It was cold, the kind of chill that seeped into each bone and made a gnawing, numbing home. The wind didn't help either; a late winter wind that had come from the north, gathering over the peaks of the great Atlas mountains, humming a droll whining symphony, and laced within it the crisp taste of snow. Xena's eyes tracked to the sky, their blue peeking out from the long cape like two points of stars in the night. She sighed heavily. She was right, the damn wind did carry the taste of snow. The rich grey of sky above also added to its coming arrival. She glanced sideways, a smile pulling at her lips as she spotted the fur ball walking just behind, her smile grew as she heard the mass grumble and mutter.
"You know, Gabrielle, if any children are around, they are going to be sent screaming back to their mothers with tales of hairy monsters."
An indignant bang was blown outward from beneath the fur hood. "Xena, if there are any children around, I'll eat my staff. They have more sense than to be out in this."
Xena's chuckle finally forced the blonde head from beneath cover. With a wipe of a hand, a rebellious bang was thrown back as Gabrielle tilted her head up so she could see her companion.
"I'm glad you find this amusing. I don't. I'm tired, wet, cold and, well? well?", she frowned, trying to find the right word.
The warrior pulled Argo to a standstill. "Annoyed?"She tried not to smirk. The smirk faltered, however, when two angry green eyes snapped up to her.
"What are you finding so damn Hades amusing about this situation? We had a room, albeit a small one, but a room? a fire."The small blonde let out an almost blissful sound of remembrance. Then the wind picked up, sending her into a three-step pace of backwards and forwards. "Don't you remember how hard it is to get a room this close to Solstice?"
Xena was about to answer, but her jaw snapped shut as green eyes locked her again. She decided silence was the better part of valour.
Gabrielle continued both the pacing and her rant. "But nooooooo, you decided you wanted to leave the nice warm room."She stopped pacing for a moment and glanced up. "And a hot tub, Xena, a hot tub." Two arms emerged from the furs and went up in the air, accompanied with a full exhale of exasperation. Then quickly disappeared back into the beamouth of skin.
Xena was finding it very hard to keep a straight face, not in the fact that she had indeed pulled the bard from the warmth of an inn, but the fact that all she saw in front of her was an angry, walking, big ball of fur.
"You're the one that wanted to go to the Solstice celebration in Thebes, as I remember."
After a moment of silence, a hot vent of exhaled breath emerged from the walking teddy bear next to her. Xena waited. Then a calmer voice emerged.
"I know, but I didn't mean right then and there. Gods." With that, the bard drew back her hood, ruffling her hair for a moment, quickly tucking her hand back into the warmth.
Xena's eyes briefly checked out the area. "Well, Solstice is three days away and it's at least a two day journey."Satisfied all was well, she jumped down. Pulling her own hood free, the wind immediately stirred her ebony locks into a dance. She rubbed Argo's neck as the mare turned her head, nipping at her cloak. Xena smiled, scratching her nose.
Gabrielle frowned, inhaling and exhaling air again into the crisp cold. "Do you always have to be so well planned out?"
Xena shrugged, reaching back for the feedbag. Taking a handful of oats, she let the mare feed. "It's what I do."She gave Argo a steeled look as she snorted some of the oats from her palm at the comment.
Gabrielle sighed. "Well, yea, that's true."
The warrior grinned, hearing the pout. When she turned, however, the grin was replaced with a smile. "Hey, it's not that bad, ok? A few more hours and I know a place that is warm." She waited for the bard to show signs of interest. "Has good food."
The bard's gaze to the floor faltered, and the pout on her lips lost some of its protruding.
Xena bit the inside of her mouth. A twinkle entered her eyes. "A hot tub."
That was it, two eyes slowly came up to her. "Hot tub?"
Xena nodded. "Yep, and a fire that Prometheus would be proud of."
A red boot emerged and played with the frozen ground. "How good is the food?"
Gotcha. This time, Xena let the grin out. "Good enough that I go back and don't haggle the price of it."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Xena, you don't haggle for anything."
"True, but what a blue eyed death stare won't get me isn't really worth having now, is it?"
The green eyes gazing up were filled with anything but anger now. The bard's nose wrinkled as she grinned. "You don't do that now, so what's the new excuse?"
Relieved that she had yet again gotten out of the hole she was digging, she popped the remains of the oats into her mouth, shrugging, slapping the rest from her palms. "Why haggle now when I have you?"
The playful slap sent her looking to the bard in mock hurt. "Ow."
"Oh, shut up, like that could hurt you."
Two pairs of eyes locked on each other, and the world around became nothing more than fading background scenery that dulled as the intensity of blue and green grew. They both shone with understanding; the understanding of the time together, the challenges for both, and the start of something much deeper than friendship between them, a change that neither of them was ready to face yet.
"Two hours, right?"Gabrielle lowered her eyes first, the warmth of the blush already moving through every pore with its heat.
Xena took the moment to let her own heating system wash over her cold body. "Yes?"she cleared her throat. "Three at most? and hey, it could be worse. We should be there after eight, ok?"
As if on cue, one lowly snowflake fell from the sky, swirling its way down to land perfectly on the nose of the bard. Slightly crossed-eyed, Gabrielle looked at it, then two widened eyes glared at the great Warrior Princess. "I can't believe you just said that."
Argo looked at her mistress, letting out a snort of snickers. Then she licked the falling flakes from her nose.
"You know, it would be quicker if you got up here and rode."Xena waited for an answer. She shook her head slightly to loosen the snow off her hood.
"I'm not talking to you, remember?"A foot emerged from the furs and sent a kick of deep white off the path.
"Ah, yea, no talking."Xena rolled her eyes, wondering when the time actually was she didn't behead people for annoying the Hades out of her. She tracked to her companion again, getting her answer. Xena exhaled noisily. "Gabrielle, come on, I'm not kidding. Get up here."
"Gabrrrrrrrrrrrielle."Xena's temper started to grow as her voice dropped to a rich timbre. "No fooling, ok? This storm is getting bad. If it keeps up, we aren't going to make it to Thebes for Solstice."
Still no answer.
Xena pulled Argo to a stop. "Oh, for the love of?"she quickly cleared the saddle. Her hand came up, turning her friend. "Ok, I'm sorry, I should have thought about it, ok? ? We had to leave today, I? I wanted to surprise you in Thebes."
Two surprised eyes blinked from the shadows of the hood. "Surprise me?"
"Yea?"Xena's eyes tracked to the falling sky, seeing that the heavy snow almost cut out her view to the grey above. "We really do need to find shelter."She paused. "Please ride, yell at me later if you want."
Gabrielle blinked, an eyebrow rising. "What surprise?"
Xena returned to the saddle. Her hand outstretched down to Gabrielle, she grinned. "I'll tell you while we ride."
Gabrielle was about to open her mouth to speak when the wind picked up, sending all the snow into angry flurries. She took the hand. Xena pulled her up, smiling when she felt the bard scoot in behind her. Wrapping her arms fully around her body, she kicked Argo into a steady gallop.
"Spill it, what surprise?"
Xena shifted, suddenly feeling like Gabrielle wasn't going to like the idea. "Well, Lilla is going to meet us there with your mother."
For a moment there was nothing but silence, then a sharp inhale from Gabrielle let out a tirade of questions. "You? They? How? When did you? How did you? I ? I?"The bard's voice trailed off in disbelief.
After a long pause in which Xena sat tense and waiting, two bardly arms suddenly squeezed so tight that Xena let out a cough of her held breath. "Hey."
"Oh, Xena."A barrage of smaller hugs followed, ending on a last crushing one. "Thank you."
Somewhat embarrassed, Xena petted the hands locked around her stomach. "Yea, well, if this storm keeps up, me telling you might be the only thing you get."
