One Wild Ride
It was a calm, sunny day. Gabrielle walked through the trees, feeling the warmth of a spring breeze against her face as she peered through the branches. Dinner was bubbling, and Xena was nowhere to be found, though she’d left some time ago to ‘wash up.’
Gabrielle could, she knew, just start calling her name out, but somehow the thought of that on this nice, peaceful day didn’t appeal to her. So she wandered down through the trees, out of the forest and into the sunlit meadow that sloped down towards the river.
Halfway down, she spotted Xena. The warrior was sprawled in the grass, head pillowed on a tussock, boots off, in just her leathers.
Snoozing in the sun.
Gabrielle stopped in her tracks, blinking, unable to believe her eyes for a long moment. Was her partner sick? She hadn’t seemed that way, but they had stopped very early, and maybe.. Gabrielle felt a touch anxious, unsure in their newly intimate relationship of how she should act. Should she leave Xena alone?
Go and fuss over her?
What was Xena expecting her to do? Their relationship up to now had been so defined, even with the changes in it, and now.. now everything was different again. New. Strange.
A little scary.
Then one of Xena’s hands lifted and made a come ahead gesture in her direction, and Gabrielle started walking again, ending up next to where the warrior was lying. “Hi.” She greeted the supine woman. “There you are.”
“Hi.” Xena murmured. “Something wrong?”
Gabrielle sat down, wrapping her arms around her knees. “No. I was just looking for you, for dinner.” She paused. “Um.. I meant to eat dinner. For us to eat dinner.” She let the words trail off, feeling the blush warm her skin. “You know what I mean.”
Xena chuckled softly, one blue eye opening and peering at Gabrielle. “Uh huh?” She glanced lazily at Gabrielle. “Hungry?”
“Mmhm.” Gabrielle nodded. She sighed, as the late afternoon sun bathed her face. “Boy, it’s a nice day, isn’t it?” She added, feeling a little awkward. “Pretty clouds.”
Xena reached out and circled her wrist with long, warm fingers. “C’mere.”
“Here.” Xena patted her stomach. “Lay down.”
Willingly, Gabrielle did, feeling the leather warm on her cheek as she settled into the thick river grass next to Xena, and the warrior’s arm draped itself over her midriff with casual familiarity.
“There. Now it’s a perfect day.” Xena closed her eye and exhaled, her fingertips lightly brushing across Gabrielle’s skin. “Right?”
Gabrielle reached up and folded her hand around Xena’s, accepting the vast change that had now taken over their lives, and believing, at last, in this new reality. This was her life now. This gentle, knowing touch that made her breathing quicken, and her heart pound was real.
She and Xena, together, was real.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle agreed softly. “This is awesome.”
Awesome. Being in love was awesome. Having Xena be in love with her was awesome.
Life, right now, really just rocked.
“Hey.” Xena patted Gabrielle’s cheek gently to wake her. “Gabrielle?”
The sea green eyes drifted open, regarding her sleepily. “Mm.”
“We gotta get out of here.” The warrior told her, regretfully. “Sorry.” She traced the line of one of the bard’s eyebrows. “Dreaming good dreams?”
“Dreaming of you.” Gabrielle answered, with a smile. “Dreaming of us.” She turned her head and kissed Xena’s hand. “I love loving you.” She added. “Did you know that?”
Xena looked at her for a long string of heartbeats, before she smiled. “I knew that, yeah.” She answered. “I remember when we first got together, you’d sit across the fire and just look at me.” The warrior’s nose wrinkled up. “What an expression you had.”
“For me it was like Solistice every day.” Gabrielle agreed. “So I bet I did.”
“Oh yeah.” The bard looked up at her. “Every time you kissed me, it was such a gift.”
Xena’s expression altered, to one of wistful sadness. “G..” She stopped, as her partner lifted her hand and pressed her fingers against her lips.
“Don’t say it.” Gabrielle whispered. “That gift is back and that’s all I care about.”
Xena’s lips twitched, and she nodded.
They both were momentarily quiet, then Gabrielle sat up, rolling her head to loosen a crick in her neck before she got to her feet. She walked over to the entrance and looked out, seeing the sun nearing the rock walls. “It’s late.”
Xena came up behind her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll risk moving after dark.” She said. “At this point, I’m more scared of those damn bastards than I am the cats.”
Gabrielle hesitated, then turned, looking up at her. “Are you scared?”
The warrior’s brows knit slightly. “Of course I am.” She said. “Gabrielle, you know better than to think I don’t know what being afraid is all about.” Her hand lifted and cupped the bard’s cheek. “You know me better than that.”
“I know.” Gabrielle put her hands on Xena’s stomach. “That’s why I don’t think you’re afraid.” Her eyes searched her partner’s intently. “I think you’re worried. I think you’re aggravated.” She pushed gently. “I think you’re frustrated.”
“Mm.” Xena didn’t deny any of it, finding a fascination in the golden flecks in the depths of Gabrielle’s eyes.
“I don’t think you’re afraid. Because we’re here. We’re together.”
And, Xena knew in her heart, that was the truth. She smiled, brushing her thumb against Gabrielle’s cheek. “Okay.” She conceded. “I’m more concerned about the hairy jerks than I am the cats. Better?”
Gabrielle really didn’t know why that mattered to her. It seemed strange, but she brushed it off as just part of the stress they were both under. “Much.” She agreed. “So, we wait for dark?” She asked, giving the warrior another little push. “You could have let me sleep longer.”
Xena chuckled. “I could have. But my leg was numb and I figured we’d better off if we get something to eat and untangle our brains before we go off into the pitch black.”
“Bah.” Gabrielle exhaled. “Hoisted on my own grumbling stomach.” She leaned against Xena as the warrior put her arms around her, enfolding her in a warm hug that made her want to just snuggle up against her partner’s body and go right back to sleep.
She was tired. Gabrielle admitted to herself. Her body was giving her warning signals that she knew she ignored at her own peril, and knowing she had to ignore them or face a larger peril didn’t change that fact. She wavered a second, but the grip tightened and she gave into it, relaxing against Xena’s tall form. “Don’t’ do that.” She warned. “Unless you want me to fall asleep on you again.”
