Disclaimers: These characters belong to Ren Pics. Im just borrowing them.
Authors Note: This is a holiday story. It will only be appearing for a brief time. If you like it I suggest you download it. Also there are two versions of this story one is general, on is alternative. This version is the general version. Its my first foray into the general fiction genre so be gentle on me (VBG).
You can contact me email@example.com Have Yourself a Merry Little Solstice
By CN Winters
Gabrielle didnt know who to curse - Xenas mother for the invitation or Xena for agreeing to go along with it. She wondered silently if insanity was just something that ran in Xenas blood or if it was a learned behavior. In any event, Gabrielle sat at the bar of Cyrenes tavern drumming her fingers nervously.
"You seem uptight dear," Cyrene mentioned as she set a serving tray down. She ran a palm over the back of Gabrielles head in a very maternal fashion.
Gabrielle smiled at the gesture. The warrior amazon had come to love Xenas mother as if she were her own. Both seemed to have a profound respect for the other and in certain terms a protective nature. Gabrielle knew she would see harm come to herself before she let it befall Cyrene and vice versa.
"Just nervous I guess," the bard answered, rolling her shoulders to release her growing tension. "My family . . ." Gabrielle trailed off unable to find the right words to properly describe her family. She didnt have to continue. Cyrene finished her statement.
"Your family is as welcome here as you are sweetie so just relax."
Gabrielle smiled again. "Thank you Cyrene."
"No thanks needed," the woman answered. "If anyone should be giving thanks its me. My daughter came back years ago and claimed shed amended her ways. I dont think shes still be on the straight and narrow without you . . . And since you do have this power," the woman grinned devilishly. "Im sure your family is to thank. They raised a wonderful person." With that Cyrene tousled Gabrielles hair and made her way to the kitchen.
She crossed paths with Xena on her way to the back but mother and daughter said nothing to each other. Xena, with cherry pie in hand, took a seat next to her traveling companion. Night had fallen hours ago and Xena looked around the empty tavern.
"Theyre still not here yet, huh?" Xena asked before taking an enormous bite of the pastry.
Gabrielle did a brief double take and released a small chuckle.
"Wumpht?!" was the filled mouth response of the warrior.
Gabrielle continued to smile. "Please dont talk with your mouth full. Its so unbecoming," she chuckled. "I knew you had a big mouth," Gabrielle teased knowing the warrior couldnt reply at the moment. "I just never realized it was THAT big."
Xena gave a fake smile, making sure to keep her mouth closed in the process. She held her finger up to make Gabrielle wait for her reply as she continued chewing.
"Sorry Xena," Gabrielle grinned as she hopped from the barstool. "I think I heard your mother call me."
Xena shook her head furiously. Both women knew very well that not a peep was made from the kitchen and Gabrielle was traveling to escape any retort Xena might throw at her. The amazon, however, didnt get very far. From across the room, she saw the figures of her mother and her sister, looking cautiously around them, searching for her she assumed.
When all parties locked eyes they all smiled their greetings. Xena chewed twice as fast and took a huge swallow of goats milk to wash it down. Quickly she wiped her face and traveled to the entrance where Gabrielle was already standing, embracing her family.
"Hecuba. Lila," Xena said with a nod of respect as she walked over. "Did Herodotus come with you?"
"Yes," Hecuba answered. "Hes tending to the horse and wagon."
"Ill give him a hand," Xena answered going to the rack for her cloak. Cyrene came from the kitchen at that moment and Xena announced her plans, along with asking Gabrielle to do the introductions. The bard of course agreed as Xena stepped out into the nights cold.
"Mom, this is Cyrene. She runs the local inn and tavern here. Cyrene this is my mom Hecuba and . . .well youve already met my sister Lila."
They all embraced warmly and Gabrielle let out a small sigh of relief. So far so good, the amazon mused.
"Its nice to meet you," Cyrene told Hecuba. A moment later she turned to Lila. "Youre looking well. Its good to see you again Come in! Come in!" Cyrene said leading them further inside the quiet emptiness of the tavern. Cyrene had closed up early tonight since the holiday was approaching. Besides most folks were with their families anyway for Solstice Eve so it wasnt going to hurt business.
"Are you hungry?" she asked the pair.
"Well a little," Lila nodded shyly.
Cyrene led them to a table and announced she would be back soon. "Can you give me a hand, Gabrielle?" she asked the amazon.
Gabrielle didnt hear the question at first but agreed and followed Cyrene. Food, for once was the last thing on her mind. She was wondering just what was taking so long outside. Dad and Xena together for any extended period of time could not be a good thing. But she didnt dwell on it too much since she had her family to entertain.
Xena watched as Herodotus unfastened the cart from the steed and she made her presence known as not to startle him. "How was the trip in?" she asked conversationally.
Oh, boy Xena sighed to herself. Herodotus was a man of few words except when he was upset. In fact she was surprised that he and Hecuba even made the trip. Last time Joxer accompanied Lila to Amphipolis for Gabrielles birthday party. They all had a wonderful time and when Cyrene suggested spending Solstice together Xena looked forward to it. But as this conversation was proving perhaps things werent going to be as rosy with Gabrielles folks present.
Xena pushed her negative thoughts away and she went to work on the harness, freeing the horse. "There ya go," she said stroking the animal and giving a few light pats. "Bet that feels better huh?" Xena smiled naturally at the horse and turned to find a very stern looking father examining her. "Well," she said addressing Herodotus, "perhaps we should just go inside now. Its not getting any warmer out here."
Of course Xena felt herself sweating at this point under the mans steely gaze but he didnt have to know that. She absolutely hated having to be the one to initiate conversation but she knew that there would be a huge gap of silence between them if she didnt speak. And that fate seemed far worse than making small talk.
They walked in silence to the tavern where all the women were gathered at a table conversing. Gabrielle and Cyrene both rose going over to the door. Xena noticed the beam that came to Herodotuss face when he saw his daughter rushing toward him.
"Ahhhh, hows my little girl?" he exclaimed, pulling Gabrielle into a tight embrace.
Xena had to smile too. Although she was certain the man would hate her until the day she died, she was also certain that this man loved his daughter very much. His malice toward the warrior was out of his concern for Gabrielles safety. That knowledge made all the difference to Xena.
"Dad," the amazon argued with an affectionate grin, "How many times do I have to tell you? Im not a little girl."
