Queen of Hearts
Xena loosened Tiger’s girth strap, letting it fall to the ground before she lifted his saddle off him, half turning and putting the well broken in leather down on the ground right underneath a small, scrubby tree.
She turned back to the stallion, only to find Gabrielle squiggling in before her, a bit of linen in her hand that she started scrubbing the animal’s dark coat with. “Hey.”
“Hey what?” Gabrielle said. “I’m done with Patches. He’s a lot smaller.” She wiped the dust off Tiger’s hide, smiling a little as Xena joined her. Then she lowered her voice. “Should we take this stuff off? What if we need to go fast?”
Xena fitted a brush to her hand and started brushing the thick, dark coat in front of her. “We keep the tack on, the rest of these guys are gonna start wondering why.” She said. “Take it off, get comfortable, so will they.”
“Ohh!” Gabrielle peeked past Xena, catching sight of some of Sholeh’s soldiers around their own campfire pretending not to watch them. It was getting late in the evening and the stars were out in full force overhead, and the moon was bright enough for her to see a good distance away from where they were. “That makes sense.”
“Thanks.” Xena worked her way down Tiger’s back, taking comfort in the familiar motions as she tried to work off her impatient jitters while they waited. While she waited, for the gods be damned bitch on the hill to decide she wanted a second round.
Moving around Gabrielle and starting on the stallion’s neck, she spared a glance for the pavilion, now surrounded by Sholeh’s guards and full of shadows as she met with her battle leaders inside.
Upstaged by a note from daddy. Xena was human enough to feel a little ego tromped by that, but it gave her a little more time to figure things out, so she figured it wasn’t all that bad in the long run.
And there wasn’t much she could do about it anyway, unless she wanted to just bust in there and…
Xena paused, leaning her arm against Tiger’s neck, and studying the guards with a speculative look. Hm. She made the picture in her head, imagining herself walking up the slope towards the tent, and facing off against the guards, maybe killing one or two, then busting into the tent and demanding…
The queen chuckled wryly. Demanding clothes to plug the arrow leaks in her body from the rest of the guards shooting her ass.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing.” Xena shook her head, and continued brushing. She was getting sideways looks from the enemy soldiers, and she knew they were wondering about her, about why she’d clean her own horse, if she had men there to do it, and why she’d set her kit down among theirs if she was, in truth, their queen.
She thought about that for a minute. Of course, if she’d had a choice, she’d have put up a tent and gained herself some privacy but since she didn’t, it never occurred to her that she should separate herself from the men.
“It’s getting pretty late, huh?”
Xena looked to her left. “Yeah.” She studied Gabrielle’s face, lit from the side by the firelight nearby. “Tired?”
“Yeah.” Her blond companion said. “But I don’t think I could go to sleep in here.” She looked around. “It’s like something is going to happen any minute.” Her shoulders lifted and relaxed as she took a deep breath. “Isn’t it?”
Xena turned and leaned against Tiger’s shoulder. They had the tree and the horse between them and the army on one side, and a patch of rocky scrub on the other, and it was about as private as they were going to get. “I don’t know.”
Gabrielle glanced apprehensively past her, towards the pavillion. “You think she changed her mind?”
A faint smile appeared on Xena’s lips. “You want her to?” She asked, watching Gabrielle’s eyes drop a little, and her shoulders move in a halfhearted shrug. “C’mon, muskrat. Make me feel special and tell me you’re jealous.”
Caught offguard, Gabrielle could only stand looking back at her, jaw dropping a little bit as she tried to summon up an answer. “Buh..”
“You mean you aren’t?” Xena’s eyes widened in mock innocence.
“No.. Bu.. I..” The blond woman stopped speaking, and scowled instead.
“Maybe I should take you up there with me. “ THe queen mused. “We could do a threesome.” She added. “What do ya think?”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened, and her nostrils flared.
Even in the dim light, Xena saw the little flinch, and the wrinkle forming on her lover’s forehead, and she reached over to tweak her nose. “Relax. I’m joking.” She said. “Stop losing your mind.”
Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest and leaned against TIger also. “That’s what she wants, isn’t it?” She said. “To do that with you?’
“Sure.” The queen said. “She wanted me to get down on my knees and make her happy.”
Gabrielle blinked at her, her nostrils flaring again.
Xena chuckled, and shrugged. “You know how it is with us despots.” She drawled. “Other people only exist for our pleasure.” She gave Tiger a pat on his side. “She seemed to expect me to go along.”
“Did you want to?”
Xena just looked at her, both eyebrows hiking up to her hairline.
“I don’t think you would” Gabrielle hurriedly added. “You like to be in charge.” She looked around. “But hey, it’s really late. We could sit down over there and just relax for a while, right?”
Xena watched her, a faint, wry smile on her face. She pushed away from Tiger’s side and beckoned Gabrielle to follow her, draping her arm over her companion’s shoulders as she led her away from the horses and over to the stunted tree she’d left her saddle under.
They sat down together on the sparse grass, leaning back against the leather and facing the small fire the rest of Xena’s men were clustered around. Several heads turned as they settled, then went back to their low conversation as the queen waved a hand at them and stretched out her legs.
It was getting late, and now Xena was moving in her mind from wanting Sholeh to lay her cards out, to hoping she’d be kept occupied the rest of the night so she didn’t have to deal with her until morning.
Which meant, likely, that she’d not have to deal with what she wanted until dark fell again, which meant there was a good chance Xena could cause her disruption and put her plan in place without having to play Sholeh’s game.
Did she really care that much? Xena settled her arm around Gabrielle again and had to admit at least to herself that she did. She was no prude, and the gods knew she’d had her share and more of wild sexual experiences, but…
Gabrielle snuggled up next to her, warming the side of her body in a very nice way.
