Queen of Hearts
Xena leaned forward and rested her elbows on her saddlebow, gazing across the dark grass towards the barely visible road winding into the pass. A line of soldiers were racing into position on the berm, spreading out to either side of her and Brendan gathered his mounted riders up to either side of Tiger’s big form.
After the soldiers settled, and Patches had taken up his spot at her side, all eyes turned to Xena, watching her in question as silence spread over the plain.
Xena was aware of the attention. She kept her head straight, as slowly, the sounds of the night started up around them now that everyone wasn’t crashing and banging and yelling their heads off. Crickets chirped softly, and an owl hooted, somewhere nearby.
“Xena, what are we waiting for?”
“Shh.” Xena glanced at her companion. “Listen.”
Obediently, Gabrielle sat up straight in her saddle, and her face creased in concentration. “I’m listening.”
The blond woman paused, her head cocked to one side. “I think I just heard one of these horses poop. Is that what you meant?”
Xena sighed. “No.”
“Sorry, Xena” Gabrielle gave her an apologetic look. “I just hear stuff, like people moving around here. What do you hear?”
Xena didn’t answer for a moment, then she exhaled softly. “I hear an army coming.” She said. “And you know what, Gabrielle? I want this to be over.”
Gabrielle listened hard, the sounds of the rustling grass and the men around them almost overwhelming to her as she fought to figure out what the queen was talking about. She didn’t hear an army, all she heard was…
Wait. She rubbed her ear. “Xena, that sort of.. that rumbling.. is that what you hear?”
The queen’s brows hiked in mild surprise. “You hear it?”
“I think I feel it more than I hear it. “ Gabrielle admitted. “What are they going to do?”
Xena let out a low whistle, then two shorter ones. “Hold your fire until my mark!” She added, shifting her elbows a little to ease them from falling asleep holding up her weight. “When I signal, just fire as many damn arrows as you can fast as you can into everything that moves.”
The heads closest to her swung her way in puzzlement. “Mistress.” Brendan rode up. “What are we aiming at?” He pulled his horse up next to Tiger “There’s nothing out there.”
“There will be.”
Brendan shaded his eyes with his hand and stared towards the road. Then he looked at Xena in question.
“We can hear them coming.” Gabrielle stated. “Really.”
Brendan looked at there “Ye can?”
Solemnly, the blond haired woman nodded.
“Get ready.” Xena felt a deep, nervous quiver in her guts, as the low rumble now rolled lightly over the grass, and Brendan heard it as well. “This ain’t gonna be pretty.”
She could feel the weight of her sword on her back, but she knew this time it was only for show, and as she waited and watched the opening to the pass she had to admit to herself that for the first time in a long time she was going into a fight scared.
She didn’t like it one bit. She knew the expectation of these men, who’d seen her fight now for the last few sevendays, and she knew her own expectations for herself.
Knowing she was near helpless chewed her ass.
“Hey Xena?” Gabrielle was shifting her spear around, finding a good place to hold it without smacking her pony in the side or poking Tiger in the butt. “Won’t they attack us if we start shooting at them?”
“I hope so.” Xena took a deep breath, as the sound abruptly got louder. She whistled, then she leaned forward, staring intently through Tiger’s forward cocked ears. For a moment more, the quiet scene held it’s magic.
A moment more, and the starlight reflected on waving grasses, and an empty road.
Then with a shocking suddenness, the pass was filled with a flood of racing horses, truly almost soundless given the size of the force that exploded through the space between the hills.
“Bigods.” Brendan drew in a breath.
“Mm.” Xena watched the Persians thunder past, yells that had started to come out of throats dieing down as the army they’d expected to meet inexplicably wasn’t there.
The horses slowed, and the men running full out behind them pulled up in a cluster, captains riding back and yelling orders with waving swords as a group of ten riders broke off and bolted further down the road.
“Steady.” The queen whispered. “Steady, Brendan. Wait for it.”
“Shouldn’t we let them just…”
“And have them go sack the city?” The queen asked, sharply. “Find your balls, old man.” She whistled softly. “Get ready.”
A shiver went up and down the line, and Xena nudged Tiger forward just a bit, so the men could see his outline against the trees. She focused on the Persians, taking in the shifting motion and the momentum, that was bleeding away, some troops lunging into the grass to get out the way of the ones behind them.
She watched the edge of the pass intently. The last line of soldiers piled out of the pass and into the confusion and only then did she lift her hand up and after a brief pause to consider what kind of insane stupidity she was about to launch them into this time, she dropped it. “Fire.”
The long line of crossbowmen stretched to either side of her obeyed, aiming at the troops outlined in torchlight and the silver sheen from the cloudless sky of stars.
A line of Persians went down. “Keep firing.” Xena ordered. “Then get ready to run.”
“Run?” Brendan looked at her. “To where, Xena? Not in these trees, surely. It’s a full thicket in there.”
“I remember.” The queen agreed. “Just be ready.”
The Persians were diving for the ground, and the men on horseback milled around, some ducking in their saddles, others bolting down the road. The captains were gaining control over them though, and as the arrows continued to hail from the trees, arms began to point towards them, and Xena’s ears caught the sound of arrows coming back at her. “Careful!” She called out. “They’re shooting back.”
“Xena, they’re gonna come at us.” Brendan gathered his horses reins, as lines of soldiers began to do just that, gathering behind tightly held shields that now protected them from Xena’s forces fire.
“Yup.” The queen agreed. “Listen up!” She projected her voice, and heard the troop leaders echoing her down the lines. “Go right at them – then when I signal, FOLLOW ME.” She bellowed the last two words. “UNDERSTAND!”
The troops yelled back.
Xena now gathered herself up and studied the Persians, waiting for a lull in the fire before she let out a piercing whistle, and nudged Tiger in the ribs. “Stay with me, Gabrielle.” She told her consort. “And keep your head down!”
“I will!” Gabrielle settled her spear on the side furthest away from Xena, and urged Patches to follow his big friend forward as they rode through the trees, slowly enough to allow the foot soldiers to keep up.
The Persian’s shields helped them avoid the arrows, but the same items, big and bulky, prevented them from aiming back and cut their force effectively in half as bowmen slung their shields on their backs and hid behind other’s, trying to take a shot at Xena’s men.
But Xena’s forces were dressed in dark clothing, and their backs were to a dark forest, and they were making the most of both that, and high grasses. The front line of the Persians started to falter as Xena slid Tiger to the right hand side and let the troops go past her, keeping her horse in the deepest of the shadows.
She had a dark cloak in. Tiger was black as pitch. Xena alertly watched the lines movement, letting out short whistles as she rode slowly forward, one hand on her chakram, the other leaning on her saddlebow to keep her weight up off her back.
She caught sight of one of the Persian captains, circling the men and pointing vaguely in her direction.
“Xena!” Gabrielle saw the same thing, and suddenly Patches was surging forward as they got between Xena and the oncoming men.
Unwilling to allow her lover to be spitted like a hog, Xena unhitched her chakram and carefully squeezed her knees tighter as she cocked her arm and let the weapon fly, stifling a curse as her back unhelpfully seized up and nearly sent her toppling from Tiger’s tall back. “Gods be damned!”
The chakram hit it’s mark though, smashing the Persian captain in the face before it arced around to return to her hand so quickly she almost missed catching it.
Then she wished she had missed it, as another spasm hit and she fell forward against Tiger’s neck, startling the stallion. He crow hopped a few steps and snorted, and she just barely got the chakram back on it’s hook before she had to grab hold of his mane just to stay onboard. “Stop that you idiot!”
“Xena!” Brendan rode over, threading his way between the lines.
“Keep moving forward!” The queen ordered, getting her horse back under control. “Don’t worry about… “
Her peripheral vision caught the motion just in time, and she whirled Tiger around, sending him headlong into a clump of Persian soldiers about to surround Gabrielle. “Yahhh!”
Gabrielle had her spear up and she was frantically pushing the men off with the blunt end of it, flailing around Patches head as the Persians tried to pull her off his back. “Hey! Stop that!”
Tiger plowed into them, rearing up onto his hind legs and striking up with his forelegs as he responded to signals from his rider. His big hooves slashed out at the soldiers, who ducked and threw their arms over their heads as they dove out of the way.
Two of Xena’s men came into view, engaging the Persians as Gabrielle recovered her composure and started whacking around her with more confidence, letting out little yelps as her spear connected.
Xena caught her breath and then grabbed hold of her saddlebow, reaching out with her boot to snag a crossbow from one of the Persians rushing towards her consort. Her toe caught in the string and the man released the weapon in surprise, whirling around as Xena got her hand on the bow and brought it up.
The soldier lunged at her, reaching for the bow just as she got her finger on the mechanism and released it, driving the shaft at point blank range right through the man’s eye. She hastily shoved the weapon to one side and reached out, grabbing the arrow as the man reeled backwards and yanking him back over to thump against Tiger’s side.
He started to go down. Xena got her boot into his armor and held him up long enough for her to grab the quiver of arrows on his back, then she let him fall to the ground, just as Patches backed up right into Tiger’s chest.
Okay, so this probably was a bad idea. Xena juggled the weapon as she looked around, seeing a mostly swirling mass of fighters clustered in front of her, and wondering where they’d all come from. She could see the Persian lines, the front of them engaged with her men, but a cavalry group was gathering behind them evidently intent on charging.
Not good. “Brendan! Turn the horses!” Xena let out a yell. “To the right! To the right!”
Six of the men fought their way over to her and she kneed Tiger forward with them clustered around her, swinging around the right end of their own lines and surging forward just as the Persians started their charge.
Xena was aware, in the corner of her eye, of a flash of shaggy white to one side, and she was also aware that what she was doing was suicidal. The motion of the canter was already seizing her back up, and all she could do was clamp her knees down and lean forward, clutching the crossbow in one hand as she led the way to intercept the enemy.
No way to load the damn thing. No way to draw her sword. No real way to use anything but maybe the dagger she had strapped under her left knee if someone got that close to her and she didn’t fall off the damn horse first.
She let out a yell, loud as she could, since she didn’t know if it might not be her last chance to.
Gabrielle pulled her spear back in and got her hands somewhere in the middle of the length finding it easier to move either end when she did that. She swallowed against a dry throat as the chaos swirled around her. She held tight with her knees as Patches almost stumbled, then she urged the pony after Tiger as the big stallion started to move forward and away toward the enemy.
Things were moving too fast for her. She could see the Persians coming towards them on their horses, and she could see the front line.. well, really, the only line of Xena’s army clashing with the enemy just a few horse lengths from where she was.
She could hear Xena yelling, then a bunch of the horse soldiers formed up around her and they were running towards the Persians as the footmen scrambled out of their way. “Oh boy.” Gabrielle grabbed the reins she’d tied off on her saddle horn and steered Patches after them. “Patches, this is a mess.”
Her pony shook his head.
Xena was leading the way though, so she nudged the pony until they caught up, just as the Persian horsemen. She saw the queen set her boots into her stirrups and then she tossed the crossbow she’d taken from her and reached over her shoulder to draw her sword out.
She could see Xena’s profile. She could see the pain her lover was in, but overriding all that was the fire that forced everything to the background save the need to fight.
Gabrielle understood that Xena understood well what drove her. The difference between, as she’d said, a fighter and a warrior.
Right now, she was wishing both of them were neither, as she got her spear going oin the right direction and got ready to…
Uh. Gabrielle realized there were huge horses heading right at her and Patches and in the next moment she was ducking past a mace that threatened to crush her head in as they squirted past the first of the Persians. “Whooooa!” She whacked the horse in the ribs with her spear as she went by and heard the animal snort.
Patches added his teeth to the mix, nipping the animals rear as he circled around the back of the horse and ducked between two others.
Gabrielle hesitated, then she grimaced and poked with her spear tip, making the first horse jump forward and rear. She felt something coming up behind her and turned, the back end of her weapon catching another horse right in the nose as it’s rider leaned forward to clobber her.
She ducked, as the horse slammed into Patches rear and the rider started to come off next to her, then she heard Patches whinny and something big and fast came past her.
She heard the clash of metal.
A shower of something warm hit her in the back of the head, trickling down her neck as Patches somehow escaped from between the two hurtling bodies and ended up scrambling past them. Gabrielle swung her spear around as the pony turned, and felt it connect with something.
She hoped it was a bad guy. Frantically, she craned her head around and spotted Tiger rearing, his outline unmistakable against the starry sky. In horror she watched as one of the Persians drove towards his ribs with a spear, her hands already grabbing for Patches reins to bring him around.
The pony seemed to sense it. He dodged two fighting men and scrambled up a low rise, then bolted back towards the dangerous mix of fighting me and fighting horses.
Gabrielle tucked her spear under her arm and held tight to it as they hurtled into the battle. She closed her eyes and grabbed for the saddlehorn with one hand as her spear tip hit a Persian right in the thigh and the momentum nearly shoved her back off and out of Patches saddle. “Yow!”
The man fell off his horse, grabbing for the spear as Patches collided with the animal and bit at him, making the bigger horse crow hop sideways and swing his head around with bared teeth to respond.
Gabrielle’s eyes widened, and she yanked her spear up and out of the soldier, smacking the Persian horse on the nose with the other end then hanging on as he reared up and Patches scooted under his forelegs in a determined lunge back to where Tiger was.
The big stallion was in the act of rearing again, striking with his forelegs as Persians came at him and his rider from both sides, one swinging a mace, the other slamming a sword overhand.
Gabrielle watched as if in slow motion as Xena’s body twisted and she met the sword with her own, but couldn’t avoid the mace that slammed into her shoulder. The impact knocked the queen back and as Tiger reared again, Xena fell off out of the saddle, tumbling off on the Tiger’s far side.
Patches charged. Gabrielle yelled loudly as she aimed for the mace wielder who was turning his animal to get another shot in. The man’s horse started and plunged away out of his control, though, and a space opened up for her to move into, the starlight sparkling off the hilt of a dagger sticking out of the animal’s side.
A man rushed at her. A foot soldier, his sword swinging right at her. Gabrielle got the butt end of her spear into his chest before he could see it, and knocked him backwards, then held on as Patches jumped over his body, nearly tossing her from the saddle. “Oh!”
The shadows parted as she closed in to reveal the horror of seeing Xena’s body dangling along Tiger’s side, one boot stuck in her stirrup as Tiger careened around mostly out of control. “Oh my gosh!” Gabrielle steered Patches over to his buddy just as Tiger returned to all four legs, allowing her a moment to get close to Xena. “Xena!”
“Get over here!” The queen yelled, reaching up to grab Patches leg as the pony closed in. “Take this!” She thrust her sword hilt first at Gabrielle. “Go cut that damn strap!”
Gabrielle grabbed the sword as she scrambled off Patches back, landing on the ground and rushing over to Tiger’s side. The horse moved suddenly and nearly crashed into her, and she saw two Persians coming at them as she tried to get Xena’s boot untangled.
Swords really sucked at cutting leather straps, she discovered quickly. She glanced behind her, seeing Xena’s body suspended between the stallion and her pony as Xena grabbed onto Patches saddle and pulled herself up off the ground.
“Oh!” Gabrielle hoped Patches would stay right where he was. “Patches, be good!”
The pony stood stock still , craning his head around to find out what this was that was yanking his saddle off.
Desperate, Gabrielle turned back and sawed at the strap, it’s end tangled tightly around the queen’s leg. She sensed something approaching but kept her head down, rightly guessing her chance of survival rested more on getting her lover loose than defending herself against whatever it was.
