One Wild Ride
Xena wrapped her arms around her knees, her eyes watching Gabrielle’s face through the flames of their fire. It was dark out now, but the sky was clear over their heads and the stars twinkled crisply in the depths of it.
The bard was leaning back against a bit of trunk Xena had dragged over to their camp, using the firelight to fix the upper part of one of Xena’s boots. Her eyes were intent on her task, her fingers skilled with the bone needle and length of gut they’d salvaged from the bottom of their pack.
It had been a quiet dinner, both of them with their attention turned inwards as they sat side by side near the warmth of the flames. But the quiet had been one of reflection and not anger, and Xena found herself grateful for that.
She was tired. They both were. The camp was relatively unsafe, and there was nothing close by that she could reasonably move them into. The yowling animal had moved off, but she was sure there were others out there, and always, she listened for the creatures who posed a far greater danger than random hunting predators.
“Xe?” Gabrielle’s voice unexpectedly broke the stillness.
Xena jumped, a little, and leaned forward. “Yeah?”
“Do me a favor?”
Xena cleared her throat. “Sure.”
Gabrielle paused in her needlework. “C’mover here.”
The warrior got up and walked around the fire, settling down next to Gabrielle. “What’s up?”
The bard squirmed closer to her and pressed her shoulder against her partners. “I was cold.” She admitted. “And… I just don’t want us messing with each other right now.” She went back to her task, blinking a little as an errant draft brought the smoke from the fire over them.
“Messing?” Xena curled her arm around Gabrielle, feeling the chill of her bare skin as she let her hand rest against the bard’s thigh. “You are cold.” She observed. “Want me to kick the fire up a little?”
“Nah.” The bard rubbed her cheek against Xena’s shoulder. “You’re enough.”
Xena smiled, and gave the blond head resting against her a kiss. “Still upset?” She ventured to ask. “You’ve got that scrunched look on your face.”
“Tired, I think.” Gabrielle answered. “This place is pounding the spunk out of me.” She let the thread and needle rest on her leg, as her body relaxed against Xena’s. “I don’t think we’ve ever been in a place like this before, where everything seems to be working against us all the time.”
Xena listened to the tone of the words more than the text of them, hearing the soft rasp in Gabrielle’s voice, a huskiness that usually only appeared when the bard was, truly, nearing exhaustion or had been telling stories for hours.
“Shh.” The warrior rubbed her back lightly. “Just leave it, hon.”
Gabrielle fell silent, a faint smile now tugging at her lips. “I will if you will.” She elbowed Xena very gently in the ribs.
“Erm.” Xena cleared her throat, tacitly acknowledging the accuracy of the comment. She spent a few minutes just watching the flames, allowing the gentle dance to relax her as Gabrielle went back to sewing on her sadly tattered boot.
In the lake nearby, fish were jumping. Xena could hear the splash as they broke the surface, then she listened as the whirr of wings flashed by them. An owl, maybe, or other night hunter attracted by the idea of a fresh dinner as they had been earlier.
She could hear the peep of an infant bird somewhere, nearby.
The normality of the sounds comforted her. After spending so many days offbalance, it felt good to be in a space where her senses felt more at home. She tipped her head back and regarded the stars as they twinkled solemnly at her, the familiar patterns visible as she scanned the sky.
She knew those same stars were covering their home, and if they were there, she could step outside their porch and look up at them, maybe even with Dori in her arms since the child had started noticing the pretty lights overhead.
Wasn’t long, she figured, before they could start playing the pattern game, just as she and Gabrielle had all those years ago. What shapes would Dori see, she pondered a moment. Bugs, probably. Xena exhaled and dropped her eyes, letting her chin rest on Gabrielle’s head.
Bugs, and pretty rocks, and animals. She could almost hear that piping little voice finding them, and as the thought crossed her mind, the determination to make it reality erupted inside her. It pushed back the uncertainty a bit, and gently nudged her thoughts from a quiet despair to something more productive.
Gabrielle finished her sewing project and held it up. “What do you think?”
Xena lifted one hand and took hold of the boot, turning it to the firelight as she examined it. The bard had patched up two holes, and closed a gap on the bottom, and if not dashing, the footwear was at least whole again. “Nice.” She announced. “Good job.”
Gabrielle slid the bone needle through a fold in her skirt and shook the boot out. “Give me your leg.”
Xena extended her bare foot and watched as her partner put the boot on and tied the gut laces to hold it in place. She wiggled her toes inside the hide and smiled as Gabrielle tweaked them. “Thanks.”
“Anytime.” Gabrielle patted her leg, then let her hand rest on Xena’s thigh, her thumb stroking the skin there in absent affection. “Wish all our problems were fixed so easily.” She looked up, studying Xena’s face with a somber expression on her own. “What’s next for us, Xe?”
What’s next? Xena laid one hand over her partner’s. “What’s next is, we take it one step at a time.” She said. “No more plans. We do it like we used to.. just make choices as we go.”
Gabrielle considered that in silence for a bit. “We used to do that?” She finally queried, looking up in some puzzlement.
Xena took a breath to answer, then she paused and scratched her jaw in an almost sheepish gesture. “Well, I used to.” She admitted. “I don’t think I ever told you that.”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose. “No plan?”
“You just let me think there was one, didn’t you?”
Xena paused, then nodded. “Yeah.” She agreed. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.” She added. “Better than letting you think we were both lost somewhere and clueless.”
The bard merely looked at her for a long, unblinking minute before she suddenly started laughing. She leaned against Xena helplessly, holding her stomach as she nearly convulsed.
“Uhm.” Xena looked around, as the sound echoed over the lake.
“Bwahahahah…. Oh gods.” Gabrielle continued laughing, barely able to speak. “You fraud!!!”
Paradoxally, the words made Xena smile, and she started chuckling right along with her partner. “Hey, you bought it, you little punk.” She reminded her. “What the Hades was I supposed to say when you said ‘gee Xena, what are we gonna do now?’” She asked. “Beats me, Gab? Let’s toss a dinar? Whatcha in the mood for this time?”
Gabrielle laughed even harder, collapsing into Xena’s lap and rolling over onto her back to face the sky. “I’d have rolled over and passed out.” She said.
“Or run screaming.” Xena demurred.
“You said I never screamed.”
The warrior rolled her eyes. “Details. Details.” She laid her arm over Gabrielle’s abdomen. “Of course I told you I knew what I was doing. Think I wanted you to leave me?”
Gabrielle’s chuckles faded and they looked at each other in a suddenly lengthening silence. Finally, the bard lifted her hand and gently laid it along Xena’s cheek. “All those years, I wish I’d known how two sided that fear was.”
Xena’s eyes dropped momentarily, then lifted again, their pale depths collecting the flames from the fire. “Likewise.”
Gabrielle didn’t move her hand. “Xena.” She hesitated. “If we don’t make it out of here..” She caught Xena’s hand as it moved to cover her lips. “Listen to me.” She waited, watching storm clouds enter her partner’s eyes but loving her anyway. “If we don’t make it out of here, I want you to know something.”
“If we don’t make it out of here, my knowing anything’s a moot point.” Xena replied, shortly.
“Xena.” The bard gentled her voice. “No matter how short my life’s been, I’ve seen more… done more.. felt more.. than any dozen other people.” She waited, but Xena merely looked at her. “I have no regrets. There’s nothing I could look to and say… ‘boy, wish I’d done that.” A breath. “I’ve done it all, and I’ve done it with you.”
Xena swallowed audibly.
