Queen of Hearts

Part 5

Twilight found them another few leagues down the road, in an open, somewhat wild spot far from inhabited areas.  They hadn’t encountered any more raiders on their journey, but they hadn’t found any more people either, just two abandoned towns empty of everything and everyone.

Xena sat on Tiger’s back, on a small rise overlooking the camp. She leaned on her saddlebow and watched grimly as the bivouac was pitched, the cooks working to setup the pit fire as the soldiers grouped themselves by squad scattered among the trees.

Camping in the open would be easier for everyone, she knew. She also knew hanging her ass out in the wide open for anyone to take potshots was dumbfoundingly stupid, so she decided to put up with the difficulties of scattering the men among the trees in the interests of security.

To one side, in the center of four large trees just past the stream she could see the men putting up her tent, a wagon standing by that she knew had her kit in it being unloaded under Gabrielle’s watchful eye.

She wondered, briefly, if she’d taken too much crap with her. Was it fair the men had to work so hard to put her shelter up after going all day in the field?

Nah. Xena dismissed the thought. She chewed reflectively on a stalk of grass as she thought about the empty villages, and the barren fields they’d ridden through. This had always been the tougher part of the realm, in fact, it had been where she’d hid with her first army before she’d laid siege to the stronghold and taken over.

Scrub grass, poor soil.. Xena looked around her. The slave train that had brought Gabrielle to her had come this way and she knew somewhere off the road, on one of the rough cut wagon paths now becoming overgrown was the wreck that had once been her lover’s home.

Probably wasn’t anything left. A long winter and a wet spring would have scoured most of the remnants of human living from the land, but probably there were bits of things left. She wondered if Gabrielle would want to stop there and see.

Xena didn’t think so.  Not after seeing her face going through the wreck of the last first town and the sad emptiness of the last.  She’d gotten quieter as they day went along, ending up merely riding along at Xena’s side with her head a little down and a sad expression on her face.

It was hard to say which one of them was more relieved when Xena at last called a halt to the progress and they had something else to do other than just listen to horse hooves on the road.  

Speaking of horse hooves. Xena looked up as some approached, and she spotted Brendan headed her way. She sat quietly and waited for him to join her, loathe to give up her nice spot so soon. “Problems?”

Her captain half shrugged. “None to think of, truth.” He adopted her pose, leaning forward on his saddle.  “Bad winter in these parts, eh?”

Xena’s eyes took on a certain glitter. “Bad winter, sure. But bad humans made it worse. Someone made those towns empty.”

Brendan nodded, as though he wasn’t surprised.  “Bregos.”

Xena reached in her pouch and found the coin, handing it over to him. “Gabrielle found it.” She remarked, her lips quirking into a smile. “I think the stupid bastard tried to run his deserters through the winter. Had no choice but raid.”  Her eyes narrowed. “Question is, why didn’t we hear about it.”

The grizzled, old soldier grunted, turning the coin over and over in his fingers. “Funny they were, with him.” He remarked finally. “Folks thought he was a good one.”

Well.”  Xena straightened in her saddle, seeing the steady progression of bodies away from her encampment that meant its set up was likely complete. “They knew I was a bad one, so there’s no telling what they gave him. Apparently it wasn’t enough.” She tugged her gauntlet up a little. “Wonder what other surprises we’ll find.”

Brendan snorted, and took up his reins as Xena started moving off towards the camp.  The sun had just set, and purple shadows dusted the fallow fields in a somber hue as the two riders made their way down the slope towards the cluster of trees ahead.

A cool, fresh wind ruffled the branches, and as they approached the camp, two men standing sentry on horseback started in the other direction, to take up a position on higher ground, the ridge in fact that Xena had been watching from.  “Watch the pass over there.” Xena pointed to fold in the hills. “Word might have gotten out we’re here.”

Aye.” The closer guard nodded. “Easy night, M…” He coughed a little. “Xena.”

The queen gave him a dazzling grin. “Good boy.” She patted Tiger on the neck as they continued on, chuckling softly under her breath. “Wonder how long it’ll take them to get over that.”

Brendan chuckled as well. “Talk of the road, for sure.” He said. “You’ve charmed the lot of them, Xena. Like the old days.”

Like the old days.  Xena remembered the old days, before she’d become queen when she’d lived with the army in the field and every night practically she’d taken someone to bed with her.  She had wandered through the camp after the fires burned low and made her choice, and she knew the men had competed for it.

Nice. Good for the ego.

But that was then, and this was now, and she didn’t think Gabrielle was the kinda gal who liked to share. Certainly, she wasn’t, in any case. “Not just like the old days.” The queen said, as they moved between two of the unit’s campfires. “I wasn’t taken then.”

Brendan chuckled again. “How’s the little one doing, then? Having a time of it? Saw her in the cave, poor thing.”

She’s all right.” Xena said, then fell silent. They went the rest of the way through the camp, to the center where her pavilion was.  It was surrounded on all four sides by troops and she spent a moment wondering whether they thought they were guarding her or hoping she’d guard them.

Ah well. She pulled Tiger to a halt and swung her leg over his head, removing her other boot from it’s stirrup and sliding down to the ground with a moderately graceful hop.  She handed the reins to a groom who hurried up, then brushed past two men carrying buckets of water and approached the flap to her tent.

Behind her, she could hear wood being chopped, and the soft clash of weapons sparring.  With a faint nod, she put her hand on the hide and pushed it open, ducking her head to enter.

She surprised Gabrielle, who was seated on a small folding stool near the brazier, her hands clasped in front of her and her head bowed.  “Hey.”

The blond woman looked up.

Hm. The wrinkled forehead look again. Xena eyed her dubiously, then opened her arms up in invitation. She caught the look of gratitude before Gabrielle ended up mashing against her, and figured she’d done something right. Damned if she knew why, but the fierce hug she was getting was definitely a good sign.

Oh, Xena.” Gabrielle simply reveled in the warm strength wrapped around her. After a day full of soul chilling experiences she’d been waiting for this moment ever since they’d stopped. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Xena decided she was pretty glad she was, too. “Ah, c’mon, muskrat.” She enjoyed the contact anyway. “Don’t turn into a little sheephead so soon, huh? We just started.”

I’m not, I just -”  The blond woman sighed. “That first place was so horrible.”

