reflex. “Tunnel.

We’re gonna meet the troops near the stables.” Xena went through another door and then pushed open a third, which revealed a long, dim stairway leading down.

She drew her sword from it’s sheath and handed the covering back to Gabrielle. “Hold this.” Gabrielle tucked it under one arm and kept close to the queen’s heels as they descended. “I’m really glad you asked them to stay, Xena.

I like them.” The queen smiled. “Yeah, I know you do.” She said. “Be good to give you people to talk to other than me who aren’t soldiers or stuck up nobles.” “I always have you to talk to.” Gabrielle commented. “Hm.” Xena shifted her sword as they reached the bottom of the stairs, pausing to listen before she entered the chill, damp space under the hall.

Ahead of her was a big iron gate, that covered the entrance to a tunnel whose depths disappeared into the shadows. Xena withdrew a key from the pouch at her waist, and fitted it into the lock, turning it with a bit of effort and a grinding squeak that made her ears hurt.

It took a lot more hand strength than she’d figured, but that fact itself reassured her as it meant the lock had been locked for a good long time. She booted the gate open with her foot and passed inside, waiting for Gabrielle to follow her before she closed it, and locked it from the other side.

She then pocketed the key and started down the tunnel, feeling it get colder and colder as they walked along. “Brr.” Gabrielle exhaled, her breath just visible in the faint glow from ahead of them. “Have you been in this one before?” “From the other side.” Xena swept the tunnel ahead of them, her eyes easily picking out the stones that made out the walls, and the ground that had small holes and rocks in it, making it a little treacherous to walk through. “I told you I knew where the one in the stables is.

I never bothered to look at this one.” “It’s creepy.” Xena could hear the rock settling all around them, and soft whispers of wind, and a dank chill seeping into her bones. “It’s a tunnel.” She said. “It’s not supposed to be cheerful.” She suddenly felt a prickle down her spine and she slowed, then halted, holding an arm out to stop Gabrielle. “Psst.” Gabrielle stopped and took a step back, just behind Xena’s left elbow.

She could hardly see a thing, just the faint light from the stable end of the tunnel, but she knew something had to have made Xena react. Something had.

Unfortunately, Xena didn’t know what the something was.

She knew her instincts were bristling and in reaction she brought her sword forward in front of her, her hand gripping the hilts as she strained to detect what disturbed her senses. Sound? Smell? Xena concentrated on both.

She could clearly hear the sound of her men gathering in the stables, and the soft drip of water behind her.

She could smell the mold and moss around her, the stone of the walls, the dirt of the floor, and Gabrielle. Her eyes told her the tunnel was empty.

Even with the dim shadows, she could see every inch of it. So what, then? Cautiously she moved forward, sweeping the air in front of her with her sword in a controlled pattern.

It swept through the gloom, a flicker of metal that caught the dim torchlight from the far end as the tip wove back and forth. She felt Gabrielle touch her back, and then fingers curled around the belt holding her robe closed. “Stay close.” “I will.” Gabrielle promised. “I can’t see a thing.” Xena continued to slowly advance, sweeping the darkness in front of them.

She had just started to relax, and figure her nerves were just shot when the light reflecting off her sword reflected off something else. She stopped, bringing her sword up and angling it towards the torchlight.

Ahead of her, at neck level, she saw the light shine back towards her off a thin string going from one side of the tunnel to the other. “See that?” Gabrielle tried.

She screwed her eyes up, but all she could see was the outline of the exit to the tunnel far ahead. “No.” — “Oof!” Gabrielle landed with a grunt. “Xena!” Speaking of instincts.

Xena twisted as she landed and got her sword up just in time to deflect something off into the shadows, then a second, then a third, and she felt Gabrielle grab her from behind, steadying her balance as she lunged up from the floor and snatched a fourth something out of the air. Then light was coming down the corridor along with a thunder of bootsteps. “Be careful!” Xena let out a bellow. “Light it up first!” She dropped the arrow she’d caught, tossing it away from her back down the corridor. “You okay, Muskrat?” “Um.

Yes.” Gabrielle said, out of the darkness. “Except I bumped my elbow on a rock.” The troops reached them at that moment and the hallway erupted into bright torchlight, sending splintered shadows against the walls. “Got them here, majesty.” A male voice echoed from a little ways up the corridor. “Crossbows.” “Yeah.” Xena turned and helped Gabrielle to her feet, frowning when she saw her bedmate cradling her arm. “Let me see that.” Gabrielle willingly extended her arm and glanced down. “Yeah, I think I… oh.

Xena, look.

It wasn’t a rock.” “Bigods.” Brendan held the torch close and they all stared down at the ground, where a wooden chest was positioned, the top of it knocked askew.

Inside, a crossbow mechanism was visible. “Clear out from in front of that.” Xena ordered.

She waited until they obeyed, then she took the tip of her sword and eased the box open, so she could get a better look at the inside. The box was long enough to hold four crossbows and that’s what was in there.

The trigger mechanisms were all tied to each other, and the cord was running out of the box, and crossing the ground just ahead of where Xena’s boots were, just about the height of her ankles. Xena reached out and kicked the cord, and the box snapped back as all the crossbows fired down the corridor, rattling hard against the stone walls past the group of soldiers clustered tightly to one side of her. “Look around carefully.

Make sure there aren’t any more of these damn things.” With a casual swipe she cut the cord, watching it drop to the ground and slither away.

Then she went back to examining Gabrielle’s elbow, which now had a knot on it the size of a hens egg. “That’s gonna ache, muskrat.” “It already does.” Her consort made a face. “No more of those, Xena.” Brendan came over to them. “Damn bastards… coulda lost a good couple men in here.” “Could have lost your friendly homicidal maniac in here too.” Xena remarked. “A set of those damn things came from the other direction.

Looks like someone didn’t want anyone using this tunnel and getting away with it.” Now the tunnel was brightly lit, torches shoved into sconces spaced a bodylength apart down both sides of the hall.

Xena looked around, blinking a little at the harsh smoke from the brands, and giving her self a moment for the nerves to settle. There hadn’t been anyone in the hallway.

Just the traps.

Her senses hadn’t picked up anything living or moving in the darkness, and she knew they would have.

If not before the triggering of the arrows, then after as whoever it was would slink away and escape. She knelt beside the long, low chest and examined it.

The wood was ordinary, and as she lifted the top and turned it over, she could see it was relatively hastily cut, chopped with a common ax in fact and roughly fitted. She ran her thumb over an edge, finding a fine layer of dust on the surface.

Damn it.

How long had whoever this was been here? She’d taken for granted she knew where this shadowy killer was from, but now… now she wasn’t really that sure. She set the top aside and peered into the box, careful to keep her hands clear of the sides just in case someone had left a surprise sticking out of one of them.

The crossbow mechanisms had been fastened securely to the bottom plank with horseshoe nails. Horseshoe nails.

Xena reached in an touched one with her fingertip.

Then she pulled her dagger out and unbent the nail, getting hold of it with her thumb and forefinger and yanking it out of the wood with a cranky creaking sound. “What is it?” Gabrielle was still cradling her arm. Xena stood, juggling the nail in her hand. “Just something I want a better look at in better light.” She said. “Brendan, we need to find this guy.

This is getting too dangerous.” “Getting?” Brendan eyed her. “Bigods, Xena. “ ‘Yeah.” The queen sighed. “I know.

I should have taken this more seriously before now.

Problem is, whoever this is got two hits in, and then his luck turned.

He’s gonna start taking more chances.” ‘Y’think he knew we’d be down here?” Brendan asked. Xena half shrugged. “Stands to reason we would be.” She looked around, cocking her ears. “But this wasn’t set today.” “No?” “No.” Xena put her hands on her hips. “Everyone fan out and search this tunnel end to end.

I want anything that’s in here, dropped buttons, rat bones, whatever you find.” She ordered. “We start here, and then we move on to the next tunnel.” “Aye.” Xena swiveled around and regarded her consort.

Gabrielle was back against the wall, atypically quiet, just watching what was going on.

Her body language was tense, though, and she had a furrow over her forehead. Arm must be killing her.

Xena pondered her dilemma.

She could order Gabrielle go back to their quarters, but that meant she’d be there alone, and the queen wasn’t about to permit that. But she didn’t trust anyone to watch over her except herself. But if she went with her, that meant she ‘d have to trust her men to search the stronghold. But she suspected they had a very clever assassin inside the stronghold, who so far had eluded their grasp, and seemed to have every inclination to keep trying to kill people. She didn’t trust the men to find the killer. Ah crap. “Okay, listen.” “Could we go down there, Xena?” Gabrielle spoke up, pointing to the far end of the tunnel. ‘This place is kinda creepy.” Well, it would postpone her decision at any rate. “Okay” Xena agreed. “Let’s set up a command area at the end where it meets the other tunnels.” She put her hand on Gabrielle’s back. “C’mon.” She sheathed her sword and plucked a torch from it’s sconce, lighting their way as they walked across the uneven floor. Behind her, the men were spreading out to search.

Ahead Xena could hear a number of voices, and see motion across the entrance to the tunnel. “How’s the arm?” “Ow.” Gabrielle admitted. “It really hurts.” “Hm.” Xena swept the torch back and forth, her eyes focusing on the edge of the tunnel.

She paused when they reached the other crossbow box, edging around and kicking it open with a swift motion of her boot. Like the first one, the box was angled upward on a slant, focusing the crossbow bolts at about gut level and the bows were angled a little to provide a nice range of coverage.

Whoever had set it up, knew their business. In fact, Xena admitted, she couldn’t have done better herself. “Nasty.” “Burrr.” Gabrielle concurred. “Glad I was with you.” Xena stared at the box. “Yeah.’ She said. “Me too.” Her eyes fell on one of the spent bolts from the box she’d triggered and she picked it up, examining the head and sniffing delicately at it.

To her surprise, only the standard smell of worked iron came back to her, and a quick examination of it in the torchlight showed no stain on the metal. “Huh.” “No poison?” Gabrielle guessed. “Maybe they thought the arrows were enough?” Xena’s shoulderblades twitched. “Could be.” The queen agreed. “Almost was for me once, right?” Gabrielle shivered, remembering the blood, and the injury, and her shaking hands cutting the arrow out of Xena’s flesh.

In her minds eye she could smell the tang of copper, and feel the softness of Xena’s skin under her fingertips. — Everyone had leather pants on, and high collared jerkins, and they were wearing light helms that protected the back of their heads. Xena went back to the diagram.

It wasn’t that detailed, but it showed the outline of the buildings, and thin, dark tracings that were the tunnels underneath and the dungeons she tried very hard to keep empty. There were pits down there, and cages, all lying in dusty disuse since she’d taken control.

Even the Persian soldiers were being held not in the dungeons themselves, but in the guard barracks that had once been used to keep control from, warm and comfortable billets that befit their status as honorable hostages. They’d asked to join her army, after the war.

Xena had seriously considered it, but something in her gut had kept her from trusting them and she’d settled on a compromise.

She’d told them if their king never answered her offer, she’d eventually give them a choice. In the meantime, they trained with the army, sparring with wooden weapons and keeping themselves fit and suddenly, Xena wondered if they had seen or heard anything unusual and if they would tell her? Brendan came over. “All secure, Mistress.” He said, quietly. “N’more of them traps anywhere.

I had the gates locked at t’other end.” “Brendan, go get me that Persian captain.” She said. “Bring him here.” She indicated a set of lines on the diagram. “Their quarters are here… see where all these underground passages are? Where the old dungeons are?” Brendan nodded. “Aye.” “Let’s see if they heard anything.” Xena glanced up at him. “Let’s see if their mood’s changed any recently.” Her captain nodded in understanding. “Were disappointed, when you kept em under lock.” He commented. “Could maybe protect this brigand, whoever it is.” “Could.” Xena agreed. “Could be I’m an idiot keeping an enemy inside my gates.” She studied the lines as Gabrielle came up next to her. “Maybe it’s even one of them.” “One of what?” Gabrielle asked. ‘The Persians.” Xena glanced at her. “Though they’ve had the opportunity to put a knife in my heart for a month apparently and haven’t.” Gabrielle looked up at her, seeing the furrowed crease in Xena’s brow. “Damn.” The queen sighed. “I wish I could be sure about any gods be damned thing at all.” She paused. “Other than you.” Gabrielle felt a chill travel up her spine. The man she’d sent for their boots came back, holding those items under one arm, but carefully carrying a box with both hands. “Mistress.” He came over and set it down. “Found this in your rooms.

Looked a bit like the ones we saw in there.” He indicated the tunnel. “Didn’t look in it.” Xena regarded the box. “Definitely wasn’t there when we left.” She said. “Wonder what little surprise it has in it.” In their rooms.

Gabrielle felt another chill.

How had they gotten there? Wasn’t there a guard? Was there a hidden entrance there, too? Was there more than one bad guy? ** Xena poked her head out the wooden door that opened up into the stable yard.

She blinked, as snowflakes impacted her eyes, and she was more than surprised to see a dusting of the weather on the ground. “Snow?” “Aye” Brendan edged up next to her. “Just started a bit ago.

Strange, this time of season eh?” “Freak storm I guess.” The queen emerged into the stableyard, the box cradled carefully in her hands.

She walked across to the center of the open space and set it down, then backed away, until she rejoined Brendan at the steps. “Gimme that crossbow.” Brendan handed it to her, and she checked the bolt, then lifted it to her cheek and sighted along the shaft to her target.

She exhaled and went still, then squeezed the mechanism, glad of the grip she had on it when the string released and the crossbow bucked. The bolt struck the box, knocking the top off as she’d intended.

For a moment, she and Brendan stood there looking at it, then Brendan started forward, carrying a shield. Xena pulled a crossbow bolt from the carrier strapped to her thigh and reset the crossbow, settling it into the crook of her arm as she covered her captain’s advance. The stableyard was empty – not surprising given the weather, but she wasn’t taking any chances.

She lifted her head and scanned the walls, her eyes flicking momentarily to the upper walkway, where she’d once stood and ordered Gabrielle’s sister killed. Brendan reached the box, and looked down into it.

Then he turned and looked at Xena.

The queen interpreted his body language and started forward, letting the crossbow rest on her shoulder with it’s point skyward. “Bit of a false warning.” Brendan commented, indicating the box. Xena glanced down into it, finding a beautiful silver pin resting inside, shaped into three intertwined roses of different shades made from glittering stones. “Ah.” Brendan knelt and retrieved the box, standing up with it in his hands. “Pretty thing.” There was a small piece of parchment in the box.

Xena removed it and opened it, half turning ot let the torchlight shine on it. “Huh.” She murmured. “Go find Stanislaus, wouldja? Bring him down to where we’re set up.” “Aye.” Brendan handed her the box and turned to do her bidding. “Figure he knows who put that in your place?” “Something like that.” Xena put the pin back in the box and tucked it into her hand.

She followed Brendan across the yard, and went back down the steps as he turned to the right to cross over to the upper corridor. Gabrielle was waiting at the bottom of the steps. “Everything okay?” She asked, as Xena reappeared. “Yeah.” Xena pulled her closer to one of the torches and showed her the box. “See?” “Oh!” Gabrielle tilted the container to the light. “Oh, Xena! That’s so pretty!” She looked up. “That was in that box? That was in our room?” “Uh huh.” Xena handed over the parchment. “Not the dangerous poisoned trap I’d imagined.” “Oh.” Gabrielle put the box down on the worktable and opened the parchment.

She read the contents twice, before she looked up at the queen, who had resumed her leaning perch studying the layout of the dungeons. “Wow.” “Mm.” Gabrielle looked back down at the parchment. Your majesty – please take this token as a small indication of the great esteem which I hold for your royal person in my heart.

Though we have at times been at odds, I have never regretted turning my back on exile when your predecessor perished and I made my decision to stay and serve you. I appreciate your words to me earlier more than you could ever know. Your obedient servant, Stanislaus. “What did you say to him?” She looked up at the queen. — “Yeah, and I got a pretty bauble out of it.” The queen sighed. “What is it with me? I do mean things, and people send me presents.

I have unwanted slaves killed, their relatives fall in love with me. “ She turned and spread her hands out in patent entreaty. “I don’t get it.” Gabrielle put the parchment down.

She walked over and put her arms around Xena’s body, and gave her a hug. Xena folded her arms around her consort and returned the hug.

She kept doing it, even when the door shoved open and Brendan came back in, a deep frown on his face. “What?” “Majesty, I can’t find him.” Brendan said. “Servants say he’s been gone a candlemark or more.” The queen went very still. “I’m not happy to hear that.” She said. “Put a squad on it.

Find him.” Brendan nodded. “Want me to send a man t’get that Persian you asked for?” Xena shook her head. “I’ll go there myself, with the muskrat.” She said. “You find Stanislaus.

Turn this place up side down if you have to.” Brendan nodded and left. “Do you think something happened to him?” Gabrielle asked, looking unhappily at the box. “Oh, Xena, I hope not.

Not after he gave you such a nice present.” ‘I hope not too.” Xena said. “Bastard annoys the crap out of me but his heart’s in the right place.

Not many are.” She released Gabrielle. “C’mon.

Let’s go have us a talk with your massage buddies.

Maybe they can give me a few pointers.” “Xena, I don’t think they meant any harm.” Gabrielle tucked her hand inside the queen’s elbow as they walked up the steps from the chamber into the central hall. “And anyway, I asked them to teach me.” “I know.” Xena angled her steps towards the gated stairway across the hall that lead down into the dungeons.

There were no passageways that she knew of that connected the dungeon level to the tunnel she’d just been in danger in, but then, apparently she didn’t know as much about the underground parts of her realm than she thought she did. “It’s okay.

I’m not gonna stick em.

I want to see if I can get them to cough up anything they might have heard down there.” “Oh.” Xena unlatched the gate and opened it, and they started down.

The steps here were wide, but rough, and the ceiling rapidly lowered until it was almost brushing Xena’s head.

The queen ducked a little, and they went down the last set of steeper stairs into the lower chamber. This was not that different from the one they’d just been in.

However it was darker, and wetter, and there were fewer torches.

There were hallways leading off in three directions, but one was stoutly barred. Xena looked at it. “Remind me to take you in there sometime, Gabrielle.” She said, quietly. Gabrielle looked a the hammered crest affixed to the iron gates. “Is that where your brother is?” She guessed, in a soft voice. “Yeah.” Xena turned and headed down the central hallway, which was in better repair, and had obviously seen recent use. Then she stopped, and turned. “Matter of fact, now’s as good a time as any.” She reversed her steps and went back to the chamber, going over to the gates and resting her hands on them.

She studied the latch intently, then she removed her dagger, and triggered the mechanism. It opened without any complaint.

Xena eased the gate open all the way, and stepped inside, grabbing a torch from a wall sconce at the entrance.

She led the way down the narrow passage, going slowly enough to let her eyes scour every inch. Gabrielle walked quietly behind her, and a silence settled around them that made her skin prickle a little.

She put a hand on Xena’s back as they turned a corner, and then were entering a larger chamber. She could see two crypts there, and her heartbeat rattled in her chest and she realized one was occupied, and the other was not. The room was plain, just chiseled rock walls, and on one side, a stone bench to sit on.

There was no other decoration. It smelled quiet, and dusty, and just a little damp, not nearly as wet as it did in the outer corridor.

Gabrielle bypassed the empty crypt and went to the other one, laying her hands quietly on the top of it. Xena’s crest was carved into the stone, and she touched it with light fingertips, trying to imagine what her lover’s younger brother would have been like.

He’d been shorter than Xena, she remembered the queen saying, and fair haired as Gabrielle herself was. A little boy, who had suffered, and lived, and grown up with his sister, fighting all his life to achieve this place and then to lose it just from spite. It was terrible, she thought.

Terrible that he’d had to die the way he had.

Terrible for Xena to have found him, and worse, known that the only reason they’d killed him was their hatred of her. Terrible. Xena was prowling around the room, checking every inch of it.

She patiently examined the empty crypt, then went along the edges of the room. “Y’know.” The queen said, as she peered at the dust on the floor. “I’m gonna have to find another place for all this stuff.” “Why?” Gabrielle turned her head. “It’s sort of nice here.

It’s quiet.” “It’s too small.” Xena said, kneeling to examine a smudge on the stone near the door.

She glanced up. “I never figured I’d have any more family besides him.

Now I do.” It was offhand and ordinary, and hit Gabrielle hard in an unexpected place.

She felt her throat close, and she looked away, and then down, blinking her eyes and seeing the dark droplets fall onto the stone. “What’s the matter, muskrat?” Xena came over to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, didn’t mean to get you all upset.

You don’t have to be laid next to me if you don’t want to.

We can have ya put in the stable next to Patches stall.” That brought a faint smile to Gabrielle’s face. “No..

I mean..

Of course Xena.

I want to go wherever you go, and stay with you forever.” She said. “I just… I remembered that night after Lila died, and how I felt like… I realized how alone I was in the world.

I didn’t have anyone.” — It made Xena smile, that gentle, yet inflexible tone coming from this scrappy little woman wrapped around her.

Whatever else Gabrielle brought to their relationship, there was no doubt of her devotion. It had been so long since she’d known that. “Maybe we should go get Tiger and your runt and just run off together somewhere.” Gabrielle tilted her head up to look at her. “Just us?” Xena nodded. “Just us.” She said. “Whoever’s here doing this – they want me.

If I’m not here..

Maybe everyone else will catch a break and be left alone.” Gabrielle thought about that. “I”ll go wherever you go.” She said. “Maybe we can go find that boat!” The queen smiled. “Maybe.” She sighed. “But you know, I’m not ready to run away yet. “ She said. “Keep that thought in your head, muskrat.

That may be my backup plan.” Hm.

Gabrielle actually felt a sense of excitement thinking about that plan.

She’d never forgotten the feeling she’d had when they were on the ship in the port city harbor, and for a little while it had looked like they were going to know it better. “Okay I will.” She said. “But what are we doing to do now?” Xena rested her chin against the top of Gabrielle’s head. “Well, they didn’t come in here.” She said. “I’m glad of that.

I wanted to make sure.

Damned if I’m going to have some skank hiding his bamboo pipes in my own crypt. “So now we keep hunting.” They separated, and Xena led the way to the exit. “Let’s go find out what the Persians have to say.” She waited for Gabrielle to exit the crypt and then she closed and locked the gates, putting the torch back in the sconce before they went up the short flight of steps leading back to the lower chamber. They could hear voices coming down the center hallway and they walked quickly up it, towards the big wooden doors that led to the guard barracks. Here the floor was sanded, and as they passed through the open portal, the activity inside went awkwardly still. “Your majesty.” One of the senior Persians came over and knelt in front of her.

It was a surprisingly natural gesture. “It honors us that you visit.” Xena gestured towards the table. “Siddown.” She crossed the room and took a seat at the end of the broad wooden trestle. The barracks weren’t fancy, but they were secure and with the fire lit in the big fireplace whose exhaust was angled up to join the bigger one in the kitchens above.

There was a main room, where they were now, and six bunkrooms that split off from it. The Persians had made the space their own, there were curved scimitars lying around and the round shields, and neatly painted hangings draped the walls full of the symbolism of their kind. Xena rather liked it.

It was well kept and orderly, and there was a camradery of the sword here that reminded her of her own army and past. The Persians approached warily and sat down, their eyes flicking in concern to Gabrielle, who had taken a seat next to the queen. Xena folded her hands and rested them on the table. “Lakmas.” She glanced at their senior captain. “Have you been provided with everything you need?” She watched the man’s face.

He had a square jaw and heavy, angular profile with a neatly trimmed dark beard. The Persian nodded, even before she stopped speaking. “More than, your majesty.” He answered, his deep voice calm. “Today in fact, we were brought good thick clothes, for the cold season.” He glanced to the door. “Which has come with much surprise, I think.” “Started early.” Xena agreed. “I haven’t heard back from your people..

As yet.” The men watched her intently.

It was hard to say from their expressions though whether they were glad or sad to hear that.

Then Lakmas clarified the situation. “Majesty, we would as well they didn’t.” He said. Xena nodded thoughtfully. “I see.” “We understand why you keep us so, in honorable bondage.” Lakmas went on. “We only hope a time will come, when you can accept our swords in your service.” Xena studied them all.

There were twelve men here, representative of the two score she’d captured in the battle, all of which were scattered through the guards barracks belowground.

They had shown no evidence at all of any treachery since. “I hope, your majesty.” Lakmas spoke up again, a little timidly. “You do not bear grudge against us for teaching your noble consort some of our homier skills.” The queen smiled. “No.” She said. “In fact, your doing that might have gone in your favor” She said. “I have reason to believe there’s one or more enemy agents inside the stronghold.

I’d like your help in finding them.” The unspoken response was amazing.

The Persian soldiers were all tough looking men, with big, muscular bodies, dark skinned and dark eyed and at the words they all straightened up in their seats like children promised iced cake for dessert, their expressions lighting up. Would have been funny, really.

Xena stifled a grin. “Firstly, I’d like to know if any of you, or any of your brothers have noticed anything at all strange, in the last sevenday.

Sounds.

Smells.” She lifted a hand. “Anything.” Lakmas turned his head. “Gibron, go get Bitras and Alain.

Remember what they were saying this morning? About the leaves?” Bitras, the Persian second in command got up and hopped over the bench, heading off into the barracks, calling loudly for the men he’d mentioned. Then he turned back to the queen. “Your majesty, with this uncertainty, it overwhelms me that you would turn to us to assist you.” The queen smiled grimly. ‘Trust’s a relative thing.” She said. “So let’s see if I guessed right this time.” She leaned forward. “Let me tell you what I’ve found so far.” One of the Persians got up and went to the fireplace. “Tea, your majesty?” Lakmas smiled and rested his elbows on the table. “Perhaps the weather has changed indeed.” ** “It’s Harvest.” Xena said, her hands cupped around the mug of tea. “Every merchant and toady for leagues around is in this stronghold.” “So, it’s not to look for strangers then.” Lakmas mused. “Would do you no service.” “No.” The queen agreed. “I think the timing’s tied to that.” The Persians nodded.

The room was much more crowded now, as many of the soldiers she’d captured as could fit in the space were there, and those that couldn’t were peeking in the door at them. “The bastard seems to be sneaking around in these tunnels.” Xena pointed at a sheet of well worn parchment, which had new coal streak lines drawn on it. “The ones that go around your quarters here.” “Bitras?” Lakmas said. “Tell what you saw.” “More heard, my brother.” The man called Bitras shifted a little in his seat self consciously as Xena’s eyes turned on him. “I was shaving by the trough near the back wall there.” He pointed to the back of the big chamber. “And I heard what I thought were cats, or rats, scratching.” — “A pillow?” Gabrielle blinked at it. “Really?” “Mm.” “Xena.” Brendan’s voice echoed softly. “Here.” The queen felt herself tense, hearing the tension in her captain’s voice. “Brendan?” A dark figure resolved into the old soldier, as he moved into the torchlight and came to face Xena.

There was blood on his surcoat, and dusting his hands, and his face bore a set of tense creases “Found him, Xena.” He said “You’d better come.” Gabrielle inhaled sharply. “Needs your hands.” Brendan clarified. “He was gutted pretty bad.” Xena sheathed her sword with a powerful, angry motion and pointed back the way he came.

She followed at his heels, and Gabrielle followed at hers. “Keep looking.” Xena told the Persians as they passed through the barracks and headed for the steps up to the courtyard. “I’ll be back.” They half ran up the steps and across the inner courtyard.

The doors to the main keep were open, spilling torchlight out and they bolted up into it, Brendan leading the way to the right and into the big banqueting hall. Inside was chaos.

Servants were milling around, and soldiers were pouring in from all sides, the big room half cleared from dinner with empty trays and cups scattered around.

The draft from the open door fluttered the candles in their big overhead cradles and the torches on the wall and the noise inside dulled, then sharpened as Xena’s tall figure was recognized. “It’s her.” “She’s come.

Look right!” “Best move over, give her room.” Xena ignored it all, plowing through the crowd and passing Brendan as she spotted a knot of people around the high table she would have been sitting at.

Her guts clenched and she dodged past two of the soldiers, taking a step and leaping up onto the table rather than taking the long way around. “Move!” Thus warned, the crowd scattered as she jumped down and then went to one knee besides the crumpled, blood soaked figure behind the table. Poor bastard.

Xena could see the faint, labored breathing as she pulled aside a thick pad of linen someone had pressed against him and revealed a cut nearly from armpit to navel spilling blood everywhere. As she touched him, his eyes flickered open as though sensing her presence, and she looked him in the eye. He knew. Gabrielle appeared on the other side of his body, and took his hand in hers, giving Xena a quick, anxious glance. “I sent two of the soldiers for your case.” Xena put the linen pad back down “Hold that there, Gabrielle.” She said, in quiet voice. “Press, but not hard.” She waited for her consort to comply, then she turned her attention to the glazed, watching eyes and her mind briefly flashed back to her past, and the battlefield, and the many many times she’d knelt like this and seen that look. She put a hand on his cheek, feeling the chill against her fingertips. “Thanks for the pretty.” She said. “What happened here?” She could hear running boots behind her, but kept her eyes on his.

