were led through the body of the army, past cookpits, and crafts
areas, past men sharpening swords and smiths shoeing horses. Xena
absorbed the scenes around her as she pretended not to, noting the
strong sense of order, and the air of grim professionalism in the men
casually met the eyes of some of them, others turning to stare as
they rode by. Tough, experienced warriors, and knowing that made Xena
all the more prouder of her troops, for holding them off and driving
one side, they passed an area full of the wounded, healers kneeling
amongst them. They stretched out from the edge of the army to
the cliffs, another mute testament to the tough fighting they’d
been through. Xena sat a little bit straighter, and from the
corner of her eye saw her men do the same.
scanned the faces watching her from the crowd, taking care to make
eye contact with as many as she could, a faint smile playing around
her lips. They were curious, most of them, line soldiers who
were fairly young but well armored and seemingly disciplined.
different from the men she had with her. Dev’s comrades were older,
as he was, grizzled from years of fighting and wearing good, but worn
armor without any match in style or color to it.
was Xena herself. Her gear was finely crafted, the joints
perfect, the plates molded to her form and glove fit but it bore
years of dents and scratches on it she viewed as a mark of what she’d
done to get where she was. It wasn’t that she couldn’t have had
new made for her, or bought new for the troops, it was more she
valued things that did their job and survived.
enemy soldiers in front of her slowed to a halt a few minutes later,
on a small, cleared space below the ornate pavilion. Their
leader turned and looked at Xena as he prepared to dismount. “You
will wait here.”
studied him. ‘Maybe.” She allowed. “But don’t take long. I
get bored easily.” She swung her leg over Tiger’s
neck and slid down, landing lightly on her feet and brushing her
hands off. “Gwan. Get moving.” She advised the man, who had
paused to stare at her. “We don’t have all day.”
got down and headed up towards the pavilion with out answering, but
his back was stiff with anger. Xena merely chuckled as she
circled Patches, arriving at Gabrielle’s knee and giving it a pat.
“So, what’dya think?”
what?” Gabrielle was aware of the rest of the men dismounting
around her, taking their cue from their queen. The
enemy soldiers had started to gather around to, and she saw that
their guys were making a discrete circle around her and Xena.
rolled her eyes around, then looked back at her lover.
Gabrielle decided to stay on Patches back, since it was the only real
way she could see anything with all the hunky soldiers around her.
The army was spread out in all directions around them, and she was a
little overwhelmed by the size of it. There were more people
around her right now than she’d ever seen in her life. “It’s
it is.” Xena agreed, propping her elbow on Patches neck. “I”m
probably going to have to go talk to the old princess in a minute.”
spotted the soldier coming back. “Yeah, I kinda figured that.”
cupped her hand around Gabrielle’s knee. “I want you to stay
here, and do something for me while I go find out what she wants.”
frowned. “I’d rather go with you.”
know.” Xena said. “I’d rather you did too, but I need you to
stick around out here and.. Um..” She glanced to one side,
where a gathering of the enemy was closing in. “Talk.”
know.” The queen nudged her.
stared at her, with a puzzled expression.
jerked her head in the direction of the crowd. “So they can hear
enemy captain returned to his horse. “Her magnificence will see you
now.” He said, in a loud voice. “Make haste. She doesn’t
like to be kept waiting.”
The queen hissed. “Do you get it?”
looked at the crowd, then her expression cleared. “Oh.” She said.
“You want me to tell stories about you.”
cleared her throat, and turned. “Took ya long enough.” She said,
leaving it up to the captain and her lover to decide who she was
talking to. With a twitch of her shoulders, she settled her
cape and started towards the pavilion.
soldier got in her way. “Your weapons stay here.” He held up his
hand. “All of them.”
considered the request, then she shrugged, and walked back to where
Gabrielle was perched. “Hold onto these for me, willya?” She
reached over her head and unclipped her sword, laying it across
Gabrielle’s outstretched arms.
she unhooked the chakram and dropped it into Gabrielle’s saddlebag,
before she removed her daggers and started tucking them into her
lover’s armor. “Got all that?”
nodded, looking very serious. “Isn’t it dangerous for you to
leave these here?”
patted her knee. “I can’t leave these.” She wiggled her
fingers. “I’ll be fine. Just start talking.” She turned and
started up the path again, hoping she didn’t regret the bravado.
She had a decent faith in her martial skills and knew she was
more dangerous with no weapons than most people were with lots of
them, but in the middle of an army it didn’t pay to take unneeded
could feel Gabrielle’s eyes watching her, almost as a warmth
between her shoulderblades, and she smiled at that as she came even
with the enemy captain who stood waiting on the path. She
really wanted to have the little squirt with her, but she’d been
honest in her request for stories and she hoped Gabrielle would tell
really good ones.
do I know you have left all your weapons.” The captain was still in
her way, his big body blocking her path.
don’t.” Xena kept walking towards him. “You just gotta
take my word for it.” She was almost nose to nose with him before
he took a step back, reluctantly, and cleared the way for her to
pass. She went by him without a glance and started up the
slope, very aware of the eyes of the men on either side.
let the sword rest against her thighs, her heart beating hard in her
hearing as she watched Xena walk away, up towards the magnificent
tent that held the unknown threat she could sense her lover walking
understood what Xena wanted her to do, but all she could think of was
what was going to be happening up there, in a place she
couldn’t see. What if they ambushed Xena?
if the princess wasn’t really there, but a bunch of soldiers were,
and they had weapons which her lover had left behind?
