Queen of Hearts
Gabrielle stood next to Patches as they both surveyed the river crossing, the surface ruffled with wind driven ripples as it surged past them. “Hm.” She laid an arm over the pony’s neck. “That sure looks cold, Patches.”
At least the sun was out. She glanced up, to where it was just breaking over the trees and held her hand out to catch it’s warmth in the chill of early morning, glad she had her armor on and the long sleeved undergarment that protected her skin from it’s tough surface.
Glad too, that she hadn’t been wearing it the night before, since the blood that had washed readily off the armor surely wouldn’t have done the same for the shirt, and wearing it damp wouldn’t have been much fun at all.
Wearing it bloody was something she didn’t even think about. She leaned against Patches warm side and exhaled, feeling still very stiff and sore and not much like riding. She’d woken with a headache, and an upset stomach but had clamped her jaw down tight on all of that and pushed herself to get ready to go like everyone else was.
The army was already on the move around her, gathering near the crossing and working to shift the now floatable wagons into position. Everyone was busy, and their pavilions had all been packed up and were added to the row of supplies waiting to go across the water.
Xena was across the way from her, on Tiger’s back, trotting back and forth and shouting directions as though nothing could possibly happen correctly without her involvement in it.
Which might be true, Gabrielle pondered, but she suspected the more experienced of her queen’s soldiers had done this at least once before and she wondered if Xena wasn’t being just a little too much of a worrywart about it all.
However, she certainly wasn’t going to ask her about it. “Patches, are you ready to swim?” She asked her shaggy friend. “Do you even know how to swim?”
The pony was chewing a mouthful of grass, and he looked back over his shoulder at her, stalks sticking out from between his lips. His expression seemed skeptical and Gabrielle chuckled a little at it, pretty sure she wasn’t looking forward to the ordeal either.
A loud, long whistle caught her attention, and she looked over to see Xena sitting with her hands on her hips, looking right at her. “Uh oh.” She sighed. “I think that means us.” She walked Patches over to a fallen log and stepped up onto it, sparing her body the stress of mounting in a more conventional way. She eased into the saddle and gathered up the reins. “Okay, let’s go.”
Obediently, her mount started forward, ambling through the underbrush with a thankfully gentle pace as he made his way towards the small rise the queen was perched on. Gabrielle leaned forward and tightened her knees a little, getting her center of balance over her boots so her body didn’t move too much with her pony’s strides.
It was bearable. Just. She glanced up at Xena as she came even with the queen, and realized in an instant she wasn’t fooling her for a second, but rather than impatience she found wry understanding in the queen’s eyes. “Hi.”
“Riding in the wagon would be worse.” Xena told her. “Just try to hang in there.”
“I will.” Gabrielle said. “I’m okay.”
“No you aren’t.” The queen reached over and ruffled her hair. “Don’t feel compelled to lie to me like everyone else does.” She turned her head and surveyed the field. “All right! Let’s move out!” She bellowed, nearly making Gabrielle’s ears ring.
Everyone started to move, the soldiers on either side of the wagons pulling them forward towards the water by ropes fastened to rings on the sides. Xena watched for a moment, then she led Gabrielle to a break in the flow and fell in behind one line of wagons, in front of a large mass of troops.
Gabrielle exhaled, and steeled herself for traveling. Since they were moving slowly, it wasn’t that bad, and after a moment she relaxed a little and straightened, watching the army moving in front of her. There was a splash as the first row of horsemen entered the water, and the snort of horses rose also, as the animals felt the cold bite of the water.
Brr. She could already feel it herself, and her toes curled inside her boots as she anticipated the soaking, and knowing she was going to spend most of the rest of the day drying out wasn’t making her imagination any happier.
“So.” Xena kept one eye on the progress of the wagons and the other on her companion. “Hear anything good about what I did last night?”
Gabrielle found her attention torn from her own discomfort, and she sorted through all the things she’d heard before she answered. “Well.” She said. “I think the thing I heard most often is that no one ever saw anyone do what you did to him before.”
“Uh huh.” The queen nodded. “I like a little originality in my slaughter. What else?”
“That he deserved it.” Gabrielle thought for a moment about how she felt. “I thought so.”
“Did you really?” Xena asked, eyeing her as the first of the wagons reached the ford. The initial soldiers were part way across the river, their horses swimming in the strong current but guided by the ropes and poles.
The blond woman nodded briefly. “I mean..” She paused. “I guess that sounds so cold, and I’m such a hypocrit for feeling like that after I said so much about killing not being the way to do things.”
The first wagon entered the water, it’s tarred exterior enabling it to float. Gabrielle was momentarily distracted by the bobbing hulk, and she shook her head a little. “I never would have thought to do that.” She said. “How did you figure that out?”
Xena’s brow puckered. “I didn’t really think about it, to be honest.”
“Nah, I just wanted him to die fast and I was bored with just cutting people’s heads off.” The queen said. “But considering you have trouble killing ants I’m not surprised it didn’t occur to you.”
Gabrielle swivled her head towards her companion. “Uh..” She made a face. “I meant the wagons.” She pointed at the train. “Sorry.. I was thinking about how clever you were about that.. Not about.. Uh… him.”
“Oh.” Xena chuckled softly. “One of my many skills is boatbuilding.” She half stood in her stirrups to watch the progress. “I also throw a mean fishing line… remind me about that later on and maybe we’ll have something squiggly for dinner.”
Was there anything, Gabrielle wondered, that Xena didn’t do well? “Okay.” She squiggled a little more deeply into her saddle as they approached the ford, the ground before it now trampled and muddy. Across the river, the first troops had emerged from the water and were fanning out, a squad of them starting to ride ahead as a point guard.
Actually, the men had all been very happy with Xena’s choice of fates for Bregos. Gabrielle’s nose wrinkled as they approached the water, leaning back as Patches started down the slope the men had made into the river. She could smell the sharp tang mixed with manure from the horses, and sweat from both men and beasts.
Ick. Her already upset stomach roiled, and she had to swallow a few times as the handful of crackers and water she’d eaten threatened to come back up on her. She pulled herself forward by her saddlehorn as Patches reached the water, his shaggy legs splashing through it as he snorted and tossed his head.
