Shadows of the Soul
It was glorious. The sun burst out from behind the clouds and lit the river in a million shades of blue and green as they swept around a tight, fast bend and found the plateau opening out before them. Gabrielle felt her jaw drop open, and her eyes widen at the beauty of it – the forest and grasslands spreading out intersected by the river, and then in the distance, the soaring towers of the stronghold basking in the light. “Oh, wow.”
“What?” Xena looked up from where she was kneeling, one hand spread to steady herself on the raft’s surface. “You have to piddle or something?”
“No.” Gabrielle rested a hand on the queen’s soaked shoulder. “It’s so beautiful.” She exhaled. “It like a fantasy land.”
Xena’s blue eyes rolled. “Gabrielle, I love you, but if you say that again I’m gonna chuck your cute butt overboard and feed you to the salmon.”
Her companion grinned, slightly. “Would you?” She asked. “Are the salmon that big here?”
The queen glanced around at the rest of the raft’s occupants. Most of them were just hanging on tight, with varying expressions of relief and exhaustion. With a faint smirk, she eased up onto her knees and flexed the hand she’d been leaning on, then she looked very briefly at the water before lunging forward and sticking her hand in the river without warning.
“Hey!” Gabrielle grabbed hold of her cloak in reflex.
Xena pulled her arm back, and to Gabrielle’s utter startlement, there was a fish on the end of it. With a snicker, the queen tossed the fish at her, and she had to let go and try to catch it, juggling the offended Piscean with fumbling hands. “Yow! Yow!!! Augh!”
The queen started laughing.
Gabrielle fell down on her butt and grabbed hold of the fish, clutching it to her chest with wide eyes. “Great Hera!”
Xena flicked water, and an errant scale off her fingers and resumed her crouched position, swaying with the motion of the raft as it continued on downstream. “Big enough for ya?”
“How did you do that?” The girl blurted. “You just reached in and grabbed it!”
Dark lashes batted at her. “I’m good with my hands.” The queen drawled. “Or.. so I’m told.”
Gabrielle looked around at all the tired, but amused faces watching her. She promptly turned as pink as the fish she held to her. It wiggled. She stared at it, then turned appealing eyes to Xena. “Now what?”
“If you hit it hard enough on the head, it’ll croak.” Xena suggested.
The queen rolled her eyes again. “Or you could just toss it overboard. They swim.” She said. “Unlike certain muskrats I know.” She reached out and yanked on the toe of Gabrielle’s boot. “Not like we can cook it out here, and I’m not in the mood for raw fish.” A pause. “At the moment.”
Gabrielle glanced quickly at her, sure in her heart there was a sex joke in there somewhere based on the soft chortles she heard from the men. “Well.” She examined her catch, which was a fine specimen of salmon, big and heavy, just at the start of its run up the mountain. “If we keep it, I know a really great way of cooking it.”
Xena chuckled. “It could be a while, Gabrielle.” She said. “River’s got half a day to run before we’re at the gates.”
“Hm.” Unwilling to give up her unexpected prize, Gabrielle considered the problem. She looked around, then she eased over to a bit of extra bark stripping the men had tossed aboard for repairs in route before they left.
Working quickly, aware of the watching eyes, she managed to get an end down the fish’s maw and out it’s gills and tied it off, then she tossed the salmon in the water, holding on to the other end of the bark. “There.” She said, wrapping the end of the bark around her hand as the fish trailed unwillingly behind them. “Darned if I’ll give up dinner that fast.”
The queen produced a grin at the sight of the expression of triumph on her bedmate’s face. Then she shook her head and turned, taking a seat at last on the deck as the river widened, and it’s flow gentled. They’d made it.
Damn, she was tired. Xena knew herself to be at the end of her resources, and she spared a moment to be glad she’d lasted as long as she had. She really wanted no more than to just lay herself down on the raft and close her eyes, but she knew full well she’d see herself dancing buck naked on a tree stump before she’d do that in front of all these now respectfully watching eyes.
Even something to lean on would be nice, though. Xena shifted, and got herself a little more comfortable.
Then she almost jumped off the raft as something very warm pressed up against her back. “Son of a..” She bit off the yelp as she realized it was Gabrielle, who had crawled over to sit back to back with her.
“Sorry.” Gabrielle said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Scare me?” The queen snorted. “In your dreams, muskrat.” She relaxed, finding the unexpected support both pleasant and welcome, nevertheless. She wondered if Gabrielle had done it on purpose, then figured even though the little scamp was clever, reading Xena’s mind was thankfully still beyond her.
“So.. how did you do it?” Gabrielle asked, in a low voice.
“Catch the fish?”
Xena examined one of her hands, it’s long, powerful fingers half closed. “Just something I learned how to do.” She said. “When you’re hungry, you learn a Hades of a lot of things. I was. I did.” She felt the warm pressure as her lover pressed her cheek against Xena’s shoulderblade. “You just know where they are, and go get them.” Her hand closed into a fist.
“Well, I think it’s pretty amazing. In Potadeia, they fished in the river, but no one could do what you did.” Gabrielle replied. “So, I promise I’ll make the best salmon ever for you, when we get to dry land again.”
Xena could almost taste it. No matter how it was prepared, the damn thing would taste the same as all the rest of Gabrielle’s dishes did – spiced with the delicate savor of a true and honest love that her mouth gently watered for.
Ugh. The queen slapped the side of her head. Gotta stop thinking that stuff. I’ll go blind.
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle whispered.
The younger woman studied her boots, the leather darkened almost to black from the water. “Wish I had one.”
Xena’s eyebrows jerked upward. “What?”
“You have a salmon.”
Gabrielle sighed, and shifted a little. “Well, sure, but I’m hungry now, and I don’t want raw fish any more than you do. If I had a peach, I could eat the whole thing right now.”
“No, you couldn’t.”
The blond woman turned her head and looked up. “Why not?”
“I’d get half, wouldn’t I?”
A soft chuckle sounded over the river’s rippling. “That’s true.” Gabrielle looked around, catching the eye of the nearest soldier, who was gripping a branch at the ready to push off from the shore if they got too close. The man grinned at her, and gave her a thumbs up. She returned the gesture, hoping it was as friendly as she thought it was.
Apparently it was. As she looked around again, she could see faces turned her way that no longer held wariness or suspicion, but instead just acceptance.
It was a strange feeling, Gabrielle thought. Almost as though she’d passed some test, and been accepted into this odd family of men, and their leader. One of the soldiers was casually drinking from a waterskin, and as she watched, he finished and held it out to her.
She took it, thirsty despite all the water around her, and drank, handing it back to him when she was done. “Thanks.”
The man merely grinned, and handed the skin on to another soldier.
Sitting here, on a roughly made raft, cold, with splinters in places she didn’t even want to identify, Gabrielle really stopped feeling like an outsider for the very first time. This was her place. She gazed around at the men, and the servants beside them.
This was home.
That was home, too. “Yes, your Majesty?”
Xena cleared her throat meaningfully.
“Well, it’s not like I can call *you* muskrat, can I?”
“Not unless you want to be introduced to that fish’s cousins the hard way.” Xena replied. “Nobody calls me muskrat and lives.”
