One Wild Ride
At dusk, the bears finally wandered off, apparently tiring of waiting for a juicy tidbit to come out of the cave. They left behind piles of scat and an unknown danger, since the forest that swallowed them up again was darkening and refused to reveal how far they went.
Xena was as near to the entrance as safely possible, her attention focused on the world outside. She gave up on the dimming light and turned her head, watching as Gabrielle carefully made her way across the rocks. The bard’s face was quiet and pensive, and she wiped her hands off as she passed behind the fire and took a seat to Xena’s left. “You all right?”
Gabrielle had to think about that for a while. “I think so.” She said, at last. “I can’t tell if giving them that meat was a good thing or a bad thing.”
Xena rested her elbows on her knees. “I’m sure they think it’s a good thing.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle let her head fall back against the rock wall with a small thump. “I’m sure they do.. I just don’t want them to get the idea that we’re going to be doing that a lot.”
“Mm.” The bard rubbed her fingers against her thighs. “Though, it was their kill, so I guess they kind of had a right to it, huh?
“Kinda.” Xena allowed. “But I’m not regretting taking it from them. I was hungry.”
A faint quirk of Gabrielle’s lips met the statement. “Me too.”
Xena watched her partner out of the corner of her eye. Gabrielle had done most of the food giving, and now she was gazing at the cavern roof, a somber look at her face. Naturally optimistic, it was an odd thing to see the bard this down and the warrior wondered if there was more to it than just exhaustion.
“So, what do we do now?” Gabrielle asked, turning her head to peer past Xena into the growing dark. “Stay here?”
Xena shifted to face her. “You don’t want to.”
Gabrielle lifted a hand towards the cavern and let it drop. “I feel like I’m stuck between a herd of warthogs and a thornbush.” She shook her head a little. “What the Hades have we gotten ourselves into?”
Xena hoped that was a rhetorical question. “Don’t know how close those bear things are. I don’t want to be walking out in the dark with them around.” She said. “We’ll head out in the morning.”
The bard sighed in frustration. “Darn it, Xena. I don’t think I can take another night with these guys.’
“Well, if you hadn’t made me stop to sew up one of em, we’d have been out of here, wouldn’t we?” Xena snapped back. “We’d be long gone.”
Gabrielle took a breath to answer, then let her jaw click shut, her gaze moving thoughtfully past Xena’s shoulder into the darkness.
The warrior waited for a moment, but her partner remained silent, her face settling into a somber cast. “Hey.”
“No, you’re right.” The bard cut her off. She shifted and leaned back. “I’ve got to stop being such a damn self righteous dipwad.” She started to get up onto her knees, then paused as Xena reached over and very gently took hold of her wrist. “Xe, let me go.”
“Hey.” The warrior added her other hand, turning the grasp into more of an entreaty. Their eyes met, and after a few seconds, Gabrielle’s dropped and she eased back down. “Sorry.”
“Being a jackass.” Xena released her wrist and laid her hand on the bard’s thigh instead. “Listen.”
“I’m listening.” The bard leaned her shoulder against the wall, relaxing a little.
Xena studied her face again. “Frustrated?”
“Me, too.” The warrior gave her leg a pat. “Let’s not take it out on each other.”
A faint hint of a wry twinkle appeared in Gabrielle’s eyes. “Know something?”
A dark brow lifted in question.
“We’ve both grown up a lot.”
Xena considered that seriously for a bit. Given how much older she was than her partner, she wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or an insult. She’d thought she’d grown up fast when she’d had to face off against Cortese, but the more she thought about how she’d acted in the years since then, the more she winced at the hell brat with lethal combat skills she’d turned into.
She was no longer that person. Her eyes shifted to Gabrielle’s face. Most of the time, anyway. “Yeah.” She agreed. “We sure have, huh?”
Gabrielle eased her legs out straight and regarded them, brushing a bit of granite off one knee. “We grew into each other.”
Mm.. now that was really true. The warrior picked up a bit of rock and looked at it, squinting a little at a feathery looking impression along one side. She tried to remember what the exact moment was she’d stopped thinking of Gabrielle as a kid, and started thinking of her as an equal partner.
Hm. “To be honest, I’m outta ideas. You got any?”
The bard licked her lips. “I don’t” She said. “Xena, my butt hurts.”
In pure reflex, the warrior straightened up, her brows contracting as she gazed at her partner.
“It does. I’m over these freaking rocks.” Gabrielle indicated what they were sitting on. “I want to go find a nice bush to sleep on.”
Xena’s dark brows now elevated into her hairline. Slowly, she looked left and right, then down at herself, then up at Gabrielle. One brow remained where it was, the other lowered.
Gabrielle frowned at her, then apparently re-ran her own words in her head because she let her face drop into one hand and her shoulders started shaking. “oh gods.”
Xena put her arm across the bard’s shoulders and pulled her closer. “C’mere.” She half lifted the blond woman up and ended up with Gabrielle sprawled in her lap, still laughing silently. “Bumpkin.”
“Hehehe.” Gabrielle laughed harder, burying her face into Xena’s chest.
The warrior rolled her eyes, but started laughing along with her, rocking them both gently back and forth. Sometimes laughter really was some kind of medicine, certainly right now it was making her feel a lot better. “Gab-ri-elle. What am I gonna do with you.”
“Darned if I know.” The shaking slowly subsided, and the giggles eased. “Gods, I needed that.” The bard tipped her head back against her partner’s shoulder and sighed. “I’m getting to be a grump in my old age, Xe.”
“Tch. Poor granny.” Xena felt the tension that had been coiling inside her guts relax. “I don’t think it’s your old age, kiddo.” She patted Gabrielle lightly on the side. “You got this way last time.”
“Last time?” Gabrielle frowned, giving her a puzzled look.
Xena returned the look.
“Oh.” The bard murmured, catching a clue. She remained silent for a minute, then looked back up. “I did?”
The warrior nodded.
Gabrielle played with a bit of her partner’s dark hair. “I guess that might explain your hyperactive defend me at all costs stuff, huh?”
Xena’s nostrils flared. “I wasn’t doing that.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Oh, Xena, please.” She moaned. “You picked me up and carried me back to the darn cave.. do I look like I’ve got a broken leg?”
The warrior scratched her nose. “Hm.”
They were both quiet for a few minutes, as the last of the light outside faded into the shadows of dusk. Inside, the soft green glow of the roof of the cavern was augmented, overshadowed really, by their fire and the flickering shadows from it painted them in ocher and gold.
Then Gabrielle disentangled herself, easing off her partner’s lap and back onto the rock floor. “I’m going to go get our skin, and see if I can make us more comfortable.” She said. “And then we’re going to trade off keeping watch so you can get some sleep.”
“Save it for the Amazons, WP.” Gabrielle had gotten to her feet and now she went over to where their pack was, kneeling next to it and pulling out it’s contents.
Xena watched her, pulling up one knee and circling it with her arms. A soft sound caught her attention, but she kept her eyes focused on the bard and merely cocked her ears.
The whisper of leaves against stone. A soft scuff of bare feet and the faint creaks of joints too long still in one position.
Breathing. Xena almost stilled her own to listen, the faint humming under Gabrielle’s breath sounding echoingly loud in her hearing. She heard the faint scrape of rock against rock and her body stiffened, warrior’s instincts flaring as her fingers curled around the hilt of her battered, but still serviceable ax.
A rush of motion. Xena whirled and came up onto her knees, then held fast, sensing nothing near her bigger than a bug. She heard the sound of a body impacting another, and strained her eyes into the low light to see what was going on.
The fire threw shadows across the wall, and in them she spotted the motion she’d heard. Dark figures were running across the rocks in the back of the cavern and the next thing she knew Gabrielle was next to her again in a half crouch, her staff in one hand and her other resting on the warrior’s shoulders. “What’s going on?”
