Gabrielle hesitated as she watched Xena ride off, split between the desire to follow her and the desire to stay behind and help the merchants. Logically she knew she’d be of more use here than tagging along after the queen, but it took only a moment before she was scrambling up on Patches back and sending him pattering after Tiger’s big form.
She knew how to fix wagons, she’d seen her father and others in the village do it often enough, but she suspected the soldiers and definitely the merchants wouldn’t listen to her. Xena on the other hand, very occasionally did, and so she turned her back on the troops and followed the queen out across the grass, following the path beaten in it by the raiders.
They had dropped things as they ran, she spotted a sword to one side, and some rope, but she didn’t have time to stop for them as she saw Xena speeding up ahead of her. She had a gathering of soldiers around her and Gabrielle wasn’t sure if she knew she was coming, so she urged Patches to a faster gait anxious not to be left behind.
Unexpectedly, Patches gathered himself, and jumped into the air, nearly scaring her into falling off his back. “Whoa!” She yelped, grabbing hold of his bristly mane, as they landed and she only just stopped herself from slamming forward and mashing her face. “What was that for!”
The pony merely continued on, and she looked behind her, spotting a dark form lying in the grass directly behind them.
A log? Gabrielle turned and faced forward, resolutely deciding it was a log and not a fallen raider. If it was a log, Patches was just a very smart pony and she now knew she could trust him not to run into anything like that.
If it wasn’t…
Well. “C’mon, Patches.” Gabrielle settled her legs more firmly around the pony’s barrel and leaned forward, as his rapid strides brought her closer to Xena’s scout group. The last soldier heard her approach and turned, his hand going to his sword hilt until he recognized her and the motion turned to an acknowledging wave.
Relieved, she released on hand and waved back, seeing Xena’s head turn as a low whistle went forward. The group slowed and parted, and she found herself riding through a horseflesh tunnel with the queen at one end waiting for her.
“Hey.” Xena greeted her as she came alongside. “Don’t tell me you didn’t want to stick around helping people back there.”
Gabrielle glanced at her, as they rode. “There are lots of people helping.” She said. “I wanted to be with you.”
Xena grinned rakishly, but turned her head forward and busied herself following the broken path the raiders had taken to get to the wagon train.
Ahead of her, she spotted a cleared area, and she held a hand up and slowed Tiger’s pace as they approached it, standing a little in her stirrups to survey the spot with a wary eye. Nothing but beaten brush met her gaze, though, so she continued into it, pulling Tiger to a halt as she reached the center and turning him in a circle.
From the road, with the high scrub it would be almost invisible, and she supposed that’s why the raiders had used it as a camp. There was a hastily covered firepit in the center, and scattered belongings around it giving evidence that their owners had moved in a hurry.
Hm. Xena dismounted and walked over to the fire, pulling one gauntlet off and laying her palm over the dirt covering. A telltale warmth confirmed her suspicions, and she stood, lightly slapping the gauntlet against her thigh as she reviewed the debris. “Opportunistic. Interesting.’
“What do you mean?” Gabrielle had slid off Patches back and now joined her. “They were messy, that’s for sure.”
Xena’s eyes narrowed. “Collect anything useful.” She ordered the soldiers. “Look careful.. Especially for anything parchment.” She turned and walked to the far side of the camp, were a dirt scuffed, narrow path lead away. “That explains why they went for the oxen.”
“It does?” Gabrielle was completely lost, but she followed in Xena’s footsteps anyway. “Why did they kill the oxen.. Did they want steaks for dinner?”
Xena turned her head and looked over her shoulder, lifting one eyebrow to its limit.
Gabrielle blinked at her. “Sorry. That’s the only reason I could come up with. Maybe it’s because I”m hungry.”
Xena turned and watched the soldiers scavenge. “I thought they were attacking the train to get provisions.” She said. “But now.. I think they were here for something else.”
“For us?” Gabrielle hazarded a guess.
“Mm.” Xena waggled her ungloved hand. “They were trying to destroy the train. Stop it from reaching the stronghold, but they got surprised.”
“How do you know?”
The queen chuckled humorlessly. “I have many skills.” She drawled.
“Oh.” Gabrielle decided to search her little patch of ground for anything interesting. “Okay.” She scuffed her boot against the earth, and moved off into the brush a little, pushing the leaves aside to peer between them. After a moment, she felt a tug on the back of her armor, and she turned to find Xena watching her. “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t you want to hear how clever I am?” The queen asked.
Gabrielle straightened up. “Sure.” She dusted her hands off. “Sorry, I thought you were done explaining.” She apologized.
“Ahem.” Xena turned and indicated the camp. “This has been in use a long time. See the depressions around the edges, and how hard the ground is?” She waited for Gabrielle to nod. “Smell the garbage pit?” She watched the girls’ nose wrinkle. “Well, why put a camp here? There’s no water, no small game, no shelter… unless you just don’t like the jerks you send there.”
“Oh. Okay.” Gabrielle paused. “Why?”
“The one thing it does have is that rock there.” Xena pointed to a barely seen boulder. “If you stand on it, you get a good view of the pass, and anything moving through it.” Parting the brush with her hands she revealed the stone, which had rough wear marks on it. “And it was used for just that.”
Gabrielle walked over and examined the boulder in fascination. “Wow. Look at that. But why did did they pick this spot? Did they think we were coming?” She looked up at Xena. “I thought you didn’t even decide that until it was almost time to leave.”
“Exactly.” The queen said. “So they were watching for people coming in, not going out.” She turned and gazed across the grass towards the road. “They were attacking us all winter, and we didn’t realize it.” She leaned back against the watch stone. “If I hadn’t ordered the larders filled at harvest… damn. The blasted nobles were pushing me to send everything outside.. For sale.”
Gabrielle could hardly believe what she was hearing. “Do you think they knew? They were in on it?” She asked. “But that.. We sent stocks to most of them over the winter. They’d have…”
“Yeah.” Xena expelled a short laugh. “Well, we’ll find out when we get back how much they knew and when they knew it.” She turned and started up the path. “C’mon. Let’s see what other clues we can find.”
Gabrielle followed her willingly. The path was narrow, and closed in by thick brush, but as she walked even her inexperienced eyes detected long broken branches and debris that indicated the path had been in use for more than a short time.
