It's a Wonderful Life – Isn't it??

by Mickey

email: mslamunchkin@msn.com

December 2004

It was an unusually crisp, moon-less early winter night. The sun having left the clear cloudless sky several hours before had been replaced by an endless sea of twinkling stars. In the center of a neatly laid out campsite, a campfire was crackling warmly within a ring of stones. A pile of firewood was placed within easy reach but far enough from the flames to avoid it accidentally catching on fire. On one side of the campfire, clothing washed earlier in the evening hung on a rope line strung between two trees. On the other side of the fire, two women were nestled inside their sleeping furs, snuggled together and oblivious to everything but each other.

Well, to almost everything. This is Xena and Gabrielle, after all.

"What's wrong, sweetheart?" Xena lay on her side, elbow bent and her head resting on her propped up hand. The fingers on her other hand were idly drawing patterns on Gabrielle's bare belly, raising love bumps along the lazy paths.

"Nothing," Gabrielle sighed, lying on her back with one arm folded under her head, the other arm wrapped around Xena. She tried to smile but it came out more as a scowl as she fought with herself over her thoughts.

"Come on," Xena brushed back a lock of hair from Gabrielle's eyes, "you haven't said more than a few words all day. So, I know something is on your mind," she grinned at the woman who was rarely without something to say. A trait she had grown quite fond of over their years together.

Gabrielle started to speak, then stopped.

"Gabrielle?" Xena breathed out the name as if it had a few more syllables than it actually did. She caressed her companion's cheek, "tell me, sweetheart. Please."

"You'll think I'm being silly."

"I never think you're being silly," Xena said. "Not anymore," she added quietly. Regretfully that was exactly how she had felt about the bard when they first starting traveling together. But, those sentiments had quickly been proven wrong and put aside years ago. "Why don't you tell me? It might help to talk about it." Xena smiled, realizing that was another lesson Gabrielle had taught her.

"Alright," Gabrielle couldn't help but smile at Xena's use of the same argument she had employed numerous times to get the warrior to share her deeply suppressed feelings. "I don't think I want to go to Amazonia this Solstice."

"What?" caught off guard by the surprising declaration, Xena sat upright, exposing herself to the cool night air as the furs fell away from her naked body. "You always want to go to the village for Solstice."

"I know," Gabrielle sighed, gazing up at her beautiful partner.

"Sweetheart," Xena's voice was soft and full of concern, "what's going on in that pretty head of yours?"

Gabrielle took a deep breath before answering.

"It's always the same. We go to Amazonia over Solstice to rest and relax. But, it isn't long before Ephiny has to talk about Amazon business or Pony drags you out to the sparring grounds. Pretty soon the others are coming to us with their problems, Chalupa needs help with the initiates or Solari has a problem with one of the horses that only you seem to be able to solve. We end up getting no rest. And, sooner than we really want to, we're chaffing at the bit to leave. I guess I just want something different this Solstice."

"Hmm," Xena scrunched up her face as she considered Gabrielle's comments. "Well, nothing really says we have to go to the village. We can go see Mom or go to Athens or where ever."

"But, I'm the queen," Gabrielle sighed. Sometimes being the Queen of the Amazon nation was a royal pain in the ass. "They're expecting us to come."

"Yes, you are the queen but that doesn't mean you don't have the liberty to do something else once in a while. Besides, I'm pretty sure they'll survive one Solstice without us."

"What about the business of the treaty to combine the smaller tribes to the north into a confederacy. You know it has to be done by spring to avoid a possible war between the Amazons and the towns in that area. I'm supposed to take care of that while we're there."

"Doesn't mean we have to go now. We can go right after Solstice and you'll still have plenty of time to handle the treaty negotiations."

"I suppose," Gabrielle muttered in frustration.

"Tell you what," Xena snuggled back down beside Gabrielle, wrapping the bard in her arms and pulling their naked bodies together. "Why don't you sleep on it. If you decide you don't want to go to Amazonia, we'll go someplace else. Any place you want."

"Alright," Gabrielle mumbled, she knew they were expected at the Amazon village and she felt bad about not wanting to go. As if the answer to her dilemma was hidden in the expanse of stars hanging above them, she looked skyward. The faint tinkling of chimes tickled her ears. "Do you hear that?" Gabrielle asked, the sound seeming to grow in intensity.

"Hear what?"

Gabrielle's eyes scanned for the source of the sound, out of the corner of her eye she caught an unusual movement far to the east. "Hey, Xena, what's that?" she turned her head to get a better look.

Xena, busy placing loving kisses on the bard's neck and shoulder, reluctantly twisted her head to follow the path of Gabrielle's upraised arm, "what?"

"That," Gabrielle pointed at a radiant blue ball of light streaking across the sky, a long misty tail trailing behind it.

