One Wild Ride
Gabrielle whistled softly under her breath as she made her way carefully down the mountain path. She used her staff to good effect, feeling out a way among the slippery rocks and placing her boots in spots only after she tested them with a cautious toe.
It was still raining. The clouds were stubbornly thick overhead, and the weather hadn’t let up all morning. Eventually, the bard had decided it wasn’t going to, and so wrapped in her heavy cloak, she’d started down towards the town.
Xena had seemed content to stay behind in the cabin, wrapped in a thick flannel shift, with Dori in delighted attendance. She’d warned Gabrielle about the path, and asked if she wanted company, but accepted her partner’s demurral and let her go on alone.
A little unusual. Gabrielle had to admit, but since she’d agreed to the same thing the previous day she couldn’t really say much about it. Besides, after spending all day in the rain, maybe Xena wanted to relax by the fire. Stranger things had happened.
She walked past the fork that led to the Amazons, resolving to stop there on her way back, and giving the lookout a wave as she went past. She heard a whistle in response, and moved on, crossing the bridge over the gorge and approaching the town in relatively short order.
Her cape was made of leather, with a waxed surface that rejected the rain, and it was cut so it only came to her lower calves to keep it out of most puddles. It was warm, and she peered out from under the hood, glad she had it’s comforting folds around her.
The thought made her make a mental note to search for Xena’s matching one on her way back. How the warrior had lost it, and the fact that she’d returned seemingly oblivious, really surprised Gabrielle. Very strange.
Very absentminded of her. Gabrielle paused, with her hand on the gates to Amphipolis, her brow creased and a speculative look on her face. Then she continued on, a grin on her face. “Four more days.” She commented, sidestepping a cart being pulled down the back lane and ducking past two men carrying a basket.
“Pardon?” One of the men asked, glancing around at her. “You talking to me?”
“Nope.” Gabrielle assured him. “To myself. Sorry..”
“Too bad.” The man chuckled and kept walking, saying something to his companion that made both of them laugh.
“Yeah, yeah.’ The bard kept going, yanking her boots out of the sucking mud that now filled the roadway. She headed directly for the inn, pausing only to knock what mud she could off before she opened the door and walked inside.
It was quiet, only a few people were inside waiting for lunchtime to begin, or perhaps lingering after breakfast. They looked up as Gabrielle entered and swept her hood back, and most murmured friendly greetings. She was well known in the village, of course, and she smiled and gave the room an equally friendly wave as she walked towards the kitchen.
The bard stopped and turned, spotting one of the town weavers, an old resident she’d known since they’d moved back to Amphipolis. “Hi, Saras. What’s up?”
“Got some new fabrics in.” The woman said. “I know you wear your togs hard.”
Gabrielle walked over and sat down across from her. “I do.” She admitted. “I used to kid Xena for always wearing leather, but you know what?”
“Lasts a sight longer.”
“Sure does.” The bard agreed. “So yeah, how about I stop by after the rain ends? I can think of a couple things I do need.” Her grin widened a little. “And some things I might need.”
“And the little one.”
“Good then. Didn’t mean to hold you.” Saras patted her hand. “Glad you’re back, I am. Missed hearing your stories.”
Gabrielle had come to the point where she recognized she had an ego, and her ego liked hearing things like that. “Thanks, I appreciate that, Saras.” She said. “I was going to kind of debut a new story, maybe tomorrow night or the next… here, I mean.”
“Oh!” Saras smiled. “Wonderful! You have to let us know when.”
“I will.” The bard got up. “Talk to you later.” She continued on to the kitchen and passed through the entry, taking the slight right turn that would bring her into the cooking area she expected to find Cyrene in.
Despite having help now, her mother in law still commandeered the kitchen, understanding rightly that her inn’s reputation mostly rested on it’s food and no matter how good her cooks were, she still had to answer for it.
Sure enough, Cyrene was near the back hearth, inspecting the contents of a large pot issuing fragrant steam into the room. She turned, hearing someone enter, and looked faintly surprised when she recognized Gabrielle.
For a moment, Gabrielle thought Cyrene was going to turn her back on her. There was that kind of look in her eye, but after a second it faded and she put her spoon down and walked over instead.
Maybe if it had been Xena, she’d have turned her back. Gabrielle relaxed her posture, and cocked her head a little, aware that she presented a more sympathetic and less aggressive picture than her partner did and people often responded to her far differently. “Hi.”
“Well.” Cyrene sighed. “Good morning, Gabrielle. What brings you out in weather like this?”
She could see Cyrene wanted to be mad, but as her daughter often found, Gabrielle was a hard person to be mad at if she put her mind to it. “I came to talk to you. Can you take a break and come sit for a minute?” She riffled her damp hair, and held Cyrene’s gaze, waiting for the innkeeper to answer.
After a half shake of her head, Cyrene gave in. “Sure.” She indicated the table in the back of the kitchen, which had a couple of stools around it. “You had breakfast yet?”
Gabrielle waggled her hand.
“Nuts and berries, I’m sure.” Cyrene retrieved a platter and put a bowl on it, adding a few more things before she sat down across from Gabrielle and nudged the plate towards her. “Go on.”
She was hungry, and breakfast had actually been some nuts and fruits, and a shared bowl of porridge they’d eaten just to get Dori to eat some too. The bread and cheese looked wonderful, and she helped herself to some as she carefully considered how to start this prickly conversation.
“What’s on your mind, Gabrielle?” Cyrene forestalled her, picking up a bit of bread and playing with it.
“What’s on my mind.” The bard nibbled her cheese thoughtfully. “Well, the usual stuff. Xena. Dori. The weather. Wondering how things are going on Potadeia, you know.”
“Hm.” Cyrene nodded. “I had a letter from your mother a quarter moon past. Seems things are fine there.” She said. “She asked what was going with you.”
Gabrielle gazed past her mother in law for a brief moment. “She misses my father.”
Cyrene looked down at the table, tracing a bit of the grain of the wood. “I think she does, yes.” She agreed, slowly. “Sometimes I think it would have been better if she’d stayed here.”
A faint smile crossed the bard’s lips. “You have to go where your heart leads you.” She took a bite of the bread and cheese and chewed it. “I learned that lesson the hard way.”
“Is that what you did now? Followed your heart and let Xena talk you into..” Cyrene stopped, as Gabrielle put the bread down and reached over to cover her hand with her own. “Gabrielle.”
“Mom.” The bard leaned forward. “Why?”
“Why? Why are you so mad about this?” Gabrielle asked softly. “Xe didn’t talk me into anything.. we both want to be here, be a part of this place, a place we’ve both come to consider our only home.”
“And so you should.”
“But we also need to be who we are.”
Now, Cyrene leaned forward. “Who are you, that you need to live alone up on a mountain?” She asked. “Gabrielle, it’s dangerous up there. You’re all by yourselves. If something happens..”
The bard cocked her head to one side with a puzzled expression. “Mom..”
“Yes, I know.” Cyrene held up her hand. “I know how self sufficient and capable you both are. Don’t lecture me about that. My daughter’s been taking care of herself since she was fifteen years old.” She looked directly at Gabrielle. “But Dori isn’t fifteen.”
Gabrielle folded her hands. “No, she isn’t.” She agreed. “That was one of the biggest reasons I was glad we were coming home.. because I know she needs the rest of her family, much as she loves just being with us.”
“Then she should be here and not up there.” Cyrene slapped the table. “And so should the two of you.”
Gabrielle had lived long enough with her beloved partner to understand in a viscerial level what it felt like to hit your head against a proverbial wall. With Xena, she knew at some point, she just had to walk away from an argument because that stubborn will wouldn’t let the warrior back down on some things.
However, this was not Xena. “Mom, we can’t.” She replied simply.
“If Xena wanted to..”
The bard held a hand up. “It’s not just Xena.” She cut her mother in law off. “We make decisions together these days. In order for me to do what I do, I can’t live in the middle of all this.” Her hand opened, palm up, and moved around to indicate their surroundings. “I need to be able to hear myself think.”
Cyrene got up and went to the iron grate over the stove. She poured water from the pot heating over it into a cup, and swirled it’s contents. “Do you?” She turned and regarded the bard seriously. “You never did before. I’ve been listening you tell stories for years now.”
