Queen of Hearts

Part 23

Gabrielle found the walk across the square one of the longest she’d ever taken in her life. The roaring fire on her left hand side, and the looming walls on the right gave her the sensation of walking in a tunnel and at the end of the tunnel was that tall figure standing there waiting.

Waiting for her. Summoning her. Gabrielle felt a weakness in her knees as she walked and her heart was beating so fast she couldn’t count the beats. It was making her light headed.

What would Xena do? Scorn her? Spurn her? Kiss her?  Gabrielle slowed as she approached  the queen and came to a halt just at arms length from her, waiting for Xena to finish surveying the burning platform before those icy eyes turned and fastened on hers.

All her nerves went away, and she felt a clenching in her chest when she saw the look on Xena’s face and she stepped closer as the queen’s body posture altered and she turned to face Gabrielle.  She looked like she was going to say something, then she just reached out and put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and squeezed it.

Gabrielle understood the words had to come from her first. “I’m sorry.” She almost whispered. “I lied to you. It did matter.”

Xena sighed. “I lied to me too.” She admitted. “Whippings all around, I guess. That should entertain the troops.”

Gabrielle reached up and clasped Xena’s hand with her own. It felt so good just to be near her, and to know she was welcome she almost wanted to just lay down and curl up at Xena’s feet for a nap.

Xena seemed to sense it. She pulled Gabrielle close and shifted her grip from her shoulder to the back of her neck, giving her a kiss on the top of her head as Gabrielle responded with a timid hug. “Life’s dealing us a crappy hand, Gabrielle.” She murmured. “At least lets not mess this up.”

Gabrielle’s arms tightened and she drew in and released a shaky breath.

It was funny, Xena mused, how doing really stupid things could make you feel good. She’d noticed that in her relationship with Gabrielle, but now it had come home to her on a far bigger scale when she’d found she gained a measure of satisfaction in the chaotic destruction she’d caused merely in the looks of relief from the people of the town.

They had no idea she’d just let them in for an utter nightmare of course.  The gates were closed behind the Persian soldiers and sure, she’d taken out a part of the fleet, but she wasn’t stupid enough to think Sholeh wasn’t going to react to this with anything less than the same homicidal fury as she would.

The Persians would sack the city.  Xena reviewed the square. Oh well. Burning their ships had been a kick, at any rate.  She gave Gabrielle’s back a brisk rub. “Let’s move. My eyebrows are roasting.”

 Gabrielle released her, but kept hold of her hand. “I found something.” She said. “Over there.” She indicated the makeshift barn.

Xena eyed it. “Like what?”

“Come and see.’ Gabrielle really wanted to just get out of the glare and the heat, and the eyes of the excited townsfolk running around finding excuses to stand near them and oogle Xena.

She felt raw. She felt exhausted. She wanted a few minutes of peace.

“You’re not just trying to drag me off into a dark room and ravage me are you?”

The wry humor put a smile on her face. “If I could I would.” Gabrielle answered. “But I’m having enough problems just walking right now.”

Xena draped one arm over her shoulders and they walked towards the barn, ignoring the townsfolk staring in awe at the still burning square while Xena’s men did their best to keep them away from the flames.  As they neared the edge,  Brendan moved to intercept them and Xena slowed her pace and waited for him to catch them up.

“Majesty.” The old captain greeted her, his battered face wary.

Xena looked him up and down. “You never do a damn thing I tell you to, do ya?” She sighed. “What in the Hades am I going to do with you?”

Brendan’s shoulders relaxed. “Hades knows.” He agreed. “Been a tough road.”

Xena chuckled humorlessly. “Rapidly going down hill.” She agreed. “Once the bonfire burns itself down start collecting anyone in this place with a clue so I can give them the bad news once.”

“Aye.”

“Let’s get people fed. Get them rest.” The queen tasted the word, strange and exotic, on her tongue. “Put a watch on the walls and kill any Persians you find.”

“Aye.”

They studied each other briefly. “Glad to see your ugly mug, Brendan.” Xena finally said, in a mild tone. “Even if you didn’t’ listen to me.”

He shifted his boots. “Sorry, Xena.” He tilted his head and met her eyes. “Did what I could to harass em, but when we heard you’d been taken I..”

Xena’s eyebrow cocked. “What?” She looked around. “Do I look taken to you?”

Brendan looked at her, then at Gabrielle, then back at her.

“Shut up.”

“Them said it.” Brendan changed the subject with a cough. “All the men knowd it, back behind the pass.” His eyes crept up to hers daringly. “We’re just the first of em.”

Xena stared at him. “I told them to disperse.” She said between gritted teeth. “Are you all idiots? Did you not see the force out there?”

“Aye.” Brendan managed a rakish smile. “We seen.”  He turned to Gabrielle. “Little one, I thank you. Woulda roasted like mam’s pig otherwise. You’re a brave soul.”

Xena had taken a deep breath to start yelling, now she stopped, and her brows twitched. She looked at Gabrielle. “What did you do?”  She watched a blush creep up her bedraggled lover’s face. “Never mind. Tell me later.”

“I’m glad it all turned out okay.” Gabrielle said, in a quiet voice. “I’m really glad Xena’s here.” She could feel the motion as the queen exhaled and was glad when Xena nudged her forward, and they continued on towards the barn.

The world around her was starting to fade out. She could hear all the excited voices, and the roar of the flames, and the crack of things collapsing but it was slowly losing its meaning, and she narrowed her attention down to the warm arm around her shoulders, and the light bump of Xena’s hip against her side as they entered the battered building.

“Now, what’s the deal here, Gabrielle?” Xena was asking. “Did you really have something in here to….” There was a long pause. “By the gods.”

Gabrielle released her hold on the queen and stood there watching, as Xena literally scampered across the ground to the back stall, yanking it open and exposing the head of the animal inside it.  She smiled again, as she heard honest joy in the queen’s voice and allowed herself a long minute just to enjoy the sound.

“Tiger, you little bastard!” Xena touched the stallion’s head as he tried to push his way out of the stall. “Why in the Hades are you still alive? I thought they’d cooked you for dinner, damn you.”

Gabrielle came forward to join her.  She reached a hand out to Tiger’s nose, feeling the prickle of the whiskers on the end of it as he snuffled her palm. “Hey buddy.” She said. “You know what? I bet Patches will be glad to see you, too.”

Xena stroked the stallion’s cheek, as she tried to reconcile the desolation of earlier in the day to the unlikely triumph of the moment. “Got you and my horse back.” She said. “It’s too damn hot to be my birthday. What’s up with all that?”

Gabrielle leaned against the stall divider.  “I don’t know but I like it.”

“I bet.” Xena turned and sat down on an overturned bucket, resting her elbows on her knees. “Well, my friend. Here we are.”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle found her own seat on the feed bin edge. “Wow.”

Xena pursed her lips, glancing up to study her companion’s very tired, bloodied, scraped and dirtied face. “Tell you what.” She said. “We’ve got a day before that Persian bitch gets her act together and comes after us. How about we find a bathtub, and a cot.”

She watched a smile appear on Gabrielle’s lips, but there was so much between them right now, she wasn’t sure exactly what that meant anymore. “Yes? No?”

“Heck yes.” Gabrielle said, simply.

Xena reached over and put her hand on Gabrielle’s knee. “I know a lot of crap went on.” She said. “Let’s wait till we feel human to fight about it.”

Gabrielle looked down at her hands, studying them as though they were someone elses. Then she looked up. “I’m just glad you came back.” She said. “I don’t want to fight with you about anything.”

