A gray sky loomed over the road coming up into the mountains. Sleet and rain pelted fitfully down, pattering along the dusty path that was more indentation in the rock than real road.
It was cold. A heavy, wet wind gusted from the north, fluttering the capes back on three lone figures making their way slowly forward against the storm huddled between two cream colored horses.
“Mama. Bleah! “
“I know, honey. “ Gabrielle put her arm more snugly around the small body riding atop the smaller of the two horses. “No fun, huh? “
“Everybody‚s a critic. “ Xena sniffed. “This where I remind everyone.. “
“That you said we should stay in the cave? “ Gabrielle finished the sentence. “Only if you feel like sleeping on the other side of the fire pit tonight. “ She removed any sting from the words by slipping an arm around her partner and pulling her closer. “Where did you say the next town was? “
“I didn’t. “ Xena pulled her cloak hood a little more tightly around her head.
“Rats. I was hoping I wasn’t remembering that right. “ Gabrielle sighed. “Damn it feels like we’ve been on the road for a year. “
“Mm. “ Xena took a tighter grip on the reins of the two horses they were walking between. The wind was so sharp, it was warmer to be walking, and she was giving Gabrielle and Dori a little extra protection by going in front. “How are ya doing, short stuff? “
Dori was wiping the moisture from her face, though her head was protected by a fur lined hood. “Boo∑ too cold! “ She complained. “C‚n we go nice place now? “
“Soon. “ Xena looked out ahead of them, seeing no real shelter in sight. The track they were following wound between craggy outcrops of granite, and the only foliage around were spurts of tough, low shrubbery. They were going uphill, and she knew any hope of finding a place to spend the night would have to wait until they crested a ridge ahead full open to the howling wind. “Soon, or else I‚ll dig ya a place to stay in, how about that, Dor? “ “Xena, Warrior Mole. “ Gabrielle uttered half under her breath.
“Gabrielle, Icicle of Potadeia, if I don‚t. “ Xena responded, having heard her quite clearly. “And you know what? We‚ve only been on the road a half a year. “
“Ugh. “ Gabrielle buried her face in the cloak covering her soulmate‚s back. “Next time I wax poetic about the romance of traveling, throw me in a cold lake, okay? “
“Okay. “ Xena agreed. “ Do we have anything to eat if we do stop? “
Gabrielle was briefly silent, then she exhaled. “No.. well, some nuts and a couple of pretty wrinkly pears I’ve got in my pack. “
“You said you‚d hunt today. “
“I know. I wasn’t expecting a damn hailstorm. Everything with sense is under cover. “
“Except us. “
Xena turned her head. “You insinuating we have sense? “ She gave the smaller woman a wry grin.
“Me? Never. “ Gabrielle stuck her head past Xena‚s shoulder and peered at the road ahead. “You think there‚ll be someplace in the valley, after we get over that? “
Xena racked her memory of the area, which was surprisingly sparse. “Wasn’t anything there the last time I came through here… but it’s been a long time. “ She admitted. “A lot could have changed since then. “
“Mm. “ Gabrielle squeezed between Xena and Argo, one hand raised to keep hold of Dori, the other arm wrapped around Xena‚s waist. “How true that is. “ She leaned forward a little as they started to climb uphill. Their boots struck the dusty earth together, legs kicking out the edges of their cloaks in unison. “It has been a long time out here, huh? “
“Seems like it. “ Xena conceded. “Though we were on the road a lot longer before we ∑ “ She paused. “Anyway, glad we‚re headed towards home. “
“Me too. “
“Go home good! “ Dori chimed in. “Mama, c‚n you gimme rocks? Wanta play. “
Gabrielle grimaced. “Honey, let‚s wait until we stop, okay? If you play with your rocks now, they‚ll all fall down and roll away. “
“Mama! “ Dori pouted unhappily.
“Yikes. “ Gabrielle looked around for something to distract her child, who had been reasonably good considering they had been traveling since dawn and it was coming towards sundown. “How about a story? “
“Okay.. how about you tell me a story? “ Gabrielle said.
Xena chuckled under her breath.
Gabrielle gave her a sideways look. “How about Boo tak.mpfh. “
“No flying. “ Xena whispered in her ear. “I’ll end up falling on my ass and hurting us both. “
Gabrielle bit the inside of her partner‚s hand gently, exhaling when it was removed out of her reach and her lips were freed. “Dori, how about Oogy? Can you play with Oogy? I can‚t get your rocks right now. “
Dori pouted, but didn’t immediately reject the idea, and accepted the stuffed cow when her mother presented it to her. She bounced the toy up and down on Argo‚s saddle, her small body held in place by a series of leather straps. “Go, go go! “
Argo snorted, and looked around.
“Not you, girl. “ Xena patted her on the neck, digging her boots in as the ground started getting steeper. They both fell silent, save energy for the climb as the wind increased and blew hard against them.
Xena half shut her eyes and eased in front of Gabrielle, leading the two horses who were snorting as sleet smacked against their sensitive noses.
