One Wild Ride
The day outside was beginning to wane. The rain had cleared, and the fading light reflected in a purple wash off the waterfall thundering outside their hiding spot.
Xena stood just inside it, her arms crossed and her eyes searching through the moving water, watching the outside for any signed of their pursuers.
She didn’t think they’d approach the cave – the falls obscured them, and the rushing creek would take a damn good swimmer to make headway against. But she could see at the edge of the water, near the last bend, a few hairy figures hunkered down waiting.
Fair enough. Xena conceded. But how long would they stay for?
The warrior sighed. After investigating their little nook fully, she wasn’t really that happy about it and she was already pondering if they should sneak out after dark and find a better.
Gabrielle lay flat on her back, her head pillowed on her makeshift sack and the remainder of the hide under her. The light was fading outside, and she was using what was left to study the craggy ceiling as she listened to Xena rattling around near the front of the little cave.
She knew the warrior wasn’t happy. Xena never paced and muttered when she was, but there was little the bard could do about it at the moment, so she merely stretched her body out a little, mourning the hard stone under her, and tried to relax as much as she could.
They had the wood drying in one corner, and their clothing drying in another. It was a little chilly in the cave – the cold water emerging from the rocks and the faint mist from the waterfall was putting a few goosebumps on her bare skin but it was bearable, and certainly better than sitting around in wet stuff.
For a long time, she’d never understood Xena’s need to be in the moment. The warrior put the past aside, and didn’t concern herself with the future, instead, she lived very much in the present and had, since the bard had known her.
Right now, though, she understood it. Yesterday was unrecoverable, tomorrow was uncertain, but right now was right now and it was good to lay quietly and rest, making idle patterns from the crystals winking down from the cavern roof.
Xena came over and sat down on the hide next to her, laying a warm hand on her belly and giving her a friendly scratch. “Miss our cabin?”
“Hah!” Gabrielle chuckled. “You need to ask?” She blinked a little as her body reacted to the gentle touch against her skin. “I’d even settle for your tree at this point.”
“Me, too.” The warrior laid down so they were side by side. “Know something?”
“What?” The bard turned her head so she could watch her partner’s face.
“Being out in the wet, with no clothes and no tools isn’t my thing.” Xena pronounced. “Don’t like it. Not into it. Want out of it.”
Gabrielle let her eyes wander down her companion’s naked body, then one of her eyebrows quirked upwards a trifle. “Oh, I dunno.” She drawled. “It has it’s moments.”
Xena grinned wryly at her. “Let’s just say it’d be a lot sexier on the bearskin rug in front of our fire.” She folded her hands over her stomach. “I’m not sure how good an idea this was.”
Gabrielle mimicked her posture. “Well.” She wriggled her nose, then reached up to scratch it. “I didn’t think we had many options. They were about to catch us, Xe.”
“Yeah, I know. But there isn’t much in here, and we can’t stick around.” The warrior complained. “A couple rocks, yeah, but aside from clean water, we don’t have much else.”
“Except each other.” Gabrielle reached out and tangled her fingers with her partner.
Xena’s eyes searched the cavern roof, a faint smile playing at her lips.
“You think they’ll stay out there?” Gabrielle went on. “They have to go eat and sleep sometime, right?” She asked, reasonably. “I’m sure we can find something to use to get away with, Xena. We’re both pretty bright people.”
The warrior chuckled softly. “Yeah, we are.”
“So, what’s the problem?” The bard asked.
Xena sighed. What was the problem? She wished she knew. She wished she understood more of what was going on around them, where the strange animals came from, and the even stranger creatures. Finally she shrugged. “I’m in a bad mood.”
“Ah” Gabrielle reached over and gave her a comforting pat on the arm. “Damn, I left my honeyballs at home.”
Xena snorted softly. “You left everything at home.”
“Almost everything.” The bard agreed. “Brought the only thing I couldn’t live without.” She watched the warrior’s profile from the corner of her eye, seeing the tensing of the skin across her cheek as she smiled. “And I don’t know.. there’s something to be said for traveling light.”
Reluctantly engaged, Xena made a show of eyeing her companion up and down. “Speak for yourself, shorty.” She advised, but she reached over to run her fingers through Gabrielle’s hair. “I think I’m just being cranky.”
“You just hate not having sharp things, don’t you?” Gabrielle asked, in a mild voice. “Xena, you can make a weapon out of anything. Not only do I believe that, I’ve seen it. Pans, pots, trees, water, cups of mead, beads, bangles… pfy.”
Xena gently covered the bard’s mouth, stifling her. “There’s no percentage in tricking and killing animals, Gabrielle.”
The bard’s brows converged across her forehead.
Purple shadows chased across the warrior's features. "I've been in tough spots before. You know that." Xena said. "I've never shied from going in against the odds."
The brows creased further.
Xena sighed. "I'm not making any sense, am I?"
The bard shook her head.
Xena removed her hand. "Yeah, I think I need a nap." She admitted. "I don't know what the Hades I mean either." One hand lifted and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "We can hole up in here for a little while.. long as that meat lasts. No fish from the spring."
"Sorry." Xena removed her hand.
"So'kay." Gabrielle reached out and stroked Xena's arm. "Long day."
"Mm." Xena's tone was pensive.
"But we're here at the end of it." The bard continued, with a gentle smile. "So how bad could it be?"
How bad could it be? Xena felt her bad mood slipping away, surrendering before Gabrielle’s barrage of romantic pronouncements. She knew they’d think of something, figure out some way to get out of the mess they were in – she just wished she could think of it *now* instead of later. That’s all.
Patience had never, really, been her forte. Xena turned her head so she could study the naked woman at her side. Gabrielle had her ankles crossed, and the smooth lines of her muscular frame and the fine arch of her ribs became a lot more interesting to contemplate than the creeps outside. “Think that stuff’ll dry out enough for me to make a fire?”
"Let's just take it one thing at a time." The bard said. "Let's see what we can put together for fighting those guys, then we can maybe figure out how we can distract them so we can slip out of here."
Hmm. Xena rolled over, and draped herself over Gabrielle's body, making the bard's green eyes almost come out of her head with the sudden, warm assault. "I think I got something that'd distract em." She purred into Gabrielle's ear. "Whadda you think?'
"Erf?" Gabrielle felt a hot tingle ignite inside her, banishing the chills.
"I'm distracted." The bard ran her hands along her partner's ribs. "And you know what? We don't need any fire." She let the rush of the spring and the thunder of the waterfall rush through her, staying in the moment and forgetting what waited for them outside.
“We don’t?” Xena nibbled her way down Gabrielle’s neck, her fingertips exploring further.
“Nope.” Gabrielle found even the discomfort of the rocks fading. “We do.. ooh.” Her words faded into incoherence, ending with a soft, guttural sound.
Gabrielle was drowsing, her body wrapped up in the skin as night fell outside. She felt relaxed and sated, her head pillowed on her arm as she listened to Xena tending the tiny fire they’d actually managed to get started
The sound of the waterfall obscured almost everything, but she could catch hints from outside, the scream of a cat, a howl.. it made her glad she was inside the cave, plain as it was. “Whatcha doing?” She asked Xena, hearing a soft clonking sound from whatever the warrior was up to.
“Seeing if I can boil water.”
Gabrielle’s mist green eyes opened immediately and she squirmed around to see her partner. In the very dim firelight, she caught sight of what Xena was doing, and the oddness made her sit up and peer closer. “Wh… oh.”
Xena sat back, observing her work with some satisfaction. The one thing they had in plenty in the cave were rocks, and she’d build up a pile of them with room in the bottom for her fire. On the top of the pile, she’d left an opening about the size of her two cupped hands, and in that was sitting a half round object.
“What is that?” Gabrielle pointed at it. “Xena, you didn’t go back and get that turtle, did you?”
Xena looked at her. “Listen.” She rested an elbow on her knee. “I love you, and I respect you, my bard, but if it comes down to us starving or me killing a turtle, the turtle’s a goner, got me?”
“Aww.” Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair. “We’re not starving!”
“Speak for yourself.” The warrior said. “But it’s not the damn turtle so don’t worry about it.”
At that, Gabrielle got up and walked over to the little makeshift oven, peering more closely at the bowl. “Oh.” She wrinkled her nose a little. “Deerwhatever skull.”
