Disclaimers: Xena and Gabrielle are owned by someone other than me. Surely by now we all know who. Okay, Renaissance and MCA have first call on the characters and I'm not making a single dinar writing about them. The characters I have created based in the Xena and Gabrielle archetypes are mine, however. If you want to use them, forget it. If I can be bright enough to create my own characters, then so can you.
Violence Warning: Surprise, surprise I managed to write an entire story without slicing, dicing or skewering anyone. Though I am sure the characters really wanted to cut me into little pieces at times because I took so long to write this story, they restrained themselves, hence no violence.
Sex Warning: Oh dear, I do have some of this. If the idea of two women honoring their love in full view of every reader upsets you, then I suggested you go elsewhere, now. If stories of this type are illegal in your state or country, or if you happen to be underage, a quick walk through the general section of any site will stop the law from pounding down your door one dark night.
Naughty Words Warning: Yep, got a few of those here too. Come on, I am dealing with the modern day equivalents of Xena and Gabrielle. Could you drop a brick on your foot and not use naughty words??
Thanks: Many thanks to my devoted beta reader, Laura and to my new editor, Atlas. Between the two of them this story is a whole lot better than when I first put it together.
No character archetypes were mangled beyond recognition in the production of this Uber-fic, although one is kinda hard to spot.
J. October 98.
In The Shadow of an Eagle's Wing
The Dark Warrior
Rell carefully dusted the lens she held in one hand, sighing with the sheer pointlessness of trying to keep her cameras clean in an country more laden with floating grit than any she had ever seen. But she had to admit, she had known from the beginning that Saudi Arabia would be like that. Staring out of the shattered window of her hotel room for a moment, she was just grateful she could finally put the last of her equipment away and move on to the next assignment. That's it, she silently promised herself. I don't care how much money Sal waves in my face, I want a decent gig for a change. I'm sick of war, famines, riots and big, fat, hairy secrets. I want something peaceful. Lucrative, but peaceful. Slipping the telephoto lens into its cushioned slot, she flipped the lid over her gear, locking the heavy metal case tightly. Grinning mirthlessly, she figured it would probably keep them clean for all of five minutes once she was on the move again.
Pushing herself up onto tired feet, she grabbed the bottle of scotch she had left beside the bed. Foregoing the use of a glass, she tilted the bottle to her mouth, letting the raw alcohol taste slam against the back of her throat before she swallowed. Wiping her lips with her hand, she grimaced as the liquid hit the pit of her stomach.
"Really gotta see about getting me some of the good stuff the next time I have to do one of these jobs," she muttered. Rell didn't see herself as a heavy drinker well, not compared to many she knew, but sometimes, at the end of a long, harrowing day, it was the only thing that could wipe the images of death and destruction from her mind, allowing her to sleep. Although the Arab religious leaders had done everything in their power to separate the Westerners from their drinking habits, including threats of public whippings and beheadings, alcohol in its many forms could be purchased if you had the right contacts (even in this so called dry country). After a decade as a photojournalist, not only did Rell have all the contacts under the sun, she also didn't care anymore if she was caught.
Staring out of the broken window of her cheap hotel room, the tough little woman wondered when she had stopped caring.
"Had to be Bosnia," she mumbled to herself, raising the bottle to her lips again, watching the level drop another inch or so before lowering it. The sheer volume of inhumanity had shocked her to start with, but after months of seeing one too many mass graves and taking pictures of far too many scenes of out-right genocide, she had become completely desensitized to the whole thing. She had simply stopped caring anymore.
She had to admit, though, her time in that war-ravaged country had let her takes some photos people were going to remember forever. Especially the flowerpot one. She had seen the shot the instant her eye fell on it. A gaily painted flowerpot full of gorgeous red geraniums, surrounded by shattered masonry and several dead bodies. A minuscule flash of beauty in all that carnage. It was a photojournalist's dream picture and she had snapped it off just as the UN escort was trying to hurry everyone back to the armored vehicles. Rell had known at the time it was a good photo, she just never expected it to become quite the statement it did. Even now, years after the Bosnian war had mostly ended, she still saw the photo popping up on posters here and there, as people the world over protested the massive waste of precious government dollars in the search for even bigger, and more deadly weapons.
Letting the last two fingers of scotch gurgle down the neck of the bottle, Rell decided that Saudi wasn't all that bad in the end. As a base to reach half a dozen other nearby countries, it was okay; you just had to overlook the small problems of getting simple things, like a decent scotch.
"Sal, you owe me big time for this one," she said quietly, stashing the empty bottle at the bottom of the wastebasket in her dingy room. "And I just can't wait to collect."
Stretching out on her bed, she mumbled through the pleasant alcoholic buzz, "By this time tomorrow, I'll be outta here and ain't Sal gonna love me then." She dozed off into a fitful slumber, already spending the money she knew she had earned from her stay in Saudi.
Three days later, washed and dressed in the first clean clothes shed worn in weeks, Rell sauntered into the fat little man's office. Tossing her folder of photos onto his cluttered desk, she said, "Get me a good price for these, Sal. I damned near lost my head taking them." Showing a distinct lack of grace, she flopped into the only comfortable chair in the room.
"Problems?" he asked, flicking through the pictures, dollar signs already lighting up his eyes when he saw what she had photographed.
"Seems the Saudi police don't take too kindly to a woman in jeans, especially when she is wandering about the only known harem left in the world," Rell replied lightly, not caring to go into the details of the long lecture she had been given. Being a woman was probably the only thing that had saved her from an unpleasant stay at the government's pleasure. That, and the few crocodile tears she'd shed. She had only been one closed door away from escape too, but that was just how things went sometimes. Next time she would simply find a less greedy guard.
"Shit," he exclaimed. "How'd you get the film out then?"
"Don't ask," she chuckled back at him. "Let's just say it was one uncomfortable plane trip out of the country."
"Oh," the little man spluttered as his imagination caught up with him.
"So, what's newsworthy at the moment?" Rell asked casually. "Somewhere warm, a little walking in the forest perhaps. Some place there isn't any damned sand. I've been a little out of contact for the past couple of months," she said, laughingly bringing to mind what passed for television news in Saudi Arabia.
Shuffling through the seemingly disorganized clutter of papers on his desk, Sal brought several sheets to the top.
"Well, Israel is always good for something. Hear the peace negotiations haven't been going so well," he said, looking up at the strawberry blonde woman slouching in the chair. "There are bound to be more riots on the West Bank and Gaza Strip with all those Jewish settlers building. It's got the Palestinians way hot under the collar."
Shaking her head, Rell replied tiredly, "Nope. No more Middle East. Not near or far. I want something a little more peaceful something that isn't a desert either."
Sal shuffled through several other piles on the desk, occasionally picking up an assignment sheet before shaking his head and then putting it back again.
Rell was starting to think there wasn't a single decent assignment on his whole desk when he finally pulled a much tattered piece of paper from the bottom of a tottering heap.
"This might interest you, Rell," he said, a little too off-handedly. "Look, I know you have been on the road for the past eight months "
"Ten," she corrected him, then nodded for him to continue.
"Okay, ten months. I can't think of the last time you went home, or even took a vacation."
"Had one only three months back," Rell cut in.
"I don't call two weeks, stretched on your stomach in a Egyptian hospital with a bullet in your back, a real vacation," Sal stated a little archly. The woman across from him had no idea how much he had worried about her, but there was little he could do. She would never have thanked him for his trouble, probably seeing it as Sal trying to control her life, so he kept his nose out of it. "Anyway, this one's warm and there is so much forest you'll never walk through it all."
Rell knew Sal was just trying to tempt her, dangling the bait under her nose. Okay, she thought, I'll bite.
"Where, and doing what?" she asked, appearing unconcerned. In a way, she was. Money had stopped being a problem years ago. Going freelance meant her expenses were high but her profit margin was higher still, even with Sal's cut. At least she didn't have to hustle to sell her own photos anymore. That was why she had hired Sal, even haggling his commission down from forty percent of her gross to just shy of fifteen. With what she earned each year, fifteen percent was still a lot of money, but she made sure the little man worked for every cent of it. Part of his job included keeping track of who was offering assignment contracts, hence all the piles of paper on the desk. She wasn't the only one who used his sometimes dubious services.
"And it had better not be another one of those photograph-the-politician's-kids-on-holiday deals either. You know what I think of those after the last one," she grumbled.
