One Wild Ride
The attack came just before dawn, when the sky was just grayenough to see the swarming silhouettes but not light enough to detail them.
Xena vaulted over the fire at the first sensing of them, allquicksilver motion and dark haired ferocity as she rushed to meet thehooters, with Gabrielle a barestep behind her.
Bard and warrior joined a cursing, struggling Pony with herback pressed against the rock, both hands fending off grasping, hairy fingers.“Son of a bacchae!”
“You called?” Xena neatly chopped off a scattering ofmiscellaneous digits, then reversed her sword and smashed the nearest hooter inthe face with the hilt. “Stupid bastards.. think they’d give up.”
The volume alone warned her. Xena felt time slow down, asshe shifted her body and swiveled, allowing her instincts full play to react towhatever it was that caused Gabrielle’s warning.
Out of the mist, her eyes picked up the unexpected outlineof an arrow shaft, and it was in truth only her reflexes that saved herlife. In almost fascination, shewatched as her left hand flickered into motion, her fingers closing around thearrow and stopping it just shy of her chest.
Her heart beat on steadily, unfazed, her body accustomed todealing with this kind of threat even though her mind slid halfway into shockat the hooter’s assumption of their weapons with such amazing aptitude.
Only halfway, because as she caught and tossed aside thearrow, another headed her way and the world sped up again as she settled downto the dangerous business of war. “Gabrielle! Geddown!”
“Knew she was going to say that.” Gabrielle scuttled behindher partner, acknowledging that undaunted courage didn’t preclude not wantingto get nailed with an arrow. “Damn, Xena!”
“Tell me!” Xena slashed at a pair of oncoming hooters, whoabruptly dropped to the ground, and then rolled towards them, now visiblesticks in their hands stabbing at her legs.
Pointed ends. The warrior jumped and landed on two of them, pinning the erstwhileweapons to the ground while she savagely hacked at the arms holding them,chopping through bone and skin and sending hair flying everywhere.
Gabrielle’s staff whisked between her strokes, knocking backa charging hooter, his hands outstretched towards her and his eyes wide. Hewent down with a grunt and a second later the back end of the bard’s weaponcaught him above the ear with a loud crack.
“Thanks.” Xena ducked under two more sets of grasping armsand gutted the closer owner, twisting her arms sideways and jerking them backjust as Gabrielle stepped around her and nailed her other opponent between theeyes with the butt end of her staff.
Fighting in close quarters like this came as second natureto both of them these days, and Xena now had total confidence in her partner’sabilities; but that had taken years to work out between them and many nearmisses and whacks in the head had come between then and now.
Gabrielle was dangerous with that staff. To her enemies, andalso, if she was off-target, to anyone in her vicinity who had the misfortuneto get in her way. It was only abig stick, true, but swung with the speed Gabrielle could swing it, and withthe bard’s compact, muscular weight behind the motion it could break bone withease.
It did now, and the hooter went down with a scream, clutchingat his face as blood flew. Xenadidn’t hesitate to take advantage of his confusion, she brought the hilt of hersword down on the top of his head with all the force of her arms, and had thesatisfaction of seeing his head snap to one side, neck broken by the blow.
No time to enjoy it, though, as she had to whirl and team upwith Pony to shove back four or five of the brutes who’d surrounded the weaponsmaster.
Pony had a typically Amazon sword handling style, and herweapon was shorter than Xena’s was to accommodate her lesser inches andslighter frame. She used the blade as both offense and defense and tended toslash and cut more than Xena did.
Most of that was strength. Xena risked sticking her sworddeep into the bodies of her enemies because she knew she had the power to pullit back out again, and not have their collapsing take the weapon out of herhands. She also knew she had the strength to cut right through limbs and if sheput her mind to it, ribcages and so her fighting style was markedly different.
Less elegance, more butchery, Melosa had once said abouther, and Xena conceded the truth of that, but felt it wasn’t a handicap in warwhen the object was to kill as many people as fast as you could. Her way offighting was messier, but people she went after usually went down, and stayeddown, unable to hurt her or people she cared about further.
No points for pretty moves. “Yhahh!” The warrior stayedclear of Eponin’s fast moving blade and kicked two hooters out of her way,driving her sword sideways from the other direction.
Another arrow whirred into her peripheral vision, and shewhipped her blade up to knock it aside, then yanked the sword back as thehooter facing her tried to grab it. It sliced right through his hands, sendingblood spurting high in the air.
He stared at the stumps, then his eyes lifted to Xena’sface.
“I’m gonna do you a favor.” The warrior said, as she lockedher arms and spun, her blade hitting him in the side of the neck and continuingthrough it, removing his head as his eyes bulged, death taking him between onebreath and the next.
She kicked his head to one side and squared her shoulders,taking a quick glance behind her to find Gabrielle. “You all right?” She called to the bard, who was standingbehind her, staff gripped firmly in both hands.
“Fine.” The bard yelled back. “Watch it!” She ducked pastXena and engaged one of the attackers, catching the club he had aimed at herpartner with her staff and turning it aside with a neat jerk of her arms. “Stopworrying about me!”
“Oh, sure.” Xena reached past her to swipe a pointed stickout of one hairy hand, perilous inches from her partner’s navel. “How about Istop breathing for an encore?”
“I saw that coming!”
“Uh huh.” The warrior turned back around, as she felt arushing presence coming at her and only barely had time to lash out with onebooted foot to keep two of the hooters from leaping on her.
“Watch your own self!” Gabrielle came to her side,disregarding the danger of the arrows as she took on the right most male whileXena struggled with the leftmost. The biggest of them had engaged the warrior, hooking her arm with hisown as he tried to pull her awayfrom the rock and over onto her back.
He outweighed her by a good bit, and if it hadn’t been forXena’s wide legged stance and the weight of her hilt as she smashed him in theface she’d have been in trouble. “Bastard!” She cursed at him, as he kept holdof her and they wrestled, his hands fumbling as he tried to take the sword fromher.
She yanked her hands back away from him and twisted, makinghim lose his balance and opening up his ribcage to a sudden, very violent sweepof Gabrielle’s staff, which smashed into him with an audible crunch.
Xena returned the favor as Gabrielle’s opponent leaped ather. She caught him by the back hair and turned, using her weight and hismomentum to throw him headfirst into the rock behind them.
DAMN IT! Xenatwirled her sword in her hand as she continued her motion around, dropping to acrouch until she could locate the new threat.
An arrow sped by her, in the other direction, catching acharging hooter in the eye and spinning him backwards just as Pony planted herfeet and gutted a second, grunting as the big male smashed against her, dyingas his arms paddled weakly at her.
A bark, a roil in the fog, and then they were retreating,running off down the ridge to disappear into the forest leaving their fallencomrades on the ground before the stones.
Granella sent them off in proper style, nailing the last inthe group with an arrow in the back, and watching in satisfaction as he pitchedforward and landed on his face on the ground, twitching violently.
“Blech.” Pony shoved the hairy body away from her andwatched in distaste as it slid to the ground. “Man, give me centaurs to fightanyday.” She looked up as Granella came around the rocks, lowering her bow asshe went over to one of the fallen arrows and picked it up. “Yours?”
Granella held it up for her to see. The Amazon markings nearthe feathers were plain. “But where’d they get a bow? I’ve got mine.. youdidn’t bring yours.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. “From me.” The warrioradmitted. “I made one and dropped it days back.. didn’t figure they’d know whatto do with it.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle murmured softly. “I guess they figured itout.”
