THE EYES OF EIRE
(a.k.a Amazons, Druids & Thieves, Oh My)
Chapter 10 (Conclusion)
Most of these characters belong to Studios USA and any other owners of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended. The story itself is mine. Please don't reproduce it, in whole or in part, without asking first.
A few ideas came from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, "When Irish Eyes Are Killing," episode written by Grant Rosenberg. No copyright infringements intended toward DC Comics, Warner Brothers, or December Third Productions. NO, this is NOT a Xena/Superman cross-over. This is classic alt Xena/Gabrielle
Kallerine is back. Once again, this is not a Buffy/Xena crossover. Kallerine is an Amazon Bacchae slayer who just happens to look like Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Violence: Take one warrior princess, blend thoroughly with a bardic Amazon queen, toss in the king of thieves, add one feisty red-headed druid, sprinkle in a few greedy villains, mix liberally with a handful of Amazons, and yeah, some swords are likely to cross.
Maintext: Rated R. Two women in love who sleep together as often as possible.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Setting: This story falls sequentially after "Divinity." For those new to the Xena/Gabrielle series, it is in order, "March the 16th," "A Solstice Treaty," "The Sixth Sense," Cleopatra 4 A.D.," and "Divinity." To read them, go to my website: http://home.earthlink.net/~texbard and click on the link for my stories.
Additional Background Info: My Xena/Gabrielle series begins after "The Ides of March" 4th season cliffhanger, and parts ways with the show at that point. No pregnant warrior, no Eve, no 25-year ice cave time warp, no dead Olympian gods, no new chakram, no angel Callisto, no Japan (ever). Their friends and family are still alive. Joxer is dead because he died in my first story. Callisto is in Hell. Xena's Norseland history is part of her history in the series, but only up to the part where she locked up Grindle with the ring.
Note on Tamara Gorski: For Herc fans, she was Morrigan, and appeared in half the 5th season episodes.
Chapter 10 (Conclusion)
Xena shifted, blinking into semi-darkness as she slowly awakened. Her senses told her it was late afternoon. They also told her she was naked, and so was Gabrielle, who was wrapped around her, snoring blissfully. The warrior smiled. A long stretch of watching the rain had led to a long session of cuddling and kissing, which led to where they were now, lying almost bonelessly in the soft comfortable bed.
She stretched her legs out as far as she could, pointing her toes and wiggling them under the blankets in absent pleasure. She could still hear the constant patter of rain outside. Ah no traveling until tomorrow at the latest. And that will be a muddy venture at best. Another smile. She secretly liked the mud, except for the fact that cleaning her boots and leathers after a satisfying tromp through the thick goo was a hideous chore.
Her ears perked up, picking up the steady beating of raindrops against the saturated thatch. Another dripping noise told her they probably needed a bucket over in the corner. Thatch could only hold so much water. A different sound reached her ears and she frowned. The streams of water outside no longer manifested themselves as a light trickling sound, but rather a constant heavy flow. The frown deepened and she pried herself away from the sleeping bard.
Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, she stepped gingerly across the much colder floor, scattering reeds with her light shuffling. With a tug and a flip of the catch, she opened the shutters and stuck her head out, allowing the downpour to fall over her head as she looked down. Much of the ground below was covered in a good-sized pool of water, a large flowing pool, actually, which extended as far as she could see through the thick curtain of rain. Another faint roaring sound drifted through the damp air and she cocked her head to one side, listening more closely. That can't be good.
She ducked back inside and shook her head, scattering raindrops over the floor, and the bench under the window. Donning her leathers and boots, she jotted a brief note to Gabrielle and left the room, trotting down the hallway and into the main room, where she spotted the innkeeper at the bar, and Kallerine and Morrigan seated at a table, eating a late lunch, or perhaps an early dinner. "Hey." She nodded at them, then stepped up to the bar. "Is there a river near here?"
"River?" the innkeeper questioned, her, as if he didn't know what the word meant. "Not real close. Maybe a couple of miles back behind the inn. Why?"
"'Cause I think it's about to be a lot closer than a couple of miles," the warrior accepted an unsolicited mug of mead. "Any quick path there?"
"Yes." He stroked a grayish beard, thinking. "Go out back, past the barn, through the field, and to the tree line. Should be a path going between two large fir trees off to the right."
"Thanks." She drained the mug and reached into her belt pouch, dropping a tip on the water-stained surface of the bar. She made her way toward slayer and druid, dropping down on the bench next to Kallerine. "I think we may have a problem."
"What is it, Xena?" Morrigan stabbed at a piece of ham, swirling it through thick brown gravy.
"Flood." She eyed them seriously. "I'm going to go check it out, but I'd suggest you go ahead and pack up your things. Kallerine once you're done, go wake up Gabrielle and get her to pack up our stuff as well. The whole inn should be prepared to evacuate to higher ground by the time I get back, just in case. I know there's not much of a town here." She looked out the window toward a scattering of small huts, "but those folks should be warned as well."
"Flood?" Kallerine's brown eyes grew large. "Are you sure?"
"Nonsense," the barkeeper joined them after overhearing their conversation. "We haven't had a flood here in fifteen summers."
"Yeah, but how much has it rained in the past few days?" The warrior turned, allowing the gravity of the situation to surface in her eyes.
"Well, pretty steady, now that you mention it." His own face wrinkled in worry. "Still "
"Combine all that rain with the snow melting up in the higher elevations, and yeah, your fifteen summers may be about to end." She stood, donning her cloak, which she'd left hanging on a peg by the door. "Get packed," she eyed them all. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Do ya need someone to come with ya, Xena?" Morrigan moved to grab her own cloak.
"Yes." Kallerine stood as well. "You sure helped us out of a bad situation a few days ago. Maybe we can return the favor."
"No." Xena smiled, despite the situation. It wasn't often that anyone beside Gabrielle or Eponin volunteered to purposefully follow her into danger. "The best way you can help is to get everyone, and every animal, ready for evacuation by the time I return. In fact, if everyone is ready before I get back, just head upland, back toward the mountains we came from. I'll catch up with you."
"Okay." The slayer rested a hand on her arm. "Be careful, Xena. I don't want to have to fulfill that promise."
"Nah." The warrior chucked her under the chin. "It'd take more than a measly little flood to take me down. Back in a bit." With that, she was out the door before they could blink.
The first several yards were through ankle-deep water, and she tripped lightly through it, sending great splashes out in all directions with every boot step. Ankle-deep water soon became calf-deep until she reached the tree line, where there was a brief rise through the thick fir grove. She paused, trading ankle-deep water for ankle-deep mud, the goo oozing all around her feet, making a gloppy sucking sound as she worked to tug her boots free so she could walk.
So. From where she stood, it was hard to tell where the rise dropped again, but surely it did somewhere further up the tree line, since the land behind her was covered in slowly free-flowing water. Her hood was soaked through and she pulled it back impatiently, allowing the rain to beat openly against her head. Drops fell steadily off her eyelashes and the tip of her nose, and she swiped at her eyes in annoyance.
The air was saturated with moisture and smelled of rain, mud, and waterlogged greenery, a pleasantly fresh mixture of scents to her appreciative nose. It was cooler, but not cold, and she halfway wished she'd left the cloak behind, as the water weight was slowing her down. The sound of the river became more pronounced, even though it was still some ways away.
She had hoped it would be a quick two-mile jaunt, but her senses and common sense told her the water ahead was only going to get deeper. With resignation, she removed her cloak and climbed partway up a tree, draping the garment over a relatively bare branch for safekeeping. There. That felt much better, and she reveled for a moment in the raindrops pelting her bare arms and thighs. She was extremely glad she'd forgone her leather pants. Wet leather was a most unpleasant sensation against her skin.
With an arched leap she flew from the tree, flipping over the thickest part of the mud puddle and landing in a bed of brown evergreen needles. The needles were strewn the rest of the way down what appeared to be a trail, and she took off again, glad for the brief reprieve from mud and water puddles. Mud was fun, but thick deep mud was a chore to run through.
Soon, however, she was back in ankle deep water. "Gabrielle is gonna kill me, just on general purposes," she muttered quietly to her surroundings. She was officially drenched from head to toe, and it would take a long time to clean and oil her boots and leathers. She'd left the brass armor off, taking only her sword and chakram with her for protection, and to use for tools if needed. Given the circumstances, the armor just didn't seem necessary. Besides, her ribs were still sore and cracked, and the buckles and clasps of her armor would only have served to aggravate them.
