Queen of Hearts
The ground dipped significantly before the gates of the port city, and Gabrielle found herself leaning back a little in Patches saddle as they made their way down the last bit of the road towards the half open gates.
One side of the portal was barred tight. The other side was propped open, giving just enough space for a wagon to pass yet not enough room for people to make too much trouble.
That seemed smart to Gabrielle. She recognized the idea, because in Xena’s stronghold, the big gates were never wide open. There was a smaller door to one side, but you had to approach it single file, and there were soldiers inside watching you the whole time.
Xena had told her it was the easiest way to make sure no one got any cute ideas about launching an attack disgused as a party of merchants, and besides, it kept the cold winds from blowing across the inner courtyard most of the time.
So Gabrielle obligingly slowed down as she reached the entrance finaly, getting in line behind a few men riding on horses, and a covered wagon being drawn by two cows. She licked her lips, finding her mouth a little dry and took the opportunity to get a sip of water from her waterskin while she waited.
Sholeh’s soldiers were everywhere. They were perched on the walls, and visible through the open gate, and she wondered just before she got to the front of the line if Sholeh had maybe sent word here to the city to be on the lookout for them.
“What d’you want, girl.” The guard asked her, making the point moot. “Hurry up, got people behind you.”
Gabrielle found she had no time even really to be nervous. She guided Patches up to the guard, and gave him her best attempt at an innocent grin. “Hello.”
The man merely raised his eyebrow, and she figured maybe the innocent wasn’t as good as it used to be. “I’m uh… “ She was aware suddenly of all the eyes on her and it almost made her stutter. “I was just..um.. Looking for a place to tell some stories.”
The guard studied her, and she thought maybe her many times rehearsed explanation wasn’t nearly as good as Xena seemed to think it would be. After all, did people really just walk up to city gates and say they were going inside to tell people stories?
What if he thought she was lying?
“Stories?” The man sounded doubtful. “What kind of stories? You ain’t old enough to have no good stories, girl.”
“Oh, well, you’d be surprised.” Gabrielle assured him. “I’ve traveled a little. I”m not as young as I look.” She added. “And.. And… I’ve been collecting stories, you know? From people I meet.”
A hoarse yell made the guard turn to look inside the gates and Gabrielle craned her neck to see what was going on. Inside there was a press of people, and a little above them a platform with a man atop it, lashed to an upright and in the middle of a beating.
As she watched, he was struck, and fine spray of blood caught the sunlight, sparkling in vivid brilliance before the man slumped forward, and let out a gutteral groan.
The soldiers around her laughed, and the guard turned back around to face her. “Idjuts. Too long living soft out here, tell you that.” He walked to the edge of his guard platform and leaned on it, studying Gabrielle closely. “Storyteller. Eh?”
Gabrielle slowly turned her head from the scene and tipped it up to look at him.
“Got stories like that, girl?”
Recent memories flashed before her eyes. “Well.” She managed a wry half smile.”Mine are more about pigs that get loose and dump the milkmaid in the mud.. You know?”
“G’wan.” The guard said, with a shrug, waving her past with the flat of his sword. “G’luck to ya. Remember the gate closes at dark, if you’re wanting out.”
Now what did he mean by that? “Thank you.” Gabrielle responded meekly, urging Patches past the threatening figure. “Have a great day.” She eased past the open gate, past the soldiers standing idly by, who looked her up and down as she passed. “Hello.”
One of them smirked. “WHere ya goin, sweet thing?”
Far away from you. Gabrielle steered Patches down a side walkway, clearing out of the way of the line of people coming in behind her and then she turned around and surveyed the open space inside the gates, where the platform was.
They had untied the man being beaten and tossed him to one side, and another man was being led in to take his place. He was wearing clothing like most of the merchants did in Xena’s realm, and he glared at the soldiers holding him with visible defiance.
The man seemed vaguely familiar, and Gabrielle wondered if she hadn’t seen him in the stronghold, maybe over the winter.
Two men, in the garb of craftsmen, eased out of the side alley and stood near the wall not far from her, watching the scene unfold on the platform, their faces carefully expressionless. Gabrielle watched them from the corner of her eye for a moment, then she casually backed Patches up until she was more or less even with the men. “Excuse me.” She lowered her voice, but it got their attention.
The older of the two, a man in a leather apron with thick, calloused hands and watchful eyes studied her a moment, then he eased upright and sauntered over to her, letting his hand rest on Patches shoulder. “Just come, did you?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle murmured. “I don’t understand, what’s that man done?” She asked, as the merchant on the platform was fastened to the pole. “He doesn’t look like a soldier.”
The man stroked Patches shoulder. “What’s it to you, girl?” He asked. “Don’t mix in this business if you know what’s good for ya.”
Gabrielle hesitated, then she glanced quickly at the man, before she looked back at the platform. “I don’t want to mix in it.” She said. “I was just wondering what he did.” She went on. “So I don’t do it and get into the same mess.”
“Don’t be such a bastard, Balos.” The aproned man’s companion came up on the other side of Patches, as a small crowd gathered in front of them, to watch the beating. “He wanted payment, is all. For his goods.’
“He’s being beaten for that?”
Balos turned his head and carefully spat on the ground. “Why pay for what them can take?” He asked, with a faint snort.
‘Because if all you do is take, there’s nothing left the second time.” Gabrielle said, echoing Xena’s teaching automatically. “It’s stupid.”
A small silence lengthened, and Gabrielle turned to look at the older man, finding him looking back at her with a watchful expression. “But then again.. I”m just a kid from the sticks. What do I know?” Her lips quirked a little bit. “Anyway, could you tell me where the inn is? “
“Which one?” The younger man half turned his body, so he was facing Gabrielle. ‘There’s more than a handful, girl, but most are filled to the brim wtih the likes of them. You want their company?”
A loud cracking sound made them all turn and look. The merchant’s arm was hanging at an odd, awkward angle, horribly mishaped, and his body was rigid with agony, but his jaw was clamped so tightly the muscles nearly deformed his face and a thin thread of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth in his efforts not to cry out.
Stupidly courageous, Xena would have called it. “No.” Gabrielle said, softly. “I don’t want to mix with them, that’s for sure. I’m just looking for a place to stay, tell a few stories, maybe make a dinar. That’s it.”
“You’re in the wrong place then.” Balos pushed away from the pony and strode off, shaking his head in disgust.
