One Wild Ride
“Get up.” Xenafinished tying the pack to her back as she stepped over Ares’ extended legs.“We need to get out of here.” She extended a hand down to him. “Let’s go.”
The god of war looked steadily up at her. “Thanks, but nothanks, babe.” He said. “I’ll stick around here.”
“Ares.” Xena reached down to grab the skin covering him, hervoice impatient. “I don’t have time to..”
Ares caught her wrist. “Xena.” He said. “Leave me here.”
Something about his tone brought Xena into a crouch next tohim, her eyes focusing sharply on his face. “This is no time to be fighting,me, Ares.” She glanced past him to see Gabrielle pausing to square hershoulders before she headed over to where Granella was. “Not now.”
Ares remained silent for a moment, then he also lookedquickly around. “I’m not.” Hesaid. “You stuck me good, baby. I’m.. “ He halted, and shrugged. “Don’t see the point in getting up just tohave those hairballs burn my tooties, catch my drift?”
“Ares, it’s not the ..”
“Listen.” The god of war’s grip on her arm tightened. “Youwon, Xena. Happy?” He leaned closer to her. “I know what it feels like to hurtso bad you just want it to stop. So do me a favor and get lost, will ya? Thenmaybe the hairballs will make it stop because I know I can’t get any mercy fromyou.”
Xena had to take a breath and stop to think, so manyramifications tumbling up around her it felt like a swarm of honeybees all of asudden. The pressure of knowing they were running out of time pressedinsistently between her shoulderblades and her stomach cramped again, makingher grimace.
“Beat it.” Ares released her, pushing her hand away fromhim.
Xena rested her forearm on her knee. “I can’t.” She said. “Ican’t leave you here.”
Ares rolled his eyes. “Give me a break.”
“Ares.” Xenahesitated, then she reached out, touching his arm. “I won’t leave you here. Ifwe all end up dying, then we do. I won’t leave you here for them.”
Ares looked at her, his eyes searching her face. “Why?”
The warrior half shrugged. “Just because.” She offered herhand to him again. “Stop talking. Let’s go, or it’ll be a moot point.”
The god stared at her for a long moment, his face almostexpressionless. “I’d leave you here, y’know.” He remarked conversationally. “Ina heartbeat.”
“I know.” Xena extended her arm further. “It doesn’tmatter.”
The sound of the approaching horde echoed thorough the cave,washing over the both of them as they remained facing off. After another pause,though, Ares finally reached up and clasped Xena’s forearm, visibly gatheringhimself. “Xena.” He grimaced as she pulled him upright and stood. “We’re bothgoing to regret this.”
“Probably.” Shegot his arm over her shoulder and half guided, half dragged him towards theentrance to the cave. “Stay by the wall.. just move as fast as you can.” Shecalled out to Pony, who had her hand on Granella’s shoulder as she stumbledunsteadily ahead of Gabrielle.
The bard turned and looked at her, the expression on herface making Xena wonder what had just transpired on the other side of the cavethere was so much pain in those eyes. Gabrielle held up and waited for them, slipping her arm around Ares onthe other side. “We can’t outrun them, Xe.”
“Well, she’s finally catching a clue.” Ares muttered.
“Yeah.” Xena shifted her grip and made contact with herpartner’s arm, feeling the chilled skin and the rigid tension under it. “But wecan’t just stand here and wait for em either, can we?”
They emerged into the starlight, turning a sharp right andfollowing the two shadowy figures on the path in front of them. Xena took aquick look over her shoulder, judging the nearest of the hooters a quartercandlemark away but moving fast.
No, they couldn’t outrun them. Xena exhaled. Or..well, sheand Gabrielle could outrun them, since they already had more than once but withGran and Ares but with them along, she knew they didn’t have long before theirchasers caught up with them.
They would fight, of course, when that happened. Xenascanned ahead of them, searching for something, anything to tip the odds alittle. She knew that big hooterwith Ares sword was back there, and by her measure he’d been twice the size ofthe bruiser she’d battered back in the first cave.
Could she fight him off? Xena exhaled. The truth was, shedidn’t want to find out if she didn’t have to. Her body was giving her warningsignals she knew she couldn’t ignore forever and whether it was her sharingsome symptoms with Gabrielle or something else going on inside her, she didn’tfeel anywhere close to invincible.
Gabrielle’s fingers closed around her elbow, and Xena lookedover at the bard, only to find her looking back with a concerned expression.
Damn it. Was Gabrielle reading her mind?
Ares just snorted weakly, his breathing coming labored.
“I always considered myself lucky to have found you.”Gabrielle said, returning the grin.
“Don’t start that crap.” The god of war moaned. “I’m inenough pain already.”
“Talking about love hurts you?” The bard asked. “Boy, am Igonna have fun now.”
Ares glared at her. “You used to be nice.”
“I used to respect you.”
The bite in the tone made even Xena’s nose twitch, as sheglanced across Ares bowed shoulders at Gabrielle. She could feel the simmeringanger abruptly through their link, and she squeezed the bard’s arm just asGabrielle had grasped hers earlier.
“You respected me?” Ares’s voice rose, ending on a cough.“Not in this lifetime, sweetheart.”
Xena glanced behind them. “Less talk, more walk.” She urged,barely able to see Pony and Gran ahead of them, and she realized they weren’tgoing to make it to the far wall nearly in time. Instead, she tipped her head back and started scanning thewalls, using the scant light to judge the crags over their heads.
“Xe.” Gabrielle called her. “They’re coming up behind us.”
Ah. “There.” Xena nudged them to the right. “Over there,hurry.” She called out ahead of them. “Pony! To the right!” Her eyes had pickedup the faintest hint of a chance, but it was better than the present nothing.
“Wh…” Gabrielle cut off her speech as they stumbled over therocky ground, and took a firmer hold on both Ares and Xena’s arm. She couldhear the approach of the hooters behind them and she wondered
Pony and Gran had stopped ahead, and Pony was alreadydrawing her sword from it’s sheath and heading towards them, her eyes fixed onwhat was coming up from behind. As they reached the niche Xena had spotted,Gabrielle looked for a place to lean Ares against as she got a grip on
But instead of doing the same, the warrior went to the edgeof the niche and put her boot up on a shelf only she apparently could haveseen. “Up.” She pointed at a thin, scraggly looking track heading upward,barely wide enough for a boot to stand on. “Move. Fast.” She grabbed Pony’s armas she went past and pulled her around, hauling her towards the wall.
“What?” Pony pointed past her. “Xena, we don’t have time forthat they’re on top of us!”
“We’ve got time.” The warrior shot back. “Look! There’s apath leading up. If we can make it to that ledge, we’ve got a chance.”
Pony tipped her head back and looked up into the shadows.“What ledge!?”
“MOVE!!” The warrior bellowed at the top of her voice. Sheshoved Pony towards the wall and turned, grabbing Ares and looking back pastGabrielle. “Hurry!”
Granella shoved past her, and started up, hugging the wallin silence. After a moment, Pony followed, sheathing her sword with a viciousmotion and turning her back on Xena. She passed Ares without a glance andstarted up the wall, clasping the rocks gingerly and placing her boots withcare.
Two down. Xena turned to her partner, and put her hands onher shoulders. “Listen.”
“Xena… “ Gabrielle lowered her voice and got close to herpartners ear. “We can’t do this.” She spared a glance up the cliff, and thetowering height seemed to waver in her view, making her queasy. “I can’t.”