This was exciting, and interesting. It was like a puzzle, and she was here watching Xena work it all out. “Hey, Xena?”
“Would they have just killed all those merchants?” Gabrielle asked, as they moved further into the brush, and towards a stand of thick pines.
“Probably.” The queen said. “They stopped them to find out what they were carrying, and once they figured that out they probably had orders to make it unusable any way they could.” She stepped around a tree. “Ah.” She grunted. “That’s what I was looking for.”
“What?” Gabrielle poked her head around the queen’s arm. “Oh. A well.”
“Mm.” Xena crouched down next to the inexpertly stacked rocks, picking one up and examining it closely. The stones were rounded and as she peered the the bottom, she saw a bit of green staining it. “In-teresting.” She turned to Gabrielle, who had hunkered down next to her. “This is river stone.”
Recognizing the rounded shape, the blond woman nodded. “They must have brought it with them.” She agreed. “It’s good for wells, because it’s heavy and the water washes over it, there’s no corners for it to grab onto.” She took the stone from Xena’s fingers and rubbed the edge of her thumb over it, her expression growing thoughtful.
“Why Gabrielle.” Xena leaned her elbow on her companions shoulder. “I had no idea you weren’t a well virgin, along with everything else.” She snickered at the rolling of the blond woman’s eyes. “So now tell me, shepherd - where’s the nearest place those might have come from?”
“What makes you think I know of one?” Gabrielle answered softly.
“I have many skills.”
The blond woman set the stone down, and regarded her companion. “There’s a river… I don’t know if it’s what you’re looking for, but there are stones like this there.” She said. “It’s not far from where I’m from.”
Was the world that quirky? Xena rocked back on her heels and pondered. It seemed far too fantastic that Bregos would choose her lover’s old home as a base, certainly not on purpose. She hadn’t figured she’d even ever mentioned to anyone where her former slave had come from.
But life was funny, sometimes. The queen shrugged, and stood, hauling Gabrielle up with her. One empty deserted hovelish village was a good as any other when you were looking for shelter, she well knew. “All right.” She stepped around the well and continued past it, her eyes picking up traces off between the trees past the stamped down earth near the well.
At the edge of the thicker foliage, she paused, glancing behind her. “Do me a favor, willya?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle replied.
“Run back and let the guard know where we’re going. Not that I need them tripping after me but losing the queen’s bad form and they might get flogged for it.”
“Right.” Gabrielle turned and trotted off back in the direction they’d come. “Don’t go without me, okay?” She called back over her shoulder. “I don’t want to miss any of your being clever.”
Xena made a soft, gargling sound in the back of her throat, but she retraced her steps and began a close inspection of the ground around the well instead of plunging off into the trees as her restless temperament was urging her. She spotted a glint of metal near the stones and knelt again, clearing the mud and leaf litter away from the object.
It was the cap off the end of a dagger. She lifted it and brushed the dirt of it, cocking her head as she recognized the tip. Not Bregos, no - but typical of the ones he’d brought back with the army from his last campaign. Cheap things, if she recalled, but the men he’d brought with him were proud of them because they were so different than the ones Xena’s men carried.
Of course, the steel her men carried actually cut things, but that was apparently of no consequence to the little mudheads. Xena turned the bit of metal over, seeing where it had sheared off the horn handle, the crooked edge cracked and crumbling under her touch.
Suddenly, her senses prickled. She was aware of a change in the air behind her and the soft scrape of leather against mud, and an intake of breath just as she dropped the dagger bit and turned, feeling her body react instinctively as she reached up one hand in front of her rather than drawing her sword.
There was no thought involved. Xena had no conscious part in the decision and that was exactly as it should be since the choice to catch the arrow rather than pull her sword out and possible expose her chest to it readily saved her life. Her fingers closed around a fast moving shaft and she dropped it as her drew her dagger from her wrist sheath and sent it back in the opposite direction.
A soft cry marked her aim, and she grinned, now drawing her sword and advancing into the trees, one hand held in front of her to catch any further feathered annoyances. She heard a crashing in the bush and altered her course, leaping over a low bush and lifting her blade up as she spotted a movement, erratic and wavering on the other side.
With a triumphant yell, she started a fast downward strike as her eyes cleared the leaves and she found her target, only jerking her arm to one side as her brain processed what she was looking at and she threw herself off her mark to land to the left of it.
Wide, terrified eyes looked back at her, framed in short, straight brown hair in a face young enough to barely be an adolescent child’s. The boys’ mouth opened and he panted, his hands clutched around the hilt protruding from his belly where her aim had buried it.
Dropped behind him was the bow the arrow she’d caught had been fired from, and there was a small hunting bag lying next to it. In an instant, her senses caught all that, and her initial fear of a stupid mistake eased as she turned her full attention back to her victim.
He was, in truth, barely older than a child. That didn’t change the fact that he’d tried to kill her, and Xena refused to feel sympathy for him. “Guess you picked the wrong wild pig to shoot at, huh?” She knelt on one knee beside him and rolled him roughly over.
He cried out, but she batted his hands away from the knife hilt and folded her fingers around it, yanking it out of him with a fast, steady pull that changed his cry to a scream. Dispassionately she wiped the blade on her leggings as he clutched his belly and squealed, sliding the blade back in it’s holster as she heard running bootsteps behind her. “Over here.”
Gabrielle came barrelling out of the trees as though she was fully intending on doing something martially useful, complete with her big stick waving in the air. She skidded to a halt when she saw the scene before her, and XEna watched her face carefully as the blond woman looked at the kid, then looked at the bow, then looked at her.
There were two things Gabrielle could possible ask her. One would continue their relationship, and one would likely end it. Xena found herself unable to guess in the slightest which one it would be and so, in that moment of the dancing of their souls she experienced a lurch of the heart that sent her lightheaded.
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle blurted out.
Xena sat back on her heels, unsure if she was going to laugh or cry. “Oh yeah. I’m great. How are you?” She muttered. “Look what I found out here. A little lamb with a nasty sting in his tail.”
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s shoulder, and gazed at the boy, who was still lying curled on the ground, clutching his gut. “Where did he come from?” She asked. “Is he with Bregos?”
Xena stared off into the trees for a long moment, before she dusted her hands off and felt her heartrate settle back down again. “Guess we’ll find out.” She turned her head as the guard arrived. “Take this piece of trash back to the camp and hold him there. If he doesn’t bleed to death I might get something useful out of him.”
