Shadows of the Soul
Dinner was boring her. Xena shifted in her chair for the nth time, wishing the evening would draw to its close already. Shed carefully surrounded herself with courtiers she knew were most partial to Bregos, and given Bregos himself the favored chair at her right elbow.
All she had left to do was kick him into the trap she had planned, then she could call it a night and go beat something raw and bloody.
Xena found herself really looking forward to that, something she hadnt felt in quite a while. Maybe it was the frustration of dealing with Bregos, but her body ached for the release and her hand kept clenching, wanting to feel the hilt of her sword in its palm.
Was it time yet? Xena lazily let her eyes track across the crowd, judging their temper. Satisfied, she cocked her ears and tuned into the conversation between Bregos and one of the wealthier land holders, Stefan.
The campaign was intriguing, yes. Bregos cleared his throat. The defense forces had held up in that river valley, and I had to develop quite a plan to smoke them out.
Its a closed ended valley. Xena mused idly. Why not just set fire to it, and put literal sense to that smoke out term? Theyd either have run, or died, and it would have taken less time than the four moons Bregos had spent at it.
And in the heat of summer, too. Stefan shook his head. Must have been a task to hold the men in.
Ah! Xena gave her detested land toady a friendly, loving grin. Great opening.
My men? Bregos snorted. Nah. They take discipline to a fault. No troubles there.
Really? Stephan frowned. How odd! I was just hearing the other day
Xena mentally applauded. Yes She drawled softly, drawing their attention to her. Stefans right. I was hearing just the other day myself about some bad behavior in the barracks. She visited a warm smile on Stefan, who perked up as though shed tossed a coin at him. Very disappointing.
Bregos sat back, at once on the defensive. Mistress, Im sure it was nothing. Just some overblown horseplay!
So you did hear about it. Xena leaned on the arm of her chair. She caught the now subtly rapt attention from the rest of the table on them. Mm.. I heard it was more than that. Almost a riot, in fact.
Yes! Stefan interjected, not one to lose a rare opportunity. Yes, your majesty! Thats exactly what I heard! That the men went wild, and broke up half the barracks!
Mm. Xena nodded sagely. Very very.. disappointing.
Bregos tugged on his beard, caught very offguard. Ah, well.. Mistress.. He made s show of shrugging casually. Twasnt so much of a deal. Just some high spirits. You know how the men get, so competitive. He said. Pride was involved, and what more can I say?
You can say your prayers, baklava for brains. Xena settled back in her seat, raising the her voice just slightly. Ah yes, pride. She stated. Perhaps, but destruction of my property is not subject to pride or any other excuse, Bregos.
The general eyed her warily. But, Mistress
Nor can we allow the mens spirits that kind of freedom.. dont you agree? Xena drove right over him. It looks like we cant control our troops, and what kind of example would that be?
Bregos blinked at her, unsure of what her aim was. Well..
Xena tapped her steepled forefingers against the bridge of her nose, letting her silence force him into an equal silence. We have to keep them occupied. She finally said, as though coming up with the plan in that instant. Well have a tourney. Your troops, against the defense troops who stayed here. That way well let them run their pride out against each other.
Oh! Stephan sat up. Why, your Majesty, thats brilliant!
Of course. Xena replied, with a smile. Dont you agree, general?
Bregos looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded firmly. As the good duke says, brilliant, Mistress. Its a perfect idea, and the men will all love it. He agreed. The more I think on it, the more I marvel at your wondrous leadership.
Around the table, heads nodded. Excellent plan, my liege. Lastay said. Shall we make it a festival? A celebration would be very well received, I think.
Why not? Xena gestured at him. I love a good party. Stanislaus? She turned and as expected, found her seneschal at her shoulder. Make plans. Well use the field by the river.
As you wish, Mistress. Stanislaus bowed, and left.
Xena watched the buzz spread, seeing approval and some excitement in the faces surrounding her. And why not? A celebration was, in fact, in order to honor the good year theyd had, and Bregos successes among other things.
A truly excellent suggestion, Mistress. Bregos rumbled, leaning closer to her. I welcome the opportunity to show off my troops talents. His eyes had a definitely smug crease around them. And I know my men will enjoy it as well.
As will mine. Xena drawled softly They love a challenge.
Of course, we will take into account that we are at an advantage Bregos countered. After our recent victories, naturally our field seasoning will tell. But still, it will be a good display. He picked up his cup and sipped from it. I am looking forward to it, indeed.
Gotcha. Mmm perhaps. Xena allowed. But after those incidents in the barracks, I would have to wonder about discipline.
You know how much I value discipline, Bregos. Xena put a touch of ice in her tone. It disturbs me to think there might be those who wear my colors who lack it. She turned and studied him at close range, noticing again the slight twitch at the corner of his left eye. Am I understood?
His nostrils flared. Muscles on his cheek tensed. Perfectly, Mistress. He kept his surface calm admirably. I will make sure very sure.. that my men know exactly where they stand on that.
Ah. Xena felt the challenge in the words and it excited her. Good. She settled back, watching benignly as the servers approached with dessert. The nearest one knelt before her, offering up a tasty looking confection that glistened with honey. My compliments to cook. Pass it round. She ordered, watching the man straighten and go to the end of her table with his serving companion.
It was a routine, but one she varied unexpectedly. They would start with one end, then the other, always serving her somewhere in the middle. It would be difficult for any one attempting to poison her to guess, and because she constantly shuffled her table companions, one might end up poisoning his patron if he wasnt very canny.
The servers reached her and deposited a nice chunk of pastry on her pristine plate, bowing low before moving on. Xena broke off a bit of the corner and nibbled it, delighted with the sweet, nutty taste. She focused her hearing around her, picking up bits and pieces of excited and pleased speech, most talking about the festival in an atmosphere that had relaxed considerably.
Only Bregos, to her right, radiated subtle tension, and Xena noticed he was picking at his sleeve, a nervous habit odd in such a large, robust man. He seemed deep in thought.
Xena blew in his ear, making him jump in his seat and gasp. She chuckled as he gathered his composure. You need to relax more, Bregos. One of these days youll worry yourself into an ague.
Forcing a smile, Bregos took a piece of his dessert, and visibly shook off his troubles. He turned to listen to a question from his neighbor, leaning away a little from Xenas chair.
