Queen of Hearts
The rain came down harder, drenching the trees with a mist so thick it almost seemed like fog, drenching the stolidly moving line of soldiers that patiently swept through the forest. They walked with weapons at the ready, their heads sweeping from side to side as they methodically searched the woods.
It was a big force, and they were confident. There were men spread out all along the slope leading down to the pass, with lines of bowmen stationed near the edge of the encampment in case anything slipped through.
“Waste of time.” One of the captains muttered, shaking his head. “Should have been through the gap already.”
“Think them lot’ll give us trouble?” The man next to him asked. “Basin said they’d taken off, all of em.”
The first man chuckled. “Made our lives easy. Should be plenty to take once we get through there. Bout time. I’m sick of all the parading around. Time to get us some swag.”
“Hope that scruff of theirs told us right, with all that talk of gems and whatnot.” The other man grumbled. “Long way to go for nothing if not.”
“Think he’d have lied to Her?”
“Think she really wanted that wild piece of work wi her?”
The soldier snorted. “Maybe to start. But that one’s too much for her to put a leash on.” He said. “Woulda been a mixup for sure.”
Smart boy. Xena eased her boots down another shoulder span, her eyes fixed on the backs of the enemy soldiers less than two bodylengths from her. She judged the amount of space behind the last of them, then she signaled behind her, and started moving again.
Behind her, the men had spaced themselves out evenly much as the enemy had, their rain washed bodies moving with an eerie silence as they shadowed Sholeh’s troops.
Gabrielle, for once, was hiding tucked behind a tree, safely upslope, close enough for her to see what was happening but out of range of an errant spear.
The queen flexed her hands, then she drew out two daggers and wrapped her fingers around the hilts, picking up the pace a bit until she was behind one of the soldiers. He’d stopped to adjust a bit of armor, making a small break between himself and the men behind him and the man just ahead.
Xena’s men were one tree removed from them, slightly above the path they were walking on and unaware of the silent, mud covered warriors slowly matching steps with them, moving in the rhythm of the forest.
Xena herself made the first move. She glided up and over a boulder, setting her feet down on the ground within arms reach of her target, close enough to smell the leather and metal he was wearing, and the scent of male musk.
The queen lifted her hand, then dropped it. With the rain covering any sound, they passed through the trees and closed in on the enemy soldiers. Xena focused on hers, a big man with a thick beard. She slid behind him and tapped the top of his head, reaching around with a quick, savage motion and cutting his throat as he tipped his head back to see what had fallen on him.
His body stiffened, but her hand was over his mouth and not a sound escaped as she pulled him back through the trees and off the path, his blood warming her forearm as she laid him down behind a rock. A quick look behind her showed her a line of bodies neatly arranged behind his, and her men wiping off blades
Nice. Xena gave them an approving nod and a thumbs up. She glanced to her left, up the slope, but Gabrielle’s head was hidden from her by the angle of the ground and she wasn’t quite sure if she was miffed about that or grateful for it.
Eight down, a couple thousand to go. Xena motioned her men to follow, and she started off in pursuit of the next in line, following the hunters down a faint path beaten into the underbrush. They’d started at the rear of the line, and now it remained to be seen how long they could keep up the silent attack.
She stepped up onto the small ledge of rock that lined the path, pacing across the top of it with natural balance, her body totally relaxed. With her cloak wrapped around her body and tied in place, she blended with the gray green of rain and forest, her hair pulled back and fastened off her face.
Stalking her next victim, Xena felt herself slipping into a much earlier version of herself, and it was almost an exhilerating feeling to shuck the weight of being who she was if just for a little while. Back in the days after she’d taken over the pit fighters, there had been many forays like this, just her and a few guys.
Her and a few guys, and a few knives, and some unlucky merchants on the road who had things she wanted.
No nobles to worry about, no precious Persian princesses, just a dark night and a long road and a couple of candlemarks hiding up and eating their fill of the spoils. No regrets, and no consideration for tomorrow.
Ah, the good old days. Xena ducked behind a tree and scrambled up over a set of boulders, reaching up to catch a branch with both arms and swinging over a gap in the ridge before she let herself down, one boot sliding a little on the mossy rock.
Her eyes widened as she felt her body start to slip sideways and she caught motion out of the corner of her eye as the last soldier in line turned towards her.
His eyes widened and he lifted his crossbow to his shoulder, taking quick aim at her as she fought to regain her balance. His finger tightened, and the bow fired and Xena was in no position to do any fancy tricks to stop it.
So she did an unfancy, mostly graceless one instead, getting enough traction with the ball of one foot to send her diving sideways off the rock head first, landing on her shoulder on the path and rolling as fast as she was capable of to avoid a second shaft.
She ended up flat on her back and the only thing that saved her was the slick ground as he lunged forward and pulled his short sword and the tip missed her neck by the slimmest of margins. She hooked her arm around his and rolled again, and he came over on top of her, the two of them struggling in an eerie silence as the rain thundered over them.
Xena’s men dove for the ground, laying flat as the end of the line stirred, and started to swivel. The queen caught the motion and rolled again, pulling herself and her adversary down off the path into a thicket of shrubs, as she fought to keep the man’s hands from her throat.
He was damn strong, and roughly twice her weight. Xena was a skilled wrestler, but the need to keep her eye over her shoulder to see if she was about to be pincushioned was distracting enough to give him a solid advantage over her.
She got pinned as he grappled with her, his eyes grim and intent as he got a hand free and fastened it around her throat, squeezing hard and shutting off her breathing as he reached for his dagger, his knee leaning painfully on her forearm.
That unbalanced him. Xena wrenched her body hard to one side and got her arm free, raking her fingers hard across his face as she felt for an eye socket.
He jerked his head out of range, but kept his grip on her throat and she was staring to see red spots in bad places. Long as her arms were, his were a little longer, and she realized she was running out of good options.
