Queen of Hearts
Gabrielle woke slowly, her body drenched in sunlight from the window nearby. She let her eyes blink open, unsure of where she was for a minute until she remembered the war, and the battle, and why she was lying in an unfamiliar bed with a very familiar bedmate.
She took a breath, and eased away from Xena’s still sleeping body, rolling over and stretching her limbs out with a sense of utter luxury. It felt blissfully good to be able to wake up in her own time, and feel restored instead of forcing herself to push forward into yet another day of war.
Outside, she could hear the sounds of the city. Men’s voices were calling out and hoofbeats moved past, echoing slightly against the stones of the square. After another stretch, she rolled out of the bed on the far side, and got to her feet. “Mmph.”
The stone floor was cool against the soles of her bare feet and she flexed her toes before she wandered over to the window and looked out.
The city center was a buzz with activity. Wagons were crossing from one side to the other, and in the city square, soldiers were busy with various activities involving weapons and armor. After watching a moment, she turned and went over to the sideboard.
The wine jug still had a little in it, and she poured it into a cup and sipped from it, using the rich wine to rinse the sleep from her mouth.
She was still a little stiff. Her calves hurt, and the front of her legs, and she straightened first one than the other out, clenching one hand and feeling the residual ache in her fingers. But other than that, she was surprisingly hale and she took advantage of the scraps on the tray she’d left to quiet a rumbling stomach.
Not too different than back in the castle. She’d always woken earlier than the queen back at home, and she’d used the early morning time to get herself sorted out, and arrange for their breakfast so that everything was ready by the time Xena got up.
Gabrielle turned and leaned against the sideboard, studying the still figure in the bed. Xena’s breathing seemed normal, and she hoped the queen would be feeling better when she woke up, but in any case there was a lot to do and she decided she’d better get on with it.
She went over to the washbasin and dipped her fingers into the remaining liquid, glad to find it more or less tepid enough for her to wash herself and not get her teeth chattering. She dunked a piece of the linen left by into the basin and soaked it, then she started running it over her body.
The breeze brought a little chill in it’s wake, and she shivered a trifle, but persisted. Though she’d bathed the night before, and though she’d done little more than sleep in a reasonably clean bed, she scrubbed her skin until it tingled and then washed her face with handfuls of the cool water.
You never knew, she mused as she dried herself off, when you might get a chance to get clean in the middle of a war, so she wasn’t going to lose any opportunity now that she knew what it felt like to be grubby for days on end.
Finished, she donned the robe she’d been given the night before and tied it, running her fingers through her hair to sort it out a little. Then she walked to the door and gently opened it, peeking out into the outer chamber and looking around.
Finding it still and empty, she crossed it and went to the external door and repeated the process, this time finding a soldier stolidly on guard outside.
“M’lady.” The man said, spotting her. “Best of the morning to you.”
Gabrielle smiled at him. “Good morning to you too.” She responded. “Do you think I could get some morning ale, and maybe some bread and cheese brought over? They haven’t brought my boots back yet and I feel sort of weird going out there barefoot.”
The soldier gave the impression he was trying to untie his tongue from around his tonsils. “Why, m’lady, of course.” He spluttered. “Give me a moment, and I’ll get something straight back to you.” He turned and leaned out of the doorway, signaling to someone. “Ho, Jens! Need yer here a minute, yah?”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle waited for Jens to appear, and smiled at him. “Good morning!”
“Your grace.” Jens ducked his head in a graceful motion. “It is indeed a good morning. Is her majesty wanting any reports?”
Gabrielle hesitated. “Well, I’m sure she will want some.” She said. “I know she’s going to want to get everything arranged today.”
“Of course.” Jens agreed. “We have been working to gather supplies.”
“And there are men who wish to go out with us.” The soldier produced a brief smile. “Some, are useful, unlike others.”
“M’lady, let me go tend to your wants.” The older soldier told her. “I’ll be back shortly, I see you are in good hands with Jens here.” He hustled off, ducking past the arch that covered the stairwell and rambling down it at a rapid pace.
Jens turned to watch him in surprise before returned his attention to Gabrielle. “What’s gotten into him then?”
Gabrielle eased the door open a bit more. “I asked him to get something.” She explained. “Anyway, I’m sure Xena’s going to want every single detail about what’s going on, and what you’re doing, and what’s being prepared.. she’s got to plan, you know.”
Jens blinked. “W… ah, yes, of course!”
“And she really depends on you, and on Brendan.” Gabrielle breezed on. “So while she’s.. ah.. planning strategy on what to do about the Persians, she needs you to get everything ready so she’s got all the stuff she needs when she needs it.”
The soldier straightened up. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing.” He said. “You can let her majesty know she can count on us, for sure. We’ll get everything settled up.” He turned and started off, then started back. “Ah, a guard…”
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle made a shooing gesture. “Your friend will be right back, and we’ll be fine until then. Go on – you know how Xena hates to be kept waiting.”
Jens needed no further prompting. He gave Gabrielle a grin, and left.
Gabrielle waited, but the hall remained very quiet, and she pulled her head back inside and shut the door after the last of his footsteps had faded away. She turned, and regarded the outer room, which was small, but well made, with heavy furniture against the walls and dressers in the corners.
Curious, she wandered over to one of them and opened the door to it, peeking inside to find fine garments hanging on wooden dowels, and folded on the polished wooden shelves inside. The smell was of lavender and spice and for a moment, it almost reminded her of the one good cabinet in the home she’d grown up in.
Her mother’s things, precious to her, were in there. Hand made dresses and things her own mother had left for her, bits of tattered finery that represented what she’d brought into the household she’d made with Gabrielle’s father.
Gabrielle reached out and touched the soft fabric, seeing the flames in her mind’s eye that had consumed their home, and everything in it, including the cabinet and all her mother’s memories.
Then she let her hand fall and closed the door, turning to walk back to the inner door and then through it, slipping back into the sleeping chamber and glancing quickly toward the bed to see if Xena had woken.
She had. “Good morning.” Gabrielle went over ot her side of the bed and crawled into it, squirming right across the mattress until she was close enough to Xena to lean forward and kiss her shoulder. “Do you feel any better?”
Xena had her hands clasped across her stomach and she turned her head to study her companion. “Mm.” She rumbled. “Better than what?”
Gabrielle pressed her cheek against the queen’s arm. “Than yesterday.” She clarified. “I sent someone to bring some breakfast back for us. There’s a lot of stuff going on outside.”
Her bedmate made a face. Then she very cautiously shifted, and turned onto her side, drawing one knee up to bump lightly against Gabrielle’s. “Hm.”
“Is that good or bad?”
Xena considered the question, pursing her lips. “Well.” She sighed. “It’s more than I could do last night without wanting to pull one of my arms off and beat myself over the head to take my mind off the pain in my ass so I guess it’s progress.”
Gabrielle moved a bit of the queen’s hair away from her eyes so she could see them better. Then she traced one of Xena’s eyebrows. “You’re so pretty.” She murmured, watching a charmed expression grudgingly work its way onto her lover’s face. “I wish I could make you feel better.”
She expected a smart retort back, but Xena’s lips merely pursed, and then relaxed as she lay, her lashes fluttering closed a few times as she continued stroking her face.