“Of course not.” Her companion agreed.
“You’re so not a muskrat anyway.”
“How would you know?” The queen queried. “I had to tell you what one was.” She paused for a moment, then half turned to watch Gabrielle’s windswept profile. “What am I?” Her eyes searched her lover’s face intently, wondering and daring her to answer.
Gabrielle gazed steadily at her. “Xena, I grew up on a sheep farm. Don’t ask me that.”
For a moment, the queen could only be shocked. Then she started laughing.
“I mean it… what kind of experience of animals do you think I’ve had?”
Xena laughed harder, despite the pain in her head, and the exhaustion of her body. The rest of the journeyers on their raft joined in, laughing more at seeing their queen in this state of joy than from the odd joke.
“Sheep, goats, cows, horses… chickens… “ Gabrielle carried on. “Ducks.”
“Quack.” Xena managed to get out.
“Stop it.” The queen gently craned around and put a hand over Gabrielle’s mouth. “You’re going to make me fall over into the damned river.” She waited, to let the chuckling die down, the removed her fingers. “Scrappy little shepherd.”
Gabrielle felt her lips pull up into a grin. Then she laid her cheek against Xena’s shoulderblade again. “I can’t wait till we get home.”
Both dark brows jerked upward. “To cook your fish?”
“Oo.” Xena found herself looking forward to it as well. “Damn, you learn fast.”
“I had the best teacher.”
The queen faced round again, and surrendered the field, general enough to know herself momentarily bested.
But she was still smiling, and the river just couldn’t move them along fast enough.
It was Xena, injured as she was, that noticed first. She pushed herself up to her knees as the rafts swept around the last curve before the stronghold, her sharp eyes catching sight of something that ripped an oath from her lips. “Stop the rafts!”
Uncertain, Gabrielle leaped up as Xena lunged for the nearby bank, grabbing hold of the queen as the queen grabbed hold of an overhanging branch, somehow bringing the raft to a halt with sheer strength.
Behind them, the other rafts scrambled to follow, men extending arms over the water to pull the trailing crafts in and keep them from rushing on down the river. Luckily, the current was far milder here, and no one’s arms got ripped from their sockets, nor did anyone fall overboard.
“What is it?” Gabrielle panted, struggling to keep hold of Xena’s robes. “Xena!”
“Shh.” The queen straightened to her full height, staring off at the stronghold, her eyes shaded by one had now that the soldiers had rushed to secure the raft from her. “See that?” She pointed.
Everyone looked. For a moment, the men all looked at each other, as no one spotted anything, then Brendan let out a sound halfway between a bark and a yell and also pointed. “Tis under siege!” He gasped. “Ares’ balls!”
Now they could see, just barely against the lowering clouds what Xena’s eyes had seen first – smoke and a rising mist of dust before the far off gates. “Sons of Bacchae.” The queen seemed half disgusted, and half amused. “Stupid bastards.”
Gabrielle felt her heart drop. Just when it had looked like they were almost there, now this. “Oh.” She turned to look at Xena. “What is it?”
The other rafts had pulled hard against the bank, amidst a crackle of breaking branches, and creaking wood. Xena turned deliberately and surveyed her little navy, then shook her head with a deeply heartfelt sigh. “A mess.” She replied. “Just a damn mess.”
The queen rested one hand on a branch and studied the far off battle. “Well, first off, we need to get off these damn rafts. We’ll have to go on foot the rest of the way. Banks are too broad down there – they see us coming and we can’t stop, we’ll all end up fish food.”
“Gah.” Brendan exhaled. “Right you are, mistress.” He lifted his voice and repeated her orders down the line.
With uttered curses, the men started to tie the rafts off to the trees, two of the soldiers on their craft drawing knives to begin carving a path out of the thick riverside brush so they could get to the banks.
Xena watched for a moment, then she walked to the front, turning her back on the work as she stared off at the stronghold. After a brief hesitation, Gabrielle joined her, putting a tentative hand on the queen’s back.
“Gabrielle.” Xena folded her arms, keeping her balance by some mysterious skill as the raft rocked back and forth under their weight. “We are not pleased.”
“No, we certainly aren’t.” Gabrielle sighed. “What could be happening?”
“Hm.” A dark eyebrow lifted. “If I was a betting woman, which I am, I’d say Brego’s minions, and the rest of that rag tag excuse for an army of his are trying to take over the city.”
“I’d say he waited for me to leave, and pounced.” The queen added. “And, I’d say the only reason he’s still out there is that my friend the Duke proved he was worth the velvet pants his balls were cradled in and actually stuck with me.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle gazed respectfully at her friend. “It’s like you were there. You know exactly what happened.”
A tiny, self deprecating grin crossed Xena’s face. She casually glanced behind her, then cocked her head. “I planned it.” She said, in a low tone.
Gabrielle blinked. Then she blinked again. Then she turned and looked at Xena with a scrunched up face. “What?”
Xena chuckled softly. “My piece of brilliant strategy. Draw Bregos out and put my heir to the test, all in one strike, before the first snow falls.”
“You planned that?”
“Mm.” A half shrug. “Well, I calculated it out, and put the right triggers in place. And it worked.” She slapped her leg. “Damned if it didn’t work.”
Her companion scrubbed her face with one hand. “But… we’re out here, and we…”
“Ah, yes, but.” Xena exhaled. “Yeah, I didn’t calculate in having my ass kicked and ending up on the outside with a bunch of guys, a few weapons, and an adorable muskrat without a plan, no.”
“Oh.” There was a bittersweet expression on the queen’s face that intrigued Gabrielle. “What was your plan, then? To come riding back to the rescue?”
Blue eyes shifted and regarded her.
“It was, wasn’t it?”
“Something like that.” Xena admitted. “Now, I still have to do it, but with out horses and with a scrambled head.” She sighed. “Life’s little challenges. Gotta love em.” She studied the far off chaos. “Feels good to be right about someone though.” Her eyes dropped to her companion’s. “That’s two in a row. I’m on a roll.”
Gabrielle had to smile, despite this new, and somewhat daunting complication. The last words had been in a softer, reflective tone and the look on Xena’s face was something she treasured. “Was I the first one?” She asked, though she really knew the answer already.
“Yeah.” Xena nodded slowly. “You were… first in a really long time.” Unexpectedly, she enfolded Gabrielle in her arms and hugged her tightly, then just as abruptly released her and bumped her towards the shore. “Let’s go.”
Her mind still whirling from the intensity of the contact, Gabrielle tagged along, wrapping her hand into Xena’s cloak as the queen made her way off the raft and onto solid ground.
It felt strange, when she’d gotten together her presence of mind long enough to feel anything, and she thought for a moment the ground was rocking under her so long had they been on the water. But after a few minutes her balance steadied, and she followed the queen through the thick brush and up a steep slope away from the river.
They gathered in the most clear spot they could find, between two patches of short, scrubby trees. Brendan directed the soldiers, steering two of them carrying one of the few remaining wooden boxes of gear towards the base of the tree on the highest ground. “Put ‘er there, lads.” He instructed. “We’ll need er as a table.”
