Some of the characters herein belong to Rob Tapert. It was not written for profit and no copyright infringement is intended.
This story can be read as a stand-alone, or it could be set sometime in the future of my X&G series. Background - my series took off after the 4th season Xena episode, "The Ides of March." X&G were brought back to life and moved to the Amazon village, where Gabrielle is acting Queen of the Amazons and Xena is her consort. There is maintext here, though no graphic love scenes.
Pronunciations: Zoe/"Zoh-ee" (life); Fira/"Fear-uh" (fire); Charissa/"Kerr-EE-suh" (grace); Aura/"Awr-uh" (breeze)
The wind whistled through the central square of the Amazon village, rattling the windows of a large hut at its edge -- the queen's hut, to be exact, well-built mostly by the queen's own consort, with a little help from their sister Amazons. It was a relatively new hut, much bigger than the one they had occupied for the first several years they'd lived in the village, but one they'd gladly moved to after the birth of their second daughter. A particularly strong gust rocked the entire house and Gabrielle, the queen, arose from her writing desk, setting aside quill and parchment and peering out the window.
Light snow flurries swirled around the courtyard, some of them sticking in lacy patterns to the glass panes Xena had purchased from a peddler's cart during a visit to Amphipolis; glass carefully packed up and brought back to a very pregnant Gabrielle as a gift, along with a beautiful wooden cradle Xena had crafted with her own hands, its headboard decorated with etched trees, stars, birds, and whimsical bears. That cradle had been much-used and greatly-appreciated, and even at that moment bore a tiny, sleeping form, not yet three moons old.
Gabrielle shivered and drew a warm woolen shawl more tightly around her shoulders, a beautifully-woven forest-green gift from Cyrene, her mother-in-law. Shoveled snow was piled three feet deep all along the village perimeter; the drifts in the surrounding woods were even deeper. Winter had set in early, after an even more premature autumn, which had killed most of their crops before the harvest. The village had worked hard, salvaging potatoes, pitifully small carrots, and a few of the more mature ears of corn, but for the most part, the harvest had been a loss.
It had been snowing almost non-stop since early October; days on end of blinding blizzards with only a day or two of clear skies between storms. All the wild things had flown or fled early and far away, south, or underground, into caves and burrows deep in the woods and mountains. Even the fish swam far at the bottom of the frozen pond, down below where thermal pools flowed, tempering the frigid water from above. Food stores were scarce and sparingly doled out among the women and children of the village, and hunting and fishing parties worked hard during each break in the unforgiving weather, bringing in what few scrawny deer and rabbits could be found out in the woods. It was lean eating, but it was a necessary supplement to a food supply of limited duration.
"Mama!" a high-pitched voice squealed from beside the fire, where their middle daughter sat, playing with a set of blocks in many shapes and sizes, and painted in bright colors. Xena had carved those blocks, one by one, during the evenings of a long winter, passing them over to Gabrielle once they were sanded smooth, so the queen could paint them - covering them with letters, numbers, animals, and Amazon symbols. "Mama, look what I builded!"
"Shhhhh!" Gabrielle moved to the fireside and knelt down beside her child. "Fira, you'll wake baby Charissa. Now, what have we here?" She studied a non-descript pile of wood, trying without success to determine what it was supposed to be. "Oh, honey, this is very nice. Why don't you tell Mama all about it?"
"Its' our hut. See?" The little girl pointed at the blocks with long fingers on hands that already promised to be large and capable. The past summer, at the tender age of three, she had stood in a shallow stream beside Xena, and excitedly caught her first bare-handed fish. Gabrielle had been certain Xena was going to burst with pride, right out of her leathers, and have to walk home naked. Not that Gabrielle or most of the Amazons would have minded. Like a fine wine, Xena had only improved with age, and Fira was definitely Xena's child. Her dark hair had grown well-past her shoulders in her four short years of life, matched by long dark lashes that framed eyes as green as Gabrielle's own -- green eyes that reflected the growing wisdom of a natural warrior. "Dere's da front door and dere's mine and Zo-wee's woom."
"Looks like a pile of rocks if you ask me," a persnickety voice called from the nearby rocking chair.
"Zoe, that wasn't very nice. You'd best be kind to your sister. She's going to be bigger than you someday," Gabrielle chastised her oldest. "It's a lovely house, Fira. It's sturdy and warm, just like the one your Terra-mom built for us."
"When is Terra-mom coming home?" Eight-year-old Zoe set aside her beadwork project and eased out of the rocking chair, padding across the floor in moccasin-covered feet to join them on the bearskin rug in front of the fire.
Gabrielle smiled. 'Terra-mom' or 'earth mother' was the name their daughters called Xena. It had started as a joke among the Amazons after Gabrielle turned up pregnant with Zoe. Everyone knew Xena was responsible for her condition, but warrior and bard kept quiet as to how the pregnancy had been accomplished, leading to all manner of speculation as to Xena's bodily functions and parts, and exactly what kind of blood flowed through her veins. The women had taken to calling her 'Gaia' and 'Magna Mater' causing at least one fist-fight.
By the time Zoe was born, the idea had morphed from goddess to the more comfortable 'Terra-mom.' It was less confusing than calling both of them 'Mama,' which was what the children called Gabrielle, and it fit better than the more formal 'mother'. And despite all gossip to the contrary, 'father' or 'papa' would have been completely inappropriate. 'Terra-mom' spoke of a mother of the earth, and that, Xena was -- still a warrior and a hunter who knew the forest, the mountains, and the much of the known world as well as she knew the back of her own hand.
Gabrielle turned to her oldest, tugging at a long, blonde braid. "Your Terra-mom is out hunting. Maybe she'll bring us back a nice big deer for Solstice dinner."
"It's Solstice eve," Zoe pointed out. "She should be home by now, Mama."
"She'll be home tonight." Gabrielle spoke in an assuring tone. "She promised she would be. Now, why don't you help me start making the Solstice dinner?"
"Are we going to make the cookies now?" Zoe smiled at her, her big blue eyes sparkling hopefully in the firelight.
Gabrielle had to smile back at her. Those eyes were so like Xena's, there was almost no difference between the two, and while the hair was all-Gabrielle, the high, well-defined cheekbones were all-Xena. "I've saved back a little bit of flour and honey for that very purpose." And she had, foregoing honey in her morning cup of tea and encouraging Xena to do the same, and cutting back on the size of the loaves of bread she baked for the family, in those times they chose to eat in the privacy of their own home, rather than the common dining hall. Due to the limited stores on hand, there was little difference between the meals she prepared, and those prepared by the village cooks, but both she and Xena enjoyed time alone with their family two or three evenings a week, even if it did mean time spent in meal preparations.
"Can I help?" Fira danced eagerly around them in a circle. "Can I help wit' da cookies?"
"We'll all make the cookies." Gabrielle ushered both girls toward the kitchen table. "How about that? Here." She had already pre-measured and set out the ingredients on the table. "Mix all of the dry things together first, then add the eggs, milk, butter, and honey."
"Oh!" Fira gleefully grabbed the large bowl and dumped all the flour into it.
"Hey!" Zoe snatched it away from her.
"Careful, if you spill it, there won't be any Solstice cookies," Gabrielle warned them, relieved when they both settled down. "Good. Work together, and take turns stirring, okay?"
"O-tay!" Fira squealed.
"Mama, if Terra-mom doesn't bring back a deer, what will we eat for our Solstice dinner?" Zoe carefully mixed butter and honey into the floury concoction.
"Oh, this and that," Gabrielle deftly evaded the question. "It's a surprise."
"I like surprises." Zoe smiled at her and grudgingly slid the bowl across the table for Fira to have a turn at stirring.
