One Wild Ride
Xena pressed her forehead against the rock as the rain lashed at her back, wondering briefly if there was something more than nature conspiring against them. She could feel the strain of Ares almost dead weight pulling against the rope she now had looped over one shoulder, and her fingers felt cramped as she tenaciously tried to hang on to the slick rock.
Across from her, and a little below, she could see Gabrielle’s jaw, rigid with muscle as the bard clung to the stone and slowly, carefully worked her free hand upwards to search for another hold.
The utter determination in her face was almost heartbreaking. Xena could see the scrapes on her skin, seeping blood quickly washed clean by the rain and her entire body was tense with the strain it was taking to keep herself, and her portion of Ares bodyweight up.
Xena took a breath, and almost.. almost released her hand off the wall to pull her sword and cut Ares free. As though sensing that, Gabrielle glanced over at her, eyes blinking hard to clear the rain from them.
“You okay?” The bard yelled over, watching her.
Resisting the urge, Xena nodded briefly, and then turned her attention back to the cliff wall. She wrapped her fingers around another tiny hold and set herself, then she pulled steadily upward, grimacing as the rock cut into her skin.
Ares was out cold. Xena found another hold and took advantage of it, feeling the rope burn against her shoulder. Or he was dead. It was impossible for her to tell at this point, since he was hanging limp below them and there wasn’t any place to stop and find out.
She’d stopped looking up. The top of the ridge never looked like it was getting any closer and she needed all her energy to just keep moving.
Just keep moving. Xena focused on the rock, and her breathing, as she scrabbled with her boots for a crack, a crevice, anything as her fingers cramped and she almost…
Ah. A boot caught, and she gratefully eased her weight onto it. “I’m all right! You?”
A pained smiled crossed her face. In the back of her mind, where she kept shoving it was the knowledge that what they were doing might not even be worth it, at this point, and she suspected Gabrielle knew that as well as she did.
“Know what?” The bard yelled, hoarsely.
“What?” Xena wearily inched herself up a bit more.
“Whatever we did to deserve this…”
“We didn’t deserve it.”
No, for once in her life, Xena truly believed that. There had been many times she’d deserved everything she’d gotten, but damn it all to Hades, this wasn’t one of them.
She paused, as she felt a vibration under her fingers. “Hold up!” The warrior pressed her body against the rock, putting her ear to it to listen intently. She looked through the now driving rain at Gabrielle, who had stopped and was watching her again.
No more. Xena could read it in those exhausted, expressive green eyes. She felt the rumble under her body again, then she almost jerked right off the cliff when a loud, thundering crack sounded right over them and she felt movement where there should be none against her skin.
Time was up.
Now, all there was, was all she was and all she could do was what she was capable of. Xena released her hold and shoved herself outward, reaching out to grab Gabrielle’s arm as the mountain started coming down around them.
She shifted her grip and latched on to Gabrielle’s belt with one hand, shoving and clawing her way up the shifting stone with furious energy. “Keep moving!”
“B.” Gabrielle cut off her speech and just did it. She reached for handholds as the handholds fell away from her finger tips. The rock moved, but it stayed in place long enough for her to scramble upward along side Xena, as debris started to come down on both of them.
“Go go go go go.” Xena bellowed in her ear, as they both moved in unison, boots scrabbling against the falling rocks. She got hold of a widening crack and pulled them both up over it, painfully aware of the drag against her back that was Ares limp body.
Cut him loose?
No time. Gabrielle managed to clamp on to a jutting boulder and they were over it, rocks slamming into them from above as she felt something big approaching fast, the bard’s hand suddenly thrusting her against the rock with shocking force as a rock the size of Argo broke away just above them and tumbled free.
It should have hit them. Xena felt it impact her shoulder and she instinctively shifted side ways and pushed backwards as it rolled across her to fall free, leaving a depression more than big enough for her to jump into.
Gabrielle got in next to her and they both ducked, as a rain of stone slid down the mountain, Xena grabbing hold of her partner and yanking her into space as it rattled down under them and fell past. She got a hand on another handhold and pulled up ward, then another, then another, and her feet were sliding and sliding and barely able to keep her moving upward.
Another crack of lightning, this one so close every hair on her head stood up and she smelled the burning scent of brimstone as Gabrielle suddenly yelled at the top of her voice and the next thing Xena knew the bard was on top of her and they were both thrown against the rocks with stunning force.
She could taste blood in her mouth, and her shoulder ached where the rope was cutting into it and if she’d been able to grab her sword at that moment….
Gabrielle yelled again, this time in terror.
Xena responded without thinking. She pulled them both to one side as a rush of granite slid past her, slamming into her thighs as she crouched and uncoiled her legs, sending both of them impossibly upward.
Her hand reached up, fingers flexing as she reached for something, anything, hoping for the slightest bit of firm stone to hold onto.
Something struck her hand and she clenched hold of it, almost releasing in shock when her skin touched something that wasn’t rock.
Something round. Something rough. Something that put welcome splinters into the palm of her hand. With the last bit of strength she had, Xena hauled upward, feeling dirt and rocks thundering down on them with a scent of rain, and rock, and with shocking suddenness –
Earth. She tasted dirt. It leant a wild surge to her muscles and as the rock face broke away under her she made one last lunge upward, everything falling down around her and under her as she half climbed half ran across the lip of the cliff into a maelstrom of wind that very nearly blew her backwards.
Her feet started to slip out from under her, as Ares weight dragged them both backwards, but she got her balance and lunged forward, hearing a hoarse yell come from her throat in pure animal frustration.
Damn it! She threw herself into the wind, daring it to deny her.
And there was nothing but air in front of her hands as the rain drove full force against her body. She pulled Gabrielle up and they crawled forward against the momentum of the avalanche, boots sliding over stone that became, at last, something other than that.
She stumbled forward, and crashed to her knees as Gabrielle fell next to her and she half turned to reach for the ropes only to find Ares still form half a body length behind them, covered in blood and dust.
Then lightning struck the ground past her boots, and blinded her. She threw her arm up in front of her eyes as the flash faded, blinking painfully as the sound of thunder was replaced by the sound of rain all around her, striking the thick earth churned up by the storm.
As she watched, the edge of the cliff slid away from them, disappearing in a crash of falling stone that rapidly faded into the continued rolling of thunder.
The new precipice started barely a handspan beyond Ares feet, a mute line drawn that separated them from oblivion by the narrowest of margins.
Shocking. Xena drew in a shaky breath.
Far off, she heard the booming roar as the avalanche hit the bottom of the valley, as Gabrielle sprawled across her legs, shaking like a leaf.
For a long moment, all she could do was sit there and shake, every muscle in her body turned to jelly as her chest heaved, sucking in air that was equal parts water, her heart hammering so hard in her chest it made it’s own thunder in her ears.
She looked up at the sky, then around her, hardly believing she could finally see a horizon that had no mountain walls in it. Impossible to think they’d actually made it.
Her eyes went to the god of war, lying utterly still there in the rain. She watched his back for a long moment, and saw no movement, and her heart slowly sank.
Then her eyes dropped to Gabrielle’s huddled form, and she put painful and shaking arms around the bard, hugging her in simple, mindless relief.
For a moment, at least, she just wanted to sit here, and hope they didn’t get hit by lightning. Anything beyond that…
Life could wait a while.
Breathing hurt. Gabrielle found herself in a place where she was too tired to even cry, her body shaking so hard from the exertion she was banging her head against Xena’s ribcage. All she could feel around her was chaos, the rain and the thunder rattling against her skin
Her overstressed muscles ached, sharp daggers of pain lancing through her that made it far easier to remain very still, her ear pressed against Xena’s side as she felt the warrior’s heartbeat thundering against it. The landslide had happened so fast, she hadn’t even had time to be afraid, not of that at any rate.
