"Goodnight, Xena," the bard whispered over the small dark head.
"Goodnight, Gabrielle," the warrior answered. As the bard closed her eyes, she heard the warrior's other very quiet statement. "Goodnight, Niome." The little blonde smiled again.
The next morning, the sunlight danced brightly on the soft, white, sparkling blanket covering the trees, the ground and every other remotely horizontal surface outside. When the warrior emerged from the cave to gather the last of the logs in the stack near the cave, Argo greeted the tall woman with a welcoming laugh. The green bough shelter sported its own crown of snow, yet the animal snuggled beneath it appeared dry, protected and even anxious to continue their journey. The warrior congratulated herself on her successful assembling skills. After favoring the animal with a good-morning pat, she used one of the logs to crack the ice covering on the horse's water supply and returned to the cave.
The bard had breakfast ready and the three travelers happily settled in to enjoy the simple meal. Soon it was time for the bard and the warrior to resume their journey to Megara, now accompanied by their youthful passenger. The adults repacked the saddlebags, gathered their traveling gear and moved outside to prepare the mare for the remaining trip.
When Niome emerged from the cozy little cavern, her expression brightened with youthful enthusiasm at the sight of the pristine whiteness covering the surrounding countryside. The warrior smiled indulgently as the child, and the young bard, spent several minutes admiring the beauty of the mounds of white, pointing out various unique shapes under the snowdrifts and commenting on the excellence of the undisturbed brilliance of the gods' handiwork.
When she had secured the saddle and saddlebags to Argo's back, the warrior turned to the youngster happily gathering the powdery substance between her cupped hands. She cast an amiable glance at the child's delighted grin.
Niome lifted the handful of snow, giggled loudly and tossed the white powder into the air. As the frosty substance tumbled down over her, the girl opened her mouth, trying valiantly to capture the falling snowmound in her mouth. She bent to gather more of the snow, then thrust the second handful skyward. The warrior shook her head slightly, shared a quiet smile with the bard and returned her attention to the child's blissful activity. A moment later, Xena cast a concerned gaze up at the cloudless sky. She stepped toward the playful youngster.
"OK, madam blizzard maker," the warrior chortled, sweeping the little form onto the mare's wide saddle. "You get to ride the horse today." Niome's excited giggle caused the great steed's golden head to twist back toward the cheerful sound. The little girl gently patted the animal's thick neck. "What's it's name?" she asked happily.
"Her name is Argo," the warrior answered, wrapping one of the blankets around the tiny form. "Just hold on to the horn and she'll handle the rest." The little body wiggled, settling dutifully into the furry hide covering the saddle. "Hi, Argo," the girl chanted, turning a delighted grin to the bard. The mare whinnied grudgingly.
The warrior gathered the reins, and turned to the bard. "All ready?" The bard nodded and the small party proceeded away from the cozy cave.
By mid-morning, the trio was entering the small town of Stilis. The warrior guided the mare to the railing in front of a shop that displayed various items of clothing and winter apparel. As she tied the horse's reins to the wooden fixture, she spoke to the bard.
"Let's find you a good, warm cape," Xena said. "Shouldn't cost us too much." The blue eyes narrowed at the little blonde's reluctant expression. "What?"
Gabrielle stepped closer to the tall form and lowered her voice. "I'd rather get some little boots for Niome. Look at her shoes, Xena. She needs them more than ...."
"Gabrielle," Xena interjected. "Rhea will get Niome everything she needs when we get her to Megara." The bard's slender chin stiffened. "I think we need to get you something warm to wear while we're on the road, right now." The warrior turned to the child atop the golden horse. She held out her arms and the girl slid into her embrace.
"C'mon, Sweetie," the warrior said, lowering the youngster to the ground. "We're going to go shopping for ...." she glanced at the bard, "Aunt Gabrielle's new winter coat. Then we'll see if we can't find you some candy drops, OK?" Niome giggled adoringly and grasped the warrior's slender hand. She placed her other hand in the bard's.
"OK," she chirped, smiling up at the young blonde's slightly annoyed face. After a moment, Gabrielle returned the little girl's smile. Niome giggled again. "This is fun. Do you do this all the time?"
The bard trained a meaningful glare at the warrior's shining blue eyes. "Yes," she answered, her gaze on the tall woman's innocent gaze. "All the time. You'd be surprised how tiresome it can get." Xena's forehead furrowed in mild confusion.
After they had taken only a few steps toward the merchant's shop, Gabrielle turned to address the tall warrior. "Don't you think you should get Argo some real food?" Xena blinked at the curious question. "Poor thing sort of had to 'do without' last night, didn't she?"
Xena quietly considered the bard's statement. She turned to glance at the mare standing patiently at the hitching rail. "Yeah, I guess you're right," she admitted. She patted the little hand in hers. "You go with Gabrielle, Niome," the warrior told the child between them. "I'm going to get some food for Argo, OK?"
"OK," the child answered, turning to the bard. "I guess I can help you find your new coat."
Gabrielle smiled down at the happy face. "Of course you can. C'mon, we'll see what they have."
Xena watched the pair walk into the shop before loosening the reins from the railing and leading the mare toward the stable she had noticed when they'd entered the town. In a very short time, she had purchased a small bag of feed for the horse and, after attaching the sack over the animal's nose and mouth, she patted the sinewy neck, turned and made her way back to the shop where she'd left the bard and the little girl.
Just as the warrior's hand reached the latch on the shop's entrance, the door swung open and a very happy Niome pranced past the warrior then stopped, swiveled back to the tall form and clutched the warrior's hand excitedly. The little girl pointed delightedly, dancing from one tiny foot to the other, trying to display both of the bright, new boots covering her feet.
"Lookit, Xena!" the child squealed. "Lookit what Gabrielle got for me!" The warrior looked carefully at the child's feet before turning in search of the young bard. In the next moment, the little blonde emerged from the merchant's shop, purposely avoiding the smoldering wrath she'd recognized when she'd cast a quick glimpse at the warrior's piercing blue eyes. The warrior's jaw rippled as she made a concentrated effort to respond kindly to the youngster's enthusiasm.
"Yes, they're really nice," Xena said evenly, forcing herself to smile at the child's excited face. Niome released the warrior's fingers and ran to capture the bard's small hand. "Can we still find some candy drops, Gabrielle?" The bard met the warrior's angry glare for a moment before turning absently to the young face at her side.
"What?" she stammered. "Well, yes, I guess so," the bard told the little girl. She turned a leery eye toward the tall warrior. "If ... Auntie Xena still thinks we have ... enough time." Xena exhaled a slow, controlled breath. The blue eyes slowly cleared before landing on the child's expectant expression. "I think ... we have enough time for that," the warrior said slowly. She let her eyes travel over the small collection of buildings. "Over there," she said finally, pointing to another shop. "We can probably get them at that shop."
