One Wild Ride
“Get me more bags.” Ephiny wiped some of the mud off her face. “C’mon, you all. Pitch in here.” She stepped back and watched as a troop of Amazons dragged sacks full of sand and dropped them just short of the gates of the town, where the overflowing river was lapping.
If she looked below, not much was left of the lower town that was visible. The river spread out across the floodplain, and neither the rain or the rising waters seemed ready to diminish.
“Good gods.” Cyrene had her hand on one post. “Will it ever stop?”
Ephiny leaned back against the gates. “Has to. Sometime.” She looked down the river, then she turned to look at Cyrene. “I’m worried about them.”
“As am I.” The innkeeper said, quietly.
The regent stared at the river in frustration. The flood kept any thought of following Xena and Gabrielle at bay, even though she’d tried to scout a route that bypassed the overflowing banks.
Pony had tried as well, climbing up the slopes past Xena’s cabin, but finding no way down off the bluff that held her infamous tree. She reported the river was overflowing across the lower plain as well, but there was no sight of their friends.
Frustrating. They could be hurt. They could be lost.
Then she sighed. “Maybe it’s for the best. Every time we try to give them a hand we end up screwing up everything.” Ephiny admitted. “And they have to save our butts.”
Cyrene looked at her. “That’s not true.”
“C’mon, Cyrene.” The regent wiped some of the mud off her hands. “You know it is. You know as well as I do us showing up in Athens just made everything worse.”
The innkeeper looked away.
“And you should hear the stories I heard about when we went to ‘help’ them rescue Toris and Jessan.” Ephiny snorted softly. “Maybe they’re better off getting back on their own.” She helped two villagers unload more sacks, tossing them down with a shake of her head. “Wish it would stop damn raining.”
Cyrene edged to one side and stared down at the lower town. The destruction made her blink, and she exhaled softly as she shook her head a few times. “No warning.”
“Was warning.” Ephiny grunted. “We just didn’t read it. Xena was saying something about high water last night and she was going to check something out today but..”
“But.” The innkeeper frowned. “Maybe if she’d been down here..”
Ephiny turned and looked at her. “Them maybe dying saving those bloody sheep not enough for you?”
Cyrene turned, giving her an outraged look.
“If they’d have stayed up there together, they’d be here.” Ephiny said, bluntly. “But no, Gab had to come down to make peace, like she always does, and almost ended up in pieces for her trouble. Leave it, Cyrene.”
“You don’t understand.” The innkeeper said quietly.
“I understand it was pissing them off.” Ephiny got out of the way as a wagon creaked up, with more sandbags in it. “I understand those jackasses down there dissing my Queen.” She pointed at the wrecked town. “So if you’re looking for sympathy from me, forget it.” She turned and walked away, shaking the mud off her hands. “Pony!”
Johan got down from the wagon and watched the Amazon leave. He looked at Cyrene in question, easing past the men now busy unloading the bags. “Heard they didn’t find a way down the river.”
Cyrene looked very troubled. “No. It’s too high.” She leaned on the gate. “Not getting any lower either… but she seems to think it’s not worth going after them.”
Johan stared at her. “Huh?”
“She thinks they’d be better off getting themselves back.” The innkeeper snorted angrily.
“Hm.” Johan leaned next to her. “May have a point there.”
Her husband exhaled. “Cy, I been there couple times now.. we never did do nothing but give those girls heartache.”
“You really believe that?” Cyrene said, glancing over her shoulder at the working villagers.
“It’s true.” Johan said. “Those kids can get out of whatever they’re into, Cy. Have been for years without no help from us.”
Cyrene turned and stared out across the flood again. “I had a dream.”
Johan glanced at her. “Eh?”
“I had a dream. Before they came back.” The innkeeper said quietly. “They were alone somewhere.. all alone, with nothing.”
“Just a dream, Cy.” Johan patted her back. “Kid’sll be fine, you’ll see. Probably be showing back up here anytime, telling all kinds of a tall tale.. and y’know..” He looked down at the flooded space before them. “Figure Xena’ll like the smell some better here now.”
Cyrene didn’t answer. She remained staring out over the water, her hands tight around the gate support.
Cyrene pulled her hood down a little tighter and turned, starting back for the inn in silence.
Xena walked differently barefoot. Gabrielle stepped along a bodylength behind her, admiring the sinuous grace in her partner’s motion. There was just the slightest hesitation as she put her feet down, and it added a little more gentle swagger to her walk.
Sexy. Gabrielle put the edge of her new staff down and hopped over a log. The animals had quieted down, and Xena seemed a little perplexed over the fading clues her nose was now barely detecting. The rain had slowed to a merely annoying drizzle, also, and the thick forest canopy over their heads blocked a good deal of that for them.
“Hmph.” Xena cocked her head. “Damn it, I thought for sure we were going in the right direction.”
“Aren’t we?” Gabrielle stepped up next to her. “There’s the water. We’re following it, right?”
Xena ducked under a branch. “Yeah.” She grunted. “I thought it was heading towards the signs I caught of those people.. but they’re gone.” She paused, walking over to kneel down at the side of the water and dip a hand in, scooping some up to her lips and drinking it.
Gabrielle went to one knee next to her, putting a hand on her partner’s shoulder to steady her balance. She could feel the warmth of Xena’s skin through the fabric of her shirt, and before she drank some herself, she ducked her head and gave the warrior’s arm a kiss.
Xena turned her head, droplets of water trailing from her lips. A half smile later, she traded the river’s coolness for heat as she returned the kiss. “Not that I’m complaining they’re gone.” She admitted. “C’mon. I want to get to the end of this thing today.. see what we have to go to get out of here.”
“Oh, I dunno.” Gabrielle took a drink, then gently shook the water off her hands. She got up and followed Xena as the water started sloping a little more downhill, flooding a lot of the forest as it overran the old bed they were following. “Wandering around the unknown with you isn’t so bad.”
Xena glanced over her shoulder, and smirked a bit. “Haven’t gotten bored of that yet?”
“As if.” Gabrielle caught up and they sloshed through the overflow. She let her hand rest on Xena’s back, her fingertips lightly scratching the strong muscles there. “What do you think happened back home? If the river’s still overflowing here..”
“Probably still overflowing there.” Xena acknowledged. “Wouldn’t be surprised if it took out some of the lower town.”
Gabrielle walked along for a few moments in silence. “You don’t sound upset about that.”
“They’re people too, Xena. They have homes and businesses there.” The bard said. “It’s not their fault the way the town’s growing.”
“It’s not my fault either.” The warrior said. “You want me to lie and say I’d be devastated?”
Gabrielle exhaled, her hand still keeping up it’s light massage. “No… oh, Xe.. is that a piece of flint?”
