Queen of Hearts
The sound of rain against the window slowly lightened Gabrielle’s sleep, until the unusually close sound mixed with the position she was in rousted her from a deep, dreamless sleep into a strange and worrisome reality.
It was dark, and she was half on the floor and half sprawled in what she realized was Xena’s arms and for a moment she was very confused trying to figure out what was going on until she remembered what had happened.
Her heart sank, as the slamming door echoed in her mind and she almost panicked until her scattered wits took hold again and she drew in a breath full of Xena’s scent.
It was okay. She wasn’t alone here.
She let her held breath trickle out and felt an echo of the fear that raised goosebumps over her skin for an instant, before the hold on her tightened as if in reaction and she calmed herself with the memory of Xena coming back in for her and holding her and telling her it would be all right.
They’d be all right.
What a night. Gabrielle wasn’t exactly comfortable, but she wasn’t about to move either. The sudden strife had hit her so hard, and been so unexpected her insides were still shivering from it and all she really wanted to do was huddle there in the darkness and not have to face the day.
It was hard. She was so happy being a part of Xena’s life and yet so afraid it would all just end between one moment and the next and she’d lose what had become the most important thing in her world.
She loved Xena. She had no idea what she’d do if the queen lost interest in her, and went on to someone else, so deeply was she lost in that love.
The pain still echoed softly inside her, and as she thought about it she started to cry again, tears leaking helplessly from her eyes. The sleep she’d gotten had only made her feel more exhausted and she blinked silently, feeling the warmth drip down her cheeks.
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip almost through, tasting blood inside her mouth. “Uhm.” She uttered softly. “S…ssoor..” She took a breath. “S.. s..” The stutter got the better of her, and she just stopped trying, closing her mouth and sniffling a little instead.
Xena shifted a little. “You okay?”
Gabrielle nodded, after a brief pause, hardly daring to breathe as she felt Xena’s fingers cradle the back of her head.
“You don’t sound okay.”
The somber, quiet concern in the tone nearly made Gabrielle pass out, so much in contrast was it with the way Xena had been talking before. This was not the mocking, angry woman who had shattered her composure – this was the companion she’d slowly come to know.
To love more than she loved life. She licked her lips, bitter with the taste of copper on them and felt her body relax just a trifle. “I..uh.. “ She could barely talk, her throat was so closed from crying. “Didn’t mean to make you mad.”
“I know.” Xena’s voice sounded very tired. “You’re not an.. you’re really not an idiot. I kill people when I’m mad.”
Gabrielle thought about that, knowing how true it was. “N…no.” She whispered. “I just didn’t want to make you mad because I didn’t want you to be unhappy.” She admitted. “Not.. not because of that.”
The darkness hid Xena’s features entirely. “Do you think I’d kill you?” The queen asked. “If I got mad enough?”
The bizarre conversation was only making her more exhausted. “Yes.” Gabrielle answered faintly. “I don’t think you’d ever hurt me on purpose.”
Xena was silent after that for a while and they just sat together in the gloom, even the fire burned down to nothing but embers.
“I wouldn’t ever hurt you on purpose.” Gabrielle said, suddenly. “I just want you to be happy.” She could feel Xena’s breathing. “I just want to love you.” She felt the tears come again, warm on the skin of her cheek.
The queen very gently closed her arms a little more tightly around her, tucking her head under Xena’s chin as she rocked them both back and for a while. They listened to the storm outside, the rain driving against the window with steady force, but with a rhythm that was close to soothing.
It was lulling Gabrielle back to sleep, and she let her eyes close, leaving the tense uncertainty for a while as she slipped into a half doze, wishing again the night was timeless and never-ending. This was peace here, for this moment in this place, and it was good to simply live it.
Xena’s voice surprised her, coming as it did out of the storm, so gentle she almost didn’t hear it. “I had no clue what happy was until I met you.” The queen mused. “Ain’t that something?”
Gabrielle took a moment to remember her life before Xena. Before the slave traders attacked her village, and killed her parents and took her and Lila captive, before the long, terrifying walk to the stronghold.
Before she stood in the courtyard and watched Lila die, her body punctured by a long, black shaft that cut off her cry of fear and sent her clutching hands flying away from her in terrified entreaty.
Before she’d lost everything.
“Me either.” Gabrielle whispered, with the faintest of smiles. “Ain’t that something.”
“We’re both sapwad nitwits.” Xena remarked, but even in the darkness the return smile was evident. “Neither of us should be running anything. We should be retired to pasture out in the hills somewhere picking flowers and dancing in the full moon.”
“Can we go do that?”
Xena let her head rest against the glass of the window, feeling the thrum of the rain against the back of her skull. “You mean give up all this, and just to be vagrants in the wood?”
Xena felt the rumble of thunder against her shoulder-blades and she found herself wishing to Hades that the following day wasn’t going to start soon, in a storm, with her head all screwed up on top of it. “You mean, give up all this luxury?” She released one hand off Gabrielle and patted the stone floor.
Screw it. “If I mess this up badly enough and we lose we’ll end up either homeless vagrants or dead.” The queen remarked. “Guess that’s something to look forward to then, eh?” She felt Gabrielle shift and snuggle closer to her, and her roiling insides slowly started to settle as she realized things weren’t as bad as she’d thought they were.
Gabrielle didn’t hate her yet.
“Yeah?” The queen felt a slow sense of resignation coming over her, as the coming day inched closer with every dark moment, edging towards a dawn she’d once thought she hungered for. “What is it, muskrat? Sorry I freaked you out.”
“Can we go sit on the bed? I’m freezing.”
Somewhere, Xena found a laugh inside her, and she indulged in it as she slowly straightened up her body and stood, grimacing at the pops as her joints protested and her spine realigned itself. “Oh, gods be damned I’m getting old.” She groused. “I feel like somebody’s grandmother.”
Gabrielle gingerly rocked her head to one side, then the other, hearing a few nascent pops herself. “You don’t look like anyone’s grandmother.” She replied, cautiously. “Not like any I remember anyway.”
“Thanks.” Xena put a hand on her shoulder. “I think.”
Her body was chilled now that she was no longer pressed against Xena, and she walked over to the small table and picked up the candle. “Let me get this going.”
“Why?” Xena came up behind her, and took the candle. “I can see just fine. C”mon.” She draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders and led the way through the door between the blond woman’s small room and the larger one beyond.
“Can you?” Gabrielle strained her eyes, but nothing other than faint gray shadows were visible to her. “I can’t see anything.”
Xena turned her head and looked around, the bed and furniture in her inner chamber standing out as solid, silver outlines against the pale walls. “You can’t see anything?” She asked, her mind sidetracked momentarily. “Nothing?”
Gabrielle reached out suddenly as her upper legs collided with the bed. “Oh!’ She turned and looked up at what she imagined was Xena’s head. “Not a thing. Not even you.”
Though she could see Gabrielle’s eyes moving in her direction, Xena was fascinated to realize they weren’t focusing and to prove the point, she waved her hand in front of the smaller woman’s face and got no response.
She herself could make out her companion’s face easily. “I’ll be damned.” Xena murmured, a flash of memory suddenly bringing back Lyceus’ face, in a pitch dark hallway so heartbreakingly clear to her eyes if no one elses.
‘Xe’s owl eyes.’ Ly had always called them, half envious and half kidding, when they’d come in damn handy getting them out of the pits and crawling through tunnels saving their skins at night.
She’d forgotten, over the years, just how different she was sometimes. It was easy for her to let that knowledge slip, since she really didn’t need those skills much anymore, aside from the handling of her sword and the ability to kill without hesitation or regret.
Easy to forget how much their young lives had depended on her, on the hearing more sensitive than any dogs, and her reflexes, and those eyes.
“Xena?” Gabrielle’s voice was gentle. “Are you okay?”
If she had remembered, would it have mattered? Could she have caught those telltale scuffles and smell that tang of copper on the barest wind and maybe saved him?’
Warm hands pressed against her stomach, and she jerked her mind away from the past. This was not Lyceus, and she wasn’t a wild, reckless spirit anymore.
Question was, if she wasn’t that, then what was she? Xena gave her bedmate a pat on the arm, then she nudged her backwards onto the bed and joined her, stretching her stiffened body out along the soft mattress for the last time in what might be a long while.
