Queen of Hearts
“Xena.” Jens pointed to the shore, where a wagon had pulled up reasonably close to side of the dock. The man driving it hopped down, and glanced at the ship, then casually leaned against the side of the wagon and fiddled with a bit of the strapping on the side of it.
“I see em.” Xena leaned one shoulder against the wooden cabin wall, crossing her arms over her chest. “Go over there and see what his game is.” She unhooked her chakram from her belt, and fingered it. “I’ll back you up.”
Jens smiled briefly, his scarred face creasing into a grin before he tugged his workman’s apron straight and circled the cabin, heading for the side of the boat closest to the shore.
“Now what?” Perdicus asked, moving to stand next to Gabrielle, who was naturally standing right next to Xena. “How did I get myself into this mess?”
Gabrielle turned her head to look at him. He looked tense, and upset, and he was wearing a rough linen surcoat covering his Persian armor that his fingers were plucking at. He’d cut his hair very short and he’d gotten a little taller than she remembered him as - and she found it very hard to related to him as part of a past she’d thought she’d put far behind her.
She turned back to watch what was going on, not wanting to miss anything. Xena had one arm resting on the cabin and the other hand juggled her round weapon as she followed Jens progress intently. “Xena?” Gabrielle softly called out. “That’s one of the men from the inn. I remember him - he was sitting at one of the front tables when I was telling stories.”
“Yeah?” Xena shifted the chakram as Jens set the gangway in place, and walked across it, his attitude friendly as he greeted the man. “Question is, was he listening to be inspired, or listening to have something to tell the Persians?”
“He was there the whole time.” Gabrielle said. “Even when the soldiers came, I remember he was really surprised, and he hid under the table.”
“Well, I would have too.” Gabrielle said. “If I wasn’t so busy running away from them.”
“Wait.” Perdicus grabbed her arm. “You were the storyteller?” He sounded excited. “You’re the one they were all looking for? The one Sholeh wanted?”
Gabrielle turned again to face him. “What do you mean?’
Xena was caught in a quandary, half of her fixed on what was going on with Jens, the other half of her tuned to the unexpected drama at her side. If her eyes had been able to move independently like an iguanas, they would have.
“Word went out.” Perdicus said. “One of her men came in and said there was a woman coming to the city, a storyteller, and that she’d pay a thousand dinars for her.”
Xena’s ears almost stood away from the side of her head she was listening so intently. Sholeh knew? They were expecting Gabreille? Her nostrils twitched as she realized that meant someone in her little party had given the information up.
And, well.. Since she’d picked up half of them from the damn Persian’s army, that wasn’t such a shock now, was it? Xena growled softly under her breath. Not a surprise, no, but it didnt’ mean she didn’t have to hate it.
“Wow.” Gabrielle murmured. “I can’t even imagine what a thousand dinars looks like.” She stared hard at Perdicus. “They knew I’d be there?”
Perdicus looked around, glancing at Xena’s profile. “That’s what they said.” His eyes searched her face. “I didn’t know you told stories anymore. I thought you..”
“I did.” Gabrielle cut him off. “Stop. You know that.”
“Well, yeah your father..”
“Yeah.” The blond woman glanced away. “Well, I don’t have to worry about him anymore.”
Jens was coming back onboard, with the man from the wagon. He was slapping him on the shoulder in a friendly manner, so Xena was free to put her weapon away and look down at her lover. Gabrielle had both hands on the wood surface, and her expression was a grim as her cuteness would allow.
Xena put her hand on her companions shoulder. “Since you’re a wanted woman, stay here.” She drawled. “And for the record, you’re worth a Hades of a lot more than a piddling thousand dinars.” With a pat, she left Gabrielle standing there and circled the edge of the cabin herself, meeting Jens and their new friend as they stepped down off the gangplank and onto the deck. “Well well.”
The man took a deep breath, looking excited and nervous. “H… hello.” He cleared his throat. “Ah.. T’word came from the market, yeah? That you all were here.”
Xena leaned against the tall mast, careful to keep it between her and the view from the dock. “From that little market there?” She pointed to the end of the pier, where the small, sad looking stalls waited. Behind them, she could see a few merchants, though most of the stalls were empty and seemed closed up.
“Aye.” The man said. “The old woman sent me down here. Said to tell ye the searchers were gone and they didn’t find nothin.”
Nothing eh? Xena considered that, sorting through her plans and what few options they really had. She knew there was a core of the city that wanted out from under the Persians, but she also knew these townsfolk were long used to peace and their militia had been pounded to nothing by Sholeh. “All right.” She said. “What were they looking for?”
The man’s eyes shifted right and left. “That little storyteller what was with ye.” He said. “Persian wants ‘er bad, real bad.”
“So they’re not looking for me?” Xena felt a sense of surreal amusement.
“No, m..uh.. Q.. Uh.. “’
“Xena.” The queen stated. “I know who I am. I don’t need no stinking titles.”
“Word spread about the dock down there.” The man went on, with a nervous chuckle. “So.. We thought.. I mean, everyone thought maybe you could.. Uh.. Come up to the inn, like, and tell us what t’do. We want to help get rid of these pigs.”
Xena studied his face intently. “Sure.” She said, after a pause. “After sundown. We’ll be there.” She added. “Tell everyone who wants in on this.”
The man looked relieved. “Great.” He indicated the wagon. “T’old woman had me put the storyteller’s stuff in there, sos no one saw it. Brought it here, thought she might like it.”
Xena motioned to two of the soldiers. “Go get whatever’s on the cart.” She ordered. “We’ll find a spot over near that wall to hole up until dark, then head over to the inn and see if we can’t get this party started.”
“Aye.” Her men crossed the plank and headed for the wagon.
“Thanks.” The queen told the man. “Listen this wont’ be too hard. Most of her troops are out by the pass, looking for me. All we need to do is kick the rest of em out and shut the gates.”
“Right.” The man nodded. “Uh.. How are we going to do that?’
“You’ll see tonight.” Xena promised. “Just make sure everyone’s there, I don’t like to repeat myself.”
“Don’t you worry.” THeir new friend backed away, until he was at the gangway. “We’ll make sure everyone’s there, that’s for sure.” He turned and left the ship, sidestepping the two soldiers who were coming back with a load of sacks from the wagon.
The cart drove away. Xena turned to Jens. “Go ashore. Listen for what’s up.”
He nodded. “Think they’d seen us?”
“I don’t know but I don’t like surprises, and having no one in the damn city realize I”m here killing people is one big damn surprise. Dont cha think?”
Jens shook his head. “Lots of this stuff’s not making sense, Mistress.” He answered, lowering his voice and coming closer to her. “What’s the game here? Tis almost too easy.”
“Mmhm.” The queen grunted. “Something ain’t clicking. So get going and find out what that is.”