Xena saw the haunting in those eyes and the fear behind it, and it made her swallow an uncomfortable lump. “All right.” She agreed. “That sounds pretty good to me too.”  She got up and waited for Gabrielle to join her. “Did you really save Brendan’s ass or was he just being smarmy to suck up to me?”

Gabrielle was silent for a moment. “I tried.” She admitted finally. “I wasn’t really sure what I was doing.. I just wanted to do something.”

Xena let both her wrists rest on Gabrielle’s shoulders. “I saw you clock the big Persian.”  She waited for Gabrielle to look up. “If I hadn’t already been running across the top of a roof trying not to cut my own arm off chasing that wagon I’d have swooned.”

Gabrielle’s brow scrunched, then she shifted her glance down and to the left, then she looked back up. “Thanks.” She said softly. “I didn’t think about what I was doing I just..”

“Did it.” The queen agreed. “Made me damn proud.” She caught the faint glimmer of tears as Gabrielle somewhat hesitantly let her hands rest on the queen’s hips. “Made me realize which one of us is really a hero.”

Gabrielle sighed. “I didn’t feel like a hero. I felt like an idiot.”

“Welcome to my world.” Xena turned and patted her on the back as they walked towards the open doors.  “Let’s go find us some wine and a loaf of bread, and some quiet.”

It sounded like Elysia to her. Gabrielle felt her steps getting lighter as they crossed the square.  Even in the few minutes they’d been inside the stable it seemed to have gotten more organized.  Xena’s men were making a barrier around the still burning remnants and on the wall she could see a watch in familiar colors.

Lennat came running over as they approached, a bandage wrapped around his head but otherwise apparently unharmed. “Gabrielle!” He skidded  to a halt. “Wow. When you said Xena was going to make a distraction, you sure weren’t kidding!” He blurted. “Half the waterfront’s on fire.”

Xena’s head slowly swung to the side as she peered down at her companion, both eyebrows hiked as high as they would go on her forehead.

“She sure came though.” Gabrielle resisted the urge to hide from the royal glare to her right. “I knew she would.”

Xena cleared her throat loudly.

“We tried to follow you.. you should have warned us!” Lennat went on, heedless of the glowering queen. “But boy, when that section just broke off under you.. we couldn’t find a way up fast enough.”

Huh? Gabrielle didn’t remember that.  “Well, now I’m sure you’ll have a chance to do a lot more stuff, so we’ve got to uh…”

“Leave.” Xena supplied.  “So move before I smack you in the head.”

“Uh.. sorry.” Lennat scrambled out of the way and let the two women pass, towards a two story townhouse at the edge of the square already surrounded by soldiers.  “Wow.”

“Majesty.” Jens greeted Xena as they arrived where the group was standing.  “Yonder’s where the Persian’s were staying.  We cleaned up one of the rooms for ye.” His eyes shifted to Gabrielle, and warmed. “Glad you’re all right, your grace.”

Gabrielle had seldom felt less graceful, but she nodded in acknowledgement. “You too.”

“Keep an eye on the docks.” Xena said. “If the whole damn city looks like it’s going to burn down knock and let me know. Otherwise..” She turned and regarded the quieting chaos. “Everyone get as much rest as you can. We’ll have company tomorrow.”

She guided Gabrielle past the soldiers, towards the open door of the townhouse that finally offered them at least a few hours peace.

Maybe.

**

The quiet was almost shocking. The heavy walls of the building blocked out most of the noise from outside, and even the windows were covered with thick draperies that muffled what little did get through. Xena pushed the door to the chamber her men had prepared open and stood in the entry, reviewing their choice for a long moment.

It wasn’t a big space, but the floors were covered in thick wool carpet, and there was a big bed on one side that had a freshly stuffed mattress on it, and, most importantly, there was a sunken tub near the fireplace that was already full of steaming water.

Ahhh.

“Wow. Is that a tub?” Gabrielle’s voice sounded exhausted, but grateful.

“Sure is.” The queen moved aside to let her companion pass. “Looks good, huh?”

“Ungh.” Gabrielle made a small, pitiful sound. “I forgot what clean water looked like.”

Xena patted her on the back, as she eased by. “Don’t get used to it.” She warned. “I don’t’ think we’ll be here long.”

Gabrielle paused. “Long enough to sit down?”

The queen chuckled, but she could sense a certain tension in Gabrielle’s voice and she sauntered over, putting both hands on the blond woman’s shoulders. “With any luck, until tomorrow.”

She felt the shoulders relax. “Maybe a little longer.” She added. “Depends on how fast the Persian bitch comes after me.”

“Great.” Gabrielle sighed. “I hope she falls in a ditch then.”

“Me too.” Xena released her, and turned around again, noting the iron bars protecting the windows, and the shadows of her men guarding outside. “Damn, I might even be able to sleep tonight.”

The room was acceptable.  Xena looked around, nodding a little at the well made furniture and weapons stands, reasoning the townhouse had once been the residence of whoever headed up the city guard.

Well, right now apparently she did, so that worked out, didn’t it? She walked over to the press and reached back to unhook her sword, laying it down on the wood in it’s battered sheath along with her chakram.

She heard the sound of liquid pouring, then a soft thunk, before Gabrielle appeared at her side with a wooden cup held out in offering. “What’s that?”

“Grape wine.”  Gabrielle answered. “I tasted it. It seemed okay.”

Xena took the cup and took a sip, finding it more than acceptable. “I thought we ‘d worked out that whole you don’t taste my food in case you croak thing.”

“Well.” Gabrielle sighed. “I really wanted to make sure it wasn’t something nasty.” She admitted. “So you wouldn’t get mad.” She added, almost as an afterthought.

Xena ruffled her companions scruffy hair. “Thanks.” She said, too tired to argue further.  “Mind getting the laces back there?”

Gabrielle didn’t mind.  She waited for the queen to turn, then she untied the leather strips as Xena loosened her armor, lifting it over her head. She could see the bruises and cuts on the queen’s skin and she backed up as Xena eased the armor down on the press and let out a soft sigh.  “It’s done.”

“I feel it.” Xena worked the straps on her leathers off her shoulders, examining a long gash on her forearm she didn’t remember getting.  She let the garment fall down and stepped out of it, sucking in a breath as her back cramped. “Damn it.” She muttered, glancing behind her to find that Gabrielle had wandered off across the room, a fact that made her frown.

She’d thought she’d said all the right things, hadn’t she?  Damn it, she was too tired and too smacked around for this. “Hey.”

Gabrielle turned and came back over to where she was standing. “Did you want something?” She asked, her eyes searching Xena’s face intently.

Now Xena felt silly. “Yeah, but I forgot what it was.” She scowled a little. “Maybe I’ll think of it later. G’wan back to whatever you were doing.”

Her companion cocked her head in puzzlement, then she gave Xena a hesitant pat on her hip before she wandered back off towards the bath again, turning her back to the queen’s bare body and running her hands over the smooth marble verge.

The queen pondered her friends strange attitude for a moment, the she shook her head and went back to undressing, leaving the questions to rest for a while. “I am too damn tired for this.” She muttered under her breath. “Cranky old bitch.”

“Did you say something?” Gabrielle asked, looking over her shoulder.

“No. Just talking to myself.” Xena sighed. “Too many kicks in the head today.”

Gabrielle found herself staring at the tub full of steaming water with something like dumbfounded bliss.  She put her hand in it and felt the warmth creep into her fingertips, and breathed in the faintly lavender scented steam with mute pleasure.

Behind her, she could hear Xena muttering again to herself, and she hoped the queen would relax a little, now that they were safe, and alone, and in a nice quiet spot without soldiers and burning buildings and people dying right and left.

