Shadows of the Soul
The nap did her a world of good. Xena lay there with her eyes closed, and examined this hoary old statement in a half waking, half sleeping kind of way. A world of good? Would that be like an entire country full of Gabrielle’s? What would a world of evil be? A country full of her, obviously.
Xena liked that. It was symmetrical. Her nose informed her that it was still raining outside, and she could hear mostly silence around her save the odd snore so she reasoned it was probably dead of night.
She opened one eye, and confirmed the reasoning. Only a glow from the firepit was visible, and that left her in peace to consider her circumstances.
She’d made some mistakes, that she knew. Xena reviewed her actions with a typically brutal self-honesty. She hadn’t taken this trip seriously, and it had gotten people killed. Almost gotten her killed, in fact. If she’d been one of those people, seeing how she’d been leading on the mission, she’d probably have murdered herself by now.
Had she forgotten everything she’d ever learned? She studied the dark recesses of the roof over her head. Had she become that arrogant? A tiny, wry smile of self-knowledge appeared on her face. Okay, become that much more arrogant? Or was she simply so distracted by the new facet in her life that she just wasn’t paying the degree of attention to what she was doing that she needed to? It was a fact that once she knew raiders were active in the region, she should have either returned to the stronghold for more troops, or spent the time sending out spies into the countryside to find out what was going on.
She should not have pressed on into the mountains, despite her desire to get to her erstwhile rebel’s homesteads before they were ready for her.
Xena nodded slightly. Okay. She acknowledged her failure. Now her job was to get them all home again and re-evaluate the security of her realm. Troops would have to be sent out, and crackdowns would have to happen. Blood would be shed, but she would regain control over all the bits and pieces of her world that had escaped her over the past few years. Nothing would get in the way of that.
Gabrielle stirred a little in her sleep, and her hand shifted slightly lower, coming to rest on Xena’s hip.
Even Gabrielle wouldn’t get in the way of it, now that she was sure of the girl’s real feelings for her.
Xena studied the rounded profile, it’s downy skin kissed by the low, crimson light. She remembered, in a hazy way, the trip through the mountain, and what they’d said to each other. She found herself looking forward to ruling with Gabrielle at her side, the one pinpoint of total trust she could depend on above any of the others.
To hell with what the nobles thought. She’d make Gabrielle her consort, and they could all come up and kiss her feet after that.
After all, she was the queen, wasn’t she? Xena curled her fingers around Gabrielle’s waistline, feeling the slight motion as the girl breathed. It was such an odd sensation, being this close to someone and not minding it. It was almost like she’d been waiting for this feeling all her life, missing it, not even knowing what it was.
She remembered, back in the old days, one captain of hers that had, by some chance fallen in love when they are on the march towards the conquering of the land she now held. Melen had come to her one night, late, when she was tired from a long day’s march and told her he was leaving.
Because he was one of her best fighters, and a damn useful man, she’d given him a chance to explain why instead of simply killing him outright. Was it money? Had the girl offered him land, position, what?
No. He’d told her. It was none of that. He simply had fallen in love with her, and didn’t want to leave her to stay with the army. She was not rich, her family had a simple little farm, and he would work the land for her father in payment for his marriage to her. In time, perhaps he would become the man’s son, since he had no other, and one day come into the small patch of land himself.
So alien was the idea to her, Xena had almost choked on a fruit pit and ended her own bloody career in the most undignified of manners.
But she had recovered after a healthy cough, and settled herself down to decide what to do with the fellow. Men did not desert her, and Melen knew that. His life expectancy would have been better if he’d simply slipped away in the night, and vanished. Certainly she would never have looked for him underneath… or behind… some sheep in the hinterlands.
On the one hand, she admired his courage in coming to her. On the other hand, letting him go could have set a precedent dangerous to her cause.
She’d killed him.
Now, lying here in the dark, she finally understood him, and regretted the act, at last having a point of reference to stand on and see why he’d done what he’d done. She wondered, too, what happened to the girl, in that small village on the road to the capital.
They’d stopped there, on the way out this time, and she hadn’t really remembered about it until now. Ah well. Xena closed her eyes and relaxed, leaving her planning for the daylight. Her head still ached, and it was easier to just lie here under her blankets, reveling in the comfortable warmth of her bedmate.
She smiled. A moment later, she was surprised by the sensation of Gabrielle’s lips gently nibbling her shoulder, and she shifted a little, tiling her head to see the faintest outline of the girl’s eyelashes flickering open. “You’re awake.”
Gabrielle nodded, tightening her hold a bit and releasing a sigh.
A shrug. “Just am.” Gabrielle whispered. “I was thinking about all the stuff that happened the last few days.”
“Wouldn’t sleeping be more productive?” Xena asked, practically.
“Probably.” The girl admitted. “But it was so many amazing… scary... things I just keep picturing it all in my head.”
“Mmph.” Xena realized she didn’t have that problem. The memories of the horror she’d lived through were fading into the background, being in the past and not nearly as important to her as the moment right now, or what would happen tomorrow. “Can’t change what happened.” She said. “Only what’s gonna happen.”
“I know.” Gabrielle said. “But I want to make sure I got all the parts right.”
Xena nuzzled her bedmate’s hair. “So you can tell everyone?”
The girl nodded.
“Gonna make me look good?”
Gabrielle laughed very softly. “Xena, you made yourself look good.”
The queen chuckled.
“You were going to die, so we could escape.” The girl murmured. “Everybody knows it.”
If nothing else, Xena was honest with herself. She didn’t see any point in being any less so with Gabrielle. “Those bastards weren’t after you. They were after me, and I walked right into their hands. I’da been too embarrassed to do anything else.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and shifted, so she could look up and see Xena’s face. “Really?”
“Yes.” The queen met her gaze evenly. “I may be a heartless bitch, but I clean up my own messes.”
“That doesn’t change what you did.”
“No.” Xena said. “But it doesn’t make me a pristine heroic virgin, either – so don’t you paint it that way.”
Gabrielle considered that for a while. “Well.” She eventually murmured. “I don’t think even the chief bard of Athens could paint you a virgin, Xena.”
It struck the queen funny, and she snickered soundlessly.
“But… what you did was brave and heroic no matter why you did it, so…” Gabrielle concluded. “That’s what I’m going to tell everyone in my story.” She put her head back down and exhaled, warming Xena’s skin under the shift she was wearing. “You have the soul of hero, y’know.”
Both of Xena’s eyes opened wide, invisible in the darkness. “Hey. Let’s not go overboard.”
Gabrielle gave her a squeeze.
The queen shifted onto her side, rolling over in the small space and keeping Gabrielle’s body pressed against hers. They ended up facing each other, legs tangling together into a position of cozy comfort. Xena put a fingertip on Gabrielle’s nose, then instead of speaking, leaned forward and kissed her on the lips.
