Queen of Hearts

Part 14

They 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 she passed.

She 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 them back.

To 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.

She 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.

Very 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.  

As 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.

The 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.”

Xena 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.”

He 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?”

About 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.

Xena rolled her eyes around, then looked back at her lover.

Well.” 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 kinda crowded.”

Yeah, 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.”

Gabrielle spotted the soldier coming back. “Yeah, I kinda figured that.”

Xena 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.” She said.

Gabrielle frowned. “I’d rather go with you.”

I 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.”


You know.” The queen nudged her.

Gabrielle stared at her, with a puzzled expression.

Xena jerked her head in the direction of the crowd. “So they can hear you?”

The 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.”

Gabrielle!” The queen hissed. “Do you get it?”

Gabrielle looked at the crowd, then her expression cleared. “Oh.” She said. “You want me to tell stories about you.”  

Xena 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.

The soldier got in her way. “Your weapons stay here.” He held up his hand. “All of them.”

Xena 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.  

Then 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?”

Gabrielle nodded, looking very serious. “Isn’t it dangerous for you to leave these here?”

Xena 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 chances.

She 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.

How do I know you have left all your weapons.” The captain was still in her way, his big body blocking her path.  

You 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.


Gabrielle 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 into.

She 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?

What if the princess wasn’t really there, but a bunch of soldiers were, and they had weapons which her lover had left behind?

Sheeps.  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.

 But 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 deep shine.

This 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 itself.

She’d 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.

Fine blade.” Dev had moved his horse closer to her.  “Fine hand that wields it.”

Gabrielle 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.”

Aye.” 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 does, though.”

You 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.”

Seen 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.”

Well, 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 that?”

No.” Dev shook his head. “What happened?”

Well, let me tell you…”


Xena 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.

Inside, 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 cup.

Xena 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?”

The 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.”

I 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.

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.”

Xena 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.”

Was.” Sholeh mused. “He is dead?”

Very.”  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.”

He 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.”

Xena 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.

You don’t seem upset he betrayed you.” Sholeh said. “He thought you would be devastated.” Her eyes studied her adversary’s intently.

Xena 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.”

That 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?”


Sholeh nodded, as if to herself. “How?”

I 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.”

Mm.” 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.”

You could try.”  Xena let a smile of her own surface. “A lot of other people have.”

I 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.”

What.” 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.”

Sholeh 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.. Together.”

Xena’s brow creased slightly.  “You want us to join your army?”

Sholeh kept her eyes fastened on Xena’s face. “We can collaborate. Surely that’s a more appealing offer than being slaughtered, isn’t it?”

Xena felt her nape hairs lift. “For both of us.”  She said. “We can talk about it, sure.”

The Persian smiled wider.  “Good.” She said. “I am sure this will be interesting for both of us.”

Interesting. “Yeah.” Xena said. “I’m sure it will be.”


Gabrielle 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.

Maybe they’d gotten along better than Xena had expected.  She swallowed.  Maybe Xena had found someone who was a lot more like her.

Who had a lot more to offer than a peasant shepherd.

As 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.

She 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 soldiers.

Gabrielle 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.

Warriors of Persia, attend me!” The enemy leader said. “I bid you welcome these visitors in our camp as friends, and no longer as enemies.”

Huh.” Dev grunted. “Guess her Maj charmed another one.”

Gabrielle 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.

Xena’s 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.

Make 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 soon enough.”

The 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.

Sholeh turned to Xena. “Instruct your men to join us. Best be done before nightfall, so no mistakes will be made.”

Xena 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.

He leaned towards her, and she spoke to him in a low tone, her hands pressed against his horses’ side.

Xena.” He said, when she was done, his eyes never leaving her face.

Just 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.”

Dev 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 pass.

Do you want this back?” Gabrielle asked, after a moment’s silence.

You 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.”

Warily, the men nodded.  Gabrielle merely sat in her saddle in silence.

That’s 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.

Xena.”  Sholeh called out.

Xena turned her head, but remained leaning against the pony.

I 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.

Xena 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.”

I was?” Gabrielle answered, in a husky voice.

Yeah.” 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.”