The water grew steadily deeper until it was up to her knees. She desperately hoped the rumors of no snakes in Eire were true, especially the slithering variety of poisonous water ones. At last she reached the river, which was roaring along at bank-high level. It wasn't spilling over just yet, but it wouldn't be long, maybe a few candlemarks at most, she guessed.
Despite the danger, the river was an awesome sight. It rolled and churned past, the noise almost deafening, something she could feel as well as hear. Judging from the odd branch or log that floated by, there didn't appear to be much upstream in the way of habitation. No signs of humans were in the water. She would have expected something besides assorted tree parts if that were the case.
Her nose wrinkled as the thoroughly waterlogged carcass of a deer floated into view, quickly followed by several more. Flash flood, somewhere up there, she reasoned. As they came closer, she realized one was moving. A fawn, somehow miraculously caught up in a tangled mass of tree branches. Its mouth was wide open, it cries muted by the much louder throng of the water.
Damn. She tried to ignore it. It's just a deer, warrior. You kill and eat them on a regular basis. Yeah, she chided back at her own self. But not fawns. Never fawns. Young deer were given a fighting chance to grow up before they became fair game for the hunt.
Would Gabrielle want her to be careful, or save the deer? As she debated, it floated still closer, and looked directly into her eyes, releasing a loud piteous bawl that reached her ears over the roar. Double damn. She released a very long, very resigned breath and plunged in, swimming at an upstream diagonal as best she could, hoping to get a little upriver from the fawn where she could allow the current to take her directly to it.
The water was cold and momentarily took her breath away. She quickly got used to it, almost forgetting the temperature. Her muscles were straining against the heavy tug of the water, and she felt her ribs pulling. Damnitalltohades, I must be insane. Five summers ago I would not be swimming in the middle of a flooding river to save a deer for the gods' sake.
At last she was in good position to relax just a little, and let the river do some of the work for her, her body floating down and toward the struggling creature. A bend in the river almost upset her path, and she grabbed hold of the deer's makeshift raft, just as she was about to overshoot it. The confused animal's eyes were wide with terror and it looked at her, unsure if it should be afraid or not. "There there," she allowed her voice to drop, low and soothing. "You're gonna be alright."
It seemed to sense she was a friend, and quit thrashing about quite so much, its cries subsiding into gentle bleats. She reached down, under the water, and grabbed her chakram, using it to hack at some of the tangled mess that had the animal's legs trapped. In quick fashion, she had it free, and was holding it in her arms against her chest, its tiny head bobbing above the surface as it looked back over her shoulder.
Her intention was to use the current again, to get back to shore. That plan went quickly by the wayside, as the sound of the river changed. Uh-oh. "Hold on." She somehow got the fawn to curl up in her arms and she turned her back downstream, using her body as a buffer as they were suddenly caught up in some shooting rapids. She was battered back and forth between a series of rocks, muttering curses all the way until the water smoothed out again.
"Great," she talked to her un-bruised companion. "If I'm really lucky, my ribs are still just cracked, and not snapped in two." The pain was much more intense and she could feel that the binding around her torso, under the leathers, was much looser than it had been before. She gritted her teeth and looked toward shore on both sides, trying to figure out how to reach one bank or the other, ideally the one on the side she had come from.
Another more insistent roar made her spin around. "Damn it!" Her eyes flashed in angry frustration. "Okay. Hold on again." She curled herself around the fawn, just as they were hurled over some falls. Not a tall set of falls, probably only about five times Xena's height, but falls, nonetheless. They bottomed out, ending up in a twisting churning pool of water.
The fawn was alive, but now mute, its heart beating triple time under her supportive arm. "You better live to be the oldest stag in the forest after this." She held the deer closer and fell into the rhythm of the pool, letting it pull her gradually out of the middle and toward the edge. At last they were shot from the whirling water, closer to the shore she wanted to go toward, and with weary kicks she got them near the bank.
She arched up and grabbed hold of a low overhanging tree branch with one arm, still cradling the fawn in the other. For several minutes she simply hung there, suspended with her upper body out of the water, trying to catch her breath. Her ribs were killing her and she was certain the stitches in her head had broken.
Okay. Need to get moving. She hauled her legs up, drawing them up and under her so that she was completely out of the water. A few swings and one flip, and they were back on the bank, once again standing in knee-deep water, both of them gasping for air. She realized her small companion would probably be up to its neck if she put him down. A cursory examination revealed that the deer was wet, bedraggled, and frightened, but otherwise appeared to be uninjured.
"Come on," she sighed. "You get a ride. It's your lucky day." Liquid black eyes blinked at her, and the brown and white-spotted creature nuzzled her chest, then looked up and gave her a solid swipe on the cheek with its tongue. "Hey." She scowled. "Cut that out."
Finally, she raised it, carefully draping it over her shoulders so she could move more easily. "Now " she looked around, seeing nothing familiar at all. "Let's figure out how far godsbedamned downstream we are, and how long it's gonna take us to get back to the inn."
The deer bleated softly, once, then sighed heavily and closed its eyes, content to let its new personal mode of transportation do all the work.
The small group of villagers and travelers made their way out of the tavern door, and into the driving rain. They were none too happy about being forced to run for the hills, but a look at the ever-rising water behind the inn convinced them it was necessary. Along with the villagers were a passel of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, dogs, and a few cats that were lucky enough to find rides on carts or in their owner's arms. Most of the people were trying to carry way too many personal items on their backs or in wagons, and the progress was a lot slower than Gabrielle cared for.
Standing on the front porch of the inn, she watched them, walking way ahead of her, until they disappeared out of sight around a curve in the road. Kallerine and Morrigan were leading them, both knowing the way back toward the mountains. Everyone looked soggy and miserable, and the bard herself sympathized, although her misery came from a different source.
It had been well over two candlemarks since Xena left to go check out the river. She knew her partner. Four miles round-trip, even in driving rain, shouldn't have taken the warrior that long. Something was wrong, she just knew it. She told Kallerine and Morrigan she was going to wait another half candle mark, then follow them if Xena didn't show up. All three of them knew better. She would wait until Xena returned, even if she ended up sitting on the thatched roof to avoid being washed away.
The innkeeper had told her where Xena went -- where to find the river path toward which he had pointed the warrior. Gabrielle was furious with her partner, or she would have been, if not for the worry that overshadowed her anger. She knew Xena wouldn't consider a quick jaunt to the river to be leaving her behind -- a broken promise. The warrior had every intention of making a quick run and back. She knew that. But a part of her was hurt that the warrior didn't see fit to wake her first, rather than merely leaving a note and having Kallerine wake her. She also knew Xena probably simply thought she needed her rest, and that made her feel both well-cared for and frustrated at the same time.
So there she stood, her cloak drawn over her head. Her and Xena's packs had gone ahead in one of the wagons, save for a small bundle of essential items she carried in a bag slung over one shoulder under her cloak -- a parcel of dried fruits and meats, a couple of extra tunics, and as an afterthought, the healer's kit, just in case. The gods knew a simple walk for Xena could end in a splint or a set of stitches. A flask was ridiculously unnecessary, given the weather, so that had also gone in the wagon.
She tapped one foot on the boards of the covered porch, her hands on her hips, debating. Okay. It at least made sense to go around back of the inn and wait, so she could see Xena coming when she returned. She pulled her hood up more securely and stepped off the porch, into the rain, slogging through the running flow of ankle-deep water, around the inn wall and then to the back.
She looked down ruefully at her drenched leather boots. She hated the sensation of wet socks squishing around her toes, but it couldn't be helped. There was only a small covered area in back of the inn, and she ducked under it, watching the sheets of rain pouring down in front of her from the roof. Rats. Standing in place did her no good at all, and only served to increase her agitated worry.
She knew what she had to do, what her heart was telling her to do. With a heavy sigh, she stepped off the porch, back into the rain, and began the long sloshing walk to the tree line. Like her partner, she had also chosen to forego her suede leather pants and top, and was wearing the short orange skirt and leather halter-top she had bought in Egypt. Her sais were tucked into her boots. Something told her to take her staff, and she used it now as a walking stick.
The air was cool and obviously damp, and the scent of rain overpowered everything. She felt almost as if she were drowning as she walked, and had to fight rising claustrophobia. Borrowing a trick from Xena, she flung her hood back. It wasn't doing much good anyway, and having her head free made all the difference. So that's why she almost never covers her head. Gabrielle smiled. Without the hood, her peripheral vision was no longer blocked, and her ears could hear more clearly. Her shoulder-length hair was soon plastered against her head and neck, but it was worth it.
