2003 Bardie Winner!
Most creative/Best Overall Casting
Disclaimers: All characters named or implied are from the Little House on the Prairie books and TV series or Xena: Warrior Princess. I dont own anyone in this story!
Sex: This story depicts two women in a loving marriage raising three daughters that are their own. If thats illegal where you live, youre under age, or this offends you, why are you at the Academy anyway? Go Away! However, as the point of this challenge is to be true to the original premise of the show Little House on the Prairie, a chaste kiss is about all youll get here.
Thanks to my Beta reader for your editing skills and for your patience and support. Also, thanks to my cheerleader for continually encouraging me to write; you know who you are
This is written with heartfelt thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder, with whom I spent my childhood through the magic of her words. Oh, that mine could be so wonderful
The scent of breakfast was filling the house as Gabrielle called up the stairs to her still-sleeping daughters. "Lila! Eve! Time to get up for school!"
Upstairs, the two sisters were comfortably snuggled under a thick down quilt that protected them from the winter cold pressing against the rooftop. "Mmmmmm, I dont wanna get up," whimpered Lila.
Eve understood completely. "Why do we have to go to school today anyhow?"
"I dont know. Its not like Miss Odins going to give us any homework over the Solstice Holiday."
"Do you mean youd wanna go if we were gonna get homework?"
"Well, sure. I wouldnt want to get behind."
"Behind?! Like one homework assignment could cause that to happen " Eve rolled on her side to face her sister, "You know, Lila, I worry about you sometimes."
"Girls, are you up yet? You dont want to be late for your last day of school before the Winter Holiday."
"Oh, no! We wouldnt want that to happen!" Eve whispered sarcastically.
Giggling, Lila sat up in bed and called out, "Were up Mama!"
Gabrielle laughed quietly to herself downstairs. "Ill just be you are " she said to herself. Turning away from the stairs to the table, she resumed her conversation with the wide awake two year old sitting in a high chair. "At least one of my children is bright eyed this morning, arent you Ephiny?"
At that moment the door burst open with a blast of cold air. Xena entered quickly carrying an armload of firewood. "I tell you Gabrielle, either Im getting old or the winters in Northern Greece are getting colder every year."
"You dont really want me to comment on that do you?"
Laughing, she placed the last of the firewood by the hearth, and then spun quickly on Gabrielle, grabbing her around the waist to pull her into a huge, cold hug. "You doubt me? Just ask my nose!" With that Xena stuck her nose against her wifes very warm neck, causing her to squeal!
"Xena! Stop that!" Xena only laughed louder as the pleas became more intense. "Really, Xena! Im going to burn the breakfast!"
Finally relenting, Gabrielle was released, but only after surrendering a quick kiss. "Well, we wouldnt want that to happen, now would we."
"Wouldnt want what to happen, Ma?" Eve asked as she carefully descended the ladder from the loft.
"Oh, your Mama was just threatening to burn breakfast." Gabrielle poked her head back around the opening to the kitchen and stuck her tongue out at Xena in response.
Lila was following her sisters descent as she joined the conversation. "Why on earth would she do that?"
"Nobody is burning breakfast!" Gabrielle ended the conversation as she sat fried ham and potatoes on the table. "Eve, get the plates and cups. Lila, will you get the biscuits? Honestly, Xena, sometimes I dont know whos the biggest kid in this house."
"I didnt know it was a contest." Xena replied, waggling her eyebrows. This brought another round of laughter from the girls.
Gabrielle walked to the head of the table where Xena was sitting and lovingly ran her fingers through her hair. "Most days its no contest at all," she countered smugly before kissing Xena on the top of her head. With that she returned to the kitchen to grab the coffee and milk, laughing all the way.
Xena smiled as the girls took their places at the table. "So, are you girls ready for your Winter Break from school?"
"Are you kidding?" Eve exclaimed. "I can hardly wait for tonight!"
"Why? Whats happening tonight?"
"Ma!" both girls whined. "Thats not funny! Tonights Solstice Eve! Tomorrow morning we get to open presents!"
"Xena, stop teasing the girls so they can eat their breakfast." Gabrielle was the last one to sit down at the table, as usual. "And will you please take them into the village. Its too cold for them to have to walk to today."
A gleam entered Xenas eyes - the same one she always got when she was one step ahead of everyone else. "I already have fresh hay and blankets loaded in the back of the wagon," she answered, smiling. Turning her attention back to the girls she continued. "And Im going to pick you girls up today too. It looks like theres snow in the clouds and we still have to find a tree to cut down for the Winter Solstice."
"Okay, Ma!" they chimed together.
"What do you suppose well get for Solstice presents?" Eve wondered outloud.
"Eve! Its rude to ask a question like that!" Lila admonished her.
"Why? You wanna know dont ya?"
"Of course I do," the admission causing Xena and Gabrielle to chuckle at their oldest daughters bluntness, "but thats not what celebrating the Winter Solstice is supposed to be about. Were supposed to be celebrating the shortest day of the year, which marks that weve made it halfway through the winter and are on the way to spring."
"I know that! But its hard not to wonder!"
"You know whats harder than that?" Gabrielle asked, glancing at Xena.