“Figured out more than that.” Xena leaned back against therock, her drawn sword resting against her thigh. The length was covered indark, rich red which nevertheless reflected the early morning light.
“They were going for the blades.” Pony agreed, grimly.“First bastard nearly got mine.” She winced, examining a bruise along the sideof her arm. “What in Hades are these things, Xena?”
Xena exhaled, letting her eyes search the rocky ground nowstrewn with silent bodies. “Wish I knew.” She replied. “I don’t recognize halfthe damn things in this place.” Her eyes lifted to the trees. “Bet getting through there now’s gonna bea bitch.”
Gabrielle went to the closest of the bodies and knelt besideit, laying her staff down as she rested her hands on her knees. His body bore afew scraps of what might have been intended as clothing – strips of barkwrapped around his waist and tied with…
She leaned closer, reaching out to touch the bark and pullit over a little. The strands she’d seen were, indeed, threads from her ownskirt, probably taken during one of the scuffles. “Ew.”
“What?” Xena had been loitering behind her, and now sheknelt beside her partner.
Gabrielle untangled the thread and handed it to her. “Xena,are you sure these things aren’t something Ares dreamed up?” She asked,seriously. “They’re so focused on… killing things.”
Xena moved one of the creature’s arms, exposing a piece ofrock half buried in the dirt. She picked it up and examined it, shaking herhead a little. “They find everything.” She handed the rock over to Gabrielle,who turned it over in her fingers.
“What is that?” Granella asked, curiously. “Looks like justa split stone.”
“It is.” The bard gave it to her. “It’s a stone Xena splitright after we first got here.. trying to make something to cut with. Iremember the fault line there on one end, it reminded me of the river bend nearhome.”
Pony knelt on the other side of Xena. “So.. you gave it tothem?”
“They found it.” Xena said. “Just like they found the bow Idropped.”
“They tried to trick us into a trap.” Gabrielle explained,sensing the prickling of Xena’s temper. “We found a deer.. they’d tied it up. Iguess they saw us kill the other one, or something.”
Pony looked a little confused. “Wait a minute. You’retelling me these creeps were smart enough to trick you guys into falling forsomething?”
Gabrielle leaned casually against Xena’s leg, feeling thesub audible growling. “Not exactly.” She said. “We were just walking along andheard the deer. Xena got close to it, but she figured out what they were up tobefore they could trap us and she started kicking them around.”
Pony and Granella exchanged glances. “Oh.” Pony muttered.“But.. you’re sure they were trying to trap you all?”
“We’re sure.” Xena replied, in a clipped tone. “Let’s getmoving. The further we get in daylight, the better. If we have to fight our waydown into the valley it’s gonna be a long day.” She got up and walked towardsthe nearby stream, sword twitching and twirling in her hand.
“This is really weird.” Granella stood also, giving her heada half shake. “I’ll grab these. Gods know we’re gonna need em.” She startedpicking up the discarded arrows, and then moved to get the ones she’d buriedinto enemy flesh.
“Weird.” Pony agreed. “Guess I’ll go wash off too.” Shestarted after Xena, leaving Gabrielle kneeling somberly at the side of thefallen hooter.
‘Yeah.” Gabrielle murmured, under her breath. “Gonna be along day.”
They walked into the forest single file, Xena in the lead.Gabrielle was only a step or two behind her, and then Granella and Ponyfollowed, with Pony taking up rear guard as she worked on assembling aserviceable bow.
Gabrielle was of two minds about this. On one hand, it wasslightly insulting to insinuate that she and Granella belonged in the middle,protected slots. On the other hand, she wanted to be right near where Xena wasand the best place to protect her butt was.. well.. pretty much right at herbutt.
So there you go. The bard felt the path ahead of her withher staff as she kept her partner in her peripheral vision, her senses watchingintently for the little signals that meant Xena’s far more powerful sensesdetecting something.
Like her head sweeping to one side suddenly, the dark hairbrushing across her shoulders as she watched something go by. Or the stiffeningof her body, or the twitching of her fingers, all unconscious reactions tosomething she’d heard or smelled or seen.
Xena wasn’t doing any of that right now, so Gabriellefigured they were safe for the moment from attack. The warrior was stridingalong the downward slope of the path, body bouncing just a little as she tookthe shock of the hard ground through her bones.
She was wearing her catskin cloak, as the morning had stayedchilly and Gabrielle was carrying their pack on her back with a bit of thedeerskin pulled from it to drape over her shoulders. It wasn’t really warm, butshe was moving and her body was generating enough heat from that so she wasn’tuncomfortable.
Of course, she wasn’t really comfortable either, but shewasn’t complaining. “Xe?” She took a few, quicker steps and came up even withher soulmate. “You know what I think we have to be careful of?”
“Slugs.” Xena’s motion was only a flicker, as she drew hersword, sliced a slug in half that was about to attach itself to Gabrielle’sshoulder, and resheathed the weapon in nothing more than a blink of an eye.“And I think we’ve got rain coming in again.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle glanced at the sky. “Ugh. Yeah.”
They walked along together for a few minutes in silence, asXena picked the best track down. As they got past a steep, rocky piece, sheturned her head towards Gabrielle. “What?”
The bard looked up, startled. “What what?” She let her eyessweep the surrounding trees. “Something wrong?”
“What.” Xena enunciated slowly. “Do we have to be carefulof?”
Gabrielle stepped around a boulder half sunk in the earth, afrown on her face. “Honey.” She put a hand on Xena’s back. “You know I loveyou, but is this any time to be quizzing me?”
Xena chuckled softly, and shook her head. “Never mind.” Shepaused on a small ridge and held her hand up, her eyes detecting a tiny shiverof motion below them. “Hold up.”
Gabrielle stepped to one side as Pony and Granella caught upto them, and they all stood in silence, watching Xena study the path ahead.
“Okay.” The warrior slowly crouched down, resting herforearms on her knees. “There’s a bunch of them, in that hollow down there.”She pointed with her hand, all her fingers held close together. “They’re underthe canopy, near that outcropping.”
Pony didn’t even attempt it. “Sure.” She agreed. “So..what’s the plan?”
Xena glanced at her. “We’re going to attack them.” Shereplied. “We’ll split in two teams.”
“Let me guess.” Pony said, in a serious tone. “Me and Gran,you and her nibs.”
The warrior’s dark brows contracted. “This isn’t a joke.”
“I’m not laughing.” Eponin answered back. “G’wan.”
Xena studied her expression for a moment, then shrugged oneshoulder. “The path divides justpast those trees. You two take the left fork, Gabrielle and I’ll take theright.” She went on. “When I signal you, start shooting into them. We’ll takecare of the rest.”
Pony absorbed this. “You want us to shoot into them whileyou’re attacking from the other side.”
“What if we shoot you?” She asked the warrior, in a deadpantone.
“Gabrielle will come after you and beat you to death.” Xenareplied, in the same tenor. “Any other questions?”
Granella leaned on her bow a little. “So, what’s the goalhere?”
Xena hesitated. “To clear the path.” She said, after aslight pause. “We’re in a bad spot up here.. if they see us, and come after us,we’ll be fighting going uphill.”
Both Pony and Granella nodded. “Okay, sounds good.” Granellasaid. “You guys be careful, huh?” She started down the path, staying close tothe trees and edging forward carefully. Pony picked up a bit of rock and tossedit, then she got up and followed without a further word.
Xena sighed, leaning back and brushing against Gabrielle’sleg. “Hades of a time for the shine to come off my reputation, y’know?”