A moment of terror, yes, when she’d seen the boulder heading for Xena, fear of losing her soulmate sending her into a surge of reaction that hadn’t left any room for anything else.
Now, she closed her eyes and breathed in lungfuls of air that smelled like rain and dirt, impossibly glad to feel mud against her fingers, soft and cold and welcome after the harsh stone she’d grown to hate.
She felt Xena take a deep breath, and reluctantly, she released her tight hold, rolling half over to lay on her back across Xena’s thighs.
Rain hit her in the face, and she shaded her eyes with one hand so she could look up at the warrior, outlined against the storm tossed sky. Xena’s face was drawn and exhausted, more so than Gabrielle could ever remember seeing her even in the worst of times. “Xe?”
Blue eyes searched her face. “Ares.” The warrior said, briefly. “I don’t think he made it.”
Slowly, Gabrielle rolled over onto her side and blinked, staring through the thick rain to the still, sodden figure. “Oh.. “ She exhaled. “Oh, no.” She let her head rest against Xena’s knee. “Now what?”
Now what? Good question. Xena looked down at her hands, resting on Gabrielle’s body, washed clean of the mud and dust. At the edge of her senses, she could feel the sword of war behind her, an almost tingle that made the center of her shoulderblades itch.
They had all made it out. But now, what good did that do if Ares hadn’t survived?
Had he won, at last?
Xena flexed her hand, drawing it up so she could look at the callused palm, scraped and reddened from the climb and covered with deep scratches and cuts. After a moment’s thought, she reached over her shoulder and firmly clasped the Sword, drawing it out and feeling the bone deep tingle that reached down into her guts and set them burning.
This was a part of her. She knew it. She closed her eyes and let herself feel the power of it, acknowledging the synergy of her soul that had, in it’s depths, a home for this thing, and this feeling, and the promise behind it.
Yes. Xena’s eyes opened, her lashes fluttering to rid themselves of the droplets of rain. This was, in fact, part of who she was.
Then she took a deep breath and with a twist of her shoulders, and a wrench of her seated body, she threw the Sword of War from her and over the newly cragged precipice, sending it back into the valley with a moment of darkly savage joy.
As the sparkling sword disappeared into the mist, Gabrielle turned to look at her, eyes widening, as a blast of lightening send them sprawling to the ground, blinded and deafened.
But ultimately triumphant.
The thunder diminished.
The rain abated, slowing rapidly from a stinging patter to a gentle mist, and then into nothing, even the sound of it drifting into a moist, expectant silence.
When the light faded enough for her to open her eyes, Xena did so very slowly. The scent of danger and hot steel was pungent around her and as the spots cleared her vision she wasn’t shocked to find Ares standing over her, his sword firmly in his hand and the point right at her throat.
She blinked and looked up at him and for the first time in a long time saw the god and not the man, cold cruelty in the almost unfamiliar expression.
And yet. The blade touched her skin, pricking it as they stared at each other in silence.
He was back in his dark leathers, and despite the apparent danger Xena could only feel a sense of profound relief, broken as Gabrielle gasped and lunged over her, knocking Ares sword aside as she sprawled protectively over Xena’s body in a rush of warm panic.
It knocked the wind out of her and exposed Gabrielle’s unprotected back to the blade now sweeping back towards them and without really thinking about it Xena clasped the bard to her and rolled to her right, curling her body around Gabrielle’s protectively.
Ares snorted softly. “Two of a kind.”
Xena remained still, just watching him. He let the point of the sword drop to the ground and rested his hands on the hilts, and after a moment, she relaxed and eased off Gabrielle. “Thanks.” She slowly sat up and braced her arms behind her, with the bard still sprawled in her lap. “Nicest thing you ever said to me.”
“Ungh.” Gabrielle lifted a hand to rake the hair from her eyes. “What she said.”
Surprisingly, Ares came over and sat down next to them, placing his sword across his knees and resting his elbows on it. He folded his hands together and regarded them quietly.
Around them, a thick forest clustered, branches whispering in the light wind that brushed over the ground they sat on, bring the smell of pine, and a hint of change with it. It was almost as though the earth were holding it’s breath, waiting along with them for who knew what?
“Glad you made it.” Xena finally said, as the silence lengthened past her tolerance.
“Bet you are.” Ares responded, but curling around the smart remark was a wry humor that surprised them both. “But who says we did?”
Gabrielle sat up, then thought better of it and dropped back down onto her side, resting her head on Xena’s thigh. “I’m done.” She admitted. “And we must be on the way to Elysia, Xena. Ares said something nice to us.” She curled her fingers around Xena’s leg and sighed.
“Don’t think so.” Xena turned her hands over and looked at them. “I hurt too much to be dead.” She stated, after a brief silence.
“Ungh.” Gabrielle closed her eyes. “Take your word for it.”
Ares shifted a little. “Yeah, I noticed that.”
They sat there looking at each other for a while. “So.. you died?” Gabrielle finally asked.
The god of war nodded.
Gabrielle felt as though a heavy brick had fallen on her. “After that sideways crevice.” She murmured. “Was it then?”
Ares studied her briefly. “Yeah.” He sniffed, and half shrugged. “One minute I was hanging there, next minute, everything just stopped working. Freaky.”
Xena well remembered that moment of release. “So how was it?”
“Sucked.” Ares responded succinctly.
Coming into the reality of Tartarus – yeah, that had sucked. Xena recalled. Even though she’d expected it, the pain and the shock of the torment had been overwhelming.
Was that why she’d sought out a return? All along she’d always clung to the notion it had been Gabrielle’s need for her that drove her fight back to life, but wasn’t that just an excuse? Really? “Yeah.” She studied the ground between her knees, very aware of the green eyes looking up at her curiously. “It sucks.”
Ares turned his sword over, his head tilted to one side as he looked at the blade. “Sure find out fast who your friends are, that’s a fact.”
Xena set aside the bleak memories for some marginally better ones. “Yeah, I um… “ She cleared her throat a little. “I got past the shock of it all and first thing I realized was.. oh boy, did I ever make a mistake.” Her eyes dropped to Gabrielle’s face, seeing the ghosts clearly reflected in her expression. “Screwed that one up big time.”
The bard was so exhausted, all she could do was look back at her partner with loving, if mute, agreement. Every bone in her body ached and just lying still on the churned and muddy earth was an unspeakable pleasure.
She knew what they were going through now was important, but it was only in a far off way and all the ability to worry about what happened next had drained from her completely.
She was here.
Xena was here.
Life was going on.
“Well.” Ares sighed. “There I was, dead.” He shook his head a little. “Way unexpected, you know? Gods don’t die much, you’d think it’d cause a stir someplace. Right?”
“Sure.” Xena said.
“Nobody gave a damn.” Ares shrugged again, and looked off into the distance. “Even my sister said it was a good thing.”
Xena realized at that moment it was still in her to feel emotionally shocked at something, which was a surprise. She thought she’d seen it all, and even though she had experienced the depths of cruelty – this surprised her.
Gabrielle rolled over and sat up, pressing close to her partner. “I can’t believe that.”
“Believe it.” Ares tried for a mocking tone, but didn’t quite achieve it. “Yeah, well. I shoulda figured. Bunch of jerks anyway.”
