Queen of Hearts
Dawn found them near the edge of the river plateau, sheltered in a dry, white limestone cave as they settled down to get some rest.
At least some of them were. Xena had climbed up the side of the cliff face, and was peering across the open spaces ahead of them, clinging to the stone like a large, be-cloaked spider.
Gabrielle was splitting the difference. She had taken a seat on a bit of ledge near the opening of the cave, where she could keep an eye on her acrobatic bedmate and the early morning sun was nicely warming a body still chilled from the long wet walk the previous night.
She didn’t know what Xena was doing. Based on the muttering she’d heard from Xena before she’d started climbing she wasn’t convinced Xena knew what Xena was doing, though so she didn’t really think asking her about it was going to get either of them anywhere.
She was bone tired. Every inch of her wanted to curl up in the sun and sleep despite the emptiness in her stomach and her desire to keep by Xena’s side. Though her body seemed to be getting used to very little sleep and less food she felt she was reaching a limit and hoped Xena would decide to stay put even for a short while.
Moments later, she heard a light rasp of leather against stone, and as she looked up, Xena scaled down the cliff, releasing her hold and dropping the last bodylength to land near where Gabrielle was sitting. “Urf.”
“Urf?” Gabrielle willingly turned her attention to her companion. “What did you see up there?”
“A mess.” Xena took a seat on the rock next to her and leaned back, resting her head against the wall with a sigh. “I’ve got a problem.”
“What kind of problem? Can I help?”
Xena rolled her head to the side and regarded Gabrielle. “I dunno.” She said. “How are you at mass murder? Got any good poison on ya?”
Gabrielle’s adorable, mop head tilted to one side, and she frowned. “Xena, I don’t think I’d be very good at mass murdering ants even by mistake.”
Xena chuckled. “Probably not.” She let her hands rest on her knees, the raw scrapes visible in the sunlight. “You’re too damn cute to be a ruthless killer anyway. No one’d believe it.” She sighed. ‘Now me on the other hand… I could be an innocent wool comber and everyone’d run from me.”
Gabrielle studied the woman seated next to her. Xena was in her armor, her skin stained from their travels, and weapons were hanging literally all over her. Sitting in there in the sun, weariness plain on her face, she looked like anything but a queen. “I wouldn’t.”
Xena’s lips quirked. “You’re a smitted nitwit. You don’t count.”
“One, two three.. Sure I do.” Gabrielle reached over and covered one of Xena’s hands with her own. “Are we going to stay here for a while?”
“Do you want to?” The queen asked. “You look like you could use a nap.” She lifted her free hand and reached across her body to push Gabrielle’s hair back off her face. “Still glad you’re here?”
Gabrielle looked around them, down at herself, then at Xena. “Well.” She managed a half grin. “I sorta wish we were both somewhere else.”
“Me too.” Xena admitted. “Yeah, we’re going to stay here for now. I want to make for the town, and trying it in daylight with twenty armored jerks behind me ain’t gonna cut it.” She idly picked at a bit of her knee armor, it’s edge cut through and twisted into a jagged point.
She knew it must have gotten that way in one of her fights, but she had no memory of it. What was it they called it, the fog of war? She flicked a bit of dried mud off her leg. Churning cesspit of war, more like it.
“I thought we were going to try and make Sholeh follow us.” Gabrielle said. ‘Wasn’t that the plan?”
“Plans change.” The queen extended her legs gingerly. “There’s too many of her troops between us and the river. If I make her chase us, we’ll just run into them and dying is so damn boring.” She sensed Gabrielle moving, and she turned her head to see her companion edging up behind her, hands already reaching for her shoulders.
She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, accepting the touch gratefully as Gabrielle started to massage what parts of her shoulders she could reach with gentle fingers. It was embarrassingly personal but she was past caring.
“Well, then I’m sure you’ll come up with a better plan.” Gabrielle said, confidently. “It’s amazing how you knew those soldiers would join up with us.”
“They think you’re really sexy.”
Xena’s head turned and she looked over at Gabrielle, her eyes half obscured by mud stiffened hair. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“ *I* think you’re really sexy.”
The queen snorted. “Well *I* think you’ve all got rat eaten eyeballs and need white canes to find your way around with. She faced forward again. “I sure as hell don’t feel sexy right now.”
Gabrielle eased closer, forgetting about her own weariness as she responded to the unexpected note of discouragement in her friend’s voice. Like most of the men Xena was battered by their travels, her skin stained with mud and scraped half raw.
She pressed her belly against Xena’s back as she worked her hands under the hard armor, to the warm skin underneath, the solid bones evident under her fingertips. She watched the queen’s head drop forward a little further and seeing a bare bit of neck, she leaned forward and kissed it.
Xena grunted softly, and she took that as an invitation and went back for another kiss, nibbling the small bump that was part of the queen’s spine after that. She could feel the tension under her hands slowly relaxing as she worked her way up the powerful neck.
Xena let her head rest on her hands, her elbows propped on her knees. She let the thoughts of Sholeh’s army loose for a few minutes. The warmth of the contact behind her made her feel like she was briefly caught in a cocoon someplace else, where a bath was waiting, and a cup of mead and the softest of soft beds.
There was none of that here, but Gabrielle’s presence brought her a sense of the comforts of that life being almost close enough to touch. She drew in a long breath and released it, as her neck muscles relaxed under the powerful kneading.
Another nibble, along the edge of her ear and despite the utterly grungy state she was in, damned if it didn’t make her feel sexy. “You’re gonna get sick if you keep eating all that dirt.” She commented.
“It’s clean there.” Gabrielle disagreed, reaching around and putting her arms around Xena to hug her. “If we’re going to stay here for a little while, I found a pond just down that little slope there that didn’t look too muddy.” She said. “Maybe I could make more clean spots.”
Xena rubbed her temples with her thumbs. “Are you propositioning me, muskrat?”
“Well.” Gabrielle exhaled, right against the skin of Xena’s neck. “I could be, but I really think you probably want to just be more comfortable right now.” She got up and came around in front of the queen, holding her hands out. “Don’t you?”
Xena rested her chin on her fists, mourning the loss of her masseuse. “If I go with you and let you have your way with me, will you finish the backrub?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle grinned. The expression grew as Xena stood and took her hand, and they turned and walked down the short slope and into the heavy brush surrounding the cave, that Xena had selected for exactly that reason.
