Queen of Hearts
Xena sat on Tiger’s back, resting her elbows on her saddlebow as she waited impatiently for the motion to begin behind her. Ahead of where she was, she could see the end of the valley leading down past the edges of her realm, and though the lands between were empty and quiet, her senses were tingling like spiders were crawling over her and she really really really wasn’t enjoying it.
To one side, Patches was cropping grass calmly, his rider wandering among the bushes apparently in search of something. Xena kept her companion in her peripheral vision, but left her to her ramblings as she contained herself from turning around and yelling at the camp.
The sun was climbing overhead, and she wanted to be out of their boundaries before it started slanting west, to give them enough time to send out scouts and plan a safe route before dark fell.
Ah. She heard the creak of wheels moving at last. With a grunt, she straightened up and half turned, seeing the camp moving out behind her along the rutted path. “Hey, muskrat!” She called out. “Get your butt on the scruffy runt and move it!”
Gabrielle came trotting out of the brush immediately, stuffing something inside the pouch connected to her belt. “Okay, coming.”
“Hey! Not in front of the men!” Xena turned back around and resettled her seat.
The queen snickered to herself. “Never mind.” She waited for Gabrielle to scramble back into Patches saddle, then she neatly turned Tiger and started down off the little rise she’d been perched on to take her place at the front of the army. “What’dja find?”
“Hm?” Gabrielle came up next to her, still fiddling with her pouch and trying not to steer her pony into Tiger’s way. “Oh, just some herbs.” She got herself settled and faced forward. “Where are we going?”
The blond woman digested this in silence. “Are we going down the River Styx to get there?” She asked. “That’s going to be tough on the horses, isn’t it?” She asked, after a brief moment of reflection.
Xena was glad of the distraction. “Make a damn good story won’t it?” She asked. “You going to make one about those kid eaters?”
“Can I leave out getting punched in the nose?” Gabrielle rubbed her face in reflex, wincing at the tenderness. She could once again see out of both eyes, but her breathing was still stuffy, and everything still hurt. “And I missed the really good part.. You’ll have to tell me about it.”
Xena angled Tiger into the lead and urged him into a rambling walk. She was glad they were moving, but wished they’d already cleared the somewhat desolate valley and exited to the other side. She already knew what she had here, what she was interested in was what she didn’t have and that was knowledge about what was going on outside her borders.
A motion far ahead caught her eye, and she tilted her head back, watching tiny specks in the air drift in a a lazy circle. It was too distant for her to identify what kind of birds they were, but the pattern didn’t look like hunting to her.
So. As she rode, Xena started to check her armor out, snugging tighter the buckles that held it across her body, and reseating her various daggers in their sheaths. She glanced at Gabrielle, noting the staff tucked under her knee strapped lengthwise across the pony’s body.
Useless, mostly. Xena knew that. But she appreciated the thought and the care Gabrielle took in carrying the big old thing everywhere. She ran her experienced eye over her companion’s armor, then returned her attention to the ground head of them.
Brendan rode up next to her. “Moving in good order, Xena.”
“Finally.” The queen retorted. “If I didn’t know better, I”d have thought I had half the realm’s useless windbag nobles back there.”
“Give em a bit to get used to the pace.” Her captain advised. “Boys can handle it, them cooks and such never had to yet.”
“Yeah yeah.” Xena lifted her waterskin and took a sip of the contents, pausing with the spout to her lips and her mouth full. Slowly, she turned her head to one side and looked at Gabrielle, who was returning her gaze innocently. The queen swallowed, then she put the skin back onto its ring. “You.” She licked her lips. “Are so toast.”
“You don’t like it?” Gabrielle was trying hard not to smirk.
Xena licked her lips again, and shook her head, wondering where in the Hades the little stinker had gotten milk out in the half wilds. There was also a touch of sweetness in it, some of her jealously hoarded honey, she suspected. “Wench.”
She could taste the richness of it on her tongue, and it turned her temper a bit. She relaxed into her saddle and patted Tiger’s shoulder, looking ahead to what they might find down range. “These bastards we found?” She turned her attention to Brendan. “I got a theory.”
The old soldier cocked his head, his reins tucked into one hand and his posture slouched in the ease of a long time horseman. “Thought they were t’bother us.” He said. “Bregos ain’t got anough fellers to come up on us in real battle, so he sent them to the fringes.”
“Mm.” The queen grunted. “That’s all probably true.. But it’s not what I think is going on.” She turned in her saddle as a shout went up from the rear. “Now what?”
Brendan whirled, and stood in his stirrups. “Ah, see there!” He pointed, where a group of men were swarming out of the trees to attack the army’s flank. “Bastards.. See?” He let out a yell. “Get em boys!” He dropped down into the saddle and took off. “After em!”
Xena stood in her own stirrups, knowing she was too far for the archers she could see in the trees to hit her. “Stay behind me.” She ordered Gabrielle, as she watched the action, the small attack group fanning out to take cover behind the heavy scrub and pepper her troops and the defenseless support crew with arrows.
Two of the drovers went down, tumbling off the seats of the wagons with hoarse cries, and Xena suddenly doubted her decision to turn her back on the obviously troubled valley and push on to the unknown spaces pulling her in the other direction.
Gabrielle for once listened, staying close to Xena’s side with one hand resting on the queen’s calf. “Oh!” SHe saw the drover hit and gasped. “But he’s not fighting with them!” She said. “Xena! Why would they do that? He’s just…”
“Yeah. So stay behind me because you’re a lot more just just than he was.” Xena drew her sword, her agitation traveling through her knees and making Tiger shift his big feet nervously. “Everyone get down off the wagons!” She yelled at the top of her voice. “Get behind em!”
The drivers wasted no time obeying, scrambling off the seats and diving behind the big rolling transports. Xena saw the arrows shift their targets, and she cursed, sending Tiger into a gallop. “Stick with me, Gabrielle!”
“Duh!” Gabrielle was doing her best, swinging Patches out to the far side of the queen and urging him to keep up. “C’mon Patches.. You don’t want to get hit by one of those things!” She kept in Tiger’s shadow, unable to see what was going on until she passed one of the wagon teams, and then just as suddenly Xena was stopping, and throwing herself off her horse and to the ground.