She could see the current now, shoving against her mounts legs and causing him to stumble a little. She patted his shoulder anxiously. “Easy, Patches. Take it slow, okay?” She glanced at the river, and hoped her pony could manage it, even with the supports in place.
Was it time to mention she wasn’t really that much of a swimmer herself?
“HOLD IT!” Xena held her hand up, and pulled Tiger to a halt, turning and waving at the troops behind her who likewise stopped. She waited for the motion to all cease, before she turned and looked at Gabrielle, who was peering back at her, with a miserable, though puzzled expression. “Let me ask you a question.”
Gabrielle looked around. “Okay, sure.”
Xena leaned to one side and lowered her voice. “After last night, does anyone here still think I”m a softie?”
The blond woman blinked several times. “Uh… no.” She rapidly shook her head. “No.. No I don’t think so. They were all really.. Uh… “
Was she sure? Gabrielle was feeling a little too sick to her stomach to really decide one way or the other, but she nodded anyway.
Xena half turned in her saddle. “Good.” She said. “Take your foot out of the stirrup on that other side, and swing your leg over to this side.”
Bewildered, Gabrielle did as she was told, ending up sitting on her saddle sideways in a somewhat precarious balance. “Okay.” She said. “Now what?” She looked up at Xena with a puzzled expression, as they stood together in the current, the cool wind whipping at them.
The queen sidled her horse over a few more steps, then she offered her arm down. “Grab hold.” She waited for Gabrielle to reach up and clasp her arm, then she casually grabbed her belt with her other hand and lifted her right off Patches back. “Leg over. Move it.”
Gabrielle scrambled into Tiger’s saddle in front of the queen, too surprised to even pay attention to the ache in her guts. She felt Xena’s arm tuck itself around her with comforting stabliity and she leaned back against the tall body behind her with a sense of relief so significant it almost squeezed a few tears form her eyes.
“All righty then.” Xena tied Patches reins off to one of her saddle rings. “Move out!” She nudged Tiger on into the water. “The things I gotta to to protect my image around here.” She added, with a clucking sound. “Shoulda brought some kittens along to roast.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle tipped her head back and gazed up at her lover. “You’re so awesome.”
“I know.” The queen smirked. “You’re still gonna get wet, but at least I know you wont’ fall off that damn little runt and make me swim after you.”
Gabrielle felt the water cover her boots, but safe as she was, leaning back against Xena’s body with the queen’s grip on her, the chill was a bearable annoyance instead of the threat it might have been. Tiger was a lot higher off the ground, too, and she had time to fold her hands around Xena’s arm before the water hit her knees and started to soak through her leggings. “Xena?”
“You wouldn’t really roast kittens, would you?”
“Nah.” The queen grimaced as the river water rose and hit her in the ass. “Fur gets caught between your teeth. It’s a mess.”
Gabrielle tipped her head back again and looked at her. “Was that what you meant by saying you didn’t know how to cook? You should have shaved it first.”
“Ooo.. You’re catching on.:” Xena grinned and started humming under her breath, glad enough to be leaving her realm well and truly behind her no matter what troubles now loomed ahead. She glanced behind her, where the bulk of the army was starting into the river, and then she faced forward again, letting her chin rest against Gabrielle’s head as Tiger started to swim, with Patches churning sturdily along beside him.
They were moving through a thick field of tall grasses as the sun came to it’s highest point. Gabrielle was still perched up on Tiger’s saddle, her leggings almost dry and her spirits rising from having spent the morning with Xena’s arms wrapped around her.
The queen was relaxed behind her, breathing with a slow, even motion as the long grasses just covered her boots, having fallen silent for the last while.
Gabrielle wondered if she wanted to hear a story. “Hey, Xena?”
“Want to play a word game?”
“Was I acting bored?” The queen asked. “Maybe I just wanted to snooze back here.”
Gabrielle turned her head and looked up at her companion. “Were you sleeping?” She asked, in a surprised tone. She studied Xena’s face, and detected a faint inattention in her eyes. “Really?”
Xena chuckled and shrugged a bit, glancing around as if embarrassed. “It’s warm, you kept me up late last night, and there’s not much else to do, so yeah.” She stretched her body out and then relaxed back into the saddle again, looking past the wagon train towards the front of the army.
“I didn’t know you could sleep on a horse.” Gabrielle said. “What if you fall off?”
Xena removed her waterskin from her saddlering and took a sip from it, rolling the liquid around in her mouth before swallowing it. She hadn’t fallen asleep on a horse in a long time, but then she hadn’t really been riding all day in a long time either.
Maybe she was getting decrepit after all. “You don’t fall off.” She answered. “At least, I don’t fall off. You probably would.”
“No I wouldn’t.” Gabrielle wriggled a little, and tucked her hands over Xena’s. “Not with you here. How could I?” She peered over Tiger’s rhythmically bobbing head. The weather had warmed indeed, and it was a bright sunny day, the light spilling over the long plain they were traveling across.
Around her she could smell the bruised grass and the animals around her, and the mixture of leather and metal from her armor and the queen’s. “It’s pretty out here.”
“It’s boring out here.” Xena resisted the urge to kick her heels into Tiger’s sides. “I forgot how much I hated the actual getting there part of getting somewhere.” She exhaled. “I used to… “ She stopped, and laughed, shaking her head. “Anyway. What was that about a game?”
Gabrielle let her thumb rub absently across the top of the queen’s index finger. “You used to what?” She tipped her head back and looked up. “Did you make word games, like we do?”
Xena looked very carefully around, peering to the right, and then to the left, before she inclined her head so her lips were right near Gabrielle’s ear. “I used to knit.”
The blond woman blinked. Then she blinked again. “Knit?” She repeated, as though the word were in some foreign language. “You don’t mean.. My mother used to knit.” Her nose wrinkled. “YOu don’t mean that.”
Xena’s eyebrow lifted.
The queen cleared her throat. “Forget I mentioned it.” She said. “Or I’ll have to go find some baby rabbits and bite their heads off or something.” She made a show of studying the terrain around them, shading her eyes and peering off into the distance where the plains slowly rolled up into shallow hills again.
Gabrielle fiddled with a bit of Tiger’s mane, glancing to one side to where Patches was ambling along, shaking his head as the grass stalks tickled his nose. Every so often, Tiger would look back at him, and she imagined the big stallion was muttering under his breath about ponies who got off scot free while he had to carry double.
