One Wild Ride
Xena turned into the wind, crossing the open plain back towards the scrub forest they’d come through the night before. Gabrielle was right behind her, staff in hand, and they walked together through the thick grass.
She could still smell the smoke, but the shifting wind was making it difficult to track down where it was coming from. The ground started sloping up ahead of her, and she decided to detour a bit, moving around to the far side of the scrub opposite where they’d come down.
There was no real need for Gabrielle to come with her, Xena realized. “Hey.” She paused. “If you want to get the fish started…”
“Nope.” The bard answered briskly.
“Nope?” Xena looked at her. “Thought you were hungry.”
“I am.” Gabrielle stepped around her, and circled a big boulder, peering behind it. “But I feel funny eating those fish in front of those big guys.”
Xena rolled her eyes. “Gabrielle.”
The bard held out both hands. “Can’t help it.” She tucked her staff under one arm and started to climb up the rocks. “C’mon. If we’re not going to find the fire, let’s find some berries or something.” She disappeared from view, a few loose slate rocks kicking back towards Xena from the direction she’d gone.
“You’re gonna end up with raw fish again, I’m telling ya.”
“No, I’m not.” The bard called back, unseen. “But if I find berries, you can bet you won’t be getting any, slowpoke!!”
Xena had to shake her head and chuckle softly, before she hopped up onto the rock, pressing her body up and getting her feet under her as she stood, stepping lightly across the surface of the boulder and peering down at where her partner was cautiously inching up on the other side.
She watched Gabrielle make her way along, the bard’s muscular body catching the sunlight as she moved with stolid balance and her own peculiar grace.
The bard had never been… well, unredeemably clumsy, exactly, but when they’d first met, Xena had long despaired of her new, young friend living long enough to grow up the way she fell over just about everything in her path.
“Gabrielle!” Xena pushed through the bushes, looking right and left. “Gabrielle!!” She gave the setting sun a cursory glance, then kept going, cocking her head intently to one side to listen for any response. “Gods be damned.. where in Hades is that kid!”
“Here.” A soft voice answered her unexpected.
Xena stopped and looked around, then she parted the branches of a bush and looked inside. She spotted Gabrielle between the leaves, the girls’ face scratched and bleeding. “Hey.” She shoved further inside. “What happened to you?”
Gabrielle looked up at her, the customary eager good nature missing. “What usually happens to me.” She said. “I was trying to get something from that tree over there and I slipped and fell and.. “ She stopped speaking, flexing her hand and wiping a bit of blood off her face. “Just.. go do whatever you were going to do, Xena. Leave me here.”
And in that moment, looking back, Xena should have realized her life had changed beyond redemption. She felt a pang in her chest and hesitated, the girl’s words echoing her in ears.
Could she leave her? She’d been cursing herself for letting Gabrielle come with her for how many moons now? Wasn’t this her chance?
Xena looked into those sad, discouraged green eyes, and damn it, what was it about this kid? Leave her?
Before she could stop herself, she was crouching in the bushes, resting her elbow on her knee as she studied that banged up face. “You can’t stay here.” She told Gabrielle firmly. “So c’mon.”
Gabrielle merely looked back at her with an unhappy expression.
Xena held her hand out. “I never ask twice.” She warned.
After a brief hesitation, the girl took her hand. Xena stood up and pulled her from the bushes and into the sunset, the light making her bruises apparent. “Everyone trips once in a while.”
“I trip every other minute.”
Xena led the way back to their campfire. “Ah, you’re just growing.”
“Xena, I am grown.” Gabrielle sighed. “I’m just a klutz.”
That was the truth, and Xena knew it. But for one of the first times in her life, her natural inclination to tell the blunt truth was checked by something new and strange. “No, you’re not, you’re just.. um..”
Gabrielle tripped over a root, and would have fallen if Xena hadn’t had hold of her hand. “Urg!” She made a sound so full of frustration it became something Xena understood completely. “A dork! That’s what I am.”
Xena slowed as they reached the fire, that new and strange something making her turn and take Gabrielle by the shoulders, caught by the painfully open expression on the girl’s face. She realized this was the first time Gabrielle had shown her this vulnerable side, the first time she’d dropped that determinedly upbeat, gung ho attitude that often drove Xena out of her mind.
“I’m no use to you.” Gabrielle said, quietly. “All I do is get us in trouble.”
That was also true. “Gabrielle.” Xena hesitated.
Gabrielle looked away, her posture shifting subtly. Then she looked back at Xena, with no hint of cheerful dissembling in her expression.
Ah. Xena exhaled silently. This was the real Gabrielle. This was the part of her that needed something.
That needed Xena. “Tell you what.” Xena found herself saying. “You’re not a klutz and I’ll prove it to ya.”
“Y.. you will?” The green eyes widened a little.
“Sure.” Xena smiled. “I’ll teach you to dance.”
After a long stunned moment, those eyes nearly came out of Gabrielle’s head. “Wh… Xena, I can’t dance!”
“You will when I’m done with ya.” Xena stated confidently.
“I… I can’t.”
“What’s the matter, you don’t want to dance with me, Gabrielle?” Xena felt the twitch go through the shoulders she still had clasped between her hands. “Hm?”
For a moment, Gabrielle looked everywhere but up at her. “I.. um.. “ Gabrielle’s voice broke, and she cleared her throat.
At last the girl raised her head and met Xena’s eyes. “I always wanted to learn to dance.” She admitted shyly. “You really think it will help?”
Gabrielle’s bright smile returned, lighting up her face. “Thanks, Xena. You’re the best.”
Insane, was more like it. But what the Hades, you only lived once, right?
Xena smiled wryly. The dance lessons certainly had helped, but in truth Gabrielle hadn’t really gotten comfortable in her body until she’d learned to fight, a paradox had not then, and wasn’t now lost on her loving partner. “Hey!”
Gabrielle stopped and looked up.
Xena spread her hands out, and smiled lazily.
The bard stuck her tongue out and kept climbing, hopping nimbly from one rock to the other as she used her staff to balance. “Wench!”
Xena stepped to the edge of her rock and jumped off, launching herself skyward and tucking her body into a somersault with a half twist that landed her near where Gabrielle was climbing, but a little ahead of her path. “Talk about slowpokes.”
She ducked under a tree branch and spotted a half hidden path up around the next set of builders. “There..ow!” Xena whirled just a bit too late to block the swat on the butt from Gabrielle’s staff. “You punk.”
“Heh.” Gabrielle returned the end of her staff to the ground. “Teach you to get saucy with me, WP.”
They both chuckled, and as Gabrielle joined Xena at the path fork, their eyes met. Gabrielle smiled, and after a moment, Xena did also. Without a word, they went on, Xena laying a hand briefly on the bard’s shoulder and simply clasping it.
