Queen of Hearts
Gabrielle focused on her task, gathering bits of stone and brick into a basket while she worked equally hard to not think about Xena not being next to her.
She knew the queen was not that far away, just down the path really, around the corner against the wall where she’d taken her little group of guys to go do whatever it was they were going to do.
Xena wasn’t supposed to go with them, but Gabrielle had a haunting suspicion that given her druthers, Xena would do just that because she loved to be in the middle of whatever was going on and she loved causing as much chaos as she could.l
Seemed like a really good opportunity to do both. Gabrielle sighed, and picked up another rock to place it in the basket. Would Xena go? She said she wouldn’t, in fact, she’d told Gabrielle specifically that she’d be right back but this was war and it was Xena and…
She put her basket, now full, down on the rough wooden bench that had been erected on one side of the square, and went to look for another one. The soldiers were busy and excited around her, carrying bundles of arrows from the square out to the wall, and other men were sitting around piles of sticks making more of them.
There was no sense of panic, though. The attitudes around her were confident, and she even heard one of the soldiers whistling as he carefully affixed a bit of feather to the back of a shaft.
On the other side of the wall, there was nothing but silence, and the occasional crack of wood and sound of horses neighing.
It seemed strange, and scary. First the attack, then nothing. What would the Persians do next? What would Xena do?
What would Xena do. Gabrielle picked up a basket and went back to her rock scrounging. What she hoped Xena wouldn’t do is give in to her usual instincts and end up going with the soldiers out of the gate and into the dangers in front of it.
She fingered the basket thoughtfully. Xena would do that, wouldn’t she? With a frown, she put the basket on the verge and dusted her hands off, stepping over the ledge and starting down the path at a brisk trot.
Soldiers dodged out of her way as she approached, and she gave them a brief, distracted smile as she went past.
Poo. Gabrielle glanced to her right, spotting Lennat headed in her direction. She hesitated just long enough to let him catch up, then she kept walking. “What’s up?”
“Wow. That was so strange.” Lennat said. “What you and Xena did, up on the wall.”
Strange. Hm. “I guess.” Gabrielle murmured. “But that’s sort of how Xena is. She never does what you expect her to.”
“Yeah.” Lennat adjusted the belt around his waist, with it’s sword. “So, what did it mean? Are you .. uh.. married to her?”
Well now, that was a pretty darn good question wasn’t it? Gabrielle had been asking herself the same thing for the past candlemark, puzzling over what her status really was now, and whether anything had really actually changed. “Yes.” She finally said. “I am.”
Gabrielle stepped over a bundle of spears and kept going, hoping Lennat would find something else to do, but resigned to his presence as he continued to follow her.
“Why did you do that?” Lennat asked after a few steps. “I mean, why like that?”
“Why not like that?” Gabrielle walked down the steps from the square into the narrowing path that led to the street that bordered the wall. “I thought it was great. There we were under the stars, and the wind was great..”
“People were shooting arrows at you.”
“That’s okay, Xena can catch them.” The blond woman shrugged that off. “Anyway, it’s really dangerous here, you know? I’m glad Xena wanted to.. “ She hesitated. “In case anything happens.”
“Oh.” Lennat murmured, after a moment. “I didn’t think of that.” He seemed a touch embarrassed. “So, where are you going? Can I help you do something?”
Gabrielle started to turn the corner, her mind sorting through what she could tell her erstwhile friend to distract him from hanging around. So occupied, she nearly got bowled over on her ass when a dark, cloaked figure rushed at her from the opposite direction and shoved her out of the way. “Hey!”
“Hold on there!” Lennat made a grab for the man, then he spun to one side and gasped as he was struck, and shoved against the wall. “Stop!”
The man hurried past, breaking into an awkward run and disappearing around the edge of the path, as Lennat slowly slid to the ground, his hands clenched around his belly.
Gabrielle pushed off from the wall she’d been thrown into and rushed over to him, her conscience overriding her desire to go find the queen. “Wh.. are you all right?”
“Augh.” Lennat removed one hand and stared at it, the glistening of fresh blood darkening his skin. “He stabbed me!” He looked around. “Where’d he go? Ow!” His eyes widened as Gabrielle knelt next to him. “Ow.. what did he do that for?”
There was a lot of blood. Gabrielle forgot her impatience as she gently moved his hands, the sharp copper scent rising sharply in the night air. “Don’t’ move around.” She said. “Stay here, I’ll get help.” She could hear his breathing growing labored. “Just take it easy.” She patted his shoulder, and got to her feet, considering her options.
Wasn’t many, really. She turned and bolted down the path, heading for where she hoped the queen was still waiting.
Xena crouched over her victim, her weight resting on one knee and her leg straddled over the man’s writhing body. He was struggling against the block she’d put on his throat, his chest straining to suck in air his paralyzed neck wouldn’t allow to pass. “Moron!” She smacked him in the face. “The more you fight, the more air you use. Wanna die?”
The man stared at her with nothing but hate in his eyes. Xena found that a bit refreshing, and it made her smile as he tried to spit at her, finding himself unable to do more than dribbling on himself. “You can talk.” She said, conversationally. “Or I’ll sit here and watch you die like a fish flopping around out of the water. Take your pick.”
“Pmof.” The man tried to spit at her again. “Ratherdie.”
“Suit yourself.” Xena rocked back onto her heel and picked up a fold of his Persian surcoat, wiping her sword on it and polishing the edge. “All your friends are already dead. Too bad someone sent you in her into a trap, huh?”
The man froze in his struggles and lay there, panting.
“Yeah.” Xena spit carefully on her blade and rubbed a bit of dried blood off it. “What a bunch of sitting ducks you were.” She glanced casually at him. “On the other hand, I got to use you to train my new guards here. They got a little workout.”
The soldier stared at her.
Xena sheathed her sword and leaned on her knee, looking back at him with a faint smile. “Sure you don’t want to talk? I could use a good man.”
Their eyes met. His were dark and held a faint slant to them. Hers were the palest of ice blue but the spirit that peered out of both had the same energy and Xena could feel the tug as their personalities wrestled with each other.
“C’mon.” Xena said. “What’s someone like you doing with the likes of those guys/” “She indicated the dead raiders. “You’re the real thing. What’s that all about?” She was aware of her own men standing by, waiting quietly near the wall in the shadows.
For a long moment, as his lips were turning blue and they studied each other in stubborn silence, it teetered on the balance and Xena thought she’d lost him. Then he moved his head, just a trifle, and his eyes shifted, just a little and she knew victory was in her hands.
She reached over and triggered the hold on his neck, letting him breath. She kept her fingers ready though, because with someone that dangerous, you just never knew what was going to happen and she’d feel pretty damn stupid if he got her over on her back after that nice pretty speech.
But all he did was breathe, his chest heaving as he blinked at her. “You’re a demon.”
“Thanks.” Xena smiled at him. “Flattery will get you a kick in the ass from me, but you’re lying on it so you just wasted your opportunity.”