“I wish you could too.” Xena finally answered. “So, what’s the plan?”
It took Gabrielle a very long set of heartbeats before she remembered what Xena was talking about. “Oh.” She said, suddenly feeling very nervous before those sharp eyes. “Well.. um…”
She bit her lower lip. “Don’t laugh at me, okay? It’s my first plan.”
A wry, but merry twinkle appeared. “If I ever told you what MY first plan was you’d disown me.” The queen admitted. “Hades, I’d disown me.”
“Never.” Gabrielle shook her head. “Anyway, I thought… well, I thought maybe it would be.. if you want to go and chase Sholeh..”
“Chase.” Xena mused. “Like it so far. Keep going.”
“I guess if you hurt like that riding a horse is a bad idea, huh?” Gabrielle watched the queen’s expression intently.
“So what if we could take one of those nice wagons, like what the nobles use, and you could ride in that?” She got the words out as fast as she could, almost biting her tongue as she closed her mouth when she was done talking.
Xena looked thoughtful.
“I mean.. “ Gabrielle was encouraged by the lack of immediate derisive laughter. “You could use it sort of as a.. uh.. planning station?”
One dark brow cocked.
“You are the queen, right? You sort of should have something nice to go in, shouldn’t you?” She went on. “That way, you could have some time to get better, and we could still go and head back towards home and do whatever you want to do with the other army.”
Gabrielle peeked at the queen’s face. “Yes?”
“The thought of riding my ass in a cart like an old woman is making me want to throw up.”
“But it’s probably the best plan I’ve heard in days.” The queen admitted, with a genuine, frank smile. “At least only my ego gets damaged in this one. Let’s go for it.”
“Oh!” Gabrielle was astonished. “You mean it?”
“I do.” Xena confirmed. “I feel like an ass for not thinking of it myself, but I’m not going to throw away a good idea just because it wasn’t mine.” She paused. “At least not one of your ideas.” She amended. “I’d just steal anyone elses and make them believe it was mine.”
Gabrielle exhaled in relief. “Wow. Okay.” She said. “Do you.. should I tell Brendan to find one? A wagon, I mean? I told them to gather up all the stuff they would need and get everything else ready for you.”
The queen chuckled wryly. “I can just imagine what he’d come back with.” She said. “I’ve got a better idea. But let’s get some food into you so I have peace and quiet to think in, and then we’ll start making trouble.” She patted Gabrielle’s knee. “Then I need you to find me a nice big stick.”
“Are you going to beat people up from bed?”
Xena chuckled wryly. “They only wish.”
Gabrielle tugged on her boots, glad at last to have some protection from the cold hard stone against her feet. She wiggled her toes, then she stood up and shifted her shoulders inside her surcoat, brushing her fingers across the hawkshead insignia bold on her chest.
She liked it more and more, every time she wore it, and now, after the last battle, she felt she even had a right to be a part of Xena’s army because she’d done something to deserve it.
With a final brush, she picked up the tall, gnarled staff she’d found and headed for the bedroom, careful not to smack the stick into anything as she opened the door and maneuvered it inside. “Xena?”
“Yes.” The queen was now lying sideways on the bed, with her legs extending off it, and her bare feet on the floor.
Gabrielle came around to her side and peered down at her in puzzlement. “What are you doing?”
“Watching spiders race.” The queen told her. “I’ve got a bet on that big one with the white spot.”
The blond woman tipped her head back and studied the ceiling for a moment. Then she turned and sat down on the bed, laying back next to Xena and getting her head as close to the queen’s as she could. “Xena, I don’t see any spiders.”
She turned her head and found a pair of mischieveous blue eyes watching her. “Xena.”
“You’re so easy.” The queen chuckled. “Got my stick I see.” She looked at the gnarled staff. “Nice. Give it over here.” She carefully lifted her hand and accepted the staff as Gabrielle passed it to her. “Okay. Promise you wont’ laugh at me.”
Gabrielle rolled over onto her side, propping her head up on one hand as she laid her other on Xena’s arm. “I’d never do that.” She reassured the queen. “Besides, you’re hurt. What’s funny about that?” She rubbed her thumb against her lover’s skin.
“You aint’ seen me do this yet.” Xena carefully slid off the bed and onto the ground on her knees, grabbing for the mattress surface as she forced herself upright, holding onto the staff as she shifted her weight. “See..” She stopped talking and clamped her jaw shut as her back took violent protest at the motion. “Urf”
Gabrielle scrambled off the bed also, her hands twitching as she tried to figure out how to help. “Oh my gosh.. “
“See, with this problem I’ve got..” The queen grunted, as she waited for the spasm to pass. “I can lay down or I can stand up.” She exhaled, and blew her bangs from her eyes with a puff of air. “It’s sitting that’s a bitch.”
“Can I do something?” Gabrielle watched her anxiously. She could see Xena’s chest heaving and the awful tension in her shoulders despite the casual words and the desire to fix her lover’s problem was driving her almost half crazy.
“Sure.” Xena readied herself. “Take your clothes off and do a dance for me.”
“Xena, I’m being serious!”
“So am I.” The queen regarded her with a wry smile. “You can’t haul me upright and you can’t fix my back, so at least give me something to take my mind off how much this hurts.”
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and exhaled.
“Just kidding.” Xena motioned cautiously with her head. “C’mere.”
Relieved, Gabrielle came around to her side and put a hand on her back. “Okay.”
“I’m going to pull myself up.” The queen said. “You can try to keep me steady, but if I start to go down, shove my ass back towards the bed and get the Hades out of the way. I don’t want to land on the floor and I don’t want to land on you.”
“I got you.” Gabrielle immediately wrapped her arm around the queen’s shoulders, bracing herself as Xena wrapped her hands around the staff and started to rise. She helped as best she could, getting her own shoulder under her lover’s arm and taking some of the strain off as she managed to pull herself upright and onto her feet.
It was shocking and somewhat scary seeing Xena like this. Gabrielle kept a tight hold of her as she let out a distressed hiss, and she felt the body pressed against her go rigid with tension.
After a long moment, the queen relaxed a trifle. “By the gods.” She muttered. “I think croaking would be less painful than this.” She shifted her grip a trifle on the staff and leaned forward, breathing hard. “Oh, damn it.”
Gabrielle was out of things to say, so she just held on, giving her lover as much support as she could. At least the queen seemed likely to remain upright. Through her hold, she could feel her breathing slowing, as Xena rested her head against the hands she had folded around the staff.
She gave the queen a one armed hug, careful not to pull her off balance.
Xena waited for the sparks to fade from her peripheral vision and until she was sure she wasn’t going to fall down before she moved her hands a little higher on the staff and got all the way upright. For a minute, she thought her back was going to go out again, but the bones merely popped into place unpleasantly, a grinding sensation that made her stomach lurch. “Ugh.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle murmured. “That sounds really bad.”
Xena sighed. “Next time I get any stupid ideas about going to war, remind me of this, willya?” She said. “Okay, now we’re gonna go over to the other side of the room, and get my clothes on.” She eased the staff forward and took a cautious step, leaning as much of her weight on the stick as she could.
