One Wild Ride
Xena went almost a mile down the corridor, following the faintest of tracks in the rock until the signs washed out as a race of water crossed the path. She stood there in the middle of the narrow space, staring off into the darkness and listening with everything she had for any signs she was closing in on the hooters and Gran.
Nothing but the sound of water flowing came back to her. She thrust her hand behind her, with it’s torch fluttering and shaded her eyes, focusing on the shadows as if willing something to be there.
The shadows flickered mockingly at her. “Son of a bacchae.” Xena cursed at them, hearing the faint echo of her voice travel down the pathway. She shifted her grip on her sword and, reluctantly, started back up the corridor.
All her instincts were driving her forward, and every step she took in reverse was an almost incalculable effort. Only the knowledge that people back there were counting on her for protection allowed the retreat at all, and Xena spent most of the time whacking herself in the back of the head for letting it happen in the first place.
How could she have been that oblivious? The warrior walked along in silence, only the sound of the torch riffling and the occasional plink of water dropping off the roof breaking it.
Xena herself made no sound, though she herself could clearly hear her own teeth grinding. It was difficult to say what had hurt more, Ares laughing at her, or the look in Gabrielle’s eyes when she’d come bolting back around the corner, finding Granella gone.
Her only consolation was that Pony had been even more mortified than she had, since the Amazon had been inside the cave without a doubt when the kidnapping had taken place. Xena had been outside, but then…
Well, she’d been outside, lazing around in Gabrielle’s lap. It just didn’t get any worse than that as far as she was concerned, with the possible exception being the fact that it wasn’t Gabrielle who’d been taken.
Xena blanked her mind and walked a few minutes in silence, her eyes picking up the faint suggestion of light as she headed for the cavern. Okay. She flexed her hands. Xena, you need a plan. A real plan, to get everyone the Hades out of here and you need one now.
No more, let’s wait to see what happens. The warrior squared her shoulders and woke up the battle strategist inside her that had been peacefully sleeping since the War, understanding that the rules had changed now and the half joking, half serious talk she’d had with Gabrielle about killing the hooters had now taken on a much darker meaning.
Sure, she’d gone along with Gabrielle’s insistence that they protect the big animals. She’d liked them, after a fashion and what the bard has said was true, since they’d shown the hooters fire. So she’d agreed to work out a plan to protect them but she’d never really expected to have to make good on her damn suggestion of killing them all.
Now, with Ares, and the possibility his sword was in their hands, and Gran gone…
Xena paused by the pool Gran had been taken from, and sat down on a rock, pondering the reflections on the water’s dark surface. She met her own eyes, grimacing a bit at the haggard, disheveled face looking back at her, seeing the disappointment in herself far more clearly than she ever would from anyone else.
She hated failure, any failure, but especially personal failure and letting one of her friends, one of her family be taken from under her nose was about as profound a failure as she could think of off the top of her head.
She exhaled, acknowledging the smack at her pride, and the embarrassment of it all.
There was a gentle scuff of leather on rock, not far off. Xena reluctantly lifted her eyes from her own reflection and found Gabrielle’s dim outline leaning against the rock wall nearby. “I’m not in a good mood.”
Gabrielle pushed off from the wall and approached her, seating herself on a boulder almost knee to knee with her partner. “Me either.”
Xena set the torch into a crack in the rock and dipped her hand into the water, bringing it to her lips and taking a drink from it. She flicked the remainder off her fingertips and then ran them through her hair, pulling it back off her forehead. “Went as far as I could.” She said, briefly. “Stream came through and I lost the trail.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle responded. “So, what do we do?”
Even though she expected the question, it made her head start pounding. Xena rubbed the back of her neck with her damp fingers as she studied the ground between her boots, thinking about how few their options were, and how badly she’d let everyone down.
The warmth of Gabrielle’s hand on her knee was almost shocking. Xena wrinkled her nose and glanced at her partner’s face, finding a wry sympathy waiting there for her. “Gabrielle, I don’t think I should be making the plans here.”
“Xena.” The bard squeezed her knee. “Save the guilt routine for someone else, okay? Of course you have to make the plans… you think either me or Pony know what to do?”
“Pony probably does.” Xena said. “I just feel like such an idiot.”
Xena focused on her face, with sudden intentness. “Why?” She repeated, her tone rising.
Gabrielle merely looked at her.
After a moment, the warrior’s eyes dropped, and she sighed. “We’ll have to go after them.” She said. “I’d rather go on the outside, but I’m not sure where that passage ends, and I’m afraid we’ll miss em.”
The bard nodded. “So.. what do we do with Ares?”
Xena was silent for a few breaths. “What do you want to do with Ares?” She countered. “Leave him here?”
Gabrielle hiked one knee up and rested her elbow on it. “We should.” She said. “He’s left us in enough bad places before.”
Xena pondered that without answering.
“Except of course I can’t do that.”
The warrior chuckled faintly under her breath. “Neither could I.” She admitted. “Especially since it was me that gutted him.”
“That’s why I can’t do that.” Gabrielle said. “because of how you’d feel, not because of how I’d feel. He honestly just makes me so angry I can’t even think straight.”
Xena sighed again, and stood up, reaching over to get her torch. “C’mon.” She waited for Gabrielle to get up and walk in front of her. “Let’s go play hero.” She put her hand on the bard’s back, feeling the bone and muscle shift as she started to move.
She left her hand there, and Gabrielle leaned back into the touch, as they both walked along the rock passage towards the light of the cavern. As she walked, she mulled over Gabrielle’s words, sensing a strain in them she hadn’t heard for a long while.
Her partner was no longer the bright optimist she’d been when they’d met. Xena accepted that, and even accepted the fact that it was partly her own maturing that accounted for some of it, and not all the terrible things the’y been through together.
But even through all that, Gabrielle had managed to keep some core of herself generally positive, seldom falling into the moral depressions that often plagued her soulmate though she was more prone to bouts of self doubt.
Negativity wasn’t in her nature, and so – hearing tinges of that in her speech bothered Xena and made her more than a little anxious. “Gab?”
“Yeah?” Gabrielle paused as they were about to enter the cavern, her eyes straying to the skeleton, then back to Xena’s face.
What to say? “I’m sorry.”
Gabrielle tilted her head a little, a puzzled expression on her face. “For what?” She moved instinctively closer, reaching out to touch Xena’s stomach with both hands.
“For not knowing everything.” Xena leaned forward and gently kissed her partner on the lips. “Even if I am Xena and I’m supposed to.”
Gabrielle’s expression shifted into a smile, her eyes lighting from within at the, apparently, well chosen words. “That’s okay.” She whispered. “I’ll kiss your behind anyway later.” She bumped Xena lightly with her head, and then turned and continued around the corner, her hand wrapped firmly around her partner’s.
Her reputation certainly didn’t need everyone seeing her holding hands with her soulmate, but Xena merely shifted her sword to her other shoulder and followed Gabrielle into the light, finding a tense Pony and a once again unconscious god of war waiting for them.
“Well?” Pony asked, as she spotted them. “Tell ya what, Xena. I didn’t appreciate being stuck here.” She crossed over to them. “That guy gives me the creeps!”
Xena took a breath to start yelling, then released it as her fingers were squeezed firmly before being let go. She brushed past Pony instead, and went over to where Ares was lying, kneeling down next to him and checking the wound she’d sewn shut.
“Pony.” Gabrielle caught the weapons master by the arm. “Please don’t yell at Xena.”
Pony glowered at her.
“That’s my job.” The bard continued. “Because I love her, and I can do it without getting my butt kicked.” She paused. “Get my point?”