"Sure you are," Cyrene answered as she stoked her own daughters arm. "No matter how big you get youll always be little," she added briefly looking up at Xena. Quickly she turned to Herodotus. "Im Cyrene," she said extending her hand.
"Herodotus," he nodded firmly. The smile he had for Gabrielle had vanished as quickly as it came when his eyes turned to Cyrene. Xena tensed in an instant. His opinion of her was one thing but if he was going to make her mothers life difficult that was something else. Cyrene was not oblivious to the tension that surrounded the small group. The tension was short lived when a commotion at the door made them all turn.
"Well thats because YOU are an idiot!"
"Its not my fault the map got misplaced."
"Who had it last Plato? Huh? Who?"
"Just because you saw me have it last does not mean that Im the one who had it last."
The man sighed heavily. "Just once it would be nice if Athena could grant you the ability to see how ignorant you sound."
"Well happy solstice to you two," Gabrielle said breaking up the bickering twosome. "I see goodwill toward our fellow man is getting a work out tonight."
"Hi Gabby," Joxer replied. He couldnt help but have a sappy grin on his face as she pulled him down for a kiss on the cheek. Blushing he noticed that the room was filled with family.
"Oh fine. Kiss him," whined Autolycus. "What am I chopped pig liver?"
Gabrielle smiled and Autolycus offended fašade fell as he met her with a grin of his own. "Of course not," Gabrielle said planting a firm smooch on his cheek. "Happy?" she teased.
"Delighted," he replied stressing the syllables. "But not as happy as I would be if I got a kiss from tall, dark and dangerous over there," he said pointing in Xenas direction.
Xena strolled over. "I warned you Autolycus. Ya gotta quit hittin on my mother."
They smiled as they embraced and as she pulled back she gave Joxer a chuck on the shoulder as Gabby led him and her father to the table of treats.
"But its so much fun . . . and you know what they say about older women Xena?"
"Whats that?" Xena said playing dumb. She was sure Autolycus would make some remark about sexual prowess or something along those lines. She grinned as he turned a bright shade of red when Cyrene came over.
"Yes Autolycus!" Cyrene prodded. "Lets hear what they say."
"Like daughter like mother," Autolycus mumbled. He looked over Cyrenes shoulder to the table behind them. "Oh my! Is that cherry pie?! It looks delicious. Excuse me."
"Ah ha," Xena drawled as she watched Autolycus slip between them, heading to the table.
Cyrene chuckled and shook her head. "That man is something else. Hes arrogant, handsome and smart-assed . . . But underneath it all, he has a good heart . . . Hed be perfect for you dear."
Xena coughed to get her breath after hearing that proposal. "Perhaps but Im sure at some point between the honeymoon and the first anniversary Id end up choking him to death," the warrior chuckled.
Xena wrapped her arm around her mothers shoulder and Cyrenes arm around her daughters waist. The two women, joined at the hip, headed back to their table of family and friends.
Hours later the food was all but devoured. All that remained were a few bones and bits of piecrust. Everyone at the table wore smiles everyone except Herodotus that was. His wife had sensed it all evening and as the conversation died down she asked what was wrong.
"Nothing," he replied stone faced.
"Oh come on," she said lightly nudging him with a shoulder. "Relax and have fun."
"Would you like some more wine?" Cyrene asked, offering the bottle.
"No," he replied meeting Cyrenes eyes. "What I would like . . ." he paused as if to get his bearing or perhaps to make the room stop spinning. Everyone had enjoyed more than their fair share of drinks and spirits that evening. Soon he managed to continue. "What Id like to know is how you managed to raise a butcher."
The room fell silent. Xena was well aware of the opinion Herodotus held of her but to have him actually say it out loud, in front of all their family and friends was something she didnt expect. It was more than anyone expected given the silence that settled in the house.
"Excuse me?" Cyrene answered. It was all she could come up with.
"Herodotus," Hecuba chastised in a soft tone.
"No," he replied to his wife loudly . . . and getting louder as he continued. "I wanna know how such a woman can raise a child into a blood thirsty killer!"
Cyrene grinned. And the bard tensed even more than she already was. She had seen that very same grin many times on the face of her companion. And it never meant anything positive.
"Well I could counter that and ask how someone as ill-mannered and self-righteous could raise a child, two children, who are very caring and selfless," Cyrene said starting to lean over the table toward him. "I could," she said, keeping that grin in place. "But that would be inappropriate."
"You know something?" Herodotus said rising up from the table.
"Whats that?" Cyrene said not backing down from the challenge, their voices anything but friendly at the moment.
"You might think that everything is just perfect since your spawn decided to be a hero instead of destroying lives . . . "
"Herodotus! Please sit down," Hecuba pleaded.
"No wife!," he said to Hecuba, not taking his eyes from Cyrene. "That might be okay with you. But thats not okay with me," he menaced continuing his conversation with Cyrene.
"THATS IT HUSBAND!"
All eyes shifted to Hecuba as she shot up from the table. "Dont you stand there and No wife ME! You will sit your ass down now and shut the Tartarus up! No one wants to hear your drunken ramblings, least of all me!"
"Fine! I dont have to stay here. Ill go to the local inn!"
"Youre at the local inn," Hecuba challenged. "Ohhh . . . would you please quit acting like a horses ass and just go to bed and sleep it off?!"
Nobody made a sound. Nobody even breathed. Quietly everyone watched as Herodotus took a key from the table and made his way back to the room. Hecuba sat down only when Herodotus was out of sight and she heard the door close down the hall.
"I am so sorry Cyrene," she apologized for her husband. "He just can be so stubborn. Once hes made his mind up on something its nearly impossible to talk any sense into him."
Xena mumbled something about that sounding familiar. Her exclamation of Ouch! got everyones attention and they watched as Xena rubbed her side while Gabrielle took a sudden interest in her fingernails foregoing any knowledge of what brought on the warriors outcry.
"Its not your fault," Cyrene told her, placing a hand over Hecubas hand to study the shaking woman. "Like you said, let him sleep it off. Chances are he wont even remember this conversation," Cyrene chuckled.
"But I will," Hecuba said, still mortified by her husbands actions.
"Perhaps its not all bad," Cyrene offered. "Perhaps getting some things off his chest will help."
Hecuba rolled her eyes in reply.
"Dont even say it," Gabrielle whispered in Xenas ear.