Niome's gaze followed the warrior's gesture, then she moved toward the building, pulling the somewhat relieved bard along with her. As the three travelers moved toward the shop in question, Gabrielle swallowed her dread even as she felt the warrior's furious gaze boring into her back.
Half a candlemark later, the travelers had resumed their journey, the warrior and the bard walking next to the great steed while the delighted child perched on the fur-covered saddle languidly enjoyed the short, sweet stick of hard candy she grasped happily in her little hand. Gabrielle made every effort to match her strides to the warrior's; however, the tall woman's angry state made that task even more difficult than usual. After struggling for the better part of the time since they'd left Stilis, the bard finally decided confronting the issue might, in the long run, end the current aching in her legs. She took a deep breath and trotted forward to the warrior's side.
"OK, go ahead ... yell at me. Get it over with." She glanced quickly at the stoic face, trying to decide the effect of her halfheartedly humorous remark. The warrior didn't respond.
"C'mon, Xena. Say something ... anything. I hate it when you just ... clam up."
Xena stopped abruptly and turned a rankled glare at the young blonde. "OK, you make me reeeally angry when you do that ... completely ignore what I say." The bard blinked in embarrassment. "Why did you do it? Why did you ...defy me and ....?"
"I 'defied' you??" the bard barked, her green eyes growing as angry as the warrior's. "Since when do I need your permission to do something?"
Xena turned back to the road angrily. "That's not what I meant and you know it," the warrior sputtered. She stomped forward until the bard's hand on her arm halted her progress.
"What do you mean, then?" the bard growled. "You always assume that I don't have enough sense to decide things on my own." The warrior scoffed loudly. "That I'm just a 'dumb little girl from Poteidaia', not experienced enough to make 'sensible decisions', isn't that right?"
Xena stopped walking again and turned a furious glare toward her companion. "Sometimes I wonder about how much sense you do have, Gabrielle." The caustic remark staggered the little blonde. The warrior's bronze face cleared slightly. "No, I didn't mean that, either," Xena said, her frustration undermining her reserve. The two friends glared angrily at each other before the warrior turned and started walking again. The bard followed after a moment.
"Look, I just wanted to do something nice for this poor little thing," the bard said, her voice guarded. "Xena, she's got nothing of her own. She's all alo ..."
The warrior turned an impatient expression toward the bard's plaintive face. "Gabrielle, I told you. When we get to Megara, Rhea will provide everything Niome needs. She'll be in a snug, cozy, warm house for a number of years to come. She's going to be fine. I give you my word on that." The two women walked silently for a few moments. "You, however, will be out in the weather, whatever it is, in serious need of something warm, protective and hopefully sturdy enough to keep you comfortable and healthy. That's <I> why I wanted to use those dinars to buy you a good, heavy cape," the warrior finished. "Your needs, at this point, outweigh hers. Can't you understand?"
The two women were quiet for several dozen paces. Finally the little blonde put a hand on her friend's strong arm. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I didn't mean to simply ... ignore your opinion." The warrior cast a slightly tolerant look at her small friend. "I just wanted to ... give Niome something special." The bard's soft face warmed in a coaxing grin. "Even is it's too late for Solstice."
Xena let out an exasperated sigh. She stopped walking and turned to face her small companion. After a moment, the warrior touched the young woman's soft hair. "I understand what you were trying to do," the warrior said, keeping her voice private. "I agree with your intentions," she told the bard. "As usual, you followed your heart." She stroked the girl's soft cheek with her fingers. "But next time, try to see the long term when I bring it up, OK?"
The little bard swallowed the tinge of quiet resentment at the warrior's permissive tone. She returned the tall woman's warm smile. "Besides, Solstice is two days away," the warrior said enigmatically as she turned and resumed walking. The bard blinked at the unexpected statement. After a moment, she turned and followed the warrior.
"What?" she said, tugging on the woman's long cape. "What did you say ... Solstice is when??"
The warrior's crooked smile incited the bard's curiosity further. "Xena!" the bard squeaked. "We celebrated Solstice with the Amazons ...." She pulled hard on the warrior's cape. "What do you mean, 'Solstice is two days away'?"
Xena turned a wide smile to the bard's confusion. "Solstice is the third day following the second full moon of this season, right?"
"Right," Gabrielle said, nodding.
"Well, we had the first full moon while we were at the Retreat Hut. We celebrated with Ephiny and the Amazons the day before we left them. I think they moved it up to help us feel better after our stint in the forest." Xena's blue eyes were warmly amused.
The bard's mouth dropped open slightly.
"We had the second full moon last night. Tomorrow is the second day following that. So, the day after tomorrow is really Solstice." The warrior's dark eyebrow lingered above her blue stare. After a moment, she gently pulled the young blonde toward the road, softly nudged the girl forward and resumed her steps beside her friend.
Gabrielle's stunned expression faded slowly. "Well, I'll be dipped," the girl said quietly, bringing a wide smile to the golden face. The young blonde turned to her tall companion. "That's something else you've been keeping under that dark hair of yours." The bard giggled warmly as the warrior gathered her close. "You were just going to let me stay confused, weren't you?" The warrior's smirk grew. "Weren't you?" The bard leveled a playful punch at the warrior's arm.
"Well, now I have to find you another present, don't I?" the little blonde said as the warrior rolled her eyes.
The child seated on the horse cast a cheerful look at the two women on the road. She didn't know why they were laughing, she just knew she liked the sound of it.
By midday, it had become clear to the warrior that the extra thickness of the snow on the path and the unrelenting chilly air had slowed their progress in spite of the high spirits of the three travelers. She studied the clear sky again and decided the temperature and the frosty wind made warm nourishment more of a necessity than a luxury. She announced that they would stop for lunch soon, bringing a grateful, albeit subdued sigh from the bard and a contented grin from the child on the horse.
A few minutes later, Xena had located a comfortable little clearing on the side of the road and she guided the mare toward the secluded space, lowered the tiny rider to the ground and turned to confer with the bard.
"I'll get some more wood and see what I can shake from the bushes." She glanced at the child tracking tiny footprints in the snow. "She probably needs to 'visit the forest'." She grinned at the bard. "As do we all." The little blonde smiled warmly. "Anyway, I'll be back shortly." Gabrielle waved at the warrior's departing figure. She turned to the child.
When the warrior returned to the sheltered campsite with the results of her 'bush shaking' half a candlemark later, the first thing she noticed was the worthy fire the bard had engineered; the second thing that captured her attention was the absence of her blonde friend from the immediate vicinity, as well as the missing form of the small child in their charge.