"Getting two little girls to school on time that are busier talking than they are eating their breakfast," Xena finished. With that slight admonishment, both girls joined their sister in eating their breakfast silently.
Little House on the Grecian Prairie
Charles Ingalls or Pa loving husband and father of 3 girls
Caroline Ingalls or Ma devoted wife and mother of same 3 girls
Mary Oldest sister and bookworm
Laura adventurous middle sister and
original author of the Little House books
Carrie the baby of the family
(in alphabetical order)
Willie Olsen the Olsens son, a spoiled, disobedient mamas boy
handsome school boy/liar
Nellie Olsen Willies older sister and a spoiled, over-the-top b*tch;
Lauras arch rival
Reverend Alden gentle country reverend
Isaiah French Charles Ingalls best friend and Lauras hero
(he taught her to spit!)
cute school boy and Autolycus best friend
Nels Olsen kind village shopkeeper; parent of two children from hades
Harriett Olsen Nels bossy, overbearing wife and overindulgent mother;
thinks she owns the town instead of the mercantile
Doc Baker kindly country doctor
Miss Beetle the pretty, soft-spoken teacher
A Solstice Miracle
The wagon pulled up in front of the one-room schoolhouse, its precious cargo heavily bundled in the back of the wagon. "Okay girls!" Xena announced as she brought the wagon to a halt. Climbing down, she walked to the back where the two girls were fighting to unwrap themselves from their mothers over protectiveness. Laughing, Xena began helping them unwrap. "Now remember, Ill be here to pick you up after school so dont wander off. We have a tree to cut down," she noted, nodding her head toward the billowy grey clouds on the horizon, "and I want us all home before it starts snowing."
"Okay Ma," the girls replied through chattering teeth.
Kissing both of the girls on their cheeks, she ordered them out of the cold. "Heres your lunches. Now, go on inside and get warmed up before class gets started."
"Bye Ma!" Eve called from the bottom step. "I love you!"
"I love you, too," Xena replied form the wagons seat. "Have a good day!" She waited until both girls were safely inside, then picked up the reins and headed for home.
Once the girls were inside, they removed their coats, mittens, scarves, and hats, hanging them neatly on the pegs in the entryway, then moving into the large, open room that was their school. At the far end of the room was the teachers platform. There was a chair and a desk for her to sit at; on the wall behind her was a map of the known world. Rows of long benches filled the space in between them and their teacher, Miss Odin. Along the backs of the benches were long, flat surfaces that served as desks for the students. To their left was a fireplace, already ablaze, easily warming the small room. Anxious to shake the chill that had followed them inside, both girls moved toward the fire to warm themselves.
Sitting on the last row nearest the fireplace were Autolycus and Iolaus. They were best friends and both a couple of years older than Lila; neither was a very good student. Without meaning to, the girls could easily overhear their conversation.
"Im tellin you, Iolaus. Hes there! I saw him myself! White hair. Long beard. Glasses on the end of his nose."
"Let me get this straight Youre tellin me that theres a man on that old, broken-down farm on the far side of village that makes the Solstice toys for all the children all over the world."
"The good children," Autolycus interrupted.
"Right, the good children. And not only that, but he has some kind of magic that lets him deliver all the toys all over the known world in one night and that helps him get into folks homes with breakin nothin."
Eve almost fell over she was listening so hard. She couldnt believe her ears!
Iolaus examined his friends face skeptically, looking for a hint of the lie. Unfortunately, Autolycus was known as a gifted liar and it was nearly impossible to determine whether he was telling the truth or lying at any given moment. "Bah! Youre pullin my leg!"
"I am not! I swear it! Iolaus, I saw the old guy walking to the barn with an armful of toys! After he went back in the house I snuck a peek though a broken board in the back of the barn. There were toys like Ive never seen! Too many to count!"
"Autolycus, there is no way that the man that makes the Solstice toys for all the good children in the known world lives outside of our village."
"Okay, Ill prove it to you! Come with me after school today and you can see for yourself. He has to deliver all the toys tonight so hell be too busy to notice us anyhow."
"Youre on "
"Okay, class. If you would all take your seats; Ares you can get out of the corner now. And next time, leave other peoples scrolls alone!"
"Yes, maam," he muttered on the way to his place on the bench by his sister, Callisto.
As Eve and Lila walked to their seats on the far side of the room, Eve whispered excitedly. "Did you here that? The man that makes the Solstice gifts lives right here in Olive Grove!"
"I heard that lie," Lila replied correctively. "Eve, theres no way "
"Now, I know youre all excited about the Winter Solstice Holiday, but we have one more day " Miss Odin spoke over Lilas comment. But Eve didnt hear a word she said. She was looking at the Solstice tree in the corner of the room and dreaming of a barn full of toys.
Xena split another log outside the back door of the home she and Gabrielle had built for their young family. Leaving the axe buried in the splitting log, she picked an armful of wood from the ground and carried it to the rick of wood she had by the back door. Once she deposited them on top, she turned back for another load. Pausing, she studied the clouds. She gathered the last of the wood hurriedly, grabbed her axe, and headed indoors.
"Gabrielle, how much time do I have before lunch?"
Gabrielle was sitting at the table measuring Ephiny for a new coat. "About an hour, why?"