“Yeah sure.” Pony told her. “Now can we get going after Gran? We’re just wasting time here!”
“Pony.” The bard’s voice dropped in both timbre and volume.
“Well, damn it! We are!” The frustration was very evident in Eponin’s voice. “Shoulda gone with her the last time! Now we’ve got candlemarks old trail to follow, and they coulda already done the gods know what with her!”
“I’m done listening!” Pony tried to shove past Gabrielle, but the bard grabbed her and hauled her back. “Let me the Hades go, damn it!”
“Pony!” Gabrielle tightened her hold, aware in her peripheral vision of Xena’s profound stillness, feeling the prickle of dark energy flow through their link as the warrior’s temper rose. “Don’t be a jerk! You can’t just go charging down there alone!”
“She did!” Pony yelled back. “I”d a kept going! Not come skulking back here like a..” She paused, as Gabrielle’s expression altered, and her eyes narrowed. “Oh give me a break! You’re not gonna pull that Queen when it’s convenient for you act out are you!”
For a moment, Gabrielle almost did what her inner temper was urging her to do. Then she released Pony and stepped back. “Go ahead.” She told her briefly. “Do whatever you want. Go get your self killed.” Then she turned and went to Xena’s side, kneeling down beside her on legs that threatened to collapse otherwise.
Pony stood in shocked stillness for a moment, then she started forward, only to stop again when Xena rose and turned in one graceful motion, putting herself between Gabrielle and the oncoming Amazon.
“One more step, one more word to her, and I’ll break you in half.” Xena said, after a heartbeat of quiet.
Pony opened her mouth to answer, then paused, seeing something in the cold, blue eyes facing her that made her take a step back instead. She lifted both hands up, palms out. “Gran’s in the hands of those bastards! You forgetting that?”
“No.” Xena replied. “But all of us running headlong into the trap they’ve set at the end of that road isn’t going to do a damn thing for her, now is it?” She continued in a low, flat tone. “So since we’ve got time to waste here, apparently, and you just challenged Gabrielle’s authority, you wanna get that cleared up?”
She took a step towards Pony, hands flexing.
Pony took another step backwards. “Lay off, Xena.” She warned. “This aint’ about you, or her. It’s about Gran.”
“That’s right.” The warrior continued to advance. “It’s about Granella, who needs help, not half assed mindless action.”
“So why are we sitting here?” Pony shot right back. “Let’s go help her!” She pointed behind Xena. “Or is that god of yours more important than she is to you?”
“Xe?” Gabrielle’s voice cut through the tension. “C’mere.”
Without a word, the warrior turned and went back to where Gabrielle was kneeling, crouching down next to her as she saw Ares start to stir. She gave her soulmate a look, to find it returned by one equally somber, and fully as troubled. “Damn.”
Gabrielle patted her knee. “Tag, I’m it.” She whispered, getting up and facing Pony. “Welcome to the world of the greater good.” She told the Amazon. “Let me go over the ground rules with you.”
“Keep still.” Xena knocked Ares hands aside as she worked on changing the blood soaked bandage around his ribs.
“Ow!’ The god growled at her. “Happy now? Know you’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.”
The warrior glanced at him. “Shut up.” She advised. “If I’d really wanted to stick you, Ares, you’d be dead, not pissing me off.”
“Nice!” Ares rasped. “Bitch.”
Xena ignored him, and continued her work, cleaning the long, deep gash. “How’d it happen?” She asked.
“This?” Ares sounded incredulous. “You’ve lost it, babe. You gutted me like a fish. Forget already?”
“How.” The warrior enunciated clearly. “Did you turn mortal this time.” She replaced the bandages. “They finally get tired of you up on Olympus? Do one stupid thing too many and piss daddy off? What?”
Ares didn’t answer. He turned his head and casually looked around the cavern. “Where’s your girlfriends.. ow!”
“Sorry.” Xena finished tying the bandages in place. “They’re getting ready to move out.”
The god looked around again. “So.. they’re out.. doing..?”
“What I told them to do.”
Ares attention fastened on her at that. “Those hairy bastards have my sword, Xena.” He lowered his voice. “That’s not good.”
The warrior nodded. “I figured they did.” She replied. “That why you’re mortal?”
Ares looked around again. “As if.” He snorted. “You know why I’m mortal, Xena? Let me tell you why I’m mortal, cause you’re gonna love this one.”
Xena rolled her eyes.
“It’s all for you, baby.” The god managed a wan smirk. “There I was, hanging out in my pad upstairs, watching you babes get your asses kicked by those monkeys, laughing my butt off.”
“Yeah, yeah.. well, so then Dite comes in, pets the dog, pets the dog’s other head, sits down, wants me to be ‘nice’” Ares grimaced, one hand going to his chest. “Damn you, Xena!” He glared up at the warrior. “Enjoying this?”
Cool, unemotional blue eyes met his. “All the times I hurt because of you.. yeah. I am.”
Ares gazed warily at her. “Thought we had all that.. “ He made a face. “whiny stuff worked out between us, Xena. Don’t backtrack on me now.”
Xena looked away, then back at him. “So what happened?” She changed the subject.
The god of war winced, then relaxed a little, as an apparent spasm of pain faded. “My loving sister convinced me that maybe if I was.. “nice’” His lip curled. “For a change, maybe I could get somewhere with you.”
“Tell your sister to stop sniffing the ambrosia.”
“Yeah, well, I shoulda.” Ares released a disgusted sigh. “But you know, she’s been right.. like once before so I decided to pop down here, and being my usual magnanimous self, get you all out with a snap.”
Xena stared at him. “I don’t believe a word of that.”
Ares rolled his eyes. “Whatever.” He tried to move, then reconsidered and stayed still. “Next thing I knew, I was in some cave, no snap, and it was monkeysville all over.”
The warrior’s brow creased. “You mean to tell me just being here made you mortal?”
The god shrugged. “I’m here. I’m mortal. It sucks. Next topic?”
Xena got up, walking over to her carrybag and turning her back to give herself some time to think. She slowly pulled out the catskin, looking at it thoughtfully, before she turned and tossed it at him. “Better figure out how you wanna wear that.”
Ares regarded the skin distastefully. “What is that?” He sniffed at it. “Ugh! No thanks.” He settled back down. “I’m sure you girls won’t mind if I stay au natural?” A smirk appeared on his face. “You should be ready for some different scenery anyway.”
Xena leaned against the rock ledge and eyed him. “Suit yourself.” She shrugged. “But if you’re gonna let it all hang out and Gabrielle gets in the mood for some target practice, don’t come whining to me.” She dusted her hands off. “We’re leaving in a quarter candlemark.”
Ares folded his hands gingerly over his stomach. “Ah ah ah.. I’m not going anywhere.” He shook his head. “Not until you fix this hole, babycakes. So get over here and take care of me.”
Xena put her hands on her hips. “Quarter candlemark.” She repeated. “We’re leaving. You want to stay here by yourself, have at it.” She turned and headed for the opening to the cavern, wanting suddenly to be in Gabrielle’s presence and out from under that mocking gaze.
“You wouldn’t do that to me, Xena.”
Xena looked over her shoulders, and managed a vicious smile. “Try me.” She disappeared into the sunlight, leaving Ares behind.
He watched the open space briefly, then he looked around and then lifted his hand to examine the catskin again. Gingerly, he sniffed it. “Ugh.”
Gabrielle searched through the trees moving sideways up the jagged cliff, her eyes looking for something the pine trees just weren’t giving her. Pony was climbing doggedly behind her, but neither of them had spoken for a good half candlemark.