Xena rubbed her back. “There’s a runoff just outside the rocks there. Let’s get some water on our faces.” She bumped Gabrielle towards the opening, and the bard reluctantly turned and trudged in that direction. They ducked outside the cleft and looked around, seeing little but the late afternoon sun and a breeze that moved tenacious tufts of grass in the rock as they passed them.
It was quiet otherwise, high up on the rocks here. Xena studied the landscape as they traveled over it, and regretted the fact the rock escarpment was isolated from the valley wall. It sloped down on the far side to the thickly overgrown bottom, and disappeared into a dark forest that clustered all around it’s base.
It was an island of sorts, and Xena knew well that descending from it would put them both into danger again. She wondered, though, why the creatures hadn’t followed them. She knew they could climb, so was it something about the stone that held them back?
“Mm?” Xena turned towards the bard, who was now leaning against the rock with one hand. “What?”
“We forgot our deer skull.” Gabrielle managed a wry grin. “I think we’re both still a little out of it. I’ll go get it.” She turned and headed back for the cleft, leaving Xena to shake her head and continue on over to the mossy crack in the rocks that promised water.
It was a shallow basin, at best, but it was enough for her to cup her hands into and she did, bringing them up to her face and sniffing the water before she splashed it briskly over herself. It was shockingly cold, and her eyes popped wide open as she sucked in a surprised breath, the chill bringing all her senses into focus with almost painful suddenness.
She licked her lips, and tasted the hints of moss in the water, tickling her tongue as she swallowed. “That’s a waker upper, for damn sure.” She cupped up another handful and drank it slowly, feeling the icy liquid roll all the way down into her stomach and settle there.
“Got it.” Gabrielle came up with the skull. “Water okay?”
“Cold.” Xena warned as the bard stuck her hand in it. “But not bad.”
“Yow.” Gabrielle removed her hand and shook it rapidly. “Where in the heck’s the glacier?”
Xena looked up in reflex, but the top of the escarpment was only a few bodylengths above their heads, and was snow free. She shrugged and took another double handful, stepping back to allow Gabrielle to fill the skull as she sipped the water, her eyes traveling over the forest beneath them.
Gabrielle set the skull down and dipped her hands in, copying Xena’s scooping motion and bringing her hands to her lips. She tasted the water first, cocking her head a little bit. “Mm.” She murmured thoughtfully. “That reminds me of those caves we found, up in the north?”
“Uh huh.” Xena slowly nodded. “I remember.”
The bard shook her hands out lightly and stepped closer, leaning up to kiss Xena on the lips. She felt Xena’s arms drop, and the brief sting of the cold water as the remains of it hit her knees. Then the warrior eased closer and returned the kiss, a sudden surge of passion taking both of them somewhat by surprise.
Gabrielle wrapped both arms around her partner’s neck and let the emotion sweep through her, washing aside the weariness and setting her skin to tingling. “Ungh.” A small sound escaped her. “Darn than feels good.”
“Does, doesn’t it?” Xena pulled her closer. “Still feel like sleeping?”
“Anything but.” The bard admitted, her heart pounding, as she felt Xena’s hands slide up her sides. “Whew.” She intended on backing off, but her body didn’t budge, pressing itself against the warrior’s as she felt Xena’s breathing match hers.
It banished the chill, and she could feel a warm flush spread through her, pleasantly erotic and welcome. This was, Gabrielle well knew, neither the time nor the place for what they were doing, but she found herself not really caring and apparently Xena didn’t either.
Maybe they were both going crazy. Gabrielle took a ragged breath and let her forehead rest against the warrior’s collarbone. “Oohh… Xena.”
Xena chuckled softly. “Now maybe you get an idea of how frustrating it was for me before.” She nibbled the bard’s earlobe. “Let’s get washed up.”
“Wash this.” Gabrielle nipped her in a very sensitive spot.
“Yowp.” Xena returned the favor. “All we’ve got is rocks around here, kiddo. Don’t get me started.” She warned. “Or we’re both gonna be bruised.”
The bard laughed, an oddly light sound that echoed through the rocks. “Well, Hades.” She slid an arm around Xena’s waist and picked up the skull with her free hand. “At least it woke me up.”
“Yeah.” The warrior agreed, in a wry tone. “Me too.”
A soft rattle of rocks made them both stop in their tracks. Gabrielle released her hold on Xena. “What was that?”
Xena stiffened immediately, judging the distance to the cave which held their meager weapons with her eyes. “Damn it.” She started for it, then stopped as a dark figure appeared between them, and the entrance.
Without waiting for it to move closer, Xena bounded into action, heading for the creature with both arms outstretched and a wild yell echoing across the canyon below.
Ephiny emerged from the council chamber and strolled across the central square of the village, heading for the children’s playground. She could hear the small voices laughing all the way across the grass, and as she turned the corner, she wondered what was so funny.
She stopped, and blinked. “Solari?”
The hapless looking Amazon looked up at her from her seat in the mud. “Yes, your Majesty?”
Ephiny observed the gaggle of children, all watching with innocent faces, the small pod of puppies nearby with wagging tails, and one conspicuously stretched out full grown wolf near Solari’s feet. “What’s going on?”
“Eff!” Dori trotted towards her. “Funny!” She pointed at Solari. “She fell over Guff!”
“Uh huh.” Ephiny put her hands on her hips. “That what happened?” She asked her fallen warrior.
Solari shook the mud off one hand as she rolled over and got to her feet. “Damned if I know.. one minute I’m headed to the kitchen, next think I know I’m in the dirt.” She glared at the children. “And it ain’t funny, you pipsqueaks!”
“Funny.” Dori objected. “Guff lay down dere, you watch the birdie, no see him. Go boom.”
Ephiny shifted her eyes to Solari. “Well?”
“You gonna believe her?” Solari put her hands on her hips.
“Well.” The regent perched on a fence rail that ringed playground. “Either I doubt Gabrielle’s truthfulness, or Xena’s powers of observation. Hm. Let me see.”
Solari scowled. “She’s just a kid!”
“C’mere, Dori.” Ephiny held her hands out. “C’mon over to your auntie Eff.”
Obligingly, Dori ambled over to her, climbing up onto the railing and into Ephiny’s arms with a lithe agility stunning in it’s offhandedness. “Hi.” She looked up at the blond woman with intelligent green eyes.
“Hi.” Ephiny cradled her, letting her legs dangle down. “What kind of birdie was old Solari looking at, honey?”
