After helping to ease the fretful warrior deeper into sleep, Gabrielle spent some quiet time of her own contemplating the past few days. As the events rolled through her mind, she continued to run her fingers lightly through Xena’s hair. She took quiet joy in the trust she’d developed with Xena that made the gentle caresses possible. And with the difficult distance between them over the last several weeks she had missed this sorely. With the unusual amount of contact between them in the last day or so, however, it was almost as though they were both trying to make up for lost time. And to have the warrior reciprocate as she had, well… As strong as her friend was, Gabrielle couldn’t help but worry about her emotional stability. She probably considered such rigid control over her emotions as a necessity, especially in their line of work. But, the effects of that constant control were readily apparent. Assuming I could ever get her to even talk about it, I’d bet she’d say that the ‘mushy stuff’ wore her out more than the fights ever did, Gabrielle thought.
With such a painful and horrific past to own up to, was it any wonder that she had to keep the walls and barriers in place? Gabrielle got up momentarily to retrieve her staff and Xena’s sword and chakram, and then rejoined her slumbering partner on the cushions. But, there had been no nightmares the last few nights, Gabrielle realised as she watched Xena turn onto her side beneath the blanket. Whether that was a result of battle fatigue, the balm of emotional release from their talk, or the necessity of their close sleeping arrangements lately, Gabrielle couldn’t guess. Perhaps it was a combination of the three. But, it made her feel better, regardless, to know that Xena was finally getting some much-needed rest. She couldn’t do much about the fighting, and the sensitive chats were a little too stressful on Xena to do often. But if the warrior took any comfort from her presence… by the gods, she’d do what she could to orchestrate the sleeping arrangements so they slept closer from now on.
Xena, what am I going to do with you? You take the world on your shoulders and insist that it’s your responsibility. Even those times when you know I can take care of myself, you still feel the need to protect me… from the world, from warlords, and most especially yourself. Gods, you frustrate me sometimes! She tucked the blanket more firmly around Xena’s body before crossing her legs and resting her chin on one hand.
If only you could find a way to forgive yourself. But there’s no way you would ever believe yourself deserving of it, would you? You have no idea how afraid I am that you’re going to spend the rest of your life fighting to make up for your past. What good will it do you to fight until you’re either all used up or killed? How many villages will you have to defend? How many lives to be saved before it’ll be enough? There’s so much more to life than that. There has to be more. And I don’t know how I’d go on if anything happened to you…and… frankly I really don’t want to find out.
Her fingers traced the grain of her staff as she lovingly took in the details of the other’s face, with her long dark lashes, angular features, full lips…
Gabrielle swallowed convulsively.
She wasn’t sure she was ready to think about that just yet. The intensity of her reaction had surprised her. She knew about relationships between women, of course; she couldn’t have spent any time with the Amazons without learning about it. In fact, they had run into the occasional speculation and assumption about the exact nature of their relationship, and while they had never discussed it, it also hadn’t been an issue. And given Xena's response to what happened, it still isn’t, Gabrielle decided.
Except, there were those looks. Surprise mixed with other emotions that Gabrielle just couldn't identify. But, they were important. She knew it. That bardic intuition of hers fairly screamed it. The likelihood of getting Xena to talk about it, however, was about the same as Argo breaking into a song and dance. So there was only her confusion to ruminate on, with no easy answers forthcoming.
Frustrated with herself, she retrieved her scrolls from their saddlebags, grateful that Xena had bought the oilskin pouch for her things the last time they were through Athens. She smiled at the memory as she ran her fingers over the well-crafted straps holding the treasures secure and safe inside. It was the unexpected thoughtfulness of these gifts, usually practical in nature or design, which only further endeared the warrior to Gabrielle's heart. She brought the bag with her back to her spot on the makeshift pallet and began sharpening a quill while her mind leapt ahead, already intent on the right phrasing for a difficult passage she was stuck on.
The next few hours were productive ones, and it was with a sense of satisfaction that she penned the final few lines of 'Here She Comes... Miss Amphipolis'. She would polish it up later, she decided, but right now she needed to get herself a bite to eat before her growling stomach frightened the men in a three-tent radius. A few biscuits, another trail bar, and some water helped put a dent in her hunger. With her appetite it was a lucky thing they were as active as they were; though she suspected Xena only half joking when she accused the bard of being a bottomless pit. It was hardly her fault that she had to eat so much just to stay even. She'd like to see how well someone else would do, trying to keep up with Xena.
Whimpers broke through her idle musing and drew her attention abruptly to her companion. Xena lay on her side, the blanket pushed away, and her brow furrowed as if in pain. "No… Gods, I… don’t..." she murmured, her head rolling back and forth, and her brow covered in a faint sheen of perspiration. The bard moved closer to her side, concerned that the reprieve from the nightmares might finally over. "please..." Xena breathed. "…don’t leave me…" Her free hand reached out searchingly only to close on empty air.
Gabrielle sidled closer making certain that if she woke Xena too quickly that at least she would be in full view and unlikely to get her head taken off by the high-strung warrior. She stroked the woman's hair again, hoping to calm her and ease her back into sleep. "I’m here, Xena. I’m right here." Her hand moved through the warrior’s hair to the line of her throat. "It’s okay." Xena shifted under her touch, and Gabrielle felt the faintest murmuring hum in response to where her fingers stroked the tanned skin. Worried, the bard sat down next to her and caressed the searching hand with her own. Feeling the contact, the warrior's long arm reached out again and curled around Gabrielle’s waist, pulling the startled bard closer against her.
Wha-?! She had time to think before the warrior clasped an arm firmly around her, effectively trapping her in place. Her friend sighed and slipped deeply back into Morpheus’ realm. Gabrielle lay there on her back completely still, blinking up at the tent roof. Talk about your mixed signals, here, she grumbled to herself. But, she wasn’t actually upset. The times that Xena had needed her, leaned on her for once instead of the other way around could probably be counted on one hand. Moving carefully so as not to disturb her, Gabrielle lay her hand over Xena’s where it rested against her side. Feeling protective, she held her close and guarded the warrior's sleep.
It was like this that Stephicles found them when he returned late that afternoon. Gabrielle heard his approach and had her free hand surreptitiously on her staff before the visitor even made the entryway. She watched him come in and make himself comfortable against one of the support struts.
He was even better looking than Xena had claimed. A dark blue leather jerkin covered a white linen shirt, which the bard noted was quite clean given the weather conditions and the normal attire of most warlords. Tight, dark leggings were tucked into knee-high boots and a sword of good size hung from his belt. He had a presence about him, which she could almost feel, even from the distance between them. She saw that he was likely older than herself, though probably younger than Xena. Short hair, wet from the rain, gleamed slightly in the flickering light of the brazier, and the goatee he sported was neatly trimmed, giving the man, in Gabrielle’s opinion, a daring and rakish air. But for all that she wouldn’t trust him any farther than she could throw him. So she said nothing, only showed him narrowed and suspicious eyes.
"Wore her out, I see," he commented as he stroked his chin.
"Not a conversationalist?" he asked, his manner still amiable. "I can see how she might find that an attractive quality in a bed-mate."
"What is it you want?" she inquired civilly. Xena told her that, even if she were portrayed as a slave, she didn’t have to debase herself to anyone. One of the advantages of belonging to the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle surmised, since after all; who would be willing to risk setting off her temper?
"Wake her. She and I have business that can wait no longer on the pleasures of her bedsport."
The temptation to tell him to take a walk was strong, but she didn’t want to risk their safety any more than necessary. Turning a little within Xena’s embrace allowed her a better angle to keep an eye on the warlord while she woke her friend. She just wished she didn’t have to wake her so soon. The bard kept her face neutral as she took a moment to memorise the cherished features. Finally, she leaned down and her lips brushing lightly against Xena’s exposed right ear as she whispered to her. "Mistress… Stephicles is here to see you."
Xena had actually woken the moment she heard Stephicles come within spitting distance of the tent, but had kept her eyes shut as she listened to the brief exchange. She had entertained herself with various ways of teaching the man some better manners until she could find a good moment to ‘wake’. Well… at least she did until she heard Gabrielle’s breathy voice and felt warm lips tickling the edges of her ear. Her eyes popped open, sleepiness more fleeting by the second, as she turned her head to look up at Gabrielle, their faces hidden by the curtain of the bard’s hair. Xena raised one brow at her, playful curiosity shaping her expression. Gabrielle merely raised her own eyebrow in return.