Confused, Gabrielle swerved and went around to the other side of the wagon to give Patches some shelter, as she kept her head down and looked frantically over the back of the team to see what the queen was doing.
What the queen was doing was standing there in a hail of arrows, her sword moving so fast Gabrielle couldn’t see it, just a blur as she knocked the missiles away from the animals. She could just see sharp profile, jaw clenched as Xena shifted to one side to catch one arrow on her blade, and reach out to grab another from thin air coming from the opposite direction.
It was amazing. It was incredible, and what was more so was that Xena was doing that, risking her life to protect the horses behind her.
“Fire!” Brendan had a archer line ready and they returned a volley, then reloaded as a second line, tucked behind brush of their own, let fly. “Fire!”
After a few minutes, the arrows tapered off, and as they did, a legion of horsemen bolted from behind the wagons and thundered towards the ambushers, firing from close held crossbows as they stayed low on their horses necks.
Their targets were gone, though, the bushes and trees now empty with nothing but impudently waving leaves to mark where the ambushers had been.
Xena whistled, and as Tiger galloped over she caught hold of his saddle and pulled herself up in one easy, fluid motion as she seated her sword in it’s sheath and rode down the supply line. “All right.. Get out! Get ready to move!” She commanded. “Put the bodies in the wagons and lets go!”
Gabrielle grabbed Patches reins and emerged cautiously from behind the big wheels, watching the rest of the workers do the same. One of the men straightened slowly and shook his head, not realizing she was behind him.
“B’gods, did you see that, Helfan?” He slapped his neighbor on the arm. “Did you see her? Like nothing those arrows! Saved the horses!! The horses! Did you see it?”
“Hush, Lars.” The man said. “We all saw it. Keep your mouth quiet, there’s ears listening.”
The man turned, and saw Gabrielle standing there. His eyes widened. “Meaning no ill to the queen, mind!” He stammered. “Honest!”
Gabrielle smiled at him. “I know.” She said. “I saw it too.. It was amazing.” She said. “I coudln’t even see her sword, it was moving so fast.” Her hand lifted, and she stroked the nearer cart horses’ neck. “I’m not sure what was more incredible.. That, or her pulling that poor girl from the pot in that village.. That was pretty awesome too.”
“Mm.” The carters were slowly gathering around her. “We heard a that.” Lars said. “Heard she faced all them by herrself.”
Gabrielle nodded. “She did. I saw it.” She craned her neck, to keep Xena in view. “She was in a tree, watching to see what they were doing, and when she saw what was happening she just jumped right out of it into the whole lot of them and started fighting.”
“Gabrielle!” Xena’s voice rose over the murmuring of the drivers. “Get your butt over here!”
“Sorry. Gotta go.” Gabrielle got up onto Patches’ back. “But you know what? I think you guys should be careful. Those men out there dont’ care about brave people.” She clicked her tongue and steered Patches around the wagon, heading for Xena’s tall form.
She reached the queen just as Brendan did, going around to Xena’s left. “Okay, I’m here.”
“Xena, I’ll take a squad and go after those bastards.” Brendan said. “Sneaking up behind us.. Scared fish.”
“No.” Xena shook her head. “Get the men in, and let’s get moving again towards the cut.”
“Just do it.” Xena snapped. “We’re wasting time here. They’re not trying to harass us.. They’re trying to draw us off course.”
Brendan moved his horse closer. “Xena, we can’t just let those bastards go. They’ll be back shooting at us.” He lowered his voice. “Where’s the sense in it?”
“Xena.” The old captain’s face was serious. He moved closer to the queen, closer to the danger he knew was building behind those ice blue eyes. “We can’t leave em behind us.”
Gabrielle saw Xena’s eyes narrow and she quickly ducked under Tiger’s neck, pushing Patches between her queen and her queen’s very much in danger captain. “Wait. Brendan.” She said. “I think Xena’s right.”
It was a ludicrous bit of interference, and maybe even Gabrielle knew that. Brendan stared down at her, his lips twitching as he fought to keep back the words to answer her with.
“I think they’re trying to stop us from going. I think they’re trying to distract us.” Gabrielle spoke quickly. “They want us to follow them.”
Brendan looked at her for a long moment, then he looked over at Xena. Xena was seated on Tiger’s back gazing down at Gabrielle as though she were a new species of rabbit that had stood up and started talking. “How in the Hades do you know that?” The queen asked. “I didn’t tell you what I was thinking.” She paused. “Did I?”
“It just makes sense.” Gabrielle didn’t stop to think about what she was saying. “It’s like.. All the stuff that’s happened… like the attack on the convoy. They didn’t take stuff, they just made it a pain for us to deal with, and then lead us off to that village… and now they come out of those bushes and shoot at our wagons to slow us down and then run away.. Like they want us to follow them.”
It was a long speech. Brendan scratched his jaw at the end of it, and looked at Xena.
“Exactly.” Xena closed her jaw after the word, with a slight clicking sound as her teeth hit.
The captain nodded. “Sense it is, then.” He raised his fist, clenched, to his chest and turned, then he started towards the gathering archers, who were picking up fallen shafts and readying themselves to move off after the ambushers. “Form up!” He yelled across the field. “Form up an move out!”
Xena watched him go, before she turned and looked at Gabrielle. “I talked in my sleep.”
“Um.. “ Gabrielle ran her hand through her hair. “Well, you do sometimes but not about that.” She confessed. “At least I think you’re asleep.” She added, in an undertone.
Xena’s eyebrow hiked. “Save that for later.” She said. “RIght now.. How did you know?” She leaned over and went eye to eye with her companion. “Spill it.”
The blond woman started to answer, then paused to think. Finally she just shrugged. “I don’t know.. It just made sense to me. Like a story.”
“Like a story.” The queen exhaled in frustration. “Save that for later too.” She pulled Tiger around in a tight circle. “Let’s go before you decide you’re an oracle and I have to start paying you for commentary.” She let out a yell, and pointed towards the end of the valley. “MOVE!”
They were halfway down the valley before the attack came. Xena sensed it before it happened, and she turned her horse and stood in her stirrups, letting out a piercing whistle and throwing her fist in the air in warning.