“Hey!” Solari protested. “I wasn’t!”
“Dat one.” Dori pointed. “Black one, red wings with the white tail fevver.”
“Uh hum. You know what that’s called?” Ephiny asked, seriously.
“Boo says dat’s a dam bird.” Dori informed her earnestly. “Too loud in the morning.”
Ephiny started laughing. “She does, huh?” She said. “Does your mama know she calls it that?”
“Sure.” Dori nodded. “Mama tells Boo make birdie go shhh.”
The regent cocked her head and looked at Solari. Dori also looked at Solari.
Solari sighed. “Hades.” She brushed more mud off herself. “Freaking kids.”
Ephiny patted Dori on the side. “Careful.” She warned Solari. “This freaking kid’s gonna rule this tribe one day, and if she’s got half what I think she does, she’s also got a very, very long memory.”
Solari studied Dori. “Ya think?”
Ephiny nodded, a serious expression on her face. “I do think.” She said. “I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with her the last couple of days and you know, she’s not really the terror we thought she was.”
Solari gave Dori a skeptical look. “Uh huh.” She glanced pointedly at Ares, who lolled his big, pink tongue out at her in return. “Whatever you say, Ep.”
“Watch where you’re going next time.” The regent told her, as she let Dori loose. “G’wan, Dori.. back to playtime.”
Dori squiggled loose, then got up on the top rail of the fence, walking along it back towards the other children. She got to the end of the fence and jumped off, landing on the grass and running back towards the waiting girls. “Go play hide?” She called out.
The children all scattered, running in a half dozen directions, their footsteps stirring a cloud of butterflies into the air. They ran through them, yelling, but Dori stopped to watch, half turning as her eyes followed the colorful insects in flight.
One flew past her, and she stuck her hand out, intercepting it’s movement. It landed on her hand and sat there, fanning it’s wings as she peered at it in delighted fascination. “Look!” She called out to Ephiny. “Pretty!”
“Love it!” Ephiny waved a hand at her. “Don’t eat it.” She added, under her breath as she shook her head a little, turning to see Solari watching the child with now serious eyes. “See what I mean?”
Dori reached out and gently touched the wings of the butterfly with one finger, pulling it back when the panels flexed up and down as her eyes widened. “Ooh!”
Solari leaned on the post. “Not sure what I see.” She replied forthrightly. “Cept a mix up of both those two.”
“Exactly.” The regent said. “Sol, I love Gabrielle and you know it, but she can’t ever be our queen.”
Solari looked at her in surprise. “What?” She said. “Eph, she is our queen. You forget that?”
“In name, sure. “ The blond woman agreed softly. “But in reality, she’s focused on one thing, and one thing only and that ain’t us.” Ephiny explained. “That’s never, ever gonna change.”
Epiny looked down at her hands. “And I don’t want that to ever change.” She paused. “Xena’s never gonna be an Amazon.”
Solari half shrugged. “She’s allright.” She said. “Trust her more than some others round here.” Her eyes flicked around the village, then went back to Ephiny. “Y’know?”
“Yeah, I know.” Ephiny nodded. “Me too, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s focused on only one thing too.” She said. “That ain’t us either, and I don’t want that changing ever again.”
Ephiny leaned on the fence and watched the kids play. Dori had released her colorful friend, and was now hunting for the other girls, her nascent tracking skills already apparent. “But this kid… yeah. If she ends up with Xena’s brawn, and Gabrielle’s heart… I’d swear fealty to her.”
Solari picked a bit of loose wood off the fence. “Long time before that.” She commented. “Anyway.”
“True.” The regent said. “But I’m glad I’ve gotten a chance to take care of her. Made me think about things a lot.”
“Uh huh.”Solari leaned next to her. “What if they don’t come back?” She asked suddenly, staring ahead as Ephiny gave her a swift, startled look. “C’mon, don’t tell me you didn’t think about that.”
The regent looked away, and didn’t answer.
“Okay.” Pony sat down on a half submerged log, resting her elbows on her knees. “Here’s the deal.”
Granella took a seat next to her. “Here’s the deal. This sucks.” She removed a splinter from her thumb. “Next time I get the bright idea to try adventuring, smack me.”
“You smack me first.” Pony gave her a wry look. “Look, we can’t get back up that fall.” She indicated behind them with her thumb. “I figure this water’s got to let out somewhere… maybe the plains below Potadeia. Let’s just get in the damn boat, and see where it takes us. I don’t feel like hiking anyway in these damn wet boots.”
Her companion studied the flowing stream, and then she turned around and reviewed the scrubby, harsh surroundings. “Fine by me.” She agreed. “Let’s chew something, then get going. Might as well dry out a little.”
“Good idea.” Pony went over to the now very securely tied canoe and removed their packs, bringing them back over to the log. She handed Granella hers, then set her own down on the ground and started rooting a pack of trail rations out of it.
Granella took her leather cup from her pack and walked over to another log, half suspended in the water. She leaned on it and dipped the cup into the water, then stopped as she spotted something. Quickly shifting the cup to her other hand she reached under the log and removed a scrap of fabric caught in the bark, lifting it out and peering at it. “Pon!”
She turned and held the fabric up. “Found something!”
Pony got up and ambled over to her, peering at the fabric. “Okay.” She drew the word out. “And this.. means something to us?”
Granella fingered the bit of green wool. “It’s the same color as the shirt Xena was wearing.” She said.
“Yeah?” The weapons master took the piece from her and looked at it, rubbing her thumb over the weave. She closed her eyes, and tried to remember the neatly folded piles of shirts she’d seen in Xena and Gabrielle’s cabin, some new, some much mended. Was it the same? “I dunno.” She finally shook her head. “Could be.. but it could be anyone elses down there. Let’s see if we can find anything else.”
“Right.” Granella tossed the cup of water out and tucked the folding cup in her belt, then started searching. They fanned out, scanning the ground around the log with intent eyes, moving the leaf litter aside cautiously.
To one side, a large, dead tree had fallen over, one side suspended over the ground forming a slight overhang. Pony walked over to it and knelt down, studying the ground inside. She put her hands on the earth, finding it damp, but not soaking. Underneath, the leaves had been stirred and shoved aside, and the earth compacted, as though something had lain underneath.