"What? That you roll your eyes like her?"
Another Ouch erupted from the warrior and both mothers turned to their daughters.
"Knock it off," they said in harmony. Both women looked at each other and began to chuckle.
"Perhaps we should separate them tonight," Cyrene offered. "Nobody will be getting any sleep if they keep on aggravating each other all night."
"Oh Gods," Hecuba sighed heavily the sense of dread crept into the words.
"What?" Cyrene asked concerned.
"Sleep. Ive got to go into that room," she said. pointing toward where her husband had just gone.
Cyrene grinned. "Look, why dont you stay in my room tonight? Ive got more than enough room. You two can discuss things in the morning. Okay? After all that traveling you need a good nights rest."
"I wouldnt want to put you out-."
"Nonsense," Cyrene said, leading Hecuba to her feet. "All the rooms have two beds. I planned on the boys in one room, the girls in another and Lila with me. Tonight Lila can just bunk with the girls. Im sure no one will mind."
"Thats okay with me," Lila said excitedly. "Besides it will give Gabby and me a chance to catch up," she smiled. Of course, catch up was a euphuism for gossiping about the tiff mom and dad just had. But that was pretty much a given to everyone at the table and it didnt really need to be said.
"Are you sure?" Hecuba asked.
"Of course were sure," Cyrene said taking Hecuba by the hand. "Lets all get some sleep, okay? We can clean up tomorrow."
Everyone agreed and started to rise. Xena announced that she would see to the lights and two by two everyone went to their rooms. Xena turned after extinguishing the last lantern and nearly ran into Gabrielle.
"Oh sorry," the bard apologized. "Im surprised you didnt sense me like usual," she teased.
"Yeah well . . . guess my minds on other things," she grinned for show.
"Look if its about the fight tonight-."
"I never wanted to bring you pain," Xena answered. "And I certainly didnt want to be reason for your parents to fight."
"Xena," Gabrielle sighed. "You gotta understand something in my family. Dad might be king of the castle but Mom rules the roost."
Xena scratched her head. "What in Tartarus does that mean?"
Gabrielle smiled. "It means that Dad thinks he always gets his way but if the truth were told its actually Mom who does. Shes pretty patient and shell put up with so much but if things get too far out of line look out . . . Its not the first fight Ive seen. It wont be the last . . . Its kinda like you and me sometimes. Sometimes we just dont see eye to eye and when one of us gets outta line sometimes we have to . . . poke each other in place again."
Gabrielle emphasized the poke by jabbing Xena in the ribs like she had done earlier when the warrior felt compelled to comment on the correlation between Gabrielles temperament and her parents argument. "This too shall pass Xena," she whispered and put her arm around the warrior. "So let's not analyze it too much. Lets just get some sleep, okay?"
Xena nodded and yawned her agreement as they too headed to the sleeping chambers.
Xena was in the living area wrapping Gabrielles solstice present when she heard the tavern door open. Quiet footsteps approached and Xena rose to meet them.
"Somehow I knew YOUD be awake already," he said once Xena came into view.
Xena rushed over with open arms. "Oh Gods its good to see you again," she said as they embraced. "You look well," she smiled sincerely.
"You too sis," Toris replied. "Mom up?"
"Nobodys up. Just you and me."
"And me . . . barely." A voice called from the banister, stifling a yawn.
Toris looked. Then looked again. "Gabrielle?" he asked in astonishment.
If it werent for that smile he probably wouldnt have noticed it was the amazon. She looked so different, so mature, so . . . what was the proper word? . . . sexy! Xena noticed Toris admiration immediately and had to smile. It appeared another one had fallen for the bard.
Gabrielle smiled warmly and walked over to him giving him a hug, which he happily received. "How have you been Toris?"
He realized she had asked a question but he hadnt answer. He felt the blood rise to his cheeks in his embarrassment. "Fine," he replied quickly. "Just fine . . . Gods Gabrielle you look so different from the last time I saw you. I mean you look beautiful now. Not that you werent beautiful before because you were. Its just-."
"Just what?" Xena teased. She could see her brother was fumbling for the right words and she wasnt going to make this easy on him. Besides thats what big sisters were for to intimidate and provoke. "Come on," Xena nudged. "Out with it."
"Xena you arent helping me any here," he replied flustered.
"Yeah I know," the warrior grinned devilishly. "Thats the point."
Toris laughed at his sister. The woman was never easy on him so why should she start now. With that a thought occurred to him. "In the spirit of Solstice," Toris said putting his arm around his sister, "perhaps you can cut me some slack?"
"Wouldnt dream of it bro," she answered with a twinkle in her eye.
"Now Xena," the bard chastised playfully. "Give Toris a break. Its been a long time since hes been home."
"Yeah!" Toris spoke up. "Like she said," he replied pointing at Gabrielle.
"Okay. Okay," Xena answered nodding her head. "For her sake I will," she smiled affectionately at the amazon. "But you," she said turning to Toris, "No way."
"Hey, as long as I get my way Im happy," he answered. Toris made his way to the kitchen. "Im hungry," he replied looking back at the two women. "Anyone else interested in breakfast?"
"Sure!" the amazon answered enthusiastically.
Xena smiled at the bards replied and offered a No. Thanks. The smile turned into a chuckle when they both watched Toris slam into the wall because he was admiring Gabrielle and not watching where he was walking. With his face red once more he opened the swinging door to his sanctuary of the vacant kitchen.
Gabrielle and Xena chuckled as quietly as possible once he was out of sight. "Hes not nearly as graceful as his sister," the amazon remarked quietly.
"The power you wield," Xena whispered in Gabrielles ear with a mischievous smile.
"Its not my fault," Gabrielle countered.
"Oh no of course not," Xena exaggerated. "You just stroll downstairs in that little shift. Bat your eyelashes and give that grin."
"I was being friendly."
"Ohhh reallly," Xena drawled, rolling her eyes. "Well try to be a little less friendly next time. You might kill my brother with kindness."
"So I shouldnt go help him until I get dressed? Is that what youre saying?" Gabrielle replied with a sparkle in her sly eyes.
"Exactly," Xena chuckled. "At the rate hes going hes liable to accidentally burn the place down."
"Well," Gabrielle said vamping her way up the stairs seductively, "I have this power."
Xena laughed out loud at the bards antics. "Go get dressed Taltaka," she teased.