Oh well. She patted his neck. Then she half turned and looked up at Xena. “So, what did you..”
“Socks.” The queen said, succinctly. Then she put her fingers between her teeth and let out a long whistle, then let loose two short ones after that. There was a stir in the lines ahead of them, then Brendan’s distinctive figure split off and circle back towards them.
Socks. Gabrielle tried to imagine Xena riding along with her army, with her armor and her sword, and her muddy boots and her wooden knitting needles making socks. “Ow.”
“What’s wrong?” Xena peered at her.
“I just made my head hurt.”
The queen gave her a kiss on the top of her apparently aching head, just as Brendan arrived at their side. “How far ahead are the scouts?” She asked, in a businesslike tone.
“Four leagues.” The troop captain said. “Had word half candlemark back. Nothing ahead. Real quiet.”
“Damn. Too bad.” Xena sighed. “Have the men break out rations in the saddle. I want to keep moving. Rotate them back to the wagons if they need anything.” She studied the line stretching ahead of her. “We need to make up time from all that lollygagging back there.”
“Ah, Xena. That was well spent minutes, surely.” Brendan protested. “Got rid of a saddle burr size of a cocks egg.” He shifted in his saddle. “Wasn’t time wasted, in my view.”
Xena made a show of pondering the thought. “Well.” She half shrugged. “We didn’t lose any supplies in the river crossing so I suppose it was worth building the ford, in any case. I wasn’t really worried about Bregos.”
Brendan’s eyebrows lifted.
“But it gives us less crap to clean up later.” The queen concluded.
“Gave Gabrielle here a bit of recovery too, eh?” The old captain’s eyes twinkled. “Lucky for her we were caught up in all that.”
Xena’s nostrils tiwtched, and she watched her captain from narrowed eyes. “Are you insinuating that I kept the army cooling it’s heels and sent you on a wild goose chase just to give my consort some sack time??”
“Ah, no majesty.” Brendan solemnly shook his head. “Not at all.”
Xena suspected she was being tweaked. She peered down at Gabrielle, who had her head cocked to one side, with a puzzled expression on her face. “You don’t think that, do you?”
The blond woman turned her head and looked around. “Well…”
“Never mind. Brendan, take off.” Xena knew a losing battle when she saw one. “Just for that, we keep going until moonrise, I don’t care if the horses end up walking into trees and bats crap on our heads.”
“Aye.” Brendan nodded, giving Gabrielle a wink. “Having a good ride then, your grace?”
Gabrielle was, to be truthful, sort of tired of the ride. However. “I”m just learning things right and left, thanks.” She replied. “It’s amazing all the things Xena can do.”
The old captain eyed his queen, then he merely saluted, and rode off, his seat on his horse almost as natural as Xena’s was.
The queen chuckled briefly, her arms reaching back around Gabrielle’s body and snuggling her close again. She was looking forward to making good time through the day, and her mind was already reaching past the bivouac, toward what they would find when they passed through the hills and prepared to attack the port city.
That was getting her a little excited, and if she worked at it, she could already smell the brass and horseflesh and torches of the men, and hear the yells of bravado ringing in her ears past the plains placid silence.
The city would be shocked, and dumbfounded. They’d been relatively innocuous neighbors for years now, and the port was a popular place for ships to put in when they had goods to trade bound for Xena’s tables.
For years, she’d spent her martial energies, or rather, her generals, in the opposite direction. They’d done respectably, adding leagues and leagues to her realm without losing a high percentage of her conscripts and going just far enough not to trigger mass reprisals.
Not too bad. But Xena hadn’t gotten where she was by doing things over and over again. She wanted the port city for two reasons, one, that she’d told everyone about, and the other, because before she’d killed him in somewhat spectacular fashion her last spy master had told her something very interesting about rumors the men had heard that Bregos hadn’t wanted them to talk about.
So. She’d see what she’d find when she started heading in the direction everyone had told her was just empty lands, nothing to see, nothing to interest her. In the direction that Bregos had dismissed as unimportant.
The queen looked down at her adorable saddle warmer. “Yes?”
“I know you want to keep going until t gets dark, but could we stop for just.. Well, for a drink or something?” The blond woman asked. “Just to walk around a little?”
“We are walking.”
“Um.. The horses are walking.”
“Ah.” The queen glanced around her. “Butt hurt?”
“Want me to kiss it and made it better?”
“Um. Oh! Oooo! Yow!”
“Beats knitting socks, doesn’t it?”
This time, Xena picked the camping spot very carefully indeed. She cantered back from the point sentries and paused, checking the sight lines to the main watch fire built in a curve of the hill hidden from the road.
The army was camped in the dell beyond it, likewise hidden. Xena stood in her stirrups and surveyed the scene, then nodded in satisfaction before she turned Tiger and headed back to the lines.
She felt the attitude difference as she threaded her way through the camp, a rising, but low grade tension she welcomed likely as much as the men did.
Fighting was ahead, and soon. Xena rode up to where Brendan was standing, and motioned him over. When her captain came and set his hand on her stirrup, she leaned on her saddlehorn and met his eyes. “Tonight, I want a scouting party.” She said. “We’re going to go see what kind of trouble we’re up against.”
Brendan nodded in agreement. “Aye, when the moon sets.” He said. “I”ll take the men myself.”
“No you won’t.” Xena grinned briefly. “I will. See if anyone’s brave enough to volunteer for *that*.” She straightened up and threw her leg over Tiger’s neck, sliding down to the ground and offering up her reins to a groom that came hurrying over.
She left Brendan standing there as she walked among the trees, glancing to her right and left as she passed the tiny fires in the various campsites, all of them well tended and clean burning. “Nice.” She murmured to herself, tipping her head back to review the slowly darkening sky, twinkling stars starting to appear between the branches that a cool wind was stirring.
She could hear weapons being sharpened, and it reminded her she had her own task to do along those lines. She changed her course and headed for her tent, newly set between two huge oaks. She gave the guard outside the flap a nod, then she ducked inside, her eyes adjusting to the candlelight as she looked around. “Gabrielle?”
“Right here.” Her lover emerged from one corner, carrying an armful of folded linen.
