Xena and Gabrielle belong to themselves; however, any profits accruing to them are the property of Rennaissance Pictures and their distributors, and this is strictly non. And they don't come into the story much, because they are off doing something else. In fact, unless you too are a ravening fan of Melissa Good, without whom (thanks, Missy) you would never have been able to read this far, this story probably won't make any sense at all. Also, please bear in mind that this is now a very old story, and that in Missy's Xenaverse, Cait and Paladia have gone on to other, different adventures. But Missy was gracious enough to allow me to play with them a little while she was busy with Dar and Kerry.
And speaking of sense, I am solely responsible for the many errors of orthography, ethnology, geography, geology, and all those other ologies, not to mention some ruthless pilfering in dustbins of history and literature. If you wake up on the wrong side of the Hellespont totally confused, it's my fault. (Guilty, but unrepentant.)
Alt.: Yeah, but anything obscene is strictly offstage, so if you are under-age, expect to be very very bored.
Weird food cravings: not my fault. I will send you some kind of prize if you catch all the McGuffins, tho'. Especially if you find ones I didn't know I was putting in.
Timeline: After Festival, more or less.
Pure Cold Abyss
Part 1: In the Season of Metal
It had been a good two weeks, Cait decided, as she surveyed the last string of traps. The weather had held, being unusually mild for the time of year, making camping rather pleasant. It was certainly better than digging a new root cellar under the dining hall, and a lot more fun than basket weaving. And besides, it gave her a chance to think ...things over without a lot of distracting pressure from the other young Amazons. Or a lot of eyes on them, and gossiping about every move they made. It was sometimes hard to separate your own feelings from the effect they had on everyone, living together so closely. She had been so happy to have family, at first, that she had forgotten her need for solitude.
Not that teaching Paladia how to hunt was solitude, exactly. But sometimes it was not far off from that. The ex-renegade was not exactly a conversationalist. Cait had hoped that she might open up a little if they were away from the Village, but although she had visibly relaxed, and seemed to be more at peace, the woman was still prone to long silences. She seemed unusually thoughtful, up here in the mountains.
Cait wondered if her arm still gave her pain. It was partly that which had prompted her to bring Paladia on this trip. She could see that the elders looked on Paladia as a sort of glorified mule; she was so big for her age, and strong, (if you discounted the injury) that they ordered her around like a packhorse from morning to night. Her shattered arm was not healing as well as Cait thought it should, and she'd wanted to see if a bit of rest from the usual chores would help it. The elders didn't think about that when they continually set her to fetch and carry. They didn't leave her much time for drawing, let alone ...well... other things.
Cait was still wondering how she felt about Paladia. At first she had just doggedly followed Xena's instructions, only because Xena said she'd deserved another chance. It had been really hard not to kill her, those first few days. But the woman had grown on her by degrees, and now she was truly fond of her... but was she in love with her? How could she be, knowing what she did about her? Most of the village was ignorant of the exact nature and extent of the crimes Paladia was there to pay back; Ephiny had insisted on that. But Cait had been there, she knew how far beyond desperate need and simple violence Paladia's crimes went. Did people really change? Or would that uglyness resurface, if Cait let herself become vulnerable?
She sighed. Two weeks alone with the woman had not brought her any answers; in an odd way it had magnified her doubts. Not that Paladia had shown any signs of violence; quite the reverse. If anything, she seemed more quiet than before; more wrapped up in herself and her drawing, if such a thing was possible. Cait had thought that perhaps being alone would make it easier to open up herself as well; but she had ended up just feeling more responsible for the woman, which made her realize how unfair it would be to try to force her confidence. She had boxed herself into a corner. People were so complicated; how did Gabrielle do it?
Well, in any event it was worth it just to teach the awkward thing basic woods skills. Beyond covering her tracks, the former swineherd knew nothing of how to live in the wilds, which Cait was extremely good at. Paladia had improved; a lot. She even moved more gracefully, now that she wasn't always having to worry about hitting her head on a lintel, or getting stuck in a doorway. The out-of-doors seemed to give her room to stretch out to her full height; she was forgetting to stoop and hunch over so much.
She looked up to where Paladia was sitting on a rocky outcropping under a tree, sketching, as usual. It was time they returned, much as she would like to stay. Nothing was settled. But she wasn't settled herself, so how could it be? She would just have to leave matters to chance.
If Cait had been able to listen to Paladia's thoughts she might have been suprised at just how happy Paladia was. Two weeks of total goofing off, that was what. 'My damn arm hasn't hurt me in three days now,' she thought. 'It's weird to be without pain all of a sudden. I can almost think again.'
It was fun to draw just for the pleasure of it, not out of desperate need to distract herself from pain. It was so beautiful out here; it reminded her of the first time she'd seen the hideout she and her gang had found, when she'd been a renegade. The same long views into smoky distances, the same clean lines of rock, snow, trees. The same light, shimmering over them at mid-day, softening in the evening and morning. The same sense of peace and freedom; well, even better, because she had no responsibilities to the gang.
That crazy kid even made most of the day-to-day descisions, under the guise of teaching her hunting skills. Which she was getting better at. There was a lot more to it than she'd realized. Damn, they spent hours just "learning" how to walk quietly, how to judge the wind, how to move without disturbing the game. A whole day watching the shape of tracks in the sand dry out and soften with time. The kid sure could talk; it was a little suprising how quiet she could be when she was on a trail. She moved so gracefully, it was like watching water flow around a rock to see her sneak up on a buck... they hadn't killed, because they couldn't carry it all back, and the point was to learn how to do it, not startle every piece of edible game between here and the top of the mountain, Cait had explained to her.... In fact she could have carried the whole damn buck, and her pack besides, which most of the Amazon elders seemed to expect her to do on almost a daily basis, but the kid had told her not to jarr the arm...
Weird. It was like she could tell how much it hurt just by looking. None of the Amazons could do that, for damn sure... It had been a nice leisurely circuit of the kid's trapline, interspersed with little lectures, and practice sessions, which, suprisingly, she hadn't minded a bit. Otherwise the kid had actually been pretty quiet. She almost missed the nagging; she wondered if the kid was regretting having saved her life. Saved her life... That was pretty hard to take in. Like the absence of pain, it shocked her when she thought about it. There was just no reason for it. Paladia wondered when --if -- what-- the payback for that would be. When the kid proposed this trip she had an idea that she was going to get it, somehow. She wondered... oh Hades, what did it matter? It didn't mean anything anyway. And the kid would be right. She owed her one, bigtime. So just shut up, Paladia, do whatever the kid wants, she'd told herself. But the kid had just... let her be. Maybe she really didn't want anything from her. That was a switch. Not like the people in her home village; not like most of the Amazons either from what she could see. Weird.
Cait was full of contradictions. Like how she liked those goopy stories; but was a deadly hunter. She never treated an animal sentimentally. When she killed, she killed swiftly and cleanly. Just what they needed; no more. Paladia wasn't sure she'd have trusted she'd ever catch anything again; she'd have wanted to stock up, and driven away all the game in the territory, from what Cait made it sound like...
And her family; they hadn't just died from hardship, the way Paladia's had; they'd been murdered. And Cait had gone out, hunted the murderers down, and killed every last one of them. But she didn't hate the world as a result. She'd had the luck to be orphaned near a more prosperous village; they'd looked out for her.
