“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Brownie eyed the slowly rising water with a dubious eye. His fur was covered in granite dust, and his claws bore the jagged chips from scrabbling at the rocks.
An equally dust covered Xena peered at him. The warrior’s hands were scraped and blood covered, and she flexed her wrists as she composed an answer. “No.” She picked up another big rock, clamping her jaw down the long muscles in her back half seized on her. She powered through the spasm, taking a step towards the water and throwing the boulder in. They’d cleared most of the freely movable granite, and now they were working on pulling cracked pieces of the cavern down.
Her back was not amused with her. Xena put that aside, though, and simply thought about just how pissed off her soulmate was going to be with her when she got out. “No, I don’t, but we have very, very limited options, so we’re going with it anyway.”
“Ugh.” Brownie sighed, and trudged back over to the wall, where his partner, whom Xena had mentally named Blackie, was working on a heavy split ledge.
Neither forest dweller would volunteer up a name, as though by giving her that, they would be giving her some advantage over them. Despite their grudging willingness to help her plug up the water flow, they were only slowly backing away from their antagonism
Of course, Blackie’s face was still covered in blood from her, and she was sure the pain from her breaking his jaw wasn’t making it any better. Gabrielle would have found a more conciliatory way of gaining their cooperation, Xena was sure, but sometimes faster was better, and she’d never been a patient person. So she was stuck with the attitude, and a growing backache, and she decided she’d trade them for a scolding from the bard in a heartbeat.
With a sigh, she hopped up onto a ledge and vaulted across the water, landing on the other side and prowling over it’s dark recesses. She knelt next to a crevice, and found a split, inserting her fingertips into it she set her balance and pulled backwards, feeling the strain all along her arms and shoulders. It didn’t budge.
Xena stopped pulling, and examined the split. Then she shifted and braced first one booted foot, then, lifting her weight up carefully, the other on the far wall. Concentrating, she focused her strength carefully, using her legs in conjunction with the coiled power of her body to separate the rock plate from it’s bed. For a moment, nothing budged. Then she felt the slightest bit of give and she shifted her boots, then applied pull from a different angle.
Her fingers ached, but Xena threw off the pain, wanting that rock so she could put that much more rubble in that hole, and get that water just that much closer to the opening that might, just might if she was luckier than she deserved, lead her home. She growled low and deep in her throat, then surged backwards, arching her back and pulling with all her strength.
With a loud cracking noise, the slab came free. Xena felt the motion seconds before it moved, and she stopped pulling, letting her fingers slip off and kicking away from the wall to flip gracefully in mid air and land amidst a rumbling torrent of rocks. She hopped backwards a few feet as the boulders rolled forward, not really wanting one to land on her toes. She watched them stop moving, then she paced forwards with a satisfied grunt, pleased at the new supply of material.
However. Xena peered around the ledge. She was rapidly running out of rocks, and not nearly running out of hole. She picked up a good sized specimen and walked to the edge of the water, blowing a lock of her hair out of her eyes with an annoyed breath. The channel was appreciably narrowed, and the water level had risen inside the chamber, now what had been the beach was long covered, and the water was lapping over Xena’s boots as she stood on the ledge.
She picked her spot, and tossed the rock in. A surge of water crested over it where it fell. She looked up as Brownie and Blackie, working together, pulled a large, flat slab forward, it’s edge scraping against the granite ledge and setting Xena’s nape hairs right on end. “Put it there.” She pointed to a lower area, where the water gushed black.
With a squeal of protesting stone, they complied, tipping the rock up onto it’s end, then pushing it into the water. It slid through the froth with a rumble, and settled into place causing a spray of water to blast back unexpectedly, catching Xena where she was standing and drenching her.
The cold water was a shock, and she leaped back, smacking her shoulders against the rock as she shook her head to clear the now wet hair out of her eyes. “Son of a bacchae.”
Brownie guffawed, pointing at her, and after a moment, Blackie joined in, their low chuckles sounding out over the thunder of the water.
Xena only just kept her temper from flaring, gritting her teeth and accepting that it probably had been pretty damn funny. That had been a lesson hard learned on her early travels with Gabrielle, when the girl had burst into laughter at something she’d done or said and it had rubbed her still wary pride raw.
She didn’t like being laughed at, even by Gabrielle, and her soulmate had come to learn that, too, but she’d also woken up one day and realized she’d grown out of having a petulant fit about it when it happened.
At least when it was Gabrielle, that is. Or Dori. Xena shook her head again, and swiped the wet hair back off her forehead. Not a couple of nitwit fuzzballs. She turned her back on them and went back to her rock pile, pausing for a moment to rest her hands flat on the wall and lean into a stretch that popped several bones in her back in place.
Perversely, she smiled at the sound. “You’re getting old, Xena.” She muttered to herself, finding an odd solace in the statement. “God’s blood my ass.” She picked up another rock and hoisted it, then turned and made her way back to the rising pool. With a dry chuckle, she tossed the boulder in, watching it disappear into the slowly growing dam with a satisfied grin. She dusted her hands off and went back for another.
Gabrielle struggled to the top of one ridge, and leaned against a tree growing proudly at it’s apex. The sun was starting to slant to the west, and she rested for a moment in it’s golden light, glad of the warmth against her skin.
Slowly, she lifted her waterskin and took a sip, resting her head against the bark as she tried to move herself past the growing pain in her body. Her entire back had stiffened up and the throbbing in her neck from where she’d snapped her head back was starting to become so intense it was causing red flashes in the backs of her eyes.
That wasn’t good. Gabrielle was no healer, and even she figured that out. She looked around at the very empty glade and found a semi flat rock of good height which she went over and sat down on. The surface had collected the sun’s heat and it felt very good against the back of her legs. She rested her chin on her hand and sucked slowly at the waterskin, wishing her search was over and her soulmate was near at hand.
She closed her eyes for a moment, and concentrated on Xena. Her ‘itch’ tugged her over the edge of the ridge and down, towards the far off thunder of a waterfall she could just barely hear. The warrior seemed to be quiet now, the underlying anxiety still very much present but apparently her soulmate had found something to occupy her time in whatever circumstance she’d gotten herself into.
“Ugh.” Gabrielle had to force her eyes open, and she straightened, sucking in a sharp breath as a jolt of pain made her see stars. A tendril of fear threaded through her heart, and she let her elbows rest on her knees again, willing away the agony tightening it’s grip on her.
Mind over matter. Isn’t that what Xena always said? Gabrielle concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths, and trying to let her thoughts move past the pain. She knew her partner could do it, but she also knew that Xena had learned the skill through a harsh necessity that she could only imagine on her worst days.
Okay. Gabrielle felt her neck muscles relax, as she called up her soulmate into her mind’s eye, mentally tracing the angular cheekbones and seeing the loving twinkle as she gazed at Gabrielle. She could almost hear the ‘I love you’ in Xena voice as her heart rate slowed, and the pain didn’t exactly fade, but it moved into the back of her awareness.