Xena turned her head and they were eye to eye and nose tonose, breathing the same air. “We have no choice but try it.” She uttered.“Please trust me.”
Gabrielle looked into those tired, stressed blue eyes for aheartbeat. “Xena I trust you. I just don’t’ trust me.” She whispered. “I can’t
The expression on the warrior’s face didn’t shift an inch,despite the growing sound of the pursuit behind them. “Gab, what are you afraidof?”
Xena reached up and touched her partner’s face, refusing tolet the panic around them steal the moment form her. “What are you afraid willhappen if you climb up there?”
Gabrielle blinked. “I’ll f..fall.”
The bard felt a tight pressure in her chest and she knew herhands were shaking. “And I guess I’ll die.”
Xena looked to the right, where the crowd of hooters wererounding the last bend, and were in moments of spotting them. “If you stayhere, we’ll both die.”
Her partner’s body posture shifted, and she looked away,swallowing audibly.
“If you fall, I’ll go with you.” Xena gently turned her face back. “I’d rather die trying toget home. Wouldn’t you?”
Gabrielle took another breath, then she grabbed Xena’s armand started towards the rock wall where Pony was already struggling upward withGran, and Ares leaned and waited. She was no less afraid of the climb, but after all the years she’d beenwith Xena, she’d at last grown into the knowledge that life was often full ofextremely sucky choices and you just had to do rotten things.
She felt ashamed of her fear, ashamed that Xena had riskedthose precious moments to gently reason with her, instead of conking her overthe head and dragging her up over one shoulder – something she knew the warriorwas more than capable of.
They reached Ares and she took his arm. “Okay, up we go.”
Ares looked at Xena. “You running from them?” He snickered.
“Yep.” Xena grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and shovedhim up onto the first uneven level “So were you when I found ya. So move it, orI’ll leave you to em.”
“Bitch.” Ares took hold of the rock wall and struggledupward. “Thought you said you couldn’t do it.” He mimicked her tone mockingly.
“Changed my mind.” Xena glanced behind them. The hooters spotted her and a howl went up,making her reach over and pull her sword from it’s sheath. “Faster!”
Gabrielle felt her boots slip a little on the rock, and shegrabbed a handhold on the wall, letting her staff rattle from her fingertipsand roll away. “Damn it.” She kept her other hand on Ares, and followed him asthey climbed as fast as they could, which wasn’t very fast at all.
Xena was climbing backwards, using her boots to kick hard atthe irregular ledge they were climbing up, bits and pieces of it breaking offand rolling down the slope towards the onrushing horde. She could smell theburning torches now, and the smell of the hooters wafted up to her, foul andmusky.
The thin break in the rock they were climbing up offeredonly a scant chance, and Xena knew that. But if they were high enough, she alsoknew the hooters would have a hard time coming up after them, and even so, onlyone at a time. She braced her backagainst Gabrielle’s and kept moving, shifting her sword in her right hand asthe first of the hooters gained the rock wall.
Behind him, the first of the horde was closing in.
Then she forgot about him when the second hooter, a shadowyfigure near the first, raised his arms in a familiar gesture and she felt herbody react, her sword arm coming up and her hand twisting her blade enough todeflect the crude arrow speeding at her.
“Keep moving.” Xena half turned her body, so it protected asmuch of her partner as possible. “I got this.” She deflected another arrow.“Stay close to the wall! Tell them!”
Gabrielle tore her attention from her shaking knees andedged her head past Ares’ shoulder. “Pony! Stay near..”
“I heard her.” Pony yelled back. “Serves her right forgiving them the damn bow!”
Gabrielle exhaled. “Pony?”
“Go to Hades.” The bard felt her temper’s edge fray. “I hope she misses one.” She easedher hand forward and grabbed hold of a crack, feeling the harsh rock sting herfingertips as the solid warmth of Xena’s shoulder pressed against her.
Pony didn’t answer.
Xena saw the first line of hooters start to climb clumsilyafter them, the first of them tumbling off the ledge after a few feet androlling down the slope. The arrow shooter dodged him, and let go another shaft,but this one wobbled precariously in flight and fell far short of them.
A hooter scrambled up the narrow path, his hands reachingout for her as he tried to keep his balance. Xena got her weight on her backfoot and lashed out with her other, kicking the hooter in the head and throwinghim backwards in a violent tumble.
One down. Butthe rest of the hooters just took this as encouragement and started to swarm upthe side of the wall, eyes fixed on them.
Then a loud booming hoot rang out, and Xena’s eyes lifted,to see the big bastard coming towards them, Ares sword clutched in bothhands. His eyes were fastened onher, and her alone, and she felt a sudden, uneasy energy from him that made herhair prickle.
Her heart started to pound, a soft thunder that was matchedunexpectedly by the skies overhead. “Gabrielle.”
“Yeah.” The bard’s voice was breathy, and had a tremble init.
“We need to go faster.”
“One more step!”
Gabrielle got her fingers around a crack in the rock, her free arm clutched around Ares bodyas she half shoved, half carried him up onto the ledge just barely before Xenaknocked all of them over. “Whoa!”She yelped, keeping her balance and moving as tight against the wall as shecould.
The ledge was narrow, barely large enough to hold two ofthem side by side, but it seemed wide as their cabin after the harrowingquarter candlemark’s balance on the thin path. She turned and pressed her back against the rock, reachingout to put her hand against Xena’s shoulder.
The muscles under the skin were twitching, and as shewatched, Xena’s blade flickered out into the darkness and deflected somethingaway, the soft thunk audible over the hiss of the rain.
Thunder rumbled, and lightning framed them in dangeroussilver, outlining the swarming, dark figures heading up the wall after them.The rain had done them one favor- the torches had been put out and now thehooters were having to deal with the darkness just like they were.
The darkness was doing her a favor too, since it masked how high they were off theground. “Xe, now what?” Shecircled the warrior with one arm and gave her a brief hug from behind, takingcare to keep clear of her sword.
She was tired, and her legs were aching so badly she wasafraid they were going to cramp up on her. With a sigh, she tipped her head back and opened her mouth,waiting patiently for the rain to fill it as she kept a hand on Xena’sshoulder.
“Take a breather.” Xena muttered, her eyes darting back andforth as she tried to keep the hooters in her range of vision. The storm wasslowing them up, and they were clumsy climbers – four of them had fallen offthe path already thought the rest were making their way up wards.
The big one, though, had taken another path. He was climbingup the cliff almost directly under them, scaling the almost sheer wall withenergy and some skill. “Secondthought, keep moving.” She risked turning her head and glancing up ward.
In the darkness and the rain, she only hoped she saw acontinuing way up. Xena lookeddown again, just as the big hooter looked up, and their eyes met.
The hooter bared his teeth in what might have been asmile. Xena deliberately turnedher head again and dismissed him, focusing her attention on Gabrielle’s tenseface instead. “We’ve got to keep going.”
Even in the shadows, the bard’s expression was clear. Shetook a breath to speak, then paused, and simply laid her cheek against Xena’sshoulder briefly, before she turned and took hold of Ares arm again.
“Go where?” Pony shoved past Ares to confront her. “Go up and fall off? There’s noplace to go!”
Xena thought she really should be losing her patience, butinstead, she merely felt tired. Before she could throw an answer back,Gabrielle got between the two of them and straightened. “Eponin, there’s apath. Even I can see it. Now please just move.” The bard said, quietly. “There’s no time to fight about it.”