Covered by the leaves, her men couldn’t see her, but on that note, neither could the enemy. Xena tried to twist herself out from under her adversary and she felt his body shift and bear down on her. She grabbed his free arm, holding onto it and keeping his fingers from his knife as he squeezed harder and harder, and the light started to dim.
Oh no. This was not good. There was just no way she was going to let this pinhead kill her, after everything she’d done so far this moon. His body shifted again and she felt his weight come off one thigh and that was enough.
Enough for her to arch her back and contract the long muscles of her torso, enough to whip her leg up and hook her boot around his shoulder and just, just enough leverage to pull his body back away from her and loosen his grip on her throat.
One huge breath, and she turned him turtle in a powerful wrench of her entire body, her fingers trailing over a hilt and yanking it free from his belt as he scrabbled to grab her arms and only got one.
Wrong one. Xena drove the dagger into his side as he squirmed and struggled, sensing the coming blow but unable to evade it. She felt the point stick on his arm, then puncture it under the powerful sweep of her arm and enter flesh, grating against bone before it popped free, and into the lung beyond.
The soldier groaned. Xena yanked the blade free and plunged it in again, and again, as his grip loosened and he started to slump to one side, his body flattening the bushes as blood spurted out, counterpoint to the cold rain pelting them.
Xena shoved his body over and got herself free, her neck hurting like a son of a bitch. She got her feet under her and cocked her head to listen for anyone approaching, but the rain defeated even her ears and she had to end up cautiously peeking from behind the leaves to get a clear view of the path.
She expected, honestly, to find a row of crossbows facing her, and having only empty forest meet her gaze almost stunned her into immobility. Could she really have gotten that lucky? She scanned the forest across the path intently, then exhaled in relief as she saw one of her men slowly raise his head, and give her an all clear sign.
How much had they seen? Xena reached up and rubbed her throat, wincing a little at the lingering pain. The unexpected struggle had shaken her a little, and she slowly leaned out to look down the path, searching for signs of the rest of the army.
Rain obscured the path after about six bodylengths, and beyond that, she couldn’t see even shadows. With a sigh, she slowly stood up and let the rain hit her, rinsing the blood off her skin as she skulked across the path to rejoin her men.
They looked up at her as she slipped between the trees, easing up onto their knees and starting to get to their feet. “You all right, M.. Xena?” One asked, timidly.
Xena gave him a wry smile. “Sure.” She said. “Aside from croaking of embarassment because I almost fell on my ass and got strangled, that is.”
The man looked about as embarrassed as she felt. “You got up, he didn’t.” He offered. “Slick here, yeah? All this rain.”
“Yeah.” Xena wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. “All right, let’s go. How those idiots didn’t hear us rolling around like mating warthogs I don’t get.” She checked her weapons and started along the ridge again. “But I”m not looking a gift horse in the ass, either.”
“Stinks, that.” THe soldier fell in behind her, and the rest followed suit, as they hurried a little, trying to catch up. “Close though. Glad it came right.”
Yeah, me too. Xena felt a sense of nagging worry, and she paused, puzzling out what it was. Then her expression cleared as she realized her hearing had picked up a motion in the forest heading her way at a good rate of speed and she had very little time to prepare to meet it.
“I knew it!” Gabrielle scrambled from behind her tree, grabbing her staff and starting down the slope so fast her feet came out from under her and she ended up sliding in the mud, her eyes popping wide open as she saw a tree coming up at her way too fast.
“Yahhh!” She yelped, very softly as she skidded and scrabbled for a hold on the rocks, her fingers clawing at the mucky clay soil and the moss covered granite underneath, her staff bouncing behind her perilously close to her head.
She slid to one side of the tree and reached out to grab it, the bark scraping her arms as she swung around and ended up on her back, but still. Her staff rolled down past her and she stuck her leg out, trapping it against the ground as the rain pattered down on her face and made her eyes blink.
“PIg farts.” She started to roll over, then she froze, seeing something come into her line of vision she hadn’t expected, above her, past the trees she’d slid by between her and her former hiding place.
Six men were creeping along the tree line, dressed in clothing that, with mud and grass stains over it, blended into the surroundings just as Xena’s had, only these men wore the barely visible sigil of Persia on their chests.
They had small, strange looking bows and along their upper arm, a strip of short arrows were fastened- their tips a glinting, oily looking black even in the storm.
As Gabrielle watched, they started down toward where Xena and her men were hiding, weapons held at the ready, as though they expected…
No. Gabrielle’s eyes widened again, and she held herself absolutely still as the raiding party moved past. They did expect to find Xena, because they were hunting the queen and her men, hunters hunting the hunters hunting the hunters.
Sort of. Gabrielle waited until they all went past her, then she got up carefully, holding on to the tree to keep herself from slipping again. Her skin was covered in mud and she hurt in a couple places, but she put that all aside as she picked up her staff and scampered after the men.
She could see past them, to a swirl of motion through the trees that was Xena fighting, though the silence around all of them was really sort of spooky. She could only just see the flick of her lover’s dark hair between the leaves, and then even that was lost from sight.
Unsure of what was really going on, she slid after the enemy soldiers, using her staff to keep her balance as she closed in on the last one, barely stopping in time as the men stopped, and froze in place, looking down through the trees.
From between the leaves, Gabrielle spotted Xena rising up from the ground, the rain blasting against her and a spray of blood tainted water trailing in its’ wake. Even from where she was, she could see the shaken look on the queen’s face, and before she could think about what she was doing she started to run.
Two steps on, the enemy soldiers heard her, and she caught motion as they all turned and then things became a blur as they started towards her, arms outstretched.
Gabrielle sped up, trying to keep her balance on the slippery ground as she felt a touch on her sleeve, and she half turned, whipping her staff around as she moved and smacking the soldier grabbing her on the side of the head.
