The Mouths of Babes
USUAL DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and Ephiny belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Everything else here is mine or rather, comes from my 'Muse' and me.
USUAL THANKS: As always, to my splendid little 'editing elf'; she always sees what I miss and sometimes, what I should have typed. Thanks, again, my friend.
AND ONE MORE THING: 'Tis the season ... for tales of love and friendship. May we never tire of these - they renew us and strengthen our spirits. Hopefully, they will one day inspire us to carry this sentiment into the new century. May you and yours celebrate safely and happily. All my best. MMG.
And so it was written , 'A little Child shall lead them ... and a star will guide their journey.' Isaiah 11:6-9
Gabrielle was in a foul mood. She was cold, she was hungry and she hadn't had even the thinnest idea for a story in longer than she cared to remember. Her shoulders ached from hunching against the raw night air and the frosty, unforgiving wind was offering the weak fire a hefty challenge ... and the wind was winning. The little blonde pulled the heavy blanket closer around herself and squinted into the surrounding darkness for a sign of her tall companion. The warrior had stomped off into the forest half a candlemark ago, grumbling loudly about the bard's lack of foresight concerning their reserve supplies, thus making the unscheduled hunting trip necessary.
"It's not like I planned to run out of trail rations," the bard muttered, poking the wavering flames fiercely with a short stick. "She acts like I did it on purpose." Gabrielle shivered under the woolen wrapping, clutching the edges with one hand and angrily attacking the stone-rimmed fire with the other. "But I'm sure I'll be hearing about it for days, now. She never forgets little things like this."
The young woman rose from her seat on the fallen log and walked a few paces to the pile of wood stacked at the edge of the campsite. Xena had provided the lumber in her usual proficient manner shortly after they had made camp late that afternoon. The bard knelt and retrieved two of the larger pieces and, cradling them in her arms, walked back to the fire and added the fuel to the leaping blaze, reclaiming her seat on the log as the flames consumed the new timber. She held the blanket open to allow the rising heat to warm her body, then pulled the cover closed again when the frosty wind displaced the fire's effects. The bard cast another irritated look in the direction of the warrior's departure.
The glowing blaze filled the little clearing with a brilliant light, making the surrounding shadows seem even more indistinguishable by comparison. As usual, Xena had selected a very serviceable site for their camp, a small, secluded clearing shielded by the timbers towering around it and protected somewhat by the late season greenery still available on the leafy branches now dancing in the crisp wind.
Nature had also provided a convenient waist-high outcropping of large boulders at one edge of the campsite, a perfect haven against the rising wind and a helpful reservoir for the fire's subtle warmth. Before she had left the glen in search of their supper, the warrior had positioned the stone ring and pile of wood in the shelter of the rocky barrier. The craggy wall did provide a modicum of protection from the blustery draught; it did nothing, however, to offset the rapidly declining temperature.
After a few moments, Gabrielle returned her gaze to the orange and yellow incandescence in the stone circle. Absently, she pulled her staff into her lap, repositioned the blanket and let her thoughts drift on their own. The little blonde's expression turned dispirited and melancholy as she considered the most disturbing aspect of their recent travels; the stiff and irritable atmosphere that seemed to prevail between herself and her best friend. The young bard drew a quick, dejected breath as the aggravated set to her jaw began to reinstate itself .... as it had repeatedly during the last few days of their journey.
'We've been sniping at each other for over a week now,' the girl thought. 'Ever since we left the Amazons. Maybe we weren't ready,' Gabrielle considered. 'Maybe we should have spent more time at the Retreat Hut.'
After resuming their normal travel schedule, the two women seemed to have found one thing after another to argue about, everything from the declining condition of Gabrielle's boots -- "I told you those should be treated with palm oil every so often. You're going to need a new pair soon, at this rate." -- to the warrior's unwavering propensity to sharpen her sword "during every single unscheduled moment of every single day." -- to the bard's penchant for "asking endless questions, enough to fill several volumes of unread material." -- to her companion's equally frustrating determination to remain aloof, unresponsive and, to the bard's interpretation, regularly condescending.
In the past, their verbal confrontations had manifested themselves as simple differences between them, but recently the 'discussions' had progressed to sessions of angry, spiteful remarks. More often than not, the biting series of exchanges had been followed by long, resentful periods of stilted silence between the two friends, leaving one or the other, and often both, feeling abused, misunderstood and completely unhappy.
An unexpected blast of particularly chilly air brought the young woman out of her reverie. She pulled the blanket closer to her chin. Glancing carefully around the small clearing and, determining that her partner had still not returned, the little bard resumed her contemplation, her mood again gloomy and discouraged. The mist green eyes studied the leaping flames as the young woman swallowed heavily.
'Maybe what's really true,' the girl thought dejectedly, 'is that things are never going to be the way they were between us.' Gabrielle clamped her teeth together, trying desperately to forestall another onset of the nagging fear that had plagued her lately. "Oh, Xena," the bard whispered quietly. "Please don't let what's happened tear us apart. My heart would surely bre...." The girl's attention was quickly drawn to the rustling noise of an approaching figure. She tightened her grip on the staff in her lap and faced the sound coming from the parting foliage.
A moment later, Xena emerged from the darkened forest, her long, woolen cape flowing behind her like the dark sail of a windward ship. She crossed the campsite, her blue eyes momentarily meeting the bard's verdant gaze. In one hand, the warrior held the fruits of her late-hour hunting excursion ... a thin, somewhat emaciated carcass of a small, four-legged animal. In the other, she displayed the canvas pouch which the women normally used for transporting various edibles ... plants, berries and the like. She dropped the bag unceremoniously near the bard's boots.
"Kind of hard to find growing treats in the dark, but ...." the warrior said, a slight edge to the liquid voice.
Gabrielle retrieved the bag, pulling at the cords gathered at the neck. She peered inside the sack, then returned her gaze to the warrior's blue eyes. The little blonde favored her dark-haired friend with an appreciative grin.
"I always thought you could see in the dark, oh many-skilled warrioress," the bard quipped, resulting in a small, but genuine lop-sided smile from her companion.
"Well, just so you're not too particular ... Your Highness," the warrior answered, the crystal pools warm on the little bard's face. Xena pushed the edges of her cape back over her shoulders, knelt next to the fire and attached the carcass to the spit the bard had positioned over the now-sturdy fire. After a few moments, the tall warrior's blue gaze swept up slowly to meet the intent stare of her best friend.
"I'm sorry I was so ... gruff before," Xena said quietly. A genuine look of apology glowed in the piercing blues. The bard gazed lovingly at the sculpted features, her lovely face reflecting the golden hue of the bouncing flames.
