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USUAL DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and Ephiny belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Everything else here is mine or rather, comes from my 'Muse' and me.
USUAL THANKS: As always, to my splendid little 'editing elf'; she always sees what I miss and sometimes, what I should have typed. Thanks, again, my friend.
AND ONE MORE THING: 'Tis the season ... for tales of love and friendship. May we never tire of these - they renew us and strengthen our spirits. Hopefully, they will one day inspire us to carry this sentiment into the new century. May you and yours celebrate safely and happily. All my best. MMG.
The Mouths of Babes
And so it was written , 'A little Child shall lead them ... and a star will guide their journey.'
Gabrielle was in a foul mood. She was cold, she was hungry and she hadn't had even the thinnest idea for a story in longer than she cared to remember. Her shoulders ached from hunching against the raw night air and the frosty, unforgiving wind was offering the weak fire a hefty challenge ... and the wind was winning. The little blonde pulled the heavy blanket closer around herself and squinted into the surrounding darkness for a sign of her tall companion. The warrior had stomped off into the forest half a candlemark ago, grumbling loudly about the bard's lack of foresight concerning their reserve supplies, thus making the unscheduled hunting trip necessary.
"It's not like I planned to run out of trail rations," the bard muttered, poking the wavering flames fiercely with a short stick. "She acts like I did it on purpose." Gabrielle shivered under the woolen wrapping, clutching the edges with one hand and angrily attacking the stone-rimmed fire with the other. "But I'm sureI'll be hearing about it for days, now. She never forgets little things like this."
The young woman rose from her seat on the fallen log and walked a few paces to the pile of wood stacked at the edge of the campsite. Xena had provided the lumber in her usual proficient manner shortly after they had made camp late that afternoon. The bard knelt and retrieved two of the larger pieces and, cradling them in her arms, walked back to the fire and added the fuel to the leaping blaze, reclaiming her seat on the log as the flames consumed the new timber. She held the blanket open to allow the rising heat to warm her body, then pulled the cover closed again when the frosty wind displaced the fire's effects. The bard cast another irritated look in the direction of the warrior's departure.
The glowing blaze filled the little clearing with a brilliant light, making the surrounding shadows seem even more indistinguishable by comparison. As usual, Xena had selected a very serviceable site for their camp, a small, secluded clearing shielded by the timbers towering around it and protected somewhat by the late season greenery still available on the leafy branches now dancing in the crisp wind.
Nature had also provided a convenient waist-high outcropping of large boulders at one edge of the campsite, a perfect haven against the rising wind and a helpful reservoir for the fire's subtle warmth. Before she had left the glen in search of their supper, the warrior had positioned the stone ring and pile of wood in the shelter of the rocky barrier. The craggy wall did provide a modicum of protection from the blustery draught; it did nothing, however, to offset the rapidly declining temperature.
After a few moments, Gabrielle returned her gaze to the orange and yellow incandescence in the stone circle. Absently, she pulled her staff into her lap, repositioned the blanket and let her thoughts drift on their own. The little blonde's expression turned dispirited and melancholy as she considered the most disturbing aspect of their recent travels; the stiff and irritable atmosphere that seemed to prevail between herself and her best friend. The young bard drew a quick, dejected breath as the aggravated set to her jaw began to reinstate itself .... as it had repeatedly during the last few days of their journey.
'We've been sniping at each other for over a week now,' the girl thought. 'Ever since we left the Amazons. Maybe we weren't ready,' Gabrielle considered. 'Maybe we should have spent more time at the Retreat Hut.'
After resuming their normal travel schedule, the two women seemed to have found one thing after another to argue about, everything from the declining condition of Gabrielle's boots -- "I told you those should be treated with palm oil every so often. You're going to need a new pair soon, at this rate." -- to the warrior's unwavering propensity to sharpen her sword "during every single unscheduled moment of every single day." -- to the bard's penchant for "asking endless questions, enough to fill several volumes of unread material." -- to her companion's equally frustrating determination to remain aloof, unresponsive and, to the bard's interpretation, regularly condescending.
In the past, their verbal confrontations had manifested themselves as simple differences between them, but recently the 'discussions' had progressed to sessions of angry, spiteful remarks. More often than not, the biting series of exchanges had been followed by long, resentful periods of stilted silence between the two friends, leaving one or the other, and often both, feeling abused, misunderstood and completely unhappy.
An unexpected blast of particularly chilly air brought the young woman out of her reverie. She pulled the blanket closer to her chin. Glancing carefully around the small clearing and, determining that her partner had still not returned, the little bard resumed her contemplation, her mood again gloomy and discouraged. The mist green eyes studied the leaping flames as the young woman swallowed heavily.
'Maybe what's really true,' the girl thought dejectedly, 'is that things are never going to be the way they were between us.' Gabrielle clamped her teeth together, trying desperately to forestall another onset of the nagging fear that had plagued her lately. "Oh, Xena," the bard whispered quietly. "Please don't let what's happened tear us apart. My heart would surely bre...." The girl's attention was quickly drawn to the rustling noise of an approaching figure. She tightened her grip on the staff in her lap and faced the sound coming from the parting foliage.
A moment later, Xena emerged from the darkened forest, her long, woolen cape flowing behind her like the dark sail of a windward ship. She crossed the campsite, her blue eyes momentarily meeting the bard's verdant gaze. In one hand, the warrior held the fruits of her late-hour hunting excursion ... a thin, somewhat emaciated carcass of a small, four-legged animal. In the other, she displayed the canvas pouch which the women normally used for transporting various edibles ... plants, berries and the like. She dropped the bag unceremoniously near the bard's boots.
"Kind of hard to find growing treats in the dark, but ...." the warrior said, a slight edge to the liquid voice.
Gabrielle retrieved the bag, pulling at the cords gathered at the neck. She peered inside the sack, then returned her gaze to the warrior's blue eyes. The little blonde favored her dark-haired friend with an appreciative grin.
"I always thought you could see in the dark, oh many-skilled warrioress," the bard quipped, resulting in a small, but genuine lop-sided smile from her companion.
"Well, just so you're not too particular ... Your Highness," the warrior answered, the crystal pools warm on the little bard's face. Xena pushed the edges of her cape back over her shoulders, knelt next to the fire and attached the carcass to the spit the bard had positioned over the now-sturdy fire. After a few moments, the tall warrior's blue gaze swept up slowly to meet the intent stare of her best friend.
"I'm sorry I was so ... gruff before," Xena said quietly. A genuine look of apology glowed in the piercing blues. The bard gazed lovingly at the sculpted features, her lovely face reflecting the golden hue of the bouncing flames.
"S'okay," the girl said easily. "I guess we've both been a bit on edge lately, huh?" The warrior's smooth face softened, but the little blonde noticed the faint glimmer of hesitancy in the azure pools.
"I should have paid more attention to what was in the pack," the bard admitted. "Sorry to make you go searching in this weather." The green eyes were repentant on the warrior's deep blue gaze. For a moment, neither woman seemed able to speak to the other. Finally, Xena's liquid voice broke the silence.
"Well, this should be ready soon," she said, her eyes still captured by the bard's. "Not much here, but it'll keep us warm 'til morning, I expect." The bard's smile had grown equally thin. "Yeah, I'm sure it will." She glanced down at the sizzling carrion. "Smells good, anyway." She returned her gaze to the warrior's. Another unsettling stillness settled between the two friends. Xena shifted her crouched position to sit cross-legged next to the fire, facing the little bard. She toyed with the fiery stack in the circle, pulling the crumbling coals into a tight bundle under the spit, maneuvering the renewed heat toward the hissing meat.
Without changing her focus, the warrior addressed the small form sitting across from her. "You're doing it again," the woman said quietly.
"Doing what?" the bard said, a small level of annoyance in her voice.
"Staring at my neck," the warrior said evenly. The blue eyes rose to meet the bard's green pools. "It's gone, Gabrielle. The bruise is gone ... has been for nearly a fortnight, now." Xena's gaze held the girl's, the bronze face gentle and understanding.
Gabrielle bristled at the warrior's superior tone. The slim form straightened abruptly as the bard felt her jaw tighten. "No, I wasn't," the girl announced. "I was just watching you ... rebuild the fire," an obvious shade of resentment sounding in the statement. "It seems I can't even do that to suit you anymore."
The crystal blue eyes blinked and widened as their owner tried to maintain the stoic demeanor that had become second nature to her. An instant later, the little blonde recognized the blatant shade of hurt clearly evident in her soulmate's expression. Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly before bringing one small hand to cover her forehead. When she focused on the warrior's face again, she felt a deep wave of remorse sweep over her very being.
"Xena, I'm sorry," the little bard whispered. She reached out to touch the slender hand nearest her. "I don't know what's wrong with me lately. That was really ... a stupid thing to say."
The blue gaze trained on the soft face was steady.. and wounded. Xena swallowed slowly, the crystal pools searching the bard's contrite expression. She breathed in carefully, making a valiant effort to keep her tone, and her reaction, even. "I ... I'm sorry too," the warrior said, only vaguely aware of how tightly she was grasping the narrow piece of wood until it snapped off in her hand. Xena looked down at the pieces of the slim branch uncertainly and spoke without looking at the bard.. "I didn't mean to suggest that you were some kind of ...."
The warrior's words stopped as the bard's slender arms surrounded her neck. Xena sighed heavily as she returned the young blonde's loving hug. Both women held on tightly before they separated to study the face of the other. Finally, each saw a tiny, relieved and grateful smile emerge across the features of her best friend. At last Gabrielle's soft voice broke the stilted silence.
"I hate it when we fight," the little bard murmured, fingering an errant lock of the warrior's dark hair. She sat back to meet the blue gaze. "Let's not do it anymore, OK?"
"Deal," the warrior answered bravely. 'Just wish I knew HOW not to', the tall woman thought longingly. 'This hurts too much.'
After a moment, Gabrielle returned to her seat on the fallen log and the warrior turned her attention to the small carcass darkening on the spit over the flames. While she used her dagger to loosen the animal remains away from the searing spit, Gabrielle pulled their eating utensils from the saddlebags resting at the end of the outspread bedrolls. She placed the two earthen plates on the open blanket and divided the berries and edible roots from the small leather pouch the warrior had filled. She raised the plates and the warrior deposited portions of the steaming meat onto each of the platters.
When she had removed the meat from the spit, Xena pulled the lattice away from the flames, placing it on its side near the stone rim to cool. She pulled the waterskin into the space between herself and the little bard, accepted the dish the girl handed her and the two women began to enjoy their meal.
The two friends ate in silence and the meager repast was consumed rather quickly. Xena kept a watchful eye on her young companion. The recent tension and uneasiness between the two friends had also taken a toll on the warrior's usually unflappable stoicism. As always, she was somewhat unsettled by the reactions she found stirring within herself when it came to the young woman sitting across the fire from her, but the depths of the feelings she experienced for the little blonde had recently become a constant source of puzzlement and confusion to the tall, raven-haired warrior.
It forever confounded the combatant that, not only had this extraordinary young woman become an integral part of her life, but here was an intriguing presence the tall woman would not have even acknowledged, let alone clung to so heartily, prior to the girl's entrance into the tall woman's world. Slowly, almost without the warrior's awareness, the young blonde had come to represent the validation of all the wonderously decent, wholesome goodness in her existence, the part of her own spirit that had only recently begun to show signs of rejuvenation. The thought of losing even the smallest degree of the girl's trust and abiding faith brought a heavy ache into the warrior's chest.
Yet since their return from the kingdom of Chin, and their even more recent heartwrenching coming to terms with the difficult conflicts resulting from that journey, the two friends had endured a great test of their friendship and a challenging trial to the devotion and loyalty which had always characterized their association. Even now, after having shared their most intimate feelings concerning the tumult of that experience with each other, the two soulmates had begun to realize their relationship still had not returned to the status each had come to regard as the so-called 'status quo' of that alliance. In short, they were both still uncertain, unsettled, confused and frustrated by their mutual disconcerting feelings.
As the hour grew later, the wind increased in velocity as the temperature decreased. By the time she had eaten the last of her portion of the meat and used the edge of the blanket to surreptitiously clean her fingers, the little bard was hunched even lower under the woolen material. The warrior's keen instincts recognized the signs of more than ordinary discomfort in her small friend. Xena finished the last of the meat on her plate, brushed her hands together, rose and gathered an armload of logs from the pile near the edge of the campsite. She added the wood to the campfire, taking care to arrange the logs in a manner that would allow the fire to burn during the night without requiring more than gratuitous attention from either of the two travelers.
While the warrior tended to the blaze, the little bard stacked the plates and the eating utensils near the edge of the fire, the lateness of the hour making it impossible for her to perform the normal 'clean up' duties which normally followed their meals. When the brief ritual was accomplished, Gabrielle returned to her place on the bedrolls, pulling the blanket tightly around herself, and sat mutely watching the deft, precise and efficient actions of the person she valued more than any she had ever known.
Once the fire was blazing to the warrior's satisfaction, Xena moved to sit next to her small friend. As she lowered her slender frame to the bedroll, she opened her long, heavy cape, wrapping the woolen expanse around the bard. Gabrielle gratefully snuggled closer to Xena's warmth as her dark-haired friend briskly massaged her arms in an attempt to generate even more heat for the young blonde.