He took another few breaths. “We were supposed to have allies open the door.” He said. “We were promised.”
“They sold you out.” The queen said. “Sucks, huh?”
The soldier looked around at the men in the shadows.
“C’mon. What are the odds we’d be at the door at the exact minute you got there?” The queen chuckled. “You don’t think that was a coincidence do ya?”
The Persian frowned. He had a dark, handsome face with a neatly trimmed beard and moustache, and black brows that nearly met over his eyes. “I think..”
The man stopped speaking and they both looked up as Gabrielle came barreling around the corner, running full tilt towards them.
The queen leaned on her knee as she watched her lover approach, a smile appearing on her face. “Ah.” She said. “I’m always in such demand. Yes, muskrat?”
“Xena, you have to come quickly.”
“Is that an order?” The queen snickered “Bossy little thing, aren’t you? We just got married and you’re already making the rules in bed?”
“You of..burf.” Gabreille skidded to a halt and stopped talking, covering her face with one hand. “Xena, for goodness’ sake.” She sighed. “No, please.. Lennat got hurt.. this guy stabbed him and ran away, and he knocked me down too, and he needs a healer!”
Xena absorbed all the babble with a thoughtful expression.
“Right now!” Gabrielle tugged on her arm, almost stepping over the Persian to do so. “Xena he’s bleeding.”
The queen sighed. “Am I the only healer around here?” She asked, wanting to stay and complete her conversion of her new captive.
“Yes.” Gabrielle answered. “Well, you ‘re the only one I know.” She amended. “Please?”
Xena got up and brushed her hands off. “Take him to the barracks and secure him until we can talk again.” She felt a little vexed at the interruption. “I’ll meet you there after I take care of this.”
“But weren’t we..” One of the soldiers started to ask, then stopped when his companion cuffed him in the shoulder. “Ah, right. Sorry Majesty.”
Xena stepped back and circled the man, who was hauled to his feet by her soldiers. He was taller than most of them, as tall as Xena herself and even in his somber meekness there was a degree of danger she highly appreciated. “Be nice to him.” She added. “I like a man who can almost kick my ass.”
They moved off, and she turned to Gabrielle. “Now. Tell me what happened again? Whose sorry carcass do I need to sew up?” She started to follow the soldiers, laying her arm across Gabrielle’s shoulders. “I thought I told you to stay and collect rocks.”
“It’s Lennat.” Gabrielle ignored the last words. “We were heading this way..”
Gabrielle really had no good answer for that. “I wanted to be with you.” She finally offered up meekly, as they walked along the path. “I thought maybe you’d go out with those guys and I didn’t want to miss out on anything.”
Xena walked along in silence for a few steps. “You know something, Gabrielle?” She sighed. “One of the most charming things about you is that you tell me the truth when I ask you something.”
Gabrielle felt a bit confused about that, since she really thought telling Xena she thought Xena had lied and might run out on her wasn’t nearly as complimentary as the queen seemed to think it was. Or maybe she didn’t think of it that way. “Oh.”
“I wasn’t going to go.”
“One of the reasons I wasn’t going to go was because I told you to wait back there for me and I knew if I did, you’d be pissed off.”
“Mm.” Xena flexed a sore hand. “Imagine me getting a conscience in my old age. Freaky.”
They rounded the bend and spotted Lennat still slumped against the wall. He looked up as they approached, his eyes going wide as he recognized Xena. “I thought you were getting help?” He murmured, as they knelt on either side of him. “I think I could have w.. ow!”
Xena slapped his hands away and continued her examination. “Shut up.” She growled, peering at the wound then standing and yanking him to his feet after her. “Walk fast. You might get back to the camp before you bleed to death.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle hastily gave Lennat support on his other side. “He is bleeding.”
“So am I.” The queen replied. “You can fix that while I fix him. C’mon.”
The square was once again a hive of activity. The city people, who had drifted off had now gathered back around, some bringing blankets and other things that indicated they were there to stay this time.
The innkeeper had taken over the cooking area and there were boxes and crates around that hadn’t been before, and there was an air of nervous expectation as the occasional sound floated over the wall and the guard sounded a series of alarms.
To one side, the two story barracks Xena had taken over was well lit from within and shadows danced in the windows as the soldiers moved to and fro.
“Change of plan.” Xena placed one hand on either side of the doorway, addressing her small troop as Gabrielle stitched up the gash that traveled from just under her arm almost ot her hip on one side. She’d taken her leathers off down to her waist, perversely enjoying the number of different places the eyeballs of men could be found moving when trying not to look at a half naked woman. “If they’re expecting that bunch of losers to come back out of that door, they’ll be watching it too closely.”
“Xena, d’ya think they’re fixing to attack?’ Brendan asked. “Watch says they don’t see much out there.”
The queen paused, as the needle pierced her side for the nth time. The attack through the door, so eerily similar to the one she’d been contemplating herself had shaken her a little. “No.” She finally said. “I think they’ll wait for the morning – or –“ A faint smile. “Wait for their goons to come back.”
The men chuckled, but they looked a bit uneasy, and their eyes settled momentarily on her in some doubt before they skittered off again.
Xena noticed. She frowned and sifted through the recent events, trying to force her mind from the harpoon size needle piercing her skin. Having her own plan turned on her wasn’t making her look too good in front of the men, and she realized that.
Had to be something else she could do. Some other smart idea she could pull out of her ass. Some other clever plan…
Well, it would take their minds off her being outmaneuvered, anyway.
Xena’s head cocked to one side for a moment, then she chuckled herself. “So what we’re gonna do, is we’re gonna make like we are her goons, going back.” She said. “She’s expecting a bunch of Persians back, and I’ve got a bunch of dead men in Persian uniforms.”
The soldiers looked at each other. “We’re gonna go out there into that army?” One of the men asked. “For real?’
“Yup.” Xena said. “Get moving. Get those uniforms and I’ll..” She started to move, then stopped when Gabrielle squeaked loudly. “I’ll stay here and finish getting sewn.” She amended as she felt a yank on her skin. “Before Gabrielle spanks me.”
Gabrielle squeaked again, more softly.
The men hesitated, then Brendan stood up and motioned them to follow him. “Let’s go boys.” He said. “We’ll not keep her Maj waiting.” He added in a confident tone. “Be a good one, eh? Put em on their ass from their own, yeah?”
“But..” One of the men said. “Won’t they figgur out who we are?”
Xena eyed them. “Half of you were Persian soldiers. You think they can really tell the difference at this point?”
The man scratched his jaw, then shrugged sheepishly. “Ayeh. Sorry, your Majesty.”
“Let’s go.” Brendan smacked the man on the side of the head. “Fore I find you a Persian woman’s skirt to wear out there.”
Obediently, the soldiers got up and followed him as he headed off to the charnel pit they’d thrown the Persian bodies in. Xena stood casually until they all left, then she grimaced and leaned against one side of the doorway. “Ouch.”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle glanced up apologetically.
