Queen of Hearts
Xena stood by the window, sorting through the contents of a box, pulling things out and dropping them on the top of the press with idle curiosity.
“What’s that?” Gabrielle closed the door behind her, carrying a flagon with her as she crossed the floor. “I found this cold cider. I thought you’d like some.”
“C’mere.” Xena turned as she approached a lifted something up, settling on her lover’s head, and adjusting it. “There.” She turned Gabrielle towards the mirror, and they both studied the silver filigreed circlet now nestling in her pale hair.
“Um… it’s pretty.” Gabrielle eyed herself. “What is it?”
The queen reached out and fluffed her bangs a little. “It’s a baby crown.” She said. “It’s what royal people wear so people know they’re royal and don’t trip over them.”
“So how come you don’t wear one?”
Xena snickered. “Do you really think anyone’s gonna trip over me?” She asked. “I’ve got one. I just hate it. It’s ugly as a mules behind.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle reached up and touched the circlet, feeling the delicate tracing against her fingertips as she glanced into the mirror..
It was pretty. It contrasted nicely against her hair and it twinkled in the sunlight from the window. “I don’t think it’s really practical though, is it??” She asked wistfully. “I mean, we’re in a war and all that.” She could see Xena’s eyes reflected at her in the mirror, and the gentle, almost sad expression surprised her.
“It’s not.” Xena agreed. “But who cares?”
Gabrielle turned to face her. “If you like it, I’ll wear it.” She said. “It’s so light I barely feel it.”
“I do like it.” Xena smiled at her. “Besides, didn’t you always want to be a princess?”
Gabrielle considered a moment. “No.” She admitted.
“Really.” The blond woman assumed a rueful expression. “I really always wanted to be a acrobat.”
Xena’s jaw dropped a little. “What?”
“We used to have these little traveling shows come through the valley in the summer.” Gabrielle explained. “One of them had these guys who could swing on ropes, and do somersaults.. I always wanted to grow up and be one of them.”
“Really?” The queen mused. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
Gabrielle spared a moment for those childhood memories, the long, warm afternoons she’d spent hiding behind the stables, watching the performers practice their tricks and longing to be that strong, and that graceful. “I bet you’d be good at it.” She told Xena. “I’ve seen you do all those somersaults in the air.”
Xena considered the prospect of spending a lifetime doing circus tricks for food and sighed.
“Anyway.” Gabrielle leaned forward, and slipped her arms around the queen. “Thanks.”
Xena returned the hug, reveling guiltily in the simple pleasure of it. “I could teach you how to do somersaults.” She offered. “When we get done with this whole mess.”
Gabrielle went still, then she looked up at Xena. “When we get home?”
“Mm.” Xena nodded.
“I’d like that a lot.” Gabrielle said, softly. “I miss home.”
The queen stared out the window for a long moment. “So do I.” She said, in a surprised tone. “I’m tired of all this. Let’s kick everyone’s ass and get the Hades out of here. Sound good?”
“Oh yeah.” Gabrielle nodded.
“Good.” Xena nibbled the top of her head, tugging idle strands of hair above the silver circle. She felt Gabrielle’s body press against hers and enjoyed the surge of sensuality between them as she ducked her head down to trade the strands for Gabrielle’s lips..
Regretfully, though, she limited herself to another few moments of kissing before she released Gabrielle and stepped back, giving her partner a little pat on the side. “First things first.”
Gabrielle’s nostrils flared, but she stepped back herself, and went to pour the cider she’d brought into the two cups on the press. “There’s a lot of wagons near the gate.” She said. “And a lot of people walking around with sticks.”
Xena went to the window and stuck her head out, peering towards the city entrance. Sure enough, there was a dense crowd of vehicles and horses near the gates, and an equally large crowd of townsfolk milling around with what could best be described as stage weapons.
Not fake, the queen mused, just the ones kept for show in the higher ranking households but still, the turnout was gratifying, as she’d promised little to the city other than a good fight.
Maybe they were just ready for a good fight. People were sometimes, she reasoned. “Remind me to have them gather up a bunch of rocks.” She said. “They can toss em, anyway.”
Gabrielle came to the window and handed her a cup. “They’re all sort of excited.” She said. “I think the Persians really pissed them off.”
“Me too.” Xena said, as she watched the sun slowly sink towards the top of the wall. To one side, near where the platform had been, she spotted a big cook fire with most of her men around it, and the breeze brought the scent of cooking meat to her. “Mm… what’s going on there?” She asked. “I thought they were out of food stock.”
“Um.” Gabrielle cleared her throat a little. “I think they were kind of doing what those people in the castle were doing when we left.”
“One of the wagons, the guys that brought it over said it was for us for dinner.”
“Mm.” Xena turned and headed for the door. “Let’s check it out.” She ordered crisply. “Move, muskrat.”
Gabrielle grabbed her own cup of cider and followed Xena out from their little haven, passing soldiers at guard as they exited the building and walked across the wide, busy square.
“Xena, it’s her. There she is!”
Gabrielle could hear the whispers all around her as they passed, and as she saw the sexy swagger appear in Xena’s walk, she knew the queen did also. An open path appeared before them and the entered the soldiers encampment, separated from the crowd a little by piles of weapons, gear, and supplies.
Inside that, the soldiers spotted their queen and nearly sprained limbs coming to attention and coming to her attention, the force of Xena’s personality rolling over them like an irresistible force.
Amazing. Gabrielle could only wonder at the change in her lover from the previous day’s depression. She’d gone from expecting a disaster, to this positive, ferocious attitude that even had her talking about going home when they were done.
Going home? She had to wonder if the queen wasn’t just a little loopy. She wanted to go home too, but even she realized there was this whole big army in front of them, coming as fast as it could to try and kill them all between them and the route back to the stronghold and that was even assuming something bad hadn’t happened in the meantime there and they had a home to go back to.
So weird. She sighed. But it was better than having to hear Xena so down, and sense the anguish around her. And who knew? Maybe she had a plan in her mind that sorted everything out, and it really was just going to be a matter of her kicking everyone’s butt and that would be the end of it.
“What’s in the pot?” Xena was asking. “And who gave it to you?”
Two of the men stirring the big pot looked at her in surprise. “It’s smoked meats, mostly, your Majesty.” The man closest to her said. “Some roots, not a whole lot, but it’ll fill us.” He added. “Man what brought that wagon, there, gave it to us.”
Xena turned her head and regarded the wagon. She stalked purposefully towards it, with Gabrielle wandering in her wake and then she circled it, examining the inside with a curious intensity, her fingers touching the markings on the side, and her eyes raking over the yoke and it’s strappings.
The horse inside them turned at her approach and regarded her, but remained where he was, apparently not nearly as threatened as the men who edged away from it as she continued her inspection.
Not able to see over the edge of the wagon, Gabrielle went to the horses head instead, and stroked his nose as she watched Xena work. A air of tension was starting to grow around them, as the queen ducked her head and looked at the wheels, then bent over and examined the rim of one, running her fingers over the edge of it.
“M…your uh.. majesty?” The wagon’s owner timidly approached. “Are you needing something?”
The queen crooked a finger at him and glared as he approached slowly, eyes blinking in apprehension. She stepped away from the wagon and put her hands on her hips. “What’s your name?”
“Allus.” The man responded. “I.. I’m just a carter for the dockfronts.”
“Where did you get the stock you brought here?” The queen asked, in a sharp tone.
