One Wild Ride
“Get up.” Xena finished tying the pack to her back as she stepped over Ares’ extended legs. “We need to get out of here.” She extended a hand down to him. “Let’s go.”
The god of war looked steadily up at her. “Thanks, but no thanks, babe.” He said. “I’ll stick around here.”
“Ares.” Xena reached down to grab the skin covering him, her voice impatient. “I don’t have time to..”
Ares caught her wrist. “Xena.” He said. “Leave me here.”
Something about his tone brought Xena into a crouch next to him, her eyes focusing sharply on his face. “This is no time to be fighting, me, Ares.” She glanced past him to see Gabrielle pausing to square her shoulders before she headed over to where Granella was. “Not now.”
Ares remained silent for a moment, then he also looked quickly around. “I’m not.” He said. “You stuck me good, baby. I’m.. “ He halted, and shrugged. “Don’t see the point in getting up just to have those hairballs burn my tooties, catch my drift?”
“Ares, it’s not the ..”
“Listen.” The god of war’s grip on her arm tightened. “You won, Xena. Happy?” He leaned closer to her. “I know what it feels like to hurt so bad you just want it to stop. So do me a favor and get lost, will ya? Then maybe the hairballs will make it stop because I know I can’t get any mercy from you.”
Xena had to take a breath and stop to think, so many ramifications tumbling up around her it felt like a swarm of honeybees all of a sudden. The pressure of knowing they were running out of time pressed insistently between her shoulderblades and her stomach cramped again, making her grimace.
“Beat it.” Ares released her, pushing her hand away from him.
Xena rested her forearm on her knee. “I can’t.” She said. “I can’t leave you here.”
Ares rolled his eyes. “Give me a break.”
“Ares.” Xena hesitated, then she reached out, touching his arm. “I won’t leave you here. If we all end up dying, then we do. I won’t leave you here for them.”
Ares looked at her, his eyes searching her face. “Why?”
The warrior half shrugged. “Just because.” She offered her hand to him again. “Stop talking. Let’s go, or it’ll be a moot point.”
The god stared at her for a long moment, his face almost expressionless. “I’d leave you here, y’know.” He remarked conversationally. “In a heartbeat.”
“I know.” Xena extended her arm further. “It doesn’t matter.”
The sound of the approaching horde echoed thorough the cave, washing over the both of them as they remained facing off. After another pause, though, Ares finally reached up and clasped Xena’s forearm, visibly gathering himself. “Xena.” He grimaced as she pulled him upright and stood. “We’re both going to regret this.”
“Probably.” She got his arm over her shoulder and half guided, half dragged him towards the entrance to the cave. “Stay by the wall.. just move as fast as you can.” She called out to Pony, who had her hand on Granella’s shoulder as she stumbled unsteadily ahead of Gabrielle.
The bard turned and looked at her, the expression on her face making Xena wonder what had just transpired on the other side of the cave there was so much pain in those eyes. Gabrielle held up and waited for them, slipping her arm around Ares on the other side. “We can’t outrun them, Xe.”
“Well, she’s finally catching a clue.” Ares muttered.
“Yeah.” Xena shifted her grip and made contact with her partner’s arm, feeling the chilled skin and the rigid tension under it. “But we can’t just stand here and wait for em either, can we?”
They emerged into the starlight, turning a sharp right and following the two shadowy figures on the path in front of them. Xena took a quick look over her shoulder, judging the nearest of the hooters a quarter candlemark away but moving fast.
No, they couldn’t outrun them. Xena exhaled. Or..well, she and Gabrielle could outrun them, since they already had more than once but with Gran and Ares but with them along, she knew they didn’t have long before their chasers caught up with them.
They would fight, of course, when that happened. Xena scanned ahead of them, searching for something, anything to tip the odds a little. She knew that big hooter with Ares sword was back there, and by her measure he’d been twice the size of the bruiser she’d battered back in the first cave.
Could she fight him off? Xena exhaled. The truth was, she didn’t want to find out if she didn’t have to. Her body was giving her warning signals she knew she couldn’t ignore forever and whether it was her sharing some symptoms with Gabrielle or something else going on inside her, she didn’t feel anywhere close to invincible.
Gabrielle’s fingers closed around her elbow, and Xena looked over at the bard, only to find her looking back with a concerned expression.
Damn it. Was Gabrielle reading her mind? She gave the bard a halfhearted grin, and jerked her head in the direction of the cliff. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
Ares just snorted weakly, his breathing coming labored.
“I always considered myself lucky to have found you.” Gabrielle said, returning the grin.
“Don’t start that crap.” The god of war moaned. “I’m in enough pain already.”
“Talking about love hurts you?” The bard asked. “Boy, am I gonna have fun now.”
Ares glared at her. “You used to be nice.”
“I used to respect you.”
The bite in the tone made even Xena’s nose twitch, as she glanced across Ares bowed shoulders at Gabrielle. She could feel the simmering anger abruptly through their link, and she squeezed the bard’s arm just as Gabrielle had grasped hers earlier.
“You respected me?” Ares’s voice rose, ending on a cough. “Not in this lifetime, sweetheart.”
Xena glanced behind them. “Less talk, more walk.” She urged, barely able to see Pony and Gran ahead of them, and she realized they weren’t going to make it to the far wall nearly in time. Instead, she tipped her head back and started scanning the walls, using the scant light to judge the crags over their heads.
“Xe.” Gabrielle called her. “They’re coming up behind us.”
Ah. “There.” Xena nudged them to the right. “Over there, hurry.” She called out ahead of them. “Pony! To the right!” Her eyes had picked up the faintest hint of a chance, but it was better than the present nothing.
“Wh…” Gabrielle cut off her speech as they stumbled over the rocky ground, and took a firmer hold on both Ares and Xena’s arm. She could hear the approach of the hooters behind them and she wondered what Xena had spotted that was any better than the rocks they were climbing past.
Pony and Gran had stopped ahead, and Pony was already drawing her sword from it’s sheath and heading towards them, her eyes fixed on what was coming up from behind. As they reached the niche Xena had spotted, Gabrielle looked for a place to lean Ares against as she got a grip on her sadly battered three quarter staff and prepared herself to fight.
But instead of doing the same, the warrior went to the edge of the niche and put her boot up on a shelf only she apparently could have seen. “Up.” She pointed at a thin, scraggly looking track heading upward, barely wide enough for a boot to stand on. “Move. Fast.” She grabbed Pony’s arm as she went past and pulled her around, hauling her towards the wall.
“What?” Pony pointed past her. “Xena, we don’t have time for that they’re on top of us!”
“We’ve got time.” The warrior shot back. “Look! There’s a path leading up. If we can make it to that ledge, we’ve got a chance.”
Pony tipped her head back and looked up into the shadows. “What ledge!?”
“MOVE!!” The warrior bellowed at the top of her voice. She shoved Pony towards the wall and turned, grabbing Ares and looking back past Gabrielle. “Hurry!”
Granella shoved past her, and started up, hugging the wall in silence. After a moment, Pony followed, sheathing her sword with a vicious motion and turning her back on Xena. She passed Ares without a glance and started up the wall, clasping the rocks gingerly and placing her boots with care.
Two down. Xena turned to her partner, and put her hands on her shoulders. “Listen.”
“Xena… “ Gabrielle lowered her voice and got close to her partners ear. “We can’t do this.” She spared a glance up the cliff, and the towering height seemed to waver in her view, making her queasy. “I can’t.”
Xena turned her head and they were eye to eye and nose to nose, breathing the same air. “We have no choice but try it.” She uttered. “Please trust me.”