Sal shook his head at her. He remembered that job with a lot more chagrin than she did. How was he to know the kids were loving their daddy in quite an unusual way? Rell had gotten the pictures to prove it too.
"No, no. No kids this time. It's a full grown woman," Sal said.
Great, hairy, horny toads, she's probably sixty and wears sensible shoes, she thought wickedly to herself, keeping the slightly interested expression on her face for Sal's benefit.
"Go on," she coaxed, letting the overweight little man think she was being charmed by his tactics.
"She's looking for someone to document a trip she is doing, take pictures of artifacts, stuff like that," Sal continued. "Says on the sheet she is headed into the Amazon rainforest over in South America. Guyana Highlands to be exact."
"An archaeologist?? You know I don't do any academic work. I'm a freaking reporter, not some museum flunky. Doesn't she have some undergrad she can abuse?" Rell said, a little too loudly.
"According to this, she isn't an archaeologist. So that blows your undergrad right out of the water," Sal explained, after running his eye down the sheet.
"Then who is she?" Rell asked, her curiosity engaged now.
"Doesn't say here but there is no doctor before her name, and no letters after. My guess is she is just your average Jane. Must be loaded though, considering what she is offering on this contract," Sal said, reading the section that stated the fees, the most important part of the sheet.
"And just what is she offering? Even you have to admit, it is a bit unusual for some off-the-street type to want a photojournalist following her around for a few weeks. After all, we don't come cheap."
Sal's eyes were lighting up again with an all too familiar gleam as he read the fee arrangements off the paper.
"Shell pay all reasonable expenses from here to LA, where you'll meet her. If she finds you acceptable, and you take the job, all costs to South America will be covered; the usual deal there: meals, hotels, flights, etc. Twenty-five thousand is the fee she is offering with...wow! An extra ten big ones as a bonus if she finds the artifacts she is looking for," the man said incredulously.
Rell could already hear Sal tallying up his share in his head.
"So, she wants to go on a treasure hunt? Is that it?" she asked, suspiciously. "Why not just contract someone there? It'd be a hell of a lot cheaper."
"Seems she's picky. This assignment has been through three other agents before I got it, and no one has been able to fill it yet. It's even been underlined here," he explained, showing Rell the relevant section. "She wants a woman who can look after herself, whatever that means."
"Oh god," she muttered. "A treasure hunt with some wealthy old fusspot. Probably read some book about the Amazon jungle and wants to go see it for herself. The translation on that should be someone who can pull her butt out of trouble, especially when she can't find a power point for her hairdryer," she quipped nastily.
"There's forest, Rell. Lots and lots of forest," Sal taunted her in a singsong voice, waving the sheet under her nose. "We both know you can't resist a trip to a forest, and this is even better. It's rainforest. Not much of that left anymore, and you will be getting paid to go. What more could a reporter ask for in a working holiday?"
"Awwww, shit. I know I'm going to regret this. Okay, I'm in. When do I leave?" Rell asked, exasperated. Sal just knew her weakness for trees and greenery, and sometimes exploited it without mercy, especially with such a fat fee attached to the assignment. Got her every time.
Rell sat on the balcony of the restaurant, gently swirling the last of her drink in a glass. The idea of being inside with all that arctic air-conditioning had simply not appealed to her, especially after months in the hot Saudi desert. Seeing it was a nice day outside, by LA standards anyway, she decided to enjoy the slightly smoggy view and some genuine polluted air. Reaching into the pocket of her jacket, she pulled out the grimy piece of paper with the woman's name on it.
"Diana Aliakmon," she muttered, trying to set the name into her memory, before shoving the paper back into her pocket again. For some reason, she had no trouble remembering the thousand and one details to do with her job, but names seemed to bring her unstuck occasionally. Particularly long, foreign ones. Sal had handed the woman's name over, along with the assignment sheet, shortly before Rell had left his London office the week before.
It would have been an easy matter to get on the first flight to the US, but Rell had wanted to rest a little before taking off again. She'd also wanted to take some time finding out anything and everything she could about this mysterious, obviously well heeled woman who was offering so much money for a photographer. Considering three previous agents hadn't been able to fill the contract, that made her all the more curious. Sometimes, Rell thought her biggest failing was her fascination with meeting new people and telling their stories with her pictures. It made for great photos, but it got her into trouble now and then too.
Being a reporter, she knew how to dig, but there hadn't been a great deal to find out. That Diana was loaded, Sal's very appreciative word, just didn't cover the half of it. Hanging all through Ms. Aliakmon's family tree were bags of very, very old money, and it wasn't quite clear how some of it had gotten there. As for the woman herself, she seemed to have gone to some lengths to keep her name out of most of the public records, including the usual sorts of society pages. But that was pretty much how the truly wealthy tended to be.
Born in Athinai, Greece, Diana was just into her thirties, unmarried, with no kids unusual for someone born in that part of the world. Her mother and older brother were still living in Greece running a highly profitable chain of tourist hotels and cafes. Rell had found the death notice for Dianas younger brother, and assumed her father was either dead or had left the family to their own devices long before. Though she had done some very deep digging into the woman's background and past, the tenacious reporter had found no reference to any career or pastime. Probably spends her entire life fund raising for some charity, Rell thought to herself. I'm willing to bet anything she does wear sensible shoes too.
Checking her digital watch, Rell realized her future employer was now running late not by much, but enough to be annoying.
She snorted quietly. "Least she could do is turn up on time," she mumbled, catching the waiter's eye and indicating she wanted another drink. The drink and Diana Aliakmon arrived at the table almost at the same moment.
As the waiter stepped out of the way, an impeccably tailored white jacket and pants suit stepped into view. Sliding up slowly, Rells eyes finally reached the woman's face. Oh wow, she thought. Now there is one beautiful woman. Broad, muscular shoulders and the strong swell of breasts filled out the jacket in the most pleasant of ways. Jet black hair, running part way down her back, framed high cheek bones and the most amazing set of ice blue eyes Rell had ever seen. The woman was tall, with strong shapely hands, and she was certainly not wearing sensible shoes on the ends of those impossibly long legs. Down girl, Rell chastised herself when she felt a deep tightening in her groin.
"Danielle Connor, I presume," a low, faintly accented voice asked coolly. "Sorry I'm late. Traffic is terrible in this part of town," the woman continued, as Rell stood to shake her hand.
"Um, yes. It's okay, you're not really late. I was kinda early," the reporter replied, letting the sound of Diana's voice rumble through her. "Most people call me Rell, though," she continued.
"Rell? That's an unusual name," Diana said, sliding into the chair opposite and flicking her fingers at the drinks waiter, who hurried in their direction.
Blushing a little, Rell explained, "Comes from when I first started as a journalist, right out of high school. I was nicknamed the Red-Head From Hell. Got shortened down over the years."
"And why the nickname then," the tall woman asked, genuinely curious.
"I'd dyed my hair a really flaming red because I thought it would make me stand out in some media crush. Being short sometimes can be a real disadvantage in situations like that."
Looking over at the waiter, Diana ordered a Glenfiddich on the rocks before turning back to the reporter. "Did it work?" she asked.
"Not really. I found being tenacious worked better after that. People said that once I was on a story, you had to go to hell to get rid of me. They were wrong, of course. I'd even go to hell, if it meant a good story. So, I became the Red-Head From Hell," Rell replied, smiling a little self-consciously.
"Hmmm, Rell. I like it. And I much prefer the strawberry blonde look you wear now. Suits those blue-green eyes of yours," Diana said, dropping her own eyes to the menu. She chose to ignore the fresh flush of red creeping up the other woman's face at her compliment.
Giving the woman time to get herself back under control again allowed Diana to quietly assess the blonde, which had been the hidden aim of her comment. Appearing more interested in the menu, she carefully looked the other woman over. She had noticed the shoulder length hair from across the room as she entered the restaurant. Hair so fine it had reminded her of some of the best silk she had seen in China. The second thing she had seen were bright, clear eyes which didn't seem to miss much, and smallish hands, one of them protectively touching the camera on the table beside her. The reporter had been right about being short. Diana doubted the other woman would reach her chin, and that was if she removed her low heeled shoes first. Thinking about that, she surreptitiously kicked them off under the table. Might as well be comfortable, she thought.
Once the other woman began to fidget with her camera case, Diana thought it might be a good idea to put her out of her misery.
