Disclaimers: Xena and Gabrielle belong to someone else. At the moment I think it's MCA/Universal/Renaissance. They probably own Argo, too. Lessee, subtext, no sex, violence, mythical creatures, abandonment issues, bad poetry, weird spelling (due to spell-checking on Irish Powerbook)... and, um, oh yeah-- this is Podd's fault. I mean, I wrote it, sure. But it's her fault 'cause she's a nag.
Anyway, if any of the above pushes your buttons, then please go do something else now.
-- jill =====================================
"If I'd had my pick of hide-out places," the young woman mused, "I would have included more soft cushions. Certainly I would have chosen less dripping water." She didn't get a reply, nor did she expect one-- the horse she was brushing wasn't known for her conversational abilities, after all. "In point of fact," she went on, "I wouldn't have chosen 'hiding' as being on my list of favourite activities, not that that seems to have a great deal to do with anything."
She finished with the mare's mane, and considering her options, decided she might as well braid it. There wasn't enough light for anything else, certainly not enough for writing.
Rummaging through the saddlebags, she found a length of bright red ribbon. "At least, out in the sunlight, or even in driving rain, it would be red. Here it's just not quite black. Stand still, Argo. If and when we ever leave this mole's den, you will be pretty enough for a festival."
She worked steadily, a long-unused skill coming back easily to her fingers. She'd often braided her sister Lila's hair with ribbons, and had her own done in return, in the dark of early morning before festival days. Argo tossed her head at a tug, and the girl smiled and patted her neck. "Steady there-- you may not like it any more than Xena does, but you'll stand for it better, won't you? Those festivals were fun... all our friends... we used to hit each stall in turn, and meet later, see who could get the best deal--- didn't matter on what, really, trinkets or cakes, the game was in the bargaining."
"Sometimes a bard would come through as well, and tell tales of the world outside. There was one woman who told a wild story of a hero in the East, far away, who fought with a band of funny little creatures, monkeys she called them... Lila didn't like that one, she said there weren't such animals. I wanted to see a monkey, though, and asked the bard later if she'd ever seen one, but she said she'd just learned the story from someone else. Lila said that only proved her point. There, you're all done now. Don't you wish you could see yourself, in all your new-found splendour?" she said, laughing.
The mare shook her head and neck vigorously, settling the braids. They felt odd, but not uncomfortable. Now truly at a loss for something to do, Gabrielle sat down on her bedroll and began running over a poem in her head.
"The pathless curves of fiery dawn twisted smoke-wreathing"
"round towers of stone and bright banners flying"
"Aaurgh! I can't think! Xena, where are you?!"
"Right here," came a calm, amused voice at her elbow, causing the girl to jump in surprise. "That question was rhetorical," replied Gabrielle, after she'd caught her breath. Then she turned, flinging herself in the direction of the voice and found herself caught up in warm arms.
"Did you miss me?"
"Where in Tartarus have you been?" came the muffled reply.
"It's only been since sunrise"
"Sunrise. I've forgotten what sunrises look like." Gabrielle pulled away enough to peer up at Xena's face, which she could just make out in the dim light.
"No you haven't. I heard you just now, talking about 'dawn's smoke' or something... hmm, maybe you have forgotten. Better get our things together and get out of this cave." Xena smoothly dodged the bard's cuff at this and began saddling Argo. "Hey, old girl, you weren't worried, were you... what... what's in your mane... Gabrielle?"
"Yes, Xena?" she replied innocently. "Here's the packs, they're all done up, can we go now?"
Distracted, Xena strapped the rest of their gear onto Argo and led the way to the tunnel.
The trio wound their way through the tight passage in silence, until Gabrielle could stand it no longer and demanded, "Well? Did you find that tracker?" "Shhh..." Xena whispered, "Stay back a moment-- here." Xena handed Argo's reins to Gabrielle and silently eased around the last corner. A few tense moments passed before she returned. "All clear," she said in a normal tone, taking the reins, and they moved forward into the light of late afternoon. Gabrielle blinked furiously in the brightness, shading her eyes with her free hand. They were in a small canyon formed mostly of limestone, with very little vegetation to filter the sun's rays. "Guess it wasn't that long," she muttered, "seemed forever, though." Xena chuckled, "Yeah, I guess-- what in the world did you do to Argo?!"
The intricate braids, highlighted with red weaving in and out of the white-gold hair, caused the horse's mane to stand up on top of her neck in an unmistakably festive pattern. "I won't be able to undo that with anything less than a knife. Gabrielle, you know how long it takes a mane to grow back!" Gabrielle smiled weakly, "But Xena, it's so pretty. C'mon, let's go... um, where are we going?"
"All she needs now are little bells-- don't even think about it!" Xena said, as Gabrielle's eyes gleamed at the thought. "Yes, I found the tracker. She said Lyamen hired her only to identify the marks, nothing more. She said she didn't know what made them, and from the size of them she didn't want to know. She just wanted another drink."
"But you still think it's the same one?"
"Yeah. And it's somewhere in these hills."
"If you say so." Gabrielle sighed as they made their way farther up the canyon. Xena still led Argo just ahead, since the track they were following was clear only to the warrior's eyes; to Gabrielle, the rocks seemed just as thick on ground where they walked as anywhere else.
After a hour or so of this, they reached a semi-sheltered plateau, where Xena called a halt. The sun was a crimson band across the western sky and the warrior knew they'd have to hurry to set up any kind of decent camp before true dark. Some time before, a lone tree at the plateau's edge had been lightning-blasted into lifeless shards; the wood was dry and made a fine fire, an unexpected luxury. Xena sat beside it, lost in thought even as her eyes constantly roamed the edges of the fire's light for danger.
Her musings were broken as Gabrielle knelt before her, holding out a bowl of sweet-smelling stew. "Thank you," she said, smiling and surprising the bard. "You're welcome-- I wasn't sure you were in there," she smiled back, "but since you are, isn't it time you came clean? I know that was a dangerous town you were in today, but why did I have to be stuffed into such a nasty hole while you were off gallivanting around? Could've stayed by that nice stream we were at this morning, but oh, no, let's find the ickiest spot in all of Greece to keep the bard."
Xena interrupted before Gabrielle could get truly wound up. "One: You couldn't stay with me, and you know why. Two: If I have to leave you somewhere, which I don't like doing no matter what you think, it must be a safe place. That stream wasn't safe. Not with a dragon in the area. That cave, nasty though it was, no dragon could fit into. And if one did, it wouldn't stay. Maybe you didn't notice, but it was wet in there."
"I noticed. Trust me. Argo noticed. You'll notice when you try to sleep in that bedroll." Xena looked sharply at the blankets laid out by the fire and sniffed. "Hmm... be dry enough in another candlemark." "Regardless," Gabrielle resumed, "what in Tartarus is a dragon, and marks or no marks, why do you think it's here?" She waved her arms expansively and Xena reached out to catch both her wrists in her hands. "The village where they were found was burned, Gabrielle," she said quietly, her face inches from the bard's own, "burned to the ground. The stones were burned." Pulling the girl into her arms, she continued, "There were very few bones, mostly in basements. Even these were burned to ashes in places. Whatever came through sent a fireball into that town, harvested the sheep, then settled down in the middle of the ruin for dinner.
"That much I found out from the tracker. That's why she's not interested in tracking it any farther."