The army reacted without hesitation this time, the horsemen racing to circle the supply wagons as the archers swiftly found cover in the hillocks and boulders the path wandered through, their heads turning to spot where the attack was coming from.
Xena knew. She sat deep into her saddle and drove Tiger towards the jumble of rocks they’d just passed. A volley of arrows arched from it, going over the line of bowmen in a wide arc. Xena’s men returned fire, but there was nothing visible to fire at, as the rocks provided an excellent cover.
Gabrielle hesitated, then she chose prudence and urged Patches down the protected side of the wagons, keeping her head down but not far enough that Xena was out of her side vision. The ground before the rocky patch was loose gravel and steep, and as she watched another withering rain of arrows came out of it.
“Stay down.” The blond woman said, as she passed the biggest of the wagons, pulling Patches up as she stayed just behind the backboard and put her hands on it, peering over the wood as the motion around her became uncertain and chaotic.
An arrow got a soldier in the throat, and he reeled backwards, stumbling into the wagon and turning, crying out hoarsely as he pulled at the shaft buried deep inside his neck. Another arrow sped after him, thunking into the wagon wheel not far from Gabrielle’s hand.
Her eyes were drawn to the shaft, and she blinked at the feathers fastened to it, a flash of memory bringing to mind a candlelit scene of terror and fascination where a similar arrow, with much the same feathers had protruded from the bloodstained skin of Xena’s back.
A shock to her eyes. A shock to her senses, to be drawn into Xena’s very personal need that way, to cross a line so quickly, and in such a pivotal moment when her own departure from the stronghold had been whisper close; a caprice of the Fates that made her shake her head again just to think of it.
A defining moment for both of them, it had turned out. She could still smell the sharp copper mixed with spice and feel the pressure of her hand around the dagger poised at Xena’s back as she came to terms with where her heart was leading her.
She’d never looked back. “Xena! Watch it!” Gabrielle let out a yell, her eyes widening as she watched Xena knock aside two shafts as a third caught a bit of her hair, carrying it into the wind. She saw the queen gracefully duck her head to one side, then her hand whipped across her body, a sparkling item flickering from it towards the rocky hideout.
A hoarse yell sounded. Xena smiled, and glanced around, spotting Gabrielle behind her wagon and giving her a big smile of approval. “Good girl!” She yelled, as she continued down the line. “Keep moving! Don’t stop! Get those wagons moving again!”
Uh oh. Gabrielle saw the eyes of the men widen. Quickly, she reached out and pulled the arrow from the wood, tugging hard to remove the barbs before she tucked it into her saddlebag. She moved away from the wagon as the drivers scrambled to grab the horses headstalls, keeping behind the carts as they started to move them.
It was going against the grain of the soldiers, Gabrielle realized, since Xena was asking them to run from a fight. She eased between two of the wagons and followed the queen, who was urging the troops to abandon their positions and head up the road.
“Crazed!” One of the men shook his head. “Somethin’s gone wrong with her maj, it’s the truth.”
Gabrielle hesitated, then she sped after Xena, hoping she was a small enough target to be ignored by their attackers. She evaded several of the soldiers moving back, firing their arrows into the rocks as they returned a volley that arched towards her, some whirring dangerously close.
“Gabrielle, get down!” Brendan was galloping towards her, his sword swinging in his hand. “Hurry!”
The blond woman saw Xena’s head turn at the words, and one look at her expression alerted Gabrielle to the fact she was in real danger. She turned Patches and angled him back towards the wagons, but even as he shifted direction she felt a hot fire sear across the back of her neck, and she lunged forward with a gasp, nearly throwing her pony offbalance.
Two impacts on her side nearly knocked her off his back right after that, and she felt herself loosing her grip on the reins just as the thunder of hooves echoed loudly in her ears and she was yanked right out of Patches saddle up into the air.
Painful and very disorienting. Gabrielle scrabbled around with her hands just as she landed on her stomach with her head thumping against a moving, hair covered shoulder. She felt a grip relax on her belt just before she was spanked sharply on the butt, making her yelp in surprise.
“Move!” Xena’s voice was right above her. “Just keep moving! I”ll take care of the damn arrows!”
Oh boy. Gabrielle just held on, grimacing as Tiger’s stride jarred her body with every step. Sitting on horses was one thing, laying down across their shoulders was something else entirely, and not at all comfortable. “Xe..”
“SH!” Xena spanked her again. “Don’t you damn move!”
Gabrielle could hear something passing over her head, a whirring sound that was almost like birds wings, accompanied by soft pings and thwacks and the occasional sound of splitting wood.
Arrows? She decided staying very still was a good idea. “Sorry!”
Xena didn’t have time to debate her lover’s relative merits. She had one hand holding the blond woman down and the other was fully occupied in deflecting a hail of arrows, which she’d been successful in so far though her shoulders were beginning to ache a little. “Pull back!” She ordered the soldiers in front of her. “Get your asses moving down the road before I filet them!”
The men weren’t happy about turning their backs on the bowmen. Xena didn’t really blame them, but someone had to be the queen, and it apparently was her turn this lifetime. “Go! Go!” She booted one man in the shoulder, as he hesitated. “Don’t trust me?”
The man backed away, still firing his crossbow, before he finally turned and headed after the wagons which were trundling into motion, moving past the rocks and towards the end of the valley. The horsemen were already circling around the back of the wagons, putting their beasts on the far side of the wood as the drivers hurried the animals forward.
The arrows kept flying. Xena knew she couldn’t deflect them forever, so she decided on a more direct approach. She tightened her knees around Tiger and directed him straight for the rocks, letting out a wild yell as she spurred him into a gallop.
Crazy, maybe. Xena ducked as an arrow came flying out from near the top of the rocks and came close to hitting her. One more volley came at them, a thicket of barbed missiles that ripped past her, some bouncing off her armor others scraping past the skin on her bare, muscular arms as she swept her blade in a tight circle.
Tiger’s big hooves scattered the loose rock, and he lunged up the slope to the boulders, tossing his head as Xena clamped her legs down and leaned forward, searching the rocks intently as they bolted forward, almost reaching the rocks before she heard the sounds of running feet, and snapping branches.
Follow them? A reckless laugh bubbled up from Xena’s darker side, and she urged her mount up the last of the slope, intent on chasing down the ambushers until she heard a faint gasp from the figure laying in front of her saddle, and better sense took over.