The man looked around, but all his companions had faded back, moving away from the now threatening figure in their midst. The crowd had fallen silent, and they were all watching Xena, as her men, now also alert, gathered at her back.
Gabrielle wasn’t sure what was going on, but she’d learned the hard way that Xena did usually know what she was doing and often things that seemed confusing really weren’t once she got what she was after.
“Uh..” The man stammered. “Well.. I uh…” He looked around again, almost frantically. “They gave it to me!” He said. “They stopped me when I was coming up here and said to put this in the wagon and bring it to you. I don’t know nothing!”
Gabrielle looked around at the crowd and wondered if the queen was on to something. She studied the faces, and though they were wary, she didn’t see any with what she’d named pusscat face – that self satisfied little expression she remembered so well from court.
Uh oh. Gabrielle released the horse and went over to where Xena was standing, her nose twitching when she got close enough and could smell the sweat of fear on the man the queen was questioning. “Yes?”
The man’s eyes turned on her, wide and fearful.
“Know this guy?”
Gabrielle studied his face, and thought back to the recent few days. Had he been in the inn? On the streets? He did seem a little familiar.. in the square? Ah. “Yes.” She said. “He was taking some supplies from one of the boats away to the big ships.”
“Working with the Persians?” Xena persisted. “Right?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle now had the picture in her head, and she remembered standing by the small market stalls, sadly empty, as the carts moved in front of them heading towards the conqueror’s ships. “I remember the sign on the side.” She touched the cart. “It had sacks in it.”
The man stared at her. “I was doing what they told me!”
Xena took a step forward. “Who is ‘they’?” She asked , lowering her voice to a rasp. “Who gave you what you brought here?”
He shut his jaw, and looked back at her in silence, his eyes nearly popping as she moved with silent speed, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and whirling him around to slam him against the wagon with a rattle that made the horse start.
Xena looked intently at him, but the man’s jaw remained shut, and his eyes, thought terrified, met hers unflinchingly. “Start talking, or you’ll be flipping a coin to Charon next.” She warned. “Those men mean more to me than this whole godsbedamned city.”
He licked his lips and swallowed, but remained silent, his panicked breathing suddenly very loud in the now quiet square when the queen release one hand on him and with a negligent flick of her wrist, produced a dagger that glittered in the sunlight.
“Were you working with the people at the inn?” Gabrielle asked, suddenly. “With Lennat’s mother? Stealing things from the Persians?”
A ripple of shock went out at her words, not the least of which was from Xena herself. The queen glanced sideways at her lover, one eyebrow edging up.
“I know they were getting supplies from somewhere.” Gabrielle persisted. “In the shed behind the barn.”
Xena turned back to her victim, bringing the dagger close to his face, just in his vision. “Answer her.” She ordered. “Or I’m going to carve your lips off.”
A stir of motion went thorugh the crowd, and Xena sensed activity at her back that almost made her drop the man and turn as her hackles raised, and she sensed danger on the air.
A cracking sound on the wind made her shoulders tense, but she bore down with the knife and threw her trust in her soldiers and the stalwart woman next to her as she kept her back to whatever was coming. “Talk.”
War could end up being even shorter than she thought.
Xena didn’t budge at the voice, but Gabrielle did, moving away from the wagon and putting herself between the queen and whatever was coming in the cutest imaginable way.
“Wait, don’t come closer!” Gabrielle held her hands out. “No! No!!!”
“What’s she doing to him?” The voice yelled, outraged. “Let him go ya big..”
“Scuse me.” Xena whipped her elbow into the man’s chin and knocked him out. “Be right back. “ She dropped him to the floor, sheathed her dagger, drew her sword, and stepped in front of Gabrielle just as the innkeeper charged up to them ending with her sword point right in the woman’s puss. “STOP!”
The woman stopped, but only just. Her face was flushed red with anger, and her hands were curled into fists around two thick rolling pins, her bristling attitude overcoming her short, elderly stature. “Who the Hades you think you are hitting him? What’s he done to you, ya..” She lunged at Xena, brandishing her pins.
Xena took one step forward and backhanded her sword against the woman’s cheekbone, sending her sprawling from the force of the blow.
The crowd surged forward angrily. “Hey, it’s just an old woman! Don’t you do that!” One of the men yelled. “She don’t do nothing to you! You’re as bad as t’ther ones are!”
“Ain’t that the truth!” The innkeeper held a hand to her face. “Worse!”
Xena took another step as the woman tried to rise, and put her blade against her head. “I’m about to offer my life for this damn place. Who the Hades are you to interfere with anything I choose to do?” She looked around. “Who are any of you to question me? Bootlickers? You surrendered to Sholeh like a dog in heat.”
“Now wait…” The innkeeper protested.
“So you ask me to fight for you?” Xena went on, yelling louder. “Damn you! I’ll take what I want for my blood!”
The innkeeper went still, her eyes flicking over Xena’s face intently. Then she looked along the blade inches from her face, it’s sharp edge rock steady in the queen’s extended grip. “Hades of a time to stop trusting us.”
“I never trusted you.” Xena replied immediately. “I trust me and I trust her.” She indicated Gabrielle. “And I trust her because she’s earned it. You haven’t.” From the corner of her eye she saw Gabrielle straighten up, her shoulders drawing back and her head lifting as the innkeeper glanced briefly at her, before returning her eyes to Xena.
“All right you got a point there.” The innkeeper said, after a pause. “Want to move that? I’m not for poking an eye out after all of this.”
Xena let her wonder for a minute, then she lazily withdrew her sword and sheathed it. “So.” She put her hands on her hips. “You the resistance, old woman?”
“Keep calling me that and you’ll find out.” The innkeeper got warily to her feet, careful to keep clear of Xena’s reach. “We took what we could, yeah. It’s true. The kid knows what’s what. No mindless git like some I could say.” She dusted her hands off and picked up her rolling pins, as some of the others started to gather around her, watching Xena closely.
Xena turned and looked at her companion. “I think she said something nice about you.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I think so too.” She sidestepped over to Xena as the crowd around them started to relax and Xena’s men behind them put their weapons away. “Do you want me to try some of the stew first anyway?”
The innkeeper’s head snapped up and turned towards her, catching Xena’s attention again. She studied the woman’s face without actually looking right at her, as she reached over to tweak Gabrielle’s nose. “Nah. “ She said. “I’ll do it.”
Without further ado, she dodged back around the wagon and headed for the pot, leaving Gabrielle standing with the city dwellers.
Gabrielle looked at the innkeeper, then she turned and raced after the queen, ducking under the horses head and nearly scaring him into bolting. The crowd surged after her, as Xena got to the cook fire and stepped up onto the log next to it, taking the crude ladle from her man’s hand and dipping it in.
“Hey..whoa..” Gabrielle scrambled through the crowd and reached Xena’s side as the queen selected a bit of meat from the ladle and put it into her mouth. Without much real thought she jumped up onto a log and grabbed Xena’s hand, stretching up and grabbing the end of the meat in her own teeth and pulling back.
The meat ripped between them and she almost ended up in the pot, reeling back until the queen dropped the ladle and grabbed her instead. They faced each other, bits of meat extending from their lips for a shocked moment, before they both chewed and swallowed almost at the same time.
“What in the Hades was that?” Xena spluttered.
Gabrielle licked her lips. “Insane devotion?”