Something? The weapons master scanned the depression with skill, running her thumb over a dip that might have held an elbow. Slowly, she lowered herself to the earth and looked underneath, drawing in a breath when her eyes found what she hadn’t really thought she was going to find.
Caught in the bark were hairs. She reached up and took hold of them, tugging them gently from their entrapment and drawing them out into the light where she could see them better. “Gran.” She got to her feet and headed for where her companion was kneeling nearby. “Think you were right.”
Granella got up and came over, looking at what she held. A small tangle of dark and fair hair rested in Pony’s palm. She touched it with one finger, the dark strands fairly long, and the light ones shorter. “Ah. Yeah.”
“Okay.” Eponin exhaled. “Well, we know we’re going the right way, at least.” She turned and looked around. “Boy, it must have sucked not to have anything with them.”
“Yeah.” Granella nodded. “C’mon.. let’s get to the getting and find em. Maybe this once we’ll be useful.. least we can lend em our gear.”
Pony put the entwined hairs into her pouch, then followed Granella back to where their packs were. “We can eat while we float.”
“Yeah.” Granella found herself wanting to get going, now that they had something to be going after again. “Let’s go.”
They threw their packs back into the canoe and Pony untied it while Granella got into the back seat. She joined her, then used her paddle to push off from the shore and into the current.
The creature screamed, his eyes widening on seeing Xena’s form descending on top of him. He shifted to one side, and flattened himself to the earth, covering his head with his arms.
Xena’s reflexes probably saved both of them. She recognized the change in posture in mid air and turned her leap into a sideways flip instead, nearly catapulting herself off the escarpment. She caught the edge of a rock and swung around, landing lightly to one side of the creature with a double hopped bounce. “Damnn it!”
Gabrielle picked up a rock and stood ready, her eyes shifting between her partner and the hooter. The creature shifted, and she saw it’s face. “Xena!” She called out. “It’s the one you saved!”
Xena edged closer, her body tensed as she watched the creature’s every motion, anticipating an attack despite the bard’s words, and the craven posture. “Gonna be short lived saving if he tries that again.” She growled.
The bard slowly lowered her hand, letting the stone rest against her thigh as she studied the prone figure. The creature, now that she was looking closer, didn’t seem to be much threat to them. His fur was matted and dull looking, and she could see blood on the rocks where his face had pressed against them.
After a moment’s silence, the creature curled onto his side and looked around, spotting Xena and freezing again. “Ahge!” He uttered a sound, raspy and unlike the barking they’d heard until then.
Xena kept her distance, dancing lightly across the rocks to put herself between the creature and Gabrielle before she relaxed a trifle. “Huh.”
Gabrielle nudged her to one side. “Honey, you’re blocking my view.” She took a cautious step towards the creature. “Hey there. It’s okay. We won’t hurt you.”
Xena looked plaintively at the sky, then shook her head and reached out to take a firm hold of the back of Gabrielle’s belt, stopping her from going any closer.
The creature looked apprehensively at both of them, then let his eyes settle on Gabrielle. The wound on his face was raw, and the stitches had split in two or three places, but the swelling had gone down and it only looked painful and distorted, rather than grotesque. He touched his fingers to his face, then held his hand out to her.
Gabrielle looked into his eyes, then she reached behind her with one hand, tugging at Xena’s fingers only to find the pressure relaxing as the warrior took a step forward.
“G’wan.” Xena said. “But I’m yanking your blond butt out of there if he moves.”
With due deference to her skirt, Gabrielle slowly knelt down, just out of reach of the creature. “Okay.” She told him. “Now.. I’m gonna be nice, but do us both a favor, okay? You be nice too.”
There was no real comprehension in his eyes, just fear, and some pain.
Gabrielle reached out and touched his hand with her own, folding her fingers around his stubby, powerful ones and gripping them lightly. She could feel strength in them, but they were trembling also, and she leaned a little forward so he could rest his elbow on the ground.
He shifted, and for a moment, she thought they’d made another goof. She felt Xena’s hand tighten on her belt, and took a deep breath, in case the yank she could sense coming knocked the wind out of her. “Hey.. easy!”
But the creature only crawled a little bit towards her, still cringing, as he held on to her hand. “Agha!” He gurgled again. “Bah.”
“Mm?” The warrior was now almost over her shoulder, peering at the creature.
“Is he trying to talk to us?”
Judging there was relatively little danger, Xena knelt down next to her partner and released her belt, bringing her arms around to rest on her knee. She stayed back though, when the creature tried to crawl away from her, whimpering. “You, maybe.”
Gabrielle edged forward, towards him. “Take it easy.” She told him. “Xena won’t hurt you.”
“Long as he doesn’t try to hurt you.” Xena amended.
“Mm.” The bard sat down cross legged near the creature, who curled up in a half ball, watching her intently. She squeezed his hand and waited, watching him right back.
Sometimes, she’d found, you really just had to give people a little space and have some patience. A soft throat clearing nearby from someone who tended to have little of one and need the most of the other almost made her smile, and she reached back to pat Xena’s foot with her free hand. “If you want to grab some dried rabbit, I think we’re okay here.”
Louder throat clearing.
“Okay, but could you sit down? I think he thinks you’re gonna bite him.”
Xena muttered, but she complied, sitting down just behind Gabrielle and picking up a small rock to study.
Gabrielle waited for silence to fall, then she returned her attention to their strange guest. “Okay.”
“Gurf.” The creature seemed to be having trouble opening his mouth, and she realized the swelling from his injury was causing him some pain. “Xe?’
“Can you do anything else for him, for that cut?”
Gabrielle exhaled a bit, at the firm, definite tone. But she had to admit the cut was actually healing, and maybe anything the warrior did would make it worse.
So she settle down, and patted his hand with hers. “So.” She watched his face. “Why are you here?”
“Gurf.” The creature coughed.
“Did you come to us for help again?”
Gabrielle drew a circle in the dust covering the rock, and the creature’s eyes widened. He covered them with his free hand and howled, cringing from her and trying to pull the hand she had hold of free. “Okay.. okay.” The bard yelped, swiping the circle away with her palm. “Relax, it’s gone!”
The creature’s head lifted, and he peered at the ground, then up at Gabrielle. “Gurf!”
Gabrielle released his hand and let hers drop to her knee. “Xena.” She sighed. “I’m not getting this.”
