Queen of Hearts
It was dark. The army moved through the night, along the road – their presence betrayed only by the sound of hoofbeats and the faint flutter of the few torches they allowed themselves to find the path.
In the midst of the soldiers , moving steadily along were the supply wagons, and in front of them rolled the royal coach that held their leader and her consort. As the moon traveled over the sky and skewed their shadows from one side to the other, the men walked and rode with a quiet confident attitude.
Inside the coach, however, it was a different story.
“Xena.” Gabrielle carefully wiped her lover’s face with a bit of damp cloth. “There’s got to be something we can do for you.” She looked at the suffering woman. “Isn’t there? Should I tell the men to stop?”
Xena gazed pitifully up at her. Her face was stark white, visible even in the low candlelight inside the coach, and her forehead was damp with sweat. She had one hand over her stomach and the other holding onto a wooden bucket.
“Do you want to go back to the city?”
The queen’s eyes took on just a bare hint of amusement. “I want you to kill me.”
“Do you know when the last time was that I felt this bad?”
Gabrielle wiped her face again. “No.”
“Neither do I.” Xena sighed. “Well, at least there’s nothing else left in my guts to throw up.” She studied the ceiling, the misery in her stomach so bad it overshadowed her back, fortunately for her since taking more herbs for the pain for that wasn’t an option at the moment.
The irony wasn’t lost on her.
“Should I tell them to stop?”
“Only if you kill me first.” The queen told her. “Because I won’t survive the embarrassment if we have to turn around because of this.” She closed her eyes as another wave of nausea hit her, her body too tired really to even retch.
“I’m sorry.” Gabrielle rested the back of her knuckles against Xena’s cheek. “I thought this was a good idea.”
“Me too.” Xena opened her eyes again. “Here I was, looking forward to having fun in your rolling love buggy.”
Gabrielle made a face. “Do you want some water?” She changed the subject.
“You want it back in your face?” Xena licked her lips though. “Wish I could. Mouth’s dry as a bone.”
Darn, darn darn. The blond woman gave her companion a pat on the arm, then she stood carefully in the moving wagon and moved across it, standing straight to see out the openings in the top of the wall.
It was a beautiful night out. Gabrielle leaned mournfully against the wall and thought about how nice it would have been for them to be riding in the cool breeze, under the canopy of stars that stretched overhead and lit the road in pale silver.
She could smell the horses around them, and the torch’s pitch and the rich grass that held a stale taint of decay on it she knew was from the recent battle.
Gabrielle sighed and turned, studying her poor friend. Xena looked just utterly miserable. She’d gotten her armor off, and she was in just her leathers, her body slung across the rear padded bench with one booted foot propped against the wall and the other planted on the floor.
The motion of the wagon was.. Gabrielle put a hand out to steady herself again. Well, it was sort of side to side slow waggling and when you couldn’t see outside, it was a little bit unnerving. She wasn’t sure she liked it.
Ah well. She went to her own little pouch she’d brought from the city and felt inside it to see if there were any more herbs she might have picked up that Xena could use. Her knuckles knocked against something in the bag and she paused, then reversed her hand to feel what she’d hit.
“Okay, so you won’t kill me.” Xena spoke up. “How about you just hit me over the head? Can ya do that?”
Gabrielle pulled a smaller bag out of her sack and stared at it, somewhat puzzled. “Can I do what?” She glanced at her lover.
“Hit me over the head.”
“No.” Gabrielle opened the bag and peered inside it, surprised at a light, sweet scent that emerged. “Oh.” She slapped the side of her head as she remembered where she’d gotten the bag. “Hey, Xena?”
“WWhhhhaaatt?” The queen whined piteously, closing her eyes and covering them with her forearm.
Gabrielle brought the bag over and sat down on the edge of the couch. “When I was heading out to get Patches and Tiger, I saw this man who had these things on a pole he was selling, so I got some.” She dug in the bag and brought out one of the contents between her thumb and forefinger. “It’s a candy ball. Do you want to try sucking on one?”
Xena slowly opened one eye and studied the item. “A candy ball?” She sounded dubious.
“Mmhm.” Gabrielle put it in her mouth. “Mm.” She made an encouraging sound. “Mmmm.”
The queen pondered the idea, then she poked her tongue out and stared pointedly at the bag until Gabrielle retrieved a second and gave it to her. She accepted the roughly roundish item and pulled it into her mouth, surprised at the agreeable taste. “Mm.”
“Itth good.” Gabrielle stuck the ball into her cheek so she could talk. “I think they make it with honey.”
It was good. Xena rolled the candy around in her mouth. It wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet, and it had a hint of spice in it and as she cautiously swallowed, she found her stomach didn’t immediately object as it had to the water, and the wine, and anything else she’d tried to swallow.
She put her head back down on the pillow and tried to relax a little, the motion of the wagon transmitting itself to her body through the solid surface she was laying on. “Nodontthinkabout that.” She muttered to herself.
She felt a touch on her arm, and she reached out with her free hand to clasp Gabrielle’s, her lover’s skin feeling warm and comforting against her fingers.
Just being next to Gabrielle felt good. Well. Xena reflected, as good as it could feel given her back was out of whack and her guts were hovering around the back of her tongue.
The queen thought about that for a long moment. “A little.” She admitted grudgingly. “Either that, or my guts are tired of heaving themselves up for nothing and went to sleep for a while.” She shifted cautiously, then she rolled over onto her side. “Do me a favor?”
“Anything? You already refused to either kill me or hit me over the head so how could it be anything?” Xena grumbled.
“Xena.” Gabrielle leaned on the pillow and put her arms around her suffering friend, giving her back a very gentle rub and kissing her cheek. “I’d do anything for you except hurt you.”
The queen was never one to lose out on an opportunity and since Gabrielle’s breast was about touching her nose, she nipped it.
Laying on her side made her stomach feel better. “Take one of those extra pillows and stick it between my knees, willya?” Xena said. “Then come back over here so I can chew on you some more.”
Gabrielle did as she was asked. She got the pillow settled, then she came back over to Xena’s side and resumed her seat, though this time she kept her chest away from Xena’s teeth. “Do you want me to tell you a story?”
“How far down the road are we?”
“I don’t think I know that one.” The blond woman admitted. “Can you say the first few words of it?” She saw those pale eyes open and look up at her, and she had to smile in response, as a surge of emotion filled her and made her heart fairly ache.
“C’mere and I’ll bite you again.”
Gabrielle leaned over and risked it, kissing Xena on the forehead before she got up and went to the front of the coach to look out. “So did the candy ball help?”
Xena grunted noncommittally.
The blond woman put her hands on the top of the partition. She could see the men on either side of them, and far off, forest that she remembered passing through. Ahead of the wagon she could see the curve of the road that started on the long slope up to the first pass, and as far as she could tell, everything looked very quiet. “I think… “ She hesitated.
“Have no idea how long the road is?”
“Well.” Gabrielle frowned. “We have all those trees on either side of us, where we went around the back side?”
Xena sighed, and rolled herself right off the bench onto her knees, holding on to the wall of the wagon as she pulled herself upright. Standing was painful, but since she could hold on over her head and support most of her weight that way, it was bearable.
She slowly moved across to where Gabrielle was standing and peered through the opening next to her. “Ah.” She put her hands on either side of her lover and leaned against her a little, feeling the wagon rock a bit under their combined weight.