The woman screamed suddenly, piercing and strange.
Male yells echoed it, and then, the sound of rock hitting flesh.
Gabrielle felt her heart hammering in her chest and she took a half step back as Xena rose to her feet, neither of them in any immediate danger but the unknown pressing around them. She couldn’t see into the back of the cavern – the light from the fire flooded her vision and made the chaos in the rear nothing but some moving shadows.
She could hear bone breaking, though, and suddenly, a despairing yell – a cry of pain that brought her up onto her toes and nearly sent her into the darkness to find it’s source. “Xena, wh…”
As if sensing the instinct, Xena put her arm out, her hand clasping the bard’s arm. “Fight.”
“Don’t know.” Xena’s nose twitched. She could smell blood, over the general stench of the cavern, and then the shadows came forward, scraping and grunting, a crowd of them in a tight cluster that sent her heart racing and every hair up on end. “Whatever it is.. it’s not good.”
Gabrielle licked her lips and got her other hand on the staff, stepping to the side and giving herself some room to move as the crowd came closer to them.
Near the front of the cavern, they broke apart, and three or four of them continued on, dragging something between them. Hoots of triumph went up, and as she watched, the rest headed in their direction, the flames of the fire flickering off their glittering eyes and teeth.
The four in the front went to the edge of the cavern and threw something out, a bundle of limbs and body that hit the ground outside with a sodden thump and moved no further. The woman had come up behind them and now she screamed again, wailing at the top of her voice and slapping the rock with her hands.
The two closest males now beat their chests and hooted at them. One, a little bolder, shoved into the front and went over to the woman, grabbing her by the hair and pulling her backwards towards the darkness again.
The other males hooted, and ran after him, the sounds weirdly echoing off the stone, and after a moment, the woman’s screams fell off, turning into yells instead, the shadows hiding everything from the watching eyes.
Xena let her arm drop, for the first time in a long time at an utter loss as to what to do. Rescue the woman? She had spurned their attempts the last time, and even if she hadn’t, going into the darkness with the creatures…
Well, she wasn’t a coward. But she wasn’t an idiot either.
Gabrielle let out a breath and grounded her staff, staring into the back of the cavern in silence. “Xena?”
“I’m sorry I made you stop this morning. We have to get out of here.”
“We have to get out of here.” Gabrielle repeated, softly. “We have to
Gabrielle huddled against Xena’s tense form, her eyes looking past the shoulder high flames in front of them. They were pressed against the wall near the entrance, with the fire built up as much as they could manage to keep back the rest of the cavern’s inhabitants.
She still felt cold, even though the fire was snapping not more than two arms lengths in front of them, and the glittering eyes watching her through the flame only added to the chill. The creatures hadn’t slept all night either, shifting and moving around the cave, testing the fire’s edge with their hands before darting back.
Xena was seated with her legs crossed under her, the ax resting on her knees and her attention focused on the hooters. Her eyes hadn’t stopped sweeping them for an instant during the long, dark night and now that dawn was coming closer there was an edginess there that Gabrielle could feel as faint twitches under the skin she was pressed against.
At dawn, Xena had told her, they’d move. She had the last of the firewood ready, it’s end tied with bits of vine and leaves to make a torch in case the hooters tried to block them and they were both so full of nervous energy that any kind of rest, much less sleep, would have been impossible.
Even for Gabrielle, who normally trusted Xena implicitly. It wasn’t as if she didn’t trust her now, but with the danger so close, she didn’t dare cause the warrior one half second’s worth of reaction time, and the need to wake her would do that.
So she sat there, gripping her staff and praying for the sunlight as she’d prayed for few things before in her life. In a way, it reminded her a little of the night before the start of the war in Amphipolis, that brief quiet time she’d spent with Xena before all Hades was going to break loose.
At some point, you just want it to start. You want to go, to be doing something, be doing anything but sitting and waiting, and knowing bad things were coming.
One of the hooters barked, and suddenly, rushed at the fire. In a single motion Gabrielle shifted and they both stood up, weapons at the ready, the firelight throwing their shadows in huge relief against the cavern wall behind them.
The hooter stopped just short of the fire and jumped up and down, as though working up his courage. He slapped the rocks with both hands and yelled brazenly at them, until Xena nailed him with a rock in the face.
That knocked him back a little, and he hunkered down on a nearby rock, glowering at them sullenly. Xena watched him for a moment, then she cautiously sat back down. “Know what I wish?”
“You had your sword?” Gabrielle hazarded, as she dropped back down to the hard rock as well.
“No. That I had a damn cart full of Greek fire.” The warrior responded with a grimace. “Put an end to this misery in a heartbeat.”
Gabrielle gazed into the heart of the flames, unsure if she was more surprised at her outrage over the thought of killing off everything in the cavern or the fact that part of her was considering the notion so dispassionately it made her a little sick.
“Dinar for your thoughts?” Xena said, after a lengthening silence.
“You don’t want them.” The bard murmured. ‘I don’t think I even want them.”
“Mm?” The warrior turned her full attention on Gabrielle.
“Mm.” Gabrielle grunted softly in return.
Xena seemed to guess them anyway. She released her grip on her ax and let her elbow rest on Gabrielle’s shoulder, brushing her knuckles against the bard’s cheek. “Hang in there. We’ll get out of this.”
Isn’t that my line? Gabrielle wondered. Aren’t I supposed to be the optimist of the two of us? She leaned her head into Xena’s touch anyway, acknowledging a wry pulse of affection for a soulmate who had grown to be far more perceptive than Gabrielle had ever expected.
She’d been in love with Xena for ever, it seemed, and even when Xena began to return her affection, she never really thought.. well, not then anyway, that it would ever be a case of the warrior caring for.. doting on her the way Gabrielle did for her.
She’d timidly came to accept and cherish the fact that Xena loved her, but she never imagined Xena understanding her, much less helping her to understand herself.
Life was funny, sometimes. Gabrielle glanced up as she felt a gentle nudge, seeing those blue eyes studying her intently, expressively, the intelligence behind them peeling away all her dissembling. “I know we will.” She replied. “One way or the other.”
A gentle raising of one dark eyebrow, and a slight frown appeared as Xena acknowledged the double meaning in her words she hadn’t really consciously intended.
Or had she? “We’ll be all right.” She said. “I just wish we were out of here.”
“I know.” Xena replied briefly, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “I hear ya.”
I hear ya. It was such a relief sometimes to have someone who she could depend on to just be there for her when things got tough. Even if Xena wasn’t the unspeakably brilliant fighter she was, or as capable as she was, or as dependable - having that someone was a wonderful thing.
It was a wonderful thing. The bard rested her head against Xena’s shoulder and smiled faintly. If you had to be in Hades, it certainly was nice to have someone there with you, wasn’t it? “Boo, boo boo.” Gabrielle murmured under her breath. “What would I do without you?”
“Beats me.” Xena sighed. “Same as I do without you, I guess.”
Gabrielle glanced outside, willing the darkness to lighten a little with the coming dawn. “Are we just going to run?” She asked softly.
Xena let her eyes drift across the watching hooters. “That’s plan A, yeah.” She admitted. “Light something on fire in here.. maybe scatter what we’ve got across to where that garbage pile is. Keep em occupied.”
“Then get the Hades out of here.” Xena exhaled. “I don’t give a damn if we have to run all day and end up back in that waterfall.”
“Go back the way we came?” Gabrielle sounded incredulous. “You said there was no way out that way!”
The warrior was silent for a moment. “I’m not sure there’s a way out ahead of us either.” She said, after a few short, quick breaths.
“Gods.” The bard whispered. “Xena, what are we going to do?”
