Characters that have appeared on the TV show Xena, Warrior Princess are © copyright 1995 by Renassance Pictures/MCA/Universal/USA Studios. "Truth or Dare" and Widgie&Jorgos are © copyright 1997 by WordWarior. Please send all comments to email@example.com.
Note: This story was written in January of 1997 - just before the 2nd season episode "Xena Scrolls" came out (to give you an idea of context). In fact, parts of it were written at the same time I was attending the very first Xena convention in Burbank. Please keep this in mind when you read, because way back then there was a lot we didn't know about Xena and Gabrielle. So if the events and characterizations seem a bit dated, you'll know why.
Truth Or Dare
"In here!" shouted Xena over the roaring of the wind. Quickly, she led Argo into the mouth of the cave, hurrying Gabrielle who had fallen behind. The wind tore at Xena's flesh, the rain stung as it slashed in slanted fury. Gabrielle's face was white with fear and the cold. She was shivering uncontrollably and Xena gave her a worried glance before coaxing Argo into the black maw of the cavern. Lightning streaked the sky, the thunder instantaneous. She heard a tree crack and watched over her shoulder as flames erupted from the forest they'd left only seconds ago.
"Wh... what's g... g... going to ha... happen to uh... us?" asked Gabrielle, her teeth chattering so violently Xena could barely make out the words.
"Nothing. We're safe here."
Suddenly, the interior of the cave was illuminated by a bright flash. The thunder echoed and rumbled through the cavern with such volume both women held their hands to their ears, grimacing. Argo reared, pawing the air in fear. The rumbling changed tenor slightly and Xena looked around, her eyes wide, suspecting what was about to happen.
She stared at the entrance to the cave as wave after wave of boulders spilled in front of it. Another flash and a tree crashed into the rockfall, jutting partway into the cave, missing her by inches. But the cascade of rocks and debris didn't stop. Endless amounts seemed to fall, each building on the other until the entrance was completely obscured. When the last echoes finally died, they were in absolute darkness. Even the sound of the storm was muted and distant. Their safe haven had, in the flash of a single bolt of lightning, possibly become their tomb.
Part One: The Cave
"Gabrielle? Are you all right?" asked Xena quietly, her words sounding hollow and small.
"Y...yes... I'm f... fine..." came a whispered answer.
"Don't worry. We're in no danger. I'm sure there are other ways out of here. We just need to make some torches and then we can start following all the tunnels until we find daylight." Xena thought of Argo, knowing the horse wouldn't be able to maneuver through narrow passages. The idea of leaving her trusty mare behind to starve -- trapped and alone in a cave -- was too horrible to contemplate, so she turned her attention back to her friend.
"S...sure. Th... that's what we'll do," said Gabrielle, unable to control the shivering.
"Need to make a fire," mumbled Xena. "Have to get you warmed up." Carefully, she felt her way toward the entrance until her hand encountered a jutting branch from the tree that had fallen amidst the rubble. The sibilance of steel being drawn from a scabbard sounded loudly in the deathly quiet of the cave, then with a whoosh, she slashed a couple of smaller branches free. "Speak to me, Gabrielle, so I can find you."
"Oh... I... I'm o..o...over... here..."
"Good. Keep talking."
"H...how do y...you know th...there'll be o...other w...ways out?"
"Because I want there to be other ways out. And what I want I get. Always have," said Xena with a smile. She waited for an answering chuckle from Gabrielle but there was only silence. Xena laid the branches down and removed her fire tools from the pouch at her waist. "C'mon, Gabrielle. Say something." Silence. "Gabrielle? C'mon! Here's your chance -- I'm asking you to talk."
Striking flint against iron, a spark flew onto the small pile of tinder she had retrieved from her pouch. It didn't catch, so Xena readied for another strike, then stopped a moment to consider. They needed the fire. They needed light and warmth. The temperature in the cave was uncomfortably cold and Gabrielle showed signs of slipping into hypothermia. But the utter blackness told Xena she needed to be careful. If there was no natural chimney in the cave, the smoke from the fire -- especially fire using wet wood -- could overwhelm and kill them. She decided to make a small torch instead. It wouldn't give off much smoke and at least she could explore the cave and get Gabrielle settled.
Xena gave a low whistle and heard Argo's answering snort. Moments later the horse's muzzle nudged her shoulder. "Good girl," she whispered, then felt along the mare's neck to the saddlebags. Xena withdrew a small bolt of cloth. It was the one Gabrielle had purchased only that morning, the one she had planned to make a new top with, having finally tired of the ugly green 'carpet' she had been wearing. Xena sighed as she ripped off a length, hating to see that project delayed. She attached the cloth to one of the wet branches then lit the head of the torch.
Taking a moment to adjust her eyes, she held the torch high, looking around her. Gabrielle was sitting on a small rock, curled into herself as she shivered uncontrollably. Quickly, Xena grabbed all the blankets they owned and wrapped her friend in the lot of them. Gabrielle smiled up at her, unable to speak, but thanking her with her eyes.
"Better?" asked Xena. Gabrielle nodded.
Xena was grateful for the small warmth of the torch's flame as she started on a careful circuit of the cavern. She would have liked to have kept one of the blankets for herself, but instead would wait until Gabrielle was out of danger.
With meticulous attention, she studied every crack, crevice and inch of the cavern. To her dismay, there was nothing but solid rock. The entrance was the only way in or out. Carefully, she examined the rockfall that blocked the opening. The tree had wedged several large boulders into immovable positions. She doubted even Hercules could clear this mess.
"D... did you find a tunnel?" asked Gabrielle.
"How are you feeling?"
"Good. Stay wrapped up. I'll be there in a minute."
"Okay," Gabrielle said, watching Xena as she scrutinized the rocks at the entrance. "Um... you didn't answer my question. Why are you looking there? Isn't there a tunnel?"
"No. No tunnels. This is our only way out," said Xena, her voice speaking none of her fears.
"Oh. That's bad, huh?"
"Yeah. That's bad."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "But... it's gonna be okay, right? I mean, you've probably already figured out a way to get us out of here, right?"
Xena turned away from the wall, a headache settling in just above her eyes. She squatted next to Gabrielle who had begun to regain the color in her cheeks. She touched one of the blankets and with a lifted brow, Xena silently asked if she could take it. Gabrielle nodded.
The warrior wrapped herself in the blanket. The torch was already beginning to sputter and wouldn't last long. Xena walked over to the pile of wet branches she had made earlier and placed the torch under them on the tinder, hoping it would burn long enough to dry the wood so it could catch. She planned to watch the fire carefully, knowing that if a natural chimney existed, the smoke would find it easier than she could.
"Come over by the fire," Xena said, helping Gabrielle stand then lending her strength as they walked. She knew she was doing it more for herself than for her friend. Xena needed to feel strong and useful, because contrary to Gabrielle's prediction, she had no idea how they would escape their current trap.
"Is that the cloth I just bought?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yes. I needed something to make the torch."
"Wish you'd said something. I have an old shift that I wouldn't have minded saying good-bye to."
"Sorry. It was the first thing at hand."
"I just wish you would've asked, is all. Not like you ever do, of course. I don't know why it should surprise me," grumbled Gabrielle.
Xena stared at her, trying to figure out if she was really bothered or if it was simply the tension of their predicament. "I think a bolt of cloth is the least of our problems."
Gabrielle didn't answer. She picked up what remained of the cloth and ran it through her fingers. It was sturdy homespun, but had been dyed a delicate shade of peach that had immediately caught her eye. She had never seen cloth exactly that color before and had been overjoyed at the prospect of something new to wear. Now there wasn't enough to make anything but more torches. She knew Xena was waiting for her to say something conciliatory, as Gabrielle always did. But she just didn't feel like giving in. A bolt of cloth may not seem like much to Xena, but it had meant something to Gabrielle. Yet the warrior had torn it without a thought, without even thinking of asking if there was an alternative.
The torch under the branches was burning low but a couple of the sticks of wood had begun to sizzle away their moisture. Smoke was floating upward toward the cavern ceiling and gathering at the rock-filled entrance.
A muffled crash sounded outside and the cave shook as if by an impact. Xena reflexively threw her arms around Gabrielle, protecting her as bits of rock and dust fell from the ceiling. The rubble at the entrance shifted as something very large hit the tree outside. Several stones tumbled into the cave itself and Xena feared they might be buried alive if the barrier didn't hold. Soon the deep echoing rumbles stopped and it was silent again.
"What was that?" whispered Gabrielle, still holding onto Xena.
"Another rock slide. Don't know if it helped us or hurt us, though."
"How long is this storm going to last? I'd never seen the skies that angry. It can't go on for long, right? It has to end sometime."
"Yeah, it'll end," said Xena, disentangling herself from the bard. She poked at the wood with the torch, and blew on the flame, brightening it. Gabrielle's fearful face jumped out in sharp relief. "We're safe in here," Xena lied, stealing a glance at the rockpile.
