Okay, Gabrielle. Get a grip on yourself. Despite the words, it was still hard to breathe, and she found herself forced to almost gasp, so tight was the tension around her chest. A sudden, vivid picture of a small, dark cave lifetimes as well as leagues away popped into her head, and she exhaled as she gained a new perspective on something about Xena she’d never truly understood before.
She’d been afraid many times in her life. Given that they lived the way they did, and risked what they had, it was to be expected that she’d come to accept the occasional bout of terror and put it in it’s overall perspective.
However, she usually was scared in situations where it made sense to be. She was being attacked, Xena was being attacked, they were falling down cliffs… being scared in those situations really seemed a normal reaction.
It was a very different feeling to be afraid without cause. Gabrielle felt her body shaking, and a sick feeling began to grow inside her guts. Now she understood why Xena had so hated her own fear of enclosure – there was no rational fighting of this. It was a mindless, numbing terror that robbed her of any control.
And yet, Xena had fought it.
Just the thought itself calmed her. Gabrielle remembered watching the slow progress, as her partner forced herself to set aside her fears and by sheer will and concentration broke down the barrier that her mind had put around her and overcame it.
So it could be done. The bard inhaled, held the breath in, and released it. Terror didn’t have to win. If Xena could do it, than she could at least try. She paused and gazed thoughtfully across the cavern. With a little help.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, and felt inside her for the connection that linked her to her partner, finding it warm and steady, just under her thoughts. A gentle emotion flooded through her, one of worry and concern, and carrying with it a deep love that she focused on and allowed to become the center of her world.
After a little while, she lifted her head and nodded slightly, feeling the fear still in her, but muted; no longer threatening to take her over for the moment.
It would have to be enough, the bard decided, for now. She had a task to take care of, after all, and a ghost to coax out. Arranging herself more comfortably, she held her hands up to Dori to play pat, ignoring the potential ghostly eyes and settling herself to wait.
It didn’t take long. Gabrielle became aware of a presence nearby as she heard the soft sound of Xena’s sliding the stone back into place through the rock above her. She waited for a moment, then she lifted her head and looked into the shadows near the back room; keeping her arms wrapped around Dori’s sturdy form.
Slowly Ardwyn’s features coalesced out of the darkness, and the ancient spirit drifted towards her, a hint of wariness apparent in her dark eyes.
“You don’t have to be scared of Xena.” Gabrielle said, in a quiet voice.
“Scared?” Ardwyn hovered a little closer. “The dead be not scared of the living, I think.” She studied Dori, who had her thumb stuck in her mouth and was watching the ghost with interested eyes. “Nor little ones of the dead, em?”
Gabrielle glanced at her daughter, and smiled. “She’s not afraid of much, no.” She agreed. “She gets that from Xena, I think.”
“Boo.” Dori said, immediately. “Were Boo go, Mama?”
“She just went outside for a little while, honey. She’ll be right back.” Gabrielle felt her throat close on the words, and had to swallow very hard to clear the lump. She ruffled Dori’s hair to give herself a moment to gather her composure, then ordered the dark, disheveled bangs into some semblance of neatness. “Don’t worry.”
Ardwyn approached them, settling to the ground just out of arm’s reach. “Why think you that I fear the dark one?”
“Well.” Gabrielle said. “You disappeared when she came in before, and now you came back when she left. You don’t know her, so I guess it’s not because you just don’t like her, so…”
Ardwyn seemed a bit discomfited by the words, but she remained where she was, hands folded in odd transparency before her. “She has much energy.” The ghost finally said. “She makes it difficult to be so.” A hand lifted and flexed. “For your eyes.”
“Ah.” The bard murmured. “Hm. I never thought of that.”
“Nor you should.” Ardwyn said. “Being not dead, it’s of no mind to you, is it now?” She added. “What call you the little one?”
“Doriana.” Gabrielle accepted the change of subject. “It means gift.” She gave the child a hug. “Because that’s what she was, weren’t you Dor?”
“Gif.” Dori agreed amiably. “Go mama!”
The bard glanced up to find Ardwyn studying her. “Did you ever want children?”
A quiet sadness played itself across the ghost’s face. “Time there was, aye, when it would have given us joy.” She said. “Were that time, though, neither us could take the notion of looking to someone to give that to us.”
“Mama.” Dori was apparently bored by the conversation. “C’n you gimme dat rock?” She pointed.
Gabrielle retrieved the stone and handed it over. “You little packrat. Just like mama, huh?” She ruffled Dori’s hair again, then looked up at Ardwyn. “I know what you mean.” She said. “It was a hard decision – but as it turned out, definitely worth it.”
Ardwyn nodded slightly, watching Dori with her rock. “She’s yours then?” There was a faint tone of surprise.
“Ours.” The bard replied, with a gentle smile. “But I’m her mother, if that’s what you mean.” She conceded.
“Aye.” The ghost hesitated. “From the dark one, I’d have thought her.”
“Yeah, most people think that.” Gabrielle said. “She got Xena’s hair, and I think she’s going to be tall.. but she got my eyes, and everyone tells me she got my smile.” She tickled Dori, and was rewarded with a squeal, a squiggle, and a delighted grin which she returned.
Ardwyn lifted up from her position and drifted closer, coming right up to Dori and studying her intently. After a moment, she looked up at Gabrielle. “How is this so?” She asked, in an amazed tone, jumping back when Dori reached out an impetuous hand and clutched at her. “Truly she is of you both!”
Gabrielle nodded, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. “Yes, she is.” She said. “I can’t really explain it, and neither can Xena, but we know Dori came out of the love we share with each other.” A pause. “That’s why we’d like to help you find some peace, if we can.”
The ghost looked up at her. “Know you how lucky you are?” The question came as a whisper, not barely even a voice.
The bard nodded again, more slowly. She kept hold of the squirming Dori, who was trying to get loose to investigate this new distraction floating nearby. “Stay here, sweetie.” She told the child, then returned her attention to Ardwyn. “I do know.”
Ardwyn moved a little closer, and her eyes became intense as they captured Gabrielle’s. “Still would you feel so, if the dark one went back to the darkness?”
Gabrielle frowned at the unexpected question. “Xena’s not really like that…” Her words trailed off at the sense of deep knowledge she found in the face looking at her. Ardwyn knew.
But that decision, too, had been made for her long ago. “Yes.’ The bard spoke with quiet clarity. “I would love her no matter what she was.” She said. “There is no place she would go, that I wouldn’t follow her.”
The shadows seemed to close in on the three of them. “Truly?” Ardwyn whispered.
“Truly.” Gabrielle replied, without hesitation.
The ghost’s eyes flicked to Dori’s face, then settled back on Gabrielle’s. “Then far more true your heart was than was mine.”
With an almost audible sound, Ardwyn disappeared, making Gabrielle jump a little and getting a surprised sound from Dori. “Hey!” The bard blurted. “Wait!”
“Bck!” The toddler wriggled out of her mother’s grasp, and patted the spot where the ghost had sat. “Mama, where go?”
“Ardwyn!” Gabrielle called out. “Come back!”
There was no answer, and no sense of the ghost’s presence, but as Gabrielle concentrated for it, her senses were swamped by a far stronger one. Surprised, she lifted her head in time to see a dark figure appear from the shadows, the torchlight chasing them back to reveal Xena’s tall form. “That was fast.” She got out, still off balance a little.
“Boo!” Dori forgot all about the ghost.
“Mm.” The warrior stifled a cough, walking over to take a seat next to them cross legged on the floor. Dori scrambled over and climbed into her lap, playing with one of the warrior’s hands happily. “Think I found the source of our problem.”
Gabrielle reached out to put a hand on her partner’s knee. “Did you hear any of that?” She asked, ignoring the wider issue for a moment.
The look in Xena’s eyes told her. “Enough.” The warrior said, her lips tugging up into a little grin.