It was invisible unless you came right up on it, and the way down into the valley was blocked by thick stands of heavy underbrush, and a gloomy looking pine forest that ran closely along the rock wall that separated the valley from the sea.
It wasn’t safe, of course, but it was as safe a place as she could find to give her little group some much needed rest and Xena felt a weariness settling in her own bones as she followed Gabrielle between two fragrant shrubs and around a corner and she could already smell the rich scent of water on the air.
They had to make their way through a pile of fallen boulders, green with moss, detached from the wall nearby long ago. Tucked under the branches and edged around by thick growth the pond appeared dark and murky, but Xena’s nose detected fresh water and just that made her skin itch all over from it’s cover of mud.
She found a bit of ledge above the waterline and they sat down on it together. Xena unlaced her boots and tugged them off first, lowering her feet into the cool water with a sigh before she started working on her knee armor. “Damn.”
Gabrielle was following her lead, and she wiggled her toes in the dark water for a minute before she looked down to unbuckle the belt around her waist. “It’s nice here.”
Xena eased the armor off her legs and set it to one side, gazing thoughtfully at the battered limbs beneath, the joints aching as she ran her hands over her knees. With a soft grunt, she braced her hands on either side of her and eased into the water, feeling cautiously for the bottom as it came up over her thighs.
It was cool, but not cold and it stopped at her waist. “Got any soap?” The queen eyed her friend, who was lifting her armor over her head, revealing a mud and blood stained shirt underneath.
“Um..” Gabrielle set the armor down and reached for the pouch hanging off the belt she’d dropped near it. “Matter of fact…” She fished something out. “I sure do.”
Xena leaned against the rocks and folded her arms over the cool, damp surface. “What would I do without you?”
Gabrielle looked up, hearing the quiet sincerity in Xenas voice. She met the somber blue eyes uncertainly, the bit of soap curled within her fingers. “Stay dirty?”
Xena merely gazed at her, then she extended her hand. “Gimme that, and get your ass in here.” She took the soap and waited as Gabrielle squirmed out of her leggings, then boldly jumped off the rock into the water in just her shirt, the sleeves billowing out around her.
She promptly disappeared as the water closed over her head, with a cloud of surprised bubbles and a muffled squawk.
Her companion lunged over and stuck her hand, then arm into the water, grabbing hold of a piece of cloth and yanking upward, pulling a wet, spluttering, wide eyed woman to the surface in one good healthy pull.
“Oof.” Gabrielle gasped. “I didn’t expect that!”
“You’re such a nut.” Xena hauled her over to the shallows and steadied her until she found her footing. “At least you washed all the crud off.. Hey, you’re a blond.”
Gabrielle ducked into the water and knelt, taking off her shirt and rubbing it briskly. “Yeah, I felt pretty grungy.” She admitted. “I hate that.”
“You do?” Xena set the soap down and unlaced her leathers, pulling them over her head and letting them down into the water to soak. “I never figured you for that, muskrat, living with sheep and chickens in your bedroom and all.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle looked up, then stopped speaking as she merely sat there in the water, admiring her now naked companion. Xena was backlit by the dim green light, her hair wafting in the breeze as she worked on cleaning her armor.
She’d seen Xena naked many times before, of course. But after being out in the wilds for the time they’d been, the queen’s body had altered into something more primal, the muscles standing out clearly under her skin and the bones showing along the tops of her shoulders and along her ribs.
With her hair a bit overgrown, and the marks of battle on her, she was so removed from the women in silk gowns Gabrielle had first known, it was hard to absorb. But she felt in her heart, as she had from the first, that this Xena, this dark warrior figure, was the real one. “Wow.”
“What?” Xena looked up from washing the blood out of her leathers.
Xena looked around, then down at herself, then back at Gabrielle. “You hit your head on that rock or something?” She asked, in a puzzled tone. “I look half dead.” She draped her armor over the stone and started scrubbing her arms with the soap. “C’mere.”
Gabrielle waded over to her, and put her shirt down next to Xena’s leathers. She took the soap from the queen’s hands and started cleaning her with it. She scrubbed her powerful back, as Xena turned and leaned against the shore, releasing a small, tired sigh.
“You have kind of a lump here.” Gabrielle said, after a few minutes. She gently felt along Xena’s spine, to it’s base and touched the tight ball she could feel under the skin.
“Yeah.” Xena leaned further forward, and rested her head on her arm. “I twisted the wrong way when I was fighting that jerk back there.”
“Does it hurt?” Gabrielle tried to carefully knead the spot, feeling the shift as the queen moved under her touch.
Xena remained silent for a moment. “Well.” She sighed. “Every gods be damned thing hurts so it’s hard to tell. I feel like total horsecrap on a cracker.”
The hands on her back continued their patient massage and she let her body relax, the gently moving water and the cool stone with it’s mossy scent slowing her thoughts.
She needed a time out from the chaos. There was too much happening all at once, and her next step was either going to lead them off the edge of a cliff, or do something useful and she was so, just so damned tired of scrambling and trying to pull a cooked rabbit out of her ass.
“I love you.” Gabrielle’s voice floated over her right shoulder, as the scent of soap reached her nose and she felt fingers kneading her shoulders. “And you know what? I fixed up something over between those trees I think you could sit on and maybe rest.”
“You did, huh?”
“Yeah, I figured maybe you’d like to sit on something other than a rock.”
Xena straightened up and turned, putting her arms around Gabrielle and bending her head down to kiss her with simple, sincere passion. She felt Gabrielle’s hand drop and she caught the soap before it dropped into the water as she pulled her companion against her and the water evaporated between them.
Gabrielle’s hands slid down to rest on her hips as they moved together and she pressed her belly against Xena’s, a pleasant warmth that traveled up her body and pushed back the exhaustion and banished the hideous insanity of what they were doing.
“Got something soft for us to sit on over there, huh?” Xena backed her lips off just enough to speak. “You little scoundrel.” She returned for another kiss, tasting the faintest touch of berries as her tongue teased gently against her bedmates.
“You know you could even make Tartarus sweet?”
“How in the Hades did you come up with THIS?” Xena stopped, right in the middle of a pleasant though damp seduction as she and Gabrielle managed to sidle together into the tiny clearing the blond woman had prepared.
“What?” Gabrielle was totally focused on the bare breast at nose level to her.
