Gabrielle trudged into the room, letting her bags drop near the stone fireplace as she watched Xena light the torches, Dori at her heels.
It had been a very long, very hard day. But now they were here, and safe, and she felt her body want to dissolve into a puddle as she took in the not quite familiar outlines of the cavern they were standing in.
Someone had taken great care to make it a home. Gabrielle appreciated that. It had a fireplace whose chimney was a hollowed out crack in the rock, and there were stone channels carefully cut to bring in water from a source she could only imagine.
Near one wall was a table, strong and as well made as the one in her cabin at home. There was a bedframe, though anything that had rested on it was long since gone.
The chest that had held the scrolls she’d found had been removed, but otherwise the cavern looked much like it had the last time they’d been here. “Buh.”
Xena turned and let her body thump against the wall, her very expression so exhausted it almost hurt to watch her. “Glad we made it.”
“Me, too.” Gabrielle had entertained some doubts, as they’d made the precarious climb down the shaft into this little haven. Argo and Ares they’d left outside, down the mountain in a secluded, small valley with plenty of grass for the mare, and rabbits for the wolf. “Gods, I’m tired.” She sat down and opened her arms up. “C’mere, Doriboo. Give mama a hug.” Mostly she wanted to distract Dori from trying to pull off her partner’s knee armor, the toddler’s yanking making Xena perceptibly sway.
Xena seemed to appreciate the thought. She pushed away from the wall and came over to where Gabrielle was sitting, taking the seat next to her and extending her legs out with a sigh. “Damn, I ache.” She admitted quietly.
Gabrielle patted her leg. “Let me get a fire started, and we’ll have some soup.” She got up, hurting herself, but knowing if Xena was admitting that, she must be close to the end of her rope. “Come on, Dori – help mama make dinner.”
“Yum.” Dori ambled after her willingly.
Wood had been left here from the last time, though the forest dwellers had told her they’d steered clear of the place since then. It was dry, thankfully, and she stacked it neatly in the fireplace and pulled out a soft wad of tinder. Keeping Dori’s hands back with parental instinct, she struck a few sparks, and blew gently on the tinder to get it going.
The weather had started to worsen on their way up the mountain and now, through the slim air shafts inside the chamber she could feel the cool dampness trickling down. With a stifled groan, she sat down in front of the fireplace and tugged her bag over. “Hey, Xe?”
“Uh?” The warrior grunted softly.
“Do we have everything you need? For your chest, I mean?”
Xena didn’t answer for a long moment. The she cleared her throat. “I’ve got you and her. Don’t’ need anything else.”
Aww. Gabrielle found a smile somewhere hearing that. “That’s not exactly what I meant.”
The bard pulled her pot from their gear. “Dori, can you put water in this for mama?” She handed the utensil to the toddler, and watched her go for the stone basin. “Good girl.”
Dori threw the pot into the basin and clapped.
“Honey, I need water in the pot, not pot in the water.” Gabrielle removed a thick packet of dried herbs and vegetables from her bag. “Come on, you can do it.”
Dori splashed her hands in the water, delighted as it sloshed over the side and wet the pale stone to almost black. “Good!”
Gabrielle glanced over at Xena, who had her head propped up on one fist, and the hint of a tired smile on her face. She felt very glad to be here, and alone with her family, knowing they all needed a time out, a bit of peace in which to heal and regroup. “You think that’s funny, huh??”
“Me too.” Gabrielle clapped her hands. “C’mon, Dori. Bring me that pot, right here!”
Dori clasped the handle and pulled the pot upright, then managed to tug it out of the water. It wasn’t easy. The water filled appliance was heavy, and it sloshed messily from all sides as Dori dragged it back over to where her mother was waiting. “Bck.”
“What a good girl.” Gabrielle rolled over onto her side and extended her arm, helping Dori haul the pot the last little bit. “Oof.” She winced as her back seized up on her.
Xena sighed, getting up and walking over to the fire. She dropped down next to her partner and clasped her shoulders as she eased upright, supporting her.
Gabrielle moved her head cautiously, hearing another pop as whatever had gotten out of place slid back. She held still as Xena’s hands touched her neck, letting out her breath slowly as the gentle fingertips pressed against her skin. “It’s um…” She bit her lip as a slight turn of her head brought pain back.
“It’s a damn bad injury.” Xena told her. “But now we’re someplace I can do something about it.”
The words felt like Elysia had just landed on her butt. Gabrielle exhaled in something like relief as she dumped the dried stuff into the water and nudged it over the fire. “What are we going to do about you?” She watched Dori stoop next to the fire, and toss a bit of kindling into it. “Watch out, sweetie. That’s hot.”
“Hot?” Dori looked over her shoulder.
“Owie.” Xena and Gabrielle both spoke at once.
Dori blinked, then she carefully pulled her hands back and sat down, patting the stone with her palms. “Mama, where’s Guff?” She asked. “Guff’s gots to got fishies.”
Slowly, Xena sat down, extending her long legs on either side of Gabrielle’s seated form. Then, in silence, she wrapped both her arms around the bard’s torso and exhaled.
“Guff will have lots of fishes where he is, sweetheart.” Gabrielle leaned back against the warrior’s body. She could feel the heat of Xena’s fever through her clothes, and the rasp of her breathing was almost painful. “You’re going to stay here with mama and Boo, and we’ll find Guff when we’re done having fun here. Okay?”
Dori considered. “Otay.” She scrambled around and started rooting in Gabirelle’s bag, coming out with Flamball. “Go get fishes.” She got up and headed for the water basin. “Go go go go go….” With a happy warble, she tossed Flameball into the basin, then climbed in after him, splashing around with a delighted squeal.
“Well.” Gabrielle slowly rubbed her partner’s leg. “At least it’s shallow.”
“Uh huh.” Xena rested her cheek against the bard’s head. Her eyes slid shut.
“Xe?” The bard turned her head, and studied the drawn profile so close to her. “Why don’t you go lie down, and I’ll bring some soup over to you when it’s done?”
“Then I gotta move.” The warrior uttered. “Don’t wanna.”
