Queen of Hearts
Gabrielle found herself a seat in the room, near the back in one corner that seemed relatively quiet and out of the way. There was a scrubby little table there, and she squeezed in behind it, her back to the inn wall as she studied the crowd in the room with slightly widened eyes.
There were a lot of people there, more than she’d thought the inn could hold, and the noise reminded her strongly of the castle dining chamber, where the servants and slaves all ate together in a cacophony of voices in loud discourse.
It didn’t look like they wanted to be entertained. Faces were angry, and in some cases intense, and the discussion she heard around her all centered on the Persian invaders and the outrages they’d brought.
It was interesting. She fell back on a role she’d practiced during her early life with Xena, listening with out seeming to listen as she accepted a bowl of soup and piece of bread from a tired looking server. “Thanks.” She gave the girl a smile. “Long day, huh?”
“They all are.” The girl paused, glad of a chance to stand still. “You want ale or cider?”
Gabrielle thought a moment. “Cider.” She decided.
The girl nodded. “There’s a stew coming.” She said. “Ends and odds, all we could get.”
Ah, well she remembered those odds and ends dinners. “That’s fine.” Gabrielle watched the girl move off, getting stopped every few steps by customers demands. It was a hard job, one her parents had suggested for her in fact, and she suddenly had a moment of gratitude that her lifes path had turned out far differently though equally far more dangerous in nature.
She dunked her bread in her soup and took a bite. It was a split pea and vegetable concoction and she found the taste to her liking, glad to be filling her belly after her long ride, and longer day. She’d been so distracted she hardly realized how hungry she was until she had the bowl in front of her and now she fairly inhaled it.
Xena’s stronghold had been the first place she’d ever consistently had enough to eat, even from the start, even when she was nothing but a newly bought slave down in the worker’s quarters. It had astonished her that with all her often random cruelty, the queen had understood at a base level that this was one of the fundamental needs of anyone and no matter how hard the work, and how dangerous the circumstances the people Xena had charge of were taken care of in that way.
Being a slave was a tough thing, though she’d only spent a short time at it. But she’d talked with enough of the servants and enough of the slaves in the stronghold to understand that if you were a slave, being a well fed, well housed one did make all the difference.
It was a matter of personal dignity, and Gabrielle had realized when Xena had made her a space in the hall, and then a space in her own rooms as their relationship rolled along it’s unusual path that her new and scary friend understood that need very well.
“Here you go.” The girl came back and set a mug of cider down. She glanced at Gabrielle’s mostly empty bowl, and looked around, then she slid another bowl on the table and gave her a wink before she continued on her path around the tables.
Mm. Gabrielle didn’t hesitate to claim the gift, enjoying the rough, slightly nutty taste of the brown bread as she soaked it in the soup. She’d asked Xena once, why she’d decided to run her realm the way she did, treat her slaves the way she did, and her answer had been both pragmatic and simple, and very much Xena.
“Because I’ve been hungry.” The queen had told her. “And I’ve slept in a dungeon.” She’d added. “Neither made me a happier person.”
Gabrielle took a sip of her cider, finding it cold and fragrant. She liked cider better than ale, though she’d become fond of the rich wines Xena tended to favor also but she figured with everything going on, keeping her head clear was probably a very good idea and the place didn’t much look like they had fine wines anyway.
Just then the door to the outside opened, and conversation fell off abruptly when four Persian soldiers entered, looking around arrogantly with their hands on their sword hilts.
Gabrielle was now very glad she’d chosen the table she had, tucked in the back, in the shadows, behind everyone else. While she was dressed not unlike the rest of the inngoers, she still felt conspicuous and she kept her head down, and her attention on her soup.
The soldiers pushed their way through the crowd, making a show of examining all those seated at the tables, before they confronted the innkeeper where she was standing near the cookfire. “You.”
The woman remained silent, but glowered at them.
“Holding back were ya?” The soldier said.
“I wasn’t holding back on anyone.” The innkeeper shot back. “All we’ve got here is scraps. Look for yourself.” She reached into the pot and scooped up a ladle of it’s contents, dumping it in a bowl and shoving it at the man.
He drew a dagger and poked in the broth. “Doesn’t smell like scraps.”
“Not my fault if your lot can’t cook. I can.” The woman was unrepentant.
“Maybe we should take you with us then.” The soldier reversed his dagger and struck out, catching the woman across the face. “With a cut out tongue to rid you of your insolence.” He reseated his knife and dismissed her, turning to regard the room again.
Gabrielle’s mind flashed back to the short time before they’d left the stronghold, when Xena had reacted in such an unexpected way when she’d found things being held back from her. Not nearly as angry as Gabrielle had expected, more like..
“Keep anything back, and you’ll all end up in the garbage pit with the last lot who did. Understand?” The soldier barked. “You belong to us! Learn!” He made his way out, with his companions following. As they left, the last one picked up a loaf of bread from one of the tables and took it with him, laughing as the door closed behind them.
More like she’d expected the subterfuge, and not approved of it, but understood. Gabrielle saw the anger around her and she went quietly back to her soup, glad at least to have escaped the Persians attention.
Gabrielle cocked her ears.
“Can you believe it?” A man at the next table slapped it’s surface with his hand. “I told you the prefect sold us out. Shoulda taken Bengen’s advice and gone to beg for help before the winter.”
His companion snorted. “Woulda done any good? I hear that Persian is going after her next, wants to ram ‘er army right up Xena’s ass.”
“Woulda been better than rolling over like a whipped bitch and letting her take us, yeah?”
“From what I hear.” A woman seated nearby commented. “Prefect was promised his own palace in Persia, but ended up tied in the middens for ‘is pains.” She said. “We all lost. Persia got just what she she was looking for, and aint’ leaving no time soon.”
The men looked glum. “No way to help it.” The one nearest Gabrielle said. “Now. If he’d gone t’other route though..”
“He’d never have.” The woman said. “Go to her for help? Not with his pride.”
“You’d think she’d have done it?” The man asked.
“If he’d asked Xena for help, you mean?” Gabrielle spoke up, in a casual tone. She wiped her bowl out with her bread and chewed it before she looked up into the odd little silence she’d kicked off. She found the men at the next table looking at her and the voices nearby had dropped off considerably. “She probably would have come here and kept them away.”