"So do I." Gabrielle moved to the finely-crafted butcher block counter Xena had installed under the kitchen window. She lightly ran her fingertips over four potatoes, a small bundle of carrots, and two carefully-hoarded squash gourds. Down in the cellar was a not quite half-full barrel of salted fish. It had been nearly full at the beginning of the fall, but slowly, fish-by-fish, they had shared with some of their sister Amazons, subsisting on fish in lieu of the meager supply of vegetables and grains. So. There would be baked potatoes with butter, carrots she could glaze with some of the honey, and zucchini bread for Solstice dinner, along with fish, if Xena didn't manage to bag a deer or a stringer of rabbits. And cookies for dessert with the last of the milk. Most of the village cows had gone dry or were very close to it. There would be no more milk until there were new calves in the spring.
Well. It wasn't much of a surprise, but maybe the sweet carrots and the fragrant bread would seem special. For breakfast the next day she would make apple pancakes, using a handful of dried apples saved for baking sweet breads and muffins. It would have to do. Maybe Xena would work a miracle and pull a rabbit or two out of her -- Gabrielle smiled sadly. Xena blamed herself for the state of the village food supply. Of course. Xena always blamed herself when the people she loved were hurting. Gabrielle had listened to the warrior's verbal self-flagellation over it more nights than not.
Xena had seen all the signs and had warned the Amazons a hard winter was on the way. The beaver dams were thicker than she'd ever seen them. The birds had flown south early. The furry pelts on the rabbits and other game she killed were fuller than usual. Squirrels were hoarding nuts by the bushel. They'd all begun working from before dawn until after sunset, but there was no forcing the crops to mature before they were ready.
Gabrielle herself had been great with child at the time, and done the best she could, helping to sort the lean supply of vegetables, and making decisions as to how best to save and distribute the food they did have on hand. And so they'd gathered what nuts, berries, and wild roots they could, though many of those were too green to be edible, and they'd sent out trading parties into villages far to the south and the north, in an attempt to negotiate for food stores in exchange for well-made Amazon weaponry, beadwork, tanned hides, and a good portion of the village coffers. Amazon coinage was welcome across Greece and into neighboring countries, thanks to the queen's ongoing diplomatic efforts. If the Amazons made a trade agreement, it was upheld, and if they promised deliverables by a date certain, the goods were on time at the designated location. An Amazon negotiator's word was her bond.
In the end, all the good will they had built up made little difference. Village sages far and wide predicted the coming hard winter and food was hoarded from the wealthiest castle to the poorest of bergs. There was precious little for the buying, and in the end, they managed to procure only a few cases of corn meal and several bushels of potatoes. Cornbread and potatoes - mashed, baked, boiled, and fried - had become the staples of most village meals, even as they watched the butter supply dwindle with each new dawn. The only thing more monotonous than cornbread and potatoes three times a day would be dry cornbread and potatoes, three times a day. No, Gabrielle corrected her morose thoughts - monotonous would be having no food on the table. If it came down to dry, tasteless meals, she'd gladly accept them over nothing at all.
As fall drew near, Xena and the other hunters had hunted and fished day in and out, but many of the animals disappeared or went into early hibernation. Even the fish weren't biting and seemed to avoid their nets, slipping away into depths no human could reach. Before the turning leaves had finished falling from the trees, the first storm hit, and there had been snowdrifts on the ground ever since. As Gabrielle howled out her pangs of childbirth, a cold, chill wind howled outside, welcoming their third daughter into the world with a white, frosty blanket.
Gabrielle looked out the window at the gray clouds and the dead, bare tree branches. The light was already fading, signaling the coming night. Frowning, she retrieved her heavy cloak from a hook beside the front door, and donned it, then pulled on her thick furry boots. "I'm going to go talk to your Aunt Kallerine. Be careful with the cookie dough. When you're finished mixing, go ahead and put the cookie balls on the sheet, but don't put it in the oven until I get back. Zoe, if the fire looks like it's going down, put a log or two on, but remember to close the screen again once you've finished."
"Okay, Mama." Zoe wiped her flour-covered hands on a dishrag and moved to Gabrielle's side, reaching up for a hug. "I love you, Mama."
"I love you, too, Zoe." Gabrielle kissed her daughter's head and rubbed her back and arms. Already, Zoe was developing the lean, strong muscles of a skilled archer. "Did you and Aunt Eponin have target practice yesterday morning before the hunting party left?"
"No, Mama, they were too busy getting ready. I just went with Terra-mom to the practice yard and helped them sort the arrows before they packed them up." She looked up, smiling. "Terra-mom said next year I might be able to go with them."
"Hmmm." Gabrielle stroked her fair head. "We'll see. Are you sure you want to be a hunter?"
"No, Mama," Zoe answered earnestly. "I'm not going to be a hunter. At least not like Terra-mom is. I'm going to be queen someday."
Gabrielle's breath caught silently in startlement. They'd talked about it, but it was the first time Zoe had clearly stated her understanding of her rite of caste as Gabrielle's firstborn. "Honey." Gabrielle searched her daughter's face for any signs of reluctance. "You'll make a fine queen someday, but if you ever decide you don't want to be, you'll come to me, please?"
"Oh, but Mama, I do want it." Zoe's eyes sparkled with the budding knowledge of her future duties. "Everyone does something when they grow up. You're queen. Aunt Eponin teaches us how to fight. Terra-mom teaches us how to hunt and make a camp. Terra-mom takes care of our family, doesn't she?"
"Every day, honey," Gabrielle whole-heartedly agreed.
"Mama, what will happen to us if someday Terra-mom doesn't come home?" Mournful blue eyes looked to Gabrielle for reassurance.
"Don't be silly." Gabrielle forced a smile. "Listen to me. A long time ago, your Terra-mom promised me she'd never leave me. So I have to believe that no matter what, she is always going to come back home to me."
"Because she promised?"
"Exactly." Gabrielle kissed her head again, and then gave her a swat on the behind. "Now, go look after your sisters for me, until I get back."
"Yes, Mama." Zoe gave her one last squeeze and then re-joined Fira at the table, just in time to rescue the butter from dropping to the floor from Fira's well-greased fingers.
Gabrielle released a breath and ducked out the front door, closing it behind her and shivering as the icy wind hit her full in the face.
"Come on Aura, just a little further," Xena urged on her horse, Argo's daughter. Argo herself was back home in the village stables in a specially-built stall, a place of honor for the elderly equine, after years of service to Xena and by extension, the Amazon nation. Aura resembled her, in a slightly darker shade of golden coat, with tufts of mahogany mixed into the flaxen white of her mane and tail, and a handsome set of gorgeous stockings, that blended from chestnut to mahogany, then faded into the golden upper legs, a reminder that her sire was Eponin's handsome dark bay war stallion, Apollo. And she had lived up to her name, with strong, fast legs that carried her along as swiftly as the morning breeze.
There was no swiftness to her gait at present, though. Instead, she fought for every step, breaking a path through snowdrifts that at times reached almost to her chest. So they took it slow and easy, giving Aura time to feel her way, and Xena time to discern her surroundings, altered from lack of the usual landmarks, long-buried under their cold, winter shroud. It was the furthest she'd traveled between blizzards, and she repeatedly looked up and over her shoulder, watching the gathering clouds, gauging distance, her nostrils flaring as the growing cold scent of fresh snow reached her senses.
Periodically she stopped long enough to tie thick pieces of rope, dyed bright orange, around tree trunks along the way, marking her path in the event visibility was compromised for the return trip. The warrior in her would never have marked her path so clearly, an easy trail for enemies to follow. The mother and partner in her knew that her family was counting upon her safe return to the village. Besides, no enemy in their right mind would have chosen such a day to follow her. Behind her, Aura pulled an empty sleigh with high, boxed sides; one the warrior hoped would be full by the time she arrived home. If only . . .