"What do you want, Stephicles?" Xena drawled, never taking her eyes from the bard’s. She reached up to trail the fingers of her right hand across the sensitive flesh beneath Gabrielle’s ear, drawing forth the hoped for giggle.
"We need to talk about tonight. Given that this is your plan, I want to discuss the details of organising the men and equipment for the assault. I want you by my side when I do this, Xena. If any of what I’ve heard about you is true, then Neapolis is but a cherry waiting to be picked. After that… who knows what we could accomplish if we worked together?"
Gabrielle had to stifle another laugh when the warrior rolled her eyes. See what I have to deal with? her look said. Gabrielle smiled sympathetically in return.
"Would you leave off with your whore, already? I’m talking to you and I won’t be ignored!"
All movement on the cushions ceased. Xena rolled gracefully out from under the bard, and gained her feet in one smooth motion, all the while trying to ignore a niggling feeling of loss. "If you had any manners and an ounce of patience, you might get further with people. Anyone with brains would know that." Ah, don’t like that now, do you? Xena smirked to herself as she watched the muscles in his jaw flexed. She admired his spirit, inconvenient as it was; the man wasn’t easily intimidated.
Stephicles’ hand toyed with the pommel of his sword. "I really should just kill you right now."
It wasn’t bluster or bravado, Xena realised; he was giving it serious consideration. Her eyes narrowed and her body instantly readied itself in the face of the outright threat. "Give it your best shot," she invited him with a nasty smile. He looked strong and fast; it would be an interesting fight, and Xena thoroughly enjoyed a challenge. They stared at one another, still as statues, watching, evaluating.
"Wouldn’t it be better to wait?" Gabrielle interrupted, breaking the heavy silence. "You need her at the moment, so what good does it do you to cut off your nose to spite your face?" The bard stood as she spoke, aware of the angry stares, but determined to deflect the hostility to herself in the hopes of defusing the situation. "I’ve noticed that you’re both a lot alike; strong, intelligent, charismatic. You could probably work really well together, but…" Without missing a beat, she stepped between the two of them, and looked up at Stephicles. "You need to be a little more polite if you want to get your way though. And you." She glanced at her glowering friend. "You could be somewhat more co-operative."
The two warriors stared at her with a mix of bemused annoyance, but the bard detected a shift in the charged atmosphere between them. Whew. "Just a thought?"
Stephicles blinked at her and then turned back to Xena. "Is she always like this?"
Xena, however, was still staring at the bard, the Look firmly in place. Gabrielle swallowed hard and conceded that she may have overstepped herself. Slowly, too slowly for her taste, the warrior finally released her from that icy gaze and looked back at Stephicles.
"Fine," Xena stated curtly, ignoring his earlier jab at Gabrielle’s expense. "The troop diversions should be groups of three; no more, no less," she said, getting down to business. "I want these groups to go up over the walls, and it doesn’t matter where, except for the front gate, at a couple candle marks before moon set."
She stood next to the entryway of the tent and stared out into the rain. "Then the six of us will wait until the town alarm goes before heading over ourselves. We need the diversion away from the front gates to pull their attention from us. That’ll be your cue to ready the troops. It’s imperative that you keep everyone quiet out here. Too much activity in the camp will make the militia suspicious. We don’t want them adding any more man power to the walls than they already have." Her tone was clipped, cool, and totally business-like. In contemplating the plan, she could feel that old, dark joy stirring itself like some long sleeping beast. It almost felt as though she were the one in command here. It was with some effort that she kept a feral smile from her features.
"I only counted nearly a dozne men who walk the parapet over the gate," she continued. "Make sure that the men you assign to me are proficient with crossbows and throwing knives. This isn’t going to be a hack and slash assault. It’ll require finesse." Xena turned away from the door, and both her listeners were struck by the waves of rippling energy coming off the warrior, infecting them with her passionate energy. She could almost see it as if she were already there. "You’ll have someone show Gabrielle the supply tent and have them assist her with ropes and grappling hooks. Gloves of some kind, too. The weather’s going to work for and against us tonight." Her thoughts were already working through a hundred different details. "Dark clothes… oil… I’ll have Gabrielle draw up a list before she goes for the other things." She was pacing slowly now, oblivious to the impressed and wondering looks sent her way.
"If the catapults or balista are ready, you’ll have to fire them as soon as the gate is up; you don’t want to crush your own men. Send two squads in to hold the gate and then systematically take the town, area by area. Don’t venture forth until the last area is secured. Burn what you don’t need as you go. It’ll cause them no end of panic and confusion. You should have enough troops to force their submission, unless they decide to surrender. And whether or not you accept is up to you. But personally-" Xena paced over to Stephicles, her movements sensual and highly charged. "-I’d just kill ‘em all." Her eyes burned into his with a fierce, animalistic light.
A slow smile lit Stephicles’ face and he gave a dark, low laugh, "By Ares, you’re everything I’ve heard about you. We will bring them to their knees, you and I." He reached out and pulled her to him. The kiss was hungry and grasping, and the man was thoroughly aroused by the woman’s strength and presence. He felt her leaned into him, giving him what he wanted. At last Stephicles broke away, his breath coming fast.
"Later," Xena said, answering the question in his eyes. "After we take the town. Right now, we have too much to do." Her fingers slid teasingly across his chest, and then withdrew.
"Did you change your mind on how many men you’re taking with you?" Stephicles questioned, his hands gliding slowly up and down her bare arms.
"No," Xena said, allowing him this intimacy. "Why?"
"You said six. You plus four is only five. Who’s the other?"
"Her." Xena jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the bard who’d been long since forgotten by the warlord. He glanced over her shoulder and looked the strawberry blonde up and down. Releasing his newest commander, Stephicles walked purposefully over to where Gabrielle was now standing next to the brazier.
"Her?" The doubt was evident in his voice. "Surely you’re not serious? What’s she going to do? Wiggle her behind to distract them?" He moved around behind the bard. "No," he said firmly. "She’s staying here with me."
He wrapped his sizeable hands around Gabrielle’s waist and pulled her back against him. As Xena had done earlier that day, he held her by one arm, and let the other plot a course over her tautly muscled abdomen beneath the worn shift. Only he moved his hand downward towards the lower edge of the material, instead of up, attempting to reveal more of her thighs. "I want to insure your good behaviour, Xena. I want to know you’ll come back."
His fingers trailed along the exposed skin, the flesh warm against his hand. Gabrielle fought against this intrusion and tried to bring her elbow back in his face. He pulled his head aside, narrowly avoiding a broken nose. "Bitch!" He pulled her roughly around and backhanded her before wrapping his fingers around her throat intending to throttle her.
"I warned you about damaging my property." The soft voice came from behind his shoulder. Stephicles started to turn, realising too late that he had erred in taking his eyes off of Xena. A sudden double thump against the sides of his neck rendered his concern irrelevant as an excruciating pain blossomed throughout his body. The strength left his knees in a rush and he collapsed to the ground, feeling winded and unable to catch his breath. A disconnected feeling began to creep over his senses as he tried repeatedly to draw air into his starving lungs. The wetness on his upper lip resolved itself to a crimson stain on his fingertips and he wondered where had the blood come from.
"I want her to come with me. I’ll give you a moment or so to think about it, but hurry it up, will ya? You’ll be dead in a few more seconds."
His vision was fading in and out now, like his hearing. Gods, was this the pinch he’d heard about? Stephicles tried to nod his head since the words just weren’t making it out of his mouth. A faint repetition against his neck, and the abrupt return flow of blood sang painfully through his veins, like a sleeping limb shaken awake. He gulped for air as he lay back on the floor of the tent, thrilled to be alive, even with feeling as though his head was going to crack open. Hands buried themselves in the front of his jerkin and lifted him roughly into the air. He was shaken. Hard. "Well? Can she come with me? Or do I have to kill you to get what I want? And I warn you," her voice dropped to a dangerous rumble, "I always get what I want."
