One Wild Ride
Xena stood a little apart from the rest of them, sortingthrough the bits and pieces of bone and scrap she’d taken from theircarrybag. To her right, thepath ended in a somberly spectacular fashion, plunging down into a ravine.
To her left, the wall they’d been walking against wentstraight up, the granite providing scant handholds even to her eyes.
Gabrielle had her back against the wall, as far away fromthe edge of the path as she could get. She had her legs crossed under her, andshe was leaning her elbows on her knees, her eyes studying the dusty surface insilence.
Xena watched her from the corner of her eye, understandingthe faint lip motions as her partner tried to talk herself into the challengebefore them. The other womenwere simply giving her disgusted looks. Ares was propped up against the wallwith his eyes closed.
Only Gabrielle was totally focused on the goal along withher.
Of course. Xena fitted a piece of the antler she’d savedinto her hand, curling her fingers around it. She’d spent many longcandlemarks, sevendays, and moons teaching the bard that kind of focus andfinally now, here, when she’d just completely screwed everything up she wasreaping the benefits.
Ironic. The warrior picked up her selections and walked overto Gabrielle, taking a seat next to her. “Hey.”
Gabrielle turned her head a bit, her green eyes peeking outfrom shaggy bangs. “Hey.”
“Okay, listen.” Xena took her hand, and fitted a piece ofantler to it, curling her fingers around the irregular surface. It resulted ina downward facing bit of bone protruding from Gabrielle’s palm. “We tie this inplace.”
“Okay.” The bard answered softly. “Is that to help me climb?”
Gabrielle closed her fingers around the bone, raising herhand a little and miming a downward action. “I don’t know.. when I watched youclimb the last time near the cabin you used your fingers. Isn’t that better?”
Xena extended her hand out, and flexed it. “I can hold mybody up by my fingertips.” She replied. “You can’t.”
“Mm.” The bard murmured. “What’s this for?” She indicatedthe bit of antler extending down her wrist.
“I’m going to tie it tight here.” Xena circled her wrist with two fingers. “Give you moresupport.” She studied thebard with a sigh. “You’re going to get scraped up like Hades, though.”
Gabrielle nodded. “If that’s the worst that happens to meI’ll take it.” She replied, giving Xena an honest look. “I’ll just do the bestI can, Xe.”
“I know you will.” Xena said. “I’m counting on you.”
Gabrielle’s head lifted at that, and she shifted, hiking herknee up and pressing her back to the rock. She studied Xena’s face for a longmoment, her own expression somber. “You’re counting on me.” She repeated.
Xena nodded. “I can’t do this alone.” She said. “You’re theonly one I can trust, Gabrielle. I know you’re scared.” She put a hand on thebard’s knee. “But I also know if anyone can do this, you can.”
Gabrielle got a sense, now, of just how heavy theexpectations of a loved one could really be. So often she was in the oppositeposition, depending on Xena to come through and fix whatever their problem isthat finding herself in that blast of torchlight was both unexpected anduncomfortable.
She didn’t want to climb the wall. She didn’t really thinkshe was capable of it physically, no matter what Xena tacked to her hands andnot even considering the fact that she was so afraid of heights even climbingtrees freaked her out.
But. Gabrielle swallowed, feeling the dryness in herthroat. What choice did she have,really? Either she did what Xenaasked, or they stayed on the mountain and slowly died, after the little foodand water they had ran out. “Xe.” She finally sighed.
“Yeah?” Xena was watching her, with shadowed eyes.
“When we get home.” The bard drew in a breath. “I want youto promise me we’ll spend at least one whole day in bed, and you’ll sing to mewhenever I ask you to.”
Xena shifted her hand from the bard’s knee to her cheek.“Promise.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle extended both legs out and let her handsrest on them. “Strap me up, then. Let’s go do this.” She said, tilting her headto look Xena right in the eye. “I’m ready.”
Xena felt a mixture of pride, regret, and a touch ofsomething close to shame as she looked back at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle managed a wry smile back, and she gave Xena agentle slap on the leg as the warrior stood and straightened her shoulders,turning to face their companions. She waited for her partner to move towards the others, before she stoodup herself and faced the wall.
She laid her hand on the surface, curling her fingers arounda crack in it. Experimentally, she tried pulling herself up, but released herhold almost immediately as the sharp granite cut into her skin. “Ow.”
Okay, so that proved that. Gabrielle then wedged her antleraid into the same crack, and tightened her grip on the bone, pulling herselfupward. With the rounded edges,she was able to hold on and lifted her body up off the ground a little, her toesjust brushing the stone.
After a moment, she let herself down, removing the bone fromthe crack and looking at it. Xena had carefully scraped it smooth, and in theabsence of any other comforts at the moment she took some in her partner’singenuity.
“You’re out of your mind!”
Gabrielle sighed, and studied the rock as she heard the loudangry voices echo off it. She feltimpatience rise, and with a sudden decision she turned and headed for whereXena was facing off against Pony, stepping neatly over Ares legs as thought hegod of war wasn’t even there.
“I’m not saying there’s another way!” Pony added, pointingupward. “I’m saying you’re nuts! We can’t just climb up that like some damnpack of rat eared squirrels!” The Amazon seemed more exasperated than trulyangry. “Gods be damned, Xena.. things ain’t just gonna happen because you sayso!”
“Guys.” Gabrielle stepped past her partner and stopped in front of her, at theend of her wits, her patience, and her sense of humor. “Let’s just make sure weall understand what’s at stake here.”
“Oh, shut up.” Granella gave her a disgusted look. “You’rejust going to repeat what Xena said. Like you’d ever disagree with her.”
“You’re wrong.” The bard shot right back. “I disagree withXena all the time. I used to just do it on general principals, but over theyears I learned that butting heads with her when she’s right is not onlyPOINTLESS..” Gabrielle’s voicerose to it’s most powerful level. “It’s USELESS, because we’ve only got oneoption here!”
Pony glared at her. “Thanks to her!”
“Okay, yeah.” Gabrielle said. “It’s Xena’s fault we’re here.Are you happy now?”
“That’s not the ..”
“Pony, it is the point!” The bard stepped closer, putting asmuch passion in her voice as she could, remembering that part of her as thoughit had been slumbering for along while. “The point is, we’re going to die hereif we don’t try to get out. Blaming someone.. Xena.. for being here doesn’tchange that, does it?”
“No.” Pony said, after a moment.
“Okay.” The bard said, lowering her volume. “So we’re here.We have no way out but what Xena’s suggesting. Xena’s the only one I know of who’s actually climbed up acliff like that. Doesn’t it make sense to just listen to her, and do what shesays, and maybe.. .maybe we’ll have a chance to get home?”
“Well..” Pony hesitated.
“What other choice do we have?” Gabrielle asked, gently. “Doyou really think I want to do this? You think I want to try climbing up that,when just getting up on Argo makes my legs shake?” She turned and looked up atthe cliff. “I’m so scared of that, my entire body’s hurting, but you know what,Pony.. I have to get a handle on that because I understand we have no choicehere.”