Well, Gabrielle was finding her living backrest pretty darn comfortable, for that matter. She decided it couldn’t hurt for them just to sit quietly for a while, waiting for her soup to brew up and watching their daughter play in her impromptu bath.
A thought occurred to her. “How are you doing in here?” She asked her partner, remembering the conflict that had lead Xena into this cavern in the first place.
“Uh?” Xena didn’t seem to understand the question for a second.
Guess it must not be a problem. Gabrielle started unlacing one of Xena’s boots. She could feel the skin beneath the thick leggings, warm and dry to her touch.
“I’m all right.” The warrior murmured. “Bothered me coming down the shaft, but now it’s okay.”
The bard continued unlacing. She loosened the leather around Xena’s calf, then she tugged the boot completely off.
To her surprise, a coin fell out, clattering softly on the rock, then rolling to a halt near Xena’s knee. “You have a hole in your belt pouch, hon?”
Xena rested her chin on Gabrielle’s shoulder and observed the coin. “Huh.” She reached down and picked it up, examining it. “Where in the Hades did this come from?”
Gabrielle looked at it. The metal piece was stamped with an unfamiliar sigil, and as she turned it over, she could just make out a lion’s head on the reverse. “I haven’t seen this one before.”
“I have.” Xena frowned. “But not for a long time. It’s from Sparta.”
“Sparta?” Gabrielle repeated. “Xena we haven’t been near Sparta for… gods, have we ever been near Sparta?”
“You haven’t.” The warrior said. “As for me… it’s been a while.” Xena took the coin and studied it. “Very strange.” She said. “Very… very strange.”
The bard drummed her fingers on the inside of Xena’s knee. “Could… we have maybe picked it up in Athens?” She hazarded. “And it was folded inside one of your tunics, or…”
“Ah.” Xena sniffed. “Yeah, could be.” She took a breath, then regretted it as it triggered a coughing jag. “Ow.”
“Hang in there, tiger.” Gabrielle started working on the other boot, now that their momentary mystery seemed to be solved. Her soup had started to steam gently, and she could smell the spices in it. Her stomach rumbled in reaction, making her take a hand off Xena’s laces and reach for her bag.
Xena beat her to it, retrieving an apple and handing it over. “Here.” The warrior teased hoarsely. “You’re making my ears ring.”
“Tch.” Gabrielle took a bite of the apple, chewing the sweet fruit then pausing as she felt the sharpness of a seed in her mouth. With a mischeivious look, she tilted her head carefully to one side and extended her tongue slightly, daring Xena to remove the seed.
Xena glanced up at Dori, who was busy trying to drown her toy, then she gracefully dipped down and twined her tongue with her soulmate’s , deepening the contact as she removed the appleseed and took it into her own mouth.
She could sense the tingle in her guts, despite her illness, and with a rakish grin she swallowed the seed, returning to rest her forehead against Gabrielle’s.
“Y’know, that could be dangerous.” Gabrielle allowed herself to simply enjoy the moment. She poked her partner gently. “If you start craving honey on your fish, don’t blame me.”
Xena chuckled. “You’ll be the one craving.” She reminded the bard. “And it’ll certainly be your damn fault.”
Gabrielle chortled wearily. “We shouldn’t joke about that.” She turned her gaze to Dori. “She’d be so pissed if we gave her competition for our attention.”
“Mama.” Dori held up her now sadly dripping stuffed animal. “West. Ick. No good.”
The bard sighed ruefully. “Okay, honey. Now you have to let him dry or he’s going to smell like Guff when he gets wet.”
“Foo.” Dori’s tiny nose wrinkled.
“Okay.” Gabrielle tugged Xena’s other boot off, then she reluctantly released herself from her partner’s hold and got carefully to her knees. “Let’s get some dinner, then…” She had to pause, wincing.
“Then we rest.” Xena finished. “Be the first damn decent sleep for me in a week.”
Gabrielle patted her sock covered foot. She tweaked the toe she felt underneath there, and it wiggled. “You got it, partner. “ She climbed to her feet and headed for the wet, bedraggled toy and it’s equally soaked owner. “C’mon, bandit baby. Time to be good.”
“Good.” Dori sloshed out of the basin and pattered over to Xena, throwing herself into her buddy’s arms. “Booo!”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. Then Xena just smiled and shook her head.
“What are you doing?” Gabrielle was lying on her stomach, her head resting on a makeshift pillow. She could feel Xena manipulating parts of her back, but not being able to see her partner was giving her a twitch.
“I’m drawing a picture of a cross-eyed sheep on you.” Xena muttered, shifting a little and making the bed’s leather under strapping creak in protest.
“Ah.” The bard accepted the very mild rebuke with a smile. “Make sure you draw the tail going down, not up, Xena. You know I hate that.” She felt a light tickle across her spine, and knew it was reassurance.
She put her head back down on her arm and tried her best to relax. Dori was taking a nap in her folding cradle, and they all had full bellies from the pot of soup she’d made. Even Xena had gotten down three bowls of it, and the hot liquid had eased her throat and made her voice sound almost normal.
It felt good to be lying down, not hungry, not cold, not wet, in the presence of her family, and safe. Gabrielle let out a very slow breath, her fingers ruffling the familiar furs they had brought with them. “Mm.” She felt a gentle easing across her shoulderblades, and just that quickly, something changed and a wave of sensation spread across her shoulders and down both arms. “Oo.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle flexed one hand. “Strange. Not bad, just…”
“Was it like running warm water over your hands when you’re cold?”
Gabrielle thought about that. “Yeah, sort of. Just a tickling kind of feeling. It’s gone now, but.. “ The bard carefully arched her back, and rocked her head a little. “Wow, that feels much better. What’dja do?”
Xena sighed, easing down onto her side and wrapping her body around Gabrielle’s. “It’s what I’m going to do now that should be worrying you.”
One green eyeball rotated to watch her. “Oh?”
The warrior pulled her into a snug, secure hold. “I’m gonna make sure you don’t budge until that starts healing.”
Gabrielle found herself held quite still. “Ah.” She said. “That means I have to stay here?”
“In this bed?”
“Hot piggy wonks.” The bard nestled closer to her. “Let’s just hope Dori keeps snoozing.”
