A Storm Along The Steppes
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
The slate-gray sky was heavy with low, moisture-laden clouds, holding the earth close in a cold, wet embrace. The ground was muddied with the rain that had fallen earlier, and though it had stopped for the time being, the dull, flat, late-afternoon mists promised that there would be more to come.
"I feel as if its been weeks since weve seen the sun."
"Oh, really?" Xena did not turn to face the warrior who rode at her side. "I hadnt noticed."
There was a chill in the air, so much so that the breath of horses and men alike issued forth in dank, billowing streams; there was sure to be a frost tonight, if the rains held off. But there was a high flush to Xenas cheeks, fueled by a fire that burned deep within her; the ominous weather did nothing to diminish it.
The village where theyd made their home these few days past loomed ahead of them on the murky horizon. As they approached, Xenas heart beat faster at the sounds... the smells that formed the very essence of who and what she was.
They greedily claimed her, and she welcomed it: the braying of cattle fattened from a summer of grazing, being butchered and salted down for easy transport; the harsh clatter of the booty wagons being loaded, the odd scream or yell from the terrified villagers. A cold smile crossed her face as she turned into the raw wind, and she inhaled deeply of the choking scent of the peat-fueled cook-fires... the delectable smell of fear and, finally, the sickeningly sweet bouquet of the rotting heads set upon pikes. The grisly war-trophies lined the road to Kosika.
"Xena..." Borias sidled his horse closer to her, and he lowered his voice so that the two guards who trailed behind them could not hear. "Its been three days. Cant we take them down now?" As he spoke, he lightly touched her elbow.
"NO!" she roared, angrily shaking him off. The guards to the rear of them showed no sign of alarm. Indeed, theyd lost track of the number of times in just this day alone, that the warrior princess and Borias had lashed out at one another. They often like to ride off together, away from their army, the better to discuss strategies as they had done today. More often than not, those discussions turned into quite colorful... even bloody displays. Xenas personal guards knew enough to turn a blind eye to it all.
"Whats the harm in it?" Borias voice was sharper now.
"There is no harm in it," Xena said, heeling her horse faster. "Its just that I dont want to yet! Its a lesson to them that still proves a point. Let them worry about it when were gone," and she raced off down the road, her fur-lined cloak flying. Borias watched her, for a time, and then spat disgustedly into the ground. He slapped the rump of his horse and charged after her, muttering a curse under his breath.
That woman... he swore, will be the death of me yet.
Xena flew into the village ahead of her men, enjoying the sight of the people scattering before her like dead leaves on the wind.
Taking it had been well-worth the effort, the warlord thought. Sure, it had cost her a number of men, including one of her most reliably cut-throat lieutenants. But on the other hand, the food stores in the village were plentiful. There were a number of fresh horses to be had, and even Xena had been surprised at the riches this remote outpost possessed. As she galloped up to what had been the village elders hut, she gazed at her wrists and admired the hinged bracelets she wore, made of hammered gold, inlaid with turquoise and garnets. To the victor goes the spoils... she smiled to herself.
They had taken the village swiftly and completely. The local militia had put up a brave fight, riding out to meet her army, but they were no match for Xenas battle-hardened troops. With the militia out of the way, she had ridden on to Kosika, and what little resistance theyd encountered there had been dealt with at the point of a sword.
"Get over here, you worthless slug!" Xena motioned to one of her men. She hated to admit it, hated to show any sign of weakness, but she still needed help getting onto and off of her horse. Damn Caesar and his men! One day, he would pay dearly for what he had done to her. See would see to it. Personally.
Even with her mans help, she still could not hold back a slight grunt of pain as she landed heavily on her poorly healed legs, taking care to avoid the sheathed long-sword strapped to her mounts side. Instinctively, the soldier reached for her, intent on helping her into the hut.
"Leave me!" she violently shoved him in his chest, and he nearly lost his footing. A look of fear flickered across his face, and he breathlessly scrambled away. Best not to raise the warrior princess ire, he knew that well enough. There was a price to be paid for that.