“Mm.” Xena tended the fire carefully, feeding it with the few sticks that had managed to dry out. “I needed to let it harden for a while.. I think it’ll work.” She eyed the unevenly cracked bone. “Did the best I could with it.”
Gabrielle walked over and picked up her clothing, feeling it and finding it mostly dry. She pulled her top on and tightened the laces, and then wrapped her skirt around her. “Know what I have?”
“Cute kneecaps.” Xena poked her fingertip into the water inside the skull, grunting a little as she detected some warmth near the bottom. “Getting there.”
“Mint leaves.” Gabrielle carried her makeshift sack over and sat down cross legged next to her partner. “Or were you just planning on drinking hot water from that animal head?” She dumped out the contents of her bag and sorted through them, putting the mint aside along with the elderberry leaves and berries.
Xena picked up a leaf and examined it, biting into the green bit and chewing it experimentally. “Mm.” She licked her lips. “It’s mint.”
Gabrielle gave her a look. “Listen, partner, I’ve been collecting your tea leaves long enough to know which ones they are, okay?” She put a pile of the mint leaves on her knee. “I wasn’t about to repeat the time I mistook mint for oregano.”
The warrior chuckled briefly. “I remember that.”
“You spit hot tea over Argo’s head. I’m sure you do.” Gabrielle put her own finger in the water, pleased that it did, in fact, seem to be heating up. “One of my more embarrassing moments in my early life with you, matter of fact. Right up there with not knowing what a codpiece was and tripping and falling to Argo’s road droppings.”
Xena remembered those too. “You were so cute.” She agreed.
“That was not cute.”
“Sure it was.” The warrior disagreed. “Just the way you’d look up at me with that helpless look.. got me every time.” She picked up an elderberry branch and nibbled a berry cautiously. After a moment’s silence, she looked up, to find the bard looking at her. “Hey, it did.”
Gabrielle looked down at the leaf in her hands. “Do you know how many nights I cried myself to sleep, thinking you thought I was a useless nitwit?”
Xena took the leaf from her. “About as many nights as I sat up wondering when you’d figure out I wasn’t worth your time of day and leave.”
Gabrielle’s lips tensed, then after a moment, twitched into a wry grin that belied the glint of tears in her eyes. “Love sure is an amazing thing, huh?”
The warrior nodded silently.
The bard scooped up a handful of the mint leaves and picked up a bit of stone, pounding them gently to bruise the surface and let the oils out, relaxing in the soundless understanding between them as she went through the familiar motions.
She remembered Xena teaching her this very step, something she’d never seen her mother do or anyone in her village but which the warrior knew because of her being a healer.
She remembered the many, many cups they’d shared together over the years and remembered the time she’d finally realized the wooden cup Xena’d been using for months was the one she’d given her, all others having been discarded.
She remembered the first night after Xena had come back from the dead, and they’d drank from the same cup tea that was half leaf and half her tears.
She remembered the first time she made them both tea again, after the bad times and forgot to think twice about it.
The bard looked up. “Hm?”
“I think that’s enough.” Xena indicated the small pile of pulp in front of her. “You can dump it in now.”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle gathered the leaf fragments up and put them in the half skull, watching them drift into the water. “I was just thinking about us.”
“Mmhm.” Xena nibbled off some more berries. “Guess we’ve got that, some meat and these.” She indicated the berries. “We’ve had worse.”
Gabrielle fished out the dried meat and started cutting it into manageable pieces, her eyes darting occasionally over to watch Xena as she dragged a small pile of round river rocks in front of her. “Where did those come from?”
“Spring.” The warrior picked among them and selected one about the size of her fist. “I’m gonna try something.. saw it done once, a long time ago.” She picked up a much larger rock, a piece of granite from the cave, positioning it above the selected stone and slamming it down unexpectedly, with a resounding crack.
“Yow!” Gabrielle shielded the meat with one hand to keep rock fragments from littering it. ‘What the heck was that for?”
Xena lifted the granite and set it aside, examining the results. The river stone had been cracked in half, but the crack had happened on the diagonal. She lifted one half of the rock, and showed Gabrielle the interior. It was a glassy iridescent surface, with sharp angles. “See?”
Gabrielle peered at it. “Yes, but I have no idea what I’m looking at except a half of a rock.”
Xena picked up her hand and brought it close, running her fingertip over the edge.
“Yow.” Gabrielle jerked in surprise. “That’s sharp!”
“Exactly.” Xena turned the rock over in her hands and regarded it. “Now let’s see what I can do with it.” She set the rock down on it’s end, and picked up a second, tapping it experimentally.
Gabrielle watched, trading off taking a piece of meat and feeding Xena one as the warrior worked with both hands on her task. She never would have thought of using rocks to cut with, especially round river rocks, but that was part of Xena’s unending series of talents.
“Ow.” The warrior hit her finger with the rock she was using as a hammer. “Bacchae.”
Well, even unending talent took practice, after all.
Eponin climbed the last little bit of the path to the cabin, glad of the peaceful night sounds that had finally descended around her. On her back was a sack that contained some rough rations, scrounged from the back of the inn where everyone and their grandparents were taking shelter.
What a freaking mess. Eponin actually found herself looking forward to being in the solitude of Xena and Gabrielle’s place, Dori or no Dori. At least here weren’t hissy elders, muddy merchants, or cycling Amazons inside.
She mounted the steps to the porch and paused to shake the biggest raindrops off her cloak, before she pushed the door open and stepped inside. “Hey.” She stopped to remove the cloak, and hang it on the wall peg.
Ephiny was lounging on the bearskin, idly watching Dori do something or other. “Hey.” She looked up when the weapons master entered, and lifted a hand for a wave. “How’s it going down there?”
“First rank crap.” Eponin dropped her pack onto the floor and sat down in one of the chairs. “What a bunch of townheads.” She waggled her fingers at Dori, who turned around to look at her. “Hi, ya little wild weasel.”
“Poopoo.” Dori greeted her solemnly. “Wet.”
“Uh huh.” Eponin agreed. “Everything’s wet. Town’s wet, our village is wet, the whole damn mountain is wet.”
“Mm.” Ephiny nodded.
The weapons master looked around the cabin. “Only thing practically for leagues that ain’t wet is this place.” She looked at Ephiny. “Rocking pick, boss.”
Ephiny’s hazel eyes twinkled. She lifted a hand and made a somewhat autocratic gesture. “That’s why they give me the big feathers.” She said. “I wanted some time out.. can’t think of a better excuse to get it than babysitting our little princess here.”
“Pincess.” Dori pounded the wood floor with her stuffed dragon. “No gots pincess, gots Famby.” She explained. “Mama take Famby, go to fishes.”
Ephiny reached over and picked up the stuffed animal. “Did mama send Flameball to the fishes because he gets dirty? Do the fishes wash him?”
“Go fishes, make good smell.” Dori agreed.
“She’s really into water, huh?” Pony mused. “You see her swim?”
“Mm.” Ephiny pounced the dragon over to where Dori was sitting, legs spraddled. “Like a little fishie, huh Dor?”
“Fishie!” Dori squealed. “Like that!”
Pony chuckled, shaking her head as she started unpacking her bag, laying the provisions she’d scarfed up on the table. A loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, a sausage she’d stolen right from under Cyrene’s nose and a big bunch of grapes. “Ain’t much.”
“Looks good to me.” Ephiny said. “I’ve got some of that soup from yesterday left… we’ll be fine.” She tickled Dori’s foot, chuckling as the child scowled at her. “How’d the river look?”
“Still rising.” Pony said. “They managed to get the plateau drained down at our place, though. Things are working out there.”
“Good.” Ephiny hoisted herself to her feet and came over to the table. She sat down and laid her hands on the top of it, smoothing the neatly fitted wood. She had a table in her quarters in the village, but it was far more roughly made, and the legs wobbled at bit. This one sat square, and the top had a pretty inlay of darker and lighter woods in a pattern. “This is pretty.”
“Yeah.” Pony agreed. “Musta cost em.” She added. “But they got the dinars for it.. I guess.”
“Xena made it.” The regent disagreed.
“Yeah?” Pony seemed honestly surprised. “No poop?” She examined the table with more interest. “She really made this, by herself?”
Ephiny nodded. “Yeah.. I asked Gab about it over in the other place.. figured someone in the town had done it up for them. I wanted maybe to get one like it.. she thought it was pretty funny.”
“Suggested I commission Xena to do it.” The regent grinned wryly. “She made that desk of Gab’s, back in the old cabin, too. They’re gonna move it up here.. just waited for the roof to be done.”