"Oh, sure, I'm not worried about that. We're safe in here. But it gives me the creeps, all that muffled thunder. It reminds me of the stories I used to hear about Zeus's temper. I was always afraid of storms when I was a kid. I used to think Zeus was mad at me and I'd think back on all the things I'd done that might anger the king of the gods. Every storm, I'd run to my room and worry about having pulled Lila's hair or stolen an extra dessert -- stuff like that. As if Zeus had nothing better to do than punish a little girl's mischief."
Xena smiled indulgently. Idly, she wondered what it would've been like to grow up with Gabrielle. Would they have been friends? Probably not, she admitted to herself. She'd had little patience for girls like Gabrielle when she was a child. She had preferred the company of her brothers and their friends. Never one for playing house, she had always been found outside whooping and screaming in neighborhood war games, practicing with the small wooden sword that her absent father had made when she was a baby. She had loved that sword. When she had turned five years old she had fashioned a scabbard out of bits of discarded leather she had found at the tannery. She used to swagger down the streets of Amphipolis to the indulgent smiles of the adults, her sword at her side.
"I never had a chance," Xena muttered, realizing that her fate had been set from the beginning.
"A chance?" asked Gabrielle.
"No, c'mon. A chance at what?"
Xena sighed. "At being afraid of thunderstorms." Xena rose and walked over to the tree, cutting off another bundle of branches. They needed to conserve wood, but she might as well get this group drying. She chose a sturdy limb to use as a more permanent torch.
She unsaddled Argo and placed their packs against a wall. The horse nickered softly, telling her she was thirsty.
"Sorry, girl, you'll have to wait a bit. Let me figure out how to get out of here, first."
"Can we wait until the storm is over?" asked Gabrielle.
"Don't worry. We won't be leaving that soon."
"Oh, good. I think." Gabrielle stared as Xena rummaged through the packs, placing their water skins in a pile, starting another stack for food. "Is there something you're not telling me?" she asked, unnerved by the tense set of the warrior's shoulders.
"No," said Xena curtly. Then she stopped what she was doing and returned to sit next to her friend. "Look. That wall of rocks over there isn't going to be easy to move. And there's always the danger that loosening the wrong one will cause a worse slide and we'll be buried in here. You need to understand this and prepare yourself. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
"I see," said Gabrielle, fearing Xena's worried expression more than her words. "Thanks for being honest. I can take it, you know. Don't worry about panicking me, or something. And I'm pretty strong. I'll help all I can."
Xena smiled. "I know you will, Gabrielle. We both will. We'll get out of this."
"Because you want to?"
"Because I want to."
Gabrielle smiled, but couldn't help thinking of the tunnel Xena had wanted, yet didn't exist. Not everything happens because you will it to be so, she thought.
"Not too much. That's all the water we have," said Xena.
Gabrielle stopped mid-sip and looked at the skin. It wasn't full, but there were two others that were. Still, for an extended stay, it wasn't a great deal of water. And they had Argo to consider as well. What would the horse eat and drink?
"What are you going to do about Argo?" she asked.
"What about her?" countered Xena curtly, not wanting to think about Argo. Even if they could clear a passage for the two women to slip through, the problem of her horse still existed. How could Argo ever escape this trap?
"You know, food and drink and stuff."
"Oh. I have some oats. And she'll share our water."
"But there's not much of either. We're lucky we just bought new food stores today, aren't we?"
"Yeah," said Xena, her back to Gabrielle. She had just gone through and taken an inventory of their possessions, weighing each item for its possible uses. They had adequate food and the water might last if stretched. They had medicine and cloth for bandages and torches, thanks to the unwanted shift and the peach homespun. As long as they were able to devise some means of escape in the next couple of days, there wouldn't be any problems.
Xena walked over to the rock wall again, staring at it as if trying to unlock its puzzle. The tree was the wild card. How much weight was it supporting? And why did no light shine in from the pockets that had to be there? Were there so many rocks piled beyond the entrance that a year's worth of digging wouldn't dislodge them all?
"We're lucky to have the tree, huh?" piped in Gabrielle, standing at her shoulder.
"Well, we have wood for fires and torches. And maybe we can make braces out of some of the branches. You know, to shore up any digging we do."
Xena looked at her companion and smiled. "Yeah, maybe we can."
Gabrielle beamed under the implied praise and returned to the fire, feeding it another branch. The stew pot was simmering and filled the cavern with a rich, beefy aroma. There were no fresh vegetables to cut in, but she had added some dried herbs to the jerky soup and it looked like it would be a satisfying meal. Best she could do under the circumstances, she mused.
Xena had climbed several of the rocks and was searching the mosaic, looking for a starting point. She noted again the place where the smoke was disappearing, and decided to climb to it. Delicately, she took her time, testing each boulder before putting weight on it. Finally, she reached the top of the cavern and put her hand in the line of smoke. She felt a cold draft.
"Fire's going to be okay," she said.
"What? Why wouldn't it be?"
"There's a strong draw here. For the smoke. We don't have to worry about suffocating, as long as we keep the flame low."
Gabrielle glanced worriedly at the new branch she had just put in. Did that make the fire too big? she wondered. Should she have waited until most of the others had burned down more?
"Soup's ready," she said nervously, wanting Xena off the wall and back with her, telling her what to do. She watched as the warrior clung like a spider to the rocks. To Gabrielle, it seemed very dangerous to crawl around up there.
"In a minute," Xena said, tugging on a small rock. It came loose and she tossed it to the ground. She peered into the hole but just saw more rocks. She worked another free, then another, but still there was no end in sight. The smoke continued to curl lazily through the wall, finding a passage she couldn't track down.
"I'm gonna eat, okay?" asked Gabrielle.
"But you should too, y'know. You can do that after dinner. You haven't eaten all day."
Gabrielle had eaten a large falafel sandwich for lunch in the village. But Xena had skipped the meal, listening instead to the problems of one of the village men. It had turned out to be something that had no need of a warrior. Xena had advised him to take it to the city elders, giving her own opinion of how to solve things amicably. 'Something about an unruly neighbor,' she had muttered to Gabrielle's inquiry. After buying supplies, they had left, trying to beat the brewing storm.
Things like that happened a lot, Gabrielle mused. Xena's reputation as a hero for everyday people had been spreading. And some people tried to take advantage of her change of heart, asking her to solve problems with the violence of her sword instead of using negotiation and compromise. Strangely enough, Xena had more patience with these fools than Gabrielle. It bothered the bard to see people try to use the warrior for their own selfish means. But Xena took it all in stride with a shrug of her broad shoulders.
"Why don't you get angry with them?" Gabrielle asked as Xena began the climb back down.
"With the rocks?" Xena asked quizzically, stopping her descent. She had found no further clues to the draft and the soup really did smell quite good.
"No," Gabrielle said, laughing. "With the villagers who try to take advantage of you. Why don't they make you more upset? They sure get me mad, and you have a much quicker temper than I have."
Xena resumed her downward climb. "Most of them genuinely think their problems are too big to solve," she said, jumping the last few feet.
"But they're usually so silly!"
"Not to them." Xena sat next to Gabrielle, helping herself to a cup of soup. "Don't make any more soups. They use too much water."
"Well, I'd started this before you mentioned the water. I wasn't thinking. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Now you know."
"But I should have thought of it. I mean, it's not like there's a stream in this stupid little cave. Now I've wasted all this water and we could die because of my foolishness."
"First of all, it's not wasted. We're getting the moisture through the soup. Second, we're not going to die because of a small mistake like that." Xena looked at Gabrielle who refused to meet her eyes. Xena sighed, put down her meal and turned to face her friend. "Look at me."
Gabrielle refused to comply, but said softly, "Why?"
"Because I want to talk to you."
"I can hear you. You're sitting right next to me."
Gabrielle looked up reluctantly. Xena had a small smile on her face, her eyes tender. "Okay," the bard whispered.
"Good. Now listen to me, because I'm only going to say this once. The biggest danger in here isn't water or rocks or food or anything like that. What is far worse -- what is deadly, in fact -- is loss of hope. If we give in to our fears, if we stop trying to find a way to escape, then we will surely die. No one is going to come crashing through that wall to rescue us. No hidden passageway is going to be mysteriously found. We need to accept what's happened and then figure out a way to help ourselves. And there is a way. We just need to find it. Okay?"
Gabrielle looked into the clear blue eyes of the woman who meant more to her than anyone ever had in her life. Not her mother, her father, her sister, Perdicus or any other living soul had ever given Gabrielle as much as Xena had; had ever shown her the respect, friendship and love that Xena had shown. Slowly she nodded her head. "Okay."
"Good. I'm not going to keep reminding you, because I don't want that burden. I don't want to have to hope for the both of us. I need your help."