"I assume your agent has given you the pertinent details of my trip?" she asked, casually.
"Sal's not my agent. He just..." the reporter began, cutting herself off in mid-sentence. "Anyway, that's a long story. But yes, I have been told the gist of it. Amazon rainforest. Guyana Highlands. A treasure hunt," she said, unable to keep the slightly sarcastic tone out of her voice.
"It's not so much of a treasure hunt, Ms Connor," Diana replied very coolly, her blue eyes freezing over.
Oops, goofed there, Rell thought. Better mend some fences.
"Sorry about that, Diana," she smiled, letting it light her eyes a little. "Just a term we use. You're not an archaeologist but you're looking for something. We tend to call that a treasure hunt in the trade," she lied.
The other woman was no idiot, spotting the lie immediately; she was pleased to see the reporter was capable of thinking on her feet, though.
"No offence taken," the tall woman said calmly, deciding to let the untruth pass. "Actually this is something of a private quest for me. Tell me, Rell, have you ever heard of the Xena Scrolls?" she asked.
Trying to remember if she had, Rell's brow furrowed for a moment. "Can't say that I have, come to think of it," she finally admitted.
Warming to her subject, Diana explained, "Back in the early forties, just before the war ended, two women, Doctor Janice Covington and Doctor Mel Pappas, found what they believed to be the Xena Scrolls. A collection of tales, written by a female storyteller in ancient Greece, about a warrior woman named, Xena. From the little I have been able to find out about this woman, she was quite a formidable warrior. Came close to conquering half of Greece at one stage. But something happened and she became a champion of the people instead. The reason for that has probably been written into those stories. Somehow though, the scrolls were lost again before they could be translated, and to my knowledge the pair spent the rest of their lives trying to relocate them."
"Harder to find than the car keys, eh?" Rell joked.
Ignoring the interruption, the taller woman continued. "At the time they found the scrolls, it was also said they found Xena's weapon. A chakram," she said.
"Excuse me? Sounds like someone clearing her throat," the reporter commented. "What on earth is a chak-ram?" Rell asked.
"To use an image you might be familiar with, think of a metal frisbee with a razor sharp edge. It is thrown in much the same manner. It was considered deadly, and from the little I have been able to find, Xena was said to be lethally accurate with it. Never missed, in other words."
"And that's what you're looking for, this chakram?" Rell queried, pronouncing the word correctly this time.
"No. Actually, I am looking for her other weapon. The Sword of Xena. Hopefully, when I find it, I will also find The Staff of Gabrielle," Diana answered.
"Now you've got me. What is The Staff of Gabrielle?"
"Gabrielle was the writer of the Xena Scrolls. It was her preferred weapon, or so it is said. I hope by finding their weapons, I might find the answer to my own question as well."
"And what question is that?" Rell asked curiously. Almost against her will, she found she was getting more and more interested in this strange tale Diana was telling, and in the woman herself.
"Am I related to Xena," the taller woman stated simply.
"That's one hell of a question," Rell said, trying to imagine the well-dressed, flawlessly-mannered woman fitted out as some ancient warrior princess.
"It should be one hell of an answer," the other woman replied lightly.
Rell sat cross-legged in the middle of her hotel bed reading over the paperwork Diana had given her. It had taken less than an hour, and a couple more scotches, before the tall woman with the ice blue eyes had decided the blonde would be suitable. It had taken far less time for Rell to decide she wanted in on this one, regardless of the fact it was not really something considered newsworthy. The idea of it being a working holiday was sounding better and better to the stubborn little reporter.
Diana had questioned her closely on some of her past experiences but seemed to know a great deal more about the photojournalist than she really should have. Rell had pinned her down on this, and the other woman had laughingly admitted to checking her out before arriving at the restaurant. The blonde chose to keep any information she had found out about Diana behind tightly closed lips, although she figured Diana would know she had also been checked out. The dark-haired woman didn't strike her as stupid in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rell was still having trouble believing just how much personal information Diana had managed to subtly wheedle out of her.
"Gotta learn that technique," she had muttered to herself as she left the restaurant. "Could come in damned handy someday."
Turning over another page in the folder, Rell glanced over the map and itinerary for the trip. First, they would fly to Bogota via San Jose in Costa Rica. Then, they would take a four-wheel-drive trip over the Orinoco River to the western side of the Guyana Highlands. From there they were on foot until they reached the top of Paraque Cerro. After that well, it depended on what they found. Diana had already told her she had scheduled two or three months for this trip, but that timetable was extremely flexible. If they needed another month or two, Rell would be adequately compensated for her time.
The money didn't really matter anymore, though. Well, it did, but Rell's curiosity was being tormented, and now she was more interested in solving the mystery of a woman who might be related to some long dead warrior woman one who might not have even existed in the first place. Rell strained her memory back to her long ago history classes in high school, but couldn't bring up any references to a warrior named Xena. Thinking about it, the majority of what she could remember covered male figures. The only mention of any women at all had been in one slim volume on the Amazons. At the time, she thought the notion a little romantic; a race of female warriors. It was romantic until Rell found out they cut off one breast.
The next couple of pages in the folder covered what little was actually known about The Sword of Xena and The Staff of Gabrielle. Written by the two archaeologists, Mel Pappas and Janice Covington, a few years before their deaths, there was not a great deal understood about either weapon. Xena had been said to carry the sword with her at all times, strapped across her back in some kind of a sheath, and Gabrielle acquired the staff at some point in their journeys together. Whether she used the staff as a fighting tool was yet to be decided, as the woman was supposed to be a storyteller. The bards of the time were usually not known for their combat abilities, but more for the way they could spin a tale. What the weapons looked like and how they were used could only be theorized from records taken from fighting styles of that time period. The archaeologists put forward the theory that the weapons may still exist, buried in some gravesite or stored in some ancient cache. Without the Xena scrolls to confirm their theory, however, it would probably remain unproven.
Rell gathered all the paperwork into one more or less neat pile before stowing it away with the rest of her gear. Yawning tiredly and still feeling a touch of jet lag - a seemingly permanent condition for her - Rell climbed between the sheets of her hotel bed. She didn't know what the next few weeks were going to bring, but she did know dawn always seemed to come far too early.
"CAREFUL!" Rell shouted at the dark-haired woman swinging the steering wheel wildly. "Are you determined to hit every damned monster pothole on this godforsaken stretch of road?" she asked, only slightly more calmly, once the immediate danger of toppling from the track had passed.
"Sorry about that," Diana replied, not sounding the least bit apologetic. Her eyes never left the road ahead and the broad, almost feral grin on her face was unnerving the usually levelheaded reporter. Actually, Diana enjoyed unsettling the other woman entirely too much, and thought she really should bring herself back into line again. Once we're over the next hill, she silently promised herself, ignoring the fact she had made exactly the same pledge on the last five hills, and was yet to keep that promise.
"Get out that map again, will you, Rell. I just want to check we're still on the right road," she said.
Rell breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Checking the map generally meant a short stop and a chance to stretch their legs. It also meant a few moments where the reporter's heart wasn't leaping into her throat every other minute. Just where on earth did she get her driver's license? she wondered for probably the hundredth time that day. The bobsled course on some mountain?
Rell had noticed the gradual change in Dianas attitude as they traveled further from civilization. Back in LA, she was the well-mannered and completely urban individual. She seemed to know all the best places to eat and how to get the very best service. Once they had left the US however, the tall woman's demeanor had slowly changed until she came across as a slightly rougher cut diamond than the person Rell had originally met. The reporter had to admit that some of her own less-than-perfect manners had roughened as well. Must be all this jungle influencing me, she thought. It was not like either woman had become native, but all the accepted lady-like behaviors had gradually worn away as they became self-reliant.
When they had arrived at Bogota, Rell had been a little taken aback by the sheer size of the four-wheel-drive Land Rover that was waiting for them. After a day with Diana behind the wheel, the blonde was sure the other woman had deliberately ordered the monstrosity just so she could be the only one to drive it. The reporter had spent several minutes reasoning with Diana over who would do most of the driving. Rell thought she should, seeing she had quite a bit of experience with off-road vehicles. Diana had given in entirely too easily, her arguments seeming half-hearted at best. It took a bare second for Rell to find out why too. Sitting in the driver's seat, her feet just barely reached the pedals and she could only see through the windscreen by straining her neck upwards. She felt like a child again, pretending to drive her daddy's car. At least the other woman had had the decency not to look too smug as Rell climbed down from the cabin. She would be able to drive the vehicle if push came to shove, but it was not an experience Rell was looking forward to.
