One Wild Ride
Dori dragged a chair over to the window and climbed up on it, putting her hands on the sill and looking out. Her face wrinkled in displeasure when she saw the weather outside. “Uck.”
Ares hauled himself up onto his hind legs and put his paws next to her hands, his big pink tongue lolling out. “Agurr.”
“No good, Guff.” Dori said. “Too wet. N’body wants to go play.” She lamented to her furry buddy. “We gots nothing to do.”
Ares licked his chops and snuffled the air. The puppies had been left down near the inn by a prudent Ephiny and the cabin was very quiet. The Amazons had run down to the village for a quick check on things, and left Dori to her own devices for a while, after extracting a promise from her that she’d ‘be good.’
Mama said that all the time. Be good. Dori wondered what it really meant. She always just said okay when someone asked her, and then did fun things anyway, but mama never really got mad about that.
She missed mama. She wished mama was here to tell stories, and she wished Boo was here just because Boo made everything more fun.
She missed hearing mama and Boo laugh. It was so quiet without them around.
Dori got down and sat on the chair, kicking her feet out. She was bored. She wished they were back in Eff’s place, so she could play with the girls, or down by gramma’s so she could be with her cousins. “Guff, you are not fun.”
“Growf.” Ares sat down and panted.
Dori reached out and grabbed his tongue and pulled it. Ares whined and waggled his head, making her laugh. “Funny Guff.” She released him and scratched his ears instead, making him happy.
Dori went over to where her toys were and looked at them, then she went over to the table and climbed up onto a chair, pulling Gabrielle’s diary over to her. She knew it was her mother’s, and she also knew mama really liked it. She couldn’t mess it up, or mama would be real mad at her.
She opened the top and looked at a few pages, turning them, but the squiggly lines were pretty boring. She looked at the first page again. “Dis one’s different, Guff.”
Ares laid down and put his head on his paws.
The squiggles on the hard side were different than the squiggles on the soft side. Dori wondered why. Frowning, she got off the chair and went to where mama kept her feathers, even though mama thought she hid them real good.
She got out a feather and the little jar and brought them back to the table. “Mama does this.” Dori announced, dunking the pointy part of the feather into the jar and pulling it back out. It was covered in black, and it had a funny smell she knew. “Yes.”
Dori industriously copied mama, finding a space on the bottom of the inside page and making squiggles. When she finished, she looked at her work, then put the feather down. “Donno why mama does that, Guff.”
Ares rolled over and stretched out on his side, his paws twitching a little.
“Wish mama were here.” Dori got up and wandered around the cabin. “Want mama and Boo.” She stopped in front of the wooden chest near the back wall and opened the lid, standing on her toes to peek inside. It smelled nice, and she saw why. “Boo!”
“Look!” Dori hauled out a set of folded brown leathers, grunting with the effort of getting them out of the box. “Look, Guff. Boo’s stuff!”
The wolf trotted over and sniffed it, and his tail started to wave back and forth.
Dori dropped the leathers and went back to the box, to see what else she could find. She spotted a boot and pulled it out, then found the other. She leaned over and her hands touched more leather, but this time it was hard. “Oh!”
Dori fit her hands around the thing she’d found and she picked it up carefully, getting it to the top of the chest before she overbalanced and ended up on her bottom, the thing on top of her. “Owie!” Dori let out a yelp, rubbing her head where the sword hilt had hit it. “No good!”
But at least she had it. She sat with Boo’s thing in her lap and looked at it, touching the round part at the end that was curled and pretty. It was harder to hold onto than she thought – Boo picked it up so easy. Experimentally, she fit her hand around the round part and tried to lift it, but it took both hands and all her strength to do it. “Ugh!”
Ares merely twitched his eyebrows, watching her.
Dori put Boo’s thing down. “Too hard.” She got up and went back to the leathers instead. She unfolded them and crawled inside, sticking her head out of the hole in the top. “Look, Guff!” She waved her arms out the side. “Like Boo!”
Ares thumped his tail.
Dori stood up, grabbing the straps when Boo’s stuff tried to fall off her. She shuffled forward, heading for Ares with a giggle. “Boo boo boo..”
Ares got up as she approached and came over, snuffling at her and bumping her with his nose.
“Yahhh!” Dori lifted her hands and let out a yell.
“Erf!” Ares scuttled out of the way and hid behind the bed.
“You a big chicken!” Dori accused, shuffling back over to where the boots were. She sat down again and pulled one on the wrong foot, the leather coming up to the very top of her leg. She observed the result, and pulled the other one on, then tried to get up.
“Guck.. Guff, c’mere.” Dori grunted, flailing around with her arms. Her hand hit the chair, and she pulled it over, nearly pulling it on top of herself. “Ow.”
“Shh.” Dori used the back of the chair as a handhold and pulled herself up, until she was standing. She gripped the straps and shuffled forward, the boots clunking on the floor. “Ugh!” She frowned. “Guff, this is no fun.” She complained. “Too hard!”
Ares wisely remained behind the bed.
A sound outside caught Dori’s attention. Someone was coming to the cabin, but it was only one person, and it wasn’t Boo or mama. She wasn’t really sure how she knew it wasn’t, but she knew and it made her sad.
The door opened. Dori turned towards it and spread her arms out, making her yell again. “Yahh!!”
Eff stopped and made a very funny face.
Dori reached down and grasped Boo’s heavy thing and picked it up. “I go like Boo!”
Eff put her hand over her mouth and she started shaking.
“Boo, Boo Boo!” Dori said. “Eff, c’n we go find mama and Boo, please?”
Eff came in and sat down. She held her arms out. “C’mere, Dori. You’ve just made it impossible for me ever to look Xena in the face and not laugh, but I love ya anyway.”
Dori amiably ambled over and accepted the hug. “C’n we go get mama?” She asked again. “I miss mama.”
“I know, honey.” Eff said. “You know what? I sent Poo Poo and Granella out to find your mama and your Boo. How do you like that? They’ll find them, and bring them back to us.”
“Poo poo?” Dori felt a little sad about that. Poo Poo wa fun. “Will they get mama soon?”
“Soon as they can.” Eff said. “Now, where’d you get all this stuff from, huh?”
“Dere.” Dori pointed at the chest. “Boo’s stuff.”
“I know.” Eff smiled. “You look just like Boo. You know that?”
Dori grinned. “Boo!”
Ephiny gave the child another hug. “Gods, you’re so cute.” She exhaled. “I’m only sorry your mama and Xena weren’t here to see you in this getup. They’d have croaked.”
Xena was really glad of only two things. One, that she was near enough to freedom to feel the mist of the rain hitting her skin, and that she’d relaxed all day before they’d left so she could stay up all night on watch.
The creatures were getting so on her nerves, she wasn’t sure what to do with herself. They had settled down for the night, she supposed, leaving two of the bigger ones near the entrance on the other side to watch.
The woman had curled up on the bare rocks near the stores.
Gabrielle was curled up in Xena’s arms, not quite asleep, but not quite awake, either. Xena had laid her ax, and the staff by her hand, but her left arm was around her partner, the warm contact providing her with as much comfort as she’d allow herself in this strange and dangerous situation.