"All right," Gabrielle looked up from her snug perch, "I see. Now, just what is a dragon?"
"Um... a large flying lizard?"
"Large. Flying. Lizard?"
"Yeah. Or snake."
"Snake. Uh-huh. How large, exactly?"
"Gabrielle, I don't know! They can get pretty big, that's all."
"And, um... they breathe fire."
"What? You mean, like we breathe air?"
"Partly." Xena puffed a short burst of air across the top of Gabrielle's head. "Like that, except it's fire."
"And bigger, I'll bet."
The girl blinked at the fire, wondering if perhaps the tracker didn't have the right slant on the situation. "Xena," she said, thoughtfully, "is there anything else you want to tell me? "
Xena stared back out into the darkness beyond the firelight, absently running a hand through Gabrielle's hair. "I think I know this dragon."
"What?!" Gabrielle sat up suddenly. "I thought we were talking about a monster, an animal-type of monster." Xena pulled her back down while standing up herself. "Shhh-- stay down, and don't move." Carefully drawing her sword, Xena stepped catlike to the edge of the firelight and then beyond into the dark. Gabrielle waited until she was gone, then eased over to her pack and removed her staff, fitting the pieces together silently. She began counting to herself, 10... 9... 8... just as she reached 2, Xena reappeared, followed by an older woman in an outlandish cloak.
The warrior raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle's staff, to which the bard merely shrugged as she resettled herself by the fire and laid it within easy reach.
"This is Meryl," was Xena's only comment as the two also sat. Gabrielle plucked a small mug from the saddlebags. "Good evening, Meryl. Tea?" The woman nodded, pushing back the hood of her cloak. "Thank you. That would be most welcome," she responded in accented Greek.
Xena settled down on the other side of the fire between Gabrielle and Meryl and, retrieving her whetstone, began sharpening her sword. Gabrielle studied the woman as she sipped the tea, too polite to press her until she was ready to speak. There was something odd about Meryl's face... as though what lived beneath the skin was other than the woman sitting huddled in her cloak, warming her hands on the mug. Somewhat alarmed, the bard nevertheless remained outwardly calm. Sneaking a look at Xena, Gabrielle saw that she also closely studied the newcomer.
For her part, Meryl stared into the fire for several minutes. Then, reaching the bottom of the cup, she looked into it intently for a second, and suddenly stood, saying, "Thank you again for your kindness." With a sudden twist of her wrist, she flung the dregs of the tea into the fire and, setting the cup on a nearby rock, strode quickly away. Xena and Gabrielle both jumped up to stop her, but it was as if the woman had disappeared at the edge of the light-- she was gone.
Turning back to Xena, Gabrielle was startled to see the fire, which had died almost to coals, suddenly leap to blue life. Xena pulled the bard behind her and readied her sword. The blue flames grew quickly, swirling and coalescing into a frightening shape. A serpent's head formed, glaring at them, then twisted and churned and the snake's body became a ridged neck, and its head the head of a monster.
It smiled at them, wicked eyes glowing knowingly in a light of their own making. "Ssssssxeenaaa.... it's been ssso long... I've learned much since we lassst met.... have you?"
Letting go of Gabrielle, Xena brought her sword down with both hands, cutting through the apparition and splashing the coals in a wide spatter across the ground. As the bard hurried to throw water over the sparks landing on their bags and bedding, Xena poked through the firepit with the tip of her sword. Satisfied, she gathered more wood and rebuilt the fire until it was once more a warm, comforting blaze.
The danger averted, Gabrielle sat back down beside Xena. "Well," she smiled brightly, "more tea?"
Xena collapsed in silent laughter. "Gabrielle..." she said, wiping her eyes, "no, none for me, thanks. Help yourself, if you like." As the bard set a pot of water on the fire, Xena continued, "You should turn in pretty soon. I'll keep watch."
Gabrielle leaned back against the rock, mug in hand. "Keep watch? What, exactly, are you watching for? Any time, you know, should you feel up to it, while you're 'keeping watch', for example, you can let me in on what just happened. I don't mind, really. It's what I'm here for. Think of me as your best friend, Xena."
Chuckling, Xena reached out and put a hand over the bard's mouth. "Okay, okay! I get the point." She brushed a few strands of hair out of the girl's face and continued, "I don't quite know what happened-- I have some ideas, but..." she trailed off, staring out into the dark.
"Well, for starters, where did you find Meryl?"
"On the path we came up. I didn't see her; but I felt the air change. There was something below me on the path. I waited, and then I heard her. She said, 'I know who you seek. I will show you.' I brought her up here-- I wanted to get a look at her in the firelight. I thought she was talking to me. Now..."
"Do you know her?"
"Yeah... you could say that."
"I might've known," the girl muttered, taking another sip. "Okay... look. What's her connection to your dragon?"
"Gabrielle, it's not my dragon, and I don't know. Finish that, you'll need your rest." Gabrielle swallowed the last of her drink, and arranged her blankets next to her friend. "You're determined to stay up?" she asked. Xena shrugged. "It won't hurt me, and it's necessary. Now. Go to sleep."
Shaking her head, the bard curled up in her bedding, watching through half-closed eyes as Xena reclaimed her sword and whetstone. "You just don't want to wrap up with me in damp blankets," she muttered, before drifting off, listening to the familiar 'whit' of stone on metal.
The night wore on. Xena eventually packed the stone away and resheathed her sword. She'd let the fire die down to coals once again, and they gave off a reddish glow, but no real light. For light, she had the stars, and now the moon. The warrior knelt near Gabrielle's head and looked out into the night, letting her eyes adjust. Small creatures moved as shadows among the rocks, and noting their lack of concern, Xena relaxed and let her gaze drift upwards to the night sky itself. A star shot across the sky, and she smiled and made a wish. Then, pulling her own blanket around herself, she curled up next to the bard and dozed.
She woke suddenly, a thing odd in itself. Raising up carefully, she noted the woman sleeping beside her with no particular concern. She gently unrolled herself from the blanket and stood. The other one continued to sleep as she walked quietly to the edge of the plateau. The moon was full, she saw, though when she'd gone to sleep it'd been no more than at the half. Watching it, she became aware that she was the only moving thing on the plateau. A cloud ran swiftly across the sky, then another and another. The stars winked out as the clouds gathered in inky blotches covering them. One separated from the group and drifted before the moon. As she stood looking up, it spread its wings and, turning on the night wind, dove straight for her.
Xena woke early, as usual, despite her night's vigil. Easing away from the softly snoring girl, she picked up their depleted water skins and worked her way down the far side of the slope. As she surmised from the sounds, one of the underground streams common to the area surfaced just below an outcropping and spilled lightly down to a small pool. There she refilled the skins and took a few minutes to clean up. When she returned, Gabrielle began stirring out of her nest of blankets. Without a word Xena pointed her in the direction of the pool and went about the business of feeding and watering Argo.