Rell was still trying to pull the much crumpled map from the glove compartment as Diana slowed the car, finally halting on the side of the road. Stepping from the vehicle, she leaned casually against the over-sized bull bars, waiting for the other woman to win her battle with the chart. Breathing in the cooling air, a sign they had almost reached the highlands, it dawned on her that this trip was far more agreeable than any other she had been on lately. When Diana wasn't terrifying the life out of Rell with her driving, the reporter seemed to have an endless stream of scandalous or outright funny stories to share. At first, she had found the other woman's almost constant need to chatter about something a little irritating, but now she honestly enjoyed listening. It certainly helped pass the long hours of travel. In the process, she learned a great deal more about the little reporter without having to answer too many questions about herself.
"Shit," Rell swore as she stomped around to the front of the car. "We can put a man on the freaking moon but we still can't make a damned roadmap you can refold once you've opened it." Spreading the offending sheet of paper over the bonnet of the Land Rover and smoothing the creases, she traced her finger over the road they had been travelling. Diana leaned over her shoulder, watching as the other woman carefully checked the map against the few landmarks she could see through the covering trees. Having the tall woman so close, the intoxicating combination of perfume and sweat left Rell's head spinning.
Trying to get herself back under control, she focused on her surroundings. "I think we're almost there," she said, a grateful tone coloring her voice. Moving her finger slightly, she pointed to a spot on the map. "Is that the place we're supposed to leave the car and start up the mountain?"
The taller woman leaned closer, apparently unaware of the effect she was having on Rell. "Looks like it. Only a few more miles and we should be there," she answered, after measuring the marks on the map against the surrounding countryside. "You ready to do a little foot slogging? The jungle there is pretty thick from what I was told back in that last village."
"Happy to," the reporter replied. "Give us a break from the car." And your maniacal driving, she silently added. Rell figured anything had to be better than staring death in the face a dozen times an hour. Visions of that bobsled crossed her mind again.
Diana patted Rell's shoulder, not noticing the delicious shiver it sent through the little reporter's body. "Come on then. The sooner we get moving again, the sooner you're safe from my homicidal driving techniques," she said, one corner of her mouth twitching with a barely suppressed smile. Leaving the other woman standing there for several long moments with a stunned expression on her face, Diana climbed behind the steering wheel once more. She really did have to stop enjoying the other woman's uneasiness quite so much, but she truly doubted she could control her impish sense of humor for long. Well, she's survived this long, Diana decided, I don't think her heart is going to give out now. Turning the key in the ignition, she waited for the reporter to settle herself. Rell made a bit of a show of clipping her seat belt securely before nodding that she was ready to get going.
Several miles down the road Diana slowed the Land Rover, turning the vehicle into what appeared to be a solid wall of green hanging vines and flowering plants. Rell was quite surprised when they parted in front of the car's nudging bull bar, allowing the vehicle through. Spinning in her seat to look behind them, she saw the foliage had been encouraged to grow in just that fashion by several lines of ropes strung across the trees on either side of the track.
"Sneaky," she said, with some admiration. "You've been here before?" It was part question, and part statement.
"Might say that," Diana answered, checking for any sign of people intruding on what she saw as her own private section of jungle. "Actually, I've been here several times. The local banditos can be a bit of a problem every once in a while. Pays to take precautions," she offered, once she was satisfied no one had entered the little area since her last visit. "Unless you know exactly where the turn off is, the only way to find this place is to quite literally fall out of the trees into it. Not many folk around here are willing to take to the trees anymore. I've seen to that," she said, an evil glint in her eyes.
"If you've been here before, why all the nonsense with stopping to read the map on the way here?" Rell asked suspiciously.
"Had to give your blood pressure a chance to settle down again. Can't have you dying on me up here, now can I? If it is costing so much to have you here alive, imagine what it would cost if I managed to get you killed," Diana said, a false note of brightness echoing in Rell's sharp ears. In that tone there was a suggestion somebody had died a person the other woman clearly felt close to.
Rell thought about that for a moment, suddenly realizing she really didn't know all that much about the other woman. They had been on the road together for a few weeks now, and Diana had offered surprisingly little information about herself or her background. Probably because I have been the one babbling on like there is no tomorrow, she thought guiltily. But it has been such a relief to be able to talk to someone and not have to ask any questions. She smiled to herself for a moment. Maybe I should just hand in my press card and become a damned writer.
Glancing over at the other woman expertly steering the Land Rover along the badly broken up track, Rell thought about what she did know about her mysterious travelling companion. It was obvious to the reporter, Diana was intelligent, supremely capable, and altogether too secretive. Hmmm, might start asking a few questions again. I think that being on a working holiday has made me a little too damned soft, she decided. Been doing a bit too much vacationing and not enough working.
"Who was the guy you were speaking to back in that last village?" she asked, figuring it was a safe question to begin with.
"Him?" the other woman replied. "That was Hunk."
"He calls himself Hunk?" Rell couldn't help giggling. "I think he should have been renamed Slab, as in one huge slab of mankind." The reporter had noticed the way the man had towered over Dianas not inconsiderable height, and the way his unbelievably broad back was sweating in the tropical sun. She'd even thought he might be mildly handsome, until he had turned around. The sight of his massive gut hanging over the thick belt around his pants was more than enough to send a shudder through her own slight frame.
"He's a good friend, Rell. Saved my life a while ago. Just because he's let himself go, doesn't change the fact Hunk is one of the most honorable men you'll ever meet," Diana replied dangerously.
Oops, Rell thought. Looks like that is one touchy area not to go near again.
"Sorry, Diana. Didn't mean to sound insulting," Rell apologized honestly. Settling back into an uncomfortable silence, she watched the trees slowly passing the car as the other woman eye's stayed glued to the path.
As though popping out of a humid, leafy tunnel, the vehicle arrived in a small hand-cut clearing, about a mile from the curtain of greenery hiding its entrance. Diana had said it was simply a rough camp, but to Rell's travel-worn eyes, it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. Not bothering to keep the look of appreciation off her face, she turned to the woman beside her.
"If this is your idea of rough, I'd hate to think what fancy looks like," she said. She must have struck the right note with Diana because the other woman's lips twitched briefly before spreading into a pleased grin.
"Cut most of it myself," she said. "Needed a place to store my equipment, instead of carrying it in and out all the time. The local version of a witch doctor keeps an eye on everything for me when I'm not here. Stocks it up when he knows I'm coming in for another go at Paraque Cerro." She pulled the Land Rover under the cover of an open lean-to.
"What? You haven't been to the top of that mountain yet?" Rell asked, surprised. "It's only two thousand feet to the summit. What keeps stopping you?"
"Prophecy," she stated flatly, opening the door and swinging her legs over the car's sill.
Both of Rell's eyebrows shot up her forehead at Dianas answer. The unexpected reply had caught her completely flatfooted, a most unusual occurrence, and it took her a moment to force her brain back into the right gear. "Hang on! Wadda ya mean, prophecy?" the reporter spluttered.
The tall woman didn't answer, already out of the car and heading towards the split-timbered shack on the side of the small clearing.
Rell muttered to herself as she fiddled the tiny pair of tweezers inside one of her cameras, trying to reattach a minute spring, which had shaken loose in the journey to the clearing.
"Bloody woman's driving. Busts up my gear and then won't tell me her almighty great secret." She had spent a frustrating hour and a half after their arrival at the clearing trying to get Diana to explain her 'prophecy' comment, to no avail. Taking several different approaches to the question, including losing her temper, had gotten her nowhere. The other woman had simply decided not to discuss it further.
Sitting back, camera forgotten for the moment, Rell knew she wasn't as angry as she was acting, but she didn't want Diana thinking she could get away with this continued secrecy for much longer. Her little charade really wasnt doing any good because the other woman had left the clearing shortly after dinner. Slinging a rifle over her broad shoulder, Diana had said she was going to make sure the local banditos were not going to suddenly appear out of the night to cause trouble. Rell's tired thoughts wandered, turning the events of the afternoon over in her mind again, trying to make sense of what had happened, and of her own reactions.