The water on the ground grew considerably deeper, and she was soon wading in a knee-deep running flow. She could see the tree line, growing ever closer, but the water was rising, and as she continued moving it rose to mid-thigh, making her progress extremely slow. Just as she was about to give up and turn around, she spotted a patch of black in the green and brown trees, and squinted. It looked like she squinted harder was that Xena's cloak? Gods, Xena, what have you gotten yourself into?
With renewed determination she dragged her legs forward, reaching the tree in question. The water was shallower there, only ankle deep. She looked up at the black material draped carefully over a high branch. Yep. It was most certainly her partner's new cloak, which meant the warrior would be coming back for it. She sighed. Might as well leave it there. It's a lot safer than me trying to carry it with me.
She could just make out the path down from the rise. It was covered now in shallow water, but she decided she would wade a little closer to the river, which she could now hear, a faint dull rushing sound that was only a little louder than the deluge of rain. She stepped down and took several steps before she felt her feet give way, sliding on hidden pine needles under the water. Oh gods. Her feet flipped up and tumbled a few times before she landed, butt first, and slipped all the way to the bottom of the rise, landing in water that came up to her waist in a seated position. Bleckh. She spit out a mouthful of pine needles and rain.
Uggh. Her clothing and her cloak were completely soaked. She looked back up at Xena's cloak, then resolutely trod back up the small hill, climbed up the tree, and added her cloak to the warrior's. Shimmying back down the tree trunk, she grabbed her staff and used it to help her get back down the rise. The ground leveled out, only a slight slope that surely led down to the river.
She followed the raging sound, certain her partner would have done the same thing. Soon she was sloshing through high water again. The current picked up, and she watched the water rise to hip level, and stopped. It wasn't safe to keep going, and she knew Xena well enough to know the warrior wouldn't be out playing in water this deep, just for the fun of it. Something had happened.
She looked all around her, but there was no sign at all of her partner. Not that she would have expected one in the flood around her. She was surrounded by smoothly flowing water and soggy trees. No animal life could be seen, No shadows, as the sun was hidden from view. Not even any birds. Every living creature had fled the rising flood. Something squiggled by her under the water and she jumped back. Almost every living thing, she amended.
Well. If fish were comfortable swimming where she was standing, it was probably time to move back to higher ground. She turned around, overcome by defeat, lifting her already-exhausted legs through the swiftly running current. Xena, where are you? She bit a trembling lower lip. You come back to me, you hear me? I know you like to play in the water, but this is carrying things a little too far.
She smiled at a memory of her beloved partner jumping with both feet flat through some puddles just outside the Amazon village. Gabrielle had come around a corner and simply watched the childlike antics, her heart soaring at the knowledge that somewhere deep down inside, Xena still had that part of her intact. The warrior had finally jumped up, doing a flip and landing with a satisfying splash, facing her. The blue eyes had grown wide with surprise, then her cheeks became rosy with embarrassment.
The bard had practically skipped over to her, giving her a much-unexpected hug. She'd never been able to adequately explain that hug to the bewildered warrior. She desperately wished she could hug Xena right now.
Back at the cloak tree, she paused to catch her breath, pressing her cheek against the wet bark. The water was rising and she knew she should go follow the others, but Xena was out there, somewhere, and she was loathe to leave the area near the inn. She looked up at the sky, silently cursing the clouds. There was no way to determine what time it was, but it seemed to be getting darker, whether due to the ongoing storm, or the beginning of sunset, she could not tell.
She closed her eyes, fighting back frustrated tears. Crying would do her no good. Well, she concluded, the one thing she was certain of is that Xena would come back for that cloak. Cyrene had made it, and only a full-fledged flood would keep the warrior from saving it. Gabrielle was tired of standing in the water, and decided the thick lower branches of the tree might make a good place to sit and wait. She grabbed hold of the lowest branch, using rough chinks and knobs in the trunk as footholds, and climbed back up until she reached the sturdy branch where their cloaks were folded.
Holding on carefully with one arm, she donned her own cloak against a growing chill, then settled back in a crook in the branches, her bottom seated on Xena's cloak and her back resting against a branch a little higher up and over above her. She dug around in her waterlogged bag and found a piece of dried venison and some chunks of dried pear. She munched listlessly on the makeshift meal, knowing she needed the food, but not really tasting it.
From where she sat, she had a clear view of the inn as well as the surrounding grounds. There was no way she would miss her partner unless the warrior completely bypassed the inn. Surely Xena will come back here first, won't she? Just to make sure everyone has cleared the village. Yes. The bard nodded in agreement with herself. It would be just like her partner to make a pass of the small collection of huts before joining up with the others. Xena was responsible like that.
Satisfied she was in the best possible place to wait, she settled back in her uncomfortable furniture, and set her gaze firmly on the inn.
She hurt all over. Every muscle screamed with tense pain, and she could feel bruises too numerous to count forming all over her body. Her tiny charge was sleeping contentedly across her shoulders, oblivious to her discomfort.
The water was rising, and sunset was rapidly approaching. All she could do was follow the river back up from where it had taken her. Her sense of time told her it had been at least three candle marks since she left the inn, and the flood was coming. She was glad, so far, that it was a steady rising of the river, and not a flash flood. While the river itself was rushing rapidly out in the middle, the water that was now lapping over the banks was a calm flow. It was annoying, and it was straining already-abused muscles to wade against it, but as long as it didn't rise above waist level, it was navigable.
She was most concerned about her ribs, and was almost certain at least one of them was now broken. Every breath she took strained against her clinging wet leathers, further increasing the shooting pain across her side. It hurt all the way into her hip. She had a headache that would drop a Minotaur, and a brief probe of her scalp revealed that her stitches were indeed split, and the cut was bleeding again.
She slogged on through the trees, listening carefully to the sound of the river for any sudden change in its pace. Every noise around her was of water -- the falling rain, the raging river just out of view, and her own boots splashing through the water flowing through the trees. At least she knocked on a nearby tree trunk it was no longer a thunderstorm.
The fawn shifted at her back, and sighed with contentment, its head coming to rest so that it was breathing in her ear as it slept. She would have given anything for it to be Gabrielle doing the breathing.
Her thoughts were never far from her partner, and she wondered now how far the villagers had traveled, and if they had found shelter against the coming dark. Were they safe from the rising water? Gabrielle would be worried by now. That was a given. She hated being the cause of that worry. Good thing you're blonde, my bard. You've probably got dozens of gray hairs mixed in by now, thanks to me. She knew she would find the bard beautiful, with gray hair, or no hair at all, but she was certain Gabrielle would not appreciate going gray so early in her young life.
She thought about that, trying to picture her lovely partner twenty summers down the road. What would they both look like by then? Would they both still be fit and healthy? Would they still be living with the Amazons? A giddy shiver coursed through her middle -- how many children would they have by then?
Her thoughts made her both sad and glad at the same time. It was difficult for her to imagine living twenty more summers. Very few warriors did. But a spark of hope for the future was what often drove her these days. She needed to live to be very old, for Gabrielle's sake. Diving into the river had been a foolish and risky thing to do, and she realized she needed to start thinking more clearly on decisions that were once made on impulse. There was too much at stake.
At long last, the dimming light grew just a little brighter, and she found herself in the clearing that bordered the village. She picked up her pace, despite the pain, and rounded a bend, spotting the inn only a little ways away. There was no activity around the inn or the barn nearby, and the huts just beyond had no smoke coming from their chimneys. Good. The evacuation appeared to have gone off well.
She moved to just outside the tree line, remembering her cloak. It was somewhat foolish, she realized, to spend extra time retrieving the garment, but she also knew once the sun went down, she would probably need it, especially in the upper elevations where she was headed. The water was above her knees, and was flowing faster in the open area. She was certain the river was already flooded upstream, and that the water she now walked in was part rain saturation, and part river water that was coming from somewhere above the little rise that seemed to be protecting the village from much higher water.
The trees that bordered her earlier river path came into view, and she picked up the pace again, wishing she could run. When she reached the rise, she realized that it was no longer above the water, but at its height it was already calf-deep in water. It's gonna be fun to climb that tree with this baby on my back. The fawn seemed to sense her thoughts and stirred, nuzzling her ear. "Awww now. Stop that."
"Stop what?" A sleepy voice answered.
She jumped, drawing her chakram on pure reflex. I know the damned deer didn't answer me. She looked up, her eyes growing wide as she spotted her partner, way up in the tree where her cloak was hanging. "What in Tartarus are you doing up there?"
