Part 2 (Conclusion)
Xena returned from the kitchen and surveyed the main room. The astrologers were finishing up their late dinner, and many travelers on that side of the room, including Cassie and her family, looked as though they could barely keep their eyes open. But the celebrating on the opposite side of the inn was in full flower, with Myron and his cronies leading the charge. Solstice Eve or no, it was time to put a stop to it.
The warrior turned to the bar, where once again she could see Gabrielle having a heart-to-heart with Pasha. This time, tears stained the younger womans face, and she tried wiping them away with the back of her hand.
Xena slowly approached.
"The problem is..." Pasha sniffled, "that I really do think of Autolycus as a brother."
"A brother," Gabrielle said sympathetically, "but thats all."
"Yes!" Pasha bobbed her head up and down, relieved to finally have someone to confide in. "Its just that a life on the road isnt for me," she continued. "I want a home. A family. Autolycus... hes been so kind to me, given me help when I needed it. Not to mention," she giggled softly, "he can be so gallant, so considerate, so caring!"
"More wine, wench! Or Ill have you over my knee!" Autolycus pushed past Xena and slapped his mug upon the bar.
Phew! Xena thought. For a moment, I wondered if she was talking about the same Autolycus I know!
"Hold it there, Pilgrim!" and she roped out an arm, stopping him. She took his mug and pounded it up and down on the bar.
"May I have your attention, please," she called out. "In deference and respect for Solstice Eve, and due to the fact that weve just about run out," she shot Gabrielle a sidelong, silencing look, "this bar... is closed."
A grumbling ran through the rowdy side of the room, but Xena swore she heard an audible sigh of relief from the opposite half.
The warrior knew that Myron and his crowd would not go down easily, and she was right. The giant of a man stood, slipped a thumb into a pocket of his fur-collared vest, picked up his ale mug, and strode over to Xena.
"Says who?" the rank smell of his liquored breath nearly made Xena see stars.
"Says me," she replied, thrusting her jaw out at him.
And then, in a gesture that Gabrielle was sure would earn the drunkard a non-stop flight to tartarus, he poured the dregs of his mug on top of Xenas head.
"Looks like Im all out of ale, honey," he said with an evil, gap-toothed grin. "Now, why dont you run along and get me some more?"
The ale trickled down Xenas raven-black hair, and some of it dribbled onto her nose and cheeks; she had to blink a time or two in order to clear it from her eyes.
Gabrielle steeled herself for the explosion she was sure would follow, but instead the warrior stood stock-still. She gazed past Myron, her eyes locked on something on his table.
"My pie," she said simply, flatly.
"What?" the bully turned around, and saw that Xena was referring to the fresh-baked rhubarb pie he and his friends had decimated. Only a small sliver of it remained.
"You ate my pie..."
"YOUR pie," Myron shouted. "It was just sitting out there on the bar. Finders keepers, losers weepers!" he laughed, and Xena could now see the sticky-red remnants of the rhubarb stuck between his teeth.
In a flash, Xena recalled her mother storming angrily out of the kitchen earlier. She mustve grabbed the pie intended for her by mistake. Or at least, Xena hoped it wasnt intentional. At this point, she hadnt a clue.
"You want your pie?" Myron stuck a finger at Xenas chest, "Come and get it!" He picked up the last piece, and held it tauntingly out to her in his grubby fingers. "Whaddya say?" he leered.
"I say..." Xena smiled sweetly, "Thanks for the invitation!"
Xena moved so blindingly fast, Myron could scarcely react. She stiff-armed him right on the point of his chin, causing him to stumble backwards and release the pie. Xena deftly caught the slice in one hand, and began munching on it while she kicked out with one foot, hitting Myron squarely in the middle of his massive gut. He flew back and landed hard on the table, pitching the pie plate and the rest of the mugs and platters high into the air. Remains of the rhubarb showered down onto the warrior and her victim.
The bully may have been down, temporarily, but he wasnt out. Not by a long shot. And it didnt help that his half-soused cohorts decided to join the fray. There was nothing they liked better than a good fight, Solstice Eve or no. As Myron groggily regained his feet, the rest of his gang fell upon Xena.
"What the-- Xena - NO!" Gabrielle called out from behind the bar, but it was futile. The bout was on.
Myrons four friends were much smaller in size, and it took Xena only a few well-placed punches and kicks to dispatch them to an early Solstice Eve slumber. Just as Xena was taking care of the last of the men, she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder.
"Xena - watch out!" the bard cringed and slowly moved to the front of the bar. She hated to join in under such close circumstances, fearing on making a bad situation worse. As long as she felt Xena could handle herself - and shed seen her victorious over much larger, sober groups - she felt it best to stay out of the warrior princesss way.