Again on cue, the snow increased tenfold. Xena kicked Argo faster, her eyes fixed on what she could see of the vanishing road ahead, worrying at how fast her visibility was virtually being cut to zero.
The storm grew. Green quickly became white, branches became shoulders of ice and snow. Distant hills now were mounds of merging curves against the horizon. The calm sky was nothing but a vast movement of tempest swirls, and still the wind howled.
Xena stood at the cave's mouth, her eyes trying to see further than the tree at its edge. She listened, straining her ears. Relaxing, she let her defences slowly calm, now sure there wasn't any danger around. Her nose crinkled as she smelt the soup boiling behind her. Replacing the makeshift fur door, she walked into the warm, lit area of the cave.
Argo looked over at her, letting out a whinny.
"I know, girl, it's cramped. Would you rather be outside?"She pulled a half apple from the pack. Her answer was a swished tail and the sound of munching. "Yea, that's what I thought."
Taking a seat to the left of the fire, she looked over at Gabrielle. The girl was curled up in the furs, her whole body as close to the flame as possible to absorb its small heat. For a while, Xena's mind was filled with the same question that always seemed to raise its head during the quiet times. When did this small farm girl start to mean so much to her? Sitting back, she relaxed. Stifling a yawn, her eyes traced over the form curled up.
A frown briefly touched the warrior's brow, she forced her eyes to the ceiling, tilting her head back till it touched the cold of the rock face. Perticus echoed in her mind. Swallowing the lump that was starting in her throat, she closed her eyes, making her body obey again. Once her breathing had become even, her eyes opened, going back to the sleeping bard. She was in love with her. It wasn't worth the arguments of denying it anymore, all that got her was a headache and a clouded mind. As always, the last thought was waiting. Her blue eyes tracked to the sleeping figure. What am I going to do when you leave me again, Gabrielle?
Sighing heavily, she rose, unclipping her armour and laying the sword down by her bedroll. She crouched by the fire, stirring the soup, spooning some of it into a bowl then knelt by the bard.
"Hey, sleepy head, the soup's done."
There was no answer. This time, Xena added a shake. "Gabrielle."
A low grumble sounded, then no movement. Xena rolled her eyes. "Hey? up and at 'um."
Two tired eyes opened, unfocused, then they found the blue ones smiling at her. She shifted, embarrassed. "I fell asleep, didn't I?"
"Ahuh. What gave you the clue?" Xena suppressed the inner chuckles at the sight before her. Sometimes Gabrielle was just too adorable for her own good. She grinned, noting for later to tell Gabrielle how damn cute she was waking up. She resisted the urge to ruffle the bed hair in front of her; instead, she passed the soup over then returned to get her own.
Answering the grin, Gabrielle wiped the sleep from her eyes. Scooting to sit, her spoon was already on its journey to her yawning mouth. "How bad is it?" her eyes tracked to the rippling fur covering the entrance.
Xena took a bite of bread. "Bad."After a moment, she looked over, her eyes softening. "Sorry, I don't think we are going to make it to Thebes in time."
Gabrielle's spoon paused for all of a second before continuing. She shrugged. "It's ok, thanks for trying."
Many people wouldn't have read Gabrielle so well, but Xena did. Blues eyes steeled and tracked to the doorway, the howl of wind made her send a curse to the gods.
The cave now was fully warm, the small fire's heat expanded into a haven from the storm. Off in the far corner, Argo lazily munched from her feedbag. Gabrielle sat crossed legged across from Xena, her concentration on the nightshift she was mending. The warrior sat with her back against the wall, running a stone over a dagger, wetting it with spit before continuing. Her downward movement froze. Her eyes narrowed as she rose, pulling the chakram free as she moved towards the mouth of the cave.
Gabrielle's head came up, blinking in surprise. She quickly located where Xena had moved to. Seeing the chakram, she jumped up, grabbed her staff, and stood ready, her eyes questioning. Xena raised a finger to her lips. Gabrielle nodded and waited, her eyes now fixed along with blue ones at the fur at the entrance. Argo, too, had stopped in mid chew, her own senses on alert.
Suddenly the flap of fur bellowed inward in a gust of snow, wind and something larger. Xena quickly grabbed the figure and pulled it sideways into a spin, sending it crashing into the wall with an exhaled, "Oooaffffffttt."
Immediately, the figure started to rise, trying to make a fast break for it. Xena simply grabbed the fur, tearing it open, revealing a man who blinked in shock. He groaned in pain as Xena pushed him back against the rock face. He grumbled and began to move forward again, stopping when the chakram was placed at his throat. Two eyes dropped down to it, widening. Slowly, he looked up.
Xena quickly searched him for any weapons, already noticing the fact that he held no sword at his hip. She ignored his outraged words. When she was sure he carried none, her eyes returned to his.
"Who are you?"
His face flushed for a moment, both from the embarrassment of being searched so quickly and the fact he was being spoken to in such a way. "Um?. Would you? you mind?"An audible swallowing of an adam's apple echoed in the cave.
Xena's eyebrow rose. "Excuse me?"
A shaken hand emerged and one finger tentatively tapped the edge of the disc. "Would you mind moving? moving? well, that?"He pointed at the chakram again. "It's awfully rude, you know."
Xena looked over at Gabrielle who was already relaxing. "Well, he's either stupid or mad."The bard studied the young man against the wall.
Xena nodded then glared back at the intruder. "I'm betting he's mad."
The figure snorted. "I'm mad, ha! Who is standing holding a ? well, whatever that is, at a complete stranger's throat? I don't see me brandishing sharp round shiny things."
"What are you doing here? And it's a chakram." Blue ice bored into him.
"If you hadn't noticed, there is a rather big storm outside, and this is a cave. Do I have to give you a clue? Now, if you would be so kind?" He moved forward, pushing the chakram away from his throat, only to have a hand slammed flat onto his chest, where it stayed.
Blue eyes blinked in surprise, "Are you suicidal?"Her voice had dropped to a low growl.
Gabrielle quickly coughed her laugh away, then realised the chakram was still at the man's throat. "Um, Xena." When Xena didn't turn, Gabrielle approached slowly, mindful of the fact the warrior was on full alert. When her hand found the small of her friend's back, she felt the twitch. Making sure not to make any sudden moves, "He doesn't seem like a threat." As she spoke, she felt the tenseness leave the body under her palm.
Slowly the chakram lowered. "I'll ask you just once more. Who are you?"The instinct inside her simply wanted to slit his throat. She took a step back, giving him some room.
Gabrielle glanced first at Xena, glad to see the coldness had gone from the blue orbs. Her attention went to the man who was now brushing himself down of both dirt and snow. Pulling his furs straight, he moved around the warrior to go before the fire, rubbing his hands together. Xena silently tracked his movements, the chakram still in her hand.
Gabrielle kept to Xena's side, totally unsure of the man, wondering if he was indeed mad. "I'm Gabrielle. This is?"
Before she could finish, the man butted in. "Xena, the warrior princess, kinda guessed that. Not many six-foot, sword-wielding, chunky-armoured women with attitude around, don't you know?"His eyes narrowed as they focused on the glaring warrior.
Gabrielle smiled nervously at Xena, then she scratched her eyebrow. "And you would be?" She added her sweetest smile as the man straightened this time.
His face softened as he looked at Gabrielle. He moved forward. "I am? Federal Exprius, at your service."He bowed. "From Br?."
Before he could finish, Xena stepped around the fire, her chakram going back to its place on her hip. "He's a Brit."
Federal straightened indignantly. "I'm from Britannia, if you would be so kind. You don't see me calling you a Gre, now, do you?"