Xena hitched into the elders hut, taking in its rather sparse decoration. She recalled without emotion the pitiful fight hed put up, when shed claimed it for her own. Well, he wouldnt be needing it anymore. He resided now on the point of a pike, along with all the others who opposed her rule.
Xena released an achy sigh and eased herself down onto a deep pile of animal furs and felt blankets. She shrugged off her cloak. Revealed beneath it was the traditional garb of a warrior woman. She wore a soft, deerskin tunic, decorated with both glass and coral beadwork, spindle-whorls, and tiny shells. A tooled leather belt gathered the tunic over comfortable deerskin trousers, encased from the calf-down in beaded, leather boots. A boars head tusk was suspended from the left side of her belt, and a carved, ivory-handled knife hung at her right hip - easily accessible. Completing her costume was a bronze arrowhead, suspended from her neck in amulet-fashion. With one look at her, an observer would have no doubt as to her position and rank within her army. And that was just how she wanted it.
"Here!" she tossed her cloak at her servant girl, who quickly whisked it away. "Ale!" Xena demanded next, narrowing her eyes at the girls trembling form. Fear. It was the best way she knew of to keep her people in line, and that included Borias. Although she suspected that fear of losing his life wasnt what kept him relatively under her control. No... from time to time he betrayed himself to her, and she saw it plainly: the look of... need in his eyes... saw that he actually feared losing her. That inexplicably, amazingly, he cared for her.
And that makes him a fool, she bitterly laughed to herself.
Xena sniffed her nose against the head cold that she couldnt seem to shake, and let her eyes roam about the main room of the hut. Plush, heavy tapestries hung from the walls, apparently the head-mans only concession to his status within the village. Not only were they pleasantly decorated with deer, winged griffins, and trees, they also provided an additional measure of comfort against the chilling winter winds of the steppes. The warlord would be sure to take them with her, when she departed.
Yes, the hut was large enough for her and Borias and their slaves, and it was well-positioned within the village so she could keep an eye on her men. She didnt trust them for a minute. But she and Borias had decided to stay here in Kosika, for a few days at least. Giving her troops some time to lick their wounds after this most recent battle, and have a bit of fun, too. It was not often that a village was left standing after Xena, the warrior princess, came to town.
At the same time, it spared them the effort of having to put up and break down their tents and yurts; soon enough, when they set out upon the hunt again, theyd be back to their harsh, nomadic lifestyle. How she relished it! Besides, she rationalized, it would take that long to finish loading the booty wagons with all that Kosika had offered them. Willingly or no.
Borias stomped into the hut. She could tell by the dampened look of him that it had started to rain again. The steam of his anger roiled off him in waves as he stormed about the open space, flinging his coat to the servant, running his hand through his glistening, dark hair, and slamming a jug of ale to the low table in the middle of the room. Sullenly, silently, he flung himself down next to it, and let his liquid brown eyes bore into her.
At last, he could stand it no longer, and he spoke. Once again, Xena had won their silent duel. "I see youve already gotten a head start," he said, motioning towards her mug of ale.
"I wouldnt worry about it if I were you," she replied dryly. "Youll catch up."
A weighted pause, and then, "Xena, about those pikes--"
"What did I tell you?" she slammed her mug onto the table-top, oblivious to the turbulent spillage of its contents. The ale ran down along her hand and onto the coarse wooden surface, but Xena kept her grip on the handle as she leaned towards Borias. "As long as those pikes are out there, anyone in their right mind will fear entering Kosika. And the people here dont dare leave. Got it?" She stretched back onto her furs, content that shed made her point.
"So, until we leave," she added, "let the men have their fun. Its good for morale." She tilted her head at the sounds of the carousing and the occasional yelps coming from the sodden village square. Tonight, their last night in Kosika, there would Tartarus to pay among her troops. Of that she was certain.