The bard looked up at Xena, the warrior’s profile sharply outlined against the gray sky. No matter how angry she’d been at Ares, no matter what he’d done to her, or them, or tried to – she didn’t have it in her to not feel bad for him.
As much problems as she’d had with her own family, she’d never felt indifference from them. Was that worse than hatred? Gabrielle thought so. Even in their anger, she and Xena were always passionate in their feelings and she knew she would always want that over a turned back.
“Sorry, Ares.” Xena finally said, after a long pause. “Been there. It’s not much fun.” She added. “But for what it’s worth, I’m glad we got you out of there, anyway.”
Ares studied her in thoughtful silence. “You gave a damn.” He remarked. “Surprise surprise.”
Xena nodded slowly, after a moment’s pause.
“So did you.” The god of war turned his attention to Gabrielle. “Now that was freaky.” He pulled up a blade of grass, studied it, and after a moment, put it in his mouth.
“Was it?” Gabrielle managed a wan smile. “Ares, despite everything that’s happened between us, you’re a part of our lives. We know that.”
Ares chewed thoughtfully on the grass as he gazed past them, for once most of the arrogance gone from his expression.
Xena shifted and moved closer to him, leaning on one arm and letting the other rest on her knee. After a moment, she reached out and touched his leg instead. “She’s right.” The warrior said. “Much as we bang heads, I didn’t want to see you die in there, Ares. You’ve got a place in the world that means something.”
Ares eyed her. “You coulda had that place.” He said, in a mild tone.
“I know.” Xena’s tone was equally gentle.
“You could have had it all.” The god of war responded. “I used to think you said that BS just to piss me off, but you really didn’t mean it. I knew you’d take it if you could. I knew that, Xena.” Ares leaned forward. “I felt it.. I was as sure of it as I was sure of… “ He paused, then exhaled a little. “Totally sucks being wrong, you know that?”
“I know.” The warrior repeated, knowing all too well what he meant. “But you’re not totally wrong, Ares. I do want it.”
Ares blinked. So did Gabrielle, who turned her head and looked up at her partner in true surprise.
Xena shrugged. “I just want something else a lot more.” She flexed her hands, and looked around. “We’ve got to go get some help.. get Pony and Gran out of there.”
“Hey.” Ares cleared his throat.
Jarred by the sudden change of subject, Gabrielle half turned and regarded the sharp, new edge of the cliff. “Hope they were out of the way when that fell.. Xena, maybe we can..”
“HEY!” The god of war barked sharply, regaining their attention immediately. “If you two would shut up long enough, I’d show you where your nasty little friends ended up.” He pointed over his own shoulder at the grass just behind them. “Why you’d want em back I’ve got no idea.”
Gabrielle looked past him to see two huddled forms in the grass, exhaling against the knots in her gut from a flurry of mixed emotions. “You brought them up here?”
“No.” Ares got up, brushing the dirt off his leathers. “They flew on their own.” He waited for them to stand up. “So you owe me one.”
Xena put her hands on her hips. “Let’s just say we’re even, huh?” She reminded him. “We did drag your ass up here.” She reached out unexpectedly and patted him on the side. “But thanks. I appreciate it.”
Ares’ lips quirked. “Likewise.” He took a step back, and gave himself a shake. “Mortality. Peh. Keep it.”
“We will. Thanks.”
Gabrielle stepped close to Xena and wound an arm around her waist, getting the expected draping of the warrior’s own arm over her shoulder. As the god of war turned and raised his hands, Pony stirred in the grass and rolled over.
Ares paused, and waited, lowering his arms to cross them over his chest instead. “Might as well get a little more fun out of this.” He chuckled.
The bard sighed. “Some things never change.” She steeled herself for the confrontation, remembering the last words the Amazon had said to her, and knowing that despite everything else, the fact that she’d abandoned the two of them would never be forgotten.
Xena took a deep breath. Gabrielle could feel the tension in her rising, as they watched the Amazon lift her head and look around; prepared for the anger and accusations she knew would follow.
Their eyes met.
Pony blinked. “Holy crap.” She blurted. “We found you!” She turned and shook Granella, who was groggily coming to next to her. “Gran.. hey look!”
Granella sat up and rubbed her eyes, looking around in bewilderment. “From a river to this?” She looked up and spotted Xena and Gabrielle. “Hey!” A smile appeared. “We came out looking for you guys, and b…” Her eyes shifted, and apparently she saw Ares for the first time. “Uh.”
Pony’s eyes widened, as the god became visible to her as well. “Oh.” She looked back at Xena and Gabrielle. “It’s been one of those days, huh?”
Xena licked her lips. “Yeah.” She managed to get out. “One of those days.”
Gabrielle felt incredibly offbalance. She found herself speechless, so she let Xena do the talking and turned her eyes to Ares instead.
The god of war was watching her, a faint smile on his face.
“That was you?” Gabrielle mouthed. “You made them forget?”
Ares shrugged, as modestly as he was capable of.
The bard released her partner and walked over to him, pausing only when they were face to face, within inches of each other.
Ares raised his eyebrows at her. “What?”
Without further hesitation, Gabrielle stepped forward and put her arms around him, giving him a hug. Then she released him, took one look at the widening eyes, and shifted her hold to around his neck, pulling him down to kiss him squarely on the lips.
Gabrielle eased back and looked him in the eye. “Now, we owe you one.” She whispered. “Thank you, Ares.” She let him go and took a step back, clasping his hands before she released them and let her hands drop to her sides.
Xena put her hands on Gabrielle’s bare shoulders and watched in bemusement as Ares tried to recover his composure with a marked lack of success. She had to smile when he finally just pointed at Gabrielle and looked at her, his jaw still hanging open a little.
Xena shrugged, as modestly as she was capable of.
With a shake of his head, Ares snapped his fingers and was gone, leaving a gray, cloudy spot in the air that filled with a moist wind.
Gabrielle turned, and fit herself into Xena’s embrace, burying her face into the warrior’s shoulder in a moment of perfect and utter relief. The longest day of her life had finally ended, on a rainy afternoon under a storm tossed sky that couldn’t have been sunnier.
By the gods.
“Ow.” Gabrielle grimaced and turned her head, as Xena spread some pungent green substance over the scrapes that liberally covered her body. “Can’t I just keep bleeding a little instead?”
“Hey, Gabrielle?” Granella was crouched over a small fire. “I’m just going to grill these, okay?” She poked two sticks through one of the fish Xena had just pulled from the small river they were stopped by.
“If you’d cut em up and given them to me raw, that’d be okay too.” Gabrielle responded. “I’ll be over here chewing on Xena’s leathers.”
The humor felt forced and ghoulish to her, but the emotional overload had pushed her to her limits and she really didn’t know how else to react. The memories of the valley were so fresh, she found herself retreating back into a mirror of Xena’s matter of fact manner and she wondered if her partner realized it.
The bard looked up. “I want a stuffed animal to hug.” She uttered. “Let me know when it’s okay to freak out, will you?”
Xena gazed at her battered friend with wry understanding. “Just put it aside, hon.” She pushed the thick, shaggy hair out of Gabrielle’s eyes. “Don’t think about it. We’ll deal with it later.” It was already fading aside for her, the relief at being out of the valley and on the way home overriding anything that had happened to them earlier.
Gabrielle was watching her. “Boy, I wish I were you sometimes.” She said. “How far are we from home?”
Pony came over and crouched next to them, opening both hands. “Found these.” She offered up the nuts and berries. “Figured I should grab something.. since we got a free ride and you all didn’t.”
Free ride. Gabrielle exhaled slowly. “Thanks.” She said, her eyes searching Pony’s face for any hint of the angry bitterness she’d seen there so recently.