Were his feet off the ground? He was shaken again to get his attention. Mutely, he raised his eyes to meet the blazing blue ones across from his own.
"Well?" she asked again, her impatience showing in the furrowed brow.
"Take her," he managed to croak. And he was dropped immediately. Stephicles fell clumsily onto his backside, losing all sense of dignity before the two women.
"Send over the supply master and a couple troops in a candle mark or two." She turned to examine Gabrielle’s face in the light of the fire, dismissing him completely. The warlord, incensed, climbed to his feet and silently raged at the shame. There was a look of pained disbelief written clearly on his face, and Xena was aware of the thoughts likely going through his head, no doubt wondering at the wisdom of inviting her to help him. He let out a growl of anger and abruptly turned and left the tent.
"And don’t forget to send over that food you promised," Xena called over her shoulder.
When she was certain the warlord was out of earshot the bard gave a giddy laugh. "Did you see his expression?"
"Mm-hmm. Hold still."
Gabrielle could still feel the energy rolling off of Xena in pulsing waves. "I’ve never heard you talk so much at one time. Did you always get like this before a battle? When you were… um, before… you know."
"Like what?" Xena asked, her tapered fingers pulling back from Gabrielle’s cheek.
"Xena, you’re making the hair on my arms stand on end. See?" The bard stood back and raised her arms to show her and then put out her hands towards Xena as if she were a fire to warm herself beside. "It’s an almost physical sensation," she said, amazement in her tone.
"Mmm." She knew what Gabrielle meant; the feelings coursing through her were so intense she could almost taste it. Hungered for it. And it was probably the most worrisome of all the temptations she faced in being here. This feeling of power ripped away all the constraints meant to hold back what she was truly capable of being, causing all the darker emotional extremes to run close to the surface, close enough that others could sense it in her, be affected… by her. She could take this army by the strength of her personality alone, if she wanted. And that knowledge… that she could command an army once again with little effort was… "Dangerous," she murmured, distracted by her thoughts.
"Dangerous? Why?" Gabrielle asked coming closer to lay a hand on Xena’s arm. The contact was electric.
Xena started, not realising that she’d spoken aloud. It was the sudden connection with the bard, like a live current shared between them that called her back. All of her senses were heightened as she turned her eyes to meet Gabrielle’s. And she saw, with a heated satisfaction, the way the intensity of her gaze caught and held the other woman’s eyes.
Feeling all the air had been displaced from her lungs, Gabrielle tried to draw a deeper breath. She had never seen Xena this way before, with this power radiating from her. And it scared her even as it drew her closer in, like a moth to its immolation in the flames. To burn…
The vision of Gabrielle, her body framed by firelight through the worn shift, pulled her closer still. And they stood there, their bodies almost touching as their warm breath mingled. Xena felt the heat of the bard’s hand against her skin and craved more. The raw pounding of her heart compounded the dryness in her throat as barely acknowledged feelings long denied battled with her formidable will…
"Stay here. I need to check on Argo."
Gabrielle stood in stunned silence, as she watched Xena turn quickly, grab her things, and disappear into wet darkness.
The stormy weather was exactly what she needed. The cold rain on her bare head helped cool her off and dampened down the fires that Stephicles had inadvertently lit within her. She spared a few words to the men she passed, smiling sadly to herself as they mumbled and coughed in embarrassed pleasure at her attention. Her passing left them standing straighter, more alert. If the Warrior Princess was impervious to the icy rain, surely they could appear to be no less.
Following the directions provided by one of the men, she made her way to the make-shift stables. She ducked her head to avoid to the low threshold, and stood just inside the doorway, breathing in the scent of horses, manure, and fresh hay. It had a feel of calm normalcy to it, and she clung to that like a lifeline. Easing past the stable hands and hostlers, she searched among the makeshift stalls for her horse. Finding the golden mount comfortably ensconced in a clean box, she put out a hand in greeting to her old friend. Pulling away from the feed net, Argo turned and nickered in response. Xena squeezed herself closer and reached forward to scratch the mare’s soft chin and felt the bristly hairs brush her palm as Argo lipped her hand looking for a treat.
Xena laughed affectionately, and patted Argo’s neck. "I didn’t bring anything with me this time, you old cart-horse." She leaned out of the stall and grabbed a currycomb and brush from a rickety shelf, intent on spending time alone for a while without interruption. She glanced left and right to see where everyone was at before ducking back into the stall. With practised familiarity she began brushing Argo’s coat, enjoying the quiet moment to herself. She could tell that someone else had already performed the task; the mud from this morning’s ride was gone, but it couldn’t hurt and this wasn’t about getting Argo clean.
She leaned into the strokes, and felt Argo lean back, both enjoying the ritual evening chore. The time alone gave her room to deal with her unruly thoughts. Mainly, what happened back there?
You know exactly what happened, her conscience shot back.
It’s all too much. Thank Gods this façade won’t last any longer than tonight. I don’t know how I’d make it. It would be just too easy-
-to give in. Among other things. Yes.
-yeah, right. You know, the only one here believing that is you.
I won’t let that happen again. I can’t.
-but you already did, didn’t you? And you enjoyed it.
-not quite as reformed as you’d hoped?
"Shut up!" Argo’s ears twitched back and forth, agitated by her owner’s tone. A hoof stomp on the hard packed floor drew Xena’s awareness back to her surroundings again. She closed her eyes and leaned heavily against Argo’s back, letting her head rest on her crossed forearms. "I can do this, girl," she whispered to the gold tinged animal. "If I can make it through the night… if Gabrielle can forgive me… then everything will be fine." Argo whuffled at her, seeming to agree. Now if she could only convince herself.
She lifted the comb to Argo’s back once more, murmuring to the animal, when the sounds of shouting caught her attention. Stepping out of the stall her gaze was immediately drawn to the soldier beating a young stable hand. Even as a warlord, she had done her utmost to keep to her code of not making war on women and children. It bothered her then and it enraged her now. She swiftly approached, attempting to maintain her calm.
"You stupid brat! Maybe now you’ll remember to stay out of my way!" He raised an arm to hit the boy again, and started in surprise when he was jerked around and held in a grip stronger than his own. A solid backhand sent the soldier backside first into the manure pile, sending up a rank cloud of dust and chaff into the air.
"You stupid ass," Xena growled softly. "Maybe now you’ll know to stay out of my way."
"Commander!" He fumbled to his feet, trying to recover himself. "I… I… I have a message for you, sir!" he sputtered, taking cover in his duties.
"What is it?"
"The other commanders are asking for you."
Oh boy, a tent full of smelly, unwashed, ignorant, warlord wannabes. That sounds productive. "Wait outside. You can show me the way."
Sullenly, the soldier eased past her and out into the rain, leaving Xena standing over the boy who sat still and silent on the hard packed earth. She reached out a hand and grasped the boy by the back of his filthy shirt, lifting him to his feet. "You hurt?" she asked, quietly.
He shook his head and stared at the floor, his eyes shifting serruptitiously to glance at her sidelong.
"You have a name?" She kept her tone patient and light.
"Aren, milady," he mumbled, trying to keep his eyes on the ground.
She waved off the honorific. "Well, Aren. I want to you to do something for me." She put her hand on the youngster’s back and led him further into the stables, back to Argo’s stall. "Before I was so rudely interrupted, I was giving my horse a rubdown and it looks like I’m not going to be able to finish. Would you do it for me? And give her some hot mash when you’re done?"
A tremulous grin answered her own growing smile as they reached Argo’s stall. "Beats mucking out stables," he answered her shyly. "Thanks." He took the brush she offered him. The angular chin and sharp smile brought forth the closely guarded memory of a similar such face. There was a sudden tightness in her chest as Xena resisted the desire to push the long blonde locks away from his eyes. She left him to the task, feeling only a little better. If only dealing with the commanders would be so easy…
The warrior’s abrupt departure from the tent hit Gabrielle like ice water in the face. She shook herself, trying to break away from the feeling of having been trapped in a dream. Though a dream of what sort she wasn't certain. Except...
Dumb, dumb, dumb. She smacked herself in the forehead. Don't even go there. Whatever almost happened... didn't. So everything is fine.
So, why on earth did she feel disappointed?
