By Melissa Good
Tall, white capped mountains rose skyward, their craggy slopes stark and forbidding. The air was cool and crisp, a brisk wind coming down off the ridges brushing through the stands of pine and rustling their branches.
Nestled in a fold of the hills, a patch of bright green grass stood out, it’s surface speckled with fall flowers as it slanted towards a pool of water fed by a small waterfall gushing over the granite surface and plunging down the rocks with a cheerfully loud roar.
It was a beautiful, wild scene, nature at peace with itself.
“Aaaaiiiieeee!!!!!” Three naked bodies shot over the edge of the falls and plummeted down towards the pool, entering the pristine waters with a thunderous splash.
For a moment, peace returned. Then the surface erupted again. A tall, dark haired figure broke into the cool air first, it’s broad shoulders flinging the water off in a spray as a smaller dark head, and a pale one popped up next to her.
“Whoo!!!” Xena emerged from the water, her arms full of her family. She had one arm curled around Dori’s squirming body, and her other wrapped around Gabrielle’s waist. “Yeah!”
“Whhheee!!!!” Dori squealed in delight. “Mama! We flyed!”
“You can say that again.” Gabrielle gasped. “But not in my ear, honey.” She wiped wet, pale hair out of her eyes. “Wow.. that was a nice one!” She turned to look back up at the top of the falls. “Yikes.. looks a lot higher from here, doesn’t it?” Her eyes lifted to Xena’s face and brightened, sparkling like the water around them. “I liked it!”
Xena chuckled, cradling Dori in her arms. “You ready to go again, munchkin?”
“Yes!” Dori shook her head vigorously. “Boo, dat was good! We flyed, and went go down, like dis!” A small finger pointed at the water’s surface. “Liked that!”
“Uh huh. You and mama liked that. Gotcha.” Xena ruffled the child’s dark hair. “Me too.” She lead the way towards the sloping ground that entered the pool unexpectedly, grass strands poking up through its surface. The freshly crumbled rocks around them and the drowned turf indicated just how unexpected, a landslide not long before creating both waterfall and pool before it continued on down the mountainside.
“Brr.” Gabrielle rubbed her arms as they moved to shallower water and her body was exposed to the cool air. “Tell you what, kids. Why don’t we do this again tomorrow morning, when the sun comes back, okay?” It was later than she’d realized. They’d spent time up at the top of the falls exploring the newly sunken rocks after they’d stopped their traveling for the day, letting Dori clutch at passing fish and picking up handfuls of elderberries growing wild there.
“Noo!!! Go now!” Dori protested.
Xena glanced at the sky, already darkening to twilight. “Mama’s right.” She sloshed out of the pool with a disappointed Dori tucked under her arm. “You don’t want to catch cold, Dori.” She put her free arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Or see your mama get sick, right?”
Gabrielle looked up and gave Xena a wry look. “Or have Boo get the sniffles, either.” She poked Xena in the ribs.
“Bbbbbooo…” The toddler wriggled a little. “Guff! C’mere!” She called to the black wolf curled up in the grass. With a long suffering look, the wolf got up and shook himself, then trotted over as his family approached. “Good!”
Gabrielle exhaled, glad of the warm body pressed next to hers. “We’re going to need to pick up some warmer gear the next place we go through, Xe.” She commented as they approached their campsite. A fire in the center of it was crackling strongly, putting the scent of wood smoke in the air along with a whiff off the bubbling stew pot she’d left cooking.
“Shouldn’t be a problem.” Xena answered, stopping at her pack and pulling out a stretch of linen which she wrapped around her daughter, drying her body off. “We should be in Cirron by sundown tomorrow if the weather holds.”
Gabrielle knelt next to her own pack, removing a set of clothing from it. “Ooo… Cirron. I’m looking forward to going back there.” She looked up at her partner with a smile. “I have very, very fond memories of that place.”
Xena walked over and deposited Dori into her mother’s arms. She took the linen from around her shoulders and dried Gabrielle’s sun tanned body off. “So do I.” A brief, wistful smile crossed her face, unseen by the smaller woman.
“You’ll like it too, Dori.” Gabrielle fastened the laces on the thick, sturdy shirt she’d put over the child’s head. “There’s lots of things to see, and if you ask Boo real nice, she’ll show you where she won the war and saved the city.”
“Sissy?” Dori put her arms around her mother’s neck. “Boo, you show me sissy?”
“Sure.” Xena agreed solemnly. She finished donning her clothes and took Dori from Gabrielle, while the younger woman put on her shirt and leggings. “Let’s go over there, and you show me what you learned today.”
Gabrielle tousled her hair dry as she watched Xena carry their daughter over to the fire, sitting down with her on the thick furs as Ares ambled after them. She flexed her bare toes against the grass, taking in a deep breath of the fragrant air as she paused to reflect on the last few months.
They’d been traveling north for almost two moons now. First along the coast, then moving steadily inland but keeping to the wilder, emptier places. That meant they were mostly on their own, relying on their own hunting and gathering skills to provide food and provisions and seeking shelter where they found it along the way.
Two women, alone in the wilds, with a small child. It should have been a nightmare. Most anyone Gabrielle would have spoken to would have thought them insane. But she had found the journey surpassing her wildest dreams in terms of the wonder and joy she’d discovered in it, and though they’d been challenged by weather, by the trail, and by each other – she knew there were very few times in her life she’d ever been happier than she was right now.
She leaned against the tree their packs were stacked against and watched her partner and child. Dori was busy showing Xena the rocks and bits of debris she’d found at the top of the waterfall and explaining their importance. Xena had her chin propped on her fist, a grin spreading across her face as she listened.
Gabrielle studied her partner’s lean, relaxed figure, the muscles in her arms and shoulders casting faint shadows as she shifted to accept a rock from Dori’s hand. The trip had given her soulmate time to heal, and save a thin, red scar across the front of her knee there was little to indicate the trials she’d faced in Athens.
Having Dori with them had made things inarguably tough, Gabrielle acknowledged, both because of the danger and because of the child’s almost insatiable curiosity. However, both she and Xena had gotten quickly used to the changes in their traveling routine needed to accommodate the presence of their offspring and Xena’s sharp senses had been put to good use more than once to prevent near disaster.
The effort had been more than worth it. Gabrielle smiled, folding the linen over a branch of the tree to dry. She walked over and gave the stew pot a stir, then joined Dori and Xena on the furs. She had a pile of new adventures to turn into stories, and the utter satisfaction of having spent the time gathering them in the company of the two people she held most dear in her life.
“Mm.” Gabrielle grunted contentedly. Life was good.
Xena glanced down as Gabrielle curled up on the furs and put her head down on the warrior’s thigh. She draped her free arm over the bard’s body and their fingers twined together as Gabrielle reached up to clasp her hand. “Comfortable?”
Gabrielle bounced her head once or twice. “Mmmm…” She wriggled closer. “Could be a little softer, but you’ll do.”
Xena leaned over and kissed her on the crown of her head, giving her a one armed squeeze at the same time. Gabrielle uttered a soft sound of pleasure and returned the squeeze, settling herself and turning her attention to their daughter.
“Dis is good rock.” Dori held up a shiny stone for inspection.
“Why?” Xena inquired.
“Big.” Her daughter explained. She put the stone down, and picked up a second. “Bad rock.”
“Why?” The warrior asked again.
“Owie.” Dori touched the point on the sharp bit of granite. “Dis rock bites.”
Gabrielle chuckled softly. “Did you step on that one, Dori? Is that how you know it bites?” She extended a hand and turned Dori’s bare foot towards her, examining the sole. A tiny red mark confirmed her suspicions. “Oh, you poor baby.”
“Bck.” Dori pulled her foot from her mother’s fingers. “Dis rock no good. Throw back.” She lifted her hand and looked around for a likely target.
“Wait.” Xena took the sharp stone from her hand. “Watch me.” She picked up a small piece of flat slate from Dori’s collection and pressed the point of the granite against it, drawing her hand down and leaving a white mark. “See?”
Dori studied the result. “No.”
Gabrielle chuckled soundlessly.
Xena made another mark, drawing a stick picture of an animal. “Now see?”
“Oo..Boo that’s so pretty.” The bard teased. “Is that a dog or a horse?”
Xena scratched a curly tail. “It’s a pig.” She handed the rocks back to Dori. “Now you try.”
The child gazed at both stones with a serious expression. Then she brought both hands together and smacked the two into each other with an impressive clack. “Good!” Dori repeated the sound, making Xena wince slightly. “Like that!” She banged them again and again.
