Queen of Hearts
A thousand things were going through Xena’s mind, as she threaded her way back through the trees they’d so laboriously fought through earlier, heading back to the horses.
Were the horses still there? Had they been found by the army’s scouts? Why hadn’t the merchants said anything about an invasion? How could she have been so…
So what? The queen brushed a bit of moss out of her way with an impatient motion. She’d sensed there was something out there, practically driven everyone nuts to get out here and find it, and who knew? Here it was.
They hadn’t been there long. There was no smell of a long encampment, and she’d seen no permanent structures, just travel cookpits and a few hanging waterbags and now that made her wonder if her timing had just been that perfect that she’d met them just as they started her way?
Incredible. Absurd. Almost as absurd as Bregos ending up hiding in Gabrielle’s hometown cesspit.
The men walking behind her were silent, their mood sober as they undoubtedly absorbed the knowledge their their spring campaign had just altered into something else entirely.
Gabrielle, too, was quiet as she stuck to Xena’s heels, once again holding her staff and using it to walk with.
It was all very serious, Xena thought, appropriate to the situation. She bore the somber silence for a few steps more, before she glanced behind her. “Hey.” She spoke in a normal tone. “Lighten up, willya? You’re making me think you doubt my ability to get us out of this damn mess.”
Gabrielle squirmed up next to her, scraping herself against an inconvenient tree. “I think we’re all just so amazed that you knew all about them.” She explained. “Or.. Well, at least I”m amazed.”
“But, Xena, that’s really incredible.” The blond woman insisted. “How did you know? I remember you telling me back in the castle you knew something was going to attack us,”
How had she known? Xena turned sideways to get between overgrown limbs. There had been hints, yes, word of new traders from afar sniffing around and a lack of the casual traders she’d always come to expect from the port city. Merchant trains had come through, but in smaller numbers, and the odd lone traveler had vanished leaving this route conspicuously barren.
Something hadn’t felt right about that, but it had been winter, and the passes were difficult, and it could have been coincidence at any rate. Maybe there were more lucrative markets up the river past the port, after all.
So what had put that nightmare in her thoughts? Xena had almost believed it was her own insecurity, right up until the wind had blown in her face and made the images all too real. She glanced around, then looked at her smaller companion. “Damned if I know.” She admitted, in a wry whisper. “Sometimes you just get a feeling in your gut.”
Gabrielle looked thoughtful at that, then she nodded a little bit, as they started through the last layer of trees.
It was now almost dawn, and the impenetrable darkness had been replaced by a gray, misty light that showed just how overgrown the forest was and just how incredibly clever Xena had been in guiding them through it.
On either side of the path they’d taken were rock filled gullies, and Gabrielle shook her head again in amazement as she watched her boots scuff the broken bits of wood they’d caused out of her way.
“Sh.” Xena raised her hand and slowed, as they neared the edge of the forest. “Let’s make sure we don’t have any surprises waiting.” She stopped entirely, and turned. “Everyone.. “ Her eyes went directly to Gabrielle’s face. “Stay here.”
Once she was relatively sure she was going to be obeyed, she turned and started forward again, this time with far more caution. For a moment, it felt strange, and then as though the years were peeling back from her senses, she twitched her shoulders and remembered what it was like to be the scout the army was depending on.
She felt her breathing slow, to the pattern of the wind around her as she moved in rhythm with the limbs to either side of her, puling her cloak around her body to conceal her armor and weapons.
She focused her attention ahead of her, flicking her eyes back and forth across the edge line of the trees looking for motion that didn’t belong there. Her ears cocked, catching a faint rustling, and she cursed the still air that remained mute of the telltale scent of horses.
She went still, listening, catching the soft rustling again, but it was too vague for her to identify the source. Horses? Or men waiting to spit her with a spear? Xena laughed silently at her bravado and eased forward again, ducking under an overhanging branch and as a precaution, drawing her dagger from it’s forearm sheath and closing her fingers around it’s slim, balanced hilt.
In these trees, branches so close around her, her sword would be pretty much useless. The dagger, with it’s razor sharp double edge and center blood channel was just a flick of her wrist away from a more productive protection.
She wasn’t sure it would do much if she ended up facing a line of crossbows but it wouldn’t be the first time and she doubted it would be the last, either. Her luck seemed to run that way. “Okay.” She murmured to herself. “Let’s see what we got.”
Around her, the forest was silent, with not even a bird or cricket to distract her from the narrow path ahead of her. She walked down it, boots automatically silent on the leaf strewn dirt as her fighting instincts woke and her skin started to tingle.
Ahead of her there were two trees, with just enough space between them for her to squeeze through. She aimed for them, moving from trunk to trunk to keep as much of her body hidden as possible from anyone peering in from without.
Just as she got to the trees, she let her cloak slip off her shoulder, freeing her sword arm that she cocked, the dagger held lightly between her fingers as she rested her other hand on the trunk of the forest’s edge tree and cautiously eased her head around it, peering out into the overgrown clearing where they’d left the horses.
It was empty. Xena cursed under her breath and studied the ground in front of her, watching the tall grasses for any sign of motion, and turning her head a little to listen as hard as she could for any signs of trouble.
Nothing. Behind her, as though chastened by it’s tardiness, a bird burst into song nearly making Xena burst into the clearing with every hair on her head on end. She barely stifled the urge to turn around and nail the little bastard with her dagger and decided to cut to the chase instead.
Boldly, she stepped out into the dawn light, clearing the trees and sweeping her eyes around just as a motion to her left alerted her and her reactions triggered into a violent response. The onrushing motion was large and she dropped the dagger and went for her sword before she’d even completely turned to face it, drawing the blade and extending it in a sweep.
She let out a yell, as her mind recognized what her instincts were reacting to and only just barely scared her horse into shying left just as he would have had his ears cut off. “You stupid bastard!”
Tiger snorted and hopped off the ground with his front legs, shaking his head at her reaction to his greeting.
Xena sheathed her sword as she fended off the stallion’s head butt, grabbing him by the mane and growling in his ear. She looked past him to find Patches trotting up, and behind the pony, as if being led by him, the rest of the horses.
The queen watched them approach, glad they seemed unharmed, then she looked behind her to find the space between her and the forest empty.
She looked at the horses, then at the forest. “They pick a damned time to actually listen to me, huh?” She sighed as she turned and stomped back over to the trees. “Get out here!” She backed up as Gabrielle appeared, peeking up through her blond bangs with an expression remarkably like her pony’s.