“Serves me right.” The queen sighed. “I moved too damn slow.” She peered down her side to where her lover was almost nose to rib with her, blond head tilted to one side and tongue tip stuck out in utter concentration. “Not your fault it feels like your sticking my ribs with a hot poker.”
Gabrielle paused and looked up at her, eyes widening.
Xena smiled. “Just kidding. Keep going.” She observed the long, bloody, but thin line down her side. “Nice job.”
“I’d rather just fix your cloak or something.” The blond woman sighed. “Should you put on some more armor if this sort of thing is going to happen?”
“Trade off.” The queen said. “Less crap, more speed. Though at the rate my old ass is going, I might as well go around with a damn barrel strapped over my head.”
“That’s not true.” Gabrielle bent over her task again. “No one goes as fast as you do.”
Xena snorted. “Yeah.” She fingered the matching slit in her leathers, and sighed again. “Hey, Gabrielle?”
“Yeah?” Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip, and hesitated. “Can you let your breath out for a second?”
Confused, the queen’s brow puckered, but after a second she complied, exhaling and then pausing, as she felt the gentle pinch of Gabrielle’s fingertips against her skin, pressing the cut together and then the pinprick of fire as the needle followed.
It brought back to mind, suddenly, that pivotal moment when she’d trusted Gabrielle because she’d had no option and she remembered all over again how terrifying and inevitable it had all been. Trusting like that hadn’t come easily and now..
Now. Now she was on the brink once again of throwing that into peril. Xena brushed the thought aside, and twitched a little with impatience. “No uneven scars, remember?”
“I remember.” Gabrielle leaned close, her breath warming Xena’s skin and sending goosebumps across her side as she bit the end of the gut off, and then leaned back. “Okay, done.” She studied her handiwork seriously. “I think it’s even.”
“You think?” Xena’s brows lifted.
“Sometimes.” The blond woman agreed, laying a gentle hand on her lover’s thigh. “So, are we going with the guys this time?”
The queen drew in a short breath, almost a gasp, and she turned fully to face Gabrielle. “What in the Hades made you ask that?” She said, in a sharp tone, a little rattled to have the thoughts toying with the tip of her tongue coming out of her companion’s mouth.
“I think you want to.” Gabrielle answered honestly. “And…um…” She paused for a long moment. “Because I want to.” She got the last words out in a rush. “Go do that.”
Slowly, Xena dropped down to sit on the long wooden slab next to her, pale blue eyes never moving from her face. “You do? Why?”
That was hard to answer because Gabrielle was not, truly, sure herself why. “I just want to.” She answered. “I want to do something. Not just sit here waiting.” She looked down at the needle and it’s bare bit of remaining gut left in her fingers. “Bad things could happen, but I want to be fighting them if they do, not letting them happen to me.”
How strange. Xena mused in silence. To find parts of yourself reflected back into your own eyes from such an unexpected mirror. She remembered, hazily, being close with Lyceus, but even that sibling bond was nowhere near what it felt like to be slipping into this partnership of the…
Gabrielle looked up at her and their eyes met.
Was Gabrielle saying what she was saying just because she knew it was what Xena wanted to hear? What she wanted to believe? A brief memory of seeing her young friend square off against the Persian prince popped into her mind and she saw again those squared shoulders, and the nascent, unsure fire that had stiffened her posture and driven those short, lucky blows.
Or did this most unlikely of vessels hold something inside she knew better than most?
“Yeah, we’re going with the men. Hades, I’m.. we’re leading the men.” Xena felt a rush of prickling energy chill and then warm her skin. “We’re gonna take it to them, Gabrielle.” Her lips twisted in mild irony. “Fight the good fight.”
Gabrielle looked relieved, and she put her cheek against Xena’s shoulder, then she lifted her head and kissed the skin there. “I’m glad.” She said. “I just had a feeling if we stayed her, something really bad would happen.”
“You did? I mean, you do?”
Xena studied her. “Do you have these insane visions often?” She queried warily. “You never mentioned it before.”
Gabrielle carefully tucked her gut and needle away. “Um.. no.” She shook her head. “I don’t have visions.. or stuff like that. I was just…. I just feel weird.” She admitted. “I think we should do what they don’t expect us to do because if we do what they expect us to do we won’t expect what they’re doing to do to us.”
Xena studied her. “Don’t ever say that again.” She said, after a brief pause. “Or I’ll bite your tongue for you.” She flexed her hands and started to gather herself up. “Let’s get moving. We need to look like soldiers too.”
The blond woman nodded, then she touched Xena’s armor. “Do you want me to try and fix your leather thing first?”
“Nah.” Xena pulled up her leather thing and settled the straps in place. “As long as we’re going to do this the crazy way, let’s go see if I can get my new friend to come with us.” She raked her fingers through her hair and freed strands of it from the back of her armor. “Let’s see if I haven’t lost my touch.”
She got up and stretched like a cat, wiggling her eyebrows and then heading off towards the block house she’d had the Persian warrior taken to. After a moment, Gabrielle scrambled after her, feeling afraid, and happy, and excited all at the same time.
A space had been cleared in the back of the barracks, with a stout door barring what had once been a store room. In front of the door was a bench, and on the bench was seated the Persian. Four soldiers were standing nearby, weapons held casually as they watched a fifth work on the prisoner’s wounds with rough, but not unkind skill.
Xena paused in the outer hall for a few minutes to watch, studying her potential victim unseen. Even seated, he was much bigger than the soldiers around him, bigger even than she’d remembered from the fight. His head was down and he was resting his elbows on his knees, his body in a posture of weariness she could fully sympathize with.
She wondered who’d been more surprised that she’d won, herself or him. A moment’s more thought. “Him.” Xena dusted her hands off and straightened her shoulders, taking a deep breath before she came around the door and entered the room.
Her men stiffened into attention, and after a second, the Persian looked up in startlement, going still as he recognized her.
“Majesty.” The healer greeted her politely as she joined him at the man’s side. “I am almost finished here.” He said. “What I can attend, I have. There is some I cannot mend, though.”
The Persian was holding one elbow close to his chest. “Broke a thing or so.” He explained, as Xena cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Sorry.” The queen smiled.
“Was the hardest I’ve been hit, by man or woman.” The Persian admitted. “You do your reputation justice.”
The healer stood. “I will tend to that other one now, from the inn.” He said. “Took a bad cut, he did.” He picked up his kit and stepped carefully around the queen, ducking his head in respect as he moved through the doorway and headed for the other side of the barracks.
Xena studied the Persian, then she walked over and seated herself on a sealed barrel, hitching one leg up and letting her hands rest on her knee. “Scram.” She told her men. “Gabrielle’s outside. Go give her a hand.”
The men stirred and left, not without a glance at the man before they vanished.
Xena waited for them to disappear, then she turned her attention back to her captive. “So.” She said. “What’s your name?”
He studied her in return. “We don’t give our names to outlanders.” He said, but in a moderately respectful tone. “From my people, that is. Others may.”
Xena cocked her head to one side, pondering which direction to take with this enigma. “All right.” She said. “Tell me what you want me to call you then, or I’ll give you a name and I bet you won’t like it.”