Xena simply leant against the wall, folding her arms.
Gabrielle's face brightened, her curiosity peaked. "Britannia? What brings you to Greece ?" She placed her staff back near her furs, trusting Xena's judgement on the fact that danger had passed.
The man's eyes widened, his mouth fell open, "Oh, good gods."
Xena jumped alert as the man ran straight past her back into the storm. Gabrielle looked over to her friend who was looking at her with the same expression.
Gabrielle grinned, letting her shoulder bump into Xena's. "Ya think?"
Xena's hand shot to her chakram as the furs bellowed in again. This time, Federal returned with a larger mass than his own; one tired looking, heavily packed mule.
Xena stepped forward. "Hey, you can't bring that in here."
Federal stopped, his eyes going first to his mule then to Argo. "And the horse is allowed why?"he stomped the snow from his boots.
"Because that is my horse."Xena smirked.
Gabrielle moved in between the two, stepping back with a jump as the mule let out an ear screeching, "Eeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyhoooooo." Even Xena winced. Argo's answer was a deep-throated "Neighhhhhhhh." To which the mule instantly replied too in triple gusto, "oryyyyyyyeeeeeee."
Gabrielle resisted the urge to put both hands over her ears.
Xena turned. "Knock it off."With a grumbled snort, the mare fell silent.
Federal quickly petted the neck of the beast. "Hush now, I told you I would get you warm."
Gabrielle watched in fascination as the mule calmed. Her eyes dropped, then she blinked, not quite sure of what she was looking at. Her finger came up pointing. "Um, is he ok? I mean?it? he looks? Is his nose always that bright red?"
The mule snorted, while Federal just looked at her. "It's a birthmark, and don't you know it's rude to stare?"
Gabrielle immediately flushed, and dropped both her pointing hand and her eyes. "Ah, sorry."She glanced over at Xena who just shrugged.
Federal's attention went back to his beast, his voice dropping to an almost childlike drone. "Hushy wushy, Rudolf, don't let that mean woman get you all upsettee."
Both Xena's eyebrows rose. Yep, nuttier than nut bread.
Gabrielle at this point took a step nearer the mule. "Can I stroke him?"
Federal's face broke into a huge grin. "Oh, yes. He likes it here under the chin."
Gabrielle smiled nervously, which changed as she felt the mule nuzzle into her hand. She looked over at Xena.
Xena sighed inwardly, knowing what was coming. The bard was a sucker for anything in need, animal or human.
Xena cut it off with a wave of her hand. "Fine, put it near the doorway to the left, away from Argo. But don't blame me when it starts to get ripe in here."
Gabrielle almost did a tigger jump. Grinning, she returned to her stroking of the animal.
Xena sat back down, lifting her bowl. "Stow your gear over by the rocks. Gabrielle, your soup is getting cold."
With a last scratch under the mule's head, Gabrielle gave a small smile to the traveller and returned to her place by the fire.
Federal nodded his head in thanks and led the mule to the corner. Quickly, he started to unpack.
Both Xena and the bard watched in surprise as package after package emerged from the saddlebags. Each one, Federal checked over and placed on the rocks. After more time than it took the two to eat their soup, his saddlebags were offloaded and he now sat in the corner with his mule.
Gabrielle looked over, scowling. Xena looked up, her most innocent look appearing. "What?"
Gabrielle hitched her head in the direction of the corner.
Xena rolled her eyes. "Federal, get over here, there's no reason for you to sleep with that fleapit."
Gabrielle glared at her. "Xeeeeeena."
Xena let out a small smirk. Leaning forward, her voice dropping to a whisper near the bard's ear, "You just want to know what's in those packages."
A busted grin appeared on the bard's face. "Like you don't." She turned her head, laughing, only to find the laugh catch, as her eyes found smiling red lips so close she could feel Xena's breath on her face. Xena noticed the hitched inhale and looked down. Gabrielle immediately dropped her stare.
"He is not a fleapit. And do you always have to be so rude? Didn't your mother teach you manners? I know I've heard stories about you, you know, the usual stuff; rape, pillage. But I at least thought you were an educated barbarian."
Xena's head snapped around, all the fun draining from her face. Even Gabrielle swallowed as she saw how quickly it happened. Without thinking, she moved forward, intercepting Xena as she rose. "Don't."
One word, one action, either could have gotten her killed, she knew that. Yet at the same time she also knew the one person who could get away with it was her.
Xena stilled, her eyes still locked on the soon to be dead man in front of her. Taking a breath, she looked down at the trusting eyes watching her. She relaxed more when she felt the bard's hand move onto her chakram hand, easing her grip off the disc.
Without turning, Gabrielle directed her voice to the man. "If you want to stay in here, I'd advise you to think before you open your mouth again."This time, she did turn, her eyes staring and fixed right at him. "And if you EVER insult her again, I will be the one kicking you out. Ya got me?"
Federal blinked and swallowed, his head nodding, as the stare that had him locked matched any that the warrior had given him.
A smile twitched at the corner of Xena's mouth. "Gabrielle."
The blonde head swung back to her, concern evident in the gaze. "Yes?"
"Thanks. Stupid thing to do, you know, but thanks." Xena let her knuckles wipe across the bard's cheek before turning her attention fully to the now silent man, missing the movement of Gabrielle's hand tracing over the area she had touched.
"I'll make you a deal, Federal. You stop riding my back and I won't turn you or your mule into something to hang in the entrance."
He glared up at her, about to say something, when he saw the bard staring at him from across the fire. He snapped his jaw shut for a moment then folded his arms. "Fine."
"Glad we got that cleared up. Do you want some soup?"
Federal blinked in total surprise as Xena scooped out another bowl and held it out to him. He took it, nodding his head in thanks.
"And I'd get those furs off and let them dry." Xena moved to the corner, her sword already on her lap, being sharpened.
Still in total surprise, he rose. Shaking the wetness free, he laid it out on the rocks just off from the fire, then sat back down, the soup in his lap, his mouth slightly agape. "Yes... well, um, thank you."
Gabrielle looked down to hide her smile. She still found it funny when people were showed the side of her friend she always saw, and the reaction it got.
"So? um, Gabrielle, where are you and Xena going this close to Solstice?"
"Thebes. We were going to meet my family there."She passed over a piece of bread, which he took with a grin.
The grin faltered as he glanced at the bellowing fur at the doorway, his whole face softened. "Oh, well, I'm sure the weather will break long enough for you to get there."
Gabrielle simply nodded and fell silent.
Federal watched her for a moment, then noticed she was looking at the insignia on his chest. "You like? I have it on my saddlebags too."He stretched, pulling one of the bags over, lifting it for her to see.
Gabrielle traced the indent letters in the leather. "M&Ms?"Her eyes rose in question to him.
He replaced the bags, "Yes, Messenger Man service, that's what I do, I deliver things."His face beamed in pride.
"What sort of things?"The bard's eyes briefly looked over to the packages.
"Well, this season, I'm on an exclusive contract to someone."
This time Xena looked up, the whetstone pausing on its stroke. "What sort of contract?"
Federal caught the suspicious tone. "Not the sort I expect you're used to." He paused, his eyes darting to the bard. He smiled nervously. "What I meant to say was a contract that entails me to deliver those packages to people from one source to another."
Xena half snorted at his quick change around.
"From who?" Gabrielle's voice pulled his attention back.
Federal scratched his head, "Well, I don't know if I'm supposed to disclose that."
"Oh, ok?'' Gabrielle looked at him in confusion.
"You don't know?"Once again, Xena's hand stilled.
He looked over, slightly embarrassed. "Well, no, I don't. This is my first time doing this sort of thing."