“Well, you did say…”
“And when did that ever matter to you?” Xena turned and surveyed the grasslands. The challenge now, she knew was to get them all back to the army without giving away their presence. The road they’d ridden on before the forest seemed now far too exposed to her, given the growing daylight.
Should she make a run for it, and hope for the best, or try to find some back pathway, with it’s unknown dangers?
Should she break up the group and send them back one by one?
Gabrielle eased past her, letting her hands rest on Xena’s hips before she went over to where Patches was now stolidly cropping grass. “Boy, I”m glad to see these guys.” She gave her pony a hug around his neck. “That would have been a really long walk back.”
Xena studied her lover, whose back was turned to her, letting her eyes flick over the set of her shoulders. “All right.” She made a show of looking at the sky. “We can’t risk losing our jump on them.” She leaned on Tiger and indicated an escarpment to the right of where they were, still shy of the slope to the road. “We’ll hole up there for the day, get back to the army once it gets dark.”
Brendan nodded. “Aye, ‘sgood idea.” He said. “Send the lad here back to warn em, maybe? One should get through, and tell em to keep hidden. Good thing you had us camp in the trees there, Xena.”
“Mm.” The queen eyed the soldier in question. “Yeah, but take the armor off. If you do get caught, better you be a goatherd.”
The soldier touched his fist to his chest, then started taking off his rugged leather and chain mail armor. Xena watched him a moment, then she walked over to where Gabrielle was standing and leaned against her, putting her hands on Patches back on either side of her lover’s. “So.”
“What are we going to do now?” Gabrielle asked, softly. “Will they come and attack us?”
“Looks like that’s their plan.” Xena said. “So we have to figure out a way to stop them, and run them back wherever they came from.”
Gabrielle turned around to face her, leaning back against Patches shaggy hide as she was pressed belly to belly with the queen. She looked up into Xena’s eyes, and managed a small grin. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” She said. “But boy, there was a lot of them there, huh?”
There sure were. “Meh.” Xena shrugged. “Size isn’t everything.” She smiled at her lover. “As I’ve found out.”
Gabrielle blushed, and her eyes dropped, briefly, then lifted again. “When we get to the rocks over there, I can make some tea. I brought a packet of leaves in my bag.” She said. “I think everyone would like that..it’s been a long walk.”
“Mm.” Xena mused. “It’s gonna get a lot longer.” She warned. “So let’s get moving.” She took up Tiger’s reins and pulled herself up into his saddle. “Sooner we get under cover, the better.” She marked a route up to the escarpment. “Stay near the trees.”
The youngest soldier, now stripped to his leggings and undershirt, swung himself aboard his equally stripped down horse. “Majesty, I will tell them.” He said. “And too, I will watch for Jax, he should be headin after us b’now.”
Xena nodded, raising her hand and sending him off, waiting for him to get to the edge of the forest before she turned and lead the way up towards her chosen hiding spot, those same thousand thoughts still buzzing through her mind.
Was she holing up just to delay having to decide what to do?
She looked sideways at Gabrielle, who was seated on Patches back, leaning against her saddlebow as the pony ambled along at Tiger’s side. After a moment, the blond woman straightened up, releasing a long breath and lifting a hand to rub her eyes.
No, it was worse than that. “Shave the kittens first, huh?”
“Did you say something?”
Gabrielle knelt beside the tiny, shielded fire, tipping the tin of boiling water over the leaves she’d carefully crushed in the bottom of Xena’s travel mug, breathing in the scent of the herbs as it rose to bathe her face.
They were on the lee side of the escarpment, both the forest, and the road invisible from where she was sitting, meaning they were out of sight from any watchers as well.
The sun was spreading over the landscape, and a cool breeze blew against her body, reminding her all over again of just how tired she was. Her eyes were burning, and it was hard to keep focused, when all she really wanted to do was curl up somewhere and go to sleep.
This wasn’t a camp like she was used to with the army. The soldiers had hobbled their horses in a small patch of scrub grass, and chosen places to watch from, leaving her to fiddle with the fire once it had been made after accepting her offering of tea leaves.
Xena had chosen a flat topped rock whose top was even with her head to sit on, the position giving her a view of the road heading to the port city and she’d settled herself atop it with her back to the fire, her expression a trifle distant as she gazed down the slope.
Gabrielle felt a bit out of place, not wanting to intrude on Xena’s thoughts, and not being comfortable sitting with the soldiers. She decided she’d bring Xena her tea, then go join Patches in his sun drenched area for a while.
She added some honey from her small hoard and stirred the tea, then she slowly got to her feet and walked over to where Xena was seated, holding the cup between both hands. The queen looked around as she approached, and Gabrielle nearly tripped and dumped the tea as she found herself caught in that pale blue regard. “Oops.”
Xena chuckled briefly, reaching out to steady her and take the cup. “Thanks, muskrat.” She slid over and patted the rock at her side. “C’mon up.”
Gabrielle looked at the rock, then up at Xena, then down at herself. “Should I go get my horse to stand on first?” She tipped her head back and peered at the queen. “How am I supposed to get up there?”
The queen could hear the faintest edge of exasperation in her companion’s voice, and it intrigued her. She set her cup down and swung her legs over the other side of the rock, bracketing Gabrielle between them. “Grab on.”
Gabrielle just had time to take hold of her legs before Xena clamped them firmly around her, then flexed her thigh muscles and lifted her lover up into the air, watching her eyes widen as she extended her legs straight, then she slowly rolled onto her back, bringing Gabrielle even with the top of the rock. “There.”
Gabrielle got her footing as she was released, and promptly sat down next to the queen. “Thanks.” She said, with a little sigh. She stretched her legs out and watched the sun make warm patterns over fabric over them.
Xena picked up her cup and sipped her tea, easing herself back to lean against the rock wall behind her and crossing her ankles. “I”m gonna climb the side of this hill here. You up for it?”
Gabrielle turned her head and looked at Xena.
The queen waited, simply watching her face.
“Not really.” The blond haired woman admitted. “I’d probably fall off and end up down there in a dozen piieces.” She pionted at the bottom of the escarpment. She leaned on her elbows again, drawing her legs up crossed under her. “Sorry about that.”
“Ahh.” Xena reached out and threaded her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair. “Nice move, muskrat. We finally took a step forward instead of going round and round with each other.” She saw Gabrielle peeking at her from the corner of her eye in a mild apprehension, and she added a smile to reassure her.
“You’re not going to climb the wall?” Gabrielle asked, after a moment’s hesitation.
