Queen of Hearts
Gabrielle felt her heartbeat getting faster every step they moved closer to the Persians, closing in on the first little encampment with their wagon load of nasty. She kept close by the horses side, just behind Xena’s tall form and tried not to think about what Xena had just said to her.
There was no time anyhow. Xena put a hand on her shoulder, and Gabrielle took a deep breath before she looked up at her lover. “Yes?”
“When we stop, we’ll distract everyone.” Xena said, in a soft, yet inflexible tone. “You take one of those bundles, and you drop it in the pot. Got me? Then you get back here.”
Gabrielle took another breath. “Will it hurt them?”
Gabrielle chewed the inside of her lip, knowing she was being given a choice, but that she actually had no option in this. Why her? She was the smallest, and the most likely to get to the pot and back without being caught, obviously. “Okay.” She said, after a hesitation. “I’ll do it.”
The queen bumped her lightly, then she put her head down a little and patted the horse on the neck, as her men started talking louder, approaching the first group of soldiers.
Gabrielle tried not to look at them. She heard Brendan’s casual hail, and from the corner of her awareness saw the group of men begin to trail towards the wagon, greeting Xena’s men as though they were brother soldiers.
Which they were, in a sense, she guessed.
“Get ready.” Xena’s whisper reached her.
Gabrielle moved back a little, tugging open the neck of the sack on the near side, and removing one of the bundles tucked inside. She held it in her gloved hand, the weight of the rock suddenly seeming huge as Xena steered the wagon closer to the cookfire the men had been standing around.
“Yah, we’ve got the goods here.” Brendan said, indicating the wagon behind him. “Heading for the front, yeah?”
“Think’ll work?” The Persians soldiers eased around the other side of the wagon from where Xena was standing patiently holding the horses bridle. One brought a torch around and it cast their camp into gloom, as though obeying the queen’s unspoken will.
“T’gods know.” Brendan shrugged. “Nasty stuff though.”
Xena waited until the last of the soldiers came over to examine the bags before she gave Gabrielle a little shove. “Go on.” She uttered softly. “Just do it.”
The blond woman hesitated, then she stepped away from the shelter of the wagon and crossed the small space between it and the cookpot, sitting lonely and untended.
“Yeah? Thought they were nuts looking them frogs up. Crazy.” The Persians said, one of them standing up on his tip toes to look inside the wagon. “Plenty of em in there.”
Gabrielle glanced around, but no one was paying any attention to her save a single pair of pale eyes, and she reached the pot without incident. All she had to do now was drop it in, and go back to where Xena was, a simple enough matter.
Simple enough. She could even really tell herself that she didn’t know if it would really hurt the men, or if they would even have time to eat any. It could end up completely harmless.
Maybe some of them didn’t even like soup. She thought about the soup she’d eaten just before they’d left the city and tasted almost a copper tang on the back of her tongue. What would it feel like to be poisoned?
Would it hurt?
She lifted her hand and extended it to the pot, the stone thick and heavy against her palm as she went to turn her hand over and release it.
The hide it was wrapped in was well soaked in the poison, she could see it in the faint light, and smell it, and for a second, she imagined the men eating it falling to the ground.
They were the enemy. She forced herself to think of them that way, since there were so many of them, and Xena was counting on her. They had such a scant chance, anyway, and probably they would be caught and then it wouldn’t really matter anyway, would it?
Would she go to Tartarus if she did it?
Would that mean she’d end up with Xena?
She turned her hand over and felt the steam from the soup warm her wrist through the leather of her glove, the bland scent from the thick liquid bathing her face. With a deep breath, she readied herself to take that step across the line, and leave behind a big slice of who she’d thought she was.
So. Like Xena said, just do it.
And she couldn’t release it. She took her hand back and backed up quickly, ending up thumping against Xena’s hip as the men laughed about something Brendan was saying, her heart sinking deep to her boots as she steeled herself to look up at her lover’s face.
Her wrist was grabbed, and she felt the weight of the stone vanish, then she sensed a quicksilver motion of Xena’s body and heard, as though an echo, something moving through the air and then the splout as it landed in the pot.
“All right, we’ve got to move on.” Brendan responded to Xena’s very soft whistle. “Get er moving, yah?”
The wagon started to move, and Gabrielle had little choice but to move with it, her hand tangled in the traces as she followed Xena’s silent form past the men, who, still chuckling, were heading back to their momentarily abandoned dinner.
“Sorry.” She whispered, after a moment.
“Me too.” Xena said, in a mild voice.
“I just couldn’t do it.”
The queen sighed. “Yeah..” She said. “Haven’t found your tipping point yet.”
“Ya thought about it too damn long.”
Gabrielle had to admit that was probably true. “They’re just people too.” She explained. “They’re not that different from our guys, heck, some of them are our guys now and I just…”
“Who’ll be trying to kill us pretty soon.” The queen said. “Who were bundling up the stuff in this wagon to kill everyone inside the walls. Does that count?”
Was that a good enough reason to kill them first? Gabrielle felt nauseously conflicted, fighting against her own heart as her instincts warred with her desire to please her lover. “Xena..”
“Never mind.” Xena glanced over the back of the horse, to find the seasoned Persians watching them from down the line. She could see their profiles, and the interest they were drawing was making her guts tickle. Not a good feeling.
Almost as bad a feeling as she’d gotten from what Gabrielle had just not done.
“Shut up.” Xena told her. “It’s probably better this way. Let’s just hope my aim’s gotten better over the years or I’m going to blow this little party sky high.”
They kept walking, moving towards the next group of men, all of them working on armor amidst a forest of spears and several more crude anvils. Some of the men were singing a rude song, and by their own cook pit, a long, shallow pan had something roasting in it that was letting off a surprisingly appetizing smell.
“Find me a small one.” Xena uttered, as she started to slow the wagon down. “Not much room in there.”
Gabrielle nodded, reaching into the sack and feeling around as she walked, feeling a mixture of guilt and relief at her altered role. She had only sorted through a few of the bundles when a loud noise made her pause and peeked past Xena’s arm.
“Damn.” The queen cursed, grabbing the horses bridle and pulling steadily on it. “Whoa, ya’bastard.” Her boots slipped in the churned earth as a bunch of the Persian soldiers poured out of their little camp in some excitement. “What in Hades..”
“Take that you pigface!” A man yelled. “Call me a girl, will ya?”
The second man picked up a pike and swung at him just as Xena came even with them, and before the queen was really ready for it the argument escalated and there were men swinging everywhere..
“Cut that out!” One of the seasoned Persians yelled over from their camp. “Can’t you idiots keep your heads on right for more than a candle?”
“Stupid bastard! That’s my hammer!!!” One of the men picked up a stack of spears and swung at the other. Two of his fellow soldiers grabbed him by the arms, and twisted, and then four of them ended up crashing into Xena’s men.
“Hey!” Brendan called out .”Watch yerselves!”
