Queen of Hearts
Xena poked her head around the edge of a wall, peering cautiously down a long, narrow alleyway filled mostly with garbage and shadows. “This way?” She muttered into Gabrielle’s ear. “You sure?”
Gabrielle lifted her cheek up off Xena’s shoulder and squinted down the alley. “Yes.. there’s a bigger street on the other sid,e and that goes down to the docks or up to the inn.” She put her head back down. “Boy, I feel crummy.”
“Me too.” Xena sighed.
“I could try walking.”
“Shut up.” The queen turned her head. “Jens, take a walk through there. Make sure half a damned legion isn’t waiting on the other side.”
“Aye.” Her captain slipped past her and ducked into the alley, drawing a long dagger from his belt.
The rest of the men were strung out behind her, plastered flat against the wall and in a bit of shelter due to the angle of the buildings. From time to time, she could hear shouts and bugles from the direction of the main gates, but so far they’d remained undetected.
Incredible. Xena shook her head again, convinced she could hear something shaking inside her skull when she did so. She hoped she could keep it all together long enough for them to get under some kind of cover and having to carry Gabrielle wasn’t making her life any more enjoyable.
She could of course have ordered one of the men to carry her but she’d just as likely cut her own hand off voluntarily so she simply sucked it up and leaned against the wall, waiting to see if they could proceed or not.
She hoped it would not be not. She had no real backup plan and only a marginal regular plan and the edge of her hearing was detecting a rumble of thunder that meant sooner rather than later they’d be skulking around in the rain on top of it all.
A low whistle caught her attention, and she peered around the corner again, seeing Jens outlined in the dim light, making a come ahead gesture.
“Yay.” Xena uttered almost sub vocally. “Let’s go.” She tossed the order over her shoulder and rounded the corner, carefully stepping over a fallen piece of timber before she continued down the alleyway towards where Jens was waiting.
Thunder rolled overhead again, and she could smell rain on the air, which was a relief after all the smells of the city bombarding her sensitive nose. She came up even with her captain and they both warily peered into the open space beyond the narrow space.
In the darkness, it was hard to say what they were looking at. There were walls on all sides of them, looming over their heads and paths angling off in several directions. Xena cocked her head and sniffed the air, catching a bare hint of the sea but it was far too faint for her to figure out where it was coming from.
“There.” Gabrielle nudged her, releasing one arm from around Xena’s neck, and pointing. “That’s the back wall of the inn.”
Xena studied the wall, spotting the small doorway set into it. “That the way in?”
The rain started, spattering on top of her head unexpectedly. “What’s inside the door?”
“Bunch of little rooms, and then the big one.” Gabrielle murmured.
Xena considered again. “You leave the runt in your room?”
Gabrielle managed a tiny snicker. “He’s in the stable.” She said. “Probably more space in there.”
The queen nodded decisively. “All right, let’s move. We go around the wall end there, and get into the stable.” She ordered, in a low tone. “If we can get out of sight, we can regroup, and start the next leg of the plan.”
The soldier next to her nodded seriously and turned to whisper her order to the man behind him, and it passed down the line in the darkness. The queen waited for the hushed sounds to end, before she nudged Jens. “Move.”
Her captain walked slowly out into the path, looking both directions as they crossed into the open, with no place to readily hide. They were halfway down the lane to where the next cross opening was, when voices abruptly sounded coming towards them, loud and angry and numerous.
For a second, they all froze. Then Xena lived up to her reputation and led from the front, turning and bolting back along the path towards the small door in the inn’s wall. She reached it as the flicker of torches lit the curve of the wall and got the door open, somehow fitting herself and Gabrielle through it without gravely injuring either of them.
With both her hands occupied with holding her lover, Xena realized as she cleared the door that she was in an awkward, if not stupendously stupidly deadly position to meet any threat that she might come up against. But the hall was horrifically narrow, and she barged forward anyway, clearing space for her men to enter behind her.
A door to her right presented itself as she heard voices coming towards them from the hall, and she shouldered it open, ducking inside and finding herself in a very small room that was very dark, and oddly smelt faintly like peaches. “Ah.”
“There’s space around the back of the bed.” Gabrielle told her quickly. “But I don’t’ think..”
Xena moved around the barely seen furniture. “All of you in here. Fast. Shut the door.”
The sound of twenty some men crowding into a space perhaps large enough for three followed, soft clashes of weapons mixed with grunts and cursing, and the sound of creaking floorboards. There was a scrape of wood against the floor and then a light crunch as a soldier landed on a chair, then somehow, somehow, the door was closed behind them and everyone managed to stop making noise as footsteps rang outside.
“Stupid wench!” One of the voices said, in disgust. “Hope they got holt of her, yeah, and whipped her good!”
“Broke the place up, bastards.” Another voice answered. “Wasn’t right.”
“Shut up, or you’ll be whipped next!”
Xena got into the far corner and put her back to the wall, taking solace only in the fact that in all the absolute crap her world was in right now, the one thing good that was happening was Gabrielle’s breath warming the side of her neck.
Absolute crap, otherwise.
“Shh.” The queen murmured. “Lemme rest for a quarter candlemark before I’ve gotta kill someone or croak myself, okay?”
“Um..” Gabrielle lowered her voice. “You can put me down. I think I can stand up now. Maybe. I feel better.”
Xena slowly released her, feeling the blond woman’s feet touch the floor pretty much as her arms were about to give out anyway. She circled Gabrielle with them instead, as her companion gratefully leaned against her, and they stood that way in silence, listening to the angry voices fade away.
It was dark, and Xena allowed herself a very brief moment of peace, resting her cheek against her lover’s hair as she tried to figure out what the Hades she was going to do next.
Screaming in frustration occurred to her, and seemed like an attractive notion but she fought to order her thoughts instead, and prepared herself to speak to the men tightly surrounding them.
After all, they were here, and alive, right? Even Gabrielle was alive. Xena stroked the back of her companion’s head, feeling gently around her skull until she detected a lump over one ear.
“Ow.” Gabrielle murmured softly. “That hurts.”
“Bet it does.” Xena was glad enough to postpone her speech, reasoning it gave the inn’s other inhabitants a chance to clear out anyway. “So tell me, muskrat.”
Gabrielle’s arms tightened around her in a damp, but delightful way. “Tell you?”
“Were the stories so bad they were chasing your ass out of town?” The queen asked, in a conversational tone. She heard shifting around her, as the men relaxed, at least as much as they could given the circumstances. “They must have lousier taste than I’d thought.”
“No.” Her lover murmured. “Well..” She backtracked. “They were fine until I told a story about you.”
“I guess some of the soldiers were listening.. they came running in and tried to catch me.” Gabrielle went on, after a pause. “And then everything went sort of crazy.”
“Mm.” The queen rested her chin on the top of Gabrielle’s head.
“And then it got really dark.”
Xena went still, her eyes flicking back and forth scanning the shadows in the room. “Dark?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle was silent for a bit. “I heard you calling me.” She went on suddenly. “And then I woke up in the middle of the fight. It was really strange.”
