DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Cyrene, Joxer and Lila from the TV show 'Xena Warrior Princess' belong to Studio USA/Renaissance Pictures/Universal or whoever actually owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended.
TIMELINE: Early season 2, but I'm not following the canon, so no Solan, no Perdicus, and no Callisto.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Korkyra - As usual, thank you for your help!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
It Happened On Winter Solstice Night
Winter, and an icy wind is blowing across the barren landscape. A golden horse and two people, completely covered by heavy wool cloaks, are walking along a narrow dirt road that will eventually take them to Amphipolis.
The two women, one tall and raven haired, and one shorter and blonde, hold on to their cloaks with grim determination as a light rain starts mixing with the strong wind.
"Oh, this is just great... I've always enjoyed being pelted with frozen rain!" Xena's scowl was visible to the bard even though her eyes were watering up from the cold wind.
"We promised your mother we'd be there, Xena. And you know how your mother is when she gets one of her ideas..."
"Yeah, yeah. I just wish we were visiting her for the harvest festival instead..."
"I can't believe my ears, the big, bad Warrior Princess doesn't like the cold," Gabrielle said teasingly.
"Well, why don't you try to wear my leathers, then? They're frozen solid!"
"No thanks!" Gabrielle said, and laughed.
They continued walking along the dirt road for a few more minutes until Xena spotted a cluster of trees in the distance. She touched Gabrielle on the shoulder to get her attention.
"Look, those trees over there are standing so close they'll protect us from the weather... let's use it to wait for the shower to die down," Xena said.
They snuggled up closely under the canopy of the trees. Their breaths were visible, and it stirred Gabrielle's poetic soul.
"I love the wintertime and the snow, don't you?" she asked.
"Not particularly. It causes havoc when you're trying to move an army."
"Oh, that's so romantic... Don't tell me you didn't play in the snow when you were a little girl?"
"I never was a 'little girl', Gabrielle," Xena stated flatly.
"I'll bet you were the cutest little girlie imaginable!"
"We need to get out of the cold, I think you have frostbite between your ears..." Xena teased, earning her an elbow in the side.
"Lila and I always played in the snow. Oh, we had so much fun. Once, we had made a snowman so big that he seemed to almost reach the heavens. Of course, we were only knee-high to a grasshopper back then... yeah. That was fun."
Xena observed the dreamy expression on Gabrielle's face, and felt the same curious, but pleasant, tingling in her stomach that had started to appear recently whenever she looked at the young blonde.
"Well, if it starts to snow, how about you and I make a snowman, then?"
"Sure. They're great for target practice," Xena said, and readjusted her cloak.
Gabrielle just looked at the warrior, sighed, and shook her head slowly.
"When you look at me like that, you remind me of some of the village elders. They used to look at me like that all the time," Xena said.
"I wonder why," Gabrielle added off-hand.
"Come on, the shower is over. Let's get back on the road."
Not long after, the weather turned fair and they put their cloaks on Argo's back. Gabrielle tried to get some heat into her muscles by swinging her staff around.
"Aren't you looking forward to meeting your mother again, Xena?"
"Well, of course I am, but I remember from my childhood that the Winter Solstice Festival is so busy she won't have time to talk to anyone. She'll be up to her neck in pots and pans."
"I guess it's a lot of hard work to run a tavern, huh?"
"It is. But on the other hand, if there aren't any customers, she'll be out of business soon."
"True. Anyway, I have to say I'm looking forward to sleeping in a real bed for once," Gabrielle said, and ran a hand over the sore muscles in her back.
"... and then there's the food and drink of course..." she continued dreamily.
"Wonderful... just remember you'll have to get up on Argo afterwards, 'cause I sure as Hades won't be carrying you around!" Xena joked.
"Har Har. I'll behave."
When they reached the first houses on the outskirts of Amphipolis, they could see the streets were busy with people and heavily laden ox-driven carts.
"Well, everything looks the same as the last time we were here," Gabrielle said.
"It's been looking the same for as long as I can remember," Xena said and chuckled.
They blended into the stream of people walking around, heading for the town square where Cyrene's tavern was placed.
"GABBY! XENA!" someone shouted behind them. The two women looked pensively at each other. Great. Joxer. They turned around and faced the man running to meet them.
"Hello, Joxer." Gabrielle returned the greeting and waved for effect.
As Joxer came closer he stumbled over a rut in the road, and a substance sloshed out of a large mug and down his already tattered armor.
"We bump into each other all the time now, huh?" he shouted cheerily.
A snort from Xena prompted Gabrielle to give the taller woman a slight bump in the ribs with her elbow.
"...I'll go drop Argo off at the stables," Xena said and left just before Joxer was there.
Gabrielle put her best face on, but unfortunately the smile never quite reached her eyes.
"How's you doing? It's great to see you here. You've come for the festival too?" he said, and gave her an awkward sort of hug.
"...Yes. Yes, we have," Gabrielle replied.
"Where are you staying?"
"Cyrene's tavern," Gabrielle said, hoping against hope that he wasn't staying there, too.
"Great! That's where I am!"
"Oh, how... nice," Gabrielle said, and cringed inside.
"...Do you want me to carry your staff and your bag?"
"No thanks, Joxer. I've got it."
"Sure," he said, slightly disappointed.
"What's that you're drinking?" Gabrielle said to change the subject.
"It's a special brew the bar keep made especially for me!" he beamed, and continued:
"I'd offer you a taste, but I'm afraid it might be too strong for you."
Gabrielle didn't really know how make a witty comeback to that, so she just said,
They reached the entrance to the tavern. As they opened the door, they were surprised to see it so full.
"Boy, it sure is crowded here, huh?" Joxer said.
"Yeah. Good thing Cyrene always holds back two rooms for us," Gabrielle said, rapidly becoming annoyed that she could only see people's backs.
"Cyrene's Xena's mother, Joxer."
"Yes. Haven't you noticed the similarities? They both have very beautiful eyes, they're such a fine nuance between ice blue and sky blue..." Gabrielle said dreamily.
Joxer opened his mouth, but closed it again when Gabrielle suddenly found a passage through the crowd, and pushed her way to the bar.
Xena entered the tavern and quickly spotted Gabrielle sitting by a table, talking to Cyrene. Remembering the house rules, she put her sword and her Chakram behind the bar, and helped herself to a mug of ale.
She walked over to the table, her passage through the crowd a great deal easier than it had been for Gabrielle. As soon as people saw who it was, they parted and let her through.
She put the mug down on the table.
"Hello mother," she said, and put her hands on Cyrene's shoulders. The older woman spun around and embraced her daughter fiercely, catching Xena by surprise.
"Don't pull that warrior nonsense on me, Xena, I'm your mother, and mothers hug their daughters," Cyrene said, and framed Xena's face with her hands.
"Have you been eating well? I think you've lost a bit of color," she said, pinching a cheek.
"I eat fine, mother. It's cold outside, that's all," Xena said, and rubbed her cheek. She narrowed her eyes slightly and raised an eyebrow when she looked at Gabrielle, who was apparently trying very hard not to laugh out loud. Joxer was just sitting there, looking from one woman to the other.
"I'm glad to see business is booming," Xena said, and grabbed her mug.
"I've had to hire a couple of extra hands, we're completely full. And... I'm sorry, I couldn't spare two rooms this time, so you have to share one. I hope that's all right?" Cyrene said, and looked at Xena and Gabrielle.
"Of course it is, mother, it's no problem," Xena said, and looked at Gabrielle for confirmation. The blonde woman nodded in return.
"Good. I've put you in the room at the end of the hall. It's not big, but it has two bunks, so you should be all right."
"We'll be fine, don't you worry about us," Gabrielle said.
Some time later, Xena and Gabrielle had decided to walk to a small stream to escape the hustle and bustle of the village. They found a grassy knoll that wasn't too frozen, and sat down.
"Do you think Cyrene will be all right with Joxer helping?" Gabrielle asked as she picked up a small pebble and threw it into the stream.