“Nothing you haven’t heard before.” The bard acknowledged, with the same, small grin. “What do you think Ardwyn meant, though?”
Xena rested her elbows on her knees, as she watched Dori count the fingers on her hand with childish absorption. “All of em still there, Dor?”
Dori patted the much bigger hand in her grasp, then commenced tugging on the digits.
With an indulgent smile, the warrior returned her attention to Gabrielle. “End of the valley, there’s a tall, single topped slope. Something’s going on there.”
The bard nodded slowly. “You think it has something to do with them?” She indicated the cavern.
Xena shook her head. “I don’t know. But I’m betting it’s mixed up with the forest dwellers, and maybe it has something to do with them. All I know is that if we want to find out what’s going on, that’s the place to look.”
Gabrielle considered the information. She studied her partner’s drawn, pale face and knew the smart thing would be for them to simply leave the valley, leave the forest dwellers and their problem, and even Ardwyn’s problem behind and just go home.
But she also knew they weren’t going to do that, because at the core of it, that just wasn’t who they were. The thought was both frightening, and somehow, at some level, comforting at the same time. “Okay, but what do you think Ard…” She paused, as Xena covered her lips with the tips of her fingers.
“I think.” The warrior said, in a gentle voice. “That I just ended up luckier than the Viking did.” She removed her fingers. “And I think we don’t know the whole story there, yet.”
Gabrielle slid over, and rolled onto her side, putting her head down on Xena’s thigh and draping her arm over the warrior. There was a comforting solidity there that touched her deep inside, a living strength that reminded her all the more vividly of Ardwyn’s words.
And her own.
The tears came, and they surprised her. She let them fall, in an odd sense of relief as Xena rubbed her back with a comfortingly strong hand. “Xena?”
“Mm?” The warrior leaned a little closer.
“Know what my problem is?”
Xena’s dark eyebrows twitched, and she cocked her head to one side. “Your problem? No, what?”
Gabrielle rolled over and looked up at her through tear filled eyes. “I want our life’s story to have a happy ending.” She said, meeting her partner’s gaze with an aching sadness, feeling in that the root of the unreasoning fear chewing at her guts.
Before she could think, Xena found herself cradling Gabrielle’s face in her hands, and felt her soul open. “It will.” She heard herself say. “I promise you.”
A stillness fell over the both of them, into which the chiming of two hearts unfolding drifted, dusting them with an unexpected patina of eternity.
“I promise.” Xena repeated, in the barest of voices.
Gabrielle felt her body relax, as she lay there, just living the moment.
Fear shook it’s head, and walked off into the shadows again, to find greener pastures where love held less purchase to sow his dark seeds.
Gabrielle knelt beside the bed, laying the long, soft strip of cloth over her shoulder before she rubbed liniment into her hands and started applying it to her partner’s throat. The strong scent tickled her nose, but she kept at it, only periodically meeting the gaze from the pale blue eyes watching her.
When she was done, she wrapped the cloth around Xena’s neck, and tucked the ends into the collar of the warm tunic she now had on. Then she pulled the covers up and neatly encapsulated the warrior in them. “There.”
“Shush.” The bard pulled a comfortable chair over, and settled herself into it, pulling over some of her scrolls and a quill. Dori was sitting on a half a bear rug next to her, several toys scattered around her sprawled legs absorbed in being part of an infant story in the making, and the atmosphere inside the cavern had perceptibly lightened around them.
Gabrielle wasn’t sure exactly why, but she wasn’t sure she exactly cared. “I know we’ve got a mystery to solve, and trouble to get into, but I’m just not going to let you do it while you’re sick as a dog, Xena. I’m just not.”
“Yes, you are.” The bard cut her off, firmly. “Now stop it. Save the tough routine for someone who doesn’t know you like I do.”
Xena folded her hands over her stomach and wriggled into a slightly more comfortable position. “That would be everyone.” She took a breath of the pungent liniment, and exhaled, already feeling better to be lying down under Gabrielle’s ministrations.
Not that she’d admit it, naturally.
She didn’t even feel horribly sick – not like she had a day or so ago. She just felt miserable and uncomfortable; her throat hurt and was scratchy, her head ached from the congestion, and the cough still hadn’t left her chest.
Whining about it would have made her feel a lot worse, but Gabrielle had neatly circumvented that by going into one of her solicitous mother hen modes, thereby giving Xena what she really wanted without making her ask for it.
That was one of the really nice things about being someone’s partner, Xena decided. You had at least one person you didn’t have to pretend for. “Gab?”
“Yeees?” Gabrielle leaned one elbow on the edge of the bed.
“Got some more of that hot tea?”
A charming smile appeared on the bard’s face. “For you, anytime.” She lowered herself down and gave Xena a kiss on the forehead, then straightened.
“Thanks for being a good nurse.” The warrior joked, with a wan grin.
“Thanks for not being a curmudgeon.” Gabrielle tweaked her partner’s nose. “Besides… “ She hesitated, then leaned over again, touching her head to Xena’s. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “You’ve done such a wonderful job of healing me. Now it’s my turn.”
Xena had no idea what to say to that, so she simply rubbed her nose against Gabrielle’s, coaxing a responding smile from the bard.
“You interested in hearing a story?” Gabrielle offered, straightening and sitting back in her chair.
“Stowie?” Dori’s ears perked up. “Mama, coodoodle doo!”
Xena rolled her eyes.
“No, honey.” The bard gazed fondly down at her daughter. “I have to tell a story your Boo likes now.” She said. “I’ll tell you the rooster story again later.” Her eyes shifted to Xena. “When Boo’s asleep.”
Dori got up and ambled over to the bed, holding onto the covers and peering up at her buddy. “Boo go sleep?” She queried. “H’come?”
Xena eyed the innocent face gazing at her. “How come?” She asked. “Listen, shortie. I can take a nap any time I want to, got me?”
“Aww.. so menacing.” Gabrielle chuckled, reaching over to move aside some of the dark hair that had nearly fallen into Xena’s eyes. “You’re such a little toughie, Xena.”
One dark brow twitched, then suddenly, the warrior grinned, and started to laugh.
Surprised, the bard blinked. “What’s so funny?”
Xena shook her head and kept chuckling. She circled Gabrielle’s leg with one arm, curling her fingers around the bard’s knee. “I was just remembering that time when you got sick.. when your throat swelled up?”
“Ungh.” Gabrielle groaned, wincing at the memory. “What brought *that* up?”
“You were trying to be so tough.” The warrior teased her. “Not ask me to help you.”
So true. The bard exhaled, rubbing the bridge of her nose with two fingers. She’d been so determined to live up to Xena’s example, and suffer in noble, dignified silence. “Yeah, I remember.”
Xena patted her leg.
“I remember feeling so lousy, I wanted to just die.” Gabrielle said. “And then, you came over and held on to me, and you had a cup of something hot you made me drink.” A smile appeared. “Milk and honey. It tasted like ambrosia. It was amazing.”
Gods, how much she’d loved Xena that night. It had been a good thing she’d been unable to speak, because if she could have, she was sure she’d have spilled her heart right onto the covers Xena had tucked so warmly around her.
The warrior would have freaked out, Gabrielle was sure. Xena had just been acting on a moment’s kindness for her new, young pest and hardly would have welcomed a babbling declaration of love from her.
“Yeah.” Xena agreed softly, remembering the look in Gabrielle’s eyes when she’d tipped the cup to the girl’s lips, with an emotion that fairly stunned her. Unqualified love was something new in her experience, and yet, somehow, she’d known it when she’d seen it. Gabrielle had been mutely delighted at her gesture, but seemingly unaware of the effect her reaction had caused on her companion. “Know what amazed me?”
Gabrielle lifted the pot of hot tea and poured a cup of it, mixing in some honey as she answered. “No, what?”
