Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
"Xena, I cant feel my feet." Gabrielle hugged her woolen cloak more tightly to her neck; it was little defense against the biting winds that threatened to rip it from her body.
"Were almost there," the warrior replied. She pressed onward, face to the wind, unwavering in spite of the blinding snowstorm that had seemed to come out of nowhere. "And anyway, it was your idea to spend the Solstice in Amphipolis."
"Yes, but who invited the snow?!" The bard had to raise her voice in order to be heard above the howling storm.
"I warned you about our bracing Thracian winters!" Xena tightened her grip on the reins of the war-horse who trudged behind them, and she laughed. "You wanted to see one!"
"Xe--" Gabrielle felt her right foot skid out from under her, but she was instantly steadied by the taller woman at her side. "Xena," the bard continued, shrugging her friend off, "Solstice is a time you should spend with your family. Its been a long time since youve seen Cyrene. This will be good for you!" She planted her staff firmly in the snow with her next step, satisfied that shed made her point.
It was true, it had been some time since Xena had been to Amphipolis. The circumstances surrounding that last visit - the warriors temporary madness and the revelation that her mother had killed her father in order to protect her - were rarely spoken of by Xena. She preferred to deal with it privately. Indeed, the two friends had gone through much heartache over the past year, and the bard understood that sometimes the healing process could be aided by even the simplest of things - like family. Home. And all the trimmings that went with it.
Gabrielle knew that Xena would never have suggested such a trip herself. The dark, brooding warrior always had been one to keep her emotions locked tightly within, shielded from all but the most trusted few. From time to time, Xena allowed the younger woman to glimpse fragments of her tortured soul; the journey of piecing those shards together, to formulate the whole, comprised the mystery that was Xena. The bard knew she would never tire of it. And she also felt sure that, despite her protests, the warrior was secretly looking forward to spending some quiet time with her mother, in the town of her birth.
They had been just outside of Athens when the bard got her bright idea, and so it had been quite some journey to this point. In the lowlands of Attica the climate had been fairly moderate. But the closer they came to the raw, wild hills of Macedonia and Thrace, the weather had begun to change. The air cooled, thick-heavy clouds hung low in the sky, and Xena had been quick to alert her companion to the fact that her bones told her snow was on the way.
Sure enough, by noon the first dinar-sized flakes had begun to fall. The changeable weather hadnt seemed to alarm the warrior or her horse, but Gabrielle quickly grew anxious. The sooner they arrived at Amphipolis and Cyrenes inn, the happier shed be. The snow was already swirling at her calves, drifting in some spots, and she was having quite a bit of trouble maintaining her footing. Amazing, she thought as she struggled to keep up with Xena, it doesnt seem to bother her at all.
"What?" Gabrielle wasnt sure if shed heard her friend correctly.
"Delos," Xena repeated, giving the smaller woman a sidelong look.
"Delos," Gabrielle had to tilt her head down against the snow peppering her face, "Legend says that it was the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Whats your point?"
"Sun, a hot beach, a cool ale--"
The bard skittered in front of Xena, stopping her in her path. "Xena, Delos is an island. Its surrounded by water. The operative word being water."
"So?" The warrior idly glanced up into the canopy of black pine and fir trees above them.
"I dont do water very well. You know that!" In spite of the cold, a flush rose to the bards cheeks.
Xena turned back to Gabrielle. She could barely restrain the smile that tugged at her lips, well aware as she was of her companions aversion to water. Or, rather, sailing on it. Gabrielle had found out the hard way that her stomach was not agreeable to life on the high seas. No, dry land suited Gabrielle best.
"Oh..." Xena arched an eyebrow. "And here, I thought this was about me - step to your left!"
Xena made the request so calmly, followed so closely on her previous statement, that at first the bard nearly overlooked it.
"Better move!" she said again, with a knowing grin.
"Xena, if you think that--"
At the last moment, Gabrielle stepped to the side. It was that instinctive response which saved her from bearing the full force of the blurry juggernaut that careened towards her from the trees above. As it was, the impact of the missile sent her flying into the snow drift at the side of the road.
The bard didnt know what hit her.
Temporarily stunned, it took her a moment to get her wind back and focus on the dead weight that landed on top of her. Slowly, her senses did their work. The thing was warm... breathing... and an image came into view. Mis-matched furs, a too-small helmet with over-sized ear guards, and a face whose features were always in a constant state of flux; jumping from one expression to the next, as if its owner was never quite as comfortable with where he was as opposed to where he was going to be. The resultant chaos was plainly evident.
"Happy Solstice, Gabby!"
"JOXER!" Gabrielle yelped.
The would-be warrior leaned closer to the bard, causing a cascade of snow to tumble from his helmet onto her.
"Ackpth!" She clawed the slush from her face with one hand, and with the other, gave her assailant a sharp shove. "Get OFF of me!" And he fell back upon his haunches into the snow bank.
All the while, Xena stood silently, taking in the comic display. It was all she could do to maintain a mildly neutral expression, in support of her friend. She watched Gabrielle struggle to her feet, plucking pieces of pine boughs from her hair and clothing.
Xena moved to lend her a hand. "For the rich, they sing," she said with a smirk.
"Ugh," Gabrielle shook the snow from her cloak. "I was cold before, but now Im positively FREEZING, no thanks to YOU!" she cast an accusing glare at Joxer.
The young man was slipping and sliding as he awkwardly extracted himself from the snow drift. "Sorry Gabrielle, I didnt mean to--"
"What did I do to deserve this?" the bard whimpered, and then she turned on him with a vengeance, seizing him by the nose between her thumb and index finger. "Are you stalking me or something?"
"Uh... no, not really..." Joxer sounded as if he had a bad head cold.
