One Wild Ride
Xena moved cautiously up onto a log, balancing as she made her way across a boggy sunken area. Her makeshift boots were already damp, and she could feel her toes squishing upleasantly inside of them. “Careful.”
“Mmhm.” Gabrielle had hopped up behind her and was making her way along, her eyes fixed firmly on the bark under her feet. The wave of intense emotionalism seemed to have passed, leaving her a little drained in it’s wake but she determinedly kept up with her partner and refused to give into that.
The sudden descent into bad memories disturbed her, though. Was it really the baby? Gabrielle glanced down at her midriff in reflex, though it naturally displayed it’s normal muscular flatness without any hint of impending motherhood.
It could be, she supposed. Or maybe just a reaction to being stuck in the darn valley, and all the problems they’d had so far.
Or maybe she missed Dori.
“How are you doing back there?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle glanced affectionately at the back of her partner’s head. “I’m about to drop.”
Xena whirled with graceful rapidity. “What?”
“Just kidding.” The bard’s eyes twinkled. “Chill, Xe.”
Xena pointed a finger at her, shaking it a little. “You’re a little troublemaker sometimes, you know that?” She paused, rocking a little on the log and studying their surroundings. “Not sure where this is getting us.”
“Yeah.” Xena observed the soggy ground. “I’m hoping as we get closer to the cliff wall, it’ll start going up.” She turned and began walking along the log again. “At least with all this water, we’ll probably lose those damn .. things.”
Gabrielle followed, silently envying the warrior’s easy balance. She’d gotten better over the years, but she had to work at it and even now she needed to concentrate and hold her hands out a little from her body to keep upright and not fall off.
Xena never had to do that. She just strolled along as if she was on a footpath outside her mother’s inn, only taking care to make sure her bow cleared the trees on either side of them. As she got to the end of the trunk she stepped gracefully off, her head turning back and forth as she searched out the best way for them to go.
Gabrielle could now hear running water, and a waterfall too, she thought. “Xena?”
“I could go for a drink.”
“Really, or are you just kidding again?” The warrior asked.
“Really.” Gabrielle came up behind her. “I hear some falls.”
“Me too.” Xena angled a slightly different path to through the bog. “Least we wont’ be leaving footprints.”
“No.” Gabrielle pulled her boots out of the muck with a sucking bloop. “Ah, I remember the last time I had to do this.” She mused. “Outside Athens.”
“Ahhhh. Yeah.” Xena winced, reaching down in reflex to rub her knee. “I remember that too. Stupid horse.” She grumbled. “I’ll feel that every damn cold morning.”
The bard patted her on the back. “You were amazingly brave about that.”
Xena eyed her. “What?”
“You just were. “ Gabrielle said. “Your face, when you straightened up and realized how badly you were hurt.. you were white as a sheet, but you just kept on.”
Xena walked on a few steps. “Don’t I always?”
“Mmhm.” The bard nodded. “It just struck me right then, because… I guess because… “ She fell briefly silent. “Well, darn.. I don’t know why it struck me, but it did. I remember thinking how incredibly brave you were.”
“Hm. And there I was, thinking how incredibly stupid I was.” Xena remarked, with an easy smile.
Gabrielle pulled her boots free of the mud again. “You’re never stupid.”
“Sometimes I am.” The warrior disagreed. “Sometimes I don’t think first. I just do. That’s stupid.”
The sound of the waterfall was getting louder, and Gabrielle could smell water on the breeze. “That keeps us alive a lot of times. It’s not stupid.”
“Eh.” Xena plucked a few leaves from a tree they were passing and examined them, bringing them to her nose to sniff curiously. “The older I get, the more I question that whole end justifies the means thing.” She admitted. “There are so many things I wish I could go back and do over.”
Gabrielle was faintly surprised to hear that. Xena was usually someone who believed in leaving the past in the past and moving on, and it was the first time she’d heard her talk like this in a while. “Anything in particular?”
Xena quietly shredded the leaf in her fingers as she thought. “Things with us.” She said at last. “You know.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle did know. “Yeah.” She caught up to the warrior and walked alongside her. “But you know, we’ve talked about all this before, Xe. We both went through a lot, but I mean, here we are.”
“Here we are.” Xena glanced around them, giving her younger partner a wry look.
“No, I know what you mean.” The warrior put her arm around Gabrielle. “Every time I really think about something I would have gone and changed, I think about how that would have changed everything else, like.. maybe I wouldn’t have been where I was that day we met.”
“I wouldn’t have changed that.”
“Me either.” Gabrielle agreed. “You know, I was thinking about that the other day. That day we met.” She fell behind Xena a step as they went between two huge trunks. “I think when you were in just your wraps, and muddy.”
“It reminded me of the first time I saw you.” Gabrielle hopped up onto a rock and shaded her eyes. She could now see the falls through the branches, and she licked her lips in anticipation.
“Ah.” Xena found a rocky path down to the water, above the mud and gratefully took it. “Some mud covered gorgon, yeah. I remember that. Surprised you all didn’t run screaming.” She paused, scratching her jaw. “Some of you did, matter of fact.”
Gabrielle chuckled, as she balanced on the rocks after her partner.
Xena went to the water’s edge and knelt, looking around before she dipped her hands in the water. The lake they’d come upon ended in a half circle cliff, with a small waterfall dropping down it’s length into the depths.
It was a moderately pretty spot, with the sun coming down through the trees, and glinting off the lake surface. The lake wound off into the boggy marsh they’d just come through, and filled the low area, which had flocks of water birds feeding around it.
“Oo.” Gabrielle pointed. “Look at that one, Xe. It’s so pretty.”
Xena glanced at the wading bird, it’s long legs rippling the water as it stalked about pecking for minnows. The bird was white, with a delicately pink blush of color across it’s back. “Nice.”
The bard knelt beside her. “This looks like a dead end.” She cupped some water into her hands and drank from it, feeling the cold water travel down her throat and into her mostly empty stomach.
Xena sighed. “Sure does.” She drank her fill, and then stood up. “I’m gonna go check out that wall near the edge of the falls anyway. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
Gabrielle regarded the warm sun. “I’ll go with you.” She decided. “We can dry off pretty fast afterward.” She got up and tightened the pack on her back, following Xena as she waded into the lake.
The falls weren’t that extensive, and there was really no appreciable current. Gabrielle concentrated on following in Xena’s footsteps, drawing in her breath a little as the cold water touched her bare midriff. She stifled a yawn as she got used to the chill, and hooked her fingers through Xena’s belt.
The lake wasn’t really that deep. It took them about a quarter candlemark to move close to the falls, and as they got closer they could see some interesting things.
One, the rock seemed to have multiple flecks of color inside it, and it glittered in the sunlight. Gabrielle thought it was quite beautiful, and she edged over past the falling water to see if she could find a loose piece of it. “Dori’d love this.”
Xena glanced over her shoulder. “Damn right.” She agreed. “Get her a nice chunk. We’re gonna owe her some good presents, long as we’ve been gone.”
Gabrielle chuckled, finding a good size piece and hefting it. She spotted something pale colored in the water nearby, and she moved closer, shifting the rock to her other hand and bending over to probe the dimly seen bottom.