Gabrielle looked into those tired, stressed blue eyes for a heartbeat. “Xena I trust you. I just don’t’ trust me.” She whispered. “I can’t climb up there.”
The expression on the warrior’s face didn’t shift an inch, despite the growing sound of the pursuit behind them. “Gab, what are you afraid of?”
Xena reached up and touched her partner’s face, refusing to let the panic around them steal the moment form her. “What are you afraid will happen if you climb up there?”
Gabrielle blinked. “I’ll f..fall.”
The bard felt a tight pressure in her chest and she knew her hands were shaking. “And I guess I’ll die.”
Xena looked to the right, where the crowd of hooters were rounding the last bend, and were in moments of spotting them. “If you stay here, we’ll both die.”
Her partner’s body posture shifted, and she looked away, swallowing audibly.
“If you fall, I’ll go with you.” Xena gently turned her face back. “I’d rather die trying to get home. Wouldn’t you?”
Gabrielle took another breath, then she grabbed Xena’s arm and started towards the rock wall where Pony was already struggling upward with Gran, and Ares leaned and waited. She was no less afraid of the climb, but after all the years she’d been with Xena, she’d at last grown into the knowledge that life was often full of extremely sucky choices and you just had to do rotten things.
She felt ashamed of her fear, ashamed that Xena had risked those precious moments to gently reason with her, instead of conking her over the head and dragging her up over one shoulder – something she knew the warrior was more than capable of.
They reached Ares and she took his arm. “Okay, up we go.”
Ares looked at Xena. “You running from them?” He snickered.
“Yep.” Xena grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and shoved him up onto the first uneven level “So were you when I found ya. So move it, or I’ll leave you to em.”
“Bitch.” Ares took hold of the rock wall and struggled upward. “Thought you said you couldn’t do it.” He mimicked her tone mockingly.
“Changed my mind.” Xena glanced behind them. The hooters spotted her and a howl went up, making her reach over and pull her sword from it’s sheath. “Faster!”
Gabrielle felt her boots slip a little on the rock, and she grabbed a handhold on the wall, letting her staff rattle from her fingertips and roll away. “Damn it.” She kept her other hand on Ares, and followed him as they climbed as fast as they could, which wasn’t very fast at all.
Xena was climbing backwards, using her boots to kick hard at the irregular ledge they were climbing up, bits and pieces of it breaking off and rolling down the slope towards the onrushing horde. She could smell the burning torches now, and the smell of the hooters wafted up to her, foul and musky.
The thin break in the rock they were climbing up offered only a scant chance, and Xena knew that. But if they were high enough, she also knew the hooters would have a hard time coming up after them, and even so, only one at a time. She braced her back against Gabrielle’s and kept moving, shifting her sword in her right hand as the first of the hooters gained the rock wall.
Behind him, the first of the horde was closing in. Xena squinted in the dim light, feeling a brief sense of relief when she didn’t spot the big bruiser with Ares sword anywhere in the front.
Then she forgot about him when the second hooter, a shadowy figure near the first, raised his arms in a familiar gesture and she felt her body react, her sword arm coming up and her hand twisting her blade enough to deflect the crude arrow speeding at her.
“Keep moving.” Xena half turned her body, so it protected as much of her partner as possible. “I got this.” She deflected another arrow. “Stay close to the wall! Tell them!”
Gabrielle tore her attention from her shaking knees and edged her head past Ares’ shoulder. “Pony! Stay near..”
“I heard her.” Pony yelled back. “Serves her right for giving them the damn bow!”
Gabrielle exhaled. “Pony?”
“Go to Hades.” The bard felt her temper’s edge fray. “I hope she misses one.” She eased her hand forward and grabbed hold of a crack, feeling the harsh rock sting her fingertips as the solid warmth of Xena’s shoulder pressed against her.
Pony didn’t answer.
Xena saw the first line of hooters start to climb clumsily after them, the first of them tumbling off the ledge after a few feet and rolling down the slope. The arrow shooter dodged him, and let go another shaft, but this one wobbled precariously in flight and fell far short of them.
A hooter scrambled up the narrow path, his hands reaching out for her as he tried to keep his balance. Xena got her weight on her back foot and lashed out with her other, kicking the hooter in the head and throwing him backwards in a violent tumble.
One down. But the rest of the hooters just took this as encouragement and started to swarm up the side of the wall, eyes fixed on them.
Then a loud booming hoot rang out, and Xena’s eyes lifted, to see the big bastard coming towards them, Ares sword clutched in both hands. His eyes were fastened on her, and her alone, and she felt a sudden, uneasy energy from him that made her hair prickle.
Her heart started to pound, a soft thunder that was matched unexpectedly by the skies overhead. “Gabrielle.”
“Yeah.” The bard’s voice was breathy, and had a tremble in it.
“We need to go faster.”
“One more step!”
Gabrielle got her fingers around a crack in the rock, her free arm clutched around Ares body as she half shoved, half carried him up onto the ledge just barely before Xena knocked all of them over. “Whoa!” She yelped, keeping her balance and moving as tight against the wall as she could.
The ledge was narrow, barely large enough to hold two of them side by side, but it seemed wide as their cabin after the harrowing quarter candlemark’s balance on the thin path. She turned and pressed her back against the rock, reaching out to put her hand against Xena’s shoulder.
The muscles under the skin were twitching, and as she watched, Xena’s blade flickered out into the darkness and deflected something away, the soft thunk audible over the hiss of the rain.
Thunder rumbled, and lightning framed them in dangerous silver, outlining the swarming, dark figures heading up the wall after them. The rain had done them one favor- the torches had been put out and now the hooters were having to deal with the darkness just like they were.
The darkness was doing her a favor too, since it masked how high they were off the ground. “Xe, now what?” She circled the warrior with one arm and gave her a brief hug from behind, taking care to keep clear of her sword.
She was tired, and her legs were aching so badly she was afraid they were going to cramp up on her. With a sigh, she tipped her head back and opened her mouth, waiting patiently for the rain to fill it as she kept a hand on Xena’s shoulder.
“Take a breather.” Xena muttered, her eyes darting back and forth as she tried to keep the hooters in her range of vision. The storm was slowing them up, and they were clumsy climbers – four of them had fallen off the path already thought the rest were making their way up wards.
The big one, though, had taken another path. He was climbing up the cliff almost directly under them, scaling the almost sheer wall with energy and some skill. “Second thought, keep moving.” She risked turning her head and glancing up ward.
In the darkness and the rain, she only hoped she saw a continuing way up. Xena looked down again, just as the big hooter looked up, and their eyes met.
The hooter bared his teeth in what might have been a smile. Xena deliberately turned her head again and dismissed him, focusing her attention on Gabrielle’s tense face instead. “We’ve got to keep going.”
Even in the shadows, the bard’s expression was clear. She took a breath to speak, then paused, and simply laid her cheek against Xena’s shoulder briefly, before she turned and took hold of Ares arm again.
“Go where?” Pony shoved past Ares to confront her. “Go up and fall off? There’s no place to go!”
Xena thought she really should be losing her patience, but instead, she merely felt tired. Before she could throw an answer back, Gabrielle got between the two of them and straightened. “Eponin, there’s a path. Even I can see it. Now please just move.” The bard said, quietly. “There’s no time to fight about it.”
The rain came down harder, drenching them, leaving them in shadows broken only by fitful bursts of lightning. “This is nuts.” Pony said. “We’re gonna croak doing this.’
“Probably.” Gabrielle reached out and gave her a nudge. “Just go.”
A loud crack resonated overhead, and small bits of rock dropped down around them. Gabrielle gave Pony another shove. “We go down, we die. We stay here, we die, we go up there, maybe we die. Move.” Her voice was low, but resigned.