And arrow nearly reinforced that. Xena only just barely deflected it, as she turned Tiger’s head and started back down the slope, to follow the last of the army moving past.
“Xena!” Brendan’s voice sounded a warning, but Tiger’s hooves slid in the loose stones and she dared not make a fast move, least she unbalance the horse and send them all helpless to the ground. Instead she ducked her head and squared herself over her saddle, protecting the animal’s head and her mostly helpless cargo.
A sharp, solid thwack nearly sent her right over onto the stallion’s neck, and she sent a silent thanks to her new armorer, whose work had probably just saved her back if not her ass. She turned her head to see a big man standing in the clear, raising his bow for another shot at her with an attitude of supreme insolence.
Xena almost turned her horse and headed after him, but after a moment she released her hand off Gabrielle’s belt and drew her dagger instead, whipping it across her body with a twisting wrench, making him duck quickly out of the way and dive behind a boulder. “Bastard.”
Brendan rode up next to her. “Xena, you all right?” He sidestepped his horse and she rode forward, the hail of arrows momentarily abating.
The queen reached behind her and pulled the arrow out of her back, examining the tip with a sour eye. It was stained black, and she didn’t think it was with charcoal. She put it to her nose, sniffing delicately and finding herself relieved the scent was acrid but with no hint of copper. “Yeah.” She indicated the road. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Y’dont’ want to just clear em out?” Brendan asked, in a quiet tone. “Leaving em behind us to take pot shots.. Xena.” He glanced behind them, as they put distance between themselves and the rocks. “That one, that last, he was aiming for ye.”
“WIth poison.” The queen agreed. “Just the thing to piss me off and make me chase after him, huh?”
Brendan sighed, and shook his head.
“Leave em.” Xena tapped Gabrielle on the shoulder. “Wanna get up now?”
Gabrielle slowly lifted her head, which was crimson with blood from hanging downwards. “I”m kinda dizzy.”
“Yeah, but I love you anyway.” Xena hauled her upright, as they caught up with the rear of the army. “Let’s go find that runt of yours.” She said. “And go find more trouble to get into. Sound like fun?”
“Thought you’d think so. Next time keep your butt behind the wagons.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle replied.
Xena exhaled, looking around with a wry expression. “Why don’t I believe that for a minute?”
“Yeah. Um this.”
Xena felt a sense of anticipation building as she approached the end of the valley, glad enough to be leaving the troublesome scrub behind her with it’s assortment of disgusting residents and cowardly ambushers.
The army had salved their egos by perching bowmen in the back of the last wagon, their bows trained on the road behind them to discourage anyone from attempting to come after them. So far it had worked, and they’d been left to travel the road in peace.
The end of the valley was thickly forested, and took a dogleg to the right before it sloped downward as though saving the view of what was beyond it tantalizingly until the last moment. Xena impatiently wanted to get there and see it, her nerves were standing on end, and the instinct that was driving her towards the unknown was getting more and more intense.
It made her want to ride around the army and lash out at them to hurry, a sense of urgency churning every fiber of her being.
Speaking of churning. “Yes?” Xena schooled herself to patience and regarded her companion. “How’s your neck?” She eyed the neat bandage just visible under Gabrielle’s pale hair.
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle refrained, just, from reaching up to mess with the bandage. “It burns..feels like I touched a hot coal to that spot.”
“No it doesn’t.”
Gabrielle looked up at her. “Do you know what that feels like?”
The queen nodded, but didn’t elaborate. “So did you want something, or were you just practicing saying my name for your story?”
Gabrielle frowned, then her expression cleared. “Oh yeah.” She said. “What’s past that bend there?” She shifted in her saddle, easing her knees forward a little. Her chest and belly were still aching and the arrow burn was really bothering her, but she held her tongue about it, not wanting to irritate Xena further.
“Trouble.” Xena replied succinctly.
How did Xena know that? Gabrielle leaned forward, resting her weight on her saddlebow to give her back end a little rest. Everything had been quiet since the last attack, and the army had settled down to it’s marching and everyone was starting to relax again. She could hear casual talk around her and in the lead wagon, some of the cooks were making trail sandwiches to pass around.
And yet, Xena thought they were in trouble.
Gabrielle watched the queen from the corner of her eye. Xena was, in fact, acting a little nervous. She had resettled her sword a few times, and was fidgeting with Tiger’s reins, her body posture tense and her eyes watchful.
Was it really dangerous, or was Xena just overreacting? She knew the queen thought a lot about what had happened to them the last time, when she’d led not an army, but a column of her men into a trap and almost gotten them all killed.
Well. Gabrielle pursed her lips. Almost gotten herself killed getting them all out alive, really. Xena had stood her ground and fought the ambushers, realizing almost too late it wasn’t the men they were after, it was her alone.
Bregos had wanted her dead. Xena had admitted to her much later that she’d come close to welcoming it, since she’d been so stupid in her own eyes as to walk into the snare the way she had. It would have been a fitting end to her life, she reckoned.
Gabrielle reckoned not. “If trouble is that way, why are we going towards it?”
At first she thought Xena was going to give her a sarcastic answer. She did that often, but most often when she didn’t have a really good answer to whatever Gabrielle was asking. But Xena leaned back and hooked one leg over her saddlehorn, taking up her waterskin and sipping from it thoughtfully before she answered.
That meant, Gabrielle knew, that she’d get a serious answer. She liked that. She liked when Xena took her seriously, since so very few other people did.
“If we ignore it.” The queen said. “And either go back to the stronghold, or go the other way, the trouble’ll still be out here.”
Well, that certainly made sense. “Right.” Gabrielle nodded. “But maybe it’ll go the other way.”
Xena smiled, grimly. “Gabrielle, listen to me.” She said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my hoary old age it’s that you never, never turn your back on trouble.” She tilted her head and regarded her companion. “It never goes the other direction. Specially not around me.”
That also made sense. “You’re not old.” Gabrielle said. “I don’t know why you say that all the time.”
Xena chuckled softly, unhooking her leg and straightening back up again in her saddle. From the corner of her eye she caught sight of members of her personal guard inching up on either side, their attitudes studied and casual as they army approached the tight bend ahead.
