Queen of Hearts
The first rays of dawn spilled over the edge of the rocks, glancing lightly into the pass and chasing the gray shadows from the rocks as the army stirred into it’s morning activities.
Sounds broke the morning stillness. An ax bit into wood. The sound of steel against a sharpening stone. The clash of pans. The rasp of leather boots against rock and the low rumble of men’s voices as the troops gathered and worked at a range of tasks.
The smell of recent death was on the breeze, mixed with woodsmoke and humanity and the odd tang of pine from the nearby forest.
Xena paused, then plunged her hands into the pool of rainwater she’d found just outside her makeshift shelter. She bent her head lower and splashed a good quantity of it on her face, her eyes popping wide open at the chill as it touched her skin.
The mineral tang, and the chill startled her, and she bit down on her tongue before she could let out a yelp of protest.
“What a crappy way to wake up.” She steadfastly scrubbed her face with the icy liquid anyway, glad of the wanly peeking sun at her back providing some cheer in the early morning gloom as she tried to shake some alertness into her only grudgingly awake body glad, at least, it wasn’t raining.
Her bones ached from sitting on little but granite the night through, the stone leeching even the warmth provided by Gabrielle’s body, and she silently wished for even one damned feather pillow to park her ass on.
Straightening, she flicked her hands to rid them of the excess water, and turned, to find a piece of linen being offered to her. “Ah. Thanks.” She accepted the rag and wiped her face off with it, stepping to one side as she did. “Snazzy granite basin’s all yours.” Xena gestured grandly at the puddle as her companion eyed it warily. “G’wan. Feels great.”
Gabrielle gave her a rueful grin, as she stuck her fingers into the water. “Brr.”
“Mm.” Xena agreed. She leaned back against the rock wall, surveying the soggy ground below. She was still in just her leathers, the dry set they’d sent up the previous night and she flexed her toes inside thankfully equally dry boots.
The pass was a mess. Between the burned out patches of scrub and only partially burned bodies left from the rainstorm’s dousing of the fires it was a nasty sight and it made Xena’s nose wrinkle. She glanced to her right as one of her captains joined her on the rise and jerked her chin at the mess. “We’ve got work to do.”
“Aye.” Dev agreed. “Lousy night. Kept the lot of them over there quiet though.”
Xena nodded. “What’s the latest from the forward watch?”
“Stayed b’hind their lines.” Dev said. “Get out the rain, like we did, I’m guessing.” He studied the pass, as the sun grudgingly started to fill it. “Our turn to get a go at em now?” His voice sounded hopeful. “Kicked their asses twice now on their terms.”
The queen stretched her body out, considering the question. “Get the mess cleaned up.” She ordered. “We don’t need that at our backs. Then.. Yeah. Pass the word to sharpen up weapons, we’re going hunting.”
“Majesty.” Dev saluted casually, then headed off, scrambling down the slope in an undignified haste to get back to his comrades.
Xena chuckled and stretched again, putting her hands behind her and flexing her shoulders as she worked the kinks out of her protesting bones. “Do me a favor?”
“Anything.” Gabrielle blinked a few droplets from her lashes, as she patted the water off her face.
“Figure out how we can pack a featherbed in our saddlebags.” Xena rotated her head, and rubbed the back of her neck. “You’re a bright little thing. I know you can figure it out.” She flexed her hands and then rested them on her hips. “All right. Time to put the sharp things on.”
“Would you like some breakfast?” Gabrielle picked up the queen’s discarded linen and added it to her own as she followed Xena towards their corner of the rocks. “I could go get some.”
“Apparently you would.” Xena answered dryly. “G’wan, go ahead. Otherwise all that grumbling’s going to distract me from thinking about all the brilliant stuff I’m going to have the army do.” She waved Gabrielle ahead as she ducked back under their shelter, and went to where her armor was draped.
“Okay.” Gabrielle put the linen on a rock to dry and looked at her own armor. “Are you going to stay here?”
Xena peered around, her shoulder armor piece in her hands. “Maybe.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Depends if you bring back something really good or not.”
Wasn’t quite what she was asking, but Gabrielle grinned anyway, and headed out into the morning light, leaving her armor behind confident her lover would keep an eye on it for her. She turned her face into the sun, her mood light despite the battle Xena seemed to be planning.
The air was cool, but she had her quilted undershirt on which came to her mid thighs and her leggings, and she was warm enough as she approached the cluster of men around the very barebones mess area. They spotted her as she approached, and a path opened to the chow fast as a lambs tail shake. “Morning!”
“Morning, your grace.” The day’s cook held out a piece of wood to her, with a good sized pile of dried meat, fruit slices and two portions of travelbread. “This do you?”
‘Sure.” Gabrielle took the wood. “But where’s Xenas?” She asked, with an innocent look as he stopped in confusion and looked at the platter. The other soldiers eyed her uncertainly, relaxing when she chuckled and waved off the offer of another pile of food. “I’m just kidding. This is great, thanks.”
The cook looked relieved. “We heard you were a good cook yourself, your grace.” He said. “Her majesty speaks very highly of you.”
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. She knew Xena was agreeable to whatever she usually put in front of her, but she didn’t think it was something the woman would have mentioned to her troops. Was it? “Well, I know a thing or two, sure.” She said modestly. “I”m glad Xena appreciates my skills.”
A little silence fell after that. Gabrielle reviewed her words, and decided to leave before she got lighteheaded from blushing. “Ah, yeah, thanks again, bye.” She escaped with her platter, not daring to look back as she climbed up the slope to where Xena was waiting. “Sheesh.”
“What?” Xena turned as she entered, her hands busy adjusting a buckle.
“Did you really tell the guys I could cook?”
Xena stopped in mid motion, looking over at Gabrielle with an expression that mixed amusement with a touch of guilt. “What?”
The blond woman put the plank down and started sorting out the contents. “I was getting this and the guys down there said you told them I was a good cook.” She explained. “So I was wondering.. What exactly did you tell them?”
“Ah.” Xena finished tightening her armor. “That.”
Gabrielle peered over at her. “That what?”