“Pony, please.” Gabrielle glanced at Ares, but the god of war remained leaning against the rock, his eyes closed. “I know you have no respect for me as a person or your queen right now, but just do it.” She felt a sudden hand on her back, and saw Pony’s eyes shift over her shoulder and for once she absolutely didn’t mind the intervention.
“Go.” Xena’s voice echoed from behind her, in a flat, no nonsense tone, accompanied by the rasping sound of her sword being sheathed.
“Or?” Pony asked, putting her hands on her hips.
“Or I’ll throw you over to them.” The warrior responded.
“You’re so full of crap.” The Amazon got the words half out of her mouth before she was grabbed by the front of her leathers and her belt and she was being lifted up off the ground and over Xena’s head. “AAAUUUU!!”
Gabrielle had stepped out of the way and pressed herself against the rock, her eyes fastened on her soulmate as the lightning flared, and outlined the warrior’s powerful body in uncompromising silver. She was aware of Granella standing to her right, but she kept her attention focused, unsure honestly of what Xena was going to do.
Kill Pony? Gabrielle exhaled. What the Hades, right? Maybe it would just save her some trouble.
Pony found herself staring up at the sky, and suddenly the memory of how Xena had killed Arella, there in the village in front of the entire tribe surfaced.
The rain felt icy as it touched her skin, and in pure reflex, she went completely limp and unresisting. “All right!” She yelled. “All right, Xena, by the gods, put me down! Don’t kill me!”
Everything went still, then she was moving through the air again, the sky whirling crazily over her head as she was inverted, then her boots hit the ground, and she was shoved roughly towards the rock wall, slamming against it with painful force.
When the stars cleared from her eyes, Xena’s hands slammed to either side of her head as the warrior glared at her, a feral expression on her face she hadn’t seen for a very long time. “Okay I’m goin.”
Xena straightened up, and backed up a step. “Don’t push me anymore, Amazon.” She growled softly. “Last warning.”
Pony stared at her, then shook her head and turned, only to find Granella already climbing away from them, up the cliff face. “Hey! Wait!” She got her foot on the first part of the uneven path, and pulled herself forward. “Gran!”
Xena turned, and briefly found herself nose to nose with Gabrielle. “Damn.” She exhaled. “That hurt.”
The bard merely leaned against her and exhaled, before she straightened back up and took a moment to wipe the rain from her eyes. “C’mon, Ares.” She took hold of his arm, as Xena drew her weapon again and slipped past them, her eyes anxiously searching the darkness below.
The god opened his eyes and looked at her. Then he shifted his attention to Xena, who was standing with her back to them, sword at the ready. “Aint’ gonna work, y’know.”
Xena deflected another arrow, but this one was so off the mark it hadn’t really needed deflecting. The big hooter had paused in his climb, as the thunder rolled over head and the rain battered him, hugging the cliff with both arms outstretched.
Down the path, the other hooters had paused also, the driving rain so thick they could barely be seen. Then a bolt of lightning arced from the sky, and Xena moved quickly, throwing herself against both her partner and Ares as the lightning struck the cliff wall over their heads with a huge, booming roar.
Instantly, they were being pelted with knife sharp bits of stone that tumbled down around them with increasing frequency. “Move.” Xena urged them both towards the upper path. “Hurry!” Boulders started dropping around them, crashing against the ledge and breaking parts of it off.
Gabrielle scrambled behind Ares to the edge of the path and got a handhold on the wall, keeping her head down as rocks continued to bounce off her shoulders. She heard Xena cursing behind her, then she felt a powerful surge of fear and she turned her head just in time to see the big hooter come powering over the ledge, his hand outstretched towards Xena’s leg.
“YAA!” Xena backed up and pressed her body against the rock as the hooter got to his feet and pulled Ares sword out of a rough tie around his waist. The big sword collected every bit of light around them and flashed, and it was all she could do to bring her own weapon up as he charged towards her.
Gabrielle released Ares, and started to turn, her balance wavering precariously as she tried to shift her feet and reverse their position.
Ares grabbed her arm. “Hold it.” He rasped. “Wherea ya goin?’
“Let go of me.” Gabrielle grabbed at his fingers.
“Listen!” The god of war tightened his grip. “For once, don’t make it worse for her. Stay out of it!”
The ring of steel drew both their eyes, and Gabrielle hesitated, watching Xena struggle under the big hooter’s attack. There was barely room for the warrior to fight, and she seemed to be fighting very hard to keep her opponents sword from breaking through her defenses.
“Finally seeing the light?” The god of war asked her, his eyes avidly watching the struggle. “She don’t need you, cookie.”
“Ares, let go of me.” Gabrielle wrenched his fingers from her arm, and started to scramble down the rock path towards the fighters, ducking as a set of boulders rolled over the top of her and headed down the slope. She managed to get back to the ledge just as Xena dodged a clumsy swing and got around to the other side of the small space leaving the big hooter’s back to her partner.
Doesn’t need me? Gabrielle picked up a rock and hefted it, waiting for an opening. The hooter was chopping at Xena in an almost random manner, but his strength was incredible, and the warrior was having trouble deflecting the strikes. “Xena!” She let fly with her rock, gratified when it hit the hooter in the back, making him jerk around.
Xena took advantage of the distraction and knocked his sword away, swinging a reverse thrust with her own sword that would have cut him up the middle if he hadn’t stepped back, seeming to sense the attack.
The rain drove in her face, and Xena could only spare a second to give her head a shake to clear some of the water and hair from her vision. Behind her, she could hear grunts and rattles, and she knew the hooters were coming up the path.
She could hold them off, maybe, but she knew it would do no good to tell Gabrielle to leave. Without the bard, Ares had no chance of making it up the side of the mountain, and without all of them, Pony and Gran probably wouldn’t make it either.
So what the Hades was the point?
The hooter came at her again, and she set her feet, leaning forward as she swept her blade up to meet the swing coming down at her head. The impact of the blade against hers was incredible, and it took all the strength she had to keep her legs from buckling, and her arms from giving way to let the sword of war cleave her in half.
Lighting blasted over head, and she caught a break as the hooter flinched, and she was able to deflect his sword to one side, but only briefly as he recovered and yanked his arms around in a sweeping lunge she knew she couldn’t meet.
There was barely room to move on the ledge, but she waited until the last minute, then she ducked and threw herself past him, touching down with one hand on the rock and pushing herself up into a rolling motion that got her back to her feet before he could turn to meet her.
She stepped forward and brought her sword around, slicing him across the side as he turned, sending a spray of blood into the air as he let out a bellow.
A rock flew past her shoulder, and hit him in the head, as Xena followed up her advantage and got another hit in, cutting deep into his thigh before he whipped his arms back across his body and clipped her in the shoulder, sending her hard against the rock and thanking all the gods she didn’t believe in she wasn’t on the other side of him.
He swung at her again, and she managed to catch the much longer sword against hers, near the hilt, the impact nearly breaking her wrists, strong as they were. Then she was up against the hooter, and he was dipping his head, teeth bared, at her throat.
Xena felt her knees start to buckle under the force and she struggled to free her sword, as the hooter’s blade came closer and closer to her head, and the teeth closer and closer to her throat.
Through the rain, she caught a brief glimpse of Gabrielle coming towards them, and the hooter realized it as well. He jerked back and swung around, swiping the huge sword right at Gabrielle with a howl of outrage.
