One Wild Ride
“Xena, someone’s following us.” Gabrielle said, in a normal tone of voice.
They had been traveling along the wall for four candlemarks. The surrounding terrain had changed from a thick forest to a scrubbier brush, but as a positive side effect, they’d stocked up on several kinds of nuts and berries, and one stalk that had tender, edible ends.
“You think we should worry about that?”
Xena had picked herself up a staff again, and had her ax slipped into the belt around her waist. “Not yet.” She replied. “I think it’s your boyfriend.”
“Don’t start with that.” Gabrielle bapped her on the edge of her shoulder with the tip of her staff. “What makes you think it’s him?”
“I can smell him.” Xena answered equably. “Definitely stinks worse than the woman did.”
“Isn’t that usually the case?” Gabrielle asked, drolly.
Xena pondered that. “Well, there was that Amazon..”
“Ugh. Say no more.”
Xena led them across two fallen tree trunks, poking the ground carefully to stir any possible snakes into retreat. They’d had a close call once already. “How are you feeling?”
Caught in the middle of chewing a nut, Gabrielle swallowed hastily. “Fine.” She replied. “Why? Did you decide those berries we found were really poisonous?”
“No.” Xena stepped off the logs and back onto the ground. “Just wondered.” She wandered on, glancing up at the valley wall looming over them. At treetop level, she spotted a large bird’s nest, and as she watched, a bird of prey landed in it, something small and limp dangling from it’s claws.
Was it a hawk? Xena shaded her eyes. “Falcon.” She indicated the bird.
Gabrielle trotted over and looked up. “Oh, wow.” She could see the pinions as the bird spread it’s wings, walking awkwardly on the edge of the nest. “You think it has babies?”
“That’s usually what a nest is for.” The warrior remarked dryly. “Besides, she’s feeding something up there.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle blithely ignored the sarcasm and continued watching the bird. “She’s pretty.” She concluded, dropping her eyes and turning them forward along their path. “And its far enough up so that we won’t get pooped on.”
Xena chuckled. “You still resent those seagulls, don’t you?”
“Pfftp.” The bard made a disparaging noise, as they walked. “They were chasing me. Lucky Dori was around to throw rocks at them, because you certainly weren’t any help.”
“I was busy.”
“Busy laughing your butt off.” Gabrielle said. “Hey, is that a passageway up there?” She pointed to a crack in the wall.
They angled for it, crossing another of the many small brooks that seemed to gush from the wall in regular intervals. The crack grew broader as they approached, wide enough for both of them to pass through together, and Gabrielle felt a sense of anticipation as they came up to it and peered inside.
“Oh..” Gabrielle said, after a moment. “Well, it’s not a way out.”
“No.” Xena exhaled. “But it’s interesting.” She walked forward into the crack, which narrowed quickly at it’s top to a closed rock finality. The result was a long, triangular cave like space that should have been dark, but wasn’t. The ground sloped downward, and water had collected in a pool inside, and sunlight bouncing off the water reflected off the thickly encrusted crystals that lined the rock above it.
It was beautiful, in a strange, wild way. Gabrielle walked inside, peering around. Past the pool the narrow cave continued, it’s flickers of light fading into utter darkness. “What do you think is back there?”
Xena cautiously followed her, reaching up to run her fingers over the crystals curiously. She wrinkled her nose, then stepped closer and licked one of the crystals. “Salt.” She pronounced, with some surprise.
“Really?” Gabrielle looked over her shoulder. “Great. Break some off for me?”
“Sure.” The warrior was glad enough to pause, reversing her ax and gently knocking some of the irregular crystals free. “Don’t go to far back there.”
“I won’t.” Gabrielle had edged over to where the shadows took over, and she could see no further back into the cave. “You think this goes somewhere?” She asked. “Want to get a torch and find out? Maybe there’s more caves, or a chimney.”
Xena walked over, juggling the crystals in one hand. She stopped at Gabrielle’s side and cocked her head, sniffing the air brushing languidly across her face. After a moment she opened her mouth as well, and closed her eyes. The salt put an acrid edge on the air, but under that, and the strong smell of the water, she could detect rock, dust, and a faint hint of sulpher.
A chimney was always possible, and she’d seen these cracks in the rock leading upwards often enough. Hades, she owed her life to one of them. She didn’t smell anything that would make her think so this time – at least not close to where they were.
“No, huh?” Gabrielle said.
“Hard to say.” Xena admitted. “Nothing near us.”
Gabrielle walked a little further into the shadows, bolstered by her partner’s presence. As she moved along, she could hear her boots scuffing lightly against the rock, and the shadows seemed to press in on her. She blinked, but the darkness was impenetrable, and she stopped walking. “Hm.”
Gabrielle felt Xena come up behind her, and lay a hand on her shoulder. “I know, I’m coming.”
“Look.” Xena pointed.
The bard inhaled sharply, when she saw two glowing eyes looking back at her. “What is that?” She whispered. The eyes were round and featureless, floating about her head level from the ground. She could see no body outline around them.
Given what they’d seen in the valley so far, Xena really didn’t have any confidence in a guess. “Dunno.” She took a step towards the eyes, then another.
The glowing orbs disappeared.
Xena remained still, but she shifted her grip on her ax, her heartbeat picking up a little. She strained her ears, but aside from the ripple of the water, and Gabrielle’s soft breaths behind her, she could hear nothing. So, now what?
“I don’t think we should go any further.” Gabrielle spoke up quietly. “Not without a torch.”
Xena held up her hand, as a faint sound came to her ears. It was a soft clacking, very much like bone hitting bone. It made her nape hairs prickle, and she took a step back, towards the opening, and the light. “Good idea.”
They backed out, past the water, towards the opening, not turning until they were in a fairly sizable patch of reflected light.
Then they stopped dead, as they both saw the line of bodies blocking their way out of the crevice and back into the main valley. “Oh.. damn.” Gabrielle blurted, bringing her staff up across her body in a defensive position. “Xena..”
“Yeah, I see em.” Xena glanced behind her. She thought she saw a brief glimpse of glowing eyes, but she turned her attention forward again, to this more immediate threat.
She could see only about six of the creatures. They were shoulder to shoulder across the opening, watching them both with hungry, yet wary eyes. These were, as Gabrielle had noted, much larger than the lone male they’d last encountered, and they were more muscular, and appeared older if the thick facial hair and general burliness meant anything.
“So, now what?” Gabrielle murmured. “Talk about being stuck between some rocks and an ugly face.”
Xena exhaled in disgust, setting her staff aside and hefting her ax. She eased around the edge of the pool and let her body fill the opening, squaring her shoulders as she faced off against the creatures.
The biggest of them grunted at her, a preemptory bark accompanying a sharp gesture, his stubby fingers curling towards him hand held down.
Gabrielle came up behind Xena, peeking past her elbow at the creatures. “Yow.”
“Watch our backs, huh?” Xena uttered. “I don’t like what I heard back there.”
“Is it worse than what we see in front of us?” Gabrielle queried.
Oh, yippee. Gabrielle resolutely faced away from her partner, putting her back to Xena’s back and gripping her staff firmly with both hands. She anxiously searched the shadows, catching a brief glimpse of the glowing orbs before they vanished, as though sensing her watching. “Oh, that’s creepy.” She murmured. “Sure you don’t want to trade?”
Xena regarded the creatures. The largest one had taken a step towards her, making the come hither gesture in company with an unsubtle hip thrust. “Yeah, I’m sure.” She told her partner. “Swing for the glowing things if it comes close.”