“Wow.” Pony murmured. “Anything she can’t do?”
“Cook, apparently.” Ephiny got up and walked over to the hearth, swinging the pot back into place over the fire. “But I found out something today, and I’m not sure what to do about it.” She continued on, picking something up off the mantle. She walked back to the table and put it down in front of Eponin. “This.”
Pony picked it up and looked at it. “Nice.” She glanced around. “You find it in here? I’m sure all the places they been, they’ve found gods only knows what.”
Ephiny shook her head. “No.” She sat down. “I found it in the little creek up above the ridge.”
“Dori’s got a whole collection of pretty rocks like this.” The regent said, meeting Eponin’s eyes meaningfully.
Pony turned the rock in her fingers. “Eph, this is worth more than our whole damn village.”
“I know.” Ephiny rested her chin on her fist. “And, they have to know, Pon. Xena and Gab, I mean. They gotta know what this stuff is.”
Dori came over and climbed up onto the smaller chair at the end of the table. “Go play with pitty rocks?” She asked, seeing the piece of stone in Pony’s hands. “Boo makes pictures.”
The two Amazons looked at each other in silence. Finally, Pony exhaled. “Well.” She put the rock down and nudged it back towards Ephiny. “I guess we have to wait for them to come back to ask em.” She shrugged. “Probably.. you know, Eph, probably they kept quiet cause they know what that’d do to this place.”
Ephiny nodded. “That’s what I was thinking too.” She agreed. “Cause frankly.. anything else would just suck.”
Gabrielle had tidied up what she could, and packed away what she could, and now found herself with nothing more to do than relax and watch Xena work. The tea had turned out pleasant, though drinking from the edge of the bone cup had not been, and she’d missed their usual dose of honey in it.
She suspected Xena missed it even more than she did though the warrior hadn’t commented on it either way.
Xena had knocked off the other side of her rock, but then the entire thing had split on her, and she’d discarded it, moving on to the next rock, a stubborn look on her face. She’d gotten that one, slightly bigger and more round, broken to her satisfaction and now she was working with a smaller piece of granite in shaping a rough sort of blade with it.
Gabrielle really wanted to curl up with her head on Xena’s thigh, but her beloved partner was scattering bits of sharp rock everywhere and she really didn’t want it hitting her in the face. She contented herself with finding a comfortable a spot on the hard floor as she could instead. A piece of stone ended up near her anyway, and she picked it up. “That’s pretty.”
Xena glanced over at her. “What is?”
Gabrielle held the shard up. It was a very thin piece of the river stone, and it had facets that caught the firelight. The edges were amazingly sharp when she ran her fingertip over them, but also seemed very fragile.
“Pain in the ass to work with.” Her partner grunted, going back to her task.
“Mm.” Gabrielle studied the piece further, sitting up a little and experimentally trying the edge of the stone against a scrap of the hide. To her mild surprise, it cut through the skin easily, with as much effort as she’d normally have to use with her oft sharpened hand knife. “Wow.”
Gabrielle displayed the cut. “That works.”
“Mm” Xena indicated her discarded sack boots. “Wanna make those fit me better?”
Delighted at both the chance of doing something productive and the added bonus of doing it for Xena, Gabrielle immediately got up and retrieved the boots, which already were showing the hard wear very typical of her partner. “Let’s see what I can do.”
“Wish I had socks.” Xena eyed the makeshift footwear mournfully.
Gabrielle reached over and tweaked one of her toes. “You can have mine.” She touched a raw spot on the top of the warrior’s foot. “You should have said something.”
Xena wiggled her toes, and gave Gabrielle a mildly sheepish look.
Gabrielle scooted forward a little and took the battered appendage into her lap, giving the warrior’s powerful ankle a pat before she started to work. Xena had merely wrapped the bottom layer of the makeshift boots in a large fold of the hide, tying it tightly around her leg to try and keep it in place.
It hadn’t really worked that well and after a day’s travel and all the mud and rain, the booties were looking pretty sad. “Xena, Xena, Xena.” Gabrielle untied the knotted gut and spread everything out. “This is so not like you.”
“I was preoccupied.” Xena went back to delicately tapping her rocks. “You were yelling my name.”
“Hm.. so I was.” The bard decided to start by attaching the sole of the boot to it’s upper. She patiently poked holes in the hide with one of the fishbones, threading gut through them in a running knot stitch. “Now that you said that, I started realizing just how much I do that.”
”Yell ‘Xena!!!!” Gabrielle supplied. “I don’t even think about it. It’s just total reflex.”
Xena knocked off another flake, turning the rock in her hands and studying the results. She’d produced a very rough looking point on one end of the stone, a teardrop shape that was heavy enough and sharp enough as she hefted it in her hand to do some damage.
Experimentally, she lifted her arm and swung in an imaginary strike. Though she came within a whisper of Gabrielle’s bend head, the bard didn’t so much as twitch, her fingers busy on her task. “Hm.”
“How’s it going?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena sighed. “It works.. but I’m not sure it’s worth anything.” She moved her arm in a stabling gesture again. “If they’re that close, I just as easily could break their necks with a kick. Probably safer to.”
Gabrielle glanced down the length of her partner’s very long legs, and had to agree that was probably true. One of the big advantages she had with her staff, in fact, was that she could reach far beyond her own body length to get to attackers before they got too close to her.
She looked back at the rock. “Could you tie it onto something? Like a hatchet?” She asked.
Gabrielle went back to the boot, drawing the sides of the hide up around Xena’s calf and reviewing the results. After a moment’s pondering, she made two careful slits in the hide, and inverted their ends, sewing a seam up from her instep.
Xena watched her, a brow lifting, then a look of thoughtful acceptance crossed her face. She went back to studying her new weapon, looking around the cave for something she could use to put Gabrielle’s idea in action.
They had some wood, but most of it was small, and brittle – ideal for use in the fire but not very good for anything else. Her eyes wandered over to their stuff, and then paused, fastening on the antlers she’d lugged on her back the whole way from their hideout the night before.
Well, duh. The warrior sat quietly, her mind trying to shape the hard antler into a form that could hold her stone ax. There were a few forks in it, and… yes. Her head nodded once or twice. A fork, with two or three small prongs she could sharpen into a point as well around it.
If she fit the stone ax inside, she’d have a reasonable weapon, and the antlers were curved – that would amplify her already powerful swing and give some advantage out of it.
Excellent. Xena relaxed, setting the stone down and returning her attention to the fully absorbed in her work bard. Gabrielle had the tip of her tongue sticking out, and she was bent over the hide, painstakingly pushing the tattered bit of gut through to hold it together. “Gabrielle?”
The bard’s hands stopped moving, and she looked over. Both eyebrows lifted in question.
“Gotta tell ya. I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather be stuck in a place like this with than you.” Xena told her sincerely.
Gabrielle looked around, seemingly either puzzled or confused, then she looked back at her. “Um… thanks.” She said. “Did I do something and just missed it or… what?” Her eyes dropped back down to the boot. “Or am I not doing this right?
Xena merely looked at her in bemusement.
“Or are you just saying that?” Gabrielle grinned hesitantly. “And I’m being insecure and silly?”
Xena rewarded her with a sexy grin.
“Hey, what can I tell you.” The bard chuckled with a touch of embarrassment as she went back to her task. “It’s a little strange, being in here, isn’t it? The falls blocks everything outside. I can’t hear anything but water.”
“Do you feel safe in here?” Gabrielle finished her stitching, and laid a hand on Xena’s leg.
Xena looked around. “I feel like I’m in a dead end here.” She replied honestly. “I think if they want to bad enough, they’ll figure out a way to get in, so the longer we stay here, the less safe it feels.”
“Okay.” The bard said. “You think we should get out tonight, then?”
Xena hadn’t really thought about it for a while, but hearing the words, she knew the truth of them. “Yes.” She said. “We can wait until the moon sets. Go out in the darkest part of the night.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle said again. “I better get sewing then. Hold still.” She drew the two seams she’d just finished together and mimed a lacing. “I figured if I did this.. and you pulled it tight it would go around your foot there, like.. yeah.
Xena wiggled her foot and grunted approval. “Good.” The hide now felt much snugger around her leg and more comfortable. “Now I know where to go for my next set when we get home.” She teased.
