Queen of Hearts
Xena studied the torches ahead of them, gathered in a circle around the spot they’d ambushed the advanced guard at. The moon had gone down, and the plain was drenched in darkness broken only by the flickering lights that moved erratically back and forth.
“Alright, listen up.” She told the troop captains, clustered tightly around her. “Benas, take ten men and circle around to the far side. “
“Eran, take another ten and come up the near side here.” Xena continued. “Then we’ll..”
“Xena, look.” Brendan touched her arm. “They’re leaving.”
The queen observed the motion, as the torches took on purposeful direction and roughly outlined a column that started to move away from them at a decisive clip. “Ah.” She said, after a pause. “All right, scratch all that. Let’s get moving so we’re in place if they decide to come back through that gap with a force.”
A soft command sent down the line, and the darkness was full of shifting horses and the sound of muffled footfalls as the army responded to Xena’s command. She turned to face Brendan. “Leave the supplies and wagons here. Have them set up camp, and get ready for action.”
Without a word, Brendan turned and dissappeared, moving through the darkness as the soldiers began to separate from the rest.
They were at the edge of the forest, the wagons tucked behind the first line of trees in as much protection as was possible given the circumstances. Xena ran her eye over the shifting motion in the darkness, before she peered down at the blond woman perched on the other side of her. “So.”
Gabrielle looked up at her. “You know what?”
“You can sleep on the back of a horse.” The blond woman’s voice sounded somewhat surprised. “That’s pretty neat.”
Xena smiled, unseen in the darkness. “Feel better now?”
“Good.” The queen gathered up her reins. “Stay awake now. We’re going to ride fast.” She pressed her knees into Tiger’s sides and they moved out from between the trees as the army moved out around them. It was almost ghostly, she mused, all those dark horses and men in armor flooding through the pale grasslands.
The castle seemed very far away. Xena tugged one of her gauntlets on a bit further and went over her plan inside her head again, debating whether sending a force through the back route was a good or bad idea at this point.
The enemy army knew something was up, finding their advance guard dead in the road. She suspected the enemy leader was going to have to make a tough choice, either move his forces through the gap at dark and risk not knowing what was on the other side, or wait until sunrise and risk whatever it was that killed his men getting closer and ambushing him.
Interesting choices. Xena leaned back in her saddle and pondered what she’d do if it were her decision, then she realized her army was moving through the night and that was a good indication of what. She could feel her throat going a little dry, and those little twitches in her belly and she was caught between hoping the enemy captain would be cautious and give them time to get set, and wanting him to be reckless as she was and bring the fight to them in a predawn clash her bloodlust was itching for.
She had to catch him in close quarters. She didn’t have the manpower to meet them head on in the open, but she reasoned if she could get him at the pass, where he had to fight her with a limited front line, they’d handle the battle with reasonable casualties.
Reasonable casualties. Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who was riding quietly at her side, her head turning from side to side as she peered through the gloom. “Your sewing gotten any better?”
“What?” Gabrielle flexed her hands, and exhaled, seeing a touch of frost on the chilly, night air. “Oh, well.. I haven’t had much time to practice.” She admitted. “What made you think of that?”
“Just wondering.” The queen slowly let her gaze sweep the ground ahead of them. “If they start carving slices in me, I might need you to stitch me up.” She waited for a response, and got none, so she looked down again. “What?”
Gabrielle was looking up at her with slightly widened green eyes.
“C’mon, Gabrielle.” Xena chuckled a little. “You’ve seen me naked enough times to know I don’t walk away from fights unscathed.” Her face twitched, as she remembered her last true battle injury, before she’d ended up taking the stronghold. “Bet you do a better job than the bastard who sewed up my back.”
Gabrielle seemed to be thinking about that. “Will a lot of people get hurt?”
“Yes.” Xena answered promptly. “People will get hurt, and people will die. It’s part of the package. That’s why they call it war, not ballroom dancing.” She leaned forward and urged Tiger faster. “C’mon.”
Patches needed no instruction. He broke into a canter to keep up with his big friend and they threaded their way through the moving troops, first the foot soldiers then approaching the line of horsemen near the front.
The horses cleared space for Tiger. A good number of the animals were geldings, but the core cadre of horse soldiers, the ones Xena had personally trained, also rode stallions who were trained to fight right alongside their riders.
They gave the Queen’s mount a wary respect, and stayed clear of his path. His temper was almost as bad as Xena’s was, and he topped the rest of them by at least a hand. He mouthed his bit as they reached the front lines and hopped a little, as though checking to make sure his rider was awake.
“Stop that.” Xena gave him a slap on the neck. They settled into the pace of the leading line, a rolling amble that ate up the ground with good efficiency. She looked right and left, to see the long line of mounted soldiers stretching to either side of her, the outside of a huge box that held the foot troops in the center.
It was a safe way to travel, and let the mounted troops protect the bowmen and footsoldiers in the middle since they could respond to any sudden attack but it also meant the non mounted troops had to hustle to keep up with them.
Also meant, of course, that they had to dodge the horse crap left behind. Xena regarded her position high up in the air, in the front with a sense of wry satisfaction. She loved horses, and was a realist about their physicality but hiking through manure up to her knees wasn’t her current idea of fun.
They approached the road, and Xena urged Tiger up onto it, gripping with her knees as the stallion gathered himself and leaped up over the small ditch that ran alongside it. The road stretched in a pale ribbon in front of her, broken in the faint distance with the dark splotches she knew were the enemy bodies.
The torches had disappeared past the edge of the hills, and only starlight laid it’s faint silver sheen over the landscape. She looked to her left, seeing the curve of the forest bending toward the coast and lifted her hand, whistling softly.
Brendan swerved over to her, coming up on the far side of Tiger’s moving legs. “Mistress?”
“Take fifty men.” Xena decided. “Down the coastal path.”
Brendan grimaced a little. “Hard road, that, without you t’guide it.”
“Cope. I broke enough branches for you to get the horses through.” Xena replied. “When you get to the end of it, figure out what to do and do it.”
Brendan nodded. “Will do.” He lifted his hand and snapped his fingers, then let out two whistles of his own. Twenty horsemen peeled off, and in a flurry of somewhat confused motion, bowmen and foot soldiers sorted themselves out to follow.
Xena whistled, and the line closed in again, and they continued on.
Gabrielle watched the soldiers leave, halfway wishing she and Xena were going with them. She wanted to see the ocean again and all Xena’s talk about having to be sewn up was making her stomach hurt. Riding through the darkness was getting on her nerves and she was beginning to wish for just a normal morning with a bit of breakfast to look forward to.