Xena steered her back over to the brazier and sat her back down on her stool. “It’ll get worse.” She told her. “This was just a bunch of burned bodies and some blood.”  She walked over to the wooden bowl of water set ready near the double pallet and took her gauntlets off, laying them aside before she dipped her hands in the basin and splashed a good quantity of the fresh water onto her face. “Wait till you see your first maggots.”

Ugh.” Gabrielle muttered. “I’ve seen them, thanks.”

Have you?” Xena looked back over her shoulder, as she reached for the piece of linen resting nearby. “Find something in the pasture?”


Xena cocked her eyebrow in eloquent question.

Gabrielle shifted and clasped her hands again. “My mother sent me with some bread, once.” She answered, in a remote voice. “To my gramma, she lived behind us. I went into her house, and she… I guess she’d been gone a few days already.”

Xena turned all the way around and looked at her, the linen towel hanging forgotten from her hand. She examined Gabrielle’s face intently.  “That’s lousy.”

It was. Yeah.” Gabrielle agreed. “I had nightmares about it for a long time.” She pondered that. “I still do, once in a while.”

Xena walked over and sat down on the stool next to hers. She tried to imagine what it would be like to be a little kid and find something like that and utterly failed. Her own childhood had been filled with different nightmares. “Life sucks sometimes.” She commented.


The silence lengthened and grew a little awkward. Gabrielle finally cleared her throat and shifted. “But you know, finding those kids was great.” She said. “I felt so bad for them but you made it bearable for them. That was wonderful.”

Xena studied the brazier, hesitantly holding her hands out to it and feeling the warmth against her palms. “I just sent them to the tower.” She said. “They probably wont’ get much better treatment than you did, Gabrielle. They’ve  got nothing.”

Gabrielle got up and went to get the small travel kettle, which she brought back and set on the brazier. She put two cups on the bench next to her and removed a packet from her belt, opening it and taking out  some leaves she set into the cups with faintly shaking fingers.

Realizing she’d said something wrong, Xena stood up and moved past her companion, leaning over and giving her a kiss on the top of her head. “Lemme get this iron off. I feel like I’m rusting in it.”  She walked to the press and started to shed her armor.

A soft knock came at the tent support. “Xena?”

C’mon in.” The queen sat down on the press to take her leg armor off.

Brendan entered. “Lookout found a cache.” He held up a dirt covered rucksack.  “Buried under one of the oaks.”  He brought it over to where Xena was perched. “Bregos for sure, look.”

Xena peered inside, then dipped her hand in and drew out a folded piece of cloth, smudged with dark stains and rusty looking edges.  She let it unfold and hang from her fingers, a purple background with a silver half moon and sword. “Ah huh.” She released the flag and watched it flutter to the ground. “Ugliest battle standard I ever saw.”

Gabrielle carefully poured hot water over the tea leaves, glad of the distraction. “Does that mean he’s still out here with his army?” She asked.

You mean, half of my army?” Xena’s pale  eyes narrowed a little.

Useless half.” Brendan added, with a snort.

The blond woman gently stirred the cups, sniffing the steam to judge how steeped the leaves were. She wanted the soothing warmth of the tea badly, and felt guilty about wishing Brendan would leave so she could be alone with Xena again.

There was something she wanted to say to her. “Are you going to go find him?”

Xena removed her bracers and laid them on the press. “Won’t have to.” She said, briefly. “If he’s out there, he’ll come after me.”

Tch.” Brendan made a sound. “Jackass.” He retrieved the banner and stuffed it back in the sack. “I”ll tuck this away for ye, Xena. We’ll keep good watch tonight.”  He turned and left, the flap swinging lightly behind him and allowing in a gust of cool air and the scent of sweet, night flowers.

Xena shrugged out of her chest armor and set it down before she rejoined Gabrielle by the camp stove. Instead of sitting next to her on the stool she sat down behind her and draped her arms around the smaller woman’s waist, extending her boots past hers.

Laying her cheek against Gabrielle’s back, she felt the inhale, and then the surface relaxed and Gabrielle’s hand covered her wrist and squeezed it.   She knew at some level, in some primal way they both understood each other even when it seemed they were so far apart sometimes.  “Listen.”

Me first.” Gabrielle interrupted her unexpectedly. “Xena, no matter what happens, if those kids end up finding what I found back there the gods will have blessed them.”                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Aw.  Xena didn’t like goopy mush, personally, but she was smart enough not to shut someone up who dearly loved directing it towards her at regular intervals. “I sent word back to have them taken care of.”  She said, in a matter of fact tone. “But don’t tell anyone that. You’ve already wrecked my image.”

Gabrielle took a breath to answer, but they both jerked as a loud yelling commenced outside, and Xena scrambled to her feet and grabbed her sword on the way out of the tent before they could manage another word to each other.  After a shocked pause, the blond woman bolted for the opening, stopped in mid run and grabbed her stick, then rushed out after the queen into the gathering night.


Xena stalked into the center of the chaos, only to find it not nearly as chaotic as it sounded from the yelling. Near the main watchfire five of her guards were standing and surrounding a bedraggled, muddy figure that was half hunched over with its hands tied behind it’s back. “What’s going on?”

The guards wheeled and spotted her, their faces lighting up. “Found this lot.” The oldest one pointed a dagger at the prisoner. “Trying to sneak into the camp.”

Xena grinned. “Before dinner entertainment. I love it.” She twirled her sword in one hand. “Better than those frilly assed dancers any day.”   She examined the prisoner, who was staring at her in shock. “I remember you.”  She pointed her weapon at him. “You’re Bregos toady.”

The guards looked at Xena, then back at the man, grabbing him as he tried to back away from the queen’s tall, menacing figure.  “Where you going, dog?” The older guard laughed. “Figgered to slip in an no notice?”

The man licked his lips. “Just looking for a place.” He muttered, in a hoarse tone, his eyes roving everywhere but Xena’s face.

You had a place.” Xena said. “You’re the one who chose to run away from it.” She sheathed her sword and drew her dagger instead, moving closer to him. “But hey. I’m a forgiving sort. We’ll take you back.”

If a dragon had materialized in the camp and started tap dancing, it would not have drew a more stunned response from the watching soldiers. To a man, their jaws dropped, even the new recruits.  Gabrielle eased between them and came up next to Xena, both hands clutched around her staff. “Wow. But what if he’s a spy?” She asked.  

Xena rolled her head around and looked down at her. “Must you?”

Gabrielle blinked at her. “Must I what?” She said. “I wasn’t doing anything, yet.”