Her strength was deceptive. She looked small, and thin, but she was so quick with her knife you'd never see it coming. At first she thought Xena was crazy, making Cait Paladia's watchdog; she expected she'd be able to escape the first night, any time she wanted to. But out of nowhere Cait was suddenly just there, with that sharp blade at her throat, saying "I wouldn't". She hadn't ratted on her either, and gotten her into trouble with the bitch; she just took care that Paladia knew she was watching her, and took it for granted that was enough. Which it was, while her arm was useless, and so painful she couldn't move, or sleep, or even sit quietly, without the dull throbbing ache, and the fear of that sharp, shooting pain when it got jarred the wrong way... Now that at last it didn't hurt, she was almost afraid to try using it again. And as for leaving...
Cait materialized at her elbow, giving her a look.
"Nice. " Paladia said, indicating the view.
Cait nodded. " It is, isn't it? We should come up here more often. We can... Now that we've got this trapline as an excuse, we don't even need to get into trouble for it. And speaking of trouble..."
'Ok, here it comes', Paladia thought, though she said nothing.
"We are a couple of days overdue. We really ought to get back to the Village. Even if the weather holds it's a good three or four days back."
"Is that all?" Paladia asked in suprise.
"Yeah... we kind of took the scenic route up here, sos I could show you stuff... there is a more direct trail. Goes around the shoulder of this mountain, then down to the river below the Village. In really bad weather it's no good, and when there has been a lot of rain it can be kinda hard going along the river, but it's been ok this trip. I just don't know how long it will hold, that's all. We'll probably get yelled at a little, but there'll likely be something in our snares so we can say we were hunting. That will distract them. You don't mind, do you?"
'OUR snares??' Palladia thought. Aloud she just said, "No."
"Good. We'll eat something and start packing up. That is, if you are ready?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"I just thought if you were drawing or something..."
"Oh. well, I was. It's Ok, though. I'll remember. I can finish it later."
"You sure? We can just as well go tomorrow."
"No, it's Ok. Look". Paladia held up the unfinished drawing, showing the outlines of the landscape they were looking out at. Some of the details were not complete, but the bulk of the drawing was sketched in. It never even occurred to her that she had just voluntarily shown Cait her drawing, and she missed Cait's look of suprise.
It was getting dark, but the trail was steep, rocky, and as a camp site, pretty unforgiving. The choice was to push on and risk missing the trail, or try to find some sort of level spot, perferably with a little shelter, before it became absolutely pitch black. Cait hesitated; the taller woman waited patiently behind her. She hadn't said a word since their brief lunch; but there had been no need; they'd eaten and packed up in a well-established routine.
"Are you tired?" Cait asked.
"I'm Ok." was the response.
"I think we should stop. I don't want to lose the trail; but we need to find a better spot. Can you climb a bit? "
Paladia nodded. They scrambled up over the low ridge of boulders that marked the edge of the trail, surveying the jumbled rocks.
"Not much room here"...
Paladia drew a breath and asked, "What's up there?" pointing at the ridge to their left. In the dim light it looked like some trees were drooping over the edge.
"I don't know, but it looks as good a spot as any. Are you game to find out?"
Paladia nodded again, and they set out. It took longer than either of them had anticipated, but they made it up just as the light was almost completely gone. They were on a broad slope, between two sheer walls of rock, and completely exposed to the wind, which was picking up.
"I think we should move away from the edge," Cait observed, and they stumbled forward once more.
Paladia was beginning to get tired, her mind wandering as she followed the younger woman. So she almost didn't react in time when Cait screamed, and vanished from in front of her. She lunged foreward and just managed to grab hold of a pack strap before she too lost her balance and they both fell headlong through space.
It was darker than anywhere Cait had ever been, and she was falling, helpless to do anything, or even cry out. she was just about to take in a breath when they plunged into water; deep, cold water. As it closed over her head, Cait blacked out.
Paladia gasped as the darkness closed over her, and she choked on cold water. Somehow she had retained her hold on Cait's pack, and she struggled as they plunged down impossibly deep into the cold airless darkness. Just when she thought they would never stop, her feet hit bottom and she kicked off, pushing up for the surface, dragging Cait with her. She had a confused impression of a white face staring back at her from the bottom of the lake, but there was no time for thought, only a desperate struggle for air against the weight of water and all their gear.
An eternity later she broke the surface; gasping with cold and shock she fumbled desperately for the smaller woman, and managed to pull her head up out of the water by her hair. Locking her arms around her she stuggled to force the water out of the smaller woman's lungs before they both sank back down. They were too tangled in their gear, and she knew she should cut them loose, but she was too cold to act; she could feel her legs beginning to go numb. Their packs must have retained some buoyancy, because they stayed afloat. Just at that moment the moon came out from behind a cloud, and Paladia caught a glimpse of where they were. Light filtered down from high above, through the opening where part of the ceiling of an enormous cavern had given way. Small rocks and dirt still fell from the edges. They were in a huge underground lake. As she spun in the eddy created by their fall, Paladia gasped again. Built into the wall of rock behind them was a temple, its white marble steps reaching down below the surface of the water. Forcing herself to move against the weight and coldness of the water, Paladia struggled to swim towards the steps, dragging Cait with her.
Almost at the end of her strength, she was able to touch the steps. She staggered up, overbalancing against gravity and their wet clothing, and falling again. Somehow, she was never quite sure how, she managed to drag herself and her companion up to the dry portico between the pillars. Catching her breath she struggled to free the girl from the tangle of gear, force the water out of Cait's lungs, blow air back into them. At last Cait retched, coughed, and began to breathe.
Paladia paused for a moment, gasping, to look around her. What an amazing place. Even with her eyes adjusted it was hard to see in the darkness; the little reflected moonlight from the hole they'd fallen down didn't illuminate much. Paladia stood up and stripped off her wet things, then Cait's. Nothing in their packs was dry, either, but she spread it out on the steps, and went back to rubbing Cait's limbs to try and restore circulation. The air actually felt warm after the coldness of the water, but Paladia could feel a chill creeping up on her. Pulling an arm over her shoulders, she dragged the smaller woman to her feet and began to walk with her. Her efforts were rewarded a short while later when Cait gave a groan and tottered on her own feet.
"What the Hades happened?" she demanded. "Where are we?"
"We fell down into some kind of cavern with a lake. Guess that's why we're not dead. And there is some kind of temple thing built down into the water, which is how I got you out of it."
Cait was beginning to shivver uncontrollably. She looked around. "Gosh."
"Come on, we need to run about a bit to dry off and get warm".
They raced up and down the open space before the pillars for a few minutes.
"Did you go inside?" Cait asked, as they paused before the dark hole of an open door.
"Shall we? "
Hand in hand they walked into the dark portal, feeling their way cautiously. Oddly enough, once they were past the second row of pillars, it began to get lighter again. They walked out into a large chamber, where a shaft of moonlight hit a sort of dais at the opposite end of the room. There was an altar, backed by a pedastal as if for a statue, but nothing stood on it. When they came up to it they could see that half-painted scenes had been drawn out on the walls, but not finished, and some bits of marble were lying around at odd angles. There were tools here and there, dropped just anyhow, as if they had been let go in a hurry. But what caught Cait's eye was a charcoal brazier on a tripod before the unfinished altar. It had dry, unburned fuel in it.