Gabrielle stuck her tongue out, then went back to her lacing. “Do you think they have any human qualities at all, Xena? I mean, like us?” She asked quietly. “There’s no way for us to reach them.. to communicate with them?”
Xena drew up her non-occupied knee and rested her arm on it. The answer wasn’t a simple one, and she knew Gabrielle deserved more than a simple answer, given their history.
Given her history. “We don’t have a common language.” She said. “I’m not sure they have a language at all.”
“Just didn’t see it.” Xena replied slowly. “Even with hand signals.. grunts, .. you can see when hunters are communicating. They weren’t.”
Gabrielle remained quiet for a few minutes, working hard. “Oh.” She finally said. “And if they don’t communicate with each other, there’s not much chance they’ll communicate with us.”
“So, what do they really want from us?” Gabrielle looked up. “Is it just an animal thing? That doesn’t make sense, Xena. We run into wild animals all the time, and none of them yet have tried to.. um… “
“Yeah, I know.”
“So what does it mean?”
The pale blue eyes, hazel in the fire’s golden light, blinked at her. “I don’t know what it means, Gabrielle.” Xena said. “What I do know is that they meant us harm, when we did nothing to them. I’m not going to sacrifice either of us to find out what their motivation was. Or is.”
“No buts.” Xena laid a hand on her partner’s leg. “This isn’t the Horde, Gabrielle. I’m not going after them. They’re coming after us.”
“Mm.” The bard half nodded. “I just hate the unreasoning nature of it. I can’t escape thinking that if people can talk, they can work things out between them.” She covered Xena’s hand with her own. “But you’re right about one thing.. I’m not sure they’re people.”
“But while we’re getting out of here and getting away from them, if I get a chance, I’m going to find out.” The bard’s eyes met Xena’s directly.
“All right.” The warrior’s mild look didn’t waver. “If you get in trouble while you’re trying to find out, I’m going to pick your butt up and haul you with me head down if I have to.”
Fair enough. Gabrielle went back to her boot making. The night was promising to be a long, and probably unpalatably interesting one.
The moon had just set, when Xena led the way out of the cave and into the darkness beyond. With the waterfall thundering around them, this was the most dangerous time as most of her senses were cut off by the noise, the darkness, and the overpowering smell of the water.
“Ready?” The warrior held on to the wall, straining her eyes to see through the curtain of water. “We’re gonna have to swim a little.”
“Desert. Desert. Desert.” Gabrielle chanted almost soundlessly behind her. “Okay, I’m with you.”
Xena cinched the pack on her back a little more tightly, and took a grip on her newly finished stone ax. The weight of it was a little off, though she’d balanced it with another stone on the bottom, but it had enough heft to please her warrior’s sensibilities, and she was moderately happy with it.
Her boots felt snug, and more comfortable, and they’d shared another head bowl of tea and some meat before they’d packed up, which made them ready as they were going to be to face whatever was going to come next.
Gabrielle reconciled herself to the cold water as she followed Xena into it, sitting down on the edge of the cave lip before she eased into the pool, stifling a grunt as the chill hit her bare midriff. She took a deep breath and started swimming, her staff attached to her wrist with a strip of hide.
The current caught them immediately and carried them through the falls, emerging into a gray and faintly silver landscape capped with a thick blanket of unexpected stars overhead. Gabrielle’s eyes were drawn up immediately and she smiled, glad to see her old friends.
The coldness of the water made her shiver, but it took little effort for them to move, the current taking them right away from the cave and towards the far banks. “It’s quiet.” Gabrielle whispered, once they’d moved far enough to outreach the thunder of the falls.
“Yeah.” Xena was stroking through the water next to her, eyes alert and scanning the banks. “Looks okay for now.” She said. “Let’s make for that far point, see if we can get out there.” She pointed to a bit of land jutting out into the water.
“Gotcha.” Gabrielle was just glad their time in the water was going to be limited. She’d fallen asleep again after they’d finished their task, and Xena had only recently woken her up. Her body seemed to think it should still be curled up next to the fire, and wasn’t cooperating all that willingly at the moment.
The current tugged at her, and she swam harder, trying to keep up with Xena’s powerful strokes. Having her staff bump into her every time she turned around wasn’t making it easier. “Xe?”
The warrior turned and spotted her, reaching out with one arm and catching hold of her leather belt, adding a hefty tug that pulled her free of the current and got her going in the right direction again. “Thanks. Sorry.”
Xena caught a protruding branch near her selected exit point and she paused, pulling Gabrielle close. “Hang on here a minute. I want to check this place out.” She fitted the bard’s hand around the branch, and slid over to the bank, reaching up to grab two rocks that overhung it slightly and lifting herself up out of the water.
Gabrielle found her body almost getting used to the chill, and she waited quietly, watching the dim starlight reflect off the drops of water on Xena’s skin. After a minute of stillness, the warrior hoisted herself up onto the land, remaining crouched close to it and going still again.
She knew what Xena was doing. She was presenting herself as a target, so that if anything was out there waiting for them, they’d jump at her. The warrior had her new weapon at her side, and there was an air of wild confidence about her visible even in the dim light.
Gabrielle felt completely safe, which was an odd thing to feel given that she was in a mysterious valley surrounded by dangerous creatures, in water up to her neck at the moment. She kept her eyes on Xena’s profile, then pushed herself forward when the warrior turned and extended a hand towards her.
“C’mere.” Xena’s tone was low, but not a whisper. “Give me the stick, then I’ll pull you up.”
Willingly, Gabrielle handed up her staff, then put her hands on the rocks Xena had used and pulled herself upward.
It wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t as easy as Xena made it look. The bard kept at it anyway, hauling herself forward with a grunt and scraping her stomach on the rocks before Xena got hold of her and pulled her all the way up. “Thanks.”
“I told you I’d get you up here.” Xena chided her.
“Wanted to try it myself.” Gabrielle bumped her aside. “C’mon, it’s breezy out here. I’m freezing.” She rubbed her arms and trotted over to retrieve her staff, following Xena as she led the way towards the trees and away from the creek.
The ground they were traveling over was rocky, as the valley had been, but there were tufts and hillocks of grass that came up to their knees to get through as well. Xena shifted her grip on her ax and wished she wasn’t dripping, anxious to get away from the waterfall so she could put her ears to better use.
They had a relatively large open space to cross before they were hidden in the trees, and despite the lack of moonlight Xena felt very exposed. She lengthened her stride a little, straining her senses and turning her head from side to side to catch any hint of anyone approaching them.
“Okay, so what’s the plan?” Gabrielle murmured, as they crossed the last bit of open space, and entered the forest. The light, what little there was, vanished and left them in a deep gloom that amplified the least sound.
“All right.” Xena put a hand on her back and guided her, the warrior’s eyes adjusting to the dark quickly. “I’ve got the feeling these things aren’t night creatures.” She said. “So I want to get as far away from them as we can while we can.”
“Makes sense.” Gabrielle probed ahead of her with her staff, seeing mostly musky shadows. “But what if we run into something else?”
Xena sighed. “Then we do. Keep your voice down.” She opened her eyes wider, trying to see the forest around her, but the very dense foliage over her head blocked out any possible starlight, and all she could detect were vague shadows.
It was creepy. Xena could hear things moving somewhere around them, little rustles and clicks her mind did not readily identify. That bothered her a lot, and she felt a shiver go down her back. “Stay close.”
“Okay.” The bard whispered. “It smells funny in here.”
The warrior sniffed, catching the odd, almost spicy scent that made her nose wrinkle. “Yeah.. hm.” She wished she had a torch suddenly. “Wonder what that is.”
“Hope we’re not about to step in it.” Gabrielle muttered, feeling her heartbeat pick up. “Xena, are you sure this is a good idea?”
“No.” Xena admitted. “But I don’t’ think we have any good options, either.”
Gabrielle moved closer to her partner. “If I walk into a huge spiderweb, I’m gonna lose it, Xena.”
Spiders. Xena’s eyes widened and she looked around her. She hated spiders. “What made you mention that” She asked sharply.
“The smell.” Gabrielle supplied readily. “It reminds me of the time you squished that big hairy..”
“I remember.” Xena cut her off. “The tarantula.” The creature had invaded Gabrielle’s sleeping furs, and Xena had responded to the young girl’s startled terror with what must have seemed to Gabrielle overly excessive gallantry. She’d flattened the damn thing with such violence she’d sent guts from it almost over Argo’s startled head.