Yippee. Gabrielle swallowed, and focused her attention on the dark recesses of the cave. She could feel Xena shifting behind her, and hear the warrior let out an aggressive growl. “Wish I could do that.”
“What?” Xena asked.
“Nothing.” Gabrielle spotted the orbs again, but this time she didn’t look right at them. She focused her attention ahead of her, and watched the orbs float in her peripheral vision.
Xena made eye contact with the big creature, and traded his imperious gesture with one of her own. She watched him take another step, then she took one herself, raising the ax to waist level and flexing her hands around it.
The creature beat his chest, as the younger one had done. It made a hollow thumping sound, and was something Xena had no interest in duplicating given her natural physical differences. So, instead, she spread her arms out wide, the ax almost grazing the stone roof, and let out a wild yell that echoed off the crystals quite satisfyingly.
The big creature glared at her, then he mimicked her arm sweep, but only managed a rough bark to counter her yell.
“Get the Hades out of here!” Xena switched to actual language. This seemed to enrage the creatures, and they all started jumping up and down, and hooting. “Gabrielle!”
“What?” The bard was busy watching floating orbs, because now there were two sets. “I’m busy!”
“It is *NOT* easier to talk instead of fight.” The warrior yelled. “These stupid bastards are getting on my LAST NERVE!”
“Sorry hon.” Gabrielle edged towards the first set of eyeballs, making a motion with her staff. “G’wan, get back, you!” She could hear a soft rattling, and was that a hiss, or did she imagine it? “Back!” She yelled louder. “Xena, these things are creeping me out!”
“There’s two of them now.”
“Great.” Xena sighed in utter frustration. “All right.c’mon. We’re going to have to fight our way out of this damn place.” She started forward. “Let’s go, Pounding Pauline.”
“Right here.” Gabrielle gladly abandoned her little nightmares and came to Xena’s side, joining her as they both headed for the creatures. “Just rush them?”
Good an idea as any. Gabrielle readied herself as they both broke into a jog, passing the sparkling pool and coming into the reflected light from the outside.
Xena let out another yell for good measure and lifted her ax up, threatening the creatures with it. “Ya stinking bastards! Beat it!” She bellowed, hitting a patch of sun that caught her in all her mottle furred glory.
The creatures stared at Xena, stopped hooting, and turned, running away as fast as they could, howling in fear. Warrior and bard stopped at the entrance, watching them shred foliage on their way through the trees, and turned to look at each other.
“What in the Hades was that?” Gabrielle wondered.
Xena stared at them, then down at herself. “They think I’m one of these?” She pondered, touching her catskin dress.
“Honey.” Gabrielle put her staff end on the ground and leaned on it. “I don’t think even those guys could be that stupid.”
“Well, then I don’t know w..” Xena happened to turn towards Gabrielle, and from the corner of her eye she caught sight of the forest of glowing eyeballs that were now approaching them. “Bacchae!” She grabbed Gabrielle by the arm and started after the creatures. “Move it!”
“Yahhhh!!” Gabrielle looked, and then regretted it. “What are those!”
Xena didn’t know. Uncharacteristically, she really didn’t want o find out. “If this is Ares’ playground, you wanna get up close and personal with something that lives in a dark cave and sounds like bones rattling?”
Gabrielle didn’t even have to think about it. She caught up to Xena and passed her, breaking into a very workman or workwomanline run, passing out of the crevice and turning right, heading away from where the creatures had bolted off to the left.
Xena unabashedly raced after her, glad to abandon the cave and it’s occupants, and hoping they didn’t come out after them. If there was one thing she hated more than spiders, it was weird skeleton creatures with glowing eyes.
She just hated them. Especially since she had no idea what they were. Or where they came from.
Or why their eyes glowed.
The sun was starting to dive behind the cliff wall again. They’d have to find another place to stay the night, away from hairy and scary creatures, and hunting animals… Xena looked up as thunder rumbled overhead. And rain.
Romance of the road my ass.
It was dark by the time they found any kind of shelter. It had been raining for a candlemark, and they’d slogged the last few miles in ankle deep mud that sucked at their every step.
“Ugh.” Gabrielle thumped back against the prickly bark of a downed tree, raking the wet hair off her forehead as Xena managed to get their deerskin hammered into place to protect them from the rain. The ground was soaked and muddy, and there was no where to sit down, but at least the skin kept the needle-like rain from pelting every square inch of her.
It felt good to stand still. She could feel the roughness of the tree behind her and she leaned back, glad to hang her pack off a broken branch and just listen to the storm instead of be in it. She glanced up as Xena ducked under the skin, her hair plastered down over her shoulders. “Good as it gets?
“Yeah.” Xena joined her leaning against the tree trunk. “Give me a minute, and I’ll cut us a seat out of this.” She patted the bark they were resting against. “Rain’ll keep most things away from us.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle blinked, propping her boot up on the tree and letting her hands rest on her thigh. She flicked a bit of dried mud off her skin and wiggled her toes, wincing a little at the squishy, muddy sensation. There was no chance of a fire, she realized, and she reconciled herself to a cold, wet night with the only positive the fact she would be sleeping on the soft, muddy ground instead of on rocks.
Relative levels of comfort, after all. She listened to the rain pelting the forest around them, and despite the discomfort, she took heart in it because, as Xena had said, it provided them a measure of safety. She turned and studied their little nook. “Cozy.”
Xena snorted softly. She’d tied off the skin from the fallen trunk to one of the roots sticking out from the bottom of the tree, and provided them with a space just about big enough for the two of them and their gear. The ground was sloped away from them, and the hide was pitched to allow the water to drip off.
She addressed her stone ax to the bark, cutting into it, then bending close to sniff the gash. The tree had only recently fallen, and she straightened in relief before she made her second cut. If the bark had been too dead and dried out, all she’d have gotten for her troubles was crumbled rubble and she really, really wanted something other than mud to sit on.
She continued to work, pausing briefly when she felt Gabrielle come up and lean against her, the bard’s warm hands gently rubbing her shoulders. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” The bard replied. “Just making myself useful.”
Xena wasn’t sure how useful that really was, but it sure felt wonderful so she wasn’t about to complain. “Damn rain.”
Gabrielle continued working. They’d traveled over so much ground since the scare at the crevice, it was all starting to blend together in her mind. Trees, more trees, hills, and the everpresent wall on their right, which was now beginning to angle in to join the opposite wall they could just see from the hilltops on the left.
Somewhere ahead of them, they would meet. What would they find there? Would there be some place where they could seek a way out of the valley?
Or was the woman right? Gabrielle faced the thought as she kneaded the tense muscles in her partner’s back. Nah. Xena would find a way for them to get home. It would take more than a creepy old valley to hold her.
“So.” Xena started to peel back her cut square of bark.
“So?” Gabrielle circled her from behind, and gave her a squeeze.
Gabrielle considered. “Well, it’s wet, it’s muddy, and there are probably slugs around.”
Xena was silent, her hands busy with the bark. “Wasn’t what I meant.” She finally muttered.
“It wasn’t?” The bard frowned. “What did you mean?’
Xena wrenched the bark free, then she turned in the circle of Gabrielle’s arms to face her. “You say I don’t get subtlety?” She asked, with a wry expression. “You bleeding yet?”
Gabrielle blinked, her head jerking back a little in surprise. “Huh?” She blurted, then realized what Xena meant. “Oh.. sheep.” She hid her face against her partner’s collarbone. “No.”
