Princess Gabrielle’s attendants finished covering her skin with moisturising cream and stepped back, one grabbing Gabrielle’s underwear.
“There, your highness,” said the other. “Your hands and face are as smooth as a baby’s bottom!”
“But cleaner,” remarked Gabrielle in her usual warm but witty tone.
The other attendant hid a smile behind her hands, which carried Gabrielle’s underwear, and brought the clothes over to her. Gabrielle held up her arms so her attendants could slip all the layers on over her head. She stood still, gazing out the window as they tied her laces and did up her buttons. From her turret in the castle, she had a beautiful view of sky and trees and the city outside the castle walls. Each day, she looked at this view, and each day it inspired both happiness and melancholy inside her. Her parents would never let her live in the outside world.
“What’s the matter, Your Highness? Today’s an exciting day – you’re about to meet your betrothed!”
Gabrielle sighed. “I want to be out there, beyond the castle walls, seeing the world for myself. I need to see if the stories are true.”
Her attendants shared a concerned look. “But Your Highness, you’re much safer here. Your parents love you very much and give you everything you need. Here, you have power and position. You have all the gowns and jewels and books and food you could wish for. You have friends here. A sister. You’re loved. Why wouldn’t you want that?”
Gabrielle pointed out the jewels she wanted to wear, then said, “It’s not that I’m ungrateful, of course, but I must find out what it’s like out there. In my two decades of life, I’ve never left the castle. I want to see things, and meet people I’d never cross paths with in this castle. I want to see how people live in different kingdoms.” She sighed again. “I want to sleep under the night sky and care about more than what to say to foreign ambassadors and princes.”
“Well, perhaps when you meet your betrothed, you’ll change your mind.”
The other attendant, who had not spoken, nodded her agreement.
Gabrielle gave her attendants a non-committed smile. She was quite sure she wouldn’t change her mind. Princess Gabrielle had been born stubborn.
She didn’t change her mind. Lord Perdicas, Duke of one of the neighbouring lands, was nice and handsome, but he didn’t convince her that she wanted nothing more than to be his wife and stay in a castle for the rest of her days.
That evening, at the feast held for their betrothal, Gabrielle went to sit at her usual place with her mother, the Queen, and her sister, Princess Lila.
“No,” whispered her mother. “Girls, swap places. Lord Perdicas will sit on your left, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle and Lila exchanged frowns, but moved as requested. Their father, the King, emerged with Perdicas at his side, and the whole court stood upon their arrival. The King nudged Perdicas to move to Gabrielle’s side, then cleared his throat.
“This evening,” he addressed the feast hall, “we celebrate the engagement between my eldest daughter, Princess Gabrielle, and the Duke, Lord Perdicas. This union will bring our two families closer together for the good of our kingdom. May their marriage be happy and their lives fulfilled! Now eat, drink, and be merry!”
He clapped his hands and servants began serving food and pouring wine. The court jester strolled into the middle of the hall to bless the engagement with a few bawdy rhymes, and was up to his usual tricks in no time.
Gabrielle drained her goblet of wine in two gulps. Then she turned to Perdicas and asked him what his plans were while he was here in the castle. He mentioned visiting the royal stables, to which Gabrielle smiled and asked if he wanted company riding around the town.
He patted her hand, saying, “Thank you for the offer, but an escort will suffice. You’re a thoughtful girl, Your Highness.”
Her smile faded, and she withdrew her hand. Her betrothed thought she was a child. She was about to set him right when there was a massive crash and a black leather-clad figure swung in through the window and dropped to the middle of the feast hall. Glass shards littered the floor.
Gabrielle and everyone else stared with open mouths at the striking dark-haired woman, who looked back at them and said, “Oops. Sorry about the mess.”
The King stood, but everyone was too shocked to copy him. “Guards!” he yelled.
“Wait!” said the woman, making a halting gesture. “I’m here to warn you.”
Gabrielle glanced at the guards, who were halfway towards their target, then back at her father. “Please!” she begged. “Let her explain! I’m sure she has a good reason for this… display.” She shot the strange woman a warning look to be on her best behaviour.
The woman returned her look with a thankful smile.
The King rolled his eyes, then turned to the woman. “Speak, then.”
“My name is Xena,” she said, which resulted in some murmuring. “I hail from – well, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s an assassin in this castle.”
Gabrielle leant further forward in her seat, ignoring her sister’s attempts to catch her gaze.
“You have, of course, heard the stories of the warlord Draco?” Xena continued, addressing her question to the King.