The queen chuckled quietly. “Yes, I told them you could cook.” She walked over to where Gabrielle was and picked up a piece of the dried meat, biting into it and chewing the tough substance. “And that it was something I appreciated among your other.” She reached over and traced the edge of her lover’s ear. “skills.”
Xena watched the mixed emotions on her lover’s face. “Would you relax?” She nudged her. “I was beating the daylights out of a bunch of them during that last big storm we had and Brandon was giving me grief about being such a hard ass.”
“So I told em it was your fault.”
“My fault?” Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and faced the queen. “How was that my fault?”
Xena nibbled her bread. “I had to push myself like a nut the whole winter just to keep your damn cooking from sticking on me.” Her eyes twinkled a little, watching her lover’s expression. “That’s how.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle frowned a bit. “Is that bad?”
“Nah.” The queen shook her head. “It was a damn good thing, because it meant I was ready for this campaign.” She pointed her bread at Gabrielle. “And it’s all your fault.”
Shocking, really. Having to work that hard after the last few seasons of a gradual slacking off. After all, those gowns hid a multitude of sins, and it had become easier for her lately to accept the distractions of the machinations of her court and the fascinations of her vintners as an excuse to let things slide at least to a certain point.
But Gabrielle had introduced a distraction of a whole different magnitude and she’d quickly realized she’d had to decide between stepping up her drilling or giving up her lover’s pampering and given her body’s unexpected addiction to the latter, the former seemed the easier course to take.
The need to teach her adorable but uncoordinated bedmate how to fight had also turned out to be benefit for both of them and after a while things settled down into a pleasing balance of exertion and indulgence that made the cold months speed rapidly by.
It was only with the coming of spring that she’d realized the decision was spurring her towards taking the army out early, and that choice now had gained far more significance in the grand scheme of things. So maybe the Fates were just giving her a kick in the ass.
“Wow.” Gabrielle slowly chewed a bit of fruit. “I guess that’s not so awful.” She said. “I”m glad I can do something pretty well, anyway.”
“You should be.” Xena abandoned the meat and picked up a slice of fruit instead, with a piece of bread to chase it down. “Damned wish you’d cooked breakfast, that’s for sure.” She added in an undertone, grimacing a little at the strong, smokey taste. “Remind me to have you go down there and give them some lessons.”
Gabrielle chewed industriously on a bit of dried meat, which tasted mostly of smoke and a little salt. It wasn’t great, and she had to swallow twice to get the stuff down. “Okay.” She switched to the fruit, deciding to save the meat for later. “I see your point. That’s pretty bad.”
“Uh huh.” Xena agreed. “Hungry men’ll eat anything, but they fight better on full bellies when they haven’t had to fight to choke their dinner down first.”
Gabrielle felt that was a very sensible statement. She picked up a bowl and set the dried meat inside it, then she took the wineskin hanging from a crack in the rock nearby and squirted enough in the bowl to cover the meat.
She reviewed the results, capping the skin before she put it back and then used the point of her little knife to move the meat around in the wine, pressing it a little with the tip. “This wouldn’t be too bad if I put it in a stew with some roots and those berries you like.”
“Shut up unless you’re going to start building a fire and finding those berries.” Xena told her. “Any reason you’re ruining perfectly good wine there?”
“Just trying something.”
“Uh huh.” Xena swallowed the last of her bread and fruit and swung her cloak over her shoulders and tied it into place. “Stay here and keep trying. I”m gonna go rouse the troops.”
Gabrielle continued her poking, turning her head to watch the queen walk away. Xena had a very sexy walk, even in her admittedly biased eyes. Very powerful and rhythmic and she almost stabbed herself in the thumb as her body started reacting to the moving shape she could see through the outline of Xena’s cloak. “Sheep. Cut that out.”
She forced her attention back to her task, having this new reputation to live up to, after all and if she could make something edible out of the dried horse leathers they’d given her then maybe she could move on to her next task of fitting a featherbed in a saddlebag.
It was shaping up to be a very busy day.
Xena climbed up the last steep bit and settled herself next to the watch on the forward sentry position. The two men were faced forwards, studying the enemy lines like twin hawks, one of them taking a slow, even swig from a waterskin.
Xena watched them for a moment, then she casually tapped the skin holder on the shoulder, and he passed the container back to her without looking. She took a sip from it, then passed it back, waiting for him to put it to his lips.
He did. “Thanks.” Xena remarked conversationally, ducking to one side as a spurt of water jetted over the man’s shoulder missing his mouth as he turned sharply to face her. “What’s the matter, never seen a bitch before?”
“Mistress!” The man coughed. “Didn’t think ye..”
“Of course I do.” Xena caught the other guard watching them out of the very corner of his eye. She reached over and flicked his ear, and he jerked his eyeballs forward. “You didn’t think that noise from my tent at night was singing, didja?”
“Mistress?” The man actually squeaked, as she leaned closer and leveled her penetrating stare at him.
‘Never mind.” Xena eased up onto her knees and put her hands on either side of the opening the men were tucked behind, stifling a laugh as they both inhaled sharply and sat there motionless. “Let’s see what we’ve got here, hm?”
There was some motion going on in the enemy camp. She could see the rustling around of spear tips, and hear the soft, muffled rumble of horsehooves. Was the damn bastard getting ready to attack again? She frowned, second guessing herself on not launching her own attack earlier. “Sex is not worth getting your ass kicked.”
“Shut up.” The queen nudged him out of the way. “Go tell the other guard post something’s coming at us. Everyone form up lines.”
The guard decided escape was the better part of valor, and he turned and scrambled down from the post without further word, bits of rock skittering out from under his boots as he half slid, half fell to the lower path.
The other guard shaded his eyes and got as close to Xena as he could as he looked over at the enemy lines. “Another try, your Majesty?” He questioned. “Seems reckless.”
Xena glanced at him, recognizing the guard who’d kept his post in the forest and hadn’t been distracted. “Reckless, or dumb stubborn.” She answered frankly. “Neither of which makes sense, based on what I’ve seen of them so far.”
The man nodded. “Seem like a regular troop.”
“Mm.” The queen watched the stirring intently. “They’ve got godsfire, good order, good armor… to keep throwing themselves at is either means they think the past two failures are a fluke, or they’re being lead by an arrogant megalomaniac.”