For one of the few times she’d known Xena, the warrior looked as uncertain as she felt. “I’m not sure.” She said carefully. “We’ll just have to do the best we can, Gabrielle.”
“Poop.” Gabrielle wasn’t sure now that she wanted morning to come. “Boy, this sucks.”
“I know.” The warrior put her arm around Gabrielle’s waist. “Trust me, I know. I’d give my damn chakram to be at home right now.” She said. “I’m as miserable as you are, sweetheart.”
Gabrielle shifted a little and laid her staff down, resting it on one knee. She reached over and picked up their skull, lifting it and taking a sip of water, and then handing it over to Xena. “Every storytelling bone in my body for a waterskin.”
“Keep your bones inside you, bard.” Xena was glad for the banter. The night had been getting so long, and the scary, staggered mock attacks by the hooters so frequent, she’d been nearly ready to lose her mind. “Hey, Gabrielle?”
“Yes, oh love of my life, and focus of my dreams?” Gabrielle knew one way to make herself, and also Xena, feel better was to dive headfirst into glorpy romanticism. “Please tell me there’s something I can do for you?’
Xena’s face scrunched up, a mixture of embarrassment and pleasure.
The warrior cleared her throat. “Got a story handy?”
Ah, an appeal to her muse. Gabrielle allowed herself to be quite charmed. Xena didn’t ask her to tell stories often, though if she was there when the bard was telling them she always listened in, even if they were stories about her. “How about a new story?” She suggested. “I was thinking of one the other day.. mind if I try it out on you?”
Xena’s eyes widened slightly. “New?” She repeated. “As in, no one else’s heard it yet?”
“Mmhm.” Gabrielle had to smile at the pleased expression crossing her partner’s face, as she could clearly remember the days when asking Xena to be an audience for her new and uncertain talent had gotten a much less enthusiastic response. “I haven’t had much time to work on it the past few days, so it’s rough.”
Xena shifted a little, so she could both see the inside of the cavern fully, and also watch Gabrielle at the same time. They had a while before dawn, and she could really think of no better way…
Wait, yes she could. However, wrong time, wrong place. The warrior cocked her head a little and waited, watching Gabrielle’s eyes shift a bit off to one side, going a little unfocused as she ordered her thoughts.
As Gabrielle’s skill at storytelling matured, Xena had discovered an almost childlike pleasure in being the first one to hear one of her new tales. She enjoyed listening to her older ones too, though some of the ones about her she wasn’t too fond of – but hearing a new bit of her partner’s imagination brought a special warmth to her.
She remembered with brief, stark clarity what life was like without that. During their estrangement that shut off all the sweetness between them and replaced it with chill uncertainty. Maybe that was why they were both so very conscious of each other, and they worked so hard to keep things at an even keel.
Neither of them wanted to risk that again. So they paid attention now to the little things, and to each other, and they took these small moments when they could and savored them.
Gabrielle’s sharing of her talent was an example of this. Often at night, in the small hours when Dori was asleep and they were alone together, there was an easy intimacy in the act that touched something deep inside her. And so now, even though there was nothing in their current circumstances that was either easy nor intimate, Xena more than welcomed the diversion.
“Remember that flock of birds we saw when we were traveling back home?” Gabrielle asked, suddenly, looking up at her in question.
Flock of birds. “Any… particular.. flock of birds, Gabrielle?” The warrior probed. “We went a lot of places this last time.”
“The ones near the lake.”
Was that a twinkle of mischief in those green eyes? Gods. How many lakes had they passed? “Um..”
Gabrielle chuckled. “The ones you told me.. they flew all the way to one place in the winter and then someplace else in the summer.”
“Right.” Oh, those birds. Xena half smiled. She’d thought Gabrielle had been too quiet for too long a time after they’d seen the large group, all headed back to their winter range. “Sure, I remember.”
“And then they all flew away, but that one?” Gabrielle went on. “That one stayed, and we watched it until the sun went down?” She said. “And I asked you why it did that?”
“And I said maybe the bird was a little like you, yeah.” Xena agreed. “Never wanting to follow the flock.”
Gabrielle smiled, her eyes lighting up a little. “That’s the one, yeah.” She cleared her throat. “So I thought of a story about that bird, and how it lived, and how it was a part of a big family, until one day something happened.”
Ah. Xena settled down to listen, her peripheral senses sweeping the cavern around her, taking in the tense, glowering hooters and the quiet figure of the woman, slumped near the wall apparently taken to exhaustion. “Gwan. I’m listening.”
“What makes birds do that?” The bard asked, after a second. “Stay all together like that in one big group, I mean?”
Xena wasn’t sure if that was the beginning of the story, but since Gabrielle was apparently waiting for her to answer, she did. “Safety.”
“That’s what I thought.” The bard replied. “So here’s the story of why sometimes life is worth giving up safety for.”
And they wouldn’t know anything about that, would they?” Xena felt her lips tightening into a smile. Outside, she heard the first stirrings of birds, a definite precursor of the dawn and she knew the long night was coming at last to an end.
The day might bring something even worse, but at least, they’d go into it smiling together.
“So, what do you think?” Eponin took hold of a branch and pulled them out of the current again. “I ain’t seen any more stuff that looks familiar for a while.”
“Me either.” Granella paddled her end of the canoe in and studied the underbrush. “And it’s getting dark.” Her brow creased in worry. “Damn I figured we’d see some sign of them or something by now.’
Pony had figured the same thing. “Okay.” She pondered their surroundings. The ground sloped up from the flooded riverbed to a craggy bit of rock, topped by thick bushes. “Let’s get out here, and make camp. There’s enough light to look around up there a little bit.. maybe we’ll spot something.”
Granella held on to the branch and kept the small craft steady as Pony climbed out, a thick pack slung over one shoulder. She waited for the weapons master to tie off the canoe to a half sunken trunk before she carefully got up and followed her.
They pulled themselves up through the branches until they could see ground under them instead of water, and then they descended to the earth, dropping out onto the rocky, sparse turfed surface as the sun started to dip behind the treeline.
It was quiet, and wild here. Eponin lifted her head and listened, hearing animal life nearby in the brush and calculating they were roughly halfway between Amphipolis and the hillsides where Potadeia was tucked, a mostly uninhabited patch of lands that had little in the way of resources.
For townies, anyway. Eponin smiled, knowing Amazons would view the area quite differently. She indicated a bend in the rocks, which held a pocket of dead leaves in it’s embrace. “Let’s use that. I’ll get some branches.”
“I’ll get some firewood.” Granella agreed, carrying her own pack over to the crook and setting it down. She examined the alcove, dusty memories surfacing of many nights spent out during her Amazon apprenticeship, and the years after when she’d been a scout and guard around the village.
When she told the townsfolk about those times, they looked at her like she was nuts, Granella recalled. Spending time out under the stars, surrounded by wild forest and even wilder animals was something none of them would do by choice, and that was just the mildest of her rememberances.
She never told them about learning to hunt. Or the firelit harvest festivals. Or how her sisters had taught her the pleasures of womanhood.
With a chuckle, Granella dusted her hands off and moved off under the trees, glad the rain had slacked off the last day or so and the wood she picked up was mostly dry. As she collected it, she kept her eyes open for signs of Xena and Gabrielle, though after a moment she realized there probably wouldn’t be any.
“Hey, Pon?” She called over her shoulder.
“Yeah?” Eponin appeared, climbing up the gentle slope behind them to join her. “Find anything?”
“I was just thinking.” Granella picked up another broken limb. “They didn’t have much to lose on the way. Xena was in… gods, a shirt I guess, and Gab had her usual number on.”
“Huh.” Pony used her sword to hack off a leaf laden branch. “I was thinking more of stuff like… broken camps, that kinda thing.”