"Yeah well dont ask me to lick your face later," the bard chuckled. Gabrielle then wrinkled her nose and winked in response before going up the steps double time. All Xena could do was shake her head at the amazons frolicking nature. She started to head back into the living area when she saw Hecuba emerge from her mothers room.
"Sleep well?" Xena called up with a grin.
"Very well actually," she said as she made her way down.
"Im sure youre hungry." Xena said motioning to the bar. "Have a seat and my brother will have some food for you soon."
"Your brother?" Hecuba questioned.
"Yeah," Xena answered. "He got in a few minutes ago. Ill be right back."
Xena collected Gabrielles gift and put it under the Solstice tree for safe keeping before returning to the tavern.
"Thirsty?" Xena asked walking behind the bar. Hecuba nodded. "Apple Juice?" the warrior asked. Again Hecuba nodded with out saying anything. Xena could feel the woman examining her closely and the warrior ran her hand over her face self-consciously. "Is there something on my cheek?" she asked.
Hecuba realized she was staring at the warrior and her body did an automatic shake in response. "No . . . Sorry. I was just thinking."
"About what?" Xena pried.
"You . . ."
Okay. Now Xena had to know. "What about me?" She approached the question carefully. She didnt know if she was up for round two after the problems with Herodotus the night before.
Hecuba sighed. "Do you love my daughter?"
Xena felt her eyebrows shoot up. Boy! This was not a conversation she was prepared for especially not this early in the morning. Reflexively she answered, "Yes. Very much so." Hecuba nodded her understanding and sighed again. It seemed like the woman was a bit surprised by the conversation as well. When she didnt add more, Xena continued with, "Why do you ask?"
"I think shes in good hands," Hecuba answered and paused in thought a moment. "Herodotus worries about her being on the road but . . . I think back to how you two meet. She wasnt safe in Potedaia that day was she? . . . I think shes made the right choice."
Whoa! Xenas mind screamed and she had to will her eyes to retract back into her head before she could continue. Hecuba could see by Xenas physical demeanor the warrior caught off guard and quickly apologized.
Xena chuckled and held up her hand. "Hecuba, its okay," Xena began. "I just . . . its that . . . ya see . . ."
With that Toris walked out with some eggs for his new sweetie but in her place was an older woman chatting with his sister.
Xena sighed inwardly at the sight of her brother. "Toris!" she said far to excitedly. He wondered just what she was up too. "This is Hecuba, Gabrielles mother. Hecuba this is my brother Toris."
"Nice to meet you," he said with a nod of his head. Xena snatched the plate and turned to Toris. "Okay you can go now," she ordered quickly.
He was stopped in mid-chuckle by his sister as she led him back to the kitchen. She made sure to announce that he had to cook some more food. Without putting up much of a fight he headed back but just for good measure Xena gave him an extra shove, sending him flying through the door.
From the other side of the closed door, a few pots and pans rattled as she ran her palms across each other for a job well done.
"Im glad you see that Hecuba," Xena said as the woman began to eat. "Gabrielle . . ." Xena struggled to find the right words while keeping a smile on her face. Hecuba beat her to finishing her sentence.
"Is a special woman?" she asked.
"Exactly!" Xena sighed. The smile stayed glued in its place. "And you should know it hasnt always been easier for her living life with me. But I realized what my priorities are now. Seeing Gabrielle find her way in life is all that matters now . . . because she helped me realize my way with her love and patience . . . Some people in this world believe in saints. People who are so filled with goodness that even after they are gone their spirits still watch over those left on earth . . . Gabrielle in my eyes is a saint already."
Xena shook her head. Did she just ask How come? She wasnt sure if she heard that correctly or not. "Excuse me?" Xena replied.
"I said how come." Hecuba repeated.
"Well," the warrior began. She didnt have the chance to finish the statement. The amazon came bouncing back down the stairs for some food she was promised.
Hecuba watched as the warrior stilled and became silent at the bards approach. "Well continue this later," Hecuba whispered with a sly grin and a wink. She could tell the warrior didnt want to discuss this in Gabrielles presence for some reason.
Xena chuckled in misery. Thats all she needed. The threat of a sensitive chat with Hecuba - concerning her daughter, their life together, and gods knows what else the woman could throw in there was hanging over her head. Perhaps Gabrielle was being honest when she said weeks earlier Are you sure this holiday thing is a good idea?. It was too late now though and Xena just sat behind the bar drinking her apple juice.
"Is it safe for me to come out again?" Toris called from the kitchen.
"Whats he talking about?" Gabrielle chuckled.
Xena and Hecuba both gave a speedy, "Nothing" reply before Xena gave her approval. Toris walked out with two more plates of food.
"For you my lady," he flirted as he put the plate down in front of Gabrielle. The amazon smiled and thanked him for his effort.
Xena stifled a growl she could feel brewing deep within her. And since when did he get so feely? Hes touched her hands twice already . . . And that laugh? He sounds like a horny teenager hoping to cop a feel. Thats it!. Xenas protective nature concerning the amazon reared its head once more. She had to find a way to stop him without hurting him.
"Hey!" Toris exclaimed. "Thats my breakfast!"
"Well you offered," Xena said starting to eat his eggs. "I got hungry," she grinned. "If you want more the kitchen is that way," Xena pointed. She was all smiles and no one at the bar was none the wiser to her actions to get Toris out of the picture.
"Fine," he said throwing his napkin. "But tomorrow morning YOU can cook."
Gabrielle smiled. "I dont think you wanna do that Toris. Ive tasted Xenas eggs . . . well I THINK they were eggs. She claimed they were eggs. But in my opinion they didnt resemble eggs-."
"I think we get the point," Xena interrupted. "I cant cook, okay? Is that a crime?"
"In some provinces it could be," Gabrielle teased. "Death by lethal ingestion."
"Ha Ha. Very funny . . . Eat your eggs," Xena ordered with a grin.
"Yes dear," the bard teased. She elbowed her mother and added, "I just let her think she gets her way," she whispered, but making it obvious she wanted Xena to hear her.
"I heard that," Xena countered.
"I know," the bard smiled before stuffing her face some more.
"Boy o boy! Something smells good down there," Joxer commented as he stretched and yawned at the top of the stairs. He made his way to the bar to join the others when Toris walked out with another plate.
"Hey! Eggs!" Joxer exclaimed. "Can I have some?"