The queen merely turned back around and grabbed the prisoner by the hair.  She jerked his head back and put her dagger to his neck. “Sure, we’ll take you back. But first you’re gonna tell me everything you’ve been doing since the last time I saw ya.”

The man swallowed hard. “Y.. You’ll kill me.”

Xena shrugged. “We all have to die sometime.” She remarked. “C’mon, spill it.”

The prisoner gave a half shake of his head, at least as much as he could with Xena’s fingers gripping his longish, pale hair. “N… we went out, did some raidin.. Starved half to death.” He rasped. “Scour went through.”

Idiot.” The queen said. “Go on.”

The man stared past her. “Then the storms got us.” He said. “What wa left of us. Don’t know more after that. Went on my own.” His eyes lifted to her face, finally. “Hiding, till today.”

He was lying. Xena knew it, the way she knew the coming weather and the shift and change of battle while she was in it.  The problem was what kind of lie it was - a little one, not wanting to tell her he’d taken part of the town raiding, or a big one, that he was really spying for Bregos and the other army was out there waiting for her.

She looked at his face, which was on the youngish side, and lacking in scars, and studied his lightly built body.  She remembered him as a nondescript footman in Brego’s troops, more of a hanger on than a fighter.   Useless to her, and probably, useless to Bregos as well.

She had no place for useless people.   Her fingers twitched on the hilt of her dagger, and she saw his eyes close in reaction as he felt the motion, and she almost simply cut his throat before she caught another shift, this one at her right hand side.

Hm. On the other hand. “Brendan.” She withdrew her knife and sheathed it in a flickering motion. “Put him to some use. If you can find one.” She released his hair and only just kept herself from wiping her palm on her leggings in distaste.

Aye.” Brendan looked both surprised and skeptical. “If’n you say, Xena.”

I say.” The queen acknowledged. “But before he does anything, sit him down and get every scrap of detail out of him including the color of Brego’s socks these days.” She stepped back to let the guard take the man, who was blinking as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Get him out of here.”

Brendan stepped in front of her, and lowered his voice. “He’s twice a runner.”  He said “Or maybe worse.”

Xena looked him in the eye. “You questioning me?”  She kept her voice light, but there was an edge to it and she knew he heard it. “Little late to be starting that now, old man.” She said. “Now get him out of here.”

Aye.” The captain nodded briefly and turned, gesturing to the guards. “Ye heard, get a move on. Tie em to the tree over there, we’ll get the dickens out of him first.”

The queen heard the low mutters, and saw the faint shakes of many heads as the soldiers dispersed, and she waited for a space to develop around her before she turned and regarded the quietly watching Gabrielle. “You got any comments?”

 Gabrielle shook her head and straightened up, taking hold of her staff and waiting for Xena to start back towards their tent. Her back was stiff and hurting, and she wanted to just sit quietly for a while.

Thinking about something?”

No.” The blond woman said. “Just tired.”

Xena put a hand on her shoulder and left it there as they walked across the camp, passing groups of soldiers she knew were now looking askance of her for not killing the spy they’d found trying to sneak into their camp.  She herself wasn’t sure why she hadn’t, except that her instincts had told her not to and her instincts were usually right.

Weren’t they?

She followed Gabrielle inside the tent, and took the staff from her hands, setting it in the corner  as she watched her companion cross the room. She thought she detected a slight limp, and as the blond woman went to pick up the waiting tea mugs she saw a definite grimace.  “Hey.”

Hey.” Gabrielle brought her one of the mugs. “It’s been a really long day, huh?”  She ran her fingers through her hair. “I think I’ll go over and see what they’re making, get some for us now. Does that sound okay?”



Sit.” Xena nudged her towards the camp chairs. “Let me go do my job.”   She turned and went to the tent flap, leaning her head out and scanning the area. “Jas!”

One of her older soldiers responded, getting up and running over. “Aye?”

Get me a tray with some of whatever they got on it, cooked or not.” Xena ordered. “And a wineskin.”

Aye.” He headed off at a good clip.

Xena pulled her head back inside and took a sip of her tea, strolling over and taking the seat next to Gabrielle and extending her long legs out towards the fire. She felt more than a little frustrated and it aggravated her to have so many things tossing doubts at her from every direction.

She’d thought it would be simpler out here. Just her, and the army, and some unnamed but suspected enemies out there for her to defeat. Easy.   But she was finding things more complicated than they used to be and choices harder.

Damn it. “It was a long day.” She answered Gabrielle’s previous question. “Longer for you than me, I bet.”

Gabrielle had both hands cupped around her mug and she sipped a bit more tea before answering. “It was a lot to take in.” She admitted.  “But I’m okay with it.”

Xena watched her over her mug rim. “Yeah?”

Gabrielle nodded. “I”m not a child. I know why we’re out here Xena.” She lifted her eyes from her mug and looked over at the queen. “So if you wanted to do something to that guy, you could have.”

Both Xena’s dark eyebrows lifted. “Are you questioning me now?” She asked, sharply. “I”ve been deciding to kill people or not since you were in diapers, kid. I don’t need your permission.” She got up and went to the press, slamming the mug down and yanking the closings on her leathers free.  “I don’t know what the Hades is wrong with all of you. Maybe I had damn good reason not to cut that stupid bastards throat!”

The echos of the yell faded, and she turned back to face Gabrielle. “It had nothing to do with you!”

Sea green eyes blinked back at her a few times. “Okay.” She answered. “I”m sorry. You just gave me such a funny look out there I thought it did.”  She set her cup down and got up, trudging over to the tent flap and untying it as they both heard hurried footsteps approaching.

Funny look. I’ll give you a funny look.” Xena sat down on her press, but instead of continuing to dis-armor herself she let her hands fall to her knees and scowled.  “Is that what people think? That you’ve turned me in to a soft old woman?”

Gabrielle, who had taken the tray from it’s deliverer and turned to set it down, now turned around again and peered at her. Her brows creased. “What?”

Never mind.” The queen got up and took the tray from her, taking it to the map table and plunking it down with an atypical lack of grace. “Maybe I should go out there and skin that punk alive so everyone wont’ think there’s something wrong with me.”

She opened and recovered a few of the dishes, not even looking at what was inside of them until she felt a warm presence at her back, and Gabrielle laid her hand there, resting her cheek against Xena’s shoulder. She didn’t speak, she simply stood there, lightly rubbing Xena’s back as the queen let both hands rest on the table and leaned her weight on them.