Gabrielle patted her shoulder, and leaned forward to giveher a kiss on the top of her head. “C’mon. Let’s go keep our end of thisthing.” She said. “You thinkthey’ll run from us, if we attack them?” She held on to the back of Xena’sleathers as the warrior stood up to keep her balance.
“I don’t know.” Her partner answered. “I’m just tired ofthem always being one step ahead of us.” She dusted her hands off. “So, let’s seewhat they do when the boots on the other foot.”
Gabrielle followed her down the path. “You do know theydon’t wear boots, right?”
“Just making that clear.” The bard said. “We really shouldbe careful not to show them any more tricks.”
Xena got to the split in the path and started to the right,her steps becoming more stealthy. “Shh.” She uttered, warningly. “We’re upwind, but let’s not takechances.”
We’re taking four scantily armed women up against a tribeof super strong hairy manimals who want to rape and or eat us.
“What?” Xena pushed her up against a tree trunk and stoodthere, peering past it. Then she looked at Gabrielle. “Meant when?”
Framed in the spattering of sunlight, the shadows seeming tointensify her partner’s already intense nature, Gabrielle found herself in amoment’s delightful trance. She leaned forward and gently kissed Xena’s partedlips. “Never mind.”
She slipped past the warrior and took the lead, placing herfeet carefully on the dew damp path, not wanting a slip to betray her.
“Never mind?” Xena licked her lips and studied the treebark. “I think I’m losing my mind.” She sighed, giving the rough surface a patbefore she turned and caught up to Gabrielle, grabbing her by the back of herAmazon belt and hauling her to a stop, so she could go past and take them down thetrail.
Granella got down on her belly, squirming carefully acrossthe rocky ground as they got closer to the glade the hooters were gathered in.She had her bow cradled in her elbows, and she paused as they reached an areaof shorter brush before she continued on. “What do you think?”
Pony crawled up next to her. “I think they’ve both gonenutters.”
Granella looked at her. “About the track.” She pointedtowards the brush with her chin. “That’s pretty exposed there.”
“Oh.” Pony put her chin down on a nearby stone and slittedher eyes, surveying the path. “Sa’llright.” She decided after a moment,crawling forward and into the cleared area. The grasses just covered her head,and her motion through them stirred their tips only a little.
Granella took a last look around, then followed her, feelingthe chill wind send goose bumps down her back as it swept up the slope.
She’d never really been one of the tribe’s warmongers. Oh,she’d fought when she had to, and done the training, and carried her share ofthe load in terms of scouting, but she’d never felt in herself the love offighting that she knew Eponin did.
Hades, Granella exhaled. She’d never felt the level ofenjoyment in fighting that Gabrielledid, for Artemis’ sake; and so, when she’d opted out of the Nation and joinedthe populace of Amphipolis there was a certain, never admitted to reliefsomewhere inside her that this type of thing had passed her by.
So here she was, creeping through the grass, bow in hand,expected to put it to it’s most lethal use in what was facing up to be adangerous fight.
Just went to show you, she supposed, that adventure nevercame to you on your terms. Sheslid to one side and took hold of a rock outcropping, pulling herself up evenwith Pony just shy of a sharp drop off. “We here?”
“We’re here.” Pony sidled further under the thick greenleaves of a wildly overgrown bush and shook the hair from her eyes as sheobserved the now easily visible hooters below them. “There they are, the littlecreeps.”
Granella set her bow down and lifted herself up a little tosee over the ridge. The hooters were clustered in a circle, yanking atsomething with some excitement. “What have they got there?”
Pony shook her head. “Rabbit? Who knows?” She laid herarrows out methodically, smoothing the feathers with a critical eye. “So.” Shestudied the track across from them. “Think she’d do it?”
“Who?” Granella stuck the points of her arrows lightly inthe earth, easing up into a half sitting posture as she carefully parted theleaves and tucked them aside to clear her aim.
The ex-scout pondered the question as she got herself ready.“She might.” She finally said. “She likes those other things, and she’s prettypissed off at those guys. “
“I meant, ya think she’d come after my head if I stuck onein Big X?”
Granella turned her head fully and looked at her companion.“Without question.” She said. “And if you even think about it, I’ll stick onein you.” She frowned. “I think you’re the one who’s gone nutters. They’re justacting like normal.”
Granella spotted Xena, emerging without a sound on theoutcropping above the hooters. “Sh.” She pointed. “Get ready.”
Pony rose up next to her and strung her bow, making sure shehad enough clearance between them so her bow arm wouldn’t hit Granella. “Idon’t think they’re nowhere near normal.”
Granella nocked an arrow, perversely glad of theconversation that was taking her mind off what she was doing. “You’re just notaround them at home like I am.” She disagreed. “They’re like that a lot there..it drives people nuts sometimes. They get so wrapped up in each othereverything else around them is just like.. ‘whatever’.”
“I ain’t never seen that.” Pony disagreed.
“You’ve never seen them like I have.” Granella shook herhead. “For sure, not with the tribe. Give me a break, Pony.” She saw Gabrielledrop down behind Xena, the bard’s face set with resolve. “Get ready.” Sherepeated. “We got the easy part of this.”
“Yeah.” Pony grumbled. “I should be over there instead ofher nibs.” She nocked an arrow. “Cept I know for damn sure she can’t hit thebroad side of a centaur with one of these.”
Granella smothered a wry smile, acknowledging the truth ofthat. Gabrielle’s martial skills were really quite profound, with everythingexcept for sharp offensive weapons. Spears, arrows, swords… there was somethingin Gabrielle’s makeup that shied away from using them, and it showed even inthe friendly contests she sometimes participated in.
She could throw a rock with stunning accuracy. Shoot anarrow at the same target? Forget it. Everyone took off running when the bard somuch as picked a bow up, even Xena appearing nervous though she, at least, hadthe skill to stop whatever it was from hitting inappropriate things.
So. Granella turned her focus on Xena’s partially visiblefigure, as the warrior worked her way carefully closer to the hooters.
Watching Xena hunt was an ethereal experience, and she washunting now, every move timed to synch with the waving branches around her asshe flowed forward with the natural rhythm of the world. How in the world a sixfoot tall armored woman could seem invisible was behind her, but in a sense,Xena was.
Your eye went right over her, unless you really fixed yourattention hard, and now Granella watched in some fascination as Gabriellefollowed, her smaller, lither body even more difficult to discern since herAmazon clothing and tanned skin blended with the brush where Xena’s stood outlike a bull in a herd of sheep.
Finally, Xena found a position she liked, and stopped,coiling her body to leap. She had one foot on the edge of the rock ledge abovethe hooters, and the other slightly back to push off and she went still,Gabrielle going equally still behind her.
It wasn’t a huge leap to the ledge below, but it was higherthan Xena’s head.
Did Gabrielle realize that? Granella pulled her arm back,her eyes fixed on the warrior. Sometimes the bard’s bravery crossed overreckless, into the area where it overreached her physical capacity.
Did Xena realize that?
“Here we go.” Pony got up onto her knees and then put oneleg forward, bracing it as she drew her opposite arm back, tensing thebowstring powerfully. “C’mon,Xena. Stop posing.”
The warrior lifted a hand and made a sign, and they bothreleased their arrows at the same moment, rearming with serious intent as theshafts bore down on the hooters and entered flesh.
Pony let out a battle yell as she released her second arrow,pulling a third back and sending it flying as the hooters realized they werebeing attacked and started scrambling frantically around.
