One Wild Ride
“So, what do we do?” Granella asked, as the stood together on the banks of the swollen river. “Keep going down there, or start looking up here? I don’t know, Pon… we’ve covered everything down to the plateau.”
Pony studied the ground thoughtfully. “They’d have gotten out easy down there.” She said. “It’s flooded all across the lowlands, but not that deep.”
“Mm.” Granella rubbed her jaw. “What if they headed to Potadiea, to check things out there?”
Eponin’s face tensed into a slight frown. “Hm.. you think?”
Granella shrugged. “Family there, family here… maybe they figured we got more strong bodies to handle stuff around here than they do over there?” She twisted a branch off a half sunken tree and began stripping the leaves methodically. “Be like Gabrielle to want to go check.”
“Now.” Pony remarked. “I don’t think she looked back the first time she got outta there.” She turned and looked at the craggy, mountainous territory they were currently in. “But y’know? I got a feeling they’re up in here somewhere.”
“You do?” Granella asked. “Why?”
Pony shrugged her shoulders. “Beats me. But we’re here, and I’d rather hunt up this way than walk down to Potadeia. Place always gives me the creeps.” She turned and started up a rocky footpath leading away from the river. “Dunno if it’s all those damn sheep or what.”
Granella followed her, casting a glance over her shoulder as she picked her way along the loose rocks. She’d been to Potadeia herself once or twice, after the town had been rebuilt. Gabrielle had taken a walk down there and she’d come along to keep the bard company, leading a pack mule that had most of the stuff Gabrielle’s family had left behind on it’s back.
Hadn’t seemed creepy to her. She’d mostly considered her Queen’s hometown as a sleepy little village, like a hundred others she’d seen in travels around these parts. Nothing special, except that Gabrielle had come from there, and felt a responsibility for it.
Responsibility, Granella noted, not a love for it. She’d never gotten the feeling that Gabrielle had any real fondness for her birthplace, and in fact, on the way back she’d actually commented very briefly on how glad she’d been to have Xena show up that one fine morning.
Made her wonder, sometimes. Gabrielle was such a mixture of innocence and experience it was hard to tell really what Xena had found when she’d come here. Half the nation, Granelle knew, thought the bard had been just a total innocent engulfed by the warrior’s charisma but the more she came to know her sister in law, the less she believed it.
Well, the total innocent part. Granella chuckled, as she took hold of a bit of rock to pull herself up with. Gabrielle herself cheerfully admitted to falling for the charisma. She glanced to her left and spotted a sharp cleft, in a split of the mountain. It was stacked with driftwood and mud and she paused to look at it. “Hey, Pon? What’s that over there?”
Eponin paused, and looked. “What?”
“That thing over there.” Granella shaded her eyes and pointed. “Looks like the water might have gone down into that crack… maybe there’s some sign of them.”
Pony put her hand on her hip. “Gonna be a mess getting over there.” She said, observing the river’s edge. It shoved against the debris in the crack, spilling through it with restless insistence. “Worth it?”
“Maybe that’s some of the bridge.” Granella started back down towards the water. “Looks like it.. yeah, Pon, look!” She pointed. “That’s a crate.”
Eponin trotted back down the slope and joined her , and together they re-entered the river, going up to their thighs in floodwater as they edged carefully towards the crack in the rocks. “Feel the current?” The weapons’ master grunted.
“Yeah.” Granella kept hold of the branches in the trees lining the banks as she inched after Pony. “Water’s going somewhere down there… “ She grimaced. “Ow.. feathered mud.” One boot stuck in the muck, and she patiently worked it out.
“Okay, hang on.” Pony took a circle of rope from her pack and shook it out, making a noose in one end. She dipped the rope into the water to wet it, then cocked her wrist. “Watch it.. I got lousy aim.”
Granella ducked behind a tree limb, and watched as her companion reared back and threw the rope, sending it coiling through the air to land limply in the water.
“Crap.” Pony pulled the rope back in and tried again. “Gods, I suck at this.”
“Want me to do it?” Granella asked, diffidently. “I get a lot of practice corralling the twins.”
With a charming lack of pretention, Pony turned at once and handed her the rope. “Go for it.” She stepped back out of the way, sloshing through the water. “Last thing I had to put a rope around was mule and it was standing still.”
Granella sorted the rope out, running the thick hemp through her fingers and giving it a little twist as she coiled it up. She gauged the distance, then twirled the rope in a small circle before she let it fly with a flick of her wrist, sending the loop speeding towards the debris blocking the water.
The loop settled over a branch and hung there, until she skillfully drew her end back, tightening the loop around the branch. “There ya go.”
“Kiss my butt and call me rooster.” Eponin chuckled. “Sweet.”
Granella felt a mild flush of pride, as she started down the rope towards the blockage with Pony behind her. Twins notwithstanding, she’d always been good at wrangling and had even helped Xena out a time or two with her colts when she’d been home working with them.
But it was different, doing it as an Amazon again. Granella felt the water rising up her body and she took a firmer hold on the rope as the current pushed against her legs. “Tie that end off.” She suggested, as they reached the end of the sunken trees, and risked exposure to the main body of the river.
“Good idea.” Pony took the loose end and tied it firmly off to one of the branches, giving it a healthy tug. “All right.. we’re good to go.”
With a nod, Granella stepped out into the full current, holding on to the rope as the surge shoved against her back and forced her towards the blockage. She kept going, moving down the line hand over hand as the water fluttered her leathers around her and swirled against her skin.
A few steps closer, and she could see the crate clearly now. “Look!” She called back over her shoulder. “It’s got the town mark on it!” She took a step closer, and the water came up to her neck. “Uh oh.”
“Keep going.” Pony was right behind her. “Rope’ll hold.”
“Yeah?” Granella flexed her hands around the rope and took a deep breath. “Hope so.”
The water pushed against them harder, and she moved forward with it, pulling herself along as much as she was pushing with her feet against the retreating river bottom. She’d just come to the conclusion that maybe her idea hadn’t been the best one, when the ground sloped up a trifle and she felt hard rock under her. “Ah.”
“Definitely from town.” Pony was peering over her shoulder at the crate. “And that big one’s a pilon from the bridge.”
“Sure is, I..” Granella suddenly stepped forward into nothing, and sank into the water, her hands releasing the rope in pure reflex. “Oh.. sh..”
“Hey!” Pony released one hand and grabbed for her back, catching her leathers with her outstretched fingers. “Gran! Whoa! Hey!”
The current grabbed her and shoved her forward, and she felt Pony’s hold on her pull her back, but only for an instant before she heard a splash and then she was driven forcefully ahead as the weapons master collided with her from behind. “Yah!”
“Damn it!” Pony spluttered, shaking now wet hair from her eyes. “Look out!”
The river picked them up and threw them against the blockage, their bodies thumping against the debris. “Oh, Hades.. “ Granella reached out and grabbed a branch, turning her back to the current as more debris collided with them. “Whose stupid idea was this?”
“Hang on!” Pony grabbed one of the planks wedged into the crack and pulled herself up out of current, looking between the branches. “Ho.. boy. Yow! Hey!” The board wiggled out in her grasp, and like a pile of jackstraws the blockage dissolved in a shocking instant, the current shoving the pile of debris out and down and taking them with it.