“Wasn’t quite what you had in mind, was it?” Gabrielle felt Xena exhale. “Try it with chalk and parchment next time, honey. It’s quieter.” Xena’s arm tightened around her and she closed her eyes in a brief moment of utter content. “Mmmmmm.”
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle’s face, outlined in both twilight and the firelight. Its tanned, lean planes attested to their long days of walking; yet the hardships seemed to have brought her nothing but happiness. A smile crossed Xena’s face, as she acknowledged her own sense of pleasure in their current lifestyle and realized though living wild had its downside, it suited them.
“Hey. You know something?” Xena played put and take with Dori with her free hand.
“Hm?” Gabrielle was occupied placing tiny kisses on the inside of her partner’s muscular leg. “What?”
“I think we’re just a couple of natural wanderers.”
Gabrielle rolled onto her back and looked up through lazily half lidded eyes. “Are you saying we like to shirk responsibility and live a vagabond lifestyle?”
Xena nodded, watching her face intently.
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip and studied the slowly darkening sky overhead. She wiggled her bare toes as a slow, sweet smile spread across her face. “Yeah.” She admitted. “I think you’re right.” With a slight grunt, she sat up and pushed herself to her feet. “Isn’t that terrible?”
Xena kept an eye on Dori as she abandoned her rocks and climbed into her lap, reaching up to play with one of the laces in Xena’s shirt. “Awful.” She agreed dryly. “Whatcha doin, Dori?”
“Got Boo.” Dori tugged at the string, drawing the neck of Xena’s shirt closed. “Go show you my bugs now?”
“You got bugs?”
Gabrielle listened to the chatter as she filled their bowls full of rabbit stew. She set the bowls on a wooden platter and poked a slab of her newest experiment, travel bread. It seemed ready. She broke off a corner and nibbled it, pleased with the result.
Xena’s remark had hit home, she readily acknowledged. She liked being able to do what she wanted when she wanted, without anyone else giving her advice. Xena felt the same way, apparently. Was it fair to Dori, though? Having her away from her little friends, and their extended family – growing up out in the wilderness?
Her eyes lifted, to see her partner flying Dori through the air over her head, her hands fastened firmly around the toddlers body. Dori was squealing in delight, her arms and legs spread out and a big smile on her face.
Hm. Gabrielle suspected Dori didn’t have a problem with it. She picked up the platter and walked back over to the furs, settling cross legged next to Xena as the warrior brought Dori in for a landing. “You ready for dinner, Dori?”
“Yes.” Dori copied her seating posture, watching intently as Gabrielle handed over her small bowl and spoon, and a chunk of the bread. “Mama, mmm.” Ignoring the spoon, she pulled a bit of root out of the bowl and ate it. “Good good good.”
“Thank you, honey.” Gabrielle gave Xena her portion, then joined her partner in eating.
“She’s right.” Xena leaned an elbow on the bard’s knee, and pointed to the dish with her spoon. “You put something different in this time?”
Gabrielle bit into a carrot, a pleased smile crossing her face. “You mean all this practice is paying off?” She teased. “Yes, something’s new. I picked up some dried herbs from that traveling caravan we passed two days ago.”
“Mm.” Xena wiggled her eyebrows in appreciation. “I like when you experiment. Used to make things interesting on the road.” She commented. “Mom’s stuff is fine, but it never changes.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle sucked on her spoon. She’d never considered how much the effect of the many daily challenges of the road affected their day to day life. Traveling, she realized, forced you to constantly adapt, constantly solve problems to just handle the basics of survival.
Her eyes slipped to Xena’s profile, watching the blue eyes sparkle in the firelight. An unconscious smile was pulling at her partner’s lips, giving the watching bard a good indication of the internal happiness riding just below Xena’s often stoic surface.
Vagabonds, eh? Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena’s convenient shoulder, and dug in to her bowl, tasting the spices of an interesting revelation.
The stars spread over them in a dark blanket. Dori was asleep in her crib, a wooden folding item made by Xena’s clever hands. The fire had burned low, and was now shedding just enough light for Gabrielle to see by as she sat behind her partner, brushing out her hair.
Long and thick, it curled around her fingers, releasing the scent of the herbal soap they both used. “Want me to braid this?” Gabrielle offered. “It’s a little breezy out.”
“Mm.” Xena nodded. She had her forearms resting on her upraised knees, as she gazed into the fire. “You can use those ties we got in that little town.”
“Alfrif got fm.” Gabrielle had the ties between her teeth. She removed them and started braiding the leather into the dark hair. “It was so cute of that crafter to give them to you after you rescued his bull.” She said. “He was blushing so badly, the poor little guy.”
“That’s because I grabbed him by the genitals.” Xena murmured.
Gabrielle paused, and leaned forward, resting her chin on Xena’s shoulder and giving her a wide eyed look. “Excuse me?”
Xena turned her head slightly, brushing Gabrielle’s cheek with her own. “The bull.” She uttered in a low rasp.
“Oh.” Gabrielle leaned forward a little more and they kissed. “Well, then.” She rested her head against Xena’s darker one briefly, then went back to completing her task.
“See any grays yet?”
“Sweetheart, in this light you could have a stripe like a skunk right across the top of your head and I’d never see it.” Gabrielle remarked. “Do you really want me to look? What if I find one?” She finished her neat braid and put her hands on her partner’s shoulders. “Most people don’t really go hunting for signs of getting older.”
Xena half turned and snaked an arm around her, then pulled Gabrielle into her lap, cradling her easily as the bard put her arms around Xena’s neck. “I don’t need to hunt for that.” She said, with a wry smile. “I feel it every time I wake up in the morning out here.”
“Well.” Gabrielle’s eyes searched the planed features. “You know, I bet you could make a folding bed for us like the one you did for Dori.” She brushed her fingers against Xena’s cheek. “Why didn’t you tell me it was bothering you so much?”
The warrior shrugged very slightly. “It’s not that bad.” She said. “I just figure if I mentioned it you’d offer to give me a backrub.”
“Ahh.” The bard grinned. “I see. So this is a strategic request.”
Xena nodded gravely.
“I would love to give you a backrub.” Gabrielle pulled herself up and kissed Xena gently, with a loving intensity that pulsed through the link that bound their souls together. “Why don’t you lie down and I promise you I will make absolutely sure that you get rubbed from head to foot, as a matter of fact.”
Blue eyes twinkled gently. “Why, Gabrielle.” Xena rumbled in a sexy purr. “Are you propositioning me?” She leaned backwards, pulling them both down onto the furs, returning the kiss with definite passion. She drew the top furs over Gabrielle’s back and slid her hands under the bard’s shirt. Her fingers traced over the lean, defined waistline and over her ribs, feeling them expand against her touch as Gabrielle inhaled.
“Me?” Gabrielle reveled in the knowledge of the powerful body under hers. She grabbed the tie Dori had been playing with earlier and tugged it free, exposing Xena’s collarbone. “Hm… you know? Maybe I am.”
Xena chuckled, a low, rich sound that tickled Gabrielle’s skin. “I think I like that.”
“Do you?” Gabrielle dipped her head and nipped at her partner’s pulse point. “Let me go get the salve.”
“Don’t bother.” Xena eased the shirt over Gabrielle’s head and pulled her down. “I feel much better already.” She slid her hands over the bard’s back, exploring her body with a delicate touch. Warm hands caressed her in return, teasingly seductive and yet always with a hint of gentle innocence that Xena found so endearing.
“Besides…” Gabrielle eased upward and murmured into Xena’s ear. “You’re not allowed to get a day older until I catch up to you.” She planted a kiss on her partner’s lips. “So there.”
Xena looked up at her. An affectionate smile appeared. “I don’t think that’s how that works.” She drew Gabrielle’s head back down and returned the kiss. “But it’s a nice thought.”
The bard finished untying her partner’s shirt and pressed her body against Xena’s, their bellies warming each other. “You and I having Dori together isn’t how it’s supposed to work either, now is it?” She had to stop speaking at that point, as Xena’s lips dropped lower and breathing became a little tough. Her thoughts dissolved as she surrendered to the demands of her body, responding powerfully to Xena’s insistent touch.
Thought I was supposed to be propositioning you… was the last thing she mused on, before she let a wave of passion simply take her.
Glad of the privacy, and the wildness around them. Glad she was free to follow only the whims of her own soul.
An owl hooted overhead. Xena eyed it through half lowered lids, enjoying the peaceful crackle of the fire and the sensually sated pleasure of her body. Gabrielle was curled up tightly with her back against Xena’s chest, and the warrior had one long arm draped over her in a snug hold.