Xena released one hand off her sword and reached up for a hand hold, pulling herself up off the ground and getting both boots up as she kicked hard outward, uncoiling her body with all the strength she could muster. She kicked the hooter right in the ribs as he was turning, and she felt bone crack as he staggered to one side, the sword swinging wildly and dangerously close to Gabrielle’s head.
The bard ducked, and scooted to Xena’s far side, picking up another rock and winding up to throw it.
A hooter scrambled over the ledge, and let out a howl of triumph, as he reached for Gabrielle’s arm, and the big hooter lifted the sword of war over his head and rushed at Xena.
The thunder rolled over head, growing louder and louder.
Xena waited until her opponent was almost on top of her, the stench of him filling her nose as she held her ground to the last moment when his huge blade was heading right for her skull. Then she ducked under his right arm and escaped, hearing the blade hit the rock with a grinding crunch behind her.
In the same motion, she stepped close to Gabrielle, circled her with one arm and pulled her off her feet as she went around the back of the big hooter, the bard’s legs swinging out over thin air before she landed her near the path upward. “Stay!”
Gabrielle grabbed hold of the rock as she was released. “I’m going to keep throwing rocks!”
“Fine!” Xena put her shoulder down and body slammed the big hooter, who was trying to yank the sword he’s sunk into the rock out of it. She knocked him off balance and into the two just climbing over the edge, knocking them back and sending them sprawling off the ledge to hang precariously.
No time to take advantage of that. Xena found herself diving out of the way as the big hooter recovered, lashing out to kick her, his foot missing her body but hitting her sword arm and smashing it against the ground.
Her lower arm went numb, and she lost her grip on her weapon. With a yowl, he dove on top of it before she could turn over and grab it with her other hand and now she found herself rolling away from him before he could gut her with her own blade.
He got up. She got up, a flash of metal catching her eye as she leaped for the hilt of Ares sword, still embedded in the rock and got hold of it as she swung her legs around to brace to pull it out.
Her fingers closed around the carved hilt.
A sound like that of the sky splitting sounded over head, and a blast of light turned everything around her to silver.
For a moment, she thought she’d been hit by lightning. There was a cracking sound, and a flash, and a jolt up her arm that went right up into her armpit and tightened her chest.
Her vision blurred, and she felt her heart thump an irregular rhythm in her chest and for a moment she couldn’t catch her breath.
Then the light faded, and her pulse steadied and the world returned to rain spattered darkness as the pain and the strangeness faded away.
She felt the attack coming behind her, and her body arched as the sword came out of the rock and she flipped backwards, landing and whirling low as the hooter’s arms and the her sword whispered over her head so close it tugged strands from it.
Her reflexes had her moving before she heard her name called and she was leaping through the air and twisting to land on the other side of the hooter, bringing the big sword over in an arc in front of her as her boots scuffed against the rock.
The hooter came at her, but now, somehow, the size didn’t matter and her blood was surging and she could smell the fear in the air around her.
She got her other hand around the hilt of the sword of war and stood, the rain slacking enough for her to get a clear view of things around her as she stepped forward and swung at the hooter, blades clashing as she powered through the attack and sent his hands flying apart, her sword deflecting the one in his grip and giving her an opening wide enough for her to simply drive forward, throwing all her body weight into a savage lunge that put the point of the sword right through his chest.
Blood gushed out, splashing over her hands and her face as her forward motion drove her into him, knocking him back into the rock as the blade dropped from his hands and he slid to one side, his fingers scrabbling at the big blade protruding from his chest.
Xena breathed in the scent of hot copper, tasting a drop of it on her lips as she watched the hooter die, his eyes rolling up into his head, only the last of many who had fallen to her lethal skills.
What had she been afraid of?
Thunder rolled again, and a flash of lighting lit up the ledge as she pulled the sword out of him, letting him slump to the ground as she took a step back and half turned, sensing motion to her right.
Hooters were swarming over the ledge. Xena took another step back and felt a warm pressure on her arm, turning her head to find Gabrielle shoulder to shoulder with her, the bard’s hands clenched around the hilt of Xena’s sword. “What do you think you’re doing with that?”
“Whatever I can.” The bard replied. “You okay?”
Xena glanced at her. “I’m fine. Why?”
Gabrielle smiled grimly, and shifted her grip on the sword.
They faced the wall of hooters heading their way and Xena realized there were too many of them to fight off. They’d be overwhelmed by sheer numbers in a second, and probably shoved right off the cliff. “Hey Gab?”
“Want to start climbing up there and let me fight em off?”
“Figured you’d say that.” Xena took a step forward and got ready, raising the sword of war and letting out the loudest, meanest yell she could come up with to counter the wild hoots ringing against the stone.
Six of them got footholds on the rock and started for them, two holding spears and a third a fistful of arrows. As they approached, thunder rolled overhead again, and kept rolling so violently it was shaking the ground Xena was standing on.
The warrior winced, and took a step towards the hooters, turning sideways to get as much power into a swing as she could. There wasn’t room for Gabrielle to fight next to her, but from the corner of her eye, she saw her blade raise up as the bard held it like a dagger in front of her, having the sense to keep it close to her body in a defensive posture.
Lightning flashed, and behind the six hooters she could see dozens more, pouring up the mountain now with confidence, climbing towards them.
Fast learners. Xena cursed under her breath. “Stay close to me.”
The sound got louder, and the echoes had started pounding against her skull, when a deeper rumble her subconscious remembered all too well cut through the noise and sent her spinning instantly towards Gabrielle, grabbing her partner and slamming both of them against the rock wall.
“Blefh!” Gabrielle coughed. “W..”
Xena threw her arm over Gabrielle’s head and covered as much of her as she could as what seemed like half the mountain came down the slope, rocks smacking her in the back as they rolled down over the ledge. She felt rock chips sting the backs of her legs and she edged closer, as the screams of the hooters rose over the thunder.
Gabrielle remained stock still, realizing she was in the safest place on the mountain, that the hooters were being crushed under tons of rock, and that she was being protected from the rain. It was such a sudden change from the deadly terror of the moment before that her head hurt thinking about it, so she just allowed herself go blank instead, letting the sound of Xena’s heartbeat overwhelm the chaos around them.
In a few minutes, it was over. The thunder subsided, and slowly, the rattle and rumble of rocks died away leaving only the sound of rain spattering against the rock.
Gabrielle took a slow, deep breath and started to shift her position.
“Don’t move.” Xena whispered.
The bard froze. “Are they still there?”
“No.” Her partner muttered. “But neither is the ledge. I’m holding on by my toes.”
“Urk.” Gabrielle pressed herself further back into the rock and grabbed the front of her Xena’s leathers. “What happened?”
“No idea.” Xena very gingerly extended her leg and got a foothold on the path. “Just hold still.” She reached out with her free hand and curled her fingers around a bit of rock, sliding her boot forward a little and then shifting her weight to that foot as she pulled herself up onto the path.
Only then, did she turn her head and look down.
The ledge was gone, save the sliver Gabrielle was standing on. Below them, hundreds of boulders and bits of rock were piled, barely seen in the rain and the darkness. The warrior exhaled slowly, before she wedged Ares sword behind her sheath, and held her hand out to Gabrielle. “Hand that over.”
The bard handed the sword over, and watched as she sheathed it. Glad to have both hands free, she quickly fastened her fingers to the rocks behind her, and cautiously looked down.
Darkness. Shadows. The rattle of pebbles falling.
Then, from above them she heard a different sound. “Xena..!” She cocked her head and listened. “Is that… are th.. it’s those big animals, isn’t it?”
Faint bugles echoed out, tinged with triumph and unmistakable.
“I hear it.” The warrior edged over, and held a hand out. “C’mon.”
The bard took her hand and cautiously sidled over to join her. “What happened to..”
