“I have no idea.” The warrior extended her legs, watching Dori clamber over them.
Gabrielle straightened up and half turned, resting her hands on one knee. “Okay.” She paused. “Are we facing one problem here, or a whole bunch of them?”
Xena propped her head up against one fist. “You mean, is whatever was watching us out there part of our original problem, or is it a new problem, or was it one of the problems in the valley I just didn’t know it?”
The bard blinked after a moment. “Something like that, yeah.” Her eyes searched her partner’s face.
Xena exhaled, a puff of her breath moving the shaggy, dark hair over her forehead. “Ask me again in a candlemark.” She responded.
“Okay.” Gabrielle got the message. She sat down and started sorting the goose feathers she’d plucked from Xena’s quarry into piles by size. “Hon, I really do appreciate this, but we’re going to be carrying these things for years there are so many.” She commented, in a lighter tone.
“Write more.” Xena replied. “Change quills every page.”
A grin tugged at Gabrielle’s lips, and she gave into it. “How about if I dye them and use them to decorate your armor, instead?” She suggested. “I could really spice up those breastplates with them.”
Both of Xena’s eyebrows shot up, as Gabrielle picked up a particularly long specimen and twirled it in her fingers, winking at her partner with gentle playfulness. It soothed the warrior’s rattled nerves, and as she watched Dori climb industriously up next to her, she was able to turn her attention to the bard’s original question.
Dori sat herself down on her buddy’s lap and pulled her stuffed toy over, content to sit and warble to it while her parents did other, less interesting things. She liked this place. It was fun, but she wished Guff were here to play with. Mama and Boo were busy doing stuff, and she couldn’t get them to play. She didn’t like that. She wanted Boo to fly, but Boo was owie, and she couldn’t.
Being dark had been fun, for a while. An aminal had come, a little one, but it got away when she chased it. Dori thought it might have been one of the kind mama didn’t like. She liked them, though, and she liked how they squeaked when she got hold of their tale. Guff liked them too. He played with them, sometimes. Guff was fun.
Boo made her leg itch. She pounded Boo with her hand, but it made her owie, since Boo’s leg was hard. Nobody was like that except Boo. Even the fuzzy people weren’t. Boo hugged her, and she stopped trying to pound Boo, because she didn’t want Boo to stop hugging. She liked that a lot. Sitting on Boo was fun, too, because Boo was always moving around and making her bounce. It was almost like flying.
Mama was playing with feathers. Dori wanted to help, but mama told her she could play with them later. That was all right, since she was getting a Boo-hug instead. She thought that mama would rather get Boo-hugged instead too, but she had to finish playing with the feathers first. Mama was like that. She didn’t always play first. Dori didn’t really understand that, but she knew mama liked her feathers, and drawing pictures with them.
Mama played different than Boo. Dori liked playing with mama, because mama made everything into a story. Even when Guff did silly things, Mama would say why, and it was funny. Boo didn’t make stories at all. Boo just did things with her that were fun. It was all fun, just different.
She was glad Boo wasn’t so owie. She didn’t like that. She wanted Boo and Mama to be good and happy, so they would all have fun. Playing was fun, but sometimes she knew Boo and Mama didn’t want to play, they just wanted to be quiet. “Boo?”
Boo looked at her. Dori liked that, because Boo’s eyes were so pretty. They were like shiny rocks. “Boo, you no owie?”
Boo smiled at her. Dori liked that too.
“I’m all right, shortie.”
Dori liked Boo’s voice. It made her happy. “Good!”
Mama came over with a handful of the feathers and sat down. Dori liked that a lot. Mama made it smell good inside, too. Dori was hungry, and so she really, really liked the good smell. She hoped Mama would finish soon. Mama got real close and leaned against Boo, and made Boo itch with a feather. Boo made a noise, and it was funny. Dori laughed. Mama laughed. Boo pretended to be mad, but Dori knew she was laughing too.
Boo was like that. She would go look all mad, and make a mean face, but Dori could always tell when it was a real mad, or if Boo was just being funny. Boo’s pretty eyes were happy even when she made that mad face.
It was good. Everything was good now. Dori was glad Boo and Mama had come back from the owie place. That wasn’t good. Mama had been really mad. Dori had cried a lot, because Mama had been so mad, and so sad. It had been scary. Dori was glad it wasn’t scary anymore, and Boo and Mama were here.
It was good, now. Dori sat on Boo’s lap and was happy. Mama put her leg up on Boo’s lap and was happy too.
Boo stole Mama’s feather, and made Mama itch.
Everybody laughed and had fun.
“You think she knows what happened?” Gabrielle asked, as their chuckles wound down. “In the valley?”
“Nah.” Xena examined the feather in her clutches. “I think maybe… if anything.. she was reacting to what you were feeling. She’s your kid, y’know.”
“Our kid.” Gabrielle reminded her partner. “You think she can feel that like I can feel when you’re upset?”
The warrior studied her daughter, then shrugged one shoulder since the other was occupied with lots of bard’s head resting on it. “I dunno. What do you say, munchkin?” She asked Dori. “Can you feel when your mama is sad?”
The innocent green eyes looked back at her. “Yes.” Dori answered, matter of factly. “Mama sad, Boo sad, no fun. All bad.”
Xena ruffled her fingers through Dori’s hair. “Well, we’ll try not to make you feel sad too much, okay?” She said. “Your mama and I don’t like being sad.”
“Isn’t that the truth.” Gabrielle kept one eye on the fire, where the two geese were roasting. “Know what I want, Xe?” She asked, after a moment’s pensive silence.
Xena didn’t even hesitate. “To go home?”
“You really do read my mind, don’t you?” The bard said, with a touch of wonder in her voice. “That’s exactly what I was thinking.” She watched Dori clasp one of her fingers. “Do you want to do that, Dor? Go home and see gramma, and your friends?”
“Gramma?” Dori perked up. “Go see gramma, get cookies!”
Xena chuckled. Gabrielle sighed. “Insatiable.” She turned and put the tip of her finger on Xena’s nose. “Don’t say it.”
Xena grinned at her, but obediently kept her lips pressed together.
“Go gramma, yes.” Dori warbled on. “Want to go and play with our fishes, bring Guff, go fast on Gogo, go simming in Boo’s baftub.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle regarded her. “So, that’s two votes.” She turned and looked at Xena. “What about you, Boo? Wanna go sit by our fire, and sleep in a comfortable bed for a while?” Her hand slipped, almost unconsciously, over to rest on the warrior’s shoulder and she rubbed the cloth covered surface with her thumb.
Bone shifted slightly under her touch. The muscles on either side of Xena’s neck relaxed, and Gabrielle felt her lean into the pressure in a motion she realized was as unconscious as hers had been. She also realized that in feeling that tension ease, her own body responded in kind.
So much synergy. Gabrielle laid her cheek down on her soulmate’s shoulder. What would I do without her? Her mind held it’s breath over the sudden question. Gods. She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them, pushing aside the dark thoughts.