Gabrielle watched him go, then she turned to look at his younger companion. “Am I?”
“Maybe.” The man said. “’What’s your name, storyteller?”
Could she trust this man? Gabrielle studied him. He wasn’t old, but he wasn’t really that young either, maybe the same as Xena was. He had shrewd eyes, and suddenly, he reminded her of Jellaus, Xena’s minstrel. “Gabrielle.” She told him. “What’s yours?”
“Lennat.” He answered, after a long pause. “I know where there’s an inn. Not the best, but you’ll get a decent bowl of soup of it.”
Trust him? “Lead on.” She turned Patches and followed the man as he casually walked away from the square, down the narrow street bordered on either side by two story buildings. She couldn’t really not trust him, because truthfully, she was lost here.
She’d made it inside. She’d found a contact from the city. Hopefully he would take her to someplace safe, and if so, then Xena’s plan was working out pretty good after all.
If not, well…
The city’s walls loomed up over them and she tipped her head back, seeing the guards on the top of it as they wound their way through the streets, moving away from the loudness of the square and the crowds, and away from the tall, rich buildings.
Further down, where the dwellings were single story, and made of rough construct, and the wind carried a hint of salt on it, until finally Lennat led the way through a rough stone archway covered in vines.
So low, Gabrielle had to duck her head to enter, even with Patches small stature. As she straightened up, she looked around to find a small, overgrown stone courtyard with a few, sad, wooden tables scattered around, and a single story thatched roof building ahead of her.
It looked very unkempt, and dilapidated. Gabrielle pondered if she should dismount, or turn and let Patches amble right on back out of there.
“Don’t look much.” Lennat said. “But the ale’s good.” He indicated ramshackle wooden construct just to the left. “You can leave your friend in there. Got some straw, not much. They took the goats.” He left her in the courtyard, walking up the creaking wooden steps and pushing the door open, letting it fall closed behind him.
“Well.” Gabrielle dismounted, glad enough to stretch her legs after the long day’s ride. She took hold of Patches bridle and walked him over to the shack, putting her hand out to touch a wooden spot so worn from years of pushing layers had been peeled off it’s surface.
It opened at her shove though, and she paused to look around, before she entered with Patches following her. Inside there were two wider areas, divided by a roughly nailed together pair of tree limbs, and a very worn wooden trough against the back wall.
As her new friend had said, there was some straw hanging in a net, but the building was empty otherwise though her nose told her it hadn’t been so for very long. “Well, it’s not great, but it’s not a rainy forest, either, huh Patches?”
Patches made for the hanging straw and started pulling at it, chewing as she removed his tack and put it tidily in a corner. Then she took a handful of the straw and started rubbing his coat with it, removing the mud from their day’s travel.
When she finished, she picked up her saddlebags and put them over her shoulder, checking inside her pouch to make sure she had the couple of coins Xena had given her there safe before she walked out the door, and started towards the front of the inn.
I know you can do this. She could hear Xena’s voice, calm and certain. Muskrat, I’m counting on you.
Her back straightened as she walked up the steps, and she took a breath before she gently pushed the door open, allowing her eyes to adjust as she walked inside.
The door closed behind her.
Xena was really hating open space. She found that a little unusual, because in general she loved open space, and one of the things she secretly been delighted about her new rooms in the castle was the huge expanse of window that allowed her to see right down across the gardens and past the wall to the mountains beyond.
But right now, she was hating open space. It was all that was between her and the walls of the damn city, and there was absolutely no way for her to get any closer without exposing herself to the lines of patrolling guards.
No way. The grasses had been burned back, which as a tyrant she fully appreciated, and Sholeh had left a healthy size contingent to guard her new acquisition who were perched on the wall’s apex and riding in groups between the city entrance and the small creek that wound down through the field and continued on towards the sea.
That meant Xena was stuck where she was, until nightfall and she hated being stuck anywhere for any reason whatsoever.
Jens came up next to her and leaned against the rock, studying the walls pensively. “Think the little one made it inside all right?”
Like she needed to be reminded of *that*. “Hope so.” Xena leaned on her elbows. “It’s going to be a very exciting night otherwise.”
Her captain settled down in a crouch nearby, picking up a branch and stripping off a few pieces of bark. He set the branch down and started to weave the bark together, keeping the tall figure in his peripheral vision as he worked. “She’s brave.”
“She is.” Xena didn’t look around at him. “She just has no clue how brave she is yet.”
He spent a moment weaving. “Got a good heart.” He commented. “Speaking of, some of the men were talking before, as to why we saw no sign of Brendan and his lot.”
Ah. “Good question.”
“Men with us, didn’t see no sign of them, and we didn’t hear nothing in the camp.” Jens went on. “Seems strange, is all.”
Xena turned and slid down the back side of the rock she’d been leaning against, taking a seat on the ground. She extended her legs and crossed them, feeling the cool surface of the boulder against her shoulderblades. “If they weren’t talking about them.” She said, after a long pause. “They probably never made it out of the valley.”
Jens was quiet for a while. Then he sighed. “That’d be a damn shame.”
“Yeah.” The queen agreed quietly. “He had a lot of good men with him.” She looked down at her hands, feeling more than a little sad. “We lost a few good horses, too.”
“Aye.” Jen’s voice had a distinct sympathetic tone. “I know you liked the big boy.”
Xena let her head rest against the rock, the stillness around her allowing the realities of her recent past to hit home. The losses were painful, and she propped her elbows up on her knees and folded her hands in front of her face as she reviewed them.
Her realm was likely lost. Even if by some miracle she managed to turn Sholeh, she’d have to lead her off for so long, would there be anything left for her to go back to?
Would she even want to?
Her army was likely lost as well. If they’d dispersed as she’d told them, they were long gone, and scattered, living off the land or, perhaps a few, gone back to the stronghold alone. Without the army, despite her own personal martial expertise, she hadn’t a chance in hell of holding the throne.
Xena studied the scuffed and calloused skin on the edges of her thumbs, pressed together before her eyes. Neither of those two things bothered her nearly as much as the memory of Tiger’s desperate rearing, though. The poor bastard had depended on her to keep him safe, and like everything else, she’d failed at it.
Damn it she hated personal failure. She hated being wrong, and having to take it on the chin when her choices went bad on her.