"You are a merciless woman, Xena," Borias reached out a finger and traced a line down her cheek.
Her legs mightve been relatively useless, but her hands and arms still possessed a legendary strength and quickness that served her well. In a lightning blur, she struck out and captured Borias hand in her own.
"Yes," she said, in a voice low and threatening. "And you wouldnt have me any other way."
At last she grinned and released him, chuckling. Borias kept an appraising eye on her for a moment, until he too, curled the corner of his mouth up in what was more of a sneer than a smile. They had reached an agreement. For now.
A smoky fire blazed in the earthen hearth, casting long shadows upon the walls of the hut. Xena had just finished off another sizable piece of mutton; and now she paused in her dining to lick her fingers clean. Gritty clay bowls filled with meats, breads, and even the odd squash - a rarity in this region - weighed heavily on the table. No matter. She and Borias were doing the meal justice. The two of them knew well-enough to take advantage of times of plenty, even if it was at the expense of others. Once they were on the move again, it would be some time before theyd have another opportunity such as this.
Xena released a loud, indulgent burp, but Borias paid her no heed as he continued spinning tales of his plans for their next conquest. She was barely listening, but she was content to let Borias prattle on, for she knew that when it came down to it, if she disagreed with his plans, she would deal with it when the issue reared itself. That, and the fact that she was in a good mood. Such as it was.
"Make sure you pack this, too!" Xena interrupted, addressing the servant girl. The frightened captive had just poured Xena more ale, from a finely decorated jug.
"What??" Borias eyes opened wide.
"Not the girl," Xena purred as if half-considering the thought, "This!" Roughly, she grabbed the container from the quaking peasant, and placed it admiringly on the already jam-packed table.
"Xena..." Borias said as the girl shrank back into the shadows, "our wagons are already at the breaking point with what were taking from here," he tried to convince her. "Leave it!"
"It is mine," she insisted, "and its coming with me." The warrior princess reached out a hand to touch the raised design on the vessel. It was a frieze of what looked to be the Trojan King - Priam - preparing to be sacrificed by Neoptolemos, Achilles son. Xena knew that this jug, gilded in silver, was far from its original home. Perhaps it had been taken to Kosika as a trophy from a raiding party? Ha! Shed suspected as much: that these mewling excuses for human beings were no better than her after all, despite their airs.
Borias laughed harshly. "How much is enough for you, Xena? Will nothing ever satisfy you?"
"You should know," she enticingly replied. She leaned back, taking another gulp of her ale. "If you dont like it, you can leave."
"If I thought you meant that Xena," Borias said, caressing her name with his voice, "I would take my army and--"
"Your army?" Ale sprayed from Xenas lips as she mocked him. "Theyll follow you to the next meal, and not much farther than that. Youre in this for the long-term, Borias," she said, "thats why youre with me. You want it all as much as I do. At least one of us has the sense to recognize it!"
She wordlessly challenged him to defy her words, but he could not. His dark eyes revealed that hed been hurt at the harshness of what shed said, but he quickly masked that pain with the cold indifference that had become his shield. She was right, and it frightened him to admit to that part of himself. A part that he was finding increasingly difficult to live with.
Silently, they kept their eyes locked on each other... testing, weighing... until a commotion outside their door roused them.
"Come!" he snarled, annoyed at the interruption.
"This had better be good!" Xena motioned to her servant to help her to her feet, reaching for her walking stick.
Four of her soldiers dragged in two villagers: a dark-haired youth - how had he even survived the battle? - and a golden-haired young woman. The girls thin tunic was torn, and from the leering grins on the soldiers faces, it was instantly apparent to Xena what had happened. The young man was bleeding from what looked to be a good hit to the forehead, and one of her soldiers - standing next to the woman - was bruised, too.
"Whats going on?" Borias voice was hard and menacing.
A chorus of voices rose up, only to be silenced by the crack of Xenas staff against the table. "Quiet!" she growled.