“I was calling you?” Xena’s brow creased as she tried to remember the battle, or yelling in the middle of it.
‘Yeah.” Her lover seemed positive. “Far away, then a lot louder. You sounded pretty pissed off. So I guess I thought it would be a good idea to go find you.” She paused again. “Or something. Anyway, then I heard a lot of noise and I opened my eyes and there you were fighting.”
“Boy, I was glad to see you.”
Xena looked down at her. “I was glad to see you too, muskrat.” She replied. “Ya done good.”
“I did? I thought I messed everything up with my story.”
It was too dark to see, but she knew Gabrielle was smiling, since it changed her voice a little. “Ya did, but in a good way.” She gave her lover a hug. “Look, we’re here, inside the city, and we’re not dead.”
Xena cocked her ears, but heard little past the door other than some far off bugles. “Okay.” She said, in a louder voice she meant the soldiers to hear. “So.”
Several of them cleared their throats.
Xena had to take a moment to stifle her sense of the ridiculous, before she could apply herself seriously to the task at hand. “All right.” She said. “First thing we need to do is take over this joint, and get rid of any Persian garbage still lying around.”
“Locals might not like it.” Jens commented.
“I think they will.” Gabrielle interrupted him unexpectedly. “I don’t think they like the Persians being here one bit. They’re taking all their stuff, and beating all of them up.
Unseen in the darkness, Xena bestowed a kiss on her lover’s head. “Yeah?”
“I saw it.” Gabrielle said. “And they really liked the story about you.”
Xena grinned. “Even though you got chased?”
“I got chased when I told them how smart you were and how you tricked Bregos.” Gabrielle said. “That was when the soldiers came in and everything went nuts.”
“Ahhhhh.” Xena nodded to herself. “Jens, take the men, and clean this place out. If you find someone who likes Persians, kill them.”
“Aye.” Her captain seemed glad to have something to do other than stand in the dark. “You heard Her Majesty. Get that door open, let’s move out.’
A square of very dim light appeared accompanied by the squeak of leather hinges, bringing a very welcome gust of fresher air, tinged with woodsmoke. The soldiers slowly filed out, drawing their weapons as they moved down the hallway and gods be blessedly emptying the tiny room.
At last, the space was empty of everything but Xena and Gabrielle, and both exhaled in relief at exactly the same moment.
“Wow.” Gabrielle found herself being bumped backwards, and she sat down abruptly on the bed. “Aren’t we going with them?”
Xena slowly let herself sink to her knees. She rested her elbows on the bed and rested her head in her hands. “Not right now.”
“Got any really good drink in here?”
Hesitantly, Gabrielle reached out to touch Xena’s head, the dark hair still damp from the rain. “I have a little of that.. red stuff.”
“Are you okay?”
One cup of liquor and a handful of herbs later, Xena gathered the strength to stand up and let herself down onto the bed, stretching out carefully in the warm candlelight as she listened to her troops progress. “Damn.”
Gabrielle sat down next to her. “How did a horse fall on you?” She asked. “Did Tiger come back?” She ran her fingers over the queen’s belly, rubbing lightly in gentle circles.
“No.” Xena stared at the soot covered ceiling. “I just did something stupid and paid for it.” She blinked a few times, as the herbs hit her empty stomach and the room retreated a little. “You know how that goes.”
“Okay, maybe you don’t.” Xena managed a half grin, then she patted the bed. “Lay down.”
Lying down seemed like a good idea. Gabrielle stretched out on her back next to her lover and folded her hands over her stomach. “So what happens next?”
Gabrielle looked over at the queen. “Is it one of those days again?”
Another smile briefly crossed Xena’s face.
Her companion exhaled, and shifted, grimacing as she moved her shoulders. “Ow.”’
“What?” Xena turned her head.
The blond woman rubbed her neck. “I think I twisted something.”
A flash of memory brought Xena a cold, stark image of Gabrielle lying on the ground, her head at that odd, unnatural angle.
An angle she knew, really, having broken men’s necks before on more than one occasion. Was that why she’d been so damn sure Gabrielle had… She paused the thought, hearing an echo of the stark loneliness of that moment far too loudly.
The queen rolled onto her side and then hitched herself up on her elbow, extending one hand out to gently feel the younger woman’s neck. She watched the blond lashes fluttered a little at her touch. “Here?”
Awkwardly, Xena squirmed closer, then she laid down flat on the bed and got both hands on either side of Gabrielle’s head. “Hold still.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle was perfectly content to do just that. She felt very tired, and a lot of things hurt and though it seemed very strange to be laying down in the middle of an inn with fighting going on all around her she knew that if Xena said it was all right, it just was.
And even if it wasn’t, it was anyway because it was how Xena wanted it. “Ow.” Gabrielle murmured, as she felt a pressure against the side of her neck, where it had been hurting, an odd, pinched feeling that made uncomfortable darts of pain down her arm.
“You’re going to think I’m ripping your head off. Don’t move.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle grimaced as the grip tightened and she felt sudden pressure pushing down on her shoulders at the same time. “Oo.”
It felt very strange. Not really like Xena was trying to rip her head off, but like things were moving around that weren’t supposed to. She stifled a gasp as the queen’s hands tightened and twisted and before she could so much as squeak she felt a pop and a clicking and then a warm flush that extended across her shoulders. “Oh, that was weird!”
Xena was quiet, her fingers just probing gently along Gabrielle’s neck. “Better?” She finally asked.
Gabrielle wiggled her shoulders, then turned her head right and left, surprised when the motion didn’t bother her. “Oh.. yeah.” She relaxed a little more on the bed’s surface. “That’s a lot better.. I think I twisted it when I hit that door. I remember my head hitting my shoulder, and then..”
She paused, as Xena’s hand touched her face. “It hurt a lot, and then it stopped. Just like that. I thought it was strange.” She let the words trail off as she heard the queen draw breath, with a catch that was almost like a gasp.
A gentle, warm stream of air brushed her scalp, as the queen’s thumb gently caressed her cheek. “Xena?”
“Are you okay?”
“No.” Xena replied. “I”m not okay at all.”
Gabrielle carefully turned herself over, but she found she felt much better already and she was able to settle on her belly, folding her hands and letting her chin rest of them as she studied her friend in the dim light of the candle. “You don’t look so good.” She admitted, watching the bloodshot eyes watch her filled with a roiling emotion she hadn’t seen since the early days of their relationship.
“Well.” Xena mimicked her posture. “I’ve been crawling on the ground half the night, had a half dozen brutes hack parts of me off, had a horse fall on my ass, and then had to think you croaked all in one night.” She paused. “I’ve had better times being whipped in a dungeon.”
The words were typical Xena dark humor, but Gabrielle could see the pained, deep furrows across the queen’s forehead, and the shadows of an unexpected grief in her eyes. After a brief, silent pause, she reached out and covered Xena’s hand with her own. “But you didn’t really think I..”
The queen’s eyes closed at the touch, and she turned her face away a little, swallowing audibly.
