White Water Terror
By Blind Faith
Disclaimer: All the characters in the following story belong to Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright violations were intended. This story was written purely for entertainment purposes and not for profit of any kind.
Subtext notice: The following story is about two women who are deeply in love with each other. If you do not like to read this type of story, you should stop here and find a different one to read.
Violence warning: Yes, there's some violence and some bloodshed, but it's a work of fiction...and it's Xena. There's no way to avoid violence with the warrior princess around, and since I didn't want to remove her from the story, there's violence. ;-)
Xenaverse Historical Note: This story takes place shortly after the episode "A Family Affair" in the fourth season.
It had been raining for days. The roads were flooded; the rivers were raging out of their banks. The meadows were not much more than muddy carpets lightly covered with grass, and a constant, gray fog had settled over the landscape. Gabrielle suppressed a shudder as her sodden clothing was struck by a blast of cold air, causing goose bumps to race across her skin.
She glanced up at Xena, who was huddled astride Argo, and what she saw brought a small smile to her lips. It must be true that misery loves company, she thought. The warrior truly looked as miserable as Gabrielle felt. The warrior had wrapped a dark, woolen cloak around her shoulders earlier that morning, but it was nothing more than token protection against the elements. The cloak was thin to begin with, and now it was also thoroughly soaked.
Xena's hair was plastered to her skull, and rivulets of water cascaded from the raven strands. Though the warrior hadn't complained all day, Gabrielle was sure that Xena was definitely not in the best of spirits. The furrowed brow and slumped shoulders were testimony to this fact. Of course, who could be cheerful in all this slop? She sighed disgustedly and refocused her eyes on the ground so she wouldn't slip and end up on her backside in this mess.
The heavy sigh emitted by the bard didn't go unnoticed by Xena. She cast a tender glance down at her determined friend. She could see that Gabrielle had mud caked on her leather boots so badly that it would probably take a week to get them clean again. However, the bard had refused to stop and had declined several offers to join Xena up on Argo's saddle.
Instead, Gabrielle had kept up a steady pace through the muck and the misery. The bard also had wrapped a thin cloak around her shoulders, and it was now soaked and molded to her slender form by the force of the wind. She was using her staff as a walking stick to help her maintain her balance on the malleable earth, and with each step she took, the water and mud sloshed out to the side.
Even now, I'm surprised some days that Gabrielle continues to follow me through the good times and the bad, Xena mused pensively. We should have stayed in that last village where it was warm and the room was dry. Damn this weather! Oh well, too late now to change that decision. Maybe somehow I can distract Gabrielle and take her mind off this misery.
"There's a village just around this next bend," Xena directed to the bard. "Would you like to climb up here with me and ride in on Argo?" This question was asked innocently, but if Gabrielle had looked up at that moment, she would have seen the mischievous look on the warrior's face.
Xena continued. "We wouldn't want everyone to think that I'm a bully for not letting you ride up here, you know." This last statement was accompanied with a smile and a raised eyebrow as she anticipated Gabrielle's reaction. She had just wanted to tweak the bard a little to get a response out of her partner. Plus, she was cold and it would feel really good to have Gabrielle's soft, warm body tucked behind hers on the saddle.
"Xena!" the bard responded in mock exasperation. "Don't EVEN go there! By the gods, why would I hop up there now after all this time? After all, it's going to be obvious to all the villagers which one of us is the lazy one. Why would I want to ruin that impression?" Gabrielle regarded Xena with a broad smile and laid her hand gently on the warrior's chilled thigh. As she contemplated her partner's vivid, blue eyes, she began to rub her palm warmly up the muscular thigh, hoping to draw Xena's attention away from the verbal sparring. She was pleased with the results.
Xena attempted an intimidating glare, her left eyebrow arched under her rain-soaked bangs. However, Gabrielle could clearly detect the twinkle of humor and a deeper spark of passion in the hooded, blue eyes above her, so she added wryly with a calming pat on the warrior's skin, "Besides, I'd just get mud all over Argo's blanket. And you too, of course," she added judiciously.
"Gaabbrriielllle, " the warrior began in a threatening tone. "Do NOT make me stop this horse and come down there!" The intimidating act suddenly lost its effect as Gabrielle burst into giggles. Xena chuckled at the bard's reaction.
"Gabrielle, the sooner you get up here, the sooner we can get to the inn and dry off a little. Of course, we'll also be able to get something hot to eat. You know, homemade stew, warm nutbread, some warm....." The warrior's litany was abruptly cut off as Gabrielle lunged upward and grabbed onto Xena's upper arm to lever herself behind the warrior's strong body.
"Come on, Xena. What are we waiting for," the bard announced enthusiastically and then leaned forward to nibble lightly on the warrior's ear and nuzzle into her neck. She felt Xena's body quake in reaction to her body, and she snuggled even closer and wrapped her arms around the warrior. Gods, I love how safe I feel wrapped around her like this. It's like coming home and being wrapped in love, Gabrielle sighed happily.
Xena responded by looking back over her left shoulder and flashing her white teeth in a full smile and laughing out loud. "Gabrielle. You are sooooooo predictable." With that, she nudged Argo with her heels, and they trotted into the village. She hardly felt the light slap on the shoulder from her grinning bard.
The village was not really much to look at. There were about fifteen homes spread out along the narrow, muddy street. And though the homes were not particularly large, they were built sturdy and low to the ground. The wooden walls, faded to a pale gray from years of blistering sun and pounding rain, were covered with ceremonial masks and miniature sculptures carved from a dark wood that was common to this area.
Though the significance of these ornaments eluded the warrior at the moment, there was a more serious problem that drew her attention. There didn't appear to be any living thing in the village. No smoke was rising from the chimneys, and not a sound could be heard from any of the buildings. Not even the bark of a dog or the bleating of goats could be heard - just the pounding of the rain as it pelted the muddy path and splashed in the murky puddles around them.
"Xena, where is everybody?" Gabrielle asked in an uneasy whisper.
The warrior turned in the saddle and placed her fingers over the bard's lips. "Shhhh.....Something isn't right here, Gabrielle. Hop down and let's take a look." The warrior whispered this, even as her eyes were alertly tracking from building to building, hoping to spot danger before it spotted them.
After they had both dismounted in front of a building that appeared to be the local inn, Xena draped Argo's reins lightly over the wooden railing that ran along the front of the building. "Wait here, girl," she murmured warmly into the golden horse's ear as she lovingly combed her fingers through the damp hair on Argo's neck and then scratched behind her ear. A slight nod of the head and a soft snort was her answer. Reassured that Argo was fine for the moment, Xena softly grasped Gabrielle's right hand and pulled her along behind her as she entered the darkened doorway of the inn.
It was one of the eeriest sights that Gabrielle had ever seen. It was as if a magic spell had been cast over the inn, and all the people had simply disappeared, leaving the room in a state of disarray. There were half-emptied mugs of ale sitting along the counter on the left side of the room, and the flickering light from the still-burning torches created the illusion of warmth in the room, bathing the rugged furniture in a golden glow.
There were plates still laden with food scattered at the various tables, the utensils strewn haphazardly on the tables and on the dusty floor. The benches and chairs were pushed back from the tables in varying degrees of disorder. Some of the benches along the right wall had even been overturned violently, some of the wood supports nothing more than shattered wooden splinters.
"By the gods, what....? Gabrielle's ragged whisper was never completed.
An ear-shattering crash echoed across the village, and both warrior and bard jerked around to face the front of the inn, expecting Hades' own soldiers to come swarming inside. However, before the last echo of the crash had faded, desperate shouts could be heard in the distance followed by one long, blood-chilling scream.
With a quick, wide-eyed glance at Gabrielle's pale face, Xena drew her sword from its shoulder scabbard and raced out of the inn and into the driving rainstorm. Though momentarily stunned by the scream and Xena's abrupt exit, Gabrielle hesitated only a moment then adjusted her grip on her staff and bolted after the warrior.
Xena could feel the slight strain of her tightened, cold muscles as she sprinted down the muddy path, following the continued shouts and screams. "Damn this weather," she cursed under her breath. "This is a perfect ending to a perfectly miserable day."
This thought was quickly replaced by a cold fear as she drew near the edge of town. Now, in addition to the screaming and shouting, she heard the furious roar of a flooded, raging river. The sound of its fury was nearly deafening, even from a distance.
She turned the corner of the last building in town and skidded to a quick stop. The sight that greeted her caused an almost superhuman burst of adrenaline to fire through her veins. Before she could react, she felt Gabrielle crash into her back and grab onto her leathers to keep from going down in the mud. The gasping breath from the bard's mouth warmed the skin on Xena's arm, but neither woman noticed. Their eyes were riveted to the scene before them.