Her face hardened and she defiantly threw back the fur hood covering her head, the better to hear even the slightest change in the lilting notes of the wind. Her thick, deer-skin coat, lined with un-spun wool was warm -- water and wind-proof, expertly made by one of the village elders. On her lower body she wore a matching set of thick leggings, a tall pair of equally-warm, fur-covered boots adorning her feet. She rode bare-back, partly to lighten Aura's load, should she fill the sled, and partly because the thick fur boots precluded the use of stirrups. Her sword and other supplies were tied down tightly in the sled, and on her body she carried only a quiver of arrows and her long bow, along with two finely-crafted daggers tucked into each boot top.
She'd sent the others in the hunting party home a few candle marks earlier with a meager half dozen rabbits, assuring them she'd not be out much longer. She'd asked Eponin to reiterate her promise to Gabrielle to be home for Solstice. They'd argued bitterly before Eponin gave in. Even as she stomped off, away from Xena, the older Amazon had muttered loud and long that the queen was going to throw her in the brig for returning without the warrior.
Xena frowned. Surely she would be home soon. Her goal was only over the next rise, wasn't it? Though, she admitted ruefully, with each new hill she thought she'd reached the middle leg of her journey, only to top it and see nothing but more bare trees and more endless snowdrifts. The path was taking her ever higher, into the foothills of the mountains, and slowly, she began to see evergreens mixed in with the naked deciduous trees.
From time to time, she considered turning around, but she'd come this far, and going home empty-handed was unthinkable. Was she crazy? They'd hunted for nearly two days, cutting a wide circle around the village, stopping only long enough to sleep for a few candle marks in the shelter of an old stone quarry, its high rock walls providing welcome relief from the frozen wind to both Amazons and horses. There had been no more than three days between blizzards, and to keep going was pushing her luck.
Snowflakes fell lightly around her, landing on her eyelashes, as cold-induced tears squeezed from the corners of her eyes and froze on her cheeks. She pulled up her soft, lambs-wool muffler, loving knitted by Gabrielle in a complimentary shade of navy blue. It was brushed until all traces of scratchiness were gone, leaving only chamois-soft material against her wind-chapped face.
She pressed on, urging Aura with a light squeeze of her thighs and low, soothing clicks of her tongue against her teeth. It was a hard task, breaking a path in un-touched snow, and she was grateful to the young mare for her efforts. It beat all Tartarus out of snowshoeing, especially for what amounted to a wild goose chase -- a rumor of an abandoned village in the foothills, its people vanished for reasons unknown, leaving behind a completely-empty town, if the stories were true. She'd seen the place in question many years earlier when Gabrielle was first establishing herself as acting queen of the Amazons.
It was, or had been, a small nameless hamlet comprised mostly of a group of people all related to one another, who had little use for Amazons or treaties. Gabrielle had tried, in vain, to work out a mutually-beneficial trade agreement with them, but they were a suspicious people that kept to themselves, loath to mix with outsiders, much less a group of 'morally-compromised wild women' - their words during broken down diplomatic talks. And so the Amazons had chosen to leave them be, giving them reasonable berth in their own travels and hunting expeditions.
Xena had given them little thought until six moons earlier, when she'd happened upon a group of gypsies camping in the woods, who spoke of the village, describing it exactly as she remembered it, save its complete lack of habitation. Whether disease or failed crops or other circumstances had intervened, for whatever reason, the place was allegedly vacant. She'd never been much for wishing on stars or having Solstice dreams, but if only she could find that village, it just might change everything.
Gabrielle crossed the square, her head ducked down against the wind. After all her admonishments to her children regarding freezing their ears off, she had managed to leave the hut without her fur hood. Xena did it all the time, as the girls were prone to pointing out to her, making it rather difficult for her to argue with them beyond a parental 'do as I say, not as your Terra-mom does' ultimatum. She'd hated such rules when she was growing up, and was chagrined to find she, herself, had become every bit a mom. Snow flakes fell steadily around her, though not too thickly just yet, but she need only look up to the sky to see the growing bank of snow clouds just over the bare treetops. Another storm was brewing, threatening the village with more desolate, icy solitude.
She reached the dining hall and slipped inside, the wind catching the door and ripping it from her grasp, slamming it behind her as she blew into the large, mostly-empty room. A few women were gathered at a table, hovering over thick, steaming mugs of tea. As she approached them, she recognized most of them as members of the village guard, most likely girding themselves for their turn at the gates, away from the warming shelter of partners and fireplaces. "Hello," she greeted them casually, taking a seat at the end of the table.
"My queen." Several of them nodded in deferment to her status, though most of them knew her to be friendly and approachable for either serious discussion or simple idle conversation. She'd worked hard to find the balance between the firm hand it took to rule an often headstrong group of independent women, and the more comfortable inclination of her naturally-outgoing personality. It was her wise and unwavering leadership that had earned her their respect; her strength of heart that had earned her their devotion. They might sometimes disagree with her decisions, but there wasn't a one of them that wouldn't lay down their life for her.
"Thank you." She accepted a mug of tea from one of the servers, inhaling its strong, slightly-spicy overtones and the much-missed sweet fragrance of honey and mint leaves. She could also smell Solstice dinner, the scent of fish and cornbread wafting into the room from the cook stoves in the next room. All Amazons who did not wish to dine in their huts, would gather for Solstice dinner in the large hall. At midnight, the entire village would join together around a central bonfire to pass out treats to the children, and to celebrate the longest night, and the promise of spring to come. Surely, it would come, wouldn't it?
Wrapping her cold hands around the ceramic vessel, Gabrielle cautiously sipped, finding the temperature just right, as the sweet beverage slid down her throat, warming her from the inside, out. Finally, she looked up, effecting a casualness she didn't feel. "Any word of the hunting party?"
"The outer watch signaled their return, my queen," Ariana, one of the younger Amazon guard members answered her. "They are less than a candle mark's travel away."
"Was the hunt successful?" Gabrielle asked, this time allowing some enthusiasm into her voice. She could relax now. Xena was on her way home.
"They didn't say," Kallerine answered her. The willowy Amazon stood, moving around to Gabrielle's side. "My queen, may I have a word with you privately?"
"Of course." Gabrielle noted furtive glances in her direction and stood, leading the head of her guard unit to a corner table. Kallerine had once been her personal bodyguard in Xena's absence, a prodigy of sorts, skilled beyond her then-tender years in the art of both the hunt and of assassination. Now-seasoned, she'd come into her own, rising up among the ranks of her peers to become head of the entire Amazon guard unit, the peace-time equal to their army. Eponin was still the weapons-master and lead trainer, and Xena was the un-challenged general of the Amazon army, but there had been nothing larger than minor skirmishes for many years. The guard unit did just as their title implied - protected the village from unwanted intrusion, human or otherwise.
"Gabrielle." Kallerine leaned across the table between them, her face sadly earnest. "Xena wasn't with them. The call that came in specifically omitted her name."
"Any reason given as to why?" Gabrielle's heart suddenly grew cold, colder than the driven snow that blew and whirled across the courtyard, just beyond the door.
"No." Kallerine tentatively patted her hand. "She's the only one missing, though."
"She's okay," Gabrielle responded, her voice adamant. "I'd know if anything had happened to her. I just would. Keep me posted, please. I'd like to greet the party when they return."
"Certainly." Kallerine stood again, as Gabrielle did. "Do you want me to see you back to your hut?"
"No." Gabrielle rolled her eyes slightly at the protective formality that often hung over the title of 'queen' like noose. She could see her hut from the dining hall. Even in a blizzard she would have been completely safe. In an abundance of caution, the Amazons had strung ropes and chains between buildings, easing navigation about the village during the blinding snow storms.
"Gabrielle," Kallerine called to her, and she turned. "Shall I tell the village there will be no celebration tonight? It's so cold out, and the blizzards are coming again."