Gabrielle stuck to her like a tick, keeping her arm firmly around Xena’s waist as they slowly crossed the room and ended up near the dresser. Once there, Xena turned and leaned back against the wooden edge, releasing one hand off the staff and patting her companion on the back with it. “Thanks.”
Gabrielle really didn’t want to release her hold, but she did, taking a step back and watching Xena’s pale, and tense face. “You sure you want to do this? Maybe you should just lay back down, Xena.. you look horrible.”
“Thanks.” The queen repeated, in a wry tone. “I’d love to go lay down, but I’ve got to be the queen for a while, and I can’t do that on my back in a shift.” She paused. “Despite popular opinion to the contrary.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle studied her. “Do you want the leather things, or the metal things?”
Xena placed her staff between her feet and folded her hands around it. It was taller than she was, and had lots of knobs and curls to hold onto. “Leather.” She said. “And by the way, thanks for the stick. It’s perfect.”
She watched her bedmate trot off to the outer room to fetch the requested garment, then she turned her attention to the basin of water nearby.
Wash herself? Or wait and ask Gabrielle to do it. Xena pondered the serious question until the door re-opened and her muskrat reappeared, her leathers clutched in her cute little fingers. She came back over to where Xena was leaning and set the garment down, giving it a pat.
“They cleaned all our stuff.” Gabrielle said. “Let me get your underwraps.”
Gabrielle wasn’t her body servant any more, but Xena was content to let her act as one since she was really incapable of doing most of it herself anyway. She waited for her lover to come back over and then she steeled herself to stand upright again. “Need you to do me a favor.”
“Anything.” Gabrielle replied instantly.
Xena chuckled a little. “I’ll remember that when I can stand up without screaming again. “ She said. “Right now I need you to get this rag off me and wipe me down.” It occurred to her, as the blond woman willingly started to do her bidding, that there were achingly few people in her life she could ever have asked to do this, much less wanted to ask.
Somehow, over the course of their relationship, she’d realized Gabrielle was the one person in her life she could tolerate seeing the unglamorous, crabby, unpretty side of her. Now, she stood quietly as her lover untied the laces on her shift and eased it off her, half unconsciously leaning close to give her a kiss her, and a little nip there.
Natural as breathing. Xena found herself accepting it naturally as breathing, this solicitous affection that had become so much a part of her life she’d almost… almost forgotten what it was like before Gabrielle came into it.
A burnishing of her soul she’d never expected.
Xena smiled as Gabrielle picked up a bit of linen and doused it in the water, then moved closer and started gently wiping her skin with it. Despite her discomfort, and the knife of pain riding the edge of every motion, the touch and the faint almost grin on the blond woman’s face took her mind past it.
“Your cut looks okay.” Gabrielle washed around it. “At least.”
“At least.” The queen nuzzled her hair, nibbling a bit of the soft blond locks close to her shoulder. “I don’t’ think I could take having my guts hanging out at the same time, know what I mean?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle leaned closer and kissed her right between the breasts she was cleaning. “I know what you mean.”
Xena felt a pleasant surge of passion overtake the discomfort in her back, and she reveled in the momentary bliss as the tension relaxed a little. She draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulder and rested her cheek against her companion’s head, fighting the urge to hobble her cranky ass right back into the bed and take Gabrielle with her.
Tempting. Very, very tempting.
“The head of the city was waiting outside.” Gabrielle murmured as she worked. “He wants to talk to you.”
“Uh huh.” Xena felt the cloth bring a wash of coolness across her back, then travel over her hip down her thigh. “What’s he want to talk to me about?”
“I don’t know.” Gabrielle sounded apologetic. “I didn’t ask him.” She washed the inside of the queen’s legs, pausing to give the queen a little nibble.
“S’allright.” The queen leaned back against the credenza. “Keep doing that and I won’t care.”
Her companion chuckled softly. “Brendan and Jens are there too. I think they want to tell you all the stuff they’ve done to get ready.”
“Great.” Xena tilted her head just enough to nibble on Gabrielle’s ear. “Then I only have to get through this once, and we can go find something more interesting to do before we have to go chasing after that massive pain in the ass from Persia.”
Gabrielle finished her washing and got the queen’s wraps in place, not without the odd nip and chuckle in the process. “Okay.’ She put her hand on Xena’s hip. “Ready for your other stuff?”
“No.” Xena sighed. “But let’s do it.” She decided staying leaned back was probably her best course, and she braced one hand on the top of the counter and gripped her staff with the other. She held her breath as Gabrielle very carefully eased the leathers over her feet. “Don’t lift em up.” She said, grimacing a little as an injudicious motion jarred her back.
Gabrielle patted her knee before she eased the leathers upward, standing and pulling the garment up over the queen’s hips and into place around her. “Okay.” She looked up and saw the closed eyes. “Xena?”
One blue orb appeared. “Yes?”
“Really want me to answer that question?” Xena sighed. “Fasten those straps, willya? Then I’ll go behind that table there and pretend to look at maps without crying while you let the crowd in. How’s that?”
Gabrielle folded her arms. “I’d rather just go lie down in bed with you.”
“Sooner you let em in, sooner we hit the sack. Move it.”
Xena leaned on the edge of the table, studying the big parchment rolled out on top of it. She kept her eyes on the surface after she heard the door open, only lifting her head when the footsteps that entered stopped. “Morning. “
“Mistress.” Brendan ducked his head respectfully.
“Oh, your majesty.” The town elder made a pretentious, sweeping, ridiculous bow, almost touching his head to the floor. “I am so grateful you allowed me this audience.”
Xena’s eyebrow cocked. Gabrielle walked around to join her behind the table, folding her hands on the edge of it. “Be nice.” She whispered. “We need him to give us the best wagon.”
“You’re spoiling my fun, muskrat.” Xena uttered back. “Is that nice to do to someone in agony?”
Gabrielle looked mutely at her, from under adorably shaggy bangs.
Xena rolled her eyes. “You’re welcome.” She addressed the elder. “Thanks for the shack. It’s nice.” She indicated the room with a careful hand. “Unfortunately I wont ‘be spending much time in it.”
The man bowed again. “So I understand, your Majesty.” He said. “Your captain tells me you wish to leave this evening, even? We thought we would be graced with your presence at least another night, so that we might properly thank you.”
A hot jolt of pain lanced up her spine as she moved the wrong way and she almost stopped breathing.
“Thanks very much.” Gabrielle spoke up. “It’s really nice of you, and we do really appreciate it.” She took a step away from the queen, drawing the man’s eyes. “We just have so much left to do, and there are people back home counting on us to stop the Persians from doing to our home what they did to yours.”
“Of course.” The man bowed to Gabrielle. “So you said before, and we understand, your highness.”
Xena exhaled and was able to lick her lips, blinking her eyes a few times before she focused her attention back on the elder and her thankfully perceptive bedmate. “Right.” She said. “So here’s what we need from you instead of a banquet.”
“Majesty.” The man bowed. “Anything.”
“Ten elephants, twelve ships of war, and three hundred casks of wine.”
The elder froze, staring at her. Brendan put his hands behind his back and peered out the window. Gabrielle merely sighed.
