One Wild Ride
The attack came just before dawn, when the sky was just gray enough to see the swarming silhouettes but not light enough to detail them.
Xena vaulted over the fire at the first sensing of them, all quicksilver motion and dark haired ferocity as she rushed to meet the hooters, with Gabrielle a bare step behind her.
Bard and warrior joined a cursing, struggling Pony with her back pressed against the rock, both hands fending off grasping, hairy fingers. “Son of a bacchae!”
“You called?” Xena neatly chopped off a scattering of miscellaneous digits, then reversed her sword and smashed the nearest hooter in the face with the hilt. “Stupid bastards.. think they’d give up.”
The volume alone warned her. Xena felt time slow down, as she shifted her body and swiveled, allowing her instincts full play to react to whatever it was that caused Gabrielle’s warning.
Out of the mist, her eyes picked up the unexpected outline of an arrow shaft, and it was in truth only her reflexes that saved her life. In almost fascination, she watched as her left hand flickered into motion, her fingers closing around the arrow and stopping it just shy of her chest.
Her heart beat on steadily, unfazed, her body accustomed to dealing with this kind of threat even though her mind slid halfway into shock at the hooter’s assumption of their weapons with such amazing aptitude.
Only halfway, because as she caught and tossed aside the arrow, another headed her way and the world sped up again as she settled down to the dangerous business of war. “Gabrielle! Geddown!”
“Knew she was going to say that.” Gabrielle scuttled behind her partner, acknowledging that undaunted courage didn’t preclude not wanting to get nailed with an arrow. “Damn, Xena!”
“Tell me!” Xena slashed at a pair of oncoming hooters, who abruptly dropped to the ground, and then rolled towards them, now visible sticks in their hands stabbing at her legs.
Pointed ends. The warrior jumped and landed on two of them, pinning the erstwhile weapons to the ground while she savagely hacked at the arms holding them, chopping through bone and skin and sending hair flying everywhere.
Gabrielle’s staff whisked between her strokes, knocking back a charging hooter, his hands outstretched towards her and his eyes wide. He went down with a grunt and a second later the back end of the bard’s weapon caught him above the ear with a loud crack.
“Thanks.” Xena ducked under two more sets of grasping arms and gutted the closer owner, twisting her arms sideways and jerking them back just as Gabrielle stepped around her and nailed her other opponent between the eyes with the butt end of her staff.
Fighting in close quarters like this came as second nature to both of them these days, and Xena now had total confidence in her partner’s abilities; but that had taken years to work out between them and many near misses and whacks in the head had come between then and now.
Gabrielle was dangerous with that staff. To her enemies, and also, if she was off-target, to anyone in her vicinity who had the misfortune to get in her way. It was only a big stick, true, but swung with the speed Gabrielle could swing it, and with the bard’s compact, muscular weight behind the motion it could break bone with ease.
It did now, and the hooter went down with a scream, clutching at his face as blood flew. Xena didn’t hesitate to take advantage of his confusion, she brought the hilt of her sword down on the top of his head with all the force of her arms, and had the satisfaction of seeing his head snap to one side, neck broken by the blow.
No time to enjoy it, though, as she had to whirl and team up with Pony to shove back four or five of the brutes who’d surrounded the weapons master.
Pony had a typically Amazon sword handling style, and her weapon was shorter than Xena’s was to accommodate her lesser inches and slighter frame. She used the blade as both offense and defense and tended to slash and cut more than Xena did.
Most of that was strength. Xena risked sticking her sword deep into the bodies of her enemies because she knew she had the power to pull it back out again, and not have their collapsing take the weapon out of her hands. She also knew she had the strength to cut right through limbs and if she put her mind to it, ribcages and so her fighting style was markedly different.
Less elegance, more butchery, Melosa had once said about her, and Xena conceded the truth of that, but felt it wasn’t a handicap in war when the object was to kill as many people as fast as you could. Her way of fighting was messier, but people she went after usually went down, and stayed down, unable to hurt her or people she cared about further.
No points for pretty moves. “Yhahh!” The warrior stayed clear of Eponin’s fast moving blade and kicked two hooters out of her way, driving her sword sideways from the other direction.
Another arrow whirred into her peripheral vision, and she whipped her blade up to knock it aside, then yanked the sword back as the hooter facing her tried to grab it. It sliced right through his hands, sending blood spurting high in the air.
He stared at the stumps, then his eyes lifted to Xena’s face.
“I’m gonna do you a favor.” The warrior said, as she locked her arms and spun, her blade hitting him in the side of the neck and continuing through it, removing his head as his eyes bulged, death taking him between one breath and the next.
She kicked his head to one side and squared her shoulders, taking a quick glance behind her to find Gabrielle. “You all right?” She called to the bard, who was standing behind her, staff gripped firmly in both hands.
“Fine.” The bard yelled back. “Watch it!” She ducked past Xena and engaged one of the attackers, catching the club he had aimed at her partner with her staff and turning it aside with a neat jerk of her arms. “Stop worrying about me!”
“Oh, sure.” Xena reached past her to swipe a pointed stick out of one hairy hand, perilous inches from her partner’s navel. “How about I stop breathing for an encore?”
“I saw that coming!”
“Uh huh.” The warrior turned back around, as she felt a rushing presence coming at her and only barely had time to lash out with one booted foot to keep two of the hooters from leaping on her.
“Watch your own self!” Gabrielle came to her side, disregarding the danger of the arrows as she took on the right most male while Xena struggled with the leftmost. The biggest of them had engaged the warrior, hooking her arm with his own as he tried to pull her away from the rock and over onto her back.
He outweighed her by a good bit, and if it hadn’t been for Xena’s wide legged stance and the weight of her hilt as she smashed him in the face she’d have been in trouble. “Bastard!” She cursed at him, as he kept hold of her and they wrestled, his hands fumbling as he tried to take the sword from her.
She yanked her hands back away from him and twisted, making him lose his balance and opening up his ribcage to a sudden, very violent sweep of Gabrielle’s staff, which smashed into him with an audible crunch.
Xena returned the favor as Gabrielle’s opponent leaped at her. She caught him by the back hair and turned, using her weight and his momentum to throw him headfirst into the rock behind them.
DAMN IT! Xena twirled her sword in her hand as she continued her motion around, dropping to a crouch until she could locate the new threat.
An arrow sped by her, in the other direction, catching a charging hooter in the eye and spinning him backwards just as Pony planted her feet and gutted a second, grunting as the big male smashed against her, dying as his arms paddled weakly at her.
A bark, a roil in the fog, and then they were retreating, running off down the ridge to disappear into the forest leaving their fallen comrades on the ground before the stones.
Granella sent them off in proper style, nailing the last in the group with an arrow in the back, and watching in satisfaction as he pitched forward and landed on his face on the ground, twitching violently.
“Blech.” Pony shoved the hairy body away from her and watched in distaste as it slid to the ground. “Man, give me centaurs to fight anyday.” She looked up as Granella came around the rocks, lowering her bow as she went over to one of the fallen arrows and picked it up. “Yours?”
Granella held it up for her to see. The Amazon markings near the feathers were plain. “But where’d they get a bow? I’ve got mine.. you didn’t bring yours.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. “From me.” The warrior admitted. “I made one and dropped it days back.. didn’t figure they’d know what to do with it.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle murmured softly. “I guess they figured it out.”
“Figured out more than that.” Xena leaned back against the rock, her drawn sword resting against her thigh. The length was covered in dark, rich red which nevertheless reflected the early morning light.