Which led her to her latest choice, to send Gabrielle into the city, alone. “You’re not winning too many rolls of the dice this time, Xena.” She muttered under her breath. “Hope you didn’t screw that one up.”
Gabrielle. The queen felt a constriction in her chest. What if she had done the wrong thing? What if something happened to her? What if that kid she’d gone and fell in love with ended up gutted and tossed off the wall, all because she screwed up again?
Xena swallowed slowly, and closed her eyes.
Gabrielle looked around the inn with a look of mild surprise. Though the outside had been unkempt and deserted, the inside was clean, if roughly made, and orderly. There were tables with unhandsome benches along the walls, and in the back was a cookpit, that was well used but tidy.
It smelled of old wood and old ale, but not unpleasantly, and it reminded her suddenly of the inn back home in Potadeia, before the raiders burned it to the ground. Just a place to come, and get a bit of bread and a cup, in the winter to sit near the fireplace, and listen to the small world of the village ramble by.
In the cookpit, she spotted a big pot, with steam lifting lazily over it, and her nose caught the scent of barley and sage, and fresh baked bread; a mixture of homey familiarity that made her heart briefly ache.
Lennat entered from a door in the back, and spotted her. “Ah, there you are.”
“Here I am.” Gabrielle glanced at the two or three people inside the inn, men sitting hunched over bowls with their backs to her. She walked over to the last table near the cookpit and set her bags down, as Lennat joined her. “Is this your inn?”
“My mothers.” He perched on a corner of the table. “Hope you don’t think I tricked you into coming here just to get her a few coins.”
Gabrielle smiled, as she looked briefly around. “Well, I’ve got to give the dinars to someone. Might as well be your mother.” She said. “Besides, it’s nice.”
Lennat gave her a wry grin. “No it’s not.” He disagreed. “But it’s seedy enough to keep the Persians away, so I’ll not scoff it too much.” He looked up as an older woman in a thick leather apron entered. “Ah, mother.”
The woman paused on her way to the cookpit, regarding Lennat, then switching her atttention to Gabrielle. “That your new friend?” She asked, in a skeptical tone. “Lovely.”
Gabrielle saw the look of half embarassed chagrin cross Lennats face. She circled the table and approached the cooking area, studying the woman as she approached. She had iron gray hair that might have once been black, and pale, piercing eyes. “Hello.” She greeted her politely. “It smells great in here.”
The woman looked her up and down. “Where you from?”
“Potadeia.” Gabrielle answered. “It’s..”
“I know where it is.” The woman interrupted her rudely. “Or where it was, more like.” She leaned forward and glared at Gabrielle. “Who were your family?”
“Mother.” Lennat broke in, coming over to them. “Leave it!’
“Hush, you useless nitterling.” The woman brushed him off. “Let her answer, or take herself out of her. I’ll not have any Persian scats under my roof.” She turned back to Gabrielle and gave her a little push. “Well? Talk fast, girl.”
Gabrielle’s heartbeat picked up, as her body reacted to the unspoken threat. “My parents were Herotydus and Hecuba.” She replied quietly. “We were sheep farmers.”
It was strange, in a way, how far off the reality of her loss seemed. “Raiders came, and burned us out.”
The woman studied her for a long moment, then she grunted and jerked her head to one side. “Had two folk from here end up begging like scum in the streets here.” She allowed. “I don’t take to beggars.”
People from her hometown. She’d never even considered that some of them might have escaped. If she was honest with herself, she hadn’t even thought about any of them for a long time. Not her parents, not even Lila, save on what would have been her birthday.
It was cold, and dark, midmorning even before the sun crept unwillingly over the walls edge and let some bit of light through the clouds.
Gabrielle put her hands on the wall and looked outward, bundled in a thick coat against the chill. It was a special morning, for her at least, and she wanted to take this time out to just stand and look out over the training yard and remember.
Below her, the training pell, as she knew it was now, stood mutely in the shadows, but in her mind’s eye she could still see Lila’s body tied to it, and hear her screams, and feel the terror in her own heart as a soldier raised a crossbow casually and aimed it.
She remembered the grief, and the loss. She remembered the helpless anger, and the pain as she struggled against the men holding her to get free, and some how, some how..
But it was too late, and the man shot, and the arrow sped, and with only a shocked gasp Lila was gone.
Gabrielle bowed her head and rested it against her folded hands, as tears rolled down her face. It wasn’t often she let herself feel that emptiness, to know that certainty that she, alone, survived.
No matter her relationship with Xena, no matter her friendships in the stronghold, there was a sorrow none of that touched, not in this way.
To be alone in the world, was a hard thing.
The silence of the morning lengthened around her, as she stood lost in dark memory. Then the sun poked wanly through the clouds, and warmed her, and she let the moment pass back into the corners of the life she had now, to settle in dimness until it was time to remember again.
Gabrielle sniffled, and straightened up, wiping her eyes as she caught he sound of horses moving, and saw the grooms taking four or five young ones across to the yard. Their beauty struck her, and she smiled a little, blinking her eyes to rid her lashes of the last of her tears.
As they moved past her view, she gave the wall a pat, before she turned and went back inside the tower, entering the space she’d once known as a slave, and where she’d met Xena.
It was no longer the queen’s tower, of course. Not where she lived anyway, though her solitary, spare fighting chamber was still in regular use. On a whim, Gabrielle detoured past the stairs down to the main part of the stronghold and ducked inside the tiny, irregular chamber that had been her first home here.
Inside, just some folded clothes, and a pallet, but her eyes fastened on the surface of the latter and she walked forward, kneeling beside the bed and putting her hands on it.
Squarely in the center, neatly placed, was a single rose, creamy white petals tinged with crimson giving off a gentle, delicately spicy smell.
She reached out and touched it, lifting it and gazing at it in amazement, to find something so brilliantly alive here in this place, with winter raging in full outside. Where had it come from?
Gabrielle turned her head, and went still, as she found Xena standing in the doorway, just watching her. She looked at the flower, then at her lover, and watched as those beautiful lips smiled, one eye brow lifting in acknowledgement. “I.. Um..”
“Were thinking about your sister.” Xena said.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“It’s her birthday.” Xena held her hand out. “Don’t ask me how I know that. I know everything. I’m the queen.”
Gabrielle got up and went right past Xena’s outstretched hand, wrapping her arms around the taller woman instead, understanding that in the loneliness of the world, she had this touchstone to anchor her no matter the paradox that the hands now holding her were the ones that had taken Lila’s life.