"Is that better?" the warrior asked, and the little blonde nodded, snuggling closer to the sinewy body. Xena gathered her warm cape around the girl's trim form. "Maybe, when we get to Megara, we should find you something warm to wear ... since winter is about to join us." The bard's thin smile met the small grin on the warrior's golden face.
"I thought you said we should keep our dinars for something important," the little blonde said, feeling an immediate regret at the petulance in her own voice. A deep, crimson blush rose to cover the young face as she averted her eyes from the warrior's blue stare.
"Keeping you from getting sick is important," the smooth voice said, barely concealing the impatience in her tone. "Besides, a cape in your size can't cost all that much, I wouldn't think." The bronze face softened as the bard's eyes rose to meet hers and Xena recognized the genuine apology in the face of her cherished friend. She tousled the girl's blonde hair affectionately.
"Tell me why we're going there again?" the bard asked.
"I have a friend who runs an orphanage there. Her name's Rhea." The warrior continued the warming massage. "She needs a little help getting the place secured for the winter." Xena's sturdy palm moved to concentrate on the bard's trim back. "I thought we could give her a hand with it." The warm hand halted momentarily as its owner tilted her head to capture the girl's attention. "If that's OK and you feel up to it."
Gabrielle met the blue gaze. "Oh sure, " the little bard replied. "Sounds like a fun way to get out of this weather for a while," the girl said, smiling warmly at the smooth face. The warrior resumed the soothing rubdown. Gabrielle closed her eyes as the warrior began to knead away the stiffness across her shoulders.
After a moment, the bard turned an impish grin toward the tall woman's concentration. "I guess eventually you'll get around to telling me how the two of you met, huh?" She blinked at the brief look of chagrin that traveled across the chiseled features. The warrior's quiet laugh incited the bard's curiosity even more. She relaxed as the mobile fingers on her shoulders unseated the uncomfortable ache there.
"Well, when I was eight summers old, part of me 'met' the palm of her hand ... or I should say, it was the other way around."
The bard's green eyes widened quickly as the clarity of the warrior's statement registered in her hazy awareness. She turned abruptly to face the blushing golden face.
"What?" the girl giggled. The warrior's blue eyes flicked to the surprised expression, then returned their attention to the task occupying her fingers. An instant later, Gabrielle turned to face her embarrassed friend more directly, causing an abrupt interruption in the warrior's warming activities. Xena tried valiantly to maintain a calm expression as she felt the warm blush glide upwards over her face.
"OK, give," the girl chortled. "You can't expect to drop a comment like that in my lap and not expect to tell me the whole story." The young face brightened in an expectant grin. "C'mon, I promise not to hold it over your ... head." The little blonde's excited smile softened the warrior's reluctance.
Xena shook her head slightly as a subtle grin transformed her normally formidable expression. She tugged the edges of the blanket closed under the bard's chin and let out a short, resigned sigh.
"Rhea used to be a teacher in Amphipolis," the warrior began. "My teacher, as a matter of fact. Only I wasn't all that anxious to be that good of a student. Truth is, I made it very difficult for her to carry out any kind of instruction ... and I did it as often as I could." The blue eyes settled on the girl's face. "I was very headstrong, in those days. Not the calm, collected, reserved girl that I am today."
The broad sarcasm in the jovial speech brought a smirk to the little bard's mouth. "No kidding?" she replied facetiously. "Imagine that!" The warrior playfully tweaked the girl's nose.
The two friends shared a warm smile. Xena pulled her cape closed and leaned back against the rocky wall behind her. "Anyway, after putting up with my rather ... challenging behavior for about the first moon of the fall session, Rhea finally gave me a choice." The warrior leaned forward and focused on the toe of one boot, her fingers rubbing at a small darkened spot in the leather.
"A choice?" the little bard prodded. "And the choice was ....?" The sweet voice beckoned as the green eyes danced in anticipation. The warrior's blue eyes rose to meet the girl's.
"To put it succinctly, the choice was, either change my attitude or ... learn the true meaning of the statement, 'I couldn't sit down for a week'." The bronze face softened as the tall woman's lop-sided grin pulled at the corner of her mouth.
The bard giggled openly. "What choice did you make, or should I ask?"
Xena's eyebrow posed a silent question.
Gabrielle's laugh filled the clearing. "Like I said, why did I ask?" The blonde head tilted in mock rebuke. "Never the easy way, right?" she chided warmly. "So ... what was Rhea's ... response to your choice?" She let her eyes travel over the warrior's sheepish face.
The tall warrior gave a short laugh, sat back and crossed her long arms over her chest. "Rhea gave me a clear, concise demonstration of what happens when you ... make the wrong choice." Gabrielle covered her mouth with one hand. Xena's blue eyes met the girl's gaze directly. "Right there ... in front of the entire class." The blonde head lurched backwards as the bard's raucous laughter cascaded from her trembling form. The warrior waited, her expression indulgent on the soft, young face.
"Oh, no, Xena!" the bard sputtered. "Not really??"
"Oh yes, Gabrielle," the tall woman admitted. "Very decidedly." Xena's smile was warm on the little blonde's enjoyment. She waited while another wave of laughter echoed through the small clearing before her young companion eventually began to regain some control. The bard wiped her eyes, gulped and tried to focus again on the warrior's gentle grin.
"Oh, by the way," the warrior continued when the bard's attention had returned to her face. "When I said, 'for a week'?" Xena paused until she saw the little blonde's recognition of the reference. Gabrielle nodded silently. "I exaggerated," the warrior said, cryptically. The green eyes were questioning under the girl's furrowed brows.
"Actually, it was more like half a moon before I could ...." the warrior confessed, halting her story again as peals of new laughter rang from the bard's trim form. The warrior's blue eyes showed their own bright amusement. "But I never had to make that choice again. At least not in Rhea's classroom, anyway." The little blonde's wide smile charmed the warrior's heart. She laid a gentle hand on the warrior's leather boot.
"Well ...." the girl said, swallowing one last time before her demeanor returned to its normal even status. "Some children just seem to learn the hard way," the girl said, gazing fondly at her best friend. The warrior's smile faded slightly at the girl's unintentional criticism.
"So," Xena said, her bright tone covering the momentary hurt. "You can see why I really couldn't refuse Rhea's 'request' for help, right?"
The little bard nodded, smiling warmly at her blue-eyed partner. "No, I wouldn't think you could," the girl said. "I don't think you want that lady on your case again."
The two friends shared a comfortable laugh. Green eyes met blue as both women enjoyed the brief return of the camaraderie each had missed with the other. For a moment, the relationship between them seemed to have returned to the state that had characterized it before the recent uneasiness - pure, unqualified loyalty and a deep, abiding affection one for the other. For a long moment, both women tried desperately to think of some soothing, endearing remark to make to the other ... but neither seemed able to manage the deed.
"Anyway," the warrior said finally. "We should be in Megara by the day after tomorrow." The bard nodded. "I'm sure Rhea has a whole list of 'duties' ready for us." The little blonde smiled at her friend as she pulled the blanket around herself again. After a moment, the girl shivered against the raw, uncompromising wind that swept across the campsite. The warrior shifted position, beckoning the girl toward the bedrolls.
"In the meantime, let's try and get some rest." Gabrielle moved to the outspread blankets as Xena made one last inspection of the blazing fire. As the girl snuggled into the warmth at her tall friend's side, Xena tucked the heavy fur blanket over them both. When they were both settled, the warrior pulled one long arm under her head and cast a wary eye toward the translucent sky above them. The dark brows furrowed in a knowing scowl. "Feels like snow soon," the tall woman announced. She turned to address the slim shoulder next to her. "We'd better look for a cape for you in Stilis. It's on the way."
"What about the new laces for your boots?" the girl asked, turning slightly to the tall form behind her.
"I've waited this long," the warrior quipped. "I can wait a little longer." She tugged at the fur blanket, revealing the boots in question at the far edge of the fur wrap. The bard glanced at the leather lacings, their continuous flow interrupted at irregular intervals by ragged knots the warrior had tied in the leather strips. Gabrielle laughed softly as the warrior tapped her feet together.
"I can get new ones when we get to Megara. Rhea will know a good tanner there."
The bard rolled backward to focus on the golden face of her friend. Even in the burnished light of the campfire, she failed to capture the warrior's playful grin.
"Anyway, not having to listen to you whine and complain about being cold would be worth a new set of lacings." Xena laid one slender hand on the trim form. One dark eyebrow skipped under the silky bangs when the green eyes swept up to offer a slightly irked glare.
"Whine and complain?" the girl repeated, pulling away from the warrior. "Excuse me, I didn't realize I was that bothersome." The little bard shrugged off the hand and pulled the blanket surrounding her trim form tighter.
"Hey, I was only kidding," the tall warrior said, sitting up and supporting herself on her elbows. However, she was forced to address her remarks to the back of the blonde head.
"Right," the girl sputtered, her chin set in an angry jut. "Well, at least, I won't have to see you roll your eyes every time I ask what you consider another 'dumb question'." Gabrielle turned back to face the warrior, just in time to see the woman demonstrate precisely the action she had so sarcastically described. "Just like that!" the girl barked, accusingly.
Xena's jaw rippled as she clamped her teeth together. She met the furious green gaze with her own controlled fury. "Look, Gabrielle!" the warrior began, irritably. "I just meant that ...."
"I know what you meant, Xena," the bard growled, the emerald gaze sparking. "Contrary to popular opinion, I am not as dense as you think!" The bard rolled back onto her side, her knees pulled tight to her stomach, the woolen blanket tightly grasped in her angry fists.
"I never said you were dense!" the warrior yelled. The blue eyes were bright, the golden jaw rippled. Xena stared angrily at the slim form under the other half of the heavy fur blanket. She made several unsuccessful attempts to formulate a coherent response to the bard's rankled reaction before finally letting out an exasperated sigh and flopping down on her own side of the bedroll. "Oh, Hades," the slender warrior grumbled. She turned when she heard the young blonde expel another aggravated breath. Xena brought her hands to her forehead, briskly rubbing her fingertips across the furrowed skin. She drew a deep breath and exhaled. The warrior dropped one arm above her head and studied the dark sky over them. Several minutes of silence passed, the only sounds in the camp provided by the crackling wood in the stone circle and the raw, howling wind. As the bard swallowed silently, her jaw clamped tightly against the slim arm on which it rested, the warrior's liquid voice floated from the position behind the girl's back.
"I never said you were dense," the voice said quietly. "Anyway," the tall woman said, "goodnight." She waited for the bard to respond. "Gabrielle?"
"Goodnight," the bard answered stiffly. The warrior took a very deep breath.
By the time the slim fingers of dawn began to make an appearance in the small clearing, the warrior had abandoned any pretense of feigning sleep any longer. She decided that, as long as she was already awake, she might as well tend to the waning fire in preparation for whatever scant provisions she could provide for breakfast.
Xena slid from beneath the fur blanket, taking care not to disturb the sleeping bard. She crossed the campsite and carried the remaining logs from the stack to the stone-rimmed campfire. As the warrior added the new wood to the smoking coals, she looked at the small, quiet form snuggled warmly under the heavy skin. A wistful expression graced the bronze face as the tall warrior returned her attention to the resurgent fire. The rudimentary activity occupied the capable hands; the woman's thoughts were much less tranquil.
'Why do we keep doing this to each other, Gabrielle?' Xena silently asked her best friend. 'And how long will we go on doing it ... until we finally reach that irreversible point?'
The warrior's blue eyes studied the trim form under the fur blanket. She focused on the soft young face, the long blonde hair, the peaceful, contented state. Turning her attention back to the dancing flames, the tall woman breathed heavily, a nagging dread pressing uncomfortably on her chest. The dark head traveled from side to side, the golden face grew pensive and introspective.
'Why can't she see that I only want her to be safe and ....’ the warrior scoffed at her own mental comment. 'Safe? Yeah, right,' the woman grimaced. The azure pools swept to the slim form again. 'Maybe you were right, Gabrielle ... we are each other's worst enemy.' The warrior's heart grew heavy.
The little bard slowly opened her eyes, noticing immediately the absence of the strong, warm form at her back. The green pools quickly located the tall figure crouching at the fire's rim. The young woman recognized the disheartened quality to the warrior's manner; it brought a deep regret to the little blonde's own sensibilities. Moving carefully, the pace of her actions the product of an acquired awareness concerning the warrior's easily incited reflexes, Gabrielle sat up on the bedroll, pulling the fur blanket to her chin before surrendering to a hearty yawn that betrayed her own sleep-depleted fatigue.
Xena's eyes left the fire to meet the bard's sleepy stare. "Good morning," the warrior said, her blue eyes noticeably unsettled on the little blonde's face. "How'd you sleep?"
Gabrielle yawned widely again, blinked at the bronze face and leveled her best smile at the warrior's deadpan expression. "Well, it's certainly warmer in here that it is out there," the girl admitted. "Between you and this skin, I felt like a roasted slice of venison."
The warrior's tentative grin widened. She brushed her palms together and rested her long arms on her knees. After a moment, she stood up and crossed the short distance to the little bard. Gabrielle ran the fingers of one hand through her blonde bangs, then shook her head, prompting the errant golden locks to return to their normal position along the sides of her head. The short-lived activity resulted in the brash exposure of her upper body to the harsh, chilly wind. She quickly pulled her arms back under the animal fur, drew the heavy covering up under her chin and shivered loudly.