She wished they were home. Xena felt the uncertainty of the situation weighing on her, and the longer they spent in the valley, the more the thought of them not getting out niggled at the back of her mind. She’d seen no easy way to the top of the cliffs so far, and more and more the possibility of there not being one was becoming likely.
So then what? Xena nuzzled the top of Gabrielle’s head, as she felt the bard exhale softly against her neck. Was Gabrielle thinking about Dori, as she was? Wondering what the child was up to, and imagining what she was thinking?
She felt Gabrielle shift a little, her fingers flexing against the warrior’s skin. “Gab?”
“Can’t get to sleep?”
After a moment’s hesitation, the bard shook her head. “My brain’s buzzing.” She admitted.
“I wish we weren’t in here.” The bard whispered. “Theres just something so wrong in this place.”
Xena hugged her a little closer. “If it wasn’t raining, we’d go.” She replied. “We’ll get outta here first light, Gabrielle. I promise.”
The bard sighed and closed her eyes. “I feel like throwing up.”
The warrior patted her on the side with a gentle hand. “Think positive. Maybe it’s morning sickness.”
Almost against her will, Gabrielle smiled. “It’s the middle of the night.”
“Never mattered last time.”
“Mm.. except you were the one who was sick all the time.” The bard reminded her. “Not me.” She paused. “Well, except a couple times.”
Gabrielle remembered being pregnant with Dori, and the thought made her smile again. “Ah.. it’s not that kind of stomach ache.” She said, in a regretful tone. “More the tied up in knots kind.”
“Mm.” Xena grunted. “Yeah.”
“Maybe we’re both pregnant.” Gabrielle suddenly suggested. “Wouldn’t that be weird?’
Unseen, Xena’s eyes popped wide open as she stared across the cavern. “Weird?”
“Well.” The bard said. “Weirder than just one of us being, I mean. That’s weird enough, don’tcha think?”
Xena now found her mind wholly occupied with a problem of a different nature. What if Gabrielle were right? There was no logic behind the bard getting pregnant this time, so what.. what if whatever.. magic.. was involved just got..
Xena blinked a few times. “I never considered that.” She finally admitted, in a low mutter.
Gabrielle could plainly hear the increasing heartbeat under her ear. “Are you freaking out?”
“Yes, you are.” The bard patted her on the side. “Forget I suggested it.. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I’m not freaking out.”
Gabrielle lifted her head slightly. “Xe, I can hear your heart in there rattling.”
“Just chill out.” Gabrielle interlaced her fingers with the warrior’s and lifted her hand to kiss Xena’s knuckles. “You can’t be pregnant.”
Xena rested her chin on the bard’s head, relaxing slightly. “Yeah.” She agreed. “You’re right.”
They were both silent for a while. Then Xena cleared her throat. “Why can’t I?”
Gabrielle’s eyes were twinkling invisibly. “Because, oh love of my life, I would never in six lifetimes live that down. So you can’t be pregnant, because I am so not going to spend the rest of my life getting ‘those looks’ from every single person we know.”
Xena couldn’t help it. She started chuckling, bouncing the bard a little. “Hey, I have to put up with it.”
“No, you don’t, because people don’t’ give you those looks, Xena. You’re Xena, remember? I’m not. I can just hear Ephiny now. ‘heh heh heh, Gabrielle.. didn’t think ya had it in yah!’” The bard mimicked their friend’s tone exactly. “Oh no. Nuh huh.”
Xena laughed harder.
“They wont’ say that to you, because you’ll hit them.” Gabrielle went on. “And can you imagine your mother? Thank the gods we’re married.. I can just see her pinning me to the wall wanting me to make an honest woman out of you if we weren’t.”
It was too much. The laughter finally erupted audibly, and Gabrielle joined in, the sound echoing in the cavern weirdly and causing the creatures to all jerk and sit up, coughs and hoots rising in alarm.
Xena leaned her head back against the rocks and enjoyed the moment, even the chaos they were causing around them. At the very least, it would make the night shorter, and really, what more could she ask than that?
For now, anyway.
Gabrielle stepped out of the cavern and into the sunlight, feeling the warmth and heat on her face and once again reveling in it. It felt so good to be away from the creatures, and out here in the clean air – the night had lasted forever and the rain had only stopped just before dawn.
To her surprise, she had fallen asleep after all. Gabrielle stretched her body out and sighed. “I’m such a darn lucky little sheep’s tail.” She mused, knowing Xena hadn’t slept a wink in order to guard both of them and wishing she had something to reward her partner with.
A loud noise behind her made her turn and her body went into an instinctive crouch as she looked quickly around for a weapon as the male creatures all started pouring out of the cavern. She’d only taken a step towards a rock nearby when Xena bounded out, shoving creatures out of her way like they were jackstraws.
The two nearest the warrior turned and howled at her, but Xena bellowed right back at them, her temper showing in flashing blue eyes and show of neat white teeth as she got between them and Gabrielle.
With her catskin dress, hide boots and wild hair, it was hard for Gabrielle to say whether she, or the creatures seemed more animal-ish. “Xena!”
“Get back ya little bastards.” Xena lifted her ax in one arm.
The Hooters hooted at her, jumping up and down and yelling. Gabrielle took the opportunity to get the rock she’d spotted and she came up behind her partner and put a hand on her back. “Easy, tiger.”
The biggest male emerged, letting out a very loud bark. The others turned to look at him. For a moment, the big male glared at Xena over their heads, showing his teeth.
Xena growled right back at him, twirling her ax and bristling with aggression.
The male beat his chest with both hands and barked
“Hon, don’t do that back.” Gabrielle suggested hastily. “I don’t want to see those bruises.”
Xena glanced sideways at her, then returned her attention to the male. Instead of beating herself, she made a rude hand gesture at him. “Beat it!” She yelled.
The male yelled back, then lifted his hand and made dismissive gesture at her. He barked, and started off into the forest, clearly expecting the rest of the troop to follow him. Several did, but three or four others remained facing off against Xena, sniffing the air and hooting softly.
The male reached trees, and turned, spotting them. He yelled in rage. The younger males near Xena half turned, hesitating. Clearly, they wanted to stay near the cave, and one barked back at the big male in defiance.
The rest took courage from that, and also resisted the gesture to come.
The result was horrifying. The big male rushed back towards them with a loping, powerful run, and when he reached the first of them he grabbed him by the neck, and bit him in the face, tearing a huge chunk out of his cheek and shaking his head like a dog with a bone.
The younger male screamed in pain. The bigger one threw him down on the ground and kicked him. Then he gestured towards the trees and glared at the rest of them. Chastened, they shied away from him, and started heading towards where the rest of the troop was waiting.
The big male looked at Xena, and spat a mouthful of skin and blood on the ground before he turned and stalked off, leaving the grievously injured male on the ground writhing.
“Nice.” Xena’s lips twitched into a grimace. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle gave her back a little rub.
“You can’t just leave him there like that.” The bard said.
“Sure I can.” The warrior turned and looked at her. “For one thing, I don’t have any healing supplies, and for another, I ain’t getting my fingers bit off, thanks.”
Gabrielle frowned. “I don’t think.. he’s going to be biting anyone, Xe.” She replied in a serious tone. “But you know something? I think we need every ally we can get here, and maybe he’d be one if you helped him.”