“How about a throne?” Xena gently booted the men out of the way and took a seat on the box, fluffing her cloak out around her with regal elegance, despite the fact that she was covered in river muck and still half drenched.
With a flick of her fingers, she rearranged her bangs, and waited while the men and women slowly gathered around her. “All right.” The queen addressed them, when they were still and quiet. “Looks like we’ve got a problem.”
“Mistress, is it Bregos?” One of the older soldiers asked. “Seems his cowardly ways.”
“To wait for me to leave?” Xena asked, watching the nodding heads around her. “Yeah.” A brief smile crossed her face. “He’s gutless. He knows he can’t win against me, so looks like he figured to try the easy way out.”
“Woudlna surprise me to find he’s the bastard behind them brigands in the hills.” Brendan spoke up. “Figgured to grease his odds.”
The queen looked thoughtful at that. “Maybe.” She jerked her head to one side. “Doesn’t matter now. Forget about it. We’ve got this to deal with now.”
Gabrielle had taken a seat next to Xena’s throne box, and wrapped her arms around her upraised knees. She knew she had very little to add to the situation, and resigned herself to doing the best she could at what she was good at.
She felt one of her eyebrows twitch up at that. What was she good at, anyway? Especially in the middle of what looked like it was going to be a big fight?
Her shoulder was pressed against Xena’s leg, and she could smell the river dampness coming off her clothes. She could also feel tremors in the queen’s body, and she realized the cool, relaxed, collected act Xena was putting on was just that, an act.
Okay, so, she was good at taking care of the queen, wasn’t she? That’s what she’d do. Gabrielle leaned her cheek against Xena’s knee, and was rewarded by the feel of long fingers running gently through her hair.
Gods, she loved that feeling. It was one of the very first things Xena had done to her, one of the first indications she’d had that the queen was growing to like her and she still felt a special thrill deep in her guts every time she did it.
“So, here’s the plan.” Xena was saying. “First thing’s first. We need to find out what the layout is, and what he’s got.”
“Aye, Mistress. Me and six lads’r already packed up. We’ll go as your finished.” Brendan spoke up confidently. “Don’t you worry, we’ll scope her for ya.” He cleared his throat. “Best the rest of us stay back here, out of sight. Don’t wanta ruin the surprise, like.”
Xena gazed at him, then chuckled dryly. “What the Hades are you still sitting here for then? Get your ass moving.” She waved him off. “We don’t have all day. I’m sick and tired of being wet and cranky. I want a hot bath, and warm bed, and my torridly passionate bedmate in just exactly that order.”
Gabrielle just closed her eyes, and pretended the chuckles were for some poor beaver tripping somewhere and falling on it’s nose. There was a rustle of much movement, then she opened her eyes to see the soldiers leaving, and the rest of the group breaking up to make some kind of camp while they were gone.
She tipped her head back and looked up at Xena. “What can I do for you?” She asked, sincerely.
Xena leaned back against the tree, and relaxed. “Shoot me.”
“I don’t think so.”
The queen sighed. “How about something hot to swallow, then?” The fascade slipped a little. “And if anything in my damn kit’s dry, I’d trade you a palace for it.”
“You got it.” Gabrielle kissed her knee, then got up and flexed her hands. The cold wind had stiffened them, and if it was making her miserable, she could only imagine how the already injured queen must have felt. She studied the pale face next to her, then impulsively took it in her hands, and leaned closer, kissing the queen on the lips with a gentle passion.
She felt the skin under her fingertips warm, as Xena’s hands curled around her thighs, pulling her closer. All the watching eyes didn’t matter, as she concentrated on the wonderful, wild force she could feel rising in her, igniting a burning in her guts that threw off the chill like magic.
Maybe it would do that for Xena, too. Gabrielle drew her head back a little to breathe, and watched the queen’s eyes flutter open, fixing on her with an indescribable expression. “It… um.. was faster than rubbing two sticks together?” She whispered.
“Sure was.” The queen whispered back. “Keep it up, and the heat’ll dry my clothes out.” She let her hand drift slowly down Gabrielle’s leg. “Who the Hades needs fire?”
Gabrielle needed no further invitation. She leaned back in and explored Xena’s lips with her own, as her fingers traced lightly over the queen’s cheekbones, and into the thick, dark hair.
Dear gods, it felt good. Gabrielle felt a low almost growl work it’s way out of her throat, as Xena’s grip moved her even closer, and their bodies pressed together.
Incongruously, she wondered if there would be steam rising over their heads if she looked.
Then she just decided not to look.
“Mmmmm…. Is it ever good to be the queen.” Xena uttered, between gentle, lover’s bites.
Darkness had fallen, and the men had not yet come back. The remaining troops and servants had settled into the scrub, scraping out as best a camp as they could, making tiny, smokeless fires shielded by walls to block the light from the direction of the stronghold.
It had gotten colder as the light failed, but at least most of their clothing had dried and now they huddled in small groups together, soldiers and servants mingling without bias between them.
Under a gnarled, half dead tree in the center of the group was the box, and sitting in front of the box, leaning against it was Xena. Her long legs were extended towards the fire, boots crossed casually at the ankle and she cradled a traveling cup that had steam rising from it in both hands.
The nearest bodies to her were with in easy reach, one man’s elbow was almost brushing her leg. There was no tension in the air, though, and whether caused by their joint exhaustion or a growing sense of trust, there was a distinct and quiet peace about the campfire.
Unfortunately, the peace did not extend to the tall, dark figure in it’s midst. Xena’s fingers shifted and flexed around her cup, and if she’d been standing up, she’d surely have been tapping the toe of her boot in impatience.
“Maybe they’re just being careful.” Gabrielle murmured, taking a sip from her own cup. Her voice was lightly hoarse, as she’d just finished telling a story to pass the time. “That’s good, right?”
“There’s such a thing as too careful.” The queen growled. “I want them back here, damn it, right now.”
Gabrielle watched the queen’s profile. “Want me to go find them?” She offered.
Xena looked at her. “Tell me you’re kidding.”
“You little nutball.” The queen chided her. “It’s dark. You’ve got no clue where we are, and you couldn’t track a walking cow through the forest.”
“And?” Gabrielle blinked innocently at her.
“You really think I’d let you take one step away from me?” Xena’s voice sounded incredulous.
A smile. “No.”
Xena snorted. “Damn straight.”
“But I know it’s what you want to do, so I thought I’d at least offer.” Gabrielle took another sip of the hot herbal tea in her cup, savoring the soothing moisture on her throat. “I’m sure they’re okay.”
“Well, I’m not.” The queen frowned. “It shouldn’t have taken them this long. If I’d have gone…” She let the words trail off, and exhaled. “Let’s go back to kissing. That’ll take my mind off it.”
Gabrielle stroked her arm comfortingly.
Xena remained grumpily silent for a bit, then, as one of the men stirred the fire, her head came up and a low, urgent bark issued from her throat.
Everyone froze. The sound of the flames consuming the pine needles suddenly seemed like an avalanche in the abrupt silence.
Then a soft, steady crunching of approaching footsteps were clearly heard. Half the soldiers in the clearing jumped to their feet and drew their swords, while the other half scrambled to put themselves between whatever was coming and the servants.