“How much I wanted to do that.” Xena accepted the cup and hitched herself up on an elbow, taking a sip of it’s contents. “I thought I’d lost my mind.”
“Boo, c’n I have dat?” Dori reached for the cup. “Good!”
“Ah ah.” Xena lifted it out of her reach. “It’s too hot, Dori. You’ll owie your mouth.”
Gabrielle poured a small amount of the mint and berry tea into a cup, and swirled it to cool. She handed it to Dori with a smile. “Here, Dori.”
“No.” Dori scowled. “Want Boo’s!”
“Honey, it’s the same thing.” The bard laughed. “Let Boo drink her tea, and you take this one.”
With a grumpy look, the child took the proffered cup and sniffed it suspiciously, then apparently decided it was alright and drank some, holding the container in both hands. “Mm.” She tipped her head back and the liquid obligingly gushed out, splashing over her and the floor. “Good.”
Xena chuckled silently, as she took her own, far more dignified sip.
Dori dropped the cup, and watched it bounce across the floor. She clapped her hands and laughed, pointing at it. “Mama! It go fly!” She scampered after it, inadvertently kicking the wooden item and sending it clattering even further. “Gogogogogo!!”
“Oh, boy.” Gabrielle draped an arm over Xena’s shoulders as they watched their daughter hop back towards them, cup clutched triumphantly in her hands. “She is so you.”
“Yeah?” Xena savored the tea. “When was the last time I did *that*?”
“Dughe gueh gueh… boom!” Dori threw the cup again, squealing in delight as it bounded off the floor and headed right for her mother’s head.
Only to be swiped out of the air with a negligent wave of Xena’s hand.
“Boo, good!” Dori clapped. “Gotcha!” She hopped forward. “Dujg dujg… boom!” Her fingers clutched at cup hanging loosely from Xena’s grip. “Go go go.”
Xena studied the small terror at her bedside, then she tipped her head back and regarded Gabrielle, whose eyes were twinkling mischeviously. “Yeah, okay.” She conceded, settling back on the pillow with faint smirk. “You’re right. You got me.”
Dori clambered up onto the bed with tiny, baby grunts and plopped down on Xena’s belly, sprawling over her and kicking her feet out in a contented wriggle. “Gaboo.”
“Now *that*..” Xena pointed.
“Is me.” Gabrielle held up both hands in patent surrender. “Yup.” She reached over and ruffled Dori’s hair. “You’re ours, Dori. You know that?”
“You’re half me, and half your Boo. What do you think about that, hmm?” Gabrielle asked her daughter. “Do you like that?”
Dori goggled at her, having no clue what she was talking about apparently. “Love mama.” She ventured. “Love Boo. All good.”
Xena curled her arm around the toddler. “Works for me.” She said. “Hey, mama.. where’s my story?” Her free hand knocked gently against Gabrielle’s leg. “We want a story, right Dor?”
Gabrielle felt a certain sense of herself settle back into place as she leaned back and braced one bare foot against the low stool near the bed. They would take care of the problem, yes, but… She exhaled, and nodded. They would take care of it at their pace, and their schedule. They would choose when.
They would choose where.
One of the things that had bothered her, she suddenly realized, was the feeling she’d had since the start of this that someone else had been driving what was going on – using her and Xena as part of some plan they didn’t really understand yet.
Well. She poured more hot tea for her soulmate. Not anymore. “So.” She said. “What story would you two little pirates like to hear?”
“Cow.” Dori replied instantly. “Boo gots awwow.”
The bard made a face. “Sweetie, how about if I tell a new story this time, okay?”
“I’d like to hear that one.” Xena interrupted. “The arrow one, not the cow.” She clarified hastily, watching Gabrielle’s eyebrows hike up. “If you don’t mind.”
Gabrielle’s jaw dropped slightly. For Xena to actually request to be told one of her own stories was so unusual, it made the bard’s head spin. Especially that one, which she’d heard… gods… thousands of times at the behest of more people than Gabrielle could count. “Um..”
“You remember it, right?” The blue eyes twinkled gently.
“Yeah, sure.” Gabrielle let out a chuckle. “Okay… if that’s what you want.”
“That’s what I want.” Xena settled down to listen, closing her eyes as Gabrielle’s voice rose up, evoking in her the memories of that time that surfaced now somehow bare of the melancholy they’d stirred in her for so long. Now, she was simply able to listen, and remember the joy and the fear of those moments.
Was Gabrielle? Xena made a note to herself to ask, before she let the story take her over, and away.
“And then you know what Boo did?” Gabrielle asked the enthralled Dori.
“Gotcha!” Dori squealed, clutching with her hand at an imaginary arrow. “Go Boo!”
“That’s right.” Gabrielle gazed fondly at her half-dozing companion. “Just in the nick of time, Xena grabbed that arrow out of the air and your mama was saved.” She reached over and tangled her fingers with the warrior’s. “And I was so happy about that, I grabbed your Boo, and I kissed her. Right in front of all the Amazons!”
“And the centaurs.” Xena added, in a low burr. “Don’t forget the Centaurs.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle smiled. “You know, that still is one of my favorite memories.” She said. “Aside from being relieved at not being dead, or really hurt from that arrow, and aside from how great it was to see you after a month.. that was pretty cool, but not nearly as incredible as…”
“Kissing me?” Xena arched one brow, and chuckled.
“Wench.” Gabrielle tsked. “Actually, it was you kissing me back.” She admitted. “I wasn’t really sure what you were going to do.”
“Gabrielle, c’mon.” Xena gave her a look. “Did you really have any doubts?”
Unexpectedly, the bard’s eyes dropped, as a faintly introspective expression appeared on her face. “You know, I think I did.” She replied, in a soft voice. “It seems sort of goofy now, that I think about it and I wouldn’t have changed what I did anyway but you know… “ She looked up. “There was a scary moment there for me.”
“Really?” The warrior asked, in surprised tone.
The bard nodded. “Yeah.” She leaned against the arm of her chair. “I knew… how much I was attracted to you.”
Xena gazed benignly at her. “I knew, too.”
Gabrielle blushed unexpectedly, but grinned. “You calling me obvious?” She asked, as her partner chuckled. “Yeah, I guess I was. But I didn’t…. “ She ran one finger down the wood of the chair arm. “Xena, I knew you loved me.” Her eyes lifted and studied the warrior’s face. “I just didn’t know if you loved me like that.”
“Ahh.” Xena rumbled softly. “So, my groping you in the bath wasn’t a big enough clue, huh?”
Gabrielle let her face drop into her hand, and released a soft chuckle. “Oh, gods.” She muttered under her breath. “How could I forget *that*? How did we ever get out of that mess… both of us were acting like… like..”
“People in love?” Xena offered, helpfully. “Minya sure figured it out.”
Gabrielle just shook her head and laughed.
It had been like a dream, really.
Sitting across the fire from Xena. Seeing those brilliant eyes fasten on her, and watching a smile appear; realizing she’d caused it.
Becoming shy, for the first time since they’d started traveling together of taking her clothes off.
The coveted touches becoming more frequent. Xena’s arm draped casually over her shoulders.
Sharing a cup, fingers tangled together.
The trembling in her guts at Xena’s lightest touch.
Every word, every glance.. even their now familiar arguments gaining a teasing edge that both of them knew was sharp enough to cut to the quick.
For the first time, the problems of others taking second place to what was going on between them.
“This is my partner, Gabrielle.”
A splash. They were in a bath together, in a dusty village, between an army and a giant. Nothing really out of the ordinary, except that Xena had inexplicably stopped in the middle of a problem to have a wash.
Gabrielle wasn’t about to argue. So what if they were acting strange.
So what if the villagers they’d come to help thought they were a little crazy. Maybe they were.
“Why can’t you ever do anything the simple way?” Gabrielle asked. “We have a plan, it’s a good plan, it’s worked before…” She extended her legs out, enjoying the warm, fragrant water.