After a brief pause, Xena pushed the tray away and stood up, turning and leaning back against the table as she gathered Gabrielle to her in a rough hug, closing her eyes and surrendering to her need for the contact. Gabrielle’s breath warmed the side of her neck, and she deliberately set the aggravation aside for the time being.

Didn’t do a damn thing for either of them. “C’mere.” Xena said. “Wanna see where we’re going?” She drew Gabrielle around to where the map was resting. “Pour some of that damn wine.. It’ll make it make more sense to you.”

Gabrielle smiled, and reached for the wineskin, as she settled across the table from the queen. “Thanks.” She said. “Sorry I made you mad before.”

Xena took her cup and downed a swallow, licking her lips thoughtfully. “You were right.” She glanced ruefully at the wine. “Didn’t want to end your day by drenching you in blood.” She looked up after a moment of silence, to find Gabrielle looking back at her with a painfully raw expression. “Teach me to be nice, huh?”

The blond woman’s expression gentled and her eyes warmed. “Thank you.”  She said. “I really mean that.”

The emotion in the words made her very soul purr. Xena touched the edge of her cup to her companions and spread her hand over the map, letting already made decisions, badly or no, fall to the past.  “Tomorrow’s another day.” She said. “So we might as well be ready for it.”

The night horn sounded the watch as they drained their cups, and night settled over the camp leaving it in torchlit watchfulness.


Gabrielle cautiously poked her head out of the tent flap and looked around, finding a camp full of pre dawn rustlings and thick pine scented fog.  She listened for a moment, before she emerged into the dim light, a water basin clutched in one hand.

Now.” She murmured to herself. “Which way was that creek?” She looked one way, then the other, then with a slight shrug she moved off to her left.  The trees stood silent sentinel as she passed them, reaching out with one hand to brush against the damp bark as she carefully picked her way across the uneven ground.

Stupid, really. Gabrielle sighed, as she edged around a boulder. She should have thought to bring water for their morning bathing in last night, but with everything that happened she’d just forgotten.  “Good thing I remembered before Xena woke up.”

Her ears caught the sound of running water, and she smiled to herself in mild triumph. She passed between two leaning trees and smelled the water before she spotted it rushing over the moss covered rocks just ahead of her.  With a faint sigh of relief she knelt by the creek and tilted the edge of her basin into the current, blinking a little as droplets of water jumped from the surface and peppered her face.

It was more chilly than refreshing, since the spring air definitely had a bite to it. Gabrielle kept the basin where it was until it filled, then set it carefully between two rocks while she wiped her face with her sleeve.  

A thunking sound made her jerk, but she started breathing again once she recognized an ax striking a tree, and along with it she heard a rattle of pots from the cooking area. With a wry grimace for her own nervousness, she picked up the basin and turned, starting back towards the queen’s tent with the basin clutched in front of her sloshing just slightly.

She wasn’t really scared of the troops around her. She knew they knew how Xena felt about her and they generally treated her like a glass slipper.

Your grace?”

For instance. Gabrielle glanced to her right. “Good morning.” She gave the soldier a warm smile. “Just getting some water for the queen.”

C’n I carry it for ye?” The young man asked. “Tis a big bucket you’ve got there.”

Gabrielle considered, then shook her head. “No, I’ve got it thanks. It’s only over there.” She eased past him and climbed up the small rise to where Xena’s encampment was isolated, the air getting lighter around her at every step.  Just as she got to the flap, it was thrown aside and Xena bolted out, her eyes sharp and raking the surroundings. “Oh!”

Ga..” The queen slammed her jaws shut with a very audible click as she spotted her target. Her nostrils flared and she unclenched her fists.  “Where the Hades were you?”

Gabrielle looked at her, then dropped her gaze to the basin, then looked back up at Xena in puzzlement.

Oh shut up.” Xena stepped back and drew the flap aside. “Get in there.”  She waited for Gabrielle to pass her before she turned her attention to the nearby troops. “Tell the cooks to get moving. I want to be on the road in a candlemark” She ordered. “Got it?”

Yes. Ma’am.” The soldier dispensed with any familiarity and trotted off, presumably in search of Brendan. Her voice had carried, however, and the small rustlings in the dim dawn light now quickened and low whistles began to sound.

Xena listened for a moment, then she grunted in satisfaction and turned to reenter her tent, standing for a moment inside the flap as she watched Gabrielle putting her washing up things down neatly by the water basin. “Hey.”

Gabrielle turned her head. “I’m sorry.” She said. “I forgot to get this last night. I just went to the creek for it.. I didn’t want to wake you up.” She went back to retrieving the soap from Xena’s travel bag.”I think it’s going to be a nice day..once the fog lifts.”

Xena went over and sat down on the bed, letting her hands rest on the front edge of it as she studied her boots. “Yeah?” She said. “That’s great. Maybe everyone won’t be in such a bad ass mood at the end of the day then.”  She pondered that, then laid back flat on the bed and folded her hands across her stomach. “Wanna do me a favor?”

Sure.” Gabrielle wiped her hands and came over to her, sitting down on the bed. “Anything.”

The queen studied the roof of her tent as though she were reading something across the surface of it. Her eyes flicked back and forth, before she finally half closed them and glanced over at Gabrielle. “Wake me up next time”

The blond woman scuffed her boot along the carpet a little. “Were you afraid I ran off?”

No.” Xena answered.

Did you think someone kidnapped me?”

If someone kidnapped you under my nose and I didn’t notice and they didn’t stab me in the heart on the way out, I’d have stabbed myself. No.”  The queen said. “Just do me a favor and wake me up, okay? Stop asking questions about it.”

Gabrielle laid down on her side next to Xena, watching her profile and seeing a half hidden vulnerability there she hadn’t expected. If Xena hadn’t thought she’d run off, or been taken, then why worry about  her not being there?

Why? She reached out and touched the queen’s cheek. “Okay.” She said. “If you want me to, I will.”

Good.” Her companion rolled her head towards her. “Now that I told everyone I want to leave before the damn sun’s up, I guess we better get washed, huh?”

Want me to wash you?” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled a little.

Xena glowered at her. “Listen, lambchop.” She reached out and grabbed Gabrielle’s nose.  “I’ve got enough image problems with out you making them worse. Got me?”

I fing u gof me.”

The queen started chuckling, and released her. “So I do.”   She let her hand drop back to the bed but remained laying there watching Gabrielle instead of getting up. “How are you and that little runt getting along?” She asked. “Goofy, or Puddles, or whatever you named him.”