Xena dropped the wood and the two rabbits next to the fire, knelt to warm her hands over the flames for a moment, then turned her head toward the delighted shrieks that floated from the quiet field next to the campsite. The tall woman stood up and slowly turned her steps toward the happy sounds. After a half dozen paces, her blue eyes fell upon the source of the joyful noise. The warrior stood transfixed at the sight of the little blonde and her youthful charge, lying spread-eagled on the ground, their arms and legs sweeping slowly from side to side, upward and downward, gently repositioning the snow beneath them into subtle shapes and outlines. The warrior found herself smiling happily.
Xena trudged slowly toward the squealing pair. When the bard's eyes found her tall friend's advancing form, she called out a cheerful greeting. "Hi!" the little blonde shouted from her position on the ground. "C'mon, we're making snow angels! See if you can make one and then stand up without ruining it."
The warrior shook her head, her elbows forming sharp bulges in the sides of her cape. "You are kidding, aren't you?" she chided her friend. "You're rolling around in the snow, for Artemis' sake!" She laughed easily at the bard's snow-covered form. "Get up from there before you freeze to the ground."
Xena turned her head to acknowledge Niome's delighted shriek. She watched as the child flailed her little arms and legs, sending powdery clouds of snow leaping away from her frantic efforts. "C'mon, Xena!" the child giggled. "It's fun! You can make a big angel, as tall as you are!"
The warrior's gentle laugh echoed over the white landscape. "I can, huh?" she chortled at the youngster's smile. Xena gathered her cape closely around her tall frame. "OK," she laughed, "why not?" The bard's happy laugh matched the child's. The warrior took a few tentative steps toward an untouched area of snow. "How do you do this, again?" she asked over her shoulder. "You just ... what ... lie down and wave your arms and legs?" With that, the tall form flopped backwards onto the snowy field as the two angel-builders on the ground screamed in glee.
Xena moved her arms and legs against the snowy blanket, sweeping the white powder aside with each pass. She grimaced slightly as errant clouds of the white dust floated downward to cling to her face. After a few energetic moments, the warrior pulled her head from the ground and focused on the grinning bard sitting in the snow.
"Now what?" the warrior asked comically. "I'm supposed to stand up, now?"
"Without ruining the angel," Niome prodded. "Be careful ... it's kinda tricky."
Xena dropped her head back to the ground and repositioned her hands, planting her palms on the soft snow on either side of her waist. She took a quick breath, gathered herself tightly and lifted her hips away from the snowy surface. With a characteristic cry, she pushed her body upwards, executed a perfect somersault and landed lightly on her boots a short meter away from the impression left by her body in the snow. She turned a proud smirk at the bard.
"Show off," Gabrielle giggled, scrambling up from her position. She inspected the angel created by the warrior then turned to the child trudging toward her in the snow. "I told you she could do it, if she tried." The little girl laughed happily as she turned to the warrior's smiling face.
"You did it!" Niome congratulated the warrior. She flung her snow-covered form at the tall woman's knees. "It's a beautiful angel, Xena. See?" The little hand pointed toward the form in the snow. "Longer than anyone's."
Xena gazed down at the happy little form. "Thanks, Niome. You were right. It was fun," the tall woman told her. An instant later, the warrior was blinking slowly as she tried to clear away the cold, icy remnants of the handful of snow the bard had hurled expertly at her head. The blue eyes were menacing on the bard's gleeful smirk. Niome squealed and clapped her hands.
"Oh, that's the way you wanna play, huh?" the warrior growled. She gently pushed the child aside and bent to gather a handful of the moist powder. Patting the crystals into a tight ball, she pulled back her hand and sent the sphere speeding toward the bard's laughing face. The snowball splattered efficiently in the middle of her target's back, the bard having turned her body in an attempt to escape the tall woman's perfect aim. The warrior was already building another cold, round weapon.
The three travelers engaged in a spirited exchange of snowy missiles, joyfully pelting each other with rapidly collected handfuls of the frosty, icy mixture. Any four-legged creature who had elected to occupy the surrounding forest during the frigid season was treated to the joyful sounds of the playful, happy abandonment as the snowball war raged unchecked for a long series of minutes.
At one point, the bard's determined aim was thwarted by the arrival of a well-thrown icy sphere. She shrieked when the frosty mixture found its way inside the front of her tunic and down the sides of her neck. While she worked frantically to clear away the cold intrusion, Niome lofted another expertly-packed handful at the defenseless blonde head. The bard suddenly found herself blatantly outnumbered, the unfortunate target of both her companions' fiendish attacks.
Gabrielle dropped her intended weapon and launched her trim body at the child's retreating form, capturing the giggling youngster easily and lifting the wriggling body off the ground and into the warrior's waiting arms. Niome squealed happily as she traveled airborne between the two adults. After the third trip to the warrior's grasp, the tall woman playfully transferred the little form to her shoulder, enjoying the child's delight at her skyward position.
"OK, OK," the warrior announced breathlessly. "I think we can call a uniform truce." She winked at the bard's shining face. "If we don't get back to camp, we'll have to start a new fire and then we will all surely freeze to death." Gabrielle panted happily as she nodded her agreement. Xena tilted her head to address the child on her shoulder. "OK?"
Niome's happy laughter tumbled downward. "OK," the child chuckled. "My hands are really cold, anyway."
The two women laughed with the little girl. The warrior turned toward the camp, her boots making deep marks in the snow. Gabrielle followed the tall woman, brushing the powder from the blanket over her shoulders, then swept the snowy remnants from the back of the warrior's cape. Niome giggled from her high perch.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The midday meal took a little longer that usual on this bright, snowy day. Part of the time normally assigned to eating was taken up by the necessary procedure of warming cold fingers and toes next to the heartily raging fire. The warrior spent a few minutes in such soothing endeavors, then moved to position the day's catch onto the spit over the flames. Soon the bard had added several handfuls of dried herbs and plants to the steaming mixture bubbling in the small cooking pot. The two friends comfortably managed their regular chores as the young girl watched, enthralled.
"You guys do this alot, don't you?" Niome asked after spending several minutes tracking the actions of the two adults. Gabrielle's gentle chuckle filled the campsite. She quietly nudged her tall companion.
"Yeah, we have sort of gotten into a routine," she told the girl. "We've been traveling together so long, we don't even think about who does what anymore." The warrior's head turned toward the bard. "Right?"
"Right," Xena answered quietly. She slid the pieces of the rabbit into the cooking pot, stirring the mixture with a slender branch. When the bard had dusted the refuse of the herbs from her hands, the tall woman handed the slim branch to the bard. "I'll start the tea," she said to her blonde companion. Niome's round brown eyes followed the warrior.
"You make tea, too?" The warrior's blue eyes were slightly surprised as she met the girl's gaze. "Well ... yeah," Xena said, somewhat unsettled by the girl's question. "We both ... handle the tea, from time to time." The blue eyes found the amused green gaze. The little blonde smiled at the warrior's chagrin.
