They were wrapped up in each other. Pressed close like daughter and father. The warm glow of braziers seemed to set their auburn hair afire.
Her hand was on his face, as if to calm the rage that had brought him there and he stared at her in shock, his eyes wild. The governor of Apollonious smiled as serene as any statue of Demeter.
Talmadeus stepped back. No. He stumbled. His hand was at his throat and Xena had the passing thought that he held it there because of some heady emotion. Tears of angers or fear. But he pulled his hand away a great gush of blood painted the front of him. It pumped from his neck in torrential flow and try as he might to staunch the it his fingers weren't up to the task. He turned his wild eyes to her as he choked.
A dark smile slashed across Xena's face. She walked closer, delighting in his gasps. "I hope, Talmadeus," she uttered, her voice barely above a whisper, "that the sight of me smiling is what you take with you to Tartarus."
He grunted and tried to walk towards her, but there was no life left in his legs and he stumbled and fell. He stared up at her with a kind of fury she was all too familiar with. A fury that once lit her own eyes on a beach in the Mediterranean. She knew his suffering then. What it felt like to have an enemy so close and so far beyond one's grasp. She hated that feeling more then any other, but it made her warm inside to watch it glow in Talmadeus's eyes.
They kept rolling up in his head as he took his time dying. For a moment all there was was the white meat of his them staring back at her. Then they rolled in his head towards the governor and with his last few choked breaths he laughed.
"Well that, wasn't on purpose," Gabrielle finally muttered. And in the shifting light of the fire Xena now saw the hilt of a wicked blade grasped in Gabrielle's bloody hands. She was standing, but paler then the bright moon that shone outside and red ichor dampened the front of her dress.
"You," it was all Xena could say.
"Probably need a healer," the other woman muttered. Then she promptly fainted, the wicked dagger deep in her stomach.
The governor was light in Xena's arms as she moved through the palace. She held her close and was careful not to move the knife still jutting from her belly. Gabrielle hadn't even tried to take it out which spoke either to wisdom or to shock. Xena couldn't be sure which. She came into the main entrance hall to find Draco and the rest of her guards leaning agains the walls. Palaemon was the first to see them.
"A healer, now," she demanded curtly. Palaemon was down the hall and out of sight before the others even realized what was happening.
He glanced at the pale woman in her arms then back to her, "Ma'am?"
"Find her daughter and see that she's safe. And bring that damned seneschal to me immediately."
She had only a vague idea where the governor's quarters were, but the banquet room was bigger, and she remembered it being well lit.
She moved towards it then, kicking the door open with a thrust of her leg. Her men moved as if a part of her, instinctively knowing what to do. Two cleared the table while another removed his cloak to serve as a pillow. Others started lighting lamps and braziers and two more headed towards the kitchen in search of water.
She set Gabrielle down carefully and motioned to the closet man with a lamp. She took it from him and began to inspect the wound around the knife.
She'd been cut deep. The length of the dagger's tang suggested a long knife and it was in nearly to the hilt. But it looked to have come in at an angle.
"By the gods," some old man shouted. There was a jangle of glass and metal and she smelled incense as the old man came closer. She motioned to the wound, never turning to look at him. "It's deep, but I think it may have missed anything really important."
His weathered hands reached out to probe the wound and the governor groaned. "But a wound to the torso is never good."
Xena immediately decided she disliked this sweet smelling old man with his basket of herbs and potions. She scowled and reached for his basket. "You'll need to make a poultice she ordered him." She found the thread and needle he wedged down at the bottom of the basket. The needle was filthy, but the filthy quickly burned when she stuck it into the center of the lamp's flame.
"Palaemon," she called to the new garrison commander, "Talmadeus's body is in her office. Have it moved and see that the gore is cleaned up."
He disappeared out the door again. The hidden doors to the kitchen opened once more and two soldiers came in with a great pot of steaming water between them.
Xena slipped threaded the needle and held it with her teeth as she straddled Gabrielle's smaller form. She leaned down to whisper, "if you're in there try to keep the shouting to a minimum. This is going to hurt."
Gabrielle didn't respond. She was covered in a thin film of sweat and her breath came quickly. Xena place one hand near the wound and the other on the hilt. She took her own fortifying breath and then she pulled.
For such a small woman the governor's pained cry was awfully loud.
Homer and Euripides kept doing the same scene of a new play over and over again. It wasn't one of Euripides but one of Gabrielle's. The one about the angel who leapt into hell for the woman he loved. Over and over again the said the words. Sometimes their voices were deep and sometimes they were high and sometimes they got bored and did the entire scene in Latin.