“Watch yourself, old man!” The first soldier swung his pike at Brendan. “I’m taired of all you stuck up snoot balls!!!” He missed Brendan and smacked his weapon into the horses shoulder instead, luckly on the blunt side. “Yahhh!”
The horse took exception. He snorted and backed up, then he reared, almost taking Xena with him as his head went up and he dragged the queen off her feet as she fought to control him.
Gabrielle darted backwards out of the way, her jaws clamping down tight on a reflexive yell of her lover’s name. She grabbed hold of the yoke and it was yanked out of her hands, sending her stumbling to one side and into a stack of boxes.
“I said cut that out!” The captain who’d yelled at Xena’s men before stood up off his barrel near the fire and stared coming towards them.
Xena grabbed at the horses bridle and hauled his head around, getting her lips up near his ear. “Stop it.” She growled softly. “Or you’ll be shoes.”
The horse snorted, but merely backed up a step again, as the fighting men swirled past him and into the pathway, blocking the way. Xena got a better grip on the leather, then she turned her head quickly, looking for her little lost muskrat.
Seeing no sign of Gabrielle, she let out a short whistle.
“I said – STOP THAT!” The Persian captain arrived and grabbed one of the fighters, drawing his sword and slamming the hilt down on his head, sending bone chips and bits of skin everywhere.
Xena released the horse and headed for the pile of boxes, spotting a boot on the ground. She heard a yell behind her, and turning, she grabbed up a bit of stone from the earth and whipped it back over her shoulder at the horse, smacking him in the rear with it.
The animal reacted exposively, bolting forward and smashing into the fighting soldiers, and the Persian captain, and her own men.
Xena ignored it all, reaching the stack of boxes and grabbing the first one, lifting it and tossing it to one side. She saw a hand reaching up and she took hold of it, kicking a second crate aside painfully as she yanked Gabrielle out from under a pile of metal scrap armor and leather straps.
“Ow.” Gabrielle yelped softly, grabbing her arm as she shook of the tangle of items. “What th..” She stopped as Xena suddenly went very still, the queen’s hand going past her to pick up the draping of old leather to stare at it. “Uh.. “
The chaos was growing behind them. Xena broke out of her stunned shock and stuffed the bit of leather under her belt as she whirled and headed back for the wagon,d dragging Gabrielle behind her.
“M’okay, thanks.” Gabrielle muttered, trying to pull herself together as they got back to the center of things just in time for the Persian captain to behead one of his own soldiers, sending spray of hot, rich blood over everything.
It got in her eyes. It smelled like Hades. The horse started bucking again, and the next thing she knew she was being picked up by the belt and hauled through the air in powerful, violent surge, rising out of the stench of blood and feeling hide and leather slam against her hands.
She wondered if it was about to all be a very brief, though probably exciting and painful moot point.
Xena pressed her back against the siege engine, pushing her hood back just enough to allow her a full range of vision for the first time since she’d entered the camp. Next to her, Brendan thumped to a halt, breathing hard.
Around them, the army was in motion. Captains were starting to call their men into formation and as she faced the eastern sky, she could see the first, faintest hint of gray tinging the horizon.
She’d been right, after all. Sholeh had waited, not that it was doing her a damn bit of good right now. She put her back against the wooden surface again and tried to ignore the feeling that the whole damn thing was starting to get away from her now.
The machine she was against was tall and massive, a roughly hewn basket almost the size of the cart itself attached to one end of a long arm, counterbalanced by a weight and now winched down into position to fire.
Huge. She’d used them, now and again, but dragging the things around slowed the army down and she’d grown to dislike them, preferring a fast, unruly cavalry and the best ground fighters she could train in place of fancy machines and the drudgery of a long war.
Lack of patience? Maybe. Xena knew she liked getting what she wanted, and getting it now and laying siege out in a field with bugs chewing her ass had never appealed to her.
Now she turned and looked at the big device, studying the well made structure, considering it’s usefulness, and decided it still didn’t appeal to her. It was still too big, too slow, and still a pain in the ass to work and aside from the road that bisected the grasslands, it wouldn’t be easy to maneuver save pointed right at the gates.
Well, that’s where they wanted to hit anyhow. “Damn.” Xena sighed, cursing the luck of her life. Then she regarded the wagon, nibbling the inside of her lip.
And yet, they’d made it here through the center of the Persian army, right between columns of soldiers just like she’d planned they would. Was her luck turning?
“Hades.” The old captain coughed. “How’d we get through that I dunno.”
“Don’t ask.” Xena took the chance to catch her breath, watching a troop of regular Persians start to approach as they saw the wagon roll up to the launcher. “Toldja not to ask. Ya cursed us. Here come those damn bruisers.”
The men were talking to each other, and pointing at the wagon, one miming putting on gauntlets. The rest started doing just that, evidently intent on helping what they thought were their comrades load up the launcher – looking well rested and perky.
Xena cursed softly under her breath.
They hadn’t hit nearly enough of the cookpots. Most of the army was down in little hillocks, and she’d only been able to poison a handful of them.
Gabrielle scuttled underneath the horses belly and came over to where Xena was standing, breathing a little hard. “Xena.”
“Sh.” The queen was watching the approaching Persians, who were talking casually and getting closer with every step, the one in the lead already looking up and searching their little group for someone in charge.
“Xena.” Gabrielle tugged her cloak. “Look over there.”
“I told you…” Xena glanced over the smaller womans shoulder, past the wagon, and her eyes widened. “Ah.” She spotted a large group of soldiers heading towards them, from the opposite side most of them mounted.
From yet another direction, the big Persians who’d yelled at them were approaching, and her men hastily formed around her, their faces nervous in the torchlight as they realized they were rapidly becoming the very center of some unwelcome attention.
“Now what are we going to do?” Gabrielle whispered. “We’re in the middle of them!”
Xena’s nostrils twitched. “All right. We’re going to..”
She paused, and considered. What in the Hades was she going to do? What in Hades had she been doing the last two candlemarks? Her peripheral vision caught the motion of the army closing in on them. So they made it here.
For what? What’s next, Xena? You’re in the middle of an enemy army with a wagon of crap, ten men and a muskrat. What were ya gonna do once you stopped being a clever jackass and ended up here?
Puke on the Persians? Strip naked and dance? Did you even have a plan, other than just to keep moving and figure out what happens next when your ass was on fire?
Now, with her back to the launcher and surrounded by the enemy she questioned again her fitness for leading these men.
Brendan sidled over. “Got em where we want em, eh?”
“Yeah.” His queen exhaled and glanced around, seeing all eyes on her, everyone waiting for her to make it all right. A freshening breeze cooled her face, bringing a hint of the sea and Xena felt a sense of impending pain and embarassement that made her seriously dread the dawn.
Damn. She just didn’t have time to be incompetent. “Grab the torch.” She told the nearest man. “When I tell you, toss it in the wagon. Then get ready to fight like hell.”