"Why not? He can't mess up everything he does."
"I wouldn't be so sure, Xena..."
"I do know he deserves a chance."
"Yeah. I guess," Gabrielle said and shrugged.
"Are you ready for some staff practice?"
"It's too cold."
"Then we'll just have to get you warmed up, won't we?" Xena whispered right next to Gabrielle's ear, and tickled her in the side.
Gabrielle yelped, and jumped away from Xena's fingers.
"Oooh, you've got something coming, you know that?" she growled, and got up.
Xena was already going through some of the basic staff drills, blocks and thrusts, when Gabrielle joined her with her own staff.
"Let's go slow today, OK? My back's sore," Gabrielle said.
"OK. If you want, I can give you a back rub tonight?"
"Maybe. All right, let's get to it."
They started slowly with very basic moves, before gradually going on to more advanced drills. After a little while, Xena had hardly broken a sweat, but Gabrielle was panting.
"It's so frustrating that I never seem to get better," she said.
"You are getting better, but don't forget, you've only been practicing for a year. I've done this for most of my life."
"Still... Hey, let's finish with a pretend fight."
"Come on, Xena, I need to learn."
"Have you forgotten what happened the last time, Gabrielle? It took nearly an hour for your nose to stop bleeding."
"That was my own fault, and you know it. I leaned in too far," Gabrielle said, and tried to wipe the sweat off her arms.
"Yes, but it was my staff that hit you. No, I won't fight, and that's final," Xena said, and started to walk back to the village, leaving a slightly frustrated Gabrielle behind.
The blonde woman sighed, picked up her staff, and followed the warrior.
As evening fell, Xena and Gabrielle went to visit the large bazaar some crafty peddlers had set up on a field just outside of the village. Here, Gabrielle was in her element. She haggled endlessly on all kinds of goods, occasionally driving the poor salesmen to tears with her talent.
For Xena, this experience was worse than facing an entire Scythian army alone. She didn't know what to do, where to go, or even what to say. Several times, Gabrielle had shown her some fancy piece of cloth, or whatever, and Xena could only grunt, or shrug. Sometimes both. And all these people!
Gabrielle was making plans on how to lose the Warrior Princess. If she followed her all through the bazaar, she could never go back to the only stall that sold the special gift she was planning to buy her.
Gabrielle looked at Xena's face, and nearly laughed out loud over the barely disguised boredom she saw.
"Listen, Xena, I know you don't like bazaars, so how about you go back to the tavern. It's almost time for dinner, maybe Cyrene needs a hand with something?"
"Oh, but I don't want to leave you here... you must be finished soon?"
"No way, I have to make at least another round, maybe even two..."
Xena's eyes grew wide for a second, before falling back into her usual stoic state.
"... I... see. Well, if you're sure, then I guess I could..." she said, and pointed her thumb towards the village.
"Off you go. I can manage," Gabrielle said, and smiled reassuringly.
On her way back to the tavern, Xena passed a stall selling quills and new scrolls. She remembered that the seams on Gabrielle's scroll case were beyond repair, and Xena knew that it irritated the bard tremendously when her precious scrolls became crumbled in her bag.
She went up to the stall and perused the goods on display.
"Good evening, fair lady. Go on, have a look. You won't find better craftsmanship this side of the Land of the Pharaohs," the salesman said. He was short, with a white beard and thin hair, and Xena noticed that he was wearing more expensive clothes than usual for the peddlers.
"I'm looking for a scroll case."
"I have plenty of those, look here. All shapes, many different colors, many different qualities," he said, and swept his hand across the various items.
Xena didn't know anything about scroll cases, but she did know about the relative quality of leatherware.
"That one," she said, and pointed at a case made of very robust, reinforced leather.
"Oh, but that's so plain. A lady of your stature surely deserves something with a little more pizzazz?"
"It's a gift for a... friend."
"Then I have to insist. You should pick one more refined," he said, and reached for another one that looked a lot more flimsy, and that had several gemstones attached to it. Xena's trained eye recognized them as fakes immediately.
"No, I'll take the first one. How much?" Xena said, and pulled out her money pouch.
"Forget it," she said, and closed the pouch again.
"10, and you have a deal."
"10? No, I'm sorry, I can't do that, I'm..." the salesman said, but stopped abruptly when he saw the warrior's icy glare.
"All right, 10."
"Deal. Would you mind wrapping it?"
Xena handed him the money, and observed how the peddler wrapped the scroll case in cloth.
"Thank you, my good man," she said, and walked away, feeling quite proud that she'd been able to get the price down. Gabrielle would have loved it, she thought.
The salesman could only nod, and he dabbed his sweaty brow with a hankie.
As Gabrielle was headed for a stall further down the line, a large, burly peddler smiled at her, revealing several missing teeth.
"Hey there, little lady," he said, and large gold rings on each hand sparkled in the torchlight.
"Hello," Gabrielle replied politely, quickly looking at his collection of scrolls without much interest.
"Let me guess, you're looking for your first scrolls on cooking, am I right?"
"Well, not quite, no."
"Good, because I don't have any of those."
"What I do have, however, are some very exquisite adult scrolls, written by the finest authors in the magnificent city of Gomorrah. They're guaranteed to spice up your lovelife, and if they don't, you'll get a full refund. Care for a sample? No purchase expected."
"I... well..." Gabrielle looked around, almost afraid to see someone she knew.
"... why not?" she finally said, and took the scroll the man was holding.
She unfolded it, and started to read. Her cheeks blushed crimson red, and she hastily refolded it.
"Ah... I... ah..."
"Like what you read? Go on, keep it, it's a gift," he said, and winked at her.
"Are all of your scrolls... like this?" she asked, almost whispering.
"No, some are even hotter," he said, and laughed.
"I have to go now, but... thanks for the sample," Gabrielle said, and quickly put the scroll in her bag.
"No problem. Tell your friends where you found it!" he said after her retreating form.
Gabrielle finally found the stall she was looking for, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the special gift she wanted to get for Xena was still in stock.
She weighed the pros and cons for a minute or so before deciding to buy it. She was a bit ashamed to admit that, for very nearly the first time in her life, she couldn't find a perfect gift for someone. To buy jewelry for the Warrior Princess would be very silly indeed, as would fashionable clothes. Xena's leather outfit was her trademark, after all. And those adult scrolls... no, that would be wholly inappropriate.
A gift certificate was perhaps not the Known World's most imaginative Winter Solstice present, but it would have to do. Gabrielle picked up a small box made of beechtree with the words WELLNESS IN ATHENS - GREEK, ROMAN AND EGYPTIAN BATHS printed on it and handed it to the woman in the stall.
Her shopping done, Gabrielle left the bazaar and headed for the tavern with a spring in her step.
Xena bit her lip. Hard. Then she bit on her cheek. No, it didn't work, it still sounded stupid. She was sitting in their small room in the tavern, trying to write a little, charming note to put in Gabrielle's new scroll case. She tore up the fourth attempt at it, and sighed deeply. She gave up, and went downstairs to see if she could help with anything.
It looked like half the village had decided to eat supper here, and the place was packed to the rafters. Two local girls were waiting tables, and by the looks of it, they'd be busy for the rest of the night.
A loud crash from the kitchen area made Xena run out there. She stopped in the doorway, and her eyebrows shot up. Joxer was covered from head to toe in flour. He sneezed, and a cloud of the white powder went flying into the kitchen.
He bent down, picked up a tiny fragment of the jar he had dropped, and carefully put it on the kitchen table.
Cyrene just looked at him, unable to decide if she should yell or laugh.
"Oops..." he said, and tried to wipe some of the flour off his face.
"I'll say," Cyrene replied flatly.
He sneezed again.
"Go and get cleaned up, Joxer. When you're done, come back here. I need you to man the oven," Cyrene said, and went over to the corner where the brooms were.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, and left, leaving a trail of flour on the floor.