“So.. I’m okay with this.” Gabrielle finished, in a soft voice. “I’m all right.”
Gently, the warrior took Gabrielle’s face between her hands and lowered her head, so they were almost eyeball to eyeball. “I am NOT.” She enunciated clearly. “All right with this.”
Gabrielle blinked in surprise.
“I do NOT want my life to end here, no matter how entertaining I’ve made yours.” Xena’s tone gentled, to ease the harshness of the words. “I missed out watching my son grow up.. damned if I’m going to give up watching my daughter.”
The bard’s jaw dropped a little, her eyes widening.
“And you shouldn’t either.” Xena leaned forward and kissed her gently on the lips. “So can the eulogies, my love. We’re going home.”
Gabrielle really wasn’t sure if she should feel ashamed, or relieved. Unable to decide, she settled on simple surrender, laying her trust into Xena’s hands with no regret. “I love you.” She whispered. “I’m with you.” She laced her fingers behind Xena’s neck and returned the kiss. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Xena pulled her head back just enough to make eye contact. “I understand what you’re saying, Gabrielle. I’m just not ready to give this life up yet.” She watched intently as the green eyes meeting hers warmed and softened. “Besides… we can do anything, you and I.”
Gabrielle’s face relaxed into a grin. “I think that may be the nicest thing you ever said to me.” She shifted and glanced past Xena’s shoulder, her eyes tracking something, as her lips moved silently.
“What?” Xena resisted the urge to turn around and look.
“Shooting star.” The bard supplied. “And that sucker got a whopper of a wish to take with it.”
“Ah.” Xena relaxed, and returned her attention back to those gentle eyes, now fastened on her face. It evoked in her a rising passion, as her heart reached out to Gabrielle’s and she cradled the bard in her arms. They had been on a rough road, this last little while, the two of them.
Sometimes it paid to concentrate on the little things, when the big things got out of hand.
Gabrielle’s eyelashes fluttered closed as she pulled Xena’s head down again and their lips met. She could taste the faintest hint of mint as she explored, her fingers stroking the warrior’s face and feeling the subtle shift of her jaw muscles as she moved.
The bones felt stark, and very close to the surface to her. Gabrielle opened her eyes a little, letting her vision confirm what her touch had discovered and she gently smoothed her thumb over the angular planes as Xena’s gazed dipped to hers.
Those eyes. Gabrielle felt herself get lost in them, and she pulled herself up to indulge in another kiss, her body already pressing itself closer to Xena’s as a familiar tingle started in her guts. The warriors touch slowly slid down her side and across her hip, easing her skirt up and causing her breath to catch.
The breeze brushed across her skin, now almost feeling good as Xena’s fingertips trailed heat across her inner thigh, a slow, almost teasing motion that set her heart to pounding. She plucked at the belt holding Xena’s fur garment on, pulling it free as Xena shifted and they slid togther and she felt the slightly scratchy deer hide under her shoulderblades.
She could see the stars outlined around Xena’s body, and just before the warrior’s lips started moving down her breast, she spotted another shooting star streaking through the pattern of the Warrior, right overhead.
Now.. was that an omen, or what?
Gabrielle settled her staff end down between two rocks and used it to keep her balance as she balanced along the top of one of them, stepping down onto the ground as she walked along in Xena’s shadow.
It was noon, near as she could reckon, and they’d been on the move since dawn after availing themselves of a few more fish, and a nest of waterfowl eggs just laid that Xena had almost stepped on coming up from the lake.
Given everything, she felt pretty good, better than Xena did probably since she’d at least gotten some sleep curled up in the warrior’s arms all night. Totally unfair, Gabrielle readily acknowledged, but Xena insisted on staying awake, so really, given a nice, warm, protective blanket like that what was she supposed to do?
She could have stayed awake also, of course. Gabrielle stepped up onto another rock and paused, glancing ahead of them past Xena’s steadily moving form. They were on a downward slant again, the path between the scattered boulders winding and narrow, threatening to catch hold of their boots. They were taking good care not to twist an ankle, and the progress so far had been pretty slow.
Slow, but steady. The bard slid past a rock taller than she was and sucked in a breath as the edges scraped along the bare skin of her back and middle, briefly wondering how Xena had skulked through there before her without at least a stifled curse.
She pressed her hands against the stone, it’s rough surface cool against her palms and the scent of moss strong in her nostrils. “Xena?” She called out, as she wriggled out from between the stones.
“Hm?” The warrior paused, and looked around, one booted foot on a slab of rock, the other planted firmly on the path. “You okay?”
“Sure, I’m fine.” The bard caught up. “Does this path lead down to that plateau, you think?”” She put a hand on Xena’s arm and looked past her, at the boulder strewn space.
“Could be.” Xena said. “That’s what I’m hoping, anyway.” She amended.
“It’s taking forever.” Gabrielle sighed. “So many darn rocks.”
Xena turned and started leading the way again. “It’s steeper ahead. Maybe we can find a faster way down.” She suggested. “That’d be nice, huh?”
“Hm.” Gabrielle gave the path a dubious look. “I don’t know, Xe… with our luck we’ll come around that corner and it’ll just be a dead end again.”
The warrior ruffled her hair. “Don’t make me the optimist in this relationship. Huh?” She advised, as they worked their way around another boulder. “Look.. let’s get up over this pass, and then maybe…”
“Maybe what?” Gabrielle poked her head past Xena’s arm again, as they reached the narrow pass between the rocks. “Oh.” She let out a soft groan, banging her head against Xena’s stomach. “Why do I say stuff like that? You should just glue my teeth shut.”
The warrior sighed, resting her elbow on the rock. In front of them the path abruptly vanished, down a very steep slope covered in loose bits of granite. She turned and looked behind them, then swiveled back around and started for the edge.
“Yeah?” The warrior ambled over to the drop off, testing the start of it with one cautious boot. Several chips slid out from under her toe and scuttled down the slope, starting a small landslide. “Hm.”
Gabrielle walked up next to her and stood there, hands on hips, with her staff resting against her shoulder. “Sheesh.” She muttered. “So.. we go back the way we came? Xena, this sucks.”
“Was that yes, we go back the way we came, or yes this sucks, or both?”
Xena sniffed reflectively. “I’m thinking”
Gabrielle took the hint and shut up, studying the steep slope in front of them. It was long, and it arced around a pile of boulders near the bottom, shooting off into who only knew where after that. It was too long for them to make their way down if the granite went out from under them, and she winced at the thought of taking a tumble and ending up going down head first.
She also winced at the thought of climbing back up the damn mountain, just to end up where they started. The constant going in circles was giving her a headache, and she felt a bubble frustration emerge as a soft growling sound.
Xena rested her arm casually across the bard’s shoulders. “Tell ya what, Gabrielle.”
“Uh oh.” Gabrielle rolled her eyes around to watch her partner. “That tone of voice usually means I’m in trouble.”
The warrior poked a thumb at her own chest, and her brows lifted. “Would I get you into trouble?”
“Ooh.. no.” Xena prodded her. “YOU get ME into trouble, madame bardic nutbread.” She accused. “But listen.. I’ve got an idea on how to get down this thing.’
‘Yeah?” Gabrielle sounded dubious. “Without sliding on our butts?”
Xena cleared her throat.
“You know we’ll be taking stitches out of each other for six moons if we try that.”
“Not sliding on our butts, no.” The warrior admitted. “C’mere.” She untangled herself from Gabrielle and walked over to a shallow shelf of granite, sticking out from the side of the mountain. “Up here.”