No time to find another leader, either. Xena tightened her belt and shucked her cloak back over her shoulder to expose her sword hilt. Her eyes tracked to the oncoming Persians and the two men in the lead separated a little, exposing the shorter, more ornate figure behind them.
“A frilly sock worth of attitude two toes short of a foot, yeah.” The queen murmured. “My favorite person.”
“Ugh. Now what?”
Xena paused a moment,, then she turned and looked at Gabrielle. Her former slave, current lover, and newly wedded partner was scuffed up and bruised, but even through all that, looking at Xena, there was nothing there but a slightly anxious love in her eyes. “Gabrielle.”
The blond woman didn’t answer for a long moment. Then – “Yes?”
Xena gently put one hand on her cheek. “I’m going to go do something really stupid.” She said. “But it’s also something I’ve cornered myself into doing.” She added. “And I think it’s crazy enough to maybe be the right thing to do.”
A wrinkle of deep worry creased the middle of Gabrielle’s forehead.
“Maybe the only thing to do, other than just croak.”
Xena felt a sense of calm settle over her. “I think you’ll be proud of me.” She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle on the lips. “I hope you will.”
She released Gabrielle’s jaw and readied herself, walking forward towards where the wagon blocked the view of the oncoming Sholeh. She was halfway there, when she felt a presence at her heels, and she glanced aside to see Gabrielle catching up with her. “Where ya going?”
“With you.” Gabrielle answered, in a quiet tone. “I don’t want to miss any details.” She tightened her grip on her spear and lifted her hand, brushing her hood back to expose her pale hair.
Xena slowed, but kept walking. “If you go with me, ya won’t be around to tell anyone the story about what happens.” She said. “That’d be a bummer.”
Gabrielle remained quiet for a long moment, then she exhaled and straightened her shoulders. “Someone else will tell the story with both of us in it.” She kept her steps even with Xena’s and got herself ready to do …
“Fair enough.” Xena said, just before they got to the wagon. “But don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
Xena pushed her own hood back as she ducked past the horse, taking a breath as the breeze from the sea blew against her face. She stood there briefly with her hand on the animal’s neck, hidden in almost plain view from the oncoming crowd by the night.
She took her gauntlets off and wiped her hands on her cloak, then tucked the gloves into her belt and flexed her fingers, her palms already feeling the ghostly shape of her sword. She could hear Brendan and the men behind the wagon and she caught the eyes of all the Persian soldiers turning away from the launcher and towards the oncoming royalty.
They were ready to fight, that was for sure. Sholeh had her retainers around her, and they all had war banners on the top of their spears, with an air of anticipation about them.
Sholeh was dressed in armor, with her head bare and her hair shining in the torchlight held by her retainers. She was the very picture of a princess, her long cloak lined with fur and her Persian style armor glistening.
A curved sword was fastened on her saddle, near her knee, where she could draw it if she needed and Xena readily reckoned she knew how to use it. It was smaller than the rest of the soldiers and seemed to fit her.
As Xenas own fit her, having been hammered to her length and shaped to her hand all those years ago. She thought a minute about that far off city on that far off shore, when she’d sat and watched impatiently as the blade took shape before her eyes.
A handful of gold in her pocket from their first big conquest. The weapons master glancing up occasionally and smiling at her, competent in his trade, and glad to have a young woman there watching him, instead of the usual.
She remembered taking it out of it’s newly sewn sheath, stiff and tannin scented at the fire that night, lifting the blade and toasting the stars with it, reveling in the feel of it’s weight and the sharpness of it’s edge.
“What a little idiot I was.” She sighed.
“Never mind.” Xena briskly cracked her knuckles. “C’mon.” She waited for Sholeh to stop her little parade not far away, and prepare herself to harangue her troops. The men started to gather near, and she and Gabrielle snuck in at the back of them, shoulder to elbow as Xena’s soldiers appeared around them, making a bubble of friendly faces and blocking them from view.
“Thought I told you all to stay back there.” Xena growled.
“Too much noise from that one.” Brendan indicated the Persian. “Didn’t hear ya.”
“We love ya as well, my queen.” Brendan answered back, in a low, but clear voice. “An where you choose to go, then we do as well.”
Xena clamped her jaw down tight and refused to breathe, as she felt tears sting her eyes with shocking unexpectedness.
“I think that’s my line.” Gabrielle added, in a low whisper.
“All of you just shut the Hades up.” Xena got out from between her clenched teeth. “Or else.”
Gabrielle leaned closer, and gave her a pat on the behind, bumping her head against Xena’s elbow, and then looking up at her with a look of perfectly idiotic devotion.
Luck was on Xena’s side. Sholeh picked that moment to start her speech, rising up in her stirrups and raising her hands, a dagger clenched in one of them.
The army yelled back at her.
Xena drew her sword, and after a brief moment, smiled.
“My subjects, attend me.” Sholeh waited for all the noise to settle down, her head turning slowly to survey her troops. The men had gathered closer, a mass of dark bodies in the dim light from the coming dawn, the outline of the stars slowly fading around the tall siege engines.
“Very soon, we will be moving to take the walls before us.” Sholeh said, after a brief pause. “The traitors who locked the gates against us have been dealt with. Resistance will be slight. “
Gabrielle slowly took hold of Xena’s hand and gripped it, as the horses shifted a little and a rider next to Sholeh came into view. “Hey..” She whispered.
“Mm.” Xena uttered a low sound in her throat, having already seen Heydar.
“Ready yourselves.” Sholeh concluded, then she turned and looked at the siege engine. “Is that not ready? Load it! Fools!”
The men jerked into motion around her. Xena lifted her hand and made a signal, and the time was past for asking questions.
Behind her, Brendan took a step back and turned, throwing his torch over his shoulder and landing it in the wagon, over the heads of the other soldiers. The rest of her men started pushing and shoving, letting out yells to trigger confusion as the torch quickly caught on the oil soaked hide.
“Fire!” One of the Persians at the back yelled, with an excess of the obvious. “Get water! What happened?”
Sholeh stood in her stirrups impatiently. “Put it out! Quickly! The sun comes!” She uncoiled a whip at her waist and struck out with it at the nearest men around her. “Move!”
“Figured her for a whip, didn’t you?” Xena remarked, as the crowd milled into motion in front of her, separating and clearing a path as she stood quietly in the shadows, waiting.
The Persian princess rode forward a few steps, lashing the whip to either side of her with a good deal of expertise, scattering the troops as she drove them on. “Heydar! Get these men moving!”
The armored Persian obediently rode towards the wagon, removing his sword from it’s sheath in a lazy motion as the soldiers scattered more quickly, splitting out in front of the princess and her entourage and pouring to either side to get out of the way.
“Stop that fire! Get the engine loaded! I want those people in there to know my wrath before I kill them!”
Xena came very, very close to bursting out laughing. Instead, she merely waited for the final line of soldiers to clear out in front of her, leaving her outlined from behind in the growing flames, facing her enemy.
“I will torture them for their actions!” Sholeh yelled. “They will..!”