“And on your way back, swing by the stable and get all our guys. Bring em back with you.” Xena added, very softly. “Not the others.”
“Aye, undrstood, Mistress.” He tilted his head and looked past Xena. “What about that’un?”
Xena didn’t turn, knowing who he meant. “He’s all right.” She sighed. “Unfortunately.”
“On me way.” Jens left the ship again, and Xena stepped back to let the other two men bring the sacks forward. “Muskrat, come claim your junk.” She said. “Then I want everyone to set up shop belowdecks.”
The men stopped in surprise. “We’re not hauling off to the shore?” One of them asked. “Thought we’d..”
“No.” Xena replied. “We’re staying on board.. But not where we’re at.”
The men looked at her, then shrugged and knelt to unburden themselves, as Gabrielle came over to join them. Xena merely stood and watched her hand on the mast and her face turned into the wind, waiting for her companion to gather her things up. “They all there?”
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder. “Except for Patches.” She said, with a mournful expression. “Xena, please don’t let anything happen to him.”
The utter absurdity of the request touched her in an odd way. “Do my best, muskrat.” Xena ruffled her hair. “Right now, y’know he’s got a better chance of not croaking than we do.”
“I know.” Gabrielle looped her carrysack over her head and joined Xena near the mast. “So are we going over to where those merchants are? Maybe we can buy some stuff from them and help them out. They looked like they could really use it.”
“We’re not going ashore.”
“We’re not?” The blond woman looked confused. “I thought you said..”
“Sh.” Xena nudged her towards the stairs. “Go down there, and find something cute to do while I figure out how to sail this thing.”
Gabrielle looked at the queen, then she tipped her head back and looked up at the furled sail on the mast. “Where are we going in it?” She asked, more curious than anxious.
“To cause trouble.” Xena ran her hands over the ropes, trying to recall long forgotten skills when she’d captained a ship not too different from this one, give or take a crew of scoundrels and a stack of crossbows or two.
Xena straightened. “Everyone get below.” She ordered. “Stay out of sight.” She nudged Gabrielle again. “Gwan. If you find a bed down there ,maybe we’ll use it.”
Gabrielle half grinned, then she made her way to the door, reaching it just as Perdicus did coming from behind the cabin wall. He stopped and gestured for her to go first, and she paused to look back at Xena before she ducked her head and went down the stairs.
Oblivous, Perdicus followed her, along with the rest of the men. Xena watched them until they disappeared, then she walked over and pulled the gangplank up before she went to the wheel, and started examining it.
Belowdecks, Gabrielle bypassed the soldiers busy searching the hold for anything useful as she wandered through the wooden structure exploring it. She was aware of Perdicus following her, but she shifted her bag on her shoulder and ignored him as her eyes adjusted to the gloom and she could see better around her.
It was cramped below. She didn’t really like the narrow, creaking passageways and the ceiling, though sufficient for her height, would have Xena bent over uncomfortably.
Most of the inside was the big space she figured they put their cargo in - it smelled of old wine, musk, and a little bit of rancid oil in there though the area itself was pretty much empty. She crossed through it from the front, carefully stepping over the raised, curved ribs of wood going from one side to the other.
The boat was moving a little, and she found that disconcerting. The most water she’d ever seen in her life before now was the creek near her village, and the river running past Xena’s stronghold and though she’d ridden the raft with Xena on that wild day last fall she wasn’t sure she liked the idea of being on something that floated.
Once past the hold she found herself in the wider aft portion of the ship, and as she squeezed between two large, square support spars she found herself in a reasonable sized room at the very back.
She paused, and blinked, as light bathed her face from leaded glass squares all along the back wall of the ship and she turned around to view what she realized was probably where the guy who owned the ship hung out.
It wasn’t very spacious, but there was a comfortable looking bed built into the wall on one side, and a worktable built into the other. Three chests were pushed against the forward wall, heavy leather things bound with brass strapping and a shelf on the back wall held odd metal instruments and stacks of rolled up parchment.
The instruments peaked her curiosity. She walked over to the shelf and lifted one of them, a long tube, one end thicker than the other. She puzzled over it’s use, then she turned it end on and lifted it, putting her eye to the smaller end and peering through.
“Oh.” Immediately, she pulled her head back, blinking at the suddenly oversized view. “Hm.” She put the instrument down and turned, as she heard someone approaching.
“Wow.” Perdicus stepped over the threshold and joined her in the room. “This isn’t so bad.”
“No.” Gabrielle turned in a circle and examined the ceiling, darkened with soot from two wall mounted oil lamps, mounted firmly to the walls on swinging brackets. She pushed one, now unlit, with her finger and watched it move, the oil chamber staying even and upright no matter how the lamp swung.
Neat. She looked over at the back wall, which was, she realized, the back wall of the ship itself with it’s blocks of glass set right into it, letting in light from the outside and a wavery unclear image of the dock behind where the ship was tied up.
Near the very back corner, she spotted an iron grate, and she walked over to look up at it. A hatch was behind the grate, and she wondered about it. Moving closer, she reached up through the grate and touched the wood, then she spotted a latch on one side.
“What are you doing?” Perdicus asked. “I wouldn’t mess with stuff in here. I”m sure that… the queen is going to want this place.”
Gabrielle worked the latch, and felt the wood move under her fingers. She pushed hard against it, and the hatch creaked open, letting in more light, and a fresh breeze from the outside. A stout rope was tied off to the latch and again to the grating, making it easy to pull the hatch back closed again. “Cool.”
Gabrielle turned towards him reluctantly. “I don’t think we’re going to be on here that long.” She said. “But Xena will probably want to be here, that’s true.” She walked over to the worktable and set her bag down on it, sparing a very wistful glance at the bunk. “It’s tall enough for her to stand up in, for one thing.”
“Well, we could go find some other place to be.” Perdicus said. “Don’t you want to?”
Gabrielle looked at him. “No.” She said. “I’m fine here, thanks.” She leaned back against the table, watching as he shifted uncomfortably. “You can go on though.”
Perdicus looked at her. “I thought we could talk, since we’re stuck here for a little while.” He said. “Now that we re back together I mean.” He moved closer to her. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”
Ugh. “Perdicus, we’re in a lot of trouble here, and everything’s different.” Gabrielle said, after an awkward pause. “I never thought I’d seen you again either.” She watched her old beau uneasily, feeling anxious about this sudden, unwelcome complication in her life.
She’d always liked Perdicus, and she’d once told Lila if she had to marry someone, there were a lot worse people certainly, but now..
His face shifted. “What does that mean?” He asked. “Your father betrothed you to me. That hasn’t changed.” He argued. “Gabrielle, we’ve got a chance to get our lives back now. All we have to do is get out of here.”