"This is just what we need," she said. "I'm going back for my tinderbox."
Paladia did not respond; she was dumbstruck. She gazed around her in awe. Cait returned with flint and steel, and a little dry kindling she kept in an animal intestine in her gear. As she was about to kindle the charcoal, Paladia woke up enough to protest--"But, um-- are you sure it's Ok? "
''We have to have fire. We're both soaked. What's wrong with that?"
"But when you bring fire into a temple-- doesn't-- doesn't it wake the God or Goddess? What if --if-- something wakes up?" Paladia thought of the ghostly face she had seen at the bottom of the lake, just as they had been about to drown, and shivvered harder.
"Well," Cait considered. "We can put an offering to Artemis on the altar there. If the temple was never dedicated, then it will be hers; and if it was dedicated to some other god, She'll protect us, because we're Amazons."
"But, but... I'm not an Amazon."
"Right. You're not, exactly...yet. But you are under the protection of the Nation. I think it will be alright."
"Umh. Ok. What should we offer?"
"Well... I've got a rabbit pelt in my gear. Why don't you put one of your drawings there?"
They did as Cait had suggested. Cait was shaking so hard she could hardly manage to hang on to the steel; Paladia helped her hold it steady. The sparks flew into the tinder, vanished for a moment, then flared up and caught. The charcoal blazed up, with a puff of scented smoke, and then settled down to a steady burn.
"Right. Now let's get our things dried. And some food."
They improvised a sort of clothes-tree from some of the abandoned scaffolding that the unknown painters had left behind, and managed to get their clothes warmed, though still somewhat damp in spots. Cait felt numb all over. Including her mind, which just seemed to have stopped working somehow. Paladia's sleeping fur was not too badly soaked, so they wrapped up in that, and munched a couple of their trail bars. Cait was still shaking, and Paladia wrapped an arm about her.
"Th-Th- Thanks," Cait managed to get out of her chattering teeth. She couldn't seem to stop shivvering, and the close proximity of the other woman only made her more agitated.
" Have an idea," Paladia mumbled. "Wait here."
She went for their packs and brought back them back to the fire. Then she improvised a kind of shelter with the scaffolding and their rain tarps, so that they were sitting in a sort of tent. It contained the heat from the brazier somewhat, warming the space they huddled in. Paladia got out the gear and made some hot tea, practically pouring it into the shaking woman.
Cait was so cold that she couldn't move; she could hardly think. It was a good thing that Paladia seemed to know what to do; she'd just taken over without any hesitation. "Why can't I help? I must be in shock," Cait thought.
"We need to get some sleep," Paladia was saying. She was so tired that she wasn't going to be able to last much longer... The kid was still freezing. Her lips were blue. "Come on. I'll keep you warm." She lay down on the stone floor as close as she could get to the fire, and pulled the smaller woman into her arms, wraping the two of them up in their blankets.
Between the heat from above and the warm softness of the woman she was lying on Cait at last stopped shivvering. It wasn't exactly how she'd pictured getting close, but it would do.
Paladia had never imagined how much comfort there could be in holding, just holding, someone as they fell asleep. The sound of Cait's breath near her ear and the gentle thump of her heart relaxed her, so that she fell asleep before she had time for conscious thought.
Unhandicapped by cold or fatigue, the Goddess looked down on the outlandish acolytes who so peculiarly graced her newest temple, and smiled.
"But Solari, they are three days overdue!"
The Amazon lieutenant considered the question. "Cait is a capable hunter, Loessa. The weather's been great; she probably just doesn't want to do boring chores at home. I'll discipline her when she gets back, if you want me to; but I don't think a search is necessary."
Loessa glowered at her. "It's not Cait I'm worried about. It's that troublemaker who went with her. The woman's dangerous. It was foolish to send her out with one person, practicaly alone. What if she secumbed to temptation, knocked Cait over the head, and took off? We should probably be looking for a body."
"If that's true, Loessa, then we are about two weeks too late. But I don't believe it. Paladia is settling in pretty well; and you mustn't underestimate Cait's ability to handle her."
"Humph! If you knew the whole story, you wouldn't be so casual about this. You'll be sorry later, mark my words."
As Loessa turned away, Solari murmured to herself, "I'm already sorry-- sorry I gave you the time of day." She sighed. She wasn't as naieve about Paladia as Loessa thought; Eph had given her a pretty thorough briefing before they took off, leaving her in charge. But she'd had a chance to observe Cait and Paladia together when they were at the healer's; she was pretty sure that Cait was about the last person Paladia was likely to harm. They were really kind of cute together, particularly when they thought she was asleep. Loessa was an alarmist; and Solari wondered if perhaps she might have a fancy for Cait herself; her motives were not entirely to be trusted.
Cait was walking through an unfamiliar landscape: large red rocks, unlike any she'd ever seen, and a scree of smaller stones sloping down to the bottom of a dry creek. There was an indefinable sense of purpose; as if she had a very important task, but couldn't remember what it was. She couldn't remember having seen this place before, either; yet she knew it well, somehow. She rounded a bend, and came face to face with Paladia, who was digging for something in the soft clay of the stream bed, a swirl of white struck through the red of the rock wall behind her, making a strange shape; it reminded her of something....
"...I said, are you Ok?" a voice was saying in her ear.
Confused because the face in her dream matched the one in front of her, she mumbled, "Wha-- what?" and came full awake, flushing with embarrassment. She removed her hand quickly from a sensitive part of Paladia's body, sat up, and pushed the hair back from her face. "I-- where are we--??"
"I don't know. We fell into this cave thing. Are you sure you're Ok? You were twitching, kinda." You were getting me hot, and for once I don't know what I should do about that.
"Um. I think so. Now I remember... Wow. Everything hurts. But... nothing's broken. I think. Yeah. I'm OK. How about you?" C'mon, woman, give me a clue, should I be embarrassed or not?
Paladia considered the question. She stretched. "My arm actually doesn't hurt for once. I'm pretty stiff. I think I'm Ok."
"You have a huge bruise on your face... your hand too. Thanks for taking over last night. I don't know what happened, I ..."
"You almost drowned and got really cold. We both did."
"Quite. You did a great job. In fact, you saved my life, didn't you?"
"Um. S'ok. W'r even."
"No, really. You did. You should get some kind of Amazon medal or something."
"How about breakfast?"
They pulled themselves together. There was enough light, just, to see what they were doing. It filtered down, greyish and indirect, from a natural vent high above the altar. After breakfast, they laid out their still-damp gear where it might have a chance of drying out, and began to look about them.
The Temple had been abandoned while under construction. The structure was complete, but most of the decorations were unfinished, with bits of scaffolding cluttered around the walls, giving them enough wood for a bit of cooking and some torches . When they had assembled a couple each Cait lit one and they began to explore the cave. The temple fronted on the lake they had fallen into the night before. They started a circuit of the walls but quickly stopped when the water reached up to a sheer drop. Turning back the other way they found a wide area of more or less open space; jumbles of boulders and folds in the walls made it hard to see if there was a way out. But they soon found the way on the other side blocked by the lake again, and so turned back to search for tunnels. Before long they had found at least three major passageways, all of which looked foreboding, and none of which gave a hint that that they connected to the outside. Cait hesitated.
"We could take a string with us so we can find our way back."
"We could if we had enough string. I used most of mine on the traps. How about you?"