"Brrr!" the bard lamented, pulling her shoulders toward her ears. "How can you just stand out there in that wind, perfectly still, obviously NOT freezing to death?" The girl shivered again.
Xena's pursed lips only thinly covered her amusement. "There's more of me to fight the wind," she quipped, bringing a resigned smirk to the little blonde's expression. The warrior knelt and pulled the edges of the fur blanket closed at the girl's back. She sat back on her heels to gaze at the young face.
"Stay put 'til I find breakfast," the tall woman instructed. She gathered her weapons from where they lay at her edge of the bedrolls. After she had looped the chakram on the hook on her belt, she stood up, sword in hand, fixing a fond gaze on the young bard's huddled form. "The fire should warm up in a minute or two. I won't be long." She turned and strode toward the surrounding forest. "There's herbs for tea in the saddlebags," the warrior said over her shoulder as her tall form disappeared into the neighboring foliage.
Gabrielle's green gaze narrowed on the point at which she had last seen the tall form. "I know where the herbs are, Xena," she said to the empty campsite. "I've been doing the 'tea thing' for three summers, now."
Half a candlemark later, the warrior returned to the campsite with two slim fish. By the time Xena had prepared the seafood for the spit, Gabrielle had added a sparse helping of roots to each plate. The fragrant herb tea bubbling in the small cooking pot was divided between their two earthen mugs as the two travelers hungrily enjoyed the meager breakfast. It didn't require a long time, particularly when the warrior noticed the first evidence of tiny, icy crystals becoming noticeable in the crisp morning air. She tossed the last of the tea in her cup into her mouth and used the contents of the pot to drown the fire. The bard's face registered her slight surprise.
"Looks like the snow's in a hurry," Xena predicted, moving quickly to reposition the saddle on Argo's back. "C'mon, I saw a nice little cave not far from here. We'll wait it out there."
The little bard responded without further question. In a short time, the campsite had been cleared, their gear packed and the two women were headed toward the shelter the warrior had mentioned. Even Argo seemed to accept the abrupt departure ... she stood very still as the warrior tightened the girth on the saddle and swung the saddlebags onto the sides of the tack. Within minutes, the two women were on their way.
"Is it much farther?" Gabrielle asked, raising her voice against the mounting wind. "Xena?" she repeated. The warrior turned back to the slender form trudging slightly behind her.
"No, it's just over the next rise. We'll be there before you know it."
The bard pulled the blanket tighter, wrapping the woolen material more securely around her neck. The girl's leather boots followed the twig-ridden path, the blonde head bent against the raw, blustery wind. Because her eyes were trained on the ground, the little bard didn't realize her tall companion had halted her progress. She took a particularly long stride in order step over some rubble on the path and stumbled headlong into the warrior's sturdy back. The density of the tall form was no match for the girl's slight frame. In an instant, the little blonde found herself flung ingloriously onto the ground, her bottom abruptly coming to rest on the hard, rocky surface.
"Ugh!" the bard groaned as she stretched her hands out behind her in an attempt to cushion her descent. She grimaced as her boots traveled upward and unforgiving debris on the ground attacked the palms of her hands. She cast an accusing look at the tall warrior's tolerant gaze.
Xena looked down at the small form sprawled on the ground. "You OK?" she asked the girl after a moment.
"Oh, perfect," the bard growled. She examined her palms, brushing away the rubbish sticking to her palms. She trained an irritated scowl up at the azure pools. "Why'd you stop?"
Xena offered the girl an open palm, pulling the slender form to her feet. The bard's scowl remained in place. "Sorry. I wanted to make sure we're headed in the right direction. It was getting dark by the time we came this way last night."
Gabrielle stalked angrily past the warrior. "Gee, the all-knowing warrior princess is confused about direction. Who would believe it?"
Xena pivoted to follow the bard's rankled form. The sides of her great cape billowed outward as the tall woman planted angry fists on her hips. "What's that supposed to mean?" she growled at the small bard.
Gabrielle turned back to the warrior abruptly. "Wait a minute. Last night? You mean we're going back the way we came?" The girl let out an exasperated scoff. "I thought you said we had to be in Megara tomorrow?"
The warrior's jaw twitched as she fought to control her own hostility. She took a slow pace toward the angry bard. "We do," the tall woman said, her tone tense and clipped. "But, I thought we'd better find the closest shelter, for tonight, anyway. Seeing as how we're about to be met by a snowstorm!" The warrior flailed an arm in an angry gesture. "You got a better idea??"
Gabrielle stepped closer to the furious bronze face. She drew her slim form up as straight as possible and leveled a fearless challenge at the sparkling blue eyes. "Well ... no, I don't," the bard said in surrender. She stepped to one side and swept her arm across the path sarcastically. "Lead on, oh mighty warrior." The warrior clamped her teeth together. The bard strode past her friend to retrieve her staff from the ground. When she returned her gaze to the golden face, she ignored the smoldering wrath behind the crystal pools.
"Well, go 'head," the bard said, facetiously. "Like you said .. the snow's on its way."
Xena lowered her clenched fists to her sides, her mouth grimaced in fury. She took a very slow step to gather Argo's reins, exhaled a short, fierce breath and marched down the path. The bard followed.
By the time the small traveling party arrived at the cave the warrior had discovered the previous day, small, lacy snowflakes were already beginning to cling to the garments of the two women. Xena slowed her pace on the path as they approached the small cavern's opening, handing the mare's reins to the bard.
"I'll check things out," she said, cautiously drawing her sword. "I didn't see anyone yesterday, but may as well be safe than sorry." She glanced at the green eyes. The warrior took a step toward the cave, only to be stopped by the small hand on her arm.
"Just be careful, all right?" the little blonde said, her gaze sincere.
Xena patted the girl's shoulder, turned and walked gingerly toward the hole in the rocks. A moment later, the tall form disappeared into the dark aperture. Gabrielle patted the horse's long neck, as usual a small level of nervousness wafting through her chest. She trained her gaze on the opening of the cavern, watching somewhat anxiously for the warrior's tall form. A few moments later, Xena emerged from the small hollow and the bard noticed the warrior's weapon hung casually from her right hand.
The warrior quickly negotiated the short, uneven distance to the bard, the bronze face creased in a modest grin. When she reached the little blonde, the girl saw the quiet twinkle in the deep, azure pools. "Well, it's safe .. but we have company."
"Company?" the bard said tentatively, glancing at the small cave's opening. She sought the blue gaze again. "What's in there .... some cute little animal?" She trained a mocking glare at the warrior's innocent smirk.
"Well, you could say that," Xena answered smoothly, sheathing her sword. She took the horse's reins from the bard. "Go see for yourself." Gabrielle's brows skipped upward. "I think you can probably handle this 'little animal' better than I can." The bard's green gaze traveled from the warrior's face to the cave and back again.
"Xena," the girl began, a vague warning in her tone. "I'm not in the mood for ...."
"Go ahead," Xena said, her blue eyes inscrutable. She gently took the bard's staff. "But, ah ... I think you'd better leave this with me." She smiled enigmatically. "I left the torch just inside the entrance. I'll wait here for you."
Gabrielle's brows furrowed in curiosity. She studied the golden face for a moment, sighed and shook her blonde head slightly. "Oookay," the girl said, turning to face the cave. "I guess I'll go see the 'little animal'." The bard walked slowly toward the opening.
When she stepped into the cave, Gabrielle paused a moment to let her eyes get accustomed to the quiet darkness within the shelter. She found the torch protruding from the crack in the wall, pulled it out of its mounting and proceeded slowly into the shadowy interior. After a moment, she cocked her head as a subtle noise just ahead piqued her interest. She took a few tentative steps toward the sound, carefully sliding one hand along the craggy wall of the cave.
After a few more paces, the bard discovered she could stand up straight. She moved her hand along the wall again and tried to concentrate on the noise. Suddenly, the little blonde realized what she was hearing was the sound of breathing ... even, relaxed and steady. The 'little animal' Xena had invited her to visit was sleeping ... and quite peacefully.
Gabrielle blinked slowly, her eyes becoming even more accustomed to the murky surroundings. She raised the torch a bit higher, searching the darkened area carefully. In the next moment, the bard found the source of the gentle noise. Huddled against the far wall of the cavern, she saw a small, dark, tight bundle. It was obviously the form of a small child. The bard let out a quiet gasp, advanced another step toward the quiet form, one small hand reaching for the thin shoulder beneath the ragged covering. She knelt and gently touched the frail body. The little form jerked, twisted toward her, then recoiled fearfully, making a desperate attempt to press itself flat against the rocky wall.
"It's OK," the bard crooned, smiling warmly at the frightened face. "No one's going to hurt you. You're safe. It's all right." The big brown eyes in the dirt-smudged face met the little blonde's gentle smile, slowly responding to the bard's friendly manner. Gabrielle held out her hand, offering the child a solicitous greeting.
"My name's Gabrielle," the bard said softly. "What's yours?"
The young child looked questioningly at the bard's hand, then carefully placed a grimy palm in the little blonde's. "Niome," a tiny voice said. Gabrielle gently squeezed the little hand in hers. "I'm Niome." Gabrielle searched the nearby wall for a place to attach the torch. She found a narrow opening on the surface next to her, forced the handle of the torch into the crevice and turned back to the child.
The bard's warm smile began to dispel the blatant fear behind the haggard little face. The girl withdrew her hand and gently stroked the child's tangled hair. "Don't be afraid, Niome," the young bard said. "We'll help you get home."
The child's eyes quickly swept the cave. "You have someone with you?" the timid voice asked. "Where is ...?"
Gabrielle sat back, pulling the blanket from her shoulders and encircling the child with the woolen wrap. "My friend's outside ... taking care of our horse." Niome studied the bard's soft face. "Don't worry ... she'll be your friend too." The bard gathered her feet under her. "I'm going to go get her. OK?" The little blonde let her eyes settle on the child's.
Niome's trembling form quieted slowly. She pulled at the edges of the blanket. "OK ... Gabrielle," she said bravely. The bard turned and started toward the entrance to the cave. The thin voice behind her stopped her progress.
"Do you have anything to eat?"
The bard turned back to the fragile form in the blanket. "Sure. Be right back, OK?" The child nodded, her eyes trusting on the young blonde's face.
Once outside again, Gabrielle found the warrior securing the mare's reins to a bush a short distance from the entrance of the cave. Xena turned to face the bard when the young woman approached. As the woman's blue eyes met those of her soulmate, she immediately recognized the concern in the young face.
"Is she OK?"
The bard's green eyes glistened as she swallowed hard. "Xena, she's just a baby ... a little thing, maybe seven or eight summers old."
The warrior nodded almost impatiently. "I know, I know. But is she all right? Nothing hurt or broken?"
The little blonde paused, looking slightly puzzled into the warrior's blue eyes. "No, she's OK. At least I think she is. She didn't say anything hurt. But, she looks like she hasn't eaten in at least a week."
Xena quickly scanned the bard's form, noticing the absence of the warming covering. She turned quickly to the saddlebags, withdrew one of the blanket bedrolls and handed it to the preoccupied bard. "Here. Can't have you both freezing to death."
Gabrielle took the blanket and absently wrapped it around her own shoulders. She cast a concerned glance at the cave's entrance. "Xena, we need to ...."
The warrior raised a slender hand. "I know. I was just about to suggest that I go find us some food while you look after our ... guest." The golden face softened slightly. The warrior passed the bag of berries and roots to the bard. "You can share these in the meantime."
Gabrielle's anxious expression faded into a warm smile. She put her hand on the warrior's lean arm. "OK. You go ahead. We'll be fine until you get back." Xena returned the little smile. "What else should I do while you're gone?"
Xena pulled the small waterskin from Argo's back. "Here," she said, handing the skin to the bard. "This one's about half full. I'll fill the other one while I'm at it." She looked upward, scanning the sky and the surrounding greenery. "We've got a candlemark or so before dark ... I should be back before then." The bard nodded.
"Just stay inside, OK? That's the safest place for the two of you right now. See if you can get a fire going." For a fleeting instant, the warrior regretted her insinuation about the little bard's capabilities. But the underlying urgency to the present situation made it necessary to proceed with caution and care. "We're gonna get clobbered tonight, I can feel it." She cast another nervous glance at the sky. The warrior pulled the bard's staff from the straps on the saddle and handed them to the little blonde.
Gabrielle accepted the staff and gave the warrior's arm a final pat. "OK, see you inside." She turned toward the cave, stopped and turned back to the warrior. "Her name's Niome, by the way." Xena's brows knitted for a moment. "The little girl ..." the bard explained and the warrior nodded. "Well, be careful. See you soon."
Xena watched her friend reenter the cave, a quiet admiration in her subtle smile. "Niome," the warrior repeated quietly. "You do collect them, don't you?" she said to the little blonde's retreating form. "Oh well, it is the season ...." The warrior shook her head and gathered the game bag from the side of the saddle. She patted the mare's neck, stepping closer to the golden head.
"I'll fix up a shelter for you when I get back, OK, girl?" The mare whinnied gratefully. Xena stroked the long nose, drew her sword and strode off into the rustling forest, a confident look sliding across the chiseled features.