It felt painful, but good to be standing. Her stomach seemed to like that position better, and the cool, fresh air coming in the opening soothed her grumbling guts surprisingly quickly. She looked past the soldiers riding alongside the coach, enjoying a moment of relative comfort.
“See?” Gabrielle pointed. “That’s the bit we went through, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Xena was pleased with the progress. The army had pushed on and they were coming close to the edge of the plateau. “Brendan!” She let out a yell, spotting her captain trotting by. “Get over here.”
“Ow.” Gabrielle covered her ears. “Boy, you’re loud sometimes.”
“Sometimes?” Xena leaned a bit more against her as Brendan came even with them. “How’s it going?”
“Fair well.” Brendan moved his horse closer. “Got a scout out front way a bit.” He lowered his voice. “Figured to see sign of em by now.”
“Nothing?” Xena frowned.
Brendan shook his head. “Not a scrap left on the ground, or a body dropped behind.” He uttered. “Like they went into the mists.”
“Mm.” Xena felt a prickle of foreboding. “Not good.”
“We’re sure they went this way, right?” Gabrielle spoke up.
“Lass, only one road here.” Brendan said, diplomatically.
“Yes, but we found two ways, didn’t we?” The blond woman said. “So what if they did too?”
Brendan gazed at her, his head cocked slightly in question. He lifted his eyes and looked at Xena, who now had her elbows resting on the edge of the wagon window and her chin on top of Gabrielle’s head. “Think so, your Maj?”
Xena exhaled slowly. “I think there’s too many of them to be anywhere but on the road. Anything else, they’d be going single file for a sevenday to move.” She pondered a moment. “But if I were that Persian bitch, I”d maybe think of leaving some people behind to gut anyone following me.”
“Have guards out for that.” Brendan said, succinctly.
What was Sholeh up to? Xena figured she’d either race ahead, or be laying in wait for them. Neither option made her happy, but chasing people got you killed less often than being ambushed. Just a fact of war. “What would I do?”
“What would I do if I were in her place?” The queen asked again. “What are her options, what’s her motive here, where’s she going to end up – taking over my realm? Burning us out?”
Gabrielle turned around so she was plastered against Xena’s body. She slipped her arms around her waist and just held her there, not squeezing.
“Or getting revenge.” Xena looked past her head towards the shadows they were riding into. Then she looked over at the quietly waiting Brendan. “Put a squad of men over in that patch of forest there.” She lifted her hand carefully and pointed. “The one before the pass.”
Brendan gazed that way. “Before the pass?”
“Yeah.” The queen said. “Because I’d figure whoever’s chasing me will figure I’d bushwhack them in the pass, and worry about looking for signs there.” She studied the far off smudge of dark trees. It was a very thick stand, off to one side of the road as the road curved into the foothills that took them to the narrow pass that would be a natural ambush. “I hate surprises.”
“As do we all.” Her captain agreed. “Think she’ll turn then? Not head through?”
“She’ll turn.” Xena stated flatly. “The only way she’ll save face is to defeat us, Brendan. Not run. Not wait until she’s in a stronghold and hold it. She’s got to come after us and beat us into the ground or else she loses everything.”
“She loses her reputation?” Gabrielle asked. “Is that what you mean?”
“Persia loses it’s reputation.” The queen smiled darkly. “She may not be afraid of me, but you bet your ass she’s afraid of her father with good reason.” She looked at Gabrielle. “She loses here, she has no home to go back to.”
Gabrielle blinked at her in some shock.
“I’ll take care of it, Xena.” Brendan said. “Are you faring better?” He asked, in a very low tone.
“I suck.” The queen replied frankly. “But that ain’t changing, so let’s get this war rolling. Have the men make arrows as they’re walking if they aren’t and put up more torches so they can see what they’re doing.”
“Yes, they’re targets. But if you’re planning an ambush in a spot no one expects it, you don’t ruin it by shooting at lights on the road.” Xena’s voice took on a stronger, more confident tone. “Let’s turn it, Brendan. We’re hunters now. Not hunted. I don’t care how many rats she has following her.”
“Aye.” Brendan saluted. “On my way, Mistress.”
He kneed his horse and disappeared ahead of the coach, his voice lifting up over the sound of marching feet as he cantered through the ranks.
“Xena.” Gabrielle gently rubbed her lover’s back. “How long do we have before we’re by those trees?”
“Three of four candlemarks.” The queen replied. “If they don’t come after us first.”
“You think they will?”
“I want them to.” Xena smiled.
“I sure do.” The queen tilted her head and kissed Gabrielle on the lips. “Every damn odd is against us, Gabrielle. But if we beat them…. There ain’t a corner of the world that isn’t gonna hear about it.” She went back for another kiss, keeping a tight hold on the side of the coach as they rumbled along.
Not a damn corner.
Xena leaned her folded arms on the wagon’s wooden wall. She’d decided on the trade off of accepting the pain of standing up to relieve herself of the misery of being sick to her stomach, and now that the cool night air had given her some relief from the latter she was relatively content.
Relatively. “Know what I need right now?”
“What?” Gabrielle came over to stand next to her.
“A hammock chair.” The queen said. “Hanging from this damn roof so I can get the breeze but not be standing up.” She clarified. “You any good at knitting?”
Gabrielle was briefly silent. “What?” She eventually said. “You want me to knit you a chair?” Her voice rose in question. “I think I better stick with telling stories. The last time I tried to sew something I ended up sewing my shirt to my pants.”
Xena chuckled softly under her breath. She watched the army, such as it was, shift and move past the wagon, the rumble of the wheels and the sound of horse hooves sounding above the lighter scuff of the foot soldier’s boots. “Ah.”
“What?” Gabrielle peeked over the edge of the wall. It was much lighter now, every couple of soldiers holding a torch cradled in the crook of their arm, the bobbing line of light outlining the road in a golden glow.
“Thought we left him behind.” Xena sighed. “I knew I should have just killed him back on the damn ship.”
Gabrielle craned her head, blinking in surprise when she realized one of the nearby riders was a dour looking Perdicus. “Oh!” She jerked back a little. “What’s he doing here? I told him..”
“Off?” Xena turned her head carefully to look at her companion. “And I missed that? Gods be damned. Where was I?”
The blond woman curled her fingers around the wood. “In bed I think.” She murmured. “I went out to get you.. to get us something that first night and he was there, saying all kinds of things. I told him...”
“All kinds of things?” Xena asked. “Like what kinds of things?”
Gabrielle gave her head a half shake. “Just mean things.” She said. “He thinks.. I guess he thinks...” She let her voice trail off. “I told him to leave me alone.” She glanced up at Xena, surprised to see the narrowed eyes, and lightly flaring nostrils.
She reached out and touched Xena’s elbow. “He’s just a jerk, Xena. I think he always was a jerk, but he’s gotten.. um... jerkier now.”
“Did he touch you?” Xena asked, in a deceptively calm voice.
“He grabbed my arm, but the other soldiers were around there, Xena. It didn’t really do...” Gabrielle stopped as the queen turned and faced her. “He still thinks we’re betrothed, I guess.” She shrugged, not sure what to make of her companion’s silent anger. “I’m sure he’s got it straight now, though. I told him about us.”
“Bring me the chakram, willya?”
Gabrielle was halfway across the coach, her hand outstretched to pick up the bag before she paused and turned. “What are you going to do with it?”