"Nuh uh. Just a few feet."
"Look for some soft stone... or charcoal, maybe. We'll draw lines."
The first tunnel stopped dead in a short distance. The second was so branched they decided to leave it for later. The third seemed promising; it went on and on until they became tired, and had to stop.
"I think we should turn back after we rest," Cait said. "We're going to need more fuel, and if the end is blocked I don't want to have to crawl back down here in the dark."
Paladia agreed, and suggested that they might want to explore the temple itself some more.
This they did, without much result, except that they found more construction supplies and containers of dry pigment for the wall decorations.
"Well, if we are stuck here forever, you'll be happy," Cait observed.
"All this paint, and four huge, paintable walls."
Paladia regarded her in some shock. "Me? Paint temple decorations? What kind of crazy idea is that?"
"B'cause I'm just a punk?" Paladia murmured under her breath. But she couldn't help lusting after the art supplies. Reluctantly she turned away.
By now the gloom was descending again. It seemed too late for more exploration, so they retreated to their camp of the night before. They ate sparingly, not knowing how long it was going to take them to find a way out.
Before Paladia had a chance to wonder about it, Cait said, "Is it ok if I sleep with you again? I'll try to behave."
"Mm. Ok, sure." What the Hades does that mean?
They settled down together a little awkwardly, but both grateful for the warmth generated between them. Paladia sighed, gave up, and put her arms around the smaller woman, her thoughts drifting.
"Temple decorations. Hunh. They don't let bad people paint temples, Cait."
"You're not a bad person."
"I'm not a good one."
"You're a good artist. That's what counts. And besides, no one else is going to do it. But maybe we'll get lucky and find a way out tomorrow."
"Looks like raiders. The outpost said they need reinforcements right away."
"Wake up that new lot of younsters. I'll lead them out, Bellona. You take over here."
"No, don't make me clean the sties again..."
"You were dreaming. Something not very comfortable, I think."
"Oh. Er. Sorry."
"Never mind. Just let me up?"
"Hunh? Oh. Sorry-- I-- sorry. Um..."
"I... musta thought you were, um, you know. A pig. Sorry."
"Your parents made you wrestle the pigs?"
"No. They tossed us in the sties when they wanted to, um, punish us. We had to sleep there, sometimes. They thought it was, uh, funny. Sorry. I'm really sorry."
"You needn't keep apologizing. I'm alright. You didn't hurt me. You didn't even humiliate me. Much. I'm not sure I like being confused with a pig, but I probably deserved it." Well, no one said this was going to be easy. "How old were you?"
"It-- um-- well, started happening as long ago as I can remember. Since I could walk I guess."
"Gosh, that's awful."
"Nah. It was Ok. I mean, the pigs were nicer'n most people, really."
"Oh." In a way, that explained a lot.
In spite of having gotten off to a difficult start, the day was going fairly well. They made good progress down the long tunnel, and still had plenty of fuel left when they stopped to rest.
"I'm sorry I got us into this."
"Not your fault."
"No, it is. If I hadn't made you come with me, you'd be safe at home right now."
"Amazon's not really home. I'd rather be here. I mean... even if we don't get out... well, I had a couple of really good weeks. Y'know?"
Oh. Talk about lowered expectations. "Well. Right."
They pushed on. And on. It seemed like they were never going to find the end of the tunnel, when suddenly they came out into a cavern. It was not as large as the one they had fallen into, but it was big enough to need more than one torch to see across. Cait lit hers from Paladia's, and stepped forward. And almost tripped over something. She reached down to brush away the dust, and found a skull, dessicated remnants of flesh and hair still clinging to it.
Paladia peered down at the relic and turned it over disinterestedly with her toe. Holding the torch back up, she surveyed the cavern.
"Here's another one. And another. Another...Weapons. This was a battle, Cait. Who do you suppose they were?"
"There are some feathers here. Maybe Amazons. You're right. There are a lot of bodies here."
They searched the cave and found a number of bodies. Some appeared to have been crushed by rocks, some to have fallen where they lay; others to have died of injuries as they tried to drag themselves clear. It was as if there were defenders and invaders, most of whom seemed to have died when tons of rock had fallen on them. It seemed clear that this had once been the way out, but it was now blocked for good. They stared at eachother for a long moment.
Paladia put her arm around Cait. "C'mon. let's go back".
Cait was silent, all the way back to the temple.
Moonlight was once more shining down the flue, as they prepared to spend a third night underground. Cait stood on the altar and looked up. She could just see a sliver of moon, seeming impossibly bright in the gloom of the temple. She was too tired tonight, but tomorrow...
"Cait... give it a rest, Ok? ...Cait? C'mon. Get some sleep. ...Look, if you want me to sleep outside, it's ok, I understand."
"No, stay warm. But we're just going to sleep, ok? No weird dreams. No pig wrestling. Just sleep, ok?"
They settled down back to back. Paladia fell instantly, soundly asleep, while Cait figeted, worrying over ways and means. At last she too fell asleep.
They were walking hand in hand, wading in a river, picking their way over slippery rocks, as the current sucked at their feet. The moonlight went before them, with silvery laughter. A huge stag lept up out of the water in front of them, hooves breaking the light into steps. Cait laughed and leaped up after the buck, her feet dancing on the stairs. Another moon floated on the surface of the water. Paladia's feet went out from under her and she slipped into the second moon, her face dissapearing into its fullness, her hand melting in Cait's grasp. She was gone.
They woke together, wrapped in eachothers arms, staring into eachother's eyes.
"So much for the 'no weird dreams' bit, ey?"
Paladia thought for a moment. She had had the same dream, except that from her perspective, it was Cait who had melted away, vanishing in the moonlight. "I think it means something... Maybe you get out and I don't."
"No! I'm not going to leave you here. I can't do that."
"But you may have to. Don't worry about it. Like you said. Four big walls. Lotsa paint."
"In your dream, did the moon go with you?"
"Mine too. I think we'll be ok."
"Why do they always make these things for somebody four inches taller than I am?"
"Um... don't know... there must be short construction workers... Hang on. There. Better?"
"Yes, thanks." Cait sighed.
They were perched high above the altar, building up the scaffold toward the crack in the ceiling. After looking at the hole they'd fallen down, and the water, they'd decided to investigate the other hole in the ceiling. The edge where they had fallen in was too unstable to be trusted, even if they could get there.
"One more section ought to do it."
At last they were at the ceiling, which at this end of the temple was natural rock. The crack which let in light was barely big enough for Cait; and they didn't have enough rope for Cait to send it back down the larger hole. It was clear that Paladia was going to be left behind. By unspoken mutual consent they went back down to the ground to divide up their gear. Cait took a small bag, leaving most of the remaining food, and everything she didn't absolutely need for a swift trek down to the Amazon Village.
"I'll be back as soon as I can."
"I know. I'll be ok."
"I hate leaving you. I don't want you to flip out by yourself here... I mean, it could take a week, even."
"I know. Take care of yourself. I'll be fine. Four big walls, right?''
"Yeah. Gotta keep busy somehow. Um. Here. Take this one now." Paladia handed her the mostly finished drawing of the view from the trail.
"Wow. I mean, this is for me? Thanks. You're not-- not-- giving me this for a reason, are you?"
"Sure. What? Oh. No. Just cause I want to. I mean, I wanted to give you something... it won't weigh much..."