Xena's hand went back to its downward stroke, but not before half-snorting. "Figures."
Federal ignored it. "Actually, I don't think anyone has done this sort of thing before. Oh, I don't mean army messengers or king messengers, what I do is for the people."
Gabrielle shifted a little forward, intrigued. "For the people?"
"Oh, yes. You see, I go from village to village, towns, cities, and even countries?I take letters, food, clothes, anything they want to send, and for a small fee I will make sure it gets to where they send it to? Well, I mean, I will. Right now, I'm using this contract to get me started."He sat back, his eyes going to some unseen point at the roof of the cave. Gabrielle resisted the urge to look there.
Federal's voice started again. "One day, I see my messenger service delivering overseas, across mountains, inn to inn, using wagons and drivers, to take any package you want delivered to the door." His hand came up in a low arch, his index finger writing in thin air. "FEDERAL EXPRIUS, delivery guaranteed."
Xena had stopped working on her sword yet again. This time, she too had been caught up in what the man was saying. With a roll of her eyes, she muttered, "Nuts."
"Um, not to sound stupid or anything, but isn't that what merchants do?"
He laughed. "No, I mean the personal things, Gabrielle. Say, for instance, you make a shirt and you want your? well, say your father, to have it for his birthday. You know you can't get there in time for his birthday but I or one of my riders would come and pick it up and deliver it to your father."
"Oh?"Gabrielle's face lit up. "I see?"
"Yea, and how much would you charge Gabrielle here for the service?"
Federal thought for a moment. "The cost would have to cover the feed for the horse and the distance covered on the rider."
Xena scoffed a laugh. "Ah, so this service will be for the rich only?"
He scowled at her. "No, that isn't what I want? but ? well, I do have to cover costs. Besides, my idea is that I get one rich person to pay for the service, and anyone in the pick-up area can give the messenger a limited amount of things for free."
Xena's eyes quickly came up at the comment. She checked Federal's face for any sign of a lie. Finally, she shrugged. "Sounds like a good idea."
Once again, Gabrielle had to bite back a laugh as she watched the man's mouth fall open. Surprised ya again, didn't she?
"I? well, thank you."He immediately flushed red and looked down.
"So, those packages are going where?"
Federal looked back at the bard. "I had twelve of them, I have one destination left. It's a cabin somewhere around here, but in this storm I couldn't find it?"He shook his head, sadly. "This is so going to put me behind schedule."
Gabrielle looked over at Xena, then back to the crestfallen man. "You have to deliver it before a certain time?"
"Yes, I had to guarantee it. If I fail, I miss the deadline and I won't get the full payment."He sighed again. "And without that, I couldn't try my idea ever again, and my reputation would be absolutely worthless."
Xena looked up to find the bard looking at her, then blues widened as she realised what had just been said and why Gabrielle was turning on the puppy look. Don't you dare, Gabrielle. Xena narrowed her eyes at the bard, who simply looked away with a smile to Federal.
"Maybe we can help you?"
Xena did the only thing she could, she bit her lip and cursed.
Two astonished eyes first tracked to Gabrielle, then hesitantly over to Xena's. "You would?. You would help me?"His question was directed solely at the warrior.
Xena inhaled briefly, throwing a dagger look at her innocent-looking partner in crime, who was finding something really interesting on her skirt at that moment. Then she focused on Federal. "If Gabrielle says we can help, we help." Xena had to hide her own smile as she watched the bard's face look over with a huge grin.
Federal jumped up, grabbing Xena by the hand, surprising even her. He pumped their hands up and down. "Oh, thank you, thank you. I take back all that barbarian stuff I said. It isn't true, pure rubbish. A lifesaver, that's what you are, simply wonderful." His arm continued to pump the warrior's hand up and down.
Gabrielle's hand came up, covering her laugh, watching as Xena's eyes sprung wide. She was sure if Federal decided to hug her friend, a mule was soon to be an orphan. "Um, Federal." She laughed as he still continued to shake their hands to a blur. She could see Xena losing her temper trying to break the grip on her wrist. "FEDERAL!"
This time, her tone broke the spell he was under and he came over quickly. "Yes?"
"How long do you have to deliver these things?"Gabrielle chuckled as she caught, out of the corner of her eye, Xena wiping her palm down her leathers. With a disgusted look on her face.
"The last must be delivered before nightfall tomorrow."
Gabrielle nodded, "and where?"
He rose and headed to his saddlebags, searching.
Gabrielle at last worked up the courage to look over at Xena, who was sat back, arms crossed, glaring at her. The bard quickly looked away, knowing as soon as they were alone she would be in trouble.
Federal came back. Kneeling, he read from the scroll. "The cabin is somewhere near a stream with a group of five trees. A mother lives there with two children, their name is Xmoas?"he looked to both of them in hope.
"It's on our way, Xena?"Gabrielle this time didn't use the puppy look, she just smiled.
"Yea, it is." Xena rose, going to the cave mouth, and opened the furs, letting the snow in, watching both of them duck back as the coldness and storm rushed in. "But that is in our way, and with that going on, we are not going anywhere."
Gabrielle's face fell, as did Federal's. Xena looked to each of them. "I can't do anything about it, ok? But if the storm lifts?"her eyes flicked to Federal's. "If it does, then, yea, we will help."
He nodded, exhaling deeply, his whole body hung limp in defeat. When she turned to the bard, she was giving her her best do something look. "Oh, come on, Gabrielle. What do you expect me to do? Wave my arm and say storm be gone?"
Again, as if on cue, the storm outside suddenly lost its gusto, the wind died, the snow decreased. Xena stood for a moment looking at it, her eyebrow going up. Then she turned with a satisfied smug look on her face.
Federal looked at Xena, his mouth open, then he looked at Gabrielle a little in awe. "How did she do that?"
Gabrielle blinked at her friend for a moment, then with a fixed knowing grin, turned to Federal. "She has many skills."
Xena had the good grace to just snort and close the fur at the cave mouth.
They spent the rest of the night in the cave. By morning, the storm had moved on, leaving the countryside around in a veil of cleansing white. They left the cave as the sun rose, using its light and heat to help weather the hard journey. Gabrielle hadn't even argued the fact of riding this time. Xena hadn't been surprised, mostly because she had watched Gabrielle go out of the cave earlier and disappear in a snowdrift up to her chin. It had taken everything she had not to laugh out loud.
Now the three were making a very slow pace through the drifts. The height and size of the war-horse was making light work of the deepness of the snow. The mule, on the other hand, had already gotten stuck twice. Xena quickly added another number to that as she glanced backwards to see Federal yet again digging the beast out. Xena gritted her teeth, turning Argo yet again.
"How mad are you at me right now?"the small voice came from the fur wrapped tightly against her back.
"On what scale?"
"Oh, that mad? I know I should have asked first."
Xena twisted in the saddle. "Gabrielle, I'm glad you can offer our help without needing to ask."
"Really?"the bard grinned.
The warrior nodded. "Yes, really. Now?"she tweaked the bards nose, "It's your turn to dig him out."
Gabrielle's smile disappeared. With a sigh, she slipped down off Argo, relieved that she didn't disappear again under the surface. She stomped her way as best she could towards the now baying mule. In the end, Xena had to lend a hand.
Federal paused by a group of trees. "Oh, wait, a candle mark. This is it." He looked up, yelling. "Xena, hold up, this is the place?"He glanced around at the vast whiteness, trying to make out a stream.
Xena paused the mare. She didn't head back to him, she just crossed her arms under the furs, warming them for a moment.
Gabrielle's head peeked out over her shoulder. "What's he doing?"
"My guess is he found another group of trees."
Gabrielle exhaled. "Isn't this the fourth time we've stopped?"