Gabrielle sat cross-legged on the ground, patiently shaping a bit of rock into an arrowhead. She had stone in front of her, and she was holding the point in place, and striking it with a second piece of granite in hopes she’d hit the right spot and chip it off.
Xena was perched on a boulder nearby, keeping watch, and shaping thin branches into arrows.
It was late afternoon, and the sun poured in liquid gold through the trees, dappling them both with a sense of false peacefulness. “How’s it going?” Xena asked.
“Not bad.” Gabrielle finished her current point, and set it aside, then flexed her fingers. “I think I’m getting the hang of it.” She got up and walked over to the large, well laid fire, holding her hands out over it and looking around. “Any sign of them?”
Xena’s ears twitched. “They’re out there.” She replied quietly. “I think they’re coming back down the creek bed again. Sounds like it.”
“Mm.” The bard knelt by the fire and tested the baking fish she’d laid at the edge of with a cautious finger. “I guess having this smelling probably isn’t a good thing.”
“Don’t care.” Xena muttered. “I’m not eating raw fish. To Hades with them. Wind’s blowing this way anyhow.”
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at her grumpy soulmate. “Think they’ll find us?”
Blue eyes flicked up to study her. “They’ll find us.” The warrior said. “With any luck, not before sundown. I’m hoping they’ll hide for the night, and try again in the morning. If they don’t..” She half shook her head. “If they come in close and I can’t get these arrows to do us any good, we could be in real trouble.”
As if they weren’t in real trouble. Gabrielle merely nodded, and dragged a flat stone over to the fire. “Can you take a break and join me? Might as well eat now, right?”
Xena hopped off her rock and came over, dropping to the ground next to where Gabrielle was sitting. She watched in silence as the bard used a slab of bark to move the fish over, and set it down on the stone between them. “Might as well.” She muttered.
Gabrielle speared up a bit of the fish on the end of a branch and offered it to her. She watched the warrior take it in silence and nibble it, the obvious storms clouding her eyes as she chewed. “So..what’s bothering you so much?”
Xena looked up at her, an eyebrow arching sharply. “What?”
Gabrielle gazed steadily at her.
“You don’t think being in a forest with no tools and few weapons about to be attacked by wild animals isn’t enough reason to be pissed off?”
The bard took a piece of fish herself and bit into it. “Is there something else we should be doing?” She asked, mildly. “Building a catapult or something?”
Gabrielle shrugged lightly. “Xena, we’re doing all we can. We’re going to be as prepared as we can. Other than running all night, or diving into the river… “
The warrior exhaled. “What if it’s not enough?” She challenged her partner. “What if they come on us, and we can’t stop them ,and..”
“And we end up shoulder to shoulder, our backs to the rock wall there?” Gabrielle asked, in gentle tone.
Xena stared at her.
“And we die fighting?”
The warrior maintained her silence, her eyes filled with glinting eloquence.
Gabrielle handed her over another piece of fish. “Then we do.” She reached out with her free hand and covered Xena’s fingers with her own. “We just do the best we can, Xena. You and me, you know?”
Xena let out a breath slowly. “That’s not damn good enough for me.” She said. “Not after all we’ve been through.”
And, in a way, Gabrielle understood that completely. Their lives had been lived at high cost, almost from the moment of their meeting, and she knew that same high price should be paid to Hades when they crossed that river as well.
Arrogant, really. That they felt that their lives were worth more than other people’s, but she knew she’d paid in bits of her soul for what she had, so if she felt that way, well, then she did. No sense in lying, either to herself or to Xena. “My friend.” She curled her fingers around Xena’s. “My soulmate. Love of my life.”
Xena’s expression visibly gentled, responding to the emotion. “Life sucks sometimes, doesn’t it?” She murmured wryly.
“It does.” Gabrielle agreed. “But you know, we’re about the kick assingist people I know, so if anyone’s going to get the job done here and go home, it’s us.”
“If you can’t beat them, Xena.. they can’t be beaten.” The bard added.
“I can beat them.” The warrior’s lower lip stuck out grumpily.
“Then we will.” Gabrielle put the bit of fish to her partner’s lips, and watched her grudgingly take it. “And I’ll get an awesome story out of it.”
Xena chewed her fish while she studied her partner. “You’re really taking this damn well.” She commented. “Better than I am.”
The green eyes twinkled a little. “That’s because I have more faith in you than you do.” She said. “And I know we’re going to get out of this all right.”
Finally, the warrior smiled, just a little. “Got any idea how to make a catapult?”
“Nope. But I bet you do.”
They both chuckled, and paid more serious attention to the fish, caught by Xena in a nearby stream. The sun started to slant further down, bringing shadows into their shelter, and a tickling cool breeze against their faces.
The night would come, soon, and bring whatever it would bring.
The moon rose high over the valley, laying a silver blanket over the rocks save where the fire’s golden light touched them. Gabrielle looked up from where she was tying one last twist of vine around one of the stone pillars, and studied the white eye in the sky above them. “Okay, this enough?’
Xena came over and peered past her, at the loops of vine. “Okay.” She walked forward and picked up a piece of doubled hide, which had lengths of yet more vine connecting it to two slim trees. With a grunt, the warrior walked backwards, until she came to the end of the cords and then she dug her boots in and started pushing in earnest, taking one step at a time as the trees bent back in protest.
“Want me to help you?” Gabrielle asked.
“No.” The warrior grunted again. “Just get ready to loop that top part over the rock. She paused, as the tree’s elasticity almost overcame her, then she leaned forward and took another step. “Hoo boy.”
“Wish Argo was here?” The bard stretched the vine she’d been working on out as far as she could, waiting for her partner to come into reach.
“Damn right.” Xena stumbled on a loose rock, and almost catapulted herself into the forest. Her eyes widened, then she caught her balance just as Gabrielle lunged forward and grabbed the edge of the hide, hauling it towards her. “Thanks.”
Gabrielle took hold of the vines tied to the rock, and pulled, biting the inside of her lip as Xena took the last few steps towards her and she was able to slip the vine thorugh the band going behind the hide and pulled it thorough.
Xena felt her boots start to slip. “Hurry.”
Gabrielle yanked the vine through hastily and got it over the top of the pillar just as Xena lost her footing and slipped to her knees, snapping the vines taut as the stone took the strain of the catapult. “Duck!”
The warrior dropped to the ground as the vines creaked in protest, covering her head with her arms and waiting. Gabrielle ducked out of the way and turned her face, not wanting to get smacked if the vines broke.
After a breathless moment, they both looked up cautiously, to find the rock and vines holding the hide in place.
“Whew.” Xena stood up and ducked under the vines, getting out of the catapults way. “It ain’t what I’d use in battle, but..”
“It’s what it is.” Gabrielle studied the contraption. The trees flanked the one path up to where they were, and now the last two were bent over with the vines stretched tightly back to their rock, ready to release debris on anyone coming up towards them. “Rocks?” The bard asked.
Xena half smiled. “We don’t have much else up here.” She said. “So, yeah. Let’s load her up.”
They walked side by side back past the fire, which now had a stack of arrows on either side of it, the heat drying the wet pieces of gut Xena used to tie the awkwardly cut arrowheads into place. Some were crooked, as the branches she’d gotten hastily weren’t the best, and most were unbalanced, but in close, Xena figured they’d do damage where she needed them to.
The bow was sitting off to one side, with her ax next to it, and besides that was a pile of small stones for the sling Gabrielle wore at her belt.