There was no hesitation in Gabrielle’s response. She pressed her body against Xena’s and returned the kiss, one hand sliding over and tracing a light pattern on the queen’s back.
There was a hunger there, and it made Xena’s skin tingle. She slipped her fingers under Gabrielle’s tunic and explored her body, cupping the girl’s breast and rubbing the edge of her thumb over one erect nipple. It elicited a soft sound deep in Gabrielle’s throat, and she teetered on the edge of continuing on to a very logical and satisfying conclusion.
Just the thought chased the pain from her, replacing it with a passion almost outside her control.
Almost. Xena broke off the kiss, and pulled back a little, to see Gabrielle’s eyes flutter open, darkened in reflection of the same passion. “Much as I’d love to make you scream like a sheep being chased by Hercules, lambchop... you gotta face all these people over breakfast tomorrow.”
Unexpectedly, Gabrielle grinned, then she let her head rest against Xena’s collarbone, her ribs contracting as she produced a small sigh. “Rats.”
“Where?” Xena glanced around suspiciously.
“No.... I mean…”
Xena rubbed the back of her neck, and smiled. “Yeah, I know what you mean.” She looked past Gabrielle’s head to the banked firepit; it’s glowing embers merely touching them with crimson.
After a moment’s silence, Gabrielle shifted a little. “Xena?”
“Am I still free?”
Xena blinked, her breath catching in her throat at the unexpected question. Then she relaxed, and resumed a slow stroking under Gabrielle’s shirt. “I said you were, didn’t I?”
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Well, I know, but I burned your note.”
The queen remembered that moment. That crystal clear moment when through the pain and the fear, and the despair in her heart, the truth of Gabrielle’s devotion was made plain to her. “Yeah. All my hard effort, writing with my bad hand, up in smoke. What a crumb you are.” Xena could hear the husky note in her voice, and she felt a tightening in her throat. She paused a moment, then went on. “Serves me right for trying to make a grand gesture.”
“I thought that’s what I was doing.” Gabrielle admitted. “I wanted you to know that I’d rather die with you, then live without you.”
Xena’s eyes slid shut.
“So… it’s… okay, I mean, it’s okay for me if you take that back…” The girl stumbled through the words, in a soft voice. “I don’t mind being a slave, as long as I’m yours.”
Oh, kid. Xena moved so they were eye to eye again. They stared into each other’s soul for a long heartbeat, then the sharp words already on the tip of the queen’s tongue dissolved, leaving her briefly speechless.
“Honest.” Gabrielle whispered.
Xena’s eyes gentled. “You’re still free.” She finally said.
The girl pulled her closer, and hugged her tightly.
“Course...” The queen remarked, in a wry tone. “I’m not sure I am, anymore.” She tasted the odd truth of that, and reflected again on the oracle’s prediction for her. Open your heart, and see yourself destroyed. Was that more true than she was willing to admit? Xena studied the unresponsive, and possibly spider filled rafters.
Gabrielle released her hold, then planted a few gentle kisses on whatever exposed skin of Xena’s she could find. After a minute or so of this, she rested her head on the pillow again. “Oh… how are you feeling?”
“Horny. You?” The queen replied.
After an embarrassed pause, Gabrielle looked up. “Yes.” She confessed. “But I meant your head.”
“Ah.” Xena wished the rest of the hut’s occupants would vanish. Though they were speaking in whispers, she was very conscious of all the bodies around them. “Better.” She said. “But I think more of this’ll make it better.” She tilted her head and nibbled around Gabrielle’s lips. “Makes the blood rush to my head… heals it faster.”
“Really?” Gabrielle sounded willing to buy into the tale.
There were no intelligible verbal sounds after that.
By morning, it had finally… finally stopped raining. Gabrielle stepped out from the hut into the early rays of sunrise, her breath a distinct fog in the very chill air. The storm had beaten down the foliage around them, and made the ragged shepherd’s shelters even more decrepit looking.
But aside from all that, the sun was now peeking over the tops of the trees and flooding the area, bringing welcome warmth and the start of drying out of the paths that led into the small place.
Gabrielle stood for a moment, just absorbing the wild peace all around her. The only sounds she could hear, aside from the soldiers and servants in the big hut behind her were soft warbling of birds and the sigh of the wind through the branches.
A crunch of footsteps behind her made her turn, smiling when she recognized Brendan. “Good morning.”
The old soldier stopped next to her, and briskly rubbed his hands together. “Morning to you, Gabrielle.” He said. “How’s her Maj doing?”
The girl nodded. “I think she’s okay, you know? I think she’s still hurt, and it’s not really good, but she’s sticking with us.”
Now it was Brendan’s turn to nod. “Listen, Gabrielle…back in t’pass…” He looked off into the woods. “Thought for sure she was just leading em on. Didn’t think she’d...”
“Die for you?” Gabrielle studied his face curiously. It was full of deep lines, and creases, and old pain.
The old soldier half shrugged a shoulder. “She’s t’queen.”
“That’s true.” The girl agreed. “That’s what I thought too. That she should escape and you all cover for her, not the other way around.”
Brendan smiled wryly. “Not her way.” He admitted. “Somehow I’da forgotten that.”
Gabrielle put a hand on his arm. “No matter how mean she seems sometimes, I think she really loves you guys.” She said. ‘You mean a lot to her.”
A rakish grin appeared on the man’s face. “Not nearly as much as you do, little one.”
Gabrielle’s eyes dropped shyly.
“I’ve served her Maj for many years.” Brendan’s tone turned more serious. “Does my heart good to fin’ly see her w’ a bit of joy.” He cleared his throat. “Glad we found a way out of that damn mountain... she deserves more’n a bit.”
“You really feel like that?” A strange voice interrupted. Both Gabrielle and Brendan turned, to see one of the older servants behind them. “After all she?”
Brendan studied the woman. “Aye.” He answered, simply. “She’s a hard one, but fair in ‘er guts.”
It was, Gabrielle thought, and apt summation.
“Got a taste for blood, she does.” The woman shook her head.
And that also was apt. “I think rulers are supposed to.” Gabrielle said, softly. “All these people, all those men in all those fine clothes… they’re the same way. She’s just better at it.”
The woman pondered her words. Then she grunted, shrugged a shoulder, and wandered back into the hut. She started as she reached the opening, then ducked aside and touched her forehead.
Gabrielle was not surprised to see Xena emerge, bedfurs wrapped around her like a royal cloak. The queen’s dark hair was pulled back and caught in a casual knot, and her pallor was painfully evident in the bright morning light.
But the blue eyes brightened on seeing her, and Xena emerged with a tolerably firm step to join them outside the hut. “Ah. There’s my muskrat.” She rasped.
Brendan glanced at the blushing Gabrielle, and chuckled slightly. “And a good morning to you, Mistress.” He greeted the queen. “Weather’s turned.”