Xena had already spotted it, and she plunged into the deeper water, the surge tugging at her shift. “Yep.” She captured the piece of rock lodged on a fallen tree and examined it. “Good catch, mama.” She climbed back out of the creek and rejoined her partner. “That might come in handy.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle agreed, her eyes searching the ground out of habit for anything else useful. She spotted some thin vines and captured them, separating the strands and braiding them as she walked. They’d been traveling for a few candlemarks already, and she reasoned the sun was probably past overhead by now.
She was hungry. A handful of nuts and berries wasn’t really going to hit the spot, either. Gabrielle wasn’t sure she was ready to go for raw fish, but she was beginning to feel a little shaky. “Hey, Xe?”
“Hm?” The warrior turned her head. “Whatcha got there?”
The bard finished her braiding. She reached out and circled Xena’s waist with the vines, tying them in front of her and pulling the ratty shift close around her body. “A belt for you.”
“Ahhh.” Xena regarded the gift somberly. “I like it.” Though the shift was wet, the wind had been blowing it away from her body and exposing her skin to the chill and rain. The belt held it close, and already she felt more comfortable. “How about braiding me some sandals?”
Gabrielle bumped her lightly with one shoulder. “How about catching me a fish?” She sighed. “Maybe I can work out something while we have lunch.”
Xena’s eyes flicked over her, studying her face before she merely nodded and headed back into the water, raising a hand to put her dark hair behind one finely shaped ear.
Gabrielle scouted the area for a place they could sit down in, finding a downed tree not far away. She patted it, then went into the surrounding brush to see what she could find.
There were no berries, the bushes were mostly barren. She found a few flowers, which she picked and put in her basket, then she spotted a thick stalk emerging from the ground and she pounced on it gleefully. “Ah hah!”
Xena stopped when she was up to her mid thighs in water. She leaned forward and rested her hands on her knees, her head tilted to listen. Gabrielle very rarely asked her to do this in such a point blank way, and she knew the bard must be feeling a little off.
When they traveled, they often didn’t eat for long stretches, and though she knew they hadn’t had much dinner, or much breakfast, Gabrielle usually could soldier on a lot longer before she started asking to stop.
Xena wiggled her fingers, feeling a ripple near her left leg. She went still for a long instant, then in a flickering motion, plunged her hand into the water and grabbed for whatever it was that was tickling her. She felt a hard, scaled body under her touch and she clamped down with her fingers, pulling her arm out of the water with a feeling of definite triumph.
In her grasp was a large fish, of a type she’d never seen before. It had a big jaw, with spikes on the top of it’s curved head, and two fins poking out on either side of it’s body.
Xena lifted it up with a puzzled look, blinking as she spotted a completely unexpected set of tiny legs on the bottom of the creature. “What in Hades?”
The fish honked like a duck, almost making Xena drop it. She finally shook her head and sloshed out of the water, gauging the fish was big enough to feed them both, and hoping she could get Gabrielle to eat the animal uncooked, as nothing she could see anywhere was going to burn right now.
The bard hated raw fish. Xena wasn’t too fond of it either, but she’d learned over the years to consume just about anything to keep herself going and fortunately or unfortunately, Gabrielle hadn’t really ever had to do that. No matter how bad the foraging had been, she’d somehow managed to keep them from anything worse than a few grubs and an experiment with a snake once.
Her ears located Gabrielle and she walked through the trees to a small clearing, where she found the bard sitting on a log, having gathered some herbs as well as what looked like a sweet tuber. “Hey.”
“Got one, huh?” Gabrielle peered at the fish. “What is it?”
“Dunno.” Xena smacked the fish’s head against the fallen tree, killing it. “You got that.. ah. Yeah.” Xena took the jagged stone she’d found the night before and started using it to cut the fish up.
It was not a fast or easy process, and she felt like she was trying to butcher a pig with a wooden spatula. “Damn I’d give anything for a knife.”
Gabrielle leaned on the log at her side and regarded the messy process. “Uck.”
Xena managed to get the fish open, discarding the entrails of it and separating out the bones. “Those might be useful..” She touched one, bending it a little and finding it much firmer to the touch than she was used to. “Yeah.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle indicated her little basket. “Found some roots. They’re gonna need cooking, though.”
The warrior separated a sliver of the raw fish from the side she’d opened and offered it to the bard. “You did say you were hungry.”
“Wobbly.” Gabrielle sighed, taking the almost translucent piece of fish and putting it into her mouth, swallowing it down quickly without really chewing it.
“Really?” Xena handed her another piece, looking at her with a bit more concern.
The bard settled herself onto the log, straddling it. “You know me.” She gave her partner a wry look. “I don’t know if I ever told you this but I used to daydream about honeycakes all day when we were on the road.”
Xena leaned against the tree, slicing the fish up as best she could and sharing it. “You never told me that.”
“When I wasn’t daydreaming about you, that is.” Gabrielle’s mist green eyes twinkled. “You know, this isn’t so bad.” She swallowed another piece, the grumbling in her guts finally quieting down a little. The misty rain was washing the fish off for Xena, and she set the skeleton aside to rinse.
“I used to daydream about you.” The warrior said, unexpectedly.
Xena nodded, lifting a bit of the fish to her lips and swallowing it. “I used to wonder what you would do if I just walked across the campfire one night and kissed you.”
Gabrielle consumed a few more pieces of fish while she considered that. “When was this?”
The warrior shrugged.
“I think I probably… would have passed out.” The bard decided.
“If you had to cross over the campfire to get to me, if it was that long ago.. yeah.” Gabrielle said. “I was still in the phase where your armor creaking gave me goosebumps.”
Xena gave her a droll look.
“Honey, you asked.” Gabrielle offered her partner some of the remaining berries in her basket. “So, what’s the plan? Are we still going to follow the water?”
Xena tipped her head back and regarded the sky. “Might as well. We’re not moving very fast.”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle glanced apologetically at the fish.
“Nah, it’s me.” Xena pointed at her bootless feet. “Let’s get as far as we can, and see what we find. Maybe the water’ll lead out of here.. we can get some branches and make a raft.”
“Ugh. I didn’t much like the last raft trip we took.” Gabrielle gathered her things up. “Let’s go wash off first.”
“Right behind you.” Xena took the skeleton, carefully breaking off the rib bones and stacking them in a bundle as she walked. “Wanna play what is it?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Sure.” Despite the discomfort, and the struggle they were having without their gear, she found herself enjoying the time they were getting to spend alone together. Usually, they were having to entertain or distract Dori, which was a joy – but there was something just so much more intimate when all they had to interact with was each other. “You first.”
“Ahhh.” Xena shook her wet hair out of her eyes, and grinned. “You asked for it.” She cast a look around them out of habit, listening to the forest as she thought about the game. The acrid stink had vanished, and her senses weren’t detecting anything to be alarmed over.
Maybe it had just been a dead animal. Xena reasoned. Could have drowned, being swept over the falls like they were, right?
“C’mere, Dori.” Ephiny picked up the child and hefted her. “Let’s you and me have a talk.” She walked over to one of the benches they’d shoved against the back wall of the inn and sat down with Dori on her lap.