Gabrielle squeezed between two boulders and found herself in a flat spot, with a bit of a rise that allowed them to look up between the trees at the upper slope. “See anything?” She asked Xena, as the warrior came up behind her. “I don’t. No smoke, nothing… could we have been imagining it?”
“I don’t imagine things like that.” Xena replied, with a frown. “Damn it, I thought for sure..”
Down the slope, they heard the animals trumpet, loudly. Then the wind shifted, blowing up the slope and Xena cursed. “Damn it!” She turned and headed back they way they’d come. “It’s past us!”
“What?” Gabrielle followed her as quickly as she could, hopping from rock to rock as they raced back down the slope and through the scrub. “How could it.. Xena!” Gabrielle skidded to a halt, almost crashing into her partner as the warrior pulled up in front of her.
“Gods.” Xena’s voice dropped, as her eyes flicked rapidly over the scene in front of them. The animals were clustering nervously near the water, facing a long line of advancing hooters.
“What are they doing?” Gabrielle whispered.
Xena’s mind took in the line of men, and the flames, and the sticks in their other hands. “Hunting.” She answered faintly, as the big animals started to move away from the line of men. “No… no.. don’t.. .run..”
“Where do they think they can chase them to, Xe?” Gabrielle started after the warrior as Xena began to scramble through the brush. “There’s not that much room over there…”
“Off the cliff.” Xena sped up. “That’s how they hunted the little ones.. the ones I saw. They ran them off the damn cliff and they all…”
“Died.” Gabrielle caught and almost passed her. “My gods Xena! We’ve got to stop them!”
Xena rapidly sorted through and discarded their options as they ran side by side towards the back of the line. The hooters were advancing rapidly, yelling now and waving the torches as they beat the ground with the sticks.
The animals wheeled and thundered away from them, towards the cliff edge.
Xena and Gabrielle crossed into the grass and bolted for them, racing to catch up to the hooters as the hooters kept pressuring the animals. “Xena!” Gabrielle hollered. “What the Hades are we going to do when we get there?”
Xena thought hard, and suddenly the risk they were taking came home to her with a vengeance. If they intercepted the hooters, then what?
Then they had another target? Would they turn aside from so much meat, for meat of a different kind? “Gabrielle.” Xena slid closer. “Run fast, over there. See if you can cut them off.. turn them. Before they get to the edge!”
Gabrielle looked at the far end of the plateau, then back at her partner. “What are you going to do?”
“Draw those bastards off!”
Gabrielle drew in a ragged breath, as she realized they were out of options. Either do what Xena said, and maybe they had a chance..or do nothing. The baby animals squeals cut across the grass and lanced into her ears, and she knew in her heart the greater good was about to kick her right in the butt one more time. “Okay!” She started to head off towards the cliff edge. “But damn it, Xena.. be careful!”
Faced with drawing off what would be two score angry hooters with weapons and torches, Xena found the irony of the request almost funny.
“You too!” She yelled at her partner as they parted, sweeping away in opposite directions through the thick grass.
Gabrielle put her anxieties behind her and concentrated on running instead, balling her fists and tucking her staff under her arm as she bolted across the plateau at her top speed. She had to get around the line of hooters, but they were shifted mostly towards the direction Xena went and she only had to head in a shallow arc to get past them.
The animals were speeding up, clearly afraid of the fire. The torches fluttered, and Gabrielle felt a sinking sensation as she realized this new weapon had been given to them by her and Xena, one of those unknowing pieces of bad luck they both seemed to have sometimes.
She drove herself faster, dashing past the last hooter in the line and heading for the animals. She heard the hooter let out a screech as he spotted her, but she kept her head forward and refused to look back.
The animals were moving faster, thundering along at a deceptive pace that ate up the rapidly depleting ground, heading directly for the edge of the plateau and the oblivion beyond it. “Hey!” Gabrielle yelled at the top of her lungs. “Hey!!! Stop!!!”
The sound of their motion masked even her bellowing. Gabrielle realized she’d have to get in front of them to get their attention, and she lengthened her strides, her head tipping back as she ran like she hadn’t since she’d won the Games.
She hoped she could stop them.
She hoped Xena….
The biggest animal trumpeted loudly, as the hooters caught up to them, and they felt the heat of the torches on her back legs. The herd moved faster, but the baby was having trouble keeping up and he squealed in terror, his snout waving wildly back and forth.
Gabrielle put on one last burst of speed and got between them, emerging perilously near the edge of the plateau and whirling to face both the oncoming animals and the oncoming hooters.
Not a good place. “Stop!” She waved her arms at the closest animal. “Stop! Stop!!!”
She spotted Xena cutting across the line of attackers with her arms outstretched, the high, clear sound of the warrior’s battle yell emerging even through the thunder but she suddenly had the feeling it was all just going to be too late.
The animals wouldn’t stop.
The hooters wouldn’t stop.
It would all be for nothing.
Gabrielle saw the side of the hooter line waver, as Xena intercepted them, the warrior grabbing a torch from the last hunter and slamming him across the face with it.
She desperately turned towards the closest animal and ran towards it, waving her arms and yelling at the top of her lungs, understanding that if it was all for nothing – well, at least they would give it their all.
Stupid bastards. Xena closed in on the line of hooters, grabbing the last one in line and yanking him over backwards. She grabbed the stick from his hand before he could react and whacked him across the head with it, making him slump to the ground in a spray of blood.
He squirmed, but then stilled and she kept going, heading for the next one and wishing in heartfelt curses she had her sword with her. She made a vow with herself to wear the damn thing around her neck after they got home again and never leave it behind, even to go down to pick berries.
“Yeah!” She caught up to the next hooter and he turned, spotting her and letting out a scream. He stopped and leaped towards her, but she swung the club she’d taken from the first and it cracked against the one he was carrying, sending a jarring shock up her arms and into her shoulders.
He tried to swing back at her, but he was unsure of his new weapon, and she was anything but. Xena reversed her swing and swept down, then up, taking the stick from his hands and sending it flying. He screamed at her, and reached with his hands, the tips of his fingers bloodied from her strike. She pulled the stick back up and took a short hold on it, then whipped the weapon around in a tight arc, smacking him across the face with it’s tip.
It raked his face open. Blood exploded from his nose, and he screamed again.
Xena didn’t pause, now that her adversary was effectively blinded. She smacked him across the head again and went past, catching the last of the line with a sense of ferocious pleasure.
Xena saw the obvious danger when it was far too late for her to do anything about it. In the middle of whacking one of the hooters in the head with his own torch, she saw Gabrielle cut in front of the charging herd and wave her arms, courageously standing between the animals and oblivion.
Her heart almost stopped beating in her chest, as the animals kept moving, closing in on that one, lone figure blocking their path.