Hoots rose, panicked and angry. The crowd of them rushed towards the front of the ledge, andas soon as they did that, Xena leaped into the cleared space behind them,landing without so much as a jar and drawing her sword in an easy motion.
The hooters grabbed anything in their reach and startedthrowing it at the Amazons, and several started running up towards them. Xenalet out a yell of her own and attacked them from behind, as Gabrielle jumped inbehind her, landing with something of a greater bounce and far less grace, butkeeping her feet and sweeping her staff at the hooter nearest her who hadstarted heading uphill.
Xena hamstrung a shocked hooter, gutted him, then leapedover his fallen body to engage the two behind him. She kept up a ferociousyelling, and the herd of them suddenly panicked and bolted, running away asfast as they could, two of them jumping right off the path and falling down themountain with screams of their own.
Gabrielle watched them leave, apparently a littlenon-plussed, having expected a harder battle. She grounded the end of her staffand looked at her partner, lifting her free hand in an eloquent shrug.
Xena walked over to the item the creatures had been maulingover and knelt. After a moment, Gabrielle joined her.
“What is it?” The bard grimaced, rubbing one knee. “Sheesh,Xe.. that was a high jump!”
“Toldja to stay up there.” The warrior answered, absently,as she examined the mass of black leather on the ground. “What in the Hades?”
Gabrielle studied it. “Is that armor?” She asked after amoment. “It looks a little familiar.”
“Not exactly.” Xena spread out the remnants. They formedwhat might have been a leather vest, finely tooled and intricate. “And it isfamiliar.” She turned and lookedat Gabrielle. “It’s the one Ares usually wears.”
Gabrielle blinked in real surprise, reaching out in reflexto touch the vest. “Wh..” She looked back at Xena. “What’s it doing here?” Shelooked around, apparently expecting the vest’s owner to appear. “You haven’tfelt.. have you?”
“No.” Xena replied. “I haven’t.” With a frown, she folded upthe tatters and stood. “But maybe you weren’t so far off before and he isinvolved in this crazy place.”
“Yeesh.” Gabrielle stood up, working her knee out as shewatched Pony and Granella approach. “Like we needed any more complications.”
Xena looked at her in mute eloquence.
“Oh, shut up.” Gabrielle rolled her eyes and walked past,shaking her head. “IT”S NOT MY FAULT!!!”
The warrior chuckled briefly and followed, but her face helda pensive expression as she rubbed her thumb over the leather bundle in herhands.
They made it back to the old woman’s cave beforenightfall. It wasn’t as far asthey’d wanted to go, but with the sun setting, Xena held her hand up as theycame even with the opening. “Let me check it out. We know they know thisplace.”
“Yeah?” Pony surveyed the opening dubiously. “Why not skipit then?”
Gabrielle leaned against the rock wall as Xena slippedinside the cave. “It’s the way out.” She wiped a bit of rock dust off herforehead. “Anyway, I could use a break.”
“What you said.” Granella unapologetically sat down on thepath, rubbing the muscles in her legs. “Damn that was steep.”
Pony snorted, then followed Xena inside the cave leaving theother two women alone outside. Gabrielle slid down the rock wall and sat downnext to Granella, extending both legs out with a sigh. One knee popped slightlyand she grimaced, rubbing it. “Ow.”
Granella turned her head to one side and observed her sisterin law. “Throw something out?”
“Nah.” The bard sighed. “I’ve twisted that one enough timesthat it reminds me when I do something stupid like jump off a cliff.” Sherubbed a bit of dried mud off thetan skin on the inside of her knee. A long scar was visible there, running down to her calf. “I should knowbetter than to just hop off ledges after Xena by now.”
“You could have asked Xena to take it easier coming uphere.” Granella commented. “She’d have.”
“No.” Gabrielle produced a wry grin. “She wouldn’t have.She’d have put me over her shoulder and carried me. So you hush, okay?”
They hadn’t seen a single sign of the hooters since thefight. That worried all of them, and Xena had seemed tenser and more anxiousthan usual as she roamed ahead of them scouting out the path. But other than afew scattered animals, they’d had a peaceful climb up the side of the mountain.
Her knee was a little sore, and having to balance againstthat put the rest of her body under extra strain. But Gabrielle felt her energyreturning as she rested and her mind shifted from thoughts of the walk to plansfor their camp.
She felt reasonably certain Xena would camp in the cave forthe night, regardless of the fact they knew the lower track down through thecavern was pretty much unguardable. At least here they’d have shelter and thenarrow crawlspace was small enough for Xena to mount an easy defense with noway for the hooters to attack her in numbers.
Gabrielle turned, to find Granella offering her a waterskin.“Thanks.” She took it with a smile, and sucked a mouthful from it. “Bet you’reregretting that old wanderlust, huh?”
“Eh.” The other women chuckled wryly. “Hasn’t been so badfor us, really.” She demurred. “First couple days.. well, and then we fell downthe waterfall. That kinda sucked.”
“For us too.” Gabrielle nodded.
Granella lifted a stone and peered at it’s speckled surface.“Were you scared?” She asked, after a brief silence. “I was. Man, my heart wentright out between my teeth.”
The bard opened her hands to cup a splash of sunlight,watching dust particles float in it as it reflected off her skin. “I wasn’t.. “She paused. “I mean, yes, of course I was scared when we went over the edge,you know?” She looked at Granella. “I’m scared speechless of heights..
“Yeah.” Granella nodded.
“But.. I…” Gabrielle drew her knee up and leaned her forearmagainst it. “This won’t make much sense, but I wasn’t really afraid of whatwould happen once we finished falling.”
The sun began disappearing behind the soaring crevice walls,tinting Gabrielle’s face in a rich, golden light as Granella studied it. Thelines and planes of adulthood had lengthened the shape of it from what she’dremembered when she’d first met the bard but the primary difference was theexpression in her eyes.
Their intensity now matched Xena’s.
“Right.” Gabrielle agreed. “I’ve learned over the yearsthere’s a lot worse things that can happen to you than that.
Granella shook her head and chuckled. Then she grew quiet.“Well, to be honest, I was afraid of dying.” She admitted. “I think I’ve grownout of being an Amazon, Gabrielle.” She paused, and after a period of continuing silence, she looked up tofind far more mature understanding than she’d frankly expected. “Does that makeany sense to you?”
Gabrielle squirmed a little closer, running her fingersthrough her hair to remove windblown locks from her eyes. “That you don’t wantto get hurt, or risk your life? Sure.” She replied. “But you know, we don’thave a lot of choice about that out here.”
“No, I know.” The dark haired woman said. “It’s just.. bothering me that I’ve turnedinto a coward.”
The words did something to her, and she felt a cold angerstir with shocking unexpectedness. Gabrielle reached over and whapped her onthe top of the head, making Granella jump back in startlement. “What?” Shesputtered. “Stuff that!”
“Ow!” Granella scrambled back out of reach. “That hurt!”
“It should have!” Gabrielle retorted. “What makes you thinkcaring about living or dying makes you a coward?”
“That’s not what..”
“That’s exactly what you said.” The bard cut her off.
“Hey!” Pony came back out of the cave. “What the Hades isgoing on out here?” She put her hands on her hips as Xena emerged behind her.“Hey?”
Granella rubbed her head. “Um.. nothing.” She glancedquickly at Gabrielle, who had settled back against the rock with a mildlyabashed expression. “Find anything?”
Xena stepped past Pony and extended her hand towardsGabrielle. “Let’s go inside. We’ll camp here tonight.” She said, shortly. “Nosign of em.”