Gabrielle looked down at the sword cradled in her arms, and
shifted it’s weight, hugging it to her as her eyes followed Xena up
the last of the slope and into the pavilion. She went to the
flap and entered as though it was her own, and the blond woman held
her breath for a moment as she watched the walls and listened hard,
for any signs of a fight.
it was quiet, and still, and after a moment she looked back down at
the sword in it’s worn leather sheath, the brass rings that held it
to Xena’s back dented and equally worn. She put her hand on
the hilt and rubbed her thumb across the heavy piece that protected
Xena’s hand, it’s surface old and well used, and polished to a
sword. Gabrielle studied it. It was drenched in the blood of many,
even in her short experience with it, and yet there was a noble
beauty about it, the intricately laced leather around the hilt, and
the heavy ball at the end for balance. She knew if she pulled it from
it’s sheath, the blade would be a deep, burnished silver gray and
if she squinted hard at it, she could almost see the bloodstains from
all the battles that somehow surely must have seeped into the metal
seen Xena sit patiently, cleaning and sharpening this blade every
time she used it, taking care of it with a serious, intentness that
was at odds with her usual attitude. This meant something to
her, as did the round weapon in Gabrielle’s saddlebag, and she
understood suddenly the mark of confidence Xena had given her by
leaving it in her care.
blade.” Dev had moved his horse closer to her. “Fine hand
that wields it.”
looked up at him, remembering Xena’s request. “I remember the
first time I saw her practicing with it. “ She said, projecting her
voice just a little. “It was amazing. I never knew anyone
could move that fast, or be that graceful.”
Dev agreed. “When we were on campaign, if we was lucky she’d show
us a move or two after dinner. Never saw no one do what she
mean the flying through the air stuff?” Gabrielle caught sight of
the enemy soldiers edging closer. “And how she jumps high as the
ceiling? I know. It’s unbelievable.”
her jump from a wall right onto the back of that big un there.” One
of the other men helpfully chimed in. “Never missed a stroke.”
it was like when she saved that girl from the cannibals.” Gabrielle
edged Patches around so she was facing the men. “Were you there for
Dev shook his head. “What happened?”
let me tell you…”
paused, just a tiny bit, to take a breath and square her shoulders
before she pushed aside the tent flap and walked inside, letting her
eyes sweep raipdly over the interior before she let the fabric fall
behind her and shut off the light.
it was dim with dappled sun coming through the fabric, and two
hanging glass candle globes to either side of a fine wooden desk.
Behind the desk sat Sholeh, watching her with cool, intent
eyes, her hands resting on the desk’s surface to either side of a
deliberately looked around again, noting the chests and tapestries,
furs and trappings that spoke of vast wealth and an attention to
comfort. Finally she cocked her head at Sholeh and raised an eyebrow.
“What do you want?”
woman behind the desk leaned back in her fur covered chair and
regarded Xena. The light reflected off her fiery hair and with her
odd eyes, and angular face she seemed exotic and strange, and just a
bit dangerous. “You are quite rude.”
am.” Xena agreed. She strolled around the tent, deliberately
turning her back to her adversary as she examined one of the globe
candles. It was made of colored glass, and she found the blue
tint pleasant to look at. “That all you wanted to know?” She
turned to face Sholeh.
steepled her fingers and pressed them to her chin, her eyes on the
tall, shadowed figure across from her. “Bregos spoke at length to
me about you.” She said. “He told me you were a wild cat with a
manners of a pig.”
folded her arms over her chest, and her lips twitched. “I’d say
that’s pretty damn close.” She said. “But that was a
compliment coming from an idiot like he was.”
Sholeh mused. “He is dead?”
Xena felt a prickle down her spine at the expression on her
adversary’s face, and she understood suddenly that she was fencing
with someone who was possibly as dangerous as she was. “But then,
he knew he’d be if I caught him.”
did.” Sholeh stood, and circled her desk, approaching Xena. She
walked with a powerful, sinuous grace and one look at her hands
showed she was no stranger to weapons. “He didn’t expect you to
catch him though. He thought I’d get here first.”
remained where she was. Her height was an advantage here, and she
knew it. Sholeh stopped short enough from her so that she wouldn’t
have to crick her neck to look up at her. The red haired woman’s
head came just to Xena’s shoulder, and though she had an athletic
build, she was far slighter.
don’t seem upset he betrayed you.” Sholeh said. “He thought you
would be devastated.” Her eyes studied her adversary’s intently.
laughed suddenly, the sound filing the room. “He betrayed me
long before he met you.” She said. “Bregos was out for Bregos.
He’d sell his soul to anyone with coin. I was just a convenient
purse for his ventures.”
is so interesting.” The Persian woman said. “So unexpected.”
She turned and retreated back to her desk, leaning against it to face
Xena. “Did you kill Bregos?”
nodded, as if to herself. “How?”
gutted him and pulled his heart out of his body.” Xena
replied, with a pleasant smile. “My men found him hiding in a
midden. He was all full of himself for selling us out.”
Sholeh now folded her arms over her chest, mirroring Xena’s stance.
“You are not what I expected to find you as, a wild cat of the
fields.” She looked Xena over from head to foot, the faintest hint
of a smile crossing her face. “I could kill you.”
could try.” Xena let a smile of her own surface. “A lot of
other people have.”
can well imagine.” Sholeh pushed away from her desk and walked
around it slowly, in her turn now exposing her back to Xena. She put
her hands on the surface of the desk and leaned on them. “But I
have a better idea. It makes no sense to waste even such a rough,
rude talent as yours.”
Xena now approached her, and leaned her hands on the opposite side of
the desk, putting her head on a level with her opponents. “Do you
want? Because either you get to the point, or I’m taking my men and
my bard and finding someplace more fun to be in.”
didn’t move back. If anything, she leaned a little further forward.
“I think I want you.” She responded, with a thin smile. “You
have talents I need. We will make you and your men a place
here.” She added. “And we can discuss how we can best work.. Ah..
brow creased slightly. “You want us to join your army?”
kept her eyes fastened on Xena’s face. “We can collaborate.
Surely that’s a more appealing offer than being slaughtered, isn’t
felt her nape hairs lift. “For both of us.” She said. “We
can talk about it, sure.”
