One Wild Ride
Eponin closed the cabin door behind her and stood against it, only her eyes moving as she scanned the interior. “Hi.”
Ephiny was seated near the fire, watching Dori play. “Hi.” She responded. “C’mon in.”
Cautiously, the weapon’s master crossed the floor and settled on the chair at her side. “You were joking, right?”
“Me?” Ephiny glanced past her. “About what, coming in the place?”
The regent surveyed the interior of the cabin. “I’m serious. Something wrong with it?” She queried. “Damn sure it’s more comfortable than our place is right now.”
Pony moved her head, her eyes rolling around the interior. “Eph, this is like.. their space.” She said. “I feel like I’m in a temple or something.”
“Oh, please.” Ephiny chuckled. “Build a bridge and get over it, will ya? They’re friends of ours.”
Pony examined her boots, then glanced up from under ginger colored brows. “You telling me we’re gonna sleep in their bed?” She asked. “That bed?” She pointed.
Ephiny looked at it. The bed was large, and appeared extremely comfortable, instead of the spike ridden rack her partner’s tone suggested. “Yes.” She answered, slowly. “Is there something wrong with that?”
Pony looked at the bed, then at her, then at the bed. She propped her elbow on her knee and rested her chin on her hand. “We could get pregnant.”
“You know, I was thinking.. they could have just said it happened in a tree. Maybe it didn’t.” Pony studied Dori. “Maybe she didn’t, I mean. What if it just happened here?”
Ephiny felt like she’d unexpectedly stepped into a mushroom induced hallucination. “Are you sick?”
“Dori, is she sick?” Ephiny asked the toddler, who looked up from her dolls in question. “Is your auntie Poo Poo goofy?”
Dori thumped her dragon on the floor. “Poo poo funny.” She agreed. “You make story?”
Pony edged back in the chair. “Oh no.. no no.” She held up a hand. “That’s your mama’s gig. I don’t do stories.”
“Mama.” Dori kicked out one little bootied foot. “Mama go play with Boo.” She explained seriously. “Mama make fun, make Boo fun. Like that.”
Ephiny worked that one out in her head. “So.. you’re saying it’s okay for them to go off and be together?”
Dori looked at her with a puzzled expression. “Go Boo.”
“I’m not getting it.” The regent said.
“Me, either.” Pony stood up and wandered around the cabin, stopping to peer curiously at this thing and that. The personality of the owners was very much imprinted, she realized, as she found the corner where Xena obviously did her own little stuff in.
There were a few small projects lying out, but everything was aligned neatly, and the set of worn armorer’s tools were lined up in a precise row with everything in it’s place. A bit of the warrior’s armor was sitting ready, apparently her next task.
Pony picked up the bit, rubbing her thumb over the brass and leather, the inside shaped and bent to exactly fit. She’d always admired Xena’s gear, and even more so when she’d learned the warrior made most of it herself.
Herself. Not that Amazons didn’t make their own leathers sometimes, because they did. But that was one thing, and crafting metal armor was something else. But she supposed if you trusted your life to something, you probably slept better at night knowing it was done the right way.
Eponin turned around. “Yeah?”
“What are you doing?”
“Checking out the master’s technique.” Pony put the armor bit down and resumed her wandering, ending up back at the fireplace. She put her hand on the mantel, and let herself absorb the sense of presence she was convinced was real even though the cabin’s owners were presently not. “I just feel weird in here.”
Ephiny relaxed on the bear rug, extending her legs and crossing them at the ankles. “I don’t.” She admitted frankly. “I like this place.” She patted the soft surface. “So siddown and get used to it.”
Reluctantly, Pony did so. “What’s in there?” She pointed at the pot hanging in the hearth.
“Dinner.” Ephiny benignly watched Dori set up some wooden horses, and then knock them all down with a swing of her small fist.
“Relax. It’s from the inn.” The regent gave her a wry look.
“Ah.” Pony reclined onto her back, putting her hands behind her head. “It sure is a lot quieter around here.” She admitted, eyeing Dori apprehensively. “Even with the munchkin around.”
“Mm.” Ephiny nodded. “Actually, it’s damn nice to be away from the village for a few days.”
Pony looked at her.
Pony looked back at the roof and pondered the situation, considering the possibilities with growing enthusiasm until she was whapped on the head with a purple dragon.
“Village. Dori. Village Dori. Village..” Pony rubbed her nose. “Hhum…..”
“Buppits!” Dori cocked her head and got up, racing for the door. “Buppits come!”
“Chill out.” Ephiny was chasing across the cabin after their charge. “It’ll be good practice.”
Xena led the way through the trees, her senses fully alert. Her hand clenched lightly and she rubbed her fingers, glancing around to where Gabrielle was quietly following her. “Know what I wish?”
“Wish you had your sword.” Gabrielle supplied amiably. “And your chakram, and your armor. Did I leave anything out?”
“Sometimes having your weapon come from the nearest tree is pretty handy.” Gabrielle hefted her staff. “You hear anything following us?”
They walked up a small ridge and paused the top, surveying their path. To the right, a little in the distance, was the crevice wall. To the left, they could just barely see the glint of light on the water, which was narrowing down from a creek to a brook as the water thinned out in the sun.
Ahead of them, Gabrielle could see a series of ridges, with scrubby trees and bushes crawling over them. It was quiet and wild, and she hadn’t seen many animals at all during their walk.
No sign of the strange creatures either. She ran a hand through her hair, and exhaled.
“Want to stop for a drink?” Xena was watching her from the corner of her eye. “I could use one.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle readily followed her partner over towards the brook, stepping over a couple of rocks and a fallen log half disintegrated into the earth before they reached it. She selected another rock on the edge of the water and sat down, resting her elbows on her knees. “Sheesh.”
Xena drank a handful of water, then scooped up a double and offered it to her. “Here.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle leaned forward and sipped the cold liquid gratefully. “I don’t think I really slept well last night. I’m a little ragged today.” She wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “I kept thinking I was hearing things.”
“You were.” Xena casually circled her with one arm. “There was something hunting outside where we were.. a little down slope.”
Gabrielle looked at her. “Did it catch anything?”
“Ah.” The bard leaned against her partner’s tall body, resting her head against Xena’s shoulder. “So I wasn’t dreaming I heard something screaming, was I?”
Gabrielle nodded a few times. “Good.” She said. “I hate nightmares.”
One of Xena’s brows lifted. “So you’d rather them be real?”
A far off look entered the bard’s eyes as she studied the thick brush. “Yes, I would.” She finally answered. “My dreams were always more horrible than my waking life was.”
Xena wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, because she wasn’t’ really sure where it was coming from. “Uh.” She cleared her throat. “Maybe because you keep your scared parts inside and the only time they can come out is when you’re sleeping.”
Gabrielle extended her legs, crossing her boots as she watched a bird flit from branch to branch across from them. “That’s amazingly profound of you, sweetie.”