But. “I didn’t.” Xena leaned back against Tiger’s saddle, feeling the tension of a very long day leave it’s aches in her bones. Much as she wanted them gone from where they were, she wanted to stay where she was even more and just chill out a little.
“You didn’t what?” Gabrielle said, after a long pause.
“You said, “I didn’t.” “ The blond woman clarified. “You didn’t what?”
Xena had to think for a minute before she recalled what she’d been talking about. “Ah.” She picked up her waterskin and took a sip from it. “I didn’t want to have sex with her.”
“Nah.” Xena flexed her toes inside her boots and was glad to be off of them. “Woulda ended up messy for both of us. Too much crap going on.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle frowned. “You didn’t think she was pretty?”
The queen shrugged. “She was all right. Different.” She glanced at her companion. “Did you?”
“I thought she thought she was.” Her companion said. “She was pretty obnoxious, anyway.”
“So am I.”
“No you’re not.”
“Oh give me a break, Gabrielle I certainly am.” Xena laughed. “Hey, Ardos!” She called to one of the soldiers, who turned and half sat up to face her. “Am I obnoxious?”
“MIstress???” His eyes got wider.
“Am. I. OBNOXIOUS?” Xena repeated. “Lie, and I’ll cut your damn tongue out!”
“Xena, be nice.” Gabrielle nudged her. “Okay, okay, you’re obnoxious. Happy?”
The queen peered at her, then poked her lower lip out in a sad face.
The tall, dark haired woman chuckled evilly, clearly enjoying herself. “C’mon, Gabrielle. Laugh, willya? Life sucks and we could die any minute here.” She reminded her companion. “Lighten up.”
Gabrielle really didn’t feel like laughing, or lightening up for that matter, but she managed a grin, and bumped the queen in the shoulder with her head. The constant tension was exhausting, and she felt a little like she had at the very beginning in the castle when everything was terrifying and every moment could lead to something bad.
She was glad Xena was here. She didn’t want to think about being alone in the middle of the enemy without her, knowing she was up in that tent with that woman doing -
“Know why I really didn’t want to have sex with her?” Xena asked suddenly, her lips not far from Gabrielle’s ear. “Guess?”
Ugh. “She made you mad?”
“She said something bad to you?”
“She smelled like a wet sheep?”
“Okay. I give up. Why?” Gabrielle shifted a little, removing a rock from under her leg and tossing it aside, doing her best to set aside the discomfort of the hard ground. She knew Xena was trying to distract her but there were so many things to be anxious about that she...
“She wasn’t you.”
Gabrielle paused, then she looked up. “W.. What?”
Xena plucked at Gabrielle’s ear. “Something wrong with these? Need a washing like usual?” She teased her friend. “Don’t tell me you’re surprised to hear me say that.”
Was she? Gabrielle thought about that. It was hard to grasp, really, that Xena would prefer her to an exotic, powerful, apparently not sheep smelling princess who had a big army and wanted to take Xena to rule the world with.
She studied the angular face watching her, seeing the mischief in the twinkle of her eyes and that wicked little grin, her body covered in dust from the ground, every inch of it giving off that air of raw, unrepentant energy unique to her.
“No, I guess it doesn’t.” Gabrielle finally said. “You pretty much never do what people expect you to, so I guess that makes sense.” She bumped the queen with her head again. “But thanks - that’s really nice of you say anyway.”
Xena chuckled. “I can’t believe you’re calling me nice.” She sighed in mock exasperation. “All that storytelling going to waste. Damn shame.” She glanced casually to her right, up at the torchlit pavilion. The guards around it showed no signs of motion, and she leaned back again after a minute and tipped her head back to look at the stars instead.
It was a beautiful, clear night for a change and the pinpricks of light spread from horizon to horizon. Xena suddenly remembered laying out in the field, when she was far far younger, and watching those same stars track across the sky night after night painting their strange but distinct patterns.
“Those are pretty, aren’t they?” Gabrielle followed her gaze, letting her head rest lightly on Xena’s shoulder. “Lila and I… “ She paused a moment. “We used to sneak out at night and look at the sky sometimes and find pictures in the stars.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle pointed. “See that rabbit?”
Xena moved her head so she could sight down Gabrielle’s arm, studying the patch of lights. “No.”
“Really? I can, look, it’s ears are there, and a tail.. You can’t see it?” Gabrielle asked. “It’s so pretty, I can almost imagine him hopping around, chewing some clover.. Can’t you?”
“No.” Xena shook her head. “Looks like a big old fat Tiger turd to me.”
“Sorry.” The queen turned her head and then her whole body, wrapping her arm around Gabrielle and kissing her instead. “I’m fresh out of romantic platitudes. C’mere.”
“Know what you can do with a bunny’s tail?”
It was very late in the night or early in the morning depending on what your perspective was. Xena was still reclining full length on the ground, her head pillowed on her saddle. Gabrielle was curled up against her fast asleep, both of them covered in Xena’s cloak.
The camp was quiet. Small fires burned low in the scattered camps around them, and speech had ended, allowing the sound of the torches near the pavillion to drift down across the field, bringing with it the scent of spice and incense.
Still. Peaceful. And yet something had stirred Xena from her uneasy sleep, bringing her alert and awake here in the pre dawn hours as she let her senses spread out to detect what that something might have been.
To her left, she could hear the horses shifting, just a bit, a heavy hoof pocking against the rocky ground in equine discontent. But that was unremarkable, and expected, as were the soft snores of the men and the whisper of the wind through the pass.
Xena felt no desire to be up and about, though the ground was hard and uncomfortable the warmth of Gabrielle’s living form draped over her made it bearable and she let her head relax back down onto the leather surface of her saddle again.