Gabrielle watched her step up on the slate. “It doesn’t look really sturdy.” She observed, seeing it wobble under her partner’s weight.
“I know, c’mere.” Xena held out a hand.
“What are we going to do?” Gabrielle resisted the motion, laying her staff over her shoulders and staying just out of reach.
“You don’t trust me?” Mild, blue eyes regarded her.
“Whenever you say that, I usually shouldn’t.” Gabrielle sighed. “I end up in the mud, or in the water, or upside down or…”
“C’mere.” Xena wiggled her fingers at her. “Don’t make me come over there and spank you.”
“As if.” Gabrielle reluctantly complied, walking over and joining her partner on the slab of rock, which did indeed teeter under her as she stepped up onto it. “Okay. Now what?”
Gabrielle closed her eyes. “Oh, no.” She moaned. “I’m in trouble.”
Xena chuckled, and put her arms around her partner. “Relax.” She put the edge of her boot against the edge of the slat, and readied herself. “All right. Here’s the deal..”
“Xe?” Gabrielle found a comfortable spot and nestled closer. “Just shut up and do whatever it is you’re going to do.”
“Okay.” Xena jerked suddenly, throwing her weight on the front edge of the rock. It teetered briefly, then slid free from the mountain with a grating crunch, falling onto the granite slip and lurching forward.
“Oh boy.” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena, holding her staff behind the warrior gripped in one hand.
They tilted forward, and then the rock started moving, grinding down the slip and picking up speed as it hit a steeper patch.
Xena braced her legs wide and kept them both balanced, as the wind picked up and blew her hair back behind her and their speed increased. “Heh.”
The warrior crouched, shifting her weight forward a little as the slate hit a patch of already sliding rocks, and they skidded sideways, twisting half around before she wrenched them straight again and they continued to drop. “Yeah!”
“Xee- NAH!” Gabrielle yelped, as they whirled around again, and she felt them drop into a dip that sent her stomach rocketing towards her boots. “Auuuugghh!!!”
“C’mon, Gab… relax!” Xena had caught her balance now, and she was starting to enjoy the slide. “It’s fun!”
Gabrielle opened one green eye and glared up at the warrior with it. “No it’s not!”
“Sure it is! Look!” Xena coaxed her. “Just turn your head and see what it’s like… it’s great!”
Gabrielle could feel the motion all round her, Xena’s shifting muscularity and the thrust of the wind against her skin. She chanced a quick look forward, and saw a huge rock approaching at frightening speed. “Augh!” She quickly turned her head back around and buried her face into Xena’s shoulder. “Just revive me when it’s over.”
Xena patted her on the back and concentrated on steering, spotting a small, arching ridge on the side of the rapidly approaching boulder. She slid her weight to one side, and the slate responded, moving toward the ridge as they tilted precariously.
The edge of the slate rode up on the ridge and turned, taking them in a rough arc around the boulder and through a chute between it and another big rock. Xena threw her weight to the other side as they curved around it, and they shot out from between the stones and were suddenly airborne.
“Auuuuuggghh!!!” Gabrielle felt her guts drop out from under her again and she sucked in a breath, holding it to keep her stomach from coming out of her ears.
“Hang on!” Xena licked her lips,squinting into the wind as the slate landed, twisting under them and whirling them around in a tight circle. She held onto Gabrielle and fought for balance, then she felt the slate almost come out from under them as the slope abruptly dropped into a dip.
They bounced, jarring them both as Xena fought viciously to keep her balance and keep them both upright, her eyes suddenly seeing the thick thorn hedges rapidly approaching.
Oh, Ares left nut. Xena’s eyes widened almost to their fullest. Gabrielle would forgive her a lot, but not that. “Hang on! Tight! I’m gonna jump!” She yelled a warning to her partner.
Gabrielle latched onto her with powerful arms and took a deep breath, keeping her eyes closed and just feeling the motion as Xena’s body coiled, and her thighs tensed into a crouch, and then there was a crunch, and a jolt, and the smell of thick greenery as the warrior’ erupted upward, taking the bard with her into the sky.
“Ugh!” Gabrielle’s senses went out of whack as she felt the rotation and realized she was upside down, then before she could react she felt Xena’s body twist powerfully in mid air and she was wrenched sideways.
Gabrielle bent her knees just as the ground came up and they landed, the slope of the ground throwing them completely off balance and sending them tumbling together onto thankfully moss and grass covered earth that nevertheless pitched them downward in a helpless roll. “Xxxxeeeeeennnnaaaaa!!!!”
Xena tried to slow their decent, but the ground gave her no handhold and she resorted to wrapping Gabrielle up in her arms and protecting her as best as she was able instead. The bard’s staff bounced free and followed them down the slope, and she could only hope something bad wasn’t at the end of it.
Xena caught the smell of large animals suddenly, very nearby.
Gabrielle popped her eyes open at that, just barely having caught her breath. She was on her back, on the ground, and there was a sound of lots of moving animals around her. “Where are we?”
“Just don’t move.”
The bard carefully peeked around in a circle, without moving her head. What she’d thought were huge, furry trees suddenly shifted and as she looked straight up, she saw what they were attached to. “By the gods.”
“What are they?” Gabrielle whispered.
“I don’t know, but I don’t want them to step on us.” Xena muttered. She eyed the huge animals with apprehension. Each one appeared almost the size of their cabin at home, and they had thick fur and long, snake like snouts.
“Uh.. me either.” Gabrielle resisted the urge to scoot closer to her partner and instead, watched with wide eyes as the nearest animal extended it’s snout towards her and appeared to be sniffing her leg. “Oh sheeps, Xena.. if that thing tickles me I’m toast.”
The warrior nibbled the inside of her lip. “Think about something else.”
Xena let her head rest against the moss covered ground, as she peered up through the leaves. “Like.. how we get ourselves into situations like this.”
Gabrielle cleared her throat meaningfully.
A bird crossed through Xena’s line of sight. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.” She mumbled under her breath.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and held her breath as the animal moved a step closer, it’s weight compressing the ground with an audible sound as it shifted it’s attention higher on her body. The snout stopped around her navel and she watched nervously as the flexible tip lowered to brush her skin.
Xena made a soft noise, and Gabrielle felt a surge of energy through their bond, that sense of impending motion that now let her fight skin to skin with her partner and not be in danger. “Xe, hold it.” She uttered, urgently. “Just wait.”
The animal’s snout touched her, a curious, prickly feeling that wasn’t ticklish as much as it was scratchy. Gabrielle looked up at the animals head, and caught sight of it’s eye, midway up the huge head that towered over her. It was dark and round, and it was focused on her with a mild intensity.
Her body relaxed a trifle, arduously gained warrior’s instincts judging no immediate threat. “Hi there.” She murmured. “What are you, hm?”
The animal traced a curious circle on her belly, then moved it’s attention to Gabrielle’s face.
“Gabrielle.” Xena decided to risk it, and moved closer to the bard, rolling over and getting her hands and knees under her. A quick look around confirmed her fear that the animals were ringing them completely, and getting out from between them was going to be complicated if not dangerous.
“Easy, tiger.” The bard whispered. “It’s not hurting me.” She glanced sideways, seeing Xena’s brilliant blue eyes now a short arm’s length away. The warrior’s catskin tunic was covered in grass stains and mud, but that did nothing to disguise the quivering power just under it. “It’s okay.”
For Xena, it was anything but okay. She watched as the animal curiously felt around Gabrielle’s face with it’s snout, the flexible nub on the end touching the end of the bard’s nose as her partner’s green eyes avidly watched it.