Xena had scoured the nearby forest for several candlemarks, searching for anything she could use to tip the balance in their favor. But the trees were free of spines and poison herbs for her arrowpoints were nowhere to be found. She’d settled on her arrows, the stones, the big sling, and plenty of firewood.
They worked quietly, moving stones from the overhang to the catapult, putting them inside the half cradle Xena had formed the hide into. When they were done at last, Gabrielle went over to the fire and sat down on the rest of the hide and gazed into the flames.
Xena watched her for a short while, leaning against one of the large stones nearby as she acknowledged the long hours they’d both had without rest. She could see the exhaustion in her partner’s face, but it resided there with a quiet resolution, a determination that faintly squared her jawline and tensed the set of her shoulders.
Gabrielle would do, Xena knew, whatever she had to do. She’d proven it over and over again in their lives together and though Xena knew individually greater warriors, in the place they were now there wasn’t any other person she’d want here with her.
As she watched, Gabrielle rested her arms on her knees and put her chin down on her clasped hands, pausing a moment before she looked up and over at her partner. Acting on the unspoken request, Xena pushed away from her rock and walked over to the fire, taking a seat next to the bard. “So.”
“So.” Gabrielle answered, in a slightly husky tone. “Now, we wait?”
“Now we wait.” Xena agreed.
Off in the distance, they heard the soft cough of a hunting cat, then a rumbling growl. Xena cocked her ears and listened, hearing the sound again. “Hm.”
“Think it’s coming this way?” Gabrielle kept her eyes on the flames.
They heard another growl. “I don’t think it’s hunting.” The warrior said, after a brief silence. The growl turned into a yowl, which rose up towards the moon before fading. “I think it’s looking for something else.”
Gabrielle sniffed reflectively. “Well..” She murmured. “You always told me animals either want food or sex… guess that narrows it down, huh?”
Xena felt a wry chuckle bubble up inside her. “Something like that.”
“And boy, I remember you telling me that, too.” The bard said. “Gabrielle.. you said..” She dropped her tone. “Stop thinking animals are thinking.”
“Only thing they want is to eat, and to mate.” Gabrielle continued, then stopped.
“And then I said.. and you’re always hungry, so what’s that say about you?” The warrior chuckled. “I remember.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle blushed, invisibly. “Wonder what you’d have done if I’d told you what I was hungriest for?” She looked sideways at her partner her eyes half closing. “Assuming my mouth would actually have unglued long enough for me to say it.”
Xena circled one knee with both arms and leaned back a little. What would she have done? What would she have done… they hadn’t been traveling together all that long then and she’ wasn’t sure she’d.. oh, wait. Yes, she had. “We’d a stayed a lot longer in that seaside town I’ll tell you that.”
Gabrielle was quiet for a moment. “You mean the one with those tubs?”
“And the little huts down on the beach?”
“Damn.” Gabrielle exhaled weightily. “Shoulda said it. That place was nice.” She wistfully remembered the rich, salt air. “I thought you didn’t like it.”
“I did.” Xena admitted. “It was just frustrating as hell being there with you.”
Gabrielle remembered the warrior’s restless discomfort, but she’d put it down then to what she’d thought was her normal grumpiness and usual bad moods. She’d never in a million years suspected.. oh, wait.. no, maybe she had. “Did you put that seashell on my pillow?”
“Me?” Xena batted her dark lashes innocently.
“You.” Gabrielle poked her in the arm. “You told me a crab had crawled into that hut and up onto my bed and left it’s house there.”
Xena chuckled softly.
“You wench.” Gabrielle had to chuckle too. “That was my daydream the next couple moons. You leaving me pretty seashells.” She bumped Xena’s shoulder with her own. “Hey.. can we go back there?”
“Go back to that place.” The bard said. “Once this is all over.. just go there for a few days?”
Xena stared into the flames, the gilded flashes outlining her planed cheekbones. After a little while, she turned to look at Gabrielle. “Sure.” She said, in a quiet tone. “I’d love that.”
Silence fell, as they both realized they’d crossed some invisible line, into an assumption that they’d defeat these current odds and move on in their lives. Was it the weapons they’d made? Xena had to wonder. Was it putting the battle on ground they’d chosen?
Gabrielle leaned against her and half turned, letting her head rest on Xena’s shoulder as she gazed up at the stars. “Donkey.” She pointed. “That’s a new one.”
Xena looked up. “That’s because it’s a fish.”
“Yeah, there’s the tail.” The warrior said. “And there’s another one, see the fish?”
“You’ve got fish on the brain. You sound like Dori.”
Another yowl sounded from the trees, to the left of where the first had come from, but a little closer. In reflex, Xena reached out and grasped her ax, bringing it closer to her. After a moment, though, the sound faded and she looked back up. “Speaking of.. there’s a cat.”
“A cat?” Gabrielle twisted her neck around. “Honey, what are you looking at up there? I don’t see any cats.”
“Right here.” Xena kissed her on the lips, feeling a light puff of air as Gabrielle took a quick breath in surprise. “See it now?”
“No.” Gabrielle reached up and cradled her partner’s neck with one hand as she returned the kiss. “And that stinking cat better stay away from here if it knows what’s good for it.”
Another yowl, but to Xena’s ears it was safety, keeping back hunters far more dangerous to her than it was and giving them a space to rest before the coming dawn. She kissed Gabrielle again, welcoming the distraction as the bard’s hand slid up her thigh.
There was danger all around them, but life needed to be lived and so they savored the moment and took the risk, trading nips and caresses in defiance of the night.
Love claimed it’s place, and somewhere, Gabrielle was sure, Aphrodite was laughing.
“How in Hades did we get ourselves into this?” Pony surfaced, spluttering. Her hands reached out to grab the debris swirling around them. “Yahhh!!”
Granella had her arms around a log. She shoved a second towards Pony as the current swept her past. “Gr.. oh, sorry.” She grabbed hold of the log until the weapons master took hold of it. “Okay?”
“Ouch.” Eponin rubbed her head. “Yeah..” She caught her breath and looked around. They were in the center of a rapidly flowing stream, steep walls rising on either side of them. “Where in Artemis’ backyard are we? The river Styx?”
Granella shook her dark hair out of her eyes and studied the fast moving walls. Her brow creased, as she realized the area wasn’t at all familiar to her. “Beats me.” She yelled. “Let’s find a place we can pull ourselves out from.”
“Damn good idea.” Pony glanced behind them, where the blockage was now gone, allowing the waters of the upper river to flow unimpeded into the narrow V they were currently in. Luckily for them, she realized, the drop hadn’t been that bad, but they were flowing downhill now and she didn’t really want to find out the hard way where the stream ended. “Figures we go after them and get tossed ass over earlobes ourselves.” She sighed. “How about over there?”
Granella followed Pony’s pointing finger. A tree had fallen across the stream and was half in the water, extending towards them invitingly. “Looks good.” She agreed. “How do we get over there?”
Pony tried to shove her log towards the tree, but the current took her obstinately in the other direction, towards the far wall, where the water rushed against the rocks with impressive force. She kicked out with her feet, but all she managed to do was turn herself around and start going backwards. “Holla!”
“Uh oh.” Granella scrambled onto her log, straddling it like a horse as she swept downstream after Eponin. “Pony… get around.. you’re gonna…ho!”