Xena chuckled, and Cyrene turned around.
"Ah, how nice to see you, young lady. You're just in time to sweep the floor," she said and thrust the broom into Xena's hands.
"Don't tell me you've forgotten how to do it?"
"No, ma'am," Xena said, and started sweeping up after Joxer's little accident.
When Gabrielle returned, the tavern was filled past capacity, so she and Xena decided to eat in their room instead of in the crowded dining hall downstairs. Xena had managed to steal a loaf of bread when Cyrene wasn't looking, and now they were sitting around the small table, sharing a bowl of soup.
"Your mom's food is fantastic," Gabrielle said through a mouthful of chicken soup.
"Yeah. Too bad I didn't inherit her culinary skills," Xena said, and broke off a piece of bread.
"Well, if you could cook too, what would you need me for?" Gabrielle said, and winked at the dark haired woman.
Xena knew it was only meant as a joke, but even so, that familiar tingle in her stomach returned.
"Well..." she said.
"You know... I kinda like having you around," Xena said, and used the last of the bread to mop up some soup. She made sure to pay very close attention to the bowl so she wouldn't have to look at Gabrielle's green eyes.
If the warrior had looked up, she would've seen those green eyes sparkling even more than usual.
"Would you mind waiting outside while I undress, Xena?"
"No, of course not. Call out when you're done."
Xena left the room, and Gabrielle began taking her clothes off. She untied the lace of her green top and put it across the back of the chair. She wiggled out of her rust-colored skirt, folded it neatly, and placed it on the chair's seat. It was a chilly night, so she kept her woolly unmentionables on. She found her nightshift in her bag, and put it on.
"All right, you can come in now!" she said to the closed door. Xena came back in, smiling.
"Good night, Gabrielle. Sleep tight," she said. The bard made herself comfortable on the bunk and pulled the blanket up to her ears.
"Good night, Xena. You, too."
Xena blew out the candle, and the room fell into darkness. Gabrielle had her eyes open, trying to see what Xena was doing. She could hear her unbuckle the armor and take the gauntlets and the shoulder pads off. A candle was still lit out in the hallway, so there was a faint stream of light shining through the crevices in the wooden door.
Xena walked past it to get her nightshift, and Gabrielle gulped over the sight of the warrior's naked, and very sculpted body. Her cheeks burned again, so she turned to her left, facing away from the door... and the sights.
"I'm telling you, Cyrene, this is the best bread I've had in ages!" Gabrielle said, and put another two slices on her plate. Fortunately, the tavern was a lot quieter this morning, so she could eat downstairs. She grabbed a new jar of butter and headed back to her table.
"I'm glad you like it, Gabrielle. Who knew he'd be so good at it?"
"Who?" Gabrielle said, as she spread out the butter on the bread.
"Joxer. He made them."
Gabrielle stopped in mid-chew and pondered the new information.
"Where's Xena? Don't tell me she's still skipping breakfast?"
"Well, she's... out doing some drills. She always is this time of morning."
"Warriors," Cyrene said and rolled her eyes.
Gabrielle chuckled and pushed the plate away.
"That's it, I'm stuffed," she said, and patted her stomach.
"Oh that's too bad. Well, I suppose I can feed the last of the nutbread from yesterday to the geese," Cyrene said.
Xena closed her eyes and extended her senses. Her breathing was heavy from running up the hill to stand next to an old, petrified olive tree. It couldn't be long to go now. There!
She raised her hand and caught the Chakram, still with her eyes closed. She nodded, satisfied with the successful outcome of her latest experiment.
After clipping the circular weapon onto her belt, she drew her sword and started to make lazy figure eight movements. She picked up speed, and was soon going full force. She twirled the sword and thrust behind her several times before jumping high in the air and flipping off the tree trunk. She landed in a split, and swept her legs around with amazing speed to get into a standing position.
She sat down on a root and started to think about the strange tingling sensation she often got in her stomach when she was with Gabrielle. She knew what it was, oh boy did she. She knew she was getting close to the point of no return. And she didn't care.
But she had to. Life on the road was dangerous enough as it was. To add such a distraction could prove fatal. 'Distraction.' Why not use the proper word for it? Love.
She sighed and ran a hand through her still sweaty bangs. She and Gabrielle had a great friendship, and they were so close some even called it a sisterly relationship. She had a feeling that Gabrielle was interested in going further, but... she wasn't sure.
After breakfast, Gabrielle went back up to their room. Officially to clean up a little bit, but unofficially to look at the scroll the salesman had given her last night.
She opened the door and checked the hallway - it was empty. She found the scroll in her bag, and unfolded it on the table. Before long, her ears were burning from the prose. There was one particular paragraph that intrigued her.
'I wonder if that's really true. I could never ask Xena about that... maybe it's better to ask Ephiny, she's been around...' she thought, and read on. 'Oh gods!'
She couldn't quite understand why the salesman had given her a scroll with Amazons in it, but she concluded that it must've been because she had her staff with her. Not that she was complaining, of course.
Suddenly she heard the floorboards in the hallway creak, and she hurriedly put the scroll away.
"Gabrielle, dear, are you in there?" Cyrene said.
"Yes I am, come in."
"I was wondering if you would help me with some work downstairs? I have a few decorations that need to go up, but I'm afraid my old legs don't like standing on ladders..." Cyrene said, standing in the doorway.
"Of course. I'll be down in two minutes."
"Thank you," Cyrene said and smiled, before closing the door.
Gabrielle listened to her footsteps fade away before putting the scroll back on the table. Her eyes quickly found that special paragraph again. She was just going to read it one more time, and then she'd help...
When Gabrielle exited the room, slightly flushed, she couldn't help but chuckle when she heard Cyrene ordering Joxer around downstairs.
"No, a little to the right. That's not 'right', Joxer... a little higher, stop!"
As she turned the corner, Gabrielle almost ran into him; he was standing in the doorway with his arms in the air, holding a ribbon.
"Oh, hello," he said, and lowered his arms.
"Joxer!" Cyrene's sharp voice called out. His arms shot back up. Gabrielle ducked under one of them and headed for the ladder.
"Gabrielle, if you care to hammer the ribbons into the wall, I'd really appreciate it," Cyrene said.
"I'll be glad to."
56 nails later, she was almost ready to go to bed again. She had hit her thumb three times, her index finger another two, and her calves hurt from balancing on the damn ladder that was a step too short for her. Typical... where was Xena when she needed her.
She looked at her aching fingers, and then at Joxer, who winced in sympathy.
"Looks good, doesn't it? We're about as ready for Winter Solstice as we'll ever be," Cyrene said. While the others had been busy with the ribbons, she had swept the floor and put fresh candles onto every table.
"It really does," Joxer said.
"Yep," Gabrielle agreed. Both of them were hoping that Cyrene didn't have more for them to do.
"By the way, Gabrielle, I hope you don't mind, but I've told the principal of the orphanage that a famous bard is in town, and that you'll tell one or two stories to the children tomorrow," Cyrene said, as she wiped her hands in her apron.
"Oh? That sounds fun, I love stories!" Joxer said.
"No, I don't mind. Orphans? How many?"
"Oh, about... 25 or so. They're from here and some of the neighboring villages."
"That many?" Gabrielle said, shocked.
"It's been a hard year," Cyrene said quietly.
Finally done with the tedious work, Gabrielle excused herself and took a walk around the village. She found Xena in the barn, brushing Argo's mane.
"Hi, yourself... what's that? You're limping?" Xena said.
"It's my right calf, it's hurting from standing on your mother's ladder for so long," Gabrielle said, and sat down on a strawbale.
"Of course, if you had been there instead of going off practicing, you could have done it easily without ever using that rotten ladder!" Gabrielle growled, and squeezed her leg.
"Tired?" Xena asked.
"You need a good massage," Xena said, and returned to brushing Argo.
"Hmmm... now there's an idea." Gabrielle said, and began to unlace her boot.