Xena had taken a step to one side, and she was leaningagainst the rock, gazing out at the erstwhile peaceful scene around them as shelet Gabrielle do the talking. Thebard had, she reasoned, a fifty fifty chance of doing her thing, given theattitudes of the people with them, balanced with the absolute truth of what shewas saying.
She wasn’t really sure how much of the anger wasfrustration, how much was residual from the Sword, and how much was.. well, waswhat the other women really felt about them. She knew Granella had been through a horrific experience andthat she was still mostly in shock over it.
But Pony? Xena’s brow creased. Despite the competitiveaction that often went on between them, she never suspected Pony hated her, ordisliked Gabrielle as much as she seemed to be indicating.
Maybe it was the sword. Xena shifted her shoulders, feelinga minor ache through her neck from having to carry the double weight.
“Gabrielle, you’re not getting it.” Granella’s voice was chilly. “I’m not climbing that damn thing.”
Xena took a breath to get into the argument, then stoppedwhen Gabrielle spoke instead.
“Okay.” The bard said. “Then you’re staying here. Pony, youstaying too, or you coming with us?”
“Bullpoop.. you’re not going to just leave her here.” Ponyprotested. “I’m not. That’s’ fordamn sure!”
“Okay.” Gabrielle put her hands on her hips, her patience atan end and her decisions made. “We’ll leave whatever supplies we have with you.”
Pony looked at her. “You’d leave us here?”
Without any hesitation, Gabrielle nodded. “Yes.”
“Big surprise.” Granella looked away.
“You’re just going to fall off and croak.” Pony told her.“Gabrielle, woudlja look at that thing?”
The bard looked up at the wall, then back at her. “That’sthe only way out of here.” She told her, quietly. “So that’s where we’regoing.” After a brief hesitation, she moved closer to Pony, gentling her voiceeven further. “If we have even one chance, I’m going to take it. I want to gethome. Don’t you?”
The Amazon’s hazel eyes shifted a little, flickering pastGabrielle to take in Xena’s waiting form, then moving back to the bard’s face.“I…”
“I don’t.” Granella spoke up. Her eyes we’re still outstaring at the empty space beyond the ledge.
“You don’t want to go home?” Gabrielle asked, after a briefsilence. “Gran, I..”
Pony looked at Granella, then she looked back at Gabrielle,visibly caught in the middle of something she had no real grasp of. “I won’tleave a sister.” The Amazonfinally said, but in a subdubded voice. “So I guess I’m stayin.”
She walked over and sat down next to Granella.
Gabrielle was left to stare silently at them, aware of theequally silent blue eyes watching her from behind. After an uncomfortablepause, she let her hands fall. “All right.” She finally said. “Well, goodluck.” She waited, but the twowomen didn’t answer, or turn to look back at her, and she eventually gave upand started to turn away herself.
Xena was there. Not only was she standing there, but she hadher arms open, and her expression also, and Gabrielle knowingly took a stepaway from one world, and a step willingly into a more lonely path as she slidinto Xena’s embrace and returned it.
“Did the best you could, my love.” Xena whispered into herear.
Xena hugged her. “Let’s go get this done.” She said. “We’rerunning out of time.”
They turned and walked over to Ares, as the sun started toslant across the rock, staining it.
“Here.” Gabrielle knelt beside where Pony was seated, and handed over what wasleft of their supplies. She glanced up at the sky. “I think the weather’ssettled down.”
Pony looked at her, and for a moment, their eyes met.
The Amazon looked away first. “Good luck.” She muttered,almost under her breath.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle responded. “You too.” She hesitated,then she started to stand, pausing when Pony reached out and caught her hand.“What?”
Pony half turned and peered up. “If you get out.. tell Eph..everything.” She paused. “Like..everything. Okay?”
The bard cocked her head slightly to one side. Then shenodded faintly. “I will.” Shegently disengaged her arm from Pony’s fingers, and stood fully, turning to headback to where Xena was working with the lengths of rope they had left.
The sun was out, and it warmed the side of the mountain.Gabrielle leaned her body against the stone and closed her eyes, soaking inevery moment of it she could.
There were, she knew, so few moments of peace left to her.
When it came time to start climbing, Xena was beginning todoubt how far they were going to get. Ares was only marginally coherent, thewound in his chest beginning to seep an ugly, festering yellow.
He hadn’t liked it. Xena hadn’t cared. She tied off the endof the rope around Gabrielle, passing the length of it through two loops onAres’ harness so that she, and the bard, were connected together and the godcould move between the two of them.
It was uncomfortable and dangerous. Xena understood that,but with the resources she had at her disposal it was simply the best she coulddo. She peered up at the wall, checking for the nth time if shecould find even a marginally better way up.
After a moment, she sighed and shook her head, knowing inher heart that the task might be too much even for her alone, without Gabrielleand Ares to worry about.
However. Hereyes shifted past the silent god of war to where Gabrielle was standing, herhead a little down, waiting. “Ready?”
Gabriellefingered the rough, twisted hemp around her middle and nodded. “Ready.” Shemurmured in response, knowing there was no other real answer regardless of thetruth of it. She faced the rockand exhaled, letting her arms drop to her thighs and flexing her fingers.
Behind them, she was very aware of the pair of eyes on herback, but there were far more important things for her to focus on at themoment. “What do I do first?” She asked, clearing her throat of it’s suddenhuskiness.
“Just hang on.. I’ll show you.” Xena finished checking theropes. “Ares, we’re not dragging your ass all the way. Work for it.”
The god laughed faintly, as he looked at her. “Why?”
Ares leaned his head against the rock, barely able to stand.“Woman’s right.” He told her. “Doesn’t make sense to work so damned hard atcroaking, Xena.”
“Ares.” Xena put hand on one of his shoulders. “If we canget you up there.. out of thisdamn valley.. you might get your godhood back.”
Ares merely blinked at her. “Xena, if my three headed dogcould fly, you might get a ride outta here.”
The warrior glanced past him, then focused on his faceagain. “You don’t want to get out of here? C’mon, Ares… I don’t buy you dying amortal death here.. not your style.”
Ares swallowed, then looked sharply at her. “You got thesticker.” He jerked his head towards the sword looming over Xena’s shoulder.“Get yourself outta here.”
The god of war’s eyebrows lifted. “Don’t get sentimental onme, Xena. Not your style.” He tauntedher, but his heart wasn’t really in it and that was clear.
“We’ll get you up there.” Xena told him. “This the way youwant to go, Ares? Giving up? Just dying here on this damn ledge when you had achance to live, and get out and win?” She leaned closer to him. “Give me abreak!”
Ares gazed quietly at her. “Maybe I did win.” He let hiseyes flick to the sword hilt, and a faint smile tugged at his lips. “G’wan,Xena.” His expression sobered. “Go. Get out, take the blond kid with you.” Hewatched Xena’s face. “You can get outta here. I’ll just pull you both down.”
