Xena climbed down from the ledge she’d perched on and started a slow exploration of the cave. The roof was covered with the same greenish lichen as the forest dweller’s cave had been, giving her just enough light to see something, but not enough for it to be clearly visible.
It was cold inside the cave, and her drenched clothing clung to her lending a chill to an already considerable discomfort. Her boots squelched as she walked across the rocks and she could feel her leather armor chafing in several places.
It was annoying. Xena found it eroding her already shortened temper, and she paused to glare at the forest dwellers who stirred at her approach. She put her hands on her hips and faced them. “Don’t you even think about it.”
They stopped moving.
“Lift one claw towards me and I’ll cut it off.” Xena said. “Got me?” She could just barely see the glowering expressions on their faces, but their eyes dropped, and she took that as answer enough. Turning, she edged her way along the beach, the shattered granite pieces crunching under her boots.
The clear space was perhaps four bodylengths long, and curved like almost any beach she’d ever seen. Rising from it was a thick ledge of rock, which tapered out to the outcropping she’d pulled herself out of the water with. Xena tipped her head back and reached up, feeling the top of the ridge with her hand. She crouched, then leaped and got a handhold, hauling herself up onto the ledge.
It was fairly broad, with an even surface that sloped gently upward as she walked along it towards the cavern wall. Xena put a hand out and touched the stone, feeling the cold dampness under her fingertips. It smelled of water, and moss, and though she carefully felt the rocks she didn’t encounter any breaks. The wall was solid all along the curve and she realized their little haven was indeed a prison instead.
At the end of the ledge, the walls dropped down into the water. There were no crevices, no corners to turn. The small spit of land was all they had. Xena turned around and surveyed the rushing water. “Well.” She exhaled. “At least we won’t die of thirst.”
The two forest dwellers had been examining the waterline. They turned and looked up at her as she took a seat on the ledge. For a short while, they stared at each other through the gloom, then the two of them went back to carefully feeling out the slick rocks.
Xena let her hands rest on her thighs and considered her options. The roar of the water was muted in here, more of a gurgling rush, but it paid testament to the power of the flow that passed through the cavern. Strong a swimmer as she was, there was no chance of her going against it. Slowly she turned her head to the inner wall. The water filled the tunnel completely, with no indication at all as to how far it went below. It could open up into another cave, or, as was more likely, continue on as an underground river until it found another outlet somewhere.
So she could jump in and maybe get lucky enough to end up in someplace even darker and more hopeless than this, or she could jump in and have her body surface someplace on the other side of the mountains to become a snack for a prowling bear.
Xena gazed straight ahead of her, trying not to feel the gut wrench of despair that threatened her at the edge of her senses. Feeling that, succumbing to it, would go straight through her bond to Gabrielle and the last thing she wanted to do was… Xena stopped in mid thought. Gods. A small voice inside her head spoke. If this is it, I won’t even be able to say good bye to her.
For an instant her breathing caught, then she grabbed control of herself with a fierce intensity, forcing the desolate thoughts out before they could hit her in the gut.
“This is all your fault.”
The accusation was bizarrely welcome. “My fault?” Xena repeated, in a husky voice.
“Your fault. If you had not come here, this would not have happened.”
The warrior slowly lifted her head, to see the larger of the two forest dwellers facing her. “All right. It’s my fault.” Xena said. “I forced you to attack me without provocation, try to kill me, kidnap me, try to bury me under a rockpile, and then try to drown me.” She said. “My fault. No problem.”
“You lead us in here.”
“I should have just let you drown.” The warrior informed them. “More space for me.”
The forest dweller glowered at her. “This is a death trap.”
Xena looked around at the interior of the cavern again. “Yeah, I know.” She exhaled. “Dying wasn’t exactly in my plans today.”
“Your dying was in our plans.” The other forest dweller said. “We were going to nail parts of you to a half a dozen trees, after we pulled you apart and listened to you scream.”
Xena looked at him. “You and what army?” She scoffed. “You jumped me six times, and I killed what… eight of you? What makes you think you wouldn’t have been the ones to die?” She jumped off the ledge and undid her belt, setting her sword down in it’s sheath and ignoring them as she walked to the edge of the water and removed her overtunic. She squeezed the fabric between her hands and watched the trickle that resulted hit the stream’s surface. “It would take more than a pack of half witted fuzzballs to kill me.”
The larger of the two snorted. “Because you think you’re Ares Chosen?” He mocked her.
“No.” Xena resisted the urge to whack him on the side of the head with her sword. “Because I have a family I need to get home to.” She put her overtunic back on and belted it, then restored her sheath to her back. Her eyes began another, stubborn study of the dark chamber.
“We will laugh at your dying then, and enjoy the thought of the misery of your family.” The smaller one said. “If we have to die as well, that at least will be good to see first.”
Xena turned from the water and stared at him, the faint green light flickering off her pale blue eyes. “You won’t.” She uttered. “I’ll stay alive as long as I can, and if that means I use you as food, I will.”
His eyes widened.
“Not that in touch with your wild side?” The warrior taunted hm. “Pathetic.”
He bared his fangs at her. “Eating you would only give me a stomachache.”
Xena smiled at him. “I suggest you cut the bacchae dung out.” She resumed her patient search, watching the patterns in the moss as they traveled unevenly over the roof of the cavern. Midway over the stream, they separated and swirled, making an irregular circle around a dark patch. She walked around to the ledge again and leaped up onto it, getting as close to the ceiling as she dared. “Or I won’t take you out of here with me.”
“There is no way out, human.” The forest dweller snorted.
“Have it your way, fuzzbutt.” The warrior stretched upward precariously. It was still just a dark patch. Xena sat down on the ledge, and circled her upraised knee with one arm. She drew in a breath, held it, then released it. She drew in another, and carefully tasted it on the back of her tongue. It held the smell of wet fur, the sweetness of the water, and the bitter tang of the granite on it. But if she concentrated very hard, she could almost detect something else.