Myron spun Xena around, and sucker-punched her in the face with a lucky swing of his meaty fist.
"Ouch," Autolycus said, screwing up his face in distaste. "Bet that hurt!"
Xena staggered back a step or two, and then shook her head as if to clear it. She turned to face Myron, oblivious to the shiner now blooming over her right eye, and she did something that made Gabrielles blood run cold.
She laughed. A low, rumbling laugh, that stopped Myron in his tracks.
And with a "Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!" Xena dove at Myron, working on his face like a punching bag, and then, when he was too woozy to do much more than totter where he stood, Xena picked him up with a yell, and spun him like a whirligig above her. "Hey Myron, how about a little kiss under the mistletoe?" With a final, guttural yell, she tossed him behind the bar. He smashed into the wall, and crumpled to the floor without a whimper. "Drinks are on you, Myron," she said, breathing heavily and brushing her hands off against her hips.
The spell was broken at the sound of Cyrenes angry shout.
"Mother, I can explain--"
"I dont want to hear it!"
Xena saw the reproachful look Gabrielle gave her as she raced over to where Leah and Cassie huddled with their parents. The small children were obviously frightened out of their wits, thanks to the uproar, and the bard was doing her best to comfort them. "Sshhh... there, there," she said, speaking in soft, calming tones.
"Xena, what am I going to do with you?" Cyrenes face was like the sky before a thunderstorm. "And on Solstice Eve, of all nights!"
Not for the first time, this night, Xena felt like a little girl. "But I didnt start it--"
"I dont care who started it, young lady," Cyrene was clearly disappointed in her daughter. "I want this place cleaned up by the time Im finished in the back. Or else!"
"No buts about it!" Cyrene held up her hands, silencing the tall, dark warrior, and she gathered up her skirts and stormed off.
Xena watched her mothers retreating back, feeling like shed failed her once again.
"Yes, Mother," she said quietly, and she bent down and picked up the shattered pieces of a plate. She let the hurt wash over her, the childish frustration and anger that she couldnt deal with any better with now, than she had those many summers ago. Sadly, she gazed at the plate... it was broken beyond repair.
The inn was the quietest it had been since Xenas arrival. There was a soft hum of voices as people conversed; some had already retreated to rooms above stairs, content to put this Solstice Eve to an end. The snow was still falling outside, though not as heavily, and if Xenas ears did not deceive her, she wouldve sworn that the winds were not quite as fierce as earlier.
Shed put a few more logs on the fire, and was doing her best to stay out of her mothers way. Cyrene was still angry with her, that was obvious, and shed ventured out of her kitchen only when necessary, content to busy herself with planning the next mornings meal at the inn.
Xena had straightened and cleared the floor as best she could; the table would need to be repaired out in the workshop; shed leaned the pieces of it against the far wall. Myron and his friends were sleeping it off in a corner. Shed managed to convince his companions that the better play was to settle down and keep their friend under control, or else be prepared to face the wrath of the Solstice snow-storm. The men may have been tipsy, but they werent suicidal. They swore to Xena that they would stay out of trouble, and sit on Myron, if necessary, to restrain him. Judging by the sawing snores coming from him, Xena guessed hed be out of commission at least until morning. And that was fine by her.
Autolycus and Pasha had taken the time to re-acquaint themselves with the astrologers, and Xena was pleased to see the thief make that effort. The three travelers from the orient were genuinely happy to see the pair again, particularly the engaging Pasha, who spoke to them in their native language. Only young Micah seemed to hold back, as if vaguely suspecting that Autolycus had something to do with the missing gold pieces. If only he knew!
The indefatigable Joxer sat on a bench by the hearth, busily stringing the remaining evergreens into small wreaths. Xena was pleased to see that the young mans spirits had picked up again, and she was sure it something to do with the deeply-slumbering Myron. Joxer looked quite the mouse who knew the cat was away.
Xena was glad to see everyone enjoying themselves. If only...
"Hey - have a seat!" Gabrielle came up behind her, and motioned to an empty stool at the bar.
"I thought this bar was closed?" Xena offered her friend a crooked smile.
"We may have stopped serving alcohol," the bard corrected her, "but my bar is never closed. Sit." She handed the warrior a moderately sized piece of beef-steak. "Here. For your eye," she said. "Thats some shiner!"
"Thanks." Xena gingerly applied the meat to her bruised face, and released a great sigh. "Now Im supposed to tell you my troubles, right?"