Xena glanced over her shoulder. “Rocks buried em.” She moved away from the ledge, keeping a wary eye out for loose rocks. “Guess they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
A high, warbling bugle echoed softly from above.
Gabrielle joined her on the path, and they worked their way back up to where Ares was still leaning, apparently content to wait. “Where are they?” She peered around, but the rain, and the darkness defeated her vision. “Do you see them?”
Xena tipped her head back and searched the walls around them. Lightning flared, and she thought she saw a trunk waving over the top of the ridge above them, but she knew that wasn’t possible.
A soft trumpet drifted down.
The sound faded, and they were left in darkness, with only the rain coming down around them. “I don’t.. I don’t know what happened.” She finally said, as they came up to where the god of war was waiting. Ahead of them – no sign of Pony or Gran.
Going down was no longer an option. She licked her lips, and tasted blood again. Turning her face to the sky, she let the rain wash her skin, catching a few drops on her tongue and savoring the sweetness of it. At least they were only fighting the mountain now.
Ares lifted his head as they reached him, and his eyes found hers and even in the darkness, she could see him smile.
“Nice.” The god of war rasped. “That was almost worth croaking for.”
Xena looked away. “Let’s get moving.” She prodded him. “Before we push our luck.”
Ares just laughed.
The rain slacked off a little, becoming a chill mist rather than a pounding deluge as they stood quietly, gathering themselves to move on. Gabrielle studied the distinctive outline of the sword of war nestled over Xena’s shoulder, before she turned and searched the slopes, hoping to see a glimpse of their furry friends.
Her knees were shaking, and she felt very cold inside. After a brief hesitation, she leaned against Xena’s shoulder and collected what warmth she could from the warrior’s rain spattered skin.
She could feel the faint tremors still running through Xena’s body, and after a second, the warrior half turned and put both arms around her, seeming to want the contact as much as she did.
And why not? Gabrielle craved the certainty of what she and Xena shared in this wild, wide ocean of uncertainty they found themselves in. She no longer wondered what they were going to do next – she only wanted Xena to be there next to her.
Amphipolis seemed very far away now, she felt a dull fog separating her from her family, and from her daughter, waiting there at home, wondering…
Gabrielle drew a steadying breath, and lifted her head to look up at Xena. “We ready to go?’
Tired blue eyes peered out from between sodden bangs. “No place to go but up.”
The bard nodded.
“Bout time.” Ares commented dryly. “Gonna get past me and lead the way, sweetheart?”
“No.” Xena prodded him in the back. “Move. Gabrielle stays with me.”
Ares rolled his eyes, but gathered himself up and started to pull himself along the rock wall with uncertain steps. “Nice of ya to grab my sticker back, Xena. Wanna hand it over?”
“No.” The warrior replied. “You’ll get it when I’m good and ready to give it to you.”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted sharply, to no real effect since she was shuffling along behind Xena and the warrior couldn’t see her face.
“Not nice, Xena.” Ares warned. “That’s my property on your back. I don’t take kindly to mortals putting their mitts on it.”
“Then you wont’ mind not having it.” Xena said. “Since your mortal, and you’ve got nothing to carry it with besides maybe shoving it..”
“Ah ah ah.!” The god of war cut her off. “Be nice.”
“Kiss my ass.”
Ares paused and half turned. “Now we’re talking!”
Xena gave him an impatient shove. “Don’t even think about it.”
“C’mon Xena.” Ares wasn’t deterred. “You’re not gonna tell me you’re satisified with one little bedwarmer.. I know you better than that.”
The warrior pondered in silence for a brief time, then she chuckled. “I’m totally satisfied.’
“Bull.” The god of war snorted. “Why I could…”
“No ya couldn’t.” Xena focused her senses ahead of them, her ears picking up a soft scuffing, and a rattle of falling pebbles. “Not for more than two minutes, anyway.”
The sounds got louder, and Xena’s attitude shifted from darkly mocking to alert. “Hold it. “
“What?” Ares stopped moving.
Xena managed to work her way around him and took the lead, putting the god of war between her and Gabrielle. She edged around a heavy boulder then pulled up short as she came face to face with Pony coming back the other direction.
They stared at each other momentarily, then Pony looked away. “I was.. I heard stuff.” She muttered. “Thought I could help.”
“We took care of it.” Xena replied, briefly.
Pony looked back at her, then her eyes lifted as she spotted the dual hilts over Xena’s shoulder. She stared at the sword of war, then she looked Xena’s face for a long moment. “Yeah.” She shifted and started moving back in the direction she came. “That ‘splains a lot.”
Xena wished she didn’t know what Pony was talking about. She stared briefly at her hands pressed against the rock, misty rain drenching the surface of her skin as the first light of the coming dawn put faint shadows between her knuckles.
Her palms still tingled from the touch of that hilt.
“Xe.” Gabrielle called over. “Everything okay?”
Ah well. First things first, which was getting the Hades up the damn wall. “Yeah.” She turned to get back around Ares, only to find the god smirking at her, blocking the path. “Don’t be a jerk.”
“Why not?” Ares asked. “Gotta get some fun outta this before I drop dead.”
Xena stared at him.
Ares smiled grimly back at her, lifting away a bit of the tattered catskin, revealing the wound that now spread half across his chest, red and swollen, and seeping ugly yellow pus. He returned the skin to it’s place and resumed his hold on the rock. “Suffering every minute for you, babycakes. Give me a nice view to make up for it.. I love your butt in those leathers.”
Her face twitched in response. “Gabrielle – take a step back.” She crouched, then leaped up, catching a tiny shelf over Ares head with her fingertips and swinging herself up and over the obstacle to land neatly next to the bard.
Ares returned his head forward from it’s uptilted position. “That wasn’t bad either.” He rallied, undaunted.
“Jackass.” The warrior muttered, under her breath.
“Urg.” Gabrielle had her eyes closed, and her body pressed close to the rock.
“You can open em now.” Xena patted her on the back comfortingly. “I made it.”
A green orb cautiously appeared, then both eyes opened and Gabrielle released her breath. “Good grief, Xe. Was it worth the risk? What if you slipped?” She put out a hand in reflex and touched the warrior’s arm.
Xena could feel the fear in her, and the coming dawn revealed the tension that marked her partner’s face. “Of course you’re worth the risk.” She replied casually. “What kind of dumb question is that?”
That produced a wry smile in return, but the warrior could see the shivers racking the bard’s body, and wished she could do more. “Least the sun’s coming up.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle murmured. “Yay. I was so looking forward to seeing how high up we are.”
Whoops. “C’mon.” Xena sighed. “Just keep looking at the wall.”
“Okay.” The bard answered, in a small voice. She kept both hands on the rock and stayed as close to it as possible, the rough surface scraping along her midriff. A cold, wet wind blew at her back, and made her all the more aware of how much open space there was behind her, and as the light slowly grew she felt a sense of terror growing with it in her guts.
She could hear birds waking up, and taking flight, and she tried to block out the knowledge that they should be over her head, not even with her shoulderblades.
A thousand scenarios of falling began to play in her mind, shortening her breathing until a warm, steadying hand settled on the back of her neck and she felt Xena’s close presence next to her. “Thanks.”
“I’m here, Gab.” Xena’s voice was low and intimate. “We’re gonna make home.”
A hawk let out a cry behind her, as Gabrielle briefly opened her eyes and looked at the rock before her nose. It was weathered, and gray, and between the cracks tiny bits of lichen clung, stubbornly surviving despite the winds and the hard surface they rested on.
