One Wild Ride
Xena found herself jerked out of a surprising sleep, her body reacting to the bellow that roused her by bringing her to her feet even before she’d properly opened her eyes. Her hands reached for weapons she didn’t have and she whirled, throwing her arms out in a defensive motion as her senses sought an attack she could defend against.
Her heart was pounding as she fell into a half crouch over the utterly still, but awake Gabrielle, the silence of the night now beating against her ears.
Gabrielle moved carefully, reaching up to put her hand on her partner’s tensed leg. “You all right?”
Xena listened hard to the wind, trying to recall from her waking memory what the sound was. “Yeah.” She felt her breathing slow, and the shaking in her legs eased. “Yeah, sorry. Thought I heard something.”
The bard sat up and gathered her wits about her, after being shaken so unexpectedly from a deep, pleasant dream of Solstice, and home, and laughter. “Well, you could have.” She offered. “There was that cat sound we heard earlier, remember?”
“Wasn’t that.” Xena sat back down, rubbing her face with one hand. “Ah, maybe I was dreaming.” She leaned back against the boulder they were camped next to. “Teach me to fall asleep at the wrong time.”
Gabrielle took up a spot next to her, stretching her legs out and pressing her thigh against her partner’s. Privately, she doubted that, since Xena’s instincts were what they were, and if even in sleep, she’d heard something, well then, she’d probably heard it. “Were you dreaming?”
“I was.” Gabrielle acknowledged. “No screaming, though. It was a really pretty dream, about us.”
“It was your birthday.” The bard supplied. “We were opening presents.” If she closed her eyes, she could just catch a faint image of the last of the dream, and wondered what she’d managed to give Xena that had resulted in the look of delighted wonder on her face.
Xena smiled in reflex, despite the lingering tendrils of alarm still prickling over her skin. “That does sound nice.” She allowed. “Wish we were home right now.”
“Me too.” Gabrielle took a breath to go on, then stopped, as a loud trumpet broke the silence. “Oh!”
Xena’s eyes widened. “Maybe I wasn’t dreaming.” She said. “I think that was the sound I heard.”
“It’s those big animals.” The bard said. “What’s happening? Do you think they’re being attacked?” She reached for her staff automatically.
Another trumpet sounded, this one higher, and brassier. Xena started to scramble to her feet again. “Let’s go find out.”
Willingly, Gabrielle got up and followed her, grabbing their pack and swinging it to her back as she trotted in Xena’s footsteps towards a break in the bushes.
They pushed their way through the underbrush, adding a few scrapes as they struggled through brambles and ducked under low overhanging branches. “Ugh.” Gabrielle shook her hand rapidly, as she felt a slimy sucking on it. “Slugs!”
“Guhh.” Xena grunted. “Figures.” She increased her pace. “Over there.”
They heard another trumpet, and this time, more joined it. Gabrielle pushed forward anxiously. To her ears, it had a frantic sound. “Hurry.” She told her partner. “Something must be wrong.”
Xena didn’t reply, saving her strength for the stubborn foliage that was now not only blocking her way, but depositing slugs on her. “Give me your staff.” She reached back, closing her fingers on the smooth wood and taking hold of it. “Thanks.”
“Anytime, hon.” Gabrielle patted her back, then dropped back a step as her partner started to take short, savage swings at the bushes, sending twigs, leaves, and she suspected, slugs flying off into the darkness. While she never really felt good about killing anything, slugs were way down on her list of things to sympathise with, and so, she merely tried not to hear them slapping into trees around her.
They finally broke out of the hedges and found themselves on a small ridge overlooking a flat plateau. In the starlight, they spotted the big animals all clustered around one area, and milling around anxiously. “There!” Gabrielle pointed. “Look!”
“Something’s got them upset.” Xena agreed. “Cat, maybe?”
“Let’s go help them.” Gabrielle retrieved her staff from her partner’s hand and started down the ridge at a good clip, feeling a bit more confident in the silver dimness. “C’mon, Xe.”
Xena just watched her for a moment, before she shook her head and started down after the bard. “You know something?” She called out. “Ya little…Gabrielle!”
“What?” Gabrielle shouted back over her shoulder.
“Next time you ask me how we get into things like this, I’m gonna hand you a damn mirror!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Gabrielle waved her free hand in the air. “C’mon, Xena… they’re the only things we’ve found here so far we’ve liked!”
The warrior broke into a jog, catching up to Gabrielle as they rambled down the slope together side by side. They passed through a lower fringe of sparser trees and as they emerged from them onto the plateau the moon edged grumpily over the valley rim and bathed them in unexpected light.
“Ah.” Xena spotted the big animal herd just off the center of the plateau. “Least we can see what’s going on.” She glanced up, judging the angle. “But we don’t have long, so…” The warrior loped ahead, her longer stride eating up the distance rapidly.
“Now who’s rushing?” Gabrielle sped up to catch her, the long grass lashing against her thighs. Something moved in front of her and she jumped over it with wide eyes, then exhaled as she recognized it as a rabbit. “Whoa, buddy.. watch it!”
The big animals made noise again, this time louder, and she saw one turn it’s head and spot them. “They see us, Xe!”
“Yeah.” Xena watched the animal carefully as they closed in on the herd. The one who had seen them lifted it’s snout and waved it, almost as if in greeting, and made a sound, but to her admittedly limited knowledge of the noises, it didn’t sound threatening.
She hoped. As they got closer, she slowed and put an arm out to keep Gabrielle from flying past her. “Easy.”
Gabrielle obediently eased her pace, putting her free hand on Xena’s back as they eased closer to the big animals. They were clustered somewhat tightly in a group, around what she now realized was a small lake. She could hear splashing from the center of the crowd, and now that they were closer, frightened squeals.
“Oh.” Gabrielle had ducked down and was peering through the legs of the animals. “Xena, I think that’s the baby!” She scrambled fearlessly forward, reaching the sides of the nearest of the beasts before she felt a tug on the back of her belt. “Stop that!”
“Just making sure I don’t lose you.” Xena replied, unperturbed. “Watch it. One of these thigns could move and mash you and never know it.” She slowed the bard’s progress, keeping a very wary eye on the two animals on either side of them.
Gabrielle boldly put her hand on the nearest animal’s leg and leaned against it, easing around it so she could see what they were all looking at. “Oh!” She inhaled in alarm, spotting the problem. “Xena, look!”
“I see it.” Xena put an unobtrusive arm around her partner’s middle in case she had to toss her out of harms way. At the edge of the little lake was a huge patch of churned up mud, and in the middle of that was the baby animal, caught fast.