With all the soldiers around her and Gabrielle kneeling there she figured someone would warn her if she was in danger of getting a spear in the back. “Was talking to.. “He closed his eyes. “Cook about breakfast.

They were moving tables, then something hit me.” “Here, in the hall?” He nodded. — Philtop walked forward, and as he did, Gabrielle drew the long, heavy sword out of Xena’s scabbard, grateful that all her pushing bales around in Xena’s practice chamber let her lift it and bring it around in front of her without dropping it or stabbing herself in the foot. So there she was, sling in one hand, sword in the other.

It felt very strange.

But Gabrielle gripped them firmly and kept her eyes on Philtop, who had stopped when she’d pointed the blade at him. “Don’t do something stupid. “ She said. “I won’t let you hurt her but if you try to, I bet you end up regretting it.” Philtop looked around.

The other nobles were just watching him now, with noncommittal expressions.

Xena’s soldiers were all grouped on the floor in front of Gabrielle and their mistress, and his own troops were back where he left them. He had little doubt he could easily defeat the short, young woman between him and the kneeling figure of the queen but he also knew one further step towards her would probably bring Xena up on her feet to protect her little scruffy peasant. And he didn’t want to square off against Xena.

He had a lot of confidence in his own martial skills but he’d felt the strength in her body in their earlier tussle, and realized the one time marauder hadn’t lost much of her ability to fight in the intervening years. He could see her leather covered body just behind Gabrielle, her bare arms burnished copper in the torchlight as she crouched over her stupid lackey and her well shaped shoulders exposed with no softness evident. Sexy as ever, damn her. His moment had passed.

Damn the little runt.

He glared at Gabrielle’s rounded, common face.

That one pointed question, spoken in that stupid little voice had made everyone stop, and take a step back, and he’d lost his momentum. He lifted both hands. “I’m not here to harm anyone.” He changed his tactics. “I’m trying to get your queen to realize she’s going to lose it all if she doesn’t wake up.” “I don’t think she’s sleeping.” Gabrielle responded. “But I think you’re going to lose something if you don’t stop messing with her.” She paused, aware of all the eyes and ears focused on her. “If there’s anything left, I mean.” Xena’s soldiers started laughing, as Philtop turned a dark shade of red.

Then the door was suddenly full of Brendan and a dozen guard, and the people inside started filing out as soon as the soldiers cleared the way, some chuckling and giving Gabrielle a look as they left. “Yer Grace.” Brendan joined them on the platform, his sword out as he came to her side. “Problem here?” He looked at Philtop. “You’er bound to make trouble, eh? Strange for a beggar.” Xena finished her last stitch, and regarded her handiwork.

Stanislaus’ eyes were now closed, and he had a long bloody line up his side. “Brendan.” Xena said. “Forget that fool.

Get me four men, with a pallet, and take him to his quarters.

I want them to stay with him.” ‘Aye, mistress.” Brendan stepped back a step, but kept his eyes on Philtop. “You four.

Alic, get a stretcher, yah? Quick now.” Wiping her hands off, Xena stood up, feeling the blood rush back into her legs after her prolonged crouch.

She turned and regarded Philtop over the head of her adorably bristling and surprisingly sword wielding bedmate. “What’s wrong with you?” She asked bluntly. “You stay out in the cold too long? “ “You’er not listening to your people, Xena.” Philtop said. “I don’t want to see you lose that throne of yours.” “What people, the pointy hats?” Xena indicated the last of them, trailing out the door. “The backbone of your realm, yeah.” Philtop said. “Your tax base.” “I never did listen to them.” The queen moved out of the way as the soldiers came back with a stretcher. “Be careful with him.” She told them. “He’s got more to tell me.

I think he saw the bastard.” “Aye.” Brendan nodded. “We’ll take care of him, mistress.” He spared a dour look for Philtop. “Be back to clean up the place after.” Xena opened her hand and extended it, and Gabrielle gladly put the hilt of her sword into it. “Thanks, muskrat.

Glad you had my back.” She resheathed the sword, then she draped her arm over Gabirelle’s shoulders and returned her attention to Philtop. “Do yourself a favor.

Soon as the weather breaks, get out of here before I kill you.” She said, in a conversational tone. “Because I’m going to , and I’ve got good reason.

You don’t get a free pass to walk in here and stir up trouble.” “Xena, I want to help you.” He ignored the warning and walked closer, now that the blade was covered. “I’m not being an ass for no reason.

These people want someone they can trust to lead them.” He as now close enough for her to touch, and he’d lowered his voice, as the room emptied leaving them alone up on the platform. “I don’t care.” Xena said. “That’s what you don’t get.

You want me to give a damn about what these people think about me, about what I do, and who I sleep with.

I don’t. “ She gave him a mild look. “I’ll be queen here for as long as I want to, then me and the muskrat’ll go off and be pirates.” “Oo.” Gabrielle looked up at her profile. “That sounds fun.” She muttered under her breath. Philtop stared at her. “You’ve lost your mind.” “No, I found it.” The queen told him. “Somewhere between all the assassination attempts and the drink and the killing for pleasure I realized all that matters to me in the long run is living the minute.

There is no future for me.

Just now.

And right now, I want you out of my sight or I’m going to spit you like a dog for trying to turn people against me.” — “That captains cabin wasn’t so bad.” Her consort reminded her. “And I like fish.” Hm. “You never know, muskrat.” Xena mused. “King of Persia could send a couple thousand men over here to squash us.” “That wouldn’t squash you.” Gabrielle said. “Xena you already beat a Persian army.” The queen chuckled wryly. “Yeah, I’m running out of things to do for you to make stories about here huh? Be easier on ya if we were pirates.” She admitted. “And that cabin wasn’t really too bad.

Need a longer bed though whoever that guy was he was shorter than I am.” Gabrielle kissed her knuckles again and settled down on her side, closing her eyes and exhaling. “That would be so cool.” Would it? Xena studied the canopy over the bed.

Hm.

Wouldn’t it be fun to be responsible for just herself and Gabrielle and boat’s crew? Sailing around and fighting when they wanted, plundering what they could, seeing new things every day? Of course, she’d have to give up her horse.

The queen frowned.

And a ship could get very small very fast when you wanted to get some good sparring in. After a moment, she put the thought aside and concentrated on her task at hand.

Here in her chambers she was in the middle of the stronghold, and she could hear activity around her outside the walls. Slowly she let the sounds filter through her consciousness, ignoring the further out ones of the watch on the walks, the thumps and bangs of the servants clearing the halls, a brief burst of music and laughter. She felt her breathing slow and her body still. Now she filtered out the closer sounds she knew.

The soft tread of the inside guard.

The shifts of the men on duty in the central hall and the soft sounds of their spears rasping against the stone floor.

The sound of the now thickly falling snow outside, thumping against the leaded windows on the other side of the drapes. She narrowed her focus to the rooms she was in.

The soft pop of the logs in the fireplace.

Gabrielle’s gentle breathing next to her. Faint creaks overhead, as the roof took the weight of the falling snow. A very soft rasping sound of the cat she knew was under the bed cleaning it’s fur. She took in a deep breath of the air, opening her mouth a little to taste it.

She could smell the wine, the fire, the cat, Gabrielle, herself, the fur rugs on the floor in their mustiness. What else? C’mon, you bastard.

Xena urged the assassin.come in here so I can smell you, and taste you on the air.

Walk across the stones in your bare feet, completely silent to everyone but me.

Break the flow of the air in the room so I can feel you. Come close. Fire your darts at me.

I’ll stop them.

Xena closed her eyes, enhancing her other senses.

Fire your arrows at me I’ll catch them.

You know it.come close.

You know the only way to be sure is to walk over here, see me lying in the bed.

Watch me breathe. You don’t dare come in to fight me.

You don’t dare face me eye to eye. Xena let the quiet of the room beat against her ears.

She let her body relax completely, muscles slack in the drunken oblivion she was supposed to be in. Her breathing slowed, and she sharpened her focus, listening for that first pressure of skin against stone, of a hand against the door outside, for the stir in the air or the smell of human flesh. She felt her skin prickle. Come get me. ** It felt like the night lasted for ever.

Xena had run through pretty much every single mental trick in her book to stay awake and sensed the coming of dawn before she finally..

Finally! Heard a faint sound in the outer chamber. Exhaling a little in relief, she refocused her hearing and caught the sound of the door to the outside hallway opening, the hinges issuing just the faintest of squeaks. About damn time.

She listened as the hinge squeaked again, then she clearly heard the very soft scuff of bare feet against the marble tile. Moron, for letting it wait for so long.

By this time if she had been soused, she’d have slept most of it off already and it was coming close enough to morning for her to be waking up. She heard a few more soft footfalls, then they halted.

She figured they were standing on the other side of the inner door, listening for any motion inside the bedroom. Now, with the fire almost out, there was no sound for them to hear.

Xena reached up and removed one of her daggers from it’s sheath in the headboard and wrapped her fingers around the hilt, gently moving her arm out from under the covers to give her a clear shot. She listened hard for the pressure against the door, and the push that would open it, her eyes fixed on the doorframe, waiting to see the wood panel move inward.

Though it was very dark inside her quarters, Xena could see the door clearly, something she suspected her attacker might not share or expect. She heard a faint sound of motion, flesh against stone.

Then her ears caught the sound of an inhale. Didn’t sound right. Xena slipped soundlessly out of bed, standing up and drawing her sword from it’s sheath.

She stepped around the bed and headed for the entrance, the sword in one hand and her dagger in the other. Stopping inside the door she paused to listen.

For a long moment she stayed absolutely still, wondering if her assassin was standing on the other side, in exactly the same attitude.

The idea put a brief, wry grin on her face, but after another moment it faded, and she gently put the edge of the dagger against the latch and worked it. It slid down silently, and she stepped back and out of the way as she eased the door open.

Unlike the outer one, there was no sound at all from the hinges. Xena let the air puff in against her face and she breathed it in, her body stiffening as she caught the scent of blood on it.

She snaked around the edge of the door and surged into the room, her senses flaring. She could feel her skin prickle, all her defenses coming up as she waited for an expected attack.

Her back stiffened and she swept her sword up, bringing it crosswise to her body as her eyes searched every corner. Nothing. There was nothing alive in the room.

Xena knew it absolutely. “Gabrielle!” She let out a shout. “Hey! Muskrat!” “Here!” Gabrielle’s sleep husky voice answered. “Are you okay?” “Bring a damn candle in here.” Xena ordered, her searching eyes finding a rolled, lumped form near the big desk to one side of the room. “Hurry!” A moment later, light flared behind her and Gabrielle was at her side, still blinking sleep from her eyes. “Wh… what’s going on?” “Hold it forward.” Xena said. “I’ve got sharp things in both hands.” Gabrielle stepped cautiously around her and held the candle higher, bringing a measure of visibility to the nearly pitch black room. “Oh.” She yelped in surprise. “There’s someone on the floor!” “Keep by me.” Xena stalked forward, with Gabrielle close by her hip.

They walked across the floor and stopped by the lump, and stood there, looking down. “Ah.” The queen softly exclaimed, reaching out with one bare foot to roll the body over and expose it to the candle light. “Oh my gosh.” Gabrielle whispered. “Xena.” “Yeah.” Xena murmured. “Sure as Hades wasn’t expecting this.” She studied the glassy eyed, staring face, robbed of all it’s attractiveness. “You bastard, Philtop.

What were you doing here?” “Is he..” “Oh yes.” The queen exhaled. “Can’t you smell the blood?” — “I’d love some tea.” Xena glanced up at her. “Wake you up too fast?” Gabrielle had her arms wrapped around her, and she was avoiding looking at Philtop’s body. “I couldn’t go to sleep for along time, then I finally did and then I heard you yelling for me.

My head hurts.” “Go make some tea.” Xena patted her leg. “I’m gonna have to look him over and you probably don’t want to see that anyway.” Her consort didn’t even give a token protest.

She retreated back into the bedroom, and in a moment Xena could hear the sound of the fire being built up, and the rattle of a water pot. She listened for a bit, then she returned her attention to the dead body.

Aside from the odd dress, Philtop was also wearing gauntlets, thin leather gloves that extended up his arms halfway to his elbows. His throat had been slit.

Xena put the tip of her sword against his chin and pushed his head up, observing the cut with professional approval.

It went right from ear to ear, and had sliced through his adams apple as well as his jugular vein. The marble floor was covered in blood, producing the copper tint that had warned her in side the bedroom but giving nothing to her in terms of who or why.

Just a neatly done job by a practiced hand – and yet… Xena leaned a little closer, examining the slice.

Now that did tell her something.

Whoever had cut Philtop’s throat had been his height or taller.

Xena stood up, stretching the kinks out of her knees from crouching. Philtop had been her height.

Xena let her blade rest on her shoulder.

They had both been unusual that way, he’d been one of the few people she could look right in the eye – that had added to his attraction for her. But not many people in the realm measured up to her inches. She studied the body on the floor, searching inside her to see what emotion it drew out.

After a brief pause, she shrugged, a physical manifestation of her ambivalance.

She wouldn’t miss Philtop.

He’d been nothing but a pain in her ass. She circled the body, observing the hands splayed out as though thrown out in warning.

The fingers were empty, though he was wearing his sword strapped to his back and she could see at least one dagger at his waist, and one tucked into the top of his boot. Pretty much the same as she’d have if she had chose to dress like a thug and sneak into someone’s rooms at night, matter of fact.

She lowered the tip of her sword and sliced through his tunic, flicking the fabric aside and exposing his chest. Then she had to stifle a laugh. Gabrielle came in with two cups. “What’s so funny?” She spared a glance at the body, as she put Xena’s cup down on the desk. ‘What’s that he’s wearing?” “That, my delicious little bed warmer, is a corset.” Xena said. “Never seen one on a guy before.” She said. “it’s meant to squeeze your body into shape if it isn’t that way naturally.” Gabrielle stared at it, then she looked up at Xena in deep puzzlement. Xena flipped the fabric back into place. “I don’t wanna know.” She picked up her cup and sipped the tea. “So, muskrat, tell me.

Didja kill him?” Gabrielle touched her own chest in reflex. “Me?” Xena looked around. “No one’s in this room.” She said. “ No one left, I’d have heard them.” She added. “I heard someone come in, come to the door, stop, and then gasp.” She looked at her bedmate. “I didn’t hear whoever it was disappear.” She pointed around the room. “They’re not here.

There’s no other exit, here or in our bedroom.” Gabrielle frowned at her. “Xena I didn’t kill anyone.” “Didja want to?” Xena watched with interest, as those green eyes slowly lifted and met hers. In the candlelight, Gabirelle’s eyes were almost ochre but their clear depths were evident regardless. “No.” She said. “But I’m not sorry he’s dead.” She replied honestly. “I didn’t like him at all.” She paused, watching Xena’s face. “Did you really think I did?” Xena chuckled. “I know you didn’t.” She said. “You were in bed right next to me when I heard him get offed.” She said. “You’re little, and quiet footed, my love, but you had your paws wrapped around my arm before I got up.” “Oh.” Her consort smiled. — Xena let the building and movement moved past her, as she examined the feeling in her gut.

Gabrielle’s head was leaning on her shoulder as her consort watched the men work too, and her hand had come to rest casually on Xena’s thigh, fingertips gently tracing a pattern there. This was love.

Xena felt a little humbled by it.

It was a very stupid place for her to be having an internal revelation, but she admitted to herself right there, in the hall, surrounded by soldiers that what she felt at that moment was something she never wanted to live without again. Scary as crap. For a minute, Xena let herself imagine what it would have been like if she had, when Philtop had asked, just handed over her throne and took off.

Just left, with her sword, and her horse, and her adorable muskrat just to find out what life had to offer her. “Xena?” “Hmm?” Xena held the image in her head, feeling the crunch of snow under her boots and the sting of the cold air in her lungs, on a long road, with miles to go before shelter. “Where do you think that tunnel goes?” Gabrielle asked, as the soldiers reached the top, and two of them gripped the metal and started yanking it back out of the wall. “Why would they put it up near the roof?” She could hear the slow, rhythmic thonk of horse hooves, and at the edge of her awareness, the sound of a voice at her side as she walked along. “Xena?” She let the image fade, but didn’t forget it. “I don’t know, muskrat.” Xena tilted her head back. “Are there more of these? You think you’ve seen them?” She shook herself out of her lovestruck mooning and approached the scaffolding. “let’s go look.” They climbed up, ending up behind the soldiers who were working the grate out of the stone.

Brendan had brought torches up onto the platform and he had one near the opening, and was peering inside. “What’s in there old man?” Xena asked.

She got up onto the top platform and squeezed between the men, pausing to examine the grate that was now resting sideways on the wood surface.

The metal was old, and it was almost a burned shade of black. She touched it, and found it very cold. “Huh.” She moved over to the opening and felt cold air against her face, full of dust and the smell of moss.

The gap was large enough for someone Gabrielle’s size to crawl into it, and someone Kebbin’s size to squeeze into it, but as she suspected there was no way she was going in there herself. With a grunt of disappointment, she cleared space. “Okay, let’s go hunting, boys.” Kebbin squirmed past her without hesitation, putting his dagger between his teeth as he eased into the shaft, holding a cup mounted candle in his left hand.

He paused, then squirmed forward, his heels moving out of view after a moment as he moved forward. Another man immediately climbed in after him, similarly equipped. “Boys.” Xena leaned on the wall. “If you find someone in there, kill em.

Don’t wait for advice, m’kay?” “Yes, mistress.” Kebbin called back. “So far, nought but cobwebs and a spider.” Xena made a face. “Better you than me, kid.” She stepped back and examined the grate again. “Brendan, I want everyone to scour the damn place, find me more of these things.” “Aye.” Brendan said. “Xena, men just told me the snow’s so bad outside, it’s heavy on the roofs.” He said. “Don’t want to risk any collapsing – especially the stables.” “No way” Xena scrambled for the edge of the platform. “C’mon muskrat, let’s go check.” She was halfway down the scaffolding in a breath. “Brendan, I want to know what those guys find.” “Aye, mistress.” Brendan agreed. “I”ll stop and pick up the Persians.

They can move snow for me it’ll be a novel experience for them.” Xena got to the bottom, hopped down, turned, and plucked Gabrielle off the next platform up and lifted her to the ground. “I hope Patches is okay.” Gabrielle said, with a worried frown. “Boy, so many things are going weird right now.” “What do you mean weird?” Xena asked, as they quickly moved up the steps and into the main hall. “Well, the weather.” Gabrielle said, “All this snow? It’s just turned fall, Xena. “ She hurried to catch up to the queen. “And then the whole thing with the bad guy, and Philtop, and people getting hurt, and people getting killed, and then the circus and all that.” — She thought she saw a shadow out of the corner of her eye.

But when she turned her head to look, there was nothing.

She could hear the sound of the Persians ahead of her, and she could see them moving in her direction, excitement sharpening their voices. “Need your help.” She told them. “Let’s get over to the stables, we could have a problem.” In an instant, she was surrounded by big, bearded men, and they were all heading down the passage that would come up into the central courtyard where the stables were, and the main storehouses.

Xena could feel the cold increasing, and in reflex, she reached back to make sure her sword was in place, just as they got to the end of the hall and one of the Persians eased in front of her to unlatch the hatch leading up into the open air. Xena heard a crack, and the sound of something very heavy thundering down on top of the wooden surface, and instinctively she half turned and went to shove Gabrielle out of the way only to find her arm grabbed, and jerked powerfully, knocking her offbalance and making her stumble to the side just as the roof crashed down with a thundering roar. She spun and lunged, only to see Gabrielle and the Persian disappear under a cascade of debris, and snow, a half sounded cry cutting off as though by a knife. “Gabrielle!” Terror thundered through her as she thought she heard a laugh to one side and a split second before she dove on the pile of ice she turned and pulled her sword, aiming for the sound in a moment of utter furious rage. A wash of hot blood erupted, laying down with a hiss on the snow as she plunged after it, letting out a wordless howl as she dug. ** “Get me hot water.” Xena didn’t turn her attention from the still, pale figure on the bed. “And heat some sheets up, by the fire.” People scurried to do her bidding, but her focus was on that quiet face, and the just barely moving chest her hand was resting on. Barely a mark on her, except that big, swelling lump on her head, and the trickle of dried blood standing out in stark relief below her right ear. Xena very gently lifted up one of her lover’s eyelids, feeling her heart sink when she saw the unresponsive glassiness to the eye beneath it, and the open, unchanging pupil in the center.

She let the lid close, and started to shake inside. Problem with being an amoral killer was, you knew, intimately, what death looked like when it came creeping up to settle it’s feathers around your victim. So Xena knew, seeing that uneven movement of Gabrielle’s chest, and the dull eye that the sound she could just barely hear over the shattering of her heart were those feathers, fluttering. She could feel her own breath coming short, as the soldiers behind her gently offered her the warmed linen, carefully helped to tuck it around Gabrielle’s still body, silent and reverent.

Only Brendan touched her, putting a hand on Xena’s shoulder and squeezing it without any permission asked or needed. The hot water was placed on the bedside table and she took the offered piece of cloth, dipping it in and then gently cleaning the blood off Gabrielle’s face and her ear, wiping off the debris from the avalanche as she watched that uneven motion of her breathing become even more so. Someone entered the room, and her peripheral vision caught a quick flash of Jellaus’ somber face, as he came around behind her, touched her back gently, and then settled down on his knees, not there to do anything but be present. They all knew.

Xena felt like yelling at them, screaming that they were wrong, but she couldn’t, her heart bound up so tightly in painful constriction that she could only barely breathe herself, silently accepting the unspoken devotion surrounding her. Strange that now, in this moment of utter disaster, that they’d choose to express it. No one spoke.

In the corner, Lakmas the Persian knelt with his hands clasped, his head bowed.

He had been the one who had helped Xena clear the wood and the ice off Gabrielle, and had carried her here to their rooms, since Xena’s knees had been shaking to badly for her to do it. Xena rested her hands on the bed, feeling as helpless as she ever had in her life.

Outside she could hear the patter of sleet against the window, and the chill in the room shook her to her very core. “Stir the fire up.” She ordered, softly. A soldier went to do that. Xena folded her hands around Gabrielle’s still one, feeling the chill in it, despite the warm sheets she was now wrapped up in.

She touched the inside of her consorts wrist, her heart stopping until she felt the flutter against her fingertips, the beats so unsteady they almost seemed random. Gabrielle was dying. Xena felt tears sting her eyes, and she closed them, the wet droplets hitting her hands, and the hand she squeezed with no response.

Here was something all her skill at arms, and all the force of her will couldn’t stop and she opened her eyes again to look at that quiet, still face, all the pain of what this meant to her coming home. Leaning forward she gathered Gabrielle’s body into her arms and hugged her, holding her gently as her head came to rest on Xena’s shoulder. “Don’t’ leave me.” Xena whispered into the ear so near to her cheek. “Please don’t leave me.” She really didn’t care who heard her, or who was in the room, or what was going to happen next. All she cared about was the soul slipping through her grasp, the breath growing fainter, the flutter of a heartbeat becoming indistinct. No. ** Pain. Gabrielle was chiefly aware of a great deal of pain.

She didn’t really know where she was, or what had happened to her, but breathing hurt, and she felt like she was just floating in darkness. Then it all faded and she could see a gentle glow of light.

It surrounded her and buoyed her up, and she imagined she could feel the brush of clouds against her skin.

She opened her eyes, or thought she did, and saw a brighter light approaching her, bringing a welcome warmth. It was a relief.

She’d been so cold.

The warmth soaked through the ache in her bones and lightened in, and she found her breath coming easier, as the light surrounded her. She could hear whispers around her now.

Voices off in the light that she could hear, but not understand.

The light seemed to concentrate and she looked at it, reaching out to touch it but finding herself unable to move. So strange. “Gabrielle.” A gentle, quiet voice spoke. “Yes.” She whispered back. — Did she care? Xena felt completely exhausted. “Jellaus.” “I’m here.” Jellaus eased closer. “What do you need, Xena?” “Someone check the horses?” “They’re fine, Xena.” The minstrel reassured her. “It was the front of the barn that collapsed, where the hayrick is.

Just too much snow.” “Random?” The queen murmured, with a half shake of her head. “Should have been me.

She pulled me out of the way.” Jellaus sighed. “She has a true, brave heart.” “She does.” Xena let her eyes close again, the exhaustion overcoming her. “I hope ..

I pray to the gods it keeps beating.” “Rest, Xena.” Jellaus clasped her arm. “We’ll keep watch.” “No creature or evil thing will enter this place.” Lakmas spoke for the first time. “I swear it.” Xena let a breath out, finally feeling the shaking inside her ease. “Thanks.” She let her cheek rest against Gabrielle’s hair, holding the pain at bay at least for now. ** Xena had no idea what time of the day it was.

The curtains were pulled and she’d lost track of everything except the unconscious figure resting in her arms. Had it been a candlemark? Two? Xena wasn’t sure.

She kept her eyes fixed on the slight motion of Gabrielle’s chest, saying a soundless prayer between each one of them as she kept one hand touching her neck to feel the flutter of her heartbeat. She had never felt a fear so intense as this one.

It clenched her guts and kept her on the edge of tears and her stomach was so upset she couldn’t even drink the water in the mug left at her elbow. The lump on Gabrielle’s head was hot and swollen and horrifically frustrating to Xena since there wasn’t’ anything she could do about it.

The damage was on the inside, and she had no way of easing it, or using her healing skills to help her stricken lover. All she could do was sit here, and wait, holding Gabrielle gently against her, giving her nothing but her body warmth and the focus of her thoughts. It was very quiet in the room.

Her men, Jellaus, and the Persian sat a silent vigil with her, the soldiers seated against the door with their legs crossed under them, their elbows resting on their knees. Their understated devotion touched her.

No one moved, save to occasionally lift their heads and look at the two of them on the bed, then return their gaze to the floor. But every minute she sat there, every minute they watched in silence, every minute Gabrielle’s chest kept moving was a minute in the right direction. Xena gently rubbed her hand over Gabrielle’s arm, shifting her carefully a little closer into her embrace and against her body.

A motion caught her eye and she looked up, to find Jellaus nearing her side, a soft woven blanket in his hands. She gave him a grateful look as he settled it over them. “Thanks.” She murmured. “Xena.” The minstrel adjusted the edge of the blanket. “You do us all honor by admitting us here, to be with you. “ “Doesn’t feel like that.” Xena said. “I know, my queen.” Jellaus responded in a gentle tone. “They have brought my harp outside, may I bring in and play some music for you both?” Music.

Xena nodded. “She loves music.” She had to stop talking, as her chest clenched, and an echo of Gabrielle’s mournful complaint of not being able to play any herself sounded in her ears and she wondered bleakly if she’d ever hear a repeat of it. Jellaus touched her shoulder, then eased over to the door into the outer chamber and slipped through it. “Hear that muskrat?” Xena whispered into the ear near her chin. “He’s going to serenade ya.” She slid back just a little, and curled her arms around Gabrielle more securely. “C’mon, You know you want to hear it.” She took Gabrielle’s hand in hers and twined their fingers together as Jellaus came back in with his harp, and settled himself on a small stool near the bed, his fingers brushing the strings and bringing a comforting sound into the air. The minstrel launched into a pretty melody, without any words but light and gentle, stirring the stillness of the air and drawing the eyes of the rest of the men. It lightened Xena’s heart, a little, and she felt the muscles in the back of her neck loosen just slightly.

She rubbed her thumb against Gabrielle’s and glanced at the pale face, whose cheek was resting against her chest. — And yet brave. Loyal. Loving.

Gabrielle tried hard to close her hand again, sensing an odd warmth surrounding her.

She could feel Xena’s presence all at once, like the queen was holding her close, the touch of skin against skin, smell her scent – sensations imprinted so deeply in her they brought their own level of solace and comfort. No.

She snuggled closer in her mind.

I won’t leave you, Xena. ** Finally, the terror faded.

Xena exhaled slowly, as the breath against her skin once again came with regular motion and the heartbeat under her touch steadied and strengthened. If she looked down, she would see Gabrielle’s fingers wrapped around her hand, the tension in them now visible as her grip had tightened. She felt utterly exhausted.

The strain of sitting on the balance between hope and despair was wearing on her like no battle ever had and she kept her eyes closed, blocking out the room around her and even the gentle music. It would have been easier on her maybe to have been alone.