Gabrielle dropped her gaze to her hands, interlacing her fingers. “I did. I just never admitted it to anyone.” That was something she wasn’t very proud of, though she knew it had a lot to do with that period they’d gone through after their separation. She wanted to do what she thought Xena did, and Xena wanted to do what she thought Gabrielle wanted to do.
Two direly wounded hearts just looking for a little peace. Gabrielle looked up, with a brief smile. Well, they’d healed, and now life was moving forward again, wasn’t it? “What I don’t get is.. before we left for Athens, you were up in arms with the council over not respecting our need to be alone. What changed?”
Cyrene was caught by surprise, the cup halfway to her lips. She put it back down. “This is different.”
“It’s no different.” Gabrielle shot right back. “Even right now, I’m telling you this is something we need, and you’re telling me it’s not. So what’s up?” She heard a firmer edge come into her voice, and winced a little inside, knowing she probably was going down the wrong track with Cyrene.
Definitely would have been the wrong one with Xena, who responded to being challenged like that by either getting mad, or worse, turning her back and leaving. The bard sighed inwardly, suspecting she was losing her touch in this sort of stuff.
She was definitely not as patient as she used to be. “Mom, listen..”
“Gabrielle, I understand you feel you need to defend Xena.” Cyrene said. “Gods know, you’ve been doing it since the moment I met you, but..”
“Yeah.” The bard stood. “When this town was about to kill her. I remember.” She felt, rather than saw Cyrene flinch. “I give up. Maybe we should just move to Potadeia.” She turned and headed for the door, shaking her head.
“Gabrielle, wait.” Cyrene followed her. “Please.”
Gabrielle paused and turned, waiting until the innkeeper came up to her. She was a bit shorter than her mother in law, but she straightened her spine and met her gaze evenly.
“Something happened.” Cyrene said, suddenly. “I have a reason for what I’m asking you to do. Come down from that mountain, Gabrielle. Bring Xena and Dori down here. Please.”
The bard frowned. “What happened?”
“I can’t tell you.”
A yelling off in the distance made them both look through the door, before Cyrene could answer further. “Now what?” The innkeeper sighed. “Don’t tell me the damn pigs got loose again.” She hesitated, then put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “It’s.. “
Another yell, this time louder. Now Gabrielle sighed. “Hold that thought, mom.” She added a wry grin to ease her previous attitude. “Trouble first.” She grabbed her staff and ducked through the door, running for the front of the inn as the people inside were scrambling for the window to see what was going on.
Raiders? Not in this weather. Gabrielle booted the door open and kept going, forgetting to put her hood up as she jumped off the porch into the rain. The cold water hit her in the face, and she shaded her eyes hastily with an upflung arm, her head turning from side to side to find the source of the turmoil.
Suddenly, three men appeared from the river road, running towards the center of town. They were covered in mud, in an obvious panic. “Help! Help!”
“What’s wrong!” Gabrielle let out a yell, trying to see past them. “What is it?”
“The river!” The nearest man yelled back. “The river! It’s rising!”
Uh big time oh. Gabrielle broke into a full run, tucking her staff under her arm and ignoring the rain.
Dori put a rock down on the soft surface of the furs, and waited. After a short while, another rock joined it, this one bigger, and darker in color. “Big.”
“Good girl.” Xena was reclining on her side, her head propped up on her hand. “Now, how is this one different?” She put another rock down, about the same size, but a different color.
“Dis rock green.” Dori observed. “Like mama’s story.”
“Mama’s story about the green rock? You remember that?” Xena asked. “That was a long time ago.”
Dori looked at her like she was a little nutty. “Pipples.” She said. “Big round house.”
“Yup, that’s right. We were with our friends the forest people, in a round house.” The warrior agreed. “Did you like Mama’s story?”
“Yes.” Dori studiously removed the rocks, and put a stick down, then another one across it. “Go find fishes.” She put a small rock down in one of the quarters made by the cross. “Go Boo.”
Well, sort of. “That’s to tell which way we went, right?” Xena said. “If we go through where two roads meet, so mama can find us.”
Dori giggled and grabbed the sticks, tossing them into the air. “Mama knows Boo.”
Ah, out of the mouths of tiny children. Xena looked at her daughter, and shook her head. Did Dori really understand what she was saying? Was she really saying she knew Gabrielle could find her sticks or no sticks? “So mama doesn’t need sticks to find us, right?”
“Yes.” Dori seemed utterly positive. “Mama find Boo, all the time.” She abandoned her sticks and stone and crawled over to her buddy, climbing over her as though she were merely an inconvenient obstacle and tumbling down onto the furs on the other side of her.
Xena rolled over onto her other side to keep her in view, since that was the side the fire was on. Dori had learned on their travels not to mess with the hot flames but you never could tell what she’d toss into them. The warrior was glad her daughter was out of diapers, for instance, and she wouldn’t forget that smell any time soon. “What’cha doing, Dori?”
Dori was standing spraddle legged, an impossibly serious look on her face. She leaned down and put her hands on the furs, then tumbled head over heels, landing right next to Xena. “Go like Boo!” She announced, looking up hopefully.
“Whoa.” Xena laughed. “Is that your somersalt?”
“Go like Boo?”
“You betcha.” The warrior gathered her up and hugged her. “Good job, Dori.”
“Go go go.” Dori burbled happily. “Go fly?”
“It’s a start.” Xena said. “You keep working on it.. you’ll be flying in no time, shortie.” She patted her daughter on the back, still chuckling.
“Boo boo boo.”
‘That’s me.” Xena rolled over onto her back and stretched, enjoying the warmth of the fire and a chance to just spend some time with Dori. Usually, they took her down the mountain to play with her cousins and friends, but the warrior welcomed the long morning and the rain that caused it.
She wondered how Gabrielle was getting on, with her mother. Odds were fifty fifty on that, she’d figured, putting Cyrene’s stubbornness on one side, and Gabrielle’s intensity on the other.
Footsteps outside, heard even over the rain, alerted her. “Someone’s coming to visit, Dor.” She bounced the child on her stomach. “Who do you think it is?”
“Nope, it’s not mama.” Xena shook her head.
“Nope, not gramma either.” The warrior said. “I think it’s your auntie Ephiny.”
A knock at the door came promptly after the sound of boots scuffing on the porch. “C’mon in.” Xena called out. She eyed the door, and her lips quirked into a grin as Ephiny’s curly blond head came into view. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Ephiny entered, and closed the door. She was wearing a heavy cloak, but shed it and hung it on one of the hooks inside the door before she came any further. “Hey there, Dori! Didn’t expect to find you here.”
“Eff!” Dori pointed at her. “Wet!”
“Right first time.” The Amazon came over and sat down on the furs cross legged. “Where’s your mama, huh?”
Dori looked at Xena.
“Down fighting with my mother.” The warrior said, with a wry grin. “What are you up to? Things still falling down in the village?” She tickled Dori’s foot and watched the child scowl at her. “Rain’s still coming down out there.”
“It is, and that’s what I’m here about.” Ephiny said. “The village is holding together for now.. okay, it’s falling down around my ankles, but the real problem is one of my girls came back and she seems to think the river’s too high.”
Xena cocked her head. “Well, it is a little.” She said. “I saw it yesterday.”
“Not down there.” Ephiny pointed behind her, and up. “Up near the frost line. One of the big open meadows around the water hole we picked out is deeper than I am tall with runoff.”
The warrior sat up, catching Dori as she tumbled and setting her upright without a moment’s hesitation. “That’s bad.”
Ephiny nodded. “My words to the letter.” She said. “I’m wondering if.. “ The Amazon paused when she saw a distant look come into Xena’s eyes suddenly. “Xena?”
Xena got to her feet rapidly. “Eph, stay here with Dori.” She headed for the door.
“Hey.. wh.” The regent scrambled around, catching Dori as she started to race after Xena. “Where are you going.. no, scratch that. Where’s Gabrielle?”
“Town.” Xena yanked the door open and bolted through it, clearing the porch and hitting the mud without looking back.
“Boo!” Dori stared wide eyed at the now vanished warrior and open door. “Eff! Leggo! Go BOO!”
“No, no, honey.” Ephiny made a mental note to send Pony with the next warning of impending disaster. “You stay here, Boo’s going to get mama.”
“Boo get mama?”
“You know Boo always gets mama.” Ephiny got the door closed and herded Dori back towards the fire. “Boo’s been getting mama for a long time, longer than you’ve been around, my little chickadee.”
Dori glanced at the door. “Boo and mama come back?”