She got up as the soldiers grabbed her young victim and hoisted him up, one man taking his bow and shaking his head at it, with a disgusted expression. She waited for them to drag the kid out, before she turned and looked down at Gabrielle. “I thought you’d feel sorry for the little punk.”
Gabrielle’s brow creased. “Why?” She asked. “He tried to hurt you.. Why would I feel sorry for him?”
Ah. The queen exhaled. So that was the line in the grass, was it? She wondered if Gabrielle even realized she’d crossed it. “Just a notion. Now that we’ve got the boys with us, let’s see what other surprises we can find.” She clapped Gabrielle on the shoulder and started forward, stepping over the forgotten bow and moving off into the trees with her little band as the sun moved through the sky overhead, dappling them with patterned light.
Gabrielle stopped walking when she felt Xena’s hand grip her shoulder. She waited for the queen to come up next to her then she pointed to a thick stand of bushes dimly seen through the trees. “The river’s just past there.”
“I know.” Xena said. “I can smell it.” She moved past Gabrielle. “So now, the bitch with the pointy metal thing gets to go first and you stay behind me. Okay?”
“You’re not a bitch.”
Xena laughed. “Oh I most certainly am.” She drew her sword and started forward. “String out, stay alert.” She called behind her to the soldiers. “No telling what we’re gonna find.”
It occurred to Gabrielle, suddenly, that they were a pretty small group to be maybe coming into where lots of Bregos men could be hiding. She didn’t remember exactly how many had left, but she knew it had seemed a lot when they had, and he could always have collected more in the meantime.
Six people didn’t seem like a safe number, especially since she was one of the six and she couldn’t do much in the way of fighting anyone. But on the other hand, they had Xena with them so maybe it was all right. She took a tighter grip on her staff, careful not to smack the queen with the end of it, and followed Xena down towards the river.
It wasn’t her part of the river. They were significantly downstream from the fords she’d known as a child and the stiff, rippling rapids that rushed past the little alcove where she’d knelt to fill their waterpot every morning. She was glad of that, since she had no wish to be anywhere near what she knew would be an empty shell with nothing but burned out memories.
She didn’t want to go back there.
Xena held her sword backwards, her fingers clasped lightly around the hilt as she stepped past the last tree and emerged onto the bank of the river. Her eyes flicked over it’s surface, and she revised her evaluation, as the waterway was more of a creek than a river, maybe the span of six horses across, but moving at a decent clip.
She stepped onto a mossy rock near the edge and studied the water intently. It was dark and muddy, and as she knelt and extended her senses, she caught a whiff of garbage and stench on it’s surface. “Don’t touch it.” She ordered, standing and moving easily upstream.
They followed her single file, and slowly a silence descended on them as they took their cue from her, placing their steps with care as she led them up the creek towards a steep bend they could just barely see ahead.
Xena felt a definite sense of pleasure, as she practiced her very favorite form of hunting. The cool breeze blew against her face, and she smelled humanity on it, and it made her smile. For all the uncertainties she’d felt so far, this at least was something she remembered well, and she let the cares of the day fade around her as she concentrated on moving silently, the slowly wakening thrill lifting the hairs on the backs of her arms.
It was much better than being queen, really. Sitting in a castle up on a musty hard backed chair somewhere - how had she borne it all this time? Xena’s ears twitched, as she caught faint sounds on the wind. This was living. That? She exhaled slowly, shaking her head.
“Something wrong?” Gabrielle whispered, coming up just behind her.
“Nope.” The queen switched her sword to her other hand. “Smell that?”
Gabrielle obediently sniffed. “All I can smell is you.” She said, after a moment. “Was that what you meant?”
“Do I smell bad?”
“Then it wasn’t what I meant.”
Xena paused at a wider part of the path, to allow her companion to come up next to her. “Look.” She pointed at the water, which was carrying a swirl of debris past them. “See that?”
Gabrielle nodded. “It’s trash.” She agreed.
“Army trash.” The queen said. “That makes it different. Villagers would never chuck cloths away like that.”
The soldiers stood patiently behind her, their heads never ceasing to move as they watched the forest around them. One stepped onto the rocks near the water, and extended his sword, snagging a bit of the debris and bringing it closer for Xena to inspect.
Wow. Gabrielle looked at the sodden mass. She could barely see what it was, and Xena knew right off. “You’re right.” She said. “Those are hearthclothes.” A scene flashed into her mind, of her family’s spare little firepit and her mother carefully folding her cloths to put away. “They never would have thrown them in the river.”
Xena nodded. “Okay, listen up.” She eyed the soldiers. “I want to find out how many there are, and what the layout is. Then we can bring the rest of the boys in and wipe them out.” She lifted a hand and touched Gabrielle’s nose with her thumb. “Stick to my ass, muskrat.”
Gabrielle grinned unexpectedly. “Lucky me.” She agreed, her lips pressing together as she muffled as smile seeing Xena’s eyes widen. “Don’t you all think so?” She asked the soldiers.
“Shut up.” Xena gave them all a look. She gathered what dignity she could muster and turned her back, fluffing her cloak out in case anyone got any funny ideas about looking at anything but where they were going. She picked her path and started forward again, her eyes spotting a narrow, almost invisible path ahead leading up away from the stream and deeper into the forest.
The sunlight slanted through the leaves now, beginning to turn a rich, warm golden color as it passed high noon and moved along it’s arc towards evening. She stepped between the tall trunks and consciously became more silent, her ears pricking as she listened for the first hints of humanity ahead.
The undergrowth was thick here, and she eased between the branches, pausing every few steps to let her senses catch up with her bootsteps.
The birds had fallen silent around them, a definite indication of nearby habitation. She slowed, placing her feet with more care, sensing something nearby that wasn’t part of the forest. She held up a hand, the moved forward alone, pressing against the trunk of a tall tree whose branches spread lazily to either side of them.
Slowly, she slid her head around the side of the tree, and peered past the trunk. As she had suspected, there was a guard post there, two men sitting on logs, one whittling a bit of wood in a bored way, the other leaning back on his hands, watching the leaves overhead.