She didn’t really know what she was, anymore. Maybe that was why she was all over the place, pissing off the nobles, driving the men crazy, and freaking out Gabrielle. She’d pitched herself in a role she thought she had nailed down tight and now that she was coming down to putting her dinars where her mouth was she’d discovered she had doubts even if the army didn’t.
What if? Xena tugged the decadent, down filled cover over both of them and resigned herself to the knowledge that she was exchanging a life of boring, if pleasant certainties for something far darker, more dangerous, something full of hardships and pain, and possible destruction.
What right did she have, really, to take Gabrielle into that? Just for her own solace?
“Are you okay?”
“No.” The queen sighed. “I’m insane.”
A pause. “Oh.”
Xena looked up at the canopy over the bed. “Gabrielle, I never asked you if you really wanted to go do this war crap did I?”
“Um.. no, but..”
“Well, y’know, you’re not a slave anymore. So listen.” The queen squared her shoulders. “I won’t think any less of you if you stay here, see, and maybe run this place while I’m gone.”
“Being on campaign is rough.” Xena said, in a quiet voice. “A lot of men are going to die before I’m done. Lands might be burned out, villages, like yours.. might be gutted. I could plunder the crops of half the kingdom to support the fight if I have to. Do you really want to see that? I’m serious now.”
“I know.. you want to go in your heart, little one.” Xena whispered gently. “I know you do.. but there are things no sane person should do and no sane person should see and you’re the sanest person I know.” She paused. “I don’t want you to lose that sanity and become a nutcase like me. Understand?”
Silence from the shadows. Then a breath. “I do understand.”
Xena exhaled silently, nodding a trifle. “So what do you say, Gabrielle? Wanna be Queen?”
There was a faint motion, almost as though Gabrielle had laughed just a little. “I say take me with you.” She replied. “Where you go, I go, Xena. Even if it’s Tartarus.”
Xena had to smile. “You really do mean that, don’t you?”
“Last chance…. “
Well, screw it. “All right, muskrat.” Xena cast her dice into the wind. “Tomorrow we ride to war, then. Don’t’ say I didn’t warn ya.”
Gabrielle suddenly shifted and lifted herself up, leaning forward and finding Xena’s lips in what was for her, total darkness. She kissed the queen with quiet passion, then she dropped back onto the mattress and burrowed under the covers, leaving a bemused queen lying beside her as the storm thundered outside the windows.
“Nuts.” Xena closed her eyes, with a sigh. “We’re all nuts.”
Dawn broke over a still stormy landscape, the gray clouds overhead matching the gray walls of the stronghold as the army started to assemble before the gates ignoring the weather.
Wagons were being rolled out to one side, and the stable doors were flung wide open, grooms moving animals out with a brisk sense of purpose even though the sun had just barely risen behind the thick layer of clouds.
Inside the stable, Gabrielle was standing next to Patches stall, feeding him handfuls of grass she’d pulled up outside. “How’s that, Patches?”
The pony chewed her offering with a thoughtful expression, edging over to nudge her a little in an evident search for more booty. He was already wearing his new coat, it’s thick weave strapped around his chest and under his belly, and his saddle was sitting ready across the post.
Gabrielle sorted his mane out, and scratched his ears, taking a breath and feeling the odd sensation of her armor constricting her body. “I hope this really isn’t as heavy as it looks. She told the pony in a confiding tone. “It feels really weird.”
Weird, but not uncomfortable. Gabrielle stepped away from the stall and stretched her arms out, swinging them back and forth as she tried to get used to her new garb.
She’d gotten more sleep after their talk last night, and she didn’t really feel too bad despite the early hour and the rotten weather. There was a definite excitement in the air, and though she hadn’t seen Xena since they’d taken a hurried breakfast, she had the feeling the queen had settled herself and was in a better mood.
At least, she hoped so. “Patches, we’re going to go off and have an adventure. What do you think of that?” She stepped inside the stall and glanced around, glad there were no grooms to interrupt her as she lifted Patches saddle off the post and hoisted it over his back.
The pony stayed amiably still as she fastened the chest strap, then dropped to her knees to reach under him and grab the belly clinch. It was one of the first things Xena had taught her, along with the patient combing of Patches’ thick coat, and the meticulous care of his feet. She knew all the parts of his tack and how to fasten it, sharing an affinity for the animals that was kin to Xena’s own.
Gabrielle pulled the strap taut and buckled it, giving the saddle a little tug to make sure it was secure. She let her hands rest on Patches back and glanced at the rich, deep green sleeves tied securely around her wrists, that fit under her armor and cushioned her skin.
It felt good. It felt different, to have the underlay on with the armor over it. She’d felt a little gingerly having the links laying right on her skin, since a few incautious moments had pinched the tiny, fine hairs on her arm between the metal and made her squawk to Xena’s amusement.
Now the links slid over the fabric and she found that the outfit felt good to wear and she suspected she’d get used to it very quickly.
“At least I hope so.” Gabrielle tucked her hand into Patches bridle. “Are you ready to go, Patches? Let’s go find your buddy Tiger, okay?” She led the pony out of his stall, knowing a moment of wistful regret on his behalf at leaving his comfortable surroundings behind. Tough as the traveling would be on her, it would be doubly tough on her mount and she hoped she remembered to tuck away enough little treats for him in her bags to make up for it.
The moist, cool air hit her face as she walked out into the courtyard, and she paused a moment at the scurry of deliberate motion in front of her, feeling a little awkward, and more than a little out of place.
“Morning, m’lady.” One of the soldiers recognized her and made an easy, casual salute with his hand to his chest. “Beautiful day for marching, isn’t it?”
Gabrielle glanced up, then grinned wryly. “If you say so.”
The man, who at second glance was not that much older than she was, grinned back. “My da would say, good to be in as it can only get to better, nah?”
That surprised a chuckle from Gabrielle who could remember her mother saying almost the same thing. “Yeah.” She agreed. “Good for the wool.”
The soldier tipped his head back and laughed, continuing on his way with his burden of shields, and Gabrielle led Patches onto the path feeling a bit better. All the men around her, whatever their task, carried in some portion of their gear the hawks head insignia that matched the buckle on her belt and now she noted that the shields also had it newly painted on them.
Xena’s mark, the yellow crest against black that fluttered over the top tower of the stronghold and was now in evidence everywhere, on the horses surcoats, and the men’s armor, and on her.
Gabrielle patted her buckle, and looked around, craning her neck to see if she could spot Xena, or even her big black stallion somewhere. “You see them anywhere, Patches?”
Patches whickered amiably, picking a way along the churned path with his neat, iron gray hooves. Gabrielle patted his cheek, then her heart jumped as she caught sight of Xena through the press of wagons, the queen sitting in a relaxed pose on Tiger’s back as he stood up on a little rise where she was watching everything.
Gabrielle drew to one side and slowed Patches to a halt, resting her arm on the pony’s back as she simply stood there, looking at Xena in all her martial glory.
The queen was in her armor, the black leather and burnished metal snugly outlining her long frame, and she had a beautiful cloak in black with her hawk’s head blazoned on the back draped around her. Her sword hilt was visible just past her right ear, and tucked behind her knee was the bag holding the round metal weapon Gabrielle was fascinated by.
Tiger pranced in place, and Xena relaxed and went with him, leading him neatly around in a circle and then backing him up a few steps, the maneuver making the queen smile.
“Okay.” Gabrielle turned and faced Patches. “Are we ready to go Patches?” She took the reins in one hand and got her foot in the stirrup , hopping a little then hoisting herself up into the saddle with a soft grunt. “Boy.. I really do like riding you naked instead, Patches.”
The pony craned his head around and peered at her from under his shaggy eyebrows.
Gabrielle gathered herself up and nudged the pony’s side. “C’mon, let’s go over by Xena and see what she’s up to.” She tried to relax herself as they made their way across the busy courtyard, soldiers pulling up or ducking gracefully out of her way as she gave them all smiles and tried not to plow into anyone.
Xena saw her coming, and she half turned Tiger, resting one hand on her thigh as they came over, her brilliant blue eyes studying her companion intently. “Gabrielle.”
“Yes, your majesty.” Gabrielle stopped Patches next to the big stallion, feeling almost comically dwarfed by him. “I’m ready.”