She could smell the lichen. They had a green, somewhat musky scent that reminded her of their dell back in Amphipolis and the long afternoons she’d spent there loving Xena and watching the sunlight trickle over the both of them.
She thought about the many places she’d been with Xena. Hot places, and cold, friendly and war torn. Beautiful, wild places, and the biggest cities in the land. “Xe?”
“I am home.” Gabrielle said. “So let’s just work on making it back to Dori.”
Xena’s fingers squeezed the back of her neck gently. “Gotcha.”
She just had time to settle herself down, when a hoarse scream broke the air. Gabrielle inhaled sharply. “Is that Gran??”
Xena cocked her head. “Pony!” She yelled.
“SHIT!” The Amazon hollered back. “XENA!!!”
Xena prodded Ares in the back. “Move faster.”
The god of war didn’t. “Aren’cha gonna fly over me again and go save the day?” He suggested. “Big old hero deal? G’wan.”
The warrior reviewed the rock wall over their heads, then she pushed him again. “No.” She said. “So get moving, or I’ll tie a rope around your ugly neck and drag you along for the ride.”
Ares turned and looked at her, the mocking attitude evaporating. “Watch it, Xena.” He warned, softly. “We’re not always gonna be in this pit, and we both know dying ain’t the end of everything.”
Yes. Xena did know that. “I’ll take my chances.” She gave him another, harder shove. “Hang on, Pony – we’re comin!”
A scuffle of rock warned her, then Pony skidded into view around the next bend of rock. Her face was dead white, visible in the growing dawn and her eyes were nearly half out of her head. “Something’s got hold of Gran.”
“Again?” Ares replied in a bored tone. “I don’t see the attraction there at all.”
“What is it?” Gabrielle asked.
“Whothehadesknows?” Pony yelled. “Long thing, came outta the rock! Willya come on already!”
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s back, when she realized the warrior wasn’t going anywhere. “Xe, go.” She urged softly. “Please.”
“How?” Xena whispered back. “Fly?” She drew her own sword out and started poking Ares in the butt with it. “Get moving, Ares!”
They came around the last bend and saw Granella on the ground, her body pulled taut against the rock wall by a long, snakelike object. She was struggling against it, yanking at the moving band, but it was resisting her efforts. “Augh!”
Xena unsheathed her sword as they came to the marginally wider section of the ledge and slipped past Ares. “Hold still!” She twirled her sword in her hand and passed the backpedaling Pony, intent on the thick rope holding Gran to the wall. “I’m gonna cut it off!”
Gran kept struggling, letting out a gutteral scream, as Pony darted in and started to yank at the coil holding her. “She can’t breathe!”
Xena took aim, and dove for her knees, raising her sword over her head and hoping her aim was as accurate as she remembered.
Ares seemed glad enough to find a slight cut in and slump down onto it, resting his head against the harsh granite wall. He glanced up as Gabrielle came up next to him, and stuck his boots out into her path with a malicious smile. “Dare ya.”
Gabrielle halted and stared at him.
“Gwan. Go scream for your girlfriend.” Ares taunted her.
Instead, the bard looked past him, shading her eyes from the rising sun as she tried to see what was going on. “Xena! Stop!”
The warrior’s head turned. “What?” She paused in mid motion, though, the note in her partner’s voice sounding a warning her senses obeyed without question.
“Don’t do it!” Gabrielle insisted, focusing her attention back on Ares.
The god of war, his eyebrows nearly into his hairline, drew his boots in and gestured her forward with an exaggeratedly courtly gesture. “Hey. Didn’t think ya had it in ya. But after what she said, don’t blame ya, either, cupcake.”
Gabrielle bolted past him and got to Xena’s side just as Pony reacted to what she’d said and dove at her, tackling her in a furious flurry of angry blows.
Xena twisted in mid air and got an arm around Pony’s middle, hauling her up and off Gabrielle as though she were a sack of wheat. She kept her momentum going as the bard rolled under them both, coming up onto her knees and reaching for the vine around Granella’s body.
“Gran!” Gabrielle tried to grab the flailing arms. “Stop! Stop it!”
“You bitch!” Granella glared wildly at her, turning her grasping to punches instead, as she tried to hit Gabrielle.
“What in Hades is wrong with you!” Pony grappled with Xena furiously. “Lemme go! She’s getting killed there! You want her to die? That it? So no one knows what you didn’t do??”
Xena body slammed her to the ground and dropped over her, using her size advantage to pin the Amazon firmly to the ground. She had no real idea what was going on behind her, and the dust they were kicking up kept her from seeing what Gabrielle was doing. “Gab!”
Gabrielle blocked the fists flying at her. “Gran! Just stop! Please!”
The bard gave up and dove into the fray, turning her shoulders so the blows fell on her back as she grabbed hold of the vine, reaching along it with frantic fingers. She could feel nails scraping her skin along her spine, and the sharp pain as Granella punched her.
Her fingers squeezed around Granella’s side, scraping against the rock as she pulled her sister in law towards her with all her strength. “Gran!”
Fingers tangled in her hair and pulled hard. Gabrielle tightened the muscles around her neck and just kept digging with her hand, jamming it between Granella and the rock painfully. She managed to reach her objective just as her neck muscles gave out and her head snapped backwards, her fingers touching the very end of the vine and taking hold of it. “Augh!”
The cry of pain, she knew, would bring Xena around to her aid. She only hoped the warrior would temper her reaction and she wouldn’t end up covered in blood. “Cmon.. c’mon.. “ She whispered, squeezing with her fingertips as she sensed motion behind her and the wave of dark energy, and heard the bellow of rage coming from Xena’s throat.
A squeeze back, then suddenly, everything was in motion as the vine uncoiled and snaked back towards her, wrapping itself around her own body as she twisted loose from Granella’s grip only to be caught in the vine’s as she rolled over and looked for her partner. “Xe!”
Xena was at her side in an instant, cursing and reaching for the vine. Gabrielle grabbed her hands and held them, repeating the warrior’s name over again until the blue eyes met hers and everything went still. “It’s okay.”
Xena gazed steadily at her, chest heaving . “It’s okay?” She echoed, her voice rising.
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle said again, releasing one hand so she could pat the vine with her other one. “Look.. it’s okay. It’s our friends.” She relaxed against the rock, breathing hard herself as the cool stone stung the scratches on her back.
Xena’s eyes slowly went to the muscular stripe wound around her partner’s body, and her mind sorted out the rings, and the hair, and she exhaled loudly. “Gods be damned.”
Gabrielle rolled onto her back, now that she was assured her partner wasn’t going to do anything rash, and peered inside the crack the trunk had issued from. In the faint light, she could see a big brown eye peering back at her with bemusement. “Hi.”
Xena rocked back onto her heels and turned her head to stare at their companions. Granella was pressed against the rock wall nearby, holding the back of her hand to her mouth, a drizzle of blood staining the skin of her knuckles. Eponin was flat on her back, one hand resting on her stomach, the other hand covering her eyes.
A very awkward silence fell, broken briefly by a desultory clapping from Ares. Xena swiveled and rested her hands on her thigh once he stopped. “I really don’t care what you both think right now.” She stated, in a calm voice. “But let me tell you, the next time someone lays a finger on her..” She pointed at Gabrielle.
“Why not just kill us now?” Granella cut her off.
“What makes you think I want to?” The warrior replied. “What the Hades is going on here? You got grabbed, and I’m sorry for that, Granella, but I didn’t cause that.”
The other woman glowered at her. “You didn’t do anything about it.’
“I didn’t?” Xena pointed at her own chest. “Who went into the cave after you? We did.” She indicated Gabrielle and herself.