Grass, and the barest hint of decay.
Now how, Xena wondered, would the smell of grass be getting in here? More importantly, was it getting in somehow that she could use to get out? Looking around her, Xena acknowledged that the chances were slim, and that she was probably just lying to herself. But given the options of that, or sitting on the damn rocks waiting to die, she’d take self delusion and at least it would give her something else to think about.
Something else other than Gabrielle, on the other side of that mountain, heading towards her along a path that could only end in disappointment.
What would Gabrielle think when she saw the hole in the rock Xena had disappeared into?
Xena slammed a halt on the image again, and got up. She wouldn’t give up on her, that was one thing for sure. “Grass.” She spoke aloud, pacing back and forth, ignoring the two forest dwellers. “Where are you, hmm?” She peered up at the dark patch, then stooped and scooped up a handful of shale. With a sidearmed motion, she sent a piece towards the ceiling, hearing the solid ping as it hit.
“And she calls us half witted.” The bigger forest dweller muttered.
Ping. Xena adjusted her aim. Ping. She adjusted again.
Nothing. Then a far off snick. Ah. Blue eyes fastened on the gap, far above her head completely out of reach. She took a deep breath. It’s just a mountain, Xena.
Just a mountain.
Gabrielle stopped to take a drink, and wipe the sweat from her brow. The air was cold, but she was fighting against her stiffening injuries and the way was becoming tougher and tougher.
It didn’t help that she had a silent shadow behind her, making her shoulder blades itch. The forest dwellers hadn’t stopped her, but that didn’t mean they weren’t going to, and the stress combined with her mounting pain and the worry in her guts was becoming difficult to bear.
Xena was in trouble. She knew it in her guts. There was no sharp anguish coming down their link, but at a deeper level, with some synergy they’d always had between them, she could feel the weight of whatever was happening laying on her soulmate’s strong shoulders.
Xena had never been able to hide that from her, not after they became intimate again. It was as though the lowering of that barrier exposed an intimacy of another kind. She knew when something was bothering her partner, and Xena knew when something was bothering her, and maybe because not paying attention to those feelings almost destroyed them the last time, neither of them ignored it now.
“Do you know where you’re going?” The forest dweller spoke up for the first time. He was a male, tall and broad shouldered, with auburn fur and light golden eyes.
“Yes.” Gabrielle came to a fork in the path and took the upper one, leaning on her staff as a jolt of pain coursed up her back.
“We will follow you to Xena, and then we will kill you both.”
“Fine.” The bard replied shortly. “I guess that means you don’t know where she is, right? Aren’t you people supposed to be super trackers?” Leading the forest dwellers to where Xena wasn’t didn’t really worry her – there weren’t that many of them and she had every confidence that between her temper today and Xena’s battle skills they could handle the lot of them.
“We know where she is.” The forest dweller told her.
Gabrielle edged around a boulder in the path, and continued up. Walking up the slope put pressure on her back, and the pain was starting to move down her shoulders. “Then why are you following me?” She asked. “Why not just go there.”
“Perhaps we have our reasons.”
“Perhaps you’re lying through your fangs, and you have no clue where she is.” Gabrielle retorted. “I hope she kicks your butt when we get to her, let me tell you that.”
“We will kill you.”
The dialog was getting really boring. Gabrielle stifled a few choice statements, and decided on a different tack. “Why?” Why was a strategy she’d used early on with Xena, after she got tired of the warrior’s gruff, often dogmatic pronouncements.
“What?” The forest dweller had drawn closer, and now he was walking just behind her, with the rest of them spread out behind. “What do you mean?”
“I said, why?” The bard repeated. “Why do you want to kill us?”
“You entered our sacred place.”
“So?” Gabrielle glanced at him.
The forest dweller looked at her as though she was missing something. “Humans are not allowed here.” He repeated slowly. “It is forbidden.”
“Why?” At least the discussion was taking her mind off her difficulties.
“That’s what I asked.” Gabrielle said. “I mean, not that it’s not pretty here, understand? I think it’s just one of the nicest places I’ve ever seen, but it’s rocks and trees and a lot of water, you know?”
“This place is a very sacred place for our people.”
“Yes, you said that, but why is it sacred?” The bard asked. “I know where your people came from, and it wasn’t a cave. Is this where Ares and Aphrodite fought over you?”
The forest dweller was silent for a few steps. “No…” He finally said. “This is where we are one with the land.” One long arm lifted, and indcated the forest around them. “This place… is where our soul lives. It’s where we can return to the core of what makes us what we are.”
Gabrielle digested that. “Okay.” She replied. “But why would you have to kill me… or kill Xena, for that matter, for being here? We’re not here to mess with this place.”
“Humans destroy all.” The forest dweller said. “You ruin the land, and kill it’s spirit.”
Was that true? Gabrielle considered the thought. “You mean because we plant and harvest from it, and put homes on top of it?”
“Yes.” Her companion said. “And you have taught those of us who have strayed to do the same. That is what we seek to change. Your influence.”
“My influence?” Gabrielle asked. “Boy, that’s the first time been accused of shaping a whole civilization. Wow.”
“Your people’s influence.” The forest dweller conceded. “You are insignificant.”
A pair of pale eyebrows cocked upward, as Gabrielle eyed him. “Okay, then why do you have to kill me, if I’m insignificant.” She lifted a hand and pointed at him. “Don’t tell me it’s because I entered your valley. I’m not here to steal it.”
The forest dweller scowled at her.
“What’s your name?” Gabrielle asked.