“Ahhh.” The warrior kissed her on the top of her head.
“I could just be late.” Gabrielle demurred. “I am sometimes.”
“True.” Xena agreed. “But on the other hand, not cycling right now is a gift from the gods, so don’t say that too loud.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” The bard sighed. She hugged Xena, and felt a sense of peace come over her as the warrior hugged her back.
Xena dropped the bark down and nudged it into place with her foot. “C’mon.” She dropped to her knees onto the pale, moist surface, half guiding half tugging Gabrielle along with her.
They arranged themselves as best they could, sharing the square to sit on and propping their knees up with boots planted in the damp ground. Shoulder to shoulder, they rested quietly, listening to the rain pelt down in almost absolute darkness.
After a little while, Gabrielle exhaled, and reached up to get her sack, removing it from it’s makeshift hook and taking it down into her lap. “Want some figs?”
“Sure.” Xena anticipated the sweet, chewy treat. “Got any of that deer left?”
“A little.” Gabrielle removed it by touch and separated it into two portions. She handed one to Xena along with some figs, and put a piece into her own mouth and started chewing. “Do you have any idea at all what those creepy things were? I’ve never seen anything like that before, Xena.”
The warrior took a bite of fig and pondered the question. “I don’t… well, I heard of something like that once.” She amended. “Someone.. I think one of the guys I sailed with back when told us a story about a ship that was cursed.”
“Yeah, something like that.” Xena said. “Anyway, the crew died of something, but instead of just dying, they became living skeletons. Just bones, and glowing eyes.”
“Guy said you could see them across the water at night. Scared hell out of the crew.” She added. “Told the damn thing every night until they all were seeing ghosts everywhere.”
Gabrielle chewed quietly for a minute. “So what did you do?”
“Broke his jaw.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle reached in and retrieved a handful of nuts, cracking one and sharing it. “You think he was telling the truth?”
“Nah.” Xena shook her head. “Just a sea tale.”
“But Cecrops’ story was true.” The bard argued. “And if you think about it, that’s just as crazy sounding.” She said. “I would have thought it was just a story, if I hadn’t actually seen it myself.”
“Maybe.” The warrior conceded. “Anyway, they were there.” She added. “Whatever they were.”
“They scared the hooters.”
Xena stopped in mid chew. “Scared the what?” She looked at her partner.
“Hooters. That’s what I’m calling those guys.” Gabrielle informed her. “That weird noise they make. You know.”
“Mm.” Xena grunted. “The damn things scared me, so why not them?” She said.
“Scared me too.” Gabrielle said. “Don’t you think they spook easy, though? They seem to be afraid of a lot of stuff.”
Xena nodded, having noticed that as well.
“Wonder what they really are.” The bard mused. “I don’t think they’re anything Ares did, Xe.”
“No.” Gabrielle said. “They’re way too ugly.” She glanced at her partner. “Much as I don’t like him, he’s got good taste.”
Xena looked back at her, the barest hint of reflection off her eyes in the dim stormlight. “Was that a compliment?”
Gabrielle chuckled softly.
“I don’t know, Gabrielle.” The warrior sighed. “There’s just so much here we just don’t know about.” She edged over a little, so their bodies were touching. “Every time I turn around, there’s just more mysteries and fewer answers.”
Gabrielle swallowed her last mouthful and dusted her fingers off. She took the half skull from the bag and leaned forward, extending her hand to catch rain runoff into the makeshift cup, waiting until it filled before she settled back and took a sip.
Xena had patiently rasped down the edges of the bone with a bit of rock, and it was smooth now and comfortable, if still creepy, to drink from. Gabrielle took another sip, then passed it over. “Well, tell you what.”
“How about I tell us both a story?”
Xena laid a hand on the bard’s thigh, giving her a dimly seen fond look. “You don’t have to do that. We both need some rest.”
“I want to do it.” Gabrielle said. “I’m tired, but not sleepy. If I tell a story, maybe I’ll get my brain to agree with my body.”
“Mm.. okay.” Xena stifled a yawn, then stopped, and cocked her head to listen.
Gabrielle sensed it. “What?” She uttered sub vocally.
After a moment, the warrior relaxed. “There’s someone out there.” She uttered back.
“Probably.” Xena listened intently. “Only one.”
The woman? Or the boy? Gabrielle wondered. “Are they coming after us?”
“No… just out there.” Xena could sense the creature not far away, but not close enough to worry her either. It wasn’t moving around much, probably taking shelter as best it could just as they were. She felt Gabrielle lean against her, and exhale. “Tell *you* what.”
“How about I sing you to sleep?” Xena offered. “Haven’t done that in a long time.”
Gabrielle was positively charmed. “I’d like that.” She replied softly. “Thank you.”
Xena slid her arm around her partner’s waist and waited for Gabrielle to cuddle close, as she selected a song from her admittedly small repertoire and composed herself to sing it. As the rain pattered down, she started, a gentle, sweet tune she knew Gabrielle adored.
It was an expression of love that made the surroundings irrelevant, and the skulking watcher just a point in the wind outside.
And it worked.
Ephiny walked into total chaos in the inn. She stopped in surprise just inside the door and just listened, watching with wide eyes as a throng of muddy, angry people all stood around the Amphipolis village elders, yelling at the top of their lungs.
“What the heck?” She turned to ask Granella, who had spotted her and skulked on over. “What’s going on here?”
“They’re mad.” Granella said, succinctly.
Ephiny waited, then, when nothing more was forthcoming, she looked at her friend. “And?”
Granella shrugged. “They seem to think the town up here owes them compensation.”
The regent’s jaw dropped a little. “For what?”
“Hard to say.” Granella leaned against the wall. “Something about them coming here and settling and bringing in money, and now it’s all gone to crap, and so they’re owed.”
Ephiny’s eyebrows lifted. “ You have got to be kidding me.”
The regent folded her arms over her chest. “Did someone ask them to come here?”
Granella sighed. “Well, no.. I mean, some of them just came, you know?”
“But the council’s been trying to get more of them in, and I guess.. yeah, some of them got talked into it.” The dark haired woman explained. “But it wasn’t like anyone did this on purpose. It’s a damn flood.” She added. “So I don’t know.”
“The council paid them to come here?” Ephiny asked.
“I don’t think they paid them. More like promised them they’d do well.”
“Ah.” The regent nodded. “So now, when they’ve lost everything, they want the council to make good on the promise.”
Ephiny sniffed reflectively, as she watched the council try to deal with the angry merchants and lower town residents. “Bet they wish Gabrielle were here.”
Granella hid a grin with her hand. “Bet they do.” She agreed. “Where’s Dori?”
“Up at the village.” Ephiny said. “Playing with the rest of the rugrats and having a ball.” She spotted Cyrene entering. “Hm.”
The innkeeper saw her, and diverted her path, heading over to where the two women were standing. “Ephiny?”
“Yeees?” Ephiny mimicked Xena’s usual answer.
“Where’s my granddaughter?’
“We cooked and ate her. Figured you wouldn’t mind.” Ephiny replied, with a straight face.
“She’s up at the village with the rest of the kids.” The regent relented. “We’ve got about a half dozen youngsters up there, and a bunch of doting aunts to watch em. She’s fine.” She looked around. “I figured she’d be better off there than down here with all the hubbub.”
Cyrene looked around, and seemed to appreciate the sentiment. She watched the argument going on in the corner, and shook her head. “Idiots.”
“Which ones?” Ephiny asked. “I’d say your council got what it deserved, myself.”