"No, let me start," Gabrielle held up her hand. "This is all my fault. Im sorry I insisted you do this... maybe if wed told Cyrene ahead of time you were coming..." her words drifted off, and Xena could see the pain in her friends eyes. It had been so important to Gabrielle, that this be a peaceful, relaxing holiday. For Xenas sake.
"Gabrielle, how could this be your fault?" she gazed around the room. "No-one could have predicted this! I know I didnt want to come, at first. But after a while I sorta got used to the idea... I was looking forward to it. I guess I just expected something different."
"We have been working ourselves to the bone since we got here," Gabrielle mopped up a stray spill on the bar. Maybe if you hadnt started that fight..."
"I didnt start it," Xena firmly insisted, noticing a stray bit of rhubarb on her shoulder. With a quick swipe of her finger, she took it up and popped it into her mouth.
"Whoever started it, maybe thats why Cyrenes so angry with you."
"Well..." Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on Xenas arm, choosing her words carefully. "... Im sure it probably has nothing to do with the fact that the last time you visited her, you tried to kill her?"
"Look we had some issues, okay? But we worked them through!" The warrior was indignant.
"Ooookay!" Gabrielle backed away. "Just a suggestion."
"I shouldnt have come back here...."
"Give it time, Xena. Shell come around."
The warrior shook her head and laughed softly, smiling at her friend. "Thanks. Therell be a little extra tip for you, barmaid!"
"Serving wench!" Gabrielle teased her back.
Suddenly, there was the sound of voices being raised nearby.
"Keep your paws off my Pasha!"
"Im not yours, Autolycus!"
"Yeah!" Joxer chimed in. "And anyway, my paws werent even on her!"
"Not yet," Pasha said boldly, her dark eyes aflame with conviction. "Joxer is going to make an honest woman of me!"
"Hah! He wouldnt know how!"
"Why you... you... whooooaaa...." Knowing his manhood had somehow been indicted, and knowing that the proper response was to defend it, Joxer had absolutely no idea what he was doing when he flung himself at Autolycus. The two men quickly became a blur of fists, pulled hair, and finger pokes.
"Uh... Xena, maybe you havent noticed, but Autolycus and Joxer are fighting!"
"Really?" Xena replied, disinterested. She shifted the angle of the steak on her eye.
"Xena, theyre really messing things up again," Gabrielle warned, ducking to avoid a misdirected goblet that Joxer threw at the king of thieves.
Autolycus was right next to the bar now. "Nyah... nyah...." he cried out at the fumbling young man. "You throw like a girl!"
Joxer again launched himself at Autolycus, who adroitly stepped to one side. His opponent landed hard on the bar, and the force of the impact on his misshapen breastplate literally took the wind out of him. He wheezed and struggled to get to his feet, blissfully unaware that his foot hooked the pine bush hed placed on the end the bar earlier, in celebration of the Solstice. The decoration tumbled over, taking the lit tapers with it.
"Say uncle!" Autolycus insisted, his chest heaving with the effort of the battle.
"I dont have an uncle," Joxer moaned, and Pasha began to cry.
Smoke began to trail up from the floor, where the bush had landed.
"Xena," Gabrielle was alarmed, "the Solstice bush is on fire."
"I know," Xena blandly replied, determined that this was one fight she was going to stay out of. Surely, her mother couldnt find fault with her for this!
"XENA!" the bard shook her friend by the shoulders. "Im saying we could all be crispy critters real soon if you dont do something!"
But the warrior would not involve herself. "Let somebody else worry about it," she gave an indifferent shrug, "...like maybe the innkeeper. I quit. Gods know, Im starving." She refused to turn around, although she heard rushed footsteps behind her as several people moved in to tamp out the flaming bush.
Gabrielle could not believe it. Now the warrior wanted a vacation?? Hot ashes from the fire drifted into the air as the blaze was extinguished. She could barely hold back a satisfied smirk when she saw an ember land on a stray leathered flap of the warriors skirt.
Xena cautiously sniffed at the air, not seeing the thin finger of smoke rising up behind her. "Speaking of food, somethings burning!"
"Its you," Gabrielle said, tossing her friend a dampened bar-rag. "Deal with it. I quit, too."
The snow continued to fall; its thick, heavy arms reached out far and wide, and held Amphipolis fast in its embrace. Looking out a window, Xena could see that all traces of travelers to the inn were obliterated. Footprints of humans and horses alike were swept clean from the whitened slate, leaving no trace that anyone or anything had journeyed this way.