“After you saved him!” Pony pointed at Ares, who smiled viciously at them. “The bastard!”
“Hey!” The god of war barked hoarsely. “Watch it, mongrel.”
“Look.” Xena’s voice rose. “This is pointless!”
“No.” Granella shot right back. “You listen.. I trusted you! I trusted you to keep me safe, because that’s what you do, Xena! I trusted you and you..”
Gabrielle leaned against the rock wall, feeling it all sliding out of control around her. She fingered the trunk that was now exploring her torso curiously, wondering if this was the mama animal and if it was, if the baby was with her. “Hey.” She murmured into the dark crack, reaching her hand inside to stroke the animal’s trunk. “What are you doing in there, huh?”
A soft bugle answered her. The opening was about as wide as her thigh, and extended up a little taller than her head. Granella must have leaned there a moment to rest, and the rest….
“Okay.” Xena said. “Let’s save all this until we’re out of here. We don’t have time to fight.”
Gabrielle watched as the animal plucked at her belly, patting it with the nub at it’s end. “I bet you’re the mama, huh?” She said. “Are you seeing a baby in there?” Her fingers touched the nub. “You think my baby’s gonna make it?”
She only became aware of the silence after she felt Xena’s hand wrap around her ankle. She looked up to find all three women looking at her. “You know.” She said, after a brief pause. “I don’t want anyone here to die.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena’s voice dropped.
“I want us all to get out of here, and get back to our families.” The bard watched Granella’s face, seeing the horror, and still the anger in her eyes. “So like Xena said.. can we put a hold on the blame until then?”
Granella just looked away, wiping the blood from her mouth with an impatient gesture. Pony looked at the ground, then shook her head in silence.
Xena came over and crouched next to her partner, putting a hand on her shoulder, and squeezing it. “We need to keep moving.”
“I know.” Gabrielle took Xena’s fingers, and brushed them against the nub, which nibbled the warrior’s skin. “How did they get in there, Xena? Inside the mountain?”
Xena peered inside the crack, her eyes picking out details lost to her partner. “It’s a big cave.” She said. “Probably lets out near plateau.. we’re on the other side of the wall from it.” The scent that came from the crack held the smell of the animals, and water, and at the far edges, dirt.
The bard looked down at the trunk in her lap. “I don’t think she meant to scare anyone.”
“Sure.” Pony muttered.
Instead of anger, Gabrielle could only feel sadness. All the aggressiveness she’d been filled with for days had drained away, and she couldn’t prevent memories from surfacing of another time, and another long period of anger, and…
Xena’s lips pressed against the side of her head, and she set aside the images.
The trunk curled around her wrist and squeezed. Gabrielle wrapped her hands around it and squeezed back. Could the animal feel her pain? She looked up at her partner, who gently held a hand out to her. “They saved our lives back there, Xena.”
Gabrielle gave the trunk a last pat. “Goodbye again, my friend.” She leaned near the crack and peered inside. “Take care of yourself, okay?”
The big eye gazed at her, and the trunk curled around her arm, pulling her closer.
“I have to go.” The bard gently unwrapped the snout. “Be good.”
She stood and took a step back, hearing a soft trumpet inside the rock as the snout snaked out and reached for her again. There was a note of urgency, she thought, but she backed away again, coming to rest against Xena’s body as she gazed unhappily at the opening. “Xe, she’s trying to tell us something.”
Privately, the warrior agreed. However. “C’mon.” She clasped Gabrielle’s shoulder. “We don’t have time to figure it out.” She glanced over at the rest of their party, as the animal trumpeted loudly again, waving it’s snout at them. “Let’s go.”
“You go first.” Granella told her. “I’m not going to be one to meet any more of your.. friends.”
Xena exhaled. “All right.” She turned and examined the path, reaching out to touch the rock wall.
Gabrielle took hold of her arm. “Xena.. “ She watched the snout thrash about urgently. “We’re missing something here.” Her voice roughened a little. “It’s almost like she’s trying to stop us.. she must know something, and I think..”
The warrior encircled her with one long arm. “Sweetheart, I believe that.” She whispered. “But we’ve got to get out of here.”
“I know, but..”
“No, Gabrielle..” Xena’s voice took on it’s own urgency. “We have to get Ares out of this valley.”
Gabrielle blinked a few times, aware of the motion of their companions moving towards them, conscious that the privacy of Xena’s embrace would last only a few moments longer. “What? I.. of course we do b..”
“Gabrielle.” Xena lifted her other hand and cupped the bard’s cheek. “We have to.”
Their eyes met. “Have to.” Gabrielle repeated softly. “Something you know.. or..”
Xena released her cheek and touched her own chest. “Something I feel. In here.” She uttered back. “I just…” The warrior hesitated. “I don’t’ think I can ignore it.”
“Oh, Xena.” The bard glanced around, then back at her. “But what if…” Her gaze lifted to the hilt of the sword of war, looming over Xena’s shoulder. “Gods.”
It all came down on her in a rush, the sudden realization of what had happened when Xena’s hand touched that hilt, and what might happen if Ares didn’t survive.
And Xena did.
Gabrielle felt so sick suddenly, she thought she was going to throw up. Death hadn’t yet been able to separate them, but, she knew with a stark knowledge, immortality would.
Would that be Xena’s fate, to take Ares place? The bard stared past her partner, finding Ares looking back at her, with a twisted smile, sunken eyes bleakly knowing.
Xena cupped her cheek again. “Trust me.” Blue eyes met hers, and they both acknowledged silently the history between them. “Trust me.”
Gabrielle released a slow breath, remembering very clearly one of those things. “Okay.” She murmured. “I’m with you.” She turned and started back to where Ares was still slouching, her mind whirling with new, and unpleasant possibilities.
Pony and Gran could be the least of their problems.
Late afternoon sun draped over Gabrielle’s back as she stood, leaning against the wall as they paused to rest a bit. The warmth felt good, as the wind had dropped a little and she rested her head against the stone wishing she could just go to sleep in it.
“Wait here.” Xena patted her arm. “I’m gonna check up ahead.. maybe there’s a spot we can sit down a minute.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle laid her cheek against the granite. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“Gabrielle, would you do something for me?”
The bard gazed at her. “Sure. Anything.”
“Shut up.” Xena leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips. “Be right back.” She disappeared around the next corner of the path and left Gabrielle to decide if she wanted to turn and face her companions or merely ignore them.
There was a lot to be said for the latter. Ares was right next to her, and the other two a little distance from him and none of them were really giving out any vibes that made her want to talk to them.
Gabrielle knew she had a reputation for being a friendly, talkative, good hearted person. She also knew that by and large, that wasn’t too far off the mark, really, though she certainly had her pissy moments and bouts of ill temper.
And usually, they were with Xena, not with other people because at this stage in their lives together, Xena was the only person who she trusted utterly with the ugliest side of herself. For everyone else, she had a reputation to maintain and she did her best to do just that – and she knew if she turned around and started talking to her companions she’s blow her reputation right on out of the water.
What good would that do, really?
Sometimes she the thought, of the two of them, that Xena really had it easier. She could just be Xena, and be cranky, or gruff, or rude and people just took it for granted because she was who she was. When Gabrielle was rude to someone, she had a half dozen people searching her out to find out what was the matter, and could they help, and should they go get Xena.
But then, she remembered, there was the council, and the day they’d turned her away, dismissing her influence like…
“Gods be damned!” Gabrielle walked in and slammed the door to the cabin, glad Dori was with her cousins so she could vent her aggravation in private. “What in Hades is wrong with people?” She asked the wall.
The cabin remained, naturally, silent, and she pulled off her gauntets and tossed them over onto her writing table, stripping out of her cloak and dropping that over the chair as well.