“Bird.” He answered, grudgingly. “You must die because many of those who have lost the way listen to you.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle grunted. “But I thought you said I was insignificant.” She leaned forward a little, wincing at the ache in her thighs. “Which is it, Bird?”
Bird scowled at her again.
Gabrielle smiled to herself, and kept on climbing.
Xena swung her legs against the ledge, racking her brains to come up with a plan. Any kind of plan. She’d guessed that the dark spot over her head was an open space, but it was so far above her that even if she could, by exerting every ounce of her ability, to leap that high there was no guarantee she’d find anything to grab onto.
Falling into the current meant a very probable death. Not an option.
She’d examined the cavern walls, looking for handholds to climb up and across the ceiling with. But exposure to the ever present water that ran down the walls as well as poured into the opening had rendered the granite smooth and slick, beyond even her skills at scaling.
So. Xena studied the toes of her boots. Now what? She decided to take stock of what she had with her, and unstrapped the oiled leather pouch from her waist and opened it. Inside, she found a wrapped packet that smelled vaguely nutty and discovered an only slightly soggy trail bar inside. The parchment wrapping had kept it from completely disintegrating, and she gladly took a piece and munched on it.
Her flint and striker were inside, completely useless in her current circumstances. She set them aside and investigated further. A short knife, her favorite, with a bone handle carved to fit her hand, one of Argo’s cheekpieces that needed fixing, and several rocks.
Xena peered at one of them, which was wrapped in something, and found a prickle of surprise lift the hairs on her neck. Carefully, she untied the string and opened the parchment, bringing it very close to her face to see what was on it.
The words, blurred by the water and in the dim green light were very hard to make out.
Hey! Bet you didn’t think you’d find one of these in here, did you! I was sitting on a rock this morning watching you swim with Dori, and a crazy bird flew past and dropped this rock on my lap. I figured it was a sign from the gods that I need to weigh down your pouch with more rocks, so here it is.
I was just thinking that these last few weeks have been about the most wonderful time I’ve had in a really long time. I always knew traveling with you was something I loved to do, but being all alone out here, just us and Dori has given me so much joy I can’t even tell you.
Or I guess I can tell you, because I am, right?
Hope you’re having as good a time as I am, sweetheart. I wouldn’t trade a second of our time out here for anything.
Xena lowered the parchment for a moment, rubbing her fingers over it very lightly as she stared off into nothingness. It occurred to her before she could block it off that this might be the last words of her partner’s she’d ever see.
Her lips tightened into a thin line. She let the ache fade, and was glad the words had at least been happy ones. Glad too, that she’d taken a moment that morning just to cuddle with Gabrielle before she’d left, in the dim light of pre dawn when the bard’s low chuckle of pleasure was more a vibration against her skin than a sound.
A brief moment of indulging in the sweetness of their love, a moment of peace, when she’d run her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair and felt the bard’s arms slip around her in a heartfelt hug.
She could still feel it, and in this dark cold place it brought her an unexpected comfort she wasn’t stupid enough to ignore.
But, she had things to worry about, so she carefully folded the parchment and placed it between her flint and striker, tying the string around them tightly to protect the little scrap. Then she picked up the trail bar and finished it, wiping the crumbs from her thighs as she returned her attention to her predicament.
She was alive. That was the important fact. As long as she was, she had a chance of finding a way out, and if the worst eventuality came, and she hadn’t – well, there was always that second hole to dive into. She’d save that for a very last resort though.
Xena put her belt pouch back onto her belt and stood up, stepping off the ledge and landing on the beach with a light hop. She ignored the two forest dwellers seated next to each other and went to the waterline, kneeling next to it and cupping a double handful to drink.
“We should kill you now.”
“You should shut up before I toss you in.” Xena replied, not even glancing at them. She took another mouthful of water and swallowed it, then she stood up. The racing water licked at her boots, flowing over the edge of the beach, but mostly keeping to the deeper channel it had carved itself over the years.
Across the channel, she could barely see another slope, and a jagged ledge. She judged the distance, then turned and jumped up onto the rock shelf in back of her, taking two steps back and flexing her body.
“What are you doing?” The smaller forest dweller asked.
“Going over there.” Xena replied, setting her body in motion and bounding to the edge of the rock, crouching and kicking off into the air over the rushing current. Midway across, she curled her body into a flip, then landed it neatly on the opposite shore. “I hate the stench of wet fur.”
“You’re just scared of us.”
Xena didn’t even deign to laugh. She explored the other side of the cavern, climbing up onto the jagged outcropping that leaned over the current near where it plunged under the mountain again. Sprawling at full length, she examined the opening, reaching a hand out to touch the edge. A bit of the rock crumbled under her touch, the fragments swept quickly away by the rush of the water.
She cocked her head, and leaned close, listening with all the concentration she could muster. The spray of the water coated her with dampness, but she focused on the sound, searching for a thunder that might indicate a fall into another cavern.
But it gave up no thunder.
Xena rested her chin on the rock. Then she turned her head and regarded the outside opening. Getting up, she crossed back on her side of the chasm, climbing up the precarious slope towards the gaping hole. Experimentally, she stuck her hand in the flow and almost had her shoulder wrenched out of place.
The forest dwellers laughed.
Xena backed off, and turned her head, spotting a small boulder nearby. She climbed over to it and picked it up, grimacing as the weight strained her muscles. Catching her balance, she moved back to the edge of the water and heaved the rock in, observing it’s fate intently.
The rapid flow grabbed it and despite it’s weight carried it along for a short space. Then the boulder sank under the surface, and her ears just caught a low thunk as it struck the bottom of the channel.
Well, that wasn’t helpful. She’d hoped to send the rock through the lower hole and listen for it’s landing. With a frown, she looked around for another victim. Near the far wall was a likely candidate, and she walked over to it and laid a hand on it’s surface. She tugged on it, then jerked back as the ledge of rock above it shifted when it did.