The big ones kept shifting and moving towards him, but their feet were sinking fast into the soft mud, and after a few steps they backed out nervously, sending up a cacophony of sound that was ringing Xena’s eardrums from the inside out.
“We can help it.” Gabrielle started to move past the animal, but it shifted and let out a squall, and she stopped, as the groups attention turned to them and she could sense anger in the attitudes around her. “Um..”
The animals moved restlessly, and the one nearest raised it’s snout and waved it, swinging it dangerously close to Gabrielle’s head.
The bard ducked. “Uh… Xena, can you do that animal magic of yours?”
“Now you’re asking me?” Xena picked her up and hauled her backwards, turning to drop her behind where the warrior was standing. “Stay.”
Gabrielle knew perfectly well neither of them really expected her to obey the command, but she nodded, and watched as the warrior turned and faced the biggest of the animals, her body posture altering significantly as she moved forward.
“Easy.” Xena focused on the animal, who was watching her with angry eyes and an upraised snout. She spread her arms out a little from her body, and opened her hands, turning them palm upward and letting her fingers relax.
These were not horses. Xena knew that. But when you didn’t have a common language with another creature, you had to start somewhere. Gabrielle had been right all along. “Okay.” The warrior took a cautious step forward, blocking the baby animals squealing out of her mind for the moment. “Now.. listen.”
Her voice pitched lower, gentler without her conscious thought, and she kept eye contact with the animal despite the fact that it’s eye towered over her. “You got a problem there, right?” She shifted her eyes to the baby, then back, very quickly.
The animal stopped trumpeting. It stared steadily at Xena, then, in uncanny mimicry, it looked at the baby and then back at her.
Xena felt a prickle run up her spine. There was intelligence behind that eye, and she knew she’d better respect it. “Okay.” Slowly, she knelt, and untied the gut holding her boot closed. “Now… here’s the deal.” She pulled off her boot and tossed it in Gabrielle’s general direction, then switched knees, and did the same for the other.
“What are you doing?” Gabrielle asked, in a low voice.
“Stripping.” The warrior spared her a wry look, before she stood up and focused on the animal again. She moved a step towards it and it shifted, raising it’s snout over her head, moving to block her advance, and staying between her and the baby.
Its back legs sunk into the mud, and it shifted anxiously.
Xena took another step forward, the sticky mud just solid enough to hold her weight. She made eye contact, then deliberately she looked down at her own feet, and then back up at the creature’s eyes.
Still sinking, the creature moved, flapping it’s ears and curling it’s snout up as it moved away from the baby, and towards Xena, and towards more solid ground.
“Xe.” Gabrielle swallowed a nervous dryness in her throat as she watched the huge beast tower over her partner. The animal next to her shifted, and looked at her, it’s snout slithering in her direction curiously. She caught it in her hand and kept her eyes glued on Xena’s casually erect posture as the warrior stood her ground and let the agitated creature come right up against her.
Next time, Gabrielle. The bard exhaled. Think. Think about what the Hades you get into. She tightened her grip on her staff, having no illusions as to whether it would do anything against the huge animals but knowing she’d at least be in there swinging. “Xena!”
“Easy.” The warrior lifted a hand in reassurance. “Don’t hit anything yet, okay?”
Xena could almost sense the teeth grinding behind her, as she let the big animal bump into her with it’s snout, the impact nearly knocking her over. She was now nose to snout with it and before she could move back, it wrapped it’s snout around her and the grip tightened.
Uh oh. Xena’s sensitive ears caught the sound of Gabrielle’s increased breathing and the soft scuff as the bard set herself to attack. “Gab, stay still.” She warned. “I think it’s just checking me out.” A moment later, she almost regretted saying it as the animal lifted her up and turned her sideways, making her fight to remain still.
“Xena!” Gabrielle bolted between the legs of the nearer beasts and headed for the big one, her staff out an in a ready position. She charged right for the animal’s legs and got her hands set, aiming for it’s kneecaps. “Let her down you…. You…. !!!!”
Xena had a good look at the animals eyes from upside down and she saw them widen at this sudden, noisy attack. “GABRIELLE!!!!” She bellowed at the top of her voice. “STOP!”
Somehow, the bard did, skidding in the mud and slamming into the animal’s legs instead. She bounced off and backed up, just barely keeping from falling on her butt. “Let her down!”
The animal swung around, stepping away from Gabrielle and back into the mud. She tossed her head, and at the top of the swing she released Xena’s body, throwing it towards the baby with a negligent strength and a single, brassy bugle.
Feeling herself released, Xena found her place in mid air and flipped, her body easily handling the rapid change of direction and twisting to bring her feet under her as she landed not a bodylength from the baby animal, the impact driving her almost to her knees into the gooey clay.
The big animal turned back to Gabrielle and bugled again, defiantly.
Gabrielle hauled off and whacked it in the kneecap as hard as she could.
Snorting in surprise, the animal backed, then swung it’s snout at her, pausing when Gabrielle shifted her staff warningly, glaring up fearlessly at it’s big eye.
Caught between wanting to help the floundering baby, and anxiety about her reckless partner, Xena grabbed up a handful of the mud and threw it, hitting Gabrielle on the side.
The bard jumped back, and turned, surprised at the attack from an unexpected source. “Hey!”
“Chill, wouldja!” Xena said. “”I’m fine!” She turned to the baby and yanked one of her feet free of the mud to move closer. “Now, kiddo…” She told the small animal. “ You just relax, huh?”
The baby bugled in fear and tried to struggle away from her.
“Shh.. shh..” Xena held her hands out, keeping one eye on the huge beasts shifting restlessly around her equally restless partner. “It’s okay. Easy now.” She got within arms length of the animal and crouched down, getting to it’s eye level.
It was scared. Xena could feel that, see it in the small face. The animal was sunk up almost to it’s shoulders now and it was weakening, it’s cries growing softer as she watched. Touched, she held a hand out to it, palm up. “Easy, little one.”
The baby looked at her, and then it looked over at the rest of it’s herd. The biggest of the animals raised it’s snout and waved it.
The baby looked back at Xena, and, hesitantly, extended it’s snout towards her and touched her hand.
“I won’t hurt you.” The warrior told it, gently, as she folded her fingers around the snout, rubbing it softly with her thumb. “We just want to get you outta here.” Cautiously, she edged closer, the mud sucking at her legs, but unable to hold the more slender, and irregular surface as it was the creatures’. “Easy.”
The baby stayed quiet, only it’s eyes moving to watch her as she got up next to it, and started digging one leg free of the mud. “Gabrielle?” Xena looked up, surveying the mud. “Get some branches.”
The bard looked around, then back at her. “How about long grass?”
