Bound – Part 10

By Melissa Good


For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.


The wind had died down to sporadically fitful gusts, and Xena’s footsteps sounded unnaturally loud to her ears as she threaded her way through the village and headed up towards the ridge. The crisp, cold air carried every noise with uneasy clarity, and she was aware of the soft crunch of rock fragments under her boots, and the sighing of pine needles brushing each other, and the gentle rustlings of night creatures getting out of her path.

If it wasn’t for the twisting in her guts, she reflected soberly, she would have enjoyed the run. It was a beautiful, clear night, and the stars fairly blazed at her when she looked up through the canopy of trees at them, and the air felt clean and refreshing after the evening spent in the overfull and fire heated gathering hall.

Glad I didn’t take seconds. She considered, wryly. The way my stomach feels, it would have been wasted effort. And Gabrielle hadn’t either, which was yet another tip-off that the bard was still disturbed over her day.

Sooner than she’d looked for, she was topping the crest of the plateau, and found herself slowing to a halt on the moonlit rock strewn path, facing the towering granite wall with its dark, uneven opening.

She took a deep breath, and tried to quell the nerves tying her guts in knots, with little effect. Gods.. this isn’t going to work. A fit of wind brushed her hair back, and she blinked as her eyes teared from the cold, dropping her gaze to her boots and kicking a bit at the loose rocks, concentrating on regaining her calm. And her wits.

All right. Her dark head came up, and she fixed her unwavering gaze on the opening. It’s just a cave, Xena. She unfolded her tightly crossed arms, and forced herself to move forward. I am gonna read those damn tablets. She allowed the thought to repeat incessantly, as she reached the opening, and laid a faintly trembling hand on the cold rock face. All right, all right… I can do this. And ducked her head to enter.

Flash of movement, and a sudden rush of musky scent caught her off guard, and she jerked upright, but not in time to escape the scrambling rush of an animal exploding through the opening. A wild roar overwhelmed her sensitive hearing, and before she could even move, a huge form barreled into her, hot breath flashing by her ear, and claws tearing at her cloak.

Only patiently honed reflexes saved her life. The animal bore her down, and made a tearing swipe at her chest, leaving a trail of fire behind, but she’d gotten her legs up and put her feet against it’s barrel chest as it was falling on her, and now she slammed her back against the ground and pushed off, throwing the beast against the rock wall and rolling clear.

Bear. Male, pretty young. Her mind cataloged the threat as she came back up on her feet, and sank into crouch. Oh gods… Her shoulder screamed, and she glanced down to see red staining her tunic, and the shreds of her cloak swinging free.

The bear scrambled to his feet, and roared, standing up and reaching for the stars before he dropped to all fours, and bolted towards her, mouth open and grasping for her. She waited for him to come close, then jumped over his head, landing on still shaking legs, and watching him tumbled over the edge of the path, and into the steeply sloped hillside. Unable to stop, the bear kept rolling, until he crashed into a large tree on a lower slope. Slowly, he got to his feet, and shook his heavy head, turning it to look up at her balefully.

And decided to look for an easier, less elusive enemy, as he grudgingly turned, and limped off into the darkness of the trees.

Xena pressed her back against the rock wall, and let herself slide down, until she was sitting just outside the cavern entrance. She dropped her head back against the stone, and took controlled breaths until the fierce pain in her shoulder dulled to an intense throbbing, and then, finally, put a hand up to assess the damage.

The hand came away covered with blood, and she flinched, but pulled the torn fabric away from the wound and examined it. Gods that hurts. Her mind groaned. A second look, though, reassured her that the gouges, while painful, were relatively shallow, having been partially blocked by her cloak. Oh boy. She sighed. This takes being a clueless idiot to new heights, Xena. So damned tied up in being afraid, you forgot to listen to your own damn instincts. Gods. It’s a good thing I’m going home. I’m getting to be totally useless. To myself, to her.. what in Hades is wrong with me? She sighed again in self disgust, letting her head fall against the rock and closing her eyes. Some lame excuse I came up with to come up here, just because my damn ego can’t stand the thought of someone knowing I’m afraid of something. How pathetic is that.

Well.. let’s just give it our token try, right? Giving the cavern an irritated look, she gathered herself up, and, before she could think better of it, swung herself inside the opening, and against the inside wall.

Darkness. Silence. Still air. It collapsed on top of her, and she could only hear a dull roaring in her mind, as she fought to control the wild impulse to run. Oh no. I am not moving. She wrapped her arms around her knees, and concentrated on breathing. The panic rose, and cascaded over her, and she struggled to stay motionless, just breathing, just waiting. Focusing her thoughts on the pain, and the anger, as she curled her arms tighter, and just hung on. I am not moving. The darkness pressed harder, and she took short, savage breaths, willing it to back off.

It took forever, at least, but gradually she felt the panic start to lessen, and the roaring slowly faded, leaving her exhausted. She slumped bonelessly against the wall, shivering as the cold stone leached heat from her body.

She had no idea how long she just lay there, until she’d gotten back enough motivation to push herself upright and very slowly, cautiously, extend her legs out in front of her. OK..OK.. that’s better. She kept her eyes closed, and now could hear the subtle sounds of the cave, as the wind entered the crevice and moved the pebbles around, and the mountain settled around her.

Opened her eyes, and waited, patiently, until her night vision adjusted, and began to show her very faint outlines in the soft moonlight coming from the entrance. Her breathing calmed, and steadied, and she let out a deep sigh of relief. I did it. A shaky smile traced across her lips, as she glanced around the cave, taking in the deep pile of stone chips, and the darker opening just across from her. I.. can’t believe it. I didn’t think… She ran a still shaking hand through her hair and blew out a long breath of relief. I did it. Now the smile came more surely, and she glanced across the cavern toward the other opening. One down.. one to go. She groaned, getting her feet under her, and standing up. Before I chicken out.

Wincing, she stepped across to the pile of torches Elaini and Gabrielle had left, and lifted one, jamming it between two rocks embedded in the floor, and lighting it with an awkward, left handed motion. Ouch. Her body protested, the deep scratches starting to stiffen up.

The torch fluttered into welcome life, dancing crimson shadows on the interior of the cavern walls, and picking out the chips of gypsum embedded in them. She took another, calming, breath, and lit a few more torches, padding about the cave to place them, until the warm light satisfied her. That’s.. a little better. She sat down for a moment near the inner entrance, and let her head fall into her hands. Come on.. come on, you can do this. You’re halfway there. Her hands clenched, and she rested her forehead against them, then stood up, and squared her shoulders. Ok. I am going to go read those damn tablets.

Lifting a torch, she walked steadily over to the darkened inner entrance, and thrust the light through, peering in behind it.

It was worse in here, she reflected, edging in and pressing her back firmly against the inner wall. Closer.. and the air was still and hung heavily around her. Gods.. the panic started to rise, and she closed her eyes firmly, forcing it back down, and concentrating on keeping her breathing steady. Her hands started to shake, and she carefully wedged the torch into a crack in the wall, and folded her arms across her chest, waiting patiently. She concentrated on how much her damn shoulder hurt, and that distracted her mind enough to make the edgy fear fade again, a mixed blessing, she thought if there ever was one.

Finally, she was able to raise her head and look around, blinking to focus in the dim, guttering light of the torch. The spot where they had been working was evident, a fresh gash in the tumbled pile of stone rubble, and several small clear spots on the dusty floor, two smaller and one larger. She knelt down by one of the smaller ones, and brushed her fingers against the floor – even hours later, the residual scent was distinctively Gabrielle’s. That brought a faint smile to her face, and she turned her attention to the dimly lit tablet in front of her. Need more light for this.. she mused, standing up and moving to the entrance, then slipping out and grabbing one of the remaining torches, lighting it, and bringing it back into the smaller chamber with her.

She sat down cross-legged in front of the tablets, and rested her elbows on her knees, peering down. Then she paused, and lifted a hand up, rubbing her eyes and swallowing. Need to just sit a minute, I think. She propped her elbows on her knees, and let her head rest in her steepled hands for a while, until the fuzzy feeling she’d been having faded, and she felt some semblance of her normal alertness. Better. She analyzed, opening her eyes again, and folding her hands together, peering over the tops of them at the patiently waiting tablets.

Xena ran her eyes over the scrawled text for a few minutes, allowing her mind to get used to the meter and sequence. She took a breath, and started reading from the beginning, catching little things that the bard had missed, since she was reading aloud, and translating for her two companions. Things like.. the two had been part of an advance scouting party, looking for a nice, unobtrusive shore to land on.

A dark eyebrow curled up. Didn’t think they'd ever come this far to the south. Interesting.

Things like the fact that the Viking was a younger child of a noble house, and that her brother had been in command of the vessel.

That the Celt was a shaman’s daughter, whose clan was caught in a Viking raid and taken as servants, as was their custom.

Then she became immersed in the story, and felt the anguish of the writer, as Gabrielle had, and knew why. She sees herself there. The thought was quiet. Gods.. was I ever.. that cold to her? Xena thought back, and bowed her head. Knowing now what I do.. there are a thousand things I wish I could take back.. do over. She reached up and wiped her eyes. Guess I should be glad she was too stubborn to give up on me…

A hot long day, when both of their tempers had been frayed, by the sun, and the dust, and stubbornness of the villagers they’d been unable to convince to move out of the way of an advancing flood.

Gods, they’d tried… but in the end, the village with it’s people and contents had been swept away, leaving little but some thatch floating in the floodwaters, and the distance sound of goats bleating in panic.

They’d been sniping at each other since, Gabrielle angry that she’d refused to go chasing downstream to pull the idiots out of the water, and herself just… tired and disgusted and not in the mood for villagers, or testy young girls.

"You wanna go help them? Go ahead." Xena had finally snapped. "I’m not wasting my time on people too stupid to listen to me." And her gaze had raked the bard, as though adding her in to that summation.

Then she’d deliberately moved a little distance away, and picked a tall tree to sit under, working on a bit of armor that had gotten bent in the flood. Gabrielle hadn’t said a word, just picked up her scrolls, and walked off towards the cresting river.

She’d finished the armor, then glanced up, noting that the girl was still missing, and giving a disgusted sigh. "Damn her." She’d muttered to no one in particular, and stood, dropping the armor back into her saddlebag, and dusting her hands off. "Better make sure she didn’t do something idiotic, Argo." She’d given the horse a pat, then walked quietly off in the direction Gabrielle had taken.

Found her sitting some distance down the bank, with her back wedged against at rock, and the scrolls lying forgotten by her side, and had shook her head, and moved a bit closer, then froze.

Seeing the tears coursing down the girl's cheeks, and the quietly discouraged attitude of her body, slumped against the stone.

"Damn." Xena had sighed, and silently backtracked to their campsite, putting her hands on her hips and staring at the fire in disgust. Then she swore heartily at herself, glared at Argo, and threw her hands up to an uncaring sky, but tightened the buckles on her armor, and took off at a steady fast pace down the riverbank.

She’d come back, hours later, to find the girl sitting quietly in camp, poking at the fire with a long stick. All trace of tears gone, and her face composed in a still, angry mask. Green eyes had jerked up as she padded into the fire lit circle, and started stripping off her armor.

Xena had glanced over her shoulder and briefly made eye contact. Gabrielle had taken a deep breath, and looked about to speak, but she’d hesitated, and Xena had given her a nod. "All safe." Was all she’d muttered, but she’d seen the understanding glint in the girl’s eyes, and had turned away.

Was working her right bracer off when she felt a sudden, warm, clasp on her bicep and turned her head, to find herself looking directly into the girl’s eyes at close range. And there was a caring there that slipped past all her defenses and wrapped around her heart, rewarding her for the long weary hours in a way she had never anticipated.

"Thanks." Was all Gabrielle had said, and had squeezed the arm gently. "Can I help with that?"

Xena had started to make some kind of rude, offhand comment, but stopped, and just smiled a little instead. The girl really meant well, after all. Then she watched in silence, as the hand slid down her arm, and strong fingers set to work tugging at the swollen leather laces holding the bracer on.

It had finally slid off, along with it’s mate, and Xena taken them both and patted the girl on the shoulder. "Pretty hot."

Gabrielle had nodded in agreement.

"Spring, up above that ridge. Interested?" A gruff offer, considering she’d spent an extra hour searching for just such a cool, clear pool.

That had gotten a smile at last from her young companion. "I’d really like that." And their eyes had met. "It’s been a long day."

Xena had nodded gently. "Yeah it sure has." She’d said, letting her voice warm. "Come on." They’d walked off in companionable silence, but Xena had gotten the feeling that she’d come perilously close to losing something she hadn’t even realized she’d wanted. Or so desperately needed.