Nothing really much else to say, was there? Gabrielle finally spotted what she was looking for and ducked under some low hanging branches to come up against a different kind of tree, one with long, slender upright limbs. “Ah.”
Pony came up next to her. “What’s that for?”
“Well.” Gabrielle removed Xena’s stone ax from her belt and studied the branches, selecting a spot on one and starting to hack at it. “Xena’s going to make Ares come with us.”
The bard looked at her.
“I don’t get that whole greater good thing.” Pony shrugged. “It’s all just bs to me.”
Gabrielle went back to her hacking. “Then why don’t you just go collect rocks or something and let me do what I need to do.” She carefully cut around in a circle, the scent of the fresh, green wood making her nose wrinkle.
“Cause I’m hoping somethin’ll start making sense sometime.”
Gabrielle finished cutting the branch. She tucked the stone ax back into her belt and wrapped her hands around the limb, twisting it quickly with a powerful jerk. The limb came free from the tree and she backed away from it, taking the limb over to the nearest rock and laying the top end of it down.
“So why’s he coming with us?” Pony asked again. “I’d just leave him here.”
The bard removed the ax again and started trimming the top of the branch. “Because he needs to get out of here.” She said, with a small sigh. “I wouldn’t leave my worst enemy in this place, and believe it or not, he’s not it.”
Pony snorted, and shook her head.
Gabrielle continued her task, feeling the sun warm her back. “Look at it this way, Pony. If we get Ares out of here, he’ll owe us a favor.” She finished trimming the branch. “You never want to turn one of those down. Believe me, they do come in handy sometimes.”
“I don’t’ care about him.” The Amazon stated succinctly. “I care about Gran, and I just get the feeling you don’t.”
“Pony.” Gabrielle took a careful breath, feeling her own temper rise, flushing her skin with warmth. “We’ve been through that.”
The bard picked up the newly shorn branch and simply walked off, leaving Eponin there talking to herself. She figured it probably was better for her to do that, than do what her instincts were urging her to do, a prickly tendency to violence that surprised and somewhat upset her.
That constant feeling of irritation, it reminded her of something. Gabrielle’s ears picked up Pony following her, but she set that aside for a moment and concentrated on the sensation instead.
Was it like when they’d fought, the last time? Her brow creased. No, she remembered that mostly as being a time of a long descent into an utter darkness of her soul, a time of tears, not of cursing. No, it was a fainter memory, something far back, something…
Ah. “Duh.” Gabrielle stopped in the middle of the path and smacked herself in the head with one hand. “Of course.. now it makes sense.”
“What?” Pony had come up behind her. “What was that for?”
The bard turned to gaze at her. “Better me than you?” She commented pointedly. “Listen, we need to find any food we can carry. None of us knows how long that tunnel is, or what we’ll find when we get to the other end.”
Despite her private revelation, Gabrielle couldn’t prevent her body from reacting as she came up over her center of gravity and the newly cut stick found it’s way into both her hands, her fingers sliding down the rough bark. “And you’re going to make me prove a point of Xena’s I particularly hate, aren’t you?”
“I don’t want you to prove nothing!” Pony shot back. “I’m just real tired of having to take orders from people who are half nuts and don’t know what the Hades is going on!”
“Pony, what the Hades do you want from me?” Gabrielle’s voice lifted in anger. “I’m not the one who took her, and I’m not the one who was in the cave sleeping when it happened!”
Pony advanced on her, anger now visible in her face. “Now you listen, I’m not gonna take that, I’m not the one to blame for this, you hear? It’s not my fault! You take that…”
She caught motion from the corner of her eye and tried to swing around to meet it, but Xena’s hand caught her on the neck before she could move. ‘Hey!” The word was cut off as the warrior’s fingers jabbed, and Pony dropped to the ground, her body twitching.
“Xena!” Gabrielle inhaled in shock.
The warrior stepped neatly around the Amazons paralyzed body and crouched next to her. She rested her hands on her knees and regarded Pony’s jerking head. “I’ve cut off the flow of blood to your brain.” She said, after a brief silence. “You have thirty seconds to live.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle dropped the branch and took hold of her partner’s shoulders.
Pony’s eyes widened in shock and real fear.
“Now, I’m not gonna let you die, mostly because it would piss off Gabrielle and because I like Ephiny.” The warrior continued. “But so help me, Eponin, if you don’t get your head out of your ass and cut the crap out, I’ll cut your tongue out of your head. You understand me?”
Xena hand moved casually down and released the block.
Eponin drew in a ragged, huge breath and half rolled onto her side. “You…”
“Save it.” The warrior cut her off. “Whatever it is, I’ve been called it before and I’m not impressed.”
“Xe.” Gabrielle leaned against the warrior’s back. “Listen.. I think I figured out what’s going on.”
Xena straightened in reflex. “Have you?”
The bard leaned closer and lowered her voice. “It’s the sword… it’s Ares… I mean, it’s him not having his sword. Remember?”
Xena peered over her shoulder at her partner. After a moment, she issued a half laugh, and nodded a tiny bit. “Damn, shoulda realized.”
“What the Hades..” Pony rasped. “Have you gone nuts?”
Gabrielle knelt down next to her, and reached out, putting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s… when theres no God of War.. it affects people. Makes them angry.”
“Violent.” Xena agreed. Then she paused, and cocked her head to one side. “More violent than usual in some cases.”
Pony stared at them.
“I’d forgotten.. what it was like last time.” Gabrielle continued, in a gentler voice. “So much has happened to me since then, it took a while to dredge it up.”
Xena’s eyes shifted and she looked off into the distance, then she looked back at Pony. “You got off lucky.” She told her. “Last time Gabrielle beat up an entire tavern.”
“I did not.”
“Yes you did.” Xena contradicted her.
Gabrielle made a face. “I’m not entirely sure that wasn’t because I was just so pissed off you were in Callisto’s body.”
Pony’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“Let’s save it till later.” Xena said. “We’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got some nuts I found.. grab everything we can and fill all the waterskins and we’ll get moving.” She stood up and dusted her hands off, then, after a long pause, she extended one down to Pony.
Pony stared at her. After a few empty seconds, Xena let her hand drop and walked away, shaking her head.
“C’mon.” Gabrielle offered her own hand instead. “Fighting with each other gets us nowhere. We’ve got too much to do.”
Slowly, Pony reached up and took her hand, and let the bard pull her up to her feet. She gazed warily at the bard. “My freaking head hurts.”
“I know, mine too.” Gabrielle picked up the limb and gestured to the path. “But that’s why we have to get Ares out of here. It’s more than just us, Pony. We’ll go after Gran, but this thing’s gotten bigger than we are.”
Pony walked alongside her. “So.. that’s the whole greater good thing?” She asked. “Because everyone else gets all freaked out?”
“Something like that, yes.”
They walked up towards the cavern, following Xena’s solitary form.
“You really beat up a whole tavern?”
Gabrielle rubbed her temple. “Well, I tried.”
Pony walked a few more steps. “Xena was in Callisto’s body?”
The bard merely nodded.
“Never heard that story before.”
Gabrielle glanced at her. “I guess there’re some things I don’t like to remember, much.”
“Mm.” Pony nodded. “Musta sucked.”
“It did.” The bard answered softly. Then she straightened her shoulders. “But you know.. believe it or not, Ares made it right at the end of that.” She said. “Because Xe did him a favor.”
“Ooohh.” Pony finally nodded, this time more positively. “Okay.. now.. I’m sorta getting a clue here.”