“Nope.” THe queen took another sip of her tea. “I”m going to sit here and try to figure out a battle plan.”
“You’re going to stay right here?” Gabrielle asked. “For a while?”
“Great.” The blond woman lay down on her side and put her head down on Xena’s thigh, exhaling in blissful relief as she closed her eyes. “I’m so tired my eyes are crossing.”
Xena looked quickly around, then down at this unexpected intrusion on her person. The other soldiers were carefully not looking at her, and she felt somewhat hoisted on her own gallows at the result of her teasing. When she’d coaxed Gabrielle up on the rock her intention had been to get a little snuggling in but damn it, it was supposed to have been on her terms.
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s knee, rubbing the surface just above the heavy armor covering the joint. The back of her head was pressed against Xena’s stomach and before she could really think about it the queen ran her fingers through the thick blond locks again, dismissing the incongruity of it all.
As her companion’s body relaxed, and her eyes closed, Xena could feel an odd sense of peace settle over her as well, and as she took a sip from her cup her thoughts began to fall into order, long dormant instincts coming alive again as she studied the ground before her.
It was odd, having to switch from the mentality of an attacker, to one of a defender. Xena wasn’t dumb enough not to realize that’s exactly what she was now, her force the only thing standing between the invaders and her realm.
So there would be no attack on the port city. The queen ticked that ambivalence off her list. She had perhaps a day to put together a plan to beat the other army and figure out past that what their support was so there wouldn’t be an unpleasant surprises coming behind them.
Her eyes swept over the slopes, finding spots to put troops, and places she could build quick redoubts for her archers to hide behind. She could send a force through the path they’d found and ambush them from the side, and she could even pull back behind the pass, and wait to ambush them there.
The one thing she couldn’t do is meet them in force head to head. Xena had confidence in herself, and in her men, but the odds were tipped too heavily and an all out attack would end up with a lot of dead bodies and she hadn’t that many to spare.
Damn Bregos. The queen cursed under her breath. Damn the man for fracturing her army right at the worst possible time and…
Xena blinked, her body going very still as her eyes flicked over the landscape almost unseeingly. She heard Brego’s laughter in her mind’s eye, and felt a chill go down her back. Was that what he’d meant? That he’d sold her out?
Sold them all out?
She kept up her gentle sorting of Gabrielle’s hair. After a minute or two, she shook her head and went back to scanning the horizon. Bregos hadn’t been that sharp, to think that far ahead. Surviving on scrub, someone had probably made him an offer for information, and he’d jumped at it.
Brendan came over to her makeshift throne and leaned his arms against it. He looked at Gabrielle, now fast asleep sprawled over Xena’s leg, then gave his queen a smile.
“Shut up.” Xena responded pleasantly. “Just be glad I didn’t decide to get a pet snake again.”
The old captain chuckled, then he sobered. “Figger they should start sending patrols through here, Xena. Surprised they haven’t already.”
“Don’t get that.”
Xena drank the last of her tea. “They were waiting for something.” She said. “Probably a report from our slimy ex general”
Brendan reacted a little in surprise. “You think he was in with em?”” He asked. “A traitor?” He seemed doubtful. “Didn’t set him for that, Xena. If nothing, he loved the land here. “
“Exactly.” The queen said, dryly. “Why else hang around here all winter? You don’t think he was going to knock on the gates at spring solstice and bring me flowers, do ya?”
Brendan shook his head. “Bastard.”
A soft, birdlike whistle brought both them to alert silence. Xena’s eyes caught the motion first, and she pointed across the forest to the road, where a mounted force was emerging and heading towards them. “Ya jinxed us, damn you.”
Brendan cursed softly, as first two, then four then eight pair of horses rode into view, mounted by armored riders who fanned out as they cleared the trees in a an attitude of watchful alertness. “They get past into the next valley, they’ll find us, for sure.”
“Mmhm.” Xena agreed. “They look like they know their business.” She flexed her hand. “So I guess they just won’t get into the next valley.” She added. “Tell the men to take off their livery, and get their weapons ready.”
The queen’s eyes twinkled. “Theres supposed to be a band of raiders in the damn valley, Brendan.” She booted him in the shoulder. “So let’s go raid.” She watched her captain retreat, then she waggled one booted foot in contentment. “It’s always good to draw the first blood. Remember that, Gabrielle.”
Oblivious to this bit of wisdom, Gabrielle remained in her dreams, not stirring when Xena put her arm over her sleeping shoulders, the pale blue eyes watching the troops with undisguised anticipation.
Gabrielle felt very conspicuous, riding ahead of the soldiers and Xena towards the road. She wasn’t at all sure this plan was really a good one, but Xena hadn’t really given her a choice so here she was, on Patches back, heading for this armored troop that had so far not noticed them.
She was scared. She felt very exposed, and for the first time since they’d left the castle it occured to her that chances were getting better that she’d never live to return to it.
Suddenly, they were noticed, and she drew in a breath as the last set of mounted soldiers from the enemy army turned in their saddles to watch their slow approach.
Behind her, the soldiers were all talking casually, as though they were the household guard of the merchants wife she was supposed to be. Xena was near the back of them, her cloak pulled over her armor and her dark hair pulled back into a knot and tucked out of view.
Gabrielle watched as the entire enemy force stopped, and turned to wait for them. She kept her hands on her reins, resting against the saddlehorn and wished fervently that she was still sleeping on Xena’s lap, and it all was some sort of bizarre dream.
Xena’s voice, low but vibrant, reached her. Gabrielle concentrated on taking deep breaths, and tried to figure out how a merchant’s wife would act if they were out on the road in the middle of the wilderness - assuming a merchants wife would actually be out in the middle of nowhere, of course.
But, Xena was counting on her. So. Gabrielle tried to stay relaxed, studying the group of soldiers ahead of her. They were all wearing chain mail armor and they had a red surcoat over it, with some kind of design in black on the front, and they looked very organized and well kept.
Not like all Xena’s men, in fact. Gabrielle pondered. Their army had good armor, and everyone took good care of their weapons, but their gear was obviously from different campaigns and eras, and some had leather scale armor like hers, while others had chain, and still others, metals plates.
The enemy soldiers were uniformly bearded, and their skin was darker hued, as though they’d spent a lot of time in the sun. The one nearest to her now raised his hand in her direction. “Halt.”
What would a merchant’s wife do? Gabrielle kept her reins loose, and allowed Patches to amble on as though she hadn’t heard the man though she thought she heard a familiar, melodic chuckle from behind her.