She had eventually given up trying to get the tall woman to answer her questions, deciding to work off her frustrated mood by exploring the general area - a sensible precaution after so many years in hostile war zones, or in the depths of the unknown Amazon jungle. It was always nice to know where your escape routes were if you suddenly needed one. In the process of having a look around she'd nearly been frightened to death by something other than Dianas driving.
Deciding to earn a little of that twenty-five thousand she was going to be paid, she thought she might take a few pictures of the surrounding forest. Rell had started to climb one of the many trees edging the clearing and stumbled across the reason the superstitious locals stayed well away from the campsite. As she placed a hand on one branch to pull herself a bit higher, a loud, violently colored, buzzing object suddenly flew at her face, startling her into missing her grip. Bouncing off the branch below, Rell squeezed her eyes shut, fully expecting to find out just how hard the ground was. Instead, two surprisingly strong arms caught her, and she heard a happy "gotcha".
Opening her eyes again, she was surprised to realize that Diana had somehow managed to get from the Land Rover where she was unpacking some of the gear, to the base of the tree in time to snatch Rells falling body out of the air.
Wriggling a little in the woman's grasp, she said, "Thanks for the catch but you can put me down now."
Bouncing Rell easily in her arms, a wicked smile crossed the other woman's face. "What'll ya pay me?" she said, a trifle more than half seriously. "After all, I just saved you from a nasty fall. Coulda broken something."
The wriggling reporter's jaw dropped at Dianas question. "You're not serious, are you?" she asked, suddenly concerned she was about to lose her fee for this trip - not that it mattered all that much to her anymore, but there was the principle to uphold.
"I might be," Diana answered, jiggling the shorter woman again.
"Oh, come on, Diana. Put me down this instant," Rell requested, a little heatedly. The solid feel of the other woman's arms about her body was having a definite effect and she wasn't sure she wanted to follow that kind of impulse.
"Tsk, tsk. That makes it three times you've lost your temper today. Guess I am just going to have to cool you down. Can't have an angry reporter wandering about - never know what kind of trouble she might get into." Diana watched the other woman's increasingly astonished expression. Tightening her grip, the tall woman walked them down to the little unnamed tributary near the camp, stopped briefly to allow the reporter to drop her camera on the riverbank, and stepped into the cooling water with Rell still held securely in her arms.
Once both women were neck-deep in the tributarys cool flow, Rell's bad mood had evaporated, right along with the sweaty overheating of her body. She had given in completely and the two women played for an hour in the water. Diana amazed the little reporter with how long she could hold her breath; it gave the dark-haired woman quite an advantage in the impromptu water fight Rell started, and soon lost.
Rell floated in the water for some time afterwards, drifting downstream a little. Unbeknown to her, Diana stripped off her clothing before trying her luck fishing barehanded a few hundred yards upstream from the place they had been swimming. The reporter suddenly decided to remove her own soaked clothing to wash the smell and travel stains from them while she had the chance.
Splashing her way over to the bank, Rell tugged the wet cloth from her body as she moved, leaving on just her underthings. She squatted by the side of the river and began vigorously bashing her shirt against a convenient rock. It was a technique she had picked up in Asia that shed found reasonably effective on all but the most delicate of fabrics. Singing away lustily, she luxuriated in the cooler air by the side of river. Stopping to scrub at the sweat stains around the collar, she assumed the differences in humidity between the jungle and the desert probably partially accounted for her shrewish temper.
"Just not used to it," the reporter cum scrubwoman mumbled. Engrossed in her cleaning chore and the general beauty of her surroundings, Rell never heard the sound of bare feet padding up behind her; she nearly jumped into the river with fright when an unexpected finger brushed lightly over the bullet scar on her back.
"What the fucking hell?" Rell spluttered, as she spun in place. The sight of Diana, completely naked and utterly unselfconscious, sent another shot of adrenaline through her system, but for an entirely different reason. Quashing her responses to such an obviously lovely sight, Rell glared at the other woman. She then noticed the fish hanging off Dianas fingers by their gills.
"That scar looks pretty recent," Diana stated.
"Ummm, yea. Got it in Egypt nearly four months back. Wasn't serious though," the little reporter lied easily.
Gently gripping one shoulder, the taller woman turned Rell around to have another look. "One more inch and it would have been your spine," she commented, letting the shorter woman face her again. "How'd you get it?"
"It's no big deal," Rell said, thinking she might be able to evade the question altogether, but the look in Dianas eye had her reluctantly telling the truth. "I got caught in the middle of some riot. Don't know quite what happened. I just know it felt like someone had king-hit me from behind...well, until the pain kicked in. Then I knew I'd been shot. One of the local police got me to a hospital where they patched me up. Signed myself out after a couple of weeks. Had too much work to do to be lying around some hospital bed." She watched the complex array of emotions cross the other woman's face.
"Wish I'd been there to help," Diana offered gently, before a cooler expression closed down the sight of whatever deeper emotions she was feeling. They were still there, simply hidden behind the woman's more usual public mask.
Rell didn't know quite what to think. She had felt herself reacting to the gentle caring in the other woman's eyes, and was disappointed when that subtle affection faded behind a wall she couldn't reach through just yet. Clamping down strongly on her own emotions again, she lay a gentle hand on the other woman's wrist before pointing to the fish on Dianas fingers.
"Dinner I suppose?" she asked, trying to sound casual.
"Yep. Hope you can cook because I sure can't. Well, not well enough to make it worth eating to anyone else but me," she said, glad the other woman had given them a distraction.
Rell laughed brightly. "I can cook. Would have starved to death otherwise. How do you like them?"
That had lead to a safe discussion about cooking, and ways to prepare fish and game over an open campfire.
After dinner, Rell pulled her equipment case from the back of the Land Rover, to check over her cameras and lens. While doing the check, she found the slipped spring. Sitting forward again, tilting the camera closer to the firelight, she tried to get that much-cursed spring back in place. Though her hands were busy with her equipment, her mind kept going over the afternoon, hugging those warm feelings to her. It had been a long time since she had allowed someone to be anything more than a distant friend, and she wasn't entirely certain if Diana wanted to get any closer either. All she knew, was things had somehow changed between them, and she wasn't sure how it had happened. Eventually giving up on the camera in exasperated defeat, she tucked herself into her sleeping bag and tried to get some rest.
Safely hidden from sight in one of the trees near the campsite, Diana watched as Rell checked her cameras, and then fought to fix some problem she had found with one of them. She hadn't really gone into the surrounding jungle to search for possible assailants in the night; there were more than enough booby-traps spread around the area to alert her if someone tried to break into the clearing. Diana had simply needed some space to herself.
She hadn't meant for Rell to be startled by her little surprises to keep the local inhabitants away from her clearing, but then again she hadn't quite expected the thwarted reporter to start climbing trees either. Diana couldn't stop the tightening of her stomach as she remembered what had happened. She had been simply unpacking some of the things they were going to need for the next day when she heard one of her traps go off. Swinging her head towards the sound, she caught the flash of Rell's body as she bounced off a branch, headed for a very hard landing on the earth below. Somehow, she had managed to get across the clearing in three long bounds, catching the other woman before she hit the ground. Trying to cover her relief, she had started joking around with the woman, only to see Rell lose her temper yet again.
"Quite the little spitfire. Maybe some of that red hair dye soaked into her brain," Diana mumbled quietly. She knew she was part of the problem by not answering the reporter's nearly endless stream of questions. Replying, in any way, to the prophecy query would have opened an entire can of worms the tall woman would much rather leave closed for as long as possible. Though, in a way, she had also enjoyed dodging the tenacious questioning as well. It had been quite a while since she had verbally jousted with anyone so well matched with her. She was pretty sure the other reason for Rell's temper was the humid, sticky heat, which the little woman was not used to after adapting to the drier conditions of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Diana had deliberately taken a meandering course to the clearing once they left Bogota, trying to give the other woman as much time as possible to adjust to the different type of heat.
Diana had done her homework on the other woman long before they had actually met in the restaurant back in LA. Meeting with the journalist had merely been a formality, at least in her own mind. The taller woman had made her decision about Rell long before the reporter had even arrived in England. Hmmm, must remember to send that agent, Sal, a nice note for steering Rell in my direction - not that I didn't pay him enough for the favor. Settling a little more comfortably on her branch, the dark-haired woman shifted the rifle from across her knees to rest against the wide trunk of the tree next to her.