“Sure.” Ephiny said. “I bet mama did something, and she’ll have a new story to tell when she gets here.” She added. “Cause you know, your mama never does things halfway.”
“Did mama ever tell you how she and I met?” Ephiny said. “About how she became the Queen of the Amazons?”
“No, not overly.” Ephiny sighed, settling back onto the furs. “I bet mama never told you you’re a princess either, did she?”
Big green eyes blinked at her in befuddlement. “Bck.” Dori fell back on an old favorite. “What’s a prissess?”
No, Gabrielle wouldn’t have. Ephiny admitted silently. For the obvious reason, that Dori wouldn’t know what the heck she was talking about, and for the less obvious reason that she knew her friend felt a good deal of ambiguity about her own position.
Well, she’d learn to get over it. “How about I tell you how your mama became an Amazon. Would you like that?”
Dori seemed inclined to be agreeable to that. “Otay.” She said. “Then we go find Boo and mama.”
Of course. “All right, you got a deal.” Ephiny reasoned going down the hill with Dori was probably far less dangerous than trying to keep her locked up in the cabin. “Once upon a time there was an Amazon Queen named Melosa.”
“Losa.” Dori agreed. “Gots buppits?”
“Sorta.” Ephiny said. “That’s kinda what started everything.”
Darn, Darn Darn. Gabrielle dug her staff into the softening mud and braced her legs, trying to get enough leverage to reach out and grab one of the lamb’s legs as it struggled in the water wildly. “C’mere, you..”
“Baaa!!!” The terrified animal squealed.
“Gabrielle! Be careful!” Johan yelled from the bank. “Got ropes coming!”
Yeah, yeah. Gabrielle continued her task, grabbing a wooly leg and bodily hauling the lamb out of the water and onto the rapidly dissolving bank. The river had risen alarmingly, covering the bridge already and sweeping anything on it’s banks downstream.
Mostly provisions, but also some animals that had been standing by waiting to be loaded onto barges to go down to market. Gabrielle had picked a spot in a crook of the river, where she could get in without taking the full force and try to get things out.
The water sucked at her though, and she could feel the force getting stronger behind her, shoving her against her staff and almost knocking her offbalance. She grabbed another lamb by the scruff of the neck and staggered backwards as the water surged, sending the animal almost into her arms.
“Baaa!” The lamb nipped at her in fear.
“Stop that you little gnarly..” Gabrielle avoided the teeth and shoved the animals head away from her. “Get up there before I make you into a rug!”
“Gabrielle!” Johan was closer, and now reaching out to her. “Get out of there.. the damn critters ain’t worth it!” He found himself with a handful of wet lamb. “Ah!”
Gabrielle whirled, spotting two heads in the water. A merchant had been trying to offload his wagon, it’s wheels stuck in the mud and now the water had risen to the point it had taken the wagon up and was slamming it against the bridge.
The merchant had tried to hold onto it. “Help!” He called out, his head going under water.
“Gods.” Gabrielle started upstream, battling the raging river one short step at a time as she dug her staff into the bottom, making slow progress. “Someone get him a rope!” She yelled out to the banks, now filling with onlookers. “C’mon people! Help him!”
“Look out!” Another yell, this time she recognized as Cyrene. “Good gods! Gabrielle! Gabrielle! The bridge!”
She heard a crack, and looked up to see the bridge breaking free of it’s mooring posts. “Oh my gods.” The bard barely had time to even think, before the wooden mass was heading towards her at a frightening speed, with the wagon thundering behind it.
Her boots were stuck in the mud, along with her staff. She knew, in a slow motion kind of way, she wasn’t going to get out of it’s path in time. All she had time to do, in fact, was steady herself and get ready to grab whatever she could, and just hope the mass didn’t kill her outright. “Mom!” She yelled desperately. “I can’t!”
The bridge broke free completely and was on her before she could think or say another word. It was a roar of splintering wood and roaring water and screaming. She took a deep breath and did her best to jump. Her body lifted out of the water a few inches, then the bridge plowed into her and would have cut her in half had not something grabbed her arms like iron bands and hauled her up on top of it.
She fell down onto the wood, bucking crazily under her, and felt warmth surround her and hold her down, as the world spun into insanity, and the water’s roar filled her senses.
“My gods” Cyrene gasped, her eyes fixed on the two figures fading into the distance, as the flood overcame them, cresting the banks and roaring into the lower town to the company of horrific screams. “Get everyone back from the edge.” She told Johan. “Hurry!”
The water kept coming, racing up towards the gates as the townsfolk scrambled to elude it, shaken as everything within the river’s reach was taken from them and carried far away.
“Be damned.” Johan reached Cyrene’s side. “Didn’t think she’d get there in time.”
Cyrene’s hands clenched on the railing of the inn’s porch as she stared downstream. “My dream was danger on the mountain.” She whispered. “But I had it all wrong.”
Johan looked at her.
Xena had little time to do anything but hold on, using her body strength to try and keep them upright on the piece of wood they’d landed on. “You all right?”
“As I can be.” Gabrielle answered, her fingers clenched into the wood, and her face turned to one side to keep the water from rushing into her mouth. Her body was pressed against the bridge piece, half under water as the surge came over them every other second. “Now what?”
Gabrielle closed her eyes as a wave washed over her, remembering to keep her mouth closed so it wouldn’t fill with water. The cold was shocking, and she knew she’d be shivering already if Xena wasn’t laying on top of her.
Once the water receded a little, she shook her head to clear the wet hair from her eyes and blinked, trying to look ahead of them. All she could see were tall banks, and white, frothing river surface. “How long?”
“No idea.” Xena responded. “Never seen it like this.”
The rain came down harder, but at least it was warmer than the river. “Xena?”
“Know any deserts?”
“Hang on.” Xena threw her body to one side, causing their makeshift raft to lean to one side and avoid a half sunken rock. They came close to tipping, then settled back down and went forward again. “Know a few.”
“Let’s go live in one.” Gabrielle felt her heart settle back down from it’s sudden racing, as she’d seen the rock whir by her nose.
“You hate sand.” The warrior reminded her, gripping the wood more firmly.
“I hate drowning too.”
Xena shook the wet hair out of her own eyes, and grimly hung on, watching the banks grow taller and narrower, and knowing the river would only get wilder. “Just hang on.”
After the third time her head went under water, Gabrielle figured she had to do something. “Hon?”
“Yeah?” Xena lifted her head cautiously, relieved at a slightly easier stretch of water that seemed to be in front of them. The walls were so high on either side by now though, that trying to get them out of the river wasn’t even an option.
“Mind if I get up a little?” Gabrielle asked. “I’m getting splinters in bad places.”
The warrior eased up and lifted her body off her partner’s, rolling onto her side slowly. “Easy.” She warned. “This thing’s not stable.”
“So I noticed.” Gabrielle gingerly pushed herself up and onto her back, trading the cold river water for the relative warmth of the rain that now pelted the front of her torso. She blinked some droplets from her eyes and looked over at Xena, her face tensing into a surprised grin as she observed her partner’s dress, or, rather, lack thereof. “Um.”
“Yeah.” Xena glanced down at herself. “Barefoot and in my shift. There’s a joke in there somewhere.” She gripped the side of the wood as it shifted under them, one hand reaching out for Gabrielle from pure instinct. “Hang on.”
“I’m hanging.” The bard carefully eased closer, until they were both in the center of the small section of bridge they’d landed on. It was barely big enough to fit them side by side, and felt very unsteady under her weight. “So, what’s the plan?”
“Ah. Something else that wasn’t covered under the warlord’s guide to greater Greece, huh?” Gabrielle exhaled. “I guess we have to get out of here… there’s someplace we can do that soon, right?”
Xena reviewed the river, which was becoming gnarled with whitecaps again. She looked up at the banks, now towering over them and realized she was in a cut of the river she’d never seen before.
Gabrielle realized the same thing at the same time. “Where in Hades are we?” She blurted, turning and looking back. “Xena, I’ve been down the river from Amphipolis.. no way do we send barges this route.. what happened?”
“Good question.” The warrior also looked behind her, staring at the overgrown walls. “Damn it. River must have overflowed it’s banks at the big curve.. this is a dry bed.”
The bard looked down then up at her. “No it’s not.”
“Usually it is..it’s the gorge, Gabrielle.” Xena said. “The one we bridged.”