Gabrielle reappeared, looking a good deal happier than when she'd left. "What would you like for breakfast, Xena? Let's see, we have..." Her voice trailed off as she rummaged through the packs. "Berries! and... um... okay, berries." The warrior smiled and walked over to where Gabrielle was kneeling. "Berries it is, then," she said, reaching over the girl's shoulder to snag a handful. "Hey!" exclaimed Gabrielle, rising, "that's not fair! You took nearly all of them." As she stood up the warrior held the fruit well out of her reach. Xena laughed and allowed a single berry to fall free, catching it in her mouth. Gabrielle jumped and danced around her to no avail, as more berries dropped and were caught. Finally she got an idea-- leaping onto the warrior's back she began clambering up. Xena doubled over in laughter and the two crumpled to the ground, Xena catching herself on her hands and knees, Gabrielle on her back, laughing and pounding her shoulders with both fists in mock anger. "Berry thief! Give 'em up, Princess!" Xena twisted under her and made a face, waving her closed fists in front of the girl's nose. "You want 'em?" she teased her. Gabrielle made a grab for her wrists and missed, falling forward. Xena quickly caught her shoulders and held her in place. Their eyes locked, and Gabrielle felt an odd lurch in her belly. Suddenly Xena grinned, and holding the girl with one hand she waggled the other in her face. Empty. Only then did Gabrielle notice that the berries were gone; Xena'd eaten them all. She glared at the warrior, who was still giggling as she sat up. "Xena..." "Relax, Gabrielle, there's nutbread in the other pouch. And an apple, I believe." As the girl dove for the pouch and munched through her own breakfast, Xena finished saddling Argo and stowing the rest of their gear.
"There. All done-- wait, I need that pouch, Gabrielle," she said, walking back to where the bard sat cross-legged licking nutbread crumbs off her fingers. Gabrielle handed up the pouch and accepted a hand up in return. "What's the plan, Xena? Look for tracks? Hunt for dragon spoor? Wander around until the temperature rises sharply in our immediate vicinity?"
"Stake you out like a goat in wolf country, maybe, if you keep that up," responded the warrior absently, handing the bard her staff. "We'll follow this trail through that pass up ahead. Here, take the reins. I'm going to look around up ahead. I won't be long." Before Gabrielle could protest, Xena was around the bend and out of sight. Gabrielle turned to Argo, "What's her hurry? Oh, well, c'mon, you. Let's not keep Princess waiting. Be nice, and I might just share my apple with you." She and the mare began carefully picking their way down the same trail.
Xena worked her way quickly down, smiling to herself a little as she remembered the outraged girl hanging from her shoulders, her legs wrapped around her waist... 'And if I don't start thinking of something else quickly, I'll go right over the edge here.' The path continued into a small valley before winding up into the pass she'd pointed out to Gabrielle. When she'd last seen it, the valley had been covered in wild grasses and the occasional tree, and hosted a rather large population of rabbits. Xena wanted to surprise Gabrielle with something fresh-caught for their supper. Reaching the valley, she was relieved to find it unchanged, and set several snares near likely burrows. That done, she detoured over to a nearby upwelling spring and stopped for a drink. As she turned away, her ears caught the sounds of laboured breathing somewhere in the bushes by the spring. All senses on alert, the warrior pushed her way into the tangle.
Why the woman was still breathing at all was a mystery to Xena. She was lying facing away from the warrior, on her stomach. Over half of her body had been burned in a sweeping pattern from her left shoulder and curving down across her hips and on over her right leg, as though she'd been caught in a precise stream of fire. Xena carefully circled around her. As she came into view, the woman blinked at her, "Hello... Xena. I could use... some of that tea... right about now."
Xena knelt beside her. "Hello, Meryl. I can cut off the pain, but I'm afraid I can't do much more than that." Meryl smiled slightly. "Yes, please," she said, and as Xena numbed her body below the neck, she sighed in real relief, "Thank you. Indonia's found the way out. She doesn't need anyone else now. That's what she thinks, anyway. May I have some water, please? There should be a cup over there," she indicated a point just past her head with her eyes. Xena stared into the brush a moment, then saw it. She raised her eyebrows. A cup? A clear chalice carved from a single diamond, with a gold band running around it near the rim. Retrieving it, she made her way to the spring, filled it and returned. As she held the cup to Meryl's lips, Xena noticed that the water seemed to shimmer.
Meryl drank deeply, and closing her eyes, smiled in contentment. "Thank you. Once again, you have given me exactly what I needed. Indonia thought to taunt me by leaving that cup there, so close. She thought you'd kill me outright. Once you would have."
Taking a deep breath, Meryl suddenly sat up. Xena sprang back in alarm and drew her sword, holding it before her with both hands. Meryl's burns were gone. Not healed... gone. Ignoring the warrior's defensive stance, Meryl made a long arm and, taking the cup from where Xena'd dropped it, lifted it in salute. "I see you've had a change of heart since we first met." The sorceress stood and continued, "It's a wonder Indonia's gotten so far, really. Shall we go find your friend? Before she gets ahead of us?" When Xena didn't move, Meryl made an exasperated noise. "Xena, we have no quarrel between us, and we do have a common goal." Xena stared at the woman a moment longer, then abruptly sheathed her sword. "All right," the warrior said, concern for Gabrielle outweighing her distrust of the sorceress, "Let's go."
Picking their way slowly down the side of the plateau toward the valley below, Gabrielle and Argo were mostly concerned with keeping all six of their feet on the path. The ground was loose, and they sent the occasional rock skittering off the side more often than Gabrielle liked. It interrupted the story she was telling the horse, causing her to lose the flow of her narrative.
Gabrielle spun around, her staff up and ready. There was no one there. Argo looked at her quizzically, and she spent a moment reassuring the horse that she hadn't lost her mind. Resuming the journey once more, they proceeded more cautiously.
"Out for a little walk, are we?"
Gabrielle looked around frantically. Again, nothing. "Argo? What's going on? Do you hear anyone?" The mare just looked calmly back at her. "No, of course not. Maybe I am losing my mind," she muttered, but she gripped staff and reins until her knuckles turned white as the two started again down the path.
"Pleassse, watch your ssstep..."
Gabrielle twisted round again, angry, then panicked, as her foot slipped through a solid-seeming rock and she slid down over the edge. Her hold on Argo's reins kept her from toppling off entirely, but she was fully extended and unable to work her way back up; moreover, Argo, in trying to pull the bard back onto the trail, succeeded only in dragging the reins sideways against the cliff edge and sending a shower of dirt and rocks onto the girl's unprotected head.
Spitting out a mouthful of dirt, Gabrielle called up, "Argo! Easy girl, easy... Argo, stand!" The mare snorted, but stood still, giving Gabrielle a chance to slow her body's swinging and try to think. The edge wasn't that far away... she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. 'Don't look down. Never look down.' She had ended up facing the cliff, that was something... Feeling her way, she eased her staff up the side until it was partly sticking out over the path, then gave it a gentle shove. She heard it scrape and slide over the rocks and come to rest somewhere above her. 'Good,' she thought, 'I'd hate to lose that... Well, here goes nothing...' With her left hand now free, she stuck two fingers in her mouth and let out a whistle she'd heard Xena use on one or two occasions, praying she'd got it right.
Argo reared in response, jerking Gabrielle up and partially over the edge. The bard scrabbled about for a handhold, almost slipping back down when Argo's forefeet landed, narrowly missing the girl's head. Grabbing a leg in both hands, Gabrielle allowed the startled mare to tug her the rest of the way. Once up, she stumbled to the far side of the path and leaned against the rock wall, catching her breath, before throwing her arms around Argo's neck. "I guess you don't really hate me after all."