As the world fell silent outside, save for the whispers of the wind, so too an air of peace and calm descended within. Joxer and Autolycus had declared a truce, at least for now, in honor of the Solstice. The stench from the burned Solstice bush was still quite noticeable, but when put to a vote - the people decided to live with it, rather than have the cold winds of the storm be an unwelcomed guest at their snug hearth. Xena still hadnt seen too much of Cyrene since their earlier argument; the innkeeper silently apprised the damage to the bar area from the small fire, and returned to her kitchen without a word. At this point, the warrior wasnt sure which was worse: a full-blown fight or the silent treatment. In all truth, she was so miserable she wished she wasnt here at all.
Soft voices rose up from where the astrologers and the family groups were; Xena took note that it was Gabrielle who had a small audience gathered around her; her rapt listeners included the little girls and their parents, as well as Pasha, and the astrologers.
Xena had long ago admitted to the fact that she loved it when the bard spun her tales. The stories never failed to keep the warrior amused when they were on the road together, and more than once Gabrielles way with words had gotten them out of trouble times when Xena was more inclined to fight first and ask questions later. Gabrielle was always talking about how much she had learned from Xena during their past few years together; if the little bard only knew how much the opposite was true.
"And just as these astrologers are following that star, so too each and every one of us must follow their own heart." the bard pointed one hand skyward, while with the other she lightly touched her breast. "I know I do." At that moment, she looked up as Xena approached, and she smiled. It wasnt often that she recited stories on the spur of the moment without giving them a test-run first, but chalk it up to the Solstice; tonight she felt inspired.
As Gabrielle concluded her story, it did not escape her notice that Pasha was positively mesmerized by Joxer. She could barely take her eyes off him, and the bard wondered that the exotic young woman didnt leap into his arms at finale of her tale. Love. Go figure, she thought.
Xena casually leaned up against the table. "Sounded like a good story. Youll have to tell it to me sometime," she said.
Gabrielle blushed. "Anytime," a small smile pulled at her lips, "but something tells me you already know it!" and she turned her eyes away.
It wasnt often that Gabrielle was at a loss for words, and Xena had to admit that she found it amusing now. She decided to let her bard off the hook. "So," she turned her attention to the astrologers, "where exactly are you going?"
"We dont know," Balthazar cheerily responded. He held Cassie on his lap, she couldnt get enough of the golden medallion the astrologer wore around his neck pulling and playing with it.
"I dont understand," Gabrielle said. "How will you know when you get there?"
"Well know," Harim softly answered, a far-away look in his eyes. "It is the journey that matters more, Gabrielle. Not the destination." He turned his wise, weathered face upon the young woman, and the bard knew then that the astrologer spoke of something more profound than mere travel places things. These men were on a personal quest, a spiritual journey, and Gabrielle knew a little something about that herself.
"Hey, I see some sleepy faces around here!" Gabrielle turned to where the shy Leah lay cradled in her mothers arms, sound asleep. She held fast in her chubby hands the toy lamb that the craftsman Senticles had made. Xena had given the toy to the bard as a Solstice present a couple of years back, and she treasured it. Earlier, shed been able to put it to good use, allowing little Leah to play with it, soothing the childs jangled nerves.
Leahs older sister, Cassie, wasnt making out much better, though she was enthralled by the conversation around her; her eyelids drooped precariously, flirting with outright slumber. Her head was tipped forward, and her dark hair framed her face as if it were a small pillow.
"Lets go, now!" the childrens mother said. The girls were both suddenly wide-awake, insisting that they werent tired after all, but the parents wisely ignored their tired protests, and bundled them off to bed. The astrologers, latecomers to the inn, had already volunteered to arrange their bedrolls on the main floor. Their bedding, together with that of other travelers who had already nodded off, including the men from Kavalas, took up just about all the available floor space.
Xena and Gabrielle started for the steps.
"No, Xena!" Cyrene swiftly descended from above stairs. "Theres room for you my dear," she motioned to Pasha, "but thats it."
"What?" Xena blinked.
"You understand, dont you Xena?" Cyrene drew up to her larger daughter, and Xena could see that whatever anger shed held within her earlier, had melted away. "Im so sorry, little one," she said more softly, and Xena could see in her eyes that she meant it. "Paying customers only... were packed to the rafters up there!"
"What about--" the warrior spun around, looking for Autolycus and Joxer, and saw that theyd fallen asleep sitting up, leaning against the front wall of the inn. As it was, they were peacefully tilted nearly into each others laps. "No way," Xena shook her head, trying to chase that image from her mind.
"Ill make sure you have some extra furs for the stable... you can make do with that, cant you, for just this one night?"
"Yeah," Xena forced a smile. "For just this one night. That is, if Argo doesnt mind the company." She turned away from her mother.