What had once been a wooden bridge across a peaceful river was now a deathtrap for several women and children of the community. The bridge supports closest to the village had been totally washed away by the force of the rampaging water, and the severed end of the bridge was being whipped back and forth by the forceful currents.
The other end of the bridge had not yet broken loose from its supports, but the wood had already splintered in several places. It was too damaged to allow the women and children to cross to the other bank, and it was only a matter of moments before the whole thing would tear loose and be swept down the river, sending the women and children to their deaths.
Several men from the village were desperately trying to organize a rescue. Sturdy ropes were being tossed toward the stranded women, but the violent motion of the bridge wouldn't allow them to even release their hold on the railing for fear of being tossed into the foaming, swirling torrent below them.
There was no time to plan, only time to act. Xena and Gabrielle raced to the edge of the river, and the warrior grabbed the end of a rope and began tying a loop that she could secure over her head and one shoulder.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle knew what she had to do. She grabbed the other end of Xena's rope and headed over to the group of men huddled now by the bank of the river. She had to shout at the top of her lungs to even be heard. "Here," she shouted as she tossed them the loose end of the rope. " Hang on to this and don't let go!"
She then ran quickly back to Xena and frantically grabbed her arm as the warrior turned to face the river. "Xena," she shouted to be heard. As Xena turned to look at her, Gabrielle placed her hands on either side of the warrior's face and looked directly into her eyes. "Please come back to me," she pleaded. "I love you."
Xena's eyes softened with a sad understanding. She knew how Gabrielle felt about not being able to go with her into the danger. They had had more than one discussion about never leaving the other, even in death. She could see the emotions of fear, love, worry, and pride race through the green depths of Gabrielle's tear-filled eyes.
The pain that tore through the warrior's own heart was nearly unbearable, and she quickly reached over and grabbed Gabrielle and pulled her securely into her arms. She drew her head close to the bard's and spoke directly into her ear, " I love you, and I promise."
She tightened her arms one last time around Gabrielle and then released her. With a quick glance into the bard's eyes and a brief smile of reassurance accompanied by a wink, Xena turned and dove cleanly into the frigid water.
It was a mistake, and Xena immediately knew she was in trouble.
The icy water of the river sapped her strength with each stroke she took, and she could feel the trembling of her muscles as icy shafts of pain lanced her skin. And the added torture of the swirling debris from the river slamming into her body nearly caused her to black out.
The turbulence of the water made it impossible to control her direction and nearly impossible to see where she was going. She doubted that she could fight through the current to even reach the edge of the bridge, and she knew that she would have the fight of her life to keep her promise to Gabrielle. It was the thought that Gabrielle might have to watch her die that drove Xena's efforts for the next few moments. She knew what that loss would do to her lover, and she wasn't going to let that happen. Not today - and not ever -if she could help it.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle's emotions were being shredded as she was forced to watch helplessly from the bank. She could see Xena's powerful swimming strokes taking her closer and closer to the bridge, but now there was a new problem. The women, sensing that rescue was on the way, had crowded to one side of the bridge reaching out in Xena's direction. The combined weight of the women and children on that one side of the bridge was the final step to catastrophe.
Xena continued to struggle toward the bridge even though her body was beginning to shut down. And then she heard it - the sickening crunch of splintering wood. Oh Gods...I'm not going to make it!
As she lifted her head out of the water, she knew she had failed. The bridge was collapsing into the river.
With strength born out of desperation, she plowed through the water and dove towards the closest end of the bridge. With no time to worry about the consequences of her actions, she slipped the rope off her shoulders and tied the loop to one of the bridges sturdy beams. She was just about to climb up onto the bridge itself when the final support broke loose. The force of the bridge as it swung around through the current tossed the warrior roughly to the right. Her head struck the edge of the bridge handrail hard, and then her limp body was tossed into the roiling waters and drug under the surface by the deadly current.
Watching helplessly from the shore, Gabrielle felt her whole world stop in a frozen moment of horror. She briefly registered that the bridge wasn't being swept down the river because the men were anchoring it with the ropes from shore. Maybe there was still a chance to save the village women and children, but Gabrielle's heart was focused solely on the raging river and her partner. Her frantic gaze was locked on the spot where she had last seen Xena's body go under. With the villagers struggling to rescue their families, there was no one else to turn to for help. She was Xena's only chance. Even as these thoughts registered in her numbed mind, her legs were propelling her downstream, trying to keep pace with the racing currents.
She was dimly aware that she was in trouble. She could feel the icy, raging river water as it hungrily lashed her body with its powerful force, tumbling her head over heels in the current. Her survival instincts had kicked in the moment she had entered the murky water, causing her to hold her breath and clamp her eyes shut even though the sharp blow on the side of her head had nearly knocked her senseless. She knew that she had to get to the surface soon to get another breath of air, but she couldn't even determine which direction to struggle towards.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle's chest was tight with worry and exertion as she raced along the shoreline. She thought she glimpsed a patch of leather near the surface once, but with so much debris in the water, she couldn't be sure.
And then she saw her. Xena was in big trouble. Her limp, submerged body was being propelled quickly down river in the current. Without a thought for her own safety, Gabrielle dove in and made a grab for her lover. In that split second, she knew with grim certainty that she would either save her warrior or die with her. It was that simple. She didn't want to live without Xena.
Her left hand grabbed a handful of leather, and she pulled hard on her soulmate's body to pull it closer to her own. She felt Xena's muscles contracting, helping her to fight through the current. The relief of knowing that the warrior was still alive was short-lived as Gabrielle struggled but was unable to pull Xena's face up out of the water so she could breathe.
Just as the bard got a secure grip on Xena's torso, she was swamped by a large wave and pushed under the surface. Though she couldn't get a clear sense of where she was, she began kicking hard in the direction where she thought the surface would be. Her oxygen was failing; she knew she was dying. Then, she broke the surface of the water and gasped in a sweet, lung full of air. Somehow she had managed to hang on to Xena despite the angry tugging of the current.
However, unless she could get Xena's face out of the water, there would be no way to save her lover. And then she saw it. A log nearly the circumference of her own body was barreling right at them. With a determination born from a refusal to accept defeat, Gabrielle dodged the ramming force of the log and managed to wrap and arm over the top of it, somehow maneuvering her own body and Xena's up out of the water slightly. Hanging on for their very lives, Gabrielle clung to the log and began the wild ride down the river.
One part of her brain was dimly aware of the events occurring around her and was dispassionately recording Gabrielle's efforts. However, there was a large part of the warrior that was still fighting violently to survive. It was to this part that she called upon to find the energy to wrap her arm weakly over the top of the log. She managed to pull her face up out of the water and lean it against the deeply grooved bark. She gasped raggedly, battling to keep her head above water.
As she weakly blinked her eyes open and turned her head to the right, she met Gabrielle's wide-eyed, fear-filled gaze. The roar from the river and the physical buffeting of the waves was enough to overwhelm her senses and awaken a fear inside her own gut. She could see Gabrielle's lips moving as the bard tried to shout something to her, but the deafening noise of the river washed the words away before they could be heard.
When words failed to alert the warrior, Gabrielle released the grip of one arm from around the log and pointed frantically in the direction they were traveling. Xena's eyes tracked slowly back to the river and then widened in disbelief. Just ahead of them around a slight curve, the river ended - or at least it seemed to. A spray of water was shooting up from a waterfall as tons of water disappeared over the edge and onto the rocks below.
Damn, damn, damn, Xena cursed silently as she searched desperately for a way to escape the drop over the falls.
But there was no escape possible.
The current was too strong to swim against, and the riverbank was simply too far away to reach. She looked quickly around to see if there was a solid surface of a rock or a fallen tree that they could anchor to, but there was nothing at all, just the crashing avalanche of water going over the falls.
Her eyes met Gabrielle's for a single, timeless moment. She could see emotions shining from those green depths that she knew were reflected in her own - love, tenderness, sadness, determination. Xena flinched when she felt the jagged rocks near the edge of the falls rip into the flesh of her legs as she was dragged to the precipice, but she didn't lose eye contact with Gabrielle. She silently mouthed the words "I love you" to Gabrielle and saw the bard's lips move to form those same words in return. Then she felt the world drop out from under her and felt her body tossed through the chasm of space towards the rocks below. She released a hoarse battle cry into the oppressive, gray skies in defiance of her fate, fully expecting it to be the last thing she ever uttered. There was a rush of air and water, the blinding pain of impact, and then darkness as her consciousness was submerged in an inky blackness.