Xena started to reply, then abruptly bit off her response when the woman Hooter emerged from the cavern She half turned her body and put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “I think we should get out of here.” She uttered softly. “There’s nothing here in our favor.”
The bard gazed steadily at her. “ You’re saying that because you think I’m pregnant, and you don’t want me in danger.”
Xena closed her eyes. “Gabrielle.”
The warrior opened her eyes again, to find that same even stare facing her, the visible will behind it nevertheless colored with deep affection. “Now, you listen to me.” She put her other hand on Gabrielle’s other shoulder.
Gabrielle poked her in the stomach with her index finger. “Go help him.”
“Go.” The bard leaned closer and gave her a kiss on the lips. “Trust me.’
It was long, long past the days when Xena could have reacted to the bard’s stubbornness with any real anger. It was, as Xena had told her, just who Gabrielle was and she didn’t see that changing anytime soon.
Nor would she want it to. It was that crazy empathy with even the strangest, wildest, nastiest creatures that had saved Xena’s life way back when, back in Amphipolis, when a scruffy blond half grown girl had taken up for an almost total stranger and changed both their lives.
However. “No.” She told Gabrielle gently. “We need all the time we’ve got here to get as far away as we can, sweetheart. Let’s go.”
Now it was Gabrielle who was caught in a bind, her instincts warring with the knowledge that if Xena was talking to her the way she was, this was something she shouldn’t question.
The Hooter woman chose that moment to slouch up next to them, putting of the decision for a moment. “Hi.” Gabrielle turned to her. “Thanks for letting us share a roof last night.”
The woman blinked at her, but didn’t answer.
Gabrielle glanced at the wounded Hooter. “What happens to him, now?” She pointed.
The woman shrugged. “Dies, maybe.” She didn’t sound that interested. “No good hunter.”
The callusness chilled her. “Don’t you care?”
The woman looked at Gabrielle in puzzlement.
Xena put her hands on her partner’s shoulders. “Let’s go.” She said firmly. “We’ve got to get home.”
“You cannot leave.” The woman said. “There is no way.”
“We’ll find one.” Xena replied. “You just didn’t look hard enough.”
Gabrielle leaned back, her shoulders brushing Xena’s body. “Why were you trying to get out?” She asked. “If these are your people, and this is your home… why escape?’
The woman glowered at her. “I didn’t want to.” She said. “My mother did.” She turned and shuffled away. “She died trying. You will die also.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. “Do you care?” Gabrielle finally called after her. “If we die?”
The woman stopped and looked back. “If you die, we die.” She answered, and then she turned and disappeared into the cave again.
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. “What in the heck does that mean?”
Xena snorted softly. “I don’t give a damn. Lets go.” She turned and started off, catching Gabrielle around the wrist and tugging her along. She already had their pack strapped to her back and had every intention of putting as much space between them and the cave as she could.
Xena felt the resistance to her pulling and she stopped, giving the forest a plaintive look before she turned back around. “What?”
Gabrielle gently disengaged Xena’s fingers from her wrist. “I can’t leave him here like that.” She told her partner. “So if you want to go, go. I’m staying.” She took a step backwards, as if to emphasize the decision, her eyes locked with the warrior’s.
She hated doing that to Xena. She could see the shifting emotions in the warrior’s face, so incredibly expressive in spite of her usual stoic manner. There was anger there, which she knew was justified, and a touch of hurt, which made Gabrielle wince a little in sheer reflex.
A touch of fear, too, which she herself felt whenever she had to be at odds with Xena because of what happened way back when and even though she had faith in their relationship, there was always that chance…
She wasn’t looking for another broken heart. She’d barely survived the last one, But she also knew she couldn’t leave the creature to die on the forest floor either, without at least trying to help him.
What would Xena do? Gabrielle felt her stomach knot as she waited, her heartbeat thumping in her ears, already half regretting what she was doing.
Xena’s shoulders dropped a trifle, and her head tilted a bit to one side. Gabrielle felt a quivering sense of relief as she read the body posture and the warrior lifted both hands and let them drop in visible exasperation.
Good sign. If Xena had straightened up instead, and given her ‘that look’ – Gabrielle knew she might have been in real trouble. But this was just ordinary warrior piss-off and she knew she could get around that later.
She lifted one hand and made a sign at her partner, adding a wry grin to it that acknowledged she was possibly doing something stupid.
Xena put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow at her.
“As if I’d leave you here.” Xena shook her head and loosened the straps on the pack she wore, following Gabrielle over to where the creature was still writhing on the ground. Her instincts were warning her against staying, but her heart pushed that aside in deference to Gabrielle’s desire to help and wasn’t that how they got into most of the pickles they got into?
Gabrielle slowly approached the creature, kneeling down and holding her hand up when he started to cringe and roll away from her. “It’s okay.” She spoke softly. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The injury was horrific. Half his face was hanging down, showing a huge gap where blood was pouring steadily. His eyes were huge and frightened, and they fastened on her intently. He held his hands up as if to ward her off.
“Xe, you can fix that. Can’t you?” Gabrielle asked, as the warrior knelt down next to her.
Xena remained silent for a moment, her pale eyes studying the creature. He had let his head rest against the ground, the loss of blood weakening him, and his hands dropped to the ground in what appeared to be resignation. “Maybe.” She finally said. “If he’ll let me.”
Xena let the pack slide to the ground, and cautiously, she eased closer to the creature. He stared at her with frightened, pained eyes, his body twitching with pain.
She lifted a hand towards him, and he whimpered, trying to roll away from her. “See what I mean?”
“I’m impatient.” Xena pounced on the hapless creature, pinning his body down with her own and kneeling on his arms to keep them still.
He arched his back once or twice, and gurgled in protest, his entire body shaking back and forth. But he was one of the youngest, smallest of the creatures and Xena outweighed him. “Take it easy.” She ordered, catching his head with both hands and holding it still.
He tried to howl, but with his face ripped apart, the pain was too much. He cried instead, a pitiful sound that made Gabrielle grimace.
“Keep an eye out for any of them coming back.” Xena told her partner. “This is gonna be ugly.” She turned back to the creature and with two swift jabs of her hands, rendered him unconscious. “Buddy, it’s gonna be better for both of us this way. Trust me.”
Gabrielle picked up the staff Xena had brought out with her and held it, her eyes sweeping the clearing. She caught motion out of her left eye and turned, facing the woman as she appeared suddenly from the depths of the cavern, staring at Xena. “It’s okay. She’s trying to help him.”
Xena put her trust in Gabrielle’s staff and got to work, fishing her fishbone needles from their sack along with a bit of twisted gut she had left over. She unraveled it and spun the fibers into a thread, then rested her elbow on her thigh. “Gab, I’m gonna need water.”
Of course. Gabrielle edged over to the sack and remove their skull. “Be right back.” She hustled over to the creek, spotting a worn area where many feet had apparently trod, and many bodies had apparently relieved themselves. With a grimace, she went up stream as far as she could to where the creek came around the corner of the rocks, and filled the skull from there. “Ugh.”
Not that she blamed the creatures. The lower town had smelled just as bad, even worse, in fact. She backed off from the creek and turned, heading back to the warrior and her unwilling patient.