The Persian straightened slowly up, leaning back and letting his hands rest on his thighs. He had massive shoulders and a thick, very heavy chest, and long, powerful legs that were bunched with muscle. His face wasn’t either old or young, but there was experience in it’s lines and the thick, dark beard trimmed close to his face neatly outlined it.
Good looking, in an exotic sort of way. Xena waited for him to answer, her ears pricking as she heard sounds of movement outside in the square. “Well?”
“In the army, they call me the Bull of Persia.” He replied.
“You want me to call you Bull?” Xena queried, in an amused tone. “You shoulda let me pick. I’da done better than that.” She informed him. “Ask Gabrielle what I call her.”
The Persian moved his shoulders in a faint shrug. “I am Heydar.” He said. “It is not my true name, but it is well enough and what my friends call me.” He studied his hands. “Though there aren’t many left I can call that.”
“Mm.” Xena made a low sound in her throat. “Yeah. It’s like that isn’t it?”
Heydar’s eyes lifted and met hers. “It is.”
This was, Xena realized, someone who did indeed know what she knew, lived in the blood filled world she lived in, and had suffered both the joys and the heartaches of war as she had.
This was someone who knew the horrible, savage need.
Pity. “So.” The queen crossed her ankles and regarded him. “Heydar.”
He watched her, dark eyes close to expressionless, but not quite. “What is it you intend with me, Xena?” He used her name boldly. “Will you kill me? Of all that I have seen here, you would be the one that could.”
“I could.” The queen agreed. “Or I could hang you upside down from your heels for being an insolent jackass to me.” She continued, in a mild tone. “But that’d be a waste of my time and your talent.”
His nostrils flared, just a little.
Xena got up off her barrel and strolled across the room, putting her hands on either side of the open door to the storeroom and looking inside. The boxes and crates had been moved out on her order, and on one side, a hard pallet had been set.
Behind her, she heard only silence, save the soft rasp of breathing. She kept her back to the room and studied the inside of her makeshift prison, noting the thick stone walls, and the dusty, but solid floor. “At least you’ll be dry in here.” She commented. “Be a change from the field.”
Still, no sound behind her, but she felt the change in the air as something big moved, and the draft from the outer doorway was blocked so it no longer brushed the back of her neck.
She felt heat approaching her, still in a silence so profound she could hear her own heart beating. She took a breath, and then another, and then smoothly, easily, she turned and looked right into Heydar’s eyes, an arms length from her, letting a faint smile cross her face.
He went still, only his fingertips twitching, watching her intently to see what her reaction was going to be, only slightly widened eyes betraying his own surprise at her lack of it.
“Wanna die?” Xena asked him. “Or do you really think you can take me?” She kept her pose in the doorway, leaning against one side of it. Since she hadn’t yet redonned her armor, she had only her leathers and her attitude between herself and the Persian, with the single exception of a dagger in the top of one boot.
He had no weapons, naturally, and she figured if he was going to be stupid it was going to get very, very ugly and there was a definite chance she could get her ass thoroughly kicked if she wasn’t very, very careful.
Heydar exhaled a trifle. “What are my choices?” He asked. “Be kept as a prisoner, or die fighting you? I’ll take the chance of death, and thank you. I have no wish to be kept.” He gathered himself. “I won’t be put in that cage no matter how dry it is.”
He took a step forward, crossing into her reach, his arms spreading out to either side a little.
Xena showed no signs of being alarmed at the threat. “Picky picky.” She forced herself to stay relaxed, keeping her breathing even as she absorbed his body posture and tried to read his dark eyes. She was suddenly aware of how alone she was and mentally cursed herself for the arrogant nitwit she sometimes was. “What if there was a third choice?”
He paused warily, his head tilting a bit to one side. “I won’t betray her.” He said, simply. “I swore it.”
Now, Xena moved. She let her arms drop and took a step towards him, coming close into the space around him as she sensed his whole body twitch in reaction. “I swear a lot to.” She said. “Doesn’t mean a damn thing.”
They were face to face, easily in touching distance, and yet, he remained still.
“C’mon.” Xena rasped softly. “If you think you can take me, give it a try.” She slowly drew a breath in at the gamble. “Or if you think you’re life’s worth more than a promise then cut the horsecrap and join me.” Casually, she reached out and patted his cheek, stilling her nerves as she felt the shiver run through him under the touch of her fingertips. “I don’t ask anyone to swear.”
“Don’t you?” He finally whispered, his eyes glued to her face. “Don’t you ask for loyalty, Xena?”
In a moment of surprising insight, Xena smiled. “No.” She said. “I don’t. I give it.”
His body shifted, and his shoulders dropped and moved backwards, his hands coming to rest near his legs with half curled fingers, their eyes still locked. “Ah.”
“Ah.” Xena echoed.
The Persian chewed the inside of his lip, an oddly adolescent motion. “You have no chance of winning.” He said. “She will take the city, and you, and it will be all for nothing.”
“No.” Xena shook her head. “She’ll never take me.”
He looked at her in silence.
Motion in the doorway. Xena’s hand twitched and made a signal and it stopped. “For one thing, I’m already taken.” A quirky grin appeared on her face. “And no matter what happens, no one’s ever gonna forget this fight.”
Heydar sighed. “You are a demon. What was said, is true.” He gazed down at his boots. “Lock me in then.” He said, finally. “I will not forswear myself.” His eyes lifted briefly. “But I will not put myself against you either.”
Honorable choice. Xena had to give that to him, even though in truth his fate was in her hands not his own. “You’re not staying here.” She motioned towards the door. “You’re coming with me, outside the walls.”
“That wasn’t a question.” The queen told him. “I’m not going to put up with your dagger at my back. You want out? You want back to your mistress? No problem. I’ll take ya.”
He blinked at her in complete bewilderment. “W..
“Sh.” Xena gave him a shove down towards the bench again. “Shut up or I’ll have my personal assassin here skin you.”
Heydar turned in startlement as he reached for the bench, his eyes darting around the room and finally falling on the relatively slight figure entering. “But.. “ He seemed at a loss. “Is that not your storyteller?”
“She’s got many skills.” Xena held her hand out for the folded pile of cloth her lover had. “And count yourself lucky. If looks could kill you’d have had a hole in your back the size of an ox a minute ago.”
Heydar stared at Gabrielle, who stared right back, her face tensed into an angry scowl. Finally the Persian sighed again. “So much is not as it seems.”
Xena snorted. “You got that right. C’mon muskrat. Let’s go chitter.” She snapped her fingers, bringing the guards back in the room with their crossbows cocked. “Watch him. Don’t get near him..” She herded Gabrielle to the door. “If he gets any more ideas, shoot him with some of those arrows we got off the Persian bodies.”
“Mistress.” The soldiers braced. “As you will.”
“Yeah yeah yeah.”
“Xena, that’s guys a creep.”
“You always say that about men who want to take me to bed.” Xena sorted through the pile of clothing. “Why is that, I wonder?”