Pale blue eyes met his. Then slowly, they lifted and wentpast him. “We all get out, or none of us does.” Xena said, flatly. “So cut the self sacrificing horse crap,Ares.”
She turned away and faced the cliff, reaching up to get herfirst handhold. “Gabrielle and I are gonna start climbing, Ares.
The bard was, in a hesitant way, copying her and had onehand curled around a bit of jutting rock and the other wedged in a crack. AsXena watched, she flexed her shoulders and pulled herself up, hastily gettingher boots into place a tiny ledge.
The strength was there, no question. Xena only hoped thewill behind it would live up to the need.
She could see Gabrielle’s whole body vibrating, and shecould feel, through the link they had between them, the fear inside her.
Gabrielle looked over at her, the terror evident.
Xena gave her a brief, understanding grin, before sheglanced down. “Let’s go, Ares.”
“Look, I toldja..”
“Ares.” The warrior cut him off. “Be a man.”
“For a change.” Gabrielle added, under her breath.
Ares turned his head and looked at her. “How would you know?You’ve never known any.”
Xena jerked the ropes, almost pulling him offbalance.“C’mon.”
With a long, unfathomable stare, the god of war let her waitfor it, before he finally caught hold of a bit of rock and struggled upward.
Xena waited to see if he was going to back down, then shefocused her attention to the wall again when it was apparent he wasn’t.
“Right hand, over your head.”
The bard reached up to curl trembling fingers around a hold.“Got it.”
“Put your foot up on that slanted part.”
“Definitely gonna croak at this rate.” Ares snorted, leaninghis head against the stone. “Shouldla told you to leave the little blond ratbehind.”
“You’d know all about rats.” Gabrielle managed to get outfrom between gritted teeth.
“Be a woman.” The god of war mimicked, in a high voice.“For a change.”
“How would you know?” Xena gave the ropes a jerk. “Youwouldn’t know one if you bit one.”
“That an invitation?” Ares inched up, scraping his chestagainst the rock and stifling a gasp. He started to slip back, his fingers raking against the stone. “Augh!”
Xena reached over and grabbed him on the arm, steadying himuntil he got his bearings back. “Less talk more action, okay?”
Ares peered up at her. “Look who’s talking.” He managed agrimace that might have been an attempt at a smile.
The warrior released him. She glanced over to see Gabrielleinching up another step, and she searched above her for her next handhold.
No one ever said life was easy. Xena got her fingertips into a crack and hauled herselfupward. No one ever promised a free ride, a free meal, or an easy death. Sheknew that better that almost anyone. She lifted her other hand up and got itaround a protruding knob, flexing her fingers cautiously before she trusted itto bear her weight.
She knew she had to be careful. She’d tied them together theway she had for a reason – if Ares slipped down, she and Gabrielle could holdhim up.
If Gabrielle slipped.. well, maybe Ares would help her, andmaybe not, but Xena had convinced herself she could hold all three of them upif she had to.
But if she fell? The warrior released one hand and wiped the sweat from her palm, rubbingher fingers against the rock to add some dust to her skin. If she fell, theywere all going to take a lethal header and she was damned if she was going tobe responsible for that today.
She heard Gabrielle’s gasp, just as she felt the joltthrough their link and she looked quickly up, seeing the arch of muscles underskin as the bard froze in place. “Gabrielle!”
“S…” Gabrielle licked her lips, staring straight ahead ofher. “There’s a big spider here, Xe.”
“Eat it.” Ares clawed his way up, breathing hard. “Keep yourmouth shut for a while.”
Xena moved up a little. “What does it look like?”
“It’s black.” The bard said. “And it’s got a lot of hair onit, and a yellow spot.”
“Squash it.” Ares said.
“Don’t’ touch it.” Xena countermanded him.
“Okay.” The bard remained in place, her eyes only wideningas the spider emerged from the hole in the wall and waved it’s two front legsat her. “Easy, okay?” She forced her body to stay very still, resisting theurge to jerk back.
To one side, she heard the gentle whisper of steel againstleather. “Xena?”
“Don’t move, hon.” The warrior murmured, curling the fingersof her free hand into a faint crack, as she drew her sword out with her other.
“Here, spidey spidey.” Ares turned his head to one side andblew on the spider. “G’wan.. bite her!”
“Ares!” Xena lifted herself up and over him, one armsweeping out as she clung to the rock with amazing strength. “You pig!”
Ares sneered at her, and blew at the spider again, thengasped as his face was smacked against the rock.
The spider reared back as the air hit it, and then dartedforward onto Gabrielle’s hand. It raised it’s legs up and exposed two curved,black fangs, a droplet falling from one of them onto the back of her knuckles.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and turned her head and simplytrusted Xena as she pressed her body against the rock and felt the blast of airas the warrior struck.
Xena had, perhaps, the span of a finger in which to kill thespider without cutting Gabrielle’s hand off. She was already in mid motion before she saw the droplets,as the sword was already sweeping towards her partner’s body.
She shoved her body out away from the rock, tightening herfingers as they held her to the mountain as she arced herself over Ares andfrantically looked for an angle that would get her to where she needed to be..
She saw the fangs dart downward, and she was out oftime. With a curse she releasedthe sword from her hand and let it fly off, slapping her fingers across theback of Gabrielle’s knuckles just at the spider’s needle sharp teeth touchedthe skin.
She felt the squirming, and the hairiness of it, and then itwas gone as her arm finished sweeping across, batting the insect to bounce offAres face before it tumbled down below them, her eyes losing it to sweep backup as a flash of light distracted her.
As though in slow motion, she watched Gabrielle suddenlyrelease one hand off the mountain and reach out to grab the hilt of her swordas it tumbled past her, half turning to follow it’s motion before she realizedherself what she was doing and turned sheet white.
Xena grabbed her arm as she saw her knees unlock.“Gabrielle!”
“Hey. I like spiders.” Ares was splatted against the rockunder Xena’s weight. “Best thing that happened t.. ooof!”
“Hang on.” Xena could feel her own grip slipping. “Gab, dropthe damn sword!”
The bard slammed against the rock wall with a gasp, herbreath coming rapid and hard, the sword trapped between her body and the stone.“Gods.”
“You sure ask a lot for someone who disses me so much.” Aresremarked. “Hey, Warrior Moose. Get off me.”
“Shut up.” Xena tightened her grip, getting a better hold onthe wall before she returned a hand to Gabrielle’s back. “You all right?”
One green eye opened and looked at her, no commentaryrequired. The warrior immediatelyshoved herself further over, getting a good hold on Gabrielle’s belt andholding her up. “Easy.”
“Xena! You’re killin me!” Ares growled, his fingers slipping on the rock.
“Shut up or I will.” The warrior snapped back at him.