"Joxer, what do you think youre doing out here?" Xena finally decided to intervene, if for no other reason than Joxers own safety. Gabrielle was in quite a snit, and Xena feared she might actually do some damage to the poor, half-witted fellow. Not that she blamed her. Delicately, she loosened the bards vise-like grip from his nose.
"Well..." he stammered, massaging his proboscis back into its proper shape, "the snow started coming down pretty fast, and I had trouble following the road. So I thought if I climbed that tree I could get a better view of where I was going--"
"In a blinding snowstorm," Gabrielles voice was scornful, as she searched for her staff in the snow.
"Well, why not? At least my feet werent as cold up there! If I hadnt slipped...."
Xena sighed. "Look, Joxer, where are you headed?"
"Well..." he said haltingly, "that depends."
"On what?" Xena was afraid to ask.
"On where my two best friends are headed!" He slapped his arms over the womens shoulders, hugging them to him. "Just think, we can all spend Solstice together!"
"NO. Oh, no... n-n-nooo...." Gabrielles teeth were chattering. She squirmed out from under Joxers embrace. "Xena is going home for the holidays, to her mothers in Amphipolis," she explained. "Youre not--"
"Home!" Joxers voice boomed out above the swirling winds, and a broad smile lit up his face. "Sounds great! Why, I havent had a family Solstice since my parents kicked me out of the house for setting free the Solstice Goose, instead of killing it." Joxer sobered quickly at the long-ago memory.
"Joxer, Im sorry to hear that," Gabrielle said, "But--"
"I dont know why they made such a big deal about it," he continued, "Its not like I ever got any Solstice toys or was allowed go to the Solstice pageant with the rest of the kids..."
"And all those lumps of coal I kept finding in my socks... what was that all about?"
"All right Joxer," Xena raised her palms in surrender, ignoring the wind whipping at her cloak. "Thats enough. You can come with us."
"Really?" he brightened at the prospect.
"Really?" the bard at Xenas side gave her a hard, even look.
"Really," Xena said. "Now cmon, before I change my mind." And with that, she grabbed Argos reins and struck off down the road towards Amphipolis. Joxer and Gabrielle quickly scrambled after her, and Xena wisely chose to ignore the dagger eyes the young blonde shot her way.
"Gods," the warrior muttered under her breath as she trudged off, "I hope I dont live to regret this!"
The Winter Solstice was always a time for the gathering together of family and friends, to celebrate the passing of one season to the next. To thank the gods for the bounty nature. To prevail upon them for all the good luck and fortune they might see fit to bestow upon the world, in the days and weeks that lay ahead. Through the long darkness of winter.
It had taken some doing for Gabrielle to convince Xena to return to Amphipolis. In the end, Xena relented, knowing that it meant so much for the bard to see her happy, and obviously the young girl thought that Solstice in Amphipolis would do the trick. She had been so adamant about it, that Xena wondered whether her companion perhaps desired a family Solstice just as much as she thought Xena did. If not more-so. But Gabrielle would not be dissuaded. "You need this Xena," shed told her at last, quietly.
Maybe shes right, Xena considered, as they approached the outskirts of Amphipolis. Thanks to the storm, the last leg of their journey took nearly twice as long, and although the warrior herself felt only a bit more tired than usual, she could see that Gabrielle was exhausted. The cold, heartless winds had taken their toll. Billowing clouds of steam blew from Argos muzzle with each heaving breath the horse took, and Gabrielle had stumbled more than once. Each time, however, she waved off the helping hand of Joxer the Mighty, who never strayed from her side. Much to the annoyance of the long-suffering bard.
"Its just ahead!" Xena called back over her shoulder to her friends, her voice nearly drowned out by the shrieking wind. She could barely see them now, in the dark. They would be gaining the security of shelter just in time, Xena thought. Shed rarely seen Amphipolis so blanketed in snow, even as she searched through her childhood memories. The great gusts took up the flakes and swirled them through the air, buffeting them against one another in a frenetic battle for dominance. In the end, they all lost. The flakes fell back to the ground or were twisted sideways, worming their way in and around the corners and roofs of the small, one and two story buildings of Amphipolis.
The streets were deserted, Xena saw, and well they should be. Solstice or no, being exposed in this sort of weather, at night, was plainly unsafe. As the little group moved with their heads bowed through the street, their travel was partially illuminated by the warm, soft glow of Solstice candles shining in the windows of many of the cottages. They symbolized the triumph of light over the longest night, but tonight Xena was merely grateful for the help theyd given her when they were still some distance from the town. Then, the faintly flickering candles had helped to show her the way home.
Home. It did have a nice ring to it. Seeing her mother... family, friends. A fine meal, good company, a warm bed and a long rest... she just might get used to this Solstice stuff, she allowed.
The winds sang a low, mournful tune as Xena led the way to the front door of Cyrenes inn.
"Were here!" the warrior informed her friends, both of whom had been doing little more at this point than following her and Argos imprints in the snow.
"Thank the gods!" Gabrielle breathed through numb lips. "Show me to that warm fire..." she clapped her hands around her arms and stomped the snow from her boots.
"No kidding!" Xena tied off her loyal horse at a hitching post next to the front door. "Back in a minute, girl," she whispered in the animals ear.
Joxer tottered next to the women, arms weakly reaching for the door. "I fink my fafe if frofen!"
"Like we could tell?!" Gabrielle impatiently nodded towards the door. "Aah - Xena - were dying here!"
"All right," she said with a slow smile. In her minds eye she could already see the look of joy she knew would be on her mothers face.
"Follow me!" she reached for the door... the crackling fire, the mouth-watering smell of the Solstice goose cooking... a restful time of relaxation and contemplation, here on this Solstice Eve. She pushed the door open - and stood stock still as her jaw nearly dropped to the floor.