“Go get mama now?” Dori asked.
“No, honey, not yet.” Ephiny said. “We can’t go yet. There’s too much water.”
Dori blinked at her. “Too much wasser? Boo go fishes.” She said. “Go gets.”
Obviously, Dori felt that if Xena and Gabrielle could go down the river, everyone else could too. “We will.” Ephiny promised her. “What we’re gonna do is, we’re gonna wait for the river to stop overflowing, and then, if mama and Boo aren’t back, we’ll go get them.”
The child studied her seriously. “Mama come back?”
“Sure.” The regent said. “You know they’ll come back as soon as they can, and you know they’re so fast, they probably will come back before we can go get them, right?” She bounced Dori on her knee a little. “We don’t have to go get them, they’ll come get us.”
Dori appeared to be considering the request. She stuck a finger into her mouth and sucked it, drumming her heels against Ephiny’s leg.
“If we go try to find them, we might get lost.” Ephiny added.
“Hm. You haven’t made that noise in a while.” The regent smiled at her charge. “Honey, I promise. Your mama and your Boo are going to be just fine.”
“Otay.” Dori finally said. “Wait for Boo.”
Miracle of miracles. Ephiny exhaled in relief, as she gazed down into the alert green eyes watching her. Their color matched Gabrielle’s exactly, but the unwavering sharpness the projected was all Xena, and the regent found herself wondering what kind of woman this kid was going to grow up into.
Xena and Gabrielle were two of the most willful, stubborn people she knew. They only people either of them listened to was the other, and so, Ephiny had not really been overly shocked when Dori had turned out to be a right little hellion on wagon wheels.
Would Dori turn out to be arrogant? The regent studied that open little face. “Hey, Dori?”
“Yes?” Dori looked up at her, the tiny snub nose crinkling into her mother’s trademark grin. “Eff good. We go find fishes now? Get rocks to give mama.” She said. “Make pitty picture for Boo.”
Ephiny smiled back at her. The one thing she felt would counter the fierce independence the young child showed was her open and giving nature. She was forever finding and presenting everyone with ‘presents.’. Sometimes they were delightfully welcome, pretty pebbles for instance, and sometimes they were ghastly but intrinsically well meaning.
Dried sheep poop, for example. Pony had accepted hers, noting that they were damn good for starting fires when you needed one.
Ephiny had noticed that most of the time, Boo and mama got the good stuff, though. If Dori found an interesting leaf, or a bright piece of stone or a colorful feather she’d invariable trot off to find one of her parents and give it to them.
Ah. And to see Xena melt at those little hands.
Ephiny ruffled Dori’s hair affectionately. “You’ll be okay, bitty boo.” She told her. “You’ve got the two biggest hearts in the world raising you. Can’t go wrong there.” She set Dori on the ground. “Would you like to come up and visit with your Aunt Poopoo, Dori? I think your mama would like it if we took you up to where we live, and played with you until she gets back. Whadda you think?”
Dori poked her lower lip out.
“Okay.” Ephiny recognized the expression. “How about me and your aunt Poo poo coming to stay in your house? Would you like that?”
“Good.” Dori nodded amiably. “You come play, we can go find fishes.”
What the Hades was it with the damn fishes? “Sure.” Ephiny looked up as Toris entered, drenched and covered in muck. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Toris sloshed over and sat down on the bench. “Hi, Dori.”
Dori pointed at him. “Buckhead.”
Ephiny glanced at Xena’s brother. “Uh…”
“Sookay.” Toris sighed, laying his hands on his knees. “I feel like a buckhead. Whatever that is.” His shoulders slumped. “Gods, what a mess.”
“Yeah.” Ephiny agreed quietly. “I was just convincing Dori here we need to wait for the water to go down before we start hunting for her parents.”
Toris glanced at the child. “Did she agree?” He asked seriously.
The tall, dark haired man regarded his niece. “She’s being good.” He observed, as Dori pattered over to a chest in the inn, and came back with a handful of nuts. She sat down on the bench and started arranging them in a pattern.
“Yes, she is.” Ephiny agreed. “She’s been a lot better since they came home, I noticed. She’s still really energetic, but she listens a lot more.”
Dori looked up at her. “You want?” She offered up a nut. “Is good!”
“Thanks, cute stuff.” Ephiny accepted the nut. “You got one for your uncle?”
“None for me.” Toris stood, with a sigh. “There’s so much to do yet.” He looked around the inn. All the furniture had been pushed back against the walls, and the floor was covered in muck, with bales and boxes, half sodden, lay stacked where people frantically threw them to save them from the water. “Better get to it.”
Ephiny chewed her nutmeat slowly. “You worried about Xena and Gab?”
Toris turned his head towards her. “Honestly? No.” He said. “Sometimes I look at you guys when you all fret about them and I wonder if you forget who they are.” With a shake of his head, he walked off towards the kitchen, dusting off his hands as he went.
“Do we?” Ephiny exhaled. “Yeah, maybe we do.” She held her hands out to Dori. “Or maybe some of us know they’re not invinciable.”
Dori hopped off the bench and came over. “You come play wit me and Guff now?”
The regent glanced at the window, where the light was dimming to an even more dismal shade of gray. “Yeah. Let me grab us some dinner first. You won’t like my cooking.” She stood and headed for the kitchen, holding Dori’s hand as the little girl trotted at her side. “Maybe we can even find some buppits. Whaddaya say?”
“Buppits!” Dori hopped up and down. “Go Go GO!”
“It’s getting chilly.” Gabrielle paused to lean on her staff. “You doing okay?”
Xena, caught in the act of rubbing her upper arms, could only issue a wry grin. “It’s getting chilly.” She acknowledged. “Think we better find a place to stop for the night.” She looked around, seeing not much else but forest and more forest.
The water they’d been following had settled down from a flooded wash to a fast running creek, barely contained within rocky banks that only seldomly dipped to a crossing they could wade into. The trees around them towered high over their heads, with branches out of reach and nothing really suitable for making a shelter with.
Not good. Xena sighed. They had to have shelter, since the wet wind was still blowing, and it was getting colder every minute. She was already shivering a little, and it was only going to get worse. “Let’s cross here, and see what we can find on the other side.” She pointed across the creek. “There’s a ford there.”
Gabrielle joined her at the edge of the water, poking ahead with her staff cautiously. “How deep is it?”
“One way to find out.” Xena sloshed in on the upstream side of her partner, quickly sinking down until the water was up to her mid thigh. “Careful.”
“Eh.” Gabrielle followed her, wincing as the cold water soaked into her clothing. “You know, if we manage not to catch the cold from Hades, it’ll be a miracle.” She reached out and latched on to Xena’s arm as the water flow threatened to push her over. “Yow.”
Xena put a hand on her back as she moved slowly across. The water got deeper, and at one point she realized she’d have to swim for it. “Um.. Gab?”