The quiet continued, and she was on the verge of closing her eyes when her ears pricked, detecting a sound out of place in the silence around them.
A soft rasp, leather against stone. Footsteps with a deliberate stealthiness so faint it would have been easy to think she was imagining it if she hadn’t spent a good portion of her life both expecting and repelling attacks on her life.
Was this another one? Xena sorted through the signals she was now getting, a whiff of sweat and leather on the wind, a touch of fear and another faint scuff of a slow approach.
The approach was coming from behind her. Xena stifled the urge to turn and look, reaching slowly under her cloak and easing her dagger from it’s belt sheath as the last shred of sleep was driven from her body and a flush of warm energy replaced it.
She slid one leg outside her cloak, easing the waxed fabric away from her boot and making sure she had room to move her arm. Then she went still again, closing her eyes and waiting.
With her sight cut off, the sounds and smells intensified, and now the camp’s muted sounds became much clearer to her as she sifted them to determine the breadth of the threat she could feel closing in on her.
The steps approached, each lifting and placing of a foot studied, and careful, producing only the tiniest of evidence but sounding now as loud to her ears as if the jackass had been banging a club against a nearby tree.
She wondered if it was a rogue in Sholeh’s court, trying to gain points with the army’s captains, or an assassin sent by the princess herself. Her fingers played lightly with the hilt of her dagger, confident that the position she was in would force the oncoming attacker to come up almost right to her in order to do any significant damage.
The tree and the saddle blocked any decent arrow shot, and her low profile made a rotten target in any case. The assassin would have to circle the tree, and come at her quickly, probably jumping on top of her and trying to stab.
With a dagger, as she had, or a sword? Xena had noticed most of the army held the curved, elegant swords common to their origins which were deadly in battle but remarkably useless in close order pit fighting and so she figured if the man was worth anything, he’d come at her with a dagger, or at worst, a short sword.
Gabrielle shifted a little, and snuggled closer, her arm closing around Xena’s stomach and one leg slipping up to pin hers in place. Xena glanced at her adorable mophead and with a sigh, she patted her back , letting go of her knife to reach up and cover Gabrielle’s mouth at the same time.
Her companion’s eyes popped open in alarm, blinking and looking up at Xena.
“Sh.” Xena barely breathed out the instruction.
Gabrielle nodded after a moment, and drew in a breath as her mouth was released.
Xena put a finger to her own lips, then she slowly reached back down and took hold of her dagger again, as she heard motion not far behind the tree they were sheltering under. She could feel Gabrielle’s body tense against her, and her breathing increase and she gave her a comforting pat on the back.
Closer. Xena felt a prickle in her senses as the intruder moved into the area they were camping in. Her own breathing sped up just a trifle, and she forced herself to close her eyes and lay her fate into her trust in her own instincts.
She heard the boots scuff lightly against the scrub grass, then the whisper of sound as a hand rested against the gnarled limbs of the tree they were behind. Now she could hear breathing, and the soft rasp of a blade being drawn from leather.
A few heartbeats long, too short for a sword and Xena closed her fingers firmly around her blade and waited, sensing the assassin moving around the tree and into view. She kept her own breathing steady, aware of Gabrielle’s fast beating heart where her lover was pressed against her.
A shadow fell across her face, blocking the faint starlight and she knew the assassin was standing over her, the smell of leather, sweat and steel now almost overwhelming to her nose and she sensed a hesitation, caught a whiff of fear as the man prepared himself to strike.
Gabrielle was afraid. Xena tried to remember a time when she’d been that way, and couldn’t, but dropped the issue as steel came at her and she simply let her body react to the attack, her eyes opening as her boot slammed upward, catching the man in the groin as his knife headed right for her chest.
He coughed, but it didn’t stop his momentum and he drove his arm forward with vicious intent.
She deflected the blade with her own, a tricky bit of fast motion that made her glad she’d picked her fully tanged knife as the man’s weapon slid against hers and ground to a halt on the guard.
His weight came fully down on her, but she took a breath and shoved him back, lifting his body up off her and back into the air, and throwing his knife arm hard to one side as he struggled to catch his balance.
She kicked upward again, forcing the assassin back a step, then she started to unwind herself from the ground to go meet him.
A scurry of motion arrested her though, and she eased back as three of her men grabbed the assassin from the back and threw him to the ground, one falling on his knife arm with an armored knee with enough force to send the sound of breaking bone across the clearing.
The would be assassin gasped, as he twisted and fought to free himself. But Xena’s soldiers held him down in grim silence as a fourth lit a torch from the watch fire and the light from it spread across the group.
Xena remained where she was, hitching herself up a little to a seated position but maintaning her relaxed pose. She caught sight of a few of Sholeh’s men stirring and turning to look at them, as the light drew attention and she gestured for her men to hold the attacker up. “Let’s see what brand of mutt they sent over here. Hmm?”
The torch revealed a bearded, older face, dour and scowling. The man was dressed in dark leathers and armor, his attempt at a stealth approach evident too in the soot darkening his skin and the bits of fur wrapped around his armor joinings.
Hadn’t helped him. Xena unwrapped her cloak, exposing Gabrielle’s tousled head, and bit off a smile as her lover peered around in wary bemusement. “Look what I found, muskrat. A snake.”
To her credit, Gabrielle managed to gather herself up with an acceptable level of dignity and got her legs up crossed under her while she raked her hair into some semblance of order. She regarded the would be assassin for a moment, her head cocked a little to one side. “You didn’t really expect that to work, did you?”
The man glared at her.
“Wasn’t listening to your stories, I guess.” Xena crossed her ankles. “That what kind of outfit this is? Guys wandering around with their own agendas?”
The man remained silent.