Sighing, she ran her hand through her hair, pulling it back out of her eyes, and focused on the last part of the last tablet, written in a different hand, in bold, sure runes that carried their own character.

It took a minute, for Xena’s mind to let the runes sink in, and stir her memories of this odd and fluid language, but after some prodding, they started to make familiar images, and she bent her head to read. And slowly, a smile shaped her lips.

Never there was a scurvy wolf with the fur to take down this daughter of the north. Odin laid his hand on my and bade me live to fight again, and so I did. I write this now, in the tongue of the north so that those who come after us may find it, and find the maps I put down, of this land and it’s kind, to aid in the coming of the longships.

If come they not, find they not, for those who speak our tongue are few and read are fewer, and these words are for my kind and no other.

For ye who come – know this first – that the Celti called Ardwyn, a servant of our House of the Red Horn, is a freemen, so said by Elevown, daughter of Ulric, this date and forever after, for service to our house, and to me, and for her gift of friendship, which she laid down at my feet with no thought of return.

Know that we spent our seasons in exploring this strange land, and many things we have seen, and battles have fought, always to winter here in this place, and wait for raiding weather to come once again. We leave this place one last time this day, and go forth, and my weather sense tells me that I will not see this cave again.

What small treasures we have, and the maps and notes, be buried in a long shaft under the stone cap in the center of this cavern. If you be of my kind, you might dare to open it. Do not otherwise – for the fierceness it needs to recover the remnants of our lives will scour you dry to dust for the trying. Odin himself will strike you down, were you to put even such as a little finger on the things I leave inside, and you will fail, for only the strength and the courage of the northlands can bear my test.

Good tidings, my brothers – may your blades run red with the blood of our enemies.

Elevown

Xena sat back, with a thoughtful look on her face. "Huh. " She said aloud, listing to the skittering echoes. "I think I would have liked her." She paused. "Once we stopped trying to kill each other." She chuckled a little, in rueful self knowledge, then studied the stone cap pensively.

I said I was just going to read the tablet. She scolded herself. And then go back, right? But Elevown’s challenge floated softly, tauntingly in front of her and she found herself curling powerful fingers around the sharp stone edging, and tensing her arms, feeling the rock shift willingly under her grasp.

No. She stopped the motion, and let the stone settle, lifting her hands, and putting them flat on the surface. Gabrielle needs to be here for this.

Xena hauled herself to her feet, carefully stretching to avoid pulling on the now thoroughly stiffened shoulder. Need to take care of that, too. She eyed the claw marks disgustedly. I can’t believe I was that sloppy. Gods. She carefully put out the torches, and moved into the outer chamber, dusting herself off, and settling the torn cloak about her as best as she could. She looked around and nodded. Still don’t like it in here much. But I have control of this now. Her mouth quirked, And I know the end of Gabrielle’s story.

She doused all the torches save one, which she carried with her to the entrance, pausing and listening for a long beat before she ducked out into the cold air. Outside, she put out the last torch, and just stood, for a little while, with her arms wrapped around her, gazing up at the canopy of stars.


Gabrielle let her eyes drift open, letting her gaze flick to the darkness outside, then to the empty spot next to her. Nowhere near dawn.. where the.. her eyes lifted to the fire, and stopped there, as she took in the tall, quiet form leaning against the hearth. Saw the stark contrast of dark rust against her tanned, bare skin, and smelled the sharp scent of the herbal cleanser she was using.

"Xena..!" The bard rolled out of bed, heart going double time, and dropped to her knees next to her partner. "What in Hades!" She pulled the warrior’s hand aside, and sucked in a breath. "What.. where…. Did someone here.. why didn't it wake me up…"

"No." The warrior answered quietly, continuing the clean the gashes. "It’s not that bad.. I got off lucky, actually." Then she took a breath. "You were.. pretty deep asleep.. I haven't been gone long."

Long silence from Gabrielle. "You went up to the cave, didn’t you." It wasn’t a question.

Blue eyes lifted to meet hers. "Yes." Came the simple answer. They looked at each other. "You guys made quite a mess in there." Xena added calmly, dropping her gaze, and continuing her cleaning.

Just like that. Gabrielle reflected silently. Like it was nothing at all that she was able to go in there. "What am I going to do with you? Give me that.." She sighed, tugging the pad of linen out of Xena’s hands, and putting fresh cleaner on it, before setting to work getting all the dried blood out of the gashes. "So.. what are these? " She looked up into her partner’s face.

"Bear." Xena shrugged. "Also likes your cave." She waited a beat. "You going to yell at me?" A wistful question. I deserve it. How many times is she going to forgive me for this?

Gabrielle slowly shook her head. "No." She carefully wiped around one of the claw marks, and felt Xena’s skin flinch. "Sorry."

"Wish you would." Xena’s answer surprised her, and she looked up, startled.

"Why?" She searched the blue eyes intently.

The warrior let her head lean against the fireplace and blinked at her. "Cause I’d rather you yell and get it out of your system than have you bottle it up like that."

The bard didn’t stop her efforts, but she sighed. "Not this time, love. I know… this thing was killing you." She added more cleaner, and wiped carefully around the claw puncture right at the point of Xena’s shoulder, which was edged with angry bruises. "And.. I know you.. couldn’t.. go and try to work that out in front of anyone. " She paused. "Even me." In a softer tone. "I’m glad you were able to do it."

A hand covered hers, and stilled her movement, and she looked up. "I am too. But that’s not why I went there tonight." Xena’s voice was very gentle, and she brushed the bard’s cheek with her fingertips. "I wanted to see your tablets."

Gabrielle settled back against her partner’s raised knees and let her brow furrow. "Why? I didn’t think you’d be interested in them… I mean, the story was ok, but… what would you want with that?" She applied the pad to the cleanser again. "I can’t even read the last part… "

"I can." Xena stated quietly.

Dead silence from Gabrielle, who froze with one hand on the cleanser, and the other resting on Xena’s chest. "Um.. I.. Gods…. I never even thought… you.." I never even thought to ask her to look at them.

A depreciating shrug from her partner. "Yeah, I know.. live by the sword, right? Who needs reading?" But she felt the sting. "Most of the time it works to my advantage.. most everyone forgets there’s a brain behind the baby blues." She looked up with a self mocking smile, which vanished when she saw the look on Gabrielle’s face. "Hey.. just a joke, Gabrielle."

"It’s not funny." The bard put the cleanser down, and wrapped her arms around herself. "I know better than that. " Gods.. I spend half my time trying to get other people to see her as something other than a heartless fighter. So what do I do? Hello? Wake up, Gabrielle! The woman speaks and reads umpteen languages, knows every single mortal animal and plant in the world, has memorized all of Greek common and civil law, and is better than you are at math. And you make a comment like that?

"Gabrielle." The voice tickled her ears.

"What?" She growled, still mentally berating herself.

"If you don’t cut that out this instant, I’m not going to tell you what the end of the story was." Xena drawled.

Gabrielle paused, motionless, and stared at her. "Oh.. you really did read it???"

"I really did." The warrior answered, with a grin.

The bard laced her fingers together, and sat quietly, with her best pleading look.

"No more yelling at yourself?" Xena demanded, giving her eyebrow a quirk.

Solemn shake of the head.

"Forgive me for going up there?" Now the blue eyes gentled, and took on a pleading tone of their own.

Gabrielle freed one hand, and laid it against her partner’s cheek. "You don’t need to bargain for that." She replied quietly. "Seeing that weight off your shoulders is worth it."

Xena took her hand, and interlaced their fingers, taking a deep breath. "Listen.. I . read that whole story." This had to be said. "And.. I think I see.. why it upset you."

"Did you?" The bard breathed.

No way to do this except to just say it. "Gabrielle, if I ever… scared you.. or made you feel like you weren’t welcome.. " A pause. "And I know I did… I’m … " Her voice dropped. "Sorry. I never meant to frighten you. And.. " Their eyes met. "there weren’t many days that I didn’t thank the Fates that you chose.. for reasons I still don’t understand.. to stay with me."

Two years, Gabrielle. You’ve been waiting two years to hear her say that. Now she does.. and you realize you’ve forgiven her that a thousand times over, a long time ago. "I know. " She let her head rest against Xena’s knee, and raised their linked hands to her lips. "I kind of figured that out the first time you risked your life for me." Her smile was mirrored. "Or maybe it was the way you just kept coming and getting me out of scrapes. You could have left me out there a dozen times." She nibbled on Xena’s index finger. "Or maybe it was because even on the worst days I had… getting you to smile at me made it ok." That got another smile back. "Yeah, just like that."

But it had been close. Gabrielle knew. She’d been close to giving up, on Xena.. never closer than that night by the river, though. She’d just had it, been tired of the moodiness, the silence, the nasty comments… and her body had been on overload, with the heat, and the dust, and trying to get people out o the way of that damned river.

She’d tried to convince Xena to help yet another stubborn village, and the warrior had simply refused. Had told Gabrielle if she wanted to help them, she could go on her own. Said the villagers weren’t worth her time, and neither, by extension, was Gabrielle.

She’d taken her scrolls, and stormed off, to find a quiet spot and just throw herself down, ignoring the heat, trying to get the warrior’s curt comments out of her mind.

And had found she couldn’t. Weeks of tension between them had worn her down at last, and she found herself regretting her decision to leave home. Really regretting it, for the first time. I can’t stand this anymore. The words whispered to her. She doesn’t like me, doesn’t want me here… I’m not doing her any service by sticking around.

And that had hurt, because there were things about Xena that she liked very much. The courage, the innate sense of justice she glimpsed lurking under that warlord’s fašade, and the occasional, very brief flash of humor that always managed to surprise Gabrielle.

But that coldness.. and the lack of.. respect.. she realized she just wasn’t capable of handling it anymore. It just hurt too much. Guess I need to just.. go home. The thought brought unexpected tears, and she let them fall unhindered. Hey.. it was a good try, right? And her head had leaned gently on the warm rock. I just wish… Gods, Gabrielle, don’t be so stupid, She doesn’t need you as a friend.. that much is obvious. She tolerates you, sometimes not even that. Just… give it up.

Decision made, she stood, and walked back to the camp, startled to find Xena gone. Great. She muttered. Probably off sulking somewhere. She’d grabbed something out of their stores, and ate it quietly, then straightened up, and packed up her few things. Might as well start out tonight.

Then she’d sat, and played with the fire, until familiar bootsteps alerted her to Xena’s return, and she composed her goodbye, glancing up as the warrior moved into the firelight. The words froze in her throat, as she took in the mud covered, drenched form. Blue eyes had glanced casually over one broad shoulder at her.

"All safe." Was all Xena had said, and Gabrielle had realized where she’d been these last few hours. She did that for me. The quiet realization hit. Because she knew I wanted her to. And that mattered to her.

She’d stood up, and crossed to where Xena was fighting with a bit of her armor, and carefully put a hand on the warrior's arm, avoiding the cuts and scrapes that covered most of the exposed parts of her body.

"Thanks." She’d said. And she’d looked up into those beautiful blue eyes and seen, in the depths of them, a sudden, quiet, wistful longing that had changed.. everything. "Can I help you with those?" The bracers were covered with mud, and the ties so swollen with river water, that she’d had to use all her strength to unbind them. And seen the dark, vivid bruises underneath, where Xena had deflected rocks in the wild river.

A pat on her shoulder. An offer to go for a cold, clean swim. It was like a door had opened, and she hadn’t stopped to question anything. She’d just entered, and they’d gone on from there. But she’d realized, that hot, angry night, that some things were worth fighting for. And one of those things was this dark, and sometimes cruel person whose heart she now knew she'd touched.

Who had, she admitted, found a path to Gabrielle’s own heart, and was firmly settled inside it. She'd realized that as they both relaxed quietly in the cold spring, leaning back against the same submerged log, shoulders brushing each other. No words passed, but she felt.. a part of something. It wasn't much, but it felt a little.. like… home.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and pressed her lips against their fingers. "And.. I was scared for you a lot." She let her eyes drift open and find Xena’s. "You were fighting with yourself so hard.. it hurt to watch. " She paused, and gave her partner a direct look. "But I was never scared of you."

"No?" Xena asked softly, pulling her forward and against her chest.

"Nope." The bard answered, snuggling close with a happy sigh. ‘Besides, my story had a happy ending." She tilted her head back, and let their lips touch, closing her eyes as Xena responded, and slid a hand up the back of her neck to tangle in her hair.

"Really?" Xena whispered as they paused briefly.