One of the queen’s dark eyebrows lifted. “You are?”
“Well. As ready as I’ll ever be.” Gabrielle admitted, wryly. She looked around, as the troops started to gather in large groups together, and the wagons began to creak into line. Four legions of men, and they were all men, she realized, were forming up to march under Xena’s banner, and she frowned a moment, trying to remember how many there had been when Xena’s troops had fought Bregos.
Were there less now? Gabrielle remembered that Xena had said, back in the winter, that some soldiers had joined the army, but she also knew some had died with the sickness and it was hard to tell if they were ahead or behind.
Definitely, there were more than what they’d traveled with the last time. She turned and looked up at Xena, who was sitting there quietly watching her. “How do you go to war, anyway?” She asked. “Do you just go down the road until you find someone to fight and do it?’
Both of Xena’s brows shot up, and she lifted one gloved hand to stifle a laugh. “No.” She cleared her throat, and turned Tiger so they were side by side. “First thing we’ll do is cover the ground between here and the border, and take care of those damned fleabag raiders.” She flexed her hands. “Then we’ll see what the best way to go is.”
Brendan rode up on a sturdy gray gelding, with a darker gray mane and tail. “Mistress.” He saluted briefly. “The horsemaster’s asking a word with ye, if you will.”
“Tell him c’mon.” Xena said. “If he’s the shy type, tell him he can stay here and weave baskets.”
“Mistress.” Brendan turned his mount and ambled off, turning a corner near the stables and disappearing, as Xena kicked her boots free of her stirrups and let her feet dangle.
“What if we don’t find anyone out there to fight?” Gabrielle persisted in her line of questioning. “Will we keep going?”
Xena looked at her. “What’s the point of this conversation?”
“I’m just asking.”
“You never just ask.” The queen smiled, taking the sting from the words, mostly. “You always have something cooking inside that little cute head of yours.” She reached out and ruffled Gabrielle’s hair. “If we don’t find anyone, we’ll take all the land we’re gonna march across, but don’t count on it.” She glanced past the army, towards the walls. “There’s something out there.”
“What kind of something?”
Ah. Excellent question. Xena didn’t know herself what the urging was inside her that was driving her out and to the border, she just knew it was strong, and it was annoying, and it was overriding even her self indulgent impulse to stay in her stronghold with all it’s hedonistic pleasures. “That’s what I want to find out.”
One of her most hedonistic pleasures frowned, and played with her reins, looking innocent and particularly fetching in her neatly made armor. “Well, it’s a good thing to stop the raiders, anyway.”
Xena reached over and rearranged the edge of her companion’s new cloak, impatient now to be on her way and not loitering in the courtyard as the nobles looked on from the walls. “Yeah, I’ll at least get some fun in before I have to start working hard.” She agreed. “And you can make up a good story about how I defended the little homeless kids, all right?”
Gabrielle nodded, after a brief hesitation. “What’s going to happen back here?” She asked. “To all the people, if you’re taking the army?”
Ah. Another excellent question. Xena elected to let the approach of her horsemaster distract her. She directed Tiger towards the stable, and intercepted him. “Sheldon.”
“Mistress.” The man greeted her. “Tis the new filly, Mistress. She’s broken her stall again, and I fear to leave her here with the young’uns.” He wiped his hands on his leather trousers. “She’s a high spirited one, she is.”
Xena drew in a breath at this unexpected complication. “Lastay’s filly?” She said. “Send her back to him.”
The horsemaster cocked his head. “Mistress?” He seemed confused. “Twas his man that said the filly was yours.. just the other day, it’s a fact.”
“Wow, that was nice of him.” Gabrielle had typically wormed her way into the action, her pony poking his head under Tiger’s neck as she scooted past. “She’s such a pretty horse, Xena.”
“Ah, and you’ve been the one giving her apples, have you?” The horsemaster smiled at Gabrielle. “Taken a liking t’you, the groom said.”
Xena turned her head and looked at her young lover. “You’ve been messing with that horse?” She growled. “I told you to leave her be.” She glowered at the horsemaster. “Send her back to Lastay’s. I don’t need her here.” She shifted, and Tiger reacted to her agitation, moving in a fast circle, his head tossing. “Stop that!”
The horsemaster backed a step. “As you say, Mistress.” He murmured. “I’ll send my son and one of the older men with ‘er.. the gods hope they can handle the animal. She’s for sure a fighter.” He turned and headed back towards the stable, shaking his head as he walked.
“Idiots.” Xena got her stallion back under control. “Last thing I need to worry about is a damn..” She paused, as Gabrielle dismounted from her pony. “Where in Hades are you going?”
Gabrielle handed up her reins. “Can you hang onto him? I just want to say good bye to the pretty horse if you’re sending her away.” She explained. “It’ll just take a second.”
“B..” Xena’s hand closed around the reins instinctively. “Say goodbye to a damn horse? What’s wrong with you?”
The blond woman shrugged, a little. “I like her.” She gave Xena a sheepish grin. “She reminds me of you.” With that, she scooted off after the horsemaster, leaving her queen sitting there on her big horse with her jaw dropped enough to see it, and her hands full of pony reins. “Be right back.”
“Reminds you of..” Xena let the words trail off, as Gabrielle disappeared behind the stable door. “You little barn rat.” She glanced down as something nudged her leg, to find Patches looking reproachfully up at her. “What?!”
The pony mouthed his bit and shook his head. Tiger snorted, and also shook his head. Xena rolled her eyes and looked up at the gray skys overhead. “This is starting out just gods be damned peachy.” She exhaled loudly. “Damn it.”
Thunder rumbled, as if in answer to her, laughter of the gods that made her swear silently to herself again.
It seemed to take forever, but finally they were underway, and headed down the long, winding road that would take them first to the river, and then away from the stronghold and towards the unknown.
Gabrielle settled her cloak around her and did her best to relax into her saddle, stretching her legs out and listening to the faint creak of the leather as she rode at Xena’s side here in the front of the first section of the army.
Not at the very front, she noted. There were about a dozen soldiers on horseback riding ahead, or on point as Xena had said it was, sort of making sure things were okay before the rest of them followed. There were also soldiers riding to either side of them, though whether they were just there or supposed to be bodyguards was hard to decide.
Behind them, the legions stolidly marched, and behind them, the supply wagons rolled followed by a guard troop bringing up the rear.
The road was wet from the previous nights rain, and the sky overhead seemed to threaten to add to that at any moment. But still, even with all that, Gabrielle felt a sense of almost relief as they passed through the gates of the stronghold and were out in the open, with the damp wind sweeping against them.
It ruffled her hair and the fur collar of her cloak and she was glad of Patches sure footing as they splashed through a thick and muddy puddle in the center of the road.
It had all kicked off with a remarkable lack of ceremony, she’d thought. She’d expected at least the castle occupants to stand on the walls to see them off, but outside the Duke, who had dropped to his knees mud or no, and clasped his hands between Xena’s everyone else had apparently found something else to do.
It had felt strange, as though everyone was turning their back on the army, when really, they were going out into the world to bring things back for the very people who were ignoring them. Gabrielle frowned.
That is what they were doing, weren’t they?
She wasn’t sure how Xena felt about that. The queen had been relatively quiet since they’d started off, her body slouched in the saddle, and her hands resting casually on her thighs as Tiger walked along the road with his head pretty much free.
She seemed relaxed, but as Gabrielle watched, the queen’s fingers went to sort out Tiger’s mane, then to her saddle ties, then to the ends of the reins in an odd fidget that belied her apparently casual stance.
Xena didn’t really seem bored, she appeared to just be thinking about something, and Gabrielle decided that being quiet and letting her do that was probably a good idea for now. They had all day to walk, and she turned her own attention to the surrounding scenery, since they didn’t usually ride this way and there were new spring flowers to look at.
Blue and yellow ones, very pretty, with plump looking bees hovering over them. Gabrielle leaned forward a little and watched as a hummingbird traded spaces with the bee, it’s wings going so fast she couldn’t make them out even a little.
Amazing. She straightened up in her saddle and looked ahead of her again, watching the road slope down towards the river as thunder softly rumbled overhead again.
Startled, she looked up at Xena, who was now half turned in her saddle watching. “Oh. Yes?”
“Remember that word game we played once?”