The soldier rode out a little ahead of his troops, and came directly across her path. “Hold up there!”
Gabrielle continued riding, hearing hoofbeats coming up a little closer to her and recognizing Tiger’s distinctive snorts. She could see the man much more clearly now, and she noticed he wore a silver chain around his neck. Did that mean he was in charge?
The rest of the soldiers had turned and now they drew up in a rough circle, watching them approach with wary eyes. Gabrielle waited until Patches’ hooves hit the road before she slowed him up a little, pulling him to a halt almost nose to nose with the enemy captain’s horse. “Hello.”
The man stared at her. “What road do you take?” He asked, gruffly. His voice held an accent strange to her ears, but after all, since this was the furthest she’d ever been from her birthplace that wouldn’t have taken much.
“What?” Gabrielle asked.
“What road do you take.” The man repeated, giving her erstwhile guard a cursory look.
Gabrielle looked to the right, and then to the left, and then behind her. She turned her gaze back to the soldier. “How many are there around here?” She asked, in a reasonable tone. “I only see one. Is there some other road you know of?”
The man reined in his horse, who was tossing his head. “What direction are you traveling.” He clarified. ‘We didn’t expect to see anyone on the road. Where are you bound?” His voice became more insistent. “To the sea? Or inland.”
“Why do you want to know?” Gabrielle countered, aware at the edge of her senses that Xena was edging up on her right hand side, and somehow she knew the queen was pleased with her. “Who are you anyway, and what are you doing here?” She asked, raising her voice a little. “I’ve never seen outfits like that before.. Where are you from, and where are you going?”
“That’s not your affair.” The man said. “Do you live around here?”
“I have business to attend to.” Gabrielle tried to sound like some of the nobles wives she’d heard around the castle. “Please let us pass.”
The enemy soldiers had gathered closer to listen, watching her curiously as they fingered their weapons.
“We also have business.” The lead soldier said. “Have your guard put down their weapons. You best come with us.” He motioned to the other men. “Take them.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Gabrielle started to back Patches up. “Really, I..”
The soldier’s eyes flicked over her, and then past her and as his hand went to his sword hilt she felt motion to her right and she instinctively flattened herself over Patches neck as Tiger surged past her and there was noise, and yelling and clashing metal, and right almost in her ear, the sound of a crossbow.
It was sudden, and very violent, and she had to force herself to lift her head and peek up and over Patches head, to find the enemy soldiers battling ferociously against Xena and her much smaller force.
Chaos. Random motion and once again she was lost in it, helpless and useless in the melee where her companions and Xena were battling.
Brendan was on foot next to her, shooting over his mounts back at the close in battle, releasing and reloading his crossbow with stolid precision. Gabrielle stared at him for a minute, then she turned and saw Xena in a horrific fight with two of the enemy soldiers with two more charging right at her and..
She didn’t really know what was happening to her, but the next thing she knew she was throwing herself off Patches, and sliding her stick out from it’s holders as she bolted right at the four men who were pouncing on her.
Xena was fully occupied with one man’s sword pressing against hers, and a second’s mace she’d just deflected with a kick and she didn’t have a spare arm to grab the third man about to crash into Tiger’s side. “Yah! Ya bastard!”
Gabrielle lifted her stick and squeezed between the shifting horses, aiming at the third man and whacking him on the arm as hard as she could, oblivious to her own safety. She saw his head turn, and realized it was the guy in charge as he jerked to one side, reaching for where she’d hit him.
She hit him again, and then again, as he tried to haul his horses head around and get away from her, raising his sword but unable to get an angle on her as she jabbed him in the side with the end of her stick.
Another man rushed at her. She turned and started to back up, but the other end of her stick hit some thing hard, and then the man coming at her ran right into the front end of it as she jerked and almost tripped.
The soldier’s horse reared, and he toppled off backwards and Gabrielle only just escaped being trampled by his horse as the animal bolted past her. She looked frantically around, finding bodies to either side of her and Xena a length away, standing in her stirrups to meet the full speed charge of an enemy soldier, with a lance, heading right at her.
Gabrielle froze, the scene slowing in front of her as she watched the barbed lance tip careen directly for Xena’s chest, and as the queen’s name was ripped from her throat Xena gracefully tucked her shoulder down and let the tip go past her, then she straightened and swept her blade around in a backhanded motion that caught the man’s neck just above his armor and separated his head from her shoulders with a sound like branches cracking.
The head flew free and tumbled in the air, and she watched it bounce within a hand span of her in horrified fascination, the eyes rolling and their lids fluttering as blood spattered everywhere.
A yell. Her head swung around to see the last two soldiers breaking off and lashing their horses, heading back the way they’d come as two of Xena’s men chased them down.
Brendan let out a long whistle, and the men peeled off, clearing the way for a well placed bolt to take the first of the two right out of his saddle. He started to reload, but Xena let out a whistle of her own, and half stood in her stirrups, unhooking the round weapon from her hip and letting it fly with an almost casual flick of her wrist.
The sun caught it, sending brilliant sparkles everywhere as it whipped across the grass, catching the lone runner across the back of his neck and exploding in a halo of blood, then, incredibly, arching away as he fell from the saddle and whirling back the way it came, coming to rest in Xena’s hand as she caught it in one gloved fist.
For a moment, it was quiet over the tiny battlefield. Then Xena sniffed, and let her round weapon drop back onto it’s hook after she wiped it’s edge on her cloak. She half turned in her saddle to look at Gabrielle. “Well well.”
Gabrielle put the end of her stick down and leaned on it, as she looked around her. Xena’s men were riding back over to them, and she realized they all were looking at her with very peculiar expressions.
“The muskrat has fangs.” Xena chuckled. “Who’d have guessed?” She reached over and ruffled Gabrielle’s hair. “You all right?”
Gabrielle decided what she really felt like was throwing up. She walked over to where Patches was standing and leaned against him, burying her face in the thick coat on his neck as she felt her whole body begin to shake.
Brendan came over to stand at Tiger’s side, settling his crossbow onto his back. “Brave, that little one.” He commented soft. “Went right at em.”
Xena studied the results of her ambush, counting herself relatively pleased with them. “WIsh wars were all this easy.” She slid down from Tiger’s back and dusted her hands off, wiping some of the dried blood from them as she walked over to where Gabrielle was standing and putting her arms around her.
“W.. Was that wrong?” Gabrielle asked. “What I did?”