The dream was a strange one. It was night, and there was a large panther hunting her through the damp forest. She could smell the wet, musty foliage as she moved through the darkness. She couldn't see the animal, but she somehow knew what it was and what it wanted. She could hear the beast's continuous roar and could feel its cold breath against her legs in the darkness. Even though the air was pushing painfully through her lungs and she struggled to breathe, she kept running from the dark apparition behind her. She had to survive, to live..........
The intensity of her struggle is what finally brought Xena back to an awareness of her surroundings. What?.........Where?.......... Her brain was foggy and confused. By the gods, what happened?
Without opening her eyes or moving, she began to reach out with her senses to try to figure out where she was, what had happened to her, and to try to make sense of the chaos scrambling her brain.
Though her thoughts were jumbled and foggy, her nerves were wide-awake and screaming. She could feel that she was lying face down in icy water, and her body felt as if a raiding warlords army had pummeled it. Her head and upper torso were resting securely in a shallow puddle of water on the muddy bank, but her legs were still submerged in the swirling waters of the river. As if that werent miserable enough, those parts of her body that hadnt been protected by leather were scraped and bleeding. She groaned aloud as a sharp pain lanced through her skull, radiating from the side of her head that had cracked against the bridge railing. She didnt think that any of her bones were broken, but her head had taken an additional impact against something hard at the base of the waterfall. She knew she had a fairly bad concussion because she couldnt hang on to any one thought for very long, and the pain was nearly unbearable.
And even though the pain was blinding, another thought registered through the fog. Gabrielle! Where is she? The thought of her lover brought her fully awake. Her eyes blinked open and then squinted shut against the brightness that momentarily blinded her. Where is she? Xena whispered again desperately. She has to be here!
The desperation she felt was intensified because of the recent events in Potadeia. Having believed Gabrielle was dead and then discovering that she was alive was almost more than Xena could handle emotionally. The campfire they had shared that night after defeating The Destroyer and Hope had been so sweet. She could remember each moment of that indescribably precious night as if it had just happened.
Gabrielle had been very quiet all evening and had spent quite a bit of time building up the fire and then slowly feeding it stick after stick, all the while staring into the flames as if searching for answers. Xena had sat near the edge of the clearing, slowly running the sharpening stone along the edge of her sword. The sword itself had taken a beating, just as the warrior had. Its surface was gouged and roughened by the many blows it had received and given during the battles.
Xena wasn't in much better shape. Her shoulders and lower back were scored with vivid, purple bruises from being thrown repeatedly across the barn, and her left arm now sported a long line of stitches that were holding together a searing wound inflicted by the deadly claws of the creature.
There were dark circles under her eyes, only a small indication of the hardships she had endured after Gabrielle's fall into Dahak's pit. The weeks spent in search of Gabrielle had drained her usual energy reserves; there was nothing left. She had been very fortunate to survive this latest battle with Hope and her monster child.
She slowly stilled the sharpening stone's movement along the blade and gazed lovingly at Gabrielle. All the things she had experienced recently overwhelmed her. The pain of losing Gabrielle, the agony of traveling to the land of the Amazon Dead and dealing with those ghosts of her past, the physical effort and emotional pain of going back to Dahak's temple where she had lost her lover - the other half of her soul.
All of these by themselves would have been enough to weaken her, but together they were more than she could handle. There was only one thing, one person, holding her together right now, and that person was sitting across the fire and staring pensively into the flames.
The pain from all these moments washed over her, and she felt the tears as they coursed hotly down her cheeks. But she couldn't take her eyes off the bard. She was afraid...afraid that if she looked away she might lose her love again, and she knew that she would never survive that loss...not a second time. This last time had taken all she had....and more.
And then Gabrielle had looked up from the fire and had looked across the flames into the tearful blue eyes of her soulmate and had simply crumpled to the ground sobbing, holding her arms out to Xena. The pain of her ordeal was too much to bear - almost too much to share with her lover, but her mind knew only one thing: She needed Xena more than anything else in the world right now.
Though neither woman knew how to ease the pain of these past ordeals, their bodies knew that they needed the comfort of each other's arms. Seeing Gabrielle's collapse, Xena had thrown herself onto the ground beside the bard and had wrapped her arms around her partner's shoulders. Gabrielle had buried her head in Xena's shoulder and had wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck.
The night had passed by slowly. The rustle of the leaves in the branches and the snapping of the fire had been soul-soothing music to the two lovers as they had sweetly and passionately rediscovered one another, body and soul. The weeks of painful separation had slowly melted away in the passions shared. Even now, Xena couldn't remember a sweeter moment in her life than that shared night of love.
Taking a deep breath, Xena pushed these memories back so she could focus on the present. With a pain-filled effort that nearly caused her to blackout again, she crawled up to her hands and knees, pulling her lower body out of the freezing water, and began to search frantically with her eyes, scanning the shore for her soulmate's body.
By the gods, I cannot.....I will not lose her again! No....no....no.... The repetition of these thoughts pounded through her mind with each throbbing beat of her heart and each lancing pain in her skull.
The damp hair hanging over her eyes, combined with the dizziness from her head injury, made it difficult to get a clear view of the area around her. She could see that the river was not moving quite so quickly through this area because the banks widened to form a small lake before continuing the journey towards the Aegean Sea.
Xena's breathing stopped with what she saw next. There were several large boulders at the base of the falls that would easily smash anything or anyone unfortunate enough to land on them. If Gabrielle had landed on one of those rocks, then there would be no hope of finding her alive.
Desperation for her lover's safety finally drove Xena up from her kneeling position to sway unsteadily on her feet. She wrapped her arms around a nearby tree and took several deep breaths to give her weakened knees time to recover so they could support her weight as she continued to scan the area. She rested her head against the roughened bark of the tree, closed her eyes, and said a silent prayer.
"Artemis, you know that I don't ask you for much unless it has to do with my bard and your queen, Gabrielle. I know that I don't sacrifice to the gods or show the reverence I should, but I need for you to answer this prayer. Help me to find Gabrielle and please let her be all right. Please!" With this last whispered plea, Xena straightened her shoulders, gathered her remaining remnants of strength, and headed along the shoreline in search of her bard.
Gabrielle wasn't sure how long she had been unconscious, but she did know exactly when she regained her senses because the searing pain in her lower back forced a whimper through her open lips. She was lying in a tangle of tree roots and branches along the riverbank. The raging water of the river was an inch or two beneath her torso, the white water crests just touching her chilled skin.
Where am I? What happened? She wondered. Then she remembered; all the terrifying details came flooding back. She remembered the last few seconds before going over the waterfall.
She and Xena had been hanging onto a log to protect them from being pulled under by the current, but even that had not been enough to save them from the drop over the falls. She could remember the sad, tender look that Xena had given her and the way the strong lips had mouthed the words " I love you." But her memories ended there.
"Well, whatever happened," she thought, "at least Im still alive." Very tentatively she began to look around to take stock of her situation.
She could see that her position was precarious. She was lying on a tumble of driftwood near the bank of the river, but not close enough for her to jump to shore. The driftwood seemed to be tangled with some fallen trees that were still rooted in the soil, anchoring the logjam against the current. If the limbs shifted or the water surged in a different direction, she would be swept back into the white water. She knew she couldn't stay where she was for very long because the water was going to wash her temporary perch downstream before too much more time had passed, but she wasn't sure she could move either.
And where was Xena? Had she survived the fall? "Xena, where are you?" She whispered silently into the roar of the swirling current. The fear in her heart at the thought of losing her mate was too painful to consider for long, but since Xena wasn't here, she steeled herself to face this situation alone.
A sharp pain in her lower back drew a ragged gasp from her as she tried to shift her position on the logs. "Damn," she groaned. "This isnt going to work. I cant move." This knowledge filled her with a desperate fear. "Well, so much for helping myself," she cursed, laying her head back on the hard, knobby surface of the log behind her.
To help take her mind off the pain and her fear for Xenas safety, she let her thoughts drift back to that wonderful moment in the forest when she had been reunited with Xena again after her fall into Dahak's pit.
She remembered that she had been walking somewhat dazedly through the woods, heading for her parents house. The weeks of recovery from her near fatal wounds had left her weakened and depressed. Xena had been gone when she had recovered her senses enough to climb out of the pit, and she had been forced to crawl for help. She didn't remember much of her early recovery period. Her mind would only register two things, the pain in her body from the fall and the pain in her chest from the absence of her soulmate.
Once she had been conscious enough to respond to the nurses and doctors in the hospice, she had begged them to send word so Xena would know she had survived. The messages had gone out, but no responses had returned. The hours spent in rehabilitation had dragged endlessly by as Gabrielle worried about the fate of her lover. She knew something had happened to the warrior because she would have responded to the messages otherwise.
