Queen of Hearts
The barn door was heavy, and Gabrielle had to put a lot of effort into closing it, which gave her a moment to collect herself before she turned and faced the crowd of people standing there before them.
Xena was standing just in front of her, one hand on Patches reins and the other wavering between wanting to grab at her sword, and wanting to cover her eyes – or at least, that’s how Gabrielle interpreted her body language anyway.
The courtyard was full of townsfolk, and torches had been set around to cast light across the ground and the doors to the barn, almost as though they’d expected Xena to make a grand entrance through them. She was surprised at how many eyes were watching them – there seemed hardly room to stand between the ramshackle arbor walls and the doors to the inn.
At their entrance, the crowd started moving toward them, and the sound of voices rose in excitement as the city dwellers approached where they were.
Gabrielle carefully dusted her hands off and walked over to join the queen, stepping just past her and turning so her back was to the crowd. “Want me to tell them we’re taking off?” She asked, looking up at Xena’s face outlined clearly in the torchlight.
Xena looked down at her.
Gabrielle simply waited. What else could she say? Her heart was telling her leaving the city was wrong, but she was honest enough with herself to know that she cared more about being with Xena than helping the people.
So if Xena didn’t want to help them, that’s all there was to it. She’d do her best to explain to them and they’d move on.
She twitched a little, and riveted her attention back on the queen after it’s momentary drift. “Yes?”
Xena put her hand on her companions shoulder and exhaled, cocking her head to one side as a grim expression appeared on her face. “When this is over, I’m gonna strip you naked and spank you senseless.” She said, with complete seriousness. “I swear it.”
Gabrielle quickly looked behind her at the gathering crowd, then back at the queen. “Promise?” She whispered, trying hard not to smile.
“Promise.” Xena diverted her attention from her cheeky distraction and faced the crowd. She pulled Gabrielle around to her side and draped her arm over her shoulders as the men and women of the city gathered close and the voices died down as they studied her with undisguised fascination.
As she stood there, and they stood there waiting, Xena felt a weird twitch inside her chest and she suspected she either was getting sick, or something even more annoying was happening to her. She looked at the faces opposite her, and she detected fear, interest, and most surprisingly, hope there.
Lennat stepped forward, twisting his fingers together nervously. “Your majesty.”
Xena wasn’t really sure she was that anymore. Her army was dispersed, her men captured and probably tortured by now, some duke had probably taken over the stronghold, and her decisions lately had frankly sucked.
However. “Yes?” The queen answered, since no one else appeared likely to. “This all the people you could find?”
Lennat licked his lips. “Some..” He paused, looking around him for support. “Some of us are down by the square.” He said. “There’s some bad things going on down there.”
Without visibly moving, Xena’s body stiffened as a chill went down her back. “To my men?” She asked, in the calmest of voices.
Lennat nodded, after a pause. “Hung two of em on the gate, said it’d bring you in here.”
Xena sighed. “Damn.”
Gabrielle put her arm around Xena’s waist and gave her a squeeze. “I can’t believe they don’t know you’re already here, Xena. What’s wrong with them?”
“I can’t believe I’m going to do what I’m going to do.” Xena replied, with another sigh. “I can’t believe I’m buying into that bullshit hero story nonsense of yours, either. “ She squared her shoulders and faced the crowd again. “All right.” She lifted her voice considerably. “First thing I need to do is go teach those stupid bastards why those men were willing to walk right into Sholeh’s trap for me.”
The crowd whispered and exchanged looks.
“You mean.. I thought they were captured.” Lennat said. “That’s what the soldiers said.”
“Yeah, that’s what they think.” Xena chewed the inside of her lip. “Who’s seen the layout there?” She changed the subject. “You?” She indicated a man’s hesitantly raised hand. “All right, you, and you, come over here.”
She released Gabrielle and went over to the side of the barn, where a ramshackle table was leaning against the wall. “Bring that torch over here, and someone grab a piece of parchment. “ She looked up to see everyone goggling at her. “You wanted action? Well move it!”
After a long stunned moment, the men lurched into motion, one of the younger women turning and running back towards the inn calling out for parchment. Lennat hurried over to Xena’s side and motioned the other men with him, and slowly the crowd started to follow.
Gabrielle stayed where she was, now grasping Patches bridle as she sorted through what Xena had just said. Had she really meant that Brendan had purposely gotten captured just to be where she was? The more she thought about that, the more she realized Xena had known all along what the truth was.
Of course Brendan had walked into trouble. Of course the men with him had gladly put their lives on the line for their beloved queen. They would die for her. Brendan had once even said that, casually as though he’d been talking about having his dinner.
What was inconceivable to her was that Xena had considered, if even so briefly, just walking away from them.
She walked Patches back towards barn, feeling a mixture of confusion and dismay that this woman she’d thought she’d known had suddenly become a little strange to her.
How could Xena have thought about leaving them? She opened the door and led Patches back into his little domain, taking him into the enclosure and standing there with her arms around his neck. “Wow, Patches.”
The pony seemed a bit disgruntled about being back in his little pen. He tossed his head and jangled his bit, looking towards the still open door. Gabrielle stroked him gently, pulling the thick mane out from under one of the bridle straps. “We sure are in a pickle, huh?”
“Not that I really can say anything.” Gabrielle admitted, leaning against the pony. “I was ready to walk away from all this too, wasn’t I? I could have tried to talk her out of it.” She rested her forehead against the pony’s neck. “I wish I knew what was right and wrong anymore.”
She released the pony and went over to where Xena had been sitting when she’d found her and sat down in the same spot, not really wanting to know what was going on outside, content to sit there and wait to see what Xena wanted her to do.
What if it had been been Brendan who’d been hung on the gate? She knew what that was. She’d seen the victims of Xena’s wrath similarly hung on a number of occasions, and she wasn’t ready to think about seeing the man she’d come to think of as a friend hanging there like that.
She felt more than a little sick to her stomach. She propped her elbow on her knee and let her chin rest against her fist. Maybe it would be better if she went down to the ship and just waited with the rest of the men there, she thought.
Then she remembered Perdicus was there, and thought better of it. Talking to him was worse than sitting here waiting to know the worst of what was going on, since at least here she didn’t have to see him looking at her and wondering who in the Hades she was now.
She sure didn’t know.
Gabrielle looked up to find Xena leaning on the enclosure railing, gazing quietly at her. “Oh. Sorry.” She scrambled to her feet and ducked past Patches. “I was just..”
“Getting away from my evil self.” Xena concluded. “Don’t blame you. If I could get away from me right now I would too.”
Gabrielle slowed to a halt and they faced each other over the rail. After an awkward moment, she cleared her throat. “I was just bringing Patches back in here.”
Xena’s lips twisted sardonically but she merely straightened up and tugged a bit of her armor into place. “I’m going down to the docks to get the men. I want you to stay here.” She studied the ground, refusing to meet Gabrielle’s eyes.
It felt like the bottom part of her stomach had just dropped free, and Gabrielle had to swallow past a sudden lump in her throat. The emotions between them were abruptly changed and uncertain, and she remembered that one moment after she’d defied Xena the first time, when she thought she’d gone past a line and couldn’t get back.
Horrible. Terrifying. “Are you coming back here with them?” She managed to ask, in a soft tone.
“Probably not.” Xena replied.
Gabrielle’s heart was racing so fast it was making it hard to breathe. “Are you going to sail away with them in the ship?” Her voice cracked on the last word and she closed her jaw tightly.