“No elephants?” Xena hazarded a guess. “Ah well.” She lifted her hand and let it drop to the table’s surface.
“Majesty, ah.. I… “ The man cleared his throat. “I’m sure we could find some.”
The queen managed a wry grin. “What we really need is provisions for the army.” She said. “I know you’ve been raped clean, but whatever you can spare cause that bitch won’t leave much to forage off of.”
The elder looked profoundly relieved. “Of course.” He blurted. “Already, they are bringing baskets of what we have into the square there, and oxen carts to draw it.”
“And.. aside from..ep..ph…whatever those were, is there something else we can offer you?” The elder asked in an earnest tone. “Your majesty, with no jesting, you have offered your all for our city. We owe everything to you.”
“Mm.” Now that she was at the brink of asking, Xena found herself unable to. Her pride clamped her jaw shut, unable to wrench the request for what she knew everyone who knew her would view as a weakness from her lips.
“Xena.” Gabrielle. “Can I ask a favor?”
Huh? Jerked from her internal wrestling, the queen turned her head and looked at her companion. “Here?” She flicked her eyes to the men then back to Gabrielle. “Now??”
Gabrielle closed her eyes as a blush colored her skin, vividly visible in the sunlight. “Not that kind of favor.”
“Damn.” Xena replied in a mild tone, watching the faces of the two men also redden. “What kind, then?” She asked curiously.
The blond woman collected her composure and put her hands behind her back. “It’s… “ She paused. “I know we’ll be riding hard after the Persians, and I’m not a good rider. Do you think I can ride in the ox carts”
Xena blinked at her, both dark eyebrows knitting into an almost straight line as her jaw dropped a trifle.
“Oh, your highness!” The elder threw up his hands. “Please, let us not hear of you riding so! You must have a coach! You may take my own coach, in fact, with two sturdy horses to draw it we cannot think of you riding behind the cows!”
Gabrielle went over to the man and grasped his hands. “Oh, that’s so nice of you!”
Xena’s jaw clicked shut, and she had to look at the table to keep from bursting out laughing at the cutely diabolical smile on her lover’s face. “You little fox.” She muttered under her breath. “I’m gonna make you squeak for that.”
“Majesty?” Brendan cleared his throat. “Did you say somewhat?”
The queen straightened carefully. “Nah.” She said. “I was just talking to myself.” She gave the elder a gracious if tentative nod of her head. “On my consorts behalf, thanks.” She said. “Hades knows, I don’t want her bottom bounced raw from the saddle before I get my chance at it.”
The elder looked a bit faint, and he released Gabrielle’s hands. “Ah… well, of course we’d be.. ah..” He covered his embarassement with another bow. “It will be my honor, your highness. I will have it prepared at once.”
He backed towards the door, bowing all the way, until he backed right out of the room and the door swung closed behind him.
“You.” Xena leaned on the table again, trying to ignore the increasing pain along her spine that was reaching down into the backs of her legs. “Are trouble.”
“Me?” Brendan asked. “Why, Mistress?” He looked around in a puzzled manner. “Did I do something and not see it?”
“I think she means me.” Gabrielle ducked around the table and put a gentle hand on Xena’s back. “Wasn’t that a good story though?”
“It was.” Xena replied quietly. She hesitated, then she looked up and met Brendan’s eyes. “Backs out.” She said, briefly. “Same old story.”
Brendan’s eyes popped wide open. “Is it?” He blurted. “Ah, Xena.”
The queen nodded. “Went out last night.” She shifted carefully. “Just my luck, huh?” She gave Gabrielle a sideways look. “My pride owes you one. “ She managed a grin for her lover.
Brendan came over to the other side of the table, a look of deep concern on his face. “For the love of the gods, Xena. Stay here. Let us go.” He said. “It’s not worth your risking it, not after the last time, I remember..” He stopped, when Xena lifted her hand in a warning gesture. “Xena.”
“I know.” Xena cut him off. “I know, Brendan. I’ve got no mind to spend the rest of my life in bed.” She draped one arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “That’s what the coach is for.”
“B..” Brendan stopped, and looked at Gabrielle, then he looked back at Xena. “The coach? The one the ..” He let his hands rest on the table. “For you?”
The queen nodded. “Only way I can do it.” She tasted the bitterness of the words and felt a moment of intense self anger. “Damn it.”
“Bigods.” The old captain chuckled, shaking his head. “Little one, that was well played.” He complimented Gabrielle. “Had me head over knuckles, for sure.”
Gabrielle didn’t really have time to enjoy the praise, her eyes watching the paleness grow across the queen’s face. “Thanks.” She said softly. “Xena, do you want to sit down?”
“Oh no.” Xena closed her eyes and leaned her weight onto her hands, the darts of pain making her sick to her stomach. “That’s the last thing I want to do.” She could feel the blood draining from her face and the world started to fade out a little as she closed her eyes and the insides of the lids flashed bright red with the throbbing in her spine. “Hang on a minute.”
“I’m going to hang on to you.” Gabrielle got an arm around her.
Xena concentrated on breathing deeply and slowly, forcing muscles up and down her torso to relax in order to ease the pain of the spasms. She’d forgotten what it felt like to do it, so many years having passed since she’d felt this particular agony.
The warmth of Gabrielle’s arm penetrated her leathers, and she was aware of Brendan on her other side, the touch of his scarred hand on her shoulder a fragile reassurance.
Slowly, far too slowly, the ache faded a little, and her legs stopped shaking. She opened her eyes and let them focus on the map, the blurred greens and browns easing reluctantly into focus. “Damn.”
“Xena, let me get a healer.” Brendan said.
“To do what?” The queen asked, biting off the words. “You think I wouldn’t have done something already if there was anything to do other than drug me senseless?”
The old captain sighed.
“Do you want to go lay down?” Gabrielle asked. “I think you felt better laying down.”
Xena stared the table top, then she exhaled and slowly eased her weight off her hands and back onto her legs. The pain was there, but it didn’t intensify, and she pushed her hair back off her forehead with a sense of impotent fury.
Damn it, she hated this. “Yeah.” She finally muttered. “Might as well take it while I can get it.” She started to reach for the staff, but somehow Gabrielle had half her weight, and Brendan had the other half, and she was part walking part being carried back over to the bed.
She considered protesting. Her often ignored better sense, though, kept her jaws shut and she gratefully let herself down on the soft surface and stretched out again, feeling a sense of utter relief as the pain subsided to something more or less bearable.
Gabrielle was petting her like a kitten. Xena felt like biting her lover, but decided risking another spasm wasn’t worth the pleasure of hearing her squeal. With a sigh, she tucked her arm under her pillow and eased onto her side, drawing one knee up to ease the strain on her back.
She found herself nose to nose, almost, with Gabrielle, who was leaning on her elbows on the bed, her eyes filled with anxious worry.
Aw. Xena leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the lips. “Cheer up.” She kindly advised her lover. “I’m not dead.” She paused. “Yet.”
“Can I bring you anything, Xena?” Brendan asked, from a few steps away. “Remedies? Herbs? I’ve got the men out scrounging.”
Xena was still looking into those gentle eyes across from her. “Got everything I need right here, Brendan.” She said. “Thanks anyway. Just get the men ready to move out before sundown.”
