Gabrielle walked through the forest, her boots quiet on the path as the leaves brushed against her shoulders. Unlike Xena’s meticulous tracking, she made no attempt to find her partner’s passage along the ground knowing full well her skills weren’t nearly up to it. Instead, she followed her instincts, a faint, almost imperceptible tugging on the corner of one part of her mind that just told her go this way.
She had used the long trip to the north to work on this new, but growing little skill of hers. She had always been able, at least for a long time, to sense Xena when she was in some great distress… in pain, or grief, or of course, in great joy. High emotions traveled down the connection they shared, but under normal circumstances their bond remained a quiescent presence in the back of her head, waking only when Xena was in very close proximity.
So, on their journey, Gabrielle had begun to probe this untested skill, closing her eyes as Xena left to go hunting in the evenings, waiting for her to get some distance off, then tracking her through the wilds using only this instinct.
It worked, to her surprise, rather well. She just thought about Xena, put an image of her into her mind’s eye, and then concentrated. A little… itch… would manifest itself in the direction she needed to go, and when she followed it, inevitiably she found her soulmate busy about her hunting tasks. The first time she’d bumped into her, Xena had turned, and put her hands on her hips, and given her just the weirdest look.
Gabrielle had teased her about her losing her edge, to where she could now easily follow her. But only long enough to see those dark eyebrows arch up into her partner’s hairline and an indignant look spread across her expressive features. Then she’d spilled the beans, before Xena started getting any ideas, like that she needed to spend the night drilling. Xena had been intrigued, but not surprised because, as she’d told Gabrielle, she’d been doing that for years, following the bard through all sorts of travails.
And when she’d said it, it had been so obvious to Gabrielle. All those times, all those last second rescues… of course Xena had known how to find her. So she’d felt a little silly, but Xena had ruffled her hair and told her she was glad Gabrielle was catching up to her.
The bard paused to listen, hearing birds and animals moving around, and nodding to herself. Xena would have been able to identify every one of them, but to her, just hearing them was the important thing. Xena had taught her that the wild animals were excellent guardians, and as long as she could hear them nearby, chances were nothing big enough to hurt her was in the area.
The path started upward, and she leaned forward, following it’s faint mark up the slope. Dori hadn’t been pleased at her leaving, but once she’d told the toddler that she was ‘going to get Boo’ the child had settled down happily with her new little playmates to wait for her parents return. Gabrielle had briefly considered taking her daughter with her, given what had happened the day before, but she reasoned that she’d intimidated the minders and there wouldn’t be a repeat during the short while she’d be gone.
Near the top of the ridge, Gabrielle stopped and removed the waterskin from her belt, taking a sip from it as she considered her choices. The easier path would be to take the shoulder, and come around the side of the next valley. However, her instincts were pushing her towards the crest of the ridge, and seeing as it was the most difficult way to go, chances were her partner had picked it.
Xena was just like that.
Gabrielle pushed the stopper back into the waterskin and secured it, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. She pushed off the rock she’d leaned against and started the climb to the top, putting her boots carefully on the mossy granite as she moved from step to step. She used her hands to take hold, lifting her body and steadying it as she moved. The rocks were slick with moisture, and carried a rich, nose tickling scent that almost made her sneeze.
Her legs were cramping by the time she reached the top and she pulled herself over the last rock to lay on her belly just before the crest, catching her breath. Curiously, she tugged herself forward, peeking over the edge of the ridge into the valley beyond. “Hmph.” Gabrielle swung her legs over the rock and climbed down the other side, studying the ground before her with an increasingly perplexed look. The path broke off not two bodylengths from her on both sides, and fell off down a sheer cliff, far down to a shadowy green mystery below.
Gabrielle went and sat down on the edge of the path, leaning her elbows on her thighs and looking cautiously over.
A bit of rock, dislodged by her leg, tumbled down into the trees far beneath her. Gabrielle edged back a trifle, feeling her heart begin to pound at the sight. Heights had never been an easy thing for her to bear, and she put her hands behind her on the path, and pushed herself backwards until she was able to sit cross legged on the stone, a safe distance from the ledge end. The granite bit through her lambskin leggings, and she removed several sharp pieces, gingerly tossing them from her as she considered her options.
Her Xena-sense told her that her partner had come this way, and yet.. looking at the sheer drop off, it was hard to fathom where she’d gone from here. That she was alive, and unhurt was not in question, Gabrielle would have known it if she’d been in trouble. If she closed her eyes and concentrated, all she got from her soulmate was a restless edginess, the hint of the darkling passion so much a part of her when she fought.
Gabrielle flipped over onto her belly and crawled to the edge of the precipice, peeking warily over and scanning the valley. All she could see from this distance was trees, a thick carpet of them that covered the valley floor, and the silver cascade of a beautiful waterfall. She looked on either side of the cavern walls, searching for the slightest hint of a path down, and saw nothing but flat, slate surfaces that even Xena’s powerful fingers couldn’t grab.
Below, and to the right, a ledge picked up and meandered down the side of the walls, barely a body width in some places.
Gabrielle judged the distance, between the end of the cliff she was on, and the start of that lower path.
Would Xena have leaped it? Could she have? Gabrielle tilted her head and considered the angle. Yes, she could have. The bard decided. That didn’t help her though, because while her partner could cross that open space, she, Gabrielle, most assuredly could not and therefore she was stymied in her mission to follow the warrior.
Well. Gabrielle sat up and folded her legs under her again. She studied the edge of the path. If Xena went down the valley, then it was just up to her to find a way to follow. She reached out and touched the granite wall, running her hand along a solid crack that formed a shallow V in the stone.
With a little nod, she pulled herself to her feet and climbed back up to the ridge, beginning a careful search.
The cave stank. Xena had extraordinary senses for a human being, and she winced at this assault on them as she followed the strange forest dwellers into the dark entrance to their lair.
Inside, the only light was provided by glowing lichen, draped over the rock’s surface and bathing the interior in a very eerie greenish haze. Xena disliked it immediately, and found herself squinting around her. With a frown, she closed her eyes and triggered her other senses instead, her ears picking up the sounds of a number of large bodies, and a greater number of smaller ones.
The whisper of rats, and the soft clicks of insects brought her eyes open again and she found her eyesight grudgingly adjusting to the dim light.
Immediately, she wished it hadn’t. The inside of the cave was full of glowering faces, glinting eyes watching her closely around a central stone circle. Half eaten carcasses were set to one side, their surfaces crawling with insects. The stench almost turned even her experienced stomach, and she took a few steps to one side, away from the worst of it.
Scattered around were rough made nests of leaves and branches, each large enough to contain one forest dweller, and wound through with vines to hold them together. In the rear, Xena could detect the faint sound of water trickling, but she doubted the forest dwellers inside used it for anything but drinking.
Shoving down the sincere desire to throw up, Xena put her hands on her hips instead and eyed the tall, dark furred forest dweller who seemed to be the leader of the bunch. “All right. I’m here.”
“Sit.” The forest dweller took a seat in the center of the stone circle, on a slab of rock almost like a throne.
“I’m not going to be here that long.” Xena told him. “It smells too bad, and I’m afraid those bugs might mistake me for your dinner.”
The forest dweller stared stonily at her.
Xena was aware of the silent bodies that had come in behind her, and were now blocking the entrance. She folded her arms and ignored them. Her instincts were telling her she wasn’t getting out of here without a fight, but there was nothing in her nature that resented that.
Perhaps the forest dwellers knew that.
“You are Xena.”