The forest dwellers laughed again. Xena picked up a piece of slate and turned, whipping it across the channel with a vicious side motion. It struck the taller of the two, and he stumbled back. “I don’t see you doing anything to get out of here, so why not just shut up?”
“Bitch.” The forest dweller picked up the rock and threw it back at her.
Xena ducked it easily, and then went back to her boulder. She examined the ledge, finding a long, wide crack that went straight up the wall. A rock hit the stone next to her, then a second, and she looked over to see the two fuzzy jerks pelting her with everything they could get their claws on.
Damn it. Xena dodged a flurry of them, then put her hand son the ledge and pressed her body up onto it, getting to her feet just as she realized what a bad idea that was. The rock shifted under her and she kept her balance with difficulty, taking two steps forward and jumping just as the entire shelf collapsed unexpectedly with a loud roar that overpowered the water’s thunder.
A spray went up, and the channel surged around the rocks half blocking it, sending a huge wave up onto the other side and fairly swamping the forest dwellers. They yelled and clung to anything they could get their claws into, trying to keep from being pulled back into the current.
Xena crouched behind a layer of debris, enjoying the sight. The water level stayed up, traveling over the new rocks, and every time the forest dwellers tried to scrabble out of it, a surge would suck them back in.
Serves em right. Xena chuckled nastily. Teach me to be nice.
The water surged back across near her, the new level now licking hungrily at the ledge and drowning the small beach. Xena jumped back, then climbed up onto the ledge, watching the water surge up onto the ledge and cover the tops of her boots.
She looked at the surface.
Then she tipped her dark head back and looked up.
Her eyes tracked around the cavern as she put her hands on her hips. An idea swirled into solid being in her mind, a chance filled with such risk it was hardly more viable than just leaping into the current would be.
She took a breath. But she’d need help. With a determined look, she raced for the edge of the rock and leaped outward, gaining the other side with a precarious slip of her boots on the mossy surface. Then she dove onto her belly and extended a hand to the floundering forest dweller nearest to her. “Hey!”
Golden eyes glared at her.
“Wanna live?” Xena extended her hand further. “Or die?”
The water roared past them, waiting for an answer.
Gabrielle felt her knees start to shake, and knew she had to stop and rest. She’d been walking uphill for a significant slice of the sun’s progress, and now she chose a convenient rock and settled down on it.
Bird and his friends halted, looking at her uncertainly.
The bard let her staff rest against her shoulder, and very slowly relaxed, wincing and leaning forward to rest her weight on her elbows as her back protested the position.
She let her bag drop to the ground, and rummaged into it, pulling out two wrapped packets. One held a thick pasty filled with minced rabbit and venison and the other two of Xena’s trail bars. She set the trail bars aside and took a bite of the pasty, propping her head up on one hand as she ate.
After a few awkward moments, the forest dwellers melted into the greenery, except for Bird. He settled down on the ground next to a tree and leaned against it. “I thought you were anxious to get to your friend.”
Gabrielle took another bite and chewed it, licking a bit of the juice off her lips before she answered. “I am.” She said. “But Xena wouldn’t appreciate it if I ended up not getting to her in one piece.”
Bird sniffed. “Humans are weak.” He said. “My kind would not have to rest.”
“Yeah, well.” The bard mumbled, around a mouthful. “I do better when I don’t start my day falling off a cliff.” Her rumbling stomach settled down a little as she finished the pasty, but she knew herself better and she picked up a trail bar next.
At home, it hadn’t been that bad. Mealtimes had been regular, and she tended to carry extra reserves when she was around Amphipolis, since the routine was just so different. But since she’d been traveling, she’d discovered all over again just how often she had to provide her body with fuel since all the walking had taken off any reserves she’d left home with.
It was a trade off, of course. She’d regained a lot of strength the last couple of moons and realized with a sense of pleasure that she could still walk all day long and not feel tired when they made camp at sundown.
She liked that. She found it also gave her more energy to deal with Dori’s antics, as well as enjoy Xena’s antics of an altogether other sort.
“You did not fall off a cliff.” Bird stated. “You would be dead.”
“Okay, you’re right.” Gabrielle agreed. “I didn’t fall off a cliff.”
“I jumped off.” The bard started on her second trail bar. “See, I had this amazing idea of getting a nice, long vine and climbing down it.”
“Well, you see, Xena was down here.” Gabrielle said. “I know she didn’t use a vine, she just jumped across the gap up near that ledge. But I can’t do that, so I had to improvise.” She chewed her bar. “So I got a vine, and I wedged it into the rocks, and I was good to go.”
Bird shifted, and circled one of his knees with both long, furry arms. “We wondered how you got here. Now we know. We can prevent anyone else from doing that.”
“How?” Gabrielle finished her lunch and took a swallow of water from her waterskin. “Cut all the trees down?”
“But anyway, I started to climb down and got into trouble.”
“I told you it was stupid. Vines break.”
Gabrielle put her waterskin away, and straightened slowly, using her staff to help her get to her feet. “Would have been fine, except one of your wonderful friends decided to try and kill me.” She exhaled, examining her possible routes. “He cut the vine, and hoped I’d fall to my death.”
“Too bad it didn’t work.” Bird commented.
Gabrielle looked at him. “Do you really feel that way?”
His amber eyes regarded her. “Yes.” He answered with surprising honesty. “I hate your kind, and I hate that you forced you way into this place I hold very sacred. I want to see you die. Yes.”
The bard leaned on her staff and gazed at the ground, deep in thought for a few minutes. Then she looked up at him again. “You know, I’ve never in my life killed anyone in anger.” She murmured quietly. “But I’ve risked death and injury, and the loss of those I hold most dear to my heart on behalf of people just like you.”