“It’s boring.” Xena picked up the floating bit of sponge and tossed it at her. “Get my back?”
It was a beautiful back. Gabrielle added some soap to the sponge and rubbed it over the smooth skin with an almost reverent motion. Safe from Xena’s eyes, she could loiter here and revel over the symmetry and the strength of her, keeping up their teasing banter and knowing herself for a lovestruck fool. “You just want it to be your idea.”
“Gabrielle, I do not.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t. I just like variety.”
Gabrielle got closer, their bodies just short of touching. “Oh yeah.. this from the woman whose eaten the same thing for breakfast every day for two years.”
“You’re the cook in the family.” Xena looked over her shoulder, with a smirk. “Not my fault you can only do it one way.”
“Yeah?” Gabrielle leaned on Xena’s back, just a little. “How would you know?”
“Oooo.” The warrior turned, and bumped her back, making Gabrielle sit down hard in the water and sending a splash of it everywhere. “I think that’s a challenge.”
Gabrielle stuck her tongue out. “No it’s not. Let’s talk about the giant. Remember the plan?”
“Plan?” Xena plucked the sponge from her. “Here, turn around. I’ll show you a plan.”
Gabrielle turned, and felt the water swirl around her as Xena shifted position and moved in behind her, the warmth of the warrior’s body overtaking the warmth of the water as she began to clean Gabrielle’s shoulders. “So, what’s wrong with the mirrors, anyway?”
“I don’t like em.”
“Well, they sure like you.” The bard looked over her shoulder, with a cheeky grin.
“Ahhhh… flattery’ll get you nowhere, Gabrielle. Lookit these ears.”
Xena was talking. Gabrielle had no idea what she was saying, because the warrior’s touch now moved up to scrub around her very sensitive ears. The rough surface of the sponge moved over them, the matter-of-factness of the action making it’s intimacy all the more stunning. “Umfh.”
“Damn, Gabrielle. You could grow carrots in there.” Xena nudged her over. “Where’d that soap go?”
Xena grinned. “You sitting on the soap?” She asked.
“Ah..” Gabrielle’s face contracted, as she felt around.
“I’ll find it.” Xena’s hand slipped below the surface, finding Gabrielle’s leg.
“Yow! That was me!”
“Hm. So it was.” Xena’s hand eventually emerged, clasping the round ball of soap. Her fingers tightened, and the soap popped out of them, falling back into the water. “Rats. Guess I’ll have to go find it again.”
“So.” Gabrielle held back a giggle by sheer will power. “I still think you just don’t’ want to use my idea.” She turned, and leaned back, giving Xena a light splash with her hand.
Dangerous blue eyes narrowed. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah.” Another splash, borne on wings of floating recklessness.
You’re asking for trouble, shortie.” Xena splashed her back.
“I live with trouble.” Gabrielle responded. “And without a frying pan.”
The battle was on. Gabrielle thrashed at the water, giving as good as she got in a thunderous explosion of sound, a mixture of splashing liquid and yells of laughter. She felt giddy joy bubble up from her, as she heard the unrestrained happiness in Xena’s chortles
Then a last wave of bath water doused her, followed by a sudden envelopment of Xena’s arms as the warrior dispensed with splashing and took her under the surface of the pool instead.
They thrashed around in the water, getting tangled in each other, both of them laughing so hard it was a miracle they didn’t drown.
Gabrielle surfaced, to find herself pinned to the wall, with Xena’s arms braced on either side of her, and the warrior’s nose inches from hers. “Um… Hi.”
“I hear one more word about that pan… “ Xena warned, in a low purr. “And you’re gonna find out what kind of cooking you can do with my juices.”
Gabrielle’s only answer was an almost dumbfounded grin.
“Okay.” The bard chuckled. “Yeah, I should have realized. You weren’t being real subtle.”
Xena reached out and clasped her hand. “You know something?”
“Now I do, sure.” Gabrielle grinned.
But Xena’s expression was quiet. “If you’d have chosen to stay with the Amazons, I would have understood.” She said. “I wanted you to have other options.”
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but held off when the warrior squeezed her hand.
“I wanted you to choose me because I was your best option, not your only one.” Xena added.
“Xena.” The blond woman’s lips pulled into a genuine smile. “You were always my only real option. Every other choice I might have made would have only been second best.”
Xena smiled back at her, charmed and a little surprised. “Ahh.” She murmured.
“Gush!” Dori threw her hands up. “Gush gush gush!”
Both her parents laughed. “Everyone’s a critic.” Xena sighed, circling her daughter with one arm and reaching for the cup with her other hand. “New story. How about one with Argo in it.”
“She never minds me telling stories about her.” Gabrielle teased.
“She’s never been bitten in the ass by a rooster.”
“Hm. There’s a point.”
Gabrielle stood for a moment against the edge of the cave entrance, watching the sun start to come up over the ridge and set the mountainside on fire. She cradled her staff in the crook of her elbow, and after indulging in the dawn, she continued down towards the small plateau where they’d left the horses.
The air was cold, and she could taste the dryness of it on the back of her tongue as she crossed out of the shadows into the golden pink light that was just starting to spread over the grass. As she emerged onto the plateau, she was spotted by Argo and Iolaus and both animals wheeled and trotted towards her immediately.
The bard paused in the middle of the open space and waited until the horses joined her, greeting them with a few friendly scratches behind the ears and a half an apple each. “Hey, guys.”
Argo stepped closer and butted her, then rested her jaw on Gabrielle’s shoulder, looking past her towards the mountain. No human speech could have been plainer, and the bard found herself smiling as she circled the mare’s neck with one arm and hugged her. “She’ll be here soon.” She promised the horse. “Make sure you ask her for the goodie she saved from breakfast, okay?”
Gabrielle gave her a pat, then released her and moved away a little, stretching her body out slowly as she walked. She settled her new staff across her shoulders and paused, twisting from side to side carefully as she loosened up still sore and tight muscles.
The grass felt dry under her boots, and she rocked up and down a little, before she moved her staff from her shoulders and let it roll down her arms, bouncing it up when it hit her wrists and catching it in front of her as she twisted her hands around to grab it.
The wood had dried some, and lost a bit of its springiness. Gabrielle flexed her fingers around it, spreading her grip and attempting to bend the staff, pleased when it resisted her to a higher degree than she’d expected. Maybe, she considered, the days of sitting quietly in the torchlit cavern had toughened it.
Satisfied, she very slowly started to move the staff into a series of gentle passes, keeping to an easy rhythm calculated not to jar her still healing body. “Nothing like a little exercise in the morning, huh, guys?”
Iolaus broke into a trot, heading around her in a circle. Gabrielle turned to watch him, keeping up her staff motions as she swept her chosen weapon around in a lazy figure eight. “Are you trying to make me dizzy?”
Her stallion snorted, and tossed his head, kicking up his heels as he playfully bucked around her.
It made Gabrielle smile, and she waited for him to pass her, then she extended her staff out as he came around again. “C’mon, boy… jump!”
The horse obediently gathered himself and leaped over the staff, landing with a thump that cut clods of grass out from under his hooves and showered Gabrielle with a tiny dusting of earth. “Good job!” The bard praised him, with a soft chuckle. “What a good boy.”
Iolaus slowed to a halt, and snorted, then he ducked his head and came to meet her, shoving his nose into her chest with rough affection. Gabrielle grounded the end of her staff and greeted him, scrubbing him behind his ears and giving him a kiss on the nose. “Y’know, Io… I never thought I’d really get into horses. But you changed my mind.”
Io snorted again.
“No, really, you did.” Gabrielle insisted. “I really like you. You’re a really cool horse.” She gave him another kiss on the nose, and patted his round, flat cheek. Then she rested her arm across his neck and looked casually past him, her eyes flicking over the ring of dark trees that bordered the plateau.
Everything looked quiet.