Hard to say who was more shocked. He slipped, his hand going for his ear and she almost fell herself, but managed to keep her balance and duck between two trees with the rest of the enemy men pelting after her.
Her jaws clamped shut as she instinctively started to yell Xena’s name, remembering the rest of the army creeping up the slope below them. Instead, she dodged between two bushes and a moss covered rock, spotting a bit of movement between the leaves and heading right for it.
The ground suddenly dropped out from under her boots and she stifled a yelp as she sailed through the air, the wet leaves lashing against her skin as something thunked against her back with shocking force. She landed and lunged forward, right into XEna’s arms as both she and the queen landed hard against a tree trunk with twin grunts. “Buh.. Beh.. See gu..”
Xena sensed the panic, if nothing else, and she looked over Gabrielle’s head to see the empty space between the trees suddenly fill with grim warriors.
“Got it.” Xena pushed her lover down on the ground as she drew her sword and met the first soldier’s blade, her instincts tingling as she felt the attacks expert force. She swung to the side and let his momentum move him past her, her eyes widening as his feet tangled in Gabrielle’s sprawled legs and he went face first into the tree.
Gift horse, ass. Xena whacked his head off as he bounced off the tree and sent blood and bits of bone spraying in every direction. Then she turned as she sensed another attack, and found a knife blade inches from her as one of the enemy spun past her soldier he’d been fighting.
She slammed her elbow into his face, as the blade punched its way through her guard and into her armor, turning only because she twisted her body violently to one side as she brought her knee up and into his groin.
He gagged and bent over, and she yanked his head down as she brought her knee up again, smashing his chin into her leg armor with enough force to break bone.
One of her men pulled his body back off her, and slammed him to the ground as the rest of the soldiers battled nearby, still in that same, odd silence that suddenly set off a question in Xena’s mind.
Why? She shook her dagger from it’s wrist sheath and sent it spinning through the leaves, nailing one of the enemy in the thigh, her men overwhelming the attacking force with greater numbers and desperate ferocity.
Why not call for help? Xena took a step back and looked down the path. The last soldiers had already disappeared from view, but even with the rain surely they must have heard something.
It wasn’t adding up. She turned and glanced down at Gabrielle, who was still seated on the ground, leaning back on her hands with wide eyes, her chest heaving. “You okay?” She sheathed her sword and offered her bedmate a hand up.
Gabrielle gladly took her hand, and a moment later she was standing shakily at Xena’s side, her staff tucked inside her arm. “Boy.”
“Man.” Xena disagreed. “Old enough to be your father.” She gave her adversary, now still and lifeless a kick. Her eyes roamed to the others, and she walked over to them, rolling one over with her boot. Another grizzled face, though the slash opening his cheek made it hard to distinguish his features. “Huh.”
“What’s it about, Mistress?” One of her men asked, in a soft voice. “Seen this bunch in the camp, I did. They kept to themselves, over by the water.”
Xena studied the soldier, noting the black cord around his neck, evenly spaced knots around it’s circumference. She walked over to the man who’d attacked her, and knelt, pulling aside his surcoat to reveal a similar necklace. “Hm.”
Gabrielle crouched beside her. “What doe sit mean?”
“Damned if I know.” Xena replied honestly. “But I don’t think things are as perfumed and peachy in her camp as Sholeh thinks they are.” She mulled that over, a wry grin appearing on her face. “Too bad we didn’t have more time. I might have been able to work with that.”
“What do you mean?’ Gabrielle had finally caught her breath. She stood as Xena did and stepped back as the queen rolled the man’s body over into the bushes. “What would you work with?”
“How did you run into these guys?” Xena answered the question with one of her own.
“I.. I didn’t.” Gabrielle said. “Not really.. Anyway I saw that guy go for you and I .. Um.. “
Xena chuckled softly.
“Anyway, but I fell down, and slid behind these rocks.” Gabrielle explained, as Xena’s men gathered closely around them. “And while I was getting my balance again I saw them going along above where you all were.”
“Mm.” Xena glanced up at the rain. “Not catching up to the rest of them?”
“No.” Her blond bedmate shook her head. “Not at all, like they knew you were there and going after you.”
“Mm.” Xena repeated the sound. “You sure?”
“I think so.” Gabrielle admitted. “I started to follow them, but they saw me and so I just.. Uh.. “
“Did the right thing.” Xena said. “If you hadn’t led them right into where we were, they’d have picked us off one by one.. Like I was doing with the rest of them.” She frowned, and put her hands on her hips. “Something’s fishy here.”
“You think there’s more after us?” One of her men asked.
“I”m sure there are.” The queen answered. “Makes it hard to pull off ambushes if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, huh?”
“All right.” Xena gathered herself up. “Let’s get a move on before we lose sight of them. Maybe we can figure out what’s going on before we end up speared to a tree.” She indicated the path. “Keep your eyes open all the way around, now.”
They moved off in a silent line, this time hugging the trees and moving with more caution than before. Xena nudged her companion to walk in front of her, and had to admit if only privately she was glad she had her lover in her sights again.
Gabrielle twisted her shoulders, grimacing a little. “I think one of them hit me in the back.” She said. “Feels like it.”
Xena laid her hand on the smaller woman’s back then pulled it back, leaning forward to peer more closely between her shoulderblades. She brushed her fingers over the leather of her cloak, then fastened her grip on something and yanked it out, holding it up before her eyes.
Son of a Bacchae. Between her thumb and forefinger was a jagged arrowhead, stained a deep black.
“What?” Gabrielle turned her head. “What is that?”
Xena dropped the arrowhead into a pouch tucked at her belt and without much ceremony grabbed Gabrielle by the scruff of the neck and yanked her cloak and armor back, nearly throttling her. “Hold still.”