"All right, then. Make yourself comfortable, I'll be there in a flash."
"Oh, don't bother, I can do that myself. I have some skills, too, you know," Gabrielle said, and wiggled her fingers.
Gabrielle scooted back on the strawbale and put her bare leg up on it. She started the massage at the ankle, using her strong fingers to knead, squeeze, and mold the muscle beneath the skin.
Xena's cheeks started burning, but she forced herself to concentrate on brushing Argo. Unfortunately, her eyes wouldn't obey her command, and every so often they wandered over to the scene in front of her.
'This is ridiculous, I've had women throwing themselves at my feet, and I'm getting flustered over Gabrielle's bare leg...' she thought, and shook her head. She closed her eyes to stop being tempted.
When she reached the knee, Gabrielle stopped and looked at Xena. The warrior's eyes were closed, and her cheeks appeared red.
"Are you getting a fever, Xena? You're all flushed," Gabrielle said.
Xena's eyes popped open. A blush spread up from her neck, and it soon covered her entire face.
"Uh... no. It's nice. I mean, I'm good. I mean, don't worry. I just... practiced a little too hard this morning, that's all."
"You know, you shouldn't do that to yourself, it's not like you need it or anything," Gabrielle said, and finished lacing her boot. She stamped her foot a couple of times to make sure they held.
"It's what I do."
"Are you going to take Argo for a ride today?" Gabrielle said, and clapped the golden horse on its neck.
"As a matter of fact, I was planning to do that right now. Want to come?"
"If you and Argo don't mind having me along?"
"Let's ask. Argo? Can Gabrielle come for our ride?"
The horse whinnied, and rubbed against Gabrielle.
"It's unanimous," Xena said and grinned.
They left the barn and rode out of the village, with Gabrielle sitting comfortably behind Xena, wrapping her arms around the warrior's waist.
A little later, Xena had Argo walking in a leisurely pace along a dirt road next to a near-frozen stream. Out here, away from the city, the wind was very chilly, and the two women were glad they had remembered their cloaks.
They hadn't gone far before it occurred to Xena that this was a perfect opportunity to show Gabrielle a place that had been very special to her when she was a child.
"Gabrielle, are you still with me back there?" she asked.
"Oh yeah," her passenger said, and used her strong arms to give Xena's stomach a little squeeze.
"Good. I'm about to make a detour, I've got something to show you."
"Hang on!" Xena said, and pulled Argo's reins to the left.
"Yikes!" Gabrielle cried when they left the dirt road and went directly into the stream.
Cold water splashed up Argo's sides, and into Gabrielle's boots.
"COLD!" she said, squealing.
"I just got a cold shower down my right boot..." Gabrielle said.
"Sorry. It wouldn't have happened if you had worn long boots like mine."
"I tried that last year, remember? They looked stupid on me. I don't have the legs for them."
Xena couldn't stop a loud guffaw from leaving her mouth.
'Yeah right...' she thought.
"You're not teasing me about my height again, are you?"
"Oh, no. Definitely not," Xena said.
"Here we are," Xena said, and pulled Argo to a stop.
"Which is... where... exactly?" Gabrielle said, and looked around, puzzled. It looked like any old clearing to her. On the far side was a gray rock formation, maybe 60 feet tall, and just as wide.
"A little place that I loved to go to when I was a kid. Come on, I want to show you something," Xena said, and motioned to Gabrielle to step off Argo.
Xena tied Argo's reins to a small bush and pointed at a crevice in the rockface.
"There. It's the entrance to a cave I used to play in. Let's see if anyone's home," she said and threw a small rock through the opening.
"Home? Do you mean there could be bears... or wolves in there?" Gabrielle said, and furrowed her brow.
"No. Something far worse... Bacchae!" Xena said with a growl, before disappearing into the crevice.
"B...!" Gabrielle nervously looked around, and then followed Xena inside.
"Is this a Bacchae lair?" she said wide-eyed.
"No. Relax. That was my favorite game. I was the Great Bacchae Hunter. I was invincible!" Xena said, and laughed. The laughter echoed through the surprisingly large cave.
"Now why am I not surprised? Why couldn't you play with dolls like all other girls?" Gabrielle said and shook her head.
"I told you, I was never like 'other girls'," Xena said, and poked Gabrielle in her side.
"I'll say. This cave is spooky. Did you really play in here?"
"Oh yeah. I came here all the time for a few years. Sometimes by myself, and sometimes Lyceus was with me. Never Toris, though. He thought it was a childish game."
"Why did you stop?"
"Cortese. When he and his gang of thugs arrived, mom didn't want us to go so far from Amphipolis."
Gabrielle nodded in sympathy.
"... and when Cortese left, I wasn't a girl anymore."
Xena looked around, fondly remembering the many times she and her brother had played in here.
"Anyway, that's ancient past now. But it was fun to see this place again. I wonder if..."
"Well, I carved a mark into the rock somewhere so I could, you know, claim the cave as my territory. It must be... over here," Xena said, and examined the far side of the cave.
"Wow, look at that," Gabrielle said, and looked at a large X carved into the wall of the cave.
"How old were you then?"
"Oh, maybe... twelve, thirteen, or so."
Gabrielle hooked her arm inside Xena's, and smiled at the taller woman.
"I'm glad you showed me this place, Xena. The next time we're in Poteidaia, I'll show you some of my old haunts."
"Deal. Can't wait," Xena said and squeezed Gabrielle's arm.
When they came back outside, the sky had turned gray, and the wind was noticeably stronger.
Gabrielle pulled her cloak tighter and looked at the clouds.
"Do you think it'll begin to snow before we get back to Amphipolis?"
"No, it won't snow right now. The clouds are moving too fast," Xena said while she was getting up on Argo.
"The wind's picked up, that's for sure," Gabrielle said and shuddered. She grabbed Xena's outstretched arm and was hoisted up behind the warrior. Once comfortable, she snuggled real close to Xena's back.
"Yeah. Hang on, we're leaving."
"I'm ready," Gabrielle said, and put her arms around Xena's waist.
Dusk had already begun to fall when Xena and Gabrielle returned to Amphipolis several hours later, and, pressurized by Gabrielle's growling stomach, they went straight to the tavern to eat.
"Now where are you going?" Xena said, as Gabrielle moved her chair back and grabbed her empty plate.
"To get some more stew, obviously."
"That'll be your third helping, Gabrielle."
"It's all that fresh air I get here, and besides, my mother told me to always eat plenty, so I would be attractive to the sons of the rich, important people," Gabrielle said and winked.
Xena raised an eyebrow, but kept silent. Her eyes traveled down the blonde woman's back, coming to a rest on the swaying hips.
'I'll drink to that,' she thought and reached for her mug of ale.
"Hey! Ouch! Watch where you're going, you big lump," Gabrielle said to a large, unshaven ruffian, who had bumped into her when she was carrying the tray back to the table.
"Get outta my way, little girl. And pay attention the next time!" he answered.
"I beg your pardon!"
"Don't you hear good?"
Xena started to get up from her chair, but Cyrene put a hand on her shoulder.
"Let me handle this one," she said.
Gabrielle was too stubborn to back down, and the ruffian was too stupid. They were getting all riled up when Cyrene stepped between them.
"Petrikles, what did I tell you the last time you caused trouble?"
"I wasn't causing trouble, this young brat's calling me names!"
"What did I tell you the last time?" Cyrene repeated, more sternly.
"That you'd throw me out the next time," he said.
"This is the next time, Petrikles. Get out, and don't come back until you've learned how to behave yourself in public!"
"No!" he said, and the tavern fell silent.
Without hesitation, Cyrene grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his pants, and forcefully removed him from the room. When she returned, she stood in the middle of the tavern with her hands on her hips, looking around. Her right eyebrow was raised, and she let her eyes roam the room.
The other patrons quickly looked down, and quietly restarted their conversations.
"Now I know where you got your spunk from," Gabrielle said as she put the tray down on the table.