Eve read some poems. The words were beautiful and the rhythm hypnotic and if Eve had been even a few years older it would have been obscene. They were Sappho's poems. The ones she'd left with a gentle kiss and a promise.
Sappho sang the poems. She was wrapped up around Gabrielle. Longer then she'd ever been and her curly hair hung surprisingly straight. She wouldn't kiss her but she'd run a cool hand over Gabrielle's fevered flesh and recite the words with a smile in her voice. Her voice was nicer. Not as guttural as it once had been.
The Empress of the Known World shouted from Gabrielle's bedside. She was nursing Gabrielle's wound and muttering about murder and her hands were gentle. But she wasn't the Empress she was Aphrodite, come down from her temple. The warrior queen's scowl became a wistful look of concern and the cool and calloused hands turned soft.
The compresses smelled sweet but then the sweet smell turned cloying and the fire in the braziers turned hot. Too hot for Gabrielle. The fire lashed out of it's clay confines like the long, hot tongue of an ancient god. Fingers pinched and pulled at her ankles then calves then thighs. The firey tongue came closer and whispers of destruction wormed their ways into Gabrielle's ears. Louder. And louder. And…
Then her Aphrodite was singing to her, but she wasn't the goddess of song. It was Sappho and she was honing the edge of a stout Greek sword but when she looked at her it was Xena's bright and knowing eyes.
"You have what I want," she intoned and her face was carved from wood and then it splintered and he was there with his pompous smile. "Hello sweet thing."
"It's all right."
Xena was a killer. She'd slaughtered with impunity and found joy in heads set on spears. The crucifixions she demanded when she'd finally taken Corinth would no doubt be her lasting claim to fame long after she turned to dust and her empire shattered.
But a good killer needed to know the ins and outs of the body. Often times the best killer could be the best healer as well. Except that healing required emotional tenderness that Xena frowned on.
But ever healer Palaemon and Draco and Diomedes had brought before her had failed next to her own ministrations. So she slept on a bed near Gabrielle's and rose for every whimper and moan.
She'd been right about the dagger. The damage had been minor. But it had been coated in a poison or covered in some filth because the wound had festered and the governor had turned paler.
She was only now starting to heal and as she got better her dreams grew more violent. So Xena sighed and sat next to the smaller woman and hummed a melody she'd heard when touring Athens.
A cool touch and a soft song calmed the woman.
But this time it did more. Xena had grown accustomed to watching Gabrielle's face. Watching every flinch and groan and moan and murmur. She'd watched those eyes flicked behind closed lids and she'd forgotten that they shared their color with the sea beyond the hills.
She found herself smiling when Gabrielle stared, "Hey," she said the word more tender then any uttered in a decade.
And Gabrielle smiled weakly back, "hey."
Diomedes had given her a funny look when she asked to see Sappho. "No," he'd said, "she hadn't stopped by and there was no word that she would stop by."
She chalked it up to fevered dreams. Sappho's presence was there next to Aphrodite's cool touch and the Empress's warm smile. Things that for whatever reason Gabrielle wanted.
But the Empress? That one really bugged her.
She respected the woman. Appreciated her skills as a warrior and as a healer. But she couldn't very well claim to like the woman who'd crucified a city.
Twice she'd worked herself back up to annoyance and fear at the Empress's presence. And twice the Empress had done something absolutely endearing, like comfort Eve.
Seeing the tall woman grin at Eve was like watching something out of one of her plays. Miracles happened in plays. People radically changed in plays. These things did not happen in real life.
"What are you thinking about?"
The Empress was in a chair next to Gabrielle's bed, her feet propped up on the mattress and a breastplate in her lap. She had some needle and thread and appeared to be mending the armor.
That was after she'd told Diomedes to bring Gabrielle a quill, ink and parchment. "She needs to work," she'd growled, like she understood Gabrielle's nature implicitly.
Gabrielle didn't especially want to tell the Empress of the known world that she was thinking about her. Because then the woman would raise an eyebrow and maybe smile, or worse, she'd return to mending her armor with a cryptic look on her face.
She had to say something that didn't somehow involve Xena. "Do you fish?"
Good job Gabrielle, Playwright and Governor of Apollonia.
Xena looked down, and there was the cryptic look. Nope. Wait. Not a look. A smile. She glanced up at Gabrielle from beneath the shade of her bangs. Damn it.
Gabrielle tried to ignore the heat of the blush blanketing her face. "I need to get out of this bed and out of this room. And fishing. Fishing is low key, but it gets me out, so I wanted to go fishing. And you…I thought you could use the fresh air too."
Well done Gabrielle. You've manage to make yourself look and sound like an ass in front of the most powerful woman on the planet.