Definitely improves the atmosphere. Xena finished her piece of cake and delicately licked her fingers. In the momentary pause, a thought suddenly popped into her head. Wonder what Gabrielles up to? She licked her thumb, feeling curious about her curiosity. Bet she found another closet to clean. Her eyes drifted to the door, and she chuckled softly. Hope she doesnt find any unexpected skeletons in it.
Gabrielle collapsed onto her cot, resting her damp head against the wall in exhausted relief. Shed worked hard all day long, and just before dinner, shed been disconcerted to find Stanislaus arriving to inspect what shed done, prowling around the queens quarters with a meticulous eye.
Which had eventually turned on her. You have done well. Stanislaus had told her, sounding more than a touch surprised. She is pleased with you.
Not really sure of what to say to that, Gabrielle had merely nodded.
Incredible. Stanislaus shook his head. He lead her over to a brass bound wooden chest tucked into a niche in the inner hall and opened it. Reaching in, he sorted through its contents for a moment, then pulled a bundle of cloth out and handed it to her. She said to provide you with this. Apparently her majesty believes you clean so industriously, you will require more clothing.
And with that, hed left.
Gabrielle rolled her head to one side and put a hand out, letting it rest on the pile of cloth shed put down on the cot. It was two more sets of sturdy tunics and aprons, though these were rich blue. Shed also discovered two pairs of warm leggings to go under them, and most incredible, a pair of serviceable, though worn leather boots.
So weird. She spoke to the blank wall opposite her. I have more clothing right now than I ever did in my whole life, and Im a slave. Her fingers stroked the fabric, releasing a faint scent of sun warmed cleanliness to her nose. Thats not how its supposed to be, is it?
Her mind went back to Xenas words to her, about how if she did her work, shed be fed and clothed and taken care of. Well. Gabrielle kicked her bare feet out a little, the cool air raising goosebumps on her newly bathed skin. In a way, she was right, but she forgot to mention the little stuff, like being given to the soldiers to take to bed, and getting whipped for talking too much.
Shed felt even more out of place down stairs, during dinner with Toris and the others. Even they plainly resented her, and it was obvious to her that their experience was far more grim than her own.
Part of her wanted to feel bad about that, but another part of her reasoned that she really didnt have much of a choice, did she? She hadnt picked herself to come up here, and while she could have done a lousy job and gotten kicked back to the kitchens or worse
Why should I? Gabrielle looked plaintively at the ceiling. Its not like this is a real picnic. I work hard. She said. I have to put up with threats of dismemberment if I dont do the right thing, and scary visits from her Majesty.
But. Gabrielle pushed herself to her feet and exchanged her rough work tunic for a shift, neatly folding the shirt and putting it onto her box. She sat down and pulled her new clothes over, curiously tugging on a boot to check its fit.
Hm. She wiggled her toes. It felt strange, and sort of nice to feel the confines of the leather around her, and though worn, the boots were well made and sturdy. She removed the boot and set it down, then turned and lifted the lid to her box, putting her new clothes away.
Then she turned and stretched out on her cot, exhaling in relief at just being able to lie quietly still. The stuffed mattress under her back felt good, warming to her skin and giving way just a little as she wriggled into a more comfortable position. She pulled her blanket up over her and relaxed, letting her mind wander a little for perhaps the first time since her capture.
Of all things, she found her thoughts focusing on Xena. It shocked her, and she put it aside, focusing instead on her poor friends downstairs and her sister. She closed her eyes and tried to remember Lilas voice, her face.. and she was shocked to find how hard it was. Already memories of her sister were fading a little, not much, not that shed forget her, but even the horror of her violent death was losing its charge as she focused on staying alive herself.
Gabrielle wasnt sure if she should be ashamed of that. She loved her sister, and she missed her terribly, even though of course theyd fought sometimes, and had the usual disagreements that sisters have. If they had been home, right now, what would they have been doing?
The torches outside her nook fluttered. Sleeping. Gabrielle whispered. Sleeping, with mama and da in the next room, and the lambs outside. Her eyes searched the ceiling. She might have been up, though. As the eldest, she sometimes hoarded those moments late at night, after a hard days work, to release her thoughts into fantasy and imagine a different world, a different life for herself.
Shed wanted to be a traveler. A wandering teller of tales, seeing the world and roaming its limits.
So here I am. Gabrielle heard the mockery in her own voice. I wanted to go somewhere different, and look where it got me. This is different, all right.
She heard the light scuff of footsteps approaching, and fell silent as she listened. The steps were light, and rhythmic, and the faintest rustle of fabric accompanied them. Gabrielle felt her heart speed up, and she wondered if it might be Xena on her way back from dinner.
The steps paused outside her nook. Gabrielle craned her head and peeked at the door, to see a tall, dark haired figure leaning in it watching her.
Okay. So what the heck was the protocol when the queen appeared in your bedroom and you were in a nightgown? Jump up? Bow? Roll out of bed? Hello. Gabrielle murmured, not at all sure of what was expected.
Was that you talking to yourself? Xena asked.
She knew she was blushing. Um.. yes, I guess it was.
You guess? The queens eyebrows lifted.
It was. Gabrielle admitted. I was just.. working things out. Telling myself little stories, that kind of thing.
Ah. Xena edged further inside, leaning against the wall. Dont tell me youre a storyteller. Are you?
Lying down was putting her at way too much of a disadvantage. Gabrielle sat up in her bed and wrapped her blanket around her, as she faced Xena. Oh, not I mean, just little tales, kid stuff. She explained. Just to amuse my She had to paused. My friends.. at home. My sister, when we were out tending the sheep.
Hm. Xena appeared mildly intrigued.
Gabrielle still felt a little awkward. She didnt have any chairs, so she couldnt ask Xena to sit down, and really, did queens just wander around the halls visiting slave quarters anyway? She gazed at the tall woman, noting the sleek, catlike grace as she moved. Wasnt really anything.
Probably not. Xena agreed. Youre not old enough to know anything really interesting.
Gabrielle frowned slightly.
But, its been a damn long day. The queen went on. I had other plans, but Im going to go remove this excuse for clothing and you, my little friend, are going to come up with a story to tell me. Xena grinned at her.