"That storm is coming in much faster than I thought it would. I think maybe I should go ahead and get us a Solstice tree."
"Oh, are you sure you cant wait for the girls? Theyll be so disappointed they didnt get to help you pick it out."
"I know, but Im afraid if I dont get one now we might not have one at all by the looks of those clouds." She bent over to tickle Ephinys cheek and then kissed Gabrielle on the lips, but didnt pull away. Gazing into beautiful green eyes, she continued. "Besides, theyll have tonight to make decorations with you. It wont be much fun to make decorations if we have to hang them on the ladder!" Gently, she nuzzled her nose with Gabrielles and then kissed her on the forehead as she stood up. "Ill be back by lunch. I spotted a tree last week that should be perfect."
"Do you need more than an hour before lunch?"
"Nah, that should be plenty of time."
"Okay, you be careful."
"Arent I always?" Xena quipped. Gabrielle aimed a disbelieving smirk at her wife. "Besides," she continued with a huge grin, "I cant disappoint my girls!" Gabrielle grinned at her adoringly as Xena picked up her axe and headed out the door.
"I thought she was never going to stop for lunch! Im starving!" Eve snatched the lunch sack from between them on the seat and began struggling with the tie their mother had secured it with.
"Here, give me that," Lila ordered as she took it from her impatient little sister, "before you spill our lunch all over the floor. And I dont know what youre complaining about; were eating earlier than usual."
"Do you think Ma would take us to that farmhouse to meet the toymaker?"
"Are you kidding? Ma would laugh you clean off this bench if she heard you say that. Besides, theres no such thing. You know Autolycus would just as soon tell a lie as the truth!"
"But what if hes telling the truth this time?!"
"Eve " Lila tried to interrupt as she handed her half the sacks contents.
Eve took her lunch, but ignored it completely. "Besides, he wouldnt lie to Iolaus! Iolaus is his best friend!"
"He would especially lie to Iolaus because Iolaus believes him every time!"
"Iolaus believes who every time?" a voice interrupted. It was Callisto, Eves worst enemy.
"Autolycus," Lila answered. "He told Iolaus this morning that theres a man that lives on the other side of the village that makes toys for all the good children in the known world and delivers them on Solstice Eve." This earned her a punch in the leg under their desktop from Eve. "Ow!"
Callisto ignored her exclamation and continued to invade their conversation. "I dont have to wait for someone to deliver my presents. My mother buys me whatever I want for Solstice every year!"
"Your mother buys you presents, but that isnt why you dont get them from the toymaker," Eve muttered through gritted teeth.
Lila continued with her explanation before yet another fight could erupt between the two. "Anyway, so Autolycus told Iolaus that he would prove it to him after school."
"Lila!" Eve was frustrated with her sister, who never seemed to understand the importance of keeping information from Callisto. "Youd better eat or you wont have time to finish your lunch!" Still speaking through her teeth, she betrayed her own irritation to Callisto.
"Maybe I should go with them."
"Why should you? You said your Ma buys you everything you want!"
"Arent you going?"
Eve knew Callisto had her. "Nah, our Ma is picking us up after school."
"Well then, I can go and tell you all about it," Callisto gloated brightly. Having completed her mission of irritation, she flitted off to the other side of the room where Iolaus and Autolycus were sitting.
"Do you have to blab everything?" Eve whined at her sister.
"What does it matter? All thats going to happen is Callisto is going to follow Autolycus around in the cold looking for a man that doesnt exist. Shell probably catch a terrible cold and be sick the whole Solstice Holiday."
For a moment, Eve stared at her sister in amazement. Did her sister - quiet, polite Lila - actually trick Callisto? Had she actually set Callisto up to be sick for the holidays? As Lila continued to eat quietly, she gave no indication one way or the other.
Not too long after lunch Doc Nicklio came in the back of schoolhouse and asked if he could speak to Miss Odin for a moment. After a brief conversation, Miss Odin thanked the doctor and turned back to the class. "Students, it has come to my attention that there is a snow storm headed our direction. Well go ahead and dismiss early for the Solstice Holiday so youll have plenty of time to walk home before it hits."
This announcement, of course, was greeted with a rousing round of cheers. Quickly, the students began gathering their things and bundling up for the walk home. Eve hurried to the back ahead of Lila and already had her coat on by the time her sister joined her, having gathered up both their scrolls and quills. "Where are you going in such a hurry?"
"Im gonna follow Autolycus and Iolaus to the toymakers house!" Eve exclaimed excitedly.
"Oh no youre not! Dont you remember what Ma said? Dont wander off; well be in to pick you up after school gets out."
"I know, but Ma thinks school is going to get out at the regular time! If we hurry we can get to the toymakers and back before she comes to pick us up!"
"We? What do you mean we? Im not going with you!"
"Of course you are! I cant just leave you here!"
"Yes, you can! I dont want to get into trouble!"
"You wanna see all those toys dont ya?"
Lila seemed to consider this for a moment. "Alright, Ill go. But just to make sure you dont get into any trouble. And I still think this is a big mistake."
"Great! Now hurry up! Well have to keep up with Autolycus and Iolaus and theyve already gone outside while you were arguing with me." Lila rolled her eyes, exasperated, as Eve grabbed her arm and dragged her outside.