“I am.” Xena agreed. “That all you wanted?”
“They say you are Ares Chosen one.” The forest dweller’s voice dripped doubt and contempt.
“He wishes.” The warrior chuckled briefly.
The dark one stood and walked over to her, circling her with patient, feral steps. “Are you saying you are not?” He asked. “That you have lied, to all our people?”
“I never lied.” Xena replied quietly. “I never said I was. You did.” She swiveled to follow him as he circled her, watching him closely. “I never claimed to be anyone other than who I am.”
He spread his arms, extending his claws, and laughed. “And who are you?” He asked. “You are just a human, after all. It is as I expected…. Lestan lied.” The golden eyes snapped open, and focused on her. “He deserved death.”
Xena felt her warrior instincts rise. “I can count on the fingers of this hand.” She held up her left one. “The number of people I’ve known in my life who deserved death.” She closed her hand. “And I killed all of them. Lestan didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
“You … don’t understand.” The forest dweller circled her. He turned and held his hands out to her. “My name is Bellas. I am a true son of Ares.” With a sharp gesture, he whisked his claws past her face, just missing her chin. “I…. am his Chosen.”
“No you’re not.” The warrior shook her head. “Trust me. Ares wouldn’t put a tip of his leather boot in this place.”
A sharpened claw extended towards her. “Liar.”
“No.” Xena evaded the paw and ducked under it, turning and drawing her sword in one smooth motion. With a twist of her wrist, she whipped the blade into an tight pattern as she leaped onto the stone platform, the greenish glow flickering off the blade as she cut a swath in the moss, sending bits of it around her like fireflies. She completed the turn, keeping her motion supple and fluid, sliding the blade from her right hand to her left and twirling it over her forearm before she reseated it into her sheath. “But once up on a time, he was my teacher.”
As she stood on the stone, in the circle, she felt suddenly the dark power in her surface, the part of her the was a part of him, that reveled in the blood and she spread her arms out much as Bellas had, gathering the eerie glow to her. “At one time in my life… *I* Chose Him.”
Bellas faced her, backlit from the cave’s entrance. “Then you will stay here… and teach us.” He lifted his hands, and the forest dwellers, naked and wild, closed in on her. “Or you will die.”
Xena drew her sword. “One of us will.” She felt the air grow close as the forest dwellers approached, massing now almost two score.
A low growl rose.
“If you kill me, you get nothing.” Xena said.
“If I kill you, I get everything.” Bellas replied. “And I will listen to the screams of the little one bound to you as she feels you ripped between my claws.” He smiled a toothy smile at her. “Can you hear her? Your weakness, one who chooses?”
Xena didn’t wait for them. She drew her blades, and let out her battle yell, and went for the blood.
At first it was almost more than she could handle. Xena kept her center of balance low, and shoved her way through the snarling mass of fur, trying it keep from being knocked off her feet. Falling, she knew, would be tantamount to a death sentence.
Her heartrate picked up as she twisted and turned, feeling the tips of claws scrape against her skin, ripping the cloth over it and scoring her underneath.
Her boots grabbed scant surface under her, the rock covered slime and grunge she tried not to think about. She ducked under Bella’s outstretched arms and slammed her body against his, making some space to stand in. Claws grabbed her, puncturing her armor, and she responded with a vicious sword thrust that sent a spray of hot blood as she yanked her arms backwards.
The sound, and the smell were overwhelming. Xena wanted out. She started hacking at anything in front of her, ducking in pure instinct as she felt an impact on her back, then flipping her sword in her hands and stabbing backwards.
She felt the blade enter a body and grate against bone. A hot form slumped against her back, and she leaned forward, kicking back and shoving the body off her as she evaded a frontal attack by two forest dwellers twice her size.
Xena fixed on Bellas’ voice and charged towards it, bowling over the two forest dwellers before her and sending them sprawling over the rocks that were the only thing keeping her alive. She leaped onto the nearest and threw herself through space, slashing downwards and tumbling in mid air as she drew the chakram out and cut through the back of Bellas’s thigh.
He let out a howl and grabbed for her.
Xena let herself keep falling, and landed on her back
Bellas leaped on top of her, extending his arms out and slashing at her face. He fell on top of Xena’s boots, which she’d tucked up over her and now he found himself blocked from reaching her. Frustrated, he leaned over and lunged, not understanding the sudden, dimly seen grin on the warrior’s face.
Xena uncoiled her legs, shoving against the rock and arching her back with all her strength. Her adversary catapulted backwards, slamming against the rock wall and sending a shower of moss and insects over the floor.
Over her. Xena scrambled to her feet and shook herself vigorously, just barely having time to set herself before Bellas came at her, his eyes red with anger. He’d picked up a piece of stone and now he threw it at her, roaring at the top of his lungs as he lead the rest of the remaining forest dwellers at her.
Xena hadn’t lived as long as she had by being stupidly courageous. That she left for the heroes in Gabrielle’s tales, the ones who died so gallantly in some stupid way or other. She knew that surviving was the ultimate goal, and so she dropped between two of the rocks and leaped, close to the ground and under the forest dweller’s deadly arms.
Her shoulders brushed two heavy bodies on either side, but she got through and saw a clear space, turning almost in mid air and slipping through a break in the attackers. She felt a clawed hand catch her leg, but her armor shed the grasp and then she was clear.
Daylight. She bolted for it, knowing none of the forest dwellers could match her speed. With a howl, they turned and chased after her, claws scrabbling in the grunge of the cave.
“Coward!” Bellas yelled after her. “We shall find you! You won’t escape this valley!”
“Yeah, yeah.” Xena reached the entrance and dove through it, glad beyond reason to see the sun, and feel the wind against her face. The rocky ground wasn’t easy to run over, and the forest dwellers gained on her until she picked a path and leaped up onto a rock, then up onto another, jumping from stone to stone with a agility of a mountain goat.
She reached a ledge, then doubled back and leaped over the heads of the chasing forest dwellers, sheathing her sword and reaching out to grasp a tree branch with one hand. The bough bent under her weight, then recoiled. She released it and went with the arc, grabbing a second branch and hauling herself up higher, out of the range of the forest dwellers.
They started throwing rocks at her. Xena dodged behind the tree’s trunk and looked around, spotting another tree close by. She ran down a branch and stooped at the end of it, pushing off and leaping out ward. Mid way she pulled her body into a flip, twisting around and watching as several well aimed rocks slid to either side of her. With a grim smile she caught the outer branch of the next tree and got her balance, then ran down it towards the bole.
When she got there, she circled it and looked back, watching for her followers.
But they were gone.
Xena went very still and extended her senses. The wind brought her nothing, but the stench rising from her clothing, brought from the cave would be an effective killing of any scents. She cocked her ears, though, and closed her eyes, allowing her surroundings to infuse her.
Xena frowned. The forest dwellers hadn’t seemed to her to be that competent in woodcraft, not after she’d seen how they kept their lair. She concentrated again.
Then she looked up, to find Bellas standing not far from the tree, staring at her. He slowly extended an arm, and pointed a blood covered claw at her.
“We will see who deserves Ares attention. Run, then. We will catch you. We will hunt you.”
And then, as Xena watched, he faded into the landscape, and disappeared before her very eyes. She focused on where he’d been, and strained her senses, and finally… finally, she caught a hint of a musky scent. Then it was gone, leaving her alone in her tree, with only the wind to keep her company.
Xena leaned against the tree trunk, not at all in a good mood.
