Queen of Hearts
Xena opened her eyes, blinking a little in disorientation as her mind struggled to reconcile the bright sunlight she’d been in just a moment before, with the placid twilight that was bathing the glade she was in now. “What’n the Hades???”
She looked down to find Gabrielle peering up at her, the blond woman’s hands folded peacefully over her stomach and her eyes still a touch sleepy. “What do you mean what’s wrong?”” SHe asked, testily. “I fell asleep!”
Gabrielle nodded her head. “You did.” She agreed. “Do you feel better now?”
“Was I feeling bad before?” Xena growled. “This is not very damn funny.”
Her companion stretched, arching her body before she settled back down in the grass. “C’mon, Xena. You have to sleep sometime. Everyone does.” She said, in a reasonable tone. “Especially if you’re going to go out with the soldiers later - I saw some of them sleeping. Why shouldn’t you?”
“Because I”m the queen.” Xena stated.
“Is there a rule that says queens don’t need to sleep?”
The queen’s eyes narrowed. “Shut up.” She flexed her hands and looked around, cocking her head to listen to the area around them. She could hear the soft sounds of the army around them, the clink of armor, the low murmur of voices, and not that far away, the snap and pop of a fire.
Her nose wrinkled, as the scent of cooking meat drifted over, and she felt her stomach rumble, her body slowly shaking off it’s recent sleep. The battle aches had faded, and though she refused to admit it to Gabrielle, the rest had done her good, easing the exhaustion she’d been trying to shove aside earlier and clearing her head.
Of course she needed sleep. She knew that, she knew Gabrielle knew that, and she knew the rest of the army knew that but she positively hated being in a vulnerable position and being asleep was about as bad as it got for that.
“You look really cute when you’re asleep.”
Xena’s wandering attention snapped back to her companion. “What?”
Gabrielle smiled up at her. “What are you going to do with the soldiers tonight?” She changed the subject. “Just go check things out?”
Xena rested her head against the rock and resisted the urge to go back to napping, since the camp was so obviously in order, and she had time yet, before darkness overtook them. “What am I going to do tonight.” The queen mused. “Well, since I can’t ravish you until you make those little squealing noises, I guess I”ll have to settle for seeing what trouble I can cause those bastards on the other side of the pass.
Gabrielle thought about that. “Why?”
“Why do you want to go start trouble?”
Xena looked at her as though her bedmate had grown a third hand right in the middle of her forehead. ‘Did you get knocked on the noggin while you were throwing rocks?” SHe asked. “Or did that little runt shake the brains out of you?”
“I guess I don’t understand what war is all about.” Gabrielle responded. “Cant you just meet with those guys and talk to them?” She said. “Maybe they don’t want to fight.”
Maybe it was the gentle twilight. Maybe it was her nap. Xena found herself in the unusual position of having enough patience to listen to her lover’s babblings and not just send her off with a pat on the ass. “Okay.” She crossed her ankles. “Do you think they’d pack themselves up with all that armor and all those weapons and go into someone else’s lands just to chit chat with them?”
‘Xena.” A soldier appeared at the edge of their clearing. “Begging your pardon, Majesty.” He averted his gaze, and half turned.
Xena eyed him. “Am I looking particularly queenlike sitting here in the dirt with my lover in my lap or what?” She inquired. “Spit it out. What’s the problem?”
The man peeked at her. “Watch signaled, said they saw something, mebbe a move to us, up forward.” He said. “Went back again, but they ain’t sure what the next thing is.”
“Ah.” Xena nodded, pleased. “Great. You learn more when someone attacks you than when you attack them. So let’s go see what they’ve got in mind.” She patted Gabrielle on the arm. “Get moving, lambchop, before I start nibbling your edges.”
For a moment, Gabrielle refused to budge, a tiny grin appearing as she dared the queen to make good on her threat. Then as Xena’s eyes narrowed, she sat up and got to her knees, rising as Xena aimed a mock snap of her teeth at her. “Yikes.”
“I’ll yikes you, ya little scrubby muskrat.” Xena rose to her feet and stretched her body out, grunting a little as her shoulders popped into place. She ran her fingers through her hair and shook herself to settle her armor, then she started up towards the ridge with Gabrielle close behind.
She could feel the energy rising as she crossed through the lines and it made her glad she’d actually lost her mind and taken a nap so she could enjoy the buzz of anticipation instead of just endure it. She sensed an absence at her side, and turned in a graceful circle as she walked, spotting Gabrielle scooting back towards her from the direction of the supplies. “WHat are you up to?”
“About here.” Gabrielle held a hand over her head, her fingers closed over something. She offered the queen the contents of her other fist. “Meatroll?”
Xena took the item and bit into it, chewing as she walked. What was the enemy up to? Just sending out a foray as she’d planned to do, or something else? She lengthened her stride as she topped the ridge, and started down into the pass, the long shadows of twilight spilling out in front of her.
She hoped it was something sneaky and interesting. “I”m in the mood for a good fight.” She informed Gabrielle. “But you keep your head down. I don’t know what those bastards are up to.” Finishing her roll, she checked her weapons as she headed for the first guard station, making sure she hadn’t lost any daggers while she’d rested.
Gabrielle hefted her staff, and considered herself as ready as she could be. She followed Xena as they climbed down the small slope, careful not to slide on the loose rocks as she walked. It was getting dark, but there was still enough light for her to see the outlines of the guards, their heads half turned to watch Xena as she approached.
She wasn’t sure about her queen, but she sure felt better after getting some rest. She thought Xena did too, since her expression seemed less tired, and there was more of her usual bounce in her steps. The whole not wanting to rest thing seemed kind of crazy to her, but she figured it was just one of those quirks of Xena’s that came out when she was in front of other people.
Sometimes, she really was a different person when they were alone. Gabrielle broke into a trot to keep up as Xena scrambled down the remainder of the slope, and they entered the first guard station. There were a half dozen soldiers here, all in dark cloaks with weapons wrapped in black leather.
“What’s the word?” Xena asked, her voice altering and dropping to a lower pitch.