Xena’s gaze slowly shifted to her face. The firelight cast so many shadows over her, it almost made her expression difficult to pick out. “Home sounds good.” The warrior said, pausing to reflect on the words. “Sounds damn good, matter of fact.”
“Yeah?” The bard smiled at her. “All right, then. It’s unanimous.”
Unanimous. Xena nodded in sober agreement. Taking Gabrielle and Dori home made so much sense, she really didn’t have to think much about it. They’d been out on the road for a long time, it was getting to be winter… She exhaled cautiously. Home always brought it’s own challenges, but she knew at a gut level it was something they all needed.
Even her? Xena felt a wry smile appear on her face. Yeah, even though she knew damn well as the weather cleared she’d be restless and itching to go out again. She regarded her boots and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, pulling her closer and wishing they were home already.
Damn it, she hated being sick.
“How’s your head?” Gabrielle asked.
“Stuffed.” Xena admitted.
The bard pressed her ear against Xena’s chest and listened. “Well, your breathing sounds better.” She offered. “Not as rattly.”
Yeah. The warrior observed the fire. The pressure on her lungs had eased, but most of it had migrated to her head, producing a less life threatening, and yet, far more annoying complaint. It was even making her ears ring.
Which could explain why she hadn’t heard anything approaching them, right? Xena had to confess it might indeed be so. She struggled inwardly between the utter impatience she felt with the weakness of her body, and the niggling worry in the back of her mind that her escape from the mountain had cost her a certain part of herself that she’d come to depend on.
Finally, she decided the question would wait until she was well. And then? Xena leaned her cheek against Gabrielle’s pale hair. She’d deal with the question’s answer when she had to.
“Those bones are going to make a great soup after we eat the rest of it.” Gabrielle commented. “With the stuff I gathered on the way out to meet you, we’re all set for a few days.”
“Zoup?” Dori had been quietly playing with the ties on Xena’s cloak. “Mama, you gots pitty fowers.”
“That’s right.” Gabrielle lifted the handful of blooms out of the basket she’d taken outside. She selected one and brushed Xena’s jaw with it, tickling her and causing the warrior to open her eyes in question. “Look at this one, Dori. What’s it the same color as?”
Dori made a grab for the flower, but it was lifted just past her reach. “Mama!”
“Ah ah… what color?” Gabrielle teased, twirling the flower in her fingers. “C’mon, Dori. What’s it like.”
Grunting, the toddler stood up on Xena’s thighs and went after her quarry, thumping against the warrior’s chest as she reached for the flower.
“Hey!” Gabrielle held the item higher, but Dori’s height and reach defeated her intentions. “Bad girl!” She said, sternly, as the small hand reached for hers.
Xena lifted her hand off Gabrielle’s shoulder and removed the bloom, holding it up over her own head. Dori looked up at it, then at her, then pouted. The warrior grinned at her. “Now, be nice and answer your mama.” She instructed her daughter.
“Boo!” Dori clutched at her. “Want that!”
Xena found a silver lining at that moment in her clogged hearing. “No.” She gave Dori a direct look.
“Yes.” Dori gave her one right back.
Gabrielle found her eyes going from one to the other in fascination.
“Doriana.” Xena’s voice dropped into a rumble.
After a moment, Dori poked out her lower lip, but sat down on Xena’s lap again and kicked her bootied feet out. “Otay.” She said.
Xena ruffled her hair with her free hand. “Good girl.” She said. “You can’t always have what you want, Dori.”
Dori blinked at her.
“Until you’re big enough, anyway.” The warrior conceded., elicting a faint chuckle from her partner. “Till then, you gotta listen.”
“Otay.” Dori repeated. “C’n I have fower now?”
Gabrielle snorted softly, hiding her face in Xena’s shoulder for an instant, before she composed herself and cleared her throat. “Ah ah ah… you didn’t answer my question, Dori.” She retrieved her flower from it’s guardian and twirled it. “What’s this like?”
Dori looked at the flower for a few seconds, then threw her arm up and pointed at Xena’s face. “Boo!”
“Boo Boo Boo.. “ Dori got back up and pointed, getting a small finger dangerously close to Xena’s eyes. “Dere.”
“Good girl.” Gabrielle rewarded her with the flower, which got clutched in Dori’s fist.
The child sat down and started ripping the petals off, gleefully tossing them all over the two of them. “Petty fower!”
“Yep.” Xena caught a petal in mid air, looking bemusedly at it. “Your mama always finds the prettiest ones.” She looked up as her cheek was unexpectedly warmed by Gabrielle’s touch, to find the bard nose to nose with her.
“I sure do.” Gabrielle tilted her head slightly, and then they were mouth to mouth, as they kissed. After a moment, the bard drew back, watching Xena’s eyes flutter open before she moved closer again, her fingers gently stroking the warrior’s skin as they spent a little time in idle passion.
Dori studied her now unpetaled flower, and waved it. “Gush.” She addressed her preoccupied parents. “Gush, gush gush!”
Gabrielle broke off and peered at her. “You say that now. Wait till you get older.” She advised, turning to give Xena one more nip on the nose before she got up to turn the geese.
The warrior watched her go with gently smiling eyes.
Gabrielle bit absently on the end of her quill, studying the words she’d just finished putting on parchment. Next to her on the couch, Xena was curled up asleep with Dori in her lap where the child had settled herself after they’d eaten.
It was an adorable picture, and the bard wished she had the skills to capture the image with her ink. Dori had her head resting on Xena’s shoulder, and just looking at the two of them she could see just how much her daughter was growing up already.
Once, Dori had fit inside the curl of Xena’s arm. Now the child sprawled over the warrior, arms draped around her neck, and lengthening legs extending down off Xena’s.
Long arms. Long legs. That mop of dark hair whose twin capped Xena’s head. And yet, Gabrielle could see herself clearly in Dori’s face and mannerisms and she found herself smiling at the combination.
Still smiling, she went back to her writing.
Well, after all that, it looks like we’re going home. I’m not really sure how I should feel about that, but I know it’s something I want. At first, I thought we could just stay here for a while, but I realized when we got back from finding dinner that I really miss Amphipolis.
Not really so much the place, but the people. I miss mom, and Johan, and Ephiny and the gang. I guess it’s like the old saying goes – you always want what you don’t have. When I was there, I wanted to be out here. Now I’m out here, and what do you know? I want to go back there.
Maybe it means I’ll never be totally happy anywhere.
Gabrielle paused and reread her last sentence several times. Then she carefully dipped her quill into her ink pot and continued.
That’s not right. For me, for myself, as long as I’m with Xena I’ll be happy. It really doesn’t matter where that is. I think it’s more that I won’t ever be totally contented either home or out here because there are things I love about being both.
I guess I have to come to terms with that, especially since now even thinking about Xena being in danger is scaring me so badly I can’t talk straight.
I can call it what I want to, and she can tell me I just need rest, but I can’t lie to myself. I’m terrified of losing her.
Look. Just writing that made me start shaking.