Mind over matter? Gabrielle let her eyes drift open, soaking in the beauty as the sun’s rays poured through the leaves and painted a gorgeous pattern across her skin. She spread her hands out into it, flexing her fingers and letting out a long breath as she felt herself center.
It wasn’t mind over matter. Gabrielle stood up and clipped her waterskin to her belt, taking up her staff and continuing on her way forward. It was Xena over anything else that mattered. She topped the ridge and started down, glad to give her legs a break as she picked her way through the leaves following a barely seen track across them. She shaded her eyes with her hand and peered ahead of her, judging the distance she had yet to travel. Moving in the dark in unfamiliar ground wasn’t probably a good plan, at least as long as Xena seemed to be okay.
Sundown would find her at the foot of the mountain, near that waterfall. If it did, and if Xena was still okay, she reluctantly decided to pause for the night and get some rest. If it wasn’t, if she felt her partner more strongly, then she’d keep on… Gabrielle regarded the towering cliffs. She’d keep on, and hope Xena hadn’t taken it into her mind to climb up over the mountain for whatever reason.
She sighed, and shook her head, letting her eyes scan her surroundings as she walked. To her mild surprise and delight, she spotted several wild apple trees just off the path, and she briefly detoured, examining the lower branches for a likely specimen. She saw several, and she used her staff to reach up and tap them smartly, knocking them off their stems and sending them groundward.
“Mm.” She put two away for later and kept one, buffing it’s green and red skin lightly on her shirt before she found a perfect spot and bit into it.
She’d always had a taste for apples, even before that wonderful night she’d spent in the old apple tree with Xena that had, she was convinced, resulted in the birth of their daughter. Since then, she’d treated the fruit with a sense of reverent delight and ate it whenever she could.
This one was delicious. It was ripe, and crisp, and just sweet enough to quench her thirst as she munched it. She briefly wished Xena were there, at her side to share it with her, but resigned herself to sharing the other two with her soulmate when they met up.
Xena would like that. Gabrielle rolled a seed around in her mouth and felt it’s small sharpness against her tongue. Maybe they could even play around and experiment a little, and see if they could duplicate the intensity of the passion that had lead to Dori.
She thought about that as she turned sideways, to ease her body carefully down a slightly steeper slope. She’d been thinking of that a lot lately, about having another child. Gabrielle nibbled her way around the apple core. She wasn’t really sure why, except that two seemed to her to be the right number of children for her and Xena to have… and their joint history was probably behind that.
Could she manage a little boy? Gabrielle imagined that, imagined maybe a little tow headed son with Xena’s pale blue eyes entering their life. Her lips curled into a smile, and she found herself wanting to move faster, anxious to rejoin her partner. She’d broach the idea to Xena, and, well… they’d see what they could do about it.
Gabrielle let out a soft chuckle, allowing a brief surge of joy to fill her. She closed her eyes and focused on Xena, sending a bit of it her way before she picked up her pace and lengthened her stride.
“We’re almost out of rocks.” Brownie noted, wiping the back of his dust covered hand across his head. It left a dirty streak across his fur, but that was almost unnoticeable among the rest of the grime. “And we’re not out of hole. Now what?”
Xena was seated on the far ledge, the water running up to her knees. It was darker inside the cavern now, as even the refracted light from the outside was dimming as the sun set. They were left with only the green glow from the moss, and the everpresent rush of water. They’d filled the hole at least halfway, and the water current was now swirling uneasily around the cavern, rushing up unexpectedly against the far walls and flooding even the highest point of rock they had to stand on.
“We break more rocks.” Xena said quietly. “It’s working.”
Brownie gazed at the rising water, then tilted his head back to review the ceiling. “Yeah, it is.” He agreed reluctantly. He flexed his hands and looked over his shoulders at the wall, where Blackie was seated, his arms slumped near his furred feet in obvious exhaustion.
Xena watched as the water shoved against the far wall, undercutting the rockface there and sweeping away a few bits of granite. “Let’s give nature a chance to do some work for us.” She decided, knowing her companions were as tired as she was. “Take a break. Get some rest.”
Brownie sat down on the rock facing her, across the water channel. His eyes were barely visible in the eerie glow, his outline just perceptible to her vision. “Okay.” He tipped his head back again and peered at the moss. “Think that’s edible?”
Xena’s nose wrinkled. “Not for me.” She sighed, scooping up a double handful of the only sustenance they had, and drinking it down. If she drank enough, she figured, she’d get her stomach to stop rumbling and reminding her of how long it was since her last good meal. The dam had backed the water up, and the current now felt less – she could at least keep her hands in it without any danger and as she watched it flow past her boot, a faint, familiar tingle alerted her.
Well. Xena regarded the two forest dwellers. They wanted to get in touch with their wild side, didn’t they? And she’d do better for something other than water in her belly as well. Pushing her sleeves up she bent her head towards the water, extending her senses and concentrating.
After a moment, she plunged her hand into the flow, tightening her fingers in a fierce grip around a squiggling body that almost pulled out of her grasp. She yanked her body up and pulled the fish out, removing her dagger and smacking it on the head to still it’s struggling.
“Damn.” Brownie snorted.
Xena grinned, almost unseen in the gloom. “Hold your hands out.” She instructed, waiting until she saw a flash motion, then she lifted her hand and tossed the fish over to him. “Catch.”
He did, looking at the fish, and then over at her. They studied each other for a long moment, then he turned and disappeared back to where Blackie was sitting, the two of them mere whispers of motion in the glow of the moss.
Xena wiggled her fingers and smiled, then bent her head down again to listen. As she closed her eyes, something very much like a warm blanket settled over her shoulders, and she almost could swear she felt Gabrielle’s arms around her for a brief, gorgeous moment.
It hit her in a place so deep, it brought tears to her eyes and she was glad of the darkness, and the fact that the water separated her from the forest dwellers. She rested her elbows on her knees and pictured Gabrielle in her thoughts, imagining her soulmate making her way towards her, sturdily walking, her staff clasped in one hand. Xena’s nose twitched, as she convinced herself she could almost smell the bard, then she sent a loving thought her way, clasping her closely in her imagination and ruffling her hair with the fingers of her right hand.
Then she released her breath, and let herself return to her rock prison, dipping her fingertips in the ice cold water and watching the ripples they made.
Fishing could wait few minutes, while she let love fill her belly instead.
Absorbed, Xena didn’t notice the wide, golden eyes fixed on her from across the cavern, staring fiercely over the water.
Gabrielle continued on until it was full dark, and she’d gained the relative safety of the cliffs. She knew there was no question of the forest dwellers being able to find her – if nothing else, they could sense her presence. So she picked a spot under a shelf of rock, out of the wind and as sheltered from the chill as she figured she was going to get, and gathered enough fallen wood to make herself a small fire.