"Ah."Gabrielle stretched back, letting the ache out of her back. Reaching down, she pulled two trail bars from the pack, passing one to Xena. Gabrielle started chewing, her eyes watching the figure ahead darting around from tree to tree. "Ya know, Xena, if he is going to be delivering things like he says he is, he is going to have to get to know land areas better."She chewed as she talked.
Xena bit off a piece of the bar, letting the sweetness of the berries fill her mouth. "Somehow, Gabrielle, I don't think learning about land areas is going to help him." She watched as Federal disappeared in a puff of white.
Gabrielle giggled. "Um, well, maybe not that then." She thought for a moment. "Oh, I know. How about some sort of tracking system? You know, using the stars to locate a position."
Xena paused in mid-chew, twisting slightly to see the bard. "He's not on a ship."Inwardly, she rolled her eyes, thinking sometimes Gabrielle was right up there with the highest Greek nerds when it came to ideas.
"I know that, silly, but doesn't the same principle work? You told me the stars stay still, it's us who move."
Xena continued chewing, her brow deepening. "That's what I believe, yea."
"Well, if it is true, couldn't he use some sort of star system to pinpoint towns? You know, write down their location, then when he needs it he just looks it up on? well, a star chart of some sort? Could even call it a Star Access Tracker. You know, S.A.T., for short." She giggled, then chewed the last of the trail bar.
Xena turned a little more, looking at the bard's face. "Did you just think that up?"
Gabrielle looked up, a grimace coming to her mouth. "Pretty dumb, right?"
A smile came to the warrior's face. "No, no, not at all, you just keep surprising me."
The bard blushed, her eyes dropping for a moment. Then they came up, this time meeting the stare. "I do?"
"I think I like that I can do that? I mean, it's only fair, as since the whole time I've been travelling with you, you have done nothing but surprise me."
This time Xena lowered her eyes in brief embarrassment. Then she exhaled deeply. "I wish all of those surprises had been good ones."A memory of Perticus flashed in her mind as she moved to look away, but the bard's hand came up and caught her face, drawing it back around.
"I know."Her voice dropped to a soft timbre of understanding. Her fingers paused then, as if they had a will of their own. They gently stroked along the jaw line, green eyes following their movements, a cross between curiosity and discovery filling her face.
Xena's breath hitched. Swallowing, she tried not to let the effect show on her face, what the touch was doing to her defences. Blinking, the bard looked up, drawing her hand back, a little embarrassed.
"I wouldn't change anything, Xena, anything." Her eyes rose again, locking with the intense blue ones studying her, with an almost challenge in them to dare Xena to look away. As Xena's mouth opened to speak, both their attentions snapped around to a yell.
"? ELLPPP. X?e. N? ?Aaaaaaaa."
"Oh, for Tartarus sake." Xena rolled her eyes, hearing Gabrielle's giggle. "Don't think even the gods can help this guy."
With an agreeing grunt, Xena kicked Argo in the direction of the prodding red nose of the mule in a mass of white, and the disappearing head of a sinking Federal.
Gabrielle sat cross-legged in front of the struggling fire under the heavy-branched alcove of trees, adding any small dry twigs she could find to aid the heat needed to boil the pot of water hanging from the pivot. Occasionally, her head would rise and scan the area around before going back to her task.
Federal sat opposite, his chin resting in his palms, his face showing how miserable he truly was. "I'm doomed, no way around it? simply doomed. No payday, no chance for my wonderful idea to work." He sighed, sad eyes going to the sky. "The gods are against me. Doomed? just doomed." His sigh was even heavier till the point his whole body exhaled an almost groan.
"Hmmm." Gabrielle didn't even look up as she added a few more sticks of wood. Her eyes moved to the trail again, wondering why Xena was taking so long. A deeper grunt finally made her look over to the messenger. "Sorry, did you say something?"
His head came up. "Oh ? nothing important, just that I'm doomed to be a failure in my life."
Gabrielle resisted the urge to roll her eyes. A thought passed that maybe Federal really should be on the stage. Despite that fact, the bard found herself liking the strange, accented man, even if he was a little too dramatic, even for her taste. "Come on now, it isn't that bad. Xena is out there looking now, it won't be long."She briefly reached over and rubbed his leg, adding a smile of support.
He shifted slightly. "Yea, I suppose."
The bard's eyes moved back to the trail, sending a message for the warrior to hurry up and get her butt back here.
"You still have a lot of faith in her?"
The question snapped both her eyes and her thoughts directly back to Federal. "Yes, I do. Why does that surprise you so much?"
He shrugged, sniffing an inhale and wiping his hand across his nose. "Well, she doesn't fit what I've heard about her, that's all."
Gabrielle took a frustrated breath. "She isn't that person anymore." She broke a large twig, throwing it into the flames.
Federal's eyes suspiciously glanced sideways at her. "Yea, well, doesn't mean she couldn't be again, now does it?"
This time the bard simply let out a long sigh, showing both the tiredness of her body and the rerun of always having to defend her friend. "We all?"her eyes came up, locking Federal's in a serious gaze, "?ALL? are capable of the things she has done, just remember that."
He swallowed slowly, holding the gaze for as long as possible. Then, shrugging again, he blew into his hands, offering their palms to the fire for heat. "I doubt anyone could come close to what she is, Gabrielle."
Angry eyes flashed over to him, about to correct his tense, then she caught a glimpse of something else. Federal's eyes were no longer fixed on her. Curiosity turned her head. Looking over her shoulder, Gabrielle's eyes widened at the sight unveiling.
Xena was stepping into the clearing, her furs now open to the warm morning sun; which chose that moment to reflect off of her breastplates, throwing a spectrum of colour like an aura of orange and yellows around the warrior in the vast white.
Gabrielle swallowed hard, her mind in a turmoil of legends and comparisons of beauty. When she came to voice them, all her bardly talents deserted her and became reduced to a simple, "Oh."
Federal chuckled, his eyes dipping to the young bard in sudden understanding. "Oh? indeed."
He found himself staring along with the bard as Xena, oblivious to all, tossed her hair back from her shoulder. This time Federal swallowed. "Oh, my."
After tying Argo's reins to a branch, she headed back to the fire. Sitting on her haunches to warm her hands, at first she didn't realise she was being stared at, then she looked to each of them in question. "What?"
Embarrassed, both quickly looked down.
Studying each for a few heartbeats more, she noted to herself to ask why the bard looked feverish, but for now she just gently shook her head. "If you're interested, I've found the cabin."
Federal jumped up immediately. "Really? Wonderful, simply wonderful!"He headed once again to grab Xena's hand, which was quickly intercepted with a water skin, and the warrior rising and walking away. Gabrielle hid her snort well, as Federal's surprised eyes dipped to the skin. Then, with a shrug, he took a long drink before heading over to where Xena was removing Argo's saddle.
"Um, what are you doing?"
Xena ignored him but for a second. "The cabin isn't far." She stowed the saddle on a dry log before stepping around Federal and heading back towards the fire. "Just follow Argo's tracks. Gabrielle and I will be here when you've finished." She paused, half turning. "You do know how to follow tracks, right?"
Federal puffed his chest, snorting. "Of course."
Xena forced a smile. "Just checking."Then she continued back to the fire.
With that said, Federal started pulling a somewhat reluctant Rudolf in the direction of the tracks.
Gabrielle handed over a mug of tea as the warrior sat. "He's going to get lost, you know."
Xena sipped. "Yep."
Gabrielle chuckled. "So, how long are you going to let him go around in circles for?"
Xena popped a honey nut into her mouth, chewing as her eyes watched the disappearing figure. Then she sat back against the tree, stretching her long legs in front of her, ending with a crossing of her boots, relaxing.