Word game, word game… wh.. oh. “The one when you were hurt?” Gabrielle said. “The guessing game?” She watched Xena nod. “Sure, I remember. You won.”
“Naturally.” The queen flicked her cloak edge out and untucked it from behind her boot. “So let’s do it again.” She turned herself forward and scanned the lands they were moving through, pleased to see fields under plow on either side as far as the river and beyond.
As they moved past one, the workers busy among the plantings looked up, then came over to the road’s edge to watch them pass. One of the young men waved, and a soldier waved back, letting out a whistle as the watcher shouted.
“What was that?” Gabrielle asked, peering past Tiger’s tall form.
“Kin.” Xena replied shortly, then she glanced back. “Or maybe they’re lovers. Who knows?” She glanced down at her gauntleted hands, the fingers of one clasped lightly around her reins, and sighed at the strangeness of the sensation of wearing the gloves after so long.
Everything felt just a little strange. She’d always ridden, but there was something different about knowing at the end of this day, and the next, and the next, and the next, there would be no warm stable to have Tiger taken to, and no respite from the feel of the saddle and the wind against her face.
“Do you want to go first?” Gabrielle’s voice distracted her. “Thinking of something, I mean, or do you want me to?”
Distraction. Exactly what she needed. “You go.” Xena fought the urge to try and scratch an itch between her shoulderblades, which were covered by armor and her sword. The leather provided good protection, and it was well broken in and fitted, but it too felt just a little strange constricting her body and she could feel the aggravation in her rising at the picky little nits her mind was throwing at her. “Make it fast.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle said. “I’ve got something.”
“Already? I don’t believe it.”
“I do.” The blond woman assured her. “Go on, guess.”
“Animal or plant?” Xena started off, feeling the shift in Tiger’s body as they started down the long, gradual slope towards the river. Ahead of them she could now see the bridge where she’d joined the court in greeting Bregos at his final homecoming as her general, and she remembered that chill fall day with a sudden, bleak clarity.
Was it then, that she’d felt herself becoming irrelevant? She remembered the sour taste of bile in the back of her throat as she fought down the envy she’d felt at the greeting her general received, the love of the people always denied her.
Was it then, that she’d decided he had to die?
“Stinkweed.” Xena guessed, knowing by the quick, easy grin on her companions face that she’d missed the mark. “All right, is it a tree, a bush or something smaller?”
“Um… “ Gabrielle scratched her nose. “Yes.”
“It’s a bush and something smaller.” The blond woman’s eyes twinkled. “Not a tree.” She reached over and let her hand rest on Xena’s boot. “Xena?”
A bush and something smaller? The queen eyed her. “Yes?”
“I know there’s going to be some great stories before we come back.” Gabrielle told her. “I’m so glad you let me come with you.”
“You trying to distract me from guessing your bush weed?” The queen raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I bet it has something to do with berries.”
“No.” Gabrielle squeezed her calf through the heavy leather. “I just wanted you to know how happy it makes me to be here, to be going with you.. and that you let me share your life.”
Ahh. Love’s dividends. The funny thing was, Xena mused, the innocent little kid really meant what she said, and even though she knew the stories they would come back with weren’t something Gabrielle would enjoy telling, the knowledge that she’d come with her willingly finally put a smile on her face. “Thank you.” She let her hand drop to cover Gabrielle’s. “No smartass comeback. I mean it.”
Gabrielle’s eyes brightened, and she stuck her tongue out to catch the first droplets of the rain that finally started coming, as she pulled her hood up with her other hand.
Xena just laughed, leaving her own head bare as the storm broke and the wind blew right into her face as she looked right into it, unblinking. And so, she nodded to herself, it starts – it starts, and where it ends may not even matter.
Behind them, the troops started a marching song, low, rough voices counterpointing the thunder rolling overhead and after a moment, Xena joined in, her mind busy pondering places to camp, people to terrorize, and plants which might or might not be bushes to haggle through.
Xena pushed aside the flap of her tent and ducked inside, blinking her pale eyes to rid them of the rain that stung them. Inside she halted, her senses assaulted by the scent of leather and furs mixed with hot spiced wine and warm candles. “Gabrielle?”
“Here.” A damp, blond figure, barefoot and in a light tunic appeared from behind the fur strewn double pallet that served her as a bed. “Let me get your cloak.. I’ve got mine drying over here near the back.”
The queen gratefully shrugged off the waterlogged leather and handed it over, straightening up and looking around at the spare, somewhat barbaric interior and liking it. “Nice.” She sat down on a chair and started unlacing her boots, glad of the travel rug underfoot and the heavy leather tent hides that kept the rain off them.
She was soaked through, cloak or no cloak, the driving rain had kept up all day long and now she felt like her leather armor had become part of her skin, the moisture easing the snugness to something more familiar as the day went on and she got used to wearing it again. “Good day.”
Gabrielle came over with a piece of linen and gently dried Xena’s hair, moving it back and patting the raindrops off her face. “Was it? Everyone seems a little grumpy.”
The queen chuckled, evidently not sharing the sentiment. “They’ll get over it.” She captured one of Gabrielle’s hands and nibbled the palm. “I noticed the cooks were happy.” She said. “Wondering who’d packed up all the supplies they’d though they’d be without.”
“Heh.” Gabrielle grinned. “I bet we can find more stuff on the way, like those herbs I spotted today.”
“Bet we can.” Xena pulled one boot off and let it drop, then started on the other, only to pause when Gabrielle knelt and circumvented her, taking the laces in her own fingers and working them. “Hey.” She tapped the blond woman on the head. “You’re not my servant. I can take off my own damn boots.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle looked up at her. “You’re the queen, and I like doing things for you. Don’t you like people doing nice things like this?” She slipped the other boot off and folded her hands around Xena’s chilled foot, massaging it with warm fingers.
Xena’s eyes narrowed, but a grin was lurking there as well. “I’m screwed no matter what I answer, you sneaky little muskrat.” She accused. “If I say yes, you squash my tough as three year old hide reputation and if I say no you’ll stop doing that and damned if I want you to.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Xena leaned back in the chair, a clever bit of folding wood and leather strapping that tucked into a small case for traveling and yet held her long length with acceptable comfort. “I want to have my captains in after they get the food to everyone. Saw some carelesslness today I don’t like.”
Gabrielle touched the armor covering Xena’s knee, reaching behind it to unbuckle the worn strap. “Well, it’s kind of new for them.. and they found that big stag.. I guess they got excited.”
“Hmph.” Xena started to unlatch her chest plate. “No excuse. That idiot’s broken leg held us up, and lost me two men taking him back. We can’t afford screwups like that.” She lifted the metal armor off over her head, and laid it carefully on the carpet, taking the linen from over Gabrielle’s shoulder to dry her neck off. “All for some damn venison.”
“Smelled pretty good.” Gabrielle finished removing the leg armor and took the linen back, drying the queen’s legs.
“Did you go tell them how to make it right, at least?” Xena ruffled her hair as she stood up, unlacing the front of her leathers and loosening them as she walked across the tent to her garment press. “Glad I had a spare set of these made up. Damn.” She stripped the drenched hide off her and draped it over the center pole as she sensed Gabrielle coming up behind her.
The middle of the tent held a patch of bare ground and that was where the camp stove was, radiating a comforting heat against her bare skin as she opened her press and removed a dry set of leathers. She shook them out while her back was being dried off and paused to listen to the rain before she donned them. “Crops love this. I don’t.”
Gabrielle took her wet underwraps and set them to dry next to her own. “I heard the soldiers talking about setting a guard.” She said. “But we’re still near the castle.”
“We were attacked in the castle before the winter, weren’t we?” Xena pulled on her dry leathers and walked over to the chest, sitting down and removing her sword from it’s sheath to wipe it down. “Half the damn army ran off, Gabrielle. They’re out there somewhere and they’ve got lots of reasons not to like me.”
A knock sounded at the post outside. “Yes?” Xena called out.
“Supper, your Majesty.” The responding call was slightly hoarse, raised to sound above the rain.
“Get it in here before you drown it.” The queen said, then, as the tent flap parted, she grinned wickedly. “But close your eyes, we’re naked and I skinned the last jackass who saw Gabrielle’s butt.”
The soldier froze, turning his head and almost letting go of the tray he was holding to cover his face and letting out a gargling sound.