Bard, you're going to get yourself into a whole heap of trouble. She's feeling the pressure. The act she’s putting on isn't really an act any more, and she's just not herself at the moment. That's it. That's all. Now get a grip!
"Right." She retrieved her clothes from where they had been hung by the fire. There were a couple of damp spots, but she'd be much more comfortable in her own things again. She tugged the kilt and top on again, tucking the bandage under top's hem. No need for anyone else to know about her ribs, if she could help it. There was no way to disguise the bruise unfortunately. To the palm of her hand, the side of her face felt hot yet, and the sting had not entirely dissipated. There was no help for that, really, nor for the tenderness along the sides of her throat where Stephicles’ had gained purchase on her before Xena had intervened. Having witnessed the range of Xena’s temper, Gabrielle was loathe to mention it to her. Especially given that, as much as the warrior was visibly tempted, the bard could tell that killing the warlord outright would run contrary to whatever plans her friend was devising.
So now what? She looked around the very spacious and very empty room. Hours to go before the assault, and all she had to go on from Xena was a ‘stay here’, along with a vague idea of a list she needed. And you left me here all alone. Not that I mind the vote of confidence from you in my ability to look after myself, but somehow I don’t think that’s what was on your mind when you left. Great, Xena. Lovely. She looked around and wondered what on earth she was going to do with herself until either Xena or the supply clerk decided to show up.
From the way Xena spoke earlier, she knew that this would be a long night. Preparations alone would take up a lot of time. Then the actual climb over the wall. And, assuming they weren't skewered on sight, they might able to find a way to help the trapped citizens. A very long night, indeed.
Writing maybe? She pulled her scroll pouch to her and fingered the accumulated works that she had completed over the last year or so, reliving the odd memory associated with each as her fingers stroked the parchments. She held one particular scroll in her hand and considered working on the delivery of the Solstice Carol. Its memories were pleasant ones. It had felt so good to have Xena back after the rough weeks of trying to reconcile the presence of her best friend’s spirit in their worst enemy’s body. The damage done from her ill-considered wedding barely had time to begin healing, before the new complication was added to the pile. It had hurt them both so much. Gabrielle couldn’t help starting in anxious surprise every time she looked at her or heard her voice after a silence. Nor could she find a way to mend the look of raw hurt in those alien brown eyes, that compassionately understood and accepted her reaction, like all the other hurts she unwittingly delivered. And things had gone steadily downhill from there, really…
A sudden cough drew Gabrielle’s attention to the entryway and away from her darker thoughts. Staff securely in hand, she cautiously approached the door, thinking in the back of her mind that she hoped they had laid enough ground work that she wouldn’t be harassed again. Standing just inside the jutting edge of the tent’s overhang to avoid the worst of the rain stood a young man in rough leathers. "I was told to bring this to you, miss." He thrust out his hands showing a covered tray meant to keep the contents beneath safe from the elements. The aroma rising from the platter suggested venison to the bard’s discerning nose.
Well, that didn’t take long. Xena must have made an even bigger impression on him than I thought. "Bring it in." She watched the young soldier enter the tent, rain dripping from him as he made his way to a small table by the cushions. "What’s your name?" she asked.
"Andreas," he answered warily.
The stories from this morning must have made the rounds, she noted; he kept his eyes away from her as much as possible. That would be helpful. And maybe she could get some things done here in the process as a sudden idea presented itself. "Can I ask you a question?" She leaned on her staff and gave him a friendly, non-threatening smile.
He laid the tray carefully on the table surface and fidgeted under her gaze. "Uh, I guess so."
She came over and seated herself cross-legged next to the table and pulled the cover off revealing a sizeable meal fit for at least four people. It should be enough, thought Gabrielle as she tore off a piece of meat and took a bite. "Do you know where the supply tent is?"
Xena disliked unpleasant surprises. But, looking around the tent again, she certainly had a better idea of where all of Stephicles’ money had been spent. From the turn of the conversation at least four of the seven commanders had obviously had significant experience in battle and siege warfare before. And more importantly, from the way they carried themselves, these weren’t the usual petty little warlord-wannabes. They were a serious threat, and more than likely to ensure that Stephicles was going to win. Or rather, that he thinks he’s going to win, Xena amended grimly. With the extent of the danger revealing itself to her, she hardened her resolve to see to it that Stephicles’ failed miserably at his little foray. Returning stolen property, my ass.
Their armour and weapons were clean and in excellent shape, she noted. And, as a former warlord herself, Xena knew that served as a far better indicator of a warrior’s abilities than their own personal hygiene. She had outlined her plan for them and listened as they discussed details and made small improvements here and there. It was with an ironic twist in the pit of her belly that she considered what a force she could have been, of what she could have accomplished, if she had these men under her command. Dangerous… very dangerous, she reminded herself, trying to find distance from that seductive fire burning in her chest. And at the same time she knew the reasons she couldn’t kill Stephicles outright were standing right here in front of her. She and Gabrielle would never leave the camp alive if she were to arouse their suspicions. But where did he get the money to afford men like these?
Thankful for once that her reputation had preceded her, the other commanders had deferred to her almost to a man. The troop leaders were less than happy, but after employing some serious intimidation and a painfully embarrassing lesson on why she wasn’t among the camp followers, they were all getting along just fine now. One of them would be walking a little funny for a while, but what of it?
She forced through the issues important to her and then leaned back in her chair with a foot against the table, as they argued over the honours of placement and right of first entry into the walled town. Her eyes danced from man to man, gauging their strengths and weaknesses. A couple she recognised from previous armies, or encounters of a dubious and less than lawful nature. But for the most part, she kept her gaze fixed and cold, giving no indication that she could be bothered to remember them.
She raised her goblet to her lips and realised that she had almost worked her way through her third refill. Unfortunately, the liquor was doing nothing to calm the incessant thrum of energy in her veins. As the battle drew closer she felt a growing itch along her spine that drove her to desire constant movement. The waiting was always the hardest part. Only discipline born of years of such waits and delays gave her the ability to ignore it. In just a few more hours she and Gabrielle could be away from all… this. And maybe in her own halting and inadequate way she could make amends with her bard for what she had done.
"So, what do you think, Xena?" a rough looking man named Ackrayus asked her. He’d lost an eye somewhere along the way and wore a fearsome looking patch emblazoned with an artistically evil looking replacement.
"Hmm?" She reluctantly dragged her attention back to the discussion. "About what?"
"The honour of first entry; Demicles, or me. Who do you think should get it?"
Honour? Men intent on ransacking and burning a city are arguing about honour? Spare me. "I wanna ask you something first. What has Stephicles promised you out of all of this?" The sudden stillness amongst the men alerted her. Oh, this looks interesting.
"The usual; first pick of the spoils, a little fun with the local women. Why?" another of the commanders, Nader, answered for them.
Why doesn’t this feel right? "What about the Spear?" she asked casually. She noticed the barely noticeable glances a few of them exchanged, and felt the tension in the tent rise a notch.
"What about it?" Ackrayus questioned in the same tone.
Something definitely isn’t right here. She probed carefully. "Has he mentioned what’s to become of it?"
"We’ve discussed it," another of the men said. Which could mean all manner of different things, Xena knew. All their expressions were guarded, but was there a hint of suspicion there? And for whom? Did they think she was spying for Stephicles? Or that she was feeling them out for a take-over? Or had they already staked out Stephicles for the slaughter and didn’t want to share the goods? If she were them that last option would look pretty tempting right about now given their appearance of strength and skill.
"Fine." She was willing to drop it for now. She polished off her drink, and crushed the metal cup in one hand before depositing it delicately on the table next to the map. "As for the honour of first entry… don’t you boys have real concerns to worry about?" she asked in a bored tone. "You know; weapon inspections, your horses, getting your men into formation, that sort of thing?"
"In a minute," Ackrayus demanded, his eye refusing to leave her own, his expression deadly serious. "Just answer the question."
Xena rolled her eyes at the pointless posturing and gestured to Demicles. "Ackrayus, he’s got the mounted cavalry. You’ve got the four squads of infantry. Your men have to hold the gate open. His unit is going to secure the immediate area, before the rest of their men," and here she pointed to the five other officers in the room, "start an organised point assault into the town. With all the experience you’ve got I didn’t think I’d have to spell it out for you. Besides," she grinned. "In case you’ve forgotten, I’ll be the first inside regardless." And my intentions are a lot more honourable than yours.
