Xena didn’t really know how long they’d been lying there, wedged in the rock crevice as the water poured over them. All she knew was that they were relatively safe, if wet and uncomfortable, and she was desperately grateful for the respite, however meager.
The niche she’d spotted at the very last minute was just a fold in the rocks, a lucky fold that undercut the ledge the water was flowing over and had given her the opportunity to grab the tumbling figure she’d lunged after and pull them both into some kind of refuge.
She had no memory at all of what had happened once the water had come up over her head in the trap. She remembered the cold sting as it covered her eyes, and then….
And then the next thing she’d known was falling down and out and chaos with the unnerving roar of water around her and the white hot pinpoint of emotion she knew was Gabrielle before her. She’d gone for the heart of it, and lucked out, and here they were.
Together. Xena drew in an unsteady breath. Her body protested the motion, daggers of pain punching her in the chest from her broken ribs. But she was alive, and Gabrielle was, and as far as Xena was concerned her life had gotten immeasurably better just in the last while knowing that.
Now, they had to move forward.
Gabrielle was shivering in her arms. She knew her partner was hurt, possibly more seriously than she had been earlier. But the more worrying to Xena was the sense of emotional chaos she could feel coming down their link. Slowly, she shifted her grip, cradling Gabrielle as carefully as she could. “Hey.”
The bard merely huddled closer to her, her hands wrapped in the sodden fabric around Xena’s body.
“Gab?” Xena whispered. “Gabrielle?”
Her partner was crying. The warrior could feel the jerks in her breathing and she exhaled, squirming around just a bit onto her back and laying Gabrielle’s body over hers. This took the strain off the bard’s back, and she perceptibly relaxed, slumping against Xena’s chest and breathing a little easier. “It’s okay.” Xena murmured, easing her hands over Gabrielle’s spine and probing carefully. “Sweetheart, I’ve got you. You’re gonna be okay.”
“Auuggh.” Gabrielle managed a pathetic, aching sound.
“Easy.” The warrior said. “Easy, honey. You’re gonna be okay. I’m gonna take care of you, I promise. It’s okay.” She could feel the injury now, an ugly lump that was hot under her fingertips. Her own injuries got tossed into the back of her mind and she concentrated on getting her soulmate to relax her rigid muscles, which she knew were causing her utter agony. “Eeaaasy.” She ran her hands lightly over Gabrielle’s skin.
“Ungh.” Gabrielle turned her head slightly, her breath warming Xena’s neck. “Xe.”
“I’m here.” Xena stroked her wet hair with shaking fingers. “I’m here, sweetheart.”
“I know.. I can feel it.” The warrior told her. “Did the forest dwellers do this to you, honey?” She could feel the tension very slowly relaxing under her touch, as she worked pressure points on a body as familiar to her as her own. “What did they do to you?”
“Ugh.” Gabrielle exhaled slowly. “Hurt before, but now… gods.” She got out. “Breathing hurts.”
“Try to relax.” Xena urged. “It’ll help the pain.”
“Gods.” The bard coughed a little. “M…messed up.”
“Yeah, I know.” The warrior sighed. “But at least taking care of you is taking my mind off my broken ribs.” She attempted a bit of wan humor. “Silver lining, huh?”
Gabrielle groaned. “Xe, I’m lying on your ribs.”
“Just one more of my life’s little trials.” Xena finished her examination, leaving a deep pit of worry in her guts. Gabrielle was, in fact, seriously injured, all her attempts at reassurance aside. “Don’t feel a thing, honest.”
Xena cradled Gabrielle’s head carefully, keeping it as still as she could. “Hm?”
“Love you.” The bard whispered. “Thanks for not dying on me.” Her breathing quickened a little. “Think I lost it…”
“Me too.” Xena reassured her. “Don’t worry about it. It’s over. It’s past.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle’s lips touched the skin on Xena’s neck, pressing lightly against it. She was cold, and in enormous pain but it was hard for her to make that matter against the utter relief of being able to hear the music of her partner’s heartbeat under her ear. That mattered. That made it okay. Xena was here, and now things could only get better. She kissed Xena again, just because she could, and felt the answering pressure of Xena’s lips on the top of her head.
The thunder of the water pouring over her was starting to get on her nerves. Gabrielle opened one eye and looked at it, momentarily charmed by the sparkle of the sunlight caught in the flow. Then she realized however pretty it was, the damn stuff was blocking their way out and she started trying to figure out how they were going to get out of where they were.
“We have to get out of here.” Xena said. “We’re both too cold.”
Gabrielle had never heard her partner include herself like that before. It made her forget her pain for a moment, and she peered up at Xena’s face, seeing the slight tremor in her lips and the pale tinge to her skin. “Right.” She murmured. “Honey, I don’t think I can walk.”
Dark lashes flickered, and the pale blue orbs tilted down to look at her. “No, I know you can’t.” Xena said. “I’m going to have to hold you, and just jump.”
“I know.” The warrior stroked her hair. “I know it’s bad, Gabrielle.”
“I mean, for you.” The bard objected. “Xe, you’re hurt.”
Xena looked around, then looked down at her, as one eyebrow cocked upward along with the edge of her lips on that side. It was as eloquent as an Athens bard, and Gabrielle had to manage a smile in reaction. “Okay, okay.” The blond woman relented. “I know, no other way. I get it.”
“I’m going to put you out.” Xena told her quietly. “Just until we get out of this place.”
Gabrielle gazed trustingly at her. “Do what you have to do, partner. Just be careful.”
Xena kissed her on the head again, with gentle passion. “See you on the other side of this thing, my love.” Carefully, she pressed two points on Gabrielle’s neck, and felt the bard go completely limp against her. She knew she only had a limited amount of time, so she simply gathered Gabrielle up against her, holding her upper body as firmly as possible with one arm and shoved them both off the ledge and through the waterfall.
The water hit her like a hammer, but her forward motion drove them both clear of the flow and she was in free fall, orienting herself in mid air as she recognized her surroundings. The forest dweller’s cave was in shambles. Xena had only a moment to acknowledge a sense of vengeful justice before a slippery ledge was coming up under her fast and she had to get ready to land them both.
She hit with both legs slightly bent, and the force almost sent her sprawling. But Gabrielle’s injuries were foremost in her mind and she straightened up and leaped off the ledge to the next one, which was much drier and flat. Then she shifted her grip on Gabrielle, scooping her up to cradle her against her chest before she started down the side of the cavern.
At the edge of the rocks, she paused and gazed around her. Sodden, limp bodies were scattered around, obviously lifeless, and the ring of stones she’d climbed on during her last abortive visit were toppled.
Ruined. Xena dropped her eyes to the quiet, pale figure resting in her arms and felt no remorse whatsoever. She hoped all the bastards had died in the flood.
Well, maybe not Brownie and Blackie. They deserved to survive, after going through what she had.
With that, she hopped to the next ledge and made her way to the cave entrance, stepping carefully through the thin racing of water that in the center poured out from the cave’s mouth. The new falls gushed out over the stone, wrecking the forest as it carved it’s way ever lower, an irresisitable force that swept everything before it.
Xena stepped out into the sunlight. For a moment she leaned back against the granite wall, absorbing it’s heat and feeling a bit of pure joy as the colors of the world flooded back into her vision starved for them after being underground for so long.
Then she found her path down the side of the rocks and followed it, heading for the forest, needing a sanctuary for both of them.
Xena stumbled backwards through the thick hedge, shaking her shoulders with an aggressive snarl as she broke through the inner barrier and then almost landed on her back as the resistance to her passage vanished.
She wrenched her body around and almost groaned in relief, seeing an open, sun spattered space surrounded by thick yew hedges on all sides. She dropped to her knees in the center of it, and laid Gabrielle carefully down on her belly on the soft moss covered ground.