They were young, and anonymous to her, their faces not even slightly familiar from the barracks. Xena studied the area behind and beyond them, detecting no other figures nearby. So. She had two idiots here, and now what to do with them?
If she merely knocked them out, they’d know she was around, and she wasn’t sure she wanted that to get out yet. If she cut their throats, delightful as that would be, it would also probably indicate she was around, and it would freak Gabrielle out.
If she went around them, they might come up behind her.
If she went over them, she’d be unable to resist the temptation to have her men piss on their heads. “Life’s just a sack of dried pig scat sometimes, ain’t it?” She muttered under her breath, just as a huge, though muffled sneeze sounded behind her.
The two guards jumped up, pulling out their swords and bolting towards the trees they were hiding behind. Xena rolled her eyes and ducked out from behind the trunk, letting out a wild yell as she closed with the first guard and met his sword stroke with her own, smashing his weapon aside as he fought to slow his run and failed, crashing directly into her and bouncing off to stumble back, his eyes widening as the rest of the soldiers swarmed out from behind the tree and attacked.
Xena went after her initial victim, grinning when she saw by the look in his eyes that he knew just how much trouble he was really in. She knew leaving him alive would be pointless, but her sword certainly wasn’t so she ran him through with it, feeling the grating sensation of steel on bone as her weapon penetrated his chest and spitted his heart.
He slumped to the earth and she moved past him, already looking for another target, but her men had already taken care of the other guard, and now they were searching beyond the log they’d been sitting on, a sense of excitement rising from them as the smell of blood rose in the clearing.
Xena leaped to the top of the log and dropped to the ground on the other side. A short, mossy slope lead down towards a little dell, and she could see smoke rising from the center of it. “All right.” She motioned to the two men closest to her. “Take the bodies, and put them in the river.” Her long finger pointed to a third man. “Straighten this little cesspit up, so it looks like nothing happened.”
“Aye.” The men set to work.
“You.” Xena swiveled her head and regarded Gabrielle, who was standing quietly nearby. “That sound you made killed those men. You realize that?”
Gabrielle’s eyes went to her face in sudden, wary shock. “Bu..”
“That was you, right? Or did one of my men grab his crotch first?”
The blond woman’s gazed moved to the limp bodies being dragged out, then she looked back at Xena in horror.
“It’s not a game, out here.” The queen turned her back and started through the trees again, scanning the forest for several seconds before her mind actually acknowledged what she was seeing. She wasn’t really mad at Gabrielle for sneezing, after all, people did, and she hadn’t minded killing the soldiers, she just hated that the choice had been taken from her that way.
She took several steps more before she glanced behind her, to find Gabrielle following, her eyes firmly on the ground, and her face stony and expressionless.
A brilliant attempt at composure completely ruined by the tears rolling unchecked down her cheeks.
Xena sighed, and kept going, annoyed that a little water could do so much to ruin what had been turning out to be a pretty nice day.
The guard outpost was surprisingly far from the main encampment. Xena had led the way for almost a candlemark before she started hearing voices, and the sound of wood being chopped through the trees in front of her. She held her her hand to stop the progress behind her, then she unclasped her cloak and extended it in Gabrielle’s direction. “Hold that.”
The cloth was taken from her, and she took a long step towards the last tree, crouching, then leaping up to catch the lowest branch and pull herself up onto it. After she took a moment to catch her balance, she walked along the branch, placing her boots carefully as the limb swayed under her a little.
New the end, where the tree limb extended into the next, before she crossed over she stopped and turned to look behind her, seeing her six men crouched in the bushes, watching alertly all around them. Leaning against the trunk of the tree she was in was Gabrielle, Xena’s cloak tucked over her arm, her eyes looking off into the distance unseeingly.
She hadn’t said a word since they’d started off again. Not even a grunt or a clearing of her throat, not even when Xena had directly addressed her.
The queen suspected it was going to take some effort to reverse that, but if she learned the lesson Xena had intended, it would be worth it.
Xena frowned, as she acknowledged a sense of unease that was tied in to the glum expression on her lover’s face and the fact that she herself was unhappy about it. “Xena.” She slapped herself in the head, turning and continuing on, jumping from one tree to the other and moving along the long branch heading for the center.
First things first. She would have time later to make nice.
As she reached the trunk she stepped around it to a branch on the other side, pressing her hands against the bark and feeling it’s roughness against the palms of her hands. She stopped, then, as she peered around and could see below her, where a large group of men were surrounding a big cookfire.
They were haggard and worn looking. The clothing they wore was ripped and filthy, and Xena’s nose wrinkled as a gust of wind brought their scent to her. Most had beards, many had cuts and wounds visible to her watching eye that were testament of a very hard winter.
They were intent on the cookpot, and oblivious of anything else around them. She suspected she could have done a country jig and sang a tavern tune on the branch above them and not made a stir, the sunken looks on their faces make her suspect they hadn’t eaten in a quite a while.
“Git that fire made.” One man said, with a hoarse cough.
Several around him licked their lips, and then, curiously, peered around as though embarrassed. Xena was content to lean against the bark and watch, not entirely sure of what was going on. On the face of it, they appeared to be assembling for a meal, but there was an avidness, and intentness in their manner that pricked her warning instincts.
What were they up to?
There was a stir at the back of the crowd, and a buzz of excited conversation rose. Xena eased around the trunk and stepped a few paces along the branch, holding the leaves aside with one hand so she could see better. Three men were struggling to lift a pot full of water onto the newly set firepit and several drew daggers, looking past the fire to the rear where the sounds were coming from.
Xena edged forward a little more, trying to see what the noise was. She could spot a cluster of men shoving themselves forward, and then, the others were helping them, the excitement un mistakable. They reached the firepit and suddenly the crowd parted, and she saw two of the men, with a figure bound between them, it’s pale but dirty skin naked save where the ropes crossed it.
What the? The queen blinked, then blinked again, as she realized it was a young girl they had tied up, with tow brown hair and wide, terrified eyes. She was struggling weakly, but her mouth was gagged and as as she was shoved forward, the men surged forward anxiously, one reaching in and testing the pot’s water.
“What in Hades?” The queen whispered.
Xena had seen a lot in her lifetime. She’d seen torture and deprivation, and depravation and dirty little tricks the likes of which would scare grown soldiers into screaming babies but one thing she’d never experienced was cannibalism and so it took her almost a hundred heartbeats before she realized that was what she was about to see.