Nearby, the woman crouched, watching Xena warily, but showing no signs of wanting to stop her. Gabrielle went past her and delivered the skull, taking a step back as the warrior carefully poured the liquid over the creature’s injury, flushing the dirt out of it in a splash of watery crimson.
Unconcious, the male under Xena’s hands didn’t seem all that alien, or else Gabrielle figured, her eyes maybe were getting used to them. Though his features were thick and distorted, there was an indefinable stamp of humanity on them that underscored her desire to help him.
She watched Xena’s skilled hands move the torn flap on his cheek back into place, and then the steady fingers started to sew it together, stitching the ragged skin into some semblance of normality.
The woman creature crept closer, staring in fascination. “My mother was the wise one.” She rasped, suddenly. “She knew this.”
Gabrielle looked at her. “You mean, she knew how to heal people, like what Xena’s doing?”
The woman thrust out her arm pointing to the inside her elbow with one grubby finger. Across the skin was a thin line, a scar, that had been as neatly sewn as any of Gabrielle’s. “Only me.” She said. “Never them.” Her finger wavered to point at the male. “Never them.”
“Why?” Gabrielle asked, aware of the ear cocked in her direction from her partner.
“Only me.” The woman seemed a bit sad. “Miss her.”
Xena picked up the skull, and poured more water on the wound, washing off the blood obscuring her vision. Nothing was worse, in terms of healing, than an animal bite, and in her experience, the creature was probably going to rip the stitches out and end up dying from infection anyway.
She suspected Gabrielle even knew that, but the bard’s conscience would not allow her to walk away from it, and so she expected Xena to do the best she could, and then, whatever happened, happened. She no longer expected Xena to come up with miracles.
Xena paused, and glanced at her partner, catching a look of gentle gratitude being tossed her way. She really didn’t expect miracles anymore, did she? The warrior wondered suddenly. Hadn’t they gotten past that?
With a faint frown, she went back to her stitching, closing the gaping wound with rough, but neat stitches. The result was going to be a very ugly scar, if he lived, but given how ugly he already was, Xena wasn’t sure it mattered.
Certainly, it didn’t matter to her, and besides, she was miffed at Gabrielle for making her do this. So there.
“What happened to your mother?” Gabrielle asked.
“Died.” The woman uttered, briefly. She edged closer to where Xena was, craning her neck to get a good view of what the warrior was doing. “Long time.”
Gabrielle remained in her guard position. “Where’s the rest of your family?”
The woman just looked at her briefly, with no sense of understanding.
“Your children?” The bard persisted. “You said you had a lot of them.”
One hand lifted and made a gesture towards where the creatures had disappeared into the forest. “Some there. Some dead.” She shrugged again. “Many dead.”
Xena finished her work and sat back, reviewing the results. With a shake of her head, she took the skull and dumped the rest of the water over the creature, then she eased off him. “Look out.” She warned, tossing the skull to Gabrielle before she reached down and released the pressure points, jumping agilely clear of the male as he woke suddenly and screamed in reaction.
The male reached for his face, touching the place she’d sewn and then jerking his hands down as he rolled over and scrabbled away from her as fast as he could.
“Always like a grateful patient.” Xena wiped her hands together and took a step back towards Gabirelle. “Happy now?”
Gabrielle grimaced as she watched the male roll around in the dirt. “He’s going to rip that right out.”
The woman seemed to lose interest. She got up and looked at them. “Stay.” She said. “You bring magic, the good things to us. “I am the wise one, but I am not so wise as you.”
“We can’t.” Gabrielle started to say, but the woman daringly came close, clutching at her arm. “Hey..”
“Stay! We are all that lives. You can give them the gift!” The woman told her.
Xena glided up behind her partner, not really worried that the woman was a threat, but taking no chances. “What gift?” She asked bluntly.
The woman looked from one to the other, as though they were stupid. “Little ones.” She finally said. “I am the last.. they don’t come to me now.”
“The last..” Xena repeated. “The last what..the last woman?”
The woman nodded. “They have come, and they have come.. but they come no more.” She said. “I miss the little ones. They become like that.” She pointed at the still howling creature. “They go to the big one.”
As if by magic, they heard the returning hoots of the males, and the big male appeared at the edge of the forest. Across his broad sholders, he was carrying a dead boar-ish looking animal, it’s blood running down across his body.
The rest of the troop trailed behind him, all raising their arms and hooting with triumph at the short but successful hunt. The big male spotted Xena and showed his teeth at her, barking and strutting arrogantly towards where they were standing.
The woman left their side at once, shambling towards him and letting out cries of her own. The injured male scrambled to his feet and ran into the forest, cringing as two of the other males lunged at him, swiping at him with branches held in their hands.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Gabrielle murmured.
“Y’know..” Xena said. “We could have..”
“I know.” The bard exhaled. “What are we going to do?”
The big male dropped the dead boar on the ground near the woman and turned to face them, slapping his chest with a blood covered hand, and gesturing imperiously at them to come.
What were they going to do now? That was a very, very good question. Xena took a deep breath, and released it, wondering that very same thing herself.
“You think this is a good idea?” Granella lifted her paddle briefly as they came even with a low spot and peered into the underbrush.
“What?” Eponin asked. “Getting the Hades out of that place? Yeah.” She dug the edge of her own paddle in expertly to guide them around a half submerged rock. “I think it was a great idea. Let everyone else clean, while we go take a nice boat ride to find Xena and Gabrielle.”
The sun was out, flashing sparkles on the surface of the swollen river and splashing down over them, bringing a welcome warmth to counter the cool spray from the rippled surface. Granella took a deep breath of the spring air, feeling half guilty, and half exultant at her brief escape from normal daily life.
It felt good to be out in the world. “Yeah, you’re right.” She answered Eponin. “Besides, it’s in a good cause. I’ve got a feeling things are going to get really out of control if we don’t get the poobahs back home.”
Eponin chuckled. “Ain’t it the truth? Those townies have more wadded underwraps than the whole damned village during a cycle.” She shifted a little, reviewing the river ahead of them. Still overflowing it’s banks, the surface had at least steadied in it’s flow, allowing them to travel it with relative safety. She could see where acres of forest on either side were still under water, and enough trees had fallen into the river that she had to take good care to keep them from capsizing.
Capsizing would suck. They’d be really wet for one thing, and they’d probably lose their supplies. Eponin was all for an adventure, but she liked her comforts and had no intention of sleeping in wet leathers for a few days.
She was a little surprised Granella had decided to go along, to be honest. She’d thought her former sister had really settled down and liked her home life. “Hey, Gran?”
“Yeees?” Granella stroked along competently, glad she’d spent time recently sparring with her sister in laws. It felt good to be out in leathers, too – she’d been pleasantly surprised her old set fit her again and even donning weapons had put a smile on her face.
Was that a bad thing? She’d talked to Gabrielle not a half moon past about feeling a little restless, and had found wry understanding in the bard’s eyes.
“How long you figure we’ll be out here? They musta got off pretty close, yeah? Xena swims like a fish and no way would they let the water take em that far.”
“Well, hard to say. The flooding was pretty bad that day.” Granella said. “I think we should just keep our eyes peeled sharp for any signs of them, and then go from there.”