Bird looked warily at her.
Gabrielle turned and started walking off down the path, leaving him behind. “The first time I saw someone like you I didn’t know what to think.”
The forest dweller hastened to catch up to her. “You thought you saw an animal.”
The bard cast her mind back, to that warm day on a dusty road near to sunset. “No.” She replied. “We saw someone in pain. In trouble. Unable to save themselves from a mob who did see them as just an animal.” Her eyes focused on the trail, picking the easiest path to spare her body the jarring. The pain in her neck was beginning to extend down her back, making it difficult to turn her head. “Xena and I just saw someone who needed our help.”
Bird snorted. “A weakling. No true one of our kind would need help from the likes of you.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle murmured. “He tried to convince us of that as well, when he came to. Tried to scare us off, and intimidate us.” She glanced at Bird. “He was just as full of sheep poo as you are.”
“Hey!” The forest dweller glared at her. “I am not!”
“Sure you are.” Gabrielle turned unexpectedly, coming face to face with him. She stood in his path, and held her ground. “Maybe you follow Rufus, but you’re not like him.”
“Yes I am!”
Gabrielle pulled her skinning dagger out of her belt, and offered it to him. “Then kill me. Rufus wanted to. You said you’d like to see it.” Her chin lifted. “Do it.”
Bird stared at her. “I told you, I’m waiting for you to take me to Xena. Then I’ll kill you.”
The bard extended her hand. “No. This is your only chance. Xena will kill you before you could put a claw on me, and you know it’s true.” Her eyes gazed steadily at him. “You want me dead? Prove you’ve got the guts for it. Kill me.”
Slowly, he reached forward and took the knife, glancing down at it. An old, carefully wrapped hilt looked back at him, hawk’s head crest watching him with one onxy, beady eye. He closed his fingers over it and lifted his gaze.
Gabrielle stood waiting, quiet and steadfast. “You want to hurt Xena? Go ahead.” The bard spoke softly. “I’m her key. Kill me, and you’ll take her to pieces as you never could with a sword.”
Bird licked his lips, his hand flexing around the dagger. “You’re crazy.”
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I’m tired, and I’m hurt, and I’m not in the mood to put up with hearing you tell me how much you hate me any more. So go on, big guy. Do it. Prove you’re so much better than I am, and gut me.”
Bird stepped towards her, his face settling into stillness. He drew his arm back, and cocked his wrist, bringing the sharp blade up and even with Gabrielle’s chest.
The bard simply stood there waiting, looking him right in the eye. A small puff of air tousled the pale locks over her forehead, and stirred the fur wrapping on her staff. Xena, I hope I guessed right, my love. If I didn’t, forgive me.
Bird struck. He whipped his arm forward, aiming the knife right at Gabrielle’s heart.
Gabrielle stood like a stone, trusting in a judgement she’d once had gravely questioned.
At the very last possible instant the blade turned aside, skimming up and past her head, and shearing off a shank of her hair. She felt the tug, and saw the wind take the strands away out of the corner of her eye.
Bird let his hand drop to his side, as his eyes studied her. What he found in those mist green depths made the corners of his muzzle twitch, just a little. “You have great courage, Gabrielle of Potadeia.” His voice had altered, and deepened a little. “It is said, by some, that you carry far the more danger for us than does Xena.” He handed her back the dagger. “Now, I believe that.”
And without further discussion, he backed away, then turned and disappeared into the forest, fading between the trees as the leaves swallowed him whole.
Gabrielle was left standing there, slightly bemused, but with an inward smile. She sheathed her dagger and turned, continuing up her chosen path with a much lighter heart.
Xena, I remember a time when I thought I’d lost the knack for knowing the truth in someone when I saw it. So much has happened to us, and so many miles of road are under our feet that somewhere along that long path, I’d thought I’d left that by the wayside somewhere.
That Kraftstar had stolen it from me. Or Hope surely had.
Once, I wasn’t even sure I was right about you.
Or about me.
Did I ever tell you how I lost my faith in myself? How worthless I felt? How empty and rotten whenever I remembered how that lost faith had cost you?
I guess maybe it’s the same way you felt about what happened to me, isn’t it? That it was all your fault.
Gabrielle picked her path carefully, stepping around a set of slippery rocks. She leaned a little closer, noting boot prints near the edge of the damp ground. Pausing, she measured her own feet against them, and allowed a faint smile to surface.
What let me regain my faith in myself, Xena, wasn’t coming to terms with what happened. Did you know that? That happened a lot later. I bet you didn’t know the only thing keeping me from that darkness wasn’t my faith… it was yours.
You knew me. You believed in me, long after I didn’t anymore. I remember watching you sit by a lake, when we were out there, both of us hurting so much and realizing suddenly as you sat there that I was all you had left.
Realizing how much I meant to you, no matter what had happened is what gave me the strength to keep going, to find that way, to give us both back what was stolen from us.
You gave me that strength to find myself again.
To find us again.
To learn, as you did, just how much forgiveness a loving heart was capable of.
Gabrielle found her second wind, and the pain started to recede a little. She focused her energy on her soulmate, the comfort of her resolve settling over her shoulders like a warm cloak.
I knew I was right about him, Xena. Just like I knew I was right about you.
I can’t wait to tell you about it.
They were all out on the near side of the cavern, the forest dwellers dripping water from their near brush and plainly seething at having to have accepted her help. Xena walked away from them towards the water. “If we want to live, we have to get out of here.”
“We’d rather watch you die, before we do.” The smaller, darker one shot back at her.
Xena exhaled, wishing for once she had Gabrielle’s skills at negotiation. Or at least her patience. “We need to block that exit.” She stated. “The faster, the better. I’m getting pretty damn tired of the smell in here.”