After a moment to flex her hands, and get the feeling back into her fingers, she released the hold on her partner’s neck, and grabbed her shoulders as the bard’s eyes opened and she inhaled in shock. “Easy. I’m right here.”
“Augh.” Gabrielle whispered. “Where are we?”
“In a safe place.” Xena told her quietly. “I need to take care of where you’re hurt.” She moved the bard’s hair aside, and used her small dagger to cut through the fabric of her tunic, exposing her spine. “Damn.”
“It feels like damn.” Gabrielle said. “I can’t move without it hurting so bad I want to scream, Xena. What’s wrong? It wasn’t that bad before.” Her voice was tense, and had a hoarse tinge to it.
“Just relax.” Xena put a hand on her shoulder. “If you get upset, it’s gonna hurt worse.”
Gabrielle put her head down on the ground and tried to comply. She was glad to be out of the cave, at least, and very grateful for the warm sunlight dappling her body through the leaves. The pain was making her sick to her stomach, and for a moment she wished Xena would just put her out again.
With a sigh, she concentrated on examining the nearby view of Xena’s leg as the warrior knelt next to her. She could see gashes in the fabric of Xena’s leggings, and beneath that the rust of dried blood. Her ears also detected the fact that her soulmate was breathing a little more heavily, and it was almost a relief to transfer some of her worry over her own injury to her partner’s condition. “How are you doing?”
“I’m… all right.” Xena answered. “Gab, I need to build a fire. I’m gonna…” The warrior paused. “Too much swelling in there. I.. think we need to get it out.”
“It’ll make you feel better.” Xena promised, her hand coming to rest on Gabrielle’s with a gentle squeeze. “Just rest, and I’ll get some wood.”
Resting sounded like a good idea. Gabrielle concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths as she watched Xena stand and circle the little clearing, collecting fallen branches. Now in the sunlight, she could see how battered the warrior was, and the uncharacteristic slump to her shoulders. “Honey?”
“Mm?” Xena dropped an armful of branches down and went back to her searching, this time for tinder.
“You look crummy.” The bard observed.
Xena returned and dropped back down to the ground, beginning to put together the wood. “I feel crummy.” She admitted quietly. “Been a long couple of days.. stuck in a dark hole with people wanting to kill me.”
Despite the pain, Gabrielle shifted and slid her arm out to one side, putting her hand on her partner’s knee where a ragged rent exposed it through the legging. The skin was warmer to the touch than it should have been. Xena seemed to appreciate the touch though, since she shifted closer.
“Scared for myself, scared for you… stupid damn forest dwellers being jerks…” Xena muttered.
Gabrielle stroked her knee with her fingers.
“Son of a bacchae.” Xena snarled at the flint and striker in her hands, which were still damp from their long immersion. “Stupid pieces of..”
“Xe.” Gabrielle watched the temper tantrum roil over her partner’s angular features. “Sweetheart?”
“What?” The warrior snapped.
“It’s not your fault you caught cold in there.” The bard rubbed her thumb in a circle. “Why don’t you just sit down and rest for a few minutes, let those dry in the sun.”
Xena sat down with a grunt of disgust, tossing the useless fire starters onto a sunny patch and letting her elbows rest on her knees. “Damn it.” Now the hoarse note was very audible in her voice. She cleared her throat and propped her head up against one fist, her other hand finding Gabrielle’s and clasping it.
They sat there in silence for a while, two hurting souls finding solace in each other as the sun spread through their hiding place and burnished them both with golden light. Finally, Xena picked up her flint and examined it, then she retrieved the striker and hunkered over the branches, sending efficient sparks down over them.
Gabrielle left her hand draped over the warrior’s knee, just wanting the comfort in the contact. The pain was getting worse, and worse, and she didn’t even feel like talking as a distraction from it. After a few minutes, her eyelids fluttered closed and she heard the sounds around her fade out to a buzz.
A soft crackle made her open her eyes, to see a fire burning strongly nearby, shedding it’s warmth over her. Xena was rubbing her hands over it, and she had her dagger out on her knee. Gabrielle felt a shiver come over her as she looked at it, remembering the pain she’d gone through when Xena had tended her back injury during the war. “Xe?”
The warrior turned. “Almost ready.”
Gabrielle blinked at her. “I… don’t know if I can take.. you doing that.” She admitted, in a whisper. “S’gettting to me.”
Xena touched her cheek. “Don’t worry. I’m going to put you out. I can’t risk you jumping around when I’m trying to fix things.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle was almost ashamed of her utter relief. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Xena pushed the disheveled blond hair out of her eyes. “We’ll get you fixed up, then I gotta go see if I can scrounge some herbs.”
“Ugh.” The bard exhaled.
Xena had been holding her dagger to the fire, and now she drew it out, the blade glowing a dull orange. She swiveled and settled next to Gabrielle’s sprawled body, and paused, meeting her eyes.
“You’re scared.” The bard whispered.
Xena hesitated, then nodded.
“It’s a bad injury.” The warrior said.
But Gabrielle merely gazed confidently at her. “You’ll fix it.” She closed her eyes and put her head down, waiting for Xena’s touch at her neck. “You can fix anything.”
Xena gently put the pinch on her, then she let her head rest against her upraised, clenched hands and acknowledged the terrible weight on her shoulders. Then she exhaled and pushed her hair back and examined again the problem before her.
She was tired, and she knew she had a fever – the long days in the cold darkness had left their mark on her. But all that paled before the ugly swelling on Gabrielle’s neck, and without her stock of herbs, or even a rudimentary healer’s kit save a single bone needle she’d found inside her belt pouch and a short length of gut – she knew she’d better get it right the first time and not screw up.
She eased into a better position and pulled the fabric back a little more, exposing the injury. Gabrielle was completely relaxed under the pinch, and the sun now revealed the bruising that extended over most of the exposed parts of her body aside from her back. Xena shook her head sadly, then she checked the knife, the blade cooled now, and went to work.
“Gods, I hope I know what in Hades I’m doing.” The warrior spoke aloud, as she carefully probed the swelling, and inserted the tip of her knife into her soulmate’s skin. It almost made a sound as the blade parted it, and as she went a little deeper she her hands were suddenly drenched with Gabrielle’s blood as it erupted from the cut and spilled down the tanned skin of her back.
Xena pulled her knife back and put gentle pressure on the spot, wincing as pus along with a lot more blood came pouring out. She spotted tiny flecks of bone, and she picked one up, frowning at it’s jagged sharpness. “Damn.”
After a few minutes, the blood flow slowed, and she washed the wound with squirts from the waterskin she’d filled from the stream just outside their refuge. Already, the spot looked better – the lump was gone, and the bard’s neck had regained some of it’s usual lines.
But the fragments worried Xena. She washed the wound out again and again, then, parting the sides, she peered inside it with anxious eyes. The white of Gabrielle’s spine was visible, and she saw then the area that had been crunched in whatever had given her the wound. A wafer of sharp bone was sticking out between two of the parts of her back.
That didn’t look right. Xena eased her fingertips into the cut and took a firm hold of the wafer, pulling cautiously at it and wiggling it out of it’s crevice between the round bones. The pressure had been driving it further and further in, and Xena knew enough about butchering to know that between the spinal bones was a string that held them together, and if that string was severed…
She lifted her hand and looked at the sharp slice. Gabrielle had come that close to an injury even Xena would have no hope of fixing.
The same injury as the forest dweller in Jessan’s story.
Gods. The warrior put her shaking hand down on her knee and took a moment just to breathe. There had been other chips of bone, she had no idea how many. “Gods.” She whispered, putting the bit down and going back to the wound. She rinsed it out again and again, parting the cut with her fingers as she tried to make sure she’d gotten out every speck of it.