The queen felt like she was being sucked down into a vortex of gooey romanticism. She was acutely aware of all the eyes goggling at her and her crazy bedmate and she really wasn’t sure if she should shake Gabrielle silly or just stab herself in the leg.
Insane devotion? “You’re such an idiot.” Xena sighed, stepping away from the cook pot and turning to face the crowd, the innkeeper and the now revived carter right in the front row, staring at them. “You better hope there was nothing in that meat because if there was and something happens to my partner here, before I croak I’ll gut the lot of you.”
She closed her jaw with a click at the end of that, and stared down the city folk.
“You’re so romantic sometimes.” Gabrielle squeezed her arm, ignoring the icy blue glare at her words.’ “I’m sure it will be fine.” She looked at the innkeeper. “Right?”
The woman was watching her with a strange expression. Then she exhaled, her pugnatious attitude gone. “There’s nothing wrong with it.” She said. “Was what we’d collected, kept back from the bastards over the last sevenday. Figured you all were due a good meal before we all go to Hades.”
Gabrielle licked her lips again. The meat had a strong, smokey taste, but it was insignificant against the feeling of reckless energy she was feeling, as Xena’s arm draped lazily over her shoulders. It was her way, a little, of returning Xena’s words of confidence in her no matter how embarrassing her companion thought it was.
I go, where you go.
Really. “Well, thanks.” Gabrielle spoke for them both. “I sure appreciate it, and I know the guys do too.” She looked up. “Right Xena?”
“Oh.” The queen now seemed amused. “You’re asking my opinion now instead of biting me in the face?”
“I didn’t bite you.”
“Only because my reflexes aren’t dead yet.” The queen replied. “Got more where that came from?” She addressed the innkeeper. “Might as well give everyone a good meal.”
The woman nodded quietly. “You.” She addressed two of the men standing next to her. “Take the cart and get everything.”
“All of it?” The man queried. “But wh…
“She’s right.” The innkeeper indicated Xena. “There might not be a tomorrow. We should live tonight.” She turned, and the crowd shifted with her, muttering and watching the tall figure at the fringe of their midst.
Xena sniffed. “Do me a favor?” She turned and looked at her companion.
“Sorry.” Gabrielle half turned, so her back was to the crowd and lowered her voice. “That was kinda public.”
“Mm.” The queen agreed. “I might have to kiss you until you squeal because you did that.” She said. “But before I do, can you please do something with that pot to make it edible or that one bite’s gonna be it for me.” She stuck the tip of her tongue out. “Blah.”
Gabrielle was moving through a flow of emotions, strong and light at once, aware of the seriousness of the day, and the beauty of the moment all at the same time. It was exhilarating, yet somewhat nauseating. “Okay.” She nodded. “It was kinda bland.”
“Unlike you.” Xena leaned forward and gave her a light, gentle kiss on the lips. Then she nudged her towards the pot and turned to survey the gates, trying to refocus her mind on the battle to come.
“The gods have blessed you, Mistress.”
“The gods are laughing their asses off at me, Brendan.” The queen replied. “Along with everyone else in this place but you know what? I don’t give a damn.”
“No, Mistress.” Brendan had removed his gauntlets, and now he stood shoulder to shoulder with Xena, as they both studied the sun disappearing below the wall. “Me either.”
The queen chuckled a bit. “Let’s go up on the gate, old friend.”
They walked across the open space to where the guard tower was, past wagons full of discarded Persian spears, old bows, arrows, rocks, and other unidentifiable items more or less of war. Xena noted the one full of the mirrors taken from the townhouse and nodded. “Glad they got that done.”
“What’s the idea of that, Xena?” Brendan asked as they started the long climb up the ladder. “Think they’ll shatter if we throw em?”
“Probaly.” The queen grimaced as she got a splinter in the palm of one hand. “But that’s not what they’re for. I”ll tell you later.” She gripped the rungs and hauled her body upward, feeling the strain in her back from muscles not quite recovered even with the rest she’d gotten the night before.
The top of the watch tower was full of soldiers, but the scattered back as her head came up over the edge and they recognized her. They cleared space as she stepped off the ladder and moved aside as she went to the edge of the wall and looked over.
The sunset was painting the open flat in a pretty shade of gold, marred mostly by the line of black slowly moving towards them. It had gone from an indistinct smudge to visible motion, horses and banners and the tall engines of war trundling their way forward as slow and relentless as the tide.
Huge force. But Xena didn’t even feel intimidated anymore, fed up to her finely arched eyebrows with the Persians and their overwhelming force.
Hades with it. “Okay.” She leaned on the wall. “Here’s what they’re gonna do, and here’s what we’re gonna do back.”
“How do you know, your majesty, what they’re going to do?” One of the recruits spoke up suddenly. “They never told us anything. Just do what we were bid.”
“Exactly.” Xena smiled. “That’s how I know what they’re going to do.” She looked at the man, who looked completely confused. “With that many stupid pieces of walking battle fodder, you’re choices are limited.”
The man frowned.
“But my choices are limitless.” She went on. “I can do anything.” She rested her elbows on the wall. “And she has no idea what I’m going to do.”
Gabrielle sat on the upturned crate, her heels kicking idly at its side. She watched Xena cross the square for the nth time, a bundle of spears balanced on one shoulder and was glad enough to just be a spectator for a while.
The wall towered over her, and here as the very last bit of sunlight spilled over the top of it a sense of strange peace settled also. Across from where she was sitting, about half the soldiers were gathered huddled over bowls of her stew while the rest worked with Xena.
She had two bowls of the stuff next to her, in fact, but so far the queen had remained too busy to eat and she decided to wait for her before she had some herself.
No real sensible reason for that, but Gabrielle didn’t much care. She was in the odd position of seeing the gathering clouds of danger around the city and yet savoring every moment as though it were precious now that all her uncertainties had been settled.
Ah. Finally. Xena dropped off her last load of weapons and headed in Gabrielle’s direction. The queen’s walk was a little slow, and she thought maybe her lover was hiding a bit of a limp, but her attitude was it’s usual brazen self as she joined Gabrielle on her crate. “Hello.”
“Hello.” Xena responded. “You waiting for that muck to solidify so I can use it for bricks or what?”
“I was waiting for you.” Gabrielle replied. “It’s not muck, really.”
“Hand it over then.” Xena eased herself back on the crate and after a moment, she slowly pulled her boots up and tucked her legs up crossed on her her. “Ah.” She sighed, as she took the bowl Gabrielle uncovered from it’s cloth and handed to her. “Know what I really want?”
Gabrielle considered all of the possibilities, both flattering and not so. “How about some wine?” She asked. “There’s some red grape over there.”
“Don’t want it.” Xena rested her elbows on her knees as she spooned up some of the stew. “Want you.”
Gabrielle felt a prickle of sensual reaction sting her skin, the curious sensation of the hair along her arms lifting. “Oh, well.”
“Oh, well?” Xena chewed her mouthful. “That’s a nice answer to ‘I want you.” She bumped her knee against Gabrielle’s hip. “Eat.”
With a rakish grin, her companion picked up her bowl and complied. “I heard the soldiers talking about you.” She said. “The ones over there, near where the city people are. I think those are the ones from the Persians mostly.”
“Sholeh said she’d cut the tongue out of anyone she heard talking about you.”
Xena snickered, her shoulders shaking as she continued to eat. “What a stupid bitch.” She commented. “Took her what.. weeks to figure out what she needed to do was crap on my reputation not goose it?” She picked up the loaf of bread Gabrielle had left nearby and ripped it in half, tossing one part into her companions bowl and taking a bite from the other.