She wanted Xena to relax. Then she could relax, instead of be wound up in knots wondering what they were going to end up saying to each other again.

She was mind numbingly glad to be with Xena again, but she was mind numblingly scared at the same time that the anger and the estrangement would continue between them and she’d lose the only thing in her life that really had any meaning at all.

Maybe she was just being silly.

“If you’re gonna wash one finger at a time, get the Hades out of the way I’m diving in.”  Xena voice came from behind her. She edged to one side and let Xena move past and lower herself into the sunken tub with a groan before she sat down on the verge and started taking her boots off.

Maybe.

“Ungh.” Xena plopped down in the water and sent a wave of it spilling over the edge to drench Gabrielle’s back and side.  “Whoops.”

“Yikes.” Gabrielle got up hastily and hopped to one side, overbalancing and ending up tumbling to the ground with her boot in one hand and her bare leg waving. “Whoa!”

Xena leaned on the side of the tub. “I’d get up and get ya, but honest to damn gods, Gabrielle, I’m too wiped. Sorry.”

Gabrielle righted herself and gave the queen a bemused look. “It’s okay.” She tossed her boot to one side and started unlacing the other one.  “It’s just as comfortable down here.” Maybe she was being silly. Xena was sounding more and more like her old self every moment.

Maybe they could even..  Gabrielle suddenly knew what she wanted. It was nuts. She wasn’t silly, she was borderline insane.  With a sigh, she shucked her worn, tattered overtunic and got out of her leggings, glad to toss them in a pile for later washing and rid her skin of their touch.

Then she turned and look at the tub, with it’s sprawling occupant, before she screwed up her courage and headed there herself.

Xena leaned back in the tub and was grateful to just sit still, every bone in her body aching and even breathing taking an ungodsly amount of effort.  She lowered her hands into the water and flexed them slowly, watching the bloodstains leech off as her muscles started to unkink.

After a moment she felt the water move, and she opened her eyes to find Gabrielle easing down into the far end of the tub, her battered body almost as banged up as Xena’s was. She had bruises all up and down her torso, and long scratches on her arms and as she leaned back and slid down to her neck in the water she let out a groan the queen fully understood.

She wiggled her toes and cautiously leaned back, the marble verge cool on her back as she let the peace of the room soak into her. So very many things had gone on the last couple days that it was hard for her to remember the last time she’d gotten to just sit down.

Oh. Wait, no she did remember. In the barn. On the straw. In a pile of pony crap.

“Life sucks, huh?” Xena picked up a bit of soap and started scrubbing her bloodstained skin after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence.

Gabrielle blinked at her. “Not right now it doesn’t.”  She said, lifting a hand up and letting the warm scented water trickle through her fingers. “This is awesome.”

Xena regarded the warm water bemusedly. “You got a point.” She flexed her hand, noting the big bruise in the soft spot between her forefinger and thumb. “You got a point, my friend.”

The words were encouraging, and Gabrielle started to feel a little better.  “So, um..” She moved a bit closer as she rubbed her arms with her own piece of soap. “What’s going to happen next?”  She grimaced as the soap stung in the raw skin across the back of one hand. “Ow.”

“Well.” Xena ducked under the water and got her hair wet, then she surfaced. “With any luck, we’ll get to eat something, then make love, then go to sleep. “ She replied. “That sound okay with you?”

Huh? It wasn’t at all what Gabrielle had been asking, but the answer suited her perfectly. “Oh, yeah!”  She exhaled, feeling more of the tension in her relax.  “That sounds great.”

Xena chuckled softly under her breath. “Sure does.” She replied wistfully.

Gabrielle ducked her head under and shook it, scrubbing her hair with a sense of utter relief.  She surfaced, and caught Xena watching her, and the look in those eyes….It was more than she’d hoped for, really. After a moment, she looked up at Xena again. “Hey, Xena?”

“Mm?”

“Can we skip dinner?”

Xena got caught by surprise rinsing her hair. She stopped and looked up from under wet bangs, and started to laugh. She dropped the soap and sat up, her shoulders shaking as she watched Gabrielle turn a delicate shade of bright pink. “You little vixen.”

Ah, the ice was broken. Gabrielle smiled, then she started laughing softly too, as she rubbed the soap over her shoulders and breathed in the light, herbal scent.  “Would you really want me to say I wanted soup over you?”

Xena laughed harder.

“I mean, c’mon, Xena.” Gabrielle noticed her hands were shaking, a little. “Give me a break, huh?”

Then she felt a touch on her leg, and looked up. “What?” She found gently twinkling blue eyes watching her, with a warmth behind them that chased away the clinging web of fear.

“C’mere.”  Xena tugged on her calf. “You randy little muskrat, you.”

Gabrielle let the soap loose and slid over towards Xena’s end of the tub,  willingly fitting herself in the queen’s waiting arms at last.

Ahh. Gabrielle smiled As their bodies touched, her world finally regained some of its color.  She leaned against the queen and folded her arms over hers, tipping her head back as Xena leaned forward and their lips touched.

It was like…

Gabrielle couldn’t even complete the thought. She half turned and let her hands drop below the water, caressing Xena’s thigh as her guts started to burn and she let the day’s events slide away from her.

Let the recent past slide away from her, taking the dark, and the anger, and the fear with it. She didn’t want them. She just wanted this heat, and this closeness and to not be alone for one moment longer.

“Screw dinner.”  Xena shifted her more fully around, their limbs tangling in the warm water as a building passion took both of them by surprise.  “Just bring on dessert.”  Her hand cupped Gabrielle’s breast and she felt a touch high up on the inside of her thigh that made her breathing unsteady. 

She forgot about being hurt. She forgot about being tired. The rich, sexual energy filled her and she leaned back, pulling Gabrielle against her as their bodies pressed against each other, banishing the water for a far more potent heat.

Her hands dropped down Gabrielle’s sides as they kissed, feeling the sharp motion of her companion’s ribs under her thumbs as she inhaled as hearing the soft subvocal groan as her thigh slipped between Gabrielle’s and eased them apart.

Gabrielle was caught between elation and arousal. So much had happened. So much had come between them, that it was almost a shock to find that touch so familiar, and her own so welcome.  She hardly knew where to start as she reacquainted herself with the queen’s long body, her hands traveling down over a form thinner, and more spare than she remembered.

War was tough, wasn’t that what Xena had said?  Especially on someone who hardly slept and fought all..

“You’re not too much of a swimmer are ya?” Xena broke off and whispered in her ear.

Fought all the good fights. “N..no.” Gabrielle uttered, as Xena’s hand teased her breast.

“Let’s get out of this damn tub then.” The queen let her head drop back a little, as the gentle stroking on her thigh went from teasing to sensual. “Before we both drown.”

Gabrielle nibbled at the visible flutter along Xena’s neck, having Xena at a bit of a disadvantage. She leaned over and their bodies touched and slid against each other again as her stroking now went from sensual to a rhythmic intensity she’d learned over the months would put Xena pretty much at her mercy.

If only for a brief moment.

She felt Xena’s hands grip her as her body reacted to the touch, the strength evident in the hold making her catch her breath as always.  She gently bit Xena’s earlobe, then moved lower, nipping and teasing as those long winter afternoon memories came flooding back and she let herself get lost in it.

A low groan emerged from the queen’s throat and it was like music to Gabrielle’s ears as she felt the queen’s body start to convulse and she went with the motion as the grip on her tightened and they both shifted, sending a splash of water out of the tub and across the floor.