Toris had his fork in hand. His mouth open. But instead he rolled his eyes and slid the plate over to Joxer. Shoulders slumped he walked back into the kitchen to once again to try to make something for breakfast. When the door finally quit swinging back and forth, the three women had to laugh.
"I dont get it," Joxer said looking at them and then at the plate in front of him.
"Long story dear," Hecuba answered patting his arm. "Hey Xena do you have a water skin back there?"
Xena looked behind the bar and handed it over. Hecuba took it and shook it. Not too full. Not too empty. Juuuuust right.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked.
Hecuba climbed off the barstool. "Time to wake your father," she answered, slinging it over her shoulder.
The two women watched wordlessly as she climbed the stair and crept into the closed bedroom. Moments later they heard a deep shrill of a man who was obvious caught off guard. Their laughter floated up to Hecubas ears as she stood over her husband with a now empty water skin.
Herodotus sputtered and spat after the initial shock wore off.
"Rise and shine, dear," Hecuba replied as loud as she could without actually yelling. She tossed the water skin on the bed with a careful fling, narrowly missing his head. "You have to get up and face a room full of people who watched you make a total ass of yourself last night."
Herodotus groaned and held his temples. "Oh Gods," he muttered.
"The Gods have nothing to do with this," she prodded. "Do you have any recollection of what happened last night?"
He continued to squeeze his head with his fingertips as he concentrated. By the look of sheer grief and terror that soon filled his eyes Hecuba realized her husband understood just what she was talking about. All she could do was shake her head as she plopped down at the end of the feather mattress. Hecuba released a deep sigh when he still hadnt spoken after a few minutes.
"Guess I should apologize, huh?" he said trying to move from the bed.
"No," Hecuba said much to his surprise. "Not unless you mean it." Herodotus thought for a moment. He could say he was sorry but he knew that was a lie. But what other options do I have?" he wondered. Hecuba sensed his ambivalence. "Find a way to work through your harsh feelings," Hecuba replied, almost as if she could read his mind. "I know you love Gabrielle. I know you have contempt for Xena. But please dont hurt her family as a result. Our daughter is a grown woman now Herodotus. Shes made her choice and I support it."
"But Xenas a cold blooded murderer. Shes-
"Taken good care of our daughter," Hecuba pointed out. "Would you rather see Gabrielle live out her life with a husband who doesnt appreciate her gifts? A man who wants to suck the creativity out of her, forcing her to live by his rules?" Hecuba paused and waited for him to answer.
"No," he admitted. "I wouldnt."
Hecuba moved to sit next to her husband, taking his hand. "We taught our girls that they could be anything they wanted in life. But one thing had to be consistent. They had to be a good person. Gabrielle is a good person and she wouldnt chose living with Xena if she didnt feel that warrior downstairs was a good person too . . . Im asking you Herodotus. Trust Gabrielles judgement on this . . . Please."
"Ill think about it," he considered. It wasnt much but it was a start. "And Ill apologize to Cyrene for the things I said . . . Shes been hospitable by inviting us into her home. Well actually its a bar . . . no wonder that warrior grew up the way she did."
Hecuba sighed and rolled her eyes. It would be a long road ahead before Herodotus would accept Xena. "Well try not to mention that last part in your apology dear," Hecuba teased her husband. "I think it will make you sound insincere," she added with a knowing grin.
Herodotus thought about it a moment. "Alright," he finally answered. "Ill give my thanks and leave it at that. Agreed?"
"How ever it has to be," Hecuba smiled. "For now get downstairs and grab some breakfast. Youve got a turkey to track down today remember?"
How could I forget? Herodotus thought silently. Me, a thief, an idiot and a murderer. This should be interesting. "Okay," he sighed, knowing what lay ahead. How Gabrielle came to know any of these people eluded him. He just stayed firm to the belief that ignorance could be bliss and perhaps its best if he didnt know. "Ill be down in a few minutes."
Hecuba nodded her agreement and went to the door. "Ya know," she said before leaving, "underneath that tough exterior lies a very caring man . . . I love you husband," she smiled.
Herodotus couldnt help but grin back at her. "Love you too wife."
And with that Hecuba winked and she made her way downstairs.
Herodotus found that not only did the list include all the folks he met last night but also the murderers brother he wasnt sure what to make of the young man but the long hair didnt sit well with him. Last thing he needed on the hunt was a sissy boy.
Joxers voice broke up Herodotuss rambling thoughts as the five of them trampled through the woods. "So WARRIOR PRINCESS," he started in. Xena simply rolled her eyes to Toris and waited for Joxer to continue. "If youve got many skills why havent we seen a single bird out here huh?"
"Perhaps," Autolycus interrupted, "its the fact that between your big mouth and big stumbling feet youve managed to scare any game within a 10 league radius away?"
Xena was on the verge of telling them both to be quite but Herodotus beat her to it.
"If you both could be quiet for just 10 minutes Im sure well find something out here . . . If not we might be forced to cook you two."
Xena laughed out loud. Herodotus made a funny. It was a side she never saw until now. But when his steely eyes turned to her, she shut up instantly and she realized perhaps that it wasnt a joke. Perhaps the man really could kill them. After all he had threatened her with an ax last time they met face to face. Not many people had done that and lived to tell about it. Then again, Herodotus only did it to protect his little girl so Xena made allowances for that fact.
Finally the troop trekked along in silence and they saw a beauty of a bird. Herodotus gave a call and the bird moved closer toward their group. Xena had to smile as she watched Herodotus lead the bird closer and closer to them. He might have been just a farmer but the man did have a skill, perhaps many skills that she didnt recognize.
"Use your chakram Xena," Toris instructed. Xena reached to her waist for the weapon but Herodotus placed a hand on top of hers stopping her movement.
"No," Herodotus instructed. "If that bird ducks we go hungry. We have to catch him first."
Xena agreed with a slight nod and she went back to watching the drama unfold. Closer and closer the unsuspecting bird came. Everyone stood on tiptoes waiting for the word to pounce. Finally, when just a few feet away Herodotus gave the signal. Xena could have sworn the birds eyes literally popped out of his head when he saw the five figures rushing him from the bushes.
First he ran toward Joxer but managed to dash between the man's legs. As an end result, Joxer lost his balance and ended up face first on the forest floor. Autolycus was laughing too hard at that point and the bird breezed by him. Toris for his part managed to catch a leg but the bird proceed to peck repeatedly until he was forced to let go.