“Ignoring their leader’s orders?” Xena pressed him. “Know what happens to men in my army who try that?” After a bit more silence, she lifted herself to her feet, bored of the unproductive theatrics. She fluffed her cape around her and sheathed her dagger. “C’mon, Gabrielle.”
“Where are we going?” Gabrielle scrambled to her feet.
“You and me and the boys are gonna take the snake up to the Persian princess up there and find out what the deal is.” Xena decided. “Let’s go.” She turned and started to lead the way up the slope. She could see the ring of guards still around Sholeh’s tent, but the space between where she was and there was mostly empty.
They moved forward steadily. Gabrielle was ambling along next to her, two soldiers dragged the assassin behind them, and the rest of the men were in a ring all around, torches held high as they moved through the startled encampments towards the ridge.
So abrupt was their movement, they made it up to the ring around the pavilion before soldiers started to scramble to intercept them and Xena found herself face to face with Sholeh’s personal guard, who drew his curved sword and turned it blade out to her.
Xena drew her own sword, and just kept walking.
“You will not pass.” The man said. “The high one is not to be disturbed.”
“I didn’t want to be disurbed either.” Xena said, in a loud voice. “But one of your little pets here decided to try and stab me in my sleep.” She twirled her sword and tapped Gabrielle in the chest. “Stay back, cute stuff. You don’t look good in red.”
“Halt!” The man warned. “The army surrounds you. Do not be a fool.”
“Too late.” Xena launched into an attack that finally let her release the pent up energy that had been building since she’d woken. She locked both hands around her hilt and whipped it around hard, smashing the blade against his and driving him backwards a step. “I’ll put up with a lot of things but not people trying to stab me. I’m funny that way.”
The man parried her stroke and edged sideways. “Wait.”
“No wait. Patience is a virtue I never understood.” Xena engaged him again, forcing him back another step as she wove her blade in a tight figure eight. “Fight or move, buddy. I’m coming through ya either way.”
“We know nothing of any attack!” The man defended himself. “What madness is this? Guards, to me!”
Xena’s men drew their weapons and closed in behind their queen, save the two still holding on to the assassin, Behind them, the troops were moving in but for now the focus was on the guard captain and his tall, elegant adversary caught between two lines of torches.
Their swords clashed, and as they did, the tent flap was thrown open and Sholeh emerged, dressed in a beautiful silk dressing gown, but with her hair in an almost comic disarray. “What goes on here??” She let out a respectable yell. “Who disturbs my rest?”
The guard captain drew back from his adversary and half turned, hearing his master’s voice. He lifted a hand in Xena’s direction. “She tell some wild tale, my princess!”
Sholeh stared at Xena’s tall figure, the torchlight fairly blazing off her drawn blade, and outlining the odd group behind her.
Surrounding them were legions of her troops, waiting word to attack.
Gabrielle felt the wind stir her hair, as she stood there in that weird, awkward silence listening to the torches snap, and the soldiers pant behind her. She could sense something was going to happen any second and she was surprised to find herself relieved that the tense waiting would be over one way or the other.
Would they die? Yeah, maybe. She took a firmer grip on her stick, which she’d only barely remembered to retrieve and bring with her and pushed her hair out of her eyes, glad she’d gotten a chance at least to get a bit of rest.
She’d been dreaming about sheep when Xena had woken her, and she’d been pretty happy about that, because it was one of those dreams where she was trapped inside the flock of the darn things and it was all over oily wool and stink and not very pleasant.
Of course, waking to find someone trying to kill you wasn’t pleasant either, but Xena had made that all right so here they were.
Sholeh held her hands out. “Be still, all of you.”
“Bossy thing, an’t she? “ Xena remarked conversationally, into all that silence that followed. She sheathed her sword with a casual swipe of her arm and then let her hands rest on her hips, “I found a little rat of yours creeping around my campfire. Thought you’d want him back.”
The Persian woman’s back stiffened. “I know nothing of what you’re speaking.” She said. “How dare you approach my quarters?”
Behind her, the tall messenger appeared, holding a long, beautiful sword by the hilt in his hand. “My princess, what is this disturbance?”
A tiny, wicked twinkle entered Xena’s pale eyes. “You were practically hog tying me to stay in them before.” She said. “What’s the matter, his tongue get your cat?”
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip almost through as she saw Sholeh’s face freeze and her back stiffen, guessing that Xena had hit a sore spot for sure.
“What?” The man spluttered. “What’s that you say?” He took another step forward. “Princess, who are these people?
“Didn’t she tell you about her delusions of conquest?” Xena asked, a rakish grin appearing on her face.
“Watch your tongue least you lose it.” Sholeh ground out, glaring at her tall adversary. “Bantar, go back inside. I can handle this.” She gestured imperiously at him, and reluctantly he backed away to the entrance of the tent, his eyes fastened on Xena. “What is this about?”
“Mpmh.” Gabrielle made a tiny sound, not quite a laugh, not quite a cough, and then she cleared her throat and stepped to one side, revealing the would be assassin. “This man tried to kill us.” She announced.
Everyone stared at her, and Xena eased her tall figure out of the way so they could get a good look. She crossed her arms and decided she was enjoying herself, regardless of the danger all around them.
“What?” Sholeh took a step forward. “Who is that?”
“Well, he’s not one of our guys.” Gabrielle pronounced. “But he crept into our camp in the dark of night, and tried to stab Xena.” She paused. “It didn’t work out for him.”
Sholeh walked between her lines of guards and approached, holding her hand up when the men made a motion to follow her. She brushed past Xena and approached the assassin. When she reached the two men holding him she extended her hand for a torch.
Xena’s man looked at her, then he tilted his head and made eye contact with his queen. Xena jerked her head at him, and only then did he hand over his torch, looking Sholeh right in the face as he did so.