Granella took her armful of wood back to the crook and knelt, laying the pieces down in a pattern. “Anyone could make fires, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Pony was laying her branches over the top of the angle to make a shelter. “But Xena does hers in a special way.” She said. “Or.. eh, not special, but different.”
“Yeah.” Pony surveyed her work, then walked back over to the treeline for more branches. “Always the same size.. always built the same way, put just so between where she and the Maj are bunking.. woman’s a freaking anal retentive freak when it comes to that stuff.”
“Only about that?” Granella chuckled, as she drew her flint and striker out, and set to work over a ball of moss tinder. The sun was behind the trees now, sending thick, golden stripes to trickle through the leaves, dusting the ground in front of her with molten speckles.
The spring air was cool, and full of the scent of the river and forest around them. She drew a breath in and realized then how she’d grown used to the smells of humanity around her.
When Gabrielle and Xena had first come back home, she remembered Gabrielle collecting Dori one late afternoon, wryly telling her she was taking the kid, and Xena and going up into the hills for dinner, since the stench made her stomach turn. Granella had thought she was being way overdramatic, and dismissed the argument, accusing her sister in law jokingly of just wanting the excuse to be alone
Now, she wasn’t so sure. At any rate, it was nice to be able to hear herself think out here. She blew gently on the tinder and watched it curl and blacken as smoke drifted up from it, tickling her nose with it’s quiet pungency.
A few leaves rattled over her shoulders, as Pony put the last branches into place and completed their rude shelter. She looked up, seeing flickers of light through the layered foliage, and sat down cross legged, nudging the tinder into the center of her newly built fire, feeding it with twigs as it caught.
“Didn’t forget how, huh?” Pony joined her a moment later, settling down on the ground and dragging her pack over.
“Who do you think makes the fire in our cabin?” Granella asked, dryly. “I love Toris to death, but he’s got two left thumbs when it comes to this stuff.”
Eponin chuckled softly, removing a packet of dried meat and laying it on one knee. “He’s all right though.” She said. “For a man.”
Granella’s lips twitched, but she refrained from responding, concentrating on the fire instead. The sun’s rays had faded, and the wind had picked up bringing a cool breeze across them. She was glad of the warmth as the flames slowly built, and she pondered a moment what her husband would be up to back home.
Dinner at the inn, most likely. One of the few traits Toris shared fully with his sister was the ability to cook or lack thereof, and serving the twins half boiled tea and hard cereal would guarantee their protest and he knew it. “You know what Cyrene told me the other day?”
“What?” Pony asked, chewing on the dried meat.
“She told me the only hope she had of passing the inn down in any respectable way was if Gabrielle settled down and took it over.”
“She figures Xena could manage it maybe as a bar, and Toris would probably turn it into gambling den.”
Pony chewed her mouthful for a moment, a frown on her face. “Oh.” She finally swallowed. “The cooking thing.”
“What brought that up?”
Granella shrugged. “I was just thinking of what was going on back home.”
“No..” Pony waved a stick of meat at her. “I mean, what made Cyrene bring that up? That why she’s so pissed off at her Maj? She wants her to be an innkeeper? She’s nuts.”
“Mm.” Granella removed some waybread from her pack and a slab of hard cheese. She put them together and nibbled on them. “There’s worse ways to live.” She leaned back against the rocks and watched the fire crackle. “They can’t wander around forever, y’know.”
Pony took a swig from her waterskin. “Know what I think?”
The weapons master wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “They’ll never settle down there. Not for long.”
Granella looked at her. “Pon, they’ve got a kid, and a house and a family there.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Eponin shook her head. “They got that itch. Gabrielle’s got it worse than Xena does… wasn’t all the noise and crap in town that drove her nuts, it was all the boring crap that goes on there day in day out.”
Granella pondered that as she ate. “She’s a dreamer.” She finally said, in a quiet tone. “She’ll never be Queen, not really. You know it.”
“I know it. Eph knows it.” The weapons master said. “Only chance she’d have done it was back when.”
“The first time.”
Pony nodded, understanding exactly what Granella meant. “If Xena hadn’t come back, then yeah, maybe. But I’m not sure I’d have liked what kind of Queen she’d have ended up being.”
She’d just gained her feathers then, Granella remembered, and she recalled the horror and the sadness of that time, and how frightened she’d been of Velasca. She’d thought Gabrielle was insanely brave to face off against her, but she’d heard Ephiny say something like that to her and what Gabrielle had answered had scared her even more.
“Worst she can do, is kill me. It would probably hurt less.”
“Yeah.” She agreed somberly. “That woulda been tough.”
They both remained quiet for a while, absorbed in their own thoughts as the sky turned to black over them and the fire’s golden light edged out into the darkness. Granella finally cleared her throat, and glanced at her companion. “You think they’re okay?”
Eponin returned the look, her hazel eyes reflecting the flames. “Truth?”
“I think they’re in big time trouble.” The weapons master said. “Cause if they weren’t, no crap, they’d be back already. Even if that kid wasn’t waiting on them, they had tons of family in the way of that flood and no matter how pissed off Xena was at her mom and all that, they’re family, you know?”
Granella nodded seriously. “Toris thinks the same thing.” She said. “That’s why he wasn’t torked at all about me coming out here with you.” She went on. “He’s really worried.”
“But he said..”
“I know.. I know.. all that stuff about them being who they are and all that. But what he tells me is the truth, you know?” Granella interrupted her. “And even though they fight, he loves her, and you know he loves Gabrielle.”
“Yeah.” Pony stared pensively at the fire. “You know, I learned a lot from Xena that way.”
The weapons master remained quiet for a moment, then she exhaled. “My mother was going to sell me to a whorehouse.” She remarked, in an unemotional tone. “That’s how I came to the Amazons. Couple of em.. Renas, her buddy Liv, and a few others, happened on the place and took me instead.”
Granella blinked, startled. “Oh.” She said. “Sorry.. I didn’t know that, Pon.”
“Most don’t.” The woman shrugged. “Old history, but you know, after seeing Xena with Cyrene, makes me believe if I ever did see the old bitch again, I probably wouldn’t kill her.” She concluded. “Family’s family.”
Granella thought about her own mother. She’d been born into the Amazon nation and had grown up a part of the nation. She’d always assumed Pony had done the same, as she’d always seemed so natural an Amazon to her. “Yeah.”
“So that’s why I think they’d be back already.” Pony said. “They didn’t know how high the river’d go.. Hades, it coulda taken out the upper town.”
“And they’d never leave that kid.”
“No.” Granella agreed quietly. “You think we can find them?”
Pony drew out her sword, and her sharpening stone, and began a rhythmic scraping. “We gotta.” She said, her eyes on the blade. “Ain’t no choice, y’know?”
Pony looked out into the darkness, her hands working at her task automatically. No choice, true.. but where to start looking?
That was the question she really didn’t have an answer to. But by daylight, damn it, she’d have one.
It was just before dawn, and at last Xena knew a moment of peace. The hooters had all hunkered down in silence finally, after Gabrielle’s story was over and the bard had slowly relaxed, her head coming to rest against Xena’s collarbone.
The blond woman wasn’t quite asleep, but her breathing was slow and steady, and Xena knew she was in that twilight state between waking and dreaming and wasn’t really conscious of her surroundings.
Outside, she could hear the faint buzz of crickets and the tentative chirps of early rising birds, and further out the sound of water rippling from the creek. There were no noises she could identify as belonging to large animals around, and she started planning in her mind the steps they’d take to escape from the cave.
Her pack was already knotted, and at her side, with her ax and Gabrielle’s staff.
In a moment, she would nudge Gabrielle into alertness. In a moment, she would ready herself to stand, and kick the fire into the cavern and run, her mind already going over the route they’d take and anticipating both the smooth points and the rough spots.