In that one moment, Xena was put in a place where everything, every hooter, every animal, every cloud in the sky meant less to her than that one lone figure and abruptly she just wanted to immediately kill everything between them.
No logic. No planning, no nothing. An utter panic swept her and she let out a bellow that even carried over the thundering animals and her hands reached for the nearest hooter to haul him down and out of her way.
The hooter struggled and tangled with her, letting out an excited sound that attracted the attention of the three or four nearest to them. Despite the chaos of the hunt, they turned and spotted Xena and hesitated in their shambling runs, torn between one hunger and another.
Xena shoved him to the ground and jumped over his scrambling body, ducking under a swinging stick as she started for where Gabrielle was standing. Her eyes fixed on the bard, she almost didn’t see the gang of hooters intercepting her until their hands were grasping at her skin.
Impatiently, she wrenched free, but two more were throwing themselves at her knees and the next thing she knew she was on the ground and they were crawling all over her. She lost sight of Gabrielle and her body convulsed as she got her feet under her and shoved skyward, the power of her legs battling with the grip of the hooters.
She got her head up over theirs and looked frantically through the herd, spotting a flash of Gabrielle’s tan skin and a blip of blond hair that disappeared as the dust stirred by the animals covered her.
“Gabrielle!” Xena twisted in mid air, and half flipped, getting clear of the hooters long enough to get her feet on the ground and into motion. She started running, dodging the chasing males as her heart rate skyrocketed and she almost felt lightheaded as a result.
One of the hooters grabbed her, and tackled her to the ground, his greater weight knocking the breath out of her as they rolled together through the grass. Xena tucked herself into a ball and twisted, then lashed out with both feet as the hooter came even with her. The impact knocked her back into the earth, but it also threw the hooter skyward and gave her enough time to backflip up onto her feet and bolt off again.
She hear yelling. She smelled burning grass. If she turned around, she was afraid she’d find out that some of the hooters she’d already fought free of had set the ground on fire, and added another danger she didn’t need to worry about at the moment.
A sudden stab of fear in her gut almost made her stumble. She looked ahead , but Gabrielle was no where to be seen and the animals were now almost at the edge of the cliff.
A thought crossed her mind, bleak and chilling, that maybe this time she just wasn’t going to be able to stop what was going to happen.
A ride across the plains of Britain thundered in her memory.
A wash of red cleansed her vision, and the color drained from the landscape as an already narrow focus tightened to one single point as everything else faded out around her.
“Stop! Please!!” Gabrielle skidded to a halt. The biggest of the animals, the mother, was racing down on her with no signs of stopping, and all sense of recognition gone from her eyes. She waved her trunk at Gabrielle and trumpted, as a gust of wind blew smoke over them and stung the bard’s eyes.
Gabrielle looked behind her, at the scant space between her
and the edge of the cliff. She looked back up at the matriarch, trying to make
eye contact but the flapping ears and waving trunk made it impossible.
“Please!” She held her hands out. “Stop.. stop! We’ll protect you!”
Several of the herd trumpted loudly, and the wind picked up behind them again, blowing the rich, acrid smoke over the grass. Gabrielle coughed in reflex, tasting failure on the back of her tongue but she started forward towards the matriarch anyway.
Maybe the animal would realize in time. The big one turned it’s head away from her though, and urged the herd onward ever faster.
It was one of the most helpless feelings she’d ever had. With a gasp, she turned her attention to the baby instead, as he squirted from between the legs of two of the running beasts and bolted straight for her.
Instinctively, Gabrielle knelt and opened her arms, as the thundering grew around her and she felt the ground start to shake. “Here!” She caught the baby’s eye. “Come here!”
She couldn’t stop the adults. But maybe, just maybe, she could stop the baby and…
And? Then what? They couldn’t raise him. Gabrielle felt the world fade out a little as she realized saving the baby and letting his family run over the cliff would probably be worse than letting him die with them.
It ran to her and as it’s snout touched her hand, the herd also reached them and rushed around her in a thick pall of fear and danger. Behind them, the hooters were screaming in triumph, waving the torches she could now smell, excited at the success of their hunt.
Oh gods. Gabrielle sucked in a breath and knew a moment of total soul rending frustration. Then the biggest of the animals reached her and she looked up as she felt it’s presence, her eyes widening as the snout curled around her and she was lifted off her feet. “NO!!!!”
The baby squealed, reaching for her, then stumbled forward and was knocked down as the herd rushed past, headed for the edge of the cliff.
“NOOOO!!!” Gabrielle struggled with every ounce of strength she had, twisting her body violently in mid air. The ground whirled and sped around her, and she felt herself getting dizzy, then the breath was knocked out of her as the creature slammed her against it’s shoulder. “NOOO!!!” She reached out and grabbed for any handhold, her fingers finding and closing on the big, curved tooth.
The animal shook her head, whipping Gabrielle back and forth. The bard hung on grimly, her shoulders almost coming out of their sockets as the snout tried to pull her free. She got a leg up around the tusk and grabbed the edge of the animals ear, getting her head near the big eye and staring into it.
Xena charged forward, heedless of the obstacles in her path as she fought her way forward towards the fast moving herd. She caught the next line of hooters, and now the leaders heard the commotion and turned, spotting her.
“YEAAHHH!!!” Xena let out a wild battle yell, challenging them. She turned and whacked at the nearest of them, bashing his head again and again as he rushed her. She bellowed over and over, desperate to draw the attention of the hunters away from their prey.
Away from her life.
Abandoning the herd, the leader turned and headed for her, screaming at the top of his lungs and pointing his torch. Many of the hunters wanted to go on, but the first of them grabbed at the leader and he turned, biting them on the hand and sending blood flying.
There were at least two score of them, and now the tide turned and they headed for Xena, running through the grass and dropping the unfamiliar torches in excitement as her scent reached them in the rising wind.
The grass caught, a smoky blaze that obscured the herd, and washed over the hooters as they turned and gathered into a gang to go after the battling warrior in their midst. The hunt was forgotten and they hooted in growing excitement as they closed around Xena and swallowed her up in their mass.
Xena felt a moment of cold, self knowledge, as she pulled the small skinning knife from her boot lashings.
They would not take her.
Not alive at any rate.
They landed on her and started grabbing, and she started stabbing, and the air was filled with musk and blood and desperation.
Gabrielle knew the edge was close. She gripped the tusk and pulled herself forward, getting as close to the animal’s face as she could. “Please!” She stared into the big, brown eye. “Please don’t die!”
There was no recognition there. Only terror, and anger. Gabrielle thumped her head against the rough skin in desperation. “NOOO!!!” She hollered. “We won’t let them hurt you!!!”
The pressure around her waist was almost unbearable, and she felt pain rip through her, making her suck in a breath and gasp, her body curling up helplessly, twisting in the animals’ grasp as she cried out in agony.