The man grunted.
“And I wouldn’t know *anything* about that, would I?” Xena chuckled wryly under her breath. She caught motion in the center of the enemy lines before she could continue her commentary, and she tensed as the hastily erected tree trunks lifted aside and a contingent of horses moved out. “Ah.”
It was a small group, and after a moment her heartbeat slowed and steadied, as she realized what was coming at her was an envoy, not an attack. The lead rider held a pole with a standard fluttering in the breeze, and he kept his horse at a steady walk, his armor covered with a rich scarlet overlay.
Five men rode behind him, four surrounding the fifth whose trappings were just a bit finer, and who alone wore no battle helmet.
Xena blinked, then she blinked again and leaned further into the rock.
“Tis a woman there, your Majesty?” The guard asked her, his voice lifting in surprise. “In the middle there?”
“Sure looks like it.” The queen replied. “What are the odds, hm? Two rampaging insufferable bitches in the same pass facing off against each other?”
The guard exhaled, making a vaguely bubbling sound with his lips.
The rider in the center was, in fact, a woman so far as she could tell. Sitting straight in the saddle, she had fiery red hair and her pose was as arrogant as Xena’s on horseback and in that moment of revelation, the situation certainly had become a good bit more interesting. “Well, well.”
“Do you know of this one, Majesty?” The guard asked. “There was talk of that queen to the east, we heard before the cold season, could this be the one they spoke of?”
Xena studied the oncoming riders intently. “No.” She said, after a brief pause. “I’ve seen people from the east. They don’t look like her.” She made a sound not unlike the one the solider had. “Haven’t seen that banner before.”
“None here have.” The guard said. “We were talking about it, after the battle last night.”
Well. Xena reviewed her options, and ended up slapping the rock with one hand. “Let’s see what they’re up to.” She turned and headed for the edge of the rocks, putting her fingers between her lips and letting out a long whistle, followed by two shorter ones.
She didn’t have much time, and she watched curve in the path with impatient eyes, until a line of her own horsemen swept around it, a faint spray of water dancing off them in the early morning sunlight that reflected off newly washed coats and human skins.
No matching armor. No matching anything, save the hawk’s head planted somewhere and the uniform competence of the riding that spoke of experience and Xena’s own brand of unique training. It made her smile just to see them, but she didn’t have time to savor that, and she stepped off the watch ledge and dropped through the open air, her plan already moving forward almost faster than she was.
It felt dangerous. It felt like things were slipping out of her control, and just when she’d settled her thoughts enough to address her horsemen her feeling was confirmed when a new set of hoofbeats echoed from behind them.
Pony sized hooves. Xena reached the mounted troop just as Patches came barrelling around the corner, his white and rust coat sparkling in the sun as his rider’s head poked out from behind his ears, bright golden and distinctive.
The queen sighed. “So much for plans.” She sighed. “Dev, spread the men out. There are six riders coming towards us, looks like a talking party.”
“Aye.” Dev said. “Want em bringing the big boy up for ye?”
Xena went still for a moment, then she smiled. “No.” SHe said, just as Gabrielle arrived on her shaggy mount. “Ask them what they want. I’m just gonna listen.” She took hold of Patches bridle and led him over to a jagged outcropping, stepping behind it and hiding herself from view.
“Aye.” Dev signalled the riders, who spread out across the pass, and went still, as the sound of the approaching enemy echoed loudly against the rocks. “Arms out!”
The horsemen shifted their stanches, drawing swords and maces and setting them to rest across their saddlebows, ready for action.
“Xena.” Gabrielle whispered. “What’s going on?” She peered past the soldiers, not seeing much but twitching horsetails and tense backs.
“Beats me.” Her queen responded. “That’s what I’m trying to find out. Why are you here?”
“Because you are.”
Xena nodded, as though she expected the answer. “When they come around the bend, just watch them. Don’t talk, don’t do anything, just watch them.” She instructed. “There’s something going on here I”m not getting.”
Gabrielle could see horses now approaching them. “Is that the guy in charge?” She uttered, seeing a flash of golden cloth in the midst of the enemy. It was scary, but the soldiers were between her and the bad guys, and after all, Xena was next to her.
“it’s not a guy in charge.”
Gabrielle blinked, her eyes focusing on the gold, and then registering the pale, elegant face now visible over it as the line of horses slowed. “Oh.” She said, after a long moment. ‘What does she want?”
Xena cocked her ears and leaned against the rock, her fingers idly twisting Patches reins. “Maybe she wants to trade recipes with ya.”
The strange woman stopped her horse. “Who blocks my path!” She called out, in a strong, impatient voice. “I have no time to waste with scraggly minions. Tell your so called leader I would speak with her.”
“Um… I don’t think she wants to cook.” Gabrielle murmured, nervously watching their line of soldiers, who merely sat their mounts,seemingly bored with it all. “She sounds like.. Um…”
“Me.” Xena said. “Right?”
Gabrielle didn’t answer, as the woman’s eyes suddenly slipped past the soldiers and fell on her, the arrogant face twitching a little in reaction as their glances met. She got the impression of a cold and calculating fierceness and an icy beauty that made her stomach churn and her hands clench on Patches saddlebow.
“Wanna be the queen today?” Xena saw the stiffening of her companion’s body, and guessed she’d been spotted. “Tell her you’re me?”
“Uh uh.” Gabrielle grunted, shaking her head minutely. “Scary.”
“Who’s askin?” Dev called back, in a lazily insolent tone. “Don’t know if her Majesty wants to talk to vagrants of the morning.”
“Scarier than me?”
The icy eyes left her and Gabrielle was able to breathe again. There were twice as many of their guys between her and the enemy, but she could see their faces, and there was no fear there. She got the sense that their opponents considered themselves the superior force.
“Bring your leader here, or a thousand men will be upon you before the sun is a hand higher.” The woman stated. “Decide now, or die.”
Gabrielle peeked at Xena from the corner of her eye. Her friend and lover’s face was unalarmed, the faintest of smiles twitching around her lips. “Now what?” She mouthed, as a silence fell and everyone seemed to be waiting.