“They were looking for me so she could put me on the gates and torture me to make you show yourself.” Gabrielle picked up the bread and bit the end that had fallen into the stew off. “She told them I was your key.”
Pale blue eyes shifted to her face, one brow cocking. “Wonder where she got that idea.”
“I don’t know.” Gabrielle looked up, then realized she was being tweaked. “Oh, Xena. I really don’t know.. it’s not like I go around opening things for you.”
The queen snickered. “That’s not true.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle had to laugh, resting her chin on one fist as she felt the blush warm her skin. “That’s not what she meant.” She peeked at the queen. “Was it?”
Xena chewed and swallowed. “She wanted me to open up something for her, that’s for sure.” She said. “Maybe she was jealous of you.” Her voice grew thoughtful. “Maybe she figured if you were out of the picture I’d just crawl into her camp and be her dog.”
“That’s silly. You’d never do that.”
Xena bit into the bread and watched the twilight gently blanket the square. “No. You’re right.” She said, matter of factly. “I wouldn’t ever do that.” She propped her head up on one fist. “I’d just keep killing people until they killed me.”
Gabrielle paused in mid chew, blinking in startlement at her companion. She could see the queen was looking off into space, her eyes a mirror of something very dark and she became uncomfortably aware that Xena wasn’t speaking hypothetically. “Oh.” She murmured. “Well, I’m sure I’d be pretty pissed off if anything happened to you, too.”
Xena broke out of her funk with a sudden smile, looking sideways at Gabrielle with one of her more charming expressions. “Damn, I love you.” She reached over and took the blond woman’s hand and pulled it close, kissing the knuckles. “Not to mention you make a damn good stew.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle relaxed, squeezing Xena’s fingers with her own. “I love you too.” She added. “I can’t wait until this is all over, and we can go and have fun somewhere.”
“Me either.” The queen replied promptly. “So listen.” She went back to her stew. “Now that we’re done soaking each other in goo, let’s talk about killing people.”
Ah. The contradictions in her life head butted each other and left Gabrielle somewhat breathless. “Okay.” She agreed. “But can’t we talk about love just until I finish eating?” She indicated the bowl. “There are a lot of bits and parts in this.”
Xena chuckled, wiping her bowl out with her bread. “Sure.”
“Or..” A thought occurred to her. “Lennat said they brought Perdicus to the inn and he was hurt.. what happened to him?”
Xena frowned as she chewed. “Damned if I rememb.. oh yeah.” She nodded. “Stood up when he shouldn’t have. Took an arrow in the gut.”
The queen kept her eyes on her bowl. “Wanna go see him?” She asked, in a casual voice. “Probably wants to see you.”
Gabrielle thought about that. “Probably.” She agreed. “But you know, there’s so much going on here, I better wait until it’s all over.” She finished up the last of her stew, licking her lips a little at the taste. It hadn’t been her best effort, but not her worst by far and it felt good to be full, and relatively rested.
She wondered if they’d get a chance to take a nap before things started happening. If they did, though, she reasoned, Xena would probably refuse because she was the queen, and all that, and she hated getting caught napping even by Gabrielle.
“Good idea.” Xena had finished also, and set her bowl to one side, returning her elbows to her knees and resting her chin on her folded hands as she regarded the square.
“Okay.” Gabrielle copied her posture, pulling her feet up under her and relaxing. “So now what?” She looked at the queen. “Do you really think they’ll just stop, and not attack us tonight?”
Xena shifted, half turning and letting her legs dangle off the other end of the crate as she settled her head into Gabrielle’s lap. She folded her hands over her stomach and gazed up a the darkening sky as Gabrielle gently combed her fingers through the queen’s dark hair.
It was a blissful moment of peace. Even the sounds of the soldiers had faded, the ones in the square sitting quietly and resting, and the ones on the wall taking their places at watch and settling down as well. The city folk had either clustered in by the soldiers if they were staying to fight, or gone back to their homes until the battle started.
“Do I really think she’ll stop.” Xena mused thoughtfully. “I think she probably won’t want to.” She admitted. “But in the dark, and given who’s in here… yeah, I think she’ll stop.”
“Because of you?”
“Because of me.” Xena confirmed. “Every time we’ve met so far I’ve surprised her, I think.” She said, in a quiet, thoughtful tone. “I don’t think she likes being surprised. I sure don’t.”
“Ah. Okay. Yeah I don’t think so either.” Gabrielle said.
“You don’t, huh?” Xena tipped her head back and looked at her, with an amused grin.
The blond woman gently pushed her hair to one side and ran a fingertip down the center of Xena’s nose. “I wish she’d just go somewhere else.” She said. “I wish this was all over. I don’t think I really like war, Xena.”
“You mean you don’t’ find getting hurt and dying fun?” Xena’s eyes widened in mock innocence. “Aw, c’mon, muskrat… we haven’t even gotten to the good part yet.”
The sound of boots scuffing nearby made them both start a little, and Xena turned her head to find Brendan there with an older, grizzled man with a thick white beard. “Yeah?” She narrowed her eyes and growled to offset the preciousness of her current position.
Brendan placed his hands behind his back, and clasped them. “Xena, you asked me t’find a master. I done that.”
Xena studied the grizzled old man next to him. “Ahh.” The man looked back at her with steady, iron gray eyes, and he had an understated competence about him she liked. “Ship captain?’
“Aye.” The man agreed briefly. “Was.” He amended. “Barstard Persians stole my ship.”
“Ah huh.” The queen grunted. “Well, I want you to marry someone.”
The man frowned. “Eh?” He said. “Why’s that? Got me a missus back home, I do.”
Gabrielle started giggling silently, her body shaking Xena’s and making the queen’s eyeballs jiggle.
Xena sighed melodramatically. “Have you ever performed a marriage?” She asked. “Other than your own, I mean?”
“Nah.” The old salt shook his head, giving her a skeptical look. “All men on the ship. Weren’t marrying types.”
“Okay.” The queen held a hand up. “Never mind. Sorry we bothered you. Brendan, toss him back in the water.” She flicked her fingers at both of them, and waited for her captain to retreat with his old salt in tow. “His crew was damn lucky they took his ship.”
She covered her eyes with one hand. “Gods you’d think I’d be able to find a damn magistrate or something in this piece of crap town. What did they all do, swim off after the booty boat?”
Gabrielle stifled the last of her chuckles. “That was so sweet of you.” She stroked Xena’s face tenderly. “But there’s so much going on, you don’t have to do that.. we can wait for this whole thing to be over.”
Xena’s expression became unusually serious. “I don’t want to wait.” She said. “Hades. I’m the queen. I’ll do it myself.” She lifted her body up off Gabrielle’s lap and hopped off the crate. “C’mon, muskrat.” She offered Gabrielle her hand. “Let’s go up on that wall and tie the knot. With any luck, the Persian jackass will be close enough to watch us.”
Gabrielle felt a flutter in her chest, and she got carefully off the crate before she took Xena’s hand and followed her towards the ladder. “Doesn’t that mean she’d also be close enough to shoot at us?”
“Sure does. I hate boring weddings. Don’t you?”
“Grab life and bite it in the ass, Gabrielle, before it runs out on ya.”
The wind had turned chilly by the time they made it up to the top of the platform. Along the edge of the wall, soldiers were deployed in evenly spaced bunches, and at their feet were piles of arrows and baskets of rocks.