Her breathing started to deepen, and she felt blood move a little more strongly through her, warming her skin and heightening her alertness. She drew in a lungful of the cavern air and regretted it, as the proximity of all the hooters in close quarters put a rancid taste on the back of her tongue.
A bird called outside, and Xena shifted a little, starting to raise her hand to cup Gabrielle’s face only to find it gently caught and held, and then kissed. She glanced down to see Gabrielle looking at her through the gloom, alert and waiting, her thumb rubbing against Xena’s palm as they sat there breathing in each other’s rhythm.
“Ready?” Xena shaped the word silently.
“Three.” The warrior added, hearing a soft stirring around them, and realizing they were running out of time. “One… “
Gabrielle gathered herself up without moving, muscles tensing all along her body as she slid one foot more under her.
The woman woke, looking around in sudden alarm, but relaxing once she saw them there. She put her head down on her forearm and watched them, her eyes a mystery in the shadows around the fire.
“Three.” Xena surged upward, getting a hand on Gabrielle’s hip as the bard uncoiled ahead of her and headed for the opening, her staff gripped firmly. “Go!” The warrior turned and with a sweep of her leg, booted the burning logs from the fire towards the center of the cavern as the hooters all started to scramble up, a howl rising even as she completed the move.
“No!” The woman got up and started for them, her hand stretched out in entreaty. “No!”
Xena didn’t stop to argue. She saw the fire catch on the leaf litter as she bolted from the cavern, following in Gabrielle’s footsteps as the bard crossed the rocks and headed for the trees. The fresh air puffed against her face and she sucked it in gratefully, her eyes sweeping over the area in search of threats.
She caught up to Gabrielle as they raced down the small slope, her ears cocked behind her to listen for the hooters. She could detect some kind of motion, but glancing behind her revealed only smoke coming from the opening to the cavern and she didn’t stop to ponder it. “Go!”
“I’m going!” Gabrielle tucked her staff against her ribs as the morning air pushed the hair back off her forehead, her body almost shivering in the early chill after the warmth of the fire and Xena’s body. Despite that, though, she was glad to be moving, glad to be out of the cavern and away from the creatures and the atmosphere of fear around them.
The early morning forest was just waking as well, and she startled a rabbit.. or what she thought was a rabbit as it scrambled out of her way and scuttled under a bush. There was no time to wonder, though, and they tore through the outer fringe of the trees side by side in silence.
“Anything?” Gabrielle asked, after a few minutes of running.
Xena risked a backwards glance, and saw only forest. “No.”
“We going to keep running?”
“Okay.” Gabrielle concentrated on the ground, it’s uneven nature making speed dangerous. She dropped back a pace behind Xena, letting the warrior lead the way, shifting her staff from her right hand to her left to keep it from thumping her partner as they ran.
She could hear birds all around her now, chittering and flapping in the leaves over their head as they darted up from perches in alarm. Her body had warmed up by now, and she fell into a rhythm as Xena headed across a small ridge and down into a mossy dell.
It was damp in the bottom of it, her boots sinking in a little and throwing up a few spits of mud as they turned and continued along the hollow instead of going up the other side. She realized they were heading towards the other side of the valley, away from the cave they’d hid in before. “Thought you were going back.”
“Only if I have to.” Xena was running easily, her head turning to the left to peer through the trees. “We know what’s back there and it’s not good.”
“We don’t know what’s ahead of us.”
Could be better or worse, Gabrielle mused silently. She wasn’t unhappy about it though – any unknown area could hold a way out.
Gabrielle looked quickly to the left, and saw faint shadows at the edge of the trees back the way they’d come. “Well, you figured they’d come after us.”
“Figured we’d have more time.” Xena sighed, wishing silently she’d had a bigger fire and a pair of much sturdier boots. “Run.”
“Hon, I’m running.” Gabrielle increased her pace to keep up. “Are we running someplace in particular or what?’
Good question. Xena scanned the old river bed they were currently heading down, feeling the ground sloping a little under her feet. She didn’t want to get into a gully, and have the creatures come down on top of them from the banks, and yet being a little below the level of the ground meant they might not be noticed for a little while longer.
She glanced at Gabrielle, gauging the blond woman’s energy level. Despite the lack of sleep and the rapid escape, the bard seemed to be in good form, her powerful strides easy and unstrained. “Let’s see how far we can get in this.” She indicated the creek bed. “If they get too close, we’ll go up.”
Gabrielle looked up in reflex. “Up out of the ditch?”
“Up in the trees.” Xena muffled a smile, at her partner’s grimace. “C’mon.. Amazon tradition.”
Yes, Gabrielle knew that. She knew the Amazons were legendary for their ability to travel through the trees, and she knew her partner enjoyed doing that herself.
Gabrielle did not enjoy it, and Xena knew that. She climbed trees when she had to, but her fear of heights made travel through them uncomfortable at best and nauseating at worst and so she hoped like Hades they’d find a better path down the gully. “Great.”
They went a little faster, as the ground sloped a little more and the tops of the gully rose up near their eye level. The ancient bank here was undercut, and went back into the ground quite a bit, revealing miniature caves that sprouted the occasional bush.
Xena kept an eye on the shadows between the trees, her ears cocked as she caught the hooter’s yells on the air. She saw the gully bending to the right ahead of them, and she picked up speed, the pack bouncing a little on her back.
As she rounded the bend a flash of motion caught her eye and she blinked, as part of the wall seemed to separate and move into the middle of the gully, resolving from a dark shadow into a huge wolflike creature.
“Xena!” Gabrielle yelped automatically, slowing as the warrior threw out her arm to block the way.
“I see it.” Xena looked hastily over her shoulder, then she studied the animal. It’s hackles were up and it was growling - it’s head roughly even with her shoulders. She shifted her grip on her ax and raised it. “Yeahh!”
The animal opened it’s mouth and showed it’s teeth, then advanced, it’s legs stiff and it’s hair on end. Xena took a step towards it and brandished the ax, spreading her other arm to make herself appear larger. “Get outta here! Yah!”
The animal’s growls deepened and it rushed a few steps towards them, then stopped, it’s paws sending bits of shale spitting towards their legs.
As a counterpoint, the yells of the hooters got louder, and more insistent. Xena looked behind her, then she stooped and picked up a rock, throwing it at the beast. “Move!”
The animal snarled at her and ran a few steps closer again, growling hideously.
“Son of a bacchae.” Xena sighed. “Trade.” She indicated Gabrielle’s staff. “Lemme see if I can..”
“Xe, wait.” Gabrielle had spotted something. “Hold on a..” She reached for the warrior’s arm but found it yanked out of her grasp. “Xena!”
“Gabrielle!” The warrior yelled in frustration. “No wait!”
The bard backed up, grabbing hold of her partner’s belt and hauling her bodily along with her, catching the warrior off balance and making progress before she could put the brakes on and stop them.
“Gab!” Xena twisted around and took hold of her hands. “What in the Hades are you doing!” She dropped her ax and grappled with the bard, her boots skidding in the loose shale. “GABRIELLE!!!!” She yelled in anger.
“Shh!” Gabrielle hauled her against the bank and they turned, with their backs protected. “Look!” She pointed. “Look under there!” She urged the warrior, whose eyes were boring right through her. “Xena!” She reached up and took hold of her partner’s jaw, turning her head. “LOOK!”
The wolflike creature was still growling, but it had stopped advancing, and was merely standing it’s ground, watching them with intent, yellow eyes. After a moment, a smaller, furry body emerged from the undercut, staring at them.
“She has babies.” The bard whispered. “C’mon. Let’s get out of here.” She turned and looked for a way up out of the gully, her heart beating double time in her chest. She reached for a root sticking out from between the rocks and started hauling herself up, only to be gripped around the waist and thrown gently onto the mossy ground on the edge.