“The g.. you mean our gorge? The one near our cabin?” Now, the foliage and the thick, rich earthen banks made sense. “Wow.” Gabrielle said, slowly. “So, where does it end up? Maybe we can grab hold of the sides near the bridge and climb up? I know it’s pretty deep, but..”
“But I haven’t climbed a cliff barefoot since I was ten.” Xena stated frankly. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I’ve never climbed one, but that’s never stopped us before.” Gabrielle found it was easier to keep her balance lying on her stomach, and so she reversed herself again, bracing her weight on her elbows and gripping the wood with both hands. “Besides, it’s so darn romantic that you ran out in your underwear to save me.”
“Oh, you think so, huh?”
Gabrielle kept her eyes fixed forward on the waves, but she smiled. “Yes, I do.”
“I hear that in a story, you’re toast, bard.” Xena put one arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders and grabbed onto the edge of the wood, letting her weight rest on her knees and outstretched arms. “Gonna be a long walk home.”
“I’ll carry you.” The bard answered blithely. “No problem.”
The makeshift raft tilted, and they both rolled with the motion, one of Xena’s long legs sliding off into the water as she fought to keep them upright. The current seemed to be getting faster also, and the warrior stared ahead at the rough water with worried eyes. “This isn’t gonna be easy.”
Gabrielle gripped the edge of the wood more firmly, hearing the warning tone in her partner’s voice. She peered ahead, but all she could see was the walls on either side, and an endless stretch of white ruffled water.
There was no place, really to even grab onto. She could see bushes on either side, half drowned in the river and thick tree boles sticking up dangerously in the current, but no place they could easily land and escape. To make things more ominous, it felt like they were starting to go faster. “Xe?”
“Where do you think this ends up?”
Xena had been wondering exactly that. She knew the slice went across the mountain, but she’d never followed it, having no interest in an old dry river bed. “I’m… not exactly sure.” She answered slowly. “But it goes towards..”
“The plateau.” Gabrielle whispered. “You don’t think..”
Over the river’s surge, Xena’s sharp ears finally focused on a low roar that had been playing at the peripheral of her senses. Now that she’d heard it, she knew without question what it was. “I think.”
Gabrielle’s mouth went dry, despite being surrounded by and covered in water. “What do we do?”
The warrior started looking around in earnest, now, searching the banks for some place she could steer toward and grab on. The ride had almost seemed fun for a short while – it was anything but now. “Find something to grab.”
“Other than you?” Gabrielle muttered, pushing herself up, and just as quickly lowering herself back down as she nearly rolled off the raft. She felt the wood buck under her, shifting sideways and starting to turn. “Uh..”
Xena wrapped her arms around the edge of the wood and the bard, holding on tight as the raft whirled in a tight circle, caught in an eddy that almost threw them off the surface. Once out of it, they tilted downward, the front edge dipping far under water and taking Gabrielle’s upper body with it.
The warrior hauled back, throwing her weight against the surge of the water and bringing the spluttering bard to the surface. “Get up on your knees!”
Gabrielle coughed and blinked the water from her eyes, struggling to comply as she felt Xena’s arm tighten around her to pull her upright. Her balance was chancy, but she managed to drag her knees up and get on all fours, glad she did when the front edge went under again and she sunk down to her elbows in the icy cold.
For a moment, she thought they were going to plunge headlong, then the raft twirled sideways again and dropped between two rocks, barely a wide enough opening to let them through. She was thrown against Xena, feeling the shifting power of the warrior’s body as she fought to control the raft.
Then something else caught her eye. “Xena!” She yelled, seeing the edge of the waterfall past the curve in the crevasse. “Xena look!”
“I see it!” The warrior yelled back. “I’m steering for the bank there!”
Gabrielle looked to the left, where she could see a bit of the wall sticking out. It wasn’t much, but there were some visible roots and it offered a handhold she knew Xena could take advantage of. “What can I do?”
“Lean when I lean!”
Easier said than done. Gabrielle pressed her body against her partners, trying to anticipate which way she was going to move. She could see a roil of water near where they were trying to go, and she felt Xena start to pull the right end of the raft up to send them that way. “Whoa boy…”
The water gushed under them, suddenly cooperating and taking them right towards the wall. “Yow!” Gabrielle let out a yell, as the dirt surface came at her far too fast.
No question about listening. The bard dove for the surface of the raft, clearing the way for Xena to do whatever it was she needed to do to save them. Her face went under the water but she didn’t care, holding her breath as she felt the wrenching power of her partner’s legs clamp around her as Xena lunged for the shore.
The shock of contact, and then they were whirling in a tight circle as the river tried to rip them past Xena’s hold. Gabrielle felt herself lifted clear of the surface, and she opened her eyes, to see a blur of mud, and green, and frothy blue before something else grabbed them and she felt them tip sideways again. “Yahhh!”
“Son of a..” Xena let out a frustrated bellow, as they spun completely around and the root she’d been holding pulled loose from the soil. “Oh.. Gab!”
It was hard to tell what was happening, but she could hear the panic in Xena’s voice and that made her blood run colder than anything else in her life ever could have. Instinctively, Gabrielle released her hold on the raft and grabbed the shifting, muscular body next to her, holding on tight as they continued tipping.
They were falling.
Gabrielle buried her face into her partner’s chest.
The last thing she’d expected on swinging around that point was a break in the rocks, and a secondary waterfall that simply ripped the raft out from under them and sent it plummeting down in a wild spray of water.
They were falling themselves down the front of the small fall, the walls on either side giving her no chance of a handhold, being blunt slate. Xena looked down, and saw a pool the water was exploding into, but there was no way for her to tell how deep it was.
No way to tell once they hit it, if they wouldn’t be broken to bits on it’s rocky bottom.
No time, really to worry about it either. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle a little tighter, and just prepared her body, bending her knees and hoping for the best. She felt the bard exhale against her skin and relax, a mix of resignation and acceptance in the motion that made her nape hairs prickle.
The water of the fall wrapped around them suddenly, buffeting them and throwing them to the back of the deluge with a force that nearly knocked the breath out of her. She felt her shoulders impact the wall, and then they were sliding down it, a faint slope that slowed their descent just a trifle.
Luck? Xena gingerly leaned back and felt the sting as the irregularities of the rock thudded against her skin, and then the ground was coming up impossibly fast and she just closed her eyes and held her breath.
The shock of the water hitting her was painful, rivaling what it had felt like to slam against a mountainside. She was unable to slow her descent and before it really registered, her feet were hitting the bottom of the pond and driving into it, sending her to her knees with irresistible force.
The shock went through her almost knocking her unconscious. Xena managed to let go of Gabrielle and pushed her surfaceward out of simple instinct, as she struggled to regain control of her body.
Her legs were stuck in the mud, she realized after trying to lunge after her partner. She blinked her eyes open and saw nothing but a swirl of water. Her arms flailed, searching for something to pull herself up with, but nothing was within her grasp.
Damn it. The warrior cursed and yanked at her trapped feet again, the mud sucking at her legs with tenacious strength.
Then a hand reached down and clutched after her, searching frantically and she felt a jolt deep in her guts that could only come from one source. Xena yanked at one leg and got it free, then she reached up and grabbed Gabrielle’s hand, kicking against a firmer part of the bottom and pulling her other foot free in a sudden motion that propelled both of them back up to the surface.
The waterfall thundered over their heads, almost driving them back down, but Xena spotted a break in it and she pointed. “There!”
They swam out from under the falls into a pouring rain that was almost as bad. The shore of the lake, which was spilling over to become a river at it’s end wasn’t that far off though, and with a few powerful strokes Xena had her hand on a rock outcropping that was firmly embedded.
Her other hand was clamped just as firmly around Gabrielle’s arm as the bard fought the current attempting to separate them. She could see Gabrielle’s head popping clear of the water, and the look of almost panic on her face that dissolved as she looked around and caught her partner’s eyes on her.
The rushing water tried to grab them again, but they both weren’t having any of that. Xena crawled up onto the gravel bank pulling Gabrielle with her until they were clear of the water, well clear of it, their hands and knees pinched by the sharp gravel.
“Xena, there?” Gabrielle pointed to a fallen tree half against a pile of rocks that promised some meager shelter.
“Better than nothing.” The warrior agreed, and they managed to get over to it just as the rain redoubled it’s efforts to wash them back into the lake. A wash of water splashed down the slope over them, covering them with mud and slush and they both blinked stinging eyes from it.