“YOU WON”T.” Xena sucked in a lungful of air and yelled back, her lower, stronger voice ringing out over the ground. As the last echo rippled past, the wagon burst into furious flames, and she stepped quickly forward, resting her sword on her shoulder as she circled Sholeh, turning so the light from the fire hit her.
Shading her eyes, Sholeh hauled her horses head back around and backed him a step, as the soldiers all thumped into each other, everyone turning to see where the other voice was coming from.
Xena straightened her back and lifted her head. “You won’t, you smarmy cowardly excuse for a bastard’s stepchild.” She bellowed. “Poisoning kids cause you don’t have the guts to fight? The Hades you will!”
“You.” Sholeh rasped.
“You men RAN from the city!” Xena hollered. “The city didn’t do squat to them ya stupid nitwit! I did it!” She pointed at herself with a thumb. “I set your damn ships on fire with that coward’s upchuck you were stupid enough to carry in one them and chased their asses out the gates!”
Every soldier turned, and stared at this sudden, noisy, unexpected bit of chaos in their midst.
“You.” Sholeh repeated, in a different tone.
Xena took another step forward, lit by the fire from one side, and the first gray mist of dawn from the other. “Me.” She stopped. “So you’re not going to take out your damn embarrassment on those people.”
Gabrielle found herself frozen in place, her hand clenched around her spear her eyes glued to the tall, wind whipped figure facing off against the whole of the Persian army, whose leader was surrounded by a hundred men on horseback with at least two swords apiece.
There was no escape. Even she could see that.
It was crazy, but as she shook of the shock and listened to what Xena was saying, she knew that in this, at least, the queen had been right again.
She was proud. Proud to be here, and to be a part of Xena’s life, even in a moment like this.
Or maybe, especially in a moment like this.
“Take her.” Sholeh said, in an emotionless voice. “Tie her, and we’ll see which one of us is the fool.” She waited, then she looked around when no one moved. “Take her!” She ordered, in a louder voice.
Xena simply stood, her sword resting on her shoulder, her weight resting on one leg as she crossed the other at her ankles. “C’mon.” She scanned her immediate enemies. “Come and get me.”
The men behind Sholeh hastily dismounted, and drew their weapons, their bearded faces tense and inscrutable as they started forward, drawing their curved swords.
“You sure don’t want her getting away.” Gabrielle piped up suddenly. “Cause boy, that’ll be a story to tell, huh?”
Sholeh turned abruptly. “Heydar – kill that one.” She ordered, pointing to Gabrielle. “Shut her tongue.”
Xena’s men immediately surrounded Gabrielle and drew their swords.
Xena eased from her relaxed stance to one a bit more martial, letting her sword come down off her shoulder and twirling it a few times. “Get near her, Heydar, and I’ll cut your manhood off.” She warned. “Think about it. You might need it someday.”
“Do if for you, Majesty!” Brendan called out.
“That’s a pretty good idea too.” Gabrielle sidled out away from Xena’s men. “Cause I’d tell everyone I could get my hands on how this whole big army got beaten up by this one person.”
“Shut her UP!” Sholeh bellowed. “Or I’ll do it myself!”
The string of Persians rushed forward, as the princess threw herself off her horse.
Xena resisted the urge to run and throw herself in front of Gabrielle, hoping her squad could hold off the one pissed off princess while she concentrated on not getting her head cut off by her troops. Accordingly, she set herself and met the first of the soldiers, deciding fast was the best choice of action.
He tried to backslice her, an odd opening move. Xena ducked and let the blade go over her head as she drew her dagger and gutted him with it, lunging and slamming into him with her shoulder as he doubled over then jumping past him.
She turned and slashed out, cutting into one mans arm as she kicked out with her boot and knocked the blade of a second out of the way.
They were good. She was better, and as she drove and cut and hacked her way in a circle she realized they realized that as they took a step back and tried to regroup. “What’s the matter?” She called out. “Fraid of a girl? Ya little wimps!”
Furious, they came at her again.
Xena felt her blood pumping strongly inside her body and every breath she drew in made her feel more powerful as the excitement of battle overtook her and she let out a wild yell. She sheathed her dagger and pulled her chakram out instead, alternating backhanded swipes with it’s razor edge with battling off the swords of the Persians with her other blade.
She sensed the blow from behind before it hit, and it let her drop to a knee as she heard the whistle of a pike over her head. Instead of getting back up she put her hands down on the ground and kicked backwards with both feet, knowing she guessed right when she felt them impact a heavy body that made her body coil forward.
She let it, then she shoved backwards, arching her back with a powerful surge just as she sensed something coming fast from one side.
No problem. She flipped herself up right and dodged the moving soldier, whipping her sword around and grunting as the blade impacted his head with a heavy shock.
Her chakram went the other direction, deflecting a dagger in the hands of a man already bleeding from a gash half across his face. She kicked her first opponent right in the side of his knee, feeling the crunch as the joint collapsed all the way up her leg.
He fell, and she brought her sword around to bury it’s length in the second man’s gut, keeping her momentum up as she yanked her blade free and let him fall past her.
A moment. A breath.
A glance through the crowd to see her men battling furiously, in a tight circle whose back was guarded by the burning wagon. Against them, a line of regular Persian soldiers who’d come over from the far end of the camp where they’d been working.
A look around her, to find six men on the ground, and a dozen more headed her way.
Xena spread her arms wide and let out another yell. “C’mon you weak bastards!” She bellowed. “I’ll kill all of ya!” She pointed her sword at the silent lines of troops. “You wanted to fight? Get over here!”
Then she saw motion from the corner of her eye and she half turned, in time to see Heydar headed for her, an intent look on his face and his sword out. There was blood already on it.
Sholeh was back on her horse, at the back of a line of her men fighting Xena’s men. She pointed towards Xena with her hilt and yelled something at Heydar, who lifted his blade and then she was out of time because six or seven big Persians were rushing at her.
The sun was edging into the sky. She dodged the first of the new fighters and got her back to dawn, using the pearl tint to outline her opponents and pick up on little shifts of their body as she met the first sword with her own.
These, knew how to swordfight. Xena got her other hand up onto her hilt as her opponent twisted hard and tried to disarm her. It was a scary moment, but her wrists held and she twisted savagely back in the other direction, surprising him.
She locked eyes with him for a long moment, then instinct made her turn, and dive for the ground, the earth hitting her hands and forcing them into her body, nearly making her cut her own guts open as she managed to roll over onto her shoulder and elbow her way back up onto her knees.
A spear was in the ground, buried up past it’s blade right where she’d been, it’s hilt carved with thick sigils. She lunged to her feet as Heydar grabbed the spear and yankned it back out, and then she had five of them facing her, with Heydar in the center, forming a shield wall of protection as they advanced on her in a line.
This, a tiny voice in her head said calmly. This is what legends are made of, Xena.
One very stupid person, doing one very stupid thing. Add a beautiful sunrise and you ended up being lauded by the bards from one end of the land to the other .