Everyone fell silent, the sound of the horses hooves on the rough, rocky path loud and echoing and the creak of the wagon wheels grating on the ears. Gabrielle began to feel a little nervous, and she eased closer to Xena’s side, sensing the rising tension around her.
Slowly, almost absently, Xena checked the daggers strapped to various parts of her body and armor, ending with a casual flip of her cloak to expose the round, beautiful round weapon set on a hook at her belt, it’s jewels winking in the afternoon light.
The soldiers around her were also making ready, stringing bows and taking hold of maces, and Gabrielle found herself breathing a little faster in reaction to it as the contrast between the nervous energy around her and the peaceful surroundings they were moving through stood out in stark contrast to each other.
Once again, she had to wonder what she was supposed to do if something bad suddenly happened to them, and they were fighting again. Would Xena have to rescue her, or get her out of the way, nothing really but an annoyance to the queen?
She hoped not. Belatedly, Gabrielle untied her big stick and managed to get it out from under her leg without dumping herself out of her saddle. She settled it across her thighs, studying the slightly scuffed, wooden surface that her fingers were curled around.
It had a nice feel, really. She could feel the carving marks under her touch, where Xena had used her breast dagger to shape a place for Gabrielle’s hand to rest, so she’d know where to hold it when she was using it to keep Xena from hitting her in the head when they practiced.
“What are you doing with that?”
The blond woman looked up. ‘Um.. Just holding it.”
Xena studied her. “Do me a favor?”
“Don’t hit me in the ass with it.”
“I’d never do that.” Gabrielle felt better for having her stick out, since everyone else was getting ready for a fight around her. She could feel the tension rising as they moved closer and closer to the bend and just before they got there she heard the very distinctive sound of Xena drawing her sword from the sheath clipped to her back, a soft whisper that ended in a metallic rasp.
She could almost smell the metal, a rich and complicated scent that sort of reminded her a blood, a little. Which also made sense. She tightened her grip on her stick and wiggled her butt into her saddle, deciding she was ready for whatever they were going to find when they turned that last bend and saw what was past it.
They moved into the bend, and as the soldiers closed in around them they lifted their weapons and made them ready, eyes blinking behind the leather and metal helmets protecting their heads.
It occurred to her to wonder why Xena, who was the queen after all, didn’t have a metal hat to protect her head also. Gabrielle looked up at her tall companion, seeing the a look of stern watchfulness take over her expression as her chin lifted and her eyes swept constantly before them with fierce intensity.
They were going towards trouble, the queen had said. Well. Gabrielle tightened her grip on her big stick and put as fierce an expression as she was capable of on her face as they turned the last corner in the path and the end of the valley was upon them.
Xena pulled Tiger to a halt, and the soldiers hastily stopped behind and beside her, staring past the queen’s imposing figure to the long plain ahead of them
For a moment, nothing but the wind sounded, laying down the thick grasses near their horses feet. Then Gabrielle gently cleared her throat. “It’s.. Um..” She cocked her head. “Pretty.”
Xena swept her eyes from one end of the empty of any attacking army or anything else more threatening than a hunting owl river plain to the other. She didn’t really know what she’d been expectiing…
Okay. That wasn’t true. She’d been expecting the scene she’d seen in her dreams the last month, a valley covered with unfamiliar troops and a threat to her realm she could really sink her teeth into. The danger she’d driven her army towards for the past week, ignoring, perhaps wrongly, attacks from a known enemy in her haste to get to this unknown one.
Xena let her sword rest on her shoulder, as she tasted a hint of crow on the back of her tongue. “Yeah.” She said. “Not bad.” Her knees tightened around Tiger’s barrel and she started moving forward again. ‘Want me to name it after you?”
“Um.. No thanks. Not really.” Gabrielle felt a little disappointed, which shocked her when she thought about it for a minute. She followed Xena as the queen led the army out of the valley and into the wide open space.
Xena snorted softly, sheathing her sword as she studied her new environment.
There was a river crossing through it, and long swaths of river grasses, topped with several shades of flowers and in the afternoon light, it was in fact quite pretty, even to her eyes. Birds were flitting over it, and there was an air of peace that surrounded them and made her very eyeteeth itch.
Xena sat on a rock at the edge of the river, watching the sun set. Behind her, in a clearing the army was setting up camp for the night in a somewhat dour and grumpy manner that reflected her own mood fairly well.
Tomorrow morning they’d ford the river, no small task, and then continue on across the lands on the far side towards a rolling range of hills on the horizon. It was quiet, and wild feeling here, and Xena felt that the land hadn’t been farmed or inhabited for a long time, bringing the obvious question to her mind of why not?
Why not? The river was broad, and thick with fish, strings of which were laying by the cookfire waiting to feed her army. The land was fertile, and the scrub rockiness of the previous valley was nowhere to be seen.
Why scratch for a living with some scraggly sheep when you could plant a good crop here? Xena scratched her nose, feeling a touch bewildered. She turned her head as Brendan walked up to her, brushing his hands off on his leggings. “Why the Hades aren’t there any farms here?”
Brendan looked around, as though appreciating the surroundings for the first time. “Good land.” He agreed. “Figgure you never said t’come here, so nobody did.” He leaned on a rock near hers. “Good pasture out there.”
Xena mused on that for a moment. “Do you mean to tell me I rule over people that stupid?” She inquired.
The queen studied him from the corner of her eye. “Men still griping?”
Brendan shrugged again. “Tis not griping, really.” He said. “Doesn’t sit well to leave enemies behind us.” He glanced across the river. “Men’s got families back there, here we are leaving them by themssleves.”
“They’re safe. Those stragglers won’t go near the stronghold.” Xena disagreed.
The troop captain looked behind them, back towards the valley. “They could hold that passage, though, if we’ve got t’come back through it fast.”
Xena drew her knee up and rested her elbow on it, giving him a long, steady stare. “You saying we’re going to be running back here?” She asked, in a flat tone. “I don’t think I appreciate that impression of my leadership, Brendan.”
Brendan refused to meet her gaze. He kicked at a rock embedded in the dirt near the river and chewed on a bit of grass, the metal of his armor chiming softly as he moved.