Cyrene turned and looked at her in surprise.
“They did what they thought was best for all of us.” The innkeeper said. “No one can blame them for stirring up business.. you shouldn’t say that. It’s those moochers who don’t’ deserve their time of day.” She continued. “I wouldn’t give them a dinar.”
One of the bigger merchants stepped forward, his voice rising and his finger jabbing into the lead councilman’s chest. “You listen, you useless bit of hot air! You promised me a fortune! You promised my family a nice house! Now you make good! You make good or I’ll have your head!”
Cyrene exhaled. “Fools.”
“Pity Gabrielle’s not in charge.” Ephiny remarked.
“Yeah.” Granella said. “For one thing, that guy would not be poking her.”
“More than once.”
“Hmph.” Cyrene cleared her throat. “Really, they just felt that with her traveling so much, it wasn’t fair to ask her to be involved.”
“Do you really believe that?” Granella asked, unexpectedly. “Even Toris doesn’t.”
Cyrene eyed her.
“I think they were just torked that a woman was in charge.” The dark haired woman stated. “I heard them talking. It had nothing to with Gab’s traveling. They just want it all. They want to run everything, but they want them to be here to fix things when they break.” She shook her head. “I felt bad for Gab. Telling her to get lost.. that hurt her.”
Cyrene was silent for a bit. “I didn’t think she cared.” She finally said.
“How could she not care? She loves this place.” Ephiny said. “It’s the one spot beside tall dark and deadly she thinks of as home. Not even Potadeia is that to her.” She paused reflectively. “Or our village.”
“All right, all right..” The head councilman finally said, loudly. “Fine, I.. I’ll make it up to you. We’ll make it good. For all of you.”
Cyrene turned. “What?”
“Damn straight you will!” The merchant yelled. “And you’ll start it right now by putting us up! Here! My wife’s not gonna sleep in the back of no wagon, like you told me!” He looked around at the group. “Right?”
“Yeah. That’s not fair!” One of the other merchants agreed. “You gotta do us right!”
“O…of course. Of course.” The head man turned to Cyrene. “Of course.. yes?”
“No.” Cyrene replied, in a steady tone. “We’re full. You know that Alaf.”
Alaf made a shushing gesture. “Put someone out.” The man ordered. “Can’t you see how important this is?” He glared at her. “It’s business!”
Everyone swung to look at Cyrene. “I’m an innkeeper.” She stated flatly. “My business is to run this inn, not kick out paying customers for your whims, Alaf.”
“A whim!” Alaf hissed.
Cyrene shrugged. “I’m not the one who cut the deal with them.” She said. “If I recall, you deliberately cut me out of that conversation.”
“Now look!” The merchant broke in, striding forward. “You listen to me old woman..”
Granella and Ephiny reacted, cutting him off and sliding in front of Cyrene, Ephiny drawing her sword and extending it with absolutely no hesitation whatsoever. “Hold it.” The regent ordered.
“Don’t interfere.” Alaf ordered. “This is none of your business!”
“Wrong.” Ephiny contradicted him. “This inn belongs to my queen’s family, and that makes it my business.” She motioned the merchant forward with her other hand. “So c’mon. You want a piece of me? Think you can knock me down, big guy?”
“But..” Alaf hesitated.
“Wait your turn.” Ephiny cut him off. “I’ll kick your ass when I’m done with his.” She turned back to the merchant. “Well? See how far your big mouth gets you with me, buster.”
The merchant stared at Ephiny. “You know what the problem is in this place?” He said. “Women.” He turned to Alaf. “They got you all whipped.”
Alaf looked at the regent.
“Bet your ass we do.” Ephiny grinned at him. “And you better thank me for keeping you from being mean to Cyrene here, because, little man – there’s lots worse than me around here.” She spun her sword in her hand, and then sheathed it, letting her hands come to rest on her hips and giving the two of them her very best Amazon glare.
“You can say that again.” Cyrene stepped forward and edged past Ephiny. “Now, all of you lot, get out.” She pointed at the door. “I don’t give a damn what deals you cut with these bastards. It’s not my affair, and I won’t be throwing anyone out for you!”
Alaf’s lips twitched. “All right. You can stay in my house.” He told the man. “Come with me. We’ll get things settled.” He turned to leave, then turned back to Cyrene. “I”ll remember this, Cyrene.”
They walked out, slamming the door behind them while the rest of the merchants milled around uncertainly, and then followed, leaving the inn covered in muddy footprints, but empty of their agitated whispers.
Cyrene sighed. “This is not good.”
Ephiny took a seat at one of the tables and propped a boot up on the trestle. “I thought I was pretty spiffy, actually. Haven’t had to pull the cycling Amazon from Hades from my bag of tricks in a while.” She rested her arm on the table. “Did it buy me a mug of ale?”
Granella chuckled. “Eph, you’re too much.” She went over and sat down. “But you know, I think we should go find Xena and Gabrielle.”
“Thought you decided they didn’t need our help?” Cyrene said, but in a mild tone that took the sting out.
“They don’t.” Ephiny looked up at her. “But I think we’re going to end up needing theirs, here.” She gestured at the window. “River’s leveled. Maybe I can send a few warriors in a canoe down, see if they spot them.”
“Hm.” Granella murmured.
Cyrene sat down next to Ephiny. “I think that would be a very good idea.” She said. “And no matter what you say, or what you think… they could be in trouble and really need the help this time.”
Ephiny thought about that. “Anything’s possible.” She conceded. “They do get into some scrapes.” She studied the edge of the table, drawing her finger along it. “Sometimes I think they manage to get out of whatever they get into by themselves because they just don’t have any other option.”
“Exactly.” Cyrene agreed. “Listen, I know they’re resourceful. I know Xena’s got more tricks up her sleeve than.. than…”
“Than she has sleeves.” Granella supplied, with a rakish grin. “Eph, tell you what. Let me go down the river for them. I’ll take Pony.” She offered. “When we find them, that way it’ll be more like me going to them for help, then us trying to rescue them.”
All three women were quiet for a little bit. “All right.” Ephiny finally said. “Pony’d like that. She’d rather go chasing down those two than clean up the mud in the village, that’s for damn sure.”
Granella grinned again. “I’m sure Toris won’t mind chasing after the twins instead of doing the same here.”
Cyrene snorted and rolled her eyes.
“Cyrene.” Ephiny tapped the table. “Are those guys going to give you a problem? I can send some featherheads down here to hang out if they are.”
The innkeeper propped her chin up on her fist. “Probably. But I can grab some of Xena’s boys if they get too riled up. I think they’ll go just so far before they realize they really don’t want to get their ass kicked in public.”
“By the militia?”
“By me.” Cyrene corrected, wryly. “You know, Xena *is* my daughter.”
Granella and Ephiny both laughed at that. “Yeah, and if they get too nasty, I’ll send Dori down here.” Ephiny said. “They’ll wish they were facing the Athenian army instead.” She slapped Granella’s arm. “Okay, deal. I”ll let Pon know. C’mon up and you two can make plans.”
“Gotcha.” Granella nodded. “Let me go tell Toris.” She got up and slipped out the kitchen door, leaving Ephiny and Cyrene alone.
“Let me get you that ale.” Cyrene got up and headed for the tap. “Thanks for the show, by the way.”
“I hate loudmouth jerks.” Ephiny said. “Especially loudmouth jerks who do bad things to friends of mine.” She accepted the mug, and sipped from it, then set it down. “And I’m really ticked off about that whole council thing with Gabrielle.”