Gabrielle felt an uncomfortable twisting in her guts, and she thought again about that quiet darkness she’d fallen into and the smell of flowers she’d thought she imagined. Of course, she had imagined it, because she was here.
Right? Of course. She flexed her hand around Xena’s, reassured by the warmth. The queen had just saw her lying there, so naturally she’d assumed the worst because that’s just how Xena was.
As if to confirm that, her companion opened her eyes and straightened back up, watching her with a normal, skeptical expression. “You do crazy things sometimes.” She shrugged one shoulder. “Who knew?”
Offhand words, but Gabrielle could see the strain on her friend’s face and she eased her other hand out from under her head and sorted Xena’s bangs out, stiffened from dried sweat or worse. She smoothed them back out of the queen’s eyes and found herself drawn into them, unable to look away from the silent weariness there.
“C’mon, Xena.” Gabrielle had to pause to clear her voice of it’s huskiness. “I wouldn’t just go and die on you.. and miss all the fun, would I?” She felt Xena’s hand turn upwards, and clasp hers in a reassuringly strong grip. “We’re just getting started.”
Xena studied her, then she kissed the back of Gabrielle’s hand and laid her cheek against their joined fingers. “That’s good.” She said quietly. “Cause if you did croak, I’d never see you again and damned if that wasn’t kicking my ass.”
Unsure of what she meant, Gabrielle just remained silent, absorbing the unusual look of melancholy on her companions face.
“I never cared about spending eternity in Tartarus alone before.” Xena went on, in a quiet tone. “It really… just hit me.”
Gabrielle tried to imagine what that would be like, and found she couldn’t. She’d never really thought about dying or what would happen afterward, though she knew about Tartarus of course, and the Elysian Fields, and Hades.
Would she go to Elysia?
Would she want to, knowing Xena felt she wouldn’t?
Would she want to be alone, even in the Fields?
It was a strange feeling to be thinking about it, and she didn’t feel comfortable considering death, and dying even though she’d been closer to both since she’d met Xena than ever before in her life.
She’d barely had a life yet, after all. “Do you think Lila’s in Elysia?” She asked suddenly.
Xena stared past her, at the far wall. Outside, the sound of clashing swords echoed in the room suddenly lending the moment a touch of the surreal. “I’m sure she is.” She whispered, a hoarse yell floated through the open door. “Why, you worried about having someone to talk to?”
“No.” Gabrielle squirmed forward and touched her forehead to the queen’s. She felt a little shift as Xena responded to the touch, and the queen’s fingers tightened on hers. “I”d rather talk to you for eternity.”
Somewhere, Xena found a smile. “You don’t get to pick.”
Gabrielle met her eyes squarely. “Probably not but I bet you do.”
Xena’s breath caught and her eyes widened a little as they stared at each other across the distance of inches.
“I mean, c’mon Xena.” Gabrielle’s voice gentled instinctively. “I can’t imagine anyone making you stay anywhere you didn’t want to.” A warm flood of affection came over her, and she kissed the top of Xena’s head, the ache in her chest almost overcoming her. “I’m glad we’re together again. I really missed you.”
The queen shifted and rolled over, grabbing hold of Gabrielle and pulling her into an awkward, tangled hug, squeezing her with powerful arms in a mash of silent, unspoken relief.
“Urf.” Gabrielle felt the knots her own guts unraveling. “That felt great.”
“Yeah well.” Xena said, in an almost ordinary voice. “If you’re done making me feel like crap, mind giving my back a rub?” She released Gabrielle and rolled onto her stomach again.
“Sure.” Gabrielle gently disengaged her hand, then she clambered across the bed, settling on her knees over her lover’s body. She moved aside Xena’s damp hair, then paused. “Oh.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
Gingerly, Gabrielle unlaced the back of Xena’s leathers, where even in the dim light she could see dark, bruised skin. “Boy that must hurt.”
Xena crossed her ankles and rested her cheek on her folded hands. “Don’t feel a damn thing.”
“Not a damn thing.”
Jens leaned against the doorsill, his sword held loosely in one hand. “Places is clear, Mistress.” He waited for the queen to turn, then he backed out of the opening to clear room for her. “Not much fuss put up.”
“Good.” Xena wiped her hands on the bit of linen left by the basin and shifted her newly eased shoulders. Gabrielle’s industrious massage hadn’t done a damn thing for the bruises, but just those few minutes of that gentle touch had done much to restore her seriously rattled composure.
Not that she’d admit anything of that, of course. “Let’s see what we got. C’mon, muskrat.” She dropped the linen and headed for the door, patting her armor to make sure it was all back in place as she exited their scrubby little nest into the hall.
Gabrielle uncurled herself from her appealingly touselled sprawl on the bed and got to her feet, wishing mournfully that the fight had lasted just a little bit longer. “Okay.”
She did feel better for the short rest, though her head was still aching like crazy. At least Xena had sorted her neck out, and she’d had a chance to catch her breath, and after all they’d gotten some time to talk and snuggle.
She followed Xena out of the room, resisting the urge to latch on to the back of her armor. The inn was dark and mostly quiet now, and she could hear things being dragged behind her, and the swing of the back door opening and shutting.
In the distance, she could still hear horns blowing, but there were no more running feet, or shouting people nearby, and she followed Xena into the big room with more curiousity than fear. “Did you find the innkeeper, Jens?”
The soldier turned, startled at being addressed by her. “Ah… whats ‘e look like?” He stuttered a little. “Not so many of em was left in here.”
“It’s a her.” Gabrielle eased past Xena and looked around, the inside of the inn she’d last seen earlier now broken and shattered almost beyond recognition. “Oh.. Wow.”
“Yeah, what a dump.” Xena looked around disinterestedly. “But at least there’s room to move around. Get all the men gathered up in here” She instructed, as she went to the front door and looked out. “Ah.”
Gabrielle ducked her head under Xena’s arm and peered out. “It’s dark.”
“Night does that.” The queen replied dryly. “It’s funny that way.” She leaned out a little .”Is that the stable, there?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle pulled back and turned as she heard people entering behind them. Three of the soldiers entered, then a fourth, and she found her eyes focusing on the last man’s face with a sense of complete and utter surprise. “Perdicus?”
It was like the world turned upside down for a moment, finding her childhood friend here, of all places, and of all times, a sudden flash of a life she’d left behind and a person she’d been then but certainly wasn’t now.
The man stopped in his tracks and stared back at her for a long moment. Then he moved forward again. “Gabrielle.. It is you!” His eyes widened.
Xena turned and shut the door, leaning against it and watching with mild interest as her newest acquisition approached. A quick glance at her lovers face confirmed the former Persian soldier had told the truth and she caught a flash of startled embarassment there that intrigued her.
“It is you.” Perdicus repeated. “I can’t believe it. What are you doing here?”
It was shocking, and for a few seconds Gabrielle found herself speechless. “What are you doing here?” She countered, taking the hands he’d extended after a pause. “Were you in their army?”
Perdicus looked away, then back at her. “I was… I didn’t know you were here… did you get away during the attack?”
