The rain had slowly turned to ice, and then to snow as the night wore on. By dawn, they found themselves looking out at a world gone gray and white, and a deep, bone chilling cold that penetrated even their thickest cloaks.
Only the combined heat of their bodies was making a dent in the cold. Gabrielle let out a slow breath, watching the fog form before her as she shifted a little inside Xena’s arms. “Honey?”
“What the Hades are we going to do?”
Xena had her chin resting on Gabrielle’s shoulder. She lifted it slightly and regarded the weather with honestly perplexed eyes. “I have no idea.”
The bard sighed again, glancing down inside the folds of her own cloak, where Dori was nestled asleep in her lap. “If this keeps up, we’re going to be buried in this stuff.”
The warrior regarded the thick blanket of snow on the ground, which was already starting to pile up outside their tiny shelter. “I know.”
Gabrielle leaned back against her partner. “Xena, can I ask you an honest question?”
“You ever ask any other kind?”
“Are we crazy to be sitting here?”
Xena sniffled a little. “We’re here to help Ardwyn, remember?”
“I know that.” Gabrielle answered. “But we’re not going to help Ardwyn if we freeze to death, or you d… get sicker from the cold.” She felt her teeth chatter on the last sentence, and slowly clamped her jaw shut, accepting the jolt of fear the words triggered.
“Ah, Gabrielle.” Xena tightened her hold. She knew the truth of what her partner was saying, and gracefully gave into it, saving her thoughts for another day. “Okay. Soon as it slows down, we get outta here. Get the horses, and get down the mountain. Weather’ll be warmer there.”
She felt Gabrielle’s body relax in her arms, but the bard kept her head down, her face burrowed into Xena’s chest. There was almost a fog of confusion that the warrior could sense coming from the bard, and at the moment there was little she could do other than simply hug her and rock her gently as the snow continued to fall.
Should she keep them there? Her eyes scanned what little bit of the sky she could see, a darkly glowering overcast that showed no signs of breaking up. Or was it a mistake? What if the snow kept falling, and they were, as Gabrielle had suggested, trapped there?
Maybe she should get them out now. Xena craned her head and peeked outside the shelter, blinking as a scattering of snowflakes dusted her face. Experimentally, she pursed her lips and let out a whistle, half of it cracking off as her chest seized into a cough.
“What are you doing?” Gabrielle whispered, moving her head and nudging the bottom of Xena’s jaw.
“Calling the horses. What do you think?”
Gabrielle tipped her head all the way back and made eye contact. “Are we leaving?”
“Yes.” Xena’s ears, though stuffed, picked up the crunch of approaching hooves in the new snow. “C’mon.” She started to shift to rise, stifling a groan at muscles cramped for sitting in one place so long. “Keep hold of Dori.”
“But…” Gabrielle bit her lip, as she tried to stand up and discovered the same problem her partner had. “Oww!” She had less reticence at displaying it however. “Son of a…”
“Easy.” Xena got upright, and ducked out from under the shelter, keeping her arms around her family and moving them along with her. Once outside, she straightened to her full height and stretched her back out, then took Dori from Gabrielle’s arms so her partner could do the same.
It was cold, but moving around helped. Xena cradled Dori as Argo and Iolaus trotted up, shaking their heads in annoyance at the steadily falling snow. “Whoa.” She clucked at the big animals, who obediently sidled over and stood next to her. “All right. Let me get Dori up on Argo, then…”
Gabrielle rested her hands on Io’s back. “I’ll take her with me, Xe.” She said. “Listen, I’m sorry I got so weird again.” She plucked at the horse’s mane. “I thought I had that nailed down.”
Xena walked over and set the sleepy toddler on Io’s back, watching her pout as her warm nest was disturbed with cold snow and chilly horse hair. “It’s okay.” She tucked Dori’s tiny jacket around her. “Hang on, shortie.”
“Boo…” Dori let out a wail, rubbing her eyes with one small fist. “Bck!”
“Shh.” Xena ruffled her hair. “We’re gonna go riding. You like that, right?” She stepped around Iolaus and put her hands on Gabrielle’s waist. “C’mon, mama. Up you go.”
Gabrielle put her hands on Io’s saddle and hoisted herself up, not resisting when Xena boosted her the rest of the way until she could swing her leg over the horses back and settle herself behind Dori. She took the reins up in her hands, and got her boots into the stirrups, tucking the front of her cloak back around Dori’s body.
She felt sick and offbalance. But she had the job of staying upright on the horse, and taking care of Dori to concentrate on, so she got herself settled, and turned her eyes to where Xena was pulling herself up on Argo’s back, neatly swirling her cloak as she did so that it dropped over the mare’s haunches as she dropped down into the saddle.
“Mama.” Dori twisted around and looked up at her. “Where we go?”
Gabrielle felt her shoulders slump, but she managed a smile for her daughter. “We’re going home, sweetie. We’re going to see gramma, and all your friends. Is that okay?”
Dori’s eyes lit up. “Gramma? We go now?”
“Yep.” The bard felt slightly better, responding to Dori’s delight. “We’ll see Ephiny, and Eponin, and Cait.. wont’ that be fun?”
