Please read the Disclaimer in Part
Spoilers: Implied, not explicit: there's one small spoiler for "Sacrifice" but it's pretty vague.
Sex/naughty language: Still none
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Four: None of Xena's many skills were harmed in the production of this fanfic.
Xena rushed forward, alarm tightening her throat as she caught sight of the bright red blotch that had caught Gabrielle's eye. The bard was already kneeling on the ground, reaching out her hand toward the spot of color.
"Gabrielle!" Xena exclaimed anxiously, but then the bard turned to her and lifted her hand, palm flat, so that Xena could see what lay in it: a few tiny red beads, round and bright and innocent against Gabrielle's pale calloused skin.
"Beads," the bard said breathily, gasping partly with relief and partly with embarrassment. "Like the ones the villagers wear in their hair. Look, there's some green ones here too, and some brown." There were indeed a few other beads on the ground, their earthy colors blending with the dirt, the rocks and the scraggly grass.
"Beads," Xena repeated, hoarse with her own relief, and cleared her throat self-consciously. She turned to look at the boulder, then speculatively at the ground beside it. "She must have stopped here to rest." With a casual leap, the warrior was atop the boulder, standing on its uneven surface for a moment before squatting and then sitting. She looked down at the young bard. In the waning light of the afternoon, the setting sun was at Xena's back, and Gabrielle had to squint slightly, looking up at her, watching the golden light set the tiny hairs on Xena's arms alight.
The expression on her friend's face was a little too ardent for Xena to stand, so she looked away, surveying the ground again from her new vantage point. "There," she said. Gabrielle looked, but saw nothing.
Xena pushed herself away from the rock, springing forward and landing lightly on her feet. Letting her knees give, she leaned down and placed her hands over two small indentations in the dusty, rocky ground.
"She jumped down here," she observed, standing up and brushing her hands off. She turned back to the boulder and fingered a bit of golden hair caught in a crack. "She must have snagged her hair and broken the beads off." She turned to look up the mountain, which loomed closer than ever. "We're on the right track."
"Beads," Gabrielle said yet again, looking down at the tiny red drops in her hand. She looked up to meet Xena's gaze, and her eyes were troubled. "I thought...."
"I know," Xena said gruffly, quickly, cutting her off. Abruptly, the warrior wheeled around and returned to Argo, taking the reins and resuming her slow tread up the side of the mountain. Her eyebrows were drawn down in a scowl, and her feet stomped the ground somewhat more firmly than necessary.
Gabrielle watched for a moment in bewilderment, then shoved the beads into her shoulderbag and hurried after her friend. She started to call Xena's name, but she was tired of yelling and panting, so instead she put her energy into catching up, and then into calming her breathing as she fell into step with Xena again. Lungs back under control, she was able to modulate her voice into an even, quiet tone when she finally spoke.
"Why are you angry?" she asked softly.
Xena glanced over at her, started to say something, and stopped. Watching the ground, guiding Argo carefully across the rocks, she muttered, almost to herself, "No, a bard chooses all her words carefully. You never have to regret anything you say."
"What?" Gabrielle blinked in astonishment at her friend, and almost laughed. "Xena, that's ridiculous. Of course I say things that I regret. Hades, just in the past year I've said enough regrettable things to last most people a whole lifetime!" Xena cast a dark look across at her, but said nothing.
"Okay, so what do you regret having said?" Gabrielle asked after another moment, when it became clear that Xena wasn't going to take the initiative. The warrior frowned even harder.
"Everything." She paused, and then added, "That crap about Caesar. Caesar!" She gave a derisive snort. "Don't know what I was doing asking *him* about death. Always going on about destiny. Fate." She shook her head. "Fate. Like that means anything, in this world."
"But it does," Gabrielle said, still quietly, but fervently. "You can change your destiny. Ares showed me-"
"Ares!" Xena gave another snort, fraught with bitterness. "He showed you nothing. When you listen to him, you see what he wants you to see. It means nothing."
"Our love means nothing?" Gabrielle asked, very softly. "What have our three years together been, if not a lesson in changing your destiny?"
Xena was silent, staring ahead of them, but her step slowed. Gabrielle watched her profile, seeing how the corners of the warrior's mouth tightened. The bard felt her own lips turn downward and she pressed them together tightly to keep them from trembling. A bard she may be, but she still couldn't figure out what to say to open up the knot of inexplicable anger that walked beside her. So she walked on, as mute as Xena, brooding over what had and hadn't been said, wishing the warrior would decide on her own to elaborate, but knowing she wouldn't.