“Your impudence could be deadly.” Sholeh informed him.
The soldier shrugged. “I’m Xena’s.” He said. “It’s all deadly.”
The Persian studied him, then she turned and looked over at Gabrielle, standing pace to one side.
“Oh, I’m definitely Xena’s too.” Gabrielle assured her. “Is this guy yours?” She indicated the assassin. “He was really kind of lame.”
Sholeh stood and looked down at the man. He had his head tipped upward, and he was staring right back at her, with a very calm expression.
The expression vanished as the princess swung the torch down and shoved it’s lit end into his face, setting him on fire and burning his flesh off in one long moment of screaming horror.
Her face didn’t change expression, even when Xena’s men released the man’s arms and he fell at her feet, his body twitching and jerking in silent agony. She gazed dispassionately at him. “He is nothing of mine.” SHe said. “I tolerate no failure.”
She looked up at Gabrielle again, as she tossed the torch from her, clearly expecting someone to catch it. Then she turned and sauntered over to where Xena was standing. “Do you seek to challenge me?” SHe stopped even with the taller woman. “You speak to me with disrespect in front of my men. What then would you do to one such in your army, Xena?”
For a long moment, Xena didn’t answer. She let the sound of the torches, and the shifting of the army around her fill the night air. “Depends.” She finally said. “On why they were being disrespectful. Maybe I deserved it.”
Sholeh’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?” She asked, quietly.
“Nothing.” Xena opened her eyes wide in mock innocence. “You asked, I answered. But I’ll tell ya one thing.” She rolled her head to one side and regarded the now dead man. “I”d have asked that bastard a few questions before I offed him.”
“Mm.” Sholeh grunted.
“Unless I already knew the answers.” Xena’s voice went deeper and a bit louder. “I told you I don’t kill easy. If that’s the best you can do, you’re wasting your time with this nice army.”
The Persian went dead still.
Xena figured she was going to spend the next candlemark either fighting for her honor or fighting for her life and she was just waiting to see which way Sholeh was going to jump. She caught movement from the corner of her eye and took a half a surging breath before she realized it was Gabrielle as the blond woman came up beside her.
One of these days. Xena forced her legs to relax and she turned to face Sholeh. “So what’s it gonna be?” She asked, wanting the early morning theatre to be over. “I”m not your plaything. You want to work with me? Fine. Otherwise I”m outta here.”
“Do you truly believe you have that choice?” Sholeh asked, in a quiet voice.
“I do have that choice.” Xena responded, just as seriously. “My life, and their lives.. “ She spread her arm to indicate her men, and Gabrielle. “Belong to me. Not to you.”
Sholeh drew out her long, curved dagger. “Your army isn’t coming, are they?”
“Then I will go and destroy them.” Sholeh said. “After I destroy you.”
“You can try that.” Xena went back to her earlier strategy. “But I thought you needed all the help you could get to run the world. Forget about that?”
The Persian considered this for a moment, then she shrugged her elegant shoulders. “It seems you’re not what I was looking for after all.” She turned and walked back towards her tent, lifting a hand as she did, and making a signal. “Kill them. I go back to my rest.”
“Bout damn time.” Xena put both fingers between her teeth and let out sharp whistle. “C’mon, boys, c’min get me.” She turned and drew her sword, as the camp erupted into motion around them, her men closing immediately into a tight circle.
From downslope, she could hear the thunder of horses and she glanced to one side, spotting Tiger in the lead bolting her way. She let out another whistle, and the stallion neighed in response, striking out with his hooves right and left as men scrambled to get out of his way.
The rest of the horses were behind him and in the confusion, Xena realized they actually would have a chance to get on their backs, and if she did.. Well..
Better than a cowbell. Xena turned and let her instinct take over as her nerves felt something coming at her from the rear and she got her sword up into position just in time to deflect a spear hurtling right at her. She swept her arm around and caught the weapon, reversing it with a twist of her wrist and sending it back the way it came.
Xena felt something much bigger approaching, and she turned back around just in time to grab Tiger’s bridle as the stallion bucked, almost nailing one of her own men in the head. “Cut that out you moron!” She took a long step then jumped up onto Tiger’s back, bringing her sword around quickly to deflect an arrow.
Chaos. Xena pulled Tiger’s head around, spotting Gabrielle scrambling on the back of her pony as her men broke off their hasty battles to get on their own horses. Since she was the only one truly mounted, she sent Tiger down the line between the men and the oncoming army, throwing her sword from her left hand to her right and switching reins at the same time and backswiping the ax out of a man’s hand.
Yeah. Arrows were beginning to fill the air, and she saw two lines of troops forming up and heading their way. “Ready?” She yelled.
“Aye!” Her men yelled back.
“Donthaveachoice!” Gabrielle added, in a breathless exhalation as she guided Patches after Xena’s moving form.
“GO!” Xena gave Tiger his head, and hoped the horse would have the sense not to stick a hoof in a hole and send both of them to their graves. She led the way across where they’d been sleeping, mentally thanking whichever of her men had thought to throw Tiger’s saddle on and clip her bags to it.
The only chance they had was speed. The only hope they had was minimal. Xena let out a wild yell and slashed two arrows from the air, feeling the cold night dampness blast against her skin.
At least she’d be keeping her promise.
They weren’t going to make it. Even Gabrielle could see that, as the army’s horsemen were thundering towards them intent on cutting off their escape. Patches’ nostrils were flaring as he reacted to the danger around him and she had a moment to come to terms with the now very real possibility of dying.
And in that moment, she realized she was okay with everything. The past days had been so full of terror and so full of anxiety, that just knowing it was going to be over one way or the other was sort of soothing.