“Hm.” Xena tucked a bit of the pillow under Gabrielle’s head, tilting it straighter. “Damn thing’s not as bad as I thought it might be. You’ve just got a lot of stress there, and it’s sore.”
Gabrielle felt her eyes start to drift closed. “I think that sort of describes me all over.” She admitted. “I’ve been in knots for so long I’m forgetting what it feels like to just be bored and normal.” Her fingers twined with Xena’s. “Kinda sad, huh?”
Xena used her free hand to stroke the bard’s upper arm. Now that she’d satisfied herself about how bad Gabrielle’s injury was she felt a lot more relaxed, and even the uncomfortable congestion in her head and chest seemed to ease. “Nah.” She murmured. “It’s natural, Gabrielle. It was tough in that damn valley.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle made a small noise of agreement. “But we’ve been through tough times before, Xena. I never…” She fell silent for a bit. “I’ve never felt this… shaken up before.”
Was it true? The warrior puzzled over the words.
“You know what?” Gabrielle broke into the silence after a bit.
“Remember the last time we were here?” The bard said. “No, I don’t mean do you remember it, obviously we both do, but I remember something you said, just before the fight with Secan.”
Xena thought back to that time. It was hard, like it always was for her to think about those golden months between the deepening of their relationship and the breaking of it. Everything seemed to have happened to someone else, someone she barely remembered sometimes.
“You told me you were too scared to fight.”
Xena’s eyebrows hiked up invisibly. I did? “Ah.”
“You said the risk was so much greater for you, it made it hard for you to do what you needed to do. Remember that?”
Vaguely. “Yeah.” The warrior replied.
“Maybe that’s how I feel.” Gabrielle said. “I… I mean, I always knew we took risks, Xena. I’m not an idiot.”
“No.” Xena rubbed her shoulder comfortingly.
“Maybe now, though, the risks mean more. I don’t..” The bard exhaled. “I don’t think I’ve become a coward, but I don’t know if I can keep…” She shook her head. “I don’t know what I’m trying to say.”
“You value what you have in your life and don’t want to lose any of it.” Xena replied succinctly.
“It’s natural, Gabrielle.”
Slowly, the bard rolled over inside Xena’s embrace so they were facing each other. She rested her hand on Xena’s hip, and studied her face with quiet intensity. “I know it is.” She said. “It’s a completely normal thing for anyone with a lick of sense to feel.”
“But we’re not normal people with licks of sense.”
Xena sighed. “I know.”
Gabrielle tucked her head into the hollow of the warrior’s shoulder. “Heroes aren’t supposed to be selfish.”
Weren’t they? Xena considered the question. She supposed not, Certainly, Hercules had never seemed selfish to her, but then again, she knew herself intimately, and she knew damn well she was far from selfish, so did that mean heroes just didn’t admit to it, or did it mean she just wasn’t one?
“The thought of risking you…”
“Me?” Xena interrupted mildly. “I’m not the one who was being pushed off ledges.”
Gabrielle just looked at her. “You know what I mean.”
Xena hugged her. “I know.” She said again, with another sigh. “There is no good answer to that, and we both know it.”
The bard did know it. “Ah well. Maybe I just need a couple days to chill out.” She admitted. “I get really cranky when I’m hurting.”
Privately, Xena didn’t think so. In fact, she thought it was possible it was time they turned their path towards home, and spent some time in the familiar confines of Amphipolis. It was one thing to have them two of them out wandering the world by themselves, but like it or not, they were a family now and they had responsibilities to each other, and to Dori that all the heroic rationalizations in the world would not change.
Strangely, it didn’t seem to bother her nearly as much as it was bothering Gabrielle. Was there still that core of impressionable young kid inside her partner, that chunk of idealism that was getting chipped away through experience?
Xena studied Gabrielle’s profile, dimly seen in the firelight. Then she smiled wryly to herself. Yeah. “You’ll be all right.” She told the bard. “Get some rest.”
Gabrielle rubbed her thumb against her partner’s breastbone. “Are you going to be okay?” She asked, in a very low tone. “I’ve never seen you sick like this before.” Her eyes lifted again, and they gazed somberly at each other. “Y’know I’m a lot more worried about you than I am about me.”
“Likewise.” Xena smiled rakishly.
The bard had to smile back, but she pressed her lips against Xena’s shoulder a moment later. “I was serious.”
“I’ll be fine, love.” The warrior told her. “I need what you need. Rest.”
Gabrielle exhaled, a warm stream against Xena’s skin. “Promise?” she asked, after a pause.
“Promise.” Xena replied at once.
“Umph.” The bard grunted in some contentment, nestling closer and relaxing. After a minute, though, she lifted her head up again. “Y’know, I was talking to Wennid about this bond thing, Xena, and she explained all about that sharing energy thing and..”
“Gabrielle.” Xena interrupted her. “I love you.”
“Mm.” The bard blinked a few times. “I love you too.” She murmured. “Does that mean, Gabrielle, shut up?”
Xena chuckled soundlessly.
“I can’t help it. My mind’s all whacked out.” Gabrielle told her. “This stuff just keeps going over and over angb….mm.” She had to stop talking as Xena’s lips covered hers. A feather light touch drifted over her cheek, then Xena’s hand slowly moved down her shoulder and came to rest on her side.
“Let it go.” Xena whispered in her ear. “We’re all right.”
Gabrielle felt a certain tension in her relax at that. “Okay.” She settled herself into the circle of Xena’s arms and surrendered to the exhaustion that was making her mind run in circles. Xena had things under control.
She could trust that.
Her eyes closed, her body already giving in and slumping against her partner’s as she let go of the strangling anxiety knotting her guts. Her heartbeat slowed, coming to match Xena’s, and she found herself breathing in the warrior’s rhythm despite her illness.
The world slipped away from her.
Xena felt Gabrielle drop into sleep, and she released a slight sigh of relief. Now that the bard was asleep, she could get rid of the nagging worries in her own head and compose herself to join her soulmate in the healing rest she knew they both desperately needed.
Something was chewing at her, though, and she spent a few precious moments rooting it out. It wasn’t about her own illness, or about the bard’s injury – nor was it concern about where they would go from here.