The animals were enormous. They had tree trunk like legs, and a huge, heavy body covered in fur, ears like flaps that waved incessantly, and the long, snakelike snouts, which curled out from between massive, curling tusks.
Gabrielle’s nose twitched as the hairs on the creatures’s snout tickled it, and she reached up in reflex to rub her skin. The creature seemed to find this intriguing, and the snout then explored her hand. She could feel the soft warmth as it breathed out, and daringly, she curled her fingers around the bristly skin and felt it.
It was ridged, and flexible at the same time, and the touch as it squeezed her fingers was gentle. She rubbed her thumb across the inside of the snout and almost jumped as the animal snorted a little, making a soft, gurgling noise. “Oh. Sorry.”
The animals shifted, causing Xena’s nostrils to flare, and then, from between the trunklike legs, a much smaller specimen emerged. It ambled over to Gabrielle and poked her in the ear with it’s smaller snout, a high pitched yodel issuing from it’s mouth.
The bigger animal above her bugled back, wrapping it’s snout around the smaller animal and holding it still.
“Oh.” Gabrielle very slowly sat up, pushing herself upright. “Xena, it’s a baby.”
Xena had eased back down and was now lying on her side, propping her head up on one hand. “Yeah. It’s a baby.” She agreed dryly. “Do me a favor and don’t scare it.”
“Me?” Gabrielle pulled her legs up under her and rested her elbows on her knees. She raked her hair from her eyes and looked around at the living forest, finding a dozen set of dark, unfathomable eyes looking back at her. “Im’ going to scare it? Xena, they’re scaring me.”
The baby creature pulled away from it’s tether and rambled over Gabrielle, knocking her backwards with surprising force as it headed over to investigate Xena.
“Hey!” Xena sat up suddenly, then stopped as the animals all shifted, and the one nearest her trumpeted loudly and stamped a foot. She hesitated, as the small animal butted her with it’s head, her eyes widening as it started to boldly yank at her hair with it’s snout.
Gabrielle got back up and cocked her head, glancing at the big animals, then at the little one mauling her beloved partner. “Hey.” She said, in a thoughtful tone. “You think this is how everyone else feels with Dori?”
“What?” Xena reached up to prevent her eyeball from being plucked. “What are you talking about?”
The bard removed a clump of mud from her cheek and grimaced, as she rotated her shoulder and it popped audibly. That got a reaction from the big animal, and she froze in place as the snout draped itself over her shoulder, and she could feel the warm breath tickle her underarm. “Uh… nevermind, just at thought.” She murmured, watching in bemusement as the animal examined her joint.
“Listen you little..” Xena managed to get her hair untangled from the baby animals’ clutches. “Cut that out.”
“Xe?” Gabrielle noticed the big animal eyeing her partner with a less than friendly expression. “Be nice.”
“Be nice, please?” The bard lowered her voice. “These things are really big, and they have really big teeth and really big feet.” She eased up to her knees, gingerly giving the huge leg next to her a pat. It was as big in circumference as she was, and felt very solid.
Xena fended off the curious baby and stood up slowly, as the big animals shifted uncertainly and raised their snouts. “Take it easy.” She held both hands out from her body, and straightened to her full height. Next to the animals, it wasn’t that significant but it scared the baby and he backed away, squealing. “Hey!”
The big animal next to Gabrielle trumpeted angrily, and shoved past her, heading for Xena. Without much real thought, the bard bolted between it’s legs and got between it and her partner, turning and throwing her arms out in a blocking motion. “Whoa!!!!!”
The big animal raised it’s snout and let out a brassy trumpet and the rest joined in, shifting and stamping, deafening the two humans in their midst. Gabrielle backed up until she bumped into Xena, her arms still spread wide.
The biggest animal rushed towards them, but they were almost against the ring of animals behind them, and there was nowhere to run. Xena started to pull Gabrielle behind her, but the bard resisted, as the big animal was upon them and she opened up her lungs and bellowed at the top of them.
The animal stopped, and bellowed back. Gabrielle made eye contact with it and yelled again, a wordless sound that erupted from her guts.
For a moment, everything stopped.
The biggest creature raised it’s snout and poked Gabrielle with it, twining it’s flexible nub into her shirt and tugging roughly.
Xena reached around and grabbed the snout, removing it from her partner’s chest and pushing it away. Then she folded her arms around the bard and glared at the animal.
The animal’s snout returned, this time smacking Xena’s arm.
The warrior’s glare became something darker, as she felt her temper starting to flare. “Watch it, buster. I don’t care how big you are.”
“Gabrielle, I wouldn’t let Zeus put his hands on you.” Xena told her, bluntly. “So whatever this is better just back off.”
The bard glanced down at the mud streaked arms draped over her. She took Xena’s hand in hers and turned it palm upmost, giving it a gentle kiss before she laced their fingers together. Then she looked back up at the creature, finding it’s eyes now fastened back on her.
The snout came back, but this time it snuffled at their joined hands before it reached around to pluck a bit of Xena’s cat skin shirt with an air of disdain.
“She doesn’t like that.” Gabrielle whispered.
“She?” Xena whispered back. “Too bad. I’m not gonna take it off.”
The animal tugged the catskin again, and bugled angrily.
“What’s it pissed off about?” The warrior muttered. “I killed it, didn’t I?” She released one arm from around Gabrielle and slid the ragged sleeve of the garment up, exposing her bare shoulder. “See?” She addressed the animal, falling silent as the snout returned, sliding it’s tip up her arm and exploring the now exposed skin.
“She’s thinking.” Gabrielle murmured. “These are way smarter than those dumb hooters.”
The animal regarded Xena soberly. Then she lifted her trunk and bugled, causing the others to shift and start moving.
“Uh oh.” Gabrielle inhaled sharply. “Should we..”
“Stay still.” Xena finally felt back in control of the situation. She wrapped her arms more firmly around Gabrielle as each of the animals passed by them, snouts reaching out to brush them, touch them, in one case, curl around a bit of her hair.
Everything but harm them. The animals walked steadily away, the biggest one herding the baby who looked repeatedly over it’s shoulder with small, wide eyes at them. They moved into the forest, leaving nothing behind them but a thick scent of musk, and muddy ground pounded flat.
Xena waited for them to disappear, before she relaxed, exhaling shakily and letting her head rest against Gabrielle’s. “Whoo.” She uttered. “That’s the most dangerous animal we’ve seen here yet.”
“Mmm. Glad your bluff wasn’t called?.” Gabrielle asked gently. “I sure am glad mine wasn’t.”
Xena arched her neck so they could make eye contact. “Were we bluffing?”
The bard considered the question briefly, before she looked out after the vanished herd and smiled. “Way smarter than the hooters.” She said, in wryly oblique agreement. “You know, I think I liked them.”
Gabrielle tipped her head back. “Now. Can we talk about this ‘trust me’ thing?”
Xena peered past her. “Oh look.” She pointed. “Aren’t those walnuts?”
“Hey, gotta grab em while we can.”
“I’m going to get you for that.” Gabrielle allowed herself to be tugged towards the trees anyway. “You know where we’re going now?”
“After those animals.” Xena replied. “Should be easy enough to follow.”
The warrior pointed. “Yeah.”
Gabrielle peered at what she was indicating. “Wow.” She muttered respectfully. “That poop’s bigger than my head.”