“Hey, Xe?” Gabrielle’s voice burred sleepily.
Xena leaned closer to the neatly shaped ear closest to her. “Yesss?” She rumbled, in a low, sexy tone.
“Still want your back rubbed?”
The warrior chuckled. “Nah.” She pressed against Gabrielle. “Feels great.”
“Mmokay.” Gabrielle yawned. “Wanna rub mine? I’m still a little stiff.”
Xena bumped her over onto her stomach, and slid her hands down the tan, well muscled back presented to her. She felt carefully along her partner’s spine, feeling the round bones click into place until she reached the spot just above Gabrielle’s tailbone, where her hands encountered a twisted knot. “Ah.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle inhaled, pressing her belly against the warmth of the furs. “Same spot?”
“Yeah.” Xena probed cautiously, then relaxed. “Just a cramp this time.” She gently eased it with a practiced touch, and felt the knot dissolve under her fingers. “Did you pick something up the wrong way?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle turned her head. “Dori. She’s getting bigger.” Her face twitched into a reluctant grin. “I don’t think she…. Xe?” The body next to hers had gone still, and she looked up to see a familiar intent expression on the warrior’s face. “What is it?”
“Not sure.” Xena murmured, sorting through the varied signals her senses detected, searching for the one that had set off the warning bells. The wind brushed lightly through the trees around them and she listened to it, hearing the placid rhythm of the branches. She lifted her head, catching the scents in the air and discarding the nearer ones, concentrating on the faintest hint of something at the far corners of the wind.
Animal? Xena closed her eyes and focused, drawing in a deep breath from her gut and mouthing the air. “Something big.” She said, getting to her feet and letting the furs drop from her bare body. One hand reached for her sword, fingers curling around the hilt and tightening as she drew it from its worn scabbard.
Gabrielle stayed where she was, not moving until Xena had stepped over her and off the furs, the sword catching the low firelight as it twirled in Xena’s grip, coming to rest with it’s point facing backward, a typical carry of hers.
Xena’s body had taken on a tawny hue, her skin taut over the muscles that shifted as she moved. She stalked out into the darkness, the shadows swallowing her quickly as she headed towards the trees.
Gabrielle slid out from under the furs and shrugged her shift on, wrapping a strip of cloth around her waist to keep the loose fabric from billowing around her. She picked up her staff and crouched over Dori’s crib, protecting it with her body. She flexed her hands around the new wood, still a bit green and untested, and kept her eyes on the tiny blur of paleness she knew was her soulmate.
Be careful. She silently told Xena. Don’t forget I’m not there to watch your back.
A soft crackle came to her ears, then a cough, and Xena’s battle yell.
Gabrielle gritted her teeth and held herself in place, every instinct in her howling in protest. She heard the sound of something big moving, then a crash, then silence. “Xena!” The name erupted from her in a surprisingly deep bellow.
It woke Dori, who blinked up at her in alarm. “Mama!”
Gabrielle stared into the dark, blinking suddenly as a blur resolved into her partner’s lithe form as Xena stalked back into the firelight, flashes of golden light catching in the restlessly swinging sword in her hand. “What was it?”
Xena’s face tensed into a scowl, as she flipped the sword over and over in her hands. “I don’t know.” She admitted. “It saw me and ran.”
Gabrielle studied the wild figure, naked and windblown, exuding a fierce, edgy energy in every motion. “I can’t imagine why.” She exhaled, dropping onto a knee. “Whatever it was, I’m glad it’s gone. Right Dori?” She caught the toddler’s curious hand, and held it. “Bear, you think?”
“Maybe.” Xena turned and gazed out into the forest. “Maybe not.” She let her sword rest on her shoulder. “Dawn will show its tracks. We’ll know then.”
Gabrielle put her staff down and relaxed, a gently mischievous smile appearing. She picked up Xena’s shift and cleared her throat. “Xe?”
The warrior turned. “Yes?”
Gabrielle held up the shift. “You.. um.. need to put this on, or else.”
A dark eyebrow lifted visibly. “I do?” She put one hand on her hip. “Or else what?”
The bard’s grin widened. “Or else get yourself back under those furs with me.”
“Tch.” Xena walked past her, swatting her lightly on the backside with the flat of her sword before she sheathed it. “C’mere, Bard.” She sprawled on the furs, and crooked a finger at her. “And lose the nightgown.”
Gabrielle grinned, tucking Dori back into her covers before she stood and complied, shedding her shift as she joined her partner, the momentary fright all but forgotten.
Besides, she reasoned, as her body slid against Xena’s. The bear was probably still running. She ducked her head and nibbled at Xena’s throat. Nothing to worry about.
Dawn had barely turned the sky pink before Xena was up and about, stirring up the fire and taking their water bucket into one hand. She knelt beside Dori’s crib, holding an arm out to the toddler who was already reaching for her to climb out. “Hey, munchkin.” She kept her voice down, darting a glance at the still sleeping Gabrielle. “Keep hush, don’t wake your mama, okay?”
“Otay.” Dori clutched her shoulder as she stood up, giggling softly. “Go Boo!”
“Yeah, we’ll go.” Xena headed for the water. “We’ll go get you cleaned up, and ready for breakfast, right?”
“Boo, c’n I get fishes?” Dori peered into the gloom, spotting their goal. “Go to water, good!”
Xena smiled, reaching the pond and setting the bucket down. She seated herself on a flat rock on the water’s edge, and set about the grave task of getting Dori’s diapers changed. The sun started to spread soft pink rays through the trees, bathing both of them as she gave the toddler a quick bath.
“Boobooboo….” Dori squiggled in her hands, attempting to swim off. “Gots to go get fishes, Boo.”
“No fishes.” Xena grinned, pulling her out of the water and getting a clean diaper on her. “Mama doesn’t like fish for breakfast, Dori. You know that.”
Dori spotted something in the water and it absorbed her attention. She got her nose almost down to the surface as Xena watched in amusement. “Ga….. Boo!” The toddler slapped at the water and plunged her hand down into it to her shoulder. “Gots!”
“Gots what?” Xena laughed.
Dori pulled her hand back out. In it was a small minnow. She held it up in triumph. “Gots fishes!”
Xena’s jaw dropped. She stared at the struggling fish in her daughter’s hand in a moment of total shock, not really sure what her reaction should be. “Son of a Bacchae.”
Dori gazed at her quizzically. “Good?” She looked at her fish. “Gots fishes?” The fish squiggled and she frowned at it, then decided it would be better off inside Xena’s tunic. Accordingly, she threw it at her beloved playmate’s chest. “Guck.”
Xena snatched the fish out of mid air and held it in her hand. “Thanks.”
A soft crackle behind them alerted her, but the warm wash of emotion that bathed her back identified the intruder, and Xena leaned back as Gabrielle draped her arms over her shoulders and rested her chin on one. “You’re not gonna believe this.”
“Hey sweetie.” Gabrielle’s voice was still husky from sleep as she greeted Dori. “Believe what?”
Xena held up the fish.
The bard scratched her jaw. “Um, hon, I love you, but you know I hate fish for breakfast, and that one’s a little… small.” She reached around and tickled Dori’s belly. “Why’d you catch it?”
“I didn’t.” Xena said, simply.
“Huh?” Gabrielle looked at her.
“I didn’t.” Xena repeated. “She did.” She pointed at the now giggling Dori with the fish.
“She did?” The bard’s voice rose. “Her, our baby? Caught that fish?”
“Mama! Got fishes!” Dori seemed to catch on to the conversation.
“C”mon, Xena. You’re not serious.” Gabrielle laughed.
“Yes, I am.” The warrior told her. “She just reached in, and grabbed it.”
The bard’s laugh eased into a bemused sigh. “Just like you do.” She took the fish from Xena’s fingers and cupped it in her palm, then lowered her hand into the water and let the minnow swim off.
“Mama! My fishie!” Dori objected vocally. “No good!” She flipped over and scrambled for the edge of the rock. “Gots fishes.. gots fishes… “
Xena grabbed her by the diaper. “Whoa!” She hauled the toddler back. “You can get more fishes tonight, Dori. No swimming now.”
Dori gave her a grumpy look, and scowled. Xena scowled right back, an expression so similar it sent Gabrielle into a fit of laughter. “It’s not funny.” The warrior growled. “Here, you hang on to her since you’re up, and I’ll go check whatever was out there last night.”