“Kill him.” Xena replied mildly. “He’s a jackass, and I’m not putting up with him being around.” She extended her hand and wiggled her fingers. “Give it here. C’mon, c’mon. don’t tell me you’re feeling sentimental about him.”
Gabrielle picked up the bag mechanically and held it, her eyes turning to meet Xena’s. “You’re not really going to kill him, are you?”
The queen nodded. “I am.” She said. “Be good for morale. Nothing like blood spurting all over the road to get the juices flowing.” She wiggled her fingers again. “C’mon. I want to see if I can toss it from inside this crate anyhow.”
It occurred to Gabrielle that her lover was, in fact, serious. She slowly crossed the wagon, her fingers tightening a little on the bag. “Xena, he didn’t hurt me.” She said. “I don’t want you to kill him.”
Xena studied her. “You don’t?” She let her hand rest on Gabrielle’s head, and tilted it up, so that the torchlight fell on it and she could watch her eyes. “You really don’t, Gabrielle? You want him out there, following you, watching you… wanting you?”
Gabrielle found herself captured by that look, the queen’s words penetrating and making her feel a little short of breath.
“Be honest, Gabrielle.” Xena said, in a gentle voice. “This guys trouble for you. He’s here because he wants something.” She added. “I don’t want him here..”
Oh wow. Gabrielle felt like sitting down, and a moment later she did so, sinking down on the shorter bench and feeling the rumble of the road jar through her spine. Perdicus was being a jerk, but did that mean he should die?
How could she say that? “Xena.” She murmured. “I can’t tell you to kill him. Please don’t ask that of me.”
“You still got the hots for him?”
Gabrielle’s head jerked up. “Huh?” She stared at Xena. “Of course not. I don’t think I… “ She considered. “He was just.. “ She shook her head. “Xena, you just can’t go killing people because they’re inconvenient for me.”
“Sure I can.”
Sure she could. Gabrielle felt overwhelmed. “Well, please don’t.” She finally said. “I’d hate to see someone die like that just because of me.” She exhaled. “Just because they annoyed me, anyway.”
Xena reached up to the roof spars and eased her way over to where Gabrielle was sitting. In the flickering light from the candle, she could see the distress in her expression and she paused next to her, reaching down to ruffle her hair. “All right.” She conceded. “But I’m warning ya, if he lays a finger on your again, his arm’s coming off the hard way.”
Gabrielle’s shoulders relaxed, a visible motion in the golden light. She put the chakram in it’s bag down on the bench and stood, putting her arms around Xena and burying her face into the queen’s shoulder.
Having been on the receiving end of a muskrat load of solicitous attention all day, Xena found it somewhat refreshing to be on the giving end for a change. She scratched the back of her lover’s neck with her free hand, keeping hold of the roof spar with the other so they both didn’t end up crashing to the ground. “I’d do anything for ya.” She told Gabrielle. “Even stuff you don’t really want me to.”
It was a very odd mixture of horror and endearment, and Xena smiled, as she felt the soft exhale against her skin. She still wanted to kill Perdicus. It drove her nuts having him out there, watching them. Watching Gabrielle, and stewing in what was obvious to Xena was a horny funk.
She paused and considered that for a moment. Then her eyebrows wiggled a little, and she smirked. On the other hand, death wasn’t’ much of a torture really, was it? Especially the way she tended to do it.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle said.
“I haven’t done anything yet.” Xena understood, however. She nibbled her lover’s hair, tasting the smoke from the torches outside in it.
If she looked out, she could see the forest approaching, the line of trees moving from a far off smudge to a looming reality, obscuring anything in their midst as the line of them curved towards the road bringing the edge of the woods to within arrow’s range.
Within arrows range.
Xena rubbed Gabrielle’s back as she turned her head to look out the opening, her eyes slightly unfocused as she counted up her resources, and figured the angles. Within a candlemark they’d be close enough. She had that long to… figure out what to do?
No. Unable to ride at the front of the troops, Xena found herself putting her mind to use instead and rather than figuring out on the fly what would happen next she was in the middle of planning what she was going to do in order to make things happen the way she wanted them to.
Interesting perspective. Xena wiggled her nose, which itched a bit. Could this be the gods way of teaching her a lesson?
Better not be. Her eyes narrowed. Not of those suckers wanted to keep on being worshipped.
She turned her attention back to the army, letting out a low whistle to attract Jens attention. Her second captain kneed his mount over and came even with the coach, and he eased his cloak back and set his hand on his sword hilt.
“Majesty?” Jens glanced inside. “Your grace.”
Gabrielle, caught in a somewhat compromising position, could only produce a weak smile. “Hi.”
Jens grinned at her.
“Go around the lines.” Xena spoke in a low tone, that nevertheless projected. “Spread the word we’re marching right through to the pass.”
Jens glanced around. “I will do so.” He said. “Men are up for it, Mistress. We got a middling good lot with us, this time.”
“Aye.” The soldier admitted freely. “Didn’t think they had much there, but maybe so many years at peace made men feel like they wanted something different. “
The queen snorted, chuckling under her breath. “Let it be known.” She added. “That my goal is to get that Persian bitch and put a collar on her.”
“Just say it.” Xena said. “Make sure the lot of them knows. Understand?”
“Aye.” Jens did understand the instruction, if not his mistresses mind. “Will do, Majesty.” He raised his fist in salute, then he pulled his horse aside, letting the wagon pass before heading towards the men riding behind it.
“A collar?” Gabrielle whispered. “Why do you want them to think that?”
“Because it’ll get them excited.” Xena replied, in a droll tone. “Trust me, muskrat, there’s a method to my madness.” She thought about releasing the roof spars completely then thought better of it as an injudicious motion made a jolt of pain go down the back of her thighs. She settled on a nibble around the edge of Gabrielle’s ear instead. “Even if it’s usually more madness than method.” She added, with a chuckle.
“How does your back feel?” Gabrielle asked, chuckling softly herself. “You sound better.”
“Hurts.” Xena replied. “Think I’ll lay down for a little while again.” She waited for her lover to release her, then she made her way back over to the back bench. “Got any more of those candy things?” She eased herself down onto her knees, then managed to roll onto the bench without throwing her back out.
Having the weight off her legs felt so good she made herself ignore her awareness of the motion again and she accepted the candy ball that Gabrielle produced for her with a smile. “Lay down here with me.” She patted the bench.
Gabrielle set the chakram down in it’s bag and then she crawled over Xena’s body, ending up squished between the back wall of the coach and the queen. She put her head down on the pillows and kissed Xena’s shoulder, watching her angular profile. “If you put a collar on Sholeh, can I make her roll over?”
For a moment, Xena was absolutely still. Then she turned her head to look at Gabrielle, her face twitching as she fought not to laugh.
“Sit up and beg?”
“I’m gonna make you sit up and beg in a minute.”
“Can I lick your ear.. ow!”
Xena folded her arms over the wooden spar, leaning her weight partly on her arms, and partly on her knees as she knelt on the bench at the front of the coach.
The forest was now close on their right side, and she could plainly see the curve of the road as it headed into the past just in front of them.
Brendan’s cadre was on her right, and as they came even with the closest part of the forest, she let out a low whistle. “”Stop this thing.” She instructed the driver, whose leg wasn’t far from her elbow.
