One Wild Ride
Gabrielle sat quietly, her arms wrapped around her knees as she studied their unexpected visitor. The sun had dried her clothing, and now they were outside the little cleft they’d taken shelter in regarding each other.
The woman Xena had found and brought across the creek looked mostly terrified. The fact that Xena was seated right next to her, watching her like a hawk probably had something to do with that, but Gabrielle also got the feeling she was just naturally timid.
She and Xena had both tried talking to her, but it had been like talking to a tree. The woman merely hugged herself and rocked back and forth, almost as if they weren’t there.
Her arms and legs were covered in scars. Gabrielle remembered her own moment of self indulgent pity earlier and tried to imagine what life would be like if everything hurt. The scars didn’t look like smooth cuts, as Xena’s did, but instead they were jagged, and some were puckered from punctures.
Gabrielle flexed her hand, her thumb rubbing against the calluses from her staff. She caught the woman watching her, and she turned her hand upmost, closing it into a fist.
The woman’s body stiffened, and she stopped rocking. Gabrielle glanced past her, to meet Xena’s watchful eyes beyond. The warrior remained still, though, with a blink of her eyes deferring the next step to her partner.
The bard relaxed her hand, opening it all the way and putting it down on the ground. No reaction. After a moment’s thought, she lifted her hand up and traced a circle in the dust. That got a guarded look out of the woman, and she furtively watched Gabrielle as she repeated in the dirt one of the figures she’d seen in the cave, that first night.
The result was surprising – the woman uncoiled and lunged across the ground, slapping at Gabrielle’s hand with startling violence. The bard resisted the urge to bat the woman back, letting her capture her hand as it lay on the ground.
She was in no danger. Gabrielle made a quick hand signal to the already in motion Xena, who managed somehow to still herself, remaining poised in a half crouch, every muscle tensed.
The woman kept staring at her. Gabrielle tried to look as unthreatening as possible, and put her other hand down on the ground. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
The eyes shifted slightly to Xena, then back to her, and Gabrielle realized in that moment that the woman had understood what she’d said. “We’re not.” She looked down at the woman’s hand covering hers, and realized there were no differences between them.
The others, the men – they had been different. Gabrielle remembered short, stubby fingers and oddly shaped hands grasping her, full of thick hair on the backs. She studied the woman’s features. Aside from the dirt, and the scars, this woman could have been her sister.
The woman looked up and into her eyes. “Who are you?” Gabrielle asked, gently. “You’re not one of them.” From the corner of her eye, she spotted Xena’s intrigued expression, and felt a moment of almost ridiculous pride.
But the woman merely crouched down and scuttled away from her, putting her back against the fallen tree and watching them both warily.
Xena eased back to her seat also. “That was interesting.” She remarked. “So now what, your majesty?”
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at her partner, before she settled cross-legged on the ground and with a cautious look at their visitor, started drawing in the dirt again.
This time, however, the woman merely ignored her, huddling next to the tree and circling her knees with both arms.
“Should I put the pinch on her?” Xena suggested.
“Xena.” Gabrielle spared her partner a wry glance. “C’mon.”
The warrior shrugged. “You know I’m into instant gratification.”
Yes, Gabrielle did know that. Despite her having amazing patience with certain things, such as her projects, and Dori – Xena wanted what she wanted and she wanted it right now. Always had. “Well, you could work on your fur. I’ve got this covered.”
Xena could also take a hint when one was handed to her. “Right.” She got up and went to their shelter, disappearing into it.
Gabrielle continued her doodling, only looking up at the woman after silence had settled between them for a bit. She found their visitor looking back at her directly now, her attitude remarkably different than it had been so shortly before. “So.”
“So.” The woman responded, in a very raspy voice.
It took all of Gabrielle’s bardic skills not to jump in surprise, even though she’d suspected their unwilling visitor was more human than she seemed. “Ah.” She murmured, watching the woman as she got up on her haunches, her arms hanging down in an oddly animalistic pose. “Well..”
“You were wrong.” The woman continued, adding a few guttural sounds, much like she was clucking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Wrong.”
“I am one of them.” The woman lifted her head in a jerky gesture. “My people.”
Gabrielle gave up her drawing and sat up, circling her knees with both arms. She studied her for a long moment. “You talk.” She finally said. “What’s your name?”
“I have no name.” The woman replied. “We have no names.”
From the corner of her eye, Gabrielle caught sight of Xena emerging with her fur, and settling down against the rock, far enough to give them the illusion of privacy, but close enough to kick some butt if that was needed.
Not that the woman was much of a threat. In size, she was shorter than Gabrielle by a couple of fingers, and was far lighter, almost skin and bones that stuck out at odd angles caused by the way she held herself. The bard’s compact, muscular form was far more intimidating, and the woman in fact, was watching her with a wary expression.
At one time, Gabrielle might have found the inference that she couldn’t take care of herself grating, but now it just made her smile. “Well, my name’s Gabrielle.” She remarked. “And we’re not here to hurt anyone.. we just want to find a way home.”
The woman looked at her expressionlessly. “There is no way
out of here.” She said.
”My mother looked for one all her life, and never found it.”
Gabrielle wasn’t sure what to say to that. “Well, we just started looking.”
The woman edged a little closer to her. “Then you should stop.” She said. “My mother learned too late – and she died trying to get out. You will never find a way.”
Gabrielle felt a chill go down her back, and the rasping of the woman’s voice grated on her nerves. There was something unnatural about it that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “We..”
“We’ll find one.” Xena spoke up, her powerful voice carrying from the crevice and echoing slightly.
The woman turned and looked back, her eyes falling on the fur Xena was scraping. Her entire body stiffened and she stood up, staring at the skin with widing eyes. “Ahh!!!”
Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and reached out. “Hey!”
With a keening yelp, the woman evaded Gabrielle’s hand and bolted away from them, running down the slope towards the water with impressive, if rambling speed. “Ahhhh!! Ahhhh!!!”
Caught by surprise, even Xena merely stood up, her head cocking to one side as she watched the woman run into the water, dodging and splashing as though the liquid was painful to her screaming her high squeal all the while. “What the Hades?” The warrior muttered.
“That.” Gabrielle got up and went over to her. “Was really strange.” She looked after the woman, who had slogged out the other side of the creek and bolted into the woods. “Should we go after her?”
“No.” Xena shook her head. “She’ll be back.” She sat back down again with the fur, stolidly starting to scrape it.
“You think so?” Gabrielle sat next to her.
The bard thought about what had just happened. There was so much strange about it, she had to take a minute to look at each piece of the odd puzzle, and decide where they fit. Or if they fit. “You think she was telling the truth?”
“Hm?” Xena looked up.
“About all that stuff. Was she telling the truth?”