"Uh huh." Gabrielle nibbled her jawline, and shivered as she felt Xena bite down lightly on her ear. "It’s my story, it’s my ending, and I’m certainly happy."

The warrior’s breath warmed her, as the words slid like molasses into her hearing. "I think they had a happy ending too." She whispered.

Gabrielle’s breath caught. "Then they didn’t…"

"Nope." Xena confirmed, starting to work on the back of her neck, and her breath caught for another reason. "Wanna hear about it now?"

A low throaty chuckle from the bard. "It can wait."


Xena peeled open one eye, and cocked the attendant eyebrow at the pre dawn sky. Not. She snorted, closing the eye tightly and wrapping her body more firmly around Gabrielle’s. Not really remembering how they’d gotten from the fireplace to the bed.. oh yeah. That’s right.. she’d carried Gabrielle, against the bard’s protests about her shoulder being injured and all that.

And because she was just that ornery, she’d proved her fitness by detouring to the window drenched in sillvery moonlight and had held her there, kissing her until they both were breathless.

Xena just grinned, thinking about it. Right now, the moon had set, and it was the darkest part of the night, and she was very happy to pull the covers closer about them and surrender herself back into the warm haze she’d been floating in, and muzzily considered the knowledge that she could now probably participate in the joining ceremony without overwhelming discomfort.

O.. K… Xena. So.. what are you going to say to her?

A number of very silly things floated through her mind, and she cheerfully batted the words around, giving herself a case of silent chuckles. No.. no… come on now, be serious. You used to know how to do that, remember? She lay quietly for a little while, absorbing the warmth of their skin on skin contact, feeling the gentle rhythm of the bard’s breathing against her shoulder, matching her own with unerring precision. What can I possibly say that doesn’t trivialize what this means to me?

She felt a little nibble on her chest, and smiled, but kept her eyes firmly closed.

"You awake?" The words gusted gently against her skin.

"Sorta." Xena mumbled.

"How’s your shoulder?" Another nibble, this time a little lower.

"I’ll live." The warrior responded, flexing the area in question.

"Y’know.. I would have been the first one back into that cave today." Gabrielle commented quietly, sliding a hand up and touching the angry gouges. "I think I owe you my life. Again." Her fingers drifted down, curving across Xena’s ribs, and down her front until they rested on her belly, moving slowly with the warrior’s breathing.

"Just part of the job." Xena replied, with a sleepy smile, giving the bard a kiss on the head. "Pays good." She felt Gabrielle chuckle as she pulled her closer.

"Like that job, huh?" The bard asked, letting her fingers move in slow patterns against the soft skin.

"Uh huh." The answer, in a husky whisper, that brushed her ear with a tickle.

Gabrielle smiled. "Good thing. You’re hired for life." She nuzzled closer. "You knew that, right?"

Xena was quiet for a short while. A thousand reasons for not doing this presented themselves in a calm, rational manner, all of them true, all of them valid, all of them logical. She studied them seriously for a time, then simply walked out of the room they were in and closed, then locked, the door behind her. "Yeah, I kind of figured." She rubbed the bard’s back, and let her hands slide across her waist, giving her a little tickle in passing.

Gabrielle giggled softly, and dropped one hand down to catch the warrior behind the knee, feeling the muscles constrict under her other hand as Xena stifled a laugh. "I got you right where I want you." She growled, running her fingers lightly over the sensitive skin there.

And found herself grabbed firmly by the waist, and lifted up, then settled in the curve of Xena’s arms. "Yep, you sure do." The warrior agreed, cheerfully, pulling her head down for a kiss.

She made it last a long time, until she felt the bard’s hands slip from around her neck, and start a slow exploration, sliding inside her shirt and softly tracing the curve of her ribs. "And I like where I am." She said quietly

Gabrielle paused, and rested her chin on Xena’s collarbone. "Do you?"

"Yeah." Came the fond answer. "I really do."

"Mmm.’ The bard sighed. "I know… um.. " Her fingers traced a pattern on Xena’s neck absently. "I’m not the most experienced person around… "

Ah. Xena mused. I was wondering when we were going to get around to discussing this. She sighed, and settled her arms comfortably around the bard. "Let me tell you something, OK?"

Gabrielle just nodded.

"There’s lots of different ways you can do this, right?" Xena began, waiting for her nod. "Right." She took a breath. "It used to be one of my weapons, Gabrielle."

Dead silence from the bard.

"You know that… I would do.. whatever I had to do to get what I wanted." Xena closed her eyes, so she wouldn’t have to watch Gabrielle’s face. "And I’ve done just about everything there is to be done." A pause. "And I’m not proud of that."

Still no sound from Gabrielle, but warm fingers curled around the warrior’s and squeezed gently. That brought a pained smile to her face. "What I figured out was, unless there’s any kind of feelings behind it, this doesn’t mean much at all. It’s just… an act. Like eating, or throwing a rock, or.. whatever."

Gabrielle slowly let her head drop and rest on Xena’s shoulder. "I never thought about that." She sighed.

Xena gazed at her fair head wistfully. "Then.. I found out that.. when you have feelings for someone, what you’re doing doesn’t matter nearly as much as who you’re doing it with… and the stronger those feelings are, the less it matters. " She slid a hand under Gabrielle’s jaw, and lifted her face up. "And.. sometimes… usually only once in a lifetime, I think.. sometimes.. those feelings get so.. so strong, that all you need is one touch… " Her fingertips crossed the bard’s cheek. "Or one look." Their eyes met, and locked. "One kiss." She tilted her head and felt their lips meet, and the deep, warm flood of their connection poured over them.

They broke apart a little, just enough for Xena to make eye contact again. "And you know you’ve come home." She took a breath. "And that’s how you make me feel." She stroked the bard’s stunned face. ‘So.. don’t you worry, my love. I have no memories that can compete with you."

Gabrielle just looked at her, absorbing the moment, cherishing it’s sweetness completely. "You know." She finally whispered, with a long sigh. "I’m gonna have to start accusing you have having bardic tendencies if you keep this up."

They smiled at each other, then Gabrielle rolled her head to one side and regarded the window, which was greying with the dawn light. "I guess I’d really better get up. I’m supposed to go finish that cave with Elaini today, and then watch the ceremony at noon."

Xena regarded her steadily. "We."

"Hmm?" The bard cocked her head. Hoping against hope that meant what she thought it did.

"We, as in you and I, are going to check out that cave, since our Viking friend seems to have left a few nasty surprises behind, and then.. we, as in you and I, are going to spend a little time in a crystal cavern not far from here." A beat. "If that’s OK."

And got a hug so fierce, it almost stopped even her breathing. That sent jolts of pain through her shoulder, that she didn’t even feel. That made it all worth it. All of it.


"Look." Xena said, for the fourth time. "If you just get out of my way, I"ll take care of it." And was ignored, for the fourth time, by the six arguing forest dwellers, who were trying to decide the best way to get the capstone opened.

"We don’t know what’s in there." Wennid growled, putting her hands on her hips. "It could be full of bats for all you know."

"Bats." Xena muttered quietly to herself, leaning against the wall with her long arms crossed. "And how would they be getting in there.. dig a tunnel? With their wings?"

A muffled giggle told her she’d been overheard.

"Maybe they have little bat shovels." She continued.

"Xena." The whisper was more of a splutter than anything.

"Or maybe they grew in there like mushrooms."

"Stop it." Now Gabrielle was leaning against her. "C’mon. It’s their scrolls. "

"Yeah." The warrior pushed off from the wall and shook her shoulders. "But it’s my patience." She walked up behind Wennid, and gently but firmly grasped the forest dweller’s shoulders, moving her over towards the sleeping platforms and away from the stone cap. When she turned around and headed for the stone, the rest of the forest dwellers moved out of her way without a word. They got a raised eyebrow for their efforts. "Thanks. I’ll take care of this." They all looked at her. She hesitated, then laced her fingers together and explained. "It’s meant to be opened by one person – these kind of caps swivel when you lift them up – if you don’t do it on an angle, you can drop it into the hole.. not a good idea."

"Oh." Wennid murmured. "I see."

She dropped to a crouch, then sat down, bracing a booted foot on either side of the heavy stone, and reaching across it to fit her hands around the jagged edge. Then she took a breath, and arched her body, bringing the stone up with a harsh scrape towards her chest. She paused a second, concentrating, then took a better grip, and lifted straight up, powering the stone free and heaving it over one tensed leg to clatter on the granite floor.

A dark, roughly square hole was revealed, disappearing beyond sight into the floor. From it drifted a taint of musty age, and dampness. Xena dusted her hands off, and regarded the hole thoughtfully, then picked up a slate pebble, and dropped it in, cocking her head to listen. It fell for some seconds before the warrior’s ears picked up the impact. Gods. That’s five times my height, at least. The opening was fairly regular, but small – she measured it with her eyes. Damn. Gabrielle would fit, or me, just. And I don’t think I can do.. that.

A hand on her shoulder. "Don’t you even think about it." Whispered in her ear. All at once, the room seemed closer.. and Xena stood up, and went out into the outer cavern, knowing Gabrielle would follow her.

Which she did. "I mean it." The bard said quietly, folding her arms. "I know that look, Xena." She walked around the warrior, forcing her to look at her. "I’m going down there."

"Bad idea." Xena mirrored her posture. "That tablet makes it pretty clear it’s dangerous."

Gabrielle matched her, stare for stare. "And you point is what? That we never do anything dangerous?"

"It’s less dangerous if I do it." Xena calmly replied.

"Is it?" Gabrielle moved closer, until she was almost touching her partner. "Is it? You don’t think I don’t see you sweating in here? You don’t think I can’t feel what’s going on inside you? "

A hit. The bard saw her nostrils flare, and the muscles in her jaw clench. . "You’re one twitch away from losing it, and don’t’ think I don’t know it." She dropped her voice. "It’s not your fault. But what’s going happen in that dark stone tunnel, Xena? You can’t go in there."

"What if you go in there, because I can’t, and you get hurt. You think that’s any better?" Came the blunt answer. "I’d rather take my chances in the tunnel."

"Don’t you treat me like a child, Xena." The bard warned. "It’s my choice."

Wrong tack, Xena. Wrong tack. Remember Plan B? Stop acting like a damned warlord. "Gabrielle…" She sighed, unfolding her arms, and cradling the bard’s face in her hands. "If that tablet said it was courage they were testing, you’d have my blessings, love. You have more of that than I ever will."

Gabrielle’s green eyes softened, and she reached up and wrapped her hands around her partners. "That’s not true." She replied quietly.

"I think it is.. but what that warning says the tests are for size, and for strength, and for reflexes.. and Gabrielle, I want you to look me in the eyes, and tell me I’m not the better choice for that."

Peaceful silence fell over the cavern, broken by the soft whispers from the inner chamber, and the sigh of the wind entering through the break in the wall, where early morning sunlight poured in and painted a bar almost to their booted feet.

"To Hades with them." Gabrielle finally answered. "Let them stay there."

"You don’t know what’s in them." Xena replied, slowly

"I don’t care what’s in them." Came the soft answer. "Nothing that’s there is worth putting you through that." She took a breath. "Just leave them be. I don’t want to see them. "

Xena’s face went very still. Then she looked at the ground, and felt her shoulders relax. "I’ve never backed down from a challenge in my entire life." She stated quietly. And her eyes swept up, and met the bard’s own. A forced smile. "Guess there’s a first time for everything, right?" She gave the bard’s cheek a pat, and turned with a sigh, slipping back through the opening to the inner chamber.

Gabrielle stood, arms wrapped around herself, and looked at the stone floor for a very long time. Then she shook herself a little, and let out a long breath, and walked to the chamber entrance, putting her hand on the rock and peering through before she entered.

The forest dwellers were clustered around the opening, discussing possible plans of action, and measuring rope to determine the length of the shaft. But Gabrielle’s eyes were drawn to her partner, who was seated quietly against the far wall.

Xena’s head was tipped back, and she was watching the activity with a faintly detached air. Her forearms were braced against her knees, and as the bard watched in silence, the blue eyes closed, seemingly of their own accord, and the broad shoulders slumped a little, as she let her head drop forward and rest against a propped hand. When her eyes opened again, there was a look of quiet defeat in them, that hit Gabrielle in a place so deep, she hardly knew where to start looking for it.

I said.. she was the most complex, the most driven..most determined person I’d ever known. Or ever would. And that’s true. How she sees herself is a really important part of how she is.. and if she thinks she can be beaten… gods.. with that mind, she could convince herself of anything. What will this do to her?

Gabrielle, there’s only one answer to that. Just go do it, you can argue about it later on. She slipped across the chamber, behind the engrossed forest dwellers, and settled down by Xena’s side, hooking her arm through the warrior’s.