Patches.” Gabrielle rolled onto her back and stretched her legs out. “He’s great.” She said. “I just think I need to get used to all this riding. My backs a little sore.”

Ah huh.” Xena nodded. “Thought I saw you limping yesterday.  Remind me to look at your saddle when we mount up.”  With a sigh, she sat up and rocked her head back and forth, rubbing her neck and grimacing. “Damn headache.” She got to her feet and went to her kit, rummaging in it. “Did you let me drink too much last night, muskrat?”

Gabrielle also got up and went to the brasier, moving the pot of water closer to the embers to warm. “We were drinking last night?” SHe asked, in a puzzled tone. “I thought we just had cider with dinner.”

Ah. That’ the problem. I wasn’t drinking last night.” Xena walked over with a travel cup in hand and lifted the pot, pouring the water slowly into it, and sniffing the resulting steam cautiously. “You gotta keep me from doing that. Makes me wake up bitchier than hell and it gives me n…” She stopped, and took a sip from the cup instead. “Anyway, let’s get washed up and ready to go be soldiers.”

Gabrielle put her arms around Xena and gave her a hug. “Okay.” She went to the basin and dipped her cloth in, adding some soap before she washed her face with it. She was aware of Xena at her back, the sound of the water swirling in the cup just audible to her.

Footsteps approached the tent.  Xena turned, the soft sound of her leathers moving loud in the silence as the queen walked to the opening and stood just inside it.  “Who is it?”


Xena pushed the flap open to let her captain in. Brendan’s head was wet and his leather armor was damp as well, but the sturdy soldier was in good humor and he lifted a hand in greeting to Gabrielle when she turned and waved at him.

A good morning, eh?” Brendan said. “Fair day coming, Xena. We should make good time through t’pass.” He let his hand rest on his sword hilt, worn at his hip. “Got bits of things from that bistard last night we did. Camp stuff, little things. He’s nothing, yeah?”

Yeah.” Xena nodded. “He was a skank.”

Aye.” Brendan’s eyes darted to Gabrielle and back. “Got that from ‘im, and made sure he knew we wasn’t looking for that sort here.”

Xena walked over to the basin and dipped her hands into it, throwing a goodly portion of water at her face and sending droplets everywhere.  She scrubbed her skin, then blinked as a piece of cloth got in her way and she blinked as Gabrielle gently removed the moss scented liquid from her skin. “Hey!” She growled.

Nothing much else.” Brendan went on. “Scared scrap of naught, he is. Don’t know as we can use em for nothing, cept..”

Except?” Xena wiped her hands on the cloth she’d snitched from her companion, and turned, leaning against the center pole and watching him with hooded eyes.  “Don’t tell me he can cook.”

Her captain snorted. “Likes horses.” He said. “Not sure he knows aught, though.”

Xena crossed her arms over her chest. “Bring him here.” She ordered. “I’ll find out what he knows and what he doesn’t know before I let him so much as polish a stirrup.”  She said. “If we can make him useful, maybe everyone won’t think I haven’t gone nuts for not gutting him like a fish.”

Brendan had the grace not to reply to that. He raised his hand and escaped out the tent flap, leaving his grumpy queen and her bemused companion behind.   Xena glowered at the moving hide for a moment before she turned and looked at Gabrielle. “You think I”m going crazy?”

No.” Gabrielle finished scrubbing her bare arms. “Why would I think that, because you didn’t kill someone? I’m the one who said killing people isn’t always the answer.”  She wiped her skin dry and came over to face Xena. “Why should you be ashamed of saving someone’s life, or helping those kids, Xena?”

Good question. Xena took the cloth from her and slowly wiped her own hands with it.

It’s like your embarrassed to be a good person.” Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s arm. “You shouldn’t be.. Xena, you can be such a positive force..”

Sh.” Xena covered her mouth with one hand. “Don’t go there, Gabrielle. I’m warning you.”

Mutely , the blond woman merely watched her.

I am NOT a good person.” The queen enunciated the words slowly and carefully. “And I don’t WANT to be a good person. Do you understand that?”

After a moment, Gabrielle shook her head no.

Xena let her hand drop with a sigh of exasperation.  “Damn it. I’m going to go kill something. Maybe that’ll help my headache.” She turned and stalked out of the tent, grabbing her sword as she passed her arming trunk and letting the tent flap slam, as much as it could, behind her.

Gabrielle knew she had only a little time before Xena came back, and they had to pack tent, and move on. But she went to her chest and took out her parchment, sitting down and taking up her quill, the words tickling with such force behind her tongue they wouldn’t be denied her expressing them.


It was hard to say who was the happiest to finally get to the pass, the soldiers, the horses, or Xena.  The path towards it  had been filled with shale slate pebbles and with the grade, it had been a difficult climb for everyone. The soldiers had all dismounted when Xena had, and plowed their way upward, boots slipping in the loose stones as they struggled to keep their balance and help their mounts move forward.

Xena halted them just shy of the cleft in the mountains that was the beginning of the pass, remembering the last time she’d led the way into a pass and nearly gotten herself and everyone with her slaughtered.

She hated when that happened. “Take a break.” She ordered, glad enough to lean against Tiger’s tall shoulder, as the stallion merely stood, catching his breath. A crunch of steps made her look to one side, spotting Gabrielle approaching, her lighter steps easily negotiating the rocks and her pony’s likewise. “Well well.”

Hi.” Gabrielle slowed to a halt and patted Patches neck. “We made it!”


Gabrielle turned and looked behind them. The army was spread out on the path, bodies turned half sideways against the slope that led down and down towards the river plain they’d come from, ending at a height that surprised her. “I didn’t think it was so high up.” She admitted. “The river looks so small.”

Xena walked over and leaned her forearms on Patches back, gazing down at the scene. “I remember standing right here.” She said. “And wondering how much plunder there was to be had in these lands.”

Gabrielle fiddled with Patches reins, but kept quiet.

Didn’t figure it for much.” The queen mused. “Look at all that damn scrub.”

Her companion moved up next to her. “Do you see that hill over there, with the crooked tree?” She pointed down, and to the right of where they were, a goodly way downslope.

Yeah.”  Xena said, after a pause. “That home?”

Gabrielle laid her hand on Patches scruffy back. “It’s where I used to live.”  Her face was somber. “It’s where I”m from, I guess.”

Xena unlooped her waterskin from her belt and uncapped it, then passed it over to her companion. She watched in silence as Gabrielle took it and sucked a long swallow from it, taking it down from her lips and staring off into the distance for a pensive moment.