“That.” Xena unceremoniously put her hand on her bedmate’s head and turned it so that it was facing the trees instead of her chest. “That over there. You did that?”
Gabrielle tried to catch her breath, as her heartbeat slowed a little, and she blinked at the clearing. “Oh.” She took a deep lungful of air and expelled it. “That. Ah, yeah, that was me.” She admitted. “Do you like it?”
Xena released her hold on her companion and eased around her, ducking past a branch to arrive in the open space between a group of trees. Strung between them was a hide, a cowhide by the look, tied to three of the trunks and suspended above the ground.
It was rough, and a bit crude, but there was room on it for one person sprawled out or two people cuddled together and Xena put her hands on her hips and laughed in genuine amazement. “I”ll be a son of a bacchae.”
Gabrielle put her annoyed libido on hold, trading off for these words of skewed approval from her lover. She joined Xena near the contraption, more than a little pleased with herself. “I used to make these when I had to stay out watching the sheep.” She said. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“WHere did you get the hide?” Xena asked. “You weren’t carrying it.”
“No.” The blond woman touched it. “It was in the cave. I found it before the rest of those guys did.”
Xena looked around. The clearing was surrounded completely by trees and thick brush. She tried to see through it to the rock wall, and failed, and then tried to see through it to the valley, and had equally horrible success.
That meant, in this most unllkely place, she actually could just sit down and relax for a little while. With an approving grunt, she turned and sat down on the stretched hide, feeling it move under her as she cautiously tested the strength of the ropes.
It seemed nice and secure. Xena laid down on her back on it, gazing up through the leaves at the placid sky before she lifted her hand and curled her finger in a come hither gesture. “Get over here.”
Gabrielle didn’t hesitate. She’d created the hammock in some vague hope that maybe she’d get to take a nap in it, but having Xena gleefully sprawling over her roughly put together swing, the queen’s face lit with a happy grin made her own soul just about sing.
She eased onto the hide next to Xena, eyeing the ropes nervously for a moment as she hoped they would hold both their weights, and that she’d tied the darn knots right. After an unsure, creaking moment, she relaxed and stretched out, her left side firmly in contact with the queen’s right.
The hammock swung a little, a soothing motion as they both adjusted to the bizarrely unexpected comfort. “Wow.” Gabrielle sighed. “It feels really good not to be sitting on a rock.”
“Or a tree.” Xena agreed. “Or even a horse.” She flexed her body, the aches slowly relaxing as her muscles unclenched. Her last night spent in her camp cot seemed very far away, and she faced the fact that in truth, she was no longer the rough and tumble youngster she’d once been.
She’d grown up, and grown old, and she suspected her earlier self would be horrified at what she’d become.
“Boy, I’m tired.” Gabrielle sighed. “I don’t know how you did this for all that time.”
“I was an idiot.” Xena promptly answered. “Not to mention, I was too young and stupid to know what it was like to have something so simple as a gods be damned pillow.”
Xena glanced sideways at her. “So.” She ignored the insanity of them swinging there with enemy soldiers possibly all around them. “Where’d you learn to make one of these? I didn’t figure they were big down on the farm.”
Gabrielle half turned, and snuggled closer, sliding her arm over Xena’s stomach. “It started with the sheep.”
“Uh oh.” Xena’s nostrils flared. “I knew there was a sleeping with sheep story in your past somewhere.”
Gabrielle started laughing, shaking her head as the giggles worked down her body. “Oh, for the love of the gods, Xena.”
“I’ve never slept with a sheep.” The blond woman’s chuckles finally faded. “Not even accidentally. But I used to have to go out and watch the flocks when they grazed, in the summertime.”
“Watch them do what? Chew grass and fart?”
Well. Gabrielle thought back to those long days of summer she’d spent, alone with the animals far off in the fields. The memories seemed slightly out of focus, and she almost felt she couldn’t reach back and touch the girl she’d been then.
Had it been so very long? Just three or four seasons, but that seemed a lifetime. She could just barely remember the scent of clover, and the sound of birds overhead, and the soft maaaing of the ewes nearby. “Watch them to make sure they didn’t run off, or that a wolf didn’t get them.” She explained.
“You were going to throw yourself in front of a pack of wolves to keep them from getting their lambchops?” Xena’s voice lifted increduously. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“Well.” It did sound a little crazy. “I don’t know.. I never had to do that. The worst that ever happened was one of the lambs fell in a little pit of quicksand and I had to jump in after it.” She sighed. “Stupid jerky thing.”
Xena listened with half an ear, her attention focused on the cramps slowly working their way out of her back. “Did you get it out?”
“After it bit me, yeah.” Gabrielle said. “Anyway, after I brought the herd to the pasture, I’d look for a nice spot to sit down and watch them, but there was always something that made it uncomfortable. Either it was ants, or mud, or rocks or briars.. So finally I stole an old hide cloak from the barn and made myself a little swing seat to sit in.”
“Makes sense.” Xena watched a bird flit over head, reassured a trifle by it’s unconcerned presence. “Bet that made it nicer.”
“It did.” Gabrielle could feel Xena relaxing against her, and she stroked the queen’s side gently with her thumb. “I used to just lay there for hours, watching the clouds float past, and making up stories.”
Xena couldn’t imagine that. Her early life had been so full of pain and terror sitting and thinking about anything would have been courting death. She couldn’t think of herself doing it, but after a moment, she could imagine Gabrielle back then, probably a mop headed little punk who talked to rabbits.
“It was so different than it was at home.” Gabrielle added. “It was lonely, but it was wonderful, because I could just be there and imagine all sorts of things, like what were the sheep thinking, and did fish hold their breaths, and what my life was going to be like, someday.”
Xena rolled her head to one side, and peered down at her lover’s profile. “Bet this never crossed your mind.” She indicated both them, and their surroundings with one lazy swipe of her hand.
Gabrielle had to smile. “Um.. No.” She admitted. “I think the craziest thing I ever imagined for myself was running away to join the traveling circus.”
“I could be considered a traveling circus.” Xena mused. “Let’s see.. I”ve been called a viper, a horses ass, a raging bitch.. All I’d need is a midget and you in a clown suit and we could open up shop. You think?”
The blond woman buried her head into Xena’s shoulder and started laughing again helplessly.