But.. Gabrielle started to protest, but found herself staring at a blank space on the wall. Xena had simply vanished without much of a sound, leaving behind her the faint scent of honey and sage. But I dont have any stories I can tell you!
She only thought she heard the echo of a chuckle answering her.
Not long after, somehow, Gabrielle found herself seated on a small, padded stool next to the fireplace shed cleaned that very day. Her exhaustion had been conveniently washed temporarily away by nervous terror, and she was glad she had a few minutes to gather her thoughts while Xena was undressing.
Shed done the reverse. Gabrielle had taken advantage of her new clothes and slipped into a pair of the leggings with one of the blue tunics over it, the warmth making her feel a little better.
Just when shed been getting comfortable, Xena had to shake her up again. Gabrielle felt a vague sense of resentment, at being capriciously hauled in to provide the queen entertainment after her long day. A soft sound made her look up, to see Xena emerging from her dressing chamber, clad in a soft gown gathered at the waist with a casually tied belt.
Gabrielle blinked at little. Shed never met anyone before who had legs that were quite that long.
Xena dropped into a chair by the fire, draping one of the aforementioned legs over the arm of it and leaning on the other. All right. Amuse me.
Gabrielle took a breath. Then she released it. What um.. what do you think is funny?
It wasnt the response Xena had expected, apparently. Her dark eyebrows both lifted. What do you mean?
Well. Gabrielle tucked her bare feet up under her and rested her forearms on her knees. When I used to tell stories to my friends, sometimes what I thought was funny, they didnt.
Ah. Xena studied her. Try me.
It was so hard. Gabrielle tried to reach back and make contact with the young girl telling stories in the barn she knew shed been once. But when she did that, images of home, and her family came back to her with vivid intensity, and instead of humor all she could feel was pain.
It was overwhelming. She bit the inside of her lip and blinked, as tears filled her eyes. After a moment, she knew it wasnt going to work and she reluctantly raised her head, looking across the fireplace to find Xena watching her with a curious expression. Im sorry. I cant.
Cant? Xena queried.
Gabrielle took a shaky breath and wiped her sleeve across her eyes. No. She murmured. It..um. She sniffled. Reminds me of home.
There was a soft creak as Xena shifted in her chair. Thought I told you to forget about all that.
I know. Gabrielle gazed at her. But.. its not that easy. I wish I could forget. She felt the words tumbling out. I wish I could close my eyes and not see my sister die, or hear my parents screaming as they burned, but I cant do that. She felt the tears rise again and she fell silent.
Xena got up. Gabrielle flinched instinctively and leaned back, watching the tall woman approach with a mixture of fear and anxiety.
But Xena only crouched next to her, close enough for Gabrielle to see the sparkles of candlelight in the paleness of her eyes. Was your sister the one in line right before you?
Silently, Gabrielle nodded, caught in her gaze.
Xena stood up and walked past her, past the small table over to the now shuttered windows. She opened the shutter and looked out for a moment, then turned and perched on the sill. Gabrielle had half turned to watch her, and now they simply looked at each other across the length of the long room.
Xena folded her arms over her body, her face cool and dispassionate. I saw my mother killed. She remarked, almost conversationally. Wasnt something I forgot.
Gabrielle was caught almost breathless. Just when she was totally convinced there wasnt a human bone in this womans body, she turns around and says something like that. Then.. She heard the husky note in her voice. Why did you do that?
Do what? Xena asked.
Gabrielle simply looked at her, knowing the tears were trickling down her face.
Order all of you killed? The dark haired woman exhaled. She pushed away from the window and returned to her chair, settling in it and adjusting the edge of her robe with two long fingers. Its not your place to ask me that, slave.
Somehow, Gabrielle kept her eyes level.
Xenas lips twitched, slightly. Because you were of no use to me, and I wasnt about to pay keep for useless mouths.
Slowly, Gabrielles eyes dropped and settled on the floor. My father said that once. She whispered. About a litter of puppies.
Xena was absolutely silent for so long after, that Gabrielle finally lifted her head again to see what the woman was doing.
But she was simply sitting there watching Gabrielle. Finally she spoke. And because if the slaver took you on from here, the next stop was where hed sell you all into a riverfront whorehouse, where youd have been screwed to death in about a moon.
Gabrielle froze motionless.
So I killed him so there wouldnt be any more kids dragged in here, and decided there were better ways for you to die than starvation in the wilderness. Xena arranged her hem again, glancing idly down at her knees. Thats why. She watched Gabrielles face with interest as the girls eyes slowly dropped and her thoughts focused inward.
Oh. Gabrielle murmured.
I could be lying. Xena remarked. Maybe I just did it for fun, to hear the screams.
Gabrielle looked at her.
Power makes you do that kinda thing, Gabrielle. Xena lifted a hand and closed it into a lazy fist. Maybe I did it just to torture you. She suggested. You have to decide what the truth is.
Gabrielle hugged her knees and rocked slightly, ordering her very chaotic thoughts. It was all too much after such a long day, and she found it virtually impossible to concentrate.
Xena got up again, but this time Gabrielle didnt move back. Go on. She told the girl. Ill give you another chance some other night.
She didnt stop to even think about it. Gabrielle was just grateful for the reprieve, and she picked herself up and did as she was told, keeping her head down as she got to the door and went through it.
Xena looked at the closed door for a moment, then she released an oddly held breath. The entire scene bothered her, and she took the time to sit back down in her chair and figure out why.
She was very surprised to find that she couldnt.
Gabrielle curled up on her cot, still in the clothes shed put on to go into Xenas chambers. She was cold, and the cloth barely helped her shivering, nor did the blanket she had tucked around her. After a few minutes, though, she felt the chills abate, and her body relaxed against the mattress.
Slowly, she unwound her thoughts. What had just happened in there? Her chest hurt, from the whirl of memories the scene had stirred up. Xenas words had stung like chips of slate, and her soul was bleeding from them.
You have to decide what the truth is. Gabrielle heard the echo in her head. How can I decide what the truth is? You could say anything. How would I know?
Gabrielle thought about what Xena had said.
She thought about Lila.
She thought about home.
She thought about that little girl who used to tell stories.