She would need the warmth, she knew, since she wasn’t carrying any of their bedding with her, though thankfully she had her cloak to wrap around her as the temperature dropped with the sun’s setting. With a sigh, she held her hands over the crackling flames and rubbed them, then she stood and walked a little ways into the thick underbrush. She pulled her knife out and carefully cut some leaf filled branches, keeping at it until the ache in her back made her stop and return to her little haven.
She put the branches down, then settled herself on top of them and leaned against a low slab of rock.
It was very quiet. The wind rustled the leaves outside, and she could hear the waterfall, but otherwise the darkness brought a somber peace to the area around her. Now that she was still, and didn’t have her walking to keep her attention on, her injuries were making themselves known with a vengeance and she was very glad to put her head down on her arm and just lie there.
Her hide cup was sitting next to the fire, heated rocks bubbling the water, herbs, and dried roots and ends she’d had in her bag into a bit of soup for her. She was looking forward to the warm broth, and the crisp apples she’d tucked away in her sack that would supplement it, but most of all she was looking forward to resting her aching bones for a little while. The fire’s warmth filled her small cubby and she exhaled carefully, wincing at the stabbing pains in her back and wishing Xena was there to help her.
“Don’t be a baby, Gabrielle.” She spoke aloud. “You wouldn’t catch Xena moping around by the fire wishing *you* were there to hold her hand, would you?” She closed her eyes and let the warmth soak through her, hoping it would relax her overly tense muscles. Despite her words, she suspected in her heart that now, after all these years together, Xena would indeed wish to have her nearby to comfort her even though the warrior could easily handle her own healing.
With a sigh, Gabrielle pried her eyes open and reached for her cup, stifling a groan as her back protested the motion. She cradled the cup in her hands and fished the rocks out, sucking the broth off them before she made a neat pile on her slab. She tucked her boots under a little more and sipped at the soup, savoring each mouthful thoughtfully as she watched the flames dance before her eyes.
It had been a very long time since she’d been out on her own, she realized. A very, very long time… Gabrielle cast her mind back, thinking of when the last time had been. Ah. On her way back to Potadeia, after waking up in the hospice. Gods, that had been so heart wrenching. Tears rose unexpectedly into her eyes as she relived the memory of those long, cold nights with only her last vision of Xena’s agonized eyes to keep her company.
I’m sorry. Xena, I’m so sorry. Her first words to her partner had been mere soundless whispers, overwhelmed in the fierceness of Xena’s greeting. If she closed her eyes she could still feel the power of the warrior’s arms around her and hear the painful hammering of Xena’s heartbeat in her ear.
She could hear the soft sound of gut felt relief, a noise unlike anything she’d ever heard coming from her stalwart soulmate before, and she remembered the odd feeling of strange joy she’d felt in being able to give Xena back something the warrior had given her, way back when, in a dank cave near an old temple. It hadn’t been until days later, after they’d left Potadeia, after they’d solved yet another in a weary series of problems that she’d understood the true cost to Xena her sacrifice had been.
Then she’d understood how many pieces her partner had been shattered into, and just how overwhelming their reunion really was.
For both of them.
“Pah.” Gabrielle inhaled, shaking her head slightly. “Gabrielle, it’s not bad enough you’re out there, with a backache that would make Argo roll over, in the dark, in the cold, that you have to think about *that*?” She firmly put the memories aside and focused on something more cheerful, the traveling escapades of her daughter. “Oo… “ The bard was reminded. “I promised her I’d be back tonight with Boo. I am in so much trouble.”
Xena had come up with a new game, just before they’d entered the area around Cirron. Hide and Boo. Gabrielle felt a smile crease her face as she thought about it. After they’d made camp, while she was putting together whatever Xena had scrounged for dinner for them, Xena would disappear. “Hey Dori!” Gabrielle would ask. “Where’s Boo?”
Dori would then patter around, hunting for her buddy. Looking under rocks, inside bushes… places anyone would know were far too small to hold the warrior, but when she’d try them, a pebble would come flying out and bounce near her from Xena’s hidden fingers. Dori would collect the pebbles, and eventually they would lead her to wherever it was the warrior had chosen to hide.
It was so cute. Gabrielle would sit by the fire watching them, laughing as the toddler would find her buddy and jump on her, pebbles going everywhere as they rolled around on the grass. The memory illustrated to her, in plainly brilliant tones, that despite the horrible struggles they’d both had in life, they’d won out. They had each other, and they had Dori, and that had made all the bad dreams worth it.
A sound past her fire caught her attention, and she peered out into the gloom, one hand dropping down instinctively to rest on the smooth surface of her staff.
Out of the shadows, a tall, dark haired forest dweller stepped, pacing forward and stopping just shy of her fire.
Gabrielle released her staff, and let her hand fall on the hilt of her dagger instead. She knew her injuries would make using her long, preferred weapon nearly impossible but her fingers tightened around what she’d long considered her last resort.
However, she also had another weapon. “Hello.” She greeted her intimidating night visitor. “My name’s Gabrielle. What’s yours?”
The forest dweller regarded her in silence for a few beats, his head tilting just slightly to one side. Then he shifted his hands and folded his arms across his chest. “I am Bellas.”
Well, that was better than she’d expected. “Hi, Bellas. Want to sit down?” Gabrielle said. “I’d offer you some soup, but there really wasn’t much.” She lifted the top on her pack. “But I’ve got some apples. Want one?”
Bellas looked at her as though he was completely convinced that she’d lost her mind. Gabrielle gave him a kind smile, note entirely unused to the reaction. She met his eyes evenly, waiting for him to decide what to do.
He hesitated, then finally he walked over and sat down on the other side of the fire from her, resting his elbows on his knees and regarding her through the flames.
“Okay.” Gabrielle focused on him. “So, are we going to start with the fact that I’ve broken your rules to be here and it’s forbidden, and you’re going to kill me or can we just move past that part, and get onto something more interesting?”
Bellas’ muzzle wrinkled up a little, either in disgust or amusement, it was hard to tell which. “Why are you here, Gabrielle?”
Ah, a why question. Gabrielle liked those. “To find Xena.” She replied.
“You will not.”
The bard sighed. “Are we starting that stuff already? Sure I will.” She sipped her soup. “It’ll just take time.”
Bellas watched her closely. “All the time in the world won’t help you.” He said. “She is where you cannot reach her.”
“Well.” Gabrielle nibbled her lip thoughtfully. “I’ve followed her to some pretty out there places. I think you may be underestimating us.” She said. “Or lying.”
“She is in a cavern, filled with water. There is no way out, save to go deeper into the mountain, and drown.” Bellas stated flatly.
Gabrielle felt a prickle, and remembered the wash of horror that had flowed over her.
“She is doomed.” Bellas said. “You will never again see her, Gabrielle. She will die in there, slowly, or quickly as is her nature, but she will, in the end, die.”
For a long moment, Gabrielle didn’t even breathe. She stared straight ahead, through the flames, their orange tips reflecting off her eyes.
“She is doomed.” Bellas repeated, as though he wanted to make sure she heard.