“Yow!” Pony crashed into the wall, nearly losing her grip on the log. “Son of a bacchae!” She grabbed the edge of a protruding branch and hung on for dear life, as the log smacked against the wall and swiveled around, whirling her in a circle. “Augh!’
“Hang on… “ Granella leaned to one side as her log approached Ponys and held a hand out. “Grab on!”
“And make us both go in circles??” Pony struggled with her log, turning in mid stream and plunging down a small dip into a froth of water that went over her head. If she let go, she knew she was in deep trouble, and so though the current was wrenching the wood against her tensed arms, she managed to clamp down on it.
The water swirled over her head. She tried to kick up wards, but the suck of the rapids defeated her efforts and kept pulling her under onto her back and she felt a mounting pressure to breathe. The log dipped and crashed against her, and she let go in reflex, as the water pulled her further under.
Granella searched the surface of the water anxiously around the log, not even seeing bubbles in the churn. “Damn it.”
Amphipolis seemed, suddenly, very very far away. She leaned over and plunged one hand in, balancing precariously as she felt around in the foam for Pony. After a moment, she gave up and leaned further, deliberately tumbling into the river and sticking her head under the surface.
She opened her eyes, and saw only froth, a whirl of sand and rocks and darkness moving past her at a frightenening rate.
As she was about to pull her head back up, she spotted something moving, and instinctively stuck her leg down, feeling a hand grab her ankle. With a buck of her body, Granella surged for the surface, her head breaking above the whirling water and giving her a chance to grab a breath.
Only one. Then she ducked back under and reached for Pony’s arm, which was flailing with in reach. She grabbed hold of it and pulled up with all her strength, gritting her teeth as they tumbled through the water, bumping off rocks. “Gods be damned, Eponin, get your stubborn old ass UP HERE!”
She pulled one last time and Pony’s head broke the surface, her eyes wild and rolling almost back in her head as she drew in a coughing breath. Granella grabbed her by the leathers and tried to keep them both from going back under, her head turning as she frantically looked for some way out of the stream.
Pony coughed again, her arms paddling weakly as they twisted and turned in the water. “Augh!’
The stream curved to one side, and Granella was able to get a hand on a piece of the rock as she pulled both of them into the lee of it. The water rushed past them, but the stone afforded them some respite, and she hung there shaking, her heart pounding loud enough to drown out the rapids in her ears. “Pon?
Pony reached up and clasped the rock, her eyes closed and her breathing rapid. “Damn it to Hades.” She rasped. “Ephiny was right. Every gods be damned time we go out to help them, we get our asses kicked.”
Granella braced her boots against the rock wall, glad just to be safe for the moment. “That was pretty bad.” She agreed, coughing a little and tasting the mineral tang of the river on the back of her tongue. “You okay?”
“I suck.” Eponin enunciated succinctly.
“Mm.” Granella raked her hair out of her eyes. “Can we get back up there? Our stuff’s all back in the canoe.”
Pony turned and grasped the top of the rock they were sheltering behind and pulled herself up to look over it back the way they came. The stream was rushing towards them, white rapids now even more pronounced since they’d broken the blockage at the pass.
From the opening, water was pouring down in a thundering fall, dropping perhaps three bodylengths into the lower stream. “We’re freaking lucky.” Pony murmured.
“Huh?” Granella pulled herself up next to the weapons master. As the water rumbled down, it parted briefly and they could see a tumble of rocks and debris at the base of the falls, quickly covered again by spray. “Wow.”
They both stared at the river briefly. Then Pony exhaled. “Don’t think we can get back up that damn thing.”
Granella shook her head. “Not without ropes.. coupla climbing axes.. “
“Xena.” Pony concluded. “She could just boost our asses up there.”
They both turned and let themselves back down into the water, reviewing the options in the other direction. The white water showed no signs of slowing, and ahead they could see numerous boulders poking up from the waves and the deep swirls of whirlpools.
“This sucks.” Pony said. “Really.”
Granella could only grunt in wry agreement.
The morning brought fog. Gabrielle woke to find tendrils of it snaking into their refuge, and knew a moment of total disorentation when she couldn’t even remember falling asleep. “Buh..”
“Shh.” Xena’s hand settled on her shoulder. “It’s okay.”
The bard blinked a few times, reaching up to rub her eyes as she rolled over onto her back and looked up. Xena was seated with her back against a rock, her weapons arranged all around her. “Wh… Xena, you were supposed to let me keep watch with you.”
Xena merely looked at her, with an expression of such tender affection, it nearly made Gabrielle melt into a puddle right there on the ground. It made the fog irrelevant, and the dangers they were facing muted. “So I guess nothing else happened last night.”
“Nothing interesting.” Xena agreed. “I heard some of those cats coming pretty close, but the fire kept em off. Haven’t heard our friends yet this morning.” She draped her arm casually over Gabrielle’s midriff. “But the birds stopped chattering a couple minutes ago.. so you better throw some water on your face and get ready.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle stretched her body out, glad of the soft padding of the leaves under the skin they were perched on. “Nice not to be on rocks.” She said. “After that cave, this feels almost like our bed.
“Yeah.” The warrior agreed. “Warmer too.” She crossed her extended legs at the ankles. “But not quite like our bed.”
The bard smiled, and sat up, getting to her knees and then to her feet in a reasonably smooth motion. She stepped around the fire and went to one of the standing stones, peering past it into the forest as the fog licked at her boots. “Creepy.” She commented, as the thick gray layer seemed to flow from the trees themselves.
She never really liked fog, and suddenly her mind brought up a memory of the war, Xena creeping through the grass under a cover of thick gray, bringing death with her.
Bringing Gabrielle with her as well, the bard following her into that darkness and finding her inner light called on unexpectedly between the stalks of thick river grass. She could still smell the copper stench of blood, and she closed her eyes briefly to banish the image.
A warm hand touched her back, and she turned to look at Xena. “They’re out there.”
The warrior nodded.
“You think they’ll come at us with all this fog?’
“I think they’ll use the fog to come at us.”
Gabrielle thought about that. “Then they’re smart enough.”
“They’re smart enough.” Xena answered quietly. “They’ve picked up on something every time we’ve fought them so far.”
Gabrielle felt a chill go down her back.
“Get ready.” Xena told her. “We don’t have much time.”
For no real reason, the bard turned and put her arms around Xena, and gave her a fierce hug. Then she released her and ducked under her arm to move over to their gear.
Down below, the fog just continued to roll on in.
Silence fell around them.
Gabrielle picked up her sling and fit a rock inside it, her heartrate picking up as she strained her ears to hear what was coming.
Xena picked up her bow and bent it with a smooth, powerful motion, slipping the gut string into place. “Watch near those trees.” She uttered softly, taking an arrow and letting it rest on the fist she had closed around the bowshaft.
“Okay.” The bard flexed her hands and got her sling ready, giving it a glance and admitting privately just how wimpy it looked next to Xena’s longbow. “Like I’m going to do ANYTHing useful with this.”
“Aim for their crotches.” Xena replied, unperturbed. “Trust me. You’ll stop em.”
“You’re not going to be aiming for that.” Gabrielle now saw the faint shadows near the ground, mostly obscured by the fog.