Gabrielle looked up, to find Xena watching her, the warrior’s dark head framed inside the hood of her cloak throwing shadows across her face. The blue eyes were gentle, though, and there was no resentment there – only understanding so profound it almost brought tears to Gabrielle’s eyes.
Xena eased Argo over, and brought her side by side with Iolaus, then she signaled the mare to start moving. “If we take the south road out, we can by pass the village. We should be near Cirron by nightfall.”
Cirron, where they’d originally intended on going before the forest dweller’s scout had found them. Gabrielle felt a melancholy acceptance at the thought, remembering so many moments she’d had in the city and finding in herself a desire to dwell in that lost place for a minute. “Okay.” She took a deep breath, and nodded. “That sounds good to me.”
They threaded their way between the trees, giving the horses plenty of rein and time to pick their way through the thick snow drifts already forming. “Easy.” Xena cautioned. “I don’t’ want either of them cracking a hoof.”
“Definitely.” Gabrielle agreed, flexing her hands on the leather. “Wonder if Cirron’s changed much?”
Xena glanced over at her. “Every place does.” She half shrugged. “Bet they still have a big market, though.” She kidded gently, giving her partner a grin. “I remember going out and getting you that necklace.”
Willingly distracted, Gabrielle eased Iolaus up so they were side by side again. “Mm. Yeah, I remember feeling just… “ She nibbled her lower lip. “Giddy, I think. I just couldn’t believe what was happening with us.”
“Me either.” The warrior confessed. “I felt like a kid.”
A memory surfaced. “Oh.” Gabrielle exhaled. “You know, I just remembered being in that castle, taking care of all those wounded men and hoping to the gods I wouldn’t have to.. that they wouldn’t bring you in there.”
“Mm.” Xena nodded. “I remember that, too. I remember seeing your face when I came in, and knowing inside my guts just how much I meant to you.”
Gabrielle felt a lump in her throat, and so she didn’t answer. She just pressed her lips into a faint smile, and nodded.
“I remember you taking care of me.” Xena went on, in a quiet, reflective voice. “When you touched my face, and I looked up, and knew I wasn’t going to deny what was happening to us anymore.” She paused. “Just wasn’t fair.”
“Fair?” Gabrielle murmured.
Xena was silent for a few lengths, as they went around a thick copse of bushes and down a small rise. “I..” The warrior glanced at her, then down at her hands. “I didn’t believe in soulmates.” She said. “Not then.” Her eyes lifted again and met Gabrielle’s squarely. “But I realized that I was.. um.. “
The bard’s expression gentled. “The one great love of my life?”
A half, almost self deprecating shrug. “Something like that, yeah.” Xena admitted. “And at the rate I was going… the way we were living, I just didn’t know how much time we’d have.”
Gabrielle gazed between Iolaus’ ears, lost in the memories of that time.
“And I wanted… to know what that kind of love felt like.” The warrior finished. “I never thought I would.”
The horses made their way down another short slope, skirting a rock outcropping that gave them a view over the next valley, with it’s ominous cave. Gabrielle pulled Iolaus up unexpectedly, and turned, gazing across the gap towards the other mountain slope.
The snow almost obscured it, but she could just barely see through the white a smudge of black that was the entrance, and the dark cones of trees that poked out above the ridge beyond. After a long moment, she turned and looked at Xena. “Most people never do know what that’s like, do they?”
Xena eased closer, until her knee was touching Gabrielle’s. “I don’t think so. No.”
Gabrielle turned again, and looked across the valley, staring at the cave for several silent moments before she returned her gaze to her partner. “You know what?” Her voice was quiet, yet peaceful. “I think I forgot what we have isn’t a right, Xena. It’s a gift.” She glanced down at Dori’s hooded head, then leaned over and kissed it.
“Yes, it is.” The warrior agreed, softly. “The greatest gift of my life.”
In the words, somehow, Gabrielle re-found something. She smiled, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes before she lifted her head and drew in a breath. “C’mon.” She patted Xena’s knee. “Let’s go find a way over there.”
Unsurprised, the warrior merely nodded, and edged Argo forward, already searching for a suitable path for the mare’s hooves. Gabrielle set Iolaus to follow, understanding the course they now took was in some part a touch of madness.
But that was all right. “Hey, Xena?”
“Mm?” The blue eyes appeared, as Xena turned her head and looked over her shoulder.
“You’re getting very good at that.” Gabrielle complimented her. “Thanks.”
White teeth flashed in a smile, visible even in the snowfall. “I had the best teacher.” The warrior replied, extending her hand and waiting until Gabrielle came up to clasp it.
They moved down the hill, heading for the bottom of the ridge so they could start the climb back upward towards the waiting danger. Far from being their enemy, the bard realized, the weather was now their friend, hiding them in feathery clouds that blocked the forest dweller’s senses as much as Xena’s cold muffled hers.
It was, she acknowledged, all in how you looked at it.
They crouched under a canopy of leaves, near the last trees before the mountain arched up and exposed it’s flanks to open view. Here, the forest blocked the wind, and only infrequent flurries of snow drifted through the thick pine needles.