The bard lifted her gaze and met his. “No she isn’t.” Gabrielle told him, opening her heart and listening for her soul’s echo. “She doesn’t give up that easily.” She stared at him. “If she’s really in there, she’ll find a way out.”
He shook his head. “You are a fool. There is no way out of that cavern.”
“There’s no way out for *you* from that cavern, maybe. But this is Xena.” The bard stated. “She has way too much to live for to let some rocks get in her way.” And, if she concentrated, she could feel the anxious energy from her partner that, though troublesome, held nothing in it of despair. If Xena really believed she was going to die, Gabrielle knew without question she’d know it.
She’d feel it. She’d sense the knowledge because Xena knew, as she did, what the consequences of that would be for both of them.
Somehow, she’d find a way.
The bard lifted her eyes again, this time with a cool sheen to them. “Did it make you feel good to come and tell me that?”
He blinked. “It had to be said.”
“Wasn’t what I asked.” Gabrielle retorted. “What difference would it have made? I was going to her anyway… I would have found out then. It wouldn’t have changed anything.” She pointed at him. “You just enjoy hurting people, don’t you?”
Bellas frowned. “That is not true.”
“Sure it is.” Gabrielle said. “Well? Did it give you a jolly? Feel better now? Let me guess.. Xena hurt your pride, so you’re returning the favor?”
“Then why are you here?” The bard asked.
He stared at her.
“You know what you all are? A bunch of gutless cowards, who don’t deserve to be a part of the forest people I know.” Gabrielle said, her temper flaring with surprising suddenness. “You’re scum.” She got up, shedding aside the pain for a moment as she picked up her staff. “Now, get out of here before I knock you sillier than you already are.”
Bellas jaw dropped visibly as he watched the short, blond human with a big stick advance on him. There was a fierceness about her that was totally different than Xena’s, and perhaps because of her kind and gentle demeanor all the more unexpectedly intimidating.
“Out!” Gabrielle whacked him on the knee with her staff. “Move it!”
“You’ve lost your mind! I can kill you!” Bellas blurted, showing his claws.
“Yeah? Try it.” Gabrielle poked him in the chest with her staff, shoving him backwards. “That’s all you are, a bunch of wormy cowards.”
Bellas scrambled to his feet and backed away from her. “You are wrong, Gabrielle. I did not come here to hurt you.” He held up both hands. “I came to warn you. I wanted to tell you to go no further… you have no need to. Your partner is lost to you, and death awaits you if you continue.”
Gabrielle grounded the end of her staff and curled her hand around the top of it. “You really don’t get it, do you?”
The forest dweller eyed her warily.
“Where she goes, I go.” The bard said, and then fell silent, just watching him.
Bellas studied her in return. “Very well.” He said. “Then I will tell you this, Gabrielle. If your partner does come out of that darkness, we will be waiting for her. She has killed many of us, and for that, she will die.” He backed off a step. “If you choose to go to her, then you choose to share her fate. Think about that, for your sake, and for your child’s.”
Gabrielle curled her other hand around her staff.
“We are not scum.” Bellas said. “But we are a people who are fighting against all you stand for.” And with that, he turned and disappeared into the forest.
The bard watched him leave, waiting for the foliage to stop moving before she turned and made her way back to her leaf bed, sinking down into it and laying her staff across her knees.
So. Gabrielle closed her eyes. That was the trouble her soulmate was in. But it was true, that she felt no panic coming down their link, which meant Xena had a plan. The bard relaxed. Not surprising. Xena usually did have a plan, and she was sure that whatever it was, the warrior would find a way to get back to her.
“In fact…” Gabrielle smiled to herself, picking up her cup and draining it. “I bet it’s going to make one heck of a story.” She eased back down onto her small rock ledge and removed one of her apples, settling down to nibble it as she watched the fire burn down.
Xena had her eyes closed. Her head was resting against the rock behind her, and she had her shoulders wedged into a corner that kept her upright even in the light doze she’d managed to achieve. It was the darkest part of the night, and the only sound in the cavern was the rush of water past her and the faint snores of the forest dwellers. She was on the other side of the chasm, and she knew the forest dwellers were not going to attack her, so she really could have slept if she’d wanted to.
And yet. Xena opened her eyes and studied the low, annoying green glow. She found herself thinking more and more of Gabrielle, trying to imagine where her partner was, and what she was doing. Was she already outside the cave? Did she know what had happened to Xena? Or.. had she encountered the forest dwellers?
Xena knew the bard was safe. She could feel the gentle, even warmth of their connection just below her consciousness and there was nothing of terror, or strong emotion about it. Had Gabrielle stopped for the night? Despite the fact that she knew Gabrielle was more than capable of taking care of herself, she was not above a little anxiety about her being out in the forest, alone, without Xena there to protect her.
Was that fair to Gabrielle? Probably not, but Xena couldn’t help the way she felt. There had been times when they’d been separated, and Gabrielle had done just fine by herself. She had the ability to gather her own sustenance, she knew what herbs, roots and berries were safe to eat, she could catch fish, or even if she really wanted to, a rabbit, and the gods only knew she was far more capable of turning all that into edible meals than Xena was.
She was strong, and a very good fighter. She did not need a Warrior Nanny.
Nevertheless, Xena sat there in the darkness, trapped in a waterfilled cave, and fretted because she wasn’t able to be out there herself to take care of the bard. Ridiculous, really. The warrior exhaled, and closed her eyes again. Maybe Gabrielle was even enjoying the chance to be out on her own for a night or two. She was probably writing some poetry, taking advantage of the silence of the night around her to prod her bardic muse.
Or maybe she was lying on her back gazing up at the stars, making pictures from them. Xena wished she could see the stars. Though she’d slowly gotten over the worst of her dislike of being closed in, she knew she would never be comfortable inside someplace like this. Though the cavern was large, and the air moved through it freely, in the back of her mind were nightmares of being trapped under the stones of these very mountains with death closing in on her.
She looked back on that moment, as she had many times before, and reflected one more time whether her dying there, then, when they had only known the joy of their relationship together would have been such a bad thing. She knew, despite everything, that Gabrielle didn’t regret her living through it, not for an instant. Truly. But sometimes Xena wondered if *she* didn’t regret it, just a little tiny bit.
Xena rolled her head a little to one side and studied a snail, patiently crawling across the slick, mossy rock. “Is there a point to this?” She asked herself silently. “It’s not bad enough you’re stuck in a cave with two stinky nitwits and nothing but your fingernails to claw out of a mountain of rocks without thinking about *that*?”
No, there was no point, she decided. It was in the past, and anyway, the good stuff had been piling up pretty heavily again for a while now, so it wasn’t really the question it might have been back then. Xena turned her thoughts to something more pleasant, like Gabrielle’s upcoming birthday. She stretched her legs out a little, grimacing at the cold dampness of her leather boots, and crossed them at the ankles. She wanted to do something special for the bard this year, since they’d be away from home
Assuming she got out of this mess, that is. Xena’s eyes opened, and she glared at the moss in irritation. She tried willing the night to pass more quickly, but the darkness around her persisted and finally she folded her arms across her chest and tried to convince herself to get some sleep.