"No," Gabrielle answered firmly. "The celebration will go on. The women need hope." She looked down for a moment, fighting emotions she needed to keep in check. Looking up, her eyes swam with unshed tears. "We all need hope." She turned, and left the hall behind for the unkind cold.
The wind blew harder, creeping beneath her coat and forcing her to pull her hood back over her head. It would do no good to come home with fever or the coughing sickness. She was in enough hot water as it was, though, she chuckled, hot water sounded awfully good at the moment. Aura looked back at her and snorted her disgust at the situation, before turning once again, head down, as they plodded on.
"I know, girl." Xena patted the mare's neck. "Just a little further. Then we go home." Dared she tell the devoted beast home was a good five candle marks' travel away?
The sunless sky was fading to dusk, the twilight coming, and with each step, the cold seemed greater, and home very far away. Xena drew a piece of dried deer jerky from her pocket, gnawing on it, not really tasting it. Her body needed fuel, and so she ate, followed by several swallows from a water flask she kept tucked against her body so its contents wouldn't freeze. The snow was falling steadily, dusting her coat and Aura's as well with a light, sugary powder. She listened intently, thankful that thus far, the wild notes of a blizzard remained absent from the wind. It was steady, and it was cold, but she'd gladly suffer it the whole way home if only it would remain static.
At last, they topped a hill after a long, almost-vertical struggle up a snowy embankment, and down in a valley below was the village she sought. It seemed even tinier than she remembered it, and searching each snow-covered roof, she saw no smoke coming from the chimneys, or any other signs of life. She also noted, with some disgruntlement, that the snow shovel she'd brought along was going to get a workout. Uninhabited villages didn't get their paths cleared, and most of the structures of the small berg were buried up to their windowsills.
Still, she'd found it. It remained to be seen if her efforts would pay off. "Come on, girl." With renewed energy, she guided the weary mare down the other side of the hill and into snow that came up to Xena's knees, even on Aura's back. "Whoa, easy." They picked their way carefully as Aura used what amounted to horse sense break their path to the deserted huts. It took much longer than it seemed it should have but finally, they reached the perimeter and Xena studied each structure, locating what appeared to be a medium-sized barn. "How about I put you in here, while I explore? Would that suit you?"
As if she understood, Aura shook her head and side-stepped through the show, almost dumping the sleigh over in her enthusiasm.
"Figured." Xena chuckled, looking forward to the brief bit of shelter herself.
After shoveling the barn door free, she lifted the cross-bar and opened the door wide, allowing what little light was left inside. Stepping into its blessedly windless interior, she blinked, adjusting to the darkness. There were no other creatures inside, not even a mouse, as far as she could tell. Against one wall were stacked bales of hay, several bags of what appeared to be oats, and a half dozen barrels bearing gods knew what.
She unhitched Aura from the sled and led the tired mare inside, where she rubbed her down and dumped a forkful of the hay into a trough. Sniffing the hay, she found it to be relatively fresh, and noted the barn itself was tightly-sealed. Ripping open a bag of oats, she found no signs of mold. Only some of the lower bags had been torn open by tiny rodent teeth, but the upper ones remained unscathed. "Those are going home with us on the sled," she noted gleefully.
With a crowbar, she pried open a barrel to find it full of dried apples, once again with no notable spoilage. "'So are those." She quickly added oats to Aura's meal, reserving apples for a treat later. Nibbling at a handful, she found the apples tartly-sweet, and grinned, knowing how much both the women and children back at home would appreciate her find.
Now. She gave Aura a pat on the rump. "I need to look around, girl. You stay here and rest, and eat. And whinny if you need me, okay?"
Aura turned briefly, lipping a lock of Xena's long, dark hair, before she turned back to her feast.
With a deep breath, Xena left the shelter of the barn and donned her show shoes. Though it had only been a brief respite, the return to the biting cold was shocking, taking her breath away. Heavy, wet snowflakes fell and she swatted at them as she trod through the deep drifts toward what appeared to be the center of the village. She brushed away a cap of obscure snow, to discover the village well beneath it, covered with a heavy, round slab of wood. Beneath the snow, several inches of ice covered it and she left it alone. If she grew thirsty she had water, not to mention more snow than she ever hoped to see again.
Though the buildings were blanketed with snow, the general appearance was tidy, as if the exodus from it had been planned. The shutters were all closed, as were the doors, and unless they were buried in snow, not a single object had been left out in the open. Even the ropes had been removed from the clothes-lines. Frowning deeply, she looked around, trying to determine which building to explore first.
At the end of a row of buildings was one that was larger than the others. The place was too small to harbor an inn; not to mention it was much too out of the way for one to be profitable. Still, most villages had some sort of central meeting house, so perhaps that was what it was. With the rhythm of one used to using snow-shoes, Xena struggled toward it, her shovel slung over one shoulder. Along the way she stopped at each hut, prying open shutters and peering through windows. All the huts were the same: empty except for furniture, and neatly-cleaned with not a single item out of place.
"I hate snow!" she yelled to the empty town, as she neared the end of the narrow lane. Resolutely, she reached the large building and dug in, muttering under her breath at the weather gods as she flung heavy shovels-full of the wet, white curse into piles beside her. With a tug and another great yell, she jimmied the door open and stepped inside.
Next to the door was a table, on which lay a flint and striker, and a candle in a holder. She lit it and looked around. It was, indeed, some sort of large dining hall with a number of tables and benches arranged around a central stone oven and cooking ring. Over the cold stone hung a large kettle and along one wall was a tall, orderly pile of firewood. She removed her coat and gathered some of the wood, and soon had a warm fire burning.
There was no sign of life. Not a single plate lay out on the tables. Even the cooking area had been swept completely clean, all ash removed and the hearth scrubbed bone-white. Shelves along one wall bore neat stacks of dishes, pots, and pans. A set of crockery caught her eye and she got up, hurrying toward it and opening the largest jar. It was empty, as was each successive jar she picked up. She could still smell the soap they had been cleaned with. Sighing, she and sat down on a nearby bench, resting her elbows on the table as she buried her face in her hands, scrubbing at her snow-burned eyes.
What had happened to the people in the village? Where had the gone? It was obvious they hadn't fled. The place was lovingly left as if they hoped to return someday. And though they'd left some possessions behind, they'd left no food, at least none in any central storage area that she could see. Only the barn and the building she occupied appeared to be anything other than a common, small hut.
"Oh, Gabrielle," she mourned softly. "I've failed." The Amazon's horses and cows would have a new food supply, so the trip was not a complete waste, but six barrels of apples would hardly sustain an entire village of women and children through the rest of the winter. Perhaps they could work with the feed-quality oats to prepare meals. She'd seen the food storage area back home. It was more than half empty and Gabrielle had haltingly mentioned the possible need to lock it up and post a guard if the situation didn't improve.
And what of Gabrielle? The bard had rapidly lost her baby weight, more rapidly than with her other pregnancies, due to her own stubbornness in following the food rationing rules she'd set for the other Amazons to follow. This, despite the fact she was nursing Charissa. Xena had feigned lack of hunger on many evenings, insisting Gabrielle finish her meal for her. She'd gladly watched the bard devour her leftovers, her own hunger receding as the bard in turn nursed their daughter with a plentiful supply of milk.
It was all that mattered -- that her family thrive and survive. True, she had grudgingly come to care for the Amazons they shared their lives with, but they would never be her family or even her sisters. Not in the way Gabrielle seemed to think of them. No, for Xena, her family stopped at their front door. The four people inside their hut that depended on her were, ultimately, all that mattered to her, when push came to shove.
It was a miracle, this family she'd made and loved. More than she'd ever dared dream about, and certainly more than she'd ever thought she'd need. She had, at first, resented the Amazon law that required Gabrielle to bear children, a daughter, to be specific, to carry on as queen someday. They'd both suffered the heartache and loss of a child. It had almost torn them apart, and the thought of going through all that again had been almost more than she could stand.