And then she realized that thought totally horrified her just before she released the leaves and was jumping forward, letting out a loud, urgent yell as she fell through the air towards the crowd just as they dumped the kid into the pot and stoked the fire.
She hoped her men would come running. There were too many daggers and too many men who were too frenzied for her to stay unscathed and she pulled her sword as she landed and started swinging. It was like cutting through thick brush, the men were almost oblivious to her as they swarmed around the cookpot and she caught a brief glimpse of the child jerking wildly.
“Son of a bacchae! Get the Hades away from her you damned scumbag perverts!” Xena hacked an arm off, and kicked it’s owner right into the fire. A stench of burning flesh went up and that sent the crowd over the edge. They started clawing at the still twitching body as Xena fought to get closer to the pot, the smell of the filth and the hair burning turning her stomach. “Yahhhh!!”
An answering yell came to her ears sweet as baklava and she swiped her blade into the head of the man in her way, the blade sticking suddenly in the bone of his skull. Impatiently she yanked it out, and a loud crack sounded as her elbow smacked something as her arm swung back.
She half turned and saw blood and pale hair and then Gabrielle went down, dropping like a sack in the crowd of surging men. “Oh.” Xena exhaled. “That was a screw up.” She turned back and reached into the pot, feeling the scalding water against her skin as she grabbed the child and hauled her up over the pot’s lip, hearing the sizzle as her bare skin touched the hot iron.
Then one of her men was at her side and grabbing the girl, his eyes huge and horrified as she knew her own were and she felt a sturdy back press against her own as she side stepped to where Gabrielle had fallen and bracketed her with a leg on each side of her slumped body.
“What d’we do?” The man at her back yelled. “T’animals!”
Xena fought off two men who were clawing at the girl’s body, their eyes so fixed they paid no attention to her sword cutting them to shreds, or the blood now spurting everywhere. What do we do? She knew of only one solution to this particular situation. “Kill em all!” She bellowed, ignoring the fact that they were outnumbered ten to one. “Die! Die all you bastards!”
Some of them were ripping into the first man she’d killed. Xena saw two of her men start on them with war axes and she resolutely stood her ground, gutting a man trying to get to the child then jerking her sword back and whipping it over her head to slash across the face of a second.
“Xena, there’s too many of em.” The man at her back said. “They’re crazy!”
Xena had no doubt of her own courage. She also had no doubt of her own intelligence. “Cover me.” She sheathed her sword despite the gore on it and knelt, gathering Gabrielle’s still body in her arms and lifting her up. Her face was covered in blood. “Move out! To the river!”
The rest of the men formed a wedge around her and they fought their way towards the treeline, losing most of their attackers as they turned back towards the fire and their other victim.
“Damnedable thing, Xena.” One of her men grunted as they ran.
Xena drew in a breath tinged with her lover’s blood and expelled it. “Half assed hero bullshit.” She muttered in response, feeling her teeth grind.
Gabrielle slowly awoke to the smell of spiced wine and leather nearby. She took a breath and tried to open her eyes, with very mixed results. “Ow.”
“Don’t move around.”
Xena’s voice sounded tired, but calm, and she could feel the softness of the furs on their sleeping pallet under her fingers so Gabrielle figured they were safe. “Wh..” Her head hurt a lot, and she could only open one eye, but that didn’t help much because something was covering the other one and blocking her view. “Wh..”
A candle neared, and she felt Xena’s presence, the warmth of her body coming closer as she leaned over the pallet and her darkened profile came into Gabrielle’s limited view. “Do me a favor?”
Her throat hurt too. Gabrielle merely nodded in agreement, and waited.
“Let’s not talk about today until tomorrow.”
After a moment, Gabrielle nodded again, her head hurting so much not talking was actually a very appealing idea. She remembered what happened up to a point, that point being Xena’s sudden attack of the campsite by herself that had sent them all running.
She remembered finding Xena’s tall form, and fighting to get to her side.
She remembered seeing the child, being boiled.
Then she remembered hearing a crack, then… then nothing. Obviously, she’d gotten hurt in the fight. She looked up at Xena, remembering what had happened before that and she was abruptly glad there wouldn’t be any talk of today until tomorrow.
Maybe tomorrow would be so busy they couldn’t talk about it then, either. Maybe Xena would forget about today, since things would surely be very hectic. “Patches okay?” She managed to rasp out, figuring that was a safe question.
“He’s fine.” Xena smiled. “You’re gonna be fine. You just hit your face on something hard and pointed and you’re eye’s all swollen up.”
Gabrielle nodded , since that was easier. After an awkward silence, she looked back up at Xena, the queen’s pale eyes catching glints from the candlelight. “Sorry.”
The blond woman pressed her lips together and let her eye close. “You should send me back to the castle.” She said.
“Yeah, I should.” Xena agreed.
Gabrielle kept her eye closed, but she could feel the damp warmth gathering underneath her closed lids. She waited for Xena to continue, but the queen didn’t seem to have anything else to say and so they just sat there together in silence, just the fluttering of the candle between them.
Xena leaned back in her camp chair, her long legs splayed out before her and her hands behind her head. She could hear a lot of activity outside, but for now she had no desire to go watch it. It was peaceful here inside her tent, with the brazier softly hissing, and the smell of hot wine nearby.
Next to her right leg, Gabrielle was sleeping on their pallet, one hand tangled in the quilt covering her the other lying on the top of that, it’s knuckles just brushing Xena’s thigh.
Xena watched her lover’s face, her eyes running over the swollen bruise across her nose and still closed eyelid, but also noting the reddened state of the uninjured side indicating she’d shed some tears from it. Even in sleep, the blond woman’s face was tense and as the queen watched her she could almost feel the upset in her own guts.
That annoyed her. She knew she didn’t owe any apologies either for her rough speech or her inadvertent elbow but she was pissed off to find herself wanting to stop Gabrielle from being upset even though it was right that she was.
Ugh. Xena gazed plaintively at the tent roof. Love was too gods be damned complicated. She hated the dependency of it, the obligation it left her under, and the ambivalence it produced. It had no place here in the middle of a campaign.
