"If you stopped your moaning and gave me a hand, we'd be on our way already." Eden told the complaining driver.
"But the mud and snow, we'll never make it through!" he wailed to her, "It's useless! And it's so cold!"
"By all means," she now grumbled back at the cart wheel, "just sit up there and cry again while I deal with your problem. Much better idea."
"What happened here?" Arielle asked, trotting up behind the warrior.
"Yes, we know!" Eden cut off sharply, throwing the driver a murderous stare and then she turned to Arielle, "The wheel's come loose."
"And you're trying to fix it with the whole family still sitting in the cart?"
"I told him to at least get down and he cried for a quarter of an hour. And besides," Eden said, now raising her voice and turning back to the driver to make sure he heard her, "I wouldn't dream of taking away his chance to continue to be the big, brave hero!"
With that Eden picked up the cart roughly and kicked the wheel back into place, her eyes never leaving the trembling driver who didn't know whether to be thankful or terrified. Eden wiped her hands of the mud as the driver simply spurred his horses ahead slowly muttering something about them all freezing to death very soon.
"Remind me again why we're here?" Eden asked, looking up at the bard.
"Because I'm still much too naive and am easily coerced into offering our help before I even know who and why we're helping?"
"Sounds right." the warrior sighed and trudged off to her horse.
When the warrior reappeared beside her, Arielle called for the train to move along again. Eden looked ragged and the bard felt sorry for her. Her cloak and boots were caked in mud and there were slight dark circles forming underneath her eyes. The pilgrims didn't make anything easy; half the time they were wringing their hands in sorrow that something happened and the other half in worry that surely there was some catastrophe hanging over them. Arielle tried to understand them, but had to agree that the travelers were a whiny lot. Some were sick, some feeble, and most of the men weren't what Eden would consider a man at all. With an almost painful speed, the small carts full of sleeping, babbling children and the few possessions the travelers had inched along the winding, Tuscan hills.
The slowly moving train wore down Eden's nerves and the difficult weather even more so. The road was almost knee deep mud in some places and despite the prayers of the pilgrims for sun and a warm wind, Eden wished the temperature would drop more and let the road freeze over. She kept a troubled, gloomy eye on the bard, helplessly watching the snowflakes melt into her cloak while they trudged onward to Bologna.
"I've never seen a winter so hard. This snow is a bad omen I tell you!" one of the men said to the guardians as he passed by.
Eden only adjusted her cloak and looked at the road ahead of them. There was one thing she could agree with- she didn't remember ever seeing such a snowy winter either. The nights were getting frigid, the snow deeper and the less traveled roads were no longer passable. The high mountain trails leading to Avignon were already blocked. Eden wondered whether it had been such a good idea to leave Venice so early, but neither the bard nor the warrior wanted to learn if Caterina's influence spread any further. In the end, there was no other choice but to just keep on going.
"Do these people know how to do anything for themselves?" Eden grumbled as she looked for firewood alongside the narrow, dirt road, "It's a miracle they've lived this long."
"What?" Eden asked, turning towards the bard, "They can't travel, can't take the cold, can't cook, and can't even get a fire going. What exactly do you want me to say about a group of people who seem, by some inexplicable coincidence, to all have been born butt first?"
Arielle snorted so loudly that she nearly dropped the firewood she was carrying.
"Eden, not everyone is as self sufficient or battle hardened as you are."
"What do battles have to do with it?"
"Remember when you met me? I couldn't tell the hilt of a sword from its point." Arielle said, readjusting the load she was holding, "I learned a lot just by watching you and then by fighting alongside you. I doubt they could say the same."
Eden was quiet for a few moments and then simply shrugged.
"They're still whining twerps if you ask me."
Arielle only shook her head and smiled. The band got on her nerves too and she was aware that it wasn't the place or the time to go travelling around at an excruciating pace. And she realized that she probably only knew the half of their plight and her heart went out to the tense warrior. She sighed and turned to go back to camp when they heard a distant, dull thundering moving in their direction.
"What is that?" Arielle asked as they both turned in the direction of the sound.
Eden squinted her eyes as she peered intently at what sounded like approaching galloping. She couldn't make out anything, the snow obscuring from view everything more than several meters away.
"I don't know, but I don't like it." the warrior replied, the hairs on her neck slowly beginning to stand on end.
Arielle didn't need anymore explanation to slowly begin to backtrack off the road and into the brush. They crouched low behind a few thick bushes and waited for whatever it was to pass.