"S'okay," the girl said easily. "I guess we've both been a bit on edge lately, huh?" The warrior's smooth face softened, but the little blonde noticed the faint glimmer of hesitancy in the azure pools.
"I should have paid more attention to what was in the pack," the bard admitted. "Sorry to make you go searching in this weather." The green eyes were repentant on the warrior's deep blue gaze. For a moment, neither woman seemed able to speak to the other. Finally, Xena's liquid voice broke the silence.
"Well, this should be ready soon," she said, her eyes still captured by the bard's. "Not much here, but it'll keep us warm 'til morning, I expect." The bard's smile had grown equally thin. "Yeah, I'm sure it will." She glanced down at the sizzling carrion. "Smells good, anyway." She returned her gaze to the warrior's. Another unsettling stillness settled between the two friends. Xena shifted her crouched position to sit cross-legged next to the fire, facing the little bard. She toyed with the fiery stack in the circle, pulling the crumbling coals into a tight bundle under the spit, maneuvering the renewed heat toward the hissing meat.
Without changing her focus, the warrior addressed the small form sitting across from her. "You're doing it again," the woman said quietly.
"Doing what?" the bard said, a small level of annoyance in her voice.
"Staring at my neck," the warrior said evenly. The blue eyes rose to meet the bard's green pools. "It's gone, Gabrielle. The bruise is gone ... has been for nearly a fortnight, now." Xena's gaze held the girl's, the bronze face gentle and understanding.
Gabrielle bristled at the warrior's superior tone. The slim form straightened abruptly as the bard felt her jaw tighten. "No, I wasn't," the girl announced. "I was just watching you ... rebuild the fire," an obvious shade of resentment sounding in the statement. "It seems I can't even do that to suit you anymore."
The crystal blue eyes blinked and widened as their owner tried to maintain the stoic demeanor that had become second nature to her. An instant later, the little blonde recognized the blatant shade of hurt clearly evident in her soulmate's expression. Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly before bringing one small hand to cover her forehead. When she focused on the warrior's face again, she felt a deep wave of remorse sweep over her very being.
"Xena, I'm sorry," the little bard whispered. She reached out to touch the slender hand nearest her. "I don't know what's wrong with me lately. That was really ... a stupid thing to say."
The blue gaze trained on the soft face was steady.. and wounded. Xena swallowed slowly, the crystal pools searching the bard's contrite expression. She breathed in carefully, making a valiant effort to keep her tone, and her reaction, even. "I ... I'm sorry too," the warrior said, only vaguely aware of how tightly she was grasping the narrow piece of wood until it snapped off in her hand. Xena looked down at the pieces of the slim branch uncertainly and spoke without looking at the bard.. "I didn't mean to suggest that you were some kind of ...."
The warrior's words stopped as the bard's slender arms surrounded her neck. Xena sighed heavily as she returned the young blonde's loving hug. Both women held on tightly before they separated to study the face of the other. Finally, each saw a tiny, relieved and grateful smile emerge across the features of her best friend. At last Gabrielle's soft voice broke the stilted silence.
"I hate it when we fight," the little bard murmured, fingering an errant lock of the warrior's dark hair. She sat back to meet the blue gaze. "Let's not do it anymore, OK?"
"Deal," the warrior answered bravely. 'Just wish I knew HOW not to', the tall woman thought longingly. 'This hurts too much.'
After a moment, Gabrielle returned to her seat on the fallen log and the warrior turned her attention to the small carcass darkening on the spit over the flames. While she used her dagger to loosen the animal remains away from the searing spit, Gabrielle pulled their eating utensils from the saddlebags resting at the end of the outspread bedrolls. She placed the two earthen plates on the open blanket and divided the berries and edible roots from the small leather pouch the warrior had filled. She raised the plates and the warrior deposited portions of the steaming meat onto each of the platters.
When she had removed the meat from the spit, Xena pulled the lattice away from the flames, placing it on its side near the stone rim to cool. She pulled the waterskin into the space between herself and the little bard, accepted the dish the girl handed her and the two women began to enjoy their meal.
The two friends ate in silence and the meager repast was consumed rather quickly. Xena kept a watchful eye on her young companion. The recent tension and uneasiness between the two friends had also taken a toll on the warrior's usually unflappable stoicism. As always, she was somewhat unsettled by the reactions she found stirring within herself when it came to the young woman sitting across the fire from her, but the depths of the feelings she experienced for the little blonde had recently become a constant source of puzzlement and confusion to the tall, raven-haired warrior.
It forever confounded the combatant that, not only had this extraordinary young woman become an integral part of her life, but here was an intriguing presence the tall woman would not have even acknowledged, let alone clung to so heartily, prior to the girl's entrance into the tall woman's world. Slowly, almost without the warrior's awareness, the young blonde had come to represent the validation of all the wonderously decent, wholesome goodness in her existence, the part of her own spirit that had only recently begun to show signs of rejuvenation. The thought of losing even the smallest degree of the girl's trust and abiding faith brought a heavy ache into the warrior's chest.
Yet since their return from the kingdom of Chin, and their even more recent heartwrenching coming to terms with the difficult conflicts resulting from that journey, the two friends had endured a great test of their friendship and a challenging trial to the devotion and loyalty which had always characterized their association. Even now, after having shared their most intimate feelings concerning the tumult of that experience with each other, the two soulmates had begun to realize their relationship still had not returned to the status each had come to regard as the so-called 'status quo' of that alliance. In short, they were both still uncertain, unsettled, confused and frustrated by their mutual disconcerting feelings.
As the hour grew later, the wind increased in velocity as the temperature decreased. By the time she had eaten the last of her portion of the meat and used the edge of the blanket to surreptitiously clean her fingers, the little bard was hunched even lower under the woolen material. The warrior's keen instincts recognized the signs of more than ordinary discomfort in her small friend. Xena finished the last of the meat on her plate, brushed her hands together, rose and gathered an armload of logs from the pile near the edge of the campsite. She added the wood to the campfire, taking care to arrange the logs in a manner that would allow the fire to burn during the night without requiring more than gratuitous attention from either of the two travelers.
While the warrior tended to the blaze, the little bard stacked the plates and the eating utensils near the edge of the fire, the lateness of the hour making it impossible for her to perform the normal 'clean up' duties which normally followed their meals. When the brief ritual was accomplished, Gabrielle returned to her place on the bedrolls, pulling the blanket tightly around herself, and sat mutely watching the deft, precise and efficient actions of the person she valued more than any she had ever known.