Gabrielle took possession of her daughter as her partner got up and headed for the trees. She bounced Dori on her lap and cuddled her, still amazed at her new found skill. “Did you get that fishie, Dori?” She asked.
“Got fishie.” Dori agreed happily. “Mama, that good!”
“It’s very good.” Gabrielle hugged her. “You know who does that too?”
“You bet. You’re just like Boo, Dori. You know that?”
“Bbbbbbboooo.” Dori seemed to like the idea. “Love Boo, Mama. Get Boo fishes.” She was now content to rock in her mother’s arms.
“How did you catch the fishie, Dori?” Gabrielle asked her, admiring the small button nose and the long, dark lashes. “Tell mama.”
“Fishies go hisssss… “ Dori told her. “Go hiss.. hiss… den you go bam!” She closed her hand in the air. “Gotcha.”
Gabrielle had to laugh. Even the little narrowing of Dori’s eyes when she said the word was just so Xena’s image. “Gotcha.” She repeated, hugging Dori to her. “That’s my girl.” She squeezed her. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes.” Dori tugged at her mother’s shirt. “Mama, c’n you gets grapes?”
Gabrielle stood up, cradling Dori with one arm as she dipped the bucket into the pool with the other. “Can I get grapes.” She said, as she walked back towards the fire. “I think we can do that when we get to where we’re going, honey. Not here.”
“We’re going to Cirron.” Gabrielle watched Ares trot after Xena, the two of them disappearing into the brush. “We’re going to see our friend the prince, and walk around his nice big city.”
“Grapes?” Dori kept her attention on the important details.
“I bet ther’ll be grapes there, sure.” Gabrielle set the pot on the fire and sat down with Dori on their furs, pulling her bag over to get them some breakfast. “How about a cookie bar.”
“Cookies.” Dori approved. “Good.”
Gabrielle removed a trail bar and broke it into two halves. She gave one to Dori, and stuck the other in her mouth. “Mm. Good.”
“Mm.” Dori snacked happily on the bar.
It was too quiet, the bard suddenly realized. She lifted her head, and gazed towards the trees, searching for a sign of her partner. “Xena??”
For far too long a moment, there was no response. Then Xena’s figure appeared between the trees, a frown on her face. The warrior crossed back over to her and knelt by the fire, setting out their cups. Ares trotted after her, sneezing repeatedly.
“Well?” Gabrielle asked. “Was it a bear?”
Xena came over and sat down cross legged on the furs. “I don’t think so.” She opened her fist and dropped a piece of woven, blue cloth. “They don’t usually dress for the occasion.”
Gabrielle picked up the cloth and studied it. It rang a faint bell. She let Dori crawl off her lap and head for Xena’s. “You want a trail bar?” She murmured, her brow creasing as she tried to stir her memory. “Xena, I’ve seen this before.”
“Yes, you have.” Xena replied quietly. She took the proffered bar and met Gabrielle’s eyes. “In Jessan’s village.”
The bard released a breath. “Ah.” She watched her partner’s angular face as Xena bit into the trail bar. Dori had seated herself in the warrior’s lap, and was pulling at the lower end of the bar. “What does that mean? One of his people was there last night, watching us?”
“That’s what the tracks look like.” Xena admitted, looking highly annoyed with herself. “I should have checked it out better.. maybe followed him.” She took a savage bite of her breakfast. “I don’t know why the Hades I didn’t.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle reached over and poured the now boiling water over their tea leaves. She stirred the cups, drizzling in honey liberally. “Probably because you didn’t want to hare off into the night and leave me and our daughter behind. Something like that.”
“You can take care of yourself.” Xena muttered.
“Thank you.” Gabrielle handed her a cup. “But you know what I mean.”
“Boo.” Dori tugged on the bar, breaking off a piece which she stuffed into her mouth. “Gimme.”
“No.” Xena held the cup out of her reach. “Too hot, Dori. Owie.” She gave the toddler their waterskin instead. “Guess we need to pay a visit after Cirron.” Her voice lowered. “Find out what’s going on.. ah ah, Dori, I said no.”
Gabrielle reached over and gathered her daughter in, pulling her into her own lap. “Let Boo have breakfast. C’mere.” She tucked an arm around Dori. “You think it’s something serious?”
“Can you think of a frivolous reason to be tracking us?”
“Mm.” Gabrielle felt a familiar prickle of warning travel down her spine. “Not really, no.”
Xena leaned back, propping up one knee and resting her elbow against it. “Guess we’ll find out.” She remarked. “Looks like it could be trouble.”
Dori squirmed out of Gabrielle’s grasp and headed for the fire. Warrior and bard both made a dive for her, colliding in mid air and ending up in a tangle. Only Xena’s long arm, snaking out to grab Dori’s foot prevented a potential disaster.
They looked at each other. “Trouble.” Gabrielle repeated. “For us, or them?”
Xena’s eyebrow quirked.
The wind took on a fresh chill as they made their way down a short slope to a barely visible path. Gabrielle was glad for her warm leggings and thick tunic as she shrugged Dori’s pack a little higher on her shoulders, stretching her arms out as she joined Xena on the dirt track.
They were walking, as usual. Gabrielle knew Xena preferred riding, but since they’d left Athens the warrior had given up her place in the saddle to walk alongside her partner, and they’d used the two horses simply for carrying their gear. She held a place a step or two behind Xena, amusing herself by watching the rhythmic swagger of her partner’s walk.
Xena had chosen to wear her heavier, blue leathers and a pair of the closely knit black leggings they’d found in a small seaside village along the way. Tucked into her boots, with her leg armor buckled over them, they outlined her muscular thighs and really looked rather..
“Dinar for your thoughts?” Xena glanced back over her shoulder.
Sexy. Gabrielle took a few longer steps and caught up with her. “Oh, I was just making up a poem.” She brushed her shoulder against Xena’s.
“You warm enough?”
“Just fine.” Gabrielle’s face creased into a grin. “How are you doing, Dori?”
Dori’s head was poking out of her sack, the child’s bright eyes watching their surroundings with interest. “Mama?” She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle’s neck and gave her a hug.
Xena reached around to check the pack, making sure the lined holes at the bottom were not bothering Dori’s lengthening legs. “That works.” She commented. “But you know, I think we’re gonna have to get her a pony one of these moons.”
Gabrielle shifted her shoulders, feeling the growing weight on them. “It’s okay for now.” She said. “Maybe on the way home.”
“Wouldja like that, Dor?” Xena tweaked a bootie covered foot. “You want a pony?”
“Hossie?” Dori’s ears perked up.
Gabrielle gave her partner a wry look. “You’re just a troublemaker, you know that?”
Xena grinned, reaching out with her other hand to scratch Argo’s jaw. “She likes horses.”
“What a surprise.” Gabrielle carefully skirted around a ditch in the road, Iolaus’ reins trailing idly from her hand.
They walked in companionable silence for a while, listening to Dori’s burbling and childish commentary on the passing forest. Xena trained her senses around them, probing the nearby trees for any sign of their mysterious tracker. The bird noises were normal, though, unconcerned and indicating to her that no hidden predators were lurking in shadows. Ahead of them, a rabbit hopped quickly across the track, getting out of their way.
Xena’s hand flicked, and a dagger appeared. She glanced at Gabrielle and lifted a brow in question.
“Nah.” Gabrielle put a hand on her arm. “You know Dori hates when you do that.” She said. “She loves those little suckers.”
“What a surprise.” Xena amiably sheathed her dagger. “She loves them in your stew, too.”
“I don’t think she makes the connection yet, hon.”
“Mama, der go Guff!” Dori pointed at her furry buddy, who had darted off the track in pursuit of the rabbit.
“Yeah, it took you a while.” The warrior mused.
“Oh, it did not.” Gabrielle snorted. “I knew where the food came from, Xena. I cooked it, remember?”
“I see him, honey. He’s playing a game.” The bard reassured her child.
“Me go play too?”
Xena craned her neck to watch their pet. “He lost him.” The warrior said. “No more game, Dori.”
Ares trotted back out of the log grass, his tongue lolling. He fell into step behind Xena. “Roo.”
“Guff!” Dori reached down towards him. “”Come!”
“Dori, be nice.” Gabrielle tweaked the child’s foot.
Xena drew in a lungful of the cool air tinged with pine and smiled. Her eyes roved over the trees, searching for a bough out of place, or some other sign. The rabbit had bolted to her left, so she studied that side briefly, then turned her attention seriously to the right hand side.
It was apparently peaceful. The wind was blowing the wrong direction, but Xena could see a good distance into the foliage, and the waving branches were in proper rhythm.