“Majesty.” The man obeyed, as the army slowed around them, Brendan’s yells echoing up and down the lines. “Is this damn thing rattling your bones, Majesty, as it is mine?” The driver asked, glancing down at his royal passenger. “Bloody crats there didn’t go more than the length of that place in this I’m thinking”
“Eh. It’s all right.” Xena replied, as she whistled again, and both Brendan and Jens turned their horses to respond to her call. “My consort’s loving it. Aren’tcha, muskrat.?”
Gabrielle’s pale head appeared next to her. She was kneeling next to Xena on the bench, and she peered outside with somewhat energetic interest. “Loving what?” She asked. “You? Absolutely.” She watched the motion of the army as it stopped around them.
Xena rubbed the bridge of her nose with her fingers, then sighed, as she was rescued by Brendan and Jens arrival. “All right, boys.” She said. “Listen close.”
The two captains obligingly herded their mounts over, Brendan grabbing the horses reins as the driver hopped down to stretch his legs out. “Thought we were moving straight through, Majesty.” Jens said, loudly.
“We are.” Xena responded, in a similar tone. Then she dropped her voice. “Circle and say we’re taking a break.” She said. “The back lines face inward, to the road. Put their backs to the trees.”
Both Brendan and Jens watched her, closely.
“Send a group of volunteers.. three or four.. into the pass. Tell them to look for signs of the Persians.”
“Majesty.” Brendan leaned on the driver’s seat, within arms reach of the queen. “We’ve got scouts out there already.”
“I know.” Xena met his eyes steadily. “Make sure you call for volunteers, and don’t take any of the guys who came from home with us.”
Brendan went silent, then he nodded in understanding. “Will do, Majesty.” He said briskly. He turned his horse and started off down the line, with Jens behind him.
“Can I do anything?” Gabrielle asked.
“Yes.” Xena said, in a surprisingly brisk tone. “I want you to go out there, to where those men are around that wagon, and ask for a crossbow and a quiver of arrows. Tell them it’s for you.”
The blond woman looked a little confused, but she scrambled off the bench and straightened her surcoat, running her fingers through her hair as she opened the door to the coach and hopped down to the ground.
It felt good to stretch her legs. Gabrielle shut the coach door and walked towards the supply wagons, which had been rolling along behind the queen’s coach. Some of the soldiers were gathering there as well, handing over bundles of what she thought at first were sticks, and then realized were arrows.
The men parted as she approached, and salutes and bows made it dangerous to walk for a moment so she stopped until they were done, then moved forward again. “Hello.”
“Your grace.” The man in the first supply wagon bowed, almost throwing himself off the seat of the wagon and onto the ground. “Is there something we can get for you?”
Gabrielle glanced around at all the avid eyes watching her, and felt a touch embarrassed. “Ah, well, yes.” She said. “Could I please have one of those crossbows, and some arrows to go with it?”
Two of the soldiers immediately started to jump up onto the running board of the wagon, crashing into each other before they managed to grab hold of the bundles of spare weapons stacked on top. “Here, careful! I’ve got it!” One said.
“I’ve got it.” The other grabbed one of the weapons and hopped off the wagon, carefully extending it towards Gabrielle. “Is this what you want, m’lady?”
Gabrielle had no real idea of what it was she was supposed to want, but she figured the soldier probably knew. “Yes.” She opened her hands and took the crossbow, feeling it’s surprising weight as she brought it close to her body.
It was wooden, mostly, with iron parts to it, and she cradled it as she remembered, in a single, vivid flash that this was the weapon that had killed Lila.
She almost dropped it. The iron felt cold against her hands, against her fingers that had curled instinctively around the triggering mechanism. Her breath came short, and she felt the sounds around her grow strange and loud, barely aware of her surroundings until a hand fell on her shoulder.
The crowd, and the sounds of the army faded back in, and she turned her head to find the soldier who handed her the weapon standing at her side, his face crumpled in concern. “Ah. Sorry.” Gabrielle murmured. “I was just thinking about something. “
The other solider had hopped off the wagon, and now approached with a thick quiver full of arrows. “Here you are, your grace.” He said. “Will this be enough?”
Was it? “Um.. “ Gabrielle studied the quiver. “Maybe I better take two.” She said. “Do you have another one like that?”
The soldier jumped back up onto the wagon hurriedly. “For certain, m’lady. Just be a minute.”
“You’ll protect her Majesty with that, yeh?” The first soldier asked. “You’re a fierce one, you are, your grace.”
Gabrielle’s eyeballs popped, just slightly. “Ah, well.. “ She murmured.
“Aye.” The second soldier came back with another quiver. “For sure her majesty feels safe with you around.”
“Did you see her tear that chunk out of that Persian?” One of the other men said. “Saw it from the side I did – and so did those damn curly beards!” He added. “Looked like their mammas smacked them.!”
Gabrielle accepted the other quiver and managed a smile. “Well, I do try to.. uh.. contribute in any way I can.” She edged backwards. “So um.. let me go.. uh.. get ready to take care of the queen.” She ducked past three or four more soldiers and started back towards the coach.
“Twas a very brave thing you did, Gabrielle.” Brendan had caught her up. “Don’t be shy about it.” He had the reins of his horse in his hand, and he walked alongside her, his gloved hands clenching and unclenching just a bit.
“I didn’t really do it on..” Gabrielle paused, and frowned. “Well, I can’t really say that because you don’t really do something like that by accident but it was just the only thing I could think of to do to get away from her. It wasn’t brave, just kinda desperate.”
“Aye.” The old captain agreed. “But it saved us.”
“Well, I don’t think…”
“Gabrielle.” Brendan paused and put a hand on her shoulder. “If they’d have taken you, we’d all be dead.”
Gabrielle faced him. “Oh, I don’t’ think so.” She disagreed. “You guys are great fighters.”
“Gabrielle.” Brendan repeated, his eyes taking on a wry expression. “If she’d have taken you, she’d have taken Xena.”
Opening her mouth to protest, Gabrielle could only let the breath trickle from her lungs as the meaning of his words penetrated. “Oh.”
The army was gathering up to one side of the road, and breaking out travel rations as they stood in clumps and lines, their back to the forest.
“All right, men. Just a short break.” Jens was coming back towards them, calling down the line. “Get a rest, and water, and get ready to move on.” He came back up to where Brendan and Gabrielle were standing. “Got the advance party gone out, Brendan.”
“Good.” Brendan said.
“That bad lot that was bothering you went with em.” Jens told Gabrielle. “No offense, he’s from your home, they say, but a complainer like nothing else I’ve seen. Glad he’s decided to make himself useful.”
Perdicus? Gabrielle took tighter hold on the arrow quivers. “Oh. Well, that’s great.” She said. “I’m glad too.”
“Aye, bet you are.” Brendan remarked. “Let’s get this gear back to her Maj. Things’ll start popping soon enough.”
They walked back over to the coach, where a visibly impatient Xena was waiting for them.
“What in the Hades took so long?” The queen growled. “I thought you went back to the damn city for it.” She had her head poking through the opening and looked almost comical. “Get back in here.”
Gabrielle pulled the door open and put her burden inside, then she climbed after it. “Sorry about that.” She apologized. “Is this what you wanted?” She brought the crossbow over to where Xena was standing. “The guys were..uh…”
“Fawning over you?” Xena regarded the crossbow. “Yeah, that’ll do.” She said. “Good.”
