One Wild Ride
It was mid-morning before the rain finally stopped, and the misty green gloom outside was penetrated by weak streams of sunlight that only barely penetrated the entrance to their cave.
The air was damp and cold, and Gabrielle hugged her self, and rubbed her arms as she edged out to look around for the first time in daylight. She blinked a few times, as a gust of wind blew droplets of water from the soaked branches and they hit her. “Wow.”
Xena emerged and stood next to her, leaning against the rock wall. “Huh.”
Gabrielle turned. “You look like a wagon rolled over you, Xe.”
“Feel like it.” The warrior agreed, rubbing her face. “Downside to the damn herbs.”
Another patter of drops hit them. Xena let her hands fall to rest against her thighs, as she looked around them, at the rain darkened cliffs on either side, and the thick green forest below them in the crevasse.
It was quiet. She could hear the roar of running water far below them, and the soft patter of falling rocks somewhere down the path. But the animal noises seemed very muted, as though the living things around them felt a bit like she did – tired and cranky.
She knew going to sleep had been a bad idea. Xena rested her head against the cold, wet stone, feeling the droplets of icy water soak into her hair. The chill felt good against the back of her neck, and it eased the throbbing headache she’d woken up with.
It was almost like a hangover, she reflected wryly, only causing it wasn’t nearly as much fun. She wished it would keep on raining, in fact, as her body really wanted to just go back inside and go back to bed. “Well.” She pushed off from the wall and took a few steps up the slope, peering at the path ahead of them. “Doesn’t look too bad.”
Gabrielle took the precaution of grabbing hold of her partner’s belt before she edged over to the open side of the path and peered down. After a second, she quickly stepped back. “Xena, that’s far.”
“Uh huh. I know.”
“I’m really glad I didn’t know that last night.”
“Me too.” Xena sat down on the path and sprawled her legs out, leaning back against the rock with an audible thump. “So.” She observed her mud spattered footwear. “We got any apples left?”
Gabrielle studied her scruffy companion with a look of wry sympathy on her face. “I’ll see what I can dig up.” She ruffled Xena’s hair. “Be right back.”
Xena picked up a piece of granite and sidearmed it off into the open air, blinking a little as a few sunbeams found their way to her and laid warm stripes across her legs. “Hey, Gab?”
“Yeah?” The bard’s voice echoed softly from inside the cavern.
“How about you be the WP today, huh? I’m not up for it.” Xena called back, sticking out her tongue and peering at what she could see of it, since the surface felt fuzzy to her.
“I can’t. I’m too short.” Gabrielle responded. “Sorry!”
“Bah.” The warrior exhaled. “Damn it.”
Gabrielle sat down on the ledge inside and dumped her makeshift pack out, sorting among it’s contents for something edible. She found a few nuts, and one withered apple, but not much else. “Ugh.” The bard glanced at the inside of the cavern, now that the light was allowing her to see details. “Wonder if there’s any water back there.. I could at least make some tea.”
She picked up the skull and wandered towards the back recesses of the cave, cocking her head to one side and listening hard for any signs of water. There was a sharp bend as she reached what she’d thought was the back wall, and she eased around it, peering into the shadows with wary caution.
Xena would have detected anything really dangerous, but you never could tell sometimes. Gabrielle thought she heard a tinkle of water, and she walked down the crooked passageway, her boots scuffing lightly on the uneven surface.
Suddenly, she stopped, as her fingers trailed over a patch of wall, where the shadows seemed to be clustering into what could almost be a design. She leaned closer, and then drew in a breath, as she recognized some of the painted signs she’d seen in the first few days.
They covered the wall just past the bend, and she took a step back to study them. Her shoulders impacted the opposite wall lightly and a bit of rock worked loose, falling down to patter near her toes. She glanced at it, then went back to puzzling over the paintings, her eyes running over the unfamiliar shapes.
“Hm.” She shifted, and another bit of rock worked loose, thumping against her knee.
Then it brushed against her knee again. Gabrielle looked down sharply, to find a skeletal hand a fingerspan from her kneecap, poking out from a dark crevice in the wall. “Yow!” She hopped to one side, and felt her lungs expanding for an instinctive yell.
At the last minute, she clapped her hand over her mouth, and jogged off around the corner instead, heading for the opening to the cave.
Xena looked up as Gabrielle emerged, her eyes taking in the skull in one hand, and the position of the other. “Something wrong?”
Gabrielle removed her hand from her mouth. “Xena.”
The warrior blinked. “That’s me, yeah.”
“Just didn’t want to yell it out.” The bard said. “Listen, I found something in there.”
“Apples?” Xena replied hopefully.
“No, hon.” Gabrielle extended her hand. “C’mon. Let me show you.”
With a sigh, the warrior got up and followed her inside, stifling a yawn as she rubbed the back of her neck. “It’s not another damn dead end is it?” She complained. “I’m just not in the mood for more annoyance if you know what I mean.”
“I know.” Gabrielle led her around the bend, and stopped, pointing. “But.. it is sort of a dead end. Just not our dead end.”
The warrior put her hands on her hips, her eyes studying the skeleton hand hanging out into the open. “Ah.”
“At least this one’s an adult.” The bard said, in a soft voice.
“Mm.” Xena walked past her, and then she crouched down, peering into the darkened alcove with it’s bony resident. She looked back towards the entrance, then sighed. “Too dark in here.”
“Yeah.. “ Gabrielle peered around in the shadows. “If there was just some wood in here, I’d make you a torch.” She mused. “I wanted to see those pictures better too.”
Xena felt around in the alcove, her fingers tracing lightly over the bones of the skeleton held inside. The shadows were so profound, she could see little but a gleam of white. “This is making me mad.” She commented. “I’m in no mood for being frustrated right now.”
Gabrielle put her hands on her partner’s shoulders and leaned over, giving her a kiss on the head. “Just chill out for a minute. Let me go find a branch or something and get some light in here.”
The warrior leaned back on her hands. “Sorry.” She tipped her head back and looked up. “I really woke up on the wrong side of the cave this morning.” Her lips twisted. “I feel like mom’s fertilizer pile.”
“Hey, at least it stopped raining, and there’s no hooters around.” Gabrielle said. “So now that I’ve jinxed us, let me go get that darn torch before it starts raining and we get attacked.” She trotted off, leaving Xena to keep their bony find company.
The warrior watched her leave, then she returned her attention to the crevice, but remained leaning back in a relaxed pose. After a few silent minutes, she laid all the way down flat on her back, putting her hands under her head and crossing her ankles. “Well, buster.” She addressed the skeleton. “Since I can’t see ya, might as well just relax here, huh?” She tipped her head back and looked up at the cave ceiling. There were a few of the glowing spots she’d seen in the hooter’s cave, but not enough to shed any real light on the corridor, either where she was, or off in the shadows further down.
There was a further down, that much she knew. Xena could smell water on the faint puff of air brushing over her, and the faintest hint of an old burning smell, which made her wonder if there wasn’t maybe an old firepit nearby.
She could get up and look, but her headache had intensified, and it was easier just to remain where she was, and leave the problem in Gabrielle’s capable hands. There were gnarled limbs just outside the entrance, and she was sure the bard could manage to scrape something up to set fire to.