A clue. Gabrielle allowed herself a moment to remember that walk on the beach, that shift from disappointment and half hidden grief to joy, and a sense of possibilities reborn there in a hug betraying both of them unexpectedly.
You never could tell about people, could you? Gabrielle turned and faced Pony. “I know you think we’re putting Ares over Gran,” She said. “But we’re not, Pony. You just have to trust Xena, and trust we know what we’re doing in all this. We do care.”
Pony’s eyes dropped, then after a moment, lifted to meet hers again. “Yeah, I know.” She muttered. “I just keep thinking about her saying that stuff about not wanting to die here.” With a sigh, she eased past Gabrielle and continued walking after Xena, leaving the bard to bring up the rear.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle murmured to herself. “I remember that, too.” She followed the two others towards the cavern, her brow creased in thought.
Overhead, the clouds started to move in, a rumble in the far distance promising bad weather that, at the very least, they’d be out of.
The thing about torchlight, Gabrielle had discovered, was that it didn’t really provide enough true light to see by without straining your eyes.
It was giving her a headache. She rubbed the back of her hand over her face and blinked, as a waft of smoke made her eyes water.
“Waste of time if you ask me!” Ares muttered, his hands gripped around the limb Gabrielle had cut earlier. “You don’t think monkey boys left anything useful of her, do ya.. hey! Ow!”
“Oh. Sorry.” Gabrielle tucked her staff back along her other side. “Guess it’s dark in here.”
“You did that on purpose!” The god of war accused.
“No she didn’t” Xena’s voice floated back to them. “I’d be setting bones if she did.”
Gabrielle smothered a grim smile, and kept her eyes on the dimly seen ground, putting her boots down with care on the uneven surface. There was a good deal of racing water underfoot, and the rocks were slippery as they sloped downwards.
So easy to slide down into the darkness, wasn’t it? “We’ll find her, Ares.” Gabrielle told him. “They won’t kill her.”
Ares laughed, the deep sound echoing softly off the rocks. Then he fell silent as the path grew more uneven, his labored breathing audible.
He had lost a lot of blood, Gabrielle knew. Xena’s sword thrust had been typically well placed, and only Ares’ height had saved him from death at the warrior’s hands, that and the close quarters that had prevented Xena from sweeping around fully.
The fact that he had gotten up and was walking was unbelievable. The bard had wondered if he was just going to let them go on with out them, but with a mocking, insolent expression he’d donned Xena’s discarded catskin and gone with them, only accepting Gabrielle’s present of a walking stick grudgingly.
In public, anyway. Gabrielle could see he’d have been flat on his face without it by now. But she hadn’t gotten a thank you for it either.
Pony was up with Xena, finding the best route for them. She wasn’t sure exactly what to make of that, whether they didn’t think anything would come up behind them, or that they felt she and the injured god of war could handle whatever did.
Gabrielle glanced at the struggling man next to her. Well, that she could handle it, since she doubted Ares would be much help.
The bard looked up, to see Xena’s figure dimly outlined ahead of them. “Here.”
“Careful.” Xena pointed down. “Crack here, under the water.”
“Gotcha.” Gabrielle eased closer to Ares and put a hand on his elbow. “Watch out there.”
“Get your mitts off me, you punk.” Ares growled at her.
Gabrielle didn’t let go. “Y’know, Ares… you gotta remember the effect your not having your sword has on people. It makes them really crabby.” She guided them both over the gouge in the rocks. “Crabby people get dangerous.”
“Oh, I’m scared.” Ares rolled his eyes. “Listen, sweetpea, even mortal I can squash you flat as a drunk sailor.”
The bard gently cleared her throat. “I wasn’t referring to me.” She took a firmer hold on him as the ground sloped more steeply, and she felt the strain in her thighs. “Though, I’m really not a total creampuff anymore.”
Ares accepted her help as they inched down the rocky slope, heading for a more level area where Xena and Pony were waiting for them. “Yeah.” He commented suddenly. “You’ve given me a thrill or three the last couple’la years.”
Gabrielle looked over at him, unsure of exactly what he meant, then as he met her eyes and smirked, she decided she really didn’t want to know.
They joined the other two, and came to a halt. “Now what?” Gabrielle asked, as she watched the shadows chasing over her partner’s face. “Is this as far as you went before, Xe?”
The warrior nodded. “Problem.” She lifted her torch and took a step forward, exposing the passageway beyond. The sound of water had gotten much louder, and as they looked past Xena’s tall form, they could see why.
The passage was cover in it, a fast, racing stream that emerged from a crack in the mountain and surged rapidly downhill. “Gotten deeper.” Xena commented, sparing Ares a brief look as he hobbled up next to her. “Not going to be a picnic.”
Ares cocked his dark head, seeming a trifle puzzled. “When did this happen?” He asked. “Lemme tell ya, beautiful, I didn’t swim up for the priviledge of getting gored by you.” He clutched his walking stick and peered past the warrior.
“You sure?” Xena asked him.
Ares merely looked at her.
“Just asking.” The warrior shrugged. “Gabrielle, let me use your staff a minute.” She took the weapon from the bard, handed her the torch in return and walked forward into the stream, cautiously probing ahead of her with it’s tip. As she got up to her knees in the water, the staff dipped in front of her, and disappeared to half it’s length.
Xena stopped, and prodded further, then took another few steps, pausing when the water was up to her hips. “Think that’s about as high as it’s gonna go.”
Gabrielle could see the force of the water pushing against her partner, the flow so powerful it was making Xena sway as she stood in it. Knowing how strong Xena was, Gabrielle had serious doubts she’d make out as well.
“Damn.” Pony exhaled. “Every damn thing’s working against us.” She looked up at the dark ceiling. “Probalby that rain we heard coming on.”
Gabrielle recalled the thunder, and nodded. “Probably.” She inched forwards, grimacing at the icy chill of the water as it soaked through the bottoms of her boots. Even when it was up to her ankles, she could felt he strength of it. “Hey, Xe?”
Leaning on the staff, the warrior paused before she turned her head, squinting a little into the torchlight. “Careful.” She released one hand off the staff and extended it towards Gabrielle. “There’s a d.. yeah.”
Gabrielle winced as her boot slipped off the rock and plunged into a hole, jarring her entire body. “Ah.” She looked around. “Pony, can you grab this, please?”
Pony stolidly waded in, and took the torch in her free hand, having a matching one in her other. She surveyed the path, giving Xena an sideways look. “That why you stopped, huh?”
Xena ignored the question, pushing back against the current as she went to Gabrielle’s side, handing her the staff as she got around behind her and circled her waist with both arms. “Don’t worry, I gotcha.”
“Xena.” The bard cleared her throat delicately. “It’s not that dangerous.” She muttered.
“So, you want me to let you go?” The warrior murmured back, into her ear.
“Didn’t say that.”
“Okay.” Xena hauled her partner out of the crack in the rock, and backed them both out of the water. “We can make it through that, but we’ll have to stick together.”
“You can stick to me anytime you like, babe.” Ares had found a ledge, and was leaning on it, his hands clasped around the walking stick. “But I’m not going into the splash. I don’t do wrinkled tootsies.”
A small, awkward silence fell, as everyone looked at Xena. The warrior shrugged. “Good. That improves our chances.” She tightened the straps holding her carrysack onto her back. “Gabrielle, you go first. Pony and I’ll lock arms and go behind you.”
“Right.” The bard stood up from where she’d been tightening the laces on her boot and took a firm grip on her staff. “Bye, Ares. Good luck.” She squared her shoulders and got ready to re-enter the water, feeling the comforting grip of Xena’s fingers on her shoulder.
“Leave him one torch.” Xena directed Pony. “You hold the other one.”