Gabrielle set the crossbow down and went back for the arrows. “How long are we doing to stop for? Should I get something for you to eat?”
“We’re not stopping.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle climbed back up onto the bench. “I may not be an expert on armies, but I know when people are standing still.” She pointed at the troops. “We are stopped.”
“We’re not stopped.” The queen informed her. “We’re setting a trap.” She slowly tested resting all her weight on her knees, wincing as she felt something pop out of place. “Damn it.”
“Get behind me.” Xena instructed. “Grab hold of the edge there and.. yeah.” She felt the support as her lover pressed up against her, and held her in place. “Now hand me up that bow.” She said. “And get ready to pass me arrows.”
“Um.. okay.” Gabrielle was confused, but willing. “What are you going to shoot at?” She asked. “It can’t be Perdicus, because he went with the scout people.”
Xena chuckled very softly under her breath. “Did he?”
“Well well. Imagine that.” Xena fitted an arrow to the crossbow mechanism and cocked it. Then she let the weapon rest against the wooden partition, and peered out. She let out two whistles, short and sharp, then a long one.
Brendan and Jens started slowly sauntering down the lines, stopping from time to time to chat with the groups of soldiers.
“Now we wait” Xena watched the trees intently.
“What are we waiting for?” Gabrielle asked, feeling somewhat silly, but glad she was being of some use to Xena.
“Big old stinking, stinging horseflies.”
Xena settled the business end of the crossbow against the wooden coach wall and sighted down it. Outside, the men were lined up along the road, or sitting on it’s edge, a low buzz of casual conversation breaking the night stillness.
The torches had been moved up, so that the coach was in shadow and now Xena reached over to douse the candle inside to plunge the interior into darkness as well.
“Don’t get excited.” The queen let the darkness settle around her, then she focused her vision on the trees. Mentally, she counted the fractions of a candlemark moving past and when she got to a certain number, she let out a slight, low whistle.
Brendan heard her. He pushed off from his position next to the coach and started up the line in an almost casual stroll. As he passed the first group of soldiers Xena put her head down and sighted along the crossbow length.
The shadows were deep against the edge of the forest, the pale line of the grass stark against the heavier outlines of the trees and as she watched, between one breath and the next, she saw the shadows move. “Know something, muskrat?”
“Not a whole lot, no.” Gabrielle replied in a mournful tone.
“There’s only one thing I like better than sex.” Xena’s finger tightened on the trigger.
“Yeah.” The queen chuckled softly. “Being right.”
“Oh.”Gabrielle could feel the energy building in the body she was pressed against, and she moved her head a little so she could peek past Xena’s shoulder to see what she was looking at.
Trouble was, she couldn’t see what she was looking at. She could see the outlines of the soldiers on the road, but past that, it was just all pitch dark and though she knew Xena was watching something - she could see the faint twitches in the skin of her face as her eyes moved - darned if she knew what it was.
“Okay.” Xena breathed. “Here we go.”
“Where are we going?”
“See that line over there?” Xena whispered back. “Where the grass meets the trees?”
Gabrielle studied the darkness. “No.” She answered honestly. “All I can see is the butts of the horses pulling the coach and those five or six guys with spears.”
Xena was momentarily silent. “Really?” She asked, after a second. “You can’t see those trees over there?”
Xena reached up and scratched her eyebrow, then she rubbed her eyes. “There’s a bunch of Persians coming up behind the men.” She explained. “They’re sneaking up to attack us.”
Gabrielle stared harder. “Really?”
“Why are we letting them do that?”
It occurred to Xena that if her beloved muskrat couldn’t see the attack coming, maybe the men couldn’t either, especially those closest to the torches. “Strategy.” She held back the whistle she was about to let loose, and watched the line move forward instead.
“Oh.” Gabrielle decided to stop straining her eyes. She let her chin rest on Xena’s shoulder instead, both her hands gripping the wooden planks to ether side of the queen and providing support for her.
Xena put her finger back on the triggering mechanism and swept her eyes over the grass, watching the waving tips as the line of Persians moved closer and closer to the road.
Jens came to stand by her, hands clasped around a spear as he apparently relaxed against the coach, his body posture casual and unconcerned. “Bit like a rabbit here, aren’t we?”
“A bit.” Xena agreed. “How far can you see past the lines?”
Jens studied the scene. “Length, maybe behind the men.” He told his queen.
Xena turned her head and peered at Gabrielle’s profile, then she looked back at her captain. “Okay.” She muttered. “There’s a line of those bastards about ten body lengths and closing.”
“Don’t blow it.” The queen cautioned. “Wait.”
Jens’ head moved forward, and the skin next to his eyes crinkled. “By the gods, MIstress.” He whispered. “Athena has given you the eyes of an owl, I swear it.” He glanced at Xena’s sharp profile. “We’re targets out here, though.”
“Sh.” Xena felt her breathing increase as battle neared. “Trust me.”
“With everything.” Jens said, fervently.
Xena swallowed, and licked her lips, watching the quivering grass tips as they fanned out, spanning the line of her men and coming even with the supply wagons. She wondered briefly if they knew where she was, then she disregarded the notion as the line started moving faster. “Get ready.”
Jens straightened up from the wagon and stood with one hand gripped around his spear, letting the other rest casually on the hilt of his sword. All along the line, soldiers were doing the same, watching Brendan, who was watching Jens, who was watching Xena.
The queen waited, counting her own heartbeats, and the breaths against her ear and the flickering of the torches as she watched the threat coming closer and closer, now with in her bow range, and yet still she held off.
Held off until she saw the motion stop and sensed the energy change, and then she took in a deep breath , pressing back against Gabrielle as she sighted down the crossbow and released the shaft, along with a piercing whistle that echoed and echoed over the suddenly still space.
Her arrow thunked into the torch nearest to her, taking it right out of the hand of the soldier holding it and sending it flying into the grass behind him.
The army turned in a swirl of men, and armor and weapons as a line of dark figures erupted from the grass, launching an attack that was met with ready swords and thrusting spears as the two lines clashed in a flurry of yells and crashing.
Xena quickly reloaded, and picked her target, sending a shaft through the helmet of an oncoming Persian. Since it was dark in the coach, she knew she was relatively hidden, and she took advantage of that as she cocked the weapon again.
The Persians were surprised they weren’t a surprise. Xena could see it in their faces, now visible to her as the torches extended their glow and the grasses she’d set on fire caught. They had anticipated an ambush, and now faced with very ready soldiers their attack faltered.
“Xena, watch out!”
Xena spotted the Persian making a dash for the horses. She loaded her crossbow and waited, watching the man fight off one of the city volunteers and dodge past him to reach for the nearest animal, his sword moving back away from the animal as his hand grasped for the reins.
Interesting. The queen shot him in the neck, sending his body plunging past the horse to the ground with a spurt of blood. She pondered as she reloaded, then she let out three short, sharp whistles, before she settled the crossbow back on the ledge and found her next target heading right for her, a spear ahead of his body as he charged towards the coach. “Think he saw me.”
“Uh.. I think so too.” Gabrielle fought the urge to duck, holding herself and Xena in place more by will than by using her now shaking arms.
The man looked angry, and desperate. Xena watched his eyes as he closed in on her, seeing the shift to the horses before he made a lunge towards the opening. Several of her own soldiers were pelting towards him, seeing his aim, but Xena calmly sighted down the front of the crossbow and let it fire, burying it in his shoulder and sending the spear off course to thunk solidly in the wall of the coach and stop him cold in his tracks.