It was hard to breathe.
She remembered the last time she’d felt like this, and her heart lurched.
A trembling surrounded her, and then a blast of sound, shaking her insides as the band cutting off her breathing felt hot as a firebrand against her skin. She wrenched her eyes open and stared into the animal’s eye, finding a fierce focus there that had been missing only a moment before.
The pain made it impossible for her to speak, so she just hung there gasping, as the rush of the wind around her slowed and the thunder slowly faded, though the smell of smoke remained strong.
She heard a hawk’s cry and her eyes lifted briefly, to see one circling lazily overhead. Then she let her head drop and her gaze went downward, seeing nothing but air and the ground very far away beneath her.
Then the animal turned away from the brink and she looked back at the herd, who were milling anxiously ahead of a thick pall of smoke, through which she could see dark forms, but only as shadows and moving away.
Away from them. Gabrielle felt the grip on her ease, and she could breathe again. She looked back at the animal’s eye. “Thank you.” She whispered, her entire body shaking as the animal lowered her to the ground. She held onto the snout as she tried to stand up, but her legs gave out and she ended up on her knees with the thick grass tickling her skin.
The cramps still gripped her, though and she let her eyes close as the animal’s snout brushed lightly over her shoulder.
Then a jolt of despair shoved that out of her mind and she stood in pure reflex, setting aside her body’s frailty as she sensed Xena’s desperation through their link.
Somehow, she found herself running, stumbling through the grass heedless of the animals and the smoke as she answered that call with no further regard for what might have beens.
There were just too damn many of them. Xena somehow found the strength to keep moving, twisting and stabling viciously as the hard grips ripped the catskin off her and raked gouges into her flesh.
She kept her fingers clenched down hard on the knife, regardless of what it was cutting through. She knew if she lost it, any chance she might have would be lost as well.
If it wasn’t already. She felt her boot catch on a rock and used it for leverage, shoving herself away from two of the males that were trying to pin her down. Rough ground scraped against her shoulderblades, but she continued the motion and rolled into a reverse somersault, putting her boots against an outcropping and twisting over onto her stomach.
Three males came at her. She waited for them to commit themselves to a leap, then she shoved away from the ground with a powerful uncoiling of her legs and shot skyward, her heels clearing their heads easily as they fell past her to where she’d been crouched, colliding with each other in a tangle of hairy appendages and frustration.
Xena searched the far side of the plateau as she reached the top of her leap, but the smoke made a mystery of the herd and her partner and she only had time to curse as she half twisted again in mid air and landed in a clear spot.
It was a very momentary respite. A gang of the hooters hurled themselves at her, one carrying a torch. She ducked and turned gracefully, feeling the heat as the fire passed just over her shoulders and then a hotter sensation as blood spurted from the knife she’d slammed into the hooter’s gut.
Doubling her hands, she yanked the blade through, feeling bone and sinew parting as she whirled around and just barely missed a club that bounced off her left shoulder instead of her head. Ow. That’s gonna be a bruise. With a grunt, she planted her left foot and kicked out with her right, snapping her heel into the hairy chin of the hooter who’d hit her.
His head jerked back and he lost his balance, but another one filled the void and she landed her kick just in time to duck and grab his arm, yanking him around as she threw her body in a circle and throwing him into two of his fellows.
It cleared just enough space for her to get a breath of air, and find a rock to put her back against before they came at her again. She could see a line of fire between them, and the herd, and through the smoke she heard a loud, brassy trumpet.
Then the hooters attacked her in earnest, and she realized there minds had been switched into a killing mode when two of them picked up a boulder and threw it at her, slamming her hard on the side and against the rock at her back.
Stars shot into her vision, and she felt the breath go out of her, as the crowd of them crashed into her and she felt her legs give out under the weight of them. She only had time to get a lungful of air before she was smothered in grunting, fetid bodies.
Xena wasn’t one to panic under any circumstances, but she was also human and a part of her reached out instinctively for Gabrielle, feeling a gust of fear and anguish coming from her partner in return.
Grimly, she started cutting anything within her reach, wrenching her hands from the gripping fingers that tried to still them.
The line of fire blocked her path. Gabrielle slowed, looking right and left for a way past it. The lake was her only real option and she headed for it, her heart pounding so hard in her chest it made her lightheaded. She heard a trumpet behind her, and as she got to the lake she glanced back, seeing the herd milling again in fear.
The line of fire, driven by the wind, was sweeping towards them as potent a danger as the hooters were. The herd started moving in the wrong direction again, and Gabrielle almost broke down and cried. “NOO!!” She yelled at the top of her lungs.
The baby turned, and spotted her. He slipped between his mother’s legs and bolted for her, rambling haphazardly over the grass with his snout raised high.
The matriarch bellowed, turning back from her retreat. She shifted from leg to leg – raising her snout and letting out a plaintive trumpet. She took a step to follow him, but the fire flared up and she stepped back, clearly terrified of it.
Gabrielle hurt for them. But her heart and soul was being pulled elsewhere, and she was helpless to resist that. She yelled one more time, and the big animal swung back to look at her, their eyes meeting through the smoke.
Well. Maybe there was one chance.
Gabrielle waded into the water, and scooped up handfuls of it, throwing it on the burning grass nearby. A gust of smoke went up, and she shoveled another handful at the blaze as the baby rambled up and splashed into the water next to her. “C’mon.” She held her hand out and waited for the snout to tangle with it. “Let’s go.”
The water wasn’t that deep, but they had to circle the boulders and she pushed anxiously forward, fear for her partner now taking over her thoughts once again.
The baby followed her willingly, making tiny bugling noises as they circled the rocks and cleared the line of fire.
Gabrielle could now see the hooters, clustered in a tight pack around something in an evident, vicious attack. After a frozen second, she realized where Xena was, and with a muffled curse she plowed through the shallowing water towing the baby animal behind her.
They emerged and she let go of the snout and started running, balling her fists up and throwing everything she had into crossing the grass as fast as she could. “Xena!”
Dust from the grass rose up all round her, and she sucked in a lungful of it, a cough ripping at her throat as she sped over the ground. The thick strands lashed against her legs, and she felt stings as the edges cut her but it only made her run faster as she felt a deep sense of fear ignite in her guts.
Only one thing could be causing that. Gabrielle felt her own fear redouble and she stifled a cry as she stumbled over a half hidden rock and almost went sprawling. Her body jerked as she desperately tried to keep her balance, and her hand brushed one of the hooter’s clubs fallen in the grass.
She clutched it, shoving off from the ground with her other hand and throwing herself back upright. With the club swinging from one fist, she bolted for the melee and as she reached the edge of it, she whipped the club back and started swinging.