Waiting for her, Xena reckoned, having a wry moment of appreciation for her role as the the hub in this particular Fate’s wheel, and at the same moment wishing it had just rolled on by her.
Soak in a hot tub would have been a lot more fun. She looked up at Gabrielle, making her expression as serous as she could. “Stay. Here.” She pronounced both words distinctly. “Okay?”
“No.” Gabrielle whispered. “But I will anyway.”
“Like I believe that for a heartbeat.” Xena tapped her knee, then she released Patches and turned, starting to scale up the wall still out of sight of the enemy soldiers.
Gabrielle sighed and tried to make herself as inconspicuous as she could, pressed against her rock wall, as those glaring eyes once more targeted her. “You think I can climb that wall up there after her, Patches?”
Her pony snorted.
“Yeah. Me either.”
Xena climbed up past the level of the watch post, keeping the edge of the rock wall between her and the waiting enemy contingent. She could feel the granite biting into the palms of her hands, but so far the climb had been manageable and she pulled herself up to a point where she could see into the pass.
The six riders were still there, facing off against her twelve men and one muskrat. She could see Gabrielle’s head peeking out from the rocks, and the impatient shifting of the enemy’s horses feet and she judged she had only a very little time before someone did something stupid.
Coin toss as to who that’d be. Xena eased her body over the ledge and started down the other side, pressing her body against the rock and staying as much in the shadows as she could. She was at an angle that prevented them from seeing her easily, but all it would take was one good look at the skyline and someone would notice a big dark spider clinging to the hillside.
Then probably shoot her in the ass. Xena edged along a small crack, then she slipped into a crevice and inched her way down towards the floor of the pass as she heard laughter from her own lines behind her. That could be good, or bad, but she was glad of the distraction as she found herself entering a thick, spiny scrub whose sharp points penetrated even her armor.
Stifling a curse, she wrapped the edge of her cloak around her hands and eased the spines from her skin judging the distance she had left to travel with a soundless groan. Here near the ground, though, she had a better chance of moving unseen, and so she soldiered on, reasoning every stab of the thorns would get her a kiss from Gabrielle to fix it.
Gabrielle watched her queen disappear, then she grabbed hastily at Patches reins as the pony decided he was bored of the rocks and headed for a patch of sparse grass behind the row of Xena’s horse soldiers. “Sss! Stop!” She hissed softly.
The pony merely shook his head and kept walking, stopping just behind Dev’s tall bay gelding and stretching his neck out to nibble the few stalks poking through the rocks.
It felt dangerous here. Gabrielle peered cautiously through the sturdy horses’ forms to watch the enemy fighters, the man bearing the flag in front visibly impatient. The four soldiers around the woman were also wary, their hands resting on sword hilts as they shifted and turned their heads, watching everything around them.
In contrast, Xena’s men were relaxed in their saddles, stoldily blocking the way through the pass and confident in their ability to hold their position. Dev half turned his head as Patches intruded in the line, his eyes flicking behind Gabrielle in a rapid, furtive motion.
He looked at Gabrielle. She held his gaze, then she briefly looked up as though at the sky. His lips twitched, and he faced forward again, leaning forward and easing his boots in his stirrups.
“I am waiting.” The enemy woman said suddenly, in a loud voice, waiting for the echoes to fade as she tossed her head, and looked at Gabrielle with a haughty expression, the disdain in her voice stinging the blond woman unexpectedly.
“That’s a funny name.” Gabrielle heard herself answering, as though the words were coming from some other person. She almost looked around to see who. “You must not be from around here.”
Xena’s soldiers all laughed. Dev turned in his saddle to look over at her, his posture remaining relaxed. “Well said, y’r grace.”
Well, since she’d started something… Gabrielle nudged Patches forward, the men shifting aside to make room for her. As she did, she saw the enemy eyes focusing on her, and she realized she had their attention. “I”m not sure what you’re waiting for. Surely you don’t expect the queen to be wasting her time looking for you, do you?” She lifted her chin, putting as much of her own brand of arrogance into her voice as she could.
Which wasn’t much, admittedly, but she could tell it was making the enemy leader mad anyway. She could see her more clearly now, and beneath her abundant fiery hair was a strong, oddly shaped face and eyes that slanted a little upward.
Unusual, and exotic, and she carried herself straight as a warrior, though even from where Gabrielle was she could tell the woman fell a little short of Xena’s measure.
“I expect the inept leader of this rag tag collection of nothings to come when I call her.” The woman said, staring directly at Gabrielle. “I do not expect peasant children to answer for her.”
Tucked between the soldiers, Gabrielle was feeling pretty secure. “That’s really too bad.” She replied, in a conversational tone. “It’s going to make a great story though, isn’t it? If we’re a rag tag collection of nothings and we beat you, I mean.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw Xena suddenly appear behind the enemy, rising up out of the scrub like a shadow, her dark leathers and thick cloak absorbing the sunlight as she started moving towards the six riders.
In full view of her men, and of Gabrielle, and yet so silent even the enemy horses didn’t twitch an ear in her direction. She only barely kept her eyes from widening in reaction to Xena’s boldness and she had to wonder what in the world the queen was up to.
The woman’s voice had an odd sound to it. “Do yourself a favor, peasant. Bring word to your.. “ She paused. “Queen.” The men around her chuckled. “That if she wants to survive past this sunset, she will present herself to me before my patience is ended.”
Gabrielle found it almost impossible not to watch her lover approach, but she forced her eyes to fix on the enemy leader instead. The men around her had separated out a bit, so the woman could see better and now as she looked through their ranks she saw Xena lift her hand and make a rotating gesture she often used when Gabrielle was telling a story and she wanted her to get to the good parts.
Or, what Xena considered the good parts, which usually included anything with blood and yelling. ‘You know what I think?” Gabrielle mind was racing. “I think you though it was going to be an easy thing here and..”
“Be quiet, peasant.” The woman called out sharply. “I care not what you think.”
“Why not?” Gabrielle guided Patches forward a few steps. Behind the enemy woman the last horseman stiffened, then leaned over his mount as it dropped back a pace. “You should be, because I’m the person who’s going to tell everyone else how Xena beat you.”