“Yeah.” Eponin nodded. “How’d Toris take staying with the kids?”
“He was okay with it.” Gran smiled. “I think he’s been around strong women so long, it’s just not weird for him for me to do this. But boy, I heard the sewing circle yammering.” She added. “That was pretty funny.”
Eponin snorted. “Townies.”
“One of them came up to me and was like.. ‘you shouldn’t be abandoning your children!’ and I said.. “I’m leaving them with their father, but thanks for the concern.” And you know what she said to me?”
“Men can’t properly raise children!”
Eponin glanced behind her. “We’ve said that for years.” She drawled. “But Toris is an exception. He’s a good dad.”
“Mm.” Granella agreed. “Besides he knows if he acts like a jackass, Xena will kick him into next moon.” She chuckled. “If I don’t.”
They paddled on, using their oars more to steer than propel themselves, since the swift current was doing a fine job of that on it’s own. Along the banks were signs of destruction, and the debris deposited by the flood was thrown everywhere. Granella spotted half a wagon, and many broken boxes.
Sadly, there were also victims. Animal carcasses were wedged under half submerged trees, some partially eaten, all releasing a stench into the air. Granella was glad they passed quickly, but she grimly kept her eyes peeled on the edges of the water, looking for anything familiar. “Pon, look.” She pointed.
Eponin shaded her eyes. “That one of Amph’s wagons?”
“Not much left.” The weapon’s master said. “Guess those guys really did lose a lot, didn’t they?”
Granella ducked her head as they went under a tree, steering closer to the near bank to look at the wreckage. Since the town was her home now, she was a little more involved in the controversy than her Amazon sisters were, and she had a little different perspective. “Well, some did.” She agreed. “Some didn’t.. I feel bad for a lot of the little vendors down in the lower town. They lost almost everything. But they’re not the ones bitching.”
“There were some good people down there, and some of them didn’t make it.” Granella went on, quietly. “I don’t know.. I know the growth was getting out of control, but I’m afraid now, no one will want to stay and rebuild.”
Eponin thought about that. “We’ll stick around.” She said. “I thought for a couple days there everyone was just going to pack up their leathers and beat it, but things have been working out a little better.” She slowed the canoe, spotting a box. “That’s from the town.” She pointed.
“Yeah… from the supply wagon. That was a big loss.”
They continued on a while. “Eph’s really ticked about those guys dissing Gab.” Eponin commented, after a period of silence.
Granella sighed. “They were gone so long. Gave everyone a chance to revise history.” She said. “Pissed me off too. Got in my first fistfight since the twins were born over it.”
“Yeah?” Pony half turned and grinned at her.
Granella grinned back. “Yeah.” She said. “That big jackass who took Josc’s place. His son was blabbing over at the well about how they’d really have won out if Gab and Xe’d stayed out of it and I got over it. I slugged him, and he was dumb enough to get up.”
Pony laughed. “Damn, wish I’d seen it.” She lamented. “That’s such crap. They busted their ass for that stupid town.”
“Got em that tax thing, and all that.” The weapon’s master continued. “Think those suckers could have done that?”
“Me either. Hades, no one but Xena and Gab could have done that.” Pony said. “I bet Xe’s gonna be glad half that lower town’s gone. She hated it.”
Granella sighed again. “I know… I saw her face when she came back into town. Between that, and the council giving Gabrielle the cold shoulder, it was a sucky homecoming for sure.”
“Don’t blame them for moving up the mountain.”
“Me either. But boy, is the big C pissed about it.” Granella paused, dipping her oar in sharply. “Hey, Pon.. I think that’s part of the bridge there. Look!”
Eponin quickly ducked her paddle in and drove the canoe towards the shore, cutting across the swift current with some effort. She grabbed a bit of the debris with one hand and held on, as the river took the other end of the canoe downstream and Granella got a solid hold on a branch. “We okay?”
“Yeah.” Granella looped a bit of rope around the branch and tied it off to the carved loop on the end of the canoe. “We’re good.” She pulled herself up into the partially collapsed tree and climbed through the branches, with Pony at her heels. “Yeah, I think it is.”
Pony eased off the branch and onto the debris, examining the cracked and beaten wood. She turned over one broken spar and grunted. “Yeah, there.” She pointed at the town crest burned into the wood. “Sure is.. is that what they were hanging onto?”
Granella moved further inland, her eyes searching for clues. “Part of it, yeah. The whole thing came down on top of them, and almost… “ She paused. “Xena grabbed her just in time.”
Pony looked over at her. “Doesn’t she always?”
Pony balanced on the wood, feeling it creak ominously under her weight. She edged towards the shore, ducking under the branches and pushing the thick leaves out of the way. “I don’t see anything… “ She knelt down and touched the water, lapping over the top of the broken bridges as it flooded the land around the river. “Not that anything’d show here. Footsteps, or stuff.”
“No.” Granella observed the water’s surface. “And anyway.. if they’d gotten off this close, they’d have been back already. Xena’d find a way back even if we couldn’t.”
“Yeah.” Pony exhaled. “If they were okay.” She looked up. “You think they’re okay, right?”
They looked at each other. “You got any reason to think otherwise?” Granella asked, slowly.
Eponin picked up a broken bit of wood and looked at it. She whipped her arm sideways, and sent the bit skittering over the river’s surface. “I don’t… well, the thing is, it’s been too long.” She finally said. “A day, yeah, two.. to get back, sure. But it’s been longer than that, and you know… I just got this feeling.”
Pony grimaced. “Besides, what if they run into trouble? They got zip for weapons.”
Granella made her way back to the canoe, and stepped into it. “Pon, Xena’s never without weapons. You know better. She could make a weapon out of a flapjack.”
The weapons’ master grunted, getting to her feet and walking carefully back to the boat. “Yeah, everybody says that. But y’know, there’s always a first time.”
Granella thought about that as she steadied the canoe, holding it firm until Pony had seated herself. It was easy to fall into that, she reckoned, since Xena almost always was exactly what everyone figured she was, in total control and never at a loss.
But she was part of the woman’s family, and so – she’d gotten to see some different sides of the two of them than most people, even Pony, had.
She’d seen Xena just lose it a few times, in fact, memorably - once in the stable, she’d tripped over a bucket of grain and ended up sprawling headfirst into the watering trough, nearly knocking herself senseless.
Granella hadn’t even known where to start reacting, caught between worry that her sister in law had hurt herself, laughter, and astonishment that the ever graceful warrior could be such a klutz.
She’d ended up simply gawking, all the pithy words coming to mind sticking in her throat like honey butter candy. “Uh..”
Xena, too, had apparently been unsure how to react, embarrassment warring with her own quirky sense of self deprecating humor. She finally rolled over, and put her back against the stall door, giving Granella a wry look as she pulled a splinter from her hand with her teeth. “Hard to believe I conquered half of Greece, huh?”
And that had changed things, at least for Granella. She’d starting laughing, and ended up walking across the barn to offer Xena a hand up, at last seeing a human side to the warrior she’d somehow missed before.
So, was that what Pony was hinting at? Could that humanity have finally caught up with Xena, and by extention, Gabrielle?
Boy, she hoped not.