Voices sounded outside, and they heard footsteps approaching. “My father’s dead.” Gabrielle said, recognizing at least one of the sets. “We’re not in Potadeia anymore, and I’ve… “ She looked over at the doorway as Xena entered, the queen pausing, her pale eyes flicking between the two of them. “My life’s changed.”
Xena looked at her, then she turned her head and looked at Perdicus. “I thought I said do something useful.”
Perdicus looked back at her uncertainly. “Well, I…”
“Scram.” Xena said, pinning Perdicus with a dour stare. “Or start screaming. You pick.” She advanced towards him, grabbing his arm when he hesitated and tossing him out of the cabin.
“Hey..” He protested. “I was just..”
Xena stuck her head out. “You’re just pond scum.” She told him. “Leave Gabrielle alone or you’ll be dead pond scum.”
He stared at her. “She’s not a slave. She can do what she wants!”
“She belongs to me.” The queen interrupted him. “And she does what I want her to do.” She drew her sword and started to emerge from the room, pausing when he turned and moved rapidly away from her, disappearing into the cargo hold where the rest of the men were.
For a long moment, she just watched the shadows, then she turned and leaned against the doorway, studying it’s other occupant. Gabrielle’s face, always ridiculously expressive, now showed what she thought was relief and a bit of embarrassment. “So.”
“Hi.” Gabrielle tucked her hands under her arms. “Thanks.” She glanced at the cabin.“This place is pretty okay, isn’t it?”
The queen entered, looking around. “Not bad.” She agreed. “Figured out why it’s so damned empty.” SHe held up a bit of parchment. “Crew couldn’t afford to take on cargo. Persians took everything they had.” Her dark head shook back and forth. “So they walked.”
“They just left?” Gabrielle found it hard to believe.
Xena walked over to the grating, and looked at it curiously, leaning forward to peer out the open hatchway. “Looks like it.” She touched the grating, snorting under her breath. “Why the Hades didn’t I think of that?”
Gabrielle came over to her, easing closer and leaning against Xena’s body, circling her with both arms and giving her a hug all in pensive silence.
Xena peered down at her, one arm dropping to fall across Gabrielle’s shoulders as she studied the unhappy expression on her lovers face. “What’s wrong with you?” SHe asked with typical bluntness. “You cycling or something?”
Gabrielle sighed. “No.” She released the queen and straightened. “I just feel like we’re going nowhere. Things just keep getting weird.”
Xena pondered that. “We are going nowhere.” She agreed. “And life sucks right now.” The queen continued. “Just about anything I”m gonna have us do is probably going to get us killed, and we don’t even have the luxury of a gods be damned bathtub in here.”
“On the other hand, I do love you more than my horse.”
Gabrielle’s face creased into a grin, and she hugged Xena with a good deal more enthusiasm this time. “Well, I love you more than anything including horses so there.” She assured her companion. “And I know if anyone can get us out of this, it’s you.”
Xena enjoyed the hug, feeling an odd, almost guilty sense of relief. “Keep that thought.” She “Because tonight, we’re going to roll the dice and either we’ll win it all, or it’s going to be a very crappy morning.”
“How good are you at tying knots?”
Gabrielle looked up at Xena with a quizzical expression.
It was dark, and the docks were deserted when Xena stepped off the gangplank and paused, waiting for Gabrielle to join her. “Jens.” The queen turned and addressed her captain. “Listen for my signal.”
“Aye, Mistress.” Jens said. “But don’t you think maybe we should come with ye?”
“No.” Xena pulled her hood up. “This is a job for a pair of sneaky women. Ready, muskrat?”
“Um.. Sure.” Gabrielle tugged her own hood up and tightened the tie at her throat. The silence of the docks around her made her shiver a little, and she wasn’t really sure she was nearly sneaky enough for whatever it was Xena had in mind.
Nevertheless, she was very glad she was leaving the ship and going with her lover, rather than staying onboard alone. Or more precisely, not alone. She followed Xena as they cleared off the gangway, and the soldiers pulled it aboard.
Xena tugged on her gauntlets, and surveyed the empty pier, then she turned and led the way towards the city center. She kept her eyes scanning right and left as she walked along the edge of the waterside buildings, aware of the silence as though it was a physical thing.
It wasn’t right. She wasn’t sure though, if the unreal peace was due to a lockdown by Sholeh’s forces - not unreasonable after the previous night’s violence and her afternoon display - or if it was something more sinister.
It was hard to decide. She had no idea really how much Sholeh knew, after all, and because she was so unsure of what the real deal was, she’d brought Gabrielle with her. If something was afoot the last thing she wanted was to have to worry about what was going on back at the boat.
The men could take care of themselves.
Gabrielle, could not. “So.” Xena slowed her steps briefly, watching the deck of a large man of war they were approaching. “See anything up there?”
Gabrielle willingly squinted. “I see a boat.” She offered. “There are lights on the back of it.”
“True.” The queen agreed. “But not by the gangway.” She pointed. “Not even a guard.”
“Mm.” Xena angled away from the pier as the wall turned inward, closing in on the square she’d attacked the soldiers in. It was dark and empty now, the platform deserted. She paused at the corner and stood for a moment, letting her senses extend into the space, as Gabrielle tucked in behind her.
The breeze was blowing down the dock and into her face and there was an expected scent of fish, and salt, and human decay on it. The trash of the city was dumped in the waters to be taken out to sea, and the mixture of that with the smell of burning somewhere nearby turned her guts a little.
But it wasn’t close by, so she cautiously eased into the open space and went to the platform, circling it warily. She paused and reached up to grab the platform edge, pulling her body up so she could observe the top of it.
Empty. She released her hold and landed, dusting her hands off as she turned to face Gabrielle. “Nothing.”
“Um.” Gabrielle looked around. “What were you expecting to see?”
Xena put her hand on her companions back and guided her towards the street leading into the square. “If they figured out someone did something here, I’d have expected to see a dead body or two on top.” She said. “But it’s clean as the tip of your nose up there.”
Gabrielle cleared her throat a little. “Maybe they didn’t see what happened.” She suggested. “I think your guys sort of um.. “
“Hid the bodies?”
Xena considered that. She found it highly unlikely that they could have killed two of Sholeh’s henchmen in broad daylight in the middle of a crowd and have it go completely unnoticed. On the other hand, she also found it highly unlikely that despite her killing probably a score of Sholeh’s soldiers and leaving them scattered all over the street the previous night she’d heard no sign of anyone looking for her, just for Gabrielle.
It made no sense at all. Either Sholeh was the only one in her entire damned army with a brain, or she and Gabrielle were going to turn a corner and walk right into a surprise neither of them would enjoy.
She turned the corner and paused, but the stretch of street, broad and double sized to allow wagons to bring cargo down to the docks, was as empty as the square had been. The buildings to either side, during the day full of merchants, were dark and quiet and she felt nothing but conspicuous as she lead Gabrielle up the road.