You’ll need it.
Xena’s eyes closed, and after a moment, an image of her soulmate formed in her mind. She could sense rock around Gabrielle’s still body, and hear the crackle of a nearby fire. It was quiet, aside from that, just muted night sounds from the nearby trees interrupting the peace every once in a long while.
Was it real? Xena felt a sense of fascination as she almost held her breath, so close did she feel Gabrielle’s presence.
She concentrated. Gabrielle seemed asleep, or nearly, her breathing was slow but Xena felt that there was something bothering her, as well. She lifted a hand, wanting to reach out and touch her partner, to break through the barriers separating them, and find out what the matter was.
As she watched, the bard shifted a little, then stifled a groan as she touched the back of her neck.
Gabrielle was hurt. Xena could feel it now, an ache that almost echoed the one she felt along her own spine, centered in the area her hand was resting on.
Now she could see more, as she focused intently. There were bruises all over her partner’s skin, and the injury on her back was hurting her badly, as she shifted again in an attempt to find a comfortable spot for herself.
Gabrielle. What have you done to yourself? Xena wondered. Did the forest dwellers hurt you? I’ll kill them if they did. She vowed silently.
The bard settled back against the rocks, tucking her boots up under her and resting her head against one arm.
Xena didn’t really think about how unusual what she was doing was. It reminded her a little of the time she was dead, when she’d shadowed her newfound soulmate without being able to do anything about the grief overwhelming her.
Only this time… Xena imagined putting her arms around Gabrielle’s hurting body, and pulling the bard towards her to snuggle up against her chest. She imagined the soft murmur of relief Gabrielle would utter, and in her mind, she gently ruffled the blond hair with her fingers, scratching the bard behind her ears and feeling her relax against her.
Was it real?
Xena could smell her partner’s distinctive scent, and though part of her knew she was still inside the cavern, in the dark, trapped in a place she had only a slim chance of getting out of - the sense of being close to Gabrielle was undeniable.
She gave into it. Her breathing slowed, and she felt sleep creeping up on her, just as it was on Gabrielle whose chest exhaled in what could only be relief.
Gabrielle. I will always be here. The words echoed softly in Xena’s mind. Always.
At last, they slept.
Gabrielle woke at first light, her eyes opening and her body shifting with a sense of dire disorientation. She was cold, a quick look told her that the fire had gone out, and her body was painfully stiff from sleeping in one position all night.
A whisper of memory tickled her, and she looked around, at the stone wall at her back, and the small space she was tucked into.
She could almost feel her partner’s recent presence, as though Xena had merely woken early and gone out to gather breakfast for them. Yet, she knew the warrior wasn’t with her. It was a very odd sensation. With a small grunt, Gabrielle sat up and rubbed her face, glad at least that she’d been able to get some sleep.
Carefully, she stretched, groaning as she felt the pain in her back. The rest hadn’t helped it, she noted, but it also hadn’t worsened. She eased out of her little cubby and stood up, very slowly working the kinks out of her legs as the dawn rays filtered through the leaves and speckled her.
After a moment she paused and looked around, still feeling the haunting presence of her soulmate and half expecting her to walk out of the forest. “Weird.” She spoke aloud, rubbing her arms to warm them. “Haven’t felt like that since…”
She stopped, and gazed at the rising sun, her throat suddenly dry. Since Xena’s death, in fact. After the warrior had greeted her in the mists of the afterlife, and they’d come up with a plan to get the warrior’s body back…. She’d felt Xena’s presence very much like she just had.
“Xena?” Gabrielle spoke aloud. “This better not be what I think it is.”
There was no answer, save the rustling of the leaves. Gabrielle paced back and forth a few times, trying to calm her sudden panic. No, she realized, this time she hadn’t felt anything like last time. If something that dire had happened, she would have known.
She would have felt Xena’s passing, no question, no matter if the warrior’s spirit had remained behind.
She paced some more. Bellas had told her Xena was doomed. That meant, she argued silently, that she wasn’t doomed *yet* - but that he expected her to come to a bad end. So that meant Xena was still okay.
Yes. Gabrielle decided. She was okay, because Gabrielle would have known otherwise. She was in trouble, but she had a plan, and Gabrielle had better get moving to find her because if she had a plan maybe she also needed some help with it.
With a firm nod, she walked to the trickle of water that fell into a rocky pool near her fire. Putting her hands under it, she watched them fill, then she lifted them to her lips and drank deeply. Another handful, then she took a third and washed her face, letting the cold liquid wake her fully up.
With a sigh, she shook her hands to rid them of water droplets then walked back over to where her staff was lying, booting it up to her hand and lifting it to lay lightly across her shoulders. Slowly, she twisted her body, loosening up tortured muscles and putting a distinct grimace on her face.
Xena jerked awake, feeling her heart rate rattling in her chest for a long moment before it slowed and calmed, her instincts fairly freaking out at finding herself in a dark, close rock chamber when her dreams had left her in a leafy glen.
In a camp, with her partner. Free, under the stars.
“Ares left nut.” The warrior muttered, rubbing her face. Her dreams had been pleasant, but all too real, and she hadn’t been pleased at waking up back in a place she hated as much as she did this damn cavern.
With a muffled curse, she turned and looked at the far wall, seeing the light of dawn slowly, dimly filtering through the water into the dark space she was in. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing and Xena got to her feet, glad beyond belief to see it.
Walking to the edge of the water, she stripped off her now dry overtunic and tossed it aside, then she sat down on the damp rock ledge and unlaced her boots. With a grunt, she pulled them off and threw them over near the tunic, then she stood up and unhooked her leathers, removing them and stepping into the swirling water.
The shock of the cold made her very essence tingle. Xena braced her legs against the current and let the water wake her up as she scrubbed her skin to rid it of traces of mud and moss.
She realized, of course, that she’d just get muddier and covered in more moss as she started to work, but it was a long ingrained habit in her to start the day clean and she wasn’t about to break the habit now.
“Hey!” Brownie stepped to the opposite side of the chasm and shaded his eyes. “What are you doing?”
Xena gazed at him, one eyebrow lifting sardonically. “I figured you didn’t know much about bathing.” She commented. “Not with that stench.” She scooped up several mouthfuls of water and drank them, grimacing a little at the mineral taste.
Blackie wandered over. “Are you naked?”
Xena looked down at herself, then up at him. She spread her arms out and lifted her hands, in eloquent if silent expression.
“Ares. You humans are ugly.” Blackie shook his head. “Uugh.”
Xena chuckled. “You’re not my type either, so don’t worry about it.” She finished her bath and pressed her body up and out of the water, shaking herself vigorously to rid herself of as much of the liquid as she could. Then she pulled her clothing back on and walked to the end of her side of the chasm. She flexed her hands, which were more than sore from the previous day, and looked at the remaining rocks.