“Signal from the relay, Majesty.” The nearer man said. “Looks like they’s gearing up to come at us.”
“Delightful.” Xena smiled at him. “All right, don’t move. I’ll be back.” She flicked her cloak around her and started towards the relay point, the forward guard station that had direct view of the enemy front lines. The shadows were lenghtening and she took full advantage of them, keeping close to the rock wall and the thick scrub that masked her distinctive outline.
Her nape hairs prickled and she paused, turning her head into the wind and flaring her nostrils. The pass was quiet, in her mind, too quiet, and she drew her sword after a brief hesitation, then she continued on. “Stay behind me.” She warned Gabrielle.
“Okay.” Gabrielle fingered her staff nervously.
Xena took deep breaths of air, trying to decode the messages on it. Under the scent of men, and horses, and woodsmoke, she detected something acrid, and half familiar, ringing chords deep in her memory she tried to root out to the front and make sense of.
Ahead of her, she could see her outpost, the rocks jutting out and providing a good shelter for the men tucked behind them, and one signaled to her as she approached. She eased through the boulders and squeezed between two tree trunks, arriving among the men as the last of the light started to fade. “Trouble?”
Xena peered over the edge of the rocks, spotting a brief, intermittent glow that brightened as she watched, then went dim again. “How long?”
“Two candlemarks.” The man replied. “Started near sundown.”
Xena sheathed her sword, then she looked up and crouched a little, throwing herself up and grabbing the lowest branch of the tree they were sheltering behind. She pulled herself up into the thick foliage, then she looked for a handhold, and started working her way up towards the top.
Gabrielle squeezed herself down next to the trunk and peered upward, watching her lover as she moved higher.
“Need a boost up there, y’grace?” The soldier next to her asked. “Do it, no problem.”
Gabrielle gave him a wan smile. “Thanks, but I think I’ll just wait here for her.” She said. “I”m not really crazy about climbing trees.” She watched the soldiers watch the enemy. “What’s your name?”
“Tab.” The man supplied readily. He was young, not much older than she was, and they shared the same straight, pale hair as well. “This your first time?”
Gabrielle blinked at him. “At...what?” She asked, slowly.
The soldier looked at her for a long moment, then blushed a deep shade of red.
“Okay, nevermind. Forget I asked that.” Gabrielle tipped her head back and fastened her eyes on the steadily climbing Xena, just barely able to make out her outline in the gathering dark, and glad the same gloom hid her own blush. “Wow.. How high is she going?”
Xena put her hand around a slim branch and moved it aside, to give her a clear sight of the enemy camp. She could see squads of men moving around the front lines, to her surprise, and she realized the possibility existed that her adversary was going to make a full out night assault.
She felt shocked, and for a moment, envious since she’d decided to take the safe route and not do the same herself. “Damn it.” She muttered, leaning forward to study the movements. Men, no horses, so in that they’d thought alike, and the breeze puffed in her face again bringing that odd, acrid scent that…
Xena’s pale blue eyes popped wide open. She turned and released the branches, heading downward as fast a she could possibly go without falling outright and hoping no one was dumb enough to be sitting under the tree.
‘What is it?” Gabrielle blurted.
“Very bad news.” Xena had one soldier by the shoulder. “Get away from those damn trees, all of you!” She yelled loudly. “Rocks! Get behind the rocks! Bowmen, get moving! Don’t use the scrub as shelter!”
Gabrielle had no real idea of what was going on, but she knew that Xena did, and she was really concerned about whatever it was she’d figured out.
Really concerned. She tucked herself behind one of the boulders out of Xena’s way, and watched the queen directing her troops, the note of earnest urgency in her voice something new in Gabrielle’s experience.
She’d seen Xena a lot of things. Sad, angry, exasperated, happy… but even in the extreme situation they’d lived through during the near insurrection she’d never seen the queen afraid of anything until just this moment.
Wow. It was hard to fathom what would be horrific enough to scare Xena. Gabrielle’s eyes widened. Was there a dragon in the enemy army? She’d heard of dragons, but hadn’t imagined they were real before. Could they be?
What did that mean for their army if there were? Gabrielle didn’t think even Xena’s generalship could overcome something like that, so did it mean they’d surrender?
“Move it!” Xena yelled. “Cut those branches down, and put them in a pile, here, hurry!”
A group of soldiers were hacking at the stunted, half grown trees, hauling down branches with hasty, cracking sounds. They dragged the branches over and piled them into the open space between where she was and the ridge most of the archers were hiding behind.
“Move!” The queen relentlessly went after them. “Get those rocks in place!”
Gabrielle decided to stay where she was, and just keep quiet. There was an outthrust of rock to one side of her, and her boulder in front, and she squirmed into the corner between them with her stick lodged firmly beside her.
“And.. “ Xena suddenly whirled in place, her eyes raking the area intently until they fell on Gabrielle. She looked at her for a second, then pointed. “Perfect!” A brief grin appeared. “Everyone copy the muskrat!”
Gabrielle found herself in an unexpected glare of attention, and she managed a wan smile and a shake of her staff as the soldiers around her scrambled to imitate what she’d done.
“Put your shields over your heads!” Xena bellowed. “They’ll be shooting lit arrows. Don’t touch em, or let them touch you! The fire’ll burn anything it hits!”
“Gods’fire then, Xena?” One of the older captains called back. “Is that what they’ve brought with em, the bastards?”
“Yes.” The queen turned in a circle again, satisfied at last when she saw the bowmen ducking behind ledges hastily denuded of foliage, and the uprooted trees were stacked between lines of soldiers as the dark of night settled over them. “You remember that, don’t you Defan?”
“Aye.” The captain replied, in a grim tone. “That I do.”
“Right. So tell all these kids about it while we wait.” Xena gave him a shove towards the lines then she moved decisively towards Gabrielle’s shelter. “Move over, muskrat.” She slipped into the small space with her lover. “Sons of bacchaes.”
“Are they?” Gabrielle asked, feeling anxious because she knew the queen was. “Is that why you’re scared?”
“What?” Xena peered at her.