“Brf.” Gabrielle reeled backwards, her arms flailing.
Xena stuck her hand down the back of her lover’s neck, feeling her fingers touch damp, cool skin. She felt along Gabrielle’s spine anxiously, exhaling in relief when all she encountered was flesh that warmed very quickly to her touch as her companion went still and bend her head forward just a little.
She pulled her arm out and gave Gabrielle a pat on the back. “Guess I knew what I was doing when I made that damn armor. Lucky you.” She bumped her into motion again, and they caught up with the waiting soldiers.
“Was I in trouble?”
“If that arrow punctured your back you’d be halfway to dead by now.
“That really woulda ruined my day.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle felt a sobering chill. “Mine too.” She was quiet for a few steps, as the chill was overshadowed by the chill of the rain, and the gloominess of their surroundings. She felt a sudden urge to be somewhere else, anywhere else, anywhere they could get a bit of warmth, and a cup of hot tea, and be away from the fear and the blood and the uncertainty.
It felt like it had been a very long time since she’d been able to look forward to the next moment. She exhaled, feeling a touch of warmth as Xena’s hand settled on her shoulder and she wished briefly she’d just stayed with the horses.
And yet, there was no where else she wanted to be but by Xena’s side. “I bet that would have hurt a lot.” She finally said. “Wouldn’t it? I remember how much that arrow hurt you.”
“There was poison on it.” Xena replied. “It wouldn’t have hurt for long.”
“Probably would have hurt me more than you.”
The rain pattered down over them, accompanied by a long roll of thunder.
Xena pressed her back against the rock, as she and her small force waited out a spell of overly ferocious weather. The rain had gotten so heavy it had become impossible to see down the path, and dangerous to walk in the racing sheets of water coming down the slope and she’d lucked out in finding a bit of shelter.
Just below them, she could see the main force of Sholeh’s troops huddled in a mass, using trees to maintain their footing as they turned their backs to the weather and likewise waited it out.
They had no shelter but the trees and each other. Xena’s men were happy to have granite at their backs and they shared trail rations in quiet satisfaction as they watched the weather around them.
Xena folded her arms over her chest and stifled a yawn. Over her head she had a stone ledge, and it extended out past her reach, providing enough cover to not only protect them from the rain, but to shelter them from curious eyes and she was glad enough to take the time given her and let her body rest.
Gabrielle was leaning against her right side, providing about the only warmth in the whole situation and Xena took what comfort she could from that, wriggling subtly a little closer as she felt Gabrielle exhale, her cheek leaning against the queen’s shoulder.
Xena felt the warmth increase, as arms slipped around her waist. She relaxed her pose and put her right arm around Gabrielle, her eyes never ceasing their relentless searching of the ground around them. She had no intention of allowing them to be snuck up on again.
In the weather she was watching, though, anyone sneaking anywhere unless they were crawling on their bellies would be unlikely. The rain was coming down so hard it was blowing sideways, and she could see branches and leaves being carried in the wind, which howled eerily through the forest.
Not fit for man nor beast, the old saying went. Xena observed the small waterfall running over the edge of the shelter they were under. Well, she was neither man or beast, so where did that leave her?
So. They’d made it out of Sholeh’s camp, and they’d made it through most of one day with her whole damn army searching for them. Xena had to admit she hadn’t really expected either circumstance, and so now she was at something of a loss to know what to do next.
She hadn’t planned on them having to live rough, and hadn’t planned on not being able to hunt, since she’d figured eating would be the least of their worries. But now she had six men and Gabrielle to worry about, and if they continued on they would need food and water, and rest.
Logistics were always the bitch of any war. Sometimes the fighting was the easy part. She exhaled, then a faintly spicy scent came to her nose and she glanced down to find a bit of smoked meat being offered up to her. “Where’d you get that?”
“Well.” Gabrielle was nibbling her own piece. “Those guys in the camp liked my stories, so I traded them for it.”
Xena paused in mid bite, her eyebrows twitching. “Did you now?”
Her companion nodded. “I figured we didn’t bring much with us so we should get stuff if we could.” She explained. “I mean, we had some water and nuts, but it sorta made sense to get something we could take with us.”
If you figured on going somewhere, sure. Xena cheerfully chewed the enemy booty. ‘Of course it made sense.” She said. “I knew I could count on you to take care of that end of things.”
Gabrielle jerked a little bit, in some evident surprise. “You did?”
The blond woman didn’t answer, but she squiggled a little, and let out a satisfied sigh. She went back to munching, seemingly content.
Her immediate issue resolved, Xena too found herself content for the moment, free to imagine what course of action they should take next. If the rain kept up much longer, they’d be closing in on twilight, and their chances of evading Sholeh’s troops would increase exponentially.
But still, what would that get her? She needed to pull the army away from the pass, which meant she needed to make Sholeh want to follow her rather than plunder the defenseless realm she knew was on the other side of the valley beyond.
That meant skulking away in the dark and making their escape wasn’t going to cut it. Xena swallowed the bitter taste of the knowledge, understanding a truth about herself in that moment she hadn’t expected and didn’t welcome.
A strike of lightning almost over head made them all jump, and Xena correspondingly smacked her head against the granite being the tallest of them. She stifled a curse, then cupped one hand over her ear as thunder boomed, rattling her teeth.
“Yikes.” Gabrielle muttered. “That made my eyeballs hurt.”
Another crack, and a flash, and Xena winced as lightning struck the trees Sholeh’s troops were sheltered under, setting them afire with a loud bang. Suddenly burning branches toppled down on the men, and in a flurry of motion they split apart and started heading in all directions.
One of which being directly towards Xena. “Ah.” The queen stiffened. “This ain’t good.”