Though she’d gotten some rest on the ride in to the valley, her body was aching from all the constant motion and she had a headache throbbing at the back of her skull that the chill air wasn’t making any better. She took a drink of water from her waterskin and then tied it back to her saddlering, and exhaled, giving Patches a pat on the neck. “Good boy.”
“You say something?” Xena asked.
“Not to you, no.” Gabrielle said. “I’d never call you a boy.”
“How long do you think it will take us to get where we’re going?” Gabrielle asked, to distract Xena so they woudln’t end up talking about sex in front of the other soldiers again.
“Just before morning.” The queen replied. “I want to get bowmen up on those heights, and get the horses back behind that one ridge before it starts getting light, long as we don’t have jerks firing at us through the pass before then.”
“Do you think that will happen?”
“Maybe.” Xena mentally figured the time it would take for the scouting party to get back and report, and how long it would take to get an army that size moving. Even using field camps, with no pavilions, unless her counterpart was very very good, she figured they’d have time to hold the pass. “Keep your head down, just in case.”
“For how long?” Gabrielle studied Patches neck. “That would be really uncomfortable. I keep hitting my forehead on his mane.”
Xena stifled a laugh, though the subject really wasn’t all that funny. “Wait until I tell you.” She peered ahead, seeing the bodies they’d left in the road coming closer, the scent of blood and decay faintly on the wind blowing into her face.
Her eyes flicked over the road again, then she studied the limp figures intently. “Give me your crossbow.” SHe ordered the man riding next to her. “Let’s see if I’ve gotten any better over the years.” She held her hand out and took the offered weapon, letting her reins drop as she cocked it.
Gabrielle stared at her, in puzzlement. “What are you going to shoot at?”
Xena raised the crossbow and set the stock against her cheek, sighting down the shaft at the shadows ahead of them. “A whim.”
Her finger tightened on the trigger and she focused on relaxing her body, watching the tip of the arrow move in the rhythm of Tiger’s steps. On the third downshift, she released the mechanism, extending the bow to it’s owner as she reached to draw her sword.
A moment, and she’d know.
In a moment, she knew. The body lying in the road twitched, and she let out a yell, and the road was suddenly flooded with men and horses coming at them with pikes and swords and arrows speeding out of the gloom to catch on surcoats and armor and flesh.
In a way, she was comforted by the knowledge that her instincts still rang true as a bell in winter However, she lacked time to enjoy the thought as she sent Tiger hurling forward towards the enemy soldiers and hoped his black coat kept him invisible to the bowmen long enough for her to..
Damn. Xena felt the sear as an arrow ripped through the flesh on the top part of her shoulder. She lifted her sword and met the descending one of the first rider, twisting her wrist and deflecting the blow off to the side, then rotating the blade in a fast circle and backhanding it into the rider’s ribs as he rode past her.
She felt the steel grate against bone and used her motion and a quick jerk to free her sword as a sixth sense made her duck as she felt an arrow rip loose a lock of her hair.
Ooh.. Too close. Xena didn’t fancy herself in a short haircut. She lowered her posture on Tiger’s back a little, and conveniently found herself facing off against a footman with a pike, who was trying hard to thrust it’s point through her horses neck.
She shoved her blade between her knee and Tiger’s side and reached out to grab the pike, taking hold of it as it’s point touched flesh. Startled, Tiger reared back and nearly unseated her as the pikeman yanked in the other direction.
Only her powerful legs saved her. She clamped her calves against Tiger’s side and wrenched herself across his back, fighting to pull the pike from the man’s hands. He shoved forward and came close to nailing her in the eye, but Tiger objected to his presence and struck out with both forelegs, taking Xena’s head further away from the point and nailing the pikeman in the groin with one huge hoof.
“Yeah! Good boy!” Xena yanked the pike free and twirled it in her hand, then she hefted it and sent it flying into the crowd of shoving, fighting bodies hoping she was close enough for her notoriously bad aim not to gut one of her own men.
Unlucky, to start a war off like that. Xena saw her pike enter a chest bearing a white surcoat, and she grinned in relief as she pulled her sword back out and started hacking at the head and shoulders of a man trying to knife her in the side.
A mace, coming out of the darkness, smashed his head in as she reached past him and gutted the soldier trying to shoot the mace holder in the back. Her man yelled, Xena yelled back and acknowledgement, and they went on.
Tiger slammed against another horse, and she reversed her position, suddenly fighting for her life as the other horses rider was meeting her sword with powerful competence. She could see intent eyes behind his helmet as he threw his weight into the attack
Too close to swing her blade, Xena jackknifed her body right back into him, slamming her head into his faceplate and knocking his helmet cocked sideways with a ringing bang. She drew a dagger and ducked his wild flailing, burying it’s point in his chest as she smacked him in the chin with her head knocking him backwards of his horse.
The animal shied, and Xena grabbed his reins, holding him as he kicked and bucked, helpfully knocking into two of his own side’s soldiers and sending them sprawling. Xena released the animal and smacked him between the eyes with the hilt of her sword, nearly causing him to fall over.
He plunged away from her, creating a whirl of dark chaos as she turned and lifted her sword and released her boot from her stirrup as a flying body hit hers and she barely had time to get her knee up to block the lunge.
Heavy impact on her knee armor. She grimaced as she heard steel scraping against the metal and she twisted hard to push the man off her before the blade left the hard surface and plunged into the skin of her thigh.
Why had she decided not to wear leggings, again?
Sexy, or something? “Grr.” Xena got her elbow under his chin and flipped him over, hacking at his neck with her sword in an awkward motion that was nonetheless effective in producing a spurt of blood that arched nearly to her head.
He tumbled over Tiger’s haunches, and the stallion bucked and kicked his hind legs out, rolling the man off and onto the ground.
Xena backed the stallion up, and looked around for her next bit of trouble. The front line of her troops were fully engaged with perhaps a dozen horsemen and as many footmen, but a long line of her men had folded around the back of the fighters enclosing them in a constricting circle of destruction.
They knew they were doomed. Xena could see it in their dim, half obscured faces and the scene around her slowed a little as she rapidly sorted out her options. Call her men off and send the survivors whimpering back to their master, or make sure no one lived to tell of her presence?
Ego? Safety? Ego? Safety?
Xena exhaled. “Damn,I am getting old.” She shook her head then raised her voice. “Kill em all!” SHe ordered. “Now!” She made herself an example, by lifting her sword arm high and bringing her blade down straight onto the head of an enemy soldier, splitting his skull open in an explosion of splintering helmet and brains.