“Of course,” he replied.
He’s lying, thought Gabrielle. He doesn’t listen to stories, not if they don’t concern him and his reign.
“Then you will also know that Draco-” Xena seemed to spit the name “-has a reputation to upkeep. He’s suspected of being behind the assassination of the Queen of Amphipolis, and I have come across a payment he made to a hired killer in your own kingdom of Potidaea. That killer is in the castle.”
Gabrielle’s green eyes darted from Xena to her father, who regarded Xena’s words with a solemn nod. “If what you say is true, then we must take extra precautions. I thank you for the warning, Lady Xena. I’ll take it from here. You are welcome to stay in my castle; my wife will see to it that your accommodation fits one who comes with such important news.”
Xena relaxed; Gabrielle noticed how relieved she appeared to be at the King’s words. Xena curtsied, a strange-looking movement in her short, tight-fitting garb. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I’m honoured to accept your invitation of hospitality.”
The Queen nodded to the room, then left her place at the royal family’s table and walked over to Xena. Gabrielle couldn’t work out what they said, but she turned to her father and whispered that she wished to help find a suitable room for Xena and help her settle in to the castle. Her father frowned, but Perdicas said he admired Princess Gabrielle’s thoughtfulness towards a stranger, so her father gave her permission to go. As Gabrielle took her leave, she smirked at the thought that mere thoughtfulness, as opposed to curiosity and intrigue, was behind her decision.
Gabrielle, the Queen, and a few maids readied a room for Xena in the visitors’ wing of the castle. The spacious room was rather bare, but the windows and four-poster bed were elegant enough to be suitable for their guest.
Once everything was to her liking, the Queen took her leave, claiming she needed to be at her husband’s side in this dangerous time. Gabrielle let the maids go as well, telling them she wanted to speak with their guest. The maids glanced at each other, probably wondering what on earth Gabrielle would want to talk about with Xena, but couldn’t disobey their princess’s request.
When Gabrielle was alone with Xena, she folded her arms. “There’s no assassin,” she said.
Xena’s blue eyes widened. “No,” she said, “but how do you know?”
“You paused too much when you were telling your tale. I’m studying to be a storyteller, so I know these things.”
Xena raised her eyebrows. “Do your parents know about this?”
“No,” admitted Gabrielle. “Anyway, why did you make up a story about an assassin? I won’t tell anyone. Promise.”
“I needed somewhere safe to stay for the night,” said Xena. “Someone… is after me, and would never think to look in this castle.”
Now Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. “And do you know who this someone is?”
“Yes, but you won’t have heard of her.”
Her. Gabrielle wracked her brains for stories of villainesses, then said, “Is it Callisto?”
Xena’s mouth dropped open. “You’ve heard of Callisto?”
“Storyteller, remember?” Gabrielle shot back. “So, is it her?”
“Not this time,” said Xena, pacing around the room. “Tell me, does this room happen to have a trapdoor?”
Gabrielle frowned. “I have no… idea,” she finished as Xena found and opened the trapdoor. “Why do you ask?”
Xena turned to her and grinned. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
“That’s what they all say,” grumbled Gabrielle, pouting.
“You don’t like secrets, do you?”
“I don’t like being cosseted like a child,” Gabrielle explained, watching Xena tinker with the trapdoor.
“I understand. Hold this, will you?” Xena passed Gabrielle a metal tool she didn’t recognise.
“So, where are you from?” asked Gabrielle.
“Where the Queen was assassinated?”
“The very one.”
“Did you have anything to do with that?”
Xena’s face grew stony. “I tried to stop it.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Gabrielle glanced away from Xena.
“Not your fault. Pass me that?”
Gabrielle handed the tool back to Xena. “Why do you trust me?” she asked. “How do you know I won’t go to my father, the King, with all this?”
“Because somehow I don’t think he’ll believe you,” said Xena, glancing at Gabrielle with a sympathetic wince. “Powerful men don’t listen to their daughters, unfortunately.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“Just an observation.”
“Well, you’re right.” Gabrielle’s face fell.
“Your father likes to stroke his own ego, huh?”
“Yeah,” admitted Gabrielle. “What’s the size of your ego, then?”
“Me? Don’t have one.” Xena shoved her metal tool down her front.
Gabrielle chuckled. “Fine. Where are you heading next?”
“Why, do you want to join me?” Xena smirked.
Xena let the trapdoor shut with a bang, making Gabrielle jump. “Are you sure?”