A touch almost made her jump, before she looked down to see Gabrielle’s fingers curl around her knee. She stared at the hand, thinking very hard about how that touch made her feel inside. Was it worth risking everything for that? She kept coming back to the question but now as she asked it, she suddenly felt like she was on the other side of the answer and wanting it to be yes, and not no.
Gabrielle’s one good eye opened, and blinked, then tracked to her face. Without thinking, Xena reached out and stroked the uninjured side of her face, absorbing the look of simple, mute gratitude she got for it. “What am I going to do with you?”
Gabrielle shrugged faintly, then looked away.
“You know something?” Xena tapped the blond woman’s chin gently with one finger. She waited for Gabrielle to look back at her. “It’d be better for both of us if I send your cute little butt back to the stronghold.” She saw the reaction in the bloodshot green eye. “But if I did, I’d miss you so much I’d never be able to think straight.”
Gabrielle’s fingers tightened on her leg.
“How in the hell did I let that happen?” Xena wondered aloud. She sighed, and shook her head. “Anyway, listen. It was my elbow you ran into so next time, watch out, willya? I got a knot there the size of a walnut now.”
Gabrielle rested her cheek on the pillow and watched the queen’s face, half in shadow, half fire lit, cherishing this moment of Xena’s raw humanity. “I’m sorry.” She said, after a long pause. “For everything.”
Xena seemed to understand what she was saying. “Me too.” the pale eyes lifted. “But I’m not sending you back.” She covered Gabrielle’s hand with her own, and clasped it. “So we’re just going to have to live with whatever happens.”
Gabrielle’s face eased into a tiny, hesitant smile.
“Or die with it. Whatever.” The queen added, lifting their joined hands up and kissing Gabrielle’s knuckles.
Footsteps approached, but the queen didn’t move, not even when the polite rap came on her outer tent support. “Yeah?”
“Y’called for us, Mistress?” Brendan’s voice answered.
Had she? Oh yeah. “C’mon in.”
The flap opened and the men filed in, a round dozen of them. All her troop captains, who clustered near her map table and and tried not to stare at the two of them.
“Report.” Xena said, in a crisp tone.
Brendan cleared his throat. “Got most of them wagons back going.” He said. “Ready to head on in the mornin. Most of the stuff got patched up, lost some frillies though and whatnot torn and such.””
“Good.” Xena crossed her ankles. “Send four men along with them. With any luck, they’ll meet the poor bastards I sent back the other day and they can follow after us.”
“Aye.” Her captain agreed. “Did all right for em. Men had a few dinars, picked up a thing or two to give em road coin. Bastards already taken that from em to let passage.”
Xena snorted. “Someone agree to take that kid?” She asked, after a moment. “She’s got some bad burns but with any luck she’ll last to the stronghold, at least.”
Brendan nodded, his lips compressing together. “Poor bugger.” He said. “Wagonmaster said he’d see her there. Not a word from her yet, scattered brains, I think”
“At least.” Xena said. “She might end up an idiot. May have been one to begin with.”
“I don’t think so, M… Xena.” One of the other, younger captains said unexpectedly. “She hasn’t said much, aye, but I was watching her as they took care of her before and she knows what’s up.” He glanced around diffidently. “Would have been better for her, maybe, if she hadn’t.”
“True.” The queen grunted. “Okay. Tomorrow, we’re going to take a little detour and wipe out every living thing in that cesspit I saw today.” She announced. “No sneaking, no strategy, we’re just riding in there and letting loose. Everyone understand me?”
The men nodded somberly. “Y’don’t want to just run em off?” Brendan asked, with a touch of hesitance. “Seemed more crazy than dangerous, from what them all said.”
“No.” Xena replied. “I don’t want to run them off. I want to obliterate them.” She glared at the men. “They were eating children, Brendan. I’ve been there, and done everything and if something shocks my hoary old battle scarred ass, it needs to be sent to Hades. Understand?”
Brendan nodded. ‘Aye.”
“Ugh.” The queen shuddered in remembrance. “I”m certainly not leaving them here to prey on what few poor bastards are left living in these parts. So tell everyone to sharpen their edges, and just be ready. We move out at dawn.”
“Aye.” Brendan repeated. “Will be done, Xena.” He paused. “Merchants left us some good feed. Men’ll bring in some for you.”
“Us.” Xena still had Gabrielle’s hand in hers and she squeezed it lightly. “Gabrielle worked hard to day. Bring three of everything.”
Gabrielle peeked at the men through her good eye. She could barely distinguish them in the shadows and she had to wonder what they were thinking right now about Xena, and about her, and about how everything was going. It wasn’t what they’d expected, she figured.
Wasn’t what she’d expected, in fact, and probably not what Xena expected either. But life was like that, and when she lost track of that fact she only had to think of that girl being thrown into that pot to understand that things could always, always be worse.
“That’s it. Scram.” Xena dismissed the men, and waited for them to leave before she turned her attention back to the figure on the pallet. “Any comments from you?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Not really no.”
Xena’s eyebrows lifted. “Nothing? You think I should leave those guys alone too?”
The blond woman held her gaze for a very long moment, before she shook her head no. “That was horrible.” She said. “I can’t imagine anything more horrible than that was.”
“Even lots of dead people?”
“Hm.” Xena mused. “YOu and I agreeing on a moral issue. I think I hear Hades having a snowball fight somewhere.” She reached over and gently turned Gabrielle’s head towards the light, studying her injury. Aside from the swollen eye, she’d hit her lover in the nose and that’s where most of the blood had come from.
At first she’d thought she’d broken it, but now she could see the swelling had gone down, returning more of a normal shape to it. “Breathe.” Xena instructed, watching Gabrielle’s nostrils flare a little as she obeyed. “Stuffed up still?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle murmured. “LIke I have a cold, but I don’t.” She blinked a little, wincing as her closed eyelid cracked open. “Ow.” She reached up and touched her eye, feeling the puffy swelling. “Maybe I need armor for my head.”
“Maybe.” Xena leaned forward, moving her hand aside as she gently kissed the spot her elbow had smacked into. She heard Gabrielle inhale in surprise, then she felt the blond woman’s hand touch her neck, fingers lightly stroking her skin. She shifted her head a little and their lips met, a sweet warmth that soothed the dark, edgy restlessness she’d felt since they’d gotten back to camp.
Yeah, it was worth it.