Xena went back to scraping. “I don’t think so.” She remarked.
“About any of it?”
Hm. Gabrielle let her head rest against the rock. “I wish we’d kept her here. I had a lot more to ask her.” She said. “Whether she’s lying or not, she’s here, and she can talk to us.”
“You said they couldn’t communicate.”
Xena sniffed reflectively. “I don’t think they can.”
“That’s why I think she’s lying.” The warrior said. “She’s not the same as the others.”
That was a possibility, of course. Gabrielle rather tended to believe that herself, just from her own observations. However, there was also a chance that she was telling the truth – what if the others were just pretending not to communicate, for instance?
Gabrielle had no idea why they’d do that, but she’d seen a lot of strange things in her lifetime, and this would not be the strangest. “What if she is telling the truth?” She asked her partner. “What if we’re wrong? Maybe they can talk. She did.. she had to come from somewhere, Xena, and she said she was one of them so..”
“So, what if she’s one of them?”
Xena shifted a little. “I don’t know.” She glanced across the water, studying the trees. “Maybe I shouldn’t have let her go.” She mused. “Wonder what scared her off, my voice?”
“It’s not *that* different from mine.” Gabrielle said. “Just sexier.” She added. “I don’t know what she ran away from.. she seemed okay, until she looked over at you.”
They both looked down at the fur draped over Xena’s legs. “Well.” Gabrielle touched it. “You said you thought this was the animal that was attacking them, right?”
“Yeah.” Xena replied, puzzled. “So?”
“It was also kind of the thing I was drawing in the dirt.” The bard explained. “Well, I mean, sort of – they had this kind of blocky sticky looking thing with these..” She put her fingers on either side of her jaw, pointing downward. “And then she kind of tried to stop me.”
“Ah. That’s what that was.” Xena studied the treeline again. “This is all not making a lot of sense.”
“No, it isn’t.” Gabrielle agreed.
“But you know what?”
“I think we haven’t seen the last of our little friend.” Xena bent her head and continued her scraping. “We’d better see what we can gather around here.”
Gabrielle let her head rest against Xena’s shoulder. “What if she was telling the truth about the other thing, Xena? That there isn’t a way out of here?”
Xena’s hands stilled for a moment, then they continued their slow, deliberate motion. “They looked for one. She says. We didn’t.”
Which was, of course, true. What was possible for other people was not the same thing as what was possible for her and Xena. Gabrielle nodded quietly to herself, and fell silent, thinking about the other woman.
Why had she come? Had the others sent her?
Could they really communicate? Had she, Gabrielle, been right and Xena wrong? It had happened once before, and she knew Xena remembered that.
Gods knew, she did. She could still, if she tried, remember that moment in the hospice, kneeling at that bedside and understanding that sometimes being right and winning out – well, it didn’t really mean much if the person you cared most about in the world was the one who was on the wrong side.
She never expected Xena to admit it.
She knelt beside the pallet, and did the only thing that made sense to her heart, trying to help the poor wounded men who were no longer part of anyone’s war. She rinsed the tattered rags they had left out, and wiped off the blood, the stink of battle rising around her and bringing helpless tears to her eyes.
So she’d been right. So what? Would it change people dying? Would it change Xena’s unreasoning hatred for their attackers?
No. All it would do was make Xena angry and resentful towards her, and things between them would just get worse.
Distinctive footsteps echoed in her ears, coming closer. Gabrielle kept her back turned and her eyes on her work as her mind imagined all the lectures that would be shortly coming her way. She tried to stir up some inner anger at that, to plan her retorts, get ready to make her moral stand no matter what Xena had to say about it.
But her inner child didn’t want to be angry. She didn’t want to fight with Xena. She wanted Xena to be proud of her, and pat her on the back, and smile at her again. Not give her lectures on how stupid she was.
That head over heels hopelessly in unrequited love thing really sucked sometimes, and this was one of them. Gabrielle sighed inwardly, and wished it was just all over with already.
The steps stopped. There were no brusque words, though, only a gentle creak of leather as Xena knelt beside her, and rested her hands on the pallet edge.
When she did start to speak, it was the tone Gabrielle heard, not so much the words. The gentleness of it. The sincerity and honesty that touched her heart and eased the stain of disappointment and frustration from her as though she’d stepped into a warm bath.
The words really didn’t even matter.
Gabrielle suddenly realized something had happened. She looked up at Xena and saw herself reflected back in the sparkle of those blue eyes and knew there was something different.
She had made that difference.
It was an awesome moment, only topped by Xena’s hand on hers as they worked together to ease the injured man as her own personal world twirled into a completely different orbit around them.
Gabrielle glanced up at that same, angular profile and reached over to remove a smudge of dirt from it, rubbing Xena’s cheekbone with the edge of her thumb. Dear gods, they’d come such a long way, hadn’t they? Now she was a bigger critic of herself and her motives than Xena ever had been.
Xena glanced at her, a hint of an affectionate grin pulling her lips upward. “I”ve got lots of other muck you could hunt down if you’re that bored.” She teased. “Not to mention rock dust.”
Boy, had they ever come a long way. “Sorry.. I’ll go find us some lunch.” Gabrielle pushed herself to her feet. “I thought I saw some wild grapes near that spring.” She picked up her little basket, then turned. “Xe, if you think the others are coming after us, why stay here? Why not forget the skin, and let’s just take off?”
“Because.” Xena finished one part of the surface, and started working on another. “I think this thing’s gonna come in handy.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle regarded the large furry surface. There was no doubt in her mind it would come in handy, but at what risk? “And?”
“And, if they were coming after us that fast, they’d have done it already.” The warrior replied. “I want to climb up that rock wall far as I can go, and see if I can scout the land out a little. Following water’s getting us nowhere.”
Gabrielle tipped her head back and looked at the sheer rock wall. Then she looked at her partner. “Hm.” She knew better than to question that plan. “I guess I’d better find something more substantial than grapes, huh?”
Xena chuckled, then fell silent. After a moment, she looked up at Gabrielle. “Hey.”
The bard turned back around, hearing the hail. “Yeah?”
“I hope you are right.” Xena said. “Figure out a way for us to communicate with them.” She held Gabrielle’s eyes for a moment, then dropped hers back to her work.
A very long way indeed. Gabrielle smiled, as she turned and headed off.
Ephiny kept an eye on Dori as they walked down the slope into the Amazon village. “Not too fast, Dori. Wait for your old auntie Eff.”
Dori amiably circled back to her, observing the new village with interested eyes. “Pretty.”
Pretty? Ephiny looked around in bemusement. The plateau was large, and ringed with trees, the ground covered in soft grasses and flowers. “You think it’s pretty, Dor?”