Xena crouched on the very edge of the rock, watching the flowing water. “All right, smart boy. What’s your plan?” She asked.
The forest dweller came over to stand next to her. “Shoving you in there.”
“Try it.” The warrior responded, not even bothering to look over her shoulder.
“You think you’re so tough.”
Now Xena looked, giving him a withering glare so potent it cut through the dim green light without any trouble at all. She stood, dusting her hands off before planting them firmly on her hips. “Y’know I didn’t want to have to take the time to do this, but it looks like I’ve got no choice, huh?”
The forest dweller watched her warily. “Do what?”
“This.” Xena dropped her hands and spun into a perfect roundhouse kick that nailed him in the jaw and sent him flying backwards. She caught her own balance and bounced forward as he recovered, following the kick up with a second, this time hitting him in the stomach and doubling him over.
She raised both hands over her head and laced her fingers together ,bringing her arms down and slamming them on the back of his head before he could straighten, dropping him to the ground.
“Now.” Xena grabbed handsful of fur and hauled him onto his back. She thumped down with both knees onto his chest and cocked her fist. “Am I tough?”
Xena slugged him, putting pressure with her knees on his arms to pin him down. She felt bone crunch under her fist, and a spray of blood sent the scent of copper to her. “Well?”
“I’ll kill you!” The forest dweller struggled to throw her off, finding leverage hard despite his much greater size.
Xena slugged him again. She felt her knuckles strike a tooth, and hear a crack. “C’mon. I can do this all day long.” She warned him, pressing harder against his upper arms. Her peripheral senses told her the other forest dweller was keeping a prudent distance, and she gave him points for brains. “Am I?”
“AYhyarrh…” The forest dweller twisted his body, but his bulk worked against him and Xena’s sinewy form was just in the right place and just heavy enough to frustrate his attempts to throw her off. He clutched at her shirt with his fingertips, blood and froth issuing from his broken mouth.
His adversary was pitiless. Xena switched hands and hit him again, ,this time impacting the other side of his face. She shattered his cheekbone and his eyes almost popped out of his head from the pain of it. “Well?” She asked coldly, staring down at him.
Xena raised her fist again and waited, holding his gaze with icy blue eyes. “Am I?”
His lashes dropped suddenly, and he turned his head. His hands fell to the rock, and turned palm upmost. “Yes.” The forest dweller whispered.
Xena waited a bit, letting him wonder if she was going to accept the capitulation. Then she got smoothly to her feet and stepped away from him, out of his reach. She looked at the other forest dweller. “Do we need to repeat that?”
“No.” The dark brown head shook. “I’m not as stupid as he is.” He watched Xena warily.
“Good.” The warrior went back to the ledge. Out of their sight, she flexed her left hand, wincing at the ache from where she’d hit the tooth. Her fighter’s ego, however, smirked in supreme self satisfaction and some of the pent up tension caused by the situation she found herself in dissipated.
There had been a time in her life, recently when that satisfaction would have dismayed her. When she had turned her back on that deepest part of herself and walked away from the skills she’d spent a lifetime building.
It had been a strange time for her. Almost a time outside time, when she’d felt like she’d been given a small piece of grace, in which to see herself as the person she might have been if things had been different. Magical, in a way, that period had been as she accompanied Gabrielle through the last months of her pregnancy and experienced the first year of Dori’s life untainted by the bloodshed that had dogged her all her life.
Xena put her hand into the water, letting the cold liquid ease the ache. She could hear the dark brown forest dweller helping his friend, and she decided to give them a few minutes before she tried again to explain her plan to them.
A magic time, yes. One she looked back on with deep fondness, glad beyond reason of the sweet memories it had left her with. She wondered, sometimes, if the war hadn’t threatened if she’d have been able to extend that period, or if the dark part of her, lying quiescent, would have lifted up it’s head anyway and driven her back to her true self.
She gazed at her hand, under the water’s surface. Because this was her true self. She knew that now, and had come to terms with the breadth of that knowledge since the end of the war. Xena knew she could have gone back to her original decision, and put her weapons back into that chest but she’d chosen not to.
Gabrielle had understood. In fact, the bard had told her, putting her arms around Xena and speaking to her in the gentlest, most loving voice she had, that she not only understood Xena’s choice, she agreed with it.
Xena suspected her partner had known all along the truth Xena had refused to let herself acknowledge.
I talk, you fight. She could almost hear the note of childish confidence in her new little friend’s voice, and feel all over again the warm ache of budding affection the words had stirred in her heart.
With a faint smile, she withdrew her hand from the water and stood up, turning to face the two forest dwellers. Her victim was seated against the far wall, his fur dripping with the water his companion had brought over to wash his injuries off with.
Xena reviewed her scant options, and decided on a direct approach. She stalked towards the two of them, taking pains to call up the menacing side of her personality and letting it settle over her skin like a cloak.
They both looked up at her as she approached, anger and truculence mixed now with a healthy dose of fear.
Good. Xena folded her arms across her chest. Now maybe we can get some where. “All right. Let’s talk.” She kicked a rock out of her way as she strolled towards them. “Only one way out of this place unless you’re willing dive in and take a shot at what’s beyond that wall. Anyone?” She pointed at the inner tunnel.
The dark brown forest dweller’s nose twitched, and his muzzle wrinkled into a grimace. “Only water that way.” He said. “But you’re welcome to try, since you’re so tough.”
Xena snorted. “Unlike you, I’ve got a mind worth more than a sheep’s hoof.” She said. “The only other way out is that crack up there. It’s got fresh air coming through it.” She indicated the top of the cavern. “So we have to get up there to get out.”
“You’re nuts.” The other forest dweller rasped hoarsely.
“Like I said, got any better ideas?” Xena asked him.