“You?” The woman laughed.
“It is as the man said, my liege.” The soldier next to her spoke up. “They believe themselves to be far more than they are.” He rode forward a few steps, along with two of the others. “Now, stop wasting our time! This is your only chance to avoid your own slaughter. Bring this leader to us or we will return and wipe you from the earth.”
“You did try that.” Gabrielle said. “It didn’t really work out so well though, now did it?”
“This is pointless.” The woman said.
“This isn’t.” A low, amused, purring voice said to her right, as a flash of sun caught Xena’s blade, now inches from the woman’s neck. “Ah ah ah..” Xena warned the enemy solders, who whirled and started to draw their swords. “Put those up or I sneeze and this gets even uglier than you already are.”
The men looked at their leader, who had the sense to keep still, only her head turning to review the intruder sitting horseback next to her. Xena had her arm stretched half out from her body, and the woman’s eyes fell to the tip of the blade threatening her, which stayed absolute rock steady, even as the moment lengthened.
After a long holding of breathes, the enemy leader lifted one hand just slightly, and the soldiers reseated their weapons, watching the tableau with wary, angry eyes.
Xena took them all in with her peripheral vision, keeping her focus on the woman next to her. She let them wait until she was sure they were about to do something stupid, then with a flick of her wrist, she moved her sword tip horizontally, slicing free a lock of the woman’s hair before she let the blade come round to be neatly seated into her scabbard.
The enemy leader twitched, just keeping herself from a flinch, then she turned her horse to face Xena, putting distance between them with studied casualness. ‘So.”
Xena studied her adversary in relaxed silence, her hands resting lightly on her bare thighs, the enemy horse still and obedient under her. “You wanted to talk.” She said, after a pause. “Talk. I’ve got better things to do with my time than sit here in the company of pompous assholes.”
The woman looked past Xena, to the body of the guard she’d killed for his horse lying now in the dirt beyond them. Then she returned her attention to the tall, dark haired figure in well worn armor before her and folded her hands over her saddlehorn. “That was a good man.” She remarked. “I don’t like losing good men.”
“Then you shouldn’t have brought him.” Xena replied. “This is war. People die.”
Surprisingly, the woman merely nodded. “And yet, death should be worth something.” She said. “The price of that man’s life was a lesson for me. I have learned that not all things I have heard from one I trusted can be trusted. So you are the one they call Xena.”
Xena didn’t feel this required an answer. “If you’re looking for Bregos.” She said. “Don’t bother.”
“I wasn’t.” The other woman smiled thinly. “I was looking for you.” She said. “And now I know why.” She edged her horse a step closer. “You have two choices now. My army is far larger than yours, we both know it.” Her face twitched slightly. “And this is but my vanguard. We hold the port and the river.”
Uh oh. Xena merely shrugged in response, despite the prickle of apprehension at the woman’s words. She could by lying, but somehow, Xena didn’t think she was. . “And?” She replied in a mild tone. “Hasn’t helped you so far.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. To my men, you are just a diversion.”
“Mm.” Xena shot right back. “We barbequed piles of them last night. Hope they were entertained.”
“We could fight until I beat you.” The other woman agreed. “But I think you are not that stupid, so I have a better choice for you.” She pinned Xena with her sharp, dark eyes. “If you have the guts to come to my camp and find out what that is.”
“I guarantee your safety.” The woman said.
Xena laughed harder, leaning back in her saddle and crossing her arms over her chest. “You’re gonna guarantee *my* safety?”
The woman straightened up, her expression darkening. “I can.” She said. “I am Sholeh, and my father is the king of Persia. You lay your life on your mocking, I warn you.” Her men shifted, reaching for their weapons and Xena’s men reacted to the motion, as swords rasped from sheaths and rocks skittered under anxious hooves.
Ah. Xena’s nostrils flared. Persia. Not good. She saw Gabrielle taking out her stick, and realized it was going to get very ugly very quickly, and though her men outnumbered the enemy here, a steep gamble of the dice was suddenly held in her fist. “Relax.” She waved her men off. “There’s only five of em.”
Her men reluctantly sheathed their swords, though Gabrielle kept her stick at the ready, and the enemy soldiers glared at her and kept theirs out.
Xena cocked her head to one side and regarded the Persian princess. “Wanna lose five more?” She asked. “Or was that guarantee just more desert hot air?’
Sholeh eyed her thoughtfully for a long moment, then she motioned for her men to stand down. “Then you will come with us.”
“No.” Xena dismounted from her stolen horse, dusting her hands off as she headed back for her own lines, ignoring the soldiers on either side of her. “I”m going to have lunch. Maybe I’ll drop by later.” She crossed between the last two enemy riders, daring them to touch her, held held high, her back to her enemy. “Thanks for the ride.”
“This will be your only chance, Xena.” Sholeh watched her walk off. “We will destroy you.”
Xena lifted a hand and waved, as she reached Patches, who was ahead of the rest of her men by about a horse length. She turned and laid her arm over the pony’s neck and leaned against him, feeling Gabrielle’s hand touch her back immediately.
After a pause, Sholeh signalled her men, and they retreated back down the pass, circling the fallen body of their comrade without stopping. The riderless horse snorted, then turned uncertainly and followed his stablemates around the bend and out of sight.
“Wow.” Gabrielle exhaled. “That’s..”
“A problem.” Xena turned and faced her men. “We are so screwed.”
“We are?” Her lover asked.
“Oh yeah.” The queen nodded. “C’mon. Let’s go see if I can figure out a way out of this mess.” She started off back towards the army, her hand on Patches bridle. “I knew I shoulda just stayed in bed.”
Xena seated the last of her daggers into her boot before she straightened up, giving Tiger a pat on the shoulder as he shifted his big feet around on the rocky ground. She exhaled, acknowledging the ball of tension in her guts and considered again the options open to her.
After a frustrated moment she just threw up her hands and walked over to a boulder, sitting down on it and staring across the pass as the afternoon sun bathed her in deceptively cheerful warmth.