“Yeah. I know.” Gabrielle sighed. “What I wouldn’t give for a little freaking sunlight.”
The warrior started swimming, the chills paradoxally subsiding as her muscles surged into action and she pulled powerfully across the creek with Gabrielle stroking gamely at her side as she still tried to hang on to her staff.
The current carried them downstream. Xena watched for a decent landing place as she kept moving on a diagonal, finally spotting a tiny beach just to the lee side of a fallen tree. “There… make for that bank, Gab.”
“Easy for you to say.” Gabrielle grunted, doing her best to keep up. “Remember what I said about a desert?”
“Yeah.” Xena grabbed hold of her with one arm, and snagged a fallen limb on the tree with other, swinging them both into the landing neatly and with surprisingly little effort. “Up you go.”
The bard threw her staff up onto the shore and climbed out of the water, her drenched clothing outlining her lithe body. “Pah.” She shook herself, turning to offer Xena a hand up. “Gods, I’m over being wet.”
Xena got to her feet, starting to move away from the bank until something caught her eye. She paused and glance down at a depression in the sand, an almost footprint that faded into the wash of the river even as she watched.
“Something wrong?” Gabrielle peered at her.
Xena dismissed the depression with a shrug. “Nah.” She headed off away from the water, towards an upslope she was hoping would lead towards some place they could find shelter. “Keep your eyes open for anything.”
“You know..” The bard wiped the wet hair from her eyes. “I know you don’t like caves, Xe, but..”
“Right now, I love caves.” The warrior replied. “Caves can forget anything bad I ever said about them if they’d just appear. Right now.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle sighed. “Nice cave, nice dry floor, maybe a lovely little hot spring in the back.. with lots of dry firewood someone considerately left there…”
“You don’t want much, do ya.”
“You’ve found them before.” Gabrielle leaned forward as the slope got a little steeper, rocky upthrusts beginning to poke their heads from the ground. “I used to think you just had been over every square inch of land we’d ever traveled over, so you of course remembered all the good spots and took us there.”
Xena snorted. “Yeah, so when we ended up sleeping in that swamp that was because…?”
“Hey, no one’s perfect.” Gabrielle chuckled. “Besides, that swamp had it’s good points.”
“Good points?” Xena was glad of the distraction from the chill. “Gabrielle, we only had one bodylength of dry ground between us.”
“Heh. Exactly.” Green eyes twinkled gently. “Oh, gee, Xena.. I guess we’ll have to only use the one fur, huh?” Her voice rose a notch in mimcry of her younger self. “Shucks.”
Muffling a grin, Xena hopped nimbly onto one of the boulders, and shaded her eyes with one hand, peering through the mist. Through the trees, she spotted a darkness that was more than clouds, and her shoulders relaxed. “Think we’ve got a rock wall over there.”
Gabrielle watched as her partner rejoined her, noting the goosebumps covering her skin. They had no provisions left, but even though she was hungry and she was sure Xena was too, getting warm was really the top priority for right now. “Okay, let’s get over there.”
A soft sound to their left alerted Xena, and she paused, drawing back behind a boulder as she reached out to grab Gabrielle’s arm. “Something’s coming.”
Xena started to look around the rock, when the sounds rapidly escalated, and out of the mist and gloom a huge, brown blur burst from the forest and came straight for them.
She got a glimpse of staring eyes, and white teeth, as she instinctively grabbed Gabrielle’s staff, and leaped to meet it.
Whatever it was.
Gabrielle got a brief look at the beast before it was on them, and smelled an overpowering stink of musk and manure as she dodged out of the way.
“Yeahhh!” Xena let out a wild yell, making the animal start violently, rearing up and striking out at her with hooves the size of wagon wheels. The warrior swung the staff and whacked it in the head, feeling the sting against her palms as the wood rebounded out of them and clattered to the ground. “Damn it!”
“Ooonnngg!” The animal hooted, swinging it’s massively horned head around and charging her again. “Oooonnng!”
“Artemis’ left tit.” Gabrielle took the smart route and dove for the ground, rolling behind a boulder and out of the way. She peered out from behind it, watching as her partner fended off the animal. “Xena! Watch out!” She yelled, seeing the horns sweeping towards the warrior’s head. “Xena!”
“I see it!” The warrior jumped up onto the boulder she was behind and leaped onto the animal’s back, grabbing hold of it’s horns and sliding across it’s body to roll off onto the other side. Her weight pulled the head around, and the animal honked in fear and protest before it was hauled down off it’s feet and landed with a crack on the ground, twitching violently a few times before it went very still.
Slowly, Xena stood up, wiping her hands on her shift, her body shivering in pure reaction. She glanced over as Gabrielle got to her feet and walked towards her, the bard’s eyes on the huge creature. “You all right?”
“Me?” The bard came to her side. “I’m not the one jousting with a .. a.. Xena, what the Hades is that?”
The warrior circled the dead animal, it’s eyes bugging out and glassy, and it’s tongue hanging out of a half open jaw. She’d broken it’s neck and the fall had done the rest. Now quiet was returning to the misty forest around them. “It’s a… um..” She put her hands on her hips.
“Deer?” Gabrielle suggested hesitantly. “Crossed with a minotaur?”
It was vaguely deer shaped, and a rusty brown color. But it had a huge crown of interlaced horns on it’s head, and it’s back had topped Xena’s height by nearly an armspan. It’s hooves were split into three, and it had thin white strips across it’s belly. “Huh.”
“Xena, that’s the third time you’ve had to say ‘huh’ when it comes to animals around here. I’ve never heard you say it once before. What’s up with that?” The bard circled the beast, her hands on her hips. “We’re not that far from home.” Her eyes lifted to Xena’s. “Are we?”
Xena scratched her ear, then half shrugged. “Question is, what do we do with it?” She sat down on the boulder and pulled out her bit of rock and looked at it. “Oh, that’s not gonna be a treat using this.”
Gabrielle touched one of the horns. “Well, there’s a lot of useful material here.” She replied, in a practical tone. Her brow creased, and she sat down on another boulder, beginning to tug at the laces on her boot. “Musta gotten a stick in here or something.. hang on.”
The warrior looked around. “Well.. maybe we should find shelter first… even if I can hack this thing up somehow we’ve really got..”
Xena looked at the bard, who had an indescribable expression on her face. “What?” She waited, but Gabrielle merely looked at her. “What??”
The bard’s nose wrinkled into a wry expression. “You’re either going to kiss me or spank me.”
Xena cocked her dark head to one side. “Huh?”
Very slowly, the bard raised her hand from her half unlaced boot. In her fingers was a carved bone handle, with a softly glinting blade inserted in it. “Forgot I had it?” Gabrielle offered, hopefully. “Sorry.”
The warrior got up and walked to her. “Gaaaaabbbrieelllle.” She crouched down with her forearms on her knees and eyed her partner. “What were my choices again?” She asked, taking the small utility knife from the bard.