With a sigh, Gabrielle paused in her scribing, closing her fingers over the quill and rested her chin on her fist. For a while, she merely sat there, her eyes gazing unseeing at the fire.
Then her head lifted, as she suddenly felt the inescapable sensation of being watched. Instinctively, she set her ink and parchment aside, spreading her arms and putting her body between her sleeping partner, her child, and the direction her senses were telling her the danger was.
She was weaponless, but it didn’t matter. Quickly, her chest lifted as she drew breath for a yell of warning, her eyes raking the interior of the cave to find what had triggered her nerves.
They fell on a gray fog, not two bodylengths from her, floating in space. The breath stopped in her throat, and Gabrielle stared at the apparition, whose smoky outline was shifting and changing before her, becoming less a cloud and more…
Before the bard could force the yell out of her guts, a face formed in the mist, with gentle, compelling eyes that momentarily stilled her fears. A ghostly finger raised to ghostly lips, and after a charged pause, Gabrielle lowered her arms and waited.
The figure formed completely, and sat down cross legged on the floor. It had dark hair, and a rounded face, with dark eyes and a ready smile. A woman, apparently, somewhat older than Gabrielle was, and yet still with a sense of youthful wonder about her.
She was also a little, unnervingly, transparent.
However, Gabrielle had faced down many things in her lifetime, and this was, by far, not the most frightening of them. So she rested her elbows on her knees and clasped her hands, studying her ethereal visitor quietly for a moment before speaking. “Hi.”
The figure’s lips twitched, then curled upward. “Greetings.”
The voice was a whisper that might have been the wind. It carried a lilt, a music though that caught Gabrielle’s sensitive ear immediately.
“You do not fear one such as I..” The figure said, softly. “It is strange to find so.”
Cautiously, Gabrielle eased off the couch and seated herself on the ground, in much the same position as her strange visitor. “I guess it must be.” She replied, watching the expression shift and swirl a little on the woman’s face.
She was dressed in skins, wild garments topped by a thickly woven cloak folded over her body in a color that might once have been red. The ghostly hands resting on her knees had strong fingers, but on her right hand, one was missing, leaving a noticeable gap. She remained silent, studying Gabrielle with dark, shadowed eyes as they sat there facing each other.
Gabrielle nodded slightly. “I’m sorry we intruded on your home.”
The figure was surprised. “Know you who I am?”
The bard nodded with quiet confidence. “You’re Ardwyn.” Her eyes flicked around the chamber, then settled back on the ghost’s face. “You lived here.” Any lingering fear was driven off by a rising curiosity about this woman whose scrolls had touched her like few others ever had.
“Aye.” The ghost murmured. “Long it has been for me to seek the living, but come I did to see what noisy things as stirred in this place, after such a time.”
A thousand questions scrambled into Gabrielle’s head, all clamoring to be first out of her mouth. For a second, an echo of her own youth almost overpowered her, but she disciplined her tongue and considered carefully what to say next.
Like, her name for starters. “Well.” The bard said. “My name’s Gabrielle.” She paused. “That’s my partner, Xena, and our daughter Doriana behind me.”
Ardwyn’s gaze shifted, held, then returned to Gabrielle’s face. Then she looked again at Xena and Dori, before she spoke again. “Truly, if you be getting little ones so, then fearing such as me would bear no sense.” She remarked wryly.
Gabrielle smiled, tilting her head as she conceded the point.
“How come you here?” Ardwyn asked, in a more serious tone. “What magic did you use, to so enter this place, so long left barren to me?”
Ah. Long, long story. Gabrielle considered the base truth of the core of the tale. “We needed a safe place.” She said. “This was the safest place we knew of, around here.”
Ardwyn waited in silence.
Okay. “There was a time, a few years ago when Xena and I were in these parts. We found the entrance, and figured out how to get in.”
“I know not of this.” Ardwyn frowned.
“It was only a couple of days.” The bard said. “We found your scrolls… that’s how I knew who you were.”
The ghost stiffened. “Read you them?”
“You dared so!” The ghost began to shift, swirling into a foggy nimbus, tendrils of which edged towards Gabrielle. The anger was palpable, but the bard didn’t move, keeping her body between the ghost and the couch with stolid resolve.
“Don’t.” Gabrielle whispered, holding the dark eyes, which still hovered at head height just out of reach. “They were beautiful stories. I couldn’t help but read them.”
Ardwyn paused, still swirling restlessly. “My dreams, they were.”
The bard nodded. “I know.” Slowly, she reached over and picked up one of her own scrolls, holding it up. “I do a little writing myself.” She explained, hesitating, then extending the scroll towards the mist. “I know how I feel, sometimes, when I have to put my guts out there for everyone to see.”
The ghost hovered for a long moment, then reluctantly settled again, solidifying before Gabrielle and reaching out to take the scroll. She unrolled it, the parchment eerily vislble through her fingers and for a long time there was silence in the room.
Gabrielle waited. She’d learned over the years that when you were in a situation where you didn’t know what was going to happen, it really was smarter not to push things. Besides, it gave her a chance to really study a ghost for a little while.
Now, how often did that happen?
Finally, Ardwyn lifted her head and looked at Gabrielle, the anger gone from her eyes. “A thousand leagues, a thousand years have I come to look at last into the face of a neighbor.” She whispered.
Gabrielle wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it sounded positive so she smiled.
“Would you a new story from me, Gabrielle?” The ghost asked. “A sad one it will be.”
Now, the bard could sense the pain in the words, despite the odd rhythm. “Sure.” She replied softly. “I have a few of those, too.”
Ardwyn met her eyes and held them powerfully. “Aye, but change their endings you did.” She held up the scroll. “Were it only so for mine.”
Fate? Gabrielle realized the scroll Ardwyn held, picked by her at random from her bag, was the one which told the story of Xena’s death.
A prickle of foreshadowing made her shiver. “Tell me.” She replied, in a gentle voice. “Sometimes there are ways of making a nightmare into just a dream.”
The fire flared a little, it’s flames snapping in muted visibility through Ardwyn’s shadowy form. “Will you say it then, to the fighting one, there behind?”
Gabrielle kept her gaze forward. “I don’t need to.” She said. “She’s listening.”
The ghost smiled sadly. “Aye. It was always such.”
And then she began.
Gabrielle wasn’t exactly sure when Xena’s boots came to bracket her hips, the warm leather pressing against her and bringing a sense of security with them. She just knew that, at a point in Ardwyn’s story where she really needed to feel that touch, there it was.
“Thought we did, here in this place there would be peace.” Ardwyn said. “We bothered none, took only what our bodies needed… and for a time, it was so.”
“It’s a beautiful area.” Gabrielle murmured.
“Aye.” The ghost nodded. “But then, unlooked for, a people came and it was no longer a place of peace.” She paused, staring at folded, translucent fingers. “I cannot say it dismayed Elevown.”
Gabrielle simply gazed at her, in total understanding. She felt the faintest pressure from Xena’s leg, and she gave the ankle her hand was draped over a barely perceptible tweak in response. She knew if she looked behind her, though, that the warrior would still be to all appearances asleep. “Were they raiders?”