Life was just like that sometimes.
Gabrielle started, and smiled apologetically. ‘Sorry.” She said. “I was just thinking of my family.”
The old woman’s expression softened. “Shame what happened.” She said, gruffly. “So, now what is it you’re wanting? A bed, was it?”
“She tells stories, mother.” Lennat broke in. “Sure that’s worth something, yeah?”
Gabrielle forstalled the old woman’s indignant response by holding up a coin. “No no.. I can pay. “ She said. “I’d just like some dinner, and a place to lay down.” She offered the woman the coin. “And.. I’ll tell stories for free. How’s that?”
The woman took the coin, muffling a smirk. “Well then I..” Her eyes fell on the coin and she stopped speaking, her attention slowly going from the round object to Gabrielle. Then she closed her fingers around the coin and tucked it away. “You’ll get a place, girl. Tell what tales you like, if you get coin from it, it’s yours.”
Gabrielle shifted her gaze from the woman to Lennat, who was watching her sharply, catching so much unsaid going on between them. “Great.” She answered, wondering if she’d just made a big mistake, or done something right. It was hard to tell from the reaction. “Can I put my stuff up?”
“Lennat’ll show ye.” The woman turned and went to the big pot, giving it a stir and turning her back on Gabrielle as though she didn’t exist. Lennat motioned her to follow him, and with a moment of uneasy doubt, she did, aware now that the three men in the room had turned and were watching her with a great deal of interest.
“I can’t wait to hear what stories you have to tell.” Lennat said. “I bet they’re interesting. I love a good story.”
Gabrielle followed him down a side passage, glad to be away from all the curious eyes. “Well, I haven’t been doing this very long.” She demurred. “But I’ll do my best.”
Whatever that ended up being.
The room she’d been given was very small. Gabrielle set her saddlebag down and edged around the narrow bed, finding barely enough room for even her relatively slight stature to move around in. There was a small window in the back, and she went over and opened it, relieved at the light spilling in and the fresh breeze that followed it.
The back of the inn faced a long, crooked path , and at the end of the path she could see the waterfront. That explained the salt on the air, and she was glad to simply stand there for a moment and let events catch up with her.
Just to the left, she could see the curving wall of the city and thanked the gods that somehow, she’d ended up pretty much where she needed to be in order to try and let Xena and the rest of the men in. Seeing how many people were in the streets, though, made her wonder if that was going to be as easy as the queen had made it out to be.
After a moment more of quiet, she turned and leaned against the window, surveying the inside of her little palace. The bed was a simple stuffed bit of sacking, and the only other furniture in the room was a crooked table with a basin on it. Next to the basin was a cracked edged jug, and she walked over to it and peered inside.
To her surprise, there was water already in there. She tipped the jug into the basin and filled it, then she gratefully dipped her hands into the cool liquid and splashed a good amount of it onto her face. She scrubbbed her skin, then she reached over and tugged a bit of cloth from her bag and dried herself off.
Then she sat down on the bed, and tried to figure out what to do next. She had time to wait for dinner, so she figured she could rest a while if she wanted to.
But though she was tired, she didn’t feel like sitting still, there in the tiny space, so she decided to relax for a half candlemark or so, and then go explore the city. With a grunt of satisfaction, she pulled her saddlebag over and opened it, hitching her legs up to sit with them crossed under her as she sorted through her supplies.
It had been hard to know what to bring, though the gods knew they didn’t have much with them. Gabrielle pulled out a spare shirt and let her hand rest on it, unable to repress a tiny grin knowing it was Xena’s. It was a rich blue color, and she thought maybe she’d wear it to tell her stories tonight, as sort of a good luck charm.
Setting that aside, she pulled out what little she had in the way of provisions, two somewhat crinkly apples, a pear, and a handful of nuts. Since she had dinner coming to her, she put those away for later, and took out the small sack that had her dinars in it.
Tipping it out, she spilled the coins on the bed, starting in surprise as a small bit of parchment fell out with them. “What’s that?” She picked up the parchment and unfolded it, turning it right way up as she spotted writing inside.
The letters were an odd, dark color but the strokes were firm and decisive and familiar to her eyes. She bit her lip and ducked her head a little to see better, half turning her body to the window to catch the light.
Muskrat - don’t screw this up. You’re all I have left.
Gabrielle stared at the paper, reading the words over and over and over again as a little chill ran down her back and raised goosebumps along her arms. It made her want to cry, but the relief the words brought her was a perfect counterpoint, so all she ended up doing in the end was closing her eyes with a sigh.
It was such a strange journey they were on, wasn’t it? Gabrielle folded the parchment and tucked it into her underwraps, near her heart. It prickled a little, but that was a good thing since she knew it was there, and she leaned her elbows on her knees and rested her chin in her hand as she simply sat, and thought about Xena.
Then she gathered up her coins and put them back in her pouch, before she got up off the bed and started for the door. “I won’t screw it up, Xena.” She paused, before she opened the latch. “I’ll do good. I’ll make you proud of me. I promise.”
She slipped through the door, and hesitated, then she turned to the left in stead of towards the right, where the main inn was. She spotted a door leading out and went to it, opening it and finding as she’d hoped a back way out towards that river path.
Xena was depending on her. She was darn well going to do this right.
For once, Xena was glad of the clouds that had come up and covered the sky near dusk. It made the land pitch dark and she led her troops across the empty grasslands unseen. “Keep your boots quiet.” She uttered back to the men. “Don’t walk together.”
“Aye.” Jens whispered. “Don’t make the ground shake, boys.”
“Yeah, you never know how hungry those Persians are. If they hear a herd of beef coming, they might stampede.” Xena tossed back, then she returned her attention to the flat, black plains ahead of her.
She could see. Gray shadows, of course, but the outline of the grass was clear to her eyes, as were the scattered boulders, and smaller hillocks between them and the city walls. There was a ring of light around those, though, and she realized that was going to pose a problem when they got up that far.
But that would wait for then. She was pathetically glad to be moving, the long day’s wait for night fall having worn hard on her nerves. While here little band of troops had gotten some rest, she’d spent the time stressing out over every little thing until she was so twitchy she felt like she was sitting in ants.
Not that she really knew what sitting in ants felt like, of course, though she remembered having to eat ants at one stage in her life merely to survive. Xena licked her lips, remembering that odd, acid taste all too clearly.