Green eyes blinked penitently at her. “I honestly forgot I stuck it in there.. I don’t usually carry it when we’re home, but we were out so long that I guess I just got..”
Xena leaned over and kissed her on the lips.
“In the habit of it.” The bard concluded, with a sheepish smile as they parted. “Gods, I feel like a dork.”
“You won’t, once we get a decent meal out of this.” Xena said. “See if you can scout around over there and find us someplace to rest up for the night.” She examined the knife with a sense of pleasure, realizing she now also had a striker to start a fire with. “Keep an eye out for tinder.”
“You’re not mad at me?” Gabrielle asked.
“Nu uh.” Xena got up and walked over to the beast, already trying to figure out where to start with it. The rain had started to come down again, and she was losing light fast.
Xena turned and looked at her partner, who was still sitting on the rock. “Gabrielle, get over it. You probably just saved our butts. G’wan.” She indicated the slope. “Nest.”
Gabrielle finished lacing her boot back up, then she stood up. “Consider me nesting.” She agreed, giving Xena a pat on the side before she walked on past her and started up the slope. Feeling the handle of the knife near her ankle had unexpectedly thrown her back to an earlier time, when she’d agonized over the least little mistake and cringed before Xena’s all knowing eyes.
“You’re not that little dork anymore, Gabrielle.” She told herself, as she walked through a thick stand of trees, peering under branches and looking around boles. “You actually have some skills now, and she trusts you.”
A noise caught her attention and she looked quickly past a thick pine tree, her eyes searching for the source of it. After a moment, she spotted a squirrel dashing up a nearby trunk and relaxed, watching the animal scamper out across a branch over her head. “Well, at least you look normal.” She told the squirrel. “Unless you start talking or something.”
The squirrel remained prudently mute, and Gabrielle moved on. She spotted another fallen tree and trotted over to it, but the overhang it provided wasn’t nearly enough even for her, and forget about her tall soulmate. The bard patted the trunk and climbed over it, continuing further up the slope.
Ahead, she could see through the trees a blank, slate grayness blocking out the light, and she hoped it was the crevice wall. As she edged out from the last row of trunks, though, she realized it wasn’t – but it still had some promise.
The wall was actually an upthrust, a jag of rock rising up from the floor of the valley that towered over her. She walked towards it and as she came up next to the stone, it blocked the wind.
That felt wonderful. Gabrielle explored the cracks in it carefully, circling the edge of the upthrust and stopping in her tracks as she spotted an overhang with a concave space beneath it, away from the wind and big enough for both of them. “Ah hah!” She turned and faced the forest, which spread out beneath her in a thick grey green wave.
Placing two fingers between her teeth, she let out a whistle, then two shorter ones, and paused, cocking her head. After a brief moment’s silence, a long whistle answered her back, and she grunted in satisfaction. “This is great.” She ducked under the overhang and explored the shelter, stopping in her tracks as she found her eyes drawn to some color on the back wall.
Curious, she went to the very back of the cleft and dropped to her knees, peering at the splotches. She lifted her hand and put it next to one, which matched it in relief, as though someone had painted over their fingers and left the outline on the rock.
It was ochre red, and reminded her of fresh blood. “Wow.” She looked at the stick figure of an animal next to it. “What is this all about?”
The rock wasn’t forthcoming, so she turned and looked around carefully, searching for signs of habitation. Aside from the paint, however, there wasn’t any. She saw no indication of a firepit, or old bones, or tools, which she’d expected to see if anyone used this as a shelter. The floor of the overhang was nothing but dusty rock, and she saw no chisel marks of anyone trying to make it any more comfortable. “Hm.”
It was a little strange. Gabrielle circled the space again, but nothing jumped out at her and she finally shrugged and went back outside, heading back to where she’d seen the downed tree to see if some of the brush under it was dry enough to burn.
“Gabrielle, Gabrielle, Gabrielle.” Xena knelt beside the downed whateveritwas and continued her butchering. She was elbow deep in gore, and for once was glad of the misty rain that was keeping her relatively clean as she worked. “How do I love you? Let me count the damn ways.”
The animal was going to provide her with a lot of stuff they needed. Xena carefully skinned the carcass, peeling back the side and exposing it to the rain. Food, of course, but also the hide, and the bone from the horns.
A rustle in the underbrush brought her from her knees to her feet in an instant, but the sound stilled, and wasn’t repeated. Xena felt her senses coming alive as she listened intently, understanding the lure of the dead beast to anything in the surrounding area that was hungry.
She had no intention of facing off against a big cat, or whatever was out there with a hand long utility knife, either. Resuming her kneel, she worked faster, removing meat from the bone and tossing it onto the flayed hide, then neatly detatching the huge, heavy head with it’s crown of horn and adding that as well.
The light was almost gone now, and Xena could almost sense the eyes in the forest behind her. She cut several lenths of internal sinew and stood, reluctantly leaving the carcass. She knew there was a lot more to salvage, but in the dark – with a bit of a knife and her guts only – she was at a dangerous disadvantage.
She walked over to the hide and tied it around the meat and head, making a messy bundle that she heaved up onto her shoulders. Blood dripped down immediately and ran down her body, soaking into her tattered shift and bringing a wry grimace to her face. “Hope Gabrielle found some place that’s got some water.”
An owl hooted reassuringly. Xena started up the slope towards where her partner’s whistle had come from, leaning forward a little to balance her heavy load.
She was halfway up the slope before she heard the growls behind her. Turning, she peered down, but the shadows already obscured the carcass and all she could see were small moving bodies around it. “Hm.” She continued upward, reassured by the fact that the scavengers had waited for her to leave.
The rain started to slow down again, and by the time she reached the rock escarpment, it had finally, finally stopped. Xena could feel the strain in her back and shoulders as she fought for footing on the stone, pebbles and chips biting into her bare feet with spiteful insistence. “Gabrielle!”
“Here.” The bard’s voice came suddenly out of the gloom. “What do.. oh. Ah.”
Xena could only imagine what she looked like to get that kind of reaction. “Yeah. Where are we going? I’m about to drop this thing.”
“This way.” Gabrielle closed in and got her shoulder under part of the bundle, guiding Xena with a hand on her arm. “Careful.”
“Ow.” Xena almost fell, as the rock poked her foot. “Remind me I’m barefoot the next time I tell you to find a cave, yeah?”
“Sorry, hon.” Gabrielle glanced behind her, hearing a soft clatter. She saw a bunch of rocks skittering down slope, apparently dislodged by her partner. “Just a little more.. it’s around that jag, there.” She pointed, trying to ignore the stench of blood that now surrounded the both of them.
Xena spotted the overhang and grunted in approval, moving over and kneeling to dump the meat and skin off her back. It hit the ground with a sodden crunch, and she stood back up, working the painful kinks out of her back with a grimace. “That was fun.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle observed, looking at her with a wry expression. “I think there’s a little stream over there.” She indicated a dip in the rock. “You look like.. um.. “ It wasn’t as though she’d never seen Xena drenched in blood before. After all, they both had that experience more frequently than either of them wanted.