Bedlam. Even during the week of the Thracian Games, Xena had never seen the inn so bursting with occupants. Nearly every available square inch of space was taken up by travelers in various states of eating, drinking, chattering, and even snoozing. The noise in the place was deafening, and Xena knew that it was a harsh wind outside indeed, that had kept her from hearing the clamor before now. So much for a peaceful, quiet Solstice. Her heart sank.
"You live in a barn? Close the door!"
Xena narrowed her eyes at a large, bearded man that leaned casually against the bar, nursing a mug of ale. He wore a black kerchief around his head at a rakish angle, and sported a leather vest with a thickly furred collar. He hadnt made a threatening gesture, but Xena could tell by the glassy cast to his eyes that he might be trouble. She wasnt in the mood.
"Cmon," she said, ushering Gabrielle and Joxer into the already-crowded room, pulling the door closed behind them. She helped Gabrielle remove her cloak, while she scanned the crowd for her mother.
"Xena!" From the sea of holiday humanity, Cyrene was tossed upon the shore in front of her daughter. "Am I glad to see you!"
"Mother!" Xena allowed her emotions to flood through her as she embraced the older woman in a hold so tight she feared she might never let go. And as she felt her mother return that love, Xena knew in a flash it had been worth it. The journey, the hardship, the storm - it had been worth it all, even if for just this one moment.
Snow melting from Xenas hood trickled down onto her nose, and she finally released Cyrene, holding her off at arms length. "Its so good to see you, I--"
"Its good to see you too, little one," Cyrene said to the daughter that bested her in height by nearly a head and a shoulder. "But--" and she gestured helplessly at the mayhem.
"Mother, whats going on?"
"Its the storm Xena. It took everyone by surprise. These people - Solstice travelers, most of them - theyre stranded and have taken shelter here. And just my rotten luck - the barmans ill with the fever, and that useless cousin of yours, Mia, never showed up for work."
The warriors thoughts briefly flitted to her younger, less ambitious cousin. She remembered the girl as one who enjoyed daydreaming and gossiping with her friends, more than putting in a good days work. "Youre by yourself?" Xena could see the lines of tension drawn on her mothers face.
"And feeling every bit of it," she shook her head.
"Cyrene, wheres that stew?" the call came from a crowd of men at a nearby table.
"Stew?" Joxer was starting to thaw, and he sniffed the air appreciatively. "Smells good!"
The innkeeper glared at the men. "Youll wait your turn, like everybody else!" She let loose and exasperated sigh and returned her attention to her daughter. "Xena," she said, "with all these people... all these mouths to feed... can you can your friends help?" she swung her eyes to Gabrielle and Joxer.
"Of course we will, Cyrene," Gabrielle stepped forward. "Just point me the way to the kitchen. Right, Xena?" she looked questioningly at her taller friend.
"Uh... right...." Xena tried to hide her dismay as she reassured her mother. "Of course we will," and she gave her mothers shoulder a squeeze. "Just let me put Argo down."
Cyrene offered her daughter a tired smile of thanks and was off. Joxer trailed behind her, like a puppy. "Ah... about that stew..."
Xena groaned and drew her cloak in tight as she turned to leave. "Be right back," she said to no-one in particular.
"Hey!" Gabrielle reached out and caught Xena by the arm. The warrior stopped, and looked down into two green, twinkling eyes.
"Welcome home," the bard said, and she smiled.
The pandemonium inside the inn showed no sign of abating when Xena returned, although she did notice that the crowds seemed to have sorted themselves out along the lines of drinkers and Solstice revelers on one side of the room, closest to the bar, while on the other half were more reserved travelers and family groups. In the center of the back wall, a great fire blazed in the field-stone hearth.
Solstice Eve was a tough time to be caught out of the road, far from your destination, and Xenas heart went out in particular to one couple who had two small girls in tow. By the looks of them, she judged them to be barely more than 7 or 8 years old. The smaller child, a curly-haired blonde, was sleeping away in her mothers arms, while the older girl, with long, poker-straight hair, dark as a winters night, was doing her best to squirm out of her fathers grasp and explore the inn. Xena didnt blame the father one bit for holding his daughter in check. There were a number of rough-looking strangers about, that was for certain.
Quickly, Cyrene assigned them roles. Gabrielle had hoped for the kitchen, fancying herself quite the cook, but speed and efficiency were called for now. "Gabrielle, Im sure your rabbit stew is quite wonderful," the innkeeper said to the glum-looking bard, "but Ive already got everything in place for the Solstice Eve feast. Its just a matter of pulling it all together and, frankly, too many hands might spoil the pot. Couldnt you tend the bar instead?"
"Sure..." the bard stroked her chin, "I think I can handle that!"
"And Xena," Cyrene turned toward her daughter, "youre the only one I know who could keep the peace out on that floor tonight. Would you mind--?"
"Ill take care of the tables, Mother," Xena turned a challenging eye towards the crowd.
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and stared at the warrior. "You?"
"Watch me." Xena grabbed a towel from Cyrenes arm, and waded out onto the floor.
Joxer raised a hand after the retreating woman. "Wha - what about me?"
"Stay out of the way!" Xena shot back, and then she was gone.
"Im off to the kitchen now," Cyrene said. "Thank you all!" and she smiled for the first time that evening.
"Thats right, Im always in the way," Joxer took off his helmet and plopped it onto the bar. "Why should Solstice Eve be any different?" He flung himself onto a stool and leaned his head on his hands.
Gabrielle tried fighting it, tried resisting the siren of compassion that called out to her gentle heart, and quickly recognized this was a fight she was destined to loose. And so she allowed herself to feel sorry for Joxer. Again.