“Are we going to the inn?” Gabrielle asked, after they’d walked for a few minutes further.
“Yes.” Xena said.
“I thought you told the guys..”
“I did.” The queen came to a crossroads, and peered in all directions. “I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing except for me.”
“And you.” Xena asserted. “Remember I told you all that stuff about not trusting anyone?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle found herself much happier to be where she was at the moment than she had even been when she left the ship. “So what are we doing then? Are we going to help the city people?”
“We’ll see.” Xena turned to her right and started up a narrower street, moving from the dark silence of the docks, to the muted sounds, and shuttered lights of the inhabited part of the city. She could smell vague wisps of cooking from behind the tightly closed doors, and hear voices, low and subdubed.
It made her feel better, for some reason. She heard the sounds of hoofbeats in the distance, and then the sounds of boots crunching somewhere nearby. She pulled Gabrielle into a niche in the wall and held her still, as the sounds came closer. “Shh.”
Gabrielle found herself wrapped in Xena’s cloak, her head poking out under her companions chin. She could hear the footsteps approaching and then male voices, with the odd timber of Persia in them. She felt Xena release one arm from her, and the motion as her companion reached up over her head, to fasten her hand around the hilt of her sword.
It was nervewracking, but in all that, she still felt safe.
“Keep your head down.” Xena whispered in her ear. “So I don’t cut it off.”
It made her shiver, but still, in her heart, Gabrielle felt the oddest sense of exultation. She snuggled closer to Xena’s body and hunched her neck down, her heartbeat speeding up as the voices got louder and louder.
She didn’t understand the language. She thought maybe Xena did, because the queen snorted a little, an exhalation she felt behind her shoulderblades as the soldiers came even with them and stopped.
They were arguing. One of the men, fully outfitted in armor, and wearing Sholeh’s crest on his surcoat was poking the other man on the shoulder. His companion had his arms spread wide, and he was protesting in a loud, angry voice.
Gabrielle recognized Xena’s name in the yelling and she felt another snort work it’s way through her companion’s chest but she had no time to reflect on that because the first soldier gave the second a huge shove, and he stumbled backward and fell landing right at Xena’s boots.
“Ahgh, ya Persian bastad!” The man yelled, kicking out with his boots as the other soldier approached and reached for him. He nailed the man in the groin, and started to get up, but the soldier recovered and pulled his curved sword out, lunging forward in an attack.
Gabrielle felt Xena start to move, and she grabbed hold of the edge of the doorway they were sheltered in and scrambled out of the way as the queen drew her sword and stepped forward, engaging the Persian soldier in a fiercely vicious, silent parry.
Steel rang against steel.
Gabrielle pressed her back against the wall and looked around, hoping to spot a rock or something she could use in case she needed it. She saw a water jug, and figuring it was better than nothing she pounced on it, grabbing it by it’s wide handles and turning just in time to reel backwards as the second soldier made a clutch at her. “Hey!”
“C’mere cmere.. “ He panted. “You’re me ticked out of this you little.. You’re what she wants!” He grabbed at her arm, and she shoved him back with the jug. “Stop it.. Git over here!”
“Leave me alone!” Gabrielle hopped out of his path, swinging her pot around with all the speed she coudl muster. She hit his outstretched fingers with a cracking sound, and he howled in pain, just as the sounds around them started to increase as the noise caused doors to open, and heads to pop out windows.
Holding his fingers, the man came after her, his face now angry. “Why you little…”
Gabrielle swung her pot again, hitting him in the shoulder as he half turned away. She spotted Xena fighting furiously with the other soldier, and behind the queen, there were bodies moving fast towards them. She ducked under the swinging arm of the man trying to catch her and bolted for the queen, as the first of the soldiers reached them. “Xena!”
“I see em. Bite em in the ankles or something!”
Gabrielle did what she could, which consisted of hauling around and throwing her water pot at the soldier as hard as she could, stumbling backwards when the force of her toss knocked her off balance. She crashed into something hard behind her, then she fell to the ground, with a heavy body on top of her.
“Yow!” She got her feet under her and scrambled away from the flailing arms grasping at her clothing, only to be hauled up short by a hand catching her belt. “Hey!”
“Move!” Xena headed back down the road, half carrying her as they just evaded the outstretched lance tips of six determined Persians. “Never knew you could throw such a good pot, muskrat.”
“Buh!” Gabrielle scrambled to keep her balance and keep moving forward. She could hear the soldiers hot on their heels, and she pointed to a narrow passageway. “That goes to..”
“Great.” Xena shoved her into the small opening and turned, putting her back to it and her sword towards the Persians, who scrambled to stop in time and engage her. “Lemme take out the trash first, watch my back!”
Gabrielle whirled around, able to see little else but. She searched the ground for something to pick up, finding a piece of stone from the roof all she had handy. The moonlight flashed off Xena’s sword, and she heard the queen laugh and she hoped like Hades that meant they were going to be okay.
A spear flew past Xena, making Gabrielle jump in surprise, but the weapon bounced off the wall and fell at her feet with a clatter. She peered at it. “Guess that’s one of those looking horses in the tail things, huh?” She tossed her rock away and picked up the spear, spreading her hands out as Xena had taught her and turning to face the battle. “I’ve got a spear!”
“Great!” Xena gutted an opponent and kicked his body back off her sword. “Don’t stick me in the ass with it!”
“I won’t!” Gabrielle took a better hold of the spear and watched anxiously, glancing behind her when she thought she heard something coming.
She turned to face them, putting her almost back to back with the queen. She lifted the weapon and braced herself for whatever was coming determined to live up to Xena’s trust in her, no matter what she had to do.
No matter what.
A dark figure rushed out of the shadows at her, and she thrust the spear in front of her, bending her knees as she prepared to take the shock of a collision. “Yah!”
The figure reeled to a halt. “Gabrielle!” Lennat waved his arms, trying to keep from plowing into her. “Whoa. I found you!”
“Lennat!” Gabrielle hissed back. “YOu should get out of here! Everyone’s after us!”
“I know!” He gingerly edged around her spear point. “Listen, come with me! I know where you can hide.. They’ve already half wrecked the inn looking for you!”
Gabrielle half turned, and hopped back a step as Xena yanked her blade from the last of the soldiers and started in her direction unexpectedly. “Yow!”
“Move.” The queen bumped into her impatiently. “Stick your poker into inn-boy’s nuts if he keeps standing there.”
“B.” Gabrielle looked at the spear, then at Lennat, who backpedalled in a hurry. “Where are we going?”
“Away from those dead soldiers.” Xena wiped her sword off on her cloak and sheathed it. She caught Lennat watching her in some horror, and treated him to a sexy grin. “Bet you’re glad you’re not my washing slave, huh?”