Ardwyn looked at her. “Beasts, they were.” She answered, bluntly. “Or so thought we.”
Beasts? “Forest dwellers?” The bard asked.
The ghost was silent for a bit, a wash of anger and long remembered hatred startlingly evident on her face. “Beasts, they were.” She whispered. “First I saw them, mindless I was just taking up some herbs in the forest.”
Gabrielle waited, her throat going dry.
“Caught me, they did.” Ardwyn said. “Caught me and played with me as a pup with a stick.” Her voice was bitter. “Twould have been one thing had they killed me, but it wasn’t so.”
The bard felt at a loss. “I’m sorry.”
“As was I.” Ardwyn said. “But careless they were, and I got away. “ She continued. “Or almost.” Her eyes dropped to her hand. “Kept one bit of me, they did. With her ring on it.” The ghost fell silent for several heartbeats. “Hurt more to lose that then the finger.”
Gabrielle flexed her hand, unconsciously rubbing her thumb against the solid metal band around her own finger.
She remembered the moment she’d given that band up voluntarily, and how much that had hurt her. “It means a lot, I know. More than just the thing itself.” She said. “It hurts to lose them.”
Ardwyn looked up at her, the ghost’s dark eyes full of the firelight. “Loss, too, you know.” She said. “Found me, did my love, as I came back up to our home. It had been long since I had seen her so, afire to find the beasts and slay them.”
Another press against her hip. Gabrielle slipped her hand under the loosened laces of her partner’s boot, craving contact with her skin. Her fingers touched the smooth surface, and she felt Xena’s powerful calf muscles contract slightly in response. “I think that’s pretty natural.”
“Aye.” The ghost murmured, seeming to fade out a little. “For her it was. But we had been long in this land, and for me… I wanted only quiet, and peace, and I feared for her greatly.” She said. “Run, I would have, but not Elevown. She went for them. She fought them.”
Ardwyn’s eyes lifted, and met Gabrielle’s, and they looked at each other in silence.
“She lost.” Gabrielle whispered.
“Would that I knew.” Even in translucence, the tears were evident. “Twas a sunset, soon after, she just never came home.”
The bard gasped softly.
“Waited, I did.” Ardwyn said. “Searched all I could find of her sign, moon after moon, but nowhere did I find her, living or dead.” She got up and paced, on feet that did not quite touch the ground. “Crazed, I was.”
“I would have been, too.” Gabrielle managed to get out.
“Last, I knew she must have left this world. Else she would have come to me.” Ardwyn turned. “Nothing would stop that.”
Gabrielle heard the hint of question in her voice, and it struck such a chord in her that she got up, giving Xena’s leg a pat as she did so, and crossed to where the ghost was standing. This close, she could feel a faint chill from the fog Ardwyn was made of, and before she could think about how scary it was, she put a hand out and touched the ghost’s shoulder. “I read you stories.” She said gently. “Nothing would have stopped her from coming home.”
The surface under her fingers was chill and not solid. It felt a little more so, however, as Ardwyn turned towards her and they came face to face, their eyes on a level. All her fear dissipated when she saw the still raw grief in the ghost’s eyes, the loss still felt even after all this time.
“Found me again, they did. The beasts.” Ardwyn whispered. “Thinking I was they would slay me, and I welcomed it.” A slight shake of her head. “The gods laughed at me. The beasts kept me instead, succored me… brought me to their kind and bade me teach them.”
Gabrielle’s jaw dropped slightly. “You.” She said, remembering the tale she’d heard. “You taught them our ways… you changed them.”
The ghost gave her a bitter smile. “So I did.” She replied. “My life it cost me.” With a rippled, the ghost floated away, leaving Gabrielle behind her. “Suffered with them two full seasons, did I until more of their kind found out about me, and hated my teachings.”
The bard sighed. “Must have been a lonely two seasons.”
Ardwyn turned and looked at her again, tears filling her eyes. “Wanting I am to say you no not, and yet… “
“I don’t’ know if I would have lasted that long.” Gabrielle stated, simply.
The ghost sighed, and returned, floating to a spot next to her and settling. “Limb from limb they ripped me, each on a leg, an arm. I felt it… I felt my body sunder. I felt life escape me. I welcomed it.” She said. “No matter the pain, no matter the horror of it… that darkness I wanted, oh, how I craved it, craved past it to get and find again that which I had lost.”
Gabrielle could feel her own tears rising.
“Surely, I knew she’d be waiting.” Ardwyn said, forlornly. “But traded I had a lifetime of darkness for an eternity of it.”
“Ardwyn.” Gabrielle reached out to her again, but the ghost’s eyes went suddenly past her, and grew remote and guarded. “No, it’s..”
“Darkness.” Ardwyn repeated, fading into a light fog. “Always.”
And then she was gone.
Gabrielle released the breath she’d been holding and relaxed her shoulders just as Xena’s hand fell on one of them. She turned to find her partner behind her, the warrior’s pale eyes studying the now empty place their visitor had filled. “Xe.”
The bard turned and buried her face into her partner’s chest, slipping her arms around her and hugging her hard. “Oh, gods.”
Xena didn’t speak. She didn’t need to. What was there that she could say? She put her arms around Gabrielle and returned the hug, as shaken by the story as her soulmate was.
After all, wasn’t it both their worst nightmares? Gabrielle’s terror of being left alone, and her gut instinct that they’d be parted forever after they died? “Damn.” Xena exhaled.
Gabrielle let out a shaky breath. Her head was pounding, and she felt like her knees were going to give way at any second. “Gods, how awful.” She uttered.
“I know.” Xena rubbed her back comfortingly.
They stood embracing each other for a while, as the fire crackled nearby. Slowly, the tension around them faded, and the atmosphere of the cavern seemed to clear, returning it to the calm, peaceful place it had been earlier.
Gabrielle could feel it. She listened a moment to Xena’s hearbeat, then lifted her head up. “Xena?”
“Mm?” The warrior made a noise deep in her throat.
“Can we help her?” The bard asked. “Even if we can just find out…. I mean, someone has to know. Some one, some how, some tale, some note must exist somewhere that can tell us what happened to Elevown.” She looked up into her soulmate’s eyes, seeing a gentle, aching sorrow reflected back at her. “Cause you know, Xe..” Her voice broke. “If I were.. her.. and someone could… “
“Shh.” Xena cradled her head and pulled her close.
“Gods.” Gabrielle just let the tears fall. “We have to help her.”
Did they? Xena pondered the question. No, they didn’t have to. Other than providing them an opportune refuge, the ancient pair had no claim on them. But she felt a powerful urge inside her saying she should help. She wanted to help. The story had stirred her powerful curiosity, and it posed a question she wanted to see answered.
And it would make Gabrielle happy. Xena exhaled. Last but not least, it was the right thing to do, and either by long repetition or a true innate heroism, she found herself ready to try and find a way to get the thing solved and done.