Gabrielle leaned forward with her elbows on her saddlebow, mindful of Dori’s curious head poking up just under her chin. “What do you think?” She asked Xena.
Xena studied the area intently. It appeared quite barren, except…. “I think I’m wondering about that rock.” She indicated a tall, almost standing stone on the other side of the open space. Alone amongst it’s fellows it was clear of snow, not even a dusting holding to it’s surface.
“Wrok.” Dori warbled. “Boo go find wroks?”
“Boo found a rock, honey.” Gabrielle murmured. “I don’t think she can bring this one back for you though.” She studied the stone. “What’s so special about it?”
The warrior glanced at her in slight surprise. “There’s no snow on it.” She said, after a brief pause. “Don’t you see that?”
Gabrielle rubbed the bridge of her nose, and grimaced just a little. “I do. Sorry.” She apologized. “I’m just not that used to this stuff. We don’t get into snow very often. So what does it mean?” Her eyes blinked, and fastened on the stone again. “No, wait, let me think.”
“Nothing’s shading it, so… you think the snow’s melting?” The bard hazarded.
“Maybe.” Xena acknowledged. “But I’d put my bet on that being the back side of their hearthstone.”
“Mm. Ah, I see.” Gabrielle pointed. “There’s a crack there… see the heat?”
Now it was Xena’s turn to squint. “You’re right. Good catch.” She tilted her head. “Hard to see from this angle.” She rested her forearms on the saddle. “All right. Let’s go along the fringe of the trees here, and see if there’s any other openings.”
Gabrielle shifted in her seat. “You mean, we’re not just going to charge into that big cave opening, yelling like banshees?” She asked, with a mild grin. “You’re getting sneaky in your old age, Xena.” After she’d decided they should keep trying to help Ardwyn and Elevown, and after the gentle counseling from her soulmate, her spirits had lifted in a curious and unexpected way.
It wasn’t that her fear had vanished – she could still feel it twisting her guts. It was more that she’d found a way past it, as she burrowed down inside herself and got back in touch with a kid she used to know way back when.
Xena snorted. “Gee thanks, kid.”
Gabrielle smiled at her. “Remember which one of us has gray hair.” She reminded her partner. “Can we get going? My knees are killing me.”
Comforted by the banter, Xena turned her attention back to their puzzle. “Okay.” She swung a leg over Argo’s back and dropped to the ground, feeling the snow crunch under her boots and slide it’s chilly way up her legs.
Speaking of aching knees. Xena winced a bit, surprised at the stiffness. The cold, she reasoned, matched with her illness still clinging on tenaciously to her. Putting the matter aside, she flexed her thighs and nudged the snow out of her way, crunching forward past Argo to the edge of the trees. She leaned one hand against the last trunk and peered outward, examining the terrain.
A moment later, she felt a warm hand on her back, and Gabrielle was at her side, Dori perched on her back with her arms wrapped around her mother’s neck. “All right.” Xena said, pointing to a dip in the snow. “Let’s move along that line there, and get behind those rocks.”
“Right behind you.” Gabrielle murmured.
“You all right with her?” Xena asked, pausing before she started forward. “How’s your neck?”
“Fine.” Gabrielle gave her a gentle shove. “Go on. Let’s get this over with.”
The warrior studied her for a brief moment, then she turned and started forward, moving quickly through the snow and breaking a trail for her soulmate to follow in. She cast her senses out, but with the wind, and the still thickly falling snow, she might as well have been underwater for all the information she got from them.
But the distance wasn’t great, and she could feel Gabrielle’s fist firmly clenched in the back of her cloak, so she plowed on as fast as she could, her boots tossing clumps of snow on either side of their path. The wind blew hard against her, and for a second she stumbled to one side, almost losing her footing on the rocks before she stopped sliding and got her balance again. “Pah.”
“Boo make fun.” Dori commented. “Go fly?”
“No flying right now.” Xena muttered, shaking her head to clear the snow off it. “Better keep moving or we’ll turn into snowmen.”
“Women.” Gabrielle kept close, moving her grip from the back of Xena’s cloak to under it and fastening her fingers tightly around the warrior’s leathers instead. “You think there’ll be…ah.”
“Cover? Yeah.” Xena pulled them around the last bit of rise before the bare rock and they swung up and over a snow covered ledge into a semi-sheltered spot right up against their target stone.
“Hm. Yep.” Gabrielle released her partner and laid her hands on the rock. “Warm.”
Dori stuck her hand past her mother’s ear and patted the rock herself. “Good!” She warbled approvingly. “Like that. Where we go now?”
Xena edged between the tall stone and the next one, pushing her hood back and shaking the snow from her shoulders. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
Gabrielle gladly followed, relieved to be out of the wind and mostly out of the snow. She leaned against the bare rock as she watched her partner explore, tentatively putting her hand towards the ripple of warmer air she could now see clearly coming from a gap in the mountain.
Curious, she leaned forward and cautiously sniffed, remembering the stench from the other cave. But the scent was clean, the brassy scent of heated rock and long burning wood that reminded her of their own hearth at home.