"Until I've had my lunch."
Gabrielle just looked at her and grinned.
Lunch was consumed, and the bard and the warrior were now following the somewhat erratic tracks of their friend. Xena pulled Argo to a standstill, listening. Gabrielle resisted the urge to ask what was up.
"Son of a Bacchie." Dropping Argo's reins, Xena took off at a run.
Gabrielle didn't need to ask who or what, she just took off after her friend, almost skidding into the back of her as the warrior came to a halt.
"Xena?"Gabrielle took the moment to catch her breath and to peer around to see what was up. Her eyes widened. "Oh."
Federal was laid out in the snow with three fur-covered Amazons standing over him. All three swords were laid at his neck.
Xena took a long breath and cleared her throat, muttering curses before speaking. "What did he do?"
Three sets of slightly miffed eyes turned to her. Two stepped forward while the other kept her sword in place.
"It's no business of yours. Move on." The first Amazon pulled back her hood, revealing dark skin and beaded hair. Stepping forward, she directed her weapon at Xena.
Xena scratched her eyebrow. "Well, actually, yea, it is. Even though I'd rather leave him to the mercy of you three." She cringed as Gabrielle swatted her arm. "But I can't do that. As you can see, Gabrielle here takes offence."
All Amazons looked at one another before turning their eyes back to the bard. "You are the Gabrielle of the Queen of the Eastern Tribe? We heard tell that you travelled with a Warrior Woman."
Gabrielle flushed slightly. "Um, yea, but Ephiny is Regent now?I'm surprised you've heard of me, I don't recognise your tribe markings." Her eyes dipped to the exposed arm bracelets.
The beaded one studied the bard for a moment, then nodded to the others who sheathed their swords. When Federal tried to rise, a leather boot came down onto his chest, followed by a glare.
"Um, Gabrielle?"He coughed as the boot weight was increased.
Gabrielle stepped forward. "Ok, can you not do that? And just tell us what he did? And? well, you know who I am. This is Xena. And you are?"She looked to each of them.
"I am Balthasar,"she gave a brief strike to her chest, then looked over to the other Amazon who was standing with her arms crossed. "That is Casper."Next, she nodded to the last, standing over Federal. "And my booted friend is Melchior."
Balthasar looked over at Xena in slight surprise. "Yes, I am. The others are not."She tilted her head as if studying Xena. "We are Magi."
Balthasar smiled as her attention went to Gabrielle's question. "Magi, or you would understand it as Wise women."
"Oh, like a shaman."
Balthasar bowed her head in agreement. "Yes, that is one name we are known by, the only difference is we are all leaders of our tribes."
"You're all queens?"Gabrielle's mouth slightly opened as she looked to each of them, who in turn nodded. "Wow."
Balthasar let out a loud laugh. "Yes, I suppose it is."
Xena moved over to Melchior, who glared at her approach. Xena stopped and looked down at Federal, who was looking up at her with a pleading look. "So, what did he do?"
Balthasar turned, her smile vanishing. "He stole our treasures."
"I did NOT. Ow?"he coughed heavily as a boot was pushed against his throat.
Xena looked over at Gabrielle in surprise, then looked down at Federal again, who was going a slight shade of red. "Ease up on his throat. Step off."Her hand moved to rest on her chakram as her eyes locked on the Amazon.
Melchior ignored Xena's order and simply looked over to Balthasar, who nodded. Melchior stepped back.
Before Federal could rise, Xena already had him by the scruff of the neck, twisting him around to face her. "Did you?"
He blinked. "You can't be serious? I would never do any such thing. Absolutely preposterous."He scoffed under his breath.
Xena's eyes bored into him, he just looked at her in complete indignation. Finally, she let him go. He dropped his feet back to earth. Brushing himself down, he threw a dirty look at each of the Amazons and headed off to find his mule.
Melchior stepped forward to follow, and was halted as Balthasar raised her hand.
"Federal may be the biggest idiot in
"I am still close enough to hear you, you know."
Xena ignored him. "Someone else stole your things."
Balthasar looked over to the disappearing figure of Federal. "He was the only one around."
"So, because he was the only one around, he is instantly guilty? Gods, are all Amazons the same everywhere?"Gabrielle exhaled deeply. "Look, maybe we can help. What was stolen?"
Xena's eyes darted to Gabrielle. Here we go again.
"What exactly is myrrh?"Gabrielle looked over to Balthasar as the Egyptian pulled the girth strap tighter on the horse.
"It's a herb, it has many healing properties and is highly praised and sought after in Casper's land."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder to the tall dark Amazon. "Where is that?" She quickly dropped her gaze as the Amazon turned to look at her.
"She is a moor, Gabrielle. Her homeland is to the east of mine."
Gabrielle's gaze shifted to Melchior, who was also preparing her horse. Balthasar followed the bard's look, half hiding a grin as Melchior's eyes snapped over to them and Gabrielle immediately blushed. "And is she a moor too?"
"No, my imposing friend is from an even further land called Africa? it is said
"Don't they talk?"Gabrielle briefly looked at each of them again.
"Unlike you, little Queen, they only talk when they need to."
"Oh?"Gabrielle let out an embarrassed chuckle. "So? let me get this straight. You thought Federal stole your myrrh and the frankincense thingy? but he left the gold. I mean, doesn't that seem kinda strange to leave the gold?"
Balthasar thought for a moment, her eyes going over to Federal, who was now sitting feeding carrots to his mule. "As I said, the herbs and incense are highly prized in our lands."
Gabrielle frowned then looked over to her new friend. "Tell me honestly, Balthasar, does he really look like someone who would highly prize a herb? Or for that matter know what one was?"
Both of them looked at Federal. Who was at that moment trying to fend off a carrot-seeking mule and ending up tipping backwards off the log he was sitting on.
Balthasar's eyebrow went up, a frown coming to her face. "No, I suppose not."
Gabrielle simply shook her head. "Gods, he makes Joxer look like a prince." She grinned to herself.
The Amazon looked at her in question. "Joxer?"
"Ah, you seem to attract them little queen."An amused smile came to the tall Amazon's mouth.
"You have no idea."The voice came from behind. Balthasar stiffened in surprise.
Gabrielle just grinned, turning. "Did you find anything?"
"Tracks. Small ones, but they're there. The storm covered most of them? and guess where they head?"
Gabrielle studied her friend's face. "The cabin?"
"Yep?"she stepped around the bard. "Federal, get your gear ready. It's time to deliver those packages."
Balthasar turned to the others, speaking in a dialect even Xena didn't know. The two Amazons both nodded then climbed into their saddles.
"We will come with you? we need to get back our goods. We cannot return to our homelands for more."
Xena caught Balthasar's arm as she moved to mount her horse. She removed it when the Amazon glanced down at it then back up at her. "Why is it so important to you?"
Balthasar gave a small smile. "It is a gift for someone, who's coming is foretold."
Xena was about to ask more but something stopped her. She simply nodded and stepped back to give the Amazon room to mount.
Walking back towards Argo, Gabrielle looked over her shoulder to the three Amazons who were mounted and ready. "They're kinda cryptic, aren't they?"
Xena reached down. Helping the bard up, her eyes briefly went to the three. "It's what happens when you give a life-vow of chastity."
Gabrielle gave a snort, slapping Xena on the shoulder. "Behave."
Xena threw a big tooth-filled grin in answer, then clicked Argo to the head of the now growing group of misfit travellers heading in the direction of the cabin.
Finally, with the cabin in sight, Xena stepped down off Argo, bringing the troop to a stop. The three Amazons waited, their eyes looking around the area.