Finally, she let the cut close, and got out her bit of gut and needle, threading it almost mechanically before she took careful stitches and closed the opening up.
She wiped the area, cleaning the blood off, then she took a moment to collect herself before she reached over and released the block on Gabrielle’s neck.
For a moment, the bard was still, then her eyes slowly fluttered open, bloodshot and exhausted as she lifted her eyes to Xena’s face. “Ugh.”
“It’s done.” Xena told her. “Best I can do for now, anyway.” She laid a hand on Gabrielle’s hip, watching her anxiously. “Move for me.”
The bard frowned, but she opened her hands and closed them, then she shifted, just slightly and wiggled a booted foot at her partner. “Mm.” She grunted low in her chest. “Not so bad.” A look of pained relief crossed her face. “Better.” She managed a rakish smile for her watching partner. “See? Tolja you could fix anything.”
Xena took hold of her hand. “Wasn’t good, Gabrielle. We’ve got to get you out of here, and back to where I can really take care of that.”
“Back to our daughter.” Gabrielle added, with a solemn nod. “Poor Dori.. I promised her I’d be right back with you.”
Poor Dori. Xena had to put that out of her mind for the time being. “First things first. We get out of this damn valley.” She said. “Lemme go see if I can grab some herbs… and more water.” She squeezed the bard’s hand. “You..”
“Stay here and rest.” Gabrielle finished for her. “I will.” She reached up and stroked Xena’s forearm, which now seemed very warm to her touch. “I think you better take a little rest yourself.”
“No time.” Xena pushed herself to her feet and looked around. She staggered a little as her knees threatened to unlock and she shook her head in aggravation, feeling the heaviness settling into her chest with a sense of utter disgust.
She hated being sick. She hated it even more than usual because right now she didn’t have time to *be* sick. She had an injured partner to take care of, a valley to cross, and damned mountain to get up. There was just no time for this bacchae dropping stupidity!
Xena turned, to see Gabrielle gazing at her, one arm now tucked under her head, a relatively good sign. “Yees?”
“I’d rest a lot better if I didn’t have to worry about you keeling over. Please go get your stuff and come back.” The bard said. “Please?”
Bah. “Don’t move.” Xena gave her a wry smile, then she turned and shoved her way through the bushes.
Gabrielle exhaled. The pain was still there, of course, but now it was a totally different pain. Instead of the aching stiffness, shot through with jolts of agony when she stirred, the pain now centered on the back of her neck where Xena had cut her and it had a sharp, almost clean quality to it.
It wasn’t like she enjoyed it, but she recognized the difference and knew it for a good one. And, when she moved her arms and legs, she no longer felt like she was being ripped apart. Experimentally, she eased one leg up a little, taking some of the pressure off her upper body.
The change was very welcome. She knew she’d have to get on her feet so they could get out of the valley – and besides, it was starting to look like she might have to share her invalid status with her very obviously going rapidly downhill partner.
What a pair. Gabrielle had to smile, very wryly. They were both in a lot of trouble, but they were together and together, they would make it through. She swallowed, feeling the rawness of her throat from screaming, and she pushed aside the cold memory of that moment of madness. Xena was right. It was over, it was in the past, and now they had lots of other things to worry about.
Far off, her ears suddenly caught a howl, rising over the trees in a mixture of grief and rage.
Lots of other things. Gabrielle realized grimly.
“Ah.” Xena finally spotted what she was looking for, and dropped to one knee, collecting the fresh herbs and stuffing them into her belt pouch. She found another useful plant nearby, and on further investigation, she also discovered something even more useful.
It was a nut, but one twice the size of her fist. Xena knew she could clean and break it open, and it would provide a cup for them to share some hot tea from.
Gods, she wanted that. Xena felt a little embarrassed at the craving for creature comforts, so she convinced herself she was doing it for Gabrielle instead. Scrounging around in the underbrush she located a treat – a mint bush she immediately snatched up and near the base of a tree she spotted some mushrooms.
Now, Xena wasn’t fond of mushrooms, but she knew Gabrielle was, and after carefully checking them over to make sure they weren’t poisonous, she contentedly collected some.
Not having their gear was tough. She’d become used to having at least the basics and having nothing but her hands, and her weapons to work with made life a lot more difficult. Holding onto the tree for balance, she stood and leaned against it, looking around for anything else that might be useful.
Her body felt drained. Xena could rarely recall feeling this tired before, fever or no fever, and she had to rest a minute, before she pushed off from the tree and started back to their little hideout. She was starting to shiver, and her head was pounding and she knew this was going to be a bad one.
Damn, damn, damn. Xena made her way back to the hedges. On the way she collected more firewood, laying it over her shoulders and plowing stolidly ahead through the thick leaf litter underfoot. She was aware of being hungry, but in a far off kind of way that she realized was a dangerous sign. Her boot kicked against something and she looked down, then stopped and knelt by a distinctive stalk, putting her hand on it and tugging hard.
The soil overturned, releasing the plant and sending a rich, fertile scent to Xena’s nose. Hanging from the stalk were several large, well formed tubers. With a grunt, the warrior pulled up two more nearby, then got up and forced her way back through the hedges.
Gabrielle sucked on the waterskin Xena had left next to her, swallowing the water more to fill her belly with something than to quench any nagging thirst. The familiar scent of the leather was also a little comforting, and she idly ran her hand over the worn surface, fingering the tiny pebble beads she’d threaded on it.
Xena had given her such a look for that. Gabrielle grinned a little, remembering the teasing. She also remembered stalking the warrior after it, threatening to string beads on her leathers, an outrage that had lead to them chasing each other around the meadow they all were camped in, much to Dori’s amazed delight.
She remembered the time they were traveling, and she’d had her cycles, and Xena had used this very waterskin to sooth them, heating it near the fire and teaching her a new skill she’d used ever since.
She remembered Xena laying her lap, drinking water obediently as Gabrielle held the waterskin for her, their eyes locked together in peaceful silence.
She remembered all the times they’d squirted each other, on hot days on the road.
The tapestry of their life together was made of so many colors… so many textures. Gabrielle looked back on all the glories and horrors, and firmly told herself that this thread, no matter how nasty and gray it looked at the moment, would eventually be woven into that tapestry to be looked back on at some future date, when time had put it into perspective for her.
And then the knowledge of how close to being cut that thread had been came over her, and she bowed her head down, unable to shrug off the horror of it as it brought tears to her eyes all over again.
She didn’t even hear Xena approach. She just felt her partner’s presence surround her and the next thing she knew she was being cradled in Xena’s arms, her body half resting in the warrior’s lap. She could smell fresh dirt on Xena’s skin, and the solid reality of her skin and the thunder of her heartbeat brought Gabrielle back to herself. “Ugh… sorry.”
“What happened?” Xena’s voice sounded worried. “Did you try to get up? I found something I can give you for the pain, Gab… “
“No.” The bard sighed. “I just lost it there for a minute.” She sniffled. “Just hit me from around a corner, I guess.” She patted the very significant solidness of her partner’s thigh. “I’m okay.”
Xena didn’t let go of her. “I don’t think either of us is okay.” The warrior remarked. “But at least we’re going to Hades in a reed basket together.”
That brought a smile to Gabrielle’s face. “Mm.” She murmured agreement. “Let me try sitting up.” She suggested. “I think it’d be more comfortable.”
“You should lie down.”
The bard sighed. “So should you.”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re one stubborn woman?”
“Takes one to know one.”
Xena’s hands supported her as she settled crosslegged on the moss. She rested her elbows on her knees, her chin on her fists and found that it was, in fact, more comfortable. “That’s better.”