Xena opened the door calling Gabrielles name. A dusting of snow was visible on her hat and coat. "What is it Xena?"
"The snows begun; I expect the storm wont be far behind. Ive already hitched up the team; are you sure you want to go into town with me?"
What Xena didnt know is that Gabrielle had ordered a Solstice present for her at the mercantile and she had to pick it up today. "Yes, I need a few things if were going to be snowed in for a while," she lied.
"Cant you just give me a list?" Xena asked, slightly confused. "Im not sure we ought to take the baby out in this weather."
"The baby will be fine; Ill bundle her up and she can ride back in the hay with her sisters. Shell love it."
"Well, if you two are going, we need to leave as soon as you can get ready."
"Okay, just give me a minute." With that, Gabrielle began wrapping up the baby and then herself to head out the door to the waiting wagon.
"Ares, for the last time, stop following me!"
"Why? Where are you going?"
Callisto spun around, pointing her finger at her little brothers nose. "Im not telling you where Im going! Only the older kids are allowed to go; thats why Autolycus and Iolaus are going."
"Yeah, but Eves not that much older than me and shes going."
"Shes probably going to get into trouble for going. Now, if you dont sneak back to the house right now without Mother and Father hearing you come in, Im going to tell them that youve been snooping under their bed for your Solstice presents."
"I have not!"
"It doesnt matter whether you have or you havent; Mother will always believe me over you."
"Thats not fair!"
"Thats right, but thats the way it is. Thats why Im the big sister and youre not!" Ares paused to consider that for a moment, but chose not to comment. "Now, go back to the house, dont get caught, and dont you dare tell anyone where weve gone." With that, Callisto spun away from him and hurried after Eve and Lila, barely noticing the snow flakes that had begun to fall.
"Hurry up, Lila!" Eve had a firm grip on Lilas coat sleeve and was pulling her along behind her. "Theyre getting farther ahead and if it snows any harder we wont be able to see them."
"Thats what Im trying to tell you! Its starting to snow harder. I think we should go back."
"So do we!" a voice spoke from behind a spruce tree. Eve and Lila froze in their tracks. "And stop following us!" With that Iolaus and Autolycus walked into view, laughing hysterically.
"But Lila and I want to see the toymakers house, too!" The boys both looked shocked. Now Eve was amused. "Oh, come on. Its not like you two were whispering by the fireplace this morning!"
"We werent whispering, but why were you listening?" Iolaus asked defensively.
"It wasnt like I was trying to listen! But its awful hard not to with Autolycus blabbing about a barn full of Solstice toys!"
"Hey, I dont Did you hear that?" The crunching snow from someones footsteps abruptly halted.
They all waited breathlessly for a moment until Eve suddenly expelled a disgusted breath, rolled her eyes, and called out, "Come on out, Callisto!" There was no response. "Come on, I know youre there!" A few heartbeats later Callisto showed herself from behind several large trees.
"How did you know it was me?"
"Who else would it have been?" Eve shot back at her. "Youre the only other person from school that knew!"
Now Autolycus was mad. "How did she find out?"
"Her!" Callisto and Eve shouted in unison, both pointing to Lila, who stood sheepishly between them.
"It doesnt matter anyhow. We were just heading back."
"Liar!" Callisto blurted.
"No, really!" Iolaus looked toward the sky as he continued. "Look, Im as interested in a barn full of toys as the next guy, but its really starting to come down." He paused to look at the girls, "We had just decided to head back when we heard you coming up behind us."
"Its just as well. Im cold and ready to go home. Besides, if were not at that school when Ma gets there to pick us up shell tan our hides!" Lila was obviously relieved at the idea of avoiding punishment right before Solstice Eve.
"The school? We werent going back to town. We were headed home" Autolycus nearly whined. He was already disappointed at having to give up on his joke so soon.
"Yeah, but its really starting to snow hard. I think we men should make sure these girls get back to the village safely."
"Men?" Eve questioned laughingly.
"Well, I for one would be happy to have two handsome gentlemen escort us back to town." With that Callisto stepped forward and grabbed Autolycus elbow as if he would be glad to escort her home. "When we get there we can get candy from my Fathers store."
This seemed to influence Autolycus in his decision a great deal. "I guess youre right, Iolaus. Its the polite thing to do. But I know a shortcut we can take thatll get us there a lot quicker." And with that the five of them set out to return to the village.
"Ephiny and I will wait for you here. Go get the girls and I should be finished by the time you get back." Gabrielle was standing on the ground waiting for Xena to hand the baby to her. Mentally she noted that she should have enough time to hide Xenas gift in her basket and select a few items that would seem plausible enough to merit a trip in the cold into the village.
"Okay, but dont be too long. The snows getting heavier all the time. I think we need to hurry." Once Ephiny and Gabrielle were safely inside the doorway Xena left to pick up the girls from the school. She noticed as she pulled up that there were already a couple of other wagons in front of the building. Looks like I wasnt the only one worried about the storm.
Halting the team to the side of the building, Xena jumped down and jogged up the steps to the doorway. As she entered she heard a conversation already underway. "But I dont understand, Miss Odin. If you let out school when you say you did, where are our boys?" It was Mr. Bliss, Autolycus father speaking. Standing beside him were Iolaus parents, Helen and Meleager.