"She never has, though she ought to, after what you did to her mane-- " Xena said, coming around the bend and seeing the girl with her face buried in the horse's neck. Gabrielle looked up, startled, and Xena saw the dirt and scrapes on her face and arms. "Gabrielle, what happened to you?" Xena hurried forward, Meryl forgotten in her rear. "Took a wrong turn, I guess..." the girl replied, smiling shakily as she traded Argo for Xena.
Meryl walked up to them and handed the staff to Gabrielle. "Oh... thanks..." the bard said, pulling away from Xena, "Nice to see you again... I think." Xena looked down at Gabrielle, hearing something in the girl's voice that worried her. "Sorry I had to leave so suddenly," Meryl replied smoothly, "Prior engagement, I'm afraid. Perhaps we should continue? This path isn't, well, quite safe."
At this, Gabrielle unconsciously tightened her grip on Xena's waist. Xena looked down at her and said, "All right, you-- you walk on the inside by me." Taking Argo's reins, she turned to Meryl, "Lead on. We'll be right behind you." With a nod, the sorceress turned and strode quickly down the path, and was soon out of sight.
"All right, my bard. Tell me what really happened." Xena listened as Gabrielle related the story, her hold on the bard's waist growing tighter as Gabrielle told of hearing the voice, the fall and her escape. "Xena, where'd you find Meryl this time?" Gabrielle asked when she'd finished her tale, and listened in her turn to Xena's account of finding the woman half-dead in the bushes. With much prodding, Gabrielle also received a fairly coherent account of the two women's conversation as well. It did not reassure her. "Xena," she said as they left the path and worked their way toward the spring, "this Indonia person... what do she and Meryl have to do with your dragon?"
"I told you, it's not my dragon. Hush, now, we're here. Let's get you cleaned up."
They reached the spring and Xena proceeded to unload Argo while Gabrielle washed her face. Looking up, Gabrielle said, "Um... Xena?"
"Mmmm?" Xena replied, working a particularly difficult buckle with her teeth.
"We seem to be alone here."
"Now look-- I distinctly remember there being another woma-- what are you doing?" Gabrielle walked over to Argo's other side. Spitting out the strap end, Xena said, "I'm trying to undo this. Here-- hold this piece tight. Now, what were you saying?"
"I was wondering where Meryl was.... Oh, you've got her mane caught in it up top, see?"
"Ah," Xena replied, "wonder how that happened, hmm?"
"Well, next time thread it through the braids."
"I'll remember that," the warrior growled, working the strap free. "No, Meryl seems to have gotten lost on the way here."
"She knew we were coming here, to this spring, right?"
Pulling off the saddle, Xena indicated the stand of bramble bushes with a nod. "Found her over there. Okay, girl, you're free." Turning back to Gabrielle, Xena continued, "I need to scout around a bit. Go ahead and get a fire started. I won't be far. If anything at all happens, shout. All right?"
"Well... okay," the bard replied, chewing on her lower lip. "I will if you will." Nodding, Xena gave her a quick smile before jogging off. Gabrielle watched her go. 'Now where's she running off to?' Sighing, she looked around, spotted a likely deadfall and gathered an armload of its spindly branches. 'This,' she thought, arranging a shallow firepit, 'will never burn hot enough to cook anything...' "Argo, keep an eye on the camp for me, okay? Okay."
Gabrielle retraced their earlier steps to a stand of trees near the path, hoping to find firewood in better condition than that by the spring. Looking around, she found several large limbs that she pried out with her staff. Realising she couldn't carry them all, she took hold of one end of the smallest and set about dragging it back to camp.
Xena worked her way carefully to the upslope where she'd set her snares. She found herself distracted from her search by the prospect of spending another evening watching the firelight play across the skin of the young bard. 'What's the matter with me?' she wondered. 'A year ago I'd have taken her head off for what she did to Argo. Now...' She mentally shook herself as she neared the burrows.
The second snare Xena checked held a fine, thumping buck, whose neck she broke cleanly. Moving on, she was almost on top of the last snare before she realised something was off. The doe wasn't moving, and as she undid the snare from around its hind leg, she saw that its neck was broken. Xena carefully examined the area around the snare, but found no signs of anyone else's having been there before her. Shrugging, she tied the two rabbits together and slung them over her shoulder before turning back to camp.
It was close to sunset when she got back, and Gabrielle had gotten a small fire going with the limbs from the deadfall. The girl looked up from the tubers she was paring, "Hi. Ah, rabbit stew, then? Wonderful!"
Nodding, Xena continued over to the far side of the spring to clean her catch. Undoing the bundle, she made quick work of the buck before turning to the doe. It was heavy for an animal of its size, and as she hefted it she noticed that its weight shifted around under the skin. Laying it gently on a flat rock, she examined it minutely in the fading light.
Gabrielle looked over at her curiously. "Xena!" she called, "I need your help over here if we're to eat anything before midnight." Xena did not look up, only waving her hand to show she'd heard anything. There, below the fur, she could just see a row of tiny, even stitches made with thread the exact shade of the rabbit's own down. Suddenly something blocked her light; she looked up as Gabrielle said, "Are you going to clean that or stare it into the pot?"
"Come around on this side, and look here," Xena pointed out the seam. "I'm going to cut those stitches, and I want you to be on the other side of this spring when I do it. Take that other rabbit-- it's ready for you." Turning her attention back to the doe, she dismissed the bard from her mind. This could be very tricky, indeed.
Gabrielle picked up the skinned carcass and stepped back a few paces, keeping a careful eye on Xena as she pulled her knife and lowered its tip to the first stitch. As the knife's edge cut through the threads, the lips of the seam bulged and spread apart. A bright blue light welled out, washing over Xena's face, blinding her. She dropped the knife and rocked backward. What was left of the rabbit exploded into liquid fire shooting skyward and then falling back to earth. Xena cried out as drops fell on her head and shoulders, smouldering in her hair and tunic. Something struck her from the side and she found herself falling into blessed coolness.
Gabrielle pulled Xena underwater the short distance to the far side of the spring before they both emerged gasping. Flinging her soaked hair away from her face, Xena looked back to the rock. The area around it was blackened and charred, but the fire itself was gone. On the rock lay a large, smooth object, glowing with a light golden sheen in the fading twilight. The two women swam back and climbed out of the spring.
Walking cautiously up to it, Xena reached out as if to pick it up, but Gabrielle slapped her hand away. "Xena, if you so much as think of even boiling it for breakfast..."
"Okay, okay. But we can't leave it here."
"Yes we can. Our camp is on that side. This... this thing... is on this side. Plenty of warning if it decides to grow legs and go for a walk." Gabrielle stepped between the warrior and the rock and looked up at her. "Xena, please... I don't want you to touch it."
Reluctantly, Xena agreed. They found the first rabbit where Gabrielle had dropped it and continued back around to camp. Gabrielle washed and dressed the carcass while Xena split up the larger log for the fire. With everything finally simmering over the hot flames they were able to relax.
Gabrielle spoke first, "Xena? Don't you want me to see to those burns?"
Xena looked up from the fire. "Burns?" She ran through an internal check; nothing hurt, at least, nothing out of the ordinary. "I don't think I was burned..."
Gabrielle crossed over to her and ran her fingers through the warrior's hair. "Nothing... Xena, your hair was on fire; I saw the smoke."
"Well," the warrior shrugged and smiled, "seems you were in time. Nice tackle, by the way. Have you been practising?"
"No, not lately," the bard smiled back as she settled down beside Xena. "Should I?"