The warrior clasped her shoulder. “Don’t look at me.” She advised. “If you can’t talk to em, what chance do I have?” She studied the creature. “Hey.”
Warily, he looked at her.
“What do you want?” Xena fixed him with a pale blue glare.
The creature pressed himself against the rocks, and lowered his head, refusing to meet her eyes.
Gabrielle turned to Xena. The warrior shrugged, holding her hands out. “This is so frustrating.” The bard acknowledged the sentiment. “Xena, I just know he’s got something to say to us, and we need to hear it.” She swiveled back towards the creature and eyed him in silence for a little bit.
Xena also studied the huddled figure. He was smaller than most of the others, she realized, almost scrawny in comparison with the bigger creatures she’d been fighting. Standing, he’d barely top Gabrielle’s height, and his arms and legs were less hairy and straighter, more like their own.
“Gurf.” The creature reached timidly out again towards Gabrielle. “Anaa..”
He wasn’t wearing any skins, or bits of hide, and he gave the distinct impression of youth, though Xena wasn’t sure if that was something real, or just his size tricking her eyesight. It was hard to tell from his face, since his injury distorted is features but there was something in his eyes…
Something in his eyes. Xena tilted her head to one side and then she leaned forward, catching him by the jaw before he could squirm away and turning his face to the fading light.
“Sh.” Xena watched the eyes widen in fear, but the creature remained still in her grip. There was something… ah. “Gabrielle, look at his eyes.” She urged. “See?”
Gabrielle leaned closer and peered at them. She glanced over at Xena in question, one blond eyebrow lifting slightly.
“The color.” The warrior said.
The bard studied them. “Okay..they’re gray.” She said, slowly. “Is there significance to that..oh, wait.” She gave her head a half shake. “Hers were, too, right?”
“Right.” Xena released the creature. “The rest of them weren’t. They were all dark.”
The warrior nodded. “Yeah.” She rested her elbows on her knees and frowned. “So, that tells us…” She paused, letting the words drift off.
“Tells us?” Gabrielle repeated. “Well, they could be related, I guess.”
They both fell silent as the creature squirmed and grunted. “But he’s sort of like the others.” Gabrielle continued. “So I guess…”
“Yeah.” Xena exhaled. “You think she was his mother?”
The creature looked up at her. “Anaa.” He gurgled, his eyes searching Gabrielle’s face. “Anaa..”
The sound suddenly rang a chord of familiarity with Gabrielle. She leaned forward. “Are you saying mama?” She asked, curiously.
“Anaa!” He reached out to her again.
Mama. It could be, Xena acknowledged silently. Given the dead woman’s condition, and her age, she really looked nothing like her partner, but in contrast to all the other creatures around, she supposed Gabrielle was the closest thing going.
“Oh boy.” Gabrielle sighed. “I’m not ready to be his mama, Xe.”
Xena laid a hand on her back. “Relax. At least I don’t think he’s gonna hurt us.” She studied the huddled creature.
Gabrielle leaned towards him and touched gentle fingers to his battered face, allowing the gentle compassion just under her skin to emerge, finding it in her to feel sorry for the young hooter, despite their recent past. “Hey.”
He seemed to melt at her touch, his look becoming almost childlike.”Anaa.. gut.” His expression, what there was of it, lost it’s tension and he simply lay there, his hands resting on the rock.
“Poor thing.” Gabrielle murmured. “He is trying to talk to us, isn’t he?”
“Mm.” Xena had her chin resting on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth, yeah.” She agreed softly. “I don’t think he’s really got it in him, though. Not if he’s half animal.”
The bard wondered about that, but had to admit she saw as much creature in his eyes as she did humanity, and suddenly she felt a chill, thinking of what it must be like stuck half one thing and half another like that. “The others seemed to shun him.” She recalled. “He’s not quite like them, I guess.”
“Not quite like her.”
“No.” Xena repeated. “Poor bastard.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle said. “I can almost remember what that felt like.” She clasped one of the creature’s hands in hers with more confidence. “I almost can.”
Xena glanced sideways at her, but after a moment, kept her silence.
Xena paused at the edge of the rocks, extending her senses into the darkness of the forest before she went any further. Behind her, Gabrielle was leaning on her staff, her eyes turned back over her shoulder to the outcropping they’d so recently left.
Atop it, the young creature was still crouched, making soft hoots every so often, but refusing to follow them.
“Y’know, Xena.” Gabrielle murmured. “Maybe he knows something we don’t.”
“We know what he knows.” The warrior replied, unperturbed. “It’s dangerous in the forest at night. You could get eaten.”
“Mm.” The bard turned her attention to the dark treetops. “So are we saying he’s smarter than we are for staying out of the forest at night.”
Xena started down into the trees. “I never said we were smart.” She replied. “You coming, or you staying with him?”
Gabrielle knew it wasn’t really a serious question, even though she heard the hint of an edge in her partner’s tone. She followed in her bootsteps, feeling her way with the end of her staff as they slowly made their way down off the craggy peak.
She wasn’t entirely unafraid of the way ahead of them, and she didn’t deny the shiver of apprehension as the shadows closed over her and the faint last light disappeared around her. Ahead of her, she could just barely make out Xena’s fur clad form and she wondered again just how smart this really was.
Xena had paused just inside the forest, and now Gabrielle joined her and they stood side by side in the gloom. The trees whispered to either side, and off in the distance an owl hooted. “I know you think this is crazy.” The warrior said.
Gabrielle took her hand. “Actually, I don’t.” She replied. “Staying up there, isolated, where everyone could see us was crazy.” Her fingers tightened. “And in this place, everything’s dangerous. Even us.” She bumped Xena with her shoulder. “So c’mon, before we attract too much attention standing here.”
Off in the distance, they heard a rough barking. “Ah.” Xena turned and peered back up the slope. “Look.”
Gabrielle did, spotting their young friend now standing up, half crouched, peering back the way he’d come originally. She could see the agitation in his stance. “Animal?”
Xena shook her head. “It’s them.” She started into the forest. “Let’s go.”
“But it’s night time.” Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder as she followed. “I thought they hid then.”
The warrior started to move faster. “Yeah, well…” She ducked past an overhanging limb. “Told ya they learned fast.”
“Yeah.” The bard gave the rocks one last look, as the creature scuttled over them, and hesitated. “Xe.. I think..”