It was a coin.
While she’d agreed with Gabrielle’s suggestion that they’d picked up the coin in Athens, she knew perfectly well that if she’d had a Spartan coin in her belongings, she’d have known about it. Unlike Gabrielle, who tended to stick all kinds of things in her bags, and even more so when Dori was with them – Xena did not. What was in her kit, was what she put in her kit, and every item in it had a purpose.
Well. The warrior stretched her body out, then curled it around Gabrielle’s again. Except for those little notes, and the honey balls. But everything else, strictly business.
So, where had that coin come from?
The fire’s embers had burned a little lower, before they no longer reflected off a pair of pale blue eyes finally closed in sleep.
Gabrielle woke in total darkness. She opened her eyes, then almost panicked when even after blinking them the room remained inky black. Instinctively, she turned her head towards where she knew the fireplace was, and strained, but there wasn’t even a hint of a glow from it.
“Okay.” She whispered to herself. “Don’t lose it.”
The bard nearly levitated off the bed as the high warble sounded right near her. “Dori?”
“Mama, no see. Bck.”
Okay. Gabrielle exhaled in relief. At least she wasn’t blind. “I know, honey. Let me get up and fix it, huh?” She laid her hand over the warm, powerful one draped over her side, reassured by the feeling of normal body temperature she felt there. “Xe?”
For a long moment, there was no answer. Then the tall body shifted, and Gabrielle felt it acquire tension as Xena woke in the same darkness she had. “Easy, tiger. Fire’s out.”
“Ungh.” Xena grunted softly. “Dark.”
“Boo!’ Dori heard her buddy’s voice. She pattered around to the other side of the bed and tugged on the warrior’s shirt. “Boo! Hungry!”
Gabrielle felt her body being released from Xena’s hold, the touch only reluctantly retreating from her skin. “Okay, hold onto your little booties there, Ms. Doriana.” Carefully, she pushed herself upright and swung her legs over the side of the bed, feeling more than stiff. “Ooch.”
“You okay?” Xena’s voice sounded husky, but more from sleep than sickness.
“Yeah. I think parts of me are still sleeping.” Gabrielle stood up, stretching her body out cautiously. “Boy..” She yawned, as she felt her way across the room to the fireplace. “Yow!”
“What’s cold?” Xena asked, anxiously.
“The fire.” Gabrielle laid her hand in the ashes, and shook her head. In the darkness, she felt around her and collected wood and tinder, laying it down from touch alone. “How long were we asleep?”
“Boo. Hungry!” Dori tugged again. “Go go go go go!”
“Shh.” Xena picked the child up and cradled her. “Hey.. where are your clothes, munchkin?”
“Foo.” Dori squirmed into her lap. “No good.”
How long had they slept? Xena felt her brow crease, then she blinked as sparks drew her attention to the fire. “Can’t tell day from night in here.”
“You can say that again.” Gabrielle blew gently on the fire, relieved when the friendly glow increased and chased the shadows back again. She lifted her head and looked around, lifting a candle from the table and lighting it as well.
Gabrielle stood and walked to the bed, studying the figure lying in it. The pale blue eyes met hers unhesitatingly, and the bard felt a smile cross her face at the sight of the warrior in her shift, a naked Dori sitting placidly in her lap. She put the candle down and sat on the bed, running her fingers through her hair. “Whew.”
Xena licked her lips. “Dry.” She cleared her throat a little.
“Yum.” Dori looked up at her. The child’s hair was in utter disarray, and she had a smudge of something across her cheek. “Dark too long.”
Gabrielle pulled her bag over and dug inside it. She removed a trail bar and held it up, grinning when Dori abandoned Xena and scrambled across the bed to retrieve it. “Here you go, sweetie. Chew on this until I can find something else for all of us.”
Dori grabbed the bar and broke it in half, then started eating it, dribbling crumbs everywhere. “Mm.”
Gabrielle watched her indulgently for a moment, then she glanced over at her soulmate. “How about some hot tea?”
Xena put her hands behind her head and stretched her body out. “Yeah.” She wiggled her toes.
“Feeling any better?” The bard asked, curiously.
Blue eyes flicked to her. “Are you?”
Gabrielle cautiously rocked her head from side to side, and then extended her arms fully to either side. A pleased smile crossed her face. “Yeah… it’s still sore, but boy.. not like it was.” She let her hands drop. “But you know what?”
“You’re hungry.” Xena supplied, with a wry twinkle.
The bard chuckled.
“Me too.” Xena admitted. “My head’s not as stuffed, and my chest doesn’t feel as heavy.” She reported. “Think my fever broke, too.”
“You sound better.” Gabrielle felt a wonderful sense of relief flow through her.
‘So do you.” The warrior said.
Gabrielle got back up and carried her supply bag over to the fire. “So, now that our mutual mother henning session is over, how about some stew? I think I’ve got enough dried meat and roots here for that.”
Xena rolled over onto her side and propped her head up against her hand. She played with Dori’s foot as the toddler finished her snack. “Sounds great to me.” She tweaked a small toe. “Sound good to you, shortie? Want some stew?”
“Um.” Dori crawled over and squirmed against the warrior. “Boo talk good.”
“I do?” Xena tickled her, making the child wriggle and squeal. “You talk good too, Dori. How come you took your shirt off, huh?”
Gabrielle looked at the water basin. It seemed dry, but she could see faintly damp patches near the edge of it. “Did you go swimming, Dori?”
Dori looked at her, puzzled. “Gibbon?”
“Did you go find fishes?” Xena prompted, pointing at the basin.
“Yes.” Dori nodded positively. “No fishes. No Guff. No Boo, no Mama. Dark. All bad.”
“Uh huh. So you went swimming.” The warrior curled her arm around her daughter and hugged her, leaning over to give her a fond kiss on the top of her dark head. “Next time, just wake us up and we’ll make it light again, okay?”
Dori clutched at her hand, looking up at Xena with adoring eyes. “Otay. Boo make good.”
Gabrielle dipped her pot in the water and returned to the fire, adding everything she could find in her bag to it and setting it on to cook. It would be makeshift, but they were used to that, and she had a packet of thick, dark waybread and some cheese they could have with the hot stew.