The rain came down harder, drenching them, leaving them inshadows broken only by fitful bursts of lightning. “This is nuts.” Pony said.“We’re gonna croak doing this.’
“Probably.” Gabrielle reached out and gave her a nudge.“Just go.”
A loud crack resonated overhead, and small bits of rock droppeddown around them. Gabrielle gave Pony another shove. “We go down, we die. Westay here, we die, we go up there, maybe we die. Move.” Her voice was low, butresigned.
“Pony, please.” Gabrielle glanced at Ares, but the god of war remained leaning againstthe rock, his eyes closed. “I know you have no respect for me as a person oryour queen right now, but just do it.” She felt a sudden hand on her back, andsaw Pony’s eyes shift over her shoulder and for once she absolutely didn’t mindthe intervention.
“Go.” Xena’s voice echoed from behind her, in a flat, nononsense tone, accompanied by the rasping sound of her sword being sheathed.
“Or?” Pony asked, putting her hands on her hips.
“Or I’ll throw you over to them.” The warrior responded.
“You’re so full of crap.” The Amazon got the words half outof her mouth before she was grabbed by the front of her leathers and her beltand she was being lifted up off the ground and over Xena’s head. “AAAUUUU!!”
Gabrielle had stepped out of the way and pressed herselfagainst the rock, her eyes fastened on her soulmate as the lightning flared,and outlined the warrior’s powerful body in uncompromising silver. She wasaware of Granella standing to her right, but she kept her attention focused,unsure honestly of what Xena was going to do.
Kill Pony? Gabrielle exhaled. What the Hades, right? Maybeit would just save her some trouble.
Pony found herself staring up at the sky, and suddenly thememory of how Xena had killed Arella, there in the village in front of theentire tribe surfaced.
The rain felt icy as it touched her skin, and in purereflex, she went completely limp and unresisting. “All right!” She yelled. “Allright, Xena, by the gods, put me down! Don’t kill me!”
Everything went still, then she was moving through the airagain, the sky whirling crazily over her head as she was inverted, then herboots hit the ground, and she was shoved roughly towards the rock wall,slamming against it with painful force.
When the stars cleared from her eyes,
Xena straightened up, and backed up a step. “Don’t push meanymore, Amazon.” She growledsoftly. “Last warning.”
Pony stared at her, then shook her head and turned, only tofind Granella already climbing away from them, up the cliff face. “Hey!Wait!” She got her foot on thefirst part of the uneven path, and pulled herself forward. “Gran!”
Xena turned, and briefly found herself nose to nose withGabrielle. “Damn.” She exhaled.“That hurt.”
The bard merely leaned against her and exhaled, before shestraightened back up and took a moment to wipe the rain from her eyes. “C’mon,Ares.” She took hold of his arm, as Xena drew her weapon again and slipped pastthem, her eyes anxiously searching the darkness below.
The god opened his eyes and looked at her. Then he shiftedhis attention to Xena, who was standing with her back to them, sword at theready. “Aint’ gonna work, y’know.”
Xena deflected another arrow, but this one was so off themark it hadn’t really needed deflecting. The big hooter had paused in hisclimb, as the thunder rolled over head and the rain battered him, hugging thecliff with both arms outstretched.
Down the path, the other hooters had paused also, thedriving rain so thick they could barely be seen. Then a bolt of lightning arced from the sky, and Xena movedquickly, throwing herself against both her partner and Ares as the lightningstruck the cliff wall over their heads with a huge, booming roar.
Instantly, they were being pelted with knife sharp bits ofstone that tumbled down around them with increasing frequency. “Move.” Xenaurged them both towards the upper path. “Hurry!” Boulders started droppingaround them, crashing against the ledge and breaking parts of it off.
Gabrielle scrambled behind Ares to the edge of the path andgot a handhold on the wall, keeping her head down as rocks continued to bounceoff her shoulders. She heard Xenacursing behind her, then she felt a powerful surge of fear and she turned herhead just in time to see the big hooter come powering over the ledge, his handoutstretched towards Xena’s leg.
“YAA!” Xena backed up and pressed her body against the rockas the hooter got to his feet and pulled Ares sword out of a rough tie aroundhis waist. The big sword collected every bit of light around them and flashed,and it was all she could do to bring her own weapon up as he charged towardsher.
Gabrielle released Ares, and started to turn, her balancewavering precariously as she tried to shift her feet and reverse theirposition.
Ares grabbed her arm. “Hold it.” He rasped. “Wherea yagoin?’
“Let go of me.” Gabrielle grabbed at his fingers.
“Listen!” The god of war tightened his grip. “For once,don’t make it worse for her. Stay out of it!”
The ring of steel drew both their eyes, and Gabriellehesitated, watching Xena struggle under the big hooter’s attack. There wasbarely room for the warrior to fight, and she seemed to be fighting very hardto keep her opponents sword from breaking through her defenses.
“Finally seeing the light?” The god of war asked her, hiseyes avidly watching the struggle. “She don’t need you, cookie.”
“Ares, let go of me.” Gabrielle wrenched his fingers from her arm, and started to scrambledown the rock path towards the fighters, ducking as a set of boulders rolledover the top of her and headed down the slope. She managed to get back to the ledge just as Xena dodged aclumsy swing and got around to the other side of the small space leaving thebig hooter’s back to her partner.
Doesn’t need me? Gabrielle picked up a rock and hefted it,waiting for an opening. Thehooter was chopping at Xena in an almost random manner, but his strength wasincredible, and the warrior was having trouble deflecting the strikes.
Xena took advantage of the distraction and knocked his swordaway, swinging a reverse thrust with her own sword that would have cut him upthe middle if he hadn’t stepped back, seeming to sense the attack.
The rain drove in her face, and Xena could only spare asecond to give her head a shake to clear some of the water and hair from hervision. Behind her, she could heargrunts and rattles, and she knew the hooters were coming up the path.
She could hold them off, maybe, but she knew it would do nogood to tell Gabrielle to leave. Without the bard, Ares had no chance of makingit up the side of the mountain, and without all of them, Pony and Gran probablywouldn’t make it either.
So what the Hades was the point?
The hooter came at her again, and she set her feet, leaningforward as she swept her blade up to meet the swing coming down at her head.The impact of the blade against hers was incredible, and it took all thestrength she had to keep her legs from buckling, and her arms from giving wayto let the sword of war cleave her in half.
Lighting blasted over head, and she caught a break as thehooter flinched, and she was able to deflect his sword to one side, but onlybriefly as he recovered and yanked his arms around in a sweeping lunge she knewshe couldn’t meet.
There was barely room to move on the ledge, but she waiteduntil the last minute, then she ducked and threw herself past him, touchingdown with one hand on the rock and pushing herself up into a rolling motionthat got her back to her feet before he could turn to meet her.
She stepped forward and brought her sword around, slicinghim across the side as he turned, sending a spray of blood into the air as helet out a bellow.
A rock flew past her shoulder, and hit him in the head, asXena followed up her advantage and got another hit in, cutting deep into histhigh before he whipped his arms back across his body and clipped her in theshoulder, sending her hard against the rock and thanking all the gods shedidn’t believe in she wasn’t on the other side of him.
He swung at her again, and she managed to catch the muchlonger sword against hers, near the hilt, the impact nearly breaking herwrists, strong as they were. Then she was up against the hooter, and he wasdipping his head, teeth bared, at her throat.
Xena felt her knees start to buckle under the force and shestruggled to free her sword, as the hooter’s blade came closer and closer toher head, and the teeth closer and closer to her throat.