“Xena.” Gabrielle bolted across the carpet and grabbed one end. “You’re so bad.” She helped the rattled soldier to the folding table near the stove.
The queen inspected the tip of her blade contentedly. “Bet your ass I am.” She remarked. “It’s about time everyone remembered that, matter of fact.” She added, in an undertone.
“Mmmmajesty.” The soldier ducked his head. “A..nything else t’your pleasure?”
Xena regarded him. “Nothing you could do anything about. Scram.” She pointed at the flap with her sword. “Tell Brendan I want him here in a half candlelmark, got me?”
“Majesty.” The man bowed and fled, leaving the tent flap fluttering in the wind behind him.
Xena let her sword rest against her shoulder as her eyes lingered on Gabrielle’s linen clad figure outlined in the light from the stove.
As though sensing it, the blond woman turned her head and met Xena’s eyes. “Ready for supper?”
Xena grinned at her, laying her sword down and crooking a finger at her. “Yeah. C’mere, lambchop.”
“Hey. You’re the one who said I was the queen so stop messing with that and get your tail over here.”
Gabrielle left the venison to simmer and obeyed, hoping that whole skinning thing was just Xena’s little joke.
Just in case.
Xena wrapped her cloak around her as she came to the edge of the camp, a line of thick trees that shielded them from the road and cut the wind that whistled through their branches. She eased between two huge trunks and gazed out into the early faint gray of dawn, drawing in a deep breath of cool spring air.
It tasted good on her tongue, rich with dew and pine and she found herself looking to the coming day with a sense of pleasure and a touch of prickling excitement. It felt good to be outside, and she reveled in the brush of long branches against her hands as she made her way through the forest.
To her right, she could see the watch for the front side of the camp, two soldiers perched on half fallen trunks and one high in the branches of a tall tree, legs hooked around the bark as his head turned slowly in a practiced sweep.
With a faint smile, Xena emerged from the trees, walking across the leaf litter and damp ground as the first birdsong came softly to her ears.
Today, she felt a little more herself. Or her old self, at any rate. The leathers had started to feel more natural, and she was getting used to the weight of her sword on her shoulders again. She felt a little stiff from riding all day the day before, but at least she’d gotten some decent sleep, the strangeness of the pallet offset by the now comfortable familiarity of Gabrielle’s warm body curled up against hers.
It felt good to know she had an entire day of new experiences ahead of her. Insanely good to know she had no courtiers to deal with, no nobles to listen to, and no court intrigue to roll her eyes over.
Here, she just had the army, and her soldiers, and the problems of the road, and riding at her side a half nutty blond kid who liked to make her laugh and loved her like no one else ever had.
Didn’t that just beat fawning dukes and silk slippers? The queen chuckled silently. Rain or no rain, she was damn glad she was out here now that she was.
A butterfly, ghostly gray in the pre dawn fluttered up suddenly in front of her and before she realized it she had caught it in her hand, her fingers closing around the insect in a motion so quick even she didn’t see it.
Instinct. Deep as bone. She exhaled and opened her fingers, releasing the butterfly as it tottered off while her eyes followed it until it vanished in the gloom. “Guess the old reflexes aren’t shot quite yet, huh?” She muttered under her breath, shaking her head a little before she moved on.
Xena paused behind the watch, and leaned against a tree, undetected by the men. A twinkle entered her eyes as she leaned over and picked up a small rock, juggling it a moment in her fingers before she whipped her arm sideways and sent the missile flying to smack the nearest guard in the ass.
The man jumped and cursed, turning smoothly and drawing his sword as his eyes raked the forest, freezing into large round gray balls when he came face to face with the tall, lanky figure watching him. “Bigods!” He yelped, dropping to his knees. “Majesty!”
Xena glanced quickly at the other two guards. The one on the ground was heeled around staring at her, but the one in the tree had stayed facing forward, eyes peeled on the clearing past the stand of trees.
So. “C’mere.” Xena pointed at the man she’d nailed with the rock.
The man scrambled to his feet and walked over to her, standing uncertainly before her in the slowly filtering dawn light, barely having a chance to straighten up before Xena bumped herself away from the tree and shifted with flickering speed, cocking her fist and cracking it across his jaw with a sound that echoed through the trees and sent birds flying in every direction.
He dropped like a stone.
Xena lowered her arm, and looked at the other man. “You’re the watch.” She stepped over the fallen soldier, stalking his companion who was frozen in place, staring at her. “You know what enemy soldiers do to people like you, who get distracted by people like me?”
“I..” He stammered. “I’m sorry, Mistress.”
“No.” Xena struck, her fingers catching his throat and shutting off his air as she swung him against the tree. “You’re dead.”
Her peripheral vision told her the tree scout had held his post, her one bit of mollification. She watched the soldier in her grip turn white, and then start to gag, his chest jerking as he tried to breathe. His eyes bugged, and he stared at her in despair, finding nothing of comfort in the ice chips studying him. “People like you kill good soldiers.” Xena told him. “That doesn’t work with me.”
The man struggled harder, but Xena’s grip was inflexible, as she heard rustling behind her and knew she had an audience.
It would be a good lesson. She watched his face darken, and his eyes slide past her to something, then move back to her face and she suddenly felt a presence at her back she knew was no soldier.
It was impossible to describe, that feeling. She just knew the eyes on her back weren’t eyes she wanted to see the scene she herself was looking at. “So.” She released her grip, and the man collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath so loudly it made her wince. “Lesson one.” She refused to turn around and face what was behind her. “When you watch, you watch. Understand?’
The man looked up at her, his hand on his throat. After a moment, he nodded frantically, his mouth opening but no sound coming out.
“Good.” Xena tipped her head back and looked up at the other sentry. “Brendan, promote that guy and give him fifty dinars.” She dusted her hands off and turned, finally, completely unsurprised to find Gabrielle peeking out from behind a tree at her.
“Aye, Mistress.” Brendan moved briskly past her and hauled the half choked man to his feet, turning him around and giving him a hearty boot the rear. “G’wan you jackass. Thank your mother you missed feeding the fish in the river for being so damn stupid.”
The man stumbled off, joined by his hapless companion still holding his jaw as the trees came alive with soldiers, murmuring to each other and respectfully ducking their heads in Xena’s direction. “Majesty.” One said.
“Xena.” The queen stepped into his path and pulled him up short. “There’s no majesty out here.” She raised her voice. “That goes for all of you. My name is Xena. Use it.”
The soldiers eyed her, but none of them were quite brave enough to take her at her word. She watched them disperse, then she swiveled around again to face Gabrielle.
The blond woman was dressed in her armor, with her pale hair damp from washing and she’d left her cloak behind in her apparent rush to see what was going on.
Xena watched those green eyes carefully, ignoring the bustle of soldiers around them. They held visible curiousity, a touch of apprehension, but no horror and she relaxed a little, glad she’d decided not to break the damn idiots neck. “Good morning, muskrat.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle eased between the tree trunks and came to her side. “I didn’t know where you went, so I..”
“Went looking for trouble and found me.” The queen produced a wry grin. “You should be careful walking around camp, muskrat. They might take you for a lamb and catch you for breakfast.”
“Xena, I don’t look at all like a lamb.” Gabrielle looked up at the guard, who was still steadfastly watching the clearing. “What’s he looking for?” She decided not to mention the other soldiers, as her guts slowly unclenched from the shock of seeing Xena choking one of them.
“My enemies.” The queen draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “We depend on them to keep the army safe, to give us warning if someone’s attacking us. They’ve got to do it right.”
Gabrielle nodded her head, after a brief pause. “Like our guards in the castle.”
“But you end up keeping us safe most of the time yourself.”
Xena sighed, and chuckled softly under her breath. “When you want something done right… “ She said. “I’ll trust them to watch the army but I only trust me to watch me.” She paused. “And you.”
“I feel safe.” Gabrielle responded immediately. “But I bet the army would feel safer if you were watching out for them.” She put her arm around Xena’s waist as they walked through the trees towards the main area of the encampment.
“I bet they would.”
“The carters came to take down your tent.”
Gabrielle glanced up at her, and smiled. “I made sure I had everything packed away right first.” She said. “I figured you’d want to get started early.”
“You figured right.”