Gabrielle demurely took her partner’s hand and allowedherself to be pulled to her feet. She followed Xena inside and as she expected,the warrior led her over to the ledge near the rear, not around in back wherethe skeleton was.
Her knees were shaking from the sudden draining ofunexpected anger, and she was glad to reach the ledge and lean against it.“Glad we found someplace dry and warm.. I’m sure we could all use it.”d
She shrugged their pack off her back and started to open it,pausing when she sensed Xena standing next to her in expectant stillness.
“Hi.” Xena took a seat on the ledge next to where she’d setthe pack. “So what’s the deal with Pounding Pauline out there?”
Gabrielle glanced furtively at the entrance, which was stillconspicuously empty of Amazons. “Gran was just being goofy. I whacked her one.”
Xena blinked, her head drawing back in surprise. “You did?”
The bard sat down, her hands cradled around the skull cup.“I did.” She admitted. “Not sure where that came from.”
Xena studied her partner, a frown crossing her face. “She saysomething to you?” She guessed. “About me.. about us, or?” Her voice trailedoff as she watched Gabrielle shake her head no. “It’s not like you to haul offan hit people, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle pondered a moment, then she shrugged. “Longday.” She sighed. “Tell you what..I’ll see what I can scrounge us up for dinner if you go tell Gran I’m not anutball.”
Blue eyes went a bit rounder. “You want me to explain you toher?”
The bard nodded. “Gwan.” She gave her partner a nudge. “Tell her I’m…” She paused.
“Pregnant?” Xena supplied helpfully. “She should understandthat. She wasn’t exactly even tempered during hers.”
No, that was very true, now that Gabrielle recalled.
The shakiness faded, and she felt her equilibrium settlenicely. She brought their joined hands up and kissed Xena’s knuckles, catching the faint hint of rock dust andleather on her skin. “Gods, I love you.” She exhaled. “Listen, forget I saidthat. I’ll take care of Gran. I don’t really want them to know we think I’mpregnant, okay?”
“Any chance of some fish in that water hole in back?”Gabrielle absently nibbled her partner’s skin. “I know it’ll beat the nuts Ihave in my bag.”
“See if I can find some.”
Gabrielle looked up at that, to see the wry, bemusedexpression on Xena’s face. She wasabout to speak, when Pony and Gran enter the cave. She squeezed the warrior’shand instead, and got a nod in response, as Xena got up. “Thanks.”
Xena ruffled her hair gently. “Okay.” She addressed theother two. “I’m gonna see what fish I can catch in the pool back there. Grabsome firewood.”
“You’re gonna fish in the dark?” Pony queried. “Why not waitfor us to build a fire, then take a torch? You gotta do things the hard way allthe time?”
Xena paused near the entrance to the back passageway and puther hands on her hips. “It’s always dark back there. Fish are used to the dark.Put light in, they all leave. I’m not looking to fish for the next tencandlemarks, thanks.” With a tossof her head, she disappeared into the shadows.
A small silence fell. Pony looked at the empty spot thewarrior had left, then she turned and looked at Gabrielle. “Scuse me.” Shesaid. “You both cycling or something?”
The bard propped her elbow on her knee and rested her chinon her fist. “Something.” She agreed wryly. “Sorry about that.”
Pony shook her head and began gathering some of thescattered sticks on the floor. Granella picked up a few rocks and startedmaking a fire circle, refusing to meet Gabrielle’s eyes.
Sheesh. The bard went back to her task, taking out thesupplies she had in her pack and sorting them. Gonna be a long night.
“Figures we get stuck in a cave. I hate sleeping onrocks!” Pony groused.
“Aint’ that the truth.” Granella agreed, in a glum tone.
Really long night. Gabrielle pulled out the tattered wad ofleather and stared at it, then silently put it back in the pack.
Or wasn’t he?
It was long after dark. The fire had burned down to afriendly orange glow, and the campsite was somberly quiet.
Pony was seated near the entrance to the cave, sword drawnwith it’s hilt resting inside the curl of her fingers as she watched fireflieswhisk about outside. She had her back to the rest of the group, but her hearingtold her nothing was going on, so she was content to focus on the world outsideinstead.
If she turned and looked, she knew she’d see Granella curledup on one side of the fire, making herself as comfortable as she could on therocks and using her pack as a pillow.
Across the fire from her, Gabrielle was also curled up,making herself as comfortable as possible and using Xena as s pillow.
When had Xena turned into such a softie? Pony peeked overher shoulder, watching the warrior as she watched her partner sleep, the lookof adoration in her eyes positively embarrassing. “Sheesh.” Theweapons master returned her attention to the darkness outside. “What the Hadesis up with that?”
“You say something?” Xena’s voice projected to her, low andvibrant.
“Me?” Pony made a show of turning around to look. “Naw… youhearing things?”
Blue eyes that were tinted gold in the firelight gazedsteadily back at her. “I hear lots of things.” The warrior asserted. “Some ofthem useful, some not.”
Pony snorted, and returned her attention to the pathoutside.
Xena waited to see if more snippy comments would beforthcoming, and then, when they weren’t, she settled back against the rocks anddraped her arm over Gabrielle’s dozing body again. The bard was lying on herside with her head in Xena’s lap, her hand curled around the warrior’s knee.
Gabrielle wasn’t entirely asleep. Slight movements of herhands, and shifts of her body indicated the exhaustion of the long day wasn’tquite overcoming the discomfort of the stone she was lying on.
Xena felt a light, warm touch of lips against the skin onthe inside of her thigh, and knew a moment of quiet thankfulness for this mostprofound blessing in her life.
“Hey, Xe?” Gabrielle squirmed and rolled over onto her otherside, now facing her partner. “Remember when I told you I thought those hammockthings you made us for the trees were a bad idea?”
Xena actually couldn’t remember any such thing, but shenodded anyway.
“Bad move on my part.” The bard sighed. “These rocks aredriving me nuts.”
The warrior glanced around the cavern, in all it’s shadowedmystery from the fire, and regarded the rocks thoughtfully. Hammocks. Gods bedamned, why hadn’t she thought ofthat? There were plenty of places to hang the damn things in the places they’dbeen. “Mm.”
“I’d like to be in a hammock right now.” Gabrielle said,mournfully. “With you, of course.”
“Of course.” Xena murmured back. “Y’know, that’s a damn goodidea, Gabrielle.”
The bard immediately clamped both hands down on herpartner’s knees. “Don’t get any funny ideas like you’re going to run out intothe forest in the middle of the night to find hemp, okay?”
“I wasn’t.” Xena protested mildly. “Pony already thinks I’vegone nuts. Don’t want to add fuel to that fire.”
Gabrielle rolled onto her back and regarded the craggyceiling. “I don’t think we’re going nuts.” She said. “I think
Xena considered that, as she slowly riffled throughGabrielle’s hair, her fingertips tracing the bard’s well shaped skull underit’s thick covering. ‘Yeah, I guess.” She said, after a short pause. “I justdon’t feel like acting any other way.” She continued, her brows creasing. “Notsure why.”
Gabrielle thought she knew. Their travels together after they’d visited Athens had giventhem so much time alone, that they’d come to a place in their lives where theywere both very comfortable in their skins with each other.
So why pretend otherwise when other people were around? Letthem think whatever they wanted to think. “Same reason we ended up moving,maybe.” She whispered. “I didn’t want to have to act like Gabrielle the bard,or Gabrielle the Amazon queen all the time. I just wanted to be me.”