“You seem really scared of them so I thommphf.” Gabrielle peered over Xena’s fingers, which were covering her mouth.
“I.” The queen leaned close to her. “Am. Never. Scared.” She stated slowly. “Understand?”
Xena released her. “Don’t ever say that in front of the men.” She said. “Don’t even hint it. They have to believe I’m stupid enough not to be scared of anything so they’ll follow me.” She tapped Gabrielle’s nose. “Follow me?”
“Anywhere.” Gabrielle replied. “But are they really Bacchaes? I’ve heard stories about them and I was wondering if there were any in the other army.” She said. “And that’s why you were.. Um.. Interested.”
“No.” Xena exhaled, leaning her forearms against the boulder. “The stuff they have, what I smelled.. It’s like fire, but you can’t put it out.” She flexed her hands. “I’ve only seen it once, but I lost half an army to it and all those burning bodies are something I’ll never forget no matter how much of a war whore I am.”
Gabrielle fell silent, absorbing the words.
“So there’s your answer, Gabrielle.” The queen went on, in a quiet, serious tone. “To whether they were just out here looking to meet new people and make some new friends.”
“Um… “ Gabrielle felt a shiver work it’s way down her back. “Do you have any of that.. Stuff?”
Xena exhaled again. “No.” She shook her head. “I never could figure out how to make it.” She admitted. “You can buy it.. Had some guy come through last hot season trying to sell me some, but I didn’t.. “ Her lips twitched. “I didn’t figure I needed it and it’s dangerous to just leave around. I wasn’t looking to have my chambers burned around me.”
“Oh.” In the dim light, Gabrielle could see Xena’s profile, and she could feel the tension in the body pressed against hers. “Yeah, I guess that makes a lot of sense.” She murmured, remembering her own first few months in the stronghold. “You would have had to carry it around with you all the time.”
“Mm.” Xena listened hard, but the sounds were still distant, and lacked the rumble of horsehooves that would alert her to the army’s approach. “With my luck, I’d have dropped it down the garderobe and set twenty years worth of crap on permanent fire.”
Despite the circumstances, Gabrielle had to laugh, though she held her hand over her mouth to stifle the giggles.
After a moment, Xena chuckled too, though the brief amusement ended in a deep sigh. “If they have this, what else do they have?” She mused, almost under her breath. “What other tricks should I be looking for?”
“Do they have dragons?” Gabrielle asked. “I thought maybe they did.”
Xena turned fully and looked at her. “Do they have what?” She asked. “Gabrielle, couldja live in the real world for a few candlemarks for me? There’s no such thing as dragons.” She paused, looking more closely at her companion. “WHere did you hear about them anyway?”
“Stories.” Gabrielle said. “There was this guy who used to come through in the wintertime and he told us lots of stories about dragons, and Bacchae, and Centaurs and all sorts of things.” SHe said. “I guess they don’t exist either, huh?”
Xena refocused her attention on the pass. “Centaurs do.” She admitted.
“They do? Have you seen them??”
The queen rubbed her hands together and leaned further against the boulder. “Yeah. I have.” She stared off into the darkness. “Hope they don’t have any of those with them.” She added. “When they come at us, you just keep your head down and stay behind the rock.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle agreed, still thinking about the centaur. “What was it like?”
“The centaur.. Was it really a half of a man and a half of a horse?”
Xena tried to call up in her mind the image that had flashed back to her, from a long gone time happening to almost a long gone person. “After Ly and I got captured, they took us to the slave fighting pit.” She said, hearing no advance from the other army. “On the way we passed a path through the forest, and when we were crossing it, we saw about a handful of them, with a few Amazons just inside the trees.”
“Yeah.” Xena said. “Bunch of scrubby looking wenches with bird droppings all over them. Anyway, the centaurs, yeah, they were half horse in the back, and big ugly guy in the front.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle exhaled. “That’s so amazing. I wish I could see a Centaur.”
Xena looked over at her. “If we lose this war, and you get captured you might get sold to those Amazons. You could ask em to see one.”
The blond woman sobered very quickly, and fell silent, taking a tighter grip on her staff and edging into the corner of the rock a bit more. She put her chin down on her forearm and watched the darkness.
Xena could hear the scuffling of hooves against stone far off, and a freshening breeze brought the smell of war to her nose. “Here they come.” She said, then let out a low, penetrating whistle. Around her, the sound of men shifting and weapons being readied rang through the air, and with a sense of mild forbodeing, she drew her sword and let it’s point rest between her feet as she clasped the hilt with both hands.
Gabrielle remained quietly in place.
Xena shifted her shoulders to settle her armor, and glanced sideways at her companion. “Gabrielle?”
The other woman turned her head towards Xena, the faint moonlight reflecting off her eyes.
“I’d never let them take you.” Xena stated, simply.
Gabrielle could hear the horses approaching now herself, and she tugged her hood up and fastened it. “I wouldn’t let them take me.” She told the queen. “I don’t care if they do have dragons.”
Dragons. Xena readied herself, and let out two whistles to her troops, hoping she’d done enough to get them ready and she remembered enough to get them out of what she suspected was going to be Hades of a lot of trouble. “Well, Xena, you wanted a war.”
“Did you say something?” Gabrielle asked.
“I said, be careful what you ask for.” THe queen replied, as the first line of horsemen appeared, outlined in lurid, green burning light from torches they held high above their heads. “Know what the one thing in my life is I never asked for?”
“You.” Xena put her fingers between her teeth and whistled as loudly as she could, two short and two long sounds as crossbow bolts outlined in green fire headed her way. “Aint’ life funny?”
Gabrielle ducked. She pulled her head down behind the rock and kept tight hold of her staff, hearing the whistle and scream of arrows as Xena pressed in beside her, neatly trapping her against the stone. That was all right with her, and she watched the queen’s face, just barely visible in the moonlight.
Would Xena jump up and run into the fight again?
She hoped not.
The sharp sound of an arrow hitting rock made her jump, and she looked past her hiding place to see a small bush catch on fire as the shaft bounced off her hiding spot and landed in the leaves instead. The fire rose, a fierce, greenish color unlike anything she’d ever seen before.