Xena felt bare, stripped naked before the eyes of her men but she didn’t have the strength to deny them their presence and the silent, unspoken support. And, on some level, maybe, there was something in her that didn’t want to be alone. She cradled Gabrielle’s head against her chest, her fingers feeling the heat of the lump and the swollen, tense skin over it.

She didn’t know what that was doing to the inside of Gabrielle’s head but she knew it wasn’t good. And there was nothing she could do to… Xena paused in mid thought and let her eyes open.

Jellaus was still at her side, gently strumming, his head leaning against the bedside table and his cheeks wet with renewed tears. What was she remembering? There had been something that triggered her thoughts but what had it been? Another head wound she’d fixed? Xena’s eyes flicked back and forth in the room, trying to push back the emotions and think. No, no other head wound.

She’d seen enough people die under her hands with them.

Xena slowly exhaled.

Was it a battle? Some insight she’d gotten? Some person she’d talked to? Some scroll she’d read? And then it came to her.

No, no battle, and no scroll, and no person.

Just a damnfool moment of hers and a bad move and her hand cracking against the stone wall upstairs sending every star she’d ever seen into her suddenly red shot vision. Gabrielle, and a basin of cold well water, and her gentle fingers easing the knot on the back of Xena’s hand in blessedly icy relief. “Brendan.” “Xena.” Brendan was at her side, kneeling. “What can I do?” “Get me a big bucket of snow from outside.” Brendan looked at her for a long instant, then he got up and headed for the door, as always unquestioning of her every demand. “Hang in there muskrat.” She whispered. “Hang in there.” ** It was hard to let Gabrielle go.

To remove her arms from her lover so that she could shift around and scoop up a handful of the snow and press it gently against the lump on her head.

Xena gently arranged her body on the bed and looked around. “Get me some cloth.” Jellaus handed her forward some, and she folded it around more of the snow and pressed it over the same spot. Was it dark outside? Xena had no idea.

She smoothed the pale hair back off Gabrielle’s head, the melting snow dampening it along with the satin cover on the pillow.

She heard a shudder against the window though, and glanced up. “Storm’s getting worse?” “Aye.” Brendan said, in a quiet tone. “Told the men to bring the horses into the dance hall, Xena.

Didn’t want em to come to harm.” Xena nodded. “Thanks.” She moved the compress a little. “Tell those circus people to put on a show.

Keep everyone distracted.” “Aye.” Brendan got up and went to the door, speaking to another soldier in a low tone.

The man left quickly and shut the door behind him. Xena watched Gabrielle’s face intently. “Jellaus.” “I’m here, Xena.” The minstrel put a hand on her shoulder. “Go get Lastay.” The fingers on her shoulder tightened, then relaxed.

Jellaus circled the bed and went to the door, handing his instrument to one of the patiently waiting soldiers. It was hard to fathom, really, just how desperately attached she’d become to Gabrielle.

Xena gently wiped the water off her consort’s head and got more snow into the fabric, putting it back over the lump.

It was hard to sort through all the crushing emotion going through her mind to think, and plan and make decisions. She wanted to break down and cry, and scream. She wanted to beg and carry on and behave like all the grieving people she’d ever despised all her life had, understanding finally at this stage in her life the pain she’d caused so many. It was infuriating and heartbreaking.

All those people whose loved ones she’d decapitated or gutted, sending them to Hades with no more thought than brushing a fly off that she’d never understood and now, kneeling at the side of her own bed she finally did. Oh, she did.

Now it was time for her to lose her loved one.

Xena felt her chest contract, and her vision went blurry with tears.

She kept her hands still and breathed silently, until she could blink her eyes open and focus again.

Lyceus had once told her he figured if she ever gave her heart, it would be all the way and now she found herself cursing him for being right. Cursing herself.

Cursing everyone but Gabrielle because she held no blame in any of it.

All Gabrielle had done was hand over her heart and soul and hadn’t looked back, loving Xena with an open innocence that made her hurt inside to think of. “I never deserved that.” Xena sighed. “I’m such a bastard.

Where did I come off having her fall in love with me.” “Xena.” Brendan had, apparently heard her. “Twas a case of two great hearts meetin.” Xena let out a soft, pained snort .”One maybe.” “Ah, no.” Brendan touched her arm. “Xena I’ve followed you boy and man all these years, all of us have, not for the dinars and you know it.” No.

She knew it.

Even if she denied it to them, and brushed it off Xena knew the truth and pretending otherwise did Brendan and the rest no service.

Did her no service, really, because it was the reason her troops were so loyal to her, the ones that were. She loved them.

She’d die for them.

They knew it.

She knew it.

She tried to pretend it was all ruthlessness but Brendan was right.

She had too damn big a heart and Gabrielle had gently enfolded it in her arms and given Xena an experience she never had thought she’d have in this life. She never really expected to be happy.

To love someone like she loved Gabrielle.

To have someone love her back with an utter completeness that she knew in her heart was a great gift, one she didn’t think she was entitled to. No, not entitled to, but she’d gotten it anyway and now, faced with losing it, she knew deserved or not she wasn’t willing to live without it.

What excruciating cowardice.

Xena looked down at Gabrielle’s face.

Wasn’t she the one who told Gabrielle to go off and have kids and name one after her when she croaked? Wasn’t she? Wasn’t she the one who hadn’t really understood when Gabrielle had sobbed over her, and told her she didn’t want to live without her? Thought Gabrielle was maybe a bit loopy? Xena put more snow over the lump. “Someone get me some more of this.” She nudged the bowl. Gabrielle hadn’t been loopy.

She had just understood in her guts what this was a lot faster than Xena had. The door opened, and as Brendan went out with the bowl, Jellaus came back in with Lastay at his heels. “Xena, he’s here.” Jellaus reclaimed his instrument and settled back down on the stool, his fingers tuning it a bit automatically. “Mistress.” Lastay said, softly. “I”m so sorry.’ Not even a hint of a jibe occurred to her. “Yeah, me too.” Xena said. “Listen, Lastay.

If things go really bad here, you need to get yourself ready to take over this place.” Xena understood what she was saying.

She knew the soldiers did.

Even the Persian, kneeling at her left hand, his big fingers squeezing out the linen for her knew.

His big, liquid dark eyes held a surprising compassion as he handed it back to her. “Xena.” Lastay said. “I’ll do whatever you want me to do, whenever you want me to do it” He spoke without his usual affectation.

He knelt at her side, resting his big hands on the bed’s coverlet. “May I pursue this creature, in the meantime?” — Calling her home.

And though the way back to that was into darkness, she plunged forward into it and pulled herself free from the grip behind her and she tumbled forwards into a growing pit of pain and anguish, so intense it was hard for her to breathe and it got worse the closer she came to Xena’s voice. Incredible pain.

She felt the gray mist calling her back, pulling her away from the agony and back to self preservation. “Gabrielle!” Xena’s voice cut through the confusion, and the note of pleading in it caught Gabrielle’s attention with shocking completeness and she remembered what her visitor had told her. That Xena needed her. A whisper. “Please don’t leave me.” And now, this close to the darkness, the voice was real, the pain was real, and she could hear the thunder of Xena’s heart and there was no question of responding. She yanked herself forward into the storm ahead of her, and dove into it, reaching for that need, and that pain and for the truth she finally knew as she left behind the mist and fell forward into a blinding burst of real pain and ice cold and a roll over overwhelming thunder. ** Xena had no idea what time of the day it was.

The curtains were pulled and she’d lost track of everything except the unconscious figure resting in her arms. Had it been a candlemark? Two? Xena wasn’t sure.

She kept her eyes fixed on the slight motion of Gabrielle’s chest, saying a soundless prayer between each one of them as she kept one hand touching her neck to feel the flutter of her heartbeat. She had never felt a fear so intense as this one.

It clenched her guts and kept her on the edge of tears and her stomach was so upset she couldn’t even drink the water in the mug left at her elbow. The lump on Gabrielle’s head was hot and swollen and horrifically frustrating to Xena since there wasn’t’ anything she could do about it.

The damage was on the inside, and she had no way of easing it, or using her healing skills to help her stricken lover. All she could do was sit here, and wait, holding Gabrielle gently against her, giving her nothing but her body warmth and the focus of her thoughts. It was very quiet in the room.

Her men, Jellaus, and the Persian sat a silent vigil with her, the soldiers seated against the door with their legs crossed under them, their elbows resting on their knees. Their understated devotion touched her.

No one moved, save to occasionally lift their heads and look at the two of them on the bed, then return their gaze to the floor. But every minute she sat there, every minute they watched in silence, every minute Gabrielle’s chest kept moving was a minute in the right direction. Xena gently rubbed her hand over Gabrielle’s arm, shifting her carefully a little closer into her embrace and against her body.

A motion caught her eye and she looked up, to find Jellaus nearing her side, a soft woven blanket in his hands. She gave him a grateful look as he settled it over them. “Thanks.” She murmured. “Xena.” The minstrel adjusted the edge of the blanket. “You do us all honor by admitting us here, to be with you. “ “Doesn’t feel like that.” Xena said. “I know, my queen.” Jellaus responded in a gentle tone. “They have brought my harp outside, may I bring in and play some music for you both?” Music.

Xena nodded. “She loves music.” She had to stop talking, as her chest clenched, and an echo of Gabrielle’s mournful complaint of not being able to play any herself sounded in her ears and she wondered bleakly if she’d ever hear a repeat of it. Jellaus touched her shoulder, then eased over to the door into the outer chamber and slipped through it. “Hear that muskrat?” Xena whispered into the ear near her chin. “He’s going to serenade ya.” She slid back just a little, and curled her arms around Gabrielle more securely. “C’mon, You know you want to hear it.” She took Gabrielle’s hand in hers and twined their fingers together as Jellaus came back in with his harp, and settled himself on a small stool near the bed, his fingers brushing the strings and bringing a comforting sound into the air. The minstrel launched into a pretty melody, without any words but light and gentle, stirring the stillness of the air and drawing the eyes of the rest of the men. It lightened Xena’s heart, a little, and she felt the muscles in the back of her neck loosen just slightly.

She rubbed her thumb against Gabrielle’s and glanced at the pale face, whose cheek was resting against her chest. — And yet brave. Loyal. Loving.

Gabrielle tried hard to close her hand again, sensing an odd warmth surrounding her.

She could feel Xena’s presence all at once, like the queen was holding her close, the touch of skin against skin, smell her scent – sensations imprinted so deeply in her they brought their own level of solace and comfort. No.

She snuggled closer in her mind.

I won’t leave you, Xena. ** Finally, the terror faded.

Xena exhaled slowly, as the breath against her skin once again came with regular motion and the heartbeat under her touch steadied and strengthened. If she looked down, she would see Gabrielle’s fingers wrapped around her hand, the tension in them now visible as her grip had tightened. She felt utterly exhausted.

The strain of sitting on the balance between hope and despair was wearing on her like no battle ever had and she kept her eyes closed, blocking out the room around her and even the gentle music. It would have been easier on her maybe to have been alone.

Xena felt bare, stripped naked before the eyes of her men but she didn’t have the strength to deny them their presence and the silent, unspoken support. And, on some level, maybe, there was something in her that didn’t want to be alone. She cradled Gabrielle’s head against her chest, her fingers feeling the heat of the lump and the swollen, tense skin over it.

She didn’t know what that was doing to the inside of Gabrielle’s head but she knew it wasn’t good. And there was nothing she could do to… Xena paused in mid thought and let her eyes open.

Jellaus was still at her side, gently strumming, his head leaning against the bedside table and his cheeks wet with renewed tears. What was she remembering? There had been something that triggered her thoughts but what had it been? Another head wound she’d fixed? Xena’s eyes flicked back and forth in the room, trying to push back the emotions and think. No, no other head wound.

She’d seen enough people die under her hands with them.

Xena slowly exhaled.

Was it a battle? Some insight she’d gotten? Some person she’d talked to? Some scroll she’d read? And then it came to her.

No, no battle, and no scroll, and no person.

Just a damnfool moment of hers and a bad move and her hand cracking against the stone wall upstairs sending every star she’d ever seen into her suddenly red shot vision. Gabrielle, and a basin of cold well water, and her gentle fingers easing the knot on the back of Xena’s hand in blessedly icy relief. “Brendan.” “Xena.” Brendan was at her side, kneeling. “What can I do?” “Get me a big bucket of snow from outside.” Brendan looked at her for a long instant, then he got up and headed for the door, as always unquestioning of her every demand. “Hang in there muskrat.” She whispered. “Hang in there.” ** It was hard to let Gabrielle go.

To remove her arms from her lover so that she could shift around and scoop up a handful of the snow and press it gently against the lump on her head.

To feel her heart sink as she saw not a flicker of reaction, only that faint, irregular motion of her chest. Xena gently arranged her body on the bed and looked around. “Get me some cloth.” Jellaus handed her forward some, and she folded it around more of the snow and pressed it over the same spot. Was it dark outside? Xena had no idea.

She smoothed the pale hair back off Gabrielle’s head, the melting snow dampening it along with the satin cover on the pillow.

She heard a shudder against the window though, and glanced up. “Storm’s getting worse?” “Aye.” Brendan said, in a quiet tone. “Told the men to bring the horses into the dance hall, Xena.

Didn’t want em to come to harm.” — “Aye.” Brendan got up and went to the door, speaking to another soldier in a low tone.

The man left quickly and shut the door behind him. Xena watched Gabrielle’s face intently. “Jellaus.” “I’m here, Xena.” The minstrel put a hand on her shoulder. “Go get Lastay.” The fingers on her shoulder tightened, then relaxed.

Jellaus circled the bed and went to the door, handing his instrument to one of the patiently waiting soldiers. It was hard to fathom, really, just how desperately attached she’d become to Gabrielle.

Xena gently wiped the water off her consort’s head and got more snow into the fabric, putting it back over the lump.

It was hard to sort through all the crushing emotion going through her mind to think, and plan and make decisions. She wanted to break down and cry, and scream. She wanted to beg and carry on and behave like all the grieving people she’d ever despised all her life had, understanding finally at this stage in her life the pain she’d caused so many. It was infuriating and heartbreaking.

All those people whose loved ones she’d decapitated or gutted, sending them to Hades with no more thought than brushing a fly off that she’d never understood and now, kneeling at the side of her own bed she finally did. Oh, she did.

Now it was, perhaps, time for her to lose her loved one.

Xena felt her chest contract, and her vision went blurry with tears.

She kept her hands still and breathed silently, until she could blink her eyes open and focus again.

Lyceus had once told her he figured if she ever gave her heart, it would be all the way and now she found herself cursing him for being right. Cursing herself.

Cursing everyone but Gabrielle because she held no blame in any of it.

All Gabrielle had done was hand over her heart and soul and never looked back, loving Xena with an open innocence that made her hurt inside to think of it. “I never deserved that.” Xena sighed. “I’m such a bastard.

Where did I come off having her fall in love with me.” “Xena.” Brendan had, apparently heard her. “Twas a case of two great hearts meetin.” Xena let out a soft, pained snort .”One maybe.” “Ah, no.” Brendan touched her arm. “Xena I’ve followed you boy and man all these years, all of us have, not for the dinars and you know it.” No.

She knew it.

Even if she denied it to them, and brushed it off Xena knew the truth and pretending otherwise did Brendan and the rest no service.

Did her no service, really, because it was the reason her troops were so loyal to her, the ones that were. She loved them.

She’d die for them.

They knew it.

She knew it.

She tried to pretend it was all ruthlessness but Brendan was right.

She had too damn big a heart and Gabrielle had gently enfolded it in her arms and given Xena an experience she never had thought she’d have in this life. She never really expected to be happy.

To love someone like she loved Gabrielle.

To have someone love her back with an utter completeness that she knew in her heart was a great gift, one she didn’t think she was entitled to. No, not entitled to, but she’d gotten it anyway and now, faced with losing it, she knew deserved or not she wasn’t willing to live without it.

What excruciating cowardice.

Xena looked down at Gabrielle’s face.

Wasn’t she the one who told Gabrielle to go off and have kids and name one after her when she croaked? Wasn’t she? Wasn’t she the one who hadn’t really understood when Gabrielle had sobbed over her, and told her she didn’t want to live without her? Thought Gabrielle was maybe a bit loopy? Xena put more snow over the lump. “Someone get me some more of this.” She nudged the bowl. Gabrielle hadn’t been loopy.

She had just understood in her guts what this was a lot faster than Xena had. The door opened, and as Brendan went out with the bowl, Jellaus came back in with Lastay at his heels. “Xena, he’s here.” Jellaus reclaimed his instrument and settled back down on the stool, his fingers tuning it a bit automatically. “Mistress.” Lastay said, softly. “I”m so sorry.’ Not even a hint of a jibe occurred to her. “Yeah, me too.” Xena said. “Listen, Lastay.

If things go really bad here, you need to get yourself ready to take over this place.” Xena understood what she was saying.

She knew the soldiers did.

Even the Persian, kneeling at her left hand, his big fingers squeezing out the linen for her knew.

His big, liquid dark eyes held a surprising compassion as he handed it back to her. Would Lastay understand? — With a tired smile, Xena pushed herself to her feet and stood there a moment, gathering energy.

Then she slowly circled the bed, moving through the watchers to where her wardrobe was and coming to stand in front of it, hoping she had the strength to take her armor off. In a moment, Brendan was at her side. “Want me to get the catches, Xena?” “Sure.” Xena surrendered gracefully.

She started unlacing her bracers as Brendan unclasped her armor, a draft from the far corner of the room hitting her between the shoulder blades as her captain lifted the hardened plates off her and pulled them clear. She glanced back towards the bed, where Lady Lastay was kneeling beside Gabrielle, talking in low tones to her, She could see the smile on her consorts face and almost lost track of what she was doing as another flood of relief came over her. Gabrielle was back.

At least for the moment, she wasn’t going to lose her and from the slowly growing alertness in her lover’s eyes, it seemed the worst was over. “Fighter she is.” Brendan commented softly, as he folded the armor and carefully placed it down on Xena’s arming chest. “Gods be blessed.” “Sure is.” Xena pulled her unlaced bracers off and tossed them on the chest, then braced her boot on the edge and started untying her knee guards as Brendan knelt and unlaced the other one. “Damn I’m tired.” She felt the gentle pat on her calf and exhaled. Turning, she sat down on the press and set both pairs of knee guards down, resting her elbows on her thighs.

After a moment she straightened up and unbuckled the sword harness and lifted it up over her head, setting it down next to her. Now she was in her breeches and shirt, and long boots.

Part of it all was damp, and she felt chilled from all the snow she’d absorbed in her haste to apply it to her lover’s head.

She glanced at the nearby fire, and held her hand out to it, appreciating the warmth as it penetrated her skin. “Warm some wine up, how about it?” Brendan asked. “Chillin to the bone outside.” “Sounds good.” Xena unlatched her boots and kicked them off, then she got up and went to the wardrobe, swinging the door open and peering inside. “Ah.” She spotted a simple, softly woven blue robe and shucked her shirt off, reaching for the robe just as a loud crack echoed through the room. In an instant, a heavy, powerful surge of adrenaline shoved all her exhaustion aside and she yanked a practice sword out of it’s sheath in the wardrobe and came around the corner, dressed only in her breeches with the sword sweeping out ahead of her as she looked for a target. Two of the soldiers turned from the window, where they were examining shattered leaded glass that had tumbled out from under the drapes.

They froze on spotting their half naked queen, and after a second, everyone else turned to see what they were staring at. For a moment, there was absolute silence.

Then Xena realized where the sound had come from, and she lowered her sword, her eyes finding Gabrielle’s across the room. Tired and pale as she was, Gabrielle’s face creased into a grin. “I think I feel better all of sudden.” She remarked, in a low, serious tone. “Thanks, Xena.” The words forced a laugh from Xena’s lips, and she lifted both hands and let them drop. “Sorry.” She muttered. “Been a long day.” One of the soldiers held up a piece of glass. “One of the panes broke, mistress.” He said, conspicuously keeping his eyes everywhere but her. Xena merely shook her head and went back to the wardrobe, studiously ignoring the red faces behind her.

She put the sword back in it’s sheath and pulled the robe down, shrugging into it and tying the belt off around her waist.

She gave there rest of them a chance to get their composure back and then stepped back into view, just as Brendan approached her with a mug issuing steam. Her captain didn’t bother hiding his smile. “I’ll send someone outside to check that window.” He remarked, as she took the mug. “Make sure it was just t’weather.” “Thanks.” Xena smiled in acknowledgement “Get some grub sent up here for all of you.” She said. “Maybe some soup or something.” She glanced down at Gabrielle. “No point in anyone else keeling over.” Two of the soldiers got up, touching their chests before the went to the door and slipped out.

Xena went over to the bed and sat down at the foot of it, reaching over lay her free hand over Gabrielle’s knees.

She saw the pale eyes watching her, and the impish grin that hadn’t quite faded turned back up. “Glad you appreciate my healing skills.” “I sure do.” Gabrielle responded. “That was great.” “Was it?”  Xena eased over a little more, until their bodies were touching. “I didn’t look like an idiot?” “No.” Her lover gazed at her.  “You’re beautiful.” — “See?” Xena gently stroked the mussed hair back off Gabrielle’s forehead. “I told everyone you were my bodyguard.

No one believed me.” A soft knock came at the door, then it opened and Duke Lastay entered.

His eyes brightened when he saw the shifted tableau, and Gabrielle’s open eyes. “Good news in here at least!” He said. “Outside, the storm continues.

I fear.” “Strange weather.” Jellaus commented. “Too early for snow.” Lakmas grunted. “Tis not something we know of.” He spoke up after a brief silence. “We were afraid of it, to be truthful.

It seemed terrible to us, and so unrelenting.” “There’s no snow where you are from?” Lastay asked. “No.” The Persian shook his head. “We are a desert land, far more used to heat and dry winds than this.” A rumble overhead made them all look up.

Xena pulled the woven cover they’d draped over her a little more snugly around Gabrielle and nodded a little as one of the soldiers went over and stirred the fire up. “Sea of sand, eh?” The Persian nodded. “It’s magnificent.” He said. “The colors, and the shades of the hills, and the feel of the hot sun on your back.” He was seated on the floor now, his legs crossed under him. “I remember when I was a boy, the first time my father took me out with him from our tribal home and I saw the immensity of the desert.

I thought he was showing me the home of the gods.” “Sounds beautiful.” Gabrielle murmured. The man put his fingertips together and bowed his head in her direction. “It truly is.” Lastay came over and went to his knees next to the bed, steading his balance with both hands on the edge of the mattress. “Xena, the shaft you discovered has been searched.

They found many things, weapons and bags of supplies, inside.” “Ah.” Xena only just caught herself from asking what shaft he was talking about.

That whole situation had faded back out of her awareness, vastly overshadowed by her concern for her..

She studied Gabrielle’s face for a moment.

Friend? Lover? Consort? “For how many people?” “A half dozen, they think.” Lastay frowned. “Tis more than I expected, truly.” “Me too.” The queen agreed. “Busts my ass thinking that many assassins are crawling around my castle, y’know? We need to catch em.” She made no shift to move though, content to sit quietly at Gabrielle’s side, her hand captured within her lovers. She glanced at Lakmas. “Go with him and look at the stuff he found.

See if it’s familiar.” Lakmas folded his hands and pressed them against his forehead, giving Xena a bow before he got to his feet, waiting for Lastay to rise as well. “Brendan, you go too.” Xena said. “Leave two men outside the front door, and two down at the kitchen entrance to this section.” “Mistress.” Brendan ducked his head, acknowledging the change in Xena’s attitude. “Do me a favor, though?” He spoke up unexpectedly. “Allow t’men to do all the cooking for you both.

I want no chances.” Xena’s face shifted briefly into a wry grimace. “All right.” She conceded. “But I sure hope Gabrielle gets better soon or we’re both gonna starve.” “Mistress!” Gabrielle squirmed a little closer, until her head was against Xena’s hip. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.” She told Brendan, as Xena’s arm settled gently over her shoulders. “She just got used to my cooking.” “That I did.” Xena agreed. “So start healing.” Gabrielle rested her hand on Xena’s thigh, half closing her eyes with a faint sound of contentment. Lastay stood. “We’ll find them, Xena.” He said. “I’ll keep you informed.” Xena nodded, lifting her hand in dismissal as the three men left the room, and then two of the soldiers followed.

That left only Jellaus with them, and two other soldiers, who made their way to the kitchen entrance and left through it. Jellaus stood and bowed. “Gracious ladies, I will go make my self seemly.” He indicated his stained and blood spattered clothes. “Be at peace for now.” He ducked out of the room before they could answer, and then, finally they were alone. — She’d push Xena out of the way.

She’d put herself in danger to protect her.

If someone was shooting an arrow at them she’d step in front of it. Probably driving Xena crazy, because she’d have to hop over her to catch the stupid thing.

Gabrielle smiled wryly, in self knowledge.

But she would because that’s just who she was.

She figured Xena probably knew that because really, it was one of the things they shared. What had she called it? Crazy brave? Yeah, well, they both were. Gabrielle allowed herself to relax, the warmth of Xena’s body seeping into her and coaxing her sore body into a state where she thought she might be able to drift off.

She let out breath and closed her eyes, immediately aware of the sound of her lover’s heartbeat and the steady motion of her ribs. Soulmate.

What did that mean, really? Gabrielle could feel sleep creeping over her as she pondered the question.

She wasn’t entirely sure, though she did like the term. Oh well.

She supposed they’d figure it out. ** It seemed only a moment later when she opened her eyes again.

But Gabrielle knew time had passed since her entire body was stiff and she could see a dim, gray light outside the heavy curtains on the far side of the chamber.

She took a breath and released it, moving her head very cautiously. The pounding ache was gone.

Gabrielle reached up and touched the side of her skull, relieved to find the lump there much reduced.

Then she glanced up to find Xena still deep asleep, the queen’s eyelids twitching a little betraying her lover to be dreaming. She looked around the chamber.

The candles had burned out, and there was only the barest glow from the fire, but if she concentrated, she could hear faint sounds around the castle, soft footsteps in the outer chamber, and muffled voices. She was thirsty.

Her mouth was dry and felt like there was cloth inside it, but she didn’t want to move around too much because it would wake Xena up. Then it became a moot point, as the queen’s body suddenly tensed and her eyes popped open, her hands coming up in a defensive motion as her breathing accelerated. “Xena.” Gabrielle froze in place, knowing better than to get in the way. “Hey!” After a second, the coiled body under her relaxed and Xena let her hands drop to the surface of the bed with a twin thud. “Son of a bitch.” She got out hoarsely, then cleared her throat. “You okay?” “I’m okay.” Gabrielle patted her on the stomach, feeling the surface heaving as Xena caught her breath. “Are you okay?” She peered up at her as Xena lifted a hand and put it over her eyes. “Xena?” Xena rubbed her eyes. “Stupid dream.” She said briefly. “What the Hades time is it?” She asked. “My back’s killing me.” “I don’t know.” Gabrielle rolled over onto her own back, immediately regretting it when the chill of the room penetrated the covers and made her shiver. “Brr.” Xena sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed, letting out a little groan.

She got up and stretched, grimacing, before she turned and tucked the covers back around Gabrielle. “You’d think someone would have the damn sense to stir the fire in here.” She grabbed her robe off the side table and shrugged into it, tying the belt and rubbing her arms against the chill. She made her way over to the window and stuck her head between the curtains, seeing a heavy gray sky overhead, and still falling snow. “Ugh.” Xena turned and went over to the fireplace, grabbing several chunks of the wood in the hopper and tossing them into the open space. “Brendan!” The sound of boots approaching responded to her call, and in a moment, Brendan was sticking his head inside the door. “Mistress?” He glanced at the bed, his face relaxing when he saw Gabrielle’s head poking from the covers looking back at him. Xena turned from her position standing in front of the fire. “Someone think I wanted to have Gabrielle waking up half frozen?” She went back to tossing wood on the fire, poking at it with an iron bar. Brendan eased in. “Ah.” He said. “We didn’t care to wake you.

Figured you both could use the rest.” He apologized. “Want some supper in?” Xena paused in her fire building and looked at him. “What?” She said. “What the Hades time is it?” “Near going dark.” Brendan said, with a touch of wryness. “Been holding all of em at bay the day long.

Told em all to let you sleep.” He cleared his throat a little self conciously. “Not that they’ve much to tell, mind ye.” The queen straightened, and put her hands on her hips. “Are you telling me we’ve been sleeping all damn day?” “Aye.” “Wow.” Gabrielle commented, as she pushed herself a little more upright. “No wonder I feel so stiff.” “No kidding.” Xena exhaled. “Yeah, send food in here.” She sat down in one of the two stuffed chairs with a thump. “Well, if nothing else, it let Gabrielle get some rest.” She looked over at the bed. “Right?” “Um.