“Pretty.” Dori nodded. “Fowers. Pretty aminals.” She pointed at a red bird flitting in the nearby branches. “Fishes.” She concluded, her hand moving to indicate the stream. “Good!”
Ah, a fresh set of eyes. “Well, glad you think so.” Ephiny guided her down towards the shelters, which had actually gotten more substantial while she’d been up at the cabin. Most had roofs, if a bit patchwork, and the village was beginning to take on familiar outlines despite the rain and all the confusion.
Near the center of the open space, she spotted a few of the children at play. They’d had only a small group of births this year, with the war and everything, and so the kid’s yells and laughter were doubly precious here in the new village.
“Eff! Go play?” Dori’s eyes lit up at seeing new potential playmates. “Go now?”
Hm. The last time Xena and Gabrielle had visited the village, they’d brought their tiny terror with them, but Dori had been suffering from a sore throat and her mother had kept her close by her side. She hadn’t had a chance to play with any of the little Amazons, much to her woeful displeasure.
Their kids tended to be raucous, headstrong types, learning early in the competitive world of the Amazons to stake their ground and keep their places. How would Dori fare with them? Ephiny knew that in town, Dori did play with her little cousins and some of the others, but that was different.
Well, if she was standing by, how much harm could they do to Dori, after all? “Okay, sure.” She agreed. “Let’s go play, Dor. But you have to be nice to the rest of the kids, okay? No fighting.”
Dori turned around and looked at her in utter puzzlement. “Fitting?”
“Yeah, you know…” Ephiny held up her fists and mimed some boxing.
Dori merely kept looking puzzled. “No gots.” She eventually shrugged her small shoulders. “You go ask Boo?”
Was it possible? Could it be that a kid who lived with two of the best fighters in her personal memory had no idea what fighting was? “Um.. never mind Dor.. just go play and have a good time.” Ephiny told her. “Be good.”
“Otay.” Dori trotted off, apparently understanding this last instruction. Ephiny strolled casually after her, pausing near the firepit to lean on some stacked wood and watch as her little charge joined the playing Amazon children.
The little girls stopped running around as Dori entered the playground, giving up their game of chase in favor of this new diversion. The tallest of them, Pitra, came right over and checked the new kid out. “Hey.”
“Hi.” Dori replied readily. “We go play?”
Ephiny edged behind the wood, so the kids wouldn’t see her. Dori wasn’t the youngest of the girls, but Pitra was probably a year and a half older, the oldest of them, and tended to act out being in charge because of it.
“Maybe. Who are you?” Pitra asked. “Never seen you round here.”
Dori cocked her head to one side. “Live dere.” She pointed up in the general direction of the cabin. “Make nice go play?” Her head was pretty much even with Pitras despite their age difference, and she was built heavier than the older girl. “We have fun. C’mon!”
One of the other, younger girls seemed willing. She brought over a stuffed ball they’d been playing with. “Catch?”
Dori grinned, well familiar with the game. She held up her hands invitingly. “Go.”
“Wait.” Pitra got in the way. “I’m the boss here.”
Ephiny leaned forward, fascinated. She wondered what the heck Dori was going to do, knowing certainly the child hadn’t ever faced that kind of challenge. Just being with her parents kept most things at bay, and the regent found herself very curious as to how the toddler was going to handle bossy little Pitra.
Dori apparently couldn’t fathom what Pitra’s problem was. She put her hands on her hips, in a motion uncannily like Gabrielle’s and frowned. “What you do? Go play, be nice.” She told Pitra. “Have fun.”
Pitra scowled at her. “You better do what I say, or else!” She said. “Go over there!” She pointed.
Dori looked over there, then back at Pitra. “H’come?”
“Cause I said so.” Pitra said. “Go over there!”
“No.” Dori shook her head, dark locks bouncing. “Be nice!”
Pitra had enough. She came over and gave Dori a shove, pointing towards the other side of the playing area. “Go over there!”
Dori’s hands came off her hips, her balance undisturbed by Pitra’s pushing. “Bad.” She pointed at Pitra. “You stop now.”
Pitra grabbed hold of Dori and started pulling her where she wanted her to go. She didn’t get far, because Dori dug her heels in and let out a yell the likes of which almost scared the feathers off Ephiny’s leathers. The volume was quite startling, and so was the depth of the tone from such a small throat.
“Ahh!” Pitra jerked her head back in surprise. “Shut up!”
“NO!” Dori followed the yell up. “You stop!” She pulled her tunic free and shoved Pitra back, sending the older girl flying to fall on her butt on the ground. “Be NICE!!!”
Ah. Ephiny propped her chin on her fist. Gabrielle with a kick ass attitude. This was going to be one interesting Amazon when she came of age. Unwilling to let the carnage go further, and mildly worried about what would happen if the hapless Pitra really got the Terror of Amphipolis mad, she emerged from her hiding place and strolled over to the playground. “Hi kids.”
“Eff!” Dori turned to her. “Dis one not nice. Go get Boo and make squash!” She said, indignantly.
The girls all went quiet, spotting Ephiny. Pitra, however, wasn’t quite finished. “Where did she come from?” She asked. “She ruined our game!”
Ephiny disliked liars. Even small ones. “This is Doriana.” She said, by way of introduction. “She lives up on the mountain, above the town. She’s our neighbor.”
“She’s not an Amazon.” Pitra sniffed.
“Honey, you have no idea how much trouble you could get into saying that.” Ephiny told her. “Doriana is an Amazon. She’s an Amazon princess, as a matter of fact. Her mother’s Queen Gabrielle.”
“Mama!” Dori regained her good humor. “Mama come back soon, wif Boo, and we c’n go get fishes.” She stated positively. “Boo fly.” She punctuated that by putting her hands down and performing a baby somersault, ending up with her legs splayed on the ground and a big grin on her face. “See?”
Ephiny grinned back. “Is that how she started? Good going, Dori!” She told the child. “You keep that up, and you’ll be jumping over the roof yourself soon.”
Pitra looked at Dori, edging away from her a bit. “Oh.” All the children knew who Gabrielle was. Matter of fact, she was a favorite of theirs, because of her stories more than any real sense that they knew she was the Queen. “I didn’t know that.”
“You probably don’t want to shove her again.” Ephiny said. “For one thing, it’s not nice, as Dori knows, and for another, you probably don’t want to make her mad.”
Pitra had the grace to look embarrassed. “I wasn’t going to hurt her.”
“No, you probably weren’t.” Ephiny agreed, for a different reason than the girl thought. “But we don’t treat our sisters like that, do we?”
“Good.” Ephiny gave Pitra a direct look. “We want to be good to our friends, don’t we?”
“You don’t want the Queen’s consort knocking you on your ass for messing with her kid, right?’