“Nice.” Xena remarked, conversationally. “Idiotic, but nice.”
One of the men turned. “Mistress?”
“Get ready!” Another hissed. “Here they come!”
Xena folded her arms, and remained where she was, comfortably relaxed. Gabrielle looked uncertainly at the men, then decided the safest place she could think of was right where she was, tucked against Xena’s side. So she stayed put.
The bushes parted. One of the soldiers let out a yell, and the men in the clearing sprang forward to attack – only to be met with familiar voices calling them off.
“Cut it out, ye nitwits!” Brendan’s welcome tones sounded. “Get back!”
Gabrielle peeked around Xena’s shoulder and waved at him. “Boy, are we glad to see you!”
Her protective barricade raised both eyebrows and gave her a look. “We?” She intoned. “Speak for yourself. I’m sitting here wondering why it took a whole damn day to walk to the edge of the river and back.” She turned to eye Brendan. “Well?”
The old soldier ambled forward, and knelt at Xena’s side. His clothing was stained with mud, and covered in thin, green stripes, as though he’d rubbed himself with leaves. The stain also was smeared across his face, though by design or accident it was hard to tell.
Behind him, the rest of the scouting party filtered into the clearing, equally covered in dirt and plainly tired. They settled down next to the small fires, gratefully accepting the hot cups handed to them by nearby servants.
“Had to circle round, Mistress.” Brendan said. “Picked up some fellers on our tail near t’ road, and didn’t want t’lead em back here.”
“You mean you didn’t just kill them?” The queen asked. “What a waste of time.”
Brendan hesitated. “Was a squad’s worth, Mistress.” He answered, in an almost apologetic tone. “W’horses.”
“Hmph.” A wave of Xena’s hand dismissed the matter. “What’d you find out?”
Gabrielle had refilled her cup, and now she extended it past Xena, to the tired soldier. “Here. You look like you could use something hot.”
“Thanks, lass.” Brendan took the cup gratefully.
“Gabrielle, you’re interrupting my briefing.” Xena leaned forward and bit Gabrielle’s hand, which didn’t quite escape in time. “Bad girl.”
Brendan managed a chuckle. “Wasn’t much we seen, mistress. T’s Bregos, I think, tho we didn’t see the likes of him around. Recognized some of his men. They got the main gate takin a beating, and looks like there’s been some fire in t’towers.”
Xena frowned. “Gate’s holding?”
“Aye, but not for much longer, I’m thinking.” The soldier told her. “Got rams, they do, and lots of meaty bodies there.”
The queen leaned back against her box, tipping her head to let it rest against the wood. “Damn.”
“Aye.” Brendan agreed quietly. “Figguring, maybe a couple hundred of em there.”
Gabrielle looked around at the small group. There were perhaps fifty soldiers, and two score servants left, sore, tired, without supplies, and with no transport. Surely they were no match for an army. Her eyes lifted to Xena’s face, watching those sharp planes tense and shift, as Xena’s eyes narrowed and her jaw bunched in thought.
Slowly, Xena exhaled, her breath stirring the dark bangs over her eyes. “Well.” She finally murmured. “Ain’t going to be a pushover, anyway.”
Brendan laughed shortly.
“All right. We’ll move in closer tomorrow, and see what plan we can come up with.” The queen went on. “I didn’t think that stupid bastard would dig up that many damn troops.”
“Paid em off in pledges.” Brendan snorted, shaking his head. “Fools.” With a sigh, he pushed himself up. “Washing off this dirt, mistress. We picked up some scrap on the trail, we’ll share it.”
“Thanks.” Xena muttered, absently. “Give it around. I had mine already.” She glanced over at Gabrielle, who was also frowning in thought. “Gabrielle made me the best fish ever.”
Startled green eyes lifted. “Oh.. no, all I did was…”
Xena put her fingers over her companion’s lips. “Let’s work on that I’m the queen thing, hm?” She turned to regard Brendan. “Go rest. You’ll need it.”
With a quiet nod, the man turned to leave.
The grizzled gray head swiveled.
“Good job.” Xena said. “All of you.”
His face creased into a tired grin, and he sketched a salute at her, ducking his head before he turned and headed for the river.
Gabrielle waited for him to disappear, before she folded her hand over Xena’s, now lying slackly on the queen’s thigh. “Not so good news, huh?”
“No.” Xena admitted. “Lousy news. But at least they’re all back in one piece.” She turned her head towards Gabrielle. “I really wasn’t counting on this. Damn, I hate surprises.”
“You’ll figure out a way to beat him.” Gabrielle told her confidently.
A snort. “Yeah, after I figure out a way to get us down the river in one piece, with what little gear we got left. Maybe.” She picked up a rock and tossed it into the fire. “Stupid.”
Xena’s head tipped up again, and she held a hand up as Gabrielle was about to protest. Moving quickly, she placed two fingers between her teeth and let out a short whistle, galvanizing the camp into utter stillness again.
Gabrielle wondered what the difference was, between the bark and the whistle. The result seemed the same to her.
Off to the left, in the pitch darkness, a soft crackling was heard, as something moved nearby. Two of the soldiers next to Xena jumped up, drawing their swords instinctively.
Xena handed her cup to Gabrielle and stood up as well, towering over the two men as she rested her hand against the box for balance. Her eyes widened as the crashing got louder, and she drew her own sword as she let out a yell of warning.
It was chaos. Men dove for their weapons and servants dove for cover as the bushes exploded with motion, the shadows erupting into a swirl of bodies and the smell of….
“Heeeyahhh!!” Xena pushed past the men and lifted her arms commandingly. “Whoa!!!”
Horses. The lead animal reared up over the queen’s head, his hooves passing dangerously close to her head before he thumped down to the ground and let out a brassy snort. Then he nuzzled Xena in the chest, and whuffled.
Xena scratched his nose. “Hello, boy.” She whispered, before she turned and faced the rest of the camp. Lifting her hands, she spread her arms to indicate the horses, and smirked.
A low, amazed murmur sprang up, and several whistles followed. “Good on yer, Mistress! Hade’s codpiece!”
Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and bolted forward, as she spotted a shaggy head poking out from behind the black stallion. “Patches!” She threw her arms around his neck in delight, her eyes meeting Xena’s. “I told you.” She mouthed silently.
Xena grinned, and gave her a thumbs up.
It was like the gods had clapped their hands, and given them a blessing, changing dire misfortune to tentative hope in the single span of a minute. Gabrielle had always been wary of the gods, but now she was beginning to suspect that maybe, just maybe…
They liked her.
Xena laughed, as the men came forward to take hold of the animals. “Take care of them. Check their feet – the gods only know where the Hades they’ve been.” She nodded approvingly as Brendan came to take Tiger from her, leading the big stallion off. Then she turned and winked at Gabrielle, shaking her head in amazement. “Gotta love it”
For sure, she decided, the gods liked Xena. Gabrielle gave Patches a hug. Maybe it was the attitude.
Xena rested her hands on the pony’s back and leaned over, kissing Gabrielle on the lips. She paused and looked into her eyes. “We’re gonna make it home.” She whispered. “I’m not letting that stinking bastard stand in our way.”