Even if Ardwyn hadn’t seemed to like her much.
Xena gazed into the shadows, deep in thought. Then she tilted her head down and studied the bard’s tear streaked profile. “If anyone knows.” She rumbled softly. “It’ll be Rufus. Wennid said he’d gotten all the old writings about their past.”
Slowly, the bard lifted her eyes. “Rufus.” She murmured.
Gabrielle put her head back down on Xena’s shoulder and sighed. Her eyes slid shut.
The warrior tightened her hold, as their world once again shifted around them into a new set of challenges.
Xena sat next to the fire, her mortar and pestle in her hands as she patiently crushed and mixed a selection of herbs. A combination of dried and fresh scents lifted gently from the cup, strong enough to penetrate even her stuffed senses.
At her feet, Dori was sitting with two of her toys, moving them around and seriously relating baby tales to them, oblivious to her parent’s work over her head.
The warrior glanced down at Dori, then peered across the chamber to where Gabrielle was sitting with her scrolls, fiddling with a quill that had yet to scribe anything on the parchment’s surface. “Gabrielle?”
The bard looked up, firelight painting ochre shadows across her warm, green eyes.
“Thanks for picking up those dark green ones.” Xena lifted the cup towards her, and smiled. “Good stuff.”
A return grin flickered across Gabrielle’s lips. “Think it’ll help?”
The warrior nodded. “Should.” She mixed the herbs again, crushing the leaves into an almost paste. “Damn, I hope so. My head feels like it’s gonna explode.”
Gabrielle got up and walked over to her, sitting down and wrapping one arm around Xena’s waist as she laid her head on the warrior’s shoulder.
Xena peeked at her profile briefly. She didn’t really need the ill-hidden storminess in her partner’s expression to know something was bothering her – she could feel the knotting of Gabrielle’s guts in the pit of her own. “I’ll get this down, and see if it clears up my head.” She spoke quietly. “Then maybe we can figure out where to start looking for Rufus.”
Gabrielle nodded briefly. “All right.”
The soft rasp of the pestle sounded very loud in the chamber. Xena eyed the cup’s contents, then she leaned against the bard, bringing more of their bodies into close contact. “Feel like talking about it?”
A faint hint of a smile appeared. “That’s supposed to be my line.” Gabrielle nudged Dori’s toy with the toe of her boot, watching the child clutch at her foot in response. “I’m all right. Just a little tired, I think.” The bard continued. “I keep thinking about Ardwyn.”
“Mm.” Xena grunted. “Me too.”
Dori got up and put a hand on each of her mother’s knees, looking up at her with big green eyes. “Mama, c’n you fix Bupkin?”
“What did you do to Bupkin, honey? Show mama.” Gabrielle replied, watching as Dori went and retrieved her toy, a little horse with, it seemed, a missing essential bodypart. “Where’s his head?”
“Gots.” Dori got down on her knees and crawled between Xena’s legs, searching for the missing head. “Was paying wif Bupkin and Oogy, mama… Oogy no good.”
“What did Oogy do, sweetie?” Gabrielle absently asked, examining the toy. “Gods, Xe… I think this is going to be one for your hands.”
“Oogy play bad, hit Bupkin. Bck.” Dori crawled under Xena’s knee and stood up, presenting her mother with a bedraggled, stuffed horse head. “Dere.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle studied the horse, and the head, then she turned to her partner. “Trade?”
Willingly, Xena did so. She handed Gabrielle the mortar and pestle, and in return retrieved the broken toy. Clucking her tongue, she leaned back and retrieved her needle and thread and set to work on it. “You better tell Oogy not to do that again, or I’m gonna have to get mean with him, Dori.”
Dori toddled over to her and watched the work in progress. “Bad cow.” She agreed. “Dankoo, Boo. Make Bupkin good.”
Xena looked up, and smiled at her. “You’re welcome, munchkin.”
“Boo makes everything good.” Gabrielle put her head back down on the warrior’s shoulder, leaning back alongside her on the couch. “That’s why we have to take care of Boo, right Dori?” She mixed the herbs carefully.
Gabrielle smiled at the enthusiasm, but she was aware of the attention focused on her and she knew her talk wasn’t fooling her partner.
Which, she admitted, was as it should be. Xena was the person she’d been closest to for a number of years now, and even setting aside their remarkable connection, they were each other’s best friend. She’d stripped herself bare of barriers when it came to their relationship and even the thought of dissembling bothered her.
Admitting what was bothering her bothered her even more.
Fish turds. Gabrielle mashed the herbs with some passion. A gentle nudge rocked her. She glanced to one side, to find Xena watching her, pausing to glance down at what she was doing. “Hi.” The bard ventured.
Gabrielle exhaled. “We… I guess we have to find Rufus, huh?”
“Mmmhm.” Xena agreed.
“What if he doesn’t want to be found?”
The warrior mulled that over.
“I mean, is there some other way, Xena? If we can’t find him, or…” Gabrielle paused, then sighed. “Okay.” She said. “He’s nuts, and dangerous. I don’t want to find him.”
“Ah.” Xena carefully stitched around the horse’s neck. “Thought you wanted to help Ardwyn.”
“I do.” Exasperated, more with herself than anything, Gabrielle set the cup down and leaned forward, scrubbing her hair with both hands, then resting her head in them. She felt like throwing up. “Xena.”
“Mama.” Dori squirmed between her knees and grasped her hands.
Gabrielle lifted her head and put her arms around her daughter. She rested her cheek on Dori’s head and looked at Xena. “I’m having a real problem facing the fact that I’m a selfish coward.”
Both of Xena’s eyebrows jerked up in unison, then contracted together in evident confusion. “What?” She said. “Gabrielle, what are you talking about?”
The bard gazed steadily at her. “I do want to help Ardwyn. I just don’t want to risk anything doing it.”
One of the dark brows lifted. “And that makes you…”
“You know it does.”
Xena exhaled. “Don’t be idiotic. I’ve seen you risk yourself..”
“No.” Gabrielle cut her off with unexpected force. “YOU risk yourself for anyone… for the greater good.” She pointed at herself. “I..” She pointed at Xena. “Risk myself only for you. That’s the difference between us”
Xena blinked at her, in utter silence.
“So, I don’t know what you think about that but..” Gabrielle found her mouth covered, as Xena shifted.
“I think you’ve got a damn bad memory for bard, that’s what I think.” Xena glared at her. “Funny how you remember every damn positive thing I’ve done since we met but never remember any of your own.”
Slowly, Gabrielle lifted her hand and removed the fingers covering her mouth, folding them into her own and pressing her cheek against them. Xena’s anger didn’t frighten her. She knew it was in her behalf and despite the sting of the words, they warmed her.
The blue eyes drilled into hers, like twin anchors holding her solidly as her doubts whirled. “I’m sorry.” She finally murmured. “Xena, I’m scared, and I don’t know what to do with myself.”
Xena’s lips pressed together, and she stroked Gabrielle’s cheek with her thumb.