Xena went quite still, then she turned her head and looked at Gabrielle. “You think I’d do that?” She asked. “And leave you here?”
“I don’t know.”
Now it was Xena’s turn to swallow. “You want me to? This isn’t a bad place, once the Persians take off.” She said, in a forced, casual tone. “You’d do all right.” She waited for Gabrielle to answer, then she looked back up after a long moment of silence to see her companion standing there, hands gripped tightly around the rail, tears running down her face.
Her body shifted closer. “Okay, maybe not.” The queen muttered. “Stop freaking out. I’m just trying to find a way to keep from seeing you spitted on a lance, not get rid of you.”
Gabrielle turned away and wiped her eyes on her sleeve in an almost angry gesture. “Yeah, thanks.” She went over to Patches and started messing with his mane, her back turned to Xena. “Fine, I’ll stay here. Come back whenever you feel like it.”
The queen leaned on the rail. “Gabrielle don’t make this tougher than it has to be for..”
“Why not?” Gabrielle turned and faced her lover. “Why should it be easy for you? It’s not easy for Brendan, or those people, or me.” Her eyes were dark with anger. “So go ahead! Go leave, or hide or whatever it is you’re going to do and just..” She turned away and put her arms around Patches and buried her face into the side of his neck. “Forget it.”
She let the silence lengthen, until she had to lift her head again and turn, only to find the space Xena had been in empty, and herself and Patches alone in the barn.
The shock left her lightheaded, and she had to grab hold of the pony’s mane to keep from falling down on the ground as she turned fully in a circle to confirm what her eyes were telling her.
Xena was gone.
She was alone.
Gabrielle’s mouth opened, then she shut it again, backing away from the rail until she collided with the wall, and slid down it to sit on the floor, shaking. A soft sound escaped from her and she cradled her head in her hands, giving in to the unexpected grief that racked her with almost noiseless sobs.
Xena pressed her back against the wall across from the docks, letting the sounds of the city filter through her senses as she waited for the right moment to cross.
Or at least, she pretended that was what she was doing. She pulled up the edge of her cloak and wiped the sweat from her face, rubbing her eyes furtively as she did so. She waited until she was pretty sure no one was watching, then she moved away from the wall and headed for the ship.
She was spotted, and the plank was in place as she reached the edge of the dock and she crossed without incident onto the deck of the ship. “Jens.”
“Here, Mistress.” Her captain met her. “We’re all packed up ready, we tucked things up when we heard about them having Brendan and them.”
Xena stopped walking, resting her hand on the wall of the cabin. “Did you?”
“All ready to move out.” Jens said. “You figure we can bust em from there without them folks? Not much fighters there.”
Xena could feel the air moving in and out of her lungs as she watched her captain watch her, the absolutely confident look on his face betraying his assumptions about what her plans were. Her jaw clamped shut on what was about to come out of it, and she took a long, steadying moment before she tried to talk again. “Um..” Her throat relaxed a touch. “Get everyone up here and ready. I’ve got to get something below. Then we’ll talk.”
“Right.” Jens nodded, turning to motion to the men. “Out from back of there, you lot.”
Xena slipped past him and through the door to belowdecks. She pushed past the men moving up the steps who hurriedly moved out of her way and escaped through the cargo hold, almost breaking into a run as she found the door ot he captains cabin and got through it, closing it behind her with seriously shaking hands.
Inside it was thankfully silent and she crossed the deck to sit down on the bunk, resting her elbows on her knees and clasping her hands together.
She felt cold. She felt confused.
She felt lost, having turned her back on the one thing she thought she could count on, throwing her intent to the winds and deciding to return to the ship and take off regardless of everything.
Regardless of anything.
If she just got out of here, and left everything behind she could start over again, right? Xena felt like she was breathing too fast, and there didn’t seem to be enough air in the room. Just take the ship out, go somewhere, take the few men she had with her and maybe… there were places down the coast, little towns..
No realm, no crown, no..
Xena’s eyes fell on the common, dun colored bag resting on the captains table. She stared at it for a long, frozen moment. “Were you really going to do that, Xena?” She asked herself out loud. “Are you really that much of an idiot or that much of a piece of scum?”
Her voice echoing off the walls was her only answer. She got up and went to the table, sitting down on the rough stool as she picked up the bag and opened it.
The scent rising from it made her close her eyes and she waited for the ache to pass before she opened them again and closed the bag, folding her arms over it and putting her head down on them.
It didn’t pass. She just kept hurting inside. She got up and walked over to the grated window and stared out it, seeing a sprinkling of stars overhead and remembering what it was like to be out at sea, with nothing but stars around her.
Quiet. At peace. The waves hitting the hull and lulling her to sleep. Xena turned and leaned against the wall, catching sight of her own reflection peering back at her from the silvered metal mirror against the far partition.
She didn’t recognize it. Her hair had grown long since she’d left the stronghold, hanging partly into her eyes and framing her face with a wildness she hadn’t seen in a long time, a face that was far gaunter than she remembered with dark circles under the eyes and lines she didn’t recall having marking the angles.
She could barely meet her own eyes in the mirror. It seemed to her every single decision she’d made since leaving the castle had been wrong and now she was on the cusp of making yet another one with no expectation this one would be any better.
She studied her boots for a little while, aware of the creaking overhead as the men assembled and waited for her. Finally, she lifted her head and met her own eyes again, this time more squarely. “What’s it gonna be, Xena?”
Those pale eyes studied her as though they were someone elses. “Pleasure or pain? Hard or easy?” She folded her arms across her chest. “Your vision or hers?”
The decision, in the end, was easier than she’d thought it would be. Or maybe, she’d never really had a choice in the first place. She stepped closer to the mirror and straightened up, tugging her armor into place and running her fingers through her hair to push it back.
Then she went over to the basin in the room and scooped a handful of water out of it, washing her face with brisk motions and drying it off on the bit of linen left next to it. She turned and walked out of the room, then she paused and went back, grabbing the bag off the desk and taking it with her as she disappeared again into the darkness.
Patches edged over and gave the silent figure against the wall a nudge. Gabrielle lifted her head from her hands and looked up at him, having run out of tears and emotional energy. She had gotten past the shock of Xena’s sudden departure, and now she mostly felt just very sad, and tired.
“Hey boy.” She reached out and patted his leg. “Looks like it’s just you and me now huh?”
Patches nudged her again, and snorted.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle sighed. “I shouldn’t have said that. She was trying to apologize and I just made her mad. I always do that.” She said. “Now she’s gone.”
The pony shook his head.
“Maybe she will take the ship and go.” Gabrielle concluded sadly. “Gods, that hurts, Patches. I love her so much.”
Patches nibbled her hair.
“Everythings so messed up.” Gabrielle let her head rest against the wall. “I should have gone after her.” After a moments silence, she exhaled, and got up, struggling to her feet as she stretched out her aching legs and wiggled a half asleep calf.
Patches seemed encouraged by this, and he thumped his head against her chest, knocking the wind out of her.
“Oof. Cut that out.” Gabrielle winced, rubbing her breastbone. “I hurt enough.” She leaned her arms across the pony’s back. “Well, Patches.. you know what? If Xena’s not coming back, someone has to do something about those guys.”
Patches turned his head around and looked at her from one dark, liquid eye.
“Yeah, I know I’m not worth much.” Gabrielle murmured. “But you know, at least I can try. I can’t let those guys just die there thinking no one cares about them.”