“About gods be damned time.” Xena looked around. “Might even hold a day or two.” She studied the wild forest. “We’re gonna have to follow the river down to the stronghold. Going back up the pass would be a bad idea.”
“Aye.” The soldier nodded. “Feeling better, Mistress?”
A dark eyebrow arched at him “I’m alive.” She leaned her free arm on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “I intend to stay that way.” Shadowed eyes gazed off into the distance. “Get ready to move out.”
Brendan nodded and turned, heading back to the hut without comment.
Gabrielle waited for him to enter the building before she looked up at her queen. “Wouldn’t it be better for you to rest a while longer?”
Xena tilted her head and looked down. “Yeah.” She agreed frankly. “But if I have to spend one more damned minute in that flea infested goat’s hut, I’m gonna lose it and start hacking the heads off the nearest breathing bodies. Wanna watch?”
There was a long pause. “Um... no.... not really.” Gabrielle finally said.
“Didn’t think so.” The queen sighed. “I’m worried someone might catch us in here. Not good.” She said. “Better to move out, and make our way down the ridge.” Her eyes closed briefly, and she lifted one hand to rub her temple. “Ugh.”
Gabrielle slid an arm around her. “You know what I miss?”
“You have me.” Xena responded. “What else could there be?”
“I miss Patches.” The girl admitted. “If we had horses, we could make a little cart for you to ride in.” She said. “Maybe we can make one anyway and the guys can pull it...foflp.” Gabrielle looked up in surprise as Xena’s fingers pinched her lips shut.
“Listen here, little muskrat.” Xena whispered into her ear. “You really think I’d let that happen?” She waited, and then removed her hand.
Misty green eyes regarded her solemnly. “Yes.” Gabrielle said. “If I asked real nicely, I think you would.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah.’ Gabrielle nodded. “Cause then you could blame it on me.” She grinned. “Say you were humoring your... um…”
“Sexy, and unexpectedly bright delicious little bed partner.” Xena finished, with a faint twinkle in her eyes. “Why, Gabrielle. You’re getting positively sneaky.”
“Bed partner.” The girl flushed a little. “Is that a step up from love slave?”
Xena ruffled her hair with rough affection. “You’re not a slave anymore, remember?”
“So... it’s only half true, now?” Gabrielle responded.
The queen steered her towards the hut, pausing before they reached the entrance and turning to face her, an unexpectedly serious expression on her face. “Know what?”
“I miss my horse, too.” Xena said. “He was a good friend.”
Gabrielle looked at her. “What was his name?”
The queen carefully looked around, and then lowered her voice. “Tiger.”
“That’s a wonderful name.” Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena’s shoulder, and they walked inside the hut together. “I bet he finds his way back to you. Wouldn’t that make a great story?”
“Gabrielle, he’s not a talking dog.” The queen said. “He’s probably fish food by now.”
“I bet he does.”
“Yeah? How much?”
“Ah… gotcha.” Xena chuckled. “If you really believed it, you’d bet even without money.”
“A hundred dinars.”
“You don’t have a hundred dinars, you little muskrat.”
“Oh HO!” The queen chortled. “We’ll see about that.”
It was mid morning before they moved out. The soldiers carried the majority of the gear, strapped over their shoulders in makeshift packs that included the meager things they managed to salvage and items they’d liberated from the huts.
Gabrielle had felt a little bad about that, but Xena merely gave her a look, and shook her head as they were leaving. “Don’t you think…”
“No.” The queen said, firmly. “Door was open. Anything they left behind, they never figured to see again.”
Well, okay. That makes sense. Gabrielle had to admit to herself, as she followed Xena outside. In the end, the queen refused to allow herself to be coaxed into being carried. Instead, she filched Gabrielle’s walking stick and used that to steady herself, keeping a slow, but determined pace in the middle of the path.
Two men up front were carrying a collapsed pallet, two poles and a set of furs tucked around them just in case. Gabrielle really hoped they didn’t need to use them, but she knew Xena wasn’t feeling that well to start with so it paid to be careful.
She walked next to the queen; glad the drying ground gave her a sturdier and sturdier road to walk on and didn’t suck at her boots.
She was really looking forward for the journey to end, though. Gabrielle decided she’d take her adventures in small doses, from now on, and not wish for grand stories to come from them. This story would be grand, but she never wanted to repeat it if she could help it.
The path went along in a steady grade, after a while coming to travel along the banks of a swiftly running river. The sound of the water seemed comforting and friendly, and the slow pace of the walk allowed the men and women to relax a little and begin to talk amongst themselves.
Gabrielle reached out as they passed a low bush, and plucked a pretty, purple flower from it. She recognized the type as the same they had in the garden at the stronghold, and after twirling it in her fingers and sniffing it’s delicate scent, she turned and offered it up to Xena.
The queen gave her a look. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Well.” Her companion tilted her head to one side. “You ate the last one. Hungry?”
Xena took the flower with her free hand and studied it, then she threaded it behind one ear, and inclined her brows at Gabrielle. “How’s that?”
Gabrielle grinned. “It’s pretty.” She moved a little closer. “How far do we have to go?”
The queen edged carefully around a rut in the path. “At this rate? You’ll be a grandmother before we get there.” She sighed, leaning on the staff. “Twice.” An arm slipped around her for support, and she didn’t spurn it, the pain and lightheadedness making even this simple walk arduous.
“Does that mean we’re going to have kids after all??” Gabrielle asked, innocently. “Wow.”
Xena snorted softly, shaking her head in mild amusement.
“That’ll make a great story.”
“Are you trying to be funny?” The queen asked, watching her companion nod. “Cough up a funny story. I need something to keep my mind off…” Xena’s eyes flicked to the men and women around them. “things.” She finished.
“Okay.” Gabrielle said. “Do you think camels are funny? I know a story I heard once from a trader back in Potadeia.”
“Camels.” Xena exhaled. “Gotta be funnier than sheep. G’wan.”
Gabrielle started in with her story, her clear, young voice lifting over the soft chuckle of the river, bringing solace to a thin, slowly moving line whose ears turned to catch it.
Hands gripped around the staff, Xena paused and looked around at the sound, finding Gabrielle limping. or, hopping actually, behind her grabbing at one boot. “What?” She snapped, not wanting to lose concentration on her own struggle to stay upright.
“I think... a rock… ow.”
With a sigh, Xena released one hand from the staff and placed two fingers between her teeth, gathering some energy before she inhaled and let out a shrill whistle. The line stopped moving, heads turning to look at her in question. “Break.” She said, shortly.
With a relieved murmur, the line fractured, people scattering to find spots to rest just off the path. The ground was dry now, and many pulled out a bit of dried meat to chew on and some water as they rested.
Xena found her own felled log under the over-reaching branches and she eased herself down on it, letting the staff fall to the ground next to her as she rested her elbows on her knees. The pain in her head was growing again, and she felt dizzy and sick. Intelligence was urging her to stop and rest, but pride had intelligence in a headlock and she found herself moving forward on mostly stubbornness.