Xena turned and looked, watching the action. She saw the young creature apparently make up his mind and start shambling in their direction. “Great.” With a shake of her head, she sidestepped a boulder and bounced a few steps down. “Move.”
Gabrielle hopped after her, staying close as the darkness overwhelmed the both of them and she was walking blind for a long minute until her eyes adjusted and she could see faint outlines. “Xe?”
Warm and reassuring, the warrior’s hand latched onto her wrist. “Just follow me.” Xena added. “Walk in my steps.” She moved forward confidently, releasing Gabrielle’s arm when she felt the bard take hold of her belt.
It was so dark, she could barely see Xena against the trees around them. Gabrielle resisted the urge to simply close her eyes, and concentrated on staying right behind her partner, stepping as much as she could into the same spaces.
She knew Xena could see where she was going, the warrior’s eyesight was amazing, and she’d learned the hard way that just because she couldn’t see what Xena was doing, the reverse wasn’t always true. “I think he’s coming after us.”
“Yeah.” Xena’s voice came out of the darkness ahead of her. “Just keep moving.”
The warrior could hear the damn creature, in fact, making far more noise than she and Gabrielle were. She looked around, the shades of gray in the underbrush grudgingly giving up their details and the faint glitter of animal eyes peering at her from under leaves.
She could see a faint path, and she followed it, her ax gripped in one hand while the other held the knife. A soft hooting almost made her freeze, before her senses identified it as the owl they’d heard before, not one of the manlike creatures.
Her head tipped up and she searched the branches, spotting the owl as a faint outline in a tree nearby, seeing the motion as it turned its head to keep ghostly sparkling eyes on her as they went past. She sucked in a lungful of air, and tasted the light muskiness of it’s feathers on the back of her throat, glad it was the most pungent thing she could smell around them.
No cat. No hooter. No odd but ultimately useful deerlike creature. Just the owl, the earth, the trees, a few weasels, and them, for now. She caught Gabrielle’s distinctive scent as the fitful breeze changed direction, cloth and leather and warm skin, and the hide pack she carried on her back with their stuff in it.
Comfortingly familiar. Xena felt the ground slope under her feet and she slowed a bit, gazing warily ahead of her to make sure they weren’t about to step off into an abyss. “Easy.”
Gabrielle pressed her body up against Xena’s back. “What is it?”
“Pitch.” Xena started moving down sideways, tucking the knife into her belt and holding that hand out for balance. She could see boulders poking their heads up from the earth and she eased between them, her ears now picking up again the sound of moving water. “Gods be damned.”
“Gush, gush gush.” Gabrielle muttered. “Go to fishes, Boo.”
“Fish this.” Xena sighed. “Hang on..” She spotted a shelf moving at a more level route and stepped over onto it, putting one foot in front of the other. “Real narrow, Gab.”
“Feel it.” Gabrielle took a second to catch her balance, aware of the open space on her right hand side. “Hang on a minute.”
Xena paused, and waited as she shifted her staff to her right hand, and took hold of Xena’s belt with her left. “Okay, go.”
The warrior started moving again, a little more slowly as she paced along the narrow shelf. To her right, the ground dropped rapidly, and as they worked their way forward in the dark, she could hear the sound of the water increasing to a roar.
Not good. She looked ahead of her, hoping the shelf would open out a little. If they were attacked from behind now.. Xena flexed her hands and swallowed against the surge of anxiety that threatened to close her throat.
Could she backflip over Gabrielle’s head? As she stepped along, Xena calculated the angles, and the risk if she missed and ended up plummeting off into the dark abyss.
Resolutely, she faced forward and moved a little faster, seeing a bend in the path ahead and hoping there was better footing beyond it. She put a hand on the rock as she got to the corner and looked past it, then cursed softly.
A gap at least a bodylength in size broke the path, leaving nothing but sheer wall on one side, and dark gloom on the other. “There’s a break here.” Xena said, carefully. “So, this is what we’re gonna do.”
Gabrielle remained silent, but her fingers clenched on Xena’s belt and the warrior could feel that, and she heard the sound of the bard swallowing.
Xena measured the break. “I’m gonna jump over it.” She said, pausing to listen as she thought she heard motion behind them. “Then I’m gonna reach back and grab your hand, and you jump to me.”
It sounded so simple, really. Gabrielle felt her guts tighten. Except that Xena’s voice belied her calm instructions, and she could feel the racing pulse just under the skin where her hand was pressed against Xena’s back. “Okay.” She replied softly. “I’m going to let you go now.”
She felt the warrior take a deep breath, and then the warmth of that contact was gone as she released her grip on the woven belt and stood waiting, the darkness seeming to close in around her. She could barely see Xena’s outline, and the path ahead of her was nothing but a faintly lighter shade of gray against the blackness to her right and the darker gray of the stone wall at her left.
“Take a step back.” Xena said.
“Okay.” Gabrielle cautiously did so. She sensed, rather than saw, Xena readying herself, then with a step, and a motion of air, she was gone.
Straining her ears, she counted silently until she heard the soft impact as Xena landed on the other side, a scuff of her rough boots against stone, and the sound of her hand smacking against the rock wall.
Small gap? Gabrielle felt her throat go dry. Like Hades it was.
“Okay.” The warrior called back to her. “Throw me your staff.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes. “Say that again?” She could almost imagine the frown, but cocked her ears as she heard Xena repeat the words, then she reared back and tossed the weapon, aiming for the sound since she couldn’t see anything of her partner at all.
“Got it.” Xena said. “Okay.”
The bard felt her knees go weak. Gods, I can’t do this. She edged up to the end of the path, feeling the sharp slice in the stone with her boot. “Xena.”
“Take a step back from where you are, and then go for it.” Xena said. “Just jump as hard as you can. I’ll catch you.”
“Gabrielle, trust me.” The warrior rasped, urgently. “They’re coming up after us. When we get past this, we’ve got some breathing room.” She added. “Now.. jump!”
It wasn’t really a matter of trust. Gabrielle took an unsteady step back, and breathed out hard, then sucked in air as hard as she could. Or more precisely, she did trust Xena.
She just didn’t trust herself. “I don’t..”
The sound of pursuit was now evident. She could hear the hooters yelling behind them, and a thrashing, banging sound as they plowed through the forest evidently trying to scare anything that might want to eat them away.