"Hi." Xena dredged up a smile for her, turning her head and gazing at the bard. "Did you.. what?" Her focus sharpened.

Gabrielle knew something must be showing in her face. "Go." She decided to say, simply.

Xena froze in mid breath, then studied her intently. "But you said…."

"I know." The bard replied firmly. "But I was wrong. Just go. And please.. be careful." She brought their linked hands to her lips, and pressed them to Xena’s knuckles. Then she released her, and slid back so the warrior could stand up.

Blue eyes looked intently into hers for an endless moment, before Xena did stand, and extend a hand to her.

She took it and was pulled to her feet, and into a warm hug, which she returned, and when Xena released her, she brushed by the bard’s ear. "You’re my anchor, love. Don’t forget that."

Then the warrior was walking forward, nudging Tobias out of the way. "None of you is going to fit down that hole. " She stated, seating herself at the edge, and dangling her legs in. "Only me or Gabrielle, and I won the dinar toss."

Golden eyes flicked to the bard, who crossed her arms in silence, then back to Xena.

"Wish me luck." Xena said quietly, then slipped over the edge, and felt for the slight handholds she’d spotted in the dim light. A rope, with the sharp edges, would be too dangerous. She’d have to hope her Viking friend had made it possible for herself, at least, to get down into this shaft. And if you could do it, so could I. She silently informed the long dead sea raider.

She found the first set of handholds by touch, and lowered herself to the full length of her arms, searching for the second set with her booted feet. Found them.. just a little higher than she expected, and paused, then took her feet off the tiny ledges, and just dropped, trusting her instincts to catch her.

They did, but she wondered briefly how she was going to make the return trip. Once she had her hands firmly wedged in these holds, she found others, closer, and was able to make her way down the shaft with little trouble.

Except it was getting darker, as the torchlight from above faded, and closer, and by the time her boots hit the bottom of the shaft, she was sweating, and her heart was beating so hard it was making her head ache. She stopped, and leaned back against the rock, staring up at the small, flickering square high above her head. I must be crazy. What in Hades am I doing down here? One of these days, my damn pride is going to be the end of me.

The thoughts helped distract her, and she took a torch from the bag she’d strapped on, and lit it. A single, small, irregular passageway led off, and down, with barely enough room for shoulders to clear it. Uh oh. She put the torch up to the entrance, and poked her head in.

Bad idea. She shut her eyes, and concentrated, then slowly opened them again. The passage seemed to end further down, but until then, it was a twisted vein in the rock, with slanted walls, and a low roof. A warm, close smell of rock came over her, and all at once she was back in the cave in, with that same smell, and that same dark closeness.

She gasped, and slammed her back against the passageway, fighting to control the images. It took.. an endless time before she was able to open her eyes, and let out a shaky breath. All right, all right. It’s just a tunnel. There’s an opening on both sides, Xena. You can get out. Slowly, she ducked her head inside the passageway

The fluttering torchlight danced off the embedded crystals in the uneven walls, as she edged down the tunnel, her body turned half sideways to keep from brushing the stone. In any other circumstance, Xena mused, glancing up. I might find this almost pretty. She paused, and reached a hand up, touching a protruding bit of crystallized rock, then sighed and continued on.

It was deathly quiet, only the faint sounds of the mountain breathing, pushing eddies and currents past her, flickering the light of her torch broke it, and the sound of her own movements. Of her own breathing, which sounded loud in her ears.

A few more steps, only, and the tunnel ended, and opened up a little. She sighed in relief, and started forward, then stopped, as she felt a prickle of warning skitter up her spine.

No time to think, she just let battle honed instincts react, and dropped the torch, spinning, and diving out of the way as an object flashed by her and slammed against the far wall, sending a shower of sparks across the floor and over her coiled body.

She stayed where she was, eyes flicking over the floor intently, looking for a trigger. Found none, and now she looked over head, in the very dim light of the almost guttered torch, and saw what almost hit her.

A warhammer, the head easily the length of her arm, on a hilt half the length of her entire body. Damn. She stood up cautiously, and examined the still swinging weapon. And imagined, for a brief, shocking moment, what it would have done to Gabrielle if it had hit her. She closed her eyes, and sat down on the pebbled floor, clasping her hands around her knees and resting her forehead on them for a long moment.

Then she straightened, and blew out a long breath, and stood, dusting herself off, glad that she, too, had chosen to wear leggings with her thick wool tunic against the chill of the cave. She picked up the torch, and gave the warhammer one last look, then continued forward. At least it’s given me something more tangible to worry about. She snorted, feeling the fear in her move back, to a different level, and allow her fighting instincts to surface. Silver lining time, I think.

Now there was danger in the darkness, and she felt her body respond to the threat, as her hearing sharpened, and she sucked in air, testing the currents. Her skin tingled with that other sense she had, which could feel an enemy close – that allowed her to fight with accuracy even when blind. That allowed her to catch arrows in mid flight, and the chakram without looking. It was just.. a knowing.. and she felt it surge up now, and quest ahead of her, probing.. testing….

She grabbed the arrow before it even cleared it’s well hidden niche, and felt a feral smile cross her face. Gotta be better than that, Viking. She sensed a net, and sidestepped it, feeling gently for the release catches, and springing them. Watching in some bemusement as the thick ropes gathered themselves by the ceiling. Not a pretty way to die, she mused. But neither was being crushed or skewered. Our Viking meant business.

Now the passage turned sharp to the left, and Xena stepped warily around the corner, all her instincts at a hair trigger. Nothing. Just a short tunnel, with an opening at the end. Her eyes flicked all over the stone, looking for hidden traps, and finding none, then she paced through the opening.

And she felt space around her, as she hadn’t from the moment she’d dropped into the shaft, and felt a subtle weight lift off her shoulders. She was in a chamber, and the ceiling was high above her head, so high she could hear the faint echoes of her footsteps as she crunched on the floor below her, moving towards the dimly seen walls.

Her nose caught a whiff of oil, and she spotted an age covered torch set in a makeshift bracket at roughly her head level on the wall. Hmm. Her eyebrow quirked. Might as well give it a try… she set her torch against the roughly wrapped one above her, and was slightly startled when it burst into light. She blinked, then walked around the edge of the roughly circular cavern, and lit the other five torches.

Then she planted her own in a crevice, and stood back, putting her hands on her hips, and just looked.

So this was their fortress. She marveled, taking in the faded and crumbling tatters that must have been woven mats on the walls. A firepit’s remains crouched in the center, and to one side was what looked to be a fairly large sleeping platform, with a dusty covering of what might once have been furs.

The crumbled remains of a table stood to one side, and she crouched down, sifting through the pieces and finding carefully wrought stone tools, chipped from the obsidian that lay embedded in the mountain around her. Her fingertips touched the painstakingly flinted knives in wonder, and she lifted one delicately, and tested it’s edge.

Still sharp. She stood up, and circled close to the walls, where irregular crevices had provided storage ledges, where items drenched in dust rested anonymously. Personal things, Xena realized, as she gazed at them. Combs. The faint blurry reflection of a mirror. A hammered piece of copper, with a familiar serpentine design on it. That, she lifted and turned to the light, letting ghostly memories surface.

A rough outcropping roofed over a deeper depression, and she let her hand rest on the overhang as she ducked under it to examine what was.. surely… a harp? So encrusted with age, she had to peer closely at it to even distinguish it’s form, and she leaned closer, to gently blow off the top layer of dust.

And the shelf over her head, pulled by the slight downward motion, collapsed, slamming her to the ground so quickly she hadn’t even had a chance to draw breath in surprise. The loose stones cracked into her skull, bringing on a darkness she was no longer capable of holding back.

Quiet settled once again, broken now only by the fluttering of long patient torches.


Gabrielle watched in silence as her partner’s head disappeared into the dark shaft, then sat down cross legged next to the opening and rested her elbows on her knees. The forest dwellers watched her for a minute, then scattered a little, to explore the small room, and examine the tablets.

Wennid alone settled next to her, and mirrored her posture. "Gabrielle?"

The fair haired human looked up at her with shadowed green eyes. "Hmm?"

"Is.. something wrong?" Delicately asked, and her pale golden eyes made no assumptions. Not with this human, who was far more complex than she had first believed.

Gabrielle studied her for a long moment. "Thanks for asking, Wennid , but it’s not something I’m willing to talk about right now." She held the forest dweller’s gaze, then returned her eyes to the opening.

"Um." Wennid tried again. "I know.. you’re a very private person, Gabrielle… but if it’s something having to do with your gift… maybe I can help?"

The bard took a breath to answer, then felt a cold ball of fear erupt inside her. She closed her eyes, and fought it, concentrating on her partner, and the warmth of their connection. After a minute, it faded, and she opened her eyes with an inaudible sigh. "It’s not." She stated clearly to Wennid. "I can handle it." I should have gone. Damn, why do I let her talk me out things like this? I have to stop that.

Wennid patted her arm, and nodded a little. "All right.. but if you need anything…"

Gabrielle glanced at her, and smiled. "I know.. and, thanks." She breathed a little easier. "I think it’s going to be ok." As she felt the coldness ease, and relax a little. Courage? You think I have courage, Xena? This would be like me deliberately going out and standing on the edge of a precipice. She smiled and leaned back on her hands, watching the rest of the forest dwellers carefully packing up the tablets, preparing to move them.

Wennid unwrapped a package, and handed a piece of flatbread wrapped around some meat to the bard. "You look hungry." She grinned at the human.

Gabrielle laughed, and took the offering. "I usually am." She admitted, cheerfully taking a bite and chewing. She finished the first, and was starting on a second, when she stopped mid motion.

And put the roll down, her eyes fluttering in reaction to the dark pit that had just opened up within her. "Wennid?" She asked, her voice not much more than a whisper.

"Hmm?" The forest dweller answered, turning to look at her. "Gabrielle!" Now the voice sharpened into real alarm at the bard’s expression. She scrambled up, and went to the shocked human’s side, putting a firm hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle…" Now low and urgent.

"Get a rope." The bard said, forcing herself to take deep breaths. "Now." Her voice took on a fierce edge.

"Tobias." Wennid barked. "Tie off that rope. Move." She turned to the bard. "Gabrielle, what’s happening?"

Green eyes finally sharpened, and met hers. "I have to go down there."

"Ok.. Ok.. " Wennid stroked her arm. "You will. But what’s happening?"

Gabrielle just shook her head. "I don’t know." She watched Tobias toss the thick hemp rope over the edge of the shaft, and without a second thought, she grabbed it an swung herself over and down.

Oof. She grunted, as her weight came down onto her arms, and she swung a little. Don’t look down, Gabrielle. It’s dark anyway. She wrapped her legs around the rope, and started to let herself drop, feeling the harsh strain pulling at her. Why does this always look so easy when Xena does it? Her mind mused, more to give her something to think about other than the horrible feeling she had in her gut than anything else.

Because she spends hours pulling herself up into trees and swinging from branches, Gabrielle, and you don’t. Came the logical answer. She slid further down into the darkness, until she judged she was about half way. The strain in her arms had turned to a deep burning, and she stopped to rest a minute.

A bit more, and her grip gave out, and she fell the rest of the way, hitting with a stinging thump against the uneven ground. The shock sang through her knees and sent a jolt of pain all the way to her shoulders, but she gritted her teeth and let the momentum take her down, and just rolled with it.

She bumped into the far wall, and sat for a minute, wincing. Then she stood and peered into the opening, sensing it’s closeness, but seeing, at the very far end, a tiny glimmer of light. No torch. Very smart, Gabrielle. Tentatively, she entered the passageway, letting her fingers touch lightly ahead of her to prevent her from running into something.

Hang in there, love. I know you’re in trouble. Her mind whispered, as she got to the end of the tunnel, and felt her foot kick something. She looked down, and saw the arrow, and grimaced.

Around the blind corner, and then she saw the torchlight, and her steps went faster, as she entered the round cavern, and stopped, then cursed and ran full tilt across the room to the huddled form she’d spotted.

"Puppy!" Xena’s childishly high voice was becoming testy, as she stumbled through the high grass looking for the cur, who had chased off by the village kids as a lark. "Puppy!" The girl's face scrunched in annoyance, and she sat down for a minute on a rock. She had picked up a couple of muddy rocks and chased the kids off, but the puppy had run, and she’d seen a spot of blood left behind, so she decided to try and follow him. Her ears perked at a muffled whine. "Gotcha!" She grinned, and stood up, running towards the sound.