Gabrielle made the climb up to the crest again, hauling herself over the edge and resting a moment before she got up and adjusted the loops of forest vine over her shoulders. She felt quite proud of herself, and gave the vines a pat as she dragged them over to the stone wall and dropped them to the ground.
“Okay.” She picked up an end, then paused, grabbing onto the rock for support as she felt a surge of energy come through her connection with Xena. She closed her eyes, and let herself feel it, this flavor very different from the one she’d felt before.
Xena was fighting, but not enjoying it. Not a good sign. Gabrielle opened her eyes and turned her attention to the vines, looping the end she’d picked up into a stout knot and tugging on it.
The sound of rocks moving every so slightly made her start, and look up, her body reacting automatically when she saw the large, furred figure easing through the gap and blocking her way.
It was a stranger, someone she didn’t know and she turned her back to the wall, setting her boots squarely and letting her center of balance come up over the balls of her feet. One hand reached out to take hold of her staff, but she waited, watching the newcomer warily.
He stopped, and his body straightened, as though he was as surprised to see her as she was to see him. He paused and put a clawed hand on the rocks, studying her for a long moment. “This is a sacred place to us.” He told her. “Humans are not tolerated here.”
Gabrielle considered the words. “I’m looking for a friend.” She glanced over the side, down into the valley. “Down there.”
The forest dweller also looked. “No human lives there.” He stated simply.
“My friend is there.” The bard said.
The forest dweller frowned. “Leave.”
Gabrielle gave him a gentle, though regretful smile. “I can’t. I need to find my friend.” She said. “I’m sure you wouldn’t leave a friend someplace they weren’t… tolerated… would you?” She paused. “Rufus?”
His muzzle wrinkled. “I do not know you.”
“Well.” Gabrielle held at bay the urgency now tugging her through her link with Xena. “Let’s see. In this part of the world, among your people, there are probably two humans everyone knows. One of them is really tall, has dark hair, gorgeous blue eyes, and carries a sword.” She cocked her head at him. “I’m the other one.”
“Gabrielle the Bard.”
“Good guess.” Gabrielle set the knotted part of her vine into the crack in the rock, tugging it down until it felt secure. She pulled against it, already feeling the sweat gathering on her palms.
Rufus came towards her, looming over her. “I told you this was a sacred place.” He said. “Your kind is not welcome here, Gabrielle the Bard.”
“Well, I know.” Gabrielle pulled the coils of vine towards the edge of the precipice. “But you see, Xena’s down there and I need to find her, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to make an exception for me.” She grunted, shoving the vine over. It uncoiled as it went down, and flapped it’s way against the rock, making an unpleasant sound as it tumbled earthward.
“You don’t seem to understand.” Rufus came closer. “You need to leave.” A pause. “Now.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle looped the string tied to her staff over her head, letting it rest across her back. She took hold of the vine and, without stopping to think about what she was doing, she walked backwards until she was at the very edge.
“Stop!” Rufus reached for the knotted end. “If you continue, I”ll release this.”
Gabrielle looked him right in the eyes for a long moment. “Then I’ll die.” She stated softly. “And you’ll have killed me, despite the fact that I”ve only ever been a friend to your people, and risked my life for them.” She took a breath. “I’ve always believed that your people were better than mine in some ways. Was I that wrong?”
Rufus stared at her.
Gabrielle glanced behind her, unable to ignore the actual fear now coming through her bond. She swallowed hard, pushed her terror to the back of her mind, and stepped off the ledge, letting her arms catch her weight on the vine.
It bit into her hands, and she felt her shoulders take the sharp jolt. Instinctively, she wrapped her legs around the wriggling vine, and tried not to panic. Then, slowly, she started to let herself down.
A rock hit her in on the head and she looked up, finding Rufus there looking down at her. There was a knife in his hand.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, and felt the burn as the vine slipped through her fingers.
Another rock hit her. She ignored it, and slid her boots lower, swinging through the air and slamming her shoulder against the rocks. She felt a tug on her lifeline, and a jolt of terror hit her as she looked up to see Rufus kneeling next to the edge, one hand on the vine.
Xena. Her mind formed the words. I think I just guessed wrong. If I did, I’m sorry. I just wanted to get to you. She imagined the vine parting, and the fall through the air. She knew the leafy green surface, looking so soft from this high up, would greet her with hard, sharp arms and end her life with in seconds.
Drawing a breath, she looked up once more. Rufus gazed calmly down at her. His knife caught the sun as he lowered it towards the vine.
Gabrielle scrambled downward, and looked to her right, shoving off against the wall with panicked legs. She felt the vine begin to give, and she pushed off again as she swung back towards the wall, gaining momentum all the while.
One more swing..and she felt the vine part just as she hit the wall. She released the vine and pushed off against the wall with all her strength, lunging into the air towards the small ledge that seemed impossibly far away.
I have to get there. Her mind panted. For Xena.
Xena stood under the waterfall, letting the icy thrumming power beat against her body with indifferent mercilessness. She breathed out as hard as she could, forcing even the memory of the cave’s stench out of her lungs and held it for a moment, coughing before she inhaled a chestful of water scented air.
A shiver ran down her spine, and as she looked up, fear came barreling down her link with Gabrielle and just took her to her knees in the water before she could catch her balance and gasp with surprise. A moment later she surged straight through the front of the waterfall and dove into the water, using it’s momentum to propel herself ahead faster than she could have otherwise.
She cut through the rapids, and angled towards the far shore, bouncing off rocks before she grabbed hold to a half submerged branch and hauled herself out of the water. She shook herself hard, then broke into a run, dodging branches in the thick forest as she responded to a nameless call.
And as abruptly as it had started, the terror ended.
Xena slowed, her heart beating so fast she could hardly breathe, and focused on her soulmate.
She stopped, and rested her hand against the nearest tree. “Gabrielle?” She whispered the name.
The air screamed past her, and Gabrielle twisted in it, reaching out frantically and stretching her body out towards the ledge that was coming up fast. If she missed it, there was nothing but the forest below and even if she was lucky enough to come close….
No more time. Gabrielle brushed against the stone wall as she fell, and bounced off, careening wildly down the slope and grappling for a handhold, for anything to break her fall. She didn’t even feel the pain yet.
Her hands hit something solid and she gripped instinctively, her body falling past her and almost pulling her arms from her shoulder sockets. Her jaw hit stone, and her head snapped back, almost making her black out but somehow she held on, ending up hanging from both hands as pebbles rattled past her down to the forest.
“Augh.” Gabrielle spit out a mouthful of blood. She sucked in a breath, then got up the courage to open her eyes.
The layered rock of the ledge was before her, from the tapering end she was hanging from thickening into a full sized slab. Slowly, she lifted her head, examining the rock clutched in her fingers. Gods. Her shoulders already ached, and her hands felt slippery.
“Okay.” She whispered to herself. “Gabrielle, you just have to do this. There’s no other way.” She focused an image of her partner into her dream eye and slowly contracted her arms, pulling herself up. The strain was incredible, and for a moment, she didn’t think she could do it. Her body slipped down again, and her grip loosened.
But that image was there. As though she could see those blue eyes looking into hers, she could see the expression change and a memory surfaced that had haunted her for years.
No. Gabrielle felt a growl work it’s way up out of her throat, and she pulled herself up again. I am not going to do that to her, again. She got her chin up over the ledge and paused, panting, her arms trembling. Then she arched her body and threw a leg up over the edge, scrabbling with her boot to get a grip on the uneven surface.
Her foot struck a ridge, and she found purchase, her powerful leg muscles pulling her body up and over the edge of the precipice and rolling her back against the stone wall.