She could feel the heat, and the smell was oily and strange.
A loud sound made her jerk around again, and when she heard Xena curse, she couldn’t stay down any longer. She eased her head up and peeked over the boulder, her eyes widening as she saw the entire pile of branches near them burst into flame. “Whoa!”
The enemy soldiers rode through the pass, waving the torches over their heads and letting out wild yells. In a half hearbeat, the entire pass seemed ablaze, the heat washing over them as sparks began flying everywhere.
Xena reached over and tugged Gabrielle’s hood up over her hair. “Look.” She pointed through the pass, where a wall of fire was approaching them. “How’s that for bad news?”
“Are they going to burn everything?” Gabrielle stared, wide eyed. “What are we going to do?” SHe looked at Xena. “You’re not going to go fight with them, are you?”
Xena’s profile was still and quiet, as she watched the destruction in front of her. “No.” She put her fingers between her teeth and whistled again, then hastily ducked behind the stone as a volley of flaming arrows peppered the rocks around them. “I’m not looking to die today.”
One of the enemy soldiers’ head whipped around, and he waved his torch at his followers.
A scream made them both look, and Gabrielle gasped as one of their own soldiers stumbled from his shelter, his head and arms lit with the green, relentless fire. He dropped to the ground and rolled around, but the flames just circled around him undeterred, until his screams faded into gasping jerks, his crossbow flying from his hands to clatter across the rocks.
Xena heard the enemy soldiers yell, and she eased her head back over the rocks to see a line of ten of them headed right for her. “On the other hand.” She muttered. “I think I’m in trouble.”
The fire nearby outlined them clearly, and Xena realized she’d been recognized. She took in the line of horses thundering towards her, heartened when two of them dumped out of their saddles, struck by her bowmen. To one side, she saw a thick patch of shadows suddenly detatch from the rocks and head for the horsemen, her foot soldiers intent on throwing themselves into a death trap all just for her.
Not good. Not her style, queen or no queen. Xena unlaced her cloak and started to pull it off, but stopped when Gabrielle grabbed her arm and tugged. “What?” She snapped. “We don’t have time to chat.”
“Over there!” Gabrielle pointed. “If we go around in back of that fire, there’s a place there you could.. Whoa!” Gabrielle yelped, as she was pulled bodily out from behind the rock and hauled along the ground at high speed. “Wh.. Yikes! Oh!”
“Shut the Hades up and run!” Xena debated simply picking her companion up, then realized with the horses catching up to them it wouldn’t do her sword arm any good. She ducked past a boulder and got behind the raging fireline just as the horsemen reached it, and stopped there unable to force their mounts past the flames.
“I’m running!” Gabrielle found herself being pushed ahead of the queen and she shieled her face from the burning
Didn’t stop them from shooting at them. Xena felt something strike her back, and without a second thought she unhooked her cloak and dropped it behind her, feeling a sear of heat on the backs of her arms she hoped woudln’t increase.
A second arrow landed in front of her, and she leaped over it, catching up to Gabrielle as they put the bulk of the burning wood between the soldiers and themselves. Xena spotted the hidey hole Gabrielle had meant and they dodged into it, just as two of their own bowmen came around the other corner. “Light your arrows!” Xena yelled. “Shoot the damn stuff back at em!”
The two men scrambled forward. “Aye, Majesty! Had to wrap the heads!” One of them leaned forward and let a grass wrapped arrow tip catch in the flames. “Glad they missed ya!” He pulled back and carefully inserted the shaft into his crossbow, lifting it and aiming past the trees into the darkness beyond.
Xena jumped to the top of the rock to see past the fire, and shaded her eyes from the brightness of it. She could feel the heat beating against her skin and there was so much light and so many moving bits of darkness, it was very hard for her to tell what was going on.
She had the protective wall of fire her enemies had so helpfully lit between them and most of her troops and now she could hear the sound of crossbows firing from the rocks around her, as the enemy soldiers were outlined in flame, and pinpointed by the torches they held.
Ah, into every life a little muskrat must fall. Xena turned and dropped to her knees as a volley of lit arrows went over her head, bouncing off the rocks behind her and falling to the ground. “Thanks!” The queen held up her hand and made a sign, and a line of crossbowman shifted from the rocks towards her. “Keep looking out for me, kiddo!”
The men took up position around Xena’s rock and started returning fire. Xena let out a whistle, then spotted one of her horsemen making his way over. “Get the scaling ropes!” She bellowed. “Soak em in water! Hurry!”
The man ran off, ducking a spear.
Xena stood back up and tried to get a sense of how the battle was going. She knew there were a lot of enemy fighters out in there, the torches they were carrying bright specks in the darkness and she could hear horses and men and weapons clashing out there.
She could see some of her archers, and some of her fighters, but the rest? She hoped they’d listened to her, and were letting the archers attack from a distance and weren’t getting stupid like she sometimes did so anxious to get into the fight it went past good sense.
A group of her men were making their way back over to her now, crossing behind the flames as the enemy rode around the front of them in frustration, trying to find a way through to where Xena was. The queen leaped down from her rock and met them, pulling them into a circle around her.
Their eyes were wide, and she could sense the tense excitement about them. “Okay, here’s where we kick ass.” She said. “Listen up.”
Gabrielle was scared and excited in turns. She could see all the moving bodies, and hear men fighting , but it was very hard to tell what was really going on. She was very glad Xena hadn’t started fighting with the men on the horses, though.
She was really glad Xena was sticking next to her, in fact. Mostly, anyway. The smoke from the fire was making her eyes sting, so she stepped to one side of their rock protection and half turned away from the glare.
A horse screamed in pain, and she thought of Patches safely down in his pasture on the other side of the pass. She wondered if he was thinking about them, hearing all the noise or was he just munching on grass and maybe napping?
She looked up as Xena came back, and then moved to the side as the queen joined her behind the rock. “How’s it going?”
“Damned if I know.” Xena replied. “Everyone’s not dead yet and we haven’t lost yet so it’s not all bad.”