"Thank you, dear," and she felt a small squeeze on her arm. "Thank you both!" Footsteps receded back up the stairs.
"Xena, are you okay?" Gabrielle stepped around to face her friend. "The stable is fine with me, really," she said nervously. She could see how the warriors face had darkened in the firelight.
"No, it is not okay." Xena was fuming, her voice low and menacing, "Ever since I got here, Ive done nothing but work my fingers to the bone... do whatever my mother asked of me. And what do I get for my trouble?" she grabbed Gabrielles shoulder and pulled her close.
"I get propositioned, starved-out, beaten on, yelled at, burned up and," she scratched an arm furiously, "if Im not mistaken, Joxer has mixed in sumac leaves with the holly-berry wreaths."
"What?" Gabrielle ruffled her blonde hair, suddenly feeling itchy herself.
"Enough!" Xena took a stand. "Im mad as tartarus, and Im not gonna take it anymore! Its Solstice Eve, for Zeuss sake! A little peace and quiet... spending time with my mother. Was that too much to wish for?"
Gabrielles mouth was open, but no words issued forth. When the warrior princess was on a roll, there was no stopping her. Once again, guilt crept into her heart at the thought of having forced her friend to return home. She wondered if Xena would ever be able to forgive her for this fiasco.
"I- I - " the bard stumbled, searching for the words to make it right. She never finished that thought.
With a great whoosh, the door to the inn wrenched open, and a man staggered in, covered in white from head to toe. It was obvious he was in rough shape; two brown eyes blinked out of a half-frozen face.
In a flash, Xena was at his side. "Weve got to get him to the fire!" Together with Gabrielle and a roused Autolycus, they moved him to a seat by the warm hearth. The bard pulled off his cloak, replacing it with a dry blanket.
A buzz ran through the inn as the groggy patrons tried to get a look at the new arrival.
"Off with your boots now," Autolycus tugged at the blocks of ice that were the mans feet. "What were you doing out there, anyway?" he asked.
The man shook so badly that he couldnt speak at first. His eyes were bloodshot, bits of ice in his hair began to melt from the heat of the fire, and his hands could barely hold the hot tea Gabrielle proffered him.
"The... the storm caught me," he chattered, "b-b-but theres another couple..."
"What?" Xena crouched down next to the man, her senses on a heightened state of alert. "Theres somebody else out there?"
"A m-man... his wife... shes heavy with child.." the frozen traveler took another sip of tea before continuing, not caring that most of it trickled down his chin.
The winds still blew outside, and a chill had swept into the room with the mans arrival, but it was not as great as the coldness which now gripped the warriors gut at the thought of those people still out there. "Where are they?" she demanded, more sharply than shed intended.
"I passed them on the main road a ways back. His wagon had foundered in the snow. I tried to help..." he paused, "but it was no good. She couldnt walk, and he wouldnt leave her..."
Already Xena was off, grabbing her cloak.
"Wait a minute... will you just wait a minute, Xena?" Autolycus rushed up to her. "What can you do out there, in this storm?"
Xena whirled on the thief. "I dont care if I have to walk every step of the way. Im not leaving those people out there. Not tonight."
"Ill go with you, Xena." The bard stepped up to the warriors side; there was nowhere else on earth shed rather be, this night.
"Dont tell me, youve lost your mind too!" Autolycus flung up his hands. "What is it with you two?"
"We can help." It was Jeshuas quiet voice. Balthazar, Harim, and Micah stood unified behind him.
Xenas hand froze on her cloak, and she looked at him blankly. "How?"
"We fitted out our wagon with sled runners. Knowing how the weather is here in the north, we thought it best to be prepared. Without it, we never wouldve gotten this far tonight. But Im afraid our horses are played out..."
"Argo can do it," Xena said firmly, working out a plan.
"Oh, all right, Ill come," Autolycus sighed, grabbing his coat. Xena smiled at the thief, knowing that his assistance would be needed, and glad that he volunteered.
"And Micah can help you!" Balthazar added, giving his young associate a pat on the back.
It was decided. Xena nodded her thanks. "Well be back," she promised, and the little group struck out into the stormy Solstice night.
"Sorry about this, girl!" Xena apologized to Argo. "Ill make sure you get some extra oats in the morning!" The mare snorted as the unfamiliar harness was placed upon her. Quickly, Micah had them all out on the main road, flying along, thanks to the wagon-turned-sleigh. The winds were lessening, Xena had been right about that, but the snow was deep, and even a horse as strong as Argo had trouble at times.