Her fingers closed on something surprisingly smooth, and she pulled it back up into the sunlight, blinking at it for a long moment before her mind identified it. “Xe!” She called out urgently, taking a step back. “Over here!”
The sound of splashing behind her heralded her partner’s approach, and in a moment, the warrior was at her shoulder, peering over it. “What?”
“Here. Look.” Gabrielle handed her the tannin stained object. “It’s a bone. I found it there… it looks..” She hesitated.
“Human.” Xena examined the bone intently. It was just the length of her hand, and finely shaped. “Arm, I think.”
“That small?” Gabrielle asked, in surprise. “I thought it was part of a hand, or something.”
Xena eased past her and crouched down, feeling around in the now silt stirred water. She froze in place, then she looked back over her shoulder at Gabrielle, her eyes widening a little. “Um.. “
“What?” Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s shoulder. “What is it?”
The warrior seemed caught in indecision. Her eyes searched Gabrielle’s face intently, then she lifted her hand from the water and opened her fingers.
Resting on her palm was a small, perfect skull.
Gabrielle stared at it in startled horror, before she reached out and touched it with a fingertip. “Oh no.” She whispered. “Xena, that’s just a baby!”
The warrior nodded somberly. The tiny, fragile thing was not only to her eyes a baby, but a very tiny infant. A newborn, come somehow to this lost, wild place. “It is. Yeah.” She agreed. “Here.. um.. hold it, maybe I can find…”
Gingerly, Gabrielle took the skull, putting it onto her open palm and looking at it’s cracked, sunken features. Her mind went immediately into wondering how it had come there, what it’s story was. Had it’s mother been killed? Maybe one of the cats..
The bard’s attention snapped immediately to her partner, hearing a tone in her voice she hadn’t heard in a very long time. “What’s wrong?”
Xena was up to her neck in the water, both hands under it. Her eyes were filled with a stark knowledge. “There’s more here.”
They looked into each other’s eyes, exchanging an understanding that went beyond speech. Gabrielle waded over to Xena’s side and knelt down, until they were almost nose to nose. Then she reached her own hand down, feeling along the warrior’s arm until she could feel what Xena was feeling.
It was horrific. Gabrielle started breathing faster, as her fingers traveled over piles of thin, slightly slimy bones, laying haphazardly in a jumble of lost possibilities. “Oh, gods.” She whispered, eyes wide. “Xena, what is this?”
With a profound look of distaste, the warrior brought up a handful of the bones and sorted through them. Her face was twitching slightly, and Gabrielle edged over to huddle against her, feeling sick to her stomach.
All those babies. A vivid picture of Dori as an infant flashed into her mind, and she closed her eyes, remembering the solid, living weight of her and those incredibly bright eyes. “Gods.”
She could hear the soft clacking as Xena looked at the bones, and pressed against the warrior’s tall frame, she could hear the increase in her heartbeat.
Xena cleared her throat softly. “They’re all… they’re all girls.” She murmured. “All little girls.” She stared down into the water, as Gabrielle turned her head to look as well. They both paused, then tipped their heads back and looked up, at the cliff edge where the waterfall came over. There was a jutting escarpment to one side, and if they squinted, they could just make out a winding path leading up to it.
“Bastards.” Xena spoke in a rough, clipped tone. “Lousy bastards.”
“You think they… “Gabrielle stared at the ledge, then back down at the water, almost a direct line to where the pile of bones lay. “Why?”
Xena looked at the tiny pelvis in her hand. At one time in her life she’d have laughed at it. At another time, she’d have broken down in tears.
Now, she felt a deep, ferocious anger ignite inside her guts, as the fates of the tiny children made themselves felt in the eddies of the water around her and the slow, inch by inch reconstruction of her soul made her want nothing less than justice for these little ones. “Let’s get out of here.”
Gabrielle took the bone from her, and they both started wading towards the far shore, in silent accord.
Xena stood quietly by a tall tree, one hand resting on the bark, the other lying on her thigh, fingers tapping. She could hear the rustle, far off, of something approaching, and her nose already detected the strong smell of burning wood.
A deer bolted past her, panting. It stared at her, wild eyed, then ran past, it’s legs plunging through the swamp and kept going.
It would be back, Xena knew. There was no exit from this low pocket they’d found themselves in. The only way out was the way they’d come, and that way was already blocked by hooters hunting them.
Xena turned and leaned her back against the tree, removing a block of glassy, smoke colored stone and a piece of antler from her pocket. She tapped the stone gently, removing a flake of it and producing a sharp edge along one side.
“Xe?” Gabrielle sloshed up next to her. “I found this. Is it what you wanted?”
Xena examined the plant in the bard’s hand, and nodded. “Nice. Good job.”
Gabrielle put the plant back in her carrysack. “How’s that coming?”
“Pretty good.” The warrior displayed her efforts. The stone had started out in a very rough leaf shape, and now she’d chipped off an edge along three sides, making a broad point about the size of her hand. “I’ll need some gut to tie it off, though.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle swung her pack down and opened it. She pulled out a large, dead rabbit and held it up. “I thought you might.” She said. “So I grabbed this when I could.”
Xena grimaced slightly. “Thanks.” She dropped the stone into her pouch. “I know you hate doing that.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle admitted. “I do, but I can if I have to, and it’s not fair to make you do everything, y’know?” She looked around. “There’s rocks over there. How about I skin it for you?”
Xena knew if there was one thing Gabrielle hated more than hunting, it was skinning. “I’ll do it.” She held her hand out for the knife.
The bard shook her head. “You’re doing something.” She indicated the pouch. “I’ll take care of this, and then maybe I’ll find some dry wood.”
Gabrielle walked along the bog until she got to the boulders, climbing up on top of one of them to get her feet out of the wet. She sat down with her legs hanging off the edge of the stone and put the dead rabbit between her knees, moving it around as she decided where to start cutting.
She could hear the motion heading towards them as well, and smell the smoke, but somehow all the nervousness she’d felt before was gone, replaced by a kind of stolid anticipation. She knew they were trapped in the marsh, and she also knew the hooters were probably now really angry, but that was all right because she and Xena were also really angry at them.
Who would win the confrontation she knew was coming? Well, Gabrielle was egotistical enough to think there wasn’t much on earth big enough or tough enough to take her and her partner down, so she spared the hooters a moment of cold sympathy.
Only a very brief moment. The piles of infant bones had done something to her psyche, and all the maternal instincts inside her were churning, images flickering erratically through her minds eye of all those tiny little babies, bewildered, unknowingly being tossed to their deaths.
She had to stop what she was doing, and just breathe. Her eyes closed, and she waited for conflicting emotions to work through her, part of her thinking of Dori’s birth, and part of her thinking about Hope’s.
She remembered, suddenly, the uncomprehending trust in Hope’s eyes, as she put her in the basket, and let her go, down an unknown river, towards unknown dangers but away from the one, great known one looming over them.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, to find Xena standing next to her, one hand resting on her thigh and a look of concern in her baby blues. “Sorry.” The bard exhaled. “Need to give my imagination a rest, I think.” She went back to cutting open the rabbit, stopping again when she saw the blood covering her fingers.