Gabrielle knew she could never get any of that back. Lila was gone, home was gone, and she could no longer even imagine being that little girl.
You have to decide what the truth is. Her eyes closed, as she thought.
Maybe the truth was that everything had changed, and if she wanted to live, she had to adapt to those changes. In a way, the cruelty of Xenas order to leave her past behind had at its kernel a grain of kindness.
Of truth. Just like Xenas blunt telling of her ruthlessness had that same grain of truth that burrowed under her skin and itched at her consciousness.
Damn it! Gabrielle thumped the mattress with her fists. She wanted so badly to hate Xena. She wanted to blame her for all the bad things that had happened to her, and focus on her, on that tall, superior body all the anger pent up inside her.
You have to decide what the truth is. Hating Xena would not bring anything back to her. Not Lila, not her home, not her life. Hating Xena would only make her life worse. So if she had to decide what the truth was, she also had to decide how she would accept that truth.
She could embrace the hatred, or she could embrace the truth, and move on.
Gabrielle felt sleep crawling over her with a sense of inevitability. Truth would, she decided, have to wait until tomorrow.
And so it did. Gabrielle woke the next morning feeling surprisingly well rested. She quickly lifted her head and looked at the door, afraid shed overslept, but the dim light coming in from the high tower window reassured her it was still before sunrise.
She got up, rubbing her arms in the chill, and slid her feet into her new boots before she stood up. Not having her bare soles touching the cold rock enabled her to warm herself a little as she moved around her little nook.
Brr. Gabrielle washed her face and hands, and ran the wooden comb through her hair. She eyed the pale lengths with a scowl, then decided to tie them back.
It was early enough for her to take a walk around her small tower kingdom, so after she straightened her clothing out, she eased through the narrow door to her nook and into the tower proper. It was very quiet, the torches burning low only faint whispers of sound. Even the stairway down to the lower levels was dark and silent, its lower door firmly locked against intrusion.
Gabrielle walked around the perimeter of the tower, touching the hanging tapestries with curious fingers. They smelled of age and wool, but the colors woven into them were still vibrant and pleasing to the eye. The tower itself, shed soon realized, only had three entrances. One was the narrow stairs down to the kitchen. The two others lead out onto walkways that connected the tower to the rest of the stronghold. The queens quarters were, in a very real sense, isolated in this island of stone.
Purposefully? Gabrielle spared a glance at the iron strapped wooden door, that led into the inner hall of Xenas rooms. To set herself apart here, in her tower, away from the terrors she sat in judgement over?
Gabrielles fingers trailed over the wood as she thought about her encounter the night before. She ended up at the door to the walkway, and she tested the latch, a little surprised to find it easily worked under her touch. She pushed the door open, sucking in a breath of cool, fresh air.
Outside the door, the stone walkway stretched, ending in another barred entry on the other side. Gabrielle eased out and walked along it, tipping her head back to see the dark sky slowly giving way to the faint gray of dawn on the horizon.
She went to the edge of the wall and rested her elbows on it, peering over. On this side, the walls overlooked a precipitous drop, the mountainside the stronghold was built on dropping down to meet a fiercely rushing river below. Everything was green, and as she looked out there were fields and pastures that stretched out for leagues, surrounding small clusters of homesteads.
It looked nice. Gabrielle rested her chin on her wrists. The land appeared rich, and well tended, and there was just an air of order about it that she found very appealing.
So different than home. Potadeia had been a farming village cut into the scrub on a rocky piece of the land that only gave up its resources grudgingly. Her family, and the others had struggled against nature, and fate every year to scratch enough subsistence together to stay alive. The sheep had been their most precious resource, the animals able to stay alive on harsh grasses far better than the cows, and pigs some around them had tried.
And theyd been so alone. Only a few small villages nearby, and most of them in the same dire straits. All of them subject to raids by whatever local brigand groups were nearby and wanted a free meal, or a free roll in the bedfurs.
If shed been home if home had still existed, what would she have been doing? Gabrielle exhaled into the dewy air, seeing just the faintest hint of her own breath before her. She would have been getting water, under her fathers critical eye and Lila would be hauling the wood in, both of them hoping to get to breakfast without causing a tirade.
Gabrielle looked around her, at the towering stone walls, and the richness of the land. Was this better or worse? She pondered, then turned and went to the inside wall and looked over. She could see the inner stronghold from here, the yards and the work areas. But not the kitchen yard, nor the slaughteryard her sister had died in. She peered over and watched the stablehands emerge, two of them walking large, beautiful horses obviously well tended between them.
A soft, melodic voice rose, as one of the hands sang to his charge, and Gabrielle could see the big, black ears tilt to listen. Past him, she could see a wagon being unloaded near the storeroom, and now the dawn air brought to her the sounds of the stronghold waking up and starting its day.
Gabrielle put her chin down on her wrists again.
Xena sat in the windowsill of her practice chamber. She watched the slight figure down on the walk move from one wall to the other as she struggled to decipher what on earth the kid was up to.
Unable to sleep, shed gotten up candlemarks before, and decided to work off her restlessness instead of tossing and turning. Now, tired and rid of the nervous energy, she found herself presented with the enigma that had caused her unrest in the first place.
Xena leaned back against the stone, and rested her sword across her upraised knee. The hilts brushed against her chin and she could smell the tang of brass and leather. Her shoulders ached and she could feel the sweat now drying on her skin. She wanted a bath, and yet she sat here and watched this little blond creature, wanting to know what she was doing, and more importantly, what she was thinking.
Maybe that was the difference. Xena blew softly on a spider, swinging it away from her head and sending it scurrying for its web. There was something going on inside Gabrielles head, something she couldnt figure out.
That really bugged her. She kept thinking she knew where Gabrielle was coming from, had her nailed down as to her motives, and where shed jump next, and the damn kid kept proving her wrong.
Xena pondered the object of her attention, watching as Gabrielle stepped back away from the wall and tilted her head, turning her eyes to the sky. Even from here, she could see the questioning in the motion, as Gabrielle searched the heavens for meaning just as she was searching her for the same.
The coming dawn outlined the girls profile, which Xena found to have a pleasing symmetry. There was also a gentleness about her the watching monarch realized she liked.
Then the girl squared her shoulders, and took a deep breath, her hands flexing into loose fists and then relaxing. She turned and headed for the door, oblivious of the eyes watching her.