Two of the horsemen made a desperate charge at her, hearing the words. She felt a sudden surge of exultance that took her by surprise, and she welcomed the challenge, standing in her stirrups as she whirled her sword in one hand and unhooked her chakram with the other, daring the crossbowmen to fire at her.
They dared. She caught the arrows on the edge of the chakram and sent them arching off to one side, then she met the two men coming at her on the left and the right, engaging one’s sword with her own and catching the other’s mace inside the circle of her round weapon.
The horses drove past, as the men grappled with her, and she managed to stay in the saddle by the slimmest of margins as she yanked the mace to one side and deflected a slash with the side of her blade.
She let out a yell again, crossing her arms and spitting the right hand side enemy wit her sword as she backslashed the edge of her chakram across the left hand side man’s face. Blood went everywhere, delighting her.
The men both dropped, screaming, and she whirled her horse around, a niggling detail tugging at her conscience, only to find the little niggle a few horse lengths behind her, trying very hard to stay out of the way. “Gabrielle!”
The blond woman started forward toward her, but Xena’s eyes widened as she saw an enemy soldier appear from the darkness, sword raised, within an arms length of her lover.
A hoarse shout of warning erupted from her throat but she was fighting Tiger’s sudden plunging as a dying soldier tripped in front of him and she knew in her heart no strength of effort on her part would get her in front of that damn soldier in time.
She yelled again, a ragged curse that split the air and made heads turn.
Gabrielle half turned her head and spotted the man, and the bloodstained blade coming right at her face as she tried to pull Patches to one side and his hooves skidded on the blood soaked mud of the road surface.
Nowhere to go. The fallen soldiers blocking Xena now blocked her as well and she had no place to turn and no where to escape to and...
Desperate, she half turned in her saddle and brought her arm up to shield her face with the hand at the end of the arm clutching her staff in it. The end of the staff swung around with her motion and mud stained, missed the enemy soldier’s notice and whacked him unchecked right on the side of the head.
His swing went wide, nearly shaving Patches’ ear off and Gabrielle jerked back in surprise, bringing the staff back around to catch him on the bridge of his nose as he grabbed for his helmet in surprise. “Ahh!” The blond woman yelled in shock, as he keeled over and slumped against Patches side, before slithering down the pony’s legs and landing in the mud with a splat.
His sword dropped, sliding off to one side and as she looked on in shock she was surrounded by a line of men in hawk’s surcoats, letting out hoots of approval as they formed a guard around her and the suddenly present cloaked figure that wrapped itself around her and dragged her off her horse in a bewildering rush of copper and musk.
For a second, Gabrielle thought a storm had come overhead, as a thundering sound pounded through her ears until she realized it was her heartbeat, and Xena’s booming like twin, crazed drums. “Poo!” She gasped. “Poo!”
Xena gave her a mindless series of pats on the back, working hard at catching her breath from the sudden shock and the even more sudden morphing of her adorable bedmate into a haplessly unwitting defender of her own skin in such an unexpected fashion. “Thanks.”
“Ugh!” Gabrielle exhaled into the skin of her neck. “Why?”
Xena hugged her with a moment’s sincere gratitude. “You kept your promise.”
“Never mind. Forget it. Let’s go mop up.” The queen released her. “Strip the bodies.” She ordered, her voice rising over the fading battle sounds. The encounter cheered her immensely. “Let’s move!”
The queen stopped, as she was about to step over Gabrielle’s fallen adversary. “Yeah?”
Gabrielle was clutching her cloak, white as a sheet now that the starlight outlined her features, breathing fast and hard.
“What? Did you get hurt?” Xena dropped her voice in concern, facing her lover. “What is it?”
The blond woman’s eyes went to the soldier. “I did that.”
Xena stared at her for a moment, then she tipped her head back and laughed. “You little nitwit.” She rolled the man’s body over with her boot. “You think because I make it look so easy that men die from a tap on the head?” SHe reached down and pulled a dagger from the body, shoving it back in it’s sheath before she retrieved a second, and then a third. “C’mon. You’re not Gabrielle the Killer of the Plains yet.”
Gabrielle let her head fall forward to impact Xena’s chest armor with a thump.
Xena patted her on the butt, and whistled for her horse, smelling blood and death on the wind.
But not just yet.
Xena stood on a boulder, the wind coming through the pass whipping her hair back as she waited on the dawn and let her eyes slowly scan over her troops deployment.
In the end, they’d had ample time for her to settle her men where she wanted them, sending the horsemen to either side of the road behind the curve of the hill and finding ridges and crannies to hide the crossbowmen in.
Half the force was on the nearer side of the pass, and half on the far side, and she’d gotten her long bowmen spaced up the hillside overlooking the gap as the eastern sky was just starting to turn pink with the coming dawn.
So she had time to stand her and think, after she’d sent ten men to scout the pass, and give her fair warning before the enemy army marched on through. The wind wasn’t bringing the sound or smell of an army on the move though, and she wasn’t sure if she was disappointed at that or relieved that she’d at least get a chance to get some breakfast before the bloodletting continued.
Life’s little priorities. She turned and walked to the edge of the rock and dropped off it into open space, landing with a slight hop on the rough,mossy ground. She dusted her hands off and walked towards the small ridge she’d chosen as her own.
The wagons had been left behind them with their comforts, but as she walked to the top of the escarpment and stepped down into the half circle of protected hillside below it she found Gabrielle seated on the ground before a small, smokeless fire carefully heating something in a travel pot.
Her staff was lying next to her, and Xena stepped over it to take a seat on the other side, folding up her long legs and resting her elbows on her knees. “Whatcha got there?”
Gabrielle looked up from her stirring. “It’s a stew.” She said. “I have some flatbread, and I thought you might want some hot breakfast.” Her voice was soft, and a little hoarse, and she focused back on the pot, mixing it’s contents with care.
“I would.” Xena replied. “Thanks.”
Gabrielle stirred a bit longer, then she peeked at Xena sideways. Despite all her bravado and pacing, she could see the lines of exhaustion in her companions face and she seemed glad to just sit quietly with an excuse to do nothing more than wait for Gabrielle to finish what she was doing.
“What were those guys doing out on the road?” She asked, just to pass the time. “With those sticks?”
“Masking our tracks.” Xena answered readily. “I like surprises, as long as they’re not happening to me.” She exhaled a little, and rubbed her upper arm, where a neatly tied bandage covered the slice she’d suffered in the fight.
It ached, but in a shallow, stinging way that was more annoying than painful but there were a lot of little things bothering her like that and she knew one of the downsides of having to wait was having to acknowledge them.