Yes.” Gabrielle sounded a little surprised. “I feel pretty okay.” She rotated her head a little and rubbed the back of her neck. “Any water over there?” Brendan disappeared into the outer room, and now the sounds out there were more pronounced, and sharper.

Xena got to her feet and went over to the mantle, picking up a cup and looking around. “How about.. “ She paused, and frowned. “There’s no damn water in here.” For a moment she seemed stumped, standing there with the cup in her hands.

Then she strode over to the window again, pulling the curtain aside and unlatching one of the leaded panes.

With an impatient shove, she pushed the frame open and reached out, scooping the cup full of snow and then pulling her hand back inside. Then she went over to the fire and held the cup close to it, watching as the snow dissolved quite quickly into liquid.

Then she swirled it and took a mouthful before she brought it over to the bed and offered it to Gabrielle. “Thanks.” Gabrielle sipped it gratefully, as Xena brought over a thick, woven shift and slipped it over her head. A moment later, the door opened again and several soldiers entered, one carrying a tray.

The others went around the room lighting the candles, and shortly the room was lit with a golden glow. Xena went back over to the fire and sat down, extending her bare feet towards the warmth. “So what’s going on, now that you let me spend the whole damn day oblivious.” Brendan went over and sat down next to her. Gabrielle put the cup down and pulled the covers back, pushing herself upright and sitting up on the edge of the bed.

For a moment, the room whirled around her and she almost lay back down again, then waiting until the vertigo passed. She held on to the canopy post and stood up, relieved to let her spine stretch out. “Hey!” Xena barked from the fire .”What are you doing?” “Just standing” Gabrielle said. “My body’s tired of laying down.” She gave the soldier standing nearby a smile “Hello.” “Your grace.” The soldier saluted her. Xena got up and came over, hovering around her and glaring at the soldier until he hastily backed away. “Want to come over by the fire?” Gabrielle nodded, not entirely surprised when Xena slid her arm around her shoulders and made a motion to pick her up. “Can you help me walk over there?” She asked. “I kinda want to work the kinks out.” She got her arm around Xena’s waist and hugged her. “Easy.” Xena reluctantly went along with it, keeping a secure hold on her as they made their way around the bed over to the fire.

She settled Gabrielle into the chair she’d been using and perched on the arm, watching as her consort held her hands out to the fire and sighed in pleasure. “Would you like some tea, majesty?” One of the soldiers came over with a small tray and two cups. “And we have some bread and stew, made it ourselves outside there.” Gabrielle was glad to be sitting again.

The warmth of the fire was soaking into her bones and the ache was slowly easing.

She took the cup Xena offered her and cradled it in her hands, breathing in steam that was scented with mint and honey. — Brendan sighed. “Get Jellaus to help you, Brendan.” Gabrielle suggested. “He knows how to do that.

How to make a story work for him.” She watched Brendan’s expression brighten. “I’d help you too but I think Xena wants me to stay here.” “Hah.

Yes.” Xena returned her attention to her consort. “Warm enough?” Gabrielle moved the edge of the blanket over her knees, as the fire started to catch in the grate and added it’s heat as well. “It’s okay now.” She felt the shivers ease and her muscles relaxed.

She looked into the flames, and memories started to surface of her first few days in the castle. It was hard to make a connection back to the person she’d been in those days.

So afraid, and confused, hurting from losing her family, from watching Lila die before her eyes.

Wanting so much to be angry at Xena for that and so very bewildered when she couldn’t be. How disloyal she’d felt, when she finally figured out what she was feeling. She remembered waking up and hurting, finding herself in Xena’s bed with Xena sleeping next to her.

Her head had felt a lot like it did now, matter of fact.

All achy, and as though if she moved it too fast, it would really hurt.

So she let it gently rest against Xena’s shoulder. Despite sleeping as long as she had, she still felt tired.

But she blinked a few times, and picked up the cup of tea she’d brought up stairs with her.

She sipped at it, the taste reviving her even though it was already cold. “Don’t go anywhere.” Xena got to her feet, and dusted her hands off. “I’m gonna change into something more comfortable and figure out where I want to lay my traps up here.” “Okay.” Gabrielle squirmed into a more comfortable position, leaning on the chair arm so she could watch Xena roam around the room.

There were a lot of other people there too, soldiers mostly, but three servants and the Persian back against the back wall. Xena avoided all of them as she prowled, going over every inch of the space. “Someone make sure that damn cat isn’t under the bed.

I don’t want to be cutting it in half if it moves out to piss tonight.” She circled the tall dresser near the back wall and then opened it, sticking her head inside. One of the soldiers obediently got on the ground and crawled over to the side of the bed, lifting up the linen skirting and peering underneath.

For a moment he froze, then he let out a yell, throwing the entire room into chaos. Chaos, because Xena backed out of the cabinet with an explosive bound, launching herself sideways and bowling over two other soldiers who were scrambling to get out of her way.

She landed between the bed and Gabrielle and spread her long arms out, bellowing at the top of her voice. The rest of the soldiers pounced on the bed, one grabbing the man on the floor by the waist and hauling him backwards the rest of them lifting the bed up and moving it in a show of sheer manly strength as the Persian and two other soldiers pulled weapons out and leaped forward to pounce on whatever was under it. Only Gabrielle remained still, and quiet.

She figured, rightly, that moving or getting in the way in any sense would not only be pointless, it also would probably get her hurt or worse, get Xena hurt if the queen tried to protect her from whatever it was. The Persian dove under the bed and then a scream emerged, long and loud and high.

When it ended, everyone shut up, and the Persian backed out rapidly, shaking one hand and hauling something out with the other. “Aha! A demon!” Gabrielle’s eyes widened, as she remembered what the voice in the darkness had told her.

Was this the thing trying to hurt Xena? The men clustered around as a ratty, bedraggled figure emerged, struggling against his hold, blinking against the candlelight. Xena straightened to her full height, peering over the heads of the soldiers and then, with a disgusted little sigh, settled back down. “Hold it!” She yelled. “Stop dragging the damn woman all over the ground!” “Oh, Xena.” Gabrielle had poked her head around the back of the chair. “It’s one of the circus people.” She said, recognizing one of the random ones in the background of the show, moving the pieces of rigging around.

There had been five or six of them, short and alike looking, with brownish curly hair and slightly flattened noses. And here was one of them, hiding in Xena’s old bedroom. Xena put her hands on her hips. “So I see.” She said, observing the striped costume, and the frightened, glaring eyes. “So I guess we need to find out why they were under our bed, huh?” She turned her head. “Thanos, go out to the dancing hall and get that old man in charge.

Bring him up here.

Don’t tell him why.” “Mistress.” The man saluted, and headed out of the room. The Persian had the woman now by both arms, his big, muscular hands dwarfing the woman’s limbs as he held her still. “Would have rather found the cat.” He commented. “We like cats.

Not so with snakes in strange clothing hiding in corners.” “Or under beds.” Xena said. “Can you talk?” She addressed the woman. The woman’s dark eyes just remained glaring at her. — “Wondering what was going on was making me feel worried.

My head hurt.” Gabrielle responded in a mild, serious tone. “I thought it would be better if I could see you.” She watched Xena’s face, seeing the twitching along her cheeks that meant she was trying hard not to smile. After a moment the queen turned back around, and resumed her kneeling posture, poking amongst the meagre possessions with the tip of the dagger. “Somehow, I don’t think this is who we were looking for.” She said. “At least, not based on this.” “What is it?” “Just what you’d expect to find in the bag of some kid running from home.” Xena said, leaning her elbow on her knee. “Mistress.” One of the soldiers came to her side. “Found this.” He held out his cupped hands, which were full of fruit pits and old, gnarled rinds. “In the little room in there.” He indicated a doorway. “Ah.” Xena selected one and inspected it. “Too fresh for Gabrielle to have left them, back in the bad old days when she slept in there.” She glanced at her consort, who was gently smiling at her. “Didn’t last long anyway.

She ended up in my bed faster than a puppy.” Everyone blushed, except for the queen.

Gabrielle felt so lightheaded, she turned around and sat down again, glad, at least, that her…

She paused the thought.

Her soulmate? Her brow knit.

It didn’t really seem to fit Xena, somehow. Anyway.

Glad at least that her queen had seemed to have recovered her spirits.

Uncomfortable as it was for her, sometimes.

She picked up her tea and sipped it, wishing she had a hot cup to replace it.

As though someone had read her mind, the door opened and Jellaus appeared with a tray. He came over and set it down on the table, glancing around the room. “What is it that goes on in here?” He looked quizzically at Xena and the soldiers, who were diligently searching under the bed. “And the lass outside?” “She was under the bed.” Gabrielle explained, as she swapped her cold cup for a hot one he had poured out. “Thanks for the tea.” She pulled the blanket around her again as she glanced at the window. “Wow, it’s really still storming outside.” “It is.” Jellaus agreed. “Storming outside, and inside, I think.” He poured a cup and handed it over to Xena, who had wandered over. “Xena, Brendan spoke to me.

Are you sure this is the best course for you to take? Those criminals seem almost un natural in their motives.” Xena sat down in the chair and wrapped her powerful hands around the cup to warm them. “Yes.” She said, after a brief pause. “I’m what they want.” She stared past them into the fire. “The longer we let this drag out, the less chance we have of coming out ahead in it.

I’ve waited too long already.” Jellaus sighed. “I want it over now.” Xena continued. “So if the only way I can end it is to sacrifice my reputation then so be it.” She looked up and over at Gabrielle. “I know what matters to me now.

This. “ She circled her finger around her indicating the stronghold. “Isn’t it.” Jellaus smiled briefly. “But Xena, what if there is some way, some hidden tunnel up here?” Xena looked at him, and her lips twitched into a wry smile. “I”m hoping like Hades there is.

But you have to make sure all of them know I think there isn’t any, you got me?” “Aye.” “They already think I’m losing it.” Xena said. “They know I took myself and Gabrielle to bed drunk the other night, they know about the pig.

They know about the westlanders.

Now they just have to know I’m up here, scared, convinced I’m safe with my men guarding the place that I used to live in.” “Xena.” Gabrielle cleared her throat. “These guys have been here for days.

They know about the whole thing with Philtop.

Won’t they figure out you’re trying to trap them anyway?” “They might.” The queen said. “But it doesn’t matter, Gabrielle.

Even if they think it’s a trap, they’ll still come after me because I’ve told the men to spread the word we’re going to burn the lower stronghold out tomorrow morning and if it kills everyone in it, I’m all right with that.” Gabrielle blinked at her. “But you’re not going to do that.” She blurted out, in a tone of shocked certainty. “Xena, you can’t.” Xena eased one of her legs over the chair arm, and leaned back. “Actually.” She said, in a very normal tone. “I could.” She took a sip of tea. “I’m capable of it.

I care about what I care about.

You.

Him.

Them.” Xena pointed at Gabrielle, then Jellaus, then at the soldiers. “To rid myself of those bastards yes I would burn out the lower quarters.” Gabrielle took a breath, then just released it to trickle through her lips. “I just don’t think it would do anything useful.

They passed muster in the dining hall they’d just hide somewhere else.” The queen remarked. “I’m bloodthirsty, not stupid.” She swirled the tea in the cup. “ What I want is to draw them here, and make it personal.

I don’t want anyone else getting hurt or getting killed because they want to taunt me.” A little silence fell.

Then Gabrielle looked over at Xena. “You know something?” “What?” Xena tilted her head a little, her ears catching the sounds of Brendan arriving in the other room. — Xena came around the side of the chair and knelt at her side. “Want to go back to the tower?” She asked putting a hand on Gabrielle’s cheek, then touching her forehead. “No fever at least.” “I want to see the circus.” Gabrielle said. “I”m okay.” She tucked the blanket around her a little more. “Some berries, or sweetcake would be great.” And mild enough for her unhappy stomach, she reasoned, though even if that wasn’t true, she knew they wouldn’t go to waste if Xena was around. “Bring the tea and the taleteller.” Xena ordered Mali. “I’ll take care of the rest.” “Majesty.” Mali made her a neat curtsy then she pattered out the door, turning right and heading for the back staircase down to the center of the stronghold. Xena waited a moment, then she went to the door herself and stuck her head out. “C’mere.” She beckoned one of her guard over. “Mistress.” It was Brent. “What can I do to serve you?” “Go down to the merchant hall.” Xena said. “Get me a bunch of whatever goodies they have down there.

Cakes or whatever.” “Of course.” Brent smiled tentatively. “It’s good to see the little one about.” Xena gave him a long look, then, she smiled back. “Yeah.” He turned and went for the stairs, trotting down them out of her sight before she could say any more. Good man, Brent.

Xena pulled her head back inside and went over to Gabrielle’s chair, taking a seat herself on a padded stool next to it.

She extended her legs out and crossed them at the ankles, resting her elbow on the chair arm. Immediately, she felt her arm enveloped by warmth, and she glanced to the side to see Gabrielle’s hands wrapped around it as her consort shifted a little and rested her cheek against her shoulder. “You okay?” She asked, feeling more than a little anxious. “Now I”m perfect” Gabrielle said, snuggling closer. “I”m okay.

I just feel kind of ratty all over.

Things hurt.” She said. “My backs sore, and my head.” Xena sighed. “I can’t give you pain herbs.” She said. “I’m afraid you’re head’s still rattled.” “Ugh.” “Sorry, honey.” Xena paused, and made a face. “Where in Hades is all this damn gush coming from?” She inquired in an aggrieved tone. “I”m starting to sound like an old grandmother.” “I love you.” Gabrielle stroked the queen’s arm. “Just being here next to you makes me feel better.

I don’t care if you do sound like a grandmother.” Xena made a low, grunting noise. “Do you think the bad guys will come up here?” Gabrielle asked, in a whisper. “I don’t think so.” Xena whispered back. “I’ve got too many soldiers out there.” THere were, Gabrielle knew.

Probably two dozen at least, in the small hallway with guards on both ends, and at the bottom of the only steps that led up to where they were.

Plus, of course, Xena herself was here with her, the queen’s sword and chakram leaning against the stool she was sitting on. So it felt pretty safe.

Gabrielle turned her attention to the hall, seeing the circus people starting to move out into position.

She was glad she was here.

She figured the acrobats and the animals would take her mind off her aches and maybe, if she was lucky, she’d get some honeycake to settle her stomach. She watched the horses come out, feeling Xena shift next to her, craning her neck to watch.

She shifted her hands, tucking her fingers around the queen’s arm and let herself become absorbed with the show. “Oh look, Xena.

They didn’t do that the other time, did they?” Xena felt her eyes widen, as she watched the two men standing up on the backs of their horses, swordfighting with each other. “No…

I would have remembered that.” She said. “I think.” A soft knock came at the door.

Xena reached out and took hold of her chakram, then cleared her throat. “C’mon in.” She called out, half turning to watch the door open, yet leaving her arm in Gabrielle’s grip. The big, heavy wooden door opened, and Brent poked his head in. “Mistress?” He called out cautiously. “It’s Brent.” — “Your grace?” Mali appeared on her other side, with a tray. “Here’s some tea for you…

Uh..

And her Majesty.” She put the tray down. “The cook said he would come up if your Majesty wishes, and tell the story about the old king.” Xena straightened up. “Yeah?” She collected herself with an effort. “Great.” “Thanks Mali.” Gabrielle leaned back against the back of her chair again, keeping her hand tucked around Xena’s arm. “That would be great if he could do that after the circus.

Right Xena?” “Sure.” “Shall I tell him that, your Grace?” Mali looked uneasily at the queen’s still face. Gabrielle waited, then she nodded. “Could you please? I know we’d love to hear it.” Mali curtsied, and left. “Oh, Xena, look.” Gabrielle gently nudged her. “Look at the horses.” She indicated the floor, where six of the animals were trotted in a circle in unison, while the riders walked across their backs. “Isn’t that amazing?” After a moment, Xena lifted her eyes and peered across the room.

She felt Gabrielle’s fingers gently stroking her skin, and finally the gray haze lifted.

The sound of the room flooded into her ears, and she could appreciate the skill of the riders. “That’s pretty damn good.” Gabrielle relaxed. “How do they do that? Make the horses go like that?” “Practice, like anything else.” Xena got her scattered wits collected and offered up another honey ball. “They probably train them inside a small corral.” She took a ball herself and bit into it, chewing the pastry thoughtfully. “Sorry if I freaked you out.” “It’s okay.” Gabrielle took a little more of the cider. “I know you must have been really upset, Xena.

I sort of could feel that.” “Could you?” Xena found a pear in the basket, and took a bite of it. “Yeah, well, I was.” She bit off a chunk and handed it over. “Anyway, let’s try to forget that.” She looked out at the circus. “Here come your little buddies.” Gabrielle took the piece of pear and nibbled it.

The acrobats were scaling their tower, and she could sense the excitement of the crowd.

She watched them get to the top, and one of them, Zak, she thought, got onto his ropes and started swinging. After a moment, she looked at Xena, really unsurprised to find Xena looking at her.

She remained that way, in silence, then as if by common consent they leaned towards each other and kissed. Then, finally, when they took a break and backed off to regard each other, Xena smiled. “Thanks.” Gabrielle smiled back.

Then she let her gaze return to the acrobats, content to watch them as she felt Xena’s arm slip around her shoulders.

It felt warm and good, and grounding in this odd and strange atmosphere she found herself in. What would happen? Where were the bad guys? Were they out there, in the hall, watching them? Were the bad guys here, really part of what she’d heard in the gray place? She watched Zak reach his hands out, and catch his brother, who was spinning through the air, fearless of the drop to the ground, trusting the grab completely. Everyone was amazed.

The crowd roared.

Gabrielle could see the wide eyes, and pointing fingers and… “Xena?” “Hm?” “Look down there, behind that wooden box.

See the guy there?” She pointed, herself. “See him? He’s wearing those slippers, Xena, the ones you made me p..” She stopped speaking, as a flicker of motion to her right turned into a powerful surge, as Xena picked up her chakram and released it in an impossibly fast backhanded move. Not even the space of a heartbeat. ** No thought, no planning, just the savage power of a weapon thrown by a strong hand, backed with an intense passion.

The chakram slashed through the acrobat’s structure, skimming Zak’s leg by a hair and squeezing between one of the grooms and one of the horses to bury itself into a man’s skull with a hard, cracking sound. — “Gabrielle!” Xena’s yell easily overpowered Brents, as the queen vaulted into the room and drew her sword, circling it as her head whipped back and forth, searching for her consort. “Gabrielle!” “Here!” Gabrielle managed to blurt, her brow creasing at the figure on the floor. “I’m okay!” “It’s all right, mistress!” Brent panted. “Two of em! Barstards! But I got one and her grace got the other.” Xena had circled the chair and was intaking a deep breath to continue yelling when she stopped. “What?” She asked, in a more normal tone. “She what?” Brent straightened up. “Got that one.” He pointed his blood covered dagger at the slumped figure behind him. “And her grace took out this un.

I just finished the job.” He pointed at the other body. “Was out already, head cracked like.” Xena looked at the form, then at her consort, who was leaning back against the wall, the spear clutched in both hands. “You did that?” She asked, in a quizzical tone. Gabrielle felt little shivers going up and down her arms and legs, as her heartbeat slowed. “I think so.” Brent went over to the door and yanked it open. “Where the Hades are the guard, you bastards!” Xena sheathed her sword and went over to where Gabrielle was standing. “Divide and conquer.” She said, dourly. ‘They all ran down to try and save my hoary old ass when I jumped out the window like an idiot.” She put her hand on her consort’s shoulder. “Are you all right?” Gabrielle had put the butt of the spear down on the ground and was leaning on it. “Sort of dizzy.” She admitted. Xena got her back to her seat, after carefully extracting the spear from her hands and leaning it against the wall.

She tucked the blanket back around her, ignoring everything else in the room including Brendan bustling inside and the sound of the troops arriving back at the door. “Got that body secured, Xena.” Brendan said. “Scared the living out of them little circus boys, ye did.

And this here.” He held up the chakram. “Didn’t want no one touching it.” “Thanks.” Xena took the weapon and inspected it. “Nailed that sucker.” She said. “Thanks, Gabrielle.

You spotted him right before the little son of a bitch was about to cut those ropes.” Gabrielle inhaled sharply. “Really?” “Really.” Xena was still kneeling next to her.

Now she put a hand on Gabrielle’s knee. “You saved those kid’s lives, my love.

Really.” She rubbed the skin under the blanket. “He wasn’t expecting anyone to be up here.

You could only see him from this angle, and you did.” Brendan and Brent were kneeling together by the bodies, stripping off their robes. “Here, Xena.” Brendan said. “Same as the one below.

House livery.” Xena looked past the chair. “Damn it.” Gabrielle turned around and looked, seeing familiar colors on the body. “Who is it?” “One of the kitchen help.” Brent answered, briefly. “I don’t understand it.” “And the other?” Xena was still crouching down next to Gabrielle. “The one Gabrielle clobbered?” Brent went over and pulled the hood off.

He studied the man’s face for a minute, then snorted. “Westlander.” He said. “Brendan, what about the one down there?” “That one was a stranger.” Xena replied. “At least, neither of us knew him.” They all exhaled at roughly the same time. “Feels good to get a blade on em.” Brent said. “No more phantoms.

Frontal work.

I like this.” “Aye.” Brendan agreed. “Got bold, or maybe figured they’d be flushed.” “Hm.” Xena grunted. “In general, I just like killing people.” She remarked. “But it was damn good to kill that one.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “So.” “So.” Gabrielle felt exhausted from the effort. — “He did.

The coward ran from me and hid in a pile of cow manure.” Xena said. “Wasn’t worth the chintzy gold crown around his neck.” “Huh.

You’re meaning that one.” The cook muttered. “Aye, probably.” Xena cocked her head to one side. “So that’s all you’ve got to say, huh?” She watched him nod. “Okay, Brent, take him back downstairs.

I’ve heard all I want to for tonight.

Sounds like a bunch of crap anyway.” “Aye, mistress.” Brent took the man by the arm. “You.” Xena pointed at Mali. “Go finish sorting out Gabrielle’s rooms.

I don’t want a single hairball or spider in there.

Got me?” “Majesty.” Mali got up and followed Brent and the cook out, as Brendan went with them, closing the door and bracing himself against it, his sword scraping against the wood on the other side. Xena regarded her consort. “What do you think?” Gabrielle shifted in her chair and slowly rocked her head from side to side. “I think my head feels better.” She said. “Xena, I think Mali knows something.” “Oh really?” The queen gave her a very droll look. “Really.

I think her family maybe was here for a long time, and they know stuff.” Gabrielle missed the sarcasm. “I mean, look, there’s that guy from the kitchens,and th…” She stopped talking, as Xena’s long fingers very gently covered her mouth. The queen slowly leaned forward until her mouth was right near Gabrielle’s ear. “I got it.” She whispered. “I figured out why Philtop showed up here, and why scumbags could somehow hide inside corners and cracks in my castle without me finding them.” Gabrielle looked at her in question, since her lips were still covered. “I figured out why someone’s going around the place telling people about some old king who fought dragons to save his people.” The queen went on. “I just never expected these stinking sheep to try and usurp me.

My bad.” She released her consort’s mouth. They looked at each other. “Not everyone.” Gabrielle said, positively. “No.” Xena agreed. “But the question is, do they have someone to put in my place.” She studied her hands thoughtfully . “More importantly, do I want to let them?” “Let them?” Gabrielle leaned on the chair arm nearest her. Xena slowly nodded. “There’s a plan here.

Lot of people in on it.

All those bastards hiding, someone had to be helping them.” She pointed at the floor. “Cooks from downstairs, and servants from Philtop’s lands.” She gazed somberly at her consort. “Maybe I should let them get away with it.

You want to go off with me, Gabrielle? Go into exile?” Gabrielle blinked. “Can we go on that boat?” She asked. “We could take Patches and Tiger, right? Some of the guys might want to go with us too, Xena.

We could..” She stopped, her mouth covered again. “Thanks for the answer.” Xena said. “Part of me wants to get mad and kick everyone’s ass over this.

But part of me..” She exhaled a little. “Part of me wants to just run.

Go see what’s out there.” Her consort lifted her hand and gently moved the fingers blocking her speech. “Wherever you go, I go.” She said. “It doesn’t matter where it is.” Xena smiled, then let her head drop, as she studied her now clasped hands. “I’ll hold you to that, Gabrielle.” She said. “Let’s just see what happens.” ** They were back in Xena’s old chambers, now conspicuously very clean, and swarming with Xena’s soldiers tucked in every nook and cranny. It was strange, and Gabrielle could feel the uneasy energy in the men as they walked quietly up the steps and two of the soldiers opened the doors for them. Inside, in the outer chamber, Brendan was waiting along with Duke Lastay, a bunch of the other nobles, and a dozen or so of Xena’s senior officers.

Everyone looked serious.

Xena waved them all towards the doors at the far end of the room, and the soldiers hurried over there to open them up. Beyond that was the big council chamber the queen had once used for audiences and she followed the crowd inside, her arm tucked securely around Gabrielle’s body. “You doing okay?” She asked, just as they reached the doors. “I’m okay.” Gabrielle was really tired, and achy, but she also really didn’t want to miss anything. “My head hurts.” She admitted, after a pause. “But I want to stay with you.” “Hope you’d say that.” Xena saw her settled into one of the two seats at the head of the table. “This wont’ take long.

Then I can tuck you into bed.” It sounded a little odd to hear Xena talking like that, in that quiet, private tone usually reserved for when they were alone together.

But then, Xena seemed to be very somber, taking a seat in the big chair next to hers and folding her powerful hands on the table. “Sit down.” Everyone did. “Okay people.” Xena said. “We finally put a hurt on my enemy here, thanks to Gabrielle.” She said. “My question to you is, are they your enemies too?” She slowly scanned the room. “No time for lies here.

I know there’s a faction trying to usurp me.

Probably with a bastard of the old line. “ Everyone looked at each other then back at her. “Mistress.” Lastay said. “Your enemies are my enemies.

Did they not try to kill me and my wife?” He asked, in a somewhat plaintive voice. “Who are these people? I have not heard of any plots.” Xena studied him, then smiled faintly. “I’ll take that as a compliment.

Or maybe you should” She said. “Because it means whoever this is knows where you stand.

They’d have tried to suck you in otherwise, like they did before.” Lastay consider that, then nodded. “That is true.

The whispers no longer reach me.” Now he smiled briefly. “I like it that way.” “Xena.” Brendan leaned forward “What makes ye so sure it’s someone from the old line? Been many a year you’ve been on the throne here.” “I wasn’t sure until I splatted the bastard in there.

Then it all tied together.

Philtop’s coming here, the old tunnels we never knew about, stories about the former king here who fought dragons and lost a leg doing it.” Xena ticked off the items on her fingers. “Same question occurred to me too.

Why now? Well, why now? Why not now? I took this place from marginal badlands to prosperity.

Then I beat the crap out of an old enemy of not only this realm but everyone else’s around here and given them a good reason to come back and get me.

What better time to boot me out, so when the Persians do finally show up all they need to do is show them my head and offer them tribute.” “You think they’re behind the usurper?” Lastay mused. “Aye, it could be.

Heard from Philtop’s people about them trying to buy alliances rather than fight us direct.” ‘Yeah.” Xena agreed. “So back to my original question.” She scanned the room again. “You want me to let them?” Everyone stared at her in silence. “What?” Lastay finally said. “Do you mean?” Xena looked down at her hands. “I’ve had a good run here.

I’ve got enough put away to last me and Gabrielle a while.

We’ could just take off and go places together.

I don’t need to be queen.

Not anymore.” She glanced to her left, where Gabrielle was seated. “It’s just not important to me.” — Everyone knew what a freaking mindless idiot she was about her own ego. Why coudln’t the stupid bastards come down here? Stalk her in her own lair like she’d intended them to? Come into her trap with all her soldiers carefully stationed everywhere to catch them? Xena sighed.

She flexed her free hand and felt the callus along her fingers, the roughness on the pads at the base of them built up over years and years of handling a blade. She would let them stew up there, and then maybe tomorrow morning it would all be a moot point, when the nobles asked her to get the Hades out and all their machinations would have been for nothing. She nodded to herself. That’s right.

That’s what she’d do. The noise caught her ears again and she opened her eyes, peering up at the ceiling for a long moment, absolutley sure she could see spiders up there.

Then she sighed again.

Who in the Hades did she think she was fooling? Really.

Who? With a long, exhale, she very gently disengaged herself from Gabrielle’s embrace, sliding out from under her and carefully tucking the covers back in around her sleeping body. Then she knelt at the bedside, and put her hands on it, the faint candlelight outlining the scattering of scars on her skin.

Scars that marked every fight, every struggle, every inch she’d taken for herself in this life and had no regret for. She looked at Gabrielle’s face, quiet and peaceful and beautiful in a way that touched her deep inside.