She rolled over and got out of the way, as Xena vaulted up to join her. They stood and started running along the edge, dodging between the trees and following the creek bed as the wolflike creature turned to watch them.
The ground became rocky and the ridge they were on angled upwards, as the creek bed angled downwards, moving towards a thickly forested area that overgrew the gully just ahead. Gabrielle was suddenly glad they were out of it, the shadowed darkness making her skin prickle for no apparent reason.
“There.” Xena grabbed her shoulder and pointed. A rockslide had happened, recently by the look of it, and several huge slabs of rock had fallen down from the wall ahead and formed a roughly triangular shaped space among crushed trees. “Let’s see if we can duck in there and lose them.”
Gabrielle followed her as they scrambled down a slope of loose rock, almost skidding into the shelter uncontrollably. They passed under the overhanging rock and skidded to a halt, turning to look behind them as they ducked around a waist high boulder and crouched down.
Shoulder to shoulder, both hand son the rock, fingers splayed as they searched the forest. Neither of them said a word as the yells grew closer, echoing through the forest. The wind blew against their faces, and Xena let out a breath, her nostrils twitching.
Gabrielle stiffened, as she spotted hairy figures loping along the top of the creek bed, the two nearest clutching branches. They were definitely being hunted. She dropped one hand off the rock and took hold of her staff, her heart coming up into her throat.
Xena reached over and put a hand on her back, pressing her very gently towards the rock. She put a finger to her lips and made the sign for ‘keep still.’, then she leaned against the rock herself and merely watched, only her eyes visible over the stone.
The creatures came closer, and Gabrielle watched them, forcing herself to remain calm and in place as the lead creature sniffed the air, and let out a howl, slapping his branch against a nearby tree. Two birds erupted from the bushes and the creature paused, listening intently.
Gabrielle was abruptly aware of her own breathing, which sounded loud in her own ears. She opened her mouth and felt the air rush across her tongue, her inhale filled with the scent of stone and earth. Beside her, Xena knelt in utter stillness, only her eyes watching intently as the hunters came closer and closer.
They made a huge amount of noise, hooting and smacking the trees, shaking the branches and throwing rocks into the underbrush.
One of the rocks bounded into the shelter they were in and bounced against the boulder they were behind. Gabrielle heard her heart thunder in her ears and she shifted a quick look to Xena’s face in question. The warrior’s hand, hidden behind the rock made a slight gesture, and she turned back around, remaining in place out of sheer stubborn will.
It was hard. But she trusted Xena.
She did. Gabrielle felt a tremor shake her hands as the creatures climbed up the slope towards them. She really did.
Ephiny stared at the woman seated on Xena and Gabrielle’s bed, her arms folded over her chest. “You’re joking.”
“Not even slightly funny.” Cyrene replied. “He’s promised them two hundred dinars a piece.”
“Two hundred dinars, and there’s two score of them. Forty.” The innkeeper continued. “And he told us we just have to suck it up and give them everything we’ve got.”
Ephiny slowly sat down on the chest. “Is he out of his mind?’ She asked. “You’ll be indebted to them for three seasons at least!”
Cyrene shook her head. “I don’t know what he’s out of, but he’s run me out of patience and everything else, I’ll tell you that.” She said. “We just got out of that town meeting, and I walked up here so I wouldn’t go find an ax and get myself in some real trouble.”
“Hm.” Ephiny laced her fingers together, giving Cyrene’s statement the respect it deserved given her history. “You going to go along with it?”
The innkeeper snorted. “He’s given the town’s word.”
Cyrene looked wryly at her.
Ephiny shrugged. “Sorry, Cyrene.. but no one in your family, blood or extended, that I’ve met yet has been much on obeying rules that aren’t to their advantage.” She watched Dori throw a stuffed toy at the wall, and catch it as it bounced back at her. “No offense.”
The innkeeper got up and walked over to the window, leaning on the sill and looking out. “It’s not that simple.”
“Why not?” The regent asked. “Let me tell you something.. if someone came and told me I’d have to give up our whole year’s income I’d kick em in the shins and tell them to kiss my ass.” She got up and walked over to where Cyrene was standing. “You’re going to tell me that council of yours voted to agree with him?”
“Apparently.” Cyrene turned and leaned against the sill. “They think it’s fair… but then, most of them are making all their income off the lower town.. the markets there. If they don’t’ rebuild, they’re sunk.”
“Where as the rest of us… well, sure, I make coin off the place, but..”
“But you have the best inn in town anyway, and you’d get business regardless.” Ephiny completed the thought. “You mean to tell me you let those speculators take over the town?”
Cyrene had the grace to look abashed. “We didn’t realize it was happening.”
“Until they kicked Gabrielle out.” The Amazon snorted softly. “That should have clued you.”
The innkeeper frowned.
“You know, I never did buy that whole line about how she had divided loyalties.” Ephiny continued. “I think they just wanted to make their scummy deals and they were afraid she’d kick their asses.”
Cyrene opened her mouth, and then after a moment, closed it again with a faint half shrug. “Well, I’m not sure what we’re going to do.” She admitted. “Of course I don’t want to go along with it.. but I don’t want to make an enemy of the whole town either. I do have to live here.”
She pushed away from the window and went over to where Dori was sitting. “Hey, cutie pie. What are you up to?’
“Gramma, hi.” Dori twisted around on the floor so she was facing her grandmother. “Is mama coming?”
Cyrene grimaced a little. “Soon, sweetie. Some of our friends went to go find your mama and Xena, and tell them to hurry up home, okay?”
Dori scowled a bit. “Boo’s gone too long.” She complained.”No fun.”
Ephiny crossed back over to the chest and sat down, watching the child pensively.
“Well, honey, do you want to come down and play with Solon and Lyceus?” Cyrene asked. “I’m not sure your uncle Toris would appreciate another hellion to watch, but I bet you’d have fun.”
“Go down there?” Dori pointed in the actual direction of the town.
“Yes.” Cyrene agreed. “You want to go?”
Dori considered the request. “No.” She shook her head with childish sincerety. “Too loud. Bring ev’rybody here now.. fun!”
Ephiny chuckled softly.
Cyrene frowned. “She learned that from them.” She muttered. “Little rascal.”
The regent remained silent for a moment. “You’re wrong.”
“She’s capable of making up her own mind.” Ephiny said, in a sharper tone. “Just like her mothers are. And for the record, I think they made a fine choice moving up here.”
Cyrene rolled her eyes. “You would.”
“I do.” The regent agreed. “You people don’t appreciate them in the least.” She got down on the floor. “C’mere, Dori… let’s play pattycake, like you do with mama.”
Dori agreeably crawled over to her and sat down.
“What nonsense. Of course I appreciate them.” Cyrene protested. “They’re my daughters, for the gods sake.” She paced over to the fireplace. “Appreciate them? If I didn’t, would I give a damn if they moved here, or some other town, or across the ocean?”
“Then why make them miserable?” Ephiny clapped her hands and patted Dori’s. “Cyrene, you know Xena. You birthed her. You really think she’d cut out to live in the middle of a city?”
Cyrene exhaled audiby. She leaned her arm on the fireplace mantle and gazed into it. “No.” She finally said. “But I know something about this mountainside they don’t. You don’t.”
Ephiny patted a few more hands with Dori before she looked up. “Don’t I?”
Cyrene studied her in a silence that lengthened into discomfort. “I hope you don’t.” She said, at last. “I really hope not.”
Ephiny looked at her with an enigmatic expression, as Dori’s burblings drifted between them.
Gabrielle felt like the ground was boring holes in her kneecaps, she’d been frozen in position so long. One of the hooters had entered the overhang they were hidden in, and he was sniffing around. She could hear him, but not see him as she had her cheek pressed against the rock they were behind and her head down.