Gabrielle picked up a bowl, and spooned it full of bubbling stew, put a piece of the waybread over the top and offered it to Xena. “Me either.” She said. “I hate surprises when I’m having them.”
“Yeah.” The blond woman took her own bowl, and put some of the remaining stew in it. “I guess.. I guess because the worst part of growing up in my family was never knowing what was coming before it got there. You could do the same thing twice, and one time it would be okay, and the next time you’d get a beating for it. It was all so.. Um..”
“Random.” Xena was glad to feel the hot food filling her belly. It got rid of one nagging discomfort at least and gave her body something to occupy it’s attention and stop it from whining so damn much. She suspected she’d gotten soft in a lot of ways that had nothing to do with fighting, and she was beginning to realize she’d run out of time to adjust.
Didn’t that just stink? The queen exhaled, wondering if this was all going to turn out to be on of those ‘wish I hadn’t done that’ kind of things she mulled over in late nights over strong wine.
‘Yeah.” Gabrielle said. “Random. That’s a good word for it.”
“You’re not like that.” Gabrielle added, as if an afterthought.
Xena looked up in surprise. “I’m not?” She asked, her voice rising. “You’re not telling me you think I’m boring, are ya?”
The blond woman dipped her waybread into the bowl and bit into the end of it with a serious expression. “How could you be boring, Xena?” She asked. “You have all the energy in the world in you.”
The queen gave her a wry look. “Not right now I don’t.” She glanced around to make completely sure no one else was in earshot. “Your high and mighty majesty would like nothing more than to be curled up on a feather bed with you at the moment.”
Gabrielle produced a rakish grin at that. “See?” She said. “That sure wouldn’t be boring.”
“Even if we were just sleeping?” Xena’s eyes twinkled a little.
“Even.” Her companion agreed. “But that wasn’t what I meant. You aren’t.. “ She squirmed a little closer to where Xena was seated. “I trust you.”
Xena slowly chewed a mouthful of stewed so long it was unidentifiable meat as she thought about that. “Do you trust me?” She asked, in a slightly surprised tone. “Really?”
It seemed a serious question, so Gabrielle gave it some serious thought before she answered. “I just do.” She finally said. “I know in my heart that even if you do something awful, it’s because you know there’s a reason for it.” She took Xena’s empty bowl from her hands and refilled it, replacing it in the queen’s fingers which hadn’t moved an inch. “I trust that.”
Xena felt the warmth of the stew through the bowl, leeching into her tired hands. “That might be the nicest thing you ever said to me.” She mused. “Except that whole I love you thing.”
“That’s the basis of the loyalty of the army.” Xena added unexpectedly. “Trust.” Her eyes went a little unfocused, as she poked a bit of meat with her knife tip. “You have to keep earning that trust, you know that, Gabrielle?”
“Is that hard?” Gabrielle watched her companion’s face, half lit by faint shadows from the fire.
Xena looked up and their eyes met. “When everyone else trusts you more than you trust yourself? Yeah.” Her lips twitched a little. “It can suck.” She didn’t really know why she was telling Gabrielle that, after all, the last thing the kid needed was to know the person she trusted was running just a little bit scared.
If it was one thing she’d learned, though, was that words needed to be said when they were ready to come out. Waiting served no purpose, and in war, waiting often meant never, as it had for her with Lyceus.
She remembered their last parting all too well. Ly’s eyes sparkling as he teased her with some secret he told her he’d tell her over a glass of their special stuff, later than night - only there had been no later for him. Just a cold end, on a cold floor in an uncaring hall that had taken his secret with him into the darkness of death.
Her eyes studied Gabrielle’s face. “You don’t have any deep dark secrets you’re keeping, do ya?”
The blond woman put her bowl down, and got up, walking around Xena’s seated form to kneel and slip her hands under the heavy armor plates as she kneaded the skin underneath. “Not from you.” She told her lover. “Why?”
“Just wondered.” Xena bowed her head and accepted the attention, feeling her neck muscles loosen under Gabrielle’s touch. “You got your stick ready for the next round, Killer?”
Gabrielle exhaled, her breath warming the back of Xena’s head. “I… I don’t know.” She admitted softly. “I don’t know if I want to do that.” She kept up her kneading. “I don’t know if I can.” Beneath her fingertips she could feel Xena slowly take a breath, then release it herself. The muscles were tense, and she could sense odd areas of warmth where a little too much pressure caused Xena to twitch.
Bruises, probably. She had seen poles and maces descending on the queen’s body and there were dark mottled patches and scrapes all over the parts of her body Gabrielle could see. “I get kinda sick just thinking about it.”
Xena set her bowl, now empty again, down on the ground and leaned back so their bodies were pressed against each other. She tipped her head back and regarded Gabrielle seriously. “You need to stay alive.” SHe said. “If that means you jam that damned stick up enemy assholes and twist to rip their guts out, you do it.”
Gabrielle made a face, and swallowed. “B..
“I need you.” The queen interrupted her. “More than you need to be innocent.”
Gabrielle’s hands stilled, and she looked down into Xena’s eyes, as the queens’ head rested against her chest. “Is that the nicest thing you ever said to me?” She asked, a touch hesitantly.
Gabrielle leaned over and kissed Xena on the lips. She could smell the blood staining the queen’s armor and the musky scent of leather and horses that covered both of them, and it all just didn’t matter as she folded her arms around her lover and hugged her as hard as she could.
A soft whistle made Xena stiffen in her hold and she hurriedly released the queen as she surged to her feet, a shake of her shoulders settling her armor as one of the watch came to the crest of he overlook and peered down at them. “Coming?”
“At the far mouth, mistress.” The man reported. “Full run of em.”
Xena ran her hands through her hair and flexed her fingers. “Let’s go.” She headed for her vantage point with Gabrielle scrambling up behind her, the end of her staff thumping the ground like an overactive rabbit’s hind leg. “Time to put the dinars on the table and see who walks out with them.”
Xena watched the approach from between two rocks, her eyes flicking back and forth as the first line of enemy soldiers came into view.
Ah. They were tense, and alert, the first row of horsemen in full armor with helms on and leathered surcoats covered the horses to their hocks, a protective wall pierced by forward thrust spears that bristled with menace.
The queen leaned against the rock, it’s surfaced warmed by the placidly rising sun. She looked to her left and then to her right, seeing her captain’s eyes fixed intently on her, waiting for her signals. Behind her, Gabrielle was standing, holding onto her staff, waiting for something to happen so she could be yet again scared and bewildered.