So bizarre. Gabrielle concentrated on staying as close as she could to Tiger and got ready to fight as the army closed in around them. She was glad she was with Xena. She was even gladder that Xena hadn’t gone back into that tent with that woman.
She took hold of her staff, getting a firm grip around the scuffed and battered stick, though she was surrounded by Xena’s men and wasn’t in any immediate mortal danger and she really didn’t think she could do anything with the darn thing anyway.
She saw Xena go up against a rider that came right through their ranks, his bigger horse smashing aside the others as he fought to get to the queen, his hands wrapped around a huge battle ax whose blade, already stained, glinted in the torchlight.
Ah. It was the guy Xena had knocked over. Gabrielle knew that was going to cause trouble. She nudged Patches with her heels and got her stick ready, as she worked her way closer to where Xena was now fighting with the guy in earnest.
She was almost side by side with the taller woman when a rush of motion exploded to one side of her and she was nearly thrown off Patches back as two fighting men and horses smashed into them. Desperately, she yanked her stick from between the enemy horses leg and her own and got her hands around it, jabbing the animal hard in the ribs with it’s end.
Patches stumbled to one side, but got them clear and she pulled the stick back close to her and yelped as the pony lurched into a canter as Tiger started to move faster. With both hands on her stick, she found herself falling backwards, and only just barely grabbed hold of her saddlehorn to pull herself upright when she heard her name called, sharply.
What did it mean? She froze, unsure of what to do and that alone saved her life as an arrow whipped over her body, nearly scorching her midriff as it went past to hit one of the enemy soldiers fighting nearby. Her head slammed back against Patches butt, and it bounced her forward, she caught her balance, then felt something bearing down on her and she ducked and kicked her mount instinctively.
Patches smaller frame squirted between two of the bigger horses, and amidst all the yelling and motion Gabrielle spotted Tiger’s dark, distinctive form. A spear skimmed by her leg, and she felt a sting on her back and the next thing she knew they were all running, fast, down the slope.
She clutched her stick with one hand and grabbed Patches reins with the other, and clamped down with her knees like Xena had taught her. She was surrounded by Xena’s men now, but she could sense the anxiety around her and hear the fierce defiance in Xena’a repeated, loud yells.
Patches let out a whinny, as they tore through some scrub, and Gabrielle felt the thorns pulling at the fabric of her shirtsleeves. She heard the sound of steel meeting steel, and she looked up to see moonlight glinting off Xena’s raised sword as it descended.
A spray went up, then they were moving on and she heard a horse scream and three of the soldiers in front of her split off leaving a gap open for her to see ahead of them. Her eyes widened at the lines of troops heading for them with spears raised then her view was blocked again by the tightly packed soldiers.
This was crazy. Gabrielle concentrated on keeping Patches as close to Tiger as she could and wondering just how many minutes they had left before they clashed with the enemy and those spears started coming through them and..
She hoped it would be fast. She didn’t want to hurt a lot, and she didn’t want to see any of her fellow soldiers suffer, or Xena…
A pang hit her chest, and she swallowed back a lump in her throat and knew a moment of unreasoning anger at the enemy, and the chaos, and life that seemed to be battering her so cruelly.
But then she sighed, and gripped her staff more firmly and remembered that at the least, she’d had the past winter and the knowledge of a love few people got to experience, and anyway there was Xena ahead of her and you never knew what handkerchief the queen was going to pull out of her ear in the most unexpected of ways.
“LEFT!” Xena’s yell, impossibly loud, made her eardrums vibrate and she felt Tiger slam against her so hard it nearly knocked Patches head over tail down the slope, and the entire group of them turned and headed in a new direction as the noise of the army grew louder and louder.
Yelling. Gabrielle heard the sound of something breaking, then a volley of arrows peppered them, one skimming through to stick, with shocking force, in the side of her saddle. Eyes wide, she tucked her arms close to her body and hoped her armor would protect her from any others.
She could smell water, suddenly, and she just barely had time to tuck her staff under her arm and grab hold as Patches plunged down a muddy bank and into cold running water that rippled against her.
Gabrielle got Patches head around just before she was slammed by the horses on the other side of her and she found herself up to her waist in water, her pony half swimming and half running in a spray of icy cold mist that got in her eyes and filled her mouth.
One of the soldiers disappeared to her left, and she just caught brief glimpse of a spear, and the rolling eyes of his horse before they swept on, an odd spattering of warmth hitting her shoulder before it was washed clear by the chill again.
Something went by her ear, and she ducked instinctively, then had to hang on as Patches swerved to one side, as the man in front of her toppled off his horse with an arrow in the back of his neck. Gabrielle tried to grab him as his body was pushed back by the current, but the bit of his shirt was ripped from her grasp by the fast running water and she had to let go.
It was hard. She felt so helpless. These people, these men she’d started to know were dying around her and right now, with all the arrows and spears and yelling it seemed hopeless. They were just prolonging the end.
Gabrielle felt them shift again, and she could see Patches’ eyes rolling in fear as he fought through the deepening water and she focused her fear on him instead, patting his neck and calling encouragement to him. “C’mon, Patches!”
Suddenly they were closed in. She felt the press of horses around her and then a hand grabbed the back of her armor, half lifting her up off her saddle. “No!” She clutched Patches tightly. “Let him go!”
The hold relaxed. She coudln’t see anything. Darkness closed in around them and she could smell the harsh, rich scent of moss and the bodies pressed tighter and tighter against her, horse shoulders pressing against hers, and trapping her painfully as her pony fought to keep her feet.
Water swamped her, then the scent of mud gave her a brief warning before she was splattered with it in a shocking wave of damp chill, and she saw a hand reach down and grab the side of Patches bridle as the water dropped around her and she felt the pony change from swimming to climbing, the angle almost throwing her back off his rump.