Gabrielle laid her staff down and ducked between the creatures, taking her knife from her belt and startng to saw at the wheat colored grass. A glance overhead told her they didn’t have much moonlight to work by, and she hacked at the thick, tough stalks as fast as she could.
She got an armful, and went back to the mud’s edge, laying them down in a clump before she turned and started back for more. “Hope I can do this fast enough.” She muttered, knowing the grass would soon sink in to the clay surface.
The vibration of the ground nearly knocked her down, and she turned to find the rest of the herd behind her, watching her intently. One of the smaller creatures came up next to her and wrapped its snout around a thick batch of the grass, ripping it from the ground with little effort. It looked at her, and waved the batch, in an almost inquiring manner.
Gabrielle got up and held her arms out. The animal stepped forward and gave up the bundle to her, then stepped back. “Wow.” The bard managed to get out. “You really are smart, aren’t you?” She headed for the edge of the lake. “Xena, you won’t believe what just happened.”
“Busy now.” Xena was almost under the baby, one arm supporting a leg, the other wrapped around it’s body.
The bard dropped her load, then started back, only to find the animals approaching, each with a snoutful of grass. “Hang on, hon. Be out to you soon.”
Xena grunted, straining her body to support the baby, which, though young, outweighed her by a good deal. “C’mon, kid… you can do it.”
Gabrielle quickly spread the grass out towards them, yanking her boots free of the sticky stuff as she moved back and forth. She got to her partner just as the moon started to set and threw the last armful down. “Okay!” She got down next to Xena, and grabbed the baby’s other leg, as it struggled to get free of the mud. “Boy… glad Dori’s not this big.”
The warrior snorted. “Where’d you get the scythe?” She rasped.
“Didn’t.” Gabrielle slipped and dropped to her knees. “Ow.” She got an arm under the baby’s knee, then wrapped her other arm around it and strained her back muscles to their fullest trying to pull the leg free. “Sheeps!”
Their heads both jerked up, as a wild yowl floated over the plateau. “Oh, peachy.” Xena hauled upwards. “C’mon kid, you don’t want to be kitty chow.”
The baby squealed, apparently recognizing the sound, and it started to struggle harder, lashing it’s snout around and whacking it’s earstwhile rescuers.
“Ow!” Gabrielle repeated, ducking. “Cut that out!” She managed to pull the baby’s leg free and she grabbed the flat, round foot and put it up onto the straw covered surface. “C’mon! You can do it!”
Xena got behind the animal and wrapped her arm around a hind leg, getting her thigh muscles into the picture and tensing her entire body as the baby struggled. “Get the other front leg!”
“Getting!” Gabriell sprawled over the top of the animal, landing mostly on her head and shoulder in the mud on it’s other side. She squirmed around and got her arm under the stuck right leg and hauled upward. “Pull baby.. you can do it!”
The baby seemed to understand, and it started yanking it’s leg as she tugged, it’s snout reaching forward to touch the grass.
“Pull!” Gabrielle gasped.
“One…” Xena readied herself. “Two..”
“Threee!” The bard finished, and they hauled in unison, as though their bodies were joined together.
With a squeal, the baby lunged forward, and got both front legs on the straw. It pulled forward, almost crawling on it’s knees as Xena gave it one last shove from behind.
“Xena!” Gabrielle yelled, spotting long, racing figures on the shore. “Look!”
The big animals spotted them too, and as one, the herd wheeled and charged, making the ground shake and the air vibrate with their trumpets.
The baby squealed in fear, it’s small snout waving as it cried out to it’s family. Xena scrambled up onto the straw and pulled the baby forward. “C’mon, little one. This stuff wont’ last.”
“Xena… “ Gabrielle grabbed her. “Look.”
“I know.” The warrior said. “But we’ve got to get this done while we can, Gabrielle. Let them take care of the cats.” She got an arm around the baby’s head and coaxed it forward. “Give me a hand here, huh?”
Gabrielle tore her attention from the warfare ashore and struggled up next to the baby, taking hold of it’s leg and helping Xena to move it forward. “C’mon, sweetie.” She listened to it’s soft cries. “It’s okay.”
They just reached the edge of the lake when a scream rent the air. Xena and Gabrielle turned to see one of the big creatures stomping on something on the ground, it’s snout waving angrily in the air.
“Wow.” Gabrielle’s eyes widened. “Look at them go.”
Two cats tried to jump on the biggest animal, but it knocked them aside with it’s tusks in mid air, and they heard a squall as one cat was impaled with a toss of the big animal’s head.
Casual. Just as casually as it had tossed Xena. Gabrielle exhaled shakily. They were playing with a fire they didn’t really even understand. “Whew.” She wiped mud from her eyes.
“Mm.” Xena’s nose twitched, catching the scent of blood and musk, and she sat down next to the exhausted baby, glad enough to let something else do the fighting for a change. She patted its shoulder. “You all right, little one?”
The baby waved its snout, reaching over to touch Xena’s face with the soft nub on its end. It explored her cheekbone curiously, a gentle tickle that made the warrior’s lips twitch just a little.
Gabrielle plopped down next to her, as the last of the moonlight faded and left them in the starlights’ bare dusk, the stench of mud and animals all around them. She could feel the stuff caking all over her skin, and it was starting to itch, but she was too tired to do anything but sit there, and lean against Xena’s equally muddy body. “I’m glad we did that.”
“Me too.” Xena now had her hand open, and the baby was curling it’s snout around her fingers. “But I don’t’ want to see what we look like when the damn sun comes up.”
Gabrielle chuckled wearily.
The thunder against the ground warned them, and they looked up to find the herd returning, coming to cluster around them, towering over them and blocking out the stars as they shifted and shuffled, standing shoulder to shoulder facing the two of them, and the baby.
Everything went quiet.
Gabrielle waited for several breaths before she turned her head cautiously towards her partner. “So now what?”
Xena was busy watching the big animals, who were apparently just as busy watching her. She cautiously shifted her position, easing away from the baby. “Don’t move.”
“No problem.” The bard was content to lean on her elbows, despite the caking of the mud and rest, twisting her head from side to side to relieve the beginnings of a headache. She was very happy they’d gotten the baby animal out of trouble, but she was beginning to wonder what kind of trouble they’d gotten themselves into in the process.
It always worked out that way, she reflected. The greater good always had a price, and usually they were the ones who ended up paying it. She found a small rock on the ground, half buried in the mud and she picked it up to look idly at it, the rough surface rubbing against her fingertips.
Gabrielle looked over at her partner in some puzzlement. “It’s just a rock.” She said, then straightened as she realized she wasn’t being addressed. The baby animal had gotten to it’s feet and was busy exploring Xena with it’s snout, pawing over her soulmate’s skin with impunity. “Aw.” She chuckled softly. “That’s so cute.”
