"By the gods, it's cold tonight," Gabrielle said and watched the warm vapors of her own breath form a cloud as she whispered the words.
She burrowed deeper into her bedroll. Covering her head with the thick bearskin blanket, she shifted closer to the warmth of her sleeping partner until all body parts were touching some portion of the warrior.
The problem was, Xena's leathers were as cold as the air and offered no relief at all.
"Uggh!" Cold hands and even colder feet sought out warmer skin.
"Gods, Gabrielle!" Xena croaked, stirring with annoyance as ice cold palms slipped beneath her leathers. "Do you mind?" She tried to move away, but Gabrielle only shifted closer.
"I'm cold," the bard whimpered, complaining.
"No kidding." Xena winced as Gabrielle's feet found a warm spot in between her legs.
The bard's hands wormed their way over and under, somehow finding a warm breast and even toastier buns. She wiggled contentedly against her partner and let out a satisfied sigh.
Xena looked over her shoulder, smiling affectionately as Gabrielle burrowed her cold nose into dark hair in search of a warm neck. "Better?"
"Are you quite done?"
"Good. Now go back to sleep."
Gabrielle responded with a sigh which tickled the skin of Xena's neck. The warrior grinned and laid her head down. She closed her eyes and pulled the blanket up around them to keep them better sheltered.
Only a few deep breaths later, Xena felt Gabrielle shifting against her once again. She chose to ignore the movement, pretending to be asleep.
Gabrielle huffed and wiggled some more.
Xena's eyes snapped open and she glanced over her shoulder with irritation. "Now, what's the matter?"
"I can't sleep."
"Why not? Still cold?"
"No, I'm toasty warm now," Gabrielle answered, smiling into Xena's hair.
"Well, then what's wrong?"
"I have to pee."
"Well, go pee then!"
"Don't want to."
"It's too cold to get up."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Then don't think about it. Just take deep breaths. Count words or something. Go back to sleep."
Xena laid her head back down and closed her eyes, only to feel the bard's toes wiggling against the skin of her leg.
She chose to ignore the movement, pretending to be asleep, until Gabrielle's leg began to bounce.
Xena sat all the way up, causing the covers to fall from them both.
"HEY!" Gabrielle yelped. She grabbed for the blankets, but Xena pulled them away.
"Go pee. Now."
Gabrielle made once last attempt to grab at the bearskin, but Xena snatched it away, completely exposing the bard to the cold.
"Go pee!" the warrior ordered.
They glared at each other for a few moments, until Gabrielle realized she wasn't going to be getting any more blanket or warm warrior skin until she relieved her bladder.
She squinted her eyes in anger. "You are a mean, evil warlord."
"You betcha. Now, go pee."
Gabrielle's squint changed to a puppy dog plea.
Xena hugged the blanket closer to her own body. "G'wan."
"Oh, all right," Gabrielle said with a huff, making a show of lifting her tired, cold, aching body out of the bedroll.
She stood in the darkness, rubbing her arms against the chill as she looked around for an appropriate bush.
Xena snuggled down into the bedroll, pulling the furry covering up to her chin.
"Hurry back," she said to the bard who was standing alone in the dark. "I'm cold."
Gabrielle shot her partner an irritated look before stepping toward the path leading into the woods. It was a good thing she didn't see the amused smile gracing the warrior's features.
Gabrielle pushed a leafy branch out of the way and stepped into the forest. Maneuvering by a few bushes and an outcrop of rock, she walked deeper into the night, following a narrow path that was illuminated by the stark light of a half-full moon.
The air was chillingly cold. Gabrielle hugged herself and rubbed her arms as she scurried along the trail trying to put some distance between herself and the campsite. She hated to go to the bathroom too close to home, having once stepped in her own bardie-poo as they were breaking camp not too long ago.
Gabrielle moved along the forest path easily, winding her way deeper into the trees. It was quiet. Only the sound of the bard's own footsteps crunching against forest debris which had been stiffened by the cold disrupted the silence. A sudden breeze shifted the air, causing the leaves on the trees to hiss. An howl hooted. Gabrielle jumped slightly at the nocturnal call. She hugged herself tighter and scurried along the path more quickly, heading toward a bush not too far down the trail.