“They were going for the blades.” Pony agreed, grimly. “First bastard nearly got mine.” She winced, examining a bruise along the side of her arm. “What in Hades are these things, Xena?”
Xena exhaled, letting her eyes search the rocky ground now strewn with silent bodies. “Wish I knew.” She replied. “I don’t recognize half the damn things in this place.” Her eyes lifted to the trees. “Bet getting through there now’s gonna be a bitch.”
Gabrielle went to the closest of the bodies and knelt beside it, laying her staff down as she rested her hands on her knees. His body bore a few scraps of what might have been intended as clothing – strips of bark wrapped around his waist and tied with…
She leaned closer, reaching out to touch the bark and pull it over a little. The strands she’d seen were, indeed, threads from her own skirt, probably taken during one of the scuffles. “Ew.”
“What?” Xena had been loitering behind her, and now she knelt beside her partner.
Gabrielle untangled the thread and handed it to her. “Xena, are you sure these things aren’t something Ares dreamed up?” She asked, seriously. “They’re so focused on… killing things.”
Xena moved one of the creature’s arms, exposing a piece of rock half buried in the dirt. She picked it up and examined it, shaking her head a little. “They find everything.” She handed the rock over to Gabrielle, who turned it over in her fingers.
“What is that?” Granella asked, curiously. “Looks like just a split stone.”
“It is.” The bard gave it to her. “It’s a stone Xena split right after we first got here.. trying to make something to cut with. I remember the fault line there on one end, it reminded me of the river bend near home.”
Pony knelt on the other side of Xena. “So.. you gave it to them?”
“They found it.” Xena said. “Just like they found the bow I dropped.”
“They tried to trick us into a trap.” Gabrielle explained, sensing the prickling of Xena’s temper. “We found a deer.. they’d tied it up. I guess they saw us kill the other one, or something.”
Pony looked a little confused. “Wait a minute. You’re telling me these creeps were smart enough to trick you guys into falling for something?”
Gabrielle leaned casually against Xena’s leg, feeling the sub audible growling. “Not exactly.” She said. “We were just walking along and heard the deer. Xena got close to it, but she figured out what they were up to before they could trap us and she started kicking them around.”
Pony and Granella exchanged glances. “Oh.” Pony muttered. “But.. you’re sure they were trying to trap you all?”
“We’re sure.” Xena replied, in a clipped tone. “Let’s get moving. The further we get in daylight, the better. If we have to fight our way down into the valley it’s gonna be a long day.” She got up and walked towards the nearby stream, sword twitching and twirling in her hand.
“This is really weird.” Granella stood also, giving her head a half shake. “I’ll grab these. Gods know we’re gonna need em.” She started picking up the discarded arrows, and then moved to get the ones she’d buried into enemy flesh.
“Weird.” Pony agreed. “Guess I’ll go wash off too.” She started after Xena, leaving Gabrielle kneeling somberly at the side of the fallen hooter.
‘Yeah.” Gabrielle murmured, under her breath. “Gonna be a long day.”
They walked into the forest single file, Xena in the lead. Gabrielle was only a step or two behind her, and then Granella and Pony followed, with Pony taking up rear guard as she worked on assembling a serviceable bow.
Gabrielle was of two minds about this. On one hand, it was slightly insulting to insinuate that she and Granella belonged in the middle, protected slots. On the other hand, she wanted to be right near where Xena was and the best place to protect her butt was.. well.. pretty much right at her butt.
So there you go. The bard felt the path ahead of her with her staff as she kept her partner in her peripheral vision, her senses watching intently for the little signals that meant Xena’s far more powerful senses detecting something.
Like her head sweeping to one side suddenly, the dark hair brushing across her shoulders as she watched something go by. Or the stiffening of her body, or the twitching of her fingers, all unconscious reactions to something she’d heard or smelled or seen.
Xena wasn’t doing any of that right now, so Gabrielle figured they were safe for the moment from attack. The warrior was striding along the downward slope of the path, body bouncing just a little as she took the shock of the hard ground through her bones.
She was wearing her catskin cloak, as the morning had stayed chilly and Gabrielle was carrying their pack on her back with a bit of the deerskin pulled from it to drape over her shoulders. It wasn’t really warm, but she was moving and her body was generating enough heat from that so she wasn’t uncomfortable.
Of course, she wasn’t really comfortable either, but she wasn’t complaining. “Xe?” She took a few, quicker steps and came up even with her soulmate. “You know what I think we have to be careful of?”
“Slugs.” Xena’s motion was only a flicker, as she drew her sword, sliced a slug in half that was about to attach itself to Gabrielle’s shoulder, and resheathed the weapon in nothing more than a blink of an eye. “And I think we’ve got rain coming in again.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle glanced at the sky. “Ugh. Yeah.”
They walked along together for a few minutes in silence, as Xena picked the best track down. As they got past a steep, rocky piece, she turned her head towards Gabrielle. “What?”
The bard looked up, startled. “What what?” She let her eyes sweep the surrounding trees. “Something wrong?”
“What.” Xena enunciated slowly. “Do we have to be careful of?”
Gabrielle stepped around a boulder half sunk in the earth, a frown on her face. “Honey.” She put a hand on Xena’s back. “You know I love you, but is this any time to be quizzing me?”
Xena chuckled softly, and shook her head. “Never mind.” She paused on a small ridge and held her hand up, her eyes detecting a tiny shiver of motion below them. “Hold up.”
Gabrielle stepped to one side as Pony and Granella caught up to them, and they all stood in silence, watching Xena study the path ahead.
“Okay.” The warrior slowly crouched down, resting her forearms on her knees. “There’s a bunch of them, in that hollow down there.” She pointed with her hand, all her fingers held close together. “They’re under the canopy, near that outcropping.”
Pony didn’t even attempt it. “Sure.” She agreed. “So.. what’s the plan?”
Xena glanced at her. “We’re going to attack them.” She replied. “We’ll split in two teams.”
“Let me guess.” Pony said, in a serious tone. “Me and Gran, you and her nibs.”
The warrior’s dark brows contracted. “This isn’t a joke.”
“I’m not laughing.” Eponin answered back. “G’wan.”
Xena studied her expression for a moment, then shrugged one shoulder. “The path divides just past those trees. You two take the left fork, Gabrielle and I’ll take the right.” She went on. “When I signal you, start shooting into them. We’ll take care of the rest.”
Pony absorbed this. “You want us to shoot into them while you’re attacking from the other side.”
“What if we shoot you?” She asked the warrior, in a deadpan tone.
“Gabrielle will come after you and beat you to death.” Xena replied, in the same tenor. “Any other questions?”
Granella leaned on her bow a little. “So, what’s the goal here?”
Xena hesitated. “To clear the path.” She said, after a slight pause. “We’re in a bad spot up here.. if they see us, and come after us, we’ll be fighting going uphill.”
Both Pony and Granella nodded. “Okay, sounds good.” Granella said. “You guys be careful, huh?” She started down the path, staying close to the trees and edging forward carefully. Pony picked up a bit of rock and tossed it, then she got up and followed without a further word.
Xena sighed, leaning back and brushing against Gabrielle’s leg. “Hades of a time for the shine to come off my reputation, y’know?”
Gabrielle patted her shoulder, and leaned forward to give her a kiss on the top of her head. “C’mon. Let’s go keep our end of this thing.” She said. “You think they’ll run from us, if we attack them?” She held on to the back of Xena’s leathers as the warrior stood up to keep her balance.