The bard had grown to hate that copper smell, as a matter of fact.
But this was different.
Xena plucked at her partner’s shirt. “Look who’s talking.”
Gabrielle looked at her blood drenched shoulder. “Yeah.” She said. “You want to see what I managed to scrape up in there.. and wait till you see the pictures on the wall. Weird.”
“Pictures?” Xena rubbed some dried blood off her skin.
“Yeah, animals and hands and stars and stuff.” Gabrielle said. “I think I even got some dried, dead pine needles that might, if we’re really lucky, burn.”
“Great.” Xena walked over the crack in the rock, which did indeed hold a small puddle of water. She put her hand in and felt around the bottom, feeling a slight flow against her fingers. The crack carried the water away down the side of the escarpment, where it disappeared into the foliage at the bottom. It wasn’t much, but it was wet, and enough for them to drink, and right now, she couldn’t be happier about it.
“Ugh.” Gabrielle was working on the hide. “What a mess.”
“We can smoke the extra.” Xena stripped off the shift and wadded it up, sticking it into the water and squeezing it with both hands. She could feel the wind getting colder, but at least it wasn’t raining and so she hoped the shivers now racking her body would be temporary. “Cause I don’t want to have to do that again before we get outta here.”
“I’m right there with ya.” Gabrielle looked around, a twinkle entering her eyes as she studied her partner’s naked form. “You think we’ll find a way out tomorrow?”
“Eh.” Xena had taken her shift out and wrung it. “Yeah.” She looked past the escarpment. “Far wall’s in the distance.. I can just see it. We can follow that.” She undid her underwraps and rinsed those off next, leaving her completely unclothed.
“Instead of the water?” Gabrielle picked up the animal’s head and lugged it over to flat rock nearby. She set the skull on it, then went back to the pile of meat.
“Yeah.” Xena scrubbed her skin with the cold water. “Thanks for finding us some shelter.” With a sigh, she shook out the wet shift and turned, laying it over her shoulder. The cold was starting to make her muscles cramp, and she wanted nothing more than to crawl inside the shelter and get out of the wind.
However. She wasn’t about to leave Gabrielle doing all the work. “Okay, why don’t we..”
“Why don’t you take your cute little bare butt into that cave and get it warm before I spank it?” Gabrielle cut her off neatly. “And while you’re at it, see if you can start a fire?”
Xena paused in mid step, one hand extended, her eyes blinking.
“Shoo.” Gabrielle motioned her away. “G’wan.”
Wrapping her wet shift along with her dignity around her, Xena retreated to the space under the overhang, finding an adequate area already filled with as much dead plant matter as Gabrielle could find. The piece of flint was already sitting next to the pile of tinder, and Xena sat down next to it after she spread her wet shift out across the rocks to dry.
Gabrielle took a piece of bark she’d found near the fallen tree and went to the tiny spring, scrubbing it with a couple of handfuls of water. Then she went back over to the pile of meat and selected the steaks Xena had cut out, laying them onto the bark neatly.
The clouds had parted, and the moon was reluctantly peeking out, giving her a little light to work by and she hummed softly under her breath as she arranged the raw meat, one ear cocked for the sound of the fire starting.
She could hear the distinctive snicks as Xena struck sparks, in a particular rhythm the bard recognized immediately. Two strikes, a pause, two strikes. Longer pause, three strikes. Then the strikes faded and she heard Xena rustling around, and the sound of her blowing softly against the tinder.
How many times had she listened to that? How many times had she counted those strikes, knowing she had just until the fire caught before she had to get up from resting after their long day and hold up her end of the their partnership?
Just like she was now. Gabrielle got the last of the meat onto the bark and stood, grunting a little under the weight of it as she carried it into the shelter and set it down on a bit of shelf rock to one side. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Xena was intent on the fire her hands were creating. A crackling was coming from the tinder, and a wisp of smoke, bringing the scent of smokey pine to the space. “Think this is working.” She’d unraveled her underwraps and laid them out as a seat instead, leaving her body bare.
“Thank the gods.” The bard exhaled. “Y’know, I thought I was used to camping, but boy, it’s tough doing it from scratch.”
“Uh huh.” Xena fed the baby fire some more tinder, pleased when it responded with a small flame. The gentle illumination was enough for her to see Gabrielle by, and she gave the bard a smile. “Guess we can cut that up into chunks and put it on sticks.”
“Is that wood going to be dry enough to really catch?” The bard asked. “I tried to find the driest I could, but everything was just so soaked.”
Xena examined the branches set to one side. “We’ll see.” She started building a stack of larger pieces around the tinder, laying them in a pattern with practiced hands. The warmth was beginning to creep outward, warming her legs.
It felt amazing. She’d forgotten what it felt like to be denied fire’s comfort, since they always made one when they camped or traveled. Even in the heat of summer, a mug of tea or soup was welcome at the end of a dusty day and there was something about the flames that was soothing aside from the practical.
Gabrielle moved over and sat down next to her, their bare knees touching. She picked up the knife and began stripping the bark off a stick she’d taken from the tinder pile. “So.”
“You never did answer me about these strange animals.” Gabrielle sprinkled the bark strippings into the growing fire.
“I don’t have an answer.” Xena said.
“That one scared the Hades out of me. Who ever heard of a deer.. or whatever it was, attacking people?”
Xena thoughtfully placed more sticks as the fire started to spread warmth inside the enclosure. “I don’t think it was attacking us.” She said. “I think it was running from something.”
“Again? Like that other thing?”
The warrior nodded.
“That’s creepy. Why didn’t it come after us, too?”
Xena had been wondering the same thing. The chill was starting to work it’s way out of her body, and the warmth was making her feel just a little sleepy. She’d been shivering most of the day, and the relief from it was more profound than she’d realized. “I don’t know.”
Gabrielle got up and went to the bark, crouching next to it so she could cut the first of the steaks up into the chunks Xena had suggested. Her skirt and top were now merely just damp instead of dripping, but she almost envied her partner in her nakedness.
Damp cloth just wasn’t fun. Neither were wet boots. Neither was being hungry, but at least she was doing something to correct that last problem. She brought the sticks back over and gave them to her partner. “I’m going to get that skin laid out for you.”
Xena held the impromptu kabobs over the fire. “Put it hair down, and throw a few rocks on the corners. With any luck it’ll rain all over it tonight.”
Gabrielle ducked outside, her figure barely visible in the moonlight. “Yeah, clouds are coming in again.” She called out.
The warrior nodded, turning the sticks a little as they dripped and hissed above the fire. The scent of the roasting meat was making her mouth water, and she swallowed a few times as she watched the chunks cook.
The bard reentered their little nook, sitting down again and unlacing her wet boots. “I put that head thing over in the corner out there. I was afraid I’d catch a look at it in the middle of the night and it would scare the lambswool off me.”