“N.. No.” Gabrielle took a step back, then stopped as she hit something big and warm behind her, feeling a weight on her shoulders as Xena draped her arms over them. “I.. Um..”
“She’s with me.” Xena supplied helpfully. “Now go siddown. You can catch up on old burned out home week later.” She stared Perdicus down until he let go of Gabrielle’s hands and backed off, joining the rest of her men as they filed into the room.
Then she cocked her head and looked down at Gabrielle, who had one of those scrunched looks on her face. “Friend of yours?”
Gabrielle leaned back against her. “Yeah.” She murmured. “Boy, that was a shock.”
“Mm.” Xena felt her own expression scrunch up, and she felt an unpleasant tickling in her guts she didn’t like at all. “Good or bad shock?”
“Just weird.” Gabrielle said. “I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.”
“Mm.” The queen watched as the last of the solders entered, and Jens closed the door behind them. They were settling on the remains of what were once tables and chairs, most broken, all collapsed in the midst of a tumble of dishes and cups laying everywhere.
Perdicus had taken a seat in one corner, and he was staring at Gabrielle with an unfathomable expression. “Was he a good friend?”
Gabrielle considered the question. “We were betrothed to be married.” She said, after a brief pause. “So yeah, I guess.”
The unpleasant prickling got stronger. Xena decided she didn’t like the feeling at all. “Ah.”
“I used to think I was in love with him.” Gabrielle went on, oblivious to her friends discomfort. “Until I met you.”
“Ah.” Xena repeated the grunt with an entirely different inflection. “Well, your taste has gotten a lot better, that’s for damn sure.” She gave her companion a kiss on the top of her head, before she untangled herself from her and gathered up her wits to address the men.
It took some gathering. She was exhausted, and now part of her brain was annoyingly off somewhere wrestling over this new development that made her want to simply spit sheep boy on her sword to rid herself of him.
Bloody idiotic distraction. “All right.” Xena booted a fallen stool and caught it as it flew up into the air. She set it upright and perched on it, biting the inside of her lip as her back nearly seized up again. “First thing we need to do is find out what’s outside the door.” She looked at one of her own men. “Take a couple of these grunts who can keep quiet and go see what’s around.”
“Aye, Mistress.” The man nodded quietly.
“Second…” Xena stopped speaking, as they all heard voices approaching. “Get down.” She was off the stool and by the door in a heartbeat, her sword in her hand as she pressed her back against the wall. “Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle limped over to the opening, cocking her head to listen. The voices got louder as they approached, words still indistinct, but the tone forceful and angry. She leaned against the door and half closed her eyes, trying to remember… “I think..”
“Think fast.” Xena had her hand on the door latch. “Then duck, unless you want a warm red bath.”
“Wait..” Gabrielle held her hand up. “Let me talk to them.”
The crunching sound of boots approaching the door was now very loud. The voices had ceased, and Gabrielle felt her heartbeat increasing as the latch worked and the wood of the door started to move.
A quick glance at Xena showed her the queen’s profile in deep shadow, eyes intent on her, watching.
Gabrielle felt the weight of that on her shoulders as she caught the door, stopping it from opening. “Lennat? Is that you?”
Shock, and a quickly indrawn breath. “Gabrielle? What are you doing here? How did you get away?” Lennat spoke quickly, glancing over his shoulder. “See, Beren? I told you they didn’t get her.”
He put his hand against the door and Gabrielle gave back a step, but she kept it from opening fully. “I hid.” She said, truthfully. “They must have gotten distracted by all the stuff going on out there..what is going on? Do you know?”
To one side, she heard a barely audible chuckle, but she kept her attention focused on Lennat, leaning forward towards him as he and his companion bent their heads towards her.
“They’ve all gone..well, most of em.” Lennat said, in a low tone. “Something scared em.. They were yelling about an attack, and Xena… they went crazy when you told that story!”
“Ah huh.” Gabrielle murmured. “I saw them all.. Uh.. When I was hiding.”
“Anyway.. Listen.” Lennat looked around, then back at her. “I know you’re here.. For her.” He said. “I know who you are.”
Gabrielle watched his face intently, very aware of the tall figure right at her elbow, unseen to the two men. “You do?” She jumped a little, as a loud bang was heard in the distance. “I mean, I told you who I was.”
“No.” Lennat leaned against the door, moving it not an inch since Xena was now leaning on the other side of it. “I know *who* you are.” He gazed at her. “But it’s okay. We won’t tell them. We want to help you.”
“That’s right.” Beren agreed, glancing behind him. “Let us in.. They’ll come in a minute, and we’ll be spliced.”
“Help me?” Gabrielle could feel the cool chill of Xena’s blade resting against her upper arm, and it raised goosebumps across her neck. “What do you mean? What do you want to do?”
Lennat looked at her like she was looney. “What do you think Gabrielle? We want our city back. We want the bloody Persians out of here before there’s nothing left. You said it.. Why are you pretending not to understand what I mean?”
Gabrielle could feel the blade gently patting the back of her neck. “You want to help Xena, you mean.” She said, quietly.
Lennat rolled his eyes. “Yes.”
“Hurry!” Beren hissed. “They’re gonna come back here!”
“Yeah, c’mon. Let’s get moving… open the door, Gabrielle! Let us in!” Lennat urged. “We do want to help.. What ever is going on, we want to be part of it.”
Gabrielle took a step back, and let the door swing open, revealing the room behind her full of men with long swords, and dour faces, and the tall, backlit figure outlined in dim torchlight who cradled a blade still stained in her arms. “Okay. C’mon in.”
Lennat stumbled forward as the door moved, then he pulled up short, staring at the ring of soldiers as Gabrielle slipped behind him and closed the door again, giving Beren a tiny smile as he jumped at the sound.
Xena took a step forward, and the light from the torch near the door suddenly revealed her angular features, and the pale, glinting eyes. “Be careful what you ask for, boys.” The queen drawled. ‘And you better have meant it, or your heads’ll be decorating the poles out there when the sun comes up. Got me?”
Lennat stared at her, then turned his head to look at Gabrielle, who gave him another small smile, and a shrug of her shoulders. “Oh.”
“Got any friends?” Xena asked.
“You’re gonna need em.”
It was candlemarks later when Gabrielle slipped out of the door and let it shut behind her. The courtyard was pitch dark and silent around her, and she stepped carefully across the broken flagstones as she made her way towards the stable.
She was so tired, her body was aching with the need to sleep and she knew if she was in the big room with all the soldiers and Xena’s restive energy getting any rest would be darn near to impossible.
So she’d told Xena she was going to visit Patches, and now she eased carefully through the rickety door and into the stable lit only by the single candle lantern hung just inside. “Hey Patches.”
The pony was in his stall where she’d left him, and now he poked his head over the divider and extended his nose towards her in greeting, seemingly glad to see her.
“Hey boy.” Gabrielle found herself glad, in any case, and she scratched his forehead and hugged him with a sense of simple pleasure. “I’m glad you’re okay, and those guys didn’t bother you.” She felt the prickly hairs on the pony’s nose tickle her arm. “I had to run when they were chasing me, Patches, but dont’ you worry. I was never going to leave you here.”