Gabrielle sat down next to her and began unlacing her boot, taking her time to untangle the hide strips before she slid the leather covering off and shook it out with industrious vigor.
Xena merely sat watching her.
After a minute of effort, Gabrielle laid the boot across her knee and dusted her foot off. Then she pulled the boot back on and started lacing it again.
“So, where’s the rock?” Xena drawled.
“It fell out.”
“No, it didn’t.”
Gabrielle pointed. “Sure it did – there it is!”
“That was there.”
“No it wasn’t. At least, I don’t think it was, was it?”
“Know what I think?” The queen rested her chin on her fist. “I think you invented that rock to force me to stop walking.”
Gabrielle finished tying her laces and set her foot down, resting her elbows on her knees in mimicry of the queen’s posture and looking at her. “Well.” She nibbled her lip. “It.... um... worked.”
“Mm.” The queen let her eyes close briefly.
Gabrielle hesitated, seeing the drawn look on the taller woman’s face. “Could we stay here for a while?”
Blue orbs appeared. “Why?”
“Well… um…” A breath. “I’m really tired. I’d like to rest for a while.”
Xena gazed at her. “Cheeky wench, aren’t you?” She managed a faint smile. “We have to keep going, Gabrielle. I have to keep going. We can’t risk being caught out in the open, and we’ve got a way to go until shelter.”
“Then let them carry you.” The girl said, softly. “They don’t mind.”
“I mind.” The queen straightened up. “I won’t do it.”
“You let them carry you in the mountain.”
Xena looked off, a scowl crossing her face. “That was different.” She turned again to look directly at Gabrielle. “I was dying.” Her voice roughened. “Wouldn’t have mattered after that.”
The girl’s breath caught. “But…”
“No.” Xena repeated, firmly.
Gabrielle took her hand and clasped it, rubbing her fingers over the chilled flesh. “Okay.”
“This was not a debate.” The queen replied, shortly. “And no more fake rocks.” She watched the girl reach down and pick up the pebble, bringing it closer for her to see. It was hard, and brittle looking, and had a thin vein of red running through it.
From the cave. Xena looked at the girl in disbelief.
“It really was in there.” Gabrielle admitted, in a mild tone. “And it really hurt. Thanks for letting me stop to take it out.” She carefully put the rock into her belt pouch, a fold of leather; really, she’d scrabbled from one of the chests in the castle.
“Mmph.” The queen grunted.
Brendan came over and knelt, dusting his hands off. “Mistress, there’s rough ground ahead.” He addressed her with straightforward directness. “We’ve been at the road a long day, it’s running to sundown soon. I think the civs have about had it. I’d fear to take em over the next bit.”
Xena was caught off guard. She looked at the group of resting servants, reading a measure of exhaustion in their faces, then she tipped her head back and regarded the position of the sun.
It wasn’t nearly close to sundown, and Brendan knew it. Xena let an eyebrow lift in his direction, but her captain merely looked back at her, with a benign expression. “There’s no shelter.” She replied. “We can’t stop here.”
“Aye.” Brendan agreed. “We’d have t’build er. Men are willing. We could throw up a hut-to short order.”
Xena looked at Gabrielle, who was sitting there, her arms clasped around her knees, looking utterly innocent. The girl blinked at her, not even the hint of a grin crossing her face. She strongly sensed she was being taken for a long horse ride at night blindfolded, but looking into the eyes of these two, it was hard to dredge up a belief that the hijacking was motivated by anything other than…
Gabrielle leaned closer and pressed her cheek against Xena’s shoulder, giving her a gently adoring look.
Bulls’ balls. “Fine.” Xena would have thrown up both hands if she had been able to find the energy. “Do it.”
Brendan nodded briskly. “Right you are, Mistress. We’ll be at it.” He stood up and ambled off, raising his voice to shout orders to the men in the front lines.
Xena tilted her head and met Gabrielle’s eyes. “You planned that.”
The girl shook her head solemnly.
The queen sighed. She wanted to be mad at both of them, but couldn’t find it in her heart to even start to be. Instead, relief coursed over her that she could continue to sit on her log, looking forward to the prospect of lying down in some corner of whatever rude shelter the men erected.
“But I would have, if I’d thought about it.” Gabrielle admitted. “We did make progress, right?”
Xena looked back the way they came, and judged distances. The ground slanted downward, and she realized they had been traveling subtly uphill for a while. No wonder the walk had gotten tougher. But the upward slope meant they were nearing the plateau that would eventually take them home, and in fact they had made better progress than she’d imagined. “Yeah.” She grunted, considering their next day’s path.
Well, she’d made it through this day; she’d make it through the next. In the meantime… The queen leaned a little back against Gabrielle’s warmth, content to simply sit in companionable silence with her bedmate.
Scheming little muskrat.
Xena’s eyes unfocused a little, and a slight smile moved her lips. “Hey.” She nudged Gabrielle. “Thanks for sticking by me.”
Gabrielle let her boots slide out through the leaf litter, examining the tips of them, stained from travel as her legs extended in front of her. After a moment, she looked up at Xena, with a slight shrug. “That’s what friends do.” She replied. “They stand by each other.”
“Do they?” The queen asked.
“Eh.” Xena extended her own legs, her boots ending up quite a bit further than her companions’ “Learn something new every day.”
Gabrielle took her hand again and squeezed it, as though putting an exclamation point on the concept. And at the rate I’m learning, I should be a genius by the time we get back. The queen thought, wryly.
An absolute genius.
The fire crackled softly, responding to the wind whistling through the rough shelter they were all huddled under. There was no room for privacy, no space for embarrassment. Everyone huddled next to each other in a circle around the fire and put their backs to the wind as best they could.
Xena sat with her back against one of the tree trunks that made up part of the wall; her long legs sprawled out in front of her. Gabrielle sat between them; with her boots tucked under her, as they listened to one of the soldiers sing a low, melodic song as the stars began to come out.
The man had talent. He kept his eyes on the ground, as he twisted a bit of twig between his fingers, by his very posture almost dissolving in shy mortification at performing before his queen.
On either side of Xena, Brendan and one of his senior captains were seated, providing a thin, human line of protection separating her from the rest of the crowd. But the quarters were so close, had the balance of the inhabitants wanted to attack, they would barely have had to lean forward.
Xena didn’t appear worried. She listened with her eyes half closed, her arms clasped lightly around Gabrielle’s waist. All the odds and ends had been tossed into the one pot they’d saved, and a stew was cooking, along with slabs of traveling bread currently rough baking on hot stones by the fire.
Xena looked up as the song ended, meeting the young singer’s eyes. “Hm?”
“Does the song please you?”
“Are you alive?” The queen inquired, in a soft drawl.
The man nodded, uncertainly.
“Good sign.” Xena concluded, with a half grin. “Did you like it, muskrat?”