A flash of color caught her eye and she shifted her gaze, spotting a bird darting from tree to tree. It perched, chattered, then flew to another trunk, in a fitful pattern.
Xena cocked her ears. She could hear the bird, the wind, the branches, and… a crackle came to her that was out of place. She glanced ahead, where the trees narrowed around the track and the branches extended over it. Casually, she dropped Argo’s reins and slowed a pace, falling behind Gabrielle and fussing with Dori’s straps.
“Boo, c’n you go see sissy?” Dori warbled. “C’n we gets cookies, and see Gramma?”
“Aw.” Gabrielle looked over her shoulder. “Do you miss Gramma, sweetie? I bet she misses you.”
Xena eased around to Gabrielle’s right hand side and continued walking. “I’m sure my mother could use the break.”
They approached the narrow point, and the horses fell in behind them single file. Xena kept her eyes on the track, turning her head casually but apparently relaxed. Her ears, though, were fixed on the underbrush. One crackle, two, then her eyes caught a shivering fern just slightly out of rhythm with the wind.
She draped a hand over Gabrielle’s shoulder, her fingers tensing on the bard’s skin just enough to cause a stiffening in her posture, and bring her hand up slightly on her staff to a more balanced position.
That’s my girl. Xena tapped her on the shoulder with her thumb, then let her arm drop to her side. “What do you suppose Hectator’s up to?” She asked casually. “Think he’s built out the city by now?”
“Oh, I doubt it.” Gabrielle replied. “He had a long way to go. Lot of land around there. I bet he’s got a lot more trading going on though.”
They came even with the trees. The pine branches brushed lightly over Xena’s shoulders, leaving a sweet scent behind. This close, Xena could sense the presence of their tracker, and her nostrils flared as she caught a hint of musk on the air.
Argo snorted, and tossed her head. Ares pricked his ears and shouldered up Xena’s outside, nudging her away from the trees. Xena gave them both a dire look, and tried not to hear the carefully muffled snicker from the blond woman next to her.
She felt the presence come closer, and now her senses pinpointed it, just behind a thick bush past the first row of trees.
A long branch extended over the path. As she passed under it, Xena reached up and took hold, then lifted her body up off the ground and pulled herself into the tree gracefully. She ran down the branch to the trunk, and leaped to the next tree, feeling her body respond with a strength and lightness that delighted her.
She was over the bushes in an instant, and saw the blur of motion below her. Without hesitation she launched herself towards it, angling in mid air to intercept it’s flight. Her hands caught the large figure around the neck and she let her weight do the rest, slamming into him and taking them both down in the underbrush.
They rolled together, both seeking a hold. Xena slammed an elbow into a furry jaw, and felt clawed hands gripping at her, scraping against her shoulders.
She knew it was a forest dweller. The strength was unmistakable. She pulled herself up and around and landed on it’s chest, driving her knees into the leaf litter and drawing her dagger to press against the big, furry neck under her. “Hold it.”
Big, hazel eyes blinked up at her, set deep inside a fur covered face that featured a blunt muzzle and an outthrust jaw.
Xena’s dagger remained steady. She met her adversary’s eyes with an even chill.
For a moment, she thought he was going to struggle. Then he lifted his hands, and laid them back in an attitude of surrender, his lips parting to show a set of very impressive fangs. “Whatever you say, Chosen.”
The invocation of that particular title made Xena’s lips twitch. “I say start talking, and tell me why you’re following us.” Ares thrust his way through the bushes at that moment, and growled, baring his teeth at the forest dweller.
The forest dweller growled back.
“Stop that.” Xena cuffed him.
Ares growled. Xena turned and cuffed him. “You stop that too.”
“I wasn’t really following you.” The supine man stated.
Xena lifted her eyebrows at him.
“Wanna let me up? Honest, I was just trying to find a way to approach you without getting my fur singed.”
Reluctantly, Xena eased herself up off the big man, stepping gracefully aside and out of his range as he got to his feet. Standing, he topped her by at least a hand, and doubled her size, but he kept his hands carefully in view as he shook himself off.
“No problem.” Xena called to her partner. “We’re coming out.” She pointed to a gap in the trees, and followed the forest dweller as he edged between them, scraping his chest in the narrow space. They emerged onto the track, to find Gabrielle standing with the horses behind her, her staff held casually across her body.
Dori peeked over her shoulder. The forest dweller kept clear of Gabrielle’s staff and turned to face them as Xena joined the bard. “Okay.” He held his clawed hands up. “My bad. I should have just come out to you last night. But I’d just caught up with you, and I..” He sighed. “Anyway, I was sent to find you.”
“Sent by whom?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged surprised glances. They had last seen their friend Jessan’s father during the war. “What’s the problem?”
The forest dweller’s face took on an unhappy look. ‘He’s dying.”
Gabrielle gasped. “Oh, no. What happened?”
Xena put a hand on the bard’s back. “Gods.”
“It’s…” The forest dweller scrubbed his face with one hand. “It’s been a tough moon. Another tribe attacked us, out of the blue, and a lot of us got hurt. Lestan was one of them – he defended his home and they just… they ran over him, a dozen of them and he couldn’t stop them all.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle exhaled. “Damn.”
“We finally fought them off.” The forest dweller continued. “But we lost a lot of good people. Good warriors. The ones that were left… well, there’s a struggle now to take over after Lestan…”
“Wait.” Xena held a hand up. “You mean to take over the tribe?”
A nod. “One of the soldiers, a young one named Rufus, he blames Lestan for us getting caught by surprise. He wants to take over and make us a war tribe again.”
“Can’t Lestan name a successor?” Gabrielle asked quietly.
“He has. His son. But Jessan’s halfway across the land, and we can’t get there in time.” The forest dweller explained. “Anyway, we don’t’ know if even he could fight off Rufus. So when we heard you were in these parts, Lestan sent me to find you.”
“Why me?” Xena already knew what the answer would be.
“You’re our champion.” The quiet answer came back at her. “He said he would try to hold on until I could find you, and bring you to him.”
Gabrielle took a step forward. “How’s Wennid?”
The forest dweller’s eyes glistened as he gazed at her in silence. “Preparing.” He finally said.
Xena glanced at the sky. “We’d better get moving.” She said. “What’s your name?”
“Tucker.” The forest dweller answered. “So you’ll come then?”
“Of course we will.” Gabrielle answered.
“Let’s go.” Xena said, swinging her body up onto Argo’s back. “Gabrielle, up.” She extended an arm to her partner. “You get on the other one. We don’t’ have time to argue.” She told the forest dweller. “Move it.”
The wind blew colder as they started off, rattling the branches with an ominous chill.
Gabrielle felt her memories haunting her as they crossed the pass and started down into the valley of the forest dwellers. The shape of the rocks around them, sharp and granite brought a day to her mind she often tried to consciously forget. Having Xena in front of her helped, of course. She had her arms wrapped around the warrior’s body, feeling the steady motion of her breathing
The forest seemed a little thicker now, she noticed. Trees and brush had grown in over the path, making the area even more remote than she’d remembered. Her skin stung as a flash of ripping through those branches on Argo’s back came to her, along with the sense of grief stricken panic that had filled her guts as she’d ridden to find help for a partner trapped under half a mountains worth of rocks.
Dying. Gabrielle closed her eyes and let her forehead rest against Xena’a back. The horrible sensation of feeling her slipping away, past anything Gabrielle could do to stop it was something that haunted her to this very day and would for the rest of her life.
She hadn’t been ready to say goodbye. You never were, really, she acknowledged in silence, but then, so soon after they’d become lovers it had hit her with all the unfairness of an unfair life. She remembered the moment she’d spent on that mountainside, after digging until her hands bled, when she’d felt that thread that bound them unraveling.
She remembered screaming.
“Hey.” Xena’s hand wrapped around the one she had circling the warrior, it’s touch feeling comfortingly warm. “What’s going on back there?”
There was really no sense in lying. “Just remembering.” Gabrielle admitted. “Maybe the weather’s reminding me.” She glanced up at the growing clouds. A faint, far off rumble of thunder seemed to echo her thoughts. She sighed. “What a truly sucky day that was.”
“Mm.” Xena kept hold of her hand. “Wasn’t my idea of fun either.”
“I know.” Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena’s shoulderblade.
“But we got through it.” The warrior guided Argo carefully down the steep, rocky trail towards the valley. Behind them, Tucker followed on Iolaus, the forest dweller having fallen silent the last part of the trip. “I all turned out all right.”