Gabrielle swallowed, and just nodded.

She 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 be.”

Gabrielle 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 her fingers.

Hadn’t 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 interesting.

She couldn’t really even blame Xena.

Doesn’t 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?”

Yes.” The answer was just a whisper.

We’re in a tight spot here.”

I know.”

Xena 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.

Me 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.

There 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 out.

I wasn’t looking to get all of us killed today.”  Xena said, after a long pause.

Xena..” Gabrielle uttered softly. “Of course not.”

But I will.” Her lover whispered back. “Because I can’t change who I am.”

The 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.”

Xena 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.”

Gabrielle stopped breathing again. “But I thought....”

The queen laughed faintly. “Thought you knew me better than that.”  A wry smile twisted her lips. “Gabrielle,  I don’t play second to anyone.”

Well.. I kinda knew that but..”

Xena lifted her head and looked directly into Gabrielle’s eyes. “And neither do you.”

In 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 relief.

Neither 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 senseless.

You’re such a little idiot sometimes, you know that?” Xena said. “You’re so damn lucky I’m in love with you.”

The 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

Anything.  “So what are we going to do?” She asked.

I 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?”

Gabrielle shook her head, unable to surpress another small grin.

Goofy little muskrat.” Xena had to smile back anyway, aware that the men were coming back, and the time for endearing soulful chats was over.

Now she had to figure out what the Hades to do.

Damn it.


Gabrielle 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.

They 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.

Well, 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?”’

Something 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.”

Xena’s 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.”

Patches nudged her indignantly.

Oh, 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.”

Your grace?”

Gabrielle turned, to find one of their own soldiers there, holding out a wrapped packet to her. “Oh, hello. What’s that you’ve got?”

Bread, y’grace.” The man said. “Making dinner, they are, but we’d rather have our own.”

Gabrielle 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 Gabrielle?”

For 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 time.”

Sure.” 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.

It 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 knee.

As 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.

The 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 across them.

They 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.

It 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 accepted.

Gabrielle 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.

She 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?

Who 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.

She had no doubt at all that they would. Just the thought of that woman commanding Xena to have dinner with her…

Grr. 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.


Hey.. Ah.. Gabrielle?”

Oh 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 last year.”

The man grinned. “First one out of the gates I was.” He said. “After you opened em.”

We 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.”

She 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?”



Gabrielle 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…


Nice setup.”

Xena 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.

No 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.

Aside 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 quickly.

They 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 hostile men.

It 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.

She 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 face.

Very 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.”

Least that one’s respecting you.” One of her men commented, after a brief pause. “Seems like anyway.”

Respect?”  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.

Just 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.

Wasn’t 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?”

Gabrielle 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 now!”

Xena 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?”

The soldier nearest Gabrielle shrugged. “Spots as same as any.” He said. “Be better when the rest of our lot’s in here.”

Aye.” Another soldier nodded. “Bare back right now.”

They’re not coming.” Xena smiled, as though they were making light conversation.

Everyone 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.”

Two 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.

You’re just gonna have to trust me on that one.” She said, in a louder voice, forcing a chuckle. “Right, Gabrielle?”

Right.” Gabrielle agreed, feeling nervous again.

So 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?”


Aye, Majesty.”

And 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. Got me?”

Gabrielle drew in an unsteady breath, but nodded.

Good girl.” Xena bit her on the nose lightly, then kissed her again, just because it felt so good to.

Sholeh’s 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 foot.”

Xena 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.  

He 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.”

 She 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.

On any level.


Patience 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 unexpected rewards.

So.  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.

I had wondered. “ Sholeh said. “What kind of a creature was pecking at my tentpole.”

Wild boar.”  Xena replied. “Hope you weren’t expecting a bunny.”

Sholeh 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.”

Ah, 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.

The 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.

Ah 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.

Sholeh 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.”

Xena 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.

She 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 to it.  

She 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 them.

She 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.

So to speak.

Xena 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.

She 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.

Interesting 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.

So to speak.

My men say, there’s no sign of your army.” Sholeh spoke finally, staying behind Xena. “Could they have misunderstood your orders?”

I 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.”