“Let’s go.” Pony sighed. “Faster we get downstream, faster we find em and kick this stupid premonition of mine in the ass.”
Granella released the rope holding them, and pushed them off into the current again, no longer quite as delighted to be on their way.
“Stay back.” Xena decided enough was enough. She walked forward, heading for the big male with a darkly intent glare.
“Uh oh.” Gabrielle brought her staff up and got ready to protect Xena’s back. “That’s not a good sign.”
The leader of the Hooters brandished his fist at Xena, thumping his huge chest and opening his fingers, to display them covered in blood.
Xena stopped just out of reach, and waited, her eyes coldly watchful, and her body tensed.
The hooter yelled and waved his arms, but got no reaction out of the silent, still figure across from him. He jumped forward, then back, then forward again, as though daring Xena to attack him.
Xena knew it was only a matter of time. Maybe it was for the best, she mused, the gods only knew she’d used the battle the leader routine enough times and it usually ended well for her. But if she killed the big male, then what?
A loud bellow deep in the forest brought her head snapping around, ears cocked. Xena glanced quickly back at the Hooter, but the roar had caught his attention too, and he let out a yell, turning and running back towards the cave, waving his arms.
The others started dragging the boar carcass along the rocks towards the opening in a panic, while a few began to gather rocks. Xena dropped back to where Gabrielle was standing and hesitated, focusing her senses on the forest. “What in Hades is that, I wonder?”
Gabrielle glanced at the cave. “Um.. it’s scaring them silly, Xe.”
“Mm.” The warrior took a step towards the trees. “Daylight.. can’t be one of the cat things… wonder …” She cocked her head, spotting something coming through the leaves. “What that is.”
Abruptly, the branches shattered apart, and a huge animal rushed into the clearing, followed by a second. They stood easily three times Xena’s height, and reared up, slashing at the air with gigantic claws. Spotting the two women, the animal dropped down and headed towards them at a gallop, bellowing.
“Not good.” Gabrielle started to back up. “Think we’d better… woof!” She had the breath knocked out of her as Xena turned and grabbed her around the waist, lifting her up as she hauled them both as fast as she could away from the oncoming animal. “Xe!”
“Hang on.” The warrior yelled, putting all her energy into running. “Don’t fight me.”
Gabrielle could see what was chasing her, and the last thing she wanted to do was fight Xena. “Is that a bear?” She yelled.
“It’s a something.” Xena yelled back, heading for the overhang. “Hope it doesn’t fit in there.”
“Me too.” Gabrielle winced at the bouncing that was bruising her ribs and bit her tongue. The bear something was catching up to them, and she could now almost smell it’s hot breath. “Xe?”
“I am .” Xena bounded up the slope to the cavern, lifting her hand suddenly as a rain of rocks pelted out from it and stung her skin. “Son of a bacchae!” She half stumbled as a rock hit her in the leg, and pulled up, letting Gabrielle down. “Watch it!”
Glad to be on the ground, the bard turned just as the bear something reached them. She tried to find it off with her staff, but it swatted the weapon out of her hands with a sweep of it’s paw and stood up, towering over them.
The second one bounded towards them, sniffing the blood of the boar.
Xena was belting away a hail of rocks, making headway with a great amount of effort. She grabbed Gabrielle and dragged her towards the opening, keeping her body between the rocks and the bard. “Bastards! I’m gonna kill all of you when I get in there!” She yelled at the top of her lungs.
Gabrielle felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up and a hot blast followed it, and she leaped forward, colliding with her partner and shoving her into the cave as something hard and sharp whisked across her back.
Xena swung her ax, smacking one of the Hooters in the head and knocking him out of the way as they stumbled in, barely making it to safety in time.
Inside it was total chaos. The Hooters were all screaming, hands reaching for Xena and Gabrielle while some kept throwing rocks past them, at the mega bears.
Gabrielle grabbed a rock from the ground and got up next to Xena, whacking at the hands grabbing for her. The smell of blood suddenly erupted around them, and there was a scream, and then more rocks..
“Xena!” Gabrielle just started smashing anything around her, panic taking over despite her experience in battle. A roar came from outside the cave, and she felt rock chips sting her legs from behind, and another scream…
Then she was pushed against the rock, caught in a triangle that pressed against her shoulders and protected her back. She felt compressed, and she put her hands on Xena’s shoulders in reflex. The muscle under her touch was shifting violently, and among the echoes, and the roars, and the hoots, she heard Xena’s battle yell rise up, cutting and dangerous and achingly real.
A scream, this time much higher. Gabrielle got a look past Xena’s elbow and saw the woman Hooter being dragged towards the opening, her leg caught by the mega bear’s paw. “Xena!” She grabbed the warrior’s arm. “Look!”
“I see it!” Xena smashed her ax down two handed, slamming it again and again on the hands and arms of the Hooters. She got a little space as they leaped back, and she bent to grab a rock, flinging it at the bear and hitting it in the snout. “That’s your enemy, you idiots!”
“Xena help her.” Gabrielle tried to wriggle past her soulmate’s powerful body. “She’s going to die!”
Xena picked up another rock and pelted the bear with it, then when it released the woman to strike at her, she ducked under it’s claws and smashed it in the foot with her ax. Distracted, the bear lunged at Xena, it’s body too big to fit under the overhang, so it kept swiping at her, bellowing.
Xena whacked at the claws with her ax, smashing the animal’s flesh between her weapon and the cave wall. Gabrielle scooted under her and grabbed the woman, hauling her backwards across the rocks to safety. “Okay?” The warrior yelled.
“Go!” Gabrielle fell to her knees besides the woman, grabbing all the rocks she could find and flinging them at the bear. “C’mon!” She turned to the males, who were jostling back and forth, fear of the bear warring with their desires. “Get rid of this thing!”
One of them jumped towards her, reaching out. Instinctively, Gabrielle swung her fist at him, connecting with a crack as the rock in her hand smacked him right between the eyes. Blood erupted over her again and the male screamed in rage, stumbling back and grabbing his face.
The biggest male suddenly appeared, and before Gabrielle could move he grabbed her by the hair and started pulling, yanking her off her knees. “Hey!” She yelled in surprise, reaching up to grab his hand. “Let me go!”
He roared in triumph and pulled her closer, his other hand grabbing for her belt.
She felt an abrupt, silent flush of utter fury, drenching her in shivers and just barely had time to get her self flat before she felt Xena pass over her and leap on the Hooter. She dropped to the ground hard as he let go of her hair and she rolled over, her eyes searching the area around her.
Xena was grappling with the big one, both of them eerily silent now. The rest of the males were jumping and jostling each other in excitement, ignoring the bear at their back.
Gabrielle glanced over, and saw the animal swatting at the air inside, but with less enthusiasm, and she decided they were safe for the moment from it. She turned her attention back to her partner and got up, looking around quickly for something to hit the brute with.
Tense with effort, Xena’s back suddenly arched, then moved forward with explosive power. There was a sodden crack, and the warrior let out a growl that sent the bard searching all the more frantically for a weapon. “Xena!”
At that moment, they broke apart and Xena rolled to her feet, getting herself back between the males and Gabrielle, her breathing tense and ragged. The big male stayed on the ground, motionless.