“I’m surer than anything,” said Gabrielle, touching Xena’s shoulder as she pleaded with her. “And don’t tell me it’s dangerous out there, because I know. But I can’t stay locked up in a castle, marry a duke, and have nothing to do but look after the children! I’d rather die than live the rest of my life wondering what’s out there in the world.”
Gabrielle blinked. “Pardon?”
“All right,” Xena repeated. “You can come with me. I could do with some company that doesn’t want me dead.”
“Want you dead?” Gabrielle frowned.
“Haven’t you heard the stories?”
“I guess some stories don’t make it to my ears,” said Gabrielle, glancing at her feet.
“Well, then I guess I have some tales to share with you.” Xena smiled, then added, “While we walk.”
“Unless you’d rather ride my horse? She doesn’t like blondes.”
“I don’t mind walking,” said Gabrielle, wondering as she said it if it were true.
“Good.” Xena grinned. “I’ll come for you in the morning. Wear something suitable for travelling in.”
Gabrielle bit her lip, thinking. “All right. I’ll get some food, too. Running away with any food must be a disaster waiting to happen.”
“Spoken like a true traveller,” said Xena. “You’ll get the hang of it in no time.”
Gabrielle grinned. “Good night, Lady Xena.”
Xena smirked. “Sweet dreams, Princess Gabrielle. See you tomorrow.”
Gabrielle all but skipped out of the room and back to her own chambers. She let her attendants undress her, then let them retire for the night. She sighed when they were gone, and rummaged around the room, searching for things to take with her. She settled on one travelling habit to wear tomorrow and one spare, a nightgown, jewels to sell, and a hairbrush. She deliberated for a moment, then added two sturdy pairs of shoes and enough stockings to last a week. After another moment’s thought, she added her favourite book, a blank scroll, and a quill.
But where to put all of this? Gabrielle tapped her lips with her index finger, pondering. Lila had a lightweight chest that was perfect but would be difficult to move out of her room without her noticing. Gabrielle couldn’t think of an alternative, however, so she threw a robe on over her nightgown and crept out of her room.
“Your Highness,” said a guard stationed by her door.
Gabrielle jumped. “What are you doing here?” she asked, clutching her chest.
“His Majesty, the King has ordered us to guard your door,” said a second guard.
“Oh. Well. I thank you for your dutiful service, but I must go to Princess Lila’s room. May I pass?”
The guards looked at each other, then nodded. “But if you have not returned in half an hour, Your Highness, we’ll have to alert our superior and go and search for you.”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle stepped past them and carried on.
As she padded down the stairs of the turret, a passage which was lit only by the occasional torch, her heart beat fast. A sudden creaking sound made her hold her breath, but it was only her foot on an old wooden step – she wasn’t being followed. She exhaled, and continued on her way.
The guards outside Lila’s room were just as polite as the ones outside Gabrielle’s own room. They opened the door for her, letting her tiptoe inside. There was no light, but she knew where Lila kept the wooden chest in her wardrobe, so Gabrielle headed straight for it.
She knew she’d found the chest when her foot kicked it. Her pained yell echoed around the room, and she winced, knowing her discovery was inevitable.
Sure enough, Lila cried, “What’s happening?” from her bed in the centre of the room.
Cradling her injured foot and hopping on the other, Gabrielle grimaced. “It’s just me, Lila. I left a book in your room.”
“You want to read at this time of night? I hope your candle’s bright enough – you’ll strain your eyes,” said Lila.
“The moon’s shining in through my window; it’s keeping me awake,” Gabrielle lied, hoping Lila didn’t realise it was a cloudy night.
Lila sighed. “Well, hurry up and get your book, then. You woke me up.”
Gabrielle picked up the chest and carried it out of the room, thankful that her sister hadn’t lit a candle when she’d awoken.
“Good night, Lila. I love you.”
Lila groaned. “Good night,” she all but shouted.
Gabrielle hurried out of her sister’s room as fast as she could, smiling at the guards as she scurried past. She was about to return to her own room when she remembered her promise to Xena to pack food. Her stomach grumbled in agreement, which was fair enough, since Xena’s arrival had meant she hadn’t finished her dinner, so she headed to the kitchen.
She nodded to yet more guards, and walked into the kitchen, deserted now that it was late. She put down the chest to light a candle, then searched the room for supplies. She packed a week’s worth of apples, a loaf of bread, a small round of cheese, and some smoked meat into the chest. When her stomach grumbled again, she found a honey cake and bit into it. She groaned at the pleasant sweetness. The honey cake disappeared within seconds.