"You!" she pointed her stick at the young girl. "Tell me what happened, and be quick about it. I dont have much patience tonight for interruptions, Im afraid," she said, glaring at her soldiers.
"He... he grabbed me..." she could barely look at the bruised soldier to her left. "He dragged me behind the tavern. He wanted t- to...." Tears pooled at the corners of her eyes, and her voice trembled with the fear and shame of it all.
"It was just a bit of fun, Borias," the soldier explained, "until this fellow shows up..." he thumbed at the young man.
"Miko... my betrothed!" the girl cried out. "He tried to save me..."
"Save the likes of you?" the bruised soldier laughed harshly. "Hit me, is what he did!" and he pointed indignantly at the purple and blue splotch on his cheek.
"You keep your hands off my Fala!" Miko swore, struggling against the men who held him fast. "You take our village and you think you can take our women too--" his words were cut off by the sharp slap of Xenas hand across his face.
"Thats enough," she said quietly. She turned to the bruised soldier. "Is it true? Were you forcing yourself on this woman?"
"Well," he shrugged," she said no, but I knew she would enjoy it--" Xena held up her hand, silencing him.
"And you, Miko," she cupped his bleeding chin in her hand and smiled. "Did you assault one of my soldiers?
"Yes!" his voice was defiant, "and Id do it again, to save her!"
Xena considered the facts for a moment. She was used to arbitrating disputes among her men; they occurred often enough, particularly where booze and booty were concerned. But, though she tried not to highlight it, the hurting of women and children was something that she would not tolerate. She surprised herself, with that truth, and shied away from any close examination of what the reasons for those feelings might have been.
The young womans hazel eyes pleaded with her, and even Xena startled at the near-sympathetic reaction that look elicited. Yet she shoved the feeling away... discarded it for what it was - useless. Quickly, she made her decision.
"You," she addressed her solider, "attacked this woman. And you," she turned her gaze to Miko, struck one of my men." She paused, eyeing them both, and then rendered her verdict.
"Kill them both," her words were icy-cold, "but let the woman go free."
"No!" Fala shrieked, and fainted dead away.
"Xena!" Borias leapt to the stricken womans side, keeping one eye on the warrior princess. "Dont do this!" he pleaded for the young couple.
But Borias comforting of the girl only served to enrage Xena, sparking the jealous streak in her that always lurked just a heartbeat away.
The warriors eyes narrowed. "Get them out of here!" she jerked her head towards the door. At that command, her soldiers dragged the doomed men through it, out into the star-less night.
"Her too! Out of my sight!" And Xenas slaves had to help remove the unconscious Fala. "All of you... OUT!" Xena whirled away and flounced back down onto her furs, gulping furiously from her cup.
Borias turned to her after the hut cleared. He stood, tall and menacing in the firelight, his chest heaving in anger. "Have you no compassion?" he demanded of her.
"Im letting her live. Thats enough." She moved to take another sip of her ale, but in a flash, Borias kicked the drink out of her hand.
"Oohh... touchy, touchy!" Xena scorned him, and she started laughing. A deep, mirthless belly-laugh that filled the room. "Maybe daddy wants a new plaything?"
Something in Borias snapped. He launched himself at Xena, powerless to fight the fury she fueled in him, and he lifted the back of his hand to her face, delivering a solid blow. "Stop it!" his face trembled in rage.
Not missing a beat, Xena returned the slap with one of her own, but it barely fazed him. She deftly followed that move by whipping out her ivory-handled knife and pressing it to his neck.
"Tsk... tsk...tsk... therell be no more of that," she hissed, tasting the blood in the back of her throat, relishing the thin line of it that her blade drew against Borias own skin.
Her lover was motionless now, poised to see in what direction Xenas next whim might take her. He could feel the heat rising from her; it was partly an anger that matched his, true enough, but it was partly a passion too, which they both shared.
"Well?" she quirked an eyebrow at him.
"No... no more..." his voice was hoarse, and she slowly removed the knife.