“I never wanted to be afraid in front of you, because I knew you never were.”
“Bull.” Xena snorted. “You know better.”
“Now, sure.” The bard agreed, with a gentle smile. “But you know, you’ve really got a point there. I never thought about it like that.”
Xena gave her a squeeze. “C’mon. Let’s get moving.” She said. “I want to get past that open stretch over there.” She got up and extended her hand, which Gabrielle took as she pulled her partner upright. She handed Gabrielle back her staff and they moved on, skirting the edge of the water as they headed for the low hills.
Gabrielle stifled a yawn, and dug in her roughly made fur pouch for a nut to chew on. She followed Xena an automatic pace behind and to the left, guiltily enjoying the fact that she could let her attention wander and trust in the warrior’s reflexes to keep them both out of trouble.
Matter of fact, it was walking on the road when most of her stories had gotten thought of, those long sometimes dusty hours where they’d traveled side by side in companionable silence. “Xena?”
“Was that thing we saw.. was it a person?”
Xena leaned forward a little, as they started up the slope of the first hill. “Not like any I’ve seen.”
“Me either.” Gabrielle said. “Maybe if we find the people who made those paintings, they can tell us.”
“Maybe.” Xena reached the top of the hill and the breeze caught her hair, pushing it back from her face and streaming it out behind her. She lifted her head, catching a scent on the wind and stopped, her body stiffening.
“What?” Gabrielle took hold of her staff with both hands, watching her like a hawk.
She could smell them, but not see them. “Keep alert.” Xena warned her partner. “Stay close.”
“Absolutely.” Gabrielle assured her, as they started down the hill. “Since I’m the one with the big stick. Someone has to protect your butt.”
Xena chuckled softly, shaking her head. The slope on this side was quite steep, and she started sliding a little, her rough foot covering not really hard enough to give her full purchase. Small rocks, dislodged from the half crumbling soil skittered down the hill before them, and as they reached the bottom and entered a thick stand of trees, every hair on her body stood up. “Gabrielle!”
The bard saw them, and her staff swept up as she stepped past Xena in a guard position. Her eyes flicked from side to side as shadowy figures circled out to meet them. “Hey!”
Xena stepped to one side, clearing the edge of the staff, and put her back against a nearby tree. The figures facing them were short, about Gabrielle’s height, but stocky, and there were at least six of them. They were the round faced, wild creatures from the trees, but…
“Xena?” Gabrielle’s eyes were wide. “They’ve got clothes on.”
“I see that.” The warrior watched the hairy figures get closer. They were dodging and grunting, the biggest one pointing at them as they got more and more excited. She could see them better now, they appeared grotesque even to her eyes long used to the vagaries of humanity. “Gabrielle, stay back.”
“Okay, well, then they’re people.” Gabrielle decided. “Hey, um…” She addressed the one closest to her. “What’s your name?” She released one hand off her staff and extended it.
“Gabrielle.” Xena warned.
The grunts increased in volume. The closest one jumped forward, then leaped back, then jumped forward again, shaking a thick stick in one hand.
“Shh.” The bard took another step forward, fearlessly. “C’mon, Xena.. they’ve got clothes on, and they’re standing up and everything.” She said. “Hi there.. can you talk?”
She never does learn, does she. Xena tensed, watching the hooting and coughing increase in agitation. “Gab..”
The creature jumped forward and reached out to Gabrielle at that very moment, it’s stubby fingers grasping at her arm.
“See?” Gabrielle grinned, taking another step.
The creature grabbed her outstretched hand and yanked hard, pulling the bard forward and almost into his arm. It screamed in triumph as the bard let out a yell.
Son of a bacchae. Xena leaped as the rest of the creatures all jumped on the two of them, yelling and hooting and screaming until her ears nearly stood on end. “Gabrielle!”
“Yahhh!” Gabrielle felt hands all over her, grasping and hard, and an overpowering stench nearly made her gag. She twisted and rolled, trying to get away as wiry bodies landed on top of her. Oh poop. She jabbed an elbow into a nearby set of ribs. Xena’s gonna kill me.
“Aurouhgh!” A roar went off nearly in her ear, and Gabrielle felt a smothering hold grab her and a body thrust against hers in a frantic rhythm that knocked the breath out of her as her brain suddenly realized what the creature was trying to do.
Fear, anger and a creeping horror all took hold of her at once, and she convulsed on the ground, twisting and writhing with all her strength. “Xena!” She let out a desperate yell.
The sound of a splitting melon alerted her, and she turned her face and as much of her body as she could to avoid the sudden drenching of hot copper as the growling and screeching was overwhelmed by Xena’s strident battle call.
Xena whipped the staff back and let it fly again, shoving one of the creatures back with her foot. “Get off there you.. “ She stopped speaking, feeling a jolt of open terror from Gabrielle that made her drop the staff and just leap at the pile with her bare hands extended, grabbing hold of the first hairy body she reached and yanking it back away from the bard. “Get off of her!”
The creature yowled at her, making barking and grunting noises that were almost language. Xena shoved him away and grabbed for the next one, who was humping up and down on her partner with great sexual energy. “Son of a bacc.. get off!” She grabbed it by it’s hair and pulled it’s head around, as one of the others jumped on her back and tried the same thing.
It’s strength was amazing. It had a lock around her neck and only the fact that her total focus was on Gabrielle let her stay upright.
Xena lashed out with her elbow and broke something, hearing the crunch as she connected. She didn’t even hesitate, continuing the motion around and grabbing her attacker, throwing him over her shoulder and onto the rocks.
Gabrielle had gotten enough leverage to upend her last adversary, and she was wrestling with him on the ground, his greater strength and size evenly matched against the bard’s fury. Her entire body was tensing with the effort, the muscles in her shoulders and back standing out in rigid relief under her skin.
“Gabrielle!” Xena grabbed hold one of the creatures about to jump on both of them and whirled around, slamming the hairy body against a tree and releasing him just as the bard threw off her attacker. She bounded forward and a kicked the creature in the head as it tried to come back for more, sending it sprawling some yards away. “Here!” She reached down for Gabrielle, who grabbed her as she stood and wrapped her arms around the warrior. “Bastards!”
Gabrielle was breathing so hard it hurt to hear it. “Oh my gods, Xena he was trying to.. “ She stopped speaking. “Let’s get out of here.”
“You got that right.” Xena booted up the staff to her hand and smacked one of the reviving creatures with it, feeling a sting in her hands as it bounced off the thick skull. She decided not to stop and repeat the action, and with a hand on Gabrielle’s back, she broke into a run guiding the bard in front of her. “Go!”
“I am!” Gabrielle didn’t need any encouragement. Her heart was hammering in her chest so hard it was making her shake, and she felt like she couldn’t run fast enough to outreach the stench that clung to her from the creatures.
She wanted to throw up. Resolutely, she merely swallowed hard and put her energy into running instead, as they climbed up the next slope at top speed. The months running with Xena now came home to her, and she tucked her hands into fists as her body responded to the need with a sudden surge.