Gabrielle shifted a bit, and then rested her hands on the queen’s calves. “I liked it a lot. It’s very pretty... I think I used to hear one something like that by the men who drove the herds through Potadeia.” She said. “It’s such a sad song, though.”
“Aye.” The singer ducked his head in acknowledgement. “Tis a drover’s song, m’lady. He is sad because he has to leave his family so he can provide for them.”
“Did you have to do that?” The girl asked. “Leave your family?”
The soldier looked around, then back at her. “Family’s here, m’lady. Has been for a good while.”
Xena seemed pleased at the sentiment. She idly rubbed her thumb over Gabrielle’s belly and wiggled a boot, content to rest despite the discomfort of the shelter.
“I understand.” Gabrielle said. “My family’s here too, now.”
The queen’s eyes opened wider, and she glanced down as Gabrielle turned and looked up at her. From her peripheral vision she could see the curious expressions of the crowd, all watching them and waiting to see what she’d say.
What she’d say.
Well. Xena frowned inwardly. What was she going to say? She absorbed the gentle affection in Gabrielle’s face, and was glad her armor kept her from melting as she sat. “That’s right.” She heard herself answer, and then she returned the looks of the crowd. “She’s blood of my blood now.”
Gabrielle’s nose wrinkled, just a little. “You have such a way with words.” She uttered softly. “Is this where we prick our fingers and rub them together?”
“Mistress?” One of the women servants said, in a soft voice. “Are we goin home now? Back to the stronghold?”
‘That’s the idea.” Xena replied. “Then I can send an army out to find the bastards who jumped us and make sure that never happens again.”
“Mistress… could General Bregos be part of all this?” The young singer asked, unexpectedly.
“Lad.” Brendan warned.
“It’s a damn good question.” The queen answered in an even tone. “I didn’t recognize any of them. Did you?” She asked the soldier, and then let her eyes drift over to the rest of the people. “Any of you?”
After a moment’s uncertainty, most shook their heads.
“Well.” Xena commented. “They recognized me.”
Low murmurs. “Bet they’ll recognize the little one here, the next time.” Brendan said. “After her pitching rocks at em all.” His words drew tired chuckles.
The queen cocked her head. “Rocks?” She tugged a lock of Gabrielle’s pale hair.
Her companion blinked, and issued a self-deprecating shrug. “Well, I didn’t think my stick would do any good, and I didn’t have it anyway... so I just… I picked up all the rocks I could find and started throwing them at the guys who were hitting you.”
Xena’s right eyebrow lifted. “You did, eh?”
“Got a good arm on ‘er.” Brendan commented.
Gabrielle turned to face him. “I used to throw rocks at trees to have something to do when I was out in the fields.” She admitted.
“Why didn’t you throw rocks at the sheep?” Xena asked. “At least they’d have been moving targets.”
“The sheep?” Her lover looked around at her. “That would have been mean!”
Even the queen chuckled at that. She shook her head and gave Gabrielle a light scratch on the back. In response, the smaller woman leaned back, curling up against her and releasing a contented sigh. Xena became aware, with a sense of startlement, of the emotional intimacy of their position but could see no easy way to rearrange it other than picking Gabrielle up and tossing her out into the leaf litter.
The queen wasn’t sure she was up to that. Looking around at the circle of faces, she knew that in this moment she had unwittingly allowed more people more insight to her than at any time prior in her life. It was dangerous. But she could see no peril in the eyes watching her, and for the first time in a long while she could sense no danger, and little fear in the men and women around her.
With a slight nod, Xena settled her arms around Gabrielle and accepted the moment. “Hey, kid.” She addressed the young soldier. “Got another song in there, or is that your only one?”
The soldiers chuckled. The servants joined them, after a brief moment of hesitation. The young singer blushed, then nodded and cleared his throat. He paused, then inhaled and started singing again, in a gentle, clear voice that seemed to roll over them in another old song of the land.
“Mm.” Gabrielle murmured softly, under her breath.
Xena bent her head closer. “Y’know that one too, eh?” The blond head nodded. “Me, too.” The queen admitted, lifting her head back a little, and considering a notion. After a slight shrug, she waited for the soldier to complete the first part of the song, and when he started the second, she joined him.
The sight of his eyes almost popping out of his head nearly made her stop. But after a wavering break in his voice, he recovered, and their unlikely duet went on. The words came easily to Xena, and she found them well matched in tone and quality.
It was acceptably pleasant sounding, even to her sharp ears. She was also aware of the look of utter charmed delight on Gabrielle’s face and the rest of the goggled eyes around her lost relevance.
Sky above us, earth beneath us, wind to carry our voices high.
We toil long, our hands one becoming with dirt that feeds us
From the earth we come, from the earth we live, to the earth we go as Charon takes us bye.
Kings will rule us, gods demand of us, life will live hard for us.
But always the land will open her arms to us, taking us back,
Welcoming us home.
When the song finished, there was silence. Xena let her head rest back against the rough tree bark, feeling it’s irregular surface through the fabric of the cloak hood she wore. She studied the people around her, considering the quiet, wondering faces.
It was almost a reverent silence.
Xena hated it. “I can do card tricks, too. Wanna see?” She dispelled it, with a wicked smile.
Everyone shifted and a few chuckles were heard. Gabrielle gave her a brief squeeze and shook her head.
“Mistress.” The same woman servant spoke up. “May I ask something?”
The queen considered, and then lifted one shoulder. “Sure. Why not?”
“General Bregos...” The woman hesitated, even given the permission. “He promised us our freedom.”
Xena snorted softly.
“That’s true.” Another man spoke up. “He said he would be a fair ruler.”
“That’s what I heard too.” Gabrielle said. “You know, people tried to convince me to let bad things happen to Xena because they thought the general was telling the truth.”
“He said he was.” The woman said.
Gabrielle shifted again and sat up, facing the crowd. “I think he said that, because he knew it was what you wanted to hear.” She said. “I mean… what else could you promise people? Would you have believed him if he said he’d give a bag of gold to each of you?”
The woman chewed the inside of her lip.
“It sure was what I wanted to hear.” Gabrielle said, in a gentle voice. “To be out of this place I’d been brought to against my will.”
Xena remained silent, and still. The servants all murmured together.
“But you turned ‘im down.” One older man said. “We heard of it.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah, I did.” She said. “Because I thought about what someone very smart said about it – that what we do, someone has to do. No matter who rules the land.” She drew one knee up and rested her forearm on it. “And, at least we were kept in a warm place, and fed good food, which was more than I remember people having back home in Potadeia.”
“But they were free.”
“But they were dying.” Gabrielle answered. “And they were starving and miserable. So what good was it doing them?”
“But we could be killed at a whim.” The woman said. “Hers.”