Her keen hearing picked up a whispered comment in the back. "It don’t seem to matter; warlord or wife, they’re still a bunch of bitchy nags." Barely stifled laughter and shushing sounds followed. With deceptive ease she kicked back her chair and tossed herself over their heads to land in front of a now white-faced pair of men.
She glared at the two marauder captains for a moment before speaking, "Which of-"
"Him!" They pointed fearfully at each other. Her hands came forward with blinding speed and smashed their unprotected heads together. One dropped like a rock and the other swayed momentarily before sliding beneath the table beside him.
"If you let a warlord or wife do that to you, you deserve to be nagged." She turned her back on them and went in search of her cloak. A young servant handed it over and then backed away from her as her eyes swept the room. Xena stalked to the door of the tent serving as headquarters, and pulled the cloak on. Its swirling dark shape settled about her shoulders and blurred the boundaries between her radiant evil and the darkness outside. "Talk to your men. Reassure them. Inspire confidence if you’re capable of it. We’re going to take Neapolis, and we’re going to own it by morning. I won’t accept anything less." She turned and headed toward the door. "Keep me informed of your progress." And was gone.
The five left standing after the demonstration of her temper, turned to look at one another, grateful for having weathered the storm.
Frustrated and tired, Xena flung off her cloak even before clearing the door of the tent she shared with her friend. She paused to shake off the rain before bending over to squeeze the excess water from her hair and call for the bard. "Gabrielle? I’m gonna need your help. You wouldn’t believe-" An uncomfortable feeling came over her. She straightened up and looked around the tent.
The place was empty.
And, from the feel of the interior, it had had been so for a while now. Xena noticed the half-empty tray of food sitting abandoned on a table, its contents cold. So she ate, but where…? Her eyes flicked about again and noticed the bard’s staff and cloak missing. A panicky sensation clawed through her chest as she bent to search through their belongings. When she found Gabrielle’s scroll pouch with the saddlebags next to the door, she breathed a sigh of relief. For an insecure moment she had wondered if Gabrielle had had enough and simply left without a word. Shame washed through her. Then fury. Can’t she ever do as she’s told? Two of us in a camp of several hundred raiders and she goes traipsing off Gods knows where! Damn it!
She grabbed her sodden cloak and trudged back out into the weather, hardly knowing where to begin looking.
"-and when his shield fell clanging to the flagstones, knocked down by Medusa’s arrow, Perseus forced himself still, fearful that he had betrayed his position to the gorgon." The lyrical voice paused.
"And then what, Gabrielle?" A deeper, though still young voice asked with worried enthusiasm.
"You silly git!" Another man spoke, his tone rough but friendly. "You’ve heard it before. You know what happens next! What, have you been hit in the head once too often?"
"You mean more times than you?" the younger voice retorted. The round of laughter that drowned out the reply met the ears of a very wet and very angry Xena as she ducked into the crowded supply tent. The laughter trailed away as, one by one, the occupants became aware of her presence. The soldiers came to abrupt attention, dropping whatever they were doing, to stand in rigid silence. The hardness of her face was emphasised in the lantern light of the tent, and her eyes swept through the room until they alighted on one person in particular.
"Come here." The cold, commanding demeanour demanded instant obedience. The young woman in question climbed quickly to her feet and approached the warrior, her eyes respectfully downcast. Xena grabbed Gabrielle’s arm and pulled her away from her new friends and just to the outer edge of the entryway where she hoped to speak without being overheard. "I've been looking everywhere for you! Just what are you playing at?" she demanded in a hiss.
Gabrielle winced. The warrior’s grasp was tight around her upper arm, and she tugged a little to pull attention to the fact.
Out of the corner of her eye, Xena noticed the men watching the two of them and made a grim decision. She reached out a slapped Gabrielle sharply across the face. "Don’t pull away from me. And you lot…" She turned fierce eyes on the handful of men sorting equipment. "Mind your duties, or I’ll find something much less pleasant for you to do."
Looking back down at Gabrielle she watched the bard’s jaw clench as she tried to remain passive to the rough treatment. Her lips pressed together, Xena looked around for a moment until she found what she wanted. "Get over there." With a shove she pushed Gabrielle before her until they reached a secluded back corner, behind several crates and tables, odds and ends piled high enough to hide them from sight.
Xena suddenly pulled Gabrielle close once she was certain that prying eyes would not observe them, her lips near the bard's ear. "I keep having to apologise to you," she whispered. The smaller woman sighed and immediately reached out to wrap her arms around Xena’s waist, letting her head fall against the warrior’s armoured shoulder. "Gabrielle? Are you alright?" It felt like such a stupid question to ask at this point, but she had to know. She raised a hand to brush her fingers along the cheek she had treated so roughly without letting Gabrielle withdraw from her.
"Yeah," the bard let out a harsh breath as she met Xena’s concerned blue eyes. "But, if you wouldn’t mind; if you have to do that again could you aim for the other cheek? The right side’s already got it twice today." She put her head down again. "Boy, am I glad I’m not a slave for real. This is miserable."
A searing picture of another Gabrielle rocked the taller woman. One that had existed in that other reality shown to her by the Fates. One whose scars had marred not only the girl's flesh, but embittered her spirit as well. The Fates had truly been cruel to be kind to her that day. "Me, too," she whispered hoarsely as she gave Gabrielle a quick squeeze. "Why didn’t you stay like I asked?" Xena came back to the original purpose for her being here.
"You didn’t ask me to stay; you told me to," the bard tried to joke. But the expression on Xena’s face, irritated and unamused, made the continuing flood of words rush from her mouth. "But, you never said when you’d be back, and you didn’t really seem yourself, and I just wanted to help you because I know how much pressure you’re under, and-"
Xena put her fingers against soft lips to still the incessant flow of words. "Do know where we are?"
The bard’s raised an eyebrow in imitation of Xena intending to give a sarcastic reply, but the firm pressure against her mouth prevented any response other than a nod.
"Do you understand what we’re doing here?"
She gave another silent indication of understanding.
"Have you any idea of just how much danger we’re in if anything goes wrong?"
The green eyes lowered to contemplate the swirled designs of Xena’s breastplate as she gave one more, slow nod.
"There’s a reason why I tell you to do or not do things, Gabrielle. As much as I hate my past, it’s the only thing keeping us alive right now. If they knew…" She let out a pent-up breath and shook her dark mane back from her eyes. She tilted her head, her attention suddenly drawn elsewhere, and abruptly stepped back from the bard. "Scream," she instructed in a whisper.
"What?" Gabrielle was totally perplexed.
"I’ve brought you back here to discipline you," she hissed quickly. "Now scream, before I tickle the Tartarus out of you."
Realising that Xena was, in fact, quite serious on this, Gabrielle closed her eyes and dug deeply into the shadowed places in her soul. The bard called up all the frustration, rage, and pain that had touched her life over the past several months, all the uncertainty, and loss, and guilt from judgements made wrong, causing more harm than she ever thought possible. The cry that issued forth caused even the warrior’s breath to catch. It was primal and animalistic in its wordless intensity, and Gabrielle wrapped her arms around herself as she bent over and sank to her knees, her golden head bowed in the gloomy darkness.
A sudden movement by the crates revealed the older man who had spoken earlier. "Is everything… alright, commander?" he asked hesitantly seeing Gabrielle on her knees holding her sides before the fearsome warrior.
Instinctual self-preservation came to her aid preventing her from going to the bard. Instead, Xena glanced casually over to the soldier while she rubbed the knuckles of one fist, an angry frown on her face. "She required a reminder that she’s to obey me. Just like yourself. Get back to work." He gave her a hateful look when he thought she wasn’t looking and rejoined his companions.
Seeing him gone, Xena dropped to one knee and cupped the bard’s face in both hands. "Gabrielle?" She swallowed hard, needing to see those eyes.
The soldier’s interruption afforded her the opportunity to compose herself; the forceful release had shaken her nearly as much as it had the warrior if the tone in Xena’s voice was anything to judge by. "Was that alright?" Gabrielle finally whispered in response.