Gabrielle stepped away from Iolaus and continued her staff work. She twirled the weapon, then crouched a little, throwing her weight onto her thigh muscles as she started a set of her standard warm up moves.
It felt pretty good. The bard eased slowly erect, cautious of jarring her neck, or causing the injury to be aggravated. Though she could still feel a tightness through her shoulders and back, the wound itself only ached in a low, mostly annoying way.
She’d had worse, and lived with it. Gabrielle moved a little faster, sweeping the staff into wider arcs, working her way across the grass in a series of meandering circles. She could hear the soft rasp of the wind in the trees over the rustling of her own clothes and the scuff of her boots against the ground.
The thick, woven tunic she was wearing was more restricting than she was used to, and she spent a little time finding the limits of her motion inside it. Though she’d often pondered trading in her light clothing during her traveling days, since then she’d come to appreciate the freedom they’d given her to move in.
And, even though they were a trifle chilly at times, and offered nearly nothing in the way of protection from wind, weather, or smelly thugs, they did have one other thing that made the old rags pretty much priceless to her.
Xena thought she looked good in them.
She remembered the night, days after she’d gotten, to her eyes, the plain, rustic garb when they’d finally hit a town large enough to have an inn, and could scrape up dinars enough between them for a room and a hot meal.
Gabrielle let her bag drop onto the smaller of the two beds, walking past them to peer out the wooden shuttered window opening. The village below was lit with sunset, a dull blue haze from the evening cook fires seeming to drift languidly down over it in the still, warm air.
Coincidentally, Xena crossed the courtyard as she watched, leading Argo towards the stables. Gabrielle took advantage of her perch, her eyes following the warrior until she disappeared through the wide door.
Xena. Gabrielle turned and walked back across the room, pausing to glance around their temporary shelter. It wasn’t a bad looking place – plain, split wood walls that had thin, woven rugs hanging on them and a rough, but clean floor with a fresh layer of straw on it.
They’d definitely seen worse. Gabrielle spotted a basin of water on a low table and headed for it, only glancing up and past it as she came even with the bowl.
She stopped, and blinked at the image reflected back at her in the mirror mounted against the wood.
Her eyes blinked several times. It had been a while since she’d really taken a good look at herself – aside from a glance at her reflection in whatever cold pool she was washing in out in the wilderness. Now she faced herself, and moved a little closer, peering at this new image with a sense of half embarrassed fascination.
The green woven top she was wearing hugged her upper body, and revealed tanned shoulders far wider, and stronger looking than she remembered. The effect leant a new tapering to her figure, as the low cut, well tooled belt on her skirt outlined a slim, muscular waistline that no longer carried even a hint of adolescent pudginess.
Gabrielle almost jumped through the low, raftered ceiling. She turned to see a mildly amused Xena behind her, standing with her hands on her leather clad hips and watching her watch her own reflection. “Aum…um…no.”
The warrior let her hands drop and walked over, with that curious little swagger she always seemed to have. “Then what the Hades are you doing standing there gawking?”
“Oh.” Gabrielle felt herself blush in embarrassement. “No, I was just.. um..” She glanced back at the mirror. “Checking out my new clothes.”
“Uh huh.” Xena rested her arm casually on Gabrielle’s shoulder, turning her so they were both facing the mirror. “Problem?” She scanned her companion’s figure speculatively. “I told you they were fine. Didja think I was lying?”
Gabrielle gazed at the image in the mirror, her imagination now caught not by her new outfit, but by the sight of the two of them together. “No.. I didn’t, I was just... looking.”
“Uh huh.” The warrior repeated, nudging her with casual, rough affection. “C’mon. Let’s go find a bath. For what we paid, we should get separate tubs with hot water.”
Gabrielle followed obediently, her mind still whirling. “You think they’ll give us that?”
Xena turned to look at her, in surprise. “What?”
“Nothing.” Gabrielle found herself in a surprisingly good mood. “Bath sounds great. Lead on.”
And Xena had. But not without giving her a very odd look.
“Okay, enough daydreaming.” Gabrielle found a few rocks in her path, and she used one as a low target, tapping the staff against it as she whipped the weapon back and forth in a now almost rapidfire motion. She circled her granite victim, spreading her hands wider on the staff and spreading her boots wider also, turning her back to the ring of trees just behind her.
The staff rattled against the stone, sending echoes up and into the cliffs above her, overshadowing the sudden thunder of hooves as Argo and Iolaus raced around, and the mare’s whinnying snorts.
Gabrielle focused on the exercises, the tip of her tongue appearing from between her lips as she felt some of the stiffness leave her, and her body warmed up.
A sense of danger injected itself into her concentration. She felt her nape hairs prickle, and heard the warning screams of the horses, but she held her ground and kept her back turned to the forest.
A rush of motion.
At the very last possible second, Gabrielle turned, and dove for the ground, holding her staff out before her and grunting as it caught on the ankles of the tall, furred attacker now extended over her body in a ferocious assault.
With perfect trust, she dropped to the earth.
With perfect trust, she felt the forest dweller descending on her, and she didn’t move a hair.
With perfect trust, she exhaled, as a moving body swept in from her left, catching the forest dweller and throwing him to one side, expelling a cough from his body as a dark, swooping figure fairly engulfed him. Gabrielle waited for them to clear her, then she tucked into a roll and got her boots under her, using her staff to lever herself to her feet.
Xena was straddled over her erstwhile foe, sword extended, point resting right against the jugular under the curved, furred jaw.
“Now.” The warrior growled softly. “We’re gonna start at the top, and you’re gonna talk to me, or I’m going to start cutting you into little pieces, useless bits first.”
Gabrielle leaned on her staff, and caught her breath, positioning herself just behind her partner, protective instincts at the ready just in case.
“Almost had you.” The forest dweller rasped, glaring at Gabrielle.
But the bard merely smiled grimly at him. “No.” She said. “You’ve got it all wrong. You weren’t hunting me.” She lifted the end of her staff, and pointed at him. “We were hunting you.”
The round, golden eyes shifted warily.
“And we gotcha.” Xena confirmed, with a very cold grin.
Xena shoved the forest dweller forward, pushing him up the path ahead of them, the horses, and a delighted Dori perched on Argo’s back. She and Gabrielle walked in front of the animals, driving their prisoner before them with his hands tied behind his back, and thick leather shackles binding his ankles.
There was blood on the thick russet fur. The forest dweller limped as he walked, and one eye was swollen shut. Every so often, he glanced behind him, looking quickly away when he met Xena’s icy gaze.
They had been walking for two candlemarks, and were now a respectable distance from the cave. The path the forest dweller was leading them on was so faint as to be almost invisible, even to Xena’s sharp attention – and there was an air of uneasiness in the green shadows around them.
“You’ll never get what you want.”
Xena casually lashed out with one boot, and caught the forest dweller in the rear, with a solid thwack. “What’d I say about talking, fuzzhead?” She asked, catching the tiniest twitch of Gabrielle’s face at her action, not really a grimace, but the vague premonition of one. “Shut up, or I’ll close up that other eye.”
Their captive fell sullenly silent.
“Once we locate their den, then what?” Gabrielle asked. “There could be a lot of them there, Xena.”
The warrior snorted softly. “Yeah, they’re into that safety in numbers thing.” She commented. “We find it, we bring in enough muscle to clean it up. I’ll have all the proof I need, then.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking bout.” The forest dweller said, suddenly. “You can’t just.. ow!”
“Thanks.” Xena handed Gabrielle back her staff, which she’d neatly plucked out of the bard’s grasp to deal their luckless victim a solid blow to the back of the head. “Buddy, you’re just asking to be hurt.” She growled at him. “Just shut up, and keep walking.”
“It’ll be nice to get this cleared up.” Gabrielle said, after a gentle clearing of her throat. “Especially for Wennid and Lestan’s sake.”