Pony hesitated, then she turned and trudged over to Ares, holding out one hand with a torch in it. “Here.”
Ares merely looked at her, one eyebrow lifting.
Pony stared back at him. Then she turned her head and looked at Xena in question.
“Put it between his legs.” The warrior instructed her.
Pony turned back around. “You sure?”
“Sure.” Xena said. “There’s nothing there that can get damaged.”
“Oo.” Gabrielle mouthed silently, glad her back was turned. She could well imagine the expression on Ares face, and took some mild pleasure from the image.
“You’re cruising, Xena.” Ares warned. “I know you’re not going to leave me here.”
Pony found a crack to one side and stuck the torch in it, then she turned and made her way back to where Xena and Gabrielle were waiting. She joined Xena and shifted the remaining torch to her right hand, putting her left on Gabrielle’s other shoulder. “Ready.”
“Let’s go.” Xena gave the bard a gentle nudge.
“Xena.” Ares called out.
The warrior paused, as they entered the water. “We’re going, Ares.” She stated. “I’ve got a friend to help. You can come with us, or you can stay here. I don’t really give a damn either way.”
They moved off into the rush of the water, a sturdy tripod lit by the fluttering torch. Xena took hold of Pony’s shoulder with her free hand as they walked into deeper waters, her nostrils flaring as the chill soaked through her leathers.
“That’s a lie, Xena!”
Pony leaned forward. “Psst.” She hissed at Gabrielle.
“What?” The bard hissed back.
“I thought.. what about all that greater good stuff?”
“Shh.” Gabrielle shushed her. “Remember what I said about trusting Xena?”
“Xena!!’ The god of war bellowed. “Get back here!!!”
“Good luck, Ares.” Xena yelled back. “Watch out for the spiders!”
They walked into the roaring water, it’s noise effectively drowning out any further sound from behind them. The underground stream was surging against the rock walls, forming whitecaps as it swirled around half hidden rocks and breaks in the stone passageway.
All they could see further down was more water, and more darkness. Xena took a breath, and released it. Was this really a good idea?
Or.. was Ares right?
“Getting really strong here, Xe.” Gabrielle warned.
Xena took a firmer hold on the bard’s shoulder and pushed the doubts aside for now. If she wanted to follow where Granella had been taken, then they had to risk it.
Only her sense of the space around her warned her before a powerful hand gripped her on the shoulder, and stick batted her on the butt. “Ares.”
“Who’d you think, Zeus?” The god of war retorted. “You’re gonna pay for that, Xena. Believe me.” He tightened his grip. “I won’t forget.”
And he probably wouldn’t. Xena sighed inwardly. She would likely pay for it, somehow, somewhere, and Gabrielle along with her. But hadn’t they had to pay for Ares caprices many times before, without provocation?
At least she’d gotten a laugh out of it.
The water’s roar got louder, and Xena felt a rock being pulled along by the force of it slam her in the back of the knees. “Watch out for.. “
Xena’s reflexes were just barely enough to catch the torch as Pony nearly went headfirst into the stream, saved by Gabrielle’s quick grip on her.
“Oh yeah, I feel safe.” Ares snorted. “Shoulda brought the Furies with me.. they’d have been more useful than you three.”
“Shoulda aimed higher.” Xena shot back. “It would have saved us a lot of trouble, and we wouldn’t have to be listening to a useless windbag.”
Ares stared at her. “Like I said, Xena. I”ll remember this.”
Xena stared right back at him. “Good.”
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Can we get going, hon? My knees are freezing.”
The warrior put her hand back on Gabrielle’s shoulder, and gave Pony the torch. “Lead on.” She faced the darkness again as they started to move down the channel. “It’s gotta get better from here, right?”
No one answered.
It hadn’t gotten better. Gabrielle had left discomfort in the dust and was now working on true misery, the icy cold water chilling her so badly she could no longer really feel her legs.
Not for the first time in her life with Xena, she wondered exactly how smart it was for her to travel around wearing little more than what most of her village friends thought of as underwraps. Of course, in this case she hadn’t had much choice, but she was starting to rethink the idea of wearing something sturdier when she was out in the world with her partner.
Right now, she was wishing for her thick double knitted tunic and her lined cloak. Anything to stop the shivering that had taken over her body, and was giving her painful cramps and a whopper of a headache from her jaws clenching.
With a sigh, she continued on, stolidly poking her staff into the water and leading them on, conscious of Xena’s and Pony’s hands clasped firmly on her shoulders. Ahead of them, and behind them, was just a big dark mystery.
It was just darkness, and water, and the flicker of the torches. Xena was now on the third one, and they’d all stopped talking to concentrate on saving their strength for moving forward.
Gabrielle felt her staff hit something underwater, and she paused, probing cautiously. “Hang on.”
“What is it?” Ares voice was a mixture of exasperation and exhaustion. “We don’t have time to fish, blondie…ow!”
“Shut up.” Xena’s tone was definitely several steps into pissed off. “You got something there, Gab?”
A headache. A backache. Frozen feet. Gabrielle felt several deep shivers run through her, and she clamped her jaw shut so the sound of her teeth chattering wouldn’t alert her partner. “Something in the way.. think it’s just a rock.”
Pony fought her way through the water to the bard’s side, crouching down to put her hand, and then her arm into the rushing stream. “Yeah.” She edged forward, then climbed up onto the rock, now only up to her ankles in water, but in a far more powerful surge as it coursed over the high point. “Yeah?”
“Let’s just get past it.” Xena said. “Damn things’ got to end sometime.”
Ares snorted. “For all you know, it’s the Styx and it ends up in Hades’ basement” He jibed her.
Pony stepped off the other side, and promptly almost disappeared into the flow. Xena realized what was happening and dove over the rock to grab her by the back of her leathers with one outstretched hand as she landed hard on her belly.
Gabrielle scrambled around the rock, forgetting about her chilled legs as she fought against the current and thrust her staff under Pony’s flailing arms, giving her something to hang onto as Xena hauled her backwards.
“Crap!” Pony spluttered. “I freaking hate water!” She reeled backwards and fell onto the rock next to Xena, who still had a grip on her. “Son of a bacchae!”
Ares laughed. Gabrielle whipped her staff around and dug it deep into the water, jerking it up and swamping the god of war with an icy wave. “It’s not funny, you stupid bastard!”
“Hey!” Ares rounded on her, only to pull up short as Xena rolled over and got up into his path, the warrior’s eyes already sparking dangerously as she reached for her sword. “Oh.. whoa whoa whoa…hold on there, lassie. Put the pigsticker back in the barn.”
“Stay away from her.” Xena warned. “I’m not in the mood, Ares.”
“Bitchy bitchy.” Ares leaned on his walking stick, the water just reaching his kneecaps. “Are you ever in the mood, Xena?”
Xena turned her back on him and put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “You okay?”
For a moment, Gabrielle seriously considered lying. Then she saw Xena’s expression change and knew it was a lost cause. “I could use a break.” She admitted, closing her hands around her staff to stop them from shaking.
“Aww… poor baby.” Ares taunted her from behind Xena. “Xena, why do you put up with her, again?”
“Why?” Xena moved closer and put her arms around her partner, immediately feeling the chill of her skin and the shivers running through her body. “Because I love her.” She went on, looking down into the bard’s eyes as all the irritation in her simply drained away.
“Oh give me a break.” Ares went over to the rock and sat down on it, ignoring the layer of water racing over the top as he turned his back on the direction they were traveling. “Remind me again why I bother with you?”