Federal pulled Rudolf forward until stopped by Xena. He looked up at her, "What now?"his eyes darting to the darkening sky in concern. "I need to deliver these now."
"Ok, but I'm coming up there with you, and you don't do anything until I say you do." He gave a grumbled agreement. Xena looked over to the Amazons. "Let me handle this, ok?"
Balthasar checked with the others then gave a small nod.
Gabrielle was already beside Xena as she turned to head up to the wooden veranda of the cabin. Xena paused in mid-step. "Gabrielle, I?"
"Don't ? do not tell me to wait back there."The bard's chin set in a determined lock.
Xena bit back the rest of what she was about to say. With an exhale, she spoke, "Fine? Just stay behind me." Then she set off up the three stairs to the door. Glancing around for all but a second to assess the danger, she knocked.
Federal, now with arms bursting with packages, stood standing and waiting at the foot of the stairs, muttering under his breath, as out of the corner of his eye, he watched the sun starting to set.
Xena knocked again.
Slowly, the door opened with a creak. Xena's eyes were fixed forward, then they dropped, as a small hand appeared on the wood's edge, quickly followed by a curious, yet cautious face of a sniffling boy.
"Hi. Is, um? well, is your father here?"
The boy sniffled more and a sleeve was extended to wipe a tiny nose.
Xena grimaced. "I need to talk to your parents."
"Da's dead. Ma's busy."
A voice bellowed. "Drum, who is it?"
"Women, Ma? one got a big sword, the other one got a stick." He sniffed and wiped again as he looked at each of them with wide blue eyes.
"What they want?"the voice bellowed again.
The boy looked up at them. "What you want? Ma wants to know."
Gabrielle was finding it hard-pressed not to laugh. She bent forward, "Is your name Drum Xmoas?"
Drum nodded, his eyes widening at the fact the woman knew his name.
Gabrielle's eyes flickered to the right as she watched another child stepping into view. This time it was a little girl, who hung back, her brown eyes wide and studying her. Gabrielle whispered to the boy, "Is that your sister?"
Drum glanced backwards, nodding, then returned his gaze to Gabrielle. "Yea, she scared of new people. She's scared of everything? Ma says she's the biggest butterfingers, too." He rolled his eyes before wiping his nose again. "She drops everyyyyyyything."
"What's her name?"Gabrielle smiled over at the girl, whose eyes widened as she ducked back out of view.
Drum sniffed again, almost shrugging. "Carol."
"Drum? What do they want?"Again, the woman's voice bellowed.
The boy stared at them. "What do you want? Ma wants to know."
Gabrielle looked over at Xena. "Federal?"
Xena looked down at the boy again. Stepping forward, she hunched over to get closer. "Is there just you and your sis and ma here?"
Drum had to step back and crane his neck fully back to look up at her. "And the sheep."
Xena's eyes widened a little. "Sheep?"
Drum nodded. "They got too cold in the storm? Ma said we had to bring them in." His eyes dipped to the chakram. "What's that?"
Xena stepped away as a hand reached for it. "Don't touch it, it's sharp."
Drum's hand shot back. Just as it did, the door was pulled open. "Drum, I asked you what?."The woman's voice trailed off and the angry expression quickly turned to fear as she looked from Xena to Gabrielle and then to the three Amazons on horseback. She pulled Drum behind her. "What do you want? I have nothing to steal here."Her grip tightened on her son.
Gabrielle stepped forward in front of Xena. "We don't want to steal anything? In fact, we have something for you." She looked back towards Federal, who was patiently waiting. With a nod to him, she stepped out of the way.
He grinned and exhaled in relief, heading up the steps. The woman stepped back. Federal placed the packages on the floor, pulling the scroll out and reading it. Clearing his throat, he began.
"Deirdre Xmoas?"he looked at the woman in question. After a nervous look all around her again to the group, she returned her gaze to Federal and nodded.
His grin widened. "Then, Deirdre Xmoas, Drum Xmoas, Carol Xmoas? I bring you, on special delivery from your Uncle Merri Xmoas, parcels and presents on this festive solstice. With love and happiness."
The woman blinked. "My uncle?"
"Yes."Federal was still grinning. "He hired me to take parcels and goods to all his family before Solstice Day."He began lifting the parcels, holding them out to her.
Her eyes went to all of them. She swallowed. "But, I? I mean, I only saw him when I was little, he left? I?"She swallowed again.
Federal started handing over the parcels. "This one's for Drum."
Two blue eyes peeked around a skirt. "For me?" He looked up at his mother in question. "Ma? can I?"
The woman just nodded, still in shock, as her arms began to fill with packages. Drum immediately came out of hiding, taking the huge package.
Federal turned, lifting the last one. "Now then, this one is a special delivery to a?."he pretended to read as, out of the corner of his eye, he caught the little girl coming into view. "Hmmm, let's see here, I think the name is Sarah?. No? no?not right." He hid his smile as he watched the girl step out from behind her mother's skirt. "Oh, I know, it's Marol."
"Carol."A thumb was instantly replaced in her mouth and sucked. "Notff Mmarol?. My nameff Carollff."
Federal slapped his forehead. "Of course, of course, how silly of me."He knelt down and held out the package. "Carol, it is." He waited, the parcel in his hands.
Gabrielle smiled, leaning into Xena as she watched. Even the stoic warrior had a smile on her lips as she watched, slightly amazed at the transformations in Federal.
Slowly, the girl reached forward, grabbing the package. "Thank foo."Then, just as quickly, she disappeared back into the house.
Federal just grinned.
Mrs Xmoas looked at the goods she had unwrapped, her eyes filling with tears. "I don't, I really don't know what to say? I mean? thank you. I have nothing to give him? or you."
Federal's grin widened. "His thanks are but your smile that I take back. For me, all I need is your mark on this scroll to say I fulfilled his wishes."He pulled the scroll and a charcoal free, offering them over. "He asked me to tell you to make the mark of your grandfather, and the day I brought it to you."
"My grandfather?"The woman frowned for a moment, then her face lit up. "Oh, the eagle." She quickly made the mark, then ticked the box that said delivered on the date required.
Federal took it back, tucking it away in his tunic, then he bowed. "Happy Solstice to you all."
"And, to you? won't you come in? I mean, I don't have much." Her eyes darted to the others. Her head coming forward to whisper, "Do you always travel with so much protection?"
Federal laughed. "No, this is Xena and Gabrielle. They helped me find you. The others?"His grin faltered a little as he looked over the three Amazons. "?they lost something."
The woman's eyes sprung over to Xena. "The? Warrior Princess." Her face began to pale again.
Gabrielle felt Xena stiffen, she quickly stepped forward. "Not for a long time now. Hi, I'm Gabrielle? actually, I need to ask for your help in something."
Finally, the woman looked away from Xena. "Hello? um, sorry, what help?"
"My friends over there have lost some herbs. We were wondering if you knew anything about it?"
All eyes jumped to Drum as he dropped the wooden shield he had just unwrapped.
His mother's voice dropped to a tone only mothers know how to use. "Drummmmmmm?"
"I didn't do nuffing, it wasn't me.'' He blinked, and shifted from foot to foot.
"Drummer Xmoas, you look me right in the eye and tell me you didn't take those plants you brought in this morning?"
He shuffled again. Then, with a huge inhale, he looked up. "I wanted to get you somefink for Solstice, Ma. And they looked so pretty and smelled so nice? I didn't know they belonged to anyone? they were just sitting on the ground?"he sniffed again, his lip beginning to tremble.
Balthasar had stepped from her horse. Now she was stood in front of the boy, looking down at him. "If I may?" She looked at the boy's mother, who gave a not-so-sure nod. Balthasar knelt down to be eye level with the boy. "Do you still have the plants?"
