One Wild Ride
“Get me more bags.” Ephiny wiped some of the mud off herface. “C’mon, you all. Pitch in here.” She stepped back and watched as a troop of Amazons dragged sacks full ofsand and dropped them just short of the gates of the town, where theoverflowing river was lapping.
If she looked below, not much was left of the lower townthat was visible. The river spread out across the floodplain, and neither therain or the rising waters seemed ready to diminish.
“Good gods.” Cyrene had her hand on one post. “Will it everstop?”
Ephiny leaned back against the gates. “Has to. Sometime.”She looked down the river, then she turned to look at Cyrene. “I’m worriedabout them.”
“As am I.” The innkeeper said, quietly.
The regent stared at the river in frustration. The floodkept any thought of following Xena and Gabrielle at bay, even though she’dtried to scout a route that bypassed the overflowing banks.
Pony had tried as well, climbing up the slopes past Xena’scabin, but finding no way down off the bluff that held her infamous tree. Shereported the river was overflowing across the lower plain as well, but therewas no sight of their friends.
Frustrating. They could be hurt. They could be lost.
Then she sighed. “Maybe it’s for the best. Every time we tryto give them a hand we end up screwing up everything.” Ephiny admitted. “Andthey have to save our butts.”
Cyrene looked at her. “That’s not true.”
“C’mon, Cyrene.” The regent wiped some of the mud off herhands. “You know it is. You know as well as I do us showing up in Athens justmade everything worse.”
The innkeeper looked away.
“And you should hear the stories I heard about when we wentto ‘help’ them rescue Toris and Jessan.” Ephiny snorted softly.
Cyrene edged to one side and stared down at the lower town.The destruction made her blink, and she exhaled softly as she shook her head afew times. “No warning.”
“Was warning.” Ephiny grunted. “We just didn’t read it.
“But.” The innkeeper frowned. “Maybe if she’d been downhere..”
Ephiny turned and looked at her. “Them maybe dying savingthose bloody sheep not enough for you?”
Cyrene turned, giving her an outraged look.
“If they’d have stayed up there together, they’d be here.”Ephiny said, bluntly. “But no, Gab had to come down to make peace, like shealways does, and almost ended up in pieces for her trouble.
“You don’t understand.” The innkeeper said quietly.
“I understand it was pissing them off.” Ephiny got out ofthe way as a wagon creaked up, with more sandbags in it. “I understand thosejackasses down there dissing my Queen.” She pointed at the wrecked town. “So ifyou’re looking for sympathy from me, forget it.” She turned and walked away,shaking the mud off her hands. “Pony!”
Johan got down from the wagon and watched the Amazon leave.He looked at Cyrene in question, easing past the men now busy unloading thebags. “Heard they didn’t find a way down the river.”
Cyrene looked very troubled. “No. It’s too high.” She leanedon the gate. “Not getting any lower either… but she seems to think it’s notworth going after them.”
Johan stared at her. “Huh?”
“She thinks they’d be better off getting themselves back.”The innkeeper snorted angrily.
“Hm.” Johan leaned next to her. “May have a point there.”
Her husband exhaled. “Cy, I been there couple times now.. wenever did do nothing but give those girls heartache.”
“You really believe that?” Cyrene said, glancing over hershoulder at the working villagers.
“It’s true.” Johan said. “Those kids can get out of whateverthey’re into, Cy. Have been for years without no help from us.”
Cyrene turned and stared out across the flood again. “I hada dream.”
Johan glanced at her. “Eh?”
“I had a dream. Before they came back.” The innkeepersaid quietly. “They were alonesomewhere.. all alone, with nothing.”
“Just a dream, Cy.” Johan patted her back. “Kid’sll be fine,you’ll see. Probably be showing back up here anytime, telling all kinds ofa tall tale.. and y’know..” Helooked down at the flooded space before them. “Figure Xena’ll like the smellsome better here now.”
Cyrene didn’t answer. She remained staring out over thewater, her hands tight around the gate support.
Cyrene pulled her hood down a little tighter and turned,starting back for the inn in silence.
Xena walked differently barefoot. Gabrielle stepped along abodylength behind her, admiring the sinuous grace in her partner’s motion.
Sexy. Gabrielle put the edge of her new staff down andhopped over a log. The animals had quieted down, and Xena seemed a littleperplexed over the fading clues her nose was now barely detecting. The rain had slowed to a merely annoying drizzle, also, and the thickforest canopy over their heads blocked a good deal of that for them.
“Hmph.” Xena cocked her head. “Damn it, I thought for surewe were going in the right direction.”
“Aren’t we?” Gabrielle stepped up next to her. “There’s thewater. We’re following it, right?”
Xena ducked under a branch. “Yeah.” She grunted. “I thoughtit was heading towards the signs I caught of those people.. but they’regone.” She paused, walking over tokneel down at the side of the water and dip a hand in, scooping some up to herlips and drinking it.
Gabrielle went to one knee next to her, putting a hand onher partner’s shoulder to steady her balance. She could feel the warmth of Xena’s skin through the fabricof her shirt, and before she drank some herself, she ducked her head and gavethe warrior’s arm a kiss.
Xena turned her head, droplets of water trailing from herlips. A half smile later, she traded the river’s coolness for heat as shereturned the kiss. “Not that I’m complaining they’re gone.” She admitted.“C’mon. I want to get to the end of this thing today.. see what we have to goto get out of here.”
“Oh, I dunno.” Gabrielle took a drink, then gently shook thewater off her hands. She got up and followed Xena as the water started slopinga little more downhill, flooding a lot of the forest as it overran the old bedthey were following. “Wandering around the unknown with you isn’t so bad.”
Xena glanced over her shoulder, and smirked a bit. “Haven’tgotten bored of that yet?”
“As if.” Gabrielle caught up and they sloshed through theoverflow. She let her hand rest on Xena’s back, her fingertips lightlyscratching the strong muscles there. “What do you think happened back home? Ifthe river’s still overflowing here..”
“Probably still overflowing there.” Xena acknowledged.“Wouldn’t be surprised if it took out some of the lower town.”
Gabrielle walked along for a few moments in silence. “Youdon’t sound upset about that.”
“They’re people too, Xena. They have homes and businessesthere.” The bard said. “It’s not their fault the way the town’s growing.”
“It’s not my fault either.” The warrior said. “You want meto lie and say I’d be devastated?”
Gabrielle exhaled, her hand still keeping up it’s lightmassage. “No… oh, Xe.. is that a piece of flint?”