Xena hopped back up onto the rock, then she went to the edge of it and leaped for the next outcropping, grabbing hold of the corner of it and pulling herself up to a higher position. She refrained from straightening though, as she peered out over the flame and saw arrows heading her way.
“Damn it.” Xena dropped to her knees, and pulled her sword from it’s sheath, meeting the arrows with her blade and carefully deflecting them. She could see as far back as the dog leg, and her heart sank a little as she saw a line of her foot soldiers in the midst of the enemy horse, bravely battling but being cut down and set afire one by one. “Idiots.”
A crossbow arrow nearly nailed her in the chest, and she decided standing outlined against the flames wasn’t all that bright either. She hopped down in frustration and landed next to Gabrielle, who was investigating one of her deflected arrows, still burning nearby. “Stay away from that.”
“I am. I just wanted to look at it.” Gabrielle said. “Did you see anything up there?’
“No.” The queen sighed. “It’s driving me crazy. I can’t really see what’s going on, and I can’t tell people what to do. Life’s just going downhill fast.” She drummed her fingers against the rock. “Okay, stay here. I’m gonna go stir up some trouble.”
“Be careful!” Gabrielle blurted, as the queen disappeared around the boulder, heading for the fighting. She waited for a second, then she picked up her staff and headed after Xena, reasoning that she hadn’t actually agreed to staying behind, had she?
She came around the rocks just in time to see Xena bound out into a small clear space between the burning trees behind her, and the army in front of her. She stared in disbelief as the queen waved her arms at the enemy, letting out a loud yell on top of it.
Had Xena gone insane?
“Hey, you sorry excuse for soldiers!” Xena hollered. ‘You want me? C’mere! You think you can take me? There aren’t enough balls in your whole army to make me do anything but laugh!”
The first line of horsemen spotted her, and after a second’s pause, they wheeled their mounts around and started towards her, yelling in triumph. Xena stood there watching them, her sword blade resting on her shoulder, her body posture insolently amused.
The flames from the still burning wood to her right outlined her clearly to the oncoming men, her tall, rangy body in it’s snug armor unmistakable.
Gabrielle stopped behind her, and lifted her staff , holding it up across her body in a position vaguely resembling something martial. She swallowed hard, and watched the horses thunder towards them, hoping just as they reached the edge of where Xena had taken a stand that whatever happened would at least be fast.
Xena spread her arms in welcome, motioning the enemy forward with a curl of her fingers. She laughed as they crossed into the flat area before her and ran right into the nearly invisilble ropes spread across the ground, catching the horses around their feet and sending them plunging to the ground.
The soldiers atop them rolled off their backs, some catching on fire from their now definitely two edge torches. One tried flinging his away towards Xena, but the tip caught on a rope and flipped over, landing on a comrade.
The second line of horses tried to pull up, some of the piled into their downed comrades, two tried to jump over them, but as Xena swept her sword up, a line of her archers popped up behind her and fired into them at point blank range.
The standing horses panicked, and the soldiers frantically tried to turn them, forgetting their target, and forgetting the torches some still held in their hands. One of the soldiers let his torch drop and it hit the flank of a companion’s mount, and the horse bucked and took off in the opposite direction, starting a retreat aided by another volley from Xena’s men.
Gabrielle bolted forward to Xena’s side. “They’re running away!”
“Sure.” Xena glanced at her, apparently unsurprised at her presence. “They saw you with that stick. I’d be running.” She pointed. “But look there.”
Gabrielle looked. As the horses ran, some without riders were bucking and snorting, and after a moment she realized that the burning wood they’d set on fire was being dragged after them. “Oh!” She gasped, watching the burning logs thumping across the rocks, bringing chaos into the ranks of the enemy. “Did you do that/”
“Of course.” Xena had sheathed her sword, and now she stood in the flickering light, hands on hips. “I did earn that throne, Gabrielle.”
The faster the horses ran, the faster the burning logs followed them, and the more the troops behind tried frantically to get out of the way. The fire worked against them now, a bigger danger to the enemy army than it was to Xena’s, tucked into their stone shelters at their queen’s urgent behest.
A shout went up from Xena’s ranks as the men realized what was happening, and now they rained arrows down on the fleeing enemy as fast as they could.
Gabrielle set the end of her staff against the rocky ground and watched them go, stunned at the sudden reversal. She turned and looked up at Xena, seeing the faint smile shaping her companion’s lips, and the small nod of the head as she, too, watched the retreat.
“They’ll be back.” Xena predicted. “But I bet next time they’ll think twice before using that stuff against me.” She draped one arm over Gabrielle. “There’s no weapon on earth, muskrat, that can win out over the weapon we keep inside our skulls.”
Gabrielle could smell the stench of the battle, and now, hear the cries of the wounded as the enemy army disappeared beyond the bend, back to their lines. “is there really any sense in this, Xena?”
Xena listened to the same cries, and pursed her lips “Sense?” She exhaled. “There’s no sense to it, my friend. It’s just what we do.” She gave Gabrielle’s shoulders a squeeze. “Birds fly, warthogs fart, we kill each other. Just the way it is.”
One of the guard appeared, his face grimy with soot from the fires. “Went back beyond the turn, Xena.” He reported. “Left a lot of em on the ground.”
The queen nodded, glancing to her right. “Got a pyre all ready. Get to it.” SHe turned, and started back towards the higher ground, tugging Gabrielle along with her. “Next move’s mine.”
It turned out the next move was really natures. Gabrielle wiped the rain out of her eyes and huddled a little closer to the rocks, glancing up at the cloak stretched over her head for a bit of shelter.
The storm had come on suddenly, surprising the men scouring the battlefield. It hadn’t put out the still burning remnants of the godsfire though, which was finally running out of anything to burn in the clearing nearby.
That was so strange. Gabrielle leaned back and watched the flames flicker steadfastly in the rain for a moment, before she pulled herself back in out of the wet and tried to get a little more comfortable. With the rain had come a northern, cold wind, and she was wavering between being grateful for her cloak’s shelter and wanting to wrap it around her again.