No. Xena would be aiming for their hearts. Gabrielle took a deep breath, and let it out, turning her focus inside for a brief time, and getting her head into that place she had to be in to fight, and possibly to kill. She usually didn’t think about that part much, but this time, with her life, and Xena’s life on the line, she took those few heartbeats and made sure her conscience knew it’s place.
Gabrielle glanced at her partner. “Yes?”
“Here.” Xena handed over her small knife. “Just in case.”
For a moment, Gabrielle almost refused to take it. Then her better sense took over and she accepted the blade, sliding it without any comment into the top of her boot. Then she turned and focused on the trees again, spotting the dark shadows creeping closer to them.
Xena watched her briefly, then she turned and drew her arm back, her fingers hooked around the gut and bracketing the arrow nock. She sighted down the shaft, then let her eyes focus on her target, a shifting, barely seen motion under the top layer of fog.
With a whisper of sound, she released the bowstring, the gut coming to vertical just near her ear. The shaft whipped out across the green, cutting through the fog and striking the dark shadow just as she intended.
A scream rent the air. High and terrified.
Gabrielle drew in a shocked breath. “Xena!”
“I know.” The warrior picked up another arrow, as the fog stirred and more shadows appeared. “Sorry.”
Sorry? Gabrielle saw the dark figure rise up from the fog and bolt for them. She twirled the sling around and released it, numb as the rock hit the oncoming hooter. The rock bounced off and did little to slow the creature down. “Gods.”
Xena put a shaft into the closest one’s gut, reaching for another even before her bowstring finished vibrating. “Keep throwing.” She yelled. “Go for the head!’
Gabrielle fit a second rock into her sling and let it fly, shoving everything out of her mind except the need to do what she was doing. She reloaded and whipped another rock towards the dark figures now heading towards them, bouncing in and out of the thick ground cover.
Xena drew her arm back, releasing her arrow and nailing a big male hooter right in the throat. He stopped in mid run, a gurgling sound coming from him, and flopped to the ground, spouting blood everywhere.
The other creatures didn’t seem to notice, and kept on coming.
“Yeah.” Xena grabbed another arrow and stepped out from the safety of the rocks, nocking it and waiting until the creatures all saw her.
“Xena!” Gabrielle yelled a warning.
“Trust me, damn it!” The warrior shouted.
Gabrielle bolted out from behind her own rock, and released her sling, the rock hitting one of the oncoming hooters between the eyes. “I do trust you!” She retorted. “You just got right in my way!”
Xena released her arrow, taking the hooter Gabrielle had hit right in the eyesocket, sending blood and flesh flying into the air. She let out a wild yell at the same time, as the hooter dropped at her feet, dead, and put another arrow into her bow, swinging it around at her next victim.
He dropped to the ground.
“Fast learner.” Xena muttered.
The hooters all hooted back at her, but the motion forward stopped. There was a heavy crack, as though something had hit a tree trunk, and then the fog swallowed the rest of them up and they were gone.
Xena waited briefly, her arrow nocked, before she slowly stepped back behind the shelter of the standing stones, Gabrielle at her heels. They stood together, the crackling fire warming the backs of their legs as they listened intently to the forest surrounding them.
A soft thump.
Wisps of fog trickled into their refuge, dissipating as the tendrils met the flames of the fire with soft pops and the faintest scent of hot rain.
After a few minutes, Xena put down her bow and picked up her ax, starting back towards the forest. “St…hm.”
Gabrielle merely tapped her on the butt and jerked her chin towards the trees.
They walked cautiously through the mist, it’s gray cling puffing out on either side of their boots as their steps crunched across the scattered rocks. A dark lump loomed into their path, and they both paused, staring down at the huddled figure sprawled on the stone.
Xena shifted, slapping the head of her ax lightly against her thigh. “Couldn’t see her in the fog.” She said, after a moment’s silence.
“I know.” The bard murmured. “I didn’t realize either until she screamed.”
A bit of fog curled around the woman’s body, then drifted off as though uninterested by death.
Gabrielle knelt, putting a hand on the woman’s shoulder and rolling her body onto it’s back. Xena’s arrow was protruding from her chest, it’s end buried in her heart. The warrior’s aim was, as always unerring. “Damn.” The bard sighed. “Wonder if she was running from them.”
Xena crouched down next to her, examining the woman impassively. “Or leading them.” She commented, getting back up and moving on. “I’m gonna check the rest of em.”
Gabrielle waited for the warrior’s tall form to be swallowed by the fog before she leaned forward and studied the dead woman. Her face was slack and empty, one hand curled into a fist, the other with it’s fingers still outstretched on the ground.
She hardly knew how to feel, really. There was something about the woman, a mystery that spoke to her storyteller’s instincts and left her with questions that now would never be answered.
Death did that. Gabrielle let her hand drop to the woman’s clenched one, turning it over and studying the scars and calluses. Death always left questions, and sometimes she pondered how in her own life she’d been given the chance to look past death and find her own answers.
The sun peeked through the branches and laid a pattern of shadow over them, pushing back the fog. It glanced off something shiny and Gabrielle looked closer, seeing something held tight in the woman’s fingers.
She gently pried the digits open. Inside the woman’s hand, she saw a round disk, a faint tinge of copper color under the worn, dirty surface. “Hm.” Curiously, she picked it up and looked at it, letting the sun come in over her shoulder and disclose it’s details.
It was smooth, but definitely man made. It resembled a coin, a roughly hammered circle worn down by the touch of many fingers over many years. At one time, she could tell, there had been a sigil in the center, and there was a nagging familiarity about the object she couldn’t quite place.
“What’s that?” Xena had returned, her eyes flicking around the forest. “They’re not far.”
“I don’t’ know.. she was holding it.” Gabrielle stood up and offered Xena the object, balanced on her palm. “I think I’ve seen something like this before, but…”
Xena took the circle and looked at it closely, turning it over in her fingers. Then she looked up at Gabrielle. “You have.”
The bard cocked her head in question. “Have I?’
“It’s…” The warrior hesitated. “In Potadeia. Some of the men they..”
“Oh.” Gabrielle lifted a hand and half covered her eyes. “Where in Hades is my head. Of course.” She took the object back from Xena. “The council token. My.. father had one. It meant he had a vote.” Her eyes now picked out the faint impression of the town sigil, long ago worn almost to smoothness. “But where did she get it?”
Xena had been studying her quietly. “Good question.” She put a hand on the bard’s shoulder. “Let’s get our stuff packed up and get moving up the ridge. We scared them off for now, but they’ll be back.”
Gabrielle was still staring at the coin. Her eyes shifted to the woman’s body, pale brows tensing over her eyes as a flicker of emotion crossed her face. “You think she got it from her mother?”
“Maybe.” Xena shrugged slightly.
A token from her hometown. Had the older woman found it?
Or was it hers to begin with? Gabrielle studied the regular features half hidden under thick, matted hair and scars over scars. “Xena?” She looked up at her soulmate. “Let’s give her a pyre.”
Pale blue eyes looked right into hers. Gabrielle could clearly remember a time when her request would have been brushed off impatiently, and in the shadows in the back of those eyes, she could see that impatience, wild and unruly. “Please?”
Xena lifted her hand and a laid it’s palm against Gabrielle’s cheek. “Sure.” She glanced around. “But let’s make it fast. I don’t want those bastards to think I’m cooking them dinner again.”