Her love a grace granted her by the same capricious Fates who were even now pulling her away, and drawing her to the confrontation waiting for her up the stairs. Well if it was anything she’d learned in life, it was that everything worth having was worth fighting for and that was what it seemed whoever it was who was against her was wanting her to do. Fight. Xena got to her feet and went to the garment press, lifting it silently and removing a folded garment from it.

She took off her shift and put the garment on, tightening the straps of it and twitching it straight.

It was well worn cloth, a layer of padding that felt soft and comfortable against her skin. She turned and sat on the press, drawing on her boots and lacing them up.

Deliberately she left aside her leathers and armor, standing up and crossing to the bed to retrieve her blade and clipping it to the holders on the back of the practice tunic. Deliberately, she went over to a waterskin clipped to the bedpost, and uncapped it, lifting it to her lips and draining it dry.

Then she went tot he basin, and washed her hands, drying them on the small piece of linen next to the bowl. She listened for the sound, but instead, heard the light rasp of skin against linen, and heard Gabrielle’s breathing quicken.

She turned, to find her consort sitting up and looking around. “Over here.” She said quietly. “Oh.

Xena.” Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and peered at her. “Where are you going?” The queen came back over and sat down on the bed. “Got restless.” She said. “I coudln’t sleep so I figured I’d go upstairs and work a few kinks out.” Gabrielle reached out and touched her arm. “Don’t go.” Xena felt her heartbeat skip. “I think I have to, sweetheart.” She covered Gabrielle’s hand with her own. “Remember I said I thought it started up there? I think there may be a clue up there waiting for me.” She could see the quiet seriousness in the pale eyes watching her, and a prickle went up and down her spine. “You know I never let trouble come to me.” “I’m coming with you.” Gabriele said. “Let me just put something on.” Xena drew in a breath to protest, then just let it trickle out of her lips.

It hadn’t been a question, she wasn’t being asked to give permission. “Don’t say no.” Gabrielle interpreted her expression. “Please, Xena.” “I wasn’t going to.” Her lover responded. “We belong together.” She cupped Gabrielle’s cheek. “So, c’mon.

Let’s go see where my hunch takes us.” Gabrielle gave her a heartfelt smile, her eyes lighting up with a true and simple joy.

Xena reflected, not for the first time, that both them were truly matched in complete and utter insanity because what she was doing was nuts, and Gabrielle was nuts to want to join her. — Brent smiled wider. “Now that I do believe.” “Excuse us.” Xena guided Gabrielle slowly over to the narrow steps that led up to the top of the tower and her practice hall.

At the base of them, she turned and looked back at her faithful soldier.

He was standing in the center of the hall, his hands at his sides, watching them. “Don’t let anyone but the two of us come down the stairs, okay, Brent?” Unsurprised, Brent nodded. “I won’t, Xena.” Xena nodded, then she turned and started up the steps to the tower, her right arm tucked tightly around Gabrielle’s body.

She felt the cold dampness of the walls close around her as she and Gabrielle walked slowly upward, the soft scrape of their boots against the stone the only sound. Her skin felt a touch chilled, since her practice gear ended midway between her knee caps and her hips and her arms were bare exposing them to the gusts of cold breeze coming down from the upper level. That put her hackles on edge. “Someone left a window open up there, Gabrielle.” She commented. “Maybe it was me.” “I feel it.” Gabrielle responded softly. “It smells wet.” “It does.” Xena took a deep breath of the air, testing it for the unknown.

She reached out and touched the wall, finding it damp with condensation and she knew her hunch, at least, was going to end up more than just one. There was a fight ahead, she could sense it.

Her skin was tightening and the muscles in her back were shifting and settling her sword sheath a little more comfortably along her spine.

Rather than fearing it, she realized she was truly welcoming whatever the challenge was, since regardless of what the decision was tomorrow morning she wanted this threat well and done over with. It was time. “So you’er going to write poems about me huh?” She remarked, as they turned the last corner of steps before the inset door to the practice chamber, and she saw the sliver of outdoor light coming through the crack between the edge of the door and the frame. Without hesitation, she walked towards the opening and as they reached it she lifted one leg and kicked the door open, shoving it back into the room almost back against the inside wall but not quite.

A stronger puff of cold air hit them and she ducked inside, gracefully half turning so that her body was between Gabrielle and anything that might be waiting for them. There wasn’t, though.

She scanned the room and knew it for empty. “Hm.” She walked in further and circled the walls, stopping by the far window which was, as she’d expected, cracked open.

Her ears pricked, and she focused her senses on the room around her as she slowly closed the window and latched the iron bar across it. “Not nice to leave the window open, huh?” “No.” Gabrielle agreed. “I have a striker.

Do you want me to light the torches?” “Gimme.” Xena held out her hand and closed her fingers over the object Gabrielle put in them.

She walked over to the first torch and struck a spark to it, and as the torch caught, she felt a motion in the room.

Ignoring it, she went to the next one, and the next, with Gabrielle pacing quietly next to her, and ended up almost where she started with the room bathed in an orange glow. Now it smelled of the torches, of the pitch and resin they were doused in and the acrid hint of smoke that curled up from them and trickled up through the square, rough cut chimney in the center of the roof.

The hall was at the very top of the tower, so there were only rafters above them and the above that, the stormy sky. Xena could hear the ice crackling overhead.

She walked Gabrielle over to one of the big, stuffed bales she used to strengthen her back. “Siddown.” She said. “Just keep your eyes and ears open, love.

Anything could happen.” Gabrielle looked around, then she walked over to the corner and retrieved one of her practice sticks, a tall hardened pole she brought back to the bale with her and sat down with. “Ready.” Xena looked at her with deep affection. “Lets see what we get.” She walked to the center of the room and drew her sword out, feeling the familiar weight of the blade against the muscles of her arms as she held the hilts up in front of her eyes and stayed briefly in that position before she released one hand and let the sword come down. She started into a set of warm up drills.

Slow rotations of the blade first in one hand and then the other, loosening up her arms.

She extended the blade, now making patterns in the air with the tip of it, moving with slow rhythem at first and then going faster. The blade cut the air with an audible whistle.

She glanced at Gabrielle, finding her consort watching her with intent fascination, her hands curled around her staff…

Xena paused that thought and paused her practice, coming to a standstill with her hands clasped on her hilt as she thought about what she’d just said in her mind. “Gabrielle?” “Something wrong?” Gabrielle stood up carefully, leaning on the big stick. ‘What do you call that?” Xena pointed her blade at the item Her consort regarded her in some confusion, then she looked at the stick. “This?” She indicated it. “Did you ask me what I call it? Do you want me to give it a name, like Patches?” “Never mind.” Xena chuckled a little. “Siddown.” Gabirelle did, but her brow was creased, and she was now watching Xena with a perplexed expression. “Its my stick, isn’t it?” She asked. “Though Jellaus called it a staff the other day.

I”m not sure what that is.” Ah.

Xena nodded, and started her practice up again.

That must be where she’d heard it.

Jellaus had maybe made a poem or song about the thing and he’d probably been practicing it days ago. — “Enough playing with you mortal!” Then he produced a high keening sound and at that the rest of the shades rushed forward and flowed over her bringing a wash of terror, and cold and pain that shoved her to the ground.

She felt the air rush out of her lungs and when she tried to draw it back in it felt like ice and her chest refused to move.

She could hear the growing hiss and felt a pressure unlike anything she’d ever felt pressing her into the stone and immobilizing her. She felt a pain in the back of her skull.

She felt her heartbeat pulsing hard against her eyeballs, making stark red flashes as she struggled to breathe and couldn’t. She heard Gabrielle let out a bellow, and then the ice around her was cut with a block of warmth that slammed her in the back and surrounded her as she felt warm breath hit the curve of her left ear. She felt Gabrielle inhale sharply, and gasp. Her body responded to that in a rapid and convulsive way, as she ripped herself free of the immobility and hauled herself up and around to grab Gabrielle as the darkness closed around both of them with crushing force. Then a loud crack sounded and the noise vanished, the hiss replaced with a lack of sound that made her head ring as the torches went out with a sense of pressure that was on the edge of agony for a breath until it was gone. Then all she could hear was Gabrielle’s rasping cough and feel the hammering of her heart against her skin as her body was slowly released from it’s paralysis and she could breath again. She did, as the gray haze faded a little. “Did it just get better or worse?” She whispered. “Afraid to look.” Gabrielle whispered back, her eyes tightly closed as she crouched over Xena’s body, the pulses of her own heartbeat hammering in her ears finally easing. “It’s really dark in here.” Xena blinked her eyes, then closed them, casting her other senses out instead.

She couldn’t hear anything around them inside the chamber, just the pressure of the wind against the leaded panes and nearby, a soft rattle of stones trickling downward. She felt a presence though. “Something’s here.” She said, after a pause. “Let me up.” She said. “But don’t go far.” Gabrielle eased off her back and knelt next to her, reaching around her to feel for her staff.

She was far too freaked out to be scared and since she couldn’t see anything at all including Xena next to her, she coudln’t even imagine how much trouble they’d gotten into now. Couldn’t even start to imagine it.

There were no pictures in her head, just an echo of the darkness surrounding them. Her heart was pounding so fast it was making her shake, and she was pretty sure her knees wouldn’t hold up, making her glad she was kneeling at Xena’s side.

She felt the queen slowly move and sit up, hearing the faints scrape of her boots as she pulled them up under her. “Are you okay?” She gasped. “Peachy.” Xena answered, gently feeling around her, relieved when she felt the hilt of her sword and curled her fingers around it.

She lifted it and guided it into the scabbard on her back then exhaled. “Touch me.” She said, reassured when there was an immediate warmth curled around her arm as Gabrielle squeezed it gently. It was so dark even she couldn’t see.

She held her hand up in front of her face and strained her eyes, but there was nothing but blackness without even a hint of motion as she wiggled her fingers. “Wow.” She said. “On a scale of one to ten for kicking my ass this is twenty.” Gabrielle scooted closer and leaned against her, bringing a very welcome warmth all along her right side.

She felt arms go around her and her consort bury her face into the side of her neck. In the dark, she could smell stone, and then behind it, a rank, acrid odor that seemed to be coming from something nearby.

She slowly extended her boots, and kicked along the rock with her heels until she came to an unexpected edge, and felt one boot go over an open space. She knew, in a moment of startling internal panic, that things were moving out of her control.

Below the floor they were on was the chamber she’d spent most of her reign living in and she knew quite well there wasnt any holes in the ceiling of it.

Cautiously she leaned over and extended her arms, reversing her position and feeling out until her fingers came to the crack in the floor and she felt the sharp, newly etched edge of it. “Stay here.” She leaned over and inched forward, until her head was over the opening and then she looked down.

For a moment she saw nothing, then very far away, as though she was looking down a chimney she saw a faint hint of red a long way below. After a second, she felt Gabrielle’s shoulder press against hers, and heard her consort’s breathing close by. “Thought I told you to stay back there?” “Sorry.” Gabrielle said as she inched closer. “What is that? What’s going on, Xena? Where are we?” She asked. “It’s so dark.

There isn’t any light even coming in the window up there.” Xena rested on her elbows. “I don’t know.” She said. “See that down there?” Gabrielle remained silent for a moment. “That red thing?” “Mm.” The queen grunted. “Least we’re not blind.” She said. “How’s that for a silver lining?” — The God moved closer, folding his arms over his broad chest and watching them intently. “I like blood.” He said. “I like killing.

So do you.” He added. “You’ve got potential.” Xena was finding it hard to breathe. “Thanks.” She murmured. “Become an accolyte of mine, and I’ll take care of this little problem for you.” The god continued. “Not much to ask, huh? You’re most of the way there already, you just need a bit of polish.” He reached out and touched her chin, turning her head slightly. “What do you say?” Xena didn’t answer.

She studied his face, noting the harsh lines and cruelty there along with the attraction.

There was an ancientness to his eyes, a flat pale color she couldn’t really determine in the dim light. “I have to think about it.” She finally said, in quiet tone. “Really?” His voice dripped sarcasm. “I come here and save your ass and you need to think about it? You owe me.” He tightened the grip of his fingers. “Really?” Xena felt the danger.

This was something she had very few options in. “I have to think about it.” She repeated, even more softly. “I”m not new at this, and you’ve waited this long.” She felt her body shifting and her muscles responding to the implied threat, instincts unfazed by the presence of godhood. Maybe he knew that.

After a blank moment, he smiled, and released her, taking a step back. “You’ve got a turn of the sun, baby.

Then I’ll be back and you better have made up your mind by then.” He lifted his hand, and snapped his fingers, and then he was gone in a flash of blue light that made them both blink hard in response. For a long moment, the silence went on, then Xena exhaled and slumped against the wall. “Hades.” Gabrielle put her head down against Xena’s shoulder. “I thought that was Ares.” That forced a faint half breath, half laugh from Xena’s chest. “We’re in deep trouble.” She said. “Deep, deep trouble.” She half turned and put her arms around Gabrielle. “I was hoping we’d end the night with some sneaky bastard spitted on my blade and what I got was being spitted on myself.” She could feel Gabrielle shaking a little, and became aware of how cold it was in the room.

Xena looked around, and spotted the window open again, this time wide, with bits of snow dropping inside onto the floor. “Let’s go back downstairs.” She said. “I dont think those black things will be back tonight.” “Great idea.” Gabrielle said, clamping her jaw against her chattering teeth. “Sure could use some hot tea, huh?” Xena picked up the staff and walked around the chamber towards the door, avoiding the center where the hole had appeared and then, disappeared.

It looked solid enough, but after what she’d just experienced she wasn’t going to take any chances.

Then the thought of that nearly made her gag, as she remembered that hard grasp on her face, and those taunting eyes. But the last thing she was going to do right now was think about Ares offer.

Right now she just wanted to get back down to her bedchamber, get a heavy robe around both of them, and give herself a chance to stop freaking out. There would be time then to think.

To think about all the bad choices she now had spread in front of her.

To figure out what to do to ensure survival for her, and for Gabrielle. And here she thought an usurper was the worst of her problems. Gabrielle wasn’t about to talk.

She could see the serious, intent look on Xena’s face as they got to the door, and she hesitantly reached out for the latch, flinching a little as she touched it.

She felt the motion as her lover relaxed then, and undid the lock, opening the door and letting them out of the chamber and into the stair tower, the torches on the walls fluttering a little in the draft from the door. They started down.

As they got around the curve Brent trotted up a few steps, his hand on his hilts. “All well, Mistress?” Xena looked at him briefly. “Peachy.” She said, continuing down the steps. “Tell them to stoke the fire in my room, willya?” “Mistress.” He trotted back down and headed for the door. “What are we going to do?” Gabrielle whispered. Xena sighed. “Have sex.” She said. “It might be the last chance we get and I’ll be damned if I”m going to waste it.” “Urmp.” ** It was quiet again.

Gabrielle tucked her hand under her head and curled on her side, watching the silent figure seated crosslegged beside her. Xena had changed into a shift and taken off her boots.

Her hair was loose around her face, and she had her elbows resting on her knees, her long fingers laced together in front of her. — Gabrielle snorted under her breath. Xena sat down on an overturned chest, that had once held folded hangings and linens. “Something’s not adding up.” She gazed around. “I thought I was getting a handle on what was going on here but now I’ve got no damn clue.” She glanced at the third body on the floor, nearby her boots.

She studied the face. “Anyone know who this is?” Brendan came over and looked down, and Gerard joined him.

Lastay wandered over to where Xena was seated and leaned against the wall, and after a moment, Gabrielle joined them, resting her hand on Xena’s shoulder. The body was small, and slight, the head covered in blood but fair haired and almost square in shape. “Don’t know him.” Lastay finally said. “Me either.” Brent crouched down to examine the body. “Got hit in the head.

Maybe by whatever did that.” He indicated the crack in the stone behind Xena.

He leaned closer, and then he turned back the thick tunic the man was wearing exposing his shoulder. There was a mark there, and after an instant Gerard joined him with a candle and they stripped the arm free, turning it ot the light so everyone could see it. “He’s marked.” Xena looked at the dark stained tattoo on the man’s arm. “Brendan.

Go get Lakmas.” Without a word, her captain left, breaking into a trot as he cleared the door. “Is it a Persian mark, Mistress?” Brent asked. “The man himself doesn’t look like one.” He tilted the head, which had a huge gash on one side, as though a sword blade had bisected it.

It was hard to discern his features, but the fair hair and pale skin attested to Brent’s words. “Gerard.” Xena seemed to be absorbed in thought. “Go to Stanislaus’s chambers.

See what you find there.” “Aye, mistress.” He stood. “I’ll take a few of the men with me.

No telling what might be there ahead of us after this.” He motioned to two of the guard who were standing hesitantly just inside the doorway, and they followed him with every evidence of relief. Xena looked behind her at the wall, reaching out to touch the destruction.

She could feel the harsh, rough edge of the rock against her fingertips and she paused, only her eyes moving as she tried to put the pieces together. “What’s so damn special about those lands?” She mused. “Didn’t seem so.” Brent said. “Flatlands, to the river after the pass we fought in.” Flatlands, yes.

Xena shifted her gaze and called up images of them in her memory.

She’d barely paid attention to them on the way to the city, her focus on the end result itself rather than what she’d been passing through but she remembered rolling lands that were open and wild, save for the stands of forest spotted along the ridge that overlooked the sea. Cleared and broken, they would be good for planting, especially since the river they’d ridden along had long overflowed it’s banks and enriched the soil around it.

But that was nothing that special, it was just better and more fertile than the valley past the pass that they’d found Bregos in. Good lands, certainly she got why the other landholders had been ticked off she’d given them to Bresius but nothing worth doing what had been done here, which would result in them having their heads cut off by her. Peaches were good, but if the mouth you hoped to eat them with was filled with worms, what was the point, really? Were they really worth the raising of her fist against you? Really? That made no sense. “What do ya think?” She asked Gabrielle. The pale green eyes went from the body to her. “About what?” “This?” Xena indicated the room. Gabrielle sat down next to her, pressing along her left side in a warm and very pleasant way. “I think it’s weirder than singing sheep.” She finally said. “I don’t even know what to say Xena.

What’s going on here? Is that a bad guy?” She pointed at the marked man. Xena folded her hands. “Well, none of us know him, he’s wearing an Eastern tattoo, and no one gave him permission to be in here so it looks like he’s a bad guy but at this point, my love, I’m not ready to assume anything.” She leaned back against the wall and exhaled. “I’ll go with that singing sheep of yours.” Lastay folded his arms. “I didn’t spend much time in the area, but was there something to be had in these lands, Mistress? Some gold, or gems or suchlike? Nothing else seems to make any sense to me that would drive men to insanity seeking them. “ “Didn’t spend much time there either.” Xena said. “I didn’t see anything like that while we were in the area.

Aside from the port city itself being valuable, wasn’t much there.” She got up and went to the unidentified man, going down on one knee to examine him. He had a wiry frame, and under his thick, dark clothing his body was very sinewy, the surface covered in a tracework of thin scars that rang a faint bell of familiarity in her. — Xena pulled her closer and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “Me too.” She said. “Hang in there.

We’ll get through this.”
Be true.

Gabrielle suddenly heard the words sounding in her head.

She is.

She looked up at Xena’s profile, seeing it outlined in ruddy gold as they passed one of the torches in the hall.

She could see the furrow in her lover’s brow and the lines of worry and tension in her face, and she realized that Xena knew, better than any of them, just how much everyone was depending on her to make things right. What was right? What really was going on? Was Xena going to have to submit to Ares, just to get everything back to normal? Would she? What would that mean for them? Gabrielle felt Xena’s arm tighten around her, and she exhaled, pushing the grim thoughts aside as they reached the tower rotunda and passed the guard on the landing. She got Mali settled in the alcove, watching the young girl flitter around the space, looking both relieved and excited as she touched the stuffed straw mattress, and the chest next to it. “Is this okay?” “Oh, your grace.” Mali sat down on the bed. “It’s so nice.” Gabrielle smiled. “I thought so too.” She said. “It was my first place here, and more space and privacy than I’d ever had in my whole life up until then.” Mali stared at her, the girl’s mouth a perfect O of astonishment. It made her want to laugh. “Kinda strange, huh?” Mali looked around the snug space, tucked into a corner of the rotunda right across from the doors to what were now Gabrielle and Xena’s quarters. “You stayed here?” Now, Gabrielle did chuckle. “Yes I did.” She said. “Not for long.” She acknowledged. “I think maybe…

A sevenday or so.

Then I moved into a little room inside there.” She indicated the sturdy and ornate door across from the alcove. “It was a strange, and scary time of my life but it turned out okay.” “Did you ever think you would become so?” Mali asked, in a shy voice, reaching out to touch the edge of Gabrielle’s tabard. “No.” Gabrielle answered after a brief pause. “I come from a small village.

My father worked the land and the best my sister and I had to hope for was getting married to one of our neighbors and a lot of hard work.” She studied her servants face, outlined in the candlelight. “But I guess you never know with life, huh?” Mali smiled. “Thank you for letting me stay here.” Motion stirred behind Gabrielle and she turned her head as Xena leaned in to the alcove, bringing that ever present air of energy with her. “What’s going on here?” “Just getting Mali settled.” Gabrielle said. “I was telling her about the time I spent here.” “All about that time?” Xena asked, her brows hiking. “Why Gabbbbrrrielllleee.” She hooked her fingers into the belt around her consorts waist. “Didn’t know you liked telling those kind of stories.” “Xena.” Gabrielle covered her face with one hand, trading an embarassed look with her body servant. “Anyway.” “Anyway, it’s time to go get some rest.” Xena started moving backwards, pulling Gabrielle with her. “Enjoy your digs, kid.” She winked at Mali, as she steered her consort across the hallway and through the huge doors into their chambers, shutting them behind her. Inside there was something of a bustle, as Brendan and the soldiers, including Lakmas were settling down again, finishing the meat and bread they’d all left behind when they’d gone barrelling downstairs. Xena was glad enough to escape into their bedroom, feeling her shoulders relax as they were once again alone together in the quiet of the night.

She shut the door and went over to the hearth, dropping down into one of the chairs in front of it with a sigh. “Would you like some tea?” Gabrielle moved the waterpot near the hearth, picking up the poker and adjusting the logs in the fire. “Boy it’s been a long day huh?” “Yes, and sure has.” Xena let her head rest against the chair back. “Tomorrow’s going to be longer.” She added, in a soft voice after a moment. “But at least this whole thing about people getting croaked is starting to maybe make a little sense.” Gabrielle retrieved several splits of wood and arranged them on the hearth. “Because of the grants?” “Yeah.” Xena said. “People killing other people for money…

I get that.” She propped her elbow on the chair arm and her chin on her fist. “I get that a lot more than some crazy spooks invading my castle, or even, some fake usurper trying to take over my throne.

If there was some thing kick ass valuable in those hills then this whole thing takes on a lot more familiar stink.” “Do you think that’s whats going on?” Gabrielle pulled two mugs over and opened her herb jars, drumming her fingers on the heart edge as she decided what combination to make. “You think it was those crystals everyone’s after? They were sort of pretty but I didn’t think they were valuable.” “Depends what they were.” The queen said. “Someone thinks something’s valuable out there and I’d wager a couple stones from my crown that maybe those lands were behind what Philtop was after.” “You think that’s what he was looking for that night.” Gabrielle turned and looked at her. “In the other room?” Xena nodded. “But… “ Gabrielle poured the hot water over the herbs. “Xena, that makes no sense Those grants are just papers.

I wrote some of them.

Just having them doesn’t give someone the land, does it?” “No.” The queen said. “But destroying them could take it away from someone, if they were also intending on getting rid of me.” She glanced at her consort, who had stopped in mid motion, and was staring at her. “So just think of it? I croak.

Someone else takes charge, and the first thing they do is review the grants to see who has what.

That grant’s missing, so whoever’s in charge can give it where they want.

Bresius is dead now, no one to contest it since I”m pretty sure his heir isn’t around anywhere to have seen what went on.” Gabrielle broke out of her stillness and brought the cups over. “Wow.” She set them down and sat herself down in the chair next to her lover. “That actually makes sense.” “Gee thanks.” Xena gave her a droll look. “No I mean..” Gabrielle paused. “This whole thing hasn’t made any sense to me, Xena, not at all ever since it started.

What you just said…

I mean, okay. “ “Mm.” — “Because you’re staring at the hearthstone making weird noises.” Her consort promptly said. “You don’t usually do that.” Xena put her hands on the stone and smiled. “No, I don’t.” She said. “The truth is, I have no idea how to mix this stuff so it makes that peachy berry thing you do.” She said. “And that makes me feel like an idiot.” She had barely stopped talking when Gabrielle was at her elbow, nudging her aside and reaching for the jars herself. “Hey.” But she moved aside, bending down to put more wood on the fire as Gabrielle opened the tea holders, releasing the rich scent of the leaves into the air. “It’s easy.” Her consort was saying. “See? It’s this jar, and… “ She paused, as Xena stood up and kissed her on the neck. “Xena?” “It’s the second jar, and?” Xena unlatched the scale armor covering her lover’s body. “Do ya crush em?” “With your fingers.” Gabrielle agreed. “And the fifth one here, that’s the mint.” She took some, “And this is the dried blackberry you like.” “I like you.” Xena set the armor aside and loosened the ties on the heavy undershirt protecting Gabrielle’s skin. “But the tea’s not bad either.” She leaned over and kissed the spot long the top of the line that crossed from her consort’s neck to her shoulder. Gabrielle smiled, crushing the leaves between her fingers in a rolling motion and lifting the water pot up to pour the now steaming liquid over them. “Thank you.” She said. “Are you hungry?” Xena chuckled softly. “Yes.” She gently kneaded the smaller woman’s neck with both hands, and felt the shift as Gabrielle exhaled. “And I’d like something to chew on too that isn’t you.” She admitted. “I don’t remember having much dinner last night.” Gabrielle didn’t much either.

She waited for the tea to steep, picking up the bottle of honey and drizzling a good stickful into each cup.

She was hungry, and it seemed to her that her body had finally returned to almost normal, since the hunger was that growling in the guts kind she hadn’t had since she’d gotten hurt. It just all seemed better today.

She felt Xena’s hands stripping the rest of her armor off, tickling her kneecaps as she took off the guards on her legs and then finding her breathing come short as the queen’s teeth nibbled the skin on the inside of her thigh. It felt good.

It felt clean and right.

It made her forget about all the weird and terrible things that had been happening and returned her focus to them, and to Xena, and to how wonderful the queen could make her body feel.

She’d lost sight of that in the last few days and now she was glad it was back. Xena stood and hugged her, then she picked up her now discarded armor and put it down next to her own, on her way over to the window to push the heavy curtains back so she could peer outside. “Hey!” Gabrielle galloped over to see what she was looking at, delighted to see a glint of pale, dawn light off the glistening stone of the stronghold. “Oh wow!” It wasn’t sun, and the ground was covered in snow and ice, but at least no more was falling.

Xena pulled the fabric all the way back and hooked it open then she stood there, elbow propped on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Things are looking up.” A soft knock came at the inner door.

Gabrielle eased out from under her lover’s arm and went over to it, getting a hand on the latch and starting to work it before Xena’s tall form swooped down on her, and encircled her with one arm. “Arup!” “Ah ah ah.” Xena neatly moved her out of the way, and opened the door herself, unsheathing her dagger as she took a step back. “I’m still a little more dangerous than you are.” “Mistress?” Brent cautiously poked his head in. “Ah it’s just you.” The queen said. “Not some Persian assassin or spook.” “No, mistress.” He entered and ducked his head in Gabrielle’s direction. “We were going to bring up a tray from the kitchens.

May we bring some for you?” Xena sheathed her dagger and waved him inside. “I was just taking Gabrielle’s clothes off.” She said. “But I know she’s hungry.” Brent blushed and issued a weak smile in Gabrielle’s direction. “It’s okay.” Gabrielle reassured him, as she headed back towards the tea. “I think she’s just in a good mood because it stopped snowing.” She stirred the tea and brought Xena over hers. “Tell.” Xena paused, then sighed briefly. “I”m going to have to name a new seneschal aren’t I?” She said. “Damn.

Never thought I”d say I’d miss the bastard but I do.” She sipped her tea. ‘Tell Brendan to announce court, in one candelmark.

I want everyone in there.” “Will do.” Brent left, closing the door softly behind him. Gabrielle thought about that.

She hadn’t liked Stanislaus much.

He had tried to get rid of her when she’d arrived, and since Xena had joined with her he’d never missed an opportunity to snipe or needle her in a very respectable way.

But was she glad he was gone? “Who are you going to let take Stanislaus place?” Xena had dropped into a chair and propped her still booted feet up on a stool, her hair in messed disarray from sleep.