The hazel eyes looked back at her with only curiousity, their usual stolid warmth firmly in place. “No offense, your Maj, but you look like Hades.” She remarked.
Just put it aside.
Easier said, you know? “I bet I do.” Gabrielle responded. “I feel like I fell off a cliff instead of climbed up one.” She shifted her boot, moving her leg into the sunlight that had finally, fitfully emerged from behind the clouds.
“We’re about a day’s walk.” Xena took the nuts from Pony and sat down next to her partner, gazing at the reddened scrapes and bruises on her own legs. “If we push it.”
The sun broadened it’s reach, and Gabrielle found herself bathed in it, the friendly warmth chasing the damp chill from her skin as she lay there sprawled on the soft earth. “You want to get moving after we finish here?”
It felt so wonderful. She flexed her aching hands, and gingerly spread her arms out to take advantage of the golden heat.
A fingertip tapped her lip, and she opened her mouth, her nose already identifying the item being placed inside. She rolled the berry around on her tongue before she bit into it, the tart sweetness exploding across her senses with shocking pungence.
Amazing. Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked around, finding a smile forming when Xena dangled a bunch of the fruits at her with a knowing grin. “Wow.” She licked her lips. “Those are incredible.”
Xena leaned back against the thick grassy tussock next to her and worried another berry off the bunch, offering it to her in silence. The dark circles around the bard’s eyes, and the painfully strained lines of her face would, she knew, be erased in time but there was a wounding in the depths of her that Xena knew would take very gentle handling.
The Xena Gabrielle had first known would have never had the patience to deal with that. Luckily for them both, she was no longer that person. “No, I don’t want to get moving.” She flicked bit of mud off her kneecap. “We’ll camp here, and get going at dawn.” Her eyes shifted to Pony and Gran. “If that’s all right with everyone.”
Both women blinked at her, jaws dropping a little in surprise. “Uh.” Pony’s nostrils flared. “Fine with me.” She looked quickly over at Gran, who lifted one hand off her fish rods and waved it.
“More than fine with me.. long as you guys are here, and safe.. I’m cool with it.” The dark haired woman stated. “No problem.”
Gabrielle took a handful of the berries and leaned back again. She desperately wanted to get home, but she knew both she and Xena were at the end of their physical ropes. A big part of her wanted to push on anyway reasoning that if they could make it up the cliff, what was a little night walking?
“Gab.” Xena lowered her voice, and leaned closer. “I know you don’t want to stick around here.”
“Shh. Stop reading my mind in front of other people.” The bard whispered back, in a resigned tone. “They’re going to think we’re weird.” She paused thoughtfully. “Well, weirder than they already think we are, anyway.”
One of the warrior’s dark brows etched up sharply.
“Sorry.” Gabrielle reached over and took Xena’s hand, feeling the roughness of the scrapes against her fingertips as she squeezed it. “I’m just so tired my head’s going in every direction.”
“Uh huh.” The warrior looked both ways, then exhaled. “I’m beat, too.” She admitted. “I can’t walk all night. I’m gonna end up plowing into a tree.” She edged forward and let her head rest against the grass. “Maybe we should have asked him to send us home.”
Gabrielle gazed up through the pattern of the leaves, watching a squirrel dart among the branches. “Maybe he would have.” She agreed, after a short pause. “I think he might have… if we asked.”
The bard found her thoughts turning from the horror, to a more familiar worry. “I miss Dori.”
“Me too.” Xena replied in a soft tone.
“Wonder what trouble she’s gotten into this time?” Gabrielle mused. “So many opportunities for mischief, so little time…” She fell silent, and they watched the sunbeams together, deep in thought.
“Gabrielle?” Xena spoke up, after a while.
“We made it out of there.” Xena watched their two companions fuss over the fire, feeling a sense of surrealness over the scene. “I didn’t think we would.” The sunlight shifted a little, speckling over her chest and she could feel it warming her leathers.
Gabrielle watched the squirrel scamper upward. “I never felt that way.” She finally said. “I always felt like we were going to make it; I just wondered what kind of price we were going to pay doing it.”
Xena flexed her hand, wincing at the deep cuts in the palm. “Yeah.”
“I didn’t mean that kind of price.” The bard mused. “We always pay that way, Xena. I’ve never seen two people get more beat up by life than we do.”
“Ungh.” Xena exhaled. “Ain’t that the truth.” She stretched her booted legs out fully. “Maybe that’s’ the price we pay for us.”
The squirrel bolted down the tree and ran across the leafy ground, hopping over Xena’s boots and climbing over Gabrielle’s leg in a flurry of pinprick toenails and lashing tail before it jumped on a rock and disappeared past her.
The bard watched it in bemusement. “Cheap enough then, I guess.”
They reclined in silence together for a little while, as the fragrant smoke from the fire trickled out through the leaves carrying the smell of grilling fish with it.
It was all so impossibly normal. Xena turned her head to look at her partner, to find Gabrielle already looking back at her. The warrior sighed, and folded her hands over her stomach. “Change of plans.” She raised her voice. “We’ll head out after we finish that.”
Pony looked up from the fire, a surprised look on her face. “You sure?” She asked, hesitantly. “You guys look kinda mashed.”
“We’ll be okay.” Gabrielle wiggled her feet. “We just wanna get home. I miss my kid, and the rest of my family.”
Gran looked up at that, and smiled, with total understanding. “Right there with you, sis.” She chuckled. “I can’t imagine what Toris has let those punks get into, and they’re total innocents compared to yours.” She turned the fish. “Though I doubt they got into much trouble in a day.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. “Well..” The bard murmured.
“Hers can.” Pony gave her Queen a humorous look. “But she’s actually been pretty cool with Eph.”
The bard smiled back, and then relaxed once more, happy with the change of plans even though she knew it was going to make them both miserable before the night was over. As much as she wanted to rest, she felt in her guts a powerful urge to be moving and over the years she’d come to realize that instinct wasn’t often wrong.
Xena had it. She couldn’t explain it sometimes, any more than Gabrielle could, but when she ignored it she was unhappy and when they both ignored it, usually disaster happened. Frankly, she was tired of disaster happening for this moon, so the sacrifice would be worth it.
Or at least, she hoped it would. She closed her eyes as the sun splashed over her face and felt Xena’s hand settle casually on her arm, the idle stroking of her thumb against the bard’s skin a comfort all out of proportion to the action.
The closeness brought her it’s own kind of peace, and she spent a moment thinking about what they’d just been through and how easy it would have been for them to turn on each other and let the frustration get the better of them.
She’d felt anger, definitely, but it had all turned outward from her, from them, and now that she thought about it – the same thing had happened last time Ares lost his sword. She’d been angry at everything, everyone… except for Xena.
At the time, she’d thought it had to do with the whole body switching thing, and how her emotions hadn’t really known what to do with all that so she’d channeled her frustrations elsewhere. But in the valley, it would have been natural to start fighting with Xena and she just hadn’t.
At the beginning, a little. But then they’d.. Gabrielle’s hand dropped to her stomach, remembering for the first time in a while about her suspicions. Gods, they’d lost track of that, hadn’t they?
“You okay?” Xena nudged her shoulder.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle responded. “Just thinking.” She glanced to her right and watched Xena’s profile, the muscles twitching gently around her eyes as she followed the flight of some bird overhead. “Xe?”
“Do you really want to be the Goddess of War?”
“Sure.” Xena replied easily. “I also want to be the Queen of Greece, and have someone make me baklava all day, but I’m not gonna hold my breath waiting for any of that to happen when I’ve got you instead.” She waited a moment, then glanced over at Gabrielle.