“Hurry!” Xena punctuated the idea hoarsely. “Damn it!!!!”
Gabrielle felt the world closing in on her, Persian battle yells and the thunder of horses hooves growing louder and louder as Tiger shifted and moved, letting out a scream of his own. The motion made it hard for her to keep her grip on the stirrup, and even harder to keep the sword in place and not stab the horse with it, or cut her lover’s foot in the process.
She felt her hands start to shake and it was hard to breathe.
But she finally got the edge of the sword against the edge of the leather and she applied as much pressure as she could as the sounds got so loud around her she knew she only had seconds.
“Gabrielle! Watch out!” Brendan’s voice cut through the melee with sharp urgency.
“I can’t!” Gabrielle yelled back, shoving hard against the resisting strap.
The leather parted as Tiger screamed again and before she could react she was shoved under the stallion’s belly and ended up on the ground, tucking herself up into a ball as hooves and boots and yelling people were swirling all around her.
She heard Xena’s battle yell, wild and strong, behind her. That gave her the courage to scramble to her feet and looked quickly around, unspeakably gratetful to see Patches scruffy head appear from the darkness right next to her. “Patches!”
The pony nudged her, and she quickly got on his back, sensing a shift in the battle as the horses in front of her started moving forward.
“Gabrielle! Are you all right!” Brendan appeared briefly, holding out her spear to her. “Here!”
“Thanks! I’m fine!” Gabrielle managed to answer, looking hard through the darkness until she spotted Tiger, and the distinctive profile of his rider already back in his saddle.
A wave of relief washed over her. She urged Patches after the big black horse as the army started to move ahead a little faster.
She had no real idea of what was going on. She suspected they were doing all right, since she could hear Xena’s army yelling, and she thought she’d heard one of the Persians blow a horn. But it was dark, and full of shadows, and all she knew at this point was that they were heading somewhere else.
“Drive em forward boys!” Xena’s yell rang out. “To the left, pull the line there!”
Gabrielle got her spear settled, and she nudged Patches between two of the other horses and finally got back to Tiger’s side. “Xena!”
The queen swiveled her head and looked down. “Muskrat!”
Surprised at the good humor in her voice, Gabrielle reached out and patted her boot. “You okay?”
“Aside from a lost stirrup, yeah.” Xena leaned on her saddlebow and smiled. “Thanks.” She added. “Having my ass hauled out of my saddle and dragged behind this big bastard did my back a little good.”
“Either that, or I just can’t feel how badly hurt I am now.” Xena cheerfully acknowledged. “C’mon, muskrat. Let’s take advantage of the moment.” She drew her sword and let out a whistle as they drove against the left hand side flank of the Persians, who were stumbling in confusion. “Before my body realizes what I’ve done and gives out on me.”
“Uh. Great!” Gabrielle spluttered. “Glad to hear that.” She shook her head, and kept Patches close to Tiger’s side, as the Persian lines started to waver before them and fade back. “Hope she’s all right, Patches. That sounds crazy.”
Patches snorted, and hopped over a log.
“Stay on the right hand side!” Xena ordered. “Brendan, we’re heading for the road, I want to cut off their retreat through the pass.”
“Right.” Brendan rose off circling the troops and yelling orders. The crossbowmen were advancing steadily, kneeling on the ground to fire past the foot soldiers engaging the Persian fighters.
Things were going well, Gabrielle guessed.
“Die you bastards! You fight like girls!” Xena bellowed. “We’re gonna kill you all!!”
Xena’s forces let out a yell at that. “Kill em! Kill em!” They chanted.
Yeah. Gabrielle took a tighter grip on her spear. Things were going well, unless you were a Persian.
Xena leaned forward as Tiger leaped over the last ditch on the side of the road. His hooves sounded clappingly loud on the firm dirt surface, and she sidled him over to the start of the pass to look around the rocks into the opening as the rest of her army rolled onto the road behind her.
The beginning of the pass was empty, the rocks rising to either side reflecting the starlight and echoing softly with the sounds of her men.
Jens reined up next to her. “Looks like we’re beating them good, Mistress.” His eyes were bright with excitement.
Xena glanced behind her. The field they’d just crossed was littered with enemy bodies, and three of the remaining horsemen had been tied hand to foot over their saddles and sent down the road. It was a stunning, spectacular victory, though she’d lost a number of her volunteers in the process.
Not unexpected. It was war, after all. Xena turned Tiger around and surveyed the battle, spotting a line of men fighting just past the other edge of the road. “Take those guys down.” She ordered Jens. “Then we’ll see if we’ve got any more defectors.”
Jens darted off, leaving her to lean on her saddle and study the action. She had her sword in one hand, it’s point laying quietly on Tiger’s shoulder, and at least for now, her back was blessedly numb. Or, well, not exactly numb, since she could feel herself sitting in the saddle, and her knees had the strength to grip Tiger’s sides.
It was just that, the pain had vanished so quickly, she was afraid she’d taken the injury past where it had in the past and if she slid out of the saddle, she’d just collapse on the ground.
At least she could ride. The queen exhaled, flexing her fingers on her hilt. At least she could use her sword, and breath without hurting.
Xena gazed quietly down at Tiger’s dark mane, aware of the faint tint of gray in the eastern sky that meant the long night was almost at it’s end. What would her life be like if she couldn’t walk?
Would she want to live it?
“What are we doing to do now, Xena?” Gabrielle eased in at her side, her pony picking his way carefully over the rocky ground.
“Good question.” The queen replied. “You did a great job with the pig sticker, muskrat. You were right there with it.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle had the butt of her spear resting on the ground, her hand curled around it’s shaft. “Do you think this will be over soon?”
“Why?” Xena regarded her. “Aren’t you having fun?”
“No.” Gabrielle admitted. “I’m really tired, and my head hurts.”
Glad of the distraction, Xena reached over and scratched her consort’s neck. “Sorry about that, muskrat. We’re not half over with this yet. We just started.” She kept up her kneading as she watched the battle going on in front of them.
A line of soldiers were guarding her position. Behind them, the foot men were engaged in fighting the Persians, the Persian captains trying to exhort their men from further down the road. Xena evaluated their temper, sensing the desperation in the air that made her smile.
After a moment more, she straightened up a little and placed her fingers between her teeth, taking a deep breath then letting out a truly piercing whistle.
“Ow.” Gabrielle covered her ear, and Patches put both of his back. Tiger ignored the sound, well used to his mistresses odd noises.
The sound of clashing metal slowly faded.
“Take aim.” Xena told the bowmen strung out in front of her, who had been holding fire to keep from hitting their fellow soldiers. She waited until the line was bristling with arrows, and then she looked across the battlefield, seeing most every eye on her. “Had enough?” She yelled.
One of the riders, dressed in the formal battle coat of the Persian regulars, hauled his horse around to face her. “This battle isn’t over, wench!” He spurred towards her, raising his curved sword in the air defiantly as he drove towards the line of men protecting Xena with fine disregard to the bows pointed in his direction.
Xena shook her dagger loose and with a flick of her wrist, sent it through the air, spinning low to get lost in the shadows until it curved up at the last moment and buried itself in the man’s throat. His eyes widened, and he choked, a red froth coming to his lips as he pitched forward out of the saddle and hit the ground, his mount bucking and careening away as he thumped against his ribs.
“Yours is.” The queen observed, in a loud voice, before she turned her attention back to the troops. “Next?”
One of the other captains gathered his reins in his hand and stared at her, his body outlined against the coming dawn. “You are a demon, as they claimed.” He said. “A minion of the gods sent to destroy us.”
Xena considered that. “Well.” She said. “I’ve had worse said about me.” She slowly flipped her sword in her right hand.
“No she isn’t.” Gabrielle rallied to her defense. She nudged Patches forward, coming up behind the line of bowmen. “Xena didn’t attack the city. Xena didn’t take everything those people had.”
The man stared at her. “You know nothing of what you say.”
“Of course I do.” The blond woman replied. “I was there. Xena wasn’t the one who brought that awful fire, or poisoned arrows, or that stuff you were going to throw into the city, that would have made everyone sick.” She sat up straighter in Patches saddle. “If there’s a demon here, it’s not Xena. It’s who YOU follow.”
Her voice rang out over the suddenly silent battlefield. As the dawn paused, highlighting everything with the faintest hint of silver, it was as though the whole world was holding it’s breath, waiting for what was going to happen next.
The man stiffened. “Do you malign my royal highness??” He shouted, as the rest of the horsemen gathered around him. “Do you dare?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle shouted back. “She’s ugly, and she tastes like a wet DUCK!”
Xena scratched her jaw. “Y’know, Gabrielle..”
“You will die for those words!” The Persians charged, and all the rest of the soldiers took up the call, yelling loudly and rushing to engage Xena’s men.
“Fire.” The queen shook her head. “Speaking of which, boy did that backfire.” She tightened her grip on Tiger’s sides and waited for the first round of arrows, then she headed around the lines and rode to meet the mounted Persians.
“Sheep!” Gabrielle grabbed her spear. “C’mon, Patches!” She urged her pony after Xena and held on tight as Patches went down into a ditch and half leaped, half bucked out the other side. “Ooof!
Xena charged, the horsemen charged, the bowmen charged, and Gabrielle charged at the Persians who were running at them until the conjoined yells made them pause just for a moment. “Die, you stupid bastards!” The queen hollered, sheathing her sword and unhooking her chakram to let it fly right in the face of a hapless footman, slashing him open before it returned to her hand.
She seated it, then drew her sword again, raising it up and bringing the hilt down on the staggering man’s head, splitting it like a melon. It felt good and she chuckled, twirling her sword and looking up through Tiger’s ears right at the lead Persian.
The pre dawn light lit her face, and she smiled, her eyes meeting his.
He hesitated, his hands shifting on his horses reins and his shoulders twitching, but falling short of moving to slow his charge.
She grinned wider. “C’mere, boy. Mamma wants to cut your heart out.”
They rode right at each other as the lines clashed, clearing space in the center for the horses to move through.
At the last moment, he yanked his horses head to one side and shoved another horsemen out of the way, causing a knot of chaos in the middle of the Persian lines as the horses crashed into the struggling soldiers on foot and several of them went down under their hooves.
A second soldier turned his horse and bolted away, as the first soldier clashed with a third, and they started fighting each other, screaming at the top of their lungs as their horses went sideways, away from the oncoming Tiger.
Abruptly, the Persian lines broke, and men scattered as Xena’s line of horses thundered through and their nerve was gone, all their bravado fading away as the gray light of a new day exposed their defeat to everyone’s eyes.
Xena leaned down and grabbed a crossbow from a stumbling soldier, then she lifted it and aimed the shaft at the fighting Persian horsemen, shooting and hitting one in the side and sending him slumping out of his saddle.
The man he was fighting turned and stared at her, then he froze as she casually pointed her re-armed weapon at him. “You’ve got one last chance!” Xena yelled. “Aren’t you tired of losing yet?” She swept her gaze over the battlefield, the Persians and her own men covered in mud and blood, and almost indistinguishable.
The mounted Persian was breathing heavily, his hand clenching and releasing on the hilt of his sword.
“Come win with me.” Xena rested the crossbow on her saddle and let her eyes sweep the field again. “Want coin? Want land? You aint’ gonna get that from her, cause she ain’t got any.”
“She is the daughter of our king.” The Persian called back, but only after a pause.
“Like I said.” Xena didn’t miss a beat. “She doesn’t own a damn thing.” She turned her head to the right, and then to the left. “I do.”
The conscripts, the foot soldiers, shook their head, the first couple of them closest to Xena putting their weapons down and holding their hands out. “We don’t want more fighting.” One said, an older man with a tired face, and a bloody surcoat. “I just want to go home.”
Xena gazed at him with more understanding than he probably realized. “So go.” She said, lifting her hand and making a throwaway gesture. “Just understand..” She added as he started to move. “I find out you went back to the city and started trouble and you’er not going live another day. Understand?”
The man looked at her. “Well understand, your Majesty.” He said, in a tired voice. “But you’d better not count your calves before the spring.” He indicated the pass. “She kept the best of them around her.”
Xena smiled. “So did I.”
The soldier looked around at her ragged, tiny force, then he looked back up at the confident, relaxed expression on her face, and simply shook his head again, but after a pause, he smiled back. “The gods go with you, Majesty.” He said. “Come, lads. Leave this.”
“Cowards.” The Persian seethed.
Xena shot him. Then she looked at the last mounted Persian as she reloaded the bow. He gazed back at her, then he slowly spread his arms out, hands empty.
The queen shot him anyway, putting the bolt right through his eye. Then she lowered the bow and tossed it to one of her soldiers as the Persian fell out of his saddle. “Catch those horses. They’re good blood.” She told Jens. “And we’ll need em. Move on.”
Her army gathered in from the grass, as some of their former adversaries moved off a little way, sitting down in evident exhaustion.
Not all though. Some unbuckled their Persian livery and took it off, letting it drop to the ground as they mingled with city men, and Xena’s guard as the queen turned and faced the pass, and the next stage in their journey.
“Wow.” Gabrielle murmured.
Xena looked over at her. “Pretty good story fodder, huh?” She inquired. “My ego by itself tosses smelly Persians right and left, and marches on.”
Gabrielle licked her lips, then she handed up her waterskin. “Want a drink?”
“Only if it’s your bathwater.”
The queen chuckled as she started Tiger up onto the road towards the pass. “Laugh, Gabrielle. Savor every second of this march down to the river Styx, cause at least we’re going together.”
Gabrielle smiled at that, and leaned over to kiss Xena on the knee. “Let’s go home, Xena. I owe you some peaches.” She said. “To Hades with these people.”
“To Hades with them.” Xena agreed, listening to the sound of troops falling in behind her. “Because he sure wouldn’t know what to do with me.”
The pass was a dogleg, one short narrow space that curved sharply to the left, then back to the right again in a winding pattern before it rose up a steep incline before ending in the valley that bordered Xena’s lands.
As the slowly growing dawn light started to banish the shadows, Xena found herself wishing she was through the opening in the mountains and into the valley beyond, her eyes aching for the familiar rolling hills and the tall, stone stronghold waiting past the far pass.
Even the knowledge that the entire Persian army, what remained of it, was standing between her and that didn’t faze her. She’d won a set of skirmishes, and she’d killed her share of the enemy but she knew the bulk of Sholeh’s forces, the best of them, waited just down the road and at the moment, she honestly really didn’t care.
For the first time, she found herself really missing the old rock pit she lived in. She’d left it with every grandiose intention of bringing back spoils and glory, showing off in front of Gabrielle and maybe reliving a bit of her youth she’d been scared of losing?
Xena scanned the shortened horizon, then she glanced down at her hands and exhaled. Maybe. Or maybe it was just a matter of wanting to impress her new girlfriend. Her eyes slid over to watch Gabrielle’s profile, now becoming visible in the dawn light. Partner. Consort.
Gabrielle, perhaps sensing the regard, glanced up at her, and smiled, through the evident exhaustion and the grubbiness of battle.
Love of my life. The queen smiled back, shaking her head a little as she savored a few minutes to just wipe her sword off, and get ready for whatever was ahead of them.
“Xena.” Jens rode up next to her. “I’ll get some folks and ride ahead, yah?”