"Look, Joxer," she said, laying a hand on his arm. "Cyrene didnt have time to do any decorating for the Solstice. Why dont you see if you can gather some stuff, you know, something scented, and brighten the place up? Think you can handle that?"
Joxer stood, puffed out his chest, and nodded solemnly at Gabrielle. He acknowledged her orders, "Leave it to me, Gabrielle. I wont let you down."
That takes care of that! Gabrielle sighed, watching the ersatz warrior head off on his mission. She turned and slid behind the bar, picking up an empty goblet and rattling it upon the bar-top. "Okay, fellas. Whatll it be?" Now, if only Xena can stay out of trouble! she thought.
"I am not your baby!"
Any man in his right mind wouldve immediately recognized the threatening, ominous tone in Xenas voice, and moved carefully away. But Myron of Kavala was not any man, or so he thought, and he certainly was not in his right mind, judging by the amount of ale hed already consumed since his arrival at the inn. He and his friends had been on their way back to Kavala for the Solstice, when the storm hit. Kavala... Amphipolis... it made little difference to Myron in the end, as long as there was good food to fill his belly, cheap ale to numb his troubled mind, and a saucy wench to warm his bed. And as soon as hed seen her enter the inn with her friends, he knew hed found the one.
"Not yet!" he winked at her and gave her a light smack on her leathered derrière. "Now why dont you fetch me another ale, honey!"
Xena gave a cold smile to the large, black-kerchiefed man who leered up at her. It was the lout shed first noticed earlier, when she arrived at the inn. Hed since rejoined his gang of rabble-rousers at what looked to be the noisiest table in the place. And with good reason - they all appeared drunk or well on the way to getting there. The warrior-waitress put her towel down on the table, and clenched her fists. "I have a better idea, sweetie," she said. "Why dont I--"
The warrior hesitated at the sound of Gabrielles panicked voice. She turned to her friend. "Can you come over here?" the bard frantically motioned to her.
"Be right back," she said to the men, and not without some evil-twinged regret. "I promise."
She slowly sauntered up to the bar. "What is it?"
"Xena, what are you trying to do - start a fight?"
"Me?" Xena feigned innocence, as she shot a dark glare back at the table.
"Look Xena," Gabrielle grabbed her friends chin between her thumb and forefinger, and swung her face back so she had her undivided attention. "You know what Im saying. This is Solstice Eve. In your mothers place. Be nice!"
"Nice..." Xena muttered under her breath. "I can do nice. Now give me another ale!"
Gabrielle did not respond at first. She searched her friends piercing blue eyes, looking for signs of compliance and understanding. She didnt find exactly what she was looking for, but it was close enough.
"All right," the bard said at last, slightly mollified. She turned to pull a fresh mug of ale from a keg, when the door to the inn blew open.
"Not more people," Gabrielle groaned. "Im running low on ale--" her eyes widened in amazement, and Xena turned to follow her gaze.
"I dont believe it," Xena shook her head. For there, standing in the doorway, showered with snow, was their friend Autolycus, the self-styled King of Thieves. And he was not alone.
"Autolycus!" Gabrielle shouted and stood on her tip-toes, waving.
Autolycus had been taking the cloak from his companion, and as he eased it away, Xena could see the figure of a dark-haired young woman come into view. And a rather well-endowed young woman, at that. Leave it to Autolycus, Xena smiled to herself.
At the sound of his name, the new arrival turned gimlet eyes to the crowd, scanning it for a familiar face.
"Over here!" Gabrielle levered herself onto the bar and called out again.
Finally, Autolycus gaze fell upon her. "Gabrielle?" his disbelief was plain. And then he saw the tall warrior to her left, arms crossed, leaning against the bar. "Xena?!" his voice rose an octave.
Quickly, he hung up their outerwear and ushered his companion over to the two women.
"What are you two doing here?" he hissed as he approached.
"Us?" Xena was incredulous. "I live here. Or, at least, I did once. My Mother owns this place."
"Autolycus, whos your friend?" Gabrielle gestured to the shy-looking woman at the thiefs side.
"Sssshhhh!" Autolycus glanced furtively around the room. "Easy on the Autolycus. Dont know who might be listening in this crowd. In any event, ladies, this," he bowed towards the young woman, twirling his dark mustache, "is my sister, Pasha. Were on a Solstice pilgrimage to Delphi, arent we, sister!" and he kissed the back of her hand.
"Nice to meet you, Pasha," the fill-in bartender held out her hand. "Im Gabrielle, and this is my friend, Xena."
"Hello," Pasha replied haltingly, taking the proffered hand in a small, delicate one of her own. She kept her dark, almond-shaped eyes turned to the floor.
"Pasha," Xena nodded a hello, "why doesnt Gabrielle here get you something warm to drink while I have a word with your brother?" Before Autolycus could answer, she roughly pulled him away from the bar.
"Hey!" Autolycus freed himself from her grip. "Is that any way to treat a pilgrim?"
"What are you up to, Autolycus?" Xena demanded. "Youre not on any pilgrimage, I know that much. And that young girl is no more your sister than I am."
"Theres nothing going on, Xena," Autolycus was offended. "And Mother would be very disappointed to hear you say such things. Did you know she was a very religious woman?"
Xenas face clouded over, but the king of thieves was let off the hook when a "Wheres my ale, sweet thing?" sang across the room. She turned to face Myrons gap-toothed grin.
"Ugh. Coming!" she gritted her teeth, and grabbed the front of Autolycus shirt with her fist. "Ill take this up with you later!" she swore, and then she whirled away.
"Promises, promises!" Although his tone sounded annoyed, Autolycus could not help but gaze after Xena in barely concealed admiration. He knew she would not rest until she got the truth out of him. Well, she was welcome to try.