“Bring some peace back to this damn valley.” The warrior agreed.
They walked along in silence after that for a while, the pace steady, but not overly aggressive. It was after noon, all the same, before Xena glanced up and studied the sky, then she reached out and grabbed hold of the forest dweller’s wrist bindings, jerking him to a halt. “Hold it.”
The man stumbled and almost fell. Xena shoved him towards a nearby tree. “Sit.” She ordered. “Gabrielle, take the horses and Dori over there. I’m going to fill our waterskins.”
“Sure, Gen’rl.” Gabrielle uttered, just barely audibly. She walked past her soulmate, bumping her lightly with her hip. “C’mon, Dori. You want to come down and sit with me?”
“Mama.. mama.” Dori was holding onto Argo’s mane, reveling in their long ride. “Go gets Guff, Mama. He go lost, may gets fishes.” The child explained seriously, as she allowed her mother to lift her free of the mare, and set her on the ground. “We go get Guff now.”
Gabrielle grabbed for the back of her jumper, catching a handful of cloth and only just preventing Dori from rambling off into the nearest bush. “No, honey… Ares is going to catch up to us. He’s just busy right now.”
Dori pouted. “Want Guff!” She complained.
The bard eased herself down to a seat on a nearby flat rock, and pulled Dori over to her. “He’ll be here soon, I promise.” She said. “Are you hungry? How about some lunch?”
“Mm.” Distracted, the toddler began investigating the carry bag Gabrielle set down beside her.
Argo and Iolaus moved off, cropping the grass nearby. They kept a wary eye on the forest dweller, who had half sat, half fallen near the tree and was grimacing as he tried to find a comfortable way to sit tied as he was.
Xena wrapped the leather straps of the waterskins around her hand and headed for the trees, passing between them and disappearing into the shadows. She threaded her way through the mossy boulders, following her ears towards the sound of running water.
“Ah.” Around a last bend, she spotted a small stream, burbling out of a pile of stones and heading off through the leaf litter down the slope. “Just what I was looking for.” She knelt beside the spring and uncapped the skins, sticking the mouth of the first one under the water while she let her senses extend around her.
She was still stuffed up. It still felt like there was a layer of something… between her and the rest of the world and a more annoying sensation she could hardly imagine. But the throbbing in her head had subsided, and the ache in her bones, so Xena concluded she really didn’t have that much to complain about.
Capping the first skin, she held the second to be filled, resting her elbow on her knee and letting her fingers dangle in the water, it’s chill sending tiny shocks across her skin. Something caught her eye, and she leaned forward, peering into the creek as her brows contracted together. “Wh…”
Just a flash of something – but Xena’s reflexes were quick enough to snatch a suddenly glittering item up from the water’s flow, her fingers closing around it as she pulled her hand back and opened it.
The warrior quickly capped the second skin and set it down, reaching into her belt pouch and removing the coin she’d found in her boot. She compared the two, and held them up in the green filtered sunlight. Though battered, and bent, the newly found coin matched the one she’d mysteriously acquired.
On one side of the new coin, she found a cut, and she tilted her head, studying it. The edge was sharp, as though something had taken a bite out of it, and she pulled her hand closer, peering at the jagged corner with battle experienced eyes.
“Well, well.” Xena murmured. “Now where did you come from, hm?” She pocketed the second coin, then picked up the bags and stood, turning suddenly when she heard a yell from behind her. “Gabrielle!” Her voice rang out, sharp and urgent. “Gabrielle!”
“Stop!” The bard’s response held a note of fear.
With a curse, Xena bolted for the clearing, breaking through the trees just in time to see the forest dweller disappearing over the far ridge, leaping into the air over the precipice in apparent complete disregard for his life.
Gabrielle picked herself up from the ground, Dori in her arms, and ran towards the edge of the rocks, joined by her partner as they reached the spot where the forest dweller had disappeared. They both peered over, only to see him swinging down out of a tree and leaping a crevice, starting to climb up into a rocky area full of caves and shadows.
“What happened” Xena asked, putting a hand on her partner’s back.
Gabrielle gazed after the forest dweller, then she turned to face the warrior. “He must have rubbed the ropes against the bark. He got loose, rushed me, then took off.” She explained. “I grabbed Dori.. he knocked me over.”
“He hurt you?”
“No.” The bard gave her partner a pat on the hip. “We ducked.”
Xena nodded quietly. “You all right?” She asked the bard. “Dori okay?”
“We’re fine.” Gabrielle reassured her again. “He wanted to get away more than he wanted to get us.”
They both watched the forest dweller until he disappeared. Then they turned to eye each other. “Can you follow him?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena gazed pensively at the spot, then cocked her head to one side briefly. “Guess we’ll find out.” She said. “Damn straight he wasn’t taking us where we wanted to go tied up.” She acknowledged. “Let’s see how he does now.”
Gabrielle nodded, getting to her feet as Xena did and joining the warrior as they returned to the horses. She started to put Dori back up on Argo’s back, but paused as Xena’s hand touched her wrist. “What?”
“Let’s wait a little while.” The warrior took Dori fro her arms and walked over to the rocks she’d been sitting on before it had all started. “He’ll double back. He knows we watched him go that way. Give him a chance to think he’s lost us, and we’ll save ourselves the extra walking.”
Gabrielle picked up their bag instead and sat down next to Xena. She pulled two apples and a handful of berries from it, handing Dori some of the berries as the child squealed in delight. “You know something?” She asked, as she offered Xena one of the apples.
“What?” Xena settled Dori in her lap, and took a bite of the fruit.
“You’re one smart cookie.”
“Cookie?” Dori’s ears perked up. “Gots!”
Xena popped a berry in the toddler’s mouth, and gave her a kiss on the head. “Am I?” She inquired, but with a pleased look on her face.
“Yep.” The bard leaned against her, resting her head on her partner’s shoulder. “I remember way back when… I would sit there in awe at the plans you came up with. They were amazing.” She turned her head and gave Xena’s shoulder a kiss. “You’re amazing.”
Xena eyed her, one eyebrow arching up expressively. “You sure he didn’t knock you in the head?”
“I’m sure.” Gabrielle took a bite of her apple and chewed it. “I mean, I’ve always thought that, Xena. It’s not like I had this revelation sitting here on a rock or something. I just wanted to say that to you.”
Both Xena and Gabrielle jumped, and the warrior only just kept Dori from catapulting off her lap as she surged upward. “Hey!” She grabbed at the child, who was squirming out of her grasp. “Hold on there, shortie!”
“Guff!” Dori pointed to the trees. “Guff!!” Her voice lifted imperiously. “C’mere!”
Gabrielle squinted towards the gap. “Is he really there?” She asked.
Xena produced a shrill whistle, grunting as the grasses parted to reveal the trotting form of their pet wolf. “Ares!”
“Roo!” The wolf spotted them and loped forward, tongue lolling as he arrived and pattered to a halt. “Roo!” He nuzzled Dori, who grabbed eagerly at him.
“Guff! You go play, no take. You bad.” Dori scolded him, pulling at the fur around his neck. “Bad bad bad.”
“That’ll make things easier.” Xena remarked, picking up the dropped bindings lying draggled in the grass. She held them up for the wolf to sniff, watching his black nose wrinkle slightly. “Yeah, I know what you mean.” She ruffled his fur with one hand. “Good boy.”
Gabrielle turned her apple, taking another bite of it. “There’s no way he’s going to lose us now.” She remarked. “I don’t care how sneaky he is, we’ll find him.”
Xena thought about the half broken coin in her belt pouch. “Mm.” She agreed softly. “Just wish I knew what we’re gonna find with him.” She bit into her fruit, pausing when her tongue encountered an errant seed.
She rolled it around on her tongue for a moment, lost in thought.
Xena lead the way through the trees, stepping cautiously across the thick leaf litter under her boots. There was no path discernable that she was following, save perhaps a slightly misaligned leaf, and the whisk of a dark, furry tail.