In fact… She removed the packet and set it on the table, opening one part of the wrapping and removing a chunk. Sitting down, she nibbled on it while she watched Xena play with Dori and knew a sweet peace that had been evading her for the last while.
She was okay. Xena was okay. Dori was being impossibly cute. Her world was coming back into focus and even as she sat there in this underground chamber, she could feel normality sneaking up on her and giving her a friendly hug.
“Mm.” Gabrielle chewed her bread. Good stuff. “Hey, Xe?”
“Hm?” Xena looked up from her tickling.
“How long would it take for that fire to burn all the way down? I’m trying to figure out how long we were out.” Gabrielle asked, curiously. “I was just thinking – when we used to camp out, you’d kill the fire before we packed, and I remember it stayed warm for a really long time.”
The warrior considered the question thoughtfully. “Hard to say.” She ventured. “Good fire… in stone.. I’d have figured it to last at least a day.”
Xena nodded. “Uh huh.”
“So.. we slept longer than a day?” Gabrielle asked, in mild disbelief.
The warrior shrugged one shoulder, lifting her hand and watching Dori swing from it. “We were due it.” She said, smiling at the child. “We’re better for it. No problem.” Hooking their clothing bag with one foot, she pulled it over and removed a jumper for her daughter. With some difficulty, she stuffed the toddler into it and ruffled her hair.
The bard slid her chair closer to the fire, putting her feet up on the stone ledge as she stirred the contents of her stew pot. The warmth of the new fire was uneven as yet, and she didn’t want the somewhat flaring wood to burn anything. “Not a problem, no.” She said. “It just always surprises me.”
Xena rolled out of the bed, taking Dori with her. She wandered over to their kit and removed a leather covered flask from her bag, bringing it with her to the table. She set it down, then let Dori down to the floor.
“Mama…” Dori went over to where Gabrielle was sitting and put her hands on her mother’s thighs. “You gots cookies?”
“Cookies? Don’t you want breakfast first?” The bard asked.
“No.” Dori seemed puzzled at the question. “Cookies.”
Xena chuckled, shaking her head as she took out two cups from her bag and put them on the table. She unstopped the flask and poured some of the contents into each cup.
“Ah, I see you’ve been hanging around your Boo too much, eh?” Gabrielle fished another trail bar from her bag and handed it over. “Here. These are almost as good as cookies.”
Dori accepted the bar and sat down to munch it. “No loud here. Good.” She commented.
Gabrielle cocked her head. It was quiet within the cavern. There were noises far off, water, and perhaps some bits of rock falling, but the rock insulated them from most of the world outside. She spared a moment to imagine what it might have been like for it’s makers, tucked here away from the dangers of the world together.
She wondered what they would think, of her and Xena here in their space. In their home. The scrolls had shown her a pair who had much in common with them, and for a moment she wished she could have met them.
Talked to them. She wondered what Ardwyn would have thought of her, of someone who could look her in the eye and say with all honesty that she understood all that she’d been through.
“Here.” Xena handed her over a cup.
Gabrielle took it and sipped, tasting the heady wine and smiling at the mild burn as she swallowed it. She extended her cup to Xena and waited for the warrior to touch her own to it. “Here’s to another dawn, after another storm, with you and me in a safe port.”
The warrior inclined her head in acknowledgement. “Might even be dawn.” She allowed, with a smile. “Later on we can go up and find out, and get some supplies.”
“Sounds good to me.” Gabrielle stirred her pot again, sniffing at the steam as the ingredients started to cook. “Maybe we can get a fish for dinner.”
“Fishies!” Dori perked up. “C’n I go play with the fishies, mama?”
“Not right now, sweetie.” Gabrielle told her. “Later. You can go help Boo catch some fishes later, okay?” She stifled a yawn, and sipped her wine as she regarded her bare feet on the ledge. “You know what?”
Xena had leaned back, resting one bare knee against the table. “What?”
“I like it here.”
Xena wasn’t surprised to hear that. Though she wasn’t fond of being incased in this much rock, she knew the security of it was appealing to Gabrielle’s ragged nerves and she frankly didn’t much blame her. A few days respite wouldn’t hurt them. “Sure beats the inside of a bush.” She commented.
Gabrielle swirled her cup and smiled as she gazed into it. “It’s like being in our cabin, only without all the hectic mess at home.” She said. “You know?”
Dori finished her trail bar and returned to pester Xena, tugging on the warrior’s arm in an attempt to clamber up onto her lap. “Bbbbbooooooo….”
Xena picked her up and circled her with one arm. “That’s me.” She agreed. “Whatcha think, shortie. You like it here??”
“Like it.” Dori repeated amiably. “Boo like?”
The warrior looked around her, at the high cavern ceiling and the sense of far off exoticness that the decorations and furniture raised in her. The culture she’d found in the scrolls Gabrielle had rescued had intrigued her, and there were bits of evidence of that all over this cavern.
Well, Xena reasoned, she hadn’t had much of a chance to really look the place over before. Might be a good opportunity right now, right? “Boo likes.” She answered Dori’s question. “Boo thinks we can have lotsa fun here if we try.”
Dori giggled. “Fun!”
Xena smiled at her, then lifted her eyes and gave the watching Gabrielle a slight nod.
Gabrielle nodded back, in complete understanding. The she turned her head and gave the stew a mix with her spoon, the firelight outlining her profile in gilded crimson.
What would Elevown have thought, Gabrielle wondered, about Xena? Would she resent having someone in her home who would have challenged her on her own terms? Or would she have found in the warrior a kindred spirit?
Ah well. The bard settled back with her cup, enjoying the warmth of the fire, and the peace of the moment. It was something she’d never know, but a question that bore endless wondering about.
Maybe there was even a story in there, somewhere inside her, that might even ponder an answer.
Gabrielle wiggled her toes, and smiled.
Xena stepped back and studied the results of her efforts. All the lamp sconces had now been lit in the chamber, and the somewhat threatening interior had warmed into a golden friendliness. What she had discovered was that the hollowed out space in the rock was larger than she’d initially thought – in addition to the big main area, she’d found three other smaller rooms, irregular in size, that had been taken over by the cavern’s original occupants and made into living space.