She lifted her head a little and looked down into Gabrielle’s eyes. Then she straightened up again as she heard someone approaching the tent, and touched the blond woman’s lips with the edge of her thumb. ‘Know what the bummer is about this whole thing?”
Gabrielle looked around the tent, at herself, then at Xena, both her pale eyebrows lifting sharply. “No.” She said. “What?”
“You didn’t see me get that kid out of that pot.” Xena sniffed reflectively. “Damn well done, if I do say so myself.” She waved in the guard peeking into the tent, having smelled his errand in the form of something roasted and tasty. “Put it on the table. I’ll take care of it.”
The man set the tray down, and scurried out again.
“I should go get that set up.” Gabrielle started to sit up, only to find herself held in place with a casual, yet inflexible hand. “I’m okay, really Xena.”
“One of these days we’re going to have to get this whole ‘I’m the queen and you do what I say’ thing worked out.” Xena ignored her protests and got up. She walked over to the tray and examined it’s contents. “Damn good thing they decided not to do boiled beef, huh?” She peered around and gave Gabrielle a rakish grin. “Hungry?”
Gabrielle’s face wrinkled up into a grimace. “Got any fruit?”
The queen chuckled, low and deep in her throat. “Ever tell you how much cherries look like eyeballs when you pluck them out?”
“Want some bread? I think that’s pretty harmless.” Xena tossed a couple things into one of the wooden bowls and came back over to the pallet. She handed Gabrielle a bit of travel bread, and waited for her to take a bite of it. “Unless I start talking about grinding bones for flour, that is.”
Gabrielle stopped chewing, and just looked at her.
Xena popped a berry into her mouth and bit into it, giving her companion a wink.
Dawn rose and brought a thick fog with it. The heavy gray white cloud covered the landscape, rendering it’s profile mysterious and silken. In the dim, misty light, silence reigned in the stand of trees as no breath of wind or birdsong broke it, the only motion the occasional settling of the fog that revealed a bush top, or the dark reality of a trunk before being obscured again.
The hollow at the bottom of the slope was completely covered, nothing stirred in the silent, destroyed village at it’s center and the only sound was the odd half snore and the softest of pops from a dying fire.
As the light went from twilight to dull gray, a breeze finally rose, puffing through the trees and sending the fog swirling back across the top of the rise leading in to the hollow to reveal a motionless figure on horseback, inky black in shadow and obscured by the lines of a long, heavy cloak.
A morning bird sleepily chirped.
“Go.” Xena said, remaining still as the army rushed past and around her, moving in three directions into the dell in a silent, deadly rush. There were no yells, no sounds of triumph - just the rustle of leather garments and the light thump of boots against the dew moistened earth.
It took a hundred heartbeats before they all went past her, and she placed her hands on her saddle horn and gazed thoughtfully down into the dell, cocking her head to listen as the sounds of destruction began to reach her.
“Aren’t you going to.. Um..” Gabrielle moved Patches up next to her.
“No.” Xena said quietly. “I disgraced my steel enough yesterday. This isn’t a fight. It’s the queen pronouncing sentence.”
Gabrielle pushed the hood of her cloak back, and the freshening breeze lifted her pale hair off her forehead. “Do you know if all of them down there were like that?”
“No, and I don’t care.” The queen answered. “If they weren’t doing it, they were standing by and letting it be done, and in my eyes - same thing.” She settled her cloak around her with an impatient twitch, then she looked sideways at her companion. “Thats your place down there.”
To her surprise, Gabrielle shook her head. “No.”
Xena turned in her saddle. “I thought you said…”
The blond woman played a bit with Patches bristly mane. “It’s the next little valley over.” She finally said, in a reluctant tone. “The path is just past that big rock on the ridge there, but I don’t want go.”
“Hm.” Xena faced forward again. “Yeah, with these guys here around, I’d give it a pass too.” She settled her boots a little more firmly in the stirrups. A hoarse cry sounded suddenly, cut off midway, then she heard the sound of running steps. “C’mon.. C’mon...ah.”
The distinct thwack of an ax burying itself into a human back came to her knowledgeable ears and she nodded in approval. “Nice.”
“Do you think that boy was from here?” Gabrielle asked, suddenly. “The one who shot at you?”
Xena nudged Tiger along the slope, idly examining the trees. She could see the remains, outlines only, of homes, and what might have been a fence, but it was only her sharp eyes that were able to distinguish them from the mossy bark and underbrush along the ridge. “Doubt it.”
Gabrielle followed her, trying to stir her memories of what this place had been like before. Just a neighboring town, she remembered. One her father had taken them to once, or maybe twice - for harvest festival. She remembered that, chiefly for the few moments of pleasure she and Lila had gotten from it the two of them sitting side by side watching the dancing as they shared a precious honeycake.
She remembered it being a much more innocent time and she thought she might even have been happy then. It was hard to say. With a sigh, she pulled Patches up next to Tiger and resisted the urge to rub her aching eye. “Do you maybe think he though you were from here?”
“Hm.” Xena settled back in her saddle as the fog started to thin and part, and shadows resolved into soldiers heading back towards her as the sun broke over the ridge and bathed them in light. “Interesting thought.” She waited for the first man to reach her. “Well?”
“T’is done.” The man said. “Sleeping, all of em.” He ducked his head and moved past the two women, reaching out to grab a handful of leaves and rub them along his red stained blade.
“Was good killing, your Majesty.” The second man said. “That place was evil, no mistake.” He was cleaning off a well used battle axe. “Bad things, there.”
“Bad things here, sometimes.” XEna pointed at her own chest. “C’mon, Gabrielle. Let’s see if I can get shocked two days running.” She nudged Tiger with her heels and headed down the slope. “This is confusing me.”
Gabrielle wasn’t at all sure she wanted or needed to see the village, but she followed Xena anyway. “It does?” She asked. “I mean.. Well, it confuses me, but almost everything does.”
“Men attack the wagons.” The queen said. “We track along the path they tried to run back to, and we find a kid out hunting… me, apparently.” She ticked off her fingers. “Then we track along where he came from, and we find what I thought was a guard outpost.”
“Kill those guys, and track the path from where they are, and I find a village full of cannibals who might have been some of the guys who left with Bregos, but sure weren’t the raiders that attacked the wagons.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle murmured “That is confusing.”