And then she had stumbled through the woods, hoping that somehow Xena would survive and would return for her in Potadeia. The hope was dimming with the passage of time however, and her steps on the path had become slower and slower.
And then she had heard the endearing war cry and had heard the crashing noise of a body coming through the leaves and thickets. The moment their eyes met would be forever seared into her memory. She had known that Xena was about to strike her, but she hadn't been afraid. All the love and all the pain of separation welled out in the tears that rain down her face. Her heart, so very full of emotions, simply burst open and left her revealed and vulnerable to the warrior.
Xena had known immediately who she was. The look on the warrior's face and the quaking of her strong body were signs of her own overwhelming emotions. Gabrielle could follow those emotions simply by watching Xena's face. She could read the shock and disbelief of discovery, the horror of the near fatal identity mix up, the love, the pain, the joy, the relief....all these emotions had seemed to emanate from the warrior as they stood facing each other in the dense woodlands. The sword had dropped unnoticed out of Xena's numbed fingers, and then there had been no more time for observations because Xena had reached out and wrapped her in a loving embrace, sealing out all the horrors of the past weeks.
The memory of that embrace is what Gabrielle relied upon now to help bolster her courage. She knew to what lengths the warrior would go in order to protect her and find her. If Xena were still alive and breathing, she would be here soon, and Gabrielle was sure that Xena was still alive. Their souls were connected by the deep love that they shared, and she knew she would feel it if something had happened to the warrior.
However, since the warrior had not yet found her, it was time to see what she could do on her own. "Well, Gabrielle," she coached herself. "There's only one way to find out if you can get out of this, and that's to try to move again." She gathered in a deep breath and braced her arms against the tree roots and tried to push her shoulders forward so that she could maneuver into a sitting position. However, the lower muscles of her back clenched into a knot of pain so severe that she cried out and collapsed back onto the weakening branches.
"Well, so much for that, " she cursed to herself, gasping for breath.
The efforts were wasted. There was no possible way for her to move herself off the branches. She needed help.
As the tears of pain and frustration tracked slowly down her face, she began to call out for help. "Xena, where are you? Can you hear me? I need help," she yelled as loudly as she could. "Help! Can anybody hear me?"
After only a couple of attempts, she abandoned that course of action. The river noise was easily drowning out all of her attempts, and there was no way that anyone from the village would be able to hear her from this distance. Plus, the effort it was taking to call for help was quickly draining her strength, and she needed all of her energy reserves to help keep her from freezing to death in the icy rain.
She rested her head back against the branches and released a weary sigh of frustration and continued to scan the area with pain-filled, desperate eyes.
That's when she saw her on the opposite bank of the river! Xena! Gabrielle nearly cried with relief at the wonderful sight of the tall warrior working her way carefully along the bank. However, it was obvious to her that her partner was not walking with her usual athletic grace. Her steps were slow and stumbling, and she was leaning against tree trunks and fallen logs whenever possible to help maintain her balance. Gabrielle's relief turned to worry as she watched Xena's slow approach.
Just as Gabrielle was ready to shout and wave over to the warrior, Xena looked up and spotted her on the logjam. She could see the quick grin appear and then fade away, replaced by a look of serious concern on the warrior's face as she surveyed the situation.
Across the river from the bard, Xena's heart was racing with anxiety. She could see that Gabrielle's position was precarious at best, and the bard's face was pale and she appeared to be in pain. The branches under the bard were a combination of roots and broken branches from the river, not a very stable combination. Unfortunately, her own concussion was causing her to see three of everything, and she was struggling to distinguish between the real images and the duplicate ones.
Since communication by yelling was impossible, Xena signaled over with her hands, indicating that Gabrielle needed to move off of the logs and get to safety. Gabrielle's response was just what she had feared. The bard was injured and not able to move.
Clenching her teeth together, Xena turned determinedly to the surrounding trees, searching for the items needed to help her reach the bard. She spotted a sturdy vine high up in a nearby tree and began her climb to reach it.
On a good day the climb would have been a good challenge and a fun workout for the muscles. Today, the climb was torture. Xena's abused muscles protested every movement, and the scrapes and lacerations from being dragged down the river burned hotly when the sweat from her exertions ran into the wounds. Plus, the dizziness and distorted vision from the blow to her head was making the ground swim and her hands shake.
"This is just great! Come on, Warrior Princess," she taunted the weaknesses of her own body. "You've had it worse than this, and now Gabrielle's life depends on you. Keep moving!" Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, Xena wryly noted that she had resorted to talking to herself, but she couldn't take the time or give up the concentration needed to think about that for very long. Now she had to act, and quickly.
Finally, after a great struggle, she had the vine in hand. She braced her feet on a branch of the tree, attempted to calculate the distance to the other side, and then launched herself out over the river, holding tightly to the vine until just the right moment. Then she released her grip, somersaulted through the air, and landed on a dry patch of earth near the logjam. She was off balance when she landed, and the impact from the fall drove her to her knees. However, she forced herself to clamp down on the nausea and dizziness and stumbled over to the muddy edge of the river.
"Gabrielle, what happened? How badly are you....." Xena's question was never completed. The logjam shifted suddenly, and Gabrielle cried out as her body slid towards the muddy torrents.
Using instincts that were now driven by desperation, Xena jumped into the icy currents and reached out to Gabrielle. She was just able to grasp the bards upper arms and give a strong pull before the remainder of the logs broke loose and were pulled under the racing currents. The bard's body lifted into the air briefly and then settled into Xena's firm grasp.
The sudden movement caused Xena's feet to slip dangerously in the muck, and she knew her only chance for saving them was to try to jump from the waist deep water back to shore. If she tried to wade back with Gabrielle in her arms, she wouldnt be able to keep her footing on the slick, uneven river bottom. However, the leap would be nearly as dangerous. Because her vision and sense of balance were not functioning normally, she would be lucky to make the leap back to the shore, and she would be even luckier to remain standing.
Even with these doubts swirling around in her head, she had to take action. The icy water was already numbing her lower extremities and causing her muscles to cramp. Taking a determined breath, she wrapped her arms firmly around Gabrielle and leaped with all the power she could muster.
She made it to the shore, but just as she had feared, she was unable to catch her balance.
The sounds of Gabrielle's squeal and a loud splash accompanied the fall down the side of the muddy bank. At the sudden and jarring stop at the bottom of the incline, a hissing, painful breath was released through the bards lips. Clamping down on the pain, Gabrielle cautiously opened her eyes and found herself looking at the tightly-shut eyes and furrowed brow of her lover.
"Xena? Are you all right? Where are you hurt?" She grasped the warriors shoulders with shaking fingers and then reached up with her right hand to push Xenas hair behind her left ear and to gently cup the side of her face.
Xena slowly blinked open her eyes and focused on Gabrielles searching gaze, and Gabrielle found herself looking into the deep, blue pools of one chagrined warrior princess.
"Well, this isn't exactly what I had planned," deadpanned the warrior weakly with a twitch of her left brow. She then slowly closed her eyes and leaned slowly into the support of Gabrielles hand.
Gabrielle couldn't help it; a soft, bubbling laugh escaped from deep inside her to wash warmly over them. The laugh was a gentle acknowledgment of Xenas attempt at humor even under these painful circumstances. She was also weak from the feeling of relief that coursed through her now that she knew that Xena was alive.
She wrapped her arms more tightly around Xena's torso and gave her a quick hug. "I knew you would come for me, though this isn't exactly what I had envisioned," she murmured happily as she lightly kissed the soft skin under Xena's jaw. She was rewarded by a slight shiver that passed through her partner's body.
The discomfort of sitting in the freezing mud and water was momentarily forgotten as they explored the softness of each other's lips and reveled in the warmth of their connection. The heat of their building passion sent warmth pulsing through their veins.
Xena was the first to pull back and take a deep breath. "Gabrielle, we've go to get up and find some shelter," she murmured, trying to slow her racing pulse. "Tell me where you are hurt."
Gabrielle let her head tilt back to rest on the warrior's forearm, her eyes blinking wearily. "It's my back. When I tried to move earlier, the pain was too much. I couldn't move on my own." Her voice was husky with emotion.
"Well, hang on tight, my bard," Xena whispered in her ear. "I'm going to find a safe, dry spot for us, and then I'll check out your back....and the rest of you too." This last was spoken in a seductive purr against the pulse in Gabrielle's neck.
"Ooooo...I like the sound of this already," laughed Gabrielle as she was lifted, cradled in strong, loving arms.