Grubs had been better. She’d learned to toast them, and a meal of those with some tubers had sustained her newly formed army on more than one night or two in a moon way back then. They’d lived, but she’d never gotten high marks for cooking that was for damn sure.
That was all right. She’d had other skills, and she’d picked up some who could forage, and gather, and keep the army in meals; she remembered one night coming back from a bit of fishing and rounding the bend to see an entire slope covered with her troops gathered in neat camps, with tidy cookfires going, and thinking..
This is mine.
Xena glanced behind her at her little rag taggle and had to smile, shaking her head as she once again found herself in the lead, heading towards inconceivable trouble. She listened to the rumble of thunder overhead, tugging her cloak a bit closer around her as she started to smell rain in the air.
She lengthened her strides, figuring the faster they went, the faster she could get to the walls, and see what she’d have to fact there to get inside.
Would Gabrielle be there waiting for her?
Yes. Xena told herself firmly. Gabrielle would be there. She knew her little bedmate had been upset about being tossed over the wall in her underwear, so to speak, but she was sure she understood how important it was that they get inside the city.
She was sure, wasn’t she? Xena frowned, then her attention was distracted by a flicker of shadowy motion ahead of her. She let out a low whistle and halted, hoping the men wouldn’t pile into her. Her eyes swept the area, then swept it again, looking for the movement that had caught her attention.
Behind her, the men stopped in time, and waited in silence, the newer recruits firmly held in place by Xena’s soldiers.
Far off, she could hear rain sweeping across the grass, but her ears ignored that, focusing instead on the area right around her, listening hard for sounds that weren’t rain, and weren’t wind, and then her other senses took over as her body reacted to something so fast she didnt even have time to warn the men before she found herself drawing her sword and defending herself.
They were nothing but shadows, but shadows with steel and she stopped trying to watch them and let her battle instincts take over instead. Her blade met the one sweeping towards her and she let out a wild yell, as she twisted her wrists and swept her arms downward, deflecting the attack before she kept moving around and lashed out as her back turned to her adversary with a roundhouse kick.
They never expected that, and this was no exception. She felt her boot hit flesh then she continued on around and brought her sword up in front of her, it’s surface flickering as she wove a figure eight in the air before her eyes.
Motion to her left. She swiveled and felt something hit her blade and the shadow behind that resolved in her eyesight to a tall figure with a sword in each hand, and her heartbeat picked up. She squared up her body to face him and opened her eyes up wide, sucking in all the light she could and keeping as much of him in her vision as possible as he launched an attack directly at her.
Fighting two swords was tough. She knew it, and she kept her attention on the flickering steel as she swept left, then right to counter both his strikes. “Back!” She let out a yell, hearing Jens’ whistle of acknowledgment before she took a few digging steps forward and forced him to one side.
She could hear battle all around her now. Grunts, and the rasp of steel against steel, and the thump and shuffle of boots on the grassy ground.
The smell of blood on the wind. It made her nape hairs prickle and she caught the first blade, ducking as the second slashed over her head. She released one hand off her sword and caught her adversary’s arm as it came back, turning her body square to him again and kicking him in the gut as hard as she could.
He coughed, but wrenched his arm free from her grasp and swung his pommel around, catching her on the side of the head as she moved to get her sword back up into position.
She saw stars, and for a moment her vision blurred, long enough for him to slam his crossed blades against hers and throw her backwards.
Anyone else would have fallen on their ass. Xena thanked the long nights in her training chamber as her body reacted automatically and instead of hitting the dirt she wrenched herself into a backflip that got her out of the man’s reach as she landed and then powered forward again, catching him trying to recover from her motion as she slashed her sword sideways and caught him right on the wrist.
He moved quickly, and that was all that saved his hand as the sword in it went flying off behind him. He cursed, and hesitated, and that made the hand moot as Xena set herself, and whipped her sword at neck level edge on right into his jugular.
“Now! Attack them, or be traitors!” A male voice yelled, in the darkness.
Xena whirled as she sensed mass movement around her, spotting a figure on horseback charging towards them repeating the order and pointing with his sword to her little rag tag tagalongs.
Her men were scattered among them. Easy targets, their backs exposed to the newcomers as they fought the attackers in front.
Xena held her breath, tossing her mental dice and waiting to see how they’d fall.
“Hades with ya!” One of her farmboys yelled back, with surprising bravado, and Xena felt a moment of ghoulish pleasure at having guessed right for a change once again.
“As you will!” The horseman said. “Kill them first! Advance!”
The Persians broke off from fighting with Xena’s men, and whirled to attack their ex comrades, led by the man on the horse, who charged at them with his sword raised.
Xena found herself moving, bolting through her men who were turning to react and reaching her top speed as she raced across the grass, slashing at the enemy soldiers more to get them out of her way than anything else.
She reached a hillock just as the rider came up on it, and with a little crouch, and a little laugh, she sprang off it and intercepted him just as he reached his target, her sword and his sword tangling together as she hit his body with hers and they both went flying off to the side.
His leg tangled in his stirrup and his hands hooked around her elbow and they were falling together sideways, pulling the horse up and over as the darkness blotted out even the clouds and they landed with the big animal right on top of them.
It was surprising. It hurt. Xena could feel the breath being squeezed out of her, and her legs quickly went numb as the horse struggled wildly. She wrenched her arm free and smashed her elbow back into the soldier’s face, but as she felt the impact, and the reaction, she knew it was pointless and he was no longer a threat.
The horse on the other hand, was suffocating her. Xena shoved at whatever she could get her hands on and felt a sudden increase in the pressure as the animal rolled, flattening her for a long, searing, excruciatingly painful moment before his weight came off her and she felt rain instead.
Screaming. The smell of blood. Fighting all around her. The queen tried to catch her breath as she flexed her body with a touch of fear, hoping she hadn’t broken anything critical.
Like her back, for instance. But aside from racking pain, her limbs moved when she told them to and she rolled into a ball then onto her knees, grabbing for her sword as she looked for the next attack.
Backs faced her, and she quickly swiveled, to find a tight ring of men surrounding her battling ferociously with the enemy, as fitful bursts of lightning flickered over head.
Her men. The newcomers. Impossible to tell the difference as they stood shoulder to shoulder against the Persians.
But she could hear horses coming, and knew they couldn’t stand for long. With an unsteady exhale, she got to her feet and limped towards the line of men, sorting through her few options as she went to take a stand with them.