Through the rain, she caught a brief glimpse of Gabriellecoming towards them, and the hooter realized it as well. He jerked back andswung around, swiping the huge sword right at Gabrielle with a howl of outrage.
Xena released one hand off her sword and reached up for ahand hold, pulling herself up off the ground and getting both boots up as shekicked hard outward, uncoiling her body with all the strength she could muster.She kicked the hooter right in the ribs as he was turning, and she felt bonecrack as he staggered to one side, the sword swinging wildly and dangerouslyclose to Gabrielle’s head.
The bard ducked, and scooted to Xena’s far side, picking upanother rock and winding up to throw it.
A hooter scrambled over the ledge, and let out a howl oftriumph, as he reached for Gabrielle’s arm, and the big hooter lifted the swordof war over his head and rushed at Xena.
The thunder rolled over head, growing louder and louder.
Xena waited until her opponent was almost on top of her, thestench of him filling her nose as she held her ground to the last moment whenhis huge blade was heading right for her skull. Then she ducked under his rightarm and escaped, hearing the blade hit the rock with a grinding crunch behindher.
In the same motion, she stepped close to Gabrielle, circledher with one arm and pulled her off her feet as she went around the back of thebig hooter, the bard’s legs swinging out over thin air before she landed hernear the path upward. “Stay!”
Gabrielle grabbed hold of the rock as she was released. “I’mgoing to keep throwing rocks!”
“Fine!” Xena put her shoulder down and body slammed the bighooter, who was trying to yank the sword he’s sunk into the rock out of it. Sheknocked him off balance and into the two just climbing over the edge, knockingthem back and sending them sprawling off the ledge to hang precariously.
No time to take advantage of that. Xena found herself divingout of the way as the big hooter recovered, lashing out to kick her, his footmissing her body but hitting her sword arm and smashing it against the ground.
Her lower arm went numb, and she lost her grip on herweapon. With a yowl, he dove on top of it before she could turn over and grabit with her other hand and now she found herself rolling away from him beforehe could gut her with her own blade.
He got up. She got up, a flash of metal catching her eye asshe leaped for the hilt of Ares sword, still embedded in the rock and got holdof it as she swung her legs around to brace to pull it out.
Her fingers closed around the carved hilt.
A sound like that of the sky splitting sounded over head,and a blast of light turned everything around her to silver.
For a moment, she thought she’d been hit by lightning. Therewas a cracking sound, and a flash, and a jolt up her arm that went right upinto her armpit and tightened her chest.
Her vision blurred, and she felt her heart thump anirregular rhythm in her chest and for a moment she couldn’t catch her breath.
Then the light faded, and her pulse steadied and the worldreturned to rain spattered darkness as the pain and the strangeness faded away.
She felt the attack coming behind her, and her body archedas the sword came out of the rock and she flipped backwards, landing andwhirling low as the hooter’s arms and the her sword whispered over her head soclose it tugged strands from it.
Her reflexes had her moving before she heard her name calledand she was leaping through the air and twisting to land on the other side ofthe hooter, bringing the big sword over in an arc in front of her as her bootsscuffed against the rock.
The hooter came at her, but now, somehow, the size didn’tmatter and her blood was surging and she could smell the fear in the air aroundher.
She got her other hand around the hilt of the sword of warand stood, the rain slacking enough for her to get a clear view of thingsaround her as she stepped forward and swung at the hooter, blades clashing asshe powered through the attack and sent his hands flying apart, her sworddeflecting the one in his grip and giving her an opening wide enough for her tosimply drive forward, throwing all her body weight into a savage lunge that putthe point of the sword right through his chest.
Blood gushed out, splashing over her hands and her face asher forward motion drove her into him, knocking him back into the rock as theblade dropped from his hands and he slid to one side, his fingers scrabbling atthe big blade protruding from his chest.
Xena breathed in the scent of hot copper, tasting a drop ofit on her lips as she watched the hooter die, his eyes rolling up into hishead, only the last of many who had fallen to her lethal skills.
What had she been afraid of?
Thunder rolled again, and a flash of lighting lit up theledge as she pulled the sword out of him, letting him slump to the ground asshe took a step back and half turned, sensing motion to her right.
Hooters were swarming over the ledge.
“Whatever I can.” The bard replied. “You okay?”
Xena glanced at her. “I’m fine. Why?”
Gabrielle smiled grimly, and shifted her grip on the sword.
They faced the wall of hooters heading their way and Xenarealized there were too many of them to fight off. They’d be overwhelmed bysheer numbers in a second, and probably shoved right off the cliff. “Hey Gab?”
“Want to start climbing up there and let me fight em off?”
“Figured you’d say that.” Xena took a step forward and got ready, raising the sword ofwar and letting out the loudest, meanest yell she could come up with to counterthe wild hoots ringing against the stone.
Six of them got footholds on the rock and started for them,two holding spears and a third a fistful of arrows. As they approached, thunder rolled overhead again, and keptrolling so violently it was shaking the ground Xena was standing on.
The warrior winced, and took a step towards the hooters,turning sideways to get as much power into a swing as she could.
Lightning flashed, and behind the six hooters she could seedozens more, pouring up the mountain now with confidence, climbing towardsthem.
Fast learners. Xena cursed under her breath. “Stay close tome.”
The sound got louder, and the echoes had started poundingagainst her skull, when a deeper rumble her subconscious remembered all toowell cut through the noise and sent her spinning instantly towards Gabrielle,grabbing her partner and slamming both of them against the rock wall.
“Blefh!” Gabrielle coughed. “W..”
Xena threw herarm over Gabrielle’s head and covered as much of her as she could as whatseemed like half the mountain came down the slope, rocks smacking her in theback as they rolled down over the ledge. She felt rock chips sting the backs of her legs and she edged closer, asthe screams of the hooters rose over the thunder.
Gabrielle remained stock still, realizing she was in thesafest place on the mountain, that the hooters were being crushed under tons ofrock, and that she was being protected from the rain. It was such a sudden change from the deadly terror of themoment before that her head hurt thinking about it, so she just
In a few minutes, it was over. The thunder subsided, andslowly, the rattle and rumble of rocks died away leaving only the sound of rainspattering against the rock.
Gabrielle took a slow, deep breath and started to shift herposition.
“Don’t move.” Xena whispered.
The bard froze. “Are they still there?”
“No.” Her partner muttered. “But neither is the ledge. I’mholding on by my toes.”
“Urk.” Gabrielle pressed herself further back into the rockand grabbed the front of her Xena’s leathers. “What happened?”
“No idea.” Xena very gingerly extended her leg and got afoothold on the path. “Just hold still.” She reached out with her free hand and curled her fingers around a bitof rock, sliding her boot forward a little and then shifting her weight to thatfoot as she pulled herself up onto the path.
Only then, did she turn her head and look down.
The ledge was gone, save the sliver Gabrielle was standingon. Below them, hundreds of boulders and bits of rock were piled, barely seenin the rain and the darkness. The warrior exhaled slowly,before she wedged Ares sword behind her sheath, and held her hand out toGabrielle. “Hand that over.”
The bard handed the sword over, and watched as she sheathedit. Glad to have both hands free,she quickly fastened her fingers to the rocks behind her, and cautiously lookeddown.
Darkness. Shadows. The rattle of pebbles falling.
Then, from above them she heard a different sound. “Xena..!”She cocked her head and listened. “Is that… are th.. it’s those big animals,isn’t it?”