Suddenly, Xena wanted to know what decision it was that had been made. She eased off her perch and sheathed her sword, making for the hidden door to her aerie and heading back to her quarters.
Gabrielle changed into one of her work tunics, and removed her boots. It was warm enough inside now, or shed worked off the chill enough, so that the stone only felt cool to her feet, not cold. She carefully folded her leggings and put them in her chest, then gave her hair another brush before she headed for the stars down to the kitchens.
Something made her stop, at the first step. She paused and turned, trying to locate what it was. A noise? Curiously she walked back across to the door to the queens chambers and put a hand against it, leaning forward and listening intently.
Unexpectedly, the portal opened inward, and she jumped as a tall, dark clad figure filled it, seemingly made of shadows and sinew. Oh! Gabrielle backed up, lifting her hands in front of her in startled fear.
The figure stopped.
The dawn broke and light entered the upper windows, shedding the shadows and revealing the face in the darkness to be Xenas.
Relax. I wont hurt you. Xena stated quietly.
Gabrielle caught her breath, blinking as she stared at the queen. Instead of her silk robes and fancy outfits, Xena was dressed in a drab, functional padded black tunic, with buckles that held the fabric tight against her body. Her legs were bare, as were her arms, and she was covered in sweat, the same sweat that drenched her hair and plastered it down over her head. Cradled in the crook of one arm she held a sword in a worn leather sheath.
Slowly, her heart stopped hammering. Gabrielle let her hands drop to her sides as she got over her scare. I thought I heard a noise. She said, softly.
I hit the torch with this. Xena indicated the sword. Where are you going?
Down.. um, down to the kitchens. To help, and to have some breakfast. Gabrielle replied. I was.. I woke up a little early, and I thought about what you said last night.
And? Xena kept her voice cool.
Gabrielle felt unsettled, as usual. But she forced herself to be calm, and thought about her answer. I cant change what happened. She finally said. I cant forget it, but I cant change it. All I can change is the future.
Xena relaxed, just a trifle. Good choice. She complimented the girl.
Thank you. Gabrielle cleared her throat a little, glancing around at the empty hallway. Sorry if I bothered you.
You didnt. Xena said, leaning against the doorway. I was ridding myself of frustration.
Gabrielle studied her curiously. There was something she couldnt quite put her finger on that was different about Xena in that moment. Her eyes lifted and she found them captured by the pale blue ones of the queen, full of sparkles from the coming dawn.
Something. Almost an echo of something, deep inside her memories. A resonance that was, quite familiar.
Hey. Xena snapped her fingers in front of Gabrielles eyes. Still sleeping?
Gabrielle jumped a bit. Um.. no. She shook her head. I was just thinking.
Xena found herself enjoying this early morning encounter. About what?
I didnt know queens carried swords. Gabrielle blurted out. I thought they had guards for that.
Ah. Xena pushed off the wall and backed up, opening the door wider. Come inside. You ready to tell me a story yet?
Gabrielle looked behind her, but the hall was still empty. She followed Xena into the inner hall hesitantly. I dont know.
Then Ill tell you one. Xena booted open her bedroom door and entered, obviously expecting Gabrielle to follow her. She turned as she put the sword down, to see the girl in the doorway watching her. The look in her eyes was indescribable. Gabrielle. Xena said, sharply.
The girls eyes shifted to hers warily.
What are you thinking, right now? Tell me. Xena ordered.
Slowly, Gabrielles head cocked to one side in thought. I was just I was thinking that dressed like that you look Her gaze swept over the tall figure.
Xenas dark brows lifted sardonically. Less queenly? She smirked.
More real. Gabrielle answered softly, searching her face. Like this is who you really are.
Caught offguard by the raw truth in the words, Xena had no ready answer for that. And so they stood in silence, facing each other across the length of the room until Xena finally shook off her paralysis and set her sword into its drawer. Well. She said. Thats certainly up for debate by the masses.
Gabrielle just stayed quiet.
Xena headed for her bathing room. Sit down, Gabrielle. You can scandalize the seneschal by sharing my breakfast, if you dare.
Oh boy. Gabrielle slowly let out her long held breath. It was starting out to be a very dangerous day.
But breakfast wasnt as bad as shed expected it to be. Gabrielle sat on her little stool near the fire, glad of its warmth against her bare legs. Xena had the leaded paned windows open, and a cool breeze fluttered the fabrics in the room.
She had an egg on a muffin. Gabrielle found she enjoyed it very much, eggs being a rare treat in her life since the few their hens had laid had all gone for sale. She nibbled the muffin slowly to make it last, watching quietly as Xena reviewed some scrolls the seneschal had brought in with him along with the breakfast tray. The look hed given Gabrielle, of course, could have curdled the small glass of milk resting by Xenas right wrist, but the queen had simply told him to leave the food for them both, and that shed take care of instructing Gabrielle further.
It was such a weird feeling. Gabrielle had definitely gotten the impression that the seneschal didnt like her being there, and resented Xenas attention to her. But there wasnt much he could say, so he just did as he was asked and left them in peace.
Xena had changed, from her worn black outfit into a silk robe, and was allowing the breeze to dry her long black hair. This was the first chance Gabrielle had really gotten to look at her for more than a moment and she found to her surprise that there were a lot of interesting things about her that she hadnt noticed before.
Like the fact that she was a lot younger than Gabrielle had first thought. Sitting across from her quietly reading scrolls, without the usual impatient energy that usually crackled around her, Gabrielle could see the lack of lines around her eyes, and the smooth contours of youth that were plain, now that her hair was pulled back to dry. She had high cheekbones, and a powerful jaw, and the most perfectly arched eyebrows Gabrielle had ever seen.
More lack of discipline. Xena shook her head. Damn it, what the Hades did that man think he was doing with those troops? Did he let them run wild over the countryside, too?
Gabrielle correctly realized the question was not addressed to her, however, it did bring something up that had been bothering her last night. You said you didnt like what the river town was doing with slave children.
Xena looked up, her piercing blue eyes sharp and questioning. Yes?
So, why do you let the soldiers do that to slaves here? Gabrielle asked. I dont understand what the difference really is.