“Uh.” Lennat glanced past her. “No. I mean yes.” He started walking quickly. “There’s a storeroom.. You can hide there.”
“Hide?” Xena chuckled. “Yeah, okay. Lead on.” She tugged her cloak straight. “They take your place apart?”
Gabrielle just concentrated on keeping her spear from tangling with Xena’s long legs, and not trip over herself as she hurried to keep up with the two others. She was aware of Lennat answering the queen, but the words passed over her as she tried to make sense of what was going on.
Far off, a horn blew. The sound seemed like it had a triumphant note in it, and she looked quickly up at her lover, who had cocked her head to listen. “What is it?”
Xena glanced down at her. “A horn.”
“I’m not sure.’ THe queen relented. “But I don’t like the sound of it.”
They moved down the alley, following Lennat as the walls narrowed in and let them move only in single file. The sound of the horns grew louder and more frequent, and by the time they reached the end of the lane, there was the sense of movement in the streets around them.
Xena stood in the shadows, and watched, seeing dark figures, some wearing armor, all heading inward, to the center of the city. A prickle of foreboding made her shoulder blades twitch, and she pulled her hood up again. “Lets go see what’s happening.”
Lennat looked at her like she was nuts. “They’ll…”
Xena merely walked past him, staying as much in the shadows as she could. She heard some words exchanged behind her, then the light patter of Gabrielle’s boots as her lover followed her down the street. “Stay near the wall.” She cautioned.
“Okay.” Gabrielle whispered, holding her spear like a walking stick, and moving it along with her steps. “Where are we going?”
“Whereever everyone else is.” The queen muttered, watching a squad of soldiers move by at a quick pace, voices raised in excitement.
“They have them!” One of the men said, as he passed right by Xena and Gabrielle, jogging quickly after a squad of his mates. “Knew they’d get em!”
Xena sidestepped a helmet left in the road and drew her hood a little closer, as they moved up the lane that led to the inn and climbed the slope that angled from the docks up to the towering wall and the gates. It was obvious to her that was where the crowd was heading, and her height let her see at the top of the road a cluster of torches ahead.
“If they’re all happy, that’s not a good thing for us, huh?” Gabrielle asked, suddenly.
“Fast learner, aintcha?” Xena exhaled, absently rubbing the dried blood from her hands with the edge of her cloak. She spotted a smaller alleyway to the left, and she tugged Gabrielle towards it, getting them out of the increasing flow of bodies. “Let’s take this route.”
To Gabrielle’s eyes, the other path seemed far steeper, and a little creepy, but she followed Xena and they started to climb up it, bracing their hands on the walls to either side to keep their balances. It was dark, and she could feel the strain in her legs. “Oof.”
Without looking back, the queen reached over and grabbed the back of her collar and started hauling her along, her long legs lifting them both up with seemingly little effort. At the end of the path she could see a wall blocking their way just about her own height, and beyond that the space was lit with flickering torches. “Shh.”
Gabrielle pressed against her as they reached the wall on the far end, putting her back to the wall and watching back down the way they’d come. The slope was steeper than she’d even imagined, and she braced her spear against the rough cobblestones as she caught her breath.
Next to her, she felt Xena shift, and her body stretch higher, and she looked up to see the queen extending herself to peer over the edge of the wall. It occurred to her suddenly that Xena’s choice of paths had be anything but random, and she turned to look up at her friend just as the queen let out a vicious, heartfelt curse.
“What is it?” Gabrielle asked, as Xena turned, sliding down the wall and coming to rest with her boots braced against the slope and her head resting on her hands. When no answer was forthcoming, she looked quickly, around, spotting a wooden crate against the wall and dragging it over so she could stand on it.
Her balance was precarious. She hugged the wall and got up on her tip toes, enough for her to peer over the top and see what was beyond it. At first, her eyes blinked hard, getting used to the bright light of the torches around the big central square she remembered passing on her way in.
As it was then, it was now full of people, soldiers mostly with townsfolk on the edges and in the central square, before the wide open gates, was a large bunch of mounted soldiers surrounding a group of captives.
Gabrielle frowned, then she squinted and focused on the first captive in the group, a sense of shock making her skin warm, and then grow cold. “Oh my gosh.” She whispered. “It’s Brendan!” As she watched in horror, the Persian soldiers herded Xena’s men into the center of the square, laughter audible even from where she was standing.
She couldn’t understand what was funny. Brendan and his men were unarmed and weather bedraggled, but their backs were held straight, and their heads high, the force of fifty seemingly intact from when she’d last seen them. “Oh no.”
“Idiots.” Xena muttered, barely audibly.
Gabrielle turned, climbing precariously off the box and sitting on it, letting her hand rest on Xena’s shoulder. “Wow, I thought they’d have gotten all the way back to the stronghold by now… I can’t believe they got captured!”
Xena straightened and let her head rest against the wall’s stone surface. “You can’t, huh?” She exhaled. “Stupid piece of dung mindless fools.”
“Oh, Xena.” Gabrielle rubbed her back. “I”m sure they tried really hard.”
Xena rolled her head to the side and stared at her, lips twitching sardonically. “Yeah.” She let her hands rest on her knees. “Now what in the Hades am I gonna do?” She asked. “They’re probably gonna start cutting pieces off those bastards before morning.”
“You can’t let them do that.”
Xena sighed once more. “No, I can’t.” She agreed. “If I know that, and you know that, wanna guess who else knows that?”’
Gabrielle frowned. Then she stood up and got back on her box, looking over the wall again. The Persians had started tying the prisoners to the stakes in the square, while lines of soldiers stood by with crossbows cocked, alertly watching the crowd, and the area around them. “I don’t understand.”
Xena leaned on the wall next to her, eyes just visible over the top. “Why take prisoners?”
“Why take enemy prisoners?” The queen asked again. “I’d just kill em.” She said.
“Unless I wanted to get something for them, or use them as bait.” The queen went on. “And since anything Sholeh wants, she can pretty much take I guess those poor bastards are the chum in the water.”
Gabrielle looked away as Brendan was hoisted by his tied hands to dangle in a tripod of wood posts. “What does she want with them?”
“Me.” Xena shrugged.
“To join her army again?” Gabrielle voice rose.
“No.” The queen murmered. “I think she’s given up on that. I think she either wants me dead, or discredited, and she figures if she starts killing my men either I’ll jump in front of those arrows to help em out or I’ll walk away and there goes that idiotic reputation of mine.”
“But…” Gabrielle started to protest, then she subsided. “Oh.” She said. “You mean if you don’t do anything, then…”
“Its damn funny.” Xena wiggled her fingers. “I thought I did such a good job being a complete bastard. What the Hades went wrong?”
“You’re a hero.”