Inside the cave, the bright fire filled the cavern with soothing heat as the three occupants sat in a comfortable cross-legged circle around the dancing flames. According to her usual proficient manner, Xena had managed to produce enough meat and edible plants to provide sufficient nourishment for the three of them, and Gabrielle, accordingly, had engaged her normal culinary talents in using said ingredients in the creation of an appetizing, filling stew. The water jugs had been filled and the three females now sat enjoying the satisfying feast.
The two adults exchanged a series of amused expressions while turning their attention to the ravenous machinations of the youngest member of the trio. Gabrielle's green eyes were slightly amazed as she watched the child spoon the remaining contents of the bowl into her mouth, the wooden ladle in her hand making speedy, continuous trips between the earthen container and her chin. The bard quietly met the warrior's blue gaze and the two friends silently shared a knowing grin. Xena's eyes moved from the bard's to the busy youngster, then returned to meet her friend's gaze again. A warm smile lit the sculpted face.
Once the initial chores had been accomplished to prepare the cave for their stay, Gabrielle had taken amiable charge of their young companion. The bard had carefully used a soft cloth from their supplies to wash the gaunt little face and dirt-smudged hands. She gently brushed the tangles from the matted, straw-colored hair, affixing one of her own bone clasps to the back of the girl's head.
Xena's contribution to the cleanup activities had been to convert the blanket wrap into a short toga for the shivering youngster; she smoothly cut an opening in the middle of the woolen swatch and repositioned the covering over the child's head. The little girl had giggled happily at the creation of her new, unusual garment.
The loving ministrations had certainly improved the child's appearance, but the dark shadows under the large brown eyes and the raw-boned, haunted cast to the young face had only been subtly dissipated. There was still a very noticeable quality of loss visible in the small countenance.
After a moment, Niome paused in her hurried consumption of the stew to glance at the two women watching her. She swallowed the most recent mouthful and favored the bard with a grateful grin. "It's really good, Gabrielle. Never tasted better."
The little bard's hearty chuckle filled the small cave. "Well, that's good, Niome. I was afraid you didn't like it." The child's momentary confusion widened the warrior's grin.
"Oh, I get it," Niome giggled. She cast a sheepish smile at the bard. "I guess I was really hungry," the youngster said. She handed the empty bowl to the bard.
"More?" Gabrielle said, reaching for the large wooden utensil in the cooking pot over the fire.
"No, thanks," Niome said bashfully. "You gotta have some ...." The girl glanced shyly at the warrior. "You an' Xena."
The tall woman's gentle smile encouraged the child's. "That's OK, Niome," the smooth voice assured her. "We're both ... full," Xena said, casting a quick glance at the bard's playful smirk. "Go ahead ... finish the pot, if you're still hungry." Niome gazed longingly at the small iron container over the fire then raised her eyes to the bard's questioning look.
"You sure?" the child asked.
"We're sure," the bard answered, stirring the final portion of the stew before filling the girl's empty bowl again. She handed the vessel back to the child. "Here you are." Niome smiled happily as she accepted the bowl and promptly followed the warrior's suggestion. Xena and Gabrielle shared another amused smile.
While the child enjoyed the stew, Gabrielle leaned closer to the warrior as the tall woman whispered quietly into the bard's ear. "Looks like you were right," Xena said, her eyes soft on the waif's face. "She's been empty for a while." The blue pools traveled to the blonde's sympathetic expression.
"Poor little thing," the bard murmured. "Wonder what she's doing out here all by herself." The two women watched the youngster use the wooden utensil to scrape the sides of the bowl before depositing the final remnants from the vessel into her waiting mouth.
"Why don't you ask her?" the warrior said. The bard's green eyes met the crystal pools. "She's likely to tell you what we need to know."
"Need to know?" the bard repeated warily. "What do you mean 'need to know'?"
The warrior leaned closer to the bard and spoke quietly. "Gabrielle, a child that age," she said, glancing at Niome. "Out here, all alone? Has to be some reason for that." The warrior's blue eyes searched the little blonde's green gaze. "Right?" One dark eyebrow crept upward. "Someone might be looking for her ... concerned about her." Gabrielle glanced toward the scrawny little figure.
"You're right," the bard said, returning her gaze to the tall warrior's blue eyes. "We probably should at least ... try to find out what's happened here." The young blonde swallowed, took a short breath and addressed the child.
"Niome?" she said and the child's eyes swept to meet hers. The bard was slightly taken aback by the dark, hollowness under the brown pools. "Sweetheart, where's your family?" Niome gulped as the warrior's instincts began to tingle. "Won't they be worried about you?"
The youngster's gaze fell to the bowl in her hands. After a long moment, two heavy tears slowly traveled down over the thin cheeks. The child blinked, wiped her face and looked up at the soft green pools again. "Nobody left but me," she said quietly. She pulled one slim wrist under her nose. "They're all on the other side."
Even the warrior's stoic demeanor wavered at the simple, pathetic statement. She swallowed against the tightness in her throat. "What happened to them?" Xena asked quietly.
Niome's brown eyes moved to the warrior's face. "Papa got hurt in the fields. He got really sick ... then he was ... gone." The child sniffled and focused on the bowl again. "Then Mama and Galen ..." she met the bard's gaze again. "He's ... was my little brother ...." Gabrielle blinked at the child's pain. "They both got really sick, too. Mama couldn't feed Galen and he just kept cryin' .... and I didn't know what to do." The bard slid closer to the little form and the child turned a tormented gaze up to the soft face. "He just ... cried and cried and I ... I couldn't ...."
"Shh," Gabrielle crooned, pulling the sobbing child into her arms and stroking the flowing, yellow hair. "It's all right." She gently wiped away the girl's tears. "You tried, didn't you? That's all you can do." Niome burrowed against the bard's chest, clinging tightly to the little blonde's waist. The young woman met the warrior's gaze over the soft, pale head. The blue eyes were sad. The bard held the child close for a moment, then sat back to address the wet face again.
"Don't you have any other family ... someone who could let you ....?"
Niome pulled away from the gentle embrace, using the edges of the blanket to dry her face. "No, that's all there was ... just Mama, Papa, Galen and me." The bard watched the child closely. "After they all ... went away, Mentos wanted to make me work for the lady who runs the .... soldier's place, but ...."
"Who's 'Mentos'?" the warrior asked gently.
"He's the man who owns our farm. He said, without Papa to work it, he hadda right to get his money back somehow." The little chin wavered.
Gabrielle's slight confusion registered across her face. She raised a questioning gaze to the warrior's. "Soldier's place?" she asked quietly.
Xena's expression hardened. For a moment, the blue eyes were fastened on the brave child. "Brothel, Gabrielle," the warrior said softly, raising her eyes to the bard's.
The bard's mouth dropped slightly as she closed her eyes for a moment. She focused on the child at her side.
"I knew Mama wouldn't have liked that, so I ran away," the child said bravely, meeting the tall woman's eyes.
"Good for you," Gabrielle told the youngster, giving the girl's sparse shoulders a hug. Niome wiped her face with the edges of the blanket and cast a thin smile up at the bard's gentle grin. The warrior's sleek face softened slightly. She leaned toward the smaller pair.
"Niome?" Xena asked. "Did you get enough to eat?" The little face brightened quickly.
"Yes, thank you," the girl chirped, bringing a subtle grin to the bronze face. The warrior’s gaze traveled to the bard's, shared the amusement glowing there, then returned to the round, dark pools of the child. "It was really good, Gabrielle," the little girl said to the bard. "You're a good cook."
"Yes, she is," Xena said, glancing at the bard again. "Good stew, Your Highness. Nice work." The bard blushed slightly.
"Thanks. T'wert nothin'," she joked, sharing a gentle laugh with the child.
"Your Highness?" Niome chirped unexpectedly, turning to Gabrielle with renewed admiration. "Are you a princess, or somethin'?" she queried. The bard threw the warrior's smirk a 'Now you've done it' look as the tall woman unfolded her long legs and stood up.
"Yes, she is, and she can tell you all about it while I go check on Argo." Xena lifted her cape onto her shoulders, pulled the hood over her head, tied the cape closed under her chin and started toward the opening of the cave. As she passed the bard, she laid a loving hand on the young blonde's head. "Can't you, Your Highness?" She gathered the long woolen garment around herself.
Gabrielle smiled down at the child's expectant face. As Xena retrieved one of the torches and bent to exit the cave, she heard the sounds of her friend's 'best bard voice' filling the small chamber.
"That's a long, wonderful story," the little blonde burbled. "I'll tell it to you while we do the dishes. You see, three summers ago, when Xena and I were visiting the village of the Amazons ....."
The warrior stepped into the swirling snow outside the cave. She trudged through the soft mounds to inspect the shelter where Argo stood, quietly chomping on the clump of dried leaves her mistress had gathered earlier. Xena checked the fir boughs she had used to erect the haven for the mare, using the limbs and the short outcropping in the side of the hill as a makeshift barrier for the horse's protection from the snow storm. The simple fixture appeared secure and the mare whinnied gratefully, thanking her mistress for the comfort the cover provided.
The warrior used the hilt of her sword to shatter the ice covering the small pool of water she had deposited in the basin-like depression in the side of the hill. She stroked the animal's nose as Argo bent her head to enjoy the water and pulled the animal-skin blanket higher on the horse's neck. When she was satisfied the great steed would be relatively protected and comfortable, the tall woman knelt to gather a new supply of logs from the short pile she had stacked near the cave's entrance. She collected the wood in her arms, shook off the snow that clung to her cape and stepped back into the cave.
Xena pulled the torch out of the crevice where she'd left it and, bending her tall frame slightly, passed into the warmer inner section of the cavern. She replaced the torch in another crack in the wall, pulled the hood back from her head and turned to scan the cave for the other two occupants. Her eyes settled on the sight of the bard, leaning comfortably against the far wall of the cave, her fingers gently stroking the hair of the sleeping child resting peacefully under the blanket covering her lap. When her eyes rose to meet the warrior's, the bard's soft smile creased her sweet face.
The warrior knelt and added the logs to the fire. Then she stood, untied the laces under her chin, pulled off her cape and draped it over a large boulder next to the bard. While she resettled herself cross-legged on the other side of the fire, Gabrielle held out a steaming mug to her friend. The warrior accepted the warm drink, letting her eyes travel over the serene picture.
"I'll have to finish the story some other time, I guess," the little blonde whispered quietly, training a gentle gaze down at the sleeping face nestled against her thighs. "She was out before I even got to the 'princess part'," the bard said. Xena watched the sweet face of her best friend. The little blonde's slender fingers traveled carefully over the small blonde head. She raised her gaze to meet the blue gaze of the warrior.
"What's going to happen to her now?" the bard asked her friend. "She's all alone, Xena. No child should have to deal with that."
Xena took a sip from the mug in her hand. She studied the fragrant mixture for a moment, then met the bard's eyes. "We'll take her with us to Megara," the tall woman said simply. "Rhea runs an orphanage, remember?" The blue eyes rested on the child's contented face. "She's the best thing for Niome now. She'll know exactly what to do."
"I was hoping you'd say that," the bard murmured quietly. "I knew I could count on you to find 'the best thing'."
When the azure pools rose to the bard's gaze, the warrior's heart trembled at the deep affection she found in the soft green eyes. The two soulmates shared a quiet moment of mutual devotion before Xena lifted the mug to her mouth and enjoyed another mouthful of the warm contents.
"Let's turn in for tonight," the warrior said. "We'll have the snow to deal with on the road tomorrow."
Xena put the cup aside and leaned toward the bard. Taking special care, she pulled back the blanket covering and lifted the sleeping child away from her friend's legs. She cradled the little form in her lap while Gabrielle moved away from the wall, spread their bedrolls near the fire and laid down at one end of the sleeping area. When the bard was settled, Xena carefully repositioned Niome next to the little blonde, draping the blanket over the two small forms.
The warrior rose and made final adjustments to the leaping fire. She retrieved her long cape, strode back to the bedrolls and settled her long frame down on the other side of the sleeping youngster, covering her lower torso with the heavy cape. For a few moments, it was quiet in the little cavern. Then the bard's voice floated across the blankets.
"Are we still going to make it to Megara on time?" she asked.
"No," the warrior replied simply, "but I think Rhea will understand." The blue eyes met the bard's worried frown. "She's probably dealing with this weather, too." The stoic face softened as she gazed down at the child nestled between them. "After all, we will be bringing her a little surprise." The blue eyes floated up to the bard's soft face. "That'll make it up to her." The young blonde's smile was warm.
"Goodnight, Xena," the bard whispered over the small head on the blanket..
"Goodnight, Gabrielle," the warrior answered. As the bard closed her eyes, she heard the warrior's other very quiet statement. "Goodnight, Niome." The little blonde smiled again.
The next morning, the sunlight danced brightly on the soft, white, sparkling blanket covering the trees, the ground and every other remotely horizontal surface outside. When the warrior emerged from the cave to gather the last of the logs in the stack near the cave, Argo greeted the tall woman with a welcoming laugh. The green bough shelter sported its own crown of snow, yet the animal snuggled beneath it appeared dry, protected and even anxious to continue their journey. The warrior congratulated herself on her successful assembling skills. After favoring the animal with a good-morning pat, she used one of the logs to crack the ice covering on the horse's water supply and returned to the cave.