She looked a little wild. “Who.” She mused. “That’s a damn good question.” The door opened again and Brendan entered. “Mistress.” He said. “Sent the word out.

Weather’s cleared a bit, and some of the merchants were askin to set up again outside.” “Tell them to wait until tomorrow to go outside the gates.

They can set up in the courtyard today if they want.” Xena said. “In fact, let’s get all the banners hung out.” She watched the flames. “Damn storm interrupted my harvest festival and I want it back.” “Still have some ill doers around, Im’ thinking.” Brendan said. “Not the ghostly ones, mind, the killable ones.” The queen nodded. “I want to kill them.

Let’s.. “ She paused. “Let’s use the break in the weather to get everyone outside, Brendan.

Let’s see if we can flush those bastards.” “Mistress” Brendan nodded. “Pretending to be afraid hasn’t done squat.” Xena said. “Trying to coax them to me didn’t work.

Trying to smoke them out didn’t work, until they got careless.” She said. “So let’s see what ignoring them does.

Make believe we got em all.” “Maybe we did?” Gabrielle suggested. “No.” The queen said. “There’ s a small, strange one we haven’t got yet.

Who can walk unseen, and laughs.

Who’s got feet smaller than yours, and smells like spices from places farther away than Persia.

We haven’t found that one yet.” “Sent by the Persian king?” Brendan asked. “We could ask Lakmas.

Decent sort for one of em” “Not… “ Xena paused. “I don’t think it’s from him.

Not his style, and come to think of it, sneaking around and trying to pay off losers like Philtop isn’t his style either.” She turned to face them, swirling the tea in her cup. “No, there’s something still missing in this mess and I’m starting to think there’s both more and less to it than we think.” Brendan and Gabrielle studied her in respectful silence.

Then Brendan cleared his throat. “Right, well, I’m off to get them all stirred.

I’ll let the men know the little rat we’re looking for.” He swung his cloak around him and ducked through the door, letting in the sound of the soldiers outside. Gabrielle followed him out, carrying her cup, her body still encased in the fabric undergarment she’d worn under her armor.

It was light brown, and came to her knees, the sides laced up to where her bare arms emerged from it. “Good morning.” She greeted the men in the outer chamber. It was odd, to have so many people in their quarters.

The soldiers all scrambled to get out of her way as she headed to the door to the corridor, returning her greetings.

Lakmas was the one nearest the entrance, and he opened it for her, bowing low as she ducked past. Outside in the rotunda she could hear the sounds of the stronghold waking up, the clanks and bangs of the big doors being opened, and voices echoing softly up the main stairs.

Barefoot, she got across the stone floor and peeked inside the alcove that had once been hers, startling Mali who was just washing her face. “Morning.” “Oh! Your grace!” Mali hastily wiped the water out of her eyes. “Xena’s men are bringing up some breakfast, so I didn’t want you to run downstairs for it.” Gabrielle said. “The storm is over.” “It is?” Mali sounded very surprised. “It is.

So Xena wants the festival to go on again.” Gabrielle said. “So you can let the kitchens know later.

We’re going to have court, and they’ve opened the doors downstairs.” Mali stared at her intently. “Okay I will get dressed and go downstairs.” She said. “Would your grace like anything sent to her majesty’s viewing chamber?” “Sure.

Have them send a tray of goodies up.” Gabrielle smiled at her. “Xena loves that.” She lifted her tea mug in Mali’s direction, then she turned and recrossed the hall, joining Jellaus as he came up the stairs. “Hello!” “Ah, Gabrielle.” Jellaus smiled briefly at her. “Good morning.” They went into the outer chamber together, where the men were putting things in order.

Their attitude was brightening, and someone had pushed aside the chamber curtains to let the dawn light in. There was a sense, of some trial passed, some dread left behind.

Gabrielle wondered if it was just her perception, or if something real had passed them by. Hm. “I would ask her majesty about court.” Jellaus said, as they crossed the room. “May I enter with you?” Gabrielle pondered that. “Hang on.” She opened the inner door and poked her head in, then pushed it wider. “Sure, c’mon.” He followed her inside and they found Xena seated in the window alcove, her long legs extended across the cushion there as she regarded the brightening sky outside. “Hey.” “You’re back.” Xena observed. “And you brought company.

Bad girl.” Jellaus bowed. “I will stay but a moment, your majesty.

I just wanted to ask if you had any special desires for your court.

I have had all of the banners hung.” “Nah.” Xena said. “Just make sure everyone’s there.” She said. “And spread the word I want a big banquet tonight, the works.” Jellaus nodded slightly. “You expect a celebration.” Xena chuckled. “I expect nothing but trouble.

But this time, I think I want to cause it.” The minstrel bowed, and smiled, then he left. Xena looked at Gabrielle. “Ready to get dressed and go hunting?” “Can we have breakfast first?” The queen chuckled again. “What are we doing?” Gabrielle came over and sat down on the edge of the stone sill. “I told Mali to let the kitchen know about the festival.” “Good.” Xena reached out and took her hand, clasping it with gentle confidence. “I’d tell you what we’re gonna do if I knew what it was, my love.

I’ve been playing a pointless chess game for days now.” She pondered that a moment. “A chess game I didn’t even know the rules to.” “Really?” Slowly the queen nodded. “I”m in over my head.” She said, with surprising honesty. “So I’m just going to do what I feel like and see what happens next.” “Okay.” Gabrielle frowned. “How is that different than what you usually do?” Xena started chuckling soundlessly. “Good point.” She admitted. — “No.” Lakmas didn’t seem upset about it. “Men of war, as I am, and also yourself, know that no matter the gods watching over it’s the hands in the fight that matter.” He held his out, big and powerful, crossed with scars. “So I find it very strange, yes, very strange that someone would have told your majesty this storm was brought by our gods.

After all, what do they know of this cold?” Ah heh. “And of course.” Lakmas said, almost as an afterthought. “What honor would there be in having another, even a god, win one’s battle for them?” He nodded a little. “Was it not this that allowed us to be taken captive by you with our own honor intact? You ask for none to fight for you.

The little princess – she thought to be that way but her heart wasn’t up to the task of it.” Ah heh.

Xena glanced to her right, where she found Gabrielle looking at her with that adorable crap hitting the ox’s whisking tail expression. “Interesting.” She peeled a boiled egg and bit into it, quite pleased to find the yolk soft and gooey. “Very interesting.” Lakmas bowed. “I am, as always, glad to be of service to you, Majesty.” “Xena.” Gabrielle leaned very close to her. “Did things just get better or worse?” The queen popped the rest of the egg into her mouth and chewed it. “Let me get back to you on that.” Gabrielle sighed. “I”m going to get another plate.” ** The sun had risen over the walls by the time they arrived in Xena’s big audience chamber and it was pouring in the windows, bringing a touch of warm grace to a room more usually known for it’s dour gloom. The chamber was full and there was a sense of excitement in the air.

Xena stood quietly just inside the side entrance, taking a moment to appreciate the bright colors and the unexpected beauty of the space.

It was still a bit cold, but it was a brisk cold rather than a chilling one, and against the far wall the big hearth was stoked and a pairs of her soldiers were standing guard in various places. She twitched her robes a little straighter, her sword in it’s sheath tucked neatly into the crook of her arm as she judged the mood and waited to make her entrance.

Behind her, Gabrielle was also waiting, looking gravely dignified in her own crimson robe with it’s silver trim. “Ready?” “Me?” Her consort looked up. “Sure.” The sun peeked into their hiding spot and draped over Gabrielle’s body, highlighting her golden hair.

Xena reached over and gently ran her fingers through it, then she leaned to one side and kissed her on the lips. “Today’s gonna be a day.” She said. “So let’s get it started.” The soldier banged his spear, Jellaus announced her presence, and then Xena moved from the door way with Gabrielle at her heels and glided through the crowd, passing from the shadows of the columns into the pools of sunlight from the window. She climbed up the marble stairs to the dias where her throne rested, and went to it, turning and waiting for Gabrielle to come up next to her. “Sit.” She indicated the smaller chair they’d put at the throne’s side. Gabrielle sat, then Xena turned and took her seat, letting her sword rest across her knees.

She paused for a moment and studied her audience, scanning the faces attentively waiting for her to speak. “Good morning.” Duke Eldaron stepped forward. “Your majesty.” He said. “Last night, you asked something of us.” “I did.” Xena agreed. Duke Lastay, dressed nattily in his family colors, his sword belted at his waist, walked up the steps and approached her throne, bowing to her, and then taking up a spot just behind the throne, his hand resting on one finely carved spindles on the back. He didn’t say anything, and apparently felt he didn’t need to, the motion itself laying his choice out plainly enough.

Xena glanced at him and smiled, then turned and re focused her attention on Eldaron. “Yeees?” Eldaron clasped his hands together. “Majesty, many terrible events have occurred in the past few days.

It grieves me deeply that we have lost friends, have taken damage to our land and have had our harvest festival so grossly interrupted.” “Me too.” The queen nodded. “I love a good party.” “There was a thought, your majesty, that there were some among us that plotted in some way to find another to take your place on the throne of this land.” Eldaron said. “I spent many hours looking for the root of this thought, and in long deliberation with my fellow lords because I will say to you, Xena, it came from none of us.” The sound of her name, so bare of adornnment, made Xena smile again.. “I see.” She cleared her throat. “As it happens, I found my usurper myself.” She sniffed reflectively. “He found me, really.” An almost vislble jerk of surprise went around the room. — “Yow!” Gabrielle turned to find her beloved peering over her shoulder, having approached in silence. “I was just wondering.” She made the cut a little bigger. “Why they stuck this soft part to the wood?” Xena reached out and tugged on it, one dark brow hiking and the other dipping lower.

Then she stood up and got a good grip on the cushion, tightening her hands and making the fabric squeak. “Stand back in case this thing’s got spider’s in it.” Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and got behind her. “Okay.” The queen took a breath and then yanked backwards with all her strength, expecting the cushion to come ripping off the surface.

Instead, with a startlingly loud crack, the top of the bench lifted up and split in half, part of it coming loose in Xena’s hands and nearly sending the queen flying backwards. “Yow!” Gabrielle repeated, jumping out of the way. “What the..” Xena yanked the wood loose and tossed it from her, stepping forward to look down into the now visible hollow of the bench.

It was mostly empty, but she saw the edge of something near the end, still covered with the wood.

Turning sideways, she kicked the remaining part free and it flipped over the side to clatter on the stone. “Huh.” “Huh?” Gabrielle put her hands on Xena’s hips and poked her head around the the queen’s side to have a look. “It’s a box.” Lastay came over and joined them. “Ah hem.” He sniffed. “Got the old king’s crest there.

Want me to bring it up for a look, Mistress?” Xena took the dagger that Gabrielle was still holding in one hand and leaned over the bench, poking the blade down and jabbing the wooden surface with it. “No sense taking chances.” She said. “Every damn wood box I’ve seen in the last quarter moon’s had an asp in it.” “Be only bones of one in that eh?” Lastay suggested. The queen poked a few more times at it, then she used the blade to slide the box along the wooden inside of the bench towards her, hearing the faintest popping sound that made her lunge back, grabbing Gabrielle and Lastay and yanking them backwards violently. She dove for the floor and took them with her, her senses prickling as something flew over her head and landed nearby. “Mistress!” Lastay grunted. “What’s the problem?” “Stay still, both of you.” Xena ordered, lifting her head cautiously.

She looked carefully around, and spotted the projectile, lifting her body over Gabrielle’s to put her between the device and her consort. “Dart.” She inspected it warily, reaching out with the dagger to move it over. “Bigods.” Lastay had crawled around to see. “How long was that in there? Is it new?” Xena picked up the dart and brought it closer to her, sniffing it cautiously.

The small barb smelt musty, but no more, and she squinted at it, seeing a thick coating of dust covering the surface. “Don’t think it’s recent.” She said. “I probably triggered it moving that damn box.” Slowly she eased back towards the bench, holding the dagger out in front of her as she lifted her body up and peered inside.

The box was where she’d left it, but now on the back wall of the bench she could see several small holes that it had been obscuring. “Gabrielle?” “Right here.” Gabrielle’s shoulder bumped her hip. “Get me a boot.” Xena said. “I want to block those holes back up.

I don’t trust that only one dart was in there.” Gabrielle sat down at once and tugged at the laces on her left boot, stripping it off her foot and handing it to her lover. “Here you go.” Xena was watching her. “It didn’t have to be your boot.” She commented mildly, but took the offered item and eased to one side, carefully dropping it into place in front of the holes. No sooner had she done so, then four more soft pops were heard, and four more tiny black darts were now stuck in the leather of Gabrielle’s footwear. ‘Mistress.” Lastay pondered the boot. “Do you have an oracle’s eye?” Xena snorted softly and reached inside again, stabbing the box with her dagger and piercing the lid. “Back off, both of you.

I”m gonna pull it out.” She waited for them to draw back, then she yanked her arm up and over, pulling the dagger and the box with it to clatter onto the stone floor by her side. Everyone stared at it in silence for a minute, then Xena jerked the knife free, and studied the enclosure.

It was a finely made box, with inlaid wood in the top forming the crest, an iron handles on the ends to carry it with.

Now, of course, the top was also graced with a narrow split hole. “It’s pretty.” Gabrielle finally said. “Aye.” Lastay agreed. “Had a fine woodworker here in the old times.

I remember seeing work like that in some of the older holdings ..

Had a tiny bit of it in the place my family took over when you came to rights here.” ‘It’s not as nice as Xena’s though.” Gabrielle concluded. “See that part there? Not all the way even.” She pointed at one corner. “Xenas’s is perfect.” She looked up, to find mildly amused blue eyes looking back at her. “Well, it is.” “Hm.” Xena braced the box against her foot and inserted the tip of the dagger into the lock hole, rotating it with consummate skill until the lock popped..

She tipped the hasp up, and eased the box lid open, her free hand up and ready to deal with anything flying out of it. Nothing did.

After a cautious moment, she peered inside, then let her hand drop. “Huh.” Gabrielle’s head pressed against her shoulder. “What is it?” Xena reached inside and lifted out the contents, a much folded and dusty piece of parchment.

She turned and put it on the ground for them to see, opening it up and spreading it out in the light coming in the window. “Is that a map?” Lastay leaned closer, putting his han don one hand a flattening it. “It is.” “It is.” Xena agreed. “Wow.” Gabrielle squirmed over and stared at it. “Is it…

Isn’t that here?” She pointed at the left side of the parchment. “It sort of looks like this place.” “Without the outer guard tower, and the town.

Yeah.” Xena scanned the map, catching details that immediately pricked her interests. “That’s the road we took to the port city.” She indicated a wiggly line that went between what was drawn in as hills and the far edge, which had a tiny town where she knew the city now stood. “This is from a long time ago.” “What’s that, Mistress?” Lastay pointed at sigils scribbled in the area between the town and the hills. What was that? Xena studied the grid, seeing an almost wiped out line that went in and out of the bends of the slops, stopping at regular intervals which were marked with a tiny cross, and a circle quartered in four with glyphs in each section.

The line then wound it’s way down out of the hills to the north of the town, past a drawn in escarpment to a squiggle she reasoned was the edge of the sea. There was a box drawn in there, and a very crudely drawn picture of what might have been a ship.

She squinted again, seeing on the faint line tiny offshoots that seemed to be arrows. Arrows.

Pointing from what looked like a ship, to places in the hills. Bringing something from a ship, to places on land, and hiding it. Xena’s eyes went unfocused a little, as she jogged her memory. “Gabrielle.

You remember that village..

The one we found the raiders burning? That first one? With the kids?” “Yes.” Gabrielle answered in a quiet tone. “That one I never forgot.” “Remember what was in that cave, with them?” Her consort pondered the question. “No, not really..

I just remember those kids, and that … oh, wait.” She said. “There was a chest there.

You sent it back with them.” “A chest full of gold chains and coins.” Xena said. “That I completely forgot to follow up on when I got back here in order to find out where the Hades it came from, and why they had it.” She sat up straigh and looked at them. “Why a village in the back end of the woods had a half a king’s ransom hidden in a cave behind their middens.” Lastay stared at her. “A treasure?” He said. “Is this what…

This?” He pointed at the map. “This is what they were looking for?” — ** The courtyard was full of excitement and color and people by the time they got back.

The big space had been cleared of snow and debris, and the merchants were setting up their wagons, looking relieved and happy as they rubbed their hands in the cold air. Xena and Gabrielle rode together through the open gates at a placid walk, turning their heads to regard the scene as they made their way through the market now being re-established in front of them. “Your majesty!” One of them called, waving a hand. “Many thanks for your protection from the weather!” A chorus rose up, as they spotted the tall, dark haired rider in their midst.

Xena lifted a gauntleted hand in response, slowing Tiger so she could see all the preparations in progress. “There are your buddies.” She indicated the circus performers, who were out near the wall, bouncing like balls, apparently very glad to be out in the sun. “Gwan and see how they’re doing.” “Sure.” Gabrielle turned Patches head and tightened her knees.

The pony amiably broke into an amble and they crossed the inner yard, arriving next to the circus performers as they started tossing around a ball. “Hey there.” “Oh!” Zev spotted her. “Hey there m’lady.” He came to Patches side, and the rest of the players followed him. “Are you feeling better now?” “I am.” Gabrielle said. “I”m really sorry your show got interrupted last night.” “We aren’t!” Zev said. “You guys caught the bad guy! That was amazing! They told me the queen herself threw the knife is that true?” “It’s true.” Gabrielle nodded. “She saw the guy and boy…

She moved so fast you coudln’t even see her.” “It was great.” Zev’s brother patted Patches shoulder. “And we were so glad we were inside during that storm I don’t really know what we’d have done if we were outside.” “Frozen.” Zev said, succinctly. “But we were snug inside, and we’ve been working on making it like home in there.

Want to see?” He grinned at Gabrielle, and she smiled back at him. “The queen hasn’t changed her mind has she? The tucker here is awesome!” “No, not at all.” Gabrielle said. “Let me see.. “ She half turned, and spotted Xena talking to some of the merchants.

She waved, and the queen looked quickly over, focusing on her as she pointed at the door to the dancing hall.” Xena nodded, and waved her hand. “Let’s go.” Gabrielle aimed Patches towards the door as the circus players gathered around her and trooped along at her side.

They wound their way through the building market and entered the long sloping ramp that led up to the dancing hall. It didn’t much look like anyone wa going to dance in it now.

Gabrielle felt right at home riding Patches inside because the floor had been covered in thick straw and there was more than a hint of manure in the air.

The circus people had settled in, and behind the performance area the wagons had been unpacked and set up. “Whoa.” Gabrielle got off Patches back and turned, only to find a groom hovering at her heels. “Oh, hello Josha.” “Your grace, may I take him?” The groom asked. “Glad I was to see you riding again.” “Sure.” Gabrielle handed the reins over, giving him a smile.

The military grooms were some of Xena’s favorites in the army, and hers as well. “Thanks.

Not that we rode very far, but it was nice to get out.” “Too right!” Zev said. “Look what we did back here.” He led the way across the straw and past the poles, ducking between two of the wagons.

Behind the big open space they’d put the wagons in a square, and in the middle of the square they’d set up housekeeping.

There was a nice firepit set up, set on stones they’d apparently collected, carefully put in an open space with the layer of straw well cleared back. In front of each wagon a little sitting area had been created, with half barrels and stools and low slung camp chairs serving as seats and tables with bits of daily living scattered about. It looked cute, and comfortable, and there were two small children racing around with a stuffed rag ball.

It all made Gabrielle smile, and think a brief, wistful thoughts about memories of her very early years, when she and Lila had done such chasing in the front of their small house. “Isn’t it great?” Zev was walking alongside her. “It’s so nice to just be able to stay in one place for a while.” All of the strange activities hadn’t seemed to faze the circus players.

They seemed relaxed and cheerful, Zev pointing out the water buckets and hammocks hung between the wagons which provided places for them to sleep. “I’m looking forward to the show tonight.” She said. “How are all your animals doing?” They walked past the camping area into the back, where the performing animals were comfortably confined.

Gabrielle spotted the big cat sprawled near the back of the big room, it’s eyes closed in sleep. “They’re doing real good.” Her companion chattered on. “The kitchens have been super nice giving us stuff to feed them.

Bones and stuff too.” He patted one of the riding horses on the rump. “I was really scared they were going to get hurt with all the bad guys around, specially after Durgo got stabbed, but they’ve been fine.” One of the acrobats was climbing up and down a rope connected to the wall, and Gabrielle stopped to watch him. “Wow.” She said, after a minute. “I had to do that a few days ago and boy, it’s a heck of a lot harder than it looks.” “It is.” Zev agreed. “Why were you climbing a rope?” He asked after a pause, turning to look at her. Why had she been? Gabrielle thought about that, the memories she had of just before she got hurt more than a little fuzzy. “There was a hole in the wall.

Xena wanted to know what was in it.” Zev blinked. “So she made you climb up there?” He asked, in a dubious tone. “It wasn’t exactly like that.

There were some shoes she wanted to test out and I was the only one they fit.” Gabrielle went over to where the big cat was and studied it, admiring the shiny, soft looking pelt.

She remembered Xena patting it, but she, herself, had no desire to get any closer. “He’s so pretty.” — “He bites.” Gabrielle agreed. “But I give him apples and I think he likes me.” She paused to take a sip of tea. “Want to hear a story about him?” “Sure.” Cellius relaxed on the camp chair. “Why not?” Gabrielle smiled and settled herself, thinking about Tiger, and the story she’d made up in her head about how he and Patches had found their way home again. “Well, it was in the time before the war..” “Were you in the war?” Cellius interjected. “Yes I was.

I was with Xena when we ambushed the Persians, and when we set their boats on fire, and when we chased them out of the port city and then chased them right into our army out in the pass.” Gabrielle said. “So anyway, it was in the war.” Zev studied her. “You’ve done a heck of a lot for a sheep herder.” Gabrielle managed a modest shrug. “We were escaping from the bad guys running up and down a mountain and Tiger got lost.” She began the story. “But he’s a very smart horse, so instead of running away, he hid from the bad guys and started a big adventure to find his way back with his friend Patches the Pony.” “Is that your horse?” Cellius’s eyes twinkled “It is.” Gabrielle said. “And he’s pretty smart too.

So they had to find a way across the mountains and..” ** Where was Gabrielle.

Xena jumped off Tiger’s back and entered the dancing hall, barely noticing the groom that raced up to take her stallion’s reins.

There were quite a few people in the hall, but most of them were strolling around looking at the circus rigging, or gathering at the small booth just inside the door where an enterprising merchant had set up a makeshift bar. Something drew her across the straw, and she spotted the wagons and motion behind them.

A bit of sound traveled to her and she cocked her head, her ears twitching as she caught the distinctive sound of her consort’s voice.

Her shoulders relaxed, and she headed in that direction, ignoring the swift and awkward bows in her direction as she passed. Gabrielle’s voice got louder as she ducked around the wagon and she emerged into an open square space that looked quite homey.

Spotting her consort, she paused to watch, a smile appearing on her face as she studied the blond woman seated on a half barrel, legs swinging a little as she gestured with her hands in telling her story. The circus people were seated in front of her, listening intently. So far, Gabrielle hadn’t spotted her.

Xena leaned against the wagon, her smile widening as she listened to this to her new story about her favorite horse. It was all nonsense, of course.

Though the queen was easily able to imagine her warhorse and her consorts scrappy little pony rambling around the countryside biting Brego’s men in the ass she knew of course that nothing like that actually had happened. Xena’s head tilted a little.

She was sure about that, wasn’t she? “But Tiger knew we needed him and Patches to save the day so he found all the other horses.. “ Well, who knew? The queen circled around and found a seat, dropping down into it as Gabrielle caught the motion and spotted her.

She was unable to help herself from grinning as her consorts face broke into a big smile and she lifted her hand and waved a little as she extended her legs out across the straw. Crazy, really.

She could be in her comfortable audience chamber, or even her own bedroom and here she was, sitting in the straw with the scent of manure and some kind of vegetable stew flowing over her.

And yet, she felt good to be here, surrounded by these traveling buskers who held no allegiance at all to her. A rumbling growl echoed from behind the wagons, and she made a note to pay a visit to her furry friend before they left.

For now, she folded her hands over her stomach and crossed her ankles, letting herself get drawn into to Gabrielle’s goofy tale. “And then, just when everyone was wondering what we could do, Xena waved her arms, and like magic, Tiger led the rest of the horses into our camp right at the moment we needed them.” Xena inhaled to protest, then she just sighed, as the rest of the players turned and looked at her in awe.

She managed a modest little shrug in response, then waved her consort to continue on with her outrageous fabrication. “And then we got all of us together, and we rode down the path and charged at the rebels who were trying to hurt the castle.

Xena got into a fight with all the bad guys, while Patches raced around to the castle gates to get them open so our friends inside could come help us.” Xena let out a whistle. “Hey.” She said. “Are you forgetting you had something to do with all that?” Gabrielle smiled at her. “But Patches did all the hard work, Xena.

He had to pull the wagon.” “From what I remember, you were pulling him.” The players all chuckled, keeping a wary eye on the tall figure sprawled nearby. “Anyway.” Gabrielle concluded. “Patches pulled the gates open and all the soldiers came out, and everyone started fighting.

The bad guys go so mad at us for that they came over and tried to hurt us, but when it was almost too late, Xena jumped into the fight and saved us.” She paused, her eyes meeting the queen’s. “Saved me, and put herself in the way of the bad guys and made them attack her instead.” The players looked back at Xena. “I never did get that whole royal thing down worth anything.” Xena commented, with a smile. “Gets me in trouble all the time.” “We heard that.” Zev said, timidly. “Someone was telling us that..

They said you beat the Persian army by yourself.” Xena’s nostrils flared. “She helped.” She pointed at Gabrielle. “Ask her about biting the Persian leader in the face and ripping her cheek off.” Eyes swiveled back to Gabrielle, who blushed vividly. “Anyway.” Xena got to her feet, and extended a hand towards her consort. “We’ve got a court to administer.

See you all tonight.” They strolled out across the performance space, back over to the door where sunlight was spilling in. “How come you always tell people about that?” Gabrielle asked, after a period of silence. “About you biting her?” “Yeah.” Xena chuckled. “Because I think it’s the best thing I ever saw.” She said. “That bitch holding you up there and then you chomping down on her like that..

It was gutsy and fierce and I loved it.” She draped her arm over Gabirelle’s shoulders. “You feeling okay?” — “I was.” The queen nodded. “Freaked those guys out.” “Oh yeah you sure did.

I thought that one guy was going to go crazy when you sat down next to it.” “Cat likes me.” Xena said. “It was purring.” Gabrielle pondered that. “I guess we have something in common?” She said. “I feel like purring when I’m near you too.” Xena snickered. “You are drunk.” “No I feel like that even when I’m not drinking anything.” Her consort protested, making a muffled cat sound as she walked. “See?” They climbed up the steps into the stronghold and passed the guards, who saluted.

Xena waved casually back at them, then turned right and headed down the hall to the tower stairs. It was quieting down.

The well fed and well wined nobles were all straggling off to their suites, and the merchants and musicians were bedding down in the courtyard, the gates once again closed against wolves and weather. The circus had been fun.

Xena smiled, thinking of the prancing horses and the jugglers, and the flyers high overhead whose tumbling antics had so enthralled her consort.

There had been no hint of trouble, no whisper of thugs with darts, just a long night of carousing and entertainment. Fitting.

Xena guided her meandering companion up the steps and they climbed past the wall sconces that held fluttering torches and the alcoves that had a soldier in each one of them, all in her tabards, all touching their chest in respect as they passed. They reached the landing where their old quarters were, and Xena bumped her hip against the door, sending it inward to the chamber.

Inside, the fires were lit and the candles were positioned, lighting up the space in a warm golden glow.

She untied the throat catch on her cloak and pulled it off as Gabrielle did likewise, the door behind them pulling to as the guard discretely closed it. It smelled good in the chamber.

Xena detoured over to one of the tables, spotting a painfully clean tray with a flask of honey mead on it, and a selection of sweet treets. Could she manage one? Xena eyed them as she poured a measure of mead into one of the cups.

Gabrielle had no such hesitation and she sat down on the chair next to the table, curling her legs up and selecting one of the treats. “Don’t tell me you’re’ still hungry.” Gabrielle bit into the cake and grinned. “Only a little.” She said. “I think I worked off some of that dinner with all those stories.” “Uh huh.” Xena handed her a cup and sat down opposite her, extending her feet out towards the fireplace. “I still think you’ve got worms.” She studied her consort’s slim form, shaking her head. “Where in Hades do you put it all?” “I don’t know.” Gabrielle answered seriously. “I can’t see down my throat.” She stuck her tongue out and peered at it. “You really think there’s a worm down there? Wouldn’t I feel it wiggling?” Xena chuckled, and held her cup out, waiting for Gabrielle to touch it with her own. “Heres to your worm, my love.” She said. “Keep it happy with all the treats you want.” She gazed fondly at her consort, watching the pale green eyes light up with simple happiness. Xena drained her cup and set it down, then she stood and held her hand out, palm up. “Let’s go enjoy each other.