"Anything, Xena. You know I'll do anything for you."
"For us. Just stay optimistic and tomorrow, we'll start clearing those rocks. We could both use a good night's sleep tonight, so clean up here and get in your blankets."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to finish my soup, take care of Argo then hopefully, have a dreamless night."
"Okay," said Gabrielle with a smile. She poured the last of the soup into Xena's cup then used some of the sand that covered the cave floor to wash the pot. Without water she wasn't very happy with the results. Not that it mattered, she realized. There would be no more soups, or cooking until they escaped the cave. From here on, it was jerky, fruit, cheese and the sticky sweets she had tied up at the bottom of her pack -- a surprise she would save for later, she decided. Xena had a bit of a sweet tooth, and Gabrielle delighted in tempting her with various savory treats she would find in the markets.
Gabrielle stretched, removed her clothes and slipped into her remaining shift. She glanced over at Xena, who was cooing softly to Argo. Feeling much more optimistic than she had since the rockslide, the bard pulled her blankets up and faced the fire, letting the mesmerizing flames lull her. Everything would be okay, she decided. No way were a bunch of rocks going to defeat the Warrior Princess.
Xena lay on her bedroll, unable to sleep. She kept puzzling through the jigsaw of the rocks, trying to see a way to clear enough of them to escape without tumbling the whole mess in on top of them. And what about Argo? How was she supposed to get out? The only way to save all three of them would be to clear the entire entrance. But some of the boulders were huge, weighing hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds. And what about the tree? How was she supposed to move an entire tree?
Xena restlessly turned to her side. She looked across the glowing coals at Gabrielle, sleeping soundly and undisturbed. I'm sorry I led you into this trap, she thought. It's my fault we're in here. I should have foreseen the possibility of a rock slide, but all I cared about was getting you out of the rain and warmed up. You are my weakness and my strength. Such a heavy role for one so young and innocent.
The warrior stared at her traveling companion and best friend. Yet again she wondered why Gabrielle stayed with her. I'm as hard, cold and unrelenting as this cave, Xena thought. I don't tell you what you want to know. I don't share my confidences. I walk a knife-edge every single day, fighting the darkness that's forever threatening to overwhelm me. And yet you stay by my side, putting up with my silences. You weather my tempers with calm. You accept me no matter what horrors hide in my past. How can that be? How can you not fear me? I struck you and you stayed with me. I've left you behind for days at a time yet I always found you waiting patiently for my return. My enemies have attacked me through you, threatening any manner of unspeakable acts, yet you remain steadfast in your trust that I will prevail. How can that be? What holds you here -- tied to a used-up warrior desperate to atone for a lifetime of sins? What force is great enough to keep you trudging by my side, your life so often in danger, your blood innocence threatened at every turn? All this and so much more, yet still, here you are, trusting me, helping me, and remaining true to your code. How can that be?
I'll never understand you, Gabrielle. I'll never understand why you chose me as your friend.
Xena closed her eyes and immediately saw the puzzle of the rocks. As she drifted to sleep, she continued to search for an answer.
Gabrielle opened her eyes but the change was imperceptible. The cave was in darkness again, a cold breath of air chilling her beneath her blankets. She looked at the fire and saw one glowing ember, barely alive on the ashes. Quickly, she wrapped her blanket around her and felt along the cave floor for more wood. She put it on the ember and blew on the coal to fan it. Slowly the branch began to smoke, then a lick of flame shot upwards.
Soon she had the fire burning to her satisfaction. She glanced over at Xena who was mumbling in her sleep. Gabrielle tried to distinguish what she was saying but couldn't make it out before the warrior faded into a deeper sleep.
Perhaps Xena would remember her dream in the morning and tell her what happened.
Fat chance, thought Gabrielle. Xena never talked about her dreams. Even when Gabrielle had shaken her awake to drown the warrior's screams, her friend had remained silent about what had happened in her night terrors. Not that there was anything Gabrielle could do to help. These were Xena's personal demons and far beyond the touch of the young bard.
Gabrielle watched the fire for a moment, then let her eyes drift back to Xena's now peaceful, sleeping face. In her warlord days, there was little Xena wouldn't do in her quest for power. She had used her body to seduce friends and enemies alike. She had used her cunning to betray and destroy. She had set herself up as a prize to be sought -- rewarding those who served her well; killing those who hadn't. Gabrielle found it difficult to reconcile this with the woman she now knew. Although today Xena was often cold and distant, she was always fair and never cruel. Yet she kept such a tight lock on herself. Sometimes Gabrielle would touch her in an offhanded, friendly way and Xena would freeze up, shaking off the contact. The warrior seemed to conserve all her passion for the battlefield.
Oh, there were exceptions, Gabrielle realized. Hercules, for instance. Gabrielle had seen the doe-eyed looks from Xena, so uncharacteristic in her stern friend. And she had seen the passion with which they had kissed good-bye. But Gabrielle suspected that Xena's relationship with Hercules was more that of gratitude for his having set her free from her life as a warlord, and hero-worship for someone who was as much a god as a man. Xena admired Hercules, his ideals and his goals. He had taken a chance on her, and Xena never forgot a kindness like that. And although Gabrielle firmly suspected that they had been lovers at some time in the past, Xena didn't act like a woman who mooned over a lost mate.
And then there was Marcus. Gabrielle wasn't quite sure what to think about Marcus. Had he been the love of Xena's life? The man destined to be her soulmate? Somehow, Gabrielle didn't think so, though she was unsure why. Yes, Xena had loved him. And his death had wounded her. This had become obvious when the shade of Marcus had sought the warrior's help against Atyminius in the Underworld. When Xena had emerged from the lake, alone again, she had cried in Gabrielle's arms -- something rare enough to shake the bard to her core. Had Marcus stolen the passion from Xena's life? Had he received the last of her love? Gabrielle sighed, wishing she knew the answers to questions like these.
And why must you know the answers? she asked herself. Tell the truth. Whisper it aloud in an empty field so no one can hear, but tell the truth. From deep inside came the answer: Because I am in love with Xena.
Gabrielle stared at Xena's sleeping face, willing herself to stop, but failing because this was the only time when it was possible to do so. Gabrielle harbored one very deep, very dark fear -- a fear she kept so quiet and hidden that if it ever saw light, she knew she would die on the spot. Her fear was that Xena would find out that Gabrielle was in love with her, and would send her on her way. So Gabrielle played a game with her emotions every single day. She hid the love in her eyes; tamped down the passion in her heart and kept her distance from the dark warrior.
She knew that letting this secret out would be the end of their friendship forever. Didn't Xena sometimes pull away when Gabrielle touched her? Didn't the warrior forever keep secrets from Gabrielle, rarely letting her in on plans, dreams, or feelings? Sure, Xena liked her company. And they were friends. Xena had said that often enough for even Gabrielle to believe her. 'My best friend' the warrior had said. Oh, the joy I'd felt the first day she had said that! thought Gabrielle. 'My best friend.' There was sweet music in the words. Knowing she could never have what was in her secret heart, this was almost enough to compensate.
And Xena does show her friendship in many ways, reasoned Gabrielle. She protects me, helps me, teaches me, smiles at my jokes -- she lets me know. Still... sometimes I wonder why she keeps me around. I know I occasionally get on her nerves. And it wasn't like she asked me to join her in the first place. I really forced myself on her. But by a miracle of the gods she let me stay and now I think she would miss me if I were gone. She sure seemed to miss me when I went home to Poteidaia or when I went to the Academy in Athens. And when I married Perdicus...
Gabrielle stared at the fire a moment, letting the flames calm her. Then her eyes inevitably strayed back to Xena's sleeping face. Perdicus, she thought. I think I hurt your feelings when I did that. I threw away our friendship, didn't I? Wish I could tell you why I did it. Wish I could explain that it hurt too much to be around you every day and every night and not be able to tell you how I felt. And then he came and he offered me safety, and love and we had always gotten along when we were kids and I wondered what it would be like not to be in danger anymore. I wondered what it would be like not to spend my life afraid that I'd slip up and be banished from your life forever.
And when he was killed because of me, well, I felt so guilty. I had used him. I wasn't in love with him, but I had married him anyway. To make you jealous? Maybe. To force you to talk to me -- to make you tell me not to go? Maybe. To pretend I was like all the other girls in the village and not feel so alone and different? Maybe. To keep myself from screaming out my love for you? Yeah. All of these and more. What choice did I have? What choice do I have? I can stand anything but you hating me, Xena.
And now we're here in this cave and there's no way out and I'm going to die without ever telling you. Aphrodite will probably insist I go to Tartarus for my sin.
In her mind, Gabrielle heard Xena's strong, low voice. 'The biggest danger in here isn't water or rocks or food or anything like that. What is far worse -- what is deadly, in fact -- is loss of hope.' How had she forgotten this lesson so soon? Gabrielle wondered.