Slowly, the Hooters stopped jumping up and down, and settled into silence, looking uneasily at the big male, and shooting fearful glances at Xena.
The woman moaned, reaching for her head as blood dripped down her leg from where the bear had caught her. ‘Ahh… ah…” She cried softly.
Outside, the bear grunted and wandered off, leaving only a bad smell behind.
The world slowed it’s spinning, a little. Gabrielle took a deep breath, and put her hand on Xena’s back, feeling the arched tension under her fingertips. “Is he dead?” She asked quietly.
“Just out.” The warrior replied. “I think.”
Xena didn’t answer for a moment, then she finally nodded her head. “Yeah.” She glanced around and took stock of their surroundings. “You?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle rubbed her head. “Except this headache.”
The warrior took a step back away from the big male. A quick duck of her head allowed her to look outside, and she spotted the mega bears immediately, rummaging and snuffling around the bloody spot the boar had lain in.
One of them laid down and rubbed its shoulder in the gore, grunting.
No quick escape there. Damn it. Xena knew herself to be on overload. She could feel the tingles in her arms and legs, the twitching in her muscles and the shortened breaths as her instincts prodded her to go back after the big male, to lose herself in the anger that erupted when he’d grabbed hold of Gabrielle.
She wished she had killed him. She wanted to. She wanted to more, now, seeing him lying there and all the others looking at her. As she watched, the big male stirred a little, and his hands twitched, making the rest of them hoot and shuffle around him.
She wanted to kill all of them, with no guilt at all attached to the desire. They were dangerous, they wanted to hurt both of them, and there was no reasoning with them. In a way, it was worse than the horde. If she had her weapons handy, Xena suspected her instincts would have gotten the better of her and the only thing that had saved the creatures was the fact that they were damn hard to kill with just her hands.
Damn the bastard had dared to put his hands on her bard. Xena felt her face twitching up in disgust. She took another step back, gently herding Gabrielle a little further from the males. “Animals.”
Gabrielle put her arms around her partner, feeling the horrendous discord through their bond. “Easy.” She whispered. “We’re okay.”
“No, we’re not.” Xena uttered back. “We’re stuck in here. With them.”
Gabrielle hugged her a little tighter, giving the only comfort she could and finally, she felt Xena’s body relax as the warrior returned the gesture, circling her with both arms and exhaling.
There was little else they could do, for now.
They retreated to the far edge of the cavern, still protected from the bears but as far away from the Hooters as possible. Gabrielle had taken Xena’s staff and she was sitting with it across her knees, her hands clasped firmly around it.
The big male had finally sat up, his face covered in blood, a broken nose and two black eyes testiment to Xena’s ferocious head butt that had fractured the heavy bones. He looked horrific, and the other males seemed spooked by the dark circles around his eyes.
It was strange. The boar they’d killed had been left on the rocks, near the big male’s nest. The others occasionally made motions towards it, but the big male raised his hand and yelled, and they backed off, leaving it alone.
The female had curled up on the rocks nearby and was lying there, her leg covered with dried blood and scratches from the bear’s claws. She seemed all right otherwise, and her eyes were open, watching both the males, and occasionally Xena and Gabrielle.
It was an uneasy calm.
Xena cautiously edged along the walls and collected some handfuls of twigs and branches, left over from the nests, and brought it back to where Gabrielle was seated, sitting down and beginning to arrange the debris into stack.
“You going to make a fire?” Gabrielle asked, glancing outside. The bears had been joined by two others, who were venturing near the entrance and sniffing the air.
“Don’t you think that’s gonna freak them out?” The bard wondered. “Xena, I’m not sure I’m up for another free for all just yet.” She flexed one hand, stiff and sore from a punch she didn’t really remember even delivering to anyone.
Xena removed her flint and striker from the pack and exhaled. “I don’t know.” She pushed her hair back off her face and rested her elbows on her knees, pausing a moment before she sent a few sparks down towards the tinder. “We’ll find out, I guess. I want some damn tea.”
Gabrielle looked at her. “Xe?”
“Mm?” The warrior carefully blew on the sparks, causing the tinder to catch and send a tiny spiral of smoke up.
“We don’t have any water.” The bard said, quietly. “Unless you want me to run out there and get some.”
“I’ll get it.” Xena kept her attention on the fire, tending it carefully as it grew under her skilled hands. “I need the exercise.”
“Gabrielle peered outside, where the bears were roaming. “You’re not going out there.”
“Sure I am.”
“One thing at a time.” The warrior glanced up, watching the creatures reaction to her fire. Two had noticed, and they were sitting up, staring at her. “Just keep that staff ready.”
Gabrielle exhaled wearily. “Okay.” She eased upright onto her knees and flexed her arms. “I hope your damn tea’s worth it.”
Xena heard the edge in her partner’s voice, and she turned her head to study the tense figure next to her. There were smears of dirt and blood liberally covering the bard’s tanned skin and she could see the faint tremble in the motion as she breathed. “Hey.”
“What?” Gabrielle snapped.
“Relax.” The warrior reached over and gave her thigh a pat. “There’s a crack in the wall over there with a trickle of water. I’m not going out to be bear bait.”
Green eyes glared at her. “Xena, I’m not in the mood to play around right now. I’m scared and I’m tired and I’m sick to my stomach.”
Xena watched her in silence for a moment, then her lips tensed into a slight smile. “All the more reason for a fire, then.” She replied in a mild tone. “It’s going to be all right.”
“Yeah, sure.” Gabrielle watched the Hooters anxiously. All of them had noticed Xena’s fire by now, as the smell of the burning wood permeted the cavern. Three of them near the back were standing, glaring at them and the big male had gotten up and was walking over. “Xena.”
“Be right back.” Xena got up and tightened her makeshift belt. Then she picked up her ax and strode towards the oncoming male, her face tight and set.
“Gods.” The bard got to her feet. “She’s lost her mind.. Xena!”
Xena didn’t wait for the big male to make the first move. She got within reach of him and attacked him, swinging the ax in a short, vicious arc that ended smashing him across the left ear. She let out a yell and hit him again, bashing him over and over again as he stumbled back in shock.
All the other males started yelling. The woman sat up and scrambled back out of the way, hugging the back wall near where Gabrielle was kneeling.
The big male recovered his balance and charged back at Xena, her blows hitting him, but apparently doing little to deter him. It was almost as if he didn’t really feel pain, and so the attack could knock him off balance but not keep him from coming back for more.
Frustrating. Xena whirled and delivered a roundhouse kick to his chest, stopping him in his tracks with the greatest effort. She landed, caught her balance, and kicked again, taking a step before she did to put her weight and momentum into it.
He grunted and moved backwards, his arms flailing and his hands grasping for her leg, not fast enough to actually grab her.
Damn it. Xena felt like she was kicking her mother’s prize bull. She whipped the ax around again and got him in the side of the head, this time making him cry out. She hit him again and again, wrapping both her hands around the antler ax hilt and moving her arms as fast as she could.
The other males yelled louder. Xena was afraid suddenly that they’d attack her en mass, and she glanced around for a retreat, but they stayed where they were and simply hopped up and down as though an audience cheering at a play.