Gabrielle rubbed her hands together as she watched Xena inspect the stations, her heart beating a little fast and her throat a little dry.
It wasn’t as if she was afraid of what was going to happen. After all, from the time she was old enough to help in the kitchen all she’d pretty much heard from her mother was who, when, how, and where she was going to get married as soon as they could possibly arrange it.
Then, it had seemed a little scary, at least until she’d started walking out with Perdicus and she at least had hopes of marrying someone she knew. Her father hadn’t really liked Perdi, since he was a younger son of one of the merchants in town and had indifferent prospects but he’d gotten together enough money to pay her bride price so in the end he’d just taken it.
This was different. Gabrielle turned and leaned against the edge of the wall, peering out over the plain where she could see the torches of the approaching Persian army very clearly now. It seemed like they were still moving forward, but it was hard to tell in the gloom. She could hear them, though, a low, uneven roar that was part moving and part rough voices.
“All right.” Xena appeared next to her. “Ready?”
Was she? Gabrielle never pictured getting married was going to be anything like this, but then, given who she was getting married to, maybe she should have. “Yes.”
Xena turned and vaulted up onto the wall, turning and offering Gabrielle a hand up. The wind immediately ruffled her hair and streamed it back, and Gabrielle had to lean forward a little as she climbed up against it’s force.
Once up, she experienced a moment of complete terror, as she felt the wind almost grab her and send her flying, only Xena’s firm hold on her keeping her in place. “Whoa!”
“Easy.” Xena gripped her shoulder, and faced into the wind, as they stood on the top of the wall on a narrow walkspace barely the width of the queen’s shoulders. “Nice, huh?”
Gabrielle caught her balance, but kept hold of Xena’s belt with one hand as the wind buffeted her. “Um…” She felt very exposed up here on the rim, and she looked nervously out over the open space towards the torches and massed bodies. “I don’t think I’d call them nice.”
“Well.” Xena reached up and scratched her nose. “The sky is, I thought.”
The last of the light had faded, and as Gabrielle tipped her head back and looked up at the dark canopy, it twinkled at her with an explosion of stars that made thousands of patterns. “Oh.” She exhaled, her shoulders relaxing as she let her eyes scan the lights. “Wow they are.”
The queen studied the patterns. On the wall, torches fluttered hard in the wind, providing a little light. Across the plain, the torches of the enemy likewise flickered, and as she stood there on the wall it was like she was standing on the knife’s edge of her own destiny.
Standing there, doing what she was doing, was craziness. She knew that. She wasn’t even entirely sure why she was doing it, except that something inside was telling her she should, that she should get this tiny bit of commitment cemented in time so that she could go into battle tomorrow – or tonight – and know it was there.
Maybe it was the fact she’d almost just abandoned Gabrielle, and there was a part of her wondering why she hadn’t, warring with the part of her horrified that she’d even been thinking of it.
Two halves. Her civilized half, and the unruly, arrogant warrior animal part of her that wanted no part of home, and partnership, and devotion.
She’d always relied on the animal part. It had saved her ass on more than one occasion and it was the core of where her value as a warrior came from. But for the first time in her life, she found herself rejecting the cold logic of that part of her.
It was hard. She figured it was probably dangerous. “Okay.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle turned to face her, turning her shoulders to the wind and looking up at Xena in the low torchlight. Her green eyes were amber colored in the low illumination and her features were just barely outlined in the glow from the stars. “Do you think they can see us?”
Xena glanced out to the left. “They can probably see something is up on the wall.” She allowed. “Not enough light for them to see who, until the moon comes up maybe.” She indicated a glow behind the trees. “If I bring torches up here, they’ll blow out.”
“Well.” Gabrielle straightened up a little, and tugged her surcoat straight with slightly nervous fingers. “That’s okay. I’d rather really pay attention to this than worry about arrows.”
“Don’t worry about arrows.” The queen told her. “I’ll handle em.”
Gabrielle tilted her head back a little and studied her lover’s face. “Okay.” She said, moving a little closer as the wind noise faded out a little and she pushed the thought of the enemy army from her mind.
She looked down into the city, and was surprised to see the soldiers lined up watching them, and the city people below looking up. The top level was filled with Xena’s men and there was a solemnness about them that made her guts prickle just a little.
She turned back and looked back at Xena. The queen held out her hands, palms up, and without hesitating, she clasped them, the warmth welcome in the cold wind.
She didn’t know what Xena was going to say, or how this would work. But looking up into those pale eyes, she didn’t really think Xena knew either and she wasn’t sure either of them really cared. “What am I supposed to say other than I love you more than anything in the world?”
Xena had taken a breath to speak, now she let it out, and paused, caught a bit offguard.
“Sorry.” Gabrielle murmured.
“Don’t be.” Xena replied. “One of us had to start and that wasn’t bad.” She paused again. “I have no idea what the Hades I’m supposed to do next.” She admitted. “For some reason, no one ever asked me to bless their nuptials.”
“Well… I’ve seen a few.” Gabrielle offered. “Not really queen kind, though. More like shepherds and that kind of thing.” She pondered. “Usually the reeve just wrote down the names, asked if anyone had any problems with the two people getting married, and that was that.”
“Kind of boring, really.”
“They didn’t get to consummate in front of everyone? I bet it was boring.” Xena remarked, smiling as she saw Gabrielle’s eyes widen. “Relax. We’d probably roll off the top of the damn wall and kill ourselves and besides, it’s not like we’ve never had sex.”
“Oh. Phew.” Gabrielle sighed.
“Unless you want to try it.” The queen added. “I’m up for it. That’d really stick in the Persian’s craw. I’d even have a bonfire built up here so she could see all the details.”
Gabrielle felt lightheaded as a blush so intense heated her skin it blocked out the cold around her effortlessly. “Xena, I don’t’ think I can do that.”
The queen released one of her hands and patted Gabrielle’s cheek. “That’s okay, muskrat.” She said, in a kind voice. “I don’t think I could either.”
“Really?” The blond woman peeked up.
“Really.” Xena smiled at her. “I talk a good battle, but I don’t want my ass out bare in the wind here any more than you do.”
Gabrielle smiled back at her. “Okay, so now what?’
“Now what.” Xena gazed down at the wall for a moment, then she straightened up, and took Gabrielle’s hand again, her expression becoming quietly serious. “Now I guess I tell you how I feel.”
Gabrielle’s eyes went big and round again.
“Don’t pass out on me, muskrat.” The queen chuckled softly. “Let’s start with this.” She paused. “I was born a bastard, Gabrielle. My mother dallied with some traveler and ended up with me, the second mistake of three of them. Then she died, and left us orphans.”
Gabrielle merely squeezed her hands, listening intently.
“I have no family now.” Xena said. “I have nothing but what I’ve taken with my hands, and my sword, and gotten scars that cover me head to foot from it.” She paused again. “Everything I have can be taken in a heartbeat. “ Her eyes fastened on Gabrielle. “Except for you.”
Gabrielle felt a chill across her skin.
“All I have to offer you is what’s in here.” Xena released one hand and tapped her own chest. “I can’t promise anything else, including you being happy, us living a long life together, or even that we’ll see the sun come up tomorrow.”
“I know that.” Gabrielle answered softly.
“I know you know that.” The queen replied. “Shut up and let me finish grandstanding.”
Gabrielle smiled sheepishly, raising Xena’s hand to her lips and kissing it.