Now eyes turned towards the silent queen, whose angular profile was outlined by the fire in shadows and crimson planes. “Don’t feel bad.” Xena remarked, almost conversationally. “I kill everyone at a whim. At least you don’t pay taxes for the privilege.”
There was a moment of stunned silence. Then the woman scratched her jaw and sighed. “S’truth.”
“Why?” The young soldier asked suddenly.
“Why don’t they pay taxes? They don’t get paid.” Xena said, with a half smile. “Or why do I kill people?”
There was a sudden sense of danger around the campfire. Perhaps the servants realized there had been a line crossed. Perhaps the soldiers did. Brendan and Gabrielle both took in a breath at the same time to start speaking, but Xena’s raised hand stopped them both.
“Because otherwise I’d have to fill the stronghold’s dungeon with people who did stupid things. I’d have to guard them, and clean after them, and feed them. That takes money and resources that I choose instead to put towards improving the land and buying decent food for you. Wanna trade off for it?”
Eyes blinked, as everyone looked at each other.
“Can we have a little enlightened self interest, here?” The queen inquired. “Anyone?”
“But... what if you’re wrong? What if…”
“If I’m wrong, and I kill someone who didn’t deserve it, then I’ll pay the price.” Xena replied. “It’s my eternity in Tartarus I’m bucking for. I accept it. Doesn’t change how I feel. Doesn’t change how I rule.”
“This is my realm. My choices.” Xena continued. “My rule.” She paused. “Deal with it.”
As the crowd digested this, Gabrielle chose to lean forward and give the stew a stir.
Black humor once against surfaced in the queen. “Tough words from a bell rung half cripple stuck out sleeping under a tree, huh?” Xena taunted them, with wry mischief.
“S’allways been your way, Mistress.” Brendan remarked stolidly. “Them silk panties in t’captiol never did cotton to it.” He added. “Always thought they’d paid for a bit of say.”
“Mmph.” Xena snorted, resuming her relaxed pose against her tree. The dangerous feeling had passed, but not the sense of almost intrusive intimacy with the group around her. She watched as Gabrielle started filling up the few, rude bowls they’d saved and passing them, reserving one that she filled last and brought back along with a hunk of the travel bread to Xena.
It smelled good. Xena realized she was hungry for the first time since her injury, and that cheered her up as she recognized a good sign. Gabrielle broke the travel bread in half and handed a portion to her, and they shared the bowl in companionable silence for a while.
“Know what?” Gabrielle broke it, after accepting a hunk of something from the stew taken off the tip of Xena’s dagger.
“What?” The queen answered, around a mouthful of bread.
“You’ve got such a pretty voice.” The blond woman said. “It’s beautiful like the rest of you.”
Caught chewing, Xena glanced around at the crowd, and hastily swallowed. “Shh. You’re ruining the wild bitch image I just worked so hard on getting back.” She muttered. “Wench.”
Gabrielle licked a bit of stew juice off the dagger, and grinned.
Noon the next day found them nearing the narrow valley that cut through the hills towards the capital. Here, the river they’d been following cut deeply into the rock, and they’d come to a point where the path simply vanished, and the water became the only route forward.
Brendan and the soldiers clustered around the craggy outcropping, parting as Xena made her way slowly forward to join them. “Mistress, that’s one wild bit of froth forward.”
The queen observed the fast moving water, constricted by the rock. “Sure is.” She agreed. “Better build the rafts to take it.”
“Rafts?” Her captain queried. “We’re not to cross it forward then?”
“Nope.” Xena rested her hands on her stolen stick. “I’m tired of walking. We ride the river through the rapids, over that last hill, and it’ll take us right to the damn docks of the city.”
Brendan peeked at the white water ahead of them. “Mistress, b’yer pardon, but…” He winced. “Looks a rough ride.”
The queen nodded. “I know.” She said. “But the first part’s the worst. Once we get past that narrow point there..” She pointed. “It’s not that bad.”
“You’ve done this?” Gabrielle popped her head around from behind Xena. “Really?”
“I have.” Xena admitted. “My brother and I were running from Cortese. We didn’t have much choice… we figured the river would be a better death than he would.”
Brendan looked at her. “B… the two of ye were just kids!”
The queen nodded again. “Stupid kids. He caught us anyway. But it was a great ride.”
The old soldier shook his head, but started moving off the rocks and towards the nearby trees. “C’mon, then lads. Let’s get t’building.”
Xena remained on the outcropping as the soldiers and some of the servants followed Brendan towards the forest, speaking together in low tones as they walked. She glanced to one side as Gabrielle joined her on the rock, glad the kid had finally got the message and wasn’t attempting to go off with them and help.
They stood together for a moment, both studying the wild river.
“Are you thinking about your brother?” Gabrielle asked.
“No.” Xena replied. Then after a pause, she cleared her throat. “Yes.”
Gabrielle put her arm around the queen in mute comfort. “I was just thinking about Lila.” She said. “She would never have been brave enough to go do this.”
“Do what?” Xena asked. “Ride down the river or sleep with me?”
Despite the blush, Gabrielle smiled. “Either.” She confessed. “She used to call me.. the brave, crazy one in the family.” Had she been, she wondered? Or just the crazy one. She imagined what Lila would say if she could speak to her now, seeing her here about to do something so scary it almost took her breath away to think of it.
The spray from the water moistened her skin, and she decided to kneel down, and see how cold it really was. Her fingers touched the water, and it tingled, so she drew her hand back with a bit of the water cupped in it and took a drink.
It was cold, and sweet.
“Hey.” Xena’s voice sounded, raised slightly to carry over the rushing river. “Use this.”
Gabrielle turned and accepted the wooden cup. She scooped it full, then stood and offered it to the queen. Xena gracefully dipped her head and took a sip as she held the cup, then straightened and jerked her head, indicating the rest was for her companion.
The queen draped an arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders as she drank, glad to be standing still as her plan was put in force behind her. “You know what the first thing I thought about you was?”
Gabrielle nearly inhaled a noseful of the water. She looked quickly at Xena, then wiped the back of her hand over her mouth. “What?”
Xena cocked her head to one side. “I thought… what is this crazy slave dragging a water trough outside for?”
“Trough?” The blond woman frowned, her brow creasing as she thought. “When was this?”
“Day you got here… maybe the day after.”
Gabrielle tried to remember those awful days, but found it difficult to connect with the desolate, grief stricken person she’d been in that time. If she concentrated, she could just recall the awful night, and the aching, and the utter frustration in her that had boiled out and…. “You saw me go off on that post.”
“I took a little bit of it.”
“After you whacked the Hades out of it, yeah.” The queen agreed.
“I knew….” Gabrielle felt her throat tighten. “Some.. of Lila was on that wood. I wanted to keep a piece of it.” She looked off down the river. “It was all I had.” Her chest moved as she took a deep breath. “Sounds pretty silly, I guess.”
“No it doesn’t.” Xena told her, in a quiet voice. She let her walking stick rest against her shoulder and dug in the small pouch hanging from her belt, removing something and holding it out on her palm.