A soft scuffle of loose stones made her look up, to find Gabrielle climbing up the slope towards her, her blond hair glistening in that same sun. She had her stick in her hand, and she was using it to keep her balance as she got up the last little rise and joined Xena on her little plateau. “Mind if I sit here with you?”
Xena snorted. “Would it stop you if I did?”
Gabrielle clasped her hands around her staff and gazed quietly at her seated friend. “Yes.”
Xena became aware that her little bedmate looked a lot more serious than she usually did, and she pondered if there was something wrong with her. “Sit.” She indicated the rock. “What’s on your mind?”
‘Naturally.” The queen agreed.
Gabrielle sat down next to her. “Are you really going to go to that woman’s place?”
Xena had noticed, over the months, that unlike most people her adorable companion was capable of saying far more with the tone of her voice than with the words she was saying, even though she chattered constantly about pretty much everything.
She could also hear the faint rasp in Gabrielle’s tone that usually meant she was stressed or upset, which seemed a normal reaction given the circumstances. “Not sure I can’t.” She answered, slowly. “We can hold them off here, but If she keeps sending attacks we’ll end up losing in the long run.”
Gabrielle leaned against her staff. “Can’t we just run away?”
“We could.” The queen agreed. “But they’d just wipe through after us and we’d end up with nothing anyway.. I could hold her at the mountain pass before we drop down to the stronghold but we’d be back in the same place.”
“What do you think she wants?”
Xena hitched her knee up and circled it with both arms. “I don’t know.” She admitted. “She doesn’t need an alliance, we don’t have that many resources to hand over.. She probably just wants to kill me.”
“Maybe I’ll try to seduce her.” Xena pondered. “That might give me a few extra minutes.”
Gabrielle swallowed again.
Xena looked at her. “What do you think she wants?” She asked, fascinated by the mixture of emotions on her companion’s face.
“You.” Gabrielle answered softly. “I think that’s why her men were going after you in the fight.”
The queen considered that for a few minutes. “Could be. Bregos might have paid her off to get rid of me.” She finally said. “Maybe she’ll take me and leave everyone else alone. I could send the army back home, might be worth it.” She saw Gabrielle’s hands tighten on the staff. “But I guess we won’t know if I don’t get my ass moving to find out.”
Gabrielle turned her head and looked up.
“You coming with me?” Xena asked, after another long silence between them. “YOu two seemed to be getting along so well I figure we might as well piss her off as much as we can before we find out what she has in mind.”
Unaccountably, Gabrielle suddenly looked profoundly relieved, and she nodded. ‘I want to go with you.” She said. “I don’t care what she does.”
Feeling a little relieved herself, Xena put her arm around Gabrielle and pulled her closer, giving her a kiss on the top of her head and enjoying the simple affection of it. “At’s my girl.” She said. “You and I are going to walk to Hades together, you know that, right?”
Gabrielle set her staff aside and half turned, putting both arms around Xena and hugging her. “I love you.” She said, after a minute. “I don’t care where we go as long as we both go.”
Goofy, but it made her feel a lot less lonely and depressed at the thought of walking into an enemy camp, so Xena didn’t question it. She accepted the hug, and the emotion, and cupped the back of Gabrielle’s neck with her free hand, savoring the comfort it gave her.
They sat together as the sun started angling to the west, until Xena finally sighed and gave her companion a pat on the back. “All right. Let’s get going.”
Sniffling a little, Gabrielle straightened and released her, wiping the back of her hand over her eyes.
“What’s that all for?” Xena touched the side of face, damp with tears. “Change your mind?”
“No.” The blond woman stood, and tugged her armor a bit straighter. “Let me go get Patches.” She picked up her staff and started off down the slope, glancing back over her shoulder a few times as though to check if Xena was still there.
Xena remained seated on her boulder, turning her head when she heard another set of footsteps approaching. She spotted Dev heading for her, the soldier’s armor carefully brushed, and his chest graced with a black overlay bearing her crest. “What the Hades is that for?” She asked as he came up to her. “There a parade no one told me about?”
Dev knelt unexpectedly at her feet, and put his hands on his knee. “The dozen of us, Majesty, would go with you.” He said. “Please let us.”
“Did I ask for an escort?” The queen asked, sharply.
“No.” Her captain shook his head. “But you’re due it, and it’s our honor to.”
Xena studied his face, it’s right cheek marked deeply with scars gain in her service. This was no feckless child chasing after her, ignorant of the end game they were playing. “All right.” She answered. “We’ll all go and be idiots together. Someone bring the wineskins.”
“Majesty.” He put his fist to his chest.
“Keep that up and I’ll make you stay here and cook.” Xena warned.
“Xena.” He amended, with a smile.
“G’wan.” His queen smiled back. “Gather the rest of the idiots in the pass, and let me get this huge beast moving. “ She said. “Dev, tell the rest of the men if we don’t come back, scatter.”
“Aye.” Dev nodded, unsurprised. “They know.”
“There’s caves, in the inner mountains. Caches I left there. They can live on that until this all passes.” Xena said, seriously.
“Aye.” He repeated.
“Go.” Xena clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s get this over with. It’s already been a long damn day.”
Dev stood and saluted again, before he turned and made his way along the ridge towards the encampment. Xena watched him leave, then she stood up and shook herself, walking over to where Tiger was waiting and stroked his neck. “You ready for this, boy? You’re the one who has no say in it, aren’tcha?”
Tiger nuzzled her chest, his warm breath tickling her skin. Looking around quickly, Xena leaned over and gave him a kiss on his soft nose, before she took hold of his bridle and started to lead him down the slope to where she could see Gabrielle and her pony waiting.
She was feeling a strange mixture of emotions herself, as she led her horse towards the pass. Disgust, at being in damn spot the way they were. Shame, that she’d have to walk into her enemy’s camp, and put herself at her enemy’s mercy.
Sadness, that she was taking others into the bowls of Hades with her.
Pride, that they willingly wanted to go.
Gabrielle turned to face her as she arrived at the bottom of the hill, reaching out a hand to pat Tigers nose as he stopped next to her. “I have an apple. Do you want half?”