There wasn’t much else she could do. Gabrielle curled her hands around her saddle edge and tightened her grip on the wet leather, feeling the strain in her shoulders as she was pitched almost straight back, looking up at a mass of struggling animals threatening to fall back down on top of her.
Huge, hulking shadows loomed past them and for a moment Gabrielle almost gave into the terror of it all, as she heard horrendous noise behind her, and felt the skim of something over the top of her head that became something clutched in a fist to her right.
The press became unbearable and she felt her shoulders start to give out, as Patches lunging shook her body to it’s core. She felt something hit her back, and the pony gathered himself under her and they lurched upward in a spray of icy cold and sickening heat as the smell of copper and moss mingled in her nose.
Then she was pitched forward, and they were upright, and the water was gone, and they were running in the mix of labored breathing and curses and the only thing she was really aware of was the clutch of XEna’s grip on her collar and the feel of dry, cool air on her face.
What would come next, she had no idea. All she could do was hold on tight and wait.
“Hold up.” Xena whirled Tiger around and pulled him to a stop, feeling his ribcage heaving dangerously under her knees.
The rest of her small force obeyed gratefully, men and horses glad of any chance of a rest as they huddled behind a stand of rocks halfway up the slope, now eight instead of the fourteen they’d started out with.
Xena leaned against the stone and looked past it, at the forces fanning gathering on the far side of the creek. She knew they had to keep going, but she also knew the horses were on the verge of collapse and everyone needed a moment to simply stand and catch their breaths.
Even her. Xena could feel her hands shaking from the chill of the water and the exertion and she tucked them under her arms to warm them and tried to ignore the bruises she’d taken in the fight. Her shoulders ached from holding off Sholeh’s mounted riders long enough for them to escape, and she had a long cut down one leg that was hurting like crazy.
They had little time. The tiny crevice she’d found to escape the creek would be forded and opened soon enough, and she’d already left six bodies behind her.
It was just a matter of time. She could have turned and made a stand, there by the water, but something had driven her forward, and despite the nagging sense she was just prolonging the inevitable, there was part of her that just wasn’t ready to give up.
She felt a sudden warmth against the skin of her thigh and she looked down to find Gabrielle leaning quietly against her, her blood and mud spattered skin pale under it’s grime. She had her eyes closed and she seemed to just want the contact, though she smiled a trifle when Xena untucked one of her hands and let it rest on her lover’s head.
She suspected this was one story her adorable, and surprisingly gutsy bedmate wasn’t going to end up telling anyone except for maybe the boatman on the Styx as they boarded. “Nice ride.” She commented, as Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open to look at her. “You done good, muskrat.”
“All I did was hang on.” Gabrielle objected. “I didn’t do anything useful.”
“You hung on.” The queen told her. “Most damn useful thing you could do for me. You know what woulda happened if you fell off?”
Gabrielle sighed, her breath warming Xena’s skin. “I probably would have been trampled over and died.” She said. “Though I kinda feel like I was trampled over anyway.”
“We both would have.” Xena told her. “Would have made a romantic, if stupid end to my spectaular life, huh? Cut to pieces protecting my partner in a mud hole.” She wiped a bit of gore off Gabrielle’s cheek. “They’d have said, boy, that Xena… she could fight but damn she she died a love struck idiot, huh?”
Gabrielle’s eyes filled with tears as she watched Xena in silence, in an intensity of emotion that for a brief second made the night horror fade away.
Then Xena looked away, and down the slope, and she exhaled. “Okay, rest time’s over.” She told them. “Let’s just keep going as far as we can.” She took up Tiger’s reins. “WHen they catch us, we just take as many of them with us as we can.”
In silence, they turned, the tired horses stumbling a little as they started uphilll again, into a mist colored only faintly with the coming dawn.
Xena crouched behind a rock, her hand shading her eyes from the driving rain as she watched the triple line of enemy soldiers sweeping up the slope below her, covering every square inch of ground. They were still far down below where they were hiding, but she knew it was only a matter of time since the path she’d chosen hadn’t been the best.
They were in a thick fringe of trees, at the edge of a sharp slope filled with rocks and boulders broken off the nearby cliffs that bordered the sea. Sholeh’s army was searching a bit to the right of the path they’d taken, along a more logical route and that at least was given them another brief chance to catch their breath and for her to figure out where to go next.
If they kept on the way they were, they’d have to leave the horses behind. Xena wanted to do that about as much as she wanted to cut her own left foot off, but the way was impossible for the animals and it was marginally their only hope to last a while longer.
Xena looked down at her scraped and cut hands, flexing them. Was it worth it? Maybe she should just take a stand here, and get it over with. She glanced behind her, studying the small group of soldiers crouched by the rocks resting, and Gabrielle’s still figure next to the muddy and exhausted Patches.
Was there a point to stringing this game out to the bitter end?
Yeah. The queen exhaled heavily., then she pushed herself to her feet and headed up the slope to where the rest of the group were waiting. The rain drove against her, but she viewed it as a friend since it masked them far more than the morning sunlight would have.
Gabrielle looked up as she approached, her pale hair dark with rain and plastered around her face. She had her arms around Patches neck, and her eyes spoke volumes as she watched Xena approach. “Are we going now?” She asked, a definite hint of misery in her tone. “Up the cliff?”
Xena leaned against the tree she was sheltering under, glad to get a break from the driving rain chilling her skin. “Well.” She looked at the men, who promptly gathered around her. “We could start climbing, yeah.”
She fell silent, and the rain sounded very loud on the leaves around them. “But I’d rather see if we can find a way along that ridge there.” She pointed, making it all up on the fly as she saw the look in her lover’s eyes. “Take the horses with us. Never know when we might need em.”