The warrior paused and turned, waiting for Gabrielle to join her. The bard was leading their two mounts, moving single file since the trees surrounding them were too close for anything else. “You okay?” She asked the bard.
Gabrielle nodded, as she came even with Xena. “Yeah, I’m fine. I was just…” She glanced behind her to where Dori was happily perched again on Argo’s back. “What are we going to do when we get there?”
“Find out what’s going on?” Xena asked, in a slightly puzzled tone.
“With Dori?” The bard prompted. “Honey, we really can’t take her up there with us, can we?”
Xena studied the toddler. “We have a choice?” She countered.
Gabrielle continued walking, her eyes on the ground. She was quiet for a while, then finally she shook her head. “No, I guess we don’t.”
It was Xena’s turn then, to ponder for a bit. “I’ll put her on my back.” She said. “She should be safe there… safe as anywhere.”
The bard frowned. “What if we…”
“Gabrielle.” The warrior came to a slightly wider stretch of forest, and she dropped back a step to walk side by side with her soulmate. Her arm slipped around the bard’s shoulders. “I love my horse.”
“Well, I know but…”
“I love her too much to ask her to babysit my child.” Xena consciously gentled her voice. “She’ll be fine with me.”
Gabrielle settled her arm around Xena’s waist. “I’m not so worried about her being safe. I’m worried about you being safe, in the middle of a fight knowing she’s there.” She admitted. “Especially since I know I’m not up to par at the moment, and neither are you.”
The warrior sighed.
“You know it’s true.”
“I know we don’t really have a choice.”
The bard sighed.
“This argument isn’t getting us anywhere.” Gabrielle stated.
“It’s not an argument. It’s just a discussion.” Her partner replied. “Besides, you don’t wanna hear my other plan.”
Gabrielle found the mock banter more relaxing than she’d anticipated. “I don’t? How you do you know I don’t? Maybe I want to hear this other plan.”
Blue eyes slid to one side and regarded her. “It involves her, and Argo, and Iolaus, and you staying together.”
“In a safe place.”
“Xena, you suck.” The bard said, succinctly. “That plan’s going nowhere.”
A shrug. “Toldja.”
They walked on in comfortable silence, linking hands as the path continued wide enough for their passage. The ground was becoming more rocky, and it sloped upward, though not yet at a very harsh degree. Xena leaned forward a little, her eyes sweeping the earth with intent curiosity.
She stopped, then dropped Gabrielle’s hand and walked to the edge of a large bush, kneeling beside it and touching the dirt with the tips of her fingers. After a moment, she studied the leaves with fierce intentness, getting her nose close to them, and half closing her eyes.
“W..” Gabrielle released the reins and stepped forward. “Xena, what is it?” She asked, in a worried tone.
The bard eased up behind her, and knelt, resting her hand on Xena’s back for balance. “What?”
Gabrielle leaned forward, peering into the shadowy vegetation. The bush suddenly held a sense of danger, and she felt her heart skip a time or two as she looked for whatever dark clue her partner had found. “Wh.. what am I looking at, Xe?”
The blue eyes twinkled. “Blackberries.” She handed over a nice juicy specimen. “You’re slipping, Gab. I could smell em even with my stuffed nose.”
“Tch.” Gabrielle took the berry, and slapped her soulmate on the bottom. “You little wench.” She groaned, stuffing the berry into her mouth nonetheless. “That was rotten.”
“No, they’re perfectly ripe.” The warrior disagreed, eating one to prove her point. “Figured we could use a break.”
Xena chuckled, standing up with both hands full of the fruit. She gave up a fistful as a peace offering to the suddenly very attentive bard, then walked over to Argo’s back and held out a few to Dori. “Hungry, Dor?”
“Um!” Dori grabbed for the treats, releasing Argo’s mane and scrambling around her neck without heeding the fact that the animal stood a respectable distance off the ground. “Boo, dat’s good!” She held out a small hand, covered in purple juice. “More?”
Gabrielle wandered up on the other side of the mare, leaning on her back and munching quietly on her snack as she watched her partner and their child. Xena’s face was a study in indulgence, a smile playing about her lips as she shared her berries with Dori.
In the green, leaf shadowed light that filtered through the thick canopy, the sharp planes of the warrior’s features were softened and gentled, and though she could still see dark circles under Xena’s eyes most of the pallor seemed to have disappeared.
“Xe.” Gabrielle uttered.
“Mm?” Xena glanced past Dori’s wriggling form at her.
“I am?” The warrior leaned one arm on Argo’s back.
The bard nodded. “She stays with us.” She tugged on one of Dori’s booties. “How are you doing, sweetie? You tired of riding yet?”
“Gogogogogogogogo.” Dori bounced up and down on the mare’s neck. “Go go fast, mama.” She flopped down on her back and waved her boots in the air, perfectly balanced and relaxed.
It made Gabrielle smile, for many reasons. She looked up past Dori, to find Xena’s eyes pinned on the toddler, an expression of frank delight apparent on her face. “What’s it like, to watch your image like that?” She asked.
Xena shook her head slightly. “It’s amazing.” She admitted, with a little sigh. “Just damn incredible.” She gave Dori the last of the berries, letting out a chuckle as the toddler chewed with abandon and clutched her shirt with purple stained fingers.
Gabrielle finished off the last of her berries, and dusted her fingers off. “Are we done resting now?”
“I don’t know. Are we?” Xena eyed her. “How about you ride for a while, too?”
Rats. The bard’s nose wrinkled. She hadn’t though her growing weariness had been showing that much. “Okay.” She glanced ahead of them. “Looks like it’s going to be clear for a while.. why don’t’ we all ride?”
For an answer, Xena ducked around Argo’s neck and came to Gabrielle’s side, taking hold of her at the waist and boosting her up onto Argo’s back behind Dori. Then she leaped aboard Iolaus, and they started off, the two horses ambling along side by side.
At first it was simply peaceful. Gabrielle was secretly glad to get off her feet, and she scratched Argo’s shoulder as the mare did the walking uphill for her. But after a little while, she noticed how quiet it was around them.
A cold wind sprang up, blowing against them. It was as though something had woken to their presence. Gabrielle looked quickly over, only to find Xena looking back at her. “Here we go.” She said, wrapping one arm around Dori.
“Here we go.” Xena acknowledged, with a reassuring smile. She held up one hand, and extended it, waiting until Gabrielle joined her and their hands clasped together, fingers tightening into a powerful squeeze. “Let’s do it.”
Gabrielle gave her hand a return squeeze, then she gathered herself, tucking her staff under her knee and taking stock of her things. She removed the light carryback she’d had slung over her shoulder and tied it to Argo’s saddle. “Let’s do it.” She whispered to herself.
Another sudden surge of fear made her throat go dry. She had an almost irresistible urge to grab Xena’s belt, and haul them both off in the other direction, away from this threatening mountain, and whatever waited at the top of it.
It was nearly dark, and the air had grown thick with moisture before they reached the ridge. Xena dismounted from Iolaus and held her hand up, motioning Gabrielle to stay behind as she crept carefully up to the rocks that were scattered over the ground and kneeling, peered around one.
“Shh.” Gabrielle tucked a fold of her cloak around the child, glancing up through the trees at the sky. The setting sun had robbed it of most of it’s light, but she could see the dark outline of clouds overhead, and realized an approaching storm was hastening the process. “Oh, great.” She muttered. “Just what we needed after a long day riding up a mountain, with her sick.”
“Mama?” Dori looked up at her. “Were’s Boo?”
“Right over there, sweetheart.” Gabrielle pointed at the warrior, who’s gray profile in the shadows almost blended into the stone. “She’s looking out to see where we’ll go next.”
“Otay.” Dori drummed her heels, satisfied with the answer. “We go have fishes soon?”