It was nervewracking. She heard, very faintly, the soft scrape of the hilt of her knife against Xena’s palm, as the warrior’s fingers closed around it and felt the rigid tension of the tall form brushing lightly against hers. The urge to jump up, or run, or fight was almost irresistible.
There was a scuff of bare feet against stone right on the other side of the rock, and Gabrielle more felt than heard Xena draw in a deep breath, more sensed than saw the shiver of energy she knew came just before the warrior would surge into battle, a dark thrill running through their link in anticipation of it.
She’d finally gotten used to feeling that, and right now, in this time and place – she welcomed it. The waiting was killing her.
A scream sounded outside, high and panicked. The scuff of footsteps and a grunt very close by answered, then she could hear the hooter running away, his feet slapping against the stone. She let out a breath, and moved her hand slightly to rest it against Xena’s thigh.
“Okay.” Xena uttered softly. “He’s gone.”
Gratefully, Gabrielle straightened up, then rocked back onto her heels to take the pressure off her knees. “Ow.”
“Mm.” Xena peered over the rock at the opening, which was thankfully hooter free. She could hear a commotion outside, and found herself hoping fervently that the wolf, and it’s mate, had come out to find lunch. “Stay here. Let me check things out.”
Gabrielle rose to her feet as Xena circled the rock and headed to the opening, but she stayed where she was, stretching her back out and reaching down to rub her knees as she kept an eye on the warrior’s tall figure. Xena moved cautiously to the opening, her ax in one hand and the knife in the other, her wrist cocked in a throwing posture.
She stayed still for an extended period, and finally Gabrielle gave in to her instincts and went after her, slipping up behind the warrior and peering past her shoulder.
“Didn’t I say stay back there?” Xena asked, in a mild tone.
“Sure. You never said for how long.” Gabrielle replied, unperturbed. “Where are they?”
Xena edged outside into the open, her eyes confirming what her ears had already told her. “Gone.” She said. “They ran off back down the creek bed… I think.”
“Thank the gods.”
“Thank the wolves.” The warrior observed. “Maybe they pushed them too far.”
Xena heard the layers of commentary in the simple sound, and though she was facing away from her partner, she could see her expression in her mind’s eye with utter clarity. She knew Gabrielle would have her arms folded, and she knew one eyebrow would be slightly raised, and she knew her lips would be tensed into a faint, wry smile.
She knew why. Xena turned, to find her mental image facing her. “Guess they didn’t have you to stop them.”
The faint smile spread easily into a warm grin at the acknowledgement. “Hey, I gotta be good for something, right?” Gabrielle walked over and bumped her gently, moving past and peering across the rocks towards the dry creek bed. “So, now what?” She asked. “Think they’re gone for good?”
“No.” Xena shook her head. “But I think we’ve got a chance to find a way out until they get up the guts to come back after us.” She looked around. “Let’s head up there. See what we can find.”
“Lead on.” Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair. “Be nice to stop for a drink of water, though.” She was aware of her partner’s eyes on her. “Boy, I’m glad to be out of that cave.”
“Me too.” Xena agreed, apparently satisfied with what she saw. She started off across the rocks towards a forested ridge above the old creek. “Damn glad, in fact.” She waited for Gabrielle to catch up, and they climbed together across the slanted ground. “We’ll look for water. I need to hunt.”
Gabrielle paused, and put her free hand over her stomach, a bemused expression crossing her face. “Actually.. .I”m a little.. um..”
Xena looked at her, an eyebrow cocking significantly. “Sick?”
“A little queasy.” The bard admitted. “But that could be just all the stuff that happened and not sleeping.”
They both smiled, and kept walking.
The area around them had gone from open and somewhat scrubby, to a deep, thick forest. Gabrielle found herself falling behind her partner as she followed her through the trees, the gaps between them unable to permit them to walk side by side.
The sun filtered only fitfully through the leaves, and she felt an occasional damp chill as the air brushed across her bare midriff. “Know what this reminds me of?”
Xena looked around, tossing her head to move her hair from her eyes. “A forest?”
“Xena.” Gabrielle laughed. “Go with me, here, huh?’
“Sorry.” Xena reached up to rub the back of her neck with a small grimace. “Headache.”
Hm. The bard caught up with her and hooked a finger into her belt. “It reminds me a little of Britannia.” She went on. “Just that… I always felt things were old there, you know what I mean?”
Xena did her best not to think of Britannia at all, so in fact, she didn’t. “Mm.” She made a noncommittal sound. “To me they’re just trees.” She admitted. “I’ve seen forests like this before.. up north, places.”
Gabrielle casually leaned against her as they walked, her fingers still tucked in Xena’s belt. “I didn’t mean that in a bad way.” She said, after a moment. “It just struck me, when we were there, that there was this feeling of.. I don’t know, ancient mysteries around.”
Xena eyed her.
“You didn’t think so?”
“No.” The warrior replied. “They were just trees.” She said. “In a hateful place.” Her voice dropped a little on the last words, and ended in a sigh.
Gabrielle let the silence settle over them for a while, allowing the cool wind to brush over her as she walked along, using the staff to steady her steps. The leaves rattled around them, but instead of the vaguely forboding feeling she’d had in the valley so far, here the effect was mostly a somber peacefulness.
After the past few days, it was welcome, and she was glad to simply place her boots on relatively dry ground, in relatively dry air, with no odd creatures or hooters chasing her. It was nice to be able to let her mind wander, just a little bit, and she felt some of the past few days’ horror leaving her.
Experience did that, Gabrielle acknowledged. She could remember the times when she’d stress over something that had happened for days, worrying over every last moment of it, wondering what she could have done differently, and anxious about Xena’s thoughts and feelings.
Eventually, she realized Xena didn’t have thoughts and feelings past the first quarter candlemark after something had occurred, and over time she found herself putting events first in perspective then in the past faster than she could have ever imagined.
Living in the moment. That had been a hard lesson to learn, and sometimes, Gabrielle mused, she wondered just exactly how true it was that anything ever got put totally in the past.
“Sorry I brought that up.” Gabrielle said. “Didn’t mean to bum you out.”
Xena kept on walking, her eyes flicking over the trees around them as she pondered. Was she bummed out? She didn’t think so. It was just that Britannia marked one of her most profound, most damning personal failures and she just didn’t like to talk or think about it. Natural, really, she sniffed a little, reaching up to rub her nose where it itched.
Gabrielle’s hand released from her belt, and dropped to catch hers instead. She felt the bard’s fingers twine with hers and the simple affection in the gesture made her smile. “You know what this reminds me of?”
“If you say Britannia I’m going to bite your thumb.” The bard warned her.
“Nah.” Xena swung her arm a little, moving their joined hands. “It reminds me of that seaside area we went through on the way home. Where Dori found the little owl?”
Gabrielle shifted her thoughts to a happier memory. “Oh.. where we came across that strange little village?”
“Mm.” The warrior nodded.
The bard looked around. “You know, you’re right.” She agreed. “It had that same kind of rocks, too. Over there.” She pointed at the ground, which had thick, moss covered boulders coming out of it. “See that one?” She indicated a truly large one, hunkered down in stripes of sunlight from above.
“Yeah, I..” Xena stopped abruptly, hauling Gabrielle to a halt as well.
“What?” Gabrielle’s hand clenched on her staff. She followed the warrior’s pointing finger and blinked as her boulder stirred, shifting around and standing up as it heard their approach. “By the gods.. what is that?”
The rock like animal turned, a spine on it’s back rising in alarm as it opened it’s jaws and hissed at them. It was huge, it’s back well over Xena’s head and it’s skin looked remarkably like the rock she’d mistaken it for.