A snapping twig caught her complete attention. Gabrielle froze to the spot, still hugging her arms and stared wide-eyed into the darkness.
The wind shifted once more and the leaves clapped overhead. Gabrielle looked up at the branches, watching them sparkle in the moonlight as they danced.
She shook her head and took a few more steps toward her chosen bush.
Another twig snapped. Gabrielle halted. She let her arms drop to her side and stood on the path, staring with defiance in the direction of the sound.
Another crunch of foliage confirmed the presence of someone else in the forest.
"I said, who's there?" The bard took one step, and then two, toward the source of the noise. Another crunch and the bard was painfully aware that she did not have her staff. She balled her hands into fists and prepared for an attack. "Show yourself!"
Silence was the only reply.
Gabrielle waited, squinting her eyes into the trees, searching for signs of movement. Long seconds ticked by, but the darkness revealed nothing.
The breeze picked up once more and the leaves rustled, filling the air with a soft hum. The bard began to relax as the forest settled into cold silence. Hearing no other sound but her own breathing, Gabrielle's shoulders dropped and her fists unwound.
She thought it would be best if she ran the rest of the way to the bush.
The owl hooted. Gabrielle froze. Another branch snapped -- this time behind her. Gabrielle whirled around.
"Xena!" Gabrielle called out. "Is that you?"
No answer from the warrior. But the owl decided it was a good time to hoot again.
"Xena, if that's you, I want you to know, I am NOT amused!"
A loud thud, like a rock hitting dirt, sounded on the opposite side of the path.
Gabrielle's irritated frown turned into a grin.
"So, it's the old 'throw the rock into the dirt on the opposite side of the road' trick, eh Xena?" Gabrielle said, nodding her head knowingly. "Well, you're not going to scare me with THAT one, Warrior Princess."
The bard smiled in satisfaction, turned, and began to purposely stroll nonchalantly the rest of the way to the bush.
"Nope. I wasn't born yesterday. You can't scare me with that worn out old trick, Xena. No sirree, Bobicus. I've got your number now."
Gabrielle reached the bush and stood next to it for a moment.
"You can't scare this bard that easily, Xena, Warrior Princess. Not anymore."
With a confident nod, she lifted her skirt and dropped her britches, settling down into a nice, comfortable squat.
And then an ice cold hand touched against the warm, soft skin of a perfectly round cheek.
"Xena! You pervert!" Gabrielle said with a laugh, swatting the hand away. But there was nothing there.
The cold hand touched her skin again. Gabrielle swiveled in her squat to look, annoyed that the touch had inhibited her pee.
"Xena! Do you mind? Can't a girl pee in peace?"
Sure enough, there was someone squatting right behind her. But it was not Xena.
Something dark and moldy and cobwebby was reaching out to touch her exposed skin once more.
"AAAHHH!" Gabrielle screamed, jumping up with a start.
It stood up with her and reached out.
The bard took a step back and promptly fell in the dirt, tripped by her own britches, which were still wrapped around her ankles.
It took a step in her direction.
Gabrielle scrambled in the dirt, backing away as she kicked the restricting underwear off to free her feet.
It bent and picked up the panties, then smiled. The moonlight chose that moment to illuminate its one rotten tooth and the worms that were crawling through sockets which had once held eyeballs.
"YEEEEEE AAHHHHHH!" the bard screamed, scrambling to her feet and taking off for the campsite at full speed.
Heavy steps told Gabrielle that the creature was right behind her.
She pumped her arms and legs, running as fast and hard as she could, but her senses told her that the thing was right on her heels, reaching out with gods knows what kind of hands to try and grab her skirt.
She flew around a bush, ignoring the bite of rough branches against her arms.
Her feet thudded into the dirt; golden locks were whipped back in the wind. She whizzed by an oak tree. The owl perched in it swiveled its head, eyes bright and wide with surprise. All it saw was a fluttering skirt revealing a suddenly full moon bouncing down the trail in the darkness.