“No.” The queen said. “I know where they are.” She took out her sharpening stone, and started scraping her blade against it, working out the nicks in the blade. “They’re at the far end, probably up on the rocks, waiting for us.”
Jens digested this. “We just going to them?” He asked, eventually, in a hesitant voice.
“Yep.” Xena agreed. “There’s only one way through this pass, Jens. They know it, we know it, if they’re not blocking the far end, then they’re stupider than I thought they were, and if they are blocking it, sending a bunch of targets ahead to get spitted does no good.”
“Ah.” Jens murmured. “Aye, yeah, that’s true.”
“So relax as much as you can, and get ready to fight really hard.” Xena continued. “Because either we’ll come out the other end into the valley, or we won’t. Either way, you’ve done a fine job, and I appreciate your hanging in there and sticking it out.”
The soldier was speechless, his eyes going big and round as he watched Xena’s face. “It was my honor to do so, Mistress.” He finally said, in a faint tone.
Xena put the finishing touches on her blade edge, then she glanced at him and winked, as she put the sword back in it’s sheath. “Go tell the men to be ready to fight as soon as we clear the leg up ahead. We should hit it just as the sun comes up, and lights up anyone on the walls for us.”
Jens looked at the walls, then at her, then he grinned, and pulled his horse’s head around, heading back down the lines at an easy canter.
Gabrielle had taken an apple from her saddle bag, and her small knife, and was cutting it into halves. She kept one half and the knife in one hand, and extended her other hand over to Xena. “Did you plan that?”
Xena took the apple half and bit into it, enjoying the slightly tangy taste. “Did I plan what, the sun rising? Sure.” She said. “You know I can make the world turn at my pace, right?” She gave Gabrielle a wink as well.
“I noticed that.” Gabrielle replied mildly. “At least, you sure can do that to my world.”
Xena paused in mid bite and raised an eyebrow.
Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled gravely. “Are they really going to be waiting for us around the corner, Xena?” She asked, after a pause.
The queen nodded, nibbling carefully around the half core. “Got any more of those?” She asked. “We’re a little short on time.”
Gabrielle handed over her own half, fishing in her bag to see what else she could find. “I wish they’d all just disappear.” She admitted, as she found another apple and set about cutting that one in half too. “I just want this all to be over. I’m tired.”
“Me too.” Xena agreed. “And I’m not looking forward to getting out of this saddle and having to be carried into my castle.”
The blond woman looked over quickly at her. “Do you..”
“I don’t know.” The queen shook her head. “I don’t really want to know.” She glanced over at Gabrielle again. “Think you can handle living with a cripple?”
The soft, green eyes looked directly at her. “Think I care?”
Xena felt a tiny flush of surprise warm her skin, as she recognized the newly burnished maturity in her lover’s face, and in the layered answer she’d given. “No, I don’t.” She answered, in a quiet voice. “I think you’re crazy enough not to.”
“I don’t.” Gabrielle bit into her own apple. “You can depend on me to be there for you Xena, no matter what happens.” She chewed thoughtfully, one hand tangled in Patches reins and her fingers ruffling his shaggy mane.
“Like I said, you’re crazy enough for both of us.” The queen licked her fingertips and rid herself of the apple cores, tossing them to one side as she took a deep breath and expelled it, settling her boots firmly in her stirrups and relaxing back into her saddle.
She was handed a waterskin, and she took it this time, sucking down gulp after gulp of the liquid inside. She was still hungry, the apples not doing all that much to quiet her rumbling guts, but the water at least eased the empty feeling.
She handed the skin back to Gabrielle and ran her fingers through her hair, moving it back out of her eyes before she pulled her gauntlets back on, turning one hand over to examine the cut out palm, the fabric removed to allow her to grip her sword with absolute precision.
The exposed skin was scraped and bruised, and on the whole, that pretty much summed up how she felt at the moment. She closed her fingers and opened them again, then she let the hand drop to her thigh as she refocused her attention on the road ahead of them.
Her army was making no effort to hide their presence. It felt good, in a way, just to be marching along, without any of the subterfuge she’d been forced to use up until now.
Gabrielle was fiddling with her spear, shifting to her other hand so it lay on the far side of Patches from where Xena was. “What do you think happened to the people you sent to see where the Persians were?”
“I think they told the Persians we were closing in on them and they better attack before we caught them up.” Xena replied placidly.
Gabrielle didn’t say anything for a minute, then she cleared her throat. “You mean, they were against us?”
“But Xena, Perdicus was one of them.”
Gabrielle frowned and fell silent. They walked along in silence for a few minutes, then both of them almost jumped when behind them, the army started singing, a low, marching tune that rang out in the dawn light and bounced off the rocks to startling effect.
It brought the hairs on Xena’s neck up and her face twitched a little. Then she smiled, chuckling a little under her breath.
“Wow. Guess they’ll hear that.” Gabrielle had turned in her saddle to look at the men, now she swiveled back around and looked up at Xena. “It doesn’t matter any more that there are so many more of them than us, does it?’
“Not so much.” The queen said. “It’s all in your mind, Gabrielle. Mind over matter, as an old friend of mine used to say. You just have to really think you can do something, and … well, what the Hades. Sometimes you just can.”
They came to the end of the first straight part of the pass, and started around the hard bend to the left. Since Xena was in the lead, she was by default the point guard, and she craned her neck and swept the narrow area quickly, relieved when it was empty.
Still, her ears cocked, as past the men’s singing she heard a rattling of rocks, and she put her senses on high alert, sweeping her head from side to side as she led the way into the next section.
Ahead, perhaps a quarter candlemark’s ride away, the pass curved again to the right and she could already see in her mind’s eye the enemy army defending it.
They would have the advantage. The rock walls were tall and full of crags, and the there were plenty of places to take cover behind while they launched their attack on Xena’s approaching army.
Her heart started to beat a little faster. Xena drew in a breath, and started singing along with the men, picking up the tune and projecting it forward, her higher, clearer voice contrasting sharply with theirs and sending an even more pungent echo against the rocks.
Insanity. Xena enjoyed the moment. It felt bold and crazy to her, and where her life was at the moment, bold and crazy seemed to fit the need just right. She squeezed Tiger’s sides a little and picked up the pace, sensing the rising light behind her and catching a bit of the breeze from the valley beyond, full of leather and iron and…
Xena chuckled, and breathed it in, and sang all the louder.
She turned the corner first, and saw them.
Shockingly, right where she’d imagined them, lined against the walls and filling the entrance to the pass, massed bodies and weapons that surged towards them as soon as they rounded the bend.
Stolidly, the men kept right on moving forward, bowmen readying their weapons and foot soldiers drawing their swords and shifting maces as they watched for Xena’s signals, the queen’s body posture calm and relaxed in front of them.
The Persians let out a mighty yell, the echoes thundering against the rocks and drowning out the sound of the marching song, but when the echoes faded, the sound of the singing came right back.
Xena kept up Tiger’s relaxed motion forward, her eyes fastened on the front lines of the Persians, who were shaking their weapons at her, but not moving forward. Towards the center of the lines was a large group of horsemen, and a banner, and she figured she and Sholeh were about to go another round.
She felt a little nervous. “Got any more of that water?” She asked Gabrielle.
“Sure.” Gabrielle passed the waterskin back over to her. “Boy, there are a lot of those guys huh?”
“But they’re not attacking us.”
“Nope.” Xena swung the skin up and drank from it, watching carefully over the edge of it in case that was changing. Aside from the noise, and the posturing, however, Sholeh’s troops appeared content to wait for Xena’s men to come to them.
“Maybe they just want to talk to us?”
Xena almost breathed in a lungful of water at that. She coughed and handed the skin back, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. “C”mon, muskrat. Don’t go all simple on me now.” She judged the time, and lowered one hand, moving her fingers in a subtle sign.
The large group of horsemen in the center shifted a little, and two at the front parted and circled back around to the sides, revealing Sholeh’s horse, it’s rider distinctive and diminutive on his back. From where she was, Xena could see the Persian’s face covered in a silk cloth and a grin worked it’s way onto her lips as she realized the probable reason.
Heydar was next to her on a big, strapping red stallion, with a finely drawn head that drew an appreciative look from Xena though she made a point of dismissing his rider with a brief glance.
The walls were in shadow, but her sharp eyes caught the faintest hint of motion in the crags spread out to either side, a brief reflection, quick as a minnow’s flash behind a boulder halfway up.
Sholeh and her party started to ride slowly forward, apparently intent on meeting them, banners waving, her guard pacing sedately behind her.
Did she want to talk? Xena swept her eyes over the pass, over the slowly closing distance, over the enemy army, judging angles, judging motives…
Peace? War? Should she give Sholeh a chance?
Sunlight flooded the pass, warming her shoulders and lighting up the walls with a touch of warming fire.
A motion caught her eye, and she saw two of the Persian riders turn, and head for the edges of the rock and her instincts sent a warning jolt deep in her guts.
“Fire on the walls.” Xena raised her arm and lowered it, keeping her sword in it’s sheath but angling Tiger just a little so that Gabrielle and Patches were shielded as her men lifted their weapons behind her and responded, shooting their bows past her and upward, aiming at the now evident men clinging to the side of the rocks.
A horn rang out.
The Persians surged forward, charging towards and past the horsemen around Sholeh who had pulled up when Xena’s men had started to fire. She turned and lifted her hand, and the men drew their swords, circling around her in a protective shield as yells rang out in warning.
A horn blew.
Men fell from the walls like flies under the attack, unable to see to return fire. Xena watched the scrambling confusion for a moment and then she held up her hand, clenching her fist and the flow of arrows stopped, as she pulled Tiger to a halt. “HOLD!”
“Oh boy.” Gabrielle had her hand on Xena’s leg, as she peered over Tiger’s neck. “Now what?”
The Persians boiled towards them.
“Form up.” Xena called back calmly. She turned and faced the oncoming army squarely, looking past the soldiers to where Sholeh’s guard was in turmoil, staring steadily at the beautiful, exotic horses in the center of the crowd. “Get ready to fight!”
The army scrambled, falling into formation since the rock walls around them would allow for nothing else.
Heydar was arguing with Sholeh. He looked back over his shoulder, and his eyes met Xena’s.
The Persian army was almost in spear range, rushing headlong towards Xena’s troops, who were formed up in a defensive square behind their queen and her consort, Xena’s horsemen stretched out in a wedge behind her protecting the men.
Sholeh turned and faced Xena also, frustration evident in every line of her body. After a second, she reached out with a crop and slashed Heydar across the face with it, then she turned and said something to a man next to her.
Xena lifted her arm, and drew her sword, raising it high enough to catch the sunlight and send sparkles flashing across the pass, sitting a little deeper in her saddle and readying herself to take it to them as best as she was able. “Get ready to kill them all!” She bellowed, her voice ringing out against the stone.
Sholeh turned again and stared at her. Xena grinned and twirled her sword in one hand, making a come hither gesture with her other. “You first!” She looked directly into Sholeh’s eyes. “Little girl.”
For an instant, everything slowed down. Sholeh turned and grabbed Heydar by the shirt, pulling him close and saying something to him. He shook his head, but she suddenly had a knife in her hand, at his throat.
Xena’s brows rose.
Heydar lifted his hands, and signaled.
A horn blew.
Arrows flew towards them. Xena reached out and caught one with casual ease, tossing it to one side as most of the others went wide of their targets. ‘Stay behind me.” She cautioned Gabrielle, as she knocked a couple more aside with her sword.
“No problem.” Gabrielle watched the oncoming soldiers in apprehension. “Are we gonna do something?”
“Eventually.” Xena caught another arrow, then a third. She was starting to regret her attack, and tried an offhand look around to see what the retreat possibilities were.
The horn blew again.
The Persian lines slowed, the ones in front turning in frustrated anger, so close Xena could see their features behind their helms and smell the stench of sweat and blood on them. Her heart was thumping like crazy, the danger of the moment so potent it made her breath catch.
Several of them clenched their spears, and turned back to face her, shoulders tensing.
She unhooked her chakram and simply held it, running her thumb over the flat edge of it as she swept her eyes over the lines, cocking her wrist as she let her gaze fall on the Persian closest to her, the one with the big spear pointed towards her, the one who looked like he was about to release it.
Another horn blew, this time, with a sharp, commanding tone.
The soldier stared into Xena’s eyes and his lip curled. His dark beard was partly missing on one side and he made a motion towards her, but only to shake his spear before he fell back with the rest of the line, the men retreating back towards Sholeh’s position.
“Whew.” Gabrielle exhaled. “I thought they were going to run right over us!”
“Me too.” Xena returned her chakram to her belt. “Question is, why didn’t they?” She sheathed her sword and licked her lips, trying to size the situation up again, as it changed moment by moment before her eyes. Had she guessed right?
Brendan edged up next to her, Jens on the other side of Gabrielle. “Tight spot.” The old captain said. “Where do we take this, Xena? Front to front, it’ll be a hard row.”
“Let’s see what they have in mind.” Xena gathered Tiger’s reins in one hand and nudged him forward. “You and Jens, come with me.” She paused. “Come with us.” She corrected herself, in a mild tone as Gabrielle let out a muffled grunt. “Cause y’know she actually runs this outfit.”
Gabrielle blushed a little. “Xena.”
They rode forward slowly, Xena relaxed in her saddle, the two soldiers stiff and wary. Gabrielle kept close to Xena’s side, her eyes a little wide as she hefted her spear, holding it upright so she didn’t poke anyone accidentally.
The group of Persians on horseback forced their way through the retreating lines, clearing them and continuing across the hard, rocky ground. Sholeh was in the lead, her face still swathed in cloth that also covered her head, and draped her body.
She seemed smaller than Xena remembered. Maybe it was the draping, or the fact that her horse was a couple of hands shorter than Tiger as well as her companions.
Or maybe, Xena considered, since she’d beaten her force back a few times, it just didn’t look so intimidating to her anymore.
“I wish I had a big herd of sheep.”
Xena blinked at the sudden mental whiplash. She turned and looked at her consort. “What?”
“I’d get them to stampede, and run right over these guys.” Gabrielle sighed. “I’m so tired of being freaked out.”
Xena reached out and draped her left arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders, pulling her closer and giving her an awkward hug before she released her, and straightened herself up in her saddle. She turned her head and met Sholeh’s eyes as the Persian closed in on her.
The emotion in them surprised her. Xena saw her look transfer to Gabrielle, and become one of anger, and she reached up to scratch her jaw a little as she wondered what was going on behind those dark, enigmatic eyes.
They were close enough to speak now, for the first time since she’d left Sholeh’s camp. Xena rested both her hands on her saddle horn and waited, keeping the rest of the army in her peripheral vision as she felt the sun warming her back, knowing the light casting her shadow sharply in front of her was also dazzling her enemies and throwing her own face into darkness.
Sholeh shook of Heydar’s hand, that had been resting on her arm, and moved her horse a few steps forward, then stopped. “At last you choose to face me rather than run.” She called out in a loud voice. “Come forward, if you dare.”
Xena let her wonder for a moment, then she pressed her calves against Tiger’s side and felt him shift into a walk under her. “Watch my back.” She muttered to Brendan, as Patches shaggy head came up even with her knee. “If things go bad, just make them pay.”
“We will, Xena.” Brendan said, quietly. “We will.”