“I thought I told you to get your ass into bed.” Xena put her hands on her hips.
Gabrielle sat down on a stool near the brazier, putting the linen in her lap. “Well.” She folded her hands and gazed up at the queen. “I tried that.”
Xena’s brows edged up. She walked over and patted the furs covering the bed, poking the frame experimentally. She then turned and looked at Gabrielle in obvious question.
“I really want a bath.” The blond woman replied. “I”m really tired of smelling like a horse.”
“Ah.” Xena chuckled. “I like the way horses smell.” She half shrugged.
“I do too.” Her lover agreed. “But I like the smell to stay on the horse and not follow me home.” She exhaled. “So, I thought I’d just sort of find some water and. Um..”
Xena walked over and sat down next to her, extending her long legs across the travel carpet and gazing down on her mud spattered boots. “I”m taking a scouting party out tonight to see what we’re riding up against.” She said. “No sense in getting clean just to get dirty again.”
Gabrielle absorbed this. “Oh.” Her brow puckered. “I guess you’re right.”
The queen laced her fingers together and put them behind her head as she stretched her body out, crossing her ankles as she gazed at the tent roof. “Tired?”
“No, I’m okay.”
Xena tipped her head to one side. “Shut up and stop lying to me or I’m going to cover you in honey and sit you down in red ants.”
The blond woman gazed quietly at her. After a moment, she managed a smile, ducking her head in acknowledgement. “I am tired.” She admitted. “And lots of stuff hurts, but Idon’t want to miss going out with you tonight.”
Xena wiggled her boots. “You’re catching my insanity.” She informed her companion. “Why in Hades would you want to go out in the middle of the night on a horse if you feel like crap?”
Well, it was a good question. Gabrielle didn’t, truthfully, feel like going anywhere any time soon and she suspected Xena knew that. “I don’t think you’re insane.” She demurred. “You just have stuff to do, and I don’t want to miss anything.”
“Mm.” The queen steepled her fingers and rested them against her lips as she watched Gabrielle from over the tips. “If I asked you to stay here and relax, wouldja?” She studied the conflicting emotions on the expressive face across from her. “How about if I said please?”
“You don’t do that a lot.”
“No, I don’t.” Xena agreed. “So you better pay attention when I do.”
Gabrielle smoothed her hand over the top of the linen. “I..” She peeked up at Xena. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m a wuss.”
“A wuss.” Gabrielle said. “You know, like a weak, useless person?”
“Yeah.” The blond woman said, seriously. “All those army guys, and all that. I don’t want them to think I’m just this little.. Wussy person.”
The queen started snickering. “Gabrielle, you keep me fully occupied sexually. No one thinks you’re a wuss.” She laughed harder as her companion turned brick red. “There are a bunch of guys out there I used to sleep with that hold you in total awe.”
“Do you know how many people couldn’t even walk out of my tent in the morning?” Xena asked. “You’re lucky they don’t leave offerings to Aprhodite behind you.”
Gabrielle felt positively lightheaded, imagining all those guys out there thinking she was… Oh gods. “Uhm… okay. I”ll stay here.” She managed to stammer out. “I don’t want to go outside and see those guys right now anyway.”
Xena laughed all the harder, holding her stomach and half rolling off the stool.
Gabrielle shook out one of the linen towels and put it over her head, closing out her view of the chortling queen and the candlelit space around her. She rested her elbows on her knees, and her chin on her fists, and waited for alt he embarrassing noise to stop.
It was so crazy. She didn’t think she did anything really special and in fact, she’d wondered if Xena didn’t just humor her when they were in bed together.
The edge of the linen lifted, and a pair of twinkling blue eyes peered at her from behind it. “Hey.”
Gabrielle felt herself blushing again.
Xena extended her hand into the open space. “C’mon.” She said. “I saw a little spring on my way back from the forward watch.. Let’s go get clean.”
Oh well. Gabrielle took the queen’s hand, and let her remove the cloth from over her head. A cold spring wasn’t really what she had in mind, but she was ready at this point to take what she could get.
And after all, how cold could it possibly be with Xena there?
Not cold at all, as it turned out. Gabrielle sucked in a breath with a small, surprised sound as she dabbled her toe in the ominously dark water and found it warm to the touch. “Oh. It’s warm.”
Xena was sitting on a rock, divesting herself of her armor. “Of course it’s warm.” She laid her bracers down next to her chest armor and started working on her boots. “You don’t really think I”m stupid enough to enjoy putting my ass into ice cold water, do you?”
Gabrielle sat down on the side of the pool and stuck her bare feet in, exhaling at the sheer pleasure of it. The scent from the water was mossy, and had a strong hint of minerals, but the warmth was easing the aches in her legs and she woudln’t have cared if it smelled like a sheep pen. “Mm.”
Xena tossed her boots to one side, and stood, unlacing her leathers and letting them drop. She stepped out of them and into the pool, undoing her underwraps and tossing them on top of the armor. “Ahh.” She felt her way cautiously into the center of the pool, pleased when the bottom was relatively smooth. “Nice.”
Gabrielle found her eyes captured by the queen’s lithe form, outlined in moonlight. “Yeah.” She murmured. “Gorgeous.”
The queen glanced up at her. “You talking to me, lambchop?” She inquired, a quirkly half grin appearing. “Or about me?” She looked down at her naked body, then back up.
“Yes.” Gabrielle wiggled her feet in the water. “You’re so pretty.”
Xena put her hands on her hips and regarded her companion. “You sweet-talking little muskrat. Get in here.” She waded over to where Gabrielle was sitting and scooped up a handful of the water threateningly . “Or else.”
Gabrielle got the message. She undid the belt holding her tunic shut and slipped it off her shoulders, adding her own wraps to it before she scooted into the warm water and immediately sank to her knees, letting the liquid cover her up to her shoulders. “Oh, wow.”
“Sure beats a washcloth soaked in rotgut.” Xena agreed. “Good thing I saw the moss.”
“Why is it warm?” Her lover asked, suddenly. “Did you make it like that?”
The queen cupped a handful of the water and let it trickle through her fingers. “Offshore, once we get past these hills you’ll see a mountain, in the middle of the water.”