“Sure.” Xena soaked in the normalcy of it, as they walked together side by side, their horses following behind them. She accepted her half of the fruit and bit into it, the crisp flesh tart against her tongue. Ahead of them, she could see her escort forming up, and with a last sigh, she cast her fate to the winds they were walking into.
“Want me to tell you a story?” Gabrielle asked, as they mounted.
“Sure.” Xena was aware of the army gathering around them, and as she pulled Tigers head around to start him towards the other end of the pass, the men around her, the archers and footmen, the cavalry riders she was leaving behind, all knelt.
Xena paused, in surprise. She looked at Gabrielle, who was looking back at her with a somber expression. “Hold that for a minute.” She said, giving the riders a signal to move out.
The pass was quiet, just the sound of their horses as the small group moved through the massed men. No chants, no calls, no motion, just dusty fighters in well used armor kneeling in homage as she went by them.
Were the Fates laughing at her? Xena lifted her head proudly and made a vague, if rude gesture in the direction of the sky. Let them laugh. She hoped it ended up choking them.
It too a little while, but Gabrielle finally felt her stomach settle down as she rode along next to Xena. They were going at a relaxed, dignified pace, almost as though they were out for an afternoon’s ride near the stronghold instead of marching right towards an enemy encampment.
She knew most of that was an act. Even though Xena’s face was relaxed, Gabrielle could see in her body posture that she was anything but and she wondered if the queen wanted to just run off the other way as badly as she did.
They had passed their last guard post, and now they were approaching the first of the opposing side’s, a line of men visible along the last bend of the pass before it opened up to the lower plateau.
What would their reception be, Gabrielle wondered. Would the enemy soldiers attack them as soon as they came into range? She noticed that Xena was guiding Tiger so that she and the big black horse were between the guards and Gabrielle, so maybe that’s what the queen thought would happen.
They were in front, though. Not like how the enemy leader had shown up, behind soldiers on horses. Xena and Gabrielle were at the very front of the line, with no standard bearer prancing in front of them.
Gabrielle reached over and patted Patches shaggy neck as the guards came more clearly into view, and she could see a line of mounted soldiers behind them blocking the way. “Are they going to fight with us?” She asked Xena.
“Maybe.” Xena worked to keep her body relaxed in her saddle when it wanted to react to the tension and her hand was itching for her sword hilt. “I kicked them in the ass when they came at us chances are they want to knock a little pride off me first, at least.”
Gabrielle looked at her. “Are you going to let them do that?”
“Nope.” Xena played with a bit of Tiger’s mane.
“I didn’t think so.”
The words made Xena smile. “You’ve sure gotten to know me, huh?” She was glad of the distraction, as the line of enemy riders loomed larger and larger in her peripheral vision.
Gabrielle gave her a wry smile. “Xena, it’s going to take the rest of our lives together for me to really get to know you.”
“Nah, I’m a simple country gal.” The queen disagreed. “You nailed me after the first moon we slept together. Damndest thing, too.” She watched a stir happen in the front of the enemy lines, then a round dozen men slowly started moving towards them. “How’d you do that?”
Gabrielle glanced nervously at the oncoming soldiers, then back at Xena, who casually lifted her hand and made that circling gesture. “Oh. Uh.” She thought about the question. “How did I do that?” She wondered. “I don’t know. I guess I just watched you all the time and tried to figure out what you were going to do next, or what you’d want, or..”
‘I remember the morning I woke up and you’d put tea on my bedside table.” Xena said. ‘No one else had ever dared do that. I’d have killed anyone else who tried.”
Gabrielle thought about that morning, remembering well the giddy, scary, wonderful and strange feeling it had been to walk quietly into Xena’s bedroom, and watch her sleeping, as she set down her cup and plate and reveled in the new feeling of belonging somewhere and to someone.
Xena’s confidant. Xena’s friend. Xena’s lover, who she cherished openly, this wild and unruly queen who had become the most important person in Gabrielle’s life in so very short a time.
“Okay.” Xena’s voice now was quiet, and serious. “Here comes our greeting party. Just relax, and let me do the talking.”
Gabrielle watched the soldiers approach from the corner of her eye, and was more than glad to simply nod in agreement. The men coming at them didn’t look like they were in a very good mood and she was pretty sure Xena would be much better at handling them.
Xena lifted her hand and made a casual signal, then let her arm drop again as she guided Tiger down the pass and right towards the enemy soldiers. Her horse was a half head taller than theirs were, and she made the most of the advantage that gave her, straightening a little in her saddle to make the most of her own height as well.
The two riders in the middle were the men the enemy leader had brought with her, and they held maces cross their saddlebows as they advanced on her.
Xena wondered, as they got closer and closer, if they were just going to attack her, and frankly, since that would lead to a load of bloodshed and a dash back to her own lines, she was halfway hoping they would.
As she met the arrogant gaze of the guy in front, she spent a wistful moment wishing she was back in her castle, sprawled with Gabrielle on a plush settee listening to Jellaus’ latest sappy ballad. She was sorry he’d decided to stay behind after all.
“Halt!” The enemy soldier in the middle shouted.
“No!” Xena yelled back, deciding she was going to extract as much entertainment out of the situation as she could. “Move out of my way or I’ll cut your lips off!”
Gabrielle felt her eyes widen, and she took hold of her stick, pretty sure she’d be called on to use it in the very near future. She could see how angry the enemy soldier was, and she urged Patches closer to Tiger as Xena shifted in her saddle and clamped her knees down, freeing her hands of her reins.
That meant, she’d learned, Xena was either going to go for her weapons or grab parts of Gabrielle’s anatomy and it was easy to guess which one was going to happen here. She wrapped her reins around one hand and clasped her stick with her other, rehearsing in her mind the motions she’d need to make to draw it from it’s holder and not smack Patches in the head.
“I said halt!” The soldier yelled again.
“And I said NO!” Xena signalled the men behind her, and tightened her knees, Tiger’s walk moving into almost a prance. “So move your ass, buddy.”
Really, Gabrielle wondered. Was all the yelling doing good things or bad things? “Hey, Xena?”
Xena turned to look at her. “What? Make it fast!”
Gabrielle urged Patches up next to the queen. “There’s a whole bunch of those guys behind these guys.. Are we going to fight all of them?”