Then Xena’s hold on her relaxed, and they were sliding together again, oblivious of the bath, and of the water, and of anything but each other.

**

“I think I could learn to like swimming.” Gabrielle studiously applied herself to a bunch of grapes. She was seated cross legged on one of the chairs, her body wrapped in linen and was sharing a hastily thrown together tray Xena’s men had brought them.

“I think you’d be pretty damn good at it.”  Xena was in the chair across from her, slumped against one arm with one leg tucked up under her and the other extended across the floor.  She had a cup of wine cradled in the long fingers of one hand, and a bit of bread and cheese in the other. 

She almost had everything she wanted. She was clean, her libido was sated for the moment, and she had eaten enough to feel almost normal.

However. “Damn, my back hurts.”  Xena sighed. “Hades, every bone in my body hurts.” She let her head rest against the chair. “Gabrielle, let me tell ya one thing. This hero crap’s a killer.”

Gabrielle set her grapes down and got up, walking around behind Xena and reaching around the back of the chair to gently massage her shoulders. “You don’t have your stuff with you, huh?”

“No.” Xena replied in a mournful tone. “When I left the boat I just grabbed your bag, that’s it.”

Gabrielle’s hands probed a little deeper, working carefully around the knots Xena could feel on either side of her neck, and though the touch wasn’t doing a damn thing for the damage she’d done to herself, the queen wasn’t about to put a stop to it.

“Thanks for bringing that.”  Gabrielle said, after a quiet period. “At least we have some soap and a brush to share, huh?”

Xena smiled, chuckling softly under her breath. “Yeah.” She put her cup down and slowly flexed her hands.  “Did you hear what Brendan said? He said the damn army’s heading this way.”

“Uh huh.”

“No body listens to me anymore, Gabrielle.” Xena sighed. “Nobody does what I tell them to.”

“Mm.”

“Cat got your tongue?”

Gabrielle remained quiet for a little while, then she gently cleared her throat. “I..um.. “

Xena cocked her ears, listening intently to her companion but keeping her posture the way it was, since she wanted to hear what Gabrielle had to say but not have her freak out again over anything.

The silenced lengthened, though, and the queen found herself in the strange position of having to be the chatty half of their relationship for a change. “Funny how the Fates suddenly screw things around for you, aint’ it?”

“Hm?”

Xena exhaled. “I had this crazy idea.” She said. “I lied to myself, and to you, and to those men on that ship and the truth is, all I was going to lead us into was death.”

She felt the warmth against the back of her head as Gabrielle exhaled, but the gentle hands just kept moving in silence.

“Then I had another crazy idea.” Xena went on, in a quieter tone. “I thought if I led those men to the sea, and we died, since we didn’t have rigging, didn’t have supplies… didn’t even have barrels of water.. then at least you wouldn’t die with me.” She paused, but Gabrielle didn’t say anything and she sighed inwardly, girding herself to get through the rest of it. “The stupid part of that was, naturally, that you’re going to say  some halfassed thing like you’d rather die with me than.. ah.. never mind. Whatever.”

“Xena.”

The queen peered back over her shoulder.

“You don’t need to explain anything to me.” Gabrielle had folded her hands over the back of the chair and rested her chin on them. “You’re the queen.”

Xena watched those shadowed, tired eyes carefully, a shock of adrenaline tingling through her as she recognized the moment for what it was. “Is that all I am to you?” She asked, in a quiet, even tone., holding her breath as she waited for the answer.  “Now?”

For a long moment, Gabrielle just met her gaze, then she looked away. “Does it really matter?”

I knew. Xena mentally recited. I knew how she felt. I knew how she felt because she gods be damned told me a dozen times and I just totally threw that away like the jackass I am.   Audibly, she exhaled in a half sigh, half groan. “Someday I’m gonna grow up and not be such an idiot.”

Gabrielle watched her quietly.

“Of course it matters.” The queen said, after a long pause.  Then she felt silent, as the sudden fear that she’d done something irrepairable hit her and she wondered if maybe Gabrielle did see her as just that now. Maybe she didn’t have it in her to trust like that again.

Would she? Ironic, Xena. You make everyone else prove their loyalty and you think that means you get a free ride.

Her heart did a few uncomfortable flip flops, but her own internal conscience took hold  and she pushed aside the chastisements for something more productive.  If it was one thing Xena understood, it was how to clean up her own mess when she made it. 

Humbleness sucked. Didn’t mean she didn’t know how to do it if she had to.

 “Gabrielle.”  She said. “I’m sorry I screwed that up.  I shouldn’t have left you in the barn.”  She tilted her head back to look up at her lover. “Please forgive me.”

The blond woman slowly circled the chair and came to the front of it, kneeling down in front of Xena and putting her hands on the queen’s knees as Xena turned her head to follow her movements, sensing her success in Gabrielle’s swiftly altering body language and knowing a moment of almost painful relief.

She realized then that her ability to apologize was really dependent on her need to have that apology  accepted and her need right now was absolute.

Gabrielle’s expression altered, from quiet and closed, to an open and honest sweetness as she leaned forward and squeezed her finger gently. “By the gods, Xena. It’s you who should be forgiving me.”

It was worth the pain. Xena covered one of Gabrielle’s hands with her own, rubbing the edge of her thumb against her lover’s knuckles. It was worth the emotional flogging to collect those odd and scattered strings that made up their life together and pull them close again, shoving the world aside to close this very personal gap grown between them.

She mattered to Gabrielle. Gabrielle mattered to her. Their love mattered.

“You’re everything to me.” Gabrielle said. “I should have followed you. I was just too scared you didn’t want me to.”

Yeah, it was worth it.  Who in the Hades needed dignity anyway?  “I wanted you to.”  The queen admitted. “I kept looking behind me to see if you were there.” She paused. “Damned near killed me when you weren’t.”

Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Xena’s bare kneecap. “I’m sorry.” She rested her head against the spot.

Xena gently stroked her hair. “You.” She said.”Brendan, the army.. what I did I ever do to deserve all this corny idealism?”

“You’re just you.”

“Great.” The queen sighed again. “I think I’ll stop being me then. Maybe I’ll be a donkey.  Just sit in some field all day chewing grass and passing wind. What do you think?”

Gabrielle looked up at her.

“Don’t’ answer that.” Xena stroked her cheek and watched the already warm expression turn into something so gooey she almost melted right along with it.   “Let’s get some sleep. Damned if I know what’s going to happen tomorrow but if I don’t’ get a nap I may end up cutting my fingers off trying to get my sword out of my sheath.”

Gabrielle turned her head and kissed Xena’s palm. Then she stood and held her hands out to the queen, waiting for her to clasp them before she tugged her to her feet and led her over to the bed.  They climbed in as Xena snuffed the candle out nearby, leaving the only light the still flickering torches glowing through the windows and the wall sconce near the door.

Xena stretched her body out carefully, and let her head rest on the pillow.  Now that she was here, and it was quiet, it was hard to believe that she was here, and it was quiet, and she could spend a little while being still and just rest.

So much had happened so fast. Hades, so much had happened so fast just since sundown.  She felt like the world was turning too swiftly for her, and she was getting her ass run over far too often, and far too consistently.

Stop. She wanted to say. Just stop, and let me get my mind around what’s going on.

The day had seemed like it lasted a lifetime.  Xena closed her eyes and thought about all the things that had happened, going over the fight, and the finding of the boat, the findng of her men, and her and Gabrielle parting ways in the stable.

Why had she let it all overwhelm her like that?  Her heart almost stopped when she felt a warm touch on her belly, then she relaxed as Gabrielle snuggled closer, laying her arm across Xena’s stomach and bringing a very welcome heat along her side.