The bard had breakfast ready and the three travelers happily settled in to enjoy the simple meal. Soon it was time for the bard and the warrior to resume their journey to Megara, now accompanied by their youthful passenger. The adults repacked the saddlebags, gathered their traveling gear and moved outside to prepare the mare for the remaining trip.
When Niome emerged from the cozy little cavern, her expression brightened with youthful enthusiasm at the sight of the pristine whiteness covering the surrounding countryside. The warrior smiled indulgently as the child, and the young bard, spent several minutes admiring the beauty of the mounds of white, pointing out various unique shapes under the snowdrifts and commenting on the excellence of the undisturbed brilliance of the gods' handiwork.
When she had secured the saddle and saddlebags to Argo's back, the warrior turned to the youngster happily gathering the powdery substance between her cupped hands. She cast an amiable glance at the child's delighted grin.
Niome lifted the handful of snow, giggled loudly and tossed the white powder into the air. As the frosty substance tumbled down over her, the girl opened her mouth, trying valiantly to capture the falling snowmound in her mouth. She bent to gather more of the snow, then thrust the second handful skyward. The warrior shook her head slightly, shared a quiet smile with the bard and returned her attention to the child's blissful activity. A moment later, Xena cast a concerned gaze up at the cloudless sky. She stepped toward the playful youngster.
"OK, madam blizzard maker," the warrior chortled, sweeping the little form onto the mare's wide saddle. "You get to ride the horse today." Niome's excited giggle caused the great steed's golden head to twist back toward the cheerful sound. The little girl gently patted the animal's thick neck. "What's it's name?" she asked happily.
"Her name is Argo," the warrior answered, wrapping one of the blankets around the tiny form. "Just hold on to the horn and she'll handle the rest." The little body wiggled, settling dutifully into the furry hide covering the saddle. "Hi, Argo," the girl chanted, turning a delighted grin to the bard. The mare whinnied grudgingly.
The warrior gathered the reins, and turned to the bard. "All ready?" The bard nodded and the small party proceeded away from the cozy cave.
By mid-morning, the trio was entering the small town of Stilis. The warrior guided the mare to the railing in front of a shop that displayed various items of clothing and winter apparel. As she tied the horse's reins to the wooden fixture, she spoke to the bard.
"Let's find you a good, warm cape," Xena said. "Shouldn't cost us too much." The blue eyes narrowed at the little blonde's reluctant expression. "What?"
Gabrielle stepped closer to the tall form and lowered her voice. "I'd rather get some little boots for Niome. Look at her shoes, Xena. She needs them more than ...."
"Gabrielle," Xena interjected. "Rhea will get Niome everything she needs when we get her to Megara." The bard's slender chin stiffened. "I think we need to get you something warm to wear while we're on the road, right now." The warrior turned to the child atop the golden horse. She held out her arms and the girl slid into her embrace.
"C'mon, Sweetie," the warrior said, lowering the youngster to the ground. "We're going to go shopping for ...." she glanced at the bard, "Aunt Gabrielle's new winter coat. Then we'll see if we can't find you some candy drops, OK?" Niome giggled adoringly and grasped the warrior's slender hand. She placed her other hand in the bard's.
"OK," she chirped, smiling up at the young blonde's slightly annoyed face. After a moment, Gabrielle returned the little girl's smile. Niome giggled again. "This is fun. Do you do this all the time?"
The bard trained a meaningful glare at the warrior's shining blue eyes. "Yes," she answered, her gaze on the tall woman's innocent gaze. "All the time. You'd be surprised how tiresome it can get." Xena's forehead furrowed in mild confusion.
After they had taken only a few steps toward the merchant's shop, Gabrielle turned to address the tall warrior. "Don't you think you should get Argo some real food?" Xena blinked at the curious question. "Poor thing sort of had to 'do without' last night, didn't she?"
Xena quietly considered the bard's statement. She turned to glance at the mare standing patiently at the hitching rail. "Yeah, I guess you're right," she admitted. She patted the little hand in hers. "You go with Gabrielle, Niome," the warrior told the child between them. "I'm going to get some food for Argo, OK?"
"OK," the child answered, turning to the bard. "I guess I can help you find your new coat."
Gabrielle smiled down at the happy face. "Of course you can. C'mon, we'll see what they have."
Xena watched the pair walk into the shop before loosening the reins from the railing and leading the mare toward the stable she had noticed when they'd entered the town. In a very short time, she had purchased a small bag of feed for the horse and, after attaching the sack over the animal's nose and mouth, she patted the sinewy neck, turned and made her way back to the shop where she'd left the bard and the little girl.
Just as the warrior's hand reached for the latch on the shop's entrance, the door swung open and a very happy Niome pranced past the warrior then stopped, swiveled back to the tall form and clutched the warrior's hand excitedly. The little girl pointed delightedly, dancing from one tiny foot to the other, trying to display both of the bright, new boots covering her feet.
"Lookit, Xena!" the child squealed. "Lookit what Gabrielle got for me!" The warrior looked carefully at the child's feet before turning in search of the young bard. In the next moment, the little blonde emerged from the merchant's shop, purposely avoiding the smoldering wrath she'd recognized when she'd cast a quick glimpse at the warrior's piercing blue eyes. The warrior's jaw rippled as she made a concentrated effort to respond kindly to the youngster's enthusiasm.
"Yes, they're really nice," Xena said evenly, forcing herself to smile at the child's excited face. Niome released the warrior's fingers and ran to capture the bard's small hand. "Can we still find some candy drops, Gabrielle?" The bard met the warrior's angry glare for a moment before turning absently to the young face at her side.
"What?" she stammered. "Well, yes, I guess so," the bard told the little girl. She turned a leery eye toward the tall warrior. "If ... Auntie Xena still thinks we have ... enough time." Xena exhaled a slow, controlled breath. The blue eyes slowly cleared before landing on the child's expectant expression. "I think ... we have enough time for that," the warrior said slowly. She let her eyes travel over the small collection of buildings. "Over there," she said finally, pointing to another shop. "We can probably get them at that shop."
Niome's gaze followed the warrior's gesture, then she moved toward the building, pulling the somewhat relieved bard along with her. As the three travelers moved toward the shop in question, Gabrielle swallowed her dread even as she felt the warrior's furious gaze boring into her back.
Half a candlemark later, the travelers had resumed their journey, the warrior and the bard walking next to the great steed while the delighted child perched on the fur-covered saddle languidly enjoyed the short, sweet stick of hard candy she grasped happily in her little hand. Gabrielle made every effort to match her strides to the warrior's; however, the tall woman's angry state made that task even more difficult than usual. After struggling for the better part of the time since they'd left Stilis, the bard finally decided confronting the issue might, in the long run, end the current aching in her legs. She took a deep breath and trotted forward to the warrior's side.
"OK, go ahead ... yell at me. Get it over with." She glanced quickly at the stoic face, trying to decide the effect of her halfheartedly humorous remark. The warrior didn't respond.
"C'mon, Xena. Say something ... anything. I hate it when you just ... clam up."
Xena stopped abruptly and turned a rankled glare at the young blonde. "OK, you make me reeeally angry when you do that ... completely ignore what I say." The bard blinked in embarrassment. "Why did you do it? Why did you ...defy me and ....?"
"I 'defied' you??" the bard barked, her green eyes growing as angry as the warrior's. "Since when do I need your permission to do something?"
Xena turned back to the road angrily. "That's not what I meant and you know it," the warrior sputtered. She stomped forward until the bard's hand on her arm halted her progress.
"What do you mean, then?" the bard growled. "You always assume that I don't have enough sense to decide things on my own." The warrior scoffed loudly. "That I'm just a 'dumb little girl from Poteidaia', not experienced enough to make 'sensible decisions', isn't that right?"
Xena stopped walking again and turned a furious glare toward her companion. "Sometimes I wonder about how much sense you do have, Gabrielle." The caustic remark staggered the little blonde. The warrior's bronze face cleared slightly. "No, I didn't mean that, either," Xena said, her frustration undermining her reserve. The two friends glared angrily at each other before the warrior turned and started walking again. The bard followed after a moment.
"Look, I just wanted to do something nice for this poor little thing," the bard said, her voice guarded. "Xena, she's got nothing of her own. She's all alo ..."
The warrior turned an impatient expression toward the bard's plaintive face. "Gabrielle, I told you. When we get to Megara, Rhea will provide everything Niome needs. She'll be in a snug, cozy, warm house for a number of years to come. She's going to be fine. I give you my word on that." The two women walked silently for a few moments. "You, however, will be out in the weather, whatever it is, in serious need of something warm, protective and hopefully sturdy enough to keep you comfortable and healthy. That's <I> why I wanted to use those dinars to buy you a good, heavy cape," the warrior finished. "Your needs, at this point, outweigh hers. Can't you understand?"
The two women were quiet for several dozen paces. Finally the little blonde put a hand on her friend's strong arm. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I didn't mean to simply ... ignore your opinion." The warrior cast a slightly tolerant look at her small friend. "I just wanted to ... give Niome something special." The bard's soft face warmed in a coaxing grin. "Even is it's too late for Solstice."
Xena let out an exasperated sigh. She stopped walking and turned to face her small companion. After a moment, the warrior touched the young woman's soft hair. "I understand what you were trying to do," the warrior said, keeping her voice private. "I agree with your intentions," she told the bard. "As usual, you followed your heart." She stroked the girl's soft cheek with her fingers. "But next time, try to see the long term when I bring it up, OK?"
The little bard swallowed the tinge of quiet resentment at the warrior's permissive tone. She returned the tall woman's warm smile. "Besides, Solstice is two days away," the warrior said enigmatically as she turned and resumed walking. The bard blinked at the unexpected statement. After a moment, she turned and followed the warrior.
"What?" she said, tugging on the woman's long cape. "What did you say ... Solstice is when??"
The warrior's crooked smile incited the bard's curiosity further. "Xena!" the bard squeaked. "We celebrated Solstice with the Amazons ...." She pulled hard on the warrior's cape. "What do you mean, 'Solstice is two days away'?"
Xena turned a wide smile to the bard's confusion. "Solstice is the third day following the second full moon of this season, right?"
"Right," Gabrielle said, nodding.
"Well, we had the first full moon while we were at the Retreat Hut. We celebrated with Ephiny and the Amazons the day before we left them. I think they moved it up to help us feel better after our stint in the forest." Xena's blue eyes were warmly amused.
The bard's mouth dropped open slightly.
"We had the second full moon last night. Tomorrow is the second day following that. So, the day after tomorrow is really Solstice." The warrior's dark eyebrow lingered above her blue stare. After a moment, she gently pulled the young blonde toward the road, softly nudged the girl forward and resumed her steps beside her friend.
Gabrielle's stunned expression faded slowly. "Well, I'll be dipped," the girl said quietly, bringing a wide smile to the golden face. The young blonde turned to her tall companion. "That's something else you've been keeping under that dark hair of yours." The bard giggled warmly as the warrior gathered her close. "You were just going to let me stay confused, weren't you?" The warrior's smirk grew. "Weren't you?" The bard leveled a playful punch at the warrior's arm.
"Well, now I have to find you another present, don't I?" the little blonde said as the warrior rolled her eyes.
The child seated on the horse cast a cheerful look at the two women on the road. She didn't know why they were laughing, she just knew she liked the sound of it.
By midday, it had become clear to the warrior that the extra thickness of the snow on the path and the unrelenting chilly air had slowed their progress in spite of the high spirits of the three travelers. She studied the clear sky again and decided the temperature and the frosty wind made warm nourishment more of a necessity than a luxury. She announced that they would stop for lunch soon, bringing a grateful, albeit subdued sigh from the bard and a contented grin from the child on the horse.
A few minutes later, Xena had located a comfortable little clearing on the side of the road and she guided the mare toward the secluded space, lowered the tiny rider to the ground and turned to confer with the bard.
"I'll get some more wood and see what I can shake from the bushes." She glanced at the child tracking tiny footprints in the snow. "She probably needs to 'visit the forest'." She grinned at the bard. "As do we all." The little blonde smiled warmly. "Anyway, I'll be back shortly." Gabrielle waved at the warrior's departing figure. She turned to the child.
When the warrior returned to the sheltered campsite with the results of her 'bush shaking' half a candlemark later, the first thing she noticed was the worthy fire the bard had engineered; the second thing that captured her attention was the absence of her blonde friend from the immediate vicinity, as well as the missing form of the small child in their charge.
Xena dropped the wood and the two rabbits next to the fire, knelt to warm her hands over the flames for a moment, then turned her head toward the delighted shrieks that floated from the quiet field next to the campsite. The tall woman stood up and slowly turned her steps toward the happy sounds. After a half dozen paces, her blue eyes fell upon the source of the joyful noise. The warrior stood transfixed at the sight of the little blonde and her youthful charge, lying spread-eagled on the ground, their arms and legs sweeping slowly from side to side, upward and downward, gently repositioning the snow beneath them into subtle shapes and outlines. The warrior found herself smiling happily.