Gabrielle turned and looked at her, a serious expression on her face. “Xena, you are.” She said. “Stop pretending you’re not.” She watched the pale eyes fasten on her, shadows chasing through them. “That’s what you meant by your reputation, isn’t it? Those men are loyal to you because they know you care about them.”
“I do not.” Xena snapped back at her. “You don’t know what your talking about. They’re just dumb soldiers, and this is war, Gabrielle. You can’t care about people you’re going to see killed.”
“Then if it doesn’t matter, you can just walk away and let them be killed, right?” Gabrielle’s voice softened. “If that’s all this is - is war, and you don’t care. It’s just a bunch of guys.”
Xena turned and looked out at the square without answering.
“I don’t think that’s true.” Gabrielle said finally.
The queen sighed and let her head rest against the cool stone. “I don’t really know what is true and what’s not anymore.” She said. “I used to think I knew who I was.” She straightened. “Damned if I know what I am now.” Her eyes flicked to the square. “Let’s go.” She turned and started back down the alleyway.
Gabrielle looked at the men, and at the suffering Brendan. Then she slowly climbed down off her box and grabbed her spear, following Xena as the queen walked off into the shadows.
They were just finishing putting the fires out when Xena and Gabrielle got back to the inn. Instead of walking towards the doorway though, the queen turned and slipped inside the stable, it’s badly hung door shuddering under her touch.
Gabrielle hesitated. Xena hadn’t asked her to follow, and though she usually would have, something inside her told her that she shouldn’t. She waited for a few moments, just to be sure Xena wasn’t coming back, then she took a deep breath and walked on towards the inn.
How funny life was, wasn’t it? She felt very tired, and really depressed and she had to put a hand out to steady herself as she almost tripped up the uneven steps. She didn’t even really have the energy to wonder what Xena was going to do about the mess they were in - she just hoped she’d get a chance to get in a few more hugs before it all was over.
That’s all she wanted, really. Gabrielle sighed again. That and maybe a warm bath, and a smile from Xena. That wasn’t too much to ask from life, was it?
Maybe it was. Her eyes drifted over the cracked wooden supports and the broken shutters. Maybe it wasn’t fair for her to get what she wanted, when everyone else had to suffer.
And people had suffered. The darkness masked the details, but near the outer wall were laid still figures under blankets, and she saw two men kneeling before a young woman who was sobbing, her arm held awkwardly and covered in blood.
The Persians had been brutal, and Gabrielle felt her heart sink as she realized she and Xena were the reason for it. The soldiers had been searching for them, and left in their wake death and pain since their targets had slipped away leaving the people in the inn to suffer.
She felt ashamed, more so when she saw two children creep out from behind the side of the inn, crying and holding on to each other. Two girls, scared and bewildered and giving her a shocking flashback to the moment she’d been taken and all she’d had to hold on to was Lila’s shaking hand.
She swallowed hard, as the two passed her, barely giving her a glance as they stared around in horror and she remembered vividly being that terrified child, looking out at a world turned suddenly, viciously mean.
Then she looked at the ground, and exhaled, before she walked on, passing a still, huddled body with a spear sticking up out of it and a man simply sitting beside it, staring past her with unseeing eyes.
At the door she stopped, with her hand resting against the wood surface, then she turned and put her back to the wall and leaned against it, the smell of burning things filling her lungs and putting a sour taste on the back of her tongue.
Xena hardly realized what she was doing, as she picked up a handful of straw and started rubbing Patches scruffy coat with it. The pony was eyeing her in mild surprise, evidently wondering what he’d done to rate the attention.
Damned if she knew. Her hands moved automatically, straightening his thick coat as she leaned a little against his short frame, wanting the simple and undemanding contact.
In the silence around her, she heard the echoes of condemnation. Her options seemed to have neatly run out, and as she stood there stroking Patches neck she knew one of the few moments in her life when she really just felt like sitting down and crying.
She didn’t. She couldn’t. She was too old and too jaded and she knew better than most how badly life sucked sometimes - there were no tears in her.
Were there? She felt a band tighten painfully around her chest, and her throat ached, taunting her.
Gods, she wanted to. Xena stepped back and slid down to sit with her back against the wall and her knees upraised with her arms resting on them. “Know what, runt?”
Patches eased over to where she was sitting, nibbling hay casually as his neat little hooves settled near her boots.
“I screwed up.” The queen went on, with a sigh. “I screwed up so many things this time I ain’t got no idea where to start to count them, much less fix em.”
Patches nudged her leg with his nose.
Xena stroked the side of his cheek with one hand. “What am I gonna do, little one?” She mused. “Know what I should do? I should grab her, and you, and just sneak out of here.”
The pony nibbled at her fingers, lipping them hopefully as he shifted his feet, his ears cocked as he listened to her.
“I should do it. Gods only know I’m as useful as teats on a bull in this place.” She thought about the words briefly. “Wanna hear something crazy?”
Patches snorted softly, and snuffled, pushing his head into her chest.
Xena leaned forward and put her lips near one ear. “I don’t wanna be queen anymore.”
The pony’s ear twitched violently, and he shook his head.
“I don’t want to owe anyone anything, y’know?” She looked up into his round, liquid eye. “I dont’ want to have to make the damn decisions anymore. Isn’t that pathetic?’
Patches seemed to understand, or at least, he managed as much of a sympathetic look as his equine features were capable of. He stepped closer and bumped her roughly with his nose, his warm breath stirring her already disheveled hair.
“Aren’t I pathetic?” Xena exhaled, closing her eyes and giving in to the rolling despair, letting her head come to rest against one hand as she let the echoes of her words fade into the shadows.
“Gabrielle!” Lennat started in surprise as he came through the door and saw her standing there. “You’re back!” He looked around. “Wheres.. Uh..”
It took a minute before she could pull herself out of the cloud of depression that had settled over her. “Um..” Gabrielle turned to look at him. “She’s planning.” She said, after a pause. “Wow, they really came through here, huh?”
“They did.” Lennat came over and leaned against the wall next to her. “But you know what? No one said anything.” He added. “No one told them about you or her.”
Gabrielle watched some of the men come back across the courtyard. ‘They don’t look mad.” She commented, as one of the men spotted her and straightened up, running his hands through his hair and giving her a shy smile. “Don’t they care about all this mess?”
Lennat scrubbed his face with one hand. “I don’t know.” He confessed. “I guess it’s been so awful being under their boots that it feels good to see them messed up a little.”
“A little.” Gabrielle looked over at him. “But not that much.” She glanced past him and lowered her voice.” They got some of Xena’s men.”
“Yeah, we heard.” The blond man said. “But that’s no problem right? She’ll get em back, and then we’ll be set.”