Xena rolled under the tree and pulled Gabrielle with her, their arms and legs tangling together as they squeezed as much shelter from the fallen trunk as they could.
The rain still bounced around them, but at least, at last, they were both still.
Not to mention together. Gabrielle felt her heartbeat begin to slow finally, the beats so rapid she could hardly breathe from the force of them. So many things had happened in the last little while, she couldn’t’ process them, or flush the fear from her guts quite so quickly.
Xena’s heart was racing also, and she could feel the heave of the warrior’s breathing under her hands. “You okay?” Gabrielle rasped, clearing her throat from all the water.
“Yeah.” Xena replied briefly. “Just catching my breath.” She studied the bark over her head, her lashes fluttering as droplets of rain hit her face. “Damn, that was a ride.”
“Pah.” The bard spit a bit of plant out of her mouth. “Hated it.”
Xena lifted a no longer shaking hand and rubbed Gabrielle’s back with it. “You okay?”
Gabrielle had her eyes firmly closed. “Not really, no.” She admitted. “I really want to throw up.”
The warrior eyed her warily. “Mind moving your head a little? I don’t want to have to go out in that damn rain again so fast.”
The unexpected humor helped. Gabrielle managed a chuckle out of it. “Oh, Xe, that sucked.” She winced, removing a splinter from her hand with her teeth. “Let’s not do that again, okay?”
“Damn. I was going to ask you if you wanted a repeat for our anniversary.” Xena sighed. “Guess I’ll have to find something else for us to do.”
Slowly, her world was settling. Gabrielle knew the meaningless chatter was helping them both to come down from the terror, and she started reassessing herself with careful motions. Aside from the splinters, her body seemed to have tolerated the insanity surprisingly well, and she flexed her arms and legs with a sense of relief.
Xena was doing much the same thing, relieved they both seemed to be in relatively one piece for a change. “Well, coulda been worse.” She turned her head and peered out from under the tree, seeing not much else but rain and wet foliage.
“Much.” Gabrielle looked out from the other side, watching the water crash down into the lake and rush off down the little slope they were on. “So.. where are we, exactly?”
The warrior turned her head and peeked past her partner’s shoulders. “Valley.”
“Pretty narrow one.” Xena edged her head out enough to peer upward. The walls rose on either side to dizzying heights, the only lower spot the crack they’d come gushing out of. She could see the lower end of the valley in the distance, it’s far wall equally craggy and remote. “Closed.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle put her head back down on Xena’s shoulder. “Well, after the rain stops we can explore it and find a way out. Right now, I’m staying here.”
Xena patted the tree with wry affection. “Got my vote.” She wriggled her shoulders a little and glanced down at herself. The shift she’d run out in was in very sad repair, the ride down the river having ripped it in several places. She wasn’t really chilled yet, but she suspected the weather wasn’t going to get any more comfortable any time soon.
Right now, they were keeping each other warm, and that was fine by her. After all, the rain had to stop sometime, didn’t it? They could just stay right here, nice and cozy….
Xena’s head whipped around swiftly, as she looked around for the animal. Spotting it near Gabrielle’s head, she quickly grabbed it, grimacing at the slimy texture and whipped it out into the rain with little regret for it’s insect sensibilities. “Gr.”
“Hope that was the only one.”
Xena’s fingertips drummed on the no longer friendly bark as the rain continued to fall.
“Okay, short stuff.” Ephiny had run out of stories, run out of games, and run out of patience. “Let’s go see where your mama and Boo are, okay?”
“O-tay.” Dori was more than ready. She got up and rambled over to the door, reaching up for the latch that was just a little bit too high for her to reach. “C’mere.” She hopped, grabbing at it.
“Whooa, whoa.. “ Ephiny scrambled after her. “Wait for your old auntie Ephiny, okay? Gimme a minut ehere, let me get your coat on.” She managed to get Dori’s tiny cloak onto her before the child could escape, and then get the door open. “Now, you hold onto me, little miss Amazon princess, so we don’t both fall down the mountain. Okay?”
For once, Dori listened and took Ephiny’s hand as they started down the path. Her little boots pattered over the wet leaves, her balance sure footed and unconcerned despite the rain. As she walked, Ephiny noticed she looked around at everything, her eyes taking in all the colors and intricacies of the forest and her ears twitching a little just like Xena’s did as she listened.
Amazing. “What do you hear, Dori?” Ephiny asked her. “You hear birds?”
“Aminal.” Dori pointed confidently to her right, into the bushes. “Bitty aminal, mama no like.”
Small animal Gabrielle didn’t like. “Is it a rat?” Ephiny guessed, fascinated. “You can tell there’s a rat in there?”
“Yes.” Dori hopped down several step like plateaus. “Go fast.” She urged. “Go get mama and Boo.”
Ephiny hurried to keep up with her. “We’re going, you don’t want to fall down and get hurt, do you?” She scouted the path before them, her mind doubting a little now the place her friends had chosen to call him It was a steep drop down the side of the damn hill here, and one wrong step could possibly not be funny at all.
Maybe Cyrene did have a little point, after all. The regent pondered, as she tried to find the safest way down she could. For Xena, sure, it was fine, and for Gabrielle now too, probably. But for the kid?
“Go go go.” Dori bounced down the hill like a rabbit. “Go Eff!”
Okay. Maybe for old, cranky Amazons, then. Ephiny picked up her pace an shook her head. “All right, all right.. c’mon, kiddo. Let’s go find mama.”
“Mama go trouble.” Dori said. “Get Boo.”
Now what do you suppose that meant? Ephiny felt a pang of anxiety. Xena had tore out of the cabin like a house on fire, that was for sure, and in her wraps, on top of it. “I’m sure mama’s okay.”
“Otay.” Dori agreed. “Tell story?”
“You want me to tell you a story? I told you all my stories.” Ephiny said. “ You tell me a story.”
“Yes.” Dori said. “Tell you Boo and the buppits. Good!”
Thunder rolled over head, and Ephiny glanced up at the sky, which was thick with gray clouds. “Good. Yeah. I could use a good story.”
The regent only hoped all the stories today turned out to be good ones.
Xena gave a last tug on a bit of vine she’d used to tie them down a canopy, and stood back to review her work. It hadn’t been easy to chop the thick ropy substance, she’d had nothing but a bit of rock to do it with, but after a couple of smashed thumbs and a lot of green bruising she had enough material.
Overlapping branches over a pair of small bushes formed a reasonable shelter, and was enough to keep the ground dry underneath them. Gabrielle was already seated in the space she’d created, picking the leaves off some berries she’d found nearby.
If nothing else, their travels had taught them to be self sufficient, Xnea decided, even though usually she had a lot more tools at hand to be self sufficient with. “All right.” She joined Gabrielle in their little hut, sitting down cross legged next to her and giving her head a shake to clear the wet hair from her eyes. “That’ll have to do.”
“Here.” Gabrielle offered her a berry.. “No slugs in sight. Much better.” She selected a berry for herself and bit into it cautiously. It was small, and round, and somewhat tart, but her partner had proclaimed them edible, so.. “Interesting taste.”
“Hm.” Xena munched on hers. “Different.”
Gabrielle eyed her. “You’ve never had them before?” She asked.
The warrior shook her head no. “But the birds were eating them.” She said. “So I figured they were all right.”
“Ah.” The bard gazed speculatively at her handful of tentative edibles. “So, if we both start chucking up, who gets to say I told you so first?”
Xena chuckled. “Relax.”
“Uh huh.” The bard ate a few more anyway. “No chance of a fire, huh?”
Xena just looked at her.
“Hey, I can ask. You’ve pulled more surprises out of thin air than that on me.” Gabrielle sorted the berries and handed Xena half. “So what’s a little rain?”
“Wet wood, and no flint.” Xena said. “Not things I can fix in a heartbeat.” She rubbed her arms, as the wind picked up a little and rattled through the bushes on either side. “Wish I could.” She added in a heartfelt murmur.
“Want my shirt?” Gabrielle asked, in a quietly serious tone.
“I want you in your shirt.” The warrior replied. “No sense in both of us being miserable.”
Gabrielle studied her partner. She knew Xena was immune to the weather far more than most, but she also knew her partner was used to being covered by more than tattered rags. The shift was giving her little protection, and she could see the goosebumps rising on the warrior’s tanned skin.