"Comet."

"What's a comet?"

"Not really sure," Xena watched the phenomenon, "but the men in Chin that studied the stars called them that."

"It's beautiful," Gabrielle sighed as she watched the comet's pale yellow tail stretch across the sky.

"So are you," Xena had much more important things on her mind than the flight of an erratic star. She turned back to her task, rolling on top of Gabrielle but being careful to support her greater weight on her arms. "And before the night gets any older I think it's about time for me to show you just how much I love you," Xena purred seductively.

Gabrielle's eyes melted as they met her lover's and with a voice a little deeper and a lot huskier than a few moments before, she teased, "I've been waiting all evening for you to do just that, my sweet."

"Why you little vixen,' Xena growled, ducking her head to snare Gabrielle's lips while she pulled the furs up to cover them completely, shutting out the rest of the world.

In the sky overhead, the streaking star suddenly dipped down to the earth's surface, it's tail encompassing the campsite in a swirling rainbow of light that sparkled and glittered with an almost blinding brilliance that went unseen by the women under the furs and otherwise occupied. As quickly as it had arrived, the whirlpool surged back into the dark sky and disappeared over the horizon to the west.

****************

"Hey, sleepyhead," Xena sat on the furs, lightly shaking Gabrielle's shoulder. "You planning on getting up this morning?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle forced one eye open to look up at the warrior. "By the gods, I can't believe how sleepy I am."

"All that worrying you've been doing lately must have worn you out," Xena smirked.

"Yeah, I'm sure that's what it was," Gabrielle giggled.

"I made tea."

"Great," Gabrielle forced the second eye open as she pushed herself into a sitting position, "that's the third thing I want this morning."

"Oh," puzzled, Xena cocked her head to one side. "What are the first two?"

"The first," Gabrielle leaned closer to Xena, "is a kiss from you." She pressed her lips against her warrior's for several heartbeats before the call of nature became too insistent. "And the second," she started to stand, "is to visit the bushes. I can't do anything else until I do."

Xena chuckled as she watched the naked bard hustle to the nearest bush. She was amused that, even after their many years together, Gabrielle was still so bashful that she actually ducked behind the cover of her chosen bush to relieve herself.

"Ooo, that feels much better," Gabrielle strolled back to Xena. "Now, about that tea."

"Right here," Xena held a cup out for Gabrielle. "Not too bad, if I say so myself."

Gabrielle took a sip, "it's good, sweetie."

"Thanks, "Xena beamed. "So, have you decided what you want to do about Solstice?"

"Oh, poo," Gabrielle sat back down on the furs. "I guess I really don't have much choice. As the Amazon Queen, I suppose I should be there for the Solstice."

"We don't have to go," Xena repeated.

"I know," Gabrielle smiled, adoringly, at Xena. "And thank you for saying that. But, we should."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," Gabrielle sighed. "I am the queen and there's no point being grumpy and complaining about it. Let's head for Amazonia."

"Alright," Xena smiled, "south it is. Why don't you get dressed while I catch breakfast. I saw some fish in that stream last night so take your pick, trout or bass?"

"Bass, please," Gabrielle reached for the pile of clothes neatly folded on the furs, something else Xena must have done while she slept. "Maybe the walk to Amazonia won't be too bad and we'll get lucky and not run into much trouble."

"Us, run into trouble," Xena smirked as she carefully stepped into the water, disturbing it as little as possible.

"Funny," Gabrielle smiled as she pulled on her boots. "You know what I mean, a nice pleasant stroll without having to save any villages or bash in any bandit's heads."

"Be careful what you wish for," Xena said as she cocked her head to one side to listen for movement under the stream's surface.

"I'm not asking for anything, Xena," Gabrielle looked around the camp, deciding to get some of the packing done while Xena fished. "I just want to experience something different for a change before we get to Amazonia."

"And, your crazy Amazons," Xena snickered.

"And, our crazy Amazons," Gabrielle smirked. "After all, you are my bond mate, my champion, and the leader of the Amazon army. You have as much claim to them as I do."

"Don't remind me."

As Gabrielle began to roll up the sleeping furs, a light almost invisible powder was stirred up and tickled her nose.

"Ahchoo."

"You're not catching a cold, are you?" her concentration broken, Xena looked over at Gabrielle.

"Don't think so," Gabrielle rubbed her itchy nose.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, must be something in the air this morning making me sneezy."

"Well, let's hope that's all it is," Xena said, going back to her fishing. "You don't want to be sick over Solstice," Xena said as she drove her hands beneath the surface of the water. Seconds later she pulled her hands back out to reveal two fat bass held firmly in her grasp. "Gotcha," she cried, jubilantly, as she carried the fish out of the river.