“Gimme.” Xena gently took the knife from her hand. She leaned on the rock and started neatly butchering the carcass. She had to lean her forearms on Gabrielle’s leg to reach it, and through the contact she felt a faint trembling. “Once we get past em.” She remarked in a mild tone. “We’ll make for the place we came in. I think I can find a way back up to the gorge.”
“All right.” Gabrielle rested her hands on the warm stone, rubbing the dried blood off her skin. Ghostly images faded now, banished perhaps by Xena’s close, vibrant presence and she was able to move her thoughts away from death, and babies, and lost opportunities and on to firewood.
Or something else useful. “Xe, I can do that.” Gabrielle tried to take back her task. “And anyway, you’re making my leg go to sleep.”
“Yes.” Gabrielle patted her partner’s arm. “C’mon.. how much time do we have, anyway?”
Xena lifted her elbow up off the bard’s thigh and glanced over her shoulder. “Not much.” She admitted, handing the knife over. “Tell you what..”
“I’ll finish this, you go lay some traps.”
“Something like that. Yeah.” The warrior rested her cupped hand on Gabrielle’s knee. “Are you all right?” She asked again. “The truth, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle looked up and into her eyes, knowing the soul that looked back at her from them was as split between light and darkness as her own waking nightmares just had been. All the good things in her life, and all the bad, sprang from this same source, and knowing that let her regain her balance once again as she gently shoved aside the memories for another time. “Yeah.” She reached over and moved some of Xena’s hair from her eyes. “I just feel for those poor kids.”
“Me, too.” Xena leaned over and gave her a kiss on the leg. “Get your fire going. We’re gonna need all the energy we can come up with to deal with those bastards.”
Gabrielle complied, swinging her legs over the rock and hopping off into the marsh again. She sloshed through the calf deep water to where a tree had fallen, the surrounding ones too thick to let it down into the mud. She started breaking off dead branches, tucking them under her arm as she moved down the trunk.
Collecting a stack of branches, she then sought out someplace to set them, and spotted a flat rock not that far off. She trudged over and set the branches down, arranging them into a pile before she turned to locate some suitable tinder.
She saw some dried moss, and started towards it, but stopped dead in her tracks when a warning hiss sounded very close by. Her eyes flicked around the surrounding water, searching for the source. For a moment, she thought she’d been mistaken, then a ripple moved out from the water and a head rose up not a hand span from her leg, hooded eyes watching her intently.
Move? Gabrielle decided not to. She remained dead still, her eyes fixed on the snake. It was large, as big around as her arm and it was definitely threatening. “Xena.” She called out, projecting her voice. “Got a problem.”
She heard the warrior leave her rock and start to come over, and she could imagine the wry expression on her face. Some things about them, after all, never had changed. Then she heard the splashing stop, and she reasoned that Xena had seen what her problem was.
“Okay.” The warrior said. “Don’t move.”
“Not moving.” Gabrielle agreed.
Far off, she could hear branches breaking. She risked a glance to her left, and saw Xena approaching in utter silence, her focus entirely on the snake. “Should I back up?”
“No.” The warrior said immediately. “Just be still.”
Gabrielle could feel her boots sinking into the mud, but she did as she was told and remained still. The snake rose up another few inches and wavered back and forth, it’s tongue flicking out as it eyed her kneecap. “Don’t do it.” She implored the animal. “Please? I’m not here to hurt you, and if you bite me…”
The snake whipped it’s head forward and aimed for her leg. Gabrielle’s reactions were fast enough to recognize it, but she was unable to move from the muck and steeled herself for the strike.
Xena lunged forward as she saw the same thing, reaching out her hand towards the snake as it opened it’s jaws wide. “No ya don’t!” She got her hand on the neck as it flew past her and ended up plowing headfirst into the water, smacking the snake against the rock as she narrowly avoided banging her head.
Gabrielle tried to get her boots loose and go to her partner’s aid, but the muck defeated her and she stumbled forward, throwing her hands up in time to break her fall and ending up nearly cracking her brains open against Xena’s knees. “Whoa!”
She rolled over quickly, thumping her back against the warrior’s thighs and spluttered as a mouthful of half stagnant water found it’s way into her mouth. “Bah.” She looked around. “Did you get it?”
“Got it.” Xena surfaced, sitting up in the shallow water and holding up her hand. In her fist, the snake was clenched, it’s body curling around her arm in futile coils. “Good job.” She complimented the bard. “Just what I needed.”
“A snake?” Gabrielle edged around to get a better look at the animal.
“Poison.” Xena shook, dripping swamp water everywhere. “For my arrow tips.” She glanced at her partner. “Next time, just point, huh?”
Gabrielle made a face, lifting both hands out of the water and shaking them. She looked around, then exchanged looks with Xena, who was removing bits of decaying wood from her cheek. “You know something, Xena?”
“If anyone who listens to my stories about how cool and together we are were here and saw us right now, we’d have to move to a deserted island and change our names to Puck and Scooter.”
Xena leaned back against the rock and chuckled, scratching her jaw with her free hand. “Yeah.” She admitted. “Glad you always leave these parts out.”
Xena shoved herself to her feet and kept the snake away from her body as she headed back towards the rabbit. “Hurry up if you don’t want this raw. We’ve got about a candlemark before those damn things are on top of us.”
“Like Hades.” Gabrielle pulled herself to her feet and went after her moss, flicking dead leaves off her arms as she walked. “Hey Xena?”
“Why should we wait for them?” Gabrielle asked, as she gathered the moss. “We’ve been doing that the last couple days, letting them come to us. Why don’t we just go to them?” She looked up after a period of silence, to find Xena looking back at her. “Bad question?”
“Get the fire started, and we’ll talk about it.” Xena replied quietly, turning back to her task, the snake now hanging from a nearby branch.
Gabrielle stared at her back for a brief moment. “Gotcha.” She went back to the rock and got out her flint, wondering what had prodded her to ask that.
Conscience? Or the echoes of those infants screams? Gabrielle exhaled, as the first sparks fell on the moss. Or maybe she was just tired of being here.
The river took them rapidly forward, and Granella spent most of her time fending them off from rocks half buried in the white foam. “You doing okay?” She hollered back to Pony. “It’s getting squirrely up there.”
“Squirrels can kiss my feathers.” Pony said. “Let’s get the Hades out of here.”
“We’re getting.” Granella peered down the rapidly flowing stream. She couldn’t see past a curve at the far end, but the roar of the foamy water around her was getting louder than she thought it should be. “Eponin, do you hear something?”
Pony removed her paddle from the water, where she’d been trying somewhat fruitlessly to guide the craft. “What?” She asked. “I hear a million things. Birds. River. Squeaking canoe, more river.. “
Granella concentrated, lowering her head a little towards the surface. It wasn’t quite a rumble, more of a.. “Let’s steer for the far shore there, at the curve.” She pointed with her paddle.
“Sure. Easy for you to say.” Pony grumbled. “This thing aint’ going nowhere I want it to.”
Granella dug her paddle in and did her best to guide the canoe forward. The racing currents made it tough, though, and the light craft was bouncing over the top of them, skittering around and being shoved towards the center of the river.
They were nearing the curve. “Paddle harder, Pon!” Granella called out. “If we can get to that point there, maybe we can get out.”