“Don’t fight us, Xena.” Heydar said, suddenly. “Don’t die like this.”
Xena laughed, feeling the laugh all the way down into her guts. “Can you think of a better way to die?” She countered. “The more of you I kill doing it the less of you can rape places like that and if I leave the world one asshole fewer, good for me.”
“You’ll die for nothing.”
Xena shook her head. “I’ve already died for something.” She told him. “You lost already, Heydar. Too many people saw one beat up old hack fighter and a handful of old goats stop you cold.”
For a moment, they all just looked at her, and there was a strange bit of silence there in the growing dawn. Then Heydar shook his head, and signaled the men and the fight was on.
Xena was glad of the sun at her back. It felt warm, and the glow let her see what was coming at her in exquisite detail. She took a deep breath, called on that animal that lived deep in side her, and just let whatever was going to happen..
And it happened. Xena found herself in the center of a circle of men all trying earnestly to hack her to death, no quarter given no quarter asked, her favorite kind. She set aside any thoughts of what was going on, and gave herself over to the pure science of fighting.
Vaguely, she knew there was a whole army out there closing in, but her world had narrowed to the ring of her adversaries and now that her breathing had settled, and the nervous jitters had smoothed out into powerful confidence she met the attack.
The circle was a disadvantage to them, even though they didn’t realize it. None of them had space to move without crashing into the guy next to them, and they could only get so close to her without crowding each other out.
It became almost a rhythm, a sword coming at her, deflecting it, moving, turning, catching another on her hilt, moving again, turning the other way, blocking a third, kicking a fourth, ducking…
She was aware of the yelling outside the circle. Even the ringing of the enemy swords against hers couldn’t block that out and always, always, one ear was cocked to catch the faintest start of a squalling of her name that could only mean one thing.
Or maybe not. Sometimes it meant she was about to get her own ass kicked. “Yahh!” Xena let out an unexpected bellow, making one of the soldiers jerk and pulling his blade out of alignment just enough for her to turn and swing her own against it and send it flying off to hit the grass.
It made an opening in the circle and she took advantage of it, jumping forward and slamming her elbow into the face of the next soldier before he could get his weapon up to block her. His head snapped backwards and she followed the motion, turning to do the same to the soldier on the other side of her.
Unfortunately, he realized what she was up to and the next thing she knew she was just barely keeping herself upright as he smacked her in the shoulder hard with his hilts, the blade coming perilously close to her head.
It knocked her offbalance, and she stumbled to one side outside the ring where she found she had a completely different problem.
Her blade came up almost by itself and knocked aside two arrows, and she grabbed a third, turning and lunging back through the scrambling crowd of adversaries and ducking behind them as two of them were spitted by their own men.
Xena wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the ass. She took advantage of the moment and stabbed one of the soldiers in the side as he tried to get back around to face her.
He let out a yell and slammed his arm into her, knocking her backwards right into Heydar whose sword missed spitting her by a hair.
Xena crouched and leaped as the two men grabbed for her and catapulted over their heads, flipping in a somersault and landing behind them as she brought her sword around and blocked another soldier from cutting her head off.
More soldiers were running towards them. Xena ducked under a mace and dodged a dagger, seeing the wall of men heading her way and wondering if she’d lasted long enough and killed enough men to rate that future campfire mention.
The wagon was now burning brightly in the morning light, and at the very least, she’d kept the city from that. It counted right?
An arrow made it’s way through and nearly got her in the throat. She moved sideways, then she twisted sharply to one side as two soldiers reached her at the same time and swung at her from two different directions.
They missed her by a hair, but in staying out of both swords way, she took herself right off any semblence of balance and the next moment Heydar crashed full into her and she went flying to the ground with him half on top of her, pinning her legs to the ground.
Several things happened at once then. First, she realized she was in deep trouble. Second, she realized there was a man with an ax two steps from her already beginning to sweep downward with it and she couldn’t turn over fast enough to stop him.
Third, she heard her name being yelled and that pretty much put the nail in it.
She gave it a shot anyway, savagely twisting her body to bring her self as much over on her back as she could as she got her arms off the ground and tried to raise her sword to cover her head.
She heard Sholeh laugh.
Pissed her off.
The ax was coming towards her and she grabbed her hilt with both hands as she felt Heydar clutch her arm to try and lower it. The anger made her muscles surge, and she felt a low growl escape her as she yanked back against the pull and slammed her shoulders back against the ground as her torso twisted painfully.
The ax impacted her blade and she turned her face to one side as she felt her arms start to give. The ax blade smashed into her then turned slightly, and the next thing she felt was shower of hot blood as the man wielding it lurched over her and toppled forward, flailing his arms and sending the ax past her and into Heydar’s face.
She felt the hold o her lower body release and she curled her legs up instinctively, kicking out like a demented mule under a wagon as the soldier with the ax tumbled over her and fell, dropping his weapon and grabbing for the spear head shockingly emerging from the front of his chest.
Xena stared at it, putting the bloody weapon together with the bellowing sound behind her and she rolled over and got to her knees as Gabrielle stumbled past. She grabbed at her lover’s belt and stopped her from falling into the soldiers and for just a second, the world hesitated.
The soldier feebly touched the spear, then his eyes rolled up and he collapsed on top of Heydar, trapping the big Persian in place as he struggled to free himself and continue the fight.
Gabrielle turned, and looked at her, eyes wide as robin’s eggs in a face covered in mud and blood , but lit with a fiery determination and at their fringes, a touch of rage.
Nothing of fear. “C.. couldn’t let him hurt you.” Gabrielle managed to get out, half rasp, half groan. “Right?”
Ah. Xena inhaled sharply. Found your tipping point, eh? “Right.”
No smile, but the faintest of twitches on the side of Gabrielle’s mouth that might have been the barest thought of one.
Then the world exploded into motion again and she heard horses coming and something else behind her and she twisted and ducked again as a hoof smacked into her and Gabrielle was ripped from her grasp.
She rolled out of the way and got up again, impaling a soldier with her sword as she smashed past the line of men and into an open space, to see Sholeh on her horse wheeling, Gabrielle held over her saddlebow and a fiercely triumphant expression on her face.
Damn, life just sucked sometimes. Xena shook the gore off her hands and reached for her chakram with no hesitation, blocking a lunge from one of the soldiers as she set her body to throw her other weapon.
Sholeh seemed to sense it. She yankned Gabrielle up and put a dagger to her throat, her eyes fastened on Xena’s face. “Hold!!”
The men stopped. Xena, reluctantly, stopped, since with the motion of the horse there was no way she could guarantee hitting the Persian and not her lover, and cutting Gabrielle’s throat or scalping her wasn’t on her royal schedule today.
“Now.” Sholeh said. “I take my piece of flesh, since you have had yours.” She told Xena. “But before I do, let me see what nectar this is that has so captured you.”
Gabrielle was laying, completely limp across the horses shoulders, only the sharp rise and fall of her chest betraying if she was alive or already dead.