Xena chuckled. “I’ll keep a couple hunks of it and make you a new knife when we get home.” She promised. “As a keepsake.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle pulled off her boot, and the sock under it. “My feet feel like dried grapes.”
“Raisins.” Xena blithely supplied.
“Punk.” The bard wiggled her toes in the fire’s warmth. “Boy that feels good.” She leaned back on her hands and looked at her partner. “I ever tell you how gorgeous you are?”
One dark eyebrow arched up sharply.
“Well, you are.” Gabrielle said, her eyes taking in the warm glow of the fire on the warrior’s naked skin.
Xena held out a kabob. “Here.” She gave the bard a wry look. “You gonna take that wet stuff off?”
Gabrielle looked down at herself, then up at her partner. “Hang on to that for a minute.” She unlaced her top and pulled it off over her head, laying the half shirt onto a nearby jut of rock. Then she undid the ties on her belt and removed it, unwrapping her skirt and putting it neatly next to the top. “There.” She scooted a little closer to Xena, and took her kabob. “Better?”
“Almost.” The warrior poked her wraps.
Gabrielle handed the kabob back, unfastening her top wrap and removing it as her eyes dropped a little. She folded the undergarment and got up on her knees, setting it down as Xena had hers before she removed her lower one.
The warmth felt wonderful on her skin, and she was glad to get rid of the clammy fabric. “That feels a lot better.” She reseated herself.
“Uh huh.” Xena handed her the stick back, then reached up and traced the line of blushing skin across her neck. “Something wrong?”
“Um.. no.” Gabrielle cleared her throat, unsure really of why she was blushing – being naked in front of her soulmate was hardly an uncommon thing for her to be. “It’s just the fire.”
“No, really.” Gabrielle moved closer, so their shoulders were touching. “It feels so good to be dry. And warm.” She bit into her dinner, chewing the gamey meat and wishing for some of her own spices. “Tastes like deer.”
“It does.” Xena agreed. “Big, male deer.”
“Like mutton, instead of lamb.”
Gabrielle took another bite and chewed. “I don’t care. I’m starving.” She admitted. “I’m just glad it’s cooked. I don’t’ think I could have taken this raw.”
Xena licked her lips. “Eh.” She grunted. “Make a decent stew.”
“If we had a pot.”
“Eh.” The warrior grunted again.
Gabrielle ate in silence for a while, finishing up her kabob. She licked her lips. “Want more?” She asked.
“Still hungry?” Blue eyes winked at her in the firelight.
A rakish grin appeared on Gabrielle’s face. “Yeah.”
Xena grinned back. “Then bring it on, shepherd. Bring it on.”
“So what do you think?” Gabrielle asked. She was seated cross-legged in front of the pictures, with a curious Xena crouching behind her. “Ever see anything like that?”
The warrior extended a long-fingered hand and traced the outline of one of the animals. “Horse?”She wondered. “Or is this one of those deer things I killed?”
“Look at the hand.” Gabrielle held hers up to it, fitting her fingers to the outline.
“Mm.” Xena touched the drawing, where the thumb came up shorter on the hand than the bard’s. “Interesting.”
Gabrielle took her hand back down. “You think it was.. hunter signs or something? Maybe a mark to show what animals were around?”
“Or maybe it tells a story.” The bard mused. “But who put them here?”
Xena put a hand on her shoulder, and stood, stretching her body out and walking to the edge of the overhang. Though it had rained through the night, the clouds had now grudgingly cleared and a bit of sunlight was peeking through the trees, edging over the cliffs to splash over the escarpment.
She was a bit stiff from sleeping on the hard rock floor, and so she lifted both arms over her head and twisted her body in one direction, then the other to loosen up a mildly protesting back. “Ah.” She felt her spine pop into place. “Let’s see how the skin’s doing.”
The animal skin, scraped patiently by her the night before and rubbed with ashes, seemed to be doing reasonably well. Xena examined the tough hide which had stiffened up some, but not enough to prevent her working it. She flipped over an edge and ran her finger along the inside of the skin, nodding a little as she did.
Gabrielle came out and joined her. ‘What’s the plan?” She asked.
“Plan is, I use some of this to make some half-assed boots.” Xena replied. “I’ve got a bruise the size of a hen’s egg on my instep.”
“Ow. Can you do that?” The bard asked, curiously. “I mean, do you have all the stuff you need?”
Xena set a handful of white objects on the rock. “Needles.” She said, indicating the fish bones. “Gut.” She twisted a bit of the sinew, dried and gnarly looking as it lay on the stone. “And hide.” She pointed at the skin.
“Hm.” Gabrielle appeared impressed. “Well, we can make a bag to carry some stuff with us, too.” She said. “Especially that meat smoking in there.” She watched her partner nod. “I’m going to see if I can find some herbs, and some more berries, if you’re going to work on that, okay?”
“Good.” Xena nodded. “Be careful.”
“Yes, grandma.” Gabrielle gave her a quick hug before she started down towards the forest, her staff in one hand. She was dressed in her now dry clothing, and she was glad the fire had even dried out her leather boots and her pair of very soggy socks.
Things were definitely looking up. If Xena finished her boots, they could get on their way by mid-day at the latest. They had provisions, they’d had a decent night’s sleep, and it had stopped raining. Gabrielle took a deep breath of pine scented air, and exhaled in satisfaction.
Her mind returned to the pictures on the rock as she entered the forest rim, her eyes searching the underbrush with automatic expertise. It had taken her a long time to be comfortable in the wild – her first few months alone with Xena had been a non-stop horror show of scary plant after scary animal after scary natural danger like quicksand.
Now she walked through the trees with confidence, shying aside from poison oak and ducking past spiderwebs with impunity. “Ah.’ She spotted some mint, and pounced on it, carefully selecting the tenderest leaves and putting them in her little basket. As she knelt next to the herbs, she heard a soft crackling behind her, and she turned, putting the basket down and picking up her staff in one smooth action.
There was nothing there, but she could hear a soft breathing in the bushes just beyond the tree next to her. Fixing her eyes on the bushes, she brought her staff up to a defensive position, curling the fingers of her right hand around the upper part of it, and shifting her thumb on the lower, ready to pop the bottom of the weapon out if something rushed her. “Someone there?” She asked, her voice loud in the suddenly quiet forest. “I won’t hurt you.”
The soft breathing continued.
“If you don’t hurt me, that is.” Gabrielle amended. She took a step towards the bushes, straining her senses to detect any sign of attack. She saw the bushes move, and her grip tightened as she squinted through the dappled light. “Hello?”
There was motion, sudden and quicksilver. Gabrielle got the impression of something dark and wiry, as the leaves rattled violently and then went still as whatever it was retreated. “Hey.. wait… wh..” She went over to where the creature had been hiding, alarmed by it’s speed.