That wasn’t fair, and she knew it. Xena did care about her men, she’d seen it so many times in so many ways she had no doubt. That was why the thought of her walking out on them had turned her so up side down, shocked her so badly, that her lover had wanted to leave them to die so she could…
Gabrielle went still, only her lashes blinking as she stared across Patches back. “What would make her do that, Patches?” She whispered. “What was different for her, this time?”
Patches rolled his eyes, and snorted.
“I was different.” Gabrielle let her head thump down onto his back. “Oh Patches, what a stupid idiot I am.” She turned her head sideways and rested her cheek on the thick, bristly coat. “Or is that just what I want to think?”
The pony sighed.
“I guess it doesn’t really matter, does it?” She straightened up. “I’m going to go over there and see what I can do.” She started to walk out of the stall, startled when the pony followed her promptly. “Oh.. ah..” She stumbled forward as she was bumped roughly in the back. “Okay, okay.. I’m going.”
Patches herded her out of the barn and into the now quiet courtyard, only the fluttering torches showing any signs of life.
Gabrielle pushed the inn door open, peering inside at the crowd gathered around one of the hastily fixed tables. Heads turned quickly on hearing the creaks of the hinges, but the men relaxed when the recognized her and turned back to what they were looking at.
She walked over to where they were, feeling a sense of distance from everything that made the floor seem far away, and the voices just a cloud of buzzing. But the men separated when she neared, and she could see what was on the surface.
Parchment, spread out, with dark, bold marks on it and writing in a hand she recognized.
The recognition nearly made her turn away, but she gathered her resolve and moved closer instead, leaning her hands on the table as the men turned to focus on her.
“Gabrielle, did you get any rest?” Lennat asked. “Xena said not to trouble you.”
She flinched a little inside at that, but at the same time, it made a tight wound knot inside her relax just a trifle. “Um.. yes I.. what is this?” She changed the subject. “Is that the square?”
Lennat turned back to the map. “Yes.. Xena drew it out, but she said she had something to take care of, and she left before she could tell us what we were to do.” He looked at her. “But you probably know.”
Oh. Oh. “Um.” Gabrielle studied the drawing.
“She said she was going to get some help.” One of the other men said. “I guess those other soldiers.”
“Right.” Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest to hide her crossed fingers. “Well, um.. she’s probably going to figure out a way to make a distraction, you know? To make everyone look somewhere else.”
“Ah.” The men nodded. “That makes sense.” Lennat agreed. “But where do we fit in?”
Gabrielle studied the map, thinking furiously. What would Xena do? Really make the distraction? Sail away? “Well.” She decided to come down on the side of the positive. “If she makes a scene, then I guess we need to be around here.” She pointed at the roughly drawn city square. “So we can.. uh.. sneak in and cut the guys loose in the mess, right?”
“Of course.” Lennat slapped the table. “That’s what she meant. She said for us to be ready.”
“Yes, yes she did!” The other man said. “We should go now! We don’t want to miss out on helping!”
The men in the room crowded close, except for the careful space around Gabrielle. “There are already many there.” One of the older men said. “We could mix in with them.”
Gabrielle laid her hands on the table. “We will mix in with them.” She said, in a more certain voice. “All we need is that distraction, and it can be anything. Xena’s..very clever. It could be.. uh.. just something you dind’t expect, but we have to be ready to jump in there.”
Lennat reached forward and briefly covered her hand, then withdrew in an almost nervous gesture. “We can do that.” He assured her. “Really.”
“Okay, lets go.” Gabrielle said.
The men started to move around, chattering excitedly. Lennat came over to Gabrielle’s side. “Gabrielle.” He lowered his voice. “Stay here. It’ll be safer.. they won’t recognize you.”
“No.” Gabrielle felt better just thinking about doing something. “Those men are my friends too.” She said. “And they mean a lot to me.”
He pressed her shoulder with one hand. “I understand.”
Do you? Gabrielle asked silently. Wish I did. She pulled her hood up, and tried to remember where she’d left her makeshift staff. Whatever else happened, she knew in her heart this was the right thing.
Whether Xena agreed with her or not.
Xena put her hand on the mast spar. “I said, pull in the lines and get ready to raise the sails.” She felt a touch breathless as she said the words, a conscience she hadn’t suspected she still had rising unexpectedly. “C’mon, we don’t have all night to get out of here.”
Jens was genuinely taken aback. He hesitated, then saw Xena’s body language shift as she let her hand rest on her dagger and his shoulders dropped. “Yes, Majesty.” He turned to the men. “You heard. Get the lines in and stow the gear there. We’re moving out.”
Xena could sense the shock around her. “Get moving.” She growled. “Or I’ll start cutting heads off.”
“Wait a minute.. where are we going?” Perdicus came up behind her. “We’re leaving?”
Xena half turned and clocked him with a fist to the jaw, hearing the crunch and the thump as he hit the side of the ship and slid down to the ground senseless. She stepped over his body and went to the wheel, wrapping one hand around one of the handles as she watched the men move slowly to the port side, unwrapping the ropes that held the ship tied to the pier.
She could already feel the ship straining to move away, sensing the tide pulling out and drawing the vessel with it. “Raise the sail.” She ordered. “Quietly.”
Two of her men went to the center spar and started unfurling the thick cloth, releasing the scent of salt and musty fabric into the air as it started to raise up.
The ship loosed from it’s ties and floated back into the channel, the shore retreating as the deck tilted under her boots and brought back bittersweet memories to her. Xena let out a breath as she turned back to the wheel, aware of Jens coming over to join her.
He came even, then merely stood, hands braced behind his back, eyes forward as she turned the rudder. “Better have some of them stand with poles, in case we need to push off against those hulks.” Xena indicated the men of war clustered at dock ahead of them.
“Aye.” Jens turned and motioned.
Xena waited, but he remained silent after that and she pondered briefly if she owed him an explanation or not.
Her heart was hammering in her chest and she blinked a few times as she looked out past the end of the harbor, to where the sea was waiting for her, glistening in the moonlight. She could already smell the air blowing inland and the sound of the waves lightly brushing the hull were like music to her ears.
She turned to look at her captain. “Yes?” She lowered her tone dangerously. “What?”
Jens looked scared, but he held his ground next to her. “What of the little one?” He asked in a soft voice. “How fares she?”
The queen looked away. “I left her somewhere safe.” She waited, but there was no answer, so she looked back over at Jens. His face was blank, but the starlight showed twinkles from wetness under his eyes, and she drew in an uncertain breath, not sure of what that meant.
They were soldiers. She didn’t think they had any particular feelings for her consort, above and beyond the fact they knew Xena had valued her.
Had? “She’ll be fine.” The queen concluded. “She’ll do all right not mixed up in all this.”
“Wasn’t her I was thinking of.” Jens turned and walked away, joining two men on the rail and picking up a thick wooden oar in both hands.
Xena felt a little like she’d been gut punched. She leaned against the wheel and focused on the looming Persian warships. The sides towered over her little merchant vessel, and she searched the top decks looking for watchmen.
It seemed quiet. She could see torches onshore in front of the piers, and she studied the shoreline intently, waiting to see if their passage caused any notice.
There had been some small ship traffic during the day. Empty ships moving out, mostly, as all the inbound ships had been corralled by the Persians and stripped bare. Bodies visible on the pier seemed to turn towards them, but as Xena held her breath, no alarm was raised.
Maybe she’d luck out, just this once. She concentrated on keeping the rudder straight and her watching, shoving everything else to the back of her mind for a later time.