Xena had already spotted it, and she plunged into the deeperwater, the surge tugging at her shift. “Yep.” She captured the piece of rocklodged on a fallen tree and examined it. “Good catch, mama.” She climbed backout of the creek and rejoined her partner. “That might come in handy.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle agreed, her eyes searching the groundout of habit for anything else useful. She spotted some thin vines and captured them, separating the strandsand braiding them as she walked. They’d been traveling for a few candlemarksalready, and she reasoned the sun was probably past overhead by now.
She was hungry. A handful of nuts and berries wasn’t reallygoing to hit the spot, either. Gabrielle wasn’t sure she was ready to go for raw fish, but she was beginningto feel a little shaky. “Hey, Xe?”
“Hm?” The warrior turned her head. “Whatcha got there?”
The bard finished her braiding. She reached out and circledXena’s waist with the vines, tying them in front of her and pulling the rattyshift close around her body. “A belt for you.”
“Ahhh.” Xena regarded the gift somberly. “I like it.”
Gabrielle bumped her lightly with one shoulder. “How aboutcatching me a fish?” She sighed. “Maybe I can work out something while we havelunch.”
Xena’s eyes flicked over her, studying her face before shemerely nodded and headed back into the water, raising a hand to put her darkhair behind one finely shaped ear.
Gabrielle scouted the area for a place they could sit downin, finding a downed tree not far away. She patted it, then went into thesurrounding brush to see what she could find.
There were no berries, the bushes were mostly barren. Shefound a few flowers, which she picked and put in her basket, then she spotted athick stalk emerging from the ground and she pounced on it gleefully. “Ah hah!”
Xena stopped when she was up to her mid thighs inwater. She leaned forward andrested her hands on her knees, her head tilted to listen.
When they traveled, they often didn’t eat for longstretches, and though she knew they hadn’t had much dinner, or much breakfast,Gabrielle usually could soldier on a lot longer before she started asking tostop.
Xena wiggled her fingers, feeling a ripple near her leftleg. She went still for a longinstant, then in a flickering motion, plunged her hand into the water andgrabbed for whatever it was that was tickling her. She felt a hard, scaled bodyunder her touch and she clamped down with her fingers, pulling her arm out ofthe water with a feeling of definite triumph.
In her grasp was a large fish, of a type she’d never seenbefore. It had a big jaw, with spikes on the top of it’s curved head, and twofins poking out on either side of it’s body.
Xena lifted it up with a puzzled look, blinking as shespotted a completely unexpected set of tiny legs on the bottom of the creature.“What in Hades?”
The fish honked like a duck, almost making Xena drop it. Shefinally shook her head and sloshed out of the water, gauging the fish was bigenough to feed them both, and hoping she could get Gabrielle to eat the animaluncooked, as nothing she could see anywhere was going to burn right now.
The bard hated raw fish. Xena wasn’t too fond of it either, butshe’d learned over the years to consume just about anything to keep herselfgoing and fortunately or unfortunately, Gabrielle hadn’t really ever had to dothat. No matter how bad the foraging had been, she’d somehow managed to keepthem from anything worse than a few grubs and an experiment with a snake once.
Her ears located Gabrielle and she walked through the treesto a small clearing, where she found the bard sitting on a log, having gatheredsome herbs as well as what looked like a sweet tuber. “Hey.”
“Got one, huh?” Gabrielle peered at the fish. “What is it?”
“Dunno.” Xena smacked the fish’s head against the fallentree, killing it. “You got that.. ah. Yeah.” Xena took the jagged stone she’dfound the night before and started using it to cut the fish up.
It was not a fast or easy process, and she felt like she wastrying to butcher a pig with a wooden spatula. “Damn I’d give anything for aknife.”
Gabrielle leaned on the log at her side and regarded themessy process. “Uck.”
Xena managed to get the fish open, discarding the entrailsof it and separating out the bones. “Those might be useful..” She touched one,bending it a little and finding it much firmer to the touch than she was usedto. “Yeah.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle indicated her little basket. “Found someroots. They’re gonna need cooking, though.”
The warrior separated a sliver of the raw fish from the sideshe’d opened and offered it to the bard. “You did say you were hungry.”
“Wobbly.” Gabrielle sighed, taking the almost translucentpiece of fish and putting it into her mouth, swallowing it down quickly withoutreally chewing it.
“Really?” Xena handed her another piece, looking at her witha bit more concern.
The bard settled herself onto the log, straddling it. “Youknow me.” She gave her partner a wry look. “I don’t know if I ever told youthis but I used to daydream about honeycakes all day when we were on the road.”
Xena leaned against the tree, slicing the fish up as bestshe could and sharing it. “You never told me that.”
“When I wasn’t daydreaming about you, that is.” Gabrielle’smist green eyes twinkled. “You know, this isn’t so bad.” She swallowed anotherpiece, the grumbling in her guts finally quieting down a little.
“I used to daydream about you.” The warrior said,unexpectedly.
Xena nodded, lifting a bit of the fish to her lips andswallowing it. “I used to wonder what you would do if I just walked across thecampfire one night and kissed you.”
Gabrielle consumed a few more pieces of fish while sheconsidered that. “When was this?”
The warrior shrugged.
“I think I probably… would have passed out.” The barddecided.
“If you had to cross over the campfire to get to me, if itwas that long ago.. yeah.” Gabrielle said. “I was still in the phase where yourarmor creaking gave me goosebumps.”
Xena gave her a droll look.
“Honey, you asked.” Gabrielle offered her partner some ofthe remaining berries in her basket. “So, what’s the plan? Are we still goingto follow the water?”
Xena tipped her head back and regarded the sky. “Might aswell. We’re not moving very fast.”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle glanced apologetically at the fish.
“Nah, it’s me.” Xena pointed at her bootless feet. “Let’sget as far as we can, and see what we find. Maybe the water’ll lead out ofhere.. we can get some branches and make a raft.”
“Ugh. I didn’t much like the last raft trip we took.”Gabrielle gathered her things up. “Let’s go wash off first.”
“Right behind you.” Xena took the skeleton, carefullybreaking off the rib bones and stacking them in a bundle as she walked. “Wannaplay what is it?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Sure.” Despite the discomfort, and the struggle they were havingwithout their gear, she found herself enjoying the time they were getting tospend alone together. Usually,they were having to entertain or distract Dori, which was a joy – but there wassomething just so much more intimate when all they had to interact with waseach other. “You first.”
“Ahhh.” Xena shook her wet hair out of her eyes, andgrinned. “You asked for it.” She cast a look around them out of habit,listening to the forest as she thought about the game. The acrid stink hadvanished, and her senses weren’t detecting anything to be alarmed over.