Once the fire was blazing to the warrior's satisfaction, Xena moved to sit next to her small friend. As she lowered her slender frame to the bedroll, she opened her long, heavy cape, wrapping the woolen expanse around the bard. Gabrielle gratefully snuggled closer to Xena's warmth as her dark-haired friend briskly massaged her arms in an attempt to generate even more heat for the young blonde.
"Is that better?" the warrior asked, and the little blonde nodded, snuggling closer to the sinewy body. Xena gathered her warm cape around the girl's trim form. "Maybe, when we get to Megara, we should find you something warm to wear ... since winter is about to join us." The bard's thin smile met the small grin on the warrior's golden face.
"I thought you said we should keep our dinars for something important," the little blonde said, feeling an immediate regret at the petulance in her own voice. A deep, crimson blush rose to cover the young face as she averted her eyes from the warrior's blue stare.
"Keeping you from getting sick is important," the smooth voice said, barely concealing the impatience in her tone. "Besides, a cape in your size can't cost all that much, I wouldn't think." The bronze face softened as the bard's eyes rose to meet hers and Xena recognized the genuine apology in the face of her cherished friend. She tousled the girl's blonde hair affectionately.
"Tell me why we're going there again?" the bard asked.
"I have a friend who runs an orphanage there. Her name's Rhea." The warrior continued the warming massage. "She needs a little help getting the place secured for the winter." Xena's sturdy palm moved to concentrate on the bard's trim back. "I thought we could give her a hand with it." The warm hand halted momentarily as its owner tilted her head to capture the girl's attention. "If that's OK and you feel up to it."
Gabrielle met the blue gaze. "Oh sure, " the little bard replied. "Sounds like a fun way to get out of this weather for a while," the girl said, smiling warmly at the smooth face. The warrior resumed the soothing rubdown. Gabrielle closed her eyes as the warrior began to knead away the stiffness across her shoulders.
After a moment, the bard turned an impish grin toward the tall woman's concentration. "I guess eventually you'll get around to telling me how the two of you met, huh?" She blinked at the brief look of chagrin that traveled across the chiseled feature. The warrior's quiet laugh incited the bard's curiosity even more. She relaxed as the mobile fingers on her shoulders unseated the uncomfortable ache there.
"Well, when I was eight summers old, part of me 'met' the palm of her hand ... or I should say, it was the other way around."
The bard's green eyes widened quickly as the clarity of the warrior's statement registered in her hazy awareness. She turned abruptly to face the blushing golden face.
"What?" the girl giggled. The warrior's blue eyes flicked to the surprised expression, then returned their attention to the task occupying her fingers. An instant later, Gabrielle turned to face her embarrassed friend more directly, causing an abrupt interruption in the warrior's warming activities. Xena tried valiantly to maintain a calm expression as she felt the warm blush glide upwards over her face.
"OK, give," the girl chortled. "You can't expect to drop a comment like that in my lap and not expect to tell me the whole story." The young face brightened in an expectant grin. "C'mon, I promise not to hold it over your ... head." The little blonde's excited smile softened the warrior's reluctance.
Xena shook her head slightly as a subtle grin transformed her normally formidable expression. She tugged the edges of the blanket closed under the bard's chin and let out a short, resigned sigh.
"Rhea used to be a teacher in Amphipolis," the warrior began. "My teacher, as a matter of fact. Only I wasn't all that anxious to be that good of a student. Truth is, I made it very difficult for her to carry out any kind of instruction ... and I did it as often as I could." The blue eyes settled on the girl's face. "I was very headstrong, in those days. Not the calm, collected, reserved girl that I am today."
The broad sarcasm in the jovial speech brought a smirk to the little bard's mouth. "No kidding?" she replied facetiously. "Imagine that!" The warrior playfully tweaked the girl's nose.
The two friends shared a warm smile. Xena pulled her cape closed and leaned back against the rocky wall behind her. "Anyway, after putting up with my rather ... challenging behavior for about the first moon of the fall session, Rhea finally gave me a choice." The warrior leaned forward and focused on the toe of one boot, her fingers rubbing at a small darkened spot in the leather.
"A choice?" the little bard prodded. "And the choice was ....?" The sweet voice beckoned as the green eyes danced in anticipation. The warrior's blue eyes rose to meet the girl's.
"To put it succinctly, the choice was, either change my attitude or ... learn the true meaning of the statement, 'I couldn't sit down for a week'." The bronze face softened as the tall woman's lop-sided grin pulled at the corner of her mouth.
The bard giggled openly. "What choice did you make, or should I ask?"
Xena's eyebrow posed a silent question.
Gabrielle's laugh filled the clearing. "Like I said, why did I ask?" The blonde head tilted in mock rebuke. "Never the easy way, right?" she chided warmly. "So ... what was Rhea's ... response to your choice?" She let her eyes travel over the warrior's sheepish face.
The tall warrior gave a short laugh, sat back and crossed her long arms over her chest. "Rhea gave me a clear, concise demonstration of what happens when you ... make the wrong choice." Gabrielle covered her mouth with one hand. Xena's blue eyes met the girl's gaze directly. "Right there ... in front of the entire class." The blonde head lurched backwards as the bard's raucous laughter cascaded from her trembling form. The warrior waited, her expression indulgent on the soft, young face.
"Oh, no, Xena!" the bard sputtered. "Not really??"
"Oh yes, Gabrielle," the tall woman admitted. "Very decidedly." Xena's smile was warm on the little blonde's enjoyment. She waited while another wave of laughter echoed through the small clearing before her young companion eventually began to regain some control. The bard wiped her eyes, gulped and tried to focus again on the warrior's gentle grin.
"Oh, by the way," the warrior continued when the bard's attention had returned to her face. "When I said, 'for a week'?" Xena paused until she saw the little blonde's recognition of the reference. Gabrielle nodded silently. "I exaggerated," the warrior said, cryptically. The green eyes were questioning under the girl's furrowed brows.
"Actually, it was more like half a moon before I could ...." the warrior confessed, halting her story again as peals of new laughter rang from the bard's trim form. The warrior's blue eyes showed their own bright amusement. "But I never had to make that choice again. At least not in Rhea's classroom, anyway." The little blonde's wide smile charmed the warrior's heart. She laid a gentle hand on the warrior's leather boot.
"Well ...." the girl said, swallowing one last time before her demeanor returned to its normal even status. "Some children just seem to learn the hard way," the girl said, gazing fondly at her best friend. The warrior's smile faded slightly at the girl's unintentional criticism.
"So," Xena said, her bright tone covering the momentary hurt. "You can see why I really couldn't refuse Rhea's 'request' for help, right?"
The little bard nodded, smiling warmly at her blue-eyed partner. "No, I wouldn't think you could," the girl said. "I don't think you want that lady on your case again."