They walked through the outer ring of the army bivouac, most men already kneeling by their bedrolls and fastening them up to carry. They had pitched no tents – the bedrolls themselves had a waxed leather cover but Gabrielle could see there were some who had picked the wrong spot to sleep in and were wet, a few shivering in the early morning chill.
Xena noticed also. She veered towards them, coming to stand in the middle of a small depression in the ground, which would have been almost invisible in the dusk they’d made camp in. She booted one of the men gently in the shoulder. “Hey.”
Everyone in the clearing froze. Gabrielle was fascinated, because she knew they’d heard Xena tell them not to call her anything but her name, and she could see the M’s twitching on everyone’s lips but not coming out.
The young man who she’d kicked looked right up at her, his damp blond hair sticking to his skin. “Y… es…. Um..”
Xena raised an eyebrow at him.
“Ma’am.” He finished weakly. “Am I doing this wrong?” He indicated the bedroll.
Xena made a face as though she’d stepped in something. “Ma’am?” She repeated. “Oh gods. Kill me now.” She grabbed him by the shoulder and hauled him to his feet. “C’mere with me, ya little punk.” She started towards the cookfires. “Rest of you wet idiots come too.”
Gabrielle carefully skirted the nervous soldiers and followed as well, scooting up next to Xena and stepping over the thick coating of leaves.
“Careful not to get Gabrielle wet.” Xena warned the soldier in her grip. “Drip somewhere else.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The soldier answered meekly.
“Only I get to get Gabrielle wet.” The queen went on, in a conversational tone. “It’s good to be the queen, huh?”
“Xena.” Gabrielle murmured. “I don’t think they want to hear stuff like that.”
“Sure they do.” Xena led the way into the cooking area, and stopped, shoving the soldier nearer to the big fire in the center. “Dry off.” She turned and pointed at the others. “All of you, dry off before you end up getting sick as dogs because I ain’t your mother and I won’t be wiping any noses. Got me.”
“Yes, ma..” The soldier bit his tongue and swallowed the word as he found himself nose to tip with Xena’s sword.
The young man paused awkwardly. “Yes.. um.. Xena.”
Xena turned her blade sideways and patted his cheek. “Good boy.” She said. “Next time, all of you pick better places to sleep or I’ll leave you on the next farm I find.” She turned and glared at them. “Understood?”
“Sorry, Xena.” Brendan came over from where he had been speaking to the drover master. “Kids, most like.” He stood next to Xena and watched the young soldiers gather around the fire. “New ones.”
“Mm.” Xena draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Muskrat’s new too, and she had the sense to sleep out of the rain didn’t she?” She said, pointedly. “We don’t have much time to take them from idiots to something useful, Brendan. Work harder on it.”
“Aye.” The captain nodded. “Got a few days yet, before the border.” He turned and stared yelling out orders, as the rest of the men started approaching the fire, where the cooks were lining up to ladle out hot scrapple and waybread with mugs of morning ale.
Xena watched them briefly, then she indicated a rock nearby and steered Gabrielle over to it. “So.” She reached out and took a mug of ale from a passing cook and sipped from it. “Ready to ride all day?”
Gabrielle flexed one leg, then the other. They were stiff, true, and they ached a bit but nothing like the first time she’d ridden and she felt actually pretty good. “I think so.” She said. “Maybe it will be better weather.”
Xena tipped her head back and studied the dawn sky. “It will be.” She said. “Today’s gonna be a good day.” She leaned forward and gave Gabrielle a leisurely kiss. “I can just feel it.”
Gabrielle felt the heat of a serious blush color her skin as she caught the soldiers watching them and she was suddenly aware of just how many guys there were in the army and how out in the open the two of them were. “Um.. Xena…”’
The queen chuckled wickedly, and licked her nose. “Definitely gonna be a good day.”
Gabrielle had just slipped off Patches to capture some mushrooms when she heard the yell, far off, towards the front of the army. She stood up quickly and looked over the pony’s back, seeing the mounted horsemen closest to her wheel around and start moving. “Uh oh, Patches.”
The pony picked his head up from the grass he was munching and peered at the commotion, green stalks poking out of his mouth comically.
It didn’t seem dangerous, Gabrielle could see the nearest soldiers and they appeared more intrigued than alarmed, so she took a moment to tuck her mushrooms away before she got back on Patch’s back and urged him towards the other end of the wide open field they’d stopped to rest in.
She could see Xena on Tiger’s dark back also heading in that direction and instead of aiming Patches for the disturbance she angled him a little towards the queen instead.
Xena on horseback was a sight to see. Her whole body moved with the horse’s motion and she appeared to be part of the animal as Tiger galloped along, different from the soldiers who were all good riders, but not in her league.
Gabrielle envied her that effortless comfort in the saddle, wanting to look and feel the same way when she bolted along on Patches much smaller frame but knowing it would be a long time before any of that would happen. “C’mon, Patches.. go get Tiger. G’wan!”
The pony, having had a more or less relaxed day ambling in Tiger’s shadow down the cobbled road, was willing to comply and he quickly moved from a walk to a canter, and then to a gallop across the thick grass as the scattered soldiers also started converging.
Near the front of the army, a group of them were clustered and as Xena arrived, they parted and stepped back, to give the queen room to see what was going on. Gabrielle watched her lover’s body language intently, glad to see that cock of her head that seemed more curiousity than anger.
Patches slowed to a canter as they approached and she saw soldiers turning to watch her as she eased into the circle next to Xena, her shoulder lightly bumping the queen’s knee. “What’s going on?”
“Good question.” Xena leaned on the front of her saddle. “Escar?” She addressed the man in the center of the circle, who was bent over, obviously catching his breath from running. “Spit it out. If we’re being attacked we’re dead already.”
The man straightened. “Fire.” He got out. “On the horizon ahead, and rising from the trees. I heard sounds.”
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, who seemed thoughtful. “It was raining last night.” She said. “Seems weird a fire would start now.”
The queen peered down at her. “And people think I just ravish you for that cute face.” She said. “Fires start when jackasses start them.” She straightened up. “Get moving.” She ordered, her voice rising. “Brendan, take a squad forward on the point and let’s go see what’s going on.”
“Move it! Y’heard the genr’l!” Brendan wheeled his gray gelding and half stood in his stirrups, waving one arm at the troops. “Move out!”
Xena backed her mount and flipped her cloak back, exposing the hilt of her sword. “Bout time something exciting happened around here.” She muttered. “Muskrat, I won’t waste my breath telling you to stay here, but stick near me, okay?”
“Oh yeah.” Gabrielle felt a sense of excitement herself, as she made sure everything was tied down tight to her saddle and followed in Xena’s wake. She didn’t know really what was going on, but things on fire regardless of why usually wasn’t good.
The sound of their hoofbeats made talking impossible, but Gabrielle did her best to keep even with Xena anyway, given how much smaller Patches was than the queen’s huge stallion. “What do you think it is?” She yelled.
“Trouble.” Xena yelled back, as they caught up with the main part of the army and swept through them, way being made as if by magic. It wasn’t as if the men were bowing to her, they just moved out of the way as if by instinct even though their backs were turned and they couldn’t see who was coming.
Gabrielle stopped trying to puzzle it out and concentrated on sticking with Xena instead, as the queen leaned and guided her mount through the crowd with shifts of her weight and squeezes of her powerful legs.
She mainly just hung on and tried not to fall off. She supposed that Xena did have an advantage, since she’d been riding all her life, but still, it was aggravating not to be able to be that comfortable herself.
Time, Xena had said, it would just take time, and she’d said she could see Gabrielle was a natural at riding, so she’d get it eventually.
“Ha!” The advance group had thundered out ahead of them and now they were cresting the small rise and the speed picked up, one of the men half turning in his saddle to wave back at the rest of the army. Xena chuckled, throughly enjoying the rush as she caught up with the leading wave of riders and swept past them, Gabrielle rambling gamely at her side.
It was ridiculous, really - the pony riding in the middle of the army, his shaggy white and copper coat looking out of place as a rag doll in the armory - Xena knew that. She knew the army looked askance at her for it too, but so far, Gabrielle was holding up her end of the bargain, and not asking for special treatment.
LIke now - she was urging her little mount along at Xena’s side, her jaw clenched in concentration, every so often giving her head a shake to clear her bangs from her eyes.