The man nearest her half turned in his seat, the legs scraping against the floor. “And who might you be, girl?” He said. “To be commenting? Never seen you here before.”
Gabrielle picked up her mug and sipped her cider. “No, probably not. I just got here today.” She said. ‘But I come from Xena’s lands.” She explained. “Seems like my timing was really bad though, huh?’
The man closest to her now turned all the way around, so his chair was facing her, and he looked over his shoulder at the rest of the room before he turned and leaned towards her. “ You came through the pass?” He asked. “Through the Persian army?”
It seemed a very common question. “Yes.” Gabrielle agreed, holding her hands out and looking down at herself self deprecatingly. “I guess I wasn’t much of a threat to them.”
The server came back, glancing at the altered tableau as she set down a bowl of the stew for Gabrielle, then moved on to serve the men next to her.
“What made you come here?” The other man asked, by his dress a merchant. “Is it true, what we heard then? That her lands are in revolt?”
Well… “No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “There was some trouble before the cold season, but Xena settled that pretty fast.” She became aware of heads cocking in her direction as her queen’s name was heard, and repeated softly.
“We heard from merchants this past few moons there were lawless types in the valley.” The man said. “Most didn’t want to go through there, no matter the profit.”
How much should she say? Gabrielle pondered a moment, realizing more and more people were turning to listen to the conversation. “There were some exiled soldiers.” She said. “But Xena took care of them. The way is clear now.”
The woman at the next table got up and sat down across from Gabrielle, her face intent and interested. “Except for the Persians.” She said, with a brief smile. “We heard they wanted Xena to join them.”
Sensing a line she probably shouldn’t cross, Gabrielle shrugged both shoulders instead. “I’m just a wandering storyteller.” She said. “I wouldn’t know about that.. I just know what I heard when I was traveling along the road, you know?”
“Storyteller, eh?” The man turned, as another figure entered and squeezed in next to where Gabrielle was sitting. “Lennat, did you hear that? A storyteller.”
“I heard.” Lennat pulled a small stool over and settled on it. “So, Gabrielle, will you tell us some stories this night? After your dinner is over, I mean.”
Gabrielle looked around the room. Their little group was in something of a corner, and the rest of the patrons seemed to be involved in their own talk, the mood depressed after the exit of the soldiers. “You think people want to hear any?” She asked. “Sounds like everyone’s in a pretty bad mood to me.”
Lennat smiled grimly. “Maybe you can change that.” He said. “There’s not much to spike the mood in these parts these days, now is there?”
No, she supposed not. “Okay.” The blond woman agreed softly. “Sure, I’ll tell a story or two.”
“Good.” He patted the table. “Maybe you can cheer my mother up. She’s ready to take her kettle there, jump in and float to sea in it.” He got up and headed back towards the kitchen, leaving Gabrielle to her small ring of attendants.
“Gabrielle.” The merchant mused. “Unusual name. Where have I heard that of late I wonder?”
Gabrielle took out her little dagger and started spearing things from her stew. There was so much odd tension in the room, she was starting to wonder if telling stories, especially stories about Xena, was going to be such a good idea after all.
What if the Persians heard about it?
Xena slowly lifted herself up off the ground, her eyes peeking over the edge of the grass as she watched the guard walk along the wall, passing the small postern gate far more frequently than was convenient for her.
She settled back down after a moment, the soaked ground resuming it’s chilly, damp cradling of her aching body as her little force rested around her.
She doubted anyone was really sorry to be laying down, since they’d been crawling along for the past three candlemarks to avoid being seen from the walls. Her knees and shoulders were absolutely killing her, and she had to remind herself several times that this whole thing had been her idea before she tried to kill the person responsible for it.
What an idiotic plan. Xena carefully extended her arms and clasped her hands together, then rested her forehead on them. If the guards didn’t peter out before midnight, she’d be faced with finding another way in to the city, unless she wanted to risk getting caught.
Did she want to risk that? At least if she did, the day wouldn’t end on a boring note, now would it? Xena spent a few minutes imagining the scene, if she just walked up to the main gates and banged on them, demanding entrance.
It had a certain appeal. Xena felt it matched her image a lot better than skulking in the horse crap, and she could do it right now and save herself the long, boring wait that might end in the same place anyway.
On the other hand, twenty of them could just shoot her full of arrows, and that was a damn rotten way to croak, guaranteed to ruin your day.
She pulled up a stalk of grass, and chewed on it, turning a little onto her side and pulling her knee up slightly to relieve the strain on her back. On a third hand, lying here providing ant fodder wasn’t her thing either. “Jens?”
“Majesty?” Her stalwart captain was lying in the grass an arms length from her.
“I want to move in closer. Let’s see if we can get near enough to spit on those bastards.”
“Thank you, Majesty.” Jens said. “Getting ate alive here, I am.”
“Me too.” Xena decimated a few of the crawling insects, brushing them off her arm before she prepared herself to start crawling forward again, waiting for Jens to squirm back and alert the men before she started off.
Making your way through relatively short grass wasn’t easy. Xena preferred a side to side almost snakelike motion, moving one elbow and one knee in unison, then the other. This got her a sinuous motion - and if she timed it with the wind her passage was almost invisible.
The key also, was the move, then wait, then move, keeping the timing irregular so anyone watching a particular spot in the grass wouldn’t see this consistent disturbance and wonder what was coming at them.
Of course, it also helped not to have twenty six large men of varying skulking skill following you, but Xena had learned in her life to just take what she could get, so she counted herself lucky to have someone watching her back, and at the very least, she wouldn’t die alone out here.
They had snaked across about half of the distance to the wall when a sound suddenly alerted her, and she held her hand up, letting out a brief, low hiss to the men following behind her. They stopped as well, and settled down and she cocked her head to listen.
A soft, rustling crackle came from just to the left of her. Xena went very still, and cursed silently. The grass was tall enough to obscure her form, but she knew if whatever it was got close enough, she’d be plainly visible.
She drew in a deep breath, slowly moving her right arm down and closing her fingers on the dagger tucked into her boot. She drew it out and got herself ready, tensing the muscles along her torso as she readied herself to react.