“I don’t know.” Her partner answered. “I’m just tired of them always being one step ahead of us.” She dusted her hands off. “So, let’s see what they do when the boots on the other foot.”
Gabrielle followed her down the path. “You do know they don’t wear boots, right?”
“Just making that clear.” The bard said. “We really should be careful not to show them any more tricks.”
Xena got to the split in the path and started to the right, her steps becoming more stealthy. “Shh.” She uttered, warningly. “We’re upwind, but let’s not take chances.”
We’re taking four scantily armed women up against a tribe of super strong hairy manimals who want to rape and or eat us. Gabrielle mused. “Right.” She tucked her staff against her body and concentrated on stepping in Xena’s bootprints “By the way.” She pulled her partner gently to a halt. “That’s what I meant before.”
“What?” Xena pushed her up against a tree trunk and stood there, peering past it. Then she looked at Gabrielle. “Meant when?”
Framed in the spattering of sunlight, the shadows seeming to intensify her partner’s already intense nature, Gabrielle found herself in a moment’s delightful trance. She leaned forward and gently kissed Xena’s parted lips. “Never mind.”
She slipped past the warrior and took the lead, placing her feet carefully on the dew damp path, not wanting a slip to betray her.
“Never mind?” Xena licked her lips and studied the tree bark. “I think I’m losing my mind.” She sighed, giving the rough surface a pat before she turned and caught up to Gabrielle, grabbing her by the back of her Amazon belt and hauling her to a stop, so she could go past and take them down the trail.
Granella got down on her belly, squirming carefully across the rocky ground as they got closer to the glade the hooters were gathered in. She had her bow cradled in her elbows, and she paused as they reached an area of shorter brush before she continued on. “What do you think?”
Pony crawled up next to her. “I think they’ve both gone nutters.”
Granella looked at her. “About the track.” She pointed towards the brush with her chin. “That’s pretty exposed there.”
“Oh.” Pony put her chin down on a nearby stone and slitted her eyes, surveying the path. “Sa’llright.” She decided after a moment, crawling forward and into the cleared area. The grasses just covered her head, and her motion through them stirred their tips only a little.
Granella took a last look around, then followed her, feeling the chill wind send goose bumps down her back as it swept up the slope.
She’d never really been one of the tribe’s warmongers. Oh, she’d fought when she had to, and done the training, and carried her share of the load in terms of scouting, but she’d never felt in herself the love of fighting that she knew Eponin did.
Hades, Granella exhaled. She’d never felt the level of enjoyment in fighting that Gabrielle did, for Artemis’ sake; and so, when she’d opted out of the Nation and joined the populace of Amphipolis there was a certain, never admitted to relief somewhere inside her that this type of thing had passed her by.
So here she was, creeping through the grass, bow in hand, expected to put it to it’s most lethal use in what was facing up to be a dangerous fight.
Just went to show you, she supposed, that adventure never came to you on your terms. She slid to one side and took hold of a rock outcropping, pulling herself up even with Pony just shy of a sharp drop off. “We here?”
“We’re here.” Pony sidled further under the thick green leaves of a wildly overgrown bush and shook the hair from her eyes as she observed the now easily visible hooters below them. “There they are, the little creeps.”
Granella set her bow down and lifted herself up a little to see over the ridge. The hooters were clustered in a circle, yanking at something with some excitement. “What have they got there?”
Pony shook her head. “Rabbit? Who knows?” She laid her arrows out methodically, smoothing the feathers with a critical eye. “So.” She studied the track across from them. “Think she’d do it?”
“Who?” Granella stuck the points of her arrows lightly in the earth, easing up into a half sitting posture as she carefully parted the leaves and tucked them aside to clear her aim.
The ex-scout pondered the question as she got herself ready. “She might.” She finally said. “She likes those other things, and she’s pretty pissed off at those guys. “
“I meant, ya think she’d come after my head if I stuck one in Big X?”
Granella turned her head fully and looked at her companion. “Without question.” She said. “And if you even think about it, I’ll stick one in you.” She frowned. “I think you’re the one who’s gone nutters. They’re just acting like normal.”
Granella spotted Xena, emerging without a sound on the outcropping above the hooters. “Sh.” She pointed. “Get ready.”
Pony rose up next to her and strung her bow, making sure she had enough clearance between them so her bow arm wouldn’t hit Granella. “I don’t think they’re nowhere near normal.”
Granella nocked an arrow, perversely glad of the conversation that was taking her mind off what she was doing. “You’re just not around them at home like I am.” She disagreed. “They’re like that a lot there.. it drives people nuts sometimes. They get so wrapped up in each other everything else around them is just like.. ‘whatever’.”
“I ain’t never seen that.” Pony disagreed.
“You’ve never seen them like I have.” Granella shook her head. “For sure, not with the tribe. Give me a break, Pony.” She saw Gabrielle drop down behind Xena, the bard’s face set with resolve. “Get ready.” She repeated. “We got the easy part of this.”
“Yeah.” Pony grumbled. “I should be over there instead of her nibs.” She nocked an arrow. “Cept I know for damn sure she can’t hit the broad side of a centaur with one of these.”
Granella smothered a wry smile, acknowledging the truth of that. Gabrielle’s martial skills were really quite profound, with everything except for sharp offensive weapons. Spears, arrows, swords… there was something in Gabrielle’s makeup that shied away from using them, and it showed even in the friendly contests she sometimes participated in.
She could throw a rock with stunning accuracy. Shoot an arrow at the same target? Forget it. Everyone took off running when the bard so much as picked a bow up, even Xena appearing nervous though she, at least, had the skill to stop whatever it was from hitting inappropriate things.
So. Granella turned her focus on Xena’s partially visible figure, as the warrior worked her way carefully closer to the hooters.
Watching Xena hunt was an ethereal experience, and she was hunting now, every move timed to synch with the waving branches around her as she flowed forward with the natural rhythm of the world. How in the world a six foot tall armored woman could seem invisible was behind her, but in a sense, Xena was.
Your eye went right over her, unless you really fixed your attention hard, and now Granella watched in some fascination as Gabrielle followed, her smaller, lither body even more difficult to discern since her Amazon clothing and tanned skin blended with the brush where Xena’s stood out like a bull in a herd of sheep.
Finally, Xena found a position she liked, and stopped, coiling her body to leap. She had one foot on the edge of the rock ledge above the hooters, and the other slightly back to push off and she went still, Gabrielle going equally still behind her.
It wasn’t a huge leap to the ledge below, but it was higher than Xena’s head.
Did Gabrielle realize that? Granella pulled her arm back, her eyes fixed on the warrior. Sometimes the bard’s bravery crossed over reckless, into the area where it overreached her physical capacity.
Did Xena realize that?
“Here we go.” Pony got up onto her knees and then put one leg forward, bracing it as she drew her opposite arm back, tensing the bowstring powerfully. “C’mon, Xena. Stop posing.”
The warrior lifted a hand and made a sign, and they both released their arrows at the same moment, rearming with serious intent as the shafts bore down on the hooters and entered flesh.
Pony let out a battle yell as she released her second arrow, pulling a third back and sending it flying as the hooters realized they were being attacked and started scrambling frantically around.
Hoots rose, panicked and angry. The crowd of them rushed towards the front of the ledge, and as soon as they did that, Xena leaped into the cleared space behind them, landing without so much as a jar and drawing her sword in an easy motion.
The hooters grabbed anything in their reach and started throwing it at the Amazons, and several started running up towards them. Xena let out a yell of her own and attacked them from behind, as Gabrielle jumped in behind her, landing with something of a greater bounce and far less grace, but keeping her feet and sweeping her staff at the hooter nearest her who had started heading uphill.