The trees bowed down before them, heavy with the weight of the snow, and somehow, the few words that passed among the rescuers seemed sharper, clearer, in the frigid night air. Xena was on a mission, focused only on saving the lost travelers, but the magical beauty of the snow-scape was not lost on Gabrielle. She had no doubt they would find the couple, somewhere along this strip of road that glistened as if lined with countless tiny diamonds. The runners of the wagon whispered quietly in cadence with Argos steps, lulling the bard into a peaceful trance that was broken at last by Xenas shout.
"There they are!"
The travelers wagon peaked out of a snowdrift like a childs head from the covers on Solstice morning. The snow had captured the wheels and held them fast, the wagon would go no farther tonight. A tired horse stood patiently, still hitched uselessly to the cart. Xena wondered if the poor animal simply hadnt frozen in place.
"Ive got him!" Micah hopped down from the sleigh, and began to unhitch the horse.
Autolycus and Xena pressed through the deep snow to the wagon. There, huddled in the back was the couple. Both were still alive. The man had attempted to shelter the pregnant woman with his body, futilely trying to keep her warm, aided by what few blankets he had.
The man barely moved. "T - t - thank t-the g-gods..." he forced out. "M - my wife... the baby..."
"I know," Xena said grimly. "Hang on."
Carefully, they moved the barely conscious woman to the sleigh. Gabrielle took charge of bundling her up as best she could, but the waxy cast of her skin worried her. As her husband fell into the wagon next to his wife, Gabrielle realized that the both of them were long past shivering against the cold. Their bodies were shutting down, growing deathly still, freezing to the core.
"With a "yah!" Xena slapped the reins on Argo, and the wagon pulled out. Micah followed, on the couples horse. The exhausted animal seemed to find new life, liberated at last from his icy millstone.
The return trip went quickly, since they were able to track back in their out-bound path. The snow had nearly stopped falling now, giving way to a quiet calm, and a few bold stars began twinkling overhead. One, brighter than all the rest, appeared to lead them right to the door of Cyrenes inn.
"Lets get you inside," Xena gazed worriedly at the couple as she hopped down into the snow.
Micah took charge of the horses and the sleigh. "Well done," the warrior told him, and a shy smile illuminated his face. "Im glad we found them," he said in his lilting accent. He turned away and began to sort out the extra furs in the wagon.
"Thats it..." Autolycus and Gabrielle were helping the man with his wife, gently easing her out of the wagon. Once she was free, the king of thieves swept her up into his arms. "Door-to-door service," he said breathlessly, and Xena stepped in front of him and flung open the door.
"Hey--" Xena could hear the amazement in Micahs voice. "I dont believe it...." and she saw him holding up a small bag of gold pieces into the dark night. The light from the inns fire caught the gold in its sights, burnishing the coins in an other-worldly sheen.
Xena caught Autolycus eye, and he winked at her. The corner of the warriors mouth turned up in a grin; the thief had made things right, as she had known he would. She gave him a brusque nod, and plunged through the doorway.
"Upstairs..." Cyrene was waiting inside, knowing her midwife skills might be needed. She began to whisk Autolycus and his precious cargo away.
"M-mother...." The innkeeper stopped dead in her tracks at the sound of the half-frozen voice, and Xena whipped her head around, staring dumbfounded at the man theyd rescued. He lifted a frost-bitten claw of a hand to the hood of his cloak, pushing it away.
In that sweet moment of recognition, Xena looked into eyes as deep and blue as her own. "Toris..." she gasped, and she stepped forward just in time to catch him as he slumped to the floor.
"Itll be okay..." she stroked his cold face, willing the heat of her strength into him. "Sssh.... youre home."
Autolycus helped Toris into a change of dry clothes, and afterwards Xena stayed with her brother by the fire. She carefully massaged life back into his deadened limbs, and finally offered him a drink of the notorious uiscebeatha to light a fire within him. How close shed come to losing him this night!
No-one knew that Toris had married; hed decided to surprise his mother by bringing his wife home for the Solstice, so that she might bear their child in the town of his birth. They were not the only travelers caught out in the unexpected storm, but certainly their circumstances were the most dire. If the lone journeyman Pendron hadnt come upon them when he did, and pressed onward to Amphipolis for help, the couple and their unborn child would have surely perished.
"I was never so glad to see anyone in my whole life!" Toris said, as the color slowly returned to his face. "Marissa kept telling me to go on ahead, but I could tell her time was near. There was no way I would have left her "
Xena reached out and clasped his chilled hands. "Im just glad we found you when we did."