Something in the words rang unexpectedly true in Xena’sears. It had to do with the expectations everyone always had of her, and howthat had just grated, and grated, and grated on her when they’d come home,until she’d felt like backhanding all those avidly watching faces.
Yeah. “Think you’re on to something there.” She murmured.
“Wasn’t really the growth of the town.” Gabrielle said. “Itwas all those people watching me like I was some three headed goat all thetime.”
“Yeah.” Xena exhaled. “Damn, you’re right. I just wantedeveryone to leave me the Hades alone.”
Gabrielle nodded, little things that had been puzzling hernow making a lot more sense. Perhaps this wasn’t the time to really be thinkingabout it, but she’d learned to take her revelations where she found them, andat least, this was something she had a chance of explaining to Cyrene when theygot back.
Besides, this was a lot more pleasant than the notion theboth of them were just getting to be anti social grumps in their old age,wasn’t it? The bard gazed up ather partner’s face, outlined in the reddish firelight. “You know something?”
“I know I love you.” Xena ran her fingertip along the edge of Gabrielle’s sensitive ears, andwatched her face twitch in response. “What?”
“All these years I’ve been telling stories about you… what Ireally wished was that people could see you like I do.” Gabrielle smiled. “Ican’t help it if it’s freaking them out.”
The warrior shrugged, and chuckled softly.
They were both briefly silent. Then Gabrielle shifted herfocus, lifting her hand and rubbing the backs of her knuckles against Xena’sleg. “You going to get some rest?”
Xena shook her head. “I’m watching the back door.” Sheindicated the dark recesses behind them. “Pony’s got the front door.”
“I could watch for you.” Gabrielle felt Xena’s hand cover hers, and their fingerslaced together. “I’m tired but I’m just not sleepy.”
That about described how Xena felt too. Her body was tired,a little, mostly from the tension of watching and listening for the hooters allday. But her mind was going in circles to the point where only the fact thatshe was providing her partner a pillow was keeping her from pacing.
“Damn I wish we were home in bed.” Gabrielle sighed. “And Imiss Dori.”
“Me too.” Xena admitted. “Hope she’s not running Ephragged.”
Gabrielle rolled onto her side again, squirming forward sothat her forehead was resting against Xena’s body. It took the pressure off hershoulder a little and if she ignored the fact that her hip was going to be sorein the morning, it was almost bearable.
Gods, she hated sleeping on rock. The last few years most ofher worst nightmares had happened around mountains and there were times shewished they just lived in the flatlands with nothing more picturesque thanblackberry bushes to look at.
Xena’s hand touched her shoulder. With no more warning than that,Gabrielle immediately rolled over and lifted away from her, ducking her headgracefully as Xena drew her sword in flickering silence.
She got to her feet right behind the warrior, lifting herstaff up and taking hold of it as Xena moved towards the back corridor in uttersilence. A quick look over her shoulder showed Pony unaware of the movement,and though Gabrielle took a breath to call a warning, something made her closeher mouth again and follow Xena instead.
She could hear nothing from the darkness, but she had nodoubt her partner had, and now as she walked carefully in the dark hairedwoman’s footsteps, she could see the shifting muscles under her skin as herbody prepared to fight.
Easily visible under her leathers, it reminded Gabrielle irresistiblyof some prowling, hunting cat as she watched the warrior’s spine arch, and herpowerful shoulderblades spread under their layers of sinew.
It was automatic. Gabrielle could even sense the dark energystirring inside her, that seductive tickling her own body tiptoed closer andcloser to understanding as time went by. She could feel Xena’s breathing deepen, and saw her thigh muscles tense,knees unlocking slightly and then stilling.
She steadied her balance and slid her grip lower on herstaff, her eyes shifting to either side of Xena’s figure as she searched theshadows ahead of them.
Xena lifted a hand, made a sign.
Gabrielle stepped to her left, and crouched slightly,clearing the warrior’s sword arm, the tip of the blade twitching not far fromher as Xena held it reversed in her hand.
Now, her ears picked up the faintest of sounds, the barestsof rasps, skin against rock as something or someone walked in bare feet towardsthem.
Xena took another two steps forward, positioning herself onthe side of the opening, her body protected by the rock, as she cocked hersword arm, ready to deal with whatever was going to come around the corner atthem.
Gabrielle shifted her grip on her staff and waited insilence, readying herself to deal with whatever would happen after Xena handledthe initial attack. At least, itsounded like only one of whatever it was.
A flicker of motion in the shadows beyond the rock.
“Hey!” Pony’s voice cut the silence like a knife. “What inHades are you two doing?”
A soft gasp, then the sound of running feet.
“Son of a bacchae.” Xena bolted into the darkness, swingingaround the rock in the blink of an eye and disappearing. “Stay HERE!”
Gabrielle glanced at Pony. “Bad timing.” She called, as shetook of after her partner. “Be right back!”
Pony gaped after them, as Granella rolled to her feet ingroggy surprise. “Wh..” The weapons master blurted. “Hey!”
Granella raked her hair from her eyes and stared into thedark crevice. “I get it.” She rubbed her face. “Now I finally get it. Theydon’t get into trouble.”
“What???” Pony yelped.
“They make it.” Granella grabbed her bow and quiver. “C’mon.. take that torch there.Let’s go.”
Cursing, Pony grabbed a wrapped branch and paused to lightit, then hurried after Granella into the shadows.
The sound of motion drew her quickly on as she rounded thecorner and headed down the passageway, the creature she was chasing collidedwith one of walls in a scrape of skin against stone, and she moved faster,suspecting it was their little friend still hanging around where they’d lastseen him.
Xena knew she had only a few heartbeats to catch theirsilent stalker, before the dark became too dark for her to track efficiently.Not to mention, before Gabrielle would come plowing into her from behind sinceshe could already hear the distinctive footsteps headed in her direction.
She caught a glimpse of a shadow moving in front her andinstinctively she lunged for it, letting her body handle the lack of light andthe uncertain surroundings as best as it could, her other senses stepping up asshe moved through the darkness with easy skill.
Her ears picked up heightened breathing, and the familiarmale musk made her nose wrinkle as she closed in on her quarry, her bodysliding past rock outcroppings she couldn’t see.
Her fingers brushed skin, then a grip fastened on her throatand warrior instincts took over as she found her air cut off. She swung hersword arm around in a tight, fast circle, her wrist rotating her sword from reverseto forward and then underhand as she plunged it into the body of the creatureholding her.
She heard a gasp, then a scream of pain, and the gripreleased as the scent of hot blood exploded into her senses and the creatureslumped into her, fingers clawing at her leathers as he sank to his knees.
A torch flared behind her, and she turned her head to seeGabrielle’s figure outlined in crimson light, just as her mind brought heraround to the realization that the body slumped against hers wasn’t misshapenenough.
Wasn’t hairy enough.
A vague alarm rang in her skull as she yanked her sword backout and lowered the body to the ground. “Bring that torch!”
Gabrielle was at her side in an instant, her hand falling onXena’s shoulder. “You okay?”
“Fine.” Xena knelt as Pony and Granella picked their wayover, Pony holding the torch up as it’s flickering light cast dancing crazedshadows on the rock walls. “Not sure what I’ve got here.”
For a moment, there was absolute silence in the passageway,the lick of the torch sounding harsh and loud as it reflected off four verystunned faces.
“Oh my g..” Gabrielle, typically, was the one who foundwords first. “Xena… wh..”
Xena was staring in profound incomprehension at the burlyfigure lying half across her thigh, it’s muscled, naked body covered in blood.“Ares.”