She even suspected Gabrielle didn’t mind, really, since the times when Xena acted the lazy bum were so rare as to be almost nonexistent. Once, she’d done that out of her desire to convince herself she didn’t need anyone around her, doing anything for her.
Even after their relationship had evolved past it’s initial stages, she still had been wary of relying on anyone other than herself, though she came to accept Gabrielle’s reliance on her and pretended the double standard was just how they both were.
It was only after they became parents together that she found that all changing. When she finally accepted Gabrielle as an equal, and Gabrielle grew into her role as a mother – then it became okay for her to dump the stoic routing and just whine sometimes.
Not often. Just like Gabrielle didn’t do it often to her, but every once in a while they both allowed each other those little venting moments. Xena exhaled, undisturbed by the bones almost grazing her left foot, her eyes idly tracing the tiny glowing spots above her.
She wondered what was going on back home. They’d been gone long enough by her calculations, that it was likely someone had started out after them. Ephiny, maybe, or Solari and Pony, she figured. Of course, they’d never find her and Gabrielle since the odds of them risking the river, or even if they did, getting caught in the same currents were so unlikely as to not even be worth mentioning.
Figures.The warrior closed her eyes. The one time they actually needed help, they wouldn’t get it. Why couldn’t this be the one time ten.. maybe twenty… Hades, the entire Amazon nation and all the militia couldn’t have stumbled through some cave somewhere and ended up at the bottom of the passageway she was lying in right now?
She’d even be glad to see her mother.
“Okay.” Gabrielle came around the corner, complete with a roughly thrown together and lit torch in her right hand. “I think this’ll do it.”
Xena rolled her head to one side and regarded her partner. The torch lit her features and outlined the cavern in an orange glow, but neither of them were looking because they were both looking at each other. “Nice.’ The warrior complimented her. “Can you find us a flying magic carpet and some pears now?”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, then she abruptly paused, as their surroundings revealed themselves. “Xena.”
Xena hitched herself up onto her elbows and looked around, then, without a word, she pressed herself up and into a crouch, balancing with the fingertips of one hand braced on the rocky floor.
Inside the crevice, as they’d expected, a skeleton rested, it’s body covered in scraps of withered fabric and tattered furs. It was an unremarkable set of bones, but the hollowed out holes in the rock wall around it were far from that, holding a wide collection of things including piles of gemstones, and roughly made tools.
And one held rolls of parchment.
“Oh. Wow.” Gabrielle slowly turned in a circle. “Xena, what is this?”
“I’m not sure.” The warrior studied the skeleton. It was female, and of middling height. More or less Gabrielle’s size, and unremarkable in it’s structure. The shreds of clothing remaining seemed very rough and homespun, she touched a bit of the wide weave, feeling it’s uneven texture.
Gabrielle found a place to wedge the torch and she did so, settling down predictably next to the slit that held the rolls of parchment. “I think we may find some of our answers here, Xena.”
“Or more questions.” The warrior lifted one of the gems and looked at it. “Wow.” She held it up to the torch, and it glittered with a deep, green heart. Her eyes slid past the storage, and she spotted a firepit, now visible in the torch’s light. “This was home, I guess.”
The bard was delicately unrolling the first of the parchments, handling it with an almost reverence. It’s surface was mottled and stained, but she could see a soft, faded purple on it’s surface she recognized instantly as berry ink.
At last. She leaned closer to the light and tilted the surface towards it. At last they’d find out something.
“What is it?” Xena carefully sorted through the tools, setting aside several for their own use.
Tried to teach, but doesn’t want to learn!
“It’s..” Gabrielle squinted a little, at the faded writing. “It’s a diary, I think.” She replied. “I started in the middle here.. let me see if I can find something near the beginning so we can maybe see who she was.” She carefully rolled up the scroll she was looking at, and selected one from the bottom of the pile.
“I thought we know who she was.” Xena examined a worn scraper. “The talking woman’s mother.”
“Yeah, but..” Gabrielle frowned as she tried to make out the faint letters. “That’s probably who this was, but who was she?” She clarified. “I mean, who was she before she…”
Xena looked up. “What?”
The bard leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. She ran her eyes over the letters, with a faint shake of her head. “Her name was Elbere.”
The warrior glanced over at her, noting the shifting emotions crossing her partner’s expressive face. “And?” She prompted, after a long moment silence.
“She’s from Potadeia.”
Xena nodded slightly. “Not totally unexpected.” She remarked. “Given where we are.. coulda just as easily been from Amphipolis.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle murmured. “She mentions some names here… her parents, but I don’t recognize them.” Her brow creased. “At least I don’t think I do.”
Xena squirmed over and peered at the parchment. “Damn.. pretty faded.” She said. “Why don’t you take that outside? Daylight’ll be easier to read it by.”
True. Gabrielle silently acknowledged. “Yeah, but you know.. there’s something about this dark creepy hallway with a skeleton in it that makes reading theses here a lot more exciting.”
Xena simply looked at her, eyebrows hiked.
“You know.. atmosphere?” The bard suggested.
The warrior shook her head. “No, I don’t.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle reached over and tweaked her nose. “Use your imagination. I know you have one.”
“Go outside before your eyeballs fall out of your head.” Xena scolded her. “How’s that for imagination?”
Gabrielle gathered up an armful of the parchments. “Nyah.” She stuck her tongue out at her partner and stood. “See if you can find that water… I pulled down enough dead wood to make a fire and I’ve got some mint left in my pack.”
“All right.” Xena gave her a pat on the leg. “We’d better get moving once we’re done with that. I don’t want to spend another night here.”
Gabrielle trudged around the corner and back into the main cavern, carrying the parchments over to the entrance with her. She poked her head out and cautiously looked both ways, then she sat down facing the lower slope they’d come up the night before and unrolled the scroll again.
The additional light really helped. “Let’s see now.” Gabrielle murmured, tracing the reasonably scribed letters with her fingertip. The words were relatively simple, and some were misspelled, and she wondered how young the woman had been when she’d come to the valley.
My name is Elbere. I have come here from a town named Potadeia, where my father and mother, Alaba and Elucia live. I am writing this down because I am the only one here and I want to keep things in my head.
Okay, well. Gabrielle scanned a few more chunks of writing, mostly descriptions of the valley, and the fact that it was cold, and the girl had been scared and unsure of what to do. Not really too much different than her own early diary entries, to be honest.
She looked up and across the open chasm to the far wall, a faint, self deprecating grin crossing her face. Just before the flood she’d taken a few minutes to reread the first few pages of her well worn book, and wondered yet again how Xena had dredged up the internal fortitude to put up with her in those early days.
For that matter, sometimes she looked back and wondered how she herself had found the stubbornness to hang in there, relentlessly searching for a friendship anyone would have doubted existed.
It could only really have been true love, she decided. Knowing Xena as she knew her now, knowing herself as well, nothing else made any sense at all.
She rolled up the parchment and selected a second, unrolling it and turning it to the light. Her brow creased, and then her expression went sober as she read.
It is what I was scared of. I am with child. I want to kill myself.
Mist green eyes lifted again, going momentarily unfocused. Then Gabrielle forced herself to continue reading.
They called me a liar. I told my parents he took me in the barn, but they said I was just a stupid liar. Now what can I do? Someone is watching me. I am scared.
“Wow.” Gabrielle murmured. “Sucky parents in Potadeia. Who’d have guessed it.”