Brendan closed the door behind him, leaving the two of them alone.
“Xena.” Gabrielle said, after a long moment of them just staring at each other. “Please tell me what I can do to help you. Not that.. “ She held a hand up a little as the queen was about to speek. “Not that silly stuff. For real.”
For real. Xena took a few breaths, grateful that her body seemed to be settling down at least for the moment. “I don’t know.’ She answered honestly. “I don’t really know what to do, outside of swilling more of that herb and losing the world for a while.”
“So do that.” Gabrielle urged. “It’s just morning. We’ve got time, right?”
Time. Xena knew she really didn’t have time. “Maybe.” She said. “Depends how sure Brendan is no one’ s heading this way.” She fingered the pillow edge. “I don’t want to to get trapped here, Gabrielle. If Sholeh does come back, this place is toast.”
“But?” Xena looked at her. “Sweetheart, the only thing keeping that army back before was me, and I aint’ doing that any time soon today.”
Gabrielle put her chin down on her crossed wrists. “What did you call me?” She asked, a puzzled smile on her face.
Xena felt a blush warm her skin quite unexpectedly. “Shut up.” She scowled. “Anyway, we’ve got to get out from these damn walls and the sooner the better.”
Xena slid her hand across the sheet and closed her fingers around Gabrielle’s arm, feeling the muscles shift under her touch and the warmth of her lover’s skin against her palm. “Thank you.”
Gabrielle’s eyes shifted right and left, then she looked back at Xena, head cocked in puzzlement.
“For sacrificing your bravado in honor of my hoary ego.” The queen said. “Since when do you not like riding?”
A half grin appeared on the blond woman’s face. “I remembered when you were hit by the arrow.” She said. “You didn’t want people to know.”
“I figured.. maybe this wasn’t the same thing, but you still wouldn’t want people to know.”
Gabrielle moved her head a little and gave Xena’s knuckles a kiss. “And I figured it would be better if I got to fix it up so all the soft pillows and nice things in it could be blamed on me.”
Xena sighed. “Am I that obvious and transparent?” She complained. “I should just go off and be a fisherman or something.” Her grumbling only got her a few more kisses. “Take off your clothes and get into bed with me. Make me feel better.”
Gabrielle figured that would probably make her feel better too. In fact, there wasn’t anything she’d rather do than take her clothes off and climb into bed with Xena, snuggling up next to her and feeling her body touch..
“Uh?” Gabrielle blinked, and looked up at her companion. “Sorry.”
“Do I want to know what you were just thinking about??”
“Well… you in bed, actually.” She straightened up and reached for the buckle holding her belt closed. “Let me just..”
Xena reached out and touched her hand. “Wait.” She said. “I’m not thinking straight. “ She paused. “Too much of those damn herbs. Go get the wagon squared away, and in the market – get me all the medicinal crap you can find.”
Gabrielle hesitated, the desires of her body almost overtaking her desire to do what Xena wanted her to do. She let her hand drop to the bed as she tried to refocus her thoughts, her mind stubbornly unwilling to turn away from the quiet figure in the bed.
Her mind and her heart were marching resolution in different directions. It was the strangest thing she’d ever felt and she didn’t really like it at all.
“Gabrielle?” Xena’s voice took on a hint of question. “Did you hit your head again or something?”
Xena’s brow wrinkled. She could detect an odd, nearly grumpy expression on her companions face, not at all normal for her. She reached out and touched Gabrielle’s arm again, and when the blond lashes lifted and she could look at her eyes, she was surprised to see a dark look of passion peering back at her.
Oo. Xena bit her tongue as she opened and then closed her mouth, her brain scrambling to articulate the directly warring instincts of brain and groin. She ended up sneezing, and that nearly made her back go out again as she gripped the sheets and gritted her teeth as Gabrielle put her arms around her in alarmed instinct.
“Xena! Take it easy!”
Easy for you to say. “Just get in the bed.” The queen sighed. “Keep me company for a while since my brains are leaking out my ears and I may end up writing poetry or something equally inane unless you distract me.”
Xena unlatched the belt that was in easy reach of her hand, and loosened her surcoat, giving the heavy fabric a tug. “C’mere..”
Gabrielle captured her hands, a look of mixed embarrassment and pleasure. “I will. But let me go get things started first, okay?” She said. “And I’ll bring you back everything I can find that’s green.”
Paradoxally, now that her wishes were being attended to, Xena found herself profoundly disappointed. Her body had already been anticipating Gabrielle’s touch and she battled the need ferociously as she released her lover and put her head back down on the pillow. “Okay. G’wan.”
“I’ll be fast.” Gabrielle gave her hand a squeeze. “I want…”
“I want too.” Xena interrupted her, adding a pout to emphasize the statement.
They looked at each other. Gabrielle blinked and shrugged her shoulders, producing an engaging grin.
Xena sighed and shook her head. “I think I’m going nuts.” She admitted. “Maybe I got my head kicked one too many times this round.”
“Well.” Gabrielle settled onto her elbows again, bringing her head down to almost the same level as the queen’s. “I didn’t get my head kicked at all and I feel the same way.” She said. “It feels so weird. We have all this stuff going on but I don’t really want to do anything but..um..”
“If this is being nuts it sure feels good.”
Xena had to smile at that. Both for the fact that it was true, and because knowing it was true made her feel lighter inside, no matter how much she was hurting. “Being in love kicks you in the ass, doesn’t it?” She remarked.
“In a good way.” The queen said. “In a good way.” She repeated, in a softer tone. “You know something, Gabrielle.. I get a real kick out of you telling stories about me.”
Having taken a breath to speak, Gabrielle now let it trickle out her slightly open lips, thrown off her thoughts by the sudden change of subject. “Uh.. um. Thanks.”
“I want this story to have a happy ending.” The queen said. “I want us to go on and have a wild and sexy life with each other. I don’t want to just keep on nearly dying and hurting and…” She paused for a moment, aware of the still, quiet form kneeling next to her. “Why is life being so hard on me right now, huh?”
Gabrielle reached over and stroked Xena’s forehead.
“Was it because I wanted to go out and kick people’s asses?” Xena wondered. “Or maybe this is what I get for being a jerk all these years. You think?”
Her companion uttered a soft sound, then she leaned back and tugged her surcoat off, letting it drop next to the bed as she got up to sit on the edge of the mattress to pull her boots off. “You know what I think Xena?”
“Bet I’m going to in a second.”
Gabrielle dropped her boots on the ground next to her surcoat and very carefully climbed over Xena’s half curled form, snuggling up and pressing her body against her lover’s back. “I think I don’t give a sheep tail about what’s going on out there.”
“We should care.”
“I care about you.” Gabrielle kissed the back of Xena’s neck and wrapped her arm around the queen’s waist. “I care about how you feel, and making you hurt less. I don’t care about Persians and war and tomorrow.”
The sudden warmth enveloping her sore back nearly made Xena start cooing. Instead, she cleared her throat and settled her hand over Gabrielle’s arm. Her body relaxed as the heat penetrated stiff muscles and she surrendered to the gentle, teasing nibbles going across the back of her neck.
It felt like a taste of Elysia.