The tall body opposite her went very still. What? Xena said, in a low rasp.
Gabrielle blinked. Some of the ones that came in with me, they were She slowed her speech, as Xena got up and approached her. Sent down to the b.. barracks.
With surprising gentleness, Xena grasped her by the shoulders and lifted her up to her feet, examining her face very carefully. When? She asked, very softly.
Puzzled, Gabrielle exhaled. Yesterday, but
Xena released her, and pushed her back down onto her stool. Then she walked back over and picked up one of the scrolls, lifting it an examining it curiously. Really. She said. Friends of yours?
For some reason, a chill went down Gabrielles spine. One of the girls that was captured with me, yes. Wed gotten sort of friendly.
They rape her?
Gabrielle brought up the girls image in her mind, seeing the bruises across her face and the hollows under her eyes. I think so.
Hm. Xena walked to the door and opened it. Rejas? Could you please go down to the barracks, and get Brendan. Tell him I want to see him. She paused, and her voice dropped to a hard, cold tone. Now.
Majesty. The guard bowed, and left at a run.
Xena stayed at the door, trying to keep a lid on the anger churning in her guts. After a few breaths, she turned and went back to her chair, sitting down in it and folding her hands together. Gabrielle was watching her warily, part of her muffin still clenched, forgotten, in one hand. Finish your breakfast. Xena advised her. They lose something, cold.
Gabrielle relaxed a little, and started nibbling again. I wasnt lying.
Xenas lips tensed into a smile. I know. She resumed her silent pose, and Gabrielle resumed her eating.
A minute later, there were hurried footsteps in the hall, and a soft knock. Come. Xena called out.
The door opened, and Brendan entered, crossing the floor quickly and ducking his head. Mistress? The guard said youre wanting me.
Gabrielle here Xena replied. Tells me that one of her fellow slaves downstairs was taken to the barracks yesterday, and used for the mens sexual pleasure. She said. Is that true, Brendan?
Her old captain was caught flat footed. His jaw sagged slightly, and a flush rose up from his neck. Ah.. Mistress
Is it? Xena asked again, this time in a cold tone.
Brendan hesitated, then nodded. Aye, Mistress, it is.
If possible, Xenas tone grew even icier. Thats very disappointing, Brendan. How did that happen?
The older man exhaled. Wasnt somethin Bregos captain ordered it and the damnfool boy he sent didnt know enough not to do it, and the damnnerfool guard at the kitchens didnt have the sense to stop him. He said. Time we realized what went on, his men were saying how as thats how the army was supposed to run, and how as Brendan cleared his throat, as Xena stood up and walked over to him. How as they was sorry for us cause you had that rule you do.
You know the men who did it? Xena asked flatly.
Brendan looked up at her. Aye.
Good. Xena nodded. Step outside. Dont move. Ill be right out. She gave him a shove towards the door and waited for him to go through it, then she walked to her wardrobe and pulled out some clothing. Thats two very valuable things youve told me, Gabrielle. Youre proving quite a jewel.
Gabrielle watched her stalk past. Thanks. She murmured, deeply at sea. But what
Sh. Just wait. Xena ducked into her dressing room. Just wait and see.
Okay. Gabrielle swallowed the last of her muffin, and did as she was told. Whatever it was, she suspected, wasnt going to be nice.
Xena glanced around her as she walked down the narrow hall towards the barracks. She was conscious of both Brendan and Gabrielle at her heels and of the simmering fury roiling her guts. They came to a small, nondescript door and she paused with her hand on it before she pushed it open. Stay quiet, unless I ask you to talk. She instructed them.
Both nodded. She pushed the door open and slipped inside. The barracks were cool, and at this hour, fairly dark. Men were clustered at one end, and despite the crowded conditions, the structure was well kept and orderly.
Xena heard Gabrielle draw a sharp breath and she scanned the interior, trying to pick out what would have caused the reaction. Her eyes fell on a cot near the back wall, where a small form was tossed very much like a rag doll might have been.
Without a sound, Xena turned and looked at Brendan. He refused to meet her eyes. Xena pointed to the bed and gave Gabrielle a nudge towards it. She waited until her young slave had gone to the limp figure before she turned and studied the room. No one had yet seen her, and she had a moment to plan her attack.
A tall, burly man was standing near the front door, laughing. He had his belt over his shoulders, and the buttons of his trousers were undone. That Bregos captain? Xena asked Brendan.
Aye. Brendan answered in a whisper. Mistress
Dont even bother. Xena dismissed him. She gathered herself and walked towards the door, taking several steps before her approach was noticed. Everyone scrambled to put themselves in order, ducking and bowing, and the man near the door hastily got his buttons down and ran a hand through his unruly hair.
Mistress. Several of the soldiers murmured, but none of them would look right at her.
Bregos captain straightened, and after the briefest hesitation, saluted her. Your majesty.
Xena stopped within arms distance of him. She turned and looked behind her. Gabrielle?
The blond woman looked up at her with agonized eyes.
Xena nodded, then returned her attention to the captain. Whats that? She asked in a mild tone, pointing over her shoulder at the bed.
The mans eyes flicked to the body, then back to her. Just an amusement, your majesty. He said. Nothing more.
Xena looked him right in the eye. Do you know what you are, Captain? A lazy smile crossed her face.
He raised an arrogant eyebrow at her. No, your majesty. What?
Xena let her right arm drop to her side, and closed her fingers around the knife hilt that dropped into her hand. She set her body and struck, a lightning motion that cut across his body and slashed his throat from ear to ear. Blood exploded out of him as he flailed back, choking and gurgling to death on his own blood.
Xena kicked him in the groin, and watched him crumple over to the ground, a pool of rich red spreading underneath him. Youre just an amusement. She rolled him over with a foot, watching his frantic death throes with a dispassionate eye. Nothing more.
With a last gurgle, he died. Xena flipped her dagger around and wiped it on the nearest soldiers shirtsleeve as he stood in utter shock next to her. She looked around at the rest of the men. The slaves here are mine. She said. If another of them gets touched by any of you, Ill cut open from gut to neck and hang you in the kitchen yard. She pronounced the words slowly and carefully. Does everyone here understand me?
Mistress. The whisper came back.
