Gabrielle shifted in her saddle and grimaced a little. The unseasonably cold weather had warmed over the last couple of days, to the point where she'd tucked her cloak away in a saddlebag that morning. The constant riding, however, was still causing her some discomfort. She looked up at Xena, who was to the left and slightly ahead of her. The woman looked calm and relaxed, her reins held loosely in her right hand as it rested on her thigh. She was a natural rider - it was almost as if she and her stallion merged into a single creature when she was in the saddle. Gabrielle envied her skill. She herself had just gotten over clutching frantically at her saddlehorn every time her horse went faster than a walk.
There was a lot of time to think during this trip. She and the queen chatted sometimes as they rode, and played little guessing games to pass the time, but a lot of the time was just spent riding in silence. Gabrielle's eyes moved slowly over Xena's back, lingering on the sheathed sword and the broad shoulders beneath the armor. Her feelings for this woman had changed drastically since the day she'd been clapped in irons and dragged off as a slave. I don't think I even really want to hate her anymore, Gabrielle thought unseasily. Should I? This woman cost me my home, my freedom and most of my family. She does some horrible things. She's even done some of them to me. Her sea-green eyes dropped to her own hands as she pondered this. She thought about the way Xena's lips quirked when she was amused. She thought about how the queen had cared for her when her legs had cramped up after the first day's ride. She thought about how Xena had arranged for Lila to be brought back, and how those long fingers would caress her hair sometimes.
I like her, the slave admitted to herself. I...maybe I even more than like her. I want to be with her - I want it, even though I know she kills people really easily...even though she's whipped me a few times. I'd rather be here with her than back in the kitchens with my own sister. That has to be wrong. Why doesn't it feel wrong?
The subject of her scrutiny looked back at her then, and slowed up her warhorse until she was riding alongside the slave. Gabrielle peered up at her through blond lashes. "Do you need something, Your Ma...uh, Xena?"
"Nope. I think you do." Xena glanced up at the afternoon sun before returning her gaze to the smaller woman. "Ever fought before?"
Gabrielle blinked at her. "Um...sometimes I had fights with my sister," she faltered. "But other than that, no."
Xena gave her a look of amused disgust. Then she slowed her stallion up a bit more and turned in her saddle to address Bennu, who was riding behind them. "Pass it on - we're setting up camp early today," she said. "There's some natural caverns about an hour's ride from here that should give us some good shelter. Have some men volunteer to go hunting when we get there. Can't hurt to add to our food supplies if we can."
"Aye, General." The man bobbed his head and rode back along the column of soldiers to relay the message.
The queen's pale blue eyes regarded Gabrielle thoughtfully. The slave looked back at her with innocent inquiry. "You're riding with me into battle," Xena said abruptly. Gabrielle blinked. "You're riding with me," the warrior went on, "so it's probably a good idea if I teach you to defend yourself a little. You probably won't need it - I'll make sure of that. But there's no point tempting the Fates."
"Defend...myself?" Gabrielle's eyes were wide as she processed this statement. "You mean you want to teach me to hit people?"
Xena's lips quirked with amusement. "More like teach you how not to get hit, tadpole," she said. "I don't think these big boys would feel much if you hit them."
Gabrielle looked down at her own arms and frowned a little. Admittedly she didn't really even want to strike someone else, but she didn't like the faint mockery in Xena's tone. She wasn't a warrior, but she wasn't some tiny little waif, either. She had a good layer of peasant muscle even if she was short. Wait - what did she just call me? Gabrielle's sandy brows lowered as she looked up at Xena, and her lower lip poked out just a bit. "I'm not a tadpole." The queen simply shot her a mischievous grin and spurred Dex on ahead.
An hour or so later, the army was setting up camp around the caves Xena had mentioned. There were enough natural caverns for about half the soldiers, so there was much less work to be done in preparing the campsite. Xena's own quarters had been set up in the back of the largest cave. The darkness and the stale air made Gabrielle uncomfortable, but it was fairly snug, and she supposed it was an interesting change of pace. She knelt down and carefully arranged sleeping furs on Xena's folding cot. They felt soft and warm. Gabrielle paused in her work, letting her hand rest on the furs. Even this bed's better than the one I had at home, she thought, remembering the straw mattress and thin quilts she'd slept with as a child. In winter, she and Lila and her parents had all slept on a single mattress in the main room of their little hut to keep warm. A lump rose in her throat at the memory.