Her adversary grabbed a rock and threw it at her, hitting her in the stomach. Xena winced, but didn’t let up her swings, suddenly making the connection between the watching males, the big male, the boar, and what her goals were.
He screamed in anger. Xena wound up and slugged him as hard as she was capable of right in the mouth, feeling her knuckles hit bone with a searing jolt she felt all the way up her shoulder. Blood spurted out, and she wasn’t sure if it was hers, or his.
Whichever it was, seemed to unnerve him. The big male finally cracked under her assault and ran, scrambling away from her as he grabbed his face and howled. He stumbled back to his nest and nearly fell into it, as the other males yelled and hooted so loudly the echoes nearly deafened her.
Xena let the ax drop down, and waited for her heartbeat to slow a little. Then she walked over to the boar and picked it up, grunting at the weight as she settled it onto her shoulders.
She let her eyes travel around the cavern, then she turned and headed back to where Gabrielle was now standing, holding her staff. She kept her eyes on the bard’s face, watching intently as Gabrielle watched the cavern behind her, looking for the faintest hint of a reaction that might mean she needed to drop the board and defend herself.
The yelling blocked her hearing with complete effectiveness. But she saw Gabrielle’s posture straighten a touch, and her biceps relax, letting the staff come down to rest against her thighs. She could also see the tension in her partner’s face, and felt a pang of worry, for both of them.
She stepped past the newly born fire and shrugged the boar off her shoulders, turning to view the cavern behind her.
The male hooters were still all yelling, but that’s all they were doing. None of them seemed about to head towards them and several were shading their faces from the fire.
Had her gamble worked? Xena let out a yell of her own and waved her arms. The hooters yelled back, a mixture of anger and fear, but they stayed where they were, and that was good enough for her. She turned around and went behind the fire, seating herself back down next to where Gabrielle was standing.
After a long moment, the bard also seated herself. “You took their food.” She said.
“Yep.” Xena removed the small knife from their pack and started butchering the boar. “That big guy’s the boss. He wouldn’t let them eat it anyway.” She fed another bit of wood to the fire. “Give me a hand with this?”
Gabrielle edged closer, paused, then eased over until their knees were pressed against each other. She reached out and helped build the fire up, looking past it at the still clamoring creatures. The woman, she noticed, was creeping closer to them, apparently not intimidated by the crackling flames that separated her and Xena from the rest of the cavern.
She let her forearm rest on Xena’s leg. “Xe?”
‘Sorry I snapped at you before.”
“I feel so..” Gabrielle groped for a way to explain the horrible churning inside her. “Screwed up.”
“This is screwed up.” Xena admitted. “We have to wait until those damn things leave and get out of here. I don’t trust these bastards not to attack us and they’re damn hard to fight off. “
Gabrielle sighed. “And you didn’t sleep last night.” She said. “So I know you really do need that damn tea.”
Briefly, Xena leaned over and touched her head to Gabrielle’s, since her hands were covered in gore. She gave her a kiss on the side of her head. “Hang in there. We’ll get through this, Gabrielle.” She took a piece of rock and set it down next to the fire, and then another, building a wall around the flames.
Gabrielle took the knife from her and pulled over the leg she’d cut off the boar. Ignoring the blood stench, she peeled back the skin and cut slices from the muscle, laying them over the rocks to cook as they heated. It would be tough, and gamey she was sure, but just the thought of hot food was making her hands shake.
She felt a little ashamed at that, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. They hadn’t had anything substantial since the day before and her body simply wasn’t used to doing without any more. Even in the beginning, when they’d traveled the hard roads together, she’d had trouble adjusting to the hard traveling and often skimpy rations.
Ironically, it had been Xena’s teasing her about her constant snacking that had made her realize she was finally getting underneath the gruff warrior’s skin a little. After all, Xena noticed that, didn’t she? Noticed her?
Worth the angst and embarassment. Incredibly worth it the first time Xena went out of her way as they strolled through some tiny town in some tiny corner of the vast land to buy something for her to munch on, presenting it with an offhandedness that tasted to her mainly of cherished acceptance.
She’d so wanted Xena to accept her as a part of her life. The night the warrior had given her the wooden lamb, she’d stayed up half the night just looking at it with happy tears that even now made her lips twitch into a reluctant smile as she remembered it.
After she laid the meat out, she set the knife down and got up, feeling Xena shift as she turned to watch her. “Be right back.” She echoed her partner’s words, going over to pick up the skull she’d tossed hurriedly back into the cavern and wandering over to find the spring the warrior had mentioned.
It wasn’t easy to find, just a crack really with a trickle of water that quickly absorbed back into the rock but it was enough for her to get a skull full and she carried it back with her to the fire. “Give me the pack?”
Xena silently handed it over, putting a hand on her back as she sat back down. She went back to butchering the boar after a moment, examining the animal to see what she could make of it’s parts.
Gabrielle turned her head and gave the warrior a kiss on the shoulder, despite all the grime on it. She caught the motion as Xena smiled, and went back to cooking, glad beyond words their partnership seemed solid enough now to weather both of their bitchiness.
A soft clatter of rock alerted her, and she looked to her left, to see the woman crouched nearby, staring at the flames. “This wont’ hurt you.” She said.
“I know.” The woman rasped softly. “I have seen this. My mother made it.” She held her hand out, feeling the warmth and closed her eyes as if the sensation were painful.
The heating rocks started cooking the meat, and the scent of it rose in the air. A soft hooting echoed and as they looked up, they were now the intense focus of all the eyes in the cavern. “They know what this is.” Gabrielle whispered.
“Yeah.” Xena looked over at the woman. “Did your mother do this for them?” She asked.
“Yes.” The woman replied readily. “It was her power.”
Power? Gabrielle glanced at the food. “Because she was the only one who could do it?” She hazarded a guess.
“Yes.” The woman nodded. “She was going to teach me.” She seemed sad. “She died.”
Gabrielle looked at the rocks again, then she looked at her partner. “Her mother wasn’t one of them, Xena.” She uttered softly. “There’s no way.”
“Mm.” The warrior’s eyes flicked around the cavern, furious thoughts evident in them. “But maybe she gave us an answer we needed.”
The bard picked up one of the roasted bits of meat and extended her hand towards the woman. “Here.” She offered. “Not my best recipe, but it smells good.”
The woman readily took if from her, glancing to the side to watch the reaction of the Hooters. There was a touch of triumph, almost a slyness about the gesture, but then she dropped her head and ate the meat, licking her fingers after it.
Gabrielle thoughtfully picked up another piece, and gave it to her partner, who ducked her head gracefully and took it from her fingers. Then she took one for herself, watching the wide eyed looks of the males glued on them.
Was it an answer?
“Good.” The woman said. “Strong magic.”
Or did it just open up another whole set of questions? Xena started to put more chunks up to cook, and it was almost as if she could feel the whole dynamic in the cave changing. “It couldn’t really be that easy, could it, Xena?” She finally asked, hearing a touch of plaintiveness in her voice.
“Worked on me.” The warrior replied dryly. “Don’t look a gift horse in the ass, Gabrielle.”
The bard sighed again, and shook her head, wondering where it would all lead them next, and hoping somewhere, at the end of whatever road they were on, there’d be a path that would simply just take them home.