"Oh." Her eyes had grown round, at the sight of the draggled animal, perched on the edge of the abandoned quarry. "No.. C’mere." She got down on her knees, and extended a hand. "C’mon.. c’mon.. I won’t hurtcha."

The animal sniffed suspiciously, then cautiously extended his head nearer to the small hand.

"Thasit." Xena crooned, wiggling her fingers. "C’mere." She crawled towards him, getting her fingers on his scruff, and puling a little. "Gotcha." She grinned, and half turned at footsteps, but not fast enough to stop the hard shove from a sniggering body, which unbalanced her and sent her tumbling over the ledge and into the softly sloped quarry.

She screamed, and clutched the puppy to her, as they both bounced from sandy ledge to sandy ledge, until one final bounce threw her into the top of an abandoned shaft, and caused the soft sandstone to collapse on top of her.

She could hardly breath, there was so much stuff pressing on her, from all sides, and it was dark, and now.. now she didn’t even have the puppy for company, because that last crash had flung him from her, and she couldn’t find him with her hands. She tried to dig a path, but the soft surface just kept falling in on her, and binding her tighter and tighter.. and the darkness got darker, until she could feel it closing in all around her and choking her to death. "Mama.." she gasped… "Mama…"

A hand on her face.. cool water lifting away the dust. Her name being called. But it wasn’t her mother voice.. not this time.. it was higher, and warmer, and it touched a deep chord in her like none other ever had.

Very slowly, she started to become aware of where she was. Not a quarry, not sandstone.. a deep cavern, carved from granite. And she was no longer six years old, but much older.. and the hands that gently stroked her face did not belong to Cyrene.

With a heartfelt groan, she cracked her eyes open, to see Gabrielle’s concerned face. Xena’s head was cradled in the bard’s lap, and the cold wetness was a piece of the bard’s shirt, torn off in haste. "Hey." She managed to get out, blinking a little, and forcing her eyes to focus on Gabrielle's somewhat blurry features.

Gabrielle’s hands cradled her face, and her expression remained serious. "Xena?"

"Uh huh." She groaned, and swallowed. "Gods.. that hurts."

"All right.. hold on. I"ll get you some water." The bard said quietly. "You were.. calling for your mother.. I was a little…worried."

Xena blinked a few times, and remembered. "Oh damn. Sorry." She swallowed again. "Old history." She started to get up, then thought better of it when a wave of nausea hit her, and Gabrielle grabbed her shoulders.

"Stay put." The bard ordered. "You've got quite a bump there."

Gladly. Xena's mind oozed., and she rolled back over and settled her aching head back into the bard’s warm lap. "How’d you get down here?"

"Climbed. How do you think?" Gabrielle answered testily.

Xena looked up, and for an instant, Gabrielle saw a child’s hurt in her eyes. Then they blinked, and the vision was gone, replaced by an arched brow. "Gabrielle, I didn’t pull a rock shelf down on my head on purpose just to get you down here."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and let out a long breath, then opened them. "I know.. " She gently hugged Xena’s shoulders. "You just scared me, that’s all. You didn’t know who you were.. you didn’t know who I was… it was like you weren’t even in there. I got.. " She paused. "Scared.. and.. where were you?"

Xena stayed quiet. Then tilted her head back and regarded her partner. "I was… oh.. I guess six or so." She paused. "Was doing some kid thing.. who even remembers. Ended up on the edge of a rock quarry." She stopped again, and felt Gabrielle’s hand link with hers. "Someone thought it would be funny to give me a shove.. I fell into the quarry.. into a .. I don’t remember.. some kind of hole." She closed her eyes against the memory.

"I’ve got you." Gabrielle’s calm voice floated down to her, and it came with a secure hold around her neck.

"Took them.. overnight .. I guess, to find me. " Xena finished quietly. "Just kept.. calling for my mother.. I never… I don’t.."

"It’s all right." Gabrielle stroked her hair gently. "It’s over… I’ve got you."

"I swore… " Came the vibrant whisper. "I"d never be that helpless again."

And that.. explains.. some things. Gabrielle considered, watching her partner’s eyes slowly lose their horror, and return to an almost normal gleam. "I think you kept that promise, love." She murmured into the nearby ear, and hugged her tighter.

Felt the chuckle move through Xena's body, and let out the breath she’d been holding for what seemed like forever. ‘You’re gonna be fine, Xena. Just relax for right now."

"Course I’m going to be fine. " The warrior mumbled, closing her eyes. "You’re here."

And the silence closed down once more.

Gabrielle gazed down at the still form for a long time, her hands never stopping their slow gentle motions – pushing her hair back, smoothing the rumpled fabric of her tunic, brushing the stone dust off her arm.

She tried to imagine herself as a small child, going through a horrible experience like that. And coming out of it stronger, more determined… it said so much about this person she chose to share her life with. "Wish I would have been there, then, Xena." She whispered softly. "I know I would have clobbered whoever pushed you." Her chest tightened. "And I sure could have used a feisty friend like you when I was little." Her fingers delicately traced the planed cheekbones. "Wish we hadn’t waited so long to find each other… though… " she laughed softly. " I feel like I’ve known you all my life."

Unexpectedly, the blue eyes flickered open, and smiled into hers. "I feel like I’ve know you longer than that, love."

Gabrielle blushed. "Uhm.. I didn’t know you were.. I thought you were sleeping…uh…"

Xena chuckled lightly. "It’s all right." She lifted a hand and curled it around the bard’s thigh. "Sleeping with my brains all scrambled up isn’t a good idea… besides I’ve been enjoying listening to you." She gave the bard an impish grin. "And as much as I’m loving just lying here letting you have your way with me, I think we’d better be getting out of here."

"Yeah, I guess you’re right." The bard replied softly. "I’d better go tell Wennid and those guys everything is ok down here." She gave Xena’s shoulder a light knead. "I was yelling pretty loud. I’m surprised they didn’t find a way down."

Xena gazed at her. "Thought your voice sounded a little hoarse. Why were you yelling?"

The flickering torchlight had revealed to her the sprawled, dark haired form, and she’d dashed across the stone floor, and dove to her knees by Xena’s side. Had touched a body so rigidly tense, it felt like part of the stone itself.

"Xena.." She’d called, pulling on one shoulder to turn the warrior’s body towards her, then saw the intense grimace of pain on her face, and instead just pulled Xena’s body into her arms and held on for all she was worth.

After a bit, the tension had eased, but when those eyes had opened, there was no familiarity in them. Gabrielle was looking at a stranger, who stared back at her with uncomprehending blankness.

"Xena?" She’d said, softly, and seen no response, not even a flicker of understanding. "Hey..come back to me here, ok?"

Nothing. And she’d gotten scared, and her voice had risen. "Don’t you do this to me." She’d pleaded. "Don’t you leave me here alone, Xena. "

She’d gripped the warrior’s face in her hands, and stared hard into her eyes, willing her to respond. Willing that blank nothingness to dissolve into the sparkling intelligence she’d always seen there. "You get back here!" She’d finally yelled, panic overriding caution, and she shook Xena hard, and slapped her cheek with some force.

And that had scared her more than anything, not because she’d done it, but because she could do it, and Xena made no move to stop her. Then she pulled back her hand to strike again, and this time.. this time, her wrist was grasped, and held in a flickering motion, and Xena’s eyes had closed again, her lips moving on her mother’s name.

Several moments of senseless muttering, then silence, and then, at last she’d groaned, and opened her eyes, and they had tracked to Gabrielle’s, and warmed instantly, her lips edging into a familiar half grin as she'd recognized who was holding her..

"I"ll tell you later, OK? You just spooked me a little." Gabrielle sighed, and touched her face again, unwilling to lose contact. "Don’t ever do that again, all right?"

Xena’s brows contracted, and she carefully rolled over onto her elbows, then pushed straight up, and into a sitting position facing the bard. "Bring that torch closer." She said, quietly.

Gabrielle did, watching her face closely, seeing the seriousness there. "All right."

A nod from the warrior. "Look at my eyes." A pause, then she smiled gently. "Look at them, not into them, Gabrielle."

"Oh." The bard smiled back. "Sorry. They’re… kind of … uh. Sorry."

"All right – I’m going to close them. When I open them again, see if the dark parts get smaller at the same time." Xena gave her a nod. "Understand?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah..I.. Go ahead."

Xena closed her eyes, and counted to thirty, then opened them again, and looked directly at the torch for another count of thirty, then transferred her gaze to Gabrielle’s face, blinking a little. "Well?"

The bard sighed. "The left one didn’t change." She bit her lip, and watched Xena as she lifted hand and gently touched the back of her head. "Concussion?"

A nod. "Yeah.. looks like it." The warrior winced. "Explains why I feel so lousy." She propped her elbows on her knees and rested her chin on her hands. "Let’s see if I lost any pieces." She thought a minute. "What year is it?"

The bard told her.

"That’s right. I know who I am, and I know who you are. My hometown’s Amphipolis, yours is Potadeia. " She blinked. "We’re outside Jessan’s village, right?"

Gabrielle felt the tension in her start to relax a little. "Yeah."

Xena nodded. "We’re headed home next, right?"

Big smile from the bard. "Oh yeah." She moved closer, and put a hand on Xena’s knee. "Drink up."

The warrior picked up the cup, and slowly drained it, then examined the container thoughtfully. "Still feels… " She hesitated. "fuzzy, I guess." Her mouth quirked. "But I think I’ve got the important stuff intact." She released the cup and curled her fingers around the bard’s hand. "Why don’t you see if you can find those scrolls while I collect my scattered wits, and then we’ll get out of here, huh?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Good idea. I"ll be right back." She stood, and walked quickly towards the entrance, lifting a torch to take along with her.

"Careful of that warhammer." Xena called. "Don’t hit your head on it."

"What hammer?" Gabrielle inquired, then ducked her head outside the chamber and jerked to a halt. "Oh.. that one." She chuckled faintly. "Guess I saw you and lost track of everything else." She shook her head, and kept going towards the shaft.

Xena pushed herself back until she was leaning against the wall, and let out a long breath. Gods. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. Haven’t thought about that.. little episode in a while. Must have been the accident, and all that triggered it… poor Mother.

After the first panic had faded a little, she’d finally stopped screaming, and dug around in the dirt until her fingers had touched draggled fur. The puppy had sensed her touch, and started digging his way towards her, until she was able to get a grab on his front legs. She’d pulled and pulled, and finally retrieved the crying puppy from his prison, and that… had, she now thought, probably saved her sanity. She’d had the animal to focus her fear and anxieties on.

Poor Digger. Xena mused idly. She’d refused to let go of him, even after they’d dug her out, finally, and carried her home, with bruises and a broken arm. Cyrene had been forced to add yet another mouth to feed, until one day he just got into the wrong place, and a horse kicked him.

I cried for days. The warrior remembered. It hurt so bad.. I think I decided right then at, what.. age 10? Not to let things get so close to me. She chuckled at herself, as Gabrielle returned, and their eyes met. But that.. brings it’s own heartache, doesn’t it? I’m glad I broke that rule.

"Ok." Gabrielle smiled. "They’ve stopped panicking now." She gave Xena a sheepish grin. "How are you feeling?" She crossed over, and knelt at her partner’s side, setting gentle fingers to the bump on the side of the warrior’s head.

Xena captured her hand, and held it, her face serious. "What I’m feeling is that I’m a very lucky person." The bard froze. "I'm glad you’ve become a part of my life, and I don’t think I say that nearly enough."

Actually.. Gabrielle thought faintly You’ve never said it at all. That must have been some bump on the head. "Funny… I always think about how I’m the lucky one… " She brushed her lips against their linked hands. "That you just decided to let me in that fortress in there." She smiled. "Come on. I gotta get you out of here."

Xena laughed softly, and looked around. "I don’t know… it’s kind of peaceful." She regarded the chamber thoughtfully. "I bet they thought so." Suddenly she felt Gabrielle’s hands on her face, and turned her startled eyes to the bard. "What?"

"You don’t mind being here." Came the quietly tense answer.

Blue eyes flicked over the room, then back at her. "Must have overloaded something.. but.. not right now. No."

Gabriele sighed in vexation. "What is it with you? Can’t you just heal like normal people? "

"Huh?" Xena’s brows contracted sharply. "Gabrielle, what are you talking about?"

"I’ve seen you. A dislocated shoulder, you slam yourself into a wall. You hurt your back, you go flying into a tree and poof. Now this. What IS it with you?" Her voice rose. "I don’t’ want to be having to thump you over the head to fix things, Xena. It’s…. barbaric."

That got a laugh from the warrior. "I don’t do it on purpose."