Gabrielle found her way down to the waterside, drawn by the salt smell and the sound of gulls overhead. It wasn’t a far walk from the inn, and the streets at this end of town seemed to be very quiet. She turned the last corner and found herself near the docks, her eyes widening a little as she saw the big ships tied in place there.
Warships? Gabrielle peered at the men standing guard around them, and the exotic sigils on the mostly furled sails, and figured they were Sholeh’s. At the very end of the dock, one other ship was tied and this one had a lot of activity around it, wagons and men moving to and fro as they took things off the deck.
That ship seemed to be more ordinary, at least to her eyes. The sails were a different shape, and the outside looked very beaten up. There were also no soldiers guarding it, though the men taking away things were in Sholeh’s livery.
On her side of the docks, she spotted a little set of stalls, and she strolled towards them, as some of the soliders seemed to be watching her. Behind the stalls were a few glum looking merchants, and a very sparse collection of sad looking wares.
Gabrielle went to the first of them, apparently a baker. “Hello.”
The man behind the counter peered at her. “Hello, girl. What’s your pleasure? I’m sure we ain’t got it here. “ He indicated his tray, which had a couple of dark, hard rolls on it. “Only thing here is what ain’t what’s wanted.”
The dark bread brought back an unexpected memory, and Gabrielle picked one up and sniffed it. “Oh, that’s good enough.” She smiled at the man. “I’ll take one. They’re like the ones my gram used to make. She fished a small coin from her pouch and handed it over.
The man glanced at it, then at her, one eyebrow raising. “Not from these parts eh?”
“I’m from the other side of the pass.. In the valley.” Gabrielle replied, seeing the baker’s stall mate cocking his head to listen. ‘Not that far away.”
“Little further than that, I’m thinking.”
A prickle went up Gabrielle’s spine. “What do you mean?” She asked. “I know where I’m from.”
The man reached out and passed the coin over to his neighbor. “Well girl.” He lowered his voice. “If’n I were you, I wouldn’t be flashing around pieces anyone knows were struck on Xena’s hearth, eh?” He looked around carefully.
Xena’s hearth? Gabrielle pulled a coin out and looked at it. It seemed pretty ordinary to her, one side stamped with a leaf, the other a circle. “How do you know where this came from?” She asked, curiously.
The man reached over and ran his finger over the edge of the coin, which was slightly raised, and bore tiny ridges. “That marks it.” He said. “Some kind of press, yeah? She made it up.” He handed her another coin. “See here? This’uns local.”
Gabrielle took the coin and examined it. The edges were smooth and tapered, and very irregular. “Wow.” She murmured. “Look at that.” She handed the coin back to him. “Well, sorry about that.. It’s all I have.” She handed him back the roll. “If it’s a problem, I guess..”
“No, no lass.” The man pushed the roll back towards her. “Her mark’s good here.” He kept his voice low. “Better than most, understand?”
Gabrielle glanced behind them, where Sholeh’s men were carting away all the supplies. From this disntance, she could see the anger and frustration on the sailor’s faces, as they turned over the boxes, one of the soldiers standing casually on the deck, with his crossbow cocked.
They were taking everything. Would Xena have done that too? “I see.” She turned around and found the man’s stall neighbor approaching, with a small wooden tray in his hands. “Oh, thanks.” She took a piece of the cheese he was offering, her nose twitching as she caught the distinctive smell of sheep’s milk coming from it’s moist surface.
“Not to their liking.” The man explained with a rakish grin. “So’s at least we have a little to sell.”
Gabrielle ripped her roll in half and added the cheese to it, nibbling this unexpected taste of her original home with something of a melancholy pleasure.
“You came through the pass then?” The cheesemerchant asked, casually.
Gabrielle nodded. “Before the army got there.” She thought fast. “I was coming here.. Ah.. Wanted to see if I could make a few dinars. Not much chance of that back on the farm.”
A pair of soldiers strolled by, and the two merchants stiffened, falling silent. Gabrielle half turned and leaned her shoulder against the stand’s support, chewing her snack. She met the soldiers gaze with as much composure as she could, keeping her expression what she hoped was politely interested.
The men studied her, slowing down as the passed the meagre little market. Then they stopped, and one man headed her way.
Oh boy. Gabrielle realized she had about a heartbeat to decide what to do, and in that heartbeat she realized there wasn’t anything she could do that wouldn’t result in her being chased down, or hurt. So she stayed where she was and tried hard not to panic.
After all, what would Xena do?
Xena would just kill them. Not very helpful. “Yes?” Gabrielle responded.
“Why are you dressed like a boy?” The man demanded. “Do you seek to mock us?”
It was the very very last thing Gabrielle thought was going to be thrown her way. She glanced down at herself in pure reflex, at the leggings covering her limbs to where the sturdy, well made leather boots started. “Uh..”
“We should cut them off you.” The man drew a dagger. He was big, and had a full beard. His armor was stamped with Sholeh’s mark and he bore the curved sword of her personal troops. ‘Insolence.”
“Wh.. Wait.” Gabrielle held both hands up and took a step backwards. “I wasn’t trying to insult anyone.. I just.. “ She took another step back as the man reached for her. “I just rode here on a horse! I had to wear them!”
“LIar.” The man lunged for her, but just as he did, a horn blew from down the docks, and he halted in mid-motion, his body jerking back as he turned his head towards the sound.
“Come.” His companion motioned to him, with an odd, crablike signal of his hand. “Another time.” He started off, and the man accosting Gabrielle followed him, pausing only to give her a dirty look before he jogged after his friend and they headed down the docks.
“Gods.” Gabrielle muttered.
“Girl, you got very lucky there.” The baker said, seriously. “Very lucky.”
Several other of the merchants gathered around, now that the sun was setting, and they had packed up their few wares. They were all more or less the same type, selling to the workers of the city, the poorer men and women who lived down near the docks and provided the labor for it.
“I sure was.” Gabrielle agreed. “I don’t get it. Why would wearing these insult them” She looked down again in puzzlement at herself. “What’s the big deal?”
“Did you really come in on horseback?” The cheesemaker asked, before the baker could answer. “Or were you lying to him as he said?”
“Why would I lie?” Gabrielle shrugged, aware of the circle of people closing around her. “I did ride here… but what difference does it make? Why does that bother them?”