I can’t find enough food to eat now. How can I find enough food to eat if I have a baby? I wish I could kill it. Mara knew how to kill babies. I wish she’d told me.
Gabrielle didn’t know how long she’d been sitting there, staring at the words before a warm hand closed on her shoulder, and she felt Xena’s presence surround her. She looked up at the warrior. “I’m not sure I want to read these, Xe.”
Xena sat down next to her, swirling something in the skull that emitted a fragrant steam. “Here.” She handed Gabrielle the hot tea, and took the scroll, scanning it as the bard sipped from the edge of the makeshift cup. “Ah.”
She let the parchment roll up into her hand. “Well, maybe there’s stuff we can use in some of these others. She’d got to have known about the damn creatures.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle grunted. “How’s your head?”
Xena half shrugged, and opened another parchment. She read the first few lines. “Ah. Here.” She leaned over so Gabrielle could read too.
They finally accept me.
“Sounds like she’s older here.” Gabrielle said.
“Yeah.” Xena agreed.
They want to see Mara. I try to keep her away from them. I am afraid she might get hurt. The females want to touch her all the time.
I saw one of them get taken by the big male – terrible! As soon as Mara can travel, we must get away from them and find a way out.
“So, I guess she managed to have her kid.” Xena commented.
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle took a sip of the hot tea, glad of it’s warmth traveling down and warming her stomach.
They don’t understand anything. It’s like they are animals, but they’re not. I am scared of them a lot, but they gave me food, and we would have died if they hadn’t found us.
The big male one keeps looking at me.
Xena leaned over and accepted a sip from the skull. “Think I know where this is going.”
The bard nodded. “Yeah. Me too.” She said. “But did you notice, Xena.. she mentioned other females.”
The warrior turned the parchment over, finding some hesitant, almost childish sketches on the back. “Yeah.” She turned the scroll around, puzzling over them. “This them, you think?”
Gabrielle studied the sketches. They could, she supposed, be the hooters, but they could also be dogs, or a goat. “Beats me.”
Xena turned the parchment back over, then stopped, stiffening when she heard a faint scuffling noise from inside the cavern. “Uh oh.” She got up, leaving the parchments with her partner. “Stay here.”
“Just stay here.” Xena sighed. “Please?”
Gabrielle patted her foot, and started drinking faster, as Xena disappeared into the cavern. “Knew it couldn’t last.” She put the skull down and gathered the scrolls up, tucking them under her arm before she stood and followed the warrior inside.
Xena crossed the cavern quickly, heading for the rear passage as the noises she heard became louder. She rounded the corner just as a figure scrambled up out of the darkness towards her, bringing a gust of wet, musky stench with it. “Hey!” She let out a booming yell.
“Augh!” The creature stopped in it’s tracks, it’s figure outlined in the torchlight. “Ugh!”
“Figures.” Xena muttered, recognizing the young male. ‘What the Hades do you want!?” She growled. “Ya stupid piece of..” She turned, hearing a sound behind her, to find Gabrielle rounding the bend. “Your boyfriend found us.”
“So I see.” The bard grimaced. “He smells worse wet than Ares does.”
The young male shifted from foot to foot, watching them anxiously. “Guh!” He lisped, holding up a hand to shield his eyes from the torch.
“So I guess that’s a way out.” Xena mused, then stiffened. “Or a way up.” She bolted past the creature, knocking him to one side as she scrambled over to where the water disappeared, cocking her head to listen. For a moment, all she heard was the roar of the water, then, as she focused past that, closing her eyes, she picked up something else. “Son of a bacchae!”
Gabrielle grabbed the torch from the crevice and started towards her. “More coming?”
“Bastard led them up here.” Xena turned, glaring at the male with definite, murderous intent. “Know what, buddy? That’s gonna be the last favor you do us.” She started towards the creature, who backed away from her in fear.
“Xena.” Gabrielle caught her arm. “He didn’t do it on purpose.” She peered into the tunnel that ran alongside the water, seeing it slope downward.
“Yeah? How do you know he didn’t?” Xena asked shortly. “Gabrielle, he’s almost gotten us killed twice. You want to risk a third time?”
Gabrielle turned and looked at her. “How many times did I almost get you killed?” She looked her partner right in the eye. “Xena, he hasn’t attacked either of us. You can’t just kill him in cold blood.”
In the torchlight, Xena’s eyes were almost the rust colored. “Yes, I can.” She replied, simply.
“No, you can’t.” The bard indicated the bend. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Xena, look at him.” The bard pointed at the creature, who was cringing near the ground, watching them with wide eyes. “Are you telling me you could just walk up to him and kill him? Are you?”
The warrior felt the restless rage just leak out of her, as the words penetrated, and she absorbed the incredulity in Gabrielle’s tone. “No.” She sighed. “But damn it, Gabrielle!”
The sounds coming up the tunnel were now audible to the bard. “I know.” She started towards the exit, holding the torch before her. “We helped him, Xena. It’s probably the nicest thing anyone did for him his whole life.. of course he’s following us.”
Xena snorted, shaking her head as she followed the bard out and into the main part of the cavern. Her sense of hearing judged they had a few minutes to gather their things, and she went right over to the pack and started stuffing things into it.
Gabrielle watched her for a second, then she walked over and put a hand on Xena’s back. “After all, I followed you after you saved my life, didn’t I?” She glanced past the warrior, as the creature crawled out and into the main cavern, watching them warily.
“Yes, you did.” Xena hoisted the pack onto her back and tightened the straps. “However.” She put both hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders. “You were adorable, and I fell in love with you.” She looked at he creature. “If you’da looked or smelled like him, I’d have tied your butt to a tree outside Potadeia and you’d probably still be there.”
“Glad I took a bath that morning then.” The bard said. “Let’s go.” She tossed the torch into the crackling fire and turned, following Xena out of the cave.
They turned left and started up the narrow path, climbing into fitful sunlight with hints of possible rain
The rain had finally ended over Amphipolis, and mud covered bodies were straggling back and forth between the ruins of the lower town and the upper village, carrying debris and supplies. A makeshift shelter area had been set up between the river and the upper town gates, and small wisps of smoke were straggling up from cooking fires as men and women worked at salvaging what was left to them.
Across the river, a laden sledge was standing, a horse hitched to the front of it. Ephiny turned from the pile of salvaged boxes and put a final one on the sledge, tightening down a bit of rope over it. “Sol?”
Solari appeared, with a pack on her back from around the pile. “Sounds like the gear’s on it’s way down.” She pointed to the slope above Amphipolis, where a train of Amazons were moving down towards the town. “Made good time.”
“Yeah.” The regent agreed. “G’wan over there and meet em. I’ll bring this over.”
Solari hesitated. “Uh..”
“Scoot.” Ephiny shooed her. “Move your feathers before I pluck em.”
The dark haired Amazon obeyed, sloshing into the river at the fording point, which had been carefully marked with red painted poles. It was only marginally safe, the water was still flooding, and they’d been lucky that same flood had brought silt down to fill in the bottom so the level was swimmable.
It was still dangerous. “Let’s go.” Ephiny took the halter of the draft horse she was standing next to, and started to lead him forward. “Watch out, there!” She called out, as a box came tumbling down and crossed her path. “Hey!”