Xena trudged slowly toward the squealing pair. When the bard's eyes found her tall friend's advancing form, she called out a cheerful greeting. "Hi!" the little blonde shouted from her position on the ground. "C'mon, we're making snow angels! See if you can make one and then stand up without ruining it."
The warrior shook her head, her elbows forming sharp bulges in the sides of her cape. "You are kidding, aren't you?" she chided her friend. "You're rolling around in the snow, for Artemis' sake!" She laughed easily at the bard's snow-covered form. "Get up from there before you freeze to the ground."
Xena turned her head to acknowledge Niome's delighted shriek. She watched as the child flailed her little arms and legs, sending powdery clouds of snow leaping away from her frantic efforts. "C'mon, Xena!" the child giggled. "It's fun! You can make a big angel, as tall as you are!"
The warrior's gentle laugh echoed over the white landscape. "I can, huh?" she chortled at the youngster's smile. Xena gathered her cape closely around her tall frame. "OK," she laughed, "why not?" The bard's happy laugh matched the child's. The warrior took a few tentative steps toward an untouched area of snow. "How do you do this, again?" she asked over her shoulder. "You just ... what ... lie down and wave your arms and legs?" With that, the tall form flopped backwards onto the snowy field as the two angel-builders on the ground screamed in glee.
Xena moved her arms and legs against the snowy blanket, sweeping the white powder aside with each pass. She grimaced slightly as errant clouds of the white dust floated downward to cling to her face. After a few energetic moments, the warrior pulled her head from the ground and focused on the grinning bard sitting in the snow.
"Now what?" the warrior asked comically. "I'm supposed to just ...stand up?"
"Without ruining the angel," Niome prodded. "Be careful ... it's kinda tricky."
Xena dropped her head back to the ground and repositioned her hands, planting her palms on the soft snow on either side of her waist. She took a quick breath, gathered herself tightly and lifted her hips away from the snowy surface. With a characteristic cry, she pushed her body upwards, executed a perfect somersault and landed lightly on her boots a short meter away from the impression left by her body in the snow. She turned a proud smirk at the bard.
"Show off," Gabrielle giggled, scrambling up from her position. She I inspected the angel created by the warrior then turned to the child trudging toward her in the snow. "I told you she could do it, if she tried." The little girl laughed happily as she turned to the warrior's smiling face.
"You did it!" Niome congratulated the warrior. She flung her snow-covered form at the tall woman's knees. "It's a beautiful angel, Xena. See?" The little hand pointed toward the form in the snow. "Longer than anyone's."
Xena gazed down at the happy little form. "Thanks, Niome. You were right. It was fun," the tall woman told her. An instant later, the warrior was blinking slowly as she tried to clear away the cold, icy remnants of the handful of snow the bard had hurled expertly at her head. The blue eyes were menacing on the bard's gleeful smirk. Niome squealed and clapped her hands.
"Oh, that's the way you wanna play, huh?" the warrior growled. She gently pushed the child aside and bent to gather a handful of the moist powder. Patting the crystals into a tight ball, she pulled back her hand and sent the sphere speeding toward the bard's laughing face. The snowball splattered efficiently in the middle of her target's back, the bard having turned her body in an attempt to escape the tall woman's perfect aim. The warrior was already building another cold, round weapon.
The three travelers engaged in a spirited exchange of snowy missiles, joyfully pelting each other with rapidly collected handfuls of the frosty, icy mixture. Any four-legged creature who had elected to occupy the surrounding forest during the frigid season was treated to the joyful sounds of the playful, happy abandonment as the snowball war raged unchecked for a long series of minutes.
At one point, the bard's determined aim was thwarted by the arrival of a well-thrown icy sphere. She shrieked when the frosty mixture found its way inside the front of her tunic and down the sides of her neck. While she worked frantically to clear away the cold intrusion, Niome lofted another expertly-packed handful at the defenseless blonde head. The bard suddenly found herself blatantly outnumbered, the unfortunate target of both her companions' fiendish attacks.
Gabrielle dropped her intended weapon and launched her trim body at the child's retreating form, capturing the giggling youngster easily and lifting the wriggling body off the ground and into the warrior's waiting arms. Niome squealed happily as she traveled airborne between the two adults. After the third trip to the warrior's grasp, the tall woman playfully transferred the little form to her shoulder, enjoying the child's delight at her skyward position.
"OK, OK," the warrior announced breathlessly. "I think we can call a uniform truce." She winked at the bard's shining face. "If we don't get back to camp, we'll have to start a new fire and then we will all surely freeze to death." Gabrielle panted happily as she nodded her agreement. Xena tilted her head to address the child on her shoulder. "OK?"
Niome's happy laughter tumbled downward. "OK," the child chuckled. "My hands are really cold, anyway."
The two women laughed with the little girl. The warrior turned toward the camp, her boots making deep marks in the snow. Gabrielle followed the tall woman, brushing the powder from the blanket over her shoulders, then swept the snowy remnants from the back of the warrior's cape. Niome giggled from her high perch.
The midday meal took a little longer that usual on this bright, snowy day. Part of the time normally assigned to eating was taken up by the necessary procedure of warming cold fingers and toes next to the heartily raging fire. The warrior spent a few minutes in such soothing endeavors, then moved to position the day's catch onto the spit over the flames. Soon the bard had added several handfuls of dried herbs and plants to the steaming mixture bubbling in the small cooking pot. The two friends comfortably managed their regular chores as the young girl watched, enthralled.
"You guys do this alot, don't you?" Niome asked after spending several minutes tracking the actions of the two adults. Gabrielle's gentle chuckle filled the campsite. She quietly nudged her tall companion.
"Yeah, we have sort of gotten into a routine," she told the girl. "We've been traveling together so long, we don't even think about who does what anymore." The warrior's head turned toward the bard. "Right?"
"Right," Xena answered quietly. She slid the pieces of the rabbit into the cooking pot, stirring the mixture with a slender branch. When the bard had dusted the refuse of the herbs from her hands, the tall woman handed the slim branch to the bard. "I'll start the tea," she said to her blonde companion. Niome's round brown eyes followed the warrior.
"You make tea, too?" The warrior's blue eyes were slightly surprised as she met the girl's gaze. "Well ... yeah," Xena said, somewhat unsettled by the girl's question. "We both ... handle the tea, from time to time." The blue eyes found the amused green gaze. The little blonde smiled at the warrior's chagrin.
When the stew was ready, Gabrielle settled three portions on the earthen plates and the warrior poured tea into the small mugs. Then the travelers enjoyed their warm, filling lunch.
While they ate, the bard and the warrior discussed the plan for their journey.
"It doesn't look like we're going to get to Megara by nightfall," the warrior announced halfway through the meal. The bard cast an apologetic look at the blue eyes. "No, no," Xena shook her head, dispelling the little blonde's guilty expression. "It's the snow and the cold. Always slows things down." Xena glanced at the child sitting on the blanket, enjoying the stew. "Our snowball fight didn't make any difference." The warrior returned her gaze to the bard's "We would've had to spend another night on the road anyway."
Gabrielle turned her attention to the youngster. "Do you know of another comfortable cave around here?"
Xena's quiet chuckle pulled the bard's gaze to hers. "Nope, 'fraid not." She lifted the mug and drained the contents. "I think, if we put some more distance behind us, we can stop in time for me to fix up a shelter of some kind." She trained her eyes skyward. "I just hope we don't get anymore snow before morning." She handed the bard her empty plate and mug.
"Better get moving," she told the bard turning again to the child. "And wrap her up good. It's going to get colder as the sun gets lower. OK?" Gabrielle nodded and turned to the quiet youngster. "Niome," she called. "Let's do the dishes. We have to get back on the road."
The little girl licked the last of the stew from her fingers, picked up her empty bowl and bounded over to the bard. "OK," she agreed happily before turning to the warrior. "Do I getta ride the horse again?" she asked hopefully. The three heads turned toward the mare's answering neigh. Niome giggled as the horse's head bobbed up and down. The brown eyes returned to the warrior's face.
"I guess so ... Argo has decided you can ride." She poked the little girl's tummy playfully. Then the warrior stood and began to prepare the golden horse for the resumed journey. Soon the travelers had cleared the campsite and were again on their way to Megara.
Xena checked the thatch on the fir boughs again before spreading the next layer over the one already in place. She lifted the heavy end of the branches onto the latticework secured between the rock formations while the bard laced the other end to the corner brace. When both edges of the green blanket were wedged tight, the warrior jumped down from her position on the rocky face and stepped back to inspect the sweet-smelling shelter. She nodded mutely, turning an approving glance at the bard's proud expression.
Once again, the warrior had adroitly adapted a random, natural configuration to provide for their temporary, yet immediate needs. By creating a makeshift 'roof' between a pair of rocky vertical arrangements, the three females now had a somewhat serviceable, and relatively comfortable, shelter where they could spend the quickly approaching night. With its evergreen ceiling and floor - the credit for which had to be allotted to the efforts of a diligent Niome - the little sanctuary resembled a cleverly constructed stone hut ... the two outer sides solid and impervious, the top and bottom strong, secure and, in this case, fragrant. There was even enough room for Argo to stand under one end of the granite enclosure.
When the warrior pronounced the shelter finished, the bard turned her attentions to maintaining the campfire. Xena used her sword to provide another reserve of wood, stacking the new logs in an available cluster near the shelter. Niome sat quietly next to the bard, the little form swathed in one of the travelers' blankets, her short fingers busy cleaning the small bundle of herbs the bard had deposited in her lap. She looked up to meet the warrior's approving smile as the tall woman ducked into the shelter to sit by her side.
"Good job," the warrior said to the little girl. The small face lit brightly. "You're going to make a good cook, someday." Xena accepted the mug of warm tea the bard handed her. The two women exchanged a knowing smile as the warrior posed a silent question to her friend. She swallowed the mouthful of tea and turned again to the child.
"Niome?" the warrior began, meeting the brown eyes raised to hers. "Ah ... I was wondering." The youngster's attention left the herb cluster and settled on the bronze face. Xena found herself somewhat hesitant to proceed. She glanced at the bard but the young blonde was concentrating on the bubbling kettle. The little girl's voice pulled the warrior's attention back to her face.
"Go 'head, Xena," the little waif said. "You kin ask me anything." The stoic face softened.
"Well," Xena began again. "I have this friend ... in Megara. She has a big house and lots of children live there with her. Her name's R...."
"Rhea," the child said, her brown eyes steady on the warrior's startled face. "Her house is an orphanage ... where kids like me live 'cause we don't have a family no more. Right?" The bard turned to face the small figure. Niome met the green eyes for a moment, then returned her gaze to the warrior's cobalt pools.
"Right," Xena said softly. She studied the small, round countenance. "Rhea is a very nice person. She's an old friend of mine and I trust her ... almost as much as I trust Gabrielle," the warrior said, her eyes meeting the bard's for a moment. "Anyway, do you think you might like to live in Megara? With Rhea?" The child seemed to consider this new option. "Just until you decided ... what else you might like to do." Gabrielle's subtle grin warmed her young face. "What do you think?" The warrior kept her eyes on the child.
Niome looked from the bard's open face to the warrior's and back. "Will you guys come see me sometimes? I mean, whenever you can?" The brown eyes traveled between the two faces again. The warrior and the bard exchanged glances.
"Sure, we will," the bard said, giving the little form a gentle hug. Niome turned to the warrior.
"And bring Argo?" the little girl giggled. Xena's smooth face softened warmly.
"Of course, we'll bring Argo. She'll want to hear all about what you're doing as much as we will." The warrior cupped the little chin in her palm. "So, you think you might want to give Rhea's house a try?"
The little face brightened. "If she's a friend of yours, sure," the little girl piped. "Maybe me an' the other kids can make snow angels, too." The bard joined in the child's laughter. "And have snowball fights, huh?"
"I don't know why not," the bard said, hugging the little form tighter.
"Then it's settled," the warrior said when the two smaller forms had quieted. "Tomorrow, when we get to Rhea's, you can tell her you've decided to stay with her for a while. OK?"
"OK," the little girl answered. She scooped up the herbs from her lap and dropped them into the bard's cupped hands. The warrior watched the little girl scoot forward to watch the bard add the handful to the bubbling pot.
The warrior scratched the horse's long face and the animal bent her head to sample the dried grass her mistress had deposited on the green floor of the shelter. Argo raised her head, chomping the mouthful of brown foliage. Xena checked the small heap of feed and spent a moment inspecting the pool of melted snow at the horse's feet. She smiled at the golden face, patted the thick neck and scanned the clear, star-covered sky before turning back to observe the other two occupants of the small haven.
The scene in front of her instilled an uncommon sense of peace in the tall warrior. She let her eyes linger on the peaceful, almost domestic little scene. The bard sat with her back against the rocky back wall of the shelter, her focus on the small child sleeping peacefully on the ground next to her. Gabrielle tenderly stroked the small, blonde head, pausing a moment to draw the platinum locks away from the cherubic face, then resumed the gentle stroking. As the warrior watched, the young bard drew the blanket covering the tiny form higher, then sat quietly staring at the small, slumbering figure.
A moment later, a nervous tremor rumbled across the warrior's chest as her blue eyes saw the wet tears cascading down the little bard's face. Instinctively, the tall, dark-haired woman's jaw clenched. She clamped a firm hold on her own impulses and strove to keep her manner as calm, and unintrusive, as possible.