"Hey, tadpole. Heads up." The slave looked up in startlement, just in time to catch something that was hurtling in her direction. She let out a squawk of surprise. Xena stood a few feet away, chuckling and leaning casually on what looked like a long pole. Gabrielle looked down to find a similar staff in her own hands. "C'mon with me," Xena said. "I'll get started on your lessons while this lot cooks supper and whatnot."
"...Lessons?" Gabrielle looked at her stick in confusion for a moment before getting up and scrambling after her owner.
The two of them went outside the cave and through the men camped outside. Gabrielle looked hopefully at the cookpits that had been assembled - she could see meat being prepared for the spits. Her stomach growled. She sighed and followed Xena down a gentle slope to a spot a couple of hundred yards away from the camp.
Once there, Xena turned to face her. Gabrielle stood nervously holding her stick in both hands. The warrior held up her own staff. "Stand like this," she instructed, and showed the slave with exaggerated motions how to bend her knees and spread her feet apart to find her center of balance. "Good. Now, this is how you block..."
Gabrielle was hopelessly uncoordinated. She kept dropping her staff and falling on her rear in the grass, despite the warrior's holding back on the force of her blows. By the time Xena stopped and let her weapon down, Gabrielle was panting and wiping sweat from her eyes. The queen leaned on her staff and regarded the slave girl ruefully. "Well," she said, "it's a start."
Mournfully, Gabrielle hung her head. "I'm pretty bad, huh?"
"Not necessarily." Xena shrugged one shoulder. "You're strong for your size, and your reflexes are pretty good." Her dark brows arched a bit. "You lack killer instinct, though." The slave peered at her unhappily. Xena smirked and clapped her on the shoulder. "It was fine for your first lesson, tadpole," she said. "Come on. We'll go see if they've finished the food yet."
The queen's gruff encouragement made Gabrielle feel a little better. She trailed her staff in the dirt behind her as they headed back to camp. "Mistre...er, Xena?" Blue eyes glanced back at her. "Why are you calling me tadpole?"
Xena flashed her a dazzling smile and shrugged one shoulder. "It fits," she said. "It's small and cute and hasn't grown up yet. Plus I just like the sound of it." The slave girl poked out her lower lip at her, and Xena chuckled.
It was nice to sit down under the trees and eat. The cooks had prepared roasted meat and roots to go with their travel bread. That and cool spring water made for a surprisingly satisfying supper. Gabrielle ate quietly and observed Xena. Bennu, Callisto and a general named Vasos were sitting nearby, and the queen was deep in conversation with them. Gabrielle's eyes lingered on the woman's angular face and pondered the many contradictions she'd found in her unpredictable mistress. She's funny and warm and dangerous and scary, and boy, does she have a temper sometimes, the slave mused. But I still really just want to be with her. I want to go wherever she goes.
Was that wrong? Gabrielle thought it over again as she nibbled on a roasted root. Well, maybe it is, she thought finally. But even if it is, I can't help it. I can't bring Mama and Da back from slavery. I can't free myself or Lila. I can't stop myself from liking Xena...I don't even really want to, whether it's wrong or not. So I guess I'm just going to have to go with it, and see where everything ends up.
A long arm slipped around Gabrielle's shoulders. The slave girl didn't resist as Xena tugged her close, until Gabrielle could rest her head against the embossed metal of the woman's breastplate - which she did. She rested there, quietly finishing her dinner, with her mistress's strong arm still draped affectionately around her shoulders. She felt surprisingly content.
Gabrielle had finally settled into a routine - well, as much routine as one could get into when living on the road, anyway. Without doubt, her favorite part of the day was when they finally called a halt, and she could get off her horse and begin setting up Xena's tent the way she liked it. Not that Gabrielle didn't like Psyche - she did. She just didn't especially like riding her, even if she was getting used to it.