“Silly bastards.” One of her men sighed behind her. “Stay here, Majesty? We’d be hard to see unless they come right up on us.”
“Stay here.” Xena decided, after a brief pause. “Stay back against the rock, don’t move.” She pressed her back against the stone. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll pass us by. If not.. “ She ducked her head to one side and awkwardly drew her sword lefthanded, straightening up and letting the blade rest against the back of her left leg. “Just kill as many as you can.”
The soldiers scrambled up over the rocks as the lightning blasted around them, their concern obviously more with their own skins than with the quarry they’d been after. Even from where Xena was, she could see the almost panic in the men’s eyes and a second later, she’d freed herself from Gabrielle’s grip and stepped out from under the rock ledge.
Right into the rain. Right into the glare of the stormlight. Right into the path of the running men who a short time before were working very hard at trying to find and kill her.
Insanity. But Xena knew she’d benefited by the occasional fit of insanity, so she went with her instincts, and laughed at the craziness inside her. “HEY!”
A sweep of her arm in the air, and in the flash if lightning off her blade she was spotted. Ignoring the shock and confusion behind her, Xena motioned the enemy soldiers over with an imperious gesture. “Hurry!”
They froze. They stared. Thunder boomed over them and the lightining blasted a tree that toppled over, catching fire even in the storm and then twenty men were bolting towards her at top speed.
“Um.” Gabrielle emerged into the rain next to her. “Did you mean to do that?”
“Stay behind me.” Xena warned as the soldiers closed in. “Get under there!” She ordered them, putting as much authority in her voice as she was capable of. She glared at them as they came even with her, but not so much as a dagger blade was turned her way as the soldiers skidded past and under the shelter of the stone.
Xena ducked back under herself, bumping Gabrielle backwards as she took in the cluster of crowded men, moments before enemies, huddled against the rock as a blast of lightning struck just outside, cracking the granite path before them and making chips of stone rattle down onto their shoulders.
Outside, a hoarse scream sounded loud and long, and the men all turned to look out as three of Sholeh’s soldiers fell, their bodies consumed with fire, and a second tree fell across another line of men crushing them.
One of the soldiers sheltering with her cursed. Xena glanced over her shoulder at him, seeing her own men, tense as bowstrings standing against the rock. The enemy men turned towards her, everyone falling awkwardly silent.
“Hi.” Xena said, after a long ghoulish moment. “Mother nature kicks everyone’s ass, doesn’t she?”
Thunder rolled over them again, lighting blasting them all with a pure, green light that outlined Xena’s anglular profile and lit the enemy solder’s faces. Their eyes were fastened on her, and after what seemed like an eternity the man closest to the queen blinked, and glanced aside.
As though it was a silent signal, Sholeh’s men relaxed, shifting to watch the horrendous weather outside and almost deliberately turning their backs to the silent, armed men behind them.
Xena waited, then she turned and watched the weather too, her eyes widening as she suddenly saw a wash of water coming down the slope, shoving rocks and debris ahead of it. A visible line of soldiers still out in the rain saw it too, and she heard men start to yell and scramble to get out of it’s path.
A rumble overhead warned her, and she slammed her back against the rocks. “Get back!” She yelled. “It’s coming over us!”
Everyone, enemy and friend alike obeyed, pressing their backs against the stone as a wall of water and rock rolled over the top of their shelter and crashed over the path below, slamming against the running men and washing them down the slope in a flurry of limbs and hoarse yells.
“Hades.” One of Sholehs’ men whispered. “Look at those bastards.’
‘So.” Xena said, after a moment. “Is it worth all your stinking lives to go after me?” She asked. “For someone else’s pride?”
The enemy soldiers all looked over at her. Xena returned their stares, and then she smiled at them, as the lightning flashed again, reflecting off the glint in her eyes, and the blade resting on her shoulder.
It was full dark before it finally stopped raining. Gabrielle was so tired of standing in the chill wind in the cluster of antsy soldiers she followed Xena right out into the inky black without any hesitation at all. The air was cold and damp still, and she shivered as it brushed over her, but she latched onto the back of the queen’s cloak and kept right on going.
It felt so darn good to be out of the press of bodies. “Wow.”
Xena had a careful eye on her footing, as she picked her way along the ridge and swept the silver tinged shadows around her for any movement. She was aware of the men following her from the shelter, and one ear cocked as she heard all the boots sounding.
Twenty six sets, aside from the light patter of Gabrielle’s. Xena wasn’t sure how long that was going to last, and she was even less sure of how good an idea it was, having twenty enemy soldiers rambling along at her back but so far they’d kept their mouths shut and hadn’t tried anything stupid.
Besides it was pitch dark, there were no other visible soldiers out there, and she figured they figured she was as good a guide to follow as anyone.
Going out into the forest in the dark was a chance, but staying under the ledge wasn’t an option. Xena paused at a bend in the rocks, turning her ears into the wind before she continued on, hearing little but the pittering of leaf caught rain falling and the rushing trickle of the water still racing down the slope.
Overhead, she could still see clouds racing across the sky, only the occasional star exposing itself briefly before being obscured again. Most of the path had been washed out, and she was going mostly by instinct, having nothing to follow but the curve of the land and her own logic.
Speaking of logic. “Yeeess?”
“Do you think the horses made out okay?”
Xena could hear the wistful note in her lover’s voice, and she had to admit an echo of it in her own heart. “I don’t know.” She answered. “They’re pretty savvy, especially yours.”
“Pony’s have brains since they lack everything else.” Xena smiled to herself, imagining the scowl on Gabrielle’s face with little effort. “So don’t worry about them. They’re animals. They’ll be fine.”
Gabrielle sighed audibly. “Can we go back for them later?”
“If we live long enough, sure.” Xena said. “Pass me that stick up here, willya?” She reached back and took the staff Gabrielle willingly handed to her. Pushing it ahead of her, she carefully felt the ground, not wanting to lead all of them into a ditch.