“Sorry.” Xena walked over and knelt by the woman, folding her arms over her chest and straightening her legs. Her attitude was businesslike and impersonal, as though the arrow sticking out of the horrible wound in the body’s chest wasn’t hers at all.
The bard turned and went back into their refuge, kneeling and slipping their pack onto her back and tightening the straps. There would be no time to build a rack to put the woman’s body on, she knew. Xena would have to lay it directly on the remaining flames.
But that was okay. Gabrielle stood and walked around to the other side of the fire, watching her partner as Xena glided between the standing stones, the body in her arms. It was a way to send her essence on to the gods, and not leave her remains her to be scavenged.
Xena paused just short of the fire and waited for the flames to die down a touch, before she quickly put the body on top of them and backed off, circling around and joining Gabrielle on the far side.
They stood together and watched the fire take this new fuel and consume it, sending a dark smudge of smoke skyward, it’s fringes moving away from them down the ridge.
Gabrielle closed her hand around the token. “There’s a story there, Xena.”
Xena lifted her bow and put it over her shoulder, lashing her ax to her belt. “Looking forward to hearing you tell it to everyone.” She glanced up the ridge, seeing a bare, but possible path. “Let’s go.”
Gabrielle watched the pyre a moment more, and then she turned and followed Xena through the stones, leaving rancid smoke and mysteries behind her.
“Pon.” Granella looked over Eponin’s shoulder. “Pon, don’t bother.”
“What?” The weapon’s master gave her a stern look. “We need that gear. I ain’t going down the river without it, so.. hey! Where are you going?”
Granella had jumped up onto the rocks and was balancing precariously at the top of them. “Look!”
Pony whirled, her eyes widening as she spotted the nose of their canoe about to come over the falls. “Oh damn!” She scrambled up after Granella. “That’s gonna crash.”
“Hey, at least we don’t have to figure out how to climb back up there after it.” Granella flexed her hands. “If it makes it, I’ll go in and grab for it.” She watched the canoe teeter at the opening, getting caught on either side and going half upended as the impatient water behind it resented the impediment.
The canoe turned sideways, and then straightened and plunged down. “Ah, here we go.” Granella watched the nose bury itself into the water at the bottom and held her breath. The vessel turned sideways and twisted, but then popped to the surface and started careening towards them. “Okay… c’mon..”
“What if you miss?”
“Huh?” Granella leaned forward a little, getting ready to jump for the canoe. “Then we swim after it.. c’mon!” She crouched, spreading her hands out, and wiggling her fingers.
Pony stared at the water. “Listen.”
“Not now, Pon.” Granella said. “On three, jump.. one, two..”
“I can’t swim.”
Granella was already in mid leap, but if she could have frozen in place, she would have. “Whhhhaaa!!!!” She let out a yell, as she plunged into the river. The shock of the water blew out any thoughts of her companion and she surged for the surface, looking around for the canoe.
It was only an armslength away, and she was able to lunge forward and get her fingertips on the edge of it. “Ah!” She got a better grip, and turned her head. “C’mon, Pon! I’ll catch you!”
Caught in indecision, Eponin was balanced on the rock, her hands clenching and unclenching.
Granella tried to pull the canoe back against the current. “Hurry!” She urged. “This thing’s going fast!”
“Damn it.” Pony hopped forward and into the water, feet first. She disappeared under the surface, then came up gasping, paddling with her hands in a somewhat frantic manner.
“Well, Hades.” Granella kept one hand firmly attached to the canoe, and extended the other, kicking with her feet against the current. “She can’t damn swim, can she?”
It seemed odd to her, since Amazons were quite familiar with water, and lived around lakes and rivers. But then, she remembered Gabrielle telling her that she hadn’t known how to swim before she’d met Xena, and so maybe, Granella reckoned, it wasn’t as common as she thought.
The current swept them both down the river, and Granella saw they weren’t getting any closer to each other. “Pon!” She kicked harder. “C’mon, go with it!”
The weapons master was having enough trouble just keeping her head above water. She thrashed around frantically, upright in the water and tried not to let the whirls take her under. “Can’t!” She yelled back. “Damn water!”
Granella looked down the river, spotting two rocks upthrust with a deep current going between them. She angled towards them, hoping the river’s sweep would cooperate and allow her to position herself and the canoe in just the right way. “Hang on!”
“To what?” Eponin asked, in exasperation. “This sucks!”
Granella managed to get the canoe straight, and then she pulled it into her body, wincing in reflex as the boat caught on the two rocks with a grating scrape that went right through her. “Ugh!”
The current almost ripped her out from under the canoe and forced her thorugh the rocks, but she managed to get a boot on each stone and perched there, with the river thundering at her back. “Pon!” She yelled over her shoulder. “Whatever you do, just get here!”
There was no answer, and she turned her head to look behind her, just as the fierce surge of current slammed Eponin into the edge of the canoe with enough force to almost crack the side.
“Crap!” Pony grabbed the canoe and spit out a mouthful of water. “Next time I let the bloody idiot youngers come do this heroic bull.” She coughed. “What in Hades are the Maj and Xena thinking?”
“Well.” Granella removed a splinter from her finger. “Y’know, the thing is, Pon.. they’re actually good at this stuff.”
“Well, they are. I was watching Gabrielle when she was taking those stupid animals out of the river, you know?”
“Someone should have gone and taken her out of the river.” Pony stated. “Instead of just hanging around watching.”
Granella looked at her. “Would you have tried it?” She asked, with a bit of an edge. “Gone and told her to stop what she was doing and get out?”
Pony cleared her throat.
“That’s what I thought. Nobody tells her what to do, except maybe Xena.”
“Yeah.” Granella cleared her throat. “So anyway, she was in that water, and let me tell ya, it was knocking everyone else ass over teapot but not her.”
“Nope. She was dug in there like a mountain goat grabbing those lambs.” Granella said. “Fiesty thing.”
Pony chuckled wryly. “Needs to be.” She shifted a little. “So, now that I plowed headfirst into this thing, what next?” She asked. “Good plan, yeah?”
“Okay.” Gran shifted her grip. “Now we gotta get into this thing.” She studied the craft. “I think you better get in first. If I let this thing go, it may just.. uh…”
“Go.” Pony reached across and grabbed the other side of the canoe, pulling herself up and into the slim boat awkwardly. “I hate boats.” She braced her dripping wet boots and unlashed one of the paddles, raking her hair from her eyes impatiently. “Okay.. you next.”
“Um.” Granella studied her options. “Can you hold on to that rock.. yeah. I don’t want this thing moving out from under me.”
Pony put the paddle back down and grabbed the rock they were pressed against, holding it firmly. “Go.”
Granella edged over to one side and took hold of the rawhide covered frame, kicking back away from the rocks as hard as she could before she lunged over the side and into the boat. The canoe slammed against the rocks twice, before she rolled over and pushed off with one hand, saving the craft from a third bashing. “Whoa.”
“In?” Pony was now looking much more comfortable. “Tell ya what. Let’s move it down stream, till we find some place to climb out. Deal?”
“Deal.” Her companion agreed, settling herself into the bottom of the canoe and untying the other paddle. “Oh..wait.” She got up on her knees and turned around, facing the front of the boat. “There.. helps having someone steer.”
They sat there a minute, with the water still pushing the canoe hard against the stones. “So.” Pony finally said. “Now what?”
Granella studied the currents. “Well… if you shove off from back there, and I push away from this rock, we should head around and into that eddy on that side.” She pointed to a somewhat smoother stretch of water.
