Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Please also reread my earlier statement about not being an expert on war, strategy or the depiction thereof. The same also goes for anything horse-related.
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Thirteen: Argo has fully recovered from her injuries and was not further harmed during the production of this fanfic. However, she was somewhat alarmed at the use to which her food was put.
After taking her tour of the town's perimeter with Anaira and the overanxious sentinel -- a tour made brief by the simple fact that the wall was regularly constructed and guarded with a scrupulous eye to efficiency -- Xena had retired to the barn, where she had expected to find some privacy for contemplation, for which the day had thus far afforded little opportunity. With the battle impending, she did intend to get some sleep, but she also wanted to be on the alert in the unlikely event of a midnight attack.
To her less than pleasant surprise, she arrived at the barn to find the youth Lirin already there, stroking Argo and whispering sibilant words into the horse's unconcerned ear.
"What are you doing?" Xena demanded sulkily, tossing her sword and chakram down on the straw beside the horse. The girl started guiltily and turned around, raising her chin in a deliberate display of bravado.
"I was just seeing to your horse. It's partly my fault she injured her leg today."
"The leg is fine," Xena growled, moving to inspect it for the fourth time. Indeed, the small abrasions caused by the prickler bush had mostly healed, and Argo seemed to be in little discomfort.
"Yeah, well...." Lirin replied, her voice trailing off uncomfortably. Xena looked at her for a moment, finally blinking as a realization hit her. Oh. Is she here for more penance?
"You should be in bed," she told the youth firmly, making an effort to modulate her gruff tone. Lirin looked suspicious. "Surely your sister found you somewhere to bunk," Xena added, pulling her own bedroll from Argo's saddlebag.
"Well, yes," the girl admitted, "but I told her you had already gotten me something." She watched Xena warily. "Am I still being punished?"
"Even a one-woman judge, jury and executioner needs some down time," Xena told her blandly. "I'm tired, and I honestly couldn't care less where you go or what you do between now and the beginning of the battle." She considered for a moment. "Although, if you don't do the smart thing and get some sleep, my punishment will seem like a walk in Elysia come tomorrow morning."
"Xena?" came a soft call from the doorway as Lirin attempted to frame a reply. Muted voices were audible for a moment -- Xena identified the second as belonging to the village leader -- and then Gabrielle was in the barn, striding toward them, carrying her staff, her eyes unreadable, her body language loose.
"Oh," she said in some surprise as she came within the circle of the torchlight and saw Lirin. "I thought I heard you talking to someone."
"My Queen," the youngster said, bowing deeply. "I humbly beg your forgiveness for my act of foolishness-"
"Lirin, Lirin," Gabrielle said, stopping her. "It's all right. We all do some foolish things from time to time -- especially when we're young," she added, carefully not looking at Xena. The warrior watched her closely. "I did something foolish yesterday, and you did something today, but listen, the important thing is that we learn something from it. I did. Did you?"
"Um ... yes," Lirin stammered, looking nervously at the floor and making faces. "I promise I won't do it again."
"Well, good. I trust you," Gabrielle said. "Now what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be in bed somewhere?"
"Um...." Somewhat desperately, the girl looked to Xena. The warrior rolled her eyes.
"Stupid kid. Go find your sister and bunk down with her. And remember what I said about sleeping."
"Yes, Xena," Lirin said quickly, and left quickly. Gabrielle raised her eyebrows.
"'Yes, Xena?' Doesn't sound much like the same kid who tried to flee you earlier today."
"No, that's still one mixed-up kid," Xena sighed, reaching wearily to unfasten her armor. Suddenly, without apparent movement, Gabrielle was before her, small sure hands moving to the clasps. Xena lowered her chin and watched, masking her expression as usual, marveling at how far her young friend had come. When had Gabrielle learned this magical trick of surprising her? Xena found herself fervently wishing that the Gods-be-damned kid hadn't come in here ... that she had had her precious few moments for reflection before Gabrielle came in to distract and disarm.