"You let out school early?" Xena asked, suddenly as concerned as the others. "Do you know where Lila and Eve are?"
"No, Im sorry. Doctor Nicklio came over and suggested that I might want to let the children out early because of the snow. They all should have been home by now."
"Maybe they went to the mercantile," Helen suggested. "After all, they have all their Winter Solstice decorations up."
Xena seemed relieved at the option. "Maybe. Gabrielles over there. Ill go back and see if theyre there. If they are, Ill send the boys to you; if not, well be back to help figure out where they are."
Gabrielle had already secured Xenas present and was chatting conspiratorially with Joxer when Xena burst through the front door of the mercantile. "Xena! You scared us to death! What on earth is wrong?"
"Are the girls here?" She looked from Gabrielle to Joxer. "Are they here with Callisto?"
"Why, no Xena. My children arent here either."
"Are you sure?" The urgency in her voice caused the other two to begin panicking.
"I havent seen them come in." Joxer turned to walk toward the staircase.
"Xena, whats wrong. Why arent the children in school?"
Joxer called up the stairs, "Callisto! Ares! Are you up there?"
"Miss Odin let school out early because of the storm. She said they already should have been home."
"Im here Pa!" Ares called down from the top of the stairs.
"Wheres your sister?" Joxer asked anxiously.
"How should I know?" This frustrated Joxer, but chose to ignore his sullen son. He turned back to the two worried women. "Where on earth could they be?"
"Come on girls! You gotta keep up!" Iolaus yelled over the increasing wind. He was holding Lilas hand, although Autolycus had long-since freed himself from Callisto. Eve and Callisto were several paces behind the others now and were seemingly falling farther behind with every step.
"Were trying!" cried Callisto. "You need to go slower! I cant keep up!"
"Callisto, we cant go slower! Well all freeze to death out here if we dont keep moving!" Autolycus was truly beginning to regret his prank.
Iolaus paused for a moment to confer with Autolycus. "Do you know where we are?" he asked hopefully. It turned out the shortcut Autolycus knew was not a shortcut at all.
Autolycus looked guiltily at the freezing girls and admitted, "No."
"I knew you were gonna say that." Iolaus didnt seem mad, just disappointed.
"Look, Im sorry! Okay? It was stupid of me to make up that lie."
"Its a lie?" exclaimed Eve.
"I told you so," Lila taunted.
"Well, part of it is. Theres an old man that lives out there, but theres no barn full of toys." He stared down at his shoes waiting to be yelled at.
"Autolycus, we know you didnt mean for this to happen," Lila offered. "Lets just all get home."
"Yeah! Im tired!" Callisto was in full pout mode now. "And youre not getting any candy," she added as she jabbed Autolycus in the chest.
There was a large group of people gathered in the schoolhouse now. Mr. Bliss and Iolaus parents were still there with Miss Odin, but now they had been joined by Joxer and Meg and Gabrielle. Xena had gone by the mill to get Hercules. They were just walking in as Marcus Bliss was beginning to yell at Miss Odin.
"This isnt going to find our children!" Gabrielle yelled over the other voices.
"I agree," Xena added, taking charge of the conversation. "Now look, were all upset and worried, but yelling isnt going to help. Theres no telling where our children have gone, but I do know that this storm is only going to get worse."
"Xenas right," Hercules spoke, hoping to add calm to the panic. "We need to divide up into pairs to search for the children. I suggest we ring the bell and get as many able-bodied men in here as possible to help us look."
"Thank you, Hercules." Gabrielle seemed relieved to finally have a plan. "Will you ring the bell for us please?" Hercules nodded wordlessly before heading back outside. "Helen, Im going to need you to watch Ephiny while I go with Xena."
"Absolutely not. I am not staying here while you go out to look for our two oldest daughters."
"Of course Ill watch her." Helen may not have been brave enough to go out into the growing storm, but if Gabrielle was, the least she could do was watch Ephiny.
Xena realized she was outmaneuvered, so she simply pulled her wife into a hug. "Well find them, Gabrielle," she whispered.
"Callisto! You big crybaby! Keep moving!" Eve could barely keep up herself, but in spite of the fact that she hated Callisto, she didnt want to see her die in a snow storm.
Callisto, on the other hand, was thinking only of herself. She was cold, her clothes and shoes were ruined, and she was hungry. On top of that, everyone kept yelling at her to walk faster. All she really wanted to do was stop and sleep. "I cant!" she screeched.
"Im tired, too! But we have to keep moving or " Eve began to look frantically in every direction into a white curtain of snow. "Lila! Iolaus!" She was screaming at the top of her lungs. "Autolycus!" Then she waited; the howling wind was the only reply she got.
Gabrielle and Xena trudged into the school hopefully. The silence of the waiting crowd told them that there was no good news to be heard. Doc Nicklio was by the fireplace checking over an obviously exhausted Joxer and a fussy Hercules, who had arrived only moments before. All of the other teams had returned now but Marcus and Meleager. Helen, glad to have had the distraction of babysitting Ephiny, was nonetheless beside herself with worry. As they began peeling off their snow-soaked coats, Reverend Eli stood at the front of the room. "Folks, I know that we have all been praying individually, but I also believe the One God honors our prayers when we pray together as one heart. Lets bow our heads "
The reverend had no sooner begun his prayer when the doors to the school flew open again, the wind spilling snow across the room. Autolycus and Iolaus tumbled through and dropped to the floor. Marcus and Meleager followed carrying Lila.