Another soft crunch. Xena sorted through the sounds, trying to figure out how many of them there were, and if she shouldn’t just order her men to attack and get it over with.
Patience had never, truly, been one of her virtues.
The sounds stopped.
Xena listened harder, but the wind was in the wrong direction, and all she could hear was noises from the city. After a few moments of nobody doing anything, she lost her patience. Motioning to Jens to stay behind, she eased off towards the last place she’d heard the noises coming from.
Her body slid through the grass, as the rush of impending battle overcame the pain she’d been nagged withand she almost felt exhilarated. She swiveled the knife in her hand until the blade was facing forward, and gathered herself as she parted the last bit of grass that separated her from the spot she was aiming for.
Eyes met hers.
At her eye level.
But hey were the wrong shape, and the wrong color, and Xena felt the hair on the back of her neck stand straight up as a rush of fangs and claws and angry animal rushed right at her.
“Blf.” Xena stifled a yelp as she ducked her head and swung her knife hand, as the huge cat hit her, it’s claws sinking into the back of her scalp. She rolled over instinctively, her arms coming up to protect her face as she felt the animal’s teeth graze her wrists.
“Bigods!” Jens voice cut the stillness. “Get it, boys!”
Xena didn’t have time to argue. She got her knee up and felt the claws slide off her armor as her hands reached through the mess of sharpness and felt soft fur under her fingers. She grabbed for the animal, smelling the hot scent of blood and suspecting it was her own.
It was huge, and powerful. It had midnight black fur and a bad attitude, and the heavy musk scent of a male. A hind leg raked back and narrowly missed her face and she reacted instinctively, turning her head and biting the cat’s foot.
It yanked away, nearly pulling the teeth from her mouth and then she saw claws heading right for her as the animal turned and attacked, it’s teeth bared.
The cat yowled in surprise and turned it’s attention from Xena as two of the soldiers jumped bravely on it, stabbing with their short swords in a desperate silence, the grasses around them wavering violently.
The queen took the opportunity to collect herself and get to her knees, wrapping both hands around her knife and driving it into the cat’s back, just barely missing Jens arm. “Bastard!”
The cat twitched, then twitched again, then slumped, a snarl freezing on it’s face as it went still under them.
For a moment, all they could hear was their own heavy breathing. Then they heard a shout, and a horn sounding, and hoofbeats and Xena exhaled, letting her head rock forward to rest on the cat’s pelt. “It’s just not going to be my day today, is it?”
“Mistress, y’re bleeding.” Jens said, softly.
“Jens, it ain’t gonna matter much if I am.” Xena sighed, pushing herself up and facing the music, lifting her head over the edge of the grass to see what was coming at them.
A squad of horsemen had burst from the gates, and as the queen watched in bemusement, it thundered by them at top speed, chasing the dark shadows down the road towards the pass. Horns were now blowing like crazy at the wall, and soldiers were racing for the city main gates from both sides.
Leaving the postern gate unguarded.
The queen blinked, then blinked again at the chaos.
“Then again.” Xena touched the back of her head, wincing as she pulled her hand away covered in blood. “Maybe I better stop this now, so I don’t drip all over the marble in there.” She pulled a bit of cloth from her belt and pressed it against the wound, sparing the animal a brief glance. “Nice, huh?”
“Mistress, what’s going on there?” One of her other men asked, in a timid voice. “What’s stirred them?”
Xena shrugged. “Maybe Gabrielle took her clothes off and she’s running around singing.”
The men all looked at her in silence. Then Jens cleared his throat. “Didn’t know she sang, Mistress.”
Xena managed a wry chuckle, her entire body shaking a little from the close encounter. “All right.” She craned her neck, and saw the way was still clear. “Let’s go and get in there before I bleed to death and ruin the fun.”
Gathering herself up, she scrambled through the grass, moving in a half crouch, half run as she skirted the edge of the open space, her eyes glued on the soldiers on the wall.
With any luck, she’d make it. If the Fates were in the mood, Gabrielle would even be there to open the door.
Might even be her day after all.
Lennat appeared from the shadows, settling down at Gabrielle’s side just as she was finishing up her meal. She continued wiping out her bowl with bread and waited for him to speak, noting that he was carefully looking around to see who was listening.
It almost felt like the court intrigue she’d slowly began to get used to around Xena’s castle. Everyone always thought they had a plan, or a secret, and everyone thought she was the best way to get that sort of information to the queen.
Which, not unreasonably, she indeed was. More approachable by far than her irascible mistress, she had become a gentle conduit for the populace that was far too lowly to attend her courts, and too wary to brave her temper.
Xena had found it funny. Gabrielle on the other hand found it trying at times, since she was uncomfortably aware of both her own lowly origins, and the dependence the people had on her.
“Hi.” Gabrielle put her spoon down and folded her hands. “Please tell your mother I think she’s a great cook. Thank you.” She told him sincerely. “Dinner was great.”
Caught a little offguard, as he was about to launch into whatever pitch he’d worked up to, Lennat sat back, his body shifting. “Um.. thanks.” He said. “I know she’ll like to hear that. She doesn’t hear it too much. This lot likes their dinner, but begrudges a penny for it.” His eyes shifted quickly to the tables around him, then back to her.
“So they think if they say how good it is, you’ll raise your prices?” Gabrielle grinned a little, remembering people in her home village who’d thought just that. Her father had been one of them.
“Eh.” He lifted his shoulders in a half shrug. “I’m glad you found it to your liking. I had thought we’d frightened you off.”
“Me?” Gabrielle’s brows lifted. “Do I look that easily scared off?”
“Well, yes.” Lennat gave her an apologetic look. “No offense.”
They’ll never believe you’re a soldier, Gabrielle. It’s gotta be you. “None taken.” The blond woman replied. “But what made you think I was?” She glanced casually around, but their table mates were busy at their plates and ignoring the two of them.
At least she thought they were. With a brief frown, she turned her attention back to her companion. “Sorry, I missed that.. What did you say?”
“I went by your room earlier, and found you gone.” Lennat repeated. “I thought maybe you’d gone to find better lodgings.” He motioned to one of the servers, and she came over. “A mug, Else. And one for my friend here, as well.”