She looked over at the puzzle of the rocks. I'm not letting you beat us, she thought. We'll win this fight, like Xena wins all her battles. We'll use our strength and our cunning and our sweat and we'll solve your puzzle. Don't think we won't. And when we do, we'll head off to another adventure, another challenge. Just see if we don't.
Gabrielle lay back down in her blankets, content that the fire would last until morning, and fell asleep with a smile on her face.
Xena was balanced precariously at the top of the rubble, meticulously loosening and throwing down rocks. Gabrielle's job was to carry them over to a pile at the back of the cavern. It was hard work and both women were sweating despite the chill of the cave. They had been working for hours without a break and Gabrielle kept opening her mouth to ask if they could rest when yet another rock would slam onto the cave floor.
Suddenly, there was a low rumble and the pile shifted, throwing Xena off her perch. She spun in the air, finding her feet just as all her hard work was erased in a matter of seconds. The hole she had so carefully excavated had disappeared, filled in completely with a new batch of rocks. Gabrielle stared despondently, wondering if this sort of thing was going to happen a lot.
Xena let off a few choice curses, left over from her days as a warlord, then brushed her hands on her leathers. "We'll break for lunch then get back to it."
"Why did that happen?" asked Gabrielle, staring inconsolably at the new cave-in.
"I must have loosened a keystone. I was afraid of that, but there's really no way around it. Without knowing how this thing looks from the outside, it's going to be difficult to judge."
Disheartened, Gabrielle took out a few strips of jerky and a wedge of cheese. The first water skin was empty, so she grabbed the second, cursing herself again for having made the soup. Argo needed so much water to wash down the oats that the bard feared they'd run out of supplies before ever solving the riddle of the rocks.
"Here. Start with this. I'm going to bake some bread," said Gabrielle.
"Mmmm," muttered Xena, staring at the wall. She took the food, then set it down without tasting it. Instead, she began clearing the rocks that had fallen into the cave when the wall had collapsed.
Gabrielle looked up from her bread mixture and frowned. "Can't that wait? You need to eat."
Grunting, Xena carried a large rock that the bard wouldn't have been able to lift, toward the corner. She tossed it down then returned for more. "In a bit. Just want to finish this first." Gabrielle rose to help, but Xena stopped her. "Make the bread."
With a shrug, Gabrielle went back to her mixing. Don't lose hope, she told herself. Don't lose hope. Don't lose hope...
"Was it okay? I'm missing some of the stuff I usually put in."
"It was fine," said Xena, finishing off the last of her meal.
"When we get out of here, I'm going to give you the best dinner you've ever had. That's a promise," said Gabrielle resolutely.
"Your meals are always good."
Gabrielle brightened, her smile lighting her face. "Really? Thank you for telling me that."
Xena shot her a quick glance, eyes narrowed. "Am I that bad? I thought I've said it many times before."
"Well... not exactly in words. But you always eat everything, so I sort of guessed I was doing okay."
Gabrielle watched as Xena studied her for a moment, her thoughts disguised. Nervously, she waited to see if she had said something wrong. To her surprise, the warrior smiled and sat down next to her, throwing an arm around her shoulders.
"Well, that's my fault, then. I do appreciate you. You're a big help, an excellent cook and the best friend I've ever had."
Gabrielle was silent, staring at the wonderful woman who could make her feel so much joy with so few words.
Xena looked back at the wall. "And you've worked very hard today. Those rocks are heavy and you never once complained."
Embarrassed by this sudden praise from the taciturn warrior, Gabrielle hid her blush of pleasure. "Well, getting out is both our problem, so..."
Xena squeezed her shoulder. "I know. But that doesn't make the rocks weigh less."
Gabrielle felt a lump in her throat and fought to swallow it, not wanting Xena to see her tears. Since becoming trapped in the cave, Gabrielle had found tears were always near the surface. The smallest thing would make her want to weep. "Thanks," she mumbled, unable to say more. I should be making some silly joke, she thought. That's what Xena expects -- for me to lighten the load, to make her smile. She glanced up and found Xena staring intently at her.
"What's this?" Xena asked softly, putting a finger to her cheek to trap a tear. "Feeling kinda bad, huh?"
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said, looking away. Xena gathered her in her arms and held her gently.
"I know how difficult this is," said Xena, her voice a low rumble. "And frustrating. All that work this morning and we're no closer to getting out. But you're being very brave, as you always are. You have such strength, Gabrielle." Xena paused a moment, staring deeply into Gabrielle's eyes. Then she smiled her crooked smile and, rubbing the bard's back affectionately, said, "And I'll make you a promise. We will get out of here. And when we do, we'll go off on another adventure so you can fill a scroll with it. No more petty village problems for us. We'll find something daring and epic so you can write about it."
Gabrielle tried to think of something wonderful to say, but found herself without a voice. Somehow, hearing Xena promise that they would escape made her feel so much better. Then Gabrielle heard the soft melody of an old folk tune. The warrior hummed quietly, continuing to hold the bard in a loose embrace, her eyes far away. Gabrielle snuggled just a bit closer and closed her eyes -- soothed, cared for, safe, hopeful.
That afternoon, there were two more cave-ins, but at the end of the day, a small hole was visible, shored up by several branches. And although it only led to more rocks, the sight of progress, even this minor, was enough to cheer the women up.
"Gods, but I could use a bath," said Xena, rubbing a tatter from the discarded shift over her arms. She would have liked to have wet it, but was afraid to use water for anything other than drinking. With the amount of dust and strain they had been through, both women had sipped more than they would have liked throughout the day. Argo nickered disconsolately in the corner, begging for more water. Xena turned away, knowing it couldn't be spared. The horse had already finished her ration.
"You and me both," said Gabrielle, sitting against the wall, trying to catch her breath. Every muscle in her body was screaming in pain from carting rocks all day. Her hands had several cuts and her big toe throbbed from a hit during one of the cave-ins. She looked over at the pile of rocks in the corner and marveled that she had managed to carry so much.
"How is our food holding out?" asked Xena.
"Okay. There's still salt pork, some apples, another wheel of cheese and the last of the bread I made earlier."
"Good. But no salt pork for either of us. It'll make us thirsty. And we should start to conserve on the rest of it."
Gabrielle frowned. She had been looking forward to a hearty meal. She was famished from all the work she had done and to her eye there was plenty of food.
Xena saw her expression and smiled. "Don't worry, you can still eat a good dinner. And afterwards, why don't you tell me some of your stories, to make the time go. If you're not too tired, that is."
A huge smile lit the bard's face. "Oh, I'm not too tired! And I won't eat too much. I'm just hungry. Soon as I get a nibble or two I'll be fine. Which stories did you want to hear? Anything in particular?"
"Whatever you want to tell."
"Okay. I'll think about it and choose some good ones."
Xena nodded then went over to the tree and hacked off some more wood. They were almost out of the smaller branches. Soon she'd need a way to cut into the larger limbs without disturbing the wall. Another puzzle.
They ate their small portions ravenously, and both women finished without feeling satisfied. Gabrielle jumped up, rummaged in her pack and brought back two of the sticky savories she had bought in the village.
"Where'd you get these?" Xena asked in surprise, her eyes lighting up.
"Just a little treat I bought to tempt you."
"It worked!" She took a bite and closed her eyes. "Oh, yum. It's the best I've ever tasted. This is a treat!"
Gabrielle beamed, loving the fact that her surprise had met with such enthusiasm. She looked at the one she had picked out for herself, then put it back. Better to save them for Xena, she thought.
"What story are you going to tell? Or is it going to be poetry to start?" asked Xena, licking her fingers with delight.
Gabrielle looked over at her friend and was struck again by her beauty and self-assurance. Here they were in a situation where it was almost impossible to find optimism and yet she had never once shown anything but. And despite the lack of baths and the hard work, Xena was as breath-taking as she always was, her face unmarked and lovely. Without realizing she was saying it, Gabrielle murmured:
"She stood alone
Her face in shadows
Cheekbones strong and high
Against the bone
Her lips were meadows
With eyes that tasted sky"
"That's beautiful," said Xena. "Who is it about?"
Startled that she had spoken aloud, Gabrielle searched her mind for a lie. "Um... it's about this princess. From a castle. A castle princess. Her father was a king, which is, of course, why she was a princess. Not like being a warrior princess. Forged in battle and all that. No, she was just an ordinary princess. Who was very beautiful and couldn't find love and when she did, he died and then she was sad so she killed herself and I'll tell you a different story, because that one is kinda icky."
"Okay," said Xena with a smile. "Though I don't remember ever hearing that one."
"It's very obscure."