Persian smiled wider. “Good.” She said. “I am sure this
will be interesting for both of us.”
“Yeah.” Xena said. “I’m sure it will be.”
let her voice trail off as she spotted the two women emerge from the
pavilion and stand together briefly, before they started down towards
where the army was. Her throat went dry when she saw how
friendly it all looked, and she felt a moment of sick uncertainty, as
she watched the enemy leader talking so casually to Xena.
they’d gotten along better than Xena had expected. She
swallowed. Maybe Xena had found someone who was a lot more like
had a lot more to offer than a peasant shepherd.
the soldiers around her turned to face the two women, Gabrielle found
herself the subject of their attention, the enemy leader motioning
towards her and asking Xena a question.
couldn’t hear what Xena said, but the expression on the other
woman’s face was plainly disdainful, and the motion she made with
her hand was dismissive, as though she was chasing off a fly. She
said something back to Xena, then turned her attention to the
felt her face heat in shame, and she had to look away, missing the
pair of quiet blue eyes that fastened on her as she focused her
attention on the sword still cradled in her arms.
of Persia, attend me!” The enemy leader said. “I bid you welcome
these visitors in our camp as friends, and no longer as enemies.”
Dev grunted. “Guess her Maj charmed another one.”
felt like throwing up. But she took a firmer hold on the blade
resting in her arms and straightened up, forcing her eyes to focus on
Xena, almost starting when she found her queen looking right back at
her, ignoring the princess’s speech.
expression was unfathomable. But a second before she turned her
attention to Sholeh, she tilted her head and winked, just slightly,
at Gabrielle and she took that meagre comfort to her heart as she
waited to find out what was going to happen.
a place for our new allies.” Sholeh was commanding. “They
will be strange to you, I am sure, but will make them a part of us
soldiers didn’t argue. They started milling around, captains giving
orders as men started to shift things to make some space in the
center of the camp.
turned to Xena. “Instruct your men to join us. Best be done before
nightfall, so no mistakes will be made.”
paused, then nodded. “Good idea.” She stirred into motion and
headed for the small clump of her soldiers. Sholeh’s men parted to
let her through, and she gave them a brief nod as she eased between
two of the horses and arrived at Dev’s side.
leaned towards her, and she spoke to him in a low tone, her hands
pressed against his horses’ side.
He said, when she was done, his eyes never leaving her face.
go.” Xena clapped him on the knee. “It’ll be fine.” She
pushed away from him and turned, coming next to Patches head and
giving his forehead a scratch. “Hey, runt.”
pulled his mounts head around and started edging through the crowd.
He looked back at Xena as he reached the edge of her guard, and she
jerked her head at him to continue. With visible reluctance, he did,
shaking his head as he aimed his horse for the opening to the
you want this back?” Gabrielle asked, after a moment’s silence.
look good with it.” The queen leaned against Patches.
“Everyone listen up.” She let her voice carry. “Settle down,
and relax. We’re going to be joining up with these guys on Sholeh’s
campaign, heading up the river.”
the men nodded. Gabrielle merely sat in her saddle in silence.
it.” Xena said. “Stand down, start looking around and
getting used to the way they do things.” She waited a moment,
when no one budged. “Now?” She suggested, with a touch more acid
in her tone, grunting when the soldiers finally started getting off
their horses and murmuring to each other.
Sholeh called out.
turned her head, but remained leaning against the pony.
am having dinner brought to my quarters. Join me.” Sholeh
commanded, giving a last, low order to her nearest captain and
striding off back towards the pavilion.
sighed, and turned, presenting her back to Gabrielle. “Clip that
thing on, willya?” She felt Gabrielle’s hands touch her back, and
after a fumbling moment or so she realized they were shaking. “You
were right, y’know.”
was?” Gabrielle answered, in a husky voice.
Xena turned, feeling the weight of the sword fall into place. She put
her hands on either side of her lover and looked up into her eyes.
“About what she wanted.”
swallowed, and just nodded.
wants me to be a captain of hers, on her way to taking over this part
of the world.” Xena went on. “She likes my style.
Apparently.” The queen paused. “She’s what I always wanted to
felt a pain in her chest so intense, it almost made her lightheaded.
She wondered if it were her heart breaking, understanding that she
was watching the most important thing in her life slipping through
she always expected this though? Even from the start, she’d
always thought Xena would find someone more interesting than she was,
and even she could see that this Persian princess was very, very
couldn’t really even blame Xena.
think much of you.” Xena went on, then she paused as she caught
Gabrielle’s expression, and her shaky, fast breathing. Her
lover wasn’t looking at her, she was looking past her. “Gabrielle?”
The answer was just a whisper.
in a tight spot here.”
studied the painfully tense form, and the tears she could see just
trembling on the edges of her companions eyelids. “Sorry I brought
you in here with me.” She sighed.
too.” Gabrielle wished she were anywhere else. She even
wished she were back home in Potadeia, being smacked around by her
father and surrounded by stinking sheep. She felt a pressure on
her leg, and she looked down in surprise to see Xena’s head resting
there, one blue eye visible looking up at her.
was something so raw there, it made her stop breathing. The
horses were all around them, and it was almost as though she and Xena
were alone in the pass, even the sounds of the army seemed to fade
wasn’t looking to get all of us killed today.” Xena said,
after a long pause.
Gabrielle uttered softly. “Of course not.”
I will.” Her lover whispered back. “Because I can’t change who
blond woman couldn’t help herself. She laid her hand along Xena’s
cheek and pushed aside the anguish, responding to the look in the
queen’s eyes. “You haven’t killed anyone.” She said. “You
m..made a deal with her, right? Everyone’s going to be okay, we’re
not fighting with them anymore.”
exhaled. “That’s what she wants.” She said. “Me at her
side, our armies together, the rest of the world to take over.”