When the stew was ready, Gabrielle settled three portions on the earthen plates and the warrior poured tea into the small mugs. Then the travelers enjoyed their warm, filling lunch.
While they ate, the bard and the warrior discussed the plan for their journey.
"It doesn't look like we're going to get to Megara by nightfall," the warrior announced halfway through the meal. The bard cast an apologetic look at the blue eyes. "No, no," Xena shook her head, dispelling the little blonde's guilty expression. "It's the snow and the cold. Always slows things down." Xena glanced at the child sitting on the blanket, enjoying the stew. "Our snowball fight didn't make any difference." The warrior returned her gaze to the bard's "We would've had to spend another night on the road anyway."
Gabrielle turned her attention to the youngster. "Do you know of another comfortable cave around here?"
Xena's quiet chuckle pulled the bard's gaze to hers. "Nope, 'fraid not." She lifted the mug and drained the contents. "I think, if we put some more distance behind us, we can stop in time for me to fix up a shelter of some kind." She trained her eyes skyward. "I just hope we don't get anymore snow before morning." She handed the bard her empty plate and mug.
"Better get moving," she told the bard turning again to the child. "And wrap her up good. It's going to get colder as the sun gets lower. OK?" Gabrielle nodded and turned to the quiet youngster. "Niome," she called. "Let's do the dishes. We have to get back on the road."
The little girl licked the last of the stew from her fingers, picked up her empty bowl and bounded over to the bard. "OK," she agreed happily before turning to the warrior. "Do I getta ride the horse again?" she asked hopefully. The three heads turned toward the mare's answering neigh. Niome giggled as the horse's head bobbed up and down. The brown eyes returned to the warrior's face.
"I guess so ... Argo has decided you can ride." She poked the little girl's tummy playfully. Then the warrior stood and began to prepare the golden horse for the resumed journey. Soon the travelers had cleared the campsite and were again on their way to Megara.
Xena checked the thatch on the fir boughs again before spreading the next layer over the one already in place. She lifted the heavy end of the branches onto the latticework secured between the rock formations while the bard laced the other end to the corner brace. When both edges of the green blanket were wedged tight, the warrior jumped down from her position on the rocky face and stepped back to inspect the sweet-smelling shelter. She nodded mutely, turning an approving glance at the bard's proud expression.
Once again, the warrior had adroitly adapted a random, natural configuration to provide for their temporary, yet immediate needs. By creating a makeshift 'roof' between a pair of rocky vertical arrangements, the three females now had a somewhat serviceable, and relatively comfortable, shelter where they could spend the quickly approaching night. With its evergreen ceiling and floor - the credit for which had to be allotted to the efforts of a diligent Niome - the little sanctuary resembled a cleverly constructed stone hut ... the two outer sides solid and impervious, the top and bottom strong, secure and, in this case, fragrant. There was even enough room for Argo to stand under one end of the granite enclosure.
When the warrior pronounced the shelter finished, the bard turned her attentions to maintaining the campfire. Xena used her sword to provide another reserve of wood, stacking the new logs in an available cluster near the shelter. Niome sat quietly next to the bard, the little form swathed in one of the travelers' blankets, her short fingers busy cleaning the small bundle of herbs the bard had deposited in her lap. She looked up to meet the warrior's approving smile as the tall woman ducked into the shelter to sit by her side.
"Good job," the warrior said to the little girl. The small face lit brightly. "You're going to make a good cook, someday." Xena accepted the mug of warm tea the bard handed her. The two women exchanged a knowing smile as the warrior posed a silent question to her friend. She swallowed the mouthful of tea and turned again to the child.
"Niome?" the warrior began, meeting the brown eyes raised to hers. "Ah ... I was wondering." The youngster's attention left the herb cluster and settled on the bronze face. Xena found herself somewhat hesitant to proceed. She glanced at the bard but the young blonde was concentrating on the bubbling kettle. The little girl's voice pulled the warrior's attention back to her face.
"Go 'head, Xena," the little waif said. "You kin ask me anything." The stoic face softened.
"Well," Xena began again. "I have this friend ... in Megara. She has a big house and lots of children live there with her. Her name's R...."
"Rhea," the child said, her brown eyes steady on the warrior's startled face. "Her house is an orphanage ... where kids like me live 'cause we don't have a family no more. Right?" The bard turned to face the small figure. Niome met the green eyes for a moment, then returned her gaze to the warrior's cobalt pools.
"Right," Xena said softly. She studied the small, round countenance. "Rhea is a very nice person. She's an old friend of mine and I trust her ... almost as much as I trust Gabrielle," the warrior said, her eyes meeting the bard's for a moment. "Anyway, do you think you might like to live in Megara? With Rhea?" The child seemed to consider this new option. "Just until you decided ... what else you might like to do." Gabrielle's subtle grin warmed her young face. "What do you think?" The warrior kept her eyes on the child.
Niome looked from the bard's open face to the warrior's and back. "Will you guys come see me sometimes? I mean, whenever you can?" The brown eyes traveled between the two faces again. The warrior and the bard exchanged glances.
"Sure, we will," the bard said, giving the little form a gentle hug. Niome turned to the warrior.
"And bring Argo?" the little girl giggled. Xena's smooth face softened warmly.
"Of course, we'll bring Argo. She'll want to hear all about what you're doing as much as we will." The warrior cupped the little chin in her palm. "So, you think you might want to give Rhea's house a try?"
The little face brightened. "If she's a friend of yours, sure," the little girl piped. "Maybe me an' the other kids can make snow angels, too." The bard joined in the child's laughter. "And have snowball fights, huh?"
"I don't know why not," the bard said, hugging the little form tighter.
"Then it's settled," the warrior said when the two smaller forms had quieted. "Tomorrow, when we get to Rhea's, you can tell her you've decided to stay with her for a while. OK?"
"OK," the little girl answered. She scooped up the herbs from her lap and dropped them into the bard's cupped hands. The warrior watched the little girl scoot forward to watch the bard add the handful to the bubbling pot.
The warrior scratched the horse's long face and the animal bent her head to sample the dried grass her mistress had deposited on the green floor of the shelter. Argo raised her head, chomping the mouthful of brown foliage. Xena checked the small heap of feed and spent a moment inspecting the pool of melted snow at the horse's feet. She smiled at the golden face, patted the thick neck and scanned the clear, star-covered sky before turning back to observe the other two occupants of the small haven.
The scene in front of her instilled an uncommon sense of peace in the tall warrior. She let her eyes linger on the peaceful, almost domestic little scene. The bard sat with her back against the rocky back wall of the shelter, her focus on the small child sleeping peacefully on the ground next to her. Gabrielle tenderly stroked the small, blonde head, pausing a moment to draw the platinum locks away from the cherubic face, then resumed the gentle stroking. As the warrior watched, the young bard drew the blanket covering the tiny form higher, then sat quietly staring at the small, slumbering figure.