“It is?” The warrior queried, sounding mildly surprised and somewhat suspicious.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle confirmed. “Less strain on my neck. On the ground I was trying to keep my head up…or to one side.” She glanced at her partner. “Like this I can keep it straight and it’s not pulling on the stitches.”
Xena leaned behind her and checked her handiwork. “Hmph.”
Gabrielle wiped the tears off her face, and watched as the warrior sorted through the booty she’d brought back. It wasn’t much, and she could see the furrow in Xena’s brow, and the weary exhaustion showing clearly to her eyes through the stoic mask. “So there.”
She reached up and gently stroked Xena’s face, feeling the warrior lean into the touch.
Xena looked at her. “That injury in your neck… came very close to making it impossible for you to ever do that again.”
Gabrielle froze. “What?”
Xena stuck the tubers into the fire, under the ash that had built up on the bottom of it. Then she pulled something out of her belt pouch and showed it to Gabrielle. It was a small, white sliver, dusted with rusty red stains. “This was in your spine.”
The bard’s eyes widened.
“If it’d kept going, it would have eventually cut right through.”
Gabrielle flexed her hand and stared at it. “I would have been…”
“Yeah.” The warrior said. “So if I tell you to lie down, damn it, Gabrielle, do what I tell you, okay?” She said. “Don’t’ argue with me on this.”
Gabrielle shivered, imagining for a moment what it might have been like. To be completely helpless… unable to move.. unable to even do anything with out Xena’s help. “Gods.” She whispered. “But you fixed, it right?”
Xena’s hand touched her face, and she lifted her eyes to the warrior’s. “I did the best I could. I don’t know if there aren’t more pieces in there.” She said. “That’s why I want you to do what I tell you, and just don’t push it, Gabrielle.”
“Okay.” The bard replied meekly. “But we have to get out of here.”
The warrior exhaled heavily. “I know.” She handed over the mushrooms. “Here.” She sniffled a little herself, and wiped the back of her hand across her face. “I need to make sure your back doesn’t start swelling again before we move anywhere.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle inspected a mushroom, turning it around until she found a perfect spot, and then biting into it. She watched Xena carefully open the nut. “Mm.” She grunted. “You like the inside of that.”
“Yeah.” Xena poked her dagger tip in and loosened the nutmeat. “But that’s not why I kept it.” She set the meat aside and peered inside the nut. Then she took a handful of the herbs she’d collected and crushed them, dropping them inside the cup and adding water from the skin.
“Want me to get some rocks?”
“Just sit there.” Xena fished in the ashes of the fire with her knife and retrieved some glowing, hot pebbles. She maneuvered them onto the blade, then dropped them into the nut cup. Then she set the nut down into the ashes and exhaled.
Gabrielle quietly ate her mushrooms, knowing better than to offer Xena any. The warrior often claimed she didn’t like them, but the truth was that they made her sick, her skin breaking out into nasty, itchy welts unless Gabrielle cooked them very thoroughly. The fact simply was that Xena hated to admit to any kind of weakness, even the silliest of them. “Want to put your head down here for a little while?” She patted her thigh.
Xena glared grumpily at her.
Gabrielle wasn’t in the least bit intimidated. She reached out and tweaked the warrior’s nose. “Cmon, tiger. Fighting with each other isn’t going to make either of us feel any better.”
The warrior rested her chin on her fist. “We weren’t fighting.”
Gabrielle patted her thigh again, and simply waited. With an aggrieved look, Xena finally gave in and gracefully rolled onto her side, settling her head down on the bard’s leg while she swirled the makeshift teacup around with one hand. “How did you hurt you neck?” She asked, after a moment.
“Well.” Gabrielle was glad to have something to keep her mind off her injury. Xena’s words had scared the dickens out of her. “I was following you.”
“Because Lestan asked me to.” The bard said. “He said he needed to talk to you, so I said I’d find you and bring you back.”
“You could have just wanted me bad enough.” Xena remarked.
Gabrielle chewed her mushrooms for a minute. “Yeah, you’re right.” She admitted. “I could have tried that, but I guess I figured it wasn’t a big deal, and I just went to go find you.”
Gabrielle leaned back cautiously against the tree she was sitting in front of, and draped her arm over Xena’s shoulder. Just the touch made her feel better, and she could see the slow relaxation of her partner’s body as well. “Anyway, I found that ledge you must have jumped off.”
“Ah.” Xena turned her head and looked up. “You didn’t try to jump that, did you?”
“Xena, I’m crazy in love with you, but not crazy.” Gabrielle retorted. “No, I did not try to jump that.” She said. “I got a big piece of vine, tied it off, and climbed down.”
“Hmph.” Xena returned to her swirling.
“Except that Rufus decided he didn’t want me to go down into this valley, and he cut the vine.”
That brought Xena’s body all the way around so that the warrior was lying on her back with a pair of bright blue eyes glaring right up at Gabrielle’s face. “He tried to kill you?”
Gabrielle stroked her partner’s cheek, rubbing off a bit of dirt on one angular cheekbone. “You’re so pretty.” She murmured, touching a fingertip to Xena’s lower lip.
“Yes, I think he tried to kill me.” The bard sighed. “But I was low enough… I just sort of pushed off the wall and jumped, and I caught that lower ledge thing.” She said. “I hit my chin on it and it knocked my head backwards.. that’s how I hurt my neck.”
“That son of a..” The warrior surged up, restless energy twitching all over her body. “I knew I should have just gutt..”
“Xe.” Gabrielle very gently pulled her back down. “I don’t give a rats ass about him.”
“Gabrielle, how ca.”
“Listen to me.” The bard leaned close, laying one hand on her partner’s cheek. “Listen to me… I almost lost you. “ The words came out in a whisper. “It was so close I could feel it, Xena. I don’t care about him. I don’t care about what he did, or what he wants, or anything else. Only you matter.”
Xena lay absolutely still.
Gabrielle leaned a little further, and kissed her, reveling in the living warmth of her lips. Then she backed off, to find those blue eyes still looking at her, only softened now, open and gentle as Xena was with her alone.
Even Dori never got this look.
“You scared me.” Gabrielle said, softly. “I woke up this morning and I could feel you around me… like the last time.”
Gabrielle gazed at her mutely.
Xena’s look went remote for a moment, then sharpened. “I… was inside the cavern last night.” She said. “I just… was wondering about you and I closed my eyes… and I could see you.”
“Like I could… then.” Xena said. “I wanted to hug you.. I saw you were hurt.”
Gabrielle remembered, suddenly, that moment as she’s slipped into an exhausted sleep that she’d imagined the bliss of her partner’s touch and the wonderful comfort of arms closing around her. “You did.” She stroked Xena’s face, moving the locks of dark hair out of her eyes.
They rested like that for a while in silence, touching each other. Twining their fingers together.
Then Xena took a sip from the cup, and offered it to Gabrielle. They shared the herbal tea, as Xena dug up the tubers and they ate them together. They finished them, and shared Xena’s nut, before the warrior spoke again.
“Think my fever’s getting worse.” Xena stifled a cough. “I don’t have the herbs I need for this.” She glanced up. “Might be able to find them on the way out of here.”
Gabrielle nodded. “We’ll just take it very slow, and easy.”
Xena also nodded. “If anyone comes after us, I’m not gonna have the luxury of asking questions.” She stated quietly. “Can’t take the risk, Gabrielle.”
“I know.” Gabrielle hugged her. “I don’t want you to take any risks. I won’t either.”
“All right.” The warrior absorbed the hug. “Let’s get going, then.” She sat up and checked Gabrielle’s neck, finding the wound dry, and cool to the touch. “Move slow, don’t twist your head.”
They packed up the meager supplies they’d found, and doused the fire carefully. Then, with the sun slanting westward, they made their way out of the hedges, and started on the path home.