Faint bugles echoed out, tinged with triumph andunmistakable.
“I hear it.” The warrior edged over, and held a hand out.“C’mon.”
The bard took her hand and cautiously sidled over to joinher. “What happened to..”
Xena glanced over her shoulder. “Rocks buried em.” She movedaway from the ledge, keeping a wary eye out for loose rocks. “Guess they werejust in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
A high, warbling bugle echoed softly from above.
Gabrielle joined her on the path, and they worked their wayback up to where Ares was still leaning, apparently content to wait.
Xena tipped her head back and searched the walls aroundthem. Lightning flared, and she thought she saw a trunk waving over the top ofthe ridge above them, but she knew that wasn’t possible.
A soft trumpet drifted down.
The sound faded, and they were left in darkness, with onlythe rain coming down around them. “I don’t.. I don’t know what happened.” She finally said, as they cameup to where the god of war was waiting. Ahead of them – no sign of Pony orGran.
Going down was no longer an option.
Ares lifted his head as they reached him, and his eyes foundhers and even in the darkness, she could see him smile.
“Nice.” The god of war rasped. “That was almost worthcroaking for.”
Xena looked away. “Let’s get moving.” She prodded him.“Before we push our luck.”
Ares just laughed.
The rain slacked off a little, becoming a chill mist ratherthan a pounding deluge as they stood quietly, gathering themselves to moveon. Gabrielle studied thedistinctive outline of the sword of war nestled over Xena’s shoulder, beforeshe turned and searched the slopes, hoping to see a glimpse of their furryfriends.
Her knees were shaking, and she felt very cold inside. Aftera brief hesitation, she leaned against Xena’s shoulder and collected whatwarmth she could from the warrior’s rain spattered skin.
She could feel the faint tremors still running throughXena’s body, and after a second, the warrior half turned and put both armsaround her, seeming to want the contact as much as she did.
And why not? Gabrielle craved the certainty of what she andXena shared in this wild, wide ocean of uncertainty they found themselvesin. She no longer wondered whatthey were going to do next – she only wanted Xena to be there next to her.
Amphipolis seemed very far away now, she felt a dull fogseparating her from her family, and from her daughter, waiting there at home,wondering…
Gabrielle drew a steadying breath, and lifted her head tolook up at Xena. “We ready to go?’
Tired blue eyes peered out from between sodden bangs. “Noplace to go but up.”
The bard nodded.
“Bout time.” Ares commented dryly. “Gonna get past me andlead the way, sweetheart?”
“No.” Xena prodded him in the back. “Move. Gabrielle stayswith me.”
Ares rolled his eyes, but gathered himself up and started topull himself along the rock wall with uncertain steps. “Nice of ya to grab mysticker back, Xena. Wanna hand it over?”
“No.” The warrior replied. “You’ll get it when I’m good andready to give it to you.”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted sharply, to no real effect sinceshe was shuffling along behind Xena and the warrior couldn’t see her face.
“Not nice, Xena.” Ares warned. “That’s my property on yourback. I don’t take kindly to mortals putting their mitts on it.”
“Then you wont’ mind not having it.” Xena said. “Since yourmortal, and you’ve got nothing to carry it with besides maybe shoving it..”
“Ah ah ah.!” The god of war cut her off. “Be nice.”
“Kiss my ass.”
Ares paused and half turned. “Now we’re talking!”
Xena gave him an impatient shove. “Don’t even think aboutit.”
“C’mon Xena.” Ares wasn’t deterred. “You’re not gonna tellme you’re satisified with one little bedwarmer.. I know you better than that.”
The warrior pondered in silence for a brief time, then shechuckled. “I’m totally satisfied.’
“Bull.” The god of war snorted. “Why I could…”
“No ya couldn’t.” Xena focused her senses ahead of them, herears picking up a soft scuffing, and a rattle of falling pebbles. “Not for morethan two minutes, anyway.”
The sounds got louder, and Xena’s attitude shifted fromdarkly mocking to alert. “Hold it. “
“What?” Ares stopped moving.
Xena managed to work her way around him and took the lead,putting the god of war between her and Gabrielle. She edged around a heavy boulder then pulled up short as shecame face to face with Pony coming back the other direction.
They stared at each other momentarily, then Pony lookedaway. “I was.. I heard stuff.” She muttered. “Thought I could help.”
“We took care of it.” Xena replied, briefly.
Pony looked back at her, then her eyes lifted as she spottedthe dual hilts over Xena’s shoulder. She stared at the sword of war, then shelooked Xena’s face for a long moment. “Yeah.” She shifted and started movingback in the direction she came. “That ‘splains a lot.”
Xena wished she didn’t know what Pony was talking about. Shestared briefly at her hands pressed against the rock, misty rain drenching thesurface of her skin as the first light of the coming dawn put faint shadowsbetween her knuckles.
Her palms still tingled from the touch of that hilt.
“Xe.” Gabrielle called over. “Everything okay?”
Ah well. First things first, which was getting the Hades upthe damn wall. “Yeah.” She turned to get back around Ares, only to find the godsmirking at her, blocking the path. “Don’t be a jerk.”
“Why not?” Ares asked. “Gotta get some fun outta this beforeI drop dead.”
Xena stared at him.
Ares smiled grimly back at her, lifting away a bit of thetattered catskin, revealing the wound that now spread half across his chest,red and swollen, and seeping ugly yellow pus. He returned the skin to it’splace and resumed his hold on the rock. “Suffering every minute for you,babycakes. Give me a nice view to make up for it.. I love your butt in thoseleathers.”
Her face twitched in response. “Gabrielle – take a stepback.” She crouched, then leaped up, catching a tiny shelf over Ares head withher fingertips and swinging herself up and over the obstacle to land neatlynext to the bard.
Ares returned his head forward from it’s uptilted position.“That wasn’t bad either.” He rallied, undaunted.
“Jackass.” The warrior muttered, under her breath.
“Urg.” Gabrielle had her eyes closed, and her body pressedclose to the rock.
“You can openem now.” Xena patted her on the back comfortingly. “I made it.”
A green orb cautiously appeared, then both eyes opened andGabrielle released her breath. “Good grief, Xe. Was itworth the risk? What if you slipped?” She put out a hand in reflex and touchedthe warrior’s arm.
Xena could feel the fear in her, and the coming dawnrevealed the tension that marked her partner’s face. “Of course you’re worththe risk.” She replied casually. “What kind of dumb question is that?”
That produced a wry smile in return, but the warrior couldsee the shivers racking the bard’s body, and wished she could do more. “Least thesun’s coming up.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle murmured. “Yay. I was so looking forward toseeing how high up we are.”
Whoops. “C’mon.” Xena sighed. “Just keep looking at thewall.”
“Okay.” The bard answered, in a small voice.
She could hear birds waking up, and taking flight, and shetried to block out the knowledge that they should be over her head, not evenwith her shoulderblades.
A thousand scenarios of falling began to play in her mind,shortening her breathing until a warm, steadying hand settled on the back ofher neck and she felt Xena’s close presence next to her. “Thanks.”
“I’m here, Gab.” Xena’s voice was low and intimate. “We’regonna make home.”
A hawk let out a cry behind her, as Gabrielle briefly openedher eyes and looked at the rock before her nose. It was weathered, and gray,and between the cracks tiny bits of lichen clung, stubbornly surviving despitethe winds and the hard surface they rested on.