A moment later, a nervous tremor rumbled across the warrior's chest as her blue eyes saw the wet tears cascading down the little bard's face. Instinctively, the tall, dark-haired woman's jaw clenched. She clamped a firm hold on her own impulses and strove to keep her manner as calm, and as unintrusive, as possible.
After another long moment, Gabrielle lifted her gaze to meet the cobalt stare of her soulmate. The two friends exchanged a long, meaningful glance. A moment later, the bard wiped her face with her hands, took a slow, measured breath and rose from her position next to the wall. She walked to the leaping campfire, knelt and poured two mugs of dark tea, then stood and offered one of the mugs to the warrior.
When Xena accepted the tea, Gabrielle pulled the woolen blanket draped over her shoulders tighter, took a slow step past the warrior, then turned back and wordlessly beckoned her tall friend toward a section of the rocky shelter halfway between the sleeping child and the golden mare. The little blonde sat down against the rocky wall and waited while the warrior lowered her tall frame. Xena sat down on the soft, green floor, halfway facing the bard, the light from the fire casting dancing patterns on her bronze face.
"Xena," Gabrielle said softly. The warrior focused on the face of her best friend. "There's something I have to tell you." The bard raised her eyes to the woman's blue eyes. She swallowed hard and the tall warrior's chest tightened quickly as she noticed the sudden look of panic invading the green eyes. "It's about Hope."
The quiet statement hung the shadowy shelter. Xena's instincts sparkled to life again; she steeled herself against the foreboding heaviness rising in her chest.
"What is it?" the warrior asked quietly, her eyes riveted on the anguished face of her best friend. She waited for the bard to continue, completely aware of the nervous quiver to the young woman's chin. Gabrielle took a shaky breath and let her eyes travel momentarily to the sleeping child. After a long moment, she turned to the warrior again, the green pools brimming with unshed tears.
"When I told you I had ... thrown her ... into the gully ... in Britannia?" The warrior's blue eyes were steady on the bard's tortured expression.
"Yes?" The smooth voice was barely audible even in the quiet darkness of the shelter.
"Well ... I didn't," the bard said softly. "I couldn't do it, Xena." Gabrielle's voice broke pathetically. "I just .. couldn't do that to my own ... child." The bard's tears traveled over her soft face. She watched the warrior draw a slow, steady breath and focus her deep blue eyes on the darkness beyond the haven. Gabrielle swept the back of her hand across her wet face and gulped hard.
"I put her in a basket and set her afloat on the river. I wanted her to have at least .. a tiny chance."
For a long moment, the only sounds in the shelter were Niome's even breathing and the muted sounds of the campfire. Gabrielle focused on the warrior's stony expression for a moment, then dropped her eyes to the mug shaking in her hands.
"I knew that," Xena said in a quiet, controlled voice.
"I'm sorry I lied to you, but I ...." Suddenly the green eyes leapt to meet the warrior's cobalt stare. "You ... what?" the bard gasped. "What did you say? You knew?" The warrior's stoic face softened minutely.
"I wasn't certain ... until this moment. But I had a feeling ... knowing you." The little blonde blinked in astonishment.
"You've known ... all this time? And you didn't say anything?" Gabrielle's face registered her shock. "Why ... how?" the little bard sputtered. "How could you make me believe ...?"
"Gabrielle," the warrior's voice sounded with a subtle firmness. "I knew you would tell me when you were ready," The bard's rancor faded slightly. "And I knew how painful that decision would have been for you ... if you had decided to handle it that way." The blue eyes on the young woman's face were compassionate and tender. Gabrielle's green gaze was steady on her friend's.
Xena focused on the mug she held tightly in her hand. She slowly loosened her fingers around the ceramic object. "With the torment you went through after being tricked into killing ... Meridian." She returned her gaze to the bard's. "Even after stabbing someone in what sounded to me like a clear case of self-defense ...." The warrior watched the bard's face reflect the horror of her experience.
"Knowing how difficult that had been for you, I somehow couldn't believe that you would deliberately throw your own daughter off a cliff ," the warrior finished evenly. "No matter what I thought ... or how I tried to convince you otherwise." The little blonde swallowed hard, her eyes searching the floor of the shelter.
"Not knowing your heart the way ... I think I do." The warrior's liquid voice was gentle and kind. The bronze face softened into a loving smile as the bard drew a slow, calming breath.
"I wanted to give you the time you needed ... to let you decide when, or if, you would tell me what really happened." Xena's blue eyes clearly showed the devotion in the warrior's heart.
A long, tenuous, stilted silence hung in the little shelter. The warrior's heart pounded against the leather bodice beneath her cape. She watched the bard's face, desperately hoping her well-intentioned decision had not, in fact, caused the precise effect she had most wanted to avoid ... a further schism between herself and the woman whose trust and faith she valued more than that of any other she had ever known.
Finally Gabrielle's green gaze slowly drifted up to meet the warrior's piercing blue eyes. The bard moistened her lips, swallowed hard and drew a shaky breath. "You knew I had lied to you ... and still you let me stay with you." The simple statement was oddly punctuated by the snapping fire and the mournful wind surrounding the little shelter. The bard's eyes held the warrior's blue gaze.
"I was only abiding by your rules," Xena said quietly. "You always say, 'That's what friends do ... they stand by you when there's trouble'." The bard raised a hand to cover the quiet sob escaping from her throat. "That's what you always do ... for me. It's only fair that I return the ... faith."
The two friends could only stare at each other. Suddenly, Gabrielle leaned forward to capture the warrior in a tight, meaningful hug, her empty mug tumbling onto the evergreen blanket in the process. Xena wrapped ler long arm around her small friend, gathering the little bard close to her chest. She waited quietly as the young blonde's sobs shook the trim form, her own heart aching for her soulmate's pain. After a long, arduous moment, the bard sat back to focus on the tall warrior's worried expression. The bard swept one hand over her own cheeks, then tenderly wiped away the moisture on the smooth face before her.
"I'm sorry I lied to you about Hope," the bard said in a thick voice.
"I know ... I'm sorry I didn't give you any other options," the warrior said into the weeping green eyes. She took the bard's small hand in hers. "I wish I could have seen her ... differently." The tall woman gulped. "Maybe some day ... if we meet again, I can try to ...."
The bard covered the warrior's hand with her own. "Maybe ... when we meet again." Gabrielle's wet face softened into a subtle smile. The warrior's expression was kind. "Thank you," the little bard whispered.
Xena shook her dark head slightly, closing her blue eyes for a moment. "No," she whispered quietly. She opened her eyes to meet the bard's loving expression. "I owe you so much more. In fact, I've been waiting to tell you something, too," she said quietly. She carefully placed the mug of tea on the ground next to her. The bard's expression sobered slightly.