A mountain? Suddenly, the idea of seeing places and things unknown to her sparked Gabrielle’s interest. “Really?” She said. “But what does that have to do with warm water?”
“It’s a volcano.” Xena smiled at her reaction. “At night, you’ll be able to see the top glowing.”
Xena eased down next to her, sliding back to rest her shoulders against the rock wall of the pool as the pungent mineral warmth soaked into her bones. She waited until Gabrielle joined her, then nudged the blond woman in the ribs gently with her elbow. “This was a damn good idea.”
The blond woman sank down a little more, closing her eyes blissfully as the spring eased the aches all over her body. “Oh, wow.” She repeated. “This is almost as good as you kissing me.”
Xena turned her head and blew in the pink ear close by her shoulder. “You sure?” She asked. “Maybe it’s better than that.” She half turned her body and studied her companion for a moment, before she leaned over and tested her theory.
A gentle touch warmed the skin high up on the inside of her thigh as Gabrielle turned towards her, and she smiled as she kissed Gabrielle again. “Hope that’s your hand.” She murmured. “Or this is going to get more exciting than either of us can handle.”
“It is.” Gabrielle brushed her body against the queen’s. “After all,I have a.. Um… reputation to keep up, right?”
Xena snickered, as she felt Gabrielle’s hand slide higher. “Lucky me.” She cupped Gabrielle’s breast in one hand and rubbed her thumb over the blond woman’s nipple. “Or maybe lucky you.. Cause so do I.”
The moon set, and the landscape was drenched in darkness. Over the ridge near the road a small party of riders emerged from the trees, gathering in a cluster before they headed towards the hills lead by a horse conspicuously larger and one just as conspicuously smaller than the others.
Xena pulled her dark cloak around her and tucked it’s end under her knee. “Put your hood up.” She said. “That head of yours’ll show for six leagues.”
“But I can’t see with it up.” Gabrielle nontheless tugged the fabric up to cover her blond locks. “Besides, Patches is partly white.”
“Don’t remind me.” The queen sighed. “There’s that insanity, raising it’s ugly head again.”
Gabrielle fluffed her cloak so it fell down on either side of her, draping over Patches sides. Then she resetled her knees and looked ahead of them, into the deep shadows of the night they were riding through. The air was cool, and she felt a spurt of excitement as she headed off into the unknown with Xena.
She felt okay. The bath had done her well, and though she was still sore, the urge to see and explore was overriding the discomfort and she was glad Xena had experienced one of those inexplicable changes of mood and asked her to come after all.
She was funny that way. She’d spend hours telling Gabrielle all the reasons she had for her not to do something, and warning her against disobeying, and then, when it came down to it, she’d turn around and tell her to hurry up and get ready to go.
Weird. Gabrielle wondered what would have happened if she’d said she hadn’t wanted to go still this time. Would Xena have gone along, or would she be riding across the back of Tiger’s butt trussed to the queen’s back like a dressed boar?
Interesting question. She steered Patches to follow Tiger’s lead, as Xena moved off the road and into the grasses, the sound of the horses hooves muffling as she did so.
The soldiers around her were all dressed in dark armor, and their horses coats were shadowed as well, though few were the deep, pitch black of the queen’s stallion. Only her pony stood out from the rest, and Gabrielle was worried about that, after what Xena had said.
She didn’t want anything to happen to Patches. The pony had endeared himself to her, and she was fond of his antics and his cute shagginess that was so different from the other horses. He was smart, and he was brave, and he was a lot more comfortable for her to ride than Tiger, that was for sure.
Nice as it had been to ride in front of Xena, her legs ached from it. “Hey Xena?”
“Will we get to see the volcano tonight?”
The queen chuckled shortly. “Maybe.” She glanced ahead, picking her path carefully. “We’ll see.”
They rode through the dark night for two candlemarks, at a softly rolling canter that ate up the ground with deceptive speed. Xena stopped only once, to catch her bearings and watch the fold in the hills she was aiming for, her sharp eyes focusing into the shadows looking for any motion out of place.
None was. “Okay.” She turned her head and spoke to the soldiers surrounding her. “Here’s the plan. Once we pass through that gap, we’ll be in sight of the port. We’ll have to be on the road for a while - this late we shouldn’t meet anyone.”
“Aye, but if we do?” Brendan asked.
“If we do, just let Gabrielle do the talking.” Xena told him. “She’s a rich merchant’s wife on the way to do some shopping.”
Gabrielle’s eyes opened wide in some surprise, having no more warning on the plan than the rest of them.
“Good deal.” Brendan agreed. “Tell em a good tale then, your Grace.”
“Right.” The queen went on. “Soon as we clear the narrows, we’ll hit the woods on the coastal side and come up that way, there’s a narrow path we can take they shouldn’t spot us on.”
The men all nodded. Gabrielle just scratched her head and hoped she didn’t have to put her acting skills to the test since she had no real idea how a rich merchant was supposed to act, having only experience with noble aristocrats and slave peasants.
They rode on, the atmosphere becoming more tense as they approached the pass, and had to move from the shelter of the trees into the road again, exposing themselves to anyone coming in the other direction.
At this time of night, Xena knew, anyone on the roads would likely either be trouble, or looking for it. She wasn’t entirely sure how she’d categorize her little band, but she loosened her sword in it’s scabbard and checked her daggers just in case.
She stopped just shy of the pass and held her hand up, cocking her head and tilting her ears into the wind.
The men, and Gabrielle, waited in silence, as the queen stood in her stirrups and focused her senses forward of where they were, searching for trouble ahead. After a long moment, she resumed her seat, and jerked her head towards the pass, moving out on Tiger with the rest of them following.
The sound of their hooves on the road seemed loud, and Gabrielle glanced around nervously as they all started forward through the pass.
It was more a crooked fold in the hills, not at all like the passes closer to the stronghold. Those had tall, overarching cliffs on either side, and jagged cracks any number of ambushers could hide in. These, however, were just gentle hills that sloped mildly to either side, with a wide open path between them perfectly suited to merchants wagons and slow, ambling oxen.
The inland road to her realm, Xena accepted a moment of doubt, wondering if she wasn’t just going to shoot an arrow into her own ass doing this. Controlling the port city would definitely give her an advantage on one hand, but on the other, it could chase trade away.