Xena looked at her, then she looked at the enemy lines, who were surging towards them, seeing the imminent fight coming. The twelve men had now drawn their weapons and a goodly portion of carnage seemed to be very imminent.
Wonderful, except that she suddenly realized how incredibly stupid it all was and that they were likely going to die. “Hold that thought.” She turned and removed the chakram from her hip, cocking her wrist as the enemy soldiers broke into a canter and then letting the weapon fly.
It caught the sun and startled them, the first man pulling up on his horse’s head as the round weapon slashed across the line, slashing across the front of his tunic as it raced past.
He threw himself backwards, and the line of them hauled up in confusion, men ducking and half falling out of their saddles to avoid being cut.
Their leader lifted his hand with his mace in it and started to yell, but the chakram slashed into his arm, making him drop the weapon as it spun past, then curved lazily back towards Xena, who caught it in one gauntletted fist.
The rest of her men had come to a halt in a line just behind her, and now they sat and watched as the enemy soldiers got their horses back under control and their leader clapped a hand to his bleeding forearm and glared at Xena.
Xena kept the chakram in sight. “I don’t play games.” She said, in a serious tone. “My men have beaten you in battle twice. Either treat us like the guests your princess claimed we were, or we’ll turn around and go back to beating you again. You pick.”
The enemy captain stiffened. “You haven’t done..”
“We have.” Xena overrode him. “”Drop the bullshit. I killed your advance party, I ambushed your ambush, I stopped you from coming through that pass, and I turned back your attempt at burning us out. So take yourself back to the chick who’s really in charge and either escort me in, or we’ll meet over metal.”
All the enemy soldiers were listening. Gabrielle glanced to either side of her, where all their soldiers were listening too, their heads held high.
Xena moved forward, letting the chakram rest on her leg as the breeze blew her hair back off her face, and gently fluttered her cape. “What’s it going to be?”
The enemy soldiers looked at their leader, who stared at Xena for a long moment. Then he turned his horse back. “Very well.” He said. “The great one asked only for you.” He said. “We will escort you, then, as she wished.”
“No, you won’t.” Xena replied. ‘You’ll escort all of us, or I am turning around and going back.” Her voice was steady and serious. “No more playing around.”
The captain studied her in silence. Then he turned his horse all the way around, and started back towards his lines. “Wait here.” He called back over his shoulders. “I will see what the great one’s will is.”
“Wuss.” Xena snorted, relaxing back in her saddle and replacing her chakram back on her belt. She took her waterskin off her saddlering and took a sip from it. “Someone start counting to a thousand.” She ordered her men. “That’s all the time I’m willing to give this.”
“One. Two. Three. Four..” Dev started counting obediently, loud enough for the enemy soldiers to hear him.
Gabrielle released her hold on her staff and looked up at Xena. “That was cool.”
“It was, wasn’t it?” The queen remarked. “Thanks.”
Gabrielle looked around. “For what?” She asked, in a puzzled tone. “I just asked you a question.”
“Ah.” Xena was now fairly sure they weren’t going to be attacked, at least not at once. “Your question made me ask me a question, and that probably got us out of a big dripping pickle.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle studied Patches shaggy mane for a moment. “What’s a pickle?”
Xena held back an answer, since the big idiot was coming back through the lines. She watched him from the corner of her eye, and supressed a grin at his lemon sucking expression. She wasn’t sure going into the enemy camp was a positive thing, but if he thought it was a bad thing, it probably didn’t mean she’d get her throat cut at least for a little while.
“Two hundred six, two hundred seven..” Dev was still stolidly counting. He glanced at Xena as the enemy soldier approached. “Majesty?”
“Enough.” Xena relaxed into her saddle, and waited, as the soldier pulled his horse up barely a length from Tiger’s nose. “Well?”
“Follow me.” He said, briefly. “All of you.”
“Good choice.” Xena replied. She left Tiger’s reins loose on his neck as she guided him after the enemy captain, using only her knees and letting her hands rest on her bare thighs. “C’mon, Gabrielle.” She forced her shoulders not to stiffen as they entered the enemy lines, and her nape hairs prickled in reaction to the sullen resentment. “Make sure you take good notes, so you can tell stories about how lame this bunch is.”
“I will.” Gabrielle responded, keeping Patches as close as she could to his big friend without actually bumping into him. She felt nervous, as they entered the end of the pass, and the other army surrounded them. There were a lot more men there than she’d seen in their camp, and all of them were big, had lots of weapons, and looked pissed off.
Xena’s men filed in two rows behind her, one of them starting to whistle as they passed the guard post and the enemy horsemen turned to follow them.
Gabrielle had to wonder, as they were surrounded by enemy fighters, if what they were doing was even remotely a good idea. They could, she realized, be killed at any moment, but she’d seen Xena’s face as the queen had sat thinking about it, and she understood that Xena knew the risk, and accepted the idea that she might be laying her life down to save the men back in the pass.
It was absolutely heroic. And what did that say about her being here? She glanced aside at the watching soldiers. Did that make her a hero, too? Or just a silly person in blind love?
“Hey.” Xena was looking down at her. “Thanks for being here.”
Gabrielle reached over and gave the queen’s calf a squeeze. “Where you go, I go.” She said, leaving thoughts of heros for later. ‘What do you think is going to happen now?”
Xena looked over Tiger’s head and spotted a large pavilion on the light slope just outside the pass on the far end. She could see a heavy guard around it, and extending back across the open plains down to the river she could now see long lines of supplies moving forward, and support wagons by the dozens and dozens heading towards them.
Huge. Not three times, but probably ten times the soldiers she had, and not even counting the servants and workers traveling with them. This was the army she’d always dreamed of, instead of what she’d settled for when the chance to take and hold what she’d won came to her.
“I think we’re going to be stuck between Hades and a rock wall. That’s what I think’s gonna happen.” Xena told her, with a brief, wry smile. “But you know what?”
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “If it gets too scary, we’ll start making out and the men’ll escape out the back and get the rest of the army.” She patted her lover’s back. “We’ll be fine.”
“Just live in the moment, my friend. Hopefully your life won’t have too many like this.”
Continued in Part 14