Cyrene sat down with her own mug. “Are you?’ She mused. “When I heard, I thought it was a good thing.. not having them bother her.” She glanced up. “Is that why they moved up the mountain?”
Ephiny stifled her first impulse, and took a steady breath instead. “Might have been one of the small reasons.” She said. “But you know, Cyrene.. it really was because they can’t stand the uproar. They’ve lived out in the wild too long.”
“I noticed it when they stayed by us. They just really need space.” The regent said. “And… Xena told me she felt like this place wasn’t her home anymore.”
Cyrene looked sharply at her. “She said that to you too?”
“Damn it.” The innkeeper shook her head. “How can I trade that for the success of all the people here?” She asked plaintively. “These people suffered during that war, and stood by us. Don’t they deserve to make good now?”
They did. Ephiny had to agree with that. “Of course they do.” She said. “I don’t know what the answer is, Cyrene.”
A loud yell penetrated the inn wall, and they both turned to look. “Well, it could be a moot point.” Cyrene got up and headed for the door. “We may all be going to Hades in a wicker basket now.”
Could be. Ephiny hauled herself to her feet and followed. Could very well be.
The air was a dark gray, and so was the sky. The only color was from the trees around them, sodden greens and the brown of moss that leant the glade a gloomy air.
Gabrielle sat cross-legged on the bark, her elbows resting on her knees as she gazed out into the pouring rain. Across from her, under a thick bush, was their Hooter friend, the young male. He was hunched under the leaves, drenched, but stubbornly watching them just as she was watching him.
He hadn’t tried to come any closer, after he’d found them. He just settled in across the glade, his dark eyes fixed on them with an almost woebegone expression.
Darn it. Gabrielle wiped mist from her face for the nth time. What the heck were they going to do with him?
Xena was taking advantage of the storm to kick back and relax, her body stretched out under the tarp and her eyes closed. “Is he doing tricks yet?”
“Xena.” Gabrielle reached behind her and gave the warrior a slap on the calf. “What’s he waiting for, I wonder?”
“Rain to stop?”
The bard sighed. “You’re such a punk sometimes.”
“I’m bored.” Xena answered. “C’mon over here. We can give him something more fun to watch.” She nudged Gabrielle with her foot.
“I’m trying to figure out how to communicate with this guy.” Gabrielle nevertheless turned and laid down on her side, draping one arm over Xena’s middle. “You’re not helping.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena opened one blue eye and peered at her. “It’s raining like Hades. Besides mind reading, how much communication you think’s getting done here?”
“Mm.” Gabrielle snuggled closer. “I don’t want to try that come here gesture again. This place isn’t big enough for us, plus a wet Hooter.” She lifted her head and craned her neck, spotting just a quick glimpse of their watcher as he huddled in the rain.
“What does he want, you think?”
“A mate.” Xena replied. “Must be frustrating the Hades out of him, seeing two females just ripe for the picking, and having them kick his ass.”
The bard snorted softly, and buried her face into Xena’s shoulder. “This would be funny if it wasn’t so darn…darn..”
“Frustrating.” Gabrielle corrected. “That’s what it is.. it’s just so frustrating that all this stuff is happening to us and we’re just… stuck here.”
Gabrielle sighed, her eyes straying out to the rain. “Is this ever going to end, Xe?” She complained, feeling a light touch as the warrior’s hand came to rest on her back, and began a slow massage. “I’m tired of this whole rain thing already.”
Xena gazed up at the hide protecting them, and found herself fully in agreement with her partner’s sentiments. The heavy downpour was getting on her nerves as well, and the misty wet that kept covering their skin was just making it worse.
She wanted to be up and gone, but having them walk in that much rain for so long was just asking for trouble, and she was a little surprised they both weren’t coming down with colds already. She had no herbs for that, and if Gabrielle got the coughing sickness here..
Xena felt a chill run down her spine. In reflex, she pulled Gabrielle a little closer, hugging her. A fire was out of the question, and they’d finished off the last of their stores for breakfast. If the rain ever stopped, they’d have to go out and find or catch something, and if the rain didn’t stop..
Well, she’d have to go out and find something anyway.
“What are you thinking about?” Gabrielle asked.
“You asked.” The warrior sighed. “Damn I wish we were out of here.”
“Out of this charming nest you made us? Me too.” Gabrielle agreed.
“Out of this damn valley.” Xena replied, in a frustrated tone. “I’m tired of not having.. anything.. I need.”
Xena curled her hand around Gabrielle’s elbow and rubbed the skin there with her thumb. “Anything aside from you.” She amended, wryly. “And all this wet’s getting on my last nerve.”
It was enough to drive anyone crazy, the warrior acknowledged. Knowing they had so far to go to get home, and to be just sitting here.
Xena forced herself to just relax. She thought for a minute, then she rolled onto her side, tilting her head and giving Gabrielle a kiss on the lips. There was a hint of figs to be found there and she took her time following up on the hint.
Gabrielle hesitated, then leaned into the kiss, her body responding without any conscious direction to the familiar touch. A brief thought of their silent watcher crossed her mind, but it was just as quickly dismissed when Xena’s fingers traveled around from her back across her waistline and eased between them to gently cup her breast.
She felt a jolt hit her guts, and the rain outside faded. Xena’s touch always had that affect on her, even after all this time, and she was glad enough to dismiss the discomforts around her and concentrate on more pleasurable tingles instead.
Xena’s fur tunic was unbelted, and she nudged a fold of it aside. She ran the tips of her fingers up the warrior’s bare side, and felt the muscles just under the skin contract in reflex.
The cat skin had a musky scent of it’s own, and it blended with Xena’s in a not unpleasant way. Gabrielle ducked her head and kissed the warrior’s collarbone, welcoming the warmth as her partner’s thigh slipped between hers.
“Grrr.” Xena growled softly into her ear.
Gabrielle smiled, moving her kisses slowly downward. With Xena, there was plenty of length to cover and she liked taking her time to do so, as the warrior reciprocated with teasing nips along the back of her neck.
Definitely more interesting that watching the rain. The bard felt a touch glide down her back, coming to rest on her hip for just an instant, before she felt a teasing tug on the laces of her belt.
“Mm?’ The warrior licked her earlobe lightly, then caught it between her teeth.
“Do I really want to moon the Hooter?”
Without even the slightest hesitation, Xena removed the catskin and draped it over Gabrielle’s body. “There. Better?”
Leaving herself, of course, completely exposed. “Exhibitionist.” The bard surrendered, going back to her exploration.
“My mother always says, if you got it..”
“Don’t leave it out in the rain to get wrinkled.” The bard completed the sentence, her gentle touch moving lower and getting a soft gasp from her partner. “So there.”
“Whatever.” Xena unlaced her belt and slid her skirt away, nudging her over onto her back as their bodies touched and melded.
Gabrielle flipped an edge of the catskin back over Xena’s torso, just before she mostly forgot about their surroundings, and the rain, and any watchers. Her body got caught up in Xena’s stroking, as desire erupted in her guts and shortened her breathing.
She used to feel shy about how she reacted to Xena, but somewhere between her growing up and them growing together, she’d dropped the blushing and just learned to really enjoy it.
Now a groan eased from her throat as Xena hit a particularily sensitive spot and she ducked her head to tease one of Xena’s nipples in return, coaxing a low sound of appreciation from the warrior.
She used to feel a little awkward, and more than a little awed at being able to touch Xena like this, after so much time where they’d traveled together as friends. It had seemed amazing.