Gabrielle pressed against the sun warmed stone, feeling herentire body shaking. Her knees were barely holding her, and she knew if Xenahadn’t had her by the back of the belt she’d have fallen off the…
The whirl of the open space she’d just seen made her stomachrise, and she felt like she couldn’t breathe fast enough.
“Xena!” Ares bellowed. “Damn it, that rope’s pulling.. ow!”
“Gab?” Xena gently put her hand on the sword trapped betweenthe bard’s chest and the mountain. “Let me get this.” She curled her toes intothe tiny cracks she’d found to hold them before she started to pull.“Sweetheart?”
“Oh.. gag.” Ares moaned.
Gabrielle felt her partner’s body press against her, Xena’sdeep breath warming her back as the warrior remove the sword and it calmed hera little, feeling the steel ease past her shoulder. She blinked a few times,feeling the sting of tears, and she turned her head, to find Xena’s cheek nearhers. “Don’t think I can go more.” She whispered.
Xena sheathed her sword with an equal whisper. “I thinkyou’re wrong.”
“Gabrielle, I need you to do this.” The warrior murmuredright into her ear. “I want us to get out of here… please?”
Xena asked for so little, in their lives together. Gabrielleknew. But when she did ask, it wasnever trivial and this time was no exception.
How could she say no? How in the world could she tell Xenashe didn’t think she.. they.. were important enough for her to keep going?
Of course, she couldn’t. Truth be damned. “Gimme a minute toget my breath back.” Gabrielle stammered softly, inhaling sharply as Xena’slips nibbled her neck. “That’s not helping.” The lips paused. “But don’t stop.”
“Augh” The godof war let out a groan.
Xena shifted, then she caught Gabrielle’s earlobe lightlybetween her teeth and bit down just enough to catch the sharp inhale.
Gabrielle had to laugh, and the fear inside her retreatedgrudgingly before that. She didn’treally know what was going to happen next, but at least for the moment herknees had steadied, and she no longer felt like she was going to drop right offthe mountain. “Yeah.” She nodded, briefly. “I’m okay.”
Gabrielle nodded again, then almost wished she hadn’t whenthe warmth behind her disappeared, replaced by the heat of the sun which wasfar less comforting. She waited for her breathing to finally steady out, beforeshe turned her head to see Xena back on the other side of Ares, half a bodylength above them.
The sun was outlining her in gold, and clinging there to therock, head up, body perfectly balanced it was like she was looking at anexquisitely carved statue, cast for the ages.
“Augh.” Ares turned his head and spat, nearly hittingher. He glared at Gabrielle fromred-rimmed eyes, and curled his lip. “Done whining?”
Gabrielle gazed at him briefly in silence, then without aword she released one hand off the rock and punched him right in the nose.
“Hey!” The god of war rocked back, nearly losing his grip.“You little bitch!”
“You wanted that spider to bite me.” Gabrielle felt analmost welcome rush of anger replacing her fear. “I’m not a bitch.. you’re ajerk!” She pulled her fist back again, gratified to see Ares move out of herrange, glaring at her impotently. “You better move!”
“You better not do that again, you…”
Gabrielle made like she was going to spit at him, andwatched him shy off. “Not only that, you’re a sissy.” She pronounced. “You’re not hardly worth anyoneworshiping as a god of war, you know that?”
“She’s right.” Xena eased up to another hold. “Up there,Gabrielle. See the ledge? You can get your hand on that and we’ll pull thisuseless bag of nothing up with us.”
“Watch it, wenches.” Ares warned. “When we get up there, I’mgonna turn you both into pigs.” He paused. “Not that you’ll realize thedifference.”
“Oink this.” Gabrielle got her fingers into the crack andclimbed up even with her partner. “Okay.” She looked sideways at Xena, and got a wink back, which made her smileagain.
So strange. Here she was, feeling good about doing somethingviolent. Even given how much she’dchanged over the years, that was something she wasn’t used to.
Jerk. Gabrielle focused on staying angry. If she’d beenbitten, then what? From Xena’s reaction she’d gathered the spider waspoisonous, and so if had happened, then..
Well, then she’d probably be dying right about now.
After she did it, she stared at the tool, then down at whereher boots were firmly wedged in place, as though she’d been doing this insanityall her life. Her brow furrowed,then she glanced over at Xena in question. “Did I do that right?”
“Good girl.” The pride in the warrior’s eyes wasunmistakable. “Knew you could.”
Gabrielle’s lips twitched into a hesitant grin, and shethought suddenly about that wild, rainy day when Xena had come to the village,and stopped an arrow from splitting her in half. She imagined the warrior, facing that cliff, and treating itlike just another obstacle to get over, climbing up it without anyone there toadmire her courage, or wonder at her skill.
Just doing what she had to do, like they were doing rightnow. It wasn’t what they wanted to do, wasn’t what they’d chosen..
But she understood that Xena believed with all her heartthat they had to get up that cliff, and so.. Gabrielle found another grip up over her head and took holdof it more confidently. And so,they’d climb. She pulled herselfup, grateful for all the sparring that had built powerful muscles in her armsand shoulders and made her body capable of handling her own weight like shewas.
She tightened her grip and felt cautiously with her bootsfor a hold, catching one on her left foot, but finding nothing but bare rockunder her right. She put pressure on her one foothold, and straightened herleg, then found a tiny shelf for her right foot ready to hand.
Hm. The bard got lost, a little, in her own climbing worldas she worked out what to do next. It really was a little like one of Xena’sthought puzzles in a way, where she had options available to her and it was amatter of selecting the right ones at the right time.
She reached over and curled her fingers into a crack,letting the bone aid fall down around her wrist again, and pulled a bitsideways, feeling a tension come into the rope around her waist.
The god glared up at her. “Want me to put a move on you?”
“No.” The bard said. “You’re ugly and your mother dressesyou funny.” She rubbed her noseagainst a bit of rock outcropping, scratching an itch.
Ares glare modified into a stare. “You’re nuts.” Hemuttered, managing to haul himself up almost to her waist level. “Happy? Nowmove it.”
Gabrielle was glad enough to go back to her puzzle, theanger and even the fear beginning to slowly be taken over by a curious euphoriaas they moved very slowly upward.
The feeling of shock was over. Her body had stopped shaking,and every successful move she made, she felt better and better about what theywere doing.
They were going to make it. Gabrielle glanced over at Xena, who was half a body againahead of her, eyes moving ceaselessly as she selected their path up the wall.As though feeling the attention, the warrior turned her head and smiled, makingthe bard smile back.
They were going to make it. After everything they’d faced sofar, nothing was going to stop them. Gabrielle’s heart lifted.
The sun was painting the rock wall red as Xena paused,
From the angle she was currently at, it was impossible forher to tell if the protruding shelf were a roadblock, or perhaps a chance forthem to take a break.
Xena felt the ache in her fingers, and hoped for thelatter. She looked over atGabrielle, who had her cheek pressed against the rock, her eyes unfocused asshe waited for Xena to move forward. The bard looked tired, as anyone would be,but Xena no longer felt the surging terror between them anymore.