Gabrielle inhaled as a vision formed behind her eyes of the small, comfortable cabin on the slopes above the Amphipolis river, and she swore she could smell that distinct scent of the place she’d come to know as their home together.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Xena asked, peering past the hot air vent to a dark gap beyond.
“I’m thinking of being in bed with you.” Gabrielle replied. “Close?”
The warrior looked back over her shoulder. “Gaaabbriellle.” She rumbled softly. “You’re getting to be a wild thing in your old age.”
With a sigh, the bard laid her hand on Xena’s back. “No, just the smell of that fire sort of reminded me of home, I guess.”
“Ah.” Xena nodded. “Yeah.” She leaned on the rock. “Well, let’s get moving so we can head there.” Her hand flexed. “Looks like a way down.” One finger pointed. “It’s steep, but I think I can do it.”
Gabrielle cleared her throat gently.
“You could stay up here. It’s nice and warm.” Xena replied, placidly.
“Kiss my bardic butt, Xena.”
“It’s not that warm.” The warrior chuckled wryly. “Yeah, I figured you’d say that. There’s footholds, but we’re gonna have to be very careful.” She peered down the chasm, then abruptly pulled her head back and stifled a sneeze. “Damn it.”
Gabrielle patted her back comfortingly.
“This damn being sick thing is getting real, real old.” The warrior muttered, leaning against the rock and rubbing the back of her neck. “I’m so tired of this.”
The bard got up behind her and gave her a hug. Dori also clutched at her and made little grunting noises. Xena turned and sat down on rock, scrubbing her face with both hands and attempting to clear her blocked head out without much success.
“Xe.” Gabrielle leaned over and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “Take it easy, sweetheart.”
“Bah.” The warrior sniffled. “I’d give my right arm for a pot of ginger tea.” She sighed, then pushed herself up onto her feet again. “All right. Enough whining. Let’s go.”
How we’ve both changed. Gabrielle bit back a smile, sparing a moment to cherish the knowledge as she carefully climbed after Xena, mindful of Dori’s weight on her back. Carrying her daughter was straining her neck, but it was a kind of strain more muscular than painful, and she decided she could cope with it.
The entrance was irregular, but large enough to admit Xena almost upright, and the warrior only paused an instant before she entered and started moving downward. Gabrielle waited for her to clear the way, then she followed the warrior inside, feeling the cold subside considerably the minute she got her body between the rocks.
“Mama.” Dori tugged her hair. “Dat’s good.”
“Shh, honey.” Gabrielle squeezed her foot, which was tucked under her arm pressed against the bard’s side. “You have to be very quiet, okay? We’re playing the hide and seek game.”
“Otay.” Dori whispered. “What we find?’
Good question. Gabrielle sensed Xena pausing, and she slowed, blinking as she peered ahead of her into the gloom. “Xe?”
“Gotta climb a little.” The warrior answered shortly, clearing her throat. “First handhold’s near your right hand.”
Gabrielle found it, fitting her fingers around the secure crack. “Okay.” She felt her boot grabbed and she shifted her weight off that leg, letting Xena’s sure hold move it where it needed to be. When the motion stopped, she stepped forward confidently, trusting the warrior’s judgement without question.
“Move your other hand nearer to me.”
The bard slid her fingers along the rock towards the sound, stopping when she felt a handhold. “Here?”
“Okay.” Gabrielle moved forward, now able to see vague shadows as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. The wall was a sheet of gray granite, but in the faint reflection she could spot both her partner’s shadowy form, and the craggy holds she was working her way down with. “Go ahead, I can see you now.”
“Sure?” Xena’s eyes were twin flashes as they caught the light.
Gabrielle shifted her weight onto the holds, then moved down a level, demonstrating her ability to see the way. She waited for Xena to move on, then she followed her carefully downward. “Dori, you just hang on, okay?”
“Mama, dis is fun.”
“Glad you think so.”
“Gab, you want me to take her?” Xena’s voice sounded suddenly louder, and Gabrielle felt a solid grip on her calf.
“No. It’s too close in here, Xe.” Gabrielle answered quietly. “If you have to fight, she’ll be in the way on your back.”
“Okay.” The warrior accepted the answer, and continued on her path. “Careful – water’s coming through the rock here. Slippery.”
Gabrielle took a better grip, aware that they were heading slowly, but surely into danger. “You think this’ll get us into the cave?” She lowered her voice.
“Warm.” Xena answered, patting the stone next to them. “Follow the heat.”
Xena paused, and pressed her ear against the rock. Then she pulled her head back and nodded before she felt along the ledge for their next handhold. “Down further, there’s a level.” She uttered, slipping down and finding a solid purchase for her boots.
Gabrielle eased down next to her and exhaled, flexing her fingers as the ache in her arms subsided. They were on a small ledge that seemed to extend downward into the darkness and she took the precaution of hooking her hand inside Xena’s armor as the warrior started forward again. “Hey, sweetie?” She whispered.
“Mm?” Xena’s grunt was barely audible.