Xena chuckled, then let out a long sigh. “Oh, Gabrielle.” She wrapped her arms around her companion. “Let’s enjoy this while we can. Tonight we’re going to sneak into the city there, and you’re gonna have to lead the way.”
“Yeah, you.” Xena gave the top of her head a kiss. “I”m not going to be the only one stuck doing half assed hero crap in this gods be damned story.”
“If you can drag a sheep out of quicksand, you can lead my army.”
“It’s only an army of twenty six, don’t get your tail all wiggling.”
Xena hitched her knee up, resting her rough wooden bowl on it as she watched the sun start to slip down behind the treeline. Saving the fact that she didn’t have a mug of cold ale in her other hand, she was feel ing damn wonderful at the moment, and the though of traveling the night through didn’t even faze her.
Being clean, sleeping for hours, and getting a square meal just did wonders for ya, didn’t it? She licked her lips. Especially when you were getting ancient.
Gabrielle joined her, the blond woman’s body draped only in her shirt and leggings, her armor packed safely with her borrowed hide on the back of one of the soldiers. The late afternoon breeze fluttered the fabric against her body, and ruffled her newly dried hair, and she exhaled in some satisfaction as she watched the gilded sky along with her queen. “That’s so pretty.”
Was it? Xena picked up a rabbit leg from her bowl and bit a chunk out of it. “You cooked this.”
“I can tell from the taste.” The queen said. “As in, it has one.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle took a seat on a nearby rock and sat back. “I’m really glad those guys cut up that stuff they found first though, because if I’d had to look at those bunnies alive we’d have ended up with herb soup for dinner.”
She kicked her feet out, tasting the rabbit on the back of her tongue with a sense of guilty enjoyment. Despite her ambivalence about consuming adorable animals, she’d been really hungry, and the meal had felt darn good filling her belly.
To have enough to eat, and time to eat it in, was a luxury they hadn’t known much of since they’d started the fight and it made her appreciate all over again the plenty she’d known in the castle over the winter. Funny how that was, since what she’d known before had been far worse than they’d experienced out here.
“What did you say?”
Gabrielle pulled her knees up and circled them with her arms as she turned her head towards the queen. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Yes you did.”
“No, I didn’t.” The blond woman said. “Really.”
“Are you arguing with me?” Xena asked. “Did we forget that whole I’m the queen thing already?”
It was getting harder for her to remember what it had felt like to be afraid of Xena, Gabrielle realized, as she responded to the teasing with a rakish grin. “I never forget your the queen.” She reassured her companion. “But honest, I didn’t say anything.”
Xena offered her a bite of rabbit and she accepted it, nibbling the fingers holding it after she transferred the morsel back to her teeth to be chewed. “I’m glad we had a chance to rest today.”
“Rest?” Xena snickered.
“Well.” Gabrielle swallowed her bit of rabbit. “Lay down, anyway.”
“Me too.” The taller woman licked her fingertips. “So. You ready to go?”
Gabrielle’s expression sobered. “I guess.”
Xena stood up and whistled, glancing behind her as she saw the men start to form up and get ready to move out. “You remember what you’re supposed to do?” She asked Gabrielle. “You’re not going to screw it up, are ya?”
Good question. “I hope not..” Gabrielle busied herself snugging tight the laces on her boots. “But you know, I sure wish Patches were here to go with me.”
Xena glanced at her, then she half turned and let out another whistle, this one lower, and yet more strident. After a moment’s silence, the brush was violently agitated, and as Gabrielle bolted to her feet in surprise, the branches parted to reveal a shaggy head followed by an equally shaggy body.
“Patches!” Gabrielle ran forward to greet her pony, who seemed a bit bemused to see her. “Where have you been? How did you find us?” She turned and looked back at Xena, who had folded her arms over her chest and was smirking. “Wow!”
“Anything else you want?” Xena allowed herself a moment to enjoy the look of delight on her lover’s face. “Golden cup, or a carpet to sit on or something?”
Gabrielle gave the pony a hug around his neck, then she ran back over to where Xena was, and threw her arms around the queen to give her a big hug too. “Thanks. I was really worried about him.”
Xena returned the hug, with a bittersweet feeling. “Yeah, well… they got the rest of them.” She told Gabrielle. “This little punk was the only one that got away.”
Gabrielle went still in her arms, then she slowly looked up at the queen. “They got Tiger?”
Her lover nodded briefly. “This morning. I could see them from up there.” She indicated the wall she’d climbed.
“Wow. I”m sorry.” The blond woman said, softly, her happiness fading.
“Me too.” Xena said. “I”m sure they shot him by now.” She added, with an attempt at offhandedness. “He wont’ let anyone handle him.” A pang shot through her chest again, seeing again the picture of men surrounding her beloved stallion and his wild eyes rolling. “Poor bastard.”
“Oh, Xena.. Do you want to..”
“No.” The finality in the queen’s tone was surprising. “It’s just a horse, Gabrielle.”
Just a horse. Gabrielle gave her another hug. “Well” She said, after a pause. “Thanks anyway.. I”m glad to see Patches in any case.”
“I know.” Xena gave her a kiss on the head. “Go play with him so he doesn’t regret following us. Give him a fig or something.”
“Okay.” Her lover released her, and returned to the pony’s side, stroking his neck and scratching his ears. “Hey there, Patches.” She managed a smile. “So you got away, huh? You’re such a smartie.”
Patches shoved her in the chest with his nose, apparently glad to see her in return. He still had his tack on his back, including his saddle and bags, and she rummaged in one to find a somewhat withered apple. “Here you go.” She offered it to him. “It’s not much, but we’ll find you something better once we get going.”
The pony accepted the treat genially, munching on it and bobbing his head a few times while Gabrielle checked his bridle and straightened the straps out. Leaves had gotten trapped in the leather, and she pulled them out, the scent of bruised greenery coming to her nose.
She thought about Tiger, her eyes lifting to watch Xena as she formed up the men to move out. How badly must her friend feel? She never said much about it, but Gabrielle could tell she loved the horses, and the big black one in particular. She knew how she’d have felt if it had been Patches who’d been captured.
Wow. She gave the pony another hug, then she took hold of his reins and waited, as the men gathered around and darkness started to fall around them. Was there anything she could say to Xena about it? Or would the queen just want to pretend it didn’t matter?
“All right, let’s go.” Xena ordered, in a businesslike tone. “Keep alert, keep moving.” She started forward, motioning for Gabrielle to join her. “C’mon, muskrat. Grab the runt and get over here.”