“If I dare?” Xena tucked Tiger’s reins in one hand and left the other relaxed on her thigh. She stopped her horse almost nose to nose with Sholeh’s. “If I dare? I’ve been kicking your ugly little ass all over for the last two candlemarks you poser. I dare? I’m surprised you dare to get this close to me and not worry you’re going to end up plastered on the rocks over there.”
She made sure she was talking loud enough for everyone to hear her, both her side and the Persians. For one thing, it was part of the little fencing match they were having and for another, it was true.
It was true. Xena sat back a little, not bothering to muffle a smirk.
“You dare.” Sholeh said, in a quiet voice. “I’ll have your tongue on a stake for that.”
“You and what army?” Xena rolled the words off her tongue, enjoying them immensely. “Not that army?” She indicated the Persians. “Do yourself a favor, kid. Take them and go back home, and get the Hades out of my way.”
She nudged Tiger forward, making Sholeh’s horse bob it’s head nervously. “Gwan. Scat.”
Sholeh stared at her. “You’re mad.” She finally said. “Do you think these men behind me, these flowers of Persia, will run like the little dogs we picked up from these parts?”
Xena tilted her head and regarded the army she faced. “If I kill enough of them, sure.” She turned back and met Sholehs’ eyes. “Admit it – you’re over your head. You can’t beat me.”
The Persian glanced behind her. “Look at what you face me with, Xena.” Sholeh said. “You have nothing but dogs and old men.”
“Excuse me?” Gabrielle spoke up for the first time.
Sholeh looked at her, then back at XEna.
“Don’t get her pissed off.” Xena advised. “She’ll take your arm off this time and all the lace in the world wont’ make it look good.”
“You are mad.” Sholeh said, after a pause. “It will be good to rid the world of you. I will enjoy it.” She started to pull her horses head around, but stopped when Xena reached out and grabbed the animal’s bridle. “Turn her loose.”
“Listen.” Xena’s voice deepened, a serious expression on her face. “Take what you have left and get out of here. You value those men? Don’t waste their lives.”
For a moment, Sholeh hesitated, her body going still. Then she sidestepped her horse next to Xena so they were knee to knee.
Xena knew there was danger here. Sholeh had shown no inclination to fighting fair and this close, if she chose to stick Xena with a bit of her fancy armor covered in poison, she only had a fair chance of avoiding it.
“My honor will come out of this valley.” Sholeh said, in an intense whisper. “You will not take that.”
Xena met her gaze, leaning on her saddlebow and bringing them even closer together. “I already have.” She uttered back. “So I’ve got nothing left to prove. Just clear out, I’ll go home, and you can head off down the river.”
They were both quiet, breathing almost in unison.
“Do you really think this collection of offal can stand for a moment against my men?” Sholeh’s voice was incredulous.
Xena smiled. “I believe it.” She said. “What’s more, they believe it.” She added. “We’ve got nothing to lose. You do.”
“You cannot do that.” Sholeh finally said. “No more than I could.”
“I can.” Xena shot right back. “No matter what happens here, I win. If I win, I win, and if I lose, against a force four times mine, I still win. You can’t win. You can just get out of here alive, because the first person I’m gonna kill if you decide to fight is you.”
Gabrielle sat there, very still, her eyes wide, and her jaw clamped tight shut. She was holding on to her spear with one hand, and had her other hand resting on Xena’s leg. The queen’s body was tense, but not overly rigid, not the hair trigger stillness she often displayed when she was about to attack.
It was hard to believe what Xena was saying. Hard to believe how straightforward, and honest she was, giving Sholeh a chance to avoid this fight, this battle that would surely leave many people hurt and dead.
Maybe even her and Xena.
Gabrielle watched Sholeh’s eyes, since she couldn’t see her face. They were dark, and hidden, but she could see the faint twitching at the corners of them and she knew the Persian princess was really listening to what Xena was saying.
Would she take the offer? Gabrielle exhaled a little, thinking of what it would be like to simply walk away from the pass, heading down into the valley she’d been born in, just on the road home.
She felt tears sting her eyes, and she crossed her fingers, wishing as hard as she could that Sholeh would just take the offer, take her army, and just…
“You think much of yourself.” Sholeh said, finally.
“I am who I am.” Xena half shrugged.
The Persian sat back in her saddle, her eyes shuttered and unfathomable. “I will make a bargain with you.” She said. “I will take my army, and continue on my way, leaving you to your sheep, and your goats, and your dirty little peasants.”
Xena’s hand moved like a tiny bit of lightning, a sparkle of a blade flashing into view and then spinning across the space between them, taking Sholeh’s veil off before she could make a motion to defend herself.
Underneath, half her face was reddened and swollen, huge black marks carved through the flesh where Gabrielle’s teeth had torn into her. She grabbed for the veil and glowered at Xena, fastening it as she pulled her horses head back out of range.
“You were saying?” Xena maintained a calm air. ‘Something about my dirty peasants?”
Sholeh gathered herself up. “Give me your slave, and I will give you your life, in return.” She said. “That’s my price, for your insolence.”
Xena merely smiled, her body seeming to rise taller in the saddle without her really moving. “You mean her?” She indicated Gabrielle.
Sholeh inclined her head. “A small price, don’t you agree? What are your men’s lives worth, Xena? What is your life worth? No matter how you boast otherwise, we will destroy you.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle tensed her fingers.
The queen turned her head. “Okay. What silly thing are you going to say now? Is it ‘let me go and sacrifice myself for everyone’ or ‘you’re not going to do that are you?”
Gabrielle let her breath trickle out from slightly parted lips. “No.” She said. “I just wanted to say I love you.” She smiled. “Since I don’t think I’ll have a chance to say that in a minute.”
“Smart muskrat.” Xena leaned over, kissing her on the lips. She straightened up, and faced Sholeh. “Go run back to your mules there before I cut your tongue out you stupid nitwit.” She drew her sword. “Your daddy’s whole kingom isn’t worth her spitting on it.”
The men heard her. Her men heard her. Everyone shifted, the energy around the pass spiking up in a heartbeat as battle became suddenly real, and close and imminent.
“So be it.” Sholeh grabbed her reins and half turned, then stopped in mid motion and slowly, incredibly, toppled off her horse to the ground, a long, black shaft buried deep in her neck. She choked and gasped, one hand weakly reaching for the arrow, the veil falling aside from her face and exposing an expression of shock.
Xena let her blade fall to her shoulder and looked past the dying woman, to find Heydar staring right at her, his crossbow cradled in his arms, already reloaded.
“Sheep!” Gabrielle gasped.
“Sheep swimming naked screwing ducks.” Xena muttered back. “Now we got a whole nother story here, muskrat.”
“Xena, he just killed her!”
“Saved me the trouble.” The queen sidestepped Tiger over to the now still figure and examined it. Then she looked up at Heydar, and raised her eyebrows. “Thanks. Saved me a nick.” She indicated the sword. “So now what? You got another deal for me?”
Gabrielle felt very lightheaded. She just managed to get Patches to follow Tiger, keeping her eyes off the small, huddled figure on the ground.
So much had just happened. It was hard to believe that Sholeh, though she hadn’t liked her at all, was now gone, lying dead at their feet and being walked over like she was…
Like she was nothing. Gabrielle felt sick to her stomach. But wasn’t that what she’d viewed Gabrielle as? Nothing? Or.. no, had she known what value Xena placed on her by her offer of trading her for the army’s safety?
Was she hoping Xena would say yes? Or no? Gabrielle forced herself to look down at the dead Persian, her face stiffened in agony, eyes half closed, blood pooling under her head. The cheek she’d bitten was uppermost, and Gabrielle found herself tracing those marks with morbid fascination.
Was Sholeh hoping Xena would be torn, between her and the army? Had she been trying to hurt Xena, that way?
Well. “You’re an evil person.” Gabrielle addressed the dead woman. “But I’m glad we didn’t kill you, your own people did.” She then lifted her head and joined Xena as she watched Heydar slowly approach, a group of the mounted Persians with him.
Xena kept her sword out, allowing it’s potent, if silent message to stand as the mounted warriors spread out, heading towards her in a well metered phalanx. She pondered calling her own men up, then she merely smiled, and sat back in her saddle.
This was, she reckoned, either going to end very very well, or very very bloody.
Heydar stopped about a horse length from her. “Now the rules change.” He said.
“Now the idiot facing me has a beard and a manhood.” Xena replied. “My rules never change.” She watched his eyes, outwardly relaxed, but inwardly tensing as she reevaluated this new, and honestly greater threat.
Heydar’s lips twitched, just slightly. “You don’t seem shocked that I killed her.” He glanced at the still form. “Should you not be? The army swore their honor to her.”
Xena studied his face. There was no real hint to what he was thinking, but she tucked the insults on the tip of her tongue firmly into her cheek and assumed a faintly doubtful expression. “To be honest.” She said. “I don’t think that army deserved having her screw them over.”
“After you described us so poorly?” Heydar said, in a sardonic tone.
The queen shrugged. “She called us dogs, I called you pigs. Seems about even to me.”
The Persian nodded a little. “So what did you offer her, Xena? What you offered me?”
“Her life.” Xena watched the sun penetrate more deeply into the pass, gilding the rocks and making her wish she was somewhere else and naked. “Want the same deal?”
Heydar picked up his reins and moved towards her. “I have a better plan.” He said. “Enough mindless words between us, Xena. We both know these armies will do nothing but fight and die in this pass, and who wins or loses matters little.”
Ah. “You get two more dinar’s points for brains than she had.” Xena said, taking her sword down off her shoulder and inspecting it. “Though she offered to run out of here.”
Heydar stopped. “What?”
Xena turned her head and looked at him. “Funny. I though that’s why you killed her.” She said. “She said if I handed over my consort she’d take the lot of you and run off.”
“No, it’s true.” Gabrielle cleared her throat, then spoke up. “I don’t think she cared at all about you. All she wanted was to punish me.”
Heydar turned his head and studied her. “Punish you?” He queried. “Are you that foolish? My sister had no need to punish you. She merely wanted to silence your tongue.”
Xena smiled briefly.
“Our history is told by those like you, those who tell tales.” Heydar continued. “With you dead, the tales of what happened die with you.”
Gabrielle frowned, and looked around. “Are you crazy or something? Everyone here saw what happened.”
“Ah. But not everyone would tell it.” Heydar’s mouth twitched. “That takes a special talent, little peasant and one we can’t risk letting loose in the world.”
Gabrielle studied him, a look of pained disgust on her face. “I thought you were a creep from the start.” She said. “I’m going to really like telling everyone I see about that, too.” She shifted her spear and gripped it in a cutely threatening manner. “You’re a jerk!”
Xena eyed her fuming consort, and had to smile again. “Take it easy, ya little wildcat.” She advised Gabrielle. “He’s not worth the piss off.”
Heydar’s eyes narrowed. “I should have killed her when I had the chance.”
“I have killed you if you tried it.” Xena answered in a mild tone. “And then we wouldn’t be having this pointless conversation.” She twirled her sword. “Cut to the chase, Heydar. If you have something to say, say it, or get the Hades out of my way.”
Heydar drew his sword. “So now we come to it, Xena. Not your … army.. and my army, but something more meaningful. Something that will recover our reputation and kill the stories just as well as taking her tongue from her would.”
Xena cocked her eyebrow.
“You and I will settle this.” Heydar smiled at her. “You and I. Here on the ground. Here between those who stand to win or lose the most from it.”
Oh, crap. Xena heard the terms hoisted and petard ring in her head. Shoulda seen this coming. She didn’t disagree with the tactic, since she’d used it herself to good effect more than once but there was a time and a place for everything and this wasn’t either.
“What would that prove?” Gabrielle stepped up. “Xena can beat you. I saw her do it. We captured you.”
“But you didn’t kill me.” Heydar said, then he looked at Xena. “You should have. Because I can kill you, Xena. You know it.”
Right at the moment, Xena reflected, it was even money as to whether or not Gabrielle could kill her merely by getting in the way if she fell off her horse. Now she was in a trap and her options were getting a lot narrower by the second.
Fighting him – Xena just knew she couldn’t risk it. Not fighting him? How could she back out of that kind of challenge and not lose everything in it?
“I think it’s stupid idea.” Gabrielle said. “I think the only reason you want to do that is because you don’t want to explain to your king how sucky you are.”
“Be quiet, peasant.”
Xena turned her head and looked at him, her eyes narrowing. “Watch who you’re calling peasant you stinking goathead.” She said. “Because this peasant army and this peasant born bitch have skinned you raw.” She pointed at the men behind Heydar. “She’s right. This isn’t about anything but your ego.”
“We shall see if that is true.” Heydar said, with a smile. “Come then, Xena. Face me. You’re proud of your skills and those who follow you think you invincible. Prove it.”
Prove it? Xena thought back to the last few sevendays, and the perspective slowly realigned her thoughts. Was her reputation worth her life? She glanced sideways at Gabrielle and found her lover looking back at her, knowledge and apprehension clear in her eyes.
Peh. Screw the Persians.
“I don’t have to prove anything.” Xena sheathed her sword. “We’ve already done it. I’m not going to honor you by touching blades.” She gathered up her reins. “Enough.” She signaled Brendan, and in a blur of motion, her troops, that mix of city wannabees, and old soldiers, and honest yeomen squared themselves off an raised their weapons, ready to follow her.
Ready to follow her.
Believing in her.
Xena took in a breath, both humbled and exhilarated at the same time. She’d come this far because of this ragtag bunch, and it felt right to take it to the wall with them. This wasn’t something for her to win, alone.
“Xena!” Heydar called out. “You refuse my challenge? You fear me!” He spurred his horse and headed right for her. “Then I will spit you as you sit you coward!!!!”
Gabrielle clamped her knees around Patches and urged him forward, the pony going to from standing still to a sturdy gallop in a instant as his rider let out a yell and brandished her spear.
Xena’s mind almost exploded. “Wh.. td.. do… f… G…”
Heydar saw the pony at the last minute, and he tried to turn in his saddle to meet her. The two animals crashed into each other as the spear ripped into his armor and Xena’s men broke into a run as they attacked.
Heydar’s horse went down, and the Persian army broke out of their stunned disbelief and started forward, as Patches went down also, throwing Gabrielle under a sudden confusion of hooves and dust and running men.
Xena absolutely positively did not think. She didn’t even know how she got out of Tiger’s saddle, the only thing she was cognizant of was her boots hitting the ground as she bolted forward through the melee towards the spot she’d last seen her lover in.
Too late to worry about being hurt. Way too late to worry about not being able to walk.
She plowed into the side of one of the Persian horsemen who had reached Heydar’s downed horse and grabbed his leg, yanking it out of the stirrup and getting leverage enough to throw him up and over the horses back as he tried to smash downward with his mace at something she couldn’t see.
She drew her sword and smacked the horse in the ass with it, getting past it as it plunged forward and allowing her to see the circle of Persians all fighting to get into position and grab at the prize scrambling to her feet in their midst.
Heydar got an arm around Gabrielle, and pulled her down.
Xena felt a cold flush run over her skin, and the next thing she was aware of was a man’s back in front of her and her sword plunging through it. She yanked it back out and spun to one side, letting a horse stumble past her as she turned and swept her blade over her head, deflecting a blow aimed at her head.
She ducked, and felt something slam against her shoulder, but her momentum carried her forward and then she saw men in colors that were hers, and the clash of steel all around her, and Brendan’s voice yelling for her to go.