She released the pony and went over to the broken down hay crib, where a few lonely bales were left stuck in the rear. “Let me get you some breakfast.” Leaning over the edge of the crib, she grabbed at a bale, then yelped as she overbalanced and tumbled into the straw head over heels.
“Pah.” Gabrielle spit a bit of hay out of her mouth. “Boy, this sure hasn’t been my day, Patches.” She sighed and hauled herself to her feet. “First I get chased, then I get..” She paused for a long moment, her hands plucking at the hay. “Then I get knocked silly, then my old boyfriend shows up.”
Patches rested his chin on the stall divider, his ears flicking towards her.
Gabrielle sighed, and hauled the bale up and over the edge of the stall, letting it fall down into the rough trough on the other side. She climbed over the divider and checked the water trough, finding a small, but fresh supply still running there.
She sat down on the edge of the trough and rested her elbows on her knees, then she let her head rest on her hands as exhaustion overcame her. “Oh boy.”
Patches came over and nudged her. She straightened up and let her hands fall to her thighs, glancing around the stable for a place she could just sit down and rest in a while. There was a pile of old sacking in the corner that looked like a good candidate and she hauled herself up and went over to it, prodding it with her boot before she sat down.
You never knew if rats were under there, for one thing, or spiders. Gabrielle leaned back against the stable wall, letting her body relax as she idly watched her pony nibble the fresh hay she’d provided him.
She wished Xena was with her, but she knew the queen was very busy directing the soldiers here and there, and sending them out to get things and find out other things.
It sounded really exhausting, and she was happy that Xena had given her the okay to come out here, though she sort of suspected by the little scowl on her lover’s face that the queen wasn’t entirely happy about it.
Was she worried Gabrielle would get hurt? She extended her legs and crossed her boots at the ankles, letting the normal, ordinary sound of Patches chewing ease the tension from her. Or did she really want to come out here with her, and take a rest too?
“What do you think, Patches?” Gabrielle addressed her shaggy friend. “You think Xena wants to come here and snuggle with me?”
Patches looked up from his hay, a bit of it sticking out of his mouth as he peered at her from between his shaggy bangs.
It made Gabrielle laugh. “You’re so cute.” She told the pony, smiling as he ambled over and presented his nose for a scratch. “I”m so glad nothing happened to you Patches.. I wish you’d brought your buddy Tiger with you though.”
“I know, but I think Xena really misses him, even if she’s pretending she doesn’t.” Gabrielle rubbed the pony’s ears. “She does that, y’know. She pretends a lot.” She fell silent, thinking about their conversation earlier. “She thought I was dead, Patches. Wasn’t that silly of her?”
Patches nibbled her hair, his warm breath tickling her scalp. Gabrielle stroked his cheek as she pictured Xena’s face, her expressions far more eloquent than her brusque speech as she felt all over again the ache that had shown so clearly in her lover’s eyes.
It was humbling, a little, seeing that pain. She felt a little strange, and more than a little unsettled and she nearly jumped and smacked her head on Patches jaw when the door to the stable abruptly opened and closed.
Speaking of unsettling. “Over here.” Gabrielle watched warily as Perdicus peered around the pony’s sturdy form and spotted her. She picked up a bit of hay and offered it to Patches as Perdicus ducked under the rail and approached her, as her tired mind tried to sort out her feelings at seeing him again. “Hi.”
“Are you all right?” He sat down on the edge of the trough and studied her.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle answered briefly. “Just getting some rest.”
He folded his hands together. “Sorry.” He murmured. “I guess we’re all supposed to be doing that - at least that’s what she said.” He glanced towards the door. “So I thought I’d come see if I could talk to you for a minute.”
Gabrielle was too tired to either protest, or contribute to the conversation. She merely watched him, noting in the dim light that he’d changed in the year since she’d seen him. His hair was longer, and pulled back into a tiny tail in the back and he wore the armor of a soldier easily, very much at odds with the farmer’s son she’d known.
“I didn’t know what happened to you.” Perdicus was saying. “I got back home… and there was nothing left.”
“I know.” Gabrielle murmured. “It was horrible.” Even as she said it, she realized the memory had faded to the point where she almost felt like it was someone elses. Her life had changed so much, so fast. “I wondered what happened to you.”
He stared at the floor. “I wondered what happened to you.” He said. “I found the baker, Johan.. You remember him?”
“He said they took you.”
“Yes.” Gabrielle repeated. “All of us, the kids. Slavers took us.” She gazed at Patches knee, it’s front covered with one of his rusty namesakes. “Lila didn’t make it.”
“Oh.” Perdicus said, in a small voice. “I’m sorry.”
Yeah. Gabrielle said. “So how did you end up in the Persian army?” She asked, wishing wistfully that Xena would appear, since there were so many questions she knew he’d ask she had no interest in answering.
As the thought echoed in her mind, as if by magic the outer door to the barn opened and a gust of cool, water scented air entered along with a tall dark haired figure that seemed to fill the space with a edgy, restive energy.
“Did I tell you to come out here?” Xena asked, sharply. “Beat it.”
Perdicus got up and edged away from the queen. “I was just talking to my… we came from the same town. I wanted to see if she was okay.” He explained.
“She’s fine. Move it.” Xena drew her sword and took a step towards him. “Go do something useful.”
Perdicus looked back at Gabrielle, who was merely sitting there, watching them. After a moment, his shoulders dropped and he meekly walked past the glowering queen, slipping out of the door and closing it without any further comment.
Xena walked over to the stall divider and leaned against it, studying her lover with narrowed eyes.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle said, simply.
The queen’s demeanor shifted, and she put her sword away, stepping over the divider and joining Gabrielle on her throne of sacks. “I wasn’t interrupting a romantic moment?”
“Um.. No.” Gabrielle waited for Xena to settle herself, then she snuggled up and put her arms around her and hugged her as hard as her tired arms would allow. “I was just wishing for you.” She told her lover. “Are you done planning?”
“For now.” Xena gave Patches a scratch on the nose. “Hey runt… you keeping an eye on my muskrat here?” She asked the pony. “You should have bitten that little punk in the ass. What’s wrong with you, huh?”
“He’s not really a punk.” Gabrielle said. “I was just really tired and I didn’t want to talk to him.” She felt Xena’s chest heave as she took, and then slowly expelled a deep breath, and she could sense the queen was upset, restless motion twitching across her arms and shoulders. “Hey, Xena?”
“Hey what?” The queen muttered.
“When we take over the city, can you find us a bathtub?”
For a long moment, Xena was completely silent. Then she started laughing, an odd sound in the darkness of the stable that made Patches bob his head and snort. “Bwhahahaha.”
Gabrielle smiled, just to hear the laughter. She didn’t think she’d really meant to be funny, but sometimes you had to take what you could get especially when Xena was involved.
“Gods.” The queen finally wound down to chuckles. “Muskrat, you are something else.” She ruffled Gabrielle’s hair affectionately. “Damn, I needed that.”