"You have?" she asked quietly. The warrior swallowed nervously. "Is it about Ming Tien?"
The smooth face registered the tall woman's surprise. The blue eyes widened, then blinked quickly. She studied the soft face of her friend. "Yes ... how did you know?"
"The same way you did," the bard said softly, stroking the woman's slender hand. The warrior's face grew serious. "What did you want to tell me?"
Xena pulled her eyes from the bard's. She let her gaze settle on the pair of hands between them. After a moment, the blue pools slowly traveled to meet the bard's gentle gaze. Xena took a short breath.
"I killed him," the warrior said quickly. She kept her eyes on the little blonde's face.
"I know." Gabrielle's voice was soft and understanding. The young blonde's expression was warm on the warrior's uneasy stare. "I've known it since the day we left Chin."
The stoic, bronze face was totally immobile. "Why didn't you say something?" The warrior's liquid voice wavered.
Gabrielle looked down at the slender hand in hers. "I wanted you to find your own time ... the same way you waited for me to talk about Hope." She raised her eyes to the warrior's. "After all, fair's fair." The blue eyes glistened as they lingered on the bard's face.
"And like you said ... we both did what we thought was right." The warrior swallowed quietly. "There's no blame in that, right?"
The bard's quiet smile slowly crept across her lovely face. The warrior's golden countenance warmed accordingly. Both women enjoyed the loving sentiments in the gaze of the other. Finally, the warrior gathered the little bard into her arms.
"What can I do for you now?" the warrior asked as the two friends separated.
The two friends shared a brief smile, then the bard sat back against the wall. She took a deep, guarded breath. "Well ... there is something I'd like you to do ... if you would."
Xena turned a thoroughly confused glance at her best friend's face. "What? Just name it, you know that."
"Well ...." the bard began, her green eyes beginning to twinkle. The warrior bent her head toward the little blonde. "You can tell me what you want for Solstice, since I still owe you a present."
The warrior's jaw dropped and the lean form relaxed backward. The tall caped figure fought heartily to restrain the foolish grin she felt growing across her face. "You ... are ... hopeless," she said to the bard's impish smirk. She shook her dark head slightly. "Absolutely hopeless." The little blonde giggled softly.
The spirited 'discussion' concerning the necessity of additional Solstice gifts continued throughout breakfast and the breaking of camp the next morning. The warrior was adamant in her declaration that any further acquisition and exchange of said offerings was completely unnecessary and, more to the point, extremely impractical considering the serious lack of funds available to the two friends at the moment. The bard was equally open in her assertion that, since she had been duped by the warrior and the Amazons into celebrating the renowned event early, she now had every right to expect and provide a similar gratuity to commemorate the actual occurrence at its correct time. Needless to say, each woman was determined to sustain her own point of view.
Niome wisely resisted offering any opinion supporting either conviction. The child quietly performed the duties imparted to her by both adults, at the same time listening carefully to the firm convictions expressed by the two women involved in the confrontation. The little girl decided that her own interests were best served by staying out of the argument and out of the way.
By the time the trio had resumed their journey on the snowy path leading to Megara, the discourse concerning the issue had reached epic proportions, with heated notions being loudly presented by both parties. From her seat atop the mare's high back, the little girl listened quietly to the debate. Eventually she found herself wondering why the two women felt so compelled to even discuss the issue. From her objective perception, it was a totally irrelevant subject, considering the relationship of the parties involved. But then, neither had asked her opinion. She was simply a silent witness to the animated comments.
"Why not!" the bard asked loudly.
"Because you already gave me a Solstice present!" the warrior answered louder. "Two, as a matter of fact! That's enough for this year."
"But it wasn't really Solstice! Those don't count," the bard countered.
"Gabrielle!" Xena said, stopping on the path to address the little blonde. "Enough, OK???" She resumed walking.
The bard trudged silently for a moment, then turned to her tall friend. "I'll bet you've already got my present, for the real Solstice, haven't you?"
The warrior let out a frustrated sigh.
"Just like last year ... you'll give me something and I won't have anything for you." The little blonde tugged at the warrior's cape. "Right? You're going to make me feel totally silly again, aren't you?"
"I don't have anything planned for you!" The warrior's tone was shrill as she swiveled to address the bard again. "I give you my word ... I don't!" She turned back to the road. The bard scoffed loudly.
Niome nervously addressed the warrior. "Xena?" the little girl said, leaning forward. "Xena?" she repeated when the tall woman didn't respond.
"What is it, Niome?" Xena said, turning finally to the child.
"I hafta ..." The girl hoped the warrior would understand. She evidently did. The tall woman handed the reins to the bard, walked back to the horse's side and swung the child to the ground. As soon as Niome's boots landed in the snow, she scampered off the side of the path, quickly disappearing into the surrounding forest. The warrior patted the animal's neck.
"Xena," the bard began. "Please let me find you another Solstice present." The warrior's blue gaze was impatient. "I want to do this for you. Please." The bard's tone was plaintive. Xena faced the bard. "Gabrielle, how are you going to pay for it?" she asked stiffly. "We spent the few dinars we had left on Niome's boots, remember?" The bard's expression was slightly gloating.
"Not all of them," the little blonde grinned. "We still have enough left for a ... small gift." The warrior's eyebrow drifted upward. "Now, what do you want?"
Xena's quiet chuckle widened the bard's smile. She squeezed the bard's slender shoulder. "Nothing," the warrior said evenly. "Honestly, your poem and my new bracelet are more than enough." The bard's scowl threatened to appear. "Just let it go, all right?"
Niome reappeared next to the warrior's knee. "You finished?" she asked the child. The little girl nodded happily.
"Yup, thanks," she chirped and lifted her arms for the warrior's strong grip. Xena swung the tiny form back onto the saddle, repositioning the woolen blanket around the slender figure. When the child was settled, the warrior retrieved the reins and resumed walking. She cast a conciliatory gaze down at the bard's pout, exerting every effort to cover the smirk threatening her mouth.
"Why don't you use those dinars to buy something for Niome?" the warrior said after a few more paces. "You said yourself ... she needs a Solstice present much more than either of us do." The young blonde smiled in spite of herself. She cast a tender glance at the youngster on the horse.
"And you said Rhea will provide well enough for her." Xena's frown threatened again. "Guess I'll just have to surprise you, then," the bard said cryptically. The warrior grunted in disapproval.
By the time the three travelers arrived at the gates of their intended destination, the 'Solstice gift' repartee had progressed to a decidedly different level. Where the exchanged remarks had previously been teasing and playful, they now registered a heavy brand of sarcasm and irritation between the two disgruntled friends. However, the moment the proprietress of the residence made her appearance, a mutual agreement was reached between the quarreling females; they decided to keep their snippy comments to themselves until Niome was settled in her new home.