"I hate you," Xena whispered, but her body overruled her words, and she reached out and pulled Borias to her.
"No... you dont hate me..." Borias voice was thick with desire, and his nerve endings threatened to burst through his skin when Xenas tongue flicked out of her mouth, moving towards his neck. Seductively, atavistically she cleared the blood from it. He resisted only for a moment, but the needful hunger of her lips on his wound was too much, and so he let her have her way. This was a battle of another sort, and one he simply couldnt get enough of.
He thinks I dont hate him, Xena mused, even as she allowed her senses to be carried away by the rough, callused touch of Borias hands upon her; she submerged herself in the musky, leathered stink of him that made her mouth water. She let her hands roam over a body that was rock-solid, tempered by the hard life hed led. She caressed, too, the raised scars that were an emblem of that dangerous existence. Xena surrendered her body, but not her mind, to his ministrations, and she matched him in kind during this struggle, this ballet for supremacy that other idiots - not her - might mistake for making love.
She was drenched in her lust for him, gave herself up to the way he set her blood a-flame. They were good together, she had to admit it, as she enjoyed the feel of her sweat mingling with his. The softness of the animal furs against her body contrasted with the raw scrape of his unshaven skin as he nuzzled her, and she cried out as he relentlessly drove her towards that which she most craved. With a final, guttural moan, she was freed from the exquisite prison in which hed held her, vaguely aware of her thoughts mindlessly shattering and scattering in the face of it all.
His mouth covered hers as he found his own release, and she greedily took in his hot, ale-tinged taste, as he breathlessly whispered to her. He squeezed his eyes shut, but she forced herself to keep her own open; and so there was no mistake of it - what he said. "I love you, Xena..."
Ha! she thought, allowing a warm wave of contentment to wash over her, You simple-minded fool! I win again! And she closed her eyes at last, searching her heart, taking ruthless satisfaction in the vast coldness she found there.
It was nearly first light, Xena could tell, though no sun could possibly have penetrated the gloomy interior of the windowless hut. The fire was banked, and the tired glow of it gave off just enough illumination so that Xena could see Borias as he slept. She took in the strong line of his jaw, his long dark hair that had been loosened, somehow, from the tie that normally held it fast, and she considered that the only times they werent fighting, really, was when one or both of them was fast asleep.
Xena sighed, shifting her head against an embroidered pillow, and idly let her hand play with the hairs on Borias chest; with the embossed, golden medallion that he wore about his neck. The symbols on it were a mystery to her, and shed never cared enough - never given him the satisfaction, more like it - of asking him what it meant. But it suited him.
Borias.... He was... convenient... to have around, Xena knew, but in the long run, he would get in the way. Leave fate to others, she thought. For her, the future... her destiny... was there for the taking. And seize it she would. Nothing, and no-one - she rested her icy-blue eyes on the slumbering Borias - would stop her. Settling the petty disputes of her men, dealing with Borias little tantrums - what an utter waste of her time! She was destined for greatness. Surely, there had to be more to life than this?
They had argued yesterday, about where they would go upon leaving Kosika. At last, theyd agreed they would head towards the rising sun, at first light. There were great riches to be had, Borias assured her, for those shrewd enough and bold enough to plunder the east-west trade routes.
Her lover snored softly next to her, and Xena could not resist pulling the furs up around them both, shutting out the pre-dawn chill, closing her eyes for a last few moments of sleep. She could hear the splat of icy rain-pellets hitting the roof, spattering on the ground outside. It would be another cold, miserable day after all.
But no matter. She was anxious to leave Kosika now. It bored her. Time to press east, to prey upon the camel caravans winding their way across the deserts, through the barren steppes, high along the Caucasus.
Come first light, they would leave this place, and she would burn it to the ground, serving final notice of the time when Xena, the warrior princess, passed through. Chin, was where Borias said they would be headed, at the end of the silk road
They were bound to have better luck there. Her destiny awaited her. She was sure of it.
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