She still wasn’t feeling that great, so she limited her exploration to lighting the old oil lamps, using the oil she’d found in clay flasks buried in the back of one of the chambers. Back in the central area, she could just hear Gabrielle’s voice as she told Dori a tale, and she smiled as she heard the child giggle at whatever it was her mother was telling her.
Probably some dumb thing she, Xena, had done. The warrior ducked her head around a bit of rock wall, and discovered yet another passageway. After a moment of debate, she decided to postpone any further investigation and retreated back to where her family was. “If I hear the word chicken, someone’s in big trouble.” She said, as she entered the chamber.
Gabrielle looked up, the firelight glistening off her pale hair as she paused in mid word, caught virtually red handed.
Dori giggled. “Codoodle doo!”
“Uh oh.” The bard chuckled. “C’mon, Xe. It’s one of her favorite stories.”
Xena exhaled in mock aggrievance, slumping down into the seat next to her soulmate. “Remind me to thank my mother when we get home for that.”
Gabrielle reached over and gave Xena’s knee a tweak. “It’s an adorable story.”
“I don’t hear you telling her about you and that pig.” Xena gave her a pointed look.
The green eyes twinkled. “One of the perks of being the bard in the family.”
Xena shook a finger at her, unable to repress a smile as Gabrielle stuck her tongue out in return. With a sigh, the warrior sat back, letting her head rest against the back of the chair and easing one leg over the arm of it.
“Ready for more tea?”
Xena shrugged. “Not really.”
Gabrielle studied her partner. “Bored?”
A dark eyebrow quirked in her direction. “Do I look bored?”
Xena rolled her head to one side and regarded her. “I am. I just don’t have the energy to do anything about it.” She admitted.
Gabrielle bounced Dori on her knee a little, and gave her partner a sympathetic look. “Give it a few days, Xe. It usually takes me a few weeks to get over this when I have it.”
The warrior studied the walls around her, a thoughtful look on her face. “Know what I was thinking before?” She said. “Maybe it’s not being sick.”
The bard frowned. “Huh?”
Dori climbed off Gabrielle’s lap and went over to Xena, taking hold of her boot and sitting down on the warrior’s foot.
Xena flexed her thigh, giving the delighted child a ride. “Ever since I got out of that damn hole, it’s felt like something was… missing.” She lifted her hand and let it fall. “Maybe I traded something for moving that rock.”
Gabrielle curled up in the chair and rested her weight on one arm of it, watching her partner intently. “Traded what?”
Xena’s eyes went to Dori, then she lifted them and looked directly at Gabrielle.
“Puh.” The air came right out of Gabrielle and she blinked, caught totally by surprise.
The warrior went back to watching her daughter, reaching a hand out for Dori to catch as she rode up and down, giggling. She knew she’d shocked the bard, but she also knew the thought had been weighing on her and she was glad she let it out into the air.
What did it mean, if it were true? Xena remembered how difficult their escape from the valley had been, and how she’d felt doing it. As much as she’d always wanted to credit her fighting skills to pure guts and practice, she was now faced with the possibility that part of them had, indeed, been part of some more than human heritage.
“Gods, Xena.” Gabrielle finally spoke. “Are you saying you think the price you paid for getting out of that trap alive was…” She looked at the warrior. “But wait a minute. That makes no sense.” She said. “Why should you have to give up anything for that, Xena? It’s not like you’re owed anything.”
Dori climbed up her leg and tumbled into her lap. Xena caught the child and hugged her, a wry smile on her face. “I dunno.” She looked up. “I just know how I feel. Not right.”
“Well, sweetheart, you’re sick.” The bard stated the obvious. “You were almost too sick to walk before we got here. Why don’t you give yourself a few days to get well before you start thinking stuff like this?”
It made sense. Xena knew it made sense. She also knew she was probably being alarmist for no real reason, and she had a faint suspicion that some small part of her was looking for just the reassurance that Gabrielle had given her.
Ew. Xena got a grip on her ego and kicked it sharply. “Yeah.” She chuckled and half shrugged. “You know how much I hate being sick.” She sat Dori on her lap and held a hand up to her. “Play pat me, Dor?”
Dori pounded both her small hands against the warrior’s much larger one. “Go! Go Go GO!”
Gabrielle sat back, watching them. Xena’s admission had disturbed her, but as she’d chastised her partner she was willing to wait out Xena’s illness before she looked at it any further.
Besides. The thought came, despite her best intentions. Even if it were true, it was a trade off she, at least, could not.. would not regret. Gabrielle rested her cheek against the chair back. “Hey, Xe?”
The warrior looked up, and met her eyes over Dori’s head. A tiny quirk appeared at the corners of her lips. “Yeah, I know. Innkeeper in Amphipolis.”
Unexpectedly, a broad grin split Gabrielle’s face. “You remember me saying that?”
“I remember everything you say. I have… “ Xena clasped both of Dori’s hands in hers. “Many skills.” She concluded. “Dori, how about you stay here with Mama and find out about the rooster and I’ll go get us something for dinner.”
“Codoodle doo!” Dori squealed. “Boo, c’n I come wif you to gots fishes? Pweese?”
“Why don’t you let me..” Gabrielle started, then stopped as she watched Xena get up with Dori in her arms. “I thought you said you were tired?”
“I did.” The warrior readily admitted. “I’m just going to go a little ways from the ledge. I saw some big geese near the lake. Maybe I can bag one. “
“Geese?” Gabrielle took Dori from her, not without a protest from the toddler. “Honey, Boo isn’t going for fishes. She’ll take you for them later, okay?”
“Geese.” Xena lifted her chakram off the table and held it up. “Grab a handful of herbs, and we’re all set. No sweat.” She made her way towards the long rock corridor that led through the myriad of traps to the entrance. “G’wan – that way I don’t have to hear about that rooster.”
Gabrielle sat back down with Dori, watching until Xena’s tall figure disappeared into the shadows. Then she looked at her daughter. “Okay, where was I?”