Xena went, hurdling over the down horse and seeing Heydar with a knife in his hand and Gabrielle’s throat in his grip and then the noise cut out around her and everything went very quiet and slow.
She could hear her own heartbeat.
She could hear Gabrielle’s heartbeat, as she turned and looked over her shoulder and their eyes met as Gabrielle grabbed at Heydar’s hand and tried to wrench herself free.
Xena cleared the way around her. She was vaguely aware of throwing a body one way, and cutting open another, and the hot splash of blood on her skin as she raced the descending blade towards Gabrielle’s throat while Heydar howled in triumph.
Too close in for the sword. She sheathed it and leaped, half turning as the blade caught her armor and she slammed into Heydar and knocked him backwards.
They fell together as he released Gabrielle and grabbed for Xena instead and in that moment, with his stench around her, she just simply got overly pissed off.
A howl erupted from her throat and she reached past his hands to grab his armor, getting her fingers around his chest plate and turning, hauling him up and then slamming him onto the ground in a fury. He scrambled to his knees, swiping his sword viciously at her knees, but she crouched and uncoiled into the air, letting the blade go under her and then dropping right on top of him as he fought to recover his balance.
She felt something crunch, and hoped it wasn’t her. Then she rolled of and onto her feet just as he did the same. She didn’t wait for him to move, she just ducked past his sword and grabbed his armor again, yanking him right off his feet as she turned in a tight circle, dragging him right into the back of a horse that was moving sideways past them.
The horse kicked out, slamming him forward into her, and she got her dagger out just in time to slash the straps holding his chest plate on and rip it off as he shoved her back and slid to one side, flipping his sword to his other hand and raising it up to strike at her.
His eyes were wide, and a little bloodshot. Xena lowered her head and struck like a snake, getting her dagger out and going right at him, moving so fast the blade missed her and then she was face to face with him, chest to chest and her hand was slamming into his body burying the knife deep inside it.
She grabbed him by the throat and stared right into his eyes. “Got what you wanted?” She rasped.
He slammed her in the back, trying to cut her with the sword, over and over again.
She wrapped her hands around her knife and yanked it up as hard as she could, cutting his middle open and spilling his insides out on the ground around their feet.
The sword battered her once more, but weakly, then she heard a thud on the rock behind her and his lips just twitched, spittle flying from them.
“No one.” Xena leaned forward and whispered in his ear. “Is gonna remember who you were.”
And he died, then, his body growing heavy as she released it to fall on the ground.
She let him fall, then she spun and looked around, finding Brendan and Jens right behind her, their bodies braced against each other back to back, with Gabrielle trapped between them.
For once, staying still. Her face covered in grime, but her head held high, and her eyes bright in the sunshine as she saw Xena’s attention, and smiled.
She drew her sword and crossed over to them, turning to look at the battlefield and then wishing she hadn’t. The Persians were swarming all over her men, who were valiantly holding a line just shy of where she was, putting themselves into a death zone as blood flew, and the more experienced Persians carved their way through them.
Xena joined Jens and Brendan, as they moved aside to let Gabrielle out and they formed a small, gnarly triangle of battered warriors facing something way too big for them to handle.
“Good fight.” Brendan said, as he drew his dagger out, and prepared to join the men in the lines. “And that was a damn fine killing you did there, Xena.”
“Thanks.” Xena sighed. “Wish I could say it made a difference.”
“You did.” Jens turned and looked at her. “You made us all heros.”
Xena gazed at him, momentarily speechless. Then she wiped her hands and got a grip on her hilt. “All rightie then. Let’s go kick some ass.” She started towards the fighting. “Stay close, muskrat.”
“Like a sock on a foot.” Gabrielle asserted, still hanging on to her spear as she followed Xena into the lines. “Hey Xena?”
“Gonna be busy now.” The queen called back.
“I’m really proud of you.”
Xena lifted her blade and saluted nothing in particular. “I’m pretty damn proud of me too, Gabrielle. C’mon.” She let out her battle yell and swept her blade down to bury it in the neck of one of the Persians.
Her men heard her, and they answered, the tempo of the battle picking up as the thin line of Xena’s troops clashed with the leading edge of the Persian force.
The narrowness of the pass was the only thing in their favor. Xena straightened up to her full height and looked over the heads of her men, seeing a swarming mass of Persians fighting along the wall and another batch getting ready to start firing arrows at them.
Xena took a deep breath, then she put her fingers between her teeth and let out a loud, long whistle, hoping that Tiger would hear her and make his way over if he wasn’t already dead. She pointed at one end of the line. “Jens, brace em!”
Jens headed towards the two inexperienced city men she’d spotted getting spitted, as she heard her whistle echo softly against the rocks.
She scrambled up onto a rock to get a better angle on two of the Persian horsemen, her ears picking up the sound of crossbows firing. “Damn it.” She glanced quickly towards the archers, one hand coming up to ward off arrows, when she saw them all scrambling back, turning and facing the other direction.
Then it occurred to her that her whistle was still echoing.
Xena felt Gabrielle grab her leg, and yank it. She swept her eyes across the battlefield trying to make sense of what she was seeing, and her eyes caught motion at the back of the pass, rapid, swirling motion.
“Oh my gosh Xena you see that???” Gabrielle fairly squealed.
Did she see it? Did she actually see that square of fabric against the rocks, standing out in the sun like a whore’s underwear?
Her gods be damned battle flag, held high in the hands of the advance line of mounted troops that were driving against the back of the Persians, pouring in from the valley in a long, unbelievably welcome wave. “Son of a Bacchae.”
No time to relax. Xena raced along the rocks and leaped onto the back of one of the Persian captain’s horses, grabbing the man around the neck as she clamped her knees down on either side of him. “Hey! Jackass!” She yelled into his ear.
He lashed back, trying to grab her. She knocked his helmet off and grabbed his head, turning it forcefully so he had to look back behind him to where her army was rolling in. “You all want to die or not?? Choose! Fast!!!”
The Persian froze.
“You think I’m bad? I got thousands there like me.” Xena growled into his ear. “Call it off. Blow the horn or I’ll let them butcher you and this pass’ll smell of death for the next generation.”
For a heartbeat, she thought he was going to be stupid. Then he lifted his hand, and dropped his sword, and picked the horn off his saddle ring with a grunting, disgusted sigh.
He blew the horn. The line of Persian horsemen turned towards him in outrage, screaming and brandishing their blades until they saw his pointing arm, and the rider behind him.
The captain blew his horn again, and slowly, very slowly, the fighting eased, Xena’s men shoving back their opponents as they stumbled around, trying not to trip on their comrade’s bodies.
“Congrats.” Xena said to the captain. “You’re the first smart Persian I’ve met today.”
The man let the horn rest on his leg, half turning his head to look at her. “Why not just kill us?” He asked. “We would not leave enemies alive.”
“But you choose to surrender instead of dying?” Xena asked. “Interesting.”
The man shrugged. “We are dead men anyway. Killing us would have been no matter.”
“Killing you would take too long.” Xena slid off the horses’s saddle, feeling the jolt as her body hit the ground and praying her knees would hold up. “I’m over this crap. I want a bubble bath.” She held her arms out as Gabrielle bolted into them, giving her consort a very heartfelt hug.
“Oooohhh.” Gabrielle exhaled. “Xena,that was awesome.”
Xena merely closed her eyes, as what was left of her little force clustered around her, smelling of dirt, and blood and unexpected victory. “If the Fates were here, I’d kiss em.”
Gabrielle looked up at her. “You would?”
The queen smiled at the tone. “On the cheek.”
“Oh. Okay. Me too.”
Xena walked slowly towards the growing encampment, a huge ring of her men circling the captive Persians now moved through the pass and down into the more friendly confines of the valley that marked the start of her lands.
The Persians had been disarmed and now they were sitting quietly, most seeming exhausted and just glad of a chance to rest there in the grass.
Xena sympathized with them. She passed a group of her own men, who turned and saluted on seeing her, touching their chest with their fists as she walked by and waved.
She felt like kissing every damn one of her soldiers that she saw. She spotted a clump of her nobles, with Lastan in their center near the pavilion they were raising for her and damned well wanted to kiss all of them too.
Only the fact that she suspected that Gabrielle might start whacking them stopped her.
“Your majesty!” Lastay saw her and hurried over. “Praise the gods it’s a fine thing to see you well.” To his credit, he did actually look happy to see her.
Xena wondered if he was just glad he didn’t have to be in charge anymore. She understood that too. “Glad to see you too.” She answered without any rancor. “Sorry the war was so short for ya.”
“I am not.” Lastay said frankly. “When we heard the Persians had invaded… all thought the worst.”
Xena glanced around. “Save it.” She said. “Let’s go somewhere I can sit down and wash the guts off my hands.” She waved him, and then, after a brief pause, the rest of the nobles towards the pavilion that was pretty much finished nearby.
They seemed pleased with the invitation, and followed her inside as she pushed aside the flap, almost stopping in mid step as the scents of home hit her with unexpected strength.
She blinked, spotting Gabrielle kneeling next to a chest. Her consort turned her head as she entered and the look of utter, relieved exhaustion rang a very familiar bell with her. “Glad to see this stuff Muskrat?”
“Oh boy.” Gabrielle responded. “I sure am.” She looked past Xena, as the nobles entered and clustered in the front of the pavilion, where there was the most clear space. “Hello.”
“Your Grace.” Lastan bowed in her direction.
Xena trudged across the carpet, feeling incongruously soft beneath her boots, and settled down in the big, wooden chair draped in furs her men had set there for her.
It felt strange. Xena regarded her subjects and remembered, or tried to remember, what it felt like to be someone who had subjects. “Take a seat.” She indicated the chests and the low stools near the cot. “I’ve had a long day.”
“Lots of them.” Gabrielle settled on the rug cross legged. She was still in her battle stained tunic, bloodied and torn but she folded her hands together and rested her chin on them, producing a tired grin despite it all.
“Majesty.” Lastay knelt before her. “Tell us of how you come to be here?”
“Isn’t that my line?” Xena propped her elbow on her chair arm and rested her head on her hand. She eyed the rest of the nobles who had taken seats quietly behind Lastan. Her younger ones, mostly, not the old crotchety ones. “I thought I left you all scrounging supplies.”
Lastay remained kneeling. “We did that, Majesty.” He readily answered. “The weather turned, it did, and we..” He glanced around. “Seed was put down. A wagon train came through,, and we traded for what we didn’t have.”
“We heard strange stories from the valley here.” One of the other nobles spoke up.
“Did you, Jelas?” Xena mused. “What did you hear? Stories about raiders?” She watched his face. “Burned out villages?”
“Stranger stories, Majesty.” Jelas riffled his hair, askew from being trapped inside a battle helm. “Stories of men doing atrocities, and the like.”
“A wagon came back to the stronghold.” Lastay added. “With a girl.”
“Is she okay?” Gabrielle asked softly. “That seems so long ago.” She added, her voice trailing off.
“She is, your Grace.” Jelas said. “But then we heard other tales.”
“Of Bregos?” Xena drawled.
Lastay nodded. “Six men came, and said they were from him.” He said, briefly.
“They said he had joined up with a big army, from the east.” Jelas said, sniffing reflectively. “I knew of whom they spoke, it was the ones I met with.”
“Bastards said they’d let us off easy if we opened the stronghold and just let them take over.” Lastay said.
Xena studied the two of them. “And the rest of those nutball heads let you refuse?” She was honestly surprised. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy as Hades you did, but it doesn’t make sense.”
Lastay got up and paced, clearly a little discomfited. “There was some discussion.” He admitted. “There were those who said, yes, that finally their views were the ones that were coming up on top, and that we had been wrong, those of us who had stuck by you.”
“Jerks.” Gabrielle commented.
Jelas and Lastay turned to look at her.
“She’s earned the right to call them jerks.” Xena said. “So what happened?”
Jelas folded his hands on his knees. “Word came that Bregos was dead.” He paused. “That you had killed him.”
“I did.” The queen agreed, wiggling her fingers. “Cleaned up that mess. Found him hunkered down in a burned out backwater eating his neighbors par boiled.”
Both men looked at her, then at their compatriots, then back at her. “Majesty?”
Xena reviewed her words. “What was too big for you, the backwater or the neighbors? Or was me using a cooking term too much?”
The men stared at her. “Bigods.” Jelas whispered. “The girl was saying the truth. We thought her mad.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment. Then Gabrielle cleared her throat. “We came on them looking for the raiders.” She said. “Xena was scouting the area, looking for the bad guys and she found those men around a fire, with that girl in a pot getting ready to cook her.”
“So, of course, Xena jumped into the fire and rescued her.” The blond woman said. “And we made them stop that.” She concluded quietly. “I guess they didn’t have much to eat over the winter and they went crazy.”
“Zeus.” Lastay whispered. “Horrible.”
“Before I killed him, Bregos spilled that he’d sold out.” Xena said. “So I went to find out who he sold out to.”
“We found the Persian army camped on the plain before the city.” Gabrielle picked up the tale again. “And… Xena didn’t want everyone to get hurt so she told the army to go back.”
Lastay sat down again on a trunk. “Some trickled back, aye, most didn’t.” He said. “Sent back to get all of us, they did, said we had to come out and back you up.” He added. “But…”
Gabrielle was tired, and she wanted a hug, and some lunch, and some quiet to think it. “We went into the Persian army, tricked them, chased them back to the city, broke into the city , chased the Persians out of the city, beat them up outside the walls, and then chased them back in here where you guys caught up with us.” She took a breath after all that. “And then we won. I’m glad.”
More stunned silence.
“Majesty.” Jelas finally coughed. “You mean to say.. you…this was… I mean, the Persian army, yes? You defeated it with this scant force of merchants and cowherds??”
Xena shrugged modestly.
“I helped, too.” Gabrielle offered.
“The Persian army?” Jelas repeated. “These men we captured..”
“The last of it.” Xena confirmed.
Jelas put his hand over his mouth and simply stared at her.
“Not that we’re not glad to see you.” Xena said. “In fact, you probably saved our asses because we’re a pretty tired bunch of merchants and cowherds.”
“By the gods.” Lastay muttered.
“Did I mention that Xena also burned up all their ships?” Gabrielle mused. “Well, anyway, I’ll tell the whole thing properly but not right this moment.”
Xena watched them all watch her, seeing the unabashed awe from these men who were, at least, the most loyal of her nobles. But even the disloyal ones would fear and respect what she’d just done because frankly, what she’d just done was the unthinkable.
Funny. She’d started out to remake her name, come around to a place where she’d just have settled for surviving, and ended up looking like Ares, God of War’s cooler younger sister.
“Extraordinary.” Jelas murmured. “When the news of this travels the world….”
Yeah. Xena chuckled wearily. “So that’s that.” She ran her fingers over the furs, feeling the unfamiliar softness against her skin, soothing the raw ache in her bones. “Make sure they go back into the pass and burn those bodies. Otherwise we’ll get the stench all the way back home.”
Lastay pinched the bridge of his nose. “Tis already being done, Majesty.” He said. “To be honest, this will sound insane but I feel a bit disappointed.”
Xena’s dark eyebrow lifted sharply. “At what? Not getting to croak?’
Her heir gave her a respectfully wry look. “Not getting the opportunity to become immortal in our history.”
The queen cocked her head, then she turned and looked at her consort.
Gabrielle blinked at her. “I’m definitely going to be telling this story Xena.” She said. “I may have to write it down and just start passing it out to people to read to give my tongue a rest.”