“This isn’t funny.” Xena was trying to get the animal to stop fondling her. She was watching the big animals from the corner of her eye, but they didn’t seem inclined to interfere, and in fact, seemed a bit amused as well. “And how do you know it’s a he?”
Gabrielle cleared her throat gently. “I’m at eye level with his.. um… “
The biggest of the animals now moved forward, it’s steps making the muddy, caked ground vibrate. It stopped next to the baby and reached out to caress it with it’s snout, urging it away from Xena and into the circle of the herd.
The baby protested, bugling and running behind the warrior, to stand there with it’s snout draped over Xena’s shoulder.
“Hey!” Xena leaned on both hands and looked behind her at the baby. “Cut it out before your mama over there gets mad at me!”
Gabrielle started to laugh silently. She covered her mouth with one hand and forgot her exhaustion, wishing she could capture and keep the image in something other than her memory.
The big animal reached over Xena’s head and tapped the baby on his back, a gust of breath from the tip of it’s snout blowing the warrior’s hair back.
Xena took the opportunity to roll towards Gabrielle and come up onto her knees, catching the bard by the arm and pulling her up right. “C’mon.”
“Awwww.” Gabrielle pointed at the now squalling baby. “Honey, he likes you!”
“Gabrielle.” The warrior sighed.
“Well, he does.” Gabrielle approached the mother animal and held a hand out to her, delighted when the creature reached out and took it in her trunk, tickling her palm with the nub on the end of it. “Are you happy with us now?” She tipped her head back and found the animal’s eye, towering above her. “We’re okay, huh?”
Xena cautiously approached, as the animal shifted and made a snuffling sound. “They’re really something else.” She admitted. “Look at those tusks.” She leaned closer to inspect the curving white tooth, then straightened, as the animal amiably moved and tilted it’s head a bit, to give her a better view.
“That’s so amazing.” Gabrielle stepped closer, putting her hand out to touch the tooth, feeling faint ridges on it. “It’s pretty.”
Masked in shadows, Xena’s face suddenly went pensive. “Mm.” She murmured. “Where I saw the smaller ones… a lot of them were killed so they could take these.” She touched the tooth. “To carve things.”
Gabrielle turned her head, her jaw dropping slightly. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Wait.” The bard turned all the way around and faced her. “You’re telling me they killed one of these animals.. these huge, huge animals, just for that?”
Xena nodded somberly. “They were smaller.” She said. “But yeah.”
Gabrielle looked away, then back at her. “Not even.. I mean, we use animals we kill, Xena. I know that.” She said. “But for food, and whatever else..”
“Yeah.” Xena cut her gently off, sensing the animals were getting restless. “Let’s not talk about this right now, huh?”
The bard’s brows creased, what could be seen of them that wasn’t covered in mud, then her eyes shifted to the animals. “Oh. Right.” She murmured. “Well, you brought it up.”
Xena wrinkled her nose, then reached up and scratched it, removing a patch of dried gunk as she did so. “How about a bath?”
“Uuunnnggh.” Gabrielle issued a tiny groan.
Xena took that as the answer it obviously was, and after giving the big animal a last pat on the snout, she started to edge around her.
The animal bugled, wrapping her snout around Xena and pulling her to a halt. The baby also scrambled after them and thumped into the warrior’s knees, letting out a surprised blatt. It wrapped it’s snout around Xena’s leg and sat down, flapping it’s ears vigorously.
Xena exhaled. She took a firm hold of the big animal’s snout, and unwound it from her body. Then she did the same thing with the little one’s, springing sideways a entire bodylength after she got free and ducking between two of the other animals.
“Hey!” Gabrielle scrambled after her, hoping they didn’t get squashed.
The big animal trumpeted in surprise, then the entire herd shifted and moved around, getting out of the big one’s way as they wheeled and started after their escaping entertainment.
“Next time, Gabrielle.” Gabrielle put on a burst of speed and caught Xena as they got clear of the mud. “Just plug your darn ears.”
“Nah.” Xena headed for a rock escarpment over the lake, where she was reasonably sure the animals couldn’t follow them. “They’re just playing with us.” She felt a thunder under her feet as the herd got up to speed and chased them.
“Uh.. huh.” Gabrielle glanced behind them. “Xe, we left our pack back there.”
“Yeah, I know.” The warrior reached the rock escarpment and scrambled up onto it, turning as she got to the top an extending her hands to Gabrielle. “C’mon.. we can go back for it.”
“Go b..” Gabrielle caught hold of her fingers and tensed her shoulders instinctively as Xena lifted, hauling her up off the ground with little effort on her part. She got her feet on the top of the rock just as the first of the big animals got to them, and a snout snaked between her legs as she hopped awkwardly forward out of reach. “Yahh!”
The animal bugled indignantly at her, and she turned to see the whole herd standing there watching them. Behind her, Xena chuckled softly, and as Gabrielle turned, the warrior put her hands firmly on her hips and smiled. “Now what?” The bard asked. “This rock isn’t that big.”
Xena turned and went to the edge facing the water. “Doesn’t need to be.” She turned and extended her hand as the animals started bumping against the rock, jarring them both. “Uh oh.”
Gabrielle lurched forward, grabbing hold of Xena just as Xena reached and latched on to her waist, and just as the animals snouts curled around both their legs. She felt Xena’s body coil and knew what it meant, and as the pressure increased around her middle she closed her eyes and held her breath.
Her feet left the ground, and she felt the cool air surround her, as the touch of the animals and the thick, musky scent of them fell back to be replaced with the strong, clean smell of water. She just had time to tak another breath when they plunged into the lake, and the darkness of the air was replaced with the colder, denser darkness of the water.
Xena’s hold on her never wavered, though, and she just waited as the warrior kicked hard, sending them back to the surface in a shower of chilly droplets and starlit sky overhead.
“Bwha.” Xena spat out a mouthful of water. “That was colder than I expected.”
Gabrielle shook the hair out of her eyes and looked back at the shore. “Oh gods.. Xena! Look!!!”
The warrior whirled in the water, her eyes widening as she watched the animals shove the rock they’d been standing on into the lake. “Woah!”
Two of the largest animals then nudged it out of the way and strode into the sloshing lake, heading in their direction with utter determination.
“Yeah, I’m thinking.”
Gabrielle felt below her, and realized it was too deep to stand. She treaded water uncertainly, watching the animals as they plowed towards them. “Hey!’ She did the only thing she could think of, and splashed them with the water. “Whoa there!”
To her surprise, and likely to Xena’s as well, the animals stopped, and bugled. Bard and warrior exchanged glances, then Gabrielle shrugged, and splashed them again, sending a sheet of water towards them and drenching their snouts.