“Oh.” Her companion murmured. “Are we having that kind of day again?”
The commentary struck Xena as funny, and she chortled softly to herself as she found a decent path downward, keeping her senses honed for any sounds out of the ordinary. She could hear heavily running water below them, and she angled her steps away from it, moving along a backbone of granite that carved a step along the curve of the slope.
It felt good to be moving. She rocked her head from side to side to loosen up her neck muscles and loosened the belt around her cloak, letting it free around her to dry in the brisk wind. It let the chill hit her skin, but now that she was in motion she considered the prospect of dry leathers a decent tradeoff.
Right now, hers were wet through. The damp hide was rubbing her skin raw, reminding her of just how long it had been since she’d worn the damn things for more than a few candlemarks, aside from her little jaunt the previous fall.
Nothing would have made her happier than a good fire, and a dry set of socks. But everything around them was dripping wet, so instead she settled for thinking about killing people instead to maintain her good humor.
The weather had dealt them a bad hand. Xena could only take solace in the fact that the bad hand had been equally dealt to both her and Sholeh, and as she evaded a yawning gully opened by the storm she looked fro any signs of her adversaries.
Difficult task. It was dark, and with all the furor of the rain movement in the rocks and scuffs on the trunks of the trees she was passing could have been caused by the weather as well as by passing soldiers. She paused, examining a broken branch, but the angle it was hanging made her shake her head, and she kept going.
“I don’t know where we’re going yet, I don’t know when we’ll get there, and no, I won’t kiss your pony.” Xena tossed over her shoulder. “Did I come close?”
“Um.. I was actually going to ask you what that light was.”
Xena looked where her companion was pointing. “Water.” She said, after a moment. “Moon must be coming through there.” She couldn’t see the sky from where they were, under the trees, but the flash Gabrielle had seen was distinctive and after a moment, she decided to angle towards it.
They were deep in the trees now, and a sense of oppressive silence descended around them, as the forest pressed in on all sides, and the moving shadows from the moving clouds overhead were starting to make Xena’s nerves twitch.
A flicker of motion, and her body reacted, snapping the staff up and getting it into position as something approached her and she struck out with a short, sharp jab that impacted the shadow in the shadows and sent it flying against the nearest tree trunk with a crunching smack.
Gabrielle inhaled sharply. “What was that?”
“Well, unless the Persian poofball enlisted dwarves, it wasn’t a soldier.” Xena edged forward, even her eyes barely able to sort through the darkness. She poked ahead of her with the staff, and felt it hit something soft that moved a little. “Uh.”
She opened her mouth a little and sucked in a lungful of air, catching an odd musky scent from whatever it was. Aware of all the waiting men and muskrat behind her, she gathered her guts up and knelt, feeling the light grating rasp as her knee armor hit mud covered rock.
“Was it an animal?” Gabrielle knelt next to her, peering uselessly into the shadows. “I don’t see anything.”
Suppressing the desire to say she coudln’t either, Xena bravely extended her hand into the gloom, feeling the faint tingle in her fingertips as she detected a living creature and biting her lip to keep from yelping as she touched something warm and furry.
“Oh!” Gabrielle gasped.
“What is it, your Majesty?” One of her men asked, carefully pronouncing her title as though it tasted good to him.
Oh sure. Xena could feel the thing, whatever it was, squirming under her touch. She could feel fur, and what seemed like leather, and the pressure to perform was whacking her squarely in the back of her head.
It hissed again and she took the plunge, grabbing it with both hands to bring it closer so she could see. After a second, something started smacking her in the arms, and she felt claws digging into her skin. She barely kept herself from tossing it away in fear as it neared her face and her eyes managed to make out an ugly pushed in face and the flash of white fangs.
OH, horsecrap. “Stand back.” She warned. “It’s dangerous.”
She felt everyone move back a pace and that gave her enough room to stand up and drop kick the animal as far away from her as she possibly could. It squealed like a pig being gutted, then there was the sound of wings flapping and Xena picked up her staff hastily and got it in front of her in a defensive stance as the animal came back at her in furious anger.
“Yahh!” Gabrielle ducked behind her, as she swung wildly at it, feeling the end of the staff connect with it’s body again. It squeaked, and then there was silence. Xena stood very still, her nostrils flaring, listening as hard as she could.
She heard a soft squeak.
Then another. Slowly, she turned her head and searched the forest as she saw Gabrielle’s chin tip back and a gasp emerge from her. “Okay, boys.” Xena was surprised at how calm she sounded. “See that opening over there?” She pointed with the staff. “Between those rocks?”
“Aye.’ The soldier behind her said.
“Run.” XEna turned and gave him a shove, grabbing hold of Gabrielle as she sensed motion in the trees above them and the wind changed direction, fairly swamping her with a the scent of many animals very close by. “Now.”
“Xena, what a..”
“RUN!” Xena bolted, leading the way through the forest at top speed as the cloud of bats descended over them, eyes glittering in the dim light. “Don’t let them catch ya! “ She warned. “They’re bats!”
“Bats!” Gabrielle yanked her cloak hood up and needed no further urging as she bolted headlong over the rocks and rough ground. “Why are they attacking us!?”
“They heard how good you were in bed and wanted some.”
“Well, stop asking stupid questions!”
Xena slowly raised her head over the edge of a fallen log, peering into the darkness of the surrounding forest with deeply suspicious eyes. She detected no motion, even after watching for several minutes and finally she eased herself up to her knees and placed her hands on the damp bark.
“Are they gone?” Gabrielle’s head popped up next to her.
“Yeah.” The queen didn’t sound entirely sure, and the blond locks disappeared again. Xena grimaced, and flexed her hands, feeling the ache of scrapes and cuts all along her skin. She looked around again, at the tall rock walls surrounding them, and knew a bit of unease from the sense of being closed in.