Pony looked ahead to where she was indicating and grunted. “Yeah, well.. I dunno. Even if we get out, where’re we gonna go? Maybe we should just take the ride wherever it’s taking us.”
Granella leaned forward, as the swept toward the curve, her eyes focusing past it downstream. “Uh.. Pon..”
Eponin craned her neck and spotted the waterfall thundering down ahead of them, a sheer dropoff filled with blue sky and spray. “Gotcha. Paddling my ass off.” She dug her paddle in and used all her strength to haul against the current. “Crap.”
“Double crap.” Granella confirmed, paddling just as hard. “I got a feeling I know where that goes and we don’t wanna go there.”
“Don’t’ care where it does, don’t wanna go there.” Pony switched sides, driving the canoe towards the far shore by sheer strength. “Not unless it drops my ass right into my bed.”
Granella spotted a boulder in the stream and got the front of the canoe past it, shoving off with one hand and pushing them closer to their goal. She could see the far shore much closer now, but it was passing by with frightening rapidity, as the coursing waters picked them up and pulled them forward towards the falls.
On the shore, she could see sunken trees protruding, and she was praying to Artemis that they could get close enough to latch onto one and prevent them going over. Though, she suddenly realized, Eponin had made a good point.. then what?
Well, first this. Then what. Granella felt the ache in her shoulders and arms as she dug as hard as she could into the water. She could see a jutting bit of rock wall, with a shimmering swirl of water around it, and she aimed for it, spotting a good half sunken trunk they could grab onto. “I’ll swing the back end around… get that!”
Pony dropped her paddle and reached out as Granella dug hers deep into the water, swinging the canoe around against the current just long enough for Pony to grab the last bit of the trunk.
“Got it!” Pony felt the current nearly rip her arms from their sockets. “Son of a bacchae!” She yelped. “Get a rope round this damn thing!’
Balancing carefully, Granella crawled back and looped one of their ropes onto the tree, tying a slip knot and pulling it taut. She looked around the canoe. “Don’t think those spars’ll hold.”
“Yeah.” Pony agreed.
“Um..” Granella tightened her grip on the rope, holding them in place. They were poised on the center of the curve, and as she watched a tree swept over the falls, tipping upright and plunging out of sight. Behind their rock, though, she could feel a bit of a lessening of the force, and if they could get tied off..
“Hey.” Eponin said. “Slide that rope up under the front of this thing, and tie it across the middle.” She took a better hold on the branch. “G’wan, I can hang on.”
Granella turned forward and looped the rope over the front of the canoe, pulling it back between her and Pony. She wrapped the free end around and tied it snugly. “You sure? I think..”
“Sure.” Pony released her hold, with a wary expression, ready to grab on again. The canoe remained steady, however. “See?”
“Yeah.” Gran sat back and looked around. “So now what?”
“Beats me.” Pony also examined their surroundings. “I think we’re screwed.”
Granella nodded briefly. The walls rose over their heads to a forbidding degree, and going back the way they came wasn’t an option. “I think you’re right.” She sighed. “Shoulda stayed in Amphipolis.”
For once, Pony was right with that sentiment. “Happens every time. It’s that Gabrielle thing.”
With shocking suddenness, the branch they’d tied off to broke, and the canoe lurched into motion. “I was wrong.” Pony yelped, scrabbling to get a hold on something. “Now we’re totally screwed.”
Granella got her fingertips on the rock promontory and clutched it, making the canoe swing wildly behind her as it swung around the rock and sent Pony’s end downstream. She could feel a completely different stress abruptly take hold and her grip was ripped from the rock as she felt the canoe drop out from under her. “Ahhh!!!”
“So where are they?” Gabrielle whispered. They were seated on a tree limb, with a decent view of the path down. The wind was blowing fitfully through the branches, clouds fluttering overhead and changing the landscape from sun drenched to just simply drenched.
Xena pressed her cheek against the bark and exhaled. The creatures weren’t behaving as she’d expected, again. She’d figured on them coming down at her and Gabrielle, had heard them approaching in fact, and then for some unknown reason, they’d just simply stopped.
They could still smell smoke, but it wasn’t getting any closer and there were no longer sounds of anything coming towards them, not even frightened animals.
So, what the Hades? “Let’s go find them.” Xena decided. “I’m over this.” She dropped lightly out of the tree, then dropped her bow and turned, lifting her arms up. “Jump.”
Caught in the midst of climbing off the branch, Gabrielle just looked at her. “Sweetheart, I’m not Dori.” She lowered herself to hang from her arms, and then released her grip, landing not far from Xena. “We’ve got enough problems without me throwing your back out.”
“Hah.” Xena picked her bow back up. “You’re just chicken.” She started back up the way they’d come, a quiver of arrows now hanging over her shoulder.
She was glad enough to get out of the swamp. The constant dampness around her legs had become extremely annoying, and as they climbed up the sloping ground she was relieved to feel firmer earth under her.
Behind her, she could hear Gabrielle’s stolid following bootsteps rustling the drying leaf litter, and she turned her head to glance at the bard. “Hey.”
“Mm?” Gabrielle looked up from a rock she’d been pondering in her hand. She put the rock in her bag and caught up to the warrior. “Do we have a plan?”
Xena shrugged. “I figured we’d start making our way out. We’ve gotta go back that direction anyway.” She fell silent, shifting her grip on her bow. “See what happens.”
Gabrielle wiggled her toes inside her wet boots and sighed. She didn’t like that kind of plan, because usually whenever they left it to ‘see what happens’ – something usually did happen neither of them liked. But, since she didn’t have any better plan to suggest, she kept quiet.
They walked through the trees, and around a set of moss covered boulders, and stopped, as a large deerlike creature in the next clearing spotted them and snorted. “Uh oh.” Gabrielle muttered. “Do we need more boots?”
Xena removed an arrow from her quiver and fitted it to her bow, watching the huge animal carefully. “No.” She said. “But if it comes after us I’m nailing it.” She glanced briefly at Gabrielle. “I don’t care if it has a half dozen babies.”
The megadeer snorted again, and pawed the ground. It waved it’s head, crowned by an even more impressive set of antlers than the last one had at them.
“Stay back.” Xena warned.
“Right behind you, Xe.” Gabrielle tucked herself between the rock and her partner, peering around her elbow and watching the beast. “It’s not attacking us.” She observed.
They could see the head and shoulders of the animal through the bushes, and it stared back at them, tossing its head in agitation. It opened its mouth and brayed, the hornlike sound echoing across the forest. It didn’t move, though they could see it’s legs shifting through the leaves.
Xena took a step forward, and waved her arms, one with the bow in it . “Yeah!” She let out a yell.
The megadeer started backwards, but didn’t go further, braying louder as it’s eyes rolled in panic. “Stay here.” Xena ordered, the paused. “Please.”
Gabrielle gave her a pat on the butt. “G’wan.”
Xena slowly moved out from behind the rock and approached the clearing, her bow held at the ready in case the animal’s anger overcame its apparent fear. She chose her steps carefully, her eyes fixed on the deer’s movements.