But love had won out, and it was that love that had ultimately given them their daughters. Only daughters, as Artemis had told her. Two women could not produce a son together. They rarely talked about it and barely understood it, but once she'd held Zoe in her arms, everything had changed. Their three girls were equal parts of both of them - formed of their blood, born of their love. The merging that brought them to seed had been sweet, their births all the sweeter. They were hers, to love and protect with a fierceness that sometimes frightened her in its intensity. She'd kill for them, and she'd die for them. A little walk in the snow was nothing, by comparison.
However, she acknowledged, if the journey home didn't kill her, Gabrielle most likely would, if she didn't get there soon. It was late, the light outside fading rapidly. With a heavy heart she got up. It was time to go, and at least she had apples and oats to show for her little side trip. Hopefully, Eponin had saved at least one rabbit for the queen's table, though knowing Gabrielle, she'd probably tell the weapons-master to give it to one of the other families.
Xena went to the fireside and picked up a poker, kneeling down to put it out the flames. It was then that she noticed a small rug on the floor in the corner.
Gabrielle opened the front door of the hut, to be greeted by a crying baby. "Are the cookies ready for the oven?" She removed her coat and hung it back up on the wall.
"Yes, Mama." Zoe moved to help her. "And I changed Charissa. Her diaper was wet, but she won't stop crying, even when I rock the cradle."
"Thank you for changing her, honey." Gabrielle ruffled Zoe's head. "She's probably hungry. "Why don't you help Mama by chopping the carrots, while I feed her? And Fira, you can scrub the potatoes clean. Then we'll put the cookies in the oven and start making the zucchini bread."
"Yes, Mama." Zoe went back to the kitchen area and removed a knife from a tall clay holder.
"Zuchhi bread!" Fira shouted joyfully. Like Xena, Fira would eat anything Gabrielle set in front of her, but also like Xena, the child was especially prone to loving sweet and spicy treats.
"Yes, sweetie, zucchini bread, and an extra special surprise for breakfast in the morning." Gabrielle moved to the cradle and lifted Charissa, holding her against her chest and bobbing up and down as she rubbed her back. "Shhhhhh," she whispered into the baby's tiny ear.
A small fist beat at her chest, a pair of pursed lips instinctively searching for what she wanted. "I know, you're a hungry girl." Gabrielle sat down in the rocking chair, unbuttoning the front of her tunic and pushing it to one side as she guided her daughter to her breast. "Ouch!" Charissa latched on with a vengeance, suckling hard, her little cheeks moving rapidly in and out, as contented, gurgling, swallowing noises reached Gabrielle's ears. "Guess you were really hungry." She cradled the fuzzy, dark head. "Appetite just like Xena's."
Gabrielle sat back in the chair, idly rocking as the baby nursed. Outside the window, the show was falling steadily, blotting out the dim evening light in odd, eerie patterns. Once upon a time, Gabrielle had found new-fallen show to be magical and beautiful. Now, she simply found it horrid and dreaded the coming months.
Would her children's stomachs go empty? It was a thought she tried to shove aside, but it came with increasing frequency, haunting her dreams, and she wondered how they would survive until spring, especially if the storms lasted until May, as Xena had quietly told her she feared they would. What if her milk dried up from hunger? What would she feed Charissa?
What if --? She tried to push aside the most horrible thought of all, but it was there, prodding at the walls of her heart. What if Xena didn't come home? What would happen to them then? Sure, she was the queen. The Amazons would take care of her and her family, Xena or no Xena. Logically, she knew that. She need not fear for her children.
But her heart -- it ached. For a very long time, Xena had been all the family she'd known or needed, their children an extension of their love. Before the Amazons, before Caesar's crosses, and long before they dared to define the emotions between them, that love had grown and strengthened, through the most dire of circumstances. She was queen of the Amazons by rite of cast from Terreis, but there was a part of Gabrielle that would never belong to the Amazons, even after all their years in the village. Her life began and ended with Xena. Xena was all she'd ever dreamed or wanted to be a part of.
There was a time when she believed that upon Xena's death, she herself would take Xena's sword and fall on it, and join her. The pain of separation would be so great, it would not be worth her beating heart. But the sad knowledge was that now there were three little ones depending on her for their lives. Should anything happen to Xena, she would carry on for their children, though her own heart would be dead and broken.
"Mama?" Fira tugged at her sleeve, drawing her out of her morose musings.
"What, baby?" Gabrielle touched a rosy cheek, and gently pried Fira's thumb from her mouth. "Remember, big girls don't suck their thumbs."
"I not big," Fira's small voice answered. With a struggle, she crawled up into Gabrielle's lap, tucking against her on the side not occupied by Charissa.
"No, honey. None of us are big right now, I don't guess." She wrapped her free arm around her middle child, hugging the small body to her.
A commotion caught her ear and she looked out the window. The hunting party had returned. Before she could rise from her chair, a knock sounded at the door. "Zoe, would you get that, please?"
"Yes, Mama." Zoe opened the door and a snow-covered form entered the hut, shaking until snow fell on the entry-way rug, and the face morphed into that of Eponin. "Auntie Eponin! Hi!"
"Hi," Gabrielle greeted her listlessly.
"Hello, Gabrielle, girls." Eponin removed her cloak and hung it on an empty peg. She knelt down. "Zoe, Fira, come here."
Fira slid from Gabrielle's lap, running on baby feet across the floor to join Zoe and their 'aunt.' "Why don't you two put on your coats and go over to the dining hall? I hear Senticles has left some Solstice treats over there." Eponin winked at Gabrielle, and helped the excitedly-chattering girls into their wraps, ushering them out the door, but not before one long, knowing, backward glace from Zoe.
Outside, Gabrielle heard the joyful laughter of other children, and was grateful the diversion was a real one. "Go on." She shooed at her daughters. "Go have fun." With heavy heart, she watched them leave. "Thank you." She gently disengaged Charissa from her breast and covered herself, then lay the baby back down in her cradle. "So, tell me when I can expect Xena home."
"I brought you a rabbit," Eponin offered hopefully. "It's hanging up just outside."
"Keep it. I've already got fish ready to fry." Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest. "Now, tell me where Xena is."
"Gabrielle, she promised she'd be home tonight." Eponin cautiously approached their level-headed queen; level-headed except when it came to her tall, dark, and still-dangerous-after-all-these-years partner.
"And she's not with you now, why, exactly?" Gabrielle placed her hands on her hips and tapped one agitated toe.
"She went searching for a village." Eponin stopped, noting Gabrielle's staff leaning against the mantle, easily within the queen's reach. There was only one weapons class Eponin didn't teach. Staff. Not when there was a greater master of the weapon willing to teach. When the master wasn't busy signing treaties, that is.
"We have a perfectly good village right here," Gabrielle persisted. "Why, pray tell, did she need to find another one?"
"Gabrielle." Eponin held up one hand and gestured toward the padded sofa. "May I please sit down? I've been walking in knee-high snow non-stop for three candle marks. I haven't even been home to Raella yet. I came directly here."
"I'm sorry. Yes, please." Gabrielle held both hands to her head, raking her fingers through her long hair and pushing it back. "I'm sure she thought she had good reason to go searching for whatever it is she hopes to find, but dammit, Ep, I am going to kick her warrior butt when she gets home for not discussing it with me first." She moved to the stove and poured hot water over a tea ball and into a cup, adding honey and stirring it. "Here, you must be cold."
"Thanks." Eponin gratefully accepted the steaming mug. "I tried to talk her out of it, but you know how she is, once she gets her mind set on something. She was talking crazy about finding food in this village. You'll probably remember it. A bunch of in-breeders that won't have anything to do with us. You know -- way up in the hills."
"THAT village?!" Gabrielle threw her hands into the air and began pacing back and forth in front of the fire. "Ep, that place is leagues from here. How long ago did you leave her?"