Adorable. The queen sighed, wrenching her attention back to the job at hand, which was leading her army. She sat a little deeper in the saddle and released one hand off the reins, wiping her palm as she scanned the ground ahead of her, seeing the flames now, and smoke rising above the trees.
Just a fire?
Ahhhh. No. Xena chortled softly, as she reached over her head and drew her sword out, bringing it down to rest point facing rearward with the hilt against her thigh. “Gabrielle, keep your head down!”
“More than it is?”
Xena chuckled again, and felt her throat tighten a little, as she saw what her advance guard had seen, figures riding in and out of the flames, and heard on the wind the screams of the dying. Blood rushed to every inch of her skin as her body responded and she felt her heart start to beat faster, warrior instincts erupting with a savage joy.
“Xena! Look!” Gabrielle’s eyes were wide. “They’re hurting those people!”
“Yes!” Xena yelled back. “And in a minute we’re gonna be hurting them! So keep your damn head down, and if I yell DUCK, you DUCK!”
“QUACK!” Gabrielle took hold of her reins and tried not to be scared, as she saw the men on horses now surrounding what she realized was a village on fire. The horsemen were riding in and out, firing crossbows and swinging swords, though she was too far yet to see what they were swinging them at.
A gust of wind came at her face, and she nearly choked from the stench of it, thick smoke that held a touch of burned flesh that slammed it home to her this was no lark.
People were dying there.
Xena urged Tiger faster, and as she came even with the advance group they parted to let her through then bolted after her, as the uneven lines straightened out into an attack force wedge with her at the head of it. She could see the raiders now clearly, and a moment later they spotted her, and yells went up as the horsemen wheeled and turned to meet them.
Xena let out a yell, the sound ripping from her throat as she swung her sword out and dropped her reins completely, freeing her other hand and wishing she had a mace in it.
She met the first raider coming at her as he swung a pike at her head and she ducked before she even really thought about it, feeling the breeze as the pole swept over her and seeing the man’s body overbalance as he tried to recover from it.
Stupid. The queen took her shot and buried her sword into his chest, feeling the steel grate against his ribs as he dropped the pike and screamed, his arms swinging around and flailing as his horse slammed against hers.
She freed a boot from her stirrup and lashed out with it, kicking the man out of his saddle and off of her sword blade in one neat motion. “Yah!” She yelled at the horse, who shied back from her and bucked, kicking the man rolling underneath him and darting off.
Xena whipped her blade back into position as she felt the next one coming at her, droplets of blood flying back to spatter her face and making her blink.
Copper scent. She could smell the tang of it as she threw Tiger against two of the raider’s animals and then turned him in place, signaling him to kick out as the two raiders suddenly found themselves fully occupied with just trying to stay on their horses.
Xena turned again and threw her sword from her right hand to her left, then backhanded the man moving past her, slamming the blade into the back of his neck where his helmet ended. She felt the crunch all the way up her arm as she shattered his spine, and it took only a shove with her forearm to tumble the helpless figure to the earth.
Yells. Xena’s head swept around, seeing her men sending the raiders running in all directions, none even trying to come at her again. She felt almost a little disappointed, as she turned Tiger in a tight circle, something niggling at the back of her head.
What was it? The fire? The raiders? Dead villagers? Wh.. oh. “Gabrielle!”
“Here!” A voice came from behind her, and Xena quickly turned Tiger again, not missing the cross look the stallion gave her with all the whirling around. “Sorry.” She muttered, glancing over to where Gabrielle was kneeling next to her mount, looking at something on the ground. “What is it? Don’t get off your damn horse, Gabrielle!”
The blond woman stood up and walked over to her, leading Patches by his reins. She stopped and offered up what she had in her hand, her eyes searching Xena’s face with quiet intensity. “I found this.”
Xena took the item and examined it. “Campaign coin.” She murmured, wiping the surface off against her leggings.
“That guy dropped it.” Gabrielle was fixedly not looking at the first man Xena had killed. “I saw it fly out.”
The queen turned it over. The coin was one of the common bits of struck metal that the army used when it was moving through unknown territories, crudely punched, it served to buy little things, comforts on the road when going through the smaller towns. One side held a tree, the other…
Xena’s lip twitched, as she picked out the shape of a head. “Bregos.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “I’ve told you you’re worth your weight in pearls, haven’t I?”
Gabrielle was stroking Patches neck, leaning her cheek against the pony’s rough coat. “No.. I don’t think so. That’s a lot of pearls.”
The queen reached down and stroked her head. “You are.” She said. “Most of my men would have run right over this.” She put the coin in her saddle pouch and turned, looking at what was left of the fray. A squad of her men were riding around the perimeter of the town in a cleaning up motion that made her nod to herself in approval.
Damn, had that felt good. She flexed her hands, wishing it had lasted longer. Her blood was still up, and she could feel the energy running over her skin as she reviewed her short battle. The raiders had been poor soldiers, but already she was going over what she’d done and wanting to better it.
She felt a little rusty. It hadn’t come as naturally to her as it used to. With a soft grunt, she removed a cloth from her saddlebag and unfolded it. “Squeeze some water on this, will you?”
Gabrielle responded at once, taking her waterskin from her saddle ring and opening it, spilling a good bit of it on the cloth. “How’s that?” She asked.
The queen positioned the cloth across her palm and ran her blade over the surface, cleaning the blood from it. “Perfect.” She finished her task and examined the metal, noting the nicks in the edge she’d have to work out of it later on. “Neckbones.” She sighed, shaking her head. “Hate em.”
Gabrielle swallowed, then she turned away and took a swallow of the water before she closed the skin and put it back on Patches saddlering. She rested her hands on his neck and looked back at the line of trees they’d camped in, not wanting to turn and see the destruction of the village on the other side.
“Get up.” Xena said, as she surveyed the burning village. “Let’s go see what else we can find out.” She seated her sword back into it’s sheath with a soft hiss and click, and put the cloth away. “And if there’s anything to salvage from that mess.”
Mess. Gabrielle pulled herself up on Patches back. Well, Gabrielle, you wanted to go with her. You begged to go with her. You were thinking of running away after her if she left you behind. So now you’re here. She lifted her head and nudged Patches to follow Tiger. So get used to it and be useful. No puking.
“You say something?” Xena asked. “You’ve got a weird puss on.”
“No.” The blond woman got herself sorted out. “I’m right with you. Let’s go.”
“Uh huh.” Xena urged Tiger into a canter, as they passed a scattering of dead bodies. “Hungry?”
Gabrielle just looked at her.
As they moved into the center of what had been a small, but well kept village, the destruction became more and more horrific. Xena found her eyes drawn to burned bodies, lashed to poles outside the remnants of huts and the inherent cruelty of the deaths raised even her hoary old eyebrows.
She was in the lead, with Gabrielle beside her and her captains riding in silence behind them. Aside from the dead and dying raiders, they’d seen no living inhabitant of the town, and she was beginning to expect that not to change.
Barns and fences had been destroyed. The houses and shelters burned to the ground. On one side, a wagon had been set ablaze full of people, and now just charred bodies and wood remained. The stench was considerable, and even Xena wasn’t immune to it. “C’mere.” She ordered a white faced Gabrielle.
Gabrielle steered Patches over to Tiger’s side and reached out impulsively to clutch Xena’s leg, wanting nothing really but some kind of comfort in all the horror. “This is terrible.”
Xena looked around them, feeling a wholly personal and selfish anger at the destruction of what was, in fact, her property. “You got that right.” She reached into her saddle bag and removed a small sack, digging something out of it and offering it to her companion. “Here. Suck on this.”
Gabrielle looked dubiously at it. “What is it?”
The blond woman made a small face. “I don’t really like ginger.”
“You like puking?”
Gabrielle took the bit of candy and put it in her mouth, sucking on it quietly as they rode along. The taste filled her senses, a little sweet and a little spicy, and she felt her stomach settling as if by magic. Wow. She looked up at Xena with respect, noting that the queen’s jaw was moving, though her face was impassive at all the charred remains. “Thanks.”
Xena turned to look at her, sticking her tongue out and displaying her own drop before she closed her mouth again and pulled Tiger up at the center of what had once been a town. Now there was nothing but death in front of her, and she was damn mad about it. “Brendan.”