Brr. She rubbed her arms and wiggled damp toes, cocking her head to listen as she caught Xena’s voice on the wind.
The queen didn’t sound too happy. Gabrielle rooted in her small bag, and retrieved a slightly wrinkled pear. She nibbled it, and wished Xena would come in out of the rain, and let her know what was going on. She didn’t think they were going to go after the other army tonight in the weather, but with Xena, really, you never knew for sure.
She wished she had some tea, too. But her cooking stuff was back with Patches in his saddlebags so she made do with her pear, and a handful of cupped rainwater and thought about the fight they’d just won.
It had seemed very confusing while it was happening, and she’d gotten the feeling that Xena had been making it all up as she went along but despite that, she’d made the right choices and they’d come out on top again.
The men were in awe. Gabrielle had heard them talking and they thought Xena was touched by the God of War, ready to follow her right down into Hades and back so sure they were of her leadership.
Ah. “Here!” Gabrielle poked her head out into the rain again, and then followed it with a waving arm. “Right where you left me.”
Xena slogged across the wet, charred ground, rain soaking her leathers and dripping off the ends of her long, dark hair. She had a wineskin in one hand, and she slapped it gently against her leg as she walked over to where Gabrielle was sheltering. “Keeping dry?”
“Not really, no.” Gabrielle scooted over to make room as the queen joined her, feeling much warmer already as her small refuge filled with Xena’s presence. “Wow, this is some storm, huh?”
“Meh.” Xena handed over the skin. “Take a drink of that.” She leaned back against the rock and rested her elbows on her knees, as a heavy roll of thunder rumbled overhead. “Ain’t war fun?”
Gabrielle sipped cautiously from the skin, blinking in pleasure and surprise at the hot, spicy wine that emerged. “Oh, wow. That’s great.” She sighed in contentment, as the warm liquid slid down her throat. “Do you think this is fun?” She handed the skin back.
Xena sipped from it, swallowing and sticking out the tip of a purplish tongue as she considered the question. “Fun.” She mused. “Y’know, I used to think about spending nights out in the rain, and sleeping on rocks and I’d convinced myself it was the good old days.” She glanced around their poor, rude shelter. “But y’know something?”
“Featherbed’s nicer.” Gabrielle nodded solemnly.
“You bet your ass it is.” Xena passed back the skin. “Hades, I’d settle for my damn tent.”
“I like your tent.”
“You like everything of mine.” The queen teased, shaking her fingers to rid them of raindrops. “So what’d you think of the fight?”
“I think you’re brilliant.”
Xena looked sideways at her. “Really?” She smirked.
“Really.” Gabrielle nodded. “That was amazing. I thought they were going to kill all of us, and you made all the stuff they did fall back on them. That was really clever.” She assured the queen in an earnest tone. “How did you think of all that?”
Xena remained quiet, apparently considering Gabrielle’s words. She gave a little shrug finally, and folded her hands together. “That’s what generals do.” She said. “The army depends on the person leading it to come up with a plan to make them win.”
“They are really into believing you you.” Gabrielle squirmed a little closer and rested her cheek against Xena’s arm. “I was really scared, but now I”m not.”
“No?” The queen leaned against her. “Why?”
Why? “Because you just keep going until you do win.” The blond woman said. “No matter what, No matter if you need to make a hole in a mountain, or go down a river on a tree trunk, or outsmart everyone. You don’t want to lose.”
Xena extended her legs as best she could in the small space, her boots pressing against the rock on the far side of it. “Mostly that’s true.” She agreed quietly. “Sometimes I’m lucky, sometimes I get half assed ideas and they’re right, sometimes I just am too damn stubborn to give up.”
Gabrielle smiled faintly. “I believe in you.”
Xena looked at her. “You’re an idiot.” She said, in a mild tone. “But that’s why I love you so much.”
“Because I’m an idiot?”
The queen draped an arm over her shoulders and squeezed them. “So you think I’m brilliant, huh?” She went off in a different direction. “You know, I used to sit in my furs at night and think about what the other guy was going to do, and what I’d do and try to make up little battle scenarios.”
“Mm.” Xena scratched her nose. “Sex is way more fun.” She concluded. “But at least I figured out how to think out of the box. That’s what saves my ass most of the time.”
“The box other people keep their minds in.” Xena leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips, then half turned her body and gave her another one, effectively distracting them both from rain and boxes. She felt Gabrielle’s hands warm the leather over her ribs and for a long, blissful moment, all the discomforts faded away.
Then the rain started coming down harder, trickling down the rocks and running over the tips of Xena’s boots. Though their heads were sheltered, nothing else was and Gabrielle felt a new chill against the backs of her legs as the water ran down towards the pass.
She exhaled, glancing up at Xena as thunder rumbled again. ‘This isn’t really a lot of fun.”
Xena’s lips twitched into a rueful grin. “No. It isn’t.” She agreed. “Not when you’d rather be someplace else.” She reviewed the meagre shelter with a disapproving eye. “Damn it, where’s a cave with a hot spring when you need it?”
“Oo.” Gabrielle pictured that in her head, and her nostrils flared. “Boy, that would feel good.”
The queen chuckled. “Yeah, it would.” She ducked her head outside, the driving rain spattering her skin as she squinted into it. “But I don’t think we’re gonna find one, so let’s see what else we can dig up. C’mon.” She ducked out of the shelter and stood, half turning to block the weather with her back as Gabrielle joined her, and collected her cloak. “Good thing you kept yours from being fried.”
Gabrielle paused with the garment in her hands. “Would you like to wear this?” SHe asked, offering it. “I mean, you are the queen.”
‘PUt that damn thing on.” Xena put her hands on the rock. “Do you know how stupid I’d look with that hanging halfway off my ass?”
“I’m not that short.” Gabrielle nevertheless fastened the cloak around her neck, glad of it’s protection as the wind drove a blast of water against her. She pulled her hood up and snugged it tight, then followed Xena as the queen started climbing up the side of the hill, blinking hard to see through the gloom and the rain.
She passed soldiers in makeshift shelters much like hers had been, cloaks wrapped around them, or fitted over slanting pieces of rock, the men huddled underneath chewing on field rations as the storm raged around them.