The warrior knelt beside it, and used a stick to poke the dropping apart. “Hm.” She glanced over her shoulder, to see Gabrielle studiously looking elsewhere. “Grass eater.” She stood up. “Should be safe to trail em.” She dusted her fingers off and ducked under a branch. “Besides, I think they liked you.”
Gabrielle strolled along behind her, not disputing the words. There had been something gentle and fascinating about the animals despite their size and it was nice, she reflected, to be able to feel good about something she’d found in the valley after all.
And who knew? Maybe they had a story to tell her.
‘Why here?” Mikah asked, as he turned in a slow circle looking at his surroundings. “Why not your place? I’ve heard so much about Amazon villages.. I was looking forward to seeing one.” He turned back around toward Ephiny and waited, watching her face.
“Why not my place.” Ephiny went to the table and uncorked a flask there, pouring herself a small cup of wine, pausing to swirl it before she continued. “Well, mostly because my place isn’t my place. It’s our place.” She met Mikah’s eyes steadily. “And I think this place has good karma for what I’m looking for.”
The blond man strolled over to where Xena’s armor was hanging, casually – but in an obvious place of honor. He touched it with his fingers, watching her from the corners of his eyes. “Kinky.” He commented. “I like that. Haven’t seen much of it since Athens.”
Ephiny took a seat at the table, and waved him over to a second. She waited for him to sit down, then she pushed the wine flask over. “What exactly did you do in Athens? I asked Gabrielle once. Didn’t get much of an answer.”
Mikah poured himself a cup and rested his elbows on the table. “What did I do in Athens.” He repeated. “What didn’t I do in Athens?” He waggled an eyebrow at her. “I was an indentured worker at one of the lowest class whorehouses.”
“Yeah?” Ephiny sipped the wine.
“Yeah.” The blond man said. “I ran off from home when I was twelve.. got into some trouble in a few places. Ended up in jail in a place not twenty leagues from here.”
Interesting. Ephiny found herself intrigued by the man, as well as acceptably attracted to his appealing good looks. “For what?”
Mikah grinned rakishly. “Seducing the innkeeper’s daughter.” He admitted. “Kind of got my start young.”
The Amazon laughed. “No kidding.”
“Yeah, well… I got lucky, she didn’t sprout, and they let me loose about a month later.” He said. “I just kept walking after that.. found food where I could, and eventually ended up outside Athens one summer day.” He took a sip of the wine. “I was lucky… I copped a ride in the back of an ale wagon that ended up in the docksides.”
Mikah met her eyes again. “I could have ended up a real slave, in some patrician’s private rooms. I didn’t. The inn wasn’t the best, but at least I felt like my own person there.”
Ephiny was surprised at the complicated emotions she could read into his words. This was, she realized, more than just the feckless player she’d first thought. “Ah.” But then of course – Gabrielle wouldn’t have taken an interest in him if he had been now would she? “Tough life.”
He shrugged. “Not always.” He got up and walked over to Gabrielle’s writing table, reaching out and touching her diary with a curious fingertip. “Sometimes, sure. But whose isn’t?” He turned to look at her. “I had some good times.. good friends there.”
Ephiny drained her cup and poured another. She watched him look around the cabin, his eyes drinking in the details. “Life’s like that.” She agreed quietly. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s lousy.”
Mikah returned to the table and sat back down, resting his chin on his fist. “But if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have been in the kitchen when Xena walked in, now would I?” He said. “And I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that.”
Ephiny chuckled. “Ah, yes.” She nodded. “The Warrior Princess haze. I know it well.” She continued. “She strikes many people that way.”
Mikah nodded. “I wanted her.” He replied with surprising frankness. “Like I’ve never wanted anyone in my life.”
The Amazon’s eyes opened wider. She took a breath, then exhaled. “Lucky you didn’t try anything.”
Mikah looked wryly at her. “She’s very dangerous, I know.” He got up and circled the table, settling in the chair next to Ephiny. “But you know.. I like that.”
Ephiny put her cup down and covered his hand with her own. “You have no idea what you’d have gotten yourself into.” She told him. “But I do understand.”
“Do you?” He watched her intently.
The Amazon smiled. “Yeah, I do.” She reached up to tweak his snub nose. “But let’s not talk about unattainable goals, okay?”
“Okay.” He smiled back. “So. What’s a nice Amazon like you doing in a place like this?” He reiterated an earlier question. “Since I know you’ve got a partner, and all that.”
“And all that.” Ephiny traced her finger around his jawline. “I do, and a damn fine one. Only one thing she’s lacking. Know what that is?”
Mikah’s eyes dropped to his lap. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Mm. Know what we Amazons use men for?” She didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding here. The kid was cute, but that kind of complication in her life was something she really, really really didn’t need. She watched his eyes track her hand, lashes fluttering a little. “Hmm?” Do ya?”
Ephiny laughed, genuinely amused. “You’re cute.” She told him. “And you’re funny. You remind me a little of a friend of mine.” She got up and walked around him. He turned as she did and then stood and they circled each other gracefully. “We try to find a friend.” She added. “When we want children.”
He blinked, then his eyes widened, and softened a little. “You want me?’ He seemed surprised. “For that?”
“For that.” Ephiny stuck her fingers into his belt and tugged. “You up for it?”
Mikah looked down again. “I think I am.” He said. “No one’s ever wanted me for that before.” He moved closer to Ephiny, reaching out to touch her face. “Is this your..
They leaned forward at the same time, and kissed. “I was married before.” Ephiny said. “A long time ago.. I have a son.”
“Ah.” Mikah seemed to relax visibly. “He must be a babe, still.”
Ephiny smiled, acknowledging the compliment. “Actually, he’s a centaur.” She leaned against the center support in the cabin. “So was his father.”
“Any truth to those stories…”
“Really want to know?”
Mikah’s eyes widened. “I think I should warn you.” He said. “That I’m easily intimidated.”
The Amazon put her finger tips on his chest and pushed gently, shoving him towards the bed. “I’m not.”
Ephiny paused, her expression sobering. “I try not to hold on to old memories.” She told him. “They’re not all good ones.” Her eyes dropped, then lifted. “Some are downright ugly.”
Mikah took hold of her hand. “I’m sorry.” He answered, in a gentle voice. “I’ll try to give you some sweet ones.” He stepped forward and kissed her, and they eased round each other in a circular motion. “And thank you for thinking of me for this. It’s an honor.” He pulled back a trifle. “Isn’t it?”
“It is.” Ephiny felt her body beginning to react. “It really is.” She brushed her body against his, and felt him respond. “And if you’re really, really good…” She unlatched his belt. “Maybe I’ll make you an Amazon.”
Mikah found himself pulled down onto the soft surface of the bed. “Is that painful?”
Gabrielle rested her staff across her shoulders and waited as Xena scouted out a patch of thick underbrush to one side of where the animals had gone. It was late afternoon, and they’d spent the balance of the day following the herd and moving down the side of the mountain after them.
It had been almost peaceful. She twisted her body to either side, and exhaled, letting her wrists drape over the ends of the staff. She’d felt not really safe, but at least, not hunted as long as they were near the big animals, and since they were going in the right direction, the one she and Xena wanted to go in, well then, why not follow them?
They’d stayed back though, not wanting to risk the creatures thinking they were going to be attacked. Though.. Gabrielle had to smile, she had to wonder what exactly she or Xena could do to them with out any weapons to speak of.
Kick them? They’d hardly notice it, if they did.
Xena emerged from the brush and headed back towards her. She was shaking one hand, and licking her thumb on the other, and that could only mean one thing.
Gabrielle trotted towards her. “Got lucky?”