After another long moment, Gabrielle lifted her gaze to meet the cobalt stare of her soulmate. The two friends exchanged a long, meaningful glance. A moment later, the bard wiped her face with her hands, took a slow, measured breath and rose from her position next to the wall. She walked to the leaping campfire, knelt and poured two mugs of dark tea, then stood and offered one of the mugs to the warrior.
When Xena accepted the tea, Gabrielle pulled the woolen blanket draped over her shoulders tighter, took a slow step past the warrior, then turned back and wordlessly beckoned her tall friend toward a section of the rocky shelter halfway between the sleeping child and the golden mare. The little blonde sat down against the rocky wall and waited while the warrior lowered her tall frame. Xena sat down on the soft, green floor, halfway facing the bard, the light from the fire casting dancing patterns on her bronze face.
"Xena," Gabrielle said softly. The warrior focused on the face of her best friend. "There's something I have to tell you." The bard raised her eyes to the woman's blue eyes. She swallowed hard and the tall warrior's chest tightened quickly as she noticed the sudden look of panic invading the green eyes. "It's about Hope."
The quiet statement hung the shadowy shelter. Xena's instincts sparkled to life again; she steeled herself against the foreboding heaviness rising in her chest.
"What is it?" the warrior asked quietly, her eyes riveted on the anguished face of her best friend. She waited for the bard to continue, completely aware of the nervous quiver to the young woman's chin. Gabrielle took a shaky breath and let her eyes travel momentarily to the sleeping child. After a long moment, she turned to the warrior again, the green pools brimming with unshed tears.
"When I told you I had ... thrown her ... into the gully ... in Britannia?" The warrior's blue eyes were steady on the bard's tortured expression.
"Yes?" The smooth voice was barely audible even in the quiet darkness of the shelter.
"Well ... I didn't," the bard said softly. "I couldn't do it, Xena." Gabrielle's voice broke pathetically. "I just .. couldn't do that to my own ... child." The bard's tears traveled over her soft face. She watched the warrior draw a slow, steady breath and focus her deep blue eyes on the darkness beyond the haven. Gabrielle swept the back of her hand across her wet face and gulped hard.
"I put her in a basket and set her afloat on the river. I wanted her to have at least .. a tiny chance."
For a long moment, the only sounds in the shelter were Niome's even breathing and the muted sounds of the campfire. Gabrielle focused on the warrior's stony expression for a moment, then dropped her eyes to the mug shaking in her hands.
"I knew that," Xena said in a quiet, controlled voice.
"I'm sorry I lied to you, but I ...." Suddenly the green eyes leapt to meet the warrior's cobalt stare. "You ... what?" the bard gasped. "What did you say? You knew?" The warrior's stoic face softened minutely.
"I wasn't certain ... until this moment. But I had a feeling ... knowing you." The little blonde blinked in astonishment.
"You've known ... all this time? And you didn't say anything?" Gabrielle's face registered her shock. "Why ... how?" the little bard sputtered. "How could you make me believe ...?"
"Gabrielle," the warrior's voice sounded with a subtle firmness. "I knew you would tell me when you were ready," The bard's rancor faded slightly. "And I knew how painful that decision would have been for you ... if you had decided to handle it that way." The blue eyes on the young woman's face were compassionate and tender. Gabrielle's green gaze was steady on her friend's.
Xena focused on the mug she held tightly in her hand. She slowly loosened her fingers around the ceramic object. "With the torment you went through after being tricked into killing ... Meridian." She returned her gaze to the bard's. "Even after stabbing someone in what sounded to me like a clear case of self-defense ...." The warrior watched the bard's face reflect the horror of her experience.
"Knowing how difficult that had been for you, I somehow couldn't believe that you would deliberately throw your own daughter off a cliff ," the warrior finished evenly. "No matter what I thought ... or how I tried to convince you otherwise." The little blonde swallowed hard, her eyes searching the floor of the shelter.
"Not knowing your heart the way ... I think I do." The warrior's liquid voice was gentle and kind. The bronze face softened into a loving smile as the bard drew a slow, calming breath.
"I wanted to give you the time you needed ... to let you decide when, or if, you would tell me what really happened." Xena's blue eyes clearly showed the devotion in the warrior's heart.
A long, tenuous, stilted silence hung in the little shelter. The warrior's heart pounded against the leather bodice beneath her cape. She watched the bard's face, desperately hoping her well-intentioned decision had not, in fact, caused the precise effect she had most wanted to avoid ... a further schism between herself and the woman whose trust and faith she valued more than that of any other she had ever known.
Finally Gabrielle's green gaze slowly drifted up to meet the warrior's piercing blue eyes. The bard moistened her lips, swallowed hard and drew a shaky breath. "You knew I had lied to you ... and still you let me stay with you." The simple statement was oddly punctuated by the snapping fire and the mournful wind surrounding the little shelter. The bard's eyes held the warrior's blue gaze.
"I was only abiding by your rules," Xena said quietly. "You always say, 'That's what friends do ... they stand by you when there's trouble'." The bard raised a hand to cover the quiet sob escaping from her throat. "That's what you always do ... for me. It's only fair that I return the ... faith."
The two friends could only stare at each other. Suddenly, Gabrielle leaned forward to capture the warrior in a tight, meaningful hug, her empty mug tumbling onto the evergreen blanket in the process. Xena wrapped ler long arm around her small friend, gathering the little bard close to her chest. She waited quietly as the young blonde's sobs shook the trim form, her own heart aching for her soulmate's pain. After a long, arduous moment, the bard sat back to focus on the tall warrior's worried expression. The bard swept one hand over her own cheeks, then tenderly wiped away the moisture on the smooth face before her.
"I'm sorry I lied to you about Hope," the bard said in a thick voice.
"I know ... I'm sorry I didn't give you any other options," the warrior said into the weeping green eyes. She took the bard's small hand in hers. "I wish I could have seen her ... differently." The tall woman gulped. "Maybe some day ... if we meet again, I can try to ...."
The bard covered the warrior's hand with her own. "Maybe ... when we meet again." Gabrielle's wet face softened into a subtle smile. The warrior's expression was kind. "Thank you," the little bard whispered.
Xena shook her dark head slightly, closing her blue eyes for a moment. "No," she whispered quietly. She opened her eyes to meet the bard's loving expression. "I owe you so much more. In fact, I've been waiting to tell you something, too," she said quietly. She carefully placed the mug of tea on the ground next to her. The bard's expression sobered slightly.
"You have?" she asked quietly. The warrior swallowed nervously. "Is it about Ming Tien?"
The smooth face registered the tall woman's surprise. The blue eyes widened, then blinked quickly. She studied the soft face of her friend. "Yes ... how did you know?"
"The same way you did," the bard said softly, stroking the woman's slender hand. The warrior's face grew serious. "What did you want to tell me?"
Xena pulled her eyes from the bard's. She let her gaze settle on the pair of hands between them. After a moment, the blue pools slowly traveled to meet the bard's gentle gaze. Xena took a short breath.
"I killed him," the warrior said quickly. She kept her eyes on the little blonde's face.
"I know." Gabrielle's voice was soft and understanding. The young blonde's expression was warm on the warrior's uneasy stare. "I've known it since the day we left Chin."
The stoic, bronze face was totally immobile. "Why didn't you say something?" The warrior's liquid voice wavered.
Gabrielle looked down at the slender hand in hers. "I wanted you to find your own time ... the same way you waited for me to talk about Hope." She raised her eyes to the warrior's. "After all, fair's fair." The blue eyes glistened as they lingered on the bard's face.
"And like you said ... we both did what we thought was right." The warrior swallowed quietly. "There's no blame in that, right?"
The bard's quiet smile slowly crept across her lovely face. The warrior's golden countenance warmed accordingly. Both women enjoyed the loving sentiments in the gaze of the other. Finally, the warrior gathered the little bard into her arms.
"What can I do for you now?" the warrior asked as the two friends separated.
The two friends shared a brief smile, then the bard sat back against the wall. She took a deep, guarded breath. "Well ... there is something I'd like you to do ... if you would."
Xena turned a thoroughly confused glance at her best friend's face. "What? Just name it, you know that."
"Well ...." the bard began, her green eyes beginning to twinkle. The warrior bent her head toward the little blonde. "You can tell me what you want for Solstice, since I still owe you a present."
The warrior's jaw dropped and the lean form relaxed backward. The tall caped figure fought heartily to restrain the foolish grin she felt growing across her face. "You ... are ... hopeless," she said to the bard's impish smirk. She shook her dark head slightly. "Absolutely hopeless." The little blonde giggled softly.
The spirited 'discussion' concerning the necessity of additional Solstice gifts continued throughout breakfast and the breaking of camp the next morning. The warrior was adamant in her declaration that any further acquisition and exchange of said offerings was completely unnecessary and, more to the point, extremely impractical considering the serious lack of funds available to the two friends at the moment. The bard was equally open in her assertion that, since she had been duped by the warrior and the Amazons into celebrating the renowned event early, she now had every right to expect and provide a similar gratuity to commemorate the actual occurrence at its correct time. Needless to say, each woman was determined to sustain her own point of view.
Niome wisely resisted offering any opinion supporting either conviction. The child quietly performed the duties imparted to her by both adults, at the same time listening carefully to the firm convictions expressed by the two women involved in the confrontation. The little girl decided that her own interests were best served by staying out of the argument and out of the way.
By the time the trio had resumed their journey on the snowy path leading to Megara, the discourse concerning the issue had reached epic proportions, with heated notions being loudly presented by both parties. From her seat atop the mare's high back, the little girl listened quietly to the debate. Eventually she found herself wondering why the two women felt so compelled to even discuss the issue. From her objective perception, it was a totally irrelevant subject, considering the relationship of the parties involved. But then, neither had asked her opinion. She was simply a silent witness to the animated comments.
"Why not!" the bard asked loudly.
"Because you already gave me a Solstice present!" the warrior answered louder. "Two, as a matter of fact! That's enough for this year."
"But it wasn't really Solstice! Those don't count," the bard countered.
"Gabrielle!" Xena said, stopping on the path to address the little blonde. "Enough, OK???" She resumed walking.
The bard trudged silently for a moment, then turned to her tall friend. "I'll bet you've already got my present, for the real Solstice, haven't you?"
The warrior let out a frustrated sigh.
"Just like last year ... you'll give me something and I won't have anything for you." The little blonde tugged at the warrior's cape. "Right? You're going to make me feel totally silly again, aren't you?"
"I don't have anything planned for you!" The warrior's tone was shrill as she swiveled to address the bard again. "I give you my word ... I don't!" She turned back to the road. The bard scoffed loudly.
Niome nervously addressed the warrior. "Xena?" the little girl said, leaning forward. "Xena?" she repeated when the tall woman didn't respond.
"What is it, Niome?" Xena said, turning finally to the child.
"I hafta ..." The girl hoped the warrior would understand. She evidently did. The tall woman handed the reins to the bard, walked back to the horse's side and swung the child to the ground. As soon as Niome's boots landed in the snow, she scampered off the side of the path, quickly disappearing into the surrounding forest. The warrior patted the animal's neck.
"Xena," the bard began. "Please let me find you another Solstice present." The warrior's blue gaze was impatient. "I want to do this for you. Please." The bard's tone was plaintive. Xena faced the bard. "Gabrielle, how are you going to pay for it?" she asked stiffly. "We spent the few dinars we had left on Niome's boots, remember?" The bard's expression was slightly gloating.
"Not all of them," the little blonde grinned. "We still have enough left for a ... small gift." The warrior's eyebrow drifted upward. "Now, what do you want?"
Xena's quiet chuckle widened the bard's smile. She squeezed the bard's slender shoulder. "Nothing," the warrior said evenly. "Honestly, your poem and my new bracelet are more than enough." The bard's scowl threatened to appear. "Just let it go, all right?"
Niome reappeared next to the warrior's knee. "You finished?" she asked the child. The little girl nodded happily.
"Yup, thanks," she chirped and lifted her arms for the warrior's strong grip. Xena swung the tiny form back onto the saddle, repositioning the woolen blanket around the slender figure. When the child was settled, the warrior retrieved the reins and resumed walking. She cast a conciliatory gaze down at the bard's pout, exerting every effort to cover the smirk threatening her mouth.
"Why don't you use those dinars to buy something for Niome?" the warrior said after a few more paces. "You said yourself ... she needs a Solstice present much more than either of us do." The young blonde smiled in spite of herself. She cast a tender glance at the youngster on the horse.
"And you said Rhea will provide well enough for her." Xena's frown threatened again. "Guess I'll just have to surprise you, then," the bard said cryptically. The warrior grunted in disapproval.
By the time the three travelers arrived at the gates of their intended destination, the 'Solstice gift' repartee had progressed to a decidedly different level. Where the exchanged remarks had previously been teasing and playful, they now registered a heavy brand of sarcasm and irritation between the two disgruntled friends. However, the moment the proprietress of the residence made her appearance, a mutual agreement was reached between the quarreling females; they decided to keep their snippy comments to themselves until Niome was settled in her new home.
The first impression that occurred to Gabrielle when she caught sight of her friend's childhood educator was how well the woman's physical appearance belied the age the bard had determined she had to be. The pleasant, cheerful female who greeted them at the door of the large residence hardly looked old enough to have been an instructor at the time of her tall friend's youth.