She also felt guilty, for not going and doing and being the leader her people expected her to be, no matter that she understood trying to do any of those things in the condition she was wouldn’t get her even so far as the damn door.
Gabrielle should go get the damn wagon ready.
She should call Brendan back and start giving orders.
“Xena.” Gabrielle murmured into her ear. “Our story will have a happy ending. I promise you.”
On second thought, Brendan was older than she was and if the hoary bastard didn’t know how to prepare an army to move out by now, she should just kill him. “Promise?”
After all, she was the damn queen, and she should act like it for a change. Xena eased her shoulders back a little, and turned her head enough to re-aim Gabrielle’s attentions, allowing the sensual flow of passion distract her body from it’s misery.
Maybe life was kicking her ass, but nothing said she had to stand there and take it, now did she?
Gabrielle pushed open the stable door and slipped inside, smiling when she heard Patches whicker on hearing her. “Hey Patches.” She gave Tiger a pat on the side as she eased between the big stallion and her pony. “Are you guys ready to go home?”
Patches presented her with a mouthful of hay, which he liberally sprinkled all over her surcoat as he nuzzled her chest in greeting.
“I’m going to get you guys ready.” Gabrielle told him. “And we’re going to go out with the guys and Xena, and we’re going to head off down the road back towards home. How about that, huh?”
Patches seemed agreeable to the plan. He stood quietly as she put his bridle on, and lipped at his water trough as she settled his saddle onto his back and cinched it. “There you go.”
Gabrielle was aware that outside, there were at least three dozen men who would have been thrilled to have done this for her, and she was also aware the city grooms she’d dodged on the way into the stable would have also.
But she liked the horses, and she had a few minutes before the wagon was ready. “Okay, Patches. Hang on while I get your friend here.”
Tiger eyed her as she approached his head, his nostrils flaring just a trifle as she eased on his bridle, his tongue scraping against her fingers as he took in the bit. Gabrielle stroked his nose and gave him a kiss, then she stepped back and walked around the stallion to where his saddle was laying across a wooden divider, the leather of it roughly burnished in the fading light.
Gabrielle studied the saddle, then she turned and looked at her lover’s horse, whose back was high above her own head. “Hm.”
She was dressed in her surcoat again, with a clean shirt and leggings underneath. The last thing she’d done in the nice room they’d been given was taken a bath, and now she felt refreshed and ready to travel after a long day of doing nothing much but necking with Xena.
“Tough job, Tiger, but someone has to do it, you know?” Gabrielle considered, then she led the stallion over to where the saddle was and stopped him. “Now, hold still, okay?”
She carefully climbed up onto the wooden partition and caught her balance, leaning against the horses side as she bent down and got a grip on Xena’s saddle. “Don’t move.”
Gabrielle took a deep breath and heaved the saddle up, it’s weight more than double the one that her pony used. She grunted as she got it up to the level of Tiger’s back, then squawked as the stallion started to move away. “No!”
Patches came to her rescue. He turned and butted his friend in the side with his head as he started to walk off, making him take a step back swing his nose around.
“Buh.” Gabrielle took advantage of her luck and swung the saddle over Tiger’s back, nearly losing her balance as the horse shifted. “Tiger!”
Tiger gave her an evil look, but he was unable to shift further as a scruffy pony body thumped against him from the other side, nearly knocking him back into the partition. He snorted, and nipped at Patches, but the pony merely butted him in the stomach as Gabrielle got the saddle settled on his back.
“Thanks Patches.” Gabrielle hopped down off the partition and fastened the stallion’s girth strap. “Tiger, I’m going to tell your mommy you did that.” She muttered, getting the saddlebags that held some of Xena’s traveling gear and sliding them into place.
Now that his opportunity for mischief was over, Tiger nibbled at some hay, until Gabrielle grabbed his reins, and Patches and started for the door. “C’mon, guys. Let’s go.”
Patches ambled after her. Tiger stood his ground for a minute, then he complied, following his smaller companion out the door as they emerged into the late afternoon light.
Outside, the square before the gate was filled with motion, as several hundred men walked among perhaps a hundred horses, and scattered wagons filled as high as they could carry standing behind stolid teams of oxen.
Gabrielle was in turns amazed and impressed with the number of city people coming with them. She could see some were the younger men, some just past adolescence, but a good portion of them were older, solid merchant types and workers, all of them somewhat self consciously carrying various weapons and bearing tabards hastily made with Xena’s crest.
“Your grace.” Jens came up on her other side, ducking under Tiger’s head as the stallion halted. “We would have brought them out for you, surely.”
“I know.” Gabrielle dusted the hay off her chest. “It’s okay. I like them.” She indicated the horses. “Anyway, you’re all pretty busy.” She looked at the square. “Wow, lots of people, huh?”
Jens looked moderately pleased. “More than I figured, aye.” He agreed. “Some are not bad fighters, neither.” He added. “Mistress’ll be able to do something with them.”
Gabrielle fervently hoped so. “Are we almost ready to go?” She asked. “I know Xena’s just finishing up some.. um. Last planning things.”
“Just about.” The soldier said. “Is the wagon they brought to your liking?” He asked, as they started walking towards the now wide open gates. “Was a nice touch, I thought, the old man bringing it for you to ride in. I’m sure her Majesty liked the idea.”
“I love it.” Gabrielle replied frankly. “I like riding Patches, but with all the stuff that went on the last couple days I think I… “ She touched the back of her neck hesitantly. “I just don’t’ think riding all night’s going to feel really good.”
Jens nodded. “Better this.” He pointed at the wagon, which was standing off to one side with a team of four hitched to it, and they angled towards it as the crowd parted for them.
Mm. Gabrielle eyed it. The wagon, a coach really, was taller than she was, and carved in stately ornate wood. It had tall walls, and big, heavy wheels, and a top that covered it but still let air and light in.
There was a seat at the front for someone to sit and drive the horses, and a step she could get up on in order to climb inside. It was well made, but not overly frilly looking, and she patted the side of it as they came even with where it was standing.
Gabrielle tied off Tiger and Patches reins to the wagon and opened the door, hopping up onto the step and peeking inside. There were three bundles inside near the front, which had a low bench across it for someone to sit on.
The bench had some folded blankets on it, and a pile of pillows that made Gabrielle grin, just a little.
In the back half was a larger, wider bench with thick padding both on the seat and against the back wall of the coach that was obviously meant for the owner to sit on. Before the bench were padded stools, and hanging on the inside walls were various nets and slings to hold things in.
Nice. Gabrielle backed out and shut the door. “Okay, let me go get Xena and tell her we’re ready.” She said.
“I can go for you, if you like, your grace.” Jens said. “It’s no trouble.”
“No.” Gabrielle reached out and touched his arm. “Thanks, but I’ll do it. Be right back.”
She circled the wagon and headed across the square, easing between lines of men moving towards the gates amidst a growing sense of excitement she could feel as she ducked past.
The city people were also gathering. Gabrielle returned many shy hellos, but she didn’t stop to talk. She trotted up the steps to the townhouse and the door was opened for her, Brendan’s familiar form standing just inside it.” Hi.”
“M’lady.” Brendan greeted her. “Tis all ready then?”