“Aye.” The girl answered briefly, turning and giving Gabrielle a wink before she left, ducking between the other patrons with a twitch of her hips. “Be right back.”
“Wench.” Lennat snorted a little. “Anyway.”
“Anyway.” Gabrielle repeated. “I was just taking a walk before.” She said. “Just seeing the place since I’ve never been here.” She paused, gathering her thoughts. “I saw some of the soldiers.. they seem really harsh.”
Lennat held up a hand, and looked around again, with a somewhat anxious expression on his face. “Have a care, Gabrielle. They have ears everywhere.”
Gabrielle swung her head around and studied her table’s neighbors. Most of them were roughly dressed, and seemed to be merchants, or maybe men from the docks. None of them particularly looked like Persian soldiers, but she acknowledged that spies could in deed be bought.
“They already wanted to hurt me just for wearing these.” Gabrielle plucked the fabric of her leggings. “How much worse could it be if they heard me saying they were mean? Aren’t soldiers supposed to be mean? It’s not like I’m saying they keep pet mice.”
“Well, it’s not.” Gabrielle found herself enjoying the danger of it all. She was aware of the heads half turning her way at other tables. “They were harsh. They were kicking around all those little vendors down by the dock yard and..”
Lennat grabbed her wrist. “You went to the waterside?” He hissed, under his breath.
“Sure.” Gabrielle answered. “It’s just down the path there.” She pointed in the general direction of the water. “They had some really great sheep’s milk cheese and rolls.”
The server girl returned, saving them both from further histronics. She plunked down a mug by Lennat’s hand, then turned and offered Gabrielle one, with a much more polite bow.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle accepted it, and the smile that went with it, before she turned back to her agitated tablemate. “They’re taking everything you have, Lennat. What more can you fear from them? You’ll starve, if they block the port, and block the valley.” She kept her voice low, but didn’t try to whisper.
“Shh. Yes.” Lennat shushed her. “Only a fool doesn’t know that, but dooming the city and dooming my own skin are two different things, you understand?” He muttered. “I have no wish to have my body split in two before the gates.”
Gabrielle propped her chin up on her fist. She thought about what Xena would do if she caught someone speaking out against her rule inside her gates, and she nodded a few times, understanding far more than he probably imagined. ‘Sorry.”
He raked his blond hair, a lighter shade even than her own back out of his eyes, and took a sip from his mug. He was young, Gabrielle realized, they were much of an age and she found him rakishly attractive, someone she might even have been interested in way back when.
Back when she and Lila would sit near the edge of the pasturage watching the passers by on the road and talk about this one and that one, and who’d they thought was cute, and who they might one day get married to.
Before her life changed. Before the raiders.
“It’s all right.” Lennat shrugged. “I’m probably just being a chickenshit. My mother speaks out against them often enough, after all.” He took another sip. “Anyway… “
“Anyway.” Gabrielle repeated. “So is it time for me to get up there and see if I’m any good at this story thing?”
One pale brow cocked at her. “You’re really here to try storytelling?”
“I really am.” She responded with complete sincerity. “Hope this crowd likes what I have to tell.”
Lennat gave her a dubious look. “Are you going to cause trouble?”
“Probably.” Gabrielle resolutely drained her mug and set it down, licking her lips before standing up and gathering her wits together. “You might want to go sit at another table.” She riffled her fingers through her hair and eased out from around the table, looking around the room to find a likely spot to stand in.
Near the old, smoke stained fireplace there was a little clear area, directly in front of where the flames would be the hottest, and she aimed for it, moving slowly enough to attract a little bit of attention as she crossed the room.
Over the long winter, she’d gotten a chance on a number of occasions to get up in front of people, sometimes Xena’s court, sometimes her immediate servants, sometimes just in the back of the stable with the grooms as witness and practice this budding skill of hers.
She thought it was a skill, anyway.
Jellaus had worked with her and tried to teach her some of his tricks but strangely enough, she’d found she liked her own way of doing things better, and discovered her best and most insightful audience, surprisingly enough, was her daunting lover
Xena absolutely loved listening to stories. What a surprise that had been. At first she’d just thought the queen had been humoring her, but after the tenth request, she’d realized Xena never humored anyone but herself, and if she was asking it was because she wanted it.
That of course went for a lot of other things, too.
Shaking her head a bit, Gabrielle claimed her spot and turned, facing the room and letting her body relax. She scanned the crowd with her eyes, taking the little time she had to study her prospective audience before eyes started to lift from plates, and the sound of voices began to stifle.
She hooked her thumbs into her belt and waited, feeling a nervous flutter in her belly as the attention of the room started to focus on her, frowns and curious eyes, and one dark haired man who looked at her belt buckle, looked at her face, and unaccountably, smiled.
Now, it begins. Gabrielle took a deep breath. “A good evening to all of you.” She said. “My name is Gabrielle, and I’ve just come here to your city.”
The last voices died out as everyone turned to look at her. From the corner of her eye, she saw Lennat skulk behind the cooking table, and his mother move to the front of it, one hand with a mixing spoon in it resting on top.
“I’m a storyteller.” She went on. “So the kind innkeeper here said I could tell a few here, if that’s all right with everyone.” Her eyes roamed casually around, not focusing on any one in particular, but reading the faces turned her way. She didn’t see any outright hostility, but the expressions were wary. “Is that all right?”
There was a brief moment of silence. Then one of the older men in the back leaned forward. “Depends.” He said. “You going to tell stories about them?” He thrust his thumb over his shoulder at the door. “Little girl?”
Gabrielle smiled. “No.” She shook her head. “I don’t know any stories about them.” She said. “I come from the other side of the hills.” She imitated the man’s gesture, pointing back past the inn, past the walls, back to the valley beyond the horizon.
“Now do you?”
“I do.” Gabrielle felt it, a certain tension that made her own skin prickle. There was danger here, she reallized, the danger that Lennat had been trying to warn her of. “So you want to hear my stories?”
The man tipped his mug to her. “Go on then.” He replied. “Let’s see what you have to tell us.”
Gabrielle relaxed, just a little bit. This was what she’d been sent for, and now she’d see if she could really live up to Xena’s expectations or not.
And if not, there was always that back door.