It was possible, she conceded, that there was a point whereyou were just too tired to be afraid. Xena had been there, a time or two in herlife, when the world narrowed to some very black and white basics and personalemotions drifted away.
Ares was just clinging there next to her, eyes shut tight.Xena suspected he was past the point of caring and she just hoped he’d hang inthere so she and Gabrielle didn’t end up having to drag him up with them.“Okay.”
Gabrielle’s eyes focused on her hearing the word. “Okay?”
“I’m going to see what’s up there.” Xena pointed over herhead. “Just relax for a minute.” She acknowledged the wry look with one of her own, then she carefullyreleased each hand and wiped the sweat off it, before she cautiously found ahandhold and edged up.
As she closed in on the protrusion, she realized there wasno way up and around it except from the front. She paused under it, looking both ways. A crevice wasvisible to her left, but it was more than two bodylengths away and she’d haveto untie herself from the others to do that.
Not an option. Xena steeled herself and took a few deep breaths, trying to gather asmuch energy as she could. “Gabrielle!”
“I’m going to..”
“I know what you’re going to do. Don’t miss!” The bard yelledback, her voice loud and stronger than Xena had expected.
“Right.” Xena took another breath, then she crouched,readying herself for a long moment before she leaped out into space, archingslightly backwards to clear the protrusion as she threw her hands over it,
Her fingers touched stone, then she curled them over as theedge cut into her palm, scraping it. She tightened her hands, and felt her legsswing free, only her grip holding her up in the cool air.
She’d also see Gabrielle watching her.
Xena swung herself back and forth, gathering up momentum fora minute before she bucked her body into a jackknife as she pulled upward,using the motion to swing her chest and shoulders up and get her head over theledge.
Yes! The warrior smoothly continued the hurdle, pressingherself up and onto the now visible space that was roomier than she’d daredhope. She rolled onto her side and flexed her hands, wincing as she brushedslivers of granite from her palms.
After a moment to catch her breath, she reviewed herunexpected sanctuary, a cool breeze lifting the hair from her face as she tookin the space with a prickle of delighted surprise.
Roomy enough for her to sit with her back to the rock wallstretching upward, and extend her legs fully, and still not reach the edge.“Damn.” She turned around and let her legs dangle over, sorting out her rope.“Bout time I caught a break.”
“I’m fine!” Xena called back. “Got a spot we can rest in.”
There was a long silence. Then – “You’re not expecting me todo what you just did, right?”
Almost giddy with relief, Xena came close to laughing. “No.”She called back. “You steady enough to untie?”
Another long silence. “Okay.”
Xena slowly pulled in the rope, feeling it catch, and movereluctantly as she yanked it through the cradle around Ares. “I’m gonna let itback down.. tie yourself again.” She crawled over and poked her head out into the open air, dropping theend of the rope back down to her partner. “I’m going to pull you up first.. then we’ll pull Ares up.”
Ares looked up at her.
Xena almost felt a sympathy for him. “Sorry, big boy.” Shewatched Gabrielle very carefully tie the rope back around her waist, using onlyone hand. When the bard was done,Xena wrapped the other end over her shoulder and back around her side, tuckingher boots up under the ledge to brace herself. “Start climbing.”
Gabrielle gamely did just that, using her bone rigs toslowly creep up the rock. Her face was a study in concentration, the settingsun backlighting her in an almost halo like glow.
As she climbed, Xena drew in the rope, pulling it over hershoulder to steady the bard. Soon enough, though, she reached the spot whereXena had abandoned the wall, and looked up. “Now what?”
Xena gazed into her eyes. “Now, you just let go.” She said.“I’ll pull you up.. you grab my boots, and you’ll be up here next to me beforeyou know it.”
Gabrielle blinked. Then she blinked again. Then, veryunexpectedly, she did exactly what Xena told her to do, and simply released herhands, leaning back away from the wall suspended by the rope around her waist.
Xena’s face twitched, as she took the sudden pressure on hershoulder, locking her legs into place so the bard’s weight didn’t pull her offthe ledge. Leaning back herself,she started hauling, shifting the rope over her shoulder and around her side insmall bursts, until she felt a touch on her ankles.
It occurred to her, suddenly, that thought she was a gooddeal larger and definitely stronger than Gabrielle, the effort of pulling herover the ledge and pretty much into her lap could actually be fatal to both ofthem.
Oh well. “Ready?” Xena felt the grip on her legs tighten.“One, two.. “ She pulled hard on the rope and kicked her legs out at the sametime, sending Gabrielle hurtling upward.
As the bard cleared the ledge and released her hold onXena’s legs, the warrior grabbed her and pulled her forward, knocking herselfbackwards, and ending up flat on her back with Gabrielle sprawled over her. “See? Nothing to it.”
The bards arms closed around her in a hug, and Xena couldfeel the shivering in them. She wrapped her arms around her
Gabrielle lay there motionless for a brief period, then shesat up, easing herself off her partner as she scooted over to the wall and puther back to it. “You’re not going to do that with him. Are you?”
Xena shook her head.
“Good.” Thebard dusted her hands off, the bone climbing anchors dangling from their gutstays. She
She hadn’t really thought about falling, or about how farthey were up – all she’d wanted was what she had right now – a place where shecould sit her butt down and let her muscles relax and just absorb the settingsun on her skin.
Gabrielle tipped her head up and looked at the wall aboveher head, awash in sunset. The surface looked smooth, and chillingly void ofeasy handholds, though there was a crevice to one side that offered a potentialhelp.
Then above that.. she exhaled. Above that, she could see theedge of the cliff, their goal that was now half again what it was when theystarted.
Half again. Gabrielle wiped her face with one hand, waitingfor Xena to work out what to do next. Then, when they had Ares up on the ledge, then what?
“What?” Xena turned her head, then looked down again.“C’mon, tie it, Ares.” She leaned over and moved the rope closer.
After a brief pause, Ares released one hand off the mountainand took the rope, then he startedworking it around his body and through the loops Xena had tied around him.
“No, just around you!” Xena yelled.
Ares looked up at her, then leaned back just enough for herto see the injury across his chest.
“Okay.” The warrior half waved. “Sorry.”
With a faint shake of his head, Ares went back to workingthe rope into place.
Xena sighed, then she turned her head to look at Gabrielle.“What?”
Gabrielle let her hands rest on her thighs. “When we get outof here I’m going to go find the biggest fish I can, even if it’s big as I am,and cook it for us.” She told her partner. ‘And you’re going to get me drunk.”
Xena chuckled softly. “That sounds great.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Oh yeah.” The warrior watched as Ares finished tying offthe rope. “Hungry, tired, thirsty,pissed off… I’m not enjoying life right now. You?”
“Well.” Gabrielle folded her hands across her lap. “You knowwhat I always say.” She lookedfondly at her partner. “You and I are here, alive, so how bad could it reallybe?”