"WHERE in Tartarus have you been?" The bard tossed down her cloak, then scampered down the tree, pausing on the lowest branch to study her partner. "And what do you have on your shoulders?"
Xena smiled sheepishly. "He was going to drown."
"Xena ?" The bard sat on her haunches, realizing if she jumped to the ground, the water was going to come up to her knees, judging by her partner's covered lower legs. "You've been gone forever. I fell asleep in this gods-forsaken tree waiting for you. Please tell me you didn't worry five summers off my life to save a deer." She tilted her head. "Xena, you look like you've been beaten up. And your head's bleeding and . Yowwww!"
The warrior grabbed the branch and pulled it down, then released it, causing Gabrielle to spring into the air. She handily broke her partner's fall, snagging her around the waist as the bard landed, sploshing soundly next to her, and giving her a healthy glare. "Can you please spare the lecture until we get out of here? We waste much more time and we're both gonna be sleeping in this tree."
"I am not the one who wasted time here," the bard groused. "Answer me one question, please?"
"Okayyyyy." Blue eyes rolled toward her.
"Where, exactly, did you rescue this deer from?" Green eyes flashed angrily back at her.
"Um the middle of the river," Xena mumbled, almost too low to be heard.
"Come again?" The bard squeezed her partner.
"Owww." The warrior felt a jolt of pain. "Easy. Broken ribs, remember?"
"Oh, sorry." Gabrielle loosened her grip. "Did I hear you say that you dove into a flooding river to save something we'd be calling 'dinner' about six moons from now?" She glared at the offending fawn, getting nose to nose with it. "Yeah, you heard me. Your name's 'Dinner,' you got me?"
"I was trying to do the right thing." The dark head lowered in remorse. "He looked at me, Gabrielle, with those big eyes. I couldn't let him die. I just couldn't."
"What if you had died?" The bard's voice was a hoarse whisper, then the warrior felt the smaller woman shaking against her.
"Hey." She pulled the blonde head against her chest, stopping for a moment, hearing several gulping sobs. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have done it. I just jumped in. Didn't think about it as hard as I should have."
"Did you think of me at all, Xena?" The bard looked up, involuntarily swiping plastered bangs out of the warrior's eyes. "Did you think about how I'd feel if you didn't come back?"
"I was thinking of you." She stroked her partner's head, then her cheek. "I think, though, that I was thinking of the Gabrielle I first met. THAT Gabrielle would have cooed over this little baby, and most likely would have begged me to try to save it. Sometimes, Gabrielle, when I think of you, I have a hard time separating who you've become, from who you were."
"Are are you sorry I'm not that wide-eyed kid anymore, Xena?" The bard hiccupped, her tears still flowing. She looked down, afraid of the answer she might see in those blue eyes.
Gentle fingers prodded her chin up. "No." It was one word, but the love in Xena's eyes gave it more power than all the poems of Sappho. "I love the beautiful, complex person you've become my bard. Besides, I could never have done this, with that wide-eyed kid." She tilted her head and found warm lips, gently re-assuring her partner of things no words could express.
Xena felt some of the tension leave her partner's body, and she pulled back, pressing their foreheads together. "Come on. Let's go find some higher ground, shall we?"
"Good idea." The bard took her hand, and together they waded past the inn and up the road toward the hills. She peered sideways at the fawn, who batted long lashes and blinked uncertainly back at her. "He is kinda cute, isn't he?"
A gentle chuckle was her answer.
There were no tracks to follow that would lead them to the villagers and their companions, but the narrow road leading toward the mountains was still passable, if not pleasant. It was the only logical route they would have taken. Xena noted the occasional broken branch and trampled vegetation, which would indicate the village livestock had passed that way. She was starting to shiver, and she knew it was more than the rain.
Damn. Not again. Better buck up. Gabrielle is already going to freak when she gets to my wounds. She tried to distract herself from the bone-deep cold by studying the terrain around them. The rain was starting to grate on her nerves, and all she wanted to do was go home. This elicited a chuckle. Who would've ever thought I'd be longing to go to the Amazon village? She tightened her grip on the bard's arm. Home is wherever Gabrielle is. She felt her partner tuck in a little closer to her side, and immediately her body was just a little bit warmer.
They had come down this path after their visit in the underworld, and her logistical mind enjoyed re-memorizing the topography from the opposite direction. Once she traveled a path, she rarely forgot it. It was part of being a vagabond warrior. You just never knew when remembering some obscure trail or hidden grotto might come in handy.
She re-played the path ahead through her mind, challenging herself to remember it accurately. Let's see . there should be two tall pine trees around that bend up there. Then a steady grove of mixed evergreen and deciduous beyond that. Couple of boulders below a larger hill after that then another tall hill with a big pile of rocks up near the top. Hey
"Gabrielle " she uncurled the fawn from her shoulders. "Can you hold onto him for a minute? I need to check out something up trail."
"Xena " the bard felt the warm creature settle around her own neck, then watched her partner take off in a water-splashing lope. "Xena!" Gabrielle kicked at the ground in frustration. "Impossible pig-headed warrior. What in Hades is she up to now?"
The deer licked her on the cheek in answer.
"She's injured and we still have a long ways to go." The bard talked to her four-footed friend. "She has no business using up her energy reserves like that." She tried to pick up her own pace. "Bet she ends up regretting saving your scrawny hide."
A quarter candle mark passed before she caught up with the warrior. The cape hanging over a tree branch was her only clue to look around, which she did, before finally looking way up at the top of a hill. "Xena! What in Tartarus are you doing?" Her partner was almost to the top of the hill, which ended in a huge pile of loose boulders, rock, and scree. She winced as the warrior's boots slipped through the wet gravel.
"I'm stopping a flood," the perfectly sane voice yelled down at her.
"Wha ?" She looked all around, trying to find a good place to put the deer down. A flat rock seemed like a good place. "Xena, I'm coming up there!"
"No!" The warrior stopped, her voice stern and unwavering. "I need you to stand aside down there. I may need to get down from here pretty quick. Please?"
She said 'please.' Aw, warthog poo. "Okay." The bard sat down dejectedly on the flat rock, which was across and up trail from the hill. It seemed like just as good a place as any to try and stay out of the way.
Xena reached the top of the hill and smiled triumphantly, gazing all around the dusky terrain below. Just as she had suspected, the way down the other side was a lot steeper and longer, a mountain compared to the side she had just climbed. Way down below her was the river, and a telltale bend that curved toward the village. There was nothing beyond it for miles, but trees and more hills. Perfect.
She squinted, judging angle and distance to another mountain on the other side of the river, her sight trained on a thick solid oak near its summit. Even more perfect. She stepped back, drawing her chakram, and let it fly. It whirred and lofted, gaining speed as it reached the oak. From there it ricocheted back toward her, striking a large boulder lodged at the base of the pile of rocks at the top of the hill on which she stood.
The rocks rumbled and began tumbling downhill, as the chakram returned to the oak, bounced back a second time, and came back to her. She didn't even have to move as she caught it on the rebound. She watched the rockslide gain momentum, thundering down the mountain, picking up more rocks, debris, and dead trees as it rolled.
"Xena!" She heard the bard's voice, even over the roar of the rocks.
"It's okay, Gabrielle!" She hooked the chakram back at her belt. "I'll be down in a minute or so." She watched the slide, as the first boulders began to settle, falling into the swollen river. Several minutes later the slide began to ebb, forming a small dam just above the river's bend. With satisfaction, she saw the water's course begin to change, flowing away from the direction of the village and out into the unoccupied land beyond.
It was difficult to tell from where she stood if it would completely stop the floodwaters, but it would certainly make the difference between the villagers losing everything, and perhaps only needing to let their floors dry out. The last boulder settled, and the quiet of falling rain was the only sound remaining. She looked back one more time, then began a hopping, flipping descent back down the hill, avoiding the slippery trails of gravel in favor of mud. Mud wasn't much better, but at least she had a better chance than with lose rock.
As her feet hit the trail, she felt a wave of dizziness, and stumbled. She felt the bard's arms around her waist, steadying her. Shaking her head to clear it, her surroundings came back into sharper focus. She felt weak as a newborn kitten.
"Xena." The bard's voice broke through a fog. "Are you okay?"
"Fine." She tried to stand up to her full height. "Just a little tired."
The bard fussed with her cloak, grabbing it from the tree branch and draping it around her partner's tall frame. "Why did you make a rock slide?"
"I diverted the river's path." A small shiver made her teeth chatter. "I think the village may be spared now."