"Yes, you do. Just to piss me off." Gabrielle responded, giddy with relief.

"No no.. THIS I do on purpose." Xena wrapped a hand around the bard’s neck, and pulled her closer, kissing her soundly, and smiling inwardly as she felt Gabrielle’s body melt into hers.

The bard’s eyes blinked dazedly at her when they parted to breathe. "That doesn’t piss me off."

"I should hope not. " Xena teased, running a fingertip over Gabrielle’s lips, and grinning when the bard caught it in her teeth. "Shall we find those scrolls, my bard?"

Chuckling, they stood, Gabrielle holding her partner’s arm in a firm grasp until she was sure the warrior was steady on her feet. Then they started investigating.

"Found them." The bard announced, looking up from examining a wooden chest half hidden beside the sleeping platform. She had lifted the lid and the familiar scent of ink had risen to her senses. "Gods.. there’s dozens… " She lifted one and partially unrolled it. "Looks like these are the healing texts."

Xena knelt beside her, and glanced at the scroll. "Yep. I recognize that… "

The bard looked at her. "You’ve seen these?" Surprises, surprises… my ever mysterious partner here.

The warrior shook her head. "No.. I’ve seen the texts these are based on. " Her eyes traveled gently over Gabriele’s face. "At Nicklios."

Ah. Gabrielle mused, remembering the walls of bound parchment, which she’d had found no interest in whatsoever. "I knew.. there were… writings there." She tapped a finger on the rerolled scroll in her other hand. "But I didn’t… " That long, horrible night tumbled back into her memory. "If they’d been the mysteries of Mount Olympus, I wouldn’t have cared." Realizing Xena was gone.. that stark, empty feeling flooding through her.. the aching loneliness that made her wish she herself was dead. "Not that night." Her voice dropped to a broken whisper.

Long arms wrapped around her, and she didn’t resist, needing the tactile warmth of her lifemate’s touch, which gently nudged the horror back into it’d dark den. She buried her face into Xena's shoulder, craving the reassuring feel of their connection and letting it comfort her.

Finally, she raised her head and sighed. "I’m all right. It’s just that.. the more I realize what I almost lost that day, the worse that memory gets." She put the scroll back in the box, and pulled out another, tangling her arms and Xena’s but managing to get it partially opened. "Hey.. this is different." She squinted. "I can’t… " Her eyes slid up to Xena’s, where the warrior was resting her chin on the bard’s shoulder, also looking. "Can you?"

Xena let her gaze fall on the parchment, brittle with age, the ink so faded it took even her sharp eyes time to decipher the inscription.

Dyma y hanes can Elevown ac Ardwyn pwy creadded hwn tir eang a llifio ymwnc a rhyfeddod….

She laughed gently. "Seems our friend Ardwyn was a bit like you, my bard." She leaned her head against Gabrielle’s. "These are the tales of Elevown and Ardwyn, who traveled this land wide, and saw many wonders." Been a long time since I’ve seen those letters. Incredible I can still read it. You were a good teacher, M’lila.

Gabrielle studied the script, then Xena, taking the gentle, introspective look on her angular face. "There’s dozens of these scrolls, Xena."

The warrior nodded. "So there is." Her eyes twinkled. "That’s a lot of stories to tell."

"I want to know them." The bard breathed, running her fingers over the letters in fascination. She turned brilliant eyes to Xena. "Will you read them to me?"

Got an impish grin in return. "Well.. I don’t know.. what are they worth to you??? " A bantering tone entered her voice.

Gabrielle tilted her head, and softened her gaze, looking at Xena with a wistful expression.

Xena felt her heart melt at the look, and stirred her rusty memories of a time long past. "Amcan innau rhaid at cofio fy Cymraeg" She dredged the words out of somewhere, and smiled at the charmed look on Gabrielle’s face. Probably got the structure all backwards. M’lila was always getting frustrated with me on that.

"It sounds so.. different." She smiled in wonder. "Like music."

The past washed gently over her, as Xena let herself remember the gentle splash of ocean waves. Felt the stinging spray in her face, as she listened to M’lila sing to her homeland. Of a love so fierce it set the young Celt’s eyes on fire. Someday.. M’'lila had told her, once, when she’d asked. "Someday, you’ll know this feeling, Xena. And you’ll never be the same." Ah..M'lila… how right you were…

"fi cariad ti, Gabrielle." She let the phrase come from a place deep inside.

Warm lips met hers for an timeless moment. Then Gabrielle tipped her head back and gazed into her eyes. "I love you too."

"Didn’t know you spoke the language." Xena teased.

The bard smiled. "Your mouth never says those things, Xena..your eyes do." Gotcha… her mind chuckled, seeing the deep blush. Score one for the bard. She let her head rest against Xena’s shoulder for a long minute, absorbing the unusual scent of thick wool, embedded with the tickling smell of the fragrant herbs they kept packed in their saddlebags. "Guess we have to get going, huh?"

Xena forced her eyes open, and glanced around. The cavern had a settled, peaceful atmosphere, and she let her mind drift for a while, imagining what it must have been like living here. She redrew the room in her mind, putting a fresh and snapping fire in the pit, warm, lush furs on the sleeping platform pressed against her back, restored colors to the woven wall mats, and could, for the barest of instants, almost hear the high, ethereal tones of the harp.

It was a private place, she realized. And.. I think I want that.. for us. . "Yeah, we’d better." She said, but neither of them moved. She gave Gabrielle a rueful glance. "Kinda nice, here, huh?"

This time it was the bard who had to force her eyes open. "Very." She chuckled, then put a hand on Xena’s knee, and pushed up, getting to her feet and starting to put the scrolls in a carrybag that Xena had brought down strapped to her back. "Give me a hand with these, will you?"

The warrior scooted forward and complied, handling the scrolls carefully. When they’d finished, she let Gabrielle move out of the alcove, then stood up, stretching luxuriously, and shaking herself a little. Fuzzy feeling is pretty much gone.. that’s a good sign. She analyzed. She looked down at a warm pressure on her chest.

"Close your eyes." The bard commanded, moving the torch in her hand away.

Xena obediently complied, counting, then opening them and focusing on the light.

"That’s better." Gabrielle approved, giving her a pat on the stomach. "How do you feel?"

The warrior nodded. "Headache, but not too bad." She picked up the bag of scrolls, and slung it over her back, tightening the chest straps to hold it close. "Ready?"

Xena went around the perimeter of the cavern and doused the torches carefully, then joined Gabrielle at the entrance, where the bard was holding the remaining torch. They both turned to look behind them, then moved forward into the short passageway before the tunnel.

"Gods." Gabrielle sighed, examining the warhammer as they passed around it. "Did that…"

"Uh huh." Xena nodded. "Good thing I have decent reflexes."

The bard snorted. "Decent." She sighed melodramatically. "Ah.. the Warrior Princess of Understatement strikes yet again." A niche in the rocks caught her attention, and she detoured over, to examine it. "Wonder what this was for? Hey.. Xena, look at.."

"Gabrielle, don’t touch th…"

A loud, screeching thunder nearly deafened them, and Xena reacted in pure instinct, grabbing Gabrielle around the waist and hurling herself backwards.

With a roaring crash, a heavy lattice dropped down from a counterweighted balance, and sealed off the passageway. Dust flew as the portal dropped into place, the cracking of rock under its base a testament to it’s weight and measure.

Xena looked up from where she was protecting Gabrielle’s body with her own and sighed. She put her lips down close to the bard’s ear. "You attract trouble like clover attracts bees, you know that?"

Gabrielle peeked out from under the warrior’s arm, and grimaced. "Guess that explains you, huh?" She joked faintly.

Surprisingly, this got a healthy laugh from Xena. "Never thought of it that way, but I guess it does." She stood up, puling the bard with her, and dusted both of them off. I should be falling to pieces, trapped in here. But I’m not. Wonder if it’s just a temporary thing from the head injury or what? "Ok.. Wonderbard. You got us into this, you get us out of it."

Gabrielle put her hands on her hips, and gave Xena a look. "Don’t start with me." She warned. "I didn’t do that on purpose." She paused. "Stop smirking." Another pause. "Or else."

Xena amiably wiped the grin off her face, then leaned back against the wall, and crossed her legs at the ankles.

The bard shook her head, and walked back over to the alcove. "If they had a way of triggering this, they must have had a way to release it." She reasoned, and was heartened by Xena’s grunt of agreement. She studied the rock she’d moved, then ran her eyes up the counterweighted rope. "Oh… OK… " She grinned. "I see… if that’s holding up that, then all you need to do is this.." She moved a second stone. "And it should reverse."

A loud creaking rewarded her efforts, and she gave Xena a smirking look.

But the counterweights were old, and made of furs that had last seen the light of day several hundred years before. With a compressive sound, the weight burst, and dumped it’s load of sand right on top of them.

"Whoops." Gabrielle sighed, shaking the sand out of her hair disgustedly. Then she gave the rock a slap, and started searching around the edges of the lattice, her movements sharp and angry.

Xena watched her a minute, then walked over and put her hands on the bard’s shoulders. "Hey."

"What?" Gabrielle growled, continuing her search. "I’m looking for another answer. Go siddown or something."

The warrior got in front of her, and forced her to stop, her face now very serious. "I was just joking, Gabrielle."

The bard stared at her. "I don’t like being reminded of just how much more capable you are than I am." She stated flatly.

One curved eyebrow. "I triggered two of those things myself coming through here, my friend. And I then proceeded to pull a rock shelf down on my own head and you had to come here and rescue me. Let’s not discuss capable right now, OK?" She put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "And besides, you came up with an excellent solution to the problem. It’s not your fault the damn thing is hundreds of years old."

Gabrielle blew out a breath. "I suppose you have a miraculous answer now." She was still mad.

Xena sighed. "You know.. I consider you a very capable, very intelligent person, Gabrielle. I’d put my life in your hands, and have, without a second’s thought."

The bard tried to stay mad, but… "I know." She admitted. "I just… Xena, I don’t care what anyone thinks of me. You know that, right?"

"I know." The warrior replied quietly.

"I do care what you think." Gabrielle moved closer. "Look..I know there are a lot o things you’re always going to do better than me. I can accept that. You’re like this wonderful, magical sprite that can make anything happen."

"Gabrielle.." Xena objected. "That’s not true."

The bard grabbed her tunic, and shook her. "It IS true, Xena. Stop denying it. Stop making it sound like anyone can do what you can. They can’t. There is something special about you and you damn well know that."

Silence from her partner.

"And I get… a little insecure sometimes. Because I’m not special. And gods know, I can’t compete with you, but I can’t stand the thought of you looking down on me either." Gabrielle finished quietly.

Xena looked at her in shocked silence. "The only reason I have for looking down at you, Gabrielle, is the fact I happen to be half a foot taller." She said quietly, then knelt at the bard’s feet. "You’re what I live for." She hesitated. "Surely you knew that." Her eyes dropped. "I’m just a.. beat up ex warlord, Gabrielle. If I do.. " She gave her head a little shake. "Extraordinary things.. it’s only because I have an extraordinary inspiration." She looked up into the green eyes above her. "How can you think.. for a.. a. minute.. that you’re not special?"

‘Easy." The bard whispered, kneeling beside her, and putting a hand on her knee. "Because you’re the only person in my whole life that’s ever told me otherwise." She smiled. "And.. if I .. believe that… then you have to believe that you’re a whole lot more than a beat up ex warlord." She paused. "Deal?"

Xena’s lips curved into a wry grin. "Deal." She agreed.

Gabrielle sighed. "Now… my beat up ex warlord best friend… do you have a miraculous plan to get us out of here? Because .. frankly.. I’m really tired of the smell of dusty rocks."

Xena pursed her lips thoughtfully, then got to her feet, and took the torch they’d tucked into a crevice. "Stay here a minute." She padded off towards the living chamber, leaving Gabrielle in the darkness.

You’re what I live for… The words trailed warmly through her. Gods.. that’s wonderful to have someone say to you. Anyone.. and to have it be someone like her… she just doesn’t see it.. at all. I guess we have to live up to each other’s expectations…. That’s kind of funny. She looked up as Xena reappeared out of the darkness, holding the torch on one hand, and something long and reflective in the other. "Hey.."

"Hold this." Xena requested, handing her the torch.

"You have an idea?" Gabrielle asked, taking the lit brand and glancing at her.

"Stand over here." The warrior took her by the shoulders, and set her against the far wall.

"What are you going to do?" The bard wondered, her brow creasing. "Come on, Xena.. give."

Her partner stepped back, and hefted what she was carrying, which Gabrielle could now see was a longsword. "Well.. our Viking was damned clever, Gabrielle." Xena’s eyes turned upward, and her grin went feral. "But I don’t think she had me in mind."