He spun backwards, holding onto his shoulder as Xena’s men caught up with him and cut him down.
Xena turned her attention back to the lines, spotting an older man in more ornate armor, with the thick, curly beard common to the true Persians. “Bet he’s in charge.” She loaded an arrow into the bow, and waited, glad of the protection of the coach as she took her time to take aim.
The man got past Jens and ducked under his sword, whipping a mace from his belt and aiming a blow for her captains head. Xena gauged angles and let the arrow fly just as his arm reached its backswing, nailing him in the bicep as Jens sensed the attack and dove for the ground.
The Persian dropped the mace and grabbed for the arrow, as one of the city volunteers rushed at him, knocking him off his feet as the man bravely stabbed at him with a short sword. They tumbled together as Jens recovered, getting up and plunging his spear into the Persian’s chest.
“Wow.” Gabrielle sighed, right into her ear.
“Sure is a lot easier than using that damn sword, ain’t it?” Xena cocked the weapon again, watching the battle alertly. “I don’t know why I never thought of this before. Woulda saved my ass a lot of trouble.” She let out a whistle, seeing one man throw down his weapons and stand, arms raised. “Not to mention saved me a lot of nights drinking the pain away.”
Brendan let out a yell of his own, and raised his sword up. “Surrender and live, ya bastards!” He called out. “Or die in the grass like the snakes ya are!” He slammed his hilts into one of the nearby enemy soldiers who was grappling with one of Xena’s men and knocked him to the ground.
“NIce.” Xena chuckled softly.
“It sure is a lot less dangerous for you.” Gabrielle watched the action, seeing the Persians starting to drop their weapons. “Is that it? We won again?”
“Sure looks like it.” The queen reloaded, just in case. “It’s a lot less dangerous for you too, muskrat.” She added, as it became obvious the Persians were, in fact, surrendering to Xena’s men who gathered them into small pockets, collecting their weapons.
“That’s for sure.” Gabrielle peered over her shoulder. The high spirits of Xena’s troops were becoming evident, as the seasoned soldiers herded their captives and the new men from the city chattered excitedly about their sudden, and somewhat unexpected victory. “I think I like this better.”
Xena set the crossbow down and leaned her arms on the wood. “Okay, you can let go now.” She told her lover. “Let me get my ass together before I have to go out there and talk to those bastards.”
“Want some wine?”
“Might be a good idea.” The queen felt the pain mounting, now that the excitement of battle had faded. “And get me those herbs.”
Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder. “Xena.” She hesitated. “Can I go talk to them for you? I hate to see you hurt yourself more.”
Xena leaned against the wall, sorely tempted. She could feel the spasms starting up, and she knew no matter how many herbs she poured down her throat in how much wine, that swaggering around outside was going to mean candlemarks and candlemarks of agonizing pain afterward.
She wanted to go out and consolidate her victory.
She didn’t want to end up screaming because of it.
“Damn it, life sucks sometimes.” The queen sighed. “I’m getting too damn old for this.” She carefully eased her way down from her knees, aching and half numb from the pressure, and laid down flat on the couch. “Tell you what…”
“What?” Gabrielle finished relighting the candle, bringing a soft, warm glow back to the coach’s interior. “What should I tell them?” She sat down on the edge of the bench, taking Xena’s hand in her own.
It felt so good to be lying still and flat. Xena watched the candle flickers outline Gabrielle’s face and thought about what to tell them. She finally smiled and squeezed her lover’s hand. “Don’t tell them anything.” She said. “Let’s let them wonder.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle smiled back. “Still want the wine?”
Xena nodded. “And the herbs.” She sighed. “Maybe I can drug myself senseless before we start moving again.”
“Down the road?”
The queen’s eyes took on a slightly mischevious twinkle. “No.” She shook her head. “Someplace I might even be able to get a few winks of sleep.”
“Or maybe have sex with you.”
The army had formed two lines down the road, the ditch off to one side filled with bodies laid head to foot. Men were sliding extra swords into belts, and shouldering spears taken off the dead Persians. Brendan had captured one of the long, curved swords and he slid it partly from it’s scabbard with a satisfied smile.
“Good night’s work.” Jens commented. “Maj nailed it.”
“Always does.” The old captain replied. “Got a gods sense, she does. Third eye, or something.” He slung the new sword over his shoulder. “Let me go find out what she wants done with the rest of these rats.” He started towards the end of the line, where the captured Persians were being guarded by about a dozen of Xena’s men, soldiers with grim faces and ready crossbows.
Brendan slowed to regard them, before he shook his head and circled the guards, heading towards the royal coach standing squarely on the road. The moon had set, and now only the stars twinkled overhead, dimmed a little by the fluttering torches.
Brendan stopped and turned his head. He found himself looking at one of the Persians, a tall man with heavy, broad shoulders and the air of a warrior. “Aye?”
The man ducked his head diffidently. “A word with you, captain.” He said. “To our mutual good, maybe.” He added, clasping his hands before him.
The grizzled fighter studied him, and let him wait for a few moments before he walked over and faced the man, letting one hand fall casually on his sword hilt. “Talk.” He said, briefly. “I’ve got work to do.”
It was exhilarating. Xena rested her hands on her stomach and twiddled her fingers, her body stretched out in grudging comfort. She heard footsteps approaching the coach, and she reached over to grasp her wine goblet, taking a sip as a deferential knock came at the door. “Come.”
Brendan poked his head in. “Majesty, this man would like a word with ye.” He held the door open, exposing the face of one of the enemy soldiers.
“Does he now?” Xena casually crossed her booted feet and regarded the man. “You almost done getting rid of those useless carcasses?” She asked Brendan. “I want to get moving.”
“Almost, Mistress.” Brendan said. “What’s to be done with the rest of em?”
Xena smiled at the other soldier. “Depends on what he’s got to say, doesn’t it?” She sipped her wine. “Well?”
The man was half hidden in shadows, but he had the thick, full beard of the true Persians, and he reminded Xena just a bit of Heydar. He put his hands in front of him, clasped carefully and dipped his head in a reasonably respectful manner. “Your Majesty.”
“Nice start.” Xena kept her eyes on him as Gabrielle came over to her side and knelt, offering her a platter. She took a piece of whatever it was and bit into it, hoping her lover hadn’t picked this very moment to try slipping her some nasty vegetable or other. “Keep going.”
It was a piece of apple. Xena munched on it as the soldier collected himself, his eyes darting to Gabrielle and then back to her.
“We have traveled a long way.” The man said. “We came to conquer, and gain great riches for ourselves, and what we have found here is not easy conquest and gold, but defeat and a minion from Ahriman at every corner.”
“Did you just call me a minion?” Xena’s eyebrows lifted. “Gabrielle, get me the chakram.”
Gabrielle looked at her, then she put the plate down and turned, rising to head back towards the shelf she’d stored their gear on.
“I meant no offense, your Majesty.” The soldier said, in a mild tone. “To be called so in my land is to be feared, and respected.”
“We’re not in your land.” Xena accepted the bag Gabrielle was holding out to her. She slid the worn leather off the glittering weapon and ran her thumb along the side. “You’re in my land, and in my land, I’m not anyone’s minion.”
Gabrielle knelt again, and picked up the plate, her ears cocked to listen for the man’s reaction.