Beneath the bushes, the ground was stirred, but she couldn’t make out any real track. She shaded her eyes and looked in the direction it had gone, but everything was still, and the rich, green underbrush seemed unbroken. “Huh.”
Peace returned to the forest. Gabrielle retreated back to her basket, picking it up as she continued to look around her carefully. “Well.” She exhaled. “That was weirder than naked sheep in winter.”
She decided to move away from where the creature had come from, but she picked up a bit of rock and scraped a mark in the tree to mark the spot for later. Xena would, she was sure, want to see the spot the animal had been in, because what seemed to Gabrielle a muddled stir of leaves probably would give her partner far more clues.
It hadn’t seemed dangerous, for which she was grateful. So far the things they’d run into hadn’t been – strange and weird, yes, but unthreatening.
Most of the time, the wild was like that. She’d been in places where they’d faced big predators – cats and bears and the occasional wolf – but those times were few and far between and certainly she and Xena had been in danger far more often from their own kind than from any other.
And, too, there was just something about Xena that most potentially dangerous creatures seemed to recognize and avoid. Was it the weapons? Gabrielle found a blackberry bush and raided it with a piratical chuckle. Was it the leather?
She wasn’t sure. But she remembered very clearly the time they’d walked into a clearing with two big bears in it, huge animals that towered over both of them, and all Xena had to do was let out a yell, and they both ran like deer from her.
Weird. Useful, but weird. Gabrielle found some lemon grass, and collected it with a sense of pleasure, adding several sprays of sage she found hiding nearby. “Boy, if I only had a darn pot.” Her lips edged into a wry expression. “Bet Xena doesn’t rag me about taking half our cabin with us the next time we travel.”
The thought made her chuckle, and she ducked under some hanging vines, pausing as she looked up them to see if she could spot some gourds. The trees went straight up here, angling just a bit towards the slope and another rocky escarpment rising almost up over her.
Her eyes met another pair looking down at her from the rocks, framed in a round face, with a big nose and flat ears. Gabrielle drew in a breath to call out, then she blinked, as the face disaapeared over the edge of the escarpment.
Pebbles rattled down, to tumble at her feet.
“XEna!” Gabrielle found herself yelling in utter reflex. “Xena!!!”
There was something about the whole idea of being so self sufficient that was pleasing to her. Xena stitched together two layers of hide with her fishbone needle and gut as she enjoyed the sunshine outside the shelter.
Was it easier to have everything they needed? Sure. But having to scrape up everything was a challenge, and it was engaging her often restless mind in quite a satisfying way. She put the needle down and picked up the utility knife, punching a few more holes around the edge of her boots to be.
It would probably take them a few days to get out of the ravine, she figured. Now that it had stopped raining, the possibilities of spending a few days alone with Gabrielle, free of any responsibilities save each other were beginning to occur to her – and while she wasn’t glad of the flood and knew there would be a huge mess for them to clean up back home, she wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the ass either.
There. She finished the second sole, and set it down on the ground so she could fit her foot onto it. A square of hide extended on all four sides, and she gathered it up around her calf, studying the effect and function.
She could just tie it all up with strips of gut, of course, but..
Gabrielle’s holler made her jerk in response, her head whipping around to locate the sound.
Her partner’s voice sounded alarmed, but not scared, and Xena quickly decided it was worth a moment to tie the hide around her leg and spare herself more bruises. “Gabrielle!” She yelled back, projecting her voice as her hands worked quickly.
Yeah, I hear ya. Xena stood up and tested her new footware, not really pleased with the fit, but resolving to fix it later. She turned and ran towards the sound of her partner’s voice, racing up the edge of the escarpment to pause the edge and stare past it.
She could see another, smaller escarpment very close by, and her ears told her Gabrielle was past it. “Gabrielle!”
Yep. Xena headed downward, rambling across the rocks until she was near the bottom, and then leaping off the escarpment to fly through the air, somersaulting lazily before she landed at the base of two tall trees. She headed around the side of the smaller escarpment, spotting Gabrielle immediately as a flash of color between the trees.
As she ran, she craned her head and looked around, trying to spot whatever had alarmed her partner. “What’s up?” She asked, as she came even with the bard, who was standing at the base of the smaller rock formation and staring up. “Gab?”
“Up there.” The bard pointed. “Something was up there, watching me.”
Xena stared upward. “What was it?” She put a hand on the bard’s back.
“I don’t know.” Gabrielle admitted, glancing down. “Oh, those are cute.” She observed. “It was some kind of.. I think it was a person.”
“A person.” The warrior repeated. “Okay… so why did you yell out like that?”
Gabrielle exhaled. “It was strange.” She said. “It had a … it had a face, with eyes, and a nose and all that, but it was.. Xena, it was just weird.”
The warrior pursed her lips. “All right.” She said. “Let’s go see if whatever it was left any tracks.” She started up the escarpment, with Gabrielle at her heels. “Careful, that’s loose.”
Gabrielle minded her steps, using her staff to keep her balance and carrying her basket in her other hand. “Sorry I yelled like a banshee.” She apologized. “I was just so startled.”
Xena smiled, unseen. “S’allright.” She said. “You’ve always done that.”
“Yeah.” The warrior climbed up over a half fallen tree, it’s roots tenaciously clinging to the rock. “Two things I always loved about you were the way your reaction to damn near anything was to shout out my name and the fact you never screamed.”
Gabrielle pondered that revelation. “I never screamed?” She asked. “Xena, that’s not true.”
“You yell.” The warrior extended a hand back. “Grab on.. steep up here.” She waited for Gabrielle to juggle her things and latch on, and she pulled her up next to her before stepping over a craggy outcropping. “You never scream.”
Gabrielle resumed her staff and they got to the top of the escarpment, where she’d seen the figure. “I yell.” She mused, looking around the ground for some sign of disturbance. “That’s where he was, Xena.” She tapped the edge of the rock with her staff.
“Whatever.” But she’d gotten the distinct feeling it was male. “I really never scream?”
Xena knelt on the ground and touched the rock, opening her nostrils to suck in any hint of a clue as to what her partner had seen. “Nope.” She got up and went to the opposite slope, where she could now see a rough path leading downward. “Ah.”
“What?” Gabrielle joined her.
Xena indicated the path, which had been worn by many feet. She also touched the rock, which was smooth from contact, and smudged with dirt. She bent close, and sniffed it, detecting mud, and the coppery scent of blood along with an acrid, musky scent that rang a familiar bell.
“Should we follow it?” Gabrielle peered downward. “Doesn’t look like anything or anyone is here now.”
Xena drummed her fingers on the rock. “Let’s get our gear.” She said. “Before someone or something else does.” She started back the way they’d come. “And keep your eyes peeled for round, river rocks.”
“River rocks?” Gabrielle scrambled after her partner. “For what?”
“We might need them to throw.” Xena said, picking up her pace.
Gabrielle merely grunted in response, her eyes on the forest closing over them.