Gabrielle immediately launched into the tale of Narcissus, telling the familiar story with verve, but inwardly screaming at herself for making such an error. If Xena had figured out the poem was about her, she would have surely seen what was in Gabrielle's heart. And then she would never hold her again, like she had earlier, humming softly and keeping the demons at bay. She would never smile at her in friendship and treat her as an equal.
"Very sad," said Xena when the tale was finished. "But so stupid. To love yourself so much you never look for it in another. Especially when it's so satisfying to be loved."
Gabrielle looked carefully at her friend. What was she saying? Who was she thinking about? "Xena..."
"Are you in love with Hercules?"
Xena's smile was wry. "What brought that on?"
"Well," said Gabrielle, flustered. "I was just wondering."
"I love him as a friend. And will always love what he did for me. But I'm not 'in' love with him."
"But were you ever 'in' love with him? Like when you and he were, y'know, closer?"
"Why the sudden interest?"
"C'mon! Girl talk! Can't we ever just talk about stuff? You never do, and sometimes it drives me crazy."
Xena sighed. "I drive you crazy, huh?" Her expression was hurt and Gabrielle jumped in immediately.
"No! You don't drive me crazy. Well, sometimes, but everyone does sometimes -- you changed the subject on me. Very clever. Now will you answer my question? Were you ever in love with Hercules?"
"When do I drive you crazy?"
"Oh for--" Gabrielle said, exasperated. "Look, I'll answer your question if you answer mine. We'll play 'Truth or Dare,' okay?"
"What's 'Truth or Dare?'"
"You never played that game as a kid?"
"The only games I know are war games."
"Well, you have to pick: truth or dare. And if it's truth someone gets to ask you a question -- any question -- and you have to answer truthfully. And if it's dare, well, you have to do whatever the person says."
"It can be, yes. You need to trust who you're playing with."
"I don't think I like that game."
"Fine, no one's forcing you. I just wanted to find out something about you. You can be very secretive, y'know?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle, silently. The bard squirmed under the frank stare until finally, Xena looked away. "I do trust you, Gabrielle. Okay, we'll play your game. But be nice."
"I'm always nice. Now, pick one: truth or dare?"
Gabrielle looked up in surprise. What kind of dare was she supposed to give her? All the silly things they used to dare as kids came back to her, but none of them was appropriate for Xena. "I dare you to tell the truth about Hercules," she said lamely.
"Isn't that cheating?"
"Kinda. But I can't think of a dare right now."
"Told you this was a stupid game."
"All right, all right. Give me a second and I'll come up with a dare."
"What sort of things did you dare when you were a kid?"
"Oh, the usual. We'd dare Timiphus to talk to Old Man Cratea, or make Kicker take down his pants, or dare Lila to kiss Darvon. Silly, stupid things."
"Why did you make 'Kicker' take down his pants? That seems cruel."
"Because he had bowlegs. And yes it was cruel, but we were kids."
"And Lila didn't want to kiss Darvon?"
"Actually, she was dying to. So she made me promise to dare her."
"Why didn't she just kiss him without playing a silly game?" asked Xena.
"Because Lila was Lila and she was too embarrassed to do it unless it was part of the game. This isn't helping, Xena. I can't concentrate on a dare if you keep talking like this."
"First you complain I don't talk enough, and now it's too much. Make up your mind, Gabrielle."
The bard laughed. "You're right. This is a silly game. Forget I mentioned it."
"No, now I'm intrigued. What do you want me to do? There's no old man to talk to, and I'm not wearing pants, nor do I have bowlegs. So I guess that leaves kissing. Am I playing this right? Or do you want to think up a different dare?"
A deep blush instantly covered Gabrielle's face. She tried to cover it but knew it must be obvious. "Um... okay, I dare you to kiss me."
Xena leaned over, put her hand behind Gabrielle's head and put her lips softly on her cheek. "That was easy. Now is it my turn?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle nodded silently, unsure if she was happy or upset that the kiss was so innocuous.
"Truth or dare?" Xena asked, getting into the spirit of the game.
"Why do I drive you crazy?"
"It's your game," Xena said logically.
"Right. My game. Okay. It's just that sometimes I wish you'd open up with me. We're together all the time and yet there are things about you that I... well, I don't know anything. Important things, like stuff in your past and if you're in love with someone and like... that..." she said, trailing off.
"Is that everything? Or is there more?"
"Well, sometimes you treat me so good. And I know you consider me your best friend. And that's wonderful. But other times I get the feeling you wish I'd just go away. Not so much anymore, but sometimes you look at me and it's as if you're angry with me. Like I've done something wrong, only I don't know what it is."
Xena dropped her eyes. "I'm sorry. I... there are a lot of things about me I don't want anyone to know. It's tough to face them sometimes. And you're so gentle and innocent and well, I don't like the idea of you knowing about them. Then I look at you and get angry that some of 'me' might rub off on you. Some of my darkness."
"I can handle it, you know. I'm a big girl. I know there's a lot of bad stuff in your past. But have you ever thought that it just makes me admire you more? That you were able to put it behind you and become who you are?"
Xena was silent for long minutes. Gabrielle put another branch on the fire and straightened the blankets, though they were already perfect.
"Your turn," said Xena, softly.
"Oh. Um, truth or dare?"
"Were you in love with Hercules? Did you sleep with him?"
"That's two questions."
"Yeah, I guess it is," said Gabrielle, trying to figure out which one she wanted answered.
"I'll take one on account. No, I wasn't in love with him. I think I might have imagined so at the time, but I was really in love with what he represented. The honor and purity of his life and deeds. And yes, I slept with him. My turn. Truth or dare?"
"Dare." So she had slept with Hercules.
"Back to that, are we?" asked Xena with a chuckle. Her flustered friend smiled sheepishly.
"That's okay. Another kissing thing, right? Then I guess I dare you to kiss me. On the lips," said Xena. Gabrielle's eyes opened wide. Xena lost her smile and said, "You don't have to, of course. We could stop the game if you're uncomfortable. I just couldn't think up a good dare, either, but I had to do something to best yours."
"Oh, no, I'll do it. It's part of the game, right? Sure, I'll play," said Gabrielle and leaned over. She kissed Xena softly on the lips, trying not to linger, though not quite succeeding.
"Very nice. Very sweet. How many women have you kissed, Gabrielle?" asked Xena, slyly.
"No fair. It's not your turn," she said, blushing.
"You're right. I'll take truth."
"How many women have you kissed, Xena?"
Instead of the reaction Gabrielle expected, Xena laughed and said, "You want the actual number? Or just--"
"Rough estimate will do," said Gabrielle, trying to sound sophisticated. She's kissed women? This puts a whole new light on things.
"Around a dozen. Though only six with passion. Okay, my turn--"
"Waitasecondhere!" broke in Gabrielle. "You've kissed six women with passion? Does that mean, y'know..."
"Well, that you've been with... that is, that you've, um, with women as well as men?"
"Does that thought frighten you?" Xena asked seriously.
"No! No, of course not. Why would it?"
"You look a little scared. That's why I asked."
"I'm not scared. Honest. Really, it's very interesting. I didn't know... This is exactly what I was talking about, though. Telling stuff and letting me know better who you are. What makes you tick."
"Does the possibility of my having been with women give you clues to my 'ticking?'"
"Sorta," said Gabrielle. She was unnerved by the conversation and Xena's openness. She didn't know what to think. There'd be no sleep tonight despite her utter exhaustion, because she had to replay this interesting conversation over and over in her mind, gathering clues, figuring out exactly what had happened and what had been said. Absently, she asked, "Whose turn is it?"
"Mine. Truth or dare?"
I want another dare! her heart screamed. But Gabrielle knew that she had to pick truth. She was too close to so many of Xena's secrets now, and didn't want to ruin the mood of honesty that was all around them. "Truth. Ask me anything."
"Okay," said Xena, staring at her speculatively. "I have a two-part question."
"You only get one."
"Ah, but you asked a double earlier and now I'm calling it even."
"Oh. You're right. Go ahead."
"Do you have any secrets you're keeping from me?"
Instantly, tears formed in Gabrielle's eyes. This was it. The moment she'd dreaded since she'd discovered the truth of her own heart. Xena's next question was obvious and she would be forced to tell her everything. In a whisper she replied, "Yes."
"You're crying. Let's stop this game right now. I don't want to see you hurting," said Xena. Immediately, she crawled into her blankets and turned her back.
Gabrielle didn't move at first. She was mortified that she had ruined the intimacy of the evening with her tears. Finally, she pulled up her blankets, hiding her face from the fire.
A whisper. "Gabrielle?"
"It's okay to keep some secrets. Isn't it?"
"Yes. Some things shouldn't be told, I guess."
"That's what I thought. Good-night."
Both women pretended to sleep.
When Gabrielle awoke, Xena was already hard at work. She had used the last of the branches to shore up the hole and the fire was dying. Gabrielle looked at the remains of the tree and wondered how they could slice off more wood without disturbing the wall. Especially with the tools they had. A sword wasn't an ax or a saw.