It had seemed unbelievable, when it finally happened.
Oh, boy, she loved it when Xena did that. “Uhngh.” And she loved when Xena said her name, too.
Ah well. She could really think of no better way to spend a rainy day than this, after all.
By evening, it still hadn’t stopped raining. Xena sighed, tying the makeshift laces on her even more makeshift boots, and turned her head to look at Gabrielle. “You over this?”
“Way over it.” Gabrielle agreed. “It’s flooding under here. We can’t stick around, and if I’m gonna get wet anyway, might as well be looking for another place to take shelter.” The bard fastened their carrysack to her back and snugged the gut tie around her waist. “Let’s go.”
Mentally preparing herself for the rain, Xena stepped outside into it, and unfastened the skin they’d been huddled under. It was truly sodden, but she patiently rolled and squeezed it as she folded it into a manageable bundle.
Gabrielle stood behind her, blond hair already plastered to her head as the rain bounced off her skin and darkened her clothing. She tipped her head back, and reckoned they had a few hours of light left to travel by, and maybe a few more if they got lucky and the rain cleared enough for the moon to come out.
The Hooter had disappeared. They weren’t sure exactly when but after they’d spent a pleasant candlemark snuggling they’d gotten up to find he was no longer there watching them.
Gabrielle wasn’t really sure if that was any kind of commentary or just coincidence. She glanced around, then turned her back to Xena as the warrior approached. “Put it in the sack.” She said.”There’s nothing else in there but some pieces of your rocks.”
“It’s heavy.” The warrior warned.
Gabrielle turned back around and gave her partner a glare. “You are *not* going to start this.” She said, firmly. “Xena, I swear, I can’t handle nine months of you treating me like a piece of darn crystal.”
Caught flatfooted, the warrior merely clasped the sodden hide to her chest, and blinked.
“Don’t give me that look.” The bard repressed a grin with difficulty. “Can you at least wait until we’re sure I’m pregnant?”
Xena poked her lower lip out in a pout.
“Xeeeena.” Gabrielle covered her eyes. “Stoooop.”
Xena leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Love you.”
“Mmph.” The bard peeked up at her, melting effortlessly at the honest sentiment she saw in the warrior’s eyes. “That’s not fair.” She murmured. “You know exactly where to get me.”
The warrior gently turned her around, and started stuffing the hide into her carrysack. “After all this time I damn well better.” She pushed the lumpy load flat with one hand. “How’s that?”
Darn it. It was heavy. Gabrielle felt the strap across her waist dig into her ribs. She shifted it a little, and pulled the sack higher on her shoulders. “It’s okay.”
“You sure?” Xena uttered, right into her ear.
“Yep.” Gabrielle knew at this point, if she admitted otherwise she was going to be ribbed unmercifully, so she hitched herself up and got on with it, heading down out from where they’d taken shelter towards the wall again.
Xena caught up to her and they walked side by side, both of them using their staffs as the rain drove against them. Most of the animals were hiding from the rain, and they walked through a forest that seemed almost eerily quiet.
They had only walked for about half candle mark when they heard a soft rustling off to the right. Xena paused, and put her arm out, but Gabrielle had already stopped, lifting her staff up and sliding her hands across it at shoulder’s width.
The leaves went still, then after a moment, a branch slowly moved aside, and the woman Hooter appeared, her expression wary as she studied them.
Gabrielle eased her staff back down onto the ground. “Hi.” She greeted the woman. “I’m glad you came back. We didn’t mean to scare you off before.”
The woman Hooter stayed where she was, her eyes going with deep apprehension to Xena. “What are you?” Her voice, as before, was low and guttural, the tone hoarse.
Gabrielle turned and looked at her partner, then she turned back. “Who, Xena?” She asked. “Xena’s a person. Just like I am.” She studied the Hooter. “Just like you are.”
Xena remained silent, her hands wrapped around her staff as she leaned on it.
“You killed a two fang.” The Hooter accused.
“Sure.” Gabrielle said, after a moment’s hesitation. “It was trying to kill us.” She explained. “We didn’t have a choice.”
Xena stiffened suddenly, straightening. “Watch out.” She warned. “There’s more around us.”
Gabrielle shifted and took a step back, her eyes sweeping around them as she put a tree at her back and cleared Xena’s reach. She couldn’t see anything in the foliage, but she trusted Xena’s senses implicitly and she lifted her staff into a defensive posture.
A hoot from her left confirmed the warrior’s hearing. “Tell them not to attack us.” Gabrielle suddenly said, turning towards the woman Hooter. “They’re going to get hurt.”
The woman licked her lips.
“I’m not kidding.” The bard warned.
The woman picked up a rock. Xena and Gabrielle both tensed, and Gabrielle felt a shiver come over her skin as her body readied itself for battle. The cold rain eased, as a flush warmed her and she clenched and relaxed her hands on her staff.
The woman lifted her hand, but instead of throwing the rock, she whacked it against the tree she was crouched next to. She was answered by a hoot, and she whacked the tree again.
Gabrielle tapped Xena on the back of the leg lightly.
Another hoot. The woman cautiously edged out into view, raising her hand over her head, and making a sign with her fingers.
Xena snorted, one shoulder lifting into a half shrug. “You win.”
A low, powerful hoot came from their left, and Gabrielle swiveled a little, her eyes searching the bushes intently. After a few blinks to clear the rain from her eyes, she spotted a discontinuity in the leaves, and her vision focused on a flicker of light that resolved itself into a pair of brown eyes.
There was danger around them. She could feel that. But there was danger in them also, and she hoped the Hooters realized that as well.
A rock appeared in the air. “Gab.” Xena surged into motion, but the rock was closer to Gabrielle than she was, and the bard whipped her staff up and intercepted it, whacking it in the opposite direction with a loud, distinct crack.
“Nice.” Xena said. “Tell them not to try that again or the next one’s going up someone’s ass.” She told the woman Hooter directly. “That’s gonna hurt.”
The woman stared at Xena. Gabrielle cleared her throat gently. “I don’t think she really understood that, hon.” She muttered. “Tell them to stop.” She repeated, in a louder voice. “If Xena could kill a two fang, your people are nothing to her.”
Xena gave her a look.
The woman definitely seemed to understand that. She smacked the rock against the tree several times, with an urgency, and signed with her hand in the direction just past Gabrielle’s left. The bard sensed motion, and she stepped back gracefully, turning to face the bushes but moving out of Xena’s way at the same time.
Xena slid past her at the same time, tucking her staff under her arm and wrapping her fingers around it while she removed her hand ax from her belt and hefted it, her eyes fixed on where the male Hooter was hiding.
“Careful, Xe.” Gabrielle took up her rear guard position, watching the rest of the undergrowth carefully. It was so thick here, it was hard to see anything past the deep green leaves, and with the rain, hard to hear anything in them as well.
The woman Hooter banged her rock again, and signed, and hearing a answering hoot, finally got so frustrated she stood up out of the bushes and let out a scream so loud it made Xena grimace.
The male hooted angrily. The woman threw the rock at him, the stone tearing through the leaves and disappearing. She screamed again, and signed with both hands.
Xena paused, waiting to see what was going to happen. “Keep your eyes open.” She warned Gabrielle.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.” The bard answered.
After a brief silence, the male Hooter stood up, his head rising out of the brush as he faced off against Xena. He was the largest of them, almost as tall as the warrior, with thick, very broad shoulders and a powerful chest.