The bard was watching her quietly, her face half hidden in shadows.
“I’m a warrior.” Xena said, in a more serious tone. “Of course that appealed to me. I won’t lie to you and say I wasn’t tempted.”
Gabrielle reached up and removed a twig from Xena’s hair. “I felt it.” She said, briefly.
“But you heard Ares.” The warrior continued. “What does that get you, in the long run, Gabrielle? Ultimate Power? Or ultimate loneliness and boredom?” A shrug. “I’d rather have what we have, even though I know it can’t last forever.”
“Maybe it can.” The bard said. “Last forever,” She mimicked the warrior’s shrug. “You never know.”
“You never know.” Xena agreed, with a smile.
Gabrielle rolled over and settled on her side, tucking one hand around her partner’s arm and enfolding her fingers with the other. “I love you.” She remarked. “And I think every day I realize more and more why.”
Xena’s eyebrows lifted a little. “Gonna share?”
“No.” The bard’s eyes twinkled. “I’ll let you figure it out yourself.” She shifted her head into a more comfortable position and relaxed again as the sun peeked through the trees and splashed them both with golden brilliance.
She never even realized it when sleep took her, the hazy warmth fading into a sun drenched dream with deceptive ease.
Xena was perfectly balanced on that point between waking and sleeping, when she could sense the comfort of oblivion on one side and yet, was still aware of her surroundings on the other. It was a twilight kind of feeling, neither one thing or the other, and she was having to fight hard to keep from going over that edge into the comfort of joining Gabrielle in her dreams.
She had an excuse, and she knew it, and she also knew that the other two women would not grudge it to her, at least in this time and place. But … Resolutely, Xena opened her eyes and started counting leaves again.
Pony came over and knelt next to Xena, keeping her voice low. “She okay?” She indicated the bard with a motion of her head. “You can see through her, practically.”
True. Though she was used to dealing with the enigma that was their relationship with the Amazons, Xena had to admit she faced some of the same uneasy discomfort she knew Gabrielle was feeling in knowing what happened between them and Pony.
At least, with her, though, grumpy behavior was expected. “Yeah.” She answered, briefly, glancing down at her sleeping soulmate, who was now wrapped around her with one arm curled around Xena’s waist. “Just tired right now. That last climb was tough.”
“I can’t believe she did that.” Pony’s voice was, in fact, amazed. “Man, she’s so not into heights.”
“Yeah.” Xena felt a moment of wry pride. “She’s got guts, no doubt about it.’
“Mm.” Pony fell momentarily silent. “You guys look pretty banged up.” She commented. “What in Hades did you find down there?”
“Trouble.” Xena answered. “Just a lot of trouble. We…” She hesitated, at something of a loss to know what to say, how much to tell them. “We were lucky to get out.”
“Wow.” Pony shook her head. “No offense, but glad we missed it.” She looked over her shoulder. “Food’s done.. think she wants any?”
Xena could see the faint motion of Gabrielle’s eyes under their lids and suspected the bard was dreaming. She didn’t like to wake her up if she was, unless she thought it was a bad one as the bard tended to be dazed and out of it otherwise. “Yeah.. gimme a few minutes. You guys go ahead.”
She waited for Pony to retreat back to the fire, before she returned her attention to Gabrielle’s face, not really wanting to disturb the peace she found there. After a minute, though, the bard’s eyes drifted open and she looked up. “Hi.” Xena said. “Nice nap?”
“Ugh.” Gabrielle let her head drop back down on Xena’s shoulder. “Boy, was that a mistake.”
Xena rubbed the back of her neck, easing the tension she felt under the skin. Gabrielle was funny about naps. Sometimes they worked for her, sometimes they didn’t. Xena supposed this was one of the didn’ts. “Sorry about that. Thougth you could use a snooze.”
“Why did you let me do something that stupid?” Gabrielle mumbled. “I feel like Argo is sitting on my head.” She grimaced at the pounding headache.
“I wish Argo was sitting on your head.” The warrior replied. “Then we’d get a ride home. C’mon.” She rubbed a little more briskly, working her way down Gabrielle’s back. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Bleah.” The bard moaned. “When we get home, nothing better get between me and our bed.”
Xena smiled briefly, and hoped it would all be just that simple.
Their lives were so seldom that.
Morning found them climbing down a rough, rocky path that nevertheless was very welcome. Gabrielle had recognized the landmarks of the slopes above their new cabin, and her heart lightened with almost every step she took downwards.
She’d gone past exhausted, somewhere in the darkness, pushed through the need for sleep in much the way she supposed Xena did, when she had to and now she was more or less in just a place where she could keep moving for as long as she needed to.
She just hoped she didn’t need to for very much longer.
Xena was in the lead, and Pony and Gran were following them. Gabrielle could hear the two women speaking every now and again, and the normality of the conversation pricked at her senses and worried her a little.
What would happen, for example, when they found out they’d been gone a lot longer than they thought? What would happen if she, or Xena slipped and started talking about things as though they’d been there?
What if, given the tendency for the worst to happen in their lives sometime, what if Gran’s experience in the valley led to a child?
Gods. Gabrielle felt her headache start up again. What would she say if that happened? How would she tell Gran what happened, since she knew in her heart that would fall to her and not to Xena.
She was she storyteller in the family. She was the one who remembered, and wrote down, and kept track, and told the stories of their lives so that people would learn the lessons of them.
What story would this make?
“Hey, Gabrielle?” Gran took a few longer steps and caught up with her. “ Can I asked you a question?”
Gods. “Sure.” Gabrielle ran one hand through her hair, sorting it and tucking it’s unruliness behind her ears. “I gotta get this trimmed. I feel like one of those ponies down in town.”
Gran chuckled easily, a light sound that echoed weirdly in her ears. “Bet you’ll be glad to get home, huh?”
Easy enough to answer that one. “Oh, you bet.” The bard sighed, happy to keep the conversation on lighter subjects. “I want a bath, and a mug of hot tea, and my pillow like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Must have been really rough.. you’ve lost a lot of weight.” Gran said. “I can pretty much count every rib you have.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle glanced down at herself. “Xena too.” She studied her partner’s shoulderblades, which were clearly visible under her skin.
“Yeah.” Granella went quiet for a moment. “How’d that happen so fast?”
Gabrielle thought about the question, more worried about why it was being asked than what she was going to answer. “Well.” She exhaled. “We did a lot of fighting.. a lot of running.. a lot of swimming..and I had to climb a cliff on not much more than a handful of berries and some water. Kinda gets you, y’know?”
“Hm.. yeah, I guess.” Her sister in law sounded a little doubtful.
Gabrielle tried another tack. “Not to mention what went on in there… some guys were chasing us.. and we found these strange big animals, and then…”
“Gab?” Gran lowered her voice. “We had Xena’s armor and her sword.” She said. “How’d she get it?”
Uh oh. The bard had forgotten completely about that. “Well, uhm…It’s complicated.” She hesitated. “You know, anything that Ares is involved in..”
“Oh, right.” Gran hit herself in the head. “He must have gotten them from us… what was that all about, anyway? And that kiss? His eyes nearly came out of his head.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle knew she was too tired to really think straight. “He did us a favor.” She finally said. “It’s just… I can’t really explain it.”
Surprisingly, Gran merely nodded. “He’s a strange one.” She glanced up. “No offense.” Then she peered past Xena’s stolidly walking form. “Hey, is that your famous tree?”