"Thank you, love," Gabrielle kissed Xena as two freshly gutted and cleaned fish were placed on a rock next to the waiting bard and cook.

"My honor, sweetheart," Xena grinned.

Not wanting to take the time to steam the fish, Gabrielle fried them instead. It wasn't long before she and her warrior were on the road to Amazonia after enjoying their breakfast.

The road was cut through a thick forest providing the women little in the way of views as they walked. Here and there a small opening would offer a hint of a meadow or clearing and, occasionally, a small creek would cross the road before disappearing back into the trees. As the morning passed uneventfully, both warrior and bard started to think they might actually be experiencing one of the rare peaceful days that they seldom enjoyed during their travels.

But, of course, the Fates had other ideas.

The road gradually rose steeper as it cut up the side of a knoll. As the women climbed they began to hear voices coming from the other side of the hillock. By the level of cursing going on, they knew that their quiet morning was about to change.

"By the Gods, Dennis," a female voice shouted. "Pull."

"Gall-dummit, Bell," a male voice shouted right back. "I'm pulling as hard as I can. Damn horses won't move."

Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. Shrugging their shoulders in unison, they began to run towards the commotion. Cresting the rise, they spotted an overturned wagon a short distance down the other side of the hill. Struggling to right the wagon, a portly man was yanking on the reins of a pair of horses who stubbornly refused to budge. At the back of the overturned cart, a stout woman strained to push the wagon upright.

"Maybe we can help," Gabrielle offered as she and Xena reached the accident scene.

"Don't need any more women telling me what to do," the man quickly glanced at the pair before returning to his task of trying to force his horses forward. "Besides, don't know what you can do that I'm not already doing," the man grunted as he yanked harder on the leather reins.

"Well, for one thing," Xena drawled, "we could unwrap those reins from around your horses' legs so they could move.

"What are you talking about?" the man scowled at the warrior.

"Sheesh, Dennis," the stout woman muttered as she gave up her efforts on trying to right the wagon and walked around it to join the others, "you ain't got the brains you was born with. I told you they was wrapped around their legs. But, do you listen to me? No, you just go and try to yank them forward. You're just damn lucky they didn't fall flat on their faces. Then what would you have done?"

"Be quiet, you foolish woman," the man bent down to look at the horses legs. Bell had told him about the reins but he'd be damned to let a woman tell him what to do. And, he sure wasn't about to admit she had been right. "None of this would have happened if you hadn't insisted on bringing so much stuff. Don't know why you need it all, anyway."

"You can't expect me to start a new life in France with nothing," the woman stood beside the man, scratching her own head.

"Where's France?" Gabrielle asked having never heard of such a place before.

"What do you mean, ‘where's France'?" Bell looked at Gabrielle, bewildered by her question.

"Don't get around much, do you?" Dennis jeered as he straightened back up. Taking the time to actually look at the pair of strangers, he was pleased at what he saw and allowed his eyes to freely roam up and down their bodies.

"You better pull them eyes back before I have to smack you upside your worthless head, Dennis," the woman raised her hand.

Caught in mid-leer, the man quickly found something else of interest to look at.

Frustrated with the lack of progress toward freeing the agitated horses, Xena stepped around the couple. Soothing the ponies with soft words, she knelt beside their ensnared legs, "let loose of the reins so I can untangle them."

When the man made no effort to follow Xena's instructions, Gabrielle stepped forward. "Excuse me," she smiled sweetly while she removed the leather straps from his hands.

Xena quickly freed the horses then stood back up, placing the untangled reins back into Gabrielle's care. "Okay, shall we try this again?" she said taking a firm hold on the horses' bridles and urging the animals slowly forward. The horses had taken less than a dozen steps when the wagon flipped back onto its wheels. "Good girls," Xena praised the horses, rubbing their muzzles.

"See, Dennis," the woman glared at the man. "Amazing what a little common sense can get you." Without a word of thanks to Xena and Gabrielle, the woman climbed up into the wagon's seat. "Come on, Dennis. We better get going if we plan to make France before your cousins figure out we've left."

"I'll come when I'm good and ready, you old bat," the man muttered.

"You're welcome," Gabrielle said as the ungrateful traveler snatched the reins out her hands on his way to the wagon and the impatient Bell.

The man stopped and turned towards the bard. "Thank you," he snapped. As he took another long leer at Gabrielle's shapely body he added, "nice pair of bongos you've got there."

Before Gabrielle could say a word, a fist whizzed past her head catching the man, square, on the jaw.

All three women glared as the man crumbled into a senseless heap at Gabrielle's feet.

"Damn fool," Bell grumbled, "can't believe I'm leaving my husband for him. Well, no point crying over it," she said to Xena and Gabrielle. "Time's a-wasting. Go on and throw his worthless arse in the back so I can be on my way," she commanded making no effort to climb down from her perch.