He glanced at Pony, who eased away from him, seating herself on the other side of the impromptu shelf they’d found. The god of war snorted softly. “Artemis really has you bunch whipped, doesn’t she?”
The Amazon was now dripping wet, and she stolidly began wringing the water out of her dark hair. She returned the glance. “Huh?”
“Never mind.” Ares folded one arm over his injury and grimaced. The bandage covering it was soaked through with blood and he drew his hand away, studying the reddish stain with a puzzled expression.
“C’mon.” Xena clambered up onto the rock as well, gently pulling Gabrielle up with her and then enfolding her with her arms again, rubbing her back as the bard leaned gratefully against her. They were all due for a break anyway, she knew – since Pony’s lips were blue and Ares looked like he was about to fall over.
The close darkness was getting to her, too. Xena closed her eyes and let her cheek rest against Gabrielle’s head, hoping the bard’s shivering would abate.
She could feel the warmth of Gabrielle’s breathing against the curve of her breast, and after a few minutes of sullen silence around her, the bard’s tense muscles relaxed, and she felt lips nuzzling the skin she was leaning against. “Better?”
Gabrielle found herself able to breathe now, without feeling like she was going to bite her lips from shivering. Xena’s body, though wet, was warm as always and it felt good to be up out of the water for a few minutes.
“How much longer?” Pony asked, suddenly. “Fore we’re out of this damn place?”
Xena stared over Gabrielle’s shoulder into the darkness, narrowing her eyes and hoping for even a hint of light in the distance. All she could see was pitch black, broken only by the faint light of the torch on the frothing white water past the rock.
Didn’t look good.
“It has to end sometime.” Gabrielle commented, projecting her voice around her impromptu hot water bottle. “We’ve come quite a ways, haven’t we Xena?”
Since she had no idea how long the tunnel was, Xena merely grunted. Then she half turned her head toward Ares. “You’ve been here. How long is it?”
Ares didn’t answer.
“C’mon, Ares. It’s your fault we’ re all pissed off so wh…” Xena turned fully, one hand dropping to steady the god as he wavered, then slumped against her leg. “Damn it.”
Gabrielle released Xena and ducked around her, grabbing Ares shoulders and easing him down as Xena dropped to one knee next to him. His eyes were closed, and as she laid him down in the sheeting water, his hands fell away from his chest covered in blood. “Oh my gosh, Xena.”
Xena got down off the rock, plunging back into water that had risen in the meantime, and was now up to her mid thigh. She unstrapped and handed her pack to Gabrielle, leaning against the stone as the water pressure built up behind her. “Stitches broke open.”
“He’s lost a lot of blood.” Gabrielle cupped a few handfuls of the coursing water, and washed it over Ares chest, the dark liquid swirling away red stained. “Can you restitch that.. gods, Xena.. the skin’s ripped clean away.”
Pony half turned and hitched her leg up, leaning on it as she peered past Gabrielle’s elbow. “Know what?”
“Hm?” Gabrielle glanced at her.
“He’s an ass.” Pony said, bluntly. “We should leave him here.”
Xena removed her bone needles and a thin string of gut. “We can’t.”
Pony rolled her eyes.
“We really can’t.” Gabrielle told her. “Like him or not, he does serve a purpose, for all of us.” She turned back to her washing task, catching Xena regarding her from the corner of her eye. “I used to think the same way.. hey, get rid of war, who needs it, right?”
“I didn’t say that.” Pony said. “Sometimes ya gotta.”
“Exactly.” Xena carefully threaded the needle, then she bent over Ares chest. His breathing seemed labored, and she wondered if the wound wasn’t getting infected. “If he’s not around, there’s no focus for all that ‘ya gotta’”
“Here.” Gabirelle got up and retrieved the torch from the
crag she’d thrust it in. She brought it closer to where Xena was working,
lifting it up to shed light on Ares chest. “That looks bad, Xe.
“It is.” The warrior replied. “It’s bad enough to kill him if it gets nasty. I don’t have herbs with me.” She studied the wound. “Can’t believe he lasted that long with this open like that.”
Gabrielle tilted her head and looked down at the unconscious god of war, the pallor of his face evident even in the low light. “Yeah, well.” She murmured. “Didn’t want to look like a weenie in front of us, I guess.”
Xena snorted softly, and shook her head.
“So.. now what are we gonna do with him?” Pony asked. “I ain’t carrying him.”
Xena patiently sewed the wound back up, after she poured water all in it to clean it out. The edges were swollen, and sure enough her fingtertips detected the unhealthy heat of infection around both sides. Part of her knew Pony was right, of course. Ares was a big man, and she doubted all three of them could reasonably carry him and the rest of their gear, and expect to navigate the water.
So, now what?
“Let Xena worry about that, Pony.” Gabrielle said. “I’m sure she’s got something in mind.”
Great. Just great. “First things first.” The warrior said. “When I finish this we’ll discuss what happens next.” Damn it, damn it.
Gabrielle’s hand fell on her thigh, giving it a gentle pat. Oh well. Xena sighed silently. She had about fifty stitches to come up with a plan and not look like an idiot.
Plenty of time, wasn’t it?
“Water’s getting higher, Xena.”
Xena washed her hands off, carefully cleaning the dried bloodstains from her fingers and watching the water carry the residue away from her. She gotten Ares wound closed again, but he hadn’t regained consciousness, and now he’d started to show signs of fever.
Not good. She glanced around her, where the water had risen again to cover the rock by over three hand spans, just barely allowing Ares to lay without being washed off.
She was at a loss, truly. She was almost at that place in her head where she was ready to abandon Ares, despite everything, and get the rest of them out of the corridor and on to finding Gran.
Almost at that place.
“Xe?” Gabrielle waded over to her, arms full of something bulky. “I’ve got an idea.”
Xena shook the water off her hands and turned to face her partner. “Let’s hear it.” She said, willing to listen to anything at the moment, but not really hoping for much since though she loved Gabrielle dearly, she did tend to come up with some hairbrained schemes sometimes.
“Look.” The bard shifted part of her burden to one arm. “How about we take these two sticks, see?”
“Uh huh.” Xena crossed her arms over her chest. “Two sticks.”
“We put the hide in between them, sort of like a hammock?”
“Like this.” Gabrielle juggled the two sticks and the hide, producing nothing immediately recognizable. “You know what I mean.. c’mon, Xena!”
Xena’s brows creased. “Um.. okay.”
Gabrielle gave her a slightly exasperated look. “Are you humoring me?”
The warrior waved both hands, then gave her some assistance in wrangling the hind. “No no.. not at all. G’wan.”
The bard managed to wrap a bit of the hide around the two sticks. “Then we put Ares in it, and float him behind us. Sort of like a raft, see and ..”
Gabrielle glanced at her partner. “What?” She answered. “No?”
Xena walked forward, brushed the sticks and the hide out of the way, and kissed her partner soundly on the lips. “Love you.” She bumped foreheads with the bard and took the sticks from her. “Pony, give us a hand here.”
The bard closed her mouth, her teeth hitting with a tiny click. “Bu..”
“Awesome.” Xena turned around and kissed her again. “You’re a genius.”
Pony had been wrapping one of their two remaining torches, and now she reluctantly put the torch into a crevice and sloshed over to them. “You setting up a tent?”
“Need three sticks for that.” Gabrielle said, succinctly. “Let’s get him on here, and get moving. I’m so over this place my skins about to wrinkle right off me.” She licked her lips, tingling lightly from Xena’s kisses, just like her ego was tingling lightly from the compliments.