The two friends shared a comfortable laugh. Green eyes met blue as both women enjoyed the brief return of the camaraderie each had missed with the other. For a moment, the relationship between the two women seemed to have returned to the state that had characterized it before the recent uneasiness - pure, unqualified loyalty and a deep, abiding affection one for the other. For a long moment, both women tried desperately to think of some soothing, endearing remark to make to the other ... but neither seemed able to manage the deed.
"Anyway," the warrior said finally. "We should be in Megara by the day after tomorrow." The bard nodded. "I'm sure Rhea has a whole list of 'duties' ready for us." The little blonde smiled at her friend as she pulled the blanket around herself again. After a moment, the girl shivered against the raw, uncompromising wind that swept across the campsite. The warrior shifted position, beckoning the girl toward the bedrolls.
"In the meantime, let's try and get some rest." Gabrielle moved to the outspread blankets as Xena made one last inspection of the blazing fire. As the girl snuggled into the warmth at her tall friend's side, Xena tucked the heavy fur blanket over them both. When they were both settled, the warrior pulled one long arm under her head and cast a wary eye toward the translucent sky above them. The dark brows furrowed in a knowing scowl. "Feels like snow soon," the tall woman announced. She turned to address the slim shoulder next to her. "We'd better look for a cape for you in Stilis. It's on the way."
"What about the new laces for your boots?" the girl asked, turning slightly to the tall form behind her.
"I've waited this long," the warrior quipped. "I can wait a little longer." She tugged at the fur blanket, revealing the boots in question at the far edge of the fur wrap. The bard glanced at the leather lacings, their continuous flow interrupted at irregular intervals by ragged knots the warrior had tied in the leather strips. Gabrielle laughed softly as the warrior tapped her feet together.
"I can get new ones when we get to Megara. Rhea will know a good tanner there."
The bard rolled backward to focus on the golden face of her friend. Even in the burnished light of the campfire, she failed to capture the warrior's playful grin.
"Anyway, not having to listen to you whine and complain about being cold would be worth a new set of lacings." Xena laid one slender hand on the trim form. One dark eyebrow skipped under the silky bangs when the green eyes swept up to offer a slightly irked glare.
"Whine and complain?" the girl repeated, pulling away from the warrior. "Excuse me, I didn't realize I was that bothersome." The little bard shrugged off the hand and pulled the blanket surrounding her trim form tighter.
"Hey, I was only kidding," the tall warrior said, sitting up and supporting herself on her elbows. However, she was forced to address her remarks to the back of the blonde head.
"Right," the girl sputtered, her chin set in an angry jut. "Well, at least, I won't have to see you roll your eyes every time I ask what you consider another 'dumb question'." Gabrielle turned back to face the warrior, just in time to see the woman demonstrate precisely the action she had so sarcastically described. "Just like that!" the girl barked, accusingly.
Xena's jaw rippled as she clamped her teeth together. She met the furious green gaze with her own controlled fury. "Look, Gabrielle!" the warrior began, irritably. "I just meant that ...."
"I know what you meant, Xena," the bard growled, the emerald gaze sparking. "Contrary to popular opinion, I am not as dense as you think!" The bard rolled back onto her side, her knees pulled tight to her stomach, the woolen blanket tightly grasped in her angry fists.
"I never said you were dense!" the warrior yelled. The blue eyes were bright, the golden jaw rippled. Xena stared angrily at the slim form under the other half of the heavy fur blanket. She made several unsuccessful attempts to formulate a coherent response to the bard's rankled reaction before finally letting out an exasperated sigh and flopping down on her own side of the bedroll. "Oh, Hades," the slender warrior grumbled. She turned when she heard the young blonde expel another aggravated breath. Xena brought her hands to her forehead, briskly rubbing her fingertips across the furrowed skin. She drew a deep breath and exhaled. The warrior dropped one arm above her head and studied the dark sky over them. Several minutes of silence passed, the only sounds in the camp provided by the crackling wood in the stone circle and the raw, howling wind. As the bard swallowed silently, her jaw clamped tightly against the slim arm on which it rested, the warrior's liquid voice floated from the position behind the girl's back.
"I never said you were dense," the voice said quietly. "Anyway," the tall woman said, "goodnight." She waited for the bard to respond. "Gabrielle?"
"Goodnight," the bard answered stiffly. The warrior took a very deep breath.
By the time the slim fingers of dawn began to make an appearance in the small clearing, the warrior had abandoned any pretense of feigning sleep any longer. She decided that, as long as she was already awake, she might as well tend to the waning fire in preparation for whatever scant provisions she could provide for breakfast.
Xena slid from beneath the fur blanket, taking care not to disturb the sleeping bard. She crossed the campsite and carried the remaining logs from the stack to the stone-rimmed campfire. As the warrior added the new wood to the smoking coals, she looked at the small, quiet form snuggled warmly under the heavy skin. A wistful expression graced the bronze face as the tall warrior returned her attention to the resurgent fire. The rudimentary activity occupied the capable hands; the woman's thoughts were much less tranquil.
'Why do we keep doing this to each other, Gabrielle?' Xena silently asked her best friend. 'And how long will we go on doing it ... until we finally reach that irreversible point?'
The warrior's blue eyes studied the trim form under the fur blanket. She focused on the soft young face, the long blonde hair, the peaceful, contented state. Turning her attention back to the dancing flames, the tall woman breathed heavily, a nagging dread pressing uncomfortably on her chest. The dark head traveled from side to side, the golden face grew pensive and introspective.
'Why can't she see that I only want her to be safe and ...." the warrior scoffed at her own mental comment. 'Safe? Yeah, right,' the woman grimaced. The azure pools swept to the slim form again. 'Maybe you were right, Gabrielle ... we are each other's worst enemy.' The warrior's heart grew heavy.
The little bard slowly opened her eyes, noticing immediately the absence of the strong, warm form at her back. The green pools quickly located the tall form crouching at the fire's rim. The young woman recognized the disheartened quality to the warrior's manner; it brought a deep regret to the little blonde's own sensibilities. Moving carefully, the pace of her actions the product of an acquired awareness concerning the warrior's easily incited reflexes, Gabrielle sat up on the bedroll, pulling the fur blanket to her chin before surrendering to a hearty yawn that betrayed her own sleep-depleted fatigue.
Xena's eyes left the fire to meet the bard's sleepy stare. "Good morning," the warrior said, her blue eyes noticeably unsettled on the little blonde's face. "How'd you sleep?"
Gabrielle yawned widely again, blinked at the bronze face and leveled her best smile at the warrior's deadpan expression. "Well, it's certainly warmer in here that it is out there," the girl admitted. "Between you and this skin, I felt like a roasted slice of venison."