“Do you not serve your gods as we do ours?” The soldier asked.
“Do I look like I do?” Xena shot back, as she accepted another piece of apple from her solicitous bedmate. “You said you had something to talk to me about. Talk, or I’ll start the killing now. We’ve got places to go, and people to beat into submission.”
The Persian studied her briefly in silence. “Your majesty, we would join you.” He said. “We would rather kill in your service than die from it.”
Xena took a sip of her wine, watching him over the rim of her goblet. “Why?” She asked, finally.
“Why would we rather die than live?” He asked, in a slightly quizzical tone.
“Why should I believe you’d fight for me instead of kill us as snakes behind the lines?”
“Ah.” The soldier nodded. “That is a hard question.”
“Not for me.” The queen told him. “I’d just as soon kill you as worry about it. You’re not worth me risking my men’s skins for.”
Brendan stood a little taller, without really moving. Just a shifting of his body, catching the Persian’s attention in a flick of his eyes.
“We are Persian soldiers.” The man straightened also, for a completely different reason.
“That and a dinar can get you a roll in the market.” Xena gave Gabrielle a sideways glance, and was rewarded with another slice of fruit. “So what, you’re Persian soldiers? “ The queen chuckled. “I’ve been scattering Persian soldiers right and left with little more than my royal guard and my consort’s teeth.”
The Persian, to give him credit, mustered a wry smile. “That, your Majesty, is why we want to join you.” He said, with another graceful bow of his head. “We greatly dislike losing.”
Xena chuckled again. “Now we have something in common.” She just as gracefully countered. “I see you’re smarter than your friend Heydar.”
The man’s lip curled. “Sholeh’s bastard brother? I wish no part of him.”
Xena’s pale eyes widened a little, and she heard Gabrielle make a tiny, surprised sound. “What’s your name?”
“Kourosh.” The man answered. “I am the son of a warrior, and the grandson of a warrior, and my greatest wish is to live to father another like me, not to die here in this strange, cold land at the hand of one I could learn much from.”
Oo. Xena almost smirked. “If you can wave that sword as well as you wag your tongue you might be useful after all.” She allowed. “Are you sure you speak for the rest of your bunch?” She watched him carefully, seeing his body shift and his shoulders relax, though his face remained quietly impassive.
Kourosh nodded. “They asked me to speak for them.” He added. “As I am the senior, and perhaps the only one with the heart to speak with a demon.”
“Am I a demon?” Xena turned her head and looked at Gabrielle. “You think so?”
Gabrielle smiled at her, a gentle, loving look. “Of course not.”
The queen turned her attention back to her visitor. “Kourosh.”
Xena crooked a finger at him. “C’mere.”
Brendan’s eyes widened a little, but he stood aside and the man carefully climbed into the coach, the ceiling cramping his body as he walked across the creaking floor towards her.
Xena held his eyes as he approached, projecting an air of amused confidence that overshadowed his greater bulk and fact he was towering over her.
He paused, and stared down at her for a long moment.
Gabrielle swung around, bringing one foot up so she was kneeling on one knee, and she braced her hand on the padded bench, looking as cutely intimidating as she was capable of.
Slowly, Kourosh turned his head to study her, then he exhaled, and with a motion admirably graceful, he lowered himself to both his knees, and then, to Xena’s surprise, he leaned down and touched his head to the floor before her.
Gabrielle studied him in mute puzzlment, then she turned her head to look at Xena, her shoulders lifting in a half shrug.
Xena cursed silently, recognizing this gratifying obesience required her to respond in some manner. She reached over and took hold of her sword hilt, and pulled the weapon free of it’s sheath, twirling it as she brought it across her body and scattering flashes of candlelight over all of them.
Kourosh didn’t stir. He remained in his crouched position, as Xena’s blade whispered through the air, coming to rest on the top of his head as the queen sat up and braced her weight on her free arm. “I’m no demon, Persian.”
Kourosh looked up at her, lifting his head just enough to see her face. “You are more than what I am, your Majesty. That is enough for me.”
Xena studied him a moment more. “I accept your service.” She said, in a quiet voice. “If it’s falsely given, I will cut your heart out and walk over it.”
His lashes fluttered, and then he nodded.
“And if that’s not bad enough.” Xena tapped him on the head with her sword, then she drew it back.”I’ll let Gabrielle beat you up and then tell everyone you screamed like a girl.”
Startled, Kourush looked at her, then at Gabrielle, then back at her.
“She’s mean.” The queen warned. “And she’s already had a taste of Persian.”
Kourush looked back at Gabrielle. Gabrielle met his gaze, then after a second, she licked her lips.
His nostrils flared and he edged up and away from the ground, settling on his knees and folding his hands in his lap. “I understand, your Majesty.”
“No you don’t.”
“Get out of here.” Xena whacked him on the cheek with her sword before he could move. “Go tell your buddies they’re not going to die right away and let’s get moving. Brendan!”
Gabrielle held on tight to the wall with one hand, her other arm around Xena’s back as the queen knelt and watched out the opening. “Oh boy.”
Xena had both hands gripping the wall in an attempt to keep her body from being slung from side to side as the coach rumbled over the broken ground heading for the forest. The one bright side from her perspective was the violent motion didn’t disturb her stomach nearly as much as the slower one did.
“Look out!” Gabrielle yelped, as a wheel hit a rock and she bounced off the bench, losing her grip both on Xena and on the wall. “Whoa!”’
Xena hesitated, then she released one hand off the wood and grabbed Gabrielle’s belt, regretting it instantly as her back seized up and she buckled and slid backwards, ending up falling onto the bench as her lover grabbed at her and they both were bounced off onto the floor of the coach.
“Ow!” Xena grunted, flailing around looking for something to hang onto. She held her breath and bit the inside of her mouth as the coach tipped to one side and she started to slide, only to be halted unceremoniously by Gabrielle flopping on top of her and holding her still.
“Sheep!” Gabrielle panted. “For the love of Zeus, Xena… this is crazy?”
Now flat on her back, and not moving, Xena had time to let the spasm fade as the coach bounced and rolled. She was able to brace her boots against one wall and press the back of her head against the floor so the motion wouldn’t knock her unconscious.
“Do you want me to..”
“Stay right where you are.” The queen ordered. “Don’t move.”
Gabrielle was nose to nipple with her, and halfway through getting up, she settled back down with a grunt. “Okay.”
Xena listened, as she heard Brendan yelling orders to the men. No one understood what she was doing, Hades, she barely understood it herself, but she had a gut feeling she needed to get the army under cover and she’d learned long ago not to ignore stuff like that.
“Oof.” Gabrielle bounced a little, as the coach did. “Sorry.”
The wagon righted itself, and went along a little more smoothly. Xena waited, then she glanced down at her adorable sack of turnips, making out Gabrielle’s profile in the dim light. “Okay.” She said. “I think we’re almost there.”
“Can I get up now?”
“You want to?”
Gabrielle’s nose wrinkled up a little. “Not really.” She confessed, dredging up a grin before she carefully got up on her hands and knees and crawled over to the bench, using it to get upright so she could see out the opening again. “Oh.. Oh!” She yelped in alarm.
Xena didn’t stop to think. She rolled over and got to her feet, jumping over to where Gabrielle was kneeling before her body had time to sieze up on her. She got her hands on the wall and peered out, in time to see branches about to swallow up the horses pulling her coach. “Whoa!”