Gabrielle paused to rest, leaning against the rough bark of a nearby tree as a roll of thunder echoed over their heads. Xena put a hand on the trunk next to her and tipped her head back, regarding the sky with a concerned scowl, so Gabrielle took advantage of that to step closer and let her body press against the warrior’s. She could feel the fever paradoxically warming Xena’s skin, and causing her to shiver and she huddled close, sharing her own body heat with her partner.
“Mm.” Xena leaned her chin briefly on Gabrielle’s head. “Weather’s getting pretty chancy.”
“We made pretty good time, though.’ Gabrielle pointed out, glancing back the way they came. They were halfway across the valley, admittedly having traveled only over flat areas relatively easy to walk through. “We should take cover. Let the rain blow over, Xena. You don’t need to get wet again.”
The warrior stifled a cough. “You’re right.” She agreed quietly. “And you need to rest.”
Gabrielle remained silent for a few moments, then she exhaled. “Yes, I do.”
Xena circled her with one arm and gave her belly a gentle rub. “Okay. Let’s find some shelter. We’ll let the storm pass over, then keep going.” In truth, she welcomed the storm’s approach because it forced them to do something she knew was a good idea anyway. She’d noticed that Gabrielle had started to limp slightly and she’d gotten very quiet in the last candlemark. “How are you doing?”
“Hurts.” Gabrielle stated, briefly. “There’s an overhang over there, Xena. You think it’s big enough for us?”
The first big, fat droplets of rain were spattering around them as they gained the shelter of the small outcropping Gabrielle had spotted. It wasn’t large, but there was a niche they could sit on, and the ground sloped away from it slightly carrying the rapidly pooling water in the other direction. Xena inched back as far as she could and settled Gabrielle between her legs, wrapping her arms around her as they watched the light rain turn into an impenetrable sheet.
Gods, it felt good to be sitting down, out of the cold wind. Xena felt a chill work it’s way through her body and she clamped her jaw muscles shut to keep her teeth from chattering. A heaviness had settled over her head and chest and the urge to give in and close her eyes was almost overwhelming. She wasn’t sure what annoyed her the most – the fact that something as insignificant to her as this was affecting her so badly, or the fact that she was really having to fight not to give into it.
She put that down to the fact that after two days of Hades under that mountain, little food and little sleep, she was just too damn tired to throw it off like she usually did. But it still annoyed her.
Gabrielle, of course, had no such problem. She half turned and snuggled up to Xena’s chest, putting her head down on the warrior’s shoulder and closing her eyes. “I think it’s..” She paused. “I’m trying not to jar my back, and everything else is getting tensed up.”
Xena ran one hand lightly down the bard’s side, and grunted, feeling the knotted muscles just under her skin. She let her fingers start a easy rhythm over them, working at the stiffened areas with practiced skill. “Wonder what Dori’s up to.” She mused. “Hope she isn’t getting into too much trouble.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle grunted softly. “Xena, do you think those guys are tracking us?”
“The forest dwellers?”
“Two of them have been following us for about two candlemarks.” Xena told her. “They’ve been staying back, just close enough for me to catch them.”
Gabrielle felt a distinct chill come over her. “On purpose?”
“Probably.” Xena carefully moved Gabrielle’s hair out of the way and checked her injury. The line of stitches stood out sharply against her skin and she could sense the discomfort Gabrielle was in from her twitchy restlessness. “Where does it hurt?”
“Everywhere.” Gabrielle sighed. “Why are they doing this, Xena? We never did anything to them that wasn’t good, and I know it.” She winced as Xena’s fingers carefully examined her back. “Ow.”
“Lot of bruising in there.” Xena said. “Headache?”
Xena finished her examination, cautiously pleased. “It’s not swelling up again. That’s good.”
“Yippee.” Gabrielle grumbled. “Then I feel totally sucky for no reason. Great.” She thumped her head very gently against Xena’s shoulder. Then she paused and pressed her ear against the warrior’s chest. After a moment, she pulled her head back and looked up at her partner. “Uh oh.”
Xena cleared her throat.
“I recognize that sound.” The bard’s eyes searched Xena’s face.
Having heard the rattling herself, Xena could only grimace in acknowledgement. The sickness had settled into her lungs, the same way it often did to Gabrielle and she was already beginning to have difficulty breathing. “Yeah. I’ve got just the thing for it back at the village.” She said. “Along with stuff for your neck. So the sooner we get there, the better.”
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s side, and gave her a comforting rub. “Sorry I was being whiny.”
Xena merely smiled.
“Y’know… I’m trying to remember just when it was that I knew I could whine at you and you’d love me anyway.” The bard went on. “When I knew you weren’t going to send me home, or leave me on the wayside somewhere…”
“I was never going to do that.” Xena commented.
“Well, I know, honey, but I didn’t know that then.” Gabrielle kept up her light stroking. “I look back at us then, and I have to wonder, what were you thinking?”
“What was I thinking.” Xena pulled her close again, and gazed over her shoulder at the rain. “It’d been such a damn long time since anyone had looked at me as anything but an animal… I don’t know. Maybe… I think I was just so tired at that time in my life that it was a relief just to have someone not hate me.”
Gabrielle wondered for a moment what that must have felt like, and then, in her own experience, she found she already knew. “Yeah.” She leaned against the warrior’s body. “Xe, why are the forest dwellers doing this? It’s not really about going back to nature, is it?”
Xena was a trifle surprised at the change in subject, but she went along with it. “Nah.” She shook her head. “It’s all about power, Gabrielle. It always is. In the old ways, the strongest ruled.”
“Not really, because he was twisted, and he found some people who were twisted like he was, but.. well…” Xena shifted a little. “One of the things civilization does to us is force us to share power, sometimes with people who are weaker, or less skilled, or poorer than we are.”
“That’s not natural to us, and it’s not natural to the forest dwellers.” The warrior said, placidly. “That’s not how nature works. The strong survive and breed. The weak die.” She added. “So if you’re a nice, big, very strong man, and you can’t have power because what you perceive as older, or weaker people have it, it’s natural to want to change that.”
“Xena, that’s anarchy. The person in charge should be the one who is most capable of being a good leader. It’s not about muscles.” Gabrielle protested. “Look at me, with the Amazons.”
Blue eyes gazed fondly at her. “Gabrielle, be honest.” Xena said. “Would the Amazons have listened to you if you hadn’t had muscle to back you up?”
The bard scowled.
“At first?” Xena added, hastily. “Not now. Now you lead them because you’re the best leader, and you’ve got the strength all around to do it.”
Gabrielle’s lips twisted wryly. “No.” She exhaled. “I know that. But that’s not right, Xena.”
“It’s not. It makes more sense to have capable people as leaders.” The warrior agreed. “But it’s not natural. So, I think we’re seeing the rebellion of the brawn against the brains here.”
“Ick.” The bard sniffed. “Why can’t everyone be like you?”
Both of Xena’s eyebrows twitched asymmetrically. “What?”
“Brawn and brain.” Gabrielle said, succinctly. “And beauty too.”
“Tell me I’m lying.” The bard waited, and the silence lengthened. “Heh.”
Xena leaned her head against the rock. The rain came down harder, thundering against ground and bringing a scent of bruised foliage and rich earth to her nostrils. She coughed, as the scents tickled her throat, and now the rattling in her lungs was apparent. She let out a heavy sigh, and felt Gabrielle nestle closer, giving her comfort in the only way the bard had, here in the wilderness.
It made her feel better. Xena watched as a flash of lightning turned the scene outside from gray to brightest silver, then winced as a crack of thunder vibrated her sensitive ears. It was nasty out there.
She hoped their trackers were out in it.