It touched her sore spots. It made her tense muscles relax, and she exhaled a little, putting her arm around Gabrielle and acknowledging just how glad she was they were here together.  Not too much earlier, she’d been staring right into the possibility of losing her lover, either through the chance of the tide, or her own recklessness and now that she had a chance to really think about it, she had to wonder what in the Hades she’d been thinking.

Lose this? If motion wouldn’t of disturbed her bedmate she’d have slapped herself in the head. She wondered if she was losing her mind after all, if age was withering her ability to think and plan, since all she’d done in the last year was completely screw up absolutely everything she’d gotten her hands on.

Gabrielle gave her a little squeeze, and put a light kiss on Xena’s breast.

Well. Almost everything. 

So what should she do next? What was the city expecting of her? What was she expecting of her?  Was her reluctance to engage Sholeh good sense, or just cowardice? 

Xena knew she’d only ever hear that question from herself, but she also knew she was  the only one who could look at that face in the mirror and see reality reflected back at her, not some half assed legend. That reality was what was urging her to cut and run, take what she could and get out .

It made sense, didn’t it? Why stick around and get killed? Only an idiot would do that, with the force Sholeh had facing them. Sure, she took a score of men away, but what was that against the thousands? What could she really do?

Xena opened her eyes and studied the ceiling, watching for any hint of spiders. Well, okay, so she’d wrecked their docked ships, and incited the city into revolt, and chased the Persians out of the gates, but really…

Hm.

“Gabrielle?”

“Mm?” Gabrielle murmured sleepily back.

“Why did you tell them I was going to create a distraction?”

Gabrielle was silent for a few moments.  “I guess because I knew in my heart if you could do something like that, you would.”

“Huh.”  Xena inspected the statement. “You were right.” She said, in a surprised tone. “That’s exactly how it happened. I saw a chance, and I took it.”

Gabrielle gave her another squeeze.

“But how did you know?” Xena persisted. “I sure as Hades didn’t know.”

“I just knew.” Her bedmate said. “You always do that, Xena. You always are in the front of everyone, taking charge, standing up to all the dangerous stuff.. you just do it naturally.”

“I do.” Xena murmured an agreement. “I just don’t know why I do it.  I used to think it’s because I’m the queen. Queens are supposed to lead.”

“I don’t think it has anything to do with you being a queen.”

“Well, it could be because I’m a homicidal maniac who thinks they’re Ares, the God of War.” 

“Do you really think that?”

Xena sighed. “I used to.” She admitted. “But I don’t think he’d have run out on the night tide, do you?”

“But you didn’t.”

“I wanted to.”

Gabrielle hesitated for a long moment, then she exhaled, warming the curve of Xena’s breast with her breath. “So did I.”

Xena felt sleep, held at bay for so long, taking her over. She drifted off with Gabrielle’s words in her mind, their color and weight sinking quickly into her dreams.

**

Gabrielle stood in the sunlight pouring in the window, working with a rag to clean the surface of Xena’s armor.   The scent of the metal and leather, mixed with the sun dried clean cloth she was wearing floated around her, and she patiently polished away in the quiet peace of the room.

Outside in the square, men and wagons were pulling away the charred remains of the platform, and in it’s place Xena’s troops had started to set up camp there, the numbers swelled by city volunteers as they moved piles of supplies into place.

She looked outside as she heard a familiar voice, and spotted Xena dodging an ox wagon as she yelled something loud at two men struggling with a wooden pole. 

It was almost funny, to watch everyone else react to Xena’s presence. Whatever they were doing, the men either slowed or stopped completely until she passed, their heads swinging around like a wind was blowing them as their eyes stayed glued to her tall form in it’s freshly washed leathers.

Gabrielle smiled, just a bit, and went back to her cleaning. She carefully removed the dirt and blood from the heavy metal, shining it with patient fingers.

It was a brand new day, in more ways then one.  She finished one of the bracers and set it down, then picked up the other one, turning to look as a soft knock came a the door. “Come in.”

Slowly, the door opened, and a tow headed figure appeared. “Good morning.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Hi, Lennat. Good morning to you too.” She rubbed a stubborn stain from the brassy metal.  “A lot’s happened, huh?”

“Sure has.” Lennat came forward, encouraged by her words. “Um.. they came and got your pony and put him in the stable up here.” He said. “I hope that’s okay.”

“Sure.” She replied. “I bet he was glad to see Tiger, Xena’s horse.”

Lennat looked around, then back at her. “Xena has a horse? I didn’t see one.” He sidled over, peering at the armor Gabrielle was polishing. “Have you been down to the docks? It’s horrible.”

“No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “Xena asked me to take care of this while she gets things organized.” She said. “But if it’s anything like what outside was like, I can imagine.”

“Worse.” Lennat said. “There were a lot of people in the ships.” He fell silent. “Some of them tried to jump and swim away, but they stayed on fire.”  He added. “It was pretty terrible.”

“Well.” Gabrielle set the bracer down, then she perched on the press and pulled Xena’s chest armor over to rest on her knee as she worked on it. “War is really pretty terrible.” She glanced up at him. “But they attacked you, so I guess you know that.”

“They didn’t, really.” Lennat sat down on the press next to her. “They said they would, and the city council just let them in.”

Gabrielle stopped, and looked at him. “Really?”

“Sure.” He responded. “What else were they supposed to do? Their ships showed up in our port, and the army marched up the road – the council figured they’d just put a few soldiers here and move on.”

“Oh. But they didn’t”

“No.” Lennat sighed. “They just started taking everything, and killing people. I guess they figured out it was a mistake, but I don’t think even if we fought it would have been much good. We’re not much good at war.” He glanced out the window. “But Xena’s amazing at it, isn’t she? The men were saying she pretty much did what happened at the pier by herself.”

“She’s amazing.” Gabrielle agreed readily. “I know she’ll work really hard to save what she can from Sholeh’s army. If they were smart, they’d just run off and not mess with her.”

Lennat nodded. “You’re right.” He said. “Oh, hey, listen… one of Xena’s guys from the ship was hurt, they brought him over to the inn and he was asking for you.”

Uh oh. Gabrielle exhaled. “Really?” She murmured. “For me?”

“Gabrielle!”

They both turned as Xena’s voice penetrated into the room with very little effort. Gabrielle laid the armor down and trotted over to the window, looking out to find her lover standing, arms on hips in that powerfully swaggering attitude watching her. 

“I’m here.” Gabrielle replied. “Do you want me for something?”

Xena produced a sexy grin.  “ Sure you want the whole damn city knowing the answer to that?”

“Gods.” Gabrielle muttered, half covering her eyes. “No.” She answered. “Not really.”  

The queen chuckled, and walked towards the window, spotting Lennat inside as she got closer.  Her expression altered, and her head dropped forward a little, tilting as her brows lifted. “What do you want?”

Lennat backed away from the window. “Um…”

“He was just telling me about Patches.” Gabrielle hastily intervened. “That’s all.”

“Mmm.” Xena growled low under her breath. “Okay.” She put her hands on the sill and leaned in towards Gabrielle. “I told all these town idiots to gather in the middle of the road near the gates. We’re going to see what they’re made of.”

Privately, Gabrielle wondered if they were made of something different than she or Xena was. “Okay.” She said. “I’m almost done with your stuff. Just these parts left.” She touched the rounded breastplate with one hand.

Xena snickered.

“Xena.”

“Okay, but hurry up.”  The queen said. “I’ll be back in a quarter candlemark to get em.” She reached inside and patted Gabrielle’s arm. “Be ready. I’ll b back to get you too.”