“No.” Xena gave her a warm hug, men be damned. “You did great.” She released the blond woman enough to let her turn around, so they were facing each other. “You kept those bastards focused right where I wanted them until we were in their faces. Good job.”
Gabrielle tried not to look around at all the dead bodies.
“And then.” Xena leaned down and touched her forehead to her lover’s. “And then, you finally put that damn stick to some use.”
“I just wanted to keep them away from you.”
The queen smiled. “I know.” She lowered her voice. “Gabrielle, there’s two kinds of people. Runners and fighters. It’s not something you choose.”
Gabrielle remembered, a little, how it felt to swing her stick and try to hurt someone. “I don’t think I”m a fighter.” She admitted, drawing in a shaky breath. “I just didn’t know what else to do.”
Xena tilted her head and gave her lover a kiss. “Exactly.” She patted her cheek. “Get up on the runt. Long as we’re out here, we might as well ride, in case they send anyone out to remind this bunch what they were supposed to do.”
“Get the horses.” Brendan ordered, swinging up on his own mount. “Leave the bodies where they lie. Let em wonder.”
Gabrielle slowly got up onto Patches back, lifting up the stick she’d leaned against her pony’s shoulder. She looked at it, then she looked at Xena, watching the queen watch her. She knew the men were also watching her, and now there was something a little different in their eyes when they did.
Was it respect? Gabrielle exhaled, as she awkwardly tucked the stick under her thigh into it’s holders. She didn’t think she’d done anything to be respected for.
“See?” Xena said, her voice carrying back on the wind. “What the Hades do I need an army for? I’ve got Gabrielle the Mad Muskrat watching my ass.”
Gabrielle managed a smile, at the low hoots of approval, and decided to put the feelings aside until she had time to sit quietly and figure out what to do about them, since she knew she really wasn’t a fighter, and Xena seemed to think she wasn’t a runner.
Maybe she was just nuts. That would probably explain everything.
Xena found herself glad to see the army’s camp when she rode past the fringe of trees that hid it from the road. She was already thinking about how to move the troops, and where to station them, and the thought of the oncoming war had pushed past her uncertainties to a core of thrumming excitement.
She sensed the same level of excitement as she rode into the camp, men were making themselves ready all around the central firepit and a muted cheer rose up as she was spotted.
She dismounted and handed Tiger’s reins to the groom who ran up and stripped her gauntlets off as she turned in a graceful circle, approving of the activity around her. “Glad to see everyone didn’t just go fishing while I was gone.”
Brendan dismounted next to her, also in a visible good humor. “Not for dinner, at any rate.” He chuckled. “Move out at dusk, then?”
Xena nodded. “Double time on the arrows.” She said. “We’re gonna need every damn last one of them.”
The whirl of motion circled around Gabrielle as she quietly got off Patches back, and murmured a thanks to the man who came to take him away for her. She took her stick from it’s holders and walked past the men busy sharpening swords and banging dents out of armor, passing between tall, moss trunked trees until she reached the door to Xena’s tent and passed inside it.
It was quiet in the tent, and cool, the thick hide blocking out most of the light and rendering the inside in a dim, ochre peace. Gabrielle went over to one of the camp stools and sat down on it, letting her feet slide forward and cradling her stick in the crook of her arm.
She studied the surface of the thing, slowly reaching up to touch the dents near one end and the scuff marks along the place where she’d struck the soldier. The events of the morning now seemed like a dream to her, and she struggled to remember what had happened, and what she’d said.
She remembered being scared, and then just being in the moment with no time for anything but following her heart right to Xena’s side into the teeth of the fight. Where had her fear gone then? Had she even thought about what would happen if that soldier she’d smacked had turned around and gutted her?
Gabrielle exhaled, and leaned her cheek against the staff. “I don’t understand what’s happening to me.” She said aloud. “I’m not a fighter. I don’t want to fight with anyone or hit people. I’m not that kind of person.”
She leaned back against the center support pole, deciding to just rest a few minutes before she started getting things ready for Xena to come back to. She was sure the queen would want a wash, and some clean things to wear, and…
Xena paused in the entrance to her pavilion, holding the flap aside as she peered inside. The sunlight behind her spilled in and over the small, disheveled form asleep against the tent pole, staff cradled in her arms.
With a faint chuckle, she stepped inside and let the flap close, walking over to her clothing press and sitting down on the top of it and resting her elbows on her knees.
“Ow.” She straightened back up and rubbed the point of elbow where it had impacted against her knee armor, then she unbuckled the piece and removed it, setting it aside to unbuckle the other one. Half of her wanted to wake Gabrielle up so she could talk to her, and find out what was going on inside that little muskrat head.
But the other half of her, that annoying nanny half, realized the kid needed to get some rest if Xena expected her to climb back up on her scrub runt pony at dusk in a few candlemarks and ride out to war with her.
So she kept herself quiet as she took off her armor, standing up to unclasp her cloak and lay it half folded on the garment press. She unclipped her sword and set it down, her fingers brushing affectionately over the well worn hilt as she went over the recent ambush she’d arranged.
It had worked perfectly. Gabrielle’s babbling had let them get within sword’s reach of the soldiers, and her lover had so distracted the bastards they didn’t even know what hit them when Xena and her men attacked.
Perfect. Brilliant. She hadn’t even lost a man to a hangnail and they’d killed all of them. She couldn’t have asked for a better result if she’d thought of one and to then have Gabrielle top it all off by getting all cutely ferocious in her defense..
Perfect. Xena unlaced her boots, a grin twitching over her lips. She eased the leather off her feet and wiggled her toes, tossing the footwear gently aside as she stood up and unbuckled her chest armor. The metal was splotched with blood, and she debated leaving it that way to ride into battle with, then wrinkled her nose and set it down next to the water basin for a cleaning.
She plunged her hands into the basin and lifted them up, scrubbing her face with the liquid and running her wet hands through her hair. When she put her fingers back in the water, they stained it red, and she realized the small basin wasn’t going to really cut it.
Ah well. She picked p a piece of linen and wiped her face off, then wiped down her arms as best as she could from the battle grime. She had a feeling she’d just be getting doused with more blood later in the evening, so was washing it off really worth the time?
She half turned, and glanced back at Gabrielle, then chuckled under her breath again and continued washing off. When she was done, she wiped her hands on the linen and dropped it next to the basin, then she went over to where Gabrielle was slumped and knelt down next to her.
For a brief time, she merely studied her lover, fixing in her mind’s eye the gentle innocence of her expression, before she got her arms around Gabrielle’s shoulders and under her knees, and stood up with her in her arms.