The muffled thunder now came down the center of the road and Eden could discern a rider, but no clear face. It was a dark figure kicking up snow and dirt, breaking twigs in its way. But what made her skin crawl was that she could swear that she could hear wailing whispers trailing the rider as if it was carrying the souls of the damned in its saddlebags. The warrior had never heard such a thing and her hand instinctively slid to the hilt of her sword. And as if it saw that movement right then and there, the rider slowed down to almost a standstill. Eden glanced momentarily at the bard and saw Arielle staring up at the sky with her mouth open and her hands clutching her chest.
"Arielle, what is it?" Eden whispered as she crawled over to her and took her face into her hands, "Arielle?"
The rider slowly made its way towards them, the horse snorting loudly as if it was sniffing them out and Arielle just clawed at her chest more and more. The bard's hands had pulled and yanked through her clothing and were now leaving claw marks on the skin of her throat. The rider kept pressing forward and Eden was almost sure that they would soon be found, but she focused on trying to get the bard to breathe. There was no faint whispering or coaxing or stroking of her face or hair that calmed Arielle down as her skin grew paler while the veins in her neck bulged.
Without any better idea and now feeling the approaching hooves hitting the ground with each step, Eden wrapped her arms around the bard, leaned down, and kissed her. She felt something immediately stir in Arielle and the bard drew in the breath in Eden's lungs and began to slowly breathe again. Eden marvelled at the sudden change and her mind frantically tried to pull together all the pieces into some coherent whole until the thundering of hooves that left them drew her attention. Eden raised her head and watched the figure ride furiously away.
The warrior glanced down at the slightly dazed bard who was looking up at her and blinking furiously.
"Are you all right?"
The bard only nodded.
"Whatever that was, it's gone now." Eden stated.
"Good." Arielle said shortly.
Before Eden could say a word, the bard grabbed her tunic and pulled her down for another kiss. Eden couldn't do much else other than comply and they seperated when they had finally run out of air.
"You need to do that more often." Arielle said, a little surprised and blushing at her own forwardness.
"You evidently are feeling much better." Eden teased, playing with a few snowflakes in the bard's hair, "Isn't lust a sin?"
"Perhaps. But love isn't. And I do love you."
Eden smiled at the answer that was painted all over the bard's face. She wondered when, if ever, it would stop amazing her. The bard's warm breath against her face, the eyes she would happily drown in a thousand times, the voice that soothed her. She rested her forehead against the bard's.
"I could probably hand you St. Michael on a platter and it wouldn't pay for all the times you saved me." the bard whispered.
"Let's just forget your account and call us even."
"My hero." she whispered against the warrior's lips.
Eden felt her heart immediately begin to pound and she swallowed hard once, not noticing Arielle smile at the reaction.
"I think we should get going," Eden noted, "before we freeze like this."
"Would that be so awful?"
It made Eden smile every time the bard got that specific look in her eyes and that slightly lower, softer tone in her voice.
"Don't you think this is a bit of a strange time to be coy?"
"I can't help it, you bring it out in me."
"Then let's leave before that thing comes back."
"You don't have to say that twice." Arielle said, shuddering at the thought, "What was that thing?"
"I don't know," Eden answered slowly, "but something tells me that we'll meet again."
"We'll rest here." Eden said after scanning a wintered logging camp along the dirt road that bit into the hillside; she turned around towards the party, "We'll stop here for a while. Gather along the camp's edge with the stream to our backs. Use the logs however you can, but don't tie the horses to the piles."
The group mumbled their understanding and dispersed, tired and cold. The guardians moved off to the side, just at the edge of the road, and immediately got a fire going.
"Do you think they'll make it across?" Arielle asked, handing Eden some hot tea as she sat down and leaned against some collapsed wooden fencing, "I can't remember the last time I heard of snow so deep here."
"They'll make it." Eden replied, taking the tea in her frozen hands, "Question is- will I?"
"Well, seeing as everyone still has their tongues and teeth, I think we have a good chance of all arriving intact."
"I'm evidently growing soft." the warrior grumbled.
The bard let out a soft laugh and rested her hand on the warrior's shoulder.
"I'm proud of you." Arielle said quietly, "I know it's hard for you, I know you don't think they deserve it, I know this isn't the way you'd like everything to be."
"One day it will be. You'll see... Do you want some more tea?"
Eden said nothing and and peered out in front of her.
"Can't we push them along?" Xena asked.
"You know we can't intervene like that." Gabrielle answered quietly from the hill across from the warrior, "Be patient, my love."
"It's taking too long." Xena said anxiously, "We don't have the time!"
"All things take their own time. Trust that this time is needed."