Then she turned and coughed violently, expelling the mouthful onto the stones and making Patches ears flick back and forth in some alarm. “Pah!” She staggered back a step, coughing again. “Pah pah pah!”

The queen chuckled. “Got your mind offa that old place, huh?” She reached over and gave Gabrielle a good slap between the shoulder blades. “C’mon, Gabrielle, you can’t leave your ass in the past. We’ve got things to do, and treasure to plunder.”   She took back the skin and took a much more prudent sip of the pungent liquor, licking her lips and raising her eyebrows at the blond woman. “Good stuff, isn’t it?”

Gabrielle’s tongue was still too numb for her to answer. She took her own waterskin down and hastily gulped some of the contents, trying to dull the fire that was making her eyes water. “Gods! What is that!” She managed to rasp out, counting herself well and truly distracted from her previous thoughts.

Xena replaced the skin onto a loop on Tiger’s saddle. “What is it?” She stretched her body out, gauging the sun’s position in the sky.  “It’s Xena’s Fire. That’s what it is.” She told her companion. “Couple years back I decided to try my hand at brewing, and that’s what happened.”

Um.” Gabrielle finally felt the tingling start to fade inside her mouth. “Are you really supposed to drink that?” She felt as dubious as she sounded. The liquid had tasted like…

Well, darned if she knew what it tasted like. “It really wasn’t..uh.. I mean, I know you made it, and so it has to be good but…”

But it’s an acquired taste.” The queen watched her, a faint grin appearing on her face. “Like me.”

Well, there was no way Gabrielle could dispute that. She merely took another drink of water and stepped back a little, walking around to ease the slightly cramping muscles in her legs.  The climb had been more than she’d expected, but she’d weathered it better than she’d expected so it worked out all right. She was glad they were at the top though, and now she watched as Xena motioned forward a few of the soldiers.

Xena’s fire.  Gabrielle had to chuckle at herself. Boy did I fall for that or what? She could still taste the burn along the edges of her tongue and she could only imagine what it would have felt like if she’d actually swallowed it.  She walked back over to where Patches was patiently standing, the pony nosing around in the rocks in search of a stray blade of grass. “Yeah, not much up here, huh boy?”

Pffpht.” Patches snorted and moved a few steps further up the slope, coming up on Tiger’s right side. The big stallion eyed him, stretching his neck out to sniff at the pony’s ears, then he turned back to watch Xena as she consulted with her captains.

Gabrielle did too, focusing on Xena’s large, powerful hands as they sketched shapes in the air before the men ‘s rapt eyes.

Xena’s Fire.  The blond woman exhaled slowly.  If she’s an acquired taste, it sure didn’t take me long to get it.  She remembered their first real meeting so clearly, and so intensely, her heart started beating faster just thinking about it.  Xena’s tall form, stepping around behind her, that velvet voice brushing against every nerve.


Whoops. “Sorry.” Gabrielle got her foot in the stirrup and mounted Patches, giving his neck a patch. “I was just..”

Thinking?” Xena settled her knees on her saddlepads. “Again?”

Inventing poetry about your hands.”

The queen stopped, and her eyebrow hiked. “What?”

Gabrielle nudged Patches to start up along the path, following the half legion of soldiers who had already passed them by while she’d been daydreaming. She started whistling under her breath as she passed Tiger, looking around with as innocent an expression as she could come up with.

I”m gonna teach you to whistle with another part of your body if I start hearing those poems, you little muskrat.” Xena caught up to her, and they ambled along together, entering the pass at a businesslike pace. The rock walls rose around them, but they were not the sheer cliffs of the fertile lands they’d traveled in before.

These were gentler, and rounded, worn by the ever-present winds and covered in scrubby brush barely clinging to a foothold.  They were smooth and bore few places to hide, and after a few minutes riding Xena relaxed and started thinking ahead to the passes exit.

It had been a long time, both in years and in living them that she’d been this route. She’d taken some trips the other direction, but she’d avoided this one, reasoning that she’d seen it all before, so why go backwards?

Why indeed? Xena let one hand drop to her thigh as she relaxed into Tiger’s rhythmic pace. The black stallion was one of the largest of the army’s horses, and he had a touchy temper and an often bad attitude. Xena positively adored him, and though he’d taken time for her to master   she truly enjoyed riding him and feeling the sense of power the big animal gave off.

She’d never let on about that though, to anyone. To her subjects, to the troops, Tiger was just her warhorse. Nothing special, and so dangerous to be around you took your life in your hands just trying to groom him.  

He hadn’t become a target.  

Xena heard a whistle from ahead, and she quickly stood in her stirrups, using her height and Tiger’s to see past the troops in front of her.  She could see the men coming to a halt, and she gave a little click of her tongue, heading forward through the thickening crowd.

Gabrielle scrambled to follow her, glad Tiger made a big enough hole for her to do so easily.  She kept Patches on the stallions tail, as she sensed the rising excitement around them.

Xena! It’s them!” Brendans voice was unmistakable. “Bistards ahead of us! Taking a merchant train!”

Xena pulled Tiger up next to the advance group, who had held behind a stack of boulders just at a bend in the pass that prevented them from being seen. She sidestepped her horse over to where the watch was crouching on a low part of the rock, peering over it. “What do you see?”

Two score, mebby more.” The man rasped, not turning his head. “Taking the whole train, bistards. S’big one. Biggest I seen this season.”

Xena sidled over to the rock and stood up on Tiger’s saddle, then she crouched slightly and leaped, grabbing two handholds and pulling herself up next to him. “Yeah?” She scanned the area below the pass, her heart rate speeding up as she saw the huge train, and the men attacking it.

The train was trying to defend itself, half armored men desperately trying to fight the troops off, but they were having little success, and she could hear the screams of the merchants as the raiders cut them down.  “I knew it was going to be a good day.” The queen said, before she turned and released her hold, landing on Tiger’s saddle and whistling in a low, but strident tone. “Let’s move. Just ride, and mow em down.”

She dropped into the saddle and drew her sword, as the men parted to let her through into her place at the front. “Raise the standard.”  She ordered, hearing the flutter of silk hit the wind as she rounded the bend, and the wind blew her hair back as well.  “Heeeeyah!” She started Tiger forward, aware from the corner of her eye of a small, scruffy pony in her wake as the army surged into motion and headed around the bend and through the pass.