"Imagine getting rescued on Solstice Eve by my little sister," his ice-blue eyes sparkled in the glow of the fire. "Thanks, Xena. For my wife my child I thank you."
The brother and sister, so alike with their dark hair and long, lean physiques, shared a quiet moment of gratitude.
Toris finally broke the silence. "Well, Im going to go check on Marissa," he said, and he slowly headed up the stairs. Xena watched him go, and she considered how lucky she was to have her brother here, with his new wife, and a little one on the way. She allowed her thoughts to briefly flit towards memories of Lyceus, their younger brother.
How vibrant and full of joy hed been, and as she closed her eyes she could see his blonde, curly-haired features beaming before her. He would have relished this family time in Amphipolis, Xena knew. A small tear escaped her eye at the thought of how his life had been cut short at the hands of an evil warlord. For a long time Xena had borne the guilt of his death, and her family had blamed her, too. In the years since that awful day, Cyrene and Toris had long since forgiven her, and so had the rest of the town, but the warrior wondered whether she would ever be able to truly forgive herself.
Tired as she was, a sense of anticipation and excitement ran through Xena, at the thought of a new addition to the family. She was happy for Toris and Marissa, and she knew that her sister-in-law was in good hands with Cyrene. She stood heavily, sighed, and moved to where Gabrielle once again was holding court. Where did her young friend get the energy?
The colorful clothing of the astrologers reflected back the light from the fire, and the flames cast a gentle radiance to the bards golden hair as she sat among them. Pasha and Joxer were spellbound, however Autolycus had surrendered to Morpheus and resumed his sleeping-sitting-up position against the wall. Myron and his friends still snored loudly on the far side of the inn, but many of the other travelers whod awakened when Xena burst in with her brother and his wife, had returned to bed. Solstice morn would be here soon enough, she thought.
Gabrielles voice was soft, in the pre-dawn quiet. "And that is why the Winter Solstice is celebrated," she explained. "It may be the shortest day of the year, in terms of daylight. But the true gift of Solstice is the transformation which this longest of nights brings us: an end to the darkness, and the hope and promise of a new beginning."
A baby cried.
Xena dashed headlong up the stairs, Gabrielle hard on her heels, and they skidded to a stop at the doorway to Cyrenes room. The innkeeper was toweling off her hands, and there was a tired, proud smile on her face. Silently, she beckoned them in.
Marissa lay on the bed, her fair features streaked with sweat, and she held a newborn babe in her arms. Toris sat next to her, with his arms protectively curled around them both, and he did nothing to stop the tears from streaming down his face.
Xenas eyes were wide as dinars as she approached; her heart was full of joy at the delicate little figure before her. A new life. Such a precious thing.
"Oh, Toris " the warrior princess had no words for her brother, instead moving next to the new family and holding out her index finger to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby. The child quickly clasped the proffered finger in its own tiny fist.
"Gaaaa ." the baby squinted blindly at the new arrivals.
"Its a girl," Toris gave his wifes shoulder a squeeze, and she rewarded him with a small smile of contentment.
"Shes beautiful," Gabrielle said, putting her arm around Xenas waist. "Whats her name?"
"We decided to call her," his voice broke, "Lycea."
After spending some time with the new parents, Xena and Gabrielle left them to get their rest. "And you could do with some sleep of your own," Cyrene said. Xena cast a wary look at her mother, but she could see by the earnest look in her eye that her anger had melted away.
"Thank you, little one, for bringing them home to us!" Cyrene escorted them to the bedroom door.
"I had help, mother," Xena replied, giving Gabrielle a companionable hug.
"And I had help too, this night Xena," Cyrenes voice was tinged with remorse. "Im sorry if I didnt seem grateful I was."
"Its been a crazy night for all of us," Gabrielle offered, looking up at Xena and flashing her a silly grin. "One to write about, thats for sure!"
"Dont you dare!" Xena laughed.
"Well talk more in the morning, all right?" Cyrene looked hopefully at her daughter.
"Count on it," Xena replied, and she gave the older woman a hug. "Its off to the stables now for us, right, Gabrielle?"
The two friends went downstairs to the main floor, and stood still for a moment, taking in the scene. Dawn was just beginning to throw a hint of a rosy flare at the eastern horizon, and the faint glow of it shed soft streaks of light upon the slumbering guests. Broken cups and plates littered the sticky floor, and remnants of the Solstice feast lay uneaten on the tables. Several smashed tables and chairs were stacked along the back wall, not far from charred floor and post where the Solstice bush had burned. Less visible, but still in evidence, were the splatters of rhubarb on the post and ceiling. The garlands and holly-berry sprays Joxer made, hung crazily from the walls and beams, lending bold swaths of color to the chaotic vista.