The warrior's tentative grin widened. She brushed her palms together and rested her long arms on her knees. After a moment, she stood up and crossed the short distance to the little bard. Gabrielle ran the fingers of one hand through her blonde bangs, then shook her head, prompting the errant golden locks to return to their normal position along the sides of her head. The short-lived activity resulted in the brash exposure of her upper body to the harsh, chilly wind. She quickly pulled her arms back under the animal fur, drew the heavy covering up under her chin and shivered loudly.
"Brrr!" the bard lamented, pulling her shoulders toward her ears. "How can you just stand out there in that wind, perfectly still, obviously NOT freezing to death?" The girl shivered again.
Xena's pursed lips only thinly covered her amusement. "There's more of me to fight the wind," she quipped, bringing a resigned smirk to the little blonde's expression. The warrior knelt and pulled the edges of the fur blanket closed at the girl's back. She sat back on her heels to gaze at the young face.
"Stay put 'til I find breakfast," the tall woman instructed. She gathered her weapons from where they lay at her edge of the bedrolls. After she had looped the chakram on the hook on her belt, she stood up, sword in hand, fixing a fond gaze on the young bard's huddled form. "The fire should warm up in a minute or two. I won't be long." She turned and strode toward the surrounding forest. "There's herbs for tea in the saddlebags," the warrior said over her shoulder as her tall form disappeared into the neighboring foliage.
Gabrielle's green gaze narrowed on the point at which she had last seen the tall form. "I know where the herbs are, Xena," she said to the empty campsite. "I've been doing the 'tea thing' for three summers, now."
Half a candlemark later, the warrior returned to the campsite with two slim fish. By the time Xena had prepared the seafood for the spit, Gabrielle had added a sparse helping of roots to each plate. The fragrant herb tea bubbling in the small cooking pot was divided between their two earthen mugs as the two travelers hungrily enjoyed the meager breakfast. It didn't require a long time, particularly when the warrior noticed the first evidence of tiny, icy crystals becoming noticeable in the crisp morning air. She tossed the last of the tea in her cup into her mouth and used the contents of the pot to drown the fire. The bard's face registered her slight surprise.
"Looks like the snow's in a hurry," Xena predicted, moving quickly to reposition the saddle on Argo's back. "C'mon, I saw a nice little cave not far from here. We'll wait it out there."
The little bard responded without further question. In a short time, the campsite had been cleared, their gear packed and the two women were headed toward the shelter the warrior had mentioned. Even Argo seemed to accept the abrupt departure ... she stood very still as the warrior tightened the girth on the saddle and swung the saddlebags onto the sides of the tack. Within minutes, the two women were on their way.
"Is it much farther?" Gabrielle asked, raising her voice against the mounting wind. "Xena?" she repeated. The warrior turned back to the slender form trudging slightly behind her.
"No, it's just over the next rise. We'll be there before you know it."
The bard pulled the blanket tighter, wrapping the woolen material more securely around her neck. The girl's leather boots followed the twig-ridden path, the blonde head bent against the raw, blustery wind. Because her eyes were trained on the ground, the little bard didn't realize her tall companion had halted her progress. She took a particularly long stride in order step over some rubble on the path and stumbled headlong into the warrior's sturdy back. The density of the tall form was no match for the girl's slight frame. In an instant, the little blonde found herself flung ingloriously onto the ground, her bottom abruptly coming to rest on the hard, rocky surface.
"Ugh!" the bard groaned as she stretched her hands out behind her in an attempt to cushion her descent. She grimaced as her boots traveled upward and unforgiving debris on the ground attacked the palms of her hands. She cast an accusing look at the tall warrior's tolerant gaze.
Xena looked down at the small form sprawled on the ground. "You OK?" she asked the girl after a moment.
"Oh, perfect," the bard growled. She examined her palms, brushing away the rubbish sticking to her palms. She trained an irritated scowl up at the azure pools. "Why'd you stop?"
Xena offered the girl an open palm, pulling the slender form to her feet. The bard's scowl remained in place. "Sorry. I wanted to make sure we're headed in the right direction. It was getting dark by the time we came this way last night."
Gabrielle stalked angrily past the warrior. "Gee, the all-knowing warrior princess is confused about direction. Who would believe it?"
Xena pivoted to follow the bard's rankled form. The sides of her great cape billowed outward as the tall woman planted angry fists on her hips. "What's that supposed to mean?" she growled at the small bard.
Gabrielle turned back to the warrior abruptly. "Wait a minute. Last night? You mean we're going back the way we came?" The girl let out an exasperated scoff. "I thought you said we had to be in Megara tomorrow?"
The warrior's jaw twitched as she fought to control her own hostility. She took a slow pace toward the angry bard. "We do," the tall woman said, her tone tense and clipped. "But, I thought we'd better find the closest shelter, for tonight, anyway. Seeing as how we're about to be met by a snowstorm!" The warrior flailed an arm in an angry gesture. "You got a better idea??"
Gabrielle stepped closer to the furious bronze face. She drew her slim form up as straight as possible and leveled a fearless challenge at the sparkling blue eyes. "Well ... no, I don't," the bard said in surrender. She stepped to one side and swept her arm across the path sarcastically. "Lead on, oh mighty warrior." The warrior clamped her teeth together. The bard strode past her friend to retrieve her staff from the ground. When she returned her gaze to the golden face, she ignored the smoldering wrath behind the crystal pools.
"Well, go 'head," the bard said, facetiously. "Like you said .. the snow's on its way."
Xena lowered her clenched fists to her sides, her mouth grimaced in fury. She took a very slow step to gather Argo's reins, exhaled a short, fierce breath and marched down the path. The bard followed.
By the time the small traveling party arrived at the cave the warrior had discovered the previous day, small, lacy snowflakes were already beginning to cling to the garments of the two women. Xena slowed her pace on the path as they approached the small cavern's opening, handing the mare's reins to the bard.
"I'll check things out," she said, cautiously drawing her sword. "I didn't see anyone yesterday, but may as well be safe than sorry." She glanced at the green eyes. The warrior took a step toward the cave, only to be stopped by the small hand on her arm.
"Just be careful, all right?" the little blonde said, her gaze sincere.
Xena patted the girl's shoulder, turned and walked gingerly toward the hole in the rocks. A moment later, the tall form disappeared into the dark aperture. Gabrielle patted the horse's long neck, as usual a small level of nervousness wafting through her chest. She trained her gaze on the opening of the cavern, watching somewhat anxiously for the warrior's tall form. A few moments later, Xena emerged from the small hollow and the bard noticed the warrior's weapon hung casually from her right hand.