“Play now?” Dori turned back to the girl with the ball sack. “Catch?” She held up her hands again, apparently more than ready to forget the turmoil and have a good time. “Fun!”
The other girl tossed the sack ball, and Dori caught it, then tossed it back. The rest of the girls save Pitra joined in, ready to accept their new playmate. The game of ball started up again, and childish laughter soon filled the air.
Pitra stood there awkwardly for a minute, but when Ephiny showed no further signs of paying attention to her, she eventually turned and went back to the group, joining in. The regent plucked a stalk of grass and chewed it reflectively, turning her head as Pony came up next to her. “Hey Pon.”
“Hey.” Pony rested her arms on the wood. “That was something.”
Ephiny shrugged. “Kids.”
“Ungh.” Eponin nodded. “But you didn’t see it from the angle I did.” She indicated another tree, a quarter of the way round the playground. “When Dori got mad and yelled? She gave Pitra ‘the look.’”
“No. Yeah?” Ephiny turned her head to face her partner.
“Oh yeah.” Pony nodded. “She’s gonna be a rocking Amazon.”
“Mm.” The regent agreed. “That she is. That, she is.”
They decided to stay in the crevice again for the second night. Gabrielle was headed back to it now, a thick load of springy branches on her shoulders. Xena had finished working on the pelt, and now she was sitting on a rock working on some antler pitons to help her climb up the wall. “Hey, Xe.”
“Hey.” Xena looked up from her task. “What’s that for?”
“Ah.. you just wait and see.” The bard walked past her, and knelt in the opening to the shelter, stuffing the branches inside ahead of her. Even though they’d be leaving at dawn the next morning, she wasn’t going to spend another night completely uncomfortable if she didn’t have to.
So she crawled inside, gently pushing aside their odd collection of supplies and started laying the branches down in a crosshatch near the warm back wall. When she was done, she dragged the deerskin over and laid it on top, folded in half to double it’s padding. “There.”
She sat back and reviewed her handiwork. Granted, it wasn’t anywhere close to their bed at home, but anything was better than bare rock. Pleased, she gave the skin a pat, then turned and crawled outside in time to see Xena start to scale the wall. “Be careful.”
“Yeah.” Xena studied her choices, then used the horn pitons she’d carved to get another handhold set before she shifted her boots to two different spots. “Been a while since I did this.”
“I can tell you exactly how long.”
Xena grinned. “Thought you didn’t keep track of stuff like that.” She moved up a bodylength higher, finding the scaling a bit easier than she’d expected. The rock had enough cracks for her to use the pitons to good effect, and she was making decent progress up the face.
“There’s certain stuff like that I keep written over my heart. I never forget it.” Gabrielle called up in answer. “You scaling that cliff, for example.”
“You stopping the arrow, you kissing me..”
‘You kissed me first, if I recall.” Xena said, as she swung herself across a flat space, and braced her feet into a crack.
“Details, details.” Gabrielle felt her hands clenching into fists, as she watched Xena climb. She had every faith in her partner’s abilities, but that didn’t stop her from worrying. She could see the shift of the muscles in the warrior’s legs, standing out under her skin as she levered herself upward. “Damn, I could never do that.”
“What?” Xena called down.
“I said, you’ve got a cute butt, honey!” Gabrielle replied. “Whoops.. careful!”
Xena resettled her grip and hugged the rock, looking down between her chest and her elbow at her partner. “Don’t you have something better to do than watch my butt?”
Gabrielle put her hands behind her back and rocked up and down on her heels. “Nope.” She said.
The bard chuckled, and relented, turning around and going to the edge of the rocks, to perch on one and keep watch over the creek and it’s surroundings. They’d seen no sign at all of their strange visitor, or of the other creatures, and the late afternoon sunlight draped peacefully over the wild space and warmed Gabrielle’s skin.
She felt a damn sight better than she had the day before, that was for sure. Gabrielle drummed her heels on the rock, humming under her breath. Hopefully Xena would spot a way out from up there, and then tomorrow they could head for it and…
If they left, and didn’t see her again, how would Gabrielle know what happened to her? Or what *had* happened to her? She wanted to know. She wanted to understand these strange creatures.
People. Gabrielle corrected herself. People. Her eyes searched the underbrush, willing the woman to reappear, if only at a distance.
The trees remained stolid and featureless, however, and only small birds broke the stillness of the glade.
Xena finally reached the top of the escarpment, throwing her leg over a bit of out jut stone and settling herself down on it. She flexed her hands and extended her aching arms, grimacing as her shoulders popped back into place. “Ow.”
It had definitely been a while. Xena let her arms drop to rest on her thighs. She remembered that rainy day, all right, that had started in uncertain panic and ended.. ended in Gabrielle’s arms. But it wasn’t the first kiss she remembered the best, it was the second.
Now what? Xena looked at the far wall of the Amazon Queen’s quarters, as Gabrielle patched up the gash on her back. She felt shaky and uncertain, unsure of where they were going to go from where they’d just been, and if either of them were really ready for this.
Yes, she’d said she was going to go for it. Yes, she realized Gabrielle was head over heels in love with her.
Yes, she realized she was head over heels in love with Gabrielle.
Xena exhaled, listening to the echoes of those words in her mind. What was that going to do to them? They’d crossed that line and now what? Could she go back?
She felt Gabrielle’s fingers smooth salve over the cut she’d just sewn, and then the gentle pressure as the bard placed a shy kiss on the back of her shoulder. She turned her head and caught Gabrielle looking back at her, the girl’s green eyes so brilliant with gentle joy it almost made her stop breathing.
Could she take that away again? Tell Gabrielle they really, really were better off just friends?
How much did that friendship mean to her?
“I can’t believe you’re really here.” Gabrielle said. “I missed you so much.”
Xena shifted her eyes left and right, then smiled. “I missed you too.” She admitted.
“You did?” Gabrielle’s words were a mere whisper. “Really?”
Her doubts were slipping through her fingers like so much fine sand. “Yeah.” Xena replied. “You done back there?”
Gabrielle looked at the injury, her fingertips touching the skin on Xena’s shoulder. “Yeah.”
Her expression slid into a quiet pensiveness, and Xena suddenly resented that. She wanted the wide eyed happy back. “Hey, c’mon. I’ve had a lot worse.” She gave Gabrielle a pat on the leg, her hand somehow forgetting to lift off the warm skin and remaining there.
A little twinkle came back. “I know.” Gabrielle came around to face her. “It’s just different when you get hurt because of me.” With a trembling bit of hesitation, she lifted her hand and touched Xena’s cheek, a tremor going through her as they stared into each other’s eyes.