“Okay, where was I.” Xena muttered, glancing to her left as the wind brought the growing sound of the approaching army to her. The moon was peeking above the trees, and outlining them both in faint silver, and she wondered if they were about to become romantically precious pincushions.
Ah well. Everyone had to die sometime. “Anyway.” The queen resumed. “I never thought I’d find someone I wanted to walk the road of life with until whatever it’s end was.” She said. “Until I met you.”
Gabrielle blushed. “Same here.” She whispered.
“Damned if I know why.” Xena admitted. “We’ve got nothing in common. We spend our time either near croaking or screwing and you want to sit on a throne about as much as I want to plant flowers.”
“Because I love you.” Gabrielle said, after they eyed each other in silence for a beat. “Because you’re the first person in my life who valued me.” She added. “And really, because there is no reason for why I feel the way I do about you.”
Xena nodded thoughtfully. “There really is no reason.” She agreed. “I like that. I hate when life’s predictable.” She brought their hands up and took a step forward, as a horn sounded faintly from across the plain. “Let it be known.” Her voice lifted, and rang out much louder, echoing off the walls.
“We hear.” Brendan answered for the troops.
“I take Gabrielle to be my wife. Everything I got, she’s entitled to.” Xena continued. “Everyone got that?”
“We hear, Mistress.” Brendan answered again. “She will be as you are to us.”
Xena turned her attention back to her lover. “That okay with you?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle answered, softly.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I take Xena to be my wife.” She called out loudly. “And since all I have is my heart, and my soul, and my body, I give that willingly to her, forever.”
Now it was Xena’s turn to blush, though her darker skin didn’t show it nearly as vividly. “A simple yes woulda done you, muskrat.” She muttered.
“We hear, little one.” Brendan hollered over the wind. “And so you are as we are, and we will protect you as we do our mistress, for all our days.” He paused. “We hear!”
The rest of the soldiers let out the same yell, echoing the sound over the wall, competing with the sound of horns growing slowly louder.
Xena looked out over the plain, and saw movement much closer than she’d anticipated. A line of horses were thundering towards the gates and as she let her eyes focus she saw the glint of moonlight against arrowtips and realized there were a lot more bows than she had arms. “Gabrielle, I guessed wrong. Let’s get outta here.” She said. “Boys, get ready to fight! They’re coming!”
“Wait.” Gabrielle reached up and put her arms around Xena’s neck, pulling her head down and kissing her soundly, as the wind whipped at their bodies, and the soldiers behind the wall started to scramble in reaction to the oncoming force.
They broke apart after a long, passionate moment, and looked into each other’s eyes.
Then the arrows started coming fast and thick, thwacking against the wall as Xena’s body reacted instinctively, grabbing Gabrielle and diving back out of range onto the platform while all Hades broke loose around them.
The night had just gotten very long indeed.
“Get to the wall!” Xena raced down the platform. “Get your weapons ready and douse those damn torches!!”
The soldiers scrambled to obey her, crossbows settling on the top of the wall to give a steady aim as the line of horsemen thundered towards them.
Xena found a spot midway on the wall, almost where the two gates met. The platforms to either side had been hastily extended, and she could smell the greenness of the wood and the sharp scent of fresh hemp as she focused her eyes to see through the gloom. “Ready!!!”
‘What can I do?” Gabrielle squiggled up next to her.
“Do that again.”
“Never mind.” Xena handed her a woven bucket full of broken bricks from the square. “Throw these.”
Gabrielle took the basket and set it on the edge of the wall, craning her neck to see over it. “What’s going on? What are they doing?” She felt Xena’s hand against her back and she pressed down on the wall, even though the torches were on the far end and she wasn’t that visible now.
It was hard to see anything out there. She could hear the drumming of hooves, and she vague shadows as the horses came at them, but it was difficult to say how far they were and what they were going to try and do once they got to the wall.
Did they have that fire, for instance? “Xena, what if they have that stuff?” She asked. “The stuff you used on the boats?”
“Stone wall.” The queen said, briefly. “Doesn’t burn.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle felt inside the basket and curled her hand around a moderately large piece of stone pulling it out and rubbing the edge of her thumb against it. “That means it wouldn’t have worked back home either, right?”
“Right.” Xena said. “You use it against people, not buildings.”
Gabrielle grimaced a little, remembering the stench of burning flesh from the previous day. “Like they tried to do to us in the beginning, when they attacked?”
“Right.” The queen said again. “Damn you’re a fast learner.”
Her companion sighed and leaned forward a little, trying to see through the darkness. “I’d rather learn about kissing.” She said, as the soldiers around her started cocking their weapons, placing the short crossbow shafts into their holders. “That was a lot more fun.”
“It was, wasn’t it?” Xena watched the enemy intently, catching the edges of the line curving back as the riders in the middle formed a point. She could see the bulk of the army looming behind them and the blood was starting to beat strongly inside her chest as the time for battle came closer.
“I’d love to, but we’ll embarrass the boys.” Xena said. “Aim for the ground twenty pace on, boys!” She yelled. “When I say fire, let em loose.” She leaned on her elbows, just her eyes peeking over the top of the wall as she sorted the shadows into a line of horsemen, her eyes seeing details she knew her troops did not.
“No, I was just going to ask..” Gabrielle said. “If they don’t have the fire, and we’re behind the wall..”
“Shh.” Xena cupped her hands to either side of her face, blocking out even the small bit of light from behind the ramparts. Her ears cocked, listening past the drumming of the hooves to the rhythmic clash of armor on moving bodies.
She could almost sense them closing in, hear the hoarse breathing, smell the musky scent of sweat tinged with a little fear.
“Get your aim on!” Xena yelled. “On my mark… ready… ready…”
Gabrielle put her free hand on her lover’s arm. “Why are they running right at the wall?”
“Read…” The queen paused in mid bellow, her head turning slightly as she looked at the dimly seen profile of the woman next to her. Then she looked back over the wall and tapped her thumbs against the top of it, eyes flicking rapidly back and forth.
Why were they running right at the wall?
“Majesty?” Brendan yelled. “Can we have at em?”
Xena cocked her head. “Wait!” She barked. “Hold on. Don’t fire a damn single arrow!”
Up and down the line, the men looked at each other, heads visible in the dim torchlight as they passed the order all the way down, rustlings and the soft sounds of weapons being rested against the wall echoing back. The queen waited until she was sure everyone heard her before she focused her attention once again ahead of her.
With a suddenness that made her jerk, the attacking soldiers began to yell, almost causing her to surge upright to see what was going on.
Something stopped her. Xena really wasn’t sure what, but a prickle of warning chased over her skin and instead, she grabbed the basket of rocks she’d given Gabrielle and tossed it up onto the top of the wall, moving it forward near to the front edge.
Instantly, the sound of arrows sliced through the air and she was turning and grabbing Gabrielle and pulling her down as she swiveled, putting her back to the wall as a hail of missiles came over it, striking the basket and bouncing off the sides, smacking the queen in the back of the head as they tumbled past.
Xena grabbed one of them and inspected it, her nose already twitching as she caught the acrid scent from the tips. “Ware!” She yelled. “Bastards have poison on the tips!”
“Wow.” Gabrielle exhaled.
“Stay down!” Xena turned and ignored her own advice, easing up to peer past the basket, hoping the shadows would hide her. She spotted the line of horses peeling off and thundering down the wall on either side as her men held their aim and she felt another shiver, much less pleasurable, tickle down her spine. “Hope we remembered to lock that damn door, muskrat.”