Good. Xena looked around her, at some of her own men standing there. The fact that you stood by and let that happen disgusts me. Youre no better than he was. Her eyes narrowed. And Ill remember it. She turned, allowing her cape to flow around her, and stalked back towards the inner door. As she came even with Gabrielle, and the poor slaves bedside, she paused. Is she dead?
Gabrielle looked up at her. No. She said. But she probably wishes she was.
Xena nodded. Brendan, have her taken to the infirmary. Tell the healers I said she gets top priority.
Mistress. The older man whispered.
Then come see me. Xena added.
His shoulders slumped. Yes, Mistress.
Xena took one last look around, and shook her head. Gabrielle. She held the door open. Lets go.
Mistress. Brendan dared to raise his head. What shall I tell Bregos?
Several extremely choice things crossed Xenas mind and almost her tongue. Tell him he needs a new captain. She snapped. Among other things. She turned and followed Gabrielle out the door, slamming it behind her with enough force to dislodge a small stone set in the wall above it. The stone tumbled off down the hallway and stopped, rocking back and forth. The answer to your question, Gabrielle, is that I dont allow it.
Gabrielle let a small, unhappy breath out. Angry as she had been at the horror done to her fellow slave, she never expected Xena to deliver such a penalty to the one who had done it. Life really didnt mean a thing to Xena, did it? Oh. She managed to say.
Xena cocked her head and examined her in the torchlight of the corridor. Glad you finished your breakfast before I did that? She inquired, with ghoulish humor.
Stunned green eyes peered helplessly back at her.
Come on. Xena sighed, losing her momentary quirk. Its really not funny. Ive let too damn much slip. She frowned and started off down the hall, trailing a whirl of dust behind her.
Gabrielle felt the silence around her as she entered the kitchen. She took a deep breath and just kept going, holding her head high as she moved around the boxes and approached the common room. She got into line with the others and stood quietly, aware of the eyes fastened on her.
Its the queens girl.
The whisper barely reached her. Gabrielle took a wooden trencher and accepted thick piece of bread which was then covered with an even thicker lamb stew. It was late afternoon, and breakfast seemed a long way in the past given everything that had happened. She took her plate, and a mug of cider and retired to the benches, sitting down and balancing her plate on her knees.
No one sat next to her. Gabrielle frowned, feeling that it really wasnt very fair of them, but at least she had some peace in which to eat. Broken of course when Toris sat down next to her and extended his dirt encrusted feet across the floor. Hi. She greeted him. Sure you want to sit here? I think I have plague written across my forehead.
Toris set his mug down and sniffed. Nah. He looked around. Theyre just jealous. He speared a piece of lamb and ate it. Besides, everyone heard what happened at the barracks today. He nudged her with his elbow. So youre really in with her, huh?
Gabrielle remembered his words about Bregos. In with her? She kept her eyes down. I dont think so. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I asked a question and it turned out to be more important than I figured.
Toris ate in silence for a few moments. Well, that question might have finally tipped the scales. He lowered his voice. Even her guys are mad. So good going!
The lamb seemed unappealing of a sudden. What do you mean?
Listen. Toris grasped her wrist. You dont need to know. If you dont know anything, you cant tell her anything, and mess us all up.
Gabrielle put her bread down and faced him. Then why are you here talking to me? Why not go over there, and pretend Im some kind of worm like everyone else does? I dont need you sitting here telling me you know things but you cant tell them to me. She pulled her wrist free. Im really tired of it! I didnt ask to get put up there, so you all can take your attitude and shove it! Her voice lifted and rang across the open space, into a sudden silence.
Okay! Okay! Toris shushed her. Im just trying to help you!
Help me? Gabrielle let her voice rise again. Give me a break! You all are busy plotting against the queen let me tell you, she was the one who stuck up for us today, and she was the one who saved one of us from being raped again, and again. Not your general! Youre not helping me, youre not even helping yourself if you think hell let us go!
Gabrielle! Toris clapped a hand over her mouth. You dont understand!
Gabrielle shoved her trencher away and jerked his hand from her. No, YOU dont understand.
Shh! Toris muffled her again. Would you hush before you get us al killed!!!
Gabrielle looked around her, and found a ring of threatening faces surrounding them.
Wed better get rid of her. She knows. One of the taller men said.
No! Toris countermanded him sternly. Leave her alone! Shes our only key in there, remember!
Shes fallen under the queens spell, you fool! Cant you see that! The tall man snarled back. You looking to die? Give me the wench. Ill take care of her and butcher her up nice so cookll feed her body to the witch upstairs!
Gabrielle set herself to fight, understanding suddenly how dire her situation was. She got her feet under her, despite Toris grasp and lunged forward, taking him with her as she sprawled into the tall mans legs. He fell over them, and cursed, and she rolled free. She jumped to her feet and bolted for the stairs, bowling over two of the cooks who were hurrying into see what the matter was. She felt a hand grab her shirt as she reached the stairs, but her speed was enough to pull herself free, and she took the steps two at a time all the way up.
At the top she paused to catch her breath, and turned, peering anxiously down into the dim recesses. She could hear yelling below, and then silence. With a gasp, she leaned against the wall and felt her legs start to shake as her body reacted to what had happened.
Or what had almost happened. Feeling sick, she stumbled into her little nook and collapsed onto her cot, not sure whether to throw up or cry.
Footsteps approached and she clutched the side of the cot, staring at the opening to her space with wide eyes. But it was only Stanislaus who appeared, pausing a moment before he entered and walked over to her. Gabrielle tensed, but Stanislaus lifted his hand in a calming gesture, and crouched down next to her. Easy.
Her own breathing sounded harsh in the silence.
Easy there, Gabrielle. Its all right. The seneschal told her, in a gentle voice. Its all right.
Green eyes watched him closely. Are you with them, too? Gabrielle asked.
No. Stanislaus shook his head. I am Xenas, body heart and soul. I always have been. He put a hand on her knee. But you are in a very, very dangerous place, little one.
Gabrielles shoulders slumped. I know. She whispered. But what am I supposed to do?
Surprisingly, the seneschal settled on the floor cross legged, and rested his elbows on his thighs. Thats the rub, isnt it? Know this, Gabrielle, that plots have been around in this stronghold for all the years of my Mistresses reign here. There is always something brewing. You need not trouble yourself with it.