The verdant green fields twinkled up at her, and made her body go weak in relief. Gods, you scared me. "That was a bit more convincing than I expected. Chatty blonde brat," she whispered affectionately.
"Thick-headed, uncivilised leather junkie," Gabrielle quickly retorted, grateful for the comfortable banter.
"You should talk."
"You’re more trouble than you’re worth. I wonder how much I could sell you for?"
"You and Argo would miss me."
"At least me and Argo would miss you quietly."
Gabrielle stuck out her tongue.
"I’ll want you to stick around and get stuff organised here. And I’ll need you to write up a list. We can’t afford to forget anything. Can you keep up the pretence?"
"Just you watch me."
"Right. Let’s go." With Xena’s hand gripping her upper arm, they moved together back into the light of the room where the other soldiers worked in heavy diligent silence, studiously avoiding the Warrior Princess’ intense gaze. She thrust the bard down on a crate and watched as one small hand came up to rub slowly against the still livid bruise.
The bard’s portrayal of the Marquessa had been enough to get them through Salmoneus’ pageant, but with so much more on the line here, Xena’s admiration for Gabrielle’s acting ability rose a notch as she noticed the finer details come to light. The way the bard made the not quite hitched breath of someone in pain and trying to hold back tears seem so real, and the silent embarrassment of public chastisement in the hang of her head, the way her eyes never left the floor. The glances the troops in the room spared her were gentle and concerned. It never fail to amaze Xena how the small bard could draw people in, even among a lot as jaded and hard-hearted as these men. It was masterful.
"Do we have scribing tools here?" she asked the room at large.
The older man, the one who had come to check on Gabrielle, cleared his throat to draw her attention. "Aye, we keep ink and parchment here for inventory and messages, commander."
"Fetch them and give them to her." She pointed her chin to indicate the trembling slave. He hurried to comply and gently laid the materials next the bard before taking his place again, sorting arrows into even piles and checking their shafts and fletching.
At her gesture, Gabrielle picked up a quill and readied herself to take dictation. Xena’s languid voice was the only sound over the pounding of the rain, and small noises of the soldiers preparing for war. Gabrielle scribbled furiously to keep up, worried that her hand would cramp from the effort when Xena finally fell silent. "That'll do. You lot, help her get these items together and deliver them to my tent within two hours." Her tone left no room for discussion. "I expect you to be there, or next time that bruise will seem a love pat compared to what I’ll do to you."
"Yes, Mistress," Gabrielle whispered in subservient compliance.
"Good." Xena pulled the hood back up on her cloak and sauntered out the door. She turned the corner but waited a moment concentrating her keen hearing on the muted conversation inside.
"Ares’ boots, Gabrielle! Are you alright?"
"I’ll be fine. She went easier on me this time, actually." Her tone was flat and dejected.
Outside, Xena winced, thinking that her reputation wouldn’t need much bolstering after this little adventure. She’s already drawn them in. Maybe she’ll be all right for a little bit with that bunch. But she waited a moment longer just to be certain.
"Do you want some water, Gabrielle?" the younger man offered.
"Thanks, Andreas." A pause. "Maybe if I finish the story it’ll make the work go faster." Xena could hear the forced cheerfulness, and for a moment wished she could go to her, the whole charade be damned. "I’d like to get this done if you don’t mind, I… really don’t want her angry with me again"
"O’ course not, lass." The grizzled man’s voice responded immediately. "Let me see this list."
Xena let a small smile grow on her face as she shook her head. Wrapped around your finger, Gabrielle, almost as much as me. And she walked off into the rain to the sounds of Perseus’ defeat of the gorgon.
The line of helpers filed out of the tent to the grateful words of the Warrior Princess’ slave. Gabrielle felt a moment of guilty despair seeing eyes, young and old alike, smile at her as they passed, completely unaware of the ruin that she and Xena had planned for them. She steered the enthusiastic Andreas out the door, gently deflecting his offers to stay and help her further. She couldn’t help wonder what drove these men to side with someone like Stephicles, to pillage and destroy innocent lives when some of them were capable of the concern and care they had shown her.
Alone at last, Gabrielle collapsed on the cushions and groaned as she stretched out on the comfortable surface. Little pops and clicks reverberated up and down her spine as she stretched herself letting tired muscles relax for a moment. Her eyes drifted shut on a sigh, and she was hard pressed to stay awake after the strain of such an emotionally and physically trying day.
"Taking a break, my slave?"
Uh oh, Gabrielle’s eyes flicked open and then went limp with relief to see that Xena was alone. She didn’t think she could handle another behavioural adjustment at this point. "If I hear the least bit of enjoyment on your part when you call me that, Xena, I will find a way to get you back, and you know-"
"-paybacks are a bitch. Yeah, I know," Xena finished for her dryly. The warrior offered a small, tired smile as she pulled off the dark cloak and tossed it onto the peg near the entrance. She then unbelted the scabbard and chakram from around her waist and dropped herself cross-legged onto the cushions next to the bard.
"How’s this doing?" Xena brushed her fingers around the edge of the bruise on Gabrielle’s stomach.
The bard let out a small yelp. "That tickles!" she protested, and then shrugged. "It’s ok."
Xena stretched out beside her so they were face to face on the pillows. "And the ribs?" She plucked at the embroidery beneath her hand, still feeling restless and edgy.
"They’re a bit tender, yet, but I’m fine." She covered Xena’s hand, preventing it from doing further damage to the loose threads in the pillow lining. "I’ll be okay going over the wall. Don’t worry so much."
The warrior watched as Gabrielle stretched again, trying to relieve muscles cramped from strain and injury. Xena reached out a hand and pulled her friend to a prone position, face down on the cushions. "Put a pillow here; it’ll support your ribs more," she told her as she moved to straddle the bard’s backside and helped the other woman settle herself more comfortably.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked, a perplexed expression on her tired face.
"What does it look like I’m doing?" Xena asked in return, amusement underscoring her voice.
"You don’t have to do this," she told her. "What if someone walks in and sees-"
"You didn’t get the inn, meal, bed, or bath I promised you a few nights ago, so I wanna do this for you. And after the day we’ve had, if anyone walks in now they’re gonna eat my chakram," Xena informed her as she laid warm hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders. She began a firm manipulation with her fingers, accompanied by the sounds of the bard’s wordless gratitude. "So lay there and rest, because this may be the last chance you’re going to get for a while." Again, the warrior found herself taking refuge in action designed to take care and alleviate hurt in the one person who was willing to trust her implicitly. It wouldn't make up for all that she had put her friend through, but it was a tiny start. A small smile lit her face as she felt the muscles under her hands turn liquid and pliant beneath her touch.
At first Gabrielle wasn’t certain that she would be able to lay like this with such pressure against her injured side, but as Xena leaned into the contact, she could only let out a groan, her ribs suddenly and entirely forgotten. The feel of her friend so close was wonderful. After having spent weeks with the emotional and physical distance between them, Gabrielle couldn’t help but revel in the sensations. She let her eyes drift shut, conscious of the smell of the dusty pillows, the wood smoke, and the delightful scent of leather and Xena’s own indefinable essence. The strong hands moving across her back were deliciously warm, and though they released the tightness wherever they touched, she couldn’t help the uncomfortable awareness of the rise of tension elsewhere. Which invariably caused her to stiffen again.
"C’mon, just relax. We won’t be disturbed for a few minutes," Xena soothed quietly as her hands followed the lines of muscle, chasing the tension as it reappeared, and then felt it dissolve again beneath her determined strokes. "That’s right. Let it go," Xena encouraged as her callused fingers swept over the exposed area of the bard's lower back, delighting in the smooth clear skin, and once again feeling the bittersweet happiness of a decision made in a timeline that no longer existed. She wanted Gabrielle to be always this way; optimistic, full of wonder, and a stranger to the darkness that she herself knew so intimately. "You did really well back there," Xena said, feeling a little awkward. "It looked as though you had them all under your thumb."
"Well, it helps that the biggest, baddest, kick-butt warlord happens to own me, now doesn’t it? Didn’t take long; according to them I just remind them of their daughters, sisters, and girlfriends," Gabrielle mumbled as she settled her head on her crossed arms. "And the stories helped."