Gabrielle's chest was aching. She was running out of breath. A few more strides and she would be past the thick foliage and into the campsite. She could even see the golden form of Argo through the leaves, flicking her tail and twitching an ear as the mare dreamed a horse's dream.
Gabrielle tightened her fists and ran harder, determined to cover those last few steps to safety. She ventured a glance over her shoulder positive that she had outrun the dark, moldy thing.
It was there, right at her shoulder, reaching a cracking hand thick with slime to touch her skin. It was so close she could smell it, a stench that filled her nostrils with the dank scent of the grave. She could swear she saw a snake crawling out of one of its empty eye sockets.
"EEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAA!" the bard screamed at the top of her lungs and broke through the branches, falling face first into the dirt of the campsite.
Argo snorted and jumped, kicking her hooves in the dirt in surprise.
Xena flew up out of her bedroll, chakram in hand -- her hair wild and eyes wide with fear as she recognized the scream of her partner, even in her sleep.
"GABRIELLE!" the warrior yelled and took a defensive stance. She looked around the area anxiously, waiting for the attack, shifting in every direction to cover all sides.
But there was nothing. Only the bard, face down in the dirt with her skirt thrown up, exposing a conspicuously bare bottom.
"Gabrielle!" Xena called, still frozen in attack position. Then she ran over to her fallen partner. "Gabrielle! Are you all right?"
The bard moaned and lifted her head. Xena watched as pale buns wiggled a little in an attempted to get to her knees.
"All right. What's going on?" the warrior asked, lowering her chakram. Her eyebrow arched at the surprising, but not unwelcomed sight. "Didn't you forget something?"
Gabrielle gasped and scurried to her feet. She ran behind Xena and pulled them both away from the bushes.
"Xena! This THING is after me! It's right behind me! It was chasing me!" Gabrielle's words rushed out of her as she pulled both herself and her partner to the far end of the campsite, all the way to where Argo was standing, tied to a tree.
Xena raised her chakram taking a defensive stance once more.
But nothing came crashing out of the woods. No thing came chasing after the bard. The bush was still. The forest silent. Even the owl had disappeared.
Xena lowered her weapon. "A 'thing' huh?"
"Yes! A thing! Ugly, gross, disgusting, worm-eaten, mold-dripping THING. It touched me and then chased me! All the way down the path! It was right behind me. Reaching out for me!" The bard's words tumbled out of her mouth as she hid behind Xena and pointed to the trees at the perimeter of the campground. "And it smelled bad, too!"
"A-huh. A smelly thing?"
Gabrielle nodded vigorously.
Her bouncing blond locks confirmed the fact.
"And dripping mold?"
Argo snorted again. Gabrielle shot the horse an annoyed look. "There was a thing out there ... and it was chasing me."
"All right. Calm down!" Xena said, returning the weapon to her hip. "Whatever it was, it doesn't appear to be chasing you anymore."
The warrior stepped away from her protective stance in front of the bard to return to their bedrolls.
Gabrielle was amazed, surprised, dumbfounded.
"Aren't you going to do something?"
Xena took the chakram from her hip and placed it on the ground next to her bed. "What would you like me to do?"
"Go put the pinch on it or something."
Xena rearranged the ground covering and blanket, which had become upset when she was so unceremoniously disturbed from her sleep. "Why would I want to go put the pinch on something that was ugly, smelly, moldy and worm-eaten?"
"Well, it has my underwear for one thing."
Xena smiled brilliantly. "And ... that's a bad thing?"
Gabrielle huffed. "Come on, Xena. You're not going to let some ... some ... creature wander loose around our campsite, are you?"
Xena finished fluffing up the blankets and shrugged. "It doesn't appear to be interested in our campsite. Besides, it was only chasing after YOU, wasn't it?"" The warrior slipped in between the covers and patted the bedroll beside her. "Now, c'mon. Get back in bed. It's cold. I don't want you to catch ..." Xena bit back a wicked grin, "... a chill."