Two men were trying to pull another wagon out of the slowly ebbing flood, with little success. Ephiny stopped and watched them, wiping a bit of mud off her face. “Hey!” She called out to them again. “If you hang on, I’ll help you drag that out when I get back.”
The man nearest her turned, and gave her a grateful look. “Thanks.” He stepped back from the wagon, cocking his head to look at her. His companion merely hitched himself up and sat down on it, swinging his feet in silence. “You’re Ephiny, right?” The closer man asked, running his fingers through is mud stained hair.
“That’s right.” The regent agreed, as the man came over to her. He was young, younger than she’d realized at first with all that mud, and he had somewhat rakish good looks. “And you are?” He was somewhat familiar, and her mind scrambled to place him, as she had the feeling they knew each other. “Ah…”
“Mikah.” The young man supplied readily. “I was on the..”
“Oh!” Ephiny held up a hand. “Yeah, I remember. You came back with us from Athens.” She gestured towards the wagon she was leading. “Want to give me a hand getting across the ford with this guy… faster I go, faster we get back and get your wagon loose”
“Sure.” Mikah went around the horse’s head and took the other side of the halter. “It’s not our wagon though. “
“No?” Ephiny walked forward, urging the horse into the still hastily running water. “You just being nice to someone, or you stealing it?” She glanced over the horses neck at her companion, who blushed slightly. “No offense.”
“I’ve had worse thought.” The young man walked stolidly forward. “But no.. it’s the wagon that had all the theatre gear in it.” He explained. “We’re trying to salvage what we can.. but it’s not like anyone thinks we’re important enough to give a hand to.”
Ephiny remained briefly silent, as they waded through water rapidly moving up to their shoulders. The horse snorted uneasily, not liking the push of the current against him, and the sledge he was dragging behind.
Mikah, she recalled, had joined the theatre group, and was one of their regular actors. To his credit, he’d established himself before Gabrielle had returned, but her acknowledgement of him had done him no harm either and he was popular with both the new towners and the old.
“Well.” She guided the horse towards the ford exit on the old town side of the river. “People lost a lot.”
Mikah looked behind them, then he quickly ducked under the surface of the water and came back up, shaking his head and running his free hand through his hair. Rid of the mud, it turned from stolid brown to blond, and he raked it from his eyes as he peered back at her.
Ephiny gave him a brief smile.
“I know about all that.” Mikah said. “I was there.. down there when the river flooded.” He plowed through the water at her side. “It was really scary. We were just outside, taking a break when we saw the bridge get swept away.”
“Mm.” They started up the bank to the old ford, once again the only way to cross the river. Ephiny remembered being on the far shore, watching Andreas’ army marching up that very ford, when the wall of water from upstream had rushed down and taken them by surprise.
Taken the Amazons by surprise as well, save her. Ephiny straightened a little. But not her. She’d been one of the painful few, who’d known the truth. “I didn’t see it.” She told Mikah. “Did you see Xena and Gabrielle go downriver?”
They trudged out of the water and onto the muddy ground, Ephiny guiding the horse carefully as his big hooves slipped and he snorted in alarm. “Easy, big guy.”
Mikah patted the horses’ shoulder. “They were talking bad about them.”
Ephiny glanced at him sharply. “Xena and Gabrielle?”
“Useless bastards.” The regent shook her head.
The young man nodded. “That’s what we figured too.. and you know, with us at the stage, we really like them.”
Ephiny’s eyes twinkled. “Especially Gabrielle?”
Mikah looked at her. “Well, some do.” He allowed, with a hint of a smile. “I kinda like Xena.” He said. “I got to see some of those stories first hand, so..”
“Me, too.” Ephiny led the horse over to where a staging area had been set up, to locate anything salvageable. She tied the horse to a makeshift hitching post and started unloading the sledge of it’s boxes. “Give me a hand here?”
“Sure.” Mikah willingly started grabbing the boxes. “You think they’re okay?”
Ephiny paused to look down the river, which at long last was starting to grudgingly return to it’s banks. “I think it would take more than a flood to take them down, is what I think.” She said. “I hope they’re okay. They’re both good friends.”
A woman passed by, with a basket. She glanced at the two of them, then kept walking, shaking her head a little.
Ephiny watched her from the corner of her eye, one eyebrow inching up. She waited for the woman to pass out of earshot, then she straightened up. “Wonder what her problem was.”
Mikah shaded his eyes and peered after the woman. “Oh.” He scratched his nose. “That’s Seallas… she thinks we’re all perverts.”
The regent stood right up, and put her hands on her hips. “Excuse me?”
The young man shrugged, assuming a relatively amiable expression. “You know the reputation us players have.. and you Amazons… mm.. wanton women.” On the last words, his voice dropped into a sultry drawl, and he waggled his eyebrows at her.
Ephiny abruptly remembered something Gabrielle had told her.. or rather, something the bard had hinted at way back when during the Athens disaster. “You’re not serious.” She laughed a little. “C’mon, they don’t’ believe those old wild naked Amazon stories, do they?”
Mikah studied her for second, then he chuckled softly. “You mean they’re not true?” He asked. “What a disappointment.”
The regent leaned on the sledge, a smirk crossing her face. “I didn’t say that.” She demurred. “Matter of fact, I know some naked Amazon stories I bet would scare the frilly little shoes off the likes of her.” She jerked her head in the direction the woman went in. “And I know you didn’t hear them from Gabrielle.”
The young man’s brows lifted a little. “Oh… yeah?”
Mikah chuckled, and shrugged. “Anyway.. she was one of the ones talking bad about them.. and her husband. I got in a fight with him.”
“Fight?” Ephiny paused in her box unloading and balled her fist, holding it up in question.
“Yeah. I lost.” The young man admitted with wry grace. “I’m not much of a fighter.. but I could have taken a risk once and I didn’t.. so I decided to try and make up for it this time.” He lifted the last of the crates off, and set it on the ground, then dusted his hands. “Okay.. now what?”
Ephiny unhooked the sledge from the horse’s back. “Now we take him back over.” She announced. “And pull your wagon out.” She glanced up at the sky, seeing the sun begin to take it’s downward pitch to evening. “Should be enough time to do that before it gets dark.”
Mikah joined her at the horses’ head and they turned him and started back across the ford. “It’s really nice of you to help us out.” He said. “We’ll have to make it up to you.”
Ephiny turned her head and regarded his profile. Then she headed into the water, a speculative grin on her face. All the thoughts and considerations she’d been pondering settled into her guts with a solid purpose, as she felt the coming together of timing, opportunity, and circumstance. “Hm.. yeah.” She remarked. “We Amazons never do anything for free.”
“Ah.” Mikah ducked under the water again, then surfaced and neatly stripped off his tunic. He sloshed along next to her, wringing the fabric off as he moved through the chest high water. “And we players always pay our debts.” He assured her. “So believe me..we’ll make it worth your while to give us a hand.”
Ephiny ducked her own head under, shaking it to rid herself of the mud. She kept one hand on the horse’s halter, as the big animal stolidly swam along pulling her. She came back up and wiped her eyes. “Oh, I bet you will.” She drawled, ducking under the horses neck to watch his reaction.
He smiled. “And here I thought you Amazons had no use for men.”
Gotcha. The regent grinned right back. “Oh, we’ve got uses for em.” She assured him. “If they’re pretty enough.” She went back to the business of getting across the ford, leaving Mikah to ponder what he might, or might not have gotten himself into.