"No need, you're already quite the expert." She grinned down at the girl, "I thought I was the one with many skills."
Gabrielle laughed. "Speaking of skills, princess, I think it's time for you to exercise your prodigious memory."
Xena wrinkled her nose. "Is 'prodigious memory' a skill?"
"It is for my purposes," Gabrielle said, growing serious. "No more stalling. No more interruptions. How do you know those women? Or dragons, or whatever they are? Why am I hearing voices? And why," she carefully enunciated between clenched teeth, "before all the gods, are dead rabbits shooting flames at you?"
The warrior stared into the fire a moment, considering just what she should tell her-- for that matter, just how much did she remember? She scowled, trying to collect her thoughts.
"Some years ago," she began, "I and a small band of my best men were in these hills, hunting up caves where we could store... well, we needed storage places, out of the way, but easily accessible..."
"It's okay, Xena," Gabrielle inserted, "it doesn't matter. All right-- you were in the area, looking for caves. Then what?"
"No, it does matter. See, they had to be hidden, and dry... and they needed to be big enough so that two horses walking abreast could go all the way in and turn around."
"Big caves," remarked the girl.
"Not just big, they also had to be deep as well. Most of the ones around here are too small, or they're too near the underground streams. Like the one yesterday. Makes 'em damp."
"I've been meaning to discuss that with you," Gabrielle muttered, refilling their mugs.
"Thanks. Did you want to hear this, or what?"
"Okay, sorry, please go on. You were looking for a big, dry cave..." she prompted, settling back down beside Xena.
"We'd been looking a week and hadn't found anything I liked. Then, over that pass, we came across one. Just right, too. It led well down into the hill, high ceiling... the walls were smooth... anyway, it was getting late in the day, so we stayed there for the night.
"In the middle of the night I woke up. I was in a hall, alone. The walls were covered with hangings, woven with pictures of huge flying lizards and burning towns. Torches hung from the ceiling. I went closer to one of the pictures. As I looked at it the flames began to dance. I could hear the cries of many men and women, burning. I stepped backward and the flying things were beating their wings. They flew out of the pictures and into the hall, around and around. They were immense. The wind they stirred up put out the torches, but the hall was still lit by the light of the fires in the pictures.
"Suddenly they landed, all around me. They changed shape as they did so, and I was surrounded by six figures, cloaked. Like Meryl. One of them stepped forward and threw back her hood. Indonia. She said, 'You are one of us.' I told her I didn't know what she was talking about, and where were my men? She only said again, 'You are one of us in your heart.' I became angry and drew my sword. I demanded she hand over my men. She laughed again, and reached out with her hand, touching the tip of my sword. Fire sparked and ran up and down the blade. It became too hot to hold and I threw it at her and ran, knocking out three of the women as I passed them.
"Another caught up with me just as I reached the far side of the hall. I started to kick her but she caught my foot and swung me through an archway into the wall beyond. Before I could try again, she jumped on top of me and hissed in my ear, 'Follow me if you want to live!' Then she sprang up and began racing down the corridor.
"So I followed her. I hadn't a better plan, after all. She led me through a maze of corridors before we stopped in a small alcove to catch our breaths. I asked her why she was helping me, and she said, 'Indonia's only half-right; you have a dragon in your heart, but it is not a dragon's heart, not yet. Anyway, who says I'm helping you? But if you want out of here, then follow.' She started out, but I grabbed her arm. I was still angry; I knew I wouldn't see those men again, and I wanted to know who or what was responsible. I asked her what a dragon was. She just looked at me, then she shook her head and pulled her arm free.
"We continued onward, up and up, until we finally came to an archway leading out. I could see the sun just coming up through it. She pointed and said, 'There's your freedom, warrior.' I asked if she wasn't coming also, but she said no. I asked why not, and she just smiled. 'That's not your business. I have things to do here still.' I shrugged, and walked through the arch onto a path leading down the hillside. I looked back once, but it was just a cave mouth."
Xena took a long drink from her mug as Gabrielle sat in silence, trying to remember when she'd last heard such a long story from the Warrior Princess. "So," she said after a long moment, "You think they're the ones who burned Lyamen's town."
"Wonder why they never did so before..."
"Was Meryl the one who helped you?"
"Yes, didn't I say?"
"You didn't, no. Do you think she's helping us now?"
"Can't tell, yet."
"Well, I see you're back to normal," the girl laughed.
"Nothing," Gabrielle said, still smiling, as she leaned forward and gave the warrior a quick kiss on her cheek. "Thanks for telling me all that." She stood up quickly and went over to where their bedrolls had been laid out earlier. Looking back over her shoulder, she asked, "Coming?"
Xena stood up and stretched before answering, "I think I'll stay up a little longer, just in case."
"All right," Gabrielle yawned as she wrapped herself up against the night chill, "No fooling with the thing on the rock, now."
"I wasn't planning on it," Xena muttered as she refilled her mug. Whetstone in hand, she sat down near the fire where she could keep an eye out both on Gabrielle and the far side of the spring. "But I'm not gonna ignore it, either," she continued to herself.
Gabrielle closed her eyes briefly, but though she was tired she couldn't seem to sleep just yet. Her thoughts drifted as she lay curled in the blankets to the horseplay of the morning. Something had changed then, she'd felt it... between the moment she'd leapt onto Xena's back and when they'd both crashed to the ground, Xena twisting under her to take the brunt of the fall... she couldn't quite put her finger on it, though. Opening her eyes halfway, she contemplated the form of the warrior sitting cross-legged near her, sharpening her sword by the fire's light, and her mind wandered back unbidden, to when she'd seen the firefall all around Xena's head and shoulders... a timeless moment before she could bring herself to act... the warrior bathed in red-gold light, radiating like a new sun against the sky.
Xena looked over and saw Gabrielle's eyes open. "Hey," she said softly, "aren't you supposed to be sleeping?"
"I was just thinking..." the girl replied.
"Of?" Xena prompted, smiling.
"Of how beautiful you are when you're on fire."
Xena's eyebrows shot up past her hairline, as she stared at the girl, who'd closed her eyes again. She shook her head. 'Bards,' she thought, before resuming her sharpening. But she never quite stopped smiling.
Later that night as the moon was setting, Xena took a last look around their encampment. She paused at the edge of the spring, looking across to where the object on the rock still faintly glowed. Finally she decided to leave it be till morning, and walked silently back to the fire. Gathering up her own blankets, she sat down beside the girl and took a moment to tuck her back in. Carefully, so as not to awaken her, Xena lay down herself and closed her eyes. She was asleep almost immediately.
She opened her eyes wide, and sat up. The sound came again, a distinct pecking noise. She looked over at her companion, lying unmoving in the moonlight. 'That's odd,' she thought, 'wasn't the moon setting when I went to bed?' She stood, the blankets falling around her feet in a puddle. There it was again-- she walked quietly away toward the spring and looked across.
The thing on the rock was glowing brightly now, and as she watched, it began rocking to and fro, making that odd pecking sound as it did so.
Then she was beside it, with no awareness of how she'd gotten there. The egg was shaking continuously. Wondering, she reached out and gently touched it. A crack grew under her fingers and split the thing into shards that fell away from the creature within. It unfolded, and she drew back as the tiny gold dragon spread its wings and focused its eyes upon her. She felt herself pulled forward again, the eyes growing larger, merging into one, and she fell forward into the jewel.