Xena hamstrung a shocked hooter, gutted him, then leaped over his fallen body to engage the two behind him. She kept up a ferocious yelling, and the herd of them suddenly panicked and bolted, running away as fast as they could, two of them jumping right off the path and falling down the mountain with screams of their own.
Gabrielle watched them leave, apparently a little non-plussed, having expected a harder battle. She grounded the end of her staff and looked at her partner, lifting her free hand in an eloquent shrug.
Xena walked over to the item the creatures had been mauling over and knelt. After a moment, Gabrielle joined her.
“What is it?” The bard grimaced, rubbing one knee. “Sheesh, Xe.. that was a high jump!”
“Toldja to stay up there.” The warrior answered, absently, as she examined the mass of black leather on the ground. “What in the Hades?”
Gabrielle studied it. “Is that armor?” She asked after a moment. “It looks a little familiar.”
“Not exactly.” Xena spread out the remnants. They formed what might have been a leather vest, finely tooled and intricate. “And it is familiar.” She turned and looked at Gabrielle. “It’s the one Ares usually wears.”
Gabrielle blinked in real surprise, reaching out in reflex to touch the vest. “Wh..” She looked back at Xena. “What’s it doing here?” She looked around, apparently expecting the vest’s owner to appear. “You haven’t felt.. have you?”
“No.” Xena replied. “I haven’t.” With a frown, she folded up the tatters and stood. “But maybe you weren’t so far off before and he is involved in this crazy place.”
“Yeesh.” Gabrielle stood up, working her knee out as she watched Pony and Granella approach. “Like we needed any more complications.”
Xena looked at her in mute eloquence.
“Oh, shut up.” Gabrielle rolled her eyes and walked past, shaking her head. “IT”S NOT MY FAULT!!!”
The warrior chuckled briefly and followed, but her face held a pensive expression as she rubbed her thumb over the leather bundle in her hands.
They made it back to the old woman’s cave before nightfall. It wasn’t as far as they’d wanted to go, but with the sun setting, Xena held her hand up as they came even with the opening. “Let me check it out. We know they know this place.”
“Yeah?” Pony surveyed the opening dubiously. “Why not skip it then?”
Gabrielle leaned against the rock wall as Xena slipped inside the cave. “It’s the way out.” She wiped a bit of rock dust off her forehead. “Anyway, I could use a break.”
“What you said.” Granella unapologetically sat down on the path, rubbing the muscles in her legs. “Damn that was steep.”
Pony snorted, then followed Xena inside the cave leaving the other two women alone outside. Gabrielle slid down the rock wall and sat down next to Granella, extending both legs out with a sigh. One knee popped slightly and she grimaced, rubbing it. “Ow.”
Granella turned her head to one side and observed her sister in law. “Throw something out?”
“Nah.” The bard sighed. “I’ve twisted that one enough times that it reminds me when I do something stupid like jump off a cliff.” She rubbed a bit of dried mud off the tan skin on the inside of her knee. A long scar was visible there, running down to her calf. “I should know better than to just hop off ledges after Xena by now.”
“You could have asked Xena to take it easier coming up here.” Granella commented. “She’d have.”
“No.” Gabrielle produced a wry grin. “She wouldn’t have. She’d have put me over her shoulder and carried me. So you hush, okay?” She folded her hands over her stomach and exhaled, glad of the chance to simply sit and watch the sunset.
They hadn’t seen a single sign of the hooters since the fight. That worried all of them, and Xena had seemed tenser and more anxious than usual as she roamed ahead of them scouting out the path. But other than a few scattered animals, they’d had a peaceful climb up the side of the mountain.
Her knee was a little sore, and having to balance against that put the rest of her body under extra strain. But Gabrielle felt her energy returning as she rested and her mind shifted from thoughts of the walk to plans for their camp.
She felt reasonably certain Xena would camp in the cave for the night, regardless of the fact they knew the lower track down through the cavern was pretty much unguardable. At least here they’d have shelter and the narrow crawlspace was small enough for Xena to mount an easy defense with no way for the hooters to attack her in numbers.
Gabrielle turned, to find Granella offering her a waterskin. “Thanks.” She took it with a smile, and sucked a mouthful from it. “Bet you’re regretting that old wanderlust, huh?”
“Eh.” The other women chuckled wryly. “Hasn’t been so bad for us, really.” She demurred. “First couple days.. well, and then we fell down the waterfall. That kinda sucked.”
“For us too.” Gabrielle nodded.
Granella lifted a stone and peered at it’s speckled surface. “Were you scared?” She asked, after a brief silence. “I was. Man, my heart went right out between my teeth.”
The bard opened her hands to cup a splash of sunlight, watching dust particles float in it as it reflected off her skin. “I wasn’t.. “ She paused. “I mean, yes, of course I was scared when we went over the edge, you know?” She looked at Granella. “I’m scared speechless of heights.. we were falling for what felt like forever.”
“Yeah.” Granella nodded.
“But.. I…” Gabrielle drew her knee up and leaned her forearm against it. “This won’t make much sense, but I wasn’t really afraid of what would happen once we finished falling.”
The sun began disappearing behind the soaring crevice walls, tinting Gabrielle’s face in a rich, golden light as Granella studied it. The lines and planes of adulthood had lengthened the shape of it from what she’d remembered when she’d first met the bard but the primary difference was the expression in her eyes.
Their intensity now matched Xena’s. “You mean, you weren’t afraid of dying, right.” Granella asked.
“Right.” Gabrielle agreed. “I’ve learned over the years there’s a lot worse things that can happen to you than that. Besides, with Xena there, I wasn’t really worried.” Her tone lightened appreciably. “If she’d started swimming us both upstream, wouldn’t have surprised me.”
Granella shook her head and chuckled. Then she grew quiet. “Well, to be honest, I was afraid of dying.” She admitted. “I think I’ve grown out of being an Amazon, Gabrielle.” She paused, and after a period of continuing silence, she looked up to find far more mature understanding than she’d frankly expected. “Does that make any sense to you?”
Gabrielle squirmed a little closer, running her fingers through her hair to remove windblown locks from her eyes. “That you don’t want to get hurt, or risk your life? Sure.” She replied. “But you know, we don’t have a lot of choice about that out here.”
“No, I know.” The dark haired woman said. “It’s just.. bothering me that I’ve turned into a coward.”
The words did something to her, and she felt a cold anger stir with shocking unexpectedness. Gabrielle reached over and whapped her on the top of the head, making Granella jump back in startlement. “What?” She sputtered. “Stuff that!”
“Ow!” Granella scrambled back out of reach. “That hurt!”
“It should have!” Gabrielle retorted. “What makes you think caring about living or dying makes you a coward?”
“That’s not what..”
“That’s exactly what you said.” The bard cut her off.
“Hey!” Pony came back out of the cave. “What the Hades is going on out here?” She put her hands on her hips as Xena emerged behind her. “Hey?”
Granella rubbed her head. “Um.. nothing.” She glanced quickly at Gabrielle, who had settled back against the rock with a mildly abashed expression. “Find anything?”
Xena stepped past Pony and extended her hand towards Gabrielle. “Let’s go inside. We’ll camp here tonight.” She said, shortly. “No sign of em.”
Gabrielle demurely took her partner’s hand and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. She followed Xena inside and as she expected, the warrior led her over to the ledge near the rear, not around in back where the skeleton was.