"We're here," Xena said at last, her tone subdued. Gabrielle stopped walking, surprised, and looked up. Sure enough, they had reached the very edge of the mountain. A sheer wall of rock rose almost vertically above them. Far up, the eye could just make out a dark patch that marked the spot whence the light emanated, still flashing every few minutes. Gabrielle gazed for a long moment up the mountain, and when she finally tore her eyes away, she found that Xena had already tied Argo to a nearby shrub and was rubbing her hands in the dirt to prepare for the climb.
"Ready?" was all the warrior said. Gabrielle took a deep breath and nodded, stuffing her shoulderbag into one of Argo's saddlebags. Xena gave her a boost up, and she quickly found hand- and footholds and began to climb. Xena followed closely behind, keeping one eye on the bard as she climbed.
The climb continued for what seemed like an eternity, the setting sun scorching their backs, the rock tearing at their fingers, the breeze lifting their hair off their necks. For a long time the only sounds Gabrielle heard were her and Xena's labored breathing, the soft scrabble of flesh against rock, the occasional chink of a tiny piece of mountain giving way.
But then suddenly Gabrielle felt the rock leveling out above her head, her hand skittering across flatness. And another sound: a soft sobbing, a noise that only a human throat could make.
"Kyla?" Gabrielle called, gathering in a deep breath for the shout. Below her, Xena paused, looking up, hearing the sobs taper off and then a faint return call.
"Help ... please help me," begged the weary, ragged voice. Gabrielle heaved herself up toward the flat place. Xena was putting on an extra burst of speed, bringing herself level with Gabrielle. The faint cry came again, and then the two women heaved themselves up onto a shallow ledge, the powerful light still far above their heads, and found the missing girl.
She was lying awkwardly in a small hollow against the face of the mountain, one leg splayed out in front of her at an unpleasant angle. Her skin was gray and sheened with sweat, her eyes wide and panicked, her breathing fast and shallow.
"I hurt my leg," she whimpered when she saw Xena and Gabrielle appear; her words were rushed and slurred together, her voice high and shrill.
"It's okay," Gabrielle told her gently as Xena moved to examine the leg. "You're going to be fine. Your people sent us to get you. It's all right." She took a clammy hand in her own; the girl clutched at her fingers like a lifeline.
"My people," she repeated anxiously, trying to blink sense into her eyes. "Mama ... Rahsee must be so angry with me!"
"No, no, don't worry," Gabrielle soothed, holding the teenager's gaze, trying to distract her from whatever Xena was doing. "They won't be angry. They'll just be glad that you're safe."
"I just wanted to see what...." the exhausted girl murmured, gesturing limply up the mountainside. "I just wanted ... but then I fell and-" The rest of her sentence was cut off in a weak shout of pain as Xena shoved something back into place.
"Broken," Xena said tersely, running her fingers carefully down the bruised limb. Gabrielle disentangled her fingers from Kyla's and moved behind the warrior, reaching down to quickly and efficiently unbuckle Xena's scabbard and remove it, sword and all, from her armor. Xena was already taking her whip from her belt, and together they used the sword and scabbard to fashion a makeshift splint around the gasping girl's leg.
Xena scooted to the edge of their shelf and looked down the way they had come. She sighed. It was going to be a slow and painful descent. She just hoped the youth's arms were up to it. "You go first and then I'll-" she began, and then she noticed Gabrielle.
The bard was standing up, shielding her eyes against the dying sun, looking with a hooded gaze up at the mysterious hole in the mountain's face, from which the strange light was still pulsing irregularly. Gabrielle barely seemed to be breathing, let alone listening to Xena. The warrior put a hand lightly, carefully on her friend's shoulder, and Gabrielle started slightly, looking over at her.
"We have to go," the bard said heavily, nodding acceptance. Xena hesitated.
"You really want...."
"But we need to get her down," Gabrielle demurred, trying to hide the hope that lit her eyes. "She needs medical attention."
"Another five minutes won't hurt her," Xena said, her hand still warm on Gabrielle's shoulder. "You go up. You need to know. I'll stay here with her."
Gabrielle took a deep, shuddering breath, glanced at the girl, then back up the mountain, then back at her friend. Xena gave her an encouraging nod. The bard let out her breath in a quick sigh, nodded briskly, and turned. She put her hands and feet to the mountain again, and resumed climbing.
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