Xena's smile grew brighter. "I fish Gabrielle. And I'd love to get out of this room and go fishing with you."
"Good," she said.
Just keep your mouth shut Gabrielle.
"We could take Eve. She's growing fond of you."
May all your words die in a fire upon your own lips playwright.
Xena considered the offer. "That sounds nice." She groaned a little and stood up. The bones in her back and arms shifted and popped as she stretched. "For now get some sleep."
She bundled her armor and thread and needle up under her arm and left the room.
It was a bit chillier without her.
Gabrielle asks her to go fishing and she says yes? Xena desperately needed to get out of Apollonia. She needed to go home to Corinth and punish some rebels and irritate Rome and Egypt and Persia and maybe start a war on Chin's northern border. There was room for expansion up there.
But instead she'd spent the last two weeks in Apollonia playing nursemaid to the governor she'd only just appointed. The lithe, blond governor with the engaging smile and sharp wit and adorable daughter.
She didn't just need to get out of Apollonia. She needed to flee the state on the backs of a hundred nubile servants that she'd then take to her bed in an orgy so grand it's be immortalized in frescos throughout her empire.
She needed sex and blood and violence. She didn't need to be peaking into young Eve's room to make sure the girl was all right.
She was lying in front of the fire with a stack of feathers that Xena had given her to trim. The girl had her chin in her hand and was dipping the feathered end of the quills into the fire, watching the feathers curl and burn.
"Interesting habit of trimming you have there."
Eve started at Xena's voice and twisted to look over her shoulder. "Aren't you supposed to be watching my mother sleep."
Xena ignored that comment chalking it up to the girl's age. "Aren't you supposed to be trimming quills," she deflected.
The girl returned to burning the feathers. "Trimming them is boring. Burning though." She pulled the feather out and held the smoldering mess up for Xena's inspection. "Much neater."
"Until bits of that burning feather land on one of these mats and the entire room bursts into flame." She turned around again and stared. "Giant flames," Xena continued, "like the ones I used when I destroyed Persia's fleet."
"Mom said the flames were so high they touched the clouds and made it rain."
Xena frowned, "your mother was there?"
Gabrielle nodded, "Mom's seen just about every major battle in the last ten years. She saw Rome defeat Boudica, and Greece burn Persia's fleet and the sacking of Troy."
"Sounds like your mother's well travelled."
Xena sat next to the girl and scooped up some of the quills, doing the work she'd asked of Eve. Eve took Xena's new position as an offer and climbed into her lap, curling up like a large squirmy cat. "Homer says good writers have to be at all the great historical moments."
"So he was at Troy?"
She nodded against Xena's chest, "And he journeyed all the way to Ithaca with Odysseus. He's writing a poem about it now."
It had taken Odysseus ten years to return home. Bards called it one of the greatest odysseys in the history of Greece. Xena, having met the man, thought the pompous fool should have just asked for directions. But that wasn't nearly as interesting a story for five year olds.
"But I think it's funny that he and Euripides and Mom write about Troy but none of them remember the other ones being there. There weren't that many people were there?"
No, just bodies and the smell of burning flesh and the giant wooden horse watching the rape and pillaging like a monolithic sentry sent by the gods. "They're all writing about Troy?"
She nodded again. "I think it gets boring though. Hearing about some guy who was too dumb to put armor on his one weak spot." She shifted so she could look up at Xena, "I mean how dumb do you have to be?"
"Achilles wasn't stupid," in all her years she never thought she'd be defending the brute, "he was passionate and he was hurt."
"Because of the arrow?"
"Because of Patroclus."
"He was Achille's dearest friend. Closer then brothers or lovers even. The other half of his soul."
Gabrielle was creeping into the room and leaning heavily against a long stick she'd found somewhere. From the looks of the wrappings and feathers decorating the staff it had once been an Amazon's weapon. How the dead warrior must weep to see it now in the hands of a frail politician. Gabrielle moved slowly, but she didn't look as bad as Xena would have expected. Her color was returning and she wasn't even sweating from the effort of walking.
Gabrielle took a seat at the foot of Eve's bed. "And one day Achille's felt he couldn't fight."
Xena snorted and quickly tried to cover it up with a cough, but not before the governor gave her a warning look.
"So Patroclus took Achille's armor and fought in his place. And he was fierce and some say that maybe he even fought as well as his friend. But his prowess made him a target and Hector challenged him and won."
She saw it now. As Gabrielle got wrapped up in the emotions her words evoked. A story that Xena had always found amusing gave her pause when told by the playwright.