Her knees were shaking from the sudden draining of unexpected anger, and she was glad to reach the ledge and lean against it. “Glad we found someplace dry and warm.. I’m sure we could all use it.”d
She shrugged their pack off her back and started to open it, pausing when she sensed Xena standing next to her in expectant stillness. Instinctively, she looked up, reading the warrior’s body posture easily. “Um.. hi.”
“Hi.” Xena took a seat on the ledge next to where she’d set the pack. “So what’s the deal with Pounding Pauline out there?”
Gabrielle glanced furtively at the entrance, which was still conspicuously empty of Amazons. “Gran was just being goofy. I whacked her one.”
Xena blinked, her head drawing back in surprise. “You did?”
The bard sat down, her hands cradled around the skull cup. “I did.” She admitted. “Not sure where that came from.”
Xena studied her partner, a frown crossing her face. “She say something to you?” She guessed. “About me.. about us, or?” Her voice trailed off as she watched Gabrielle shake her head no. “It’s not like you to haul off an hit people, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle pondered a moment, then she shrugged. “Long day.” She sighed. “Tell you what.. I’ll see what I can scrounge us up for dinner if you go tell Gran I’m not a nutball.”
Blue eyes went a bit rounder. “You want me to explain you to her?”
The bard nodded. “Gwan.” She gave her partner a nudge. “Tell her I’m…” She paused.
“Pregnant?” Xena supplied helpfully. “She should understand that. She wasn’t exactly even tempered during hers.”
No, that was very true, now that Gabrielle recalled. However.. “No.. I.. “ The bard set the skull down and picked on up one of Xena’s hands instead. The contact made her entire body relax, and she found herself sidetracked momentarily by the strong sensation.
The shakiness faded, and she felt her equilibrium settle nicely. She brought their joined hands up and kissed Xena’s knuckles, catching the faint hint of rock dust and leather on her skin. “Gods, I love you.” She exhaled. “Listen, forget I said that. I’ll take care of Gran. I don’t really want them to know we think I’m pregnant, okay?”
“Any chance of some fish in that water hole in back?” Gabrielle absently nibbled her partner’s skin. “I know it’ll beat the nuts I have in my bag.”
“See if I can find some.”
Gabrielle looked up at that, to see the wry, bemused expression on Xena’s face. She was about to speak, when Pony and Gran enter the cave. She squeezed the warrior’s hand instead, and got a nod in response, as Xena got up. “Thanks.”
Xena ruffled her hair gently. “Okay.” She addressed the other two. “I’m gonna see what fish I can catch in the pool back there. Grab some firewood.”
“You’re gonna fish in the dark?” Pony queried. “Why not wait for us to build a fire, then take a torch? You gotta do things the hard way all the time?”
Xena paused near the entrance to the back passageway and put her hands on her hips. “It’s always dark back there. Fish are used to the dark. Put light in, they all leave. I’m not looking to fish for the next ten candlemarks, thanks.” With a toss of her head, she disappeared into the shadows.
A small silence fell. Pony looked at the empty spot the warrior had left, then she turned and looked at Gabrielle. “Scuse me.” She said. “You both cycling or something?”
The bard propped her elbow on her knee and rested her chin on her fist. “Something.” She agreed wryly. “Sorry about that.”
Pony shook her head and began gathering some of the scattered sticks on the floor. Granella picked up a few rocks and started making a fire circle, refusing to meet Gabrielle’s eyes.
Sheesh. The bard went back to her task, taking out the supplies she had in her pack and sorting them. Gonna be a long night.
“Figures we get stuck in a cave. I hate sleeping on rocks!” Pony groused.
“Aint’ that the truth.” Granella agreed, in a glum tone.
Really long night. Gabrielle pulled out the tattered wad of leather and stared at it, then silently put it back in the pack. Now they had another mystery to worry them. Was Ares really involved?
Or wasn’t he?
It was long after dark. The fire had burned down to a friendly orange glow, and the campsite was somberly quiet.
Pony was seated near the entrance to the cave, sword drawn with it’s hilt resting inside the curl of her fingers as she watched fireflies whisk about outside. She had her back to the rest of the group, but her hearing told her nothing was going on, so she was content to focus on the world outside instead.
If she turned and looked, she knew she’d see Granella curled up on one side of the fire, making herself as comfortable as she could on the rocks and using her pack as a pillow.
Across the fire from her, Gabrielle was also curled up, making herself as comfortable as possible and using Xena as s pillow. Pony shook her head, unable to really believe the two of them were as goopy as they were, even though she’d known them for years.
When had Xena turned into such a softie? Pony peeked over her shoulder, watching the warrior as she watched her partner sleep, the look of adoration in her eyes positively embarrassing. “Sheesh.” The weapons master returned her attention to the darkness outside. “What the Hades is up with that?”
“You say something?” Xena’s voice projected to her, low and vibrant.
“Me?” Pony made a show of turning around to look. “Naw… you hearing things?”
Blue eyes that were tinted gold in the firelight gazed steadily back at her. “I hear lots of things.” The warrior asserted. “Some of them useful, some not.”
Pony snorted, and returned her attention to the path outside.
Xena waited to see if more snippy comments would be forthcoming, and then, when they weren’t, she settled back against the rocks and draped her arm over Gabrielle’s dozing body again. The bard was lying on her side with her head in Xena’s lap, her hand curled around the warrior’s knee.
Gabrielle wasn’t entirely asleep. Slight movements of her hands, and shifts of her body indicated the exhaustion of the long day wasn’t quite overcoming the discomfort of the stone she was lying on. She gently ran her fingers through the bard’s hair, delicately rubbing Gabrielle’s scalp just behind her ears.
Xena felt a light, warm touch of lips against the skin on the inside of her thigh, and knew a moment of quiet thankfulness for this most profound blessing in her life.
“Hey, Xe?” Gabrielle squirmed and rolled over onto her other side, now facing her partner. “Remember when I told you I thought those hammock things you made us for the trees were a bad idea?”
Xena actually couldn’t remember any such thing, but she nodded anyway.
“Bad move on my part.” The bard sighed. “These rocks are driving me nuts.”
The warrior glanced around the cavern, in all it’s shadowed mystery from the fire, and regarded the rocks thoughtfully. Hammocks. Gods be damned, why hadn’t she thought of that? There were plenty of places to hang the damn things in the places they’d been. “Mm.”
“I’d like to be in a hammock right now.” Gabrielle said, mournfully. “With you, of course.”
“Of course.” Xena murmured back. “Y’know, that’s a damn good idea, Gabrielle.”
The bard immediately clamped both hands down on her partner’s knees. “Don’t get any funny ideas like you’re going to run out into the forest in the middle of the night to find hemp, okay?”
“I wasn’t.” Xena protested mildly. “Pony already thinks I’ve gone nuts. Don’t want to add fuel to that fire.”
Gabrielle rolled onto her back and regarded the craggy ceiling. “I don’t think we’re going nuts.” She said. “I think we’re just acting like we always do when we’re alone, and they can’t deal with that.”
Xena considered that, as she slowly riffled through Gabrielle’s hair, her fingertips tracing the bard’s well shaped skull under it’s thick covering. ‘Yeah, I guess.” She said, after a short pause. “I just don’t feel like acting any other way.” She continued, her brows creasing. “Not sure why.”
Gabrielle thought she knew. Their travels together after they’d visited Athens had given them so much time alone, that they’d come to a place in their lives where they were both very comfortable in their skins with each other.
So why pretend otherwise when other people were around? Let them think whatever they wanted to think. “Same reason we ended up moving, maybe.” She whispered. “I didn’t want to have to act like Gabrielle the bard, or Gabrielle the Amazon queen all the time. I just wanted to be me.”