"Was I wrong?" she asked quietly, watching as Gabrielle pulled her armor free and laid it gently on the ground. The bard looked up into her eyes and Xena felt a powerful surge of emotion that dried her throat and made her blink.
"To bring her along? You had your reasons," Gabrielle replied with calm confidence. "Even if she doesn't learn what you want to teach her by this, she's sure to learn something. It's worth it for that."
The words struck deeply in Xena's soul, and she nodded slowly. "Yes, it's worth it," she repeated, still looking Gabrielle in the eyes. "I love you."
"I love you," Gabrielle responded quietly. "I don't want to die tomorrow."
"You won't," Xena promised. "Nor will I -- nor will Lirin. We'll see to that."
"Yes," Gabrielle said, the tiny "we" warming her insides. She yawned and added, "But first we need some sleep."
"We -- Here?" Xena asked, somewhat startled, as Gabrielle turned and made for the pile of straw. The bard turned back and smiled at her warrior.
"Yes, Cassa's cabin wasn't big enough for me and Ephiny and Anaira, so I told them I'd sleep here with you. They insisted on posting guards," she added somewhat ruefully, "but I knew it would be safe." She knelt, then sat, on the bedroll Xena had spread out atop the hay. "Coming?"
"Gabrielle," said Xena, walking over and sitting down next to her, "what's changed between us today?"
Gabrielle lay back, putting her hands behind her head. "Nothing," she said serenely. "Everything."
Xena moved closer, leaning on one hand, looking intensely down at her beloved. "Oh?"
"I've realized why you treat me the way you do," Gabrielle said seriously, blinking up at her. "And why I react to it the way I do. It seems a little silly sometimes, but we can forgive. We have to, because we love each other."
"Yes," Xena murmured, absorbing the words like raindrops on thirsty skin. She watched Gabrielle's mouth move, imagining its soft sweet taste. "I've been realizing those things too."
"Yes," she said again, her mouth going even drier. She could discern from Gabrielle's tone the import, if not the exact nature, of the question to come.
"You've been with women before, haven't you?" A pause, while Xena tried to formulate a diplomatic answer. "Lao Ma?" Gabrielle prompted. "Boadicea?"
"Yes ... yes," Xena admitted, shaking her head slowly. Was there really any need to dissemble about this, to Gabrielle of all people?
The bard's eyes were bright and glittery with emotion. "Even if we're not going to die tomorrow...."
"Yes," Xena said for a final time, and leaned down at last to cover Gabrielle's lips with her own, feeling the redhead press up against her, tasting desire on the bard's tongue. Her fingers were on Gabrielle's breast, pushing underneath the green fabric, and the bard's hands were in her hair; the taste and smell of Gabrielle obliterated the scent of the barn and Argo nearby; the sensations of skin against skin obliterated chill and fear and the hard dusty ground; desire and love obliterated all else. And the Warrior Princess and her Amazon Queen made love in the darkness before the war.
Xena's hyper-sensitive eyesight woke her at the first sign of changing light from outside, and she opened her eyes, evaluating the light -- sunrise was still about an hour away, but already the sky outside was probably light enough to see by -- as her ears evaluated the situation. All sounded quiet outside the barn. Inside, she heard only the soft sounds of horses and the peaceful rhythm of Gabrielle's breathing against her neck. They were entwined, naked, under the blanket. For a long agonizing moment Xena couldn't see how to get up without waking her lover, but at last the indecision cleared, and she thought again, this time without distress, of Lao Ma. Hoping that wise woman could hear her thoughts from the next world, Xena gently moved Gabrielle's arm from her midsection and sat up, letting the bard's head come to rest on the bedroll. As expected, the movement woke Gabrielle and she opened her eyes, a small frown wrinkling the skin between her eyes.
"Xena?" she questioned in a whisper, tensing. Xena shook her head reassuringly.