The queen sighed, and shook her head. “Whatever.” She fell silent, and after a brief wait, her captain wandered off again, since they apparently had nothing else to say to each other.
Which wasn’t exactly true, but it was the end of a long day and Xena didn’t really feel like dealing with touchy soldiers and disappointed expectations. She looked around, and spotted Gabrielle coming towards her, moving through the riverside grasses with a slow, deliberate stride.
Xena suspected she was trying hard not to limp. “Hey.”
“Hey.” The blond woman came up to her resting place, and removed her hands from behind her back, holding out a handful of wildflowers. “These are for you.”
The queen took the flowers, folding her long fingers around the stems and gazing at their vibrant color thoughtfully. “What’s this all about?” She asked. “Did I look like I needed a fistful of weeds or something?”
“No.” Gabrielle leaned against the rock, her shoulder brushing Xena’s thigh. “They were just beautiful, like you are, so I decided to pick some and give them to you, that’s all.” She let her head rest against the queen’s side and watched the sunset glisten off the river’s surface.
Xena draped her arm over her companions shoulder. “Everyone else here thinks I”m nuts, and you bring me flowers and tell me how good looking I am. What in Hades would I do without you, my friend? Hm?” She felt Gabrielle exhale, and heard the tiniest of sniffles from her. “Been a damn long day, hasn’t it?
The blond head nodded.
Gabrielle nodded again.
A faint hesitation, then a third nod.
“Me too.” Xena said. “So why don’t you and I go and make each other feel better?” She ruffled Gabrielle’s hair a little. “I can fix your bumps and you can tell me how wonderful I am since I’ve done little but screw up the last sevenday and make the army think I can’t do this anymore.”
Gabrielle gave her a hug. “That sounds great.” She admitted. “I”m really sore.”
Xena was more than glad to toss off worrying about tomorrow to focus on this here and now problem beside her. She slid off her rock and encircled Gabrielle with one arm, steering her up towards the campsite and away from the wide, wind ruffled river.
The men watched her as she came back through them, with her lover and her handful of flowers and Xena herself had to wonder, really, what it was she was doing out there.
They walked to the royal tent and ducked inside together, trading the rich russet of sunset for the candlelit interior. Xena went over to the washing table and poured water from a jug into a travel mug, then stuck her handful of weeds into it.
She glanced behind her, watching Gabrielle as the blond woman went over to her small chest of belonging and dropped to her knees beside it, then leaned over onto it for a long, painful moment.
Immediately, Xena was across the tent and kneeling next to her. “Hey.” She put her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders and eased her back off the chest. “C’mere muskrat.. What’s wrong? I didn’t think you were that banged up.”
She half guided, half lifted Gabrielle up and helped her sit down on their pallet. “Lay down.”
Without any resistance, the blond woman obeyed. That rattled the queen, who was expecting at least the usual token protest from her lover. She straightened out Gabrielle’s limbs, then she put a hand on her thigh. “Where’s it hurt the worst?”
Gabrielle laid her hand over her stomach. “Stiffened up.. I was okay when we were riding.” She murmured. “But ever since we stopped… it’s like I was rolled under a wagon wheel.”
Xena grimaced, as she unbuckled the belt holding Gabrielle’s coat of armor on. She removed it, then she unlaced the leather surcoat and eased it back. “Does it hurt when you breathe?”
The queen peeled back the quilted shirt her lover wore under her armor and sucked in a breath as she spotted the extensive bruising underneath it. A dark, mottled stain spread from Gabrielle’s hips up to her breasts, roughly the same color as the one still gracing her face and after a moment, Xena exhaled in something close to horror when she realized most of the damage had been at her own hand.
“Laying down feels a little better.” Gabrielle volunteered. “Taking that belt off too, I guess.”
“Yeah.” Xena hadn’t quite felt like such a complete failure in a very long time. She could remember the moment, in fact, when she’d sat down on a very cold stone floor next to a very cold, stiff body she’d once shared her innermost thoughts with.
She hadn’t been able to protect anyone close to her. But at least she hadn’t hurt him with her own hands. Ever since they’d left the stronghold she’d been doing nothing but screwing up and at some point now, she had to wonder when the army would realize it and simply turn on her.
If they hadn’t already.
Quietly, she turned and sat down on the floor of the tent, leaning back against the pallet. “Sorry about that, Gabrielle.” She murmured. “Didn’t mean to do that to you.”
There was silence behind her, but she could feel a faint, intermittent tug on her hair and then the warmth as Gabrielle’s hand curled around her shoulder.
“I know.. You were trying to save me.” Gabrielle said. “It’s not your fault. I should have stayed where you told me to.”
Xena stared across the tent, feeling very tired. “It’s always my fault.” She replied. “It has to be my fault, Gabrielle. I’m the queen.”
The warmth behind her increased suddenly, , covering the back of her shoulders as she felt Gabrielle’s breath against the back of her neck. “I”ve got some herbs… I’ll give them to you. It’ll let you sleep.”
Gabrielle traced her finger down the back of Xena’s neck, breathing in the scent of her and simply enjoying the closeness. She’d been so uncomfortable all day long it was pure bliss just to lay quietly in Xena’s presence, and let the aching subside a little.
Her head hurt, and her body hurt, and her back hurt where the arrow had hit her, but hadn’t penetrated her armor. And her neck still stung, where the shaft had skimmed across it, taking a piece of her skin and some hair along too.
It had been okay when she was riding, she’d had Patches to distract her, and all the new things to look at and Xena to keep an eye on, but once she’d dismounted and had to wait for the tent to go up, it all started catching up with her.
She knew Xena was very upset at something, but she didn’t think it was her or at least, it wasn’t something she had done. She could just tell from Xena’s body posture, and the tone in her voice that her friend was hurting inside about as much as Gabrielle was and she didn’t really know what to do to fix that.
Ergo, the flowers. She knew Xena wasn’t particularily fond of flowers but she knew that the queen understood there was love behind the giving of them, and Gabrielle knew from the shifting emotion on her face when she’d taken them that the sentiment was something Xena had needed right then.
Now, Xena turned back around and rolled her over onto her back again, gently touching the sore spots on her middle. Gabrielle was glad enough to let her head rest on the pillow, so tired she wasn’t even hungry for dinner. “Are we going to have to swim across the river?”