Something struck her as odd about them. He was jerking his hind legs, and she wondered if he wasn’t sick. “Hey boy.” She murmured, stepping around a bush and craning her neck to get a better view. “What’s wrong, huh? You stuck or..”
A lifetime of battle and the soul of a warrior read the signs before her mind could logically interpret them. Fire erupted inside her and she was already surging backwards, dropping her bow and grabbing her ax, voice raised in warning as the first flicker of motion disrupted the underbrush around the deer.
A lifetime of living with Xena already had Gabrielle in motion herself, fixed on her partner as the warrior had been fixed on the deer, reading Xena’s body language and bolting forward, her staff already swinging as the first of the hooters leaped on them.
She got the edge of her staff between his legs and tripped him up, only to find two more on top of her, hands reaching to strike and hurt rather than grab and take. She rolled out from under them in a desperate move, coming up onto her knees and whirling her staff in a circle, it’s other end tucked under her arm and pressed against her side.
A crack, and blood flew, bits of bone striking her in the face as she ducked under a pair of long, hairy arms that went akimbo in midmotion. She blinked a splash of blood from her vision and whirled, senses searching for Xena’s presence.
Dark energy swirled around her, and she was pressing her back against her partner’s, feeling that visceral thrill that came from fighting at Xena’s side, utterly trusted. She got her staff around and popped a hooter in the face, smashing the end of the stick between his eyes and jerking his head back. He reeled, and she slid her hand down and whipped the staff up and across her body, whacking him as hard as she could.
Xena gripped her ax with both hands and beat off the two hooters nearest to her, using the weighted stick almost as she would have her sword. She and Gabrielle were against a tree, and half protected by a second, but a quick look around told her the hooters had gained reinforcements.
The woods were dark with them. It was taking every bit of her skill to keep them from taking both of them down, and the only thing saving them was the damn trees. “Gab!”
“Too many!” The bard yelled back. “Xena I can’t keep… damn it!”
Xena spared a glance over her shoulder, to see two hooters land on Gabrielle, ripping her away from the safety of the trees. The bard was fighting as she went down, powerful legs kicking out at anything that presented a target, and staff moving, but the warrior could feel the panic deep in her guts.
She didn’t even have to hear the yelling of her name.
Some things, Xena acknowledged, never really did change. She back kicked the hooter trying to bite her leg and slipped between the trunks, raising her ax and bringing it down on the skull of the closer creature on top of her partner.
He snarled and grabbed for her leg but she whacked at him again and again until he scrambled away, howling at the top of his lungs. Then she tossed the ax aside and grabbed the second hooter, lifting him up bodily using strength from the gods only knew where and tossing him off Gabrielle.
The bard rolled to her feet immediately, bringing up her staff and whipping it right past Xena to smack into the creature she had felt creeping up on her. “Thanks!” The bard yelled.
“Same as.” Xena grabbed the ax, then crouched and exploded upward, back flipping and landing behind the six hooters that had taken up the attack. She shoved one into a second, and then tripped a third into Gabrielle’s solid swing, but knew they both couldn’t keep it up. “Gab!”
Xena grabbed a hooter by the arm and dug her feet in, turning powerfully and swinging him around and off his feet, into the others clustering around them. Then she released him and bolted, grabbing Gabrielle by the arm and heading down the slope.
With a huge yell, the hooters followed, their footsteps thundering over the ground.
Xena circled around at the bottom of the ridge and leaped up onto the rocks, running along them and heading right back up towards the path. Gabrielle stuck to her like honey on a child’s face rocks and all, and they both powered side by side up the grassy sward with the entire horde of hooters chasing after them.
Neither wasted time speaking. Xena picked the best path she could and concentrated on moving on it as fast as she could, and she knew Gabrielle would do her best to be right there with her.
They raced up through the forest, dodging trees and bushes, and leaping rocks. Here, Gabrielle had the advantage, since her strides were shorter, and easier to change up as they hurtled up the uneven ground. Her pale hair was plastered straight back from the wind and both hands were balled, her staff tucked under her arm with it’s lower end just barely missing the earth.
Xena reached the rocky part of the path and swept it with her eyes, spotting a boulder about the right size and letting out a whistle as she swerved over to it, slowing up and grabbing hold of the sun warmed surface.
Gabrielle got in next to her, and they dug their feet into the sliding gravel, thighs tensed, and cords standing out on either side of their necks as they shoved the boulder along and down into the path of the oncoming hooters.
With a groaning protest, the rock moved, first sliding, and then tumbling over as it hit the slope.
They didn’t stop to see how effective it would be. Xena turned and started running again, her eyes already scanning the path ahead for her next offensive. She felt her boots slip and cursed, throwing a hand out to break the fall she felt coming.
Gabrielle grabbed her arm and pulled her along, giving her support enough for her to regain her balance and get a better grip on the ground, and a step later she was back in business. “Thanks.”
“I hate putting stitches in your knees.” Gabrielle grunted.
“About as much as I hate it.” The warrior agreed. “Over there.” She pointed at a higher grade and they shifted direction, towards a stand of densely packed trees that offered some hope of protection. They dodged between the trunks and turned to look back, spotting a momentarily hooter free path behind them. “Okay.”
They pressed their bodies against each other and took a moment to collect themselves.
“Okay.” Gabrielle rested her head against Xena’s shoulder and caught her breath. “That really sucked, Xena.”
“I know.” The warrior agreed. “Let’s just keep going. Maybe we can lose them on the way back to where we came in.”
The bard nodded, putting her hand on Xena’s back. “You okay?”
Xena was staring back along the path. “Bastards.”
“That was sneaky.” Gabrielle said. “They were trying to trap us.”
The warrior exhaled heavily. “Almost did.” She admitted. “Damn they learn fast.” She tightened down her belt, looking over her shoulder at the arrows. “All the good they did.”
“You can make another bow.”
Xena tucked the ax into her belt. “Nah. I’ll just stab them with the damn things if they catch up with us. C’mon.” She started through the trees moving at a fast walk as they dodged between the thickly overgrown trunks.
Behind them, they heard the hooters start yelling. “Found us.” Gabrielle sighed, as she broke into a run, following as much in Xena’s footsteps as she could manage, trusting the warrior not to run them both into a tree.
It always was about trust, after all, wasn’t it? All they had out here was each other, and the trust had to be reciprocal and complete or their chances were…
Well, even worse than they were at the moment. Gabrielle was glad for their rabbit meal now, as she felt her body respond to the need to run with a level of steady energy both gratifying and reassuring.
They continued to climb up the wooded slope, leaping up onto fallen trunks and running along their length to get above the clinging undergrowth slowing their pursuers. The bard was careful to keep her staff close to her body, not wanting to catch its end on a limb and be pulled over backwards or knocked silly.
Been there, done that way more than once, and right now they had all the trouble they really could handle.
Ephiny strode across the town square, dodging various village residents as she headed for the inn. She mounted the steps and stiff-armed the door, surprising several people on the other side of it. “Excuse me.” She muttered, pushing past them and heading for the front of the room.
“I don’t care what you told him.” Cyrene was saying, in a loud voice. “You’ll not get a half dinar from me.” She said. “As if I had a stock of them… you think running an inn is cheap? My profits go back into what I sell. Do I look like I wear silk clothing?”