Gabrielle felt the sense of anxiety that had been wearing on her ease and she was glad simply to be in Xena’s presence. The city had been and was a scary place. She put her head down on Xena’s shoulder and sighed.
“When we take over this city.” Xena told her, the queen arms wrapping around her with comforting security. “When we kick those bastard Perisans out, and rob them blind, I’ll get you a lot more than a bathtub.”
“Are we going to do that?”
“Well.” Xena sighed. “We’re gonna try. What the Hades, right? Might as well go for Zeus’s brass balls.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, unable to keep them open a moment longer. Whatever Xena had in mind was fine with her, so long as whatever she had in mind could wait just a little…
Xena felt, at last, a fragile moment of peace, one she knew would be fleeting and of a very short duration. But she accepted it, and savored it’s sweetness.
For this moment, life was all right.
Gabrielle leaned against the wall of the barn, letting the morning sunlight soak into her skin wit a sense of quiet pleasure. She ran her fingers through her wet hair and drew in a breath of woodsmoke tinged air, and looked around to see what was going on.
Not much, if the empty, somewhat desolate looking courtyard was any evidence. She could see the gates at the front had been tied shut, and piles of broken furniture had been dumped apparently randomly behind them.
She peeked cautiously past the corner of the barn, and looked down the city street, seeing a few people off in the distance starting their day but no mass of soldiers, and the sounds of chaos from the gates were now completely absent.
Something was burning, though, she could smell the strong scent of smoke on the wind and there were ships bells ringing from the direction of the harbor. Now that the sun was up though, somehow it all seemed less scary, and she pushed away from the barn and headed for the inn with a lighter heart because of it.
She also felt better physically. Her headache had finally faded, the lump on the side of her head had gone down and her neck felt fine. The rest had restored some of her energy too and she found herself almost looking forward to whatever plan it was that Xena had come up with.
It was bound to be interesting, if nothing else. She climbed up the rickety stairs and paused, as a soldier appeared from the shadows. “Oh. Hello.”
“Your grace.” The man faded back against the wall, his mottled armor and leathers blending in with the shadows so perfectly he was almost invisible. “Glad it came good for ye.”
Gabrielle wasn’t sure what he meant, but she smiled at him because it sounded friendly and positive. “Thanks.” She indicated the door. “Okay to go inside?”
“Aye, of course.” The man worked the latch and pushed the portal open. “Pardon.”
Gabrielle gave him another smile, before she ducked inside the inn and let her eyes adjust to the lower light inside.
“Ah. There you are.”
Xena’s voice drew her attention, and she blinked a few times before the shadows dissolved and revealed her lover near the back wall, where she’d assembled some broken wood into a long table and spread some parchments out over it.
The soldiers, some of them, were scattered around the room working on fixing other tables with pegs and rope. Lennat and his friend were no where to be seen,and a quick look around told her neither was Perdicus.
With a sense of relief, she crossed the room and went to Xena’s side. “Here I am.” She acknowledged. “Can I do something?”
Xena leaned on the table with her knuckles. Her armor had been scrubbed clean, and the battle stains removed from her skin and in the morning light peeking through the windows she seemed to be in a much better mood as well. “Yeah.” She looked at her lover, then at the kitchen. “Cook something. We’re all starving to death and not one of us can boil damn water.”
Ah. Gabrielle caught the grateful peeks from the soldiers as she trotted obediently over to where the kitchen was, hoping she could find enough unbroken stuff to do something useful there. The destruction had littered the space with pots and jars, and she started picking them up and setting them on the counter as she moved further inside.
The cookfire was still warm, and she laid some wood on it before she retrieved a round, iron pot that had rolled into a corner and set it on the hooks over the hearth. There were a lot of odds and ends around, roots and bits of dried this and that, so she decided a big stew would probably be her best choice.
“All right.” Xena’s voice floated over to her. “When those damn scouts get back, I want two squads to fan out near the waterfront. Strip off the livery.” She instructed. “There has to be at least three men of war in the harbor. I want them.”
That caught Gabrielle’s attention, and she looked up from where she’d been neatly cutting a root to peer over at Xena in puzzlement. Men of war? Wasn’t that what was in the room with them? Why did Xena want three more?
The men seemed puzzled too. Xena’s sharp eyes caught the expressions and she leaned forward on her knuckles again. “She’s out for plunder.” The queen said. “That’s what’s in those ships.. That’s the prize.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle blurted. “Wow.. That’s true. They were taking all the stuff from the other ships, from the merchants.” She said. “But how did you know?”
Xena’s lips twitched. “It’s what I’d do.” She went back to studying her parchment.
“Oh.” Gabrielle went back to cutting her vegetables. She dumped them into the pot, already full of warming water, and then she continued scrounging around in the messy disarray. She found some dried meat, a large packet of tucked back in a cupboard and with a grunt of approval she started adding it to the stew.
Halfway through her chopping she paused. Wait. Her brow creased. Wasn’t she doing exactly what she’d seen Sholeh’s men doing? Taking whatever she wanted from the inn, and not thinking twice about the people who lived here?
Xena’s voice right behind her nearly made her cut her own thumb off. “Yow!”
The queen leaned against the counter, picking up a piece of the dried meat and nibbling on it. “You look like you think this is a chunk of the runt. What’s the problem?”
“Oh.” Gabrielle forced herself to continue cutting. Then she stopped again. “Is it?”
Xena stopped chewing, her eyes widening a little as her words came back to bite her hard in the ass. “Uh… “ She licked her lips. “No. Deer.”
“I think.” Xena examined the dried steak. ‘Yeah, tastes like it.” She decided, in silent relief.
“I was just thinking..”
Gabrielle relaxed a little at the familiar banter. “We shouldn’t take from these people. They lost so much already.” She finished cutting the meat and deposited it in the now bubbling water. It didn’t smell like much yet, but she found what was left of some dried herbs and added them. “Should we?”
Xena finished her bit of meat. “We’re probably going to die trying to get the damn Persians out of this damn city.” She told her lover. “I don’t feel bad about taking a pot of soup before I spill my own blood on the flagstones.”
Well, that certainly put it in perspective. “Oh.” Gabrielle felt silly. “Yeah, sorry. I wasn’t thinking about that. I just..” She looked around the small space. “The innkeeper here.. She was nice to me.”
“Everyone’s nice to you.” The queen remarked. “Some of them not just because they know I’d gouge their eyeballs out even.”
Gabrielle stirred her bubbling concoction. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Don’t guess.” Xena gave her a pat on the side, then she moved out of the kitchen area and went back to her table, just as low hoot came from the back hallway.
Xena was there, with her blade drawn, before the rest of the men could even react. She let a low whistle out, making a sign with her free hand as the soldiers dropped what they were doing and armed themselves.
Gabrielle was unsure of what to do, so she grabbed a broomstick and crouched behind the counter, watching her lover intently as loud sounds came from the back hallway. Yells and thumps, and as they came rapidly towards the closed door to the inn’s big room, Xena lifted her sword and put a hand on the doorlatch, tensing her body and preparing to yank it open.