“And if we screw up?” Pony asked, in a wry tone.
“We’ll probably end up in the water again.”
“Great.” Pony switched her paddle to her outside hand and pushed against the rock. “Centaur poop.” She grunted. “This thing’s stuck here.”
Granella turned around and pushed also, shoving hard against the stone. The canoe moved a little, scraping against the rock. “Push!”
The weapons’ master put her paddle down and applied both hands to the rock, pushing against the current as hard as she could.
With a grinding noise, the canoe slid around the rocks and headed downstream, freed into the current that eagerly took it. Granella grabbed up her paddle and started steering with it, watching the whirls of water with an anxious eye.
She wasn’t too skilled at riding the rapids, though she’d done a little of that way back when in her junior years. Up above the village, up in the mountains in springtime, when the snows would melt and water would roar down the slopes and give the young Amazons a thrill they usually didn’t tell their elders about.
Of course, it stood to reason since the village had been there a while, that the elders had done exactly the same thing in their time, but no one ever really came out and said that. It would have taken out some of the illicit fun in the activity.
Right now, she was not having fun, licit or illicit. Granella saw a whirlpool coming and she braced herself for it. “Watch it.” She warned. “We’re gonna twist.”
“Ugh.” Eponin grimaced. “Tell ya, when we catch up with them, boy…whoooa!” She let out a yelp as the river caught them and spun them in a circle. “Yow! Hey!”
Granella dug into the water with her paddle, yanking them free of the whirlpool and into the next set of rapids. She only hoped they’d find a place to get out soon, before they got themselves back into real trouble.
As if they weren’t already.
Despite everything, Gabrielle found herself enjoying the walk they were on. She was just a step behind Xena on the narrow path, listening to the soft crunch of their footsteps against the loose gravel as they climbed the ridge.
She should really be in a horrible mood. She’d gotten only a little sleep, Xena had gotten none at all, they were being chased by creatures, she’d witnessed the death of the one person who could really have told them what the truth was, and it looked like it was going to rain again.
And yet, she could still feel a sense of inner contentment that actually surprised her. “Hey.” She put her hand on Xena’s shoulderblade. “Tell me something.”
“Robins lay eggs.” Xena replied promptly. “Anything else you wanna know?”
Ah. So Xena was in a pretty good mood, too. Gabrielle moved her hand lower and gave her partner a pat on the butt. “I love you.”
Xena looked back over her shoulder, her eyes half obscured by her shaggy, windblown hair. “Right back atcha.”
Gabrielle smiled at her, feeling a deep warmth erupt from her guts as though she’d swallowed a sunbeam, and it reached out to light up Xena’s baby blues in a very charming way. “You know what the most amazing thing about being in love with you is?”
Xena turned her attention back to the path, a grin visible on her face. “I’m afraid to ask.” She demurred. “If we get any gooeyer, we’re gonna slide off the damn path together.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Yeah, we’ve been kinda mooney lately, huh?”
The bard laced her fingers into Xena’s belt. “I can’t help it.” She admitted. “It just feels so good, and I remember what it was like when it didn’t.”
“Mm.” Xena’s expression grew a little more serious. “Me too.” She put a hand on the rock wall and let her fingers trail over it. “Those were some hard days.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle nodded. “Falling in love was so easy.” She said. “Staying in love is the hard part.” Her eyes shifted to Xena’s profile, watching as the warrior nodded a little bit. “That’s why loving you is such a precious gift.”
“Likewise.” Xena replied, her voice a little husky.
They walked quietly for a minute, rocks rattling down the path as their footsteps disturbed them. “You know what the most amazing thing is for me about being in love with you?” Xena asked, after they’d rounded the next crag.
“Being in love with you.” The warrior paused, leaning her hands on a stone and peering over it. The path arced up to the left, but then it petered out at a sharp promontory. “Dead end.”
“Don’t care.” Gabrielle eased up next to her and leaned on the rock. “We’ll just find another way.”
“Another another way?’ Xena asked, wryly.
“What about down there?” Gabrielle pointed to another path, slanting downward back into the dense forest. “Better than going back this.. “ She looked over her shoulder. “Xena.”
“I know.” The warrior didn’t look down the ridge, where dark, furred figures were creeping. “Yeah, well.. I guess we’re going down.” She sighed. “I was hoping this would meet halfway up the damn wall.. maybe we could find a way to climb out.”
Gabrielle tipped her head back and reviewed the towering cliffs. The stones rose high above her head, thi striations running vertically and promising little in the way of handholds. “Let’s see where that leads.” She indicated the lower path diplomatically.
“No choice.” Xena lead the way down, holding in to the rocks as her makeshift boots slid on the gravel. “Damn it.”
Gabrielle took hold of her belt and placed her own boots carefully, having a slight advantage from the stiffer soles. “Too bad we just can’t slide down.”
Surprisingly, Xena snickered. “Remind me to show you something when we get home.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle agreed mildly. “Wish like Hades I was home.” She added. “I miss Dori.”
“Me, too.” The warrior said. “Wish like Hades she was here.”
Gabrielle observed their surroundings, and their current lack of resources. “Really?”
“Looking for someone else to talk to?” The bard queried. “Cause honey, having her here right this minute wouldn’t be much fun for any of us.”
Xena slid a few more feet, and then they were on a more even part of the track and she found good footing. “I could carry her on my back.” She protested. “She was good, that last month before we got home.”
Gabrielle smiled to herself. “That’s true.” She said. “But with those creatures chasing after us, and you having to fight off animals the size of our cabin, I’m kinda glad she’s missing out on this little adventure of ours.”
Xena ducked, as a bird suddenly rushed out of a hidden nest, nearly taking some of her hair with it. The bird screamed in protest, and wheeled, diving back at them. “Well.” The warrior fended it off with her bow. “Yeah.”
The bard managed to get her staff up and as the bird came in again, she knocked it away from her partner’s head. “Let’s get past here… maybe she has babies.”
“Common theme this round.” Xena trotted down past the cleft, though, with Gabrielle right behind her as they got away from the enraged bird. “What is it with us?”
“Babies on our minds?”
They ducked behind a scrubby tree and peered back, seeing the bird wheeling around it’s nest, but apparently not inclined to follow them further now that it had won it’s point. With a shake of her head, Xena turned and continued on, feeling a damp gust of air flutter against her body.
Rain? She looked up, but the clouds were just still gathering above them. Another puff of air brought the smell of rich moss to her, and she decided they were probably headed towards water instead. Not unexpected, given the terrain, but she hoped it wasn’t just a huge flood they’d have to wade through.
The trees started reaching up to welcome them, thick leaves rustling slowly in the breeze. The path they were walking on grew a little broader, enough for them to walk side by side and Gabrielle took immediate advantage of that and moved up next to her partner’s fur clad form.
It was dark, under the trees. The sun penetrated only fitfully through the leaves, and they felt it grow much cooler as they left the shelter of the rocks and walked deeper into the forest.
Gabrielle felt the ground with her staff, finding it soft, and somewhat yielding. She could sense the difference through her boots as well, and the soft jarring in her joints eased as she walked across the leaf littered earth.
She spotted some mushrooms, and tapped Xena on the arm. “I’m going to grab those.”