Diana had followed Rell's career for some time, occasionally purchasing copies of some of her more stunning photos. Female photojournalists were rare and the thought of one, and a very good one at that, had intrigued her. There was just something about the way the reporter managed to say so much with just one picture that appealed to some quiet part of Dianas spirit. After her last unsuccessful trip to the mountain, she had done some searching to find just the right person to bring back with her. It had seemed fortuitous that it happened to be Rell who suited her needs.
What Diana hadn't expected was the sudden awakening of her emotions. True friends were rare in her life, Hunk being one of the very few. She was polite enough to the people she came across in her travels but made little effort to truly befriend anyone. It just wasn't safe for people to get too close to her. Sitting in the tree watching as Rell stared sightlessly into the leaping flames of the campfire, Diana wondered why she had felt so comfortable around the other woman right from the beginning. She'd spent years watching the feisty journalist's career develop and then blossom, but that didn't mean she knew anything about the woman herself. That Diana felt safe enough around Rell to let her sense of humor show should have set off the alarm bells immediately. It hadn't, and she now wondered if she was in too deep.
The sight of that fresh, purpled scar on Rell's back had almost shattered the sense of cool distance she was trying to maintain with the other woman. Diana hadn't known about that at all. Oh, she knew Rell had spent some time in an Egyptian hospital but, at the time, had put it down to catching a dose of some traveler's tummy bug - not an unusual occurrence for someone who trotted about the world for a living. Diana had caught one or two herself over the years and was well aware of how debilitating they could be. Rells off-handed comments about the wound could not hide the true seriousness of the injury, which could easily have taken her life if she had not received such quick treatment.
She continued watching and thinking, as Rell wrestled with her camera for a few more minutes before putting it back in its case, obviously annoyed with herself for being unable to fix the problem. Diana picked up her rifle again, swinging it over her back before climbing down the tree. She figured that by the time she had completed one slow circuit around the campsite, Rell would have dozed off for the night, regardless of the sticky heat and unfamiliar surroundings.
Rell's eyes slowly opened and she became aware of two things drifting into her reawakened consciousness at the same time. The first was the squelchy sensation of drowning in her own sweat, and the other was the smell of frying bacon. Sniffing the humid air again, Rell noticed that the bacon seemed closer to burning rather than frying. She popped her head out of her sleeping bag, grateful for the rush of slightly cooler air over her face. Glancing over to the fire, she spotted Diana carelessly turning the strips of meat in a pan with the point of her knife, while holding a tin cup full of coffee with the other hand. The tall woman's eye was focused of some far off point in the jungle and she wore a preoccupied expression on her tanned face.
"Hey," she said quietly to get the other woman's attention. "Burnt bacon isn't my idea of a great start to the day."
Looking down at the pan, Diana smiled self-consciously before moving it off the heat. "Sorry. Guess I was a million miles away."
Rell wanted to ask what Diana had been thinking about, but chose to remain silent instead. Not that I would have gotten an answer if I did ask, she thought a little glumly, as she all but peeled her sleeping bag from her sweating skin. Wearing just her bra and underwear, Rell stretched out her body, hoping to pull some of the kinks from her spine. Definitely not used to sleeping on the ground, she thought. Too many years in those nice, soft hotel beds. Looking at her feet, she noticed some folded clothing piled on top of a pair of very heavy, calf high boots.
"For me?" she asked, picking up the surprisingly thick and closely woven shirt.
"Yep. The jungle from this point on is pretty rugged far too many ways of stripping the skin off your bones. I picked those up for you in Bogota. Thought you might appreciate something that will keep as much of you in one piece as possible," Diana explained, sliding several pieces of obviously blackened bacon onto a plate where two runny eggs already resided.
"I did bring my own gear. This isn't my first trip into a jungle, you know," Rell said, a little archly. She wondered if she should be insulted, but in a way it was nice to know the other woman cared about how Rell would deal with all the nasties in the jungle. The rush of blood sucking insects the night before had nearly driven Rell to distraction, even after she had rolled her shirtsleeves down and buttoned the cuffs. The material of the shirt she now held in her hand felt thick enough to keep a vampire bat away from her tender skin, not to mention the other biters, suckers and stingers one tended to stumble across in this part of the world.
"Thailand? Vietnam? New Guinea?" the other woman queried, as she sat back to eat her own breakfast.
"Well, yea," the reporter replied, still holding the shirt in one hand.
"English cottage garden compared to what's up there," Diana replied, using her knife to point to the mountain they could just make out in the far distance. "Word of advice?"
"Like I could stop you," Rell muttered almost silently, as she started to pull the shirt up her arm. "Yea, sure. You seem to know the area. Might as well take advantage of local knowledge," she said aloud.
"Leave the underwear here," the tall woman said, leaning forward to pour more coffee into her tin cup. "Having your bra straps rubbing under your pack all day is just going to cause blisters, and in this heat, they'll infect in no time."
"Oh," Rell mouthed. "You mean these too?" she asked touching the elastic of her panties.
"Yep. Those too, unless you have something two sizes larger," the tall woman replied, noticing just how skintight Rell's underwear was. "You're going to really sweat once we get moving, and in this humidity well, fungus just loves hot, damp places. I can tell you now, a fungus infection on your butt is not something you want to write home to mother about."
"I see what you mean," Rell replied, blushing a little. "I'll just go and get changed then." Picking up the clothing and the boots, she modestly retired to the other side of the Land Rover. She wasnt quite awake enough to realize that Diana had a perfect view of her breasts through the windows of the vehicle. Diana also managed to catch a tantalizing flash of Rells behind when the woman bent to pull up the heavy trousers.
Oh, no you don't, Diana thought as her mind started to fill with images of what the rest of the stocky woman might look like. You know she hasn't taken a lover since her marriage broke up, and there is no way to know if she is even interested in women. Behave, Diana told herself sternly. When Rell came back to the fire, her blushes seemed under control again.
"So, where're we headed today?" Rell asked reaching for the fruit Diana had laid out beside the plate of over-cooked bacon and under-done eggs.
Pulling a plastic-coated map from the top pocket of her shirt, the tall woman started pointing out their route to the foothills of Paraque Cerro. They were a good twenty-five miles past the eastern side of the Orinoco River, having crossed the Venezuelan border a few miles later; it was still another seventy-five miles to the top of the mountain. The little clearing was the closest point they could reach by road. The rest of the journey had to be made on foot, and most of that was going to be uphill through some pretty severe countryside.
"I figure, if we can travel five, maybe seven miles a day we should be doing all right," Diana said, as she tucked the map back into her pocket, carefully buttoning the flap. Not that she really needed the map to get through the jungle. Having done this trip several times already, she knew the paths and trails like the back of her hand well, most of the way to the top anyway.
"Doesn't seem like a lot of distance when I think about it," Rell replied, sucking fruit juice from her fingers. She was more used to the desert country where the distance between places was measured in hundreds, if not thousands of miles.
"Trust me. It's gonna feel like a few hundred miles by the end of the day," Diana said, gathering up her plate and cup. "I was here only six months back and did cut a small track through some of the really rough stuff, but the jungle grows back so quickly that we'll probably be hacking our way through it most of the time."
"Oh," the other woman mumbled around a mouthful of fruit. Swallowing, she joked, "Looks like my holiday just turned back into work again."
Diana grinned down at her for a moment. "Gotta let you earn that fat fee I'm paying, don't I?"
Rell grunted back at her, eyeing the cooked portion of her breakfast, and wondering if the other woman would be totally insulted if she passed it up.
"Better eat it," the tall woman said as she moved towards the vehicle. "From here on out, we're eating trail rations and dehydrated food. Nourishing but not real high on the taste factor."
"Damn!" the reporter muttered, dubiously taking a bite of the runny egg. "I do wish she would stop reading my bloody mind."
"I think I've got everything," Rell muttered, looking over her pack and the small side bag on the ground. Sitting beside them with its lid open, was her camera equipment case. Pulling out two of the smaller cameras along with lens for each, she tucked them inside the plastic bag she had slotted into the space left at the top of her backpack. There was space because the other woman had insisted on loading Rells sleeping bag into her own pack. Rell put her hand on the other, slightly larger camera she had wanted to take with her, but suddenly remembered she couldnt get the spring back into place the night before.
"Shit," she muttered to herself. "Looks like I have to take Herman."