Drum sniffed and nodded.
"I see. Well, I know you took the herbs as a present, and I find it admirable in one so young to wish to honour your mother with a gift. But the herbs were not yours to give, they must be returned. You understand this?"
The boy nodded. His eyes filling, he looked up at his mother, who nodded her head towards the house. Drum quickly left.
"I don't have much? but if you require a fine for him taking your things, I will pay. Just ? well, please don't report it." The mother's voice shook.
Balthasar rose, pushing her cloak back into place. "When the herbs are returned, the matter is finished."
The mother sighed in relief.
Xena casually stepped back, pulling Gabrielle with her, as eight sheep came running out of the house in such a rush that the third one stumbled, ploughing into the others, knocking them down like skittles. Then, with a combined bleat, they all shot out towards the fields. Drum giggled from the doorway, his giggle vanishing when he saw everyone staring at him. He came out, wiping his eyes, and stood in front of the Amazon, holding out the bag. "They didn't eat much. I shooed 'um away."
Balthasar's eyes widened as she took the bags, looking into them, almost sighing in relief. With a nod to all, she turned. As an afterthought, she reached into the herbs and drew out a small handful of each, offering them to the woman. "A son's present should never be returned."
Smiling, the woman took it, inhaling the smell of each before bowing in answer to the Amazons. "Thank you."
With a last nod to Xena and Gabrielle, which they both answered, the Amazon returned to her horse, placing each herb and incense into their wooden chests. She pulled herself into the saddle. "Be well, my friends. Enjoy your Solstice celebrations."Briefly, her eyes scanned the sky. A deeper smile filled her face. Clicking her tongue, she turned her horse into the direction of the north, and all three of them faded into the night.
Federal moved forward. "As much as I would dearly love to stay, I too have places to be before Solstice, and a family to return to. Happy Solstice, Mrs Xmoas."
She suddenly stepped forward, giving him a huge hug and a kiss on the cheek. "No, thank you, Federal? and tell my uncle I want to see him here for next Solstice. And tell him I will make barley sugar. Daddy and he used to like it so much. Can you do that?"
Federal blushed to the roots of his hair, his hand coming to his cheek. "Yes ? yes, of course? of course? goodness me."
"Are you sure you won't stay?"
"No, no? lovely offer, but I have a family to return to before Solstice." He rubbed his cheek again.
Xena was surprised to see the question was also aimed at her. "Thank you, but we have a family waiting in Thebes."
Mrs Xmoas grinned. Picking up all the packages, she ushered her children into the house. "Safe journey, happy Solstice."
"Happy Solstice,"all three replied at once, as the door closed.
After a long pause of silence, Federal finally came out of his haze, his attention going to the bard and warrior. "As for you two, well ? 'thank you' seems such an awfully small payment."
Gabrielle grinned as Federal bowed, taking her hand and placing a kiss on her knuckles. "You know, Gabrielle, if you are ever in Athens, you really must look me up." About to kiss the hand again, his grin froze as he caught a glaring warrior staring right at him. He swallowed hard. "Um? well? yes? must go. Thank you, both." He virtually fell backwards down the steps. "Things to do, places to see and all that, don't you know?" He grabbed Rudolf's reins. "Thank you again? hope the weather holds for you? take care? Happy Solstice."Federal waved before jumping on Rudolf's back and kicking the baying mule towards the trail.
The bard waved back, somewhat surprised at the fast departure. She looked behind to find Xena standing there with an innocent expression. Xena held her gaze. "What?"
"Did you just do the Death Stare?"A note of teasing came into the bard's voice as she crossed her arms.
Xena pointed at herself. "Me?"
"Yes, you." The bard bit her lip. It wasn't often Xena teased back.
"Now, would I?"Baby blues blinked in innocence.
Gabrielle grinned, about to turn, when Xena's hand came down gently on her shoulder. She looked back.
"Do you know what that is?" The warrior nodded upwards, all teasing had gone from her voice.
Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena's gaze to the hanging spruce of berries and leaves above the eaves of the stairs. "No, but I've started to see them on a few houses." She looked at Xena in question.
"It's called mistletoe? it grows on trees along the branches. Around here, it's mostly on the oak?"Xena's eyes met the curious bard's. "Some say it is the soul of the oak."
The bard's eyes went briefly back up to the small, white berries. Then they dropped to the blue eyes locked on her. "That's beautiful."
Xena took a tentative step forward, so now she was almost touching the woman in front of her. Her face tilted down, Gabrielle's breath hitched as her head tilted back.
"It also has another legend." Xena's voice sounded hoarse.
"Oh, it does?" The bard swallowed, finding it hard to look away. As she inhaled, she could see her own breath being breathed in by the warrior.
Xena nodded. "Ahuh."
Gabrielle's throat felt dry, so she swallowed again. "What legend?"
"That if you pass under it, you have to bestow a kiss."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "A? a? kiss?" She felt her heart-rate jump, and with a will of their own, her eyes dipped to the lips just above her.
Xena lowered her head a little more, keeping her eyes locked for any sign that she had made the biggest mistake in her life. "Yes, Gabrielle? a kiss." She lowered her head the last few steps, stopping when she felt the bard's own heated exhale on her mouth. She stopped and waited.
Gabrielle forgot to breathe. Closing her eyes, she moved her head to fill the gap. Her heartbeat became a racing chariot in her chest as her mouth came into contact with the warm full lips before her. Needing to breathe, she exhaled, parting her lips, feeling an arm circle her back. When her eyes opened, she found blue eyes watching her, and for the first time ever, Gabrielle saw a shade of blue in Xena's eyes she had never seen before, and she finally understood everything.
Finally, Xena broke the kiss, inhaling a lung-full of air, her eyes never leaving the green ones studying her.
She wanted to say more, but she knew now wasn't the time. She gave the stunned bard an understanding smile. "Happy Solstice, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle answered the smile with a grin. "Happy Solstice, Xena."
When blue locked onto green, both breaths caught as understanding dawned.
A falling snowflake stood still, a bird froze in flight. There was no explosive starburst of energy or lightning striking. Simply, there on the veranda, two souls finally found each other and fell into place. But two hearts weren't quite ready to cross the bridge to each other.
Xena stepped back, clearing her throat. "We have to? we have to leave now, otherwise we will miss your family."
Gabrielle could only nod.
"Um, right, then it's off to Thebes we go." Xena gave a somewhat embarrassed smile and quickly headed down the steps back to Argo, needing the distance.
Gabrielle's amused eyes followed her. She liked the feeling inside, of the new power she held over her usually controlled friend. "Ahuh..."
With a last look at the house, her mind went over everything that had happened in the two short days. A totally different grin came to her face this time. Biting her lip, she thought. Before heading down the steps, she checked Xena's back was turned. With a little jump, she reached up and grabbed the bunch of mistletoe, tucked it into her rucksack, then ran down the steps to Argo, and Xena's waiting outstretched arm.
Once in behind the warrior, she shuffled closer and got comfortable. "Xena, I just had a great idea for a new scroll."
Xena pulled gently on Argo's reins, moving her onto the path. "Oh, I bet you do, my bard? I bet you do."
The Bible's historical facts were, once again, severely dented during the making of this production.
But, God did give us a sense of humour, so who am I not to use it?
Federal Exprius did indeed go on to form his own successful company, as did his brother Americanus.
Rudolf, however, is still limited to one night per year employment.
Gabrielle never did patent the S.A.T. system. And for that, her ancestors are forever kicking themselves.
Coming soon to a tavern near you.
Gabrielle, the Travelling Bard, presents?
'The True meaning of Xmoas.'
If you feel the need, vote for me. Thank you, and merry Xmoas.
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