“Yeah.” Xena answered softly. “But not for a few days.”
Gabrielle looked up at the queen’s profile, shadowed and serious in the candlelight. “I though we were going to the other side tomorrow?”
“We were.” Xena pulled the quilted shirt closed and leaned on the pallet, studying her companion. “But I’ve got some things I want to take care of here now. So we’ll stick here until that’s done. That all right with you?”
“I thought you were in a hurry to go on.”
“Changed my mind.” The queen said. “Which probably means I”m not completely obsolete as a warlord, eh?”
Gabrielle watched her friends face. There was a complex combination of emotions there, but Xena was never simple. Impulsively, she reached out and laid her hand along the queen’s cheek, feeling the pressure against her skin as Xena leaned into the touch. “I love you.”
Xena’s expression softened, and a reluctant smile appeared on her face. “Even though I beat the tar out of you on a regular basis? Kinky, muskrat.”
“Not on purpose.” Gabrielle said, then her eyes dropped. “I know the difference.”
Xena took Gabrielle’s hand in hers and kissed the back of her knuckles. “Do me a favor.” She waited for the blond woman to look back up. “Stay here and relax. I’ve got to go knock some heads together and get my new plan started. Understand?”
Gabrielle briefly grinned. “No, but I’ll stay here anyway. Promise.” She said. “Will you be back soon?”
Xena snorted softly under her breath. “Maybe.” She kissed Gabrielle’s hand again and then set it down, rising and shaking herself a little. “Get some rest. You might have to be giving me herbs when I get back.” She ran her hands through her hair and ducked out the tent flap.
Gabrielle gazed after her, wriggling a little into a more comfortable spot in the pallet. “Wonder what she meant by that?”
Xena walked slowly through the camp, lightly slapping an arrow shaft in one hand against her leg. When she reached the center of the soldiers encampment she found a fallen tree and sat down on it, sorting out her thoughts as she waited for everyone to notice she was there.
It didn’t take long. After only a moment, soldiers started to turn towards her, bedding and gear forgotten in their hands as they exchanged glances with each other and word began to spread.
Xena merely waited in silence, uncomfortably aware that she’d allowed her ego to override her judgement, and risked the loyalty of the army around her by forgetting one simple principal.
Back in the stronghold, she was the queen. Out here, she was, as she’d told them point blank, just Xena and the leader of an army had to earn that position every minute. She couldnt assume everyone would keep obeying her just because and she’d given everyone good reason to think her judgement might not be all that trustworthy.
There would be no apologies. That wasn’t in her nature, and it would only make the men more uncomfortable with her. But it was time she started acting like the field leader she imagined herself to be and talk to the soldiers as one of their own.
A crowd gathered around her, men appearing from between the trees to crouch nearby, as others sat down on the ground across from where she was perched. Xena waited for the numbers to double, then she shifted and rested her elbows on her knees, holding her stick between her hands.
Brendan appeared, and came the closest to her, kneeling down and resting his hands on his knee as he, too, waited for her to speak.
“All right.” Xena said. “Now that we’re out here, on our terms.”
A little prickle of reaction went through the men, not so much a sound, but a stirring she heard as a rustle of leather and a soft clink of mail. Looking up, she caught the expressions on the faces of the men closest to her and she realized to her bemusement that there was a willingness to believe there she hadn’t expected.
“Aye.” Brendan remarked, placidly. “Didn’t expect us to leave em.”
Xena put the end of her branch on the dirt before her boots. She quickly sketched in the valley, and the scrubland they’d just left. “Okay.” She studied her artwork, then put in a few more details. “We’ve got some time. I figured we’d be occupied once we got here, but leaving early bought us some planning space.”
The men looked at each other, obviously at a loss. They looked at Brendan, whose face was blank to avoid advertising he had no idea what Xena was talking about either.
“So.” The queen went right on. “We’ve got a day or two to send three teams back down that valley and clean up the scum.” She let her eyes flick to the watching faces. “Anyone interested?”
The relief she saw in many eyes made her nose wrinkle and she mentally kicked herself in the ass as hard as she could. “I want three teams of a score each, going here, here and here.” She indicated directions on her map. “Everyone else is going to work on the ford.” She paused. “With me.”
The men hesitated, then started to slowly nod.
“We know they have the biggest presence here.” Xena drew a circle. “They won’t be expecting us to come back.” She said. “So tonight you go back through the valley, and get down into this area before sunrise. I”d guess you’ll find them gathering there, probably to follow us out.”
“Seems like.” Brendan agreed. “We get here, they won’t see us.” He touched a spot near the end of the valley. “Should be fast.”
Xena nodded. “Assemble the three teams.” She told her captain. “Get them moving a candlemark after dark.” She instructed Brendan. “And listen, all of you.” She turned her attention back to the men. “This is just clean up. I need every one of you for what we’re going to face ahead of us. Don’t get careless.”
She waited until they all started nodding, then she stuck her stick into the ground in the middle of the drawing. “All right. The rest of you get ready to scavenge. I want every resource we can find packed in those wagons before we cross the river.”
The men dispersed, but she remained sitting there as Brendan leaned closer, studying her drawing as the light started to fade. He waited for a space to clear around the two of them, before he looked up at his queen somberly. “Xena, twas no need to do that just for some nattering.”
“Wasn’t for that.” Xena braced her elbow on her knee and rested her chin on her fist. “I just decided to pull my head out of my ass. “
To his credit, Brendan neither demurred nor looked embarrassed at her words. “Didn’t think that.”
“Sure you did. They all do.” The queen said. “Wasn’t a man in damn camp who didn’t think I”d left whatever leadership skills I ever had back in the bedroom in the castle.” She gave her captain a direct look. “So dump the act.”
Brendan blinked at her. “Been a lot of changes for all of us, Xena.” He said. “No one doubts you.”
“I doubt me.” Xena got up, giving her shoulders a little shake to settle her armor. “And that’s a dangerous thing, old man. Very dangerous.” She dusted her hands off and walked off, stepping over the log on her way back towards her tent.
Brendan put his thumb down in the dirt next to her sketch, as two of the other soldiers came up beside him. “Got a chance, Ev, t’make your mark eh?” He said, in a casual tone. “Maj aint’ stupid.”