“Hm.” Xena pondered the possibility that she’d stumbled and hacked her way into unintended history. “Yeah, well.” She exhaled. “All right. Jelas, get on your horse and take a dozen men. Go to the city and tell them they can stop pissing in their ale bowls.”
“Majesty.” Jelas stood up and bowed. “It would be my great pleasure.” He said. “May I act as your envoy?”
The queen propped her chin up on her hand again. “Sure.” She said. “They had a tough time. Maybe they’re ready to think about a..closer relationship with us.”
Jelas grinned unabashedly. “My liege, I will endevour to make that idea delightful to them.” He said. “But I am sure you have already opened the door to my suggestions.”
Xena shrugged modestly again. “They appreciated my help.” She wiggled her fingers at him “G’wan.”
Jelas left, taking the rest of the nobles with him. Xena waited for the flap to stop moving, before she returned her attention to Lastay. “We need to put people in this valley. We screwed up. I screwed up, not keeping an eye on this place.” She stated flatly. “We took it for granted we’d hear about trouble from the road.”
“Aye.” Lastay agreed. “But, Xena… you did take the army this way. Wasn’t like they came up the back route unseen.”
“They almost did.” The queen said. “If I hadn’t taken the army that way, they would have met up with Bregos, and we’d have had them up our ass before we knew what hit us.”
“But you did take them.”
Xena remembered, then, why she’d taken them the way she had. “Yeah, I did.” She sighed. “So let’s talk about getting settlers back in here, and a guard outpost near the pass. I don’t want this to happen again.” She regarded her crud covered boots. “All right. Let me clean up. Have them bring some… “
“Majesty, your servants are waiting outside with meat and drink, and a bath.” Lastay said, with a wry smile. “They have been fretting. Will you wish to move on later this day?”
“Let me think about it.” The queen said. “We’ve got some things to settle.”
“Very good.” Lastay bowed. “I will send in your comforts. Be at ease, and you as well, your Grace.” He bowed to Gabrielle. “I am very much looking forward to hearing this whole tale, when you are ready to tell it.”
He left, and then they were briefly alone in the pavilion, though the sounds of the approaching servants were loud and evident. Xena leaned on the arm of her chair and gazed at her lover. “You ready to be a princess?”
Gabrielle gazed at her. “I’d be happy just to jump in a lake.” She admitted. “It feels so amazing for this to be over. I was so scared.”
Xena held her hand out. “Me too.” She waited for Gabrielle to rise, and come over to her. She patted the chair arm, and when her consort settled on it, the queen reached her arms around her and gave her a hug.
Gabrielle returned the affection, releasing a happy sigh as they sat there wrapped up in each other. “Sorry if I messed up things when that jerk was saying mean things about you.”
The queen chuckled under her breath. “Hades of a way to find out my back wasn’t really cracked.” She admitted. “Ah, don’t worry about it. This whole thing was so screwed up it had end up in a bloodbath eventually.”
Gabrielle was briefly quiet. “Glad it wasn’t our blood.” She said. “Thank you for saving my life.”
The flap moved aside, and a cluster of servants entered, glancing at Xena and smiling before they started putting down their fragrant burdens.
The queen rested her head against Gabrielle’s side, blissfully at ease. “Had to keep even with you. How would it look if it were you saving MY ass all the time?” She nodded in approval as one of the servants knelt to remove her boots.
“You always look good, no matter what I’m doing with..”
“Elysia can’t feel as good as this does.” Gabrielle gazed idly up at the stitched joins of the pavilion, her hands laced behind her head and the gentle breeze coming through the valley brushing against her. She was laying flat on her back on the pallet, bathed, in clean clothes and with the knowledge that tomorrow would hold good things for the first time in a moon.
It was almost intoxicating, knowing that. Gabrielle wriggled into a little more comfortable position. It felt great just to be hanging out in the pavilion waiting for Xena to come back, knowing there was no huge, threatening, crazy, Persian army waiting to kill them anymore, and that somehow, some way, they’d come through all the scariness in one piece.
Really, in one piece. Even Xena’s back seemed okay, or at least wasn’t excruciatingly painful as it had been before. Now the queen just seemed tired, and a bit bemused by it all, looking forward to getting back to their castle as much as Gabrielle was.
Now that it was over, she was wanting just a little bit to see the sea again, and take a ride on that boat. Gabrielle crossed her ankles and decided to hold off mentioning that to Xena for now, reasoning the last thing the queen would probably want to do is go off galavanting after everything that happened.
It had been exciting, sometimes. She’d gotten to do and see a lot of things, mostly bad and scary things, but also one or two good things, and she’d thought she’d been pretty brave about everything.
She thought for a while about whether she was really a soldier now.
She thought about that last moment, rushing towards Heydar, so angry she could hardly think straight after his taunting of her lover, and how she’d really wanted to hurt him.
She thought about him grabbing her, and knowing she was probably about to die, again.
She remembered looking up into his eyes, and seeing the triumph, and then seeing them widen and the fear appear and knowing without doubt what he was looking at and who was coming towards them. She let her eyelids shut and pictured the vision she’d seen on turning, of Xena powering through the fighting soldiers like a runaway oxcart.
Wild and unstoppable. Two of the Persians had tried to intercept her and Gabrielle didn’t even think Xena saw them. The queen had simply knocked them back like they were nothing but straw men.
Awesome. Gabrielle had felt guilty about getting in trouble and making Xena jump off her horse and come save her but it had all worked out in the end so she guessed it was okay.
And then the army showing up. She wondered what would have happened if they hadn’t? There were so many Persians and so few of them it was hard to imagine how they’d have won through but Gabrielle felt, deep in her heart, that somehow, some way, they would have.
They just had too much to live for, her and Xena.
Gabrielle’s eyes popped open to find Xena standing over her, hands on her hips, eyebrows lifted. “Oh. Hi.”
“Sleeping?” The queen sat down on the edge of the pallet and nudged Gabrielle over to one side.
“No. Just thinking.”
Gabrielle watched her lover’s profile, putting a hand on her thigh as she saw the weariness there. “Are we staying here now?”
Xena was momentarily silent, then she looked over at Gabrielle. “No.” She said. “I told the boys to pack up camp. If we hustle our asses we’ll be at the castle before dark.” She covered Gabrielle’s hand with her own. “I”ve got a lot of stuff to settle out there.”
“Great!” The thought of being at the castle that very day nearly made Gabrielle keel over.
“I just wasn’t sure bringing the damn Persians with us was a good idea. But I kicked a few of them around and I think it’s all right.”
“What are you going to do with them, Xena?” Gabrielle asked, curiously.
“Dunno. Maybe sell them off.” The queen said. “I can probably get a decent price for them from those bastards on the other side of the mountains.”
Gabrielle blinked at her. “Really?”
Xena shrugged. “They’re spoils of war, Gabrielle. What else is there to do with them? We can’t keep em, and they’ve got no way back home unless they build rafts and maybe kiss some whales to drag em back across the sea.”
“What’s a whale?”
The queen smiled, and gently stroked Gabrielle’s forehead, pushing her thick, pale hair back. “It’s a fish the size of that boat we were on that blows fountains into the sky.”
Gabrielle stared at her. “That’s not true. “ She said. “Is it?”
Xena nodded. “It’s true. Maybe we can take that trip on the sea someday and find one.”
Gabrielle sat up. “I’d really like to do that.” She said. “When I said I wanted to sneak off with you.. that’s what I meant. It was all new.”
The queen thought about that for a moment. Then she smiled. “We can talk about it after we get back.” She gave Gabrielle a slap on the shoulder. “Let’s go. I want my tub, and you in it.”
Outside, the sounds of the camp breaking up were clearly heard, men shouting and horses moving past. Gabrielle got up off the pallet and offered Xena her hand to pull her up as well, and they went to the entrance of the pavilion and passed through it, heading out into the organized chaos and on the way home.
It was just starting to be sunset when they came around the last bend in the road and saw the stronghold at the end of it. Xena gave the old rockpile a fond look, already hearing the sound of horns on the ramparts as the army was spotted behind her.
Lastay was riding to one side of her, and Gabrielle on her shaggy little runt on the other side. Her standard bearer was just behind them, and the rest of the army wth their captives stretched far back at the tail of setting sun.
They were riding between the long, rolling fields just put under planting, newly churned earth releasing a rich scent into the air that also brought the sound of livestock and the creak of wagons moving somewhere in the distance.
The late afternoon golden light made everything charming, and Xena glanced around at the cultivated lands with a new appreciation and it occurred to her that maybe enhancing what she had might be a slightly better idea than going out again to find more trouble.
Brendan brought his bay up next to her, the old captain looking tired, but very proud. “Mistress.”
“Good to be home, Brendan?” Xena asked. “Bet it’ll be nice to see the barracks.”
Brendan made a low sound that was half groan and half chuckle. “Where you want us to put these dogs?” He indicated their captives. The Persians had been quiet, almost meek on the trip to the stronghold, their weapons packed into the provision wagons.
Good question. Xena thought hard for a minute, then she nodded to herself. “Put them in the barracks that Bregos vacated.” She said. “They could have made it a lot harder on us. Give them a little respect.”
Brendan nodded in agreement. “Rough lot.” He said. “You going to ransom ‘em?”
“Maybe.” Xena replied. “Depends if I think Daddy would send coin or more mercenaries after my ass.” She privately figured it could go either way, depending on how many of Persias troops were either lying dead or marching meekly between her lines of soldiers.
On one hand, he could send her a literal king’s ransom to get his troops back. On the other hand, he could be so pissed off he showed up with twice as many to kick her ass.
On the third hand, what kind of king was he to send out this many experienced troops under a petulant puissant like Sholeh? She studied the enemy men in their midst. “What a waste.”
A horn blew again, and the gates opened in welcome as they got closer. Xena felt a sense of relief as she saw the guards on the walls raising their fists in acknowledgement, her half formed fear that someone had taken the opportunity of her absence to mess with her home unfounded.
“Wow.” Gabrielle sighed. “Is that ever a sight for sore eyes.”
“And sore asses.” The queen agreed. She could see curious people gathering at the gates, and she even found herself looking forward to her pain in the ass courtiers, who certainly were among them staring at the exotic Persians as they came down the last bit of the road and passed inside.
Xena lifted a hand as she acknowledged the cheers of the castle dwellers, waving Brendan and the troops off towards the military compound as she continued on in the direction of the castle front steps, where Stanislaus and the staff were hurriedly gathering to meet her.
And nobles. Bunches of them like slightly rotten grapes popping out of doorways as she pulled Tiger to a halt and gratefully, wearily, hoisted herself off his back and set her boots onto the familiar granite flagstones. “Hey, you bastards. How are ya?”
Lastay and Gabrielle also dismounted, giving their horse over to the grooms who had raced up from the stables, still breathing hard. “Thanks.” Gabrielle gave Patches a hug, and a pat. “Give him something really nice. He’s been so brave.”
The groom smiled at her. “As horse like rider, your grace.” He said, with a little bow. “Glad to see you and her Majesty back home.”
Gabrielle blushed a little, but smiled back. “I’m glad to be home too.” She sighed. “It’s been a long moon.” She gave Patches a last hug, then she followed Xena up the stairs and in the throng of excited nobles, latching on to the queen’s armor as she was hauled steadily through the crowd.
“Your Majesty! Your Majesty!” Stanislaus was chattering. “We heard such terrible rumors!”
“Yes! Yes! Is it true the whole of the army of Persia is coming after us?”
“And they had great creatures?”
“What about the ships of war! We heard the port city was destroyed!”
Xena stopped and lifted her arms up, letting out a sharp whistle. “Hush!” She waited for the noise to settle. “I have things to do and bubbles to attend to. “ She said. “So you..” She pointed at Stanislaus. “Make yourself useful and get a banquet going, and the rest of you get your asses out of my way and show up in the hall later on.”
Xena’s eyebrows lifted, at the nearest noble, an older man with blinking, faded eyes. “But?”
The man hesitated, then he patted his hands together. “So good to see you again, your Majesty.” He said. “Of course, of course we will go to the hall and await your pleasure.”
“You can say that again.” Xena held her hand out to Gabrielle. “And if you’re really nice to my consort, and bring her lots of presents, she may tell you everything that happened.”
Gabrielle took her hand and gave everyone a sheepish smile, as they started up the grand staircase that led to the queen’s chambers. “See you later?” She waved.
The nobles and Stanislaus waved back, standing there and watching as the two disappeared and the big doors at the top of the stairs slammed decidedly shut with a bang.
Sounds of the stronghold floated in the open windows, bringing the smell of the cookfires and the rich scent of turned earth into the queen’s chambers. A door opened, and a blurp of uneven music floated in, with voices and the clatter of boots following it that disappeared as the door shut again behind it.
“There’s a lot of people down there, Xena.”
“Sure there is.” Xena wiggled her toes, her body submerged fully in warm, scented, very slightly bubbly water in her huge tub, lit with golden light from the candles placed around the bathing room. “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened in this place since the bulls got loose and nearly ran the whole down down on their asses.”
“Jellaus just found me.”
Xena chuckled. “He sorry he didn’t go?”
“I think so.” Gabrielle called over. “I told him to wait to hear the whole story first.”
“Mm.” The queen crossed her ankles, glad of the chance to float there, stretching out the still stiff and sore aches in her back. “I think he’d still want to have been there.”
Outside, the last bit of fading sunlight was reflecting crimson on the windows of her chambers, and behind her, she could hear Gabrielle puttering around to the accompaniment of tinkling glass and pouring liquid. “Gaaabbbbrrrieeellle…”
“Yes?” A soft clink made her open her eyes and look up, to find a crystal goblet parked near her ear filled with rich, golden liquid. “Oo.”
“I thought you’d like some of this.” Gabrielle shook a bit of still damp hair from her eyes, her newly bathed skin glistening a little in the candlelight. As she perched on the edge of the tub, Xena reached up and untied the belt holding her robe shut, letting it drift open to expose her bare skin.
“You thought right.” The queen agreed, ignoring the glass for the moment and reaching up to rub her thumb over Gabrielle’s nipple instead. “Mead’s a nice idea too though.”
Gabrielle leaned over the tub and laid a hand on Xena’s cheek before she kissed her on the lips. The moment lengthened, until she lost her balance and fell into the tub with a splash, sending bubbly water halfway across the bathing chamber.
Xena dissolved into silent laughter, covering her eyes with one hand as the waves splashed against her chest, the fabric of her lover’s robe floating and sending a puff of damp silk in her direction.
A second later, Gabrielle surfaced, spluttering. “Oh, wow.” She coughed a little. “Boy, that was a surprise. Glad I hadn’t really dried off and gotten dressed yet.” She added mournfully, moving the wet hair from her eyes and peering at the now drenched head of her bathmate. “Sorry.”
Xena licked her lips. “That’s all right.” She admitted, blinking the drops of water she’d been splashed with out of her eyes. “Worth the dunking. Laughing feels good.” She gathered up a handful of Gabrielle’s robe and tugged her out of it, bunching the drenched fabric in one hand and tossing it outside the tub.
‘It does.” Gabrielle hauled herself upright, her legs tangled with Xena’s in the tub as she slid back and leaned against the side of the marble basin, reaching out to pick up one of the goblets and handing it over to the queen. “Here you go.”