“Damn it.” Xena sighed. “Willya cut out the wishy washy horsecrap?”
Gabrielle moved closer to her. “Did you say something?” She asked, in a low voice.
“No.” The queen muttered. “Shh.”
They were through the pass not long after, and facing a stretch of dark, empty road ahead of them. Xena studied it, then tipped her head back to look at the sky, and decided to change the plan. “We’ll stay on here for a bit.” She said. “We’ll make better time. It’s later than I wanted.”
Brendan nodded. “Aye.” He motioned the rest of the men forward, and they continued down the road. On either side, heavy stands of forest stretched up to another set of hills, and at the very end of the road, they could see the slope turn downward as it started towards the coast.
“Good thing we’re putting a foot in here.” Brendan commented, in an undertone to her. “Big wide hole at our back, this is.”
Xena eyed him. “Exactly.” She said, after a brief pause. “Couldn’t leave it like that. We’ve been lucky.”
“Aye.” The old captain agreed. “Seems quiet.”
“Late watch.” The queen said. “Should be.” She swept her head from side to side, catching the normal sounds of the night around them, the crickets off in the grasses, and the rustling of wildlife moving in the trees beyond that.
Xena paused. Was it wildlife? She suddenly knew another moment of doubt, realizing she was taking for granted that her long unused skills in the wild were going to be as reliable as they used to be.
Was she leading them into a trap, again?
Her throat went dry, and she almost pulled Tiger to a halt again, when she spotted a natural break in the trees not far ahead. “Let’s get off the road there.” She indicated the break. “I want to make sure that seaside path is still around. We’re not going to parade up the road with the damn army.”
They angled off the road a quarter candlemark later, and traveled down a small slope towards the trees. They’d barely gotten there when the sound of hoofbeats made them all turn, backing quickly into the trees as a dimly seen figure on horseback appeared on the road, riding at a steady, though unhurried pace in the direction they’d come from.
The men all looked at Xena with something like awe. “Coulda seen us, sure.” One muttered. “The gods blessed us with those ears.”
Xena sat quietly on Tiger’s back, watching the lone rider. Though it was hard to see details, she could make out his outline, and the lump over his shoulder and the way he sat in the saddle suggested to her that he wasn’t an idle merchant on his way to market.
Interesting. “Jax.” She projected her voice softly. “Follow him.”
One of the soldiers, an old hand of hers, nodded and pulled out of the group. “Just follow?” He asked, holding his horse back a moment.
Xena’s eyes were colorless in the starlight. “Make sure he doesn’t come back this way.” She amended. “But I’d like to know where he’s going and what he’s doing before you gut him.”
“Yes, Majesty.” The man half saluted, and started off, keeping to the edge of the trees as he worked his way along in parallel with the unaware rider.
Satisfied, Xena watched the road a bit longer, to make sure the lone rider was truly lone, before she turned and started off into the forest, hoping the trees hadn’t grown so large it would keep the horses from passing between them.
As she felt the darkness of the forest close around her, her shoulders relaxed and she was able to concentrate on finding the path, rather than thinking of the one they’d so recently left.
Lucky. She’d gotten lucky again. But how long could she depend on luck to cover up what she was beginning to suspect might be a terminally lethal fading of her generalship?
“Boy, it’s creepy in here.” Gabrielle suddenly spoke up. “I can’t see a thing.”
“Sa’llright, your grace. Xena can see just fine.” Brendan told her, with a faint chuckle in his voice. “Damned if that didn’t get us out of the gods know what in the old days.”
Xena let her eyes scan the forest, the branches so thick they blocked out the starlight and left the space under the canopy in what was, to her eyes, silver and gray shadows. Regardless, the trunks and the underbrush were outlined clearly in her eyes, and she was grateful that that, at least, seemed to be working up to expectations. “Yeah, we’re fine.” She concluded. “Just follow me.”
“No problem.” Gabrielle reached up and firmly grasped Xena’s stirrup. “I’m just glad I can’t see all the spiders.”
Xena’s head jerked up, and her nostrils flared, unseen. “What?”
“What made you mention spiders?”
“Aren’t there always spiders?” The blond woman asked, reasonably. “But it’s okay, if you can see them, right?”
Xena’s eyes widened to their fullest, and she started peering around furtively. “Sure.”
“Then we’re okay, right?”
“Yeah, we’re great.” Xena drew her sword from it’s sheath, and fingered the hilt. “Just keep your head down.”
“And don’t’ tickle my leg, if you like your head on your shoulders.”
Xena cursed under her breath as her cloak caught in a tangle of branches for the nth time. The forest had gotten far more dense since she’d last been this way and she could barely force her way through the foliage as she led the way through the trees.
They were on foot now, and she could hear Gabrielle just behind her, the blond woman’s hand latched firmly around a fold in Xena’s cloak as she followed close in her shadow. “Watch out for that stick.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle could see absolutely nothing except a vague shadow that was Xena in front of her. She edged up closer to the queen and wished the forest would end, hearing the soft curses of the soldiers behind her as they struggled to make their way through. “Is it almost done?”
Like she knew? Xena peered ahead of her, seeing only interlaced branches as dark, silver outlined annoyances and wishing she’d just stayed in her tent. “Soon.’” She said. “Hey. Pass me up that stick of yours, willya?”
Gabrielle willingly did so. That freed up her other hand to find a place on Xena’s hip, and she felt better immediately at this additional contact. “It’s going to be hard to get the army through here, isn’t it?”
Xena was busy beating branches into a splintering death. “No.” She grunted. “If it pisses me off enough I’ll just burn the gods be damned thing down.”
The queen was glad it was only just spring. If the branches had been full summer sap filled ones, the staff she was wielding would have been bouncing back and smacking her in the head and making her mood even worse than it was.
She grimly moved forward, levering two slim trunks apart to admit her tall frame, slipping between them and finding herself thankfully in a wider, more open space. She tipped her head back and saw stars overhead, their silver light casting shadows around her. “Okay.”
Gabrielle squirmed into the opening, blinking her eyes a little and rubbing them. Here in the starlight, she could just make out Xena’s outline, and looking up she saw the pale eyes watching her. “I like it better here.”