Xena studied the serious expression. Gabrielle looked exhausted, and she didn’t think it was just from the long day and the excitement. There were dark circles under her eyes and she’d lost weight, the lines of tension visible in the corners of her eyes and across her jawline.
Poor kid. Xena ordered her into bed, and they sat there, side by side, riding the edge of this new, strange, frustrating, interesting change to their relationship.
What was Gabrielle worried about now? That she wouldn’t be attracted to someone? That she wouldn’t like the closeness? Aphrodite’s left tit, was she still that naïve? Then she realized what Gabrielle was really asking.
Was Xena attracted to her?
Could Xena answer that question, and still think she could go back across that line?
No way. So put your dinars where your mouth is, and put your heart on the table, Xena. It’s time. “Hm.” Xena lifted a hand and brushed it along Gabrielle’s cheek, feeling the pressure as she leaned into the touch. “Let’s see now.”
“Wh..” Gabrielle’s question cut off as Xena ran one fingertip down across her chin, and across the underside of her jaw. She swallowed instead, the flutter of her heartbeat very evident against Xena’s touch. “Uh..”
Xena explored her collarbone, then rested her hand above Gabrielle’s heart. “I think you’ll be all right.”
An almost painfully questioning expression formed on Gabrielle’s face.
“But I’d better make sure.” Ah. What a sweet moment, one she’d been waiting on for a very long time. Xena leaned forward and tossed her reservations to the wind, brushing her lips against Gabrielle’s and feeling the soft gasp, then moving closer for a more intense contact.
Am I attracted to you? Xena welcomed the tingling that coursed over her skin. She gently cupped Gabrielle’s face as the kiss lengthened, feeling the flush under her fingers as Gabrielle slumped against her, a soft sub audible sound emerging from her throat.
Yeah. You could say that. Xena finally leaned back a little, and watched the green eyes reappear, under fluttering lashes. After a moment, a dazzling grin appeared along with them, a moment of sudden, absolute joy that sealed the last of her reservations. “You’ll be just fine.”
“Uh.” Gabrielle appeared dazed, but delighted. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
Xena pulled her over into a hug, knowing a moment of plain unvarnished happiness herself, that only deepened as she let slip her defenses and reveled in the simple sensation of being in love.
A bright, unexpected moment in her heretofore very dark life.
Oh, great. Here I am daydreaming about kissing up on the top of a rock. Must look like an idiot. Xena leaned over and peered down. “Yeah?”
“Look to your right!” Gabrielle pointed.
Huh? Xena peered to the side, spotting the pictograms a moment later. She stared at the drawings, high up on the side of the cliff, in consternation. How in Hades had they gotten there?
She put that aside for a bit, and shaded the fading sunlight from her eyes, looking around to see what path they could take. The creek traveled from the glade they were in, across a forested area, towards the far wall. Xena could see relatively flat ground between where she was and the wall, and she gauged they could easily make it the following day.
Once at the wall – she could see only the sheer cliff, but surely there were breaks in it, caves, or some place for the water to go. Once they found that, they would find a way out.
Satisfied, Xena turned her attention back to the pictograms, crawling over and hanging half off the rocks to get a better look. Experimentally, she extended one hand, and found her fingertips brushed the paintings. Had the creatures climbed the rock as she’d done?
Xena straightened up, turning and looking back the way they’d come. Her eyes spotted the brown figure in the treetops instantly, and she took a breath in, realizing the creature was watching her. The treetop was easily six or seven bodylengths from the ground, and the creature looked perfectly at home.
Not a good omen. Xena edged back over and started to look for an easier way down, her eyes flicking down to the waiting Gabrielle, who was casually seated, ankles crossed, watching her.
Not a good omen at all.
Gabrielle sat with her back against the wall, her hands folded over her stomach and her thoughts fixed on the details of a story she’d been working on before the flood.
It was dark out. They had a small fire going, but Xena was seated near the entrance, nervous as a pig near Solstice even though the area around them appeared clear of any creatures or other intruders.
Gabrielle knew better than to try and get her partner to relax. When Xena was as wound up as she was tonight, any attempts to distract her wouldn’t be well received, and actually since she was afraid they were going to be attacked, it wouldn’t be smart either.
So, the bard used the time to her advantage, scooting over and taking the back half of the little bed she’d made up. She could sort out the details, and had, but she also found she missed being able to write them down.
She missed being able to write in her diary, an old friend she’d come to depend on at the end of the day to give her some place to shake out the corners of her soul into. In horrible times and wonderful ones, it was good just to check off another day well lived.
She wondered what Xena was thinking. If she turned her head, she could see the warrior’s back as Xena sat in the entrance, her hands curled around her stone and bone ax. Her posture was wary and alert, her head turning as she scanned back and forth across the open space between the rocks and the creek.
Occasionally, she’d leaned out and back, watching the escarpment.
Gabrielle wasn’t nervous – after all, her partner was the greatest warrior in her personal knowledge and probably most anyone else’s too – but she found herself feeling Xena’s tension and that made it very hard to concentrate on what she was thinking about.
Fish turds. “Xe? Want to play a game?”
Xena half turned. “What?”
“Do you want to play a game.” Gabrielle repeated. “You know, who am I, or stars, or something?’
The pale blue eyes, hazel in the firelight, blinked. “Are you bored or do you think I am?”
Xena returned her gaze to the outside, her eyes tracking as the moon cast shadows across the rocks. “Sure.” She agreed. “Gonna be a long night.” She added. “You could get some sleep while you can.”
“I could.” Gabrielle agreed. “But I feel so guilty doing that while you stay up.”
“Might as well ask me to stop breathing.”
Xena fingered her makeshift ax, as she cocked her ears to listen outside. “I’d never do that.” She uttered, after a moment’s silence. “I’ve just got the feeling they’re out there, outside where I can see or hear them.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle changed positions, rolling over to lay down on the deerskin, with her head nearest her partner and the fire. “So, what makes you think they’re going to come after us tonight?”
Xena didn’t answer for a bit. Her thumb rubbed idly against the horn, wondering herself why she was so antsy. “I don’t know.”
Gabrielle considered her relatively comfortable spot. After a few heartbeats, she sighed, then got up on her hands and knees and crawled over to where her partner was sitting. She thumped down next to her and curled up in a half ball, her head resting on her arm.
Xena looked at her in bemusement. “What are you doing?” She asked, as the bard wriggled back a little, pressing her shoulderblades against Xena’s thigh.
“Something wrong with that bed over there?”
“You’re not in it.”
Xena released one hand off the ax and draped her arm over the bard. “You’re a little nuts sometimes, Gabrielle.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I like that.” The warrior concluded. She rested her elbow on Gabrielle’s hip and laid her hand along the bard’s ribcage, enjoying the simple warmth of the contact. She felt her edginess fade a little and the night outside became just a bit less threatening and a bit more peaceful than it had been.