Gabrielle leaned forward for another kiss. “Xena, wherever you are, is home for me.” She whispered back. “So I am home.”
The moon broke it’s cover, and spread over them, casting a silver light that chased back the shadows and outlined figures in gilded tones, lightening their hearts.
Xena wanted, really wanted, to start off right away. Arriving near the stronghold in total darkness would improve her chances of surprise, she felt, and it would certainly satisfy her craving to do something.
She was itching to redeem herself, in her own eyes. But it was dark, and it was cold, and taking her men, and the servants through rough territory in those conditions wasn’t a good idea. There was also her own condition to think of. Xena had discovered that her injury had left her without much of a sense of balance at the moment, and falling off her horse in front of the enemy wasn’t something she’d deal with in any sort of dignified manner.
So she’d reseated herself by the fire and resigned herself to waiting for the morning, knowing at least her rag-tag followers would do better for the rest.
“Hey, Xena?” Gabrielle appeared from the shadows and dropped down next to her, settling cross-legged at her side. “How did they find us?”
Xena looked at her in some mild confusion. “Brendan? He’s a tracker. Damn better be able to find his way back in the forest.”
“No..no.. the horses.” Gabrielle replied. “I mean, we came over the mountain and down the river.. how did they follow us?”
Hm. Xena tipped back her waterskin and took a long swallow, to give herself time to think of an answer. Wine would have tasted better, but they didn’t have any, and she wasn’t sure getting drunk with her head half cracked was a good idea anyway. “How did they find us.” She repeated the question, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. “Well, y’know, muskrat…if I was a betting woman, I’d bet my underwear that I didn’t have a clue how they did it.”
Gabrielle blinked, as she absorbed the answer. “Really?”
“Really.” The queen replied. “Got any ideas?”
The blond woman’s eyebrows knit together. “Me?”
“You.” Xena reached over and tweaked her nose. “You’re the storyteller. You tell me how they did it.”
Gabrielle sat back, a thoughtful look on her face.
Xena took another sip of her water, content to sit and wait, the nagging ache in her head starting to prick her with it’s annoyance. She closed her eyes and tried to think of how she’d approach the stronghold tomorrow. The horses changed things immensely – now she had mobility, and speed, and the ability to carry their gear. But on the minus side, it was harder to move with secrecy if you were sitting on top of large, often intractable beasts.
Still, she was happier than Hades’ handbasket that she had them back. If only for her own sake, since Tiger would allow her to keep up with the army despite her injury.
Xena opened one eye, to see Gabrielle folding her hands together and leaning her chin against them, a look of intense concentration on her face. “You do?” She asked. “And here I thought you were just a beautiful saddle ornament of mine.” She teased.
“I think they smelled us.”
The queen tilted her body to one side and reviewed the camp. Delicately, she sniffed, then made a face. “Four score wet, dirty, leather and fur covered bodies all using the same hole in the ground to poop in?” She rocked a hand back and forth. “Eeeehhh… maybe.” She conceded. “But how in Hades did they know it was *us*?”
Gabrielle got up onto her knees and leaned forward, sniffing at the queen with a studious expression that almost made Xena start snickering She got closer and closer, until her nose was right up against the queens’ chest.
She took a long, deep breath.
Xena couldn’t hold it in any longer. She started laughing, grabbing hold of Gabrielle and shaking her like a puppy. “What are you doing?”
“Well.” Gabrielle grinned. “If *I* could tell it was you, I bet those horses could.”
“You can not.”
Xena studied her, a grin still on her face. “You saying I stink?”
“No.” Gabrielle settled next to her, leaning against the box. “I like the way you smell.” She said, laying her hand on Xena’s shoulder and tangling her fingers in the queen’s hair. “I like everything about you.”
A witty remarked died unspoken on Xena’s lips. Maybe it was the softness in Gabrielle’s tone, or the gentle touch of her knuckles, now brushing Xena’s cheek. As she watched, her companion leaned against her and she noticed just how tired and drawn Gabrielle’s face was. “Hey.”
The green eyes flickered, and focused on her. “Hm? Do you need something? How about some more tea?”
“I don’t need no stinking tea.” The queen told her. “I need you to get some rest.”
“I’m okay.” Gabrielle protested. “Really.”
“Horseshit.” Xena stretched her legs out, then pointed at her thigh. “Put your head down or I’ll nail it down.”
“But..” Gabrielle paused, then she eased down onto her side and curled up next to Xena, putting her head down on the proffered spot and curling her hand around the queen’s knee. The long day’s tension had her tied in knots, though how the queen had guessed that, she didn’t know. Though the ground was hard, she figured there wasn’t any place anywhere more comfortable than this.
Xena put a hand on her companion’s back, and felt the strain. Without a word, she shifted her other hand over and started a probing massage, her fingers working over Gabrielle’s tense body. After a few minutes, she felt the knots begin to relax, and she heard Gabrielle exhale in relief.
Again, she felt that curious mix of joy and consternation, and that nameless ache deep in her guts as she cared for this other person now in her life. As her fingertips kneaded the taut muscles, she found herself relaxing and taking more pleasure than she’d ever imagined out of the simple act.
“I think I’m supposed to be taking care of you.” Gabrielle commented, in a wry tone.
“Shut up.” Xena replied. “Just lie there and let me have my fun.”
Gabrielle wriggled into a more comfortable spot and gave in, gratefully accepting the touch. She picked up the rhythm of Xena’s hands, and her thumb echoed it, tracing lightly over the knitted fabric covering the queen’s leg. “Thanks.”
Xena merely chuckled.
“Y’know… I think in my family I was always the one doing stuff for everyone else.” Gabrielle said, unexpectedly. “Whether I wanted to or not.”
“It’s a really nice feeling when you know someone wants to do something for you.”
“Did I say I was doing this for you?” The queen objected. “I told you I was having fun. This is not about you, it’s about me.”
Gabrielle gazed off into the firepit, watching the shadows dance across it. “It’s especially nice when you kmow that person really cares about you.”
Xena felt an idiotic lump form in her throat, making it difficult to reply.
“That’s such a special feeling.” The blond woman’s voice dropped to a whisper.
Yes, it was. The queen agreed silently. “The horses…” She had to stop, and clear her throat of an unusual huskiness. “Probably followed Brendan back here. Two of the men he had with him are my military grooms.”
“But they probably did smell them.” Xena added. “So you were right.” She worked her hands down Gabrielle’s spine. “Just like you were right about them coming back at all.”
“It was just a guess.”
“It was a good guess.” The queen leaned closer. “I’m glad you were right.” She let her hands go still a moment. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Gabrielle felt the discomforts of her body slip away, replaced by a contented warmth. She had no idea how Xena was going to get them through the next few days, but whichever way she did it, Gabrielle intended on being right there with her.
Whatever it took. Whatever the risk.
She closed her eyes, and slipped easily into sleep.
Xena pulled the edge of her cloak over, and settled it around her companion’s body, tucking it neatly in around her. Then she lifted her eyes up and let them fasten on the fire, her expression going quiet and steely as she decided just how the blood spilling would begin.