They reached the small ridge and slowed as they reached the bole of a large tree, swinging around it to look back the way they’d come.
Gabrielle laid her hand on the bark, her breathing ragged as her eyes strained to catch any hint of movement. “See em?”
“No.” Xena exhaled, and sucked in another lungful of air, expelling it in an epithet that almost caused the tree’s leaves to drop around her. “But I don’t want to take chances. Let’s move.” She started off at a slower pace down the other side of the ridge, keeping her hand lightly laying on Gabrielle’s back. “You okay?”
Gabrielle shuddered. “Yeah.” She muttered. “Except for my stupidity flashback.”
Xena glanced at the bard’s profile, which was strained, her jaw muscles clenching and releasing visibly under the skin. “Let’s find a place to hole up for a candlemark. See if they’re following us.”
Gabrielle nodded mutely.
They entered the trees at the bottom of the ridge with due caution, for once welcoming the newly gathering clouds and the threat of more rain.
They found shelter just as the rain started, two trees that had grown together in such a way as to make a triangular pocket a little ways off the ground. Xena was relieved to be off the ground, even though they didn’t have much space and the bark was more than a little pokey against her bare skin.
She had her back against the bole, and her arms wrapped around Gabrielle, as they both watched the rain and the single approach through the trees to their hiding place.
The bard was being very quiet as she sat curled up between Xena’s legs with her head resting against the warrior’s collarbone. She hadn’t said much since they’d found shelter, and Xena was starting to worry about her a little.
The reassuring thing was that she wanted to cuddle. Xena had learned during their estrangement that Gabrielle would instinctively put distance between them when she was upset or angry with her, and on the other side of the coin, would seek her out and initiate physical contact when she was upset about anything else.
Becoming a safe place again had been an unspeakably, silently wonderful moment for her.
“Damn it, I’m not going to put up with this!” Gabrielle rounded on Ephiny, sparks flying from unexpectedly angry green eyes. “If’ they have a problem with her..” She pointed at Xena. “You tell them to come talk to me!” She pointed at herself. “Or shut the Hades up!”
“Look, Gabrielle..” Ephiny held a hand up. “I know you’re pissed off, but you really need to understand where this is coming from. Those people care about you!”
“Then tell them to back off!” The bard yelled.
Xena just stood off to one side, completely at a loss as to what to do. She understood the problem the Amazons had with her, and she felt, actually, sympathy for Ephiny who was trying to be a referee in a game she had decided bias in. “Maybe I should just leave.” She finally suggested.
Gabrielle looked at her. “I’m not going to back off.” She said. “Ephiny, get all of those jerks into the common hall in a half candlemark and I’ll talk to them.”
“Am I your queen, or am I not?” Gabrielle cut her off. “Make up your mind.”
Ephiny lifted a hand, then let it fall against her thigh. “As you wish.” She turned and left the queen’s quarters, the beads at the door rattling reproachfully after her.
Gabrielle turned and put her back to the room, resting her hands on her desk. “Gods be damned.” She whispered. “I don’t’ need this.”
Xena stayed where she was, feeling sick to her stomach as the bard’s anger rolled against her. What could she say? If she hadn’t been there, there’d be no problem.
With a sigh, Gabrielle straightened up and turned, letting her hands drop to her sides as frustration showed in every line of her body. She looked across at Xena, and they both seemed to become aware of the gulf of space between them.
The gulf Xena wondered that would ever disappear completely. Or at all.
Gabrielle’s brow tensed a little, and she hesitated, her hands clenching slightly. Then she twitched into motion, walking over to Xena and pausing again before she came into her personal space and brushed against her, circling the warrior with her arms and putting her head down on her shoulder. “Make me feel better.”
Something she hadn’t done in a very long time.
Without thinking, Xena returned the hug, pulling her close and cradling the back of her head in one hand, almost numb with the pure joy of the moment. “Gabrielle.” She said, simply. “I love you.”
She felt the shudder go through the bard’s body and the hold on her tightened into a fierce squeeze. “That’ll do it every time.” Gabrielle choked out. “Thanks.”
Which one of them felt the better for it, was a mystery she had no interest in solving.
A soft sniffle drew her attention, and Xena glanced down at the figure huddled against her. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Gabrielle answered softly.
“You all right?”
The bard sighed. “My stomach hurts a little.” She admitted. “I just can’t get those.. get that.. ugh.” Her fingers tightened on Xena’s arm. “That was really rotten.”
“I know.” Xena tightened her hold a trifle.
“And I feel like an idiot.”
The warrior gave her partner a kiss on the head. “Nah.”
“Don’t ‘nah’ me, Xena.” Gabrielle said. “Where the Hades did my brain go there? What was I thinking? I know better than that.” She cleared her throat and swallowed, grimacing. “Ugh.”
“Shh.” The warrior stroked her arm soothingly. “Let it go.”
The bard sighed again.
Xena reached down and clasped Gabrielle’s wrist, probing the inside of it with a delicate touch. “Can’t offer you herbs, but let’s see if this helps.” She pressed the point just where the two bones in her partner’s wrist came together, feeling a certain tension relax as the bard put her head back down.
That old magic. Sweeter than honey on her tongue and just as welcome. Xena rested her cheek against the softness of the bard’s hair and rocked them both a little.
Gabrielle looked out at the rain, the gray light reflecting her own thoughts precisely. The one thing anchoring her was Xena’s very solid presence and the unstated support she could sense in her partner’s every move. “I didn’t expect them to try and rape me.” She finally said in an almost whisper. “That… I think that’s haunting me a little.”
Xena didn’t answer, but she released Gabrielle’s wrist and wrapped her arms around her firmly, understanding the unspoken emotion more clearly than the spoken one.
There were a thousand words in the silence between them and a thousand points of pain in two hearts that had gone through Hades together wrapped in a love that made it all bearable.
A magic of it’s own kind.
They listened to the rain for a while, each lost in different reflections. Finally, Gabrielle pressed her cheek against Xena’s chest, and let her thumb rub idly over the skin on her arm. “Have I really learned so little in all these years, Xe?”
Xena didn’t answer for a while, her eyes searching the wet trees and roaming across the grass before she let them drop back down to Gabrielle’s face. “You’re just you.” She finally said, and then fell silent again.
Gabrielle thought about what that meant to her, and to Xena. Was it true? Was she just destined to go through life having things happen to her just because she was who she was?
Did that suck? The bard thought about that darkest time in her life, echoes of which had pounded against her under the grasping hands of the creatures. She could remember that hopeless, horrible sensation of being unable to stop what was happening, and of screaming Xena’s name and for the first time knowing the warrior couldn’t help her.
The memory made her eyes sting, and she blinked as a few tears trickled out. But this time, she acknowledged, had been different. So maybe it wasn’t so bad that she’d been able to come back around to where she thought the best of people instead of the worst.
After all, Xena went through life having things happen to her pretty much just because she was who she was, didn’t she?