"Xena." The bard's hand was pressed against her forehead, the soft skin incredibly cool against her head. "You're burning up."
"I'm fine," a gravely voice groused. "Just need to get under shelter is all."
"You're sick." Gabrielle frowned, pulling Xena's hood up.
"So they tell me," she quipped back.
"Xena, I'm serious." True worry lines etched the bard's face. "I think you're warmer than you were back home when you had the grippe."
"Nothing I can do about that until we find a place to rest, now is there?" She recognized her own foul mood as one more symptom that she was indeed getting sick again. "Come on." She forced her voice to soften. "Let's go find the others and I promise to take the herbs. I need to stay coherent until then, and the herbs may put me out for a while." Strong of a dose as I think I need, she added silently.
"At least let me carry our little friend for a while." Gabrielle picked up the forlorn fawn and settled him around her shoulders.
Xena was too tired to argue. Her focus was a little blurry and she realized she would have to step carefully to avoid losing her footing. Shoulda taken it easy getting back down that hill, she groused internally. I think that did a number on me, especially that last flip.
It was full dark and two candlemarks later when they finally reached the villagers. Kallerine had taken up a watch post at the end of a narrow trail that led up to an old mine shaft. It didn't appear to have been used for years, but still had adequate support pillars, and more importantly, a number of rooms, which meant the livestock could stay in separate quarters from the humans. Morrigan's natural leadership abilities had kicked in, and by the time warrior and bard arrived, most of the people and animals were settled in nicely. Thanks to the foresight of the village elder, who had thought to cart along dry wood, a large fire had been built in the middle of the main chamber.
"Are our bedrolls laid out?" Gabrielle didn't bother with formal greeting, as the slayer met them on the trail.
"Yes." Troubled hazel eyes studied Xena's face, which was pale, her eyes glassy. She watched the warrior blink and realized she hadn't recognized her right away. "What's wrong with Xena?" Kallerine pushed back her own hood to get a better look at her hero.
"Fever." The bard was already supporting her partner as they made their way up to the mineshaft.
"I'm fine," Xena muttered. "Don't talk about me like Im not here."
Oh boy. "I know, honey. I'm sorry." Gabrielle shot a worried glance in Kallerine's direction. She mouthed the words 'hot water?' and received a silent affirmative nod from the slayer. "Let's get inside and put on some dry clothes, okay?"
"Okay." The warrior was leaning heavily on her, and her boot steps were extremely sluggish.
"Who's your friend?" The slayer scratched the fawn's head.
"My 'friend' is the reason my stubborn partner here has a fever, as she decided it was imperative that she dive into a flooding river to save it." Gabrielle felt her anger rise. "Everyone okay up here, and exactly where are we headed?"
Kallerine described the mineshaft, relaying the layout. "We put you two in a small room near the back, far away from the livestock."
"Thank you," the bard tried to shake her growing worry.
"Need to be near the front," Xena protested. "Keep watch."
"A watch schedule has already been posted, thanks to Morrigan," Kallerine answered.
"Put me in the rotation," the warrior insisted. "Can't depend on a bunch of untrained villagers to protect us."
"Xena ?" Kallerine felt a nudge from the bard and stopped in mid-speech.
"I'll make sure of it, honey." The bard's concern grew exponentially. Xena in a normal mental state would have understood the slim chance that anyone or anything would be attacking them during a heavy downpour. She recognized her partner's behavior as a sign that she was in a rote-response mode. Not good.
At last they reached the mine, and the bard guided her partner, following Kallerine to their private chamber. Their bedrolls were laid out side by side, and a pile of wood was arranged in a small fire circle next to the wall. "Can you get that going for us?" Gabrielle began easing Xena out of her wet leathers, grateful there was no armor to deal with.
"Oh, Xena." The warrior's naked body was practically one giant bruise. She unwound the saturated binding around her ribs and hissed quietly. The rib area was red and actually swollen a little. "Honey." She patted Xena's cheek. "Xena, I think you've broken your cracked ribs." She gingerly prodded and got a whimper of protest from her partner. "Sorry. Do I bind them or will that make it worse?"
"Bind 'em up," Morrigan's brogue answered from behind her.
"Morrigan." The bard gave the druid a quick hug. "She's really sick. I have our healer's kit, but I may need something stronger. Can I take a look at the village healer's herb supply? Do they have a healer?"
"They most certainly do." The druid watched as Gabrielle eased the warrior down onto their furs, covering her carefully with a thick blanket. "Took a large crate to get his supplies up here."
"Good. The more stuff I have to choose from, the better." The bard heard the crackle of fire as Kallerine flicked her flint and striker at a pile of tender. "Thank you, Kallerine. Can you tell the villagers that Xena may have managed to stop the flood from getting directly to their homes?"
"Really?" The slayer's eyes shone in delight. "Why does that not surprise me? Do you need anything? I can get some more blankets, and they've cooked up some lamb stew."
"Maybe we can add 'Dinner' here as some extra venison." The bard eyed the fawn, which was resting docilely on the end of their sleeping furs. It bleated in protest, as if it understood her words. "Kidding, okay?" She nudged the small animal before she stood up. "Stew would be great, and I need a couple full flasks of water. That shouldn't be too hard to get," she cocked her head, hearing the distant sound of the driving rain. "Morrigan, can you sit with her while I go check out the healer's herbs?"
"Not a problem, Gabrielle. Take yer time." The druid plopped down on the bard's fur, curling her legs under her. She felt the warrior's forehead. "Tsk. She's warm as that fire over there, isn't she?"
"Yes." Gabrielle's eyes stung. "She is. I don't think she's had a fever like this since well, it's been a very long time." She shoved aside memories of her trek up a snowy mountain. No dying on me this time, Warrior Princess. You got me? "Back in a minute."
"Don't leave me," the warrior rasped.
"Honey, Xena " the bard knelt down, stoking the damp head. "I'm just going to get some herbs. I'll be back as quick as I can."
"Love you." The blue eyes rolled toward her, a desperately pleading expression reflected there.
"I love you too," she kissed the hot forehead. "Be right back." She stood, slipping out of the room. The mine was full of the quiet sounds of people settling down for the night. The spicy smell of the stew permeated the chamber, along with the ever-present scent of the rain and mud outside. A crying baby could be heard from one of the side rooms, and the gentle lowing of cattle and sheep reached her ears. A few villagers eyed her curiously. Most had no idea who she was, other than the traveling companion of the Destroyer of Nations. Unfortunately, that was what her lover was remembered as in this part of the world. Xena had not visited Eire in her warlord days, but the Norse lands were close enough for her reputation to reach the Celts.
She found the healer and explained her partner's symptoms. He wanted to take a look, but when she described Xena's quick reflexes, and her lessened mental state, he agreed that it might be best if Gabrielle tended to the warrior. She had just found the stronger herbs she needed when Kallerine came into the healer's chamber. "Gabrielle, Xena is asking for you. She's really agitated. I think she might even be crying."
Oh, gods. "Thank you." She cupped her selection of vials and quickly followed the slayer back to their chamber, dropping down on one knee. "Xena, honey, I'm here."
"You came back?" Tears were indeed pooled in the blue eyes.
"I told you I'd only be a minute." The bard dug around for a cup in their pack, and began mixing herbs, as Kallerine and Morrigan looked on in concern.
"Love you." Xena's hand reached out from beneath the furs, curling around her wrist.
The bard released a long breath. "Xena " she stopped, eyeing their audience. "Do you mind if .?"
"Come on Kallerine," Morrigan read her signal. "Let's go make sure everyone is settled properly, and the watch schedule has been passed around."
"But what if Xena ?" a strong tug at her arm pulled her off her behind and to her feet. "Okay, okay." She smoothed her skirt. "I get it. Watch schedule got it."
The bard listened as they left, and the room became quiet, save for the popping of the low fire and the warrior's slightly-labored breathing. She poured some water into the mug and mixed the bitter concoction with her finger. She felt the warrior's fingertips, gently stroking her leg, and managed a smile for her partner.
"Love you," the warrior whispered again, closing her eyes, obvious relief on her flushed face.
The bard wondered if her partner's fevered mind had settled on those two words as some sort of comforting mantra. Oh, well, could be worse, I guess. "I love you too, Xena." She felt the fingers squeeze her knee.
"Glad you came back." Xena's eyes fluttered partway open.
"Honey " Gabrielle was at a loss. Okay, she has a fever, she's a little confused. "Of course I came back. Here, I need to prop you up so you can drink this. Can you do that for me?"