“Me too.” Gabrielle examined the arrow Xena had dropped, sniffing the end and wrinkling her nose at the smell. “What is that?”
“Not sure.” Xena watched the horsemen retreat, realizing how close she’d come to losing her most precious resources – her most experienced men here with her on the ramparts. “Venom, maybe. I don’t’ think it’s herbal.” She nudged the arrow away from her lover. “Don’t poke yourself with it. Huh? I don’t’ want to find out the hard way if I know how to counter it.”
Gabrielle fingered the shaft. “Xena, if they have so many more soldiers than we do, why can’t they just fight fair?”
The queen laughed shortly. “Keep your heads down!” She yelled. “Look through the keyholes!” She eased over and peered through the short vertical slots herself. “Brendan, have them hoist some of that crap up here so we can put up a shield.”
“Aye.” Her captain scrambled past where they were sitting and ran for the ladder platform, taking care to keep his head below the level of the wall. “Hades of shots they are in this night dark, Xena. All of em have yer eyes, like.”
“Mm.” Xena turned and extended her hand to the nearest soldier. “Gimme.” She took the crossbow he handed over and examined it, then she eased up to the wall again and peered over it.
“Careful.” Gabrielle pressed against her, an unexpected warmth in the newly chilly wind.
She let the darkness close in around her vision again and focused past it. A few blinks, and the shadows sorted themselves out and became the outline of the Persian army against the horizon, halted just out of range in a shifting mass.
She blinked again, detecting outlines higher than she’d expected, and then softly cursed. “How in Hades did they have time to build those damn things?”
“Nevermind.” The queen exhaled in irritation. “I’m trying to fight a war with six three legged ponies and a barrel of duck farts.” She returned her focus to the enemy army and looked through the shadows, watching them move and shift and finally resolve in her vision into single figures.
She let her cheek rest against the crossbow stock, knowing she was bucking fro a broken cheekbone but wanting the line to be right as she fastened her eyes on one of the enemy, a tall form walking before the lines, secure in the darkness, confident in their choice of positions.
Her body obediently aligned itself to her chosen target and she released the mechanism, keeping her head still as the weapon stock smacked into her face and watching as the figure she’d selected stopped in mid walk.
Turned towards her. She could almost see the surprise on his face as he reached for the bolt and crumpled before he could touch it, falling to the ground in a heap. A horn rang out, and the shadows burst into motion again, a flurry of alarm that floated to them on the wind with the sound of horses snorting and the rattled and clash of men picking up shed arms.
“Fine shot, Mistress.” Brendan said quietly, from behind her.
“Thanks.” Xena turned and sat down on the platform, putting the crossbow between her boots and resetting it. “Didn’t want em to get too damn comfortable with themselves.” She looked up when she was done. “Get whatever we’ve got up onto the top of the wall to protect the men. They’ll keep coming at us with whatever they’ve got.”
“Aye.” The old captain agreed. “Good thing you figgered them out with this lot.” He touched the poisoned arrow. “Bad way to die,. Remember that fight down past the mountains way back?”
“I remember.” Xena said, resting the crossbow on her knee. “That’s when I decided I”d better learn to be a healer before all of you croaked.”
Brendan merely grunted.
“Xena’s a really good healer.” Gabrielle spoke up, as a little silence fell between them. “That’s one of the first things I learned about her.”
“Yeah.” The queen sighed. “I’m sure me telling you how to cut an arrowhead out of my back was an eye opener.” She watched the soldiers passing crates and baskets past where she was seated. “Brendan, go down there and make sure they all stay clear of the open space. If they start pitching things over the wall I don’t want anyone under them.”
The soldier nodded and started to head off, then paused, when Xena caught his boot with hers. “Mistress?”
“See if you can get anyone stupid enough to volunteer to go out there and stage a raid on their lines.” Xena said. “Four, five complete idiots. Okay?”
“Sure.” Brendan visibly cheered up, and he rambled off with a good deal more enthusiasm.
Gabrielle squiggled over and seated herself right next to Xena. “That sounds dangerous.” She said.
“It is.” Xena answered. “But she wants everything her own way. She wants us off balance. She wants to rule the battlefield and you know what, Gabrielle?” She turned and regarded her lover. “Theres’s only room in this war for one unreasonable, arrogant bitch with Ares own ego.”
Gabrielle gazed seriously at her. “There’s more than one?”
One of the queens dark brows lifted. “Was that an insult or are you just that clueless?” She watched warily as Gabrielle shifted and leaned across her knees, facing her. “Which is it?”
“There’s one unreasonable arrogant bitch, and one beautiful hero.” Gabrielle stated. “I know what side I’m on, that’s for sure.”
“Because you’re my beautiful hero.”
Xena looked down at the crossbow in her hands, then she looked back up at Gabrielle, her pale eyes half obscured by dark hair. After a moment, she smiled faintly. “I’m yours.” She agreed finally.
Gabrielle smiled back, a solemn twinkle in her eyes.
The queen cleared her throat, then she set the weapon down and patted her lover’s cheek. “And if you keep asking those damn questions I might even make all of that the truth.”
“Xena.” Brendan called from the platform. “Got them volunteers you asked for.”
“Ah. Into our lives some idiots are falling. C’mon.” Xena eased forward and got to her knees, then to her feet, keeping her head down as she headed towards her captain with Gabrielle in tow. “You really don’t’ think I’m a bitch?
“Boy have I got you fooled.”
Xena stood by the small door in the wall, her squad of volunteers clustered around her. She had a hand braced on either side fo the opening, and she waited, as the last of the men wrapped themselves up in a dark cloak and turned to face her.
She knelt, and brushed her cloak back off her shoulder, as she plucked a dagger from her boot top and sketched a rough diagram on the ground. The torchlight was enough to show the details, but he men shifted to get a better view anyway, some crouching down level with her as she drew.
She briefly scratched in the wall of the city, then the open space and the road, then the ring of forest that eventually lead back to the pass, memories flooding back of sitting in clearings around campfires long ago doing much the same thing as she’d planned their next conquest.
“Their front lines are here.” Xena marked a long line on the ground. “ From here, to here.” She marked an ‘x’ from the end of the forest on one side, where she’d lain in the grass not to many days ago, to the edge of the river.
“Blocking the place.” Brendan grunted.
“Mmhm.” The queen agreed. “That’s what I’d have done if I’d wanted this place.” She paused and pocked a bit of dust from the ground with the point of the dagger. “But I’ve got a feeling they don’t want this place any more than the time it takes to trash it.”
“Because of what we did to the ships?” Brendan said. “Ego, eh? And chasing them out the gates?”
Xena nodded. “So.” She went back to her drawing. “So they’re gonna hit us with everything, keep us reeling until they can bring up those assault towers and take the walls. We need to stop them.”
The men all looked at each other. “Us?” One of them circled his hand at the small group. “Are you coming with us then, your Majesty?”
Xena chuckled. “Not this time.” She responded in a truly regretful tone. “Take the jars Brendan gave you and go along the wall until you get here.” She touched a spot near the edge of the long grass. “The shadows’ll cover you. Go through the grass until you get here.” She touched the edge of where the Persian lines are. “Then open the jars, light them with your flints, toss em and run your asses back to the door fast as you can.”
The men looked at the jars, tucked in raffia slings under their arms. “Is this the stuff from the ships?”