Gabrielle woke to bright sunlight. She pulled the blanket over her head, willing it to disperse, then relaxed to the inevitable. It was morning, and no amount of wishing would change that. She sat up, looking around for Xena, and finally spotted her on the other side of the spring, staring at the rock. That woke her, finally. "Xena!," she called in alarm, as she hurried around to the warrior's side. "What are you doing?"
Xena looked at her in some surprise. "I'm not doing anything. What are you so upset about?" Gabrielle looked at her, confused. "I don't know," she admitted, "It's just... what've you done with the egg?"
Xena's eyes widened as she looked down at her companion. "I haven't done anything with it," she replied, "It was gone when I woke up. What's gotten into you this morning?"
Gabrielle looked from the rock to the warrior and back. "I don't know," she said, forcing herself to calm down. "I don't like it... I didn't like it here and I'm not sure I like it any better now that it isn't here. You didn't touch it or... anything, right?"
Xena laid a hand on the girl's shoulder, turning her in the direction of their camp. "I told you, it was gone when I woke up. C'mon, you need breakfast."
Gabrielle allowed herself to be led back, but she couldn't quite shake the feeling that something had happened while she slept, something important. She warmed up last night's leftovers as Xena packed up their stuff. They ate in silence, the bard occasionally sneaking glances back at the bare rock.
Finally Xena could stand it no longer. "Gabrielle, are you sure you're okay? We have to go over the pass today. I don't know what's going to happen once we get to that cave." She looked around distractedly. "You could maybe stay--"
She got no further as the girl stood suddenly, spilling her drink and grabbing Xena's shoulders. "I'm not staying behind. Not here, not--"
"Well, maybe back up on the plateau..."
"Okay, okay," Xena said, wrapping her arms around the shaking form and pulling her close. "All right... shh..." She tilted the girl's face up and smiled reassuringly at her. "Well, truth is, I don't really want to leave you behind, either. Gods only know what trouble you'd find to get into alone." She laughed as Gabrielle head-butted her lightly in the chest, and they separated, each to her own last-minute camp-breaking chores.
With the last pouch loaded onto Argo, the two set out on foot up the trail. The green of the valley gave way to more rocks gradually as they climbed higher and Gabrielle fell behind a few paces. She watched the warrior's seemingly effortless progress with a trace of envy, then shook her head and set herself to the task of staying up.
After a couple of hours they reached the top of the pass and paused for a break. Passing the waterskin back and forth, they looked out over the hilly landscape before them. Xena positioned herself behind Gabrielle and pointed over her shoulder. "There. See it? That dark smudge at the base of the second hill." Gabrielle nodded, leaning back slightly into the woman behind her. Above her head, Xena smiled slightly and began rubbing her shoulders. "Tired so soon?" she teased.
"Mmrrmmm," the girl replied, refusing to be baited. It felt too good.
"Well," Xena continued, "that's where we're headed. We can be there by nightfall if we ride."
"Do we want to be there at night?" Gabrielle murmured, swaying a little.
Xena paused with her hands resting lightly on the bard's shoulders. "I think that's the only way into the hall. C'mon, up you go." She turned and mounted Argo, then pulled the girl up behind her. "Hang on," she said over her shoulder. Gabrielle wrapped her arms tight around Xena's waist and rested her head on the warrior's back. She didn't much like riding, but on the other hand she'd had enough climbing for one day. And Xena was warm... and smelled good...
Partly down the slope Xena became aware that her friend had dozed off. Chuckling, she renewed her grip on the girl's wrists. In light of where they were headed, she was absurdly happy.
They reached the base of the slope, and Xena paused to get her bearings. Sure of their direction, she shook Gabrielle's arm.
"I'm awake..." came the sleepy response. "Are we there yet?"
"Not yet, but we're going to speed it up a bit, and I don't want you falling off in your sleep." Xena urged Argo into a gallop and the arms around her tightened reflexively. Gabrielle buried her face in Xena's back, muttering to herself.
"What was that?" Xena called back.
"Nothing... nothing at all... just... never mind." Gabrielle shivered and squeezed again as Argo leapt over a small gully. Xena only laughed as she kept one hand on the reins and the other on Gabrielle's arms at her waist. It seemed forever since she'd last had a good run, and she meant to enjoy it.
Eventually as they closed the distance she felt Argo tire and pulled her back to a walk. Gabrielle looked up for the first time since they'd started running. "Xena? Where are we? Is this Gaul? Looks just like Greece..." Xena reached behind and slapped her leg. "Behave yourself, bard. The cave's just ahead." Gabrielle straightened up. "Okay. I'm alive still, you're alive, Argo's Pegasus in disguise, I've... ow! I think I pulled a thigh muscle." Xena laughed again. "All right, all right... easy, Argo." She pulled the mare to a stop and swung a leg over her neck in a flashy dismount. Turning around, she helped the girl to the ground and supported her as she stamped her feet to ease the tightness in her legs. "Better?" Xena inquired.
Gabrielle bent over and touched her toes a couple of times. "Yeah. I'll live."
"All right, then." Xena squinted up at the sun. "We can walk the rest of the way, there's time."
Gabrielle loosened up as they made their way the last few miles, and was soon trying out her latest epic on the warrior.
"The pathless curves of fiery dawn twisted smoke-wreathing round towers of stone and bright banners flying over rank upon rank of Ileum's finest."
"Beautiful Paris, beloved of immortals, their charms all around him, rejecting them all, vouchsafed the apple to his own mortal love, Helen."
"What do you think, Xena?"
"I think we're here."
Gabrielle looked up. The cave loomed over her. Gods, it was huge. She swallowed. "This is it, huh?" Xena nodded, and turned to Argo. "Let's get what we need. She'll wait out here for us." They unpacked the essentials and redistributed them into two bundles. With a quiet word, Xena sent Argo back down the path to forage until they returned. Facing Gabrielle again, she smiled. "Well, shall we?"
Gabrielle squared her shoulders. "After you, Princess." She grinned up at the scowling warrior, who mock-grabbed her upper arm and propelled her under the arch of the cave's entrance.
The afternoon sun fell away quickly behind them. Gabrielle shivered in the sudden chill. "Um... Xena? Kinda dark, isn't it?"
"Yeah... We left some stuff up ahead. I never went back for it-- should still be there. Watch your step." this last as the bard tripped over a break in the floor. "Here, hang onto my belt."
They proceeded cautiously forward into the deepening gloom, Xena in the lead, her senses alert to any change in the air, one hand trailing along the cave wall, the other holding her sword before her. Gabrielle followed, gripping Xena's belt and trying not to trip her up. After a long, slow time Xena paused. She carefully felt behind her with one hand till she grasped Gabrielle's wrist, then turned to face the bard, setting the girl's hand against the wall as an anchor. She ran her own lightly back up Gabrielle's arm till it reached her neck.
"Stay here. The cache is just ahead. I'll get a torch lit and bring it back to you." With that the hand was suddenly gone, its tactile memory like fire in the dark and cool of the cave. Gabrielle strained her ears to follow the muffled sounds of Xena working her way forward until even those were lost. She waited. As the minutes passed, other sounds came to her ears, faint and hollow. She thought she heard words in them, and turned her head from side to side, trying to make out what was being said, but that only brought back the silence. She stood very still then, with her eyes closed, and when the voices came again she didn't move. They were whispers first in one ear, then the other. Fragments of words and phrases, senseless except for a growing conviction of a malicious mind behind them. She was alone, except for the whispering demons, their voices carried on tiny breezes slithering around her ears, over her face and neck, teasing in her hair, licking at the sweat that suddenly sprang out on her skin. And then her world exploded into light as Xena returning, caught her up as she fainted.