She hated spiders.
“That thing, yeah.” The bard agreed. “Gods that was ugly.. but it smelled the same and so I..pmf.”
“Sh.” Her partner whispered in her ear.
Gabrielle nodded, and was released. She waited for Xena to do something, surprised when the warrior merely continued to walk along in the darkness. After a few steps, she just shrugged and followed, shaking her head.
Now that Gabrielle had identified the stink, Xena couldn’t get it out of her mind, never even considering her nostrils. Every hair on her body was on end, and she kept imagining the touch of hairy legs on her arm or her head or..
Stop it. The warrior took a deep breath, and released it. Her hand shifted on her new ax, bringing it up as she casually swept it in front of her body to deflect.. well, anything. Moss.
The warrior nearly jumped out of her skin at the quiet voice next to her. “Wh.. yea?”
“Fine.” Xena scowled, unseen in the dark. Something brushed against her arm and she stifled a vocal reaction, realizing it was Gabrielle’s fingers fastening warm and sure around her wrist.
She could hear the concern in the bard’s voice. “Just trying to concentrate on where we’re going.” She reassured her partner. “Don’t’ want to walk off a gully edge or something.”
“Uh huh.” The bard’s tone was gently knowing.
Something touched her other arm, and Xena couldn’t prevent herself from reacting, swinging her new ax around in a tight, vicious circle. “Son of a..”
The warrior stopped walking and listened, aware of her heightened breathing. “Yes?”
“I have an idea.”
“How about we go towards that break in the trees over there, and go right at the edge of the forest, so we can see stuff better?” Gabrielle had no idea why her usually stolid partner was freaking out. She laid her hand on Xena’s back, feeling the faint quiver of her muscles under the touch. “This is getting a little creepy.” She offered hesitantly. “Isn’t it?”
Somehow, she knew Xena was looking at her, even though she couldn’t see the warrior’s face in the darkness. “Listen.. oh!” She felt something crawling on her back and she jerked in reflex. “Yow!”
“Great idea.” Xena decided. “Let’s go.” She grabbed the bard’s hand and headed fro the break in the trees, slashing her ax in front of her like a demented wheat harvester outside Amphipolis. They plowed through some underbrush with thorns, making them both yelp, then after a last struggle they emerged between the trees, breathing hard and looking around.
“Okay.” Xena circled her partner, relieved when she didn’t find any crawling invaders on her. “You all right?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle peered at Xena’s ax. “Yuck. What is that?”
The warrior looked at the weapon, which was wrapped in sticky gray filaments. “Spiderweb.”
“Ew.” Gabrielle made a face.
Xena shook herself violently, shrugging the pack off her back and dropping it to the ground. She was fairly sure she didn’t have any on her, but with spiders, you couldn’t be too careful. Not only did she hate the little suckers just because she did, some of them could kill you with a single bite.
Gabrielle seemed to guess what she was up to, and she circled her, examining her carefully. “No spiders.” She gave her a pat. “Gods, I hate those things. They used to give me night mares when I was a kid.”
“Hm.” Xena shook out her pack, just to be very sure. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. My mother never cleaned the ceiling in the house. They lived up there.. and they’d drop down on us at night. Uggh!” Gabrielle shuddered. “That night.. when you killed that one? I didn’t sleep a wink after that.”
“Mm.” Xena kicked her pack, unsatisfied with her examination.
“Or the next night.”
“I remember.” Finally, the warrior picked up her burden and reluctantly resumed it. “You didn’t until I took you into bed with me, if I remember right.” She ran nervous hands through her hair. “I felt bad for ya.”
“Hm.. yeah.” Gabrielle started forward after her, staying close to the edge of the forest to take advantage of it’s protection, but enough in the starlight to see her way. “I think I decided spiders had their good points after all.” She mused. “I felt very safe from them with you, that’s for sure.”
Xena snorted softly, swinging her head from side to side as she used the meager starlight to find a good path through the fringe of the trees. She remembered that night, all right. The cool mountain air had brushed over her as she’d watched the moon rise, with Gabrielle sleeping peacefully cuddled up against her.
So many things had gone through her mind that night.
“Besides, you smelled great.” Gabrielle’s casual commentary disrupted her memories. “It was the first time I really thought about leather being sexy.”
“Thanks.” Xena dismissed memories and thoughts of spiders, and concentrated on finding their path instead. The forest curved around ahead of them, and then marched up yet another in an apparent endless series of ridges.
It was almost like a well used road, the warrior mused. When wagon wheels had kicked back hard packed dirt for so long, it created ripples in the roadbed. The valley looked a bit like that, as though some god had put a hand on either end and compressed it into wrinkles.
A low cough, in the distance alerted her. She stopped, and listened, Gabrielle pausing next to her now in silence.
The cough came again. Xena held a hand up, and cursed softly as she felt the wind at her back, knowing the sound was coming ahead of her. “Don’t like that.”
“What is it?” Gabrielle tensed. “Bear?”
“Great.” Gabrielle sighed. “Well, at least this kind of thing we understand.” She said, with a comforting pat on Xena’s arm. “We’ve gone up against those before.. and you’ve done it alone.”
“True.” Xena lead the way forward. “Let’s see if we can get to high ground. Maybe we’ll see the damn thing coming.” Maybe they would get lucky, and it would be a small cat, which, if she killed it, could provide them with another useful pelt, and some teeth.
Gabrielle flexed her hands around her staff, her body shivering into alertness. All the fatigue she’d felt when they’d started was gone, replaced by nervous energy, and in a way she was glad they were on the move, rather than hanging out in the cave.
She only hoped she felt that way when the sun rose.
Xena shifted her ax from one hand to the other, and pulled her body up onto a rock escarpment. It had started raining again, and even the starlight was now blocked by clouds, impeding their progress significantly.
She wiped the water out of her eyes and peered across the ridge, blinking out the stinging raindrops. “Damn it.” Hopping back down to the ground, she walked over to where Gabrielle was waiting, her body pressed up against a tree in the lee of the wind. “Can’t see a damn thing.”
“Great.” Gabrielle crossed her arms, her wet hair hanging down over her eyes. “Okay, so what next?” She heard the testy note in her voice and grimaced a little, but didn’t regret the honesty. “Xena, does this really make any sense?”
The warrior glared at her. “Not a gods be damned thing in two days has made any sense!” She said, in exasperation. “You got a better plan? Let’s hear it!”
Gabrielle looked around her. All she could see was the forest, a lot of wet bushes, some rocks, and too many clouds to count. They’d been traveling for two or three candlemarks, and had barely crossed two ridges and now they were faced with a third, steeper, with no easy path up.
So. Either they climbed the rocks, or tried the forest or stayed where they were. No good choices, but then, Xena probably knew that better than she did. “Pig turds.”
The bard half turned and looked at her. “No, I don’t.” She stated quietly. “So are we going to figure out what to do, or just stand here yelling at each other?”
“Well, I’m open for any suggestions.” Xena walked over to the nearest tree and smacked it.
“Oh, that’s useful.” The bard sighed. “Xena, come back over here.”
“I like it better over here.” The warrior shot back. “That all right?”
Oh boy. This was going nowhere fast. Gabrielle debated her options, then decided to stay where she was. She knew Xena was frustrated. No sense in pushing the warrior when they were both…
“Stupid son of …Gabrielle!”
Instinctively the bard grabbed for her staff, sensing motion to her left that hadn’t been there a second ago. She’d gotten halfway in position when something big and heavy hit her from behind, slamming her to the ground with extraordinary violence. “Xena!!!”
“Stay down!” The warrior yelled as she bolted past her. “YYyahhhh!!!!”
Gabrielle heard a growl, and a hideous, tearing sound, and smelled the hot, feral, musky scent of cat. She rolled to one side and tucked her arms and legs in, twisting around quickly as her eyes sought her partner.
What she saw froze her in mid motion. Outlined in the dim light a huge animal, it’s head towering over her partner’s leaped over her and bore Xena to the ground, a flash of huge, white teeth heading directly for Xena’s throat.
Xena grabbed it’s neck, and shoved upward, her eyes huge and wide. The beast’s weight was overpowering, though and it drove down towards her, snarling. She felt the hot breath blast her face, and saliva followed from the huge fangs now skimming her throat.
Gabrielle snapped out of it and got to her feet, her staff already swinging around as she charged the animal with utter disregard to her own safety. “Yaaahhh!!!” She slammed the beast in the back with her staff, whipping it up and slamming it down again with frantic energy. “Get off!! Get off her! Damn it! Xena!!!!”