She realized, suddenly, just how empty handed they really were. No tools, no weapons.. no armor no nothing. She’d lost her staff on the river, and without even their basic camping kit, they really had.. well.. nothing.
Just themselves. Gabrielle looked at Xena. “We’re in a mess here, aren’t we?”
Solemly, the warrior nodded. She picked up a bit of stone and examined it, turning it over in her hands. “Well, I’m sure there’s fish in that river, and I’ve still got these.” She opened one hand and displayed it. “Gods know we’ve eaten raw before.”
Gabrielle closed her hand around Xena’s, tensing her fingers and chafing the warrior’s knuckles with her thumb. “We’ll be fine.” She said. “We’ve got each other.”
Xena smiled, and juggled the rock in her other hand. “We’ll be fine.” She echoed. “It’s just one more little challenge.”
One more. The bard rested her head against Xena’s shoulder. Just one little one more.
“They what?” Ephiny asked for the third time, staring down the river in complete incomprehension. The town was a wreck, overturned wagons and shattered crates were flung everywhere, but that was nothing to the destruction she could see across the flood downslope. None of which mattered to her at the moment. “They went down that?” She pointed.
“Mama go?” Dori was also looking at the river in real surprise. “She go wif Boo?”
“It happened too fast.” Granella said, wiping a bit of mud off her face. “Eph, I saw it. I was coming up from the lower town and I’d just crossed the bridge when the flood came down.”
“Gods.” Ephiny felt deflated. “We’ll have to go after them.”
“Speed they were going, it’ll take us days to catch up on foot.” Granella said. “Gabrielle was hauling stock out of the river and the bridge let loose. I swear, I thought she was..”
“Mama?” Dori looked up at the two Amazons. “Mama good.”
“I’m sure your mama’s good, Dori.” Ephiny answered, shading her eyes to view the flood’s destruction. “I’m sure Xena’s taking very good care of her..”
Granella laid a hand on the regent’s shoulder. “I’m sure, too.” She said. “Because let me tell you, Eph.. that woman was moving so fast when she grabbed Gabrielle from in front of that bridge, eagles couldn’t have caught her.”
Ephiny nodded silently. Then she let her hand drop, to rest on Dori’s tousled hair. “Don’t you worry, Dori. We’ll go find your mama’s.”
Dori blinked thoughtfully, regarding the river. “Bad.” She concluded.
“She doesn’t seem that upset.” Granella observed. “Does that mean they’re okay?”
Ephiny knelt and looked at Dori. “You want to go find your mama, sweetie?” She asked. “Want to go find them?”
Dori blinked again. “Yes. Go find mama.” She nodded. “Go find mama, go find Boo. Have fun.” She turned and started trotting towards the inn. “Gramma!”
“Bu.. bu.” Ephiny scrambled to her feet and bolted after her. “Hold on there, kiddo.. hey!”
“Gramma!” Dori yelled again.
Granella shook her head and followed the two. “Why do I get the feeling Xena and Gabrielle are safer than we are?”
The rain finally tapered off near sunset. Gabrielle peered out from under their makeshift shelter and blinked at the sky, glad to see the clouds at least grudgingly parting. “Bout time.”
Xena edged up next to her and looked out. The area around them was dour and sodden, and the wind had come up again, chilling them with it’s briskness. “Well.” She rested a hand on her bare knee. “First thing we gotta do is block that damn wind.”
Gabrielle leaned against her. “Yeah.”
“You want to find a better spot?”
Gabrielle peeked to the left, and then to the right. “You think there is a better spot?”
Xena considered, resting her elbows on her knees. “They way our luck’s running today? No.” She replied honestly. “I think we should just get as much cover here as we can. I think we’ll be getting more rain later.”
“Right.” Gabrielle ducked out from under their shelter and stood up to her full height, stretching her back out as she regarded their surroundings. Aside from the flooding water nearby, the area was mostly covered in low scrub, with a few stands of tall trees scattered here and there.
As she looked through the brush, she could see boulders around, too, and tipping her head back, she guessed they’d fallen down from the heights above them. “Hm.”
Xena emerged after her, putting her hands on her hips. Her eyes flicked over the trees nearby, noting the tall, bare of branch boles. With a shake of her head, she circled the bushes and started hunting on the ground nearby, looking for anything that might be useful.
“Should I go see if I can find more berries?” Gabrielle asked. “I’m not really in the mood yet for raw fish. I know you just scarf it, but I’ve got to work myself up to that, Xe.”
“Sure.” The warrior glanced over her shoulder and gave her partner a rakish grin. “At least we’ll start with fish.”
“Anaananana.” Gabrielle made an atonal sound. “I’m not hearing anything you’re saying that might have anything to do with eating insects, Xena.” She started moving in a rough circle, searching out anything they could nibble on that was familiar to her.
Mushrooms. Given the dampness, that wasn’t unexpected. Gabrielle knelt beside the thick trunk they were growing on and examined them carefully, plucking them only when she was sure they were edible.
At least, for her. She juggled a few in her hand, then she looked around for something to carry them in. Finding nothing but pine needles, she sighed and kept on searching, finally stripping some thin branches off a barely reachable limb and sitting down on a nearby rock to weave them into a basket.
Not having their stuff was sure a pain. Gabrielle carefully threaded the flexible twigs into an interlocking pattern, gently pushing them close together with her fingertips.
The sounds of the forest were slowly coming alive around her, now that the storm had held off for a while and the creatures who lived there were creeping out again. She could hear the soft chirping of a bird off to her right, and the rattle of a cricket to her left.
The sounds reassured her with their essential normality. She’d learned from Xena that danger came in many guises, but what was dangerous for her, was probably also dangerous to the animals around her and they had far sharper senses than she did.
Listen to the world, was what the warrior said.
Gabrielle finished the bottom of her basket, and curved the sides up, lacing them into place with two longer, flexible twigs into a holder large enough to carry both her mushrooms and the berries she hoped to find. “There we go.” She murmured, dumping in the fungai and standing up. “Let’s see what else I can find.”
A wan bit of fading sunlight splashed over her as she went deeper into the trees, welcome though fleeting. A soft fragrance caught her attention and she stopped, tipping her head back and searching among the branches of some shorter, scrubbier trees. “Ah!”
Pears. Things were looking up, now.
Xena stepped carefully through the rocks, wincing a bit as they dug into her bare soles. They were all on the sharp side, but they were small and she was looking for..
Ah. Near the water, several shattered bits of slate were laying. Xena went over and knelt down, examining them with a knowledgeable eye, and selecting one that was a long and narrow, with a thin edge on one side. She lifted it and peered at the edge, rubbing her thumb against it thoughtfully.
It was fragile, but it might be useful. The warrior stood up and moved on, pausing to pick up a thicker piece of stone with a cut edge on one side. She went to one of the trees and felt the bark, then with a sigh, she took a step back and slammed the edge of the rock into the tree, making a gash perhaps the span of her four fingers long in it.
Xena examined the result, and for the nth time that day wished she had any one of her dozens of steel blades with her. “Damn it.” She swung again, and again, each time taking a small chunk out of the bark and releasing a rich scent of bruised wood to her nose.
She hoped Gabrielle was having better luck than she was. Usually, she hunted and the bard put her gathering skills to work, and there had been times the gathering was far more successful than the hunting.
Xena finished one long line vertically, and then she started in around the tree at her own shoulder height. Of course, there had been times when the hunting had been more successful than the gathering, too – it really was sometimes just a matter of luck.
She worked her way around the tree, the twilight beginning to turn the surface from variated brown to shades of black and gray, eerily looking as though the area she was working on was dying. Casting a glance over her shoulder, Xena let out a clear whistle, pausing and cocking her ears until she heard an answer from far to her left.
Reassured, she started on the bottom cut, thunking her rock into the tree over and over again, taking a step forward each time. The branches rustled over her head, and she looked up, spotting a squirrel in the branches watching her. “Hey.”
The squirrel chattered, so far above her it considered itself safe.
Xena lightly juggled the sharp bit of stone in her other hand, her pale eyes glinting in fading sun. Then she exhaled, and shook her head. “Gabrielle’d never, ever forgive me.” She solidered on, making the last cut just as the light began to fade out among the branches.
She dropped the big rock and put her fingertips into the first long cut, prying the bark away from the inside of the tree. It came loose with a soft, ripping sensation, vibrating lightly through her hands as she carefully pulled it loose.