True. The bard glanced over her shoulder, where Dori was dozing in her pack. Everything had turned out all right, in the end. Luck, and Xena’s own strength of will had carried them through and they’d left the forest dwellers lands with the gift of each other and knowing how much that was really worth. Gabrielle lifted her hand up and played idly with the crystal necklace around her neck, it’s glittering facets tucked into the woven tunic she wore. “Xena?”
“Poor Lestan.” She felt her partner inhale deeply, and release the breath in a long sigh. “Poor Wennid. They’ve been together a long time.”
“Yes, they have.”
“You and I hadn’t been together that long then, and it felt like I was being ripped to shreds. It must be unbearable for her.”
Xena squeezed her hand. “I’m sure it is.” She replied briefly. Unwillingly, her mind flicked back to a memory of seeing Gabrielle fall away from her, hand outstretched, eyes begging forgiveness as she took Hope into the lava pit. “I’m sure it is.” She repeated in a whisper.
They rode in silence for several lengths, both of them deep in thought.
“Do you think she’ll choose to go with him?” Gabrielle finally asked. “I know Warrin stayed, but he had his son to take care of.”
Xena understood, at some level, what that question meant to both of them. “I think she will.” The warrior answered. “But let’s not think about that until it happens, Gabrielle. You know better than most people not to give up on life so fast.”
The words settled over her, and Gabrielle realized the truth in them. Though she sometimes got frustrated with her partner’s pragmatic way of looking at the world it did have it’s solid, logical points and this was one of them. Lestan wasn’t gone yet, and Xena was right – she knew better than most not to take death for granted. “Okay. Good point.” She gave the warrior a squeeze. “I guess I’m just being gloomy today.”
“Maybe it’s the weather.” Xena glanced up as the first big, fat raindrop plopped itself down on her shoulder and sat for a second, before sliding down her arm. “Got the cloaks handy?”
Gabrielle was already fishing in their packs, pulling out the neatly folded garments. She got Xena’s out first, shaking it open to one side then reaching up to clasp it around Xena’s neck. She arranged the folds, then retrieved her own. She got the hood in place around Dori just as the downpour started in earnest, rattling the leaves next to her and turning Argo’s golden coat a muddy tan. “Glad we’re not up in the mountains anymore.”
Xena looked up over her shoulder to the high peaks, a vivid picture firmly in her mind’s eye. “Me too.” She urged Argo on, towards the valley entrance below.
It was raining so hard they could barely see in front of them when they reached the river. Dori had woken, and was stirring fitfully in the rain, displeased with the cloak Gabrielle had tucked over her. “Mama.. no see!”
Gabrielle reached back and patted her on the leg. “It’s okay honey, just a little longer. We’ll be there soon.”
“I know, I know. But you really can’t see anything anyway, because it’s raining so hard, and we’re behind Boo.”
Gabrielle felt the faint chuckle under the arm she had encircling Xena. “Boo, boo boo.” She hummed, patting Xena’s belly with her hand. After the long day of riding, she found her back bothering her, and between that and the rain, despite what was waiting for them she’d be glad to get to journey’s end. A warm touch circled her knee, and she felt Xena’s hand clasp around it, her thumb rubbing gently along her calf.
Argo splashed into the ford, the water rising quickly up her flanks to cover their boots. Gabrielle winced at the chill, wiggling her toes as the mare stolidly plodded forward. As they approached the far bank, Tucker urged Iolaus ahead of them. “Better let me warn the sentries.” He said, giving them an apologetic look. “Most of the folks who really knew you went to the valley with Jess.”
Xena nodded, turning Argo a little to follow him. “Almost there, girl.” She stroked the neck of the tired mare. She took a moment to let Tucker get ahead of them, half turning in the saddle. “You two okay?”
“We’re just fine, sweetheart.” Gabrielle assured her warmly. “You?”
“I’m drenched, cold, hungry, and not in the mood for prickly forest dwellers.” The warrior informed her. “Other than that, just great.”
Gabrielle managed a grin despite the rain, and pulled herself up to give her partner a quick kiss on the lips. “We’ll survive.”
Xena’s expression turned serious. “This might get tough.” She said. “For both of us.”
The bard patted her side. “I know. Someone once told me to just take things as they came, though, so let’s go find out the worst of it.”
With a nod, Xena turned and started after Tucker. Iolaus was already climbing up the far bank, shaking his golden coat and flicking mud from his hooves. As he gained the bank, there was a sudden shift in the long grass and with an explosion of color, two big bodies attacked him.
“Son of a Bacchae..” Xena clamped her legs down around Argo and reached around for her sword. “I coulda waited a candlemark before finding that worst, Gabrielle.”
With a sigh, Gabrielle freed her staff from under her knee and tugged her cloak down more snugly over Dori. She felt Argo’s muscles surge, and the wind blew against her face. Then she almost tipped backwards as they climbed the bank. Instinctively, she released Xena as they gained the top and took hold with her knees as the warrior launched herself from the saddle and into the fight.
Gabrielle scooted up and grabbed the reins, then tucked them under her leg and circled Argo to her right, looking for an opening.
The two guards were pummeling Tucker, having pulled him out of the saddle and onto the muddy ground. They were growling, so was Tucker, but the nearest one’s growl cut off as Xena landed on him and sent him sprawling. The other forest dweller heard his yelp and whirled, giving Gabrielle her chance. She whipped her staff around in a short, sharp arc and caught him just as he was about to jump on Xena, smacking him on the back of the skull with a sodden crack. He went down.
A moment later, Xena reversed her position and came up, hauling the second guard with her. She didn’t even pause, but hurled the huge body over her shoulder and into a nearby boulder. The forest dweller bounced off, then back onto his feet, extending his claws with a hideous growl.
Xena twirled her sword, the wind suddenly blowing her cloak back and revealing her drenched, wild form. Lightning flashed, glinting off the blade, the fierce grin, and the icy blue eyes. She lifted her hands, and curled her fingers inward. “C’mon.” She yelled at him. “Ya little squirt!”
Tucker sat up and spat out a mouthful of fur and blood. The guard towered over Xena, but at her words he visibly deflated, and stepped back, sheathing his claws and wiping his forearm across his muzzle. “You backward fanged moron. What in the name of Ares d’you think you’re doing?”
Gabrielle moved forward to get a better look. It had been hard to tell from her angle, but now she could tell that these two were young, just past juveniles. “What’s going on?” She asked sharply. “You think this is the time for games?”
He swiveled his head, his rounded ears cupping and going flat as he looked at her with big eyes. “Hey. They told us to watch the crossing, and stop anyone comin across.” He protested. “Even you, Tucks.” His eyes went to his prone friend. “Whatj’a do to him?”
Xena sheathed her sword with a sodden click of disgust. “Why were you told to stop everyone?” She stepped up to the youngster and glared at him. The forest dweller’s eyes dropped. “What’s going on?”
“Is it Lestan?” Tucker asked, getting up. “Beak, spill it.”
The guard nodded. “It’s close, I guess. They chased us all out from the commons. Just the bonded are there.” He looked at the two humans. “So you can’t go.”
“Of course we can.” Gabrielle felt her chest ache. “Come on. We’d better get there.” She moved started to move back, but Xena waved her forward instead. She pulled herself up near the saddlehorn and leaned forward as Xena leaped up behind her. “Careful.”
“Don’t worry.” Xena snaked a long arm around her and captured the reins, tucking herself in back of Gabrielle with space to spare for Dori. She directed Argo with her knees, and they moved past the three forest dwellers without much of a backwards glance.
“Wait! Wait!” The guard turned. “How could you bring humans here, now! Of all times! Tucker, are you nuts?”
“Stupid fur ball.” Tucker eased after Iolaus. “That’s Xena.” He caught the stallions reins. “Turn him over before he drowns.” He pointed at the other young guard. “You’re lucky they didn’t just kill you. I didn’t have time to tell them what was going on.”
He mounted Iolaus and rode after Argo, leaving the river behind him.
There was a pall over the village that Gabrielle could feel as they rode in. It didn’t look that different from what she remembered – a circular patch carved out of the forest, a central common area surrounded by well built huts that almost blended into the trees. The large firepit was sodden and dark, and there was obvious damage throughout the village, however.
Fences that had held the village horses were shattered, and the fields were emptied. Near the edge of the trees, there was also evidence of a burial pit.
Some of the huts were collapsed in on themselves. Gabrielle looked at one as they passed, wincing at the sad sight of a child’s toy hanging half shredded from a broken pole.