“Gabrielle?” Xena’s voice broke into her reverie.
“Yeah, Boo?” Gabrielle injected a note of wry humor from somewhere into her tone. “I’m sorry I’m being whiney. I think it was just the shock of seeing those… um.. what were they, anyway?”
Xena gently removed the traces of tears from the bard’s face. “I’m getting real tired of saying it, but I don’t know what they are.” She said. “But I tell you what.. if one of them comes near you again I’m gonna skin him and leave his man’s parts hanging on the nearest tree.”
“It was…” Gabrielle felt the tight sensation leaving her throat, and her stomach started to settle a little. “It was so strange, because they were wearing those furs and all, but they were so much like animals.”
Xena ran her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair, ruffling it affectionately. “You okay?” She asked. “Tell me the truth.”
“Or?” Gabrielle managed a wry grin.
“Or I’ll kiss you senseless.”
“Ooo… I’m lying. I’m lying..” The bard felt a chuckle bubble up, and she let it, then ended it with a long exhale. “Yeah, I’m okay.” She said. “I was just freaked out a little.”
“How’s your stomach?”
Gabrielle considered that seriously. “Empty.” She said. “Want to reach me some of that smoked stuff ?” She watched the rain come down harder. “Because I don’t’ think we’re going anywhere for a while.”
Reassured by the return of her partner’s appetite, Xena opened the furry flap on her makeshift bag, removing some of the meat she’d smoked the previous day. It had dried decently, but she definitely missed the bard’s spices on the somewhat bland hunks. “Here.” She selected a piece and handed it over. “When this stops, I think we better get something more dangerous than your filleting knife ready.”
“Hm?” Gabrielle chewed on the jerky. “You don’t think they’ll leave us alone?”
“No.” Xena watched the rain fall past Gabrielle’s shoulders. “They were tracking us since we got here. We’ve got something they want.”
Gabrielle looked at herself, and then at her partner, and then at the rain. “What?”
Xena pursed her lips in annoyance. “I don’t know.” She snipped the words off precisely.
“I think I’ve heard you say that more times in the last couple of days than I have the entire time I’ve known you.” The bard observed.
Gabrielle had to smile at the frustration in her partner’s voice. Xena was such a walking encyclopedia of everything that having so many things be outside her experience must be driving the poor thing nuts. “Hang in there, honey.” She returned the comforting. “I’m sure you’ll have it figured out soon enough.”
Xena frowned a little. “I’m not sure I want to figure it out.” She admitted frankly. “I want to get the Hades out of here in one piece. If there’s a lot of those guys, we could be in trouble, Gabrielle.”
A prickle of surprise went down the bard’s back. “Because of.. okay, they seemed pretty strong, but..”
“We have no weapons.”
“I have.” Gabrielle said. “And if you cut yourself one, they’re in deep trouble because between the two of us there isn’t much about quarterstaff we’ve got left to learn.”
Xena inclined her head in acknowledgement. “True, but if they jump us in big numbers, I’m not sure it’s gonna help.” She said. “So we’ve got to get creative.”
“Creative.” Gabrielle mused. “What do you have in mind?”
Xena gazed out at the rain, and grinned briefly. “Let’s wait and see.”
Ephiny sat down in the carved wooden chair, resting her arm on the desk next to it. Dori was crawling around all over the floor playing with her twin cousins, and their mother had gone off with Pony to check out the village.
She’d been left to babysit. But that was okay. “You kids be careful.” Ephiny warned them benignly. “Don’t’ get any splinters.” She leaned back in the chair and relaxed, her fingertips straying over the fine surface.
A few inches away, Gabrielle’s diary rested, it’s thick hide cover creased and marred with all the scars of her many travels. Ephiny studied it, reaching over to touch the warm leather and feeling the gouges under her fingertips.
There were stories enough for three lifetimes of a normal person in there. Ephiny shook her head. She’d seen her Queen sit quietly at night, even when she visited them, writing a page, maybe two, into this diary almost as though it was critical to her to mark each and every day.
Ephiny had considered starting a diary of her own, since the thing seemed to bring a lot of comfort to her friend. But when she’d tried it, she found that the words really didn’t come to her like they did to Gabrielle – her entries tended to be somewhat short, and pretty damn boring. She’d given it up after a few days.
But Gabrielle never had. Ephiny restrained her curiosity and restricted her snooping to simply lifting the cover, and glancing at the inside. On the first page, tattered and worn, was simply Gabrielle’s name – so carefully written she knew it must have been done when the bard was much younger.
On the inside of the leather cover, though, there was something written in a very different hand. Ephiny pulled the book a little closer to examine it, her eyes tracing the powerful, slanted letters. It was Xena’s handwriting, she recognized it from the notes the warrior had sent her partner way back when.
It was in a language she didn’t understand, though. Figures. Trust Xena to put something into her lover’s diary no one understood. Except Gabrielle, probably. Ephiny smiled, and closed the book up. She wondered where the two of them were now.
Had they gotten free of the river? Probably. The regent put
her hands behind her head and leaned back. It had taken them months to come
She didn’t grudge it to them, despite the fact that there was a boatload of clean up that had to be done around the town, and in the Amazon village. She’d seen both of them do enough for everyone over the last few years that skipping mucking out the stables seemed a cheap trade off.
They deserved a few days out alone together, Ephiny decided. They were both good moms, though her lips quirked just thinking it, and good friends. She knew Gabrielle would come back and have that half embarrassed grin on her face, and probably be in a much better frame of mind to take over the Amazons for a while.
“Eff!” Dori came over and tugged on her legging.
“What is it, bitty boo?” Ephiny picked the child up and set her on her lap. “Hm? You want some lunch? You hungry, or you want to play some more?”
Dori looked at her with an inquisitive expression. “You go wif me to get wrocks?”
Rocks. Ah yes. Dori’s favorite plaything. Ephiny glanced at the mantel, which held a representative sampling of the toddler’s collection. “Sure, honey. What kind of rocks do you want this time, round ones, or flat ones?”
“Big.” Dori held her hands up. “Big ones from the fishies.”
Ah, round river rocks. Ephiny secretly liked those herself. She’d found two of them broken in half before they’d left the old village and she’d snuck them into her pack to bring along. The inside was full of crystal, and it was just surprisingly pretty to look like. “All right.. how about we take a walk to the spring, and see if we can find some, okay?”
Dori grinned, her green eyes lighting up. “Otay!”
“Good.” Ephiny ruffled her dark hair. “You know what, Dori? You’re not so bad.” She confided. “You used to scare the chickens out of me when you were littler, you know that?” She set the child on the ground and stood up. “C’mon, kiddo. Let’s take your cousins and go find us some rocks.”
Dori galloped across the cabin floor squealing. Ephiny followed her, herding the twins as she opened the door to a strong, spring breeze and a hint of more rain in the air. “Let’s hurry up. You don’t need to catch cold, you little rascals.”