She came to in Xena's lap, the torch set in a crevice to one side. The warrior smiled shakily down at her. "Can't I leave you alone for half a candlemark without you finding trouble?" Gabrielle shook her head, and then as memory returned, buried her face in Xena's neck. Xena waited until the girl had ceased shaking, then gently pulled her face into the light. "It's all right... I'm here. What happened?"
"I... I heard something. Someone... it, they were saying-- I don't know what, it kept repeating over and over and then it was c-crawling on me--"
Xena held the girl in her arms and thought rapidly... "It's not too late, you know," she said quietly, "You can still wait with Argo outside..."
"Xena, please... no."
"I'm not letting you do this alone!" was the fierce, if muffled, response.
"I managed before, you know. I'll be okay."
"This is different--" she struggled up and onto her feet, Xena following. "Look," she said, taking a deep breath, "let's just get where we're going, okay?"
Xena stared at her closely a moment, then nodded. "Okay. Here, take the torch. It's not much further. I got together some things for a fire. That's what took me so long, making sure that stuff was still usable."
They made their way into the back reaches of the cave without further incident. Xena's small fire was still burning, the smoke from it disappearing somewhere in the seemingly endless space above them. From an array of oddments Gabrielle managed to carry everywhere she produced a thick, tasty soup. By the time they'd finished the last of it she was tense but calm, ready for whatever visitors the night would bring.
Xena arranged their blankets in a single mound along the back wall, then built the fire up with the remaining wood. Gabrielle looked on in some surprise. "Don't we want to save some of that for later?" Xena turned and sat down on the blankets, laying her sword beside her. She leaned against the wall and patted the space in front of her. "Get your staff and come sit here. We're not going near the fire again tonight." Gabrielle did as she bid, and sat down leaning back on Xena, who put her free arm around her.
"I was separated from my men the last time, you remember," Xena's voice was low in her ear, "Don't know what happened to them. So stay close." Gabrielle nodded and leaned back, relaxing a little, one hand on her staff, the other on Xena's knee. As the minutes melded into hours and the fire burned low, she gradually became more and more aware of the warmth surrounding her, the soft shirring of Xena's breath on the top of her head, the gentle pressure of the arm across her waist. Gabrielle turned her head to one side and felt Xena shift slightly behind her. There-- she could hear the warrior's heart beating. The sound of it filled her head and she felt her own heart slow its rhythm as the two synchronised.
Xena gazed out into the dark, waiting, her mind emptying of all thought, her senses reaching out, seeking the other face of this cavern. On some level below, she was aware of the small body pressed up against her own, gave it a quick hug and was rewarded by an answering bump of the girl's head.
Then the fire died out entirely, and they were enveloped in profound night.
The first thing Xena saw was nothing. It belled out of the air, surrounding her and cutting her off from the blankets, from the cave wall itself. She fell into it, backwards tumbling, her grip on the bard her only contact with anything from her world. She felt Gabrielle cry out, and answered her, but could hear neither of them.
The second thing she saw was a point of golden light. It illumined nothing and stabbed at her eyes like a stilletto of ice. She closed them tight against it, twisting to hold Gabrielle's face to her chest. She could feel the girl shouting and fighting something and sheathed her sword to hold her with both arms. The light rapidly grew, becoming a great maw toothed with fire, and then it swallowed them.
Gabrielle felt Xena's arm tighten around her convulsively as the floor beneath them split and they fell into the night. A field of stars opened all around her and she screamed soundlessly. The stars whirled rapidly, merging and breaking apart. She could hear them, then, shrieking in the agony of loss and the joy of joining, and they formed one last shape slipping into her mind as a memory and diving, wings outspread toward them. The creature of the stars reached out a taloned claw for her and she cried out defiantly, slapping it away with her staff. She saw it shatter explosively as Xena's other arm closed around her and they twisted away from the sight.
The darkness surrounded them once more, and only the sensation of not falling told them they had landed.
Gabrielle looked up cautiously. "Xena?"
"Think so. Want to try standing?"
"Um... yeah... Xena, I think you need to let go."
"Not on your life. Where's your hand?"
Gabrielle and Xena worked their way to their feet, and stood looking around them. Xena sighed, "Wow. Glad I slept through that the first time." They were in the hall of the dragons. Gabrielle took a step toward the nearest hanging, but Xena pulled her back. "I think that calls them... if you look at the pictures, I mean. I want to look around here first."
"Okay." The two walked cautiously down the center of the hall. They had almost reached the end when a cloaked figure shimmered into being before them. Xena threw Gabrielle behind her as she drew her sword. The figure tossed back her hood.
"I see you made it. Good work."
"Meryl..." Xena spat, "Where's Indonia?"
"Not here at the moment, I'm afraid. There's a little village to the west... she was hungry." Meryl shrugged apologeticly.
"Dead. Indonia sometimes gets hungry at inconvenient times."
"And you? Did you take a vow of abstinence, or what?"
The woman smiled. "I have more... refined... appetites." She shifted her gaze from Xena to the shorter one next to her.
Her eyes became spinning jewels in the dark, and they consumed the darkness and poured it out behind her. She was riding the night wind, high above the mountains under the moon. It was cold, but the cold couldn't touch the flame within her. She rolled and turned, now rising, now diving. She swooped down over a plain... a tiny figure knelt on the ground, leaning over something it held in its hands. She couched her wings and dove. At the last instant, the one on the ground stood, holding aloft a crystalline cup in both hands. She fell into the cup and the fire burst out of her.
Gabrielle screamed and swung her staff wildly before her. Xena, distracted, grabbed her shoulders and shook her. The bard stuttered, "D-d-drink the... the sun... forever n-night..." Xena shook her again, and she blinked, coming back to herself. A slight stretching sound made them turn again to Meryl.
Before their eyes, her face melted and swam together. Her body beneath the cloak swelled until it split the garment, which fell away from her in tatters as she spread her wings and beat the air, knocking the two before her back into the center of the hall. Xena looked up into the face of the dragon Meryl. It was still smiling.
"Indonia'ss a fool, gorging herself on sheep. Almost I am her equal. Sssoon... I do thank you for bringing your friend here. From what I've ssseen, she'll do. I know it ssounds trite, but... give me the girl, and I'll let you go. You can show yoursself out."
Xena snarled and sprang to her feet. "Gods, that's old." Turning, she shouted over her shoulder, "Gabrielle! Get back and stay back!" Without waiting to see what the girl would do, Xena launched herself at the head of the monster.
Meryl roared, shooting a stream of flame at the flying warrior, but Xena's movements were too quick to follow. One of the hangings burst into fire. Xena twisted in mid-air, ululating and slicing downward at the monster's snout, laying it open. She landed to one side and it turned to face her. As she leapt back into the air and struck again, she noticed that her first cut had drawn no blood. 'Well,' she thought grimly, stabbing at its neck, 'Blood or no, I can still hack it into pieces. Just takes longer.'