The warrior quickly negotiated the short, uneven distance to the bard, the bronze face creased in a modest grin. When she reached the little blonde, the girl saw the quiet twinkle in the deep, azure pools. "Well, it's safe .. but we have company."
"Company?" the bard said tentatively, glancing at the small cave's opening. She sought the blue gaze again. "What's in there .... some cute little animal?" She trained a mocking glare at the warrior's innocent smirk.
"Well, you could say that," Xena answered smoothly, sheathing her sword. She took the horse's reins from the bard. "Go see for yourself." Gabrielle's brows skipped upward. "I think you can probably handle this 'little animal' better than I can." The bard's green gaze traveled from the warrior's face to the cave and back again.
"Xena," the girl began, a vague warning in her tone. "I'm not in the mood for ...."
"Go ahead," Xena said, her blue eyes inscrutable. She gently took the bard's staff. "But, ah ... I think you'd better leave this with me." She smiled enigmatically. "I left the torch just inside the entrance. I'll wait here for you."
Gabrielle's brows furrowed in curiosity. She studied the golden face for a moment, sighed and shook her blonde head slightly. "Oookay," the girl said, turning to face the cave. "I guess I'll go see the 'little animal'." The bard walked slowly toward the opening.
When she stepped into the cave, Gabrielle paused a moment to let her eyes get accustomed to the quiet darkness within the shelter. She found the torch protruding from the crack in the wall, pulled it out of its mounting and proceeded slowly into the shadowy interior. After a moment, she cocked her head as a subtle noise just ahead piqued her interest. She took a few tentative steps toward the sound, carefully sliding one hand along the craggy wall of the cave.
After a few more paces, the bard discovered she could stand up straight. She moved her hand along the wall again and tried to concentrate on the noise. Suddenly, the little blonde realized what she was hearing was the sound of breathing ... even, relaxed and steady. The 'little animal' Xena had invited her to visit was sleeping ... and quite peacefully.
Gabrielle blinked slowly, her eyes becoming even more accustomed to the murky surroundings. She raised the torch a bit higher, searching the darkened area carefully. In the next moment, the bard found the source of the gentle noise. Huddled against the far wall of the cavern, she saw a small, dark, tight bundle. It was obviously the form of a small child. The bard let out a quiet gasp, advanced another step toward the quiet form, one small hand reaching for the thin shoulder beneath the ragged covering. She knelt and gently touched the frail body. The little form jerked, twisted toward her, then recoiled fearfully, making a desperate attempt to press itself flat against the rocky wall.
"It's OK," the bard crooned, smiling warmly at the frightened face. "No one's going to hurt you. You're safe. It's all right." The big brown eyes in the dirt-smudged face met the little blonde's gentle smile, slowly responding to the bard's friendly manner. Gabrielle held out her hand, offering the child a solicitous greeting.
"My name's Gabrielle," the bard said softly. "What's yours?"
The young child looked questioningly at the bard's hand, then carefully placed a grimy palm in the little blonde's. "Niome," a tiny voice said. Gabrielle gently squeezed the little hand in hers. "I'm Niome." Gabrielle searched the nearby wall for a place to attach the torch. She found a narrow opening on the surface next to her, forced the handle of the torch into the crevice and turned back to the child.
The bard's warm smile began to dispel the blatant fear behind the haggard little face. The girl withdrew her hand and gently stroked the child's tangled hair. "Don't be afraid, Niome," the young bard said. "We'll help you get home."
The child's eyes quickly swept the cave. "You have someone with you?" the timid voice asked. "Where is ...?"
Gabrielle sat back, pulling the blanket from her shoulders and encircling the child with the woolen wrap. "My friend's outside ... taking care of our horse." Niome studied the bard's soft face. "Don't worry ... she'll be your friend too." The bard gathered her feet under her. "I'm going to go get her. OK?" The little blonde let her eyes settle on the child's.
Niome's trembling form quieted slowly. She pulled at the edges of the blanket. "OK ... Gabrielle," she said bravely. The bard turned and started toward the entrance to the cave. The thin voice behind her stopped her progress.
"Do you have anything to eat?"
The bard turned back to the fragile form in the blanket. "Sure. Be right back, OK?" The child nodded, her eyes trusting on the young blonde's face.
Once outside again, Gabrielle found the warrior securing the mare's reins to a bush a short distance from the entrance of the cave. Xena turned to face the bard when the young woman approached. As the woman's blue eyes met those of her soulmate, she immediately recognized the concern in the young face.
"Is she OK?"
The bard's green eyes glistened as she swallowed hard. "Xena, she's just a baby ... a little thing, maybe seven or eight summers old."
The warrior nodded almost impatiently. "I know, I know. But is she all right? Nothing hurt or broken?"
The little blonde paused, looking slightly puzzled into the warrior's blue eyes. "No, she's OK. At least I think she is. She didn't say anything hurt. But, she looks like she hasn't eaten in at least a week."
Xena quickly scanned the bard's form, noticing the absence of the warming covering. She turned quickly to the saddlebags, withdrew one of the blanket bedrolls and handed it to the preoccupied bard. "Here. Can't have you both freezing to death."
Gabrielle took the blanket and absently wrapped it around her own shoulders. She cast a concerned glance at the cave's entrance. "Xena, we need to ...."
The warrior raised a slender hand. "I know. I was just about to suggest that I go find us some food while you look after our ... guest." The golden face softened slightly. The warrior passed the bag of berries and roots to the bard. "You can share these in the meantime."
Gabrielle's anxious expression faded into a warm smile. She put her hand on the warrior's lean arm. "OK. You go ahead. We'll be fine until you get back." Xena returned the little smile. "What else should I do while you're gone?"
Xena pulled the small waterskin from Argo's back. "Here," she said, handing the skin to the bard. "This one's about half full. I'll fill the other one while I'm at it." She looked upward, scanning the sky and the surrounding greenery. "We've got a candlemark or so before dark ... I should be back before then." The bard nodded.
"Just stay inside, OK? That's the safest place for the two of you right now. See if you can get a fire going." For a fleeting instant, the warrior regretted her insinuation about the little bard's capabilities. But the underlying urgency to the present situation made it necessary to proceed with caution and care. "We're gonna get clobbered tonight, I can feel it." She cast another nervous glance at the sky. The warrior pulled the bard's staff from the straps on the saddle and handed them to the little blonde.
Gabrielle accepted the staff and gave the warrior's arm a final pat. "OK, see you inside." She turned toward the cave, stopped and turned back to the warrior. "Her name's Niome, by the way." Xena's brows knitted for a moment. "The little girl ..." the bard explained and the warrior nodded. "Well, be careful. See you soon."