With a sigh of satisfaction, the slave girl gave the soft furs on the cot a final pat, and turned to survey the tent with her hands on her hips. Her eye moved critically over the spare furnishings. She'd learned that the queen was actually quite particular about things in her tent, and had quickly adjusted to being just as exacting herself. Everything had to be neat and clean and in its proper place. And despite Xena's grumbling, Gabrielle thought she actually liked the warmed washbasin idea, and so made it a point to provide one nightly.
It was time to go and get it now, in fact. The body slave gave a nod of satisfaction and ducked out of the tent, heading toward the where the camp cooks and servants had set up their work space.
They'd made their camp at the foot of some craggy cliffs, which protected them on two sides, and afforded them a fairly clear view of anything that might approach them from the remaining two. Xena had made use of this place as a base at one point, she'd said. Gabrielle hoped the queen could be coaxed into telling her a story or two about it tonight. She smiled to herself as she made her way along the edge of the camp.
Suddenly, the slave was grabbed from behind! A hard hand clapped over her mouth, muffling her scream. She didn't even have time to struggle before she was dragged into an empty tent. The grip on Gabrielle's body tightened as she started to squirm, and something sharp pressed hard beneath her chin. She gasped softly and stopped struggling.
"There's a good girl. Just you be quiet, and this'll be over quick." The voice that hissed in her ear was unmistakably male, despite the fact that it didn't rise above a whisper. The knife dug into her skin. "Now listen." Gabrielle's breath was coming in short, frightened gasps. "You're that bitch Xena's whore. She destroyed your home and your family. She made you and your sister her slaves. You've got every reason to want revenge, don't you?"
Whoever it was seemed to be waiting for an answer. Gabrielle hesitated, then cautiously nodded her head. "Mm hmm."
"Well." The voice sounded amused. "You'll get your chance." The blade traveled up until its point pressed beneath Gabrielle's right ear. She felt downward pressure on her body and went with it, dropping slowly to her knees. "Good girl," her captor whispered. "Now listen closely. We'll have another little chat later, and I'll tell you how you can put a dagger in the old cow's back. Just make sure you keep this discussion to yourself, or else..." The knife slid along Gabrielle's jawline and came to rest across her jugular vein. "Do we understand each other?"
The captive swallowed hard, and felt her throat moving against the sharp blade. She didn't quite dare to nod for fear it would cut her. "Mm hmm," she said again, softly. The hand over her mouth twitched a bit. "Mm hmm," Gabrielle repeated.
"Good." He pushed her firmly. Again, the slave went with it, lying down on her face on the ground. The knife never left her throat. His weight was pinning her down, now - she shuddered. "Now, I'm going to let your mouth go and put something over your eyes. If you move or make a sound, I'll slit your throat." Gabrielle screwed her eyes shut. The hand over her mouth released. A moment later, a sack was pulled over her head and tied snugly around her neck. It smelled like wheat. "I'm going now," the voice whispered. "I'll be watching you. Count to fifty before you try to get up." The weight pinning her down lifted. She lay trembling. She heard a tent flap open and close.
Is he gone? Or is he still here, watching me, making sure I don't move? Gabrielle forced herself to breathe slowly and closed her eyes against the claustrophobia of the bag over her head. One. Two. Three. Four... She counted to fifty. Then, just to be safe, she did it again. Finally, gathering her courage, Gabrielle rose to her knees and pulled the sack off. She was alone in the empty tent.
During the attack, Gabrielle had been terrified, and had wanted to cry. Now that it was over, however, she found her mind almost preternaturally clear. I've got to tell Xena, she thought. She needs to know. But if I'm being watched, I can't just go and find her now. I'll tell her later, when we're alone in our tent. Gabrielle inhaled deeply. She slowly got up and exited the tent.
Outside, everything looked normal. Soldiers talked and laughed as they erected tents and tended to their equipment. Gabrielle looked around for a few moments. Then, her hands still shaking, she turned her steps once more toward the outdoor cooking area. Now that some of the shock was wearing off, she was starting to feel angry. That jerk wants to hurt Xena. That jerk wants me to hurt Xena!