She could smell the lichen. They had a green, somewhat muskyscent that reminded her of their dell back in Amphipolis and the longafternoons she’d spent there loving Xena and watching the sunlight trickle overthe both of them.
She thought about the many places she’d been with Xena. Hotplaces, and cold, friendly and war torn. Beautiful, wild places, and thebiggest cities in the land. “Xe?”
“I am home.” Gabrielle said. “So let’s just work on makingit back to Dori.”
Xena’s fingers squeezed the back of her neck gently. “Gotcha.”
She just had time to settle herself down, when a hoarsescream broke the air. Gabrielle inhaled sharply. “Is that Gran??”
Xena cocked her head. “Pony!” She yelled.
“SHIT!” The Amazon hollered back. “XENA!!!”
Xena prodded Ares in the back. “Move faster.”
The god of war didn’t. “Aren’cha gonna fly over me again andgo save the day?” He suggested. “Big old hero deal? G’wan.”
The warrior reviewed the rock wall over their heads, thenshe pushed him again. “No.” She said. “So get moving, or I’ll tie a rope aroundyour ugly neck and drag you along for the ride.”
Ares turned and looked at her, the mocking attitudeevaporating. “Watch it, Xena.” He warned, softly. “We’re not always gonna be inthis pit, and we both know dying ain’t the end of everything.”
Yes. Xena did know that. “I’ll take my chances.” She gavehim another, harder shove. “Hang on, Pony – we’re comin!”
A scuffle of rock warned her, then Pony skidded into viewaround the next bend of rock. Her face was dead white, visible in the growingdawn and her eyes were nearly half out of her head. “Something’s got hold ofGran.”
“Again?” Ares replied in a bored tone. “I don’t see theattraction there at all.”
“What is it?” Gabrielle asked.
“Whothehadesknows?” Pony yelled. “Long thing, came outta therock! Willya come on already!”
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s back, when she realized thewarrior wasn’t going anywhere. “Xe, go.” She urged softly. “Please.”
“How?” Xena whispered back. “Fly?” She drew her own sword out and started poking Ares in thebutt with it. “Get moving, Ares!”
They came around the last bend and saw Granella on theground, her body pulled taut against the rock wall by a long, snakelike object.She was struggling against it, yanking at the moving band, but it was resistingher efforts. “Augh!”
Xena unsheathed her sword as they came to the marginallywider section of the ledge and slipped past Ares. “Hold still!” She twirled hersword in her hand and passed the backpedaling Pony, intent on the thick ropeholding Gran to the wall. “I’m gonna cut it off!”
Gran kept struggling, letting out a gutteral scream, as Ponydarted in and started to yank at the coil holding her. “She can’t breathe!”
Xena took aim, and dove for her knees, raising her swordover her head and hoping her aim was as accurate as she remembered.
Ares seemed glad enough to find a slight cut in and slumpdown onto it, resting his head against the harsh granite wall. He glanced up asGabrielle came up next to him, and stuck his boots out into her path with a malicioussmile. “Dare ya.”
Gabrielle halted and stared at him.
“Gwan. Go scream for your girlfriend.” Ares taunted her.
Instead, the bard looked past him, shading her eyes from therising sun as she tried to see what was going on. “Xena! Stop!”
The warrior’s head turned. “What?” She paused in mid motion,though, the note in her partner’s voice sounding a warning her senses obeyedwithout question.
“Don’t do it!” Gabrielle insisted, focusing her attentionback on Ares.
The god of war, his eyebrows nearly into his hairline, drewhis boots in and gestured her forward with an exaggeratedly courtlygesture. “Hey. Didn’t think ya hadit in ya. But after what she said, don’t blame ya, either, cupcake.”
Gabrielle bolted past him and got to Xena’s side just as Ponyreacted to what she’d said and dove at her, tackling her in a furious flurry ofangry blows.
Xena twisted in mid air and got an arm around Pony’s middle,hauling her up and off Gabrielle as though she were a sack of wheat. She kepther momentum going as the bard rolled under them both, coming up onto her kneesand reaching for the vine around Granella’s body.
“Gran!” Gabrielle tried to grab the flailing arms. “Stop!Stop it!”
“You bitch!” Granella glared wildly at her, turning hergrasping to punches instead, as she tried to hit Gabrielle.
“What in Hades is wrong with you!” Pony grappled with Xenafuriously. “Lemme go! She’s getting killed there! You want her to die? That it?So no one knows what you didn’t do??”
Xena body slammed her to the ground and dropped over her,using her size advantage to pin the Amazon firmly to the ground. She had noreal idea what was going on behind her, and the dust they were kicking up kepther from seeing what Gabrielle was doing. “Gab!”
Gabrielle blocked the fists flying at her. “Gran! Just stop!Please!”
The bard gave up and dove into the fray, turning hershoulders so the blows fell on her back as she grabbed hold of the vine,reaching along it with frantic fingers. She could feel nails scraping her skin along her spine, and the sharppain as Granella punched her.
Her fingers squeezed around Granella’s side, scrapingagainst the rock as she pulled her sister in law towards her with all herstrength. “Gran!”
Fingers tangled in her hair and pulled hard. Gabrielletightened the muscles around her neck and just kept digging with her hand,jamming it between Granella and the rock painfully. She managed to reach her objective just as her neck musclesgave out and her head snapped backwards, her fingers touching the very end ofthe vine and taking hold of it. “Augh!”
The cry of pain, she knew, would bring Xena around to heraid. She only hoped the warrior would temper her reaction and she wouldn’t endup covered in blood. “Cmon.. c’mon.. “ She whispered, squeezing with herfingertips as she sensed motion behind her and the wave of dark energy, andheard the bellow of rage coming from Xena’s throat.
A squeeze back, then suddenly, everything was in motion asthe vine uncoiled and snaked back towards her, wrapping itself around her ownbody as she twisted loose from Granella’s grip only to be caught in the vine’sas she rolled over and looked for her partner. “Xe!”
Xena was at her side in an instant, cursing and reaching forthe vine. Gabrielle grabbed her hands and held them, repeating thewarrior’s name over again untilthe blue eyes met hers and everything went still. “It’s okay.”
Xena gazed steadily at her, chest heaving . “It’s okay?” Sheechoed, her voice rising.
“It’s okay.”Gabrielle said again, releasing one hand so she could pat the vine with herother one. “Look.. it’s okay. It’sour friends.” She relaxed againstthe rock, breathing hard herself as the cool stone stung the scratches on herback.
Xena’s eyes slowly went to the muscular stripe wound aroundher partner’s body, and her mind sorted out the rings, and the hair, and sheexhaled loudly. “Gods be damned.”
Gabrielle rolled onto her back, now that she was assured herpartner wasn’t going to do anything rash, and peered inside the crack the trunkhad issued from. In the faint light, she could see a big brown eye peering backat her with bemusement. “Hi.”
Xena rocked back onto her heels and turned her head to stareat their companions. Granella was pressed against the rock wall nearby, holdingthe back of her hand to her mouth, a drizzle of blood staining the skin of herknuckles. Eponin was flat on herback, one hand resting on her stomach, the other hand covering her eyes.
A very awkward silence fell, broken briefly by a desultoryclapping from Ares. Xena swiveledand rested her hands on her thigh once he stopped. “I really don’t care what you both think right now.” Shestated, in a calm voice. “But let me tell you, the next time someone lays afinger on her..” She pointed at Gabrielle.
“Why not just kill us now?” Granella cut her off.