She lay there, with her eyes closed, just being thankful. Her cramped hands curled against her belly and the copper tang of blood from her bitten tongue filled her mouth. A lot of things hurt. But she made the effort to open her eyes and look back up at the upper ledge, to see Rufus looking down at her.
Even from where she was, she could see the shock. Slowly, she lifted one hand and made a gesture that even given their difference in species, he would understand.
His head pulled back out of sight. Gabrielle managed a pained, wry smile, before she rolled over and straightened her body out, trying to assess what she’d done to herself.
Xena leaned her head against the bark, feeling her heart rate settle back to normal. She could sense, just faintly, worry, anger and dismay from Gabrielle, but not the stark terror as before, and she decided that something definitely had happened, but as was her wont, Gabrielle had dealt with it in her own way.
However, she also felt the need to make sure of that herself, and now she was faced with having that to deal with along with having a pack of wild forest dwellers tracking her with the intent to turn her into badger chow.
On top of that, she was drenched. Wet leather was never something she enjoyed wearing, even in the best of times and the cold wind blowing through the trees was causing her to chill. She looked around cautiously, uncomfortable with the knowledge that she was being hunted. It wasn’t something she’d had to deal with often, being the hunter more often, and she found the experience unsettling.
“Okay.” She spoke aloud, pushing off from the tree and squeezing out her overtunic. “First thing’s first. Get to the pass, move the rocks.” She tipped her head back and studied the sun, it’s glimmering almost blocked by the trees.
Her ears picked up a tiny discrepancy. Xena sighed, and snugged her belt tight, before she reached for the tree’s lower branch and pulled herself up into it, climbing high up into canopy to limbs that would just hold her weight.
Definitely not a forest dwellers.
“Sometimes an old Amazon trick works.” The warrior muttered, as she picked her way along the branches, able to walk from tree to tree through the incredibly thick foliage. “Gabrielle, Gabrielle… what are you up to?”
Her weakness. Xena recalled Bellas’ words. It was true, and she’d known that for many years, as had any number of her enemies. Gabrielle was her weak spot – the one thing she valued more than anything else on earth, the one thing.. the one person whose well being had no price too high for her to pay.
She’d come to terms with that long ago. Having Gabrielle’s love in her life was worth any risk, and she knew the bard felt the same way from her side of it. They’d both talked about it often enough and after everything they’d been through together, Xena knew it would take more than a pack of scruffy, tick infested forest dwellers to separate them.
The wind stilled for a moment, and her ears cocked, picking up an almost imperceptible crackling. She paused deliberately and turned, staring down through the branches to a specific spot in the green of the forest.
The faintest flicker of motion rewarded her, in the blinking of two golden eyes.
Xena turned her back on them, and continued on her way, towards the pass.
Her nerves finally settled down, Gabrielle leaned against the stone wall and borrowed a trick of Xena’s, moving everything from the toes up carefully to find out of she’d damaged anything critical. She was sore all over from her slamming into the rocks, and her hands were scraped raw, and her tongue was deeply bitten, making her head throb.
Not good. Gabrielle examined her shaking hands soberly. But, infinitely better than what might have been. She laced her fingers together and drew a knee up, resting her forearms on it. Taking a quiet moment, she silently thanked any of the gods who happened to have been watching out for her, and she thanked Xena, who had taken care that she was fit and capable of handling herself.
With a sigh, she reached up and took hold of a rock outcropping, pulling herself to her feet with slow caution. Her legs held, which was a good sign, and she straightened out her back with a grimace as every muscle in her torso protested.
The worst was the sharp pain along her spine where her head had snapped back, which made turning her head agony. Gabrielle very cautiously rocked her skull from side to side, and winced at the throbbing, hoping all she’d done was bruise something.
“Pig farts.” The bard rubbed the back of her neck. “I’m gonna regret that little trip for a while, I think.” She exhaled, and then booted her staff up to her hand and glanced down her hard won path. “Xena’s gonna kill me.”
She started off, keeping the image of her partner’s face in mind as she took a moment to look behind her, taking in the huge gap she’d gotten across. A wry smile of self pride appeared on her face, before she turned and continued on her trek downward.
The path was uneven, and not kind to her battered body. She used her staff to keep her balance, staying as close to the mountain wall as she could and running her free hand over its surface. After a few minutes, she loosened up a little, and walking was more comfortable.
She curled her hand more snugly around her staff, glad of it’s support as the path slanted more steeply downward. Below her, she could see the dense forest, and to one side a pretty waterfall whose tumbling waters already attracted her poet’s eye.
After a moment’s watching, she probed her link to Xena, relieved to find just a sense of… impatience.
“About me, I bet.” Gabrielle acknowledged wryly. Her terror surely must have reached her partner, and now she suspected that her search for Xena had become a mutual trek, the two of them at either end of a powerful cord moving along it towards each other.
At the end of the path were two huge stones, the space between them forming a natural gate into the valley. Gabrielle slid a hand over the nearer boulder’s surface as she eased between them, leaning on her staff as she paused and looked into the valley from their safety.
It was beautiful. Her eyes drank in the lush green of the forest, and the riot of wildflowers dotting the earth nearby. The waterfall tumbled down across moss darkened rocks and provided as picturesque a view as she’d ever seen in her travels.
“Wow.” Gabrielle walked out across the loam covered earth towards the water, and held a hand out to catch it’s spray. It was cold, and it stung her fingers, but the scent was so clean and fresh she moved closer and knelt carefully by the pool at it’s foot.
Dipping her hand in, she scooped up a mouthful and tasted it, the cold, crisp taste almost tingling on her tongue. It was delicious, and she took several more mouthfuls before she got to her feet and wiped her lips, feeling much better for it.
She spotted an almost invisible path that ran alongside the water through the trees, and decided to follow it, stepping across the stones near the pool and pausing as her eyes spotted a color out of place. She leaned on her staff and gazed down at the blood stain on the rocks.
“Hm.” Gabrielle leaned over and touched a patch of thick, dark fur stuck in the blood, and her fingers brushed a cut in the stone that it was buried in, the fresh, pale shade of the granite indicating it’s recent origin.
Nearby, a chip had been sheered off, and she picked it up, examining it’s surface. Then she slipped the stone into her belt pouch and stepped over the blood stained rock, her eyes now picking up more drops of rust on the ground leading towards the faint path.
Broken branches, also stained. Gabrielle realized someone had carried wounded.. or maybe worse.. bodies this way.
Something else caught her attention, and she went over to a tall, gnarled tree growing almost out of the rocks themselves. She found a gash mid way up the trunk and she reached out and touched it, removing a piece of fabric from it’s narrow clutches.
Just a scrap, but the color and texture was as familiar to her as the soft lambskin she was wearing.
Frowning, she put the fabric into her belt pouch with the rock and started up the path, aware of a cold wind rising at her back.
Xena slipped around the rocks, and pulled her sword as the attack she’d felt in her bones came upon her. It was only one this time, dropping on her in silence. The pounce took her to the ground and she felt sharp claws rake her back before she rolled out of reach and came up onto her feet again.
To find empty space around her, and no trace of her attacker.
Only the stinging across her spine was left, no matter how hard she focused on the world around her, and Xena admitted to herself, though she never would have to anyone else, that the damn thing spooked her. She sheathed her sword, but removed her chakram from her hip and cradled it in her right hand, her fingers gently spinning the weapon as she kept moving along, towards the blocked cliff.
Her nape hairs rose, and she simply let her body react, whirling around and slashing out at eye level.