"Big surprise. Nothing about me, I hope?"
"No, Miss do-gooder. Well, nothing recent, anyway. Wouldn’t do to blow our cover at this late date." She groaned as Xena worked over a particularly tense spot. "Gods, you’re so good at that."
"I have many skills," the warrior answered cheekily.
"Well, I like this one." Boy, do I ever. She mentally smacked herself in the head. Stop that!
"I’ll bet," snorted the warrior. "I didn’t know you could act so well. And that scream…"
Do I tell her it wasn’t an act? Better not. "You’re not the only one with many skills." A sudden thought made her turn to look up at Xena. "Hey, have you eaten anything?"
"Haven’t had the time. Here, lay down." She laid her hands firmly on Gabrielle’s shoulders and returned her to her earlier position. "There’s still a few kinks to go."
"Really, Xena, you should eat. Andreas brought dinner over before I talked him into showing me the supply tent. I made sure to leave you some."
Xena glanced over the table where the food had been laid and shook her head. She shouldn’t have been surprised by the bard’s appetite. "I suppose I should feel lucky you left me anything at all." She lowered her hands to continue the massage when the bard suddenly squirmed over onto her back. The warrior raised one regal brow as she quickly withdrew her hands, unsure of just what kind of massage her bard was after.
"Hey! Being a slave is hard work, thank you very much," she said poking Xena in the sternum with her finger.
"Well, the perks sure don’t look that bad. You ate enough for a grown Cyclops, and have your owner giving you a back rub. Speaking of which; turn over so I can finish."
The bandage under the leather pleats caught Gabrielle’s eye and she put her hand on Xena’s thigh and plucked at the dirty, wet dressing. "I thought I told you to take care of your stitches," Gabrielle commented sternly. Xena glanced down at the soiled wrappings and shrugged. The pain from the cut had merged with all the other aches and pains to such an extent as to be almost unnoticeable. "You’d better let me look at it again."
"There’s no point. It’s just going to get messed up later during the assault anyway."
Why do I let her get away with bossing me around like this? "No," the warrior responded firmly. "There isn’t-"
"Sit by the table. Now." Xena rolled her eyes as the bard pulled off a fairly credible imitation of the Warrior Princess in full no-nonsense mode. Giving in, she moved off the bard and rolled herself over to the low table holding the half-empty food tray. Gabrielle sat up looking a bit more limber to Xena’s eye as she joined her on the floor. The warrior watched as Gabrielle poured her a drink and handed her the goblet, before getting up and retrieving their medical kit from the saddlebags. To her concerned eyes, the bard appeared to be moving more easily now, the massage having temporarily relieved a lot of the ache that Gabrielle had obviously been feeling. Lifting the goblet, she took a sip f her drink, feeling the potent liquid slide easily down her throat as she waited for the bard’s return.
Gabrielle snagged a couple cushions on her way back and dropped down on them a convenient distance from the warrior. With calm deliberate motions the smaller woman removed the bandage and proceeded to clean the damaged area. "Amazing. You got hit yesterday afternoon, and this looks a few days old already." Gabrielle shook her head. "Though with all the muck you’ve been traipsing about in, it’s a wonder that it isn’t infected. Eat something; you don’t know when you’re going to get your next meal. I want to make sure you have something now when I can see it with my own eyes."
"Gabrielle, I’m fine. I’ll just-" Her reply was abruptly cut off when a slice of cheese was pressed between her teeth.
"Chew," the bard ordered succinctly.
Xena glared at her companion, unable to do much else under the circumstances. She took another swallow of her drink to clear her mouth. "I don’t suppose you’d remember the last time I won an argument with you?"
"Oh, I let you win on the stuff you think is really important." Gabrielle kept her head down, and attempted to keep the smile as small as possible, as she began wrapping a new bandage around the well-defined muscle.
"Waitaminute. You think you let me win?" Xena responded with sarcastic disbelief.
"Mm-hmm," Gabrielle answered contentedly. "On occasion you actually do win, but that hasn’t happened in ages."
"Take comfort, warrior, even if you flounder miserably in the war of words, you still can kick my bardly butt in staff practice. So fair’s fair."
"We’re going to practice soon. I feel the need to thrash a particular bard’s backside for impertinence," Xena retorted darkly.
Gabrielle smiled at her and selected a piece of fruit from the tray for herself. Between them they managed to keep the conversation going, thought most of the responsibility fell to Gabrielle. But, the bard was more than used to it and entertained her friend with poems and stories of war, until the arrival of one of the other commanders put an end to the first relaxed moment they had shared together since early the morning before.
Demicles knocked and called in to announce his presence. At Xena’s prompting the man, already fully armoured and bristling with weaponry stepped inside.
"We’re ready out here," he informed her.
"Then it’s time," replied Xena with a nod.
Xena sent Demicles on his way with a final set of instructions in hand. At his departure, she gestured to the younger woman to join her, and together they began sorting through the supplies brought over earlier.
"Here. Put these on over your clothes." Xena handed over a dark tunic and trousers, with a leather belt. "Besides, making you harder to see, it'll help keep you warm tonight."
As Gabrielle tugged the thick, rough spun material over her head, Xena busied herself by removing her armour and shucking off her leathers. Gabrielle earned herself a glare and a near cuff in the head when the younger woman offered a wolfish whistle to the figure clad only in her leather boots and a short under shift. "I can't help it," Gabrielle laughed and held her side. "That's quite a look for you." And suddenly blushed as she heard herself say the words, wondering at her audacity. Fortunately for her, Xena was otherwise occupied and missed the faint darkening of her fair cheeks.
"It's not too late to sell you, ya know." Xena's muffled warning came through the black tunic as she pulled it over her head. The pants came next; the legs of which were carefully folded into the knee-high leather boots. Under the bard's knowing and proficient hands the armour was soon back on and snugly in place. Gabrielle stepped back a pace and watched as Xena bounced on her toes once or twice to settle the plates more comfortably against her shoulders before donning the rest of her weapons. "Pack all our things up, will you? We'll have to find a way to come back for our stuff afterwards, because there's no way I'm leaving Argo here."
"Should we leave our things with her saddle?" Gabrielle asked as she folded the warrior's leathers and added them to the saddlebags. It was a small job; they didn't carry much with them to begin with. She also grabbed some of the food remaining on the tray. As she had told Xena earlier, who knew when they'd be able to eat next?
"Good idea. At least until they know otherwise, they won't try doing anything stupid with our belongings. I can run them over before we head for the wall. I want to see her before we go anyway."
"You and your horse. I swear; sometimes I think you like her more than you do me."
"Nah more," Xena responded from between clenched teeth as she awkwardly attempted to pull the laces of her wrist bracer tight. "Jus’ diff’ren’ly."
Gabrielle laughed softly at the warrior’s comic expression and moved closer to help. "Here, give me that," she insisted, plucking the leather string from between white, even teeth.
Xena stared from beneath half-lidded eyes at the other woman, watching silently as the bard grasped her arm to tighten the piece of armour for her. The look of concentration on Gabrielle’s face as she worked sent a warm tingle through Xena’s heart. Who else would have dared do that? Let me amend that: who else would have dared do that without me ripping their head off with my bare hands?
With the deed more quickly accomplished, Xena then tugged the bard over and sat her down next to the pile of equipment remaining on the floor. Several lengths of knotted rope, grappling hooks, strips of fine leather, oil, and other assorted items were handled, explained, and prepared to Xena's specifications. Some had an actual purpose, others were meant purely for show since, despite Xena's overwhelming portrayal to the contrary, they had no intention of allowing the gate to open to Stephicles' army.
"You know I don't want you carrying a sword or dagger, but I had the leather added so you can sling your staff across your back on the way over, without worrying about taking it apart and putting it back together again. Here." She handed the leather over and watched as her friend judiciously found the best place to attach it to cause the least interference. At Xena's insistence, Gabrielle pulled it on and off several times to make certain it would work, without delaying any efforts to defend herself. Finally satisfied, Xena glanced around, and saw that the last of their details were looked after.