“What makes you think I want to?” The warrior replied. “Whatthe Hades is going on here? You got grabbed, and I’m sorry for that, Granella,but I didn’t cause that.”
The other woman glowered at her. “You didn’t do anythingabout it.’
“I didn’t?” Xena pointed at her own chest. “Who went intothe cave after you? We did.” Sheindicated Gabrielle and herself.
“After you saved him!” Pony pointed at Ares, who smiledviciously at them. “The bastard!”
“Hey!” The god of war barked hoarsely. “Watch it, mongrel.”
“Look.” Xena’s voice rose. “This is pointless!”
“No.” Granella shot right back. “You listen.. I trusted you!I trusted you to keep me safe, because that’s what you do, Xena! I trusted youand you..”
Gabrielle leaned against the rock wall, feeling it allsliding out of control around her. She fingered the trunk that was nowexploring her torso curiously, wondering if this was the mama animal and if itwas, if the baby was with her. “Hey.” She murmured into the dark crack, reaching her hand inside tostroke the animal’s trunk. “What are you doing in there, huh?”
A soft bugle answered her. The opening was about as wide asher thigh, and extended up a little taller than her head. Granella must haveleaned there a moment to rest, and the rest….
“Okay.” Xena said. “Let’s save all this until we’re out ofhere. We don’t have time to fight.”
Gabrielle watched as the animal plucked at her belly,patting it with the nub at it’s end. “I bet you’re the mama, huh?” She said.“Are you seeing a baby in there?” Her fingers touched the nub. “You think mybaby’s gonna make it?”
She only became aware of the silence after she felt Xena’shand wrap around her ankle. She looked up to find all three women looking ather. “You know.” She said, after abrief pause. “I don’t want anyone here to die.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena’s voice dropped.
“I want us all to get out of here, and get back to ourfamilies.” The bard watched Granella’s face, seeing the horror, and still theanger in her eyes. “So like Xena said.. can we put a hold on the blame untilthen?”
Granella just looked away, wiping the blood from her mouthwith an impatient gesture. Ponylooked at the ground, then shook her head in silence.
Xena came over and crouched next to her partner, putting ahand on her shoulder, and squeezing it. “We need to keep moving.”
“I know.” Gabrielle took Xena’s fingers, and brushed themagainst the nub, which nibbled the warrior’s skin. “How did they get in there,Xena? Inside the mountain?”
Xena peered inside the crack, her eyes picking out detailslost to her partner. “It’s a big cave.” She said. “Probably lets out nearplateau.. we’re on the other side of the wall from it.”
The bard looked down at the trunk in her lap. “I don’t thinkshe meant to scare anyone.”
“Sure.” Pony muttered.
Instead of anger, Gabrielle could only feel sadness. All theaggressiveness she’d been filled with for days had drained away, and shecouldn’t prevent memories from surfacing of another time, and another longperiod of anger, and…
Xena’s lips pressed against the side of her head, and sheset aside the images.
The trunk curled around her wrist and squeezed. Gabriellewrapped her hands around it and squeezed back. Could the animal feel herpain? She looked up at herpartner, who gently held a hand out to her. “They saved our lives back there, Xena.”
Gabrielle gave the trunk a last pat. “Goodbye again, myfriend.” She leaned near the crack and peered inside. “Take care of yourself, okay?”
The big eye gazed at her, and the trunk curled around herarm, pulling her closer.
“I have to go.” The bard gently unwrapped the snout. “Begood.”
She stood and took a step back, hearing a soft trumpetinside the rock as the snout snaked out and reached for her again.
Privately, the warrior agreed. However. “C’mon.” She claspedGabrielle’s shoulder. “We don’t have time to figure it out.”
“You go first.” Granella told her. “I’m not going to be oneto meet any more of your.. friends.”
Xena exhaled. “All right.” She turned and examined the path,reaching out to touch the rock wall.
Gabrielle took hold of her arm. “Xena.. “ She watched thesnout thrash about urgently. “We’re missing something here.” Her voiceroughened a little. “It’s almost like she’s trying to stop us.. she must knowsomething, and I think..”
The warrior encircled her with one long arm. “Sweetheart, Ibelieve that.” She whispered. “But we’ve got to get out of here.”
“I know, but..”
“No, Gabrielle..” Xena’s voice took on it’s own urgency. “Wehave to get Ares out of this valley.”
Gabrielle blinked a few times, aware of the motion of theircompanions moving towards them, conscious that the privacy of Xena’s embracewould last only a few moments longer. “What? I.. of course we do b..”
“Gabrielle.” Xena lifted her other hand and cupped thebard’s cheek. “We have to.”
Their eyes met. “Have to.” Gabrielle repeated softly.“Something you know.. or..”
Xena released her cheek and touched her own chest.“Something I feel. In here.” She uttered back. “I just…” The warrior hesitated.“I don’t’ think I can ignore it.”
“Oh, Xena.” Thebard glanced around, then back at her. “But what if…” Her gaze lifted to thehilt of the sword of war, looming over Xena’s shoulder. “Gods.”
It all came down on her in a rush, the sudden realization ofwhat had happened when Xena’s hand touched that hilt, and what might happen ifAres didn’t survive.
And Xena did.
Gabrielle felt so sick suddenly, she thought she was goingto throw up. Death hadn’t yet beenable to separate them, but, she knew with a stark knowledge, immortality would.
Would that be Xena’s fate, to take Ares place?
Xena cupped her cheek again. “Trust me.” Blue eyes met hers,and they both acknowledged silently the history between them.
Gabrielle released a slow breath, remembering very clearlyone of those things. “Okay.” She murmured. “I’m with you.”
Pony and Gran could be the least of their problems.
Late afternoon sun draped over Gabrielle’s back as shestood, leaning against the wall as they paused to rest a bit. The warmth feltgood, as the wind had dropped a little and she rested her head against the stonewishing she could just go to sleep in it.
“Wait here.” Xena patted her arm. “I’m gonna check upahead.. maybe there’s a spot we can sit down a minute.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle laid her cheek against the granite. “I’llbe fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“Gabrielle, would you do something for me?”
The bard gazed at her. “Sure. Anything.”
“Shut up.” Xena leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips.“Be right back.” She disappeared around the next corner of the path and leftGabrielle to decide if she wanted to turn and face her companions or merelyignore them.
There was a lot to be said for the latter. Ares was rightnext to her, and the other two a little distance from him and none of them werereally giving out any vibes that made her want to talk to them.
Gabrielle knew she had a reputation for being a friendly,talkative, good hearted person. She also knew that by and large, that wasn’ttoo far off the mark, really, though she certainly had her pissy moments andbouts of ill temper.
And usually, they were with Xena, not with other people because at this stage in their livestogether, Xena was the only person who she trusted utterly with the ugliestside of herself. For everyoneelse, she had a reputation to maintain and she did her best to do just that – andshe knew if she turned around and started talking to her companions she’s blowher reputation right on out of thewater.
What good would that do, really?
Sometimes she the thought, of the two of them, that Xenareally had it easier. She could just be Xena, and be cranky, or gruff, or rudeand people just took it for granted because she was who she was.
But then, she remembered, there was the council, and the daythey’d turned her away, dismissing her influence like…
“Gods be damned!” Gabrielle walked in and slammed the doorto the cabin, glad Dori was with her cousins so she could vent her aggravationin private. “What in Hades is wrong with people?” She asked the wall.