The line of river grass ended a long field’s length away from the city walls, providing an open space for the careful watchmen to stand guard over. In times of peace, which had been for a good while now, the watchmen merely looked out for wild beasts hunting, and the odd traveler in the road gotten in trouble on the way in.
Raiders, occasionally, but not many since the city walls were sturdy, and the free populace long used to standing by their outpost on the edge of the land and defending their rights. They’d been sure to put up their walls, and make their watchtowers, and now Sholeh’s troops were taking full advantage of it.
But the lonely stretch of grass, which had spawned nothing more alarming than a few startled rabbits over the long half moon they’d been there was now left unwatched, a martial excitement stirring the city that had remained uneasily compliant since their defeat.
And so, secure in that abandonment at the edge of the stubble, a lone figure rose and stood, outlined against the grass before it moved forward, gliding across the earth with supply assuredness. Behind it, a small force emerged and followed, dark shadows against a darker background.
Xena pressed her back against the wall, her chest moving in short, quick breaths as she took advantage of the scant profile of the door to hide herself from sight.
The front of the gates was nothing if not a maelstrom of activity, torches ringing the opening as soldiers began to mass around it. Above her head, the guards on the top of the wall had long left their posts, racing down towards where the action was and leaving her little stretch of battlement pretty much bare.
From a human perspective, understandable. There was some obvious alert going on and as soldiers, she understood the herd mentality drawing the guards towards it.
“You know, Jens?” Xena took a moment to collect herself, now that they’d reached the safety of the shadows. “I’d be gutting people by now for letting us do what we just did.”
“Aye.” Her captain agreed.
“I’m damn glad I’m not in charge here.”
“Surely as we are, too.” Jens nodded again. “Nicer to get here w’out an arrow in my guts.” He turned his attention to the gates, where a mounted force had appeared, and were waving their arms. “Wonder what’s up w’im?”
“We’ll probably find out.” The queen remarked, easing forward to peer around the archway. The moon was behind the city now, and there was a nice, thick, black shadow coming off the wall, and with all the torches gone she and her small force were almost invisible.
Almost. Xena caught movement coming towards them, and she held a hand up, then pressed herself back against the wall. She knew their timing was off. She’d made up with Gabrielle to open the gates on the last watch, late after the moon set but the chance disruption had been too good an opportunity for them to get close.
So that meant she had to change her plan, since the odds of them remaining unseen for two candlemarks were too much for even her gamblers heart to handle. She watched as a lone figure appeared from the dark, moving away from all the activity.
Her ears caught the sound of armor, and silently, she drew her dagger out and held it lightly in her right hand, her left curled around the jutting rock edge of the arch. The spasms in her back had been getting worse as the night wore on, and she could feel jolts of pain going down her legs in a most unpleasant way.
She’d tried stretching to shake it off, but that had proved to be an even worse idea than getting squashed by a horse in the first place. Xena was fully capable of soldiering her way through just about anything, but she was starting to worry that her damn legs were going to buckle under her regardless of how much self discipline she had.
Killing someone would at least distract her from that. “C’mere, little boy.” She uttered, under her breath as the figure obediently ambled right at her. She could see the outline of a sword across his back and he was wearing a cloak, common to Sholeh’s men, belted at the waist for fighting.
Her eyes narrowed, as she studied the man, marking him for one of the conscripts instead of a regular by his awkward gait, and she reluctantly decided on a different mode of contact other than a throat cut. “Hey.” She called out instead, in an almost friendly tone.
She felt Jens stiffen behind her, and she grinned wanly to herself, enjoying the outrageousness of it.
The man stopped, and looked around. “Who’s there?” He asked, but in a low voice, not a warning. “Who is it?”
Xena eased out from behind the arch and leaned against it. “C’mere and find out.” She purred. ‘What’s a nice looking guy like you doing out here in the cold on a night like this?”
He hesitated, caught between curiousity and duty, but the sexy voice won him over and he sidled closer, ducking his head to one side to try and get a better look at her. “Who are you?”
“Depends who you ask.” Xena allowed him to get within a bodylength, close enough for her to see his face and for him to see hers. “What’s your name?”
“Perdicus.” He let one hand rest on the dagger at his belt. “What’s yours?”
“Xena.” The queen replied, watching him intently to see what his reaction was going to be. It was a fifty fifty bet either way, but this close, if he picked the wrong fifty, she could gut him faster than he could yell about it. “As in the Merciless.” She added. “In case you know more than one.”
He stared at her, and she could see his breathing quicken. Subtly, she shifted her grip on her dagger, moving it from a stabbing hold to a throwing one, the hilt balanced in the curl of her fingers. Then she saw his posture change and she relaxed, as he took a step closer and looked around him before he turned back to her.
She was not entirely surprised. Given that the natural thing for a soldier would be to be heading in the opposite direction. Xena rewarded him with a smile, and waited as he studied her in fascination. “Well?” She asked, after a few moments, aware of the passing time.
“What are you doing here?” He asked. “I don’t understand.”
“What are you doing here?” She countered. “You volunteer or someone she just picked up in a pasture somewhere?”
Perdicus looked past her, and now saw the force against the wall. “Uh..” His eyes widened a little as two of the men separated away from the rest, weapons drawn and evident.
‘What’s the big noise about?” The queen changed her tack, her voice gaining a crispness. “At the gates.”
He tore his eyes from the soldiers and looked back at her. “I don’t know.” He answered. “I heard the horns blow.. Something about an attack.” He looked at the men again. “Is this the attack?”
Xena chuckled, then she moved suddenly, grabbing the man’s cloak and swinging around to shove his body against the wall and holding it in place with a powerful pressure. “Answer my question, little man.” SHe rasped softly. “Are you in by choice, or not?”
Slowly, his eyes tracked down to where his boots were dangling a foot off the ground, then he swiveled his attention back to her. “Ah.. Uh.. “ He blinked. “My home.. My town was destroyed before last winter. I..” He stammered. “I went out to sea to find..” He stopped, and his eyes averted. “My ship was taken.”
Ah. A lie somewhere. Xena felt her instincts prickle and her Icy blue eyes drilled into his. “What town?”
Xena shook him. “I don’t have time to play games with you boy. You’re from these parts. What town is it you supposedly lost?”