"Hardy har har," Gabrielle replied, suddenly realizing that the wind was indeed whipping up quite a chill in certain areas. She adjusted her skirt to better shield her backside and scurried toward the blankets.
"You don't believe me do you?" the bard asked as she slid between the covers.
"Oh, I believe you," Xena answered. She wrapped her arm around Gabrielle and pulled her as close as she could get her. "After all, somebody has your underwear. And I know it isn't me." Xena grinned and kissed the back of Gabrielle's head. "I'll check it out first thing in the morning. All right?"
"Hmmppf," the bard said , feeling warrior calluses rubbing affectionately against the soft skin of her rump, "just don't get used to this."
"Don't worry," Xena whispered as she gave her favorite cheek a tender squeeze, "if the 'smelly, worm-eaten, ugly thing' comes back, I'll get your britches for ya."
Gabrielle sighed and snuggled deeper into the warmth of her partner. "You promise?"
The night became quite once again as the warrior and her bard drifted off into sleep.
"I never did get to pee."
"Go to sleep, Gabrielle."
"Right down there, straight ahead" Gabrielle said as she pointed down the path toward the large bush. She remained a safe distance away, refusing to go any further, but she urged the warrior onward with her finger. "Over there."
Xena stepped forward, moving in the direction instructed. She inspected the ground as she walked, looking for tracks. All she could see were the footsteps left behind by the bard, leading to and rushing from a bush a short distance ahead.
The warrior approached the spot, withdrawing her sword ... just in case.
There was only a large bush. Everything near and around it appeared undisturbed. Not a leaf out of place. Not a branch broken. Even the cobwebs crisscrossing through the foliage remained intact. She reached the area were her partner had squatted and inspected the ground.
"There's nothing here, Gabrielle," Xena called out.
"Nothing?" Gabrielle asked incredulously. Xena's statement made her feel a little braver, so she took a few steps forward. "Are you sure there's nothing there?"
"Not a thing. I can tell YOU were here, though." The warrior smiled at the underwear lying in the dirt. She squatted to take a closer look into the bush. Moving a few branches away with her sword, she frowned at what she found within.
"Are you sure?" Gabrielle called out, walking hesitantly closer.
"There's nothing here, Gabrielle," Xena repeated and stood, blocking the bush from Gabrielle's view. "C'mon. Let's go back. We have to pack Argo and get going."
"Are you sure you found nothing?" Gabrielle asked, trying to look around Xena's body.
Xena turned the bard and pushed her away. "Positive. Nothing but a bush."
"Just a bush?"
"Only a bush," Xena repeated, urging the bard along the path back to their campsite.
They walked hurriedly along the path, Xena making sure that the bard did not look back.
"So, there was nothing there?" Gabrielle asked again as they walked along.
"Nothing," Xena confirmed.
"No sign of the creature that chased me?"
"No sign of anything - worm-eaten or otherwise."
Gabrielle sighed. "You don't believe me."
"Don't worry. I believe you were chased by something. But whatever it was," Xena said, taking a hesitant peek over her shoulder, "it's gone now. Let's just get packed and get out of here. Agreed?"
Gabrielle looked up and frowned at the strange expression on her partner's face. "Agreed," she answered skeptically.
Xena guided her friend through the last of the trees and into their campsite, taking care not to look back at the bush -- or the recently dug mound that was obviously a grave hidden within its branches.
The warrior hastened to Argo and quickly tightened their packs onto the saddle.
Gabrielle picked up the remaining blankets and began to roll them up.
"What about my britches?" she asked, pausing in her chore to look at her partner.
"What?" Xena asked, jumping a little -- more from the shiver crawling down her spine than from Gabrielle's question.
"My underwear. Did you find my underwear?"
"Oh, them," Xena said nonchalantly, thoughts of graves and ghosts disappearing as she tucked the item in question secretly into her pack.
"Nope. Didn't find 'em." She turned and smiled at her partner. "Guess you'll just have to do without."
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