A big, heavyset man with a thick beard eased through the others and settled in front of her. “Before we tell you anything.” He said, in a voice with firm authority in it. “Tell me this.” He held up the coin. “Where did you get it?”
Gabrielle could now sense danger around her, and she wondered of the soldiers would have been a safer route for her to take. “Why are you asking?” She countered, putting the stall support at her back.
“Because this comes from inside Xena the Merciless’s stronghold, that’s why.” He answered straightforwardly. “We just don’t see this here unless the person giving it has been there, and with things as they are, that’s a doubtful thing.”
Gabrielle could hear her heart pounding, but she summoned up what courage she could, and straightened up. “I”ve been there.” She added a half shrug. “I told some stories, I got some coin. Now, can I ask what the Hades is wrong with you people?”
“Stories?” The man asked. “You’re a storyteller?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle sensed the shadows growing deeper. “That’s what I’m here for.. Just trying to make a dinar, that’s all.” She started to edge away. “Matter of fact, I”m due at the inn, so excuse me.”
The big man looked at her, then slowly he backed away, and stuck his hands in the pockets of his apron. “Good luck to you, then, storyteller.”
Gabrielle slipped past him, and gave them all a little wave of her hand, as she ducked back into the narrow street that would take her back to the inn. “Bye.” She turned the corner as fast as she could, and looked around, the sun almost gone and the shadows deepening.
A man was coming towards her, a dog at his heels. He watched her as she approached, and she sped up and more more energy in her strides when she thought he was going to stop her. After what she’d just gone through, another interaction didn’t seem like a good idea.
But the man just walked by her, and the dog did too, and Gabrielle broke into a jog, a sense of relief splashing over her. As if in counterpoint, she heard thunder over head, and she tipped her head back to find clouds rolling in, covering what was left of the sunset with a dim, gray blanket.
She thought, suddenly, of Xena out there in the rain. Would the storm keep her from getting to the gates? Or would it help cover her? Would it let Gabrielle have an easier time getting the door open? Did she even know where the door was?
The door to the inn loomed ahead of her, and she got to it an ducked inside just as the rain started falling. She quickly made her way to her little space, and closed herself inside, hurrying over to the window o shut it as the weather blew in.
Then she went to the bed and sat down, her entire body shivering. ‘Xena, I don’t know if I can do this.” She muttered. “I think I’m just going to get us both in trouble.”
She sat quietly for a few minutes, listening to the rain as it got darker and darker inside the room. Then, with a sigh, she leaned forward and sorted through her bag that she’d left on the bed, taking out her flint and striker and the stub of a candle.
The tools felt a little strange in her hands, and she realized it had been a long time since she’d had to use them. In the stronghold, there were candles certainly but she usually lit them from the fire in the fireplace or one of the torches kept burning by the servants.
After a few awkward strikes, though, she got sparks enough to light the candle, and it lit the inside of the room with a gentle, warm glow. She set the candle down on the small table, then she spotted a larger taper already in a holder there.
Gratefully, she lit the new candle from her stub, and was rewarded with a brighter light as she blew out her candle and set it aside. There was a little, cracked mirror on the table and she set the candle by it and stood up, pulling her spare shirt over and unbuckling her belt to remove the one she had on.
After a brief glance at her reflection, she pulled a bit of cloth from her bag and dipped it in the water left I the basin, rubbing the damp rag over her skin and removing the signs of travel from it. She splashed some water on her face, and raked her wet hands through her hair to order it, then she pulled on the blue shirt and let it’s folds settle over her.
For a moment, she went very still as the shirt gave up Xena’s scent, and it surrounded her with a sweet pungency that made her heart clench. She touched the fabric, then she ducked her head to one side and breathed the scent in deeply, wrapping her arms around herself as if she could hug her lover’s essence to her.
Then she sighed, and looked in the mirror, making a face at the draping of the fabric. It was a mid sleeve shirt for Xena, so it went to her wrists, but the body far too big for her, and the length nearly went to her knees.
She picked up her belt and buckled it around her waist, gathering the fabric and making the fit a bit more reasonable and pulling her comb from her bag to sort through her pale hair so she didn’t look quite so much like a wild creature.
Still, looking at her own reflection in that dim candlelight, she found it hard to relate the figure looking back at her with the one she remembered from her tiny room at home. Her face had lengthened and acquired a slimmer profile but the biggest change she could see was in the eyes looking back at her.
No longer a child’s eyes.
After a moment, she took out the bit of parchment tucked against her heart and read the words there a few times before she put the scrap away, and gave herself one last took. “Okay, Gabrielle. You’ve told everyone here you’re a storyteller. So get your butt out there, and tell some damn stories.”
She blew the candle out, and walked to the door, opening it and slipping out into the hallway, already hearing the clatter of plates and the sound of voices as she headed towards the hall.
Xena leaped off the rock and grabbed the rider around the shoulders, the dagger in her right hand plunging into his throat as she yanked her arm across the front of his neck. She clamped her knees around the horse’s flanks as it bucked in alarm, while she shoved the man she’d just killed out of his saddle.
A hop, and she had taken his place, grabbing for the reins as she brought the horse under control and drove the animal towards it’s former comrades, sheathing her dagger and drawing her sword as she relentlessly went on the attack, hacking and slashing her way through the fighting soldiers surrounding her men.
The rain was making the ground a slippery marl and her horse slid a little, but the motion was to her advantage as she lunged past another horseman and back swung at him, her sword catching him by surprise as it cut deeply into his shoulder.
She jerked her blade out of the bone and twirled it in her hand in time to meet the attack of a foot man, which she slammed to one side, then took advantage of her being on horseback by removing her boot from it’s stirrup and kicking him in the face.
It felt like the fight had been going on forever. Every inch of her throbbed and she was having to shove aside the pain shooting daggers through her body but there was enough anger, and enough frustration in her to drive her on into the battle.
She hooked another man’s arm with a mace in it with her foot and yanked it back just as it was about to descend on one of her men. The soldier gutted the mace wielder, and she grabbed the weapon before it dropped and transferred it to her left hand while she continued to fight off another horseman with the sword in her right.
Xena smashed the mace down on the head of a man trying to cut her leg off, and deflected the sword of her mounted adversary, bumping shoulders with the man as his horse plunged past and ducking as he tried to grab hold of her.