The first warship neared, and the bow slipped past it, far out enough in the channel to easily clear the tall aft beam. Her cocked ears caught the sound of laughter, and a brief snatch of music from the vessel and that flash suddenly injected a vivid memory of the winter into her minds eye.
A simple moment, really, just a casual evening in the castle, only a few scattered nobles in attendance, and Jellaus singing a new song to Gabrielle’s noisy delight.
Relaxing in her chair, leaning on the arm and watching her lover dance in her seat in an endearingly goofy way. Happy.
Xena looked past the bow, blinking the memory away and wishing the insight into what happiness was had passed her by this time as it had so many times before.
It really was easier just to be miserable all the time, she mused, than know what it was to not be.
The low whisper caught her ear, and she turned to see the second warship passing them, but unlike the first, this one had a watch on the back who was looking right down at them with visible interest. “Ah.” She straightened up and focused her attention on steering the ship, resisting the urge to pull her cloak up to hide her distinctive profile and long hair.
“Hey there!” The guards yelled down. “Where go ya!”
Jens looked at Xena. The queen wrapped her hands more tightly around the wheel. “Tell em we’re heading home.” She said, in a low voice. “Tell em we’re broke.”
He nodded, then he turned to face the guard, holding out both arms with his hands turned upmost, empty. “Where else but back to our mothers?” He yelled. “Not even got the bread to get there with.”
The guard laughed, and slapped his companion on the shoulder. “That’s what you get for being sheep!” He called down. “Run like dogs! If we find you out there, we’ll take you again!”
Jens shrugged both shoulders, then he picked up his oar again and stood ready as the current took them closer to the near shore.
The guard followed them along the rail, though, and Xena felt her shoulderblades twitch as several more guards joined them and a torch was raised, sending flickering reflections across her and her crew. “Steady.”
“Watching us.” Jens called back in a low voice.
“I see it.” Xena wished the current would pull them faster. She could hear the waves getting louder and she had a sense suddenly of time running out. “Wave at em.”
Jens looked at his companions, then they all shrugged, and lifted one hand, giving the guard a casual wave. They were answered unexpectedly when an arrow slammed into the mast, and everyone dove for cover as several more followed it. “Bigods! X..M.. Geddown!”
Xena looked quickly up at the guard, seeing the weapons pointed in their direction. She cursed softly under her breath, feeling the resistance in her hands as she held the rudder steady and knowing if she let go they’d likely steer right into the back of the warship.
She felt a sting and just kept from jumping as an arrow buried itself into the wood near her elbow and she clamped her jaw down on a yell of outrage, knowing her voice, and catching any of the arrows would likely betray at least a suspicion of who she was, and end their escape before it really started.
“Hey! What’s that for!” Jens yelled in her stead. “We did nothing to ya!”
“We’re bored! You’re dead!” The watch yelled back. “Worthless sheep!”
Jackasses. Xena ducked as she sensed another arrow nearing her, jerking back as it buried itself into the wheel not a hand span from her fingers.
She willed the tide faster, and moved the wheel to turn the ship’s bow towards the Persian warship, sliding the aft where she was standing towards the far shore. “Stay down.” She warned the men in a low tone. “They’re just playing games.”
“With sharp weapons.” Jens groused.
“Just my style.” Xena managed a bit of ghoulish humor. She saw the quick glances in her direction, but there was no response to it, and she sighed, edging back behind the mast spar as the guards continued to rain arrows down on top of them.
The channel opened a little, and she gladly steered clear of the warship.
“Ah, ya cowards!” The guards had continued on along the back of their ship, and now they visited the most undignified of attacks, opening their trousers and issuing a steady stream of urine over the side to rain down, driven by the wind to spatter against Xena’s ship.
Before she could really think about what she was doing, her temper got the better of her and she unhooked her chakram, grabbing the wheel with her left hand as she let fly with the weapon in her right. Five screams and four slight splashes later, the chakram was skimming back to her, and yells of outrage were already sounding far above.
She heard a faint snort of laughter from Jens, and she managed one herself as the alarm spread, and lights began to outline the water channel, showing harsh and bright against their sail.
“Get them! Let the boats down!”
Xena steered away from the warships and looked hopefully up at the sail as the wind came from behind and filled it just a little. She ducked an arrow, then sucked in a breath hard as one hit her in the back, the impact driving her forward and throwing her against the wheel.
It was the pain of an impact though, not a penetration and she braced her legs hard as a second arrow whipped past her, this one lit with fire. Her eyes tracked it to the water, and it disappeared with a hiss as another followed it and a third buried itself in the wood of the ship. “Get that!” Xena yelled, no longer trying to disguise her identity.
Jens bolted across the deck and grabbed the arrow, yanking it out and heading to the far rail to throw it over. Another soldier ran over and doused the fire with his cloak, tamping it out as they moved past the range of the guard.
“C’mon, c’mon.” Xena willed the wind to pick up. “Jens, yank the damn sticker out of my back willya?”
Her captain approached, and gingerly put his hand on her shoulder to steady himself before he took hold of the arrow and pulled it out of her armor. “Deep in there.”
“Yeah.” Xena peered up, to see the guard on the next warship bolting for the back, heeding the warning yells from their comrades still squealing on the next deck. “We’re deep in now, that’s for sure.”
“Wind’s coming up.” Jens looked at the sail as it filled and their speed increased. “We could get past em.”
“We could.” Xena threw her cloak back over her shoulders and gripped the wheel, urging the vessel towards the harbor entrance. “If we’re lucky.”
Xena looked at him, seeing the stark, stony expression.
“Guess we are the lucky ones.” Jens turned and went back to where the men were crouched,, leaving her to soberly regard the wooden backs of the warships now sliding past them at a greater and greater rate.
The Persians weren’t giving up though – she heard the splash as a shore boat hit the water behind them, and the hoarse yells as the rowers dipped rows to water and began the chase.
“Yeah.” Xena murmured to herself. “I’m feeling real lucky.”
Gabrielle was tucked between Lennat and a tall, silent friend of his as they walked together in a big group towards the still noisy square. In truth, her heart was aching, but at least with the townsfolk she could keep her mind busy and off the gaping hollow Xena’s absence made in her and she tried to focus on the task at hand.
The men with her were nervous. They were not soldiers, and Gabrielle gathered in the furtive glances in her direction that they put some level of trust into her guidance just from her association with the queen.
The irony of it hurt. She closed her hand more firmly around her borrowed spear, and briefly wished she’d brought Patches with her, his familiar friendliness sorely missed here in the company of mostly strangers.
“Gabrielle.” Lennat leaned closer to her. “What do you think Xena’s going to do?”
Gabrielle took several breaths before she answered. “I don’t know.” She said with total honesty. “She’s not very predicable.”
Lennat nodded. “Of course.” He murmured. “That’s the whole point, I guess, isn’t it?”
Was it? Gabrielle had to agree that in a war being predictable probably wasn’t a good thing. However, in her personal life that much excitement was neither welcome nor wanted at least by her. “Right.” She could hear the sounds of the square now and she looked between the shoulders of the men ahead of her and saw the bright light of the torches past the bend in the road.
Her nose wrinkled as a bit of wind puffed into their faces, and she realized she could not only smell blood on it, but that she knew instantly what the smell was she’d become so used to it.