Poor kid. Xena watched her companion from the corner of her eye. She had her hands wrapped around her stick, and she was leaning her cheek against it, her fair lashes outlined in the morning sun. “Ready?”
Gabrielle looked at her, and smiled wryly. Xena motioned her forward, and she came to the queen’s side, peering through the opening at the oncoming army. “What’s going to happen?”
“Well.” Xena rested her hands on the rock, her arm encircling Gabrielle conveniently. “I”m going to let them come on through here, and..”
“Sure.” The queen said. “And then..
“All of them?”
Xena frowned. “You going to let me finish telling you how clever I am or what?” She complained. “No, not all of them. Just some of them. Enough to really hurt them.” She pointed. “Now look, see that line? They expect trouble. So we let them through.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle decided to stop asking questions and just enjoy being close to Xena instead. She shifted the staff to her right hand and put her left arm around the queen’s waist, knowing that very soon, they’d be parted by whatever chaos was going to happen and she might not have a chance to know that simple peace for a while.
“Then, when they get through the pass and nothing happens, they let their guard down.” Xena chuckled under her breath. “And then, we attack them.”
It seemed so simple. “What if they realize we’re here first?”
“We’ll attack them anyway.” Xena replied. “So hush now, and just watch.” She spread her fingers out against the rock, keeping them still after that.
The wind was blowing towards them, and now it brought the sound of the approaching soldiers to them, the rumbling of the horses, and the clash of armor and weapons but no voices, as the men coming towards them listened in tense silence.
They weren’t nervous, just alert. Xena could see the confidence they had in their own martial skills and she conceded if she’d been in their place, she’d probably feel just about the same way. She studied the leading line of horses, watching the rider’s easy stance, and their motion with the animals and realizing she was going to be facing some true horse soldiers if nothing else.
The first clashes with the scouts had been easy, but she’d had the jump on them and this lot coming towards her were ready for trouble and there were three of them for every man she had.
Xena felt her heart start to beat faster, and her skin prickled as the breeze brushed over it, conscious of the eyes fastened on her from the men around and to either side.
She tapped her index fingers against the rock, and in a silent, fluttering wave a signal was passed and her ears caught the sound of bows being drawn back, the whisper of feathers being pulled even with ears, falling off into silence again after a moment.
The first line of soldiers passed her first line of bowmen. Their heads were slowly turning, looking right and left, but the craggy rocks and stunted pines did their job well, and the moving helmets kept moving though she fought not to hold her breath as the leading horsemen approached the ledge she was standing on and she tried not to believe he could look right between the gap and see her.
She half closed her eyes, as the men came even with her and tapped the second finger of her right hand. A ripple of motion moved away from her down the line, and her soldiers flattened themselves against the rocks, and lowered themselves to the ground, showing a clean, bare line at the end of the pass to the enemy troops as they moved towards it.
Gabrielle was absolutely silent next to her, the hold she had around Xena’s waist tightening as the enemy soldiers passed them by, and the second, then the third, and fourth, and fifth moved past.
As the seventh drew even with her, Xena knew a moment of doubt, as she wondered if the wiser course for everyone would be for her to let the army pass and not risk a face to face confrontation. Men would die here, if she didn’t. Hers. Theirs.
Ah well. The queen straightened her shoulders, and lifted both hands off the rock, slamming them down with an audible smack. “Can’t live forever, now can ya?”
“What?” Gabrielle asked, just as the air filled with the hiss of arrows, and the cries of men, as the attack began in earnest. “W..”
“Stay where you are.” Xena ordered, lifting her right hand and clenching her fist, as the troops near the head of the pass rose up and lifted their bows, loosing arrows at the leading line of horses. “It’s not time for us to have fun yet.”
Gabrielle watched, stunned, as the enemy soldiers milled and hastily raised shields over their heads to protect them from the arrows raining down on them. In the middle of the lines, horses fell, eyes rolling and high screams coming from their throats as arrows pierced their sides.
The constricted walls of the pass kept the men from retreating, as the soldiers behind them tried to come up and help out and the men in front found themselves engaged by a line of black clad, armored men on foot who slipped between their ranks and set to work with short swords and daggers in the confusion.
Xena let out a whistle. From the ridge above her, a line of men leaped, landing on top of the raised shields and throwing men off their horses, but now the enemy lines were closing in and they started to return fire, accurate shafts threading through the trees and some finding their marks.
The queen caught sight of her first loss, as one of the arrows seared through the rocks and caught one of her scouts in the throat, dropping him without a sound and as she saw the blood sport, she acknowledged that her grace period was over and her luck had run it’s course.
She gently eased Gabrielle’s arm from around her and she stepped back, letting out another whistle before she drew her sword and took a long step then crouched and leaped to the top of the boulder she’d been behind, landing on top of it and twirling her blade in a sinuous circle as she yelled out a challenge.
The army filled the pass, and as she moved to the edge of the rock and prepared to jump into the fight, she caught sight of a group of soldiers with feathered helms, midway back in the lines who were working to maintain control of the troops.
Instinct brought her sword up and she whipped it right to left knocking aside well aimed arrows as her presence was noted by the troops below. From the point she was standing on, she could see the flow precisely, and though she’d intended on jumping into the lines, she paused and lifted one hand to signal, while she held her sword at the ready to shield herself.
A whistle to her left. She looked that way, and saw a line of horsemen charging her foot soldiers. She let out a whistle of her own, and her bowmen responded with a hail of arrows that hit their marks, but didn’t penetrate the thick armor.
Her men were trapped against the rocks, and without further consideration, Xena leaped to the next ridge over, then as the horsemen closed in she threw herself at them in a brilliant display of complete idiocy realized just as her feet left the stone.
The air rushed past her, and she got her sword up as she slammed into two of the men, concentrating on keeping her arms moving as the breath got half knocked out of her and she felt hands grabbing at her and the feel of cold steel against the back of her leg.
She twisted, kicking out as she fell half between two horses, one hand reaching out to grab the saddlehorn of the nearer as she took a short hold on her hilt and lifted it over her head to block a downrushing blade and feeling it scrape off the side of her hand as she kept on moving, her weight pulling the horse to one side.
A figure came at her between the two horses and she released the saddlehorn as she got her feet under her just in time to meet his sword with her own, arching her back as she got momentum into the block and forced him back a step.
A tingle, and she ducked his next sweep and turned, sliding sideways as a spear pierced the ground next to her boot, missing her by inches. She drew her dagger and buried it into her ground based adversary, jerking her head to one side as his sword took off a lock of her hair, and she felt a sting on the edge of her ear from it’s blade.