When she finished, she had a circle of bark almost as tall as she was. With a satisfied grunt, she circled her arms around it and started back towards the shelter.
Gabrielle knelt by the pool, listening to the thunder of the waterfall nearby. She had her little basket resting to one side, and both her hands were on her upraised knee. Solemnly, she regarded the large turtle sitting o n a rock to her left, looking back at her with equal seriousness.
Turtle shells were incredibly useful. Gabrielle had come across one at market, and purchased it, and she’d used it for everything from holding soup to protecting her head on their travels. However, that shell hadn’t had a turtle in it, and the problem was..
She really, really liked turtles. They held a special place in her heart and the thought of killing this turtle to take it’s shell from it to use was bothering her a lot. With a troubled sigh, she got up and walked over to the animal, her boots splashing into the shallow lip of the pool that separated her from the rock the turtle was sitting on.
It merely watched her, it’s jaws moving as it chewed a bit of algae, unintimidated by her presence.
She leaned over and gave it’s head a scratch. “Hi there.” Gabrielle said, softly. “Someday, you might know how lucky you were today that it was me catching you sitting here.”
The turtle kept chewing.
With a smile, Gabrielle moved on, exiting the other side of the shallows and heading back towards where she’d left her partner. As she passed a thick bunch of bushes, a soft rustle made her pause and listen. The rustle came again, and she went still, just like Xena had taught her to.
The wind was blowing towards her, and she knew whatever it was couldn’t get her scent, so she waited with gentle patience, breathing evenly until the bush parted and a squat, strange looking bird waddled out, pecking the ground with rapid, erratic head bobs.
Gabrielle had never seen a bird like it before, and she briefly wished she had her staff to knock it over the head with. Birds didn’t have her sympathies like turtles did, and a bird that big would make a great pot of soup.
If they had a pot.
Or something to make a fire with.
Or something to butcher the bird with.
With another sigh, Gabrielle started to walk off, jumping a little when the bird reacted to her presence and let out a squawk, racing towards her with a odd gobbling noise.
“Hey!” The bard scrambled away from it, clutching her basket to her chest. “Get out of here, you creepy thing!”
The bird pecked at her, spreading it’s stubby wings and flapping them angrily.
“Hey!” Gabrielle yelled louder. “Cut it out!” She booted the bird gently, shoving it back away from her, but that only made it more angry and it redoubled it’s efforts. “Xena!” The bard yelled in frustration, falling back on her oldest standby. “Xena!”
“Yeah?” The warrior bolted from between two trees and skidded to a halt. “What the Hades is that?” She stared at the bird.
“If you don’t know, d’you really think I will?? Augh!” Gabrielle hopped backwards, kicking out to keep the bird at bay. “Just get it off me!”
Obligingly, Xena swooped down and caught the bird by the neck, yanking it up and away from her beleagured soulmate. She lifted it up, it’s wings flapping furiously and it’s legs raking the air searching for a target. “Damn.” She held it carefully away from her body. “Could be dinner.”
Gabrielle edged closer. “Not unless you’ve got a fire started.”
Xena glanced around. “I don’t, but if I let this thing go bet it’ll come after us again.” She exchanged looks with the bard. “And I don’t have boots on.”
It was ridiculous, really. The two of them, probably the best fighters for miles, being held hostage by a bird. “Tell you what.. how about you toss it in the bushes, and we run?” Gabrielle suggested. “By the time it gets it’s wits together, we’ll be outta here.”
Xena started laughing, apparently appreciating the humor of it all. “Okay.” She said. “Ready? One.. two..”
Gabrielle turned and bolted, clutching her basket of goodies. She heard a crash behind her, and then the soft sounds of footfalls catching up to her and she turned her head as Xena caught up to her and gave her a slap on the butt. “Punk.”
They raced back to the shelter, and Gabrielle pulled up in surprise. “Wow.”
Xena turned, shading her eyes to make sure they weren’t being pursued. “Found a few things to make it a bit more comfortable.”
That she had. Gabrielle crawled inside the shelter and sat down on the bark floor, which was dry and relatively soft. She set her basket down and admired the additional woven branches that now gave the bushes a sturdier set of walls. The wind rustled the outer leaves, but inside it was warm, and after Xena crawled inside with her it got even warmer. “Nice.”
“Eh.” Xena pulled her legs up under her and flicked a bit of mud off her ankle. “It’s dry. Not sure it’ll stay that way, but it’s better than it was. Whatcha got?”
Gabrielle pulled her basket over. “Blackberries, walnuts, pears, and mushrooms.” She announced.
“Must have budded early.” The bard handed her one. “I saw a turtle.”
“Urm.” Xena had bitten into the pear and was chewing it.
“You’re not going to ask me why I didn’t catch it?”
“No.” The warrior swallowed. “You didn’t catch it because you love turtles, Gabrielle.”
“Are you calling me predictable?”
Xena blew in her ear, and watched her partner’s face crease into a grin. “Know what?”
Gabrielle fingered a blackberry for a moment, then she turned and looked at Xena. “What?”
The warrior leaned over and kissed her lightly on the lips. “I love you.” She said, pulling back a little to look Gabrielle in the eye. “And that was the damned wildest way of getting you alone I’ve ever come up with.”
Gabrielle felt a pleasant surge of excitement and confusion. “You can say that again.” She answered, hesitantly. “Did you want to?”
“Get you alone?” Xena took a berry from the basket and bit into it. “Yeah.”
The bard felt a blush warm her skin. “Good grief, Xe. You’d think we were newlyweds.” She ran her fingers through her hair self consciously. “Instead of two muddy refugees under a bush.”
Xena leaned back against the rock she’d dragged over and shoved under the bush edge. She extended her long legs, her toes almost emerging into the gathering night. “C’mere.” She draped an arm over Gabrielle as the bard scooted over next to her, setting the basket on her thigh. “Look, we’re stuck here tonight, right?”
“Might as well make the best of it, right?”
Gabrielle let her head lean against Xena’s collarbone, as the light slowly faded, leaving them in dusk. “Xe?” She smiled gently. “You are the best of it.”
“So tomorrow we’ll hike on out of here, but I’m going to appreciate this night here, just to two of us, just because.”
“Attagirl.” Xena gave her a kiss on the top of her head.
“Even with the ugly attack chickens out there.”
Xena chuckled. “I’ll protect you.” She assured the bard.
“I know.” Gabrielle offered her a berry. “Xe?”
The warrior gently took hold of her chin and tipped it up, giving her another kiss on the lips this time. She ran the edge of her thumb over Gabrielle’s cheek, smoothing the soft down that covered it as a glint of silvery light reflected off her eyes. “Mm?”
And, suddenly, Gabrielle did appreciate the night, feeling the sensual wash of emotion trickle over her as she watched Xena’s eyes go half lidded, and her lips ease into faint smile. She hadn’t asked to be washed down the river, but here they were.
She wanted to live every second of this. “I love you too.” She set the basket down for later and half turned, reaching up to caress Xena’s face, feeling the skin tense as the smile under her fingertips grew wider. “C’mere.”
Willingly, the warrior shifted, one hand dropping lightly to Gabrielle’s hip, her fingers curling around the top of her belt and sliding towards the clasp of it.
The bard chuckled softly, as she brushed aside the tattered shift. “Too easy.”
Thunder rumbled softly in the distance.
It rained most of the night. Gabrielle woke the next morning to the sound of more thunder outside, and the gentle counterpoint of Xena’s heartbeat to match it. She lay where she was for a few minutes, remembering the day before and wondering what was going on back in Amphipolis.
Dori, of course, would be upset that they’d disappeared. Gabrielle knew that, but she knew too that Xena had left the toddler with Ephiny, and she knew the regent would take good care of her. The only thing was, she realized they had to get home before their friends started out looking for them, because if that happened, chances were havoc would happen.
It never failed. Their friends and family always meant nothing but the best, but every time they tried to help, it just all went crazy and ended up such a mess. So she hoped they’d just chill out and stay where they were.
On the other hand, though… it had been nice to spend the night alone together, even if it had been under a bush in the rain. Sometimes getting the time to immerse themselves in each other without any distractions was tough and you had to take any opportunity you could, right?
Gabrielle shifted a little, nuzzling her partner’s neck and giving her ribs a little tickle to wake her up. “Xeeeeeena.”
Half opened blue eyes peeked down at her. “Yeeeesss?”