The confidence in his voice shocked her. Gabrielle felt a little short of breath as she realized that some how, some way, these people they barely knew had fallen for the mystique of her lover’s invincibility at the most inconvenient of times. “Yeah?”
Lennat nodded. “Was she mad?”
Mad? “Oh, about her guys?” Gabrielle managed to answer. “Uh.. Yes, yes she was.” She pushed away from the wall. “I’m.. I’ll go see if she’s done with her.. With planning.” Her heart was beating fast, she could feel it inside her chest, an uncomfortable sensation that made her want to rub the spot above it.
Instead, she started for the steps.
“Gabrielle, wait.” Lennat came after her. “What.. I mean, is there something we can do to help now?” He asked. “Can we.. Uh.. Get some weapons or something? I mean, you’re the expert.”
Gabrielle resisted the urge to look around to see who Lennat was talking to. ‘What?”
“You told us.” He put his hand out to touch her arm. “You told us how Xena went against the odds and won, Gabrielle. Everyone heard it.”
‘Well, she did but..”
“And after what happened on the docks, that did it. We knew she could lead us to get rid of these scumbags.” Lennat said, in a tone of certainty. “She’s everything you said she was.”
Gabrielle gazed at him unhappily. “She’s not..um..”
“We just want to be a part of things.” Her companion said, earnestly. “I know we’re not soldiers, and maybe she doesn’t think we can do much, but we can! We know the city, and we’ll do whatever it takes.. Whatever she wants us to do.”
Whatever she wants them to do. The blond woman felt her guts twist. “Lennat, these guys are really mean. You could get hurt.. Maybe killed.”
“No one else is doing anything. We want to make a difference.” He walked over to her. “Like in your story.”
Her story. Gabrielle suddenly wished she’d been born mute, like the boy who had cared for the oxen back in Potadeia. “Ah huh.” She murmured. “Uh.. For now I guess.. If you could um.. Listen? To the soldiers? Maybe you could find out something Xena might like to know.”
Lennat visibly perked up. “Really?”
She rummaged through her very tiny store of experience. “Yeah.” She said. “Like, uh.. When they change watch shifts.. Something like that?”
The man slapped his head. “Of course.. Sure.” He agreed. “That makes a lot of sense. I guess that’s why you’re her bard, huh?”
Bard? “Um.. Right.” Gabrielle patted his arm, then she escaped and half ran, half fell down the steps, her legs shaking as she crossed the burned and broken courtyard, the dampened fires casting long shadows and masking her path as she made her way towards the barn.
Xena heard the door open. She kept her eyes closed though, since she knew it was Gabrielle entering and she waited in pensive silence as the soft footsteps crossed the floor and neared her. She heard her lover pat Patches, and the soft sound of her voice as she murmured to the pony before she settled to her knees by Xena’s side.
After a moment of awkward silence, her cheek was warmed by a gentle touch and with that Xena’s mind was made up. She let her eyes flutter open. “Hey.”
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle asked, her voice concerned. “Boy you had me scared there.”
“Good.” Xena answered mildly. “I like scaring people.”
Gabrielle took a seat next to her, shoulder to shoulder. “Not that kind of scared.” SHe said. “I was worried about you when I saw you just sitting there.” She took Xena’s hand in both her own, and rubbed it. “You feel so cold.”
Xena extended one leg out, her boot ending up between Patches forelegs. “Do I?”
“You do. Can I get you a blanket or something?” Gabrielle edged closer and pressed her body against the queen’s, feeling the unusual chill where their skin touched.
“No, I’m all right.” Xena said, not really sure if she was or not. “I just feel like killing myself, that’s all.”
“Bft.” Gabrielle half turned and reached out to touch Xena’s chest. “That’s not funny.”
“I”m not laughing.” Xena let her head rest against the wall as she studied her companion. “We have to get out of here.” She said. “So here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna get your stuff, and I”m gonna tack up this damned annoying runt of yours, and we’re gonna go on down to the boat.”
“And then, we’re gonna sail out of the harbor, and hope like Hades I still know how to navigate.” Xena finished. “Sound all right with you?”
Gabrielle peered at her in the dimness, her face half hidden itself in the shadows. “We’re leaving?”
“Just like that? What about Brendan?”
“He took his chances.” Xena said. “I”m not being the queen today. I just want out.” She exhaled after she finished speaking, swallowing as the exhaustion she’d been holding at bay for too long settled back over her. “Maybe I’ll teach you how to fish. You like that?”
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, then she closed it again. She could see Xena’s profile, and as she looked closely, she saw the weariness there she’d missed before, masked in the queen’s dark energy. The protest she’d started to make died unspoken as she reached out to stroke Xena’s cheek instead. “I”d like that.”
Xena’s eyes were watching her face intently. “You don’t think I”m a loser for running away?” She asked. “Am I disappointing you? Lousy end to a story, ain’t it?”
Gabrielle thought of the people outside, and of the men in the stocks, and about her own words proudly telling of her friend’s heroism and looking into Xena’s eyes, she realized something a little shameful about herself that made her guts twist to think of.
“I don’t care.” Gabrielle said, after a long pause.
Xena waited, but as the silence lengthened, she finally reached over and took the hand Gabrielle had let drop to her thigh and held it. “You don’t care?”
The soft green eyes lifted and met hers. “If it means I don’t have to lose you I don’t care.” Gabrielle stopped, and swallowed. “I never really wanted to be a storyteller anyway.”
Patches extended his neck and nibbled at Gabrielle’s pale hair as the two women sat there together in silence. Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and pulled her into a hug as the sounds outside started to fade and the horns of the watch echoed faintly.
Gabrielle blinked her eyes a few times, not really able to see in the gloom as she sat there listening to Xena’s heartbeat just under her right ear. She no longer felt anxious. Her mind was mulling over the thought of going on the boat with Xena and spending some time in the nice room she’d found.
It was completely selfish. Gabrielle understood that. “Thank you for thinking of Patches.” She said, after a bit. “I’d miss him.”
Xena rested her head against her lover’s. She exhaled slowly, then she looked around. “Well, lets get moving.” She said. “Before anyone gets any stupid ideas.” She gathered her strength and straightened up, biting the inside of her lip as her now stiffened body screamed in protest.
“Xena, are you..”
“Sh.” The queen grunted.
Gabrielle fell silent, but she could feel the tension in the body under her hands and she rubbed Xena’s back gently, feeling a faint shiver under her touch. After a few breaths, the tension relaxed a little, and she released her grip as the queen started to stand up.
Xena was hurting, she could tell. The queen normally moved in a smooth, easy way with little effort and watching her now slowly easing herself upright was painful to see. “Xena..”
“I said shh.” Xena’s armor rustled into place as she got to her feet and reached out to put her hands on Patches back, steadying her balance. “Let me be an old bitch in peace, huh?” She slowly flexed one leg and then the other, sucking in a breath as her back almost seized up on her.