“Got stung.” The warrior ruefully held up her hand. “Bastards.. but on the other hand.. “ She removed the half skull from under her arm and displayed it. Nestled in the center was a big chunk of honeycomb, and drips of the golden treat were trickling down the side.
“Great.” The bard chortled, evading the skull and taking her partner’s wounded hand instead. “Let me see.” She studied the reddened spot. “Ow.. is that still in there?”
“Pulled it out.” Xena replied succinctly. “Barbed.”
“Yeah… but worth it.” The warrior sucked on a piece of comb contentedly. “It’s all right. I’ll dunk it in the lake later.”
Gabrielle fished a piece out herself and licked it. “Mm.” She could taste the local wildflowers in the sweetness, a rich hint of rose and jasmine that almost reminded her of home. “Tastes like your mom’s last batch.”
“It does.” Xena looked over her shoulder. “There’s a patch of thick scrub just over that hillock. The herd’s camped near the lake on the side of it. We can stop here for now.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle agreed. “I could use a break.” She took the skull from Xena’s hands and they walked side by side down the slope, the late breeze coming up into their faces. She could smell the lake as they walked along the thick hedge, and a hint of the animals, and as she listened, she heard one of them trumpet. “You think they know we’re here?”
“Yeah.” Xena was examining her stung hand. “Damn, that hurt.”
“Do you think they mind us following them?” Gabrielle wondered. “Xena, I’ve never seen animals that were so smart, have you?”
The warrior walked along in silence for a moment. “Argo’s that smart.”
The bard smothered a grin. “Well, I know, honey, but she’s just one horse. Do you think all horses are as smart as she is?”
“Hmph.” Xena made a face. “Probably not, no.” She admitted. “But these things.. I mean, Gabrielle, look at this place.” She extended her other hand and indicated the valley. “How could all these things live down here, and we never know it? You said it yourself, that honey tastes just like mom’s.”
“So.. “ The warrior sounded frustrated. “Bees make honey from flowers, and it’s all different. You know that.”
“So if we’re so close to home the honey tastes the same, damn it.. “
“I know.” Gabrielle patted her on the back. “We’ll figure it out. There has to be some trick to it, Xena. Hey.. maybe it’s Aphrodite, playing a joke on us.”
Xena looked at her.
“Okay, maybe not.” The bard murmured. “There has to be some explanation, though. Maybe those animals are part of it.” She suggested. “Let’s find out more about them.”
It was, Xena had to admit, as good an idea as any. And at least, they had honey. She fished out another piece of comb and took a bite. That had to count for something.
It finally felt like things were turning around. Night had fallen, and in the shelter of their thick hedges by a nice fire, Gabrielle was at last able to lean back and relax.
It wasn’t the same thing she’d felt the previous nights, when utter exhaustion had overtaken her. This was more of a usual end of the day tiredness that made her glad she was simply sitting down and had the long clear night ahead of her.
The small patch of bushes had been kind to them as well – she’d found two kinds of berries and Xena had discovered an apple tree and a clump of earthen tubers. Forgoing any hunting, Gabrielle had roasted the tubers, sprinkling them with the salt crystals Xena had captured for her and they’d shared the fruit drizzled with honey and hot tea in peaceful contentment.
“This seems almost normal.” Gabrielle commented.
“Well, it does.” The bard
“I know. But if you keep saying that, some damn three headed whatsit’s gonna land in my lap.” Xena told her. “And it’s nice just to sit and listen to the fire.”
“You telling me to shut up?” Gabrielle inquired.
“Yes, you were.”
“Gabrielle, don’t start that.” The warrior leaned her head back and looked plaintively at the stars overhead.
“Just kidding.” The bard wriggled closer and lifted the skull, taking a sip of cooling tea and then offering the makeshift cup to her partner. “So, any idea what those things are?”
Xena leaned over and took a mouthful of tea, then sat back. “Saw something like them once.” She admitted. “A long time ago.”
“How long?” Gabrielle glanced at her, a knowing twinkle in her eyes. “Grandma.”
Xena smiled briefly. “Feels like.. no, it is another lifetime ago.” She said. “Dry, damned place off west somewhere. But they weren’t hairy, and they were smaller.” She rested her forearms on her knees. “Men rode them.. used them to do some amazing things.”
“Really? Like what?”
“Lift trees, with that snout thing, push stuff over. Pull houses down.” The warrior replied. “I never got close to them, though.. I don’t think they liked me.”
“Animals always like you.” Gabrielle disagreed.
Hadn’t they? The bard sipped her tea thoughtfully. “I think they did.. I think that baby did, that’s for sure. Just your clothes – I think it bothered them.” She smoothed a hand over the catskin on Xena’s leg. “Maybe they hunt those big guys?”
“Maybe.” Xena allowed that it was possible. “Just one more big question.”
Gabrielle stifled a yawn. She looked around, and thumped her heel on the ground. Finding it solid, she handed over the cup and got up, stretching her back out as she wandered over to the thick bushes, examining them.
Xena stayed where she was, content to watch. Gabrielle knew what she was doing, finding leaves and other things that would ease their comfort to sleep on. It was a task she’d taken on herself about mid way through their relationship often to the bemusement of her traveling companion.
Especially that first time.
“What are you doing?” Xena stopped and stared, hands on hips.
Gabrielle peeked over an armful of leaves. “Me?”
Xena turned around in a circle, then looked back at her. “Yes you. Who do you think I’m talking to, Argo?” She walked over to the bard. “What is all that?”
“Um.” The bard shuffled around her and walked to the two sets of furs laid side by side near the fire. “I was jus thinking, you know how you said the ground here was so hard?”
“I said that?”
Gabrielle turned and looked over her shoulder. “You said that. Before. Uh.. before we had dinner. Don’t you remember?”
Xena scratched her neck. “Uh.. right.”
“Anyway.” Gabrielle lifted up Xena’s fur and started laying the soft branches underneath it. “I thought you’d like something maybe to make it not so hard.”
The sound of the fire crackling was suddenly amplified, enough so that Gabrielle turned her head again to make sure it wasn’t getting out of control. She found Xena staring at her, both brows lifted, eyes widened. “What?”
Caught flat footed, Xena closed her jaw with an audible click, then turned on her heel and headed off into the dark forest. “I’ll be back.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle blinked at her retreating form, then she turned back around and continued her task.” You know something Argo?” She commented to the mare, who was cropping grass nearby. “I think Xena’s been a little strange lately, don’t you?”
“No, really.” Gabrielle continued earnestly. “Wasn’t that weird, what she just did? All I’m doing is putting these leaves I found under her bed to make it softer.. that’s not weird, is it?”
Argo munched her grass in silence.
“I mean, I’m just trying to be nice.” Gabrielle finished laying down her armful of leaves, and flipped Xena’s fur back over, patting it experimentally. “Well..” She sighed. “It’s not much better, but anything helps, right Argo?”
The bard got up and started back into the bushes, to get more leaves. She wasn’t sure what had given her the idea to do it, just maybe something about how Xena had talked about the ground, or maybe it was just they’d been traveling rough for so long this time or…
Gabrielle sighed, and leaned against a tree. “Or maybe you’re just in love with her and you don’t really know what to do about it.” She muttered under her breath. “At least I didn’t make it any worse.” She pushed back the sense of confusion, and used her little knife to cut more of the soft branches. “She just thinks I’m a silly kid.”
Argo stopped chewing, then shook her head.
“Yes, she does.” Gabrielle sighed. “The gods know, I’m no Ulysses. I feel so stupid sometimes, Argo. Why do I have to feel like this? Why can’t we just be friends again?”