Maybe it had just been a dead animal. Xena reasoned. Couldhave drowned, being swept over the falls like they were, right?
“C’mere, Dori.” Ephiny picked up the child and hefted her.“Let’s you and me have a talk.” She walked over to one of the benches they’dshoved against the back wall of the inn and sat down with Dori on her lap.
“Go get mama now?” Dori asked.
“No, honey, not yet.” Ephiny said. “We can’t go yet. There’stoo much water.”
Dori blinked at her. “Too much wasser? Boo go fishes.”
Obviously, Dori felt that if Xena and Gabrielle could godown the river, everyone else could too. “We will.” Ephiny promised her. “Whatwe’re gonna do is, we’re gonna wait for the river to stop overflowing, andthen, if mama and Boo aren’t back, we’ll go get them.”
The child studied her seriously. “Mama come back?”
“Sure.” The regent said. “You know they’ll come back as soon as they can, and you
Dori appeared to be considering the request. She stuck afinger into her mouth and sucked it, drumming her heels against Ephiny’s leg.
“If we go try to find them, we might get lost.” Ephinyadded.
“Hm. Youhaven’t made that noise in a while.” The regent smiled at her charge. “Honey, Ipromise. Your mama and your Boo are going to be just fine.”
“Otay.” Dori finally said. “Wait for Boo.”
Miracle of miracles. Ephiny exhaled in relief, as she gazeddown into the alert green eyes watching her. Their color matched Gabrielle’s exactly, but the unwaveringsharpness the projected was all Xena, and the regent found herself wonderingwhat kind of woman this kid was going to grow up into.
Xena and Gabrielle were two of the most willful, stubbornpeople she knew. They only people either of them listened to was the other, andso, Ephiny had not really been overly shocked when Dori had turned out to be aright little hellion on wagon wheels.
Would Dori turn out to be arrogant? The regent studied thatopen little face. “Hey, Dori?”
“Yes?” Dori looked up at her, the tiny snub nose crinklinginto her mother’s trademark grin. “Eff good. We go find fishes now? Get rocksto give mama.” She said. “Make pitty picture for Boo.”
Ephiny smiled back at her. The one thing she felt wouldcounter the fierce independence the young child showed was her open and givingnature. She was forever finding and presenting everyone with ‘presents.’.
Dried sheep poop, for example. Pony had accepted hers,noting that they were damn good for starting fires when
Ephiny had noticed that most of the time, Boo and mama gotthe good stuff, though. If Dori found an interesting leaf, or a bright piece ofstone or a colorful feather she’d invariable trot off to find one of herparents and give it to them.
Ah. And to see Xena melt at those little hands.
Ephiny ruffled Dori’s hair affectionately. “You’ll be okay,bitty boo.” She told her. “You’ve got the two biggest hearts in the worldraising you. Can’t go wrong there.” She set Dori on the ground. “Would you liketo come up and visit with your Aunt Poopoo, Dori? I think your mama would likeit if we took you up to where we live, and played with you until she gets back.Whadda you think?”
Dori poked her lower lip out.
“Okay.” Ephiny recognized the expression. “How about me andyour aunt Poo poo coming to stay in your house? Would you like that?”
“Good.” Dori nodded amiably. “You come play, we can go findfishes.”
What the Hades was it with the damn fishes?
“Hi.” Toris sloshed over and sat down on the bench. “Hi,Dori.”
Dori pointed at him. “Buckhead.”
Ephiny glanced at Xena’s brother. “Uh…”
“Sookay.” Toris sighed, laying his hands on his knees. “Ifeel like a buckhead. Whatever that is.” His shoulders slumped. “Gods, what amess.”
“Yeah.” Ephiny agreed quietly. “I was just convincing Dori here we need to wait for thewater to go down before we start hunting for her parents.”
Toris glanced at the child. “Did she agree?” He askedseriously.
The tall, dark haired man regarded his niece. “She’s beinggood.” He observed, as Dori pattered over to a chest in the inn, and came backwith a handful of nuts. She sat down on the bench and started arranging them ina pattern.
“Yes, she is.” Ephiny agreed. “She’s been a lot better sincethey came home, I noticed. She’s still really energetic, but she listens a lotmore.”
Dori looked up at her. “You want?” She offered up a nut. “Isgood!”
“Thanks, cute stuff.” Ephiny accepted the nut. “You got onefor your uncle?”
“None for me.” Toris stood, with a sigh. “There’s so much todo yet.” He looked around the inn. All the furniture had been pushed backagainst the walls, and the floor was covered in muck, with bales and boxes,half sodden, lay stacked where people frantically threw them to save them fromthe water. “Better get to it.”
Ephiny chewed her nutmeat slowly. “You worried about Xenaand Gab?”
Toris turned his head towards her. “Honestly? No.” He said.“Sometimes I look at you guys when you all fret about them and I wonder if youforget who they are.” With a shake of his head, he walked off towards thekitchen, dusting off his hands as he went.
“Do we?” Ephiny exhaled. “Yeah, maybe we do.” She held herhands out to Dori. “Or maybe some of us know they’re not invinciable.”
Dori hopped off the bench and came over. “You come play witme and Guff now?”
The regent glanced at the window, where the light wasdimming to an even more dismal shade of gray. “Yeah. Let me grab us some dinnerfirst. You won’t like my cooking.” She stood and headed for the kitchen,holding Dori’s hand as the little girl trotted at her side. “Maybe we can evenfind some buppits. Whaddaya say?”
“Buppits!” Dori hopped up and down. “Go Go GO!”
“It’s getting chilly.” Gabrielle paused to lean on herstaff. “You doing okay?”
Xena, caught in the act of rubbing her upper arms, couldonly issue a wry grin. “It’sgetting chilly.” She acknowledged. “Think we better find a place to stop forthe night.” She looked around,seeing not much else but forest and more forest.
The water they’d been following had settled down from aflooded wash to a fast running creek, barely contained within rocky banks thatonly seldomly dipped to a crossing they could wade into.
Not good. Xena sighed. They had to have shelter, since thewet wind was still blowing, and it was getting colder every minute.
Gabrielle joined her at the edge of the water, poking aheadwith her staff cautiously. “How deep is it?”
“One way to find out.” Xena sloshed in on the upstream sideof her partner, quickly sinking down until the water was up to her mid thigh.“Careful.”