The chakram made contact, a spray of rich, red blood splattered across the rocks, and a hairy body slumped at her feet. She barely had a chance to absorb her success when her reflexes flared again and she lifted her hand, this time deflecting two small darts with the edge of the chakram and sending them careening off into the forest.
“So much for doing things the old fashioned way.” Xena called out tauntingly. She edged sideways and retrieved one of the darts, sniffing it as she let her eyes roam around the silently watching forest. “You’re wasting your time. That wouldn’t take down Gabrielle on a bad day.” She tossed the dart from her, kneeling to examine her attacker.
He was already dead. She’d cut his throat with the chakram, her instincts always going for the kill after so many years of honing them. He was naked, one of the smaller forest dwellers from the cave, and he had an unusual, smokey brown coat.
Around his neck was a cord, black where it wasn’t covered in blood, and hanging on it was a polished bit of amber wrapped in gut. Xena touched it with a fingertip, before she rose and picked a new path, ducking under a shelf of heavy granite and slipping between two tall boulders.
The darts worried her though. Despite her brash words, enough of the natural soporific on it’s tip would certainly have an effect on her, and if the forest dwellers decided to pepper her with them en masse, she was in some real trouble.
If they attempted to attack her one at a time, she’d pick them off. Xena knew it, and she suspected the forest dwellers knew it now too. That meant the next attack would be different.
Xena paused as her ledge petered out, and stood inside its safety while she considered her next move. Nearby, a dark pool burbled, running down into a swiftly flowing creek. It looked deep, and it was going in the direction she was interested in.
Besides, she was already wet. Making her mind up, Xena tucked her chakram away and readied herself, then she bolted from the rocks and headed for the water.
A cloud of darts darkened the air around her, most missing, but she felt a few telltale stings on her neck and arms. She ignored them and powered towards the water, outracing a second volley as she reached the edge of the creek and leaped onto the rocks that bordered it, throwing her arms forward and diving neatly into the rushing stream.
The icy cold water closed over her, but despite it’s chill she welcomed it’s safety. The current grabbed her, and she concentrated more on steering her progress and staying out of the way of rocks than actively swimming.
As she turned her head, she spotted flickering forms racing alongside the creek, trying to keep up with her. Reaching down as she surged along, she plucked a stone from the bottom and waited. After a few minutes, one of the forest dwellers slipped, and leaped up onto the rocks in full view. Xena grinned and half turned in the water, lifting her arm up and whipping it sideways. The stone hit it’s mark, and the forest dweller went tumbling off into the underbrush.
“Hope it was a thorn bush.” She muttered, then grimaced as a dull burning started to emerge at the nape of her neck. She rubbed the spot, squeezing the skin in a meager try and getting the poison out, then had to stop when she realized she was coming to a set of rather wicked looking rapids.
Her hands were tingling. Not a good sign. Xena hoped it was from the cold, as she angled her body between two upthrust logs, dipping between them as the water shot her forward. The current half turned her, and she went under for a moment.
The shock of the water over her head sent a jolt through her, and she rolled back up, shaking the hair out of her eyes as she came back up into the air. She’d gotten a mouthful of river, though, and taste of vegetation and moss was thick on her tongue.
The rapids got rougher, and she could see the walls of the valley narrowing as it pushed her towards her goal. A rock over hand, though, arced over the stream as it rushed along, and Xena could see her adversaries gathering on it.
The tingling was spreading up her arms, and Xena felt her breathing shorten. She cursed and flexed her hands, shoving aside the creeping lethargy as she took powerful strokes to bring her as far away from the overhang as possible.
It would be close.
Xena saw the vines draped over the edge of the rocks, and knew, suddenly, it would too close.
Gabrielle found herself in a sunken dell, her way blocked by a thick hedge full of heavy thorns. She decided to rest a minute, and sat down on a fallen tree log, leaning her staff against it and resting her elbows on her knees.
She could go back the way she came, but that itch inside her head was getting stronger, and something inside her was telling her to keep listening to it. Her body was starting to stiffen up from her injuries, but she looked around the dell, searching for a way forward.
Across from where she was sitting there was a tiny break. Gabrielle took a drink from her waterskin, then steeled herself and got up, trudging over to the break and thumping down next to it on her knees.
She peered through the branches. “This is more Dori sized, but what the hay.” Looping her staff over her shoulder again, she crawled into the thorn bush, ducking her head slightly to avoid a patch of nasty looking points.
“Ow.” Gabrielle regretted the motion, as her neck seized up. Her elbows unlocked and she crashed to the ground, the pain jerking her body into a tight ball. For a frightening moment she lay there, stifling a yelp, then slowly the cramping faded and she could straighten again. “Ugh.” The bard put a cautious hand on her neck, and under the skin felt a swelling right where her shoulders started.
Not good. She rolled over onto her back and extended her legs, grimacing until her spine relaxed and she could breath without hurting. Her eyes focused upward, and spotted a red robin sitting on a branch, watching her. “Hi.”
“Chick.” The robin warbled. “Chicka chicka.”
“Want to lend me those pretty wings?” Gabrielle suggested. “I’d bring em back, honest.”
“Chick!” The robin fluttered down and landed on her, hopping up onto her chest and cocking it’s head.
“Well, thanks.” The bard managed a smile. “I appreciate the compliment, and I’d love to stick around and chat, but I’ve got a partner out there that I need to go find.”
The bird cocked it’s head the other way, then lifted a foot and scratched it’s eye.
“Wish I could do that.” Gabrielle very slowly lifted her hand, and rubbed the bird’s chest with her fingertip. “You’re a pretty little boy.”
“Chick!” The bird nibbled her finger, then decided he was bored and fluttered off back to the branch, where he went back to searching for bugs.
Gabrielle cautiously rolled over and got to her knees, careful not to move her head around too much. She was glad of the thick leggings tucked into her boots protecting her knees, and her travel shortened hair that evaded the thorns as she edged through the underbrush, working her way past inch long barbs as she moved further and further into the hedge.
A sense of urgency slowly started to build inside her.
Not for the first time, Gabrielle wished she had something like Xena’s chakram, as she tried to move faster through the brush, wincing as barbs caught at her skin.
The water closed over her head. Xena felt almost a sense of peace as she ducked out of the sight of her pursuers, down into the depths of the river. The current pushed her along very quickly, and she slitted her eyes open, idly watching the murky depths move past.
She bumped against rocks, and a bit of air escaped from her lungs, silvery bubbles brushing past her nose as they rose to the surface.
The water filled her ears, and she listened, hearing far off splashes.
The river had her, though, and she knew it. She closed her eyes and waited, hearing the splashes slowly fade off behind her as she passed through the narrows, the current dragging her body over the rocks on the bottom and thumping against her knees.
Pressure was building inside her lungs, and she could feel it. The urge to breath was getting greater, but the water was far, far over her head.
But she felt no panic. She waited.
The sounds faded, as her vision was fading, and her hearing was fading so that all she was aware of was the chuckling of the river around her, cradling her in it’s grip.
It became very peaceful.
Xena released the rest of the air in her lungs.
Then she let go of the rock she’d been carrying, and her body lifted up through the water, up from the murky depths through the pale green, up to the surface, and her head broke through into the sunlight. She sucked in a breath, almost laughing at the irony.
She looked behind her, seeing the overhang far, far off and judging the stretch of river she’d spent underwater.
Without the dart’s drug, she’d never have been able to slow her body rhythms down enough to have held her breath that long.