Gabrielle had never been so glad to see a piece of foliage in her entire life, even given that this particular piece held a special place in her heart. “Yep, it sure is.” She smiled. “Means we’re almost home.”
Home. Gabrielle would have been glad if home had been, as it once had been, Cyrene’s barn. She just wanted a nice quiet place to sit down, and a warm shirt to put on. That wasn’t really too much to ask, was it?
“I’ll be glad to see it.” Gran said. “I forgot how much I hated camping. Not to mention being wet.”
Gabrielle chuckled wearily. “I say that every time I go out in the wild, and I forget it as soon as I get home.”
They walked along together in silence for a few paces. “I always got the feeling you liked being out there.” Gran offered, after a moment. “That you never really.. “ She paused. “Amphipolis was just sort of a convenience for you.”
Gabrielle found an echo in the question of some of the resentment she’d heard in the valley and acknowledged privately there was, as in most things, a kernel of truth in what Gran had said. She looked down at her scuffed and muddied boots, frowning a little.
“Sorry.” Gran said, after an awkward pause. “Bad time to be asking, I guess.”
“No.” Gabrielle sighed. “It’s true.” She looked at Granella. “I’m a wanderer at heart. I can’t deny that. There’s a part of me that will never be happy living there.”
Granella looked back at her in some surprise.
“Kinda sucks for Xena.” The bard half shrugged. “Because she would be. But that’s how life is sometimes, you know?”
“Mm.” Gran murmured, after a moment, a thoughtful look on her face. “I didn’t…well… yeah. I guess it does.” She watched Gabrielle from the corner of her eye for a few moments. ‘I thought it was the other way around, honestly.”
The corners of Gabrielle’s mouth twitched. “Most people do.” She said. “Sometimes people don’t realize how much of ourselves we’ve sacrificed to be together.”
Now it was Granella’s turn to frown, and fall silent, and the soft music of the forest surrounded them with a sense of finality, broken only by their soft footfalls, and Pony’s tuneless whistling.
They followed Xena single file into a thin, rocky path that bore evidence of recent usage, making no effort to disguise their passage as they made their way down the final slope above the cabin.
The woods came alive around them with figures, completely unexpectedly, fierce forms with glinting arrows and loud voices.
“Hold it Don’t move or I’ll have twenty points in you!” A bellow sounded, from just to their right behind a thick shielding of branches.
They all stopped dead in their tracks. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Gabrielle that recovered first. “Eph?” She called out. “It’s us!”
Xena decided to leave her sword sheathed for the moment, and give her partner a chance to keep them from being expediently spitted. She had no doubt she was up to a fight tired or not, but stopping twenty arrows in her current condition was asking a bit much.
A pause. “Gabrielle?” Ephiny’s voice sounded hoarse.
“It’s me. It’s us.” Gabrielle reassured her. “What’s going on?”
“Eph?” Pony added her own voice. “If you have them stick me I ain’t never getting over it!”
The leaves parted, revealing a haggared looking, sword wielding Amazon regent, who took one look at them and moaned in relief. “Thank all the gods and Artemis’ left breastplate. I’ve never been so glad to see anyone in my life!”
“Ah.” Gabrielle rubbed the back of her neck. “Hoboy.”
“Oh oh.” Xena uttered, under her breath, as Ephiny came forward and gave Gabrielle a big hug. “I don’t’like the sound of that.”
“Ungh.” Pony came up next to her. “Me either.”
“Boo!” Dori suddenly appeared from between two of the now visible Amazons, making a dash for her parents. “Told them! Told them it was you!”
Xena dropped gladly to her knees, ignoring the painful poking of rocks and twigs as she opened her arms and her daughter bolted into them with a squeal of delight. She wrapped her in a hug and stood, as Gabrielle watched them from over the curve of Ephiny’s shoulder. “Hey, shortie.. you knew it was us, huh?”
“Yes!” Dori gave her a kiss on the cheek. Something tied to her hair swung and nearly bopped Xena in the nose. “Told them.”
The warrior pulled her head back a little so her eyes could focus, and recognized the object as an Amazon feather, fastened in proper regulation style in Dori’s dark locks.
Uh oh. Her eyes flicked to Gabrielle’s. “Looks like everyone’s got a story to tell.”
“This ain’t gonna be pretty.” Pony muttered, under her breath. “I can just feel it.”
“It happened by accident.” Ephiny said. “Like most things around us, I guess.” She sighed. “Dori was bringing presents to grandma every day.. you know, sticks and chicken heads and whatnot.. only this time she decided to bring some of her pretty rocks.”
“Ah.” Xena murmured. “Yeah.”
“You knew about those, right?” Ephiny paused, eyeing her uncertainly. “I mean, you knew what they were.”
Xena nodded, but didn’t elaborate any further.
“Anyway, they spilled out in the Inn, and once those bastards saw them…”
“It really was terrible.” Solari chimed in. “I mean, you know like most people suck, but that really sucked.” She rubbed the back of her knuckle against her nose. “They started accusing you guys of everything.”
“No one really knew.. anyway.” Ephiny said. “It was bad down there before – those merchants were getting ugly and the council.. well, they were turning on your mom and all.”
Xena’s eyes took on a significant glint. “Bastards.”
“But when they saw that.. like forget it.” Solari said, half turning to look at Pony. “We were seriously missing you.”
Pony sat up and her ears visibly pricked, though her expression remained stoic.
“Yeah.” Ephiny agreed.
Gabrielle sat on their couch, Dori on her lap as she listened to Ephiny’s tale in silence. She had her arms wrapped around her daughter, and the taste of their trail bars in her mouth, her eyes flicking now and again over to where Xena was listening as well.
She’d gotten out of her battered traveling clothes and into a soft, clean shirt, and there was a steaming cup of hot tea next to her elbow, but it was half forgotten as she absorbed the situation they now found themselves in.
A mess. As usual. She heard Xena sigh, and she shifted her position a little, so she could better watch her soulmate’s profile.
Here, in the warm light from the fireplace and the nearby window, she could see more clearly how drawn her partner’s face looked, and how distinct the circles were under her eyes. She had her elbows braced on her knees and her chin propped on her folded hands and despite the steady concentration in her expression, Xena looked as tired as Gabrielle had ever seen her.
She could only imagine what she’d see in her own reflection. Being in their own so recently finished cabin only made things worse, because the comforts she’d been craving were so close, and yet – for now – impossible to indulge in.
Fruit bats. Gabrielle sighed, and hugged Dori a little, reveling in the feel of the small yet powerful body wrapped in her arms. “Honey, were you good?” She whispered in one ear. “Did you behave for auntie Ephiny?”
“Yes.” Dori whispered back. “Eff gimme this.” She held up the feather. “Said I was good like mama.”
Ehrm. Gabrielle acknowledged the possible meanings of that weren’t all wonderful, but gave her child another hug anyway. “Good girl.”
“Mama owie?” Dori turned her full attention to her mother, dismissing the chattering Amazons.
“No.” Gabrielle was glad enough to leave the listening to her partner for a moment. “Just tired, sweetie.. mama had a really big adventure and I had to climb out of the mountain with your Boo.”
Dori’s eyes widened. “Mama!” She warbled. “You climbed the moutain?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle reveled in a moment of very private self pride. “I did. But it was really scary.”
Tired as she was, the bard felt a grin forming.
“Gabrielle.” Xena put a hand on her knee, startling her with the sudden warm touch.
“Uh?” The bard looked back at her. “Sorry.” She gave Xena a wry look. “Lost you a minute there – what was that?” She wasn’t sure what her face was showing, but the warrior shifted her hand and cupped her cheek instead, a comfort she wanted to just lean into and just not stop. “You want me to go talk to them?”