Gabrielle looked at Xena, the unspoken question plain on her face.

"Do it yourself," Xena growled, grabbing Gabrielle's hand and leading her away from the wagon, the unappreciative woman and the unconscious man.

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked after they had walked some distance.

"Hmmm?"

"What did he mean by nice pair of bongos?"

"Not sure."

"But, you hit him?"

"Didn't like the way he said it. Or, the way he was looking at you."

"Oh," Gabrielle had to agree with her partner's assessment, the man's comment hadn't sounded very flattering and the way he had looked at her had left no doubt what he was thinking. She walked a few more steps before asking, "Xena, where's France?"

"Don't know."

"What kind of name is Dennis?"

"Don't know."

"It doesn't sound very Greek. Have you ever heard it before?"

"Nope."

"Hmm." After several more steps, Gabrielle quietly added, "well, at least, they seemed like a happy couple."

Xena looked at her companion, her eyes narrowing as she tried to figure out if Gabrielle was being serious or not. When she saw the corners of Gabrielle's mouth start to twitch, she had her answer. "I think you're still a little dopey from all the sleep you got last night," she grinned.

"I think you may be right," Gabrielle started to laugh.

"Well, you wanted something unusual to happen today," Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, "looks like you're getting it."

The women laughed as they walked.

Just past mid-day, Xena and Gabrielle were surprised to see the forest begin to thin until the trees completely parted, exposing a large meadow full of brightly colored tents. In the light breeze, multi-colored streamers waved at the top of tall red poles rising from the center of each tent. Sounds of music floated on the air. They could distinguish the ringing of a tambourine and the steady beat of a timpani.

"What do you think that is?" Gabrielle asked as she hurried towards the tents.

"Guess there's only one way to find out," Xena quickened her steps to keep pace with the excited bard, she didn't want Gabrielle too far ahead of her if the gathering brought any trouble.

On a platform set up in the middle of the tents, a young girl gyrated to the music. Her body twisting and curving and bending, then turning to twist again. Several people, hands clapping in rhythm, crowded around the platform to watch the performance.

"Isn't she beautiful?" Gabrielle exclaimed when she got closer to the platform. "She's a wonderful dancer."

"Hmm," Xena murmured as she stepped up behind Gabrielle.

They joined the others in watching the woman dance, her pale yellow dress billowing around her lithe body as she moved. The dance came to an end moments later and the crowd began to drift away from the platform and toward the surrounding tents.

"Excuse me," Gabrielle addressed a young couple walking past. "Could you tell us what's going on here?"

The man looked at Gabrielle as if he hadn't heard her correctly, "why, it's a dance convention. Everybody knows that."

"A convention?" Gabrielle asked, the term unknown to her.

"Yes," the young woman answered enthusiastically. "People have come from all over to teach us their dances. See," she pointed to some tents, "they're going to teach ballet and waltz in those tents. And, in that one," she pointed to another tent, "that's where the tango lessons are going to be. A master dancer came all the way from Spain to teach that class."

"Uh?" Puzzled, Gabrielle asked the young woman, "I've never heard of those dances, are they new?"

"New?" the young woman stared at Gabrielle. "You're not from around here, are you?"

Before Gabrielle could answer, a gong was struck, it's deep, rich bass tone vibrating the very ground Xena and Gabrielle stood on.

"Sorry, we have to go," the young woman cried as she ran after her companion. "The polka classes are starting."

Gabrielle shook her head in confusion as she watched the people disappear into the tents. "Xena?"

"Yeah?" Xena was also trying to unravel what the young woman had just told them. She could understand the dance lessons but wondered why it was necessary to gather so many people at one time to teach them. Also, what were these strange dances the girl spoke of? She had traveled most of the known world and had never heard of them. Where was Spain? Was it anywhere near the place Bell had talked about? What was it? Oh, yes, France. Where exactly were these places?

"Do you think we should go see what's going on in those tents?" Gabrielle asked.

"Do you?"

"Might be interesting," Gabrielle considered the possibilities. She liked to dance and the chance to learn new dances did hold some appeal to her, even if she had never heard of the particular dances before.

"Might be."

"Might be trouble," Gabrielle thought out loud. Seemed like the most innocent of circumstances could lead to trouble for her and her warrior.

"Might be."

Gabrielle's stomach rumbled providing an alternative to their quandary. Remembering her own wish for an uneventful day, she grinned, " maybe we should just go find us some lunch."

"Good idea," Xena nodded. Looking around at the cluster of tents, it was apparent that none was set up to serve food. A rather strange situation considering the number of people in attendance but one Xena wasn't going to take much time dwelling on. "Looks like we'll have to keep walking until we find a place," Xena told Gabrielle.