In a rush?” Xena tipped her head back, peering at Sholeh with a rakish grin.

The Persian smiled back. “Even more interesting.” She commented. “Come. Let’s continue over dinner. I find myself starving.”

I find myself with both hands and a wicker bat sometimes.” Xena got to her feet. “To each their own, I guess.”    

Sholeh 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 paws.  

After 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, exotic scents.

Hades, 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.

Sholeh 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.

I 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.”

Is that so?” Sholeh extended her knife, with it’s burden towards her guest. “Try this. My cook prides himself on it.”

There 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.

It was sweeter than she’d expected, and full of spices she didn’t recognize. “Not bad.”

Sholeh 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.”

Xena 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.”

The Persian paused, her finely arched, dark eyebrows lifting a trifle.

Xena 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.”

Sholeh 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 child.”

Sucks for him.”  Xena drawled. “Persian’s aren’t much for smart assed women.”

Sholeh’s eyes narrowed. “You push my good humor too far.”

Xena 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.”

The Persian retreated behind her mug again, and the silence lengthened as they both picked at the food and the atmosphere grew more charged between them.

Finally, Sholeh reached over to pour more wine into their mugs. “Did you win?”

I’m 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.

The 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.

Is it strange, not having a family?” Sholeh asked, suddenly. “I can’t imagine it.”

Xena 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.”

Sholeh 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.”

Xena 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 fingered it.

Was 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?

Why 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 bed.

Idiots. “So.”

You 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.”

She 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.”

Xena 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.”

Sholeh smiled. “I know what I want.”

Ah 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.

Come here, Xena.” Sholeh crooked her finger. “Let’s seal our partnership like warriors should.”



Xena 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.”

I 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.”

Ah hah. Gonna be a very long night.


That’s gonna be a problem.”

Sholeh lifted her hand an put the tip of her crop against Xena’s throat. “Problem?”

Xena ignored it. “You’ll have to break my legs to get my head any closer to the ground in here.”

I can do that.”

You can try to do that.”

Sholeh 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.”

Won’t save your ass.”

A tiny snick, and the end of the crop grew a tooth, now pressed against Xena’s skin. “And now?”

Xena’s 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.

Sholeh 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?”

Xena 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.  

Sholeh 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.

Xena’s 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.

What’s 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 whore.”

The 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.”

Xena 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 lose it.”

Sholeh 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.”

Ah 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.

Dangerous 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.”

You 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!”

Xena 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 familiar shape.


It 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 what?”

Xena 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?”

Sholeh 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.”

Gracious one.” A low, male voice answered from outside. “I bring word from your father.”

Xena 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.

My father?” Sholeh glanced back at Xena. “Go to your camp. I will send for you again.”  She pointed to the far exit of the pavilion. “There.”

Her 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.

She 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.

However. 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.

However, 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…

Left 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.

Even she wasn’t *that* arrogant.

Had 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.

She 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.

Satisfying, but ultimately pointless.

In 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.

As 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 for her.

With 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.”

Dinner wasn’t t’yer liking, your Majesty?” One of the soldiers ventured. “Got some soup here if you’re looking for it.”

Dinner 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.”

Gabrielle’s arm settled around her, a comforting warmth out of proportion to the gesture.

Back down the pass, Majesty?” The same solider asked, in a doubtful tone.

Xena 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 can.”

All 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.

If 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?”

Ah well. “You just gotta trust me.”  Xena said. “YOu all just start moving and I’ll catch up with you. Everyone got that?”


Got that?” Xena repeated.

Silence. 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 don’t.”

Xena 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.”

Little 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.”

Xena 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.”

The 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.

The soldiers around here think you’re amazing.” Gabrielle whispered into her ear.

Xena looked around at her men surrounding them. “I damn well hope so.” She uttered back. “I”m the one who pays em.”

Uh 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.”

Ahhhh.” Xena mused thoughtfully. “Well ain’t that interesting.”

I thought you’d like hearing that.”

You 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?”

Gabrielle studied her face for a long moment, then she smiled. “Deal.”

So that was settled.  Xena exhaled. Now she just had to figure out how to actually do it without getting herself cut into little pieces first.


Continued in Part 15