The mare, surprisingly, ambled over and bumped her in a friendly manner. Gabrielle let the branch she’d been holding fall, and she put her arms around Argo’s neck and hugged her. “I thought love was supposed to feel good, Argo.” She said. “Not hurt so much.”
Argo stood quietly, giving Gabrielle a place to rest her cheek and a soft patch of fur to absorb the few tears that escaped her
Xena sat down on a tree stump, resting her elbows on her knees and her head against her clenched hands. She exhaled, blowing a lock of dark hair, her face tensed in frustration.
Damn it.” Her body shifted, restless and antsy and finally she ended up standing again, pacing back and forth.
Damn it. She put her hands on her hips and looked at the ground, unable to push aside the growing uncertainty and the emotions that were tying her guts up in knots and making her damn palms sweat. “Damn it. I am too old for this.”
The wind blew through the trees overhead, making an almost chuckling sound. Xena tipped her head back and glared at the leaves, and then, just as suddenly, the anger drained out of her and she was left with only a simple ache in her chest instead.
It had been a very long time since she’d felt that echo, or the dryness in her mouth. To now have it happen with someone she’d regarded, no taken for granted as a friend was knocking her off balance.
Knocking her off balance. Xena ran a hand through her hair. Gods.
She turned and went back towards the camp, stopping just out of the firelight and looking at the empty set of furs just to one side of the flames. She could see the slight lumpiness under hers, and if she closed her eyes she could see again Gabrielle’s intent, yet gentle expression as she put the padding in place, her body outlined in the glow.
Funny. Xena caught her breath. How you could live with someone for years and never notice how beautiful they were until you fell in love with them.
Damn it. Xena swallowed. “She was just being nice.” She muttered to herself. “That’s all. So take all that other crap and stuff it.”
Gabrielle emerged from the other side of the clearing, her arms full. She walked across and knelt down next to her furs, but her shoulders were bowed, and there was something in the way she was holding her head that tugged unexpectedly at Xena’s heart.
What parts of it that weren’t thumping in an exasperating double time that was.
Gabrielle finished her task and eased over to sit on her sleeping fur, legs sprawled as she aimlessly shredded one of the remaining leaves she’d had left over. After a brief pause, she looked up at the fire, and the light sparkled off a single tear as it trickled down her cheek.
Impatiently, she wiped it away with the back of her hand, and then she shook her head and reached for her diary, pulling it over and sprawling onto her side as she opened it.
Xena took a deep breath and started forward, She was halfway across the clearing before Gabrielle either heard or sensed her, and looked up, her mist green eyes meeting Xena’s in a moment of bone deep honesty that slowed the moment to starlit silence.
An owl hooted.
Then Xena’s foot caught on a stone half buried in the turf and she lost her balance, pitching forward to land sprawling on her furs, her head only inches from Gabrielle’s elbow. “Son of a…”
Gabrielle quickly put a hand out to steady her. “Wow! Careful!”
That touch stilled the dark echo inside her, and Xena at that moment knew herself lost to it. Could she really keep fighting this?
Did she even really want to?
“Hey.” She reached over and cupped her hand around the bard’s knee, patting it lightly. “Damn good thing you put the leaves under here, huh?”
“Well.” Gabrielle paused to swallow. “I wasn’t really expecting… uh… “ Her eyes tracked to the hand still resting casually on her leg. “Yeah.”
Yeah. Xena patted the surface next to her. “I think my leaves are springier than yours.”
“C’mere, try em.”
“You gotta do this every night now, y’know.”
Xena chuckled wryly, lacing her hands behind her head as the sweet memory slowly dissolved around her. Those had been such confusing times for both of them, that stretch when they’d become more than friends, but not quite lovers.
Confusing and definitely frustrating, but it made her smile to remember it anyway. Gods, they’d been such goofballs. No wonder everyone gave them those looks when they’d assured them no, they were ‘just friends, really.’
What was that Autolycus had said to her after that whole mess? “Sure, babe. That’s why EVERYONE wants to be your.. ‘friend.”
She looked past the fire to find Gabrielle leaning against a tree looking back, those mist green eyes now confident and knowing as she held up a handful of what looked to the warrior’s sharp eyes to be blackberries.
“Want to taste something sweet?” The bard asked, with studied innocence.
Xena crooked a finger at her. Love really hadn’t turned out so bad after all, in the end.
“Did you hear that?” Eponin turned, standing up as a wild scream rent the darkness. “What in Hades…”
“Wish it was.” Granella got up from her crouch near the fire and grabbed her bow, efficiently nocking an arrow to it’s string and turning. “In Hades, that is.”
Eponin listened again, cocking her head, but the noise wasn’t repeated and after a few minutes, she relaxed a trifle and slid her sword back into it’s sheath. “Being out on that water had it’s good points.” She commented, as Granella set her bow down and went back to the fish that were cooking.
“Yeah.” Granella agreed, as she turned their dinner. “But you know, there’s always crocodiles.”
Pony stopped in her tracks, and turned. “What?”
“Never mind.” Granella hid a grin. “Just a story I heard Gabrielle tell once.” She reached over and took a swig of water from her waterskin. “Who knows where she gets these things from.”
“Huh.” The weapons’ master strolled to the edge of the river they were camped by and looked across the moonlit surface. “She lives most of the things she tells, yeah?”
“What’s that like.. you know?” Pony mused. “What’s it like knowing every time you get up in the morning you might end the day wishing you’d stayed in bed?”
Granella removed the fish from the fire and split it up, putting a half in either of their two wooden travel plates. “Well.” She got up and walked over to Pony, poking her in the shoulder with a plate edge. “Y’know, I’m thinking those two probably wish they’d stayed in bed more than most.”
“Well, sure.. that’s what I..” Pony took the plate, and the double entendre registered. “Oh, well yah, that too.”
They both chuckled.
Pony wandered over to a rock and sat down on it, breaking off pieces of the hot fish gingerly and blowing on them before she put them between her teeth. They had made good time during the day, and she was feeling better about their trek. “Wish we’d find more sign of em.” She said, after a thoughtful chew. “Hate to be spending all this time going the wrong damn way.”
Granella found a spot on the ground near the fire and sat cross-legged, her plate in her lap. The night was cool, and she discovered she wasn’t really used to being out in leathers anymore. Now that they were off the water, though, she was feeling a bit more comfortable.
At least the rain had stopped. She furtively glanced at the sky as the thought crossed her mind, relieved to see brilliant stars overhead. “I wish we would find something too.” She answered Pony. “At least we know they’re down here somewhere. Place isn’t that big.”
Pony glanced around them, and shook her head, but went back to eating her fish in silence.
Granella found a moment to enjoy the almost quiet, even the sounds of creatures rustling off somewhere in the bush. It was so different than what she had become used to lately that she found the wildness of the place soothing her – there were no cursing drovers, or yelling children around to grate on the ears.
You could hear yourself think out here. She sucked a fishbone clean thoughtfully.
Granella looked over at her companion. “Yeah?”
Pony’s eyes were flicking back and forth, across the dark edge of the trees. “You get the feeling we’re being watched?”
“Um.” Granella cleared her throat a bit. “No, honestly.” She admitted. “Should I ?”
Eponin drew her sword again and stood, setting her plate aside on the rock as she walked away from the fire, and towards the trees. “I dunno.” She said. “Lemme go see if I’m not losing my mind.”
“Be funny if it was them!” Granella called after her, half jokingly. “Careful you don’t get tossed on your butt into the water.”