At the far end of the hall, Gabrielle watched the fight, looking for an opening and finding none. A second jet of fire missed the warrior, and Gabrielle dove to avoid the errant shot. A hanging near her went up in flames and behind it she saw a small archway. The light from the burning tapestries flashed on an object just beyond, distracting her... a crystal chalice on a pedestal... she reached for it.
Meryl switched tactics, not wanting to destroy her own dwelling, and Xena was hard-pressed to avoid the blows of the dragon's forelegs. One wing was dragging, though, almost hacked through, and the skin of the beast's neck hung in ribbons. It still fought on as strongly as ever. Xena tumbled beneath another swing, stabbing upward and scoring a direct hit to its belly before rolling free beyond. The dragon's turn gave her time to aim her chakram-- it spun into the monster's left eye, blinding it, before whirring back to Xena, incidentally severing the last portion of bone holding its wing to its body. It roared in anger as Xena danced back to the center of the hall, and tucking its good wing in, opened its mouth for another shot of flame.
Gabrielle chose that moment to throw the cup. Thinking only to distract the monster, she nevertheless flung it unerringly into its mouth. Caught in the fresh heat of the dragon's flame, the chalice shattered, splitting the fire into a halo of bright sparks that fell harmlessly across the hall.
Gabrielle looked on in wonder as Xena held her sword aloft, surrounded by thousands of falling lights, and then at the dragon... wrenched impossibly out of shape back into a figure of a woman, lying broken and bleeding on the stones. She ran forward to where Xena knelt beside Meryl.
As she reached them, Xena stood facing her, sweat from the battle making her skin glow red in the firelight. The warrior held out her hand. Gabrielle ducked under it and wrapped her arms around Xena. After a moment she looked up. "Are you okay? Anything hurt?"
The warrior ran through her internal check. "Mmm... no. Nothing out of the ordinary, anyway." She smiled. "Hey... nice throw. Where'd you learn that, anyway?"
"Skipping stones. When I should've been doing chores."
"Well, let's hear it for shirking your work, then. Where'd you find that thing?"
Gabrielle reluctantly pulled away and pointed. "In that little room, off at the back." They walked slowly over to the room and peered inside. Two rows of pedestals met their eyes, covered with shards of crystals, receding into darkness at the back of the room.
"Hang on a sec... oh, give me your staff," Xena said, as she slipped back into the hall. Gabrielle watched as she fashioned a makeshift torch out of the remains of the still-smouldering hangings and blew on the end until it grudgingly flamed anew. Returning, she and the bard cautiously entered the room and looked around them, crystals crunching beneath their boots. In the torch's light, they could see painted carvings in relief all along the walls. Gabrielle pulled Xena over to one, and she held the torch so the bard could see better... a young woman sitting in the middle of a plain before a broad chalice of fire, piping under the night sky while tiny dragons grew out of the smoke and rose, growing larger and larger as they flew off in the distance. She shuddered and turned back to Xena, intending to say something, but then she saw the last remaining cup on its pedestal near the end of the row. "Xena! Over there, another one."
Xena turned and walked up to it. It glowed with a blue light as she neared it carrying the makeshift torch, and she recalled the night on the plateau. "Indonia's, I'll bet." She picked it up. It was warm, and as she held it it pulsed and shimmered.
"Oops," Xena said, "I think I woke her from her after-village-sacking nap."
"Uh-oh. What do you think we should do?"
"Well... I'm no expert, now, not like you-- hey! cut it out!" she exclaimed, as Gabrielle lightly slapped her in her midsection. "Be nice... I just fought for you, after all. As I was saying, I'm no expert, but I'll bet that if we could break it, we wouldn't have to worry about Indonia any longer."
"All right," Gabrielle grinned, "Fine. A splendid idea. But just how, o my savior, do you plan to do that?"
"Not sure..." Xena thought a moment, then set it back on the pedestal. "We'll try the old-fashioned way first. Hold the torch."
Passing the staff to Gabrielle, Xena took a step back from the pedestal, and carefully sighted down on the cup. Then in one swift motion, she drew her sword and brought it down with both hands through the center of the chalice. The pieces flew everywhere, and Xena's sword thrummed like a tuning fork. Gabrielle dropped the torch to shield her head and it sputtered and went out, leaving them in darkness. For a moment nothing happened. Then the room began to rumble and shake.
They ran into each other in the darkness, Xena somehow wrapping her arms around the bard as they fought to keep their balance. "C'mon, we've got to get out of here," she said, pulling the girl along through the archway. "Wait!" the bard yelled, "my staff!"
Xena cursed as the rumbling and shaking became more pronounced, then dove back into the room, dragging Gabrielle behind her. She felt along the floor with her foot, striking wood, then reached down to pick it up. Just as her hand closed on it, the rumbling grew to a roar and they pitched forward into the darkness.
Xena opened her eyes. No change, still black. She flexed her left hand; yup, staff's still there. Right hand; check, one bard. All present and accounted for.
"I think we're back in the cave."
Pushing off her staff hand, Xena gathered her legs under her and squatted, listening. There-- their dead fire's still popping. "I think you're right. Up you go!"
Xena helped the bard to her feet and eased carefully over to where she'd heard the noise. Stirring the area with the end of the staff, she was rewarded by a faint glow and spent some moments blowing the fire to fitful life. "This will last long enough to get our stuff together," she said. They packed up their things quickly. Then, lighting a torch from the remains of the fire, Xena led the way out.
They had left the cave behind for some yards before they realized they could see the stars. Gabrielle pressed close to Xena for a brief moment as the enormity of the night sky threatened to overwhelm her. The warrior looked down at her in concern. "Gabrielle? You okay?"
"Yeah... I..." Suddenly a lone insect chittered off to their left. Another behind them answered, and the silence was broken by a brief chorus of calls and responses, untidily tripping back to the quiet of an ordinary early morning. Gabrielle felt her world shift and settle solidly in its frame. "I'm good." She smiled brilliantly back at the warrior. "Great, even. But tired... where's that horse got to, you think?"
In answer, Xena whistled piercingly into the air, startling two early-rising rabbits into bounding straight across their feet. A moment later, snorts and whufflings announced Argo's return. They spent a little time getting reacquainted, then let the mare lead them back to a patch of grass she'd found near a trickling streambed.
The rising sun found Gabrielle stretched out in the shade of a scraggly bush, Xena sitting up beside her staring closely at her swordblade.
"Charon's ferry... I knew it... Gabrielle, look at this."
"Sit up. Just look at this... here, on the edge."
The bard opened her eyes reluctantly and rolled over onto her elbow. "What's wrong?"
"It's nocked. See?"
Gabrielle squinted and focused on Xena's finger, following it down to where it marked the offending nick. "Yeah... it is, isn't it? That's nice." She slumped back down and shifted back over onto her other side.
"Nice?!" Xena stared at the girl's back a moment, then shook her head. "'Nice', she says... gods...." She sheathed the blade and lay down on her back. "There's a blacksmith in that town we-- well, I-- was at a couple days ago... I can get it fixed there." She started to roll over, problem solved, when a small hand fixed itself to her shoulder and she looked up into a pair of once-green eyes gone cold grey.
"Xena, I'm not staying in that cave again."
"I mean it. I've gone right off caves, lately."
"I'll braid Argo's tail into her mane this time."
Xena blinked. "Okay... we'll work something out. Just... take it easy."
The Bard's Corner