The sleep had done her a world of good. Gabrielle found herself waking before the dawn, in the still, small hour when the whole world around her seemed to be shut down and silent.
Her body was stiff, and she realized she hadn’t moved at all while she’d slept – in fact, her fingers were still curled around the queen’s leg under the thick cloak that covered both of them. It was warm under the cloak, though; she really didn’t feel like moving despite the discomfort.
Xena’s arm was draped over her, a gentle weight across her shoulder and side, and she realized their hands had met and joined in sleep, fingers tangled together in a firm hold. It felt nice. Slowly, so as not to wake the queen, Gabrielle shifted and rolled over onto her back, biting back a groan as her body protested.
But she felt better as soon as she resettled herself, this time so she could see Xena’s profile in the faint light from the nearby fire.
The queen had fallen asleep with her head resting against a folded cloth, leaning on the box. Her dark hair blew fitfully in the breeze, half obscuring her face, but even so, Gabrielle found herself entranced by the vision of shadowed beauty she was gazing up at.
There were bruises across one whole side of her head, darkening the skin over her cheekbones, and a thin, dark line marked the scrape that crossed her jaw from it’s point almost to her ear. Still, it didn’t mar the even planes or detract even one bit from the powerful character.
One thing Gabrielle did notice, that relaxed in sleep, her customary watchful guard dropped, Xena looked far younger than she did awake. It made her wonder just how old her current pillow was, given how much she’d already done with her life.
Not to mention, what she’d done to change Gabrielle’s, in such a very short time.
Gabrielle thought about that for a while, lying there on her back with the scents of the camp drifting over her. Of all the places she’d ever imagined herself, this was without question the last place she’d ever thought she’d be, out in the wilderness with a squad of soldiers preparing to relieve a siege.
From what she’d heard Brendan say, there were a lot more soldiers attacking the stronghold than they had here. Could they do it? She studied the sleeping woman so close to her with quiet, curious eyes. Everyone was counting on Xena to make it work right, she knew. She’d heard the men talking.
They had no idea how they were going to do it, but they all trusted that Xena did, and that she’d find a way to win through. Gabrielle suspected that Xena knew that too, and she wondered what it felt like to know you were responsible for everyone’s expectations.
Not just their lives. Life to Xena really didn’t mean a whole lot, as she had come to realize. It was Xena’s ego and reputation at stake here, when faced with this really sticky problem she had to solve.
In which case, Gabrielle reasoned, they really had very little to worry about. She closed her eyes again. Xena would find a way, hopefully soon. Aside from being cold and uncomfortable in the forest, not nearly as romantic as stories would have lead her to believe – she found herself wanting to have it over with for quite a different, somewhat bemusing reason.
Her body wanted Xena’s touch. Though her experience in bed had been admittedly limited, she thought about it and how good it had made her feel with unexpected frequency.
Ah well. With a soundless, wry chuckle, Gabrielle put the thoughts out of her mind. A moment later, she felt a strong sense of someone watching her, and opened her eyes again to see who it was.
“Comfy?” Xena drawled, very softly.
Gabrielle rested her cheek against the queen’s belly, and grinned. “Yeah.”
Xena gazed at her for a few moments, then grinned back. “Too bad.” She said. “I’m gonna get up and go take a bath. Wanna come?”
Gabrielle glanced at the darkness around them, her brows creasing. “Xena, it’s freezing out.”
“You’re going to go take a bath.. in the river?”
“While it’s freezing?”
“Are you going to take… your clothes off?”
Xena chuckled. “Of course.” She brushed her knuckles over Gabrielle’s cheekbone. “C’mon. It’ll be fun.”
“Fun?” Gabrielle seemed skeptical.
“You, me, naked…” The dark brows hiked suggestively. “Bet I can keep you from freezing to death.”
Gabrielle’s face twitched. “Okay.” She agreed, with a touch of hesitation. “I guess anything with naked stuff can’t not be fun, huh?”
Xena had to work over that for a minute before she decided it was a positive remark. “Let’s go.” She said. “Besides, I gotta stand up and stretch. My back’s killing me.” She waited for Gabrielle to sit up, then untangled her cloak from both of them and pulled herself upright, leaning on the box for balance.
“I could rub your back.” Gabrielle offered, as they started off, easing around the trees and through the misty gloom.
“You can rub more than that.” Xena assured her, with a soft chuckle.
Getting to the river, though, Gabrielle found doubts developing. Xena led her to a spot where the bank sloped down to the water, and a bend in the stream had formed a calm little pocket. As she stood on the turf, she could see a gentle mist rising from it’s surface. The air was more than chilly, and she rubbed her arms as she felt the wind lift her hair and blow across the back of her neck. “Brr.”
Xena sauntered to the edge and knelt, sticking her hand into the water, then pulling it out and shaking the droplets off. “Ah.. just how I like it.” She peeked back over her shoulder. “Spine chilling.”
The queen stood up and removed her cloak, slinging it casually over a nearby branch. Then she leaned against the tree and began unlacing her boots. “C’mon.”
With a sigh, Gabrielle walked towards her, kneeling at her side and untying the cords that held her boots to her calves.. “You know, Xena, now that we’re here.. um.. it’s really cold.”
“C’mon.” Xena tugged on the edge of her cloak. “Faster you get em off, faster we get in the water.”
“That’s sorta what I was afraid of.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena removed a boot and let it drop, then pinned her companion with an intense stare. “You ever done this before?”
“Um.. no. No, of course not.”
“That’s why you should do it.” Xena dropped her second boot, and straightened. She held a hand out to Gabrielle. “C’mon. Live.”
“Live.” Gabrielle repeated the word, just before she took the proffered fingers. “I thought I was.” The ground felt cold and hard against her feet, and she winced at the dew’s chill on her toes. “Wasn’t I?”
“Make every second count.” The queen told her, suddenly serious. “Cause you never know when the seconds are going to run out on you.”
They stared at each other in silence, as the mist rose up and twined around their legs.
Okay, well, that did it. Gabrielle stepped closer and lifted her hands to the queen’s belt, unfastening it in silence as Xena undid the cloak catch at her throat and removed the protection of it from around her shoulders.
The cold air blew against her, but Xena’s fingers were sliding over her, loosening the tunic held tight to her body by her leather belt and ducking her head to gently kiss her on the lips.
Her heart started to pound. She slid her hands under Xena’s shirt and found the lacings that held the leggings snugly around her waist, not even really realizing it when her own shirt was slipped over her head leaving her body exposed to the chill.
Xena’s fingers circled her breast, and she felt her body respond with a ferocity that sent hot blood racing in all directions, warming her and making her almost glad of the cool night air. “Mm.” She felt the leggings come loose and her hands touched skin, as Xena’s lips became slightly more insistent and their bodies moved together.
She unlaced the soft, cloth ties on Xena’s shirt and felt it slip down between them, the queen taking a half step back to let it fall to the ground. Then their bodies pressed together again, and Gabrielle found her breathing growing shorter.
The next thing she knew, her feet were wet. She wiggled her toes, surprised when she found the water warmer than the air had been. But there was little time to wonder, as Xena’s thigh slipped between hers, and her body pressed forward, wanting the touch badly.