The fresh air felt good, though, and she enjoyed the feel of it against her bare arms as her little posse rambled through the thick grass, bouncing over everything in it’s path. Ephiny found herself laughing the antics, especially when Dori took charge as they got to the spring, instructing her cousins with an infantile yet definite air of authority.
“You.. go dere.” Dori pointed. “Look! Gets brown rocks.”
Ephiny seated herself on a nearby boulder to watch. “You tell em. Dor.” She said. “That’s a proper little Amazon princess.. kick some ass.”
She tried to imagine Dori as an adolescent, and it was surprisingly hard to do. Hard to say, really, which one of her parents the kid would take after as she got older. Maybe a mixture of both? “Hey, Dori?”
Dori turned her head to look. “Yes!” She pointed at Ephiny. “Eff! Go get fishes!”
Hm. She couldn’t really recall either Xena or Gabrielle ordering her around quite like that. “Go get fishes, huh? How’d you like to swim with fishes, kiddo?”
Dori grinned. “Go fishes!” She agreed, turning and running for the spring.
“Oh crap.” Ephiny got up and bolted after her. “Forgot about that.” She caught up to Dori just as she reached the spring’s edge, and managed to get hold of the back of her jumper. “Hold on little frog.” She hauled her back. “That’s too cold for you.”
“Eff!” Dori complained, feet scrabbling on the ground. “You said go to fishes!”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.. but I was just joking.” Ephiny hoisted her up. “Good grief, you’re getting huge.” She could feel the solid weight of the child and feel the strength as she put her arms around Ephiny’s neck. “You’re gonna be a bruiser like Xena, aren’t you?”
“Boo!” Dori predictably yodeled.
Yeah. Ephiny carried her back over to her cousins and put her down. She was already a lot taller than the two twins, and in the child’s small frame the regent could already see lines that reminded her of Xena. Something about the set of the shoulders, and the way she walked. “Okay, where are those rocks? I thought we’re supposed to be collecting them!”
“Get wroks.” Dori rambled off, searching in the grass. “Lolo, c’mere.”
Little Solon amiably complied, trotting over and squatting down next to her. “Gots?”
“Dook.” Dori held up a mud covered rock.
Solon took it and looked at it. “Guk.” He tossed it down, wiping his hands on his tunic.
Dori retrieved the rock and came back to Ephiny, holding it up. “Eff, good wrok!” She held it up. “See? Pretty!”
Ephiny accepted the bit of stone and studied it. “Well, I don’t know, Dori..”
The toddler grabbed the rock impatiently. “Dook!” She held it up to the light. “See?”
The pallid sunlight caught a glint in the stone, and Ephiny pulled it closer again, peering at it. She rubbed the mud off one flat side and blinked at the warm, coppery thread running all through it. “Oh.” Ephiny murmured. “Yeah, I see.”
“Pretty!” Dori said.
“Very pretty, munchkin.” Ephiny ran a finger over the metallic surface. “Are there any more over there like this?”
“More pretty rocks?” Ephiny got up. “C”mon.. let’s go find some.” She followed Dori over to where she’d dug up the rock, halfway torn between wanting to find more and hoping she didn’t. Copper ore was more than valuable – if there was enough here, it would make them all comfortable for the rest of their lives.
Dori hunkered down and pawed at the dirt, yanking up a root, and then another hunk of rock. She examined it, then tossed it aside, and continued digging. “Boo Boo Boo…” The child hummed as she worked. “Go Boo get good rocks.”
Ephiny sat down and picked up the rock she’d discarded, turning it over in her fingers. It appeared dull and uninteresting on the outside, but it appeared to be the same kind of rock as the one with the copper in it, so.. The regent half turned and smacked the rock against the boulder she was perched on, cracking it in half.
Dori turned to look at her in surprise. “Eff? What you do?”
Ephny stared at the two halves of the rock in her hand, the inside surface brilliant with orange. “Look, Dori. I made a pretty rock too.” She murmured. “Wait till Boo and mama see it.”
Dori came over and looked. “Pretty!” She agreed. “Go show mama?”
The regent looked around, at the quiet, wild place. “We’ll show mama as soon as she gets home, munchkin. I promise.”
Ephiny looked at the child. Dori was standing next to her with one hand on her knee, and a frown on her small face. “What?”
“Mama mad.” Dori looked up. “NO good.” She pouted. “Go get Boo, make mama good.”
Ephiny hesitated, wondering if the child was just rambling. “Your mama’s mad, Dori?” She asked. “When?”
“Mama mad.” Dori answered sadly.
Did Dori really know what Gabrielle was feeling, so far away? Ephiny found it hard to believe, even though she’d seen that weird connection thing between her two friends work on more than one occasion. “Well, honey, let’s go back home, and maybe when we show her the rocks, she won’t be mad anymore.”
“Mama.” Dori went back to sorting around in the grass. “Mama like.” She came back and held up another rock, this one with a visible sparkle. “Give mama, no mad.”
Ephiny took it, and stared. The stone was a chunk of raw emerald. “I bet mama wouldn’t be mad.” She murmured. “Dori, do you find rocks like this all the time here?”
Dori cocked her head. “Wroks?”
“Like this? You have rocks like this at home?”
“Lots.” The toddler nodded. “Pretty. Mama like. Boo make pictures.” She explained. “All good.”
Surely, Xena and Gabrielle knew what this stuff was. Ephiny studied the gem in her hand. Neither of them were stupid, and Gabrielle, at the very least, had a definite eye for adornment.
Was that why they moved up here?
The regent pondered that. If they let Dori keep them to play with, did that mean they just weren’t going to tell anyone about it?
Ephiny juggled the rocks. “You guys got enough now? Let’s go back home and have some cookies. How about that?”
“Cookies!” Dori was willingly distracted. “Yes!” She started off immediately in the direction of the cabin. “Go, go go.”
Ephiny strolled after her, gently herding the two twins along behind.
Gabrielle could sense they were being followed. Given that her senses were far less perceptive than Xena’s were, that meant at least the followers weren’t really that skilled, but it didn’t comfort her a lot to know that.
She walked quietly behind Xena, as they climbed up another hilly ridge between thick trees. The rain had stopped again, and other than the soft rustle of their footsteps against the sodden leaves the surrounding woods remained empty and silent.
Xena had taken her advice and cut herself a staff. It was strange for the bard to see her partner walking with one, though a master at it’s use, she generally never had one of her own. “Xena?”
The warrior paused, and waited for her to catch up. “We’ve got another couple candlemarks light left. I want to get someplace I can defend if we have to before dark.”
Gabrielle nodded. “They’re coming after us.”
Xena glanced back the way they had come, and sniffed the wind, her nostrils flaring out a little. “Yeah.” She replied briefly. “So that’s why.”
“You don’t think we can get out of here before tonight?” The bard asked. “We’re coming near that wall.”