"Patroclus died and never did the world see grief as potent as that which Achilles shed on the Trojan beaches. He wept and tore his hair and went out naked and slaughtered a hundred Trojans. He didn't care who he killed or what became of the corpses or even what became of himself."
"That fury brought him into battle with Hector, who he slew, and it led him to raid Troy. Again and again he threw himself of the city's walls until one day an errant arrow from Paris's bow found it's mark."
"And killed him," Eve finished.
Gabrielle laughed, "Yes. And killed him."
"So the moral is…don't get mad if your friend dies?"
"It's not as easy as it sounds," Gabrielle and Xena both said at the same time. They shared a look and then quickly looked away. Bashfully.
Eve was oblivious to anything that passed between the women. She pushed herself out of Xena's lap and dusted the soot from burnt feathers off her front. "I still don't get why he didn't just wear more armor though. Then he could have been vengeful for forever"
"It was his fate," Gabrielle said, "he's supposed to be an example for us. Even the mightiest of warriors cannot escape their fate."
Another day Xena would have interpreted Gabrielle'e words as a threat. But now, there was something soft in her sea green eyes. Maybe it was a warning. Or maybe it was just a story to entertain a child.
Only Eve had grown bored and left them to go off in search of Homer and Euripides, who were apparently more fun. That left Xena alone with Gabrielle, and for the first time since the other woman had been injured Xena found herself…uncomfortable.
"That was a nice story," she said in the hopes that any words might quell the silence.
Gabrielle shrugged, "a friend who would do anything to avenge the one they loved? Always popular."
"But you tell the tale with passion."
Gabrielle ducked down a blush coloring her cheeks, "thank you Empress."
Xena groaned and leaned back on her hands. She was still sitting on the floor. "Please, I had to suffer through your convalescence. I think you can call me Xena."
"Do you let all your governors call you Xena?"
"Only the ones I like."
Smooth Xena. Gabrielle cocked her head and something like a smile played on her lips, "you like me?"
"I like Apollonia." Good, go with that. "The income it brings. The well trained soldiers."
"Barring the ones who sneak into your palaces to murder your governors."
"There are always exceptions."
And then she really did smile and it was perfect. More perfect then any woman's smile had a right to be. "I'm glad I'm one," her voice dropped in timbre, "Xena."
Was it the fire Eve had roasted feathers in heating the room? A bead of sweat traveled down Xena's neck and into the space between her shoulder blades. But she held Gabrielle's gaze. And she tried to figure out how quickly she could move from a sitting position to having the playwright in her arms.
"I guess I should shuffle my way back to bed before my nurse notices I'm gone." And Gabrielle had shattered the moment. She started to stand, leaning heavily on the staff. It wouldn't be appropriate to wrap her up in her arms now so Xena settled for quickly standing and making sure the other woman didn't fall.
"Careful," she warned.
Gabrielle slapped Xena's hands away. "It's just standing. I'll have you know I used to be really good at it—"
All the color went out of her face and she stumbled. Xena was there to catch her though. She put an arm around Gabrielle's waist and made her stand, but she left a little gap between them, for propriety's sake.
"This standing thing's harder then it looks," Gabrielle admitted weakly.
"Only for people who've had giant knives stuck in their bellies two weeks ago."
They started the trek back to Gabrielle's room. "You know in plays the hero is always getting stabbed in the stomach and he never so much as cries. Maybe a gasp or something. But they act like it's a flesh wound."
"From my experience people who get stabbed in the stomach don't normally live to write about it."
"So it is just artistic license?"
"Hmph, I think I'm going to make it my goal to educate people. My next play will be all about a wily politician in convalescence after an attack."
"Oh it will be. Lots of intrigue, and a good looking healer to have sexy times with."
Xena was proud of herself. She didn't stumble at Gabrielle's flirting tone.
They were at the entrance to Gabrielle's room now and the smaller woman looked exhausted from her walk, but she still found enough energy to smile softly up at Xena. "I think I'm going to get some rest," she said quietly. Xena gulped and nodded. "You should go find the boys. Make them entertain you with one of their plays."
"I much prefer yours."
"That's because I'm the famous one." She looked serious all of a sudden, like the governor Xena had appointed, "Euripides is good and his plays are exciting. You'll like them. Besides, I need rest."
She pulled away from Xena and shuffled towards her bed, the staff clacking loudly on the tile floor. Xena desperately wanted to follow her and talk and relish her company, but they could do that while fishing…for hours…without seneschals or writers friends.
"Goodnight Gabrielle," she called from the door then she turned down the hall towards the writers' messy little enclave where she could already hear their chatter mingled with Eve's laughter.