They moved into deeper water, the gentle current swirling around them and setting Gabrielle’s already sensitized skin on fire. The floor of the river here was pebbles, but they were small and round, and she kept her footing easily as she and the queen turned in a slow circle, immersed in each other as they were becoming immersed in the water.
Xena’s hand slid down over her hip and touched her belly, as Gabrielle planted tiny kisses down the queen’s chest, stopping and nibbling around her breasts.
It was amazing. Her entire body was tingling. Gabrielle felt the water climb up her chest, it’s surprising warmth brushing her skin as Xena’s touch became more intimate. She moved closer, her body’s need almost making her twitch violently as the queen began stroking her.
“Still cold?” Xena whispered into her ear, the teasing very evident.
“Ungh.” Gabrielle let out a little groan, getting one back as she intensified her nibbling. She slid her hand down between them, feeling Xena’s belly muscles contract and her body tense and shift as her touch moved lower.
It was insane. The mist from the river swirled around them, and Gabrielle felt like ever motion of the water heightened the fire now burning inside her guts. She uttered a small growl as her hands explored Xena’s body, losing track as the queen’s own touch became more intense and she felt herself press closer, wanting even more.
Xena’s arm snaked around her and she found her lips now captured, as their attentions increased again in intensity. She was almost gasping for breath, her chest heaving as she felt Xena’s breathing matching it, their bellies pressing together as passion took over completely.
The pressure built so fast, she almost didn’t have time to gasp as her loins contracted, and the intensity built to a level that force a hoarse yell from her throat, quickly smothered by Xena’s lips as she grabbed the queen in a fierce grip as she rode out the powerful contractions, feeling Xena’s grip on her just as tight as her touch brought the queen to the verge and over at almost the same moment.
They held each other, and Gabrielle felt her legs shaking so badly, she knew if she had been on land she’d have been flat on her back on the ground, unable to stand. Now the water’s brush on her brought back some energy, and she traced a gently erotic pattern over Xena’s skin as the queen nuzzled her throat and gave her a tiny nip. “Mmm.” She ducked her head and sucked in a mouthful of the water, then she swallowed some, and let the rest trickle from her lips over Xena’s chest, licking up the droplets as they fell.
“Mmm.” Xena responded, pulling them both back just a little, as she leaned back against a half submerged log. “So. Was I right?”
Gabriele’s fingers stroked over the soft skin on Xena’s thigh. “About what?” She glanced up, with puzzled innocence.
Xena chuckled, and kissed her.
“Oh, the water.” Gabrielle giggled, burying her face into Xena’s breasts. “It’s warm!”
The queen chortled softly. “There’s a thermal spring over there. It’s not a bath, but.. yeah.”
“You knew it was!”
“Sure.” The queen agreed cheerfully. “Just wanted to see if you had the stomach for it.”
Gabrielle exhaled, and allowed herself to melt into the snug embrace. “Glad I did.”
Xena savored the moment, living it to it’s fullest as she’d told Gabrielle to do. Because you really never did know, she knew more than most, when Hades would tap you on the shoulder and give you the token to cross the Styx.
Live. She hugged Gabrielle to her. Savor it.
They gathered on the small ridge just overlooking the plain that led up to the stronghold. In a stand of trees with dense foliage not yet touched by the frost, a thin line of horses assembled, riders holding reins in mostly experienced hands as the scene before them became clear.
Xena leaned her weight on her elbows, which rested on her saddlebow. She surveyed the mayhem going on , and sorted out her options, knowing them to be scant, at the very best.
Bregos, if he was, in fact, doing the planning and hadn’t died from the wounds she’d given him – had planned well. There were at least two hundred soldiers dug in around the stronghold, behind thick bastions of wood and straw, safe from the archers on the walls.
In evidence as well were the tools of siege, two battering rams sat squatly near one side of the gates, and a storming tower was almost complete nearer to the woods. From the look of the gates, the rams had been recently in use, and Xena allowed herself a moment of pride on seeing the stout wood battered but not broken.
She’d designed those gates, replacing the ones she’d blown out when she’d taken the city. Now, it seems, they’d held against the initial efforts of Bregos army though she doubted they would last that much longer, especially if the bastards were heading towards burning them out, as the siege towers indicated.
Well. Xena flexed her hands, and rubbed her thumb over Tiger’s reins. A huge pit, behind a rise out of sight from the walls held a bonfire, and she could see stacks of tar covered torches being lit in preparation. The smoke rose up from them, spiraling in an oily warning up towards the overcast sky.
There were four main garrisons of men, all well armed with crossbows behind every high point. Xena reviewed the weapons and determined riding into their faces, emotionally satisfying though that might be, was suicide.
Xena wasn’t planning on suicide today.
She looked to her left, where a shaggy pony head bobbed, and exchanged a quick smile with Gabrielle. The kid was braiding a bit of the animal’s mane and an image of those clever fingers put to more personal use broadened the grin on the queen’s face.
What a crazy morning. Xena could still feel echoes of that pleasure. They’d carried on until almost dawn, and now she could honestly say she was both clean and as relaxed as the situation would allow her to be as a result.
Life was good, despite the fact that her head injury made riding a horse a stomach churning experience for her, and she was now faced with having to beat an army four times the size of her small force with nothing but guts and luck.
“Hm?” Xena turned to find Brendan at her elbow. “Looks like they’re about to have a little roasting party.”
“Aye.” The old soldier agreed. “Men got as many arrows made on the trip as t’could. Got a decent few bows, but not like that lot.” He pointed at the crossbows, which were far more powerful. “Most got an edge of some kind, or a club… bout it, thought. No spears.”
No. Xena exhaled. And the space between the army, and where they were was too damn wide. She’d had the forests cleared back to keep anyone from having cover near the stronghold – now that decision was biting her in the ass as she realized any attempt to sneak up on the attackers would be damn near impossible.
A little wave of vertigo made her tense her hold on the saddle, and almost close her eyes. That had been getting worse during their ride, and she was starting to realize how much it was going to hamper her in a fight.
Not good. “All right.” Xena let the dizziness pass, then sat up and squared her shoulders. “We wait for them to attack.”
“Let em get fully engaged. Let em get to where they can taste winning.” The queen said. “Then we’ll hit em.”
“From t’back here?” Brendan queried. “Bushwhack em?”
“Yep.” Xena agreed. “We’ll start mowing em down from behind, and with any luck, they’ll see us from the walls and come out fighting.” She stretched her legs out, slipping her boots from her stirrups and letting them dangle down Tiger’s sides.
Brendan studied the troops, then he nodded, and turned his horses head around, moving back into the lines to start giving orders.
Gabrielle waited until he was out of earshot, then she steered Patches towards Tiger and managed to achieve her purpose without colliding with the larger animal. Pleased with her success, she imitated Xena, pulling her boots out of the stirrups and letting her feet dangle, stretching out painfully cramped muscles in legs very unused to riding. “There sure are a lot of those guys.”
“I know.” The queen replied. “But they’re between me, and a warm dry bed, so they’ve gotta go.” She affected a relaxed pose, gathering her confidence up and settling it over her shoulders like a second cloak.
She had no doubt she’d be needing ever inch of it.