The warrior shook her head. “We need to find a way out. By the time we reach the wall, it’ll be close to dark. Can’t chance it.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle shifted her grip on her staff. “Let’s go, then.”
Xena turned and started leading the way up again. The creek hadn’t disgorged any decent rocks for them, and nothing she’d seen so far really lent itself to weaponry. Her eyes searched the branches. Once they stopped for the night, she could collect some good upper limbs and maybe make a bow and some arrows, but she had a feeling if it came to a conflict, it would be close in and that wouldn’t do her much good.
“Know what I was thinking?” Gabrielle’s voice drifted up from behind her.
“No, what?” Xena answered, sliding past two closely growing trunks.
“What’s going on back home?”
Xena exhaled, more worried about what was going on right around her. “River’s probably still up. Takes a while to drop.” She said. “People cleaning up, I guess.” She paused to examine a small pile of sharp edged rocks, selecting one and fitting her hand around it.
“Think Dori’s making trouble?”
The warrior pursed her lips. “I left her with Eph.” She continued on, tucking the rock away in the rough sack she’d made from the hide. “Hope she forgives me.”
Gabrielle chuckled softly. “She’s been good lately.” She said. “Do you think Eph’s acting a little strange?”
Xena reached the top of the hill and paused, shading her eyes and gazing out over the terrain. She could see across a small, boulder strewn valley to another ridge, and beyond that, the slope went upwards towards the far wall of the crevasse. “Stranger than what?” She muttered.
“She’s an Amazon. It’s natural.” Xena frowned, searching for a way around the valley, and finding none. Crossing the rocky area would be tough, but they had no options at the moment.
Xena jumped, as her butt was slapped. “Gabrielle!”
The bard bumped her with her hip. “Am I weird? She asked. “Cause I’m an Amazon, and come to think of it, so are you.” Her finger poked her partner’s semi exposed ribs. “So stop dissing them.”
“Hmph.” The warrior sniffed.
They walked along the ridge for a few minutes, until Xena found a good route down, and then they started carefully along the steep slope. “Careful.”
Gabrielle picked her steps with caution, feeling the loose rocks slide under her boots. Halfway down the slope, something made her turn and look behind her, and she grabbed for Xena’s back as her eyes nearly came out of her head. “Xena!”
The warrior turned, crouching and ready to pounce, as her head whipped around. She spotted what Gabrielle had seen and in a single bound, launched herself past Gabrielle back up the slope. Near the trees they’d just left, a line of dark figures were standing, but as she reacted, they disappeared back beyond the line of the ridge.
Gabrielle dug her boots in and raised her staff. “You know something?”
“What?” Xena scanned the horizon, her body still coiled in waiting.
“You’re right. I do yell your name for damn near everything.” Gabrielle edged up a step or two, anxiously watching the treeline. “Are they coming?”
Xena straightened. “I don’t think so.” She glanced behind them. “Let’s get through this valley fast as we can. I don’t like not having any cover.”
“Right behind you, sweetheart.” Gabrielle felt her heart starting to speed up, and her hands clenched a little, her body reacting to the prospect of fighting she knew was imminent. Her breathing deepened and she arched her back a little, tightening and releasing her trunk muscles to warm them up a little.
Xena broke into a ramble, almost dancing down the side of the valley as she moved from rock to rock. She held the staff out clenched in both hands for balance.
Gabrielle followed, putting her months of morning runs to good use as she chased after the warrior. They both picked up speed as they reached the bottom of the valley, and as they did, she heard a hooting behind them.
“Run.” Xena instructed, slowing to let the bard pass her. “I’ll be right behind you.”
The bard didn’t stop to argue. She bounded down into the flat of the valley, working hard to keep her footing on the rocky ground. Behind her, she could hear Xena’s footsteps, and the sharp rattle as rocks skittered out from under her partner’s feet.
She hoped they both kept from falling on their heads. “Which way!”
“Your right.” Xena yelled back.
Gabrielle could see a narrow path leading up the next slope and she headed for it. Her ears picked up the sound of pattering feet following them, and the rattling of rocks turned into a veritable avalanche. “Xe?” She called back. “We in trouble?”
Oh boy. The bard broke into a flat out run, disregarding the rocks as her heart thundered in her ears. I guess that would be yes.
Xena judged the distance between them and their pursuers, who had spread out in a semi circle as they ran to chase them down. She and the bard had a head start, but the creatures seemed to know the land well, and were making better time across the rocks than they were.
She had a few moments to decide, now, if they were going to try and scramble up the path, or turn and make a stand together at the slope. Strategically, it would be better to get up the path to the top, because then the creatures would have to come at them one at a time and really presented very little threat.
Unless they started throwing rocks, of course.
But if they stopped at the bottom, they’d have to face a line of them and though Xena had no doubts whatsoever about either of their skills with a quarterstaff there were a lot of hairy bodies coming after them.
She glanced behind her, relying on her reflexes to keep her from sprawling headlong. The closest creature was only a few body lengths behind her, and he was charging full speed, his eyes intent on them. There was a ferociousness in the expression that made Xena’s skin crawl, and she decided taking a stand wasn’t a very good idea.
Putting the creatures behind her, she sped up, getting as close to Gabrielle as she could without disturbing her partner’s stride. The bard was charging along competently, her short stride sending bits of slate flying off in a all directions. “Keep moving.” Xena warned. “C’mon, get, get, get.”
“I’m getting!” Gabrielle rounded a boulder and almost pulled up, when she spotted a dark figure blocking the path. Then she picked up her momentum again and bolted right for him, bringing her staff up to shoulder level and cocking her arms. “Yeaaaahhhh!!!!”
The creature didn’t seem to realize what the staff was. He reached out for her, hooting in excitement and didn’t try to avoid the rapid strike as Gabrielle whipped her staff around and smacked him in the side of the head.
The staff hit the creature’s ear and blood exploded from it as he stumbled to one side and fell against a tree. Howling in pain, he scrambled back to his feet only to meet the bard’s staff again as she went past him, this time hitting him between the eyes with it’s end.
He dropped, senseless.
“Nice!” Xena complimented her, as they reached the slope.
“What?” Gabrielle yelled back, her voice taut with anxiety. “Now.. up?”
“Go!” Xena glanced behind her, then she grabbed her partner around her waist and fairly threw her up the path. She could almost feel the hot breath at her back as she fought her instincts and scrambled after Gabrielle.
Everything in her wanted to turn and fight. She hated running from it.
A hand grabbed her ankle and she kicked backwards without looking, wrenching her leg free and feeling her heel connect with something hard. She kept climbing up ward, the staff clenched in one hand and her other pulling herself up with any hold she could find. “Go!”
Another grab at her, this time a two handed catch around her calf. Xena lunged up ward, uncoiling her other leg and turning as she did, bringing the staff around and smacking her adversary right in the face with it.
She broke something, saw the blood flying, but he didn’t let go until she repeated the hit, slamming the butt of the staff right into his eye socket. He reeled back, but his fingers were still locked around her leg and she felt her footing start to slip.