War had a different smell than anything else, she’d found, even different than the fall slaughter she remembered from her village. She wasn’t sure why. She shifted her grip on her spear and tried to prepare herself for what was ahead, already feeling sick at her stomach.
There was a line of people surrounding the square, and beyond it the gore stained platform with its forest of posts now fully populated with bound figures. Gabrielle found her eyes straining to distinguish the faces, but she was too far back, and the torchlight was too uncertain for her to see much detail.
“Ugh.” Lennat grunted softly. “Those damn bastards.”
There were too many people she could describe that way just now. “Yeah.” Gabrielle saw the men ahead of her were pausing, looking for a way to get closer to the square to see better what was going on. “There’s a gap there.” She pointed with her spear, and stepped between the front line to lead the way towards it.
There were some shuffling steps behind her, then she felt the men at her back and she pulled her hood up a little bit more as they closed in on the line of watchers and the light grew strong enough for her to really see.
Her breath caught. The torches flickered off a sheen of visible blood on the skin of the captives closest to her and across the platform the sound of striking whips could clearly be heard.
But her attention focused on the faces of the prisoners, the profiles nearest to her striking chords of familiarity and it hammered home the knowledge that she did truly know these men. She’d talked and joked with them on the journey out from the stronghold and the man very closest to where she was standing had just been a father, before they’d left.
Grim faces. Eyes looking straight ahead as the whips feel, no reaction evident save the jerks of motion from the force of the strikes.
“Oh my gods.” Gabrielle whispered, as she stopped with her shoulders against a low wall, with her little force surrounding her.
“Do you know them?” Lennat asked softly.
“Yes.” Gabrielle felt her eyes fill with tears, both from the misery and the steadfast courage she was witnessing. “I do know them.” She glanced around at the people near the platform, seeing a mix of disgust and fascination there as they watched the torture.
Lennat was also watching. “How long do you think it’ll take Xena to do whatever she’s going to do?” He whispered into her ear. “Those poor men wont’ last long, I don’t think.”
Gabrielle wrapped both hands around her spear. “Tell everyone to just be ready.” She whispered back.”The first sign of any distraction, we’ll do it.”
Gabrielle was aware of the other townsfolk near her listening. “Well.” She realized she had no idea truly what was going to happen. “It.. uh, depends on what direction the, uh, distraction comes from.” She whispered, pausing as a story beginning erupted into her mind unexpectedly.
She tried to shove it aside, but then, it occurred to her that she was going to be telling a story, in a way, at least she’d tell them how she wanted things to turn out.
So? “So, if the distraction comes from that side..” She pointed to the far side of the square. “Then we can go up those scaffolds there, and start cutting those poor guys lose.” She pointed at the ladderlike structure. “See?”
The men around her nodded, after a pause.
“And if it comes from back there..” Gabrielle pointed towards the harbor. “Then everyone will run that way, and we can climb up that front part there, where those lower steps are.”
“Right.” Lennat agreed. “What if it comes from behind us?”
Gabrielle turned her head and looked down the way they’d come. “Then we get out of the way.” She said. “So just be ready, okay?”
A whip cracked, and they all turned to look, as the leather drew back over the striker’s head and a spray of blood followed it. “Hope it’s soon.” Lennat murmured. “What’s going to happen after we let them go?”
Gabrielle found her story without an ending. “That.. um., that’s going to be up to Xena.” She admitte.d “I don’t know what happens next.”
She edged to one side, as the crowd parted a little and she got a better view of the platform. She could see across to the center now, and she felt suddenly both relieved, and heartstricken as she spotted two sets of poles with a figure stretched between them and recognized Brendan in the stocks.
Her body jerked, and she just kept herself from surging forward and running to his aid. The Persians were stretching him out, and as she watched in horror, one of the soldiers pulled a red hot iron from a floor brazier and inspected it.
Blood surged through her, and Gabrielle was abruptly reminded of something Xena had said to her, what seemed like a lifetime ago – about how people were fighters, or runners.
Right now, she didn’t feel at all like running, and that made Xena’s recent decision all the more strange and puzzling to her because she never ever figured Xena for a runner either.
“Was I that wrong?”
“Gabrielle, did you say something?” Lennat leaned closer.
“No, I don’t believe it.” Gabrielle stared past him at the platform. “She’ll be here.”
“Xena, look out.” Jens was at her side, pointing up. “What’s that mischief?”
The queen looked up to see a phalanx of bowmen, and several others struggling to bring a long, open mouthed caldron to the edge of the rail facing them. She let out a curse and leaned hard on the wheel, shoving the rudder to the right as the ship started an all too leisurely drift to the left. “Get your shields up!” She yelled. “Get back from the side!”
The archers rained arrows down on them, pinning the men where they were as the rest got their calderon in place and started pouring down hot oil on them. It struck the water and splashed up, striking the sides of the ship as they drifted closer, drawn by the tide and the wind in the wrong direction.
“Gods be damned.” Xena wished fervently for a pile of long oars and two dozen slaves to wield them. She had rarely felt so helpless, as she ducked behind the mast to gain as much protection from the bowmen as possible.
The boat drifted further, and the oil started to pour down inside the deck. One of the men was hit and he recoiled, half standing to get away from it then jerking and falling as an arrow thunked right through his armor.
A sound to her right made her turn swiftly, to see Perdicus struggling to his feet and gazing around in bewilderment. With another soft curse, Xena ducked out from behind the spar and lashed out with a kick that knocked him back against the wall just as she sensed trouble coming at her from the other direction.
Instinctively she dropped to the deck, flat on her belly and heard the whine of arrows in flight a moment before she heard Perdicus scream.
She turned her head, to see him slumping against the wooden wall, hands clutching at two shafts buried in his gut. She had no time to absorb this though, because as she turned her head the other way, she spotted ropes being tossed over the railing of the warship and armored figures spiraling their way down.
“Suck suck suck.” Xena scrambled to her feet and drew her sword, caught between wanting to defend the deck and the need to get back to steering the ship. “Jens, get over here!”
Her captain left the side and bolted for the wheel deck, lunging back and forth to make himself a lesser target as he came up even with Xena just as the queen reached past him with her sword, grazing his head as she knocked away a speeding shaft.
He stumbled past her and grabbed the wheel as she released it, getting her other hand on her sword as a hail of arrows reached her and she had a moment of losing her mind as her body managed to get itself together to deflect them.
There was no time for thought. No time to do anything other than react, and reach out, and let her years of experience and complete lack of sense take over. She bounded across the deck, whacking arrows out of the way as she reached the far wall where the rest of the men were huddled. “Head behind the forecastle! I’ll hold em!”
The oil stopped falling as the men spiraled down and she took a step back as the archers paused as well, to keep from hitting their own men.
She glanced behind her, and found the rest of the men rising and stepping up to wait with her, drawing weapons as the first of the Persians approached the water and leaped to the deck, drawing their curved scimitars and attacking as soon as they had their footing.
Xena felt the wind pick up behind her, and she met the first Persian with a sense of desperation as he engaged her with fast, skilled strikes. If she could keep the bastards tied up until the boat went past, they’d be home free.
Home free. She twisted her wrists as the heavy scimitar drove against her and stepped sideways, deflecting the strike to her left and turning as the man fighting her recovered and swung back around with his arms locked, the blade sweeping towards her ribs.
She jumped to the side, and felt an arrow skim the back of her neck, leaving a burn behind it and a brief pain, as hair was ripped from her head. She sensed the Persian coming at her and she dropped to one knee, as another arrow buried itself in the deck just pat her boot.