Her breath trickled out, warming Gabrielle’s leg even through
the fabric. “That’s one screwed up fantasy there.”
stopped breathing again. “But I thought....”
queen laughed faintly. “Thought you knew me better than that.” A
wry smile twisted her lips. “Gabrielle, I don’t play second
I kinda knew that but..”
lifted her head and looked directly into Gabrielle’s eyes. “And
neither do you.”
that moment, her wobbling world settled back down into a normal spin,
as the words echoed inside her mind, framed by the intense blue of
Xena’s eyes that filled her vision along with a surge of utter
do you. She couldn’t manage speech, but she saw Xena’s gaze
soften and it was all she could to to stay in her saddle as her body
ached for her to throw her arms around the queen and hug her
such a little idiot sometimes, you know that?” Xena said. “You’re
so damn lucky I’m in love with you.”
best she could do was produce something like a grin. After a moment
of silence, during which Xena looked around them cautiously, she
cleared her throat and figured she’d better say something
“So what are we going to do?” She asked.
have no damn clue.” The queen sighed. “No damn clue at all.”
She glanced around again, then back at her companion. “We’re
probably gonna end up dying, if I can’t figure out a way to sneak
out of here.” She watched Gabrielle nod in response. “You don’t
give a crap right now do you?”
shook her head, unable to surpress another small grin.
little muskrat.” Xena had to smile back anyway, aware that the men
were coming back, and the time for endearing soulful chats was over.
she had to figure out what the Hades to do.
held a hand of grass out to Patches, watching him as he lipped the
stalks from her fingers, bobbing his head a little bit as he chewed.
She knew he could have found his own lunch, but she desperately
wanted something to do and something to concentrate her attention on
as the men settled down around her.
staked out a small area for themselves, for now. Sholeh’s soldiers
were milling around them, going about their camp business but they
were the center of attention and it was making her uncomfortable.
more uncomfortable than she was already, anyway. Gabrielle
exhaled, and scratched Patches between his ears, leaning close to
him. “I got really scared there for a minute, Patches.” She
murmured. “I thought it was going to be you and me going off
somewhere, you know?”’
bumped her in the back, and she turned, half expecting to find Xena
there, but it was Tiger, sniffing interestedly after the grass she
was holding. “Oh, it’s you.”
big mount stepped closer, nuzzling her. She separated a bit of the
grass and held it out to him, smiling as the hair on his lips tickled
her palm. “You’re so pretty.” She told the big
stallion. “Not as pretty as your mom, but still.”
nudged her indignantly.
you’re pretty too.” Gabrielle reassured him. “I”m glad you
guys are here to keep me company, because you know, those other
soldiers are making me kinda nervous.”
turned, to find one of their own soldiers there, holding out a
wrapped packet to her. “Oh, hello. What’s that you’ve got?”
y’grace.” The man said. “Making dinner, they are, but we’d
rather have our own.”
had to agree. “Could you do me a really big favor?” She took hold
of the package and looked him in the eye. “Could you please call me
a moment, she though he was going to protest, then he smiled. “As
you’d have it, Gabrielle.” He said. “Do you have another story
maybe to tell us, over this’n some good water?” He asked,
hopefully. “Seems like more than us was listening, last
Gabrielle said, after a pause. “Sure, let’s go over there and
I’ll be glad to tell you another story.” She was glad enough of
this new distraction, while Xena was off with two of the men scouting
the camp. She brought her packet of bread over to where the
rest of the soldiers were seated in a circle around a small fire, and
they all greeted her with smiles and casual welcome.
felt good to be a part of them. Gabrielle took a seat on a piece of
cut log and tucked her boots up under her, her shoulders shifting
under her leather armor as she settled herself with the bread on her
Xena had said, she had gotten very used to wearing the armor. It felt
natural to feel the constriction of the scale around her chest and
the pressure of the belt with it’s hawkshead buckle around her
belly. She no longer felt the weight of it, and the leggings
and boots had become familiar and very comfortable.
men across from her were likewise comfortable in their heavy gear,
their unshaven faces wary, but relaxed as they shared the bread
they’d brought and toasted it a little, giving the heavy stuff some
flavor as she did the same, the late afternoon sun slanting down
didn’t talk about where they were, or where Xena was, or what was
going to happen. The men merely made small talk about the weather,
and the height of the river, giving her a chance to chew her trail
bread as she listened.
struck a chord of familiarity suddenly, a memory of her going to the
well for water, passing the field workers sprawled in the shade near
it, hearing the same relaxed, meaningless talk and watched with the
same benign regard as someone who belonged where she was, and was
nibbled on her toast as she thought about that, and about how she’d
never, ever felt that way in the stronghold. Even knowing that
Xena wanted her there, and that everyone deferred to the queen’s
wishes, she never felt that the stone walls were truly home.
wondered if Xena felt that way too. But then, she’d never really
had a home, not since she’d been a little girl, so who knew?
knew. Gabrielle was at least glad there didn’t seem to be any
immediate danger of violent battle and maybe they would even get a
nights rest before more bad things started happening.
had no doubt at all that they would. Just the thought of that woman
commanding Xena to have dinner with her…
Now that she’d gotten past being scared Xena was discarding her,
she was wrestling with a whole new set of fractious emotions all
involving Sholeh and her disdainful eyes and her purposefully sexy
walk, and the interest she obviously had in Xena.
well, Enough of that anyhow. “Yes?” Gabrielle looked up, to find
her new soldier friend taking a seat next to her. “You know,
I think I remember you from the fight ,when we got back to the castle
man grinned. “First one out of the gates I was.” He said. “After
you opened em.”
all were.” One of the other soldiers said. “I was madder
than a wet hen we missed going out with the Maj. Coudla used us,
that’s for sure.”
sure could have.” Gabrielle straightened up a little, and took a
deeper breath, learned from Jellaus over the long winter months how
to project her voice for storytelling. “Would you like to hear
about how we escaped from the mountains and down the river?”