"Anything for you." The warrior groaned as Gabrielle's arm slipped under her shoulders, and the bard remembered the broken ribs. Xena drank down the truly foul mixture without a single complaint. She remained silent, but watchful, as the bard re-stitched her head and cleaned up her more serious scratches and cuts.
"Drat it all." She had no muslin strips to bind the warrior's ribs. "Xena, I need to go get a couple of things, but I'll be right back."
"No." The fevered warrior thrashed about, trying to sit up. She cried out softly at the pain in her side, and lay limply back down. "Don't leave me, please."
"Xena " Gabrielle scooted closer, once again stroking her partner's drying hair. Xena's hand grabbed her unoccupied one, squeezing it in a death grip. "Honey, I really need "
"Don't leave me again, please?" A few tears leaked from bloodshot eyes. "Please."
"Your ribs " The bard gritted her teeth. Xena was squeezing her hand really hard. "Xena, you're hurting my hand, honey."
"Oh. Sorry." Xena lessened her hold. "Would never hurt you."
"I know." Gabrielle leaned in, brushing her lips against her partner's in a brief reassuring contact. "Back in just a minute, I promise."
"Love you." The utter defeat in the warrior's voice broke Gabrielle's heart. "Marry me. I love you." Xena closed her eyes, resting the bard's hand against her cheek.
"Xena, we are getting married, remember?" The bard tugged at the ring on Xena's finger, and the blue eyes popped open again.
"I love you so much." She pleaded. "Dont marry Perdicus. Please?"
Oh gods. The bard's body shuddered in physical reaction, as she realized exactly what place in time her partner's mind had settled in. "Xena " Gabrielle blinked away tears of her own. "Perdicus and I Callisto Perdicus is de " What do I say? She changed course. "I don't love Perdicus. I want to marry you."
"You do?" White teeth flashed in a trembling smile. "You really love me?"
"With all my heart and soul." Gabrielle kissed a warm hand. "Now, will you please let me go get some bandages for your ribs?"
The warrior sighed, some of the tension leaving her face. "Okay."
Gabrielle carefully scooted away and up, and moved outside where she leaned against the wall for several long minutes, her eyes closed in absolute pain. They had talked about that time, and Xena had admitted she cried after she left Potadeia. Talking about it and witnessing the raw emotion on the warrior's unguarded face were two completely different things. Xena had said she had been in love with her for a very long time. It was something she knew, but had not really seen until now. "I'm so sorry I hurt you that badly, love," she whispered. "I'll do my best not to ever cause you that much pain again."
She quickly found the bandages and returned to the chamber, binding the broken ribs with more tender loving care than ever. Xena watched her in silence, and was completely cooperative, allowing the bard to slip a warm tunic over her head, and coaxing the warrior to eat half a mug of stew. Not until Gabrielle joined her under the blankets, did Xena completely relax, curling around the bard and sighing in relieved contentment. It was a long while later before the troubled bard followed suit.
Xena stirred, mumbling incoherently in her sleep. She rolled over, flinging back the blankets as her body twitched in discomfort. Gabrielle awoke and looked around, gaining her bearings. The fire had burned down to glowing coals and the air was damp. So was the back of her sleep shirt where Xena had been pressed against her.
She sat up and felt the warrior's forehead. She was still burning up, but there must have been a point when the fever broke for a while, as her hair and clothing were soaked. Gabrielle crawled over to their packs and dug for a dry one. "Hope this one holds out, it's the only dry one you have left, love." She wished they were home where she could care for her partner in a much more comfortable setting.
"Xena." The bard carefully lifted her partner to a sitting position, not wanting to startle her. "I need to get you changed, okay?"
"My fault." The blue eyes blinked open, almost silver in the low light. They were vague and confused, and darted around as if trying to understand where she was. "Shouldn't have brought you here."
"Xena, you know I wanted to come with you." Gabrielle wondered where the warrior's mind has wandered to now. She didn't have to wait long.
"Should've killed Krafstar. Never trusted him." She lifted her arms docilely, allowing the wet shirt to be tugged over her head and the dry one to replace it. "My fault."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle settled the shirt and stroked her partner's head, pulling it down to her own shoulder. "Is this where you go when you have nightmares?" It brought home once again, that the part of Xena who was a killer would not hesitate to take someone down who would even so much as dare to look at Gabrielle wrong. The human side of the warrior practiced self-restraint. She had no doubt if Xena had known Krafstar's true motives, his life would have been forfeit before they ever left Greece. She was shocked to find herself almost wishing that were how it had turned out. It also reinforced to her just how much guilt her partner still carried in her heart, even if she didn't voice it very often.
"Solan." Xena shivered. "My fault, too." The warrior began to cry and clutched helplessly at the front of her partner's shirt. "Shouldn't have blamed you. So sorry."
"Honey." Gabrielle's tears mingled with the warrior's, as they trickled down her neck and onto her upper chest. She sniffled, and drew a difficult breath. "Please come back to me. It's okay." Xena continued to weep silently while the bard combed her fingers through her hair, kissing the top of her head and rocking her slightly. It was odd, seeing this open unguarded side of her partner. In all the time since their brief estrangement, she had never been able to hold Xena or truly offer her comfort on this particular issue. She guiltily soaked it up, a need on a level she didn't realize she had, and wondered if her partner's fever-scrambled brain would remember it when it broke.
"Lost you." The warrior nuzzled her neck. "Never deserved you."
Gabrielle felt her own heart clench in despair. "You never lost me." She held on tighter, mindful of Xena's multiple bruises and broken ribs. "Never. Xena, you've got me for life. For life, honey. I'm not going anywhere. You'll have to leave me first to get rid of me."
The warrior sat up and back, her face wide open and indignant. "I'd never leave you."
"Then I guess we're stuck with each other." The bard urged her partner back down onto the furs. "Sleep, Xena. You're sick. You need it." She tilted her head and kissed a flushed cheek. "I'll be right here with you. I promise."
"Wanna go home." Xena sighed listlessly and allowed Gabrielle to tuck her in.
The bard idly wondered where 'home' was in her partner's addled mind. Amphipolis? Greece? The Amazon village? Greece, most likely, she guessed. "Me too." She snuggled up behind the warrior, pulling to blankets back over both of them. "Me too," she whispered.
Xena's throat was parched, and her head throbbed with a headache. She peered around the small enclosure. She had no idea where she was. She could feel Gabrielle curled around her back, the bard's legs fitting into the curve of her own bent legs. A possessive arm was wound around her waist, which also hurt. Oh, yeah, broken ribs, she reminded herself.
She vaguely remembered her trek back from the river, and creating the rockslide, and hiking toward -- wherever the heck they were now, she assumed. Everything after that was a blank. She swallowed painfully. Dead coals were piled up in a fire ring across the room. It wasn't a cave, exactly. Wooden pillars and cross beams supported the rock walls. The floor was relatively flat and they were sleeping in their own bedroll.
A water skin at the foot of the furs beckoned her, and she inched away from her partner, sitting up and grasping it, taking great satisfying gulps of cold liquid. Her ears told her that either they were so far inside wherever they were, that outside sound was blocked, or else the rain had stopped. She also heard faint stirrings beyond the doorway, and assumed they must be in a safe place, or Gabrielle would not otherwise have let them both sleep unguarded. Her nose wrinkled, as it detected the scent of livestock, mixed with wood smoke.
She felt weak, her arms a bit shaky as she lifted the water skin. Not good. As she began to focus, she wondered what had become of the flooding river and the small village. It occurred to her that the noise outside the room was probably the villagers, and that they were in some kind of shelter. She wondered where Kallerine and Morrigan were, and how long they had been where they were.
Gabrielle stirred, reaching out for her, and she allowed an outstretched hand to grasp her own. The bard smiled in her sleep, clutching her hand and pulling it to her chest. She frowned as she studied her partner more closely. Gabrielle's closed eyes were very puffy, and tear tracks were dried on her cheeks. What happened, love? Her fingertips found the soft downy skin, stroking it in comfort.
Putting two and two together, and given her own lack of memory, she cursed silently. Betcha anything I'm the reason she was crying. Musta been really sick. Probably worried her half to death. She gently nudged her partner's shoulder. "Gabrielle." She'd want to know I'm okay, wouldnt she? "Sweetheart?"
Wary green eyes opened and Gabrielle looked at her with a questioning expression. "Xena?" She sat up, automatically feeling the warrior's forehead. Worry lines immediately disappeared from her face. "Thank the gods. You're cool." Xena coughed in response, covering her mouth, feeling it deep in her lungs. "But obviously not completely well."