Her imagination? Sure. But she wasn’t going to argue with it. She felt the regular lift of Gabrielle’s ribcage and found herself stroking the soft skin. The world was a whole lot less intimidating when you shared it with a friend, wasn’t it?
“What are you thinking about?” Gabrielle asked.
“Mm.” Gabrielle felt the discomfort of laying on stone ease, and she was glad to have traded the heat of the rock wall for the warmth of Xena’s body and the gentleness of her touch. “I like thinking about us.”
The bard was quiet for a while, her eyes half closing as she gazed into the tiny fire. She found herself tired, though they really hadn’t done much that day and knew despite the rocks under her, she’d be falling asleep soon.
Even the thought made her eyes close all the way, and she exhaled, leaning back a little against Xena’s leg. “Xena?” She said, suddenly. “Why would that woman’s mother have been trying to get out of the valley all her life?”
“Didn’t you hear her say that?”
Xena shifted away from the opening and focused on her partner. “I musta missed it.” She said. “I was inside here for a bit.”
“No, you were out there.. it was just before you said something.” Gabrielle objected. “Anyway.. she said.. after I said we were trying to find a way out, that her mother had tried all her life and failed.”
Xena looked past her, the warrior’s forehead creasing sharply. “Oh.. wait. I did hear that.”
Gabrielle’s eyes opened, and she rolled her head back to look at her partner. “Are you okay?” She asked. “You’ve been acting a little weird lately, you know?”
“Me?” Xena’s eyebrows lifted. “You’re the one sleeping on the rocks, kid.”
“Kid?” Gabrielle matched her raised eyebrows. “I don’t mean right now. Before we left.”
Xena now merely looked puzzled “Huh?” She said. “Because I was fighting with mom?”
“Did I stain the inside of the cabin a strange color or something?”
“No.” Gabrielle reached up to riffle her fingers through Xena’s dark hair. “Little things.. like you running out into the rain and losing your cloak somewhere.”
Xena was briefly quiet, then her lips twitched. “Hm.”
“Becoming chatty with the Amazons.. having sensitive talks with Ephiny..”
“That wasn’t what happened.” Xena objected. “She had a sensitive chat with me. Not the other way around. Maybe she’s acting weird.” She suggested. “Matter of fact, I meant to talk to you about that but.. I um.. “
Xena’s brows twitched, and she turned her head to make another sweep of the area. When she looked back, Gabrielle had completely rolled onto her back and was looking up at her, hands folded over her middle. They studied each other in silence for a few minutes. Then Xena took a slow, careful breath. “Um.. when are you..”
“Tomorrow.” Gabrielle answered instantly. “If I counted right.” She added, with a touch of sheepishness. “You usually keep track of that better than I do.”
Xena actually blushed, reaching up to scrub the hair out of her eyes as she leaned back against the rocks. “Yeah.. well… “
They were both quiet again, but this time the silence was packed full of thoughtfulness. Xena was threading through her memories of the past month, trying to think of any particular time they’d been together that had seemed out of the ordinary.
Well, the warrior scratched her ear. Not that she ever really considered any time they were together as really ordinary. But the time in the treehouse… that had been a night to remember. While she and Gabrielle certainly had been passionate with each other the past month, no one single time really stood out in her mind like that time before had.
“I can’t figure it out either.” Gabrielle was watching her face, and apparently deducing her thoughts at the same time. “But I’ve been feeling kind of.. mm… different, too. Lately.” She laid her hand over Xena’s thigh, her thumb tracing a line across the warrior’s skin. “Just kind of … centered.”
Xena put her hand on Gabirelle’s stomach. “I noticed your stamina seems to be off.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I thought it was just all the stuff going on, but I’m getting tired a lot faster than I think I should be.” She admitted. “What do you think?”
Slowly, Xena started to smile. “Mm… I was wondering about that when you asked me to stop and fish for you the first day we were in here.” She said. “So.. yeah. Could be.”
Gabrielle’s face creased into a big grin of her own. “That would be so awesome.” She said. “Especially.. since the obvious alternative is that both of us are getting goofy in our old age.”
Xena chuckled. “Yeah, you’re right.” She agreed. A sound outside made her turn again to study the surroundings, seeing a night hunting small cat stalking something near the edge of the water. She just stopped herself from waving cheerfully at the animal, as her spirits and heart about floated right up out of her.
Gabrielle laid her cheek against her partner’s leg, closing her eyes and feeling the joy silently radiating at her.
She hadn’t really intended on talking to Xena about her suspicions for another couple of days, but what the Hades. It sure beat talking about the rock dust and it took both their minds off the dangers outside.
And it made Xena smile. Gabrielle grinned herself, enjoying the moment.
She was suddenly lifted up off the rocks, and hugged, Xena’s arms closing around her so tightly she felt her spine pop with the pressure. The warrior didn’t make a sound, but Gabrielle swore she could actually feel her partner bouncing up and down, drenching them both with silently explicit happiness.
She wrapped her arms around Xena and hugged her back. “Xe, we gotta get out of here.” She murmured into the warrior’s ear. “I told Dori she was going to get a little baby buppit to play with.”
“We will.” Xena said. “I promise.” She squeezed Gabrielle again, and they both laughed softly, an odd sound that echoed into the night to a range of listening ears.
“There.” Gabrielle stepped back and regarded her handiwork critically, giving her partner an approving nod after a minute. “You look cute.”
“Not the objective.” Xena adjusted her woven belt, now holding the catskin around her body in lieu of her raggedy shift. She’d done what she could to fit the hide around her body, and Gabrielle’s belt did help but stylish it wasn’t.
It covered her though, and provided far and away more protection than the torn cloth had. She’d opened a hole for her head, and let the skin drape down front and back, providing a more or less sleeveless tunic that fell almost to her knees. “S’allright.” The warrior concluded. “Let’s get moving.”
Gabrielle went over and slipped the pack she’d fashioned to hold their supplies onto her back, tying a piece of tough vine across her hips to keep it in place.
“I could take that..”
“Ah ah ah.” Gabrielle interrupted the speech. “Don’t you even start, Xena.” She finished her knot and turned, putting her hands on her hips as she faced her partner. “It’s just a bunch of dried meat, a few nuts, and a skull. I can handle it.” She picked up her staff and tossed it, spinning it in mid air before she caught it again. “C’mon, kitty kitty. Let’s go.”
“Kitty this.” Xena suggested, giving the bard a wry look. “All right. We’ll cross the creek and travel along the wall. Keep that staff handy.” She started down the escarpment, moving off the rock surface into the glade leading to the creek.