"Gabrielle!" One of the cooks hailed her and smiled. It was Tabatha, a woman Gabrielle had worked with in the kitchens in Amphipolis. They hadn't known each other very well there, but they were becoming more friendly now that they were traveling together. "Come for Her Majesty's washbasin and supper? Both are hot and ready."
"Yeah, I am. Thanks." Gabrielle managed to smile back. "Where are they, please? I'd like to get back to her tent as quickly as possible."
Tabatha paused with a concerned look. "Lass, are you all right? You look pale."
"I'm just tired," the slave said softly. "I'm fine, really. I'll ask Xena if I can go to bed early."
The cook's face twitched a bit, as did most people's when they heard the girl refer to Xena by her first name. She didn't comment, however. Instead she laid a broad hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "You do that," she said warmly. "This life's got to be hard on a little thing like you when you've never done it before. You, boys! Come and carry the queen's things to her tent. Gabrielle here will tell you where to put them." Two of the servants obligingly brought the basin and a tray of food.
Gabrielle thought about protesting, but then thought better of it. After all, I still feel kind of shaky, she thought as she led the way to Xena's tent. This is probably better than me dropping something. Her brows lowered a bit. I wish everyone would stop calling me 'little', though! I'm not that short.
She pointed at a corner in the tent. "The washbasin goes over there," she said. "It's away from the door - less drafty." The man with the basin set it down obligingly.
"Is this a good place for the food?" The other young man smiled at her as he set the tray on a large stone in the middle of the tent.
Gabrielle smiled back. "Yes. That's why I had them put the tent here," she said softly. "Thank you both." They left at once. Gabrielle got the impression that they didn't want to be around once her unpredictable mistress returned. She took a deep breath and slowly sat down on the cot. She still felt weak and nervous and angry. She wished Xena would come.
It felt like a long time, although it was really only about fifteen minutes, before the tent flap opened and Xena ducked inside. She paused and arched a brow at the sight of the improvised rock/table. Then she turned to face Gabrielle and folded her arms. "You sick?" she asked abruptly.
The slave blinked, caught off guard. "S...sick?" she echoed, puzzled.
"Yeah." Xena's piercing eyes caught and held hers. Her face was neutral - Gabrielle couldn't quite tell if the queen was upset or not. "I noticed you got servants to carry things for you. That's not like you. I'll ask you again - are you sick? Or did you just feel like getting someone else to do your work for you?"
Gabrielle's eyes filled with tears. Normally she wouldn't have been so rattled by the question, but coming on top of the attack earlier, it was just too much. "N-no," she quavered. "I'm n-not sick. They offered to c-carry the things, and I'm..." A sob choked her.
The queen's expression changed. The pale eyes narrowed slightly, and she grasped the slave's shoulders firmly. "Gabrielle," she said, searching her eyes, "what's going on?"
"I've got something to t-tell you," Gabrielle said softly. She swallowed her tears with some difficulty. "Do you remember how you said people might try to use me to hurt you? Back in the palace, that one time?" Xena frowned slightly, and her gaze sharpened. "Well," the slave girl whispered, "you were right."
Without a word, Xena turned away and looked hard at the tent flap. Then she moved to the cot. Gabrielle felt a flood of relief as the taller woman sat down beside her and put an arm around her shoulders. She crumpled into Xena's embrace with a soft, involuntary whimper. The queen hugged her in silence for a few moments. "What happened?" she asked quietly.
The slave buried her face in the woman's shoulder. Her voice emerged much muffled, but still understandable. "I was going to get your food and washbasin," she said. "And someone grabbed me, and..."
"Grabbed you." Xena's eyes narrowed. "They put their hands on you?"
"Yes, Mistre...I m-mean, Xena." Gabrielle's lips quivered. "I got dragged into a tent, and he put a knife to my throat. He said I should hate you for making me a slave and hurting my family. He said I was going to get a chance to get you back. Then he made me lie down and put a bag on my head so I couldn't see him leave."
Xena's jaw was clenched. Gabrielle could see the muscles working on the sides of her face. "Did you get a look at the bastard?"