"Thanks. It means a lot."
Paladia climbed back up to the top of the scaffold with Cait, gave the smaller woman a boost up into the natural chimney, and stuck her head, which was about all that would fit, up into the opening. "So long. Safe travels."
"Thanks. Take care of yourself."
"Don't worry. I'll be here," Paladia said softly. She watched the small body writhe its way
upward. At last Cait vanished for a moment, then the hole darkened with her head, and a faint voice called a last farewell. Standing there trapped in the rock of the abandoned temple Paladia suddenly felt a wave of grief pass over her. She was alone, buried in the earth, only ancient bones for company. No one was there to run from, impress, or speak to; there was no one to scold, or punish, or hate her. She climbed slowly down as the light from the short day dimmed. Small but undeniable, a few flakes of snow drifted down onto the altar. The wave closed over her head, and she knew, somehow, that Cait was not going to be able to return in a week. Hardly knowing what she did, she knelt at the base of the unfinished altar and leaned her head against it. "May the Goddess have mercy on my soul," was her last conscious thought, before she and her crimes were alone in the dark.
Cait paused only to mark the crack in the rock, before she set out with all speed for the trail. She had a rough idea where the hole they had fallen down was located, but as long as she was on the slope she had to maintain caution. The last thing she needed was another dunk in icy water. It was still light when she reached the edge; she pushed on in the gloaming, before curling up in the lee of a boulder when it was too dark. But even now she could sense the layer of heavy clouds rolling up, and knew that her gamble on the weather was about to fail her. The long sequence of mild, clear days was over, and some serious weather was on the way. She woke in the night to heavy wind and soaking rain; she could barely hang on where she was, but she couldn't see to go on. As the gloomy morning broke, the temperature began to fall. By mid-morning it was clear; but getting rapidly colder and she was completely soaked from the storm. She went faster, hoping to get warm and reach the downward slope. She almost made it, but when the clouds began to roll in again towards afternoon, they held not rain, but snow. She ran, at last, but the snow caught her before she could get down from the mountain.
Solari threw her dagger across the room in frustration and watched it quivver against a post. "Every time we go after those raiders, they cross the river and escape into Centaur lands. Then the Centaurs chase them and they duck back into our territory. By the time we send a message to the Centaurs to get permission to hunt them down across the border they've escaped again. It really sucks, Bellona."
"Why don't you go and talk to Tyldus about it? Maybe we can do a joint sweep, and settle them one way or the other?"
"Gabrielle wrote the treaty. Ephiny 's really the one in charge; don't you think Tyldus would be insulted if someone as far down the chain of command as I am came over wanting to re-negociate?"
"But you are in charge. You don't need to re-negociate the whole treaty just to run down a pack of outlaws, do you?"
"Perhaps not... you are right. I should go talk to him... that was the whole purpose of the treaty, after all. Put some extra watchers on at random, tho'. Our sentries are too predictable. We need to have some backup. And keep an eye out for Cait and Paladia while I'm gone; they should have been back several days ago."
"Should I put Paladia on sentry duty?"
"Not by herself, no... she's still on probation. But if you are short-handed--- well, do what you have to."
Cait shivvered in the cold and darkness. Freeze now, or later? Risk falling over the edge of the cliff, or not waking up at all? "Probably a really stupid idea," she thought, "but I've got to keep going." She felt her way a step at a time. The edge of the path still showed, she realized, as a slight rise; where there were trees it was marked by the lack of undergrowth, a barely visible trail. The going was suddenly easier. "I'm going to make it," Cait realized. The wind tore at her, and she smelled smoke. "Am I that near the Village?" she wondered. Or--?" she froze behind a tree as she heard the crunch of heavy steps coming toward her. There was a raiders camp smack between her and home, and a sentry coming straight for her.
Paladia came back to herself slowly. She was still alive, she was breathing. She was probably going to die fairly soon, but she wasn't dead yet. She struggled to her feet, muscles stiff, bones aching from spending the night on the hard stone floor. "Whatever I did that was wrong can't be undone," she thought. "I can't fix it. I can't do anything about it. There is no one to forgive me...." She thought about Cait, and how the kid had thrown herself in front of a mad elder with a crossbow. Cait didn't have any illusions about her; she'd been with the rescue party at the gang's hideout, and she knew exactly what Paladia had done... "She's already forgiven me," Paladia realized. "So the question is, what do I do while I'm waiting to starve to death?'' The answer looked back at her from the unfinished walls around her. "There must have been some kind of binder for those pigments," she thought. "Now where would they keep all that stuff?"
Cait froze in place, ceasing to breathe. The guard staggered to the tree and began to relieve himself; judging by the smell, the raiders had liberated a barrel of the Village's worst beer. Cait remembered that some of it had been stashed near one of the sentry pickets; it was there to be added to the compost they were starting for a new field that was supposed to come into rotation next year. The guard finished and staggered back to the fire. If she could just wait quietly enough for long enough she bet she could slip through while they were being sick. She waited. The wind began to slack, however, and she thought it too risky to remain; she was depending on the blizzard to cover her tracks. She eased a branch loose from the tree and began to sweep over her tracks, trusting the wind to cover the marks. It took a long time, but she gradually worked her way toward the river, hoping to sneak upstream below the banks, and so get home. She eluded the guard, but slipped on the stones and got her second cold dunking. Nonetheless, she pushed on, staggering and weaving from side to side. It was so cold, she kept forgetting what she was doing out there. Something important, what was it? Late in the afternoon, as she approached the border of the fields, one of Bellona's scouts caught sight of her, and helped her back to the village. She could barely speak, but she had to tell them to rescue Paladia; and to warn them about the raiders. The words got jumbled up on her numb lips; Bellona could hardly understand her; she ordered her to the healer's at once. Menelda took in her appearance and immediately dumped her into a bath, trying to raise her body temperature; she took no notice of what she was saying. They poured hot soup into her, and put her in the warmest place they could find. The combination was too much for Cait, and she fell asleep instantly.
The scouts returned to Bellona with word about the raiders and she set out immediately with as many warriors as she could round up.
Loessa, claiming her unfitness for duty because of a cold, blew on a mug of hot ale in the dining hall. When she saw Menelda come in she went over to the healer. "How's Cait?"
"She's not well, but I think she'll pull through; I'm concerned about her lungs, though. She's too thin to be able to stand too much cold and wet. "
"Can I see her? I'd like to know what happened."
"Heh. Wouldn't we all. She was incoherent, but it's pretty clear. That renegade dumped her in a creek and took off with some raiders from her cave days. I was right, you see. I wish I wasn't, but you don't live as long as I have without seeing through an act like that. The only thing I can't understand is something about Artemis; she wants to make her an offering of some sort. I hadn't realized Cait was so religious. You don't survive an attack like that without being changed, tho'. I expect she will need some counselling when she comes around."
Paladia looked over her assembly of tools. After much searching, she had found a store room in a lower level of the temple. There were jars of resins and oils for binding the pigments; charcoal for heating the mixture; there were brushes, and wooden buckets. There was some cloth, which Paladia was using to try to stay warm during the hours when it was too cold to work. Best of all however, she had found half a jar of honey and a bag of grain; she was not going to starve immediately anyway. If worst came to worst she supposed she could eat some of the oil that was meant to be mixed with the resins for paint. She'd just mix enough paint for a day's work; when Cait came back with help she'd be able to get more, though winter probably wasn't the best time to be working on this project.... She studied the subjects on the wall before her, and planned her attack.