The closed eyes flickered open and found hers, and any doubt was gone.
There was another moment of utter silence. Then Ponyshifted, moving the torch from one hand to the other. “Did.. um..” Shemuttered. “Did you just kill the God of War, Xena?”
Xena stared down at her blood covered hands, her mindspinning in chaos.
“He’s still breathing.” Gabrielle’s voice almost soundednormal, warm and surreal. “So.. I.. um, guess we’d better get him into thefront cave there, so Xena can take care of him.” Her hand squeezed Xena’sshoulder gently. “Pony, put that torch in the crack there, and get on this sideof him.”
Xena mentally blessed the bard’s presence of mind, as sheforced herself to shove aside the shock and concentrate, as Gabrielle was, onthe practical. She set her swordaside and wiped her hands on her thighs, feeling the stickiness of the dryingblood as she surveyed the damage.
Gods. What washe doing here? What was he doing… mortal? How?
The warrior suddenly felt somewhat lost, and afraid. As muchas she claimed to scorn the gods, and her disbelief in them, still.
Still, this was the one god tied more closely to her lifethan any other. The one god she knew in her heart understood her in ways evenGabrielle didn’t.
“Xe? Can you grab his legs there?”
Live in the moment, Xena. The warrior got one arm under thefallen god’s knees and braced herself, nodding to Gabrielle as the bard helpedthe other two lift Ares’s upper body. She stood with them, and they struggledback up the path, leaving the torch to flutter emptily over blood stained stoneand somber shadows.
Gabrielle picked the deer skull up and paused, watching Xenafor a moment. The warrior was standing near where they’d lain Ares down,watching with haunted eyes as she flexed her hands almost compulsively.
Well. Gabrielle walked over to her partner. “Here.” Sheoffered her the skull. “Why don’t you get some water, and I’ll get the needlesout.”
Xena studied the skull, now clasped in her hands. “Yeah.”She nodded. “Clean up a little too.” She turned and returned to the shadows,pausing only to pick up her sword before she headed back into the corridor andthe small, dark rush of water she’d found back there.
Gabrielle knelt next to the still form and lifted up hercarrysack, sorting through the contents inside it as she searched for the fishboneneedles Xena had fashioned. Shelooked up as Pony approached, seeing the apprehension on the Amazons’ face.“Hey.”
“Uh, hey.” Pony crouched down next to her. “Is there.. um..something we can do?” Her eyes flicked to the fallen god.
Gabrielle studied her. “Sure.” She took Pony’s hand, andpressed it down on the square of cloth covering the gaping gash in Ares side.“Hold that.”
“You asked.” The bard set the needles aside, and added acoil of gut to them. “Gran, can you build up the fire a little?”
“Sure.” Granella replied briskly. “Be right back.”
Gabrielle finished her task, and then she regarded theinjured god with a tiny shake of her head. Aside from Xena’s gut wound, hisbody was covered in bruises and scrapes, and there was a set of claw rakesacross the plane of one cheek. “I don’t’ get this.”
Pony goggled at her. “What?”
“Him.” She replied briefly. “Mortal.”
Pony looked around, then looked back at her. “Like in… why?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Why. How.” She exhaled. “Last time it wasall.. “ Her voice trailed off, as far off memories surfaced. “Hm.”
The bard nodded again. “Poor Xena.”
Pony gave up trying to make sense of any of it, and just didwhat she was told, keeping pressure on the still bleeding sword wound in Areschest. Xena’s sword had passedjust under his ribcage most of the way through his body, and she had to wonderif even a god.. or .. a mortal-ish god.. or.. whatever this was could surviveit.
She studied Ares face, having seen him close up only oncebefore, during the war. Now, there was far less arrogance there, and far moreof something she almost found familiar. Sort of. If she could only..
“All right.” Xena returned, dripping wet and carrying herdamn skull full of water, splashes of it surging over the edge as the warriordropped to her knees. “Let’s get this over with.”
Pony found her eyes drawn to Xena’s face, it’s anglesstanding out starkly with her hair plastered back and sparkling with water.
She blinked, and looked down at Ares. Then she looked overat Gabrielle, who lifted her head as though feeling the attention, and met hergaze.
Pony looked away, unable to return the enigmatic intensity.“We gonna need… uh.. anything?”
“No.” Xena was busy, focused on her task.
“Thanks, Pony.” Gabrielle told her. “I think we do need tokeep an eye on that corridor.. no telling what’s going to be following him uphere.”
“Gotcha.” Pony stood, gratefully. “I’m on it.” She went toget her sword, and then walked back to the rear hallway, drawing it from it’sscabbard and letting the blade rest on her shoulder.
“I’ll keep an eye up front.” Granella said, withoutprompting, as she finished building up the fire.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle repeated, finally turning her fullattention to her quiet partner. “Oh, Boo.. we’ve done it now.” She uttered,under her breath.
“Ungh.” Xena slowly shook her head, as she threaded a needleand studied the gash she’d put in Ares side. “Know what I just realized?”
Gabrielle sorted through the immensity of the possibilities.“No, what?”
The warrior’s hands paused, and she turned her head to lookat her partner. “They’ve got the sword they were looking for.”
In reflex, Gabrielle’s hand came up to her mouth, as hereyes widened.
Without further word, Xena went back to her task.
The sun rose over the edge of the trees, splashing a sombercoral glow over the side of the mountain path and lending a warm touch as itpassed over Xena’s outstretched legs.
She turned her hands over and flexed her fingers in thenewborn light, rubbing her thumb over the scraped and roughened skin on herfingertips, releasing a relieved sigh that it was finally daylight and the longnight was over.
It almost felt like the dawn was rising over a completelydifferent world. Xena watched the stark landscape around her come alive, birdsrousing and launching into flight, and insects starting to buzz around a nearbybush.
Her nose picked up the smell of the rocks, and the water farbelow, and the trees angling down the slope. Then her nostrils twitched as shedetected the faintest hint of mint. She closed her eyes and concentrated, andwith the mint, she smelled cloth, and leather, and smoke tinged skin and withthe scuff of boots on rock, Gabrielle appeared.
“Hi.” The bard stopped next to her and slowly lowered herselfto the ground, tucking her boots up crossed under her as she handed over asteaming cup of tea. “Thought maybe you could use this.”
“Ooohh. Yeah.” Xena took the cup and cradled it in bothhands, bringing it to her face and inhaling the freshly scented steam deep intoher lungs. “Thanks.”
Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees and blinked intothe sunlight, feeling the exhaustion lurking at the fringes of herawareness. Xena had finishedsewing up the gash she’d put in Ares, but the injured god hadn’t regainedconsciousness, and she found herself wondering what in the world they weregoing to do now.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes in her partner’s direction.“Very.” She replied. “I know you are.”
“Mm.” Xenaslowly sipped the tea.
Gabrielle remained quiet for a few minutes, merely sittingthere basking in the sunlight and Xena’s presence. The cave behind her hadbecome a place full of unanswered questions and she had no real desire toreturn to it.
She was still shocked, even now. Shocked to see thatfamiliar, often hated face lying there. Shocked to see the blood, the bruisedskin; the unexpected humanity that reminded her unexpectedly of a longforgotten trial of her own life she’d put firmly in the past.
A nudge on her shoulder made her look up, to find Xenaextending the cup to her. She took it, finding it still half full before shehad to pull it up hastily as the warrior shifted and laid down on her back,putting her head in Gabrielle’s lap. “Oh… you okay?”