It was going too slowly. Xena felt a well of frustration rising up in her, and she decided she wanted out, now. Out of here, out into the sunlight, out and back to her soulmate, who…
Memory of the night before suddenly surfaced, and she remembered what she’d seen.
Well, she had to get out now, that was just that. Xena tipped her head back and regarded the cavern, searching for more cracks she could wedge apart. Her eyes fell on a ledge three times her body height from the ground, it’s length disappearing into the dark shadows.
She measured the ledge. Her head swiveled, and she measured the hole she was trying to fill. Then she turned and approached the wall, leaping up and catching a handhold above her head.
She started to climb.
“Hey!” Brownie called. “What are you doing now?”
Xena didn’t answer. She just kept climbing.
Gabrielle picked her steps carefully, now that her path was leading her up into the mountains. She’d gathered a few more apples, and some berries before she’d started her climb, and she added one of Xena’s trail bars to munch on as she walked along.
The ache in her back had spread down her shoulders, and she could feel a sense of rawness where the lump in her neck was, where motion caused a very unpleasant jolting pinch that made her entire body seize up.
Walking wasn’t a picnic, and she was seriously hoping that nothing would require her to use her staff for anything more than a crutch.
She scaled up an uneven ridge and paused at the top to rest, then she planted her staff and leaned on it as she spotted a group of forest dwellers ahead of her. They were ringed around the base of a waterfall, one that gushed out the tall, rock wall ahead of her and thundered down to create yet another gorgeous pool.
They seemed oblivious to her presence. Gabrielle stepped over the ridge and made her way towards them, curious as to what they were doing. It seemed like there was at least a round dozen of them, and they all were standing around the pool and pointing up at the falls.
Gabrielle stopped just behind them and looked up, grimacing and stopping the motion as her injury protested. “Hi.” She said.
The forest dwellers whirled, and spotted her. “You.” Bellas growled.
“Me.” Gabrielle agreed.
The forest dwellers glared at her. Gabrielle held her ground, returning their stares with a calm interest. She hadn’t done anything to them to provoke the attitude, and she figured if she just stayed cool, maybe she could find out where this cave Xena was supposedly in was.
“We have told you it is forbidden for your kind to come here.” Bellas said.
Gabrielle sighed. “I thought we’d gotten past that.”
“And here is why!” The forest dweller replied angrily. He pointed at the waterfall. The rest of the forest dwellers muttered in agreement.
Huh? Gabrielle very carefully tilted her head and looked at the falls. There was nothing human made anywhere within her vision, and her brow creased in confusion. “I’m missing something.” She was uneasily aware of the crowd approaching her. “We don’t make waterfalls.
“Since your entrance to our lands, the waterfall has been dying!” The closest of the forest dwellers. “Look!”
“We should take her and throw her off the cliffs!”
The bard studied the waterfall. She could see rocks on either side of it’s flow that were moss darkened, indications that the flow had, in fact, reduced at some point. “Wait a minute.” She protested. “You can’t seriously think I had anything to do with that? Humans can’t change the course of waterfalls!”
“Explain it then?” Bellas said. “Explain why, since the moment you stepped into the valley, this fall, which feeds our people, and brings us life and sustenance, is failing.”
Gabrielle stared at the falls, then at him. “I have no idea!” She blurted. “Who knows? Maybe it was a landslide, or something changed in the mountain.. or..”
“Liar.” The short, dun colored forest dweller closest to her said. “Nothing has changed! You think we would not hear a landslide? Or the mountain shifting? Do you take us for fools!” He glared at her. “The only thing that has changed is you being here.”
“Let’s find out.” Another forest dweller suggested. “Let’s take her to the top of the ridge, and throw her over. Then if the waterfall returns, we’ll know.”
“Wait a minute.” Gabrielle held a hand up. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“It makes perfect sense.” Bellas said. “The legends say the humans will destroy this place. You come, and it’s dying. What else is there to understand?” He gestured his fellows forward. “Brack is right. One way or the other, you must be ejected from here.”
Gabrielle took a step back. “Now, hold on.”
“Come with us, and I will take you myself to the cliff, and see you out to the outer valley.” Bellas said. “But if you refuse, then I will take you in pieces and throw you over.”
Sometimes, Gabrielle knew, talking really didn’t do the trick. So she turned and bolted, surprising the forest dwellers and giving herself a vital moment to get a head start.
“Get her!” Bellas yelled.
Gabrielle concentrated on running. Luckily, it was something she was pretty good at, and since she was far lighter, and much nimbler than the forest dwellers, she was determined to keep that advantage for as long as she could.
The question was, of course, since there were more of them, and she was in strange territory, would it really matter in the end?
The bard focused on her soulmate’s energy, and headed for that with an almost innate instinct. Xena had, for a long time now, been the only safety she’d ever put her trust completely into.
Now, despite Xena’s own peril, she might be Gabrielle’s only chance.
Xena reached up, her fingers searching for another handhold. She could see her objective just out of her reach, but despite all her attempts, the rock face remained obstinately smooth and ungrippable. Frustrated, she relaxed for a moment, and glanced down.
The ground was appallingly far away. She knew if she missed a grip and fell, despite her talent at landing, it was gonna hurt.
“Son of a Bacchae.” The warrior growled. She was aware of the forest dwellers on the opposite bank, watching her in the dimness with their excellent night vision. Looking like an idiot was never on her list of things to do, and she was very conscious of being stuck here hanging with no place left to go.
And then, it hit her. Her hands clenched down tight on the rock as a wave of fear almost swamped her, and she felt a gasp escape as she realized Gabrielle was in some kind of real trouble.
In trouble, and needing her. Xena’s eyes opened wide and she stared up at the ledge, gathering herself without really thinking about it and shoving off from the wall towards the edge of it. Her hands hit the stone, and she swung under it, feeling a shifting in the surface as it took her weight. Uh oh. Xena scrambled to pull herself up, getting boot’s purchase on the top of the ledge just as the stone let loose from the rock wall and plummeted downward along with her.
“HEY!” Brownie let out a startled yell.
Xena tumbled in mid air, working hard to get herself above the rock slide as it tumbled towards the water. Stones pelted her as she fell, and then she had just enough time to take a breath before it all hit.
The impact knocked her out. The darkness enveloped her and knocked the breath out of her lungs as more rocks piled up on top of where she lay. A roaring sound broke in to her confusion, and she suddenly felt a cold rush up over her body that shook her out of her daze.
“Xena!” Brownie’s voice was close now. He leaped over the rubble and grabbed her around the shoulders, kicking some of the rocks off her and pulling her clear of the water and onto the far shore. “Holy Ares! You did it!”
I did what? Xena blinked, lifting a shaking hand to rub her eyes. Her chest heaved, pulling air back into her body and she half turned to look back over her shoulder.
Her eyes widened to the limits of their ability.