"What about the fire?"
Xena threw another large rock onto the cave floor with a grunt. "What about it?"
"What do we use for fuel?"
The warrior stared at the dying flames and sighed. She leapt off the wall and walked over to the tree. The smallest of the large remaining branches was the size of her waist. Xena grabbed her sword and swung at the base of the branch. The sword buried itself a few inches into the wood. Using a seesaw motion, she eased it out and swung again. After each cut, she would wait to see if the vibration had penetrated the wall. Minute after minute of painstaking blows and waiting passed as she gradually made progress. After what seemed hours to Gabrielle, Xena made the final cut and the branch fell off. The sweating warrior swayed, staring at the wall while she wiped her forehead with a swatch of cloth. She returned her sword to its scabbard and tossed it over by her chakram, easing the tension in her shoulder muscles now that her hands were free. Gabrielle stood next to Xena, looking at the large branch and wondering if she was supposed to carry it alone.
Suddenly, there was a low rumble. Both women stood stock still for a moment, frozen by the ominous sound. Then Xena grabbed Gabrielle and leapt toward the far wall. When they hit the ground, the warrior covered her friend with her body. Dust blew up in clouds as the giant rock wall shifted. The wooden bracers in the hole snapped and flew like projectiles through the cave while rocks filled the cavern, spilling like water into their living space. Argo whinnied wildly, bucking in fright.
When the last echo finally faded away, there was silence in the cave. The only movement was Argo's bobbing head. Both women lay still as death.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered, dust choking her. "You can get off me now, I'm fine."
There was no answer. Gabrielle squirmed and twisted until she was able to face her friend. Xena's eyes were closed. Blood ran out of her hair across her face in grimy, flowing streaks.
"Xena!" Gabrielle gasped. "Oh gods, Xena! Wake up!" No movement answered her plea.
Carefully, she eased herself out from under her friend, making sure not to move her too much. Quickly, she searched her for wounds, but other than a few cuts and bruises, the laceration on her head was the only serious damage. Then it occurred to the bard that she was able to see without the benefit of a fire. She looked up at the entrance and saw a small pathway to the outside at the top of a cascade of loose rocks and boulders. Bright sunlight shone in, bringing with it the cool autumn air.
"Look, Xena. The sun. We can get out." The warrior didn't move. Gabrielle searched for their remaining water skin but it was buried somewhere in the rubble, along with their packs. Argo neighed softly and she noticed a trickle of blood running down her flank. It didn't look serious, so she turned her attention back to Xena. Ripping off a piece of her skirt, she held the cloth to her friend's head, trying to staunch the flow of blood. Xena's usually bronzed face was colorless, the pallid skin standing out against the bloody frame of black hair. "Wake up, Xena, please! I don't know what to do!"
Gabrielle knew she needed to get Xena to a healer and fast. She looked up at the rock wall, her eyes fixed on the spot of sunlight. If she could widen that, she could scramble out and go for help. But that would mean leaving Xena alone in the cave, hurt and vulnerable. What if the rocks fell again? It was too risky. No, somehow, she had to clear a space big enough for both of them and carry the warrior with her.
The blood on Xena's head was beginning to clot under Gabrielle's constant pressure. When she was sure it had stopped bleeding, the bard slowly lifted Xena's head off her lap and tried to arrange her in a comfortable position in the small space left in the interior of the cave.
She needed to find water. The wound had to be cleaned and the blood replaced. Water was the only thing that could help. Gingerly, Gabrielle climbed onto the sloping rockfall to the place where their supplies had been kept. Trying not to move too many rocks, she studied the area, looking for a bit of leather poking up, or the edge of a pack -- anything. There was nothing. Everything had been completely buried.
Gabrielle glanced toward the opening at the top of the slide. Cautiously, she began climbing the sloping wall of rocks. Half-way up, some stones shifted loose. She glanced back to make sure they weren't headed for Xena. Luckily, the opening was at the opposite corner. Argo wasn't happy, but she was unhurt by the few pebbles that had rolled her way. The horse neighed and stamped her feet.
"What do you want me to do?" asked Gabrielle, impatiently. Then it struck her. How was Argo going to escape? This must have been the reason Xena always changed the subject whenever Gabrielle had brought up the horse. There was no way for the animal to get out of the cave. "I'm sorry, girl. I guess I was so worried about Xena and me that I didn't think... I'm sorry."
Reluctantly, Gabrielle turned back to her climb. When she reached the small opening, she was shocked by what she saw. Everything within her narrow view outside the cave was burned black, the trees only wounded stalks. A forest fire had ripped through the area, killing everything in its path.
"The cave-in saved our lives..." Gabrielle mumbled in awe. There was no way either of them would have been able to outrun a fire of that magnitude. And had the cave been open instead of protected by the rock wall, they would probably have suffocated from trapped smoke.
A sparkle amidst the charred landscape caught her eye. About 50 yards away was a small stream, catching the sunlight as it tripped along the rocks. Instantly, Gabrielle felt her thirst assault her. It felt like it had been a lifetime since she had tasted the cool, fresh water of a free-flowing stream.
Xena groaned softly in the corner. Gabrielle scrambled back down the rock slope, unable to hide her relief that the warrior was alive and gaining consciousness.
"Xena? Xena, can you hear me?" the bard asked as she picked her way over the last of the rockfall.
Xena opened her eyes, her pupils dilated and unfocused.
"Xena -- it's me, Gabrielle. You're safe. You got hit by a rock or something, but I'm going to get us out of here. Look! There's sunlight. There's a hole in the rock puzzle, Xena -- we're going to be okay."
"Gabrielle...?" Xena said weakly.
"Yeah, I'm right here," she replied, sitting next to her friend, stroking her face. "You're going to be fine. We're okay now. We can get out."
"We will, soon as I clear us space."
"No. You go..." Xena said, the tiniest thread of her strength returning on the emphasis.
"Oh right! Like I'm going to leave you behind."
"Not safe," Xena said, swallowing several times to lubricate her dry throat. "Too risky... to stay."
"I know, I know, that's why I'm going to get us out."
"No... Please. Go. Too risky..." The words faded as she passed out again.
"Xena? C'mon, Xena! Stay with me!" Gabrielle wanted to cry in frustration. It wasn't like Xena to give up. Ever. Was she hurt as bad as all that? Did she know something that Gabrielle didn't and was trying to spare her? "You listen to me! I know you can hear me, so you better pay attention. I am not going anywhere without you so you're just going to have to deal with it. And I'm not taking any guff from you, okay? I won't be leaving unless you're right there beside me. Now, I have some work to do. I need to open up that space so I can crawl out to the stream. So you're going to have to sit here and keep your self-sacrificing, warrior, over-protective hoo-doo to yourself, because I'm not listening."
Xena's still form gave Gabrielle the strength to add, "And do you want to know why? Because I'm in love with you. That's why. I'm so crazy in love with you I can barely breathe when you're near. Every word you say, every glance, every smile, every frown, every whisper, every gesture, every deed -- it all adds to the fire which is raging out of control inside me. That's right. Your best friend is head over heels in love with you and you're just going to have to deal with that. And that means dealing with the fact that I would rather die right here than live without you, so get ready to travel."
Gabrielle stood up with new determination and scaled the rockfall with a minimum of trouble. Immediately, she began pushing stones through the hole, widening the passage. When she was able to pull half her body through and look around outside, she was astonished at the size of the barrier that had entombed them. The wall must have been several yards thick -- way too large for them to have ever burrowed through before dying of thirst. It would've taken at least a week or two to forge a passage large enough for them to escape. But with the new slide, Gabrielle was finding her progress swift and satisfying. Within a few hours, she had a hole large enough for her to crawl through and emerge on the other side.
Gabrielle foraged among the charred stalks for something with which to weave a quick water holder. There was very little that hadn't been burned to charcoal, but eventually, she gathered enough material to make a crude water carrier. Thankfully, she had found some pitch to seal it so it would last until she had cared for Xena. She attached it to a loop on her skirt and scrambled back into the cave.
"Xena? Xena!" she called. "Answer if you can, Xena, please!"
"Gab... rielle?" came a faint reply.
"Oh, Xena, I'm so glad you're awake!" said the bard, settling next to her friend. "Here's some water. Drink as much as you can, there's plenty more."
"I've got a passage to the outside now. Soon, I'll have it wide enough for both of us."
"I told you I was strong. Strong like Cyclops!" Gabrielle said in a silly accent, hoping to cheer her up. Xena's lips twitched in a semblance of a smile, and Gabrielle beamed back at her. "Now drink, please."
Xena took several sips. "Thanks. Better..."
"Good. Now let me clean that gash on your head. This, um, could hurt, I think."
"Why didn't... you leave?"