let her hands rest on her knees and she looked past them briefly, her
eyes going a little unfocused as she remembered the terror and the
excitement of that time, and how scared she’d been, and how brave
Xena had been and…
grunted, as she strode down the rocky path that led from the pass to
the center of the camp. Sholeh’s army was spread out halfway to the
river, filling the entire delta basin and once the rocks dropped off
from the pass there was nothing but open, cleared lands before them.
place to hide, no place she could easily take the men and Gabrielle
and slip off to, they’d have to walk or ride for a candlemark
before they’d be out of view even at night, unless she got lucky
and a storm caught them.
from that, they were being watched very, very closely. Regardless
of Sholeh’s words, her men had not welcomed Xena’s with open arms
and she knew any move on their part would be raise an alarm very
were clearing a big space not far from where her little band had
staked a claim, for the rest of her army. It wasn’t the best
location, but it wasn’t the worst - Sholeh’s men were moving
grudgingly away from it, and Xena relaxed a bit when she entered the
open area, glad she was free of the press of so many guardedly
was almost like being back at the stronghold. She looked
around, spotting first the horses, then Gabrielle’s distinctive
figure perched on a log with the rest of the men surrounding her.
was telling a story. Xena could tell by her posture and the way she
was moving her hands around if not by the rapt attention of her
audience. There in the late sunlight, she seemed to glow, her
blond hair catching the rays and briefly putting a smile on Xena’s
briefly. “All right.” She rubbed the back of her neck,
feeling a bone pop into place. “Let’s go pretend we’re
impressed with these bastards before I have to go dance with the ice
princess up there.”
that one’s respecting you.” One of her men commented, after a
brief pause. “Seems like anyway.”
Xena gave him a wry look. “If you respected me that way I’d
cut your nuts off.” She shook her head and stepped over a
pile of ropes, her ears already cocked to catch Gabrielle’s voice.
A ring of Sholeh’s soldiers were standing around listening to what
she was saying also, and she wondered what story it was the cute
little muskrat had come up with.
then, Gabrielle turned her head and caught sight of Xena approaching
and her face creased into a smile that made everyone listening to her
turn around and look to see what caused it.
much Xena could do but give an acknowledging wave, so she did, It
was a little embarassing, but Hades, they were in the middle of an
army who wanted to squash her like a bug so who cared? “What are
you telling them there, muskrat?” She asked, as she arrived at the
circle. “My ten favorite bed positions?”
blushed, her fair eyebrows standing out against her skin, and she
stopped speaking in mid word as the soldiers chuckled around her.
“Xena!” She gave the queen a pathetic look. “C’mon
moved to the center of the circle, and sat down on the log next to
Gabrielle. “You’re such a lambchop. These guys all know what sex
is. Relax.” She draped her arm over her lover. “Everyone
find a spot here they liked?”
soldier nearest Gabrielle shrugged. “Spots as same as any.” He
said. “Be better when the rest of our lot’s in here.”
Another soldier nodded. “Bare back right now.”
not coming.” Xena smiled, as though they were making light
fell silent, and stared at her, except for Gabrielle, who folded her
hands together. “Keep talking.” The queen ordered. “Pretend
I didn’t just say that.”
of the men half turned and started arguing, one giving the other a
friendly shove. The others stirred from their shocked silence and the
noise level went back up. Xena watched Sholeh’s guards who weren’t
guards turn back around after a moment, and she relaxed a little.
just gonna have to trust me on that one.” She said, in a louder
voice, forcing a chuckle. “Right, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle agreed, feeling nervous again.
just relax, and get yourselves fed.” Xena went on. “I’m going
to work out how we fit into this circus with the gal in charge, and
we’ll take it from there. Understood?”
you.. “ Xena turned, and reached over, cupping Gabrielle’s cheek
with one hand and leaning over to kiss her on the lips with sincere,
frank passion.” “You keep telling stories until I get back.
drew in an unsteady breath, but nodded.
girl.” Xena bit her on the nose lightly, then kissed her again,
just because it felt so good to.
captain pushed through the crowd and stopped at Xena’s side. He
stared at the two women sitting on the log and his lip actually
curled up in disgust. “You will come with me to her presence.”
He said. “Though you are not worthy even to wipe her horses
balanced herself against Gabrielle and kicked out with both feet,
catching him behind the ankle with one and popping him in the knee of
the same leg with the other, dumping him abruptly backwards to land
on his ass in the dirt.
started to grab for a weapon, but she rose smoothy and kicked him in
the chest, knocking him back down and then stepping on his belly as
she drew her sword from it’s sheath, knocking the dagger from his
hand even as he drew it and sending it spinning. “Careful.” She
warned, softly. “Or I’ll forget we’re allies now.”
stepped over him and started up the path. “I’ll find my own way,
thanks.” She sheathed her sword and twitched her shoulders, hoping
Sholeh didn’t mind her dinner guests a little on the rough side
because she was in no mood to be nice.
was still no virtue by the time Xena reached the tent, but she paused
as she got to the flap, considering how she’d expect someone to
approach if it had been her space. Constant antagonism was
something that came very naturally to her, but she’d actually
learned from Gabrielle that the odd moment of courtesy often reaped
Xena rapped on the support pole with the backs of her knuckles
and waited, her ears picking up motion inside the tent a moment
before the flap shifted and revealed a dimly backlit figure.
had wondered. “ Sholeh said. “What kind of a creature was pecking
at my tentpole.”
boar.” Xena replied. “Hope you weren’t expecting a
studied her with a blank expression, then she took a step back and
motioned Xena forward. “Rabbits don’t interest me.” She
said. “But I love a nice piece of pork. Come inside.”
huh. Xena knew a moment of wondering what she was getting herself
into, before she ducked inside and let the tent flap drop behind her.