The circle of round huts were silent, and a cluster of mottled fur could be seen near the center one, the one she knew was Lestan and Wennid’s. The air was thick with dread, even outside the weather and she felt eyes turn towards her as Argo slowed to a halt. Xena slid down and paused, taking her arm as she followed suit and steadying her as she landed on her feet next to the mare.
For once, she didn’t protest. “Xe.”
The warrior straightened next to her, shaking her drenched hair back out of her eyes. “I know.” She pulled her cloak closer, and did the same for Gabrielle’s. “C’mon. Let’s see what we can do.” She motioned Ares forward. “Under the porch, boy.” The wolf shook the water out of his coat and escaped gratefully out of the rain, huddling under the wooden structure and licking his paws.
They walked together towards the homestead. The ring of forest dwellers turned to watch them, but offered no resistance to their passing. Xena slipped an arm around her as they walked up the stairs and Gabrielle felt very glad of the warm support as they entered the sturdy structure.
Inside was worse. Here there were people they knew, forest dwellers Gabrielle remembered from her last visit, in a long rainy afternoon’s storytelling. They were seated in every available space, arms clasped over knees, looks of stolid patience on their faces. Near the back of the dwelling a large doorway stood open, and through that she could see one of the round beds common to their people.
“Welcome, my sisters.” The eldest of the soulbonded stood and walked to greet them. “I’m glad you’ve come.” She held out furred hands to both of them, and looked at them from pained eyes. “Though I wish it were a happier occasion.”
Cessi, her name was, the bard remembered suddenly. Gabrielle clasped the hands held out to her, and felt Dori squirm at her back. “Me too.”
“Mama?” Dori poked her head over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Guff!” Her eyes widened at the room full of furred people.
“Your little one.” The gray furred elder managed a smile. “It has been such a long time, little sister.”
“Yes, it has.” Gabrielle pulled her hood back and threw her cloak over a shoulder. “We came as soon as we knew.” She said. “How are things?”
“Not well.” Cessi sighed. “The end is close, now.”
Xena eased past them and threaded her way towards the back room. Her nose already detected a dire injury and she put niceties aside as her healer’s instincts kicked in. She put her hand on the door frame and edged past the two forest dwellers closest to the door, looking up to find Wennid looking back at her.
“Xena.” Jessan’s mother whispered. Her eyes were sunken into her head, and her fur was matted with blood and worse. She was curled up in the round bed cradling Lestan’s still form, the fingers of one hand rhythmically stroking his blood stained skin.
Xena dropped to a knee next to the bed, shocked by the damage she saw on the tall body before her. One half of Lestan’s chest had been ripped away, and his crippled arm was missing. Only the faintest motion of his chest indicated any life at all, and Xena wondered how in all Hades the forest dweller had remained alive even this long. “Gods.” She laid a hand on the stricken man’s knee.
“I think I have stopped believing in them.” Wennid whispered. “I think he did. He said he’d rather put his trust in you.”
Xena’s eyes lifted, aware that the room’s attention was now squarely focused on her. “Let me get my kit.” She started to stand, but Wennid lifted a hand and stopped her.
“There’s nothing you can do.”
“You don’t know that.” Xena replied. She straightened and headed for the door, but in her heart, she did know, just as Wennid did, that no healer, no matter how skilled, could fix this kind of damage. Her nature forced her to try, though, and she steeled herself for the effort.
Gabrielle slowly let her breath out as she stood in the doorway, already feeling the grief that lay heavy around the room inside. Dori had gone very quiet, her small hands clutching Gabrielle around the neck as she watched over her shoulder.
She recognized faces here, too. Every neck had a glittering crystal on it, like hers, only unique in it’s facets and shape. Partners sat side by side, some holding hands, four of them right up against the round bed lending a comforting touch to Wennid.
Xena stood and moved to walk past her, their eyes meeting in mute, horrible understanding. Gabrielle slid her arms around her partner as she passed, giving her a little hug and letting her touch linger until the warrior moved along. She felt Xena’s lips brush her damp hair on the way by, and the sensation calmed her in a way few other things could.
She knelt beside Wennid, in the small space left near the bed, and took her hand in her own. “I’m so sorry.” Gabrielle said. “I know how horrible this is for you.” Her mist green eyes met the liquid golden ones in aching sympathy.
Wennid’s lips twitched a little. “Yes, you do, don’t you?” She murmured.
The forest dweller squeezed her hand. Her eyes tracked to the small face behind the bard. “Hello, little one.”
“Hi.” Dori replied, watching with big, round eyes.
Gabrielle unhooked the pack and pulled Dori around to sit on her knee, holding her in place with one arm. “This is our daughter, Doriana. Dori, this is Wennid, she’s a friend.” She heard and felt Xena enter behind her, the warrior’s presence materializing warm and real at her shoulder.
Wennid extended a finger to Dori, which was clasped immediately The woman’s eyes went unfocused, then sharpened again. “She has the spirit of both of you in her.” The forest dweller whispered in a wondering tone. “It is true.”
“It sure is.” Gabrielle patted her daughter’s belly. She glanced to one side, where Xena was silently examining Lestan and almost shuddered at the horrible damage to their old friend.
Xena had removed the bandage around his shoulder, and she could see the white of bone showing. They’d packed the wounds as best they could, but without the covering of skin, infection had taken hold and the entire area was an endless patch of festering flesh.
“Mama. Owie.” Dori burbled softly. “No good.”
Gabrielle heard the whispers behind her. “No, sweetheart. It’s not good.” She said.
Xena looked back over her own shoulder, her face tense in the low light. She opened her mouth to answer, then shook her head and turned back.
That one motion was enough, though. Gabrielle felt her heart sink. She looked up at Wennid, and saw a grim, dull acceptance in her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I.” Wennid said. “The fates… the fates. I cursed him for going off to war with you the last time, and not a scratch, only to come back home to this.”
“What happened?” Gabrielle gently distracted her from what Xena was doing, the warrior’s precise hand motions cleaning away cruelly tortured flesh and releasing pockets of virulent yellow infection.
Wennid shifted Lestan’s head in her arms and stroked his furry ears. The stricken man showed no signs of reaction and Gabrielle had to look twice and closely to see if his faint breathing continued.
Cessi moved closer, settling by Wennid’s side. “It came from the northern forest.” She put a gentle hand on her friend’s shoulder. “There was no warning. It was midday, just after lunch and they just came on us. They killed the sentries and rode through the village, wrecking everything they could get their hands on, the bastards.”
Wennid nodded weakly. “I was in the garden.” Her eyes shifted to the nearby wall. “They burned my garden.”
Gabrielle felt a sense of rage against the remorseless attackers. Her hands twitched and closed into half fists, wishing desperately that she and Xena had been there to help. “Why?”
“Why.” Cessi shook her head. “Why do you humans fight? Why do you kill one another?”
“A lot of reasons.” Gabrielle admitted. “Most of them bad ones.”
“They wanted our horses, our grain… easier to steal than to grow things, buy things, isn’t it?” The elder forest dweller said. “And I think they just enjoyed the battle. We do.”
Instinctively, Gabrielle’s eyes went to Xena’s profile. She saw the jaw muscles there bunch, but the warrior remained silent. “We do too, sometimes.”
“They surrounded Lestan. He had little chance.”
“What did this?” Xena spoke for the first time, her low voice cutting through the grayness of the mood.
Wennid stroked the blood stained fur, tears welling up in her eyes. “He was so brave.”
“They.. roped him between two horses.” Cessi murmured. “And then they pulled in opposite directions.”
Xena looked at her, then she looked at Gabrielle. Unspoken words flicked between them before the warrior went back to her hapless task. “What about this trouble Tucker told us about? Someone wanting his job?”
Gabrielle watched the nervous looks being exchanged between the forest dwellers in the room. She sensed no one wanted to discuss the mysterious Rufus, and she wondered what it was that had these ferocious people so frightened.
Xena seemed to sense it as well. She let her ice blue eyes travel the room once, absorbing the silence, before she returned her attention to horrific wounds.
She could not save him, and she knew it. The infection had spread through his body, and even now it was driving him deeper and deeper into the twilight, his life essence fading almost before her eyes. She removed her herbal pouches from her kit and studied them, combining several with a squeeze of the cleansing paste she and Gabrielle used all the time. Dabbing her fingers in it, she gently spread the mixture on the wounds, now bright, raw red where she’d taken out the dead flesh. Blood ran sluggishly at her touch, but she kept on until she finished, covering the gaping wounds with yet more powdered herbs and a clean wrapping of bandage.