He stared at her, then licked his lips nervously. “P..Potadeia.” He gargled out. “I.. I’m sure you never heard of it.”
Life was just full of delicious ironies sometimes, now wasn’t it? Xena released him and let him fall with a thump to the ground as she relieved her battered bodies screaming outrage without so much as a flinch. “I have.” She said, briefly. “So where were you going?”
Perdicus wiped his hands nervously on his cloak. “I had to do something today and I.. “ He rubbed his hands again. “I was trying to get away from them. Thought it would be a good chance, with all the noise.” He glanced at the other men. “So.. Um..”
“We’re going to take over the city.” Xena told him. “Wanna come help?”
Perdicus looked at her, then at the men, then back to her. Then he looked back at the men, then at the small gate door, then at her.
“C’mon. If Sholeh catches you deserting you’ll be dead anyway.” The queen told him cheerfully. “Come die with us. It’ll be more fun. I promise.”
The man exhaled, then he half shrugged his shoulders. “Makes no difference, I guess.” He leaned against the wall. “After what I saw.. What I did today.”
Xena accepted this for now, and she turned back to see the group of soldiers now moving away from the gates down the road, torches held high as they started back down towards the pass. Her eyes flicked to the walls, and sure enough she could see figures starting to wander back down them in her direction.
Cursing under her breath, she glanced past her men, to see figures approaching on the walls from that direction too. Realizing she had only moments to decide what to do, and wishing she had better options, she sheathed her dagger, and drew her sword instead. “All right, boys, let’s go inside.”
She swung around the sill of the gate and went to the thickly barred and iron strapped door set inside it, the space almost too small to fit her shoulders. She felt her troops at her back, and as her free hand searched the surface for anything helpful, she imagined she heard a yell of alarm in the distance.
“Dont’ have much time, Majesty.” Jens commented, from behind her.
“Thanks for the bulletin.” Xena muttered. “What would I do without you?”
She heard another yell, and just as she was about to command her force to turn and be spitted like dogs, she realized it was coming from inside the walls, not outside.
She also realized it was coming closer, and she could hear a lot of people running inside.
Commotion? Panic? Trouble? Could only mean one thing. “Hang on” Xena reversed her sword and tucked it alongside her thigh. “We’ll be set in a minute.”
“Just get ready.”
Gabrielle ducked past a pair of outstretched arms and dodged around a table, trying to stay one step ahead of the soldiers chasing her. The inn was in pandemonium, and her breath came short as she scrambled past two of the bolting patrons and found a chair smack in her way.
Without much thought, she grabbed the arm of chair and vaulted over it, hoisting her body up and clearing the other arm with a hard earned strength gained over the winter. She heard the soldier behind her curse and the sound of wood scuffing but by then she was past the next table and heading for the door.
“Get her!” A man lunged for her, grabbing her arm.
Gabrielle twisted out of his grasp, and yanked herself free, looking desperately around for support. But her audience, only minutes before rapt in attention at her story, now turned their backs and huddled against the walls, giving the soldiers fair access to her.
Ugh. So okay, telling that last story about Xena defeating Bregos was a little obvious but she hadn’t expected to be lynched for it.
Hadn’t expected the soldiers, apparently tipped off, to be listening outside. Waiting, apparently, for her to relate her lover’s clever triumph before they burst inside.
The door opened, and more soldiers entered. Gabrielle turned and evaded them by a hair, then she gave up the door and scrambled onto one of the tables, sending dishes and crocks scattering everywhere as she slipped and skidded across the surface, hopping to the next one as a soldier leaped for her and fell just a tiny bit short.
She ran across the next table, then swerved toward the window as the of Sholeh’s men closed in on her from the kitchen side. “Yahh!”
“Don’t let her escape! The Holy one wants her!” One of the soldier’s leaders bellowed. “Kill the rest of the trash in here, but get her! Get her! A reward pouch to whoever brings her to me!”
Gabrielle caught sight of six men closing in on her, spurred by the offer and she jumped to the last table, then having little other option, she leaped out the window into the darkness beyond.
The ground came up very fast, and she barely had time to get her hands up before she was hitting the dirt with them, the shock jarring up her shoulders as she fell hard and rolled to one side, in a space filled with rushing shadows and the flicker of torches.
It was some kind of gift from the gods she hadn’t hit anyone. With a gasp, she got to her feet and caught her breath, then spotted the men pouring from the door and coming after her and she turned and ran, balling her hands into fists and finding herself very glad she’d eaten a good dinner at least, needing the energy from it now.
The soldiers raced after her, but the narrow lanes worked to her advantage and she bolted over the stone lined path with all the speed she could muster.
Running had never really been a skill of hers, and she hadn’t gotten any practice at it since meeting up with Xena. The queen preferred riding for her exercise and oddly enough, climbing in trees, so most of her experience in footracing had been with her sister in her much younger years.
However, it was basic, and she knew how to do it a lot better than turning and trying to fight with the soldiers so she put all her energy into getting as far away from them as she could. She could hear a lot of noise behind her, and then the sound of hoofbeats.
Not good. She spotted a very narrow alley and ducked into it, reasoning unless Sholeh’s forces were mounted on Patches cousins they weren’t going to follow her mounted through there.
A curse and a yell behind her validated her choice, but she felt something graze her back, then something else hit her hard, and she stumbled forward, losing her balance and crashing into the stone wall of the building on her right hand side, knocking the breath of her her for a long, spinning moment.
Someone grabbed her. She felt fingers tangle in her hair, and instinctively she let out a loud yell, reaching back to grab the hand and half turning to see who had hold of her. She could see a male figure, and the outlines of weapons, and she kicked at him, the sudden and unexpected violence startling him into letting go of her. “Leave me alone!”
The man stared at her angry face for an instant, then reached for his knife just as Gabrielle backpeddled frantically then turned and bolted, spotting an uneven spot in the wall and quickly climbing up it. She got to the top just as the soldier’s hand grabbed for her ankle, and for a second, she was hanging there and he was hanging onto her before his fingers slipped on her skin and he slid back.
She pulled herself up onto the top of the wall and scrambled along it, hearing the soldier heaving himself up after her. A horn blew somewhere nearby, and she spotted a line of soldiers heading for where she was, torches held high, and hands pointing.