“Irony, thy name is Xena.” She remarked wryly, as the current swept her around a curve, and the sun warmed her chilled to the bone frame.
Gabrielle crawled out from under the last of the bushes literally on her belly, pulling herself forward with her elbows.
The pain in her back had gotten worse. A lot worse. She found a patch of soft moss and slumped down on it, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt enough to make her scream. It was like someone was driving daggers into her spine and she clenched her hands in the dirt as she felt the dampness of tears around her eyes.
She put her head down on the ground and closed her eyes, trying to will her body to relax. Her cramped position as she crawled had caused the cramps, she was pretty sure, and she figured if she maybe rested a little it would go away again.
At least she hoped so. Gabrielle flexed her hands, grimacing at her scraped raw palms. The sun filtered through the trees and splashed across her. She squirmed a little into a patch of it, craving the warmth that soaked into her skin and seemed to make her tense muscles ease.
After a few minutes, she let her eyes drift open and she looked around as the pain faded back a little. The glade she was in was beautiful, a rich scene of every shade of green speckled with little yellow wildflowers.
Xena’s agitation had calmed, and Gabrielle felt a small measure of peace enter her as she watched two butterflies flitter around the flowers, reminding her of the long afternoons she and Xena had spent at home, in their little private glen near Amphipolis.
Xena had always gotten their first. Gabrielle knew that when she parted the thick leaves and walked the uneven steps down into the dell she’d find her partner already there, sometimes doing some light drills, sometimes hanging up side down from a tree, and sometimes just curled up in the grass waiting for her.
Today was no exception. Gabrielle shifted the bag she was carrying slung over one shoulder and ducked past the last branch, entering their hideout with a sense of utter pleasure at coming to the end of yet another busy day.
Xena was lying on her back , with her head pillowed on her folded cloak. She had her hands clasped across her stomach and she was looking up at the clouds with sleepy, half closed eyes. “Hey, sweetie.” Gabirelle greeted her. “Gorgeous day, huh?”
Xena tilted her head and lifted a hand, waggling it.
Gabrielle walked over and sat down next to her, putting her bag down and leaning an elbow on her partner’s raised knee. “What’s wrong?”
“My last nerve hurts.” Xena answered, eyeing her grumpily.
“Ah. Been talking to the council again, huh?” Gabrielle opened her bag, and removed a packet, along with a bottle. “Xe, they don’t’ mean to be stubborn and obstructionist, they just…”
“Drive me nuts.” Xena growled.
“Well.” Gabrielle pulled the cork on the bottle and poured some of the contents into one of two wooden cups she’d brought. She put one down near her knee, and handed the other to her partner. “I used to drive you nuts once upon a time, too.”
One blue eye fastened on her. “I’m not in love with the council.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “You weren’t in love with me then.”
Xena eased herself up onto an elbow and sipped the wine in her cup. “Oh yeah? How do you know?”
The bard leaned harder on her partner’s knee. “Xena.”
The warrior rolled onto her side and curled her legs around Gabrielle, making a living hummock for her to relax in. She smiled when the bard took advantage of it and they drank together in silence for a little while.
“The harvest festival’s really looking like it’s going to be very successful.” Gabrielle finally spoke. “They… the elders came and asked if it was all right if they sent out runners about it.”
Xena’s eyebrow lifted. “They needed your okay for *that*?”
The green eyes twinkled soberly. “Well, not really, but they’re telling everyone I’m going to perform so…” Her nose wrinkled into a look of mild bemusement. “You know, I’m still not used to that.”
“I know.” Xena grinned. “Decided what to do yet?”
“Not yet.” Gabrielle admitted. “I may try to think up something new.” She draped her arm over Xena’s hip and stretched her legs out. “Maybe something incredible with you in the middle of it.”
“Us.” Xena reached over and tickled her navel.
“Us.” Gabrielle repeated, putting her head down on her arm, and giving her partner a deeply affectionate look.
Xena toyed with a bit of pine cone. “I was.”
“Hm?” The bard swallowed a mouthful of sweet wine. “You were what?”
The pale blue eyes looked up and her, rich with shadows. “In love with you. I just refused to let myself believe it.” Xena said, with a tiny, wry smile.
“Oh.” Gabrielle said, nibbling her lower lip. “I guess the council’s out of luck then, huh?”
Their laughter melded and filled the glade.
Gabrielle enjoyed the memory, and her soulmate’s unexpected admission. She hadn’t had that problem – she’ d known she was in love with Xena almost from the start, but her youthful uncertainty in herself had lead her to believe Xena didn’t look at her as anything but first, a responsibility and later a friend.
“Okay, enough daydreaming.” She stretched her body out very carefully, relieved that most of the cramping pain had faded. Rolling onto her belly she got her hands and then her knees under her and got up slowly, using her staff to manage to get upright.
She felt unbalanced. Gabrielle curled her hands around her staff, glad of it’s sturdy support as she took a tentative step. Her back felt like it was just on the verge of spasming, but as she continued to take cautious steps, it seemed to stabilize and she found she could walk with relative comfort.
“All right. No more wild acrobatics for me.” Gabrielle could see a path through the trees ahead and she followed it, noting the slight incline. She’d crossed the bottom of the valley and was now starting towards the towering cliffs on the other side, towards where she could also hear the thunder of another waterfall.
Her pace was slow, and it gave her time to study her surroundings. An odd look to a tree trunk caught her eye and she walked closer, touching a ridge on it that was worn and bare. A foothold? She tipped her head back and looked up, spotting a shadowy outline of a platform high up past the tree’s first branching. It was moss covered, and appeared to be wood.
Very much like a watch post in the land of the Amazons, in fact. Gabrielle judged the height of the foothold, and decided it belonged to the forest dwellers. As far as she could tell, though, it was empty so she moved on, spying some thing else in the brush far more welcome.
Blackberries. Gabrielle gently took hold of a bunch and twisted them off, fingering the large, juicy looking fruits with a wry grin. She selected one and ate it, then gripped her staff and moved on, munching as she made her way up the gentle incline. “Okay, Xena. Where are you? Don’t make me walk all the way up the mountain again looking for you, huh?”
She could hear the echo of her words on the wind, and not much more.
Xena grabbed a passing branch and let the water’s pressure take her under it and up onto a soft, sandy bank on the outside curve of the river. She curled up against the shelter of the fallen tree and leaned her head against it, the drug preventing her body from being able to throw off the water’s chill.
She was shivering uncontrollably and after a few minutes in the sun when that didn’t stop, Xena knew she had to do something about it. With a groan, she lifted her head and peered around, then she forced herself to her feet and trudged towards a small stand of trees nearby.
Slipping between them, she felt a sense of relief not only to be out of view, but because the sturdy trunks blocked the wind. She sat down in the middle of the little cluster and spread her legs out, leaning her back against the nearest trunk and wondering how long it would take for the herbs to wear off.
She closed her eyes, then opened them again as her teeth started to chatter. “Sssstop thhhat.” She growled to herself, irritated at her lack of control. Xena glanced behind her, then she lifted her fist and slammed it backwards into the tree trunk, allowing the shock of the pain to cut through the drug’s somnolence.
It made headway. Xena slammed her hand into the tree again, in the same spot. This time the pain was much sharper, and the adrenaline surged through her, clearing her mind. “That’s better.” The warrior examined her hand, which was bleeding from a gouge just behind her knuckles. “Ow.”
With a frown, she sucked it, cleaning the blood off and letting the copper tang work to rev up her senses. The shivers started to slack off, and now that her mind was clearer, she got up and drew her sword, going to the center of the small space and turning in a circle with the blade extended.