It was a small bit of rock. Curious, Gabrielle picked it up and looked at it, seeing faded, dark stains that cut through the fabric of the stone almost like rust.
Rust. She looked up at Xena.
“From where I found him lying dead, yeah.” The queen answered. “So when I saw you do that, I thought… ‘hey, look. Another whacko like me.’”
Gabrielle put the stone back in her palm, and curled her fingers around it.
“Except this time I was the person who put you in that place.” Xena added. “And I think that was the moment I realized how much I’d let them make me become just like them.”
“Oh, not right then.” The queen almost chuckled. “Then all I was thinking about was how strange you were, and wondering if you were nuts.” She sighed, after a moment. “The other thing came a long time after that.” She turned and drew Gabrielle with her, making a careful way down the rocks towards the sound of the work in progress.
Gabrielle held her thoughts, as she accompanied the queen along the pine needle strewn path, their steps crunching through the fallen leaves and releasing a soft scent of pine to her nose. The workers had already started to chop down trees, and along with the scent of pine was the smell of freshly cut wood.
How would they do it? She wondered. It would take many rafts to carry all of them, and they had no ropes to tie the logs with. “Xena? How are they going to connect everything?”
Xena paused, and they stood near a thickly leaved bush watching the activity. “Bark.” The queen said.
“Woof.” Gabrielle replied, obediently. “Woof, woof woof.”
Caught in the act of drawing a breath to continue her instruction, Xena ended up spluttering into a laugh instead. She leaned against her staff for support, unable to cease her chuckles for several moments. “That wasn’t what I meant.” She finally said, with a sigh.
“Well, you said…” Gabrielle was secretly delighted at hearing the laughter, and from the startled faces she caught in her peripheral vision she wasn’t the only one. “Bark. So I did.”
Xena removed her dagger from her belt and faced the nearest tree, cutting into it to a certain length and removing a strip of the material. She presented it to Gabrielle. “Tree bark.” She said, “Look.” She flexed it between her fingers, showing her companion the tough threads inside. “Not as good as rope, but it’ll work.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle took the bark and twisted it, bringing it to her nose and sniffing the piney scent. “I get it.” She turned to see the men near the felled logs, now stripping them of the bark. It started to make sense. More soldiers were cutting the branches off, and trimming them to uniform lengths. “What are those for?”
“Lay on top – give us something more solid to stand on.” Xena said. “And the big ones – that we’ll use to push off the sides.. keep us straight.”
Gabrielle slowly nodded. “Wow… that’s pretty cool.” She looked up at the queen. “But I don’t see any safety rails.”
Xena’s lips twitched. “There aren’t any.” She replied.
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip. “Not if you hang on to me.”
At that, the queen smiled, putting her arm once again around Gabrielle’s shoulders and pulling her closer. “Gabrielle, my adorable little muskrat, don’t you worry. If you go overboard, I’m going with you.” She reassured her. “You’re mine.”
“I’m yours.” Gabrielle agreed. “But you know what?”
“What?” Xena asked.
“Your mine, too.” The blond woman said. “Aren’t you?”
Xena grinned silently for a bit, then exhaled, stirring Gabrielle’s hair with her breath. “Yeah.” She said. “But don’t you tell anyone or I’ll skin you.” She warned. “Got it?”
“Okay.” Gabrielle said, feeling her face stretch out in a grin nonetheless. “How are you feeling?” She changed the subject, sensing the arm over her wasn’t just from affection.
“Tired.” The queen admitted, in a low voice. “I just keep wanting to go to damn sleep. Not a good sign.” She moved her head, wincing. “I need a nice soft bed, and some extremely decadent pampering, with lots of cute blond bedmates mixed in somewhere.”
Gabrielle decided she’d like that too, and that meant the faster they could raft down the river, then the better it would be. Right? She watched the men fastening the rafts together, and hoped they were as sturdy as they looked, because she really didn’t want to end up, with queen or no, in that darn cold water.
Drinking it was fine. Dunking her body into it was giving her chills just thinking about it.
“All right, boys – let’s drag her forward, clear t’space.” Brendan ordered, helping the men to drag the first raft forward and towards the river.
“Get them done, then we’ll divvy up who goes where.” Xena said. She tipped her head back and gazed up at the sky. “I want to get this over with before sundown. I got someplace I wanna be when the stars come out tonight.”
Gabrielle suddenly remembered their new quarters, with it’s windows on the sky. Then she turned to watch the men and the rafts, the work now going far too slow to her eyes. Funny how less intimidating the river looked now, that it was a fast path carrying her to someplace she really wanted to be.
The raft was bucking up and down, and Gabrielle was glad she was kneeling in it’s center, with Xena’s powerful grip firmly clamped around her. Ten of the soldiers, and four servants clambered unsteadily on around them, and when the last had a good hold, the raft was released.
Oh… gods. Gabrielle found herself staring ahead of her at a wall of white water, as the rising rocks rushed past her on either side. The spray washed over the raft and doused them, causing her to inhale sharply at the shock of the icy water.
The raft shivered as it struck a submerged rock, and she pitched forward, but found herself hauled back into place by the queen’s strong arm. “Wow.”
“Fun, huh?” Xena was kneeling on one knee, her other leg braced against a wood knot and her hand firmly wrapped around one of the branch stumps the men had left for holds on their roughly made transport. Her free arm, of course, was curled around Gabrielle’s body, holding her close and firmly now in place.
“Um.” Gabrielle scrabbled for a handhold, feeling the rough bark scrape against her hands. “Well…”
“Raft virgin.” The queen seemed to be in surprisingly good spirits.
“That’s for sure.” The raft whirled to one side, throwing them all around, then straightened with a vicious twist, nearly sending several of the men closest to the edge over it. “Whoa!”
Gabrielle glanced behind them, spotting the next raft bucking up and down in their wake. She wondered if they looked as terrified as the people on that one did, then she looked up to see Xena’s eyes fixed ahead, her profile the embodiment of a wild, natural courage that made the venture seem tame in comparison.
Must be nice. The water plowed up over the front of the raft, nearly threatening to stand it on it’s end. Gabrielle yelped as she slid backwards, scraping her boots against the wood to try and find purchase. Then the water behind them sloshed up and she was tossed forward almost onto her nose. “H.. how much longer?”
“We just started.” Xena released a chuckle. “C’mon… loosen up. This is fun!”
Fun. Gabrielle held on to the queen’s arm and somehow righted herself, just in time to be tossed to the side as the surface under her feet tilted. “Yeah… Fun…. “ She squeaked. “Like cleaning sheep poop.”
“Hey.. are you my brave lover, or just a squeaking muskrat?” Xena asked, loosening her grip on the raft so she could get a better hold on Gabrielle, wrapping her arms around her companion and clasping her securely. “Which is it?” She rasped, right into her ear.