“So where did the rest of the raiders go?” Xena asked. “It’s almost as if they…” She stopped speaking and fell silent, her eyes narrowing.
“As if they what?” Gabrielle moved closer to her as they cleared the trees and entered the destruction of what had once been a poor, but surviving town.
“Later.” The queen said. “Because if I’m right, I”m gonna be really pissed off.” She passed several more soldiers on their way out of the dell and she paused as she reached what had been the entrance to the village, her thoughts momentarily forgotten as her eyes fell on what was making the crude gate.
“Two damn days in a row.” Xena eased the now unsettled Tiger past the bone gateway, the long, algae covered bones lashed together with what looked like gut and probably was. She could see bodies in the leaf litter, and she passed them right by as she saw a cluster of her men ahead of them.
The fight was definitely over. There were dead men everywhere, but Xena could hardly imagine the stench being any worse even if they’d already started to decay. A glance behind her confirmed her suspicion that Gabrielle wasn’t dealing with the sights very well, and she regretted her decision to investigate in person. “Wanna go back?”
Gabrielle had one hand clamped firmly over her mouth and she was green where she wasn’t pale. She shook her head no, regardless of that, and guided Patches right up next to Tiger’s tall form.
“Xena!” Brendan’s voice carried over to her. “Found something over here!”
“Yeah yeah.” Xena dismounted and strode over to the crowd of men, which parted as she approached. “Whatever it is, make it snappy because I think we’ve got other pr..” She stopped in mid word as she reached the front of the crowd and saw what her men were clustered around.
She blinked, then she turned instinctively and grabbed Gabrielle, covering her eyes as she pulled the blond woman against her and tucked her head against her shoulder. “Make that three times in two days.” She said, briefly. “I’m on a roll. Hope it stops.”
In the center of the ring there was a pile of human bodies, most missing chunks in various spots. The stench was unspeakable and even Xena, who had seen worse on the battlefield, came close to chucking her breakfast. “Start a fire.” She managed to get out. “Burn everything.”
“Already started.” Brendan’s face was pale under its weathering.
The bodies had been sorted in rough piles and some were pulled near the firepit where a smoke cover had been placed. “Guess they were packing to leave.” Xena glanced down at Gabrielle, who was showing no signs at all of resisting her benign stranglehold. “Everything else done here?”
“Aye.” Brendan pressed his sleeve over his mouth as a gust of wind stirred the stench. “Found a few as might have been hangers on with Bregos, but not fighting types.”
Xena nodded. “Let’s get finished up here. I’ve got a feeling this isn’t what it seems.” She glanced around. “Whatever that is. Things don’t add up.” She tucked her cloak around Gabrielle. “Move out soon as you can.”
The soldiers looked more than glad to comply and they broke up rapidly, moving away from the charnel pit as fast as they could. The queen took one more long look at the pile, then she turned and started back to where the horses were, releasing Gabrielle to face forward as she turned her back on the bodies. “All right.”
Gabrielle raked her hair from her eyes and exhaled. “Ugh.” She leaned forward as they climbed up the slight slope. “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
“Me too.” Xena glanced around furtively, to make sure no one was listening.
“Xena, how could this happen?” The blond woman asked, as they reached their patiently waiting mounts. “I know it was a tough winter, but that wasn’t just lack of food, for the sake of the gods there were sheep and goats out here they could have caught or rabbits, or..”
“People are easier to catch than fish.” Xena said. “But yeah, takes more than a little tummy rumbling to make you go over the edge that way.” She gathered up Tiger’s reins and prepared to get on his back.
“It was terrible. That was like they were sorting out lambchops by that pit.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I coudn’t hardly believe it.”
Xena stopped. “You saw that?”
“Just before you grabbed me, yeah.” Gabrielle put her foot in the stirrup and pulled herself up on Patches back. “Ugh.”
“Oh.” The queen seemed embarrassed. “Sorry, I was… I thought I’d..”
“Yeah, it was really sweet of you but kinda too late.”
Xena cleared her throat and hoisted herself up into her saddle. “Well, why in Hades did you let me do that then?” She asked. “If you’d already seen the damn thing?”
Gabrielle settled herself and eyed Xena. “Uh, Xena?” She guided her pony closer. “If you really think I mind having my face pressed up against your breasts, we need to talk.”
Caught in the act of taking a drink of water, Xena responded by spitting the mouthful of it over Tiger’s head, making the stallion shy in startlement. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and turned her head to glare at her companion, both eyebrows hiking right up to her hairline. “You little muskrat.”
Gabrielle tilted her head and grinned, a little lopsidedly due to her bruises. She laid a hand on Xena’s knee and then, leaned forward and kissed it, despite the mud liberally coating her leggings. “Thanks.” She said. “It’s so horrible hre I have to keep thinking about what’s good in my life to get me through it and you’re the best part of that.”
Xena blinked back at her, caught very offguard. She looked up as she heard the army coming back towards them, and for a moment, put out her hand an cupped Gabrielle’s cheek. “LIkewise.” She said, then she gathered up her reins and clicked her tongue at Tiger, starting him forward as the men filed out from between the trees.
Behind them, a soft crackle was growing into a roar and the fog on the ground was being replaced by smoke billowing through the trees. Brendan rode up next to Xena, turning his head to spit on the ground. “Bastards.”
“Think there’s more around, then, Xena?” The troop captain asked. “Go look around for em, we could.”
“No.” The queen shook her head. “Soon as everyone’s out of there, we ride for the pass. No stopping.”
Pale blue eyes fixed on him. “Did I start speaking Syrian and didn’t realize it?” Xena said. “What part of that didn’t you understand, old man?”
“Aye, I’ll get the men moving.” Brendan turned his horse and headed back the way they’d come. He let out a shrill whistle and started yelling orders as the men caught up with him. “Let’s go! Let’s go! Move!”
Xena rewrapped her waterskin around her saddlehorn. “Brendan!” She yelled back over her shoulder. “I’m going to get the camp moving. Meet you on the road.”
“C’mon.” The queen motioned Gabrielle to follow her. “Let’s ride.” She urged Tiger into a gallop, hearing Patches smaller hooves rapidly tattoo as he chased after them. “Places to go.. People to terrorize.. “ XEna muttered under her breath. “Let’s just hope I”m wrong and we’re not on the ugly end of that.”