Knowing that one of the better ways to soothe the savage beast was through a full stomach, Cyrene did her best to produce a Solstice Eve feast as quickly as possible. She hadnt been counting on nearly the number of customers as she had, but her stores were full and fresh meat was plentiful, and soon platters groaning under the weight of goose and beef were produced from the kitchen. Xena helped her mother, shuttling back and forth with the trays, adding separate servings of bread, cheese, and potatoes to the inns offerings.
Xenas stomach rumbled at the savory smells assaulting her. The goose was cooked to perfection; the dark, crispy skin pulled back to reveal the succulent, sweet meat beneath. Myron and his friends preferred the beef - extra rare - and Xena took care to make sure that the couple with the small girls received a couple of prized apples from Cyrenes root cellar.
"What do you say?" the mother asked her girls.
The curly-haired youngster shrank back shyly into the crook of her fathers shoulder, but the older girl boldly announced, "Thats Leah. Shes a scaredy-cat. But Im not." She pointed a thumb at her chest, "Im Cassie!"
"Hi, Cassie. Im Xena." She shook her small, outstretched hand. "I hope you and your sister enjoy your apples!"
"Thank you, Xena," and she crunched a bite of the fruit.
The warrior smiled and turned away, but not before she heard Cassies soft, little-girl voice call, "Happy Solstice," after her.
Xena stopped by the bar for a breather on her way back to the kitchen. Gabrielle finished wiping down the bar-top for the 100th time that evening, and slid next to the warrior.
"Hows it going?"
"If I dont get something to eat soon..." Xena said, eyeing the platters enviously.
"You know what they say, the help eats last," Gabrielle smirked, as she took a sip of wine.
"Doesnt seem to be stopping you any," Xena arched an eyebrow at her friend.
"I said eat - not drink."
Cyrene bustled out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her long, colored apron. "I need your help Xena, with the last of the beef," she said, eyeing the patrons. "At least theyve quieted down some."
"Good food will do that," Gabrielle said, having another swig of her beverage.
"Speaking of which, Mother..."
"Now, now, plenty of time for that. And... if youre good..." Cyrenes blue eyes sparkled as she teased her daughter, "I made a rhubarb pie just for you!"
"Rhubarb..." Xena caressed the word with her voice, "my favorite!" For a brief instant, Xenas face relaxed into the countenance of the small child she once was, eagerly anticipating a Solstice Eve treat.
"Not until were through, here!" Cyrene warned. She turned to head back to the kitchen, and then paused. "Xena?"
"Your friend over there," and she nodded at Joxer, "is he daft?"
Xena calmly took in the sight of the tag-along, as he virtually skipped through the inn humming to himself; he cast sprigs of pine boughs and holly-berry onto tables and windows from the bunches of them hed gathered into his upturned helmet. It was festooned with the greens and holly hed gathered from a thicket next to the stable, an area relatively sheltered from the snow and wind. Already, Joxer had managed to string a makeshift garland of balsam and fir across the ceiling of the inn, from one side to the other. A larger, more robust-looking bunch of pine - a small little tree, even, hed propped up on the end of the bar and fixed a few small tapers to it. "For ambiance," hed said. Xena doubted he even knew what the word meant, but shed already decided to let Joxer have his Solstice Eve fun. Gods knew at least somebody around here had a right to be happy.
"No... thats just Joxer," the warrior at last replied.
"Aah..." Cyrene said, not really understanding, and she continued back to the kitchen and her cook-fire.
"Xena," Gabrielle leaned over the bar towards her friend, "You dont really think thats Autolycus sister, do you?"
"Not a chance," Xena said. "Will you get a load of them?"
They both watch as Autolycus casually draped his arm over Pashas shoulders, whispering in her ear. Whatever he said brought a hesitant smile to her face, and she nodded at him. He gave her a lingering kiss on the cheek, and then began working on a mouthful of his goose.
Joxer chose that moment to pass by the couple, and Pashas eyes raised hopefully to the helmet the young man carried.
"Pardon me, sir," Pashas voice was barely a whisper above the crowd, but it did not escape the high-spirited young man, who had noticed the woman from afar.
"Joxer the Mighty," he bowed, "at your service, madame."
"Buzz off, mighty-mouse," Autolycus took a sip of his wine, "cant you see were busy here?"
"Please... Autolycus. Cant we have a nice little spray of holly-berry to brighten our meal?"
"No way--" he began.
"Please?" she said more softly, gently placing her hand on his arm, and Autolycus knew he could not refuse her.
"Well... all right," he grumbled and pushed himself away from the table. "But dont go overboard on this stuff... sister," he said. "We dont want to let these material things overshadow the true meaning of Solstice!"
Autolycus swaggered up to Gabrielle and Xena, and pounded his mug onto the bar. "More ale here, wench!" he demanded. "Just kidding!" he added, as the bards eyes narrowed.
"How are you and your sister finding Amphipolis?" Xena asked smugly, as Gabrielle began to fill the thiefs drink-order.
"Nice weather were having," Autolycus laughed mirthlessly. "And I cant believe this is your mothers place. I guess I never put two and two together... ah... here comes the proprietress now!" he beamed as Cyrene flew through the kitchen door, bearing a bucket of fresh water for the bar.
"Xeeena!" it was obvious from the expression on her face that the innkeeper was not happy with her daughter. "Quit your gold-bricking and get back there!" she gestured towards the kitchen.
"Why... I dont believe Ive had the pleasure!" Autolycus stepped forward and relieved Cyrene of her burden, installing it behind the bar, and then he turned to the surprised older woman.
"My name is Autolycus, the king of... ah... its a pleasure to make your acquaintance," he caught himself. He took her hand in both of his, and gallantly kissed it. "And you are..."