The entire rock shelf had collapsed, filling the hole with staggering completeness. Wonderful, exactly as she’d planned it, however….
Now the cavern was rapidly filling with water, that had no where else to go. Already, it was roaring in and covering the ledges, and the forest dwellers were in it up to their kneecaps. “Right.” The warrior gathered her wits and got to her feet, grabbing hold of the wall to keep her balance. “Now we get to the highest point, and wait.”
“That was incredible.” Blackie blurted.
“It sure was.” Brownie agreed. “Wow.”
Yeah. Great. I meant to do that. Xena winced, as an injudicious breath made a broken rib apparent to her. All part of the plan. “Figured it’d be the fastest way.” She muttered.
“No lie.” Brownie edged higher on the ridge as the water level increased. “Woulda taken us all day to do half of that the hard route.”
“Yeah.” Blackie muttered.
Yeah. Xena leaned against the wall for a moment, forcing herself past the pain. The water was pouring in at such a rate, she had to keep pushing the forest dwellers further up the ridge just to keep it at mid thigh. “You can swim, right?”
Blackie looked back at her, his muzzle wrinkling.
Xena sighed. “Keep air in your lungs. It’ll help you float.” They reached the top of the ridge, and now could only stand, watching as the water swirled around their waists. It’s chill actually helped a little, taking the sting out of the long scrapes on her leg and easing the aches. “Okay, when it reaches your neck, just let go, and swim over to the gap over there.” She pointed at the dark spot in the ceiling.
“Why not try to swim out there?” Brownie asked, indicating the hole where the water was pouring in. “If we wait till it fills all up, it’s gotta stop, right?”
Xena looked at him. “One, how long can you hold your breath?” She asked, waiting a moment. “That’s what I thought. Two, we fell down the height of a tall tree.. how are you figuring on getting back up to the river level?”
Brownie sighed. “I’m just not sure that hole leads anywhere.”
Xena peered at the gap, then drew in a breath as the water topped her chest. “Me either.” She admitted. “But at least we’ll find out for sure now. C’mon.” She kicked away from the wall and started for the center of the cavern, swimming with powerful strokes of her arms.
Gabrielle scrambled under a set of bushes, then ducked past two low, overhanging limbs before she spotted a small crevice in the rocks and headed for it. She heard the forest dwellers behind her, the crackle of limbs being ripped off and the scrape of claws on rock that spurred her to move ever faster.
The pain was just an irrelevant thing. She focused on Xena, almost able to feel the pull of the warrior’s presence leading her on as she slipped between the narrow crags and edged her way up the side of the mountain.
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and managed a grim smile as she saw the first of her pursuers try to wedge his body into the space she’d disappeared into. She could see the wild rolling of his eyes, and the flash of fangs, as he extended an arm towards her full of impotent claws.
Sometimes, being little and short rocked. Gabrielle raced forward, pulling herself along with her hands as the crevice started upward. She could hear the forest dwellers circling, yelling as they searched for a way to follow her, and she knew, looking ahead, that she’d have to emerge eventually.
Question was, could she get to the top fast enough to be ahead of them or not?
“Just do it.” The bard told herself over and over again, reaching up and grabbing the edge of the rocks to gain speed. She got to the end of the crack and got her feet up under her, shoving up and throwing herself out of the crevice and up onto an uneven ledge.
Out of pure instinct, she rolled and tucked her arms and legs in, then got her back against the wall before she looked around. For a moment, it was silent save for her labored breathing. Then she heard yells, and she got to her knees, peering over the ledge.
Below her, the forest dwellers were scaling the rocks, searching for a way to get to the ledge she was on. It was only a matter of time, but at least she had some of that. Gabrielle turned and searched for her own best path, finding a narrow bit of rock that lead further up to an opening.
A cave. Gabrielle looked down, seeing the first of her followers gaining a hold on the lower section of the ledge she stood on. Well, there wasn’t much choice, was there? She turned and headed across the path, feelin the thump of her staff as it knocked against her back where it was slung.
She could just drop it, she reasoned, but she’d come to depend on it as Xena did her own weapons, and the gods knew, she’d probably need it before she was done with this.
Placing her hands flat on the rock, she inched along sideways, her boots scraping the small ledge, and kicking tiny pebbles off to bounce down the mountainside. “Don’t’ look down.” She muttered to herself, pressing her body against the stone.
She heard the yells get louder, but she had to concentrate on what she was doing or else risk falling off the mountain. Then her boots reached the end of the tiny ridge she was walking on, and she looked down, to see the ridge start up again an arms length further.
Without thinking, she simply stepped across the opening, hopping to the far end of the ledge and easing onto a wider part of the path before she considered the consequences.
Her boot slipped, and she only barely caught her balance, turning to watch a bit of the ridge she was balanced on crack off and tumble down the mountain to land on the rocks below. The bits bounced off and continued on, but she imagined for a moment her body landing on that very same rock, and not bouncing anywhere.
“Yikes.” Gabrielle turned and grabbed the rocks again, pulling herself upward towards the cave opening. She could see the forest dwellers heading in the same direction, trying to cut her off.
Then she felt a surge of powerful emotion coming down her link to Xena, and she forgot all about the forest dwellers. She scrambled off the ridge and onto the ledge near the cave opening, and broke into a full out run again.
Xena reached up and caught the edge of the opening, her fingers searching the rock for a handhold. She found one readily, and pulled herself up out of the water into the crack. It was large enough to readily admit her, though it would be a squeeze for the two forest dwellers. “Grab the rocks!” She yelled, hauling herself up out of the way and reaching for the next hold.
It was dark. The scent of decay was getting stronger, too, and Xena’s nose wrinkled as she worked her way up.
“Water’s coming after us!!” Brownie coughed. “Too fast!”
Yeah. Xena climbed faster, finding craggy footholds as she worked her way up the rocks. She could hear the water sloshing into the opening, and the scent of it rose strongly to her nose, along with the wet fur of the two behind her. She could feel the rock narrowing around her chest, and she grimaced. “Gonna have to squeeze up here.”
Brownie just coughed again. Blackie let out a yelp.
Xena found a small ledge ahead of her and she powered herself up onto it, glad to have a moment to plan her next move.
Then she wished she hadn’t. There was a gap of straight, smooth rock above her, with no handholds visible. Across from it, was a second ledge, higher up. “Okay.” Xena glanced down, to see both furry heads even with the ledge her boots were on. “I’m gonna jump. When I get over, you get up here, you jump, and I”ll catch you and pull you up.”
They looked up at her, their round, golden eyes just visible in the gloom. A slosh of water surged up between them, wetting them both and making them snort.
Xena smiled. “It’ll be all right.” She turned and measured, then crouched, and exploded away from the ledge, reaching out with both hands to catch the one on the far side. Her hands hit the dry stone and she grabbed it, pulling her body up and onto the ledge in one smooth move.