Xena rested her cheek against Gabrielle’s stomach and curledher arm around the bard’s waist. “Just needed you.”
What a coincidence. Gabrielle set the cup down and laid onearm over Xena’s stomach, smoothing her hair back with her other hand. “Toughnight.”
“Mm.” Xena closed her eyes. “I just keep thinking.. what dowe do now?”
“Yeah.” The bard murmured, engaging herself in savoring thesilky feel of Xena’s hair against her fingers. “I don’t know, Xena. If youdon’t know, how can any of us know what to do?”
The warrior sighed.
“I mean, it’s not like you and I have this book around, youknow? The one that tells us whatto do when gods fall out of Olympus on us and we meet talking elephants.”
One blue eyeball appeared. “We should.” Xena remarked,wryly. “Hey.. maybe that’ll be our retirement project. Write a know it allscroll.”
Gabrielle smiled, running her fingertip down the bridge ofXena’s nose, and watching the pale eyes almost cross as they followed herhand. “I’d love that almost asmuch as I love you.”
Xena smiled back, then let her eyes drift closed again.
“Xe?” Gabrielle murmured, after a long silence. She watchedone of Xena’s eyebrows twitch. “Is he going to be all right?”
The warrior didn’t answer for a while, then she made a face,the bridge of her nose wrinkling. “I think so.” She allowed. “I was expectingsomeone shorter.”
“Ah.” Gabriellegrunted softly.
“Should have known better than to grab me like that.”
The bard could hear the defensiveness in the tone. “If heknew it was you, of course he should have.” She said. “Sweetheart, it was pitchdark in there. You did what you had to do.. I would have done the same thing.”
Xena’s nearer eye opened, and she regarded Gabrielle with amildly droll expression.
“Eh. Okay.” Gabrielle conceded. “But I would have smackedhim really hard with my staff if he’d grabbed me in the dark, let me tell ya.”
Gabrielle gently stroked Xena’s cheekbone. “You really thinkthey have his sword?”
The warrior shrugged one shoulder. “They had his armor, andhe sure didn’t have it.” She replied practically. “Let’s just hope it’s just a sword to them.”
Gabrielle felt a chill run down her back. “You think it’smore?”
Xena shrugged one shoulder again.
“It won’t.. um.. make one of them the god of War, will it?”
Would it? Xena tried to remember all she’d heard about thepowers of Ares infamous sword. Itwas tied to his godhood, that she knew. Or.. well, it was tied to his being theGod of War, at any rate. “I think you already have to be a god before the swordmakes you anything special.” She answered, after a long, reluctant pause.
“Ah. Yeah, that makes sense.” Gabrielle murmured. “Yeah, Iremember.. in Athens, when Aphrodite was talking about that bet.. it was justthat he’d lose the sword, lose being God of War, not that he’d be a mortal or anything.”
They were both silent for a bit. “So.. how’d he become mortal?” Gabrielle finally asked.
Xena opened both eyes and looked plaintively at her.“Gabrielle, you have the same damn information I do.. what makes you think Iknow that if you don’t?”
“Because you’re Xena, and you know everything.” The bardreplied, in a placid tone.
“You can just kiss my..”
“Can’t. You’re lying on it.” Gabrielle smiled at her, as shecovered the warrior’s lips with her hand. “You ready to go inside and see what’sgoing on?” She altered her tone to a more serious one. “We have to figure outwhat we’re going to do now.”
Xena sighed, letting her eyes once again close. She didn’twant to go back inside the cave, and face both the injured god and the need todecide what to do, even though she knew the bard was right and that they hadto.
Maybe if she waited long enough, Pony would decide what todo.
Yeah right. As if.
Gabrielle’s fingers ruffled through her hair again, pausingto gently massage her temples. Shecould the bard’s stomach grumbling, though, and she could feel the sun inchinghigher over both of them, so she gathered herself to get up and lifted her headout of Gabrielle’s lap, pausing to kiss her on the way up.
“Mm.” The bardhiked one knee up and trapped Xena in place with her arm, taking her time aboutreturning the kiss while providing an impromptu backrest for her.
“Perfect way.” Xena agreed. “But we’d better go get you fedbefore that noise brings down an avalanche.” She nudged her partner in the ribswith her head, and smiled as Gabrielle enfolded her in a warm hug beforeletting her go.
She got to her feet and pulled the bard up with her, turningto face the entrance to the cave just as Pony emerged from it, rubbing her facewith one hand. “Morning.” Xena greeted her.
“Ugh.” The Amazon groaned. “I’m too freaking old for thisall night crap, Xena.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle agreed. “Me too.”
Xena rolled her eyes and ducked past them. “Give me abreak.” She disappeared into the darkness inside the cave entrance, leavingPony facing Gabrielle alone.
Pony glanced after the warrior, then she looked furtively atGabrielle. “She freaked?”
Gabrielle leaned back against the rock wall, savoring the sunlightnow pouring down over her. It had been cold in the cave, despite the fire andher bones had ached from it. “I think…” She glanced at Pony. “I think she’smore freaked about what this does for our getting out of here, than anythingelse.”
“Mm.” The bard nodded, as she watched Pony’s face, vivid inthe sunlight. There were dark circles under her eyes, and the strain wasshowing too. “We matter. He doesn’t.”
Pony folded her arms across her chest, and squinted into thedawn. “I can’t even think about that being the god of war in there.” Sheadmitted. “It’s just too weird.”
Gabrielle half shrugged, and pushed away from the wall.“Yeah, well.. let’s go figure out what we’re gonna do with him.” She turned,but stopped as Pony put a hand up to still her. “What?”
The weapons master let her hand drop, a little uncertainly.“Just.. how do you deal with that?”
“Deal with what?” The bard was guiltily glad for another fewmoments of clean air and sunlight. “You mean with Ares?”
Gabrielle shrugged right back. “Not really much of a choiceinvolved, you know?”
“Huh.” The Amazon rubbed her face again. “You okay withhim?”
“Um.. no, actually, I’m not.” Gabrielle gazed down at therock path, drawing a line in the dust with the tip of her boot. “I hate him.”She grimaced briefly. “He’s done things to us that make me wish Xe’s sword hadbeen just a little higher last night.”
“You asked.” She turned and walked inside, leaving Ponystanding there, trading the warmth for the gloom of the cavern.
Two pairs of blue eyes were looking back at her. Gabrielledismissed one, and focused on the other, as she continued her path around thefire to where her partner was, laying a hand on her shoulder as she came evenwith her. “I’m going to see what I can dig up for us to eat.”
Xena nodded. “Gran’s fishing in the back.” She repliedbriefly.
Gabrielle finally let her eyes drift over and meet Ares.They were missing their usual brash arrogance, and she could see pain and anunusual emotion reflected there that slipped past her better judgment to touchat the wellspring of compassion never buried too far inside.
It frustrated her. “I’ll go find her.” She turned herattention back to her soulmate. “Anything else you need?”
A grin shifted Xena’s features from tense to charming. “Goteverything I need right here.” She replied, looking the bard right in the eye.“But if you find blackberries, I won’t turn em down.”
From the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw Ares roll his andthat made her smile, too. She patted Xena’s shoulder and moved past, headingfor the back corridor with it’s lonely skeleton and it’s mysteries leaving thewarrior to dispel some of the newer ones in her own inimitable way.
Maybe she’d help Gran fish. “Gran?” She called out, as she rounded the corner andlooked forward, where the torch was fluttering in the dark.
There was no answer.
The Bard's Corner
Australian Xena Information Page