“No.” Xena said. “It’s… let’s say it’s a calling card from me.” She stood up. “Everyone understand?”
The men nodded, getting up and starting to gather themselves as Xena turned to the door, laying a hand on the latch.
“Sh.” Xena went still, her sensitive fingertips feeling a certain motion against them. She held her free hand up and the noise behind her dropped to nothingness as she focused her senses on the doorway.
There. The motion came again, along with the faintest rasping sound.
Xena turned and made a hand sign at Brendan, then a second. He shoved the nearest man against the wall, then pointed and kept shoving until the way behind the queen was clear and the small group was plastered against the rock surface to either side.
Xena cocked her head. The door was big, and it was solid. Hardened wood with metal strapping, but she could hear sounds outside it now, a soft clinking, and bodies moving.
Amazing. The Persian was trying the same trick she’d done herself, only with out a…
Xena turned and drew her sword, stepping clear of the entry way and letting her eyes rake around the open space beyond it. Her free hand twitched, and she imagined she heard the whisper of an arrow, but the way remained clear and the only eyes looking back at her were her soldiers.
Was Sholeh counting on someone inside? “Brendan.” She uttered softly. “Come here.”
The soldier immediately came to her side. “What is it, Mistress?’
“Go to my quarters. Make sure Gabrielle’s okay.” Xena said. “There’s something going on here. Men outside the door.. and I don’t know if anyone’s on this side waiting for them.”
“Right.” Brendan turned and broke into a flat run, his boots scuffing against the stone path as he headed for the central square.
Xena turned around to face the rest of the soldiers. “Stay where you are.” She called out softly. “I’m gonna open this door and let the bastards in.”
“And then we’ll kill em.” Xena went to the door and slowly eased her weight against it, pressing the surface away from the sturdy lock bar holding it closed. She pushed the bar open, then she backed away from it as fast as she could, swinging around and clearing the entrance as the men hastily made room for her.
For a long moment, everything was silent. Then the scrape and creak of the door opening was heard, and the soft thud as it pulled back against the rock entranceway wall.
Xena wished she’d thought to ask Brendan to send a couple dozen more men down. She was aware of the earnest, but mostly unskilled soldiers around her, and cognizant of the danger she’d just opened them all up to.
“Typical egotistical me.” Xena muttered under her breath, as she caught the sound of bodies moving nearby, then a momentary silence.
“Where’s he?” A voice whispered. “Opened the door.. where’d he go?’
“Don’t know, just move. Forget ‘im. Let’s get this done.”
Xena shifted her grip on her sword and wiggled her ears in mute delight, her body tensing as she sensed the nearness of battle, her nose picking up the scent of dust and sweaty leather as the scuffing started again and she prepared to attack.
Six men came trotting out of the entrance, getting midway into the passageway before they spotted the waiting soldiers and whirled in surprise.
“Get moving.” Xena booted the nearest soldier towards the door. “Remember what I told ya.”
“But Majesty.. “
“I’ll take care of these guys.” Xena took a step forwards and twirled her sword, as the men scrambled to meet her, kicking two of them backwards as she grabbed the one in the lead and slammed her elbow into his jaw. “Move it!”
She sensed the hesitation in her own soldiers, but she was out of time as the rest of the enemy attacked her and she was busy fighting for her life.
Unexpectedly fighting for her life, as two men engaged her with thick, curved swords as she was disentangling herself from the leader’s legs and she almost tripped and fell backwards.
Reflexes and the fact she’d actually gotten sleep saved her. She deflected one man’s sword and twisted sideways to avoid the second’s, putting her hand out to catch the man’s arm and pulling it to one side.
He wrenched free, and started a backswing, but stopped in mid motion and stumbled back, turning to engage the soldier who had jumped on his back and was wrestling him to the ground.
Xena found herself free to engage her current adversary, a big man with a nice set of armor who immediately challenged her skills as his blade crashed against her own. She focused hard on him as she saw her soldiers taking after the rest of the intruders, and a twist of her wrist slid his blade enough to one side for her to take a hop backwards and steady her balance.
Regaining her momentum, she dismissed her soldiers rampant disregard for her orders as it was currently saving her ass, and she settled down to the business of fighting.
This man was a real Persian soldier. He topped her by a head, and outweighed her by half again, and he was damn good with his sword. Xena reckoned he’d been the leader of their little attack party, and she met his sword and found herself being shoved to one side as he tried to smashed his hilts into her chest.
That didn’t happen too often. Xena turned and let the man’s forward motion take him past her as she pulled her arms back across her body and ducked instinctively as he slashed backwards, his sword missing her head by hair.
She dove for the ground and tumbled, coming up back onto her feet and shoving her sword forward in a short, savage jab that got the man right in the ass as he tried to whirl and catch up to her. She yanked the blade backwards as he yelled in rage.
She didn’t give him a chance to argue with her about it. Going on the offensive, she circled him and brought her blade around two handed as he limped in a circle and caught her attack, working to parry it as she bore down and crashed into him, slamming her shoulder against his.
It was like throwing herself against the wall. Xena felt the jolt go through her entire body but even so, she knocked him back and step and he hesitated just for an instant, not expecting that.
But just an instant. The next moment he’d whipped his arm back and smacked her in the side of the head before she could avoid him, sending an explosion of stars into her vision as her body reacted from pure instinct, her hands bringing her sword up just in time to block his return swing headed right for her neck.
She felt the shock as their blades met, and she shook her head to clear her vision, blinking hard as he came back into focus and she parried his swing with a painful wrenching of her forearms. He cursed and she steeled herself to block again as he twisted his body and their blades grated against each other.
She twisted in the opposite direction and they ended up with their hands slamming into each other painfully, the blades whispering by their faces as the came almost nose to nose.
Xena didn’t hesitate. She arched her body and smacked her head into his face, forcing a cough from him as he jerked backwards. She repeated the motion and their hands slid past each other as their bodies collided instead, too close for the swords to do any damage.
He growled and she saw a flash of teeth as he aimed for the side of her face, shoving her backwards with sheer weight as Xena fought to stay on her feet. She released one hand off her sword and grabbed her dagger instead, risking his blade as she flipped the dagger in her and jammed it into his ribs, feeling the resistance of his armor push back against her.
He tried to back off, but they slid around in a half circle and Xena lunged forward, the point of her dagger piercing through and finding flesh beneath it.
He staggered back and knocked her hand away, leaving the dagger in place as he brought his sword back up and swung it at her.
Xena ducked the swing, then spun and lashed out with kick, knocking the sword blade away before she continued on around and booted him with the other leg, sending him at last sideways as the fight began to take it’s toll.
She followed his motion, swinging her blade around in a two handed circle to smack him against the side of the face with the blade with all the strength in her arms. She felt a crunching all the way down her arms and saw blood fly, as he stumbled to the side, slamming against the wall and bouncing off to fall on the ground at her feet.
Xena kicked his blade away and caught her breath, looking around to find the other invaders slumped on the ground and her men standing over them, their eyes wide as they watched her. She looked at them, one boot coming to rest on her opponent’s head as she made sure he stayed where he was. “Didja at least close the damn door?”
The nearest man nodded rapidly.
“Good.” Xena looked down at her gasping captive. “Now let’s find out what they were up to.” She dropped to one knee and jabbed him in the throat with her fingers, making his body jerk hard as he struggled suddenly, glaring up at her. “And who they were going to do it with.”