“I hate feeling like this.” The bard went on, in a half whisper.
“I know.” Xena said. “We’ll work it out. Just relax.”
Gabrielle hugged Dori to her as Xena slid over, and cradled her in a warm embrace. She hid her face in the curve of her partner’s neck, exhaling shakily. She felt the pressure as Xena kissed her head, and the reassurance of the warrior’s aura of calm that settled over her like a soft blanket.
“I’ve never tracked a trail that cold.” Xena said. “But the answers to what happened to Elevown might be somewhere on this damn mountain. If we can’t find Rufus, maybe we can find something else.”
“Bad mens.” Dori squirmed in her grasp. “Boo fix.”
Gabrielle took a breath. “I’m just….” She opened her eyes, and looked up at Xena’s profile. “I’m afraid if we go looking for him, it’s going to end in a fight.”
“Probably.” Xena acknowledged.
They looked at each other. “Am I losing my mind?” Gabrielle asked, seriously. “It feels like it.”
Xena ruffled her hair with gentle affection. “I don’t think so.” She said. “Backhanded compliment, really.”
Gabrielle’s brows drew together in confusion.
“Nevermind.” The warrior leaned over and retrieved her cup, then she stretched an arm out for the pot of hot water and poured it over the herbs. The steam rose immediately, coloring the cavern with it’s pungent aroma.
Swirling the cup, Xena leaned back and pulled Gabrielle close again. The bard curled up against her, with Dori in her arms and lapsed into a peaceful silence. Looking down, she could see Gabrielle’s eyes half closing, exhaustion from the emotional tension overtaking her.
“Boo fix?” Dori looked up at her with wide eyes, unsure of what was going on.
Xena handed her back her toy, now fully restored, and watched the child hug it enthusiastically. “How’s that?”
“Good.” Dori looked at her toy happily. “Boo fix ev’rting.”
Well. The warrior sighed. Boo tries.
But sometimes she really did feel like the Fates were out there throwing cow patties at her with a catapult.
Gabrielle woke out of a hazy confusion, her hands reaching out only to relax when she realized where she was. The warmth she was leaning against was Xena, and the soft rumble she’d heard was just the warrior humming to herself. “Mmph.”
“Ah.” Xena replied. “You awake?”
“Eh.” Gabrielle’s eyes felt very heavy, and she gave into the impulse to close them again. “Sorry I fell asleep on you.”
“Over there.” Xena said. “Snuggled up inside one of my tunics.”
Gabrielle opened one eye and peered across the room. A smile appeared on her face. “That’s m’girl.” She said, seeing the top of her daughter’s head poking up from a mass of rust colored fabric. “Y’know, she’s always done that.”
“Uh huh.” Xena agreed. “Remember when she was a newborn? You rocked her to sleep wrapped in whatever shirt I’d been wearing that day.” She riffled her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair. “Why?”
Why? “Well.” The bard said. “I don’t know.. there’s something about you, about your smell that always makes me…”
“Gag?” Xena teased.
“Wench.” Gabrielle had to smile. “I’d be gagging most of the day, wouldn’t I?” She chuckled. “It’s just something I always found comforting… maybe because I love you so much, I don’t know. Anyway… Dori settled faster when I did it, so I didn’t argue.” Her eyes warmed. “I just figured she got it from me.”
“Hm.” The warrior went back to her task, fixing one the buckles on her chest armor.
Touch. Xena concentrated on not slapping her young companion. Why must she always touch?
“Look, Xena!” Gabrielle grabbed her friend’s arm and pointed. “What is *that*?”
“It’s a monkey.” Xena kept walking, ignoring the small beasts. It was hot, far too hot for her temper this far south and she was yearning for the sun to go down so she could cool off.
“Oh! A baby!” Gabrielle gasped. “Xena, it’s so cute!”
With a sigh, the warrior halted, looking over into the bushes with ill concealed impatience. “Yeah. Nice. C’mon.”
“No, wait.. I want to see it.” The newly independent bard to be trotted off the road and down a small slope, bent on getting closer to the monkeys.
Xena sighed, and wiped her forearm across her brow, flicking her fingers to rid them of sweat as she waited on the ridge for Gabrielle to get bored with this newest diversion. It was her fault, she knew. Bringing Gabrielle here, into an almost jungle with it’s brightly colored birds and strange animals was just asking for trouble.
So why had she done it? Xena wondered. She could have taken them up into the mountains, where there was nothing more interesting to look at than rocks and a few bushes.
“Xena! Oh, look! Isn’t he cute?”
Yeah, yeah, sure, kid. Xena left Argo standing on the road and made her way down the slope, arriving next to Gabrielle as the creatures she was watching swung closer to her.
It was a mother monkey, with her little baby. The infant was clinging to the mother’s fur, watching them with wide, incredulous eyes. The mother monkey put one arm around him protectively, and chuttered at them.
“Oh.” Gabrielle gave the pair an incredulous smile. “Look at them, Xena. They look almost like us!”
“Speak for yourself.” Xena told her, with a smug grin.
Gabrielle blithely ignored the comment and edged a little closer. The baby monkey huddled against his mother, clutching her as he watched this strange being make noises at him. “Look at him holding on to his mama. It’s so human.”
Xena snorted. “Mama’s don’t have that much hair there. At least, none that I know.” She plucked at Gabrielle’s shirt. “You not telling me something?”
Gabrielle took a breath, and then she blushed unexpectedly. “I just meant it was natural.” She said. “It makes him feel good.”
Xena looked at the monkeys. Then she looked at Gabrielle looking at the monkeys. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t know.” She said, shortly. “C’mon. I’m hot and I want out of this damn armor.”
Gabrielle followed her back up the slope.
It was very late that night, long after the moon had set when Xena woke up. At first, she wasn’t sure why she’d jerked out of sleep, and she cast around with her sense to find what had disturbed her. Their camp was quiet, her on one side of the fire, and Gabrielle on the other, but a soft sound out of place made her lean towards the now dimmed embers and listen hard.
Then she sat back, at a loss. The sounds she heard were muffled sobs, coming from the other side of the fire and given that they were alone here in the woods it had to be Gabrielle who was crying.
Why? Xena cast her mind back over the evening. No, she hadn’t been any meaner than usual, and Gabrielle had seemed fine before bed. So what was the problem?
With a frown, Xena lifted herself up from her furs and crawled soundlessly around the fire, peering through the darkness at her enigmatic little tag along. Gabrielle was unaware of her presence, she was covered with her tattered blanket and curled in a ball, her hands clutching…
Xena squinted, then realized the lump in the girl’s hands was the toy wooden sheep she’d given her not weeks before for Solstice.
Gabrielle was hugging it.
Xena rested on one elbow in utter confusion. “Hey.”
The girl jerked, and looked over at her, tear streaked face wide eyed in shock. “Oh!”
“What’s wrong with you?” Xena asked, sternly.