"This is all taking too long. They should have been in Avignon by now! What if they're too late?"
"Xena, look at me." Gabrielle commanded softly and waited until her brilliant, blue eyes looked in her direction, "No matter how much time it takes, I'll be here, as near to you as I can be. Can you trust in that?"
"Of course I can..." Xena answered in a quieter tone, "Always..."
"Do you hear that?" Eden asked.
"Hear what? I just asked if you wanted more tea."
Eden strained her hearing, but the faint voice she had thought she heard had already disappeared. I must be more tired than I thought... but I could swear I've heard that voice before... A few stray stones rolling alongside her caught her attention and she looked up the hill at the swaying tops of the snowy trees. Through a narrow break between the trees, Eden suddenly saw what looked like a storm of earth, barreling down at them with a now thundering roar.
It shook the snow off the trees on its way down, snapping them like thin, dry twigs. It raced down the mountainside so fast that it kept folding and collapsing under itself, so great was its power and desire to swallow everything in its path. Time seemed to slow as Eden watched the mad, earthen tongue reach out for them and the sounds of frightened horses and screaming pilgrims faded away when her eyes fell upon the bard trying to help an idiot push away his cart.
Arielle could see the way out, just down the hard packed road off to the side, underneath a small rocky outcropping. It wasn't far, just beyond the spot where a few people were pushing a cart with all their strength; Arielle darted in their direction, they would make it. She could hear Eden yelling her name, but ignored it; they had to make it. Rocks and mud that almost seemed to be running away from the landslide were already dashing against her feet. The cart moved forward about an inch. A few pilgrims yelled curses into the air and gave up on the cart, flinging themselves downhill as far away from the oncoming mayhem as they could. Arielle pushed one more time with all her might and the cart creaked forward another inch. She turned to look uphill and saw that they would never make it.
She heard her name again, much louder this time and Arielle wanted to tell Eden that she was sorry, that she had tried hard and been so very close but had run out of time. She felt the air rush out of her lungs as her legs found their way off the ground. Just when her mind finally registered that she was sailing through the air, she grunted as she hit the ground, dirt grinding against her teeth, the snow permeating her with its icy touch. Arielle blinked a few times, trying to register where the sky and ground were and if they were about to shift again. She felt a gust of air sweep by and turned to see the hellish landslide barrel down the hill, taking everything and anything it wanted with it. There were the sounds of snapping things, human cries of pain and fear, the thudding roar of a torn mountain. Mud, snow, branches, stones had no remorse. It almost seemed like they had been awaken from an ancient slumber and were now taking their revenge. And just as quickly as the hellish phenomenon had made itself known, it was gone.
The snow began to creep into her clothes and Arielle forced herself onto her knees and then feet. She leaned against the rocky outcropping and looked around. It hardly resembled the place they had stopped to camp. It almost seemed like a demon had drawn a large, clawed hand right down the middle of the hill in a furious rage. It was nearly silent now, the black earthen mark down the side of the mountain stood out against the snow like a raw wound. Slowly stragglers stumbled towards the now dormant catastrophe; some near Arielle and some on the other side. It was when she heard one woman begin to wail that Arielle understood that not everyone had made it. And Eden was nowhere to be seen.
As if that wail had automatically propelled Arielle into action, the bard began to run down along the sides of the landslide calling out Eden's name. She passed broken and scattered bodies jutting out of the muddy snow, each time fervently praying it wasn't the warrior. But after what seemed to be an eternity of searching, the bard almost began to hope one of the bodies was Eden- at least she would then be found. The bard jumped into the unstable snowy mass, ignoring a shout from one of the men that it was dangerous. She trudged up and down until her muscles began to cramp from cold and strain. The bard felt like screaming, like shouting insults at the heavens, like pounding the dirt out of the earth. Why is it always this hard? Why are we always tested? Haven't we proved enough? Is this how God makes His presence known by constantly forcing me to pray to make the pain stop? Was this what you meant about there being no glamour in the life of a guardian? Was this what you were trying to protect me from, my love?
Almost as if she was being given a silent answer, the bard's eyes fell upon a clump of raven hair standing out against the dirty snow.
"No..." Arielle whispered.
The danger didn't matter, the cold didn't bite was much now, her tired muscles hurled her forward. Like a rabid animal, Arielle clawed her way towards the morbid sight. The bard thought that her heart would have stopped if she hadn't been struggling to catch her breath. All that she could see was Eden's face was half covered and her right arm beneath a large rock. The warrior made no sound; she made no movement.