Dori settled down and stuck her thumb into her mouth. “Codoodle doo! Go bite Boo!”
“Shh.” The bard glanced over her shoulder. Her guts were still churning over Xena’s words, and she spent a moment fiercely debating whether or not she should go after her partner despite everything. It wasn’t that she doubted Xena’s ability to take care of herself, but… “You know what, Dori?”
“Do you think you and I should go find some berries while Boo is getting dinner?”
“Bebbies? Yes!” Dori’s eyes lit up. “Go mama!”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle murmured. “Go mama.” She got up and retrieved one of Dori’s carry sacks. “Look at it this way, Xena… at least I’m not telling her how you got bit in the butt by a bird.”
Xena paused as she got to the top of the long, steep hole that led down into the cavern. A wooden ladder had been left in the cave, and she’d lowered it down so they could descend, then drawn it down after them so no one could easily follow.
Now she stopped near the top of it, her hand resting on the rock slab that covered the opening. On the inside bottom was a carved handhold worn by the years and she fit her fingers around it, listening past the stone from long habit.
The climb up had taxed her slowly returning strength, and she used the moment of caution to catch her breath before she continued.
Part of her knew she was doing this just for pride’s sake. They had finished an entire pot of stew just a few hours before, and there were any number of things she could have scrounged other than the somewhat difficult to capture and wary birds.
Trying to prove you can provide for your family despite everything, Xena? Her conscience mocked her. Tch.
Oh well. With a sigh, the warrior pushed aside the rock and cautiously poked her head up through the hole in the rock. There was daylight coming in from the cave entrance, and it provided a good enough view to determine that it was safe to emerge.
So she did. She got to her feet outside the hole, then used a boot to slide the rock cap back into place. A gust of fresh, cold air blew in, and she went to the cave entrance, blinking in the sunlight as the breeze blew her hair back.
It felt good. Xena looked out over the open space, and had to admit that part of her restlessness was also from being under the rocks. Certainly, she was far more comfortable than she had been on her last visit – many hours of patient, secretive visits to small caves near Amphipolis had seen to that – but even with the comforts of the cavern her heart still felt more at ease aboveground.
Hm. Xena planned her route down to the meadow they’d left Argo and Ares in. She started down the steep path, her boots sliding just a little on the loose bits of slate. Her eyes flicked around her, studying the approach carefully, then moving on down to the bit of plateau as she decided she was satisfied everything was untouched and no immediate danger threatened.
And yet. Halfway down, Xena felt her nape hairs prickle. She stopped and put her back to the wall, extending her senses in all directions.
Was her illness blunting her hearing and sense of smell enough to prevent her detecting something, or were her nerves still so jangled they were giving off false warnings?
Neither option appealed to her. She stayed quiet and still, only her eyes moving for a very long moment. Then she spotted Argo down on the plateau, placidly cropping grass.
Her shoulders relaxed. “Nerves.” She gave her head a small shake, and continued on her way. She trusted Argo’s instincts even more than her own, and especially now, more so. All the same, she decided to get her errand done without any delay, and head back inside.
No sense in taking chances.
Xena spent a few minutes with her arms draped over Argo’s back anyway, enjoying the warmth of the mare’s body as she faced into the cool breeze. She listened intently, stretching her senses out and catching the faint sounds of birds, and small animals in the scrubby forest around the plateau they were standing in.
Nothing really out of place. A soft rattle of rocks intruded, but then it stilled, and wasn’t repeated. With a satisfied grunt, Xena turned and gave Argo a scratch behind the ears before she started towards the small lake near one end of the grass.
Io was grazing near the trees, and as she approached he lifted his head and whickered at her in welcome.
“Hey boy.” Xena greeted the stallion with a smile. She had picked up her cloak before she’d left the cavern, and now she appreciated it’s solid warmth even despite the sun arcing overhead. Though she hadn’t lied to Gabrielle about her improving health, she realized wryly that she still had a ways to go before the illness released it’s grip on her.
Giving Io a pat, she eased past him and went to the edge of the water, finding a moss covered rock to sit on as she reviewed her avian options. The lake was small, but several birds were paddling around in it, none really large enough for her to bother with.
Then, as though arranged for her benefit, a flock of geese winged in over the trees and settled on the surface of the water in a brief klaxon of cries and splashes. They were all large birds, and Xena amused herself by imagining the rich, spicy taste that Gabrielle would coax out of whichever one she caught.
And, the bird would supply quills for the bard. Xena perked up at this additional plus to her plan. She eased her legs over the outer edge of her rock and let them dangle, removing her chakram from her belt and running her fingers over it’s smooth surface.
“Okay.” She addressed the geese. “Now, how do I do this, and not get wet?” An idea occurred to her, and she re-settled the chakram on it’s clip and simply sat there, resting her elbows on her thighs and letting the peace of the forest settle over her.
It had always been a paradox for her. Xena knew herself to be restless and impatient, quick to act and very slow to wait for anyone or anything. And yet, as a hunter, she was patience itself, giving nature as much time as it needed to become accustomed to her presence so that she could become a part of it long enough to grab herself some dinner.
So now she kept her breathing slow and even, hearing only the faintest rattle in it as several dead leaves clattered down around her and lodged in the folds of her cloak.
The rippling water almost brushed the soles of her boots.
Off to her left, a cicada resumed it’s chirping. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a squirrel, keeping one wary eye on her as he scampered down the nearest tree and started hunting in the leaves below it for some nuts.
The geese started drifting across the lake, dipping their beaks below the surface as they searched for small plants underwater. Two of them circled near where Xena was sitting, and as the warrior remained motionless, they skimmed closer to investigate the algae clustered near the rock she was perched on.
Still, Xena waited. Even when the two geese came inches from her boots, their heads almost brushing the leather, she stayed perfectly still, allowing nature to encompass her.
Then her hands flicked out, so fast they were a blur and she closed her fingers around the two long necks, breaking them so quickly they didn’t even have a chance to realize what was happening.
Xena exhaled, glad she’d been able to suppress the cough that had started to build inside her chest. Her motions had been so swift, the rest of the flock had remained oblivious to what was going on, and nature was still going about it’s business all around her.