Stunned, for a moment Gabrielle didn’t answer. Then she sniffled, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’m… I didn’t meant to wake you up, Xena.. I’m sorry. I was just..um.. “
“N..no.” Gabrielle stuttered softly. “Not really.. just… well, homesick.”
Gabrielle looked at her uncomfortably. “Yeah, you know. Lonely, homesick.. like when you miss your family?”
Xena snorted. “Last time I went near my family, you had to keep em from stoning me to death. I don’t miss em.”
“Oh.” The girl seemed a bit crestfallen. “Well, yeah, I don’t miss mine either.”
Xena looked at her, then at the lamb. Then she met Gabrielle’s reddened eyes. “You up like this a lot?”
There was no answer.
“That why you’re always so tired in the morning?”
Gabrielle’s eyes dropped.
With a sigh, Xena got up and walked over, then seated herself next to Gabrielle on her side of the fire.
On her blankets. “C’mere.” Xena put an arm around Gabrielle and pulled her over, half tangling both of them in the thin blanket. The girl’s skin was chilled, and the warrior realized she must have been cold on top of everything with the fire burned down and frost in the air.
“B.. wha…” Gabrielle stuttered as she was hauled bodily over and pressed against Xena’s tall frame.
“Pretend you’re a monkey.” Xena said. “Maybe it’ll make you feel good.”
Gabrielle froze in shock for a couple of seconds. Then she slowly relaxed, timidly resting her head against Xena’s shoulder, her lamb forgotten in the tumble of fabric. They sat in silence together for a little while, watching the dying embers of the fire.
Hey. Xena pondered curiously. This wasn’t so bad after all. Having Gabrielle this close was actually kind of pleasant. “So.” She said. “Did it work?”
Figures. Give her what she asks for, she doesn’t want it. Xena looked at her companion, only to find her fast asleep, a relieved little smile on her face.
With a sigh, Xena tipped her head back and regarded the stars. “Ook, Ook, Ook.” She muttered softly, mockingly at herself. But as she closed her eyes, she had to admit she was smiling too.
Gabrielle absorbed the peaceful silence, recognizing a certain sensation of waiting floating in the air.
Waiting, for her, she reckoned. For a very long moment she stared off into the shadows, then shifted slightly, her chin tilting up a bit in an attitude that Xena, certainly, would have recognized. “Hey, Xena?”
“I was just thinking.”
Gabrielle gave her a pinch on the inside of her leg, making her jump and stifle a yelp. “Listen.” She said. “I was thinking about finding out more. I think… maybe Ardwyn might know things that might help us.”
Xena rubbed her leg. “Maybe.”
Gabrielle took a deep breath. “Maybe I can talk to her… but I don’t think she’ll come out of you’re here.” She added. “So I had an idea.”
“Why don’t you.. see what you can find outside around here and I’ll try to talk to her.” Gabrielle got the words out fast, shivering a little inside at the thought of Xena leaving.
And maybe not coming back.
Gently, the warrior leaned over and kissed her on the head. “Good idea.” She said. “Sure you’re up to it?”
Gabrielle seemed to find the dark corners fascinating from the way she was looking deeply into them. “I remember the last time we were here.” She said. “I remember watching you refusing to allow fear to take over your life.”
“Not always in smart ways.” Xena said.
“I can’t let this rule me.” The bard replied, softly. “I want to live up to your example.”
The warrior scratched the back of Gabrielle’s neck with light fingers, then moved her hair aside to examine the healing wound on the back of her neck. There was still some swelling around the area, and the line where she’d cut into Gabrielle’s flesh was still raw, though closed. Bruises extended around the bones of her spine, but the spot was clearly on the mend. “How’s this feeling?” She touched the skin on either side of the spot.
“Pulls a little. Sore.” Gabrielle said. “But compared to what it was, it’s like a hangnail.”
“So.. what do you think about my idea?”
Xena set her armor down. “I think it’s a great idea.” She said. “Those herbs cleared my head a little, so let me get my leathers on, and I’ll go see what I can find.” She cupped Gabrielle’s cheek and turned her head so they were making eye contact. “If you need me, don’t do what I would. Call me. Okay?”
Gabrielle covered Xena’s hand with her own, then she turned her head slightly and kissed the warrior’s palm. “I will.” She released her partner, and waited for her rise before she slid into the place Xena had occupied, curling up in the warmth from her body.
She watched the warrior stretch. Then Xena untied the shift she was wearing and stripped it off, walking casually to her gear back and removing her leathers from it. “Xena?”
“Yees?” Xena shook out the leathers and prepared to step into them.
Gabrielle drummed her fingers on the fabric. “I’m rethinking this idea of mine.”
The warrior paused, putting her hands on her hips. “I thought you…”
“Well, yeah, I did… but, um…” The bard let her eyes wander up and down her partner’s tall body. With just her undergarments, there was very little left to the imagination, and the firelight did very kind things to the tan, muscular surface.
Xena smiled, her eyes dropping slightly in acknowledgement. She shook the leathers out again and stepped into them, pulling them up and sliding the straps over her shoulders as the leather warmed against her body. The herbs had cleared her head a little, true, but she still felt lousy, and only the fact that Gabrielle had come up with her idea was prompting her to go back up the tunnel and out into the cold air.
Still, it was nice to see the look of sensual approval in her partner’s eyes, sick or no. With a sigh, Xena sat down and tugged on her boots, pulling the laces taut before she settled her leg armor over them, tightening the buckles into a proper fit.
She stood up again, clasping the mantel with one hand as a brief spate of lightheadedness came over her. There was still an ache in her bones, and walking over to where the rest of her armor was, her already donned leg armor felt far heavier than it usually did.
Stolidly, she settled her chest armor over her head and buckled it, or started to before Gabrielle slipped under her right arm and took the leather straps from her fingers. “Hey.”
“My job.” The bard said. “Let me ask you, honey, are *you* up to this?”
“Yeah.” Xena slid her bracers on. “I won’t go far though.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle gave her a pat on the belly. “We’ll be right here waiting for you.”
With a snick, Xena seated her sword in it’s sheath into the clips on her back, and settled the chakram on he hip.
Oddly, she felt better for it, despite the added weight. She slung her cloak over her and fastened the neck clasp, then headed for the stone corridor that lead outside.
Just before she got to the bend in the rock, she turned and looked back, pausing as she took in Gabrielle’s pensive form near the fire. The bard had her arms wrapped around herself, and as she looked up, caught in Xena’s gaze, the fear in her eyes was painfully evident. “Sure you want me to do this?” She gave the bard an out, half hoping she’d take it.
A faint smile appeared on Gabrielle’s face. “I’m sure.” She said, in a soft voice.
Xena nodded in understanding. “I won’t be far.” She lifted her hand, and made a sign with her hand. Then she turned and disappeared into the shadows.
Gabrielle lifted her own hand and repeated the gesture, then let her hand fall to her side. She looked around the cavern and exhaled into the deafening silence, before she went to Dori’s side and sat down next to her, gathering her daughter up into her arms and rocking her in a gentle rhythm.