Xena leaned her elbows on her knees and looked off acrossthe narrow valley to the wall beyond, and the sun setting behind it as anunexpected stinging in her eyes made her blink. “Yeah.” She cleared her throat. “You gotta point there.”
“Hey!” Ares called up.
Xena exhaled and returned her attention to their injuredcompanion. “Okay, now get ready tocome up.” She called down.
The god of war merely nodded, eschewing his previoussarcasm. He was very visibly at the end of his strength, and Xena knew they’dhave a struggle on their hands when they got him to the ledge.
“We ready?” Gabrielle asked. “I’d kinda like to get thispart over with.” She got up and dusted her hands off. “Remind me never tocomplain about sitting on hard rock floors, okay?”
“Me either.” Xena half turned and handed back the end of therope. “Run it around that crag there.” She instructed. “We’ll haul him up likeone of my mother’s oat sacks.” She got up, bracing her boot near the very edge under the rope to keep itfrom rubbing and took the free end from Gabrielle.
The bard took hold of it herself closer to the wall, andthey both started to pull, shoulders moving in smooth synchronization.
Overhead, behind the sunset, a distant rumble of thundersounded.
The rainstarted just after the sun set, and put to rest any thoughts on Xena’s part tocontinue climbing in the dark. Theneed to move forward was pressing incessantly on her, driven by her instinctsand the increasingly feeble condition of Ares – but falling off the cliffwouldn’t do anything to help the situation so she resolved to take theopportunity to at least get some rest.
There was no shelter. Xena had her back to the cliff wall,one arm around Gabrielle and the other half shading her face from the worst ofthe weather. Ares was lying nextto her, facing the wall and curled onto his side as the rain pelted his back.
At least the weather had taken care of her worst fear –their limited drinking water. She licked the drops off her lips, and rested hercheek against Gabrielle’s damp hair as the bard huddled against her quietly,eyes blinking occasionally to shed the rain.
“Know what this reminds me of?” Xena asked, after they’dboth been quiet for far too long.
“Nuh uh.” Gabrielle murmured, shaking her head. “What?”
“Remember that night I fell off Argo?”
Gabrielle was briefly silent, then she chuckled. “Do Iremember that.. oh, all the gods in Olympus do I remember that night.” Shesaid. “I was so totally, completely freaked out because I made Argo trip..”
‘You bit your tongue.” Xena agreed. “I thought Argo kickedyou in the mouth and I freaked out.”
“And it was raining.” The bard recalled.
“And it was raining.” Xena agreed. “And I caught my boot inher stirrup when I was falling and ended up falling on my head in that pile ofcow dung.”
“Unnnnghh.” Gabrielle moaned softly. “What a night.”
“Mm.” Xena remembered the stench, and the misery of it all,and the giddy laughter they’d shared. “I realized that night you were actuallya friend, y’know.”
“I know.” The bard smiled. “It was one of the best nights ofmy life.” She said. “Even though I couldn’t say anything without sounding likean idiot.”
“Even though I was covered in cow crap.” The warrior smiledas well. “It had been so damn long since I’d been able to just be stupid andnot have anyone judge me on it.. I felt.. I felt like ten years came off methat night.”
Gabrielle held her hand out and caught the rain in it. “I’dnever heard you giggle before.” She remarked. “It was so amazing.. and you letme sleep in your lap.. I thought I was in Elysia.”
“If I wasn’t already dying, you’d be killing me.” Aresgrumbled. “Would you two shut up?”
Xena chuckled. “Revenge is damn sweet.” She waggled herdrenched feet. “My mother always told me that.”
“Especially when it’s served cold and rainy?” Gabriellesnickered. “One of the things you learn when you’re mortal, Ares, is take yourfun where you find it, because it might be your last laugh.”
Ares made a rude noise.
Gabrielle shifted a little, laying her arm over Xena’sstomach and snuggling closer. “The other thing you learn is how to savor sweetmoments, because you really do never know which’ll be the last one.”
“Give me a break.” The god of war moaned.
The rain came down harder, the sound providing them withalmost a curtain of privacy. Xenareleased her hand to wipe the droplets off Gabrielle’s face, tracing therounded cheekbones and reserving a moment to simply love the bard.
Gabrielle felt it. She turned and looked up at Xena theemotion so raw in her eyes it needed no light for the warrior to see it.
Or maybe they were tears, but not sad ones. Xena thoughtabout what their lives had been like so far, so full of pain, so full of hardshipand yet so full of moments like this one that she wouldn’t have traded for allthe dry comfort on earth.
This, she acknowledged, was a taste of immortality, becausewhat she felt for Gabrielle transcended anything physical and even when theyboth died, she knew in her heart that part of them, part of this, would remainforever.
“Hey, Xena?” Gabrielle drew one leg up, her knee blockingsome of the rain. “How about a story?”
“Once upon a time.” Xena responded amiably. “There was alittle duck.”
Gabrielle started chuckling. “I meant.. do you want me to tell one.” She clarified.“Because honey, I have heard thatduck story, and it’s just not the time or the place for it.”
Xena chuckled wickedly. “Spoilsport.”
Ares rolled over onto his back and stared up into the rainas it pelted him, the droplets bouncing off his body. “You both suck.” He said.“You’re making me want to throw up.”
“Good.” Gabrielle picked up Xena’s hand and started to placekisses across the palm. “You know, I really can’t believe you and Aphrodite areactually related to each other.”
Ares snorted softly. “Me either.”
“Think she’s watching us?” Xena enjoyed the warmth ofGabrielle’s breath against her fingers. “Like you were?”
The god was briefly silent. “Maybe.” He finally halfshrugged. “She gets in moods.”
Gabrielle peered over at him. “Do you watch us a lot?”
Ares angled his head so he could watch her. “Why? You want acritique?”
“No.” The bard replied mildly. “I know how good I am.”
Above her, Xena’s eyes popped wide open, and she glanceddown at her partner.
“I was just wondering, because it seems like you’ve gotnothing better to do than hang out and watch our lives.” The bard went on. “Isimmortality that dull?”
It was dark, and it was raining, and they were in animpossible situation. Maybe all of those things, along with his injury, finallyweighed in on him. “Sometimes.” Ares admitted. “Just so many wars, so many people to kill, y’know? Gets alittle boring sometimes.”
What was it like, Gabrielle suddenly wondered, to know youhad to live on without end? Shewas always so often on the other side of that question it never occurred to herwhat living forever would mean. “You ever get tired of it?”
Ares opened his mouth and collected some rain in it.“Sometimes.” He answered after a few minutes. “Sometimes you mortals don’t knowhow lucky you really are.” He stared up into the storm. “If this wasn’t so damnpainful and such a pain in the ass, I might’ve enjoyed it.”
“Really?” Gabrielle cupped a handful of rain again andsipped it.