While she pondered what she was definitely getting herself into. But you know, Ephiny…sometimes, she mused. Sometimes, you just had to get to the getting.
“Give me your hand.” Xena paused in mid-stream, the water up over her thighs. “It’s slippery here.” She waited for Gabrielle to grab hold and then moved forward cautiously, the fast racing water shoving hard against them.
Gabrielle leaned forward against the current, casting a brief, wary glance downstream at the frothing rapids and the dropoff she could see just in view. Craggy rocks rose on either side of them, compressing the water into a fast flowing, dangerous rush.
The crevasse had abruptly disrupted their path, leaving them little choice but to climb down into it, and cross the water, so they could keep going up the other side. “You know what, Xena?” Gabrielle felt the mossy rocks sliding under her boots and she kept her balance after a fierce struggle. “Usually, when we get into this stuff, it’s because we were asking for it.”
“Eh?” The warrior felt ahead with one boot. “It’s deeper here.” She warned. “What do you mean, asking for it?”
Gabrielle grimaced as the water covered her skirt and hit her stomach, the icy flow making her muscles tighten up in reflex, making her already unhappy guts grumble all the more. “You know me.” She said, after a long sigh. “I’m always saying something like.. ‘gee, it’s so quiet here, Xena!’ and then bam, sixteen long hair punks are coming at us with whips and chains.”
Xena forged ahead for a few steps. “I don’t remember that ever happening.” She disagreed. “Did I miss that?”
Sometimes her partners literal nature still surprised Gabrielle. “No… I was being facetious.” She lurched forwards and almost went to her knees in the water, saved when Xena shifted her grip and kept her upright. “I mean, we’ll do something like complain about how beautiful the weather is, and then rains buckets on us.. like tempting the fates.”
“Oh.” Xena reached out and clutched a rock mid stream, pulling herself along using it’s bulk to break the flow of the water. “Sure. Whatever you say.”
Gabrielle decided her train of thought was best left abandoned, and she concentrated instead on staying upright. It took less effort that way, and she wasn’t really up to arguing anyway. It was possible, she considered, that Xena felt the same way and didn’t want idle chatter either.
Anyway. The bard swallowed, and licked her lips, wishing again they had a skin to take some of the damn water with them.
Xena paused as they both came even with the rock, and took a second to look ahead of them. The water ran right up to the opposite wall, and there was no easy way out of it except to climb the sharp crags and unstable looking boulders. She sighed and leaned against the rock. “Damn it.”
“What?” Gabrielle scooped up a mouthful of water and drank it. “Tell me something else is going wrong now.”
Xena turned her head and raised an eyebrow at her. “Would you rather I didn’t tell you?”
“I’d rather be dry and at home in my rocking chair near the fire.” The bard replied. “That tell you anything?” But she relaxed her body posture and bumped her partner with one shoulder, refusing to let the crankiness get the better of her. “We’re gonna have to climb that, aren’t we?”
“Mmhm.” Xena turned and started into the current again. “I’m not looking forward to it either, just for the record.” She hit a rock with one foot and it turned, sending her sprawling into the water. “Son of a..”
Gabrielle lurched forward as well, grabbing hold of the back of the warrior’s skin shirt with scrabbling fingers. “Hey!” She tried to pull Xena back up, but the fast flow of the water and her partner’s larger size defeated her, and she found herself losing her balance as well. “Yow!”
Xena half turned in mid fall and put a hand out to grab Gabrielle, and that was their undoing as they both toppled into the fierce flow and were taken by it.
“Damnit!” The warrior twisted and tried to get her feet under her, but the current was too fast and all she could do was get her head above water and work to make sure Gabrielle did the same. “Hang on to me!”
Gabrielle didn’t waste breath or strength on answering. She already had her fingers clenched in her partner’s clothing, and she was busy resisting the swirling water’s tendency to shove her head under the surface.
Rocks banged against her legs, and then her shoulders, and then they were in the white water and it was all she could do to grab some breaths between surges of water that alternately sucked her under and threw her up into the light.
She felt Xena grab her by the shoulders, and the next thing she knew the warrior snagged her around the waist and half lifted her up, allowing her to shake her head clear of the water and take a few needed deep breaths.
The rocks were flying by. She raised one hand to protect her face, then rolled onto her side as Xena surfaced next to her. “Augh.”
“Keep your head up!” The warrior yelled.
“I’m trying!” Gabrielle yelled back, padding with her free hand. “What are we going to do!!??”
Xena searched the rapids ahead of them for a place to grab hold and get out. She shoved her feet down, but the water had perversely deepened and she couldn’t touch bottom. She looked around for anything that might float and help them, but found the water clear of debris as it poured forward towards the dropoff.
She could see past the dropoff, and see the stream continuing on, so the drop wasn’t the drastic kind they’d fallen down initially but.. Damn it. Xena felt the frustration of the whole thing rise up and make her want to scream.
Xena turned her head. “I DON”T KNOW.” She bellowed, her temper snapping. “DAMN IT!”
Gabrielle blinked at her.
Damn it. Xena felt a whirlpool grab them and she reached for Gabrielle as the current sucked her under and they both tangled arms and legs in the relentless grip of the stream. She opened her eyes under the water and saw nothing but darkness below them, then as the urge to breathe clamped around her throat she frog kicked for the surface, one arm curled around the bard.
It was hard to break the hold of the water. It wanted to grab her, and toss her back down into it’s depths, with an almost malevolence she could feel clutching her.
Gabrielle seemed to sense it. She started kicking as well, , somehow keeping her legs clear of Xena’s as they struggled together towards the surface.
Xena saw a rock just under them, and she got a boot on it, kicking forward and sending them both out of the whirlpool and back into the current. An errant surge picked them up and half ejected them out of the water, and they gasped hoarsely as the air hit their faces.
The possibility of drowning seemed very real. Xena felt, for one of the few times in her life, a surge of panic take hold of her as she fought against the uncaring force of the water.
Her chances would be greater, she realized, if she let go of Gabrielle and used both arms.
“Xena!” Gabrielle grabbed hold of her arm. “We’re going over!”
Again. Xena got a mouthful of water and almost choked on it, as she turned her head to see the approaching falls. There was nothing in their path she could grab hold of, nothing to stop them nothing to.. “Just hang on.” She managed cough out. “Don’t let go of me.”
Gabrielle heard the note of exhaustion in her partner’s voice, and she tightened her hold. “I got you!” She shouted, just as the surge of the water picked them up and took them over the edge of the drop. She stared down, in horrified fascination as they seemed to hang in the air for a moment, then they dropped down a racing slope, the force of the water tumbling and tossing them around as it tried to rip them apart.
The sensation of falling was terrifying. The only thing that allowed Gabrielle to retain her sanity was the desperate need to keep hold of her partner, and not let the water drive them apart.
Not let anything drive them apart. Gabrielle bore down and clenched her hands, as she felt Xena curl around in mid fall and take hold of her as they fell, grabbing gasps of air when they could. She closed her eyes as she felt the bottom coming up, hearing the thunder of the water all around her.
All around them.
She could hear the thunder of her own heart over it, going past fear to a place where she just wanted it to be over.