"Well, let's get started," Gabrielle chuckled as her stomach rumbled some more.

The women walked almost a full candle mark before a small inn came into view at the side of the road. Hung over the door on short chains allowing it to swing freely in the wind was a sign bearing a pink triangle painted on a background of different colored stripes.

"What do you think?" Gabrielle asked.

"Interesting sign," Xena gazed at the unusual symbol.

"I meant about eating here," Gabrielle playfully slapped the warrior's arm.

Seeing that the sign bore the words ‘GOOD EATS', Xena laughed, "guess you can't go wrong with that kind of advertising."

The women entered the windowless shack to find a surprisingly brightly lit room. To the left of the door, a long bar stretched the width of the room with several bowls spread along its length. Inside the bowls were a variety of fruit, vegetables, soups and breads. Fresh flowers occupied the center of each of the tables scattered about the room waiting for prospective diners. Each table was covered with a clean tablecloth and had already been supplied with eating utensils.

The women were surprised to see no other diners.

"Well," Gabrielle looked around the empty room, "looks like we've got the pick of the place. What's your preference?" she asked even though she knew Xena would want one of the tables at the back where she could easily keep an eye on the entire room. Gabrielle headed straight for the best table for Xena's purposes.

"This will do," Xena said as she pushed the table's bench back to the wall, afforded them a convenient back rest.

"Thought you'd like it," Gabrielle teased as she settled on the bench helping Xena pull the table into position.

An elderly woman came out of a doorway behind the bar and smiled at the women. "Welcome. You are wanting to eat, aren't you?" she asked when she saw the empty table in front of them. Most of her customers filled their platters before choosing a table.

"Yes, please," Gabrielle smiled at the woman. "And, we'd like a nice cold pitcher of ale, also."

"Alright, I'll get the ale but you have to fill your own platters. This is a buffet, after all," the woman turned to go back through the doorway. "So, help yourselves."

"Buffet?" Gabrielle looked to Xena for an explanation.

Shrugging her shoulders, Xena made a wild stab for the meaning of the woman's comment. "I guess she wants us to take what we want from those bowls of food."

"What a unique idea," Gabrielle said as they re-crossed the room to the bar of food. "I wonder how much we're allowed to take?"

"As much as you can eat," the woman told her as she came back through the kitchen door with a pitcher of ale and two mugs. "But, we don't allow doggie bags."

"Doggie bags," Gabrielle mouthed at Xena as the woman went to place the ale and mugs on their table.

Xena shrugged, she had no idea what the woman was talking about. She frowned knowing it wasn't the first time she'd been confused this day.

As the old woman added a few sticks of wood to the fire in the room's stone fireplace, the women filled their platters with food and returned to their table.

"Interesting décor," Xena said as she glanced about the room. Hung along the tops of the walls were hundreds of sleigh bells in every size and shape imaginable. "Must make quite the racket if given the chance."

"Warns me of the cousins," the old woman said as she checked the bowls of food, refilling any she felt needed it.

"Cousins?" Xena filled a mug with ale and handed it to Gabrielle.

"The Donner boys. Always trying to stir up some trouble. You best steer clear of them."

No sooner had the words left her mouth then the walls of the inn began to shake and the sleigh bells began to ring in a cacophony of different tones and rhythms. The door to the inn burst open and four men entered.

"Ale," one of the men ordered as they sat in chairs at a vacant table. "And, be quick about it."

"I can't believe she'd run off like that," a man who obviously hadn't missed too many meals groused.

"We'll get her back," a third man said. "Even if we have to two-step all the way from Mexico to Texas."

"Not sitting here, we won't," the first man said.

"Damn, Mike, I'm tired and thirsty," the third man responded. "A few candle marks won't make that much difference. Especially since they took the wagon. Dennis can't drive a team of horses if his life depended on it. Besides, Bell will probably have talked him to death by now."

Gabrielle glanced at Xena, who was eating from a bowl of stew. "That's the couple we helped this morning," she whispered.

Xena nodded but said nothing as she listened to the men.

"It's your call, Al," one of the men said. "After all, she's your wife."

The second man glared at his companions, "won't hurt to have some ale."

The old woman approached the table with a tray holding a pitcher of ale and four mugs, she quickly retreated back behind the bar after placing the tray on the men's table.

"But, I better not find out anybody helped them get away," Al declared as he accepted a mug of ale. "'Cause I'll make sure he regrets his coveting my woman."

Gabrielle couldn't hold back the snicker that escaped her lips as she imagined the overweight villager trying to make good on his boast.

"You find that funny?" the fourth man spoke for the first time as he turned to study the women sitting several tables away.