He smacked his chest with one hand, and hooted at Xena, tossing his head with an almost arrogant air – only to dissolve into startled fear when the warrior leaped at him, letting out a yell of her own and swinging her ax at his head.
He scurried off quickly, hiding behind a tree and staring at her.
Xena twirled her ax and snorted. “Typical.”
The woman Hooter dashed out from behind her tree and raced over to where the male was, signing furiously at him. Her attitude, though, was one of fear, and as she reached him, she crouched down and held her hands over her head.
Gabrielle watched them in fascination, trying to figure out what they were saying to each other with mostly body language and a few signs.
Only a few. But they were communicating, and she felt proud of herself for understanding the possibility of that despite what her partner had thought. It was a rare thing to have Xena be wrong and at least now, after all this time, she freely admitted it when it did happen.
But only to Gabrielle. “We really don’t’ want to hurt you.” She called out to the woman. “We’re just trying to get out of here.”
The male glared at them, then he surprisingly hunkered down next to the female, hooting softly at her. The female signed something at him, with a small grunting noise of her own. He jerked his head up twice, then backed up, going behind a tree again and watching Xena.
“Now what?” Gabrielle muttered.
“Guess we’ll find out.” Xena took a few steps back, closer to Gabrielle. “At least they’re not just attacking us.”
The woman got up and ambled over towards them. When she got close, she sat down on the ground, and did the same thing she’d done with the males, held her hands over her head.
Xena turned and looked at Gabrielle. “Any ideas?”
Gabrielle studied the woman. “I think that means… she wants to talk to you.” She said. “Go over and kneel down next to her.”
The warrior looked dubious, but she complied, easing down on one knee cautiously. “If she bites me, you’re gonna never hear the end of this, Gabrielle.”
“If she tries, I’ll knock her block off.” Gabrielle replied shortly. She edged up behind her partner and waited, her hands clasped around her staff.
The woman stayed in her hunched position. Xena turned her head and looked questioningly at the bard, her eye brows hiking up.
“Touch her hand.” Gabrielle said.
Obediently, Xena did so, drawing her own back quickly when the woman straightened and peered at her, thorugh the rain that now came down in sheets over both of them. “Well?” She asked. “I know you can talk. So talk.”
The woman Hooter gazed steadily at her. “Come with us.” She said. “See what we are.”
Oo. Gabrielle felt the dual strong tugs of caution and curiosity. “Where?” She asked, but the woman didn’t even look at her.
“Where?” Xena repeated.
The woman pointed in the general direction of the wall. “Our place.”
Xena stood and backed up. “I don’t like it.”
“Me either.” Gabrielle put a hand on her arm. “But chances are, it’s out of the rain.” She said. “And maybe, if we can figure out who these people are… they’ll just leave us alone, and we can get on our way. It’s hard with them chasing us.”
“Mm.” Xena grunted. “It’s dangerous, Gabrielle. They’re wild.. almost wild animals.”
Gabrielle studied the creatures. Xena was right about that, she realized, but there was some level of understanding there. “We can handle it.” She finally said. “I think we should take the risk.”
Xena considered that for a moment. She tipped her head back and looked at the clouds, which were only getting darker, and heavier. “All right.” She finally said. “I still don’t like it, but.. “ She looked at the woman. “Okay.” She said. “We’ll go.”
An expression of relief came over the woman’s face, and she got up, motioning them to follow. Xena stepped in front of her and held a hand up. “Hold it.” She watched the woman cringe and back up. “If anyone tries to hurt us.” She said, slowly. “I will kill them. You understand me?”
Slowly, the woman nodded.
“All right. Let’s go.” Xena motioned for Gabrielle to go in front of her. “I”ll watch your back.”
Gabrielle nodded and followed the woman, aware of the silent figures gliding through the trees on either side of them. Thunder rolled over head, and she wondered, briefly, if they weren’t making a very big mistake.
Hoots went up around them. Gabrielle sighed and clutched her staff. Guess she’d have to wait and find out.
It was nearly nightfall by the time they reached the Hooter shelter. It wasn’t quite a cave, much to Xena’s relief, it was more of a long, extended overhang back into the cliff face, that showed some signs of having been chipped out by unskilled hands.
There was a long, rocky slope filled with loose gravel in front of it, and the brush had been cleared back to allow a view of anything approaching. Xena caught all these details, and she nodded slightly, her estimation of the Hooter’s intelligence creeping up a notch.
As they walked into the cleared space, the male Hooters appeared from the forest around them, slouching by and into the shelter with dark looks and wary distance. The biggest one alone took his time, stalking up the slope and pausing at the entrance to look at them, before he went inside as well.
“We okay?” Gabrielle uttered softly. “Looks pretty open.”
“Mm.” Xena grunted a response, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I think we’re all right. Just be very, very careful.” The male Hooters still made her wary, but they’d kept their distance the entire walk, and showed every sign of continuing to do so.
Xena wasn’t sure if going inside their lair would change anything, but at least they had a clear escape path, and by her count, only about a dozen of the Hooters were inside, a number she felt they were capable of dealing with.
“Wonder where the rest of them are?” Gabrielle asked, as they approached the cliff overhang.
“Reading my mind?”
The bard chuckled softly, easing inside and blinking at little while her eyes adjusted to the additional gloom, that yet wasn’t as dark as she’d expected. “Oh. Xena, look.”
The warrior ducked her head to one side and peered at the roof of the overhang, which was dotted with tiny, glowing specks. They didn’t shed a lot of light, just a soft eerie glow but it was something other than darkness. “Huh.”
“It’s pretty.” Gabrielle edged further inside as her vision adjusted. The overhang was sheltering a range of different levels of stone, and it went back for maybe ten of Xena’s outstretched arm lengths. There were piles of leaves in various places, matted down and roundish and near each one were small collections of stones and other items.
Nests? She watched the Hooters separate and go to the leaf piles, confirming her guess. There was little else in the shelter save some stacks of twigs and a few animal bones and she supposed they lived day to day on what they found much like she and Xena had often done when traveling.
The male Hooter went to the top level nearest the cavern roof, in the back and sat down in his pile of leaves, folding his arms over his knees and glaring morosely at them.
“Come.” The woman told them, gesturing towards a shelf off to one side.
Xena cast a dark look around the cavern, but followed her, with Gabrielle at her heels. The shelter smelled about like she’d expected, dusty and rank, the scent of long decayed kills mixed with refuse and worse that thankfully wasn’t too overpowering due to the open nature of the overhang.
She could smell water somewhere, a richly mineral scent that tickled her nose, and as they stepped further inside the overhang, the rain finally stopped drenching them much to her relief.
One of the males hooted loudly. The others responded, and two stood up, gesturing angrily at each other. The big male in the back let out a bellow, and after a few breaths, the sound subsided.
“Nice.” Xena sighed.
“Stay here.” The woman rasped. She crawled up onto one of the ledge and gathered something to her, then she ambled back into the open space, heading for the big male’s nest.
Gabrielle watched her, easing down onto one knee as water dropped off her clothing onto the stone. This was like nothing she’d ever seen, not even the cave of the throwback forest people had been like that. The difference, she realized, was that the forest dwellers were acting in a certain way because they wanted to where these creatures were what they were just because they were.
It felt very wild, and very dangerous to be here. She felt tense, and she knew Xena was even more so. The warrior was standing between her and the rest of the room, her weight resting on her staff and her eyes moving constantly.