The second thing that captured the bard's attention was the unusual color of the woman's unruly hair. Large, bright red ringlets sprang from under every corner of the matron's lacy cap. The errant locks danced unfettered around the round, affable face.
The woman's expression brightened warmly when she recognized the warrior and the two exchanged a jovial and, for the dark-haired combatant, quite demonstrative greeting. Finally Xena turned affectionately to the little bard.
"This is my friend, Gabrielle," the warrior said. "This is Rhea," she continued, facing the plump female. "My old .... former ... teacher," she amended, then blushed at the older woman's amused laughter.
"Old is more correct, my dear," Rhea said, chortling, extending her hand to the bard. She took the young woman's hand in hers and Gabrielle found herself returning the woman's bright smile. "Come in, come in," she said, ushering the small party into the house. She closed the heavy door behind them and turned a welcoming grin to the trio. "You must all be nearly frozen to death!" she chided. She turned to the warrior. "I'll have one of the boys look after your horse," she told Xena.
"Thanks, Rhea. It's been a long, cold trip."
Rhea stepped into the hallway next to the spacious room to confer with a young male. After a few quiet instructions, the youngster disappeared down the hall. The stocky woman turned back to the three travelers.
The warrior opened her cape and sent the bard a sheepish grin. Gabrielle giggled quietly as she watched her tall, stoic friend submit to the older woman's custodial machinations. Rhea placed a wrinkled hand under the warrior's chin and gazed lovingly at the sculpted countenance. The warrior's blush deepened as her blue eyes met the bard's green gaze imploringly.
"You're looking well," Rhea said, releasing the tall warrior's face. The full-figured form swiveled to address the little blonde. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Gabrielle," the older woman said, her eyes casually floating downward to the child clinging to the bard's other hand. "And who might this be?" Rhea asked cheerfully, bending slightly, to address the thin form.
"This is Niome," the warrior answered. She dropped to one knee and addressed the youngster. "Niome, this is my friend Rhea. Remember I told you about her?"
Rhea held out a soft hand and the little girl nervously took it. The woman's eyes met the warrior's for a moment, then returned to the quiet girl. "How would you like a big cup of buttermilk and some fresh biscuits?" Niome's serious expression faded quickly. "Shall we go in the kitchen and find some?"
"Yes, please," the little girl chirped. She smiled openly at the warrior, then favored the bard with a happy grin. She looked up at the kind face of the matron. "We had some really good stew that Gabrielle made while we were coming here. But biscuits are my favorite!" the child piped.
"Mine, too," the red-haired woman told the child. Rhea led the youngster toward the hallway. She turned and addressed the warrior as they walked away.
"There's some nice warm cider for you two, on the sideboard behind you. Help yourselves. I'll be right back." The ample form disappeared into the hall. Gabrielle turned to the warrior as the tall woman stood up.
"She's everything you said, and more," the bard giggled. "What a character!" The warrior pulled off her cape and helped the bard extracate herself from the woolen blanket.
"She stays the same ... hasn't changed a button since those days in Amphipolis," the warrior said, smiling. The blue eyes traveled to the hallway. "She's the best thing we can do for Niome," Xena said softly, meeting the bard's green gaze. "On my word, she's one of the finest people I've ever known."
Gabrielle touched the warrior's arm. "I like her, too," the bard said, her eyes warm on her friend's. "Anyone who can make you behave has to have something going for them," the little blonde teased. The warrior's droll look answered the jibe. "I think Niome will be fine here with Rhea."
A moment later, the female in question glided into the spacious room. "She's enjoying the biscuits," she told the warrior, sweeping her rotund figure into a large armchair. She gestured for the two friends to seat themselves. "Now," Rhea said, focusing on the warrior's blue gaze. "Tell me about this little waif. We need to share some history, if you don't mind."
Xena related the details of their short association with the young girl. Rhea listened carefully to the scant facts, shaking her head sympathetically at the sadness of the girl's tragic experience. When the warrior had finished her brief explanation, Rhea sat back in her chair, her soft, wrinkled hands perched in the midst of her voluminous gown.
"Well, of course you were correct in bringing her to me. Don't worry, my dear. You can rest assured, she'll have a place here as long as she needs one." The round face smiled brightly.
"Thanks, Rhea," the warrior said. "She's a delightful child. And a brave one. I hope she can find some peace here with you."
"Fear not," the older woman said gathering her skirts and rising from the chair. "Now, let's get the two of you settled. We can talk about what needs to be done around the place tomorrow, after you've had some rest." She moved toward the hallway. Xena picked up her cape and handed the blanket to the bard. "By the way, I told Oliver to put your things in the room across from mine." She pointed upward, indicating the second floor of the house. "It's just to the right at the top of the stairs. She stepped to give the warrior a quick embrace.
"Get some rest, cherubs. We'll begin our labors after breakfast. I'll see you then." Rhea turned and started down the hallway. She stopped when the bard called her name.
"Rhea, where's Niome?" Gabrielle asked.
"She's finishing her buttermilk, I suspect," the woman answered sweetly. Then she turned and started up the stairs. "See you in the morning," she called over her shoulder.
At that moment, the subject of the discussion trotted happily into the room, her little face displaying the evidence of her recent snack. She turned a smiling face toward the warrior's indulgent grin.
"The buttermilk was really good" she said, using one sleeve to erase her milky moustache. The brown eyes met the bard's smile. "Are we going to bed, now?"
"We are going to bed now," the warrior echoed. She held out her hand to the child and Niome captured two of the woman's slender fingers.
"Where's our stuff?" the child asked as she followed the bard.
"Rhea had someone take it upstairs," Gabrielle answered. "It's waiting in our room. C'mon, time for sleep," the bard announced. The young blonde started up the stairs. The warrior and the child followed.
Half a candlemark later, the three travelers were comfortably settled in the room Rhea had assigned to them. Gabrielle sat in the middle of the pallet while the little girl relaxed happily between her trim legs. The bard gently brushed the little girl's long, flaxen-colored hair as the warrior watched the loving procedure from the comfortable wooden rocker across the room. After a moment, the little girl quietly addressed her two companions.
"Did you figure out what to do about the Solstice presents, yet?" The bard halted the hairbrush in mid-air and cast a slightly embarrassed look at the warrior's sheepish expression. Niome turned to study the young blonde's face for a moment, then returned her brown gaze to the warrior.
"Ah ... no we haven't," Xena said, her blue eyes darting to the bard's face. "I suppose you have a suggestion?" she asked dryly.
"Well, kinda," Niome said quietly. "Wanna hear what I think?"
Gabrielle exchanged a quiet smile with the warrior. "Of course we do," she told the child. "What's your idea?" She wrapped her arms loosely around the little figure.
"Well," Niome began, her hands on the bard's wrists. "I don't think you guys really need any more presents." The little girl twisted her head to meet the bard's eyes, then turned again to face the warrior's smug grin.
"Oh, you don't, huh?" the tall woman murmured, glancing at the young blonde's crestfallen expression. "Why not?"
Niome's little face was warm on the warrior's smile. "'Cause you've already got the best present anyone could ever have," the girl finished proudly.
"We do?" the bard asked. She smiled at the warrior. "And what would that be?"
The little girl displayed a slightly befuddled expression. After a moment, the brown eyes swept to meet the bard’s soft green gaze.
"Why ... each other," the little girl said quietly, the dark pools displaying the youth's confusion at the two women's apparent lack of comprehension. Of course she had no way of knowing her simple statement had rendered both adult females momentarily speechless.
Gabrielle stared open-mouthed at the warrior's astonished face. The deep affection for her best friend was reflected exactly in the clear, blue eyes meeting her gaze. The two women shared a look of mutual chagrin, unqualified remorse and heartfelt apology. Their renewed trust in each other shone brightly in the quiet room. The bard hugged the little girl tenderly.
"Mama always used to say that, if you have one really good friend, then you'll never be alone." The youngster looked from one grownup face to the other. "You guys are really lucky."
The warrior's smile was respectful. "Your mama was a very smart lady, Sweetheart," the tall woman said softly. The blue eyes settled on the bard's face. "A very smart lady."
A short time later, the bard turned her attention from the sleeping child in the middle of the mattress to the quiet, pensive figure of her soulmate. The warrior's blue eyes met the verdant gaze.
"Well," Gabrielle murmured quietly. "I feel totally and completely ashamed of myself. How about you?"
The warrior's blue eyes were clearly contrite. "Yeah," the smooth voice answered. "I'd say that just about covers things." The tall woman lowered her eyes to the movement of her slender fingers as she played with the folds of the long sleeping garment their hostess had provided. After a long moment, the blue eyes slowly rose to meet the soft green pools. The two friends stared quietly at each other. Finally, the little bard spoke.
"Xena ..." the bard began.
"Me, too," the warrior whispered.
Gabrielle's warm smile engendered the warrior's. The warrior rose and moved to the bed. When they were both settled on either side of the youngster's form, Xena draped the warm quilt over the wide mattress and turned to the bard's relaxed expression.
"I know what else you can give me for Solstice," the warrior whispered, taking care not to disturb the slumbering child on the pallet..
"What?" the bard whispered back.
The warrior reached across the child and laced her fingers through the bard's. "Take the dinars that are left and buy whatever candy you can for ...."
"The children," the women said together. The two friends smiled at each other.
"Where will you be?" the bard asked.
"In the forest," the warrior replied. "Doing my best to fill the larder. That way, Rhea won't have to worry about it until spring." The tall woman's eyes were warm on her friend's.
"Happy Solstice, Xena," Gabrielle said.
"Happy Solstice, my friend," the warrior answered. The little girl between them sighed happily.
Xena tugged on the girth strap under the horse's belly and checked the laces on the saddlebag in front of her. She pulled her long cape closed, tying the leather laces at her throat. The warrior turned to watch the bard give her former teacher a final loving hug. The two women ended the hug and turned toward the tall form in the long cape.
"Thanks for everything, you two," the matron said to the warrior, her ample arm resting on the little blonde's shoulders. "I don't know how we would have managed without you."
"It was our pleasure, Rhea," Gabrielle said. She turned to the warrior. "I had fun, too."
"Of course you did," the tall woman said smoothly. "Fifteen little captive audience members. How could any bard ask for more?" The bard wrinkled her nose at her partner.
The warrior trained her blue eyes on the hazel gaze of her mentor. The bard recognized the longing in the stoic face and smoothly withdrew her arm from Rhea's waist.
"I'll go say goodbye to Niome," the little blonde said, touching the warrior's arm. The young woman quietly stepped away.
Rhea captured the warrior's shoulders in her hands, her wrinkled face kind on the tall woman's nervous expression. She gathered the muscled frame to her sturdy breast and Xena returned the embrace. Rhea pulled back to level a steady gaze at the bronze face. The warrior swallowed nervously.
"I've been hearing some very good things about you ... lately," the matron said evenly, her eyes benevolent on the warrior's blush. Xena met the woman's glance remorsefully. Rhea touched the smooth face. "Just keep it up ...." she said, sending a playful wink at the tall woman's abashment.
"Keep making good choices," the woman said, folding her arms over her spacious middle. "Because we know what happens when you choose ... unwisely." The warrior's blush deepened. "Don't we?"
"Yes, ma'am," the tall woman murmured, her blue eyes soft on the matron's mischievous smile. "Rhea, if there's anything you ever need ...." Xena began.
"I know," the red-haired hostess said. "I know who to send for." She hugged the warrior again. "And thank you, again, my dear." The two women smiled at each other. "For everything."
The warrior released the matron and turned to search for the bard. She found the young blonde kneeling nearby, Niome's little form wrapped in her arms. When Xena approached the two, the bard stood up and the warrior took her place in front of the girl. Niome hugged the warrior's neck tightly, then pulled back to meet the blue gaze.
"Take care of Gabrielle," she told the warrior. "And Argo, OK?" Xena touched the child's face.
"You have my word on that," the dark-haired woman said. "And you take care of Rhea and the other kids, OK?"
Niome nodded, her little chin trembling as she tried to show her bravest face.
"Remember Niome," Xena said quietly. "Now you have two good friends, alright?" The blue eyes darted to the bard, then returned to the large brown pools.
"And if you ever need us ... for anything," the warrior said. "You just send this bracelet to us." Xena opened the girl's little hand and deposited the leather accessory in the tiny palm. "And we'll be here." Niome looked down at the bracelet then back up at the clear blue eyes. "Anything, understand?"
The little girl carefully examined the colorful, delicately woven strands. It was the same bracelet that had been the bard's gift to the warrior as an 'early' Solstice gift. Xena's eyes sought the bard's. The young blonde was smiling her approval.
The warrior looked back down at the girl's large, brown eyes. The youngster nodded solemnly and the tall woman gathered the tiny form in her arms. After a moment, she released the child and stood up, one slender hand lingering on the pale, blonde hair.
"Ready?" Xena asked, addressing the little bard.
"Ready," Gabrielle answered.
Rhea stepped closer to the little girl, laying a hand tenderly on the child's thin shoulder.
"Safe journey," the matron called to the travelers.
The two friends waved and started toward the road.
[Author's Note: And a Happy, Safe Solstice to all of You! Love, MMG.]
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