The biggest one gave her a look, then lifted her snout from the water and pointed it at the bard, blowing a sudden blast of water right back at her.
“Bah!” Gabrielle held a hand up to shield her face.
The other one got the idea, and blasted Xena, showering the warrior. “Hey!” She splashed back, and in a moment, there was a full on water fight in progress.
It really was no contest. The animals had an inexhaustible supply of air and water, and it was costing them much less energy to douse the two humans than it was for them to battle back. The biggest one bugled in triumph when Xena turned her back and got between Gabrielle and the shore, blocking the worst of it as she went nose to nose with the bard.
Gabrielle took advantage of that and kissed her. “Our life is so darn bizarre.” She chuckled softly. “Wait.. a sheep’ll drop out of the sky next.”
Xena tilted her head back and looked up in reflex. Then she turned and glared at the animals. “Okay, you win. Now cut it out!”
The big animal sprayed her with water again, waggling her snout at Xena. Then she waited, snout waving over the water.
“She wants us to come closer.” Gabrielle said, positively.
“And you know that… how?”
The animal slapped the water’s surface, then sprayed them again. She waggled her snout, curling the nub at the end at them.
Xena looked at Gabrielle for a long moment, before she exhaled, and swam a few strokes back towards the animal. She paused and waited, lifting her hands clear of the water in a questioning gesture.
The animal bugled at her, a sound that was almost like laughter.
“I swear, Xena.. she understands everything you’re saying.” Gabrielle marveled. “I know she does. That’s amazing!” She paddled over to where Xena was treading, wishing she’d taken off her boots before jumping in.
Gabrielle gave the back of her partner’s neck a friendly scratch. “C’mon, Xena… so many rotten things have happened to us here – isn’t it nice when something cool happens instead?”
“Grumph.” The warrior started back towards the shore, towing her partner until her feet hit gravely bottom and she could stand. She kept an eye on the animals, who had now all moved into the water, and were drinking and spouting at each other.
“Grumpy old thing.” Gabrielle got her boots under her and stood, emerging from the water up to her shoulders. She rubbed her skin, now only tingling from the cold and wished for some soap to get the gray muddy residue off.
Xena stripped off her catskin and rubbed it, fur to fur under the water. “Yeah, yeah.” She muttered, standing up and baring her body to the starlight to the waist.
The animal nearest her bugled in surprise, and came sloshing over. The rest of the herd followed, nearly swamping both women with their wake, and investigated Xena’s relatively pale skin with interest. The warrior watched them warily, but continued her task.
Gabrielle also removed her garments, first using the roughness of the cloth to aid the water in scrubbing her skin, then sloshing them vigorously in front of her. From the corner of her eye, she spotted the baby ambling into the water and heading towards her, snout held high above the water.
It was amazing, she thought, how ready she was to assign benign intelligence to these huge beasts, when they’d found so little of either in their own kind here.
But then, she and Xena knew better, didn’t they? Better than most that many things were in the eye of the beholder, and nothing was always as it seemed? “Hey, little one.” She greeted the baby cheerfully. “Can you swim?’
The baby stopped near her and reached out with it’s snout, pulling curiously at her skirt. Gabrielle swam closer, and scratched his ear with her fingertips. “Darn, he’s so cute.”
Xena merely watched her, seeing the gentle loving warmth so typical of the bard ignite in her eyes as she interacted with the youngster. One of the bigger animals draped it’s snout over her shoulder and as she turned her head, she noticed it was watching the two also.
Damned if there wasn’t something intelligent in there. “Don’t worry.” She told the animal. “She loves everything.”
The animal observed her, a twitch of the ridged skin around it’s eyes giving an uncanny impression of a raised eyebrow.
The animal patted it’s snout against her cheek, and Xena had to smile. Then something tickled her hearing, and she frowned, reaching up in reflex to put her fingertips near her ear. The sound stopped, then happened again.
“What’s wrong?” Gabrielle had noticed the motion.
“I hear something… not sure what it is.” Xena said.
Gabrielle cocked her head, her hands stilling the curious snout of the baby. After a moment, she glanced back over at Xena. “I don’t hear anything.”
The tickle returned, something so faint, and so low Xena almost thought she was imagining it. It was more a vibration against her eardrum than a noise, but it was unlike anything she’d ever heard.
She looked at the big animal, only to find the liquid, intelligent eye watching her just as closely.
Another mystery? Xena heard the sound again. Or maybe the answer to one?
“Almost dawn.” Pony observed, as she dipped her paddle in a little deeper. “Figures.”
Granella arched her back a little, stiff from the long hours in the back of the canoe. The bit of land they’d thought they’d stop at had turned out to be a rocky point with an unexpected marsh behind it unsuitable for anything but a handhold before they launched back down the river to find someplace else.
Problem was, there was no other place. They’d passed leagues and leagues of marshy riverbank, where the flooding had overrun the land and drowned most of the foliage on either side of it. Though the waters were beginning to recede, the swamp remained and so they’d kept on, hoping for better after each bend.
Now they swept around a last angle in the stream, finding a stiff current they had to stroke against, and as they cleared the cliff walls, they found themselves in a lake. “Well, damn.” Pony sighed. “Lookit that.”
The lake dead ended as the walls rose up to a plateau high overhead, and a small waterfall spilled off the edge of the plateau to drop at the far end.
“Guess we’re done cruising.” Granella agreed. “There’s a landing over there. Might as well get out, and wait for dawn.”
“Yeah.” The weapons master said. “Maybe there’s a way around that thing…path over there.” She pointed towards one side of the plateau.
They beached the canoe at the landing and got out. “Whoa.” Pony stretched gratefully. “Hey, we can get a little bit of shuteye.. looks pretty quiet here.”
Her companion tugged the canoe a little further up, and tied the rope on the front firmly to a rooted tree. Then she turned and surveyed the area, what she could see of it in the dim starlight. There was a short, grassy slope that led up from the water, the grass poking from the edge of the lake and indicating it’s rain swollen state. “Nice.”
The slope ended in a rocky embankment a little taller than they were, which curved around and provided a relatively safe camping spot. They dragged their gear up against it and sat down, extending their legs out across the soft grass.
The night sky was still inky black, scattered with twinkling stars, and Granella felt a moment of peace settle over them. The soft sound of the waterfall behind them was scant enough to be soothing rather than annoying, and she could smell honeysuckle on the wind.
She tipped her head back and studied the edge of the cliff far over their heads. “Hey.” She looked over at Pony. “Y’know, maybe if we get up that thing, we can find a way out.”
Pony turned around and looked. “Worth a shot.” She said. “Specially since… yeah, I can see Xena and Gab thinking the same damn thing.”