No time to worry about it. Xena kept moving, as she felt a heavy presence at her back and she dropped to her knees and dove under the charging horses body, shoving away from the rocky ground one handed as she got her feet under her again and whirled low, standing and bringing her sword up to meet the decending blade of the horses rider as he thundered past.
Her free hand came up and her fingers closed on an arrow shaft, and she discarded it as she turned and grabbed her hilt two handed and swung it around stiff armed, her blade tip slashing through the face guard of the man coming at her then burying itself into the shoulder of a second whose spear rasped along her ribs leaving searing pain behind it.
Argh. Xena took a step back, then she heard her name ring out and she did the only thing possible, dropping flat and rolling to one side as a huge weight slammed down where she’d been a half second ago. She felt another rush coming at her, and she rolled up onto her feet and whirled in a circle again, slashing right and left with her sword to clear enough space for her to get upright. She gutted a man, then she looked past him to see a huge rock split in half on the ground.
No time to wonder. She turned and caught the mounted soldiers arm in her own as he slammed his sword against her shoulder armor and she pulled him off his horse, almost losing her balance as he fell mostly on top of her just as she saw a blade heading for her face as she lurched to one side.
Not wanting to lose either of her eyeballs, Xena dropped her sword and grabbed her horse adversary, levering him over her shoulder and into the oncoming blade with a roll of her shoulders. She saw a hoof kick her blade away from her, and she threw herself after it, going between four moving legs and landing hard on the rocky ground as two of her own men formed a wall in front of her giving her time to get her hand on the hilt and get to her feet again.
A horn. Xena wasn’t sure if the enemy or herself was more glad to hear it, and she let out a yell and brandished her sword as her lines surged forward and the invading army started to fall back.
Lines of bowmen forced their way forward, and knelt, to cover the retreat, and Xena let out a whistle as she threw herself to one side, taking the opportunity to bury her dagger in a back moving away from her as she looked over the lines, seeing that the bulk of the enemy army had already moved back out of the pass.
In front of her, men were still engaged, horsemen from the enemy and her own fighters, and the pass was full of fallen bodies both human and equine.
The line of enemy bowmen slowly moved back, protected by shieldmen spaced one for one with them in the line. They were firing steadily, and Xena’s men took cover behind the rocks under the withering fire. Xena kept her back pressed against the stone until they backed around the bend in the pass, and the last few battles were winding down.
The battle noises faded. Overhead, a few carrion birds appeared, lazily circling.
Xena exhaled, and let the point of her sword rest on the ground, glancing up to see Gabrielle seated on the rock over her, looking appropriately scared and anxious, but safe. “You okay?”
Gabrielle nodded, but kept silent.
So. The queen spat a bit of dust out of her mouth as she watched the last of the enemy horsemen ride after his mates in retreat. She knocked her blade against her knee armor and rid it of bits of gore and bone as she climbed the ridge and gathered her troops around her. Now the hard part starts.
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes from the smoke coming off the battlefield, and moved a little so she was behind a rock blocking the worst of it. It had an acrid stench, and she tried not to think of the pile of burning bodies at the heart of it.
Xena was standing in a circle of her captains around a waist high rock, a piece of leather spread out on top of it as she marked on it with an ink filled quill. After a pause, Gabrielle decided to go over and see what she was saying, so she carefully eased between the listening soldiers and came up on the queen’s left side.
On the leather was a rough, but reasonable drawing of the pass, with marks on either side of it from one end to the other. Xena’s long fingers were spread out over it, as the queen made yet more marks in the curve of her index finger and thumb.
“All right.” Xena gave Gabrielle a quick glance, then she turned her attention back to the map. “I want twenty men to gather up as many decent size rocks they can find, and start building up shield positions for the archers, here, and here.”
Gabrielle looked at the map,wondering what was going to happen next. Would the enemy come attack them? It seemed likely.
“I need another twenty scouts to find spots in the pass walls, and disappear into them.” Xena said. “Usual signals. Anything moves, whistle and kill.”
“What about the upper bluffs there, Mistress?” One of the captains asked, a heavyset man with a thick, peppered copper beard. “Tough, but could get a man or two up in there.”
Xena tipped her head back and regarded the wall. There were a few niches, true, but the climb would be right out of Hades and she saw no easy way down. “YOu can try.” She allowed. “Have them bring rope with them, and let a line down.”
“Get started on that, and gather up whatever we can find in the pass, but watch your asses.” The queen warned. “There’s plenty of cover for single archers to use coming in from that side.”
The men dispersed about their tasks, leaving Xena and Gabrielle alone by the rock. Xena made a few more marks on the skin then she laid the quill down, and flexed her fingers. “Ugh.”
Gabrielle partly turned her head, to avoid looking at the pyre. She took Xena’s hand in hers and rubbed it instead. “Will they come back?”
Xena leaned her hip against the rock. “Depends how stupid they are.” She replied. “There’s no way to come through this pass with this end defended and not get your ass kicked.” Her eyes flicked to the pyre. “They lost a hundred men. I lost twenty. Unless the guy that’s running them has to take his sandals off to count higher than that, they’re stuck.”
“Of course, so are we.” The queen went on, in a wry tone. “ I can’t go after him without running into the same thing on that side. So we’re probably looking a long ass hen fight, pecking at each other until someone yells uncle.”
Xena laughed faintly, a bare shake of her body. Then she exhaled and rolled her shoulders, wincing a bit from the aching stiffness that had settled into them. “Can you get me my saddlebag?” She asked her lover. “And the wineskin?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle lifted Xena’s hand to her lips and kissed the knuckles, then she released the queen and headed back down the slope to the protected dell they’d left their things in.
Xena leaned back against the rock and let her hands fall to rest against her thighs. Twenty lost, and ten more sent back to the camp with yet again ten more of her horsemen who would hopefully drop their charges off and rejoin them before the sun past midpoint.
A hundred of theirs dead, true, but Xena was sobered by the losses her men had faced, given they had been sheltered, and had the advantage. She knew it was the first battle some had faced in a long while, but still.
Still. She ran over the battle in her mind, picking apart her course of action and going over the mistakes she’d made, not the least of which had been her idiotic dive into battle rather than standing back to direct her troops.
An old failing. Her worst, really. Always more a warrior than a general, Lyceus had once told her, meaning it as a strange compliment and she’d taken it as one, but they’d both also acknowledged the truth of it. She looked up as Gabrielle returned, and took the sack from her, opening it up to root inside it for a carefully folded bundle of packets.
Gabrielle stood by,holding the wineskin. “So, if they aren’t going to come after us, and we’re not going to go after them..”