The queen swirled the cup, watching the liquid coat the glass, then she sniffed it, making a low sound of pleasure. “I missed this damn tub.” She admitted, with a lazy smile. “I can’t believe it, but I missed this hoary mausoleum of a room, too.”
Her companion sipped from her cup thoughtfully. “I didn’t.”
Xena’s eyebrows hiked sharply.
“But I did miss being alone with you in it.” Gabrielle amended, giving the queen a mildly impish look over the edge of her glass. “A lot.”
“Did you?” Blue eyes twinkled.
“I did.” Gabrielle reached out under the water and stroked the queen’s thigh. “It’s not the same when some crazy guy with a sword can burst in any second.”
“Oh really?” Xena put the cup down. “C’mere.” She pulled Gabrielle closer, kissing her as their bodies pressed against each other, the motion making the water lap lightly at the edge of the tub. “You may have a point there.”.” The queen finally said, sitting back again and taking the glass, swirling it around a few times before she took a sip of the contents. “Mmm.”
Gabrielle licked her lips, and grinned, reaching up to wipe a few droplets of water out of her eyes.
They both sighed at the same time. Gabrielle squirmed around to sit next to Xena, pressing her shoulder against the queen’s as they sat in silence for a few moments, drinking the rich honey mead.
The sweetness felt so strange on her tongue. Xena inhaled the scent and slowly let her breath out, tipping her head back and looking around the room, the stone walls covered in tapestries and beyond the draped entry, the bedroom with it’s huge and ridiculously comfortable bed.
Hard to believe she was here. She turned her head and regarded her tub mate, who was leaning against her shoulder cradling her cup with her eyes half closed.
Just a bit of a smile on her face.
“Tired?” Xena asked her.
“Not really.” Gabrielle gazed up at her. “I don’t want to go to sleep. I want to enjoy being here with you.” She kissed Xena’s shoulder, then nibbled the skin there a little. “Sleeping would be kind of a waste of time.”
Xena rested her head against her consorts. “It would.” She agreed. “Too bad we have to waste time on having dinner with the realm.”
Gabrielle smiled, ducking her head a little. “It’s so amazing.”
“I know I am.” Xena remarked drolly. “Are you going to tell everyone else how amazing I am, later?” She draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “No one expected me back this soon. Or at all.” She mused. “I sure didn’t.”
“You didn’t think you’d make it back?” Gabrielle asked. “Really?”
Xena shrugged, after a brief pause to consider. “I dunno.” She said, turning back to Gabrielle and leaning over to gently bite her ear. “Let’s talk about something else.”
Gabrielle slid her arm over Xena’s waist and half turned to face her, lifting her chin so their lips met. “Do we have to talk?” She eased closer, sliding her body up next to the queen’s as her knee eased between Xena’s thighs.
The queen blinked a little at this sudden, sensual assault. She set her cup down and rested her hand on Gabrielle’s hip, enjoying the kiss, and the warmth and the passion knowing she wasn’t about to be shot in the ass, or have to bullshit her way out of an impossible situation.
What a nice feeling.
“No.” She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and pulled her down, banishing the water between them and savoring the heat igniting in her guts as her lover circled her neck with her arms and nuzzled the side of her face.
Xena drew in a breath of warm, moist steam from the bath colored with the scent of Gabrielle’s skin and allowed herself to relax, sliding back against the tub wall as her hands explored her consort’s body. She felt Gabrielle press against her and her own body arched against the contact, savoring it.
The gentle, teasing touch against her breast made her eyes flutter, and she smiled. “Know what?”
“Mm?” Gabrielle’s breath ruffled against the bath water, tickling her collarbone.
“Unless you learned to swim any better, let’s go ashore.” Xena eased herself upward until they were both kneeling in the tub, letting the water sheet off her as they continued to kiss each other.
She’d meant to keep going, standing up to get out but Gabrielle’s hand slid up the inside of her thigh below the water and she paused instead, her body craving the contact as the motion of the warm water prickled her skin.
“I kinda like it right here.” Gabrielle breathed, warming the skin between Xena’s breasts, bumping the queen backwards just a trifle as she eased her knee between the taller woman’s and leaned forward, kissing the curve just below her collarbone.
Xena took a breath to protest, but the sensual press of Gabrielle’s belly against hers made her forget about standing up as a knowing touch brought a surge of passion and Gabrielle’s lips found sensitive spots and teased them with shy confidence.
Oh well. Xena felt her body surrendering to the touch and she slid back down, pulling Gabrielle with her as the blond woman’s hands reached and touched and made her breathing shorten, the warmth of the water and the familiarity of the passion comforting beyond all belief.
She let Gabrielle have her way, submitting with frank, unabashed moans as the blond woman scoured her skin, nipping and teasing until almost every inch of her felt like she’d been scrubbed with a hot sea sponge.
The rush of sensation surprised her, and almost landed them both out of the tub and onto the floor but at the last moment in a spasm of reaction Xena managed to grab hold of the side of the marble and keep them both in place.
The splashing faded into ripples and they lay there together, Gabrielle resting on top of Xena’s half submerged body for a long few minutes, breathing hard. Xena let her fingers slide down Gabrielle’s side and felt the faint inhale at the touch, making her smile as she circled her arm around Gabrielle’s back and gave her a hug.
From one viewpoint, she’d set out on a fool’s mission and totally failed at it. And yet, here she was, being lovingly pleasured by her doting muskrat, victory draped over her shoulders, servants scrambling to do things for her, and nobles bowing and scraping and waiting to hear every detail of her success.
Ah well. Xena had caught her breath and now she smoothly turned and reversed their positions, surprising Gabrielle who only just kept from smacking her adorable head on the side of the tub. She braced her arms over her lover and peered down at her from narrowed eyes, leaning closer to playfully fasten her teeth on one of Gabrielle’s nipples.
“Urmf.” Gabrielle spread her arms out to keep her balance as her body reacted. “W.. wan to get out now?”
“Oh no.” The queen grinned wickedly at her. “I can swim.” She bit down a little, watching her lover’s eyes widen just a trifle. Then she slowly started to work her way downward, past the scrapes and the cuts, some healed, some not, past the bruises and the too prominent ribs, until she was close to submerging her head, and then it was time to make good on her boast.
She sucked in a deep breath, and did just that.
Gabrielle scratched her ear, sighing as she reviewed the pretty, bright fabrics laid out over her clothing press. It was now full dark out, and she and Xena were getting ready to go downstairs to the big banquet hall, where everyone within the walls and some who had just arrived were scurrying in to get good seats.
She and the queen, of course, already had good seats.
Gabrielle folded her arms over her mostly bare chest, as she stood in her wraps and pondered her choices. It felt a little odd to have choices, she supposed, but really most anything the queen had ordered put in her closet would have been a fine pick, because even though she really didn’t have much taste for clothes, her lover most certainly did.
“What in Hades are you doing?”
Gabrielle turned, to find Xena standing behind her dressed in a silk, purple gown. “Wow.’ She said. “That’s so pretty.”
“That’s so pretty is not the answer to “what in Hades are you doing.” The queen said.
“No, I know.” The blond woman turned and perched on the edge of the press. “I guess I just can’t decide what to wear.”
Xena looked at her, then she tipped her head to one side and looked at her again. “Gabrielle, there’s only two dresses here. Pick one.” She studied the half shadowed face, seeing suddenly a new, surprising maturity in her consorts expression. “Or go naked if you want.”
Gabrielle looked away. “I don’t want to go naked.” She said, before the queen got any ideas. “I just don’t know…” She looked at the pretty, frilly gowns. “I don’t know if I want to wear these either.” She admitted. “It was kind of nice not having to when we were gone.”
She looked up at Xena after a moment’s hesitation, when the queen didn’t answer. She found those pale blue eyes studying her with a touch of pensive seriousness. “I know, you’re going to say just get dressed Gabrielle.” She grinned wryly. “I will.”
“No.” Xena took a seat next to her on the press. “What’s your problem?” She hitched a knee up and circled it with her hands, disarranging the fine fabric with casual disregard. “Don’t like the duds? We can get more.”
Gabrielle remembered the first time Xena had left clothes for her, back in her little niche, those stacks of worn shirts and rough fabrics so fabulous and precious to her.
She owed so much to her lover. She knew Xena liked to wear pretty things, and she liked Gabrielle to wear them too. So was it crazy for her to not want to? She pondered the long scratch across the back of one hand, feeling very different than she had the last time she’d perched on this press, and had to wear something from it.
Xena waited quietly for her to answer, uncommonly patient for her. Gabrielle glanced up at her companions face, and sensed that Xena, too, had changed. Despite her flippant words, there was a more serious air about her and in her weather roughened face those eyes now held a new glitter of presence.
Less capricious. Less mocking.
It was all different now. They were different. The stronghold hadn’t changed, but here, in this closed dynamic of the two of them, all the things they’d just been through came settling home and possibly for the first time, Gabrielle gained a sense that her life, always in a whirlwind of change, had moved permanently to some new level.
She wasn’t sure if that was a good, or a bad thing. However. “I think they’re pretty.” She said, finally. “I just don’t think I’m cut out for those sort of clothes.” Gabrielle reached over and touched the neatly folded surcoat and armor laying nearby. “I think I like this stuff better.”
Xena didn’t seem surprised to hear it. She rested her hands on the edge of the press and extended her legs, crossing her bare feet at the ankles. “You want to dress like a guy?” She asked, after a moment.
“Well, no.. not..” Gabrielle paused, and frowned. “I just think.. I’m more.. “ She paused again. “It just fits how I see myself better. Or something like that.”
“Uh huh.” Xena pursed her lips. “Well.” She tilted her head and regarded her consort. “Gabrielle, you’ve earned the right to wear whatever the Hades you want to wear even if that’s a goatskin with bells on it.” She said, in a serious tone. “So tomorrow you call in those nitwit needle pushers of mine and have em make you up whatever you want.”
Gabrielle grinned, her face lighting up in relief. “That would be awesome.”
Xena reached over and affectionately ruffled her hair. “Whatever makes you happy, my love.” She said, in a casual tone. “Ya look sexy in whatever you wear to me, so go get something on and we’ll go scandalize the realm together.”
My love. Gabrielle felt a prickle across her skin and unexpectedly the sting of tears in her eyes. She looked up at Xena, seeing the wry understanding in her expression, and got up off the press to throw her arms around the queen and hug her as hard as she could.
Xena was a little puzzled at the reaction, but she never minded hugs from Gabrielle so she returned it, the sureallness of being home in the stronghold slowly growing less like a dream, and more like reality. She kissed the top of Gabrielle’s head and rubbed her bare back, frowning a little when she felt her lover’s spine clearly under her skin.
“Xena, you’re the best.” Gabrielle released her and leaned back, still in the circle of the queen’s arms. “It’s going to be so nice to come back here after dinner and just chill out.”
The queen unwound one arm and tweaked one of her consorts breasts. “Yes it will. Scoot.” She bumped Gabrielle towards her choice of clothing and wandered over to the window, peering out of it at the activity in the courtyard below.
In the end, Gabrielle picked a long sleeved green silk tunic that came down halfway to her knees, held tight to her body by her beloved hawks head belt. She had soft indoor boots on and she felt comfortable and ready to face the crowd in the room.
Xena had stopped just short of the entry as was her custom, and Gabrielle was waiting behind her, hearing the buzz of conversation in the big hall as she looked forward to the banquet, hoping she’d get a chance to fill her stomach before she had to get up and talk.
“Coming.” She scooted up next to where Xena was standing, one hand braced against the doorway, and the other holding her sword in it’s sheath. “Can I hold that for you?”
“This?” Xena held up the sword. “Sure.” She handed it over, then she put her hand on Gabrielle’s sholder and started forward, surprising the guard at the entrance who drew a startled breath to announce her.
“Sh.” Xena whacked him on the side of the head, then she headed up the aisle towards the high, raised dias that held her table, and the high backed throne shaped chair behind it.
Her presence, their presence, was noted quickly, heads turning and bodies moving in bows both awkward and honest, most of the room filled with richly dressed nobles and a scattering of her soldiers dressed in their field armor and surcoats.
Xena had considered wearing hers. However, unlike her consort, she enjoyed the feeling of soft silk on her body after a moon of nothing but leather and steel and she flexed clean, but slightly stiff hands as she glided up the low steps with Gabrielle at her side.
The table was empty. Xena hadn’t told Stanislaus to fill it with anyone, and she patted the right hand seat, the favored one, for Gabrielle to sit in as they both arrived. She waited for her consort to take a seat, still cradling her sword, before she faced the crowd and regarded them.
Big crowd. All eyes fastened on hers, filled with various emotions from apprehension to disappointment, to the scattering of happiness and muted glee. Xena wasn’t a fool, to think everyone in the room was glad she was back, and that some in fact had probably been in league with Bregos and his Persian invaders.
Just like old times. Xena sighed and pointed at Lastay, then at Brendan, Jens, and two other of her officers, and one or two nobles that appeared the happiest to see her and waved them up to the table, then she sat down and waited for all the shifting to finish. “Here we are.”
“Here we are.” Gabrielle agreed. “And boy I’m glad, cause I’m hungry.”
Xena chuckled, leaning back as the room began to settle, and her chosen guests joined her at the table. “Everything quiet?” She asked Brendan.
“As a tomb, Mistress.” Brendan sighed, as he relaxed in his seat. “Persians got sorted out, guards are with em.” He said. “Got rode hard, they did. I think they’s just glad of a dry spot to sleep in and a fire.”
“Mm.” The queen steepled her fingers and tapped them against her lips. “Lastay, do we know who Bregos was in with here?”
Her chief duke and heir rested his elbows on his chair arms. “Well, your Majesty, that’s an excellent question.” He said. “I have heard many who were sympathetic to his aims, and even some who felt he should have been taken back in the winter, but..”
Lastay half shrugged. “No one looks to be taken over by Persians.” He said, succinctly. “The reputation of the princess preceded her.”
“Ah.” Xena, smiled, waving the anxious servers forward with their trays of nice smelling things. “Better then bitch you know than the puppy you don’t?”
Lastay held up his hands and half turned them over. “As you say, Majesty.” He agreed. “Was she as her reputation maintains?”
The queen chuckled softly. “Well, she’s dead.” She remarked. “By her own man’s hand, matter of fact.”
“She was a jerk.” Gabrielle supplied, having captured a roll and a bit of cheese, and was busy munching it.
“Did she treat you poorly, you Grace?” Lastay asked, politely.
“Gabrielle bit her in the face and tore a chunk out of her.” Xena said. “But you’ll get to hear all about that later. Right Muskrat?” She picked up a bit of cheese from the platter being passed down the table and nibbled it, watching the crowd as she planned what she herself was going to say.
First things first. She turned to Brendan. “Got that bag?”
Brendan handed a soft, leather bag over to her, with a rakish grin.
Xena ran the edge of her thumb over the leather, then she stood up and drew a dagger from her sleeve, rapping it’s hilt against the table.
The room went silent, almost immediately. The nobles at their tables turned and faced her, and at the back of the room, the big doors opened and slowly, the men she’d led from the city filtered in and took up positions against the back wall.
“All right.” Xena faced her subjects. “Bet you’re all surprised to see me here, huh?”
Lastay half covered his eyes and sighed.
“After all, I said I was going to out to conquer more territory, shoulda taken me longer than this.” The queen went on. “But as it turned out, something else turned up to occupy my time.”