“Eh.” Gabrielle followed her, wincing as the cold watersoaked into her clothing. “You know, if we manage not to catch the cold fromHades, it’ll be a miracle.” Shereached out and latched on to Xena’s arm as the water flow threatened to pushher over. “Yow.”
Xena put a hand on her back as she moved slowly across. Thewater got deeper, and at one point she realized she’d have to swim for it.“Um.. Gab?”
“Yeah. I know.” Gabrielle sighed. “What I wouldn’t give fora little freaking sunlight.”
The warrior started swimming, the chills paradoxallysubsiding as her muscles surged into action and she pulled powerfully acrossthe creek with Gabrielle stroking gamely at her side as she still tried to hangon to her staff.
The current carried them downstream. Xena watched for adecent landing place as she kept moving on a diagonal, finally spotting
“Easy for you to say.” Gabrielle grunted,
“Yeah.” Xena grabbed hold of her with one arm, and snagged afallen limb on the tree with other, swinging them both into the landing neatlyand with surprisingly little effort. “Up you go.”
The bard threw her staff up onto the shore and climbed outof the water, her drenched clothing outlining her lithe body. “Pah.” She shookherself, turning to offer Xena a hand up. “Gods, I’m over being wet.”
Xena got to her feet, starting to move away from the bankuntil something caught her eye. She paused and glance down at a depression inthe sand, an almost footprint that faded into the wash of the river even as shewatched.
“Something wrong?” Gabrielle peered at her.
Xena dismissed the depression with a shrug. “Nah.” Sheheaded off away from the water, towards an upslope she was hoping would leadtowards some place they could find shelter. “Keep your eyes open for anything.”
“You know..” The bard wiped the wet hair from her eyes. “Iknow you don’t like caves, Xe, but..”
“Right now, I love caves.” The warrior replied. “Caves canforget anything bad I ever said about them if they’d just appear. Right now.”
“Mm.” Gabriellesighed. “Nice cave, nice dry floor, maybe a lovely little hot spring in theback.. with lots of dry firewoodsomeone considerately left there…”
“You don’t want much, do ya.”
“You’ve found them before.” Gabrielle leaned forward as theslope got a little steeper, rocky upthrusts beginning to poke their heads fromthe ground. “I used to think you just had been over every square inch of landwe’d ever traveled over, so you of course remembered all the good spots andtook us there.”
Xena snorted. “Yeah, so when we ended up sleeping in thatswamp that was because…?”
“Hey, no one’s perfect.” Gabrielle chuckled. “Besides, thatswamp had it’s good points.”
“Good points?” Xena was glad of the distraction from thechill. “Gabrielle, we only had one bodylength of dry ground between us.”
“Heh. Exactly.” Green eyes twinkled gently. “Oh, gee, Xena..I guess we’ll have to only use the one fur, huh?” Her voice rose a notch inmimcry of her younger self. “Shucks.”
Muffling a grin, Xena hopped nimbly onto one of theboulders, and shaded her eyes with one hand, peering through the mist. Throughthe trees, she spotted a darkness that was more than clouds, and her shouldersrelaxed. “Think we’ve got a rock wall over there.”
Gabrielle watched as her partner rejoined her, noting thegoosebumps covering her skin. They had no provisions left, but even though shewas hungry and she was sure Xena was too, getting warm was really the toppriority for right now. “Okay, let’s get over there.”
A soft sound to their left alerted Xena, and she paused,drawing back behind a boulder as she reached out to grab Gabrielle’s arm.“Something’s coming.”
Xena started to look around the rock, when the sounds rapidlyescalated, and out of the mist and gloom a huge, brown blur burst from theforest and came straight for them.
She got a glimpse of staring eyes, and white teeth, as sheinstinctively grabbed Gabrielle’s staff, and leaped to meet it.
Whatever it was.
Gabrielle got a brief look at the beast before it was onthem, and smelled an overpowering stink of musk and manure as she dodged out ofthe way.
“Yeahhh!” Xena let out a wild yell, making the animal startviolently, rearing up and striking out at her with hooves the size of wagonwheels. The warrior swung thestaff and whacked it in the head, feeling the sting against her palms as thewood rebounded out of them and clattered to the ground. “Damn it!”
“Ooonnngg!” The animal hooted, swinging it’s massivelyhorned head around and charging her again. “Oooonnng!”
“Artemis’ left tit.” Gabrielle took the smart route and dovefor the ground, rolling behind a boulder and out of the way. She peered outfrom behind it, watching as her partner fended off the animal. “Xena! Watchout!” She yelled, seeing the horns sweeping towards the warrior’s head. “Xena!”
“I see it!” The warrior jumped up onto the boulder she wasbehind and leaped onto the animal’s back, grabbing hold of it’s horns andsliding across it’s body to roll off onto the other side.
Slowly, Xena stood up, wiping her hands on her shift, herbody shivering in pure reaction. She glanced over as Gabrielle got to her feetand walked towards her, the bard’s eyes on the huge creature. “You all right?”
“Me?” The bard came to her side. “I’m not the one joustingwith a .. a.. Xena, what the Hades is that?”
The warrior circled the dead animal, it’s eyes bugging outand glassy, and it’s tongue hanging out of a half open jaw. She’d broken it’sneck and the fall had done the rest. Now quiet was returning to the mistyforest around them. “It’s a… um..” She put her hands on her hips.
“Deer?” Gabrielle suggested hesitantly. “Crossed with aminotaur?”
It was vaguely deer shaped, and a rusty brown color. But ithad a huge crown of interlaced horns on it’s head, and it’s back had toppedXena’s height by nearly an armspan. It’s hooves were split into three, and it had thin white strips acrossit’s belly. “Huh.”
“Xena, that’s the third time you’ve had to say ‘huh’ when itcomes to animals around here. I’ve never heard you say it once
Xena scratched her ear, then half shrugged. “Question is,what do we do with it?” She sat down on the boulder and pulled out her bit ofrock and looked at it. “Oh, that’s not gonna be a treat using this.”
Gabrielle touched one of the horns. “Well, there’s a lot ofuseful material here.” She replied, in a practical tone. Her brow creased, andshe sat down on another boulder, beginning to tug at the laces on her boot.“Musta gotten a stick in here or something.. hang on.”
The warrior looked around. “Well.. maybe we should findshelter first… even if I can hack this thing up somehow we’ve really got..”
Xena looked at the bard, who had an indescribable expressionon her face. “What?” She waited, but Gabrielle merely looked at her. “What??”
The bard’s nose wrinkled into a wry expression. “You’reeither going to kiss me or spank me.”
Xena cocked her dark head to one side. “Huh?”