That left only Herodotus and Xena in the group to do battle with the dreaded beast of solstice. Father and warrior chased for all they were worth and Xena managed to tackle the bird until Herodotus got there.
"Ah! Ouch! Damn it!" Xena cursed as the bird now bite into her with sharp pecks to the hands and arms. "You liittle bacchae!" Xena yelled at the turkey as warrior and beast engaged in a dance of death. At the moment it appeared that the bird was winning.
"Bring the ax," Herodotus yelled. By this time Joxer had gotten to his feet and the group rushed over.
"Ill do it," the mighty one proclaimed started to raise the ax.
"Nooo!" the group yelled in unison. Joxer with an ax was the last thing they needed. By this time, Herodotus was getting control of the head, while Xena kept a firm grip on the body.
"Give me that," Toris said taking it out of Joxers hands. "All set?" he asked the pair holding the bird down.
"Yeah! Do it!" Xena replied urgently. She wasnt sure how much longer she or Herodotus could hold on.
With a hardy swing the ax the head was severed from the body. Herodotus and Xena released their hold when the blood splattered both of them in the face. A resounding Ewwwwww noise went around the group at the sight. Herodotus and Xena had both seen their share of blood as farmer and warrior. And although they had to clean themselves up both wore smiles for a job well done. And the smile Herodotus gave Xena was one of camaraderie she never expected to see.
The bird ran around headless for a few moments before falling to the ground and everyone went over to inspect it. As Toris stuffed the bird into the sack they had brought, Xena turned to pay a compliment to Herodotus for his turkey hunting skills. But the man looked very pale.
"Are you okay?" Xena asked.
"Yeah," he said brushing her off. "Just getting a little too old to hunt wild turkeys I guess," her replied with a grin. "Kinda hard to breathe."
Herodotus stumbled back a bit but Autolycus managed to steady him.
"Why dont we all sit down and rest for a minute?" the king of thieves suggested. He could tell Herodotus was a stubborn man so he decided to include the WHOLE group as a means to get Gabrielles father to rest.
Xena immediately picked up on Autos plan and was the first to take a seat. "Come on," Xena said patting the ground. "Take a load off for a job well done."
Herodotuss began to do just that but he ended up collapsing instead. Auto who was inches away checked him but he didnt feel any pulse. "Xena?" he said to the warrior who was now over the unconscious man. The question was almost a plea. He didnt understand what had happened and worse he didnt know how to fix it.
Xena felt for herself. He wasnt showing any signs of life. She pinched his nose and started to blow air into his mouth. She gave his chest a few hard pounds for good measure. Besides this always worked when Gabrielles body had shut down. Why shouldnt it work for him as well she figured?
"Hes not responding," Autolycus muttered after a few moments.
"Dont you think I see that?" she snapped at the thief. "Come on!" she yelled at Herodotus. "Dont do this! Your daughter will never have another Merry Solstice! Now come on and fight."
Xena went back to work again as the group could do nothing but look on. Xena was about to deliver another blow to the chest when the mans eyes shot open and he gulped a huge gasp of air.
A collective sigh went around the small clearing. Xena smiled down at the man who Autolycus was now helping to cradle. "Welcome back," she greeted.
"What happened?" he asked, moving to a sitting position.
"Seems the turkey got the best of ya," Xena smiled. "Joxer, go get Argo and bring her up this way. Herodotus is riding home."
"No Xena," the man answered gruffly. "Ive got legs."
"Youve also got a heart that just tried to attack you. Youre riding and thats final."
"Who do you think you are?" Herodotus challenged.
"Someone who loves Gabrielle enough to see that her father makes it home for Solstice. So Ill ask . . . Are you someone who can put their pride aside long enough to insure that happens?" Xenas words were direct but she kept a grin in place to let the man know her demand was not out of anger but out of genuine concern.
Herodotus realized that what Xena said was true and nodded his agreement with a small grin of his own. "Thank you," he said sincerely.
"Youre welcome," the warrior responded.
Back at the inn, the girls were busing making all the fixins for the feast that was sure to happen in the next 24 hours. Solstice evening always meant a big meal in both families. The women swapped their favorite recipes and helped each other in the kitchen. Hecuba was surprised to learn that Cyrene had her special instructions for nutbread when they first began their cooking. After a moment of consideration she knew just who could have spilled the beans and she shot an accusing look over at her eldest daughter.
"What can I say?" Gabrielle insisted. "She tortured me until I told her," she chuckled.
"Thats right," Cyrene added, placing her arm around Gabrielles waist. Quickly she administered a tickle treatment that had the bard giggling like a young girl. "The torture! The torture!" Cyrene added as the bard squirmed until successfully getting away.
"Stop it!" Gabrielle said swatting at Cyrene as she made her way to the water pail. "Lila?" she asked her sister, "How about we leave these two to their cooking and collect some water from the well."
"Sure Gabs!" was the enthusiastic response. As the sisters left Hecuba made her way closer to Cyrene and bent down conspiratorially.
"So whats the story?" Hecuba asked.
"About what?" Cyrene asked.
"Gabrielle," Hecuba nodded in the direction that the girls had left. "You two seem . . . close."
"Gabrielle is the best," Cyrene beamed, still working on her piecrust. She paused a moment, noticing the look in Hecubas eye. Was it jealousy perhaps? She couldnt tell but she did know the woman was unsettled by something. "Gabrielle is like a daughter to me," she continued. "But I could never take the place of her mother," she made sure to mention.
"Well, you see her more than we do?" Hecuba replied.
Cyrene wasnt looking for a fight but she knew she had to say something or live to regret it. "I think it has a lot to do with the reaction she gets that they both get when they come to Poteidaia," Cyrene answered. "I dont think either one of them feels too welcome. It wasnt the best departure I know."
Hecuba lowered her head and thought back to when the bard first left. They were so angry and hurt . . . and poor Perdicus they had to explain that Gabrielle chose gallivanting over the countryside instead of a safe warm home with him.
"No," Hecuba answered. "It wasnt . . . But Id like to see things change."
"Perhaps after this weekend they will," Cyrene added optimistically.
Hecuba steadied her breath and gave a nod, "Perhaps youre right," she answered. "Perhaps youre right," she answered again, louder and with even more conviction.
Cyrene smiled and switched the conversation; "How about we finish this pie huh?"