I’ve been wanting to take that silk off you all night.” Gabrielle stood and took her hand, clasping it in both of her own and squeezing it. “I love you.” Xena glanced at the floor then back up at her, a wry smile appearing on her face. “I know.

I still can’t figure out how I ever deserved that.” “Xena, c’mon.” Her consort gently rubbed her fingers over Xena’s knuckles. “You’re the best.” “I”m the best.” The queen mused, as they wandered through the outer room and into the sleeping chamber. “Well, I”m glad you think so.” She glanced around the room, a smile returning to her face. “Your mouse has been in here cleaning.” The chamber was visibly freshened, she could smell the scent of pine where the stones were brushed and the fire was snapping and neatly laid in the fireplace.

The bed had been prepared, the pillows appeared invitingly plump and a thick, plush fur cover had been added to the silks. A bowl of steaming water was on the dresser, with neatly folded pieces of linen laid ready next to it.

Gabrielle went over and touched them, looking around with a charmed smile. “She made it so nice.” Xena sat down on the bed and reflected on that.

It was nice.

There was true care evident, something she hadn’t seen since Gabrielle herself had been her body slave and taken care of the place.

Then she’d found it like this, all in perfect order, with the little touches right like the warm water. And, in Gabrielle’s case, a rose on her pillow.

Xena smiled at the memory. “Remember you putting that flower on my bed?” — Not by malice, not because she was a target.

Just because she loved Xena enough to want her out of danger despite being in danger herself. Just exactly what Xena herself would have done if she’d been facing in the direction of the collapse in the same moment. “Know what?” “What?” “We’re a pair of sopping idiots.” “Is that good or bad?” Xena laughed gently, and squeezed Gabrielle to her, lifting her up and hearing the slight cough as her lungs emptied. “It’s the best.” They tumbled back onto the bed in a tangle of limbs and rolled into the center of it, faint puffs of warm air brushing over their bare bodies from the fireplace. It felt good.

Xena stretched out and rolled half on her side as Gabrielle nuzzled her throat, nibbling gently along her skin as her consorts hand came to rest on her hip.

A moment later they were pressed together belly to belly and Gabrielle’s thigh was sliding between hers. That felt even better.

Xena let her mind slip, pushing aside the knowledge of what the night would bring and concentrating on the knowing touches and gentle pressure that sent a jolt of aching tension into her guts.

She returned the touch, tracing the shape of Gabrielle’s nipples and meeting her lips. She could taste the faint residual of honey, but sweeter still was the love she could feel in every motion and she let it seep into her, a heady sensation that was a little scary but she didn’t care. She wanted to savor this feeling, breathe it in and hold it inside her and remember how incredible it was to have someone love her like Gabrielle did, because.. “Xena.” “Mm?” Gabrielle’s lips were right near her ear. “No matter what happens, I’m glad my life had you in it.” Because nothing else mattered.

Xena understood that, finally.

All the castles and soldiers in the world didn’t mean a damn thing if you didn’t have something like this. “Likewise.” She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle, pulling her closer, feeling the need ignite. Let the future happen.

Xena felt Gabrielle start to work her way down her body, taking possession of her in a way only Gabrielle had ever been allowed to do.

Gods and ghouls could go to Hades for now.

She didn’t care. She inhaled Gabrielle’s scent and let it all go. ** Now the castle was very quiet around them.

Xena had one foot braced up against her old weapons chest as she adjusted her knee armor, tightening the plates and snugging them more firmly around her leg.

She had her leathers and the rest of her gear on, her sword was in it’s sheath between her shoulderblades and the chakram was seated on it’s hook at her hip. Gabrielle was seated nearby, in the chair near the fire, already dressed in her chain and scale armor, with her new dagger strapped around her and her big stick nearby. “Don’t we look scary.” Xena straightened and put her boot down, bouncing a little to settle everything. “Ready?” “Well.” Gabrielle drained the cup of tea at her side and set it down. “I guess I am, as much as I can be.” She stood up and picked up her stick, wrapping her hand around it and exhaling. “But boy, I sure wish we were still in bed.” “Yeah, me too.” Xena extended her hand. “C’mon.

Let’s get this over with.” Gabrielle took her hand, and they walked out the side door into the little hallway, and then through the outer door into the big round hall.

Across from that door was the tiny alcove she’d once slept in, and then to the right were the stairs that led up to Xena’s tower practice room. It was dark, and very quiet.

There were torches in sconces, but up here there were no soldiers – they were at the base of the stairs below and the bottom of the small servants stairs that went down to the kitchens.

It was cold out here, and Gabrielle was glad she had her armor on, and her new lined boots too. They walked across the stone floor and arrived at the steps.

Xena turned and looked at her, putting her free hand on her shoulder. “Thanks for sticking with me.” Gabrielle smiled, glancing down at the floor then back up at her. “Are you scared?” The pale blue eyes regarded her quietly. “Yes I am.” “Of dying?” The queen shook her head. “No.

I’ve never been afraid of that.

You can’t be…” She paused. “You can’t live like I do and be afraid of that.” She gently shifted her hand to cup Gabrielle’s face. “It’s my soul I”m afraid of losing.

That’s why I want you there.

You have a hold on that.” Gabrielle nodded soberly. “Fight for me, Gabrielle.

Don’t let me do something stupid, okay?” “I won’t.” Gabrielle said, in a firm tone. “But Xena, I don’t think you would.

Someone told me… “ She cleared her throat gently. “When I was hurt.

When I was in that other place.

Someone told me I should be true, because you were.

You are.” Xena cocked her head to one side.

Then she patted Gabrielle on the shoulder. “Let’s go.” She said turning to start up the stairs. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about but I hope to Hades we can talk about it later.” Gabrielle shifted her grip on her stick and started up with her, matching her steps to Xena’s steps as they climbed up the curving stones, leaving the landing behind them. For a moment there was silence, then the softest of scuffs echoed as a number of armored bodies entered the lower landing from the lower stairs, brightly burnished helms and swords reflecting the torchlight.

The man in the lead stopped the upper stairs, and held his hand up, cocking his head to listen. Xena felt her heartbeat start to rise as she climbed, her attention focused on the chamber at the top of the stairs.

The door was closed, unlike the other night, and she didn’t hear anything, or feel any draft coming down from it.

Pausing before the entrance she surruptitiously wiped her hands on her leathers before she reached over and worked the latch, shoving the door open and stepping inside. Gabrielle was right behind her, one hand resting on Xena’s back as she peered past her. Xena wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but what she found was her practice chamber, torches lit on the walls, completely empty as she’d last left it the previous day.

The torchlight showed a solid stone floor, and closed windows and after a minute, she relaxed. “Hmph.” Gabrielle walked a few steps in, coming to stand shoulder to shoulder with her. “Looks pretty normal, huh?” “Uh huh.” Xena agreed.

She started across the room, steeling herself to cross over the space where she’d seen nothing but a gaping opening the last time, and ended up in the center of the room, turning herself briefly in a circle. Unlike the night before, she didn’t sense any intruders.

There was no strange feeling, or smells, or wind blowing in the iron window coverings.

No prickling at the back of her neck. Just a room.

Just the training chamber she’d used for years, honing her skills and keeping herself in fighting shape ready to repel whatever challenges here realm threw at her. Gabrielle strolled cautiously around the perimeter of the room, past the rolled up sacking weights and the practice weapons, sticks and poles Xena had taught her with.

The room felt cool but not cold and she shifted her stick in her hands as she ended up across from Xena, against the far wall. They looked at each other.

Xena lifted her hands in a shrug, and crossed the space between them, ending up at Gabrielle’s side.

She stopped and turned, folding her hands over her chest as she regarded the empty space. “Looks like we got all dressed up and don’t have any place to go, Gabrielle.” Gabrielle set her stick down on it’s end and wrapped both her hands around it. “I don’t think they gave up, Xena.” She said. ‘They really wanted to hurt you.” “Yeah, but I think they were chickenshits.” Xena said. “All of them against one of me? In the dark? In a storm? Cowards.” Gabrielle felt the prickle go up her spine, and she looked quickly at the queen.

She felt Xena’s body tense next to her as the queen slowly took her arms down, letting her hands rest on her bare thighs, her right hand half curled. The air compressed suddenly and there was a soundless crackle, then a blue flash erupted in the center of the room.

When it faded, the torches outlined a tall, swaggering figure, who strolled forward to face them. “You’ve got a lot of balls for a mortal woman.” Ares said, as he stopped a length or two from them. “I like that.” Gabrielle felt Xena stiffen next to her, and in reflex she put her hand on her back, just below her sword keeping her other hand firmly on her stick.

She studied Ares intently, feeling the faintest sense of familiarity as she looked at him. “Some people say that.” Xena answered quietly. “Other people just think I’m out of my mind. “ The god chuckled. “So what’s it gonna be?” He asked. “I see you came dressed for my kind of action.

I didn’t expect you to bring your little lamb with you.” He stepped closer, his eyes on a level with hers. “Ready to leave this cow pasture behind, beautiful? C’mon and learn what it’s like to be a real ass kicker.” He put his hands on his leather clad hips. “There’s no place for you to go here.

Those Persians are gonna show up and raize this place to the ground.” “I beat them before.” Xena said, her voice determinedly steady. “Got a couple of them downstairs guarding my bedroom.” Ares chuckled. “They’d rather be in your bedroom.” He said. “But they won’t stop the old man.

Neither will you.

So c’mon.” He held a hand out. “Let’s blow this joint before it gets ugly.” The air seemed to change, somehow.

Gabrielle felt a little tickle on the back of her neck, and she hiccuped a little, her breathing stopping and restarting.

She flexed her hands and felt just a little different, just a little stronger, her body standing a little taller, blood starting to race inside her as she got ready to… “It’s too late, Ares.” Xena’s voice sounded, almost gentle, certainly quieter than her norm. “You waited too long.” Gabrielle looked up at her, watching her profile.

She could see Xena’s nostrils flaring, and feel the tension in her body through the hand on her back. “Really?” The god asked, skeptically. “You really want to stay here and get flayed to death when that army runs over you? Want to die that way? Really?” He glanced at Gabrielle. “One more chance, babe.

I’ll save you.

I’ll even throw in the runt there if you want.

It’s not too late.come. “ His voice deepened and echoed. “Be mine.” And now, with the question in hand, Xena realized there never had been any risk at all.

She met his eyes as fear faded, tossing chance to the wind with no regret. “I can’t.” She said. “I’m already hers.” She jerked her head in Gabrielle’s direction. “You waited too long, Ares.

If I die fighting as a warrior at the gates of this place I’ll take it.” It was true.

She felt it.

It was too late, she was too old, her morals too solidly set for her to go back to being a sycophant kneeling at the feet of the god of war. She would never conquer the world. She would just remain here, in a backwater, strugging to hold onto what she’d taken if she could.

She was aware of the touch on her back, and felt Gabrielle shift a little closer, hearing the deep intake of breath at her side. “Well that’s a damn shame.” Ares said. “But you know what? Those shades they sent won’t even let you get that far.

And it’ll be a lot more painful death.” He snapped his fingers, and an ice cold blast shocked the room. “So long.

Too bad.” With another snap, he was gone, and the room was changed. Torches went out.

Whispering started.

They sensed motion and in a single accord, they took a step back and put the wall behind them. “I think life’s about to suck, my love.” Xena said. “Sorry about that.” Gabrielle felt tears, but not sad ones. “Don’t be.” She said. “I”m with you.” A rolling wave of stench overwhelmed them, and Xena drew her sword, a bare flash of silver in the darkness. “C’mon you scumbags.

I’m…

We’re not afraid of you.” A whisper. “You should be.” The darkness parted, and a single figure emerged, cloaked in shadows but with glowing eyes that pinned them. “Because I’m going to eat your heart right out of your chest.” The voice was harshly familiar. “Sholeh.” Xena said. “Should have recognized the stench.” The figure moved forward, faint shadows and flashes revealing ghostly armor and a long sword held in front of her.

The face was hooded though, just the glaring eyes showing.

Behind the figure, there were more, dozens and dozens that filled the room entirely, blocking any view of the walls or the door. — “She didn’t destroy you.” Gabrielle said. “You destroyed yourself, you stinkweed.” The bolt came right at her this time and she didn’t have time to avoid it.

She started to move though, then found herself lifted and tossed gently out of the way, as a flash of silver blurred past her and deflected the energy in the other direction. Then Xena moved past her in a blur.

Her sword hit the ghostly one Sholeh had and they were engaged, as the rest of the host in the room spread out and circled them. Gabrielle gathered herself up and leaped through the closing ring, feeling the icy touch on her back as she landed behind Xena, really surprised at just how scared she wasn’t. “Go Xena!” She yelled at the top of her voice. “Beat em up!” “I will enjoy raping her and slitting her throat once you’re dead.” Sholeh hissed at Xena. “You don’t understand how powerful I am on this side.” Xena dropped into a balanced stance. “Sure you want to kill me then?” She asked. “As easily as I could kick your ass when you were alive, might want to think about what I might be like on that side.” She set herself and reacted as the shade rushed her, slamming that silver light against her blade with stunning force. Oh this was going to be either a really short or a really long night.

Xena swiveled and deflected the strike, turning and twisting her wrists to send the force off to her left.

She’d never fought Sholeh really when she’d been alive, but she’d always gotten the sense the bitch knew what to do with a blade. Apparently she did.

Xena got her sword up in time to meet Sholeh’s next attack, and they circled each other in the darkness – the shade’s form visible to her as a combination of gray and silver shadows outlined in the faintest of silver glows.

She was damn glad she had her armor on, as she caught the glitter of a dagger and she caught it on her bracer, flicking her arm to one side and sending it skittering to one side. Then she half turned, then reversed her motion, bringing her blade back across her body and slamming it against Sholeh’s, feeling the stunning shock as a wash of power shivered through her arms, nearly making her drop the sword as her hands went briefly numb. But she kept her body in motion and powered through it, keeping a grip on her hilt through sheer will alone.

Sholeh’s weapon was knocked out of position but she stepped forward and slammed against Xena, shoving to knock her backwards. The pain was incredible.

Xena got a breath into her lungs and let it wash through her as she held her ground, leaning forwards as their blades ground together and ended up crossed at the hilts, bringing Sholeh within a hand span of her and letting her see what was inside the shadowy cloak. Her heart almost stopped, seeing that emptiness.

There was only a ragged skull there, with shreds of flesh and pinpoints of glaring light in the eye sockets. Sholeh laughed.

Then she lifted her sword back and chopped it down hard against Xena’s, shoving the flickering weapon towards her throat and throwing her opponent over as she lunged after her. Xena let herself fall, twisting as she did and rolling to get herself out from under the ghoul as a shiver went through her whole body.

She came back up onto her feet and ducked Sholeh’s sword as it came at her head, then she gathered herself and exploded up into the air, hauling over the ghoul’s head as she swept her blade downward and smacked the skull under the gray shadows. A furious scream filled the air, as she tumbled and twisted, landing on her feet and leaping to her right as Sholeh attacked, sweeping at her with a blade moving so fast Xena could barely follow it. But her body knew.

Her hands brought her sword up to parry the blow and she felt the numbing force again, the shock going up her arms and making her shoulders ache.

She ducked and turned, bringing her sword around with all her strength and blowing through Sholeh’s guard, sending the ghoul flying in the opposite direction. Tough.

She got herself set, feeling sweat starting to gather under her leathers as she faintly regretted the long day of carousing.

Not the smartest thing she’d ever done, but then, this fight wasn’t the smartest thing either. “You haven’t killed me yet.” “I”m enjoying myself too much.” Sholeh rasped back. “Getting tired, Xena? I’m not.

I never get tired.

I’m going to enjoy watching you though.

Start breathing hard? Feeling your mortality?” “At least I have some.” Xena taunted her back. “I didn’t lose my daddy’s army to a ragtag bunch of hacks and pit fighters.” “Bitch.” Sholeh overhanded a dagger in her direction that Xena ducked, then she followed that up with a powerful strike that nearly bowled Xena over, only her guts keeping her in place and refusing to back down. “You can’t win, Xena.

You’ve already lost.” Xena went on the attack in a blur of motion, letting the clean anger wash through her.

She braced herself and focused past the impact and the pain, hacking and slashing her way through Sholeh’s defenses until she crashed into her and shoved her backwards. By the gods, it hurt.

But Xena didn’t hesitate.

She half turned and booted Sholeh in the chest as the ghoul rebounded, putting enough force in that to send her opponent to the ground as the circling wraiths swirled and chattered. “Mortal as I am, you’ll never beat me.” Her whole body was on fire.

Breathing hurt.

But Xena focused on her opponent in that tight and exclusive way she’d learned to do in battle, when her own safety and heath became irrelevant.

She braced herself and brought her sword up as Sholeh flew at her, anger in the motion and in the savage power of the blow that hit her blade. She turned and deflected the hit, ducking and avoiding the glitter of a second knife, starting to move into an attack when she heard her name yelled so loudly it echoed firmly inside her skull. Without thought she dropped to her belly on the ground sensing something coming over her head as her peripheral vision caught the sight of ethereal arrows whipping over her and smacking against the stone wall. “Coward!” She growled, shoving off the ground and to her feet. “That’s why your damn army deserted you, Sholeh.

They had honor.

You don’t.” “I take all my advantages!” Sholeh was circling her. “Not like you, soft hearted fool.” Soft hearted fool? Xena almost started laughing.

Who in the Hades was this creep fest talking about? She paused and reversed her motion, catching Sholeh’s sword out of position and slamming her hilt against the ghouls.

Despite the pain and the over whelming power of her opponents attack, she could feel that animal part of her responding with ferocious glee, starting an internal howl that made her smile. Sholeh attacked her, but the energy was rising in her guts now and she blocked the attack and plucked the chakram off her hip, whipping her sword up to knock Sholeh’s aside as she slashed backwards, feeling the chakram hit something and make her entire hand numb as she powered through the stroke and came out the other side. No time to think about it.

She ducked and whirled, bringing the chakram back around and feeling it hit again, then rip free as she brought her sword down in an overhand motion that went through Sholeh’s guard and slammed into something. There was resistance.

She jumped forward to aid in her momentum and then she was falling through something that felt like ice, bringing a wave of pain over every inch of her skin.

Holding her breath she kept going and rolled into somersault, turning and slashing in every direction since all she could see was darkness. “Xena!” Gabrielle’s voice yelled again. No idea where to duck.

Xena uncoiled from the ground in a leaping bound, tumbling in mid air as she tried to aim for where she’d heard the voice coming from.

She heard a yell, and then the sound of wood hitting something, and then she was landed and making a filigree of silver between a flight of arrows and the two of them, whipping the blade into a blur that deflected the arrows in every direction. Gabrielle pressed up against her, breathing hard.

They were back against the wall again, with the ghouls ringed in a tight circle around them. So this was it.

Xena looked out at the force facing her, and felt the icy menace seep through her bones, making her aware of her flagging strength, and the leeching pain and yes, her mortality.

She could only do this so long no matter what her will wanted her to do. She could feel her legs shaking. Dropping her guard a moment, she turned and ducked her head, turning her back on the ghouls and kissing Gabrielle on the lips.

She pulled back just long enough to meet Gabrielle’s eyes, vivid even in the shadows. “Thanks.” Then she turned and faced the ghouls again, seeing the dark blot that was Sholeh, seemingly more irregular now, and full of swirling chaos and almost jumped when she heard a low, loud booming sound. A moment of silence.

Then the booming started again.

It sounded like the drums of Hades coming at them, and Xena sensed the excitement in the ring around her, shifting and moving, shadows and flashes of godsfire mingled among them “Get her!” Sholeh shouted. “Bring her down!” — “You hit them too.” The queen rested her head against her hand. “I saw you whack Sholeh.” “Sholeh?” Lakmas jerked upright. “She came back from the dead?” “Not really.

She came back as the dead.” Xena said. “Figured to get me, I guess.” Now everyone was staring at Xena in some discomfort with the exception of Gabrielle.

The queen briefly wondered why, if she really hadn’t wanted her consort to tell everyone what happened that she herself was well on the way to doing so. “Anyway.” She half shrugged. “It’s over.” She felt Gabrielle’s hand touch hers, and her fingers fold over Xena’s.

The queen glanced sideways at her, but Gabrielle seemed to be lost in thought and the motion automatic. “But Gabrielle was in there swinging.” She found herself saying. “Knocked that stupid bitch on her ass, matter of fact.” Her consort grinned a little, and her face creased into a bashful expression. For a moment there was silence, then Brendan cleared his throat. “So now what is it, Xena?” He asked. “Have they gone? Tis a scary thing, yah?” He half turned to study the queen. “Dead things coming to fight with ye.” Xena wasn’t really sure how to answer that.

She knew what she would like to be the truth, but given everything that had happened, she had no confidence that she knew for sure what was going on.

So she considered the question carefully.

What had really happened there, at the end? She remembered the darkness, and feeling like her skin was on fire from the pain of it all.

She remembered Gabrielle standing at her side, breathing hard, her body shaking.

She remembered sensing the rush of the darkness as it came at them, and then the pain as it hit them and bowled them both over, and her back hitting the wall… And then? Why hadn’t they died? Why hadn’t the undead taken her? Taken them as they stood, arms around each other, locked in an embra….

Slowly Xena turned her head and looked at Gabrielle’s profile.

A faint, soft echo of words sounded inside her head. I go willingly. After a minute, Gabirelle realized she was being watched and she turned to meet Xena’s eyes, her head cocking slightly to one side in question. Hm.

Xena smiled at her, and watched a return smile appear on her face.

She’d never paid much..

Okay, any..

Attention to the traditions of the gods, her early life never had any and after she started fighting there had never been any want or need for it. “Someone get Jellaus in here.” She said, abruptly. “I want some information before I start talking crap.” “Mistress.” Brent got up and trotted off. Xena leaned back in her chair and picked up her mug, sipping the ale thoughtfully. “Brendan, damned if I know if they’re gone or not but I figure they had their chance, last night to take what they thought they could take and they didn’t.” She said. “Maybe they found out it was tougher than they thought.” “Be right seeing as it was you.” Brendan managed a smile. “Aint’ none tougher.” No, that was probably true.

Xena acknowledged.

She wasn’t always the brightest coal in the fire – something she’d only ever really say to herself – but tough and stubborn she was and no one knew that better than she did. “I liked when you told Sholeh your soul wasn’t yours to give.” Gabrielle spoke up suddenly, a tired grin on her face. “Or anything else for that matter.” Xena felt her skin heat with a blush. “We knew that too.” Brendan blithely agreed. “Twas all yours, by the gods, and their grace it was.” He studied Xena’s profile. “Mistress, their blessing is on ye.” Remembering the God of War’s disdain, Xena wasn’t really sure about that but after all, here she was.

She looked around the room, now filled with her subjects, and buzzing with life and conversation and thought about that one moment in the tower when she’d wondered. Got her mind off her red face, anyway.

She looked down and studied her hands, one of which was neatly enclosed in Gabrielle’s and sighed.

Then she cleared her throat. “Why do you all go get some rest.” She said. “And..

Ah..

I guess we should start planning that expedition out ot the hills.” Brendan stood up, with a grateful look in the queen’s direction. “Aye, sounds a good thing.” He motioned for the rest of the soldiers who’d stood with him. “Let’s go you lot.

Need to get ourselfs ready for a march.” Gabrielle very gently cleared her throat. “Maybe we should too?” The queen’s eyes twinkled just a little. “Tired, my love?” — “Maybe we could talk them out of it?” Xena exhaled as she reached the door to her audience chamber in the tower, and shoved it open. “Maybe you could talk the old bastard out of it.

I’ll probably just slug him.” “You really think that would work?” “It sure would work for me.” ** Gabrielle sat quietly at her little desk in the corner, her hands wrapped around the cup of tea and herbs Xena had mixed up for her.

It had honey in it, and the taste of the herbs was only a little weird, not bitter or rank like they sometimes were and she was enjoying sipping it as she listened. The sun had come out, and was shining through the window at her back, warming her skin and that, plus the herbs, plus being able to just sit quietly was making her feel better.

Not as good as climbing into bed with Xena would have made her feel, but still. But still. She tried to pay attention to Xena’s questioning of the Westlanders, but her mind kept wandering back to the terrors they’d been through, and the fight in the tower the night before. They’d done okay, her and Xena.

After she’d turned down the God of War and all that.

She remembered how much it had hurt when she’d hit the scary creepy things and she flexed her hands, glad only a residual ache was there to remind her of it.

She’d held her ground, and Xena had done more than that and she coudln’t get past the fact that she’d fought against creepy things and lived to tell about it. She had.

She remembered hearing stories about ghosts, when they’d been inside during the long winters and how scary that had been when people had told of finding long lost loved ones coming back to haunt them. Now she had a ghost tale of her own.

Gabrielle gazed thoughtfully across the room, to where Xena was slouched in her big chair, elbow propped on the arm, head resting against her fist.

Xena hadn’t been scared at all, just angry, and brave, and standing there after she’d thrown her sword down – courageous and true. True to her.

Just like the voice in the grayness had told her she was.

And, as the voice had also told her, she had been true to Xena and stood by her, and had been willing to die and go wherever Xena was going to go even if that was Tartarus, and an eternity of pain. She tried to imagine what that would have been like.

She was sure it would have been nasty.

But she also was sure that no matter how bad it would be, just being there with Xena and holding her hand would have made it all right. So now the Persians, maybe, were coming here to ask for something.

Or demand something.

Or yell at Xena or…

Gabrielle pondered a moment.

What if the Persian was really there to offer up the ransom the queen had asked for? Maybe he valued his men like Xena did, after all. She looked over at Lakmas, who was standing like a statue beside the door, fully armed and wondered what he would do if that were to happen.

Would he go back to his people? Or stay with Xena? Gabrielle exhaled and moved her body gingerly, the ache in every bone still present.

She hoped he would pick Xena, if it did. “Ggggabrielle?” She looked up to find the queen crooking a finger at her.

Uh oh.

Still carrying her cup, Gabrielle got up and limped over to where Xena was sitting, hoping like crazy that she wasn’t going to be asked an opinion on all the stuff she hadn’t really been listening to. “Yes?”
Xena studied her. “When you had those rags taken off the walls.” She indicated the outer hall with a jerk of her head. “Who did it?” Gabrielle cocked her head slightly to one side. “You mean, who got up on the ladder and took them down?” “Uh huh.” Her consort let her wrists rest on the arm of her chair and thought about that a minute.

Then she looked up with a faintly surprised expression. “Well, it was Stanislaus.” She said. “And two of his stewards, I think.” “Stanislaus.” Xena repeated softly. “Who got knifed in my banqueting hall.” She picked up Gabrielle’s cup out of her hands and took a sip of the herbal tea. “What in Hades is in that treasure? What’s in there that’s worth a Persian’s heir, a dozen men’s lives and enough royal intrigue to keep you busy writing scrolls about it the whole damn winter long?” Gabrielle scratched her nose. “You think we should find out?” “Before we end up croaking again for it? Maybe a good idea.” — Gabrielle looked around, then down at herself when it was obvious the sentiment was directed at her. “Oh.” She regarded the marks on her skin. “Ow.” Xena felt like the air had been sucked out of her, seeing the spiderweb of lurid, red stripes, as though Gabrielle had been whipped over ever inch of her body. “Oh.” She echoed her lover. “I”m sorry, sweetheart.” She sighed. “Stay there.

Let me get my kit.” Gabrielle was glad enough to comply.

She could now see herself in the mirror, and the marks were almost scary, red and raw looking.

She touched one with her fingers and the sting made her pull her hand down at once.

She remembered, once, being hit in the barn, after..

What had it been? Dropping the dinner platter? Or had it been letting the lambs out accidently? Hadn’t really mattered.

She remembered the searing pain and now that she thought about it, the pain of these marks didn’t seem that different.

Except that instead of being beaten for displeasing her father, she’d gotten thrashed for defending her beloved Xena against a bunch of nasty ghosts. Gabrielle studied her reflection, and didn’t regret the marring. “Damn, damn damn.” Xena, however, seemed to have a different view.

She laid her supplies out and pressed Gabrielle down onto the small stool near the fire, dropping to one knee next to her. “If you look like this I don’t wanna know what I look like.” She took out the cleansing paste and carefully cleaned off the scores, pausing only a moment as her consort lifted her hands up and let her wrists rest on her shoulders. Xena understood that everyone expected her to be running things outside.