Very slowly, the bard raised her hand from her half unlacedboot. In her fingers was a carved bone handle, with a softly glinting bladeinserted in it. “Forgot I had it?” Gabrielle offered, hopefully. “Sorry.”
The warrior got up and walked to her. “Gaaaaabbbrieelllle.”She crouched down with her forearms on her knees and eyed her partner. “Whatwere my choices again?” She asked, taking the small utility knife from thebard.
Green eyes blinked penitently at her. “I honestly forgot Istuck it in there.. I don’t usually carry it when we’re home, but we were outso long that I guess I just got..”
Xena leaned over and kissed her on the lips.
“In the habit of it.” The bard concluded, with a sheepishsmile as they parted. “Gods, I feel like a dork.”
“You won’t, once we get a decent meal out of this.” Xenasaid. “See if you can scout around over there and find us someplace to rest upfor the night.” She examined the knife with a sense of pleasure, realizing shenow also had a striker to start a fire with. “Keep an eye out for tinder.”
“You’re not mad at me?” Gabrielle asked.
“Nu uh.” Xena got up and walked over to the beast, alreadytrying to figure out where to start with it. The rain had started to come downagain, and she was losing light fast.
Xena turned and looked at her partner, who was still sittingon the rock. “Gabrielle, get over it. You probably just saved our butts.G’wan.” She indicated the slope. “Nest.”
Gabrielle finished lacing her boot back up, then she stoodup. “Consider me nesting.” She agreed, giving Xena a pat on the side before shewalked on past her and started up the slope. Feeling the handle of the knife near her ankle hadunexpectedly thrown her back to an earlier time, when she’d agonized over theleast little mistake and cringed before Xena’s all knowing eyes.
“You’re not that little dork anymore, Gabrielle.” She toldherself, as she walked through a thick stand of trees, peering under branchesand looking around boles. “You actually have some skills now, and she trustsyou.”
A noise caught her attention and she looked quickly past athick pine tree, her eyes searching for the source of it.
The squirrel remained prudently mute, and Gabrielle movedon. She spotted another fallen tree and trotted over to it, but the overhang itprovided wasn’t nearly enough even for her, and forget about her tallsoulmate. The bard patted thetrunk and climbed over it, continuing further up the slope.
Ahead, she could see through the trees a blank, slate graynessblocking out the light, and she hoped it was the crevice wall. As she edged outfrom the last row of trunks, though, she realized it wasn’t – but it still hadsome promise.
The wall was actually an upthrust, a jag of rock rising upfrom the floor of the valley that towered over her. She walked towards it andas she came up next to the stone, it blocked the wind.
That felt wonderful. Gabrielle explored the cracks in itcarefully, circling the edge of the upthrust and stopping in her tracks as shespotted an overhang with a concave space beneath it, away from the wind and bigenough for both of them. “Ah hah!” She turned and faced the forest, whichspread out beneath her in a thick grey green wave.
Placing two fingers between her teeth, she let out a whistle,then two shorter ones, and paused, cocking her head. After a brief moment’ssilence, a long whistle answered her back, and she grunted in satisfaction.“This is great.” She ducked under the overhang and explored the shelter,stopping in her tracks as she found her eyes drawn to some color on the backwall.
Curious, she went to the very back of the cleft and droppedto her knees, peering at the splotches. She lifted her hand and put it next toone, which matched it in relief, as though someone had painted over theirfingers and left the outline on the rock.
It was ochre red, and reminded her of fresh blood.
The rock wasn’t forthcoming, so she turned and looked aroundcarefully, searching for signs of habitation. Aside from the paint, however,there wasn’t any. She saw no indication of a firepit, or old bones, or tools,which she’d expected to see if anyone used this as a shelter.
It was a little strange. Gabrielle circled the space again, but nothing jumped out ather and she finally shrugged and went back outside, heading back to where she’dseen the downed tree to see if some of the brush under it was dry enough toburn.
“Gabrielle, Gabrielle, Gabrielle.” Xena knelt beside thedowned whateveritwas and continued her butchering. She was elbow deep in gore,and for once was glad of the misty rain that was keeping her relatively cleanas she worked. “How do I love you?Let me count the damn ways.”
The animal was going to provide her with a lot of stuff theyneeded. Xena carefully skinned the carcass, peeling back the side and exposingit to the rain. Food, of course, but also the hide, and the bone from thehorns.
A rustle in the underbrush brought her from her knees to herfeet in an instant, but the sound stilled, and wasn’t repeated. Xena felt hersenses coming alive as she listened intently, understanding the lure of thedead beast to anything in the surrounding area that was hungry.
She had no intention of facing off against a big cat, orwhatever was out there with a hand long utility knife, either.
The light was almost gone now, and Xena could almost sensethe eyes in the forest behind her. She cut several lenths of internal sinew and stood, reluctantly leavingthe carcass. She knew there was a lot more to salvage, but in the dark – with abit of a knife and her guts only – she was at a dangerous disadvantage.
She walked over to the hide and tied it around the meat andhead, making a messy bundle that she heaved up onto her shoulders.
An owl hooted reassuringly. Xena started up the slopetowards where her partner’s whistle had come from, leaning forward a little tobalance her heavy load.
She was halfway up the slope before she heard the growlsbehind her. Turning, she peered down, but the shadows already obscured thecarcass and all she could see were small moving bodies around it. “Hm.” Shecontinued upward, reassured by the fact that the scavengers had waited for herto leave.
The rain started to slow down again, and by the time shereached the rock escarpment, it had finally, finally stopped. Xena could feelthe strain in her back and shoulders as she fought for footing on the stone,pebbles and chips biting into her bare feet with spiteful insistence.“Gabrielle!”
“Here.” The bard’s voice came suddenly out of the gloom.“What do.. oh. Ah.”
Xena could only imagine what she looked like to get thatkind of reaction. “Yeah. Where are we going? I’m about to drop this thing.”
“This way.” Gabrielle closed in and got her shoulder underpart of the bundle, guiding Xena with a hand on her arm. “Careful.”
“Ow.” Xena almost fell, as the rock poked her foot. “Remindme I’m barefoot the next time I tell you to find a cave, yeah?”
“Sorry, hon.” Gabrielle glanced behind her, hearing a softclatter. She saw a bunch of rocks skittering down slope, apparently dislodgedby her partner. “Just a little more.. it’s around that jag, there.” Shepointed, trying to ignore the stench of blood that now surrounded the both ofthem.