Then she continued the roll and got to her feet, bracing her boots securely, and readying herself for the effort of catching someone roughly twice her weight. “Go!”
Brownie had pulled himself up onto the ledge and now he hesitated for a moment, flexing his fingers as he stared across the chasm at her.
“C’mon.” Xena urged him. “We don’t have time!”
“I’ll pull us both down!” Brownie yelled back.
“No, you won’t.” The warrior told him. “Now JUMP!”
He jumped. Xena reached out and grabbed his hands as he neared, hauling her body backwards and yanking him out of the air to her side. “Next!!!”
Blackie was just climbing onto the ledge, the water swirling rapidly around his feet as he stood. He put a hand on the wall and took a few breaths, coughing fluid out of his lungs.
“Hurry.” Xena warned.
“You could just leave us here.” Brownie commented next to her.
Xena turned her head and looked at him, then returned her attention to Blackie. “JUMP!”
Blackie jumped. He slipped in the water, though, and lost momentum, his hands only barely getting to Xena’s as she leaned forward to grab him.
For a long instant, it was a dinar toss as to whether she’d pull both of them back, or they’d both plunge into the water. But Xena’s balance won out and they ended up slamming back against the rocks. “All right.” The warrior didn’t wait for comment. She started climbing again, following the craggy opening as it tilted to the right, and got a lot stinkier.
It was a perversely encouraging sign. Xena felt the water lick at her boots, and she moved faster, crawling up the short slope where the darkness was now fading into merely gray. She pulled herself up over one last piece of stone, and then stopped.
Blackie and Brownie crowded behind her, and stopped as well. “Oh.”
Xena stared at the small crack in the rock. It was barely big enough for her to put hand through, showing teasing flashes of a larger, empty space beyond.
With no way for her to get through to it. “Damn.” Xena uttered softly.
Blackie exhaled, a gust of warmth against her back that counterpointed against the cold of the water now creeping up her legs.
“Well.” Brownie murmured quietly. “It was a chance.”
Xena put her hand against the stone. Hating it. The water came up to her chest, and she knew she couldn’t hold back the truth anymore. With a quiet sigh, she let her head rest against the rock and reached out.
Gabrielle got to the entrance of the cave a step ahead of the forest dwellers, and turned the corner, immediately wishing she hadn’t.
The inside was worse than any abbatoir she’d ever seen, worse even than a battlefield. Death was everywhere, and the stench was almost overwhelming.
But she kept going anyway. She skirted a carcass and jumped over something covered in rats, hoping like anything that she wouldn’t lose her footing and go down in it.
She got past the worst of it and found dry rock, running along a short shelf of it and climbing up onto a higher level as the first of the forest dwellers entered the cave after her. The closest lunged and almost caught her boot, but she yanked her foot forward and got up, running again up a slope towards the back of the cave.
Xena’s presence was getting stronger. Gabrielle hoped she was close, or else she’d have to pick a spot to take a stand, and just do the best she could to defend herself.
She turned a corner, and spotted another ledge up a bit further. Her hands had barely touched it when she stumbled to a halt, as a gentle force reached out to her and stopped her in her tracks.
“No.” The sound wasn’t even speech. She vaulted to the top of the shelf and bolted, ignoring everything behind her.
“Hey, Xena?” Brownie said, suddenly.
The warrior opened her eyes and looked at him.
“You’re really all right.” The forest dweller said. “I’m sorry we tried to kill you.”
“Yeah.” Blackie added, tilting his head to keep his chin above the water. It was rising a little slower now, perversely prolonging their mortal ordeal. “You really are Ares Chosen, aren’t you?”
Xena sighed. “Yeah.” She admitted. “I am.” She put her back against the rocks and braced her boots against the crack in the wall, shoving against the unmoving stone out of pure, mean stubbornness.
Then the slim bit of light was blocked, and fingers reached in to touch her boot.
Xena reached forward and took them, knowing without a doubt whose they were.
The warrior pitched forward and pressed herself against the crack, hearing so much in her soulmate’s tone she didn’t want the forest dwellers to share. “Yeah.”
“Sorry.” Xena said, simply. “Stupid mistake.”
A soft, agonized sigh. “I love you.”
Xena stared through the crack for an endless moment. “Sweetheart?”
“Get away from the rocks, okay?”
“Xe, they’re solid.”
“I know. Get back.”
“I don’t want to leave you.”
“I know. Please.”
The warrior felt the grip on her fingers tighten, then she felt a warmth touch the backs of them that could only be Gabrielle’s lips. Reluctantly, the touch eased off, and the chill of the water took it’s place.
Xena closed her eyes, and braced her boots again. She reached inside herself and called on her will, secure in the knowledge that whatever the source, whatever the power she called on, she did it for all the right reasons.
Gabrielle was close to losing it. Her entire body was shaking, as she trembled on the very edge of a chasm she’d already fallen in once before. It had happened far too quickly, her mind wasn’t ready for it, wasn’t able to process the suddenness of the reality of Xena’s dying.
Staring at the rock wall trapping her soulmate, she ripped her staff from her back and slammed it against the granite, attacking the uncaring mountain with all the strength in her body.
A forest dweller came up behind her. Gabrielle sensed him. She turned as he reached for her and swung her staff at his head, catching him in total surprise and splitting his skull open. “AaaarrggghhH!” The bard felt the animal part of her emerge. She set herself before the crack in the stone, and faced off against the rest of them, her rage removing any trace of fear from her.
They attacked. She hated them with such intensity, she moved with a speed far exceeding what they expected and with her staff as a shield she held her ground.
She shoved them back, and lifted her staff, letting out a wild yell as she felt a surge of energy from Xena, knowing what was coming next and crossing the line into not caring what happened to her afterward.
The forest dwellers surged back, Gabrielle set herself for the end, and they all were caught by surprise as a wall of water exploded from the rocks and blew them all off the rock ledge they were standing on.
Gabrielle found herself being thrown against the stone walls, slamming her already abused body until she was numb and senseless under the onslaught of water. She knew she was coming to a long drop, and she scrambled to grab hold of something as the ledge dropped out from under her and the water swept on by.
In mid air, something big slammed into her, and the next thing she knew she was tumbling into a crevice in the cave as a wall of water cascaded over her, plunging to the cave floor below and taking the forest dwellers with it.
She didn’t care. She wrapped her arms around the solid, warm, soggy leather and metal covered item that had plucked her from the air and just didn’t care about anything else.
It didn’t matter. Not the pain she was in, or the fact that her throat was so raw she couldn’t speak, or the screams she could hear down below her. Nothing else mattered.
Xena hugged her soulmate close and blinked the blood out of her eyes, not entirely sure where she was, or what she’d done to get there, or what she was going to do next. All she knew was that Gabrielle was there with her and at the moment, nothing else mattered.
She watched the back of the nascent waterfall, her eyes transfixed by the sunlight sparkling through it as she felt Gabrielle kiss her on the cheek with trembling lips.
Somehow, she found a smile somewhere for that.