“Good chance.” The man nodded. “Musta been the plan all along, yah?”
Brendan studied the drawing .”Yah.” He agreed, without looking up. “Always was her way. Never tell everything till it needs telling.” He stood up and dusted his hands off. “Let’s get to moving, then. Pick your squad quick like, before her Maj changes her mind and does the job herself.”
“Huh.” Ev nodded. “Ain’t it the truth. C’mon. “ He motioned to his companion. “Get them blades sharpened.”
“Looking for dark tonight.” The man agreed. “For sure, a good chance.”
They walked away, leaving Brendan to face the setting sun, squinting quietly into it.
Xena paused in the entrance of her pavilion, leaning against the front support as she gazed inside. Gabrielle was curled up asleep on the pallet, still in her unbuckled armor. The queen didn’t want to wake her up, but she didn’t want to stay outside her tent either, so after a moment she eased inside and stepped quietly across the ground.
Safely on the other side of the tent, Xena started to unbuckle her armor, loosening the chest plate and lifting it off over her head as a gust of wind fluttered the tent flap and chilled her shoulderblades, damp with sweat where the heavy pieces had rested.
She felt a little sore, and she flexed her arms, grimacing a little over tightness of the muscles across her back. There hadn’t been much fighting, she recalled, so what in…
Ah. Catching the damn arrows. She flexed her hands and turned them over, examining the scrape marks across her palms from shafts and feathers. She barely remembered the action, just a swirl of motion and her body reacting through instinct it had taken her long years to build.
Well, at least that still worked.
She unlaced her bracers and stripped them off, then she turned and sat down on the camp stool near the brazier to unbuckle her leg armor, rubbing her thumb along a closed gash she didn’t remember getting. Had it been in the first fight, or the second?
With a shake of her head, the queen unlaced her boots and eased out of them, tossing them to one side as she stretched her feet out towards the fire, dressed now only in her leathers. She wanted a bath badly, but that meant getting up and splashing, so she remained where she was, reaching out for a wineskin and pulling it over in the meantime.
She sipped the early, harsh wine without really tasting it, letting her head rest back against the trunk and allowing her mind to go blank after the long, difficult day.
After a moment of quiet, though, her ears twitched as she heard a faint sound from her sleeping companion and she cocked her head towards the pallet as it was repeated. It wasn’t quite a cry, and it wasn’t quite a whimper, but with a little imagination it could have been and before she really thought about it Xena was across the tent and kneeling at Gabrielle’s side.
What the Hades was up with that anyway? The queen rested her elbows on the pallet. ‘Where did all this nanny Xena crap come from?” She asked aloud. “I used to step on ants. Crap, I used to step on puppies. Now I feel like I”m nursing them.”
“Oh.. Xena! No!” Gabrielle blurted, suddenly. The blond woman’s hands were twitching, and her breathing was uneven, and as the queen watched, she inhaled sharply again, and the cry was repeated.
Ah. “Hey.” Xena gently tugged Gabrielle’s ear. “No bad dreams, you punky muskrat.”
Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open in confusion, and she looked up at Xena blankly, then her expression cleared and she exhaled in relief. “Xena.” She lifted her hand and wrapped her fingers around the queen’s forearm. “You’re here.”
Xena looked right, then left, then down at herself before she looked back at Gabrielle. Her eyebrow hiked with delicious sarcasm.
“Sorry.. Of course you are.” The blond woman murmured. She scrubbed her face with one hand, her fingers shaking a little. “Ugh. Thanks for waking me up.”
After a moment, Gabrielle nodded, her lips pressing together into a thin line.
Xena knew her lover had bad dreams sometimes. Usually she’d talk about them, but sometimes she wouldn’t, and she realized this was one of those times. Queen or no, she’d never been able to wiggled the explanation out of her and wasn’t in the mood to try this time. She could see Gabrielle was still shaken though, so she fell back on something she had a good degree of confidence in when it came to making her feel better.
It worked well. Gabrielle crawled practically into her lap as she got up and settled on the pallet, holding out her arms and offering a hug that was very readily reciprocated.
It was hard to say, though, which one of them needed or appreciated it more. “How are you feeling?” Xena asked, after a long moment, suspecting it might actually be her that did.
Gabrielle let her head rest against Xena’s shoulder. “Not so great.” She admitted, after a pause. “I thought maybe if I took a nap I’d feel better but I dont’ think it was a good idea after all.” She touched her stomach. “Ow.”
Xena rearranged her long limbs, climbing all the way into the pallet and cradling Gabrielle in her arms. “Relax, muskrat. Dont move around. You got pretty banged up there.” She rested her cheek against her lover’s hair. “Most of the people I beat the crap out of do.”
“You didn’t do that.” Gabrielle said. “Stop saying that like it’s your fault.” She added. “I didn’t want to be shot full of arrows out there.”
“Yeah, I know.” Xena exhaled. “Sometimes I look at you and remember my brother, that’s all.” She said. “I know I did the right thing but seeing you here looking like my horse kicked you up and down isn’t making me feel real great.”
“Mmph.” Gabrielle grunted softly, thinking about riding in the morning. Just the image made her feel sick to her stomach, and she quietly buried her face into Xena’s shoulder, taking her comfort where she could find it.
Maybe Xena would let her ride in the wagons. That seemed pretty safe. “Hey, Xena?”
Gabrielle hesitated, as a spike of insecurity prodded her. “Thanks for waking me up.”
“You said that already.”
“Yeah, I know.” The blond woman replied. “But it was a really bad dream, and I’m really glad you woke me up from it.” She put her arms around the queen and hugged her. “Don’t worry about the bruises. I”m sure they’ll be okay tomorrow.”
Xena’s pale blue eyes twinkled just a little. “They better be, or I”ll tie you up in a tree fork and leave ya here.” She warned. “So heal fast.”
Gabrielle looked up at her. “I will.”
“I”m not kidding.” The queen said.
Xena leaned over and gave her a long, passionate kiss on the lips. “Good.” She relaxed, pushing the days disappointments away for the time being. “You’d look stupid hung in a tree.”
“But you know what?”
“I’d love you more than my horse anyway.”
“You have no idea.”
Continued in Part 8