“C’mon, guys. Not much further. “
Another candlemark of climbing, and they were at the top, half frozen from a now steadily falling rain full of ice droplets.
Gabrielle shaded her eyes from the rain as they topped the crest, and looked down the opposite slope to see thick, green forest not far below. “Whooooho! “
“Ooooooo! “ Dori warbled in imitation. “Go mama! “
“Nice sight. “ Xena agreed. “At least we‚ll find shelter and maybe something to eat if I don‚t freeze before we get there. “
“You, freeze? “ Gabrielle‚s voice was a little perkier. “Never. Hey.. Xe, look. Is that smoke? “
Xena looked along the line of her partner‚s arm. “Might be. “ She agreed. “Hunter, maybe. Nothing clear enough down there for a town. “ She put a hand on Gabrielle‚s back as they started down the hillside. “Hopefully, they‚re friendly. I‚m not in the mood for a fight. “
The rain came down harder as they picked their way carefully down the path, tiny rocks skittering away from under their boots and the horses‚ hooves.
It turned into pure sleet by the time they reached the trees, and they were all glad to pass from the open rocky road into the dark shelter of the forest. There, the sleet was still present, but the branches over them blocked a good portion of it, and the trunks towering on either side of them broke the wind and lessened it‚s fierceness.
Xena pushed her hood back to free her senses, listening intently to the forest around her. Plenty of creaking branches, and the pattering of the freezing rain met her ears, along with a soft thump or two that put a smile on her face. “Let‚s find some place to stop. “
“Let‚s go see who else is here. Maybe they’ll share. “ Gabrielle countered, pointing towards where they‚d seen the smoke. “Maybe it’s even a little town, with a inn and a nice dry roof… “
They followed the scent of smoke through the trees, rounding a slight rise to find themselves standing at the top of a sunken dell, in the center of which was a tree obviously blasted by lightning.
A wisp of smoke trailed soggily up from it, painting the air with its tang.
“Well. “ Xena put her hands on her hips. “It’s no town. “
“No. “ Gabrielle eased past her, flicking the edges of her cloak out of her way as she found a path down. “But it is shelter, and I think.. yeah, there‚s a spring near those rocks. “
Xena followed her, leading the two horses. It wasn‚t ideal, it wasn‚t even a really good place to shelter, but it was something, and with dark coming on something was way better than nothing. “Fire‚s going to be a problem. “
“You‚ll manage. “ Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder, and grinned. “I‚ll see if there‚s anything around to boil up for soup. “
Xena stored their gear under an overhanging rock and stopped to test the water in the spring. It was cold, but sweet, a faint undertaste of moss just tickling her tongue. She continued on, wrapping her cloak around her as she started back through the trees, turning her senses outwards in a search for other living things.
The thumps had vanished. The woods were silent, and lifeless around her. “C’mon. “ Xena’s stomach growled, reminding her of how long it had been since breakfast, and that they‚d had nothing for lunch. “Some great provider you are. “
It was mostly silent, as she walked, placing her boots carefully to keep from making any sound herself. A flash of brown caught her eye, and she paused, to recover a few walnuts and stuff them into her belt pouch.
A step or two more, and she was kneeling to retrieve a handful of mushrooms, and two thick fistfuls of herbs. She straightened, hearing a motion over her head and stopped, looking upward.
On a branch almost directly over her sat a bird, huddled against the sleeting rain and oblivious to her presence. Xena loosened her dagger from it‚s sheath and moved slightly to one side for a better shot. She cocked her hand and paused, then whipped her hand forward.
With a slight squawk, the bird tumbled from the tree and fell to the ground at Xena‚s feet, a few thick, brown feathers coming free and drifting past her. “Sorry about that, buddy. “ The warrior knelt and examined her catch, finding a small, scraggly animal hardly even worth her catching. “Wrong place, wrong time for you, maybe useless time for me. “
Xena looked around at the forest, where the shadows of twilight were beginning to gather among the sheets of rain. “But I guess it‚ll have to do. “ She gathered it up and headed back to the dell, and her waiting family.
“You sit there, Dori. “ Gabrielle shoved a last piece of soggy wood into place, and surveyed the results.
“Help mama. “ Dori disagreed, hitting the rocks with her bit of stick. “Bad! Mama, where‚s Boo? “
“Getting us something yummy for dinner, honey. “ The bard took branches she‚d cut off two nearby trees and wove them between the five heavier supports. “Are you hungry? “
“Yes. “ Dori couldn‚t reach the overhang, so she pattered around underneath it, waving her arms. Then she stopped at the edge, swiping her hands at the falling sleet. “Mama, no fun. Too cold. Don‚t like it here. “
Gabrielle reviewed their meager shelter and sighed. “Dori, I don‚t‚ like it here either, but there‚s not any better places right now. “
“Bad. “ Dori stomped in a puddle.