The soft hide just wasn’t boots. Xena dug the end of the staff in and pushed off it, swinging her free leg around in a roundhouse kick that finally dislodged her persistent attacker. He slid down, taking out several of the frantically climbing others, and she turned and bolted, knowing she only had a moment’s grace to do so.
She came very close to crashing headlong into Gabrielle, who was skidding back down the path towards her. “Hey!”
“Okay, okay.. I’m going.” Gabrielle reversed her course hastily. “Sorry!”
Xena reached up and gave her a smack on the butt, returning an earlier favor. “Didn’t I tell you to run!?” She asked, as they climbed rapidly.
“Didn’t I tell you where you go I go?” Gabrielle retorted. “They’re still coming after us, Xe.”
“I know.” A glance behind her had revealed the creatures determinedly following, now single file as they struggled up the path. Her and Gabrielle’s greater agility and lighter weight were now giving them an advantage, and she calculated they’d make it to the top before the others caught up.
But then what? Xena hoped for open ground. If they could outrun them until she found some cover, they’d be all right. The slope beneath them became a little shallower, and she got up next to Gabrielle again, putting a hand on her back. “See that tree up there? Head for that.”
Gabrielle nodded, glancing behind her. “They’re gaining.”
“I know.” The warrior said. “But they’re coming up one at a time.. even if they catch us, we can handle them.” She urged the bard forward. “C’mon.”
Gabrielle took a better grip on her staff and leaned forward, feeling the strain against her thighs. She was catching her second wind, though, and she sped up, her eyes fixed on the tree Xena was aiming for.
Several bodylengths from it, she heard the creatures let out a yell behind her, and she slowed, looking around and bringing her staff up again. Xena bolted past her and charged the ridge, letting out a yell of her own as she reached the top and leaped over the edge of the path to confront what they both were sure was another group of the creatures.
Gabrielle hauled herself up and scrabbled the last few steps, topping the rise only to find her partner standing there alone, facing a mild slope of soft, yellow grasses.
They looked at each other. “You thought it was an ambush.” Gabrielle panted.
“So what was it?”
Xena looked down at the path. “It was an ambush.” She stepped behind the tree, and peered at the valley. “It just wasn’t ours.”
Gabrielle came up next to her and stared, watching as the creatures ran back away from the path, towards the center of the valley. Two of them were on the ground, being savaged by a huge cat, who lifted it’s head and snarled as the rest approached, hooting and waving their hands. “Huh.”
“Huh.” Xena clapped her on the shoulder. “Let’s go. No sense in wasting that bit of luck.” She pushed away from the tree and started through the grass. “That won’t distract em for long.”
Gabrielle watched the creatures try to chase the cat off their fallen cohorts, and wondered. They all circled the cat, regardless of the danger, and were trying to scare it. One of the creatures stooped and picked up a rock, throwing it at the cat with impressive strength.
The others picked up on it, and started pelting the animal, who snarled, and lunged at the closest of them.
“Gabrielle.” Xena took hold of her arm firmly. “Let’s get outta here.”
“Okay.” The bard allowed herself to be tugged away. “Xena, they’re trying to save those guys.”
Guys. Xena just kept walking. “Yeah, I saw.” She said.
“So.. they’re not just like.. animals.” Gabrielle hefted her staff and carried it at her side, rather than using it to walk with. “Are they?”
“Unfortunately, no.” The warrior broke into a jog. “Smarter they are, worse it’ll be for us.”
Gabrielle started running to keep up with her. She knew Xena was right about the creatures.. men.. whatever, but she couldn’t help but wonder if they were smart enough, couldn’t they communicate with them? At least find out what they wanted?
Or, well, she knew what they wanted, but find out why they were so desperate to.. um. Her eyes fell on Xena, as the sun finally found a crack in the clouds and burst through. It lit the warrior up in golden warmth, with her tatty shift belted around her, and her makeshift boots and put a hint of fire along her tanned skin.
Okay. Well, Gabrielle put the thought aside for later, when they were safe. Her heartbeat had settled down again, and she welcomed the heat of the sun after their wet day. They ran through the knee high grass, and every minute or so she’d turn to check behind them.
Quiet so far. She only hoped it stayed that way.
They reached the far wall with the sun already beginning to slant down past the crevasse edge. Days were, Gabrielle suddenly realized, much shorter here and nights longer, because the sun only shone down into the valley when it was at it’s highest. “Wow.” She followed Xena through the trees. “I thought I was just..”
“What?” Xena examined the rock wall, frowning at it’s solid, unhelpful appearance.
“Nothing.” Gabrielle walked along next to her. “You know, I think I liked being out in the open better. You can see further.” She peeked over her shoulder, at the thick forest around them.
“Mm.” The warrior pushed through a bunch of bushes. “Well, you better hope we find someplace to hide in or you’ll be sleeping in a tree again.”
“You sound like that should scare me.” Gabrielle detoured a few steps when she spotted an elderberry bush. The tiny berries weren’t her favorite, and truth be told, she enjoyed them as jam more, but she wasn’t going to turn down any option at this point.
She expertly picked several branches free, and stuffed them in the rough sack she’d made from a piece of the hide of the big deer thing. Another handful got stuffed into her mouth, and she chewed the berries as she followed Xena along the edge of the trees.
The day had a poignant familiarity to it, of a sudden. Gabrielle felt the years slip away from her as she foraged, remembering moons and moons of being on the road alone with Xena when every day had ended more or less, just like this.
Her finding part of their dinner, Xena looking for a place to camp.
Danger around them. Gabrielle understood that she could keep as relaxed about that as she was because she’d spent so much time with threats of all kinds hanging over her. Ruffians, or thieves, or bounty hunters after Xena, wild animals, sometimes angry gods.. you couldn’t be nervous all the time or you’d just fall down, she’d discovered.
So – she saved her nerves for when she needed them, for the moment when the steel was coming at her, or fireballs were singing her hair, when the danger became real and immediate instead of that ever present potential.
You slept better that way, too. “Hey, Xena?” Gabrielle spotted a tiny creek. “Look.” She pointed at the flow of the water. “That’s coming from the wall.. should we follow it?”’
The warrior examined the creek. She knelt next to it and scooped up a mouthful, swirling it around before she swallowed it. “Hm.” It had a strong mineral taste, rather than the rich, earthen one from running over ground for a long time. “Yeah.” She stood up and started along it. “Good catch.”
Another flash from the past, and it made Gabrielle smile. “You know what I miss?”
“Well, yeah, of course. But.. I was thinking about my diary.” Gabrielle said.
“Mm.” Xena spotted a turtle, a nice big one with a shell the size of her head. Incredibly useful. She glanced back at Gabrielle, and then she sighed, and walked past the animal. “Look. A friend of yours.”
“Oo!” The bard trotted over and knelt by the turtle. “Hi there!.. oh, Xena look! He’s got two heads!”