The town reeve was standing opposite her, his hands on his hips. “Look, Cyrene, like it or not, we’re all in this together. I gave my word to those men, and that’s that! The town owes them!”
“No.” the innkeeper stated, folding her arms. “You’ll get nothing from me, and that’s that! Not from me, and not from my family. We weren’t a part of your shady deals.”
“But you gained by them, did you not?” The reeve countered. “Your inn prospered.”
“My inn would have anyway.” Cyrene lifted her head proudly. “I needed none of your cheap scuttles for that.”
“Absolutely.” Ephiny chose that moment to chime in. She walked over and stood by Cyrene. “This always was the best in the region.”
Cyrene gave her a sideways look. Ephiny returned it.
“Who asked you?” The reeve shot back at her. “Get out of here, Amazon. You have no say in this.”
Ephiny walked over and smacked him in the face, startling everyone. “Talk to me again like that, you townie pissant, and I’ll eunuch you.” She stared him right in the eye. “As Gabrielle’s regent, and the guardian of her heir, I’ve got every right to be here and to speak for her. And for Xena.”
The reeve glowered at her, one hand covering his cheek. “They never were a part of this town.” He said. “Else you’d do what we asked, Cyrene… if you’ve not got the dinars, sell those arms – they’d get a good price.”
Ephiny gave him a disbelieving look. “What henbane did you get into? They both nearly died for this town.” She shot back. “More than once.. or did you conveniently forget that?” She asked. “They’re more a part of this place than you are.”
Cyrene slapped her hand on the table. “Damn right. Xena was born here, more than you were, you pickled hen’s egg. Sell her weapons? You must be out of your mind.”
“Reeve, you’re wasting your time. They’re not going to help us. We need to just go do what I said in the first place.” The man standing next to the reeve said. “Find someone who can get us what we need.”
The two men left, pushing their way through the crowd in the inn and slamming the door behind them. Cyrene made a face, then lifted her hands and let them fall. “What in Hades has gotten into these people?”
“Sell Xena’s weapons?” Ephiny clapped her hand over her eyes. “I’d cut my arm off before I’d see that happen.” She said. “Have those guys lost their minds?”
Johan emerged from the kitchen. “More’s the pity, no.” He glanced at the still muttering crowd. “Problem is, we made him the reeve.” He said. “We don’t follow through on his promises, town gets a bad name.”
“Yeah.” One of the men closest agreed, glumly. “That’s what he’s counting on us knowing.”
They turned and looked at Cyrene.
“Don’t’ be looking at me.” Cyrene warned. “I didn’t agree to putting him in charge and you all know that. “ She pointed at the man next to Johan. “And got accused of putting my family ahead of the town, if I recall, as though Gabrielle really wanted to be leading you lot.”
Ephiny suddenly felt better about her queen’s family. Not that she’d really suspected Cyrene had joined in the campaign to oust her, but it was nice to see the dour, abashed looks on the faces around them as the innkeeper made her point. “I’d say you got what you deserved, but I like some of you.”
Cyrene chuckled under her breath.
“Ay, but fact is, we need to fix up the problem.” Johan said. “Like or no, truth is, if we don’t make good on his promise we’ll all lose for it.” He sat down on one of the chairs. “So what’s to do?”
Ephiny wandered over to the window, looking out it. “Well, y’know… if it were me…”
The room turned to look at her back, and waited in silence.
Ephiny turned. “I’d ask Gabrielle.” A hint of malicious mischief appeared in her hazel eyes. “However, since she’s not here, and I’m not sure she’d answer you if she was…”
“She would.” Cyrene snorted. “So, what are we going to do about it? I wasn’t kidding. We don’t have a stock of dinars here to give.” She said. “And neither do my kids, unless I’m very much mistaken.”
Ephiny pursed her lips, now finding herself in something of a quandary. She didn’t think Xena and Gabrielle had a hoard of dinars themselves. Neither ever seemed to want for much, but after all, most of what they needed they were able to find or make themselves, and Gabrielle had told her once she did have a few dinars put by from her traveling bard days.
Certainly, Xena always had coin for the market, or a toy for Dori, or something practical for Gabrielle. Ephiny had found herself smiling at the warrior’s pretend casual shopping trips, and the now impossible for her to hide adoration for her family.
So much had changed. Ephiny sighed. But so much had not. “So, we have to figure out what to do about the jackass, huh?” She said. “Well, we sure don’t have extra dinars lying around.” Her eyes went to Cyrene’s face, thoughtfully. “But maybe we can dig.. something up.”
The innkeeper’s expression remained dourly pessimistic. “I say let him come up with an idea first.” She objected. “Damned if I want to pull his stinky hind end out of the wringer.”
The crowd began to disperse, some shaking their heads, others shrugging. They filed out, leaving Cyrene alone with Johan and Ephiny. Johan extended his booted legs and studied them, frowning.
Cyrene sighed and sat down. “Isn’t this a festering pile of cow droppings.” She said. “Blithering idiot.”
Ephiny sat down as well, resting her elbows on her knees. It was a tough question, and frankly, a problem outside her willingness to deal with. In the Amazons, she, or Gabrielle made decisions. However, they understood they lived as part of a large sisterhood, and those decisions could be debated, and if enough Amazons objected, overturned.
The debate was an important part of that – because it allowed her, and Gabrielle too, to see viewpoints they needed to in order to effectively govern their tribe. It also, on the other hand, allowed them to present arguments to the tribe that they might not have considered, and especially when it was Gabrielle arguing, they had a chance to sway opinion that way.
Everyone hated to argue with Gabrielle, though. They’d rather argue with Ephiny. Gabrielle had that gentle presence about her that made you feel bad when you disagreed with her, and the arguments she came up with to counter objections were usually feather curling.
And of course, there was always Xena lurking in the background, usually sprawled somewhere nearby, pretending to watch birds, or work on a bit of her armor, but providing a silent reminder of Gabrielle’s ultimate backing.
They pretended, sometimes, that it didn’t matter. But Ephiny knew the truth, and so did most of the others, and no one really wanted to try running roughshod over their queen no matter how passionate the argument and risk getting one’s butt thoroughly kicked.
If Gabrielle didn’t do it first, she wryly acknowledged. “So.” She said. “How much did he promise them, anyway?”
“Five hundred dinars.” Johan said, grimacing at the look on Ephiny’s face. “Yeah, it’s a lot. Not sure where he got that figure from.”
“Fool.” Cyrene shook her head. “Truth is, we shouldn’t give them a damn groat. No one guaranteed they’d be successful here. Trading’s a gamble – we all know it.” She got up. “Now… mind you, folks lost everything down there. No one’s said a word about helping them! Just his buddies!”
Johan scratched his jaw. “True.”
Ephiny twiddled her thumbs. “I think we should help the guys down there that need it.” She said slowly. “We can bring down grain, some stocks.”
Cyrene nodded. “I’ll send food.” She said. “And we can send people to help build up shelters.” She added. “But nothing for that bastard’s freeloaders!”
Ephiny got up. “Right. Well, I’ll go round up some bodies.” She said. “Ah.. “She hesitated. “We might have a few pieces of stone.. some pretty stuff we picked up we could donate to the cause.”