She disappeared from the window, and Gabrielle took a moment to catch her breath before she turned back to where Lennat was nervously waiting. “Sorry about that. She’s..”

“Not as mean as she sounds?” Lennat smiled wanly.

“Um… “ Gabrielle started back to work on the breastplate. “Well, actually she is.” She said, in an apologetic tone. “Probably she’s meaner.”  She added.  “But this is a really complicated situation so she’s trying to find the best way to fix things.”

Lennat backed towards the door. “Well, good to know. Ah, just wanted to let you know that stuff, guess I’ll see you around.”  He added hastily, opening the door and scooting through it then slamming it behind him with a loud bang.

Gabrielle watched him leave, with a bit of quizzical expression, unsure of whether she’d scared him off or not.  After a moment, she shook her head and went back to her work.

Behind her, Xena sheathed her dagger and chuckled silently, heading back to the men now gathering in the square.

**

Brendan was scribing onto a piece of parchment as Xena arrived. He paused and looked up at the queen as her shadow darkened his workspace. “Majesty.”

“Mm.” Xena looked around. “I almost feel like a majesty this morning.” She admitted frankly. “Instead of a piece of three season old horse crap on a wagon wheel.”

Brendan merely blinked at this pronouncement.

“So.” The queen went right on. “How many dead Persians?”

“A score.” Brendan said. “Fire did a lot of the work, down yonder.”

Xena had heard the screaming as she’d headed from the docks. “Good.”

“Scouts just came in.” Her captain added. “Said t’army’s headed up the road. Figure they’ll be here sundown, if they keep the pace.” He glanced up towards the gates, firmly shut and barred. “Won’t hold long.”

Xena faced the gates. They were tall, and sturdily built, rising three or four times again her height and studded with heavy iron strapping.  “No.” She agreed. “Not if we let them come right at them they won’t.”

Brendan eyed her.

The queen steepled her fingers and tapped them against her lips, as she turned in a circle and studied the surroundings.  Where there once had been the platform with it’s torture stations now stood a camp full of soldiers, hers, the ones she’d acquired from the Persians, and some volunteers from the city.

Not too many of those. Mostly younger sons, and workers now left with no livelihood after the raping of the city but they were willing, and stupid enough to volunteer and she wasn’t turning any live body down in this current insanity of hers.

So, a hundred men.  “How’s the scavenging doing?”

“Not so bad.” Jens had come up on the other side of Brendan. “The men what ran out last night left all but what they had in their hands.” He indicated the long, low buildings the soldiers had lived in. “And the armory, plenty of good arrows there.”

“Good.” Xena  “Get those useless newbies over there to start going street by street and bringing every wagon in the city up here to the gates.” She said. “Anything salvageable at the pier?’

“No.” Both Jens and Brendan shook their heads. “Ah.” Jens held a hand up. “The little boat we took, that’s left.” He said. “Tied up where ye left it.  We took the dead off, dumped em, and brought that Persian you took too over to the inn.”

Persian she took too? Xena stared at him. “What?”

“The soldier.” Jens said. “From outside the gates?”

Oh. Ugh. “Shoulda left him.”  Xena exhaled in irritation. “He’s alive?”

Jens half shrugged. “Was.”

The queen frowned.  “Damn.” She mused, glancing around.  People were moving in the streets now, heading towards the central square. “I’ll deal with that later.” She decided. “Gather all of them in front of the gates, and wait for me to get back.”

“Aye.” Brendan replied. “We’ll do that, Mistress.”

Xena took one more look around the space, then she turned and headed decisively back towards her temporary quarters, leaving her captains behind.

“Going to be a Hades of a fight.” Jens remarked. “Tell you though, it sure the Hades beats sitting in the barracks and going to rust.” He said. “No matter what the end of it.”

Brendan snorted, then chuckled. “You’ve got a mouthful there, lad.” He replied. “Think her Maj’s finally got herself back on the path with us.”  He glanced around, lowering his voice. “Here’s hoping, anyhow.’

Jens let his hands rest on the crate his companion was using as a table. “Never left it.” He disagreed. “Just was fighting the slope a bit, is all.”

“Mm.”

“Little one showed her the way.” Jens added, unexpectedly. “Bold heart, that one.”

“None bolder.” Brendan allowed. “Jell made her out a mouse, but the wee mouse has teeth of a mountain cat, yeah?”

“Maj got bitten, that’s for damn sure.”

**

Xena walked over to the raised guard platform on one side of the gates and prepared to climb up onto it. She paused first, straightening her cloak a little and raking her fingers through her hair as she watched the gathering crowd from the corner of her eye. “Hmph.”

“Something wrong?” Gabrielle came to a halt next to her.

“No.” Xena studied her. “You ready?”

Gabrielle looked around, as if wondering who Xena was talking to. Her hair was a soft, bright golden in the sunlight, and she was dressed in her livery, her hands clasped behind her. “Um.. sure.” She responded. “What are we doing?”

“Taking over the city.” Xena turned and nudged her towards the ladder, giving her a pat on her butt. “Up you go.”

Gabrielle made a face, but she reached up  and fitted her hands around the rungs, pulling herself up and starting to climb towards the platform.  It was a tall ladder, and she gripped the wood tightly as she felt the wood start to shake under her  as Xena followed. “Yikes.”

“Keep going.” The queen called up to her. “Fall on my head and we’re both gonna regret it.”

It made Gabrielle smile, and she managed the rest of the climb in short order, getting up to the top and pulling herself onto the platform with the thick wooden posts there apparently for that purpose since they were worn with years of hands before hers.

The platform was big enough for a few soldiers, and on the far side, it had just enough height to allow Gabrielle to peek over the walls and look across the plain towards the mountains while she waited for Xena to join her.

A dry wind was coming across the open space, and she could smell smoke on it, the long road empty almost until the line of the trees where she could see a dark smudge forming, moving in their direction. “Is that them?”

Xena stepped up behind her. “It’s them.”

“There’s a lot of them.” Gabrielle commented. “But we have you.” She looked up at her lover. “I think we’re even.”

Xena rubbed her brow and pinched the bridge of her nose, half muffling a chuckle.  “Tell the Persians that when they get here, willya?”

“I will.” Gabrielle responded. “Besides you’re a lot prettier than whatshername out there.”

Xena smiled patted her lover on the shoulder.  “C’mon.”

Gabrielle turned and joined Xena as they faced the crowd, now stretching across the square and down the streets leading away from it.  In the late afternoon light, the faces upturned in their direction were clearly defined, eyes watching them intently.

It was intimidating. Gabrielle carefully positioned herself just to the left and a step or two behind Xena and folded her hands in front of her, waiting to see what the queen had to say.  The sun spilled down on her companion’s armor, and her polishing showed clearly in the warm glow as Xena swept her cloak back off her shoulders and faced the crowd.

Incredible, really, how different Xena looked today. Gabrielle found herself fascinated by the sharp profile, most of the haunted weariness vanished from it and only the faintest hint of dark circles remaining under her eyes.

“All right.” Xena put her hands on the railing. “Listen up!”  She let her voice carry over the square, and the buzz of voices settled to silence immediately.  Her posture straightened up at that, her shoulders coming back and her head lifting as the breeze brushed her dark hair into a swirl.

Gabrielle was just glad to be there.  Even with her back turned to the oncoming army, standing there in the sun next to Xena, before the people of the city, she felt a sense of fulfilled destiny no matter what the outcome of the day was going to be.