Xena paused at the top of the cavern entrance, closing the capstone before she sat down on the dusty rocks and engaged her mind for a while. She wasn’t exactly procrastinating, but she also didn’t have a big urge to move far away from the cave in case Gabrielle needed her.
To be honest, Gabrielle’s mental state deeply concerned the warrior. They’d both been through an enormous amount of stress in their life together, and she was beginning to wonder if it all wasn’t catching up with her partner.
A backhanded compliment, she’d called it, and meant that they’d gotten to a point where she’d given Gabrielle something she cherished so greatly, the fear of losing it was shattering her. The thought was a bit humbling, and Xena was not naturally a humble person.
She respected what the bard was doing. Having been in a place very close to where Gabrielle was right now, she understood exactly what her partner was going through, and she knew to the nth degree the kind of stubborn strength it took to get over it.
However, her protective instinct when it came to Gabrielle was extremely strong, and it drove her nuts to know the bard was in there suffering, alone, and realize she couldn’t help her.
So, she decided instead of heading out into the valley, she’d sit here and try to reason out the problem first, and at least that would give her an idea of where she wanted to start looking. Accordingly, she got up and strolled around the cave, examining the walls she hadn’t seen for years with interest.
Ardwyn and Elevown had left this outer chamber fairly untouched. Ledges had been planed off to store things, but she could see by the broken rock edges that if something had been kept here, it hadn’t lasted long.
Xena walked around to a spot near the rear, where stick and debris had piled up. She knelt next to it, and through her still considerable stuffiness, she could detect the faint odor of bear. Irritated, she sniffled hard to clear her nose, but that only made the pressure worse.
“Damn it.” The warrior stood and rubbed either side of her nose, hating the restriction on her senses. A thought occurred to her, and she glanced around, leaning one hand on the rock wall. Was this what it was like to be a regular normal person? She’d developed and honed her senses for so many years, she honestly didn’t remember what it was like not to have them.
Xena exhaled. Speculating was pointless. She knelt back down and examined the debris, moving bits of it aside. Satisified that it hadn’t been disturbed since she’d killed it’s owner, she got up and continued her tour. Near the entrance, she spotted an irregularity in the rock and it drew her over.
In the relatively smooth rock face was a jagged hole, whose edges were cracked. All around the hole the smooth granite bore cracks, as though something very hard had made an incredible impact long ago. Xena ran her fingers over the gap, feeling edges worn by time, yet still sharp enough to press an imprint against her skin.
Turning, she gazed across the cavern, looking up automatically to see if the clever Viking had set some long tripped trap she’d missed up until now. The ceiling was low, but she could see the whole of it, and there was nothing up there that might have swung down to make this. Xena cocked her head and looked at the hole, her eyes flickering back and forth as she tried to imagine what kind of impact had caused it.
Slowly, she straightened, judging angles. She reached over her head and pulled her sword out of it’s sheath, crouching a little, then clasping both hands around the hilt and performing a slow motion swing at the wall, swiveling her body and cocking her wrists as she completed the move.
The point of her sword ended up in just about the middle of the impact zone. “Huh.” She relaxed, letting her sword come to rest on her shoulder. A hole that size hadn’t been made by any sword, but her instincts told her it had been made by a weapon.
Mace? Xena could almost see a horizontal slash mark in the rocks. No mace. Something with a squared off surface had caused the damage. She drummed her fingers on her sword hilt. Then a memory struck her, and she made a low noise in her throat. “Ah… warhammer.” She nodded, reaching out to touch the spot, remembering the hammer that had almost taken her head off as she’d tripped Elevown’s traps in her first visit to the cavern.
A warhammer then. A big one. Had the Viking wielded it? And if she had, what had happened here, that caused her to strike the wall like that?
Had she been defending that capstone, as Xena would have in her place? The warrior smiled a little, acknowledging the parallel nature of the ancient pair with her and Gabrielle. She’d read the scrolls Ardwyn had written, some of them even before Gabrielle had, in that long winter when they’d been stuck inside.
Back in that golden time.
Xena set aside the thought and ducked through the opening, moving from the back chamber of the cavern into the outer one. Here, light from outside flooded in the opening, and the crisp air lifted her hair up and moved it back as it swirled through the cave.
Now that she was looking for it, her eyes caught other signs of a struggle. A burned patch of rock, near the far wall. Nicks in the stone. A long gouge that ran almost from the entrance to the back of the cavern.
A puzzle. Xena felt her mind engaging in it, glad of the diversion. Her guts told her Gabrielle was still relatively all right, so she investigated her new puzzle further, trying to conjure up in her head what had happened in the cave.
A fight, definitely. From a strategic standpoint, the cave was lousy to defend, because the opening was too big to block, and once your enemies were inside, it would be chaos. So, did Elevown fight off as many as she could, then retreat to the inner sanctum, and then down the rock chimney?
Or, was that her intention, only she never made it? Xena itched for more details, and she hoped Gabrielle was having success in coaxing Ardwyn’s ghost into speaking to her. “That what happened?” She asked aloud. “They chased you in here, you sprung a trap, and it went bad?”
The thought of the Viking fighting desperately to protect her home struck a chord. Xena walked to the opening and stepped out into the ledge, emerging into the sunlight and standing in full view. She knew the light was reflecting off her brass armor, and the glint at her shoulder and hip that were her weapons.
Something was still out there. She could sense it watching her. Was it the same something the Viking had faced all those years ago?
Would it now come after her? After them? Xena considered that sobering idea. Sick as she was, could she handle it? Or would she end up doing as Elevown had done, fighting a losing battle in a lonely cave, separated from her beloved?
The Hades she would. Xena looked out over the verdant valley. For one thing, Gabrielle would never let her get away with fighting alone, which meant if it came down to the worst, it’d be the two of them back to back against whatever this was.
Xena tried to focus her senses. It was tough, but she kept at it and after a while, the air started bringing her a sense of the world around her. For a moment, the wind died, and in that moment she felt it.
Clear and sharp, a hungry, malevolent presence. Driven by such a rage, and a hunger that even Xena, who was what she was, and whose life had been filled with darkness – even Xena recoiled.
Then it was gone.
Gone as though it had never been, but in that moment Xena had gotten a fix on where the dark energy was coming from. Slowly, she rotated to her left and looked across the valley, past the plateau where Argo and Iolaus were, past the stands of tall evergreens, to the end of the valley that sloped up into a crag topped peak that towered over the mountainside she stood on.
As she watched, clouds gathered around the peak and obscured it.
So. Xena turned and made her way back inside the cavern. She walked back through the outer room and into the inner, laying her hands on the capstone and pausing for a moment before she shifted it around.
“I don’t know if you’re out here.” The warrior said aloud. “But if you are… we’re gonna find out what happened.” A pause. “Or else.”
Did the wind laugh at her? Xena decided her stuffed head was making her ears ring and discarded the notion.
Then she pulled the capstone aside and lowered herself down, catching the first footholds with care. She reached up and pulled the capstone back into place, shoving the catch home before she continued on.