Xena arched her back and got her feet up under the beast’s belly, kicking it with all her strength. She lifted it’s hindquarter’s off the ground as the huge teeth grazed her chest, and then the animal turned it’s head aside in anger and confusion as Gabrielle continued to whack the Hades out of it’s spine.
“Get… Off… Get.. Off!” The bard screamed at the top of her lungs.
Xena felt the animal try to lift off her, to escape the pain in it’s guts from her kicking, and the pain in it’s back from Gabrielle’s attack. The respite gave her time to get to Gabrielle’s small knife, and she grabbed it, following the animal up as it turned to attack Gabrielle and jamming it into the beast’s throat.
It roared in fury. Xena leaped on it’s back, and now it was her turn to knock it to the ground despite it’s huge size. She got one arm around it’s neck and kept stabbing as it writhed under her, it’s huge claws missing her arm by a hair only. “Die, damn you!” Xena yelled, shoving the knife in as far as she could and hoping she hit something lethal. Yanking her arm back, she felt the knife slash through something thick, then hot, reeking blood was erupting all over her as the animal thrashed wildly, screaming now in fear as it struggled to live.
Gabrielle hadn’t let up for a second, and she was still pounding the creature, until she saw it slump to the ground, the gray dimness reflecting only barely off a darker glint coloring it’s thick, dappled fur. She stopped, breathing hard. “Xe?”
Slowly, the warrior let the animal’s neck loose and straightened, her own breathing strained. “Son of a bacchae.”
Gabrielle circled the dying cat and dropped to her knees beside Xena, leaning on her staff as the rain came down harder. “You okay?”
Xena wiped the small blade on the creature’s fur, and stuck it back in her boot with shaking hands. “No.” She swallowed, dragging one knee up and resting her forearm on it. “Biggest damn cat I’ve ever seen.” With a light sigh, she let her head rest against her hand.
Gabrielle put an arm around her, feeling the shivering under her touch. She pressed her cheek against Xena’s shoulder, then kissed the skin there. “Gods.” The bard whispered. “How long was he stalking us?”
Xena shook her head in silence.
The animal gave a tiny, weak cough, and then its chest went still.
The bard slowly pushed herself to her feet and circled the animal, crouching down in front of it to stare. “Xena, look at those teeth.”
“Saw them up close, thanks.” The warrior said briefly.
Gabrielle felt a once familiar anxiety hit her in the guts. She looked at Xena across the carcass, and the anxiety increased as the warrior refused to meet her eyes. Quickly, she got up and came back over, this time kneeling down in front of the silent woman and letting her staff drop to the ground.
Xena looked up at the clatter. Gabrielle reached her hand out and touched her face, leaning closer to banish the gloom between them. “Xena. It’s already terrifying here. Please.. let’s not fight. I can’t take it.”
The warrior’s eyes dropped, and her body posture shifted, the muscles on either side of her neck relaxing a trifle.
“Sorry I got snippy before.” Gabrielle went on. “I know you’re doing your best to get us out of here.”
Xena glanced back up, a perceptible softening in her eyes. “Sorry.” She uttered briefly, clearing her throat. “I over-reacted a little. Must be tired.” She admitted. “Anyway… I guess we should take care of this thing and get moving. All the noise.. something’ll come looking.”
Gabrielle remained where she was, her fingers still stroking Xena’s cheek, until she felt an answering touch at her waist, and only then did she get up. She waited for the warrior to stand as well, and then she moved in to give her a quick hug. “Thanks for saving my butt for the nth time in my life.”
“Likewise.” Xena responded in a more normal tone as she returned the hug, giving the bard a light scratch on the back with the tips of her fingers. She felt a faint quiver in the arms clasped around her and exhaled, allowing the frustration to simply dissolve.
They had no time for that, really. Gabrielle was right. The last thing either of them needed right now was a petty spat over nothing. She tightened her arms, then gently released the bard. “Give me a hand with this? Might as well not waste that damn pelt.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle felt her guts unkink and it almost made her weak in the knees, but she left that aside and went to help her partner roll the beast over and make it ready for her to skin. Its fur was extremely thick and soft, and in the light might have even been pretty, with its mottled spots. She ran a hand over the body, and shook her head. “It’s so big.”
Xena tilted the huge head back and shook her head, her hand clasping around one of its huge front teeth. Her fingers barely fit around it, and it was longer than her hand, half the length of her forearm. “Damn.. look at this!”
“Incredible.” Gabrielle leaned closer, touching the other, blood covered tooth. “Xena, that would have gone right through you.”
“Yeah.” The warrior pushed the head aside and started to work. The beast’s frame was large, and very muscular and she knew she’d survived the attack only by the grace of a lot of luck, Gabrielle’s staff, and a fortunate kick in the right place. “Know what I’m worried about?”
Gabrielle lifted a heavy leg so she could get to the skin under it. “That there’s more than one of these?”
“Maybe that’s why the other creatures are not into being out a night.” The bard mused. “Maybe they find a safe spot.. you think this was the kind of cat that attacked them the other day?”
“Maybe.” Xena tugged the pelt, giving her head a shake to clear the wet hair from her eyes. “I think we should take the hint.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle looked around with a touch of trepidation. “So we’ve got the creatures to deal with in daylight, and these suckers to deal with at night. Xena, we’ll never get out of here.”
“We will.” The warrior replied softly. “Pull that.. yeah.”
Gabrielle did so, hoping Xena would hurry up. Just the thought of another cat jumping out at them was making her twitch and now they had the task of once again finding shelter. “Damn rain.” She wiped the moisture from her eyes with the back of her hand, then went back to pulling.
Xena listened to the thunder of the rain around her, and mentally repeated the curse in a more virulent form. Was there no end to their lousy luck this trip?
“It’s a female.” Gabrielle had ducked her head closer to the animal’s skin. “Look.” She spread the fur across it’s belly apart, and revealed nipples. “Uh oh.” She grimaced. “Xena.. check this out.”
Xena leaned closer to see what alarmed her. “Oh.” She exhaled, seeing the evidence of milk, and recent usage. “Great.” She exhaled, then paused. “Hm. Wait… that could work for us.”
“Hang in there, Gabrielle. We may have caught a break.” Xena grimly continued her work. Maybe they’d get lucky after all. She only hoped the bard wouldn’t insist on the obvious inevitability if she was right.
“You don’t mean we’re going to look for the cubs.” Gabrielle looked at her in disbelief.
The warrior shrugged. “They’ve got shelter somewhere.”
Gabrielle stared at the dead animal. “Are we going to keep them?”
Xena didn’t answer.
“Then you better hope we don’t find them.”
It was raining so hard when they finally got moving, that they were forced to enter the forest again, this time skirting the ridge that had proven too steep to reasonably climb. Xena moved along in front with her ears cocked, the cat skin added to her pack along with the rest.
She’d decided against looking for the cubs, after all. It had only taken a brief consideration of the possible outcome of finding them, and the knowledge that the fight that would ensue would not be a pointless or mild one to eject the idea from her mind no matter what the possibilities of a nice dry cave were.
Besides. Xena exhaled. With the way things had been going, the damn things were already dead, or their hiding place was a mud hole and they wouldn’t even get shelter out of it.
Gabrielle kept close behind her, staff held at the ready. The rain, however, seemed to have driven all the other animals under cover, because they didn’t encounter so much as a lizard on their trek through the trees. That was both comforting and intimidating, and she found herself wishing she’d see just one or two other creatures out in the weather with them, just to prove they weren’t totally nutty.
Maybe even a turtle or something. They liked rain, didn’t they? She hunched her shoulders and shaded her eyes from the worst of the downpour, glad at least they were somewhat sheltered from the wind. There was a mossy wall of rock to their right, and she reached out to idly touch it, her fingers moving over the fuzzy surface and suddenly finding something strange. “Hey, Xena?”
The warrior stopped plodding in front of her and turned, apparently very willing to be held up from their march. “Yeah?” She walked back the few steps to where the bard was now standing, her entire hand laid flat on the rocks. “Something wrong?”
“Feel this.” The bard urge. “It’s warm.”
Xena obligingly put her hand next to her partners, and found to her surprise that the rock surface was, in fact, warm to the touch. “Huh.” She searched the wall. “Interesting.. but not much use right now, I guess.”