The tapering off of the rain was both a blessing and a curse. Xena blinked her eyes as the now cuttingly cold wind blew down into the valley, swallowing against the raw sensation in her throat. It had gotten much colder, and though she was walking as fast as Gabrielle’s injury would allow, her body was shivering badly.
It had been a long time since she’d been this sick. She’d nursed Gabrielle through several tough bouts, but aside from a few slight fevers, and a stomach complaint or two she’d been healthy herself for quite a while. Her mind drifted back a little. Since she and Gabrielle had come home again, as a matter of fact, after they’d mended their relationship.
A gust of icy wind shook her and she put a hand out, steadying herself against the tree nearest the path. It took a good deal of her considerable willpower to keep going, forcing her legs to flex and move forward, then to bear her weight as she trudged along the rocky ground.
A warm touch surprised her, and she glanced to one side as Gabrielle wrapped an arm around her waist without a word. The bard’s face was pale, and Xena could sense the tension in her body as she returned the gesture, carefully laying her own arm across Gabrielle’s back and avoiding the injured part of her neck.
They didn’t speak, but then, Xena realized, they didn’t have to.
The path started to slope upwards, and she tucked her hand around Gabrielle’s waist, lending her support as they climbed just as the bard was giving her the comfort of as much body heat as she could offer. The muddy ground sucked at their boots, and as she leaned forward a little, Xena’s ears, clogged as they were, caught an irregularity behind them.
Without conscious thought, she whirled and got between Gabrielle and the sound, her hand finding her sword hilt and drawing it regardless of the chills that shook her. She could feel the sickness slowing her reactions, but she drove forward and met the blade arcing towards her back with an instinct deeper in her than anything else.
Automatic as breathing. As much a part of her as her heartbeat. She swiveled her wrists at the last moment and deflected the blow, feeling the steel hit her blade and slide as she tilted it on an angle. She turned with the motion, and whipped her leg up in a roundhouse kick, catching the forest dweller opposing her in the side with her boot.
He grunted and staggered back a step, then came after her again with determination.
Xena didn’t have it in her to bounce, but she took a step back and braced herself, fighting the exhaustion almost as much as the forest dweller. She met his charge and shoved him back, but her boots slipped in the mud and she lunged forward, dropping to her knees as he kicked out and caught her in the chest.
She saw red tinged stars, but caught his leg and twisted, letting her weight carry forward and hearing the crunch as his knee gave way in her hold.
His sword hilt connected with her head, but she moved just enough to make it a graze as she released his leg and slammed her own sword hilt directly upward into his groin.
She could sense the upraised sword over her, and she rolled to one side, but her instincts frantically warned her it wasn’t enough and she tried to orient herself.
The forest dweller roared, and brought his blade down. Xena got her arms up and her sword to vertical, but just as his blade scraped against hers she heard the sound of stone hitting flesh and the blow that might have cut through her abruptly deflected to one side.
Xena never looked battle horses in the mouth. She reversed her sword and stood up suddenly, driving the blade into the forest dweller’s stomach as he caught his balance and jumped at her. Hot blood showered over her body, and she yanked her sword back as the forest dweller collapsed at her feet.
It was hard to breathe. Xena staggered back and thumped against a nearby tree as coughing convulsed her, grateful for the bard’s hands on her as she tried to catch her breath.
Her knees buckled unexpectedly, and she dropped to the ground, feeling the chill as the wet dirt soaked through the knees of her leggings. The coughs shook her body, as Gabrielle put her arms around her and supported her with surprisingly tenacious strength.
“Easy, sweetheart.” Gabrielle whispered. “C’mon.” She pulled Xena’s head gently towards her and stroked the damp hair. “Slow and light, just like you tell me.”
Her body didn’t want to listen. She could feel the need to suck air deep into her lungs, but she also knew that was triggering the coughs. By a raw force of will, though, she managed to expel a breath, then take a much shallower one, releasing it and drawing in another in time with the motion of the bard’s fingers against her scalp.
It took several tries, but after a few coughs it worked and she was able to straighten up a bit and her head cleared. “Damn it.”
“Shh.” Gabrielle felt the hammering in her chest slowing and she took a shaky breath herself. She’d only barely found a rock big enough to make a difference in time to throw it with all her strength at the forest dweller, deflecting him for just that instant Xena needed to recover.
She’d paid for it. Her back was on fire. Gabrielle ignored that though as she gave what comfort she could to her struggling partner. “Easy, tiger. Easy.” She felt the rigid shoulder muscles under her forearms relax, and there was a scrape of metal against rock as Xena shifted her still drawn sword.
“Let’s get out of the open.” Xena rasped, forcing herself to her feet. “Over there. Go.” She kept hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder as she followed her to a thick stand of trees, slipping between two trunks growing close enough together to let them pass, but not their presumed larger followers.
Once inside she paused and collected herself. Gabrielle stood very close to her, the bard’s presence a warmly tangible force she could readily sense. “Thanks.” She leaned against a tree and patted the bard’s cheek. “You okay?”
“No.” Gabrielle had to close her eyes as she half turned. “I think I…”
Xena’s inhaled breath confirmed it. “Stay still.” She muttered hoarsely.
The bard gladly complied, leaning lightly against Xena’s torso as the warrior peered at her neck. She ran her hands slowly over her partner’s sides, her fingers working in light massage as she waited. She found herself still shaking, wanting desperately for their trial to be over and the sudden desire almost brought her to tears.
Then it did, as Xena’s touch brought a savage jolt of pain and she gasped, clutching the warrior’s shirt as she almost pitched forward into her.
“Sorry… sorry.” Xena whispered. “Broke the stitches open, Gab. I don’t have any more gut.” She carefully put her arms around Gabrielle and pulled her close. “C’mere.”
The bard settled against her, and Xena very lightly used her fingers to pinch closed the split skin on her neck, holding it in place against the flow of blood. She felt Gabrielle’s head bump against her shoulder and, glancing down, saw the creases of pain etched across her face.
Anger rumbled through the warrior unexpectedly. A wash of dark energy from someplace deep caught her by surprise and pushed back the sickness threatening to overwhelm her as she railed against the circumstances that trapped them both here, surrounded by beauty and totally miserable.
Damn the forest dwellers. Xena allowed the anger free rein.
Gabrielle felt it. She tilted her head back a little and looked up, blinking the tears out of her eyes. “Yuck.”
“Mm.” Xena agreed, lifting her other hand and wiping a tear off the bard’s cheek. She checked her partner’s injury, and found the blood flow ceased as she cautiously released her hand. “All right. Let’s go.” She rasped, indicating a gap between the trees. “Stay close.”
“Like a prickly burr.” Gabrielle forced herself to move, leading the way through the dense forest mindful of Xena’s hand resting on her shoulder.
Behind them, they both heard a crash, and a low howl as their attacker’s body was found. Xena stopped, her hold pulling the bard to a halt as well, and half turned looking back the way they came.
Another howl, deepening into a roar.
Xena’s eyes narrowed, and she unexpectedly let out a battle yell, the high, fierce sound ringing through the forest and bringing all other sound to an abrupt halt.
The echoes faded. In the dense silence, Xena cleared her throat a bit, and then stifled a cough. They waited, but the roar didn’t return, and after a moment they continued on their way.
“Y’know, Xe…” Gabrielle clasped the warrior’s hand with her own. “That was pretty primitive.”
“Mmph.” The warrior grunted. “Hurt my throat.”
“You think it worked?”
“No.” Xena exhaled wearily. “But it made me feel better.”
Ahead of them, the roar of the waterfall at the base of the cliff started to grow.
They paused at the edge of the thick trees, still safely hidden behind the heavy branches. Xena tipped one down just slightly to allow her to peer out, glad of their protection from the sharp wind. Ahead of them lay the two big sentinel rocks, and the steeply sloping path upward, it’s sharp cut just visible past the mist of the waterfall.