As time went on she fell into a rythm. She would explore a little each morning, until it was warm and light enough to paint. She would paint while the light held; then she would eat a little, and wrap herself up as well as possible for sleep. She'd constructed a sort of shelter in one corner where she could keep reasonably warm.
She missed Cait's cheerful, down-to-earth presence more than she'd thought possible. From memory, she sketched a portrait; she found herself talking to it at odd moments, or while she was thinking out a piece of her composition. She kept track of the days; three days, Cait must be home now; four, five, six... seven days. But the weather... Perhaps she'd been wrong; perhaps Cait had abandoned her. Perhaps she had changed her mind; realized that Paladia was not worth saving. Perhaps she couldn't find the markers. Perhaps she was ill. Perhaps she'd died before she got home. But here something stopped, and she knew that if Cait were dead, that she would know. Eight days; something was wrong. She'd known all along that she'd be longer than a week; or what was the point of their mutual dream, the night before they had parted? As the days wore on her doubts simply numbed out. She just missed something that was not there. She had been spending a major portion of her days with one person for months now, without realizing it. She missed it-- her--- in every spare moment and in between moments. She thought about the time they had spent together; she saw Cait's face, heard her voice in her mind. As the ninth day drew to a close, she found herself near the altar. It had rained the day before, and a shallow pool of water filled the depression atop the stone. She stared down into it, and watched the moon come out. She was tired; her mind drifted. She could see Cait's face in the moon's reflection; she could see her, in a room... She was strapped down to a pallet, struggling, unable to move; she was screaming; but their eyes met in the moonlight and she was suddenly still.
"Cait," Paladia found herself saying, "I'm alright. Don't struggle so much. I'm ... I'm in... I love you. Oh, pig farts, I never thought I'd have the chance to say that to anyone. But I love you, and I'll wait here for you. I'll wait forever if I have to. But I'm Ok, so take your time. " She could see Cait listening, her lips forming the word "How?" She just shook her head, shrugged, and said, "Three walls to go." Cait's image fell back, the light changed, and Paladia was looking at her own reflection. A sense of peace filled her, and she realized that outside in the world it was Solstice eve... It was Solstice eve here too, come to think of it. She said a prayer of thanks to the Goddess, and held Cait deep in her heart. Whatever was wrong, Cait had not forgotten her.
Exhausted by her struggle with the restraints, Cait slumped back down on the pallet. The moonlight washed over her; she took a deep breath. That was an honest to Atremis vision. It felt uncanny, yet totally natural. Paladia had just appeared to her in the moon's face, and told her ... and told her... Gosh. Was she making it up? No, if she were making it up it wouldn't have been so awkward; Pal was too embarrassed for Cait to be making her up. She was in a nightmare, but now she knew there was a way out for both of them. Maybe it was just wishful thinking that Paladia loved her; maybe the vision was just another delusion; she didn't care. She'd rather believe this delusion than listen to the healers "reason". But deluded or not, she knew there was only one way out, and while the healers had the power to restrain her she was going to have to go along with them. Something had been wrong in her head, somehow. She couldn't think clearly while she had been feverish and desperately afraid of being responsible for Paladia's death. But now she could feel every nerve perfectly aligned. The question was how to appear to give in without arousing suspicion. It was pretty ironic when you thought about it; imprisoned for her loyalty to another woman in the heart of the Amazon Nation. For Gosh sake, you'd think they'd understand. She decided that her best bet would be to go to sleep and wake up in her "right" mind. If she stayed calm enough long enough, they'd have to let her up. She was tired, alright. She fell asleep in earnest.
It was shortly after moonset when she woke again and yawned. The healer who'd been set to watch over her came cautiously over to the pallet.
"How are you feeling?" She asked from a safe distance.
"(Yawn) Um. Like a troop of Centaurs just stampeded over my head? Could I have some water, please?"
Cait sounded so reasonable that the healer was taken aback; she'd been warned that her patient was delerious and violent. Well, a drink of water couldn't hurt. She brought over a dipper full. Some of it spilled on the sheets that secured Cait's body, but the patient didn't complain; she just drank, dropped her head back down and said "What day is it, please?"
"Why bless you, child, it's Solstice Eve-- nay, be Solstice in a few hours. Do you be feeling better then?"
"I'm very tired. What-- what happened to me, do you know?"
"Ye've been ill, child. Sleep and let the goddess restore yer wits."
Deliberately, Cait relaxed, and drifted into a doze. She decided that she would just pretend she didn't remember what happened; that would be safest. Then she wouldn't have to lie, and they could think what they liked.
The sun rose, and the healer's apprentice came to relieve the night nurse.
"She woke once. Had some water. Asked what day it was. Seemed peaceful enough," she told the apprentice healer. "Will Menelda be in to look her over later?"
The apprentice scowled. Menelda had gotten stinking drunk, vomited over half her quarters, trashed the other half, and passed out. Solstice memories always brought out the worst in her. She'd been in an ugly mood, making vague threats; in fact she seemed a lot less rational than the patient did at the moment.
"I don't think so. Before you go off-duty, just help me get some food into this one, alright?"
The two healers loosened the restraints cautiously; Cait remained relaxed. She smiled at them from a supine postion and asked. "Is it really Solstice morning?"
"Aye. D'ye fancy a bit of breakfast, now?"
"I... I am hungry, I think. In fact I could eat a centaur, hoofs and all. May I get up?"
The healers looked at eachother. The patient had been refusing to eat up to now; they'd had to force-feed her, which was a chore suprisingly difficult for such a small kid. The apprentice shrugged and untied the girl. She stretched a little and sat up, and attacked the bowl of warm mush they'd brought with something reminiscent of enthusiasm.
"Thanks," she said, and lay back down. "Alright if I take a nap?"
They looked at eachother. "Sure, kid. You do that."
Cait nestled into the covers. She didn't have to fake being tired; and she wanted to think out exactly what she planned to do before she made a move.
She ended up sleeping most of the day. She listened to the Solstice festivities going on in the compound and thought of Paladia all alone in the cave. "Three walls to go" she'd said. "Take your time." No, she was alright. The question was how to get her out. They would need enough rope to reach down to the surface of the lake and a place far from the edge to tie it off; something to stabilize the edge... that meant tools. Food, dry clothing... More than she could carry by herself. They needed someone who would be willing to help, not question Cait's sanity or Paladia's worth. That left out most of the elders. But if she talked to too many of the younger crowd word would get out. Who could she trust? As evening wore on she began to feel restless, but subdued herself. It proved to be a wise choice, because Menelda came to look in on her shortly after dinner. The Old healer bent over her, breath stinking, blood-shot eyes glaring. She looked like she was sporting a real beast of a hangover.
"So, you seem to be yourself again ey? Hard lesson, youngster. But you'll be all the better for it. Eh?"
Cait frowned. "I guess. I do feel better." Better not to say too much.
"That's right. If you behave, you can get up tomorrow. But none of your nonsense, now, or I'll perscribe more sedatives."
"Um, ok. " Oh. that explained the hallucinations. But she wasn't going to surrender her vision to that explanation.
"Keep an eye on her," the old healer advised, as she staggered out.
The nurse gave her a worried glance.