Xena and Pony held the sticks while she wrapped the skin around them, making a litter, which they eased over to where Ares was lying. The idea had come to her suddenly, as she’d been digging in the pack for some nuts and had to haul the hide up out of her way.
Once she’d thought about it, it all seemed so simple that she wondered why Xena hadn’t thought of it first. Gabrielle studied her partner out of the corner of her eye, noting the deep circles and the visible to her exhaustion. Maybe she was tired.
Gods knew, they all were.
“All right.” Xena slid around to one side. “Gab, grab that end.”
The bard ducked under her arm. “Got it.”
The warrior got her hands under Ares shoulders. “Grab his legs. Pony. Lift when I do, and Gab’ll slide that under him.”
The Amazon hesitated, then she wiped her hands on her thighs and gingerly closed her fingers around the god’s ankles. “All right.”
They lifted Ares up just enough for Gabrielle to slide the pallet under him, the water half supporting his weight until he was bracketed by the two sticks. Then they let him down and Xena sloshed around to the front of the rock, taking hold of the protruding ends of the sticks. “Right.”
Gabrielle tightened their pack, now much lighter without the hide and then started to move up to the front again. “Let’s go, Boo.”
A faint smile flickered on and just as rapidly off Xena’s face. “Stay there.” She indicated the middle of the pallet. “I’ll go in front now. Just hang on to the pole.”
Pony waded over against the current and grabbed the torches, then she returned to the back of the pallet. “Guess I go back here.” She handed Gabrielle the lit torch, and tied the two spares on her back. “Least we’re moving.”
Xena took hold of the two poles and started off, placing her feet carefully to avoid being swept off them by the fast current. It was dark ahead of them, and the water was now creeping up her legs, but she was unspeakably glad to be moving again.
She hadn’t really wanted to leave Ares, but the knowledge that Gran was slipping further and further from them, and the dour glares from Pony had been wearing on her unmercifully, making her grudge the careful stitches, and wish again she had better, or at least more choices.
Gabrielle cleared her throat gently. “Anyone want to hear a story?’
“You ever had anyone say no to that?” Xena slogged ahead, keeping the pallet steady as she moved forward, using her finely honed sense of balance to make up for the fact her hands were pretty much tied up behind her.
“Well.” Gabrielle was glad she had the pallet to hang on to as the current became faster as they approached a bend in the corridor. “You, actually.”
“Me?” Xena couldn’t chance turning around, but she edged her body sideways a little, feeling the ground sloping more deeply as she got closer to the turn. “I don’t think so.”
“You did, when I was going to tell that town about you and that duck and..”
Gabrielle chuckled softly. “I thought it was an adorable story.”
“Mm.” The bard grimaced as the deepening water hit her midsection. “Gods, that’s cold.” She sucked in a breath. “How much deeper is it going to get, Xe?”
Xena was starting to wonder the same thing. She paused before the bend and cautiously inched her head around the corner, frustrated when all she could see was more frothing white water until it faded into utter darkness.
How much damn rain could there possibly be out there? She pulled the pallet out into the current and around the corner, reassured a little when the depth remained constant. “Looks like that’s it for now.” She called back. “But be careful.. this deep, one good shove and we’ll all end up swimming.”
“Hon, just please keep in mind we’re shorter than you are, okay?” Gabrielle felt the water creep up her ribcage and hoped it stopped there. The chill was starting to make her cramp up again, and she wished they were moving faster.
“Yeah.” Pony spoke up briefly. “I’d like to hear a story.”
Gabrielle sorted through a few different ones, and decided on one of her own favorites, a funny tale she hoped would lighten up the mood and provide a distraction for all of them, her included. “Okay.” She drew in a breath. “One day, when Xena and I were traveling in the southlands, we came upon a chicken coop.”
Xena started chuckling.
Pony gripped the back parts of the sticks and listened in silence, the water just up past her navel. With Xena leading, and Gabrielle talking, she really had little more to do than steer the back of the pallet and hold it back so it didn’t slam into Xena’s rear end.
She’d gone from being pissed, to being confused, to not knowing what the Hades to think about anything. She’d run out of anger for now, she was tired, she was hungry, she was worried half to death about Gran and it felt good just to mindlessly go along with what was happening and listen to whatever nutso tale Gabrielle was rambling on with.
The bard didn’t have it easy. Pony could see the goosebumps on her bare shoulders and the faint tremors in the arm that was holding up the torch. The water was higher up on her than it was on either Xena or herself by a handspan and Pony abruptly felt kind of bad for her.
Felt kind of bad for what she’d been saying to her. Not that she didn’t think it was all true – after all, Pony was seldom less than truthful even to herself – but Gabrielle had never been less than kind to her, even during their occasional sparring sessions and despite her initial disdain for the outsider kid she’d first known her as.
She hadn’t quite know how to interact with Gabrielle for the longest time. The bard was a warm and friendly person, so different from most of the Amazons – but there was also a definite reserve there, and she knew Gabrielle kept this mask between her and everyone else.
Everyone except for Xena. Maybe it was the fact she was seeing past the mask the last few days that was freaking her out again. She felt like Gabrielle had changed the rules up on her, and wasn’t it the suckiest time for that to be happening?
She wished Ephiny was around. Her partner knew how to handle both of these guys a lot better than she did.
“Careful.” Xena’s voice interrupted the tale.
Pony looked up and past the still, floating body of the god of war to see the warrior’s outline in the torchlight. “What’s up?”
“Crack up there.” Xena paused, releasing one stick and reaching up to shade her eyes from the gods only knew what light. “Might be a little drop.”
“I can hear it.” Gabrielle spoke up. “Is that light up there?”
Pony strained her eyes. “Where?”
“Let me go check it out.” Xena released the front of the pallet. “Just hold here.” She waded off into the darkness, as Gabrielle grabbed the pallet tighter to keep it from rushing after her.
“I hate when she does that.” The bard sighed, shaking her head. “Be careful!”
Xena raised one hand in lazy answer, and ducked behind a low overhanging rock, peering past it to whatever lay behind.
Then in a flicker of motion, she disappeared.
The corridor crooked twice, and then opened up and when it did, Xena found herself abruptly in an alien landscape that widened even her well traveled eyes.
Gabrielle had, somehow, seen the reflection of light and here it was, a chimney in an unlikely place letting in sunlight that reflected over rocks in a thousand shades of algae and the churning water that bubbled over them.
Xena blinked, and rubbed her eyes, squinting against the unexpected but welcome light to see a crazy tumble of half rounded boulders and crags that promised a very dangerous passage.
Well, damn. Xena hesitated, then, unable to resist, she climbed forward into the light, reveling in it’s touch on her skin. She knew they’d have to push through the rough spot and leave the chimney behind, but it was gorgeous to see the outside world even for a brief moment.
Very brief. “Gabrielle?” Xena let out a holler. “C’mon.. but easy!”
She could hear splashing coming closer, and she turned to wait for her companions, seating herself on a green stained rock warm with the sun’s light. It felt wonderful on her legs, which started to lose their chilled tingling as she drummed her bootheels lightly against the mossy surface.
Gabrielle emerged from around the bend first, and Xena smiled as she watched the bard react to the unexpected sight before her. She lifted one hand to shade her eyes, then squinted as she made out Xena’s backlit form. “Whoa!”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “Too bad we can’t enjoy it.”
Pony edged out into the light, peering around. “Hey.” She pointed. “Let’s just go up, yeah?”
Instead of immediately rejecting the idea, Xena leaned back and peered up at the chimney. It was an irregular, twisting column that went up and up. “Can’t.” She said.
“Too slick?” Pony noted the moss on the inside of the rocks.