Their backs were to the sheer cliff wall that bordered the seacoast, and to the right there was nothing but thick, brooding forest possibly filled with evilly watching bats.
“That was the damndest thing I ever seen.” One of her enemy hangers on bravely got up next to her. “What were those things?”
“Bats.” The queen said. “Like foxes.”
“Them was flying.”
“Foxes with wings, that bite like crazy.” Xena clarified. “You can get real sick from them.” She shook her head. “Had a guy get bit once in the field. He turned into a lunatic and ended up dying in a seizure trying to rip a man to pieces.”
Slowly, the rest of the men appeared, looking nervously at each other. “Anybody get bit?” Xena’s senior man asked, looking around at all the shaking heads.
Gabrielle eased up near Xena and took one of the queen’s hands in her own, turning it up and into the moonlight. Dark, jagged marks were clear against the paler skin and she touched one with her fingertips. “Did you?”
“No.” Xena said, evenly. “Woudln’t matter if I was though.” She met Gabrielle’s eyes. “YOu’d never tell if I went nuts.”
The queen bared her teeth and lunged at her companion, snapping them, making Gabrielle yelp. Then she chuckled and patted her bedmate on the back. “Relax.” She looked around again. “Okay, let’s get moving. I think we lost them.”
She stood up and brushed herself off, giving her now dry leathers a tug as she stepped in front of the fallen tree. She wanted to get out of the cul de sac quickly, and she started for the small gap between the forest and the rock wall to her left.
Then she stopped, and turned. She waited until all the men had gathered around her before she put her hands on her hips and addressed them. “Listen.” She said. “We’re going hunting. We’re probably going to meet up with some of your trenchmates and kill them. If you’re not up for that, take off.”
The twenty enemy soldiers looked at each other.
“I mean it.” Xena said. “I get a whiff of one of you running or sending a blade towards my back I’ll slaughter the lot of you where you stand.”
Gabrielle watched the soldiers in fascination. She knew Xena meant exactly what she said, and she knew Xena would do exactly what she’d said she’d do, but these men who had only just met her earlier that day had to figure it all out.
Would they? There were twice as many of them at least, and they were soldiers. She’d been with Xena’s soldiers long enough to understand that the men really thought they were the best and the toughest, no matter if they were or not and it did not come easy to them to submit to anyone.
Even Xena, whose personal charm could peel the skin off an apple and leave it naked and not minding. Gabrielle put her hands on her staff and cleared her throat. “It’s true.” She told the men. “If you think you’re going to wan to do that, just go back to your camp now.”
Xena made a little snoring noise, but maintained her aggressive stance in silence.
The soldiers looked at the oldest of them, who had a rank knot on his shoulder though it wasn’t much of one. “We go back, we’re dead.” THe man said, with a half shrug. “We go with you, we’re probably dead. Seems like a little better.”
“Why will you be dead if you go back?” Gabrielle asked, before Xena could say anything. “Because you didn’t try to kill us?”
The man studied her for a moment. “She don’t care about us.” He said. “We had to join up.”
Xena’s eyebrows lifted. “You’re conscripts?”
The man nodded. “Aye, most of us are.” He said. “Conquests, along the way here.”
“Ah.” The queen said. “I thought you didn’t look Persian.” She paused. “But she has Persian soldiers with her. The horsemen are.”
“They are.” He nodded again. “The captains are, the seniors. Her assassins, too.”’
“With the black knot necklaces?”
The men exchanged glances, then their leader nodded a third time. “She took all the men from my village. Most of them died the other day in the pass.”
“Sorry about that.” Xena remarked.
“Was looking to kill all of you.” The man replied. “That’s what war is, we know it.” He gestured to the group around him. “We made up to try and run during the storm, see if we could get past the hills. Then we met up with you.”
“Uh huh.” Xena mulled that over. “I could be just as much of a bitch y’know.” She suggested. “Maybe I think you’re just fodder too.”
“Maybe.” The man agreed “But you was in the front there, right with the fodder.”
“Yeah well.” The queen turned and started off again, motioning them all to follow, her decision apparently made and theirs accepted. “I’ve been known to be an idiot as well as a bitch so just hope you get lucky when the arrows start coming.”
Gabrielle gave Xena’s new recruits a friendly smile, before she turned and followed her queen. She felt better about their odd tagalongs now, since at least she could understand why they weren’t trying to attack them.
She caught up to Xena as the queen reached the tree line, and managed to squeeze onto the path next to her, the narrow opening just wide enough for them both. “Is that normal?”
Xena looked around, as though some animal with two heads had appeared in the moonlight. “What?”
“For armies to make people join them?”
Xena stifled a sneeze, cursing a little under her breath. “Sometimes.” She said. “I don’t believe in it though.”
“Nah. More trouble than it’s worth, having farmboys with sharp sticks all poking each other in the ass and wanting to be somewhere else.” Xena said. “Unless it’s like they said, Sholeh wanted them to waste on our front lines.”
Xena shrugged. “Explains some things though.” She admitted. “I didn’t get why their attacks were so damn lame most of the time, then I’d run into some bastards who really knew what they were doing and were close to kicking my ass.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle carefully evaded an evil looking branch of thorns. “So having them with us doesn’t really help, does it?”
The queen eased through the overgrown foliage sideways, forcing her companion to fall a step behind. The path she’d chosen was roughly a continuation of the one they’d found from the other valley, and it mostly consisted of thick brush, a rock wall, and a lot of cursing to get between one and the other.
She had a pretty good idea of where the path would take her, along the coastline and down towards the river and the port city she’d intended on taking over in some other lifetime a hundred leagues ago. If Sholeh had truly taken over the city, it meant a huge portion of trade goods normally bound for her realm would be halted, leaving the overland route through the mountains on the far side as the only option.