They hit the water at the bottom and went under, tumbling out of control and almost losing their grip on each other as the waterfall drove down on top of them and forced them deep underwater.
It was sense numbing, the roar and the thunder and the pummeling, and it took everything Xena had to remember to kick off against the bottom and fight towards the sunlight.
It was like her life, in a way. The thought popped into her mind, as her body came close to failing her, exhausted from fighting the water just as she had been exhausted from fighting the darkness once upon a time.
She was just so tired.
Gabrielle’s head broke the surface and she sucked in a huge lungful of air, seeing dark streaks against the back of her eyeballs from the pressure of holding her breath as long as she had. She rolled over and pulled Xena up with her, watching anxiously until the warrior’s head popped up and she was meeting a dazed, pale blue pair of eyes. “Xena.”
The warrior turned her head and looked back, to see the relatively low waterfall thundering behind them. Then she turned again to look around, as they floated in a now mostly peaceful lake whose far end sloped to a sandy beach, promising an easy spot to climb out. “Well.” She reached up and pushed the wet hair from her eyes. “Beats climbing those rocks.”
Gabrielle treaded water next to her, looking shaken and exhausted. “I think I’m going to lose it.” She rasped, blinking visible tears from her eyes.
Xena looked at her for a long moment. “Me too.” She admitted, in a small voice.
A small silence settled as they stared at each other. Then Gabrielle sniffled, and reached up to rub her eyes. “Let’s go over there and get out.” She said. “And take it from there.”
“Yeah.” Xena exhaled. “Good idea.”
Slowly, they swam together across the surface of the lake, it’s placid surface ruffled by the cool breeze. Reaching the shallows, they stood and waded out onto the beach, to collapse on the sand, side by side in the sunlight.
Xena rested her elbows on her knees, and lowered her head into her hands.
Gabrielle sat absorbing the warmth long enough to stop shaking, before she lifted one hand off her thigh and let it rest on Xena’s leg instead.
She tried to come up with something to say, but her mind was just blank. She pressed her cheek against Xena’s shoulder in lieu of that, the chaotic discord she could feel through their link coming close to making her physically sick.
If the creatures came on them now, she didn’t know what would happen.
She closed her eyes.
The sun edged a little further towards the west, painting the silent pair in gold as a curious peace settled on the small valley. Overhead, a hawk circled, tipping it’s wings lazily as it hunted, finding nothing on the surface of the lake save wind ruffled wavelets on the surface.
In the bushes on the lakefront, a bird began to sing, yodeling softly as the breeze rustled the branches it sat on, the leaves twisting to reveal flashes of it’s red feathers.
Xena finally felt her heartbeat start to slow down, and she blinked, seeing damp sand as she looked past her fingers. The pale grains were plastered all over her legs, and from the corner of her eye she could see Gabrielle’s boot extended just past hers.
Inside, she was still shaking. She could feel the twitching along her forearms and she knew if she lowered her hands they’d shiver like leaves in the wind.
What in the Hades had just happened to her? The warrior swallowed, grimacing at the sick churning in her guts. She could feel Gabrielle leaning quietly against her, and she was half afraid to look, wondering what the bard was thinking.
Even after all these years, she knew how much her partner depended on her. Damn, for all those years and more, she’d depended on herself. Falling apart hadn’t been in her plans today. Or ever for that matter. So what the Hades was she supposed to say to her?
Gabrielle’s fingers moved lightly across the skin of her thigh, an absent, comforting gesture. “Xe?”
Xena straightened up, letting her hands drop to her knees as she turned her head towards her partner. “Ugh.” She sighed softly.
Gabrielle looked up at her, lips tensing slightly. “Ugh?”
They both looked away, then Xena’s eyes dropped to the sand. She turned over her hands and looked at the palms, which were scuffed and bruised from her attempts to stop them from going over the falls. She glanced at the water, and suddenly felt that the last thing she ever wanted to do ever again in her life was go into it. “Know something?”
“I’ve been facing death since I was fifteen years old.” Xena spoke quietly. “But I’ve never felt so much like crawling under a rock as I do right now.” She cradled her head in her hands again. “Damn this place.”
Gabrielle exhaled softly. She put her arm around her partner and simply hugged her, unsure of what else she could do to comfort Xena. “I know what you mean, sweetheart.”
The bard held up one hand, and they both watched it shake. “The thought of those guys chasing after us, and catching up to us again is making me sick.” She replied in a quiet tone. “I don’t know what to do.”
Xena shifted, closing her hands and resting her head against her fists instead. “Me either.”
Gabrielle looked across the lake, which in any other time of her life would have seemed pretty, and now only seemed hateful. “You know what I wish?”
“I wish you had your sword.”
Xena turned her head, to watch the bard’s profile.
“I wish you had that, and the chakram, and that wagon of damned Greek fire.” Gabrielle whispered. “If I thought you’d do it I’d ask you to call in a favor from Ares and just get us out of here.” She slumped against the warrior, closing her eyes. “I just want to go home.”
Xena felt her breath grow short again, this time for a completely different reason. “Are you serious?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle blinked, and felt exhausted tears run down her face. “Xena, we’re never going to get out of here. I can’t climb those walls and you know it. I don’t even know if you can…and not with those damn things after us, and the rain, and this blasted water..”
“Yeah.” The warrior extended her boots out. “That’s how I feel too.” She admitted. “I feel like we’re running and running and running and getting nowhere.” She sighed heavily. “I’m so damn tired.”
Gabrielle draped her arm over her partner’s legs. “So am I.” She rested her head against the warrior’s shoulder. “My soul’s tired. Everything’s tired”
Xena exhaled, leaning her head against her partner’s. “Yeah.”
The bard remained silent for a moment, then she curled her fingers around Xena’s arm. “You know what elese?”
Gabrielle drew in a shaky breath. “If I am pregnant, I’m probably going to lose this baby from all this.. it only took a stupid wrestling match with Menelda last time.”
Xena stopped breathing entirely for a long moment. Then she looked at her partner.
“Like that’s even going to matter if we don’t make it out.” Gabrielle whispered, giving her head a little shake. “Gods. Poor Dori.. I promised her…” She fell silent, biting the inside of her lip. “Oh, Xena.”
Xena felt her heart skip at the words, but they also moved her thoughts from her own inner chaos to her partner’s, an effect Gabrielle had always had on her, even from the very beginning. “Hey.” She put her arms around the bard. “We’re not dead yet.”
Gabrielle buried her face into Xena’s shoulder, her body jerking. The warrior gathered her up and hugged her, rocking them both a little in the soft sand. “Hey.” She murmured into the bard’s ear. “Easy.”
Gabrielle sniffled, exhaustion making her eyes flutter. . “Can I ask you something?’ She asked, hoarsely.
“Sure.” Xena sniffled a little herself.
“Remember when you were hurt.. that time.” The bard said. “And you said.. dying was almost a relief for you because you were so tired?’
Unexpectedly, it triggered real tears. “Yeah.” Xena uttered, clamping her jaw shut after that.
“Did that kind of tired feel like this?”
The warrior’s throat tightened, and for a very long moment answering was out of the question. She remembered that moment, that dark surrender. That giving in to the inevitability of life after such a long period of fighting so hard against it.
She remembered the flames.
She remembered Gabrielle’s soul screaming. “No.” She finally muttered. “It’s not like this at all.”