Gabrielle leaned her entire body against the rock, closing her eyes blissfully. “Speak for yourself.” She sighed. “Boy, that feels great.”
Xena leaned her shoulder into the rock, feeling the warmth radiate against her skin. “Hm.” She mused. “All right, you’ve got a point there. But we can’t hang out holding the wall up, Gabrielle.”
“Meanie.” The bard reluctantly edged away from the stone. “Hey, if this is warm.. you think you can find a hot spring around here to go with it?” She joined the warrior as they continued their trek. “Wow, could I use one.”
The warrior paused again and studied her, noticing the faint bluish tinge to her partner’s lips even in the very low light. “You need to stop?” She asked. “You should have said something.”
“I thought I did.” Green eyes met hers wryly. “I’d forgotten how little subtlety works on you.” She rubbed her arm, trying to stifle the shivers, now made much worse by the brief foray into warmth. “I should have stayed away from that rock, is what I should have done.”
Xena put an arm around her and started forward again. “Soon as we find a spot, we’ll stop.” She promised. “Stick by me until then.”
Walking together was awkward, since Xena had all their stuff on her back, and Gabrielle was carrying her staff, but they managed somehow, squeezing through the trees as the rain continued to pour down through the branches.
The constant deluge was beginning to get on Xena’s nerves. She searched every square inch of their surroundings, hoping for even a little overhang they could squeeze into. The wall was curving away to the right a little, and she decided to stay close to it, even though the ground was sloping downward and a small race of rainwater was covering her feet.
A pair of trees were growing almost up against the wall, and they squirmed through the tiny space available, then Xena had to stop since Gabrielle did so in front of her. “Hey.”
“Look.” Gabrielle pointed.
Xena peered at the shadowy crack in the rocks. A slab of granite had dropped down off the escarpment, and was leaning against the wall at an angle, providing a small, but very welcome hiding spot. “Uh huh.” She followed Gabrielle to it, touching the bard’s shoulder in warming. “Poke inside first. No surprises.”
Gabrielle nodded, sticking her staff into the opening and prodding gently, both of them tensed and ready to back off if something came out and objected. She could feel nothing but rock surface inside though, not even leaf litter to indicate it was in use by any other creature for a den. “Feels okay.”
Gratefully, they crawled inside. Gabrielle felt the inside wall and almost groaned in relief to find it holding some of the warmth she’d felt previously. She settled down with her back to it, glad to be out of the rain and wind and thankful to be sitting down.
She was cold, and tired, and she wanted nothing more than to let her head rest back against the rock and stay still for a while. The cat, the rain, the spat, the creatures… she was on overload and she knew it. She was painfully glad Xena had dropped the idea of looking for the cat’s babies.
That would have been way too much. It was bad enough her mind kept imagining the poor little things crying, alone in the storm, for a mother that would never come back to them. She could feel for them, even as she didn’t regret one bit of her attack on the cat who was trying to kill her partner.
Life just really sucked sometimes.
Xena had wedged the cat skin across the opening, exposing the inside to the clensing rain while she also provided a wind block. Now she crawled over to where Gabrielle was sitting, carrying the folded skin. “Wanna get up a second?”
“No.” Gabrielle did so anyway, reaching up to grasp an uneven crack on the inside of the leaning slab and pulling herself up off the ground long enough for the warrior to put the hide down.
“Okay.” Xena sat down on one side and extended her legs, wryly gazing at her sodden self.
Gabrielle lowered herself back down and let her hands rest on her thighs, smoothing the wet fabric of her skirt out with tired fingers. “Thanks for stopping.” She remarked quietly. “I’m toast.”
Xena folded her hands together and leaned back, absorbing the warmth of the stone. “Me too.” She agreed.
“No, you’re not.” The bard rolled her head to one side and peered at her. “You could keep going for three days. So don’t even start with that. You’re just trying to make me feel better about being a wimp.”
“You’re not a wimp.” The warrior avoided the accusation.
“Not usually, no.” Gabrielle squirmed closer, to take advantage of Xena’s body warmth as well as the rock’s. “I think it’s all this darn, darn rain. It’s making me nuts.”
The little nook was losing its chill, and they both relaxed and leaned against each other. Gabrielle rested her head on Xena’s shoulder and closed her eyes, content to simply go mindlessly blank for a while. She felt Xena take her hand and hold it between both her own, and that felt warm and good and right, and..
Xena studied her sleeping companion quietly for a few minutes. She kept one hand clasped around the bard’s, and laid the other on her ax. She calculated they had a few candlemarks left to go before dawn, and she wasn’t taking any chances in sleeping herself. Despite the storm, and their shelter, the thought of another of those cats, or worse, finding them was making her senses twitch and every crack or rumble of dislodging stones in the rain sent tension singing through her.
She hadn’t felt this vulnerable since she’d given birth to Solon. It was both aggravating and terrifying, and she was torn between anger at their situation and frustration at herself for not having better answers for it. That wasn’t really fair to her and she knew it, but she also knew the simple fact that Gabrielle was depending on her to get them home – yes, she’d help with every ounce of her strength to do whatever Xena needed done, but the plan was whatever Xena said the plan was.
Damn it. Xena gazed through the darkness at the stone. It would be damn nice just once to have someone else have the plan. She wriggled her shoulderblades into a slightly more comfortable position, and tried to relax. Maybe in the morning, she’d ask Gabrielle what *she* thought they should do.
Gods knew her own plans hadn’t gotten them anywhere useful so far.
She could hear the rain coming down harder outside, and after a while she allowed the thrum of it to relax her, its thunder providing a shield of sorts she couldn’t begin to really resent.
Gabrielle was chiefly aware of it being very quiet when she woke up. There was light streaming in from behind the hide in the opening, and the air was comfortably warm and actually somewhat dry. She was curled up on her side, with her head on Xena’s leg, and she wondered briefly how exactly she’d gotten into that position.
Gabrielle rolled over and looked up, rubbing her arm that had fallen asleep against the stone. She found Xena looking back at her, the warrior’s dark hair in complete disarray and a smudge of dried mud across the bridge of her nose. “Morning.” The bard replied, with a smile for the sight.
“Anything would feel better than what I felt like before.” Gabrielle replied honestly. “Rain stop?”
“Is that actually sunlight out there?”
The bard patted her chest. “Be still my beating heart.”
“Not if I have anything to do about it.” Xena gave her bare belly a gentle rub. “It’s been quiet out there. Think we can go find something for breakfast.”
On cue, Gabrielle’s stomach rumbled, making them both chuckle. The bard sat up and pulled her legs crossed under her, pushing her own ratty feeling pale locks back off her face. “Wow.” She rested her elbows on her knees. “Why exactly did I ever find this whole sleeping on the ground thing romantic?”
“Speak for yourself.” Xena remarked dryly, as she crawled to the edge of the alcove and peered cautiously out past the cat hide. The sun had indeed come out, and it was splashing over the rich, green forest with an almost luscious vividness.
She pushed the skin aside and slipped out of the crack in the rock, straightening to her full height with a grimace as her spine cracked into place. “Ugh.” A patch of sunlight was nearby and she walked into it, reveling in the warmth as the light touched her face.
She looked up, to see mostly blue sky overhead, and felt a sense of relief despite the cover the storms had given them. They had enough challenges, she figured, without having to deal with half drowning every minute.
“Ahh.. this feels great!”
Xena turned, to find Gabrielle strolling up to join her. The bard had her arms extended, and she was visibly reveling in the sunshine that gathered around her and lit her skin with a golden glow.
For a moment, the warrior stood, entranced. “Glad you think so.” She finally said, as the bard arrived at her side.
“I do.” Xena draped her arms on her partner’s shoulders. “I’d love to be dry for a while.” She looked around at the forest, which was quiet save a gentle wind stirring the branches. It blew against her face and she lifted her nose into it, sniffing deeply.
Gabrielle watched her, caught by the quintessential wildness of the motion and marveling at the proud nobility of her somewhat scruffy looking partner’s attitude. It reminded her suddenly of the very first time she’d seen her soulmate to be, all that time ago.
Wild, and untamed, and dressed not unlike she was now with her shredded rags and lack of weapons. “Xena?”
Xena finished her study of the wind, then relaxed, finding nothing out of the ordinary on it. “Yeees?” She cocked her head and regarded the bard. “Gaaabrrrielle?”