Pony snorted, but she kept walking, slowing to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkness as she left the circle of firelight and entered the gloom. She didn’t really think it was Xena and Gabrielle – the two of them were capable of pulling a prank, sure, but this wasn’t the time or place and she figured they knew that.
Besides, it felt wrong. As she eased into the forest, she felt her hackles raise, her body reacting to a danger she couldn’t see or hear yet. You could call it imagination if you wanted to, but she’d lived as long as she had as a warrior by paying attention to it. “Gran.” She called back. “Watch it.”
Granella took the warning seriously. She tossed her plate to the ground and grabbed her bow again, checking for her long dagger in it’s thigh sheath as she stood up and prepared to back up her companion. Like any other warrior society, there were different levels in the Amazons, and she and Pony had always been in different ones.
Pony was, in addition to their weapon’s master, one of the leaders of the heavy fighters who wore partial armor in big fights, and used longswords much like Xena did.
Or, well, tried to. Granella managed a brief, wry grin. Her own group, the scouts, eschewed the swords and carried bows and light weapons instead, suited to their smaller frames and different skills. Both groups had friendly competitions with each other, but in all, they knew their place in the village and were mostly content with it.
She nocked an arrow and followed Pony, careful to aim the shaft up and to the left so an accidental release wouldn’t pin her companion to a tree or something equally embarrassing.
Maybe, she thought suddenly, that was why Xena and Gabrielle drove the Amazons nuts. They really didn’t fit into any of the long established patterns, and so… well, they challenged those traditions. Xena worked equally well with any weapons, or no weapons, and was so amazingly light on her feet despite her size it frustrated Pony’s group to no end.
And Gabrielle? Forget it. An Amazon Queen whose best weapon was a big stick and a lot of talk. No wonder half the nation was confused and out of sorts. Granella shook her head and stepped quietly into the forest, her eyes catching Pony’s figure just ahead of her. “Here.” She uttered, in a low voice. “What is it?”
Pony held up a hand and made a sign.
Granella paused and put her back to a tree, sliding over to one side so she could draw her bowstring back and lower the tip, still keeping it to one side of where Eponin was standing. Her heartbeat picked up, and she was aware of a chill down her spine as a world she’d thought she’d left behind suddenly re-emerged around her with sobering speed.
Pony shifted her grip on her sword, cocking her wrist and bringing the blade up to rest against her shoulder as she edged further into the dark gloom of the trees, the leaves now whisper gray in the starlight to her eyes. She could smell the strong scent of the earth under her feet and the soft green smell of the foliage, but in all that, behind the nature, was a taint of musk.
She closed her eyes and listened, pushing aside the rustle of the leaves in the wind and finding a different motion beneath them. The boots she had pressed to the ground felt a soft percussion and she flexed her toes, feeling the faint jar again.
Something coming towards them, heavy enough to make the earth feel it.
The motion stopped, and Pony could all but feel the unseen eyes on her, watching. Judging.
Slowly, she sucked in a gutful of air and held it. Then she let out a bellow loud enough to hurt her throat, hoping she didn’t startle Granella into shooting her in the butt.
There was a moment of stillness, then suddenly the bushes erupted towards her with frightening speed, and she got a bare glimpse of something very big, and white teeth and glowing eyes before she jumped to one side behind a tree and let it go past. “GRAN!!!”
Granella had only a split second to let Pony clear out of the way before she released her shaft and grabbed for a second as the big thing in motion came rushing out of the darkness, it’s body the size of horse. She got off a second shot, but then had to dive behind a tree as the thing came on her, howling and yowling at the top of it’s voice.
She scrambled in the other direction, trying to get space between her and the animal so she could reload her bow, wishing now that she’d taken the high power crossbow she’d kept in a chest in their cabin. Behind a bush she whirled and reached for an arrow in her quiver as the animal plowed to a halt and whirled, heading towards her.
Granella drew back her arm and took a deep breath at the same time, releasing the shaft just as the animal leaped into the air.
It hit, but didn’t even slow the creature down and she only barely twisted in time to avoid a direct hit, the animal’s claws raking her as she turned and dove for the ground as Pony came up over her going the other direction. “Pon!”
“Yahhh!” Eponin drove the sword point right into the thing’s mouth, ramming it with all the force she could until the sides of her hands slammed against the animal’s teeth and she felt it’s hot breath against her face.
She released the sword and lunged past the animal, as it’s tumbled in mid air and fell to the ground, it’s legs paddling as it gurgled. “Hades!”
Incredibly, the animal turned and came at her, and she just had time to grab the hilt of her sword and yank it sideways, pulling the head towards her as she swung to one side and throwing her weight groundward as she heard Granella’s bow release.
The shaft passed so close to her face, it burned her cheek before it buried itself in the animal’s eyeball and she and it crashed to the ground tangled together.
Granella scrambled over, her eyes wide. She had an arrow already readied in her bow, but as she got closer, she lowered it when the animal remained still. “Pon?”
“Son of a gods be damned horse ball.” Pony dragged herself out from under the animal and sat there, giving it’s leg a healthy kick. “What the Hades is that?”
“Was that.” Granella came closer, staring at it in the low light. “Is it a bear?”
“Damned if I know.” Pony braced a boot on either side of the animal’s face and yanked her sword free. The creature looked a little like a bear, but it was lower to the ground, and went on all four legs. “Looks more like a big badger.’
The weapon’s master wiped the gore off her sword and got up, backing to take a better look at the animal. “Ugly sucker.” She commented. “What the… ?” Kneeling down, she lifted up the snarled lip of the animal, and exposed two huge front teeth, extending almost rodentlike over the lower. “Scratch the badger. It’s a damned monster rat.”
“Or a beaver.” Granella walked around the now dead animal. She knelt at it’s feet and examined one. “Look at these.. damn, we were lucky.” She exposed a huge, curving claw. “I think he clipped me.”
Pony got up and walked behind her, spotting the bloody rakes against her companion’s fair skin easily. “Yeah.” She agreed. “Down your shoulder on the back.” She crouched down, touching the parallel lines. “S’allright.”
“Shallow?” Granella asked. “Didn’t feel too bad.”
“Yeah.” Pony got up and circled the animal again. She stopped at it’s head, and put her hands on her hips, watching the flies already buzzing around it. “No chance of moving this thing.” She observed.
“Hades, no.” The other woman got up, dusting her hands off. “I vote we move camp. Something’s gonna come eat this, and I’d rather not be here when it does.” She started moving towards the fire. “I’ll get packing.”
Pony didn’t like the idea of moving in the darkness, but she could find no better option and staying where they were was a bad idea. She already could hear rustling in the underbrush, and it was only a matter of time before scavengers showed up to claim a meal.
She crouched down again and touched the animal’s fur, which was surprisingly soft and thick. “Boy, Eph’d love this in our place.” She mused. “Be nice by the fire.” Her thoughts paused, and she found herself surprised to be missing her partner, and wondering what she was up to.
Probably chasing Dori. Eponin wrinkled her nose, and stifled a grin.
“Yeah.” Pony stood up regretfully. “Sorry, just hate to waste good stuff.” She kicked the animal’s foot again and turned, making her way back towards where Granella was kneeling. “Yeah, let’s cross over the river, huh? There’s a turn up there looks okay.”
“Sounds good to me.” Granella said “Any place without bull size rats sounds good to me too.”
“Bet Gabrielle would have gotten it to sit down and play tricks.”
Pony snorted, and shook her head.