"Sound good to me," Hecuba answered. And with that the women went to work.
Herodotus sat above Argo, swaying with the horses steps. Xena kept a constant eye on him to make sure he was all right atop the mare. Her adrenaline rush from the events in the clearing was finally starting to come down. She sighed softly, feeling fortunate that things worked out for the best and that Herodotus wasnt too argumentative about riding her mare.
"Shes a beautiful horse," she heard a voice say above her.
Xena felt her heart momentarily stop. Is he actually starting a conversation with me? Perhaps when he fell he took a blow to the head, Xena considered. Instead of airing her thoughts out loud she kept her reply simple.
"Yes she is and shes very smart," Xena paused a moment. "I only wish she and Gabrielle got along better," she chuckled.
Herodotus chuckled too, which caused Xena to look up at the man. "Well Gabby and horses never mixed. She had a horse when she was young," Herodotus began.
"Tippany?" Xena asked.
Herodotus surprise showed on his face. "Yeah. How did you know that?"
"She told me," Xena smiled. "He used to peek his head into her room," Xena laughed. It was almost as if the memory was one of her very own. But Gabrielle was always very vivid in her descriptions.
"Yeah," he smiled. "He got sick one winter though. Had to put him down . . . It broke her heart but I didnt have a choice. It was better than letting him suffer," Herodotus said with a touch of regret.
"I think you do a lot of things out of love Herodotus," Xena complimented. "Its no secret how you feel about me. Its no secret how you feel about Gabrielle . . . You and I are just at opposing ends it seems but all in all its Gabrielles best interest we have at heart. We both want what we think is best for her and neither one of us want to see her hurt."
Herodotus chuckled, "Ya know warrior? For once I think Ill have to agree with you."
"Too bad Gabrielles not here. She could document this historic moment in her scrolls the day her father and Xena saw eye to eye," Xena jabbed lightly. She was relieved to see that she hadnt pushed her newfound bond with Herodotus too far. He smiled his approval but soon the merriment washed away. Damn it! Xena thought. What now? We were doing so well.
"Whats wrong?" she asked gingerly.
"You mentioned about Gabrielle here . . . Im glad she wasnt . . . Xena when we get back would you please not say anything about what happened in the clearing today?"
Herodotus then fell silent and he waited for her reply. "Ill talk to the others and let them know to keep quite but you gotta promise me something, okay?"
"You have to take it easy from now on. No heavy tasks on the farm. Either you get help or you contact me and Gabrielle to help. That means if the roof looks like it needs fixing you send a scroll BEFORE it starts to leak," she grinned. Herodotus knew despite the happy gesture that she was being quite serious.
"Agreed," he nodded with a smile of his own.
"Oh," Xena mentioned looking over his shoulder. "When we get back were going to take a pie to the town healer . . . with it being solstice and all," she smirked. "Agreed?"
"Youre very demanding," he chuckled. "How does my daughter put up with you?"
Xena laughed aloud. "Ive asked myself that very same questions many times," she grinned. "So? Is it a deal?"
Herodotus met Xenas eyes and for the first time he saw something besides the butcher hed heard all the tales about. Shed done horrible things. Of that he was sure . . . but she was also doing her best to make amends. He realized he could have died in that clearing if she hadnt taken charge of the incident. He also knew she was quite aware of how he felt about her. But in light of that, she still did everything she could to bring him back. Herodotus realized there were many tales of the warrior princess and not all of them were negative. Perhaps if he asked his daughter she would show him a scroll or two tonight. He knew Xena waited for an answer so he offered his forearm to the woman below him. As they grasped and shook firmly he uttered his reply . . . "Deal."
A comfortable silence settled between the two. Now, Xena could hear the conversation in front of her as they all walked along. Joxer and Toris were debating some issue. Xena focused closer and realized it was the bard they were discussing.
"What are you saying Toris? That youre in love with Gabrielle?"
Xena recognized the look on Joxers face. A mix of jealousy, anger and perhaps pain. But she kept quiet and simply listened to the exchange. Xena sighed, already seeing where this conversation was headed. It was loud enough for Herodotus to notice. He asked what was wrong but Xena was listening for Toris answer.
"Im not sure its love . . ." Toris winked. " But I wouldnt mind a . . . ahem . . . night in the stables if you know what I mean."
Joxer grabbed Toris by the shirt and pushed him against the nearest tree. Xena was surprised by the move and dashed toward the two.
"Thats Gabrielle youre talking about," Joxer warned. His voice was low. The look in his eye was menacing. Xena was always amazed at the power love had over someone. It could turn the most timid lamb of a man into a lion with just a few words as this event was proving.
"Okay you two," Xena said pushing them away from each other. "We gotta get back."
The physical distance didnt stop them from getting into a typical adolescent can not/can too debate over who could win Gabbys heart. After a few moments Xena had heard enough.
"Would you both drop it?!" she ordered. "Argo here has a better chance of winning Gabrielles hand than the two of you put together so give it a rest!" Not wanting to debate it anymore, Xena pulled Argos reins away from the group, leading the horse and Herodotus forward.
"Youre right you know," he answered.
"About what?" Xena answered.
"About the two of them," he smiled. When Xena turned to face the man he winked at her and she had to smile. With all that had already happened a rivalry over Gabrielle was the last thing she wanted to deal with. Gods give me strength to get through this weekend, she thought to herself as she looked to the heavens. Quietly they made their way home.
As soon as the hunting party got in, Xena instructed Toris to see to Argo while Autolycus and Joxer dealt with the bird. Xena promptly took a pie from the kitchen and announced that she and Herodotus would be back. Upon the healers exam, he told Herodotus the same thing Xena had rest was the best medicine. Gabrielle wanted to know just where the pair had gone and Xena told her they did some last minute solstice shopping. It wasnt an outright lie since Herodotus asked to find something special for Cyrene for her hospitality. At this point Xena was convinced that the man HAD hit his head and was delusional. She considered taking him BACK to the healer for a second opinion but realized she liked this Herodotus much more.
That evening after the feast was devoured, the group exchanged their gifts along with kisses and hugs. Cyrene watched the evening unfold with intense interest. All night long her daughter watched the amazon and when Xena wasnt looking, the amazon was in turn watching her. There was no mistaken the bond that the two women shared. Cyrene was grateful that Xena had found a soulmate in Gabrielle. No one, she was sure, had filled that place that Lyceus left and she gave a silent prayer that Xena would never have to be without Gabrielle.