Oh. Gabrielle said. Its so confusing.
Just so. Stanislaus agreed. And you have put yourself in its way, because my mistress has taken a liking to you. It is not good for you, I fear.
Taken a liking to you. Gabrielle rolled that thought around in her mind. But its not my fault.
Of course not. He agreed. How can it be? You are just trying to survive, as are we all. Something about you, though, has attracted her notice, and done so quite strongly. He said. It is dangerous for both of you. For you, because you are just a slave, and so expendable. For her, because you give them a portal into her defenses that would not be otherwise.
Gabrielle winced, at the truth of the statement. What should I do?
Stanislaus appeared to consider the question. Because I love my queen, I will do this. I will get you out of here, Gabrielle, and I will put you on the road to your freedom. He told her, gravely. Tonight, we will leave here. A trusted friend of mine will take you under darkness, and you will never have to see this place again.
Gabrielle felt lightheaded. Does the queen know youre doing this? She asked.
No. Stanislaus shook his head. And she will be furious with me when she finds out. But its the best thing for both of you, can you see that, Gabrielle?
She nodded. I see that.
He let out a sigh almost of relief. Stay here. Be quiet. After darkness falls, I will come for you.
All right. Gabrielle answered him. Thank you.
He reached over and ruffled her hair, then hoisted himself to his feet and brushed his velvet clothing off.
Youre taking a really big risk, arent you? Gabrielle asked, suddenly.
Stanislaus gazed down at her. Larger than you could possibly know. He gave her a slight nod, then slipped out the door and padded away, his soft boots making almost no sound on the stone.
Gabrielle. Youre going to go free. This will all be behind you. Isnt that incredible? She blinked, very surprised to find tears trickling down her cheeks, and her heart heavy as lead inside her chest.
Xena paused near the wall and listened. She was on her way back from the afternoons court, where Bregos had been conspicuous by his very conspicuous absence. Stomach ills, his major domo had pleaded in his defense, making very hearty apologies to Xena in his behalf. More than likely, his stomach had been upset by the death of his captain, and he wisely, in Xenas view, wanted to give his queen a little time to cool off before he braved her presence.
Perversely, that cheered Xena up. However, on her way back to her quarters, shed smelled an unusual smell off the main hall, and gone to investigate. She sniffed, and moved on, trailing the scent down to a small, almost never used door whose lock was almost rusted shut.
Almost. Xena worked the mechanism, which gave off a scent of pigs oil, recently applied. Her hackles rose, and she eased the door open, putting her eye to the crack and peering through.
Ah. A horses rump faced her, the source of the scent shed been following. Smell enough horseshit, must be a pony around somewhere. She opened the door further and slid out into the twilight. Two horses were tied to an iron spike set in the wall, fully harnessed, and carrying what appeared to be traveling gear on their backs. What have we here? Xena murmured.
The breeze lifted. Her nape hairs lifted with it, and she stiffened, her head turning as her senses attempted to locate the threat her instincts had warned her off.
The barest plucking sound was all the warning she had, and in the deepening gloom she whirled and reached out both hands in a flickering motion, her fingers closing around the shafts of two crossbow bolts.
And then a searing bolt of fire pierced her back, sending her lunging forward almost into the horses hindquarters. She whirled in pure instinct, shoving back the pain enough to pull herself behind one of the horses, shielding her body against any more arrows.
Damn! The pain was incredible. She could feel the arrowhead cutting her deep inside, and held onto her composure with an iron will. Bastards!
She heard the clatter of weapons dropping, and then running footsteps. It was too dark for her to see anything, but by the same token, she knew it had been too dark for her attackers to see her. In fact, she wasnt sure who she was more furious with, the son of a Bacchaes who shot her, or herself for walking into it.
Three crossbows. One more than she had hands to catch, and a lucky shot. With a soft curse, she leaned against the horse and reached behind her, her fingers brushing against the shaft of the bolt sticking out of her back. Just touching it made her clamp her teeth down on her lower lip, and brought the taste of blood to her lips.
Forcing herself to calm, she took a few deep breaths and let her nerves settle. Okay. She was in trouble. Xena mapped a course in her head. She had to get back to her quarters, and get this damn thing out of her. How? She left that to when she got there, and slowly, grimly, started her long walk back.
She was dressed in her warmest set of clothing. The leggings, tucked into the leather boots, a shirt, and her blue tunic over it. Gabrielle sat on her bed, her arms wrapped around her knees, just waiting. She knew there was something she wanted to do. She knew walking out of here, leaving Xena behind without a word was haunting her for reasons she couldnt even begin to understand.
She knew she had the little note Xena had left her tucked inside her shirt, a bit of precious nothing that meant inexplicable volumes to her. On the table, next to the basin, shed left a folded piece of parchment in return, her only chance to leave this strange woman, who scared her half to death a few words, however insignificant.
I dont know you. You dont know me. But you will be part of my life I will never forget, both for bad reasons and good ones. Y ou took from me all I had in the world, and yet, you gave me a piece of myself I would never have found otherwise. Good luck. Be well. G.
With a sigh, Gabrielle pulled her knees closer, trying to ease the ache in her chest. She glanced at the door, seeing the last fading of the light, and as she did so, she heard the faint scuff of approaching footsteps. Squaring her shoulders, she straightened up, and let her hands rest on her knees. She fixed her eyes on the door and waited, hearing the steps come closer and closer.
And then they stopped. Gabrielle stood, taking one last look around her little space. She clenched her hands lightly into fists, then let them relax against the thick fabric covering her thighs, ready to move forward as soon as Stanislaus entered.
The torchlight was blocked, and she started for the door, then stopped, as the dark outline resolved itself not into the senechals stocky form, but a taller, slimmer figure that stood hesitantly before her. Gabrielle. Xenas voice was husky.
Her heart almost jumped out of her chest. Yes? Gabrielle whispered.
I need your help.
All thoughts of Stanislaus fled her. Of course.. whats wrong?
Come with me. Xena turned and started back, her motions hesitant.
Gabrielle followed, pausing in the doorway as she heard heavier bootsteps coming up the back stairs.
She turned her back on them, and disappeared into the queens inner corridor, hearing the door close behind her, with a startling lack of regret.
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