Xena and Gabrielle rushed across the room to gather their oldest daughter into their arms. After a reassuring hug, Gabrielle quickly began removing her daughters wet clothing. Helen knelt on the floor beside Iolaus, doing the same. Miss Odin brought blankets over to wrap the children in before being moved in front of the fireplace. Doc Nicklio was helping Autolycus, who was fighting to get the buttons open on his jacket; his numb fingers simply would not work. Exhausted, the boy was asleep before the doctor finished getting his coat removed.
By this time, Hercules had rushed outside to look for Eve. Joxer and Meg stood as still as statues, waiting for their daughter to walk through the door. Xena turned her attention from Lila, who was whimpering in Gabrielles arms to Marcus and Meleager. "Wheres Eve and Callisto?" she demanded.
"I dont know," Marcus replied wearily. "They werent with the other children."
At this, Meg began to sob uncontrollably. She grabbed a nearby Ares and pulled him into a crushing embrace. "My baby! My baby!" she cried over and over.
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, her sad green eyes brimming with tears. "What are we going to do?"
"Im going to go find them."
"Im going with you," was Gabrielles immediate response.
"No, youre not."
Carefully, Gabrielle laid an already sleeping Lila on a pallet in front of the fire. Then she stood to face Xena; she knew this was going to be a heated argument. Unfortunately, Xena intercepted her and began her argument first. "Gabrielle, listen." Tenderly, Xena took both Gabrielles hands in hers. "I know you want to go out there with me and look for Eve. I also know youre more than capable of battling your way through the storm with me. But this isnt about you; its about Lila and Ephiny " This took Gabrielle by surprise. "Darlin, one mother out in this storm is enough. The girls need one of us to stay here. They need one of their mothers to stay here. I need you to stay here so I dont have to worry about three daughters while Im out in the snow. Please." Gabrielle gave up wordlessly. She simply placed her cheek against Xenas chest and allowed herself to be drawn into a desperate embrace.
Hercules, moving toward the couple, broke their silence. "Ill go with you, Xena. I cant abide by Little Bit being out in this storm."
"Thank you, Hercules." Xena nodded to her best friend over the top of Gabrielles head.
"Sure would help if we knew where to look for em." Turning to Marcus and Meleager, Hercules continued, "Do you know where they were goin when then they got lost?"
Meleager answered first. "Nah, it was too loud to talk. We were lucky just to find them."
Hercules turned and looked at the three exhausted children sleeping in front of the fireplace. "Well, theyre gonna be out for a while, so they cant tell us either."
"I know where they went."
Everyone in the room spun around to look at Ares.
Eve and Callisto were succumbing to the effects of the cold very quickly now. Their lips were blue and Callistos breathing was labored. She had developed a cough. Neither of them had felt their feet for hours and yet every step was painful. Finally, Callisto simply lay down on the ground, unable to go another step.
"Callisto! You have to get up!" Eve pulled viciously on her arm, but she didnt budge. Her whining finally quieted, Callisto was unconscious. Unwilling to go on without her, Eve rolled her under the branch of a fir tree and curled up around her, trying to protect her from the savage cold.
"You WHAT?!" exclaimed Joxer.
"I know where they went."
"Well! Where?" screeched Meg, who was now holding him in a death grip at arms length.
"They went to that farm outside of town where that old man lives."
"Boy, why on earth didnt you tell us this before?" his father asked, stunned by the disclosure.
"Because, Callisto threatened me! She said that if I told where they had gone that she would tell Ma Id been snooping for my Solstice presents."
Meg gasped. "Youve been what!?"
"No! See! Thats what she does!" declared a frustrated Ares. "She picks a lie shell know youll believe and threatens me with it."
Xena had suffered enough family politics. "Never mind that now, boy. Are you talking about the farm north of town with the giant barn?"
"Yeah," he said with a sigh. He was more frustrated that Callisto had once again managed to get him into trouble than with the fact that she was still lost in the storm.
Looking to Hercules with an unspoken command, Xena moved to bundle up again. Lovingly, Gabrielle pushed her hands away to help her button up her coat.
"Xena," Reverend Eli called. "Are you sure this is the right thing to do? Perhaps if you stayed here and we all prayed together "
But Xena interrupted him. "Reverend, Ill take all the prayers you have at this point, but I also believe the One God helps those who help themselves. They found the others by going out to look for them. Well find the other two the same way."
Joxer was moving to put on his jacket and ridiculously inappropriate hat when Hercules put a hand on his arm. "Look, Joxer, I know thats your daughter out there and I know youre worried about her, but I think risking two lives with this storm is plenty. Ill look for her as if she were my own I swear it."
The smaller mans shoulders slumped forward as the fatigue he wore on his face bled into the rest of his body. Gratefully, he nodded and began removing his coat. "Youre an excellent cook, Joxer. Maybe you could go back to your kitchen and make something to feed this hungry mob." It was as gentle a way as Hercules knew how to tell Joxer he wasnt strong enough to go.