Xena watched her friend reenter the cave, a quiet admiration in her subtle smile. "Niome," the warrior repeated quietly. "You do collect them, don't you?" she said to the little blonde's retreating form. "Oh well, it is the season ...." The warrior shook her head and gathered the game bag from the side of the saddle. She patted the mare's neck, stepping closer to the golden head.
"I'll fix up a shelter for you when I get back, OK, girl?" The mare whinnied gratefully. Xena stroked the long nose, drew her sword and strode off into the rustling forest, a confident look sliding across the chiseled features.
Inside the cave, the bright fire filled the cavern with soothing heat as the three occupants sat in a comfortable cross-legged circle around the dancing flames. According to her usual proficient manner, Xena had managed to produce enough meat and edible plants to provide sufficient nourishment for the three of them, and Gabrielle, accordingly, had engaged her normal culinary talents in using said ingredients in the creation of an appetizing, filling stew. The water jugs had been filled and the three females now sat enjoying the satisfying feast.
The two adults exchanged a series of amused expressions while turning their attention to the ravenous machinations of the youngest member of the trio. Gabrielle's green eyes were slightly amazed as she watched the child spoon the remaining contents of the bowl into her mouth, the wooden ladle in her hand making speedy, continuous trips between the earthen container and her chin. The bard quietly met the warrior's blue gaze and the two friends silently shared a knowing grin. Xena's eyes moved from the bard's to the busy youngster, then returned to meet her friend's gaze again. A warm smile lit the sculpted face.
Once the initial chores had been accomplished to prepare the cave for their stay, Gabrielle had taken amiable charge of their young companion. The bard had carefully used a soft cloth from their supplies to wash the gaunt little face and dirt-smudged hands. She gently brushed the tangles from the matted, straw-colored hair, affixing one of her own bone clasps to the back of the girl's head.
Xena's contribution to the cleanup activities had been to convert the blanket wrap into a short toga for the shivering youngster; she smoothly cut an opening in the middle of the woolen swatch and repositioned the covering over the child's head. The little girl had giggled happily at the creation of her new, unusual garment.
The loving ministrations had certainly improved the child's appearance, but the dark shadows under the large brown eyes and the raw-boned, haunted cast to the young face had only been subtly dissipated. There was still a very noticeable quality of loss visible in the small countenance.
After a moment, Niome paused in her hurried consumption of the stew to glance at the two women watching her. She swallowed the most recent mouthful and favored the bard with a grateful grin. "It's really good, Gabrielle. Never tasted better."
The little bard's hearty chuckle filled the small cave. "Well, that's good, Niome. I was afraid you didn't like it." The child's momentary confusion widened the warrior's grin.
"Oh, I get it," Niome giggled. She cast a sheepish smile at the bard. "I guess I was really hungry," the youngster said. She handed the empty bowl to the bard.
"More?" Gabrielle said, reaching for the large wooden utensil in the cooking pot over the fire.
"No, thanks," Niome said bashfully. "You gotta have some ...." The girl glanced shyly at the warrior. "You an' Xena."
The tall woman's gentle smile encouraged the child's. "That's OK, Niome," the smooth voice assured her. "We're both ... full," Xena said, casting a quick glance at the bard's playful smirk. "Go ahead ... finish the pot, if you're still hungry." Niome gazed longingly at the small iron container over the fire then raised her eyes to the bard's questioning look.
"You sure?" the child asked.
"We're sure," the bard answered, stirring the final portion of the stew before filling the girl's empty bowl again. She handed the vessel back to the child. "Here you are." Niome smiled happily as she accepted the bowl and promptly followed the warrior's suggestion. Xena and Gabrielle shared another amused smile.
While the child enjoyed the stew, Gabrielle leaned closer to the warrior as the tall woman whispered quietly into the bard's ear. "Looks like you were right," Xena said, her eyes soft on the waif's face. "She's been empty for a while." The blue pools traveled to the blonde's sympathetic expression.
"Poor little thing," the bard murmured. "Wonder what she's doing out here all by herself." The two women watched the youngster use the wooden utensil to scrape the sides of the bowl before depositing the final remnants from the vessel into her waiting mouth.
"Why don't you ask her?" the warrior said. The bard's green eyes met the crystal pools. "She's likely to tell you what we need to know."
"Need to know?" the bard repeated warily. "What do you mean 'need to know'?"
The warrior leaned closer to the bard and spoke quietly. "Gabrielle, a child that age," she said, glancing at Niome. "Out here, all alone? Has to be some reason for that." The warrior's blue eyes searched the little blonde's green gaze. "Right?" One dark eyebrow crept upward. "Someone might be looking for her ... concerned about her." Gabrielle glanced toward the scrawny little figure.
"You're right," the bard said, returning her gaze to the tall warrior's blue eyes. "We probably should at least ... try to find out what's happened here." The young blonde swallowed, took a short breath and addressed the child.
"Niome?" she said and the child's eyes swept to meet hers. The bard was slightly taken aback by the dark, hollowness under the brown pools. "Sweetheart, where's your family?" Niome gulped as the warrior's instincts began to tingle. "Won't they be worried about you?"
The youngster's gaze fell to the bowl in her hands. After a long moment, two heavy tears slowly traveled down over the thin cheeks. The child blinked, wiped her face and looked up at the soft green pools again. "Nobody left but me," she said quietly. She pulled one slim wrist under her nose. "They're all on the other side."
Even the warrior's stoic demeanor wavered at the simple, pathetic statement. She swallowed against the tightness in her throat. "What happened to them?" Xena asked quietly.
Niome's brown eyes moved to the warrior's face. "Papa got hurt in the fields. He got really sick ... then he was ... gone." The child sniffled and focused on the bowl again. "Then Mama and Galen ..." she met the bard's gaze again. "He's ... was my little brother ...." Gabrielle blinked at the child's pain. "They both got really sick, too. Mama couldn't feed Galen and he just kept cryin' .... and I didn't know what to do." The bard slid closer to the little form and the child turned a tormented gaze up to the soft face. "He just ... cried and cried and I ... I couldn't ...."
"Shh," Gabrielle crooned, pulling the sobbing child into her arms and stroking the flowing, yellow hair. "It's all right." She gently wiped away the girl's tears. "You tried, didn't you? That's all you can do." Niome burrowed against the bard's chest, clinging tightly to the little blonde's waist. The young woman met the warrior's gaze over the soft, pale head. The blue eyes were sad. The bard held the child close for a moment, then sat back to address the wet face again.
"Don't you have any other family ... someone who could let you ....?"