“Go!” Xena barked, making her nape hairs prickle. “Gabrielle, just do it!”
And then, sometimes you just had to do it. Gabrielle backed a little more, then shifted and bolted forward, on the second step launching herself into the darkness and throwing her hands forward blindly with her heart, and her soul ringing around her ears.
Xena grabbed her out of mid air, and she was yanked forward, thumping against stone and Xena’s body with equal force. She wavered, then Xena’s arms closed around her and the entire mountain could have fallen over and it wouldn’t have disturbed her a bit.
“Gotcha.” The warrior whispered into her ear. “Piece of baklava.”
Sure. “Boy.” Gabrielle exhaled. “I think I’m ready to retire.”
Xena gave her a long hug, then released her. “C’mon. Let’s get someplace we can talk about it.” She handed Gabrielle back her staff, and continued along the ridge, as the sounds increased behind them. She only hoped what lay ahead wasn’t someplace worse.
They climbed another half candlemark, and then it started raining. Xena felt the first drops of rain hit her head and she cursed, since the narrow ledge they were still threading was covered in moss. “Damn it.”
“Something coming?” Gabrielle was holding on to Xena’s belt with one hand, and the wall with the other. She’d given over her staff for her partner to probe the path with.
“Wet.” The warrior sighed. “This thing’s gonna be slick in…in…”
“Two shakes of a lamb’s tail?” Gabrielle wearily finished for her.
“Something like that, yeah.” The warrior agreed. “Let me see if maybe we’ll get lucky this time and there’ll be some kind of overhang just up there. I think I see one.”
“You know when a lamb shakes it’s tail twice?” The bard commented. “It’s been pooping.”
Xena stopped, and turned her head. “What?”
“Just thought I’d mention that.”
The rain came down harder, and Xena felt her boots begin to slip on the steep path. “Bacchae.” She lunged forward, throwing one hand out to catch the edge of the rock. “Hang on!”
Gabrielle felt her start to slide and she stepped forward, her own boots still having a decent purchase on the ground. She caught Xena’s weight against her and held on to the rock wall, feeling the strain come on to her thighs and calves. She got her shoulder up against the warrior’s hip and leaned forward, doing the best she could to push them both up the slope.
For a moment, she thought they were both going to slide backwards, as the angle and Xena’s larger size threatened to unbalance her. Then the pressure relaxed, and she felt her partner inch forward, her boots still scrabbling in the moss.
She staggered up behind her and pressed hard against the stone, as the rain suddenly drove into their face, removing what small amount of sight she had. “Xena!”
“HANG ON!” The warrior bellowed back. “Got shelter!”
Gabrielle was hanging on for dear life, in fact, and she almost yelped when Xena abruptly disappeared in front of her. Her fingertips grasped frantically for the warrior, then she felt her hand grabbed, a shocking warmth in the dark and the rain, and she was pulled forward in a smooth, powerful motion that brought her up several steps and around a rock corner to her left.
The rain stopped, and she wiped the moisture from her eyes as she pressed her body against Xena’s. “Whoa!”
“Okay?” Xena said. “This thing goes back a little. Ready?”
“Go.” Gabrielle felt herself being guided, and she moved deeper into the darkness, already hearing echoes in front of her that made her understand the overhang was actually a cave. “How far?”
“Not far.” Xena pulled her a few more steps. “That’s as far as I can see a damn thing.. shelf here. Siddown.”
Gabrielle could see absolutely nothing, but she took it all on faith and sat down, finding a smooth rock surface under her, a little higher than she expected, but welcome. She felt Xena sit down next to her, and the soft clatter as the warrior put down her staff. “How big is this thing?”
“Have no idea.” Xena said. “Don’t want to go and find out. Way our luck’s been going there’s a damn Minotaur in here with a hangover.”
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder, but saw nothing but darkness. “Do you..”
“Can’t smell anything back there.” The warrior said. “Just rocks.”
For a little while, they just sat there, listening to the rain together. Facing forward, Gabrielle could now see gray shadows outside the entrance to the cavern, and if she turned her head, she could see, just faintly, Xena’s profile.
The weather seemed to be getting colder again. The rain drove a chill wind into the cavern, and they both slid back to escape it, ducking behind the angled rock wall that ended the shelf they were seated on. “Wow.” Gabrielle whispered. “We’re just not getting a break this time, are we?”
Xena wiped the rain from her face and flicked it off her hands, then rested her elbows on her knees. “We sure aren’t.” She agreed, with a tired sigh. “This sucks.” Her head dropped and she cradled it against her fists. “Damn what I wouldn’t give to be sitting in my mother’s inn.”
“Me too.” Gabrielle pressed her knee against her partner’s. “Heck, I’d even go for sitting in my mother’s kitchen.”
“Me, too.” Xena replied, glumly.
They listened to the rain for a bit longer, then Gabrielle started wringing out her skirt. “We done whining?”
“Yeah.” Xena got up and untied her belt, removing the cat skin and starting to twist the hide in her hands to rid it of some water. “One good thing. This weather’ll keep them away from us at any rate.”
“Hope they decide to chance it.” Gabrielle remarked. “And they get to that stupid gap.” She knew Xena was looking at her, but her temper was at it’s ragged edge. “Yeah, I know. I’m supposed to be the pacifist.”
“S’allright.” Xena ruffled her partner’s wet hair. “I’m right there with you. Hope every one of the bastards dropped right through it and ended up broken to bits.”
Gabrielle drew her knees up and circled them with both arms, hugging herself for warmth. “So, we’re safe here for now, right?”
“Yes.” Xena answered, in a positive tone. “They hadn’t gotten on that ridge before we jumped the gap. No way they can make it past there now. Not in this weather.”
Xena replaced the fur and tied it, then sat back down. “Yeah.” She sighed. “Except it’s dark in here, and we’re not gonna be able to do much about that.”
“And it’s getting cold.” The warrior added. “Damn it.”
“Sure is.” Gabrielle agreed. “But if we get under that skin I’m carrying on my back, we should be okay, right?” She shrugged the pack off and untied it by feel, reaching inside to pull out the folded hide. “I’ve got an apple or two here left.”
Xena hesitated. “Well..”
“You’re not going to say something silly like you’re going to pace around in the dark trying to stay awake, are you?” Gabrielle’s voice came out of the darkness, with a touch of wry warmth in it. “Since I know you don’t have any more of those herbs.”