Gabrielle shrugged as she took a sip of ale from her mug.

"Leave them be, Carl. We've got enough trouble without you starting more."

"Never knew you to back away from trouble," Carl's eyes remained on the women. "Besides, I don't like to be laughed at by a woman."

"Geez, Carl, you'd think you'd be used to it by now after all the wives you've had."

"Looks who's talking," Carl's head whipped back around to glare at the others.

"Enough," Mike barked. "Drink your ale so we can get back out looking for Dennis and Bell. What she has that he would want, I sure don't know," he shook his head as he looked at Al, Bell's hapless husband.

"Well, for one thing," Al proudly proclaimed, "she's got a nice pair of maracas."

"Must run in the family," Xena sneered at the man's comment.

"Seems she's leaving one bad apple for another," Gabrielle nodded.

"Here and I figured her for the one with the brains," Xena chuckled and Gabrielle joined her.

"Hey, what's so funny?" Mike pushed out of his chair and stomped to the table where Xena and Gabrielle sat. For reasons unknown, neither woman felt a need to pull their weapons.

"Something we can do for you?" Xena asked as the other men gathered around them.

"You think breaking our laws is funny," Brian asked Xena.

"And, what law would that be," Xena asked as she lifted a spoonful of stew to her lips.

"Adultery," Al barked. "Then, I'm guessing by the looks of you, you've probably taken someone else's husband once or twice yourself."

"Boy, have you fools got the wrong gal," the old woman cackled from her place behind the bar.

Gabrielle, in the process of taking a sip of ale when the man spoke, snorted the cold liquid into her nose and started to cough. Xena reached over and patted her gently on the back.

"That's absurd," Gabrielle wheezed as Xena chuckled at the accusation.

"You find this funny?" Mike asked again.

"Yep," Xena continued to chuckle. "If there's one person on this earth that has never, will never, no way, no how, nope, ain't gonna happen – it's me."

"Bet your husband would say different," Carl accused, causing the old woman to cackle even louder.

"How dare you!" Gabrielle started to push up from the bench.

"Hold on there, tiger," Xena gently pulled the bard back down.

"Xena, I'm not going to sit here and let them say these things to you."

"What do you have to do with it?" Mike asked.

"Oh, boy," Xena shook her head, her laughter increasing. "Are you messing with the wrong woman."

"Grrrrr," Gabrielle snarled at the men.

"Look," Xena smiled, "I don't know what's going on in that thing you call a head but I'm pretty sure you've been sitting too close to the cymbals lately. You see this little spitfire who is aiming to take you apart limb by limb just happens to be my wife. And I can assure you that there is no one in this backwoods, inbred village you call home that I would even consider doing what you're suggesting." Xena leaned back against the wall, pulling a still growling Gabrielle with her. "Now, I suggest you take your puny ideas, and even punier brains, about who's doing what in the covetousness department and get out of Gabrielle's reach. I'm not going to be able to hold her back forever."

In unison and as if thinking with a single brain, which they perhaps were, the men each raised an arm and scratched their heads. "Uh?" the spoke together.

"She's your wife?" Carl asked.

"Yep."

"Really," Al leaned in for a good look.

"Yep," Xena glared at the man and he took a quick step backwards.

"Wow," Brian sighed. "I sure wish Cupid would shoot his arrow at someone like her for me."

"Cupid didn't have anything to do with it," Xena smirked. "She caught me all by herself. Didn't you, honey?" she winked at Gabrielle.

"Yep," Gabrielle beamed.

"Alright you damn fools can get out of my inn," the old woman groused, "and stop bothering my paying customers."

"Come on, let's go," Mike quickly turned on his heels and headed for the inn's door with his cousins on his heels.

"Guess we should be on our way, too," Gabrielle tossed a couple of dinars on the table.

"So's you're married?" the old woman asked after the men had left, lifting a strange object in the air. At the end of a long handle was a head of screening material cut into a square. She slammed the object down on the bar then lifted it to reveal a squashed bug smack dab in the center of the screen.

"Yes," Gabrielle jumped, startled by the women's actions.

"How long?"

"Not long enough," Xena bent down to kiss the tip of Gabrielle's nose. "Not long enough," she grabbed Gabrielle's hand, entwining her fingers with her bard's as she walked to the door.

"Thanks for the meal," Gabrielle told the woman as Xena led her outside. "By the way, what is that?" Gabrielle pointed at the strange object the woman still held.

"Little thing I picked up last time I was in the US, it's called a fly catcher," the old woman said "And, here's wishing you many more years together," she called after them as she lifted the fly catcher into the air and waved.

"US?" Gabrielle tried to question the woman but Xena pulled her outside. "Xena, I wanted to ask her where that is," the bard complained.