Niome pulled away from the gentle embrace, using the edges of the blanket to dry her face. "No, that's all there was ... just Mama, Papa, Galen and me." The bard watched the child closely. "After they all ... went away, Mentos wanted to make me work for the lady who runs the .... soldier's place, but ...."
"Who's 'Mentos'?" the warrior asked gently.
"He's the man who owns our farm. He said, without Papa to work it, he hadda right to get his money back somehow." The little chin wavered.
Gabrielle's slight confusion registered across her face. She raised a questioning gaze to the warrior's. "Soldier's place?" she asked quietly.
Xena's expression hardened. For a moment, the blue eyes were fastened on the brave child. "Brothel, Gabrielle," the warrior said softly, raising her eyes to the bard's.
The bard's mouth dropped slightly as she closed her eyes for a moment. She focused on the child at her side.
"I knew Mama wouldn't have liked that, so I ran away," the child said bravely, meeting the tall woman's eyes.
"Good for you," Gabrielle told the youngster, giving the girl's sparse shoulders a hug. Niome wiped her face with the edges of the blanket and cast a thin smile up at the bard's gentle grin. The warrior's sleek face softened slightly. She leaned toward the smaller pair.
"Niome?" Xena asked. "Did you get enough to eat?" The little face brightened quickly.
"Yes, thank you," the girl chirped, bringing a subtle grin to the bronze face. The blue eyes traveled to the bard's, shared the amusement glowing there, then returned to the round, dark pools of the child. "It was really good, Gabrielle," the little girl said to the bard. "You're a good cook."
"Yes, she is," Xena said, glancing at the bard again. "Good stew, Your Highness. Nice work." The bard blushed slightly.
"Thanks. T'wert nothin'," she joked, sharing a gentle laugh with the child.
"Your Highness?" Niome chirped unexpectedly, turning to Gabrielle with renewed admiration. "Are you a princess, or somethin'?" she queried. The bard threw the warrior's smirk a 'Now you've done it' look as the tall woman unfolded her long legs and stood up.
"Yes, she is, and she can tell you all about it while I go check on Argo." Xena lifted her cape onto her shoulders, pulled the hood over her head, tied the cape closed under her chin and started toward the opening of the cave. As she passed the bard, she laid a loving hand on the young blonde's head. "Can't you, Your Highness?" She gathered the long woolen garment around herself.
Gabrielle smiled down at the child's expectant face. As Xena retrieved one of the torches and bent to exit the cave, she heard the sounds of her friend's 'best bard voice' filling the small chamber.
"That's a long, wonderful story," the little blonde burbled. "I'll tell it to you while we do the dishes. You see, three summers ago, when Xena and I were visiting the village of the Amazons ....."
The warrior stepped into the swirling snow outside the cave. She trudged through the soft mounds to inspect the shelter where Argo stood, quietly chomping on the clump of dried leaves her mistress had gathered earlier. Xena checked the fir boughs she had used to erect the haven for the mare, using the limbs and the short outcropping in the side of the hill as a makeshift barrier for the horse's protection from the snow storm. The simple fixture appeared secure and the mare whinnied gratefully, thanking her mistress for the comfort the cover provided.
The warrior used the hilt of her sword to shatter the ice covering the small pool of water she had deposited in the basin-like depression in the side of the hill. She stroked the animal's nose as Argo bent her head to enjoy the water and pulled the animal-skin blanket higher on the horse's neck. When she was satisfied the great steed would be relatively protected and comfortable, the tall woman knelt to gather a new supply of logs from the short pile she had stacked near the cave's entrance. She collected the wood in her arms, shook off the snow that clung to her cape and stepped back into the cave.
Xena pulled the torch out of the crevice where she'd left it and, bending her tall frame slightly, passed into the warmer inner section of the cavern. She replaced the torch in another crack in the wall, pulled the hood back from her head and turned to scan the cave for the other two occupants. Her eyes settled on the sight of the bard, leaning comfortably against the far wall of the cave, her fingers gently stroking the hair of the sleeping child resting peacefully under the blanket covering her lap. When her eyes rose to meet the warrior's, the bard's soft smile creased her sweet face.
The warrior knelt and added the logs to the fire. Then she stood, untied the laces under her chin, pulled off her cape and draped it over a large boulder next to the bard. While she resettled herself cross-legged on the other side of the fire, Gabrielle held out a steaming mug to her friend. The warrior accepted the warm drink, letting her eyes travel over the serene picture.
"I'll have to finish the story some other time, I guess," the little blonde whispered quietly, training a gentle gaze down at the sleeping face nestled against her thighs. "She was out before I even got to the 'princess part'," the bard said. Xena watched the sweet face of her best friend. The little blonde's slender fingers traveled carefully over the small blonde head. She raised her gaze to meet the blue gaze of the warrior.
"What's going to happen to her now?" the bard asked her friend. "She's all alone, Xena. No child should have to deal with that."
Xena took a sip from the mug in her hand. She studied the fragrant mixture for a moment, then met the bard's eyes. "We'll take her with us to Megara," the tall woman said simply. "Rhea runs an orphanage, remember?" The blue eyes rested on the child's contented face. "She's the best thing for Niome now. She'll know exactly what to do."
"I was hoping you'd say that," the bard murmured quietly. "I knew I could count on you to find 'the best thing'."
When the azure pools rose to the bard's gaze, the warrior's heart trembled at the deep affection she found in the soft green eyes. The two soulmates shared a quiet moment of mutual devotion before Xena lifted the mug to her mouth and enjoyed another mouthful of the warm contents.
"Let's turn in for tonight," the warrior said. "We'll have the snow to deal with on the road tomorrow."
Xena put the cup aside and leaned toward the little bard. Taking special care, she pulled back the blanket covering and lifted the sleeping child away from her friend's legs. She cradled the little form in her lap while Gabrielle moved away from the wall, spread their bedrolls near the fire and laid down at one end of the sleeping area. When the bard was settled, Xena carefully repositioned Niome next to the little blonde, draping the blanket over the two small forms.
The warrior rose and made final adjustments to the leaping fire. She retrieved her long cape, strode back to the bedrolls and settled her long frame down on the other side of the sleeping youngster, covering her lower torso with the heavy cape. For a few moments, it was quiet in the little cavern. Then the bard's voice floated across the blankets.
"Are we still going to make it to Megara on time?" she asked.
"No," the warrior replied simply, "but I think Rhea will understand." The blue eyes met the bard's worried frown. "She's probably dealing with this weather, too." The stoic face softened as she gazed down at the child nestled between them. "After all, we will be bringing her a little surprise." The blue eyes floated up to the bard's soft face. "That'll make it up to her." The young blonde's smile was warm.
Continued - Part 2
The Bard's Corner