Gabrielle winced as she shifted positions on the hard floor of the cave. Xena was busy getting a fire started near the entrance of the shelter they had found. Luckily there had been some old firewood stored in the back of the cave from previous occupants, and some kindling and flint had been stored on a rock shelf above the wood. Though they had no food or blankets or even anything in which to heat some water, at least they were able to build up a fire to ward off the chill from the river and the continuing rain.
Gabrielle directed a concerned look at Xena while the warrior was occupied with the wood. Though Xena had joked and comforted her as she had carried her to find this shelter, Gabrielle could see that the warrior was hurting quite a bit herself, not that she would willingly admit it. There had been several times along the path when Xena had winced and closed her eyes, and once the warrior had actually stopped to lean against the trunk of a tree, claiming that she needed a moment to listen for possible danger in the surrounding woods.
"Well," Gabrielle thought to herself as she pressed her lips together, "you can try to fool me, Warrior Princess, but I know you too well now for this stoic act of yours to work!" As she continued to watch Xena stack the wood, she thought back to that one especially vicious attack over a year ago that had truly changed their relationship and her perception of the warrior.
They had stopped their travel early that day because the heat was simply unbearable. Though there hadnt been any great place to make camp because of the dry grass and scorched earth, they had managed to clear an area of debris so that their fire wouldnt spread out of control in the dried brush. The work had been hot and dirty; the dust had nearly overwhelmed them, hindering their breathing and coating their bodies with grit.
Just as they had finished setting up camp and had started the cooking fire, a small band of soldiers had ridden up to the camp demanding they hand over their food and supplies. Of course, this was not the smartest of moves, especially when confronting one hot and overly tired warrior princess. Xena had drawn her sword and threatened their very lives if they came any closer. But the threats hadnt mattered; the soldiers had drawn their own swords and charged.
The battle that had ensued was short but very vicious. Several of the horsemen had converged on Xena simultaneously, their horses knocking her to the ground with a bone-jarring force. Gabrielle was sure that she had heard the popping of breaking bones when Xena connected with the earth, but in the next moment the warrior had leaped to her feet and somersaulted through the air to take out two of the riders.
With a couple of additional bounces on the balls of her feet, she had whirled around to swipe at three of the approaching soldiers, mortally wounding all of them with slicing blows across their stomachs and chests. With a final war cry that had scattered the frightened horses and had frozen the two remaining men in their tracks, she had flipped up and over the heads of the startled men and had used the hilt of her sword to knock them out.
It was one of the most impressive fights that Gabrielle had ever seen, and she had grinned broadly at the warrior and had grabbed her arm in congratulations. She had noticed that Xena tensed up, but that wasnt unusual at all. The warrior hadnt ever liked being touched by people, especially after a fight, so it wasnt unusual for her to pull away from the bard.
Later that evening after the setting of the sun had allowed the earth to cool, Gabrielle had suggested that they go down to the nearby lake for an evening swim. At first Xena had been reluctant, but then she had relented when she realized that the bard would go without her if she didnt agree to go.
Gabrielle had plunged right into the water after quickly discarding her clothes, but Xena had slowly removed her leathers and had moved to sit on a rock overhang at the edge of the lake, dangling her feet and lower legs in the refreshing water. "Come on in, Xena. The water feels great," she had encouraged. But the warrior had merely quirked her lips in a small smile and had declined.
Being in a playful mood and hoping to lighten Xenas mood a little, Gabrielle had grabbed onto Xenas ankle and had pulled the surprised warrior into the cool water. Gabrielle had expected a dunking or even a playful game of tag as payback for her impudence, but she hadnt expected Xena to be in excruciating pain.
The warrior had slowly emerged from the water, clutching her left arm tightly to her body, her pale features clenched in an effort to control the pain. Gabrielle had rushed to her side, visibly shaken because she thought she had injured her. It was only after several minutes of soothing reassurances from Xena that Gabrielle realized that she hadnt been responsible.
The warrior had been injured at the beginning of the fight when the horses had smashed into her. Her left collarbone had been fractured, but she had continued fighting despite the pain. If Gabrielle hadnt accidentally jarred the injury, Xena wouldnt have even mentioned it and would have stoically accepted the pain.
After that, the rest of the evening had actually turned out quite nicely, despite the nagging pain of Xenas injury. They had returned to the camp, and Xena had surprised Gabrielle by letting her pamper her for awhile.
After arranging a sling around Xenas shoulder to support the injured area, Gabrielle had snuggled up to Xenas side and had told stories well into the late hours of the night. The campfire had spread a golden light over them, reflecting off the warriors dark, silky strands of hair.
The temptation to reach out and caress the ebony strands had been too much for Gabrielle to resist, and as she had slowly stroked her fingers through Xenas hair, her eyes had met the vivid blue ones of the warrior. The moment had seemed to last forever as neither blinked nor breathed, and then because the moment was too intense to last very long, Gabrielle had smiled and buried her face in the muscled shoulder beside her. She let her lips brush lightly against the warriors soft skin and then rested her cheek against Xenas arm and gazed dreamily into the fire. The warrior had sighed contentedly and then had wrapped her arm around the bards shoulders and pulled her close. Gabrielle hadnt remembered falling asleep, but she did remember the sweet sensation of waking up still cradled in Xenas arms.
From that moment on, she made it her goal to be able to discern when Xena was hurting. She learned to read the slight clues of the warriors body. The tiny lines of strain around the eyes, a stiffness of movement, or just a slower pace when traveling were all signals to Gabrielle that there was something wrong with her partner.
She had learned to read these signs as well as she knew her own body, so it was very obvious to her now that Xena was hurting and was trying to hide it from her. Though she was lying flat on her back behind the warrior, she could clearly see Xenas ministrations to the fire. The warriors movements as she fed wood into the now impressive flames were slow and careful, as if any extra movement might cause serious pain.
"Xena?" She questioned softly.
Her lover turned away from the fire and looked down at her knowingly. "Gabrielle, dont worry about me. Im fine. You, however, are not, Love. Just lie there quietly for a minute and let me get some healing cream for your back." Though Xena had spoken matter-of-factly, Gabrielle could hear the quiet plea in the voice, begging for her cooperation.
She smiled gently and gazed lovingly into Xenas intense stare, losing herself for a moment in the blue depths. "Yeah, sure .O.K., Xena." She stuttered and a slight blush colored her face and neck. "But after you take care of me, you have to promise to lay down with me and rest for awhile. You look ready to drop over yourself."
Xena acknowledged the truth of the statement with a sheepish grin and then winked at her partner. "Sure thing, Gabrielle. Now lets roll you over and work the knots out of these muscles."
Gabrielle flashed a brilliant smile up at the warrior and then with Xenas help rolled over onto her stomach. She heard Xena inhale sharply, and she turned her head to the side and looked back over her shoulder to look at the warriors face. Xena was frowning and staring with concern at her lower back.
"What is it? What do you see?" she asked cautiously.
Xenas eyes tracked quickly to hers and she laid a reassuring hand on the bards shoulder. "It looks like you collided with something solid while you were in the river. Theres a large bruise across your lower back and some bad abrasions along the spine. How do you feel?" Xenas voice was deep and very serious as she regarded her partner.
Gabrielle took in a slow breath, briefly contemplated hiding the truth, but then decided that her body would betray the truth to Xena whether she told her or not. So, she released the held breath, rested her head back down on her forearms crossed underneath her, and began to explain.
"Well, to tell you the truth, I dont remember what happened exactly. I remember all the events leading up to going over the waterfall, and then I remember waking up already wedged onto that logjam. I dont even know what happened in between or how I even survived." Her voice had risen during this description, and Xena rested a gentle hand on her shoulder as she continued. "Earlier when I tried to sit up and move off the logs, I couldnt do it. It feels as if the muscles are tied up in knots!" Her frightened eyes tracked back up to her partners. "Xena, I ."
"Shhh, Gabrielle. I know that this looks and feels bad right now, but the pain should lessen after a few days. It looks as if you hit one of the rocks in the river or landed on one when you went over the falls, but I think that the area is just bruised. Itll just take a little time for it to heal." She looked into Gabrielles eyes lovingly. "You just relax here for awhile, and Ill massage in this healing cream. Itll be all right. Ill be here with you the whole way," Xena reassured her in a low voice.
Gabrielle smiled softly and then closed her eyes as she felt Xenas firm hands begin to move gently across her back. The rhythmic movements of her lovers hands combined with the soothing tingle of the healing cream quickly lulled her into a light doze. Sometime later she was vaguely aware that Xena had finished the massage and had lain down on the ground beside her.
She sleepily blinked open her eyes and looked over at the warriors pale face. Xena was lying stiffly beside her, and even though Gabrielle had expected to see the warrior sleeping soundly, she wasnt. In the dimness of the cave, she could see her partners lashes blinking rapidly as she fought off sleep.