Sholeh grabbed her hair and hauled her head backwards, her hand steady right at the blond woman’s throat, the blade pressing aginast the skin and drawing tiny, visible drops of blood. She laughed at Xena, then turned her head to kiss Gabrielle, the blade digging deeper as she moved.
Xena surged into motion, her arm whipping backwards as she chopped her way free of the clutching arms of the Persians, twisting and lunging as she fought to get a clear shot.
Gabrielle stayed limp right up to the moment Sholeh’s lips touched hers. Her head moved very suddenly, and with a flash of white teeth, she sunk her bite into the Persian princesses face, clamping her jaws shut with a visible bunching of her jaws.
Sholeh released the dagger in shock, just as the chakram slashed through the air and knocked it away.
Xena caught it as it returned and bolted towards the horse, letting out the loudest sound she was capable of and ripping through lines of men like they were geese, moving so fast they didn’t even have time to lift their swords against her.
Gabrielle’s body twisted and wrenched, as she shook her head like a dog, then tore herself free, sending a spray of blood flying as she tumbled off the horses shoulders, released abruptly by Sholeh, to fall to the ground at the animal’s feet.
Xena reached her a moment later, grabbing her from the ground just as the horse reared and yanking her backwards, past a soldier, slamming into a second, and then, blessedly, incredibly surrounded by a ring of bloody men wearing Persian colors but carrying her own distinctive battle stance.
Sholeh screamed, one hand raised up to her face, blood showing all the way down her arm.
Gabrielle spat something out. Then she spat again, and then again, her breathing rattling in her chest as she stood and shook next to Xena’s tall form.
Xena didn’t even dare look at her. She petted the back of her lover’s neck tentatively, and tried to catch her breath, as the army stood there facing them, a bloody, dirty mass in the center of a sunlight green field.
Sholeh screamed again, and pointed, jerking her free hand and pointing again in a frenzy of manic instruction. Heydar recovered and ran over to her, extending a hand towards her as she clutched her face with her other hand and her horse shifted nervously.
Xena wished she’d thought to bring along a wineskin. She shook some gore off her hand and drew in a breath. “Okay boys, this aint gonna be pretty.”
“S’allright, Xena.” Brendan had a cut down the side of his face, and the left half of his surcoat was covered in blood. “Fight of a lifetime. It’s worth it.”
“Yah.” Jens wiped his forehead with his gauntlet, blood running down his leg. “Held em all off. Only thing that got past us was the little one.”
“Take as many of em with us as we can.” Xena said, quietly, as the army started to collapse towards them from every direction. “Whoever’s left won’t ever forget this.”
“No.” Brendan set himself and shifted his grip on his sword. “That they won’t.”
Xena finally peeked down at her companion. “Specially after Gabrielle’s revenge there.”
The men chuckled softly, and shook their heads.
Gabrielle hesitated, then she turned her head and looked up at Xena, her face smudged with blood. Her eyes were shadowed and almost unrecognizable from the churning emotions in them and she looked very much like she was about to throw up.
Xena studied her, aware of the approaching carnage. “Thanks.” She said. “Partner.”
For a moment, there was no reaction at all. Then Gabrielle straightened up and her head lifted, some of the discord in her eyes fading. She reached out and gave Xena’s arm a squeeze, then she pulled the queen’s dagger from it’s belt sheath and wrapped her fingers around it, her lips pressing into a frown. “This is going to hurt, isn’t it?”
Xena faced forward, watching the line of men advancing. “Not for you.” She said. “I promise.” She twirled her sword, and brandished it. “C’mon you stupid bastards!” She threatened the oncoming army. “Little pissy girls!”
Gabrielle looked quickly at her, both eyebrows going up. She peered at the queen, then at herself, then she shook her head.
The army responded with a roar, and sped up.
A horn rang out in the morning light. Then a second, and then a third, ringing out from the city walls and echoing over the field.
“What the..” Brendan muttered, shading his eyes to see the walls. “What’s they up to?”
Sholeh’s army’s yells started to falter, as horns in their own army started to blow in reaction and heads turned towards the city. The gates shuddered, then they slowly started to open outward, revealing a huge crowd of men and horses, which started pouring out across the field towards the Persian lines.
Xena scrambled up onto the rigging of the launcher and peered towards the city, watching the sudden advance with disbelieving eyes. Then she remembered the half of the Persian army behind her and she turned as she sensed something at her back, crouching instinctively as she brought her sword around.
The men had stopped approaching and were just watching her.
It had been their eyes she’d sensed, all of them focused on her with a strange intentness that made her throat go a little dry and she dropped down off the rigging before she became a target. “All right, let’s..”
“Xena, look.” Brendan grabbed her arm. “It’s the inn kid.” He pointed at the rider in the lead, now passing out of the shadow of the walls and into the sunlight.
Xena sighed, the sound ending in a groan. Now that the lines were closing, she could see the awkward riders, and mismatched armor. “Idiots.”
“Aye.” Brendan said. “Waste of dying, that.”
Leaderless, the troops such as they were would be slaughtered as soon as they reached the Persians, and Xena was a little ticked off that she’d worked so hard sacrificing herself for idiots who were willy nilly sacrificing themselves anyway.
Waste of dying, just as Brendan had said. Though the fact that she and her men were still alive astounded her, the goal had been to draw Sholeh’s attention from the city, and give her something else to focus on. Killing Xena would have paled her interest in the city and maybe, just maybe, convince her to take her army and march down the river, as she’d originally planned.
Ah well. Best laid plans of monarchs and muskrats down the garderobe again. Xena shifted her grip on her sword, deciding on a spot to send her men against, knowing they couldn’t get through the Persians to help out the oncoming city men.
The launcher creaked as she bounced a little, and her head turned, as she observed the weapon. “Ah.” She brightened. “Gabrielle, c’mere.” She changed her intention, spotting a possibility.
Holding the knife carefully in one hand, her companion joined her on the device. Xena took the dagger from her and sheathed it, then she wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s body and with a twist, and a surge, and a wrench of her body she hauled them both over into the launcher basket.
“Hold on.” Xena reached behind her and whacked the ropes holding the launcher in position with her sword, slicing through them with a single, powerful slash.
The launcher released, the arm moving forward and up explosively and in a breath they were both being flung out over the army, through the air with frightening speed.
‘YAHHHHHH!!!!!!” Gabrielle yelled at the top of her lungs. “XXEEEEEENNNNNNAAAAAAA!!!!” Underneath them, soldiers scattered and ducked, covering their heads, unsure of what was going on. “YahhhhH!!!!!!!!!”
It was terrifying, and exhilarating, and Xena wished she had a few more minutes to enjoy it before the ground would come up and she’d have to play out this crazy action of hers. The wind rushed against her face, and she clutched Gabrielle to her as the morning light splashed over them.
“Relax.” She advised her squalling parcel. “I’m gonna hit first.” She twisted them both in mid air as the ground came up fast, hearing the Persians screaming behind her and the city force yelling in front of her as they recognized the unexpected missile heading their way.