The bard exhaled.
“I didn’t have any clue I had anything to live for.” Xena cleared her throat, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes. “I can’t say that now.”
Gabrielle half turned towards her and huddled close, putting her arms around the warrior and simply holding onto her. “I felt like that once.” She said, falling silent after that for a few moments. “You’re right. We can’t say that now.”
Xena rested her cheek against the bard’s damp hair. Her head hurt, and she suspected Gabrielle’s did also, and she figured both of them were probably hungry as well as exhausted. She knew she was, at least. Her eyes dropped to her partner’s face, and she saw tears there, tracking down through the soft down on Gabrielle’s cheek and through the traces of mud smeared across her jaw.
She reached down and gently brushed the droplets away, feeling the skin under her fingers tense just slightly. There were dark circles under the bard’s eyes and there was something in her very body posture that made Xena hurt for her. “Gabrielle?”
The bard didn’t stir. “Yeah?” She muttered, a dour tone coloring her voice as it very seldom did.
The warrior gazed out across the water, then dropped her eyes to the pale head tucked under her chin. “I love you.”
After a very quiet moment, Gabrielle shifted, turning around so she could look up at Xena. She let her head rest against the warrior’s arm as she studied her face in pensive silence.
Then a small, wry smile appeared and her eyes gained a faint twinkle. “You know..that’s about the only thing you could have possibly said to me that could have made me even think about smiling.” Gabrielle said.
Xena’s lips twitched. “Hey.. after all these years, I gotta know a little about what does that, huh?”
It seemed to be the right thing to say again, because Gabrielle’s expressive face relaxed visibly, and a gentle warmth entered her eyes. “Yeah.”
The warrior studied her. “You okay?”
Gabrielle felt so drained, it was hard to do anything but simply look up at the angular, disheveled figure cradling her and find some kind of peace in the knowledge that at the very least, they were in Hades here together. “I’m scared.” She studied the bloodshot blue eyes looking back at her. “I’m scared we’ll lose everything here, Xe.”
The warrior nodded slightly.
Gabrielle lifted a hand up to touch her partner’s cheek. “I don’t want to.”
“Me either.” Xena leaned her head into the touch. “Let’s get some water.. get ourselves together. Figure out what we’re gonna do.”
“I’d rather just stay here.” The bard replied honestly, letting her hand fall down to rest on Xena’s chest. “I just can’t keep going right now.”
The sense of relief almost shocked her. Xena felt guilty, that she was letting Gabrielle’s needs cover her own real desire, making the bard ask for something Xena really should have just offered her. She let her eyes lift and meet her partner’s. “Honestly.. me either.”
One blond eyebrow lifted slightly.
“Gabrielle, you know me better by now, doncha?”
With a faint smile, the bard snuggled close again, giving Xena a comforting pat on her side.
Xena eased back against the warm sand, letting the soft surface cradle her head and take some of the strain off her neck. Her headache, made worse from the emotion stress she’d just gone through was now throbbing so hard it was making her eyes water, and she figured a few minutes just resting where they were was just what she needed.
She wasn’t even sure she cared where the creatures were, or if they were right behind them.
Gabrielle shifted, squirming around until she was snuggled up against Xena’s right side, where she almost never laid in deference to her partner’s sword arm. She put her head down on Xena’s shoulder and relaxed in the warm sand as well, trading off the knowledge the grains would get into uncomfortable places for the relative comfort of the soft surface.
The sun splashed down on them with grudging benevolence, and the breeze gentled, brushing over them with a touch of warmth that promised summer sometime in the future.
Xena looked up at the clouds moving over them, and let her mind go blank. She’d only been chasing herself around in circles anyway. They had very few options, and she knew Gabrielle knew that. So what was the point in going over and over them?
She really didn’t know where they were going to go from here.
Gabrielle had her eyes closed, listening to the birds singing all around them. Though she was tired, sleep had escaped her and she’d spent her time just lying in Xena’s arms and allowing the peace of their surroundings to soak in.
The birds sounded so pretty. Gabrielle opened one eye as she heard a sweet song very nearby and was rewarded by a beautiful blue and green bird landing on a rock not an arms length away. It sat there, head cocking at her as it sang, it’s beak pointed skyward.
After being beaten up by nature for so long, it was odd to find herself charmed by it. Gabrielle hiked up her leg and lifted her arm, resting her elbow on her knee and extending her hand towards the bird. She watched it study her briefly, then smiled as it flitted over and landed on her hand, it’s claws lightly pricking her skin.
“Hi there.” The bard murmured. “Aren’t you a pretty boy?”
The bird chirped at her, edging up her hand and watching he with a sharp, round eye.
“Want to lend me your wings?” Gabrielle asked it. “I’ll give em back, honest. I just want to use them for..oh,… a candlemark? Just to get home? What do you say?”
The bird hopped off her hand and onto Xena’s arm. It nibbled a bit of the fine hair on the warrior’s skin, then took off, spreading it’s wings and soaring over to a nearby tree. Gabrielle watched it go, and then she turned her head to look up at her partner.
As she expected, Xena was awake, her eyes filled with shadows as she gazed somberly back at the bard. “Feeling any better?” She asked her. “I know you didn’t sleep much.”
Xena exhaled, and then shrugged one shoulder. “Thinking too much.” There was, however a certain tension missing from her face, and the bard knew if she smiled, she’d probably get one back.
She smiled. Xena’s face crinkled briefly into returning grin, and then they both shifted at the same time, snuggling closer to each other in an almost humorous unison. “How about you?” Xena asked. “Didn’t catch you sleeping either.”
“Eh.” Gabrielle did feel better. Not because their situation had gotten any less horrible, but because she’d had a chance to sit down and rest, and just…well, think about things. They’d been running, or sleeping, or fighting or half drowning for so long she’d almost forgotten what it felt like to just sit still and ponder for a little while. “I’m not as freaked out.”
“I think we should make a fire and get something to eat.” Xena commented. “What do you think?”
“Do you seriously think I’m going to object to either of those ideas?” Gabrielle inquired. “How’s your head?” She stroked Xena’s forehead with her fingertips, watching the pale blue eyes track the motion of her hand.
“Mixed up.” The warrior readily admitted. “But I’m hungry, so we gotta do something.”
Gabrielle leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the lips. “Okay.” She said. “That sounds about right. I can’t just keep laying around here.”
“Mm.” Xena picked up a handful of sand, and watched it trickle out through her fingers. “Me either. I guess.” She tipped her head back and looked up at the sky. “Much as I want to rest, I can’t.”
Gabrielle gave her a gentle hug. “Let’s go do what we do.” She said. “And see where it gets us.”
They got up, brushing the sand off each other as the sunlight turned a burnished gold and painted them with fire. Gabrielle ran her hands through her hair and grimaced at the tangles, then she shrugged and gave it up. “I’ll make the fire, if you want to grab us a fish.”
“Okay.” Xena untied the belt on her catskin and removed it, shaking it out vigorously before she draped it over a tree branch. Then she removed her makeshift boots and dropped them before she trudged towards the lake, head a little down.
Gabrielle watched her, a knot of worry tightening in her guts as she took in the warrior’s posture. Then she sighed, and started collecting firewood, using the dried bits tossed up on the lake’s edge as she built a reasonable size fire and worked on starting it.