Her captain moved forward, his face as impassive as hers. “Bastards.” He commented, turning his head to spit carefully on the ground. “Good for killing.”
“Any of them left alive?”
“Few.” Brendan admitted.
Xena folded her hands over her saddle bridge. “Take whoever’s alive and strap them up in the trees along the roadway there. Make sure they’ll bleed out.”
The queen turned her head, as one of the young soldiers approached on foot, a long, jagged cut across his face. “What?” She asked, in a clipped tone.
“There’s a.. “ He hesitated. “We found a rock cairn, or such like over towards the hillside there. Got a stone cap over it. Figured something was inside.”
Xena considered a moment. People didn’t usually put rock caps over something unless they were trying to protect or save something under it. “Brendan, take a squad over and open it up. Might be some grain or supplies in there we could use.”
“Aye.” The older man clucked his tongue and his mount moved forward. “Bladas, Eskar, take the prisoners and do what the genr’al asked with em. You three come wi’ us.” He started for the hillside, with the younger soldier jogging to keep up with the horses.
Xena waited for them to leave, then she turned and regarded Gabrielle, who was sitting there in silence, gazing at her pony’s neck. “Any thoughts?”
Gabrielle hesitated for a long moment. “I’m trying not to think.” She admitted. “It’s just all so horrible.” She finally looked up at Xena. “Why did this happen? What did these people do that they were all killed like that?”
Xena leaned forward and exhaled, blowing her bangs up off her forehead as she pondered the question. “Coulda done something to piss them off.” She mused. “Maybe they wanted something and the town wouldn’t give it to em. Happens sometimes. People are stupid stubborn.”
The comment had the ring of personal knowledge to it, and Gabrielle decided not to pursue the subject for now. “What are we going to do?”
“Well.” The queen removed a bit of mud from her lower lip and flicked it away from her. “Ordinarily I’d say we’re gonna kill them all, but we’ve pretty much done that, so I guess we’ll move on and find something else to attack.”
She looked down to find Gabrielle peering back up at her. “You asked.”
“I meant, what are we going to do with all these… “ Gabrielle let her eyes drift over the charred bodies. “For these people.”
Xena’s brow creased. “Gabrielle.” She said. “They’re dead.”
“I know but..”
What in the River Styx was she thinking about? Xena looked quickly around herself. “Most I’d have done is give em a pyre, Gabrielle. They got one.” She started to direct Tiger towards the more promising hillside. “Now, c’mon.”
Gabrielle did so, trying to keep the bodies out of her peripheral vision. She understood, in a way, what Xena was saying. After all, the villagers were already dead, and there wasn’t anything they could do about that, but still..
Still. “Couldn’t you just say something?” She caught up with Xena. “LIke a prayer or something?”
Xena pulled Tiger to a halt so suddenly she almost slid backwards off his butt. “What?” She barked out. “Gabrielle.. In case you never noticed I’m nobody’s priestess.”
“But you re the queen.”
Xena started her horse forward again. “Just come on.” She shook her head. “I”m not saying any damn prayers. You can go say one if you want. Gods damn sure are more likely to listen to you than me.”
Gabrielle frowned as she followed along. Was that true? She knew Xena didn’t worship any of the gods, and actually, she hadn’t had much experience in that area either. She knew their names, but her parents had been only grudging in their tributes and she’d never really seen any benefits from them herself.
Anyway. She was glad when they cleared the square, and left the horror of the charnel pit behind them, moving through now mostly just collapsed storage huts and broken furniture towards the sounds of men working, and a series of sharp cracking noises.
“Ah.” Xena murmured. “Almost open.”
Gabrielle looked past her, to see a stone doorway set into the hillside, with a bunch of Xena’s soldiers in front of it wrestling aside a huge, round wheel of stone blocking the doorway shut. As the stone rolled aside, the men peered inside curiously, one bringing a torch close to see what there was to see.
“Back, all ya.” Brendan had seen Xena approaching, and he quickly took charge, pulling the soldiers back and clearing the opening for Xena’s inspection. “Genrl?”
Xena dismounted, stalking forward with sinuous grace and taking the torch from the soldier’s hand as she ducked her head inside with little apparent concern. Her eyes blinked as she got used to the darkness, then she stepped all the way inside and straightened as much as she could, holding the torch out to one side to cast light on the contents.
Eyes blinked back at her, full of fear, and she found herself facing a huddle of children, in front of some bags and boxes, and a few odd barrels. “Well.”
“Please.. Don’t kill us.” One of the children whispered, as they stared at her in horror. “We didn’t do nothin.”
“She won’t hurt you.” Gabrielle slipped past her and approached the small group. “It’s okay.” She slowly went to one knee and held a hand out. “It’s okay.”
Faced with Gabrielle’s gentler visage, the children relaxed, and one edged forward towards the blond woman. “Who are you?” The child asked, so covered in soot it was impossible to tell if it was a girl or boy.
“My name’s Gabrielle.” She answered. “What’s your name?”
“Sache.” The child said. “This is Mele, my brother.” In the light of the torch, suddenly, they could see she was a girl. “Our family’s the bakers.”
“Not anymore.” Xena turned and motioned Brendan inside. “Get them out of here.” She said, briefly. “See what’s in the boxes.”
The children shied back from the soldiers, obviously terrified by them as they moved inside and started to investigate the chamber.
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle repeated. “They won’t hurt you. That’s Xena, the queen, and these are her soldiers.” She explained. “She’ll make sure you’re safe, now.”
Xena came over and crouched next to her bedmate, giving the children a dour look. “What happened?” SHe asked, “Why were those men attacking your village?”
“Xena.” Gabrielle uttered softly.
“Listen, we don’t have time to be nannies.” The queen told her. She looked back at the children. “Well?”
Sache stared at her, wide eyed. “I don’t know.” She replied. “I don’t know why they came. Mama just put us in here and said she’d come back for us when they were gone.” She looked from Gabrielle to Xena and back. “Can I go find her now? Maybe she knows.”
Oh gods. Gabrielle felt her guts churn again. There was nothing left outside. No one left. These children had no families, no homes…
The sudden memories of being this child in the not to distant past snapped vividly into her mind, and she turned away, overwhelmed by it. She didn’t want to see the looks in their eyes when they realized what she already knew.
Everyone was quiet for a moment, and she knew they all were looking at Xena, and she didn’t know, truly didn’t know what the queen was going to say to them.
She hoped it was kind, but she remembered her first few days in the castle and she knew there was a cruel side to Xena she’d felt the rough edge of.
“Listen to me.” Xena’s voice broke the silence. “All of you.” A scrape of boot against rock. “Those bastards your parents hid you from destroyed your homes and killed your families.” Her voice was steady and yet, not really as cold as the words would have seemed. “There’s nothing left out there.”
The children started to cry.
Gabrielle did too, ducking her head and biting her lip to hide it.
“You can’t change it, so stop crying.” Xena went on. “Your parents gave their lives up so you’d be safe, and you are. You’ll go someplace where you’ll be taken care of, understand?”
Brendan turned and looked at her, grizzled eyebrows lifting in surprise. Xena met his gaze, then her eyes shifted to Gabrielle’s bowed head, then back to his face. She lifted both hands and let them drop in mute eloquence, and glared at him when he had the audacity to smile at her. “Get them out of here. Send a wagon back to the stronghold with six men. Understand?”
“Aye.” Brendan knelt beside the sobbing girl,who stared at him beseechingly. “S’all right little one. Her Majesty’ll make sure you’ll be all right.”
Xena produced a sound somewhere between a groan and a cluck, then found herself being gently hugged by Gabrielle as the blond woman turned and buried her face into Xena’s chest. It was, at least, a meagre reward for the wholesale shattering of her image.
“Mama.” Sache rocked back and forth, hugging herself. “Mama.” She repeated softly. “Why did they take you away? Why?”
Why. Xena grimly stared over Gabrielle’s shoulder. Yeah. Why?
“Xena.” One of the soldiers straightened, from where he’d been kneeling at the back of the shelter. “Look.” He was one of the older men, a veteran of hers, and as she looked up and saw what hung from his fingers, they both knew the answer to the question why.
The torchlight flickered off gilded chains and a single, large stone hanging from them, the answer to one question spawning a dozen more.
Gods. Xena exhaled. Gods be damned.
Continued in Part 5