The first impression that occurred to Gabrielle when she caught sight of her friend's childhood educator was how well the woman's physical appearance belied the age the bard had determined she had to be. The pleasant, cheerful female who greeted them at the door of the large residence hardly looked old enough to have been an instructor at the time of her tall friend's youth.
The second thing that captured the bard's attention was the unusual color of the woman's unruly hair. Large, bright red ringlets sprang from under every corner of the matron's lacy cap. The errant locks danced unfettered around the round, affable face.
The woman's expression brightened warmly when she recognized the warrior and the two exchanged a jovial and, for the dark-haired combatant, quite demonstrative greeting. Finally Xena turned affectionately to the little bard.
"This is my friend, Gabrielle," the warrior said. "This is Rhea," she continued, facing the plump female. "My old .... former ... teacher," she amended, then blushed at the older woman's amused laughter.
"Old is more correct, my dear," Rhea said, chortling, extending her hand to the bard. She took the young woman's hand in hers and Gabrielle found herself returning the woman's bright smile. "Come in, come in," she said, ushering the small party into the house. She closed the heavy door behind them and turned a welcoming grin to the trio. "You must all be nearly frozen to death!" she chided. She turned to the warrior. "I'll have one of the boys look after your horse," she told Xena.
"Thanks, Rhea. It's been a long, cold trip."
Rhea stepped into the hallway next to the spacious room to confer with a young male. After a few quiet instructions, the youngster disappeared down the hall. The stocky woman turned back to the three travelers.
The warrior opened her cape and sent the bard a sheepish grin. Gabrielle giggled quietly as she watched her tall, stoic friend submit to the older woman's custodial machinations. Rhea placed a wrinkled hand under the warrior's chin and gazed lovingly at the sculpted countenance. The warrior's blush deepened as her blue eyes met the bard's green gaze imploringly.
"You're looking well," Rhea said, releasing the tall warrior's face. The full-figured form swiveled to address the little blonde. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Gabrielle," the older woman said, her eyes casually floating downward to the child clinging to the bard's other hand. "And who might this be?" Rhea asked cheerfully, bending slightly, to address the thin form.
"This is Niome," the warrior answered. She dropped to one knee and addressed the youngster. "Niome, this is my friend Rhea. Remember I told you about her?"
Rhea held out a soft hand and the little girl nervously took it. The woman's eyes met the warrior's for a moment, then returned to the quiet girl. "How would you like a big cup of buttermilk and some fresh biscuits?" Niome's serious expression faded quickly. "Shall we go in the kitchen and find some?"
"Yes, please," the little girl chirped. She smiled openly at the warrior, then favored the bard with a happy grin. She looked up at the kind face of the matron. "We had some really good stew that Gabrielle made while we were coming here. But biscuits are my favorite!" the child piped.
"Mine, too," the red-haired woman told the child. Rhea led the youngster toward the hallway. She turned and addressed the warrior as they walked away.
"There's some nice warm cider for you two, on the sideboard behind you. Help yourselves. I'll be right back." The ample form disappeared into the hall. Gabrielle turned to the warrior as the tall woman stood up.
"She's everything you said, and more," the bard giggled. "What a character!" The warrior pulled off her cape and helped the bard extracate herself from the woolen blanket.
"She stays the same ... hasn't changed a button since those days in Amphipolis," the warrior said, smiling. The blue eyes traveled to the hallway. "She's the best thing we can do for Niome," Xena said softly, meeting the bard's green gaze. "On my word, she's one of the finest people I've ever known."
Gabrielle touched the warrior's arm. "I like her, too," the bard said, her eyes warm on her friend's. "Anyone who can make you behave has to have something going for them," the little blonde teased. The warrior's droll look answered the jibe. "I think Niome will be fine here with Rhea."
A moment later, the female in question glided into the spacious room. "She's enjoying the biscuits," she told the warrior, sweeping her rotund figure into a large armchair. She gestured for the two friends to seat themselves. "Now," Rhea said, focusing on the warrior's blue gaze. "Tell me about this little waif. We need to share some history, if you don't mind."
Xena related the details of their short association with the young girl. Rhea listened carefully to the scant facts, shaking her head sympathetically at the sadness of the girl's tragic experience. When the warrior had finished her brief explanation, Rhea sat back in her chair, her soft, wrinkled hands perched in the midst of her voluminous gown.
"Well, of course you were correct in bringing her to me. Don't worry, my dear. You can rest assured, she'll have a place here as long as she needs one." The round face smiled brightly.
"Thanks, Rhea," the warrior said. "She's a delightful child. And a brave one. I hope she can find some peace here with you."
"Fear not," the older woman said gathering her skirts and rising from the chair. "Now, let's get the two of you settled. We can talk about what needs to be done around the place tomorrow, after you've had some rest." She moved toward the hallway. Xena picked up her cape and handed the blanket to the bard. "By the way, I told Oliver to put your things in the room across from mine." She pointed upward, indicating the second floor of the house. "It's just to the right at the top of the stairs. She stepped to give the warrior a quick embrace.
"Get some rest, cherubs. We'll begin our labors after breakfast. I'll see you then." Rhea turned and started down the hallway. She stopped when the bard called her name.
"Rhea, where's Niome?" Gabrielle asked.
"She's finishing her buttermilk, I suspect," the woman answered sweetly. Then she turned and started up the stairs. "See you in the morning," she called over her shoulder.
At that moment, the subject of the discussion trotted happily into the room, her little face displaying the evidence of her recent snack. She turned a smiling face toward the warrior's indulgent grin.
"The buttermilk was really good" she said, using one sleeve to erase her milky moustache. The brown eyes met the bard's smile. "Are we going to bed, now?"
"We are going to bed now," the warrior echoed. She held out her hand to the child and Niome captured two of the woman's slender fingers.
"Where's our stuff?" the child asked as she followed the bard.
"Rhea had someone take it upstairs," Gabrielle answered. "It's waiting in our room. C'mon, time for sleep," the bard announced. The young blonde started up the stairs. The warrior and the child followed.
Half a candlemark later, the three travelers were comfortably settled in the room Rhea had assigned to them. Gabrielle sat in the middle of the pallet while the little girl relaxed happily between her trim legs. The bard gently brushed the little girl's long, flaxen-colored hair as the warrior watched the loving procedure from the comfortable wooden rocker across the room. After a moment, the little girl quietly addressed her two companions.
"Did you figure out what to do about the Solstice presents, yet?" The bard halted the hairbrush in mid-air and cast a slightly embarrassed look at the warrior's sheepish expression. Niome turned to study the young blonde's face for a moment, then returned her brown gaze to the warrior.
"Ah ... no we haven't," Xena said, her blue eyes darting to the bard's face. "I suppose you have a suggestion?" she asked dryly.
"Well, kinda," Niome said quietly. "Wanna hear what I think?"