“My name is Xena.” The queen’s voice rang out loud and clear.  “Just in case anyone missed that part.”

The crowd stirred, but everyone remained silent. In the center of the square, Xena’s men were assembled, standing braced and watching their leader, a little respectful space around them.

“This is my partner, Gabrielle.” Xena went on. “My consort and second in command.”

Gabrielle’s eyeballs nearly came out of her skull and she muffled a squawk.

“The Persian army is heading back this way.” The queen went on, blithely ignoring the woman freaking out at her side.  “There’s good news and bad news about that.  The good news is, if we stay and fight, they’ll probably sack the city since we’ve only got a hundred men and a muskrat besides me here.”

Gabrielle grabbed the railing to stop from toppling over.  Partner?  What? Second in command? What?

“Bad news is, if we leave, they’ll sack the city because you hid us.”   Xena continued. “So suck it up, and get ready to fight.”  She paused, and regarded her audience. “If we all give everything we’ve got, some of you might end up living. That’s the best offer you’ll get.”

She stopped talking, and waited. The crowd stirred, almost visible waves of shock rippling off them to bounce against her armored chest as she watched her platform mate in her peripheral vision.

Gabrielle was watching her with huge, round eyes.

“Well?” Xena addressed the crowd. “What’s it gonna be?”

After a short silence, three or four older men came forward, moving through the crowd to face her, peering up at the platform and shading their eyes from the sun.   After an awkward pause, one of them, a tall man with a thick, flowing beard and the clothing of a noble took an additional step.

Xena waited with for her, commendable patience.  She was aware of the approaching force at her back, and the slant of the sun, and the muskrat losing her mind right next to her, and the craziness of it all was making her feel wild and almost free.

The Hades with it.  She was a warrior. Her life was defined by her sword, and if the Fates had decided this was where that sword got broken then so be it.

“Your majesty.” The elder called up, his voice somewhat hoarse. “Our city was being destroyed slowly. If it’s fate is to now be destroyed quickly, then we accept that.” He cleared his throat, as a buzz went up behind him. “Whatever we can do to help, we will.”

Nice. “Very well.” Xena summoned up her most queenly attitude. “Those of you who have weapons, and want to fight, get them, and come back here.” She surveyed them with a slow turn of her head. “The rest of you.. find a place to hide.”

For a moment after she stopped speaking, everyone just stood there, and stared at her.  “Shoo.” Xena raised her hands and made a shoving away gesture, watching as the crowd started to dispel, a loud buzz of conversation rising above the square.

“Your majesty.” The old man at the bottom of the platform called up. “May we speak with you?”

Xena gazed down at them. “Sure.” She said. “C’mon up.” She indicated the ladder, then she turned and went to the wall, leaning her elbows on it as she studied her oncoming enemy. “Gggaaabrielle.”

“Yes?” Gabrielle had joined her, but instead of facing out, she was leaning her back against the wall. “Did you really mean that?”

“What, your name?”  The queen peeked over at her. “Or the part about you being my main squeeze?”

Gabrielle’s face scrunched.

“Aren’t ya?”

Suddenly the sound of the wind was very loud in her ears. Gabrielle half turned and faced the queen, seeing the seriousness in her face. “I hope so.” She answered softly. “But I don’t think I can command an army, Xena.”

“Sure you can.” Xena kept one ear out for the ladder, hearing the soft cursing as the elders made their way up to see her. “Gabrielle, you led those nitty idiots when you though I’d bailed out on you.”

Gabrielle looked at the top of the guard platform.

“Don’t.” Suddenly Xena’s voice altered, and she reached over to gently tip Gabrielle’s chin back. “Look at me.”

The soft green eyes met hers, carrying all the weight of their love in them.

Xena momentarily forgot what she was going to say. She blinked a few times, then pulled herself together again. “I’ve been trying to fight what you’ve been telling me ever since we left.” She said, seriously. “I don’t know if I’m what you think I am, but I don’t know if I’m what I think I am either.”

Gabrielle merely watched her, eyes fastened on her face.

“I’m tired of fighting myself.” The queen put her hand on Gabrielle’s cheek. “I may be riding right into Hade’s arms, and I might be taking you with me, but if we end up in the Styx together I want everyone to know you were a lot more to me than some slave kid I picked up off the road.”

She leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle on the lips. “So you’re my partner.” She looked her companion right in the eye. “And you’re my consort. We’re in this together.”

Xena wasn’t sure what was going on behind those eyes, but she could see the smile, and the warmth, and she knew she’d gotten her message across. “Okay?”

Gabrielle slowly exhaled, a look of overwhelmed wonder on her face. She put her hand up and covered Xena’s, gently squeezing the fingers. “Will you marry me?”

Xena’s nostrils twitched, and her eyes widened. “Uh..”

“If we’re going to meet Hades, I’d like to do it married.” Gabrielle got the words out in a rush. “My father said I never would be. He said I was too ugly, and..”

“Yes.” Xena moved her hand over and covered Gabrielle’s lips with her fingers. “Can it wait for the geezers to leave?” She jerked her head sideways, as the first of the elders came up the ladder, panting hard.

Gabrielle nodded.

“Okay.” Xena ignored the city men, pulling Gabrielle into a hug and squeezing her hard.  

**

Gabrielle walked through the crowd, following the queen and pretty much completely oblivious to her surroundings. Every inch of her attention was completely focused on the tall figure in front of her, the words the queen had said running over and over in her mind as the noise of the assembling fighters rose around them.

Many of the city people were arriving, some with poles, some with old, or ornate swords obviously not really intended for battle. She smiled at them without really seeing them, until she realized two men in front of her were Jens and Brendan, and they were both saluting.

She looked at Xena, then realized the queen was turned in the complete opposite direction and the two soldiers were actually honoring her. Gabrielle felt herself blushing intensely, and she managed a feeble wave of the hand in their direction, as they grinned at her.

“Your grace.. we cleaned this up for ya.” Brendan handed over her spear, it’s tip now polished and shining.

Gabrielle took it, closing her fingers around the stout wood handle and feeling the solid weight of it as she settled the end near her boot. “Thanks.” She said. “That was really nice of you.”

Xena turned around. “Ah.” She regarded her companion. “Got your pig sticker back, huh?”

“I don’t think I’d stick any pigs.” Gabrielle said, seriously.  “Unless they were chasing you, that is.”

The queen put her hands on her hips. “You make me want to go find a pigpen.”

The men chuckled, as Gabrielle blushed again. “All right.” Xena motioned the rest of the soldiers over. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”  She waited for the army, such as it was, to surround her. “They’re moving slower than I thought.”

“Won’t be here by sundown.” Brendan agreed.

“No.” Xena shifted, and a space appeared around her as she started to pace back and forth. “So that can go two ways – either they’ll settle in and hit us in the morning, or they go for a night attack.” She clasped her hands behind her back. “IF it was me, I’d hit us at night.”

“Surprise.” Brendan nodded. “Aye.”

“But she’s not me.” Xena went on.

“Boy, isn’t that the truth.” Gabrielle spoke up unexpectedly

Xena turned to regard her, with a half grin.  Then she turned back to the troops. “I think I’ve thrown enough surprises at her that she’s going to be wary of hitting us in the dark.”  She went on. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t be ready anyway.”

Brendan shifted, letting his hand rest on his sword hilt. “Wall won’t stand up to them for long.” He said. “Not with the rigs they had in the pass.”

“Mm.” The queen grunted. “Let’s watch out for them.” She indicated the watch. “Get up there on the wall, and just watch. Watch everything they do, everything they set up. Don’t put torches up. “ Her voice grew stronger, and more intense.  “Get used to the night. Live in it, and they won’t be able to pull anything over on us. Understand?”