“Help yourself.” The warrior stopped by a tall tree and looked behind them, arching her neck to peer back up the path they’d descended. Nothing stirred in her vision, but she was too canny a hunter herself to feel anything like safety because of it.
How would they come? She wondered. Had they learned something from her use of the bow, as they had her use of the stones before? She knew they couldn’t duplicate her weaponsmaking, but would they change their strategy?
That was the danger, Xena recognized. These things that were more than animals and something less than people didn’t fit into any pattern she was familiar with, and so – everything was a chance.
Xena turned to see Gabrielle standing under a tree, looking up into it’s branches. Her hand was curled around her staff as she leaned easily against it and the pose made the warrior smile. “Gabbbriellle?”
“Apples.” The bard pointed. “Too high for me to knock down.”
Xena joined her at the foot of the tree and looked upward. Sure enough, the upper branches were speckled with green and red fruit, held tantalizingly out of reach. “Guess you want me to go up there.”
“Nah. Hold this. I’ll do it.” Gabrielle handed her the staff and put her sack down, then started to climb the tree. She’d gotten to the first branch when a long arm fitted itself around her midriff and tightened, pulling her back off the trunk.
She could have held on, and resisted, but she let go, and found herself set gently back down onto the ground. “I wasn’t doing it right?”
Xena merely kissed her on the top of the head and handed her back her staff. She laid her weapons down and crouched, leaping up to grab a higher limb and pulling herself up onto it. “Too slow.” She called back, as she strolled up towards the trunk and hopped to an upper branch.
“Wench.” Gabrielle grinned, watching her move through the tree as though it were the walkways outside their cabin. She hated heights, and didn’t like climbing trees, but she also didn’t like Xena thinking she had to do it for her.
Confusing. But Xena had settled the matter in typical style and she’d end up getting what she was after in the end anyway. “Toss them down.. I’ll catch them.”
Xena plucked one and dropped it, then moved on to another, selecting certain fruits according to her own criterion and letting them fall down to Gabrielle’s waiting hands. The breeze up in the top of the tree was a little less damp, and on it, Xena suddenly caught the distinct smell of wood burning.
She paused and sniffed hard again, convinced she’d just imagined it, but she hadn’t, and the breeze was now coming down the path towards them from the way they came.
What did it mean? Xena pulled down a few more apples and carefully let them fall, looking down to meet Gabrielle’s eyes as the bard watched her. She could see the now serious expression on the bard’s face, and wondered if she smelled the smoke too. “That enough?”
“Yeah!” Gabrielle nodded. “C’mon down here.” She glanced behind her, and then looked back up, mist green eyes looking unusually vivid in the filtered sunlight.
Xena did, dropping down through the branches until she was on one with a clear shot to the ground, and then simply stepping off it, tumbling into a flip before she landed on the earth. “Listen..”
Gabrielle had just finished stuffing the last apple into her pack. “Something’s coming.”
“You smell it?” Xena picked up her bow.
“No.” The bard got the pack onto her back and fastened the belly strap. “I felt you smell it.” She picked up her staff. “Whatever ‘it’ is.”
Xena studied the forest, selecting a path through the trees that led away from the ridge they’d descended from. “It was smoke.” She explained, as they slipped between the trunks. “And I don’t know what that means.”
Gabrielle followed her, flexing her thigh muscles a little as they started a faint downward trek again. “Hasn’t been any lightning.” She mused. “But we did leave that fire in the cave, Xe.”
“I know.” The warrior muttered. “We also…” She paused, glancing back at Gabrielle. “I also killed their only female.” She said. “Not sure what that’s gonna mean to them.”
The bard remained quiet, considering her partner’s words as they walked further into the woods. “You think they realize that? I mean.. that they realize what that means?”
Gabrielle watched as a squirrel dashed away from them, it’s tiny black eyes peering back at them from a further, safer tree. “Why do you think that was, Xena?”
The warrior walked around a fallen tree, stepping over it’s rotting hulk. “What was?”
“That she was their only female.”
Xena actually stopped walking, and turned to look at Gabrielle. Her brows drew in together and she frowned, cocking her head to one side in question. “You know something?”
“That’s a very damn good question, Gabrielle.”
The bard blinked mildly at her. “Thanks.” She murmured. “I figured you knew the answer.”
Xena shook her head. “Hadn’t even asked myself.” She admitted. “They have some pretty damn big predators… maybe they just weren’t lucky.”
Maybe. Gabrielle edged past her and continued further through the trees. Maybe the women were just smaller, and weaker, and easier prey. She glanced at her partner. Xena equaled the creatures in height, if not in bulk, and she was capable of fighting them one on one, but the bard sensed that in a group, Xena didn’t fancy her chances much with them.
So did the women all die by accident? Gabrielle juggled the coin she’d found in the woman’s hand and studied it as she walked, rubbing her thumb over the long faded insignia on it. “She must have been really lonely, after her mother died.”
Xena glanced over at her, but remained silent.
“I was trying to imagine what it would be like, having no one to talk to, or even.. I mean, no one who you could share your thoughts with.” The bard continued. “It’s so sad.”
Gabrielle stopped walking and leaned on her staff. “It reminds me of when I was in Chin.” She said, in a soft tone. “All those days waiting for you.”
Xena stopped as well, eyeing her uncertainly.
“I couldn’t really talk to anyone.. except Ming Tien.” The bard said. “Couldn’t really understand what was going on.. all those nights just sitting there second guessing myself.” She looked over at Xena. “Hoping you didn’t end up…” She exhaled, and rubbed her eyes. “Never mind. I don’t know why I’m..”
Xena leaned her bow against a nearby tree and walked over to her, gently cradling the bard’s face in her hands. “Easy.”
“I was so scared.” Gabrielle whispered.”So scared I’d lost you.” She blinked, and tears rolled down her face. “It was so much worse than when you’d died.”
The smoke, and the creatures no longer mattered. Xena took a step closer and stroked the tears away with her thumbs, gazing down into the shadowed depths of Gabrielle’s eyes. “I was wrong.” She murmured. “I owed us so much more than I owed her.”
The bard’s expression was so open to her, those eyes drinking in every word, every shift of her face with pa perfect trust re-earned the very, very hard way. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle.”
A tiny smile appeared. “Me, too.” Gabrielle responded huskily. “Shouda never let you go alone.” She sniffled, glancing aside. “Gods, you must think I’m nuts.. bringing this up now.”
“No.” Xena leaned closer, letting her head rest against the bards for a moment, before she kissed her on the forehead. “Just pregnant.” She added wryly. “Little different than last time, huh?”
“Ooohhh.” Gabrielle slumped against her, shaking her head. “From whiney to maudlin. Not sure I like the change.” She slid her arms around Xena and enjoyed the simplicity of a hug. “Boo, I want cookies.”
Xena managed a laugh, relieving the wound tension inside her. “How about an apple?”
“That’s how we got into this the last time.” Gabrielle released her, and dug into the pack anyway, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes. “All right.. let’s go.” She handed an apple to Xena and took one for herself. “Let’s find our way out of here. I want to go home.”
Xena put her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders and they started walking again, deeper into the forest that now surrounded them.
“You’re really being mellow about everything.” Gabrielle said. “Kinda different from last time too.”
“Maybe I know what to expect this time.” The warrior said.
“Mm.” Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Xena’s waist as her equilibrium returned. “Glad one of us is handling it better.”
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