With some trepidation she pulled Gabrielle's cloak around her friend's shoulders and settled the heavy woollen material evenly and smoothed it with her hands. It was then that the sight of small bruises on the bard’s throat caught her eye. With a finger beneath the other woman’s chin she tilted Gabrielle’s head back slightly. Xena’s other hand came up to brush at the light fingerprint marks on either side of her friend’s windpipe, and she angrily shook her head. "He marked you." Her voice was low and dangerous.
Remembering Xena’s threat from earlier that morning Gabrielle reached up and felt at her throat for herself where the marks had begun to appear. "You’re going to stop Stephicles anyway," she reminded her friend.
"For Neapolis. This…" The features of the warrior’s face took on a fiercely protective expression. "This is personal." Their eyes met and held.
"What? As in he ‘damaged your property’ personal?" Gabrielle inquired sardonically. And Gods help her if she says yes…
"As in he ‘hurt my best friend’ personal," Xena snapped. And immediately regretted her sharp tone seeing a change in the bard’s eyes. Though what that change in expression might mean, especially after the last few days… How could she think that?
"You really feel that way?" Gabrielle asked quietly, needing to know. Even with their talk yesterday, it had been such a long time since she had heard Xena say it, that she had almost begun to wonder if maybe… maybe it wasn’t true anymore. And the thought of that wrenched her heart into a painful knot. With hidden anxiousness, she watched the blue eyes drop for a moment before they found her own again. The warrior could only nod, her words failing her. The bard reached out and ran her hands around Xena's waist and laid them on the warrior’s back.
"You ready?" Xena asked as she allowed Gabrielle to draw herself closer.
"As I'm gonna be." She pulled Xena in the rest of the way to hug her tighter. "Be careful," she breathed against the rough cloth beneath her cheek. She closed her eyes as strong arms enveloped her for a brief moment, and a soft breath ruffle her hair.
"You, too. Come on; let's go." And when Gabrielle released her, the sudden change from warrior to warlord nearly took her breath away. She watched, trying to memorise the look and feel of darkness in human form as Xena drew the inky black cloak around herself and settled the hood protectively over her face. Turning back to look at Gabrielle, the bard was drawn to the arctic blue eyes reflecting the firelight, the only point of colour on that coldly beautiful face. "Wow, what an effect," Gabrielle murmured appreciatively.
Xena gathered up their personal belongings, and motioned for the bard to precede her outside. It seemed as though the rain would never end as their boots squished through the slushy mud. It was well after midnight and to all appearances the camp was mostly still and silent. Having learned the route earlier, Xena led them back to the stables and down the hallway to Argo’s stall. The horse whuffled in response to their presence and looked back at them before returning to the remains of the hot treat before her. Xena patted the animal’s rump as she put their belongings under the feed trough and then pushed straw over them to conceal it from casual eyes.
"That ought to do it."
"Milady?" A small voice startled them both. Aren stood rubbing at his sleepy eyes and looked first at one and then the other, unsure of the reason for their presence. "Did I do something wrong with her?"
"No, Aren. You did just as I asked. Everything’s fine." A sudden idea presented itself to her. "But, I have another favour to ask you."
Her help this afternoon had resulted in his being left strictly alone. They didn’t think he could hear them, but he knew they were afraid of her, and for that the youth would have been willing to do just about… "Anything, Milady."
"The assault is tonight, but I won’t be riding her until we finish up in the city. I want to know that she’s being looked after by someone I can trust. Would you keep an eye on her for me until I return?"
At her words, a wide grin broke out on his dirty face. "No one will touch her. My word on it."
She nodded at him, and gave him a grin in return before leading Gabrielle back out into the rain.
"Can you believe how young he is? How do these things happen?" The bard’s anger was readily evident.
"Hush. It happens all the time, Gabrielle," she responded. She knew too well why children were often part of these armies. Labour, servants, play-toys. Children of camp followers had no life of their own. No guarantee of being loved and cared for. No normal life to speak of. She had seen it before, but she never wanted to see it again. "But, we’re trying to stop it. And hopefully, for him, we’ll make a difference."
She didn’t need to look at Gabrielle to know that the eyes the younger woman turned on her were warm and admiring; she could feel it. And it was a surprise to be reminded yet again of just how important the bard's opinion was to her. That respect, and the unwavering belief in her abilities sometimes made Xena feel that she could do it, do anything, if only to be worthy of Gabrielle's continued faith in her.
As per her orders, the tents nearest the walls contained as many of the troops as possible, all in readiness for the signal from their commanders. Soldiers moving between in the tents walked in small numbers, trying to keep from raising suspicion as they made final preparations. Stephicles and Tobias stood together, a few bodyguards nearby, as they waited for Xena to join them. After giving the bard a pointedly nasty look, Stephicles turned his full attention on Xena.
"The diversions are ready," he told her.
"Where are my men?" she asked pulling on a pair of dark gloves.
"Over there. Four of my best that have skills with knives and crossbows, as you requested." He signalled to them, and the four, wearing similar clothing to Xena and Gabrielle, joined their General. "Ashol, Jason, Brotius, and Cyr. At your disposal."
Oh they’ll be disposed of all right… "Fine. You men had everything I ordered sent over?" At their nods Xena turned back to Stephicles. "Order the diversions to begin now. We’ll move the moment we hear the alarm. When the gate is up, send Tobias through. When it’s secured, bring up Demicles’ unit to bear, and then let the others loose."
At his nod, Xena looked down at Gabrielle and handed her something. "Here. Put these on." Gabrielle looked closely and noticed that they were gloves very like the ones Xena was wearing. "The palms have been treated with resin. You’ll keep your grip better in the rain."
"I like the idea of that," Gabrielle replied, as she pulled the material over her hands.
And then they waited.
To Gabrielle it seemed hours before the sound of a horn rang through the night air, its call muted by the rain. The tiredness fell from her as she realised this was it; they would either succeed or fail in the next few minutes. And the idea of failure and the form it might take were a little too intense for her to deal with, especially if she was going to remain clear headed, and in control of her fears. Not fear for herself, though she didn’t enjoy getting hurt, but rather fear for Xena, because this woman wasn’t going to stop until she’d succeeded or was killed in the process. Gods…
"Now!" Xena hissed.
And the six of them sprinted across the open muddy field towards the wall, their dark clothes rendering them nearly invisible in the harsh weather. Gabrielle kept a tight pace near Xena, unwilling to be separated. The hard pounding was jarring her ribs, and she bit down on the gasp of pain as she felt her breath starting to come short. Ignoring it, she held to her course and came into the shadow of the wall several seconds after the others.
Xena made a hand motion to Brotius, and the rugged looking man pulled a coil of rope from his shoulder and shook loose the end attached to the grappling iron. He took a step back and squinted into the rain trying the judge the height of the wall. With a twirl of his wrist, the iron began a tight swing until he had the desired momentum to release it towards his target. A faint clatter and quick tug ensured it was firmly attached. Xena took the rope from his hands and gestured them close. Once again, using only hand motions she indicated the order of ascent. Herself, Gabrielle, and the other men to follow after. She pulled on the rope and made the line taut before climbing up hand over hand, her well developed shoulder muscles bunching as she went.
Near the top, she glanced over the crenel, and saw two men, their bows nocked and ready, staring out into the downpour. Silently, she pulled herself up and over, keeping low. She gave the rope a wiggle to let the others know she was up, and then broke into a run towards the guards. The unexpected threat on the wall caught them off guard, and the first arrow sped off into the darkness, completely missing its quarry as Xena knocked the bow aside and backhanded the first man against the wall. She caught the second arrow even as she held the soldier immobile. The second man closed with her, but a knee into the ribs bent him over, driving the air from him in a rush, and she felled him with a kick to the side of the head. The man she still held struggled briefly before she slammed his head back against the stonework, rendering him unconscious.
Checking him quickly, she noted that he was breathing but would probably be out for a few minutes. Hoping it would be long enough, Xena kept herself low, trying to blend with the natural shadows as she pulled a coil of rope from her own shoulder, found a secure place to anchor it, and sent the remainder down into the darkness below. With caution she began lowering herself down, releasing the rope and dropping as soon as she could. Xena flung back the edges of her cloak, drew her sword, and stepped back against the wall to stay out of sight. Now she could only wait.
Come on, Gabrielle.