There were a few more candles now, brightening the inside with
a rich, golden glow and she paused briefly to let her eyes adjust
from the cooler light outside.
inside of the tent had been rearranged as well. On one side there was
a low table, with pillows around it and a covered tray on top.
Behind that, what had been hidden by a plain flap was now displayed,
a richly made wooden travel bed.
huh. “So what’s on your mind?” Xena strolled over to a
camp chair, hide stretched between wooden posts, and sat down in it,
extending her booted legs out and folding her arms over her chest.
went to her desk and took the stopper from a wine flask. She poured
some of the contents into two cups, and picked them up, offering one
to Xena as she stepped closer to where she was sitting. “Here.”
accepted the cup, swirling it casually as she studied her opponent.
Sholeh was dressed in casual leather and furs, the garments
oddly cut and almost seemed meant to look like armor without actually
being functional as that.
had rust colored sleeves laced around her wrists that mimicked the
bracers Xena wore, but the Persian’s arm bands were soft, supple
leather and probably wouldn’t have turned a butter knife if pressed
had on a low cut bustier that exposed the top half of her breasts,
and long, flowing pants that held a taste of the eastern exotic about
was attractive, and she knew it, and Xena was surprised to find
herself not really caring for this subtle show put on for her
benefit. She’d always considered herself a woman who knew a
good thing when she saw it, and Sholeh was powerful and sexy and
should have been right up Xena’s alley.
took a sip of the wine, finding it strong, and with a faintly spicy
taste. She kept her expression casual as Sholeh circled around her, a
sudden memory of her doing that very same thing to Gabrielle
springing to mind.
sensed Sholeh stopping behind her, as she had stopped behind her new
slave, and she knew only the thick thatch of dark hair she had over
the back of her neck kept her prickling nape hairs from showing much
as Gabrielle’s had.
perspective. It had been a very, very long time since she’d been in
the presence of someone who not only wasn’t impressed by her, but
who thought they had her by the short hairs.
men say, there’s no sign of your army.” Sholeh spoke finally,
staying behind Xena. “Could they have misunderstood your orders?”
doubt it.” Xena replied honestly. “They’re usually pretty good
about listening to me. I tend to kill them when they don’t.” She
took another small sip from the wine, it’s pungent scent tickling
her nose. “They’ve got a lot of support people to move up. Might
not be here until the morning.”
a rush?” Xena tipped her head back, peering at Sholeh with a rakish
Persian smiled back. “Even more interesting.” She commented.
“Come. Let’s continue over dinner. I find myself starving.”
find myself with both hands and a wicker bat sometimes.” Xena got
to her feet. “To each their own, I guess.”
turned to look at her, head cocked to one side, watching as Xena
eased past her and selected a side of the table, depositing herself
onto the pile of pillows with the air of a regal cat with very muddy
a moment, she took her seat on the other side, facing Xena across the
table. “Let’s see if we can clear up some of the mystery about
you, Xena. Where do you come from?” She lifted the cover off
the tray and revealed dishes of meats and fruits, all with rich,
if you ask most people.” Xena selected a grape, and nibbled
it, keeping her eyes on Sholeh’s face. “What about you?” The
candles fluttered around them, emitting a soft, rich scent into the
air, a hint of incense she could taste on the back of her tongue.
gazed steadily at her. “I think my curiosity takes precedence over
yours.” SHe remarked. “So I suggest you answer my question, or
this will be a short meal.” She drew a small, thin dagger from her
wrist and delicately stabbed a piece of meat, the candlelight winking
off the blade.
come from nowwhere.” Xena replied, lacing her fingers
together. “You wouldn’t know the name of it if told you and
it’s long gone to brush and seed anyway.”
that so?” Sholeh extended her knife, with it’s burden towards her
guest. “Try this. My cook prides himself on it.”
was danger there. But Xena lifted herself up and put her face within
striking distance of the knife, taking the tidbit off it’s tip with
a faint snap of her teeth. She eased back down, mouthing the
substance before she swallowed it.
was sweeter than she’d expected, and full of spices she didn’t
recognize. “Not bad.”
speared a bit of meat for herself and spent a moment savoring it,
keeping Xena waiting as she swallowed at her leisure. “It tastes
like home. My father’s palace.” She said. “Though it wasn’t
to my mother’s taste. She came from a different place.”
shook her own wrist dagger into her hand, it’s blade age darkened
and stained with use. She picked up a bit of the meat, then a
bit of fruit on the point and brought it back to her lips. “My
mother was gutted when I was a kid.” She pulled the bit of fruit
off and chewed it. “Never knew my father.”
Persian paused, her finely arched, dark eyebrows lifting a trifle.
ate the meat on her knife, and licked the blade, her eyes darkly
amused. “Thought I was kidding about the wild boar?” She asked.
“I might as well have been suckled by wolves I grew up in a pit you
had to fight your way out of or die.”
slowly picked up her cup and drank from it, watching Xena over the
edge of the rim. “So that’s where you learned to fight.” She
mused. “I came to battle a more usual way. I am my father’s only
for him.” Xena drawled. “Persian’s aren’t much for
smart assed women.”
eyes narrowed. “You push my good humor too far.”
didn’t really think she’d intended to, since she’d been around
in this part of the world enough to hear the stories. She studied
Sholeh’s face, seeing again the odd cant to it. “Wasn’t an
insult.” She finally said. “Got in one of the biggest fights of
my life cause I met one, and I am a smart assed woman.”
Persian retreated behind her mug again, and the silence lengthened as
they both picked at the food and the atmosphere grew more charged
Sholeh reached over to pour more wine into their mugs. “Did you
here.” Xena answered, with a faint smile. “That’s
something Bregos forgot about.” She shifted, pulling her legs
up crossed under her and resting her elbows on them as she neatly cut
a bit of stewed fruity something in half.
spicy stuff was all right, but the taste was strange on her tongue
and she found herself wishing for a plate of Gabrielle’s lamb stew
and one of her crusty rolls instead.
it strange, not having a family?” Sholeh asked, suddenly. “I
can’t imagine it.”
took a sip of wine, rolling it around her mouth before she swallowed.