Gabrielle turned her head as though watching her thoughs roll right off their track and across the floor. “Huh?” She said. “I do? No I don’t. I never say that.”
The queen chuckled.
“Do I?” Her lover wandered over and picked up a thick surcoat that had dropped to the ground. “I can’t remember the last time I said that about someone.”
“I can.” Xena said. “You said it about Alaran.” She paused, studying a bit of armor stained deep with blood. “I should have listened to you.” She added, in a quiet tone. “Would have saved me a lot of trouble and some men their lives.”
Gabrielle eased in next to her. “He was creepy.” She admitted, giving Xena’s arm a little rub. “Can I wear this?” She held up the surcoat. “I think it will sort of fit me.”
“Sure.” Xena replied, absently. “Go out there naked if you want. We’ll put some blue paint on ya and they’ll think you’re a war ghoul.”
Gabrielle was momentarily silent, processing the image. “Do you really think I’d look good in blue?” She asked. “That must be hard to get off.”
Xena paused and looked down at her. “Shut up and put that thing on.” She bumped Gabrielle with her hip, and tossed most of the pile off to one side, saving a long surcoat for herself. “Everyone else getting ready?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle pulled the heavy fabric over her head and then down her body, blinking in bemusement as it came down to her knees. The body wasn’t too huge though, so she figured it had just been on a tall, skinny soldier. Her hands traced the odd and unfamiliar pattern on the front, as she tried not to think about the blood covering the lower half and the fact it had been taken from a dead man.
“How’s your buddy?”
“Huh?” Gabrielle looked up sharply. “My what?”
“Inn boy.” The queen was fitting herself in a similar outfit, with slightly more ornate piping, and golden trim along the edges. It wasn’t quite so long on her, and when she snugged the belt of it tight, the result was dashingly sexy. “Eh. Not bad.”
“Oh. Lennat.” Gabrielle walked around her lover and brushed bits of straw off the surcoat. “This looks really good on you.” She advised her. “He’s fine… but you know, I tried to find Perdicus in there, and I couldn’t.”
“Did you really want to find him?” Xena peered over her shoulder at Gabrielle, one brow hiked.
“Well..” Gabrielle had the grace to look embarrassed. “No, well.. I thought I should at least say hello. I mean.. “ She sighed. “He did get hurt, and all that. But he wasn’t there.” She frowned. “He probably went to go see what was going on.”
“Or look for you?” Xena teased her, watching her companion’s face twist into a grimace of acknowledgement. “No problem, muskrat.” She gently ruffled her lover’s hair. “We’ll be out of here soon, and he won’t be following us.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle worked the buckle on the belt, snugging it around her body and wriggling her shoulders to adjust the fit. “Hmm.”
Xena pulled the shoulder seams straight on Gabrielle’s outfit, and studied the result. Though the garment was too large, and too long, it didn’t look bad on her, and the dark color outlined her slim body nicely. “Okay. Got your spear?”
Gabrielle nodded. “In the corner there.” She pointed with one hand. “Are we going to take the horses?”
The queen made a last adjustment, then brushed a bit of dust off one of her shoulders. “No.” She said, in a regretful tone. “They didn’t have any. Wish they had, the bastards. Make my life easier. My back’s still killing me.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle wandered over to where her spear was. She put her hand around it, and lifted it, sliding her other hand down the shaft to run over faint stains in the wood. “That’s too bad. I’d like to have Patches around.”
Xena swung her cloak over her shoulders and fastened the catch, then pulled the hood up to hide her head. She turned and peered in a cracked mirror, reluctantly approving her scruffily menacing appearance. “Yeah, well.. maybe next time.” She turned and picked up her gauntlets. “Let’s go, muskrat. We’ve got history to make.”
Gabrielle hoisted her spear and followed her lover out the door, picking up her own cloak as she passed by the chair it was draped over. Already the cool night air was blowing against her face, and she drew in a lungful of it, hoping they’d find a successful dawn.
The door again. Xena turned and surveyed her little force, pressed against the wall’s flat surface waiting for her command to move forward. Near the back of the line, Heydar’s bulk was distinctive even in the shadows, and she hoped he behaved himself until they could get outside, and she could put her plan into motion.
He was the wildcard, of course. Even Xena had no idea what the big Persian was going to end up doing. “Ready?” She glanced down at the first soldier in line, the shortest of them. “Stay close to me, okay?”
“Like a sock on a foot.” Gabrielle assured her, licking the last bit of a last minute bowl of soup from her lips. She pulled her cloak hood up and followed the queen as Xena went to the door and pressed both hands against it, leaning forward and cocking her head in a listening pose.
There were sounds all around them, of course. The men, the city, animals.. but she had no doubt that Xena would hear what she needed to hear in order to keep them all safe. She watched the queen’s back, tense under it’s covering of wool, then she drew in a breath as Xena straightened up and worked the bar holding the door closed.
She clenched her hand on her spear, taking a step back as Xena slid the bar back and opened the door, the queen’s body braced against the iron bound wood as she carefully peered outside, her body barely outlined in the shadows.
Her heart was pounding. She felt a dryness sin her throat and she licked her lips again, as Xena slowly backed up and opened the door all of the way.
“All right. Let’s go.” The low rasp reached her. Gabrielle moved forward, following Xena as she slipped out the door and into the night air beyond. She had a funny sensation as she cleared the doorway – ostensibly going from safety into danger – yet she knew she felt relieved as the dark, cold sky filled her eyes and the smell of churned earth and grass her lungs.
Her only regret was the thought of leaving Patches behind, tucked into his warm stall next to Tiger. She pushed that thought aside and kept in Xena’s footsteps as the queen moved down the wall, keeping in it’s shadow as she headed away from the gates, towards the edge of the forest in the distance.
The men filed out behind them, and she heard the rasp, then a thunk as the door was closed and they were locked outside. “Hey Xena?” She whispered.
“Mm?” The queen paused, waiting for everyone to catch up.
“This would be a good time for someone to do bad stuff in there, huh?”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “That’s why you’re with me. You matter.” She patted her companion’s shoulder, then she studied the waving grasses they faced. It was dark, the moon had set and left everything in the barest of shadows. She could see the front lines of Sholeh’s forces, and hear the flutter of torches just past arrow’s range from the wall.
With them were two score soldiers, plus the Persian. She watched him from the corner of her eye, but he was standing quietly with two of her men bracketing him, showing no signs of making trouble. Was he waiting for the right time? Or waiting to see what she was going to do?
Xena chuckled under her breath. Let him wait. She studied the land before them a few moments more, then she motioned the men to follow her, and she started off down the wall, her eyes intent on the ground ahead of her.
Hard to tell which way the Persians had come. She could ask Heydar, but her pride kept her from doing that and she had no way to tell if he was telling the truth anyway unless she half killed him again. That got old after a while.
So she went along the wall out of instinct, reasoning the door was closer to the treelline on this side, and Sholeh would have sent her men down the treeline and up the wall’s shadow the same as she’d done herself just a few days earlier.