"No," Gabrielle said in a small voice. "He grabbed me from behind, and I was too scared to try to look at him."
"Would you recognize his voice? Can you give me anything, Gabrielle?" The queen's voice was as hard as flint.
"No. He was whispering," the slave said, her misery growing deeper by the moment. "I'm sorry, Xena. Th-there's a man in the camp who wants to hurt you, and...and now you won't know who he is, all because I was too stupid..."
"Hey." Xena's tone softened. Gabrielle felt the arms around her tighten a bit. "You're not stupid, Gabrielle. This guy obviously knew what he was doing. That isn't your fault." The blond girl looked up to find the queen gazing at her in concern. "Are you all right? Did he hurt you? And gods help him if he did...!"
Gabrielle felt her throat. She didn't think he'd actually broken the skin. "I'm okay," she said. "Other than the knife thing, he didn't d-do anything to me." She still felt like crying.
"I'm going to increase your security," Xena said, her pale eyes beginning to flash again. "Whole damn camp full of soldiers...sure we can find a few to follow you around and keep you out of trouble."
There was silence for a while. Gabrielle stayed where she was, still drawing comfort from her owner's solid form, and thought. "Do...do you think that's the best idea, Your Majesty?" she asked bravely, although her voice wavered. "I mean, thank you. I don't like not being safe. But he said he was going to talk to me again. Maybe I'll be able to find out who he is if we can make him think I didn't tell you about this."
Xena's lips tightened into a thin line, and she abruptly got up. Gabrielle watched her, vaguely dismayed at the loss of her refuge. The queen stood silently with her back to the slave for a while. Then she turned back. Gabrielle expected to see a scowl, but Xena's expression was solemn, and her pale blue eyes seemed remote. "Normally, yes. I play games with people's lives all the time," she said quietly. "But I won't gamble with yours."
Gabrielle peered up at her. "Why not?" she asked. "Isn't it better to risk mine than yours, Xena? You're...the queen."
The woman's face twisted into a wry smirk. "I don't gamble with things I don't want to lose," she said. "You're cute, you interest me, and I can have you in the same room with me for more than five minutes at a time without wanting to throw you out a window. That doesn't happen very often."
The slave's lips curved upward just a bit. "He won't hurt me if he thinks I'll do whatever it is he wants, though, right?" she pointed out. "I mean, it would be kind of stupid of him to hurt me if he wants me to do something for him."
"If this guy wants to kill me," Xena said quietly, "I doubt he'd hesitate to kill you either, tadpole." Gabrielle lowered her eyes and bit her lip. A long silence followed. At last, Xena made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a growl and sat back down beside the slave. Gabrielle timidly sidled up to her, and was rewarded with a long arm slung around her shoulders. There was another pause. "You really want to do this, Gabrielle?" Xena said at last.
The girl looked up into her owner's grave face. She was still a bit scared, but she was also still angry about what had happened. "Yes," she said firmly. "This creep attacked me, and he wants to hurt you. I want to help you catch him."
Xena looked away, gazing into the small fire Gabrielle had made earlier. The slave girl watched the muscles in the woman's jaw twitch as she thought it over. Finally the queen grunted in a resigned sort of way. "All right," she said. "I'll let you try it. But the instant you feel like you're in over your head, or if you change your mind, you tell me. You got it? I'll find another way." Her eyes met Gabrielle's sea-green ones. Gabrielle nodded solemnly. Xena's mouth curved upward, and she gave the slave a squeeze. "Such a brave tadpole," she said lightly. "So, that's settled. Show me what they've sent us for dinner now, so I'll know what to yell at the cooks for in the morning."
Gabrielle felt a lot better now that there was a plan, and she was sitting down to eat with her mistress. She nibbled on a piece of venison. Xena trusts me. She believes I'm strong enough and smart enough to do this. The thought made her feel proud. She felt one of the queen's arms drape itself over her then to give her a brief squeeze. When she looked up, Xena gave her a lopsided grin and a wink. Gabrielle's eyes lit up as she smiled back.
I won't let her down.