Halfway through packing the tinder, she paused and smiled faintly, remembering the day when Xena had finally allowed her to perform this all important task, after she’d begged and begged for weeks to do it. She’d been so nervous she almost burned herself twice, but in the end, she’d managed to produce a workable result, and earned herself Xena’s grin of approval.
Gods, that had felt so good. Gabrielle shook her head and clucked her tongue under her breath. “What a goofball I was.” She expertly sent a few sparks into the tinder, watching alertly as they caught in the dead pine needles she’d stuffed at the bottom of the branches.
At least they’d chilled out long enough for her striker and flint to dry. Gabrielle raked her hair back, blowing gently on the smoulder her sparks had started. The scent of the burning tinder tickled her nose, and she rubbed her face with the back of her hand, stifling a sneeze.
This would definitely be no time to get sick. The bard shook her head slightly, wondering how they’d avoided it until now with all the drenching and the exhaustion she knew was now taking it’s toll on them.
She cupped her hands around the tiny fire, and blew on it again, feeling the warmth reach her skin as it caught and grew. Well.. at least she was concentrating on something productive, like Xena was – and wasn’t that what the warrior had taught her all those years ago? Fix what you can fix, and worry about the rest later.
She heard a splash, and then a second, and when she looked up at the lake she was rewarded by the sight of Xena wading back out towards her, a squiggling fish clamped in either hand. The sun sparkled off the water droplets on her mostly bare skin and Gabrielle took a moment to properly appreciate the view.
Xena seemed oblivious to it all. She walked over and sat down on a rock near the fire, glancing at her burden. “Figured this’ll do us for now.” She commented briefly.
Gabrielle fed her nascent fire with some twigs. “Yeah.. of course, I really want a huge pot of your mother’s stew, but I guess a couple of old fish’ll hold us.”
The warrior cocked her head a little, a wryly uncertain look on her face. “Listen.” She studied the sand. “You want me to go ask Ares?”
“No.” Gabrielle answered automatically. Then she looked up. “Yeah.” She exhaled. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I want, except I want to be out of here.” She sat down next to the fire and fed it a few more branches. “I could.. I could try asking Aphrodite, I guess.”
Xena slid off her rock and sat down next to Gabrielle, leaving the fish on top of the rock. She put a few branches into the fire, her expression pensive. “I guess.” She agreed slowly. “Better her than him.”
Gabrielle knew that was true. She also knew asking the gods for help went against all her instincts, and most of her experience. “I don’ t know.. it’s so hypocritical.” She admitted. “Do I even really believe in them, Xena? Last time I prayed to any of them you’re the one who answered my prayers.”
Xena went very still. “When was this?”
“In the cave. With Elevown.” Gabrielle answered, keeping her eyes on the fire. “Got down on my knees and asked them to keep you safe.” A tiny laugh was forced from her. “Pretty selfish when I think about it. I know you wouldn’t have wanted that.”
The warrior thought about that for several minutes, watching the fire grow as the sun started to go down. “You were scared.” She said, at last.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle sighed. “I was.” She looked over at her partner. “But the more I thought about it afterward.. I think I realized the reason I don’t believe in the gods much anymore is because of you.”
Xena’s brows contracted. “Because I don’t?”
Gabrielle held her hands out to the fire. “Because you are what you are.”
The silence that fell after that was so profound, Gabrielle could hear her own heart beating in it. She could feel a sense of shock coming through the link she had with Xena and it took a lot of inner fortitude for her to turn her head and look at her partner.
She’d never said that to Xena before. They’d never discussed it, even after it had become clear to them both where Dori had come from. She knew Xena hated the idea of being anything other than just as human as everyone else was but she also knew that.. well… Xena wasn’t like everyone else. “I know you’re not into hearing that.” She murmured, apologetically as she saw the stunned expression on her partner’s face. “Sorry.”
Xena got up and walked off, heading into the trees and disappearing without a word.
“Whoops.” Gabrielle mentally slapped herself. “After all this time you still can’t keep your mouth shut, can you Gabrielle?” She got up and retrieved the fish, taking out her little knife and cutting them open. “Why did I do that?” She wondered. “I know how she feels about that whole subject.”
She neatly filleted the fish, setting the bones aside for other uses and carrying the flesh over to the flat rock she’d build the fire around. She set the fish on the rock and sat down next to it, hoping the smell of it cooking would draw her partner back over.
She watched it cook, her arms clasped around her knees.
“Are you saying you think I should be getting us out of here?” Xena’s voice suddenly erupted from the shadows behind her, tinged with anger. “Is that what that’s all about?”
Gabrielle felt the chill in the tone, and she closed her eyes in pure reflex. “No.” She answered softly. “It just came out. I didn’t mean anything by that.” She turned and looked at Xena. “You really think that’s what I think?”
Xena didn’t answer. She was standing behind the rock, her hands on her hips, anger in every line of her body.
“Maybe it’s what you think.” Gabrielle figured she might as well go all the way out on the limb, since she was halfway there already. “Maybe that’s why you’re so freaked out.”
“I’m not freaked out.”
“Honey.” Gabrielle injected as much love into her voice as she was capable of. “You said you were, remember?” She got up and walked over, her heart in her throat until she was sure Xena wasn’t going to turn her back on her.
It had that feeling, that kind of anger she saw in Xena’s eyes. That kind of cold intent that had formed the wedge between them the last time. “Xena.” She stopped and reached out, touching the warrior’s bare stomach hesitantly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”
“Why not?” The blue eyes glared at her. “It’s true, isn’t it? Didn’t we decide not to lie to each other anymore?”
Gabrielle felt tears stinging her eyes, and her throat closed up, as fear grabbed her without warning. She stared mutely at her partner, her hands suddenly feeling like ice as they trembled lightly against the warm surface they were touching.
Their eyes locked.
In the coming twilight, an animal roared. The sound broke the stillness, and Xena shifted, leaning in towards Gabrielle and reaching up to clasp her head between both hands. “Gabrielle.”
“I.. I’m.. ssssorry.” The bard stuttered softly. “Please don’t b..be mad at me.”
Xena pulled her close and hugged her. “I’m not.” She admitted. “You’re right. I’m mad at me.” She muttered, letting out a frustrated breath. “I’ve been listening to too many of your damn stories.”
Gabrielle was pretty sure her knees were going to give out, so she encircled Xena with both her arms and held on tight. They were both so fractured at the moment, every little thing smacked against them with unusual force and the last thing they needed to do was start fighting again with each other.
The last thing.
Another roar, this time closer. Xena rubbed Gabrielle’s back gently. “We should get the fire built up.”
“We staying here for now?” Gabrielle whispered. “Until the morning?”
“Yeah.” Xena said. “There’s a path out.. down between two ridges.. I just tripped over it while I was out there sulking.” She glanced at the fire, feeling a certain sense of equilibrium returning to her.
“You weren’t sulking.” The bard mumbled. “You were right to be pissed off.”
Was she? Xena watched the golden red sunset turn the surface of the lake to a glassy crimson. “No.” She took a deep breath, and released it. “It’s the truth, and we both know it. I just wish it was more damn useful at the moment.” She hugged the bard again. “It’s all right.”
Gabrielle hugged her back, as she watched the sunlight start to fade. What would the night hold, she wondered. Healing for them?
Or just more horror.