Xena bent her knees and exhaled, grunting as her feet hit the ground with dizzying force. She let her legs buckle and take the impact as she got herself between the ground and the limp as a dishrag Gabrielle, slamming her shoulders against the dirt as she got the breath knocked out of her. “Ugh.”
No time. Xena released Gabrielle after they rolled to a halt and continued up ot her knees, then her feet, letting out a loud whistle and crossing her fingers. She reached down and grabbed Gabrielle’s collar, hauling her to her feet as a horses’s scream answered her. “You okay?”
“Good enough. “ Xena felt a sense of utter relief as she saw the lines of city troops parting and a big, black form rocketed through them towards her. “Want to go for a ride?”
Xena took that as a yes. She waited for Tiger to skid to a halt and then she leaped up onto his back, getting herself settled before she reached an arm down to her still brain rattled companion. “Grab.” She waited for Gabrielle to reach up, and then she grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her up behind her on Tiger’s back.
“Xena!” Lennat managed to stop the bay gelding he was riding. “We came to help you!”
The queen looked at him, sorted through all her possible retorts, and sighed. “Thanks.” She motioned to either side. “Spread out! All of you spread out! Horses in the front, slow, then arches behind. Got me?”
The city men scrambled to obey, crashing into each other as they dodged the nervous horses.
“Oh boy.” Gabrielle found her tongue. “This is crazy.”
“No kidding.” Xena lifted her sword. “Charge!” She ordered. “Idiots.” She added, under her breath. She pressed her knees into Tigers bare back and started him in the direction of the Persians, who were struggling to form up to resist the attack.
“Yell!” Xena said. “Loud as you can.”
“What?” Lennat was trying to stay even with her. “Why? What for? What was going on? We could see everyone f..”
“SHUT UP AND YELL!” Xena thundered. “You came out here to die damn you – then shut up and get on with it!”
Lennat opened his mouth to answer her, then he abruptly shut it with a click, and just nodded. His eyes flicked to Tiger’s other passenger, then he looked right ahead and yodeled as loud as he was able.
The men around him rallied and started shouting as the horses started to pick up momentum, the men carrying ill assorted weapons running along behind as fast as they could.
There were, perhaps, five hundred of them. Every man.. Xena glanced behind her. Every person who could pick up a stick, a bow, or a sling was in the field, running towards the Persians, and as she caught a glimpse of their frantic, eager expressions it made her stop for just a second and realize how monumental what they were doing really was.
Monumentally stupid, yes, but…
Xena turned and lifted her sword, urging Tiger to the fore as they bore down on the front lines of the Persians. She could see disarray in the ordered ranks, men on horses trying desperately to get in front and beating footmen with pikes out of the way.
Behind them, a huge cluster of men were gathering around what she figured was Sholeh, and to one side of that, she saw a disturbance that had to be Brendan causing what trouble he could. Taking advantage of the enemy’s confusion.
Just as she was. She aimed Tiger for the very center of the lines, where the men and the horses were at their most contentious and wrapped one hand in Tiger’s mane and the other around the hilt of her sword. “Hang on!” She ordered Gabrielle.
“Oooohh. Yyyyaaah.” Gabrielle’s voice was vibrating with Tiger’s gallop. “Ddddoon’t worrrrry.” Her arms wrapped around Xena’s middle and tightened, and she plastered herself against the queen’s back. “Waake me up when it’s over!”
Xena tightened her knees and increased Tiger’s speed, letting out a yell of her own, and brandishing her sword. “Kill em all!” She bellowed. “Follow me!”
The horsemen waved their swords and yelled back at her in excitement as they headed right into the heart of the Persian lines.
Xena hoped they’d at least get to hit one of the enemy before they hit each other. She put her aim towards a knot of archers struggling to set themselves to fire and rode into them, slashing downward and splitting a man’s head open as Tiger’s hooves scattered two or three more into the grass.
She heard a loud noise from behind her, and realized it was her name, being shouted. To her left Lennat had couched a spear he’d been carrying across his saddle and as she watched, the point skewered a foot man as they drove into the still assembling lines, the Persians frantically trying to get into formation.
She didn’t need any stinking formations. She didn’t even need a stinking army. “Yahhhh!” Xena slammed her hilts into a soldier’s head and kicked a second trying to grab her leg.
All she needed was a little more good luck.
Gabrielle kept a tight hold on Xena with one arm, but loosened the other one as they plunged into battle in case she needed it to fend something off.
Everything was in a blur around her, horses moving, men moving, yelling, the clash of weapons… she was grateful just to have a place to be above most of it with Xena to hang on to.
Her body felt a little numb. Her mind felt very numb. She focused intently on the whirl of activity around them searching for something that might threaten the queen. Thoughts of the recent past were shoved aside, as she watched what Xena did, and tried her best to copy it.
A man came close and aimed a spear at them. Gabrielle felt Tiger shift, and she used the momentum, kicking her boot out and hitting the spearhead with it. The point smacked into the ground and the man, who’d been running with it, halted suddenly and tripped, landing on his knees.
A horseman plunged through the crowd, the animal kicking aside some of his own troops as he fought to get to where Xena was, the man on his back wielding a huge, long handled battle mace.
Xena saw him. Gabrielle could tell, because the queen switched hands and got her sword over on the right hand side the Persian was coming in on and then grabbed her round weapon with her other hand. She could feel the shift as Xena’s legs clamped down and she took a deep breath as the man and his horse thundered into them.
She could see the horses eyes, wide and rolling, his head shying aside as Tiger whirled to meet him, the black horse baring his teeth and snapping as Xena’s sword rose to meet the mace over his head.
It seemed impossible. Xena’s arm was moving upward, and the man’s was moving downward in a powerful stroke and as the two weapons met she knew the Persians should have continued down and hit them.
But it didn’t. It stopped, held by Xena’s blade and with a twist her shoulder, deflected off to one side as Xena reached across her body and slashed the soldier’s wrist with her chakram, cutting deep into it and making him drop the mace.
He signaled his horse. Instinctively, Gabrielle grabbed the horses bridle, and the animal only crow hopped, his head jerked downward as he tried to obey the order to rear. Kicking out his back legs, he unseated his rider and the crippled soldier rolled off him, landing on the ground as Tiger did rear, smashing down on top of him with both front hooves.
The stallion’s iron shoes shattered bone.
Gabrielle released the horse, turning her head as something brushed her arm just in time to see a blade coming right at her face. Xena was battling off another horseman, and all she could do was duck fast, shoving her head against Xena’s back as the blade sliced across the back of her neck, leaving a searing pain behind.
She felt Xena shift, the back of the queen’s arm hitting her as she turned to meet the attack, the grating sound of metal against metal making Gabrielle’s teeth ache. She heard a grunt, then a thud, and then Tiger was moving again so she risked looking around.
“You okay?” Xena called back.