“I think so.” Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair. “Let me go see how Xena’s doing.” She said. “I hope she feels a little better after her rest.”
Brendan looked worried. “Better if she…” He sighed. “Tis a bad thing, that injury.” He said. “Hasn’t bothered her in the longest time, not since we took over back when. I thought she was past it, honest.”
“I think she did too.” Gabrielle murmured. “I never suspected it anyway.. she’s always so.. “
“Such a fighter.” Brendan supplied.
“Reckless.” The blond woman disagreed. “Like she can’t get hurt. But she does. I’m really worried about her.” She turned and made for the steps to the 2nd level, trotting up them to the closed doors, broad and grand, that led to the queen’s temporary chambers.
Two soldiers were outside. They had their traveling sacks with them, and all their weapons, and when they spotted Gabrielle, they both saluted and reached for the door to open it for her. With a smile, Gabrielle walked past them, and waited for the door to close behind her before she took a deep breath and continued on to the inner room.
She had left Xena resting still, in bed. She thought the long day had helped a little, but she knew Xena had been in a lot of pain even so.
Now, she opened the inner door and peeked around it, quite surprised to find the queen out of bed and standing at the window, one hand placed to either side as she looked out. “Oh!”
“C’mon in muskrat.”
Gabrielle entered and shut the door behind her. “Are you feeling better?” She asked hopefully, heading in her direction. “I think we’re ready to go. I got the horses.”
“I saw you.” Xena turned her head as her companion came up next to her. “No. I’m not feeling any better. But I swallowed enough herbs for me to get down the stairs and into your little pansy wagon down there.” She sighed. “I’d try to ride that bastard horse of mine out the gates but I think I’d fall off.”
Gabrielle put a gentle hand on her back.
“Okay.” Xena turned carefully and took hold of her staff, leaning on it to cross over to the dresser. On top, her armor was laid out neatly, burnished to a somber shine. “Let’s get this over with. My ego can just barely stand to get in that wagon, but it can’t deal with doing it half naked.”
“You’re not half naked.” Gabrielle kept pace with her. “I like the way you look in those. They’re really sexy.”
Xena gave her a look. “Stop trying to distract me.”
Gabrielle picked up one of the pieces of armor and knelt to fasten it around Xena’s knee. “I’m not. It’s true.” She carefully buckled it in place, then she stood and grabbed the other knee cover.
The queen glanced at her reflection in the mirror, and produced a wry grimace. “If you say so.” She clasped both hands around her walking stick and let Gabrielle continue the process of arming her, a completely pointless task in reality as she was no more capable of fighting at the moment as she was flapping her arms and flying up Sholeh’s nose.
“There’s a lot of guys going with us, did you see them?” Gabrielle grunted as she got hold of Xena’s chest armor and lifted it up, carefully laying it across her shoulders. “I think that’s great.”
“Well..” The blond woman fastened the worn straps under the queen’s arm. “I mean, I think it’s amazing they have so much faith in you that they’re willing to go out there against that whole big army.”
“Mm.” Xena rumbled under her breath. “Yeah, I think so too.” She shifted her body cautiously, settling the armor down as Gabrielle finished strapping her in it. “I”ll try to give them a little thrill before I get them all slaughtered.”
Gabrielle picked up one of her arm bracers. “You think that’s going to happen?” She asked, fitting it on her companion’s arm and starting to tighten the laces. “You said that would happen the last time, and you know XEna… it didn’t.”
No, it hadn’t. Xena gazed somberly at her reflection again. “It’s different now.”
“Because you’re hurt?”
The queen nodded. “I made the difference, Gabrielle. I don’t need your stories to know that.” She said, with a sigh. “I used to wonder what it was like, to lead an army and just have to watch them do.. what you told them to do… and you can’t help them.”
“When you were going to fight Bregos.” Gabrielle said. “You wanted to be out there with the men.”
A faint smile appeared. “I did.” She turned slowly and then she leaned against the dresser. “Now the boots. That’s the tough part.” She took a few breaths, her body fighting against the herbs that put a veneer of fog between her and the room. “Then we can get out of here.”
“Then we can go home.”
Xena smiled faintly. “Yeah.”
“I told Patches and Tiger we were going home.”
“Did they answer you?”
Gabrielle looked up from her task, lacing Xena’s left boot. “Xena.”
“With you I never know.” Xena felt a sense of resignation flooding through her, now that her choices were made, and things were moving forward again. “I want you to do something for me.”
“Something else?” The blond woman finished one boot and held out the other, fitting it around Xena’s hesitantly raised right foot. “Sure.”
“Carry my sword when we go out.”
Gabrielle paused in mid lace and looked up. “Huh?”
Xena pointed at the weapon, resting on the table. “If I put it on my back, and something… “ She hesitated. “I don’t think all the time before I react. If I go to draw it, I’ll end up on the ground.”
“Oh.” Her lover stood up and put her hands on Xena’s hips. “Of course.” She paused, looking up at the queen’s drawn face. “Ready?”
“No.” Xena flexed her toes and looked around, wistfully wishing it was all over, and she didn’t have to leave. “So let’s go.” She continued, setting her staff ahead of her as she made her way very stiffly toward the door. “Grab the pigsticker and the chakram, and let’s get this mutt and muskrat show on the road.”
Gabrielle went to the dresser and picked up the bag that held the chakram, tying it to her belt with reverent fingers before she laid her hands on the sword.
It felt strange, lifting it and cradling it in her arms. She followed in Xena’s footsteps with a thoughtful expression. “So..” She said. “Does that make you the mutt?”
“Uh huh.” Xena leaned on the staff and opened the door, shoving it open ahead of her. “It sure does.”
“Got something to say about it?”
They moved through the outer room towards the door to the hall. “Well.” Gabrielle said after a pause. ”You’ve got a really cute tail.”
Xena let out a low whistle, and the doors opened immediately. “Dare ya to say that again.” She said, as she straightened, and moved forward with stolid, steady steps, head up, the staff used apparently as a casual prop. “Hello, boys. We ready to move out?”
Gabrielle just managed a rueful grin, as she followed along.
Cheers erupted as soon as Xena appeared on the steps and she paused, her hands casually resting on the staff as she took in the adulation. After a moment she lifted one hand and waved it casually, then she draped that arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders as they started down to street level.
Gabrielle tucked the sword into the crook of her right arm and put her left one around the queen’s waist, ready to offer assistance if it looked like Xena needed it.
Right now, it didn’t. Xena strolled along between the lines of city folk and soldiers, giving a gracious nod here, and a raised eyebrow there, smiling at her men and giving the new city fighters the once over.
The subterfuge was breathtaking. Gabrielle could feel the tension in the back her arm was resting on, but from Xena’s attitude you would never have guessed there was a thing wrong with her. It had been the same when she’d been shot by the arrow, but this was different.
This was a triumph of Xena’s will over her body, and Gabrielle was taken aback by the fierce nobility of it. “You’re amazing.” She uttered under her breath.
‘I’m a lunatic.” Xena replied, with a smile for the crowd. “Better hope I stay a lunatic until we get to that wagon or you’re going to have to carry me to it.”
“I’d do that.”
Xena almost stopped walking. She did turn her head and regard her companion with a very dubious expression.