Xena removed her travel cup and dumped a packet of herbs into it, then she took the wineskin from Gabrielle’s hands and uncapped it, squeezing a stream of the rich, red liquid over the herbs. “I didn’t say we werent going to go after them.”
She swirled the wine in her cup, mixing the herbs well before she swallowed the contents in three large gulps, filling the cup again and drinking from it to clear the aftertaste from her mouth. “We just won’t line up like a bunch of straw targets and March through like they did.”
Gabrielle sat down on a nearby boulder, resting her hands on the sun warmed rock. “Do you have to go in front and have people stabbing at you all the time?” She asked. “That’s really scary.”
“Nah. It’s fun.” Xena poured another cup of wine, and offered it to her companion. “Here, ya look thirsty.”
Gabrielle took the cup and sipped from it. “I meant scary for me.”
The queen eased to a seat next to her, extending her long legs out with a faint scuff of loose rock chips. Wherever there wasn’t armor, there were bruises and cuts and now she felt them. “Scary for you, huh?” She turned her hands over, displaying an ugly cut across her palm, and a puncture near her wrist from a knife point. “Yeah, I guess it would be.”
“Doesn’t that hurt?” The blond woman reached over to touch the broken skin.
Xena remained silent for a bit, thinking. “It does.” She conceded. “But not when it happens. You just.. You just go past it. Past the pain.”
“Were you scared, doing that?”
Xena tried to remember if she’d ever been scared, fighting. Maybe when she’d first started, all those years ago. “You just don’t feel anything.” She told Gabrielle. “You’re in the middle of everything, and you just do it. You fight, you kill, you keep yourself alive… there’s no time for being scared or hurting.” She sighed, and flexed her legs. “That comes later.”
“I think those other guys knew it was you.” Gabrielle related, suddenly. “They all wanted to get where you were, and get you.”
Xena cocked her head. “Yeah?” She took the half finished wine cup from Gabrielle’s hands and took a swallow.
“I could see them. The guys in the back were making signals with their hands, sending more soldiers over where you were. “ Her lover kicked her heels against the rock a bit. “So that’s when I got some of our guys and started rolling those big boulder things down on them.”
Xena spit her mouthful of wine against the other rock, splattering it with a wash of burgundy. “What?” She spluttered, turning her head to look at the mop headed innocent sitting next to her. “When was this?”
Gabrielle looked moderately pleased with herself. “When I saw all those guys coming over to try and get you.” She explained. “I got three of our guys and we rolled those big loose rocks down on them, and made them get back.”
Xena remembered something big landing behind her. “Is that why you yelled my name?” Her voice rose in disbelief. “Did you almost take me out with one of those damn things?”
Big, green eyes gazed adoringly at her. “You move so fast.” She said. “You went one way and we thought you were going the other way so…” She shrugged a little bit. “I just wanted to do something to help and I didn’t think my stick would be much good.”
Xena covered her eyes for a minute, then she opened her fingers and peered at Gabrielle through them. “You know something?” She said. “You and I are a damned good match.” She shook her head and chuckled.
Gabrielle grinned, blushing.
The queen’s chuckles faded, and she set her cup down, unbuckling her chest armor. “Okay. Now I need you to do me another favor.” SHe eased the armor piece off. “I swallowed that crap so I’d be able to stand you sewing me up, so start sewing.”
“Oh!” Gabrielle scrambled to her feet, her eyes widening at the bloody mess across the front of Xena’s shoulder. “Ugh.. Wow, that looks terrible!”
“Mm.” Xena eyed the injury. “Too bad they didn’t hit me in the head. Hardest thing on me.”
Gabrielle grabbed her waterskin and started rinsing the gore off. “I think you should stay with me and throw rocks next time.”
“And miss all the fun?”
“You rock, I chop. How’s that?”
Xena paced back and forth, remembering all over again why she hated sieges. She hated waiting for anything, and standing around waiting for something to happen was equal in her mind with stabbing herself in the ankle with an ice pick.
She walked over to her favored boulder and leaped up, catching the edge of the rock with her hands and pulling herself up onto the top of it. She stood and looked around, studying the layout of the army. The archers had settled in on either side of the pass, four lines of them protected behind rocks and trees with foot and pikemen tucked between them and ready.
The horses had been taken to safety behind the army, Xena seeing no sense in risking the valuable animals in the constricted space. She’d stationed her mounted fighters at the edge of the pass, ready to provide support if an attack got all the way through.
Not what they liked, really. The horse fighters, like Xena, preferred to be in the front of the action cutting a swath in the enemy and letting the footmen and archers pick off single enemies but in the current situation she had to use her assets where they made the most sense.
She moved to the edge of the boulder and peered through the pass. It dog legged just past the edge of her vision, so she’d put scouts on the walls at the turn, and she could see the faint glint of sun off armor of the man nearest her, knowing he could see the second set of scouts on the inside of the dogleg looking down through the pass.
So far, it had been quiet. Her enemy had set up a watch on their side of the pass much like she had, and she figured they were sitting back there trying to figure out what to do much like she was doing. She was sure the big question on their minds was which one of them was going to make the first move, send the first sally, take the first risk.
Her decision to send Brandon around the back route now seemed more prescient than whimsical, and Xena did briefly wonder if there wasn’t some godly influence prodding her instincts since all her wild ass decisions since she’d left the stronghold had somehow worked out right.
Even the ones made for the wrong reasons. She’d overheard the men marveling about how her timing was so precise, she’d gotten them to exactly the right spot at exactly the right time to halt the enemy army in a place where their much greater numbers didn’t help them.
She put her hands on her hips and surveyed her troops again. The men were breaking out travel rations and settling in to watch and she could almost feel the confidence as they noticed her standing there and a wave of casual salutes greeted her gaze.
Xena waved back, and sighed. “Idiots.” She turned and went to the back of the rock, stepping off it and landing with a jolt she felt unpleasantly through every bone. “Ow.” She muttered, pausing to look around the sheltered dell bordered by the rocks on one side, and a thick stand of trees on the other that was as any for her to ponder what to do next.
In a sunny spot not far from her, Gabrielle was seated, with her arms clasped around her upraised knees as she watched some butterflies, her pale hair ruffled in the breeze and bright in the late afternoon glow.
Xena detoured over to where she was and dropped down next to her, leaning one elbow against the rock her companion was seated against. “What are you doing?”
Gabrielle extended her hand, palm up, and smiled as a butterfly landed on it. “Aren’t they pretty?” She said. “So many colors.”