Oo. Good question. Gabrielle shivered, not entirely from the cold.
“I’ve got you.” The queen said. “Trust me, Gabrielle.”
She’s here. I’m safe. The blond woman took hold of one of the wooden nubs, and resolved to enjoy the ride as much as Xena seemed to be. The water swirled ahead of them, tilting the raft from side to side, and as she held on, Gabrielle sensed an almost rhythm about it.
And then, just like that, she was no longer at the mercy of the water, she was riding it, caught up in the rush and excitement of the experience.
Maybe it was the closeness of Xena’s body, it’s warm length pressed against her.
Maybe it was the danger.
Gabrielle laughed softly. Maybe she just was the crazy, brave one after all. They slid down the side of a whitecapped wave, and she let out a yell, leaning forward and anticipating the tilt and whirl as the raft spun to one side, then straightened out again and rode the next wave.
“Atta girl.” Xena praised her. “Life hands you a lemon, Gabrielle… squeeze it and spit the pits at your enemies.”
Gabrielle turned her head and gazed at the queen in puzzlement. “What?”
The queen leaned close to her, kissing her on the lips as they whirled sharply, spray drenching both of them. “This is living.” She said, drawing back to look Gabrielle in the eye. “Savor it.”
Then they were rushing almost straight down for a long moment, only to be tossed up like a leaf on the wind as the river plunged down between two stark walls of rock. Gabrielle inhaled in surprise as the river dropped out from under them, and she knew an endless moment of flight. Her heart leaped up into her throat, then settled back where it belonged when they caught up the water again and slide sideways and downwards in a thundering splash.
“Whoa.” This time it was Xena who exclaimed it, shaking her head to move now drenched dark hair out of her eyes. She glanced down at the bedraggled little muskrat in her arms, and planted a kiss on the blond head under her chin. “Good one.”
“Hey!!!” Gabrielle suddenly yelped, squirming around in Xena’s arms and reaching for the front of her tunic. “Yow! Yow!”
The queen’s eyes widened in bemusement.
“Baaahhh!!” With a shiver, Gabrielle yanked something out of her shirt and held it up. “Xena!”
“That was in your shirt!?” The queen demanded. “C’mere. Off with his head.”
She reached for the fish, but Gabrielle divined her purpose and threw the small fish as far as she could, bouncing him off the nearest soldier and into the water. “He didn’t mean it.”
“That’s no excuse!!” Xena yelled back. “He tries it again, he’ll be a fillet for dinner! Nobody messes around inside my muskrat’s shirt while I’m around to catch em!”
A memory surfaced before Gabrielle’s eyes, of her father, and her sister – and how there hadn’t been anyone there to say that for Lila when she’d needed it the most.
Then she had no time to savor the moment, as the raft swiveled sideways, and they were heading down another long slope. “YaaahhhhH!!!!!!!!”
“Yeah!” Xena laughed, enjoying the ride to the fullest. The rough action and the icy spray had taken her mind completely off her injury, and she was, as she’d told Gabrielle, simply savoring the experience. The wind blew her hair back, and it’s chill contrasted with the rich warmth she felt where her body and Gabrielle’s were pressed together and the queen decided that it just didn’t get much better than this very often.
The raft sped down the slope, then crested with the wave, flying up and over the water to come crashing back down in a flume of white water.
Gabrielle glanced behind them, and hoped everyone was hanging on really tight. She knew she herself would have been tossed overboard long ago if it weren’t for Xena’s powerful anchoring. She could hear screams, and yells of alarm, but the raft was twisting under her again and she didn’t have time to look long.
The river was really racing now, traveling downward between the two high cliffs, it’s thunder masking out any other sound. The sun was high overhead, and the reflections of it on the rocks, and the water, and the few, crystal droplets on Xena’s cheek were seared into Gabrielle’s dream eye with vivid, almost violent clarity.
“Here’s the tough part.” The queen commented cheerfully, pointing at a narrow pass.
“Now?” Gabrielle gasped, as a cold wave almost swamped them.
Gabrielle let go of the stub, and half turned, wrapping her arms around Xena as tightly as she could. The queen jammed one boot under a lashing, and took another wrap of the hide around her hand. The raft tilted and whirled, and for a long, dangerous moment tipped so far to one side she was sure they were going over.
The walls narrowed rapidly, and her eyes widened as she judged the width of the raft against the hole they were heading for. “Are we going to make it???”
“One way or another.” Xena replied. “Hang on!”
Gabrielle surrendered to her better judgement and screwed her eyes shut, burying her face in Xena’s shoulder and simply doing what she was told. She locked her hands around her wrists and trusted in the queen’s strength to bring them home.
She felt a violent wrench to the right, then one to the left, and heard a creaking, as the raft slowed suddenly to almost a standstill.
Then a loud crack made her jump, and they were moving again, tumbling through the opening only to drop unexpectedly into thin air.
Gabrielle screamed, though the sound was muffled by Xena’s overtunic, as her stomach rose up and almost exited her ears. Then it was over, and they impacted the water so hard she felt Xena’s whole body lift up and slam down, and the queen’s hold on her tightened to an almost painful degree.
The raft tipped up, and she felt them rising.
Gabrielle’s eyes popped wide open and she inhaled, that one set of syllables from Xena more frightening than whole legions of rivers and rickety rafts. “What!”
“I think I’m gonna sneeze.”
Was she joking? Was she…. A thousand questions ran through Gabrielle’s mind and then…
And then, it was over. The raft plunged one last time, and settled, still moving fast, but moving evenly across the surface of the water. Gabrielle felt her heart settle a little, and her breathing slowed. After a moment, something rapped on the top of her head. “Mm?”
“You can come out now.”
She opened one eye and peeked upward, to see a drenched, yet gorgeous woman looking back at her. Slowly, she turned her head, to see the river now running smoothly under them, still sloping downward, but at a far, far more gentle rate. “We did it?”
“We did it.” Xena confirmed. “Not sure if we didn’t lose people..” She released her grip on Gabrielle and raked her wet hair out of her eyes. Turning, she surveyed the other people on their raft, who were shaken and obviously terrified, even the soldiers. “Everyone all right?”
There was a bit of doubt. “Think so, Mistress.” One of the soldiers finally said. “But that was the damndest thing I ever done.”
A murmur of agreement went up, as the shaken men and women eased away from death grips on the wooden raft One man went to the front, where a big chunk of the first log had been ripped away.
Gabrielle sat down on the raft and tried to relax her shaking limbs. It had been the damndest thing, all right, but you know? They’d made it. She blew out a breath, stirring the wet hair on her forehead and nodded.
They’d made it.
Xena ruffled her hair, easing down onto the raft next to her. “Thanks for trusting me.” She commented.
Gabrielle smiled. “Always.” She replied. “Now we just ride home?”
“Yep” The queen said. “We’re home free.”