"Probably same place France and Spain are," Xena grumbled. "Nowhere we've been or will ever be."

"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked.

"I'm not sure, Gabrielle," Xena took a deep breath of fresh air, "but every since you wished for something unusual to happen, we've had these...."

"Kinda weird things happening," Gabrielle offered.

"Yeah."

"Hmm."

"Nice horse," Xena commented as a man approached leading a beautiful animal that seemed to be prancing more than walking as it raised its front legs high with each step.

"A real beauty, isn't she?" the man agreed as he stopped to talk. "She's a real dream to ride, too. She's not a dasher like most, doesn't rattle your teeth by dashing here and there. No, she takes her time to get to the next place, just high steps along, nice and gentle like."

"So why aren't you riding her?" Gabrielle asked, watching the prancer waiting nervously beside the man.

Before the man could answer, several other men came running down the road.

"Hey, stop that man," someone shouted. "He stole my horse."

Both Xena and Gabrielle had turned toward the direction the shout emanated, when they turned back the horse stood alone in the center of the road. Xena's sharp eyes quickly scanned the vicinity and she spotted the man as he disappeared into the woods on the opposite side of the road.

"Come on," Xena pointed, "he went that way."

"Right behind you," Gabrielle took off at a run as she followed Xena, the shouting men several steps behind.

The horse thief ran for almost a league before he ducked into a stone building that had suddenly materialized in a small clearing. Chasing the thief, Xena and Gabrielle ran into the building, their boots skidding on a polished stone floor.

"What is this place?" Gabrielle asked, looking around at what apparently was a place of worship.

The building consisted of one large room with rounded walls full of niches holding candles or offerings or both. In the middle of the room was a statue of the idol the building honored, a very large statue.

"Xena," Gabrielle stared up at the image, "is that who I think it is?"

"Sure looks like him," Xena studied the statue's familiar features.

"Why would there be a statue of Auto in a temple? And, when did he join the ranks of the Idols?"

"Perhaps," Xena reached behind a large pot and pulled the horse thief out of his hiding place, "our friend, here, can answer that."

"Don't hurt me," the man whimpered.

"We won't if you tell us what's going on," Xena said as she set the man on his feet but kept a firm hold on him. "You can start with your name."

"Blitzen."

"Blitzen?" both women stared at the man in amazement.

"What can I say," the man sheepishly explained, "mom liked the sound of it."

"Okay, Blitzen," Xena shook her head as if that simply act would remove this confusing day from her memory. "Why is there a statue of the King of Thieves here?"

"King?" the man questioned. "He's not a king, he's a god. The God of Thievery."

"What!!" both women blurted out.

"Since when is Autolycus a god?" Xena scowled at the man.

Standing against the temple's wall, a xylophone magically began to play, filling the room with its sweet tones.

"You spoke his name," the man gasped. "No one is allowed to speak his name," he cringed as far away from Xena as he could with her still holding him firmly. "You have angered the god."

"That doesn't exactly sound like angry music," Gabrielle observed as she crossed the room. "And, I don't recall Auto being that touchy," she stood watching the instrument play itself.

"You know the god," the man whispered in awe.

"Yes," Gabrielle turned to look at the man over her shoulder. "And, believe me, he was no god."

"Whoever heard of a god encouraging theft?" Xena released the frightened man, causing him to fall to the stone floor as his wobbly knees were unable to bear his weight. "Doesn't seem too godly to me."

"Neither is war," Gabrielle said as she walked around the room, "but we have Ares."

"Good point."

"So, now what?" Gabrielle asked as she rejoined Xena, they could hear angry voices outside the temple as the others finally arrived at the man's hiding place.

"Well, if Autolycus is his god and this is his temple," Xena looked down at the man cowering at their feet, "I say we let his god protect him." That made as much sense as anything else to happen this day.

"Is that what you want?" Gabrielle bent down to speak to the man but he scurried away from her. "Looks like he doesn't want us around anymore," she said as she stood back up.

"Looks like."

Gabrielle took one final look at the huge statue before turning to leave the temple. "Give our regards to Autolycus when you see him," she told the whimpering man huddled against the temple's massive stone wall.

The men gathered outside the temple backed away when they heard Gabrielle's words. In hushed voices, they spoke among themselves about the bard's use of the god's name.

"Oh boy," Gabrielle heard the whispered comments and looked at the angry faces. "Does this mean we're going to have to fight?"

"Don't think so," Xena watched as the men continued to back away from them. "Let's just go back to the road," she said. "Somehow, I don't think they'll do anything to us."

The bard followed Xena as she cut straight through the angry men who quickly stepped back to make a path for them.

It wasn't long before the women were back on the road and on their way to Amazonia. Gabrielle looked at Xena who was happily whistling as they walked which considering the day's events made the warrior seem strangely relaxed.