Something in the words rang unexpectedly true in Xena’s ears. It had to do with the expectations everyone always had of her, and how that had just grated, and grated, and grated on her when they’d come home, until she’d felt like backhanding all those avidly watching faces.
Yeah. “Think you’re on to something there.” She murmured.
“Wasn’t really the growth of the town.” Gabrielle said. “It was all those people watching me like I was some three headed goat all the time.”
“Yeah.” Xena exhaled. “Damn, you’re right. I just wanted everyone to leave me the Hades alone.”
Gabrielle nodded, little things that had been puzzling her now making a lot more sense. Perhaps this wasn’t the time to really be thinking about it, but she’d learned to take her revelations where she found them, and at least, this was something she had a chance of explaining to Cyrene when they got back.
Besides, this was a lot more pleasant than the notion the both of them were just getting to be anti social grumps in their old age, wasn’t it? The bard gazed up at her partner’s face, outlined in the reddish firelight. “You know something?”
“I know I love you.” Xena ran her fingertip along the edge of Gabrielle’s sensitive ears, and watched her face twitch in response. “What?”
“All these years I’ve been telling stories about you… what I really wished was that people could see you like I do.” Gabrielle smiled. “I can’t help it if it’s freaking them out.”
The warrior shrugged, and chuckled softly.
They were both briefly silent. Then Gabrielle shifted her focus, lifting her hand and rubbing the backs of her knuckles against Xena’s leg. “You going to get some rest?”
Xena shook her head. “I’m watching the back door.” She indicated the dark recesses behind them. “Pony’s got the front door.”
“I could watch for you.” Gabrielle felt Xena’s hand cover hers, and their fingers laced together. “I’m tired but I’m just not sleepy.”
That about described how Xena felt too. Her body was tired, a little, mostly from the tension of watching and listening for the hooters all day. But her mind was going in circles to the point where only the fact that she was providing her partner a pillow was keeping her from pacing.
“Damn I wish we were home in bed.” Gabrielle sighed. “And I miss Dori.”
“Me too.” Xena admitted. “Hope she’s not running Eph ragged.”
Gabrielle rolled onto her side again, squirming forward so that her forehead was resting against Xena’s body. It took the pressure off her shoulder a little and if she ignored the fact that her hip was going to be sore in the morning, it was almost bearable.
Gods, she hated sleeping on rock. The last few years most of her worst nightmares had happened around mountains and there were times she wished they just lived in the flatlands with nothing more picturesque than blackberry bushes to look at.
Xena’s hand touched her shoulder. With no more warning than that, Gabrielle immediately rolled over and lifted away from her, ducking her head gracefully as Xena drew her sword in flickering silence.
She got to her feet right behind the warrior, lifting her staff up and taking hold of it as Xena moved towards the back corridor in utter silence. A quick look over her shoulder showed Pony unaware of the movement, and though Gabrielle took a breath to call a warning, something made her close her mouth again and follow Xena instead.
She could hear nothing from the darkness, but she had no doubt her partner had, and now as she walked carefully in the dark haired woman’s footsteps, she could see the shifting muscles under her skin as her body prepared to fight.
Easily visible under her leathers, it reminded Gabrielle irresistibly of some prowling, hunting cat as she watched the warrior’s spine arch, and her powerful shoulderblades spread under their layers of sinew.
It was automatic. Gabrielle could even sense the dark energy stirring inside her, that seductive tickling her own body tiptoed closer and closer to understanding as time went by. She could feel Xena’s breathing deepen, and saw her thigh muscles tense, knees unlocking slightly and then stilling.
She steadied her balance and slid her grip lower on her staff, her eyes shifting to either side of Xena’s figure as she searched the shadows ahead of them.
Xena lifted a hand, made a sign.
Gabrielle stepped to her left, and crouched slightly, clearing the warrior’s sword arm, the tip of the blade twitching not far from her as Xena held it reversed in her hand.
Now, her ears picked up the faintest of sounds, the barests of rasps, skin against rock as something or someone walked in bare feet towards them.
Xena took another two steps forward, positioning herself on the side of the opening, her body protected by the rock, as she cocked her sword arm, ready to deal with whatever was going to come around the corner at them.
Gabrielle shifted her grip on her staff and waited in silence, readying herself to deal with whatever would happen after Xena handled the initial attack. At least, it sounded like only one of whatever it was.
A flicker of motion in the shadows beyond the rock.
“Hey!” Pony’s voice cut the silence like a knife. “What in Hades are you two doing?”
A soft gasp, then the sound of running feet.
“Son of a bacchae.” Xena bolted into the darkness, swinging around the rock in the blink of an eye and disappearing. “Stay HERE!”
Gabrielle glanced at Pony. “Bad timing.” She called, as she took of after her partner. “Be right back!”
Pony gaped after them, as Granella rolled to her feet in groggy surprise. “Wh..” The weapons master blurted. “Hey!”
Granella raked her hair from her eyes and stared into the dark crevice. “I get it.” She rubbed her face. “Now I finally get it. They don’t get into trouble.”
“What???” Pony yelped.
“They make it.” Granella grabbed her bow and quiver. “C’mon.. take that torch there. Let’s go.”
Cursing, Pony grabbed a wrapped branch and paused to light it, then hurried after Granella into the shadows.
The sound of motion drew her quickly on as she rounded the corner and headed down the passageway, the creature she was chasing collided with one of walls in a scrape of skin against stone, and she moved faster, suspecting it was their little friend still hanging around where they’d last seen him.
Xena knew she had only a few heartbeats to catch their silent stalker, before the dark became too dark for her to track efficiently. Not to mention, before Gabrielle would come plowing into her from behind since she could already hear the distinctive footsteps headed in her direction.
She caught a glimpse of a shadow moving in front her and instinctively she lunged for it, letting her body handle the lack of light and the uncertain surroundings as best as it could, her other senses stepping up as she moved through the darkness with easy skill.
Her ears picked up heightened breathing, and the familiar male musk made her nose wrinkle as she closed in on her quarry, her body sliding past rock outcroppings she couldn’t see.
Her fingers brushed skin, then a grip fastened on her throat and warrior instincts took over as she found her air cut off. She swung her sword arm around in a tight, fast circle, her wrist rotating her sword from reverse to forward and then underhand as she plunged it into the body of the creature holding her.
She heard a gasp, then a scream of pain, and the grip released as the scent of hot blood exploded into her senses and the creature slumped into her, fingers clawing at her leathers as he sank to his knees.
A torch flared behind her, and she turned her head to see Gabrielle’s figure outlined in crimson light, just as her mind brought her around to the realization that the body slumped against hers wasn’t misshapen enough.
Wasn’t hairy enough.
A vague alarm rang in her skull as she yanked her sword back out and lowered the body to the ground. “Bring that torch!”
Gabrielle was at her side in an instant, her hand falling on Xena’s shoulder. “You okay?”
“Fine.” Xena knelt as Pony and Granella picked their way over, Pony holding the torch up as it’s flickering light cast dancing crazed shadows on the rock walls. “Not sure what I’ve got here.” She turned the slumped form over, just as Gabrielle knelt next to her and gave her a hand. “I don’t thin…”
For a moment, there was absolute silence in the passageway, the lick of the torch sounding harsh and loud as it reflected off four very stunned faces.
“Oh my g..” Gabrielle, typically, was the one who found words first. “Xena… wh..”