Gabrielle was too excited to do much else other than hang on to Patches reins and stay as close to Xena as she could. She could feel the ground starting to shake as the horses moved from a walk to a canter, and around her soldiers were readying their weapons for battle and taking better grips with their knees on the well trained horses.

It was terrible, and yet, it was wonderful too, because she knew they were going to help out the people being attacked, and they would keep them from being hurt or maybe killed. She tightened her own knees on Patches, and the pony snorted as he gamely kept up with his bigger brothers and sisters as they swept around the bend and down the last bit of pass onto the lower road.

Xena twirled her sword so the blade was behind her, held a little to one side as she felt Tiger’s feet hit steady, solid ground and he started to speed up. The wind blew hard against her, and she reveled in it, because she knew it took the sounds of the army and sent them back into the pass, rendering her targets almost oblivious to their oncoming attack.

They’d find out, soon enough. She made a gesture to split the force right and left, and lead the right hand fork right at the bulk of what was left of Bregos army.

Damn! She KNEW it was going to end up being a great day.


Once she was in the middle of the battle, Gabrielle abruptly realized she had no idea what to do in the middle of a battle. It seemed very disorganized and chaotic, men and horses flying by her at high speed and everyone yelling and screaming as they followed Xena into a clash of swords and grunting bodies.

It was random and dangerous, and she only barely kept herself from being slammed between two of the bigger warhorses as she fought to stay at Xena’s side.  

They were in he first wedge that drove against the raiders, and the men were slow to react, turning in shock as they were caught from behind by Xena’s men as they tried to pull apart the merchant wagons.  They were in half armor, rattier and rustier than what the queen’s men wore, and of course their leather breastplates lacked the golden hawk head symbol.

They recognized it, though. Gabrielle saw one man’s eyes nearly come out of his head as he turned to look fully at Brendan, just before it became irrelevant as Brendan’s sword caught him right across the back of his neck and severed it.

Gabrielle had to look away, when Brendan merely kicked the body to one side, and went after another raider. What was she doing here? She hadn’t even brought her stick because Xena had been afraid she’d get it taken from her and whacked silly with it.

A hole opened in the crowd, and she and Patches squirted through it, regaining Xena’s side as the queen went headlong into the biggest patch of the enemy, who were pulling apart boxes from a spilled wagon.

Quite by accident, she sent Patches forward and he crashed into one of the men, knocking him down and giving Xena the opening she was looking for. “Thanks!” The queen yelled back over her shoulder. “Keep your damn head down!”

Okay!” Gabrielle bumped her shoulder against the overturned wagon and pulled Patches to one side, trying to look around her and see everything, absorbing the scene with a prickle of excitement. It was all so fast, and so savage.

Xena used her height and Tiger’s to great advantage, surprising two men who were grabbing things out of the back of one of the wagons by bringing her sword down on their heads, sending blood and bone splinters everywhere. They went down under Tiger’s hooves as the queen pulled her boot out of it’s stirrup and kicked a third man right into Brendan’s mace.

Blood. Gabrielle watched the man die before her eyes and it stopped being even a little exciting when she realized she’d know him from the castle.

Heard him talking about his little boy.  She hesitated, her knees clamping a little on Patches sides as Xena moved on, driving more of the soldiers away from the wagons.  A scream distracted her, and she looked across the wooden planks to see a woman scrambling out of the back, her shirt torn half off and a man’s arm hooked around her waist.

Without really thinking, Gabrielle pulled Patches head around and sent him headlong towards the two. “Here!” She held a hand out to the woman. “Get on behind me!”

Wild eyed, the woman was more than eager to obey. She half jumped, half sprawled across Patches hindquarters as Gabrielle shoved the man behind her back, wrenching his arm free as she nudged Patches forward and he overbalanced and fell out of the wagon to the ground.

She bolted around the other side of the wagon, trying to keep Patches under control as the woman flailed around behind her, and a half dozen soldiers nearly crashed into them.   Somehow, she managed to pull the woman up and get her settled as she pressed against the wagon, trying to stay out of everyone’s way. “Are you all right?”

Bloody bastards!” The woman gasped. “They told us not to come here! We should have listened!”

Gabrielle ducked as two struggling soldiers slammed into the wooden planks, falling off their horses and half into the wagon and threatening to roll over her. She yanked Patches head around again and tapped him with her heels, going back around the rear of the wagon as the last of Xena’s soldiers moved past and into the fight.

It was no contest, really. Xena’s men outnumbered the raiders four to one and most of them were mounted, where the raiders were mostly on foot.   Gabrielle could see the ones at the very front starting to run away, and she exhaled a little, knowing it would be over soon.

She sent Patches after the last of the soldiers, feeling guilty all of a sudden when she realized she couldn’t see Xena and she’d promised not to leave her side.  “Just hang on.” She told the woman. “You’ll be fine.”

Bastards!” The woman repeated. “Safe passage, they said. Just give them a few barrels of ale… damn them!”

Gabrielle spotted a flash of flying, dark hair and she put Patches into motion. “Hang on!”  She warned, as she dodged between two fighting men on foot, thrusting spears at each other.   One man slipped, and she saw the spear point too late, half turning sideways as it struck her in the chest, nearly taking her off Patches back with the sudden, violent impact.  “Ahh!!”

The shock knocked the breath of her. She grabbed wildly for Patches saddle as she felt herself twisting and sliding off to one side and then just as quickly she was being hauled upright, and the pressure against her chest was gone and she could smell blood, and leather and hot horseflesh.

Somehow, through all that, she knew the grip on her back was Xena, even without seeing Tiger’s dark flanks or hearing her voice.  There was just something about her presence that Gabrielle could feel. “Xena!”

Who were you expecting, Aphrodite?” The queen yelled at her. “What in Hades are you doing?”

Trying to stay out of the way!”

Xena reached behind Gabrielle and grabbed hold of the wide eyed women behind her. She lifted her off Patches back and tossed her over into the wagon bed, with two other women who were huddled together. “There. Stay.” She told her. “Cause I know this thing here won’t.” She whirled and stood in her stirrups, reviewing the battle.

Such as it was.  “Too damn short.” Xena sighed. “Damn cowards.. Look at them run.”

Gabrielle carefully felt her side, relieved only be  bruised by the spear rather than gutted by it. The point had lodged in her armor and turned, the point not even close to penetrating it.  She turned to see what Xena was looking at, but the queen was already sidestepping her horse to one side, shading her eyes to see better.