Gabrielle led Patches over to the queen’s side, and they walked together at the head of their little force. She tried to think of something she could say to Xena, to comfort her but in the end, she merely reached over and took her friends hand, and clasped it, feeling the powerful fingers tighten around hers in a heartfelt squeeze.
Things felt all upside down again. They were headed towards the city, she was committed to something she wasn’t sure she could do, and their future seemed more in doubt now than it had even a day ago. As the path unwound in front of them, a barely seen opening in the brush, she hoped things would work out all right.
She hoped she didn’t screw things up too badly.
Xena released her hand, and settled her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders instead, pulling her closer, and shortening her stride so they matched. They walked along in silence as the twilight faded and stars began to show overhead, bathing them in faintest silver.
An owl hooted. Then far off, there was a scream, a hoarse voice raised in agony, but the small band walked on without pause, leaving whatever that trouble was behind them.
“Okay.” Gabrielle peered through the pre dawn gloom at the walls of the riverside city. She could see guards all around, and there seemed to be soldiers everywhere. “You want me to just walk up there and ask to go in?”
“I thought you liked me.”
Xena gave her companion a slap on the butt. “You’re not a threat. They won’t kill you.” She said. “I hope.” She added, after a moment. “I need you to get inside, and get us some allies.”
Gabrielle mostly felt just scared. “I don’t know how to do that.”
“Sure you do.”
“No, I really don’t.”
Xena slapped her again. “Listen, muskrat. You charmed me. How hard could it be to charm a bunch of lusty farmboys who were left behind to guard the gates?”
Gabrielle edged to one side to avoid being hit again. “Well.. But I don’t know how I charmed you.” She answered, unhappily. “I dont know what to do, Xena. I ‘m going to get up there and just sound crazy.”
Xena took her by the shoulders and they faced each other. She studied Gabrielle’s face in the dim light, seeing true fear there, and her own expression gentled a little. “Listen. You can handle this.” She said. “They don’t know who you are, Gabrielle. You’re just a kid from the countryside, coming to the big city to tell stories and make a few dinars. No big deal.”
Gabrielle felt like crying. “Xena, I can’t do this. I”m scared.” She whispered, glancing past the queen to where the men were waiting patiently hidden in the brush. ‘I can’t just walk right up there!”
“Shh.” The queen cupped her cheek with a surprisingly gentle hand. “You’re not going to be walking right up there.”
The blond woman’s shoulders relaxed. “Oh. Well, I thought you said..”
‘You’re riding.” Xena patted her cheek. “LIsten.” Her voice dropped to a bare whisper. “I’ll be right behind ya. Don’t worry about it. Just get in there, get to that back gate, and get it open for us. That’s all ya gotta do!”
That’s all. Just the thought of leaving Xena, and going alone down that long road was scaring Gabrielle close to speechless, now that they were here, at the edge of the scrub, with nothing but that empty space before them. “You’ll be right behind me?” She asked. “I thought you didn’t want them to see you.”
“Gabrielle, listen to me.” Xena said. “Only you can do this. None of us can.” She indicated herself, then the other soldiers. “We have to get into the city, we need allies.”
“Why do you think we’ll find them there?” Gabrielle asked, searching her race intently. “Because Sholeh beat them?”
The queen nodded.
“Xena, you were going to beat them.”
Xena grinned briefly, half shrugging her shoulders. “Fortunes of war, my friend. That’s just how it goes sometimes. One day you’re a bitch, the next, a savior.”
Gabrielle exhaled again, then she finally nodded. “Okay. I”ll do my best, that’s all.” She said. “Just please be careful, okay? I don’t want anything to happen to you while I”m in there.” She put her arms around the queen and gave her a hug.
Xena returned the hug. “You be careful too.” She whispered into Gabrielle’s ear. “I don’t want to lose you.” She released Gabrielle and gave her a nudge towards where Patches was calmly standing, chewing a bit of plateau grass. “G’wan.”
Feeling a little better, but not much, Gabrielle went over to her pony and turned to face the slope leading down to the road. Squaring her shoulders, she started forward, holding Patches reins as the pony followed her through the thick, high grass.
Almost at once, she felt astonishingly alone. It was hard to leave the others, hard to turn her back on their little cadre of men, and Xena’s tall, watching form.
It would have been unbearable, she thought, if she hadn’t had Patches with her. Though he couldn’t speak, his warm, furry presence gave her a measure of comfort, and she fell back to walk alongside him, her arm laying over his neck as they emerged into the dim light of the setting moon, the sky in the east beginning to pale with the coming dawn.
Ahead of her, she could see the ribbon of the road, and even at this early hour there were dark figures moving on it, horses with men on their backs thick with the distinctive outline of weapons. Soon, she’d intersect the path, and then…
You’re the only one who can do this. Gabrielle let the queen’s words echo in her mind, caught between being flattered that there was this something she alone could do and shame at her wanting to run away and not do it.
Scary. She took a deep breath and settled her thoughts, thinking about what she would say to the soldiers when she met up with them. Would they question her? Xena had said for her to say she was just a wandering shepherd, escaping from the strife in the valley, looking to make her fortune.
Would they believe it?
She straightened her sleeve, the thick, now clean linen feeling warm and good against her skin and felt a little light with out the armor she’d come to accept and gotten used to wearing. Now she just had the thick undergarment, and her leggings and boots, with a leather belt tied around her waist holding everything together.
It looked plain enough, but Gabrielle knew no daughter of shepherding family would have dressed the way she was, and no girl would have been traveling along the road towards the port city without an escort.
Would Sholeh’s men know that, though? After all, they were lead by a woman, weren’t they?’
Gabrielle led Patches down a tricky, rock littered slope. “Careful, boy.” She murmured, sliding sideways and sending a scattering of rock chips down through the grass.
After a quarter candlemark, she’d reached level ground, and now the road itself was hidden from her, the grass waist high and tickling her arms as they pushed their way through it. She unlooped her waterskin from it’s ring on the pony’s back and took a drink from it, pausing when she caught Xena’s scent on the leather.
That soothed her, strangely. She put the skin back on it’s ring and shook her body out, loosening her muscles as she walked, wishing she’d brought her stick along with her. She’d gotten used to using it to feel her way along, and she was a little surprised at how much she missed it already.