"You be careful out there," Gabrielle whispered emotionally.
"Arent I always?" her wife quipped for the second time that day, trying to appear much more upbeat than she felt.
Gabrielle laughed briefly, and then gave way to the tears shed been fighting. "I cant lose both of you."
"Hey, dont you go giving up hope yet. You heard the Reverend. We have to have faith." Xena gently kissed away Gabrielles tears. "Ill be back. And Eve will be just fine. I promise." Hercules nodded as he waited by the door, causing Xena to break their embrace, kiss her wife briefly, and then turn to stride out into the snow.
From under heavily laden tree boughs, Eve began to hear tiny bells tinkling in the wind. Then she felt two strong hands grab her, pulling her out from under the branches. She was too tired to argue or even worry about who had her. All she knew was that suddenly she was wrapped in a warm blanket in the back of a sleigh with Callisto curled up right beside her.
Xena and Hercules plowed through snow that was thigh deep on both of them. They had been out in the blizzard for over an hour and both of them were exhausted. Finally, Hercules stopped in his tracks and pulled on the rope connecting them. "Xena!" he yelled over the roar of the wind. "We have to go back!"
"Xena, were both exhausted! We need to go back and rest!"
"Then go back if you need to rest!" Xena wasnt really angry at her best friends exhaustion; she was angry with her inability to find her daughter and Callisto.
Fortunately, Hercules understood this. "Xena, even if they could hear us calling them over the wind, I think were going around in circles! Look!" He placed his hand on a charred log of wood that was still standing, too stubborn to give in even to a lightening strike. "Its the lightening tree! Were on the edge of the village!"
Xena looked up with dismay. He was right. They had been going in circles.
"Come on Xena. We need to go back while we still can!"
Reluctantly, she nodded her agreement.
The doors to the schoolhouse opened with the fury of the wind. The exhausted best friends stumbled through the doors and collapsed, unable to go any further.
"Xena!" Gabrielle was instantly on her feet running to her side. She helped pull her over to the fire while others helped Hercules.
"Im so sorry," Xena rasped. "Im so sorry. We tried so hard " And with that Xena drifted into unconsciousness.
Gabrielle jerked off Xenas wet clothing and wrapped her in a blanket, holding her in her arms while she slept.
Eve floated out of a heavy slumber to awaken in a warm and cheerful room. Her wet coat and shoes had been removed and she was carefully tucked into a pallet of warm blankets in front of a huge roaring fireplace. She was completely comfortable and was just about to give back into sleep when she heard, "Look whos awake!"
Rolling her head away from the fire, she found the bluest eyes shed ever seen except for her Mas. They were twinkling with laughter and were framed by gold rimmed glasses. "How are you feeling?" the voice continued.
"Um, thirsty," she admitted.
Almost instantly a cup of water appeared before her, held by one of the biggest hands shed ever seen. She reckoned it was as big as one of Hercules hands. "Here, sit up so you can drink this better." She felt another hand reach beneath her, helping her sit up. Once she was sitting up the blankets fell away and her hands were free to take the cup. Raising the cup to her lips, she drank greedily until she began to sputter. "Slowly, little one. Slowly."
With an effort, Eve slowed her efforts to quench her thirst, then handed back the cup. "Thank you, sir."
"My, my And manners too." There was a joy in his voice that made Eve feel bubbly inside. "Are you hungry?"
Eve answered with an enthusiastic nod. "Well," he continued, "lets see if your friend wakes here in a minute or so. If not Ill fix her something later and you can eat without her."
"Okay." Eve was still trying to figure out what had happened and was feeling more than a little disoriented. "Where I am?"
"Youre in my home."
"Wheres your home?"
"About three miles North of Olive Grove."
"North of " Suddenly it all made sense. This man had white hair and a white beard and glasses. "We were coming to see you!"
"I suspected as much."
"You did?" Eve was amazed.
"Of course! Nobody else lives out this way. Why else would two little girls be out lost in a snow storm on this side of town?"
"Two little girls?"
This surprised the old man a great deal. "Yes, I only found two of you. Why? Were there more?"
"Yes, sir. We were with my sister, Lila, and two boys from school."
"My! Well, I only found the two of you. Im sure the others made it back to town safely," he assured her.
"I sure hope youre right," she replied worriedly. "We got separated cause Callisto couldnt keep up and I didnt want to leave her behind."
"That was a very brave thing to do considering the storm you were in."
"Brave or stupid, considering shes never nice to me."
A wonderful, melodious laughter rumbled up from his round belly. "Whats your name child?"
"Well, let me tell you something Eve. It takes much more courage to be kind to your enemies than it does to be kind to your friends. That means you may very well be the bravest person I know."
"Absolutely. It doesnt look like your friend Uh, whats her name?"
"Well, it doesnt look like Callisto is going to wake up any time soon. What say you and I have an early breakfast? Then, if theres anything left, well wake Callisto up and she can have her breakfast." He winked as he said it, making Eve giggle in spite of her worries. The thought of Callisto having to eat her leftovers was the funniest thing shed heard in a long time.
"So tell me, Eve, what on earth were you children doing out in a snow storm?"