Xena half smiled, then she drew Gabrielle to one side to make room for the rest of the soldiers. Once they’d joined her, she turned and faced them, one arm draped over Gabrielle’s shoulders and the other curled around the staff. “We’re about halfway through.” She said, briefly.
None of the men with her said a word, but the unheard groan was clear. Xena didn’t grudge it to them, having the same inner moan herself going on. “Just stay close to me.” She advised them, before she turned and went to the far edge of the small clearing, letting one hand rest on the trunk of the nearest tree and leaning forward.
She could hear the soft sounds of animals moving head of them, but that had been so for the whole trip already. The sounds would halt when they neared, and resume when they passed, and that, she knew was normal.
Her nose twitched, and she caught the scent of musk, then underneath that the welcome scent, faint and irregular, of salt on the air. She closed her eyes, and exhaled, that smell bringing back the best and the worst of her memories.
“Xena?” Gabrielle put her hand on her back and leaned close. “What’s wrong?”
And how did she know something was? Xena turned her head. “Nothing. Just checking the way out.” She told her companion. “Ever seen the ocean, muskrat?”
Gabrielle shook her head at once. “No.. but I’d really like to.” She said. “One time, I heard a man telling people about it and it sounded amazing.”
Amazing. “You’ll see it.” Xena started pushing forward again. “C’mon.” ‘
“Right behind you.” Gabrielle resumed her hold, and stuck close to the queen, ducking as branches smacked into them.
Just following gave her a lot of time to think about things. Like how musky the air smelled, and how scary it was to walk through the darkness with all kinds of things rustling and moving around her.
She hoped it would be over sooner than Xena thought.
She hoped the horses would be okay, back where they’d left them, with only one soldier to guard them. It was a wild world, and she was a little worried about Patches. “Hey Xena?”
“Was that an owl?”
The queen paused, and looked around. ‘Where?” She cocked her head, as she spotted two big, yellow glowing eyes watching them. “Ah.” She studied the eyes, which blinked slowly, as though the creature was evaluating her. After a moment she could make out the outline of it, it’s thickly tufted head and square body. “Yeah.”
Xena glanced at her and then she shook her head and kept forcing her way through the branches. “C’mon.”
Gabrielle watched the owl a moment more, before she followed. The big birds had always fascinated her, and it was the closest she’d ever been to one. “They’re supposed to be really smart.” She said. “I know a story about an owl. Want to hear it?”
“Sure.” Xena levered the staff against a set of branches, splintering them as she leaned her weight against their stubbornness. “Better than hearing myself curse. Start talking.”
“Well, once there was this owl..” Gabrielle was glad of the distraction, and of the chance to be useful. She thought the men were also glad for something to pass the time, and she spun the story out a little longer, adding some details and a dove as the owl’s love interest.
It was mostly a children’s story, really, she’d heard it from a wandering storyteller long ago, who’d stopped in her village one night and traded some tales for a plate of stew and a mug and given them his dinner’s worth for sure.
She remembered sitting by the fire in the common room at the inn, far past her usual bedtime and just listening to all these strange and new images that tumbled from the man’s mouth and it had ignited in her the desire to be able to do the same thing.
“So one day, the owl and the dove were walking out near the creek, and along came a hungry wolf.”
Storyteller. Now it held a value, but in her family it had been a curse and she touched with her tongue the scar on the inside of her lip from the smack she’d gotten the first time her father had caught her doing it.
The men were all silent, listening to her, no longer cursing even under their breaths.
“The wolf said, Owl, you are a sage of the forest, and I respect that, but I am hungry and so, I will eat your companion instead.” Gabrielle said. “But the owl spread his wings, and opened his beak and flew right at the wolf, right into his teeth and his claws, and a horrible noise came up.”
“The owl was an idiot.” Xena called back. “Doves are a quarter dinar a dozen.”
Gabrielle gave the queen’s back a little scratch with her fingers. “The wolf was huge, and the owl had no chance.” She went on. “But he was brave, and he kept fighting, and then all of a sudden, the dove flew in, and started pecking at the wolf’s eyes.”
“Good for ‘er!” The closest soldier said.
“There is no way a dove would ever peck the eyes of a wolf.” The queen shook her head. “Where do you get this stuff from?”
“Well, if you were a dove, you’d peck a wolf’s eyes.” Gabrielle said, reasonably.
“If I was a what?”” Xena paused in her relentless mangling of foliage and glowered at her lover, who ruined the moment by giving her an unseen hug. “I’ll give you a dove, you little…” She turned and shoved past a dense thicket, almost overbalancing when it gave way and she stumbled onto a white path double the breadth of her shoulders.
“Oh.” Gabrielle scrambled out after her. “You found it!”
Xena settled the staff at her side. “Of course I did.” She covered her startlement, realizing she’d headed into the forest at a deeper angle than she’d thought. Now out of the trees, she could see the irregular edge of the rise that hid the coastline, and, as she turned around, the far entrance that would let the army through in some semblance of order. “There. See?”
The men nodded, looking around. “Good path then, Xena.” One said. “Could take the whole army here, nobody’d see a thing.”
“Exactly.” The queen nodded. “All right, let’s get a move on, now that we can get a move on.” She started down the path, pathetically glad to be out in the open again, even if it was on a narrow path between hedgerows and a forest. “So. You gonna finish telling us how the owl croaked?”
Gabrielle settled her cloak around her shoulders and ran her fingers through her hair to rid it of the twigs and leaves that had settled over her. “Well, he didn’t.” She said. “See, the dove blinded the wolf, and he let go of the owl, because he was afraid of the dark.”
Xena rolled her eyes, out of sight of the rest of them.
“So the owl and the dove escaped into the forest, and they became heroes to all the other little animals who were afraid of the wolf.”
Xena rolled her eyes again.
“And so, I guess the moral of that story is.. “ Gabrielle’s voice was suddenly different, a touch deeper. “That with love, anything is possible.”’
The queen could feel the silence behind her, as her consort’s words faded quietly into the shadows, altering a foolish childs tale into a truth that hammered at the skin on the back of her neck as she thought about what those words really meant to her.
Did Gabrielle know, truly know, how relevant those words were? Did she understand that it was only that nit piggly detail that had kept Xena from giving in to death’s coaxing, under that mountain, all those months ago?