Abruptly, they reached the road, one moment walking through the thick grass, the next piercing the wall of foliage and stepping into an open space, with the packed, dirt path down the center of it. Gabrielle paused and turned to look behind her, seeing the patch of scrub she’d left her friends in far up the slope and very remote.
No sign of Xena.
“I thought she said she’d be right behind me, Patches.” Gabrielle sighed. “Oh well.” SHe turned and led the pony to the road, then stopped again just before it and scrambled onto his back. Her thighs settled into place, and she felt better for it, as Patches ambled onto the port road and they started towards the city.
It was only a half candlemark before she spotted mounted figures coming towards them, lit by the growing dawn and recognizable by their profile as soldiers. She could see the cone shaped helmets, and as they closed in on her, the curved swords and her throat went a little dry
Closer, and she could see the soldiers were looking at her. She cleared her throat and tried to compose herself to appear as inoffensive and harmless as she could, patting her pony on the neck and talking to him with forced casualness.
“You there.” The larger of the two men came right at her, while the second fell back and drew his horse sideways, to block the road. “Stop.”
Gabrielle’s heart was thumping hard in her chest, but she complied, gently tugging Patches to a halt. “Hello.” She greeted the man. “Is there something wrong?”
He was tall, and had a bearded face, reminding her a little of the blacksmith in her former home that now seemed an entire lifetime away. “Where did you come from?”
Stay with the truth, Xena had told her. “Potadeia.” Gabrielle answered promptly.
Gabrielle looked behind her. “In one of the valleys, back there.” She indicated the mountain range behind them.
The man studied her. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“The city there.” She pointed behind him. “I’m a storyteller. I figure maybe there’s some inns there that could use one.”
“You think so, huh?”
Gabrielle shrugged, lifting both her hands. “Well, there’s not much left where I came from so I figured it was worth a try.”
The man circled her, moving his horse around Patches. It made her neck hair prickle, and she was suddenly reminded of that morning in Xena’s chambers, when she’d first met the queen and had been judged.
She refused to look behind her, watching the other soldier instead. She kept her hands resting on her saddlehorn and tried to relax, her ears cocked to listen to the pocking of the horses hooves as the man paused.
“Okay. Keep going.” The man said. “You’re harmless, anyhow.” He added. “C’mon, Gerard. S’get to the army.. Messages waiting.”
The man in front of her pulled his mount out of the way and clucked at it, moving past her heading in the other direction, without a second glance in her direction.
Gabrielle let out the breath she’d been holding. “Okay. Bye!” She lifted her hand and waved, as she nudged Patches forward, glad enough to leave the grumpy soldiers behind her.
Well. First hurdle down. She was glad and at the same time sorry to see the sun coming up and bathing the road in pink light, as she could now see lines of soldiers heading in her general direction, a stretch of gauntlets she had to pass.
At least, she reasoned, she’d have her story down pat before she reached the city gates.
If she reached them.
Xena was pretty well convinced she was going insane. Surely, that had to be the reason she was standing where she was, hugging a tree, locking her arms around it’s trunk to prevent the rest of her from running full speed down the road after that slight, dissappearing figure.
It was insane. It was totally out of control and it was taking almost all the energy she had just to stay still, much less intelligently plan an invasion.
“Yes?” The queen didn’t dare turn her head to look at the solider behind her.
“Are you all right?”
“I”m great.” Xena pressed her cheek against the bark. “I”m just stretching my arms out. Problem with that?”
“Uh. No, ma’am.”
Xena squeezed one eye open and peeked past the tree, relieved to see Gabrielle ambling along on her scruffy runt pony, with no immediately dangerous idiots with weapons near her. “Okay.” She gingerly released the tree and stepped back. “Let’s move out.”
“I thought we were going to wait for dark?” The soldier seemed confused. “Won’t they see us, there’s no cover there.”
“Changed my mind.” Xena fluffed her cloak out, then she started tucking the folds of it around her. “Hope you boys enjoy a good crawl.” She’d really never intended them to stay behind, after all, this was Gabrielle she was sending into the maw of the enemy.
Her brain had told her it was a good idea. It made sense, and she’d always known how to use all her resources effectively.
Pity all that didn’t make it easier for her not to scream out loud. “Let’s go.” She flicked her hair loose from her collar and started along the forest line, staying just inside the trees. Unfortunately they curved away from the road towards the seawall, and as she moved along, she kept one eye on the retreating figure getting further and further from her.
It was making her teeth itch.
Xena sighed, and cursed at herself for the nth time. She swept her gaze over the plateau, and tried to focus on her plan instead.
The high grass at least would give them some cover, and as they reached the end of the forest, she eased out into it, the tops of the stalks just reaching her waist. A quick look to her right showed no travelers on the road, and she took the chance of remaining upright for the moment.
Their small force started out across the long, sloping plain that bordered the road on both sides, ending at the sturdy walls of the port city. As she settled into a quiet, rhythmic stride, trying not to crane her neck to watch Gabrielle, she was glad at least that they were doing something, going on the offensive rather than just running.
Running bothered her. It wasn’t that she was embarrassed by it, or thought it was cowardly but..
Oh, who was she kidding? Xena had to chuckle wryly. Her ego was freaking out at all this hiding and skulking. “I wanna go kill something.”
“Nothing.” Xena judged her bedmate was getting a little too far away for her comfort, and decided to fix that. “Everyone get ready to hump.”
The queen shook her head and broke into a lope, hearing only her own footsteps for a long moment, then slowly the herd rumbled into motion behind her in a jangle of clinking armor and squeaking leather. With the vague though of knowing now what it was like to be chased by an ox drawn wagon, she powered on, staying as close to the clustered trees as she could.
It took a little while, but since no other soldiers had approached her, Gabrielle found herself relaxing a little bit, enough for her to stretch out her legs in her stirrups and look around at the lands she was riding through.
It was pretty, really. The long stretch of river grass was ruffling in the breeze, and it brought a smell of rich green to her nose. It was quiet, though the same breeze brought the sound of gulls to her ears, and she remembered again how close to the ocean they were though it was totally hidden behind the low cliffs.
Her fear was easing, though the city walls were still far away and there was plenty of time for her to panic again before she reached them. Until she did, though, she figured she might as well enjoy the quiet ride as much as she could and not wonder too much about where Xena was.