Well, poo. Gabrielle tried to get her bearings, feeling a chill as a damp wind ruffled her hair and brought goosebumps over her skin. She could smell the sea on it, though, and took that as a sign, climbing up across the roof of the hut away from the direction of the wind.
The soldiers scrambled after her, but their heavier frames quickly started breaking down the thatch and they had to slow down or risk pitching right through the room into it’s occupants.
The noise was getting louder, though, and Gabrielle knew she was running out of time. She threw herself over the pitch of the roof and tumbled down the other side, half falling, half skidding down the slope, grabbing hold of anything she could to slow down but finding little more than easily ripped thatch that came away in her fingers as she spun off the edge of the roof and found herself falling towards the hard ground.
She hit hard, falling to her knees and then flat with the impact, knocking her chin on the stone road and nearly passing out as the darkness closed in very tightly. She thought at first her ears were ringing from it, then she opened her eyes and saw a squadron of soldiers running towards her, filling the road she was on.
She quickly looked in the other direction, only to see another troop coming up from the river and she froze, for a moment, realizing she was in deep trouble now. Frantically, she looked around, but she was surrounded by tall stone walls and it wasn’t until she tipped her head back that she realized one of them was the city border.
She scrambled to her feet and bolted for it, and as she came even with the surface she spotted the postern gate, down a side path she was about to be cut off from by the soldiers.
“Like sheep poo I am.” Gabrielle threw herself into motion and raced for the pathway, as the soldiers swerved to cut her off, weapons drawn.
It occurred to her that she should be afraid, and that death was very close, breathing down her neck as she hurtled towards the torchlit sword blades coming fast at her.
She wasn’t. She thought maybe Xena was rubbing off on her a little, and then thinking that, she thought of Xena in her entirety and the space between her and the doorway seemed uncalcuably vast. She sped up, and her eyes widened as she saw two men loom into her path, holding their arms out to catch her.
She tried to pull up short but they caught her, and swung her around into the wall, throwing their bodies against hers and trapping her against the cold stone surface.
“Get her? Good!” A man yelled. “Drag er back here! Hurry!”
“Fighting us.. Get over and help!” The soldier yelled, as Gabrielle twisted and tried to free herself. “Cut that out, you little bitch!” He slammed his body against hers against the wall and smacked the back of Gabrielle’s head.
Gabrielle felt her skin scraped against the rock, and the scent of moss came pungently into her lungs as she was roughly handled by the two soldiers. She hesitated, then she relaxed and went still, letting her body go completely limp.
“W.. Hades!” The other soldier hollared. “You kilt her, Sholeh’ll have your nuts, you moron!”
“All I did..”
Gabrielle felt the weight come off her as she sagged towards the ground, her knees hitting the rocks as she slumped against the wall and her attacker let go of her instinctively. She heard the soft crunch of leather on stone as he took a step back, and with a deep breath, she twisted her body and leaped past their two sets of legs into a clear space beyond.
Her hands hit the stone and she shoved upward, enough to get her feet under her and then she was off, past the gathering troops who made belated grabs for her before they turned to give chase.
She picked up her speed and got between the last building and the wall, and then she aimed for the gateway and just ran as hard as she could for it. Behind her, she could hear scuffling and chaos as the men tried to sort themselves out to follow her into the narrow space.
Taking advantage of that, she raced along the wall and got to the stone arch of the gate, grabbing hold of it and pulling herself around and to a halt as she faced the iron strapped portal. A quick look behind her showed the entire troop of soldiers headed in her direction fast, and she studied the back of the door in a panic, not sure how it was supposed to open.
“She’s trying to escape the city! Hurry! If she gets out..”
Gabrielle fitted her hands around the heavy bar across the inside of the door, feeling the ends of it as the shadows kept her from seeing any details. She could make out huge iron boxes around them, fixed to the door, and holding it firmly in place.
That woudl keep the door from opening outward, she went to one side of the bar and started to push, but it didn’t so much as budge an inch.
Footsteps, much louder. Frantically, she shoved against the bar, but her boots just slid out from under her, giving her little purchase on the stone floor and she started to panic, as she saw the lurid shadows from the torches coming closer and closer.
“Get her! This time, Hades with it! Kill her!” The man in the lead yelled, as he came into sight and started for her, his sword out and ready. “Kill her! We’ll bring her parts back!”
Gabrielle shoved with all her might, feeling the pressure as she held her breath and her ears popped a little. As the soldier reached her, and the blade skimmed towards her face, she dug in and gave it everything she had, knowing at the least, that she’d tried.
She’d tried, damn it. Xena’d been almost right.
She smelt burning pitch, and hot steel, and then her body jerked as something slammed against the door from the other side, and the bar loosened so quickly she pitched forward helplessly with it, her weight and momentum shoving it clear as she fell on top of it and against the arch wall, knocking herself completely out as her head slammed against the ground.
“Ow.” Xena caught her balance, and glared at the door she’d just thrown her body at. “Son of a bacchae…” She faced off against it again, then she saw the surface shift and she grabbed the strapping, scant handhold enough, and tensed her fingers, pulling with all her strength.
To her surprise, and likely to her men’s as well, the door opened rapidly, nearly smacking the queen in the face as she bounced backwards. “Whoa.”
She looked inside the walls. What appeared to be an army looked back at her, over the body of her lover, slumped on the ground between them. The men inside stared at her in shock, and for a long moment, everyone just froze in place.
Xena felt a blanket of what seemed like total silence fall over her, in which she could only hear her own heartbeat.
Her eyes fastened on Gabrielle’s body, focusing on the shoulderblades she could see beneath the soft fabric of her shirt. Her lover’s head was at an odd angle to her body and as the seconds lengthened, and she saw no movement, a growing horror in her guts came viciously home.
No. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, this time.
Xena drew in a slow breath, then became conscious of where she was and with a shudder, she blocked off the part of her she could feel unraveling into pieces so she could deal with the here and now.
That pain would come later, with all the rest of it. “Boys, let’s go.”