“Different.” Ares explained, briefly. “Lot of thingshappened.. yeah.” He sniffedreflectively. “Got stabbed.. got half drowned, got blown through a waterfall..had my nuts pulled half off.. beenmore fun than kicking my dog, gotta tell ya.”
“Do you?” Xena asked. “Kick the dog?”
Ares tilted his head back and gazed up at her. “What do youthink?”
Xena pursed her lips. “I don’t think you do.” She decided.“I think under all the asshole is a square inch of decency somewhere.”
“Kiss my ass, Xena.”
“Bleh.” The warrior stuck her tongue out.
Gabrielle shaded her eyes from the rain with one hand. “Isyour dog related to Cerberus, Ares?”
The god nodded. “Yeah.” He answered.
“I didn’t know Aphrodite had a dog.” Gabrielle said. “I likeour wolf. He’s loyal, and he’s very protective of Dori.”
‘Yeah.” Ares said, briefly. “Thanks for naming him for me.Yuk hyuk.”
“Well.” The bard put her head back down on Xena’s shoulder.“He’s crazy about Xena, too.” She muffled a snicker as she felt Xena begin tosilently laugh. “And he’s a sissy. He’s afraid of his own shadow.”
Ares gave her a look. “You really do suck sometimes.”
“Sometimes.” Xena agreed. “But she’s good at it.”
Ares rolled his eyes. “The seventh level of Hades is sopleasant compared to being here with the two of you, y’know that?”
The rain was chilling now, and Gabrielle was privately readyto agree with her erstwhile nemesis. “We ready for that story yet, or do youwant to trade insults some more?” She felt Xena’s arms slide around her, and the warmth was gratifyingbeyond words. “Mm.”
“I”ve heard your stories. They suck.” Ares said. “They’reall about her. Or about my brother. Or about my sister…”
“How about one about you?” The bard asked, after he paused.
Ares slowly rolled his eyes around to study her. “You don’tknow any stories about me, blondie.”
“Mm.. “ Gabrielle mused. “But I’m a bard. I can make one up.Want me to?” She asked. “Want to see how I see you?”
Xena watched them both in some mild fascination. She knewwell the power of Gabrielle’s stories, and how she felt when the bard told oneabout her. Would Ares dareit? “C’mon, Ares. Only chanceyour’e gonna get for this. Live a little.”
The god of war hesitated, then he shrugged with an almostoverly casual air. “Why not?” He said. “You’ve already called me everything inthe book.. sure. G’wan.”
Gabrielle’s gaze unfocused, as she stared off into the rainand delved inside herself in this the most special aspect of her gift.
Creating new stories, especially when she was reallycreating something at a time like this, in a place like they were – that wasanother level again. “Okay.” Shesaid, after a few silent minutes. “Here we go… in the time of the gods youth, when the world was wild,and men were yet unborn….”
Ares rolled over onto his side, and pillowed his head on hisarm, his eyes never leaving her face.
It finally stopped raining not long before dawn.
Nothing was moving. No bats crossed the empty sky, no birdswere yet awake. The wind had died down, and if she hadn’t been sitting ongranite she’d have felt like she was floating in a gray, formless cloud.
Eerie, and yet as though time had taken a pause on herbehalf.
Her back felt stiff, but she’d gotten some sleep, and morethan anything she was looking forward to dawn so they could finish what they’dstarted and get the Hades out of the valley. She wanted that so bad she could taste it, the worry of themnot making it gnawing at her guts in an unceasing fashion.
A warm breath against her skin made her look down atGabrielle, but the bard was still fast asleep huddled against her. Drenched andbedraggled, her partner reminded her irresistibly of the rumpled kid she’dfirst known and Xena quietly placed a kiss on the damp hair, smiling faintly asshe felt Gabrielle’s hands tighten a little.
Well, at least one of them had been halfway comfortable.
Ares was sprawled next to her, his head pillowed on hisarms, almost indistinguishable in the dim light from the waning stars, the skyotherwise dark and moonless.
Sitting there wasn’t too comfortable. Her butt was asleep,for example. But Xena had learned over the years to get rest whenever she couldso she closed her eyes again, and tried to let the world drift away from her.
Then again. Xena opened one eye and peered down at Ares.“What?”
“Are we dead, yet?”
“No.” The warrior replied. “What makes you think we were?”
Ares mulled the question over for a while. “That whole..sleeping thing.. wake up, not wake up.. kinda whacked, y’know?”
“Mm.” It was Xena’s turn to ponder. “Gods don’t sleep?”
“Yeah.” Ares said. “Maybe that’s why.. “ He paused. “We dependin you mortals for so much entertainment.”
Xena frowned a bit into the darkness as the silencelengthened between them. Finally,she cleared her throat gently. “Know what?”
“You should get married.”
Xena shifted a little, then settled back with a sigh. “Youshould get married. I used to go looking for trouble, mostly because I wasbored out of my mind. Now I don’t.”
Ares made a sound halfway between a snort of disbelief and alaugh. “You gotta be kidding me.” The god of war said. “You really expect me tobelieve that?”
“I don’t.” Xena protested, with a shrug. “I can’t help it adamn flood washed me down the river.”
The god of war snorted again. “See? You’re so stupid, youdon’t even know it. The river didn’t wash you down anywhere.. you went to grabthe kid. If you’d a let her go, you’d be back home kicking back right now.”
Xena exhaled, shaking her head. “You just don’t get it, doyou?”
“It’s the truth, Xena.”
“Yeah?” The warrior’s voice dropped. “Tell me Ares.. was I kickingback after you made Gabrielle take a header into that lava?”
Ares didn’t answer.
“I know you were there. I could feel you. Was I laughing?”Xena’s tone took on a hard edge now. “Could you feel what I felt? Did you hearme screaming?”
Ares remained silent.
“You. Don’t. Get. It.” Xena went on, after a pause.
The stars were fading slowly out overhead, as the sky prepareditself for dawn. Ares had half rolled over onto his back and was looking up,his profile only barely visible. “What makes you think you get a choice?’
Xena smiled into the darkness. “Because I’m mortal.”
“Aren’t we proud of that.” Ares voice was sarcastic. ‘Thinkyou’re going to like getting old, Xena? Losing those looks? That sword? How’sit feel to know you’re going downhill?”
Xena let her head rest against the rock and thought aboutthat. She knew it was true, butsomewhere along the line in her life she’d somehow lost her fear of it.
Ares snorted under his breath.
Xena felt a feather light touch on the curve of her breast,and she glanced down to see Gabrielle’s lips pressed there. “What do youthink?”
The bard looked up at her. “What do I think?” She replied,her voice husky from sleep. “I think I’m going to revel in very single momentof our lives together. That’s what I think.”
“Every moment?” Xena asked. “Even this one?”
“Even this one.” The bard agreed. “Especially thisone.” She kissed Xena’s breastagain.
Ah. Xena’s nose wrinkled as she produced a grin. Nothinglike getting the juices flowing to warm you up on a cold, damp, rock ledge inthe middle of nowhere. She shiftedand pulled Gabrielle up a little, kissing her on the lips to continue theprocess.