Xena spotted the overhang and grunted in approval, movingover and kneeling to dump the meat and skin off her back. It hit the groundwith a sodden crunch, and she stood back up, working the painful kinks out ofher back with a grimace. “That was fun.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle observed, looking at her with a wryexpression. “I think there’s a little stream over there.” She indicated a dipin the rock. “You look like.. um..“ It wasn’t as though she’d never seen Xena drenched in blood before. Afterall, they both had that experience more frequently than either of them wanted.
The bard had grown to hate that copper smell, as a matter offact.
But this was different.
Xena plucked at her partner’s shirt. “Look who’s talking.”
Gabrielle looked at her blood drenched shoulder. “Yeah.” Shesaid. “You want to see what I managed to scrape up in there.. and wait till yousee the pictures on the wall. Weird.”
“Pictures?” Xena rubbed some dried blood off her skin.
“Yeah, animals and hands and stars and stuff.” Gabriellesaid. “I think I even got some dried, dead pine needles that might, if we’rereally lucky, burn.”
“Great.” Xena walked over the crack in the rock, which didindeed hold a small puddle of water. She put her hand in and felt around thebottom, feeling a slight flow against her fingers. The crack carried the wateraway down the side of the escarpment, where it disappeared into the foliage atthe bottom. It wasn’t much, but it was wet, and enough for them to drink, andright now, she couldn’t be happier about it.
“Ugh.” Gabrielle was working on the hide. “What a mess.”
“We can smoke the extra.” Xena stripped off the shift andwadded it up, sticking it into the water and squeezing it with both hands. Shecould feel the wind getting colder, but at least it wasn’t raining and so shehoped the shivers now racking her body would be temporary.
“I’m right there with ya.” Gabrielle looked around, atwinkle entering her eyes as she studied her partner’s naked form.
“Eh.” Xena had taken her shift out and wrung it. “Yeah.” Shelooked past the escarpment. “Far wall’s in the distance.. I can just see
“Instead of the water?” Gabrielle picked up the animal’shead and lugged it over to flat rock nearby. She set the skull on it, then wentback to the pile of meat.
“Yeah.” Xenascrubbed her skin with the cold water. “Thanks for finding us someshelter.” With a sigh, she shookout the wet shift and turned, laying it over her shoulder.
However. Shewasn’t about to leave Gabrielle doing all the work. “Okay, why don’t we..”
“Why don’t you take your cute little bare butt into thatcave and get it warm before I spank it?” Gabrielle cut her off neatly. “Andwhile you’re at it, see if you can start a fire?”
Xena paused in mid step, one hand extended, her eyesblinking.
“Shoo.” Gabrielle motioned her away. “G’wan.”
Wrapping her wet shift along with her dignity around her,Xena retreated to the space under the overhang, finding an adequate areaalready filled with as much dead plant matter as Gabrielle could find.
Gabrielle took a piece of bark she’d found near the fallentree and went to the tiny spring, scrubbing it with a couple of handfuls ofwater. Then she went back over to the pile of meat and selected the steaks Xenahad cut out, laying them onto the bark neatly.
The clouds had parted, and the moon was reluctantly peekingout, giving her a little light to work by and she hummed softly under herbreath as she arranged the raw meat, one ear cocked for the sound of the firestarting.
She could hear the distinctive snicks as Xena struck sparks,in a particular rhythm the bard recognized immediately. Two strikes, a pause,two strikes. Longer pause, three strikes. Then the strikes faded and she heard Xena rustling around, and the soundof her blowing softly against the tinder.
How many times had she listened to that? How many times hadshe counted those strikes, knowing she had just until the fire caught beforeshe had to get up from resting after their long day and hold up her end of thetheir partnership?
Just like she was now. Gabrielle got the last of the meat onto the bark and stood, grunting alittle under the weight of it as she carried it into the shelter and set itdown on a bit of shelf rock to one side. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Xena was intent on the fire her hands were creating.A crackling was coming from the tinder, and a wisp of smoke, bringing the scentof smokey pine to the space. “Think this is working.” She’d unraveled herunderwraps and laid them out as a seat instead, leaving her body bare.
“Thank the gods.” The bard exhaled. “Y’know, I thought I wasused to camping, but boy, it’s tough doing it from scratch.”
“Uh huh.” Xena fed the baby fire some more tinder, pleasedwhen it responded with a small flame. The gentle illumination was enough forher to see Gabrielle by, and she gave the bard a smile. “Guess we can cut thatup into chunks and put it on sticks.”
“Is that wood going to be dry enough to really catch?” Thebard asked. “I tried to find the driest I could, but everything was just sosoaked.”
Xena examined the branches set to one side. “We’ll see.” Shestarted building a stack of larger pieces around the tinder, laying them in apattern with practiced hands. Thewarmth was beginning to creep outward, warming her legs.
It felt amazing. She’d forgotten what it felt like to bedenied fire’s comfort, since they always made one when they camped or traveled.Even in the heat of summer, a mug of tea or soup was welcome at the end of adusty day and there was something about the flames that was soothing aside fromthe practical.
Gabrielle moved over and sat down next to her, their bareknees touching. She picked up the knife and began stripping the bark off astick she’d taken from the tinder pile. “So.”
“You never did answer me about these strange animals.”Gabrielle sprinkled the bark strippings into the growing fire.
“I don’t have an answer.” Xena said.
“That one scared the Hades out of me. Who ever heard of adeer.. or whatever it was, attacking people?”
Xena thoughtfully placed more sticks as the fire started tospread warmth inside the enclosure. “I don’t think it was attacking us.” Shesaid. “I think it was running from something.”
“Again? Like that other thing?”
The warrior nodded.
“That’s creepy. Why didn’t it come after us, too?”
Xena had been wondering the same thing. The chill wasstarting to work it’s way out of her body, and the warmth was making her feeljust a little sleepy. She’d been shivering most of the day, and the relief fromit was more profound than she’d realized. “I don’t know.”
Gabrielle got up and went to the bark, crouching next to itso she could cut the first of the steaks up into the chunks Xena had suggested.Her skirt and top were now merely just damp instead of dripping, but she almostenvied her partner in her nakedness.
Damp cloth just wasn’t fun. Neither were wet boots. Neither was being hungry, but atleast she was doing something to correct that last problem.
Xena held the impromptu kabobs over the fire. “Put it hairdown, and throw a few rocks on the corners. With any luck it’ll rain all overit tonight.”
Gabrielle ducked outside, her figure barely visible in themoonlight. “Yeah, clouds are coming in again.” She called out.
The warrior nodded, turning the sticks a little as theydripped and hissed above the fire. The scent of the roasting meat was making her mouth water, and sheswallowed a few times as she watched the chunks cook.