Another damned good reason to slink out of the place, before she had to try and fight and end up falling on her ass. With a sigh, she patted the pony’s back and stiffly circled him, going to the door of the barn and opening it just enough to look out.
The courtyard was busier than she’d expected. Men and women were milling around, some working to remove debris, and others just standing talking to each other. The voices were very low, and even her ears couldn’t distinguish them, but the body language indicated both excitement and anger and made her wonder.
Anger? Sure. The bastards had come through like rutting boars looking for her, and they’d a right to be angry at them and at her too. It was the excitement that seemed strange, and she half turned only to find Gabrielle right at her elbow, peeking under it. “Ah. Muskrat.”
“Are we going out that way?” Gabrielle asked. “Everyone will see us.”
“Mm.” The queen replied. “Probably not a good idea since I’m not real popular out there, eh/”
Gabrielle didn’t answer. She turned and went back over to where Patches was, picking up his bridle and starting to put it on.
Xena watched her, head cocked to one side as she pondered the body language on this side of the barn wall. After a minute she walked across to the back of the barn, where a pile of old, broken farm equipment was stacked. “Let’s see if I can find another way out.”
“That’s probably a good idea.” Gabrielle finished fastening Patches bridle and stood at his head, stroking his cheek as he jangled his bit at her.
Xena lifted a bit of wood and metal and tossed it to one side. “That ticked at me, huh?”
The queen stopped and turned. “No?”
Gabrielle shook her head, almost invisible in the gloom. “They’re waiting for you to come out and tell them how we’re going to beat Sholeh.” She said. “So it’s probably better if we go some other way.”
Xena put her hands on her hips, now fully turned around and staring at her consort. “Where in the Hades did they get that idea from?”
The blond woman nodded. “You said you’d come back here, remember? I guess they think that’s why.” She started leading Patches out of his enclosure. “I guess I thought that too.”
“I don’t know how to explain to them now.” Gabrielle continued, as she came even to where Xena was. “So, can I help? Patches can drag some of that stuff away from the wall, I think.” She started to tug at one end of a wooden board.
Xena didn’t move. “I thought you said you didn’t care.”
Gabrielle continued to pull on the board.
“Gabrielle.” Xena’s voice dropped, and strengthened, taking on an edge. “Put that down and come over here.”
Obediently, her consort did, leaving the debris and walking over to stand before the queen, head tilted back to look up at her.
Xena studied the somber eyes facing her with a sense of discomfort. “Well?” She said, more sharply than she’d intended. “Were you just spouting crap before?” She felt a churning in her guts as the unexpected conflict shook her. “I told you not to make me out as some half assed hero.”
Gabrielle’s eyes dropped, and she looked away. Her shoulders slumped and she merely stood there, head a little down, mutely waiting.
The queen reached out and tangled her fingers in Gabrielle’s pale hair, tugging her head up and forcing their eyes to meet again. They stood there watching each other across a sudden, uncomfortable gulf until she finally released her grip and turned away. “C’mon.”
She turned back to the pile of junk and started plowing her way through it, pulling pieces off and throwing them with some violence into the dark corner of the barn driven by a sense of dark turmoil. At least the motion was loosening up her body, and she took a small comfort from that as she dug deeper into the rubbish.
Working at her side, Gabrielle picked up the smaller pieces and carried them more carefully to the other side, setting them down near where the water trough was. She moved past Patches as she came back over to where Xena was, giving him a little stroke or pat every time.
The last piece blocking the wall was a huge yoke. Xena grabbed hold of it, then realized she’d made a mistake when the thing overbalanced and started to fall on top of her. She stumbled backwards. “Gabrielle get out of th..”
The yoke came down fast, and she just barely got her hands up on it before it’s weight was buckling her knees and she crashed down onto them as the yoke slammed against her shoulders. She was on the verge of collapsing when she felt a warmth against her back and heard Gabrielle grunt as she added her grip to the wood.
The dust settled around them, and Xena reeled for a moment, then got her body back under control and balanced the weight of the yoke. “Okay.” She gasped. “I count to three, let go, jump back.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle rasped immediately. “Oof.”
“One, two..” Xena gathered her strength and took a deep breath. “Three..” She flexed her body and pushed off against the yoke, feeling Gabrielle pushing it upward behind her as the weight lifted off her shoulders and she hurled herself backwards, taking Gabrielle with her as they tumbled across the dirty straw and landed just at Patches’ feet.
The yoke crashed to the ground with a splintering crack, scattering dust and clumps of old hay over everything.
Patches snorted, and backed up, shaking his head.
Xena blinked, waving her hand to clear the dust as she found herself laying pretty much in Gabrielle’s lap with the blond woman’s arms around her. She peered through the gloom, and cursed. “Useless piece of..”
Gabrielle caught her breath. “You okay?” She blurted, wincing as she flexed her hand and found a splinter in it. “What’s wrong?”
Xena relaxed abruptly, letting her body go limp across Gabrielle’s legs and leaning backwards to look up at her through the gloom. “No door.”
“Oh.” The blond woman’s expression tensed into an adorable scowl as she looked at the wall. “We did all that for nothing?”
Gabrielle exhaled audibly.
The queen’s eyes studied Gabrielle’s face. “Sorry about that hero thing, muskrat.” She said, in a quiet voice. “I’m really a much better jerky jackass of a tyrant.”
Gabrielle touched her face with the backs of her knuckles. “Whatever you are, I want to be with you.” She said. “So I guess that makes me jerky too.”
The pale blue eyes blinked at her. “You weren’t supposed to agree with me, Gabrielle.” She sighed aggrievedly. “You’re supposed to tell me how wonderful I am.”
“Oh. Sorry..” A smile briefly creased the blond woman’s face, which morphed into a grimace as she flexed her fingers. “Ow.”
The queen picked up her consort’s hand, spotting the splinter she’d been worrying out and capturing it neatly between her teeth. She pulled it out, feeling Gabrielle flinch as she spit the bit of wood out before she very gently kissed the spot she’d taken it from.
Gabrielle’s body relaxed and she leaned over, resting her head against Xena’s shoulder.
Xena exhaled, letting her hands fall to rest against the hay cover floor as she looked up at the roof, pondering the possibility of spiders coming down on top of them. “So much for that idea.” She started to push herself upright. “Guess we’re going out the front door after all. Hope you got your talking game on, Muskrat.”
Xena pulled herself to her feet, acknowledging the new set of aches she’d just acquired, and headed for the door to the barn, grabbing Patches reins as she passed and pulling the pony after her. “Move it.”
Gabrielle scrambled up, stretching her arms out with a grimace as she followed Xena to the door and hoping she’d figure out what to say to everyone before it opened.
Boy, life was just getting suckier every minute.
Continued in Part 22