"Cyrene..." the flustered woman offered. "Im Xenas mother."
"No, dear lady!" Autolycus shook his head in disbelief. "You mock me! Surely you must be her sister!"
A smile lit Cyrenes face, and she pushed stray tendrils of hair behind her ears. "People have said we could pass--"
Xena rolled her eyes at Autolycus currying display. "Ill join you in the kitchen, Mother," she said. "NOW."
And at that, the spell broke, and Cyrene bustled off. But not without a last "thanks for your help, young man!" and she rolled her fingers at him in a small wave.
Autolycus returned the gesture, grinning broadly, and he thoughtfully stroked his mustache.
"Lighten up, lover!" Xena said menacingly, and she moved between the kitchen door and the thief, blocking his vision.
"Hey!" he complained. "I was just trying to be friendly. After all, any mother of yours..." his voice was dignified, as if he were taking a sacred oath of trust, "...is like a sister to me!"
Xenas face grew stern. "Well, based on how Ive seen you treat your sisters" and she motioned over to where Pasha sat, "keep away from my mother!"
Autolycus laughed. "Really, Xena, jealously doesnt become you!"
"Me, jealous?" The warrior stiffened in anger, and Gabrielle knew it was time to intercede.
"Look, heres your drink, Autolycus," she said quickly, serving him his ale. "And if I were you, Id be less worried about Cyrene and more worried about Pasha."
"What?" the king of thieves swung around in time to see an obviously besotted Joxer finally move away from Pasha. Her eyes followed him longingly, and she clutched a spray of holly-berry in her hands, lifting it to her nose and breathing deeply.
"Pasha---" Autolycus was flummoxed, but he swiftly recovered. "Theres no accounting for taste," he said, taking a reckless swig of his ale.
"I guess not," Xena looked at him pointedly.
"Blech..." Autolycus spat out a mouthful of his drink, showering the bar with it, and his face bloomed as red as a summer tomato. He flung his mug to the bar-top. "What are you putting in this stuff, woman?" his voice was a choking rasp.
"N-nothing," Gabrielle said, suddenly nervous.
Xena picked up the mug, and sniffed at it. "Gabrielle..."
The bard averted her eyes. "Well... I told you I was running out of ale, Xena. The way those people out there are packing it away," she flung an arm out at the rowdy side of the tavern, "what else could I do?"
"Gabrielle," Xena leaned over the bar to her friend, trying to keep her voice calm. "What exactly did you do?"
"I wanted to stretch the ale out... to make it last, and I found this barrel of... something back here, so Ive been adding it to the ale."
"Oh...no..." Xena shook her head.
"Well it worked, didnt it?" The bards face was flushed. "Other than the pilgrim here, no else is complaining!"
The warrior moved behind the bar, and went to the barrel Gabrielle pointed out. She took a small goblet and poured a thimble-full of the amber-colored liquid into it. In one swift motion, she tossed it back.
Autolycus and Gabrielles eyes widened at the warriors "aaah" and the rosy glow that sprang to her cheeks. "Just as I thought."
"What is it?" the bard asked fearfully.
"Uiscebeatha," she answered them, smacking her lips. The warrior was finding the fire in her belly, caused by the drink, a not altogether unpleasant sensation.
"Say again?" Autolycus said, putting a hand to his ear.
"Uiscebeatha," Xena repeated. "The Celts call it the water of life. Its some of the strongest liquor Ive ever had; this barrel was leftover when some Celtic traders passed through Amphipolis a long time ago." She turned to Gabrielle. "How long have you been mixing this with the ale?"
"Oh... just a few hours," the bard confessed.
Xena turned to gaze out upon the boisterous crowd of travelers; the noise level was on the rise, even louder than before, and now she knew why.
"XENA!" Cyrenes angry bellow cut through the din.
"Coming, Mother!" The warrior sighed and picked up her towel. "Batten down the hatches, folks," and the corner of her mouth curled up in a half-smile, "its gonna be a bumpy Solstice Eve!"
This was certainly not the sort of Solstice Xena would have selected for herself. She was happy to see her mother, that was true enough, but other than the promise of rhubarb pie, Cyrene had little to say to her daughter. And what words she did offer were brusque and impatient. The little girl in the warrior was left wanting so much more. The ache that simmered in her heart was what she deserved, Xena figured, for getting her hopes up.
As Xena raced about the inn, clearing tables and making sure that the customers were tended to, she could see Gabrielle behind the bar, moving more slowly now, glancing at her from time to time, and failing to keep a forlorn expression from creeping across her face.
Xena knew that the bard had wanted desperately for her to enjoy a peaceful, family Solstice, and it was turning out to be anything but. And, knowing her young friend as she did, she suspected that the girl was feeling personally responsible for the plans that had gone dreadfully awry. As a result, Xena tried to put her best face forward, for her friends sake. She was happy to clean up the spilled wine, didnt mind looking for a spare stool for the Kavalas travelers, and even allowed herself to be called "baby" one more time by the horrid Myron. The sacrifices she made for her bard!
Xena smiled when she saw Autolycus showing a few magic tricks to Leah and Cassie. Despite the boasting and bravado of the king of thieves, the warrior knew that he closely harbored a good heart, and hed made her promise on more than one occasion not to let his secret out. Now, he kept the small children entertained with a small gold piece that mysteriously turned up first in Leahs ear, then from under Cassies tongue. The girls squealed with delight, as their exhausted parents looked on. Gods only knew where next the gold piece might be found!
Pasha had taken a seat at the bar, and Xena could see from where she stood that it was obvious the young woman was pouring out her troubles to the bard. Maybe Gabrielle did have a talent for bartending after all!
Xena spun on her heel, intending to return to the kitchen with a tray of dirtied plates and cups.