Or what she was up to. With a sigh, she wriggled a little in her saddle and reached for her saddlebag, fishing a bit of hastily cooked root from it and nibbling on the edge. A sound made her look up, to find a single cart moving slowly towards her, drawn by a tired looking donkey with wide, wiggling ears.
It didn’t seem very threatening, so she relaxed her hold on the reins that she’d instinctively taken, and allowed Patches to continue his ambling way down the road towards the cart. As they came closer, she could see a figure sitting on the front of the cart, hunched over, resting their elbows on their knees as they loosely held on to a set of slack guides laying along the donkey’s back.
The figure casually looked her way, and Gabrielle was mildly surprised to see it was another woman. She promptly smiled at her. “Good morning.”
With a surprised start, the woman straightened up, as they drew even with each other. “Morning.” She replied. “Headed the wrong way, aintcha?”
Gabrielle pulled Patches to a halt. She turned and looked behind her, then back at the woman. “No, I don’t think so.” She politely disagreed. “I’ve been there, it’s not much fun. Where are you going?”
The woman seemed a little amused. “I”m following the army, of course.” She sat up a little straighter, and pushed her hood back, exposing blond hair a bit more yellow and a bit longer than Gabrielle’s. ‘You won’t find much action back there.” She indicated the port city. “Stodgy lot.”
Action? It took Gabrielle a second, but she bravely surmounted her parochial beginnings and realized the woman was talking about something other than a dice game. “Ah.” She summoned up another, brief smile. “Well, I’m not really looking for action. I’m a storyteller.”
“A storyteller??” The other woman laughed out loud. “Good line.” She clucked to her donkey. “I’ll have to remember that one. Yah!”
The donkey shook his head and started forward, his worn, ill cared for harness squeaking sadly
“No, really. I am.” Gabrielle found herself speaking to a small cloud of dust raised by the wagons passing, it’s lengthened bed and empty interior making clear it’s purpose. “Good luck.” She added, shaking her head as she guided Patches past.
There hadn’t been women like that in her hometown, at least… Gabrielle nibbled on her root again. At least not those who advertised the fact. But on market days, when they’d gone to the larger villages down the valley road she’d seen women in the crowd, who wore their clothes a little too open, and rubbed up against the men a little too much.
Harlots, her mother had called them. Gabrielle gazed through Patches ears at the road, her face thoughtful. Was she so different from that now? She wasn’t for hire, of course, and it wasn’t llike she was looking for ‘action’ with anyone but Xena but still..
It was an unsettling thought. She knew Xena seemed to be working hard to try and make her a place at her side, but she’d always been told that lovemaking was for those who married, and formed a family and she wasn’t at all sure what she had with Xena really was anything like that.
Of course, now with the war, and all, it was sort of pointless for her to worry about it, yet.. Gabrielle looked down at the one piece of livery she’d kept on, the belt with it’s hawks head buckle that held her shirt around her.
Yet. Her brow creased, then she half shook her head, and looked around her again, pushing the thoughts off. What they were didn’t matter as much as how they felt, and she had really no doubt how Xena felt about her.
Did she? Certainly, she had no doubt about how she felt about Xena. But now Xena had sent her away, into this great unknown task and a little part of her was wondering just a bit if the queen was just getting tired of her and wanted a break.
It hurt to wonder about that. Gabrielle sighed. She didn’t want to, and there was nothing in Xena’s recent words or actions that made her think so, except for her sudden decision to throw Gabrielle at the port city.
Or, was that just a good plan? It certain made a little more sense then them running through the forest trying to keep from being shot by Sholeh’s creepy assassins or stumbling over more former farmboys wanting to go back home.
Patches snorted. Gabrielle reached up and scratched her ear. “Am I being silly, Patches?” She asked the pony. “Xena loves me, doesn’t she?”
The pony snorted and waggled his head, extending his nose over to the side of the road where the grass grew temptingly close.
“I think she does.” Gabrielle decided. “I know she loved Tiger. Do you think he’s really gone?”
Patches snagged a mouthful of tall grass and kept walking, chewing the grass.
Hoofbeats other than his made Gabrielle look up again, this time to see a squadron of soldiers trotting towards her in a businesslike way, taking up all the road from one side to the other. “Uh oh.” She looked to either side of the road, and saw only thick grass. “Guess we better get in there, Patches.”
She urged the pony off the road and felt the rasp of the grass against her as the soldiers closed in, their helmets turning to study her as they got closer. The two nearer to her drew their weapons and swerved towards where she and Patches were standing, brandishing their swords and letting out lusty yells.
This was not looking good. Gabrielle’s eyes widened, and as the horses thundered down on top of her, she did the only thing she could think of. “Yah!” She kicked Patches in the side with her heels and clamped her knees down tight as the pony bolted, the grass lashing them both painfully as he picked up speed.
She could smell the horses, and the leather, and the steel and her shoulder slammed hard into something before she ducked her head and they squirted through the charge as the men rushed past with yells and laughter.
But there was no time to listen, as she concentrated on staying aboard her racing pony, the wind blowing her hair straight back as she squinted into it, hoping the soldiers would just ride on past and not chase her.
She really really hoped they wouldn’t.
“Ah bu..bu.. Bu..” Xena clamped her jaw down hard on a yell of outrage, one hand clenched around a hapless stalk of river grass, the other holding her chakram all ready to decapitate. She was alone, having outdistanced her men in a mad speed crawl through the grass that had left her skin half cut to ribbons by the sharp edges and her heart pretty much flopping around in her throat. “Stupid son of a…”
The soldiers kept laughing and rode on, hardly looking back at the bolting pony putting distance between them, and unaware of the fuming woman a bodylength off the road almost close enough to grab their horses tails.
Xena half wanted to kill them anyway. Only the fact that it would blow her plan kept her from loosing her weapon as she felt her heartbeat start to slow and the tension of near battle ease from her body.
Stupid jerks. She realized the men were just playing with Gabrielle, acting out to scare the lone peasant, and they’d been young themselves to boot. Sholeh’s regulars though, now that she knew what the rank markings meant she could tell at a glance.
That’s what had made her run. The conscripts she figured Gabrielle would have no problem with, after all, they all probably knew someone just like her back home.
Xena pondered that. Well, maybe not JUST like her. She put her weapon away and started back towards where she’d left her ragtag little force, crouching low and moving along in a crablike fasihion that was actually far more uncomfortable than it looked.