Johan held up a hand. “Tis like ransom, if you do that.” He warned. “Soon as it comes out we’ve got anything like that around, it’ll be bad. Grain and staples, that’s one thing, but gems? Nah. ”
“He’s right.” Cyrene nodded. “But thanks for the offer, Ephiny.”
Hm. “Anytime.” The Amazon waved, and headed for the door. “Anyway, I’m sure Xena and Gabrielle’ll be back in a day or so, with our guys, and then we can figure out a real solution.”
Cyrene watched the door close, and let her hands rest on the table. “I wish I believed that.” She remarked quietly. “But as the days go on, Johan, I feel more and more that I was right to start with, and they’re in trouble.”
Johan patted her hand. “The other gals’ll find em.” He told her. “They’ll be all right, Cy.”
Cyrene snorted, and headed for the kitchen, shaking her head.
The waterfall thundered down, two figures lost in it’s spray as they hurtled towards the pool the fall ended in, the roar stealing the yells of alarm and sending them off into the ether.
“Son of a bacchae!” Pony held on to the canoe with all her remaining strength, as they hit the water on the bottom. She felt herself ripped loose from the craft, and plunged under the surface, hitting the bottom with shocking force.
She could feel the thunder of the waterfall over her, and in panic, she shoved away from the bottom of the lake and groped for the surface. Stupid.. stupid.. jerk.. stupid.. gods be damned… She got her head above water and promptly was driven under it again by the force of the falls.
Underwater, she flailed with her arms and legs, unable to free herself from the downward flow. With a surge of panicked strength, she managed to sweep her arms and felt herself move out of the current and towards the sunlight again.
Damn it! Eponin struggled to the surface again. She managed to get a few feet downstream, and out of the water flowing from above with a fierce effort, churning with all her might. She blinked her eyes to clear them and looked around. “Granella!”
The canoe was floating away a couple of body lengths beyond her, but there was no sign of her companion. Pony immediately turned in the water a full circle, treading unsteadily. She could see sticks and other debris, but nothing else. “Gran!!!”
A low cough made her swing around again, and she spotted the dark haired woman crawling out of the water on the far edge to collapse on the muddy earth. “Damn it.” Pony headed in that direction best she could, one eye on the drifting canoe. “You okay?”
Granella waved a hand weakly at her. She turned around and sat down, coughing and retching.
“Crap.” Pony started gamely after the canoe, paddling through the water as she cursed under her breath. As she got closer, the craft drifted further away, as though taunting her. “Stupid piece of crap!” She growled. “Stop! Stop boat!”
The canoe hung up on a half submerged log obediently, and waited for her to catch up to it. Pony got a hand on the side and then hung there, her teeth chattering a little in the cold water. She turned her head and looked up at the falls they’d tumbled down, shaking her head in disbelief as she gauged its length.
“Pon?” Granella croaked. “You got it?”
“Tell ya what I’ve got.” Pony yelled back. “I’ve got my ass in a wringer, and no damn way to get out of it. I wanna go home!”
Granella sat down on the bank, her booted feet still in the river, providing a disturbance for the water to ripple over. She coughed a few more times, getting up the water she’d inhaled as they’d tumbled over the cliff side and headed straight down.
One waterfall in a day had sucked. Two?
Where in the Hades were they now? Granella looked around in bedraggled bewilderment. “How could this place exist, and us not know about it?” She shook a clod of mud off her hand, then wiped the back of it across her eyes. “Damn it.”
She’d wanted an adventure. What was it Gabrielle had once said to her about always wanting what you couldn’t have?
Granella looked up again, then slowly hoisted herself to her feet, waiting for her knees to stop shaking before she started down the bank towards where Eponin was. “Hang on.”
“Hanging.” Pony got a better grip on the canoe, and edged around to the side closest to the shore. She examined the rope that had been tying the craft and wrinkled her nose at the frayed edge. On one hand, she was annoyed they’d tied it in a way that would have let the fiber rub enough to cut through, but on the other hand..
Well, at least they still had the damn thing. She pulled herself up a little and peered inside, noting the packs still strapped to the cross supports. Still had it, and what was in it, which given what it had just gone through was some kind of gift of the gods.
Pony sighed. Maybe Artemis was taking pity on them. She turned her head to see Granella picking her way carefully down the rocky bank, covered in muck and scratches, looking about as different from a townie as ever was possible.
Not caring, just like a true Amazon wouldn’t, what she looked like, just working to get the job done.
It made her smile, just a little. “Once an Amazon…” She muttered under her breath, as she rooted in the packs for another rope. “Always an Amazon.” She pulled out a waterskin, then tossed it from her in disgust. “Lucky for me.”
She was glad, now, that it was Granella she was out with and not one of the others. Even Eph, since half drowning in front of her lover wasn’t something Eponin wanted to have to hear about the rest of her life. With Granella, since she wasn’t part of the tribe anymore, the pressure was off on having to live up to her position all the damn day long.
And, as she though that, Pony suddenly, incongruously, gained an understanding of what Xena had once told her, about how she felt she always had to be proving herself, with the Amazons. Something Pony had never really comprehended, until she felt it in herself, right then.
She blinked. “Huh.”
“Yeah?” She shook her head and pulled a snarled rope from the bottom of one pack. “Sorry. Thinkin.”
“Aint we both.” Granella yelled back.
Pony cursed at the rope and shook it, saving the rest of her thoughts for later.
The wind howled, as clouds raced once again across the sky, bringing the smell of rain across the hills. High up on an escarpment that towered over the trees two figures clung, fighting against the draft as they moved higher up into the rocks.
They stopped before a crack in the rocks, a bodylength in width, and the first of the two figures leaped over it lightly, turning to look back as she did.
Xena extended her arm across the rocky gap back towards her partner. “C’mere.”
Gabrielle didn’t even consider protesting. She took hold of the powerful hand and readied herself, then leaped across the chasm to land safely at Xena’s side, refusing to look down at the roaring water below. “Thanks.”
“Anytime.” The warrior gave her a pat on the back. “We’re almost to the top. Hang in there.”
“Hanging.” Gabrielle had strapped her staff to her back, to free both hands for climbing, and now she dusted off small bits of granite embedded in her skin. “Long as you don’t ask me to look down for those creeps.”
Climbing up the steep, rocky wall had been risky, but Xena had calculated it would slow down their pursuers and so far that seemed to have worked. She looked behind them, and saw nothing but bare rock down to the treeline.
Xena’s grunt made the bard turn around again, and she let her eyes follow the warrior’s pointing finger. It led to a shadowy crack in the rock, and she was glad enough to follow Xena along the granite ridge as the wind pushed them both against the stone.
The crack turned out to be a good size cleft, and they ducked inside it quickly, pressing their backs against the wall and listening above the wind’s howl.
“Anything?” Gabrielle deferred to Xena’s superior senses without regret.
Xena remained silent for a moment, her eyes half closed, and her nostrils flared as she concentrated.
Gabrielle watched the tension in her body relax though, and so she relaxed too, glad to be out of the wind and out of the view of the creatures. Now that they were standing still, she let the fact that they’d been running for candlemarks catch up with her and make her aware of how tired she was.