Gabrielle exchanged a quiet smile with the warrior. "Of course we do," she told the child. "What's your idea?" She wrapped her arms loosely around the little figure.
"Well," Niome began, her hands on the bard's wrists. "I don't think you guys really need any more presents." The little girl twisted her head to meet the bard's eyes, then turned again to face the warrior's smug grin.
"Oh, you don't, huh?" the tall woman murmured, glancing at the young blonde's crestfallen expression. "Why not?"
Niome's little face was warm on the warrior's smile. "'Cause you've already got the best present anyone could ever have," the girl finished proudly.
"We do?" the bard asked. She smiled at the warrior. "And what would that be?"
The little girl displayed a slightly befuddled expression. After a moment, the brown eyes swept to meet the warrior's soft blue gaze.
"Why ... each other," the little girl said quietly, the dark pools displaying the youth's confusion at the two women's apparent lack of comprehension. Of course she had no way of knowing her simple statement had rendered both adult females momentarily speechless.
Gabrielle stared open-mouthed at the warrior's astonished face. The deep affection for her best friend was reflected exactly in the clear, blue eyes meeting her gaze. The two women shared a look of mutual chagrin, unqualified remorse and heartfelt apology. Their renewed trust in each other shone brightly in the quiet room. The bard hugged the little girl tenderly.
"Mama always used to say that, if you have one really good friend, then you'll never be alone." The youngster looked from one grownup face to the other. "You guys are really lucky."
The warrior's smile was respectful. "Your mama was a very smart lady, Sweetheart," the tall woman said softly. The blue eyes settled on the bard's face. "A very smart lady."
A short time later, the bard turned her attention from the sleeping child in the middle of the mattress to the quiet, pensive figure of her soulmate. The warrior's blue eyes met the verdant gaze.
"Well," Gabrielle murmured quietly. "I feel totally and completely ashamed of myself. How about you?"
The warrior's blue eyes were clearly contrite. "Yeah," the smooth voice answered. "I'd say that just about covers things." The tall woman lowered her eyes to the movement of her slender fingers as she played with the folds of the long sleeping garment their hostess had provided. After a long moment, the blue eyes slowly rose to meet the soft green pools. The two friends stared quietly at each other. Finally, the little bard spoke.
"Xena ..." the bard began.
"Me, too," the warrior whispered.
Gabrielle's warm smile engendered the warrior's. The warrior rose and moved to the bed. When they were both settled on either side of the youngster's form, Xena draped the warm quilt over the wide mattress and turned to the bard's relaxed expression.
"I know what else you can give me for Solstice," the warrior whispered, taking care not to disturb the slumbering child on the pallet..
"What?" the bard whispered back.
The warrior reached across the child and laced her fingers through the bard's. "Take the dinars that are left and buy whatever candy you can for ...."
"The children," the women said together. The two friends smiled at each other.
"Where will you be?" the bard asked.
"In the forest," the warrior replied. "Doing my best to fill the larder. That way, Rhea won't have to worry about it until spring." The tall woman's eyes were warm on her friend's.
"Happy Solstice, Xena," Gabrielle said.
"Happy Solstice, my friend," the warrior answered. The little girl between them sighed happily.
Xena tugged on the girth strap under the horse's belly and checked the laces on the saddlebag in front of her. She pulled her long cape closed, tying the leather laces at her throat. The warrior turned to watch the bard give her former teacher a final loving hug. The two women ended the hug and turned toward the tall form in the long cape.
"Thanks for everything, you two," the matron said to the warrior, her ample arm resting on the little blonde's shoulders. "I don't know how we would have managed without you."
"It was our pleasure, Rhea," Gabrielle said. She turned to the warrior. "I had fun, too."
"Of course you did," the tall woman said smoothly. "Fifteen little captive audience members. How could any bard ask for more?" The bard wrinkled her nose at her partner.
The warrior trained her blue eyes on the hazel gaze of her mentor. The bard recognized the longing in the stoic face and smoothly withdrew her arm from Rhea's waist.
"I'll go say goodbye to Niome," the little blonde said, touching the warrior's arm. The young woman quietly stepped away.
Rhea captured the warrior's shoulders in her hands, her wrinkled face kind on the tall woman's nervous expression. She gathered the muscled frame to her sturdy breast and Xena returned the embrace. Rhea pulled back to level a steady gaze at the bronze face. The warrior swallowed nervously.
"I've been hearing some very good things about you ... lately," the matron said evenly, her eyes benevolent on the warrior's blush. Xena met the woman's glance remorsefully. Rhea touched the smooth face. "Just keep it up ...." she said, sending a playful wink at the tall woman's abashment.
"Keep making good choices," the woman said, folding her arms over her spacious middle. "Because we know what happens when you choose ... unwisely." The warrior's blush deepened. "Don't we?"
"Yes, ma'am," the tall woman murmured, her blue eyes soft on the matron's mischievous smile. "Rhea, if there's anything you ever need ...." Xena began.
"I know," the red-haired hostess said. "I know who to send for." She hugged the warrior again. "And thank you, again, my dear." The two women smiled at each other. "For everything."
The warrior released the matron and turned to search for the bard. She found the young blonde kneeling nearby, Niome's little form wrapped in her arms. When Xena approached the two, the bard stood up and the warrior took her place in front of the girl. Niome hugged the warrior's neck tightly, then pulled back to meet the blue gaze.
"Take care of Gabrielle," she told the warrior. "And Argo, OK?" Xena touched the child's face.
"You have my word on that," the dark-haired woman said. "And you take care of Rhea and the other kids, OK?"
Niome nodded, her little chin trembling as she tried to show her bravest face.
"Remember Niome," Xena said quietly. "Now you have two good friends, alright?" The blue eyes darted to the bard, then returned to the large brown pools.
"And if you ever need us ... for anything," the warrior said. "You just send this bracelet to us." Xena opened the girl's little hand and deposited the leather accessory in the tiny palm. "And we'll be here." Niome looked down at the bracelet then back up at the clear blue eyes. "Anything, understand?"
The little girl carefully examined the colorful, delicately woven strands. It was the same bracelet that had been the bard's gift to the warrior as an 'early' Solstice gift. Xena's eyes sought the bard's. The young blonde was smiling her approval.
The warrior looked back down at the girl's large, brown eyes. The youngster nodded solemnly and the tall woman gathered the tiny form in her arms. After a moment, she released the child and stood up, one slender hand lingering on the pale, blonde hair.
"Ready?" Xena asked, addressing the little bard.
"Ready," Gabrielle answered.
Rhea stepped closer to the little girl, laying a hand tenderly on the child's thin shoulder.
"Safe journey," the matron called to the travelers.
The two friends waved and started toward the road.
Author's Note: And a Happy, Safe Solstice to all of You!
The Mouths of Babes 1 12/24/97
The Bard's Corner