The scimitar slammed into her shoulder and it’s edge caught on her armor, throwing her over and onto her side. She went with the motion and rolled onto her back, kicking up as the Persian came around and slashed down ward at her.
The sword hit her boot and she kicked it outward, then she half rolled onto her side and kicked with her other foot catching him in the hip and shoving him sideways right into an arrow from one of his own men.
It pierced his throat and showered her with blood, the harsh copper scent making her blink as she rolled again and got to her feet, sweeping her sword around as she spotted another Persian about to spit Jens.
She had a heartbeat to think about what threw her across the deck, sword sweeping back into a running position as she bolted towards the fighting men and interrupted the Persians stroke by throwing herself into him bodily, knocking him off his feet as she jumped over Jen’s rolling form to grab the wheel, spinning free.
She cranked it back the other direction, jamming it in place with her boot as the Persian recovered and came at her, his sword in one hand and a dagger in the other, his face fierce and set as the boat swung under him.
The wind finally came her way, filling the sail fully and pushing the boat past the warship, skimming over the water as it straightened in the channel and moved past the last of the men of war before the edge of the harbor and safety.
Three longboats were rowing after them, but as they picked up speed and she parried her opponent, she could sense the turning of fortunes. “Yah!” She reversed her body and slashed downward, catching the man’s sword against her own and sending it flying over board.
He reeled backward, but she grinned fiercely at him and released one hand off her blade, backhanding him in the neck with the edge and cutting his throat with a single pass.
Jens jumped up over the edge of the deck and grabbed the wheel again. “Got er.”
“Hold it steady!” Xena looked around and saw no standing enemy. She sheathed her sword and grabbed a dropped crossbow, moving to the back rail, dropping to one knee and setting a shaft in place.. Protected by the wood, she took aim and fired, and a rower keeled over in the lead chasing boat.
She set another shaft in place, and glanced aside as one and then two more of her men joined her. “Cmon, c’mon.” She shot another rower, watching as the furious guard fell behind, then turned and raced towards the warships gangway.
The third ship, as yet, seemed unalarmed. Xena felt the boats speed pick up, and she started to exhale as they came even with the last man of war, which was moored a little apart from the others. She looked to her left, at the shore, searching for guards but seeing instead a crowd of Persians around a cart, and a lot of arguing going on.
Her eyes fastened on the cart, and the pottery jars fastened to it.
“We’re out.” Jens called back. “They won’t catch us!”
Xena bowed her head and rested it against the wood. Then she looked up, a darkly wry look on her face as she got to her feet and headed for the wheel.
Irony, thy name really is Xena.
Gabrielle had been edging closer and closer to the scaffolding, slowly sliding between the watchers until she was right up next to the edge.
The torture seemed random. The Persians were walking around on the platform, looking all around as though expecting something as they made strutting passes past the bound me, turning to lash the bound men.
She noticed the big man who had come to see Sholeh in the camp standing to one side, his eyes slowly scanning the crowd with hawklike caution.
Luckily for her, her eyes were barely at the level with the platform, and her body was hidden behind it. She reversed her spear so the blunt end was upmost, and she could sense a growing feeling of impatience around her.
The men in front were yelling at the crowd, but she couldn’t make out the words from her spot near the back, though she thought she heard Xena’s name at least once.
Gabrielle saw the big man bend down to listen to another soldier standing on the ground near the front of the platform. He straightened up after a moment, then he took a horn from his belt and blew it, making a sound surprisingly like a farting ewe.
She forgot about that a second after, because everyone turned and he started to bellow.
“Kill them!” He said. “It is done! – we have heard the great, cowardly Xena has run, taken to the sea like a dog! She values you not at all!”
Gabrielle felt like an ice bath had been dumped over her head. She felt Lennat’s hand on her shoulder, but she didn’t dare turn her head or look at him.
“She ran! She left you to die like pigs!” The man bellowed. “Do you hear me? “
What did it mean? Was Xena really running away? Gabrielle exhaled slowly. More to her point, was Xena really running away and leaving her?
Really? The raw truth hit her in the gut and she closed her eyes against the pain of it.
“You think it’s true?”
What did she think? Did it even matter anymore? “No.” Gabrielle said the only thing she really could. “Xena would never run like a dog.” She put one hand on the scaffold rail and got herself ready to climb up it. “She’s smart.” Her eyes filled with tears. “And very very brave.”
If she was running, she’d run in her own way, not like a dog since the Persians had seen her, but like a wolf, snapping and snarling all the way.
That she was sure of. She bit the inside of her lip, anyway, knowing a moment of loss that hurt her inside, wishing at last that her final words to Xena had been less angry.
More loving. “I do love you.” She whispered, her face pressed against the scaffold. “I’m sorry.” She straightened up and stared across the platform, her eyes following the men with the whips as they separated and headed towards Xena’s men with a look of cruel anticipation.
Well. Gabrielle felt the weight of decision settling on her shoulders and she had a sense of control over herself and her life that she’d never had before. She could wait and watch her friends be killed, or she could do something about it.
The crowd was buzzing though, looking around and at each other, and she knew if she acted, chances were she’d act on her own – and watching the soldiers advance on her friends she decided that was okay.
She’d do what she could, and if she died there, trying to help them then she did. Everyone had to die sometime, and without Xena around..
Who cared anyway?
The man with the brand circled it over his head and headed for Brendan and as he did, Gabrielle found herself moving, shoving past the man next to her to get to the cross braced piece of scaffold, clambering up on it and hauling herself onto the top of the platform, just enough out of the torchlight to get to her feet before the soldiers saw her.
“Don’t even think about what you’re doing, Gabrielle. Just do it.” She fixed her attention on Brendan and the man approaching him and she started running, letting out as loud a yell as she could.
Xena jumped to the pier as the front of the boat crashed into the dock, sending most of her men tumbling to the deck. “Follow me.” She turned and dropped a rope loop over the stout pole, pulling her sword out of it’s sheath as she started to head for the third ship’s gangway without waiting to see if they were coming.
Behind them, she heard the men in the longboats start to yell as they came round the corner of the third man of war and spotted them grounded. She glanced back to see her men clambering off the boat and chasing after her, and she pulled her dagger out and clenched it in her free hand as she saw a squad of Persians heading right at her.
Life really did suck sometimes. She ducked the first man’s sword and gutted him with the dagger, stepping out of the way as Jens engaged the second. “Get the gangway!” She ordered.
“We stealing the bigger one?” Jens yelled, incredulously. “Bigods, Xena!”
“I hate being seasick.” His queen yelled back. “Just get over there!” She stabbed a second man and got to the edge of the gangway and faced off against the oncoming Persians. “Move move move!”
Her men obeyed, pelting up the gangway as she joined them moving backwards up the slanted platform as she fought off the soldiers chasing her, giving up ground bit by bit as she moved higher and higher away from the ground.
Below her was chaos. There were men arguing around the cart at the front of the ship seemingly oblivious to the fighting nearby, and past them, the men from the 2nd warship were pelting down the docks, yelling themselves at the men with the cart and the men with the longboat.
She appreciated the chaos. It meant the Persians were offbalance and she intended on keeping them that way. With a yell, she kicked the last man chasing them off the gangway and pulled out her chakram, letting it fly towards the men in the boat as they came piling up onto the shore.