The tip just cleared the trees, but it was enough. Xena started a series of basic routines, moving in the tight space with patient precision. At first the drug blurred her reactions, but as she warmed up and her body pumped blood through her muscles, the shivering faded and a flush of heat went all the way out to her fingers and toes.
After a while if it, she slowed her motions, and paused, sheathing her sword with a satisfied snicking sound. “Much better.” She glanced down at herself, shook her head, then removed her overtunic and wrung it out between her hands, watching the stream of river water patter against the leaves.
Satisfied at last it was as dry as it was going to get, she put it back on and retied the belt, snugging it close to her body. Then she leaned on one of the trees, and considered her next move. She figured her water trick had bought her a little time, but she also knew that the forest dwellers knew where she was going, and they’d be waiting for her.
Another bout with the darts wasn’t in her battle plans. Xena examined the rugged ridge in front of her, which was mostly granite outcroppings. Remembering her experience with the stone during her last visit in these parts, she was pretty sure she didn’t want to try and scale the ridge.
However. Xena studied her other options. She wasn’t sure she had a choice. She decided to make her way to the foot of the ridge by following the river on this side of the bank, keeping near the trees. As she eased out from her hiding spot, and walked towards the water it occurred to her that it had been quite a while since she’d been completely on her own like this.
Usually, Gabrielle would be at her side, and she’d learned to automatically adjust her plans to take that into consideration. If the bard had been here now, climbing the ridge would not have even been an option, for instance.
With a smile, Xena remembered the last time she’d made a climb like the one possibly facing her. Damn, that was a long time ago. She mused, thinking how much more… well, innocent wasn’t a word she could apply to herself, but how much less complex her world had been back then.
How much less complex their relationship had been. She nodded silently as she walked. Gabrielle had still seen her through eyes that hadn’t seen Dahok. Hadn’t seen Hope. Hadn’t seen the betrayal between them. She spared a wistful thought for the past, but her conscience wouldn’t let it rest.
Be real, Xena. You were never really comfortable with her thinking you were a hero, were you? The warrior passed and concentrated, listening for the least bit of sound out of place. After a moment, she continued walking. You were always wondering when the other boot would drop, and she’d see you for what you really were, and it would be over.
It was true. But Xena had been wrong, both about herself and about Gabrielle. She was capable of worse than she’d ever imagined, and Gabrielle…. Gabrielle was capable of seeing through that and loving her anyway, as well as revealing a dark side of her own that put them both on a more equal footing.
So. Xena winced as her wet leathers scraped against her body. They say, what doesn’t kill ya, makes you stronger. They’re right. It did. She probed at the quiescent connection between her and the bard, relieved to feel only a steady sense of purpose coming at her. Keep coming, baby. Keep coming.
The river rapids were getting more vicious, and Xena looked out over them with a frown. She knew the mountain rose up in front of her, so what was causing the rapids? Usually she’d expect them before a waterfall, or running through a gorge. Here, she saw neither.
Where was the water going?
She barely had time to react, her body turning and her hand reaching for a weapon as two furry bodies came barreling at her, with sharpened sticks in their hands.
She could see the tips covered in poison.
Without a second thought, Xena turned and leaped over the nearest, then landed and shoved off again into space, arcing her body out over the water and plunging back into it’s chilly depths.
Guess I’ll find out what’s causing the rapids She looked behind her, shocked to find the forest dwellers leaping in after her. They held their sticks in their jaws, and swam towards her with a look of stony intent in their eyes.
Shoving her sword back in it’s sheath, Xena turned and started swimming, steering her body between the rocks as she went for the fastest part of the current. It picked her up and flung her forward, taking her out of her pursuers reach. She grabbed a floating limb and broke it off, then used it as a prow, guiding her way through the rapids.
The river banked slightly, and she turned with it, spotting two more forest dwellers waiting near the bank. As she watched, they fit their sticks into slings, and aimed, waiting for her to pass. She ducked under the water as she came even with them, and felt the touch of one of the sticks as it bounced harmlessly off her shoulder.
She surfaced and shook the hair out of her eyes, looking behind her to see two frustrated faces on the bank, and as she turned all the way around in the water, saw two more still struggling to catch up to her.
Xena was getting annoyed. She decided to wait for the next possible moment, and get out of the river. If the forest dwellers wanted a hunt, well, then she’d give it to them, only she’d be the hunter. She was tired of running.
Having made up her mind, she rolled in the water and started looking for a way out. The rapids were getting very unruly, and she was having trouble keeping her head up and out of them. She ducked under for a moment, and got a noseful of water, surging back up and letting out an aggravated snort.
A yell caught her attention, and she turned her head, blinking water out of her eyes. The two forest dwellers on the shore were racing along the banks, carrying thick vines. At first she thought they were coming after her, then she saw them hurling the vines to the two in the water chasing her.
The two caught them, but the water’s power combined with their weight caused an unexpected result. The two in the water held on desperately, and when they got to the end of the vine, the rope went taut and pulled the two on the bank into the water.
They yelled in panic, and tried to grab debris along the bank. One of them got a grip on a limb, but it broke off and they all went tumbling along in the frothing surf.
Oh Great. Xena almost laughed. Just what I needed. She turned and just barely evaded a huge boulder, sweeping around it and letting the current take her around another bend.
Then she saw what was causing the rapids, and she understood why the forest dwellers were trying to get out of the river.
Her heart came up into her throat as she stared at the onrushing river’s plunge into solid rock, the stream disappearing completely beneath the earth with a thunderous roar.
They were all trapped.
There was no way out.
Xena didn’t even have time to react before the river grabbed her and wrestled her into it’s clutches, taking her down and pulling her under into the darkness.
Gabrielle was climbing carefully up and over a rock carapace when it hit her. She dropped to her knees and let her staff drop, her hands clutching at her chest as she felt a wave of frantic fear and anguish wash over her.
“Xena!!!” The name was ripped out of her throat. She could feel the panic rising, and knew if what she was feeling was coming from her partner, Xena was in real trouble. Breathing hard, she scrambled to her feet and grabbed her staff, ignoring the pain that shot through her as she set off at a run.
Xena just had time to suck down a large lungful of air when she was pulled under and everything around her went dark. She felt something solid approaching and squirmed around, fending her body off from the wall just in time to prevent being knocked senseless by it.
It was chaos, and she was blind. She flipped around so that she was moving feet forward, figuring a broken leg was better than a broken skull, and wondered how long she’d last before her air ran out.
Her heart lurched, thinking of what Gabrielle must be feeling, sensing, on the other side of the mountain.
Then she didn’t have time to think of anything else, as the raging current slammed her against the rocks, battering her back and forth between the sides of the crevasse she was in before she shot forward again.
Her air was running out. She could feel the incredible impulse to breathe overtaking her and she struggled to push it back down, to give herself just a little more time.
To give them, a little more time. But the water seemed endless, and she smacked her head against the rocks. The shock made her half inhale, and water went down her lungs, and she knew she was losing it.
She focused down tight, and reached out, just a single, gentle caress that carried behind it all the force of the love she felt for her partner.
And then, the rock narrowed around her and she was propelled through a ring of rock. With shocking suddenness she found herself hurtling through air, instead of water, as the falls dropped out from under her into a huge cavern.
She barely had time to cough, and get a breath of air, before she was plummeting into the pool below, flat on her back. The water closed over her again, but she managed to turn and get her feet down before she hit bottom with a jarring jolt. She pushed off and broke through the surface again, finding herself still being swept along by the heedless river. It was pitch black, save a faint glow from the ceiling of the cave but she could just make out a finger of rock jutting out and with a fierce lunge, she flung herself from the water and grabbed hold of it.