The queen observed the insects, stifling her initial urge to squash them in deference to her bedmate’s sensibilities. “Enjoy them while you can. I’m going to send a squad through the pass tonight. I’m not waiting around here till winter.”
Gabrielle looked at her. “Are you going with them?”
Xena hesitated, nibbling the inside of her lip. “I want to.” She admitted. “I just keep wondering how smart it is if the person who’s supposed to be the brains of the outfit keeps putting their head in the way of an ax.”
She had good captains, to be sure, but the truth of the situation was that she knew the plan, she was the only one who knew the plan, and the army would likely fall to pieces without her there to focus them. It wasn’t the best way to run troops, but it was her way to do it and at this stage in her life she wasn’t likely to change.
Her eyes slid to Gabrielle’s face. Much.
The blond woman turned her hand, and the butterfly walked up her fingers, perching on the edge of her thumb. “But you know the most.” She said, after a moment. “I think our guys feel really good about that, like you’ll know what to do when something happens.”
“Yeah?” Xena thought so too, but it was interesting that her martially inexperienced companion had noticed that. She thought about that. Of course, her martially inexperienced companion had actually led some of her troops in battle that morning pelting enemy soldiers with rocks so you never knew, now did you? Gabrielle had a way of surprising her like that.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle nodded a little. “I was listening to them talk.” She added. “So can I go with you?”
“You really want to go?”
“I do, if you’re going.”
Xena rested her head against her upraised arm, leaning her cheek against her biceps. “Well, if you’re going, you better get some sleep first.” She advised. “I don’t want you falling asleep and alerting the enemy with your snoring.”
Gabrielle watched her insect friend flutter off, and she turned her full attention to her companion. “Do I snore?” She asked. “I didn’t think I did.” She studied the queen’s face. “You don’t.”
“Old warrior habit.” Xena said. “Because only old ones who don’t snore survive.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle said. “So are you going to rest too?”
“Can’t.” The queen shook her head. “Bad for the image. Everyone thinks I don’t need sleep.” She paused, and smirked a little. “Though they know I spend a lot of time in bed.”
“Well.” Gabrielle studied her companion gravely, then unwound herself and squirmed over to where the queen was resting, curling up onto her side and putting her head down on Xena’s leg. “We don’t have a bed so I guess I’ll just have to make the best of it.”
“It’s nice and quiet here, I”m glad you picked this spot.” Gabrielle gently stroked the scraped skin above Xena’s knee armor. “I guess when you’re in a war, you really appreciate a few minutes of peace, don’t you?”
Xena didn’t answer, but after a moment she felt the queen’s fingers start riffling through her hair, and a certain tension in the powerful leg under her cheek relaxed. Gabrielle understood, in a vague way, the restless impatience she could sense in her friend but she also found herself wondering along with the queen when the taking of all these risks was going to catch up with her.
Xena was an amazing fighter. Even Gabrielle, who’d seen all of about a dozen real fights in her life realized that. She was like an unstoppable windstorm in the middle of the battle, totally different than the rest of the army and she’d gotten a really good sense of that earlier in the day.
She never stopped moving, and moving fast, going from fighting with one person to kicking another, or using her sword, or stopping a spear, or.. It was like she didn’t have to think about any of it, where Gabrielle could see the other soldiers pausing in the middle of what they were doing to decide what to do next, or backing off from their enemy to try another tack at them.
With Xena, there was none of that. She was relentless, and after a few minutes of fighting with her the enemy soldiers either were dead, on the ground, or backing away and though the enemy captains had urged their men to come after Xena, after a few surges towards her, Gabrielle could plainly see the eagerness fade as they watched their mates fall under the queen’s ferocity.
So Xena was only one person, but because she was who she was, that one person made a big difference in the fight and she suspected that Xena knew that, and that was why she wanted to be in the battle instead of leading it.
It was an interesting, and difficult question, because Gabrielle knew her lover was also very good at telling people what to do and when she was fighting, there was no one to really do that and though XEna’s men seemed to know what they were doing there were also times when they needed someone in charge.
“What are you thinking about?” Xena asked.
“How do you know I’m thinking about anything?” Gabrielle felt her own body relaxing as Xena idly stroked the skin around her temples.
“You just get this funny look on your face when you are.” The queen said. “LIke a constipated sheep.”
Gabrielle started laughing softly. “Xena, have you even ever seen a constipated sheep?” She inquired. “They don’t have a face about it.”
“You’re avoiding my question, muskrat.”
That was the other thing about Xena. She was really sharp sometimes, sharp enough to give you little cuts where you least expected them. “I was thinking about you.” Gabrielle admitted. “About what you were saying before about being in the middle of everything.”
“It’s complicated for you, isn’t it? Wanting to be in charge, and do everything too?”
Xena started laughing silently, the shaking of her body evident against the back of Gabrielle’s head. “YOu make me sound like such a nut job.” She sighed. “But you know what, maybe I am.” She added. “I want to do it all. Hades, I want it all. Is that so much to ask?”
Gabrielle smiled, as her eyes half closed. “You’re so funny.”
Xena didn’t really think she was funny at all. “So what do you think?” She changed the subject. “You like this better than hanging out in the castle?”
Her companion rolled over onto her back, so she could look up at Xena’s face, and folded her hands over her stomach. “Well.” She wiggled her booted feet. “It was a lot more comfortable in the castle.”
“Mm.” Xena had to agree to that.
“There were less bugs, and less rocks, and we could stay in bed more.”
“All very true. “ The queen admitted. “Especially the last part. “ She laid her hand across Gabrielle’s cheek. “I miss your morning wake ups.” She smiled as the surface under her palm grew warm. “And I miss our bathtub.”
Gabrielle’s expression grew serious. “But I think you’re happier here, doing this.” She watched the queen’s face still. “it’s harder and more dangerous and scary, but I.. “ She hesitated. “Every day is different here.”
Xena’s pale blue eyes studied her in silence.
“Not that being with you was boring.” Gabrielle hastily amended. “Even when we weren’t doing anything at all.”
Not boring, no. “You know what I think?” Xena said. “I think my life was just in a total rut until I met you. You woke me up.”
Gabrielle blinked at her in surprise. “Me?”
“Mm. You.” The queen let her head rest against the surface of the rock. “Crazy, huh? Get your ass to sleep before I spank it.” She ordered, ending the conversation. “We’ve got a busy night ahead of us.”
Gabrielle obediently closed her eyes, finding sleep easy to come by despite the bright sunlight around them. She was beginning to get used to this new life and learning to live in the moment of it and if she had to be totally honest she’d have to admit it was better than hanging around the castle.
Even without the tub.
Continued in Part 12