The bard reentered their little nook, sitting down again andunlacing her wet boots. “I put that head thing over in the corner out there. Iwas afraid I’d catch a look at it in the middle of the night and it would scarethe lambswool off me.”
Xena chuckled. “I’ll keep a couple hunks of it and make youa new knife when we get home.” She promised. “As a keepsake.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle pulled off her boot, and the sock under it.“My feet feel like dried grapes.”
“Raisins.” Xena blithely supplied.
“Punk.” The bard wiggled her toes in the fire’s warmth. “Boythat feels good.” She leaned back on her hands and looked at her partner. “Iever tell you how gorgeous you are?”
One dark eyebrow arched up sharply.
“Well, you are.” Gabrielle said, her eyes taking in the warmglow of the fire on the warrior’s naked skin.
Xena held out a kabob. “Here.” She gave the bard a wrylook. “You gonna take that wetstuff off?”
Gabrielle looked down at herself, then up at her partner.“Hang on to that for a minute.” She unlaced her top and pulled it off over herhead, laying the half shirt onto a nearby jut of rock. Then she undid the tieson her belt and removed it, unwrapping her skirt and putting it neatly next to the top. “There.” She scooted a littlecloser to Xena, and took her kabob. “Better?”
“Almost.” The warrior poked her wraps.
Gabrielle handed the kabob back, unfastening her top wrapand removing it as her eyes dropped a little. She folded the undergarment andgot up on her knees, setting it down as Xena had hers before she removed herlower one.
The warmth felt wonderful on her skin, and she was glad toget rid of the clammy fabric. “That feels a lot better.” She reseated herself.
“Uh huh.” Xena handed her the stick back, then reached upand traced the line of blushingskin across her neck. “Something wrong?”
“Um.. no.” Gabrielle cleared her throat, unsure really ofwhy she was blushing – being naked in front of her soulmate was hardly anuncommon thing for her to be. “It’s just the fire.”
“No, really.” Gabrielle moved closer, so their shoulderswere touching. “It feels so good to be dry. And warm.” She bit into her dinner,chewing the gamey meat and wishing for some of her own spices. “Tastes likedeer.”
“It does.” Xena agreed. “Big, male deer.”
“Like mutton, instead of lamb.”
Gabrielle took another bite and chewed. “I don’t care. I’mstarving.” She admitted. “I’m just glad it’s cooked. I don’t’ think I couldhave taken this raw.”
Xena licked her lips. “Eh.” She grunted. “Make a decentstew.”
“If we had a pot.”
“Eh.” The warrior grunted again.
Gabrielle ate in silence for a while, finishing up herkabob. She licked her lips. “Want more?” She asked.
“Still hungry?” Blue eyes winked at her in the firelight.
A rakish grin appeared on Gabrielle’s face. “Yeah.”
Xena grinned back. “Then bring it on, shepherd. Bring iton.”
“So what do you think?” Gabrielle asked.
The warrior extended a long-fingered hand and traced theoutline of one of the animals. “Horse?”She wondered. “Or is this one of thosedeer things I killed?”
“Look at the hand.” Gabrielle held hers up to it, fittingher fingers to the outline.
“Mm.” Xena touched the drawing, where the thumb came upshorter on the hand than the bard’s. “Interesting.”
Gabrielle took her hand back down. “You think it was..hunter signs or something? Maybe a mark to show what animals were around?”
“Or maybe it tells a story.” The bard mused. “But who putthem here?”
Xena put a hand on her shoulder, and stood, stretching herbody out and walking to the edge of the overhang. Though it had rained throughthe night, the clouds had now grudgingly cleared and a bit of sunlight waspeeking through the trees, edging over the cliffs to splash over the escarpment.
She was a bit stiff from sleeping on the hard rock floor,and so she lifted both arms over her head and twisted her body in onedirection, then the other to loosen up a mildly protesting back. “Ah.” She felther spine pop into place. “Let’s see how the skin’s doing.”
The animal skin, scraped patiently by her the night beforeand rubbed with ashes, seemed to be doing reasonably well.
Gabrielle came out and joined her. ‘What’s the plan?” Sheasked.
“Plan is, I use some of this to make some half-assed boots.”Xena replied. “I’ve got a bruise the size of a hen’s egg on my instep.”
“Ow. Can you do that?” The bard asked, curiously. “I mean,do you have all the stuff you need?”
Xena set a handful of white objects on the rock. “Needles.”She said, indicating the fish bones. “Gut.” She twisted a bit of the sinew,dried and gnarly looking as it lay on the stone. “And hide.” She pointed at theskin.
“Hm.” Gabrielle appeared impressed. “Well, we can make a bagto carry some stuff with us, too.” She said. “Especially that meat smoking inthere.” She watched her partnernod. “I’m going to see if I can find some herbs, and some more berries, ifyou’re going to work on that, okay?”
“Good.” Xena nodded. “Be careful.”
“Yes, grandma.” Gabrielle gave her a quick hug before shestarted down towards the forest, her staff in one hand.
Things were definitely looking up. If Xena finished herboots, they could get on their way by mid-day at the latest. They hadprovisions, they’d had a decent night’s sleep, and it had stopped raining.Gabrielle took a deep breath of pine scented air, and exhaled in satisfaction.
Her mind returned to the pictures on the rock as she enteredthe forest rim, her eyes searching the underbrush with automaticexpertise. It had taken her a longtime to be comfortable in the wild – her first few months alone with Xena hadbeen a non-stop horror show of scary plant after scary animal after scarynatural danger like quicksand.
Now she walked through the trees with confidence, shyingaside from poison oak and ducking past spiderwebs with impunity.
There was nothing there, but she could hear a soft breathingin the bushes just beyond the tree next to her. Fixing her eyes on the bushes,she brought her staff up to a defensive position, curling the fingers of herright hand around the upper part of it, and shifting her thumb on the lower,ready to pop the bottom of the weapon out if something rushed her.
The soft breathing continued.
“If you don’t hurt me, that is.” Gabrielle amended.
There was motion, sudden and quicksilver. Gabrielle got theimpression of something dark and wiry, as the leaves rattled violently and thenwent still as whatever it was retreated. “Hey.. wait… wh..” She went over towhere the creature had been hiding, alarmed by it’s speed.
Beneath the bushes, the ground was stirred, but she couldn’tmake out any real track. She shaded her eyes and looked in the direction it hadgone, but everything was still, and the rich, green underbrush seemed unbroken.“Huh.”