"Xena?" Cyrene called. "Can you give me a hand in the kitchen?"
The warrior started to rise when Lila spoke up. "Ill give you a hand Cyrene," she said offering her services.
"Thats okay," Cyrene said rejecting her offer delicately. "Besides it does my heart good to have my girl give me a hand now and then." With a slight nod toward the kitchen Cyrene made her way as Xena followed.
"Wha cha need?" the warrior asked.
"I need you to give me a hand with the treats but I also wanted to thank you for coming home. I miss you little one," Cyrene commented.
"Ive missed you too," Xena replied. "But weve been doing a lot of traveling in the past year . . . Gabrielle needed it." The warrior got a solemn look on her face as she remembered all that happened to them. Cyrene knew bits and pieces of their latest journey. She would ask what the look meant but in truth she was afraid to know. She knew Xenas life was a dangerous one and although Xena was quite capable of taking care of herself the warrior princess was STILL her daughter.
"In any event," Cyrene said breaking the bit of tension in the kitchen, "Im so glad you and Gabrielle came home."
Xena chuckled. "Its had its moments," she remembered. "But Im glad too mom." The warrior leaned down and kissed her mother tenderly on the cheek.
At that moment Autolycus poked his head into the kitchen. "You got a bard out here demanding sugar now. I think you better get her what she wants or well ALL pay a heavy price." With that he vanished as quickly as he came.
Xena and Cyrene chuckled as Cyrene handed Xena a platter of cookies. "Your bard awaits," Cyrene winked.
"Yes and a hungry bard is never a good thing," Xena laughed.
From the other side she could hear the group beginning to shout Cook-ies, cook-ies! over and over again.
"Tough crowd out there," Xena smirked.
"Thats why youre going out first," Cyrene said, picking up a platter for herself to carry and using her daughter as a shield.
Everyone had a glorious evening of unwrapping gifts, drinking cider and sharing laughs. Cyrene thanked Herodotus for the cauldron he gave her as a show of his gratefulness. Hecuba looked almost as happy as Cyrene to see her husband make the gesture of good will. But soon everyone was tired and went to their respective rooms.
Xena sat in her shift, her legs spread out on her bed, back resting against the headboard. She watched as Gabrielle readied herself for sleep.
"Thank you again for the sharpening stone and polishing clothe," the amazon told the warrior. "Now I wont have to steal yours," she teased.
Xena just grinned but she could feel a lump in her throat and swallowed it down. "Actually I got you two gifts," the warrior said impulsively. She realized there was no turning back at this point. She wasnt sure how Gabrielle would receive the second one. Would it make her smile or on some level cause her distress?
"Really?!" Gabrielle whispered excitedly, giving up on brushing her short blond locks. "Lets see," she said taking a seat at the foot of the warriors bed.
Xena rose and moved to sit cross-legged in front of the amazon. With that Xena reached under her bed and pulled out the gift she planned on giving Gabrielle privately tonight. Gabrielle smiled and accepted the gift with excited hands.
"What is it?" the amazon asked.
"Open it," Xena nodded toward the gift, giving permission.
Gabrielle examined the present with both her eyes and her hands the hue of the wrapping paper; the scratchiness of it. "Thank you," Gabrielle said sincerely. She paused a moment and then torn into the gift with such fury it made Xena was now chuckling at the amazon. She said a silent prayer that Gabrielle would always be in her life to make her smile.
"Oh Xena," the amazon sighed as she opened the box to revel a bottle of ink, three quills and three rolls of parchment.
"I know you havent done the bard thing too much recently. And Im not pressuring you to write but I figured if you had something nice to work with you might find your muse again," the warrior answered. "The man at the shop said its the best ink hes ever seen and the quills will last twice as long . . . Of course, I dont know anything about writing materials so I had to take his word for it," the warrior grinned nervously.
A sob of joy choked Gabrielles throat and her thank you came out like a frogs croak. She cleared her throat nervously and brought Xena into a tight embrace. "I really love you, you know that?" she said light heartedly.
"Yeah," the warrior grinned. "After all these years I kinda got that impression." Both women smiled at each other but a look of deep sincerity washed over Xenas face. "I love you too," she added softly.
Gabrielle pulled back and went into her saddlebag. When she returned to the corner of the bed she had a small box in her hand that she carefully placed in Xenas lap.
"For me?" Xena asked. Gabrielle mutely nodded. "Thank you," the warrior said as she opened the gift.
Carefully she pulled it out examining it.
"Its a breast dagger," Gabrielle explained. "I looked over six moons for a smithy who could make the design the way I wanted. See?" Gabrielle said pointing out the handle. "Its got the royal amazon crests melded with the small chakrams . . . I thought you might like it."
Xena spoke no words. She simply leaned in and placed a tender kiss on the bards cheek, which Gabrielle happily accepted. "Its beautiful Gabrielle."
"Does that mean you like it?" the amazon asked shyly, a bit concerned with the answer she might receive. Gabrielle could have swore she heard crickets chirp as she waited for an answer.
Xena continued to examine it. It was a true work of art. "Yes. Gabrielle I love it," the warrior smiled. She released a long sigh and rubbed her eyes. "This has been one heck of a Solstice, hasnt it?" Xena said conversationally as the two women put their gifts next to the bed.
"It certainly has," Gabrielle yawned before quickly apologizing.
"Come on," Xena said hugging the bard and pulling her to the head of the bed. "Its been a long day. Lets get some rest, okay?"
Gabrielle followed and snuggled into Xenas shoulder, using the warrior as a pillow. She heard the warrior sigh contently. All, for once, was right with the world and everything that came before didnt mean as much as their future to come.
"Youre still the best gift Ive ever received Gabrielle," Xena whispered, kissing the amazon affectionately on top of the head. "Happy Solstice."
"Happy Solstice Xena," the bard replied. Safe and warm in the warriors arms she finally drifted off to sleep.
And as Xena listened to the deep breathes of the bard she gave a silent prayer and gave thanks to whatever Gods had brought them together. Soon she too closed her eyes and felt herself drifting into Morpheus realm. A smile hung on her lips and with her last waking thought she went back to the days activities. It had been years since she had such a glorious day.
"A very happy solstice indeed," Xena whispered before she drifted off to sleep.
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