He never felt any of it, she was sure. She could see his face, slack and unresponsive, lips half curled in an unconscious grimace. Xena took his remaining hand in her own and held it, the flesh warm with fever, and dry to the touch.
“Xena.” Wennid rasped.
The warrior turned towards her, with a questioning look.
“It’s not going to help.” Xena said.
“I know.” She replied. “But… somehow, I think he’ll know, down in there somewhere, that you’re here, and it’s okay for him to go now.”
Xena gazed quietly at her, unable to speak for the lump in her throat. She finally nodded, then slowly lowered herself to the mat covered floor, keeping hold of Lestan’s hand
Cessi eased aside, and motioned for Gabrielle to sit next to the bed. “Wait with us.”
With a heavy heart, Gabrielle sat, extending her legs out and tangling them with her partner, seeking the comfort of her touch. She settled Dori on her lap and hugged her, turning her head to look at the gathering of soft, sad eyes scattered across the room.
“Gabrielle.” Wennid whispered.
“I’m here.” The bard reassured her.
“Tell us a story.” The forest dweller asked. “I’d like to hear that. I think he would too.”
Gabrielle had to swallow a few times before she could speak. “All right.” She managed to get out. She paused for a brief moment, and felt Xena’s hand curl around her calf reassuringly. “I’ll tell you the story of a friend, and how we came to know him.”
A soft ripple of sound crossed the room, and Gabrielle could see the waiting figures outside coming closer to the door. She took a deep breath, and started.
Xena stood in the darkness, Dori cradled in her arms as she looked out over the moonlit village. It was near dawn, and she’d gotten up to change her daughter and stretch her cramped body out from the long vigil. She hitched herself up onto the porch railing and exhaled, glad of the cool breeze.
“Boo.. boo.” Dori put her arms around Xena’s neck. “You gots sad.”
Xena gazed down at her. “Yeah. I am sad.” She told the child. She questioned again the wisdom of keeping Dori in the hut with them, but acknowledged there really wasn’t any other way, unless she wanted to separate from Gabrielle.
Xena didn’t want to do that. Just as the rest of the forest dwellers felt a need to be with Wennid during her sad ordeal, Xena felt a need to share it with her partner.
“Very.” The warrior sighed, wondering how to explain what was going on to the toddler. “Dori, you’re gonna have to be really good for a while. Something very bad is happening.”
Dori peered at up at her with wide, green eyes. “What’s bad?”
Xena picked up one of Dori’s small hands and held it in her own. “Mama and I have a friend inside there and he’s very sick.”
“He just is.” The warrior said. “Bad things happened to him.”
Dori blinked. “Make owie?” She asked. “Bad mens make him owie?”
“Yes.” Xena was mildly surprised at Dori’s understanding. “Very bad men made him owie, and now he’s very very sick.”
Dori stuck her thumb in her mouth and put her head down on Xena’s shoulder. “Boo fix.” She mumbled. “Make good.”
The confidence in the toddler’s tone made Xena flinch inside. Dori was convinced she could do anything, with probably good reason. She’d never failed yet, in Dori’s eyes.
Xena exhaled. “Dori, sometimes I can’t fix things.”
Dori shook her head. “No. Boo fix. Make good.”
Xena hugged her gently. “Oh, Dori.” She ruffled the dark hair, and kissed the top of her head. “I wish I could this time.”
She heard a faint creak at her back, but her senses recognized the presence behind her easily and she didn’t turn around. Gabrielle appeared behind her a moment later, sniffling a little as she slid her arms around her and rested her head on the warrior’s shoulder. “Oh, Xe.”
“I know.” Xena leaned her head against her soulmate’s. “I know.”
“How long can he hang on?” The bard whispered.
Xena shook her head. “He’s getting weaker.” She murmured back. “I just wish I could…” She stopped and gazed off across the darkened village. She’d changed the poultices twice, even though she knew it wasn’t doing much good. Each time, she’d seen the bloody discharge of their friend’s life seeping away.
“At least you made him more comfortable.” Gabrielle felt the muscles in her partner’s neck release as her shoulders dropped, and the unhappy look on her face was plain even in the darkness. “I know it doesn’t help much.”
“Mama..” Dori pulled her thumb out of her mouth. “Make Boo fix.”
Gabrielle winced. “Honey, Boo’s doing the best she can, okay? Sometimes you can’t always fix things like this, even when you’re really good at it, like Boo is.”
“Boo..Boo…Boo…” Dori chanted. “Boo make all good, go play.”
“She has a lot of faith in you.” Gabrielle took one of Xena’s hands in hers, and rubbed it. “Probably got that from me.”
There was a tiny smile to be found in that thought. Xena treasured it, no matter the circumstances.
The door opened behind them. “Xena?” Cessi called out softly. “Please come.”
The warrior took a deep breath and got off the railing, turning to look at Gabrielle. “Why don’t you keep her out here?” She untangled Dori’s hands from her neck and passed her over to her mother.
“No.” Gabrielle hefted the toddler up. “We stay together.” She followed Xena inside, her eyes lifting to meet Cessi’s.
The elder soulbond managed a brief smile. “We all will.”
They walked past the silent watchers, back into the bedroom. Xena’s tall figure collected the candlelight as she made her way to the bed, a way being cleared around her. The still forms on the bed hadn’t changed much, but Wennid now was cradling Lestan’s head against her chest, her fingers stroking the soft fur around his face.
“He opened his eyes, a little.” Wennid whispered, her eyes searching Xena’s face. “I thought if there was a chance… you’d want to speak to him.”
“Thanks.” Xena knelt, and put a hand on Lestan’s wrist. “Lestan.”
Very slowly, the forest dweller’s eyelids flickered half open, revealing dark mahogany, glazed orbs that looked directly at the warrior.
Gabrielle inhaled in surprise, and saw Xena’s back stiffen in her own reaction. She joined her partner and watched the eyes track to her, bringing a smile to her face. “Hi.”
Lestan’s lips twitched faintly. His gaze shifted back to Xena and the tip of his tongue emerged, painfully moistening his lips. “Need..”
“I’ll take care of things, Lestan.” Xena spoke first. “Don’t worry.”
His eyes closed in acknowledgement, then opened. “Ch..” The rasp was barely audible.
Xena tightened her grip on his hand. “I’m here.”
“Th..ks.” He seemed to relax a little.
Was that it? Xena threw her mind into furious thought. Would she let him slip away now, that he knew his family and his people would be taken care of? Damn it, there had to be something…
Xena’s voice suddenly took on a deeper, more compelling tone. “But it’s gonna cost you.”
A tiny ripple of shock went through the listeners. Xena ignored them, focusing on the glassy eyes facing her. She felt Gabrielle’s hand on her back, warm through her leathers. It was not a censure – she could sense the solid support in the bard’s posture.
“U.. h.” Lestan put a tiny question into the sound. “What?” The second word was clearer, but only barely.
Xena leaned forward, capturing his eyes with her own. “Live.”
Utter silence dropped over them. Lestan’s half opened eyes stared at her. There was a shadow of a motion, that might have been a shake of his head no.
“Don’t you tell *me* no.” Xena growled. “All you gotta do is want to bad enough. Been there, done that.”
Wennid was staring at her, Xena knew. She ignored the look and concentrated on Lestan’s flagging attention. She knew she had seconds, maybe, to impact a mind already fogged by impending death. One chance, to make a difference. “You want me to put my life on the line, Lestan.. you want me to risk that.. risk myself, risk Gabrielle, and our child – then damn you, you owe me your life. Do it.”
Gabrielle swallowed, not daring to say a word. She could feel the tension in Xena’s body, and in the charged atmosphere, even Dori didn’t make a sound. Behind her, she could almost hear everyone in the room holding their breath. Looking up, she found Lestan’s flickering gaze on her. “She’s right.” The bard said huskily.
Slowly, his eyes slid shut. They all waited in petrified silence.
Almost anticlimactically, all that happened was that his chest continued to rise and fall, the short, strained breaths audible in the stillness. Xena lifted her head and met Wennid’s eyes evenly, and for a few heartbeats, they simply looked at each other.
Then the forest dweller pulled Lestan closer, and put her head down to rest on his, closing her eyes.
Xena let out a long held breath. She turned as Gabrielle put her head down on her shoulder, nuzzling her. Dori clung to her mother’s neck, her eyes bright with interest. Xena reached up and tousled the toddler’s hair, hoping her one slim chance would against all odds take hold.
They could only wait now – wait and see.