“Yup.” Granella wriggled into a more comfortable position. “Now, if we could just find some sign of them, I’d be happy.”
Pony sighed. “We gotta stop saying that.” She said. “It’s like a jinx.”
“It worked the first time.” Granella said. “Like a charm.”
They both fell into introspective silence. After a moment, Pony got up and shook her boot vigorously, and then she started walking along the wall they were sheltered near. Granella hesitated, then remained where she was, twisting sideways and lying down flat on her back as she listened to Pony’s low, tuneless whistling.
Briefly, she wondered what was going on back home. The twins were surprisingly well behaved most of the time, so she figured Toris would have them under control, but she’d sensed a storm brewing over the flooding of the lower town and she hoped the lid would stay on that until they got back.
Until they brought Xena and Gabrielle back with them. She suspected that the trouble rearing it’s head wasn’t going to be fixed by anyone other than them, because anyone else would crumble under the pressure of all those merchants and the expectations of the town.
Even Cyrene, who had the most backbone of anyone in the village, hands down. In fact, Granella suspected she was the second most feared person in Amphipolis.
Or third, if you counted Dori.
Xena and Gabrielle wouldn’t cave to the merchants.. Not only that, Granella had to smile a little, not only that, they’d probably turn the situation around so that the merchants would end up paying the town rather than the opposite.
She had confidence in that, and so did Toris and even Cyrene. If Xena couldn’t scare them to death, Gabrielle would argue them into stark raving madness, but either way the result would be the same, and then they could go back to cleaning up and rebuilding.
Getting on with life.
So they had to find the two of them, and get back. Granella nodded silently to herself. And they would. She was sure of it.
Pony walked along the ridge, until it sloped down low enough for her to see over it. Barely visible in the starlight she could see a half hidden stream that carried the water from the small falls down to the lake, and a thick stand of bushes that sloped up towards it.
She put her hands on the ridge and boosted herself up onto it, standing and brushing her hands off as she continued on her way. Though it was dark, and they’d traveled all night – still, she wasn’t tired enough to go to sleep.
Worry was a part of that, she figured. Somewhere out there, Xena and Gabrielle were under the same stars as she was, and she just had this feeling that where ever they were, it wasn’t a very good place. With a sigh, she paused next to the stream and knelt, dipping her hands into the clear, cold water and bringing it to her lips.
Then she stopped, a sound reaching her ears she hadn’t expected. She straightened up and listened again, cocking her head to one side and closing her eyes.
All she heard now was normal night sounds. Crickets off in the bushes, the whisper of wind through the trees. The soft trickling roar of the waterfall.
After a long moment, she opened her eyes and frowned, putting her hands on her hips. “I’m not nuts.”
Pony looked around, spotting Granella’s head poking over the ridge. “Yeah?”
“You say something?”
“Um..” Pony listened again, but the sound wasn’t repeated. “Nah, I was just taking a drink.” She trudged back over to the embankment and sat down on it, dangling her feet to one side of Granella. “You hear any birds?”
“Birds?” Granella frowned. “At night? No.. should I have?”
Pony tapped the side of her head. “Probably just the waterfall then.” She said. “Heard Gabrielle once say it sounded like music sometimes.”
Granella snorted softly. “She sees stuff in everything.” She said. “Must be part of that storytelling thing.. I’ve seen her sit and watch butterflies for freaking ever, and then start talking about one of them was this color, and one was that color, and why did they fly this way.. whatever.”
“Yeah.” Pony said, after a moment of silence. “Xena once told me the scariest thing in the world was knowing she had to live up to what Gabrielle saw in her.”
“So.. if I didn’t actually know big X, I’d kinda have to wonder how much of her rep was her, and how much was Gabrielle’s imagination, y’know?”
Granella plucked a bit of river grass, and chewed the end of it. “If you ask Gabrielle.” She said, matter-of-factly. “She just writes what she sees.”
They both were silent for a while. “So, are they both nuts?” Pony finally said.
“A little.” Granella admitted. “But in a good way.”
Pony sighed, and leaned on her hands. “Wish we could find em.” She said. “Nutty or not, make believe or not, stories and all.”
Granella patted her knee. “We’ll find em.” She said. “For all we know, they could be up on that flat part, looking down at us.”
They both looked up in reflex, but the darkness defeated any attempt to view the cliffs. Pony turned back around and hopped off the ridge, landing with a thump. “C’mon.” She said. “Let’s get some rest before the birds really start singing.”
“You really heard a bird?”
“I heard something.” Pony walked over and dropped down onto the grass, rolling onto her back and putting her hands behind her head. She closed her eyes and exhaled.
Granella took a spot next to her and did the same.
Gabrielle laid her skirt and top out on the rock, and stood behind it so it blocked the wind. Her skin was chilled, and now so was the rest of her from being in the water and she hoped the breeze would dry her clothing in short order.
Now that the excitement was over, her headache was coming back and all the small discomforts were adding up to make her miserable, and there was little indication it was going to get any better any time soon.
At least, not unless Xena came back from her reconnaissance, anyway. Gabrielle sighed and leaned her arm against the rock, rubbing the back of her neck with her other hand and wishing she had some warm tea, at least.
Or her partner, at most.
Xena appeared from around the rock as if by magic, and draped her catskin next to Gabrielle’s togs. She casually stepped behind the bard and wrapped her arms around her, resting her chin on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Hey.”
“Tired. Cold. Wet.” Gabrielle replied, blissfully appreciating the warm body now pressed against hers. After a moment she exhaled. “Okay, scratch the second.”
Xena leaned against the rock and pulled Gabrielle to rest against her, one hand rubbing the bard’s back in a rhythmic pattern. “Better?” She asked, her fingers kneading the knots she could feel along her partner’s spine.
“Ungh.” Gabrielle sighed. “I love you.”
Xena smiled, unseen, over her shoulder. “I love you too.” She replied. “How about we get away from the water.. maybe we can find some shelter behind those other rocks.”
The wind was keeping up it’s incessant rush over the plateau, and Gabrielle privately doubted they’d find anything much. “Sure.” She peered around the rock, finding the herd having moved a little ways off. “What are they doing?”
“Sleeping?” Xena gathered their clothing and nudged the bard. “At least that noise stopped.”
“What noise?” Gabrielle winced, as the wind hit them again and the chill cut right through her. “Oh, brr.”
“The noise I’m trying to convince myself I didn’t hear.” Xena detoured over to where they’d left their pack, and found it being examined by one of the big creatures. “Hey.”
The animal turned and looked at them as they came up, it’s snout still wrapped in the pack’s straps. It bugled softly and lifted the bag, swinging it towards them.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle caught it. “Maybe we can use the skin to make a tent, huh?”