"I'll be fine." The warrior accepted an armful of bard. "Where are we?"
"Abandoned mine, halfway back to the underworld, I'm afraid." Gabrielle allowed the warm body to comfort her, taking in Xena's gentle strokes against her back. "How are you feeling?"
"Weak. Headache. Throat tickles. Thirsty beyond belief." She tilted the bard's chin. "Why the tears?"
Gabrielle looked down, collecting her thoughts. "Partly because you were burning up with fever and pretty much out of your mind."
"And ?" Pale blue eyes grew soft.
"And I'd rather save the rest for a while, if that's alright with you." She bit her lower lip.
"Okay." Xena frowned, pulling her partner closer. "Is it something I can fix?"
"Don't think so." Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Guess I might as well tell you now, huh?"
"Might as well, especially if I can't do anything about it." Xena kissed the top of her head. "Who knows, if you fill me in, I might be able to do something about it after all."
I doubt it, the bard sighed to herself. "You kind of lost track of time during the night you went back a couple of places." The bard filled in her partner's confusion about Perdicus, and Solan, and where they were.
Xena listened in silence, her heart aching for her partner's pain. "I'm sorry, love." She pulled back, brushing the bangs from the bard's eyes. "I don't have much control over dreams. Or fever, apparently. I'm not going to lie to you. You marrying Perdicus, and Solan's death are probably two of the subjects that frequent my nightmares most often. That and the knowledge that when I lost Solan, I came very close to losing you as well. We've talked about all of this and from what you've said, re-hashing it does no good."
"That's true." Gabrielle offered a trembling smile. "I just hate that I hurt you so badly in the past. That we hurt each other. Makes me wonder if it's ever going to go away."
"Honestly?" The warrior continued riffling her fingers through the soft blonde hair. "Stuff like that doesn't go away. You know that. But it becomes easier to deal with, the more time passes. For a very long time, my bard, I had nightmares every single night. Woke up every morning half afraid they were true, and that you'd be gone. Now maybe a couple times a month. Time is the great healer, Gabrielle. And love. We have plenty of both to go around."
"And some good memories to make?" Gabrielle touched her partner's face, needing the connection. "Can we just go home now? Stay home for a while? No more getting on boats and sailing all over the world?"
"If that's what you want." Xena turned her head, kissing the bard's palm. "Whatever Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets," she whispered softly. "That's still true. Always will be."
"That's very sweet, Xena, but not very fair to you." She scooted closer, loosely hugging the warrior.
"After the life I've led?" The warrior snorted. "It's more than fair. Do you know how often I've looked to you to understand what the right thing is to do? More times than I can count."
"What about your debt to Odin?" The bard felt the long body stiffen.
"Even that," Xena replied in a resigned voice. "I won't do anything about him without talking to you first. Promise."
"Hey." Tired of morose thoughts, but not the snuggling, Gabrielle reluctantly sat up. "Why don't I go find us some breakfast and see what it looks like outside, while you take a dose of herbs and drink the rest of that water?"
"Deal." Xena smiled, and pulled her back in for a brief kiss. "Mmmmm." She broke off. "Another reason to get home and get myself healed up. "More kisses. And all that leads to." She winked.
"Oh, yeah." The bard stood up and turned toward the doorway, receiving a gentle swat to her behind. "Hey." She spun around. "Dont start it unless you can finish it, Warrior Princess."
"Is that a challenge?" A sexy brow rose in question.
"Maybe." Gabrielle flashed a sensual smile in kind. "You have the whole boat ride home to prove yourself."
"Hmmm." Xena chuckled, watching her partner swagger out the door. "I think I just might be up to that."
Gabrielle sat on a bench at the stern of the boat, her journal spread out in her lap. The boat was docked in Morrigan's home port, its crew hustling about to prepare to embark at dusk, a half candlemark away. The bard nibbled on her metal quill, watching her partner, who stood at the bow, the wind whipping her hair back. The warrior's eyes were closed and she seemed to be enjoying a rare moment of peace. Gabrielle absorbed the moment with a joyful heart, then dipped the quill into her inkwell and continued updating their adventures in Eire:
It's been a crazy few weeks. We spent two days in that abandoned mine, which was good for Xena's body, but really bad for her mind. She gets really bored really fast, and I would have sat on her if it wouldn't have made her broken ribs worse. All for a deer. A deer!
'Dinner' is currently living in Morrigan's barn until he's old enough to be returned to the wild. Morrigan, of course, is coming with us, so one of her neighbors is caring for Dinner until Morrigan returns to Eire with Bridgid.
If she returns.
She's so in love with Hercules. It's plain to all of us. He's going to be at our joining ceremony and we plan on inviting Aphrodite so you just never know what might happen. The Big Guy, as Iolaus likes to call him, deserves some happiness, especially after his marriage to Serena. What a tragedy. Like Morrigan said, he hasn't been lucky in love. I think every woman he's fallen for has either left him or died, including Xena, and he can't have her back. She's mine.
Morrigan is way too noble. Some things are more important than duty. Xena and I have learned that the greater good can change. It just doesn't seem fair for Morrigan to sacrifice her heart for Eire. There has to be a way for her to have her country and her love. Xena is with me, because I am her greater good. Right now, I choose to live in the Amazon village because they need me. Need us. Xena chooses to live with me. But she is my greater good. If the day comes when the Amazon village isn't the best place for her to be, I'll leave the Amazons. There are some things we aren't willing to sacrifice anymore. There is nothing more important to Xena and me than each other. Nothing.
Hercules and Morrigan, if they really want to be together, they'll figure out a way. Xena and I did. Love will find a way, if you'll only give it a chance.
We might work out something for Iolaus too. Apparently he's smitten with a pirate lady named Nebula, who also happens to be a Sumarian princess. I'm going to send her a diplomatic invitation to our joining. Xena says she's met Nebula once, on the high seas, back when Xena herself was a pirate. She said Nebula looks almost exactly like Cleopatra. Pretty weird, all the look-alikes we run into. Like Xena and Meg and Diana and Leah. Makes me wonder if Ares got around some. Ick.
So, I got off track. The rain finally stopped and the floods receded. Xena's rockslide worked, at least partly. Just like she thought, most of the huts in that little village had soggy floors, but no one lost their homes. They were ever so grateful to Xena for that and fawned all over us.
Xena pretends to be embarrassed by the attention, but I know part of her soaks that stuff up. She needs it. It's a small bit of proof that she really has changed, that she does make a difference for people, for the good. I don't think she's going to be known as the Destroyer of Nations in Eire anymore. I think I heard a couple of villagers planning to erect a statue in her honor, and one even suggested renaming the village Xenapolis.
We stayed a few days to help with cleanup, and it was all I could do to get Xena to take it easy. She was running around lifting things, hefting axes, shoveling mud, and just about everything she shouldn't have been doing with broken ribs. I swear she's a stubborn as Tobias sometimes.
I miss Tobias. I miss home. I think Xena does too. We talked a lot about this trip, because it was really hard on both of us. I, of course, always try to figure out what it all means.
Xena, on the other hand, she's more practical. "Gabrielle, we came to Eire, we killed Alti (again), we destroyed the mask, we saved the world, we stopped a flood, and now we're going home." Very to the point, which is how she is, unless she's getting all mushy on me.
Okay, so we DID save the world.
That's such a very strange thing for me to think about. Me, the village girl from Potadeia. I sometimes shake my head, trying to figure out how I got to where I am. Then I look at Xena and I know how. I followed my heart.
I have very few regrets, and the longer I'm with Xena, the more those regrets begin to fade. Coming this close to Britannia was pretty difficult for both of us. But I think there was a reason for us to be drawn back here. We really HAVE started to finally put everything that happened here behind us.
It will always be there, of course. Xena is right. Some things are too tragic to ever forget. But time and love have healed a lot of wounds. In a strange sort of way, we are stronger, I think, in part, because of the things that happened to us in Britannia. It was so complicated, and it wasn't completely settled until I ran into Xena into the woods outside Potadeia, after I fell down that lava pit with Hope.
That was a turning point for us. After that it became about us. US. Not about Xena. We became more equal. She started to really listen to me, and she was willing to follow me, if I had journeys of my own I needed to make. Our living situation right now is a prime example of that equality, because Xena, on her own, would never in a million summers choose to live with the Amazons.