The men nodded, their eyes fixed on her.

“All of you.” Xena pointed at a line of the soldiers, with a sweep of her hand. “Get up there.”

The soldiers gathered their gear and started off, easing through the crowd towards the wall.

“The rest of you, gather up every weapon we can fire over the wall you can.” Xena said. “Brendan, get a bunch of people making arrow. When you’re done, come get me and we’ll put something on em.”

“Aye.”

Xena stepped back, and looked around. “We won’t leave the wall once they’re here.” She called out. “Bring everything there. Food, water, every godsbedamned pointed thing you’ve got, and a death wish.”  She lifted her hands up, fists clenched.  “We’ve only got to take out forty of em for every one of us.”

“Xena! Xena!”  The chant went up suddenly, as the queen turned in their midst, soaking it all in.  Then she lowered her fists, as the yells still echoed around her.  “Nice.” She turned to face Gabrielle. “Let’s go see what trouble we can find for our friend Sholeh.”

“Sure.” Gabrielle amiably followed her, hefting her spear and walking along with it. “You know what I miss?”

“Waking up naked with me in the morning?”

“Hm.”

“Oh that’s right, we did that today.” Xena was in evident good humor. “You know what, Gabrielle? Even if this goes right to Hades on us, no body’s gonna ever forget it.”

“Probably not.” Gabrielle wrenched her mind away from being naked and focused on the building they were walking towards. It was two stories, and large, surrounded by a well made wall that the guard shack they’d slept in butted up against.

Some of Xena’s men were in front of it, and she recognized Jens tall form, as well as her friend Lennat’s. He seemed to have picked up some of the pieces of soldiery, and was now wearing a big knife on a belt, and heavy boots.

He looked a little silly, and she felt a little silly with her spear, but Xena’s men seemed to have accepted him and they all braced to attention as the queen approached.  “What do we have here, boys?”

The men looked at Lennat, who blushed and cleared his throat. “It’s the prince’s palace, uh.. ma’am.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Don’t call her that.”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances after the tandem words got out, and Gabrielle scratched her nose in some mild embarrassment.

“Ahem.” Xena turned her icy eyes on the hapless Lennat. “My name is Xena.” She said. “Use it or I’ll cut your tongue out.”

Lennat nodded up and down rapidly, making his soft, straight bangs flop up and down. “Prince Eslan left when the Persians showed up.” He explained. “Uh.. Xena.”

“Ah.” The queen rubbed her jaw. “I remember him.” She said. “He showed up in my court asking me to pay  a tax for the ships he let dock to trade here.”

“He took his guard, and they left on a fast ship.” Lennat went on. “But it was small, and they couldn’t take much. They left a lot here, and the Persians didn’t loot the place for some reason.”

Xena viewed the ornate, grand building. “Probably because Princess Pooftah claimed it.” She shoved the gates open with a healthy push.  “Let’s see what we got.” She walked inside the gates and up the carefully scrubbed white stone path that led to the doors of the small palace.

Not really a palace, Xena reasoned. Not like hers was, vast wings of stone reaching out in four directions, with long hallways and towers, and the huge, echoing halls she held court in. This was a delicate, dainty space with carefully carved extravagances, all in white stone and pale marble.

It did not smell of cool stone and rich tapestry. Xena found herself suddenly nostalgic for her home, realizing it had indeed been a home for her now for the majority of her life.  A glance behind her showed Gabrielle trailing in her wake, her eyes roaming everywhere in that slightly widened amazement she found so endearing.

With a silent sigh, the queen turned and continued exploring.  The ground floor of the estate house was full of large, open spaces, and she figured they used them for parties since there were sideboards on every wall and the carpets, though rich, were shorn close and just a touch threadbare.

She stuck her head inside one doorway, and found a reasonable size kitchen. “Ah.” She walked inside and opened a few of the wooden cabinets, finding a few jars but not a whole lot more. “This get looted?”

Lennat, who had followed them inside with Jens, shrugged a trifle. “I think those who had none, snuck in and got what they could.” He said.

“Makes sense.”  Xena went through another door and crossed to the wide, beautiful stairway leading to the second level. The steps were marble, and they rasped softly under the leather of her boots as she climbed them.  “So this guy just ran out on you huh?”

Lennat was a couple steps behind them. “Wasn’t much more he could do.” He said. “He took the treasury with him.”

Xena stopped walking and turned on the steps. “What?”

Everyone else stopped too. “That’s why they didn’t take anything else.” Lennat seemed a little apologetic. “They took all the coin, the gold, all the jewels.. pretty much anything worth much in that ship with them.”

They all stared at him. “Which way did they go?” Xena asked, resting one hand on the stairwell railing.

“What?”

“Never mind.” The queen muttered. “Save that for later. So they took the swag, huh?” She chuckled and kept walking up. “Smarter than I pegged him for.”

“Yeah.” Lennat said. “I think that’s what the Persians were looking for, mostly. They were pretty mad.”

“I bet.” Xena chuckled again. “No wonder they were raping the place.”

“You mean they’d have left it alone if they’d gotten the money?” Gabrielle asked.

“Sure.” Xena got to the top of the steps and she wandered down the hallway. Rooms on either side proved to be ornate, well decorated bedrooms and parlors and she eyed a partcularily soft looking bed with a certain wistfulness.

“Hey Xena, look in here.”  Gabrielle was at the next doorway, leaning in as she held on to her spear with a firm grip. “Wow.”

The queen scooted up in back of her lover and peered over her head, blinking as the brilliant light inside the room almost blinded her. “What in the Hades..?” She pulled her head back and rubbed her eyes.  “What is all that in there?”

Gabrielle eased around the door and entered, moving to stand in the middle of the room as the sunlight poured into the windows and reflected off what seemed like a thousand different surfaces to light her in golden brilliance. “Wow!”

Xena leaned against the doorsill, her eyes taken with the figure in the center of the room. “Wow.” She repeated, in a much softer voice.  “Hey, city boy. C’mere.” She motioned Lennat over. “What’s up with the mirrors?”

Lennat approached timidly, peeking past Xena with a nervous motion. “Oh!” He started back, stunned by the sight. “Wow.”  He glanced at the queen. “We heard.. I mean, you hear talk around the city, you know? Especially in an inn.”

“I know.” Xena replied with unusual patience. “And?”

“His wife, Anthea.” Lennat said. “She was really vain.”

Xena walked into the room and joined her lover in the center, turning in a circle and seeing herslf reflected back in thousand facets. “Nice.” She walked over to examine the mirrors, average wall plaques roughly the size of a rider’s shield mounted firmly to the wall on all four sides.

“Wow. It’s warm in here.” Gabrielle sidled out of the reflected light and went to the door. “All that sun.”

Xena went still for a moment, then she turned and leaned one shoulder against the wall. “Jens?”

“Here, Mistress?” Her captain poked his head into the room, and blinked. “Bigods.”

“Get some men in here and take these damn things down.” Xena ordered, as she pushed off from the wall and headed for the door. “Put em in a wagon and let me know when you’re done.”

“Aye, Majesty.” Jens answered, in a confused tone. “The mirrors, yeah?”

“Yeah.”  The queen said. “Maybe if we show the Persians what they look like they’ll run screaming.”  She started down the steps at a brisk trot. “Gabrielle? We’ve got an old salt to find.”

Gabrielle scrambled after her, trying not to trip over her spear. “Old salt, new salt.. I think I’m getting hungry.”

**

Continued in Part 25