“I’m not sure talk’s gonna do much.” Ephiny looked at her sympathetically. “The bastards have been crawling up the damn hill at us.. I’m afraid they’re going to set fire to the woods next. We’ve just been lucky it’s been so damn wet.” She glanced at her partner. “Thank Artemis and all the gods you were only gone a few days.. much longer and we’d have had some real trouble.”
Gabrielle froze, and looked at Xena, who looked right back at her with widening blue eyes.
“Yeah, well.. you can thank the gods for that one.” Pony agreed. “I was falling my ass down a waterfall one minute, next thing I knew I was asleep on the grass on the top of the mountain, courtesy of the God of War.”
Ephiny’s jaw dropped. “You’re joking.”
“Nope.” Gran shook her head. “Me too.” She pointed to Xena and Gabrielle. “But they didn’t get so lucky, as you can see.”
“Xe.” Gabrielle barely mouthed the word, then closed her lips as the warrior’s thumb shifted to cover them.
“Later.” Xena uttered. “I’m not sure what’s going on.”
Now wasn’t that an accurate statement? Gabrielle exhaled. “Okay.”
“Yeah, we had quite a time.” Xena spoke up more loudly, turning to face the Amazons. “But we’ve to other things to deal with right now. How many of them are there?”
Ephiny shook her head. “Hard to say.” She admitted. “I’m worried about the folks down in town.. it’s just.. Xena, it was like when they saw those gems, those merchants went nuts!”
“Nuts.” Xena studied her folded hands. “What about the militia?”
The Amazons were silent. Xena looked up after a minute, and met Ephiny’s eyes, her own brows lifting. “Those men died for us.” She stated simply. “None of them that were left were cowards.”
Gabrielle simply wrapped her arms around Dori and listened, unable to process the confusion she was feeling. A couple of days. A couple of days! The bard looked over at her partner, and wondered what the real truth of it was.
Had it all be a trick?
Or a nightmare? Gabrielle flexed her hands and felt the stinging soreness of them. No, damn it, some of it was real enough, that was for sure. That climb was real, and her body’s aching was real, and the hollow look to Xena’s face was very real.
Maybe everyone else had been dreaming. Who could tell? Regardless of how stressful it had been to her and Xena, better that it had not been real for Pony and Gran.
“No one said they were.” Ephiny said, holding her hand up. “We don’t really know what’s going on down there.. but you know, Xena.. money has a way of twisting people. Even the most loyal of them” She jerked her chin at the pile of stones on the mantel. “And that’s a lot of money.”
Xena got up and walked over to the clothing press against the wall, opening it, and taking out the distinctive shape of her armor with a soft clash of metal.
“We know.” Gabrielle took up the conversational ball. “We’ve known this mountain had gems in it.. and more.. for a while now. That’s why.. “ She glanced at Xena’s silent back. “Well, that’s one reason we wanted you all to move here.”
“You knew.” Ephiny murmured.
“We knew.” The bard confirmed. “But you know, home has a lot of different meanings to both of us, and we decided to try and defend the home we first knew when we came here.”
“Wow.” The Amazon regent rubbed her forehead. “That’s… Gabrielle, you’re making decisions for a lot of people down there, y’know?”
A shrug. “That’s what Queens do, don’t they?” Gabrielle asked, with a faint smile. “You have to have the big picture, and our big picture doesn’t include Amphipolis being destroyed and this mountain being torn tot he ground all for pretty colored rocks.”
Ephiny considered that, and finally, she rocked her head to either side. “I know what you mean, Gabrielle, but damn.” She said. “This could be huge.”
“Well.” The bard leaned back, pulling Dori to her. “Most of what we’re a part of is.”
Xena fastened her shoulder armor, buckling the worn straps under her arms. She turned and sat down on the press, picking up her knee guards and setting one into place.
“Is that why you moved up here?” Ephiny split her time between watching Xena and addressing Gabrielle. “You could have said something.”
Could they have? Gabrielle sighed. For her, and for Xena, Dori’s pretty rocks had been just that. They’d sait down together and talked about it and realized that cliché or not – they really didn’t need anything but each other and their child.
Really. Oh sure, they could go somewhere, and buy a villa near Athens… have nice clothes and fancy jewelry. But that meant giving up the lives they had, and damn it, neither of them wanted to do that. Was it selfishness, or foresight?
Depended on your point of view, I guess.
Gabrielle felt Xena’s eyes on her, and she looked past Ephiny to see the Destroyer of Nations standing up, swinging a cloak around her shoulders and tacking it into place. ‘Xena.”
The Amazons all turned, as the warrior sheathed her sword and set it into it’s clips. “Gabrielle.” Xena answered, rolling the r’s a little as she always did. “Grab your staff, and let’s get this over and done with..” She seated her chakram at her hip. “I want a bubble bath.”
The incongruity was charming, even to Gabrielle’s exhausted mind. “Okay honey.” She reluctantly set Dori on her feet and stood. “Want me to brush your hair out? If you’re going to go kick everyone’s ass, you should at least look pretty doing it.”
“What are we doing?” Ephiny asked scrambling hastily to her feet. Pony joined her, watching Xena warily. “Should we go get armed?”
“You’re not doing anything.” Xena said, as Gabrielle crossed behind her and retrieved one of her staffs, tucked into a little alcove near the door. “Me and Gabrielle are going to go down to the village, and set those people straight.”
Ephiny blinked. “Xena, no offense, but there are a lot of guys down there. The last batch they sent up the hill were mercenaries.”
“I don’t care.” Xena dusted her hands off. “This is my town. My mountain, and my home. They want anything on it, they’re gonna have to take it from me.” She put her hand on Gabrielle’s back. “C’mon. Hopefully I wont’ have to kill too many people.”
The reality of the violence suddenly became apparent in the room as everyone realized Xena meant exactly what she’d just said.
That something had changed, and this was no longer the militia captain and the defender of Amphipolis talking, but a more ancient incarnation of who Xena was stepping forward once again into the sunlight.
“You can come with us if you want.” Xena finished. “Just stay out of the way.”
Gabrielle tightened her boot lacings and straightened, holding her hand out as Dori pattered after them. “C’mon Dori.”
“Gabrielle.. leave her here.” Granella spoke up. “What are you thinking?”
The bard looked at her. “I’m thinking she’s our daughter.” She said. “And if she doesn’t know who we are, no one does.” She hefted her staff in her other hand and followed Xena out the door, hoping only that whatever happened, happened quickly.
It was time.
It felt good to have her staff in her hand again. Gabrielle lifted the familiar weight and used the end of the big stick to steady her path as she led Dori down the worn rocks. “Careful there, Dori.”
“Mama.” Dori pattered along the stones with supreme unconcern. “Missed you.” She hopped down onto a bit of mossy granite, following along after Xena’s grim strides. “Missed you and Boo.”
“We missed you too, honey.” Her mother assured her. “But it wouldn’t have been fun for you, this time. Your Boo and I had to do a lot of crazy things.”
“No fun.” Gabrielle confirmed. “It wasn’t like the last time, when we had lots of fun, didn’t we?”
“Yes.” Dori stopped to pick up something. “Mama, they tried to take Boo’s rocks.” She turned and frowned at the bard. “H’com they did that?”
“Oh, I guess they thought they were so pretty, they wanted to have them.” Gabrielle dodged a low hanging branch. “But our friends wouldn’t let them. Wasn’t that nice?”
“Eff mad.” Dori remarked. “Boom, boom boom.”