She’d been so tired. So shamed, at leading them into that trap. Death would have been all too welcome, rather than face that disgrace except she’d had to listen to that little voice pleading with her not to leave.
Her pride, surrendering without even a token whimper. “Yeah, I guess that’s true.” The queen said, with a faint chuckle. “Now come up with something less sappy and more gory before I start puking.”
“C’’mon, c’mon, middle of the night in a forest full of spiders aint’ no time to be sappy.” Xena cut her off.
“Well.” Gabrielle took an extra step to keep up. “I know one about a warthog.”
The men behind her started chuckling.
“A warthog?” Xena’s voice was a mix of resignation and disbelief.
“It’s gory. Trust me.”
The breeze shifted, freshening and fluttering their cloaks as it came straight down the path now. Xena lifted her face into it, striding ahead across the path, a mixture of sand and rocks that shifted faintly under her weight with a soft hiss and crunch.
Gabrielle caught up with her, having run out of stories for the moment. “What’s that smell?” She asked, lifting a hand into the wind.
The blond woman frowned. “I’ve never smelled water like that before.” She objected.
“No.” The queen chuckled softly. “You’ve never seen water like this before either, trust me.” She twitched her nose at the familiarity. “Listen, you hear that?”
Gabrielle tilted her head, hearing at first nothing but their own footsteps. “No, well.. “ She paused, then, as she detected something else. Behind the rustling of the forest to their right, and the sound of the wind against the scrub to their right, she heard something strange.
Something soft, and rhythmic, a roar and crash unlike anything else she’d ever listened to. “What is it?”
Xena came to a break in the scrub, and she turned, giving Gabrielle a nudge. “Climb up there.” She indicated the rise. “Hold up, the rest of you. Take a break.”
Puzzled, Gabrielle looked at the queen, then she shook her head and did as she was told, going to the rise and starting to scramble up it. She’d made it a few steps before she heard Xena behind her and then a hand gripped her belt and she was being carried up ward like she was little more than a sack. “Urf!”
“Haven’t got all day.” The queen said, as they reached the top of the rise and rose into the full strength of the wind coming off the ocean. “There.”
“There what? I ..” Gabrielle managed to get her feet under her and she stood up, pulling aside the folds of cloak that had covered her head as she turned her head into the wind. The scent was far stronger now, and she could see why. “Oh, my gods. Wow.”
Spreading before them was a rocky escarpment that plunged down into what seemed to her an endless, shifting, surface full of white highlights and motion, reflecting the starlight back at them in a rush of restless surging waves.
It seemed to go on forever, from the curving coastline that jutted out ahead of where they were and blocked their view that way, back past where she could see anything but darkness in the direction they’d come from.
“That’s the sea.” Xena remarked. “Water as far as you can look, and you can’t drink a drop of it.”
Gabrielle was loathe to turn her head. “Really? Why?”
“Full of salt.” The queen answered. “Bitch to travel on. There’s your damn volcano.” She pointed to a shadow on the horizon. “See?”
Gabrielle blinked a few times, then she stared at the shadow, seeing a sudden glow on the top of it, and a flash as sparks blew up into the formless clouds. “Wow.” She murmured. “It sort of looks like our campfire in the morning.”
Xena had folded her arms over her chest, her eyes regarding the sea, and it’s mysteries with an enigmatic calm. “Yeah.” She said. “C’mon. We’ve got ground to cover yet.” She turned and started back down the rise, using the staff to ease her path.
For a moment, Gabrielle stood alone in the face of the wind, and she allowed the feeling of being on the edge of all that vast unknown fill her, closing her eyes and spreading her arms out to it as she filled her lungs with that strange, pungent air.
This was what she’d hoped for. This was what her imagination had been craving, sights and sounds and smells to feed her inner eye with new possibilities.
“Sorry.” She turned around and trotted after her companion, who was waiting impatiently a few steps down the slope. “It’s just so amazing.”
A sarcastic response trembled on her lips for just a moment, then Xena smiled instead, belatedly remembering her own first reaction to the sight. She put her arm around Gabrielle as they half slid, half climbed back to the path, and rejoined the soldiers. “Maybe I’ll take you sailing on it sometime.”
Gabrielle grinned in pure reaction, winding her arm around the queen’s waist as they joined the others. “Awesome.”
Xena chuckled as she led the way around the bend in the path past the break, and started on a slight downslope she knew would lead to the plain and the port city that was her ultimate goal. She relaxed a little, tossing her head to clear her wind blown hair back and sniffed a little as the wind shifted again, this time coming from the landside.
At once, she stiffened. “Hold it.” She lifted her hand and stopped in the middle of the path as her senses fought to make sense of the new information flooding into them.
She’d expected trees, and earth, and perhaps livestock. To find the scent of men, and horses, and field tent hides shocked her, and she considered the possibilities carefully before she spoke. “Okay.” She finally said. “Now here’s what we came for.”
“Majesty?” One of the men asked, hesitantly.
The queen started forward, moving now with more caution. She held a hand up for silence, and made her way along the path to the edge of the trees, where they could see an opening. She slowed as she reached it, and tucked her body behind the last tree before she peered out, the faint pearl gray of the coming dawn outlining the plains below them.
And, then, she slowly exhaled. In the faint light, an army was revealed, spread across the plains in all it’s brutal, functional glory, it’s source and intent and direction focused clearly on the valley they’d just come from.
“Bigods.” Brendan whispered. “Bigods, you knew it.” He turned his head towards Xena. “All the hurrying.”
“You did know.” Gabrielle blurted. “You said something was out here.”
So I did. Xena leaned her cheek against the bark, reviewing the mass of men, easily triple the size of her own force. “Well.” She sighed. “I was looking for a challenge.”
“Bigods found one.” Brendan exhaled.
“Mm.” His queen agreed. “Next time maybe I’ll just try learning croquet instead. This is going to be a bigger bitch than I am.”
Gabrielle stared at the army, and swallowed, unsure she’d wanted quite this much new experience in quite so graphic a way. “Oh boy.”
“Mm.” Xena felt a moment of wry self knowledge. “Guess we’ll find out if my rep’s worth anything anymore, huh?” She muttered. “Just goes to show ya, Gabrielle. Be careful what you ask for.”
Continued in Part 10