“Well.” Gabrielle sighed. “I’d try.”
“Its almost worth keeling over to see that.” The queen remarked. “However.” She released Gabrielle as they got to the wagon and turned, facing the crowd that was growing around it as she stopped next to Tiger’s flanks.
A speech seemed to be called for. Xena wasn’t really in the mood for a speech, but everyone was looking at her so she rested her weight on her staff and waited for the noise to die down.
Two of the elders hurried forward. “Your majesty.” One of them bowed as he came closer. “Is everything to your satisfaction?”
Is everything to my satisfaction. Xena mused about that. She was going after an army of thousands with a couple hundred bumbling untrained men, a squad of tired soldiers, a muskrat, a bad back, and a day’s head start to catch up to. “Sure.” She concluded. “Thanks.”
The man took a breath, then released it. “Ah.” He recovered. “We are very happy to hear that, and we wish you good travels!” He looked around and waved his hands, and everyone did, in fact, cheer. “We wish you, and those of our brothers who go with you, great success!!”
“Thanks.” Xena repeated. “To all that have chosen to join us, welcome.” She added, in a louder voice. “You will be rewarded for your guts” She said. “And stupidity.” She muttered. “Let’s move out.”
“Form up!” Brendan let out a bellow, as he mounted his horse, lifting his sword up. “Ready to march!”
Xena turned and edged her way around her horses’ big body, getting close enough to the wagon to open the door of it for Gabrielle. “Your chariot awaits.”
Gabrielle got up on the step and looked around, finding the elder in the crowd every near by. “Thanks.” She smiled at him. “This is beautiful.” She gently put Xena’s sword inside and patted the door. “Just wonderful.”
The man beamed at her. “My lady, your words charm me.” He bowed. “I hope you get wonderful use of it.”
“I’m sure I will.” Gabrielle paused, half in the wagon, and glanced over at Xena. “Hey, Xena…”
It wouldn’t be so bad, Xena decided, if the weakness she was seen to have was indulgence in her partner, would it? “Yeeess, Gaabbrielle?” She bantered back, giving Tiger a scratch on the nose as he realized she was leaning against him and started snuffling her.
“Would you ride with me for a little while?” The blond woman asked. “I wrote a new poem for you.”
Oh by the gods. “Does any of it rhyme with ‘spank’?” The queen asked. “Or ‘squeal?”
Gabrielle blushed, as the men started to chuckle around them. “Well..”
“Oh, all right.” Xena sighed. “Brendan, have someone lead my big bastard here, and the scruffy runt.” She eased over towards the wagon and shifted the staff to her right hand, grasping the door to it with her left and getting most of her body weight up off her legs that were just about to give out under her. “Let’s get this damn show on the road!”
“Aye.” Brendan untied Tiger and Patches and handed their reins off to one of the grooms that had hastily ran up. “Let’s go boys – start down the road, yah?”
“Yah.” Xena felt the sweat rolling down her neck and spine, even the high dose of herbs unable to hold the pain at bay any longer. “All right, inside, you.” She ordered Gabrielle. “I’ll give you a poem, all right.”
Gabrielle ducked inside the wagon, and once there, she turned and held her hand out as Xena swung around the door and offered up her staff. She took it and pulled it inside, throwing it on the other side of her as she got hold of the queen’s hand as she started to climb inside.
One look at Xena’s face, and she lunged to catch her as she came through the door, grabbing hold of her as she started to collapse and wrenching them both sideways so she fell onto the larger of the two couches instead of onto the floor of the wagon. “Oof!”
Xena let out a laugh. “You little wench!!” She spoke loudly. “Close the damn door.” She added, in a hoarse whisper. “By the gods.”
Gabrielle got her feet under her and went to the wagon entry, peeking out to see a sea of faces looking back at her with knowing eyes. She grinned bashfully and shut the door, feeling a sense of relief once the wall of people were out of her sight and Xena out of theirs.
“Hades left nut.” Xena was now on her back on the couch, her forearm over her eyes. “Take that damn sword and spit me with it, will you please?”
“Boy that was close.”
“Close?” Xena said, through gritted teeth. “I hope I can get up from here again.”
Gabrielle scrambled across the wagon and knelt next to the bench, touching the queen’s arm hesitantly. “Oh my gosh.. Xena… “ She could see tears on her lover’s eyelashes. “Can I get you something? More of the herbs, or…”
“Not going to spit me, huh?”
“Xena, I can’t.”
The queen sighed. “You said you’d do anything for me.” She groused. “I ask for so little…mmph.”
Gabrielle lifted her head to look down into the eyes of the woman she just kissed. Then she lowered her lips to gently kiss the tears off her cheekbones. “Don’t ask me to hurt you.” She said. “I’d rather spit myself first.” She whispered.
Xena felt a jolt, both in her guts from the kisses, and in her body as the wagon started to move. The top of the wagon was open tracework to let the air in, but the sensation of motion without having control of it suddenly made her feel just a bit queasy. “Don’t do that.” She said. “Help me sit up instead before I chuck up all over the both of us.”
Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed her on the lips again. “Okay.” She straightened up and got onto her knees, holding her hands out for Xena to grasp them.
Xena took hold of her, and steeled herself. Then she took a deep breath and concentrated on contracting her stomach muscles, thankful for the long sessions up in her tower as her body responded and with Gabrielle’s help, she was able to sit up on the bench.
It hurt. She got herself straight and settled back against the padded support behind her, half reclined due to the slope of the wagon’s wall. “Okay.”
Xena gingerly flexed her toes, glad she could actually feel them. She’d gotten that odd, weak sensation in her legs as she’d entered the wagon, a stark memory of the last time she’d been hurt in this way. “Yeah.” She put her hands flat on the bench and looked around at the inside of the coach. “So this is it, huh?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle got up and sat next to her. “I thought you could lay down on this.” She patted the surface. “And I have pillows over there for you.” She pointed at the other side of the wagon.
“Good thought.” Xena exhaled, looking up at the open spaces. “Nice work.”
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Gabrielle agreed. “I had them put some stuff in here, fruits and some little rolls so you can snack on them if you want to.”
Gabrielle patted her knee. “We’ll get through this, Xena. You were so amazing out there – I know you’ll find a way to make everything right.”
“I do.” The blond woman stated positively. “You can do anything.”
Xena studied the top of the wagon, listening to the sounds of horse hooves all around them, and he yells of the men as they moved out past the gates. “I can do anything.” She mused. “Guess we’ll find out.” She turned to look at Gabrielle. “There’s just one problem”
Gabrielle had gotten up to fetch the pillows, holding on ot the side of the wagon as it moved under her. “What’s that?” She turned and looked back over her shoulder, frowning at the pale complexion on Xena’s face.
“I just remembered why I don’t have one of these things.”
“Why?” Gabrielle gathered up an armful of the pillows and brought them over. She knelt again by the bench and sorted through the soft fluffy items, setting them down next to her lover. “What’s wrong?”
“I get sick riding in them.” Xena lifted her arm and covered her eyes again.
Gabrielle looked around at the interior. “Um.. I have some water… “
“Do you have any herbs for that?”
“Do you want me to kiss you again?”
“Hold that thought.”