A heavy body slammed against it, and popped the door open, surprising the queen who slammed her body right back against it instinctively and sent whatever had hit the wood surface tumbling back wards.
Clearly caught between wanting to yell and not wanting to announce her presence, Xena bounded forward and pounced on the doorlatch again, hauling the door open and twirling her sword as she lunged forward into the open space.
A loud squall sounded, and then Xena jumped backwards, hauling a body after her and swinging it around to throw it into the center of the room.
“Bloody Hades!” The innkeeper bowled over a table and landed on her butt. “What’s going on here? Who in the Hades are you?? Get out of my inn!!”
Two soldiers poured into the room after her, breathing hard. “Majesty, there weren’t no stopping that one.”
Xena sheathed her sword. “Figures.”
Gabrielle eased up from her crouch. “Oh! Hello!” She was surprised, but glad to see the innkeeper. “I’m glad you’re okay!”
The woman on the floor turned and spotted her. “You!!” She scrambled to her feet and lunged toward Gabrielle. “You little troublemaker! When I get my hands on you I’ll.. Law!!! Awk!!!”
Xena caught her around the waist and threw her backwards, sending her back to the ground. “Hold it, old woman!” She drew her sword again as the innkeeper made to get up, the blade’s point sweeping in her direction in a very no nonsense manner.
“Hold it yer ass!” The woman scrambled to her feet and grabbed a chair, swinging it at Xena fearlessly. “Bloody vagabonds! Thieves all of you!”
Xena, not surprisingly, stood her ground and as the chair came at her, she got both hands on her sword hilt and moved the blade in an impossibly small pattern. Wood chips flew in every direction, and just as the blade would have hit the innkeeper’s hand the queen lifted her boot lazily and kicked her backwards.
The woman landed on her butt again and glared up at Xena. “Why you..”
“Stay.” Xena pointed her blade at her. “I have no soft spot, especially for bitchy old women who try to hit my adorable partner.”
Gabrielle’s ears pricked at this new name for her, but she eased out from behind the counter and edged around Xena’s tall form. “She’s right.. Please don’t.” She told the innkeeper. “I didn’t mean to cause so much trouble.”
Xena snickered. “Yes you did.” She sheathed her blade again, but pointed her finger at the woman instead. “Be nice.” She warned. “Touch a hair on her head and you’ll lose yours.” Her hand fell on Gabrielle’s shoulder and she locked eyes with the innkeeper.
In the middle of starting another outburst, the woman stopped, perhaps seeing something in Xena’s face that was worth more as a warning than her words, or the bright blade. She shifted her gaze to the rest of the room. “Look at this place.” She muttered instead. “Disaster. Just a disaster.”
“Xena.” Jens appeared at the back door. “Scouts are comin.”
Satisfied that Gabrielle was safe from the crazed elder for the moment, Xena released her and joined her captain at the door. “About damn time.” They disappeared into the darkness of the hall, and around the room, the soldiers went back to their tasks.
Gabrielle walked over and extended a hand down to the innkeeper. “Sorry about that.”
Ignoring the offer, the woman got to her feet, and dusted herself off. She glanced furtively back towards the hallway, then looked at Gabrielle. “That’s Xena?”
The innkeeper sniffed. “Scrappy thing, isn’t she?” She slowly turned in a circle, watching the soldiers busy fixing tables, then she looked back at Gabrielle again. “Cut me head off, will she?”
Gabrielle tucked her hands behind her back and half shrugged, half nodded. “I think she really would.”
“That you messing with my kitchen?”
“Doesn’t that just figure.” The woman sighed. “By the gods, the worlds upturning all over us. I swear it.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle couldn’t deny it. “That happens a lot with Xena around.” She turned and headed back towards the soup, “You sort of get used to it.”
Far off, horns started blowing again, and they all paused to listen. Xena reappeared in the doorway and also listened, a faint smile appearing on her face. She rested her hands on the sill and studied the room. “Eat fast, boys.” She said. “We’re gonna be busy real soon.”
The horns blew again, now with a frantic note, before they faded out, and the sound of shouts and running feet took their place, but moving away from the inn. For now.
‘Let’s go.” Xena pulled her cloak around her and slipped around the corner of the building, emerging onto the dockyard frontage full of boats, and people gathered around gangways. Behind her, six men dressed in nondescript workman’s clothing followed and they started to walk casually down the street, blending with the rest of the crowd.
Well, trying to. Xena was aware she stood out a little, and she pulled her cloak hood up to frame her face as she strolled along. Beside her, Gabrielle was looking curiously around, her pale hair gilded in the morning light. “Thought you came down here.”
“No..well..” Gabrielle stared in fascination at the huge ships. “I went down the other way, where the little ones are, and that market.”
Here in the mid harbor, Shohleh’s troop ships were tied up, wagons rolling up around them and men busy moving stores from the land to the ships holds. As they watched, a cart rumbled towards one of them, full of struggling women on the back.
It pulled to a halt and the men started unloading the women like so many sacks, tossing them from one to the other and laughing as they struggled and tried to cry out through gags tied tightly over their mouths.
Xena motioned the group to pause, and the men separated and found walls to lean against, just watching the scene casually.
“Good thing you went the other way.” Xena remarked in a conversational tone. “Sinking all these damn boats looking for you woulda taken a while.”
Gabrielle was staring at the cart in horror, memories of her own taking popping up sharp and clear in her mind’s eye. “Xena, we have to stop them!” She started towards the wagon only to be hauled down like a sheep by one powerful hand clenched in the back of her clothing. “Xena!”
“Shh!” The queen hissed. “You want us killed before all the fun starts?”’ She gave her lover a shake. “What in Hades you think is going to happen if I just start kicking those guys asses?”
Gabrielle grabbed her arm. “If someone had been there when those guys were taking me…”
“Then you and I would never have met.” Xena finished her statement. “That what you wanted?”
The blond woman went silent, her expressive face twitching through several emotions before she looked back up at the queen. “No way.”
“Okay.” With truly remarkable patience for her, Xena patted her friend on the back. “Don’t do that again.”
There was steel in that tone, and she knew it. Gabrielle realized they were in a place where the queen wasn’t going tolerate being questioned and she nodded in agreement. “I won’t. I”m sorry.”
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and they started walking along the docks again, taking a detour around the wagon and blending with a crowd of local townsfolk who were gathered near a platform.
“Here then, I’ve told you you’ve got it all.” A man was on the platform, on his knees. Facing him were two of Sholeh’s soldiers, the real ones marked with her mark, and carrying the same air of deadly assurance as Xena did.
To one side a woman was standing, clutching anxiously at the edge of the platform, and watching the man kneeling. “Please.. He’s told you!” She called out.
One of the soldiers swung to look dispassionately at her. He was holding a scroll, and he carried it with him as he walked over to where she was standing, kicking her in the face with no warning. She fell back with a cry and hit the floor.
“Shah!” The soldier barked, before he went back to the man. “You bring ten boxes, ship master says he gave you twelve.”
“B.. I had to feed my familiy!” The man protested.