“WIll those other guys try to come back again now?” Gabrielle asked, as she caught up to the queen. “To surprise us I mean?”
“Maybe, but I doubt it.” Xena kept climbing, picking her steps carefully as the loose rock slid under her weight. “This weather works against them as much as it does us, maybe more, because we’re in a defensive mode, and trying to attack when you can’t see is pretty stupid.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle sniffed, and blinked more rain from her eyes. “Yeah, that makes sense.” She flinched as a crack of lightning lit up the sky, and she felt her hair lift. “Oh!”
“Don’t worry. I’m taller than you are. It’ll fry me first.” Xena squinted into the fading blast of light, and grunted. “Ah. Did us a favor.” She changed her direction and angled towards an outcropping, the ground scoured bare by the gods fire giving her boots scant purchase.
Sliding, she made it up to the overhang she’d spotted anyway and grabbed onto the rough, wet rock to steady herself as she reached out to offer Gabrielle a hand getting up the last bit of slope. Then she ducked under the ledge and the rain cut off.
It wasn’t much shelter, just two corners of rock with a bit of a roof but there was a bit of dry stone to sit on in the back corner and they were out of the wind and the rain. Xena figured it was as good as it was going to get, and she turned, regarding the dark, rainy landscape with it’s remaining sputters of godsfire with a speculative expression.
Gabrielle took her cloak back off and found a bit of a crack in the rock to hang it from off the floor. She rubbed her hands and looked around. “This is nice.”
“Okay, it’s nicer than sitting under a rock in a puddle.” The blond woman amiably amended. “I have some pears. Want one?”
“Uh huh.” Xena caught sight of something moving coming from the other direction, and she turned to watch it. Two wagons were making their way towards the army, horses plodding stolidly along in the weather, with figures hunched in the driver’s seats and walking alongside. As she watched soldiers broke away from their shelters and headed towards them. “Hm.”
Gabrielle came up next to her. “Are those ours?”
“Better be.” The queen observed, crossing her arms over her chest. The soldiers reached the wagons, and then turned to escort them on, and she nodded. “Guess they are.” She said. “With any luck, someone had a brain storm and they sent the supplies up I asked for.”
They both stood together as the wagon made it’s slow way up to where the army was encamped, men gathering around them as they stopped. Even through the rain, in the flashes of lighting it was clear whatever the wagons held was welcome and Xena relaxed as the unloading started.
Two soldiers broke away from the crowd and started up towards where they’d taken shelter, carrying a bundle between them. They made steady progress and arrived at the overhang in short order, skidding the last few steps as the two women made a grab for them. “Majesty!”
“What?” Xena yelled back, startling everyone, as she hauled the nearer of them into the space by the scruff of his neck. “What do you have here?”
The men laid their bundle down, giving Xena shy looks. “Camp sent this up for you, Majesty.” The one she’d grabbed said. “We thought you might like it here.”
Gabrielle had knelt beside the bundle, and was untying it. “That was really nice of them.” She said.
“No it wasn’t. I’m the damn queen.” Xena retorted. “They better have sent something good or I’ll send em all to the dungeon when we get back!” She gave the soldiers a stern look. “Right?”
“Yes, Majesty.” The both replied in unison.
“Xena.” Gabrielle opened the bundle. “Oh, look. It’s your spare outfit. It’s dry.” She glanced up at her companion. “And your extra cloak, the heavy one.”
The queen looked down, then she eyed the soldiers. “Go down there and tell them to tell whoever packed this they’re getting a homestead and their freedom when we get back. Got me?”
“Yes, Majesty.” The men nodded.
“Now get lost.” Xena concluded, but with a smile. “Go get some of whatever the Hades else they sent.”
“Thanks for bringing this up.” Gabrielle smiled at them. “It was really nice of you.”
“Your welcome, your Grace.” The men grinned back, as they ducked back out into the rain, and half slid, half ran back towards the wagons.
Xena pulled the bundle back to the dry seating and settled down to root in it, as Gabrielle followed and joined her. Along with her spare gear was a set for Gabrielle, and .. “Mm.” She pulled out a packet that smelled like sweet bread and handed over. “See what that is.”
Gabrielle put her dry clothes to one side and settled cross legged to open the packet. Inside, she found golden brown pan cakes emitting the scent of nuts and honey. “Oh, wow.” She said. “That looks great.”
Xena was drying her face off with a piece of linen. “Sure does.”
“Guess I should eat some before you do, just in case, huh?”
The queen stopped, and looked at her, through damp bangs. “What?”
Gabrielle held up the packet. “It’s not from the common stuff.” She said, quietly. “And I didn’t make it.”
Ah. Xena hadn’t given that much though to that rule since they’d been in the field, but now she realized Gabrielle had a valid point. Annoying as a dead cow in summer heat, but valid. The queen leaned her elbows on her knees and regarded both the packet and her lover.
The smart decision would be to toss the damn thing out in the rain. However, Xena was hungry, and she knew her companion was, and if you were out in storm with an army after surviving an attack by godsfire - what was the relative risk of eating honeycake anyway?
“Tell you what.” Xena reached over and broke a piece off. “Let’s have it together.” She waited for Gabrielle to take a piece, then she saluted her with her own. “Gotta take a few risks in life, right?”
Solemnly, Gabrielle saluted her back, then they both took a bite of the cake and chewed it, looking into each other’s eyes as best they could given the gloom.
After a moment, Xena licked her lips. “Not bad.” She said. “But yours is better.” She winked, and went back to rummaging.
Gabrielle chewed more slowly, savoring the taste of the honey, and the spices in the cake as she watched the queen, understanding that they’d just shared something more significant than possibly tainted food. She touched her folded, dry clothes and felt a sense of belonging that surprised her and she thought that maybe she’d finally found her place where she’d least expected it.
She finished her cake and set the packet down into the bundle, standing up to unbuckle her armor. Thunder rumbled overhead, but the pouring rain headed off down the slope and left their shelter dry as she took off her scale and set it to one side.