That was the route Bregos had taken, and where the last wars had been fought, and where the feelings ran the hardest. Yes, she’d gotten booty back from his conquests but they’d also made enemies that route and she’d half expected a retaliatory raid over the long winter.
Most of their trade, in the last two seasons, had come the river route. So. Xena readily admitted to herself that she’d allowed many things to slide the last couple of seasons, and aside from stewarding the use of land which she’d turned out pretty good at, she’d been doing a truly crappy job as a tyrant.
Not good. If she’d waited another moon this spring they’d have been trapped in the inner valley and she’d be looking at a long siege when stores were at their lowest and crops had yet to be planted. She’d have died behind the gates, likely, or in some idiotic charge into Sholeh’s army.
Pissed her off just thinking about it.
“What?” Xena pulled out her biggest dagger and started cutting her way through the branches, glad of her gauntlets and wishing she’d had them on before when running from the bats. The cuts and scrapes were making her hands ache and she’d somehow landed on her shoulder and that was throbbing also.
“Funny stuff on the side, why did those bats come after us?” Gabrielle was right behind her, staff making little punking noises in the dirt. “We had bats in our stable. They never hurt anyone.”
“They were Bacchae bats.” The queen informed her, glad of the distraction as she wrestled the thorns out of the way. “Most bats eat bugs.”
“Or little mice.” Gabrielle agreed. “But not these? They can’t eat people, Xena. They’re too small even I know that much.”
“They suck blood.”
Xena turned and bared her teeth. “They bite animals and suck their blood. That’s what they eat.”
Gabrielle stared at her in horrified fascination. “Really?”
“You mean they would have.. If they caught us.. They’d have…”
Gabrielle made a gurgling noise deep in her throat, and tugged her cloak closer to her neck. “Oh Hades. That’s almost as gross as those people getting eaten.” She shuddered. “Gross.”
“Mm.” Xena got past a thick bush and saw some easier going ahead. She exhaled in silent relief and put her knife away. “But you know… “ SHe turned and paused, as the line of soldiers came into the clearing. “You.” She pointed at the leader of Sholeh’s exiiles. “Why did they let that merchant train through? Was it a trap?”
After a moment of confusion, the man shook his head. “If you mean that bunch of wagons.. I think the one’s that made a deal with her begged for food, yeah? She sent em.” He glanced back at his group. “We didn’t hear much, but there was a feller who came into the camp, said people were starving.”
Xena’s brow creased. Yes, there had been no supplies, no wagons during the cold seasons, but there was always the land to forage off of, wasn’t there? “Bregos men, were starving?”
The man shrugged. “Said they’d been living off the land during the cold.”
“They were living off all those little villages.” Gabrielle spoke up suddenly. “The ones we saw destroyed, Xena. They were living off those people.”
Xena remained silent for a long moment, her eyes flicking back and forth among the shadows around them. Another piece in the puzzle fit grimly in place, as she thought of all those meagre homeseteads, barely able to support themselves, being raped by Bregos and his men who she now realized would have never lived merely off the land.
Without a doubt, this was her fault. She’d let him go. Let them go. ‘Yeah.” She tasted the bitterness of the word on her tongue. “I guess they did.” She turned and squared her shoulders. “C’mon. Let’s go.” She started down the path again, then she stopped and turned, looking at Sholeh’s soldiers. “What is it you all want?”
“Ma’am?” THe man asked, hesitantly.
“YOu want to be soldiers?” The queen asked, bluntly. “You want to be shepherds, you want to be sold down the river as slaves, what?”
One of the younger men ducked his head with a touch of diffidence. “We’d just want to go home, ma’am.” He said. “I got family there. A little girl was just born the night they took me.”
Xena’s men had circled around them, to wait by their queen’s side, and they studied the enemy men with somber, watchful eyes.
“That what you all want?” Xena asked, quietly.
The soldiers nodded. “We got nothing against you.” The older man said. “We don’t want to be here. Half of them..” He jerked his head towards the general direction of the army. “Don’t want to be here.”
“Xena will make it right.” Gabrielle told them in an utterly confident tone. “Just stay with us, and she’ll get you through and home okay.”
Xena turned and looked at her, putting her hands on her hips.
“She can do anything.” THe blond woman assured them. “You woudln’t believe the stories I could tell you, so just stick with us, and you’ll be fine.”
Xena’s men smiled, as they watched their leader’s face, outlined clearly in the moonlight Her expression was caught between exasperated and outraged and her body posture matched it. “Aye, the little one’s right.” Dev said. “Our queen’s the best.”
Xena’s head swiveled and she glared at him. “Just for that I’m gonna kick all of your asses when we get out of this damned forest.” She growled. “Let’s move it!” She reached out and spanked Gabrielle across the butt. “And you, muskrat, you’ll get yours later.”
“Oo. Cool.” Gabrielle felt a lightening of her spirit, as she picked up her staff and started after the queen’s tall, stalking form. “Does that mean you’ll find us a hot spring again?”
Xena looked up at the sky. “Gabreillleeee…”
The soldiers chuckled and fell into line, mixing with Xena’s men now in a silent, accepted alliance.
Xena strode on, aware of the shorter, slighter shadow at her heels. “You’re a little pissant, you know that?”
Gabrielle smiled. “It’s going to make a great story, Xena, I just know it.”
“It’s probably going to be a very short story.” The queen remarked. “And you probably won’t be around to tell it.”
“Maybe.” Gabrielle’s expression turned pensive. “But if I die, I want to die doing the right thing, and helping people. Don’t you?”
Xena shook her head and led the way down the path towards their tomorrow. “I think I’d rather go back and find the damn bats.”
“Half assed hero horsecrap.”
Continued in Part 17