Xena was staring in profound incomprehension at the burly figure lying half across her thigh, it’s muscled, naked body covered in blood. “Ares.”
The closed eyes flickered open and found hers, and any doubt was gone. But this was no god. “Figures.” The lips shaped the word, then the eyes closed again, and Ares head rocked to one side, his body relaxing into unconsciousness.
There was another moment of utter silence. Then Pony shifted, moving the torch from one hand to the other. “Did.. um..” She muttered. “Did you just kill the God of War, Xena?”
Xena stared down at her blood covered hands, her mind spinning in chaos.
“He’s still breathing.” Gabrielle’s voice almost sounded normal, warm and surreal. “So.. I.. um, guess we’d better get him into the front cave there, so Xena can take care of him.” Her hand squeezed Xena’s shoulder gently. “Pony, put that torch in the crack there, and get on this side of him.”
Xena mentally blessed the bard’s presence of mind, as she forced herself to shove aside the shock and concentrate, as Gabrielle was, on the practical. She set her sword aside and wiped her hands on her thighs, feeling the stickiness of the drying blood as she surveyed the damage.
Gods. What was he doing here? What was he doing… mortal? How?
The warrior suddenly felt somewhat lost, and afraid. As much as she claimed to scorn the gods, and her disbelief in them, still.
Still, this was the one god tied more closely to her life than any other. The one god she knew in her heart understood her in ways even Gabrielle didn’t.
“Xe? Can you grab his legs there?”
Live in the moment, Xena. The warrior got one arm under the fallen god’s knees and braced herself, nodding to Gabrielle as the bard helped the other two lift Ares’s upper body. She stood with them, and they struggled back up the path, leaving the torch to flutter emptily over blood stained stone and somber shadows.
Gabrielle picked the deer skull up and paused, watching Xena for a moment. The warrior was standing near where they’d lain Ares down, watching with haunted eyes as she flexed her hands almost compulsively. Pony and Granella were standing awkwardly by, not really sure of what they could or should be doing now that the first shock was wearing off.
Well. Gabrielle walked over to her partner. “Here.” She offered her the skull. “Why don’t you get some water, and I’ll get the needles out.”
Xena studied the skull, now clasped in her hands. “Yeah.” She nodded. “Clean up a little too.” She turned and returned to the shadows, pausing only to pick up her sword before she headed back into the corridor and the small, dark rush of water she’d found back there.
Gabrielle knelt next to the still form and lifted up her carrysack, sorting through the contents inside it as she searched for the fishbone needles Xena had fashioned. She looked up as Pony approached, seeing the apprehension on the Amazons’ face. “Hey.”
“Uh, hey.” Pony crouched down next to her. “Is there.. um.. something we can do?” Her eyes flicked to the fallen god.
Gabrielle studied her. “Sure.” She took Pony’s hand, and pressed it down on the square of cloth covering the gaping gash in Ares side. “Hold that.”
“You asked.” The bard set the needles aside, and added a coil of gut to them. “Gran, can you build up the fire a little?”
“Sure.” Granella replied briskly. “Be right back.”
Gabrielle finished her task, and then she regarded the injured god with a tiny shake of her head. Aside from Xena’s gut wound, his body was covered in bruises and scrapes, and there was a set of claw rakes across the plane of one cheek. “I don’t’ get this.”
Pony goggled at her. “What?”
“Him.” She replied briefly. “Mortal.”
Pony looked around, then looked back at her. “Like in… why?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Why. How.” She exhaled. “Last time it was all.. “ Her voice trailed off, as far off memories surfaced. “Hm.”
The bard nodded again. “Poor Xena.”
Pony gave up trying to make sense of any of it, and just did what she was told, keeping pressure on the still bleeding sword wound in Ares chest. Xena’s sword had passed just under his ribcage most of the way through his body, and she had to wonder if even a god.. or .. a mortal-ish god.. or.. whatever this was could survive it.
She studied Ares face, having seen him close up only once before, during the war. Now, there was far less arrogance there, and far more of something she almost found familiar. Sort of. If she could only..
“All right.” Xena returned, dripping wet and carrying her damn skull full of water, splashes of it surging over the edge as the warrior dropped to her knees. “Let’s get this over with.”
Pony found her eyes drawn to Xena’s face, it’s angles standing out starkly with her hair plastered back and sparkling with water.
She blinked, and looked down at Ares. Then she looked over at Gabrielle, who lifted her head as though feeling the attention, and met her gaze.
Pony looked away, unable to return the enigmatic intensity. “We gonna need… uh.. anything?”
“No.” Xena was busy, focused on her task.
“Thanks, Pony.” Gabrielle told her. “I think we do need to keep an eye on that corridor.. no telling what’s going to be following him up here.”
“Gotcha.” Pony stood, gratefully. “I’m on it.” She went to get her sword, and then walked back to the rear hallway, drawing it from it’s scabbard and letting the blade rest on her shoulder.
“I’ll keep an eye up front.” Granella said, without prompting, as she finished building up the fire.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle repeated, finally turning her full attention to her quiet partner. “Oh, Boo.. we’ve done it now.” She uttered, under her breath.
“Ungh.” Xena slowly shook her head, as she threaded a needle and studied the gash she’d put in Ares side. “Know what I just realized?”
Gabrielle sorted through the immensity of the possibilities. “No, what?”
The warrior’s hands paused, and she turned her head to look at her partner. “They’ve got the sword they were looking for.”
In reflex, Gabrielle’s hand came up to her mouth, as her eyes widened.
Without further word, Xena went back to her task.
The sun rose over the edge of the trees, splashing a somber coral glow over the side of the mountain path and lending a warm touch as it passed over Xena’s outstretched legs.
She turned her hands over and flexed her fingers in the newborn light, rubbing her thumb over the scraped and roughened skin on her fingertips, releasing a relieved sigh that it was finally daylight and the long night was over.
It almost felt like the dawn was rising over a completely different world. Xena watched the stark landscape around her come alive, birds rousing and launching into flight, and insects starting to buzz around a nearby bush.
Her nose picked up the smell of the rocks, and the water far below, and the trees angling down the slope. Then her nostrils twitched as she detected the faintest hint of mint. She closed her eyes and concentrated, and with the mint, she smelled cloth, and leather, and smoke tinged skin and with the scuff of boots on rock, Gabrielle appeared.
“Hi.” The bard stopped next to her and slowly lowered herself to the ground, tucking her boots up crossed under her as she handed over a steaming cup of tea. “Thought maybe you could use this.”
“Ooohh. Yeah.” Xena took the cup and cradled it in both hands, bringing it to her face and inhaling the freshly scented steam deep into her lungs. “Thanks.”
Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees and blinked into the sunlight, feeling the exhaustion lurking at the fringes of her awareness. Xena had finished sewing up the gash she’d put in Ares, but the injured god hadn’t regained consciousness, and she found herself wondering what in the world they were going to do now.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes in her partner’s direction. “Very.” She replied. “I know you are.”
“Mm.” Xena slowly sipped the tea.
Gabrielle remained quiet for a few minutes, merely sitting there basking in the sunlight and Xena’s presence. The cave behind her had become a place full of unanswered questions and she had no real desire to return to it.
She was still shocked, even now. Shocked to see that familiar, often hated face lying there. Shocked to see the blood, the bruised skin; the unexpected humanity that reminded her unexpectedly of a long forgotten trial of her own life she’d put firmly in the past.
A nudge on her shoulder made her look up, to find Xena extending the cup to her. She took it, finding it still half full before she had to pull it up hastily as the warrior shifted and laid down on her back, putting her head in Gabrielle’s lap. “Oh… you okay?”