Xena only smiled, and broke off a piece of the bread.
After dinner, Xena and Gabrielle had shared a jug of wine, and by now Gabrielle was feeling tired, and a little tipsy.
"So, tomorrow's the big day, huh?" Gabrielle said, and yawned.
"You know, I'm actually looking forward to telling shtories to the orphans. Watching my audience really getting into the shtory is one of the best things I know."
"Well, it helps that you tell them so well."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said, and patted Xena's thigh. Her hand lingered a little too long, and both women knew it.
"You know, last night, out in the bash... bazaar, a salesman gave me a shcroll... I've never read anything like it," Gabrielle said, her cheeks blushing in a shade of red Xena hadn't seen for years - the warrior couldn't decide if it was from the wine or embarrassment.
"He said it was from some city called... what wash it?"
"No, no, I don't think it wash in Greece. Go... something. Gomorrah!"
Xena nearly choked on her remaining wine.
"Have you been there?"
"Oh... yeah. Once or twice. But that was a long time ago."
"Lemme guess, ten winters or sho, right?" Gabrielle said, and giggled.
"Not quite that long, actually."
"That's a firsht."
"Ahem. Which salesman was that?"
"Don't know, haven't seen him before. A big guy. Horrible teeth."
"They all have bad teeth."
"'struth, shister. Anyway, that shcroll was really amazhing, it was about these two Amazhons, and how they... and let me tell you, it's really, *really*..." she said, and suddenly felt someone looking at her. She turned to see a man at the next table, trying to eavesdrop on their conversation.
"Xena, that man's trying to lishten in on what I'm saying..."
"No wonder, really... Gabrielle, I think I better get you to bed..." Xena said, and only understood the double entendre when Gabrielle flushed beet-root red and got a giggle-fit. The effort proved to be too much for the bard, because when she finished giggling, she promptly collapsed onto the table, resting her head on her arms.
"Oh great, now I have to carry her..." Xena said, and rolled her eyes. She picked up the younger woman and effortlessly held her in her arms. She noticed that the man at the next table was still looking, so she raised an eyebrow, and curled her upper lip in a sneer. It must've worked, because he got up and ran away so quickly that his chair toppled over and bounced off the floor.
"My. Head. Hurts," Gabrielle said, sitting on the bed in her nightshift, and clutching the aforementioned item. The night had just flown by, with Gabrielle being out cold for most of it, except one memorable occasion where she needed to go to the outhouse, but decided it had to wait when she couldn't even find the handle on the door to the hallway.
"I could have told you that would happen," Xena said casually as she attached her breastplate.
"Why didn't you?"
"Because then you'd have told me that you're an adult, and you're quite capable of making your own decisions."
"Just mock me while I'm suffering..." Gabrielle growled.
"It's just a hangover, it'll pass over the course of the day, no big deal."
"Easy for you to say. You don't have to tell stories to a group of orphans."
"Oh, you'll be fine. Come on, get dressed. Some fresh air will do you good."
"Xena, did you undress me last night?"
"Well, it sure wasn't Aphrodite."
Gabrielle looked at her with slightly bloodshot eyes, an eyebrow creeping up her forehead.
"Nothing. Wait five minutes, and I'll be downstairs. OK?"
After Xena had left their room, Gabrielle felt curiously disappointed. 'She saw me naked... Hades, I wanted that to be a special occasion...'
She sighed and shook her head - regretting it immediately as the room started spinning.
Some time later, Xena was working hard on her daily sword drills.
Gabrielle's light snoring interrupted Xena in the middle on an especially difficult combination. The bard had made herself comfortable - she slept soundly, draped across one of the roots of the petrified olive tree.
Xena had to smile at the very relaxed and innocent expression on Gabrielle's face. When she was sleeping, she always looked like a young teenager - and an impossibly cute one at that. In fact, most things about her were cute. Cute nose, cute ears, cute dimples on her cheeks, cute lips... and even so, she looked older and more mature now than when they had first met, little more than a year ago, in that clearing outside of Poteidaia.
Gabrielle stirred, and Xena quickly looked away, not wanting to get caught staring. Instead, she took the Chakram off its hook, and threw it. It bounced off three rocks and a tree trunk before it found its way back to her hand.
She threw it again, and this time, she closed her eyes. She counted the heartbeats, and at the last moment she turned around and grabbed it in flight.
"Are you ever going to teach me how to throw that thing?"
"No, it's much too dangerous, Gabrielle. Catch it wrong, and it'll slice your hand off."
"I... see your point," Gabrielle said and squirmed.
"Good. Anyway, line up, and we'll do some staff drills."
"Oh no, not today... please!"
"Come on, I'll go easy on you," Xena said, and pulled Gabrielle up.
"Turn your back on me, then I'll come at you from behind. Stand with your legs a bit apart, and use your thigh muscles to keep the balance."
"All right, I'm ready."
Xena moved closer, and put an arm around Gabrielle's neck. She paused for a brief moment to smell the natural scent of the woman in front, and couldn't help but smile. Gabrielle swung the butt of the staff down, and pretended to ram it into Xena's left foot.
As the warrior jumped back, Gabrielle spun around and moved the staff in a sweeping motion to knock the legs out of the attacker. Xena easily jumped over the staff, but didn't count on Gabrielle losing her balance and stumbling straight ahead, right into Xena's stomach.
"Oooof!" she said as the blonde head impacted on her leathers. She took a few staggering steps backwards, and nearly fell herself.
"I... think I need to take the day off," Gabrielle said, still leaning on the warrior.
"I think you're right, and besides, the orphans will arrive shortly," Xena said and chuckled.
When they returned to the village, they were intercepted by Robius, the blacksmith, waving his arms frantically.
"Xena!" he shouted, and waved at the two women to get their attention.
"What is it, Robius?" she said.
"There's apparently trouble in the next village, a messenger's arrived, and he wants you to come with him. He's in the tavern," the man said.
Xena opened the door to the tavern, and immediately spotted a dusty man drinking water from a jug.
"What's going on?" she said.
"I take it you're Xena. I'm Tarlus of Stavrós," he said, and they clasped hands.
"We have a problem. Aetis, a thug of some notoriety, has escaped from prison, and has taken court in our village. He's terrorizing everyone there."
"I've heard of him, he's a killer. Beat his brother's wife to death," Xena said.
"True. He's a piece of filth," Tarlus said, and took another swig from the jug.
"Why can't you deal with him yourselves?" Gabrielle asked.
"We're farmers... what could we do? But then we heard you were home, Xena, and I was sent to get you," he said and shrugged.
Gabrielle looked at Xena who had her game face firmly in place. Gabrielle could see the ice blue eyes had darkened, a sure sign that Xena was angry.
"Gabrielle, I'm going over there," she said.
"And I'm going with you."
Just at that moment there was another commotion out on the street. The wagon with the orphans had arrived, and a horde of young children jumped down from it. The door to the tavern flew open, and a young boy came running in.
"Hello!" he said cheerily, not noticing the serious faces of the adults there.
A woman came running in after him, and ushered the boy back out on the street.
"I'm sorry for the interruption. They're so excited about hearing stories from a real bard. Has she arrived yet?"
"I'm the bard, but..." Gabrielle said, and looked at Xena.
More young children ran into the tavern, and they began to take their places on small benches Joxer and Cyrene had put up. Their little voices blended into one noisy cacophony of excitement.
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, and said:
"Stay here, Gabrielle, these kids need you more than I do. I'll deal with that thug myself."
A young boy pulled on Gabrielle's skirt, and she looked down.
"Are you going to tell us stories soon?"
"What's your name?" Gabrielle said, and smiled at him.
"Hercules!" he said proudly.
"Go find a seat, Hercules, I'll be right there." She looked at Xena, and shrugged with a smile.
"There, you see? Don't want to disappoint Hercules, do we?" Xena said, and laughed.
"Please stay safe," Gabrielle said, and grabbed Xena's arm.