Good for the thighs, but lousy for the back. Xena could feel the strain already, and by the time she met up with her rapidly crawling companions she felt like laying down and taking a nap. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of her options so she merely changed her direction and started towards the port city again. “C’mon.”
“M.. M.. Xena.” One of the men panted. “Is the little one all right?”
“Yeah, she’s fine.” The queen replied shortly, motioning Jens forward. “Speed that runt was going, she’s gonna be at the gates in a candlemark.”
“Aye.” Her captain agreed. “Won’t be able to catch her. Not now.” He said. “Specially not like we’re moving.”
“Right.” Xena stopped and turned, and the men hastily hauled up not to crash into her. “Let’s make for the forest. We’ll take the edge there, and run for it.” She decided, getting up and cautiously lifting her head over the edge of the grass.
There were a few lone figures on the road, but they were moving steadily, and her sharp eyes detected no motion towards her as she stood to her full height. “Move it.” She turned and led the way back towards the tree line, it’s far off darkness offering safety, but no view of the road.
Well, not like she could see anything anyway. The queen glumly admitted, glad at least to be upright. She forged ahead, impatiently shoving the grass aside, daring anything to pop up in her way.
“Wh.. Wh..whoa!” Gabrielle finally got herself upright in the saddle, and pulled back on the reins, feeling Patches buck a little under her as the pony slowed down. “Easy! Easy Patches!”
Her throat hurt, and she had dust in her eyes, making her blink furiously as she finally got her mount to stop. She turned and looked behind her, but the road was empty as far as she could see, and she stuck her tongue out and panted as she waited for her heart to stop racing.
Patches pulled at his reins and walked over to the side of the road, nibbling on the river grass, oblivious to his rider’s distress.
“Boy.” Gabrielle wiped her brow with a shaking hand. “That was sure scary.” She looked around, feeling very much alone there on the road. ‘I guess Xena’s really gone, huh?” She said. “For sure she’d have gone after those guys, wouldn’t she?”
Of course, Patches didn’t answer. With a heavy heart, Gabrielle gathered herself up and nudged the pony to keep going down the road. They moved at a slow walk for a few minutes, then she decided she was over being out in the open waiting for things to happen to her, and wondering what the city was going to bring. “Heck with it, let’s go.”
She pressed her knees against the shaggy sides and held on as Patches pace increased, until they were at a rolling canter, the breeze fresh against them. Gabrielle fixed her eyes on the walls now looming on the horizon, getting over her fear, and starting to view the closed gates with something of a sense of adventure.
Why not? It wasn’t like she could do anything else anyway. If she went the other way, for sure Sholeh would catch her, and she had a feeling the Persian didn’t much care for the likes of a smart mouthed peasant.
So if Xena wanted to send her on an adventure alone, well, then she’d make the most of it. She straightened her back, and tried to imagine herself the wandering storyteller Xena had made her out to be, out to make her fortune in the wild unknown ahead of her.
As the road began to slant down towards the city, she spotted a wagon train moving towards her. It looked like supplies, and she wondered if it was for Sholeh’s army. There were mounted guards with it, and the wagons were being pulled by big draft horses.
They didn’t take up the whole road, she noticed, keeping to one side, and their progress looked orderly and reasonablly sedate. The lead guard, though, lifted his hand as she approached and rode a little in the center, not quite blocking her way.
But not quite not. Gabrielle again slowed her mount down, but this time, she felt more sure in her story. “Hello.” She greeted the man, managing a friendly smile to go with it.
The man lowered his hand. “Greetings.” He responded courteously. “Have you come from the pass?’
Dicey question. “From around there, yes.” Gabrielle temporized. “It’s kind of a scramble right now.” She explained, giving a little shrug of her shoulders as she watched the man’s face closely.
“The fight’s still on then?” The man seemed surprised. “The army hasn’t moved through? We had orders to start after them this morning.”
Gabrielle thought fast. “Well, I don’t know much about that.” She admitted. “But I passed a lot of soldiers on this side of the mountain, if that’s any help to you.”
The guard turned to his companion, who had ridden up. “Strange, Ellis. We thought they’d be through and rolling through t’old bitches front door b’now.
“Aye.” The man agreed. “Better get moving if they’re to make the schedule. Maybe that’ rag tag lot gave em a heartburn after all.”
“Doubt that, from all I hear.” The first guard said. “Well, any way, a good day to you, girl. Headed for the city? Can’t blame you. Nothing going to be left the way you came from.”
Gabrielle felt a chill go down her back. “What do you mean?” She paused, when the man cocked his head at her, in some suspicion. “I mean.. My family’s back there.” She added. “Back in the valley.”
The man relaxed. “Well, lass, hope you weren’t too fond of em.” He said. “Army’s gonna sweep through, take everything, and everyone they can. Men for the troops, women.. “ He chuckled. “Hope you hadn’t a sister, eh?”
“Stocks for food. This army’s on the move, will be, up the river and taking no prisoners.” The man said, briskly. “So were I you, young lass, I’d get me back behind them walls, and get yourself a place, eh? Find some old woman needs a pair of hands, fore you end up in the service of the service, if you catch me.”
Gabrielle suddenly remembered the rape in the barracks, the fellow slave she’d seen misused so cruelly she’d never truly recovered from it. “I catch you.” SHe answered, faintly. “Yeah, that’s a really good idea.”
She thought of all the men in the army, dispersed at Xena’s orders, who she knew in her heart were probably still on the other side of that pass waiting for their queen.
She thought of all those poor villagers, already in a sense raped by Bregos and his men, sitting targets for Sholeh to use.
She understood, finally, the look in Xena’s eyes when she’d come back from Sholeh’s tent.
“Go on with you then.” The man said, in a surprisingly kind voice. “Got a little one looks like you back home myself.” He pulled his horses head around, and motioned with his fist for the wagons to roll forward. “No one said stop, so on we go. Maybe we can chivvy em.”
Gabrielle waited for them to pass, then she started on again, her guts churning with a myriad of emotions and just as many doubts as the big gates started stretching up over her head, and the sound of the city came to her.
Bustling and busy, and utterly alien.
“Boy.” SHe finally muttered, as Patches cocked an ear back towards her. “I sure hope Xena knows what she’s doing.”
The pony snorted.
“Yeah, thanks. Glad you’re so confident.”
Continued in Part 18