She turned, her breath catching slightly as she spotted Gabrielle just behind her, sitting on a fallen log with her head resting in her hands. Xena walked over and sat down next to her, feeling a rare sense of helplessness in the face of her partner’s obvious agony. “Hey.”
Gabrielle didn’t lift her head. She merely leaned closer and pressed her shoulder against Xena’s. “It’s like fire, all up and down my arms.” She uttered. “Xe, I don’t’ know if I…” A slow exhale. “Gods.”
Xena slipped her arm around Gabrielle’s waist. “We’re almost out of here, love.” She said. “Just gotta get up that last bump.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle said. “That last bump almost killed me on the way down. How are we going to get over the gap? You can’t jump it, not how you’re feeling.” Her voice took on a faintly desperate hoarseness. “I just… I don’t know how we’re going to..”
“Shh.” The warrior rubbed Gabrielle’s side lightly. “It’s gonna be okay.” She felt a cough coming on, an despite a good deal of willpower, it racked her hard, making it tough to catch her breath. “Damn.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle whispered, releasing her head to curl one hand around Xena’s arm. “Xena..”
Gods, she was cold. The warrior closed her eyes for a moment and concentrated, then she opened them and gathered her strength up. “Has to be…” She was forced to stop by a cough. “Ramp. Something.” She cleared her throat and winced. “Got the horses down it.”
Horses?” Gabrielle lifted her head up and peered at her soulmate. “Horses.. are you sure they brought them here?”
Xena nodded, not trusting herself to speak lest she trigger another coughing jag.
“A ramp.” The bard repeated. “Well, let’s go find it, Xena, because we have to get out of here. Now.” Slowly, she straightened her back and eased herself to her feet, catching her lip between her teeth as she moved the wrong way.
Xena rose with her and they eased out from between the trees, the warrior pausing to study their surroundings intently before she continued forward. She swept the area with her eyes, looking for anything big enough to be a ramp to be hidden. But there was only the open greensward between her and the waterfall, and beyond it the sentinel rocks that guarded the path upward.
Up from the grass, the rock lifted, it’s flat, planed surface showing no indication of any hiding place or cubby the forest dwellers might have kept something in.
They climbed closer and closer to the waterfall, it’s roar thundering through the trees that leaned towards it’s moisture. Xena kept her head moving, using her eyes and her other senses as her hearing was blunted by the water, hoping they were far enough ahead of the forest dwellers to avoid another attack.
She didn’t want that. Xena flexed her hands, stiff and sore in the cold, and felt the ache creeping through her bones. The last battle had taken almost all of her reserves, and it was all she could do just to keep walking.
Of course, she’d fight if she had to. There really wasn’t any choice, since Gabrielle both didn’t have her staff, and wasn’t capable of using it at the moment. But she was handicapped and she knew it, and she knew herself well enough to realize she’d stand a good chance of losing any fight she happened to get into right now.
That meant bad things for both of them. Xena wished for her cloak for the nth time as she carefully skirted a patch of loose shale, reaching back to take Gabrielle’s hand as they climbed up a short incline that lead up to the falls.
There they paused, as Xena searched for a place to cross the water that wouldn’t get both of them soaked. She spotted a line of rocks, covered in mildly racing water and headed for them. A gloom settled over her shoulders, and she had to push aside the pessimism as the wind got colder and it’s raw harshness pinched her throat.
“You know, Xe.” Gabrielle trailed her, their fingers still intertwined. “It’s times like this I seriously regret stuff.”
Huh? Xena found her misery whisked away by the words, as she half turned in startlement. “Like what?” She asked, with a touch of hesitation.
“Oh, not being born with wings.” The bard sighed. “This would be so much easier, y’know?”
“Mmph.” The warrior grunted. “For this, yeah, but…” She shook her head. “What would you do with them the rest of the time?”
“Fan you when you got overheated.” Gabrielle pronounced solemnly.
Xena looked at her. “Are you trying to be funny?”
The bard nodded. “Beats breaking down into hysterical tears because my back hurts so bad I want to scream.” She sighed. “So let’s see, I can fan you with them, and give Dori rides so you can take a break once in a while.” Her jaw muscles bunched, giving her a look of determination as she carefully picked her way across to the edge of the water. “What else?”
“Handy source of quills.” Xena tested the first rock, finding it slippery with algae. She stepped onto it, wincing slightly as the cold water once again penetrated her boots.
“Ah. Good point.” Gabrielle latched on to the back of her partner’s overshirt and followed her into the current. “I like that. Whenever I’m in the mood to write, well, there I go. All I’d need is a little ink, and I’m set.”
“Good thing you don’t like to sleep on your back.” The warrior stepped to the next rock, swaying slightly as the water surged against her legs.
“Mm.” The bard muttered. “Ouch.” She said. “On the other hand, I’d drap em all over you. Glad you’re not allergic to feathers.”
Xena paused in mid stream to let Gabrielle catch up, a sudden, frank smile appearing on her face. “Hmm… perfect tickling weapons.”
The bard eased closer, meeting Xena’s eyes and returning the smile. “Would you pluck my feathers for that?” She asked, in a gently teasing voice. “Bad girl.”
“You got that right.” The warrior’s grin widened briefly, then she turned and continued on. “C’mon, chicken little, let’s get out of the water. My toes are freezing.”
“Bck bck.” Gabrielle bit off a grimace as she stretched out a little too far, causing her back to seize up. She got to the next rock, though, and now there was only one more before she could hop to the dry bank where Xena was already standing. “Was that a short joke?”
Unexpectedly, Xena opened her arms and wrapped them around Gabrielle as she limped into them. She gave the bard a hug, feeling a bit of optimism as they neared the tough end of their valley journey. “Hang in there. We’ll get out of here, you can bet on it.”
Gabrielle soaked in the moment, grateful for the support of her partner’s powerful arms, that lifted some of the weight off her back. Despite the fact that they both smelled like river mud, and Xena’s overtunic was stained with blood up and down it’s length, it was a brief but delicious moment.
All too brief. Gabrielle felt the tension in Xena’s torso and she released her hold, just as Xena stepped and turned her body, her right arm lifting in a flickering motion as she snapped an arrow out of mid air not a hand span from Gabrielle’s head. “Damn!”
Xena whirled, and spotted a cluster of multihued fur headed their way. “Son of a bacchae.”
Then they were both running, the pain erased from Gabrielle’s mind as she concentrated on staying alive instead. Arrows peppered the air around them as they raced across the open grass, towards the tall standing stones. “Xena!” Gabrielle yelled. “Which way?”
“Through there.” Xena pointed at the gap, staggering a little as a cough robbed her breath.
“I can hold them.” The warrior told her. “Go on through.” She ducked into the gap behind the bard, waiting for her to clear the other side before she turned and drew her sword. Just in time, as the forest dwellers let loose a volley of arrows that skimmed close by, bouncing off her blade and the rocks with crazed abandon.
Gabrielle skidded to a halt, grabbing at the rock wall as she turned and looked back the way she’d come. Between the rocks she could see Xena bracing herself for attack, the sun glinting over the warrior’s shoulder off her upraised sword. Coming at her were a double handful of forest dwellers, armed, and angered, roars issuing from their throats.
Injured and sick, Xena was at more than a disadvantage, and Gabrielle knew it. Though she had every faith in her soulmate’s fighting skills, this battle wasn’t tipped in the warrior’s favor. “Xena!”
Xena turned. She gave the bard a brief, wistful smile. “Look for the ramp.” She said. “I’ll keep em busy.”
Gabrielle felt an impotent anger. At the forest dwellers, and at herself because of the pain that kept her from battling at Xena’s side. With a curse, she started scouring the area, looking for the gods only knew what.