She's come a long long way. I caught her in the market yesterday, buying some little gifts for Pony and a few of the other warriors she's become buddies with. A couple of pocket knives, that sort of stuff. She tried to hide her packages, but it was too late. She's so cute when she blushes. Even cuter when she blushes and scowls and mumbles under her breath all at the same time.
I think our time in Eire reaffirmed for both of us that we're on the right path. We belong together. That will never change. For now, we belong with the Amazons, and even Xena misses home.
We've never had one place we called home. But last night, we were back at the inn in Morrigan's village. She finally got a chance to remind me of just what a studly woman she can be. Wow. She can turn me inside out with a single touch. She was pretty pleased with herself afterward, or pleased with my response, or something.
Anyway afterward we were lying in that little bed and she was holding me, like she always does. We got to talking about our hut back home, and our garden out back and our bathing room, which is really nice. It was pretty obvious we both can't wait to get back there.
It will be spring planting time, so we'll be helping out in the fields, and Xena will be delivering a new crop of foals. I think three mares were pregnant when we left. I miss our cat, Trouble, and Tobias and Argo and Star. I miss afternoon tea with Raella and I really miss lazy evenings with Xena.
I think we're going to go up to our waterfall and the cave when we get back, and spend a few days alone just regrouping. Xena said she'd like to make some new good memories there, being as her last experience there almost killed her.
This boat, it's a cargo boat with full crew. We had to pay our passage this time, but it will be worth it to just rest. I talked them into giving Xena and me a topside berth. In exchange I'll be telling stories each night after dinner. It's been a while since I told stories every night. I have a lot of new material to try out, that's for sure.
Raella and Morrigan are sharing a berth, and Morrigan is beside herself with anxiety to see Bridgid. Kallerine and Amarice haven't come out of their berth since we came aboard. We didn't see much of them at the inn yesterday, either. I had a little talk with Kallerine. Gods, was I ever that young? They were really cute when we finally got back to this village. They haven't been apart a single minute. Kallerine thinks she's in love with Amarice. She admitted they still haven't progressed beyond kissing. I'm glad of that, although I suspect they won't last long.
Like I have room to talk, huh? Xena and I waited what, all of two days after we figured it out? Maybe even a little less than two days. But neither of us were virgins, although I think, in a weird way, it is our first love, for both of us. That's kind of sweet to think about. Xena's past is pretty racy, but I am her first love and she's definitely mine. I'm glad we got to figure out being in love together.
Oh, Odin showed up after dinner last night. Again. I don't like him. I like him even less than I like Ares. At least Ares, in his own twisted way, cares about Xena. Odin, I'm not so sure. He's arrogant. What god isn't huh? He wants some sort of restitution from Xena, and he doesn't much seem to care if she gets hurt or even killed, as long as she makes this great wrong in her past right.
I know her. We are going to have a huge row over this, I fear, before it's over. Odin is a god, and I think he should bloody well fix the problem himself. Xena just feels guilty. Of course. And she's pig-headed enough that she'll eventually go try to fix it. Of course.
Odin said they had come up with a solution for both Loki and Kernunnos. The Norse gods gathered and removed the curse, so Loki will be released from his rock, after all this time. But where they're sending him he may wish he were still in chains.
Odin knows about Callisto and all of that. Must be some kind of immortal courtesy or license or something. Ares told us a while back that Callisto is in a place worse than Tartarus, called Hell. Xena said the Celtic and Norse underworld is a lot like Tartarus. Nasty place, so I can only imagine how bad Hell must be. They are sending Loki and Kernunnos to Hell, for eternity. He said it's the only place so far removed, and so terrible, and so well-guarded, that it will hold them and they won't be a threat.
If I recall, Kernunnos had been made mortal. I can only assume that means he was alive. He was nowhere to be found when we arrived back in Morrigan's village, and Odin confirmed he was part of Loki's one-way ticket to Hell. I don't want to know. If he's alive and they send him to Hell, that would be horrible. If they kill him before they send him there, well, like I said, I don't want to know.
That has been one of the hardest lessons of all for me to learn. That some people are so evil, they truly don't deserve to live. I used to believe there was some small good in even the worst of people. I don't believe that anymore. I know that breaks Xena's heart, and we don't talk about it.
Kernunnos was a god before, so it's a little easier for me to stomach. I still find killing difficult. But I would only do it to protect someone I love, like Xena. Like I had to do in Egypt. I'm not a murderer, but I will protect Xena, no matter what I have to do.
So here we are, about to sail home to Greece. Big plans to finish making, and I think we may end up putting off our joining until the summer solstice -- give folks a chance to travel to the village, especially the ones coming from far away like Cleopatra and Nebula.
We talked some more about having children. Xena said she will beg a favor from Ares if she has to. I think there has to be another way. I may have a talk of my own, with either Artemis or Aphrodite, or both. I'm required to produce an heir for the Amazons, who are ruled by Artemis. I'm in love with Xena, which is Aphrodite's territory. They're a couple of capable goddesses. Surely they can put their heads together and help Xena and I make a baby between the two of us.
I want a baby that looks like her, and she, of course, said she wants one that looks like me. I think we'll take what we can get, although I really hope it looks like neither Hope nor Solan. The child will be well-loved, regardless of what it looks like. I really want this for her, and she wants it for me. It will be a second chance for both of us. We both have so much love to give. To each other and to a family.
She's so cute. Whenever we talk about having a child, she ends up rubbing my belly, as if there is one already growing there. I can just imagine how overprotective she's going to be if I really do get pregnant. If she wants to pamper me for nine moons, who am I to stop her?
And speaking of pampering, I believe I'll close this for now, and go see what's going on in her beautiful, complicated head.
Xena turned, sensing her soulmate's approach. "Hello, love. Finish your writing?"
"For now." Gabrielle slid in behind her, circling the warrior's waist and resting her cheek against a leather-clad back. "What an adventure, huh?"
"Yep." The warrior turned, sitting back against the railing and drawing Gabrielle forward, until she was standing between Xena's legs. Xena tilted her head and kissed her partner intently, lingering until she felt the bard's body go limp in her arms. "Mmmmm."
"Mmm-hmmm." Green eyes fluttered open. "That was nice. Any particular reason?"
"Do I need a reason to kiss my favorite girl?" Xena gently nuzzled the blonde head, tucking it under her chin. "Nice sunset, eh?"
Gabrielle shifted, turning her face toward the setting sun, feeling the final rays of warmth wash over her face. "Yes. Sure is. Kind of romantic, sailing off into the sunset with you."
"Oh, my bard. I promise you, we will be sharing sunsets until we're so old and gray we have to squint to see 'em." She kissed Gabrielle's head. The boat gently rocked them and the fresh ocean breeze tickled her nostrils pleasantly, along with Gabrielle's own sweet scent. This was peace.
"How can you make a promise like that, honey? Something could happen " A gentle hand covered her mouth, and she nibbled Xena's palm playfully.
"I don't care." Xena's eyes were vibrant with determination. "I am going to grow old with you, and I don't care what I have to do -- what I have to give up, to make that happen."
Gabrielle settled back down into the warm embrace, watching as the pulsing liquid orb, as it began to drop over the edge of the world. "We're really going home, aren't we? Seems like it's been forever."
Something tickled the recesses of the warrior's mind. It had been forever. She felt it, the truth of what they learned from Naima. It had taken several lifetimes to get to this place. "Gabrielle, I already am home."
No more words were needed, as two hearts shared one of many sunsets. The future was wide open ahead of them, full of possibility, and promises that would not be broken.
THE END, for now
NOTE AS OF JULY 14, 2002: It took a little over a year to finish this one. Thanks to all who came along for the ride. I'm already a little over three chapters into a new story, "Galveston 1900: Swept Away." If you aren't familiar with the history, in 1900, the island of Galveston, Texas was destroyed by a massive hurricane. Some 6,000 people were killed. It still remains the single greatest disaster in American history (exclusive of war) in terms of loss of life, greater even than the tragedies of September 11th this past year. The story I'm writing is centered on two women who lived on the island at that time. It's out of the norm for me, but I think my personal style is still intact. It is beyond uber, the characters don't look like Lucy and Renee, although I guess readers could "slide" those faces in place if they want to. My prototypes are Claudia Christian and Alexandra Tydings. I will eventually post the story to the various websites, but not until it's complete. It's a much more complicated story, historically, than anything else I've written, so it will get some major editing after I finish it, before posting. If folks want to read it in progress, they can join one of my lists. I have the unedited complete chapters in file folders at each list. I have an updates only list (no chat) at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbardupates and a chat/updates list at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbard. That's where I'm posting the unedited story in progress.
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