It felt good to be outside. The wool surcoat was a little itchy against her skin, but she felt her body loosening up as she walked, and she focused her eyes on the ground, sweeping the faint silver shadows before her.
She knew the men would follow her without question. She knew without question everyone’s ass was riding on her shoulders.
Every step was moving further into uncertainty. What if Sholeh had come the other way, and was expecting the men back near the river? Wouldn’t that have made more sense, using the sound of the water to cover their tracks?
Why hadn’t she thought of that? “Because I’m an idiot.”
“Did you say something?” Gabrielle whispered, tugging on the back of her cloak.
“Just sneezed.” The queen muttered back. “Keep your eyes open for people trying to kill us.”
“Okay, but I can’t see anything except your butt.”
Xena almost pulled up short, remembering just in time there were men with sharp, pointy weapons behind them who couldn’t see squat either. “Shh.”
“SHH.” The queen repeated, turning her attention back to the ground with fierce intent. Now she was almost sure she was going the wrong way, sure that by heading in this direction, she’d screwed up, but knowing turning around like a nitwit wasn’t really an..
Ah. “Tsst.” Xena hissed a warning as she slowed, and then knelt, her fingers spreading the grass carefully. Her eyes had picked up the barest glint, and now she carefully nudged the tiny shard free of the dirt with her gloved finger, and picked it up.
She knew the shape without looking further, but it was common enough, and meant little. Or did it?
“What is it?” Gabrielle knelt next to her, peering through the darkness unable to see much but the outline of the queen’s hand.
“Arrowtip.” Xena answered, raising it up and sniffing at it cautiously. “Theirs.” She stood and put the broken bit of metal into her belt pouch. “Stay here.” She strode down the line until she reached Heydar, standing quietly against the wall with his thumbs in his belt. “Why poison?” She asked. “Afraid six times the number wasn’t gonna get you in?”
She held up the arrowhead, her brows lifting.
The big Persian gazed at her. “It’s the way of it.” He said, with a half shrug. “Why leave to chance? This only takes a graze and they’ve got some not so much a soldier there.” He tilted his head to look at the bit in her hand, his eyes as sharp apparently as her own were. “Hit against the wall and broke off – I remember it. I almost throttled the one it belonged too, figured it would bring hot oil down on us.”
Ah. Her shot in the dark hadn’t come around to hit her in the ass after all. Xena folded her arms. “You see no value in a fair fight?” She asked, after a pause.
“No.” He answered honestly.
“Mm.” Xena turned and walked back down the line. “Me either.”
Xena parted the grass with her hands, once again flat on her belly on the ground. She lifted herself up a bit, watching the line of men moving quietly through the forest of tents just ahead of her. Given the lateness of the hour, the amount of activity made her nape prickle.
Defintely not settling down for the night. She studied the small curls of smoke rising skyward, and her nose twitched at the scent of horses nearby.
So now she was here. Xena peered through the long grass, searching out an edge she could knock the point off of, finally spotting a small group of men around a firepit to one side by the rear. Marking her target, she then lowered herself down and half turned like a snake chasing it’s tail, leaning on her elbow as she looked back down the line of her men.
Gabrielle poked her head out from the grass, a smudge of mud half obscuring her features.
Men and muskrat. Xena caught Brendan’s attention and motioned him forward. She waited until her captain had crawled up next to her before she lowered her head and whispered. “Get the damn Persian up here.”
Brendan frowned. “Don’t like that cat back there, Xena. He’s trouble.”
“So am I.” Xena replied. “Just get him up here.”
Still frowning, Brendan turned and slithered back down the line, using a sinuous, side to side motion that barely rippled the grass.
Gabrielle peeked past Xena’s body. “Oh! We’re really close!” She uttered softly.
“Mmhm.” The queen rested her head on her fist. “Keep an eye out for someone spotting us willya?”
The blond woman’s eyes widened a little and she blinked, staring hard across the top of the grass at the enemy army which now seemed unbelievably large, spread out as far as the eye could see in the dim starlight.
Xena was glad enough to get a minute to rest, since she’d been setting the pace for the last two candlemarks. They’d made their way to the edge of the grasslands, and then it had been a slow crawl from there amidst muffled curses and Gabrielle’s occasional sneeze.
“What are we going to do?” Gabrielle whispered, crawling up next to Xena and pressing against her legs.
“Have sex.” The queen replied, watching her lover’s eyeballs wiggle as she fought to keep her attention on the enemy and not look at her. “Just kidding. We’re going to go attack the Persians.”
Heydar arrived, a little ahead of Brendan. The tall Persian stopped shy of where Xena was, his eyes flicking briefly to Gabrielle before he folded his hands together and waited for the queen to speak.
“Go.” Xena said, with little preamble.
Heydar studied her. “Where?”
The queen looked like she wanted to poke him in the eye, but she kept her hands where they were. “Get up, and go back to your mistress. G”wan.”
The Persian frowned, and pursed his lips. “You make little sense, Xena. I am no friend – why allow me to go? Would I not just reveal your location to my cohorts?”
“I said I’d send you back.” Xena said. “I don’t need to keep watch over you, and I don’t need you killing my men from behind. By the time you get in there we won’t be around.”
Heydar studied her intently.
“You should go.” Gabrielle suggested suddenly. “She doesn’t ask twice.”
The queen bestowed a charming smile on her. “That’s my girl.” She praised Gabrielle, then turned back to the Persian. “You heard her. Take off. “ She said. “Before I change my mind.”
It seemed crazy, all of them sitting there, whispering in the darkness with an entire army standing just bodylengths away from them, but Gabrielle was glad to be given the moment to relax and she hoped the Persian would take his time deciding to take off.
She watched his face as he watched Xena. His dark complexion was almost indescipherable in the starlight, but she could hear him breathing, and almost feel the tension in his body, he was so close to her.
What would he do? Did Xena know? Did he know what Xena was going to do? Gabrielle watched his eyes. He wanted to know.
He wanted to know.
He wanted Xena. Gabrielle felt her skin prickle, and as she took in a breath, she felt Xena’s shoulder press against hers, casually deliberate as if the queen could read what she was thinking.
“What are you plans, then?” Heydar asked.
“Are you stupid, or do you think I am?” Xena asked. “G’wan. You’ll find out what my plans are. Eventually.” She drew her dagger and fingered it. “Get lost, or I’m going to start carving pieces off ya.”
His body tensed, and for a second Gabrielle was sure he was going to attack Xena. She reached out and grabbed hold of her spear, pulling it under her and bracing it so that the pointy end was headed somewhere moderately useful.
He hesitated and glanced her way, his eyes dropping to the point of the spear. His eyebrow lifted and he turned his head fully to look at her. After a moment, his eyes dropped, and he pushed himself up onto his knees. “As your will says.” He said. “But beware, Xena. Fates winds mean other things for us.”
Xena merely stared evenly at him, until he finally got to his feet and with a final glance back at the small force, he slunk off through the grass, his big body moving with a lithe grace that surprised everyone watching him except the queen.