The rest of the herd wandered over, now seeming benignly curious around the two strange creatures they’d apparently accepted. The smaller female who’d been investigating the pack released it and wrapped it’s snout around Gabrielle’s waist instead.
“Uh.” The bard glanced down in some surprise. The snout felt prickly against her skin, but the hold was light, and there seemed to be no aggression in the act. She looked up at the animal, to find it watching her with that same intelligent interest she found so intriguing. “Thanks.”
“Touchy things.” Xena commented. “You must be related.”
“Hah, hah.” Gabrielle gently unwound herself. She gave the snout a pat, then realized the surrounding animals were effectively blocking the wind. “Too bad we can’t just stay here.”
“Here?” Xena looked quizzically at her.
Gabrielle rubbed her arms. “It’s warmer.” She said, in an apologetic tone. “Wind’s getting to me, and I’ve got a darn headache..I think from the chill.”
“All right.” Xena studied their surroundings, which didn’t give much in the way of significant shelter. The plateau was almost flat, with just the lake near one end and a scattering of boulders. They could, she reasoned, go back up into the scrub forest. “Give me a minute. I’ll figure something out.”
Except there were slugs there. The warrior winced. She spotted a few boulders nearby, and led Gabrielle over to them, finding a side that was mostly out of the wind. “Siddown.” She laid their clothes out on top of the boulder while Gabrielle spread the folded skin out on the thick grass.
“Good as it’s gonna get.” Gabrielle took a seat and waited for Xena to settle next to her. The warrior took the ends of the skin and pulled them up, wrapping them in a slightly soggy bundle. It got warmer immediately and she felt the tension in her body relaxing. “Ahh.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Xe.”
“I really like these guys.” Gabrielle watched as the animals drifted over and took up positions nearby. They cropped the grass, ripping it up and stuffing snoutsful into their mouths, chewing with placid unconcern. “They’re grass eaters.”
“Mmhm.” Xena nodded. “Lucky for the other plant eaters. Can you imagine how many rabbits it’d take to feed one of these things?”
Gabrielle chuckled softly.
“Hard enough keeping you fed.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle gave her a poke. “I’m serious. There’s something special about them.”
One of the animals, the biggest one, came over, it’s huge shadow plunging them into complete darkness as it blocked out the stars. It reached it’s snout out and idly plucked at the skin, whuffling softly.
“Amazing.” Gabrielle whispered. She was about to go on, when she felt Xena take a deep breath, and a moment later she held hers as the warrior began to sing.
It was a low, gentle song, that vibrated the air, and thrummed right through Gabrielle where she was pressed against her partner.
The animal stopped moving, it’s trunk lightly resting on Gabrielle’s arm. The rest of the animals turned their heads towards them, and the baby, who had been lying down, jumped up and ran over, skidding to a halt in front of them.
Gabrielle watched them in fascination, as they seemed mesmerized by Xena’s voice.
But then again, who wasn’t?
Morning brought a rich, golden light and a sweet breeze that smelled of spring. Gabrielle opened her eyes into it and knew a moment of peace as the thick grass rippled around her and a single, lone hawk sailed overhead.
She watched it disappear, and then she turned her head to study Xena’s profile. The warrior was lying on half on her side, half on her back, with Gabrielle tucked inside the circle of her arms, apparently content to stay like that until whenever…
Well, whenever. “Morning.” Gabrielle cleared her throat of the huskiness of sleep.
“Morning.” Xena returned the greeting amiably. “How are you feeling?”
“Feeling?” Gabrielle cocked her head a little to one side.
“You were a little stressed last night.”
The bard gazed quietly into the dawn before she flicked her eyes up to her partner’s face, and smiled. “There’s never been anything in the world wrong with me waking up in your arms couldn’t cure.”
Xena blinked a few times, her dark lashes fluttering over her pale eyes.
“Except over the top romanticism.” Gabrielle amended. “No cure for that. Sorry.”
The warrior chuckled softly, leaning forward to give her partner an affectionate kiss on the head.
Gabrielle rested her cheek against Xena’s collarbone. “It’s true though.” She murmured. “All the dinars in the world couldn’t buy what this feels like.” She rubbed her thumb across one of Xena’s ribs. “You know – that’s what’s so alien about those hooters.”
“Uh?” Xena’s brows contracted. “What?”
The bard turned, and gestured towards the huge creatures they’d spent the night with. They were browsing nearby, and one was caressing the baby. “Look at them. They’re not even remotely like us, Xena, and they know what love is.”
“Oh.” The warrior grunted. “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
“Those hooters… its like they had no emotions.” Gabrielle went on. “Nothing except for fear, and.. um.. “
“Lust.” Xena supplied succinctly.
“We know both of those things.” The warrior added. “Don’t we?”
Gabrielle was momentarily silent, then she tipped her head back and made eye contact. “Yes.” She pronounced delicately. “We most certainly do know those things. But that’s not what I meant and you know it.” She lifted Xena’s hand in hers and kissed the back of it, then turned the unresisting appendage over and kissed the palm. “They don’t know what this is.”
“Hm.” Xena murmured, her face shifting as she thought. “Maybe that’s why we couldn’t communicate with them.” She suggested. “Even the one who could talk.. there was something just not right there.”
“She had no emotions.”
“I can’t even imagine what that would be like.” Gabrielle said. “I think the closest I’ve ever come to that is right after the war. I felt… “ She hesitated. “Burned out, I guess.”
Xena looked down at her. “That was a pretty intense time for us.” She acknowledged. “But I don’t think you were ever that burned out. Even I wasn’t… that time in Chin.”
They both remained silent for a few minutes after that. Then Gabrielle exhaled. “Okay.” She shifted, and sat up. “Now that we’ve had our deep, meaningful talk for the day.. how about breakfast?”
Xena sat up with her, but instead of getting up, she wrapped her arms around the bard and gave her a big hug, pulling her close and kissing her soundly.
The bard squeaked a little in surprise, before she relaxed and fell back against her partner, accepting the smothering hold and the sincerity of the passion beneath it.
They parted, and Gabrielle had to catch her breath. “Whoa.”
“Gabrielle, you saved my life, and saved my soul in a place that no one would have blamed you to walk away from.” Xena whispered to her, as they sat there nose to nose. “Please don’t ever think I regret that.”
The bard looked into her eyes, shocked at the sudden, desperate emotion of the moment. She hadn’t meant to drag any of that up… Hades, far from it!
But here it was, looking back at her from Xena’s brilliant blue eyes, a truth she hadn’t even considered wondering about for a very long time. “Xena.” She exhaled. “You saved my life, and my soul in that same place.” She lifted her hand and touched her partner’s cheek. “No regrets. For either of us.”