"All quiet yet," she said softly, pulling on her leathers. "I'm just going to go check up."
"Okay," Gabrielle acquiesced, sitting up slowly, pulling the blanket up over her chilly bare skin. Nerves undid her usual morning sluggishness and made her alert, jittery with anticipation. She sat still, watching Xena exit the stable, trying to keep from panicking.
Xena emerged into the gathering light, startling the two guards who were standing, unobtrusively as promised, in alcoves along the wall. She gave them a brief nod, which they returned somewhat warily, and disappeared into the darkness under the outer wall. Finding the stairs, she climbed to the top level and walked along the rim of the wall, nodding to the sentinels, peering between the battlements at the forest, which was still shrouded in darkness like a living being that couldn't escape the grasp of the tree branches.
Proceeding across the passage toward the center of the wall, Xena encountered Anaira walking the same path from the opposite direction. They nodded in greeting to each other, and stopped at the central opening to stand side by side and look out.
"They're there," Anaira said quietly, and Xena grunted agreement. Although the renegades were well hidden, the two warriors' trained eyes could pick out subtle signs of their presence -- and more, the finely honed warrior instinct, indefinable but undeniable, could sense them.
"Duck," said Xena suddenly, and both she and Anaira dropped like lightning, letting the thick stone shield them. A skillfully aimed arrow flew through the opening and sailed over their heads. Outside, they could hear more arrows striking the wall. "Everyone take cover!" Xena yelled down the line of the wall, and the startled sentinels moved swiftly away from the openings. "Sound the alarm!"
"I've got this side," Anaira said firmly, indicating the half-arc of the wall to her left. Xena nodded curtly.
"Right." The two warriors turned and went their ways.
As the alarm bell sounded and Amazons came pouring out of the tents and cabins, flaming balls began to sail over the top of the wall and smash on the floors inside. Some of the more powerfully-thrown ones cleared the wall entirely and hit the ground inside the village, spreading their deadly oil and flames across the dirt. A screaming ordered chaos began to take form inside Balacia as Amazons with buckets of sand rushed to put out the blazes, while archers dashed to the arrow slits and took aim.
Ephiny appeared in Xena's line of sight as she leaned over the wall to watch Gabrielle emerging, staff in hand, from the barn. "Xena!" the Queen-Regent exclaimed. "Where are they?"
"Well camoflaged in the forest," Xena said, "but we'll root them out! Clear that area of anything flammable!"
"Cassa's on it," Ephiny said. "What about Gabrielle?"
"Gabrielle can take care of herself, at least for the moment," Xena said. "Lirin!"
"Xena?" said the girl, looking around bewildered on the ground below.
"Up here, you idiot! I need water!" Xena called, looking down into the youngster's wide wild eyes. "Find some of the Balacian girls and get me as many buckets of water up here as you can draw!"
"But won't we need the water for putting out the fires?" Lirin asked, shifting her hand nervously on her staff.
"Don't be stupid! You don't use water on oil fires," Xena chided. "The sand brigade can handle the fire. Get me that water!"
"I don't-" the girl began, but her sister Surya, face drawn with tension, shouted at her.
"Lirin! Quit arguing and do as Xena says!"
Without further comment, the girl spun around and ran off.
Xena turned back to Ephiny, but the Amazon had already gone. The warrior moved back to the outer wall and looked cautiously out. The renegades, abandoning their hidden positions, were beginning to emerge into view, ornately masked, carrying their swords and bows and staves proudly. A large group of them had already begun to batter at the sturdy doors with a tree trunk they must have prepared earlier. Xena could hear it thumping beneath her, could almost feel the vibrations in the wall under her feet. She ran down the stairs to check on the doors.
"What should we do?" asked an anxious Amazon as soon as Xena appeared. She and several others were standing, swords at the ready, watching the double doors, which rattled ferociously with each blow.