So deeply asleep she didn’t even stir, her breathing slow and regular as Xena crossed the tent and knelt again, letting her burden down onto the fur covered pallet. She unbuckled the hawk’s head buckle holding Gabrielle’s armor on, then undid the side laces and eased the heavy leather scale off her body.
There were bloodstains on the leather. Xena reached over and draped it next to her own for cleaning, then she leaned on her folded forearms and studied the equally bloodstained undershirt Gabrielle was wearing.
She could take it off, she reasoned, but she knew that would likely wake Gabrielle up even though removing her armor had not as the blond woman was very sensitive to Xena’s touch on her bare skin.
On the other hand, she suspected Gabrielle wouldn’t really like sleeping in a gore encrusted garment. With a sigh, Xena reached over and unlaced the neck ties on the shirt and started to gather it in her hands, her knuckles brushing over the blond woman’s ribs and resulting in an immediate stirring and opening of her eyes. “Hey.”
“Uhm..” Gabrielle blinked at her in confusion. “B.. Wh..”
“Shh.” Xena put a finger against her lips. “I’m just taking your clothes off.”
Gabrielle blinked a few times more. “Just?” She finally asked, reaching up to rub her eyes. “I was dreaming about you.”
“Naturally.” Xena got the shirt over her head and tossed it over by the armor. “I’d be pretty pissed off if you were dreaming about anyone else.” SHe leaned over and gave Gabrielle a kiss on the lips. “Now, go back to bed. You’ve only got a candlemark or two and we gotta ride again.”
Gabrielle’s eyes expressed her reaction to that without words being needed. Xena lifted her hand and traced the still fading bruises on her lover’s face, feeling the pressure as Gabrielle leaned into the touch and a bit of surprise as she was suddenly pulled back down for another, longer kiss.
Unexpected, but not unwelcome. She felt Gabrielle’s tongue tease against hers and her lungs filled with the blond woman’s scent, mixed with a bit of leather and pony still clinging to her skin. “Thought you were tired.” She whispered into her ear.
“I am.” Gabrielle answered honestly. “But you’re better than sleep for that.”
“Ooooo.” Xena chuckled wickedly. “I love it when you talk dirty to me.”
“Is that dirty?”
Xena chuckled again, then drew in an irregular breath as Gabrielle’s lips returned to claim hers.
Her body reacted as she felt the warmth of Gabrielle’s hands through her leathers, and she gave into the pull and slid onto the pallet, tumbling over her lover as she pulled her over onto her side. “C’mere.”
Gabrielle needed no further prompting. She started to work on the laces holding Xena’s leathers on as she felt Xena’s knee slide between hers, and the queen slowly pulled the drawstring that snugged her leggings around her waist.
She wanted this. She welcomed Xena’s lips moving from her face to her neck, teeth gently nipping at her pulse point and sending it racing. Her body was craving sleep, but her soul was craving the intimacy more, needing it as a bolster against the strangeness and the fear she could feel coming closer and closer to her.
No matter what the danger was, she knew she could find safety in this, in the two of them, and she peeled the leathers back from Xena’s powerful shoulders as the queen removed her underwraps and cupped her breast in one hand, rubbing the edge of her thumb over her nipple.
She could smell the faint copper tang of blood on Xena’s skin, but the knowledge slid past her consciousness as she tugged the queen’s leathers down past her hips and Xena rid herself of them with a sinuous motion, then pressed her body against Gabrielle’s in a rush of sensual warmth.
She could hear Xena’s breathing quicken, and it started a burning in her own guts as she explored the queen’s body and Xena’s hand slid up the inside of her thigh.
They would go off to fight again tonight. Maybe they would even meet the other army before the dawn of the new day. Maybe the fight would be horrible.
Maybe they’d get hurt.
Gabrielle felt a pressure building inside her, and she gasped softly as Xena’s touch became teasing and intimate.
Maybe as Xena had said to her once, life was better off being lived in the moment you were in. “Gods.”
“They wish.” The queen snickered. “And whatever you’re doing there, keep on doing it.”
“You’re the queen.”
Xena rested one booted foot against a tree branch as she sat on a fallen log, scooping a spoonful of stew from the wooden bowl resting in her hand. Around her the camp was packed and ready to move, the men all taking this last bit of time to feed themselves and drink their fill of water.
Her pavilion was packed in it’s wagon, and she was dressed again in her newly brushed out leathers and polished armor, tended by Gabrielle despite her arguments to the contrary that she wanted her lover to rest.
The whole ‘you are queen’ thing apparently had it’s limits. Xena ripped off a piece of journeybread and dipped it into the stew, taking a bite of it and enjoying the rich, earthy taste that came from the common pot filled with all the previous days hunting.
Simple food, peasant stuff, but she’d found over the years that whether through preference or just being born what she’d been born as, her body tolerated it better than the frilly constructs and carefully plated fancies of the castle kitchen.
Gabrielle had figured that out right off, much to both their relief since simple things were all the kid knew how to put together for very obvious reasons. It had made for a very pleasant winter since she enjoyed being catered to and Gabrielle seemed to enjoy doing things for her and it certainly gave the tasters a break where they didn’t have to risk death for a season.
Worked out for everyone.
Xena popped the last bit of bread into her mouth and picked up her mug, taking a swallow of the ale inside it. She spotted Gabrielle coming back from the cookpit and she started to let out a whistle, when as though by some sort of magic, the blond woman looked up and turned her head to peer right at Xena, altering her steps in the queen’s direction.
She had a bowl and cup in her hands, and she set down the cup as she took a seat on the log next to Xena, and started to pluck chunks of meat from her stew. “I guess we’re all ready to go, huh?” She glanced up into the crimson light of the setting sun. “Pretty sunset.”
Xena obligingly looked over towards the west. She studied the light and the trees it was disappearing behind, and the sky around it. “What’s pretty about it?” She asked, after a moment.
Gabrielle paused in mid chew. “Huh?” She swallowed hastily. “The sky.” She said. “It’s all those colors, and the sun going behind the trees.. It’s beautiful.” She added. “Don’t you think so??”
The queen selected a bit of meat from her bowl and bit into it. “No.” She answered. “Matter of fact, I don’t. It’s just a damn sky, and some stupid trees, and a bunch of color.” She licked her fingers neatly, gazing up over them at Gabrielle. ‘Get eating. We’re almost outta here.”