The men nodded, relief showing plainly on their faces. They were horsemen all, and they felt about their animals pretty much the same as Xena felt about Tiger. “For lunch, if nothing else.”
They all turned and stared at her.
“Just kidding.” Xena produced a ghoulish chuckle. “I’d rather eat my saddle.”
“Hear that Patches, you come too.” Gabrielle hugged the pony, apparently closing her ears to her bedmate’s black humor. “We won’t leave you behind. I promise.”
And apparently how Gabrielle felt the same way about her little runt. Xena reached over and ruffled her companion’s wet hair. The rain had, at least, washed all the mud and battle stains off them but she could see the strain and the exhaustion on the blond woman’s face and she managed a real smile for Gabrielle’s benefit.
Gabrielle released Patches and hugged her instead, the warmth feeling wonderful in all that cold and wet. Xena returned the hug, ignoring the looks of the men around her, though the expressions were merely tiredly amused rather than resentful.
Take your hugs where you can find them, eh? Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and jerked her chin in the direction of the ridge. “C”mon.” She took hold of Tiger’s reins and started leading the way, moving carefully over the rocky ground so the stallion could find his footing.
The rain wasn’t making it easy. The ground was running with water and loose dirt, mud washing over their boots as they struggled upwards through the trees. The trunks rose around them though, blocking the worst of the weather and protecting them from view and after a quarter candlemark it had settled into a steady, even progress.
If you kept your back turned, Xena reasoned, it was almost sort of peaceful. She swept the forest ahead of her, not surprised to find it getting denser since it was a continuation of the thick growth they’d struggled through they night they’d found the path.
Barely enough room between the trees to squeeze the horses through, but by that light, it was also about the only decent place they could avoid detection at least for a little while.
Xena pulled Gabrielle a little closer and gave her a squeeze as they climbed up a short rise together, ducking between a tree and a thick, heavy bush.
“Wait.” Gabrielle tugged her companion to a halt. “Hang on.”
Xena released her and watched in bemusement as she scurried into the bush and started rooting around in it. She glanced at the soldiers, who were pausing and keeping watch, their expressions quiet and reflective.
They’d left six friends behind. The queen knew all the men with her understood the sacrifices war demanded as well as she did, and that they too would likely walk that last walk soon but still and all, it stung.
For them, and for her. Leading any of them out from the middle of a huge army was an astounding acheivement to her credit but they were good men and it always hurt to know she hadn’t gotten all of them out with her.
Were they all looking at Gabrielle, and thinking some of them would have survived if they hadn’t been protecting her?
Xena hoped not, since she’d been in the lead in risking her neck right there with them. She doubted it would have made a difference anyway, except maybe she’d have chosen to just put her back against a tree and taken a stand instead.
“Here.” Gabrielle emerged, leaves liberally sprinkled among her damp blond locks. She held out both hands, cupped, towards Xena. “Take some!”
Xena peered at the booty. Big, plump blackberries were nestled in Gabrielle’s clutches, and she closed her jaw on a sarcastic comment and just took a few instead. “C’mere, boys.” She called the soldiers over. “Might as well grab a handful.”
The soldiers clustered near, and spotted what Gabrielle had found. Voices murmured in appreciation, as they took one or two, but then started searching the bushes for themselves, gathering their own bunches before they started moving on again.
Ludicrous. Xena popped another berry into her mouth and shook her head, as Gabrielle caught up to her and they were side by side again. “Just what I needed.”
“Breakfast?” Gabrielle asked.
“Purple tongue.” The queen stuck hers out, and sure enough it was stained a deep color. “Hey, maybe I can do that to the Persian panic’s goons and it’ll scare em off. You think?”
One of the men nearby chuckled, then fell silent. Xena continued munching on her snack, thinking about what was likely to come next.
“Where are we going?”
Xena steered them both around a thick, moss covered trunk. “Away from those guys trying to kill us.” She said. “And down towards the river.”
Gabrielle thought about that. “Aren’t the bad guys down by the river?”
“Yeees.” The queen agreed. “The bad guys are everywhere. They’re behind us, and a head of us, and on both sides.” She finished the last of her berries. “The only real way out we have is the one way I”m not gonna take us.”
“Back down that path.”
Gabrielle considered this in silence for a little while. “So there really isn’t a good plan, is there?” She asked. “We’re just going to keep on going and see what happens?”
‘But it’s probably going to be bad, whatever happens, huh?”
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders again. “Probably.” She responded honestly. “But don’t think about it. Lets just wait till it all goes to Hades, and we can enjoy it then.”
Gabrielle rubbed a few droplets off her face and sniffled, but she wrapped her arm around Xena’s waist and kept quiet, gamely keeping up with her taller companion’s strides with no complaint.
“Xena.” One of the soldiers called out, in a low voice. “S’comin.”
The queen disengaged herself from Gabrielle and slid to one side, coming over to where the soldiers was crouched on a boulder and looking past him. “Damn.” A line of Sholeh’s soldiers were moving through the trees just below them, working methodically up the slope.
“Only got a few arrows, Majesty.” The soldier said. “Used em most holding the crick.”
“I know.” Xena leaned her elbows on the rock and considered. The enemy soldiers were wary, but it was obvious from their attitudes they considered themselves the hunter, and she the hunted.
“Okay.’ The queen licked her purple stained lips. “Let’s tie the horses right here, and go for a little walk.” She eased around the rock and crouched next to it, peering intently through the trees. “I have an idea.” She added, tucking her cloak around her and tying it snug. “And we don’t have much to lose.”
“That’ we don’t, Mistress.” The soldier on the rock slid down and joined her. “That we don’t.”
Xena smiled. “But they do.”
Continued in Part 16