The astrologers had at last retired for the night, Micah alongside them. Autolycus stirred. His dark hair was wildly askew, and he was missing the collar of his woolen shirt, thanks to his brief altercation with Joxer the Mighty.
The thief barely lifted an eyelid as the two women squeezed by. "Boy or girl?"
"Girl," Xena answered "Shes got her fathers eyes and her mothers hair.
"And her aunts grip," Gabrielle laughed, remembering.
"Wheres Pasha?" Xena scratched at her arm as she scanned the room.
Autolycus nodded over towards the bar. "There, can you believe it?" Joxer and Pasha had fallen asleep under the mistletoe, tangled in each others arms. Their faces each were a portrait of simple bliss and peace.
"Give it up, Autolycus," Xena smirked. "Youve been beaten, fair and square."
"Just dont tell anybody, will ya? This has all been humiliating enough."
"Good night," Xena said, laughing, and she grabbed a few extra furs from the hooks by the door.
"I think its more like morning," the thief grumbled. He crossed his arms on his chest and closed his eyes.
Gabrielle could hold back no longer, she finally gave in to the wave of exhaustion that shed held at bay all night. "Xena..." she asked, her eyelids drooping, "am I asleep?"
"Nooo...." the warrior evenly replied.
"Good. Just checking," the bard yawned loudly.
A thin, icy veneer had formed atop the snow drifts, and the two friends feet crunched with each step they took. The snow hand finally stopped, the harsh winds stilled, and the steam of their breath puffed out in billowing clouds. Xena had to admit that the sharp, cold air hitting her face did wonders for her black eye, if not her bruised ego. These quiet moments at dawn, shared with her bard, were among the few, simple things in life that she treasured most.
No words needed to pass between them as the two women entered the stable and prepared their bedrolls and furs. This ritual was one theyd executed hundreds of times before, and each knew their part by now. The only variance was that here, among the horses and a few head of cattle, there was no fire to be built, no food to be cooked.
Fatigue continued to keep them silent, until at last they fell back onto the make-shift bedding, settling the furs on top of themselves. In a motion borne of both habit and need, Xena then curled onto her side and tugged the bard up against her, wrapping a strong arm around her middle.
"Im sorry I got you into all this, Xena," Gabrielle said softly. "I wanted so much for it to work out differently... this has been some Solstice Eve."
"No!" Xena countered, "It wasnt that bad," and as she heard herself speak the words, she realized she meant it.
"Are you delusional, Xena?" Gabrielle swung her head around to face her. "Wait, dont answer that!" she arched an eyebrow at the warrior.
"No, its true!" she marveled at the wonder of it all. "It didnt start off great, Ill admit that, but being with Mother, Toris and his wife... the miracle of little Lycea..." Xenas voice grew husky, "and most of all... there was you."
"Me?" the Gabrielles voice squeaked as she rolled over again, shifting her back to Xena. The young woman drew in a deep breath of cool air, enjoying its sweetened, fresh-hay scent, and released it with a heavy sigh. "Well, its nice to be appreciated..." and she relaxed her body into the warriors.
Xena said nothing, for a time, content to revel in the warmth of the bard... listening to her gentle breaths which the warrior swore were timed in rhythm with her own beating heart. No, no-one could have predicted the events of this Solstice Eve, or the outcomes. It had been a revelation, thanks to the wisdom of the young woman lying at her side, insisting that a wayward daughter return home.
"Gabrielle," the warrior leaned in so close that her lips brushed against the bards golden hair, "Ive been thinking... sometimes when we start out trying to help somebody, like we did today," she hesitated before continuing, "...in the end its we who are the ones helped."
"Mmmmnnn...." came the bards mumbled response; Xena doubted if shed even heard a word she said. No matter. Xenas wasnt finished yet.
"...And if it hadnt been for you, I never wouldve come back here for the Solstice. Never wouldve been able to help my Mother... or Toris," Xena shivered at that last. "Thanks to you, Ill look back on this night with joy, happiness..." she placed a soft kiss on the top of the bards head, "...and love."
Somewhere, in the rafters of the stable, a cocked crowed, eager to greet the Solstice morn.
"I love you, Gabrielle," she whispered. And then, after a slight pause, "Gabrielle?"
There was no response from the bard, save for a light, staccato snore.
Xena smiled to herself and sighed, tightening her hold on her love. Sleep. The time for it had come at last. "Happy Solstice, Gabrielle..." and she was no longer sure whether she thought the wish or spoke it. Either way, deep within her soul, she knew her own wish had already come true.
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