"I dunno. Three, maybe four candle marks." Eponin shrugged. "Look, Gabrielle. Xena is a sensible woman. If it gets too dark, or too cold, or another storm comes, she'll hole up in that village until it passes. She'll be home, eventually."
"And what if she doesn't find it?" Gabrielle spun around, facing her. "What then? You know her, Ep, she won't give up until she does. She's just that stubborn."
"She loves you. She'll be home. She's just that stubborn," Eponin shot back.
"You don't know how much I want to believe that." Gabrielle finally broke, her insides shaking, though she didn't cry. Sitting down in the rocking chair, she leaned over and picked up Charissa, holding her close to comfort herself. "I believe in her. You know I do."
"And how!" Eponin got up and stepped across the rug, sitting down on the hearth next to the queen's chair. "I sometimes suspect that belief is what keeps her going. She's done some impossible things, you know?" She glanced meaningfully at Charissa. "I'd bet my last pair of warm socks that it will take something bigger than a measly old blizzard to beat the warrior princess. Do you know, I still think of her that way - that crazy, wild woman who busted into the middle of our war with the centaurs and took Melosa to her knees in order to save our feathered butts?"
"So do I, but not very often anymore. It's hard, Ep. She's not the same person she was back then. I look at her now and see her walking around the village with feathers and beads braided into her hair, teaching the junior Amazons how to hunt and trap, or crawling around the floor here with Zoe and Fira hanging off her back, and I forget who she is -- what she's capable of."
"How about the time she single-handedly dammed the river and prevented the village from flooding, hmmm?" Eponin patted Gabrielle on the leg.
"How about the time Zoe got so sick with the fever. Remember?" Gabrielle kissed Charissa's head in reflex, as Eponin nodded. "I see things no one else does, Ep. Xena's human, just like the rest of us. We thought Zoe was going to die. She was so tiny and helpless. I'd gone to the healer's to pick up more herbs, and when I got back, Xena was sitting right there where you are, holding her. She was weeping, Ep -- inconsolable. She said she didn't know what she'd do if Zoe died. Especially after --" Gabrielle looked down, swiping a hand across her eyes. "After Solan. She prayed that night, to any god who would listen. I haven't heard her pray since right after Perdicus died." Her voice grew soft.
"Why did she pray over that?" Eponin cocked her head to the side in question.
"Long story, for another time." Gabrielle slowly got up, hearing Zoe and Fira's footsteps outside the door. "Ep, I don't blame you. I'm just frustrated, but I know there's no stopping her. Go home to Raella. I'll see you at the bonfire, okay?"
"Hang in there, Gab." Eponin also stood, taking her cloak from the wall and wrapping it around her shoulders. "She'll be home. You just keep believing in her. That magic is every bit as potent now as it was the day she became your champion." She tweaked the bard's nose, searching for, and finding, just the slightest hint of the kid from long ago in Gabrielle's eyes.
"Go on." Gabrielle sniffled and gave her a little shove, just as the door opened and her daughters came tumbling inside, their hands full of sweets.
"Mama, we gots candies!" Fira yelled in delight. "See!" She held out a caramel apple in one hand, a bag of honey-glazed nuts in the other
"I see." Gabrielle helped them out of their coats and ushered them to the fireside. "Here, you two get warm. I'll make you both a cup of tea."
"Where's Terra-mom?" Zoe asked quietly.
"She's been delayed, but she'll be home." Gabrielle forced a smile for her daughter.
"You're lying!" Zoe stood and ran across the room and out the front door.
"Zoe!" Gabrielle yelled, to no avail. The door slammed. "Dirty words, dirty words," she muttered. "Fira." She marched across the room and picked Fira up, placing her in the rocking chair. "You sit here, and don't you move until I get back."
"Mama?" Fira's lower lip trembled. "What I do?"
"Oh, sweetie." Gabrielle hugged her. "You didn't do anything. I need to go after Zoe and I want to make sure you stay safe while I'm gone. So sit there, please, and be my big girl?"
"O-tay." Fira looked up at her with complete adoration. The expression was so much like Xena's it nearly took Gabrielle to her knees. "Fira be good. Mama go get Zoe."
"Good girl," Gabrielle praised her, as she shrugged into her cloak. She grabbed Zoe's coat from the wall and headed out into the night.
The rug was all out of place. It should have been folded up and put away, she was certain of it. It wasn't in keeping with the complete tidiness of the rest of the village. Unless -- Xena set the poker aside and got up, moving to the rug and lifting it, coughing as dust flew up around her. She released a frustrated breath. Nothing but bare floor. She put the rug back, bending down to straighten it, when her fingertips brushed across a seam. Retrieving her candle from the table, she returned and kicked the rug aside. She couldn't see it at first, but she could feel it, and stooping down and looking closer, the faintest rectangular line was there, cutting through the smooth wooden floor. If she ran her hand across one side, just next to the seam, she felt the slightest set of bumps, a place where perhaps at one time there had been a handle. It had been removed, the holes sanded over.
"I'll be damned." She went and got the poker, silently apologizing to the absent villagers as she dug the sharp tip into the floor, gouging the flawless wood and wedging the poker into the seam. At first it felt solid, but then it gave, and she lifted the large rectangular trap door, revealing a set of stairs going down into a cellar beneath the building.
Taking a long flaming stick from the fire, she descended the stairs until she reached the packed-dirt floor below. Slowly she turned in a circle, her breath catching. Barrels and crates lined the walls, along with bins full of potatoes, turnips, gourds, and apples. What appeared to be a good two dozen bushel-sacks of flour were stacked on deep shelves built into the walls. Jars of herbs and teas, and preserved fruits and vegetables were lined up above those, next to great slabs of cheese, and stringers of onions and sweet corn hung from the ceiling. It all smelled fresh. It was more than she would be able to take home in one trip. "I'll be back here." She nodded in satisfaction.
As she turned, she spotted two wooden chests tucked beneath the stairs. Approaching them, she noted a piece of rolled parchment stuck between them. She placed her torch in a bracket on the wall and plucked up the parchment, unrolling it and holding it up to the light so she could see it. It read:
Kind stranger. If you are reading this, you have found our secret trap door and entered our storehouse. Welcome to our village.
A great plague took half our people. We ran out of healer's herbs, and fearing our kind would die out, we were forced to leave. We know not if or when we'll be back. We've taken what we could with us. The chests before you hold the last of our gold. Two more like it, we took with us in our wagons. These two were left behind for safekeeping, in the event we are waylaid along our path and robbed of what we've taken with us.
Take from our village what you will. If there is good food left, it is yours. Our furniture can be replaced, as can our very homes. But this gold is what we will need to rebuild our lives if and when we return. We ask that you leave it be.
"Huh?" Xena rolled the parchment up and held it up to the torch flame, burning it. "Why didn't they bury the damned chests?" she mused. "Guess they were in that much of a hurry." But why would they take the time to completely clean every nook and cranny of every hut, and not bury their greatest treasure?
She knelt down, her knee meeting with soft, loose soil, out of keeping with the rest of the hard-packed floor. "Or maybe they weren't in such a hurry after all." Grinning, she pulled out a boot dagger, using it to pick the lock on one of the chests. Opening it, she gasped aloud. It was full of gold ore. Quick work on the other chest revealed more of the same -- raw unfired ore, probably plucked directly from the nearby mountains. She tugged both chests away from the wall, encountering a large indention in the dirt.
"Drachmas to dinars, I'll bet there are more chests down there." She located a shovel and dug only a few inches before she hit wood. "Yep." Laughing, she covered it up again and shoved the two chests back against the wall, covering her work. "Decoys to keep someone from stealing all the gold. Very clever. Wonder how many more chests are buried in this town?" She stamped down the soil she'd dug, then used the shovel to smooth over her footprints.