The cabin remained, naturally, silent, and she pulled offher gauntets and tossed them over onto her writing table, stripping out of hercloak and dropping that over the chair as well.
She sat down and rested her elbows on her knees, feelingthe frustration tying her up in knots It wasn’t even anything really that momentous, just the town council,telling her off.
Gabrielle was self aware enough to know it was her egomore than anything. She’d given what she thought was good service to the town,done what she could and all that, but now she found out that what she’d thoughtwas gratefully accepted advice was really…
Well, they’d told her they really just let her talk tomake Xena happy.
The bard swallowed, caught between tears and a deepembarrassment. Was thatreally what everyone did? Humor her, just to keep on her partner’s goodside? Were all the plaudits, andthe accolades just like those of the town’s?
“Damn it.” Gabrielle whispered. “Damn it, all I wantedfrom life was just a…”
Her vision was filled, suddenly, with a deep red blob,which resolved into a pretty rose being twirled gently between Xena’s fingers.“Oh.”
“Here.” Xena offered her the flower.
The bard took it, the gentle fragrance filling her nose.“What’s this for?”
Xena sat down on the floor next to her, and laced herfingers together. “Tor told me what happened with the council.”
For a moment, Gabrielle thought about just pretending,brushing it off as she knew her partner would have done in her place.
“Yeah.” Xena wrapped her arm around the bard’s leg andpatted her foot. “I know.”
Gabrielle stared at the ground. “You think that’s truefor everyone, Xena?” She turned her head and looked at the warrior. “Everyonejust tells me how great I am because of you?”
Xena sat there for a bit, her brow contracted.
It was like being hit in the head. Gabrielle felt tearsstart to sting her eyes, and she bit the inside of her lip.
“Some people might say they’re listening to you, ortrusting you just because they want to get on my good side, sure.”
Gabrielle’s nostrils flared a little, and her skinprickled as the words penetrated her dismay. She peeked over at Xena’s face,finding an expression of wry love there waiting for her and she felt anoverwhelming surge of deep emotion that brought more tears, but for a completelydifferent reason.
“For what that’s worth.” The warrior added. “Gotta makepoints with myself, right?”
The bard had to smile. She set the rose down on her writing table and turned,slipping off the chair and onto her knees on the floor before Xena’s seatedform. “Thanks.” She rested her hands on the warrior’s shoulders and touched herforehead to Xena’s. “What would I do without you?”
“Get your kudos honestly?” Xena demurred, with a smile ofher own.
The warrior kissed her. “Now you gotta do me a favor.”
Gabrielle exhaled, closing her eyes. “Anything.”
“Tell me which jackass said that to you so I can go kickhis ass and reinforce your theory.”
Through her tears, Gabrielle started laughing, and theyboth tumbled together on the floor in a tangle of limbs and giggles.
“To Hades with all of em.”
“Hey.” Ares prodded her.
Reluctantly, Gabrielle lifted her cheek off the rock andturned her head to look at him. “Yes?”
“Big bitch stick you again?”
Gabrielle stared at him, her eyes blinking several times.“Huh?”
Ares rolled his eyes. “You’re pregnant?”
Even the question felt invasive. The bard considered not answering, but she suspected the godof war would simply continue to ask if she didn’t. “Maybe.”
“Maybe?” Ares queried.
The bard half shrugged. “Maybe.” She repeated. “I guess time will tell.” She paused.“Wait… shouldn’t you know?”
“Me???” Thedark haired man snorted. “Trust me, babe.. I never stuck around any female longenough to be able to tell one way or the other.”
Gabrielle scratched the bridge of her nose. “I meant,because you’re a god.” She said. “Not because you screwed a lot of people.” Sheglanced past him, to find Pony listening to her, while Gran huddled in a ballon the ground.
Ares let his head rest against the rock as he gazed at her.His eyes were deeply sunken, and it was all he was able to do to keep up witheven the slow pace they were keeping. “Know how I found out the first time?”
Gabrielle shook her head.
“Dite punched me.” Ares related. “After you took the headerand she popped you out.”
The bard’s eyes warmed. “Good for her.”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle said. “Am I supposed to be grateful toyou for asking me to do that?” She asked.
“Saved your honeybun’s buns, didn’t it?” The godreplied. “Trust me, Dite wouldn’thave yanked her chain out of the barbeque pit.”
Gabrielle studied his face. “I don’t know about that.” Shemurmured. “But I wonder if you’d asked Xena, if she’d have thanked you that dayfor saving her life.”
Ares snorted, and looked away.
“You’re really lucky Aphrodite did what she did, Ares.” Thebard went on. “Because if I had died… I would have found my way up to Olympusand you’d have paid for what you put her through.”
The god of war slowly turned his head and looked at her,both eyebrows hiking. “You’ve gota really screwed up idea of mortality, doncha?”
Gabrielle half smiled. “That’s what happens when you livewith Xena, I guess.” She sensedthe warrior coming back and turned her head to watch the path, her eyesfocusing on her partner’s face as it emerged.
Uh oh. To anyone else, the warrior appeared her usual stoicself, but Gabrielle knew in an instant they were in real trouble.
Okay, they were in more trouble than the had been a momentbefore, which wasn’t really saying much to be honest. Gabrielle took her courage in her hands and pushed away fromthe wall, straightening and turning her body to face her partner. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Xenaturned and leaned against the wall, bending her knees a bit so her face washidden from view of their companions. She tilted her head and looked at Gabrielle, letting the mask slipbriefly, an expression of bewildered frustration on her face. “Got a problem upahead.”
Gabrielle eased closer. “Path get tough?” She asked, softly.“We’re doing okay, I think.”
Xena gazed at her in somber silence.
“I don’t think I like that look.” The bard murmured. “Howbad is it?”
The warrior composed herself, and straightened up. “Okay,listen up.” She said,briefly. “Looks like we’re gonnahave to… “ Uncharacteristically, Xena hesitated. “We’ve pretty much run out ofoptions here.” She looked at theeyes focused on her, aware of the responsibility on her shoulders.
Responsibility she had just betrayed. “The path’s outahead.” She explained. “Just around that bend.” With a jerk of
“What?” Pony asked. “Whatddaya mean?”
Gabrielle nodded a little, to herself.
“Out. Gone.” Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Wecan’t go back.” She said. “And there’s only one way out ahead of us, and that’sup.”
“What?” Pony said again. “What do you mean.. we’ve beengoing up, Xena!” She turned and gestured behind them. “You losing it?”
Xena visibly squared her shoulders and tipped her head back,looking straight up at the rock wallthat ended in a squared off edge, with blue sky and white clouds above it.“Up.” She indicated the wall. “It’s the only way out.”
Everyone stared at her in silence, even Ares.
After a moment, Gabrielle slumped against Xena, covering hereyes with one hand. “Gods.”
Ares slowly slid down the wall, ending up sitting with hislegs splayed out and his face a stark white. ‘Y’aint getting no help from me,babe. Sorry.”
“Shit.” Pony put her hand to her head. “You totally damnedscrewed us over, Xena.”
The warrior exhaled, and glanced back at Gabrielle, who hadlifted her head and was looking right back at her. “Sorry.” She muttered, under her breath. “Guess I reallymessed up this time.”
“Maybe some people think that.” The bard took her hand. “ButI know whose hands to put my life in.” She watched a faint smile appear.
Xena absorbed the sentiment, as it buffered her from theglares of the others, and she studied the stark, rock wall.
Only way out.
The Bard's Corner
Australian Xena Information Page