“Okay.” Xena put a hand on her shoulder, the touch comfortingly warm. “Sit down. Let’s take a break.”
Stone or no stone, the bard was glad to slide down the wall and stretch her legs out, leaning back and kneading the tops of her thighs with both hands. “Works for me.”
Xena sat down next to her, exhaling heavily. “This stinks.”
Gabrielle leaned against the warrior and put her head down on Xena’s shoulder. “I hate to pull the old silver lining speech out, Xe, but we’re both here, both alive, neither of us is hurt, and it sure has stunk worse in the past, y’know?”
Xena rested her head against Gabrielle’s. “I know.” She said, then fell silent, her eyes going distant.
Gabrielle waited a bit, before she shifted a little and looked up at Xena’s profile. Her face was still, only the pale blue eyes moved across the interior of their little cave with blunted intensity. The bard reached over and took her hand inside her own, watching the faint tension appear as an unconscious smile followed.
After a moment, the blue eyes fluttered closed, then turned to meet Gabrielle’s. “Know what just occurred to me?” Xena asked, in a mild tone.
“What?” Gabrielle felt herself getting lost in that gentle regard.
Xena lifted their joined hands up and planted a kiss on the back of Gabrielle’s knuckles. “This has been the silver lining of my life.” She replied, and then after a minute, a half grin appeared. “This..” She held up their hands. “Not this.” She indicated their situation with a jerk of her head.
“I knew what you meant.” Gabrielle answered, her voice husky. “I’m just pissed I didn’t say it first. I’m supposed to be the bard in the family, darn it.”
“Sorry.” Xena exhaled, a gentle warmth that stirred the hair on the top of her partner’s head. “Gabrielle, Gabrielle, Gabrielle.”
“Mm.” The bard snuggled closer. “How long do we have here?” She asked, after a brief pause.
Xena eyed her profile. “Tired?”
“Long as we need to have.”
“Donkey poo answer, Xe.”
The warrior chuckled. “Honestly, I don’t have a clue. Those guys have been beating my odds all day long.” She patted her leg. “So g’wan and take a nap while you can.”
Gabrielle shifted over and laid down, with her head in Xena’s lap. “What about you?”
“I’m all right.” The warrior said.
Green eyes studied her face intently. “Because of those herbs I found?” Gabrielle asked. “That’s what it was for, wasn’t it?”
“Want to give me some?”
The warrior shook her head firmly no. She laid her arm over Gabrielle’s middle, giving her a light thump above her navel with the side of her thumb. “No way.”
Gabrielle continued to watch her. “How long can you keep that up?”
“Long as I have to.”
“Donkey poo answer, Boo.”
Xena only smiled in response.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes in mock despair and then closed them, allowing her body to relax as much as she could on the hard stone. Xena’s fingertips moved lightly over her skin, a lazy pattern that slowed her thoughts faster than she’d anticipated, and sent her tumbling into sleep in the space between one breath and the next.
Xena let her head rest against the rock wall, her eyes still fastened on her now dozing partner. Asleep, her face relaxed and open, Gabrielle always appeared more her true age than she did when she was awake, and it always gave Xena a tiny, bittersweet tang to recognize that.
She remembered so clearly the kid Gabrielle had been when they’d first met and if she allowed herself to think about it, she could step through those times when she’d seen that kid grow visibly into the woman her partner was now.
Ah well. Xena set her arrows down by her right hand, along with her ax, and judged the opening to the cleft. If need be, she could, she reasoned, defend it reasonably as it was narrow enough to force them to come at her one at a time.
Xena thought about that for a bit, and pondered the idea of forcing them to do just that. Then she half shook her head. “Nah.” She murmured. “They’d figure it out too fast and take off.”
But what, really, were her options? They could keep running, and end up back at the waterfall, maybe. The second one they’d hid behind, but that led nowhere, and the one cleft with the skeletons…
Here, with no one to see her, Xena allowed herself a shiver. That had creeped even her out, and she didn’t want to think about trying to find a way out that route. Besides, the cave seemed to be going down into the earth, rather than up.
So. Xena turned her eyes back to Gabrielle. The stress of their misadventure was showing on her –bone and muscle was clearly visible under her skin, no shred of reserves were left to gentle the powerful form and left no doubt of the Amazon part of her dual nature.
Scars and sinew. If you didn’t know her, or see the bright smile, and hear the storyteller’s talent, you would never guess now a poet lived in there too. Xena sighed, knowing her own ambivalance about that, but acknowledging Gabrielle’s obvious pride in her hard won skills.
Life’s choices, they were funny and unexpected sometimes, weren’t they? Xena studied her right hand, turning it over and flexing it’s fingers, the palm thick with muscle and callus from her swordhandling. With a shake of her head, she returned it to rest on her knee. However unexpected, they did tend to mark you, for good or evil, as she knew only too well.
Their one other option, she hadn’t talked to Gabrielle about yet. If they could find no ground level retreat, the only other choice might be for them to climb out, to scale the towering cliffs that held them captive. Xena’s brow furrowed, as she thought that through. Alone, she knew she could probably do it, but with Gabrielle…
Terrified of heights, the bard was. Xena had felt that kind of fear inside herself too many times to discount the problem that was for both of them. It wasn’t something to be scoffed off, or made little of, and Xena knew well she couldn’t just ask her partner to simply push past it and climb anyway. It just wasn’t that easy.
Made all the more difficult because Xena knew she’d done just that – she’d forced herself through the unreasoning terror, not even for a life threatening reason even. Just for their joining. Gabrielle knew that, and no matter what Xena said, she knew the bard would feel she had to step up and do the same, if it meant them getting out of here and going home.
Could she? Xena gazed at the familiar planes of her soulmate’s face. She knew the courage was there, no question about that. But it took more than courage sometimes, it took cussedness, and that, thankfully, Gabrielle had less of than she did.
In her sleep, Gabrielle lifted her hand and covered the one Xena had lying over her stomach, folding her fingers over the warrior’s hand as a faint smile appeared on her face.
“Yeah.” Xena whispered, a mirroring smile on her lips. “Feel that? Feel all that love in there, Gabrielle?” She let the fingers of her free hand run through the bard’s fair hair. “Never in a million years thought I had that in me, and you came along and pulled it all out.”
Life was a funny thing sometimes, Xena mused. You just never knew where your choices were going to take you, even if you were convinced they were bad choices. She’d been convinced leaving her army was the worst mistake she’d ever made, after all.
Going down that long, dusty river road.
Burying her weapons, ready to give up her life.
Gaining instead her future, in the unlikeliest of places.
Finding, after all her hoary and jaded experience, the one great love of her life in the open innocent eyes of a village girl barely more than a child.
You just never knew. So maybe, even though they were in a very tough spot, and had some very tough choices ahead of them, it would all work out.
The sun poured into the cleft, breaking through the clouds and drenching them in a bright warmth. It glistened in Gabrielle’s pale hair as it burnished their tan skins to a rich gold. Xena turned her face into it, reveling in the touch of the light as it spilled over them both.
Far off, in the distance, she could hear the faint rattle of rocks, and she knew their time here was limited, but she determined they’d use every moment of it, taking the small peace for all it was worth to them.