“We can’t climb up there.” Brownie protested. “There’s nothing to hold onto. It’s just another way to die.”
Xena regarded the dark spot. “Right.” She agreed. “The only thing in here that’s gonna get us up there is that.” She pointed to the water. “So we gotta get the water level up to lift us.”
“How are we going to do that?” Brownie asked. “You going to scare the water backwards with your attitude?”
It was a minute shift in attitude, but Xena recognized it when she saw it. She hadn’t spent half a lifetime leading soldiers without picking up some tricks along the way. At some point, it just all came down to dominance and the ability to project your will.
She was good at that.
The warrior chuckled. “Very good question.” Xena slowly turned around and studied the outcroppings and craggy edges of the cavern. “With a lot of damn hard work.” She said. “First thing we need to do is start cracking rocks.”
“What?” Brownie stared at her.
Xena walked over to a boulder and knelt, putting her hand against it and pushing experimentally. It was heavy, and she sighed inwardly as she steeled herself for the effort of lifting it. She got her arms around it and braced her legs ,then slowly pulled it towards her as she flexed her thighs and rose up off the ground.
Both of the forest dwellers rose up with her, watching her intently.
Ares nuts. Xena forced herself by an act of will not to stagger as she walked over to the rushing water, spreading her boots out for balance as she paused, then heaved the rock from her into the stream. It disappeared under the surface.
Suddenly the surface of the flow near the opening changed as the rock settled into the opening. A wash rose up and split past it, having to work to get around this new obstacle. “Look.” Xena pointed down.
The forest dwellers looked. On the beach, the water rushed over the crushed rock, visibly higher than it had been when they’d arrived.
“We put enough stone there.” Xena indicated the opening. “It’ll close up and flood this place.”
Brownie looked at her. “And kill us. Good plan.”
Xena curled her hand into a fist and cocked her eyebrow at him. He stepped back a pace, out of her reach and she smiled in reaction.
“What if we can’t go through there.” The other forest dweller asked. “What if it’s a dead end?”
Xena had considered the thought. “Then it is.” She said. “And we die sooner rather than later. Got a problem with that?”
The injured forest dweller looked like he was going to say something for a minute, then he subsided. Brownie scratched his muzzle, and shrugged. “What the Hades.” He said. “We’re dead anyway. Might as well go out clawing.”
“Good.” Xena faced the water. “But let me tell you I’ve got no intention of letting this damn mountain beat me.” She turned and faced them again. “I’m going to make it home.”
They were caught in those eyes. In that one instant, they went from adversaries to believing in those words and they didn’t even realize it happened.
But Xena did. “So if you drop the bs, I’ll take you with me.”
They blinked, then shifted, their fur rasping lightly on the stone. “What do we have to do?” Brownie asked. “Because I want to go home, too.”
“C’mon.” Xena didn’t take time to savor the victory. “I’ll show you.” She turned and walked over to the ledge, and they got up and followed her, rounded ears cocked to catch every word.
It had become very quiet around her, as she made her way up the slope towards the rocky pass she could see looming in front of her. Gabrielle could still hear a soft bird song nearby, but the wind had died down, and the trees had stilled their rustling around her somewhat.
She found herself wishing that her escort was still with her. At least the forest dweller had given her something to take her mind off the long, uphill path she still had to travel, and the increasing discomfort from her injuries.
Not to mention her worrying about her partner.
It wasn’t that she didn’t have every faith in Xena’s abilities. No one on earth knew better than she did how truly competent Xena was at very many things. But she also knew that despite how awesome her partner’s skills, she could, and had been, bested on more than one occasion when luck just ran out on her or things just didn’t work out her way.
No one was perfect. Xena would have laughed in derision at the thought of that word being applied to her. Gabrielle smiled wistfully as she picked her way up a muddy patch of ground. The longer she’d lived with the warrior, the more she’d come to understand just how human Xena really was and it had developed in her a sense of protectiveness that most outsiders would have considered really sort of funny.
At one time, of course, Xena would have been outraged by that.
Now Gabrielle knew that the very acceptance of her mothering had been a turning point in their relationship, and she remembered quite clearly the night she’d found that out.
Long cold day, gonna be a long, cold night. Gabrielle pulled her cloak a little closer around her neck and shifted her hand on her staff, sparing a quick glance at the silent warrior walking next to her.
Xena’s breath was plainly visible in the crisp air, a gentle fog that streamed from her mouth and nose as she walked along. Her hands flexed slightly and a twitch ran along her cheekbone at the motion, catching Gabrielle’s notice.
She could see the faint furrow across Xena’s brow. “Long day, huh?”
Xena turned her head and regarded her. “Yeah.” She said, and then paused before she continued on. “I’m not looking forward to the ground tonight.”
Gabrielle felt a prickle of surprise. Was Xena actually saying what she thought she was saying? “Well.. me either.” She answered. “That place last night, boy, was that ever a rockpile.”
“Mm.” Xena grunted. She ran her hand through her hair and paused to rub the back of her neck. “Yeah.”
They walked for another half candlemark Gabrielle was ahead by a step as they reached the top of a small hill, and she looked over, very surprised to see a curl of smoke rising up over the trees. “Xena.” She pointed. “Look. Is it a town?”
Xena stopped and peered under a hand shading her eyes. “Looks like a small one, yeah.” She agreed. “Path goes around past it.” With a sigh, she pulled one of their waterskins from Argo’s saddle and took a sip, leaning against the mare.
Gabrielle looked at the town, then she looked at her friend. “Xena?”
“Let’s stay there tonight.” Gabrielle realized after she spoke that she’d never quite said anything to Xena like that before. It was always.. ‘can we?’. She waited with lightly held breath, watching the warrior blink a little as she thought. “I’ve got those extra dinars from the merchants we passed last moon. I could use a night inside.”