Gabrielle was right at her heels, taking a deep breath of cool dawn air as they crossed into the grassy area. She welcomed the change as her boots sunk into the softer surface, and she scrunched her toes up and flexed her feet in pleasure.
It was a great morning. They’d ended up sleeping on her little branch bed anyway. Xena had built up the fire, and they’d retreated behind it to snuggle together all night and she’d slept well, at any rate, waking in a cheerful mood.
What a total turnaround from yesterday. Gabrielle paused as they splashed through the creek, scooping up a handful of the water and drinking it. She could still taste the tartness of the berries she’d had for breakfast, along with a fish Xena had insisted on catching before dawn.
Mm. Roasted fish had it all over raw, that was for sure. She felt pleasantly full for the first time in a few days and she was looking forward to making progress out of the valley. It seemed odd to her, but her curiosity about the other people seemed to have faded as well, and she found her attention focusing more tightly on herself and her partner.
Natural, she supposed. After what they’d talked about last night, it would have seemed strange otherwise. She dug into the bank of the creek edge with her staff as they exited on the other side and picked up her pace, joining Xena and walking side by side with her as they headed towards the wall.
The ground went downhill for a while, the earth going from stony to a deep rich brown that released the pungent scent of growing things as their boots disturbed it. They entered a dense forest, tall trees rising up on either side of them as Xena picked a path between them.
There were no other paths here - not even animal trails and Gabrielle felt a shiver go up her spine as she experienced again the sensation of going someplace unknown, where not even Xena had been before. The forest around them rustled with life – she caught sight of the tail end of a snake slithering off into the leaf litter and off to their left, the reassuringly familiar sound of a woodpecker rattled.
To their right, she could see the wall looming through the trees, and accordingly, Xena turned to walk parallel to it, the trees running right up to the stone and some even edging slightly up into it, roots clinging tenaciously into cracks in the rock. “Look at that one, Xena.”
The warrior turned her head. “Yeah.” She sidestepped across a thick patch of gnarled roots and put her hand on the small tree, which was almost growing sideways out of the wall. “Limited space. Guess they do whatever they have to do to live.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle observed the tree, then she walked forward and gave it a little pat. “You go, tree.” She said. “There really isn’t much space down here, is there?”
‘Nope.” Xena climbed off the roots and continued on. “It’s narrowest by where we came in.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle remembered that. “But it spread out a little.” She hopped up onto a rock and balanced on it, walking alongside Xena. “Xena… I know you didn’t know most of the animals we saw.. you think they’re so different because they’re stuck down here? That’s why we never saw them before?”
Xena twirled her ax absently as she walked, her expression thoughtful. “Can’t be that different.” She eventually decided, with a shake of her head. “Maybe it’s more of Ares experiments.”
“Ew.” Gabrielle didn’t like that thought. She walked a few more steps. “Oh, gosh.. but that would make sense, wouldn’t it? Maybe it was like Jessan’s people.”
“That’s what I was thinking.” Xena admitted. “Only it went wrong. Maybe this is where they put all the ones that went wrong.”
“Like the fish with the feet!”
“Wow.” Gabrielle glanced around. “That’s creepy.”
Xena nodded in agreement. They came across a tiny brook, running down from the wall into the foliage and she paused, kneeling to take a drink from it. “One thing I really do miss.”
“Our waterskins?” Gabrielle joined her. “Yeah.. you know, you don’t think about how much you depend on that stuff until you don’t have it.”
Xena took another handful of water, gazing into the brook for a long moment. “Like everything else.” She said, flicking a few droplets off her fingers before she turned her head to meet Gabrielle’s eyes. “But you find that out the hard way, don’t you?’
Gabrielle rested her elbow on her upraised knee. “That’s the truth.” She glanced into the creek, then jerked a little, startled. “Hey, look.”
Xena leaned next to her and peered down into the water. “Huh.” She reached down into the creek and got her fingers around the glistening golden rock Gabrielle had spotted, bringing it back up and into the light for them to examine. “This stuff again?’
Gabrielle took it. “Is that gold?”
“Probably.” The warrior shook her
head. “Between that, and the damn gems Dori keeps
finding, if any of this gets out we might as well move to
Gabrielle stood. “Okay for me to keep this?” She asked. “I’d like to have something pretty made out of it.. that craftsman you know’ll do it for me and not say anything.”
Xena eyed her. “How about another baby charm?” She grinned.
“Mmm… there’s an idea.” Gabrielle tucked the nugget away. “Are you really worried about people finding out what’s up on the mountain?”
“Damn straight I am.” Xena
replied, as they moved on. “I’ve seen what happens, Gabrielle. We’ll have half
Xena suddenly slowed, and put a hand out, her eyes darting from tree to tree. “Sh.”
Gabrielle dropped back a step and brought her staff up, halting and waiting in silence as she watched Xena extend her senses out. She listened herself, but aside from the soft tinkling of the creek they’d crossed, and the rustling of branches, she couldn’t detect anything out of the ordinary.
And then, it was there. Out of the trees in front of them, one of the valley people dropped, extending his long arms out and barking at them in a commanding way.
Xena shifted her grip and crouched slightly, every muscle tensing as she readied for battle.
The male slapped his chest, and barked again. Gabrielle watched him in fascination, noting the thick, powerful frame, somewhat short legs, and very long, very strong looking arms. He wasn’t wearing any skins, and the fact he was a male was very evident.
His face was round, with a thick nose and a huge jaw, and the beard covering his lower face extended down and covered his neck, fading into the hair on his chest.
If this was, as Xena had imagined, a by blow of Ares… what in Hades had he been thinking? Even the forest people, Jessan’s people, though very different looking, were beautiful in their own way. Ares, give him all his other faults, had a good eye for that sort of thing.
There was nothing beautiful about this man.
He took a step forward, proudly erect, and thumped his chest again.
“What’s he trying to do?” Gabrielle whispered.
“Intimidate us.” Xena uttered back.
The male pointed at them. He thumped his chest. He came towards them, barking loudly, his hand clenching into fists.
“What are we going to do?” Gabrielle edged forward a little, moving her staff in a short arc. “Hey!” She called back to him. “Chill out!”
That seemed to enrage him. He pounded his chest and then rushed at them with impressive speed, bounding over the ground with tough, bare feet.
Xena met him halfway, swinging her ax in a vicious arc and catching him in the ribs with the blunt end. She could feel the crunch as the rock hit bone, and the blow produced a wild howl from the creature. She roundhouse kicked him backwards, planting her body squarely between him, and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle leaned back against the nearest tree and put the end of her staff on the ground, realizing that with one opponent, and Xena in a fighting mood, there was no chance she’d get a pop in edgewise. “Okay, so that communication didn’t get us anywhere.”