"I will. I'll be back tonight - at the latest when the music starts. I want to have a dance with you," she said, and winked at Gabrielle, before making an exit through the kitchen.
Gabrielle was stunned, 'she wants to dance with me?'. A slow blush crept up her neck, but the chanting from the orphans brought her back to the real world, and she set about collecting her hung-over thoughts for a suitable story.
"And so it all ended like it should, with my friend Xena ruining the evil plans of the slavetraders, and Philemon finally able to declare his love for Princess Diana..." Gabrielle said.
She bowed as the audience applauded her by whistling and cheering.
"More! More! More! More!" the children chanted, and Gabrielle grinned from ear to ear.
"I have another one for you, but I need some water first, OK?" she said, and went over to the bar to sit down. She emptied nearly a full jug of water in one gulp.
"Thirsty?" Cyrene said.
"Yeah... I think I got a little drunk last night..."
"Happens. You were fantastic up there, Gabrielle. That was a fun story."
"Thank you, Cyrene."
"You're not worried about Xena, are you?"
"Well... yes. A little bit. I always am when she goes off alone."
"I wouldn't worry too much if I were you. She's a big girl," Cyrene said, and laughed.
"That she is."
The door flew open and Joxer barged in.
"Am I too late? Please tell me I'm not too late?"
"Too late for what?" Gabrielle said, confused.
"For your stories..."
"Oh... well, you've missed one, but I'm about to do another, so why don't you find yourself someplace to sit?"
"Yep!" he said, and headed directly for one of the small benches.
"Well, I suppose I better get back to it," Gabrielle said, and chuckled.
"All right, how many of you remember when all the fires went out last year?"
Most of the children raised their hands in the air - Joxer too.
"Now, my friend Xena and I were right in the middle of that, and this is the story of how we, together with Hercules and Iolaus, were able to restore fire by freeing the Titan Prometheus..."
The children cheered, full of giddy anticipation.
"... and when the sword destroyed Hera's shackles, Prometheus was freed, and his gifts returned to us - fire, and the ability to heal ourselves. But one task remained! Hercules had to catch Xena as she was plummeting to her d...", Gabrielle said, but her voice broke. She tried to hide it by coughing.
"Pardon me. Hercules had to catch Xena as she was plummeting to her death. Fortunately, he was able to. As we bid farewell to Hercules and Iolaus, we had all learned an important lesson about the meaning of friendship."
The children applauded enthusiastically, and Joxer even had to wipe away a few tears.
Gabrielle looked at Cyrene, who nodded in return and held up a large bowl.
"And now, children, I believe it's time for you to eat. I hope you have enjoyed my stories, and I'm looking forward to seeing you all again some day!" she said, and bowed.
As their dinner was being served, a little girl ran up to the stage and hugged Gabrielle's legs.
"That was such a beautiful story, Auntie Gabrielle," she said.
"Oh, thank you... what's your name?"
"Lucida, this was how I got started telling stories. One day, a traveling bard came by my village, and I was in the audience."
"Do you think I could tell stories one day?" Lucida said.
"Oh yes, definitely," Gabrielle said, and crouched down to look into the little girls' blue eyes. They smiled at each other, and hugged again.
Lucida went back to the tables to eat, and Gabrielle took another jug of water, her throat dry as parchment. She noticed the driver of the wagon from the orphanage talking to Cyrene, and judging by the concerned expression on his face, it wasn't about anything pleasant.
A strange, nagging sensation took hold in her gut, and Gabrielle wasn't sure if it was just the last remnants of her hangover or if it was... fear.
"I've been out looking around, and there's a major front coming in from the North. We have a few hours, but I don't want to be caught in the middle of a snowstorm on our way back to the orphanage," the driver said.
"I understand. It's just bread and soup, it won't take them long to eat," Cyrene added.
"I'm sorry, is there a problem?" Gabrielle asked.
"The weather doesn't look good. Snow's coming," the driver said.
"Oh..." The nagging sensation in Gabrielle's stomach blossomed.
Gabrielle was looking out of the window. She told herself she was waiting for the first guests to arrive, but in reality she knew she was looking for a familiar figure to ride into town.
It had been several hours since the wagon with the orphans had left, and Gabrielle was sure they were home safely by now. One less thing to worry about.
While she was looking, the first snowflakes started floating down from the sky. The flurry soon grew in intensity, and within moments, the ground was covered. The first group of patrons arrived and brushed themselves off. They were laughing and generally looked and sounded like they had a good time. Gabrielle didn't feel like laughing at all.
Over the next hour or so, more and more guests arrived, and Cyrene was getting increasingly busy. Outside, the snow was still coming down hard, and it didn't look like stopping any time soon.
Gabrielle had left her place by the window, and was sitting by herself at a table. She had bought a very small cup of ale, but she had hardly tasted it. She tried to chide herself for being so worried about a warrior who had never met her match in the time they had traveled together, but the words rang hollow. Even though she was relatively inexperienced in many things, she knew that life was fragile, and that it didn't take much to snuff it out. She also knew that despite Xena's many skills, some day she'd come across a warrior who was better with a sword, or quicker with a crossbow, or just plain luckier.
Gabrielle shuddered, and emptied the small cup of ale in one swig.
'I'm being silly. Xena is probably on her way back right now,' she thought.
The party got louder and rowdier, and still no sign of Xena. Cyrene had asked Gabrielle to help her wait the tables, and she had jumped at the chance. Anything was better than sitting alone, worrying herself sick.
Equipped with a fetching apron, Gabrielle ran back and forth from the kitchen to the tables with food and drink for the guests, expertly sidestepping the tipsy men who were trying to feel her up.
The door was opened, and a large cheer rose up from the crowd. Gabrielle spun around to see if it was Xena, but it was the band instead.
"Settle down, settle down, we were delayed by the snow, but now we're here!" one of the musicians said, and grabbed a mug of ale from Cyrene's plate as she passed him.
They went down to the far end of the tavern and started to set up their instruments, three lyres, a drum and a flute.
Gabrielle, Cyrene and the two helpers quickly removed the empty plates from the tables, and helped moving the people who still ate to the other end of the tavern.
It didn't take long for the patrons to move the benches and the tables to the sides and make a dance floor. Several of the wives grabbed their husbands, and when the band struck up a merry tune, they started dancing.
Gabrielle felt immensely disappointed that Xena hadn't returned in time to dance with her as she had promised. The fear that had festered in Gabrielle's stomach for most of the evening quickly grew into a full-blown pain. Something was wrong, she just knew it, and she would go crazy if she didn't at least try to find out what had happened. She decided there and then to walk to Stavrós to find some answers.
She found Cyrene and excused herself from the rest of the party. As she walked upstairs, she peeked out of the window - it was still snowing.
She went into their room, grabbed her wool cloak and put it across the back of the chair. She reached down for her bag, and gently extracted the present for Xena. She looked at the beechtree box for a few seconds before putting it down on her bed.
Xena's saddlebags could hold more than her own little bag could, but she was able to get their flints, some food and most of the medical kit stuffed into it. She dearly hoped she wouldn't be needing it.
She wrapped herself in her cloak and took her staff. She leaned on it and sighed. This had better work out.
Unnoticed, she slipped back down into the kitchen, and took a torch from the wall which she lit on the stove. She opened the door to the backyard, and left without even looking back.
And the snow was coming down harder than ever.
Two hours later, she had almost lost hope. The snow had made her progress much slower than she had expected, and she was getting very tired. Fortunately it had stopped snowing some time ago - earlier, the torch kept getting wet and had fizzled out more than once.
Gabrielle stopped and pulled the hood back to listen. She was certain she had heard something. She strained her hearing, but the forest was quiet - Deathly quiet. She moved the torch to the sides of the road she was walking on, but there was nothing to see. Slowly she continued, trying not to make the snow squeak too much under her boots.