Then she walked forward through the door, stepping carefully over Gabrielle’s still form. “I’m going to kill all of you.” She said, moving from a walk to a fluid run in the blink of an eye as her sword came up and she gutted the first man closest to her, yanking the blade back out and kicking the body to one side.
Her men came pouring in behind her, and in a moment, Sholeh’s men broke out of their stupor and there was full scale battle going on.
Xena didn’t much care. She fell into a place where all that mattered to her was killing these people, these damned soldiers.
She felt empty, aware vaguely of a deep pain in her chest, but she set that aside and just kept moving, kept stabbing kept slashing, wanting the smell of blood to fill her lungs as she batted aside enemy swords as though they were straws.
She heard yelling. She spun completely around with her sword held out straight and hoped none of her own men were in it’s path. She saw a man drop to his knees before her and she lifted her blade straight up and brought it down, splitting his skull, not even really caring if he were friend or foe.
Her arms ached, after a while. She wondered how long they’d been fighting, when suddenly she found herself against the opposite wall and she turned, the fog lifting as she took in the sight of a carpet of bodies laid out between herself and the doorway.
There was no more yelling. The sound of steel clashing had faded. Some soldiers were writhing on the ground, one not an arms length from her. He turned and thrust an arm up, his eyes rolling in agony and she took a step forward, reaching down to yank his head back with one hand.
She cut his throat with the sword in her other, observing the spurt of blood that nearly reached her waist before she dropped him and turned away.
Her men gathered quickly, reduced in number by three, and several more injured. As her eyes swept over them, the wounded men straightened and tried to hide their injuries, and she wondered dispassionately if they were just trying to act tough or if they were afraid she’d kill them for getting hurt.
Not unreasonable. She’d done it before.
Only Jens had the guts to move in her direction, her captain watching her with a mixture of apprehension and something else. “We’re in, Mistress.”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed.
Jens waited, but after a few seconds it was plain Xena was done talking. “You want me to scout a place for us to tuck up?”
Why? Xena looked around. It seemed as good a place to die as any, and she really felt like just standing around until more of Sholeh’s soldiers showed up. Her plans had dissipated like just so much fog and she found herself losing interest in the city, or Sholeh, or her army, or much of anything else.
Maybe more soldiers would show up soon, and she’d have to deal with that instead of having to deal with the walk across the narrow space back to the door way.
Back to the huddled figure near it.
If enough soldiers showed up, maybe she’d never have to deal with that at all.
Instead of answering, Xena gathered up her tattered courage and walked away from him, away from the far wall and back towards the gate. She was vaguely aware of her new recruit Perdicus struggling to his feet, holding a cut across one arm but she brushed past him without acknowledgement and found herself facing the door, still open to the outside.
With a bone deep sigh, she reached out and pulled it shut. Then she set the point of her sword into the stone and leaned the hilts against the wall before lowered herself wearily to her one knee next to Gabrielle’s body.
“All right, all of you.” Jens voice floated past her. “Get yerself what weapons you like, and move this trash to the side here. We’ll find a place to hide up once her Majesty’s finished.”
Her Majesty was finished. Xena rested both her battered hands on her knee and reflected on how meaningless it all was.
She’d disperse the men in the city, she decided. Then she’d just go and give herself up to Sholeh. It would keep the stupid bitch from heading for the stronghold, and she was pretty sure the Persian would think of some clever, painful way to kill her.
Surely, it would hurt less than it did right now. Xena bowed her head a little, and bit the inside of her lip, taking a moment to regain control before she reached down and touched Gabrielle’s face, moving the pale hair back a little to expose the rounded cheekbone beneath.
A few memories floated into her mind’s eye. Her first meeting with Gabrielle. Their first kiss. That first picnic out in the stupid garden.
A brief image of the fireplace in her chambers, Gabrielle kneeling before it, looking back over her shoulder at Xena and smiling.
Xena closed her eyes, and exhaled. Then she opened them up again and let her thumb brush lightly over Gabrielle’s lips in a silent farewell.
And then she froze in place, going so still she might have been a statue kneeling there in the doorway put in place by a demented sculptor who had no understanding of the use of an entrance.
Her world narrowed down to her fingertips, and the impossible sensation of warmth across the skin on her thumb and she watched in dazed disbelief as the surface under her hand twitched and moved a little, and the warmth increased.
She lowered her other hand, shaking, to Gabrielle’s neck, her fingers touching the side of it and feeling the flutter against them. “By the gods.” She whispered. “Gabrielle.”
As if in answer, the pale lashes stirred, then they lifted haflway.
They looked at each other. Gabrielle’s mouth twitched a bit. “G.. Got the door pen.” She rasped. “Huh?”
“Knew you could.” Xena whispered back, her entire mind doing somersaults. The suddenly conflicting emotions were just too much for her to deal with and she had to push them aside, her body caught between wanting to cry and wanting to scream with joy and neither reaction really possible at the moment.
“Inn. Down the road.” Gabrielle’s eyes closed again. “Ow.”
Inn. “Jens.” Xena cleared her throat of the abrupt hoarseness. “Find an inn nearby. We can hole up there until we figure out what to take next.”
“Aye.” Jens sounded profoundly relieved. “Leave the dead ones here?”
“Yea.” Xena was carefully sorting her lover out, feeling along her back and neck for any obvious injuries. She could see her ribcage expanding strongly now, and she wondered how in the Hades she’d missed it before.
Stupid, really, to jump to conclusions like that.
Stupid, Xena, to make yourself crazy like that for no reason.
Satisfied, she gently gathered Gabrielle up in her arms, then stood, cradling her. She turned to look out at the crooked, narrow lane as if seeing it for the first time, the memories of the battle fading abruptly as she focused on what they’d do next.
Now that there was a next she had to care about again. Xena mustered a little smile, as she carried Gabrielle out into the street, stepping over the dead bodies as her men gathered around her. Pity for them, she mused. They’d probably have ended up living longer if her partner hadn’t.
Too bad. “Let’s go.” Xena said. “Down that back way. Stay out of sight if you can and keep your eyes peeled.” She eased past Perdicus, whose eyes, suddenly, focused on her burden as he started in surprise. “Move it.”
She was past him, before he could answer, and the men clustered in behind her, blocking his path as they moved off into the shadows, leaving death behind them.
Continued in Part 21