"She doesn't look well," Cait could not help observing. The nurse remained prudently silent.
"What an aggravating place to live this is sometimes!" Cait muttered to herself after being questioned for the third time about what had happened to her, where she had been, and what exactly Paladia's actions had been. She'd debated herself hard for not taking Solari into her confidence; but she didn't dare. The Amazon leader pro tem had too many pressing concerns to spare anyone to go mountain climbing in the dead of winter. Searching for a lost temple in the middle of a hard winter, with raiders all around, did seem like a fool's errand; not to mention the fact that any sane person would know that Paladia must have starved to death by now... and she was sure that at least some of the elders thought it good riddance to bad rubbish that she was gone, although they pretended for Cait's sake that they sympathized.
She had only Paladia's word that she was Ok, and that word had been delivered-- how? She didn't understand it herself. It seemed to be different from the way Xena and Gabrielle's bond worked; but she was just as sure that it was real. When they let her get up and move freely about the compound she knew she was still being watched; it drove her half mad just thinking about it. That and wanting to "counsel" her, getting her to open up and talk about her feelings for Hades sake. As if Paladia had hurt her. As if she'd made a mistake. As if! A few days after Solstice she went down to the creek to watch the moon rise; she looked into the reflections in the water once again. After all the mendacity with the healers she needed to unburden her soul; she knelt down and looked at the water. It gave back her own reflection, but she whispered Paladia's name softly.
"I miss you," she said quietly. "I know you miss me too, and I know you are waiting on me, counting on me to pull you through. I'm going to do that, somehow. I'm not going to let you down, and when you get back I'm going to make everyone see the work you're doing on that temple. So you hang in there while I work on a plan." She fell silent; she didn't sense Paladia as she had before, but nonetheless she was comforted. Suddenly she was aware of a watcher in the shadows. Loessa, sent to spy on her. Cait wondered if the woman could be a trustworthy ally; she always seemed friendly to Cait.... but Cait couldn't think of any instance when she'd revealed an opinion about Paladia. That was proving to be a crucial test. Well, she'd find out.
"Oh, hi," she said as she got up and pretended to see Loessa for the first time, "Gosh, it's a beautiful night, isn't it? Did you come out for a walk too?"
"Er, yes. The moonlight is so lovely...your hair catches it; it's like spun silver"
"Ah-- well, thanks. I think." Gag me with a pomegranite! "I like the view here; it reminds me of one of Paladia's drawings."
"Don't talk to me about that bitch. You know, they keep it pretty quiet, but there's a lot more to that story than they let on."
"Oh, yeah. She wasn't just an outlaw. She did things... well, I'm not really at liberty to talk about them. In fact, she should have been executed; would have been, if our bogus Queen hadn't been there with her namby pamby ideas about saving people."
"Oh, really?" Whew! Glad I didn't give that show away. She can't have heard I was there. Now I've got to get out of here. "You know, Loessa, I'm very loyal to our Queen. In fact, if someone were serious about calling her something uncalled-for, like bogus, I might just have to challenge them. You weren't really serious, were you?"
"Oh, nooo, of Course not. No. I just think in one or two instances her rulings were... injudicious. But I'm very loyal too. In fact I think loyalty is one of the most imp...."
At this point Cait was at last sucessful at tuning out whatever trash the stupid woman was spouting. Gosh, what an earful of tripe. I'll just have to keep on looking for the right person, she thought.
"Cait," Thalesia said as they were packing for a trip to check traps, "You've got enough rope in there to rig a war galley. What do we need so much for?"
"You'll see. Call it big game for now."
"Raiders?" Cleanthe asked.
"Just call it a precaution. Wait until you see the rest of the territory-- there is some beautiful, rugged country here."
"Brrr!" Thalesia shivvered. "It's a lot colder than what I'm used to. I'm packing double layers of everything."
The weather had finally broken. A thaw had set in, as it often did after the first strong wave of cold, and Cait intended to make the most of it. She had picked two foreign Amazons, who had come as an exchange with some tribes from the south, to go with her. They had no stake in local gossip, and showing them the territory was a perfect excuse to bring them along. They were both strong, beautiful women with a good sense of humor; she thought they would be good company and sympathetic to her plans. The Phoenecian, Thalesia, was particularly good with engineering tasks; Cait was counting on her to help figure out a way to get Paladia out of the cave without collapsing the roof where they had fallen in. She hadn't told them the whole story yet; there would be plenty of time on the trail. She'd gotten an earful of instructions, and had had to make a promise to be back in four days, sharp, or else, which she knew she wasn't going to be able to keep, but nothing was going to stop her now. When at last they set out, they could hardly travel fast enough for Cait.
"What are you looking for up there?" Cleanthe called as she watched Cait pick her way among the drifts that lingered in the rocky pass they had climbed up that morning.
"That's a joke, right?"
"Nope. I used it as a marker. I'm really glad you two decided to come along with me; I don't know what I'd have done if you'd decided to go back."
Cait had waited until the second night to explain her plans to her guests; she wanted them to have the choice of returning to the Village on time if they wanted to, but she had to make sure they couldn't wreck her plans. Fortunately, both had been enthralled with her story and were willing to help. Now they were combing the ridge for the entrance to the cave. Thalesia had rigged a line between the three of them so that if one fell, the other two could anchor her. Cait knew she was in the right area, but everything looked different in daylight and under snow.
"Hey! What's this? I think I found something!" Cleanthe yelled out.
They clustered about what looked like a hole in the snow.
"Careful-- I see where the edge is bad... Ok. we need about four, maybe five trees. Tall ones, not too thick. I think I can see how to do this," Thalesia said. "Glad you brought all that rope, Cait."
"I think I have to find that chimney, guys. I really want to just get down there, fast."
"Well... Ok. Let's set up a marker here, though."
Once they knew their location it didn't take Cait long to find the chimney that led down to the altar; she let them give her a rope end but she slithered down as fast as they would let her go. She was almost terrified of what she would find. Suddenly the rock ended and she spun out into space, missing the edge of the scaffold, but coming face to face with a startled Paladia, who reached a long arm out and swung her aboard. Wordlessly, they held eachother. Cait felt her heart pounding; they simply stood there, pressed into each other, for a long moment. Cait couldn't speak for the lump in her throat; she just wanted every atom of her being to be in contact with Paladia. At last she drew a breath and looked up.
"I knew you'd come," Paladia said at last. "I could tell something was wrong, right off, but I knew you were trying to get here. I had a really bad moment after you left, I mean just right after, when it hit me you know, but something odd happened and then I was ok again, and I remembered I promised I'd do some painting, and I did, but first I had to find the storage room, for the paint supplies, and that's when I found the food, what there was of it, but I did find food, so I knew I was Ok. I mean I was going to be Ok if you couldn't get back right away. I had the most amazing vision, one night. I was kinda talking to you, in my head, you know, because you hadn't been around to talk to in real life, but I knew you were alive, somehow. Even though I was worried, I mean worried about you, I could feel you. Then the moonlight, well, turned into you. I could see you in a room, kind of, well, upset, and you were all tied down, and I knew things were bad, but I knew you'd make it. The most amazing thing happened, it was like you could hear me, and I could talk to you, I---"
"Hey! Everything Ok down there?" came a shout from the surface.