It wasn‚t great, the bard had to admit. The shelter was just enough possibly to keep them and a small fire dry, and the rain didn‚t look like it was stopping any time soon. It was cold and getting colder, and she suspected that sometime during the storm the sleet was going to turn to snow.
With a sigh, she went to their packs and retrieved a folded, waxed hide, shaking it open and throwing it up and over the wooden platform she‚d built. The ends hung down on three sides, and she pulled the gut strings through the branches and tied them off to keep it from blowing away.
“Oh oh.. “ Dori jumped up and down, trying to slap the hanging hide.
“Don‚t‚ do that, Dori. You‚ll get hurt. “ Gabrielle knelt and tied off one of the ends to a shrub, stretching the hide out at an angle, then went to the other side and did the same thing. Now the shelter looked a little more like a tent, and when she stepped inside it, the wind and rain were mostly blocked.
With a sigh, Gabrielle pushed a thick lock of shaggy blond hair out of her eyes, leaning against the damp side of the dell as she figured out what to do next. The shelter was small, but after it dried out a little, it would be okay, she figured.
Not like they had much choice. “Dori, can you stay here while I go get some firewood? “
“Go with mama. “ Dori latched onto her cloak.
“Figured you‚d say that. “ The bard dug in her sack for a hand ax, and then she started to duck back out into the rain. “Yeow! “
Xena almost bounced off her. “Easy… “ She bumped Gabrielle back into the shelter. “I’ve got some wood. “
“Gods, I love you. “ The bard retreated and moved to the back of the shelter to allow her partner to come inside. Xena knelt and put down a soggy bundle, then straightened up and took the ax Gabrielle had in her hand. “Let me get the wet bark off this.. you wanna do something with that? “
“Sure. “ Gabrielle went to the bundle and investigated it. “Oh.. what is this? “
“A bird. “Xena glanced over at her. “Sorry. All I could find. “
Dori ambled over and peered at it. “Ick. “ She reached down and tugged a feather loose however, and sat down with it, delighted with her prize. “Mama..like yours! “
“That‚s right, honey. You play with it. “ The bard tucked her cloak under her and sat down, plucking the feathers of their meager dinner and setting them aside. “I think we’re just going to have to deal with everything dumped in a stew, Xe. It’ll be faster than if I try to roast this. “
Xena carefully shaved the bark off the branches she‚d recovered from the surrounding forest, pausing to look up as the storm intensified. “Sounds great. “ She checked the pitch of the ground, glad it was running downhill from where they were. “Anything‚s better than being out in that. “
Gabrielle blew on her hands to warm them, and nodded. “You can say that again. “
Night fell, and it still kept raining. The ground had dried enough for them to spread their furs, though Xena had laid her spare cloak down under them, waxed side down so they wouldn’t get soaked through.
Gabrielle was seated with Dori in her lap, trying to get them both fed from the same bowl. Xena was knee to knee with her, elbows propped on her crossed legs as they listened to the wind tugging on their shelter and sending branches skittering across the dell.
“Wonder what’s going on at home? “ Gabrielle handed Dori a piece of the stewed bird.
“Hopefully nothing. “ Xena replied. “Wish we hadn’t had to take that detour around the flood. We‚d have been there by now. “
“Instead of here. “ Xena moved a bit of wood into better position in the fire, which she‚d had to surround with rocks to protect from the wind. “Maybe it was a bad choice. “
“Yeah. Maybe. “ Gabrielle looked around at their tiny shelter. “But you know, Xe, it could be a lot worse. “
“Umm. “ Dori wriggled around in her mother‚s lap. “Dis good, mama. “
“Sure. “ The warrior agreed. “We could be out in the weather instead of almost out in it. “
Gabrielle put her spoon down and reached over to tangle her fingers with Xena’s, giving them a squeeze. “I mean, look. We‚re pretty much dry,
“Eh.. pretty much. “
“We‚ve got food. “
“We do. “ Xena agreed. “A little gamey, but it’s there. “
“We‚ve got good water, and a fire. “
“True, if the wind doesn’t blow it out. “
“We’ve got each other. “
They both fell silent, a thousand memories exchanging in their locked glances. “To Hades with the rest of it. “ Xena finally said. “I can live wet, cold, and hungry. “
Gabrielle exhaled, a smile crossing her face. “Me, too. “
“Gush. “ Dori threw a mushroom at Xena. “Wuv, wuv, wuv! “
“Oh, of course, honey. We‚ve got you too. “ Gabrielle gave her a kiss on the head.
Xena rested her head against Gabrielle‚s. “She gets it. “
Gabrielle smiled. “We have love. “ She confirmed. “And that‚s something I give thanks for every single day when I wake up surrounded by it. “ She squeezed Xena‚s hand, and kissed her knuckles. “There is no greater gift. “
“Nope. “ Xena circled her with one arm, and leaned back, extending her legs out near the fire. The wind outside rattled the edge of the makeshift shelter, but the chill didn‚t penetrate the warmth inside it. “We’ve got it all. “
Happy Thanksgiving ya’ll Ų hope you enjoyed the day.