“We go?” Brendan exhaled. “Fore that bastard brings the rest of em down on us?”
“We’ll go.” Xena turned and prepared to lead them off again. “But he won’t come after us.” She flexed her hands and resheathed her dagger. “To the left. That small group there. Let’s take em.” She waited for Brendan to get ready, then she looked over at Gabrielle with her spear. “Hey.”
“Creep.” Gabrielle scowled.
“I love you.” Xena said, in a mild voice that carried. “C’mon, let’s go kill people.” She turned and began to wind her way through the grass, moving rapidly in a line even with the edge of the army’s encampment. Moving steadily, she cocked her ears towards the troops and hoped she hadn’t lost her mind as most of the people behind her surely thought she had.
No time for worrying about it. Xena paused as she came to a shadow in the grass, and then she eased forward slowly, straining her eyes to detect the details of it in the low light. It was vaguely man sized, but rounded, and as she came closer the wind drifted a bit and brought her the musky, intense smell of animal.
Animal? “Psh.” Xena held her hand up, and then went on alone. The grass was very think around the obstruction, and she got her knees under her to free her hands as she gently moved the last layer aside and got a good look at it.
A bristly, tusked face looked back at her and they both froze as Xena screamed a few virulent curses strictly inside her own head. Then she recovered, and whipped her knife out, uncoiling from where she was to lunge at the boar, spreading her arms out as wide as they could go.
Fifty fifty chance. The boar, a huge, grizzled animal, reacted and scrambled to it’s feet, opening it’s tusked mouth and then turning and bolting away from this bizarre creature attacking it.
Xena landed with a thump in the spot it had recently been in, the stink of it’s hide rising around her. She went still, hearing the trash and the chaos as the animal charged through the grass and in a moment, as she’d expected, she heard the sounds of yelling.
With a faint smile, she turned and motioned her men forward, heading diagonally away from the direction the boar had run. She could see the sudden dancing of torches and risked a peek above the grass to see a group of soldiers racing after the animal.
Sometimes, the Fates did really kiss her ass. Xena headed for a small patch of bushes just to one side of where the fire was, hoping she hadn’t jinxed herself and they weren’t using the bushes as a convenient midden.
“Wow.” Gabrielle mouthed softly. “That was amazing!”
Xena heard her, and smirked. But she kept her senses sharp, unwilling to believe a single boar would distract the Persians completely. So she was patient, crawling through the grass until she was just behind the thick patch of thorns, one of the few, isolated patches of cover in the long, flat plain.
Slowly, she straightened up, grateful if nothing else for the chance to stretch her back out after all the damn creeping and crawling.
Through the leaves, she could see movement, and she leaned forward, putting her hands on her thighs as she peered through the branches at the army.
They had come a long, long way, she realized. They were halfway around the side of the troops and she could see the back end of the army if she stretched her neck out and squinted. There were lines and lines of siege engines in front of her, strings of horses, and endless wagons that spoke volumes of how prepared, and how massive this army really was.
She refused to look behind her at her handful of men. What was the point? She was here to make history. “Okay.” She returned her attention to the small group of men nearest her. They were all busy working at something in the light of the fire, and this close, she could smell something pungent and acrid coming from it. “Here’s the plan.”
Brendan was at her side, and Gabrielle squirmed over to the other side of where she was kneeling, peering through the bushes with wide eyes. “Lot of em.” The old captain commented.
“We’ll just kill them all one at a time.” The queen told him. “It’ll just take longer than it used to.” She pointed at the group of men. “We’re going there, along that ground line there. Get as close as we can before they see us, then you, Brendan, take three other men and just act like you’re the bunch returning from the city.”
“Aye.” Brendan nodded.
“Tell them you didn’t make it in.” Xena said. “Gabrielle and I will stay behind you. Once we’re up next to them, attack.”
“Surely.” The captain looked happy. “Fine time for it. Good night, clear weather. Good for fightin.”
“What do you want me to do?” Gabrielle asked.
“Stay alive.” Xena told her briefly. “After we take them out, we’ll see where we go next.” She shrugged her cloak into place, and slid her hood up over her head. “Everyone ready?”
Soft murmurs answered her.
“All right. Let’s move.” Xena stepped around the edge of the bushes and walked along the ridge line, her body blending in with the ground cover and the shadows, a line of equally dim figures right behind her.
Gabrielle could hardly believe the daring of what they were doing. She was just behind Xena as they walked casually into the army camp, in the center of the rest of the soldiers.
They were noticed. Brendan raised his hand casually and greeted the nearest of the men, and after a heartstopping second, the man returned the greeting and went back to what he was doing.
“Back then are ya?” Another soldier asked, looking up from pounding a dagger straight on a small anvil. “Any luck?”
“Nah.” Brendan shook his head. “Door’s locked. Somethin went wrong.”
“Figures.” The man went back to his pounding, only glancing up briefly when a tall shadow fell on him. “Needing something?”
Xena cut his throat in an instant and caught his body as it slumped without so much as a gasp. She grabbed him by the belt and collar and quickly tossed him down the small rise they’d come along, hiding the body as she dusted her hands off and picked up the hammer, having caught the dagger he’d been working on as he fell.
By the time the nearest enemy looked up the ring of the anvil was sounding again, and he looked away, bending close over his task.
Gabrielle had no idea what to do, so she went over to where Xena was beating on the dagger. After a pause, the queen whistled softly under her breath, and the rest of the men moved on, spreading out in an easy, casual manner.
Xena put the dagger to one side. “Gimme the spear.” She muttered, in a low tone.
Gabrielle handed it over at once, half turning her back to the army and leaning against the framework the anvil was resting on. She watched Xena turn the spear at an angle, and then the hammering began again, the edge of the heavy tool striking the metal of the spear and straightening it.
Xena’s face, only barely seen in the dim firelight, was calm, and after a few strikes, Gabrielle turned slowly and looked across the open space, no longer able to distinguish their men from the Persians.
Then she spotted Brendan, rubbing his gauntleted hands together as he joined the men around the firepit, talking in a low voice, but attracting the soldier’s interest as they turned from their tasks and focused on him, not really aware of the shadows wandering around behind them.
Gabrielle could see their faces, the Persian soldiers. They weren’t much different from Xena’s men, these ones weren’t. She saw their smiles, and then heard laughter at whatever Brendan was telling them as he focused them on him.
On him. Not the men behind them, who casually came up as if to hear what he was saying too, except they had blades in their hands and the Persian’s cloaks were pulled around their throats as they were gutted. Xena’s men laughed louder, and slapped their victims on the back as they died.
“Nice.” Xena complimented the action, watching the almost random motion as her soldiers laid their enemies down, rolling them inside their cloaks and tucking them up against the berm as thought they were sleeping.
Gabrielle swallowed against a suddenly dry throat, despite everything she’d been through.
Xena’s men casually gathered back around the table the others had been working on, and the queen continued hammering until she’d straightened the spear out to her satisfaction. Then she handed it to Gabrielle and set the tool down, dusting her hands off as she casually headed over to where the troops were standing.