"But right now, the real gold is all that food over there. Poor Aura, she's got her work cut out for her." Whistling, she took the stairs back up, two at a time. With any luck she'd have the sled packed up and be home in time for the Solstice bonfire. Her whistling ceased as the sound of discordant wind reached her ears, and she stepped out into the cold.
A blizzard raged outside, icy snow pelting her from all sides, a hateful white whirling wall obscuring even the hut directly next to the meeting hall. "Damn." Kneeling down, she strapped her snow shoes back on, hoping she could feel her way back to the barn and Aura. "Gabrielle," she spoke as if the bard were next to her. "I know I promised, but I might not be home tonight."
She started for the barn and then stopped. Looking up to the sky, or where the sky would be if she could see it, she raised her fist and shook it. "Damn you!" she yelled. "I made a promise and by the gods, I'm going to keep it!" Lowering her fist, she placed a hand against the hut next to her, feeling her way slowly until she reached an empty space. With a resolute grunt, she moved forward, bumping into the next hut, but soon she fell into a rhythm, counting steps between huts, picturing the row of buildings as it had been when she first arrived. At long last, she reached the barn and stumbled inside.
"Come on Aura, we're loading up the sleigh and going home."
"Zoe?" Gabrielle entered the barn and made her way to Argo's stall. Sure enough, her oldest daughter was there astride the old mare, her face buried into her mane. "Zoe, Mama wasn't lying to you."
"Then why didn't Terra-mom come home with the others?" Zoe cried softly.
"Honey, your Terra-mom went looking for food to feed the village, but she'll be back. Why don't you come on back to the hut, and we'll eat dinner, then I'll tell you and Fira a story about your Terra-mom." Gabrielle opened the stall door and with little resistance, Zoe allowed her mother to help her down off Argo's back. Gabrielle gave Argo a scratch beneath her forelock, receiving a thankful, tickling nuzzle against her cheek. "I love you, too, Argo."
She closed the stall and draped Zoe's coat around the girl's slim body. "You're growing so fast, pretty soon you'll be up to my shoulder."
"Mama." Zoe clung to Gabrielle's side for the short, cold walk back to their hut. "I've heard all of your Terra-mom stories."
"Not this one," Gabrielle ruffled her head. "Not this one."
Quietly, they finished cooking and eating their simple Solstice dinner. It wasn't particularly special, but the fish tasted good fried up on the stove, and the butter melted on the hot zucchini bread, the combined scents making their mouths water. Gabrielle filled one plate and set it back on the stove. "For Terra-mom."
"Mama, I'll clean up. Then you can tell us your story." Zoe moved to her side, placing a hand on her arm.
"We can clean up after the bonfire." Gabrielle smiled at her. "It'll give us something to do while we wait for your Terra-mom to get home."
"Mama --" Zoe frowned. "What if --?"
"No." Gabrielle stopped her. "She'll be here. It may not be for a while, but she will be. Don't go thinking anything different, okay. You just keep believing in her, and she'll be here."
"Promise?" Zoe appeared to be near tears.
"Pwomise?" Fira echoed her sister.
"Promise." Gabrielle touched Zoe's cheek, brushing her thumb against it. It was settled. Xena would be home. Now they had both promised. "Come on over to the fire, and I'll tell you the story."
They curled up on the rug, Fira snuggled against Gabrielle's left side and Zoe against her right. She pulled an old quilt around all of them. "Snug as a bug in a rug."
Fira giggled and even Zoe found a smile. "Mama, that's silly." Zoe finally laughed.
"Maybe we need some silliness." Gabrielle smiled, then grew serious. "I never told you this story before, because I didn't want to frighten you, but I think maybe now is a good time for you to hear it."
"A long time ago, your Terra-mom and I were traveling together, and I got shot by a poisoned arrow."
"Mama!" Fira peered fearfully up at her.
"Don't be afraid, honey. Mama's here aren't I?" She smiled and kissed Fira's head. "The poison didn't get me."
"But back then," she continued. "We thought it would. But we had another problem. The Persian army was on its way to conquer Greece. Your Terra-mom had a choice, save me or save the country."
"Bad mens!" Fira pounded a tiny fist against the rug. "Fira go beats dem up!"
Gabrielle ruffled her head. "You are definitely your Terra-mom's daughter. No need, honey. Your Terra-mom beat them up. But for a while, we thought we were out of time. We couldn't get to the town that had the cure for the poison, and we made choice to stand and fight the army."
"But Mama, what about the poison?" Zoe tugged anxiously at her sleeve.
"Well, sweetie." She hugged Zoe closer. "Back then, Xena -- your Terra-mom, we both thought we were going to die fighting those bad men. It was the entire Persian army and there were only two of us, and I was too weak to stand up, much less fight."
"Then why fight them if you were going to lose anyway?" Zoe asked reasonably. "Why not run away and get the poison cure?"
"Because fighting them would hold them off long enough for our army to gather and get to where we were. You see, the Persian attack was unexpected, but Xena figured if we held them off long enough, our army would have a fair chance of saving everyone else. It was the greater good."
"Even if it meant you died?" Zoe's eyes swam with tears.
"Oh, sweetie." Gabrielle caught a tear with her fingertip. "At that time, I thought I was going to die anyway, and your Terra-mom, she decided if I was going to die, she might as well fight for as long as she could."
"Then she would die, too?" Zoe buried her face against Gabrielle's arm. "Mama, is that what she's doing now? Is Terra-mom going to die?"
"No!" Gabrielle shook her head. "No," she repeated more softly. "Let me finish. Your Terra-mom took me to a bunker and hauled me up to the loft, to keep me safe. And then she mounted a defense. And do you know what your Terra-mom did?"
"What!?" Fira shouted, still beating the rug. "Mama, did Terra-mom die?"
"No honey," Gabrielle reassured her. "Neither of us died. Not that day." She quickly moved on before Zoe could question her last comment. "Your Terra-mom fought off the entire Persian army, all by herself. And while she was fighting them, she discovered one of them had a flask with the cure for my poison in it. It turned out it was one of their men who had shot me with the arrow. So your Terra-mom, she did the impossible. She saved Greece and scared those men all the way back to Persia. And then she crawled up in that loft and she saved me, just in the nick of time."
"Wow!" Fira clapped her hands gleefully. "Good 'tory, Mama!"
"So you see, your Terra-mom is a pretty amazing person. She's very brave, and she takes care of everyone around her." Gabrielle paused, hearing the bonfire being built outside. "Almost time for our celebration, so let me finish. I have to believe that your Terra-mom is out there, and if she finds that food, she'll bring it back so we'll have more to eat this winter. But the thing I believe most is that your Terra-mom loves us, and she knows we need her, and she will be home again, soon."
"You really believe that, Mama?" Zoe studied her, wanting to believe just as much.
"I do." Gabrielle hugged both girls to her side. Saying it made it so, and she smiled. Her village needed her, and even more, her girls needed to go to the celebration, and see her carrying on in her belief.
She gathered up her daughters, even Charissa, bundling her up in a thick furry pack that hung down her front, and they headed out to the celebration. It was snowing hard, the wind whipping all around them. The Amazons had built walls of evergreen bows, lashing them to the trees around the bonfire area, in an attempt to shelter them from the storm.
The fire blazed tall, warm and bright, and Amazons old and young began to gather around it, sitting on rows of logs, drawing in the warmth from both the fire and the companionship of their sister Amazons. The very old and the very young were ushered down closest to the fire, while the tougher, younger women stood at the edge of the circle, keeping watch over the village. Only the outer guard was away. Despite the storm, everyone else was there, the need for hope outweighing the need for the comfort of home.