With a guilty wipe of her mouth, Gabrielle closed the lid of the chest, picked it up, and blew out the candle. She returned to her room, trying not to reveal any struggle with the weight in her arms as she passed the guards.
When her bedroom door closed behind her, she sank against it with a sigh. She carried the chest over to her bed, and packed her belongings, leaving out some clothes for tomorrow. To close the chest, she had to sit on it, but she managed to fasten the latch, to her utmost satisfaction and relief. She didn’t know what she’d have done if everything hadn’t fitted.
She slid the chest under her bed, gave her teeth a little brush, and slipped under the bedcovers. Her heart still raced after her sneaking about the castle, but she slowed her breathing to calm herself down. She closed her eyes. Then she began to count sheep – an interesting task since she’d never seen a sheep – and made it to a hundred before she fell asleep.
At dawn, a pebble hitting her window woke Gabrielle from her slumber. She lay there, staring at nothing as her dreams slipped away and she resigned herself to being awake. Another pebble hit the glass, and she hauled herself out of bed and over to the window. She looked down to see Xena standing on the flat roof of the servants’ quarters in front of the turret. Gabrielle opened her window.
“Jump!” said Xena.
“Are you crazy? I’ll break my neck!” Gabrielle replied. “Besides, I’m not dressed.”
“If you’re coming with me, you have to jump now! Your father’s tightening security in the castle – you won’t get a second chance,” urged Xena.
Gabrielle sighed. “Hang on,” she called out the window. “I’ll put on my shoes.”
From the pile on her bed, she grabbed a pair of woollen stockings and pulled them on as fast as possible. Then she put on some shoes, threw her other clothes in the chest, and crossed back to the window. She made sure the latch on the chest was secure, but she still didn’t trust it not to fly open. She rustled around her wardrobe and found two belts. Testing their strength, she decided she didn’t have a better option, so she fastened a belt around each end of the chest. With the chest in her arms, she returned to the window.
“You need to catch this,” she called out to Xena.
“Fine.” Xena held out her arms.
Gabrielle threw the chest out the window. She watched with wide eyes and an open mouth as the chest sailed through the air and landed in Xena’s arms, safe and sound. She wanted to cheer, but restrained herself.
“Now you,” said Xena, putting down the chest.
“Come on, it’s not as far down as it looks. Trust me, Princess.”
Gabrielle nodded. She climbed onto the window sill and looked down. The drop looked even further now.
“I can’t,” she said.
“Sure you can.” Xena held out her arms. “It’ll be over before you know it.”
“It will be if I die,” said Gabrielle.
“I’ll catch you, I promise. You’re safe; I’m an expert.”
Gabrielle swallowed, and clenched her fists.
“If you don’t jump, you’ll have to get married.”
Xena caught her, and stumbled only a little. “Nice nightgown,” she said. “You look like my bride.”
Indeed, she had in her muscular arms a white-clad young woman whom it appeared she was about to carry over the threshold of their new home.
“You haven’t kissed me yet.” Gabrielle grinned.
“I’m joking.” Gabrielle patted Xena’s shoulder. “You do look like my knight in shining armour, though, Lady Xena. Put me down,” she added.
She pretended not to notice Xena’s reluctance to let go of her. Interesting, she thought as she picked up her now-heavy wooden chest.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, opening it up.
Gabrielle grabbed an apple for herself and tossed another to Xena. “So, where are we going?”
“If you knew that, would it still be an adventure?” Xena bit into the apple, spraying juice into Gabrielle’s face.
“Frankly, yes,” said Gabrielle, wiping a spot of juice off her cheek.
“Well, the first thing we’re doing is getting off this roof.”
“Excellent plan.” Gabrielle nodded her approval.
“But that can wait until after breakfast.” Xena gestured at her apple.
“After all, nothing that should be done in life should be done before breakfast.”
Good motto, thought Gabrielle. She should write it down. She would write down many, many things over the years, but this was the beginning.
“We need to get one thing straight, however,” said Xena. “I’m not a Lady.”
“You’re a commoner?” exclaimed Gabrielle, raising her eyebrows. “And I’m a princess. I think this’ll make a very interesting story.”
“Once upon a time…” said Xena, throwing her apple core over the side of the roof. “Yeah, sure. Let’s get going.”
And it did make an interesting story. Princess Gabrielle and Not-A-Lady Xena lived happily ever after – most of the time, anyway.