"You still owe me seven dinars for the cloth you ripped up. I always collect on my debts."
Gabrielle poured some of the water on Xena's head. Old blood oozed onto the sandy floor and the bard grimaced. "I'll bet that hurts, huh?"
"Not... too bad. Can't really feel anything."
"Ah. Okay. So while I'm working here, let's play another round of truth or dare. I think it's my turn. Truth or dare?"
"Dare," said Xena, a small smile on her lips.
"Hmmm... Dare, you say? Well, I can think of lots of things to dare you right now. I dare you to feel better. I dare you to hang on until I can get you to a healer. I dare you to regain your strength. I dare you to stop telling me to leave. Yup, lots of dares. But I think I'll dare you to accept another kiss from your best friend." Gabrielle leaned down and kissed her softly on the lips, stroking her face tenderly. "There. You're a brave woman, to have allowed more of my kisses."
Xena focused on the bard for a moment and the shadow of her former self settled into her eyes. "That wasn't bravery. Truth or dare?"
"Truth," said Gabrielle, concentrating on cleaning the wound without breaking it open.
"Why won't you save yourself? And no jokes."
"Because you're my best friend. You're going to be fine. And I love you too much to let anything happen to you. Want another drink?"
"Yes." Xena took several more sips of water. "I love you too, best friend," she said.
"I know," said Gabrielle, trying not to read anything into the statement. "Truth or dare?"
"Truth..." Xena was tiring, her voice breathy.
"I think I'll save my question for later. You should rest. I've got this cleaned up as best I can for now. The medicine kit is buried or I'd be able to do more. So I guess I'll go work on clearing a bigger passage."
"Okay..." Xena said, closing her eyes.
Gabrielle bent down and kissed her on the forehead. "Sleep well," she said then returned to the rocky slope.
Gabrielle worked through the day and into the night clearing the passage. She was lucky there was a full moon so she was able to see, though the chill of the evening seemed to seep into her bones. Unfortunately, their blankets had been lost and Xena shivered with both cold and shock at the back of the cave. Gabrielle built a small wall of rocks around her to cut the wind that whipped through the opening, but it didn't improve things much. Finally, she tore down the wall and coaxed Argo to lie next to her mistress, the mare providing the warmth she couldn't.
When Gabrielle realized she was too exhausted to be careful, she wearily climbed down the rockfall. Argo had left Xena's side a few minutes earlier so Gabrielle took her place. She lay next to the warrior, gathered her in her arms and tried to give her whatever warmth her body had left.
The two women shivered together for several minutes until finally their closeness warmed them.
"Gabrielle?" Xena whispered.
"What is it, Xena? Do you need something? More water? I'll go get--" Gabrielle said, beginning to rise.
Gabrielle lay back down, delighted not to have to go to the stream again, enjoying the warmth and closeness of lying with Xena in her arms. "What did you need?" she asked.
"I took truth. Ask me my question."
Gabrielle smiled. She was utterly exhausted and knew she could be asleep in seconds, but all thoughts of herself left her instantly, knowing that Xena needed her; needed to talk.
"The truth, then. How do you feel? Really. No fair being brave."
"Terrible. My head is pounding, I can barely see, and this is the first time I've stopped shivering for hours. There's no way I'll be able to walk out of here. I think you should go for help."
"Can't. The rockpile is too sensitive. The slightest thing could tumble it all again and you'd be buried. Sorry, but it's me or nothing. Truth or dare me."
"Gabrielle -- you can't--"
"Don't tell me what I can or cannot do, Warrior Princess. You're in no shape to be giving orders. Besides, I'm an Amazon Princess and that means I outrank you. Now c'mon, it's your turn to ask."
Xena smiled and squirmed a bit closer. "Truth or dare?"
"How did you get this strong?" asked Xena, seriously. "How did the wide-eyed, talky little Gabrielle who joined me on my quest become this woman of power?"
Gabrielle wished the moonlight was bright enough to illuminate Xena's face. She wanted to see her; to see her expression, the tilt of her mouth, the arch of an eyebrow -- anything to gather clues behind this question. Does she mean it? wondered Gabrielle. Does she really see me that way? I'm so frightened I can barely think and so terrified I'll fail, I'm nearly paralyzed. "How? From being with you. You have all the strength and power in the world, Xena. Some of it had to rub off on me. I just kept thinking 'what would Xena do?' and went from there. But it's not real. I don't have any strength. I'm just so afraid for you that I'll do whatever I have to, to make you well."
"That wasn't the truth, Gabrielle."
"No, the power is real. I can feel it."
Gabrielle was silent, digesting these words. Was it true? Had she changed from who she used to be? Her arms tightened. Now the important question, she said to herself. Do I have enough strength to tell her how I feel?
"I think we both need a dare," whispered Xena. Gabrielle felt Xena shift in her arms then warm lips were pressed on hers. But instead of ending almost as soon as it had begun, like all the others, this kiss deepened. Gabrielle felt Xena's tongue touch her lips, parting them. It caressed her teeth and when the bard opened herself to its exploration, she became lost in sensations of tenderness and passion. Endless moments passed, as the two best friends, united through fear and injury, worry and love, both gave permission for a change in their relationship. There were no more silences, though no words were spoken. There were no more secrets, though no game was played to divulge them. They simply accepted the reality of their love and expressed it in a single kiss.
And when at last it ended, Xena's head went back to its cradle in Gabrielle's arms and she slept. Gabrielle took a bit longer to find the haven of Morpheus. But eventually, the taxing day of physical labor claimed her muscles and her mind.
I need Argo, Gabrielle realized. She had opened enough of a passage for her to drag Xena and herself through, but once outside the cave, there was no way she could carry the warrior all the way back to the village. She needed Argo for that.
She had spent the morning working on the rockpile, yet her mind never stopped thinking of ways to get the horse out of the cave. Only one plan kept occurring to her. A plan so ridiculous and impossible that she had already dismissed it several times. But no alternative was forthcoming.
Instantly, she had eliminated the idea that she could clear a path to the cave floor so that Argo could walk out on her own. That would take weeks of labor. And they would all probably be killed in the process. So somehow, she had to get the horse through the passage at the top of the cave and that's where she was stumped. It would be impossible for the animal to navigate the rocks. And the passage would have to be widened much more to fit her height.
No, the only plan that had even a possibility of working was the crazy, silly, stupid idea that she kept pushing out of her mind. Well, she thought, time to face it. It's all I've got.
Gabrielle was so exhausted she could barely move. She had worked all day widening the hole so that it would be large enough not only to carry Xena through, but to execute her stupid Argo plan. She should have rested hours ago, she knew. She was stumbling and clumsy and ready to pass out. But she didn't care. The only thing that mattered was getting out of the cave for good.
Standing back, she looked at the hole she had cleared. It would have to do. She walked through it, able to do so almost without stooping, and looked at the charred forest. She shivered in the brisk autumn wind that whipped through the hole, watching as daylight slipped away. Time to get Xena.
Her legs barely obeyed her commands as she stumbled down the rocky slide toward her friend. She had made the trip so many times, she no longer heeded which stones were loose, and which could bear her weight. She knew them all by heart.
Or so she thought. She took a misstep and her foot went out from under her. She was barely able to keep herself from tumbling down and realized that she needed to remember to respect the danger at all times. Shaking her head, she looked down and saw that she had dislodged several stones in her carelessness. They tumbled down, picking up others and as Gabrielle's eyes grew wide in horror, headed straight for Xena.
Xena looked over at the rock wall when she heard the patter of the stones and saw the onrushing danger. Unable to move out of the way, she twisted her body, trying to cover herself as she was pelted by the stones at the front of the fall. The majority of the slide missed her, but several found their mark. One hit her on the shoulder and she yelped in pain, her arm coming away from its protective grip over her wound. At that moment a large, jagged rock smashed into her unprotected head.
Gabrielle was shaking with fear for her friend as she tried to descend amidst the tumbling stones. Thankfully, the wall itself still held firm, enabling her to pick her way down. Small stones at the tail end of the avalanche continued to strike Xena, but the wounded woman gave no indication that she even felt them. She lay unmoving at the back of the cavern, as still as a corpse.
"Xena?" cried Gabrielle, finally reaching the cave floor. "Xena! Say something!" There was no answer.
Gabrielle saw where the stone had struck her shoulder and touched it gently, stroking her arm to try and awaken her friend. "Xena, please..." Then she looked at the warrior's head and gasped aloud. Blood was flowing from the wound, which seemed to have doubled in size. "Oh, gods, Xena, I'm so sorry..." she said, grabbing the edge of her skirt, tearing off another strip. "Water, I need water," she said, looking for the carrier she had woven. It lay in a puddle of mud, smashed by one of the rocks. She turned her attention back to Xena, applying direct pressure on the wound, willing it to stop bleeding, knowing her friend couldn't spare what she had already lost.