“I dunno. Is it strange having family? I can’t imagine that. I
had two brothers. One died for me and I killed the other one. Never
saw much point in it.”
got up and roamed back over to her desk, her body language twitchy.
“I have no brothers or sisters.” She remarked. “Now,
perhaps I am glad of it.”
swiveled around to keep her in view, leaning back against a support
pole and abandoning her plate. She crossed her ankles and thought
about what would come next, as Sholeh picked up a riding lash and
she the kind that liked it rough? Xena felt those eyes lift and fix
on her, the soft rasp of leather against skin coming to her ears. Did
she assume Xena might also?
not? Most everyone else did. She couldn’t count the times she’d
taken some wretch to her bed and had them earnestly assure her they
could stand any amount of pain before they’d even gotten near the
know, my mother would be fascinated by you.” Sholeh moved closer,
leaning against another of the supports, directly across from Xena.
“She’s from Chin. A war prize of my father’s.” She stroked
the lash, running it through her hand. “I don’t think she sees
much point in family either.”
took another step forward, her finely made boots almost touching
Xena’s rough and muddied ones, and her expression took on a hint of
the predatory. “But she did teach me many things.” She said.
“Mostly about how to get what I want when I want it.”
remained where she was, working hard to keep her posture relaxed when
her battle instincts were sparking, reacting to the seductive threat
approaching her. “I figured that one out on my own.” She
said. “But I found it’s more important to know what you want
sometimes than how you get it.”
smiled. “I know what I want.”
huh. It was time, she reckoned, to either fish or go swimming, and
she had very little time to figure out which would be more dangerous.
“So do I.” She debated getting up, then decided she was
better off where she was.
here, Xena.” Sholeh crooked her finger. “Let’s seal our
partnership like warriors should.”
produced the sexiest grin she was capable of. “Careful what you ask
for.” She reached up and caught the crossbar of the support
and lifted herself up to her feet, arching her back and flexing her
hands as she felt the blood move to her skin. She started for the
center of the tent, watching an expression of hungry pleasure appear
on Sholeh’s face. “I bite.”
guess we shall see which one of us has the sharper teeth then.” The
whip slashed through the air, cutting a candle flame in two and
sending a single spark popping from it. “On your knees.”
hah. Gonna be a very long night.
gonna be a problem.”
lifted her hand an put the tip of her crop against Xena’s throat.
ignored it. “You’ll have to break my legs to get my head any
closer to the ground in here.”
can do that.”
can try to do that.”
laughed. “Do you truly think you have any power here, Xena? My army
surrounds us. A snap of my fingers and you will be dead thrice over.”
save your ass.”
tiny snick, and the end of the crop grew a tooth, now pressed against
Xena’s skin. “And now?”
expression, mildly amused, didn’t change. “Still won’t.” She
said. “I”m a tough kill, and a vindictive bitch like you wouldn’t
believe.” She kept her breathing slow and even, feeling the faint,
deep twitching of her muscles as her body strained again the will
holding it motionless.
stared at her in fascination. “At my whim, I could cut your throat
open. Do you not realize that?” She pressed a little, and the tooth
bit into Xena’s flesh, drawing blood. “Are you a fool? Or do you
think I am?”
exhaled, putting a shred of space between her neck and the blade and
reached up in a flickering motion to grab the crop, twisting it from
Sholeh’s hand as her other arm whipped up and her palm thunked
against the other woman’s breastbone, tossing her backwards in a
short, powerful arc and clearing the space between them.
stumbled backwards and turned in the same motion, lifting something
from the side of her desk and whirling back around to fire a crossbow
bolt at point blank range right at Xena’s chest.
hand caught the bolt inches from her gut, and they locked eyes again
in a still tableau. She twirled the crossbow arrow in her
fingers and smiled, waggling an eyebrow at her opponent.
next? Got some rocks over there you want to throw at me?” She
taunted Sholeh. “Put your toys away. I’m not some pampered court
Persian slowly put the crossbow back down, her eyes never leaving
Xena’s face. She lifted her curved, elegant sword from her desk and
fitted it’s hilt to her hand, as she stepped back towards her
opponent. “Your challenge excites me.” She said. “You are a
more worthy opponent than I’d thought. Excellent.”
put her hands on her hips. “We gonna go two out of three to see who
gets to be on top? Don’t take that thing out if you don’t wanna
drew her blade and tossed the scabbard behind her, whipping the sword
into a tight figure eight as she stalked towards Xena, with a
dangerous smile on her face. “We shall see who ends up submitting,
boar. Draw your blade.”
hah. Well, at least she was going to get some fun in before
everything went to Hades. Xena dropped her hands down and wiggled her
fingers, taking her tight focus off Sholeh’s face and letting her
wider vision study her moves instead.
fun. The swordmastery was evident, but Xena was relieved to
have their combat moving into an arena she was far more comfortable
with. She lifted her hands and curled her fingers inward,
beckoning Sholeh forward. “C’mere, little girl.” She said.