“We need to get hiking.” The bard said.
“Uh huh.” Xena tilted her head to look outside. “Not like we’ve gotta break camp.”
No, that was true enough. Gabrielle agreed silently. No fire to bank, no packing of their gear… all they had to do was get up and start walking. “Okay, how about we go get washed up in that wonderful pond we fell into, grab some more pears, and go the heck home.”
For an answer, Xena stretched, arching her back and gently pushing Gabrielle upright. She bumped the bard out from under the shelter, then followed her as they emerged into the gray morning light. It was not long past dawn, but the sky was so clogged with clouds it was hard to tell that.
Xena took a moment to shake herself into wakefulness, breathing in a deep lungful of the damp, cool air. Despite the cramped shelter, she’d had a good night sleep. “Ahh.” Crouching slightly, she leaped up and caught a branch, allowing her back to stretch out and pop into place.
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder, pausing to watch her with an indulgent smile. ‘What are we going to do for boots for you?”
Xena released the branch and landed, flexing her bare toes. “Good question.” She strolled towards Gabrielle and they walked through the trees heading for the pond. Once they got there, they realized at once that the pool had gotten deeper and larger, the overflow from the falls now pushing through the valley.
For now, it was being channeled in what appeared to be an old stream bed, and Xena wondered if the intermittent fall hadn’t occurred sometime in the past.
She knelt at the edge of it and plunged her hands into it, bringing them up to her lips as she tasted the liquid with her customary caution. It had an earthy flavor, but given the stirred up ground it had traveled over that wasn’t unexpected. “Not bad.”
Gabrielle dropped to her knees and leaned over, drinking from Xena’s hands as she went cheek to cheek with her partner. “Mm.” She licked her lips. “It always tastes better when you hold it. Why is that?”
Xena patted her cheek with a wet hand. “It’s your imagination.” She scooped up another double handful and scrubbed her face with it, the chill water tingling on her skin. She watched through dripping bangs as Gabrielle did the same, making bubbling noises under her breath.
“Buuuh.” The bard ran her wet hands through her hair, arranging the thick, pale locks somewhat. They were longer and shaggier than they had been in a while and that leant a touch of wildness to her appearance.
Xena liked it. “Hey.” She bumped shoulders with her. “Let’s follow the water and see where it goes. Maybe we’ll find an easy way out of here.”
Gabrielle looked at the pond. “You think it goes somewhere?”
The warrior stood up and walked along the edge of the burbling runoff. “See?” She pointed at the rocks. “It’s come this way before.”
The bard got up and followed her, looking curiously around her shoulder. “Oh. Really?”
“Really.” Xena continued on, picking her path cautiously to spare her feet. The ground was very damp, and somewhat muddy, so the going wasn’t that uncomfortable but she knew if they hit a rocky spot she wasn’t going to be enjoying it much.
Gabrielle tapped her arm, and Xena looked around, finding a handful of walnuts being offered to her. She took them with a grateful smile. “Thanks.” She turned back around, then stopped. “Hey, look!”
“What?’ Gabrielle peered past her. “Oh, that’s my turtle!”
Xena cracked a nut in one hand, and popped a nutmeat into her mouth. “Lucky the turtle.” She eased past a boulder and let her eyes sweep the ground as the trees slowly gathered from clumps into a forest. The branches and leaves closed in above them, blotting out the clouds and bringing their own feeling of peace.
The warrior’s ears were cocked, listening to everything around her. She could hear the soft scuff of Gabrielle’s boots as the bard followed, and the sound of her chewing walnuts as well as the rattle and clink of the shells she had in her hand.
In the beginning, she’d been so frustrated with how noisy she thought Gabrielle was. When the girl first joined up with her, Xena had felt like she was surrounded by an infernal racket night and day and no matter what she said to Gabrielle, it just never penetrated.
Then she got to a place in her life that those sounds became something she not only accepted, but she needed. Campfires without it became the loneliest place she’d ever been in.
Xena smiled, her eyes catching the tail end of a snake slithering off. “Yeees?”
“How come we never knew this valley was here?”
An elderberry bush presented itself, and the warrior paused to raid it, sharing her booty with an instantly attentive bard. “Damn good question.” She answered, as they started off again. “I guess.. at least for me, I never really got..” She stopped speaking, gazing ahead of her thoughtfully.
Gabrielle put a hand on her back.
“I stopped exploring around here when other things interfered.” Xena finally completed her thought. “I knew that ravine was there, but never thought there was much to see down at the bottom.”
“Yeah, good point.” Gabrielle agreed. “Hey, we can’t know everything, right?”
A soft patter of hooves caught Xena’s ear. She crouched and peered through the trees, spotting a small deer darting away. “Lot of animals down here.” She murmured.
Gabrielle watched a squirrel run up a tree nearby. “Sure are.”
They walked on a bit further. The wind, which had been at their backs, now swung around and gusted into their faces, as a rumble of thunder again was heard.
Xena’s nose twitched, as the moist air brought scents both familiar and not to her. “Huh.”
The bard took a deep breath, but could only smell the rain coming. “You’re amazing.”
Xena shrugged modestly. “Something must have made a kill.” She said, sniffing again. Along with the copper tang of blood, she also caught a soft hint of musk, a strange animal scent she wasn’t familiar with. Cat maybe?
It wasn’t wolves. She was intimately familiar with that smell by now. They didn’t have any really large predators near Amphipolis.. no bears or wild dogs, but she knew there were hunting cats up in the hills – there was a panther skin up at the inn that attested to that.
But this didn’t smell like a panther. Xena cracked open another nut and nibbled the contents, her senses now fully alert.
“Hang on, hon.” Gabrielle veered off and sloshed into the water, her powerful legs driving against the current easily. “Spotted something I think I can use.” She pulled a clump of leaves aside, and tugged on something, yanking backwards until the long stick she’d caught sight of came loose. “Ah.” She held up the stick, and sloshed back over to where Xena was standing.
“Hm.” Xena examined the find. It was soaking wet, but it was a decent height, and as she flexed it between her hands, a decent hardness. “Good job.” She tossed it back to her partner, who caught it easily. “Find me a sword next.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “You want to keep this?” She asked.
“Nah.” The warrior turned and started walking again. “You’re the expert with it.”
Gabrielle found a good handhold on her new staff, and followed, accepting that for the honest truth it was now. When they sparred together, on any given day she could win the bouts, and what made her proudest of all about that was how matter of factly Xena accepted it.
“Wonder what Dori’s up to?” She said, as they came to a slightly more open area, where the ground sloped up from the water a little.
“Driving Ephiny crazy, I’m sure.” Xena replied absently, still trying to sort out the strange scent that the wind was bringing to her. A gust brought her another, stronger smell and she reacted quickly, grabbing Gabrielle and pulling her behind the nearest tree.
A deer thundered past them, eyes wild, hooves scattering leaves and pinecones right and left as it skirted the water and then plunged into it, snorting with fear.
Xena curled her hand around the piece of rock she’d picked up the night before and waited, straining her ears. “Something was chasing it.”
They stayed still, but after a few minutes the deer’s footsteps faded off into the forest on the far side of the water, and peace descended on them again. Xena listened hard, and cocked her head, closing her eyes to allow her other senses to sharpen.
Birds started singing again, and the warrior straightened up, giving a half shake of her head. “Nothing’s around close.”
Gabrielle peered around the tree. “Maybe something just spooked it?” She suggested. “The smell of blood?”
“Could be.” Xena lead her around the tree and they started off again. “But one thing I’ve noticed is that the animals around here are scared of us.”
“Of us?” Gabrielle paced alongside her. “You and me? Why? We haven’t done anything to any of them yet.”
“Exactly.” Xena mused. “That means something like us is hunting them.” She nibbled some elderberries off the branch she’d stripped from the bush. “Must be people here.”
Reasonable, Gabrielle nodded in agreement. “Good. Let’s find them. Maybe they know a shortcut out.” She caught up and bit an elderberry off the warrior’s bunch, enjoying the sweet tart taste. “I wonder how long they’ve been down here.. maybe they’ve got some interesting stories about it. You know I hear the coolest things from the places that tend to be remote, right?”
“Yeah.” Xena’s nose wrinkled. The strange scent was getting a little stronger. “Maybe they haven’t learned to tan skins or something.”
Xena started looking another jagged rock, a worried crease dimpling her forehead.