The warrior exhaled audibly.
“C’mon, Xena. Don’t be silly.” Gabrielle sat back, reaching out to put a hand on her partner’s shoulder. “You said yourself we’re safe, for a while here.”
“It may stop raining.”
“It’s not going to dry out, or stop being dark without warning.” The bard said. “Xena, come on.”
The warrior got up, even the sound displaying agitation. “I don’t like taking any more chances than we have to, Gabrielle! We’re in a damn bad place here!”
Gabrielle counted under her breath until ten. “You said it was safe.”
“I know.” Xena replied. “It’s just really hard for me to trust that.”
“So.. it’s okay for you to lie to me about it then?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“That’s what it sounded like. Just feed me some placating story and pat me on my head.”
Xena leaned against the wall. “Gabrielle.”
“Well, it did.”
The warrior didn’t reply to that. She remained quiet, just sitting in the dark, the only evidence of her the soft breathing Gabrielle could hear. “Are you pissed off?” She asked, after a while.
The bard felt her way along the shelf, and spread the skin over the both of them, her hip coming into contact with the warrior’s. She could feel the discord between them, this close and while she didn’t really regret saying what she had, she regretted saying it.
If that made any sense.
“Want to do me a favor?” Xena suddenly asked.
“Sure.” Gabrielle was glad the silence hadn’t lasted long. “Anything.” She added, then paused. “But if you ask me to leave, I’m going to burst out crying. Not sure how productive that’s gonna be.”
The bard shrugged a little. “You said you were pissed.” Even with the darkness, she knew Xena was looking right at her, and her mind pictured the warrior’s expression with little effort.
“Gabrielle.” Xena’s voice was equal parts exasperation and affection. “Can the drama, wouldja?”
“Hey, I’m a bard.” Gabrielle stated. “If you wanted stolid pragmatism, you should have married an Amazon.” She paused. “Oh.. wait a minute…”
She felt the faint motion against her shoulder as Xena chuckled soundlessly, and she relaxed, kicking her bootheels against the rock as she squiggled her toes inside the soggy hide. “So what is it?” Gabrielle asked. “Now that we’ve stopped whining and pissing each other off?”
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, pulled her closer, and gave her a kiss on the side of her head. “Wanna let me use your lap for a pillow? I’m about to keel over.”
“You got it.” Gabrielle said. “Trade places with me, so you can stretch out.” She got up and eased past Xena, then sat down again and scooted back until she could feel the stone wall against her shoulders. “Okay.” She sensed Xena in motion next to her, then felt the damp weight as the warrior put her head down. “Set?”
Gabrielle stretched out the skin by feel, covering as much of Xena’s length as she could, then she let her arm drape over her partner’s shoulders.
It felt good to be sitting still, with the expectation of remaining that way for a little while. They had only been traveling a few candlemarks, and so – if the rain kept up, Gabrielle figured they’d be able to stay put at least until sunrise.
Good idea, since the chill in the air was becoming pronounced, and she was glad of both the hide, and Xena’s close proximity. She suspected the next day might bring new challenges if the temperature kept dropping as if they needed any more.
“Hm?” Gabrielle glanced down, even though Xena wasn’t even as much as a shadow in the darkness.
“You didn’t really think I’d ask you to leave, did you?”
Gabrielle chuckled softly. “No.” She said. “I’m just frustrated, like you are, and taking nonsense.” She rubbed her thumb over the skin on Xena’s shoulder. “It’s like everything is so against us. I mean, sometimes we do have that happen, Xe, but not like this.”
“No.” The warrior agreed. “Not like this.” She let her eyes close, as the herbs she’d been taking to stave off sleep faded on her, and her body almost shivered with the need for rest. In a way, she’d gotten lucky, since if the rain hadn’t started, she’d have found some way, any way…
Damn. Xena felt Gabrielle shift slightly, as their combined body heat made it a bit more comfortable, and the shivers abated. “Least we found this place.” She murmured. “Luck’s not all bad.”
“Very true.” Gabrielle reached into her sack and retrieved an apple, taking a bite of it. “Wanffm appf?”
“Mofrme.” The bard chewed the fruit and swallowed. “So what’s next?”
Xena sighed. “Beats me.” She admitted. “Honestly, Gabrielle, I’m out of ideas.” Her hand lifted and covered the bard’s. “Everything I try just isn’t working.”
“Well.” Gabrielle relaxed as best she could against the rock wall. “Nothing I tried worked either.”
The warrior lay there quietly for a while, her eyes closed, but not quite asleep. Then she moved, turning her head so her cheek was pressed against Gabrielle’s stomach. “How about this.” She said. “If the river’s gone down.. those falls will have slowed. Maybe stopped.”
“We go back there, see if we can climb up where we fell down.” Xena said. “Once we’re in the upper valley.. we find a way to climb up that, and we’re home free.” She added. “We know that crevice isn’t far from the cabin.”
Gabrielle pondered the idea. “That’s a lot of climbing.” She finally said. “I’m not great at that.”
“I know.” Her partner said gently. “But I’m not seeing any other way, sweetheart.”
The bard nodded, albeit invisibly. “Okay.” She answered. “If that’s what we have to do, then that’s what we have to do.” Her voice firmed. “Now, you close those baby blues, and get some sleep.”
Xena already had her eyes closed, and she felt better, now that she’d broached the idea of climbing to Gabrielle. She had no illusions that it would be as easy as she’d made it sound, but at least it gave them a goal.
It was better than nothing. “If you hear anything..”
“Don’t worry. I will.” The bard pulled the skin a little more closely around them. “We’ll be fine, Xena. Just relax.”
Gabrielle waited until she felt Xena’s shoulders relax under her arm, and heard the warrior’s breathing even out and deepen. Though she was bone tired, her mind was now racing with the thought of having to climb up the sheer cliff she remembered the waterfall being over, and cold as it was, sweat broke out on her palms just thinking about it.
What she’d said to Xena was one thing. What she actually could go through with was another, and here in the privacy of the darkness, and the thunder she could admit that to herself. Xena knew what she was asking of her.. but after all, Xena had stared down her own fears on more than one occasion and while Gabrielle knew her partner didn’t expect her to measure up that way, she expected it of herself.
So, whatever it took, right?