The creature got up and coughed, glaring at Xena with vivid and obvious hatred. He barked another few times, then rushed at her again, this time dodging as he reached her and putting a hand out to block the swing of her ax.
“Learns fast.” Xena switched the ax to her other hand and smacked him on the side of the head with it. She could have done it point on and probably split his skull, but with him being alone, she realized it might be their only chance to learn something in relative safety.
The creature stumbled to one side, but didn’t go down. He turned and picked up a branch, swinging it at Xena’s head in return.
The warrior gracefully evaded him, grabbing the end of his branch with one hand and slamming the mid point of it with the fist clenched around the ax, breaking the branch in half. She flung the broken end away and went on the attack herself, chopping the other half out of his hand with the point of the rock. “Yeeehoo!”
With a yelp, he dropped the stick. Xena’s yell then seemed to startle the creature. He stopped dead in his tracks, and his eyes opened wide, just before Xena nailed him with a roundhouse kick to the side of the head that sent him flying into the nearest tree.
He picked up a rock and whipped it at the warrior, who ducked. The creature barked angrily, but he circled the tree and crouched behind it, now watching her with wary caution.
“That’s better.” Xena remarked in approval. “Wanna try that communication thing again now?”
Gabrielle edged up next to her. She debated handing off her staff to her partner, but one look at the creature’s wild eyes changed her mind and she kept her grip on it as she cautiously moved towards the tree.
She could hear the tiny, aggravated snorting noise coming from Xena, so she stopped midway, within the warrior’s reach, and paused to consider. Speech hadn’t done a lot for them, but with the woman, hand signals had.
She released one hand off her staff and extended it, closing her fingers into a fist, and then opening them again.
The creature watched her intently.
“Don’t you go any closer.” Xena growled softly.
“Yes, grandma.” Gabrielle tossed back over her shoulder. “Shh.” She returned her attention to the creature, still crouching behind the tree. Once again, she extended her hand, this time, palm down.
Slowly, the creature edged around the tree, his nose twitching. He grunted, a deep guttural sound.
Gabrielle brought her fingers together, tips touching.
The creature motioned her forward towards him, with another guttural bark.
Mindful of her simmering partner, Gabrielle merely stood her ground, making the same gesture again. “Hon, you want to take a step back? I think you intimidated *him*” She sensed the warrior moving back reluctantly, and she waited until Xena stopped moving before she returned her attention to the creature.
He was in a half crouch now, watching her closely. Gabrielle leaned forward a little, and made an encouraging noise, motioning him forward as he’d done to her moments before.
She didn’t expect the result. The creature bolted towards her with lightning speed, raising a howl that stood her hair nearly on end. Only her reflexes saved her, as she whipped her staff into both hands and attacked without thinking, smashing him between the legs with all the strength she could muster.
There was no time to do anything else, as Xena flew past her like a rabid wildcat, heading for the downed creature who was already curling into a ball and howling in utter pain.
“Xena!” Gabrielle managed to grab a handful of fur as the warrior went past. “Easy!”
“Easy!” Xena yelled back. “I”ll take his damned..”
“XENA!” Gabrielle held on and dug in her heels. “He’s on the ground! Relax!” She managed somehow to get the warrior to stop, just before she pounced on the creature. “I got him. I got him.. easy!”
Xena stood over the howling male, her eyes darting back and forth. “I don’t think this is gonna work.” She said. “Let’s get out of here before more of them show up.” She backed up a step.
“Xena.” Gabrielle eased up next to her, studying her hapless victim. “Just… hang on for a minute. I was getting somewhere with him.”
Xena just looked at her.
“Well, I *was*.” The bard protested. “I told him to come to me, and he did!” She moved a little closer. “I think he’s young.”
Xena hefted her ax and dourly stood guard, ready to whack the male if he got up. “What makes you think that?” She asked. “They’re all single minded and stupid, far as I can tell.”
Gabrielle slowly crouched down, holding on to her staff for balance. The creature stopped howling and stared at her, one hand covering his head to protect it, the other covering his groin. Now his eyes were wide open and round, and she could see fear in them.
There was no doubt in her mind he had some kind of intelligence. She lifted her hand off the staff and closed her fingers into a fist, and he cowered, pressing himself into the ground. “He doesn’t have as much hair as the other ones did.” She said. “He’s a lot smaller…and his face.. I don’t’ know. He just seems younger to me.”
“Mm.” Xena had been observing the creature. “Maybe.” She put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “But I still think we should get out of here.”
Gabrielle really had no other hand signs to try, and she was out of ideas on how to communicate with the creature. “Okay.” She got up and took a step back, watching the male intently. He stayed right where he was, curled up, pressed against the ground. He was no longer howling, but his body was rocking back and forth a little, in pain.
“Let me try one more thing.” The bard said. She crouched down again and cleared away some leaf litter, drawing a circle on the dirt with her finger. Unlike the woman, though, this had no effect on the male, and he simply continued to rock, grunting. “Okay, so much for that.”
Xena waited for her to get up and back away before she did as well, keeping the creature in her view until they were well into the forest. Finally, she turned and put hand on Gabrielle’s back, guiding her forward. “It’s not making any sense.” She muttered.
“The guy?” Gabrielle asked. “I don’t know, that sort of started to make sense, Xena.. I mean, he confronted us, and we fought back, and he got scared… that is what usually happens.”
“Or you mean the people here at all?”
Xena glanced behind her. “I’m not sure what I mean.” She exhaled in frustration. “Bet he follows us.”
Gabrielle looked behind them as well. “I don’t see anything.”
They continued through the trees, both of them walking a little faster as if by common consent. The ground, which had been sloping downward, now leveled out and they had easy going. The trees had thinned out a little, and Xena relaxed just a bit, as they walked through bars of rich sunlight together.
The encounter with the creature had puzzled and disturbed her. There was something so different between this one and the female, and things just weren’t adding up. Nothing was.
Gabrielle exhaled, running her fingers through her hair and pushing it back off her forehead. Xena eyed her covertly, but the bard seemed to be walking along with good energy, and didn’t seem tired despite the recent battle. As she crossed into a patch of sunlight, she raised her face to it, half closing her eyes, and allowing an easy smile to appear.
It made Xena smile in response. She reached out and put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “You up for a little running?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle agreed. “You want to put some space between us and him?”
“Let’s go.” The bard took a grip on the center of her staff and broke into a jog.
Xena joined her, carrying her ax much the same way. They ran together over the leaf covered earth, their footsteps making very little sound on the rich earth. It was almost as if they were flying over the ground, and she dared any moth eaten old creature to catch up with them.
Eventually, she decided, the answers would come to her. In the meantime, she had other things to think about.