The hooter she hit collapsed as she heard a crack from his spine. “Yeahhh!!! Xena!!” Gabrielle let out a bellow as she swung at the next body between her and her soulmate. “Xena!!”
The hooter turned and the blow slid off him. He whirled and swung his own club, his face writhing in anger as he fended off her attack and then, unexpectedly, brought his other arm around holding a jagged stick in it.
He drove it right for her. Gabrielle managed to block it, but misjudged the length of the club she had and overreached, exposing her side to his return swipe. She tried to get back around but in a flickering instant knew she was too late and steeled herself for the pain of the stab.
He cried out, and lunged against her, but the spear shot over her shoulder and then clattered to the grass as the weight of his body sent them both sprawling. Gabrielle smelled the hot copper tang of blood, but as she shoved him off her, she realized it was his and not hers, and her hand touched a familiar if unexpected item sticking out of his chest.
Her eyes barely had time to register the distinctive marks on the feathers, before she heard a yell go up and she struggled to her knees, spotting a dark haired form against the far trees in the posture of an archer.
Blessed Artemis. Gabrielle ducked a club and got up, dodging one of the hooters and swinging her own club at him. Another arrow whipped by her cheek, burying itself in the hooter’s chest, and she jumped clear of him in time to see another, equally welcome figure bolting towards the pile, sword drawn and glinting in the sun.
Her breath was taken out of her a moment later as two males took her down, burying her face into the earth as heavy fists pounded her body. She didn’t even have time to let out a sound before her lungs were straining, and her head was spinning from the lack of air.
She could taste dirt.
She could taste death.
Far off, she heard the baby animal squealing.
Then it got very dark, and very quiet. She exhaled, glad she could rest, finally. The smell of the earth faded, and for a moment, she swore she could taste peaches.
Then a bolt of fire hit her deep in her guts, and the world exploded back into being around her, chaos and movement and pain in a jumble of sensation as one weight lifted up off her and another hold closed around her body, this time so warm and familiar it brought tears to her eyes as she recognized it.
The sweetness overruled the horror of the moment, and she reconciled herself to the knowledge that if this was the end for them, some gods somewhere had smiled on them and had at least brought them together for it.
The hooters hollered, and closed in on them, their stench flowing over her as she felt Xena close her arms and turn her body, shielding her from them.
In that moment, the only thing she could feel was the depths of their love, and so she closed her eyes and surrendered to that, opening her heart and her soul to whatever happened next.
Then the ground began shaking around her, and she heard chaos and loud sounds, and felt her body pulled over as her shoulders slammed against a rock surface with enough force to stun her once again. She tried to open her eyes, but her face was pressed against warm skin and now her ears picked up a thunder that sounded more like a heartbeat.
Screaming. Wild and inhuman.
The smell of burning flesh.
A thunder of motion, and a loud, brassy fanfare that shattered the air with such force, it made her ears itch fiercely inside and rattled the teeth inside her head. She felt Xena take a sudden breath as the sound rumbled around them, gusts of air hitting her skin that carried the smell of the herd, and grass, and mud, with smoke and blood clinging around the edges.
Then it got quiet again, the thunder fading into the distance with surprising speed. Only this time, the silence was quickly broken by voices, and the crunching of footsteps, and the smell of rain.
Gabrielle forced her eyes open again and shifted her head, as the light mist made her blink until she could resolve the dark smudge over her into Xena’s familiar features, pale blue eyes staring down at her with a weary exhaustion in them.
Somehow, they both managed to smile. A little. Xena’s lashes fluttered briefly shut, then opened, and she licked dry, cracked lips in a shaky motion. “Damn.”
“Wow.” The bard managed to rasp out. “You scared me, Xena.”
The blue eyes blinked again. “I.” Xena repeated. “Scared you?”
Xena merely looked at her, silently shaking her head. Then she rolled over and pulled Gabrielle into her lap, as the rain poured over them, welcome in it’s clean chill.
In the distance, Gabrielle could see the herd running, chasing the last of the hooters back towards the scrub forest, and as she turned her head, Pony and Granella dropped down next to them, their faces twisted in both concern and consternation.
She honestly didn’t think she’d ever been so glad to see anyone in her life with the exception of Xena a few times. “Hi.”
“Gabrielle.” Granella gasped out. “What in the temple of Artemis’ sacrificial alter is going on here?”
Pony was studying them, wide eyed. ‘What in Hades’ happened to you two?” She blurted out, clearly shaken.
Xena wiped a smear of blood from her nose, then let her hand fall to her thigh, her eyes seemingly fixed on the rust red stain across the back of her knuckles. “Nice timing.” She said, after a moment. “You just saved our asses.”
Granella and Pony exchanged looks with each other, then stared back at them again.
“And..” Gabrielle added, in a soft, exhausted voice. “There isn’t much that hasn’t happened to us.”
The grass parted, and the baby animal rushed forward, squealing. He reached Gabrielle’s side and sat down abruptly, reaching out his snout to her with a snuffling sound.
Granelle and Pony looked at each other once more. Pony sat down in the grass and scratched her head, while Granella stared at the baby animal.
Overhead, the thunder rolled, and a crack of lightning lit them in sober silver, as the rain started to drench them in thick, robust drops.
The rain continued to pour down over them. Granella looked around again, but there was really no shelter nearby so she just sat there quietly, watching Gabrielle as she withstood the downpour with little more than a few blinks of her pale lashes.
Oblivous, almost, like the animal next to her, whose large ears occasionally flapped to shed the rain but otherwise ignored it.
The bard had scratches all over her face, and her muddied, torn traveling clothes did little to disguise the bruises and cuts that liberally covered her tanned skin, but other than that, she appeared relatively unhurt.
Amazing, considering what they’d been through.
Xena and Pony had gone down to retrieve the supplies they’d tossed to one side after hearing the yelling and recognizing the voices, leaving them to wait out the rain in what little lee they could find on the side of the boulders. Granella had been glad enough to stay behind, as her knees were still shaky from the unexpected scene they’d come on and she was happy to take a few minutes to see how her sister in law was really doing.
She suspected it wasn’t as good as she appeared.
“So.” Granella leaned forward, so the rain would run off her back instead of into her face. “What is that?’
Gabrielle had the nose of the animal in her hand, and it seemed to be playing with her fingers. After a moment of pensive silence, she looked up at Granella. “I don’t know.” She answered. “We don’t… Xena saw something like them once, but not this big.”
The baby curled it’s snout around the bard’s wrist and swung it gently, flapping it’s ears in an amiable way.
“Seems friendly.” Granella observed. “But then again, animals have a thing for you guys, I noticed.”
“Um.. I didn’t mean it as an insult.”
The bard sighed. “No.. I know. But those things attacking us… it’s been pretty awful.”