She bounced once on the balls of her feet, then leaned forward, and took three long strides, pushing off on the last one and catapulting up into the air, slashing backwards with a powerful stroke and slicing through the thick woven hemp holding the warhammer with a screal of metal on fiber. She let her momentum take her around in midair and flipped lazily, letting the warhammer crash to the ground and landing close to it’s thick head.

"Wow." Gabrielle laughed, brushing granite shards from her shirt.

Xena tossed the sword down, and walked over to the hammer, wiping her hands on her tunic before wrapping them around the shaft of the weapon. With a smooth motion, she lifted and shouldered it, then crossed to the lattice, and studied it intently.

Took two steps back, then ran forward, and jumped, and swung the hammer against the lattice with all the power of her body. A splintering crack skittered around the chamber, sending echoes that sent shivers up Gabrielle’s arms. She watched as Xena repeated her run twice, and then three times, until on the third time, half the lattice exploded inward, and sent shards flying everywhere.

Xena settled the hammer back on her shoulder, and stood back to view her work. "That’ll do." She grinned, and turned towards Gabrielle, holding out a hand. "Shall we?"

Gabrielle sauntered up, and studied the hole critically. Then she slid an arm around Xena’s waist, and gave her a pat. "Nice job."

"Think so?" The warrior smirked. "Not bad for a beat up ex warlord?"

"Nope." The bard agreed, giving her a squeeze. "I think I’ll keep you."

"Good to hear." Xena chuckled, as she stepped through the hole, and took the torch from the bard. "Come on."

They moved through the passageway, and stopped at the mouth of the tunnel. "You OK?" Gabrielle asked, searching her face intently.

"Fine." Xena answered absently, examining the rock. "Why?" She looked down when Gabrielle didn’t answer, and saw the bard giving her a look. She shrugged and moved forward into the tunnel, luxuriating in the freedom from fear. Probably temporary, she regretted. I’ve had this for a long time, and been able to control it – still, it’s nice to not have to worry about it for a little while. They got to the shaft, and saw Wennid’s anxious face above. "It’s ok.. we’ve got the scrolls." Xena yelled, waving a hand. She turned to Gabrielle. "Up the rope, my Queen."

The bard hesitated. "Xena.. I don’t’ think I can do it."

"Sure you can." Xena reassured her, tightening the straps on the bag she carried.

"No.. I don’t.. I couldn’t make it all the way down. I had to let go." The green eyes met hers in mild regret. "I guess we can get them to just pull me up, huh?"

Xena studied her. "Gabrielle, you have the strength to do this. I know you do. I was in there, remember?" She curled the bard’s hands around the rope. "Go on. I’ll be right behind you."

Grimly, Gabrielle started to climb, aware of her partner’s reassuring presence as the warrior pulled herself up by the rock handholds. Halfway up, she stopped, breathing hard. "I don’t…"

Xena wrapped an arm around her, and took her weight, bracing her feet against the rocks. "Take a minute." She breathed into the bard’s ear. "You can do this."

"All right." Gabrielle nodded, and started climbing again, and before she knew it, furred hands had grabbed her upper arms, and she was being pulled out a of the shaft and into pandemonium. "All right..I’m fine.. Xena’s fine.. stop yelling..!"

Xena watched the bard disappear with some amusement, and steadied herself for the last leg of her journey. She could, she knew, just grab the rope and climb. But that would be too easy, and if there was a hard way to do something, she’d find it.

Right now, she was balanced on the last of the handholds, and there was nothing but clean rock above her, with the lip of the entrance several feet above her head. She chuckled, and felt her wilder grin coming on. No.. no.. my Viking friend.. you definitely didn’t have me in mind, did you.

She took a breath, and deepened her crouch, then sprang up, reaching with both hands and smiling as she gripped the edge of the opening. Now this, was the hard part. But she didn’t spend plenty of time hanging around in trees for nothing. She tightened her grip, then pulled herself up to level, and then pressed her body up and out of the shaft, to a seat next to where Gabrielle was sprawled. Now that.. she smirked to herself. Wasn’t bad for a beat up ex warlord.

Gabrielle rested her head on Xena’s thigh, and gazed up at her in appeal. "Make them shut up." She muttered.

"Anything for you, my bard." Xena touched her nose, then looked up, and let her expression darken, lancing her gaze from person to person until silence fell over the room. "That’s better." She growled.


They divided the scrolls, Wennid gleefully taking possession of the healer's texts, since Elaini was down in the village getting ready for the ceremony. "You will come back and tell us the stories once you translate them, right Gabrielle?" The forest dweller smiled at her.

Gabrielle gave her a direct look. "Sure.. but you could just ask Xena to read them to you.." She enjoyed the startled look on Wennid's face. "One of her many skills." Her eyes slid towards her partner, who was leaning causally against the wall, looking bored. Affecting not to have heard Gabreille, but the bard spotted that little quirk at the corner of her mouth that she couldn't quite control and smiled quietly to herself. I won't make that mistake again, my friend.

The small party set out down the steep path, speckled in sunlight travelling through the whispering branches. The cold wind brought them the smell of the firepit, far below, and the rich smell of the rain soaked forest ground that sent a spicy, mouldering aroma into the air. Above them, the leaves were dimming to the colors of sunset, and the undergrowth was thinning, tucking it's richness away for the coming winter.

Xena strolled along easily, keeping a protective arm tucked around the bard's shoulders, and easing her steep decent with unconcious courtesy. "Nice day." She idly commented, turning to gaze at Gabrielle, who was taking full advantage of her support, and had tucked her head into Xena's shoulder and wound an arm about her.

"Huh?" Gabrielle rolled her head slightly to glance up at her partner. "Oh.. yeah… beautiful." She agreed, focusing impishly on the amused face above her. "Leaves are pretty."

Xena reached up without looking and plucked three or four of them, handing them to the bard with a flourish. "We usually don’t' get colors like this at home.. but we're further north here."

Gabrielle studied the leaves as she walked, trusting Xena to guide her steps. "Oh.. look… " she laughed gently, putting out one tentative fingertip and letting the ladybug she'd spotted crawl up on it. "Xena.. it's so pretty."

The warrior gazed down at the bug, and smiled. "That it is." Then blinked, as the bug took off from the bard's finger, and landed on Xena's nose, and somehow, managed to stop her gut deep, instinctive reflex to catch it. She grinned and closed one eye, watching the insect with the other, as it investigated for a minute, then flew off and landed on the bard's shoulder.

"I wonder.." Gabrielle regarded it. "If that little lady knows just how close she came to being an ex bug." She laughed, and gave her partner a pat on the stomach. "That was quite a stop."

"Mmm." Xena agreed. "Maybe someday I won't even have to think about it anymore." She paused, and stared off into the distance. "Think about hurting things."

Gabrielle just hugged her in answer, and smiled.

They got back down to the village with a short time to spare before they had to leave for the ceremony, and found they'd been left clothing and some brief instructions.

"You know you don’t have to.." Gabrielle started, as she tied the belt on the white garment she’d been given.

Xena covered her mouth with one hand. "I’ve got a temporary reprieve here, Gabrielle. I"d like to actually enjoy this thing, instead of just endure it, ok?" She released the bard and adjusted her belt, giving her a little raised eyebrow look and a gentle pat.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I know..I know.. " She slapped at Xena’s hands. "Cut that out." She studied her partner critically. "I like you in white." She commented, giving the fabric a twitch. Glanced up. "It suits you." And it did, contrasting nicely with Xena’s tanned skin and dark hair.

"Not really my color." The warrior snorted. "Let’s get going."

They walked up to the ceremonial cavern surrounded by laughing forest dwellers, who were showering both them, and Jessan and Elaini with various bits of forest debris, such as pinecones.

"Much more of this.." Xena growled low into Gabrielle’s ear. "And I’m gonna start an impromptu sparring session."

The bard giggled and slapped her. "Would you relax and enjoy this please?" She exchanged winks with Jessan, who was gallantly fending off pinging pinecones from Elaini’s head. Gabrielle herself walked on in perfect serenity, ignoring the occasional flicker of movement as Xena intercepted various bits of this and that with absent minded precision.

The entered the chamber accompanied by only part of the crowd, and, looking around, Gabrielle realized it must be the other lifebonds. The outer chamber was fairly large, and even had benches cut into the wall for those who stood and waited. A tall tunnel lead further back, and it was to this that Lestan headed for.

At the portal, he stopped, and looked at the four of them with a gentle smile, then let his eyes slide to his right, where Wennid was standing, with two other forest dwellers in attendance. Jessan’s mother, solemn and silent, crossed first to Elaini, and then to her son, fastening brilliantly delicate silver chains around their necks, with some kind of pendant. Must be a gift from his parents. Xena mused. Very nice.

Then Wennid was standing in front of her, and lifting her clawed hands towards Xena’s neck, with a little smile on her face. As though realizing what she was doing, she paused, and raised one furry eyebrow at the warrior for permission. Too startled to do anything, Xena gave a little nod, and the forest dweller continue her movement, fastening the necklace firmly about her neck, then stepping back, and moving to where Gabrielle was waiting, with an impish grin. .

"Normally, we don’t speak at this point." Lestan said softly. "But you do not know our customs, so I’m going to explain them." He stepped forward, and gazed at Xena. "There is symbolism in both the chains, and the pendants, my friend. The chains.. that should be obvious." He grinned, and the rest of the forest dwellers chuckled around them. "The pendants… are crafted by one of us who is specially trained to do so – they are cast from the living stone of this mountain, with it’s embedded treasures, and then split exactly in half, so that each pendant is but part of a whole, and that whole fits together perfectly."

He laid one finger on Xena’s necklace, and she glanced down at it, seeing the brilliant sparkles of fire and ice captured in the small circle of crystal, fitted in a dully gleaming hammered setting. "Each one is unique." He smiled at Xena, and now, for the first time, she spotted his own necklace, hidden in the fur which covered his wide neck.

"There are two forks in the tunnel." His eyes turned that way. " They lead to two chambers… and in those chambers you will find.. what you will find. " His smile went gentle. "We have no rules for this… each time it’s different." He stepped back out of the way. "Take what time you need. Feel the spirit of that place, and let it live through you."

Then there was silence, and Xena caught Jessan’s eye, and gave him a jerk of her chin. He nodded, and headed first into the tunnel, his hand intertwined with Elaini’s.

Blue eyes met green, and then Xena found herself walking after them, her body numb except for the warmth of Gabrielle’s palm in hers. She felt.. very strange.. and wondered if it was the surroundings, or the thought of what she was doing, or even the residual effects of her concussion. They reached the fork, and Elaini and Jessan went up the right hand one, leaving them the left-hand passage. It was dark, but the floor was regular, and they had no problem negotiating.

A blind end, then they turned a corner, and entered the chamber.

And just stood, in awe.

Xena could hardly breathe, it was so beautiful. Crystal indeed, the cavern walls were studded with them, in all the colors she could imagine, embedded in a cloudy pale surface that she supposed was salt. Above, an opening let in the sun, and as the clouds over head cleared, the brilliant light poured in the opening, and lit them both in a sea of reflected color.

"Gods." Xena breathed, feeling the light hit her in almost a physical sensation of weightiness. She turned to see Gabrielle’s reaction, and stopped, transfixed by the sight of the bard, standing with eyes closed, breathing in the sunlight with the gentlest, most beautiful smile. The rays burnished her skin to golden hue, and brought out every highlight in her fair hair.

Gabrielle let her eyes drift back open, and sighed in pleasure, turning her head slightly and seeing Xena watching her. She let her gaze travel over the chamber, then came back and looked intently at her partner’s face. A roomful of crystals, and not one of them can match her eyes. The thought rolled lazily through her head. "It’s beautiful."

Xena nodded quietly. "Yes, you are." And smiled as the pink blush darkened her fair skin. They both looked down. Then Xena glanced over towards the other side of the chamber, where a small pool was tinkling, reflecting the sun even more brightly than the walls did. By silent accord, they walked over to it, and Xena knelt down, and touched her fingers to the sparkling surface, then brought them to her lips. "Sweet." She commented, surprised.

Gabrielle kneeled down, and was about to taste some, when Xena put a hand on her arm. "Thirsty?" The bard nodded.

The warrior cupped her hands, and scooped up a glittering handful, then held it up to Gabrielle’s mouth, smiling at the feel of the bard’s lips against her fingers.

"Thanks." Gabrielle grinned when she finished. "You next." She dipped her cupped hands into the water, and raised them up.