For a moment, she just hung there, then she pulled herself up and sat on it, straddling the rock and coughing the water out of her lungs.
She heard a cry, and looked up. In the dim, greenish light she spotted a dark body flying through the water as she had, and then another.
They swept towards her. Xena glanced towards the dark hole the underground river rushed into, submerging once again into the rock. The bastards had been trying their best to kill her, and Xena felt no sympathy for them at all.
So when she found herself flipping her leg over the rock and hanging upside down, with her hands reaching for the first of them, no one was more surprised than she was.
She gripped onto the fur of the first forest dweller and heaved, flinging him halfway out of the water and onto the low slope under her. He grabbed at the rocks frantically and got a grip. Xena released him and caught the second, almost losing her perch as he twisted and tried to hold onto her.
“Stop it!” Xena bellowed, yanking herself free and shoving him towards his mate. She looked towards the falls, but didn’t see any further dark bodies, and presumed the other two forest dwellers had managed to get themselves out in time.
She reached up and pulled herself back up to a seated position on her rock. Below her, the two forest dwellers gasped and coughed. Xena looked at the falls, then she turned and looked at the crack in the rock the water disappeared into.
It struck her that all she’d done is postpone the inevitable. There was no way to fight that current going out, and she suspected diving in and chancing the crevice was a death sentence. So now she was trapped in this cave, in the dark, with two forest dwellers who wanted to kill her.
Xena sighed. Just wasn’t her day. But on the bright side, she was still alive, and as long as that was true, maybe she could find a way to stay that way.
Gabrielle stumbled, and almost fell as the panic almost took her over and she stopped and leaned against a tree, one hand reaching out as though she could touch the partner whose distress she felt as if it were her own. “Xe…” She whispered, feeling a ghostly touch on her cheek that wrung a cry from her throat almost ripping it raw. “Nnoooo….”
Then as though her prayer had been listened to, the fear faded, replaced with anxiety and relief.
Gabrielle pressed her cheek against the rough bark, as her legs threatened to collapse under her. Her heart was beating so fast, she couldn’t count the thumps and she felt sick to her stomach. The stress of not knowing what was happening to Xena overtook her, and she started to cry, sobs jerking her chest as she clutched at the trees’ support.
After a few minutes, she regained control and opened her eyes, blinking the tears from them as she took a shaky breath. She gave herself a little more time to recover, then she wearily pushed away from the tree and exhaled, rubbing her face with one hand and running her fingers through her hair.
One thing occurred to her, as she went to retrieve her staff. She’d had a half formed idea of taking Dori with her to find Xena, and now she was extremely glad she’d decided to leave her rambunctious offspring in the village. Having Dori’s restless curiosity to deal with right now would have been just about too much.
“Xena… when I catch up with you, I’m gonna… I’m gonna…” Gabrielle gave up, and just started walking again, her injuries almost forgotten in her anxiety for her soulmate. “You’re in such trouble, you know that? Boy, when I get a hold of you….”
Gabrielle picked her way over a patch of bluebells, careful not to crush them. “When I get a hold of you, I’m never going to let go.” She finished her sentence with wistful self knowledge. “So you better just settle down and stop scaring the sheep poo out of me, okay?”
She rounded a small bend in the path, and started up another incline. The sound of the waterfall was getting closer, and she paused to listen to it, before she continued on. She climbed up a short slope and maneuvered between two trees, ending up in another small dell.
Where she had to stop, because she was suddenly surrounded by forest dwellers. They were all naked, and there were mats and gnarls in their coats she’d never seen in any of Jessan’s people before. They stood in silence watching her, and she leaned her weight on her staff, looking back at them.
They showed their claws, sharpened tips glinting in the sunlight, and bared their fangs.
“Hello.” Gabrielle decided to break the ice. “My name is Gabrielle.” She cocked her head, and waited, letting her eyes wander from one to the other in gentle curiosity. This wasn’t apparently the reaction the forest dwellers were hoping for by their fierce display, and they shifted, turning their eyes to the biggest of them, a male with a pale yellow coat.
“You are not welcome here.” The male stated. “This is a place sacred to our kind.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I know.” She looked around. “I don’t blame you. It’s very beautiful. I’ve been a lot of places, but this is one of the nicest I’ve seen.”
The male frowned, his muzzle wrinkling. “You must leave.”
Gabrielle returned her attention to him. “Well, I can’t.” She said. “I’m looking for someone.”
“You have come for Xena.”
The bard nodded. “That’s right.”
“She has shed blood in this valley. She will never leave it.”
Gabrielle digested this. “Then I guess I won’t either.” She said, meeting the forest dweller’s eyes evenly. “But you knew that. You know what we are to each other.”
“This place is sacred.”
“Xena is sacred to me.” Gabrielle answered flatly.
The male walked towards her, watching her warily. “We will take you to the cliff, and out of our land.” He said. “You have done us no violence.”
The bard debated, then made her choice. She shifted her weight off her staff and whipped her body very unexpectedly around, catching the forest dweller across the side of his head with the end of her weapon, a solid hit that sent a crack echoing through the dell.
The forest dweller stumbled back, batting at his head in surprise as he stared at her.
“Now I have.” Gabrielle resumed her stance, trying not to grimace at the cramping the motion had cost her. “And I’m betting if Xena hurt any of you, it was because you tried to hurt her first. If you attacked her, knowing who she is, then you should have known what you were asking for.”
The forest dweller growled, and rushed at her.
Gabrielle remained stock still, standing her ground and meeting his eyes squarely. “Sure, go ahead. Prove to me that your kind is just as ugly, and lacking in honor as mine is.”
The male stopped.
“I already had a demonstration of that, back at the cliff. Go on. Give me another.” The bard went on, her voice strengthening. “Or get out of my way, and let me go find my partner.”
“She killed four of us.”
Gabrielle had felt it. “Did you attack her?”
“That is not the..”
“DID YOU?” The bard barked. “Because she didn’t come here for that. She came to find out who attacked our friends, to try and understand why.”
“She..” The male paused. “We were only trying to scare her off.”
Gabrielle felt very tired. “Are you really that dumb?” She asked.
The forest dwellers didn’t like that. They muttered to each other in low voices.
“Did you even try to talk to her?” Gabrielle asked. “How would you feel if I had just come upon you and started hitting you. What would you do? You would fight back, right?”
The male rubbed the side of his head and scowled at her.
“Xena is a warrior. Just like you are.” Gabrielle gentled her voice. “She’s been fighting all her life. When someone attacks her, she defends herself, and sometimes that means people get hurt. Or they die.”
“She is not like us.”
“Isn’t she?” The bard asked softly. “Isn’t she really what you want to be?”
“Human?” The forest dweller barked in derision.
“No.” Gabrielle gazed steadily at him. “Ares’ Chosen.”
That brought a tense silence. Gabrielle straightened and picked her path, walking forward past the big male and heading for the edge of the circle. She could feel the nape hairs on her neck prickling, and she knew the risk of what she was doing.
But the fact was, to get to Xena, this was the way she had to go. They would either stop her, or they wouldn’t. She hoped they wouldn’t – she knew she couldn’t fight them even if she hadn’t been hurt.
It was a risk she had to take. She had to find Xena. They had to get out of this valley. She’d promised Dori she’d be back, and she’d bring her daughter’s beloved Boo back with her.
She just had to.