It was like day and night. She felt like she’d turned completely around. “Just goes to show you what a little killing’ll do for ya.” She watched the chakram skim through the sailors, and they went diving out of the way right back into the water. She laughed, catching it as it returned to her hand and turning to bolt the rest of the way up the gangplank and onto the ship.
Once there, she turned and saw men starting to climb back up it, so she chopped the ropes holding it to the side of the ship and as she saw their eyes widen, she dropped her sword on the ground and grabbed the edges of the gangway. “Jens!”
“Right here. Mistress.” Her captain grabbed hold of the wooden surface and two other men with him, and they wrestled it off the side of the ship and sent it tumbling down to the ground. “There, ya bastards!”
The Persians scrambled for it, some shooting arrows up at the top of the man of war, but the high sides protected Xena and her crew and she turned and let them to their own devices. “That’ll be up again but we’ve got time to do what we need to.”
“We do?” Jens panted.
“We do.” Xena sheathed her sword and settled her dagger. “Let’s go.”
She led the way down into the hold, and they followed, one reaching to grab a torch from the upper wall as they went.
“No.” Xena turned suddenly and stopped him. “Put that back.”
“Majesty? It’s dark down there.”
Xena took the torch and stuck it back in the holder. “Fraid I’m gonna grope you?” She asked. “Cmon, We don’t have much time.” She continued down the steps and led the way into a very gloomy space, full of tall, clay pots much like the ones she’d seen in the cart outside.
She paused a looked at them, giving her head a little shake. “Start breaking those open.” She directed the men. “Spread the stuff inside all over everything.” She cocked her head, hearing scrapes and thumps above. “Hurry.”
Uncertain but willing, the men followed her lead as she grabbed the first of the urns and spun it away from her, smashing it against the wooden wall and breaking it open. The smell it gave off was pungent, thick and oily and it made her nose wrinkle hard.
“Ugh.” Jens covered his mouth with his sleeve briefly. “Whatin hades is that?”
“Nothing you want to get on you.” Xena reached for the second urn, dragging it across the hold to where more carefully stacked bundles were huddling in the shadows. Her boot caught on one and she almost tripped over it, then she knelt and yanked the covering back to see what it was.
Spears. She looked around, her experienced eyes taking in the shapes of the packages. “Get all this covered in it.” She picked up the urn, grunting a little under it’s liquid weight, and tossed it against the far wall of the cargo hold, watching it shatter and soak the boxes below it.
Two more urns followed, and now the hold was so full of fumes from the liquid it was making even Xena gag. “Bring six more up with you.” She indicated the stairs. “One jug, two lugs. Fast.”
The men didn’t hesitate. They grabbed the urns and started for the stairs, pausing to let Xena slide in ahead of them as they left the stinking pit behind them and struggled towards the night sky visible above.
Xena drew her sword before she emerged, her eyes sweeping to where the gangplank was now just settling into place against the rail. “Spread it across the deck!” She hollered, as she moved to where the torch was still fluttering where she left it.
The men did as they were told, glad enough to get rid of the heavy urns as the substance soaked into the planking of the deck.
She took it from it’s holder, walked to the cargo hold opening, and waited. “Get over to the far rail.” She ordered, watching the Persians flow up the gangway. “Let those ropes down. When I tell you jump, JUMP.”
“Mistress?” Jens started to draw his sword. “Shouldn’t we..”
A line of Persians jumped onto the ship’s deck and headed her way. Xena dropped the torch down into the hold with an offhanded gesture, starting for the rail as it left her fingers. “JUMP.”
The deck rumbled under their feet and the men got the message, turning and grabbing the ropes as Jens released his sword and bolted after them. Xena waited just long enough to see the horrified looks of understanding on the Persian’s faces before she went to the side, ducking under the mainsail spar as a huge, rushing column of flame erupted from the hold.
It caught the first row of Persians flatfooted and they roastd where they stood as the second row frantically stumbled and backpedaled, their hands touching the drenched deck as a shimmering flutter of heat erupted off it.
Xena grabbed one of the long lines and untwisted the loop at it’s end, tossing it over one of the men on fire as he staggered towards her. “Die.” She advised him. “It’ll hurt less.”
Then she released the catch on the spar and watched it start to swing heavily around, dragging the man with it as she took hold of the rope over the side and dove off, feeling the rush of heat as the burning man spun out over her head and across the open space, carried by the spars momentum until he smacked into the sail on the next ship in port.
It burst into flames.
Xena saw the ground coming up fast and she released the rope, tumbling in mid air into a somersault before she landed on the dock where her men were assembling, almost forgotten as the Persians onshore bolted in utter panic at the sudden, unexpected fiery destruction all around them.
The ship she’d just left went up in a roar, and started to lean over. Xena grabbed Jen’s shirt and started running, shoving the men ahead of her as fast as she, and they were able.
Gabrielle took advantage of her size, or lack of it, to twist between three men trying to grab her as she determinedly strove to reach the rack where Brendan was strung up.
Men were yelling all around her, some incredulous, some laughing, some trying to twine their whips around her feet, most reacting only slowly to this unlikely threat in their midst.
She was alone. She’d expected that. Not even Lennat had followed her up onto the platform and as she ducked a man’s outstretched arm she had to admit she’d done something pretty stupid.
“Girl!” Brendan had spotted her, and twisted against his ropes, half turning to watch her approach. “Git outta here!”
Gabrielle skidded to a halt, hopping to one side as a Persian plowed past her, arms thrust forward, colliding with the post her friend was tied to. It shivered, and as he stumbled and smashed against it again, cracked with a solid, splintering sound and started to fall.
“Thanks!” Gabrielle hastily pulled out her knife and started to saw at the rope holding Brendans leg to the still standing post. She could feel the platform shaking as soldiers ran to stop her, but a sense of manic determination took hold and she sawed with all the strength she had, to at least do this one little thing, this one scrap of something before she was grabbed and taken and…
The rope parted in her hand and she scrambled on her hands and knees towards the broken post as the man who’d cracked it came to his senses and reached out for her. She kicked his hands away and hopped over the post just as another Persian leaped on top of her and she dropped to the ground as he fell on the post instead.
She rolled out of the way and got to the rope tying Brendan’s hand, attacking the rope with her knife as the Persian grabbed her leg and tried to drag her away. She kicked out, her body lifted into mid air as she clung to the post with one arm and sawed with the other.
“Girl!” Brendan was twisting and yanking like a madman. “Go!”
“Argh!” Gabrielle felt frustration overtake her. She released the pole and turned, kicking hard at the man who had hold of her and punching him in the face with her heel. Another set of hands clutched at her, and she struggled furiously, as she was pinned to the ground and a tight grip fastened on the wrist of the hand she was holding the knife with.
She felt something falling over her, and she gritted her teeth, then twisted in surprise as the grip on her loosened and she was able to roll over, keeping her head down as the broken pole swung wildly over her.
Men were yelling all around her. She snuck a look and saw the soldiers busy now trying to protect their heads with both hands and blinking, she realized the crowd was throwing rocks at them.
There was no time to enjoy the revelation though. The big, bearded man lifted his sword and pointed at her. “Kill her!” He turned and looked at the crowd. “All those caught throwing anything else will die as well!”
Gabrielle got to her hands and knees and started to scramble to her feet, but she was suddenly tackled and driven to the ground with shocking force, an elbow across the back of her neck driving her face into the wooden surface.
“There, you little bitch.” A man’s voice was near her ear.
Gabrielle could hear screams now and the sound of arrows firing, and she could taste blood in her mouth. The Persian crouched over her smacked her on the back of her head, and she saw stars, hearing cursing nearby in a voice she recognized as Brendans.