The edge of the coach slammed into something, and they both went flying backwards to end up on the floor again, tumbling in a ball of arms and legs and stifled curses as the coach came to an abrupt halt.
“Son of a Bacchae!” Xena groaned, half curled up helplessly in a ball.
“Oh my gosh.” Gabrielle untangled herself from the floor and scrambled over to where her lover was slumped, taking hold of the queen’s shoulder gently. “Xena!”
The pale eyes fluttered open. “What?” She responded. “You’re not going to ask if I’m okay, are you?”
Gabrielle’s jaw shut with an audible click.
“Go find out what’s going on.” Xena said. “Everyone should get inside the treeline, so you can’t see them from the road. Hurry.”
Her lover was caught between wanting to obey, and wanting to stay and comfort her. Finally, though, Gabrielle patted her arm and got up, going to the door of the coach and opening it. She hopped outside and closed the door, the sounds of the army surrounding them floating through the air.
With a sigh, Xena slowly rolled over onto her back, easing her boots up so her knees were bent and she was looking straight up at the roof of the coach. The pain almost brought tears to her eyes, and she spent a few seconds just breathing.
Outside, she could hear the rambling chaos of the army. She could hear Gabrielle’s voice, nearby, possibly beside the horses, and hear the driver working the traces to get the animals free of the coach.
After a few minutes, the spasms subsided, and she rolled over again, towards the side of the coach. She took hold of the side spars and pulled herself upright, grabbing the top support as her legs threatened not to hold her.
Not a good sign. Xena tensed her arms and shoulders and lifted her weight up, slowly rotating her lower body until she felt a set of uncomfortable pops in her back and felt a wave of prickling sensation go down the back of her thighs.
Then she lowered her self down again, this time breathing a small sigh of relief as she remained upright. She waited until the tingling stopped, then she made her way over to the door and knocked it open, leaning out to see what was going on.
The driver spotted her and came over, leaving the horses behind. “Majesty, begging your pardon. The horses…”
“Relax.” Xena leaned one arm on the coach door, and held casually on the top with her other. She studied the ground they’d covered, the road and the bend into the pass just visible over the tops of the grass. “The ride made it all the more fun.” She glanced back at the man. “Get the horses unhitched.”
The driver scuttled gratefully off.
Brendan took his place. “Mistress..”
“Get the men into attack formation just behind the trees.” Xena cut him off. “Quickly. Archers and spears in the front, and get the mounted riders ready to come out behind them.”
Brendan looked out over the peaceful plain, then up at her. “Aye.” He replied briefly, turning and heading back to where the troops were milling.
“Xena.” Gabrielle came up to where she was standing and put a hand on her leg. “They found the Persian camp. Those new guys said we should take stuff from it.”
“Yeah?” The queen studied the lines. “Go tell them to get… no.” She paused and turned, cocking her head a little and turning her ears into the wind. “Wait.”
Gabrielle waited. She rubbed her arms a little, in the very early morning chill, exhaling and seeing her breath in front of her as she stood in the long grass. She wasn’t really sure why Xena had sent them all scrambling for the trees, but she hoped it meant they could take a little break now.
“We don’t have time.” Xena said. “We need to get ready to attack.”
Gabrielle, as Brendan had, looked out over the silent plain, and then back at Xena. Unlike the old captain, she put her hands on her hips and tilted her head in question. “What are we attacking? I don’t’ see anything out there except maybe some rabbits in the grass on that side.” She pointed at some moving tips.
Leave it to Gabrielle. “The Persians.” Xena said. “Jens!” She called her other captain over. “They have a fire still on in that camp?”
“Banked.” Jens reported. “Want me to take some fellers in there to sort it out?”
“No.” Xena said. “I want you to get ready to fight. Keep them men on the lines. We have time for scavaging later.” She paused. “Maybe.”
Jens scratched his ear. “Think they’ve got more scouts out, Mistress?” He asked, after a second. “The men here, they don’t think so. Said they were the ones Sholeh picked to stay behind, said she was heading fast as she could up our way.”
“No scouts.” Xena said. “She’ll turn around.”
Jens half saluted and moved quickly off, clapping his hand on the shoulder of one of the archers and pointing him towards a line of boulders just inside the tree line. “Line em up, men!” He ordered the soldiers. “Get ready to fight.”
Gabrielle got up on the running board of the coach, now disengaged from it’s team. “Are you sure they’re coming?” She asked.
“I’m sure.” The queen responded. She turned her head and let out a low whistle, pausing until she heard Tiger respond. “Tell them to let him loose.” She told Gabrielle. “I want him over here.”
“You said you didn’t want to ride.”
“I don’t have a choice.” Xena said. “I can’t lead the battle from this damn wagon and.. “ She hesitated. “Just go, Gabrielle. We’re running out of time.”
Gabrielle put a hand on her leg, then she turned and trotted off towards where the horses were loosely circled nearby.
Xena turned her head to watch the pass. Was she sure Sholeh would turn around? Yeah. She was sure. Would she bring her entire army back through the pass, something Xena desperately wanted her to do? Maybe.
Could her rag tag little band of city wags, tired solders, and converted Persians handle Sholeh’s army?
Xena had to smile. Even though she was in pain, and she wanted nothing more than to be home, in her own bed, with a hot cup of mulled cider and a naked muskrat, she had to smile because being here, directing this battle and taking this chance was about as much fun as she could handle having at the moment.
Strange. It was such a risk, and yet, she savored the challenge of it, this rolling of the dice that could end up giving her either a great win, or a truly harrowing loss.
Xena looked up as Tiger trotted over, shaking his dark head as he stuck his nose right into her chest and exhaled. “Hey you little bastard. How are ya?’
Gabrielle appeared leading Patches. “We’re ready.”
Xena looked from her tow headed little lover to her lover’s shaggy haired little pony and chuckled. “We sure are.” She motioned Kourosh over. “You ready to fight on the other side now?”
The Persian had just seated a dagger in his belt and he came over, his dark eyes twinkling a little in the starlight. “Think you to draw her back, your Majesty? She was bound to take your seat.”
“She’ll be here.” Xena smiled at him. “Sooner than you think.”
The Persian studied her, and then he smiled back. “We all knew, wasn’t your seat she wanted, truly. Begging the rudeness.”
Xena stroked Tiger’s head, giving him a kiss between his eyes. “No chance.” She said. “That’s given elsewhere. Along with the rest of me.” She took a steadying breath, then she grabbed her saddle bow and back and mostly with her arms pulled herself aboard the stallion’s saddle. “Such as it is.”
It hurt. But after she hastily removed her boots from her stirrups and let her legs dangle, her body straightened up a little and the pain eased. “All right.” She gathered Tiger’s reins in her fingers. “Heads up!” Her ears cocked. “Weapons ready!”
Gabrielle tugged at her leggings, and she looked down.
“Want yours?” The blond woman asked. “Weapons, I mean?”
Oh. Oops. “Yeah.” Xena muttered. “Probably would help.” She cleared her throat. “Then get on scruffy’s back cause I don’t want to lose you.” She watched Gabrielle disappear into the coach and cocked her ears, hearing a low, faint rumbling at the very edges of her hearing.
C’mon, ya bitch.
Let’s get this done. Xena stared at the road, her fingers twitching. I want to go home.