“Demon!” The man hissed, hauling his horse’s head around, only to find Xena whirling her own mount in it’s place and slamming it’s neck against his animals as she drove her sword in a powerful overhand motion into his leg. “Augh!”
“Bet your ass, loser!” Xena jerked her blade back then socked him in the face with it’s pommel as their horses stumbled against each other and brought them shoulder again. He fell backwards out of his saddle and tumbled to the ground, where one of Xena’s men promptly pounced on him and drove a dagger into his heart. “Kill em all!”
Next. Xena turned her mount, the third she’d taken so far, and paused, when she found no other attackers coming after her.
Lightning struck and lit the sky, and she looked around again, seeing figures heading outward, away from the battle and many still forms lying in the shortened grass.
Was it over? Xena heard a low horn sound, then sound again, and when she turned in her saddle, the only living people around her were hers.
A dark figure limped over to her horse and laid a hand on it’s shoulder, looking up at her. She peered at the blood covered figure, and realized it was Jens. “Glad you made it.”
“As am I, my liege.” Jens rasped. “Think they realized the longer they stayed, the more you’d kill of em.”
Xena let her sword rest against her thigh, dropping the mace on the ground behind her. In the rain lashed shadows, figures started moving towards her, and she forced herself to focus as the battle rage all too slowly drained out of her body.
Men closed in around her, more than she’d dared hope would survive the fight and she waited for them to press close, picking out their faces in the shadows. Some were farmboys, some were her men but they all had that same look of passion and she drank that up like sweet wine. “Good job.” She said, after a quiet pause. “They sent the best they had after us.”
“Lots of em.” Jens agreed, giving his queen a rakish grin.
Xena nodded. “Lots of em.” SHe repeated. “They ended up running from us.”
Us. She could see backs straightening and she allowed herself a moment of pride, for them, and for herself. “All right. Take a break, then we’ve got a date with a door.” She picked up a fold of the horses saddle blanket and wiped her sword off carefully. “Take what swag off em you like.”
The men nodded, and moved off a little, some sitting down on the ground, a few hunting among the bodies on the battle field. Xena watched them, then she looked down at Jens, who was still standing at her horses shoulder. “Hope we don’t have to do that again.”
Jens leaned against the horse. “Aye.” He agreed wearily. “You keeping this one?” He indicated the horse with a jerk of his head.
“No.” Xena leaned on the saddlehorn. “I”m just too beat up and exhausted to climb off it and I”m afraid I’ll fall down if I do.” She managed a wry grin. “That’s the other reason I hope we don’t have to do that again.”
“Want a waterskin?”
Xena eased upright. “If you’ve got one handy, yeah.” She sheathed her sword, then unlatched the pouch at her belt and removed her carefully folded packets of herbs and the small, collapsable, wooden cup she kept next to them.
She had a couple of choices, and after a long moment’s mental wrestling, she chose the least dangerous of them, mixing two of the herbs together in the cup before she uncapped the skin Jens handed up to her and poured water over them. “Thanks.”
Jens took the skin back, and drank from it.
Xena swirled the cup a few times, then she drank it in a single fast gulp, making a face as the herbs clung to the back of her tongue. She got them down though, and then she spent a few minutes cautiously stretching her body out, trying to determine how much damage she’d taken.
Only the fact that the voice was at her knee, and she was the only non male in the vicinity made Xena look down at the hail. “What’d you call me?”
The farmboy turned soldier reddened, visible even in the shadows. “Begging your pardon.”
Xena recognized the soldier who’d defied the Persians first. He was a man of medium height, and medium build, with straight hair and an honest face. “Yeah?” She hoped the herbs would kick in fast, as now that the fight was over the pain was beginning to be a bit overwhelming. “Glad you made that choice?”
The soldier looked up at her, rain hitting his face unheeded. “You… “ He cleared his throat. “You put your life up for ours, there.”
The queen sighed. “Yeah, I do stupid things sometimes.” She agreed. “I try not to make a habit of it.”
“Thank you.” The man said, with simple sincerity.
It made Xena smile. “You’re welcome.” She answered quietly. “Now go do something useful, willya?”
The man ducked his head, and moved away, leaving his queen to face the need to get off her comfortable horse and get ready to move.
She eased her leg up and over the animals haunches and let herself down, pausing with her hands clasping the saddle as she tested to see if her legs would bear her weight.
It was a close thing. Pain shot up her spine as she released her hold on the saddle and she immediately grabbed back on as her knees threatened to buckle. The horse landing on her had twisted her torso and she could feel the strain up and down her back, as her muscles cramped. “Gods be damned to Hades.” She muttered under her breath. “This half assed heroic crap is gonna kill me.”
She wished Gabrielle were there. Not that her cute bedmate could have done much to help her, but unlike anyone else she’d known, even her brother, she found Gabrielle’s presence soothing when she wasn’t feeling her best.
Right now, she definitely wasn’t feeling her best. Cautiously, she released the saddle and eased herself upright, forcing herself into motion and walking around in a small circle.
The rain beat down on her, and she tilted her face up into it, holding her hands a little away from her body to let the water rinse the blood off. Even that small range of motion hurt, though, and she let her hands drop again, though she felt a slight easing of the aches as the herbs finally decided to kick in.
There was no end to this night. Xena went back over to her borrowed mount, who was cropping the grass, seemingly content to stay nearby. She checked the contents of the animal’s saddlebags, the inside rich with the heady spices she’d smelled in Sholeh’s camp.
They irritated her. She disregarded the rolled bits of food, but found a useful set of beautifully carved daggers, which she tucked into her belt and a pouch full of coins, which she likewise took. Then she slipped the horses bridle off, and loosened it’s cinch strap, dragging the saddle off as the animal sidestepped in surprise. “G’wan girl.”
The horse snorted at her.
“G’wan.” Xena patted her on the neck. “Go find yourself a nice pasture, and some horny stallion to make your life right. War’s no place for ya.” She watched the horse move off, not quite leaving, but not quite staying either, then she turned and headed through the battlefield towards the front of the line.
It was hard not to limp, but she managed, walking through her troops, giving one a slap on the arm, smiling at another, until she stood on a clean patch of ground, and turned her eyes once again towards the city.
She had an appointment to keep. There’d be time enough to whine later, when the possibility of warm baths, and soft sheets, and adorable muskrats could be had, but right now it was time to be the queen.
Crazy old bitch that she was.
Continued in Part 19