“We’re nuts, aren’t we?”
A very, very soft chuckle. “Just now occurring to you?”
“Mama!” Dori tugged on her ear. “I gots a bug!”
Gabrielle stopped short. She felt Xena stop in front of her, and she knew the warrior had turned around to look. “Dori.”
“Wanna see?” The toddler giggled, then squawked. “Boo!”
“I got her hand.” The warrior said. “Gimme that, shortie. Good girl.” A pause. “Ugh.”
“Beetle. Hate em.” Xena wiped her hand on her cloak. “C’mon.”
Gabrielle exhaled in relief. She only hoped whatever they were headed for was less potentially dangerous than the trouble they could possibly get into all on their own. “Xena, are you sure the answer’s here?”
Xena paused again, and rested her hand against the rock. “I’m sure.” She replied, lifting her head as she sensed again, though now far off, that dark and restless energy.
With a grim look, she continued on.
The chanting started when they’d climbed down for about another half candlemark. Both Xena and Gabrielle stopped as the sound reached them, and Gabrielle glanced up in reflex, even though she could not see her partner’s profile in the dark. “What is that?”
Xena pressed her ear against the stone for a long moment. Then she straightened up. “Stupidity.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle followed her blindly along the path, trusting her partner’s instincts to keep them both on it. “Don’t know that one. Can you hum a little of it?”
Xena cleared her throat, but managed a dry chuckle. “Sounds like they’re worshipping something.” She said. “Wonder what that might be.”
“Ares?” Gabrielle hazarded a guess.
“Guff?” Dori inquired hopefully. “Mama, Guff go bybye long time.”
“I know honey. Boo told him to go play for a while. He wouldn’t like it down here.” The bard replied. “We’ll go find him soon.” She felt Xena slow, and gratefully she paused, leaning against the rock and inclining her body forward to take some of the strain off her back.
“Okay.” The warrior turned and leaned back against the wall herself, spreading her boots out a little and exhaling. “Now comes the hard part.”
Gabrielle merely rolled her head to one side and regarded the almost invisible woman.
“It’s getting damn close up there.” Xena said, in a quiet voice.
Ah. The bard reached out and took her hand. “How about you take Dori, and I go first?” She suggested. “I’m smaller than you are.”
For a moment there was silence between them, and Gabrielle wondered if her partner was going to let her ego get the better of her, as it would normally. She didn’t grudge Xena that – it was part of the supreme self confidence that made her what she was – but it did sometimes make her do things she really didn’t have to.
“Sweetheart, thanks for the offer.” Xena replied seriously. “If we were just out exploring a cave, I’d say yes in a heartbeat.”
Mm. Gabrielle felt mildly flattered. It was the nicest rejection she could recall from Xena. “But, we don’t know if we’re going to run into nasties, and so the tough one with the big sword goes first.” She said. “Am I close?”
Xena squeezed her hand. Then she turned and started forward, keeping her other hand out to trace a path through the narrow rock passageway. She could still feel the warmth on her right, so she knew she was headed in the correct direction, but the steadily squeezing stone was starting to make her feel short of breath.
As if she needed that, with her head cold already clogging her up. The warrior wrinkled her nose in some disgust, and continued on her way, very aware of the warmly clasping fingers wrapped around hers. The ledge was sloping downhill, and as she cautiously put her boots forward, the walls began to brush her shoulders.
Xena swallowed. “Gabrielle?”
“Do me a favor?”
“Anything.” The bard responded in a very positive tone.
“Next time I get any bright ideas to go near mountains, kick me.” With a sigh, Xena turned slightly sideways and edged on. The ceiling lowered, and she found herself ducking a few steps later and she stopped, sucking in as much of a breath as her chest would allow without triggering a cough.
The air was cold and moist, but just at the edges of it she could detect a faint taste of living beings, a softly musky scent that reassured her she was, in fact, not heading into a dead end.
Xena closed her eyes against the nightmare those words triggered, and she could almost feel the cold water once again creeping up and covering her head.
Xena gave her head a little shake, and felt ahead of her carefully. The crack didn’t seem to be getting any smaller, so she crouched and continued on, feeling the rock reach out and snag her hair, tugging tendrils of it greedily. “Just making sure we’re not going the wrong way.”
Gabrielle turned her head and sucked in a breath in pure reaction, her fingers clenching down on Xena’s with startling power. “Whoa!”
Xena whirled, one hand reaching over to clasp her sword hilt as her eyes searched in the darkness for whatever had alerted her soulmate. After a second, she relaxed as she spotted the problem, a huge glow worm half the length of her arm. “Damn. That’s a big one.”
“Good grief, what is it?” Gabrielle asked. “Xena, it’s huge!”
The warrior studied the invertibrate, then she made a thoughtful sound and reached out, plucking it from the wall with some difficultly and plopping it down on her shoulder. “Could come in handy.” She remarked cheerfully, turning and continuing on her way.
“Oh, gross.” Gabrielle muttered.