"Well, sir "
The man stopped his cooking preparations and held up one hand to stop Eves thought. "Please, call me Senticles."
"Okay, Mr. Senticles." He started to correct her again, but decided to let her go on with her story. "Autolycus - thats one of the boys in our school - said that youre the man that makes Winter Solstice toys for all the good children in the world. He said he saw into your barn and that it was full of toys!"
"Oh, he did, did he?" This brought another great laugh from the man as he heated a skillet up on the stove.
"Yes, sir I mean, Mr. Senticles. He said he saw you carrying toys out there and after you left he sneaked out to the barn and looked in from the back side." Eve continued to rattle on with her story as Senticles made their breakfast. When it was finally ready they moved to the table to eat.
Sitting in the middle of the table was the most beautiful wooden horse Eve had ever seen. It was a miniature rocking horse. The horse was unpainted golden wood, but the rocking slats, saddle, and bridle were painted in wonderfully bright red and blue and green colors. The whole thing was varnished to a glorious shine. "Thats beautiful!" Eve whispered.
"Thank you. I made it myself."
"You did?" Eve seemed to consider this a moment. "You are the toymaker! You deliver the Winter Solstice toys!"
"No child," he said with a twinkle in this eye. "I make toys; thats true enough. But if I made all the Solstice toys, dont you think Id be a bit busier tonight?"
Eve analyzed that statement carefully, looking from Senticles to the rocking horse and back again. She finally decided it was a good argument. "I spose thats right."
"Good. Now, eat your breakfast and then well get a little more sleep. By the time we wake again the storm should have passed."
Zena awoke in Gabrielles arms. In spite of that, she knew something was very wrong. She laid there a minute trying to figure out what it was. Then, suddenly she knew. It was the noise. Even lying in a room full of sleeping people, there was no noise. "Gabrielle. Hercules, wake up." She began stirring around to get ready to go outside.
"Whats the matter?" an exhausted Gabrielle mumbled, rubbing her eyes.
"The storms over."
That announcement brought a great deal of commotion to the room. The men began bundling up to resume the search. The women began picking up bedding and made to straightening the place. Just as they were dividing into search teams the door swung open. The room was flooded with light. Everyone looked toward the blinding white, unable to see anything but brightness.
"Ma? Mama?" a small voice said.
Gabrielle recognized it immediately. "Eve!" She and Xena both lunged forward, unsure of their daughters welfare and the miracle of her return.
Callisto passed them on the way to her own parents, whining all the way. "Mother!"
Gabrielle scooped her daughter up into a crushing embrace, followed by Xena, who embraced both of them. "Mama, is Lila alright?"
"Lilas fine," Xena replied as Gabrielle began to inspect Eve from head to toe. "What happened out there? How did you get back to town?"
"Mr. Senticles found us."
"Mr. Senticles?" Gabrielle interrupted. She looked past her daughter for the man who saved her childs life to see only sleigh tracks in the snow.
"Yes, maam. He found us in the snow and took us to his house. His hands are as big as Hercules! We rode in his sleigh and he fed us breakfast." In their joy, the crowd around her began to chuckle at her excitement. "He has a full white beard and white hair, just like Autolycus said! Hes a toymaker!"
Her anxiety melting away, Xena was immediately amused. "A toymaker?"
"Yes, and he had the most beautiful little rocking horse on his table. Id give anything to get that for my Solstice present!"
"Maybe we can go over there after this snow melts some and see if hell let me buy it from him," offered Xena, who would have given her prodigal daughter just about anything at this moment.
"Thats okay, Ma. He told us it wasnt for sale when Callisto said her mother would buy it from him." Eve couldnt help but grin at the memory of Callisto being told no by someone. "He said it was already spoken for by someone very special."
"Well, at the very least we need to visit him to express our gratitude for pulling you out of the snow. Its been a long night Gabrielle, lets get the girls loaded up and go home."
SHORT, ANNOYING COMMERCIAL BREAK
It had taken the better part of the morning for Xena and Hercules to help the horses struggle out to their farm pulling the wagon. As they topped the hill they paused. The snow that had been such an enemy to them the night before had decorated their land in a blanket of white. The untouched snow made their home look like a brilliant wonderland.
"Its beautiful, isnt it," offered Gabrielle, breaking their silence.
"It certainly is," agreed Xena, who turned to look over her shoulder at her family in the wagon. "Almost as beautiful as the four girls in my wagon." This brought an eruption of giggles from the girls and beautiful blush from her wife.
Hercules offered to stable the horses so they could get the girls out of the cold. The women tromped through the door, shaking snow from their boots. The house was cold, so Xena immediately moved to start a fire in the fireplace, while Gabrielle headed to do the same thing in the cook stove. However, they both froze in their tracks after Lila closed the door. Behind the door stood their Solstice tree, completely decorated, with presents underneath. The children squealed with excitement while Xena and Gabrielle just stared at each other.
"I dont know, Gabrielle."
Their confusion was interrupted by a shout from Eve. "I knew it! I knew it was him!"
"Knew it was him, who, Eve?" asked Gabrielle.
In reply, Eve turned around, a small wooden rocking horse in her hands. "I knew it was Senticles all along!"
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