"Xena, why did you leave that man to face that crowd alone? Aren't you afraid they'll hurt him?"

"Nope."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Think about it, Gabrielle," Xena smiled, "nothing that's happened today has been threatening. We haven't even had to pull our weapons."

"And that doesn't bother you."

"Nope," Xena shrugged, "fact is, I'm kinda enjoying it."

"So, what do you think is going on?"

"It's pretty obvious that one of the Gods is at work here. Which one, is anybody's guess."

"What do you think they want? I mean, I know I said I wanted something different to happen today. But, I'm sure this isn't what I meant."

"I'm not sure they want anything except maybe to grant you your wish."

"So, we just keep going as if everything is okay?"

"Seems we don't have much choice."

"I can't believe you're taking this so easily," Gabrielle studied her companion. "Usually, you're ready to spit nails whenever there's a God messing with us."

"Guess, I don't see much reason this time. Besides, nothing has really been that unusual."

"What about that statue of Autolycus?"

"What about it?"

"He was naked."

"He was wearing a fig leaf."

"A very large fig leaf," Gabrielle smirked.

Xena thought for a minute, "okay, that was strange. But, otherwise...."

"A normal day?"

"Well," Xena reached over and grabbed Gabrielle's hand, pulling the bard closer to her. "Not normal but not really that unusual either."

Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena's shoulder, "well, one thing's for sure, spending a few weeks with our Amazons sure doesn't seem as bad as it did yesterday."

"We'll see if you still think that way after we get there," Xena chuckled.

Gabrielle's stomach growled and she was somewhat comforted by the sound. A grumbling stomach was certainly not unusual for her. "Guess I'm getting hungry, again," she grinned.

"Now, that's normal," Xena laughed. "Why don't we start looking for a place to camp and I'll see if I can stir up something for supper."

Xena began to search the bushes alongside the road for the tell-tale signs of animal activity. She spotted a likely spot for a rabbit hole at the foot of an oak tree. Signaling to Gabrielle to wait, she cautiously approached the hole. Just as she got within striking range, a long-eared, bright pink bunny hopped out of the hole and leaned back against the tree.

"Eh," the bunny, chewing on a carrot, addressed her, "what's up, doc?"

Xena was so startled by the rabbit's sudden appearance and subsequent question, she stumbled backwards almost bowling over the trailing bard.

"So," the rabbit continued, ‘you have a little murder on your mind this afternoon? Well, now, that would really put a crimp in my day."

"Xena," Gabrielle stared at the rodent, "that rabbit is talking to you."

"No, it isn't," Xena continued to backtrack, pulling the equally stunned bard with her. "Come on." Xena took a quick look back to assure herself the rabbit hadn't been real. She closed her eyes tight when she spied the rabbit still leaning casually against the tree.

"Have a nice day, doc," the rabbit waved his carrot.

"Xena?"

"Don't say it, Gabrielle," Xena warned. "It never happened."

*****************

It was an unusually crisp, moon-less early winter night. The sun having left the clear cloudless sky several hours before had been replaced by an endless sea of twinkling stars. In the center of a neatly laid out campsite, a campfire was crackling warmly within a ring of stones. A pile of firewood was placed within easy reach but far enough from the flames to avoid it accidentally catching on fire. On one side of the campfire, clothing washed earlier in the evening hung on a rope line strung between two trees. On the other side of the fire, two women were nestled inside their sleeping furs, snuggled together and oblivious to everything but each other.

Well, to almost everything.

"Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked her sullen partner.

"Yes."

"You sure?"

"Yes," Xena turned her head to look at Gabrielle. "Just promise me one thing."

"Anything."

"Never wish for a day out of the ordinary again."

"Oh, I promise," Gabrielle nodded her head vigorously. "All I want is to get to Amazonia and spend a regular old Solstice with our crazy Amazons. Nothing new, nothing different, no way, no how."

"Good."

"Kiss me."

"Better," Xena murmured as she pressed her lips against her soulmate's while pulling the furs up to cover them completely, shutting out the rest of the world.

In the sky overhead, a streaking blue star appeared over the horizon to the west and raced across the sky. Just before it passed overhead of the women, it dipped down to the earth's surface, it's tail encompassing the campsite in a swirling rainbow of light that sparkled and glittered with an almost blinding brilliance that went unseen by the women under the furs and otherwise occupied. As quickly as it had arrived, the whirlpool surged back into the dark sky.

If they had been listening, the bard and warrior would have heard the satisfied chuckles of Artemis as she returned to her home on Mt. Olympus.

HAPPY SOLSTICE!!

Used every word on the list.

78 words used a total of 163 times and mentioned 4 Amozons, 5 if you count Artemis.

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