Xena spread her legs out a little, making sure her wet boots had good purchase on the rocky ground. The forest dwellers had reached the water and were plunging through it, headed for her with murderous intent in their eyes.
The fever had taken it’s toll. The warrior could feel the shakiness in her body, and the lack of both strength and energy that made even lifting her sword an unusual effort. Her head throbbed, and she had to take only the shallowest of breaths or else break out into hacking coughs that were becoming more and more painful with each round.
The pain from her broken ribs made itself felt as she raised her sword and swept it into a mild figure eight, and as Xena looked at the first of the onrushing enemy, she knew that for one of the few times in her life, she wasn’t ready for this fight.
It’s what I do. Xena straightened up, and felt her balance settle, and she made the effort to shove aside everything save the need to fight. She reached down deep inside her, to the dark core she’d avoided tapping since the war and hoped it would be enough.
She suspected it wouldn’t be.
Gabrielle glanced at Xena’s back, then she ducked around one side of the tall rocks, obeying the irresistible urge to abandon her search and stand by her partner. Her hand brushed a crease in the stone as she quickly looked for a stick she could use to fight with, and she stopped as her fingertips touched the warmth of wood instead of the chill rock.
She looked at the crease.
She blinked. “Xena!” The yell erupted. “Here!”
In an instant, the warrior was at her side, tipping her head back as she looked up the length of the rock. In the crease was tucked a thick wooden spar, notched on both ends, and she let out a yell of her own as her eyes measured it’s span.
Xena sheathed her sword and yanked at the spar, pulling backwards as it came loose, revealing a second beside it. It took longer to pull that one out, since the stone niche held it tightly, and she heard the faint creak as a bit of the wood gave way and shaved off.
The forest dwellers left the water, and pelted towards them.
“Get over there!” Xena pointed, as she got the spar balanced on her shoulders, then knelt to get the other one. She felt danger at her back, and twisted, the motion almost wringing a groan from her as her ribs protested sharply. An arrow thwacked home in one of the spars, and then a second grazed her left ear.
She staggered to her feet under the weight of the spars and headed for the path upward. Already there, Gabrielle was facing her, a handful of rocks at the ready she was chucking over Xena’s head at the oncoming forest dwellers.
Xena motioned her upward, and they climbed as fast as they could, the path rising sharply and taxing their already strained bodies.
They reached the spot where the ledge broke off, and Xena dropped one of the spars, lifting the other so that it was straight up as she found the carefully chipped niche in the granite.
An arrow bounced off the spar, inches from her eyes. Xena looked back to see two of the forest dwellers kneeling beside the standing stones, taking aim at her while the others raced up the path.
She dropped the spar into place and let it fall forward, hoping to Hades she’d guessed right. The wood fell through the air, slamming into the rock and almost bouncing out of the niche before it rattled into place on the other side, forming a narrow, narrow bridge.
Too narrow for horses. Really too narrow for even her to walk it, but Xena put her boots on the surface and held her hand out to Gabrielle. “C’mon.”
The bard threw her last rock, then looked at the spar. Her eyes lifted to her partners. “I can’t.”
“You can.” The warrior stepped back. “ You go first. I’ll hang onto you. Hurry, Gabrielle.” She ducked another arrow, then she jumped forward and picked up the other spar, hurling it broadside down the path as the forest dwellers closed in on them.
Two of them fell off the narrow path, tumbling down the side of the cliff into the ravine below. The rest sprawled, scrambling to recover as the archers kept up their firing.
Xena tasted the bitterness of impending defeat, but she drew her sword again and whacked two of the arrows out of the air as she joined Gabrielle at the spar. “Move.” She urged the bard.
“Gabrielle, just do it.” The warrior took a firm grip on her arm and moved forward. “I won’t let you fall.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about.” The bard snapped back, giving way grudgingly and sliding her boots out along the slim wooden surface. She reached behind her and tangled her hands in Xena’s tunic, knotting the fabric around her fingers.
“Let me loose, in case I..” Xena swatted another arrow from the air.
“Gods be damned, Xena, I said no. If you fall off this damned thing…”
“You can’t hold me up, Gabrielle!” Xena felt the frustration rising. The first of the forest dwellers reached the edge of the path and swiped at her, evading her return stroke as she slid forward. She batted another arrow down, this one just barely.
“I know that!” The bard yelled, equally frustrated. “What part of where you go I go wasn’t clear to you, Xena??”
Xena bit off a curse, as a cough almost unbalanced her. The forest dwellers started pitching rocks at her, the spar too slim for them to balance on. One tried, but jumped back.
A rock struck Xena, as she fought to evade two arrows, and still keep inching forward. “What about Dori?” She asked suddenly, still trying to untangle her shirt.
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, as she balanced precariously, lifting her arms to help and gasping with the pain that caused. “She’ll..” She had to take a moment to breathe. “She’ll understand, someday.” The bard finished very softly. “But I’ll be damned if we’re not getting out of this.”
Xena stopped trying to free her shirt. She slipped her arm around Gabrielle’s body instead, giving her as much protection as possible from the missles that were coming thicker and more furiously by the moment. Some evaded her blade, and started to connect.
Then her blood ran cold, as she spotted the forest dwellers carrying the other spar up towards her at a run, intent on ramming them off their slim bridge and off down the mountain. Xena looked forward, at the huge gap still left before the path picked up again, and then back at the onrushing enemy. The edge of the spar was aimed right for her head.
The forest dwellers let out a yell of triumph, knowing she had no where really to go, and Xena knew she had bare seconds left before the heavy wood would hit her, and drive her forward backed by the weight of the six forest dwellers behind it.
She sheathed her sword.
The spar came at her.
Xena clamped her arms around Gabrielle and lifted her up, forcing her will on a body that failing her as the cold wind slammed against her from one side, and the threat came at her from the other. She took a powerful step, then braced herself as the spar hit her on the back and shoved her forward.
She uncoiled her legs as it hit, using the force behind it to give her what her body couldn’t, momentum that tossed them both forward and up. Xena landed precariously on the spar again, then leaped forward one more time, her boots slipping but her forward motion just enough…
Just enough to reach the upper path, but with Gabrielle in her arms, she had no way to grab hold of anything. With a savage effort, Xena twisted in mid air and landed on her back, releasing Gabrielle and pushing her further up the stone surface as her own weight pulled her backwards and she fought to keep her balance.
Her legs slipped off the path, and she scrabbled for a hold, her fingers catching a crag in the rock as she slid down the slope. With a growl, she hauled herself forward again, feeling the impact as her boot caught on the spar behind her.
Gabrielle’s warning yell saved her life. The warrior rolled to one side, and felt the sting as an arrow slammed into the rock where she’d been a breath before. “Bastards!” Xena twisted onto her back and hooked her boot under the spar, flexing her thigh and jerking the wood from it’s niche and sending it tumbling down the slope just as one of the forest dwellers leaped to mount it.
He fell, screaming.
Xena scrambled away from the edge of the path, getting to her feet and almost pitching forward off them as her body nearly failed her, a wave of weakness unlocking her knees as she reached Gabrielle. “Around the bend!”
Gabrielle already had hold of her hand and was leaning forward, almost pulling her partner up the slope and around a bend that shielded them from the furious forest dwellers below.
A last arrow cut a lock of Gabrielle’s pale hair, as they dodged around the solid stone outcropping, the sun catching the golden strands as the wind carried it off.
They pressed themselves against the granite, and slid down it, to sit on the hard, stark rock path. Xena let her head fall back, as Gabrielle took her hand and pressed her forehead against the warrior’s shoulder. It was hard to say which one of them was shaking more.
But they were safe.
For the moment, anyway.