She sat down and rested her elbows on her knees, feeling the frustration tying her up in knots It wasn’t even anything really that momentous, just the town council, telling her off.
Gabrielle was self aware enough to know it was her ego more than anything. She’d given what she thought was good service to the town, done what she could and all that, but now she found out that what she’d thought was gratefully accepted advice was really…
Well, they’d told her they really just let her talk to make Xena happy.
The bard swallowed, caught between tears and a deep embarrassment. Was that really what everyone did? Humor her, just to keep on her partner’s good side? Were all the plaudits, and the accolades just like those of the town’s?
“Damn it.” Gabrielle whispered. “Damn it, all I wanted from life was just a…”
Her vision was filled, suddenly, with a deep red blob, which resolved into a pretty rose being twirled gently between Xena’s fingers. “Oh.”
“Here.” Xena offered her the flower.
The bard took it, the gentle fragrance filling her nose. “What’s this for?”
Xena sat down on the floor next to her, and laced her fingers together. “Tor told me what happened with the council.”
For a moment, Gabrielle thought about just pretending, brushing it off as she knew her partner would have done in her place. But then, a certain weight lifted off her when she remembered this was the one person in her life she didn’t have to do that with. “That hurt.” She muttered, softly.
“Yeah.” Xena wrapped her arm around the bard’s leg and patted her foot. “I know.”
Gabrielle stared at the ground. “You think that’s true for everyone, Xena?” She turned her head and looked at the warrior. “Everyone just tells me how great I am because of you?”
Xena sat there for a bit, her brow contracted. Then she cleared her throat gently. “It could be that some people might do that.”
It was like being hit in the head. Gabrielle felt tears start to sting her eyes, and she bit the inside of her lip.
“Some people might say they’re listening to you, or trusting you just because they want to get on my good side, sure.” Xena went on. “But I trust you with my life because you’ve earned it, and I listen to you because you’re damned right most of the time.”
Gabrielle’s nostrils flared a little, and her skin prickled as the words penetrated her dismay. She peeked over at Xena’s face, finding an expression of wry love there waiting for her and she felt an overwhelming surge of deep emotion that brought more tears, but for a completely different reason.
“For what that’s worth.” The warrior added. “Gotta make points with myself, right?”
The bard had to smile. She set the rose down on her writing table and turned, slipping off the chair and onto her knees on the floor before Xena’s seated form. “Thanks.” She rested her hands on the warrior’s shoulders and touched her forehead to Xena’s. “What would I do without you?”
“Get your kudos honestly?” Xena demurred, with a smile of her own.
The warrior kissed her. “Now you gotta do me a favor.”
Gabrielle exhaled, closing her eyes. “Anything.”
“Tell me which jackass said that to you so I can go kick his ass and reinforce your theory.”
Through her tears, Gabrielle started laughing, and they both tumbled together on the floor in a tangle of limbs and giggles.
“To Hades with all of em.”
“Hey.” Ares prodded her.
Reluctantly, Gabrielle lifted her cheek off the rock and turned her head to look at him. “Yes?”
“Big bitch stick you again?”
Gabrielle stared at him, her eyes blinking several times. “Huh?”
Ares rolled his eyes. “You’re pregnant?”
Even the question felt invasive. The bard considered not answering, but she suspected the god of war would simply continue to ask if she didn’t. “Maybe.”
“Maybe?” Ares queried.
The bard half shrugged. “Maybe.” She repeated. “I guess time will tell.” She paused. “Wait… shouldn’t you know?”
“Me???” The dark haired man snorted. “Trust me, babe.. I never stuck around any female long enough to be able to tell one way or the other.”
Gabrielle scratched the bridge of her nose. “I meant, because you’re a god.” She said. “Not because you screwed a lot of people.” She glanced past him, to find Pony listening to her, while Gran huddled in a ball on the ground.
Ares let his head rest against the rock as he gazed at her. His eyes were deeply sunken, and it was all he was able to do to keep up with even the slow pace they were keeping. “Know how I found out the first time?”
Gabrielle shook her head.
“Dite punched me.” Ares related. “After you took the header and she popped you out.”
The bard’s eyes warmed. “Good for her.”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle said. “Am I supposed to be grateful to you for asking me to do that?” She asked.
“Saved your honeybun’s buns, didn’t it?” The god replied. “Trust me, Dite wouldn’t have yanked her chain out of the barbeque pit.”
Gabrielle studied his face. “I don’t know about that.” She murmured. “But I wonder if you’d asked Xena, if she’d have thanked you that day for saving her life.”
Ares snorted, and looked away.
“You’re really lucky Aphrodite did what she did, Ares.” The bard went on. “Because if I had died… I would have found my way up to Olympus and you’d have paid for what you put her through.”
The god of war slowly turned his head and looked at her, both eyebrows hiking. “You’ve got a really screwed up idea of mortality, doncha?”
Gabrielle half smiled. “That’s what happens when you live with Xena, I guess.” She sensed the warrior coming back and turned her head to watch the path, her eyes focusing on her partner’s face as it emerged.
Uh oh. To anyone else, the warrior appeared her usual stoic self, but Gabrielle knew in an instant they were in real trouble.
Okay, they were in more trouble than the had been a moment before, which wasn’t really saying much to be honest. Gabrielle took her courage in her hands and pushed away from the wall, straightening and turning her body to face her partner. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Xena turned and leaned against the wall, bending her knees a bit so her face was hidden from view of their companions. She tilted her head and looked at Gabrielle, letting the mask slip briefly, an expression of bewildered frustration on her face. “Got a problem up ahead.”
Gabrielle eased closer. “Path get tough?” She asked, softly. “We’re doing okay, I think.”
Xena gazed at her in somber silence.
“I don’t think I like that look.” The bard murmured. “How bad is it?”
The warrior composed herself, and straightened up. “Okay, listen up.” She said, briefly. “Looks like we’re gonna have to… “ Uncharacteristically, Xena hesitated. “We’ve pretty much run out of options here.” She looked at the eyes focused on her, aware of the responsibility on her shoulders.
Responsibility she had just betrayed. “The path’s out ahead.” She explained. “Just around that bend.” With a jerk of her head, she indicated the curve.
“What?” Pony asked. “Whatddaya mean?”
Gabrielle nodded a little, to herself. “For how far, Xena. Can we..”
“Out. Gone.” Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “We can’t go back.” She said. “And there’s only one way out ahead of us, and that’s up.”
“What?” Pony said again. “What do you mean.. we’ve been going up, Xena!” She turned and gestured behind them. “You losing it?”
Xena visibly squared her shoulders and tipped her head back, looking straight up at the rock wall that ended in a squared off edge, with blue sky and white clouds above it. “Up.” She indicated the wall. “It’s the only way out.”
Everyone stared at her in silence, even Ares.
After a moment, Gabrielle slumped against Xena, covering her eyes with one hand. “Gods.”
Ares slowly slid down the wall, ending up sitting with his legs splayed out and his face a stark white. ‘Y’aint getting no help from me, babe. Sorry.”
“Shit.” Pony put her hand to her head. “You totally damned screwed us over, Xena.”
The warrior exhaled, and glanced back at Gabrielle, who had lifted her head and was looking right back at her. “Sorry.” She muttered, under her breath. “Guess I really messed up this time.”
“Maybe some people think that.” The bard took her hand. “But I know whose hands to put my life in.” She watched a faint smile appear. “So to Hades with all the rest of them.”
Xena absorbed the sentiment, as it buffered her from the glares of the others, and she studied the stark, rock wall.
Only way out.