“No.” Xena tilted her head back down and gazed at her, the backlight framing her head in an almost halo. “They didn’t take Gran that way. Or did you forget about that?”
Pony stared at her in silence. Gabrielle wedged the two sticks around the edge of a stone to keep the pallet still and eased past the Amazon, climbing up on the rock next to her partner and laying back on it. She spread her arms to collect the sunlight and groaned softly.
“Anyway.” Xena turned and indicated the rock strewn, tumbled water path before them. “That ain’t gonna be easy.”
“Is our life ever easy?” Gabrielle inquired. “I swear if there was a hard way to walk down a road we’d find it.”
Xena draped one arm over her and gave her a pat on the belly. “Let’s go.” She hopped off the rock and back into the water. “Pony, you got that rope in your sack?”
“Yeah.” The Amazon handed it over after a moment of sullen silence.
Xena tied off one end of the rope into a knot the size of her fist, then she wedged the end into a cleft in the rock and started to make her way forward. “I’ll find a path.” She said. “So we don’t go through this blind.”
Gabrielle felt a touch guilty watching her go, but not enough to jump back into the freezing water and follow since she knew she wouldn’t be much help anyway. She actually suspected her beloved partner had found a very practical way of letting her warm up a little longer.
Which she fully appreciated. “Ugh.” She wriggled into a bit more sunlight, finally feeling some sensation coming back into her legs. “Pony, why not come on up here.”
Yurg. Grumpy Amazon. “Okay.”
“You’re just gonna feel worse when you get back in here.” Pony advised.
Gabrielle remembered her experience on the mountain, when they’d first arrived. “Yeah.” She agreed. “You’re right, but maybe I’ll have a half candlemark before my legs freeze solid again.” She let her hand rest on her stomach, her fingers tracing the ridged muscles just under her skin.
She felt the rumble in there, and tried not to think about how long it had been since she’d eaten. It was getting a little old, at least to her, and she was getting pretty annoyed at herself for this weakness that was impeding her contribution to the team.
The bard rolled her head to one side. “Yeah?” She blinked a few times until Pony’s face came into focus, her eyes a little dazzled from the light.
Pony came forward, putting her hands on the rock Gabrielle was sprawled over. “Listen.” She studied the rocks’ surface, avoiding the bard’s eyes. “I got a problem with all this damn water.”
Gabrielle scratched her cheek. “We all do, Pony.” She replied. “You think I like it? It’s creepy and freezing down here. I told Xena I wanted to move to a desert when we get out.”
Pony stared at the rock. “No.” She shook her head. “I don’t mean that.. I.. “ She hesitated. “I can’t swim.”
The bard rolled over on the rock, exposing her back to the sun as she rested her chin on her hand. “Well.. .we’re not swimming.” She said. “I didn’t used to really like it myself, but..”
“Gabrielle.” The Amazon finally looked up at her. “I’m scared of this shit.”
Gabrielle wasn’t sure what she was more surprised at, that Pony had admitted her fear, or that she’d cursed at her while doing it. “Oh.” She murmured. “Wow.. I didn’t know that.”
“So if I freak out or something, you’ll know why.” Pony muttered. “Don’t expect you to understand.”
Gabrielle snorted. “Please.” She pushed herself up to sitting position. “Me, the one who’s afraid of getting up on anything higher than a log, who used to get dizzy sitting on Argo?”
Pony merely grunted.
Gabrielle peered into the distance, where she could see Xena’s back as the warrior worked out their path. The water was up to her armpits, and it wasn’t looking good. “Know what Xena’s afraid of?”
Gabrielle had to smile. “Gods, I hope not.” She shook her head. “No.. it’s this.” She pointed at the rocks. “Close in places.”
Pony looked around them, then back at her. “You’re kidding me.”
“No.” Gabrielle let her legs dangle over the edge of the rock. “She’s always been… but we were up in the northern mountains once and she got buried in a rockslide…she was trapped in there and almost died.” Her hands smoothed out the skin over one knee, which was criss-crossed with scars. “Got worse after that, for a while.”
Pony studied her face. “Don’t think I heard that story either.”
“No.” Gabrielle felt her eyes fill with tears, even all this time later. “I usually don’t tell people what it’s like to feel your heart breaking.” She paused for a breath. “Kind depresses everyone, y’know?”
Pony lifted her hand and reached out, then paused and pressed her fingers back into the rock, inches from Gabrielle’s leg. “I gotta ask you.. is this all worth it?”
Gabrielle seemed to understand the vague question, and she remained silent for a long time before she cocked her head to one side and met Pony’s eyes. “Moot point.” She answered, in a very quiet voice. “It’s what I live for.”
Pony shook her head a tiny bit, and took a breath to answer, then subsided when a nearby splash alerted her to Xena’s presence. She just shook her head again, then turned and went back to the pallet, which Ares had started to move restlessly around on.
Xena wrapped another loop of the rope up in her hand, and paused near the rock, looking over at Pony, then up at her soulmate. One eyebrow arched sharply in question.
“S’allright.” Gabrielle lifted a hand and smoothed the wet bangs off Xena’s forehead. “We were just talking. Did you find a path?”
Xena loosened the knot. “We need to tie ourselves together.” She replied. “It gets deep past those rocks. Over my head.”
Gabrielle managed not to look over at Pony. “Okay.” She said. “How can we do that.. how can we swim, and hold on to Ares, at the same time, Xena? Isn’t there another way?”
The warrior shook her head. “It’s a cavern.” She said. “At the very far end.. I think I can see a little light.” She put her hand on Gabirelle’s leg. “We’re almost outta here.. but like always..”
“It gets worse before it gets better.” The bard nodded, hitching herself of the rock and grimacing as she landed in the water with a splash. “Oh, sheeps tails. That’s cold.” She took hold of the rope. “You first.. um.. Pony second? That way I can hang on to the back of the pallet.. since I’ll be swimming the longest.”
Xena thought about that for a minute, then nodded. “Good idea.” She tied one end around her waist and headed for the front of the pallet. “Let’s go. I’m over this.”
Gabrielle handed Pony a loop, then tied the other end around herself as she circled around behind Ares. She leaned forward to look at the god of war, but after a few restless motions, he seemed to settle again. “Gods, I hope he doesn’t wake up in the middle of this, or in a fever, Xe.”
Xena put her hands on her hips and glared at her.
“Sorry.” The bard cleared her throat, and took hold of the sticks. “Ready, Pon?” She met the Amazon’s eyes, as she finished tying herself off and winked.
The hazel eyes gazed back at her. “Sorry I was a bitch before.” She said, briefly.
“It’s all right.” Gabrielle felt the pallet start to move. She removed the torch from the notch in the wall and handed it to Pony, before she resumed hold of the pallet and started forward.
“She’s used to it.” Xena chimed in from the front. “She’s married to the biggest bitch in Greece.”
“Honey, you’re not a bitch.”
“Don’t make me prove you wrong, shepherd.”
“Gods.” Gabrielle felt the water getting deeper, as they wound through the rocks and the current surged past her on both sides. The narrowing of the space made the stream much faster, and she was glad she was in the back because it was near to knocking her off her feet.
They passed slowly out of the light, and back into the darkness, the colorful rocks fading to gray on either side as they rounded a boulder in the middle of the path, and she saw what was before them. “Oh.. bu..”
“Bacchae!” Pony yelled, as they were pulled forward and into a churning whirlpool of water.
“Just keep moving!” Xena yelled back. “I’ll get you through!”
The roar of the water filled their ears, but it was unable to drown out the faith that filled Gabrielle’s heart. Xena would get them through.
She was sure of it.