The second soldier backhanded him. “Two boxes or two lives. You choose.”
“I don’t have em!” The man spit out a mouthful of blood. ‘Traded em for food for my kids!”
“Fine then.” The soldier drew his sword out and grabbed the man by his hair, drawing his head back. “No one holds back from us.”
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip, holding on to Xena’s arm as she fought her instincts to protest. She looked up at the queen’s profile, so still and quiet, and the in that moment, Xena looked back down at her.
The queen sighed again. “You’re gonna kill me.” She released Gabrielle and signalled the soldiers, grabbing hold of a wall sconce over her head and kicking off the wall to sail over the heads of the city dwellers and land on the platform.
Without a sound, she drew her sword and attacked the guard holding the townsman, deflecting his awkward block and knocking his arm out of position as she whirled in place and came back around, the tip of her sword penetrating his armor and bisecting his ribcage with a startlingly loud pop.
Without waiting for a reaction she yanked her blade free and dropped to one knee, arching her body around as the second soldier attacked her. He was skilled, and she only just blocked his swing before she could get back to her feet and deflect the blade away from her.
He didin’t speak, neither did she. They circled each other as the townsman scrambled out of the way, his clothing drenched with the blood of the first soldier, now lying sprawled on the edge of the platform.
Xena glanced toward the ships, where as yet no one had noticed the battle. She knew she only had seconds before they did though, and the knowledge spurred her reactions as she evaded the skillful blade of her opponent and ducked past him, hopping lightly over the fallen body then crouching, and leaping into the air.
The man jerked back, startled, and started to raise his blade to protect his head but found Xena’s boots coming at him instead of her sword. He tried to dodge, but Xena twisted in mid air and lashed out in a powerful kick, catching him in the side of the skull and sending him spinning right off the platform.
Her men pounced on him, shoving aside townsfolk as they cut off his yell and then cut off his life, before the wide staring eyes.
Xena landed and wiped her blade on the dead man’s leggings before she sheathed it, standing to face the crowd for a single, heart pounding moment.
They stared at the tall, cloaked figure. She swept her hood back and turned her head to look at the crowd, bestowing a dazzling grin on them before she turned and leaped off the platform, getting out of the line of sight from the ship as she landed fairly close to where she’d taken off from.
Gabrielle was watching her in mute awe, her eyes wide, and she went immediately to Xena’s side and threw her arms around her lover.
The crowd broke from it’s stunned shock and started moving, circling Xena and her men and muskrat and obscuring them from view. Two of the townsmen grabbed the dead soldier of the platform and dragged him off and to the ground, a buzz of excited voices rising.
“By the gods.” The woman had grabbed onto the man who had escaped death by Xena’s graces. “By the gods, they’ve finally listened and sent help to us.”
Xena put her back to the wall, and her men gathered around her as the townsfolk pressed in, some reaching out to touch her cloak. “Find a path out of here.” She instructed the men. “We got lucky so far, but they’re not that stupid.”
“By the gods is right.” The man she’d saved pushed his way through to her. “It’s Xena! Xena the Merciless!!”
The volume increased as Xena heard her name repeated over and over again. “Shh.” She held up her hands. “Keep it down. Those bastards’ll be over here in a minute.” She waited for quiet to fall again, trying to ignore the big hug she was getting from Gabrielle.
It was such a ding to her merciless image, after all. She looked over at the ships, but a cart of overturned ale barrels was attracting all the attention at the moment, and she spotted a cotillion of Sholeh’s guards headed that way. “We’re gonna take this city back.”
Just as she thought they were clear, one of the captains looked their way, and then pulled a few of his men to a stop.
“Ah huh.” Xena pulled her hood back up. “Gotta go.”
“Wait!” The man begged her. “How can we stop them? Will you help us?”
Xena saw the soldiers starting their way. “Sure I’ll help you.” She said. “If we don’t all die here. Scatter, all of you!” She ordered. “I’ll be around.”
The crowd started to disperse in some confusion, and Xena ducked down a side alley as her soldiers cleared the way for them.
“Wow.” Gabrielle was clutching the edge of her cloak.
“Save the wow.” The queen led them down the alley, then she took an abrupt right turn and went down a narrower one, barely wide enough for her to pass through. “Suck it in, boys.”
A horn blew behind them, but Xena never wavered. She kept plowing through the gap in the building until she reached the end, sticking her head out to check before she paused and turned. “Follow me. Stay close.”
She eased out and started forward, staying between odorous stacks of fishing traps and the rest of the pier, looking for a spot they could hole up in until the alert was over.
“Xena, over there.” Gabrielle pointed to the tiny market. “Those people want Sholeh gone too - they were really pissed at them.”
“Great.” Xena wasn’t about to kick that gift horse in the ass either. She angled towards the market and hoped she wasn’t leading them into even more trouble.
They dashed across the open dock and ended up on the far side of the market, out of sight of Sholeh’s men and far from the ships of war. Xena paused as they got to the first stall, as Perdicus appeared and ran over to them.
“What was that?” Xena looked down at Gabrielle.
“There’s some kind of alarm going on.” Perdicus joined them. “No one knows what’s happening.” He glanced at Gabrielle. “Are you okay?”
Gabrielle nodded, but then she had to duck as Xena pushed them all against the wall. “Wh..”
“Sh.” The queen ordered, watching the edge of the dock intently. A boat was drawn up there, it’s gangplank down, but no activity going on around it. She could hear horns blowing down pier and as she caught the looks of the merchants now staring at them, she decided staying where they were wasn’t such a good idea. “Move.”
She headed across the pier with her little cadre following her, and as she reached the boat’s gangway, she drew her sword, whipping it in a circle as she crossed the wooden plank and jumped onto the deck. “Yah!”
She waited, but there were no answering calls, and no response from anyone aboard. “Hurry.” Xena waved them on. “Get behind the wheel there, and duck down.” SHe directed. “Jens, pull that gangway on after you.”
She waited for the plank to be stowed, then she joined the men and muskrat behind the cabin, where they were out of sight of anyone on the shore.
“Now what?” Perdicus asked, nervously.
“Now we wait.” Xena said.
“What if the guys who own this thing come back?” Gabrielle asked. “Sholeh’s men took all their stuff.” She moved carefully around on the deck, feeling the boat shift under her. “They were pretty mad.”
“Worry about that when it happens.” Xena leaned her elbows on the wood, peering over the top she was just tall enough to see over. “Jens, check belowdecks. Make sure we’re clear.”
“Aye.” Jens pulled his dagger out and started down the rickety stairs. “Belike old times, eh?”
Xena chuckled dryly. “Unlucky for them if it is.”
Jens chuckled also, and disappeared into the shadows below, as the rest of the soldiers took a seat with their backs to the cabin. Xena remained standing, watching the activity ashore, her body remembering again the feeling of a deck moving under her.
The plans she’d been sorting through, worrying over now shifted, and as she watched Sholeh’s men walking down the pier, obviously looking for something new ideas came to mind.”Old times. Heh.”
Continued in Part 21