“Huh.” Granella studied the animal, who seemed very content to sit by Gabrielle’s side, occasionally taking a bite of the river grass and chewing it. She turned her eyes back to the bard. “You okay?”
Pale green eyes met hers. “No.” But Gabrielle half smiled as she said it. “It’s been one long nightmare for us. I’m glad you showed up.”
Her sister in law plucked a bit of grass up and twisted it in her fingers. “You know how folks are.” She said. “People were worried. I was. “ Her eyes lifted again. “Tor was.. even though we know usually it’s for nothing.”
“Not this time.” Gabrielle replied simply.
The bard reached over and scratched the animal’s thickly furred head. “These are the first creatures we’ve met here that we’ve been able to communicate with.”
Granella’s eyebrows twitched. “Communicate?” She asked, skeptically.
“Mm.” Gabrielle smiled at the little animal, who gazed adoringly up at her. “Isn’t that right, sweetie? Your mama understood us, didn’t she?”
The animal gurgled a bit.
“What were those other things?” Granella asked. “The things attacking you.”
Gabrielle shifted slightly, resting her elbows on her knees. She reached up to push a bit of sodden blond hair back from her eyes with a faintly shaking hand. “We’re not sure what they are either.” She said. “But it’s kind of a long story and I’m not up to telling it right now.”
Granella reached over and put a hand on her arm. “No problem.” She told her. “Hey, listen.. Dori’s doing great. You know Eph brought her up to the village, and she’s pretty much taken over the kids group there.”
As calculated, the news brought a genuine smile to Gabrielle’s face. “She has, huh?” The bard said. “What a little renegade she is. We were wondering what would happen if she went in with that bunch.. they’ve got some pretty old kids.”
“Mm.’ Granella said. “She’s been pretty good. Eph’s staying by your place, said Dori wanted it that way.”
Gabrielle covered her face with one hand and laughed gently. “My daughter.” She sighed. “She’s more of an Amazon queen already than I’ll ever be.”
The stark truth of the statement made Granella blink, but she just patted Gabrielle’s arm and made no comment. Instead, she rooted around for something else to distract her sister in law, since she could see how on the edge the woman was, laughter or no. “It’s a damn good thing we found you.”
“Agreed.” Gabrielle remarked, in a soft voice.
“No.. I mean..” Granella cleared her throat, shaking her head to rid her eyes of her drenched hair. “We’ve got big problems in the village.. we need you back there.”
“Really?” The bard asked, after a moment’s silence.
“Yeah, we.. “ Granella stopped and looked over her shoulder as the ground started shaking. “Uh oh.” She spotted the herd returning, heading for them with a very purposeful air. “Should we move?”
“Nah.” Gabrielle extended her legs, rubbing her thumb over a deep, painful looking bruise just above her kneecap. “What’s going on at home?”
Granella watched nervously as the earth started vibrating, tiny pebbles jumping in front of her. “Uh.. well.. the merchants.. I think they’re putting pressure on the council to pay them off.”
“They were pretty insistent.. the council agreed.”
Granella nodded solemnly. ‘Wanted everyone to pony up.. even suggested we sell Xena’s sword to raise cash.” She glanced up, watching as Gabrielle’s jaw dropped and her eyes started to come out of her head. “I thought your mother in law was going to stab him with her meat fork.”
“Puh.” The bard half coughed. “Dear gods.. Xena would… she’d…”
“Relax.” Granella patted her again. “We brought it with us.”
Gabrielle straightened. “You brought her weapons?”
“Sure.” Granella nodded. “I knew she took off… I mean, I saw it happen, Gabrielle. You scared me senseless.” She watched the bard’s face, not really understanding the shifting emotions there. “So yeah.. we’ve got that and her leathers down by the… Gab?”
Gabrielle had looked up, with a wry expression. “You have no idea how happy that’s going to make her.”
“There.” Eponin pointed to a flat spot in the trail, where she’d tossed their packs when they’d started running. “That’s where I tossed the stuff.. listen, Xena, I’ll go grab it, huh? Why don’t you hang out here.” She eyed her bloodied, hollow eyed companion. “No sense both of us getting.. uh.. muddy.”
Xena looked at her for a moment, then she took a seat on a nearby rock and lifted her hand, then let it drop onto her knee. “All yours.”
Pony went scuffling off into the brush leaving the warrior to sit quietly in the rain. Somewhat past dissembling, Xena was actually glad to do just that, her body now more than a little on the shaky side since the battle was over and the nightmare had passed for the moment.
She’d strained something, somewhere. Her body felt a bit lopsided and she knew eventually whatever it was would stiffen up and she’d be miserable, but at the moment she honestly didn’t really give a damn. It was enough for her to sit and revel quietly in the idle warmth she could sense coming from Gabrielle and understand she’d dodged an arrow one more time.
Too damn close.
Xena rested her forearms on her knees and studied her hands, covered in cuts and scrapes, and one large bruise over her right knuckles. She flexed her fingers and tried to recall how she’d gotten that one, most of the last of the fight a typical blur.
Any time Gabrielle was in danger, things tended to be a blur, she acknowledged. She remembered the hooters piling on, and then she remembered feeling Gabrielle stop breathing, and after that?
Who knew? She thought she remembered screams.. maybe some of them had even been her own. Her throat felt like she’d been doing some of that.
Her jaws ached too.. had she bitten one of them? Experimentally, she felt around the inside of her mouth with her tongue, hoping not to find anything that didn’t belong there.
The warrior lifted her head, to find Pony emerging from the brush carrying a large pack. Her eyes fastened on a familiar hilt emerging from it and her expression brightened noticeably. “That mine?”
Pony stopped and looked at her. “No.” She joked wanly. “I had it duplicated cause I worship you so much.” She climbed back up onto the path and brought the pack over. “Course it’s yours.”
Xena took the pack and let it rest on her knees, as she dug out the sword. Wrapping her hand around the hilt she drew it, the shakiness gone as her body recognized the familiar weight. “That.” She set the pack down and stood up, reaching out and pulling Pony into a completely unexpected hug. “is awesome.”
“Uh.” Pony’s eyes bugged out, as the breath was squeezed from her. “You’re.. uh.. welcome.”
Xena released her, then picked the pack up again and slung it over her shoulder. She started up the path with the drawn sword still in her hand, her fingers idly clenching around the hilt and spinning the blade. “Sure coulda used this.”
“Well.” Eponin caught up to her and walked alongside. “We found ya fast as we could, y’know?”
“Yeah.” Xena glanced sideways at her. “Damn glad you found us at all.”
Pony pursed her lips and kicked a few rocks out of the way. After a little bit of silence, she glanced back and Xena. “Close, huh?”
Xena nodded somberly.
The rain came down harder, and they both turned their heads to one side, to shield their eyes. “You remember picking that one big thing up and cracking him against that rock?” Pony asked, with a touch of hesitance.