"Xena, why arent you resting? You promised!" She accused gently and then reached out and softly traced her fingertips up and down Xenas muscular arm.
Xena slowly turned her head to face the bard, a wry smile on her lips. She raised both eyebrows and gave Gabrielle a sheepish look. "Its not a good idea for me to fall asleep right now. I hit my head pretty hard against the bridge and again when I went over the falls, so I need to just rest here for awhile." She put her fingers softly against Gabrielles lips, anticipating the bards worry. "Its all right. Ive had worse," she said in mock seriousness.
It was a running joke between them that every injury the warrior acquired was O.K. because she had always had worse, and Gabrielle knew that Xena was using this now to reassure her and to keep her from worrying about her too much. She decided to play along with the warriors attempt at humor because she could tell that Xena was in a lot of pain and needed the distraction.
"Have you? Hmmm worse injuries than this? Im not sure; let me think about this," Gabrielle hesitated as if she were thinking hard, then glanced over at Xena, winked at her and grinned. Xena realized that she was being teased and raised her left eyebrow, daring her bard to continue.
Gabrielle, noting the twinkle of humor in Xenas eyes, took a breath and began her list. "Well, there was the time that you were struck by the arrow in the chest when we first began traveling together. That was kind of serious, and then there was that time that you were hit with a poisoned dart by Callisto and then nearly killed by that stupid ." A hand clamped tightly over her mouth startled her, and her wide eyes jumped quickly to Xenas face.
Xena, it seemed, was not looking at anything. Her head was tilted slightly to the side as if she were listening to something, her whole body tensed and ready to spring.
After another breath or two, she glanced back at Gabrielle and removed her hand from the bards mouth, at the same time signaling her not to talk. "Dont say anything and dont move. I thought I heard something outside. Im going to go look around."
She saw the bard take a breath and start to protest, but she interrupted her. "Gabrielle, dont argue. I dont have a choice here, O.K.? Now stay alert and be ready in case theres trouble."
Gabrielle pressed her lips together in an unhappy grimace and nodded once to reassure Xena that she understood. She then watched worriedly as Xena staggered up to her feet and swayed briefly before moving quietly across to the mouth of the cave to lean against the rock wall and look out into the grayness of the continuing drizzle.
For a moment there was not a sound or a movement from outside the cave, and then all hell broke loose.
Four men jumped down from the hillside above the cave entrance and threw a net over Xenas tall form. Some remote part of Gabrielles brain registered that this wouldnt have been possible if Xena had been feeling better. But now it was too late.
Before the warrior could react in self-defense, the men circled around her struggling form and began raining blows down on her head and slumped shoulders.
Though stunned, Xena was thinking quickly of how she could get out of the netting and get an advantage over these bastards. She hadnt seen their approach, but she was certainly determined to see their retreat. Her main worry was not for herself, but for Gabrielle who was lying injured on the ground behind her.
She wrapped her arms up around her head to protect it from any further damage and tried to let her shoulders and upper back take much of the abuse, hoping her leathers and armor would help to protect her. She took one particularly brutal blow to her left shoulder, and suddenly her whole left arm was numb. She thought that maybe she had cried out as the pain radiated through her neck and shoulder, but she wasnt sure. In fact, she was quickly losing her ability to focus on the things happening around her.
She collapsed to the floor when a metal-toed boot connected with her right ribcage, and then a sharp blow to the top of her head caused the world to go black for a moment.
But she wasnt finished with this fight not by a long shot. She forced her body to relax, even though several more damaging blows battered her already abused body. Exhibiting an iron control that she had learned through many battle experiences, she managed to feign unconsciousness until the men decided that the continued bludgeoning wasnt necessary.
With her seemingly unconscious body on the ground before them, the men turned their attention to Gabrielle, who had crawled into the back corner of the cave near the stack of wood.
"Well, well, well," the tallest man drawled menacingly as he walked slowly towards the bard. "What do we have here?" He looked back briefly at his companions. "Is this our lucky day or what!"
He turned back to Gabrielle and smirked. "We really just wanted to find a dry place out of the storm, but look what we have here." His smile widened as he stared lustfully at the small blond curled on the floor. "I was hoping that you would have something cooking on the fire for us to eat, but Im disappointed. I guess that well just have to find another way to satisfy ourselves," he growled, stepping within reach of the bard.
He reached down to grab her arm, but Gabrielle was ready for his attack. She grabbed a piece of wood off the pile and swung it as hard as she could, connecting with the mans temple. Almost in slow motion, she registered the stunned look on his face and his glazed eyes as his body began to collapse toward her, and she scrambled desperately to her right to avoid being crushed under his weight.
She heard a scream near the entrance of the cave and turned in time to see Xena grab the head of the man closest to her and twist his neck sharply to the right. The snap of breaking vertebrae echoed weirdly in the dampness of the cave.
Xena was now facing the two remaining attackers, both of whom had drawn their swords and were circling in opposite directions around the warrior. Xena was crouched low to the ground with her weight balanced over the balls of her feet.
Gabrielles eyes quickly flickered over her partners battered form, and she wondered how Xena was even standing. There were multiple lacerations on the warriors head and face where the clubs had connected with great force. The skin around each of these bleeding wounds was already red and swollen.
As her eyes tracked lower, she noted that there were also cuts and abrasions covering Xenas upper chest and arms, and there was a particularly swollen knot on the warriors upper left arm, which Xena seemed to be favoring as she rotated her body to follow the paths of the attackers.
Gabrielle also noted the shallow, rapid breathing of her partner, and she knew that the kick she had taken earlier had found its mark under Xenas armor. "Damn it," she swore silently, cursing her own helplessness as she watched the circling trio in front of her.
Meanwhile, Xena was doing some cursing of her own. Her vision was practically useless. The moving shapes around her were indistinguishable blurs of color. She knew that two of the attackers remained and were circling her, looking for the right moment to attack. She had heard Gabrielles yell and had heard the crack of the wood against the mans skull earlier, so she knew that the bard was fine for the moment.
However, if she couldnt find a way to defeat these two, then they were both in trouble. She knew that Gabrielle was too injured to assist her, and she knew that if she didnt take action soon, she wouldnt be able to at all. The tremendous effort it had taken earlier just to get up off the hard ground and resume the attack had drained the last of her already depleted energy.
"Its now or never," she mumbled to herself and then leaped towards the man closest to her right hand. Her quick action took him by surprise. He swung his sword awkwardly toward her, but she was able to easily deflect in with her wrist armor. Before he could counterattack, she quickly jabbed the pressure points in his neck and whirled to meet the last attacker.
Unfortunately, with her attention focused on the first man, the second attacker had taken advantage of her distraction and had moved in quickly to slash at Xenas unprotected back. Only her lightning quick reflexes saved her life. She ducked under the swinging sword and could feel the breeze from the displaced air brush against her sweaty skin.
Though the sword did not find its mark, the momentum of the swing carried the man in a full circle. As he came around again, he lunged into Xenas still recovering form and tackled her to the ground.
Xena caught a brief blur of movement just before she felt the weight of the attacker drive her into the hard-packed earth. She didnt have time to set herself to absorb the collision, and the breath was forced from her lungs in a great whoosh as she impacted with the floor with the attacker on top of her.
Her world faded to gray, and for a moment her body was immobilized with pain. She vaguely registered the fact that the man had shifted his body so that his hands were now around her neck, cutting off her oxygen supply.
An anger that she hadnt felt in a long time surged through her then. She was sick and tired of this fight, tired of these stinking sweaty men all over her, and just tired of wasting her time on this when she had better things to do, like taking care of her lover. The grayness that had fogged her brain turned to red, and though her blurred vision didnt improve, her other senses compensated.
The man on top of her never had a chance. With a powerful surge of her muscled legs and arms, Xena pushed up from the ground and threw the man across the cave to crash into the unforgiving wall near the caves opening. While the stunned attacker was slowly rolling up to his feet, Xena lunged across the distance separating them, driving her shoulder into his chest. As he staggered backwards from this blow, she bounced once on the balls of her feet and then executed a perfect roundhouse kick that connected with his head with a bone-crunching accuracy.
Sensing that this opponent was down for good, Xena whirled wildly, first left and then right, searching desperately for her next target, reaching with all her senses to determine the next danger. When she sensed no movement from any of the downed attackers, she began to relax a little.
She took a deep breath, released it, and looked over to where Gabrielle was leaning against the woodpile. She let a slow, feral grin appear as she regarded her soulmate. "I hope that was satisfying enough for them," she growled, her voice a low rumble in her chest. "Are you O.K.?" The ferocious look dropped from her face, and she regarded the bard tenderly.