Gabrielle looked at all the soldiers, and felt a sickening chill. She turned her head and looked up. “Hey, Xena?”
“Yeah?” The queen met her eyes steadily.
“You think we’ll be okay?”
Xena was silent for several heartbeats, wanting very much to lie and finding she simply didn’t have it in her to do it. “I don’t know.” She finally said, turning her head and looking off over the battlefield. “I hope so.” She added, after taking a breath. “I really want everything to be okay.”
It occurred to her at that moment, just how true that was. Xena swallowed, wondering just when it was that she’d stopped caring about living. Was it after she’d gained her last goal? Her own kingdom?
So much had stopped mattering after that. After she’d gotten what she wanted, and lost Lyceus in gaining it. She could look back now, and see that – with the knowledge that things had changed, and living was something she very much wanted to continue doing.
“Me, too.” Gabrielle whispered, hearing a seriousness in Xena’s voice she’d never experienced before. “The men are behind you all the way.”
“I know.” Xena looked down at her hands, resting on the saddle. “I’m not worried about them.” Her eyes shifted back to Gabrielle’s face. “I’ll be leading that charge.” Something nameless inside her prompted the admission, one she’d never imagined herself making to anyone much less this scrappy little bedmate of hers.
Instinctively, Gabrielle put a hand out and touched the queen’s leg. “Are you feeling okay?”
Why, indeed? A soft, wry laugh. “Gabrielle, I can barely stay upright in this damn saddle and my eyesight keeps blurring. Sure. I’m fine. You?”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened in alarm. “Then you should stay here.” She said. “You can tell them what to do.”
“I can’t.” Xena lifted a hand and rubbed her eyes.
“But nothing.” The queen gathered herself up and slid off the back of her horse, holding onto the saddle and letting her body stretch out. Her stomach rebelled, and she let her head rest against Tiger’s shoulder until the queasiness subsided, hoping the small thuds and grunts she heard would result in at least a hug of comfort.
Then she felt ashamed of herself for wanting that.
Then Gabrielle’s arms slipped around her and the shame evaporated, leaving her mostly just confused. “I have to go out there.” She said. “I’m their focus. The one thing they think they have that’ll tip the balance in our favor.”
Gabrielle rubbed her back. “But… if you’re sick, if you can’t… Xena, they know how badly you were hurt. They wouldn’t want you to risk getting hurt worse, I’m sure of it.”
The queen let her hand drop to her thigh, exhaling in utter frustration. “I’m so damn pissed off at myself I could scream.” She uttered. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.” Her hand smacked her leg again. “Damn me.”
Gabrielle had no idea what to do or say, so she just gave Xena another hug.
For a few minutes they both just stood there, as the rest of the troops deployed around them, settling down to wait for the impending attack to begin. Xena rested her cheek against the top of Gabrielle’s head and watched them over Tiger’s back, seeing faces quiet with confidence and set with determination.
She had told them they would win, and so, they believed it. They might doubt themselves, but foolish or no, they would not doubt her. Xena sighed. And of course, this was the one time they damn well should doubt.
She was tired, she was sick, and both the pain and the dizziness were getting worse. She knew the upcoming battle would be hard, and painful and she knew she wasn’t truly up to it. In that moment, she hated Bregos more than just about anything else in her life, and she wished vainly that she’d ignored her kinder instincts and gutted him like a pig when she’d had the chance.
“How can I help?” Gabrielle asked, in a small voice. “Let me do something.”
Xena took in a breath of cold air, full of the scent of the forest and the woman pressing against her. She could hear the fear in Gabrielle’s tone, and knowing she’d put it there steadied her in an odd way. “It’s okay.” She scratched the back of her lover’s neck gently. “I’m gonna be fine, if you do what I’m gonna tell you and stay here, behind this damn tree, out of the way.”
“No buts, Gabrielle.” Xena took her chin and forced her head up, making eye contact. “I need to know you’re safe. Understand me?”
“Mistress.” Brendan’s voice barely carried. “They’re moving.”
“Understand me?” The queen repeated, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle’s. “Stay here.”
Gabrielle reached up and touched her face, laying her hand flat against her cheek.
Xena’s lips twitched. “Please?”
“Only…” Gabrielle paused, and swallowed. “Only if you promise you’ll come back here and get me.”
The look in Xena’s eyes was almost gentle. “Boy, do we gotta work on that “I’m the queen’ thing.” She inclined her head and gave Gabrielle a light kiss. Then she paused as she started to pull back, with her lips right next to Gabrielle’s ear. “I promise.” She whispered “But don’t you tell anyone, or I’ll strip ya naked and make you sing in public.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle sounded relieved, and she stepped back as Xena straightened and turned towards Tiger. She watched the queen put her hands on the saddle, then saw her gather herself before she pulled herself up and slung her leg over the stallion’s back, gathering his reins in one hand as she reached back over her shoulder to check her sword. “Be careful.”
Xena somehow heard her over the sound of rising battle in front of them. She turned, squaring her shoulders and settling her boots more firmly into the stirrups. “Keep your head down.” She said. “I’ll be as careful as you are.” With a single pointed finger, the queen turned her horse and nudged him towards the front of their lines, peering intently over the animals head.
With a sigh, Gabrielle returned to Patches side. She had her walking stick, returned to her by Xena, strapped to his side, and now she put her hand on the end of it and felt the solid wood against her skin. “I guess we can make sure everyone here’s okay, right Patches?”
The pony lifted his head, a stalk of forest grass hanging from his lips and peered at her.
“We can guard everyone, until Xena says it’s okay to come out.” Gabrielle put her arms around the pony’s neck and kept her eyes on Xena’s tall form. “But you know what, Patches? I’d rather be out there with her. I don’t care how dangerous it is.”
Patches snorted, and went back to cropping the grass.
Curious, Gabrielle edged a little closer to the trees, watching what was going on. The men attacking the stronghold had finished the tall wooden things, and now they were pushing them towards the gates, hiding behind them as they walked.
A horn blew.
One of the attackers cupped his hands and yelled, the wind ripping the words away before she could catch them.
A yell came back from the walls. Squinting, Gabrielle thought she recognized the Duke up there, and as if to prove their defiance, a volley of arrows came flying over, nailing the wooden things with solid clunks.
Now all the attackers grabbed torches, and lines of them started forward behind the wooden things. More attackers stayed behind their hiding places, and started shooting arrows at the walls, taking little bits of stone out of them and making the people on top duck.
One of the arrows hit, one of the men was too slow, and she watched in horror as he pitched over the top of the wall and fell to the ground, to cheers from the attackers.
Gabrielle winced, turning to watch Xena instead. The queen sat tall on her horse, her sword drawn in her hand, restlessly moving it around as she waited.
All the attackers started to move forward, just like Xena thought they would. Gabrielle sensed movement behind her, and she turned her head to see the rest of the servants moving up to circle her. One of the older men gave Patches a pat on the back and exhaled, but remained silent.
A horn blew again, and the attack began.
Then a yell went up, triumphant, and Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she realized the stronghold gates were swinging open.
Her yell, and Xena’s could have come from the same throat.
Then it became nothing but death and chaos.