Hundred yards or so further down the road, the sound reached her again, and this time she knew she heard it. It was a horse whinnying, and it was nearby. Gabrielle frantically looked around. She couldn't be sure it was Argo, but she wanted it so much to be. The sound came from the left side of the road, so she carefully started walking that way, treading her way through the snow.
She arrived in a clearing, and immediately spotted Argo. Gabrielle ran the last few yards and embraced the horse's neck lovingly.
"I'm so glad to see you, Argo. Where's Xena? Where is she, girl?" Gabrielle said, and clapped the tall horse.
She moved back to examine Argo, and felt a pang of fear when she saw a dark stain on the horse's saddle. She moved the torch closer to the dark stain, and she reeled at the sight of dried blood. Xena's blood. Her breath came in explosive bursts, and she looked around the small clearing.
There... a small lump on the ground, covered in snow... a boot...
Gabrielle ran over to the lump and threw herself onto the ground. She thrust the torch into a snowbank, so she could use both hands to wipe away the snow. Her worst fears were soon proved correct as she uncovered Xena's ice cold body.
"Oh, gods, no...!" Gabrielle said and started to panic.
Suddenly, a plume of vapor rose from Xena's mouth. She was breathing! Gabrielle's mind was racing, and she was unsure of what to do. The blood, she thought, the blood had to come from somewhere. She felt along Xena's legs and her torso. When she touched Xena's side, a pained moan from the warrior left no doubt that she was wounded. Gabrielle moved the torch closer and saw a big cut in the leathers, right above Xena's left hipbone. Blood was still seeping from the wound, but it quickly dried because of the cold. She was still wearing her wool cloak, and it had protected her somewhat, but her skin was very cold to touch.
Gabrielle realized that, right now, the cold was a bigger threat to Xena than the wound was, so her priorities changed to try to build a fire. She looked around. The torch was still burning, but it didn't help much, as everything was soaked by the snow.
'Think Gabrielle, think, for Gaia's sake! What was it Xena said about finding firewood in the winter... Moss!' she thought, got up and ran towards a fallen tree.
Protected by the fallen trunk, a large patch was hiding in the shadows. She tore large tufts of moss out of the ground, and ran back to Xena. At least it was easy to see the warrior was still breathing.
Gabrielle hastily wiped some snow away from the ground, grabbed a handful of stones, and put them in a circle. She build a small pyre of sticks she had collected, and put the moss in the middle.
Behind her, Xena started coughing, which put a severe strain on her wound. She moaned, and Gabrielle almost fell back into a state of panic. Xena calmed down again, but her breathing had become a bit more labored.
Gabrielle lowered the torch to the moss, which quickly caught fire. After a brief moment of large flames, it settled down to a slow burn. She knew the wet sticks would smoke like mad, but that was a lesser evil right now. She could feel the heat slowly building in the firepit, and she stirred the moss with a twig. When the fire was solid, she went over to Xena to think about what to do next.
She quickly saw she needed to get Xena closer to the fire, but she doubted that she was strong enough to drag her. She tried anyway, and failed miserably. She had only managed to move her a few inches at best, and Xena had moaned horribly.
"Argo! I need your help, please!" Gabrielle said.
The horse came closer, and lowered its head.
"I need you to grab this... here!" Gabrielle said, and raised a corner of the cloak to Argo.
The horse understood instinctively, and bit down on the cloak. Effortlessly Argo pulled Xena's body closer to the fire, and whinnied at Gabrielle.
"Thank you! I'll buy you a bag of apples if we ever get out of this mess," Gabrielle said, and wiped away a few tears that somehow had found their way onto her cheeks.
She took off Argo's saddle and removed the blanket. She put two large stones down on the lower end of the blanket, and used her staff and another long stick to erect a shelter, protecting Xena. Fortunately, there wasn't any wind tonight.
'Ephiny wouldn't believe her eyes if she could see me now,' she thought.
When that was done, Gabrielle put a few more twigs onto the fire, and stirred the smoldering moss slightly. So far so good.
After a little while, Xena started coming to. The air around the firepit was warm, if a little smoky, and even though she was still on the frozen ground, she felt warmer by the minute.
She opened her eyes, and surveyed the situation. She tried to move, but the wound in her side sent a red hot wave of pain crashing through her. She moaned, which brought Gabrielle over to her in an instant.
"Xena? Can you hear me?" she said.
The warrior cleared her impossibly dry throat.
"Gabrielle? Some water..."
"Thank the gods! Don't move, I'll be right back!"
Gabrielle went over to a part of the clearing she hadn't been in before, and scooped up a large handful of snow. She carried it back to Xena, and told her to open her mouth.
"It's snow, but it's all we have right now," she said.
Xena felt the snow being gently pushed into her mouth. It melted, and she swallowed.
Gabrielle left her again, but was soon back.
"Thank you. That's enough," Xena said, and tried to sit up.
"I don't think you should do that, Xena, you have a nasty wound in your side," Gabrielle said in a trembling voice, and tried to push the warrior back down.
"I need to. I feel my back's becoming attached to the ground," Xena said, and sat up. She pressed a hand on the wound, and fresh blood started seeping out of the cut in the leathers.
"Hades," she cursed, and shut her eyes until the stab of pain receded.
"What happened in Stavrós?"
"Aetis was smarter than I thought. And better with a dagger, too. He managed to get a lucky hit in," Xena said through clenched teeth.
"But... did you get him, or is he still out there?" Gabrielle asked worriedly.
"I got him. He's in Tartarus by now. If I had had my kit with me, I could easily have cleaned and sutured this wound... but I didn't."
"I have the medical kit with me, it's in my bag."
"Good... I decided to go back to the village, but this is as far as I got... where are we, anyway?"
"About two hours' walk from Amphipolis. The festival must still be going on, I haven't been here long," Gabrielle said, and crouched down to be at eye-level with the injured warrior.
Xena noticed how tense and worried Gabrielle looked, and how strained her voice was.
"Did the children like your story?" Xena asked, trying to break the tension.
"Well... they did. Joxer, too," Gabrielle said and laughed nervously.
Xena chuckled, but the motion made the wound ache, and she stiffened.
"I think we should see to that wound now, Xena."
Xena started unbuckling her breastplate and the shoulder pads quickly followed. She pulled the leather strap down on her right shoulder, but she couldn't get the left one free, as the wound hurt too much when she tried to lift her arm.
"I'll get that," Gabrielle said, and gently pulled the strap down.
"Thanks. Do you think you could loosen the lace, too?"
"I'm already on it," Gabrielle whispered into Xena's ear, her fingers untying the lace holding the outfit together.
As the corset loosened, Xena motioned out of her leathers. Gabrielle gulped, and looked away from the naked body in front of her.
"Gabrielle, please, I need you to look at the wound. I can't do it myself."
"All... right," the blonde woman said, and moved closer.
"I need you to clean and suture it for me," Xena said quietly.
"But... No! I can't, what if I hurt you?" Gabrielle said, and pulled back.
"Oh, I'll live. I've showed you what to do, remember?"
"That was on your leg, this is... very different!"
"Flesh is flesh, Gabrielle. Please, I need your help. It's so damn cold here, even with the fire... we need to get back."
Gabrielle exhaled slowly, and the vapor cloud drifted away. She looked at the pain in Xena's eyes, and knew she had to do it.
A little later on.
"How's that?" Gabrielle asked.
"Feels good, thank you. Gabrielle, I'm very impressed. You can do a lot more than you give yourself credit for. You saved my life, you know."
"Let's not dwell on that right now. We still have to get you back to Amphipolis."
"I think I shouldn't ride just yet, I don't want to ruin your work," Xena said, and gently touched the tender skin around the still aching wound.
"It's a long walk, so we better get started. You need a hand getting up?" Gabrielle said, and put out her arm.
"No, thanks, I got it," Xena said, but accepted the outstretched arm anyway. Both women pulled at the same time, and suddenly they were standing very close.