"Yeah, Im fine, but you " The emotions that Gabrielle was feeling caused her throat to close around the words she was trying to speak. Her tortured gaze found Xenas, and she silently begged to be comforted, to be wrapped in the safety of her lovers arms. Her body craved what her voice couldnt ask for.
Xena blinked to help clear up the multiple images of Gabrielle that were blurred before her, but then gave up and just knelt down and wrapped the bard in a tight hug, causing her bruised ribs to scream in protest. But the pain was not important, and she didnt acknowledge it. The only thing that mattered was Gabrielles body safely cradled against her own.
"Gabrielle?" she muttered thickly, her lips buried in her partners blond hair. "Im going to have to move and get these bodies out of here. O.K?"
When she didnt get a response, she pulled back out of Gabrielles arms and tilted the bards chin so she could look into her eyes. "O.K? It wont take long. I promise."
Gabrielle nodded her head slowly, tears still tracking silently down her cheeks. "O.K., but please be careful, Xena, and hurry." She reached out to softly trace the bruises already beginning to show along the warriors jaw. Xena winced slightly but didnt pull away. Instead she leaned forward to capture Gabrielles warm lips in a soft kiss that spoke of tenderness and love.
She felt Gabrielles lips open under her tender attention and felt the bards hands on the back of her head, pulling her closer with a quiet desperation. And then the kiss was no longer tender and exploring; it was a passionate, tongue-probing assault that left her senses reeling and sent an electric jolt through her system to her core. Her hands moved on their own accord and began rubbing and massaging Gabrielles back and then moved lower to explore. As a ripple of desire shivered along her nerves, she pulled her lovers body closer, molding their bodies together from hip to chest. She indulged her passions for a few more moments and then backed off slightly to catch her breath.
She noted that Gabrielles harsh breathing matched her own and that the pulse in the bards neck was racing, as was hers. She moved her hands up to grasp her partners shoulders and rested her forehead against Gabrielles. "Hey, you," she whispered, taking a ragged breath. She let the desire she was feeling show in her eyes and felt Gabrielles body react to it under her fingertips.
"I gotta clean up this mess while I still have the energy, O.K?" she mumbled as she trailed light kisses over the closed eyelids of the bard. "You rest here. This will only take a minute." She placed one last kiss on the top of Gabrielles lowered head and then pushed up to her feet unsteadily. It took a moment for her to regain some sense of equilibrium. Then she turned to survey the scrambled scene before her.
There really wasnt very much blood. She hadnt even used her sword or chakram in the tight enclosure. However, the heavy bodies of the men were scattered about, and she didnt want to spend the rest of the evening with them. So, they were going to have to be carried out of the cave, and she didnt think that she had the strength left for that kind of job.
As she stood there contemplating her next move, she heard an approaching horse. She and Gabrielle exchanged anxious looks, and she moved quickly to the cave entrance and peered cautiously out into the gloom. It took a few moments, but the approaching horse finally came into view, its golden form a very welcome sight.
"Argo," Xena breathed out a sigh of relief and stepped out into the rain to embrace the mare. "You found us!" she murmured into the horses ear as she scratched behind each one. "Come on, girl. Your timing is superb, as usual," she chuckled softly.
As she led Argo into the cave, she glanced over at Gabrielle who was grinning happily. "Look who found us!" the bard quipped. "Rescued again."
Xena grinned also and then turned back to Argo. "Stay right here, girl, for a moment. We have job to do."
She then removed the rope from the saddle and used it to tie the ankles of each man to the horse and then led Argo back outside, dragging the attackers out into the rain and away from the cave. A couple of times she had to stop and rest her head against Argos flank because the dizziness from her concussion weakened her, but with Argos help, she was able to finish disposing of the bodies and headed back to their camp.
The longer Xena was on her feet, the worse the dizziness muddled her thoughts and dimmed her eyesight. She could barely make her feet track as she stumbled beside Argo.
"Argo. Whoa, girl. I need you to help me out here. Im going to hang on to the saddlehorn, and I want you to go back to Gabrielle and the cave," she muttered in a raspy voice. When Argo didnt immediately move, she commanded in a sharper voice. "Go back to Gabrielle, girl. Go!" This time Argo responded to the desperation in her masters voice and headed slowly back towards the cave, supporting most of the warriors weight. The trip back was much slower than the trip away from the cave, and it was nearly a candlemark before they made it back.
Xena straightened away from Argos much-needed support and steeled herself to make it into the cave without collapsing in front of Gabrielle. There was no sense in worrying her love about something she could do nothing about.
She decided to grab a couple of supplies off the saddle that they would need during the night. She draped a bedroll over her left shoulder, threw the saddlebags over her right shoulder, and grabbed the waterskin off the front of the saddle. Everything else was going to have to wait until morning.
She patted Argo firmly on the neck and then walked determinedly into the dim interior of the cave.
As she entered the cave, she saw that Gabrielle, who had crawled back over to the fire and had thrown some more logs into the flames, was now resting flat on her back near its emanating warmth. Her eyes were closed, her lashes clearly outlined against her pale cheeks. Her eyes fluttered open when she heard the warrior approach.
She watched as Xena sank wearily down onto her knees and let her head drop forward between her shoulders, her chin resting on her chest. The bedroll, saddlebags, and waterskin all dropped heavily onto the earth beside her. The warrior had her hands braced on her knees, and Gabrielle was pretty sure that was the only thing that was keeping her from pitching forward onto her face.
"Xena," she began softly, watching the warriors face closely. "Are you all right?"
Xena wearily lifted her head and looked over at Gabrielle, a small smile curving her lips. "Oh yeah. Doin just fine, Gabrielle," she whispered. And then in a stronger voice, "Just tired and hungry. And," she continued, looking down at the supplies lying around her on the ground, "we are going to take care of that right now."
She looked back up and made eye contact with the bard and noticed that her optimism had brought a smile to her partners face. Now if she could just get her body to cooperate, the evening might turn out to be much nicer than the day had been.
It didnt take long to get the bedroll laid out and the cooking pot set up over the fire. Xena put some soup on to simmer by pouring some water and dried vegetables into the pot, and she dug out some dried meat for them to chew on while they waited and rested. Finished with these tasks for the moment, she sat down carefully on the furs beside Gabrielle and wearily closed her eyes. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs, letting her head drop forward to rest on her knees.
Gabrielle reached out and gently grasped Xenas right shoulder. "Xena?" When the warrior didnt answer right away, Gabrielles concern increased, and she grasped Xenas arm and pulled herself closer to her partner. "Xena, are you all right?" she asked more urgently. She could clearly see the purple bruises forming under the warriors skin along her arms and legs, and the cuts and abrasions from the trip down the river and from the fight were red and swollen. Most of the dried blood had been washed away by the rain earlier, but there were still traces of it mixed with the mud that was caked on the warriors body and her leathers.
Xena slowly turned her head to the right, letting it still rest on her knees, and looked into Gabrielles eyes. "Im not feeling great at the moment." She took a breath as if to say more, but then closed her eyes and let the air leave her lungs as a heavy sigh.
Sensing there was more, Gabrielle pressed on. "Xena, what is it? Tell me where youre hurting," she pleaded gently. Her hand on Xenas arm had begun to caress the warriors skin comfortingly.
Xena blinked open her eyes again and gave the bard a wry, hooded look. "Im hurting in so many places that I dont even know where to begin, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle didnt bother to hide her surprise and alarm. If Xena were admitting this much, then she was hurting pretty badly. The warrior was notorious for hiding her pain, and an admission like this was more than just a little unusual.
"Xena, lie back on the bedroll and let me help you," Gabrielle began in a no-nonsense voice. When the warrior started to protest, Gabrielle reached over and covered Xenas mouth with her hand. "Shhh, dont protest. Just lie back and let me take care of you for awhile, my warrior."
Xena knew there was no use in protesting. She could see the determined glint in her lovers eyes, so she slowly lifted her head off her knees, straightened out her legs, and lay back on the furs. A spasm in the muscles of her shoulders and back drew a low moan from deep in her throat, but after a moment the spasms subsided into a dull ache that seemed to radiate to all parts of her body, intensifying the pain in her skull.
"How are you doing?" the bard asked cautiously as she gingerly rolled onto her side and supported her weight on her left elbow. She reached out and rested a comforting hand on Xenas forehead and smoothed the bangs back from her face.
Blue eyes tracked to meet the intense green ones leaning over her. "I think Ill be fine with a little rest," she mumbled, "but I cant go to sleep yet because of this concussion." She frowned a little and closed her eyes, "But Im just so sleepy," she slurred.