With a single-minded determination, Gabrielle stayed with her friend, working on sealing the wound, bandaging it with the strip of cloth. When she could do no more, she carefully climbed the rockfall to get water.
By the time she returned, dusk had settled in. She knew she needed full daylight to climb the rockfall while carrying her friend. So she spent the night holding Xena, lending her warmth and comfort, talking to her in low tones, telling her one story after another. But by morning, the warrior still hadn't regained consciousness.
"Please, wake up," said Gabrielle, shaking Xena by the shoulder. A few minutes earlier, she had heard a groan. Gabrielle continued to prod until the warrior rolled her head slightly, grimacing.
"Time to go," insisted the bard. "I need you awake, Xena. I need your help.
Xena moaned again.
"I'm going to carry you out of here, but if you could put your arms around my neck, it would help a lot. I'm not sure I'm strong enough without your help." There was no response from her friend, but she was moving slightly, which gave the bard hope. "You don't think I can do it, do you? Well, just watch me." Still on her knees, Gabrielle managed to maneuver Xena until she was leaning on her back. The warrior appeared to waken somewhat at the movement. "Come on, I'll hold you as best I can, but I need you to use what strength you have to grab onto me. There are places where I need both hands to get past."
Xena moaned a protest, but Gabrielle ignored it. Instead, she hoisted the large warrior until she was in position then stood, almost buckling under the strain, for Xena was bigger than she had imagined and weaker than she had hoped. The warrior had no strength at all, not to hold onto her friend, nor to keep herself conscious. So with both hands gripping muscled thighs and stooping to maintain balance, Gabrielle began the climb up the rockfall.
Carefully, Gabrielle picked her way across the treacherous slope. One misstep could tumble them both, she knew. And although she had gotten used to scrambling up and down while digging and taking care of Xena, she knew that this was a very different trip. She no longer had the balance she was used to, nor the use of her hands. She shook with the strain of the dead weight on her back but never paused in her climb toward the open passage to freedom. Those parts of the journey where she had always needed her hands she took as slowly and carefully as possible. Somehow, she maintained her balance, always thinking in terms of her next step, instead of the many steps yet to go. Sweat fell freely from her brow and chin; the muscles in her legs and arms shook, threatening to cramp at any minute, but still she persevered. Gabrielle did not need the strength of the warrior's arms around her neck. She was in control. And her determination was impossible to break.
Finally, she found herself on the other side of the rocks, staring at a cool, sunny autumn day and a charred forest. Without resting, she began her descent.
Gabrielle laid Xena on the bed of bracken she had scrounged painstakingly from the burned forest. She placed a woven basket of water next to her in case she woke. For long minutes, Gabrielle did nothing but stare at her friend, too exhausted to move, but too fearful of Xena's cold, white silence to collapse.
"Xena?" So far, nothing had penetrated the warrior's wounded sleep. "Please, Xena, I can't move. I've lost all my strength. I need you. I need to hear your voice before I can go on."
There was no reaction. Xena's chest rose and fell in shallow breaths but otherwise she appeared lifeless. Her pallor had grown worse. Somewhere in the climb, the head wound had reopened. Both women were sticky with blood. And although Gabrielle had once again halted the flow, she feared this time it was too great a loss.
"I'd give you my blood if there was a way. I'd connect our hearts and let it flow into you. C'mon, Xena, you never let anything stop you -- how can you give up now? Not after what just happened! Don't you get it? I'm in love with you! And you're in love with me -- don't try to tell me otherwise. That has to be worth fighting for!" Gabrielle fell to her knees next to her friend. Tears flowed freely in sudden release. "Damn you! Damn you for finally letting me know how you felt and then just giving up on life! I'll tell everyone that Xena, Warrior Princess, ran away from the biggest fight of all. Just see if I don't!" Then the very last of her strength left her and Gabrielle crumpled into a ball, nothing but shaking limbs and tears. "Damn you, Xena..." she moaned.
How long she remained like this, she never knew. But finally, something penetrated her grief. It was the softest of sounds, and yet somehow it cut through the noise of the forest and her own wailing torment.
"Dare..." was all she heard.
She looked up and saw Xena's eyelids flutter for just a moment before she returned to unconsciousness.
"Xena...? I heard that! You're in there, aren't you? You know. You know you have to fight. You know you have to live, don't you?" This time, Gabrielle didn't need an answer. Instead she lowered her head and gave her friend a tender kiss. She felt no response, but that didn't matter. Wherever Xena's mind was, Gabrielle was convinced the warrior would know her dare had been answered.
"Look, I'm going to have to leave you, but don't worry. It won't be for long," Gabrielle whispered. "And I'll come back and check on you as often as I can. You should be okay here. No one can see you from the path, so you're safe." She pressed the water basket into Xena's limp hand. "There's water here, and I'm nearby. I wish I could have found your sword and chakram for you, but they're buried with the rest of our stuff. I know how much that's going to hurt when you get better. To lose your weapons, well, that's got to be one of the worst nightmares of a warrior. But don't get too upset, okay? They're just things. You're much more important. Better to lose your chakram than your life, right? So don't think about that. Rest and feel better and I'll be back soon."
Gabrielle lifted herself painfully and turned away from the warrior, hating leaving her but knowing she had no choice. Argo was still in the cave.
"This is a stupid, stupid plan," said Gabrielle to Argo. "You agree with me, doncha girl?" The horse nickered, as if understanding. "I know, I know. And if you've got any better ideas, I'm quite willing to listen." There was silence. "Huh. That's what I thought. Not that good at creative problem-solving, are ya, Argo?"
Gabrielle walked the horse through it one more time. It had taken nearly half the day to clear the necessary path inside the cave, especially with her frequent trips to check on the still unconscious Xena.
"That tree makes a lousy ramp, huh girl? Well, nothing we can do about that. But the turn. It's way too tight. You need more room in that corner if you're going to be able to do this." Gabrielle set about moving still more rocks. "I hate rocks," she grumbled. "If I never see another rock as long I live I'll be the happiest bard in Greece. Rocks should all be sent to hello... what's this?" Quickly, she cleared more rocks away and uncovered a bit of leather. Curious, she dug further, unable to figure out how any of their stuff, which was stored on the other side of the cave, had gotten near Argo's sleeping place. Finally, she rolled aside a rather large stone and saw it. Xena's scabbard. Of course! Xena had stored her weapons near the saddle, which wasn't with all the rest of the stuff. It was near Argo. Quickly, she uncovered enough of the scabbard to withdraw it from the rockpile. The sword was still sheathed within, undamaged. Smiling happily, she continued to burrow until her patience paid off. Reverently, she removed Xena's chakram.
"Oh, you are going to owe me big time for these, Xena!" she said happily. Immediately, she set to work on the tree.
After an hour of hacking, chipping and sweating, she knew it was as good as she could do. Her strength was again near depletion. Argo snorted, pawing at the ground. "Restless? Okay. One last time around and then it's all up to you."
She walked the horse through the cleared rubble and this time, the corner was wide enough and the tree had some purchase.
"Okay girl. Remember: on my whistle." Gabrielle hugged the horse and patted her neck for perhaps, the last time. "Visualize, Argo. You're Pegasus. You're a magical winged stead. You can do this. You belong to Xena!"
Gabrielle glanced at the remains of the tree. It had taken Argo's strength to shift it into place, and her perseverance to carve its shape, but in the end it may not matter at all. Knowing there was nothing more to do in the cave, she scrambled up the rock wall and slipped through the large passage she had excavated to the outside. Then she descended as quickly as was prudent, anxious to see if her insane plan had even a chance at success.
With a final prayer, she whistled.
Inside the cave, Argo's ears perked up and she whinnied. There was silence for a while and then it came again. The whistle. She pawed the ground, anxiously, looking at the rock wall. Another whistle. Argo reared and neighed loudly. Whistle after whistle could be heard, driving the mare into a frenzy of nervous motion.
Finally, unable to remain standing when her mistress needed her, she began to trot around the track the small blonde woman had cleared. With each whistle, she picked up speed, her fury at being trapped and away from her dark goddess driving her legs.
The last whistle was strong, clear and demanding. Argo did a final circuit at full speed, ran up the flattened tree, then leapt for the hole at the top of the cave.
Gabrielle knew that she had failed. What had made her think that a plan as stupid as this would work? Argo was just a horse. She wasn't Xena in equine form. She couldn't do the impossible. She couldn't fly...
Through the hole at the top of the cavern sailed the most beautiful, magnificent, amazing sight Gabrielle had ever seen. Her legs tucked tightly, Argo passed through the opening and stretched for the ground beyond the rubble. Her back legs hit some rocks and she kicked off, giving herself just enough height to clear the danger and land on the forest floor.
Argo, the Pegasus of war-horses, had done the impossible. She had escaped.
Continued - Part 2
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