“Well, Ephiny really loves us, and wants to take care of us and our stuff, especially when we’re not here. That was really nice of her, wasn’t it?”
Her daughter booted a bit of stick out of her way, and watched as it clattered down the path, skipping along until it bounced past Xena, who reached down and swept it out of the air without so much as missing a stride. “Bad mens.” She decided. “No like.”
“Well… I’m sure we won’t like them either…” Gabrielle caught up to her and put a hand on her back. “Xena, slow down a little, woudlja? They’ve been stewing all this time..they’ll wait a candlemark more.”
The warrior sighed aggrievedly, but slowed her steps until they caught up to her. “Stupid bastards.”
Gabrielle fully agreed. “What are we going to do?” She asked. “Are you just going to..”
“Yeah.” Xena replied. “I’m just going to.”
They walked through the thickly leafed mountainside for a while in silence, their steps slowing as they reached the intersection to the Amazon’s valley. Waiting at the cross in the path was a cluster of mostly bare bodies, watching them approach.
Warriors, and armed. How Ephiny had sent word so fast, and they’d gotten ready so fast, was anyone’s guess. But she had, and they had, and now twenty of them were there, blending into the foliage and presenting a suitably fierce appearance.
Amazons. Gabrielle’s sometimes troublesome, sometimes indispensable other family – had Pony’s attitude in the valley reflected how the tribe really felt?
Xena and Gabrielle stopped, then exchanged glances. After a moment, Xena nudged her partner, and Gabrielle released Dori’s hand and walked over to the waiting Amazons. “Hi.”
Xena closed her eyes momentarily and lifted her hand to cover a smile. Some things just never really did change, even after all the things they’d been through.
“My queen.” Solari stepped forward and saluted the bard.
“Solari.” Gabrielle responded agreeably. “What brings you guys out in all the froo froo?”
Oh boy. Xena took a seat on a nearby rock and picked Dori up, putting her on her lap. “So, what have you been up to, shortie?’
“Did lots of fun things, Boo.” Dori swung her booted feet. “Got to play with Auntie Eff’s peoples.”
Xena touched the feather in her hair. “Where did this come from?”
“Uh huh.” The warrior murmured. “For what?
Dori blinked at her, big green eyes reflecting the spots of sunlight. “Some of the peoples were being mean, Boo. Tried to take the ball away. I gots them not.”
Xena nodded soberly. “Did you yell at them?”
The warrior nodded again. “Did they listen to you?”
Dori shook her head, and poked her lip out.
“Did you have to go boom?”
“Is that why Ephiny gave you the feather? Because you went boom?” Xena’s voice dropped a little, still gentle, but with a hint of gathering steel.
“Eff says go like mama first.” Dori told her. “Yak yak yak.. but then, go boom when peoples don’t listen.” She fingered her feather. “Boo no like?”
Xena sighed. “Well, as long as you yelled first.” She stood and lifted Dori, giving her a hug. “I like the feather, shortie. Just remember what Ephiny said. You talk first, okay?”
“Otay.” Dori agreed cheerfully. “But Boo, peoples no listen.”
The warrior sighed again. “Yeah, I know.” She gave Dori a kiss on her head. “But you always have to try talking to them first, Dori. Promise me you will, huh?”
Dori put her arms around Xena’s neck and hugged her. “Yak yak.” She said. “Go mama.”
“You got it.” Xena hugged her back. They walked over to where Gabrielle was standing, and listened as the bard talked to her people.
“Solari, we didn’t ask Ephiny to do that.” Gabrielle was saying. “We said she could come along if she wanted but…”
“Uh.. Gabrielle?” Solari waved a hand at her. “I know you don’t spend a lot of time with us, but…”
Gabrielle looked away, as the words echoed the sentiments she’d heard in the valley.
“We don’t really need anyone to force us to kick butts, yeah?” Solari finished. “It kinda comes with the package.” She indicated herself, then turned to the others. “We’ve been waiting for you to get back… Eph didn’t really want to jump down your town’s throats, you know? Not without you being here and all that.’
“Yeah.” One of Solari’s companions said. “We’re really glad you’re back.”
“Why?” Gabrielle looked at her.
The woman’s jaw dropped a little. “Your majesty?”
“Why are you glad I’m back?” The bard asked, in a gentle tone. “What do I do for you guys? I’m never here, I never find you better hunting areas, I never give you anything. Why are you glad?”
Xena’s nostrils flared and her body stiffened in a bone deep reaction. She put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, but stopped at the slight lifting of her partner’s hand, fingers spread.
A deep crease appeared in Solari’s forehead. “Did we do something to piss you off?” She blurted. “Cause I don’t know what you’re talking about, your Maj.” She said. “You feeling okay?”
Gabrielle gazed steadily at her. “I asked a simple question.” Rotten timing, she knew, but sometimes there was just a time and place for something, and this seemed to be it. “Be honest.”
Solari’s eyes dropped to the ground, then she turned and looked at her companions for a long moment, before she returned her attention to Gabrielle. She sidled a step closer. “Okay.” She said. “Look, it’s like this.”
The bard cocked her head to one side, and waited.
“Weird shit happens to you guys.” Solari told her, bluntly. “Like, really weird shit, okay? Gods, monsters, weird people, creatures, chicks with glowing eyes, spirit winds, ghosts, people dying and coming back… you guys attract strange, y’know?”
Thrown totally off track, Gabrielle could only nod mutely. Xena reached up and scratched her ear.
“So, like.. when you’re around, it happens to us too.” The Amazon said. “So it’s cool you’re not around all the time, okay?”
Gabrielle stared at her, then she looked at the other Amazons. They all nodded rapidly.
“I mean it’s okay you moved us up here.” Solari clarified hastily. “It’s really cool now that it stopped raining, and there’s like, a lot to love. But it would be cool to have some time to enjoy it, yeah?”
Gabrielle studied them with a grave expression. Then she put a hand out and clasped Solari’s arm. “Okay. Let’s go then. We’d love the backup. Right Xe?”
“Right.” Xena answered without hesitation.
The bard felt a strange sense of wry relief. “Then we’ll go back up to our place, and you won’t see us for a couple sevendays. Promise.”
Solari gazed at her warily. “You’re not pissed off? You asked, y’know?”
“I’m not pissed off, and I did ask.” Gabrielle, finally, smiled. “Thanks for letting me know. I didn’t really ask for the position.. but I try to do the best I can with it.”
Solari tightened her sword and dusted her hands off. “Yeah, well..” She motioned the rest of the squad forward. “People who want that stuff usually shouldn’t get it. At least with you in charge, we know we ain’t gonna have to go get shot at cause it’s that time of the month, yknow?”
“Mm.” Gabrielle pondered the question of whether she’d send the Amazons to war in the throes of a pre cycle depression, and decided it wasn’t really likely, at least at this stage in her life. She glanced over at Xena.
“Yes.” The warrior skirted a tree and started down the path again. “But I didn’t enjoy it.”
They hadn’t gone along for another several hundred bodylengths, when Xena paused and held up a hand. “Shh.” She turned her head into the wind and tensed her ears, cupping the air to gather in the small, discordant sound that had alerted her.
There it was. The sound of wood against steel, and the thunder of hooves. “C’mon.” The warrior started a fast ramble down the rocks. “We got trouble.”
“See what I mean?” Solari sighed, and drew her sword, racing after Xena. “It ain’t even been a candlemark, has it?”
Gabrielle grabbed Dori’s hand and followed, shaking her head. “Learn something new every darn day around here, no doubt about it.”