And it was in that moment, with her hunter’s senses still engaged, that she detected something out of place. Something she’d missed before, without the focus her chore had required of her.
It was a faint pattern, not even a sound or a smell, just a motion in the natural world that seemed to her just slightly out of the rhythm she expected. Very slowly, she transferred both geese to her left hand and let her right hand drop to her chakram, cursing inwardly the fact that she’d left the rest of her weapons inside the cavern.
Inside the forest, with all the trees – the chakram would be a chancy defense.
But wait. Xena collected herself. Why assume whatever was out there was an enemy? Ready to attack her? Maybe it was a bear, one of which she’d encountered on her last visit, just stocking up like she was. Giving herself a shake, the warrior slowly stood, lifting her prizes from the water and swinging them clear so they would not drip and alarm the rest of the flock.
She stepped off the rocks and started back up the path, though she kept both geese firmly clamped in one hand just in case.
Just in case. Even bears needed to be defended against, and she had faint scars to prove that point. Xena emerged into the grassy area, her eyes flicking over it and locating the two horses immediately. They were both standing together on the far side from where she was, and their heads were up as though they were watching something.
Watching, but not alarmed. In fact, Xena saw Io bob his head in a characteristic way that meshed with the prickling of her other senses that identified what the animals were looking at.
“Figures.” Xena twitched her cloak straight and continued across the open space. She’d made it halfway when another cloaked figure entered her field of vision and went to the horses, both of whom seemed very glad to see the newcomer.
Not surprisingly. Gabrielle almost always had treats in her pockets for the animals, and she had Dori with her who also almost always had some bit of carrot or root as well.
Xena didn’t try to make excuses for her soulmate’s presence, despite the basket slung over her arm. “Hey.” She walked up behind then horses, sliding between them and coming face to face with her partner. “I thought you were going to wait inside.”
Gabrielle scrubbed Io behind his ears. “Well, I was, but then I thought how great those geese would taste with that blackberry sauce I figured out at home, so I went to find some.”
“Uh huh.” Xena nodded gravely. “Did ja?”
The bard held up her basket. “Yep.” She looked down. “And I see you got the geese. Great. We’re all set.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Right Dori?”
Bright eyed, Dori peered over at Xena, her fingers clutching Io’s mane. “Boo! Mama gots big yum!”
Xena looked past them. “Were you over there looking?” She pointed.
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head, frowning. “That way.” She turned and indicated a low, brushy area just behind them. “Why?”
“Mm.” Had she been hearing things? Xena found the uncertainty maddening. “Thought I heard something over in the woods there.” She admitted. “Probably wasn’t anything. A bear, maybe.”
“Ah… a bear.” Gabrielle looked around with faintly nervous eyes. “That’s right. There are bears up here. I forgot about that.” She moved closer to the warrior. “How about we take our booty back to the cave, hm? I know you beat up the bear last time up here but…”
“Yeah.” Xena gave Argo a slap on the shoulder. “You guys be careful, okay?” She instructed the horses. “Run if you see any bears.”
Argo nickered and poked her in the back with her nose.
They walked up the rocky path towards the cavern entrance, moving from the grassy ground up to the granite slope that led steeply up.
“Boo, what you got?” Dori peered curiously down at the birds in her buddy’s fist. “C’n I play with it?”
Xena felt an itching between her shoulderblades, and only just forced herself to keep walking and not look back. “No, shortie. You can’t play with this. We’re gonna eat them.” She told the toddler. “Mama’s gonna make a good dinner out of them.”
“Dinner?” Dori asked. “Yum?”
“Yum.” Xena agreed.
“Xe?” Gabrielle’s voice dropped an entire octave.
“There’s someone watching us.”
“It’s not a bear.”
Xena kept walking, obscurely glad to have her own instincts validated by Gabrielle’s. “No, I don’t think it’s a bear.” She replied evenly. “But they’re not getting any closer. We’d hear them on the path.”
The warrior shrugged, then inhaled. “Maybe.” She murmured. “When I was in the valley… I could hardly sense them.”
Gabrielle felt her mouth go dry.
“That’s how they kept sneaking up on me.” Xena continued. “I just couldn’t focus on them, most of the time.”
“So you think..”
“No. I could pick up whoever’s back there.” Xena shook her head. “When I came out here, and then again when I was by the lake.”
Gabrielle tweaked Dori’s foot. “Shh, sweetie. Boo’s doing her warrior thing.”
“Wawwior ting.” Dori put her head down on her mother’s shoulders. “Go Boo.”
“Are we safe in the cave?” Gabrielle asked, in a low voice.
Good question. Xena stepped around her partner as they reached the entrance, turning naturally and looking back the way they came as the bard walked past her into the darkness. The path behind them was starkly empty, all the way back down to the grassy area they’d been standing in. Her eyes swept the forest near the water, glints of the sun off it’s surface just barely visible through the trees.
Damn it. Xena focused her vision on the dappled leaves, seeking to look past them, to find the mystery she could feel just at the edges of her awareness. But the shadows kept their secrets and after a long, still moment, she turned and followed Gabrielle inside the cavern.
The cap to the chasm had been left open, and Gabrielle was starting down the ladder, her jaw tensed. Behind her, Dori looked around anxiously, seeming to sense the tension around her parents. She put her arms around her mother’s neck and didn’t utter a peep.
Xena waited for them to clear the opening, then she followed, sliding the cap in place and then feeling around for the catch she knew was there. It rasped against her fingers, then as she pressed, shot into place, locking the cap into the rock with an iron rod.
They moved downward in silence, until they reached the bottom, and were standing in the outer chamber outside the myriad of traps the clever Elevown had put in place to protect them.
“I wonder.” Gabrielle spoke suddenly, her hands on her hips. “If these guys were what she’d put these traps in place for?” She looked around. “Because it was something she was afraid of, that’s for sure.”
A gust of wind from some unknown chimney fluttered the oil lamps, stirring their hair and cloaks with gentle force.
Xena’s eyebrow rose, and she pointed inward. “Good question.” She rasped softly. “Let’s go see if we can come up with some answers.”
Turning, they walked together through the uneven corridors, following the light back into a tenuous safety.