Cait was dazed by the torrent of words pouring out of her friend, but she pulled herself together long enough to holler a response. "Fine, thanks! She's Ok! Paladia's Ok! Do you want me back up there?"
There was a brief discussion.
"No, stay with your friend, we'll carry on up here. Thalie has a plan."
"I'm talking too much, aren't I? It's because I haven't had anyone to talk to in so long. I mean I know I don't talk that much when you are around all the time, but it's not because I don't think about things... Who was that?"
"That was Cleanthe. I brought some help. We are going to get you out of here. It's kind of a long story, why I couldn't get here sooner; and, look, I brought you all kinds of food. Gosh, you must be starving. Shall we get down and have some?"
"...um. You can't imagine how I missed those meat-filled thingys. Apples. And cheese. And that really good raspberry jam. This stuff is great. Thanks. And thanks for coming back."
"Aw, c'mon. You knew I wouldn't leave you. And that vision you had, well, it was a real vision.... It saved my life, I think, because they were drugging me up so much I was halucinating, and I couldn't make them understand. That was why I couldn't get back... Gosh, I was frantic with worry that you were trapped in here starving and I was the only one who knew where you were. When your face looked out of the moon at me I just got sane for a moment, and when you told me you were ok, well, I wasn't so frantic any more. I could plan a way out."
"Yeah. Wait a minuite. You could hear me? I mean you really heard me? Er...?"
"Yep. 'pig farts', what kind of expression is that?"
Paladia hid her face in embarassment, and made a confused noise. Cait pulled her hands down and looked straight into her eyes. She knew she only had one chance and if the barriers went up again, they were going to be up for good. "That's nothing to be ashamed of," She said. "Don't hide from me. Please." She leaned in and kissed her. Gently, weightlessly, she offered up her soul. "I love you." She put her hands on Paladia's neck and felt her arms go around her. All gravity seemed to dissolve and they melted into eachother. Paladia had just enough time to feel a tremendous burden slide off her shoulders before the wash of sensation covered her, and she could no longer tell where her own body left off or Cait's began. It is impossible to say how long they might have remained that way, but the scrape of debris brought them back to the present. They went outside.
Thalesia swung down through the opening at the end of one of their ropes while dragging another one with her. She was making the rope swing back and forth, using herself as a pendulum, until the arc was wide enough to bring her up to the temple. Cait and Paladia caught her, and she secured the ropes to one of the pillars.
"Come summer, that will be great for swimming," she commented. "Just now I don't fancy a bath. Lets see this temple you've found."
Paladia showed them around. She had managed to paint quite a lot, although the designs were far from finished. Thalesia was impressed, and said so. Cait glowed with pride in her friend, and Paladia didn't squirm as much as she might have. Then Thalesia had to go back up to the surface so Cleanthe could have a turn. By the time she was done the light was going. Paladia allowed as how she would be happy to see the sky, after all those days underground, so she went next. While she was ascending, Cait went back into the temple. She had a last small offering to make, and then she too was pulled up the rope to the surface.
"Oh, not those dratted raiders Again," Cait whispered to her companions as they watched a camp through the trees.
"They are fond of beer, you say," Cleanthe commented. "I have an idea. Listen..."
Solari just stood stock still next to the outpost, her mouth hanging open. She could not believe her eyes as the group approached. Four Amazons, driving a dozen scruffy captives, all of whom seemed to be the worse for wear. Cait was leading the way. Paladia, who was now truant by about two months, hovered protectively at her shoulder, while the two foreign Amazons brought up the rear.
Solari planted her hands on her hips and gave them all a stern look. "Cait," she said, "I'm holding you responsible for this. You are more than a week late getting home. You risked the safety of two of our guests. You have either lied outright or held back important information about Paladia, who was supposed to be in your charge. And you have been told to scout, repeat, scout, for raiders, but not to engage them without adequate back up. I may say that several of the Elders feel you have been granted far too much latitude, and at this point I can't help but agree. I trust you have an explanation. It better be a good one."
"Don't worry," Cait promised a bit more airily than she felt, "It will be."
"So then you see, Cleanthe had this brilliant idea to put the sedatives they'd been giving me in the beer. They drank it all down of course, and went all helpless. It made them quite easy to round up. We would have been here sooner, but they were so sick from the drugs that it wouldn't have been humane to push them harder than we did."
"Wait a moment. What drugs?" Solari had convened an elder council to take the testimony for the group; the breach of discipline had been so severe, and the elders so angry, that she'd thought it best to let them have it out together, otherwise both sides would just end up blaming her.
"The drugs Menelda was giving me. Here, I still have some left. Once I had my hands free I just started palming them, because they made me quite ill, you know. I was seeing pink rabbits. So I just kept putting them in my things, and so I still had them when we found the raiders."
One of the elders was examining the herbs Cait had produced. "This is an anti-psychotic strong enough to knock out a horse, Soli. Menelda had no buisness giving it to a feverish young girl. No wonder it made Cait ill. It's a wonder she didn't suffer permanent damage. I have had my doubts for some time, but I don't believe Menelda is fit to practice any more."
The two foreign Amazons confirmed the existence of the buried temple and the circumstances of Paladia's rescue.
"But Cait, why didn't you tell me all this when I asked you?" Solari demanded. "You couldn't have been under the influence of the drugs at that point. Why didn't you tell me?"
This was the question Cait had been dreading, because she had asked it herself, many times while Paladia was still trapped. She took a deep breath. "Solari, if I had told you that a probationer was trapped in a cave with a short supply of food, while the weather was rotten, you were busy chasing raiders, and the village was short-handed, would you have made an all-out effort to rescue her? Can you honestly tell me that you wouldn't have tried to talk me into believing she was already dead, or that she deserved to be, or that the Nation didn't have the resources to protect her too? It's not like you acknowledge her talent. She's a pack animal for any elder who doesn't want to carry her own gear, regardless of how much she's hurting. I know she did things that were wrong. But she was punished, and she has to live with a lot of pain every day. The council said she could have a second chance. Would you have given it to her if it meant risking Amazon lives? Would you have let me go? Will you, if she should be in danger in the future? Because I have to tell you right now that if I have to choose between her and the Amazon Nation, I'll share her exile."
Paladia gasped. "Cait-- what--" tears gathered in her eyes.
Cait went over to her. "She's my sister. She's my friend. I'm not leaving her."
"Calm down Cait." Solari answered her. "Neither of you is leaving today, nor any time soon, I hope. We will have to debate further just what the rights of probationers are. I'd like to think that I, or anyone else here, would have jumped to Paladia's assistance, but I have to admit that you have a point. You undoubtedly disobeyed orders, but I think we can all see how that happened... Perhaps we should commend you for bringing this problem more into focus. Furthermore, I think you have some claim on the nation for mis-diagnosing and mis-treating your illness. Not to mention my personal gratitude," her eyes swept the assembled elders and warriors, "for bringing in the most pesky batch of thorns on my hide in many a moon. Now, unless there is anything else we don't know about?'' She pinned her gaze on Cait and her companions, who all shook their heads. "I think it is time you all got some rest. It is possible that you both may fall under the jurisdiction of the priestesses regarding your discovery of the lost temple. We are not going to settle this tonight. You'll keep to your regular duties in the meanwhile. Is that clear?"
As they walked back to their quarters through the gathering mist, Paladia turned to Cait and asked, "would you really...?"
"Yes," said Cait, taking her hand. "I would."
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