The blond woman put a piece of stew into her mouth and chewed it. “Well, okay.” She said, after a brief silence. “So, what do you think is pretty?”
Xena set her bowl down and picked up her mug. “My horse.” She said. “My sword.”
“You.” Xena winked at her, and drained her mug. She got up and reversed the cup, setting it down on top of Gabrielle’s head before she patted her on the cheek and swaggered off. “Hurry up!” She called back after her, as she headed for where Tiger was not so patiently waiting.
Gabrielle reached up and removed the cup, her face still tingling from the gentle pat. “Me?” She snorted and shook her head. “That sunset’s a lot better looking than I am, Xena.” She propped her chin up on her fist. “Especially after not hardly sleeping for two days. I feel like a sheep turd.”
The thought of riding all night again made her ache just to think about it. Her bruised body had taken a little solace from her short nap and their lovemaking but now as she tried to get herself ready to travel she wished she’d had just a little while longer to stay in her dreams.
She sighed and plowed her way through her stew, glad of it’s filling warmth regardless. She suspected another meal would be a long time coming and she made the most of this one, wiping the bowl clean with the full knot of bread she’d taken from the cooks.
The sunset caught her eye again and she sat there watching it as she finished her mug of ale, as the sky above her started to darken into twilight.
It was pretty. The rich colors painted everything in deep hues, and she allowed herself a long moment of peaceful introspection, one last bit of peace before she gathered herself up and stood, stretching her armor clad body out and giving herself a shake.
Gabrielle turned, to find one of the grooms standing there, holding Patches reins. The pony’s coat had been cleaned and brushed out, and he was saddled up and ready to go. “Oh. Thanks.” She smiled at the groom. “I’m sure he really appreciated that.”
The groom grinned at her. “He’s a good one, he is.” The man said. “Her Ma..” He paused and made a face. “I mean..”
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle went over and scratched Patches between the eyes, smiling when the pony shoved his nose into her stomach. “She just wants everyone to treat her like one of the soldiers, that’s all.”
The groom’s face wrinkled up into confusion. “But she’s the queen.”
“Yeah, I know.” Gabrielle took her waterskin and rinsed a little water into her bowl and cup. “Were you going to say something about her?”
The groom patted a saddle bag on the far side of the pony. “Had this put up for you.” He said. “Be a long ride tonight, I hear.” He lifted a hand and ducked under the nearby tree limbs and disapppeared.
Gabrielle put up her utensils and scooted around to the other side of Patches, opening up the bag and peering inside. The scent of bread and fruit rose to her and she felt inside to find mysterious wrapped packets of something or other there as well. “Oo.”
Patches turned his head and looked at her.
“I think there’s a couple of apples in here for you too.” Gabrielle found her good humor magically restored by this bit of thoughtfulness on the part of her queen. It would be a long hard night, to be sure, but Xena would make it bearable somehow. She always did.
Gabrielle led the pony over the log she’d been sitting on and climbed up onto it, shifting herself into the saddle with more or less some kind of ungainly grace. At least she didn’t fall off, and she got her feet into her stirrups and her reins sorted out before she straightened up and started looking around for Xena.
Instead, she found Brendan emerging from the trees, heading her way. She waited for the troop captain to join her, giving him a friendly smile as he came to Patches shoulder and rested his hand on it. “Time to go?”
“Aye.” Brendan agreed. “Ride gets tougher from here now.”
Gabrielle studied his face. “I figured that.” She said. “WIll we be fighting soon?”
The troop captain patted Patches neck. “Not long now.” He said. “You had a taste of it this morning, a bit. How did that seem to you?”
How did that seem to her? Gabrielle shifted her leg, feeling the bump of her staff under her knee. “It was scary.” She finally admitted. “But it was all right. You had the hard part.”
Brendan gazed quietly up at her, his gray eyes steady and intent. “Got a good leader.” He said. “Except her Maj’s one blind spot is herself. Doesn’t give a care for her own, eh?”
Gabrielle heard a whistle, and she looked up and over Brendan’s head to see Xena just to one side of the army’s main column, looking her way. “Sometimes, I guess.” She said. “She’s a really great fighter though.”
“Best there is.” The captain said. “But even the best needs someone to watch over em.. And you did that, for sure.”
“Gabrielle.” Brendan leaned forward. “Feller woulda hurt her, if you hadn’t done what you done. She knows it. We wondered, some of us, why she brought you, and now we know.”
“None of us, she’d have let do that.” He patted her leg. “But you’re her lucky charm, you are. Long as you ‘re with her, she’ll be just fine.”
Gabrielle watched him walk away in some bemusement, not at all sure Xena would agree with or even appreciate the sentiment. She clucked her tongue and got Patches started, heading over to where Xena was impatiently waiting to start off.
The sun was setting behind them, as they moved through the trees, the horses hooves and the wagon wheels sounding soft and muted in the coming twilight. It was scary, a little, as though they were moving from the light into the darkness and for a moment Gabrielle wondered if that wasn’t more true than she knew.
She fell into step next to Xena, looking up to see the queen’s sharp profile outlined in the fading light, seeing a somber expression there that made her reach up and touch her companion’s leg. “Thanks for the stuff in the bag.”
Xena’s expression eased, and she smiled. “Gotta take care of my muskrat.” She said, then went serious again. “Whatever happens now, you stick by me, okay?”
“Of course.” Gabrielle replied. “Like a tick.” She added. “You can’t get rid of me.”
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and squeezed it, then they rode on out of the trees, and onto the road, and into the dark.
It was a lot more boring to ride at night than during the day. Gabrielle had little to look at around her, and nothing to take her mind off how tired she was as she swayed along with Patches rhythmic steps.
She wondered if Patches got tired of walking, the way she would have. Did he get half as tired, because he had four legs to share the work, or twice as tired for that reason? When she walked, both legs got tired, so she figured it was probably the latter.
Was it fair to make him carry her? Gabrielle was in general pretty realistic about the place of domesticated animals in her life, being born in a sheep raising family and all, but she had grown to think of Patches as almost another person, with his cute personality and funny ways.
“What are you thinking about?”
Xena’s voice almost startled her right off Patches back. “Um.” Gabrielle cleared her throat a bit. “I was wondering if my horse hated me because I’m riding him all the time.”
The queen shifted in her saddle, leather straps softly creaking in the dim light. “Why should he? I don’t.” She responded, in a dry tone.
“But I don’t...oh.” Gabrielle rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Uerf. Yeah. Okay. I get it.”
“Yes, you do, on a regular basis.” Xena chuckled. “You lucky thing, you.”