Xena handed over her ax. “Hold this. Gimme that.” She took Gabrielle’s staff and cautiously moved towards the animal. It had a pointed snout, and tiny eyes, and she racked her brains to figure out where it seemed a little familiar from.
The animal hissed at her, stepping from foot to foot and rattling it’s skin.
“Gosh.. Xena, look at that.” Gabrielle murmured, fascinated. “It’s like it has armor on.” She edged up behind her partner and peered at the animal, which showed signs of being more afraid of them than they were of it. “I don’t ‘think it wants to hurt us.”
Xena studied it. “I don’t think it wants to eat us.” She clarified. “I don’t think it cares if it hurts us, long as we leave it alone.” She took a step back, and watched the spines arched over the animal’s head relax a little. “Wouldn’t mind one of those, though.”
“The poky things?”
“Yeah.” Xena eyed the spine, which was easily the length of her body. “Wonder if he’d give me one.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle took hold of the warrior’s belt again. “Don’t get any funny ideas.”
Xena sighed. “I’d probably end up poking myself in the ass with it anyway.” She started off again, sidestepping to put distance between them and the bristling creature. “Wish I could find some some damn iron ore.”
Gabrielle kept an eye on the animal, which rattled it’s skin again, but seemed to realize they meant it no harm and merely watched them warily as they went by. “Why?” She asked. “What does that get us, a hotter fire?”
Xena chuckled wryly. She climbed over one of the smaller boulders and followed a small ridge downward, turning sideways to get between a pair of huge trees. A stand of smaller trunks faced her, and she started to circle them, stopping when her hand pushed against one of the trunklets and it sprang back to her touch. “Hm.”
“What?” The bard glanced behind them, at the animal, which was still standing up watching them.
Xena put her hand around the tree, a sapling really, and shook it. The foliage was long and thin, and her fingers fit neatly around it. Experimentally, she slid her hand up, braced her foot against the bottom of it, and pulled. The wood tensed and bowed, but only with a lot of effort on her part, and she let out a soft grunt as she released it. “Might be useful.”
Gabrielle watched her. “Bow?” She guessed.
“Mmhmm.” Xena edged into a little clear space and started chopping at the base of the sapling with her stone ax. “Gotta keep them back when they come after us again.”
“Hm.” The bard rested her staff against a nearby tree and started to look around the base of the nearby boulders. The pieces of stone were mostly chips of slate type rock, but after a few minutes rooting around, she found what she was looking for. “Ah.” She straightened up with a round river rock about the size of her palm. “Xe, think you can cut me the right size piece of skin for a sling?”
Xena glanced up from her work. “Sure.”
“Good. I’ll find more of these.”
The warrior eyed her. “Not too many. We don’t have Argo, remember.”
Or her carrybag, Gabrielle mused wryly. “You know, that’s one of the ways I knew I was getting to you.” She picked up another stone, juggling it a bit. “When you let me put stuff on Argo’s saddle rings.”
Xena had knelt to get a better angle, one hand pushing the sapling aside as she chopped at the base with stolid skill. “Ahhh.” She edged around on her knees and started in another spot. “Yeah, that was a clue, huh?”
The warrior continued her work, standing as the sapling came free and laying it on the ground. “You remember the night we spent in Thelus? Where they were having the races?”
“Um..” Gabrielle was a touch confused at the change of subject. “Yeah, oh, with the wagons. Yeah, I do.” She said. “When I bet all those dinars on that pretty horse and he was losing and then all of a sudden the winner tripped and fell and he won.. eyah. I remember.”
“That was a long time ago.” The bard said. “But it was sort of cool.. it was nice to win.”
Gabrielle looked up, cocking her head. “Why?”
“Why did you mention that?”
Xena trimmed the last of the leaves off the sapling and stood up, measuring it against her height and studying her work. “Because I tripped the horse.” She said, glancing over at her partner. “So you could win.”
“Mm.” The blue eyes twinkled gravely. “That’s when I knew you were getting to me.” She tucked her ax into her belt and flexed the sapling between both hands, winking at Gabrielle before she turned to look for appropriate arrow material.
Gabrielle sat back on her heels and remembered that moment, that small space of triumph in the early moons of their friendship when even the least smile from Xena had left her breathless. She remembered taking the dinars, and celebrating, buying Xena something.. what was it? The warrior had demurred but she hadn’t cared.. oh, right.
The blanket. A soft, pretty one in wool that Xena had said would never last a fortnight but was still packed in their traveling gear to this very day, tattered and patched but serving as Xena’s pillow anyway.
Gabrielle walked over and slipped the six rocks she’d found into the pack on Xena’s back, leaning close and giving her a kiss on the shoulder. “I wonder if everyone we knew was wondering how long it would take us to figure out what was going on.”
Xena started to answer, then she stiffened, as a sound on the wind caught her ear. “Ah.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Don’t tell me.”
“C’mon.” The warrior pointed. “Let’s find some place we can hole up and get ourselves armed.” She sounded a bit more decisive now. “I’m about over these guys.”
Gabrielle picked up her staff and followed Xena through the trees, heading downwards towards a thicker part of the forest. It was still quiet around them, but the peacefulness had vanished, and she was starting to hear footsteps in every brush of the breeze against the branches.
All at once, she was angry. Angry at the creatures, and at the valley, that were putting so much pressure on them in such a mindless, unreasoning way. “Darn it.”
“What?” Xena turned to look at her in question.
Gabrielle noted the dark circles under her partner’s eyes. “This place is pissing me off.” She put a hand on Xena’s hip and urged her forward. “We need to do something about those guys.. we’ll never get out of here if all we do is keep running and hiding.”
Xena sneezed. “I know that.” She half slid, half skidded down a steeper slope, turning to catch Gabrielle as she almost flew past her. “So are you ready to do something about it?”
Gabrielle remained silent as they plunged deeper into the forest, passing tall columns of stone and moving into ground that was damp and dark, and brought a scent of earthy richness as their boots stirred it. “You mean fight them.” She finally said.
“They’re not gonna negotiate.”
The bard looked inside herself, wondering if she’d find the bard or the Amazon looking back out. She found neither, truly, but an echo of Dori’s laughter tickled her ears and laid the stakes out neatly in her path. Was she ready to kill the creatures? That’s what Xena was asking her. Was she ready to cross that line, because she knew, and Xena had demonstrated, that just knocking them out did nothing but make them come back harder.
If she wasn’t, she knew Xena wouldn’t hold it against her. The warrior would just do what she needed to do, and there wasn’t anything in her heart that would think the less of Gabrielle for it.
But you know.. Gabrielle drew in a breath and released it. She was ready. She’d done her best to give them a chance, tried to communicate with them, and put herself and her soulmate in danger doing it. Now it was time to cut her losses, and find a way home. “Yeah, I’m ready.” She put her hand on Xena’s back as the warrior spotted what she was looking for. “There?”
“There.” Xena slipped behind two standing stones, taller than she was and covered in fragrant green moss. Behind them was a dell, a curve of granite upthrust from the ground that arched over a leaf covered floor and gave them both shelter and place to defend. “Put that down, let’s see what we’ve got around here to work with.”
“Gotcha.” Gabrielle tossed her staff under the sheltering rock and took the pack off as Xena shrugged it, and set it down on the ground. “I’ll start making that sling.”
Xena nodded, dusting her hands off. “I’m going to find sticks for arrows, and see what sap’s around.” She sniffed the air. “Gather wood.”
“I will.” Gabrielle patted her on the side. “Be careful.”
Xena put a hand on her cheek, gazing with brief intensity into the bard’s eyes. “We’re going home.” She spoke softly. “Whatever that takes”
Gabrielle nodded. “I’m with you.” She said. “Whatever that takes.”
In the distance, a hooter howled, and they heard the sound of branches breaking.