There was no more fighting around them. The men were starting to straggle back towards where Xena was, the ground littered with bodies and a wild thrashing in the distance as the grasses closed around the retreating raiders being chased by some of the queen’s mounted men.

Whao.” One of the soldiers was wiping his battle ax off on a torn sleeve. “That’s a nice bit of a warm up, eh?”

Xena was still standing in her stirrups. “They’re headed for the next valley.” SHe said, lifting her fingers to her lips and letting out a long, piercing whistle, then pausing before whistling twice more. “So let’s not kill em all until we find out where they’re going.”

Gabrielle put her hand on the edge of the wagon, and glanced over into it. “You’ll be okay now.” She reassured the people inside. “Don’t be scared.”

The woman she’d pulled away from the raider crawled over to the side and put her hands on it, staring past Gabrielle  towards Xena’s tall form. “Is that her, really?”  She asked. “Xena the Merciless?”

Xena finally sat down again and took a cloth from her saddlebag, wiping down the length of her blade and changing the metal from crimson to glistening. Her hair was windblown and she had mud spattered all up the length of one leg and hip.

Gabrielle studied her lover and sighed. “Yes.”  She said. “That’s her.”

Xena looked around, as though suspecting she was being discussed. She guided Tiger with her knees over to where Gabrielle was waiting, and glowered at the people in the wagon. “They say anything to you?” She addressed them. “What’d they ask for, what did the promise for it?”

The merchants just stared, wide eyed at her in silence.

Gabrielle saw Xena’s hands start to twitch and she cleared her throat. “Um.. Okay, well, this is Xena, and she’s the queen.” She introduced her lover. “And you all are.. Um.. “ She waited for a response, but nothing was forthcoming. “You were talking a minute ago. I know you’re not mute.”

I can make them that way.” XEna twirled “C’mere and stick your tongues out.” She  edged closer to the wagon.


What?” The queen frowned at the people. “I don’t need idiots who can’t talk around me. Never had that problem with you, did I?”

Majesty.” The oldest of the women in the wagon finally spoke up. “Forgive us. We did not expect to find you out here on the road.” She explained.

Xena gave her head a shake to clear the hair from her eyes. “Answer my questions.” She ordered. “Who were those guys?” She pointed with the tip of her sword back down the way they’d come. “You came from that way?”

The younger woman who Gabrielle had rescued edged forward on her knees. “You don’t know them, Majesty?” She asked. “Strange, they said they were your men.” She ignored the older woman’s attempt to shush her. “They promised us ‘safe passage’ to your stronghold.. Then turned on us when we didn’t want to pay their coin.”

Xena’s eyes grew hooded. She let her sword rest against her leg as she straightened in the saddle, her face set and angry.

No.” Gabrielle decided it was probably time to say something. “Those are some men who deserted from Xena’s army before the winter.”   She let her hand rest on the wood. “We found some villages that were destroyed by them back there.. Xena’s going to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Say that again.” The queen muttered.

What?” The blond woman turned her head.

Shut up.” Xena felt Tiger shift under her restively, his nostrils flaring at the drying blood on the ground. “Stay here.” She told Gabrielle. “I’m going to see what’s left of this pathetic mess.”  She turned her horse and moved off, breaking into a canter almost immediately.

Gabrielle watched her briefly, then she turned back to the wagon.  More of the merchants had joined them, gathering together in a shocked huddle as the chaos died down, and the extent of the losses began to be obvious. “It’ll be okay now.”  She told them.

How did you find us?” The older woman asked. “What’s she doing here?”

Well, it’s like this.” Gabrielle sorted through the recent past. “I’ll tell you how we came to be here, and what we’re doing, and why you don’t have to worry about being safe anymore.”


The merchant train was in shambles.  Xena rode up and down the line, reviewing the wagons and wondering what the Hades she was going to do with them.  Most had damage to their wheels, the ones in the front of the line, closest to where she’d caught up to them were half collapsed into the ground with yokes shattered, and some of the pulling oxen dead in their traces.

Idiots. The queen slapped her thigh with one hand in aggravation. What had Bregos men been thinking? How did they figure to get the booty away from the merchant train, on their backs? Hanging from their horses tails?  

She knew Bregos wasn’t a fool. He’d had enough success in the field for her to respect, at least, his stratetgic skills, though his judgement had often been left wanting.  Had the men just gone overboard? She knew the ones that had left with him had been the hungriest, the youngest, and the most dissatisfied with her rule.

So maybe they were just that stupid.  She pulled Tiger up next to one of her captains, an older man with a deeply scarred face. “What a mess, eh Andar?”

The man shook his head repeatedly. “Got lots of stuff they need back t’ere.” He said. “Pity. We can’t use it, most of it. Wont’ travel, no use to us.”

Xena eased one leg over her saddlebow and winced as her spine popped as she twisted. “Yeah, damn it.” She reviewed the long straggle of destruction. Merchants, those who hadn’t been hurt or killed, were working around the train trying to make sense of it, with some help from Xena’s soldiers.

Her instincts were pushing her to follow Bregos men. She knew they were headed somewhere, and she figured wherever that was, she’d find him, and when she’d found him, she’d kill him, and the day would just get much brighter from then on.

But in the meantime, she had this to deal with. Leaving the provisions here was out of the question, and releasing her own wagons to take it was also out of the question. The only choice open to her was to have her men fix the wagons, and consolidate what goods they could for the missing oxen.

That meant she was stuck here for the day and that was pissing her off.  

However, Xena was, if nothing else, a realist. “All right.” She motioned two other of her captains to her.  “ Make camp.”

Mistress?” The nearer man stared at her.

Xena slugged him out of pure annoyance. “Shut up, idiot.” She snarled. “Andar, we’ll make camp here. Tell the blacksmiths and anyone who can use a tool to come up forward, and see what they can do with these damn wagons. If we need to go cut trees, send a squad back to do it and drag the logs through the pass.”

Aye.” Andar nodded. “Fix em up, yeah?” He said. “Struth, it’s better than killing them off, I’m thinking, and the castle will get the profit of the goods.”

One smart man.” The queen remarked drolly. “Be still my beating heart.”  She waved her hand. “Get moving. Getting stuck here in the open isn’t my idea of a party. You and you, come with me.” She pointed at several men. “Let’s go see if there’s anything up there we need to be worried about.”

She whirled Tiger around and headed for the end of the merchant train, her eyes already on the heavy scrub that Bregos men had disappeared into.

Just because everyone elses fun was over, didn’t mean hers had to be, now did it?


Continued in Part 6