That finished, they both stood, and moved to the center of the cavern, and Xena found, somehow that their hands were linked tightly, and they were standing, gazing into each other’s eyes with a soul felt intensity.

"I had.. " Gabrielle smiled shyly. "This little speech prepared.. but.. um… " She bit her lip. "I can’t remember any of it."

Xena took a deep breath, and just let the past slip away, and concentrated on the present. "I.. never got that far.. I’ve been trying to figure out what to say.. and… " She let the words trail off, giving the bard a little, helpless smile. "Uh… "

Gabrielle laughed softly. "You’re really cute when you’re flustered, did you know that?"

"You’re not helping." But that came with a smile. "I’m not.. really good at this sort of thing."

The bard sighed. "I should be, right?" She looked down briefly, then back up. "You know.. when I started this all off.. I had no idea where I’d end up."

"Not what you expected, huh?" Xena asked, softly.

Gabrielle considered this for a minute. "Surpassed my wildest expectations, really." She smiled. "Look..I know.. we’ve had our ups and downs. And I know.. we hurt each other sometimes." Her voice dropped. "But.. I’d rather.. go through that pain.. then live with the knowledge that I.. don’t mean anything to anyone." She paused. "Because it wouldn’t hurt if I didn’t care. And I"d rather care."

Xena rubbed the bard’s hands in her own. "Was a time I would have disagreed with you." She admitted. "I blocked people out for so long, I didn’t think I was capable of caring for anyone anymore." She gave the bard a wistful grin. "Then I found out just how wrong I was." Her eyes twinkled solemnly. "Now.. I think you’re stuck with me."

Gabrielle nodded, and took a breath. "That’s a really good thing." She looked up. "I very much want to be stuck with you." A pause. "Because I want us to spend the rest of our lives together."

Xena’s face went still, and she gave a little nod. "I want that too." She rested her arms on the bard’s shoulders. "You’re a part of me, Gabrielle. The best part. And I’ll do the best I can to take care of you."

That got a smile. "And I"ll do my best to take care of you" She touched Xena’s cheek. "Because there are parts of you that need that."

‘Yes, there are.." Xena answered honestly. "It's a tough job you’re taking on." Her eyes met the bards in a direct and open look. "Most people wouldn't touch it."

"Labor of love." Came the confident answer. "And I'm not most people." She closed her eyes, then opened them and looked Xena right in the eye. "Sure you want some half wit bard wanna be hanging around you all the time?"

Xena answered that with a kiss, lazily aware of the deep warmth from the sunlight pouring down on them. She took a breath, and watched the light elicit deep emerald highlights in Gabrielle’s eyes. "I couldn’t live without you."

Meaning that in every sense of the words, and Gabrielle knew it. Felt it glide all the way down into her heart and settle there, snuggling up with a warm contented glow. She let her body follow suit. "I love you. I always have. I always will."

"Forever." Came the quiet response, rich with conviction. "Beyond knowledge, beyond understanding, beyond death." Xena had just… decided. To Hades with the past, with what she'd been, who she was… the only thing that counted, that mattered, was that they loved each other. And she wasn’t ever going to let that go. She let out a deep breath, and felt her spirit soar into places beyond her understanding.

And that, Gabrielle realized, was a promise she'd never hoped to hear. Tears slid down her face, neatly absorbed by the clean white fabric her face was nestled against. Thank you.. she whispdered to whoever was listening.

They floated in each other's arms for a legnth of time, then Xena peacefully let her eyes drift open and regarded her partner. "You ready to head home?"

"Mm hmm." The bard replied, in a very muffled tone, barely opening her own eyes.

Xena chuckled gently.. "Did you want to stay for the party, or… "

Gabrielle nestled closer and let her eyes shut again. "You want an honest answer?"

Got a chuckle back. "Thought so." She replied. "I told Lestan we’d probably be leaving right after."

"Was he mad?" The bard inquired, finding a gap in the front of Xena’s shirt and nibbling her bare skin.

"Nope. He said he understood completely." The warrior answered, concentrating on the tickling sensation on her chest. "I like that."

"Really?" Gabrielle nibbled lower, pulling the soft cloth aside with her teeth.

"Uh huh." Xena stroked the side of her face, and wrapped a lock of the bard’s fair hair around her long fingers. "Shall we go say goodbye?"

She felt Gabrielle sigh, the breath warm on her skin. "I know.. they’re really good friends, Xena.. and I like visiting them.. but it’s been a long week. I think my nerves are shot, a little." Especially after this morning. Gods.. "I just want to find some nice secluded spot and watch the sun go down with you. Is that OK?"

"More than OK, my bard." Xena chuckled. "Let’s go."

"Wait." Gabrielle lifted a hand, and picked up the necklace lying in the hollow of her partner’s throat, then lifted hers, and slid them both together. She smiled. "Perfect fit." And looked up, to meet quiet blue eyes. "Like us?"

Are we? My silence and your voice, your sunlight and my shadows, your strengths are my weaknesses, and my strengths keep you whole… damn, Gabrielle, maybe we are. Maybe I found the part of me I've been missing all my life.

"Just like us." The warrior answered, laying her fingertips over Gabrielle’s on the joined pendants, and looked up, startled, as an errant ray of sunshine flickered through the opening above and caught them, making the crystal flare with brilliance in their hands.

After a moment, it faded, but Xena could swear she felt a residual warmth in the stone. They looked at each other in silence, then both let out held breaths simultaneously.

"Wow." Gabrielle released a surprised laugh.

"Yeah.’ Xena agreed, for once dispensing with her cynical attitude, and letting blue eyes widen in wonder.

They turned and walked down the dark tunnel, emerging into a party. Lestan bounced up from his bench, and enveloped them in exuberant hugs, which Gabrielle enjoyed and Xena endured. "Thanks.. Lestan." The warrior smiled, and gave him a clout on the good shoulder.

"You two taking off?" The forest dweller crinkled his snout in a devilish grin, winking when Xena gave a nod in the affirmative.

Xena turned as a familiar hand touched her shoulder, and found herself swallowed up by Jessan’s huge arms. He lifted her up, and gave her a good squeeze, and set her down, not seeing the wicked twinkle in her eyes. "I love doing that." He whispered in her ear.

"Really?" Xena asked, sliding her arms around him to return the hug.

"Yeah." Jessan smirked. "Cause I can get away with it."

"What a coincidence." The warrior remarked. "I love it too." And she let her arms close in a powerful grip, and straightened her body, lifting him off his feet and into the air.

"Awk!" He gurgled, eyes bugging out of his head. "Xena!!" As the giggles rose around him, and she bounced him a few times, then let him down. He rested his arms on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. "I guess I deserved that."

She gazed at him fondly, and patted his side. "Thanks for being a good friend, Jess."

He lowered his head until he was close to her ear. "Good to see you whole, my friend."

"Thanks." She replied, with a smile. "Good to be that way." She glanced at Elaini, who was hugging Gabrielle. "Congratulations, by the way."

Jessan followed her glance and blushed, then grinned. "If I have a daughter, you know what I’m going to name her, right?"

"Aw.. Jessan.. " Xena sighed. "Is that fair to the kid?"

The forest dweller studied her face intently. "To be named after the most noble and courageous person I’ve ever known? Yes. I think that’s fair." He smiled. "Oh.. look. I made you blush." Gotcha! His mind laughed.. Oh.. I do like you, Xena. Wish you were sticking around. "You know.. you both always have a home with us, right? That adoption thing wasn’t for show."

"I know." The warrior rubbed his arm lightly. "Besides.. uh… " She wiped a smile off her face with effort. "I kind of… told Secan’s group if they ever so much as picked a flower on your land I’d umm… " She shrugged a touch sheepishly. "wipe them out."

Jessan blinked at her. "You did?" He turned. "Hey dad, did you hear this?"

Lestan wound an arm around his son’s broad shoulders. "What?"

Jessan told him. Lestan stared at Xena in fascination. "Did you really?"

Xena crossed her arms over her chest. "Well.. yeah. I did." By this time Gabrielle had joined them, and was glancing between her partner and the two forest dwellers.

Lestan let out a low whistle. "You forgot to mention that, Xena."

The warrior shrugged. "No big deal, Lestan. I do it all the time. Gabrielle keeps track of the thr… why are you looking at me like that?"

Silence had fallen over the room, and they were being watched by a crowd of interested forest dwellers. Gabrielle scanned the faces.. saw intrigue and some curious excitement, but nothing else.

Lestan knelt, and took Xena’s hand, and pressed his lips to it, startling the daylights out of both warrior and bard. "What are you doing?" Xena demanded, in a low voice.

"You championed the sprit of my clan, Xena." Lestan answered, with a sparkle in his eyes. "And until you renounce that, you lead us." His face crinkled into a smile, showing his fangs. "Do you back down from that?"

Xena looked at him, and slowly, a feral grin shaped her lips. "I never back down, Lestan." She tapped him on the nose. "But I am NOT staying here. That’s your job."

Gabrielle had been watching this exchange in delight. "Hey.. you guys like to party?"

"Don’t start." Xena warned her, but her lips were twitching.

"Party?" Wennid asked, laying an arm over Gabrielle’s shoulder.

"Yeah." Gabrielle’s smile grew positively demonic. "What are you doing around Winter Solstice?"

"GABRIELLE." Xena gave her a severe, almost top of the scale look.

"I think we’re free." Wennid responded blithely. "Right Lesti?"

He nodded, and rose. "Sure."

Xena sighed. "My mother’s gonna kill us, Gabrielle." She gave the bard a plaintive look.

Gabrielle shook her head. "Nah. She’ll love it." She turned to Wennid. "You guys wanted to meet the Amazons anyway, right?"

"Amazons? How cool is that!" Jessan chuckled,. "We’ll be there."

Hugs all round then, and they trooped down the hill to gather their gear, and saddle a very smug looking Argo. Gabrielle left Xena muttering to her horse, and went back in to collect Ares, and a few last things. The wolf was laying possessively on top of Xena’s bedroll, front paws clasped around the fabric, and his chin resting on top.

"Come on, Ares. Time to go." Gabrielle grinned, and patted her leg. The wolf stood and stretched, arching his back and yawning. "You know, you look just like your mom when you do that." She commented with a chuckle, grabbing her bag and slinging it over her shoulder.

Ares obligingly closed his half-grown jaws around the fastening of the bedroll, and proceeded to try and drag it outside with her, stumbling over it every few steps. "MFWRO." He complained, with a puppy sigh.

Gabrielle giggled, and took pity on him. "Here.. give me that." She removed the bedroll from his jaws, and watched, amused as he poked his tongue out a few times. "Yeah, that fur gets between your teeth, doesn’t it." Then blushed as she realized what she’d said. "Gods. Glad no one heard that."

She walked outside, and saw Xena crouched down, speaking with Tody. She smiled, watching her partner. Saw the boy reach out tentatively and touch her face, as he had her own. Then Xena hugged him, and stood up, giving her a nod. "Ready?" She glanced down. "You ready too, Ares?"

"Roo." The wolf stated, trotting over to her and leaping up against her legs. "Grrr.."

"Yeah, Roo to you too." Xena lifted the animal, and stuffed him in his sack on Argo’s withers. "You’re getting too big for this, boy. You start walking soon." With a grin, she vaulted up into the saddle, and extended an arm to her partner. "Ride while we can."

Gabrielle stopped in mid motion, and cocked her head. "Did you… " She glanced at the horse’s complacent expression. "You did." She chuckled and grabbed hold, swinging her leg over Argo’s hindquarters and settling into a comfortable spot snuggled up behind Xena. "It’s going to be quite a winter." She wrapped her arms around the warrior’s waist and let out a sigh, glad Xena’s heavy cloak was between her and the armor plates. As Argo moved off, she felt her mind starting to drift pleasantly.

"Hey Xena?" She asked, leaning forward and feeling the warmth of her partner’s back through the cloak.

"Yeah?" The warrior answered, half turning to look at her.

"So.. you’re the leader of the clan, huh?" The bard queried, hiding a grin.

Xena sighed. "Don’t get started on that, OK? I shoulda known better."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle mused, with a sniff. "So.. you are their champion then, right?"

Xena gave her a glance. "I guess.. yeah."

The bard snuggled closer. "You’re the Amazon’s champion too, remember."

Xena chuckled. "How could I forget that, Gabrielle?"

"Hope we never get in a war with each other." The bard giggled. "You’d have to fight yourself."

Dead silence from the warrior, then they both started laughing, and the sounds of trailing merriment followed them down the tree-shaded path, towards the hills.


 This be the end, folks. Thanks for a taking the journey with me…

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