"Xena, youve got to stay awake. Let me help," Gabrielle encouraged as she laid her hand gently against the warriors bruised face. "Lets fold up this end of the bed roll and prop you against it while I clean up some of these wounds. Can you help me do that?"
Xena opened her eyes slightly, nailing the bard with a slightly arrogant look. "Gabrielle, after all that weve been through today, surely we can manhandle this bed roll into place." Xenas deep voice caused goosebumps to form along Gabrielles neck and arms, the warriors wry humor once again bringing a smile to her face.
"Yeah, Warrior Man-Handling Princess, you can do it all!" Gabrielle teased, reaching over to smack Xenas stomach lightly. "Lets get moving so I can get you cleaned up."
It took a long time and much more effort than usual from the two women, but soon the furs were rearranged, the waterskin and medicine bag had been collected, and the two were again lying comfortably side by side.
As Gabrielle began to carefully clean the cuts on the warriors face, she asked, "Xena, are you in the mood to hear a story?" She was hoping to distract her partner from the pain she was about to cause as she cleaned the dirt and blood out of the open wounds.
Xena, whose eyes had been closed, opened her eyes and glanced over at Gabrielle who was lying beside her and leaning close, studying the injuries with a practiced eye. "Sure, Gabrielle, but you have to tell one that I havent yet heard," she challenged. She knew that Gabrielle was worried about her and had wanted to distract her, but Xena also wanted to distract Gabrielle from the unwelcome task with which she was faced.
A brief look of surprise flashed across the bards face, and her eyes jerked to meet the bright blue ones only inches from her own. The surprised look was quickly replaced by a warm smile as she realized that Xena was hoping to distract her also. "Well ..," she drawled teasingly, "since it was you that made the request, I guess Ill see what I can come up with. Hmmm .," she paused dramatically. " I do believe that I have just the story for someone with your .interests," she deadpanned, both eyebrows lifting suggestively.
"Hey, and just what do you mean by that!" Xena feigned outrage.
"Relax! I was just teasing you, Warrior Princess," Gabrielle soothed with a smile. "Have you heard the story of Merwolf, hero of southern Greece?" She smiled even wider when she saw the warrior look at her with great interest.
"No. No, I dont believe that Ive ever heard that one," Xena commented as she shifted to find a more comfortable position. "But Id really like to," she added, smiling impishly.
Gabrielle dipped the cleansing rag into the ointment and continued applying it to Xenas wounds as she spoke. "Well, since youve been so good today, I guess I can be persuaded to tell you the tale of one of the greatest heroes of early Greece," Gabrielles voice rose a little and took on the performance quality she used in front of larger audiences. Xena smiled to herself and settled back to hear the tale.
"There once was a kingdom on the southern-most point of Greece that was ruled by a noble king, Acrisius, and his beautiful wife, Melissa. The people of the kingdom had lived peacefully for many years because the trading had been prosperous with the Minoans across the sea. However, one day that peace was shattered. A band of villains and cutthroats gathered outside the walls of the city and threatened to destroy the kingdom and kill all the inhabitants unless King Acrisius handed over all the wealth of the kingdom."
Here Gabrielle paused briefly to swallow some water from the leather waterskin. She offered some to Xena, who obediently accepted, and when the warrior had finished drinking, the bard capped up the vessel, picked up the cleansing rag, and resumed the tale, her hands continuing to clean her partners wounds.
"Well, King Acrisius was a proud man, and he refused to give in to these evil men. A bloody battle raged between his soldiers and the band of robbers, and because there had been peace in the kingdom for so long, the kings soldiers were not prepared and were defeated. The king himself was also killed in the final battle." Gabrielles voice had taken on a somber note, and the sadness of the tale was reflected in her emerald eyes as she looked up to meet Xenas gaze. She found herself unable to look away from the blue depths as she continued the tale.
"Now the kingdom was open and vulnerable to the greedy villains, and the people feared for their lives and the well-being of their families. There was one person, however, who refused to accept this defeat. The queen, though devastated by the loss of her husband, was determined to not concede the kingdom to these evil men.
Unknown to the people, the queen had a special talent. Before she had fallen in love and married King Acrisius, she had been trained as a singing bard."
Xena frowned and interrupted here, "A singing bard? Gabrielle, are you sure you arent just making this up to humor me?" Xenas narrowed eyes drilled into the bards, daring her to continue.
Gabrielle gave an exasperated sigh, " Would you just be quiet and listen! I havent gotten to the good part yet." She saw the warrior reluctantly relax back onto the furs. "Thats better," she murmured, patting the warriors shoulder, ignoring the mild glare she was receiving.
"Now, where was I? Oh, yes, the queen had a secret talent. She was a singing bard." Gabrielle paused here a moment to glare at the warrior, but when she wasnt interrupted, she smugly continued.
"Now, Queen Melissa had a plan for saving the kingdom, but she didnt want the people to discover her secret talent. So, late one night she donned a black, hooded cloak that hid her identity and crept quietly out of the castle and into the surrounding woods. She traveled to the caves near the sea and began to sing of the brave soldiers that had died to protect her kingdom. She knew that the caves were full of wild wolves, and she hoped that she could charm them into attacking the raiders who were looting her kingdom. Her voice floated through the night air and drew the wolves out of their caves. Soon her sweet voice had drawn the wolves to her, and she began her trip back to the kingdom, the wolf pack following closely behind her."
Gabrielle paused here to place the cool, wet cloth on Xenas forehead, watching with satisfaction as the warrior sighed with relief. Giving her partner a gentle smile, she continued the story.
"A short time passed, and each night she would go out into the forest and sing to the wolves, telling them of the evil deeds of the looters. The night finally came when the queen was sure that she could charm the wolves into attacking the villains as they slept. She crept to the edge of the city where the attackers had set up camp, and she began to sing her haunting songs. The wolves, upon hearing the voice of their master, charged into the camp and slaughtered the villains.
The noise from the attack woke up the citizens, and they rushed to see what was going on. When they arrived at the site, they saw the slain bodies of the raiders scattered about on the ground, and on the nearby hillside they saw the silhouette of a hooded figure standing proudly, bathed in the silver light of the full moon. Standing at the feet of this hauntingly mysterious figure were the ferocious wolves of the caves near the sea.
This savior of the kingdom became known as the legendary Merwolf, leader of the wolf pack, avenger for those who had been wronged. The storytelling abilities of this hero became legendary, and her ability to tame the wolves was spoken of with reverence. Merwolf continued to travel during the night with her wolves for many years, driving all the evil out of southern Greece." Gabrielles voice had dropped to a whisper, and she spoke admiringly of this great hero of the past.
"No one knew until after the queens death that she had been the legendary Merwolf, but the scrolls that were found locked in her bed chamber documented each mission she and her wolves completed." Gabrielles voice faded out at the end of her tale, and she looked up from applying the healing ointment to Xenas last scrape and met the intense look of the warrior. She blushed at the open admiration showing on Xenas face.
"Gabrielle, thank you. That was truly wonderful," Xena spoke gently, reaching out to cup Gabrielles face in the palm of her right hand. "Cmere," she whispered.
Gabrielle slid forward to rest comfortably against Xenas chest, wrapping her arms loosely around the warriors waist. She sighed happily, securely wrapped in the protective circle of her partners arms. "You liked that, huh?" she sighed contentedly.
"Oh, yeah," Xena murmured and then inhaled the sweet smell of Gabrielles skin. "Yknow, I think its O.K. if we go to sleep now, my bard," Xena uttered, gazing sleepily into the snapping warmth of the fire.
"Are you sure its O.K.? I mean with your concussion and all, is it safe?" Gabrielle tilted her chin up to read the look in the warriors eyes. What she saw there made her heart swell with emotion. Xena was looking down, her emotions laid bare for Gabrielle to see.
"I love you, Gabrielle. Dont you ever forget that," Xenas deep voice washed over Gabrielle, wrapping warm tendrils around her heart.
"I love you too, Xena," Gabrielle whispered in response, kissing the exposed skin above the leather on Xenas chest and nestling her head into the curve of the warriors neck.
Exhaustion finally won, drawing both lovers into the warm embrace of sleep, their arms wrapped loosely around each other, their hearts beating as one. Off in the distance, the lonely cry of a wolf echoed poignantly, but there was no one left awake to notice.
Note: I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. I always welcome constructive criticism, and I can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. I would like to thank Missy Good for giving me permission to use her name and to write about the legend of Merwolf, and I would also like to thank Minka and Cathy for their strong encouragement and insightful suggestions during the creation of this story.
Until next time,
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