"Herman?" Diana asked, dusting off her hands after making sure the fire was out. Although this was the jungle, it would still burn if an unattended fire got away.
Holding up the offending camera, which weighed at least five pounds, Rell explained, "Yea. Nicknamed this one Herman Monster because it was so big. People used to think I had it just so I could hide behind it."
"Why not use that smaller one?" the other woman asked, pointing to the camera Rell had passed over.
"Broken shutter spring. Couldn't get it fixed last night, so looks like I have to carry this one all the way there and back," she said, not relishing the idea of all that weight hanging around her neck.
Leaning over, Diana picked up the smaller camera and gave the winding lever a quick flick with her thumb. When she pressed the shutter release button, the shutter clicked audibly. "Seems fine to me," she said, handing it to Rell before turning back to the Land Rover.
Rell stood with her mouth ajar. "Well, I'll be. And she never said a thing about fixing my camera either."
Happily putting the heavy camera back into its own cushioned slot in the case, she grabbed a couple of different lens to add to the one already on the small camera. By the time Rell had stowed all her equipment and made sure she'd packed every spare roll of film, Diana was doing one last check of the campsite. Rell glanced at the sky trying to estimate the time, her digital watch having long given up the ghost with all the humidity and the amount of sweat that seemed to be forever rolling down her arms and body. Maybe an hour after sunrise, she thought, and it already feels like a Turkish sauna around here. What's it going to be like once we're away from the river?
Diana came towards Rell, her pack slung effortlessly over one shoulder. It had to be a full third larger than the reporters. Rell, having done an experimental hoist, knew that her own pack was going to feel like an elephant on her back by the end of the day.
Just where did she get to be so strong, Rell wondered, watching the woman moving gracefully.
"If you've got anything else you want me to carry, I think there's a bit of room left in my pack," she said.
"You're joking, aren't you?" Rell asked. Seeing the expression on the other woman's face, she answered her own question. "No, you're not joking. I'm fine, I think. I keep telling myself I should be grateful we're not having to carry all the food for this little jaunt into the jungle. Still doesn't make what we are having to carry weigh any less though." Rell paused for a moment, thoughtful. "Just how are we getting away with carrying so little food, anyway?"
"Aside from gathering eatables along the way, you mean?" Diana replied. The reporter nodded. "There's a food cache about halfway along. Paid one of the local suppliers to cart it in on some of those llamas we've been seeing along the way. After all, we don't call them South American camels for nothing."
"Are you sure they did it. I know how corrupt the system can be in this part of the world. They could have taken your money and then shorted you," Rell said, a little concerned. Although shed been in tight situations before, the idea of starving to death in the middle of the jungle was not appealing to the shorter woman. Rell was one of those 'I have to eat regular' types. A rumbling stomach always put her in a bad mood.
"Would you short me?" Diana asked, flashing the same evil glint in her eye that Rell had seen before. It sent a shiver up her spine, suddenly convincing her this was not a woman to trifle with, no matter what.
"Umm, come to think of it, no," Rell finally replied.
If someone was looking at me like that there is no way I would turn against her, she thought. Guess I value my life too much.
"Come on then," Diana said, a friendly smile on her face again. "We've got five miles to cover by nightfall and this is the easy part of the trip."
Rell groaned her own pack into place, slipping the side bag over one shoulder. Spotting the path they were taking, she started moving off after the long-legged woman.
Dianas ears pricked up, hearing the sound of the other woman cursing savagely behind her. Turning around she saw Rell had gotten herself tangled in one of the many varieties of prickly plants growing in the jungle. Slipping her long panga knife into the sheath she had strapped along her back under her pack, she walked back to the swearing woman.
"It's called a Wait-A-Minute plant around here," she said casually. "Here, let me help. It's faster if two do this."
Lightly gripping the tip of the growing fronds, she gently pulled them towards her.
"Back up, Rell, slowly," she said. The thousands of minute thorns slipped easily away from the closely-woven material on the reporter's shirt. The woman stood a couple of steps back from Diana, managing to look both thankful and pitiful at the same time.
"Must have been the fourth time this afternoon one of them has jumped out to grab me. The other times weren't so bad got out of them myself. Seems I just about fell headlong into that one. That's what I get for being too busy peering through my viewfinder to pay attention to what is happening right at my damned feet. How come you never get caught in those things," she said a little angrily, totally exasperated with herself, and the entire jungle around her.
"I do get caught occasionally. You just haven't seen it happen yet," Diana laughed.
Looking carefully at Rell, Diana decided she had better keep a closer eye on the reporter. She was pushing herself a little too hard to keep up with Dianas longer legged pace. Rell's face seemed to have taken on a permanent shade of red, but she didn't appear to be sweating quite as much as she should a sign she was starting to seriously overheat. Time to stop soon, she thought. It was not yet the five miles she had hoped to cover, but it was clear that the fast pace and the humidity were taking quite a toll on the other woman. If she didn't call a stop for the night within the next hour or so, Rell would keel over with heat exhaustion.
"Another half hour, Rell. There's a little clearing up ahead with a great soak. We can camp there for the night," she said, seeing the grateful look on the other woman's face, a look that quickly turned stubborn again.
"I'm fine, Diana. You said five miles by nightfall, so five miles it is," the reporter said gamely, settling her heavier-by-the-minute pack a bit more comfortably on her shoulders.
"No rush. We have all the time in the world to get there," Diana replied, expecting that would be the end of the matter.
"But..." Rell started to say.
"No buts. I know what I am doing," Diana snapped back.
Shaking her head at the surprised expression on the other woman's face, she stopped herself from saying anything more for a moment.
In a gentler tone, she finally spoke again. "I'm sorry, Rell. Didn't mean to snap like that. Guess the heat is getting to me, too. Look, there's no harm in taking it a bit easier these first few days. Neither of us is really used to the humidity. You're not long out of the desert and I've been sitting about in air-conditioning for months." Diana was lying about the air-conditioning part, but Rell coming straight from the desert was at least true.
"I guess you're right," the other woman offered. Seeing the raised eyebrow on Dianas face, she added, "Okay, another half-hour and then we both stop for the night. It won't do us any good if we kill ourselves the first day out."
Turning away, the tall woman started back up the track, making a special point of hacking any thorny plants well back from the path. Anything to make things a little easier on the tough reporter following determinedly in her wake.
"Oh god," Rell groaned in sheer self-indulgence. "I feel almost guilty enjoying this while you were setting up camp, Diana." Floating in the small pool of water in the rocks, Rell had soon cooled down and was starting to feel a lot more human. The last half hour on the track had been the toughest she had ever endured. Everything around her had grown increasingly blurrier until she was forced to focus her mind on the broad back moving ahead of her, concentrating on following it no matter where it led. She briefly remembered stumbling towards the pool and dropping her backpack to the ground. Diana had been trying to say something to her but it was all a vague, fuzzy haze now.
There had been a brief moment of embarrassment when she realized she would have to take off her clothes in front of the other woman, but the water was too tempting for the overheated reporter. She had modestly turned her back as she removed her trousers, more aware than before that she was wearing no underwear. But Diana had made no comment at all, just pointed Rell towards the water. Diana waited until Rell was lying down in it, then went back to the tiny clearing to set up camp. Having completed her camp chores, Diana had gratefully stripped her own sweaty clothing and joined the reporter in the soak.
"Heat exhaustion can be a tricky thing sometimes," the other woman commented from her own position lying in the water. "Person just gets to a point of not making sense and tries to push on regardless. I had to get you cooled off before you would start to listen to me again."
"Sorry if I was any trouble," Rell offered.
"No trouble. It can happen to anyone. Besides, you weren't all that far gone. You were able to undress yourself and get into the water. Another hour and it would have been heat stroke. That coulda killed you."
Rell colored at the thought of having to be undressed by anyone. Though, a part of her wondered what it would be like to have this obviously capable, amazingly beautiful woman gently remove her clothing. Just the sight of Diana lounging naked in the water beside her was causing an all too familiar ache in the lower parts of her body. Rell forced her thoughts away from the sensual images starting to develop in her mind.
"Hard to imagine you falling prey to this heat," Rell commented, trying to focus on anything other than the sight of Dianas breasts bobbing delicately every time she moved in the cool water.
"Like I said, it can happen to anyone, even me," the other woman smiled. She could feel the way Rell was waiting, hoping for an explanation, and decided to satisfy a little of the reporter's rampant curiosity. "Happened a few years back. I was in the jungle near Ilha de Maraca," she started.