Well. She tried to stay still, so the man wouldn’t hit her again. She’d given it a try.
At least she’d done something.
“Kill them! Kill them!” The big man bellowed. “Don’t just stand there, you idiot! Fire!”
Gabrielle felt herself being picked up and her view changed from the wood platform to a dizzying view of the crowd as she was swung off her feet, the neck of her cloak tightened so that it choked her. She struggled and gasped, reaching behind her to grab the hands holding her and nearly blacking out when she was shaken hard.
Gabrielle blinked and reeled as she was dropped abruptly to the ground, barely getting her hands down to keep from smashing her face on the floor again. She rolled over and grabbed for her knife as the soldier holding her raced towards the end of the platform, “W..”
She looked quickly around and found the rest of the Persians running the same direction, despite the yelling of the big bearded man for them to stop.
Not time to worry about that. She scuttled over to where Brendan was fighting to finish freeing himself and started to cut the ropes again.
“Gabrielle.” He hissed under his breath. “What the Hades are ya doing here!”
Gabrielle concentrated on cutting the rope, unable to look him in the eye. “Long story.” She finally said, as the rope parted under her knife. “I’m not really sure wh..”
“What?” The big bearded man bellowed. “What’s that you said? Get over here!”
Gabrielle turned as the man jumped up onto the platform. He grabbed a soldier whose chest was heaving so badly he appeared convulsing and shook him till his teeth rattled.
“F.. fire!” The man managed to stammer. “Your grace, it’s fire! The ships are on fire! We need help!”
Fire. “Wow, that was..” Gabrielle ducked behind the post and flattened herself as the big man turned and scanned the platform.
“Kill them.” He repeated. “I don’t’ care a damn of the fire.”
“KILL THEM.” He picked up a fallen spear and turned, ramming it through one of Xena’s men still tied to the posts. “Kill her!” He yanked the spear out and pointed it at Gabrielle, it’s tip reddened with blood and covered in shreds of gore. “Little raga…”
His eyes widened and he moved closer. “That’s no.. get her!” He rushed forward. “It’s the storyteller! Get her! Grab her!!”
Uh oh. Gabrielle knew she was out of options.
“Run.” Brendan said, staying very still as though he were mortally injured. “Get away with yourself, Gabrielle. Hurry.”
Gabrielle saw the man rushing towards her. Her hands slid across the deck and found the round, slightly irregular shape of her spear and she wrapped her hands around it and picked it up as she stood, moving as if in a dream.
A half memory, instinct ruling her body as she felt her balance set and she twisted her torso to bring the spear tip across just as he reached her.
It ripped through his surcoat, and she felt resistance, but her momentum carried it through and she recovered to see him gripping his gut and staring at her in utter shock.
She brough the spear back around and smashed the other end into his head, seeing blood and sweat go flying as he spun around and fell to the ground.
For a moment, everything stopped.
Then she heard a low, rumbling roar, far off, and a closer roar in a higher pitch and then the crowd was swarming up onto the platform and everything became chaos.
She could hear many people rushing towards the square and the Persians started to react, dropping their whips as they turned to defend themselves from the city people while others were at the edge of the platform as the first wave of soldiers reached the edge of the square.
“Get the horses!” She heard one yell. “We must move!”
Screaming, far off. A breeze blew up from the waterfront and suddenly everyone was in a panic, as smoke came pungent on it.
Gabrielle looked down the road to the pier and saw a solid wave of bodies moving toward them. “Get the guys loose and let’s get out of the way!” She yelled to a suddenly present Lennat. “They’re all coming here!”
“You should have waited!” Lennat was untying one of Xena’s men. “Gabrielle you’re crazy!”
She felt more confused than crazy, but since the Persians were no longer interested in killing her or Xena’s men, she’d take it. She freed the last tie holding Brendan down and helped him to stand up as the rest of the men started to gather around.
“Where’s she?” Brendan asked. “What’s the deal?”
“I don’t know.” Gabrielle had to admit.
“What?” The old soldier took her by the shoulders. “What do you mean? She’s not here?”
The sound of the oncoming rush of Persians overwhelmed the conversation, and Gabrielle found herself being pulled along with Xena’s men, off the platform down the side path she’d originally come up what seemed like a lifetime ago.
The city folk drew back in a mass of confusion.
“Get back!” Gabrielle called out. “Get out of the way!”
They didn’t seem to hear her, then she was being pressed hard against the wall as everyone obeyed in a torrent of bodies and she just had room to look down the square to see a wagon, lit up with green fire, being pulled by terrified horses. “Oh! Gods!”
“That damn fire!” Brendan coughed. ‘Be damned.”
The Persians started to run towards the gates, away from the wagon, turning and dropping their weapons and running as hard as they could.
From her right Gabrielle heard another loud noise, and she looked over to see a long, low warehouse, pressed into apparent service as a stable, open it’s doors wide and emit line after line of horses, some with riders, some running free.
One whiff of smoke and the horses went out of control, and headed for the open gates in an unstoppable wave, uncaring about what was in their path, trampling Persians and city folk with equal abandon.
Gabrielle just stood in shock, watching the wagon careen out of control and slam right into the wooden platform, the horses going down under it in with equine screams as the fiery load smashed into the stanchions and with a thundering roar, the platform burst into fire as well.
She could feel the heat against her face as they all scrambled back away from the square, as the posts and scaffolding went up in flames that hungrily ate everything it touched.
A man ran screaming past, his clothes on fire.
The smell of roasting flesh and the pungent scent of the Greek fire filled her lungs.
“Leave him!” A loud voice nearby caught her attention, drawing it away from the horror. She saw two men at the doors to the makeshift stable, one grabbing the other and pulling him away. “Leave that damn bastard to fry! Deserves it!”
Gabrielle glanced at the burning square, and realized the chance of the stable catching fire was very real. She twisted out of Brendan’s grip and ran towards the doors, not really sure why she was doing it except that it was a stable, and it probably had horses in it, and..
And she was totally freaking out and losing her mind.
Gabrielle skidded to a halt outside the door, feeling the heat of the fire on her back as she ducked her head inside, hearing a rustling motion and an angry snort. “Easy..” She went inside, barely able to see anything in the gloom as she crossed the hay littered floor, tripping over bits of tack and weapons left behind by the troops.
One torch. She grabbed it and looked around, seeing a high walled stall near the back and a pair of white ringed eyes looking out at her.
She took a step closer, blinking hard. Then she stopped moving, as she heard a long, high, piercing whistle outside that made her head ring and turned her around as she ran back towards the door.
Standing there, she saw the last of the Persians run through the gates, leaving utter chaos and death behind them.
But through all that, through the smoke and the screaming, the blood and the panic, a tall figure appeared in front of the burning platform outlined in green flame.
It stopped, and looked around, then turned and faced the crowd.
“Well, close the damned gates!” Xena yelled at the top of her lungs. “I ain’t doing that again!” She put her hands on her hips as her men ran towards the portals, her eyes sweeping slowly across the gruesome scene until they reached the stable, and the door, and the slim, bedraggled figure standing in the opening.
For a long, silent moment, they merely stared at each other. Then Xena lifted one hand, and curled her fingers in a come hither gesture, and as though drawn on a string Gabrielle obeyed, leaving the doorway and crossing the burning square as the gates slammed closed behind them.
In the space of the moon’s crossing, it all had changed.