“Let’s see what ya got.”
dare!” Sholeh moved into an attack, faced by nothing yet but Xena’s
bare hands. Her blade sliced towards her opponent and skimmed the air
where Xena’s body had been, as the taller woman shifted out of the
way with sinuous ease. “Ah!”
chuckled softly, and her eyes narrowed, as she finally reached behind
her head for her sword hilt and felt her fingers close on it’s
was difficult to say, really, who was the luckier person when a loud
horn blared nearby, breaking their intense tableau and making Sholeh
whirl to face the tent flap, letting out a low, gutteral curse. “Now
slowly let her hands relax from the fists they’d curled into, her
body trembling under it’s leather covering as her fighting reflexes
eased off just a bit. She licked her lips, and hoped the horn
meant something gruesomely distracting. “Problem?”
lifted her hand in a shushing gesture, and opened the flap with her
crop. “This better be an urgent call, Phenosah. Else, you
will pay for the interruption.”
one.” A low, male voice answered from outside. “I bring word from
felt a deep affection for this unknown Persian. He’d given
her a moment to step back and take stock of what was happening,
a far too fluid and far too dangerous moment having been broken up
before she’d been forced to pick one of two unpalatable paths.
father?” Sholeh glanced back at Xena. “Go to your camp. I will
send for you again.” She pointed to the far exit of the
ego was certainly taking a battering, but for a change, Xena let her
better sense take charge and she casually waved at her adversary,
winked, and left out the flap into the gathering night with a shiver
of relief she wasn’t quite able to suppress.
wasn’t afraid of Sholeh. The woman professed herself a
warrior and her body show that not to be a lie, but Xena was very
secure in the arrogance of her own martial competence and she knew
the Persian was no danger to her in a one to one contest.
Xena glanced around at the thousands of soldiers around her, their
eyes glancing curiously at her as she passed through their ordered
ranks and through their legions, past war machines with massive
launching arms and forests of spears being lovingly sharpened.
she was in the lion’s den. Sholeh expected her to bow to her
wishes. Xena expected that she’d chew her own arm off before she’d
even think about it, and that left her…
them, since she had those eleven men and Gabrielle with her, staring
death in the face if she refused to go along with the Persians
wishes. Arrogance was one thing, thinking she could fight her
way out of the middle of an army with Gabrielle tossed over her
shoulders was something else entirely.
she wasn’t *that* arrogant.
they battled, there would have been only a few possible outcomes.
She’d have beaten Sholeh and they’d become friends, she’d
beaten Sholeh and had the army called down on her, and she’d beaten
Sholeh and in the process either hurt or killed her and then had the
army come after her and cut her up in very small pieces after
doing pointlessly horrible things to her body.
didn’t put much stake on the friends option. Two possessive willful
bitches generally only ended up chewing each other to death in her
experience and so she’d likely have ended up dead or dead, with
only the satisfaction of beating Sholeh to show for it.
but ultimately pointless.
the darkness, she spotted her own group’s campfire, the evidence of
her eyes backed up by the sound of Gabrielle’s voice floating over
as her consort sat telling a story to her small band of men, their
outlines mostly hidden in shadows.
she neared, Gabrielle stopped speaking and turned around, her eyes
looking right through the gloom and into Xena’s nearly making the
queen stop in her tracks as she was struck by the elemental
difference between the woman she’d just left and the one waiting
a faint smile, she entered the camp, lifting a hand to greet the
soldiers who stirred in surprise and moved aside for her. She crossed
over to where Gabrielle was sitting and knelt next to her, resting
her arm casually on her lover’s knee as she looked around at the
rest of them. “Okay.”
wasn’t t’yer liking, your Majesty?” One of the soldiers
ventured. “Got some soup here if you’re looking for it.”
made me hack up a furball.” Xena said. “And all I could
think about was lambchops.” She glanced sideways at Gabrielle.
“But listen up. The next time I get called up there,
I”m going to make a scene, and with any luck, it’ll be enough to
get us out of here.”
arm settled around her, a comforting warmth out of proportion to the
down the pass, Majesty?” The same solider asked, in a doubtful
shook her head. “Last place I wanna go.” She said. “We take off
towards the water and lead these bastards as far away from home as we
the soldiers nodded. Every one of them understood exactly what she
was saying. Even Gabrielle was nodding her head, when she
wasn’t putting it down on Xena’s shoulder and for once she had
the experience of sharing a plan and having everyone be totally in
line with it.
you’re going to cause the scene, how are you going to get away with
us?” Gabrielle spoke up, ruining the moment entirely. “Wont
everyone be running to where you are?”
well. “You just gotta trust me.” Xena said. “YOu all just
start moving and I’ll catch up with you. Everyone got that?”
that?” Xena repeated.
Finally Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I think you’re just saying
that because you’re going to make sure we get away even if you
scratched her eyebrow. “Are we back to this ‘I’m the queen and
you have to do what I tell you’ thing?” She sighed in
exasperation. “This is not a group decision.”
one’s right, Xena.” One of the older soldiers said. “None
of us is conscripts. We know the deal. We don’t want to get out
less you’re with us.” He got up and went to the small fire,
filling a wooden bowl with soup and bringing it back for her. “Can’t
speak for everyone, but my life’s not worth yours.”
took the bowl and studied it, trying to come up with a smart retort
for the sentiment and utterly failing, because at some deep level she
understood the honesty of it. Finally she looked back up.
“We’ll all get out.” She said. “I can’t die here.
It’s me they’ll chase, Not you lot, and certainly not you.” She
peered at Gabrielle. “So like I said, you just need to trust me.”
silence this time had a different flavor. Xena lifted the soup bowl
and drank from it’s edge, savoring the taste as it washed the
strange spices from her tongue, which she then nearly bit as
Gabrielle leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
soldiers around here think you’re amazing.” Gabrielle whispered
into her ear.
looked around at her men surrounding them. “I damn well hope so.”
She uttered back. “I”m the one who pays em.”
uh.” Gabrielle leaned against her. “Not our guys. The other
guys.” She put her lips right up near Xena’s ear, tickling it
delightfully. “They were all talking after you pushed that big guy
on the ground.”
Xena mused thoughtfully. “Well ain’t that interesting.”
thought you’d like hearing that.”
thought right.” Xena turned her head and gave her lover a quick
kiss. ‘Now you just have to do what I tell you to do and we’ll
get out of here.” She eyed the blond women. “Deal?”
studied her face for a long moment, then she smiled. “Deal.”
that was settled. Xena exhaled. Now she just had to figure out
how to actually do it without getting herself cut into little pieces
in Part 15