Perversely, the weird green glow now at the edges of her peripheral vision seemed to perk Xena up. She moved along a little faster, even though the rock walls now pressed in on all sides of her. Her nose wrinkled, and she sensed a shift in the path ahead as a puff of warmer air blew against her. “Shh.” She indicated ahead of her. “Careful.”
“I’m not the one in the front with a glowing ‘hit me’ worm on my shoulder.” Gabrielle whispered.
“Mama, want that.” Dori reached past her, fascinated by the animal resting on her precious Boo.
“Hush, sweetie. Let Boo hold it for now.” Gabrielle lowered her voice as much as she could, and refastened her grip on Xena’s armor as the warrior began to creep slowly forward. Ahead, by the glow of the worm, she could see a bend in the passage, and she suspected whatever lay behind it would start to answer some questions.
Xena got her fingers around a sharp edge of rock, and very slowly pulled her head around it, looking past the turn. Ahead of her, she could see a dim light entering the rock, and a faint splash of crimson spilled across the floor from a jagged opening about a body length from the ground. “Ah.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle repeated, as she followed her soulmate around the corner, and they crept up to the opening together. The crack was just about Gabrielle’s head high, and she pressed against Xena’s body as she looked through it.
She blinked. Then she looked up at Xena. “What is that?”
Xena rested her forearms on the rock and reviewed the scene they were looking at. It was strange beyond her experience, and casting back into her memory, she could find nothing else she’d seen quite like it. “I’m not sure.” She admitted. “Reminds me of that other cave.”
“The smelly one?”
“Yeah.” Xena murmured, leaning forward to get a better look. On the other side of the crevice was a large cavern, the back side of the one whose opening had given them both a good reason to worry. In the very center of the cavern was a tall stone column reaching up to the ceiling, apparently part of the cavern’s natural structure.
But in the center of it, instead of dark granite, was a pure, glittering crystal. Xena gazed at it, her eyebrows lifting as it began to pulse with light, drawing from an invisible source she could only speculate about. “Huh.”
“Sort of…reminds me of that cavern we were in, when we got these.” Gabrielle fingered the crystal at her throat. “Remember that, Xena?”
A cavern filled with beauty, in which she’d made a pledge whose echoes were with her still. “I remember.” Xena said, in a quiet voice. “But that’s no joining chamber.”
Gabrielle pressed against the stone. Past the column she could see lines of forest dwellers, all moving around, and making the low chanting noises she and Xena had heard. “What are they doing?”
“I can’t tell.” The warrior replied. “Some kind of ceremony.”
The chants were not quite words, Gabrielle realized, or at least, not quite words she could understand. The forest dwellers seemed to be pacing in front of the column, and in a sort of pattern, each would come up to the column and kneel, then get up and go back towards the cavern opening. Another ring of them surrounded the column, obviously guards.
There were not one, but two fires burning – huge hearths on either side of the column. It produced a warmth in the air she could feel coming through the crack, crisp, dry heat that tickled her nose. “Xe, are they worshipping that crystal?”
It certainly appeared that way. Xena pulled herself up a little and stuck her head out for a better view. The light from the outside world backlit the moving figures, and made it hard to make out any features. She was also too far and at the wrong angle to see really what was going on.
But one thing she was sure of. The hair standing on end on her neck was enough to confirm that – the column was the source of the dark energy she’d located. As it pulsed, it gave out a prickle of that darkness, washing against Xena restlessly.
Did Gabrielle feel it? The warrior glanced down, seeing only puzzled interest on her soulmate’s face. Dori too, was just curious, peeking past her mother’s head to see what was going on.
“Xe… this is creepy, but…” Gabrielle looked up at her. “I don’t get it. What’s going on? You said you felt something up here?”
Xena honestly wasn’t sure how to feel. She could sense the crystal’s malevolence as clearly as she could her partner’s lack of it. “I do.” The power had a faintly familiar tang to it, but it wasn’t something Xena could put her finger on. Not Ares, not Dahok, not…
The bard examined the cave. “From that?” She pointed. “Or from them?” She indicated the forest dwellers.
About to answer, Xena hesitated when one voice suddenly rang out, and became audible to both of them. “Rufus.” She uttered. “Let’s see what he has to say.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle agreed. She was silent for a second, waiting for the forest dwellers to gather around the dimly seen profile of the big forest dweller, when something else caught her eye. “Xe?” She tugged on the warrior’s cloak. “Look.”
Xena looked where she pointed. Even in the dim light, she could make it out, and it started her mind spinning.
At the base of the column, cradled in rock niches as though in a place of honor rested a long handled, ancient looking battle ax.
“Isn’t that like the one we saw in Ardwyn’s cave?” Gabrielle whispered.
Xena looked up at the column, which pulsed more brightly as Rufus approached, shedding out waves of anger,
At last, Gabrielle felt it. She drew back and reached out for her partner. “What is that?”
“The Viking.” Xena whispered, as the pulsing light flared, reaching out hungrily. The pieces fell together all at once, unlocked by the ax giving the warrior the key at last to the puzzle.
A rumble went through the cavern, as the column flared to an almost painful degree. Gabrielle exhaled in shock, pressing her face against Xena’s shoulder in wordless horror, and Xena had to really wonder if that key wasn’t going to unlock something neither of them could handle.