Suddenly, Xena toppled over to one side, and started grabbing at her throat, gasping. Gabrielle dropped what she was doing and leaped over to where the queen was lying, rolling her onto her back and patting her face frantically. “Xena!”
The queen stared up at her, then winked. “Yes?” She grinned at her companion’s expression. “Gotcha!”
“Ugh!” Gabrielle collapsed over her in relief. “Sheeps!”
Xena relaxed as best she could, her legs stretched out over the rocky ground and her back resting against the stone wall. She decided after a long self argument to sit out the storm and wait at least for morning so she accepted the chance to rest and reluctantly took advantage of it.
She could have led an attack through the pass. The soldiers would have gladly followed her if she had, and there was a certain element of surprise she’d have gained from it, especially after turning back the enemy army after their turn at attacking but the darkness, and the weather warned her against risking her smaller force no matter what the possible advantage from it.
Besides, it gave her men a chance to rest after fighting two battles, and it gave her a chance to think about strategy. She glanced over at Gabrielle, who was lying on her back, her head pillowed on her armor listening to the rain. “Hey.”
The blond woman looked over at her. “Hi.”
“Why aren’t you sleeping?”
Gabrielle rubbed her face, and shrugged one shoulder. “I”m tired, but not sleepy.” She explained. “I was just thinking about the fight.”
“What were you thinking about it?”
“Those guys were pretty sure they were going to win with that stuff, weren’t they?”
Xena crossed her booted feet at her ankles. “Sure.” She said. “I would have been. This part of the world.. You don’t really expect to find people who’ve experienced it before.”
“I got my ass burned by it.” The queen went on. “Before I crossed the sea to this place..”
“You crossed the sea?”
Xena chuckled briefly. “Yes, I did.” She said. “Running as fast as I could from a huge ass army using Godsfire to burn out everything in it’s way.” Her profile was lit suddenly from a blast of lightning. “Unfortunately for them, they showed up in a fleet of ships and I was between the ships and them. I got the ships. They got stuck.”
“So I came this way instead.” The queen said. “I didn’t have anything near what it would take to fight that army off with, and I figured it would take them a while to build new ships.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle rolled over, and faced Xena. “Did they?”
“They certainly did.” Xena half smiled. “They stole someone elses, matter of fact, and followed me maddder than Hades. Caught up to me just off the coast.”
The queen folded her arms over her chest. “They weren’t as smart as they thought they were. They’d stolen merchant ships. I blew em out of the water with the catapults they’d left onboard and ended up sending most of them to the bottom.”
“So you won.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle repeated. “So what did you say to them?”
“Nothing.” Xena chuckled softly under her breath. “I sailed the ships around in a circle watching them all drown. That’s when they started calling me the Merciless.”
“Oh. What did they call you before?”
“What didn’t they call me before?” Xena responded. She eased down and moved over a little, lying down flat next to Gabrielle. “I wonder what they’ll call me after this.”
“Xena the Magnificent?”
“How about Xena the Idiotic.” The queen retorted. ‘You better come up with some really good stories to tell about me.”
Gabrielle laced her fingers together, her hands resting on her stomach as she shifted onto her back again. “I already have some amazing stories.” SHe protested. “That girl you saved in that village, and finding Bregos, and..”
“You going to tell people how I killed him?”
Xena rolled onto her side, reaching out to run her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair. “Really?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle answered. “He was a bad person, and he hurt a lot of people, and I think it was because he let his heart make his decisions for him.”
The blond woman turned her head and their eyes met. “I think he was in love with you.”
“He was in love with the queen.” Xena shook her head. “Not me. He wanted power.”
Gabrielle lifted herself up onto her elbow and got almost nose to nose with Xena. “I don’t think so. I think he wanted you. I could see it in his face when he looked at you and I know what it feels like.”
Xena blinked, her head dropping forward a little. “Whoo. Saucy muskrat.” She murmured. “But you know what? The looks he gave you? You could be right.” She tilted her face and they kissed each other, the rocks tinkling a little as they slid together and their bodies met.
It felt wonderful. Xena slid a hand under Gabrielle’s loose, linen shirt and touched warm skin, her fingertips running over the bumps of her ribs which expanded sharply as their tongues met and explored each other.
Another good reason for not attacking tonight. The queen felt her guts ignite as Gabrielle’s fingers tugged at the laces holding her leathers closed and after a brief pause the snug hide loosened and a warm touch curled around her breast.
In war, Xena knew better than most, every moment counted because it could be your last. So making love to Gabrielle here, in this place, in this time, seemed anything but strange to her. She eased the blond woman’s shirt up and felt her leathers peeled back off her shoulders as Gabrielle’s lips nibbled gently across her collarbone.
Did Gabrielle realize that? Xena stroked the inside of her lover’s thigh and a soft, subvocal sound whispered into ear. Or did Gabrielle treat every moment like it was precious? Xena inhaled unevenly as her nipple was captured, and teased.
Did it matter?
“I love you.” Gabrielle paused, and whispered. “So much.”
Yeah. “I love you too.” Xena replied. It mattered. “More than anything else.” She felt Gabrielle go still. “Ever.”
For a moment, they simple were still, breathing in the same rhythm, listening to the rain’s echo. Then Xena slid her hand higher, and the wonderful tingling returned to her breast, and they went on, bare skin pressing against bare skin.
She could feel Gabrielle’s breathing going uneven and she tilted her head a bit to nibble the edge of her ear as her body shifted and moved, responding to the teasing touches and nips that coaxed a soft, appreciable moan from her own throat.
The long winter had given her lover a chance to really learn what she liked, and Gabrielle had taken the learning very seriously. She knew exactly where Xena’s most sensitive areas were and she knew just what to do with them.
Ungh. Xena felt her guts clench a little. Like that.
The cool air brushed against her now bare hip as Gabrielle’s touch moved up and over it and her knee slid between Xena’s and she surrendered herself to the gentle but insistent stroking, her body hungry fro the release.
So who cared if they were lying on a pile of rocks? Right now she couldn’t even feel them.
Continued in Part 13