Dinner. Gabrielle reviewed what she had in their bags, and decided it was more than sufficient for them. One pack held smoked goose, and she had fruit and nuts she’d scrounged to go with it, and some roots she could roast, assuming they could find a place where Xena felt safe to light a fire.
A light scuff made her look up, to see Xena making her way back towards her, the warrior’s heavy cloak swirling around her legs as she walked. “What’s the deal?” Gabrielle asked, as her tall partner stopped at her side, a hand coming to rest on her calf with comforting warmth.
“Next ridge, the tall one…” Xena turned, and pointed. “Halfway up’s a big opening. Ledge is big enough to hold half of Amphipolis.”
“Ah.” The bard nodded. “People there?”
Xena nodded, after a brief moment. “Fire inside. Lot of activity.” A dozen forest dwellers, at least – agitated and restless, pacing up and down in fact. She hadn’t been surprised at that. “Our friend must have made it back.”
“And warned them about us?”
The warrior nodded.
Gabrielle exhaled. “Was doing that really a smart idea?” She asked, stretching a little to relieve the painful cramps in her back from the days’ riding. “I know he led us here, but now what?”
“Now what?” Xena tipped her head back, the hood on her cloak falling back to reveal her dark hair. “Now we find a place to weather that damn storm, and decide now what.” She patted Argo’s neck. ‘Let’s get under cover.”
“Sounds good.” Gabrielle eased her leg over the back of Argo’s saddle and headed groundward, not even squeaking in protest when Xena took hold of her and helped her down to the ground. Her legs felt numb after the long ride, and it took a few painful minutes for her to straighten up as she held on to the mare’s tack. “Yeesh.”
“Mm.” Xena rubbed her back lightly. “We might have to build a cover. I don’t see anything nearby.”
“Okay.” The bard unslung her bag, and exhaled, holding up her arms for Dori. “C’mon, sweetpea. You come help mama find branches, how about that?”
“Sure, it’s fun.” Gabrielle lowered her to the ground, and took her hand. “Let’s see you pick the best ones. You know the ones Boo likes, right? The big ones?”
“Yes!” Dori pattered off, tugging her mother after her. “Mama look!”
Xena watched them for a moment, then she went about the necessary tasks of caring for the horses. The cave opening had worried her more than she’d let on to Gabrielle, though she was sure of the bard took a minute to look for herself no explanation would be needed.
There was no easy way up to the ridge, for one thing. Xena led the animals towards the densest part of the trees, squeezing through them until she found a small opening surrounded by tall, majestic trunks. The ground was fairly even, and on one side of the opening, a fallen giant lay on it’s side, one end propped up by two of it’s brothers about her height from the earth.
“Huh.” The warrior pushed back the edges of her cloak so she could set her hands on her hips. “Nice.” She removed the horses’ saddles and set them down on the ground right under the fallen tree, at the point where it rested on the earth. Then she took a rag from her kit and rubbed the animals down, as the last few flickers of sunset escaped the clouds and dusted across her hands.
When she finished, she tucked the cloth in her belt and went off in search of her partner, following the sounds of crackling branches just off to her right. Overhead, the sky darkened, and a deep rumble made her look up in reflex.
She regretted it, when several very cold drops of water fell into her eyes, making her blink furiously as she jerked her head down and wiped her hand across her eyelids. “Great.” She muttered, as she pulled the hood up on her cloak and increased her pace. “Gabrielle!”
Xena felt her heart bolt , jumping to a racing pace accompanied by a startling sense of panic. “Gabrielle!” Her voice lifted, and sharpened, and she broke into a run, cocking her ears to listen intently.
The bard’s answer came from closer than she’d anticipated, and Xena skidded to a halt nearly colliding with one of the trees. She ducked under a branch and came face to face with her partner, who was nearly obscured by three branches full of pine needles. “Ah.”
“Want to take these?” Gabrielle nudged her. “Dori found a tree that must have just fallen over.” She handed over the branches. “Did you want me for something? I heard you call.”
Xena felt a trifle silly. “Uh..” She was caught flatfooted under the bard’s knowing eyes, and opted for the truth. “I just wanted to be sure you were all right.”
“You’re so sweet.” Gabrielle gently pulled her head down and gave her a kiss on the lips. “I’ll get more of these, then I want to check out that cave, okay?” She caressed Xena’s cheek with the edge of her thumb. “So we can start planning.”
We. Xena regarded the short blond woman boldly mucking about her person and smiled. She’d known it was true love she’d started feeling for Gabrielle when she’d found herself willing to allow her to be part of the decisions that ruled their lives.
“Go on and build your hut, so I can get some hot tea into you.” Gabrielle gently pushed her back towards the trees. “Move it, Boo.”
Ah, love. Xena took her branches and reversed her course, dragging the limbs as she made her way back to the clearing. She’d known it was really true love when she’d started allowing Gabrielle to boss her around, and by the time she realized she was letting the woman call her pet names, she’d given up any attempt to salvage either her reputation or her dignity.
Pondering this, she started building their shelter, propping the branches against the fallen tree, breaking the bottoms to line them up evenly, and stripping the limbs off the broken parts. She used the smaller pieces to weave in and out of the bigger ones, glancing up as Gabrielle reappeared dragging five more branches and Dori behind her. “Good picks.” She complimented both her partner and her daughter.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle dropped the branches near her. “Xena, I looked at that cave. We need to talk.” She dusted her hands off, then started hauling their gear under the tree, as the rain started to penetrate the canopy. “There’s no way to get at that place, and it’s crawling with fuzzies.”
“Yep.” Xena put another branch into place, working faster as it started raining harder. “Dori, get under there.” She pointed to the tree. “So you don’t’ get wet.”
“Gef wep.” Dori wandered over to Xena’s side instead, tugging on a limb. “Help Boo!”
“We can’t just walk up there.” Gabrielle said, kneeling beside her and starting to strip branches. “Honey, I can help Boo, you go sit down, okay?”
“Having spent most of my adult life fighting, I did realize that, Gabrielle.” Xena said. “We need daylight to see what our options are.”
The bard was quiet for a moment, then she bumped her hip against Xena’s. “Sorry.” She handed over a fistful of fragrant sticks. “I’m just a little rattled… not really sure why.”
Xena skillfully wove the branches into a neat, thick wall of protection. “We’re on a hillside in a storm with people who want to kill us over the next ridge?” She hazarded, glancing over her shoulder as her senses momentarily prickled. Argo and Iolaus had already moved off to shelter in a thicker patch of trees, she noticed.
A bolt of lightning arced between two clouds, making her nape hairs lift. With a grunt, she finished her work and pushed Gabrielle under shelter, sprawling after her just as the skies opened up and the rain came down with a roar.
They ended up tangled together in the small space, watching wide eyed as a wall of water blocked their view of even the nearest of the other trees. Xena pushed herself back under the fallen tree, and scooped Dori up with one arm, pulling Gabrielle over her leg and into her lap with the other. They all jumped as Ares scuttled inside with them, accompanied by the distinct smell of very wet wolf.
“Wow.” Gabrielle wiped a bit of now drenched hair out of her eyes. “That’s wicked.”
“Too loud!” Dori complained, holding her ears.
Xena stared out at the rain, momentarily humbled by it’s raw power. Then she tucked her cloak around her family, hoping the meager shelter would be enough to keep them from being washed away by it.
Maybe the forest dwellers would get off easy.
Gabrielle snuggled against her and rested her head on Xena’s shoulder, wrapping her arms around Dori and letting out a small sigh.
“Scared?” Xena whispered into the bard’s ear.
“No.” The whisper came back. “Not here.”
The warrior’s eyebrows went up. “Not here on this damn mountain in the storm from Hades?”
“Not here in your arms.”
“Hm.” Xena grunted softly.
“Gush.” Dori found a bit of Ares tail to pull. “Gush, gush gush.”