“Are you sure?” Gabrielle whispered, after a moment. “How do you know, Xe? That ax could have just been found around here.”
“I just know.” The warrior answered. “C’mon, maybe we can…”
Rufus’ voice stilled her words, and they leaned against each other to listen.
“Our time has come!”
“Uh oh.” Gabrielle uttered. “That never means good things.”
“Our enemy has left – has run from us!” Rufus said. “This valley, the village, all that we covet, is now ours for the taking!”
Xena released a long suffering sigh.
“He wishes we ran.” Gabrielle growled. “That little spineless jerk.”
The warrior gave her a bemused look.
“Tonight we will fufill..”
“Our destiny.” Xena and Gabrielle spoke at once, in the same tone, with almost the same roll of the eyes.
“Our destiny.” Rufus echoed them. “Are you with me?”
There was a surprising silence. Xena poked her head out of the crack, and tried to see what was happening. A ring of the forest dwellers stirred, and one stepped forward, but the distance was too great for her to identify.
“Our enemy has not fled.” The forest dweller stated. “They are here. Near this cave. I have seen them.”
“He’s right.” Another voice spoke up, one Xena recognized as their friend from the forest. “You have not been here, Rufus. They trapped me. I escaped, and came back to say this enemy is coming here, coming to get us. To bring ruin on us.”
A low murmur of agreement sprang up. The column flared and ebbed, the light cascading from a bright white to an eerie flame red. Rufus extended his arms and leaned back, as though he were absorbing it.
“Fools.” The big forest dweller laughed. “We are in no danger. There’s no one in the village to oppose us, and our erstwhile great threat is nothing but a helpless has been, running for home.”
Gabrielle winced in pure gut reaction. She didn’t need to look up, didn’t need to hear the soft half cough, half grunt that came out of her soulmate to know to an intimate degree exactly what nerves those words hit.
“I saw them leave.” Rufus overrode him. “You were tricked, Belas. Sent back here to scatter us like children, and the fools that you are.” The big forest dweller chuckled. “Look behind me – the goddess approves!”
The column was swirling with color, peaking and sparking with an almost audible thrum. The display seemed to convince the forest dwellers, and with a low growling, they started forming around Rufus again and their chant rose up.
As the sound got louder, the light intensified in the column, and slowly pulses of it started to cascade out, flowing over the forest dwellers oddly like water.
Gabrielle swallowed hard, resisting the urge to move away from the crack as she sensed the roiling energy there. There was a cloying edge to it, a half seductive, half repelling quality that reminded her faintly of Dahok but without the overwhelming evil she’d always associated with him. She put her hand on Xena’s arm and closed her fingers slightly, feeling the tension beneath her soulmate’s skin. “What are we going to do?”
The energy increased, and Xena eased her head back inside the opening, the sensations bombarding her making her uncomfortable and almost nauseous.
“We will fight!” Rufus suddenly shouted.
“Yes!” The rings of his followers answered.
“We will kill!”
The column pulsed. Xena covered her ears in helpless reaction, the anger and pure frustration she sensed in it raking against her skin like thorns. It was pushing her, she realized, nudging and shoving and urging her to take it’s fierceness and act on it, finding in the warrior a synergy that set her very soul on fire.
“Xena.” Gabrielle sensed it. She took hold of her partner’s shoulders and turned her away from the crack, releasing them and capturing her face instead, clasping it between her hands. “Hey!”
For a moment, the blue eyes went ice, and Gabrielle knew an instant of fear. But she held her ground, and her hands didn’t budge. “Xena.”
“Boo!” Dori gurgled, reaching past her.
The ice melted. Xena’s jaw shifted and her lashes fluttered closed, and then open again. She moved closer to Gabrielle and let her hands rest on the bard’s waist. “We have to stop this.” She said, with utter seriousness. “Gabrielle, we have to.”
“Okay.” The bard stroked her cheekbones with the sides of the thumbs. “Just tell me how.” She glanced past Xena as the light intensified. “If that’s really a goddess.. what are we going to do, Xena?”
The warrior’s eyes flicked over her shoulder, staring back into the darkness. The faint glow from the worm lit her from below, casting eerie shadows against the harsh backlight from the cavern. After a long pause, Xena met her Gabrielle’s gaze squarely. “I think we need to let it go.”
Gabrielle blinked. “Let it go?” She glanced towards the cavern. “Let that go?”
Xena nodded. “It’s Elevown. She’s trapped in there.”
“Xena, that’s evil. I can feel it.” The bard shook her head, once.
“No.” Just as intently, the warrior stared at her. “Think. What would I be like if I were in there?” She whispered. “Trapped. Isolated.” Her hand lifted to Gabrielle’s face. “Locked away from you??”
Oh. Gods. “Okay.” Gabrielle exhaled. “What do we do? We can’t just go running in there, there’s too many of them, Xena. Even for you.” She wasn’t sure just how right Xena was, but something in her soulmate’s voice… her eyes, told Gabrielle that whatever the truth was, Xena believed she was right.