The warrior backtracked and crouched at her side, looking at the animal, who placidly stood there chewing algae with both sets of jaws. “Hmph.” She made a small, surprised sound. “Never saw that before.” She reached out and touched the shell, rubbing her thumb over it’s damp ridges. “There’s so many strange things here, Gabrielle. I don’t really understand it.”
“Like everything.” Xena exhaled, and indicated their surroundings. “Nothing’s right. Everything’s different than it should be.. the plants, the animals.. it’s like we got on a ship and went to a far away place. Like Chin.”
Gabrielle looked away, past her partner’s shoulder. She was briefly silent, then nodded. “They did have different animals there.” She acknowledged quietly. “But Xena, we’re only a day’s river journey from home. We were both born near here.”
“I know.” Xena seemed honestly perplexed. “But look at this turtle.. even without having two heads, it’s totally different looking than the ones near Amphipolis.” She pointed at the shell. “Round, not oval. Bumps here, and look at the color.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle pushed a bit of hair back behind her ear. “That is different.” She admitted. “And what about that fish, Xena? It had feet.”
“Yes.” The warrior gave the turtle a pat, and then she stood up. “Like it was neither one thing or the other.” She offered Gabrielle a hand up. “Let’s go find our cave, so we can talk about it.” Her eyes flicked behind them, searching the trees intently.
“They here?” Gabrielle caught the stiffening of her partner’s frame.
“Something is.” Xena picked up her pace.
They walked quickly along the water, it’s depth and width getting wider as they neared the wall. Gabrielle could hear a rushing sound she knew was a waterfall.
Then she heard footsteps behind them. “Xena..”
“I hear it.” Xena sighed. “Let’s go.” She broke into a jog.
They traced the water, and as they broke out of the trees into a boulder strewn field, they heard a by now familiar hooting behind them. Xena glanced behind her, then she grabbed Gabrielle’s arm and pointed. “Into the water. There.”
“The w..” Gabrielle turned around, and saw the line of figures moving toward them. “Okay.” She splashed into the fast flowing stream, feeling the icy cold ripples against her knees, then her thighs. “Wouldn’t we be able to move faster if we were on land?”
“Yes.” Xena watched as the line of figures reached the water.
It stopped, and the creatures started jumping up and down, yelling and waving thin sticks they were now holding in their hands.
“Where are we going?” Gabrielle asked, as she caught the sight of the figures running downstream. “They’ll just cross where it’s shallow in there and catch us on the other side!”
Xena waded in deeper, now up to her waist as she headed directly upstream. “We’re not going across.” She reached out to grab hold of Gabrielle’s arm again, pulling her against the current. “Over there.”
“Under the falls?” Gabrielle asked. “What if..”
“It’s just rocks? Then we’re getting a free water massage.” The warrior told her grimly. “But it’s our best shot right now.”
“Yippee.” Gabrielle used both hands on her staff, shoving it down into the river bottom and pulling herself forward. She could hear the creatures approaching on the other bank, and as she turned her head, she caught sight of one flinging something at them .”X.f” She managed to swallow the instinctive bellow, and yanked her partner’s arm instead.
The rock fell short, but others took it’s place and in a minute they were ducking a veritable hailstorm of them. “Yow!” Gabrielle yelped, as one stung her in the arm. “You darn pig butts!”
Xena hit the center of the channel and surged upstream with powerful strokes. “Hang on to my belt.” She told the bard, waiting for Gabrielle to get a hold before she started swimming in earnest, leaving the staff she’d picked up behind to use both arms.
Gabrielle was torn between wanting to aid the effort, and knowing if she let loose she’d never catch up to the warrior. So she kept hold of her staff, and tried to use the end of it to fend off any rocks headed their way.
The creatures raced alongside the banks, the nearest ones daring to go up to their ankles at the edge of the stream, but jumping out again almost immediately. She could see their faces now clearly, round, with pushed forward faces a little like Jessan’s people, and broad noses. They had uniformly dark hair curling around their heads, and thick hair on their arms and legs as well.
Some were naked. A few had skins wrapped around them.
They grunted and screamed, showing their teeth, hopping up and down and throwing whatever was within their reach at them.
Gabrielle felt the ripples of water tearing at her, and she marveled again at Xena’s strength as the warrior pulled both of them through the powerful current. As they neared the waterfall, the creatures became almost frantic with excitement, hooting so loudly it was giving her a headache.
Missiles started dropping in the water near them and all of a sudden, two of the biggest of the creatures jumped in, and started slapping at the surface, trying to get to them.
Xena stroked past them, throwing herself with every ounce of energy at the water and skimming them past the outstretched hands with hand lengths to spare. The two tried to follow, but water current pushed them back and they made a last lunge just as Xena made a huge effort of her own, pulling them both under the waterfall and out of sight.
Gabrielle felt the water thunder down over her, and she could feel an almost equal power surge coming from under the water as the cleared the sheeting wall. She blinked her eyes and shook her head to clear her hair from them, looking quickly around as Xena caught hold of an outcropping and held them in place.
If she looked behind them, through the falls, she could see quicksilver glimpses of the creatures, but it didn’t look like they were coming any closer. Satisfied, she turned around and looked at the space they were in, her jaw dropping slightly and a startled sound coming from her throat. “Brp.”
“Mm.” Xena was holding them steady against the flow. The cliff behind the falls jutted out to form an overhang, and below that was the gushing heart of the spring that fed the river. It flowed from a cavern mouth she could just see past and into, down a center channel carved out over many years. “Better than I hoped for.”
They pulled themselves over to the cavern edge and out of the water, moving along the narrow strip of rock into the interior of the cavern. “Never thought I’d be this glad to be in one these things.” Xena commented wryly.
“Me either.” Gabrielle exhaled, looking around her. The cavern was small and mostly bare- the center channel delved down into the rocks about mid way across it, leaving an open platform above with a ceiling high enough for Xena to stand upright without ducking her head. There wasn’t much there but some sand and pebbles, but it was dry and quiet, and thankfully free of creatures.
Xena walked around the edges, then sighed, and dropped the sodden pack from her back onto the ground. “No other entrances.” She remarked. “Looks like we’ll have to go out the way we came in.”
The warrior sat down on the ledge over the spring and stared at the back of the waterfall. She was fairly confident the creatures weren’t going to follow them in here.. she knew they weren’t swimmers and the water before the falls was deep.
The question was – would they stay out there and wait for them to come out? And if they did, how were they going to get past them?
Gabrielle was searching along the edge of the water, ducking out the entrance and then coming back with some soggy driftwood in her arms. “Not much, but it’s here.”
Xena nodded. “Wont’ be much good until it dries.”
Gabrielle set the wood down and came over to sit next to her. “That’s okay.” She leaned against her partner. “I’m just happy to be sitting down.”
“We’ll work the rest out.” The bard said. “Somehow.”
Xena kicked her hide covered feet against the rocks and exhaled, wondering just how the somehow would end up to be.