Xena walked a few paces in silence. Then she shook her head. “Focused on something else.” She commented briefly.
Pony digested that as they climbed up the last, steep slope onto the plateau. “Yeah.” She murmured. “You do get focused.”
Xena looked back at her, then extended a hand to offer her a pull up the last crag. Pony accepted the hand, and after they were both standing on the edge of the plateau gazing at the half drowned, half burnt out ruin of it, the weapons master turned to look Xena in the eye. “When we go back there.” She said. “Ain’t gonna be no more of that taunting crap, Xena.”
The warrior raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry it went that way.” Pony turned and headed for the rocks sheltering their companions, the heavy rain quickly blurring her figure.
Xena frowned, then half shook her head before she followed. The herd, she noted, had returned and now that they could give the baby back to his mother, they could find themselves shelter and take stock of what they had.
After all. Her fingers tightened on her sword hilt, and she exhaled. Things had gotten better, when it had looked to her like they couldn’t possibly get much worse.
She couldn’t ask for more, now could she?
The rain just kept on falling, and didn’t look like it was going to let up any time in the near future. The four sodden women found a thick patch of scrub and managed a crude shelter, which they were sharing more or less equably despite the mud and drizzle.
A fire was impossible, but between the leaves and the hide Xena and Gabrielle had been carrying they’d managed to put up enough protection to make it bearable if not comfortable, and collected enough berries and other scrub food to at least take the edge off.
Not great, but not horrible either. Pony decided, as she took a moment to collect herself and adjust to the sudden change in their circumstances.
They had come to find Xena and Gabrielle, and against what she’d privately felt were impossible odds, they’d found them. Not only that, they’d actually been able to help them out of a pretty bad spot, and she thought they were pretty glad to see them in any case.
She thought things hadn’t been real good for them. Not the way Xena looked, and the way Gabrielle was acting.
But hey, now they could get the Hades out, and get back home to kick some village council butt and finally settle into their new digs.
They done good. For once. “So.” She finally broke the silence. “You get that off something here?”
Xena cracked a nut in her hand and opened her fingers, offering the contents to Gabrielle. They were sitting side by side on Xena’s now discarded catskin, the warrior displaying a stolid, expressionless joy at having her leathers back on. “This?”? The warrior indicated skin.
“Yes.” Gabrielle had selected half the nutmeats and was slowly chewing on them. “One of the big cats attacked us when we first got here.” She said. “It was pretty scary.”
“Yeah.. we got jumped by one too.” Granella studied the skin. “But we didn’t think about salvaging any of it.. kinda stupid, really.”
Gabrielle cleared her throat a little. “Well.. not really. We didn’t have anything… we were making do with whatever we could find, trust me.” She glanced up at their makeshift roof. “This thing came at us too.. probably being chased by one of those cats.”
“Or those damn bastards.” Xena commented, cracking another nut.
Granella looked at the hide. “What is that?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “We don’t know. That’s whats been so frustrating, or one of the things anyway.” She was silent for a few moments. “One of the things.” She repeated. “All these animals… these things that were so strange to us.”
Xena handed over more nutmeats. “I’ve been over half the earth.” She stated. “Never seen half of this stuff before.”
“Really?” Granella murmured. “We saw the big cat.. but besides that and those guys attacking you and the big things over there on the plateau we really didn’t see that much different.” She paused, reviewing what she’d just said. “Oh, well.. now, I guess we did.”
Gabrielle leaned against Xena’s shoulder and let her head rest there as well. “It was just one thing after another.”
Granella nodded. “Yeah..I can see that. But…” She raked her fingers through her dark, wet hair. “How can so many things we’ve never seen be so close to home?”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. Xena shook her head. “We’ve been asking ourselves that for days.” The warrior replied. “Doesn’t make any sense.”
“Nope.” Pony agreed. “But you know what I always say.”
“What?” Gabrielle, without seeming to think about it, reached over and interlaced her fingers with Xena’s.
“What do you always say?” Xena repeated tolerantly.
Pony frowned. “Damned if I remember.”
That got a smile from Xena, and a soft chuckle. “Well, anyway, here we are.” She said. “We were thinking of going back to where we fell in here, and climbing out.”
Granella nodded slowly. “No other way? I guess you guys have looked around, huh?”
“Yeah.” Xena said. “Walls are too high.. only place low enough is that waterfall.”
“Sounds good.” Pony worried a berry off the bunch in her hand and popped it into her mouth. “Start off in the morning.. let’s hope this damn rain stops.”
They all fell silent for a bit, listening to the rain come down outside the shelter. Thunder rolled overhead as well, and as if in counterpoint, they heard a trumpet from one of the big animals.
After the sound faded, Gabrielle licked her lips and gave Xena’s hand a gentle squeeze. The warrior turned her head slightly and looked at her, one brow lifted in mild inquiry.
“I know we all want to get home as soon as we can.” Gabrielle said.
“Uh oh.” Xena muttered, almost subvocally.
The bard looked back at her. “Xena, we owe those creatures.” She said. “We owe them not to have to live under the threat of being slaughtered.”
“Gabrielle.” The warrior’s voice was gentle. “They’re prey. It’s what nature is.”
“No.” The bard’s voice took on a sterner note. “We taught those.. people.. how to use fire, Xena. That’s what those animals were running from. Not the clubs, not the… hooters.. it was the fire.” She straightened up. “I saw it. I saw them stop, they were going to run the other way again when the grass caught.”
Granella and Pony wisely kept quiet, their eyes flicking from one bruised face to the other.
“Well, most animals are afraid of fire.” The warrior allowed. “Sure.”
“WE taught the hooters to use it to hunt.” Gabrielle pointed at her chest. “We did, Xena.. you and me.”
The bard waited, then shifted, apparently assured she’d made her point. “So we have to fix that.”
Xena leaned back and extended her legs, wincing as her knee popped into place. “We do.”
The warrior crossed her arms. “How do you propose we do that, Gabrielle? We can’t take that knowledge back.”
Gabrielle gazed quietly out at the rain. “I know that.”
The thunder rolled over head. “So.” Xena murmured. “Exactly how are we supposed to protect these animals, then?” She exhaled. “We can’t blockade them off… maybe we could find a place in the hills there to keep them from this plateau, but…”
“It would be hard.” Gabrielle conceded. “Those hooters are really persistent.”
“Hooters?” Granella cautiously interjected.
Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees and leaned forward. “They make this weird noise.” She muttered. “So that’s what I called them.”
A small silence fell. Pony cleared her throat after a bit of it. “Well, if you can’t protect the big things, you’re gonna have to get rid of the little ones.” She stated pragmatically. “Not sure what all the debate’s about.”
Xena turned her head, and regarded Gabrielle’s profile. “Well??”