"Joxer - what are you doing?" The warrior nearly crashed into him.
Joxer stood precariously on his tippy-toes, his elbows flapping dangerously as he tried to maintain his balance. He struggled to tie off a sprig of mistletoe on a ceiling beam that ran in front of the fireplace, adjacent to the bar.
"Uh... just hanging up the mistletoe, Xena!" With one last grope of his hands, he was able to twist the Solstice green into place.
"There!" he breathed a sigh of relief, and rocked back on his heels, satisfied. For the briefest of moments, he looked at the warrior curiously, questioningly.
"Dont even think about it! Xena pushed past him.
"No...no... I - ah," Joxer coughed nervously, knowing hed just barely escaped with his life.
"What are you doing there Joxer?" Gabrielle came out from behind the bar, and gave his arm a yank. "If I were you, Id stay out of Xenas way.
The would-be-warrior brightened as he considered the better odds of charming the woman before him now, as opposed to the hardened warrior princess. By way of explanation, Joxer pointed up to the mistletoe hed just hung.
"Have you not heard the legend of the mistletoe?" He began in a sonorous tone.
Gabrielle sighed impatiently. "Who hasnt?"
"They say on Solstice Eve, by standing under the mistletoe, you can get a kiss from a pretty girl!" Joxer closed his eyes and leaned forward, his lips pursed like a fish.
"What?" Gabrielle was aghast. "Forget it, Joxer," and she turned back to the bar.
"Cmon," he said, not knowing Gabrielle had gone, "how bout it? Give us a little kiss!" and he made soft, puckering noises to emphasize his meaning.
"If you insist!"
The voice was deep, threatening, and definitely not Gabrielle. Joxers eyes flew open to see that the object of his desire had somehow transformed into the hulking, bearded image of Myron.
"Uhhh..." the young man gulped.
"Whatsa matter - cold feet?"
The drunkard enjoyed Joxers discomfiture. "Hey - get a-load of me... Im skipping under the mistletoe!" he laughed harshly, and began to swing the speechless Joxer around like a rag doll. The picture drew great belly-laughs from Myrons table of compatriots, and with a last, sharp movement, he swung Joxer around so fast that he tumbled to the floor in a dizzied heap. The laughter from the rough crowd escalated as Myron swaggered away.
Joxer had never been more embarrassed. Well, at least not that he could remember in the last day or two, and that was as far back as he preferred to recall. Still, he felt like a fool, sprawled upon the floor and, adding to his humiliation, he knew that Pasha and Gabrielle had to have seen the whole unfortunate display. Joxer the Mighty indeed. More like Joxer the Misfit he glumly thought.
Up you go!"
Suddenly, strong hands had him under his arms, smoothly pulling him to a standing position.
"Are you all right?" Worried blue eyes looked into his own.
"Im fine, Xena," his voice was tight. "Thanks. Again," he added for emphasis.
"Dont you worry about those guys Joxer," she gestured over to the table where Myron had once more settled down with his buddies. "Ive a feeling the party is just about over for him," and with a reassuring pat on the back, she left him and took several steps towards the table.
If there was one thing Xena didnt like, it was bullies, and shed had just about enough of Myron and his friends this night. Her promise to Gabrielle aside, there were too many travelers and too little space for them all to make it through the storm comfortably, if there were a few drunken spoilers in the thick of things. It was time to put a stop to Myron and his gang now, before things got worse.
Or, at least Xena had every intention of doing just that, until the inn door blew open with a loud bang!
A collective groan swept over the crowd at the mere thought of more travelers squeezing into limited space, not to mention the gust of wind and snow that swept in and stole the warmth from the inn. A chill settled upon the main rooms occupants, and the flames in the hearth danced and flickered perilously towards the draft.
"What in tartarus is going on?" Myron loudly complained. "Weve no more room here, kick em out!"
"Ill say who stays and who goes," Xena shot him a warning glare, and she went to greet the new arrivals. It was three older men, plus a youth; they were nearly frozen stiff by the looks of them.
One man wearing a purple turban, oblivious to the small icicles that had formed in his gray beard, spoke through blue lips, "Weve got a wagon and a team of horses--"
"Ill take care of it." Xena was surprised at the firmness of Joxers words - when had he come up behind her? - and she didnt argue as he flung on a cloak and went outside into the night. Sometimes, keeping busy was the best way to heal a hurt, she knew that well-enough.
It took some time to get the new arrivals settled; Cyrene brought them warmed plates of food, and Gabrielle served goblets of what wine she still had left. As the men began to eat, Xena and Gabrielle stayed close to hear their story, as did the youngster Cassie. The little girl seemed absolutely captivated by the brightly-colored clothes the three older men wore.
It was easy to tell them apart. The bearded, purple-turbaned man was Jeshua. Harim was nearly bald and wore golden robes, while Balthazar wore a blue tunic that barely covered his hefty figure. And it was obvious from the twinkle in his hazel eyes that he was a kind man with a jolly demeanor. Micah was the youth who accompanied the older men, and he was dressed more traditionally in the clothes of a peasant, but it seemed his only purpose was to see to the needs and wishes of the gentlemen he traveled with.
All of the men spoke in a melodic, stilted accent, and Xena was able to place it as coming from lands far to the east of Amphipolis. Indeed, Balthazar confirmed this. "Weve been journeying for quite some time now," he said in-between bites of re-heated goose. "Were astrologers, you see. And we saw a most unusual celestial event in the night sky. A star, brighter than all the heavens itself!"
"Wow! Remember Xena-- I pointed it out to you the other night?" Gabrielle excitedly pulled her stool in closer to the men. "It was beautiful," she breathed.
"That it is, dear girl," Balthazar confirmed, "That it is." He shook his head and laughed. "We are completely under its spell."