Xena wasn’t often wrong. The few times she had been, though, had been devastating to both of them.
The chanting got louder. Xena looked down, then she half turned and looked out into the cavern again. The waves of energy flowed over her again, but this time her sense of purpose let them slip aside as she studied the interior of the cave. “There’s no time for something complicated, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle came to her side and looked at the column, a sense of forboding already clenching her heart as she waited for the rest.
“I’ll distract the forest dwellers. You grab the ax, and break the column.”
It sounded so simple. “Distract?”
“I’ll go for Rufus.”
A sickening sense of inevitability almost swamped her. “Yeah. That’s what I thought you meant.” Gabrielle whispered. “It’s what I’ve been afraid of all along.”
Xena threaded her fingers into the bard’s hair, and cupped her neck. “It’ll be all right.”
Bloodshot green eyes looked up at her. “Promise?”
“Absolutely.” Xena replied, without a moment’s hesitation. “All I have to do is draw them all over to the other side, and give you a chance to get to the ax. That’s it. Once you smash it, the fight ends.”
“Boo, what you do?” Dori was upset at the tension she could sense between her parents. “No fun.”
The chanting got louder again, and now they could hear a low rumbling. “We’re out of time.” The warrior whispered. “Sweetheart, trust me, please.”
“Trust has nothing to do with it.” Gabrielle got the words out, brushing past the warrior’s hands to envelop her in a hug, burying her face in Xena’s shoulder and holding on as tightly as she could.
Xena closed her eyes, blocking out the ravening energy licking at her from the cavern. She focused instead on the warm body clasped against hers and the sweet warmth of the love between them.
For that instant, she felt the pulses stop, almost as though the entity trapped in the column felt it. Then the energy lashed out again double it’s strength, in eerie spite. Xena tilted her head and gently kissed Gabrielle on the lips, and then she ruffled Dori’s hair. “Let’s get this over with.”
Gabrielle reluctantly released her, and stepped back, wiping her the back of her hand across her eyes. Every part of her was shaking, but she shoved that aside, and felt inside herself for some vestige of courage. “Okay.”
Xena touched her cheek gently. Then she went to the opening, and peered through, hesitating briefly before she lifted herself up and eased through it to the other side. Once there, she turned and offered Gabrielle a hand through, grabbing the bard’s waist and lifting her down.
They crouched behind a ridge of rock, the only thing separating them from the wildly flaring column, and the ring of stimulated forest dwellers.
Xena drew in a breath, and then released it. She flexed her hands, and lifted them to her weapons, checking their position with automatic caution. “I’m going.”
“I love you.”
The warrior glanced back, to see Gabrielle’s face set, but her eyes brimming with tears. She reached back and patted her cheek. “That’s why not even ten thousand of those bastards could keep me from staying with you. “ A smile. “You won’t have much time – run like Hades, okay?”
Somewhere, Gabrielle discovered a smile. “I will.”
Xena stood and hopped over the ridge, keeping to the shadows as she skirted the very edges of the cavern, working on getting as far as she could before the guards saw her.
Gabrielle gathered her tattered soul and grasped the rock, hoping her legs would be able to carry her through the fear that was making her shake like a leaf.
“Mama.” Dori whispered. “Dis is bad.”
“I.. I know honey.” Her mother answered, eyes glued on a shadow among shadows. “But you hang on real tight, okay? Mama has to go do something soon that’s going to be scary.”
“Scary? Where’s Boo?”
“She’ll be right back, honey. I promise.”
Dori rested her chin on Gabrielle’s shoulder, and put her arms around her mother’s neck. “Love mama.”
Gabrielle swallowed hard, and faced down her fear, squaring her shoulders as she reached down to make sure her boots were tied tight. “I love you too, honey.” She told Dori. “Get ready, because you and mama are going to fly.”
“Fly?” Dori asked, in a surprised tone. “You fly, mama?”
“When I have to, I can.” Gabrielle replied. “You watch me.”
Rufus was standing up on the platform in front of the column, his arms raised, exulting in the wild energy flowing around the room. He let out a bass roar, lifting his hands with his claws extended. “Now! Now we..”
A shadow engulfed him. A flicker of motion that shed the garish light and knocked him back off the platform, to stumble backwards and land on his back on the hard, rock floor.
The chanting stopped, as the platform filled with a tall, cloaked figure, as different from Rufus as night was from day.
“Sorry to interrupt the party.” Xena drawled, drawing her sword and twirling it in one hand. “But I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” She pointed the sword at Rufus. “So, c’mon, big shot. Let’s see what you’ve really got behind all that hot air.”
Rufus leaped to his feet, shedding his shock as he took in his new adversary. With a roar of delight, he jumped forward, gaining the platform and facing off against her in the relatively small space. “My… pleassssuuurreeee….” He yowled, drawing his own sword, and throwing himself into the attack.
The forest dwellers circled them.
The column rippled violently, thrumming it’s energy.
Gabrielle knelt, and for the first time in years, prayed to gods she wasn’t at all sure she really believed in anymore.
Watch this space for updates.