“I think you could use a warm bed inside too.” Gabrielle said, letting her hand rest on Xena’s shoulder. “I heard you tossing and turning all night last night.”
The warrior gazed at her with the faintest of smiles. “All right.”
It was a really odd feeling. Gabrielle lead the way down the path, and through the forest to the small hamlet with a sense of something changing with every step she took. But she threw that all off and concentrated on dickering for a room in the tiny inn, a place so small it had only three private cubbies outside the public room.
The room was barely large enough to hold the two of them and their gear with the bed in it, but it was snug, and there was a fireplace and with the heat of the kitchen below them it was blessedly warm inside. Xena put their bags down in one corner and knelt by the fire, starting to arrange the sticks inside with cold stiffened fingers.
“I’ll get that.” Gabrielle walked over and crouched next to her, displaying her newly purchased flint and striker. “I need the practice.”
“Have it your way.” Xena chuckled, standing and making her way over to the bed. She dropped onto it, extending her legs in front of her and starting to remove her armor. “I don’t think this place existed the last time I came through here.”
Gabrielle looked around. “No, it looks pretty new.” She indicated the roof. “The wood’s still uncured.”
Xena tipped her head back. “Mmph. You’re right. Good catch.” She got up and put her armor neatly on top of her bag. “Know something, Gabrielle?”
“Well, I know a few things, but not nearly as much as you do.” The bard joked, as the fire caught under her hands and started spreading it’s welcome warmth over her skin. “What?”
Xena dropped back onto the bed and rested her elbows on her knees. “I’m sore, and I’m tired, and I’m damn glad we’re here.” Her eyes fastened on Gabrielle’s face. “You’re right. I needed this.”
If Xena had broken into a square dance, Gabrielle would not have been more surprised. She got up and walked over, sitting down next to Xena on the just barely big enough for two people bed. It was as though a layer of the warrior’s often icy, rough exterior was melting away in the fire’s heat and the bard felt herself becoming quite bold in response to it.
She laid a somewhat hesitant arm over Xena’s shoulders. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.” For a minute, she fully expected the warrior to pull back, and she steeled herself. But the blue eyes merely gazed affectionately at her, the dark shadows under them apparent in the fire’s growing light. “I’ll see what bargains I can get for supper, how’s that for a start?”
“Sounds good to me.” Xena answered. “Thanks.”
Gabrielle almost floated downstairs, full of a wondering pleasure as she collected their supper, giving up a bit more of her hard earned dinars to add a piece of honey cake to the platter ‘for my friend, Xena.’ She proudly told the innkeeper.
They ate together, sitting on the bed in their shifts since the room held no other furniture. Xena let her head rest against the plain wood headboard while Gabrielle told a story around mouthfuls of mostly vegetable and a little rabbit stew.
They shared bread, which Gabrielle spread with honey butter, and traded sips of cider from a single wooden cup.
She produced the honey cake last of all, rewarded with a frank, gorgeous grin from Xena. “I thought you’d like this.”
“You thought right.” Xena said, breaking it in half. “Share with me?”
It had tasted so sweet on her tongue. No meal in a palace could have been more extraordinary. Gabrielle collected their plates and put them in a wooden basin to be cleaned in the morning. Then she turned, watching Xena stretch herself out on the bed, her length almost equaling it’s length and leaving on one side a comfortable looking spot just about Gabrielle’s size.
Just about her size. Gabrielle claimed the spot, settling next to Xena as their shoulders almost touched. She gently blew the candle out and pulled the covers up, the scent of sun dried fabric and Xena drifting up to her nose from under them.
She felt her heart race, and then slowly settle down. After a moment, she turned her head to see Xena’s profile dimly outlined in the fire’s glow. “Feeling any better?”
“Much.” Xena answered, a smile shaping the word. “How about you?”
“Me?” Gabrielle could have laughed out loud. “I feel great.”
They fell into a comfortable silence. It was warm. There were no rocks, or bugs, or suddenly hooting owls.
Gabrielle felt a gentle, faint warmth on her ear. She knew it was Xena’s breathing.
Gabrielle wiggled her toes in pure pleasure. “All I did was get some dinner and make a fire.” She said, however. “Anyone could have done that for you.”
“Mm.” Xena replied. “Not the way you did it.”
“Oh, c’mon, Xena.” Gabrielle laughed softly. “What was so special about the way I did it?”
“Wasn’t the what.” Xena closed her eyes, her voice dropping to a murmur. “It was the why.”
Gabrielle watched the flickering of the fire on the ceiling for a while after that, after Xena’s breathing had slowed and deepened, and she knew her friend was asleep.
She wasn’t going to sleep. Not for an instant. Not when she had the perfect night right here at her fingertips, all hers to savor.
Xena stirred in her sleep, rolling half on to her side.
Her hand curled around Gabrielle’s arm, clasping it lightly.
Was it possible to catch perfection? Gabrielle closed her eyes and let herself feel the moment, this moment of realization, of dreams for so long faded coming sharply into focus.
Was this really love, sneaking up on them?
Incredulously, Gabrielle grinned into the darkness, savoring a rare moment of joyous possibilities.
“Ah, Gabrielle.” The bard found herself still grinning at the memory. “I wonder if I still have that bit of wood I took from that place as a memento?” She shook her head at her younger self, but the smile remained, as the echoes of that joy resonated inside her.
She got to the top of the ridge, and paused, resting her weight against her staff as she gazed down on yet more rolling landscape. Near the far wall, she could see the very end of the path heading into a gap in the rocks. Boulders lay around it, but her senses told her Xena had passed them.
“Right.” She took a cautious breath, and started down. “Hang in there, Xe. Trouble’s coming.” She muttered. “And I’ve even got honey cake.”