And yet, here was something completely new to both of them. Gabrielle had to admit that situation didn’t happen nearly as often as it used to, and it touched the spirit of adventure inside her. One of the most exciting things she’d felt about traveling with Xena when they’d first met was that every sunset of her life then had ended someplace new.
There was something very appealing about that, especially to a newly minted bard.
She sat down on the stone, letting the pack on her back rest and taking the weight off her shoulders. Now that she’d gotten used to the soft glow, she could see details around her, smudges on the rock wall in the back that looked like the images she’d seen before, and the few animal skins stretched on frames made of branches stacked off to one side.
A low hoot made her look back at the woman. She had stopped next to the big male, and crouched down, with the now familiar posture of hands over head. The sight made Gabrielle’s face twitch into an almost grimace, and she half stood back up as the big male slapped at her hand.
Xena reached back and put a hand on her shoulder without even looking. Gabrielle moved forward and came up next to her, feeling the hand shift across her back as Xena’s arm draped over her shoulders instead. They stood watching as the female crawled forward and put down a bundle in front of the male.
The male pushed the bundle aside, and grabbed the female, twisting her around and mounting her sexually. He let out a hoot and bared his teeth, thrusting energetically.
Both Xena and Gabrielle surged forward as if they were one person. Gabrielle yelled a warning as they ran across the rocks towards the two of them.
One of the smaller males got up and jumped at Xena as she came close, only to be whacked across the head by the warrior’s staff with a crack that resounded across the cavern.
“No!” The woman gasped. “No.. no stop!” She held a shaking hand up in the oncoming warriors direction. “No!” She looked behind her at the male, who had frozen in place, his eyes huge.
Realizing they were being addressed, Xena slowed, holding out one arm to catch Gabrielle as she almost lunged past. “What?”
“It is the way.” The female told them. “Go back.”
The other males started hooting, standing up and waving their arms. The sound echoed and re-echoed, beating down on their ears as Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances.
“Go!” The woman begged.
Slowly, they retreated back to the side alcove together. The chaos went on for a few minutes, then faded out as the big male started his thrusting again, grunting lustily.
“Xena.” Gabrielle sat down on the edge of the rock. “”I’m not sure I can handle this.” She admitted softly, feeling a flush of guilt heat her skin.
The warrior sat down next to her, a perplexed expression on her face. “Me either.”
Gabrielle looked at her, seeing the angular profile tense in the dim glow. “Really?”
Gabrielle averted her eyes from the two Hooters. “Should we just get out of here?” She asked. “How… that’s horrible.”
Xena reached up and scratched the bridge of her nose, then pinched it. “Just close your eyes.” She finally said. “I don’t want us back out in that damn storm.”
It was over before she could really do it. Gabrielle heard the male cough, and she looked up in reflex to see the woman headed back down towards them with that odd, shambling gait. The male was now sprawled in his leaf bed, busy eating something out of the bundle she’d brought him. “Gods.”
Xena put her arm around her partner again, pulling her close. “Just take it easy.” She said. “We’ll get through this.”
Gabrielle rested her head against Xena’s shoulder.
The woman Hooter reached them and sat down, staring at them in the dim light. “This is our way.” She rasped. “You should not have hurt the crooked one.”
Xena glanced at the Hooter she’d clobbered, who was curled up in his nest moaning. “He shouldn’t have jumped at me.” She said, bluntly. “Why did you want us to come here?”
Gabrielle untied the pack from her back and let it slide off her shoulders. “We’re sorry if we did something wrong. We were trying to help you.”
“You do not understand.” The woman wrapped her arms around her knees. “He honors me by doing that.” She said. “I have not sprouted in many moons. But I still hope for it.”
Sprouted? Gabrielle’s brow creased, then cleared as she realized what the woman meant. Xena was remaining quiet after her last statement, her hands busy untangling Gabrielle from the pack and working it free. “Sorry.” She murmured. “Do you have… children?”
The woman looked over her shoulder. “They are there.” She said, in a disinterested tone. “Those that live.”
Xena handed Gabrielle a pear from the pack, and took one for herself. The Hooters here were all males, save this one woman. “Where are the rest?” She indicated the cavern. “I saw more.”
“Many places.” The woman answered evasively.
“Is this.. a hunting group?” Gabrielle asked. “I noticed it’s all males.. except for you.”
The woman looked furtively at her, but didn’t answer.
The other males rustled around, some going over to where the stretched hides were and scrounging in a shallow rock pit there, taking away dark, filthy looking bones. One came over to stare at them, then slunk away, something square clutched in one fist.
Xena chewed on her pear slowly. She paused, and indicated the back wall, where very dimly, the dark pictographs were just barely visible. “What are those?”
The woman looked behind her, then she looked back at Xena. “Only the old one knows.” She said. “And he tells no one.”
“Then what’s the point?” Gabrielle asked. “Those pictures tell a story, I know it.” She went on. “And if no one’s meant to know the story, why tell it?”
The woman stared at her in silence.
“Why do you speak, and they don’t?” Xena asked suddenly.
For a minute, Gabrielle thought the woman wasn’t going to answer that question either. Then she lifted her head, an oddly proud gesture, and looked directly at Xena.
“It is my gift.” She said. “The old one told us.”
That made no sense. Gabrielle felt the strangeness of the situation getting more and more pronounced. Paladia’s ability to draw was a gift. Her own ability to tell stories was a gift. Xena’s voice.. her ability to sing. That was a gift.
Speaking wasn’t a gift. It was something you learned, as Dori had learned from them how. Gabrielle understood that in a very real way, and so, what the woman was saying to her – she knew that wasn’t true.
“Where is the old one?” Xena asked.
“At another place.” The woman answered briefly. “With others.”
Xena finished her pear and took out a handful of nuts, the results of some very meager gathering they’d been able to do on the way to the overhang. She cracked one open, and picked out a nutmeat, handing it over to Gabrielle.
“What you do?” The woman suddenly asked. “Why?”
Gabrielle paused in the act of taking the nut. “What?” She put the nut in her mouth and chewed it. “Why did she give me that?”
“Why? You are the strong one.” The woman indicated Xena.
Xena cracked another nut and shared it. “So?”
The woman seemed nervous. She got up and edged away from them, going over to sit on a nearby ledge in silence. After a bit, she turned her head. “Do not show the big one.” She whispered, then went silent again and ignored them.
Xena stolidly shared the rest of her nuts, and then a few lonely, tattered figs she found at the bottom of the bag. “Gotta admit.” She mused. “I haven’t been this confused since I was six years old.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Well, that makes me feel better.”
“Figured it would.”
One of the younger males hopped over and stared at them, with an obvious physical arousal. Xena picked up her staff and got up. “Tell lover boy he’ll lose his manhood if he gets any closer.” She told the female, but before the woman could answer, the big male barked gruffly, and threw a rock at the younger male.
The younger male retreated, but not without a protesting hoot. Xena sat back down, and glared at the rain still pouring down outside. “Know what?”
“Me too.” Gabrielle pulled her legs up crossed under her. “Gonna be a long night.” But her mind was caught with the riddle of the creatures, and now, with so many more confusing clues, the puzzle seemed only to be getting bigger and bigger with every minute.
Oh well. At least they weren’t attacking them any more. Maybe, she reasoned, if they could get to talk to the ‘old one’ – the puzzle pieces would begin to fit in place. Maybe they could even find an easy way out.
Thunder rolled. Gabrielle sighed, and leaned against Xena’s shoulder. At least they had each other, and a dry spot to rest.
Better than nothing.