Xena smiled, after a moment. “Okay.” She replied. “Just wanted to clear that up.”
Gabrielle’s eyes dropped, and she let her shoulders relax. “Sheep tails, Xena… it’s too early for all this stuff. My head’s still inside some dream or something or..”
“Shh.” The warrior pulled her close again, and they sat together, just rocking for a few minutes. “I know. We’re idiots sometimes.”
“Ungh.” Gabrielle thumped her head gently against her partner’s chest, then merely leaned against it for a bit. After her heartbeat settled down, she straightened up and faced Xena, giving the warrior a tiny, wry shake of her head. “Yeah, we are, aren’t we?”
Xena reached up and gently caught her head between both hands. “Now.” She patted the bard’s cheek. “Let’s go find breakfast.”
They unwrapped themselves from the skin and stood up, exposing bare skin to the sun which quickly warmed it. “Ah.” Gabrielle walked over to the rock surface they’d left their clothes on and touched hers, which was comfortingly dry and warm.
She put on her wraps, and then her half shirt, drawing the laces closed as her still buzzing mind thought about what had just happened. She glanced at Xena as the warrior joined her in dressing, her eyes searching the angular planes of her face. “I don’t feel like eating much right now.”
The corners of Xena’s lips twitched. “Me either.”
And then, suddenly, it did become funny, at least in a sad, somewhat wistful way. Gabrielle picked up her wraparound skirt and bumped Xena’s hip with hers before she put it on, adjusting the belt as she tied it. “But I guess I’d better, huh?” She asked. “Otherwise I’m going to have to learn to use that staff one handed, cause this thing’s falling off me.”
Xena reached over and stuck two fingers into the belt and pulled, drawing the leather away from the bard’s waist. “Yeah.” She agreed. “Guess I’m going fishing.” She tied the rough belt Gabrielle had made her around the catskin and ran her hands through her hair. “Before you get transparent.”
“Hey.” Gabrielle patted her on the side, giving the ribs there a tickle. “Get some fish for you too, huh?” She studied the warrior, reaching up to touch her cheek.
Xena managed a brief grin, and a wave before she turned around and headed for the lake, still barelegged. She waded into the water with a stolid stride, her attention already focused below the surface.
The sun spilled over her, and made her almost glow as she stood there, amidst the sparkling water, and despite the ragged clothing and unkempt hair, the wild beauty showed through without effort.
Gabrielle rested her hand on the rock and watched her for a long moment, before she turned and picked up one boot, starting to tug it on. The leather was stiff from it’s long soaking, and she had to stamp and work at it to get it to fit, which attracted the attention of the big animals.
The baby came running over to check her out, immediately grabbing her other boot with his snout. “Hey!” Gabrielle hopped after him. “No, honey.. I need that.”
The baby bugled happily, scrambling back out of her reach as he waved the boot in the air. His eyes, in the daylight, were a deep hazel and they sparkled with mischief.
“Good grief.” Gabrielle was caught halfway between annoyance and laughter. “Now, c’mon, little guy… don’t make me chase you, okay?” She knelt, and extended her hand to him. “C’mon, bring it over here.”
He stopped and watched her, his snout swinging back and forth, all but saying ‘dare ya!’ to her.
Gods, Just like Dori. The bard put her hands on her hips and shook her head. The baby shook his head back at her and danced from foot to foot, then scampered a few steps back, enticing her to chase him. “Oh no.” Gabrielle told him. “I’m a mother, I’ll have you know, and I know better.”
The baby bugled, and one of the big animals bugled back with what had to be a note of amusement.
“Oh yeah?” Gabrielle took a seat on the thick grass and pulled her legs up crossed under her. She plucked a few strands of the pale strands and started weaving them together into the beginnings of a basket, keeping her attention strictly on her task and ignoring the baby animal.
The baby bugled and stamped a foot.
Gabrielle kept up her weaving, adding another few strands to the task. She was aware of a soft percussion moving towards her, but she kept her head down.
A faint, warm amusement suddenly washed over her, and she realized after a startled moment that it was coming from Xena and not from the animals. She casually lifted her hand and made a sign, and the warmth intensified, soothing her still slightly rattled insides.
Damn, that had knocked her off balance. Gabrielle frowned, wondering at the sense of fragility she’d felt. After all this time, it surprised her to have the ghost of Lao Ma kick her in the rear at the most unexpected of moments.
Ah well. Gabrielle peeked up, and saw the baby edging closer, dragging her boot by it’s laces from his snout. Xena had, after all, known how to handle it, even though she hadn’t answered quite the question that had sprung up in Gabrielle’s mind.
She’d answered a more important one instead.
Gabrielle sighed a little, as a curious snout came creeping through the grass to curl around her nascent basket. “Who’s that?” She put a finger on the little nub, and watched it investigate the braiding. “Hey, wanna trade?”
The baby bugled softly.
“Trade ya this for that, what about it, huh?” Gabrielle offered up the grass, and took hold of her boot. After a brief ponder, the baby took the grass and sat down, stuffing it into his mouth and chewing it with a look of smug cheerfulness.
Gabrielle put her boot on and tied it. “There.” She reached over and scratched his head. “Now we’re both happy.” She looked up as the big animal she’d decided was the baby’s mother strolled over and took up a position nearby, pulling up the thick grass by the snout full. “Boy.” The bard rested her chin on her fist. “I’d love to be able to eat grass sometimes, you know?”
The big animal tossed a bundle her way. It landed near her knee, and Gabrielle picked up a few stalks of it, rolling them between her fingers thoughtfully. The baby got up and came over, reaching for the grass with a little gurgling noise. “Here, you want this?” The bard handed it to him, watching the serious expression on his face as he collected it and stuffed it into his mouth.
It made her smile. “You’re so cute.” She told him. “My daughter would love you.”
The baby looked up and past her, his eyes widening a little, but Gabrielle recognized the presence approaching, and she gave the little one a comforting pat. “Is that your buddy coming?” She turned her head to see Xena strolling up from the lake, two big fish clutched in one hand and a piece of driftwood in the other. “Nice.”
Xena smiled, taking a seat on a rock nearby and setting the fish down. She turned her attention to the driftwood, breaking it into smaller pieces with casual strength.
Then her head lifted, and she turned her face into the wind. “Gab?”
Gabrielle got up and went over to her. “What’s up?”
Gabrielle breathed out, waited, then turned into the wind and inhaled, opening her mouth at the end of the breath and tasting the air as Xena had taught her. “Smoke?” She questioned.
The warrior stood up and scanned the space around them. “Let’s find out.”