“Yes.” Gabrielle answered, afraid to reach around to her neck to really find out. “I think.”
“Oh no. Not thinking.”
The scrabbling attempt at humor warmed her, and she gave Xena a squeeze in response, glad she’d done so when Tiger reared up on his hind legs, and a second later they were airborne again. She rocked forward as they landed and bumped her face on Xena’s shoulderblade, feeling a yank on her boot.
She looked down to find a Persian soldier about to cut her foot off. Frantically she yanked against his hold and let out a yell, reaching out her free hand to grab his hair and pull it hard. “Stop that!”
The soldier cursed, trying to get a better hold on her but a moment later, he was gutted through from behind, and he fell against Tiger, then underneath the stallion’s feet, as Gabrielle hastily released his hair.
Behind him, a soldier was standing, in Persian gear. Gabrielle looked at him, then she squinted, trying to resolve his features into the familiar ones of Xena’s troops, realizing a moment later she didn’t know him.
“Thanks.” Xena yelled.
The soldier lifted his sword, covered in blood, to his forehead. Then he turned and started fighting at the side of the struggling city folk, engaging a Persian soldier with grim intent.
Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s elbow. “Xena, I don’t’ think that’s one of our guys.”
Xena was busy fighting off a horseman. “He is now.” She lunged forward suddenly, reaching over the enemy horses neck and chopping savagely right and left, sending the Persian’s sword spinning off out of reach. “Die, you stupid, useless bastards!” She cut his throat, and then sent Tiger’s shoulder into the other horse, shoving the man out of the saddle.
A horn sounded. “Forward!” Xena could sense the momentum, as the Persians simply could not get themselves in order to resist the somewhat confused attack. “Drive em into the ground, the little sissies!”
Gabrielle grabbed a tighter hold again and grimaced, as she felt the pain in the back of her neck. She shifted forward and gripped with her knees as Tiger moved faster though, since now wasn’t the time to be worrying about it.
Would there be a later? Gabrielle honestly didn’t know. But she believed in her heart that if it was within her power, Xena would make a tomorrow for them.
She wanted to live. She thought Xena wanted to live. Things were changing very quickly and she wanted a time to just experience everything and explore what was happening.
Explore what she’d seen in Xena’s eyes, there in the middle of the battlefield.
She pressed her forehead against Xena’s back and wrapped her other arm around her, hugging her tightly as she felt the wind brush against her. The sounds around them got louder all of a sudden, and she heard horns start to blow.
The city men yelled louder.
Xena yelled louder.
She heard a loud crash, and unable to resist any more, she arched her back and straightened so she could look over Xena’s shoulder to see what was going on.
It was strange. She blinked a few times, seeing groups of men seemingly at random going in different directions. More of the city men had gathered near Xena on their horses, and they seemed to have Persian weapons in their hands.
What was going on?
Xena charged up and down the line, smashing Tiger’s big body into both horses and men, using his size and her own skills to batter the Persians. Against all odds, her ratty group of wannabees had carved a dip in the defenses, and now Sholeh’s men were really scrambling to stop them.
The whole fight had caught them by surprise. They had been finishing up their rest, preparing to march on the city and expecting little if any resistance. The strife in the center of the army had drawn all the attention inward, and by dumb chance when Lennat had lead the city troops out they hadnt’ been ready for it.
Still weren’t. Xena sheathed her sword and grabbed a crossbow from the hands of a stumbling soldier, lifting it and aiming between Tiger’s ears. She released the shaft, and watched a rider come off his horse with a sense of savage satisfaction. “Kill em!” She thundered. “Move!”
Her men surged forward, making up in enthusiasm where they lacked in skill. The horsemen rode forward, smashing into foot soldiers, while the men behind ran in with spears, and poked anything that was moving – sometimes perilously close to Tiger’s legs.
Xena looked around, and spotted the cluster of men around Sholeh. At that moment, two of the men next to her looked back at Xena, and when she saw their eyes, a big grin appeared on her face. She let out a bellow, and whipped her sword out again, raising it over her head and pointing. “YahhhhhH!!!!!”
The men around Sholeh shifted and milled, and a moment later, one of them raised a horn and blew it.
“Forward! Kill em all!” Xena yelled to her men. “Kill em! Cut their heads off! Cut their other heads off!!” She lifted her body up then slammed her sword down on a man’s head, breaking it open and splitting the helm he was wearing. “C’mon!!!”
Another horn blew. Xena glanced around, past the horsemen to see the back lines of the army moving away, some so far off they had to have started way before the sounding of the alarm. “Yahhh!!” She urged her men on. “Go Go!!”
The Persians before her were faltering. The horsemen wrenched their animals around and started to fight their way through the melee towards Sholeh’s party.
Heydar burst from the ranks around the princess, and rode towards the forward lines. “Hold them! Hold them! Remember you are Persians!” He yelled, racing his horse up and down behind the footmen. “Fight for her glory!”
“Fight so the rest of those bastards can escape!” Xena bellowed back at him. “Look! Turn and look you stupid mules! Stand and die, while they run!”
The Persians nearest her hesitated.
“She’s right!” Lennat added, in an excited tone. “Look!” He pointed back over their heads. “See? Wow! They’re running! They’re really running!”
“Listen to her.” Gabrielle added her own half dinar. “Why fight?” She made eye contact with one of the men. “Look at all your friends around you. Don’t fight us! Help us! You’re not Persians!”
“Fight!” Heydar charged forward, and slammed his sword into the back of the head of a man hesitating. “Or I’ll kill you myself!” He turned and spit another rman, then went after a third.
Xena hauled Tiger’s head around and kneed him hard, sending him into the lines as men scattered and dove to get out of her way. She was at a flat gallop in a few strides and as Heydar raised his sword to strike one of his own men, she whipped out her chakram and let it loose.
It sliced through the air, then carved it’s way across Heydar’s knuckles as he swung, smashing into the blade and sending it twirling out of his hands.
He turned his horse in a tight circle, the animal’s eyes rolling with fear as he spun away from the oncoming Tiger and bolted back towards the royal contingent now in hasty retreat. “For now, Xena!” He yelled back. “But the gods will see you crushed before the next sun sets!”
Xena pulled Tiger up and realized she was smack in the center of a crowd of Persian soldiers. She let her head drop forward a little and glared around her, finally meeting the eyes of the man she’d just saved from Heydar’s sword.
A conscript. He had lowland herder written all over him. Now he just looked back at her and after a long pause, he lifted his sword hilt to his head, and gave her a salute.
Men all around him simply dropped their guard, letting their weapons lay along their sides.
Xena exhaled, looking past them to see the archers finally forming up around the bulk of the retreating army to protect their flanks.
Left behind were the siege engines, one fallen over on it’s side. Smoke still drifted up from the debris of the wagon. Brendan was leading her men forward through the now silent troops remaining.
Gabrielle sighed and slumped against her back in a warm, and stupidly comforting way. “Did we win?” She asked, in a low mumble.
“We did something.” Xena replied.