"Don't panic," Xena replied. "Those doors are sturdy. They're not going to give for a while. If we're lucky, the renegades will give up first."
"And if we're not lucky?" the other woman replied. Xena looked at the gathered faces and then back at the door.
"Find something to booby-trap that doorway with. Scatter nails or dig a trench. Something to slow them down when they come through."
"Right, you two," the Amazon said, turning to give orders. Xena moved away.
"This is really it," said Gabrielle, rushing up to her lover with staff in hand. Her face was grimly set in an expression of determination. Xena nodded.
"Yes, this is it. Their siege is a little desperate, but they're dedicated, so they'll probably break through at some point. Are you ready?"
"Have I ever been ready?" Gabrielle asked philosophically, and they paused to look at each other for a moment, without pretension, before breaking away.
"Try to stay deeper inside the town," Xena said over her shoulder as she headed back toward the wall. Gabrielle smiled quietly; it had been phrased as a suggestion, or a request, rather than an order. The bard tucked her staff against her shoulder and trotted swiftly toward the leader's cabin.
Xena moved through the dark corridor that lined the inside of the wall. At the smaller door, not far from the wall's juncture with the mountain, she found another small group of Amazons, waiting tensely.
"Anything?" Xena asked, and they all shook their heads.
"Nothing yet, Xena," said one, whom Xena recognized as Galia. She gave the other woman a quick nod.
"Keep one of your people a little farther down this hall, in the shadows. If they break in here, she's to leave the battle to the rest of you and come alert us. We need to know as soon as they get in."
"Right," Galia agreed, and Xena turned to take the stairs again.
Returning to the upper level, she met Anaira again at the center and they both looked down to see renegades scaling the walls. "Archers!" Anaira called, as Xena looked around in irritation.
"Where are those damn kids?" She looked up as Surya came over, lugging a large bucket full of water.
"Xena-" The guard looked around in dismay. "Where's Lirin? She should have been here by now. I thought I'd help with the water while things are still calm."
"Stay here," Xena ordered grimly. She dashed yet again down the stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs, in the shadows behind the main doors, Xena found Lirin and several other youths among the Amazons standing tensely watching the doors shiver at each blow. Towering in her rage, Xena nearly slapped the girl, but held off at the last minute and only shouted at her.
"Where in Tartarus is that water?!"
Lirin cowered fearfully. Her friends took one look at Xena's face and ran off. "I - I thought-"
"How many times do you have to be told not to think?" Xena stormed. Belatedly taking in the nearby listeners, she lowered her voice to a dangerous growl. "There are fifty renegades climbing up that wall right now, and I need that water if I'm going to hold them back. If they get inside here they're going to try to slaughter us all. Do you want that on your head?" She grabbed hold of another young Amazon and held her forward, shaking her slightly in Lirin's face. "Do you want your sister's blood on your hands?"
Lirin shook her head; her face was anguished and her voice choked with tears. "No! I'm sorry! I-"
"Don't cry, by Artemis!" Xena exclaimed. "Go get me the Gods-be-damned water before we're all dead!" Furiously gulping down her tears, Lirin wheeled around and sped off.
"Little harsh on her, were you?" said Ephiny, appearing at Xena's side as the warrior headed again for the stairs. Xena glowered.
"Kid needs to learn some discipline before it's too late."
From the top of the battlement, the outside wall looked like a beehive, the renegades like so many insects swarming up its side. The Amazon archers were doing their best to pick off the invaders, but the angle made it difficult. Xena heaved Surya's bucket of water onto her shoulder and then poured it down the wall, watching intently. The water trickled across the dry stones, making them slick and treacherous. Xena watched with satisfaction as a renegade encountered the wetness, cursed loudly and slid down several feet before beginning the painful process of moving over to where it was dry. Then Xena turned back to Ephiny and Surya.
"Wet down as much of the wall as possible. I'm going to check the other door."
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