Gabrielle closed her hands gently into fists and pushed them against her partner’s stomach playfully. “You’re so cool.”
“C’mon.” Gabrielle bumped her again. “Let’s get ourselves together and figure out what we’re going to do next.” She looked up. “I’m sorry.. I’ve been letting myself fall into that old trap of expecting you to know everything.. you should have spanked my lazy butt.”
Xena only wished all her problems would resolve themselves with such neat rapidity and completeness. “All right.” She turned the bard and pointed. “How about you get some water in our skull, and I’ll see what I can salvage of that.” She indicated the cat skin.
“Good start.” Gabrielle agreed. “Then, how about we figure out how to get past this wall?” She indicated the rock escarpment. “Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to get trapped here.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
They walked back towards the cleft. “Now.. why did you say I was cool?” XEna asked, patting herself. “I’m not, am I?”
“No, hon.” Gabrielle muffled a chuckle. “It was just a joke.”
“A joke?” The warrior
“Xena, forget it. It was a compliment.”
“A compliment?” The warrior repeated. “I think your head was soaked too long last night.” She pulled down the cat skin and turned it over, laying it out on the now dry ground. She picked up some of the pieces of river rock she’d patiently chipped off, and began to scrape the inside.
Gabrielle retrieved the half skull and headed for the sound of water. She prudently picked up her staff as well, and let her eyes shift from side to side as she walked searching for anything useful. There wasn’t much around, though, and she arrived at the edge of the small brook she’d heard pretty much empty handed.
The side of the bank was open, a thick, rich grassy area sloping down towards it in a natural ford. Gabrielle knelt beside the water and stuck her hand in, then moved it towards the rocky edge on the side of the ford. “Whoohoo.” She chortled, feeling warmth against her fingers.
Given the heat in the rocks above, she wasn’t that surprised to find a hot spring, but it was welcome nonetheless. A quick glance in the surface of the water made her wince at her grubby reflection, and she made an instant decision to take advantage of her find.
She sat down and started unlacing her boots, looking behind her through the trees to where she could just see Xena’s outline bending over her skin. The nearby presence reassured her, and she quickly stripped off her clothing and slid into the warm water of the spring.
“Oh, boy.. this feels good.” Despite the fact that she’d spent the entire previous day drenched, she was glad now to feel this waters touch on her, and she submerged to her neck, feeling her body loosen up as the heat penetrated stiff muscles.
Ah, that felt even better. The bard exhaled, reaching behind her to rub the small of her back, where a knot was in the process of unraveling. She’d come off the road this time in pretty good shape, and the weeks at home sleeping in a decent bed had improved that, but there were still those little things now she found she had to deal with sometimes.
An aching knee in cold weather, for example, a legacy of the three or four times she’d damaged it in this or that fight or the odd jumping over walls. The knot in her back. The occasional twinge in her neck after a long session with her staff. Gabrielle closed her eyes and floated for a few moments. Reminders, really. Physical markers of her sometimes dangerous life along with the scars she’d earned living those stories she told.
She ducked her head back, wetting her hair and watching as the light current took away a swirl of mud from it. Idly wishing for their herbal soap, she was glad enough to use a handful of sand from the banks to scrub her skin, all the time mindful of the time and her surroundings.
Finishing with that, she dragged her clothes into the spring and scrubbed them as well, taking the time to work most of the bloodstains out of the weave of her top. Satisfied at last, she swam over to the rocks and stood up, the warm water sheeting off her body and exposing her to the sun as she draped the cloth over stone to dry.
Then her senses prickled, and she turned her head, searching the area to locate whatever had alerted her. She had to sweep over the far bank twice before she spotted it – a face in the brush peering out at her.
Every muscle tensed as she focused on it, and she glanced quickly over to where her staff was. But the face didn’t move, and after a second she realized something else – it was female.
Okay. Gabrielle waded over to the ford and reclaimed her weapon, bracing it in the stream that came up to her knees. Should she call Xena? The person or whatever had shown no inclination to come out of their hiding spot and did not even seem to realize Gabrielle had seen her.
On the one hand, maybe she could open up some communication here. On the other, if there were a ton of bad guys behind that innocent looking face, and she got hurt or worse, Xena would….
Xena would. “Xena!” Gabrielle let out a yell.
The face reacted, disappearing into the bushes. Gabrielle stood her ground, her hands wrapped around her staff until a rhythmic thrumming behind her heralded the arrival of her partner. She turned her head as Xena splashed into the water and approached her, taking in the alert look that briefly went very puzzled as the cold creek she’d expected turned out otherwise. “Someone’s over there.” She pointed with the end of her staff. “They were watching me.”
Xena spared her a wry glance. “They’ve got good taste.” She complimented her. “More of the same?” She put a hand on the bard’s bare shoulder. “And are you naked for a reason?”
“Washed my clothes.” Gabrielle supplied succinctly. “No, it was a woman, Xena.” She indicated the bank. “I was enjoying a nice warm bath here, and I felt someone watching me.” Her hands shifted on her staff, and she released the fingers of one hand to run them through her damp hair. “It’s a hot spring.”
“So I feel.” Xena started across the creek, stolidly gripping her makeshift ax. “Stay there. I’m gonna go see if I can find anything.”
Gabrielle considered, then stepped back to the rocks and leaned back on their warmth, resting her hands on her staff and crossing her legs at the ankles. The sun poured down over her and she squinted a little, keeping Xena’s moving figure in focus.
Xena plowed through the water, her eyes searching the far banks intently. She reached the other shore and climbed out onto it, going directly to the bushes and peering behind them. Light footprints were in the damp sand, and confirmed Gabrielle’s identification of the gender of the watcher.
The prints led away from the shore, toe imprints and knee scuffs, along with hand prints indicating the person had crawled off with little attempt to disguise their tracks. Xena could see them leading off, and she paused for a moment to look back at her partner before she followed them.
Gabrielle was standing at the edge of the brook, watching her, the bard’s pale hair glistening in the sunlight. Xena lifted a hand and made a sign, waiting a moment as her partner returned the signal. “Yeah, sure she’ll stay there.” The warrior sighed, shaking her head and turning to follow the tracks.
The ground sloped up from the creek, towards a scattering of heavy boulders and the footprints lead directly to them. The wind was at her back, and Xena wondered if she was walking into a trap – creatures or no, she’d seen wolves lure prey into a band of their brethren and she had no doubt the creatures were capable of doing the same.
Well. Xena hefted the ax and felt the familiar tingle flow through her body. They better be ready for what they’re looking for. She spun the ax in her hand, getting used to the oddness of it’s balance as she walked forward, her weight coming forward onto the balls of her feet as she got closer to the boulders.
Part of her success as a warrior was her confidence in her own skills. Xena understood that, and she understood that it was this confidence, as well as the skills themselves that often allowed her to come out on top over an opponent, or opponents who were in reality stronger, faster, or more deadly than she was herself.
It came down to being dangerous in your own mind. Xena called up that part of her that was a natural born killer and stepped forward, crouching and leaping up onto the first of the boulders, scaling it to the top and leaping to the next one, which would give her a view over the pile.
There was motion, and her body reacted, blood rushing to her skin as she turned to track it, her arms spreading out as she crouched and got ready to spring.
Staring back at her was a small, hunched over woman wrapped in tattered skins, her eyes wide in terror.
Xena’s eyes flicked to either side, but she saw no other movement. She straightened up and stepped off the rock, tucking her body into a lazy flip before she landed near the woman and stood, studying the intruder with expressionless eyes.
Unlike the male creatures she’d seen, this thing before her was far more recognizably human. She had a thin frame, and thick, russet hair that was wild and unkempt, but grew pretty much only on her head instead of all over like the others. She had regular features, obscured by dirt, and pale gray eyes. Cleaned up, Xena realized she’d be unremarkable walking in the market in Amphipolis, and she felt no threat from her. “Who are you?” She asked bluntly.
The woman looked warily at her, edging back against the rocks.
Xena took a step forward. The woman reacted in fear, letting out a wild, screeching howl that fairly pinned the warrior’s ears back.
From the other side the rocks, she heard a sudden splashing. Xena jumped towards the woman, grabbing hold of her and clapping a hand over her mouth to stop the sound, then pulling her to her feet and heading back the way she’d come.
Gabrielle could try communicating with her, assuming the screaming didn’t bring the rest of the creatures down on them or she didn’t scare the thing to death before she could bring her back to the camp.