Gabrielle followed her, hand clenched around her spear, as she tugged her hood up a little more. She could feel the danger all around them, and she could hardly breathe, knowing at any moment, one look, one word, one realization would strip them bare of their cover.
They’d die, probably. She firmly believed there was no better fighter in the world than her lover, but as Xena had once said, she was just one person, and there were many, many, many soldiers here. She shifted her grip on her weapon and thought, for just a minute, about what it would be like if she had to use it.
The soldiers looked up casually as Xena joined them, their eyes hooded as they gathered around the worktable, fingering the items on top of it. “Look here.’ Brendan uttered. “Strange.”
Xena focused her attention on the table, but shifted her senses to the encampment around them. From the corner of her eye she could see another small group of men, set aside by themselves in the same livery that Heydar had worn.
They weren’t working, rather, they sat on crates around their small fire, drinking from folding camp mugs, paying little attention to those around them. As Xena watched, though, a few of them looked over to where her group was standing.
Interest. Xena’s heart skipped a beat, then she let out a breath when that wasn’t followed up as suspicion. She knew they’d be discovered but she wanted to get a run in before, and….
“Eh.” Brendan actually bumped her on the elbow. “Look at this.”
Xena refocused again, gazing down at the worktable. Piled on it were stones, and stacks and stacks of rough cut hide. The acrid smell was coming from the hide, and she picked up a piece with her gloved hand, sniffing cautiously at it.
“There’s writing.” Gabrielle uttered soflty, keeping her voice pitched as low as she could. “What are these?”
Xena put the hide down. “Don’t touch this, any of you, without gloves.” She ordered. “It’s tree frog poison. It’ll make you sick as a dog if you touch it.”
Gabrielle pulled her hand back and put it behind her. “Ugh.”
“Mm.” Xena picked up a finished bundle from the pile the men had been working on. The stones had been wrapped in the hide, and tied shut. Nearby, she could see a wagon, and in the wagon were sacks. “What the Hades is it with that bitch? Can’t she just fight like a man?”
Gabrielle looked up at her. “What’s this for?” She asked, peering at the scraps again, but not touching them. “It says surrender terms… what does that mean? Are they going to throw them?” She asked. “At us? Do they really think we’ll surrender?”
Xena picked up a stone and juggled it. “No.” She said. “But they know those people in there, in the city’ll pick these up and read them. They know they helped us.” She said. “I guess they didn’t like that.”
She thought about all the people who had already suffered at the hands of Sholeh, and about how it would be if hundreds of them, maybe more, fell sick.
Died. After reading a warning to surrender. “Tch tch thc.” Xena clucked softly. “Gabrielle, I’ve been out bitched. Damn it.”
“Keep working.” The queen ordered softly. “Wrap the stones with this stuff, and keep putting them in the sacks. Give me a few minutes to figure out who to kill next.”
The men started in, gingerly picking up the hide and wrapping the stones inside it.
Xena shifted her body and slowly turned her head, her eyes scanning the darkness and shadows around them. She caught motion from one side and followed it, the huge shadow of a siege engine moving slowly along the line of the troops, heading for the front lines.
“You there.” A loud, male voice nearly made her jump. Instinctively, her body shifted and she only just kept herself from reaching for the sword tucked into it’s sheath along her back and blowing everything right then and there.
“Aye?” Brendan answered quickly for her. “What d’ye want?” He turned, and two other men turned with him, sliding over to block the man’s view of their queen.
“What do I want?” The Persian captain, a regular, got to the edge of the group and put his hands on his hips. “I want real soldiers instead of you mangy pigs, that’s what I want, but I’ll take this lot of sacks in the wagon faster than you’re putting them or you’ll get your hands cut off.”
“Nice.” Xena muttered, under her breath. She had her face half turned from him and her head a little down, trying not to be tense, or make Gabrielle tense. Her lover had knelt to pick up a bunch of the stones, and she remained crouching there, one hand resting on Xena’s boot.
“Sorry, m’lord.” Brendan answered meekly. “We’ll be faster. You want the wagon somewhere as we’re done?”
“Take it to the front lines. We’re almost ready to pitch the damn things and good riddance.” The Persian seemed mollified by his attitude. He raked the group with his eyes, then he snorted and turned to leave. His foot caught on something and he almost tripped, sending him hopping a step with a curse. “What!”
No one was stupid enough to laugh. “Clean up your damn place here!” He yelled at them. “Bad enough you smell like pigs!”
He turned and kicked what he’d almost fallen over, then stomped off, tossing his cape behind him. “Get your asses up and eat now!” He ordered as he walked through the camp. “It’ll be the last you see of anything until we’re at the sea.”
Xena slowly relaxed her hands, her eyes going to the dead man’s leg the soldier had kicked, now visible from under it’s cloak covering. “All right you heard him.” She said. “Let’s get that wagon loaded up, boys.”
“Are we going to help them?” Gabrielle whispered, tugging her legging.
The queen slowly looked down at her, pale eyes glinting in the firelight. “No.” She grabbed hold of Gabrielle’s shoulder and tugged her upward. “Just go with the flow, muskrat. One thing I learned in this long, hoary old life of mine was that if you’ve got nothing but dust and an empty mug..”
Gabrielle got up and put the stones down. “Make the best of what you do have?”
“No.” Xena wrapped a stone in one of the scraps. “Steal someone else’s stuff and use that.” She tossed her bundle into the center of the table and reached for another one. “Hurry up.” She ordered. “We’ve got a delivery to make.”
The one positive about the whole situation was there was a horse in it. Gabrielle waited at the animal’s head, stroking him as the last of the sacks were loaded aboard and the soldiers got ready to move out.
The bustle in the camp had increased, and she kept very close to the horse, hiding her small stature next to his bulk as she tried to stay out of the way.
Brendan came up to join her. “Little one, her Maj says to go into the wagon bed and hide yourself.” He whispered. “Safer for you there, eh?”
“I can’t.” Gabrielle whispered back. “I’ll throw up.” She admitted, as Xena’s tall figure approached where she and Brendan were standing. “The smell of that stuff is making me sick.”
“Figures.” Xena arrived, putting a hand on the horses’s bridle and hearing her lover’s last words. “That’s all right. I’ve thought of something I want you to do while we go.” She motioned to the soldier behind her. “Put those up on his back, poor bastard.” She held the horse still as the last sacks were loaded on him and he shifted, snorting at the scent.
“Ready, Mistress.” Brendan murmured.
“Stay around the horse.” The queen said. “If someone spots me or her we’re dead before we can do anything.”
Xena started forward, leading the horse, motioning Gabrielle to fall in behind her as the route took them between the encampments and towards the front of the lines past the real Persian soldiers.
“You.. uh want me to tell a story?” Gabrielle whispered uncertainly. “Was that the thing?”
“No.” Xena half turned her head. “You’re gonna lose your blood innocence the hard way. Got your gloves on?”
“Suck it up.”