Xena rested her cheek against Gabrielle’s stomach and curled her arm around the bard’s waist. “Just needed you.”
What a coincidence. Gabrielle set the cup down and laid one arm over Xena’s stomach, smoothing her hair back with her other hand. “Tough night.”
“Mm.” Xena closed her eyes. “I just keep thinking.. what do we do now?”
“Yeah.” The bard murmured, engaging herself in savoring the silky feel of Xena’s hair against her fingers. “I don’t know, Xena. If you don’t know, how can any of us know what to do?”
The warrior sighed.
“I mean, it’s not like you and I have this book around, you know? The one that tells us what to do when gods fall out of Olympus on us and we meet talking elephants.”
One blue eyeball appeared. “We should.” Xena remarked, wryly. “Hey.. maybe that’ll be our retirement project. Write a know it all scroll.”
Gabrielle smiled, running her fingertip down the bridge of Xena’s nose, and watching the pale eyes almost cross as they followed her hand. “I’d love that almost as much as I love you.”
Xena smiled back, then let her eyes drift closed again.
“Xe?” Gabrielle murmured, after a long silence. She watched one of Xena’s eyebrows twitch. “Is he going to be all right?”
The warrior didn’t answer for a while, then she made a face, the bridge of her nose wrinkling. “I think so.” She allowed. “I was expecting someone shorter.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle grunted softly.
“Should have known better than to grab me like that.”
The bard could hear the defensiveness in the tone. “If he knew it was you, of course he should have.” She said. “Sweetheart, it was pitch dark in there. You did what you had to do.. I would have done the same thing.”
Xena’s nearer eye opened, and she regarded Gabrielle with a mildly droll expression.
“Eh. Okay.” Gabrielle conceded. “But I would have smacked him really hard with my staff if he’d grabbed me in the dark, let me tell ya.”
Gabrielle gently stroked Xena’s cheekbone. “You really think they have his sword?”
The warrior shrugged one shoulder. “They had his armor, and he sure didn’t have it.” She replied practically. “Let’s just hope it’s just a sword to them.”
Gabrielle felt a chill run down her back. “You think it’s more?”
Xena shrugged one shoulder again.
“It won’t.. um.. make one of them the god of War, will it?”
Would it? Xena tried to remember all she’d heard about the powers of Ares infamous sword. It was tied to his godhood, that she knew. Or.. well, it was tied to his being the God of War, at any rate. “I think you already have to be a god before the sword makes you anything special.” She answered, after a long, reluctant pause.
“Ah. Yeah, that makes sense.” Gabrielle murmured. “Yeah, I remember.. in Athens, when Aphrodite was talking about that bet.. it was just that he’d lose the sword, lose being God of War, not that he’d be a mortal or anything.”
They were both silent for a bit. “So.. how’d he become mortal?” Gabrielle finally asked.
Xena opened both eyes and looked plaintively at her. “Gabrielle, you have the same damn information I do.. what makes you think I know that if you don’t?”
“Because you’re Xena, and you know everything.” The bard replied, in a placid tone.
“You can just kiss my..”
“Can’t. You’re lying on it.” Gabrielle smiled at her, as she covered the warrior’s lips with her hand. “You ready to go inside and see what’s going on?” She altered her tone to a more serious one. “We have to figure out what we’re going to do now.”
Xena sighed, letting her eyes once again close. She didn’t want to go back inside the cave, and face both the injured god and the need to decide what to do, even though she knew the bard was right and that they had to.
Maybe if she waited long enough, Pony would decide what to do.
Yeah right. As if.
Gabrielle’s fingers ruffled through her hair again, pausing to gently massage her temples. She could the bard’s stomach grumbling, though, and she could feel the sun inching higher over both of them, so she gathered herself to get up and lifted her head out of Gabrielle’s lap, pausing to kiss her on the way up.
“Mm.” The bard hiked one knee up and trapped Xena in place with her arm, taking her time about returning the kiss while providing an impromptu backrest for her. “Now that’s a good way to start the day off, isn’t it?”
“Perfect way.” Xena agreed. “But we’d better go get you fed before that noise brings down an avalanche.” She nudged her partner in the ribs with her head, and smiled as Gabrielle enfolded her in a warm hug before letting her go.
She got to her feet and pulled the bard up with her, turning to face the entrance to the cave just as Pony emerged from it, rubbing her face with one hand. “Morning.” Xena greeted her.
“Ugh.” The Amazon groaned. “I’m too freaking old for this all night crap, Xena.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle agreed. “Me too.”
Xena rolled her eyes and ducked past them. “Give me a break.” She disappeared into the darkness inside the cave entrance, leaving Pony facing Gabrielle alone.
Pony glanced after the warrior, then she looked furtively at Gabrielle. “She freaked?”
Gabrielle leaned back against the rock wall, savoring the sunlight now pouring down over her. It had been cold in the cave, despite the fire and her bones had ached from it. “I think…” She glanced at Pony. “I think she’s more freaked about what this does for our getting out of here, than anything else.”
“Mm.” The bard nodded, as she watched Pony’s face, vivid in the sunlight. There were dark circles under her eyes, and the strain was showing too. “We matter. He doesn’t.”
Pony folded her arms across her chest, and squinted into the dawn. “I can’t even think about that being the god of war in there.” She admitted. “It’s just too weird.”
Gabrielle half shrugged, and pushed away from the wall. “Yeah, well.. let’s go figure out what we’re gonna do with him.” She turned, but stopped as Pony put a hand up to still her. “What?”
The weapons master let her hand drop, a little uncertainly. “Just.. how do you deal with that?”
“Deal with what?” The bard was guiltily glad for another few moments of clean air and sunlight. “You mean with Ares?”
Gabrielle shrugged right back. “Not really much of a choice involved, you know?”
“Huh.” The Amazon rubbed her face again. “You okay with him?”
“Um.. no, actually, I’m not.” Gabrielle gazed down at the rock path, drawing a line in the dust with the tip of her boot. “I hate him.” She grimaced briefly. “He’s done things to us that make me wish Xe’s sword had been just a little higher last night.”
“You asked.” She turned and walked inside, leaving Pony standing there, trading the warmth for the gloom of the cavern. A few steps inside, she paused feeling Xena’s eyes on her as she spotted the warrior kneeling next to Ares.
Two pairs of blue eyes were looking back at her. Gabrielle dismissed one, and focused on the other, as she continued her path around the fire to where her partner was, laying a hand on her shoulder as she came even with her. “I’m going to see what I can dig up for us to eat.”
Xena nodded. “Gran’s fishing in the back.” She replied briefly.
Gabrielle finally let her eyes drift over and meet Ares. They were missing their usual brash arrogance, and she could see pain and an unusual emotion reflected there that slipped past her better judgment to touch at the wellspring of compassion never buried too far inside.
It frustrated her. “I’ll go find her.” She turned her attention back to her soulmate. “Anything else you need?”
A grin shifted Xena’s features from tense to charming. “Got everything I need right here.” She replied, looking the bard right in the eye. “But if you find blackberries, I won’t turn em down.”
From the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw Ares roll his and that made her smile, too. She patted Xena’s shoulder and moved past, heading for the back corridor with it’s lonely skeleton and it’s mysteries leaving the warrior to dispel some of the newer ones in her own inimitable way.
Maybe she’d help Gran fish. “Gran?” She called out, as she rounded the corner and looked forward, where the torch was fluttering in the dark.
There was no answer.