Ah well. Talking about sex was more fun than wondering about Patches feet, she guessed. “My mother talked to Lila and me once about what it would be like when we were married and all that.” She related. “I don’t know if she was more embarassed or we were.”
“She told you about sex?”
“No.” Gabrielle said. “We knew about sex. We grew up with sheep.” She reached into the sack behind her and drew out an apple. “She told us what we had to do to make our husbands happy.”
Xena reached up and put the tip of her finger into her ear, convinced suddenly she could feel whatever was inside her head leaking out of it. “Did you want to get married?” SHe asked, in an effort to shift the subject to something less weird. “Have kids, raise sheep, sleep with sheep, all that?”
“Xena.” Gabrielle bit into the apple. “Let’s get something straight. All we did was shear the sheep, and then sometimes eat them. We didn’t sleep with them, or keep them in our bedrooms, or have sex with them, or wash them or anything like that. Okay?”
Xena chuckled again.
Gabrielle was quiet for a brief moment, as she chewed her mouthful of apple, thinking about what her companion had asked her. “I”m not really sure what I wanted.” She finally admitted. “Lila wanted that. She liked to dress up, as much as we could, anyway, and play with dolls.”
“But not you, huh?”
“I collected frogs and wanted to be a pirate.” Gabrielle said. “I heard a guy who came through one winter talking about pirates, and I wanted to be one after that for a while.”
Xena tipped her head back and laughed. “You were the weirdo of the village.”
The queen kept chuckling, reaching over to take the apple from Gabrielle’s fingers and steal a bite of it, before passing it back to her. “I never had time to think about any of that.” She said. “We were so young when they burned us out.. Never occured to me to even think about what I wanted to be after that. I was too busy learning to be a bitch and trying not to die every minute.”
“Sounds really scary.”
Xena shrugged one shoulder. “I had Ly with me.” She said. “At least we were in it together.” She gazed off into the gloom. “We had some good times, when we weren’t getting kicked half to death.
Gabrielle rolled a bit of Patches mane between her fingers, then she leaned forward and offered him the rest of her apple. “You had one up on me then.” She said, after the pony accepted the treat. “I just got kicked half to death when I was caught doing anything that wasn’t my father’s idea of what I should be doing and locked up somewhere.”
Xena studied her companion from the corner of her eye, surprised at the statement. She’d known her companion had been treated badly by her family, but she’d refused to talk about it before now. “He put those marks on your back?” She asked, in a casual tone.
Gabrielle didn’t answer for a long time. She rode along at Xena’s side, her face almost a mask in the moonlight. At last, after they’d started down the slope into the long valley beyond, she exhaled, half turning her head to look at Xena.
Xena was riding along, her head tilted slightly down, ears cocked in her direction. Just waiting, with a patience very surprising for her.
It made Gabrielle smile, a little. “I”d been gathering up the wool scraps, making some little toys, and selling them for a little bit to the kids around.”
“Ah. A born merchant.”
The blond woman snorted. “Hardly. I had enough scraped up though, on my birthday I went and got a pair of boots the tanner’d made, new ones. The first new things I ever got.” She said. “I wanted them so bad.”
“I brought them home, and my father saw them.” Gabrielle paused. “He said I’d stolen the money I’d paid for them, from him. Because it was his house and everything I guess.. Anyway.” Her shoulders twitched. “He took me to the sheep pen and tied me up and beat the shirt into my back with a whip.”
Xena opened the top of her waterskin and took a long drink from it. She wiped her lips with the back of her gauntlet and regarded her companion wryly. “Know what?”
“Your father was a bigger bastard than I am.” She passed the skin over to Gabrielle, who took a drink from it. “Sorry about that, my friend.” She said, with a sigh. “Bad enough when asshole strangers are beating the crap out of you, worse if it’s family.”
Gabrielle handed the skin back. “Yeah.” She licked her lips. “I laid there for such a long time just crying and crying because I hurt so much and I’d worked so hard for nothing.” Her voice faltered. “I almost wished he’d just have killed me.”
They walked along in silence for a moment. “I”m glad he didn’t.” Xena said. “I’d hate to have missed out knowing you.”
A faint sniffle came from Gabrielle’s direction. “Thanks.” She murmured. “You know aside from everything else, you’re the first one in my life who actually treated me like a person.”
Xena now counted herself well and truly distracted from the long ride. “I fell in love with you.”
“Before that.” Gabrielle smiled anyway, visible in the bright moonlight. “When you were having Stanislaus give me those clothes and everything, then.”
“I was in love with you then.”
Gabrielle looked at her. “You were?” She sounded astonished.
“Mm.” Xena nodded casually. “Pretty much from the minute I met you my ass was gone into Aphrodite land.” She leaned back in her saddle. “Scared the Hades out of me.”
Now it was Gabrielle’s turn. “Why?”
“Didn’t have any control over any of it.” The queen replied. “You know how much I enjoy that.”
Gabrielle did know. “I think I did too.” She said, finding the ride far more interesting than she’d dared hope. “And I felt so bad about it, at first.”
“Because of your sister?”
Gabrielle nodded silently. Then she cleared her throat again. “But I couldn’t help it.” She added. “That night I almost… it was like my heart was ripping in half.”
The night she’d almost left. Xena had very purposefully blocked that night out of her mind for a number of different reasons, not the least of which was the fact that she’d almost left. “Yeah.” She looked past Gabrielle. “Okay, enough sappy crap. Got a good story?”
Gabrielle gazed at her, then a look of sudden compassion appeared on her face. She nudged Patches closer to Tiger and put her hand on Xena’s knee. “Sorry.”
“For what?” Xena said. “LIsten, we might end up fighting before the night’s up. You got that stick ready?’
The blond woman leaned over and kissed the skin on Xena’s thigh, bare between her leathers and her knee armor. “Sort of.” She straightened up. “I’ll do the best I can.”
Xena cleared her throat and nodded. “Got any more of those apples?”
“Xena.” Brendan’s voice came out of the darkness, and a moment later, the captain rode up to them. “Watchfires ahead.”
“Near?” The queen stiffened.
Xena straightened up and nodded, this time with a sharp decisiveness. “Slow the pace. Bring the squad leaders here, and pass the word down the line to shut the Hades up.”
“Aye.” Brendan reined his horse around and cantered off.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. “Wish we were still in bed?” The queen asked, with a rakish grin.
“Fight really hard and I’ll make you make those noises again. “
Continued in Part 11