“Your Majesty.” One of the old dukes stood up. “Is it true that we were offered a great alliance with this Eastern empire?”
Xena had to give him a point for guts. “No.”
“But that is what they said.” The man insisted. “The envoy, who came here. He said that. Did he not?” The man turned to his tablemates. “Is that not what you told me?”
One of the other nobles hesitantly stood up. “Yes.” He bravely said. “That is what we were told. That this great empire wanted to join forces with us, and that… ah… “
“That I was dead?” Xena cocked her head to one side.
“No.” The first man turned around again. “That you had agreed, your Majesty, and were to go with this army.”
Xena rested her hands on the contents of the leather bag, which was resting on the table. An uneasy silence fell. The queen exhaled then she looked around the room. “There was no us involved.” She said, bluntly. “I was offered a place with the Persians. My army was offered a place with the Persians.”
A low murmur went up.
“They couldn’t give a rats ass about the rest of you.” Xena concluded. “You were just a provision stop for em.”
The old duke pondered that, then he looked back at Xena, apparently old enough to feel bold. “Then, your Majesty, why are you here?” He asked. “Is that not what you would have wished? To go and to conquer, and to make rivers run red with men’s blood?”
“Hm.” Xena hummed low in her throat. “Well….”
“Because Xena gives a rats ass about all of you.” Gabrielle stood up and put her hands behind her back, speaking clearly into the uneasy silence. “Even if the Persians didn’t. All they wanted was her. All she wanted was to keep them away from you all.”
Xena glanced away, and cleared her throat a little. “Do you have to make me sound so self sacrificing?” She muttered. “Sheesh.”
Gabrielle pretended not to hear. “I was there. I saw all of it.”
“Yeah.” Xena took back over the conversation. “In answer to your question, Radas, no. I wasn’t tempted.”
The old duke frowned.
“There’s not enough riches in Persia, or blood in the sea to buy me. “ Xena finished quietly. “I don’t play well with others, and if you haven’t gotten that yet you never will so sit the Hades down and shut up.”
“Humph.” The duke did, however, sit down. “Well, then well done, I say.” He clapped his hands several times in the echoing tension. “Well done, your Majesty.”
“Thanks.” Xena only just kept from rolling her eyes. “Any other stupid comments or questions?” She asked, in a louder voice. “You can bet I’ll be scouring out those of you who decided to stay on Bregos side. I won’t be nice like I was last time.”
Fear rippled through the room, an energy she was well accustomed to, here in this place where her word was law, and men had a reason to fear it. Xena let them all stew for a minute, then she relaxed a little. “However, tonight is not the time for that.” She said. “Tonight’s the time to raise a mug to the men who stuck with me, and those who gave their lives standing at my side.” She looked across the room to the soldiers in the back, standing with straight backs, some her original soldiers, some the men from the city, almost indistinguishable between them. “And to welcome new faces who proved themselves damn decent warriors.”
The city men, and the conscripts now were obvious from their reddened faces, and the looks they were giving each other.
Xena smiled at them. “Welcome.”
The nobles looked around the room to find the soldiers ringing them, and not a few of them looked decidedly nervous.
That made Xena smile even wider. “The other thing we’re celebrating tonight… “ She drew everyone’s attention back to her. “Is my wedding.”
If she’d turned into a small furry rodent and started tap dancing, she probably would have caused less of a rolling, thunderous shock across the room. Even Lastay twitched, looking up at her in true surprise.
“It was a very short ceremony, and I almost got shot in the ass doing it, but that’s pretty much how my life is, aint’ it?” Xena opened the bag and drew out a golden circlet, it’s front set in jewels and lacy filigree. “Sorry I didn’t invite any of you.”
“But, your Majesty…” The old duke, apparently elected sacrificial lamb by his peers again stood. “What is this? Did you not say you would never marry?”
Xena glanced at her consort, who was staring at the circlet with wide eyes. “I said I’d never marry someone you wanted me to. I never said I woudn’t marry someone I wanted to.” She turned and gently, carefully set the circlet on Gabrielle’s pale hair, fitting it around her head where it settled into place as though it had been made for her.
Which, of course, it had.
For once, Gabrielle was struck dumb, her eyes saying more than words ever could.
For once, it was Xena who felt the need to speak. “So now you have two queens.” She let her fingertips brush Gabrielle’s cheek. “And she’s in charge of me.”
Gabrielle’s eyes went wide, and her nostrils flared as she kept her gaze glued on Xena, not daring to move it towards the rest of the room.
“Are you freaking out?” Xena asked, in a soft voice.
“Good.” The queen leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips. “Long live the queens.” She straightened and glared at the crowd. “I’m not hearing any cheers.”
Belatedly, the group burst into ragged ones, some of the nobles lifting their goblets so fast their wine spilled in every direction. IN the back of the room, the soldiers responded far more enthusiastically, whistling and shouting out Gabrielle’s name much to her consorts embarrassment.
Ah well. Xena let out a piercing whistle of her own, then she pointed to Jellaus, who was standing by with his lute. “Let’s get this damn party started before I die of boredom!”
The music started up and the servers started bringing the trays around and Xena settled back into her big chair, accepting the chaos she’d started with a benign smile as she reached over and scratched Gabrielle on the back.
You just never knew where life was going to lead you sometimes, did you? Xena chuckled softly and shook her head. You just never did.
The next day, it rained. Xena leaned her arms against the window sill and peered outside, listening to the rumble of thunder as she watched the heavy rain drench everything in sight.
She thought about being out there in the field in this kind of weather, and had to admit if only to herself that she was really a lot happier to be here, dry and comfortable in her castle with the prospect of breakfast to look forward to and a warm fire burning nearby.
The night’s sleep had refreshed her somewhat, but the stiffness in her back hadn’t eased, and she was glad she wasn’t going to have to don her leathers and jump on the back of a horse, and even more glad the non stop fighting had stopped.
For now. Xena leaned her chin on her wrists, cautiously stretching her back out, then stopping in mid motion as a warm hand rested on her spine, just at the spot it was hurting. “You’d better be cute and blond or I’m gonna take that off with an ax.”
Gabrielle chuckled softly, leaning up against her as she, too, looked out at the rain. “Boy, I’m glad we’re not out in that.”
“Me too.” Xena admitted.
The blond woman sat down on the bench that curved in front of the window, her body wrapped in a light robe. “Having adventures was sort of fun though.”
“Uh huh.” The queen blinked a little as lighting struck nearby.
“At least, until we started getting shot at.” Gabrielle amended. “Then it kind of sucked.”
Xena turned and sat down next to her on the bench. “It turned out all right though. You did a good job telling the story to everyone last night.”
Gabrielle ducked her head a bit bashfully. “I didn’t have to try hard. It’s a pretty amazing story.” She demurred. “I don’t think I even realized it until I was telling people what happened and I kept sort of stopping in my head and going ‘what?’”
The queen chuckled. “Especially when you were describing what you did?”
“Did it make you realize we never would have done it without you?’ Xena took her hand and held it, rubbing her thumb over Gabrielle’s knuckles.
Gabrielle blushed. “I think I surprised myself.”
Xena pondered that. Then she smiled. “I think I surprised myself too.” She said, wryly. “Not always in a good way.”
“Well.” The blond woman reached over and clasped her hand. “It all worked out. We won.”
They were both quiet for a moment. Then Gabrielle squeezed Xena’s hand. “So what are we going to do now?”
“Well.” Xena stretched her legs out. “After my back stops killing me, we’ve got a lot of work to do around here. That valley has to be resettled.” She ticked off items on her long fingers. “Treaty with the port city signed.”
“It’s so strange that you were going to attack them and we end up being friends.” Gabrielle commented.
“Mm.” The queen grunted. “Don’t mention that when their envoy’s here.”
“I need to buy the army new stuff.” Xena said. “They deserve it. New armor, new bows…”
“Hm?” The queen turned to look at her.
“Thanks for my pretty hat.” Gabrielle kicked her feet out a little, not looking at her companion. “I didn’t get a chance to say that last night.”
“Before we came back here and screwed like squirrels? True.” Xena caught the blush from the corner of her eye, and she patted Gabrielle on the leg with a chuckle. “It was good. Freaked out those damn tin hat nobles and even made Lastay stop and think.”
“Think about what?”
“Think about what might happen if I turn out stranger than they think and you end up bearing me an heir.”
Gabrielle turned her head and looked up at Xena. She stared at her in silence for a long moment. “Can you do that?” She asked, finally in a hesitant voice. “I didn’t think … um… “
“Probably not.” Xena let her head rest back against the granite wall. “But y’know something, Gabrielle? Listening to the story you told last night I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do most of that either.”
Xena peered at her. “That make you nervous?”
“Well..” Gabrielle murmured. “It’s sort of unusual.”
“Want to stop having sex?”
Silence. “No.” The blond woman said. “I’ll take the chance. I’m sure you were right the first time and we’re just being silly.”
Xena chuckled. They both turned their heads at a deferential knock on the door. “Little early for annoyances, isn’t it?” She muttered. “Who?” She called out.
“It’s Brendan, your Majesty.” Stanislaus peeked in apprehensively. “He is very insistant to see you. I told him you and y..t.. b… “
“Shut up and let him in.” Xena leaned back again, and waited as the door opened and her captain entered her inner chambers, crossing over to them and saluting. “Sit.” Xena indicated a stool nearby. “What’s up?”
Brendan was dressed in fresh, well maintained armor, and he’d shaven and shorn the wild gray locks that had grown out during the campaign. “Your Majesty..”
“Cut that out.” Xena interrupted him.
Brendan tilted his head, then grinned a little. “Sorry, Xena.” He said. “Got some news for you.”
“Uh oh.” Xena folded her arms across her chest. “I can’t wait to hear this.”
Gabrielle got up and headed back across the room towards the big fire. “Be right back.” She called over her shoulder. “Brendan would you like some cider?”
Caught in the middle of taking a breath, the soldier paused, and blinked. “Ah.. aye, surely.” He answered in an awkward tone. “Bigods, I didn’t mean to interrupt your breakfast, M.. Xena. I’ll.. “ He stopped, as Xena waved at him. “Ah.”
“How are the Persians settling in?” Xena asked, to distract him.
“That’s the news.” Brendan said. “Leader of em, I guess he’s the senior one left, says he wants to talk with ya, fore you send any news back home about them.”
“Heard them talking, a bit, maybe about not wanting to go back.”
“Ah HUH.” Xena’s brows lifted. “Where do they want to go?” She accepted the mug from Gabrielle and took a sip of it, as her consort passed a mug to Brendan and took one for herself.
“Want to stay here.”
Xena spit her mouthful of cider across the room, narrowly missing her faithful captains head. “What?”
Brendan shrugged. “Took a shine to you, I’m guessing.” He said. “Be a nice big force, yeah? Fill in what that bastard took out from us.”
The queen stared at him across the edge of her mug. “Brendan, you’re suggesting we let them stay here, and join our army?”’
Brendan shrugged again. “Most can fight.” He stated the obvious. “Not horrible bad fellers. Heard em talking about all that poison and stuff making them mad, like they weren’t good enough to fight the right way.”
“Well, we did beat them.” Gabrielle said.
“Aye.” Brendan agreed. “That’s why they want to join up, yeah? Called us true warriors.”
True warriors. Gabrielle thought about that, and decided it was probably pretty true. Certainly, Xena hadn’t resorted to any fancy tricks because… well, because really she hadn’t had any tricks to work with other than her own prowess and a remarkable talent for doing the right thing at the right time. “Hey Xena?”
“If you had that poison stuff, would you have used it?”
Xena cocked her head and regarded the ceiling. “Hm…”
“Nah.” Brendan shook his head. “Had her chance once, tossed it off. I remember.”
Xena glared at him from slitted eyes. “Squealer.” She growled. “Remind me to blindfold you the next time I do something that stupid.” Then she turned to Gabrielle. “I think..” She said, in a more serious tone. “That as a warrior, you have grab every advantage you can in order to win.”
“But?” Gabrielle was watching her face, a faint smile playing around her lips.
The queen sighed. “But, I also find a value in winning because you’re… “ She paused, her brows creasing.
“Because you’re the best.” Gabrielle supplied. “Not because you’re the trickiest.”
“Something like that.” Xena smiled. “Though it’s not bad being tricky sometimes.”
“That’s what the Persians said.” Brendan spoke up. “That one of theirs, was all tricks, and some of them were against it. They said you had a mind, and a fist, yeah?”
“And a heart.” Gabrielle smiled impishly.
“No I don’t.” Xena squirmed, since the discussion was diving headlong into a mush bog. She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle on the lips, then put her own lips near her lover’s ear. “You stole it.” She whispered, straightening up and putting her hands on her knees. “So.”
“So.” Brendan nodded. “We letting them in? Got folks asking me if they’re staying.”
Xena closed her eyes and muttered a curse under her breath. A good part of the Persian army? Under her command? Living in her stronghold? “Word’ll get out.” She said.
“Aye.” Her captain agreed.
“That Persian bastard will probably come after our asses with every other soldier in his damn kingdom.”
Just when things looked like they were going to be boring again. Xena took a sip of her cider, her eyes twinkling. “Ah, why not.” She said. “Tell them they can stay, if they swear fealty.” She paused. “To me and the muskrat here.”
Gabrielle blushed, but Brendan grinned. “Not a worry, Mistress.” He said. “That lot’s big on the little one here. Think she’s tops.”
“Well.. as a matter of fact she’s…mpgh.” Xena found her mouth completely covered by Gabrielle’s hand, hastily clapped over it. She peered over at her surprisingly aggressive consort, who had that murderously adorable look on her face that Xena adored.
“I”ll go tell em.” Brendan got up and sidled away before the rumbling started. “Oh, yeah, Xena, that skunk from the city turned up.”
Gabrielle released Xena’s mouth, and they both turned to face the solder. “Perdicus?” Gabrielle asked, with a wince.
Brendan shrugged. “That’s his name, I think. One what was bothering with you I hear. Guess he got caught in with the Persians and just burmped up. Scrummy fellow.”
“Damn. Thought he’d croak for sure.” Xena sighed.
Gabrielle made a face. “Oh boy.”
“Shall I toss him out of the place, your Grace?” Brendan asked, with a hopeful look. “Didn’t say much, but had a mean look on him.”
Xena kept quiet, wanting to hear what her consort might say to that. She leaned back and laced her fingers around her knee, easing it up to relieve the strain on her back. Would Gabrielle just want to rid herself of the problem?
No blame to her if she did.
“You know.” Gabrielle finally answered, after a long moment of silence. “I don’t think kicking him out will help. I think he’ll come back.”
Brendan shrugged, but nodded. “Like as.”
“Want me to kill him?” Xena asked, helpfully. “It could be a wedding present. I don’t think I gave you anything, did I?”
Gabrielle looked up at her. “Didn’t you?”
They looked at each other, but it was Xena who looked away first, tilting her head and blushing visibly in the stormy light.
Brendan blinked, and looked down at his boots.
“Okay, enough of that.” Xena got up. “Let’s go. I’m gonna shoot the bastard just to goose my reputation back up.”
“In your robe?”
“In the buff.”
“You want to get naked and help?”
“Brendan, get the crossbow ready.”
“Ah.. before or after you get undressed, Mistress?”
Silence. “I’m gonna spank the lot of you.”
“Wow. That’ll be some way to welcome the Persians. Wait till they spread that story.”