Peace returned to the forest. Gabrielle retreated back toher basket, picking it up as she continued to look around her carefully. “Well.”She exhaled. “That was weirder than naked sheep in winter.”
She decided to move away from where the creature had comefrom, but she picked up a bit of rock and scraped a mark in the tree to markthe spot for later. Xena would, she was sure, want to see the spot the animalhad been in, because what seemed to Gabrielle a muddled stir of leaves probablywould give her partner far more clues.
It hadn’t seemed dangerous, for which she was grateful. Sofar the things they’d run into hadn’t been – strange and weird, yes, butunthreatening.
Most of the time, the wild was like that.
And, too, there was just something about Xena that mostpotentially dangerous creatures seemed to recognize and avoid. Was it theweapons? Gabrielle found a blackberry bush and raided it with a piraticalchuckle. Was it the leather?
She wasn’t sure. But she remembered very clearly the timethey’d walked into a clearing with two big bears in it, huge animals thattowered over both of them, and all Xena had to do was let out a yell, and theyboth ran like deer from her.
Weird. Useful, but weird. Gabrielle found some lemon grass,and collected it with a sense of pleasure, adding several sprays of sage shefound hiding nearby. “Boy, if I only had a darn pot.” Her lips edged into a wryexpression. “Bet Xena doesn’t rag me about taking half our cabin with us thenext time we travel.”
The thought made her chuckle, and she ducked under somehanging vines, pausing as she looked up them to see if she could spot somegourds. The trees went straight up here, angling just a bit towards the slopeand another rocky escarpment rising almost up over her.
Her eyes met another pair looking down at her from therocks, framed in a round face, with a big nose and flat ears. Gabrielle drew ina breath to call out, then she blinked, as the face disaapeared over the edgeof the escarpment.
Pebbles rattled down, to tumble at her feet.
“XEna!” Gabrielle found herself yelling in utter reflex.“Xena!!!”
There was something about the whole idea of being so selfsufficient that was pleasing to her. Xena stitched together two layers of hide with her fishbone needle andgut as she enjoyed the sunshine outside the shelter.
Was it easier to have everything they needed? Sure.
It would probably take them a few days to get out of theravine, she figured. Now that it had stopped raining, the possibilities ofspending a few days alone with Gabrielle, free of any responsibilities saveeach other were beginning to occur to her – and while she wasn’t glad of theflood and knew there would be a huge mess for them to clean up back home, shewasn’t about to look a gift horse in the ass either.
There. She finished the second sole, and set it down on theground so she could fit her foot onto it. A square of hide extended on all foursides, and she gathered it up around her calf, studying the effect andfunction.
She could just tie it all up with strips of gut, of course,but..
Gabrielle’s holler made her jerk in response, her headwhipping around to locate the sound.
Her partner’s voice sounded alarmed, but not scared, andXena quickly decided it was worth a moment to tie the hide around her leg andspare herself more bruises. “Gabrielle!” She yelled back, projecting her voiceas her hands worked quickly.
Yeah, I hear ya. Xena stood up and tested her new footware,not really pleased with the fit, but resolving to fix it later. She turned andran towards the sound of her partner’s voice, racing up the edge of theescarpment to pause the edge and stare past it.
She could see another, smaller escarpment very close by, andher ears told her Gabrielle was past it. “Gabrielle!”
Yep. Xena headed downward, rambling across the rocks untilshe was near the bottom, and then leaping off the escarpment to fly through theair, somersaulting lazily before she landed at the base of two tall trees. Sheheaded around the side of the smaller escarpment, spotting Gabrielleimmediately as a flash of color between the trees.
As she ran, she craned her head and looked around, trying tospot whatever had alarmed her partner. “What’s up?” She asked, as she came evenwith the bard, who was standing at the base of the smaller rock formation andstaring up. “Gab?”
“Up there.” The bard pointed. “Something was up there,watching me.”
Xena stared upward. “What was it?” She put a hand on thebard’s back.
“I don’t know.” Gabrielle admitted, glancing down. “Oh,those are cute.” She observed. “It was some kind of.. I think it was a person.”
“A person.” The warrior repeated. “Okay… so why did you yell out like that?”
Gabrielle exhaled. “It was strange.” She said. “It had a… it had a face, with eyes, and anose and all that, but it was.. Xena, it was just weird.”
The warrior pursed her lips. “All right.” She said. “Let’sgo see if whatever it was left any tracks.” She started up the escarpment, with Gabrielle at her heels.“Careful, that’s loose.”
Gabrielle minded her steps, using her staff to keep herbalance and carrying her basket in her other hand. “Sorry I yelled like abanshee.” She apologized. “I was just so startled.”
Xena smiled, unseen. “S’allright.” She said. “You’ve alwaysdone that.”
“Yeah.” The warrior climbed up over a half fallen tree, it’sroots tenaciously clinging to the rock. “Two things I always loved about youwere the way your reaction to damn near anything was to shout out my name andthe fact you never screamed.”
Gabrielle pondered that revelation. “I never screamed?” Sheasked. “Xena, that’s not true.”
“You yell.” The warrior extended a hand back. “Grab on..steep up here.” She waited for Gabrielle to juggle her things and latch on, andshe pulled her up next to her before stepping over a craggy outcropping. “Younever scream.”
Gabrielle resumed her staff and they got to the top of theescarpment, where she’d seen the figure. “I yell.” She mused, looking aroundthe ground for some sign of disturbance. “That’s where he was, Xena.” Shetapped the edge of the rock with her staff.
“Whatever.” But she’d gotten the distinct feeling it wasmale. “I really never scream?”
Xena knelt on the ground and touched the rock, opening hernostrils to suck in any hint of a clue as to what her partner had seen.“Nope.” She got up and went to theopposite slope, where she could now see a rough path leading downward. “Ah.”
“What?” Gabrielle joined her.
Xena indicated the path, which had been worn by many feet.She also touched the rock, which was smooth from contact, and smudged withdirt. She bent close, and sniffed it, detecting mud, and the coppery scent of bloodalong with an acrid, musky scent that rang a familiar bell.
“Should we follow it?” Gabrielle peered downward. “Doesn’tlook like anything or anyone is here now.”
Xena drummed her fingers on the rock. “Let’s get our gear.”She said. “Before someone or something else does.” She started back the way they’d come. “And keep your eyespeeled for round, river rocks.”
“River rocks?” Gabrielle scrambled after her partner. “Forwhat?”
“We might need them to throw.” Xena said, picking up herpace.
Gabrielle merely grunted in response, her eyes on the forestclosing over them.
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