Gabrielle gulped again, but at the same time, her hand moved by its own accord and caressed Xena's cheek.
They moved as one, and their lips brushed against each other. First briefly, then more decisively. Xena used her good arm to reach behind Gabrielle and pull her even closer. Gabrielle's tongue traced Xena's lips, and the warrior opened her mouth to welcome the bard inside. The kiss deepened, and soon neither woman wanted to stop.
Reluctantly, they separated to get some air. Gabrielle's heart was pounding wildly, and she rested her head on Xena's chest.
"Please tell me that wasn't a 'thank you'-kiss..." she whispered.
"It wasn't..." Xena replied with a trembling voice. Her eyes were still closed, and she wanted nothing else than to stand here, embracing Gabrielle for an eternity, but she knew they had to go back.
"We better get back, Gabrielle. I don't want my mother to worry about us."
"I understand," she replied, but didn't let go.
"I don't think we can walk back like this, you know?"
"Too damn bad," came the reply, but Gabrielle eventually released her grip on Xena.
They looked at each other, knowing that a new connection had been forged tonight. Where it would take them, neither of them knew. But they would try their hardest to get the most out of it while they could.
"Gabrielle, I think we need to talk," Xena said, as they struggled through the snow on their way back to the village.
"... I was hoping you'd start, you're the expert on sensitive chats, you know," Xena said, and tried to laugh.
"Well... whenever I look at you, whenever I hear your voice, whenever I feel your presence, my heart starts beating faster and I feel my soul smiling. There's a word for that. It's called love," Gabrielle said, and squeezed Xena's arm.
Xena didn't answer, so Gabrielle looked up. The warrior's cheeks were crimson red and something that looked suspiciously like a tear had escaped her left eye.
"You certainly have a way with words. I guess that's why you're a bard, and I'm a warrior," Xena said, and her voice sounded strangely choked. She paused to take a few deep breaths.
"I love you too, Gabrielle. I have for a while now, I think. But I have lived without love for so long that it took me some time to recognize the emotions."
"I'm glad you did."
Xena could only nod.
They continued to drudge through the snow, and even though Xena would never admit it, she was feeling very tired. When she spotted an inviting tree stump at the side of the road, she decided to swallow her warrior pride and take a rest.
"Gabrielle, I need to sit down for a while..." she said.
"Are you in pain?"
"Some. But I can handle it. Mostly..." Xena said, and carefully lowered herself down onto the tree stump, nursing her aching side.
"You know, the way you made that fire and the shelter really impressed me," Xena said, after catching her breath.
"Thank you. It wasn't that hard, really. You've taught me well."
Far above them the clouds broke, revealing a bright, full moon and the magnificent black velvet carpet of the winter stars. The moon's off-white reflection bathed the forest in a ghostly light, casting creepy looking shadows everywhere.
"Oh! Look at that," Gabrielle said. Her head was tilted back as far as it could go, eagerly watching the endless array of stars.
"Yeah, it's beautiful," Xena replied, looking directly at Gabrielle's excited face instead of at the stars.
"This reminds me of a song I heard when I was a little girl."
"A minstrel came to Poteidaia once, and he sang it. It was so romantic."
Gabrielle moved closer to the warrior.
"Oh?" Xena said again, this time smiling broadly.
"Yes. I can't remember the title, but do you know what the first lines were?" Gabrielle said, and put her arms on Xena's shoulders.
" 'It Happened On Winter Solstice Night, I Kissed My Girl In The Bright Moonlight...' "
Xena gently moved Gabrielle's head towards her own, and for a few moments they were just looking into each other's eyes, reveling in each other's company.
"Well?" Xena said.
"Well..." Gabrielle replied, and moved her head down to kiss Xena. Not a wild kiss like before, but a gentle, warm and loving one.
"Oh dear, what will Cyrene say?" Gabrielle said, chuckling, when they separated.
"She'll be fine. She's been around."
"That definitely runs in the family."
Xena smiled rather wickedly at Gabrielle, causing the younger woman's heart to skip a beat.
"Is it getting warmer, or is it just me?"
"It's getting warmer," Xena said, and laughed.
"I feel better now. Come on, let's go home," she said, and shakily got up from the tree stump.
Finally, after what felt like hours and hours, they could see the lights of Amphipolis.
"I'm glad we're almost home, Xena, I'm so tired I can hardly walk anymore," a very exhausted Gabrielle said.
"Yeah. Me too. Are you going to write a scroll about this?"
"Well, now that it has a happy ending... yes, I think I will."
"Good. I'm sorry that I missed your performance, Gabrielle. I would've loved to see what you came up with."
"How about I give you a private show instead? Just you and me and Cyrene's hot tub. My feet are so cold I think I've lost a couple of toes tonight," Gabrielle said.
"Hot tub? Yeah, I could live with that."
After dropping off Argo in the stables and making sure she was calm and had plenty of water and food, they walked the last few yards to the kitchen entrance of the tavern, reaching it a few minutes later - incredibly, the party was still going on.
Neither of them wanted to talk to other people, so they made certain no one saw them on their way up the stairs.
When Gabrielle closed the door behind them, Xena let out a long, heartfelt sigh.
"At one point, I thought I'd never see this place again..." she said, and rubbed her weary eyes.
Gabrielle used the flint to ignite a candle, and the room was bathed in a golden light.
"... and never see you again," Xena added quietly.
Gabrielle hugged her, remembering to do it carefully so she wouldn't put pressure on the wound.
"Hey, what's that?" Xena suddenly said, and looked over Gabrielle's shoulder at a wooden box on the other bed.
"Oh, damn, I forgot to... never mind, happy Winter Solstice, Xena," Gabrielle said, and presented the beechtree box to the warrior.
"Oh, wow, Wellness in Athens... thank you," Xena said and smiled.
"It's for the two of us. It's just a silly little thing, but I hope you like it."
"You better believe I like it. Have you ever tried an Egyptian bath?"
"Then you have something to look forward to," Xena purred.
"I have a little something for you, too... but it's under my bed, and I don't think I can get down there..." Xena said, and grimaced as the wound pulled on the sutures.
"I'll get it," Gabrielle said, and got down on her knees. She easily found the package wrapped in beautiful, green velvet.
"What is it?"
"Go ahead and open it..."
Gabrielle unwrapped the present and took out the scroll case.
"Oh, that's so great, my old one has almost fallen to bits. Thank you very much," she said, and smiled broadly at the warrior.
"No, thank *you*, Gabrielle," Xena said, and pulled the bard close. She mussed the golden blonde hair, and put a small kiss on Gabrielle's lips.
"We were lucky, weren't we?" Gabrielle whispered.
"Yes. But sometimes luck is all that's needed."
Gabrielle nodded and pulled away from the warrior.
"I think we both need our beauty sleep tonight."
"Yeah. And don't think I've forgotten about the dance I promised you. I just need to mend a little more first," Xena said and smiled.
"Would you mind sharing a bed tonight?" Gabrielle asked, not looking at the warrior.
Xena just stared at her in delighted shock.
"I would like that very much, Gabrielle."
"Good. Because two bodies can heat up a bed better than one, you understand," Gabrielle said, and started to unlace her top.
"They certainly can," Xena said with a smile, and motioned to turn around to leave the room to give Gabrielle some privacy while she was changing.
"No... please stay. I... I don't want to be shy anymore," Gabrielle said, and let her top and skirt fall onto the floor. She put her hand on Xena's arm and turned the warrior back to face her.
Xena let her eyes slowly wander up Gabrielle's naked body, and she felt a wonderful sensation build within her. She was surprised and delighted to feel it was love, and not just lust.
"You are so beautiful," she whispered to Gabrielle, and leaned down to kiss the bard.
Using her good arm, Xena wiggled out of her leathers. The two women were soon standing body to body with their arms wrapped around each other - simply holding on to one another and enjoying the incredible rush of sensations from feeling skin on skin...
Gabrielle leaned down and blew out the candle, leaving the room in darkness.
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