She also understood, with almost refreshing clarity, that she didn’t care. “Hang on one more minute.” She got up and went to the rotunda door, opening it and sticking her head out. “Someone get me hot water for the tub in here.” “Mistress.” One of the guards ducked out the door. “Brent.” Xena addressed her familiar. “Take this bastard, and put him in a cell.

I’ll get back to him later.

I got things to take care of right now.” “Mistress.” Brent grabbed Metrus by the arm and dragged him out. That left the outer chamber in peace.

Xena waited a moment to see if anything was going to change, and then she pulled her head back inside and shut the door. “There.” She walked back over and continued her care. “You and I are going to take a nice warm bath, my love.

Then you’re going to curl up in that bed with me and get some rest.” “Aren’t the Persians coming?” “Sure.” Xena moved around in back of her and exhaled unhappily as she saw the welts across her consorts back. “They’ll wait.” She leaned forward and found a clear spot, planting a kiss on it. “Squadron of the bastards aren’t getting through my gates, Gabrielle.” “You’d let them sit out there while we take a nap?” Gabrielle felt the intense pain starting to fade, now that her clothing was mostly off, and Xena was caring for her. “Really? Won’ that get them mad?” “I”m sure it will but I don’t care.

I finally learned something the past couple of days.” The queen rested her elbow on her knee as she came around the side of the stool, and met Gabrielle’s eyes. “I figured out what’s important and that’s you and me.

Not this place, not this realm, not even my army.” Gabrielle felt a little short of breath. “Oh.” She uttered softly. “Surprised?” Xena very gently moved her hair back off her face, and stroked her cheekbones. “I sure am.

I never even thought for a minute I’d ever feel like this about anyone.” Her consort let out a breath. “I always felt like that about you.” She said. “You’ve always been everything to me.” “Ah.” “I had nothing else.” Gabrielle added, after a moment. Xena studied her with an intent, quiet ferocity for a long moment. “I”m sorry I left you in the town, that time.” She said, finally. “I didn’t deserve for you to wait for me, or want me back.” Gabrielle shifted a little, and her eyes dropped, growing bright with tears. “I talked myself into believing if I took the men and made them chase me, you’d get free and.. “ Xena paused. “And it was the biggest lie I ever told.” She took a breath. “Biggest moment of cowardice in my life.” “You’re not a coward.” Gabrielle said, in a soft, raspy tone. “Xena there’s no one braver than you are.” “Ahh.” Xena let her arms rest on Gabrielle’s shoulders, and touched her forehead to her consorts. “You’re wrong.

I was a coward then, Gabrielle.

I was afraid to admit how much I needed you in my life, and how it would hurt to lose you and I hid that by telling myself I was running away because it would be the best thing for you.” “It really wasn’t.” — Xena laughed, despite that hurting too. “So you wouldn’t mind?” Her consort shook her head. “No.

It’s been weird and scary here.

I figure if we were out there by ourselves, maybe I’d end up having more fun.” Xena kissed the top fo her head. “You have a true heart, my friend.

A far greater treasure than anything I could hope to find off any damned map.” Gabrielle snuggled closer and gave Xena’s arm a little squeeze. “Yeah I didn’t do to bad for a shepherd’s kid from the sticks.” They both exhaled, then paused, as the sound of footsteps coming up the back stairs from the kitchen caught their attention.

Immediately, Xena’s ears pricked and she stiffened. “That’s not your little cat.” The steps were heavier, and sounded booted. “No.” Gabrielle murmured. “Not Mestre for sure.” She eased away from the queen as she felt Xena start to move, and pushed herself upright. There was no attempt at stealth.

Xena got out of bed and went to the press, throwing a tunic on over her head and removing her sword from it’s sheath.

The blade was still dinged and scored with black streaks from the previous night, but she figured with her hand behind it that wouldn’t matter. Barefoot, she went over to the inner door to the passageway, and waited, just to one side, so that when it opened whoever it was wouldn’t immediate be able to see her.

Then she went still, and seemed like a tall, disheveled looking statue, the point of her sword tucked along her thigh. Gabrielle listened to the footsteps getting louder, then she scrambled out of bed and squiggled into her own tunic, grabbing her staff and moving soundlessly across the carpeted floor, she joined the queen, flattening her back against the wall on the other side of her. The bed, a bit mussed and pillows askew, stood mutely bathed in sunlight across from them. Outside the door, the footsteps stopped.

Xena put her hand out in front of her, ready to stop the portal from slamming back into them and listened, hearing steady breathing and the shift of a body inside leather clearly.

She saw the latch start to move and took a breath of her own, shoving all the pain and discomfort past her as her blood surged and her body got ready to fight. What idiot was trying to make their way into her chambers though? Anyone who’d come from the kitchens knew better. Abruptly, the latch stopped and returned to it’s original position.

Then, after a moment, there was a gentle scrape and the sound of cloth against stone, and the footsteps started again, this time heading away from them. Xena turned and looked at Gabrielle, who shrugged. “Hmph.” The queen waited for the steps to get to the turn below, and then she slipped to the otherside of the door and eased it open, hoping like Hades the joints wouldn’t creak any louder than her own were.

After another moment of silence she started down the steps herself. Gabrielle followed, making sure to keep her staff away from the walls so as not to make a clatter with it.

Since she and Xena were both barefoot their advance was far more silent than their visitors and in a moment they were both at the turn and starrting down to the lower levels. They could see a dark shadow in front of them, the steps echoing up past their ears. The torches were out in the stairwell.

Xena felt her spine prickle at the oddness of that, and the fact she could not smell any pitch which meant they’d been out for a while.

She could feel how cold it was too, and suddenly she wondered if sneaking down a dark stair in a shift with no boots on was entirely a good idea. She felt Gabrielle’s hand touch her back and only barely stifled herself from jumping. Slowly, her steps went still and she merely watched as the dark figure reached the bottom of the steps and the passageway into the kitchens.

She waited for the outline of the door to appear, and the sounds and smells from the lower level to waft upward, but the dark remained, and after a moment, the shadow was gone. Xena understood that she was a brave woman.

There was no doubt of that in hers, or anyone elses mind.

But she turned and nudged Gabrielle back up the steps, and felt that cold tickle up her spine right up until her consort pushed the door to their quarters open and they were back in the light. The queen closed the door behind them, and after a pause, leaned against it. Gabrielle stood quietly across from her, hands clasped around her staff. “That was creepy.” Slowly, Xena nodded. “That was creepy.” She confirmed. “Pirate ship is sounding better and better every damn minute.” She sighed and walked over to the garment press, setting the blade down and flexing her hands. “Tell you one thing.

You’re not leaving my sight.” Gabrielle blinked in surprise. “Not for a minute.” — “Okay.” Gabrielle was more than glad to agree with her. “Yeah, I’d really like to rest.” She said, after a pause. “I feel crummy.” “Me too.” Her lover agreed mournfully. “I feel so crappy I’m going to let my soldiers and captains be soldiers and captains and let them protect me tonight.” “Wow.” “Mm.” ** So there were soldiers everywhere.

Gabrielle hadn’t see so many of them around their quarters in the entire time she’d been at the stronghold, there was even a couple in the back stairwell down to the kitchen, and that door was open with torchlight pouring through it. It was dark outside, and they had shared a light dinner before the fire, both of them quiet as they sipped on cups of honey laced mint tea aware of the preparations for war below them. The soldiers were making ready.

Xena was seated with her legs extended towards the fireplace, a warm, thick robe around her and her freshly washed hair drying in the quiet warmth.

She was writing something on fresh parchment, the scent of it, and of the ink drifting into Gabrielle’s awareness as she sat nearby. Soon they would get into bed.

Gabrielle was looking forward to that moment, but the couch she was curled up on was comfortable and she felt secure with all the soldiers around and Xena’s close presence. “Okay.” Xena finished her writing and got up, going to the small table in their tower bedroom and setting the ink and quill down.

She fanned the parchment to dry it, then walked over to the door between the bedroom and the outer chamber and opened it. The soldiers inside braced to attention, and Brent stood up from his stool near the outer door and approached her. “Mistress?” Xena folded the parchment, then handed it to him. “I want this done before the Persians get here tomorrow.” She told him. “Make sure it happens, Brent, then get some rest.” She reached out and clasped his arm. “Tomorrow’s gonna be a day.” “Mistress.” He touched his chest with his fist. “Will you be getting some rest yourself?” “I will.” Xena didn’t even feel a twinge of irritation at the question. “I sure didn’t get much last night.” “Nor we.” Brent acknowledged. “But all’s quiet tonight.” “For now.” Xena released his arm and turned, making her way back to the bedroom and closing the door behind her.

She found Gabrielle already climbing into bed, and she followed her with a sense of relief so intense it surprised her. “Hey, wait for me.” “Sure.” Gabrielle had pulled the covers back, and now they climbed under them together after Xena shed her robe and dropped it to the ground at the side of the bed. There were candles, long burning, hard wax ones, lighting the chamber and Xena made no move to blow them out, settling with Gabrielle in the center of the bed and pulling the covers back over them. “This feels so good.” Gabrielle snugged up next to her, but didn’t throw her arm over the queen’s stomach in deference to her whip marks. And also, her own. Xena half turned and let her head rest against her consorts. “It sure does.” She murmured. “Except my back hurts.” She eased over onto her side and exhaled. “That’s a little better.” “Mm.” Gabrielle was already closing her eyes. “Mine too but f…” Her voice trailed off as she tumbled into sleep, her body relaxing against the queens. Xena let a gentle, affectionate smile appear, as she put the stinging and pain out of her mind.

Then she let the thoughts of what was going to happen in the morning follow them and released herself to join her consort, chasing her quickly into slumber. ** It seemed like she was in a dream.

Gabrielle looked around at the sweet smelling grass she was sprawled in, reaching out on all sides to a gentle hilly horizon. The sun was warm and she could hear birds singing, but she had no inclination to move or go anywhere as she lay back on the soft surface and watched light, puffy clouds drift by. — Xena regarded the oncoming group with a pensive expression. “Do I really deserve that?” She asked herself out loud, feeling the rough stone under her fingertips. “Hi there.” She turned, to find Gabrielle at her back.

Her consort was freshly bathed, and had on a thick robe and indoor boots as she emerged into the sun and held her hands out to it. “Hey there yourself.” She turned and leaned on the wall. “Here they come.” Gabrielle peered out. “Oh.” She said. “You can hear them.” “You can.” The queen agreed. “How many you figure, a hundred?” The blond woman shaded her eyes. “I can’t tell.

They’re all behind each other.” She said. “But ..

There’s a lot less of them than there are of us, right?” Xena watched as a line of her troops emerged from the barracks, fastening shields and armor as they headed for the gates. “In that bunch, sure.” She told Gabrielle. “But you and I know hes’ got more where that came from.” “That’s what you said, sure.” Her consort agreed. “But then, how come he didn’t bring them all and just start fighting with us?” She asked. “Him coming here with those guys is sort of like you going into Sholeh’s army with your guys, isn’t it? Why would he do that?” Why would he do that? Was it a deliberate parallel, to prove he was her equal in boldness? Or stupidity? Xena regarded the gates. “Now that.” She rested her hand on Gabrielle’s back. “Is a damn good question, my love.” Gabrielle smiled. “I really like when you say that.” She told her companion “It makes me feel special.” “You are.” Xena turned. “C’mon.

Let’s go get gussied up.” She left her hand on her consorts back as they walked back to the tower door, pausing as the guard opened it, letting them back inside. “Thanks.” “My liege.” The guard answered softly, putting his hand to his chest. The queen patted his arm, and moved on, re-entering her chambers and going over to her dressing case to study the contents. “If you were a Persian king, what would piss you off the most to see a woman wearing, Gabrielle?” Gabrielle pondered the question. “Your pretty armor and stuff.” She admitted. “I think if you wear a fancy gown he might think you’re a sissy.” Xena chuckled, deep in her throat. “That’s probably true.” She acknowledged. “But this guy never thought a women could really fight, did he? Do I play into that, or do I just cut to the chase and prove otherwise? What’s he looking for?” She leaned against the wardrobe case. “No, I think my first gut instinct was the right one.

I’m gonna be a queen tonight, like I consider him my equal.” “No one’s your equal.” Her consort stated mildly. “But I like that dress on you.” She pointed to a embroidered silk gown in a rich purple blue. “Especially if you put your hair up.” “Hmm… “ Xena ran her fingers over it. “That with my pointy hat?” She asked. “And that spiffy new cloak, you think?” She indicated the fur lined item. “I can hold it closed with that horse pin.” “Can I tell you a secret?” “Uh oh.” Xena turned and faced her, with a wry grin. “What?” “It doesn’t really matter.” Gabrielle whispered. “You look beautiful in anything.” She looked around. “Or nothing.” The queen burst into laughter. “Whhy Gaaabbbbriellle.” She burred. “You racy little sweet talker.” She folded her arms around her consort. “Thank you.” She added. “Can I tell you a secret? You make me feel beautiful.” She kissed Gabrielle and then hugged her. It felt strange to be saying that, and thinking what she was thinking.

Xena had a sense that she was on a path she had no understanding of and no vision of where it might end and she could care less. “Love you.” She concluded, releasing Gabrielle. Gabrielle grinned, a touch bashfully. “And um..” She held a hand out. “You could wear this with it.” She added diffidently. “It’s another present from me.” Xena slowly let her hands drop to her sides, her eyes widening as she stared at the necklace resting in the palm of her consorts hand, the ends draping down between her fingers. “Gabrielle.” She got out, on an indrawn breath. “Yes?” It was simple, and beautiful, lacy filigree of silver with a tracing of sapphires and pearls alternated along the neckline, and a carved black onyx hawk’s head set against a gold background in the center.

Slowly, she reached up and took the gift, feeling the weight of it against her fingers as she turned into the light from the window and the gems picked up the light’s brilliance. “Oh wow.” — “Just some sparklies.” The queen reached out and tilted her head, fastening something to Gabrielle’s ears. “I was gonna make you pierce em, but I figured you’d rather not have me poking holes in you tonight.” “What are they?” Gabrielle reached up to touch the unaccustomed constriction of the cuffs her lover had put on her sensitive ears. Xena reached over and drew her sword, turning it flat on and providing Gabrielle with a reasonable if deadly mirror. “Oh.” She smiled in delight, seeing hammered metal curled around the outside of her ear, and a piece of jade dangling from the bottom of it. “It’s so pretty!” She looked up at Xena. “Thank you!” Xena returned her sword to her sheath and took a seat, extending her legs and crossing them at the ankles as she leaned on one arm of the throne and watched the last preparations being made. “If this doesn’t all go to Hades in the first half candlemark, maybe you’ll tell us all a story later.” Gabrielle wiggled her feet in contentment. “I’d love to.” Soldiers were pouring in.

All of them in armor, and tabards, all of them scrubbed to a painful degree.

They were fully armed and they went to line the walls, swords slung across backs, spears resting in casual display in the crooks of their arms. Lastay came in.

He had a ermine lined cloak on, over his family colors and he strode up the cloth of gold mounting the steps and coming to her side. “Mistress.” He put a hand over his heart, and for once, there was not a single twitch of pretention in the motion. “My lady wife asks if she can attend you.” Xena regarded him. “Of course.” She answered quietly. “Your family’s earned the right to camp up here all over the top step if they want.” Lastay smiled, and bowed. “I will go fetch her.” Gabrielle was just quietly watching, reaching up to touch her new decorations from time to time.

She could see how ferociously proud the soldiers were, and she had the sensation of her heart swelling larger inside her as the last of the armored figures entered with all the Persians among them. All of them in Xena’s colors.

All of them armed and with their heads held high as they took up stations among the other troops. Lakmas broke with them and approached her, dropping gracefully to his knees on the bottom step of her dais and crossing his arms over his chest. “O my mistress, may I have the honor of standing guard for you, where all may see me?” “Where our guests can see you?” Xena asked. “That’s gonna piss them off.” “Yes.” Lakmas lifted his head and met her eyes. “I want none to misunderstand where my heart lies.” The queen’s eyes twinkled a little. “Yes, you may.” She said, deciding on taking the chance that the big Persian wasn’t part of the plan, and destined to plunge a sword into the back of her throne. Anything was possible.

But something in her..

Xena glanced furtively around.

Something in her heart told her what she saw in Lakmas’ eyes held a truth that bypassed the schemes of kings. At least, she sure hoped it did.

It would certainly suck to have all the Persians turn on her in some big plot that ended up with blood all over the newly cleaned, nicely polished floor. Lakmas got up and continued up the steps, moving past the throne and taking up a spot in the rear, across from the station Brendan would end up in, and behind the already stolidly waiting Brent. The fourth corner would be taken up by Gerard when he arrived with their guests, and the two seats to the other side of Xena would hold Lastay and his wife. The room was starting to fill with nobles, and it was evident from the start everyone was dressed to impress, with jewels and circlets winking everywhere as her court entered and moved into place. Brent came over. “Westlands watch reported no sightings of anyone save three goatherds and an escaped sheep, my liege.” Xena nodded. “Good.” She said. “Majesty, should we send them over the ridge?” Brent lowered his voice. “It’s hard, turning backs on danger.” “I know.” The queen leaned on her throne arm and lowered her own voice. “But see, if we see them, or they see us, we both gotta do something about it and I want this to come down on my terms and my time, not be forced into acting or having them forced into attacking us before we’re ready for it.” Brent remained quiet for a moment, then he regarded Xena with a wry, respectful look. “Majesty.” He bowed and touched his chest, then moved over to take his place in the guard. — “Yeah, I heard about your virgin sacrifice.” Xena’s lips twitched. “I walked away from that fight the winner too.” The silence went on a while longer, his eyes fencing with hers. “Want to go talk like grown ups now?” Xena suggested. “This is my rule.

I’ll treat you like a guest if you stop acting like an idiot.” He was at a decision point.

Xena knew she should be sifting out her various gambles but somehow this didn’t feel like one, and she stood and waited, aware of the energy of her soldiers, and the steadfast presence of Gabrielle behind her. The Persian slowly looked around the room, then let his cold gaze settle back on her. “I would speak with you aside.” Xena regarded him in silence for a moment.

Then she smiled. “Sure.” She indicated the door to the antechamber at one side of the room. He made a hand signal to his guard, ignoring their sudden stiffening as he turned and glided forward.

Xena kept pace with him, turning her head slightly to catch the eye of her nearly bouncing in her seat freaked out consort.

She winked at Gabrielle, then, without thinking about it, motioned her forward. The Persian stopped. “I said, with you aside.” “I know.” Xena waited for Gabrielle to catch them up. “But if you want to hear the truth of what happened to your blood, she’s the one to tell it.” Without a word, the Persian continued forward, and they walked alongside through a crowd that parted before them, bowing and raising fists to chest in respect as Xena moved past.

She raised a fist of her own to acknowledge it, lowering her hand and bumping her fist with the last of her men, who had opened the doors and stood back to let them pass. They went inside, and Gabrielle closed the doors behind them. On a side table inside stood a tray with a crystal pitcher and cups, filled with a golden liquid.

Xena crossed over to it and poured three cupfulls, taking one, and handing one over to Gabrielle. “Want some?” She asked the Persian. “If it’s poison, we’ll all get poisoned together.” She added, as he hestitated. He held out a hand and took the cup she offered. “You are not as I was told.” He remarked. “It remains to be seen which the lie is.” Xena smiled and took a sip of the honey mead. “So.” She leaned against the wall and rested her elbow on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “What is it you want, really?” The Persian walked over to one of the chairs against the wall and sat down in it. “Death stalks me.” He said, bluntly. “You have stolen my future and I have come to settle that account.” “I stole nothing.” Xena said. “I did not come in search of you.

I did not ask your army to invade my lands, didn’t ask your daughter to hunt me.

If your future is gone, look in the mirror for your blame.” He nodded. “This is truth.” He said. “But if you had properly governed your land, your people would have not come to me to succor them.” There was also truth to that Xena knew, but it was a skewed truth. “That’s not true.” Gabrielle spoke up for the first time. “Xena is a great queen.

They came to you because she valued all her subjects, not just them.

She cared about her army and about her servants more than she did about her nobles.” The man stared at her. “You are the storyteller.” “This is Gabrielle.” Xena interjected. “She’s my consort, and when everyone’s really lucky, she indulges me and tells stories about me cause I’m too bashful to tell em myself.” “My daughter offered you a position with her troops.” The Persian said. “Her last note to me told me of her successes, and your capitulation.” “Xena and ten of us with her went into Sholeh’s army camp.” Gabrielle said. “Xena told the rest of the soldiers with us to scatter.

She knew we probably wouldn’t make it.

But after your daughter tried to seduce her, and then someone in the camp tried to kill us, Xena decided to make a break for it and we escaped.” “You did not find my daughter to your liking?” There was a twist, and an irony to the man’s tone. Xena took a sip of her mead. “I’m taken.” She stated simply. “All your brat wanted was to get me in bed, and for that, she risked all your men, your honor, and her own life.

She was an idiot.” He took a sip himself. “She was my only true blood.” “You should have kept her at home.” Xena replied bluntly. “Little girls shouldn’t be given an army and thrown out in the world to prove they have what it takes to be what I am unless you can risk them dying doing it.” — “Would it seem an advantage?” Cambyses murmured. “They would become a bigger target, I would think.” “Uh uh, look.” Xena pointed at the two horses now springing off their hocks and crossing in mid air. “You could jump right over a spear brigade like that, and cut down on them.

Right above the shield wall.” Cambyses gazed thoughtfully at her. “It would take an excellence of horsemanship for that.” Xena shrugged. “Not really.

Just balance.

I could do it.” The Persian’s eyebrows lifted.

His silent skepticism was so loud, Xena could hear it flapping against the side of her face. “Can’t I, Gabrielle?” “Sure.” Gabrielle was also leaning against the ledge, watching avidly. “I think you actually did that a few times in those big fights last time.

Tiger jumps like that.” “He does, the big bastard.” The queen agreed. “I trained him to try and keep my ass out of trouble.” The horses finished their dance, and ran in a circle, then disappeared, and the tumblers came out, starting to do somersaults and flips, bouncing across the straw surface towards the hanging bars. Gabrielle settled back in her chair and folded her hands, watching the Persian king out of the corner of her eye.

He seemed to be watching in some content, but then she noticed his hands were on the arms of the big chair he was sitting in, and they were slowly flexing and unflexing against the wood surface. His guards were watching him intently. She suddenly felt her heart beat start to pick up.

With as much casualness as she could muster, she leaned on the chair arm between her and Xena and reached over, tucking her hand inside Xena’s upper arm. Slowly, the queen’s head turned and the torchlight glinted off her pale eyes as she looked at Gabrielle, the faintest hint of a twinkle there as one eye faintly twitched into a wink.

Then Xena returned her attention to the circus, and tapped the sides of her thumbs against the wood in an easy pattern. So what did that mean? Gabrielle left her hand where it was and hoped it meant that Xena knew everything was going to be all right. Or that Xena knew it was going to be all wrong, and was ready to deal with it. The Persian shifted, and she felt Xena’s bicep tense, even though the queen didn’t move.

Gabrielle saw Brent’s hand fall casually to his dagger and he leaned to one side, clearing his arm away from Brendans as they watched apparently intent on the circus. “Persian.” Xena said, in a very soft tone. “Don’t.” Cambyses turned his head towards her slowly. “Pardon?” “I smell the dart.

Don’t try it.” Xena said, in that same, quiet voice. “For one thing, it doesn’t work on me, and for another, hasn’t your honor taken enough of a beating without you breaking your own culture’s rules on hospitality?” “You know not of what you speak.” The Persian answered, in an equally soft tone. “Don’t I?” Now Xena turned her head and looked at him. “Try it, and I will have the story of your dishonor spread across every bit of land between this castle and yours.

You’re under my roof, sandworm.” He looked very calm. “I am a dead man already.” He said. “And you cannot resurrect my honor, so there is no reason why I should not take my revenge.

Say you it will not work? Let’s find out of my lifetime of knowledge of this thing refutes that.” “For what?” Xena uttered back. “What does it get you?” “It redeems me.” He stated. “Father of my people am I? Yes.

But also, father of assassins.

Those who were sent here failed in my teachings.

I will not.” Everything started to shift, and then paused as Gabirelle stood up. “Stop.” She said, in a loud voice, putting her arms around Xena. “Don’t you touch her.” Xena’s eyes popped wide open and she angled her head so she could look up at her unlikely protector. “Hey!” The soldiers froze in place, the Persians all with their hands on their weapons, and Xena’s guards as well. — Xena exhaled. “Maybe enough people have suffered because of me.” She asked. “Ya think?” “I think you’re an idiot.” The god remarked. “Whatcha want to die for? You think it’s all peaches and cream on this side?” He pointed at the Persian. “He’s the one with the problem.

He doesn’t off you, he ends up in his version of Purgatory.

So what are you letting him for? You lose your mind?” “Maybe I did.

Maybe it’s best for everyone if I let him.” Xena said, feeling suddenly very tired. “All I’ve ever brought anyone I’ve cared about is pain and death.

What’s the damn point?” “Oh boo hoo.

What about her?” Ares pointed at Gabrielle. “What happened to all that love you forever stuff? She sure believed it.” Xena’s eyes filled with tears, but she just shook her head. “Especially her.

How many times does she have to face death on my behalf before she doesn’t care anymore either?” For a long moment, Ares was silent, then he got off the ledge and kneeled next to her. “Okay.” He looked around and then back at her. “Listen kid.” He cleared his throat. “I’m not in the business of giving advice, okay? But just this once, just this time, listen to me.

Don’t do it.” Xena studied his face gravely. “Why do you care?” The god snorted softly. “Eternity ain’t long enough for that story.” He muttered. “What does that mean?” “Forget about it.

Just do what I’m telling you to do just for once.” Ares snapped. “Don’t let this creep win.

You don’t want to do it for your squeeze there? Then do it for me.” He smiled briefly. “Then we’ll be square.

Right?” Xena’s eyes lifted again, and met his and there was a moment of silent truth between them. “Right.” She finally said, feeling something release inside her. “Yeah, okay.” “Make the most of your mortality while ya got it.” He said, standing up. “Okay? One shot.” Then he snapped his fingers and time rushed on with an inblow of yells and scrapes and in the middle of it all Xena exploded into motion and lfited Gabrielle up and over her shoulder as she ducked under the Persian guards arm and stopped Cambesys as his hand was lifting, grabbing his wrist and snapping it in her fingers. He dropped the tiny pipe and grabbed after it with his other hand, only to find Gabrielle catching it as she lunged forward, plucking the pipe out of mid air and turning it as it fired it’s tiny, deadly payload. “No!” He clutched his chest and dropped to the floor of the booth, his body thumping on the ground. The sound of swords being drawn was almost deafening, but in a moment Xena stood up and held her hands out. “Hold!” She yelled out loud enough for it to be heard by the circus performers and they stopped, startled, and stared at her, just like the rest of the nobles in the room. Cambyses’ breath was rattling in his throat.

His eyes found Gabrielle’s as she knelt near him, the pipe clutched in her hands. “Tell them.” He gasped. “Tell them all how I died with the weapon in my hand!” He reached out ot her with his unbroken hand, fingers trembling. “Tell them!” Gabrielle drew in a quick breath, and reached out to take his hand. “I’ll tell them.” She said, meeting his frantic eyes. “I’ll tell them the truth of why you died.” With a moan of relief, he dropped back, his head thumping on the floor and his grip growing slack as it pulled out of Gabrielle’s fingers. With a gasp she rocked back herself, reeling back and slamming into Xena’s still form. “Oh!” “Easy, muskrat.” Xena caught her. “The rest of you.

Put those weapons down or I’ll have you killed where you stand.” She stared down the two Persian guards. “You’ve got no quarrel with me.

I didn’t break your laws.” Lakmas broke out of his frozen state and barked at them in his own language. Gabrielle shivered.

Then she turned and looked up at Xena. “I thought he was going to try being friends.” She said. “Why can’t that ever work, Xena?” “I dunno.” Xena stood there quietly, wrapping her arms around her consort as Brent and two other men took hold of the Persian guards and yanked them away. “Sorry about that, Gabrielle.

Life just kinda stinks most of the time I guess.” She let her chin rest on Gabrielle’s head. “Thanks for getting all fierce and crazy on my behalf.” Her consort sighed. “I don’t even know what I was saying.” She admitted mournfully .”I felt like a puppet – someone else was doing all that stuff.” Brendan came over. “You all right, little one.” He stepped over the Persian king’s body as though it didn’t exist. “Buggers.” “Her?” Xena snorted. “She’s going to be my champion from now on.

Let her fight.

I’ll talk.”

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