"Where's that?" the shorter woman asked, splashing a little water over her face.
"Just off the Brazilian coastline about two hundred miles south of the French Guyanan border. When I was there, I ran out of supplies and water. The heat got to me, and before I knew it, I was a lot further gone than you were. Somehow, I stumbled onto Hunk and a couple of his friends as they were travelling from one place to another. He used to do that. Travel, I mean. Anyway, he gave my life back to me and has been a good friend ever since."
Diana waited for the questions to come and was pleasantly surprised when there were none. She didn't want to explain that she was actually in the region to train a group of mercenaries, or that they had tossed her out of the camp without any means of surviving. Apparently, they had not approved of her training methods. They had been even less impressed with her insistence that they not raze everything to the ground during a raid on some village. Diana couldn't see the sense in destroying an entire village when all they needed were a few supplies. It simply alienated the locals, making her job all the harder. Hunk had done more than simply save her life when she had collapsed with heat stroke. The gentle bear of a man had also touched her heart for the first time in many years, and for that he would always hold a special place in her life.
Rell sat in thoughtful silence for several moments. It was the first time the other woman had opened up about her past at all, and the reporter was touched at the small show of trust. Her sharp ears had also picked up on the slightly odd wording of the tall woman's last statement.
I'm not going to ask her any questions about it, she thought. If she wants to tell me more she will, but only if I don't push her.
"Must have been pretty awful there for awhile," Rell finally said.
"No walk in the park, but I survived," Diana replied quietly. She decided to leave out any mention of the brutal beating her men had given her before marching her out into the jungle and leaving her to die.
Feeling a little less self-conscious about her nakedness than before, Rell resigned herself to leaving the cool temptation of the water and getting on with a few of her own camp chores.
Standing, she said, "Well, guess I had better see what I can do with dehydrated food and jungle produce. If you're gonna set up camp every night, the least I can do is cook."
Diana waggled her eyebrows briefly at the woman standing over her. "Why do you think I did it," she said, only half joking, before ducking under the shallow water to wash her hair.
"Sneak," the reporter muttered as she stepped from the pool and picked up her clothing. "I knew there was a reason she made the offer." Wandering back to their little overnight campsite, she tried to figure out what one could possibly do with those packets of dehydrated food to give them any flavor at all.
Rell looked dismally at the broken blisters spread across her hands and fingers. "Is it me, or is the jungle getting thicker?" she asked. "I can't see how you've managed to keep up this pace for the past ten days without dropping dead, Diana. Just the couple of hours I did this afternoon were enough to almost kill me, not to mention what they've done to my hands." Tipping her aching palms towards to the tiny fire, she tried to convince herself they were not as bad as they looked.
"Should have stopped when they started to sting," Diana said, settling down next to the other woman. Crushing several large leaves she had collected into a small ball, she popped them into her mouth and began to chew vigorously, ignoring the slightly bitter taste.
"All I have done for the past ten days is take photos. That isn't a lot like work to me, you know. You've been cutting through all those vines and stuff for days now. I just wanted to take my turn. You know, pull my own weight for a change," the reporter said softly.
"I suppose I'm more used to it, but you've been doing fine. Im paying you to take those photos but I do wish I wasn't your main subject all the time," Diana mumbled around the mouthful of leaves. "Here. Give me your hands." Taking the other woman's blistered hands in her own callused palms, Diana spat the chewed leaves onto them, gently rubbing the mass of greenery and saliva into the blisters.
"Gotta go with your strengths. I cut and you photograph. You're a lot better at spotting food in the undergrowth than I am, and you can even make trail rations almost edible," she laughed lightly.
"I'm lower to the ground, that's why I can see those things lurking under the bushes. Besides, you're concentrating on making sure no more of those Wait-A-Minutes grab me," she said, smiling in return. "Oh god, Diana. Whatever that is, it sure feels good," Rell said gratefully, as the liquid in the chewed pulp soaked into her stinging blisters, quickly easing the pain. She had to make a deliberate effort not to think about where those leaves had been before ending up on her hands.
"Local version of an antibiotic," Diana explained, rinsing the last of the bitterness from her mouth with some water. "Should stop them from stiffening up overnight as well, otherwise you wouldn't be able to use them for days that is, if they didn't infect first. You probably won't be able to use your camera for a few days, though, but I don't think that'll be a problem. You've got plenty of shots for the moment. Might as well save some of that film for later."
Rell breathed a quiet sigh of relief. She had been concerned about how she was going to keep up her end of the deal if she couldn't grip her cameras properly.
"You seem to know a lot about this jungle?" Rell commented, watching as the taller woman's dark head bent over the task of carefully wrapping the reporter's abused hands in a light gauze.
"I've been travelling in it for a few years now," Diana admitted. "I just seem to pick up bits and pieces along the way. There, all done." She patted Rell on the shoulder as she stood to stir the pot where their dinner simmered away quietly.
Rell sat silently, memorizing the touch so she could call it up again if she wanted to. Over the past ten days, the two women had grown more comfortable with each other, to the point that Rell no longer thought twice about stripping off her heavy, cotton clothing in front of Diana to cool herself in some jungle pool or stream. The other woman was usually just as quick to take advantage of an opportunity to cool herself as well. Rell also found herself surreptitiously admiring the taller woman's strong, tanned body in the process and allowing herself to indulge in the odd fantasy or two at night. It seemed a relatively harmless pastime. After all, she assumed nothing could come of it because her traveling companion never made any mention of partners or lovers. Rell had eventually concluded, somewhat reluctantly, that Diana was one of those people who chose not to have sex for some reason. The reporter thought it was a bit of a pity. The other woman had both a stunning body and a fine mind, two things Rell had always found attractive, regardless of gender.
Diana, much to her surprise, found herself wanting to touch the other woman, looking forward to her friendly caresses almost as much. It had made her a little uncomfortable at first ,the way the other woman seemed to always be finding some reason to lay a hand on her arm or to gently grip her shoulder, but she had grown used to the idea that Rell was a very tactile person. Accepting her touches after that had been amazingly easy. She couldn't remember quite how or when it had happened, but she was relishing it while it lasted.
Over the years, Diana had enjoyed an active sex life, but this was nothing more than the connecting touch between two friends. There were no demands attached to them and this caused her to relax around Rell in a way she hadn't permitted herself to do with anyone else. It had a grounding and centering effect she found soothing at the end of a long day of battling with the jungle, and her memories.
As Diana stirred the impromptu stew she was making for them, Rell clumsily fumbled opened her backpack, feeling carefully inside. Pulling out a rolled shirt, she awkwardly loosened the knot she had made with the sleeves, unwrapping something with a bit of a flourish.
"How does a little of this with dinner sound?" she asked, carrying a medium-sized bottle over to the fire.
Diana glanced up from the pot, her eye falling onto the bottle held in Rell's bandaged hand.
"Glenfiddich? Kinda expensive for a jungle setting, don't you think," she asked wickedly, but loving the surprise anyway.
"If I'm going to be drinking scotch in the middle of some unnamed section of jungle, then I want to be sure it is the best I can afford," she answered. "Picked it up in the States before we got on the plane for San Jose. Thought it might be nice to have a little celebration, seeing we've been moving for ten days now and finally made fifty miles. Only twenty-five to go and we reach the top of that mountain." I also happen to know its your favorite too, Rell thought to herself.
Taking the bottle from Rell, Diana cracked the seal before pulling the cork with her teeth. "Well, if you insist," she said.
"I most certainly do insist," Rell replied, watching the other woman take a long, slow mouthful from the neck of the bottle. "Besides, can you think of a better place to be drinking this?" she asked, as Diana handed the bottle back to her. Taking a mouthful herself, she raised one questioning eyebrow at her traveling companion.
Laughing lightly, Diana turned back to the pot again. "It's not where I am drinking that matters," she said. "It's the company I am keeping at the time. Personally, I can't think of any finer right now."
"Thank you," Rell replied, blushing a little at the compliment. Sitting back down on the log they were using as a substitute seat, she waited for dinner to cook. Taking another sip from the bottle, feeling the pleasant burn as it slid down her throat, she wondered again what her companion had been doing for the past few years. All she knew for sure was that this capable woman had spent some time in the jungle and seemed to know enough to keep them both out of trouble.
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