She could feel the slight roughness from the wind as hertongue explored the bard’s mouth, and she wished they were anywhere but wherethey were when her body responded and wanted to go much further.
Tweaking Ares was one thing. Giving him a front row seatknowingly was another completely. Reluctantly, Xena lifted her head andexchanged wry looks with her partner, who poked the very tip of her tongue outin response. “All right.” She said. “I’ll give you this moment.”
“Heh.” Gabrielle nuzzled her a little more, then, with areluctant sigh, she eased away from her bedraggled leather pillow and drew herlegs up under her. She rested herelbows on her knees and scrubbed her face with her hands, wishing for a numberof things she had no chance of getting.
Food, hot water, Dori. Just to name a few.
Wasn’t she? The bard frowned. After all, she’d found out nowhow Pony and Gran really felt, what if Eph… No. Gabriellepushed the thought aside. Even if Ephiny decided one morning she hated them,she knew the regent would take care of Dori because it was her duty to takecare of her. There were many things she could doubt but Ephiny’s steadfastdevotion to the tribe wasn’t among them. “Rats.”
“Hmm?” Xena leaned over towards her. “What is it?”
“What isn’t it?” The bard sighed. “I’m getting close to thatpoint where I start freaking out about everything I’m thinking.” Sheadmitted. “Just warning you.”
Xena patted her on the back.
Ah well. Gabrielle slowly pushed herself upright, then sheclimbed to her feet to stretch her body out, staying close to the wall.
Xena was glad enough to get up and join her, leaning backand crossing her legs at the ankles as she let the blood flow back into herthighs. “Sleep okay?”
“I slept.” The bard turned around and leaned next toher. “And as much as I’m adoringevery second of my life with you, honey, I’d like to be enjoying it someplaceelse. When can we start?”
Xena turned and looked up at the wall, now that the comingdawn was giving her just enough light to see it. The stone was dark withmoisture, and she realized the rising sun would be hitting the opposite valleywall with complete unhelpfulness. “Crap.”
“What?” Gabrielle turned and leaned next to her, alsolooking up. “It’s pretty steep.” She acknowledged. ”Is that a problem?”
“Not as much of a problem as this is.” Xena lifted her handsoff the rock and turned them over, the palms glistening with moisture in thelow light.
“Oh.” Gabrielle looked at her own hands. “Well, crap. You’reright.”
Ares had managed to get himself upright, and he pulledhimself over to the wall and leaned against it, breathing hard. The front ofhis half torn catskin was covered in blood and pus, though the rain had washedoff most of the wound itself. “Doesn’t matter.” He said. “I ain’t going nowhereanyway.”
“Don’t be a jackass, Ares.” Xena muttered. “We don’t havetime for it.”
The god of war stared silently at his upturned hands,resting on his legs. “I’m not.” He answered, after a moment. “Not that I don’twanna be.”
Xena turned and looked at him, the dawn light showing the hollowedeyes and the ragged breathing. “Ah.” She murmured, remembering suddenly lookingat herself in a mirror a long time ago and seeing the same signs, aware of ananxious Gabrielle watching her.
The memory rippled away as a very different Gabrielle slippedpast her to kneel by Ares side, mature compassion erasing the frightened postadolescent she had been. “C’mon,Ares. I don’t believe you can’t make it up there. We’re almost to the top.”
“Shut up.” Ares gazed at her. “I’m dying, you idiot.”
To her credit, Gabrielle didn’t so much as flinch.
“Why?” The god asked.
“What?” Gabrielle said. “What do you mean, why?”
“You come into the world screaming, you live, you get oldand lose your teeth, and then you croak anyway.” Ares stated, in an almost mildtone. “So, what’s the point?Croak!”
Gabrielle sighed. “Xena’s right.” She said. “You really justdon’t get it.”
Ares shook her hand off. “No.” He said. “You two don’t getit. Mortals don’t get it. Your lives are all meaningless.. got that? They don’tmatter!”
“They do to us.” Gabrielle put her hand back on his arm.“And they do to you too, Ares. Don’t sit there and tell me you don’t care aboutus. Or Xena, anyway.” She staredinto his eyes. “All the times you asked me to give my life for hers, don’t tellme that, because if her life didn’t matter, why bother?’
The blue eyes looked right back into hers. “It doesn’tmatter.” Ares said. “I just hate losing. Especially to little nothings likeyou.”
Ahh. Gabriellesat down next to him. There was truth there, she knew. “Well.” She cleared herthroat, very aware of Xena’s silent presence at her back. “The problem is,Ares.. I hate losing too.” Her eyes shifted back to his face. “Especially toconniving, hypocritical bastards like you.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “So.. whatever it takes for us to getout of here, we’ll do it. If we have to drag you with us by a rope around yourankles, then okay.”
“Hey.” Ares gave her a mocking look. “Just leave me here.What’s stopping you?’
The bard leaned towards him, no trace of humor in her face.“Because I won’t.. we won’t lose to you, Ares.”
“Lose to me? I’m the one who’s dying here, remember?”
“Exactly.” Gabrielle kept her eyes glued to his. “Xenatouched that sword. We all know what’s going to happen if she gets out of here,and you don’t.”
With the faintest of smiles, he looked at her, then glancedup at Xena. “Figured it out, huh? I always said you were smart. Too bad youdon’t prove it most of the time.” He looked back at Gabrielle. “ Dying’s gonnabe worth it, you know that, Gabrielle? Because I’m gonna win in the end ofthis.” He put his hands behind his head.
“No you won’t.” Xena spoke up for the first time.
“Won’t I?” The god of war managed a smile. “Bet I do.”
“Bet you don’t.” The warrior stared across the valley, thenlooked down at him. “Either we all get out… or none of us will, Ares.”
“Give me a break.” Ares scoffed, weakly.
Xena crouched down next to Gabrielle, leaning one arm on hershoulder for balance. “Believe it.” She said. “I’m not taking your place, Ares.We’ll all die here first.”
All trace of humor vanished. “And leave the world to deathand destruction?” Ares asked, softly. “No greater good, Xena?”
His eyes shifted to Gabrielle’s face. “Gonna let all thosepeople die, Gabrielle?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle replied. “You won’t win.” She said. “Notthis time.”
Ares settled back against the rock. “Tough crowd.” Heremarked. “Guess we’ll see who dies first, huh?”
“Guess wewill.” Xena stood and regarded the rock wall again, as a sense of drivinginevitability took hold of her. “Gab, get your antlers on.”
“You got it.” The bard started to stand, but turned as shefelt Ares grab her wrist. She looked back at him and they stared at each otherin silence for a very long moment. Then she removed his fingers from herwrists, and turned away, heading for the small pile of things they had left tothem.
Dawn spread across the far side of the valley, lighting therock wall in pinks and golds. But their wall remained in shadows, both seen andunseen.