The bard looked over at her.
“Are you prepared to do that?” Xena asked. “Pony’s right. The only way to be absolutely sure is to kill them. You ready for that?’
Pony prudently shut up, her eyes widening. Beside her, Granella sat, frozen.
Gabrielle plucked a bit of grass up that was poking from between the edge of the catskin and her leg. She examined it, her face a contradiction of so many emotions it was impossible to judge what she was thinking.
Except for Xena, who knew, at least, the second.
“That’s not really what you mean, Xena.” The bard finally said. “What you really mean is.. am I ready to watch you kill them, because we all know that’s what it’s going to come down to. Much as I’m in there at your back with my belt knife.”
Xena half shrugged.
“I’ll help.” Pony added, in a small voice.
Gabrielle exhaled slowly and her head lifted. She studied each face in turn, her eyes resting at last on Xena’s. “You taught me.” She said, seeing the flinch in Xena’s eyes. “You taught me to clean up my messes, Xena. This is our mess.”
The warrior inclined her head a little in agreement.
Gabrielle glanced down, then back up. “Yes.” She pronounced the word carefully. “If that’s what it takes to make sure those friends of ours out there.. “She glanced at the plateau. “Don’t pay for our mistake, then yes. I’m ready to see all of them die.”
Xena turned her gaze to her own hands, clasped lightly now in front of her. She rubbed the edge of her thumb over a scratch on the side of one finger, her face relatively expressionless.
They all waited for a while, as the rain fell, pattering on top of the hide in an almost hypmotic rhythm.
“You know.” Granella finally broke the silence. “There’s a whole lot f them, and only four of us.” She stated. “And I love you all, but I’ve got two kids and a husband at home, and I’d like to live to see them again.”’
Three sets of eyes shifted to her face.
“I’m sorry if that sounds selfish.” Granella added quietly. “But since we’re all dumping our guts here, I thought I’d throw that in.”
That seemed to break the tension a little. “That’s always the goal.” Xena said, in a voice more than a little rough around the edges with exhaustion. “We’ll make it home. No one’s dying that I don’t want dying.”
Even Pony’s eyes bugged out a little at that.
Gabrielle resumed her leaning, putting her head back down on Xena’s shoulder with a more peaceful look on her face, though there was a bone deep weariness in the shadows there as well.
“All right.” Xena regarded her soulmate. “Chances are we’d have to battle through the bastards to get out of here anyway.” She nodded a little. “Those friends are worth protecting.” Her eyes went to Granella. “And so is my family.”
Granella blinked, then she looked away, out at the rain.
“Y’know.” Pony watched a drizzle of rain trickle between her boots. “We’re pretty big talkers for four chicks sitting in puddles with two swords, a bow, and a big stick between us.”
The animals trumpted again, but it was more a lazy, playful sound than one of danger. Gabrielle smiled and relaxed, taking Xena’s hand again. “Yeah, we are, aren’t we?’ She acknowledged the attempt to lighten the mood. “I guess we should figure out how to walk without squishing first, huh?”
Pony grinned wanly at her. “Somethin like that, yeah.” She got to her knees, subtly poking Granella in the ribs. . “Hey..lemme see if I can make this roof work better.” She crept out of the shelter and started tugging on one end, bending a branch over to shed the rain away from them.
Granella scuttled out as well. “I”ll give you a hand.” She disappeared as well, leaving the two soulmates in rain drenched privacy.
Gabrielle sighed. “Honey, the Amazons are getting sensitive and tactful.” She mused. “You know some oracles.. does that mean the world’s ending?’
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and pulled her close, kissing the top of her head with a look of deep affection. She hiked her knee up and Gabrielle squirmed around to rest her weight there, so she was facing her partner. “You look like Hades.” She commented.
“Feel like it.” Gabrielle acknowledged.
Xena reached up and pushed a bit of the bard’s hair from her eyes. Then she gently laid her hand across Gabrielle’s cheek, and gazed at her. “Not just the scratches, is it?”’
A faint, perceptible warmth entered Gabrielle’s eyes. “The Amazons aren’t the only ones getting sensitive.” She took Xena’s hand and kissed it. “One of those guys.. the big one.. I was near the edge of the plateau and she picked me up.”
“Mm?” Xena watched her intently.
“It…”The bard paused. “It hurt.” She touched her stomach. “Like it did, with Menelda.”
Xena’s expression shifted immediately, gentling. “Sweetheart.”
For the first time since the fight started, Gabrielle felt tears well up. “I.. c..couldn’t do anything.” She stammered softly. “And I was so worried about you after I just.. I forgot. Until now.”
Xena hugged her. “Oh, Gabrielle.” She stroked the bard’s hair . “How do you feel now?”
Gabrielle shrugged mutely.
“Does it still hurt?” Xena pressed her. “Do you have cramps.. did you start bleeding?”
The bard shifted, and pulled her head back, tipping it up to look at her partner. “Um.. it’s.. I’m okay now.” She answered, in a cautious tone. “No, I didn’t start.. anything.” She watched Xena’s face. “Is that… what does that mean?’
“I don’t know.” Xena answered her honestly. “Let’s wait and see.” She added. “Let me know if you start getting cramps.. or .. anything.”
Gabrielle put her head back down. “Okay.” She felt some measure of comfort. “She was just trying to save me.”
“I know.” Xena replied, in a tone of multifaceted emotion. “She didn’t want to hurt you.”
“No.” Gabrielle agreed. She was quiet for a bit, appreciating the feel of warm leather against her cheek instead of the tickle of musky fur. “We have to save them, Xe.”
“I know.” The warrior said, again.
Gabrielle idly traced a pattern over Xena’s side. “I’m glad you understand how I feel about them.. I thought maybe you’d think they were just animals.”
Xena glanced both ways, then scratched her nose. “Um.” She cleared her throat. “To be totally honest with you, my love.. I do think that.”
Gabrielle looked up, in surprised hurt.
But there was faint, wry amusement looking back at her. “I was just scared you’d make me take them all home with us, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to get em up that damn cliff.”
The bard blinked, then a snort of laughter emerged from her and she fell back against Xena’s chest with her shoulders silently shaking. “Xe.” She managed to get out after a minute. “Gods, I needed that.”
Xena wrapped both arms around her and pulled her tightly close, reveling in the living warmth. “Fair’s fair.” She whispered into the bard’s ear, as Pony and Granella noisily returned. “I needed you.”
She heard Gabrielle’s breath catch, and she closed her eyes to hide the unshed tears from the other’s view and turned her head slightly, as she felt the bard’s hand touch her cheek.
Then they both sighed, and relaxed, putting thoughts away for a different time as the darkening skies around them demanded attention.
Tomorrow would bring another day, and they’d both be there to see the dawn. For now, that was enough.