The bard didn't stop to check whether Eden was even alive; she didn't want to learn that she wasn't. In a fit of anger, she pushed the rock off with such ease that Eden would have been impressed. The bard then fell to her knees and began to dig the warrior out with a fury. Tears fell from her eyes and blood began to appear on her fingertips as she tore the earth away from her warrior. The breath billowed out of her mouth against the cold air and a few stopped to watch the spectacle of sheer will.
"'Tis no use!" someone cried.
Arielle nearly roared as if she wanted to drive that comment out of the very air. She clawed more frantically at the rocks and dirt, her tears clouding her vision. And then she froze when she thought she heard Eden moan.
"Eden?" she asked with a shaking voice as if she was afraid to ask the very question.
The warrior moaned again and tried to open her eyes.
"Don't." Arielle soothed, kneeling over her and smoothing her hair with one hand, "Is anything broken?"
Eden made no sound for a while and then answered no.
"Does it hurt anywhere?"
"Yes." the warrior whispered.
The bard let out a sigh of disbelief. She was the one who broke and Eden was the one to fix her. She had always secretly thought that the warrior really was invincible. What she saw now scared her nearly out of her mind.
"Eden, there's no healer here. We can't stay here even if there was."
"Take you to a city?" Arielle asked in a growing panic, "Bologna? Maybe I'll take you to Rome?"
"Maybe I can get an audience with the papal doctors. They're said to be the best." I can't let you die, not again...
"No." Eden whispered and forced her eyes half open, "Florence... house... on the hill... across the Arno... Take me... woman of angels..."
"I don't even know where that house is. What woman of angels?"
"Please..." Eden said, her eyes slowly closing.
"Don't worry, I will... I'll find a way..."
The icy wind chewed away at her warmth. The snow stuck to her skin. The bard couldn't remember the last time she was so tired or so scared. Or so alone.
The moment Eden had mentioned Florence, the bard built a litter that she rolled the warrior on to and started straight for the city. The travelling companions she had almost lost her life to save were for the most part silent, a couple throwing curses at her for leaving them. Only one young man handed her a cloth bundle with a bit of food and wished her Godspeed.
The bard was filled with a determination that astounded even her. She timed her stops only around the horse pulling Eden and otherwise just pushed forward, the screams of her tired mind and muscles swirling around in her head. Sometimes the shrill winter winds would drown them out. But in the silence of heavy snowfall, Arielle would sing herself little songs from her childhood or bawdy tunes she remembered from inns just to keep herself from falling to the ground and sobbing with helpless madness.
The bard marched on. Two times she encountered another human being, both hunters and one was silent while the other took pity on her and gave her some dried venison and a sip of strong wine. Three times she encountered travelers along the road frozen in terrible positions like naked, dead trees. Her lips began to blister as did her feet and palms. Every once in a while, Arielle would scoop some snow into her hands and wonder how it still melted, her hands were so numb now. But there was no time to stop and wonder or worry. She would try to find rocky overhangs to sleep under and when she couldn't, she'd make crude lean-tos and pray for the snow to stay out. She thanked God for the flint in Eden's saddlebag every night and once more counted their dwindling rations next to a small, crackling fire. Some nights she would gently run her fingers through Eden's hair and tell her stories or describe what she would love to eat right then. Most nights she shed silent tears of helplessness and fear as the night surrounded them, the silence only interrupted by Eden's feverish, labored breathing.
Arielle knocked on a large wooden door and then leaned against it; she could hardly stand. It was another windy day and the bard felt icy fingertips reaching beneath her clothes, causing her to shiver and curl up.
Is this the place? No... I need to keep going... I need to save her... It's so cold... Keep going...
Again, the bard pounded on the door, this time with all her might.
Some warmth and hot broth will be good, it'll be good for her... if she still lives. No! She lives. She must.
The door opened slowly to reveal an elderly, gray haired lady who peeked out at Arielle with a mixture of curiosity and hesitance. The bard was struck by the lightest blue eyes she could ever remember seeing; they were like two chips of clear ice and she was certain they reminded her of something. Arielle licked her lips, her rough tongue causing her to wince as the woman seemed to patiently wait for the bard to finally speak.
"Are you the one... called the woman of angels... who lives on the hill... Is that the Arno behind me...?" Arielle whispered out, swaying slightly from left to right, her eyes blinking rapidly.
I'm hallucinating... This can't be real... I have to keep going...
"Yes," the gray haired woman said carefully, pulling her shawl closer around her, "that is what some like to call me. Who are you? What's happened?"
"Save her." Arielle managed to say before her eyes rolled back and she collapsed.