"For astrologers," Harim interjected, "an opportunity to observe such a thing comes along once in a lifetime, if that." He delicately sipped a hot tea Cyrene had prepared. "It is a sign." Obviously, he was the more serious of the three men.
"Sounds like its been quite a trip," Xena observed.
"Yes," Jeshua agreed. "And weve been welcomed everywhere we went, except..."
"Xanthi," Micah spat out the word, his face dark and troubled.
"There, there, boy, it wasnt your fault!" Balthazar gave the young mans shoulder a squeeze.
"I should have been more careful..." his knuckles whitened as he wrung his hands into fists.
"What happened?" Gabrielle wanted to know.
"We dont have much," Jeshua explained, "in spite of the way we dress. Our clothes are more emblems of our calling rather than signs of any great riches. We had a small sack of gold pieces with us, and it was lost--"
"Or stolen," Micah added.
"... in Xanthi," Jeshua finished. "We wont turn back, weve come much too far for that, but it makes for more... innovative traveling, thats for certain."
"How awful!" Gabrielle did not think before she loosed the words, and she instantly regretted it when she saw the hurt cut across Micahs face. Clearly, he felt responsible for what had happened.
"Well, well let you finish up here, wont we?" Xena gave Gabrielles arm a tug, and the two women smiled and retreated back to the bar.
Xena leaned against the rough-hewn oaken bar-top. "Have you seen Autolycus lately?" she didnt look at the bard when she posed the question, instead allowing her eyes to scan the room.
"Uh... now that you mention it, no...."
"I saw you talking to Pasha earlier," Xena was starting to put the pieces together in her mind, "whats her story?"
"She seems kind of unhappy, Xena," and the bards brow furrowed at the memory. "She likes Autolycus. At least I think she does. But theres definitely something else going on there. At least, thats my expert bartender opinion on the lovelorn!" The young blonde looked up at her taller friend and smiled.
"Be back in a minute," Xena said with a gleam in her eye. "I think I know where I can find Autolycus."
"So... hows the weather in Xanthi this days?" Xena slammed the king of thieves hard against the kitchen wall. The warrior had found him chattering away with Cyrene, helping her to peel potatoes. He looked quite prepared to spend the rest of Solstice Eve there, on a stool by the cook-fire.
"Xena!" Cyrene was scandalized as a pail of potatoes tipped over and spilled its contents onto the floor.
"Leave us, mother."
"LEAVE us!" Xena growled, and Cyrene knew better than to argue with her daughter when she was in this state. She whirled around and left the room in a huff, grabbing a serving tray with food along the way. "Of all the..."
"Now..." she returned her attention to Autolycus. "Dont lie to me..."
"Xanthi?" Autolycus voice was a squeak, thanks to Xenas forearm pressing against his throat. "Never been--"
"Never?" Xena gave him the once-over, and plucked a golden coin from his vest pocket. "Hmnn..." she said in a mock-serious tone, "would you look at the strange markings on this gold piece," she held it up admiringly. "Shall we go out and ask our new arrivals if theyve ever seen anything like this before?" The warrior held Autolycus shoulder in a grip of steel, and she began to propel him towards the main room.
"W.. w... wait Xena! I can explain!" he tried twisting out of her grasp, to no avail.
The warrior paused. "Im waiting."
"All right!" he swore, finally shaking her loose. "Id heard about these three travelers, three kings, or so the rumor had it. They were supposed to be bearing great riches from the orient."
Autolycus shrugged. He was in too deep to pull out now, and he knew Xena well enough to know that he dare not cross her at this point. Shed nailed him, fair and square. "They were following some star they saw in the east. Pasha and I finally caught up to them in Xanthi. I figured if we posed as pilgrims ourselves, we could get close to them."
"How does Pasha figure in all this?" Xena demanded.
"She speaks... orient," he waved a hand dismissively. "I found her in Athens, working as a servant girl. I thought if the kings heard someone speak in their native tongue, it would draw them out, prove... distracting. And as you may have noticed," he could not suppress a devilish grin, "Pasha has very distracting qualities."
Xena snorted. "So, you went for the gold, while Pasha kept them occupied."
"Yeah... gold," Autolycus laughed bitterly. "For three kings, they were traveling a little light on the riches. They had a few bottles of oils, some perfumed incense, and that sack of gold."
"And you took it," Xena said in a hard voice.
"Hey - I left them the rest of it! Let em order up a bonus bag from their kingdoms!"
"Those men arent kings, Autolycus. Theyre just simple astrologers, following a star. The only jewels they have are in the sky." The warrior bored her eyes into the thief.
"Astrologers... why, something mustve gotten lost in Pashas translation..." Autolycus was clearly confused.
"Theyre poor, Autolycus," Xena said derisively, "and you took what little they had."
"I... I didnt know...." Regret tinged Autolycus face, and Xena was relieved to see it. Her friend was a thief, true enough, but shed never known him to take from the less fortunate. No, his targets were typically high-living despots who had plenty to share with those in need, but rarely did.
"Dont think less of me, Xena," he said sorrowfully.
"I try not to think of you at all!" and the warrior crossed her arms, allowing a small smirk to creep across her face. "Now what are you going to do about it?"
"Uh... donate it to the Oracle at Delphi?" he volunteered half-heartedly.
"Or, you could give it back," Xena firmly suggested.
"Or I could give it back," he repeated, nodding his head. "Just one thing - how do I do that without getting caught?"
"Youre the king of thieves," Xena laughed aloud. "You took it, you get it back. Do we understand each other?" and her icy-blue eyes narrowed.
"Aw, Xena!" Autolycus was crestfallen. "You make it hard for a good man to earn a dishonest living!"
Continued...Part 2 (conclusion)