So. Gabrielle and her family made their way through the group, taking a seat in a place of honor near the warmth. Normally, Gabrielle would have given the spot away, but with Charissa, she gladly took it, knowing the baby would probably sleep right through the celebration, all cozy and warm. She stood, and cleared her throat. "It's Solstice eve. It's a hard time for us this year, but we're here, and we're healthy, and happy. Did everyone have a good Solstice dinner tonight?"
A chorus of yeses and ayes rang out around her, and she smiled. "Then let's listen to the elders tell their tales, and sing the songs our sisters sang, and join together in hope of the spring to come." She sat down, well-aware of the whispers around her as to Xena's absence. She chose to ignore them, shutting them out as one of the oldest women stood and tottered toward the fire, and began to tell the story of past Solstice celebrations, and the great glories of the Amazon nation.
It was the last mile. Xena was almost certain of it, assuming she'd counted the ropes around the tree trunks correctly. Who knew? Maybe she'd lost count somewhere along the way. Her face was nearly frozen, and she could barely feel her feet. There was no riding Aura, not when she needed to follow those gods-be-damned ropes. Instead, she and Aura were tethered together by a long line. The mare was on the main path, pulling the sleigh.
Xena was snowshoeing next to the tree-line, feeling her way from tree to tree and rope to rope. Despite their bright orange color, she couldn't see the ropes at all. She couldn't light a torch in the blizzard conditions. She was going good to walk. Seeing would have been a luxury.
She was weary to the bone, breaking her own path from the foothills all the way back down to the flatter forest floor. Luckily for Aura, pulling her heavy load, she was able to take advantage of the path they'd broken earlier, though as time passed and the storm continued to scrub away at them, the trail was gradually filling up again. "You still there girl?" Xena ambled back to the path and hugged Aura around the neck. She wasn't sure how much Aura enjoyed the impromptu bonding, but for Xena, it was a brief chance to share some body heat. "Alright, let's keep going." She made her way back to the trees.
Four things kept her moving forward, when every bone in her body screamed at her to sit down and curl up and give up. Four faces, to be exact. Picturing her daughters and Gabrielle at home, worrying about her as they tried to honor the Solstice, was all she needed to stay focused. Step, by difficult step, the miles melted away behind her. There was no telling what time it was, or how long she'd been walking. It could have been one hour, or it could have been ten. Time stood still in a world that was reduced down to blinding cold snow, and a lifeline of trees.
"It's all I can do, Gabrielle." She had begun talking to the bard quite a while back. It helped to pass the time and helped her stay awake. The greatest danger in the freezing storm was falling asleep and never waking up again. "Put one foot in front of the other. But I'm hurrying as fast as I can. I figure Ep's gotten home by now, and you're pretty angry with me. I hope when you see me, you'll refrain from beating me up. At least until after I get a hot meal and sit by the fire a spell. If you hit me on sight, I'm so frozen, I might shatter from the impact. You have a pretty mean left hook."
She laughed until her teeth began to chatter. "I love you," she continued softly. "I know I don't say that often enough, but I hope you know I do. More with each passing day. I figure someday I'll be so full of love for you, I'll just explode. It'll be messy." She smiled into the darkness. "You're the most amazing person I've ever known. Our girls, they look at you as if you're a goddess. So do I, so I guess those apples didn't fall too far from the tree. You're so good with them -- so patient and gentle. You give them everything you have and then after that, you give it to me, all over again. I don't know how you do it. Sometimes I pinch myself, to make sure our life isn't some crazy, wonderful dream. If it is, I hope I never wake up. Just your voice -- it touches me in places so deep -- if I could just hear you right now. I wish --"
Pausing, she cocked her head to one side. She could hear it -- Gabrielle's voice, mixed with several others. "I must be going snow-crazy." She shook her head, but the voices persisted and suddenly it hit her -- she was home. Just as she reached the last rope, she stumbled onto a firmer, mostly-cleared path, the first one on the eastern outskirts of their village. Immediately a hand touched her and she stopped, blinking as someone drew close.
"Who's there?" the person questioned, and moved in front of her. "Xena?"
"Kallerine?" Xena was shaking, as much from the knowledge she was finally home, as from the cold. "Take me to Gabrielle."
"Certainly." Kallerine tucked a hand into the crook of Xena's elbow. With anyone else, she would have hauled their butts onto the sled, but with Xena, she knew better. The fact the warrior allowed her help at all spoke volumes as to Xena's condition. She looked like the abominable snowman.
Slowly they made their way toward the sounds of celebration -- an old Solstice song Xena had know since childhood. As they drew closer, she found her voice and joined in, her tone clear and true.
"Go on." Kallerine patted her arm. "I'll take care of Aura and get some people to help unload that sled."
"Thanks." Xena kept going toward the music, stopping only for a moment. "That stuff in the sled, it all needs to go to the storehouse behind the dining hall."
"I know." Kallerine smiled. "Eponin told me where you went. It's the best Solstice gift, ever, Xena."
"No," Xena disagreed with her, hearing Gabrielle's low singing voice. "Not quite."
Gabrielle and the girls held hands and sang, watching the joyful faces of the women all around them. Senticles hade visited again, though somehow he had taken the form of a centaur, but nonetheless, he'd appeared at the end of the stories, delivering more candy and small trinkets to all the children. Zoe had a brand new shiny pocket knife, and Fira clung to a small, wooden version of Xena's chakram. It was just as well. Xena had taken to hanging the real thing up out of her reach, after she caught Fira rolling it across the courtyard one morning.
As she sang, a familiar voice reached Gabrielle's ears. She looked all around, certain she was losing her mind, but the voice only grew louder. Suddenly, Xena stepped out from behind the evergreen wall, singing lustily along with the others.
"Xena!" Gabrielle tore around the bonfire, running directly into her arms, careful not to squish Charissa between them. She burrowed into the tall, if cold body, feeling long arms close around her.
"Terra-mom!" Zoe and Fira took off after her.
"I found it, Gabrielle," Xena whispered into her ear. "I found the food and brought back a whole sled-full. And there's lots more we can go back for."
"I told the girls you were amazing." She searched Xena's wind-burned face. "I was so scared." She wasn't sure if she was shaking, or Xena was shaking, or if maybe they both were. "Oh, gods!" Gabrielle began to cry, burying her face into Xena's chest. Two small bodies pressed against them on either side, and her baby cooed at her breast. She was surrounded with so much love, it was almost painful. "Don't you ever scare me like that again." She finally looked up.
"Gabrielle." Xena's voice was all low and growly, her name rolling off her tongue. "I'll always come home to you. I promise." As the song ended, Xena ducked her head, finding a pair of welcoming, sweet lips. She lingered there, hearing cheers and catcalls from the fire circle, and in answer she deliberately prolonged the kiss.
Finally, they broke apart, if only by a few inches. Gabrielle rubbed noses with her. "The fire is burning at home, and your dinner is heating on the back of the stove. It's only a couple of loaves of zucchini bread and some fish, but it's nice and hot."
"Sounds like a feast." Xena smiled at her.
"Terra-mom!" Fira tugged at Xena's left sleeve.
"Hey there, squirt." The warrior bent down, picking her up. "And my princess." She brushed a hand across Zoe's head, then wrapped her other arm around Gabrielle, and with Zoe snuggled between them, they turned, nodding their good nights to the village.
"Happy Solstice, everyone!" Xena smiled and then ushered her family away from the fire, toward their waiting hut. Halfway there, she stopped, soaking it all in. The snow had ebbed, falling steadily, though it was no longer a blizzard.
"What's wrong?" Gabrielle peered up at her anxiously.
Behind them, the happy songs started up again. The families would soon go home, but the younger, brasher Amazons would stay up, singing and drinking until dawn. Before them was the warm glow of light streaming through the windows of their hut. All around her was her family, and the village storehouse was full once more. Xena leaned over, and kissed her again. "Not a thing." She grinned, nuzzling Gabrielle's head. "Let's go home."
The End. For Now.
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